As I scurried through the crowded streets, I kept my head down, trying to skate by unnoticed. A nobody, that’s the way I preferred it. The crisp air chilled my bones, making me clutch the ends of my thin, dark cloak tighter together. I needed a way to get off this Godforsaken planet. The fight club wasn’t far away, and with only two borrowed coins to my name, I reluctantly decided to bet it all. If I could turn the two into four, or even six coins…well, every little bit helped.
This was not the life I dreamed of, or even wanted; to be the only human in this part of space, living on an unfamiliar planet - a very dangerous planet. The memories flooded back as I thought about the past six months, which seemed more like a million years ago. A dream come true, I scoffed. Not!
“Girl, for once in your life, you need to let loose and have some fun!” I glanced at Lara who had just walked into my dorm room and flopped down on my bed. She wore a short, tight red dress that barely covered her ass. Her long blonde hair flowed over one shoulder before she flicked it back. I could never look as beautiful as her. She had the curves that I didn’t, which filled out the dress perfectly.
“I can’t.” I slammed the study manual closed and turned to face my only female friend. “We take our final written and practical tests this week and I need to be ready.”
“You are ready,” she coaxed with pleading eyes. “Just this once, go to the club with us. You really need to unwind a little, hopefully get laid before your vajayjay dries up from lack.”
I burst out laughing. “Did you really just say, vajayjay?” Embarrassment stained her cheeks. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” Lara proved to be extremely book smart, but sometimes she lacked basic common sense.
“Well… it could happen.” Her face twisted in concentration while she really thought about it. I laughed a little more from her expression alone. “Oh, shut up,” she jested.
“Let me get through this week and I promise, we’ll have some fun. I just need to make sure that I beat Kevin. He’s stiff competition.”
Kevin was my greatest competitor. An arrogant asshole who thought women were inferior. Anything a woman could do, a man could do better. It didn’t help that women threw themselves at him. He was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. But his attitude just pissed me off. Every fiber of my being urged me to study harder, train longer, push myself, not only to be Chief Pilot, but to beat that asshole. Let him lose to a woman.
“Yeah, what’s with that attitude of his?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” And I really didn’t.
“He’s going out with us tonight.” Lara averted her eyes as she played with the hem of her short dress.
My head shot up to her downcast eyes. An idea popped into my head as I bit my lower lip. Lara looked nervous about telling me that, maybe guilty, but that confession made me extremely happy. “Really?” Lara’s head snapped up. She looked puzzled at the excitement in my voice.
“Yes. I don’t know why; he never goes out with us.”
“Doesn’t matter why,” I giggled. “Hopefully he’ll get sloshed and blow his final test. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“Maybe I can help him,” Lara offered with a mischievous grin. “I could at least buy him a few drinks.” Her eyebrow raised in question. I knew she would try her best if I wanted her to.
I raised my hand, palm forward in warning. I hoped he got sloshed, but I wasn’t into sabotage. What fun would it be to win by cheating?
“Nah, just go have a great time and don’t worry about Kevin.”
“Sure you won’t come?” She gave me big puppy dog eyes. A look that got plenty of people, especially men, to change their minds. But not me, I was too focused.
“I’m sure.” A soft smile curved my lips upward. “Thanks for asking though.”
“Suit yourself.” She pushed up from the bed and straightened her skirt. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched Lara walk out of my room before turning back to the study manual. As the first female pilot considered for a deep exploration mission, I needed to train every day to prove I could be just as good, or better than any of the men. Workouts started at 0600 every morning, followed by breakfast, then honing my pilot skills, either with practice simulators or studying. My social life was nonexistent. Dating life, I scoffed at the thought and shook my head. What a joke!
At 2200, I shut the study manual and rubbed my sleepy eyes. I quickly changed in to my sleeping gown and climbed into the small, twin-sized bed. It didn’t take long to fall fast asleep.
The next day, after a good workout and a hot shower, I practiced in the simulator.
“Again!” Josh, the simulator instructor, ordered.
