The future is now.

Twenty-five unstable years have passed since the end of the Great War that destroyed much of the Earth. Since then, the world has become peaceful and serene, and fighting is virtually nonexistent. The children and survivors of the war have learned from their terrible mistakes, and banded together to forge what they hoped was an everlasting document of peace—the Pax Terran. Since then, the world has had time to heal.

On the silver anniversary of the birth of the "new world", the leaders of Earth have commissioned a journey of exploration and discovery like none other. Twenty-six cosmonautical vessels were created and manned to partake in this journey, each one fitted with the latest and best in transportation, defenses, and crew—elite squads A through Z.

This is the story of Squad R, and their journey into the unknown.

"SQUAD R: Journey into the Unknown!"

A science-fiction adventure story by Mr. Toasty

Episode 1: Let's get introductions out of the way!

Taking a deep breath, Wendy Laval Jr. said, "I wonder if today really is going to be the day." She opened her mailbox… "Crap, crap, another bill, crap, crap, car insurance, crap…" The sorting stopped momentarily as she fingered a slim manila envelope, addressed to her name, her apartment, her very corner of the world. Her pulse picked up a notch, quickening with anxiety. She was too nervous to wait until she was inside to open it; Wendy flipped that golden seal immediately, and tapped the envelope's bottom until a thick stack of papers fell out, all of them held together by a professional staple. With bated breath she scanned over the first line…

"YES!!!"

That settled it. Wendy Laval Jr. had just been accepted into Squad R.

Finally.

……

The event was too momentous to waste on her casual clothes and a bus ride over there. Wendy put on her best attire, or whatever she could fake as being her best: a not-quite business suit, a long black skirt, hosiery, heels, even the earrings she only wore on the rarest occasions. She even put perfume on—maybe going a bit overboard, but hey, it wasn't every day somebody got accepted into one of the Cosmonautical Exploration Squads. The letter indicated where she would go on the appointed day of initiation, and since it was a ways off, she hailed a cab, not wanting to sully her outfit betwixt a populace crammed inside of a bus.

The hard part's over, I hope, she thought to herself on the ride over. After having so many failed attempts and reject letters, I'd almost say I was overdue for this. I don't want to sound cocky, but I have to wonder why this acceptance was postponed so much. Was it because I failed my first entrance exam so much? Was it that scuffle I got into at the academy? Or maybe it's because I'm…

Wendy lost her train of thought as the cab curbed sharply, making her stomach wince—oof. Good thing she chose to skip lunch—otherwise, lunch might've skipped out on her. She let out a breath of emotional weariness and calmed herself down a little. Whatever the reason for her delayed acceptance, she'd find out once she spoke to the right people. The whole day was before her: she'd be busy filling out paperwork, getting a tour of the ship, and meeting her other crewmembers. That she was taken into one of the elite Squads so late in the year made her think. She would probably be the newest member, and everyone would treat her differently. Worst-case scenario, the Squads were now getting desperate for crewmembers, and she was hired out of pity and not because of her skills.

Yeah, what skills? Wendy stared out the cab window glumly, the view now indicating how much closer she was to her destination. To be fair, she had a good assortment of skills, but somehow she landed in psychology and archaeology. She wasn't famous, and neither were any of her relatives, which meant she had to work hard for everything. But if she had to work hard, and how had all these minor awards and praises to show for it, why was she only accepted now? Why not earlier?

Does it really matter? The fact is that you were accepted, you got in. Just be happy with that. …You can't, can you? You always have to ask questions, don't you? This is just great: I get my wish and I wonder why I get it. So what if it's delayed? It's there, isn't it? I should be more grateful. Hmm…I hope I get along with the other members of the crew.

