At long last, the state-of-the-art Caprice has set off for the distant stars to research the galaxy and find a new home for the ever-increasing human population, but even their first pit-stop results in battle wounds. Will Bit and the others ever pass beyond the scope of past human research? And if they do, what will they find in the deep darkness of space?
Calen stepped into the joint lounge. He loved that the crew of the Caprice didn’t want to distinguish between crew and officers. He didn’t love the fact he was with them in the lounge watching the historical takeoff via television screens instead of being up on the bridge piloting the ship himself. With Oden there had been a certain camaraderie, thus diminishing the rivalry between the two of them. Only having two pilots might have helped too. Now, though, all the pilots and apprentice pilots competed for the high score on the simulator. Which, of course, meant Evan was up on the bridge, piloting the ship away from Greene’s space station.
Glancing around the lounge, it appeared as though he was the only one feeling something other than elation. His crewmates were all smiles, hugs, and glasses of sparkling cider—being on duty they could hardly celebrate with champagne. He let out a deep breath, trying to will a smile to his lips. It didn’t come. An itch of a thought niggled at the back of his mind. It took him a moment to figure out what was missing. Reese.
The heroic security guard was still in the medbay, drowning in a sea of drugs that kept him in a coma while his body healed. They woke him up yesterday for a big announcement, but he had been in pain, and the doctors quickly put him back under. Calen missed his friend. It was just another way things had changed. Oh, Calen knew Reese would return in some fashion or other, but his absence highlighted just how changed the crew was. It was no longer a small, close-knit family. He was now one face in the masses. Worse than that, he was the brother of the captain but without any of the perks.
Jack was working hard to ensure he showed no preference for the original crew—to the point that he often favored the new crew members. Calen knew it would balance out in time. Like much of what he was feeling, time would fix most of it.
Except for Oden. Time wouldn’t bring back the crazy pilot. Evan tried to fill his shoes. Foolishly, if you asked Calen, but that was a story for another time.
Calen wasn’t the only one wishing they were on the bridge, but that number had been limited to just the normal crew. No on-lookers. Jack; Zhuam, the XO; Evan; and Peter, representing the apprentice pilots, were the only crew allowed on the bridge during the takeoff.
Oliver, the third certified pilot, appeared at his side and slapped him on the back, nearly knocking him off his feet. “Careful, Calen or your face will freeze like that.”
“You don’t want the captain to know how ticked you are for being stuck down here with us lowly workers.”
“He’ll know whether I scowl or not.”
Oliver chuckled. “Sure.” He patted Calen one more time and walked across the lounge to where a group had a few too many females. Oliver wasn’t the only man aware of just how few women were available on the crew. Calen glanced around, wondering if any of the men preferred men. That would even the playing field a little, but thus far, no one had felt comfortable enough to admit it. Calen didn’t understand why anyone would hide something so simple. Surely the human race was beyond judging people for who they loved.
Calen shook his head. His thoughts were out of control. In an effort to settle down, he crossed to where Bit stood, staring up at the main T.V. screen.
She grinned up at him. “Hey, handsome.”
Without saying anything, Calen draped his arm around her shoulders and dragged her into his side. He wanted to kiss her on the head but refrained. Calen couldn’t believe how long—and yet short—it had been since he first met Bit. She’d been an indentured servant, tossed onto a poker game like an expensive watch. Of course, she had been worth a helluva lot more than a watch—both because she was an amazing woman and because her debt to pay off had been over a million gold. A small fortune.
Bit wrapped her arm around his waist, momentarily tickling him on his side. Unlike Oliver’s attempts, that brought a smile to his lips. Since joining the crew, Bit had led them on a merry adventure more than once and nearly lost her life too many times to count. Just a few years had transformed her from a frightened child to a beautiful woman. Well, she hadn’t really been a child when he won her in that poker game, but she sure had looked like it. Now, with her blonde hair growing out again, she looked like the young woman she was. When he’d first brought her up to the Lenore, he had imagined being the man to heal her, and in turn, earn her love, but fate had other plans.