“That was perfect.” And it was. Flawless.
“Nothing is perfect, Camilla. Again.”
Thank God, Josh was in the control room, where he couldn’t see me roll my eyes, only hear me through his wireless headset.
“Make sure you use your NI this time.”
Accessing my NI, short for Neuro-ocular Implant, I connected to the simulator and started the program again. After another perfect landing, Josh’s pleased voice beamed through the headset.
“Much better! Do that a few more times and call it a day.”
I swelled with pride as I started the program again.
At the end of the week, while I was sitting in the cafeteria talking to John, another student, Lara came rushing over. Her eyes beamed with excitement, making her words spill out quickly. “Cami, have you seen the list?”
The list wasn’t due out until this evening. My body hummed with excitement and nervous energy mixed together. I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans.
“Is it up?” This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for.
“It is.” Lara grabbed my wrist. “Let’s go!”
I thought my heart would escape my chest as Lara pulled me out of the cafeteria and down the hall, heading toward the information board. Several others stood in our way as I bounced from one foot to the other. Come on, move!
I wanted to shove them out of the way, but that would be rude, so I waited, alternating between bouncing up and down and biting my nails. Had all my hard work paid off? Just as I opened my mouth to tell the others to move, one person stepped away, and then another. Lara grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the front. I couldn’t look! I couldn’t not look! Peeking up from the corner of my eye, I saw a white piece of paper tacked to the information board.
“I made it!” Lara squealed. “So did you, Cami!”
My head whipped around and my eyes zeroed in on my name. Time froze. Chief Pilot: Camilla Ryan
After a stunned pause, I took a much-needed breath. I did it! I raked a shaky hand through my fiery red hair.
“I can’t believe we will be on the first deep space exploration mission together!” Lara bounced up and down on her tiptoes--- unlike me, whose feet remained glued in place.
Scanning the list of names, (there were only six), I spotted Lara’s as well. Chief Engineer: Lara Stevens
My stunned eyes found hers. “We did it!” I said in relief as a slow smile spread across my face.
All of our hard work had paid off.
“Did you really have any doubts?” I wouldn’t admit it now, but yes, I did have doubts. Kevin was damn good, and tough to beat.
“Congratulations, Cami.” A deep voice sounded over the top of my head.
I looked up and over my shoulder. Kevin towered over me by at least six inches. “Thanks, Kevin.” He nodded and then walked away. I could have said so much more, even rubbed it in his face a little, but that would be unprofessional. Losing the Chief Pilot’s position to a woman was punishment enough for his arrogant attitude. I’m sure he will pilot the next mission, but this one was mine, I was the first!
A whirlwind of activities took place before our departure. Medical examinations to make sure we stayed healthy, meetings, parties to attend for professional reasons. The donors needed to feel important and meet the crew that would bring forth a new era for Earth. We hoped to discover new worlds with breathable air that could one day be used as settlements. Some even speculated a new planet could be used as a vacation resort. The possibilities were endless as everyone dreamed of a new future.
Earth was overpopulated and polluted, making it hard to breathe outside without a particulate mask. All my life, whenever possible, I’d always remained indoors, needing to keep my lungs as healthy as possible. Only the healthy would be considered for the mission. Not that I doubted the particulate mask worked, but it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. I dreamed of starting over, a clean slate where I could live without the use of a mask. A planet with clean air, trees, lakes, and maybe a sandy beach. That would be my heaven.
The day before the mission, I took time out of my busy schedule to visit my parents. Even though it was only a thirty-minute drive, it was time I didn’t have, but took anyway.
“Ryan, I don’t like it.” Evan, my superior, said with censure in his voice. An older man with a balding head, a few wrinkles lined his eyes and lips, as his blue eyes pierced me with a steady stare. Yes, he was technically my boss, but not even Evan could stop me from visiting my parents. I had free time, I just never took it.
