by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
The Fifth Federation Star Service personnel lounge on New Paris teemed with men and women waiting to be shuttled up to their cruisers or for boarding permission to smaller ground-based ships. Almost everyone was in uniform--the beiges and greens of officers and pilots, the blues of medics and science, a scattering of diplomatic whites. By the western window, a huge curved sweep of double-glass looking out over the spaceport itself, a man and a woman in the severe black of the Courier Corps watched a stinger undergo its final safety checks. Refitted for prolonged travel for a crew of two, the graceful craft was packed with specialized equipment and the most modern, powerful jaydium drives.
"It still amazes me how beautiful it is," the woman murmured. "And it=s ours."
The man nodded and put one arm around her shoulder. They moved away from the window, talking quietly.
Kithri, sitting at a table in one of the darker corners of the lounge, watched them go. They=d get their clearances soon, and they=d be off to the stars, bound on some secret mission. Everywhere they=d go, people would notice the black uniforms with respect and not a little envy.
She set her juice drink on the table of heavily varnished Terillium oak and watched the pink bubbles spiral upwards. Her claret-colored shirt was loosely cut, gathered at the sleeves and yoke. The fabric was soft and heavy, so different from the crisp, tailored uniforms of the Service. She wore it tucked into her pants and belted with a wide strap of real leather. Only the small round patch on the left collar, a scout ship crossing a stylized "E", indicated it was something other than ordinary civilian clothing. Explorers didn=t wear uniforms.
Eril slid in the bench beside her. "Half an hour, they said." He lay one hand over hers, touching the white-gold ring he=d given her.
"Any last minute problems?"
He shook his head. "No, they approved the flight plan just as we submitted it. According to their charts, it=s just another unexplored sector, so they=re happy to find someone willing to take it on. Then we=ll find out how good my memory of Araf=ex=s star charts is."
And what will we find out there? It won=t be NewHome any longer. Either a ruin, or another jaydium source...Or if it or Tomorrow survived and Raerquel=s people are out there, waiting for us... The light-translator panels were safely hidden in their personal gear.
Either way, it=ll shake the Fed up damned good.
"Raerquel lied to us to make us go with Duvach, you know," she said. "It wasn=t going into any estivation state."
"One way or another, it would be long dead now," Eril said slowly.
Kithri looked out the big window and imagined the slow whirl of galaxies beyond the clouded sky. Space seemed so vast and the dark between the stars so deep.
A planet I might find, but a space ghost who isn=t even there most of the time...
Eril=s fingers tightened on hers. "Len=s still out there," he said, as if reading her thoughts. "And we=ll find him. Somehow."
Somehow... Out of all that glory up there, what do I want, really want?
After a moment Eril cleared his throat. "Once we=re out of here, we won=t have to get one permission after another. As long as our reports sound good, they=ll let us go wherever we want. If we do find jaydium, we can use it to change the face of Stayman, maybe the whole Fed."
"And if we don=t find it?"
"What?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "You want to give up and become the Fed=s errand boys like those two over there?"
"Not on your sweet pitouchee. Then we=ll see how much difference we can really make."
"Is that what you want, really want?"
She met his eyes and smiled. It was not a true question, she knew. It was a promise that wherever they went, whatever they did, they would do it together.
I hope you've enjoyed this adventure through space and time. All the individual chapters are available to read online - Click on Read A Story. Or you can download the whole thing from Book View Cafe (And the files will play nicely with your Nook or Kindle, as well as other devices).
Next week, as a thank-you treat for following along, I'll share how I revised the first opening scene of the book.