The final leg of the taxi ride was quiet, the bright light of the sun and the less blinding lights of the city's unnecessary electricity glaring occasionally in Wendy's eyes. Her inner reverie was lifted as the cab's tires squealed, the driver announced his bill, and her body shifted to get out. Maybe this was the last debt she'd pay on Earth. After all, being accepted into one of the twenty-six elite Squads would put her far and away from this dirtball of a world. Would she miss it? Hardly. The prospect of leaving her own home planet was too good to ignore. Being denied the position so many times only fueled her interests…

When the cab left her alone, she stood studying a large building before her, its front largely decorated with clear glass. Just inside, she could see a hazy outline of an old miniature airplane, the type rich eccentrics used to own. The letter she got in the mail told her this was the address for her orientation, but she checked and double-checked just to make sure. Not that she doubted—well, maybe a little. It didn't look like the kind of place an intelligent member of society would grace, unless they came out of pity. Frowning, her lips curling this way and that in frustration, Wendy walked inside and went straight for the registration desk. An elderly man was there, reading the paper while simultaneously chewing a donut.

"Uh…hey," Wendy mumbled, "I'm here for the, uh, C.E. Squad reception and orientation."

"And your name?" he asked, looking up briefly.

"Wendy Teal Laval, Jr. Do you need to see ID, or my letter?"

"T'would help." She handed him both; he studied them with the same care as he did his paper and snack. He returned them quickly, nodded, and gestured to his right, her left. "You'll go through that door, head straight on, and come into a long hallway. Go down the hallway and look to your right; there'll be even-numbered doors. Enter the door marked 'eighteen'. I think there's somebody there right now; let me check." Wendy wanted to get this over with, but she didn't want to be in that room all by herself. It only took three minutes for the old man to call up Room 18 and confirm that someone would be there to receive the new recruit.

"Her name's McGowan; I told her you'd be there in a few minutes."

"Thanks." Wendy marched towards the door on the left and walked down the short hallway it led to. She turned a corner and opened yet another door; this led to a bright, cheery hallway, its ceiling covered in see-through glass. The sky and the clouds were quite visible; Wendy actually took a moment and idled there before she continued. She probably wouldn't even see this sky again… After passing doors one through seven, then doors eight through fourteen, she prepared herself to meet Ms. McGowan, reciting in her head the proper etiquette. Wendy wasn't a social person, and she was uncomfortable around people, but…there were sacrifices, and they had to be made.

Room eighteen—no problem. A small sign was on the door, and every other door along: "Squad R" for this one, and every other door had a letter of the alphabet, A through Z. Well, twenty-six Squads, twenty-six letters. Cute. Wendy knocked quietly before letting herself in, and bowed politely to the person she assumed to be Ms. McGowan.

Funny, though. She didn't expect a rollerblader.

"Sup', Wendy!" said the girl—she was really more girl than woman anyway—speaking as if they had known each other all their lives. "Callahan up front called me and said you'd be here. Good to have you aboard!"

"…Oh. So that's how you knew my name."

"Nah, I'm psychic." Wendy rolled her eyes as McGowan smiled. She wasn't in the mood for childish jokes. "Anyway, I'm here to introduce you to the rest of the crew, and to get you familiar with the ship. I hope you read everything that was sent to you in that letter."

"Yeah—uh, listen, are you going to be on that ship too?" McGowan held up a finger and gave Wendy a serious expression—totally an act, of course.

"All questions will be answered during the tour. Now…first, let me introduce myself. I am Ensign Chelsea McGowan, formerly a member of the Sting Platoon. You can just call me Chelse; everyone else does. Now, follow me, please."

"…Fine." Wendy shadowed the younger (or at least younger-looking) woman out of the small conference room and back into the hallway, but soon she entered into unfamiliar territory. She took this time to study Chelsea, who looked less like an officer and more like a kid on the street. Her hair was a golden color, whether dyed or natural, but most of it was covered by a pale red bandanna, an item that must've been washed and dried thousands of times. She wore skater's clothes, hardly the sort of attire Wendy had on; she even had elbow pads, but at least had the sense to abandon the blades and go for sneakers. Wendy didn't think too much of this "kid" by being around her…but perhaps today had been Chelsea's day off, and she was called in here at the last minute.

"So, uh…what exactly do you do on the ship?" she attempted. Chelsea craned her head around and smiled.