“Noted. I won’t be gone long, sir.” He didn’t seem to be amused with my wry grin. As evident by his tightly clenched jaw, probably wanting to object, but knowing he couldn’t. It was my right. Besides, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to tell their parents goodbye? Forget that, there’s probably a lot of people who wouldn’t. “I’ll be back soon.” I clutched the mask tighter in my hand.
Evan crossed his arms and sighed. “Just be careful. I don’t want you getting sick before the mission. Make sure you wear your mask at all times.”
“Understood.” I smiled, strapped the mask on, and headed for the door. Lara was gracious enough to lend me her car.
Pulling into the driveway of the brick ranch, I let out a sad sigh while I stared at my childhood home. It had seen better days. The shingled roof was weathered, the bricks dirty. I didn’t blame my dad; I wouldn’t be outside any longer than necessary either. It’s not as though many people saw the outside, everyone who visited would rush indoors as quickly as possible.
Clicking the release button for my seat belt, I stared at the house one last time. I would miss this place.
While hurrying up the concrete sidewalk, I glanced at the dead foliage that lined the path and wondered what it would look like in a healthy environment. Finding a new planet where flowers bloomed with vibrant colors and birds filled the sky the way they did in myths--- that was my dream.
As soon as I stepped onto the porch, the front door swung open. I rushed inside and Mom quickly shut the door behind me. I ripped off the particulate mask and smiled. “Hi, Mom.”
My mom, Jill, grabbed my shoulders and pulled me in for a big hug. “I can’t believe you came.” Happy tears ran down her porcelain face. She looked great for her age. Never getting any sun kept her skin looking young. A few gray streaks shone through her auburn hair even though she was only forty-eight.
Tears threatened to escape but I held them at bay, at least until my eyes found my emotional father, Mack, and then I let them run freely down my face. Dad waited for his turn and then engulfed me in his strong, comforting arms.
When I stepped back, I swiped the tears from my face and smiled. “You know I wouldn’t leave without seeing you guys.”
“We hoped you would come, but we would’ve understood why if you didn’t. You have to stay healthy.” Mom took my hand and led me to the worn flowered couch. She sat on my right while Dad sat on my left. Each one holding a respective hand.
“Some things are worth the risk.”
“Oh, sweetheart. We love you, too.”
“I know, Mom.” My breath hitched. This was harder than I thought it would be. Just knowing that I may never see them again broke my heart, but the thought of one day giving them a better life… that meant the world to me. I had to try.
“So, tomorrow’s the big day?” Dad’s husky voice snagged my attention.
“Tomorrow’s the day,” I confirmed.
“Are you nervous?” Mom asked.
“Nervous. Excited. I want to find out what’s out there. Maybe find a new planet for all of us to live.” I softened my eyes and finished, “I will miss you both like mad.”
Mom pulled me close and cried. “We’ll miss you too, honey, but this is your dream. You must follow your dreams. Who knows what future is waiting for you out there?” All the air rushed from my lungs as relief filled my body. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders with my mom’s words. I knew I needed to follow my dreams, but them showing support and confirming what I already knew meant the world to me. I said as much.
“I know. But you saying it means everything.”
“We know you’ll do great. We are both so proud of you, Cami.”
“Thanks, Mom.” They were the main reason I’d done so well. They always encouraged me, convinced me I could do anything, be anything. Not only did I want to explore, I wanted to make them proud.
We spent the rest of the visit talking about test scores and the mission. I only stayed about an hour before I had to leave. With hugs and kisses, I left my family home and my parents with a heavy heart.
On the day of the mission, I looked in the mirror and adjusted my flight suit. My solemn green eyes stared back at me. This was it. With my particulate mask in place and my helmet tucked under my arm, I proudly walked to the ship that would be my home for an indeterminate amount of time. Everything I’d worked for all led up to this moment. The other five members of the team fell in line behind me as we climbed the steps one by one. Crowds cheered and clapped as I held my head high. The weight of the moment, the hope that rested on our shoulders was immense; these cheering people depended on us.