In so many ways, Oden had been better at healing than Calen. He gave her another squeeze as he thought of the dead pilot. They all missed him, but Calen knew the sting of his death hurt Bit the most.
Before Calen could consider Bit’s future, or his, the moment arrived. They felt the slight jerk of the ship disconnecting from the space station. A cheer sounded through the lounge. Calen glanced over Bit’s head, eyeing the excited people. Bit had a smile on her face too, but it didn’t look quite right.
A voice came over the intercom, easily recognizable. Greene, the billionaire funding their exploration, had a vivacious voice even when he was chastising an errant intern. “Goodbye, crew of the Caprice. We’ll see you in a few hundred years.” The crew cheered until Greene began to speak again. “May the Force be with you.”
The cheers turned into laughter. Bit pulled her eyes off the screens—which currently showed the growing distance between the ship and the station—and spoke. “Did he just quote Star Wars?”
Calen’s eyebrows rose into his hairline. “Greene’s never been normal.”
“True enough. He hired us.”
Calen snorted. They both went silent as they watched the screens break into two images. Half the screen showed the shrinking space station while the other half showed the security feed from the bridge. Though they didn’t have audio, they could see Jack’s lips moving as he gave orders for Evan to shift the Caprice into its Augment Drive. The fancy technology Calen couldn’t understand countered the sudden and rapid increase in speed. Within seconds the space station was out of focus.
They saw Jack picking up the comm. device that would reach the entire ship. “Next stop, Ceres.”
Again, the crew cheered. Calen released Bit’s shoulders and turned, running his gaze over the crew members. He spotted a woman sitting by herself, her eyes on her pad. Someone laughed near her, catching her attention for the briefest moment. She glared at them before returning to whatever seemed so captivating to her.
“Don’t get into trouble,” Calen whispered into Bit’s hair before sauntering across the lounge. “Hey, whatcha reading?” He asked before taking a seat next to her.
Her eyes snapped up for a moment. “Evolutionary Biology: Exobiology and Ecology within the Universe: A Theory in Evolutionary Mechanisms.”
For a brief second, Calen’s mind went blank. He had no idea what she’d even said. “Oh yeah. Personally, I preferred the pop-up book edition, but to each their own.”
Her hazel eyes flicked up at him for a brief second before returning to her pad. “They never made a pop-up book edition.”
Calen just stared at her, unsure whether she was teasing him back or unaware that it had been a joke.
Finally, she looked up at him again. “What do you want?”
“I know your name.”
Again, Calen stared at her. “What’s your name?” he asked when she didn’t offer it.
“Why do you want to know?”
Calen blinked. “I’m trying to get to know people I haven’t met yet, like you.”
“That seems pointless. You’re a pilot. I’m a scientist. I don’t see how we would need to work together at any point on this journey.”
“No… but we might find that we like each other.”
It was her turn to frown, finally looking up from her pad. “What?”
“You know, like friends.” Had the ratio of men to women been even slightly better, Calen would have given up on her, but there was something about her awkwardness that endeared her to him. Calen wanted to understand what was going on in her mind.
“I didn’t join the Caprice to make friends.”
Calen let out a huff of annoyance. “No, but years can be a long time to go without friends.”
She shrugged. “I have my science.”
Calen leaned into her space, making her flinch. “True, but when the science goes wrong or you find out your theory was wrong, who will you lean on?”
“Why would I need to lean on someone? Have I hurt my ankle in this theoretical situation?”
“You know what, never mind.” He waved his hand in her face. “Just remember, Science-Girl, one day your books won’t be enough and you’ll find yourself all alone.” He turned and stomped away, leaving the lounge entirely.
Calen couldn’t say why he was ready to slam his own fist into the metal wall, but his blood was boiling. In the end, he hadn’t even gotten her to share her name. He turned the corner to head down the narrow hallway leading to his cabin.
“Pilot,” a voice called from behind him.