"Well, I really don't have any outstanding skill. I'm kind of a fill-in girl. …Oh," she murmured, suddenly turning serious for real, "you don't really think I'm a crewmember because of my outfit, huh? Well…I can't really blame you. I wear this stuff all the time, except to formal occasions. I just can't stand navy clothes!"

"And the Captain lets you?"

"Admiral, actually. Admiral Astor; I'll introduce you to her later."

"Her?"

This took me by surprise. Of course, we aren't really living in the twentieth century anymore, are we?

"Yes," Chelsea said, "the entire ship is crewed by women. The Admiral thinks it will enhance our performance as a team, but I seriously doubt that. I'd give up my paycheck just to have a guy onboard, any guy at all." Wendy smiled for the first time since she got the letter. She was not, by nature, very big on gaiety, so to express anything outside of her sullen range was unusual. Chelsea led her through another door, this one requiring a passcode, and the two took hold of a rail as they rode an escalator down.

"This leads to the docks," explained the blonde skater. "Of course, since this is all Cosmonautical fare instead of plain old Nautical, we're really just borrowing the terminology from the other department. Just like in all those science fiction books, right?"

"Uh…I'm not really into sci-fi. I prefer to keep my head grounded."

"Ugh," the blonde sneered, "you're gonna be as boring as that other woman. Now I'm really in for it! And here I thought we'd finally get someone really exciting! Everyone onboard is such a stiff!"

"It's business first in a place like this," Wendy reminded her—despite the fact that she had less experience here than Chelsea did. The blonde admitted her new companion was right, but that still didn't change her attitude.

The escalator lowered them into a small anteroom; this led to the docks, where the great Cosmonautical vessel (sometimes called a spaceship, yes) sat in wait. Even the jaded Wendy had to draw a breath as she beheld the magnificent specimen of technology. It didn't look like anything in the few science-fiction movies she forced herself to watch, but rather resembled a swordfish, its dorsal fin curving upwards, its ventral pointing down, a magnificent tail that looked like it could really swim, and a nose—not pointed, perhaps, but it certainly protruded. Other than Chelsea and herself, the docking area was shockingly empty; there wasn't anyone crowding around the vessel.

"Wendy, say hello to the S. S. Reliable! Isn't he a beauty?"

"He?"

"Well…" Chelsea smiled bashfully and wiggled her eyebrows. "Since the whole ship has women on it, we've decided the ship itself is male. I know they're normally designated as females, but the Admiral states—and I agree—that in this case, a 'man' will be just as reliable as a woman. Unfortunately, it's the only 'man' we'll ever see on our trip, unless we come into contact with life unknown to us." She and Wendy approached the great ship, feeling small as they stood next to it. The feeling of isolation left them as another person joined them, coming in from behind another door.

"Looks like you made it," she called. Chelsea smiled happily and waved at the woman; Wendy just watched her. She was tomboyish and muscular, completely unafraid to show off her tough naked arms. The woman was partially covered in grease and oil, and wore an old white shirt that didn't help conceal most of her body. Her face was wild and calculating—Latino by the looks of it—and her hair was shaggy and dark, falling every which way. She refused to shake hands on account of her dirty palms.

"This is our mechanic," Chelsea said, stating the obvious: "Carlisle Renchina, but we just call her 'the Wrench'."

"Nice to meet'cha," said the greasy woman, smiling politely. She had a nice, strong, womanly voice, completely the opposite of Chelsea's slightly girlish tune. "Just call me Carly, okay? No Wrench, no Carlisle, no Miss Renchina—just Carly. And you?"

"Wendy Laval, Jr. Uh…Wendy will be fine."

"Not the talkative sort? Chelse, you been draining this girl?"

"Don't you have a toolbox to sift through, Wrench?" Carly gave the blonde a snigger and walked off, waving to Wendy one last time. Chelsea smiled at her new companion and "filled in".

"She's really talented, and sweeter than she looks. And before you go thinking the wrong thing, she's straight. Very, very straight. She makes me look gay!"