Once on board, I accessed my Neuro-ocular Implant, a device that allowed me to gather and access information at will from electronic, digital, and microprocessors with only a thought. The NI could adapt, then connect with any and all other, programs and would continue to learn and evolve. It provided everything I needed to know about this ship. An internal manual book.
Dressed in my white flight suit, I eased into the pilot seat and ran my hand slowly over the arm of the chair as the weight of the moment settled over me. This was it, everything I’d worked so hard for had all been for this moment…this mission. It was a small ship, but large enough that six people could live comfortably. It provided sleeping quarters and a small galley that contained a food replicator, along with some actual food.
I glanced over my shoulder, caught Lara’s eyes, and shot her an excited smile before securing the harness and tightening the straps. With my helmet in place, I took one slow, deep breath to steady my nerves. This was my time to shine.
When the long-anticipated order sounded through the helmet, my hands reacted with practiced ease. “Exploration One, this is Control. You are cleared for launch. I repeat, you are cleared for launch.”
“Copy that, Control.” One by one, I flipped switches, lighting the navigation panel. The power hummed throughout the ship, infusing my body with excitement. The long-awaited moment had finally arrived. This was what I’d trained for.
The ship vibrated with liftoff, the force of G’s pinning me against the seat. Nothing was a surprise. It would only take a mere minute before we cleared the Karman line. As daylight gave way to darkness, I relayed, “Control, we’ve cleared the atmosphere. Switching on the artificial gravity system now.”
“Copy that, Exploration One.”
After setting the coordinates heading toward the Proxima Centauri, I took only a moment to enjoy the view. I could see the craters carved in the moon as we passed by. I stared in awe as we neared Mars.
“Oh my God! I can’t believe we’re actually here!” Lara’s excited voice sounded through the ear piece inside my helmet.
“We are the first!” Glen yelled as he punched the air. I couldn’t help but grin at his enthusiasm. There were six of us, and everyone felt the same. We’d all worked hard for the honor to be on the first exploration voyage, the pride was easily heard in each voice as they sounded off.
“Can you believe how beautiful it looks from up here?” Lara said with awe. When I glanced back, I saw Lara staring out the small round window.
I felt the same. It looked so clean, so peaceful, unlike the smog that choked Earth.
One day passed, and then another. We had seen Mars’ red color, Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter… No wonder the legend said that on clear nights, it could be seen from Earth. One week turned into two, then three. Everyone had settled into a routine, but the awe of space travel kept spirits alive. Things were proceeding as planned.
“Brian?” I said, getting my co-pilot’s attention. “I’m going to get something to eat. Yell if you need me.” He nodded before turning back to the control panel. “Thanks.” I pushed up from the chair and headed for the galley.
“What will I have today?” I asked myself while looking over the options. Deciding to forego the replicator, I grabbed a can of soup and a couple of packs of crackers. I warmed it in a small bowl and headed to the table.
Just as I’d finished lunch, Lara dropped down in the seat next to me. With a grin on her face, she asked, “What do you think, still amazing?”
“Yeah, I still can’t believe we’re here.” I lifted a cup to my lips and swallowed a drink of water.
“I know, right? Who would’ve ever thought?” Lara grabbed some crackers from the table and popped one into her mouth.
I smiled over the rim of my cup as I studied her. Lara could’ve been a model with her blonde hair, fair skin, and perfect features. Most people we encountered had a hard time believing there was a highly-sophisticated brain inside her head, especially when you mixed her looks with her bubbly personality.
“I did. I knew we could do it.” I grinned at Lara and then took another sip. We were so different, and so much alike. Okay, brains were the only thing we had in common. Physically, I looked completely different with my red hair, creamy skin, and green eyes.
“I know. I wish I had half of your confidence.”
“Shut up,” I jested as I threw a pack of crackers at her, which she easily caught with one hand.
“What do you think we’ll find out there?” She tore open the pack of crackers she’d just rescued.
Shawn walked in and grabbed a bottle of water before turning to face the two of us. “Probably little green men that can’t talk, you know, the ones on the covers of all those gossip magazines.” He grinned as he lifted the bottle to his lips.