Calen turned back and poked his head out into the main corridor. A middle-aged man with a large bald spot rushed towards him. Like the girl before, Calen knew the man was a scientist on the ship but that was about it. So much for Jack’s team-building activities. “Dr. Uherr…”
“Irwin. Dr. Irwin but please call me Emerick.” The scientist reached out his hand.
Calen took it, happy to find someone on the science team had manners.
“I saw you talking with Dr. Guyagon.”
Calen shrugged. “You would know better than me. I could never get her to share her name.”
Emerick had the good nature to grimace before shaking his head. “She’s… she’s different.”
He raised his hand. “Please don’t be put off by her… oddities. Everyone else has given up on her.”
Calen frowned, his own anger dissolving with that one sentence.
“She’s smart.” It seemed like a dumb thing to say. “I mean, she’s really smart. Like, record-breaking IQ.”
“If she’s the theory of relativity, I’m the original printing press.”
Calen nodded, only half getting the man’s analogy.
“I’m just saying, keep at it. For her sake.”
“Hey, man, if there’s one thing I can be, it’s persistent.”
The scientist shook his hand again, a wide smile on his lips. “I thought you were the right man for the job.”
Calen gave him a little salute before turning back down the hallway. He reached his room and flopped onto his bunk, staring up at the bare ceiling. Thanks to Emerick, he wasn’t upset anymore. His sole reason for storming off and hiding in his room had vanished, leaving him unsure what to do next. He didn’t want to return to the lounge like a dog with its tail between its legs.
Before all the change and transformation, there would be someone else in the crew’s cabin. In fact, on the Lenore it was nearly impossible to get a second alone. Now, he had his own cabin—something he would have killed for—and he hated it. Calen reached up and twined his fingers behind his head. He knew he was being childish, but he couldn’t magically transform his feelings no matter how much he wanted to be happy. The facts were the facts.
Bit smiled as she watched Calen throw up his hands and rush out of the lounge. She had seen it coming a mile away. Evidently, Calen hadn’t. He needed a girl, just maybe not a scientist. They were a hard lot to understand. Except maybe the redhead. Bit scanned the room. Everyone except for the flight crew was supposed to be in the lounge celebrating—except for Calen—but Bit couldn’t spot the bright red hair in the crowd. Setting her drink down, she turned toward the door. No one should be alone for this momentous occasion.
Bit was halfway to the door when a hand snaked out and caught her arm. She turned to find Evan. “Were you leaving?”
“You know that red-headed scientist?”
Bit blinked, momentarily stunned by Evan’s knowledge. Then it hit her. Of course, Evan would know the name of a pretty woman. Bit rolled her eyes. “She’s missing. Just making sure she’s okay.”
“Oh, I know where she is,” he said, sounding as though he knew a secret. “Come with me.”
Bit’s curiosity sparked. As much as she wanted to keep her distance, she couldn’t leave a mystery unsolved. She followed Evan out of the lounge. In the hallway, he picked up his pace, making Bit jog to keep up with his longer legs. They reached the nearest elevator and took it down to Deck 4. The elevator opened to a wall of humidity. The two decks full of hydroponically grown plants were kept at a stuffy eighty degrees. Bit always wondered how the hydro-team handled it.
“If she’s in the science department then you could have just said so.”
“Oh no.” Evan grinned at her. “It’s much better than that.”
Before she realized what had happened, Evan had taken her hand and was leading her through the unnatural forest. Bit wanted to pull her hand free but decided to forgo the awkwardness. After all, she’d already slept with him. Holding hands seemed like a small issue in comparison. Then again, since a harsh wake-up, Bit had put the brakes on things with Evan. In fact, she downright avoided him now.
But that hadn’t stopped Evan. In fact, if anything he pursued her all the more. Had he been the same dickhead she’d first tumbled into bed with, it would have been easy to avoid him even on their confined ship, but instead, something had changed in him too. It was as though they were both two different people, and that made it even more difficult to ignore the vibrant, handsome man.