"I didn't ask," Wendy stated. Chelsea nodded, admitted she was right, apologized, and led her into the ship, taking a side door that would, in the future, be used for emergencies.

Wendy had never been inside a "spaceship" before, but once her occupation had led her to take a navy-issue battleship to Indonesia, and the interior of the Reliable looked more or less the same. She did want to explore, but Chelsea led her further into the vessel's stomach, talking about different aspects of the ship as she went.

"The Reliable took about seven years to complete, but since the Great War drained a lot of our resources, it was one of the later models. Actually, do you know why we're called Squad R? Officially, it's because this ship was the eighteenth to be made in a line of twenty-six, and 'R' is the eighteenth letter of the alphabet. You could also say that Squad R is the 'Reliable' squad, which coincides with the ship's name."

"I see," Wendy said carelessly. "How many crewmembers are there?"

"Well, if you count the Admiral and you, we're at thirteen now. …I know, I know," she waved, "it's an unlucky number, but I think it suits us. Every woman on this ship has had a run-in of bad luck, and yet the Admiral took us all in. She really is quite a woman."

"…A-huh. And where are we going now?"

"I'll try to introduce you to as many crewmembers as I can. First we'll go to the library, then the mess hall, then the Infirmary, Engine Room, and the bridge for last. That'd be the best way to see everyone."

"Lead on," Wendy relented. She'd have to take everything in stride; there would be plenty of time for inner meditation later. The library was a few nondescript doors down the great hallway they were in; the other rooms were either in that same hallway, or they followed some basic order. Wendy felt much more at home when they entered the library: here she could be at ease, surrounded by books and materials designed to broaden the mind. There were only two people in the whole room, both of them looking well below the age limit for military recruitment.

"Hey Raven, hey Claes," called Chelsea. One of the girls merely waved, too absorbed in her book to say anything, but the other stood up and grinned. Wendy couldn't help but stare at this girl. If she had ever seen a more breathtaking, pure, overjoyed person in the world, it must've been in some other life, because this woman outshone them all. She was deathly pale but had a great spark of life in her, and was petite enough to look almost childish. Her short hair was a brilliant dark blue—her natural color, Wendy learned—and her eyes were exactly the same hue, though the pupils were shaped like crosses instead of circles. Wendy could tell she wasn't human, or at least not a human from Earth.

"Rae, this is Wendy, the new girl," Chelsea said, taking the pale woman's hand and forcing it into Wendy's. "Wendy, this is Raven Bronson, or just Rae. She's the ship's linguist, and our universal source of cheer and mirth."

"Great to meet you!" Raven gushed, pumping Wendy's hand gregariously. "Happy" people like her never really set in well with Wendy—something about the ability to completely ignore the terrible truths and realities of the outside world really set her off. She tried being polite, but Raven's infectious grin did nothing for her. If she did smile, it was for civility alone.

"Uh, hi. Raven, right? Looks like we'll be working together. And that's…Claes, I assume?"

"Yeah," Raven said, still smiling. "She's really a quiet girl. She's basically the librarian, but that's about all the Admiral lets her do, unless there's some cleaning to be done."

"She looks really young."

"I'm fourteen," stated Claes, pulling her long hair back behind her ear. She glanced up from her book momentarily and added, "And I'm not deaf. If you're going to talk about me, don't say anything that's not pleasant. Wendy, welcome aboard."

"About as social as a tree stump," Chelsea noted. Wendy let her smile go free, and felt a kind of kinship towards this young girl. She apparently didn't like company either, unless it was small and intimate, and she was just as curt too. Why the Admiral let a young girl like her go on this voyage was a mystery, perhaps best solved with the Admiral herself. After a few idle moments of chatter with Raven, Chelsea escorted Wendy out of the library and continued to the mess hall.

