"Final check," Riley grunted dutifully.
Joshua Veradine yawned, the taste of coffee still fresh in his mouth, mixed with the after-flavor of eggs and biscuits. Despite a good breakfast, sleep tugged at his dreary eyelids relentlessly. The holo-display in front of him phased in and out of his attention. A short, self-inflicted slap on his right cheek was enough to bring him out of the daze.
"Engines are hot," Finn said from somewhere up in the cockpit.
Josh glanced his way briefly, up the narrow canyon of cramped work terminals. From displays to touch-pads, everything was framed in faded white plastic. Even after years of use and abuse, the interior lighting reflected blindingly off the white surfaces, forcing Josh to squint.
"Nav is functional," said Jer, sitting up at a station near Finn and the cockpit. His gray-orange overalls looked unusually prim and proper today. Wonder who does your laundry.
He blinked, turning to face Riley. She stood over his right shoulder, approaching from the rear of the craft. She stared at him a moment, expectantly.
"Oh! Sorry. Solarion collectors are primed."
Riley rolled her eyes, checking something off on her tablet. She thumped him on the head with it playfully as she walked by.
"Don't fall asleep on me."
Josh smiled sheepishly. He really only had one job to do on this flight, while the rest of the crew were focused on numerous tasks with running their little spacecraft, Salve. While Finn was busy piloting them through the cold vacuum of space on archaic reaction-propulsion based engines, Jer had to relay every conceivable piece of navigation data to him so that they were always on a correct course. Meanwhile, Riley, the closest thing they had to a commander in this bucket, was keeping an eye on communications and basic system operations. Because Jer had navigation, he also watched their proximity sensors and shielding. Flying on reaction-propulsion meant cutting out all of the benefits that came with gravity drivers, including space-time shielding.
In all honesty, that made Josh's job much more exciting. While the three of them kept Salve flying steady and safe, Josh had to operate the solarion collection array that gave their craft's type the nickname catcher. Because gravity drivers interfered with solarion collecting, the job had to be done the old-fashioned way. That entailed tying themselves atop giant rockets, much the same way their ancestors had first taken to the stars. If science ever got to point of perfecting gravitational collectors, then he would be out of a job.
Riley strapped herself in at the copilot terminal opposite of Jer in Nav. Watching her motion, Josh realized he had forgotten to fasten his own straps. Reaching for the flexible lines in the back of his seat, he pulled them over his shoulders and across his chest crisscross wise. At the base of his chair was another strap to pull over his waist.
Sleep would be far from him in a moment.
"All systems go," said Riley, her voice now projected inside Josh's ear-stereo. "Firing thrusters in three."
It took Josh a moment to wonder why Riley wasn't asking Station Control for permission to depart. Then he finally remembered that they had already disembarked and were essentially free-floating. An instance later, Salve sprung to life, shoving Josh backwards with intensive G-forces against his seat. He smiled, the sleep erased as their rollercoaster ride began.
Josh's holo-display winked to life with the acceleration of Salve. Most of it was simple feed numbers, but the center was dominated by a digital recreation of the dark horizon of Cypress stretching out in front of them. It streaked by almost imperceptibly, save a few scattered lights from civilization below. Above and beyond, the dark recesses of space twinkled with billions of glittering stars.
Now a faint glow was peeking over the curvature in the distance. The system was already detecting the first hints of solarion energy.
"Beginning final acceleration!" Finn's voice boomed over the system.
"I've got collector detection," Josh added in reply. "Solarion flares in fifteen!"
Fifteen seconds. That's about how long it would take the Salve to clear the final stages of night on the planet below them. Then the first rays of morning sunlight would catch their nose, and Josh would have to go to work.
"We're dipping a little low," Jer called from Nav. "Level us out about a degree."
Josh checked and rechecked his instruments. Everything was within programmed specificities, with minor adjustments for their positioning on this morning's run. Every day it was a little different; no two runs were ever exactly the same, especially when they hit full dawn. But after two years of doing this job, Josh had gotten it down to even more of a science than the engineers back at Sunflower ever could.
"Dawn sighting!" Finn exclaimed.