Before Bit could settle her thoughts, they emerged from the greenery on the bow end of the deck, just a few feet from the door leading into sickbay. Bit frowned, realization slowly dawning. Evan held a finger to his lips before tugging her to the side. Bit followed his lead and they crept up to the side of the doorway, away from the automatic door sensors. Bit craned her neck to see through the small porthole window but could make out little other than the distant wall, dotted with various tools and computing systems. Before she could stop him, Evan slipped his hands under her armpits and lifted her up.
Bit knew she was small, but this was a little embarrassing. Those thoughts quickly left her as she spotted the redhead sitting beside Reese’s bed, her head resting beside his hand. By all appearances, she was fast asleep.
Evan lowered Bit to the ground after a quick glance. “See?”
Bit frowned. “Is she there often?”
“Yep. Right after they got back, I started coming down to visit with him. Seemed like every time I was there, she would be just stopping by or just leaving or something. I started peeking in before I entered. I think she spends a lot of time with Reese.”
Bit smiled. Just as she had been expecting, the crew was already starting to pair off. Her smile faded. “Why were you visiting Reese?”
Evan frowned too. “Why wouldn’t I? Guy is in there alone all the time.”
“Trust me, they know. They’re not as out of it as you think.”
“How would you know?” Bit planted her fists on her hips.
Before responding, Evan nodded toward the plants. Bit followed him, more to keep away from the door to sickbay. “My mom was in a drug-induced coma for a while. When she came out, she thanked me for all the stories I told her.”
Guilt weighed inside Bit. She hadn’t been to visit Reese once since he had gone under. And he had been injured rescuing June—her own niece. “I’m a jackass.” She hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
Evan turned to look at her. “Nah. You just didn’t know.”
She shook her head. “No. Really. He saved June. That alone should have warranted a few visits, regardless of whether he knew I was there or not.”
“Thankfully you have at least one more week to change that.”
Bit gave him half a smile.
Jenny sat on the rolling stool beside Reese’s bed. The stool had a permanent indent in the shape of her bum after the long hours she’d spent in the infirmary—mostly at night when Private Daxton Carter was on duty. He was used to her, and she suspected he had kept her presence to himself. It didn’t appear the crew, in general, knew about her nighttime visits.
She knew it was only a matter of days before they took him out of temporary stasis, and yet her heart mourned for what he was missing. It was the making of history, and he was forced to sleep through it. Then again, she was choosing to sit in the infirmary rather than join in with the festivities, but she preferred it this way. Jenny was never one for crowds. “Any day now.”
Jenny glanced at the bag tucked under the hospital bed full of his personal items, wondering if he had everything he needed for “rising from the dead.” She doubted the medical staff had worried about clean underwear and a toothbrush for the next phase of his care. She pulled the bag out and released the drawstring. The bag fell open, revealing the blood-stained clothing he had last worn—three weeks ago. Tucked into the folds of the cloth was a paperback book. Jenny frowned. No one read from paper anymore.
Grabbing the corner, she pulled it out. Like the clothing, it was stained with Reese’s blood. Despite the staining, she could make out the title: Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though her education had focused on science for more years than she could count, she had read the famous sonnets in high school. Using her thumb, she started rifling through the pages, finding one page with the corner folded over.
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou knowst thy estimate.
The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
Jenny found her top front teeth digging painfully into her bottom lip as she finished reading. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to keep flipping through the pages. Though she didn’t find any more folded pages, she did stumble upon a handwritten note on the first page. The handwriting was rough. Like printed books, handwritten notes were rare, but that didn’t stop Jenny from recognizing Reese’s handwriting.
It read: Jenny, I know we have different ideas on where the future leads, but I will always be your friend. To the end of the universe and back.
Jenny’s hands tightened around the frayed pages, bending the book without meaning to. Leave it to Reese to make a romantic gesture from his “death bed.” The man was one of a kind. She flipped another page to find the first sonnet and began to read aloud to the counter beat of his heart monitor.
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease…”