The kitchen and dining room were void of any activity, and except for Chelsea and Wendy, it was completely abandoned. Chelsea put her hands on her hips and gave a disappointed snort, mentioning something about how "she wasn't here". One of the doors to the kitchen opened up just as Chelsea was about to explain who "she" was, and out stepped a young Japanese lady, elegant and quiet, her face pretty and gentle. She wore a humble white dress shirt and a white skirt, and carried herself with meekness and humility. She bowed to both her guests and greeted them warmly.

"Hello there. I am the chef onboard the S. S. Reliable, Johansson. My services are fully at your disposal."

"Wassup, Jo?" greeted Chelsea merrily. "This is Wendy, our newbie. Wendy, this is Johansson. Only the Admiral knows her first name; we just call her Jo. She's a pretty good cook from what I've had."

"…Johansson doesn't sound like an Oriental name," Wendy stated, perhaps a bit rudely. Jo just gave her a timid smile.

"No, it isn't. My father was Scandinavian. If you will excuse me, I need to fill out an extensive order form for the garden we are to have here."

"Garden?"

"We will be gone for many months, possibly years," Jo said. "We cannot go into the unknown without a source of food. I hope you are good at gardening, because everyone will be required to help with it once we set off. The Admiral believes one must work for one's meals."

"Interesting." Jo smiled again, her merry eyes twinkling.

"She is just like Claes, isn't she?" Chelsea nodded.

"Through and through. I still have a lot of the ship to go through, so if you'll excuse us…"

"Certainly. Until we meet again, farewell." Jo bowed again and shut the door behind Wendy as she left. When Chelsea asked what her new companion thought of the ship and its members so far, Wendy had no comment. After all, she couldn't give proper judgment until she had seen everything.

……

Because of its high importance, the Infirmary was in the most convenient spot in the whole ship. All the elevators rode to it, all the stairs led to it, and the "danger zones"—bridge, Engine room, kitchen, research room—were given close proximity to it. That said, the infirmary itself was quite small, with only eight beds and just enough equipment to keep two people stable in the worst conditions. The doctor there was attending to another crewmember's injuries, but she took the time to pull away and introduce herself.

"Good afternoon, Ensign McGowan," she greeted, sparing no expense at formality. "Is this our archaeologist? Let me just set another bandage on Miss Mack, and I shall attend to you." The lady doctor gently held the arm of her patient, a considerably bigger woman in terms of size, muscle mass, and sheer childishness. Despite the woman's impressive physique, she bawled like a baby while her wounds were being treated, and the room was cluttered with things she had probably thrown during her tantrum. But soon her bruise was cured—it was little more than a bump and a scratch—and she was released.

"Do not forget to say hello to our newest member before you leave, Miss Mack," the doctor advised. The tall woman smiled feebly and stood up, awing everyone with her height. She was taller than most men, and the bulk of her body was muscular. Her beauty was outstanding, especially in the childlike face, but the thing that caught Wendy's attention was her hair. This tall creature had let her mane grow shaggy and long, like a lion's, and it reached to her armpits like wiggling reeds. The color was a fair lime hue; combined with the caramel tint of her skin, she almost looked like a tree.

"H-hi, newcomer," said the woman, her voice bashful in spite of her dominating presence. "I-I'm Trina, Trina Mack. I-it's n-nice m-meeting you." She blushed, stammered, and walked away, unfortunately bumping her head on the low door. The entire room seemed to shiver as her skull made contact; Trina just whined and rubbed her bruised noggin, leaving before she blundered any more. Chelsea winced pitifully.

"Trina's…a special case," she attempted. "Needless to say, she's the unluckiest of us all, and the only one the Admiral assigned just because she felt sorry for her. While I like her as a person, I can't stand her when it comes to being a shipmate. She's just so clumsy!"

"Now-now," said the doctor, her voice calm and thorough, "you must not speak ill of Miss Mack. She works very hard and she is well-loved. She just needs our patience. Well, now that my schedule has cleared up a bit, permit me to introduce myself: I am Dr. Ivy Stellway, medical practitioner and scientific research department leader onboard the S. S. Reliable. It is good to meet you, Miss Laval." Dr. Stellway was so far the oldest person Wendy had seen on the ship, but she couldn't have been much more than twenty-five, maybe twenty-eight. She had bronze-colored skin and very dark, rich black hair, thick as oozing tar, tied up carefully in braids and buns. She wore the standard white doctor's scrubs and khakis, and always kept a pair of disposable plastic gloves on, except when sleeping and bathing.