“I’m serious,” Lara huffed.
“I’m sure they won’t mess with us; they’ve taken so many humans over the years that now they hold no interest in us at all.” I couldn’t help but interject. Shawn had a great sense of humor and I loved the banter we always fell into. Talking and joking with him came so easily.
“Yeah, and what are they? Like three feet tall?”
Lara listened quietly while Shawn and I bantered back and forth, talking about the little green men.
“At least. You are twice their size. I think you could take them.”
Shawn grinned and took another drink.
“If you two are finished,” Lara said, “what do you think we’ll find?”
I studied my friend for a second and realized that she was a little worried. Neither one of us had given much thought about what could be waiting in the great beyond. Our first thought was to work hard to get on the exploration team. The second was finding a suitable planet. I hadn’t really wondered about other beings occupying the planet. In my mind, it would be sitting there just waiting on us.
“I don’t know,” I finally admitted as my brows drew close together, “but whatever it is, we’ll deal. That’s what we do.”
“And we stick together,” Shawn added as he pointed the water bottle at Lara.
“Okay.” Relief was easily heard in her voice. A smile replaced the concern on her face. “Maybe we’ll find a planet full of sexy men and women.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Shawn added with enthusiasm.
“That would be awe-” An alarm blared overhead as red swirling lights filled the room.
The three of us raced to our stations. I slid into the pilot’s seat and accessed my NI. “Shit, it’s a meteor storm!”
“Where did that come from!” It wasn’t a question. “The meteor shower appeared out of nowhere.”
Brian always talked to himself. His worried eyes stared at me, but I only spared him a glance. With my NI connected to the ship’s computer, I initiated countermoves trying to avoid the meteors, but there were too many. Switching back to manual mode, I grabbed the helm and jerked it to the left. Avoiding one large meteor put us in the path of several smaller ones.
“We’re hit!” Shawn shouted as the meteors bombarded the ship, knocking us one way and then the other.
As fear made my heart race, I tried to maneuver around them, but there were so many. The ship groaned with stress as it made one sharp turn after another. “Shit! I’ve lost navigation control! Get it back online! NOW!”
“No life support! I repeat, no life support!” Chris’ panicked voice boomed through the ear piece.
I closed my eyes in defeat. The mission was a complete failure and all we could do now was try and live through it. With no life support, we could only survive a short time. The evac pods came equipped with oxygen, but how would they hold up in a meteor storm? Make a decision!
I faced the solemn crew. By the look on their faces, they knew it was over. I still asked. “Stay here until the storm passes or take our chances in the evac pods?”
“Evac pod,” Chris quickly answered. “With every passing minute, we are traveling further from Earth with no life support.” I nodded, letting my gaze touch on every one of my crewmates. Accessing the NI, I scrolled through the info that only I could see, located Earth’s coordinates, and programmed all the evac pods. “Evacuate!” I ordered. “Your pods have been programmed with Earth coordinates.”
I quickly unbuckled my harness and raced for my designated evac pod. Just before the lid closed over me, I caught Lara’s worried eyes. The lid snapped shut and locked with a final click. Accessing the NI that interfaced with the pods, I ordered the ejection of all six.
As my pod ejected, the sheer force plastered me to my seat, and I gripped the handles so tight my knuckles turned white. Fear raced through my body, making my heart pound wildly in my chest. I hadn’t practiced this, wasn’t prepared for failure. I always tackled every task with confidence and determination of success.
A meteor struck the evac pod, jerking my head sideways and changing the pod course. “Oh, shit!” I gasped in horror. Thinking quickly, I accessed the pod readings. “Oh, God, no!” I screamed as the pod hurtled into the opening of a black hole.
The weightlessness of space quickly disappeared as the gravitational pull greatly increased. My body felt stretched, although I stayed strapped into my seat. My insides pushed upward with the force of the black hole. The Exploration One could’ve handled the pressure, but the evac pod wasn’t equipped to deal with the force. I screamed from the sheer pain of being ripped in half before sweet darkness took over and I passed out.