A bright flare of sunlight gushed through the cockpit glass, turning the cramped workspace aboard Salve into a room of a golden light. Josh's display exploded with new information as the collector arrays mounted outside the spacecraft charged with energy.
A tremble shuddered through their craft as Finn began deceleration. In the next moment, Salve was in freefall, a sensation that further added to the illusion of riding a rollercoaster.
The shouted information between Jer, Finn, and Riley soon faded into background noise. Josh focused ever more intently on his display, adjusting POV as Salve jumped back and forth through the oncoming solar storm. What most people called sunrise in the morning was like a cosmic tidal wave for Josh's crew, and right now he was just riding the crest of the first wave. In a burst of animated holographic light, Josh traced the eddies and currents of solarion energy as Salve dipped and dived in the frothing tempest.
All the while, he made minute adjustments in the collector array. One moment it was angled forward, soaking up the energy rich solarions like a sponge. The next he rotated it completely opposite, steering clear of radiation bursts that would fry the whole system and send Salve spiraling down into Cypress' atmosphere below. In the midst of it all, he was acutely aware of the constant motion of Salve as Finn piloted them to and fro, matched by the data feed coming off Josh's terminal. And all of it felt like a dance, one which Josh had grown quite used to.
The last couple of years had turned these runs into a routine, and Josh felt every movement, every burst of solarions like a timed rehearsal. He knew exactly what to do and how to play his terminal to each unique situation. Finn and the others managed Salve in time, and even though Josh's heart raced with excitement, there was never any fear. Never any doubt.
The collector array chimed as energy capacity reached maximum. They had ridden this dawn well, and, Josh was pleased to see, in record time. Barely forty minutes and they were ready to turn back.
"Closing collectors!" he called out. "Let's head for home."
Salve gave a sharp tug, making a wide one-eighty away from the blinding sunlight back towards the darkness of space. There was another short burst of acceleration, and then the light on their tail faded as they passed once more into night. Josh exhaled, the rush finally fading.
"Good job, everyone," Riley said over the cabin system. "Just enough time to catch some sleep before going back to work."
The thought made Josh long to get back to his apartment and crash. But he was too wound up at the moment, so maybe he would go for a short walk first. He powered down his terminal, checking once more that the array was in full function. It seemed everything was in proper order today. Too much exposure at any given moment during a run could burn out a collector. That would mean costly repairs back at the Station.
Sunflower finally came into view. At first it was a single, glowing blue dot in the sky ahead of them. As they drew closer, Josh was able to make out the familiar shapes of two cylindrical habitat tubes, parallel with each other and braced by large circular, disk-like docking ports on both sides. In some ways, Sunflower reminded him of the old train axels and wheels he used to service back on his home world.
The memory suddenly took a sharper reality in his mind. It stayed there until their docking apparatus on B-Ring of Sunflower dominated their entire view, blocking out the rest of the station from view. Josh sighed, undoing his harness. Salve shuddered briefly as the apparatus reached out to tow their ship into station. Then they were finally stopped.
Riley swept past Josh, toting her tablet once again. Jer was quickly behind her, but Finn lingered in the cockpit, a few more systems still needing to be powered down. Josh pushed himself up, lumbering back to the rear of Salve where the airlock waited. Riley was standing inside the hallway on the other side, outstretching her tablet for him.
"Need you to sign off on our solarion count."
Josh checked the appropriate boxes and added his signature. Riley swiped it back when he was done, disappearing down another corridor. She was certainly in a hurry to get home and get some shuteye. Josh shrugged, turning down the main corridor through B-Ring that led out into the rest of Sunflower.
Sunflower was in geosynchronous orbit, as well as the other Habitat Stations, meaning the timing of night and day paralleled with Cypress below. It was early morning in the open promenade , but that didn't seem to have any effect on the residents of Sunflower. Most shops were still open, bustling with patrons. Josh quickly faded into the crowded walkway, wandering around with the other sleepless denizens. This station never slept.
He was halfway down a public corridor when his tablet registered the message sent from management. He almost missed it through a yawn. Faint sunlight was barely peeking over the horizon of Cypress below, setting the polarized windows around the station into automation for morning time.