"I guess everyone knows my name here," Wendy murmured, reaching for the doctor's hand. Stellway politely refused, stating that she never shook hands as a safety precaution, unless she was at a ceremony or off-duty for long periods of time.

"It is nothing personal against you," she told Wendy. "I am sure we will like each other in the future. I just cannot take the risk, is all. If it is not too much trouble, I would like to take a look at your medical history and give you a physical examination. Once you have been assigned a room and have unpacked your belongings, I may need to vaccinate you against some of the recent diseases and infections the other Squads have run into. I do not want anyone being sick on this ship if I can help it."

"Me neither," Wendy added. She excused herself and promised she'd gather up her medical history, much as she hated it. Her past was not something she liked to display for all to see, and even if a doctor—even a trusted one—looked at her profile, she'd be uneasy. Once they left the Infirmary, Chelsea and Wendy descended to the lower level of the ship, heading towards the engine room. Chelsea informed her new companion that, due to the special design of the engine and the equally-special fuel that propelled it, Squad R had to personally go out of its way to hire the only people that knew how to properly use both.

Not long after the war, foreign visitors from other worlds passed by Earth and the Solar System, many of them shocked and amazed to find life on other worlds. With the end of the war and the advent of the Pax Terran, a peaceful friendship and eventual coexistence with the aliens was slowly formed. At the present moment, people on Earth were on good terms with three different species of aliens, two of them closely resembling humans (Trina and Raven were members of these species; the third ran the engine room).

As Chelsea told this to Wendy, she braced herself for the next meeting. If the pale, petite, blue-haired Raven was one species, and the tall, muscular, green-haired Trina was another, what sort would this next one be? All the preparing in the world didn't give Wendy enough time to react as she saw the Engine Room and Hyperdrive manager: to put it plainly, it was like looking at an evolved mermaid. Her body was lithe and very shapely, with most of her skin a darker shade of red than humans. She had vague orange eyes that gave her a spaced-out appearance, cherry-red hair that looked more like needles than fibers, broad pointed ears, and slits in her neck that acted as gills.

Wendy was surprised to find the girl also had humanoid legs, and not the tail that mermaids of myth did. They still looked fishy—they were a brilliant reddish-orange color, and were covered in scales—and made a flopping sound as she walked, making them appear more like flippers than feet. Her hands were webbed, like a frog's, and her voice was as straightforward and curious as she was.

"You are not supposed to be in here without permission from Admiral. Please leave at once."

"Easy there, Len," Chelsea called out, "I'm on assignment. My duty is to escort our newest recruit, scientific civilian Wendy Laval, Jr., through the interior of the S. S. Reliable, and to introduce her to its crew of twelve."

"…Oh. I didn't know. Sorry." Then, she looked directly at Wendy, piercing her with two great shining sunny orbs. "I am Lenneth Coral, the Engine Room's operator. My main job is to maintain the hyperdrive. To do this, I keep a steady flow of hyperion plants growing, and process them soon after the harvest. The processed remains are then converted to hyperion-type fuel, which in turn—"

"All right!" Chelsea roared, "I think she gets it! We'll get out of your hair now, Len…or whatever passes as hair for you."

"What, do you mean this?" She reached up with her webbed hand and caressed the mat of solid, flexible needle-like fibers on her head. "I never recalled your journey into my hair, so how is it than you can get out of…"

"Never mind!!" screamed Chelsea, and she was out of the room in a flash. Again, Wendy didn't know what to think—it had happened a bit too quickly—but more than likely, she'd have the time to go through it all. So far, Lenneth was the most peculiar person on this ship…and by her count, she still had four more to go.

"Don't worry," Chelsea gasped, trying to get her composure back. "Most everyone here isn't that weird. You just can't talk to Lenneth without her taking everything so literally. She's a skilled woman, no doubt about it, but so hard to interact with. Lucky for the rest of us, she keeps to herself, like Claes and Jo. Oh…there's one other girl here who's even weirder than everyone else put together. Nobody here knows her name—or maybe I should say we can't pronounce it."

"Why not?"

"Something about her species only being able to communicate in song. She can speak our language fine, but she doesn't talk enough for it to be worth it. Watch it—she's a real freak, and I mean that in a nice way."

"Oh." Wendy made a face, and started to wonder if applying for this job was really a good idea. Chelsea noticed her grimace and tried to comfort her with a well-placed nudge.

"Ah, don't worry, we barely see her at all. She only comes out when she's asked, and she usually doesn't speak unless it's to answer a question. We all just call her Fole."

"Is that short for something too?" Chelsea nodded grimly.

"Yeah, 'the Follower'. It's…tough to explain; you'll see when we get out there and do our missions. …Do you wanna see her?"

"Not particularly," said Wendy, wincing again. "I'd rather go to the bridge and see the Admiral."

"Cool! She's a really awesome lady—strict but fair. Oh, and there should be two other people on the bridge now if they're not elsewhere. Aside from myself, the Admiral, and those two, there aren't any enlisted members of the navy or military onboard this ship."

"Really."

"Yeah, really. Heh, can you believe it? If I wanted to, I could pull rank on you and give you orders." Wendy just frowned and crossed her arms, giving Chelsea a no-nonsense stare which she promptly backed down from.

The trip from the Engine Room to the bridge required a trip to the elevator. Chelsea and Wendy were both worn out from walking around the ship, and a ride in the car seemed a good idea. Besides, the bridge was on the fourth floor, and the Engine Room was in the basement. When they got there, Wendy could already see the three people at work: one at navigations, the other with liftoff procedures, and the unmistakable Admiral directing everything from her perch.

"Looks like we came at a bad time," Wendy murmured. Chelsea just grinned.

"Nonsense, their doors are always open. And besides, I'm on assignment. I was asked to bring you up here at the end of the tour—well, here you are."

"Is that you, Ensign McGowan?" said the voice of the Admiral. Chelsea stood at attention and snapped off a perfect salute, briefly shedding her childish guise. She politely shoved Wendy into focus, but her salute wasn't quite as good. "You are not conscripted, Miss Laval," the Admiral reminded her, "so it's unnecessary to salute me. Come here; I will conclude what Ensign McGowan began. That will be all, Ensign; thank you."

"Yes ma'am." Chelsea marched out of the bridge, leaving Wendy in the care of the Admiral. The woman in charge of the Reliable was striking, despite being nestled comfortably in middle age. Her hair was a beautiful silvery-gray color, tied very tightly in a ponytail as per regulation. She bore little signs of age or physical weakness, and spoke like a noblewoman, regal and courteous.

"I am Admiral Ellen Astor, commander of the S. S. Reliable and leader of Elite Squad R. It is a pleasure to finally have you onboard, Miss Laval."

"It's good to be here, ma'am," Wendy said, every word honest. "I am very grateful you have selected me to be in this program, and I will not disappoint you."

"I know you won't," Astor replied, smiling warmly. "Permit me to introduce to you my fellow officers. To my right is Helmswoman Dulcinea DuToré , our navigator on this voyage. She was once my student in military academy, so treat her with the same respect you'd treat me."

"Yes ma'am." Dulcinea was busy with the readout, but she spared a smile and a wave. She too was beautiful, clearly Spanish, and had the eyes of a loving mother, though she wasn't yet in her forties.

"And to my left is Commodore Tsukei, my second-in-command. You will report directly to her unless—"

"…Shiho?" Wendy couldn't help but blurt out the name. The Commodore froze, her face clearly startled, her composure now gone. She hissed in disbelief and shook her head.

"…Wendy?"

"Do you know each other?" Astor asked. Both women turned pale and nodded.