The message wasn't anything urgent, but it asked that he report to the DSC offices as soon as he was able. Josh almost ignored it and headed back up the main corridor to the residential section of B-Ring. Then something knotted in his stomach and he knew that this had better not be kept waiting.
Five minutes later, he was sitting behind Mr. Fetter's desk, the local manager for this particular DSC division. It was funny; Mr. Fetter was the first hand he shook when he stepped foot on Sunflower station nearly a year ago. He had known better than most Josh's situation and the miracle it had taken to get him here. He was also very accommodating, and for a little while, the only real friend he had. Josh had a profound respect for the man, more so than any other person he really knew this far away from his home world.
So when Mr. Fetter exhaled sadly, Josh's heart sank. It was just as he suspected.
"Joshua, I've got some bad news, and it has to do with Cypress declaring independence two weeks ago. I have a feeling you've known this all along."
Josh nodded numbly. He remembered the day the story had hit the nets. Cypress was just one of a long list of Orion Kingdom worlds that had recently declared independence over the last four years. The new king on the throne on Anthemon was more or less a figurehead for the old kingdom. In an era where political sway among the stars was a lot more loosely defined, most fringe worlds were spawning single planet governments. It seemed to be the change of the times.
Cypress, a little more closer into the core of the old kingdom, was a bit of a controversial topic if they declared independence. Especially with worlds like Kiiroi Bara, who had advocated—even bullied them into staying part of the kingdom. But it was only two weeks ago that the paperwork was finalized and Cypress had severed all political ties with Anthemon. They were now a free world.
Josh had felt the same way then as he did now: panicked. He remembered that afternoon vividly, walking around the station with little thought or emotion. It didn't help with all of the rumors spreading. Some feared there would be some kind of backlash from the kingdom. Maybe even military blockades. It was a little touch and go down on the surface, but the new governor of Cypress and his cabinet had seemed confident, and soon the rest of the hearts of Cypress followed. Everyone was pretty excited about being a free world. As for Josh, he had begun to relax, hoping that it would turn into a nonevent. Besides, Anthemon was in no position to wage any kind of campaign to retake rebellious colonies.
"Kiiroi Bara isn't by any means a power figure in the old kingdom," Mr. Fetters continued, "but they're making a big show of threatening to nullify all visas given to their citizenry who were on colony worlds declaring independence."
Josh swallowed hard. "But that's just been it; all show and no talk. They reacted really badly when Caprifol first went. I know was I barely old enough to remember that kinda stuff, but it was a huge deal. And they didn't do anything."
Mr. Fetters sighed again. "Caprifol is another matter altogether. I swear they're going to ignite a rebellion amongst the colonies. But that's beside the point. Kiiroi Bara made a statement last night Sunflower time that they were going to start the process. It's still going to be at least a month of paperwork, but…"
But when it happens, you've got no choice but to deport me.
"I'm sorry, Joshua."
Josh nodded numbly, the ramifications still sinking in. After a moment, he tried putting on a smile, but he could tell he wasn't fooling anyone. "On the bright side… I'll get to see my family again."
Mr. Fetters nodded. "Hey, I don't like this as much as you. And if there was any other way, I would take it. But even the new powers that be running the show down on Cypress are in full compliance. If you're not a citizen, tough luck."
Josh walked back out of the DSC offices, feeling much the same way he had two weeks ago when he had first heard the Cypress independence stories. He couldn't bear the thought of going back to Kiiroi Bara. Some part of him had accepted the fact that it would happen someday, but that had seemed years off. And besides, another part of him had hoped to take on a full commission job as a DSC solarion technician. Then he could nationalize to Cypress and never ever have to worry about seeing Kiiroi Bara again.
No more living in poverty. No more hard labor, dead end jobs. No more misery.
On a whim, Josh skipped away from the corridor leading to the residential block and continued out onto the business promenade. Bright stars twinkled through the transparent ceiling overhead. He directed his footsteps towards a plain looking building, with no doorway and no front counter.