"…We were once lovers, Admiral," said the Commodore. "You did not tell me you were bringing her aboard. This may very well change everything." Wendy let out a moan, expressing all the frustration and skepticism she was so prone to feeling.

"I can't believe I have to fly around in space with my ex!"

"I am sorry," whispered Astor, "I didn't know. It was not my intention to cause such conflict, especially so early in our endeavor. However, since all the paperwork has already been filled out, and there are no other qualifying candidates at this time, you'll have to deal with it. Commodore, Miss Laval, I pray you will have the prudence to put your histories behind you and work together accordingly. If you will all excuse me, I must return to my post. Miss Laval, you are free to explore the ship as you please, but stay out of the Engine Room."

"You don't have to tell me, ma'am," she muttered. Astor walked back to her post and resumed command; Commodore Tsukei continued to stare at Wendy, her face unreadable save for a small trace of incredulity.

"What are the odds, eh?" she attempted. They both sighed forlornly. "Look, Wendy, the past is the past. I've gotten over you, and I've gone on with my life. If you can tell me that you've done the same, we'll be able to work together again. We may even start treating each other like friends instead of strangers."

"…It's all right," Wendy relented; "I've gotten over you too. It was a long time ago. I was just surprised, that's all. …I'm glad you've gone on with your life, and it is good to see you again. I just hope you don't abuse that rank of yours and treat me like a slave."

"You know I'll do nothing of the sort. I owe you that much at least."

"You don't owe me anything, Shiho. Like you said, the past is the past. Oh, uh…you could do one favor for me."

"What's that?" Wendy grinned sheepishly.

"Tell me which room I'm in."

………

That night, Wendy laid awake in her bed, not feeling tired at all. It was certainly a busy day, and things would probably get even busier from then on out. But…at least she was going somewhere now, away from planet Earth and all its reckless follies. Now, instead of dealing with billions of people, she'd only have twelve to contend with: first the Admiral, whom she liked, a woman of experience and wisdom. Then Dulcinea, the navigator, someone she barely knew anything about. There was Dr. Ivy Stellway, a soft-spoken woman of great talent, and Raven Bronson, a cheerful and friendly girl, perhaps the ray of sunshine she had been looking for.

She thought of Johansson, so polite and warm; she thought of Claes, so exactly the opposite and so exactly similar to herself. There was also Carlisle Renchina, that wild greasy girl with the piercing stare, and Lenneth Coral, the bizarre mer-creature she wanted nothing to do with. Then there was Trina Mack, a childish bulk of a mystery; Chelsea McGowan, an outgoing tomboy with the potential to be a good friend; the person known only as "the Follower", whom Wendy had not yet seen; and of course, her ex-lover, the redheaded, beautiful, yet insanely dull Shiho Tsukei.

And herself. She was lucky thirteen.

"It all begins tomorrow," she whispered to herself. "Am I really ready for this? I suppose it doesn't matter. Ready or not, I'm heading out into the unknown. It's everything I've always wanted, so why is it that I can't sleep?"

…Shiho…

"It's going to be an interesting voyage," she ruminated, before tossing into a more comfortable position. Sleep eluded her for most of the night.

End theme

I wanna go out to the stars

I wanna sing out under the moon

I wanna reach out with my hand

And take destiny for a ride!

I wanna bring myself some peace

I wanna bring myself some joy

And if I could find some peace of mind

I might even find true love!

Oh I would die if I could find some measure of the truth

And I can't lie that I would find myself in endless love!

I wanna go out to the stars

I wanna sing out everywhere

I wanna reach into the darkness

And hang on for the ride!

I wanna bring myself some comfort

I wanna bring myself some hope

And if I could know just where to go

I might even find true love!

Oh I might just find true love…!

Preview of next episode:

With introductions out of the way, it's 3-2-1 blastoff to adventure! Our brave heroines spend some time getting to know one another in a formal setting, but what sorts of new conflicts will rise up as heads butt and heartstrings are pulled? All this and more in Episode 2: "Let's get to know everybody!"