The Rowelism Meditation Hall was the only place alive this early. Already the large room beyond the entry way was filled with at least two dozen adherents, probably having come earlier than Josh to sit in the plush pillows and meditate. Some may have been there even longer, judging by the scruffy shadows of hair on a few of the men. Most sat quietly; a few had struck up poses that seemed more painful over prolonged time rather than enlightening. But they all looked at peace.
Josh's parents had called Rowelism the state sponsored religion, and he half believed them. It seemed that anything the advocates truly agreed on was the right of rule from the Orion Kingdom. His parents probably wouldn't be too thrilled to see him in such a pagan place. But for Josh, it had become a nice quiet place to come and think. He wasn't so sure he understood how meditation was supposed to work, though it helped more often than not. He had come here the day he had heard that Cypress had declared independence.
It seemed fitting to be here this morning.
Finding a comfortable pillow to sit on, Josh folded his legs over each other, stretching his arms out on the ground for support. He repeated the exercise of letting his mind clear. It didn't work so well today. His mind kept launching back to the thought of deportation and he felt himself go sick again. He tried a few whispered chants when that didn't work, but five minutes later, he was still no farther away from the ill feeling clenching his gut.
So he pushed himself up into a kneeling position, letting his arms fall in front of him into some sort of reverent grasp reminiscent of when he was younger.
Why are you doing this to me, God?
He didn't say the words aloud, but they didn't need to be. They weren't directed to anyone in this room.
Why are you punishing me? Taking away these opportunities? You know I can help my family much more here than if I go back to that hellhole. Why else would you send me here? Aren't I doing everything I should be?
He wasn't sure how long he sat there, those words repeating over and over in his mind. Most of his prayers had been like that…back when he still prayed. It was about that time that he started coming here.
And like every time before, he still found no response.
Disgusted, Josh exhaled sharply, sitting back down to fold his legs again. Once more, he started his chants, letting his mind go blank.
Josh glanced up briefly at the small pile of guys crowded on the living room floor around the game monitor. He briefly wondered what had elicited that particular response from Clay, but the holo-monitor was a tangle of colors and action from whatever game they were playing. Josh wasn't in any mood to try to decipher it.
He leaned back on the old tattered sofa, glancing up at the small skylight window in their ceiling, looking up through the lower levels of the residential block. He caught the flicker of shadows from passerbies on the walkways above them. None of the noise of street life ever filtered down here, but sometimes he felt they were a little short on privacy with that darned hole right there for the whole world to look down at them.
But it was better than no windows at all. At least this one caught the last sunlight that filtered down from evening skies when the station was angled in just the right way. He even caught glimpses of the promenade somewhere above, with its flashy colors and signs.
Josh turned his gaze away, glancing around his tattered old domicile. They were in the lower residential block, so it was cheap and non-protocol maintained. Even with the filthy walls and bad lighting, Josh sure would hate to leave this place. It was far better than anything on his home world.
Kiiroi Bara. The name was repulsive. The planet was famous for about only two things; its elegant cities for rich nobleman with their cushy kingdom ties, and the wide expanses of wilderness nearly filled up with the worker-servants. There were nearly eight billion worker-servants, and being a central kingdom world they all had one job; serve the nobleman.
Josh still remembered when he was a little kid and it had finally clicked for him. His family had been born into servitude and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Just as his ancestors had been doing for the last few hundred years, he was slated to repeat and provide children for the next generation of labor force.
It was all very nice for nobleman, actually. Despite deplorable conditions, the worker-servants had no trouble reproducing. There were lots of strong family traditions from the various Catholic colonists that first arrived there nearly a thousand years previous. Catholicism meant little to anyone in the kingdom, but the traditions were hardwired into the people.
Deciding to let the uncomfortable notion see the light of day, Josh wondered what would happen to him if he was deported back to Kiiroi Bara. He'd most certainly return to his family's job as railway technicians. Josh had first worked the mag-rails when he was barely twelve, the legal age for minor labor. On Kiiroi Bara, that is. Working the mag-rails had had its advantages. The tech used to suspend hyper-speed trains wasn't too different from solarion catching that the DSC used on their small ships.
That was how Josh had gotten so lucky. He had spent years studying the tech; learning every intimate details of its function so he could fine-tune it properly. At the time, he thought he was just going to win himself the better jobs. Maybe even transfer to one of the big equatorial cities and escape the poverty of the wilderness urban sprawls. Life would be…easier there.
Well he had certainly gotten someone's attention. A nobleman in the local regional affairs had somehow taken notice of Josh's skills. His parents insisted that it was a divine blessing; an opportunity from God. He heard it so much in those early days after the offer that it started to psych him out a bit. What if he screwed up on God's offer?
At any rate, connections were made, and for whatever reason, the nobleman, a nice guy really, had gotten everything set up for him to start training as a solarion catcher on Cypress. Josh wondered briefly if maybe that was still an opportunity waiting for him if he was deported back to Kiiroi Bara. The nobleman certainly would take pity on his situation, as he had before. Sure, there weren't any solarion corporations based in Kiiroi Bara (energy needs were met by different means), but he might still get him a job in the cities, right?
Josh exhaled, listening to his roommates as they continued hooting and yelling with their games.
"C'mon, Josh," Gris called out, glancing over his shoulder from the glowing holo light. "You've been so gloomy all evening. Are you going to stew there for the rest of the night?"
Josh glanced over at the small group. Most of them were friends from somewhere else around their block. His two actual roommates, Gris and Tristan, actually seemed to take interest in his isolation on the couch.
"I'm not really in the mood."
Tristan shared a knowing look with Gris. "The business with your visa got you down?"
Josh nodded wordlessly. Gris shrugged, obviously not sure what to say.
The three of them were all from out-of-system on special work visas. Josh had heard the stories at some point, losing track of the details, but Gris and Tristan were in similar boats. Both from fairly prominent old kingdom worlds that had granted them permission to work on a Space Habitat. So far, they hadn't received any warnings or notice of visa suspension. Josh was the only one in immediate danger of deportation.
"It's not much, but as the old saying goes, I know a guy who knows a guy," Tristan piqued in.
Josh shook his head. "No, I don't want anything fancy done with my records. Bara authority isn't afraid to send officers to haul me back. Then I'm looking at prison labor time, and that's just what I want waiting for me back home."
Josh rolled his eyes, picking himself up and heading into his room. Fat lot of good any of them were worth. He appreciated the sympathy, but it was worth little in calming his nerves.
He laid awake, listening to them gaming for the next couple of hours. Even after they finally called it quits for the night, Josh tossed and turned anxiously, sleep far away from his thoughts. Sometime around two, he finally fell asleep.
At some point, he became aware in his dreams that an alarm was going off. Pulling his head groggily off the pillow, he glanced up at the wall monitor, currently blaring his work alarm.
Crap. He had slept through the last half hour of it. He was already late.
Stumbling out of bed in the dark, he fished around for his work overalls, rushing out the door and down to B-Ring. Riley was waiting at the airlock, tapping one foot impatiently while staring down at her tablet. She glanced up as he came running up the corridor.
"Damn it, Josh, we're already getting dawn on the fortieth parallel. This is going to be a short run today, and it's on you."
"Sorry, sorry," Josh pleaded quickly, hurrying inside the Salve. "My alarm is a piece of crap."
Riley said nothing else, taking her seat in the commander's chair. Finn had long since cycled up their flight plan from the pilot's chair, so the moment Riley was seated they were clear of B-Ring. Josh felt the rush of G-forces thrust him back against his chair as they rocketed out into space. He hurried to pull up his holo-monitor and boot up the solarion collection array.
Josh cursed himself over and over in his head. This was getting out of control. He needed to get a grip fast and just do his job. Deportation or not, he certainly wasn't going to expedite the process by screwing up at work. His fingers danced fast across the controls, trying to catch up with everyone else before they hit first light. He was cutting corners with his work, but it was a risk he was willing to take this morning.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Jer peering at him from Navigation. He looked genuinely concerned.
"You okay, Josh?"
Josh shrugged, trying to keep his eyes on his display. "Not really, but what can you do?"
"Wanna talk about it after the flight?"
Josh exhaled. He appreciated Jer. He liked his whole flight crew. They had been together now steadily for the last year. But he wasn't sure he wanted to open up about his problems like this, especially when—
"Dawn burst!" Finn cried from up front.
Riley started swearing as bright morning light flooded the cabin of the ship. Josh watched his display freeze up, and then the world dropped out from underneath his stomach in free fall.
Solarion catchers didn't use gravity drivers. They couldn't; the lens effect distorted the free flow of solarions—highly energetic sunlight particles that made up most of Cypress' energy economy. That was why Salve relied so heavily on chemical rocket propulsion.
The problem with flying without gravity drivers was that if something went wrong, it was very easy to get caught in Cypress' atmosphere and plummet in a ball of plasma fire to the hard ground far below. And right now it looked like they had gone far beyond wrong.
"Where are we, Finn?!" Riley cried over their earpiece stereos. The sound of the Salve's frame and instruments shaking caused a lot of noise in contrast to the deathly silence of space.
Finn had one hand flicking through his holo-display for cords sent up from Jer, the other one tightly grasping his flight stick. From Josh's point of view, it looked like it very much wanted to escape his grasp.
"We're zinging around in some kind of circle! I can't tell which way is up or down right now!"
Riley rounded on Josh. "What did you do?!"
Josh had a fair idea what he had done; he had flooded the solarion collection array. It was a finely tuned instrument on the exterior of the ship. Between him, Finn, and Jer, they coordinated their flight path through the oncoming morning light of the sun, catching stray solarions in the fray. The trick was riding it like a solar tidal wave, scooping up the energetic particles in small doses. If they flowed completely freely into the collectors, the ship's whole power grid would be toast.
They still had power, which was reassuring. Otherwise there would be less tumbling and more burning at this point. The fact that they weren't all carbon ash in the upper atmosphere of Cypress was a good start. Now they just needed to survive.
Ah, there was the problem.
"I didn't calibrate our array intake properly," he called back to Riley. "We bit off a little more than we could chew when we hit dawn light."
"Got us some cords!" Jer shouted suddenly.
Josh watched on his display as the information was fed directly to Finn at flight control. In a moment, the tumbling was over, and they were turned around back towards Sunflower Station.
Riley breathed in a sigh of relief. "Now that we're all still alive…what did we do to the Salve?"
Apart from Navigation, Jer also served as their main ship technician. He had a diagnostics program open, which much to Josh's relief showed only minor stress to their hull from the roller coaster ride. All within safety limits.
For his part, Josh examined the collection array. They had managed to scoop up about a quarter of their regular quota for a solarion run. That was a lot for a few seconds of sun burst. By some miracle, the collection array hadn't fried out, but it would need a bit of fine-tuning and re-polarization back at the station. That was fine with Josh; he could do that with the spare time they had in cutting this run short.
The rest of the flight back to Sunflower was short and silent. As soon as they had acclimated to station gravity, Jer threw off his harness and started manually checking various instruments around the cabin. Finn and Riley both remained seated, casting weary glances in Josh's direction. Finn looked just as concerned as Jer had; Riley looked worried in the only way a boss could.
"If it's all right with you, I can stay late and touch up the array," Josh said.
Riley exhaled. "Josh…just go home. You need your rest."
Ouch. Josh nodded solemnly, closing up his display. It wasn't technically suspension—that would come from Mr. Fetter shortly enough. But in all the times Josh had ever served under Riley's command, she had never sounded so…disappointed.
He was halfway down the airlock corridor when Finn suddenly jogged up beside him.
"Josh, please tell me you were just dirt tired and that we'll be back to normal tomorrow."
Josh shrugged apathetically. "I don't even know if there'll be a tomorrow for me at this point."
They stepped inside B-Ring proper, a few other workers milling about in the early morning hours. The sun had now peeked up over the edge of the round horizon somewhere beyond the edge of the station view-ports. First dawn.
"It wasn't a total cluster screw up," Finn went on. "We're all alive. I'm sure you won't get too much flack for it."
Josh kept on walking, leaving Finn alone in B-Ring. He felt bad for the poor guy; he was just trying to look out for him. But right now Josh wasn't in any mood to be looked out for. He just wanted to be alone.