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Introduction:

Cait, a recently graduated astronavigator with a troubled past, embarks on her first long haul voyage.
This I am experimental piece of fiction I have been working on - I am hoping to combine a compelling science fiction saga with adult elements. This will be a slow burn at first but likely take a sharp turn into hardcore elements exploring a broad variety of themes. I will be editing and releasing several chapters in quick succession and would really appreciate any and all feedback as well as suggestions for where you might like the story to go.

-phenylalanine


An alarm roused Cait from her snooze, and she snapped awake, massaging her eyes and slapping her cheeks into alertness. Pushing her hands against the bulkhead above her to drop back into her chair where she gripped the armrests and scanned her instruments. Her tablet was floating by her hand, apparently having been released when she dozed off while reading a book. She slapped it down and the weak magnet built into the case adhered to the edge of the panel, anchoring it from drifting away again.

She was at this time one of two crew members of a long haul freighter, making a supply run from the Mars colonies to the uncreatively named Ganymede station on the largest moon on Jupiter. Once upon a time the vessel had been the pride of human engineering. A sturdy, workable vessel that housed a crew of five – a captain, two navigators on alternating shifts, and two engineers that worked around the clock to keep the whole thing running smoothly. The quarters were cramped not unlike a submarine, with most of the bulk of the hulk given over to making the thing haul a massive container of cargo, sometimes trailing a kilometre in length behind the tiny cab with its powerful engines, sizeable enough to make the journeys not only worthwhile but actually profitable.

This ship had been christened ‘Callista’ back when it was used to haul small asteroids out of the belt between Jupiter and Mars for orbital mining when the colonies were first being built in 2231, but had since been sold off to private companies and repurposed for gruntwork, and after changing hands several times the ship’s battered hull now bore the name ‘Cait’s Chariot’ in deference to her stewardship by well-meaning owner of Chariot Freight, the haulage company she’d recently secured work with. Over time as technology had improved and more systems had become automated and streamlined, the crew had dwindled until the ship could be operated by only two – the navigator who also served as Captain, and the engineer who was on hand for repairs. Truthfully their skillsets overlapped so much and the systems were so well automated that either of them could have done either job, but redundancy was necessary on such long trips both as a hedge against any accidents and to keep each other sane on the four-month journey. Cait’s focus was on navigation which put her in charge by default. Her crewmate Rhys was the engineer and spent a lot of time monitoring system performance to predict where maintenance issues would arise.

As a recent graduate in astronavigation she was one of an increasingly growing and competitive flock of graduate astrogators who had grown up dreaming of the excitement of working in space, and perhaps one day in the future graduating from the fleet academy and commanding a military ship. Unfortunately, her military career had been stymied by an engineering accident during practical placement in her final year, an equipment malfunction and explostion that had taken off her arms just above the elbow, a traumatic incident that she had to be reminded of every time she saw the metal cybernetic prosthetics clamped to her upper arms, every time she had to feel the cool metal against her own skin, and every time she spoke to her father – which she predicted she was about to do now as she reached out and prodded a switch with an extended metal finger to accept the incoming signal.

“-to Cait’s Chariot, come in Chariot.” The pleasant voice of her father’s executive assistant cut in mid-sentence.

“I’m here, Taya.” Cait said, trying not to sound sleepy. “Put him through.”

“Good evening Cait.” Taya replied as she switched the signal to video mode. Her expression gave nothing away but Cait knew she must have looked a mess. Cait kept her hair short so it didn’t get in her eyes but in the zero-G she would still have a halo of black hair floating around her like it had static cling. To save costs the ship operated without artificial gravity and life support was at a minimum to sustain the skeleton crew, so it tended to get warm in the close quarters, which meant she tended to drift about her duties in a singlet and shorts she could pull tough flame-resistant overalls over easily for any hazardous work. She also didn’t keep a proper day/night schedule which meant skipped meals, and a knot in her stomach she was overdue a meal ration. She tried not to glare grumpily at the immaculately groomed Russian woman smiling serenely on her screen in an office somewhere on Mars.

“Is it evening?” Cait replied rhetorically, not bothering to check her Martian chronometer to confirm. Day and night were pointless between planets.

“General Avery is waiting to be connected.” Taya prompted.

“I know. Put him through.” Cait repeated, trying not to sound impatient. Taya was sweet and just doing her job, and likely wanted to make sure she didn’t embarrass Cait by putting her father on the vid without adequate warning. The woman’s face was replaced by her father’s grizzled visage, from the shoulders up she could see he was in full dress uniform.

“Hi, dad.” Cait said tiredly as she requisitioned a coffee from the mess inventory. Somewhere in the innards of the ship a sealed bag of coffee was heated in preparation to be fired through a pneumatic tube to the bridge.

“Hello sweetheart.” Her father said, smiling warmly.

“Checking up on me?” Cait queried, trying to sound bemused instead of irritated.

“Just wanting to know how my girl is doing before she’s out of comms range.”

Cait repressed the urge to sigh. She was nearly six weeks in to the four-month haul to Jupiter and nearly out of effective communications range. A vessel the age of Cait’s Chariot didn’t have the power to support an FTL dish or a quantum entanglement circuit without significant expensive retrofitting, so there was a point where even directed radio links with major base and relay stations could no longer be relied upon for communication because of the time lag and interference. This would put her out of touch with the rest of human civilization for about a week until she was in range of the Jovian outposts. More modern ships that did have FTL or quantum comms systems – like the military grade vessels her father was responsible for – had no such limitations, and he seemed to take it for granted.

“This isn’t my first time in space, dad.” Cait breathed slowly.

“It is your first MaJo transit.” He countered, using an unnecessary military contraction of ‘Martian-Jovian’. “The asteroid belt…”

“Is mostly avoided.” Cait interrupted. “You know they make commercial vessels fly around it. You DO know that. Better than anyone. So what’s this call really about?”

Her father clenched his jaw for a moment then gave her a smile.

“I should know better than to try to put one past you.”

“Yeah. So?” Cait pressed.

“I can only tell you what isn’t classified, since you’re not military.” He began, a slight edge in his voice. He was reminding her that she hadn‘t enrolled in the academy, a decision she’d made when she lost her arms and had to spend some time recovering, psychologically, to the trauma – to say nothing of the physical adjustment of using limbs with no sensation in them beyond the most rudimentary tactile feedback.

“Dad, don’t start.”

“Your body accepted the prosthetic neuro-sync, you’d be completely fit to study. I could pull a few strings and have you in class the second you can get to Earth.”

“Dad…”

“And once you’re enrolled you’d be eligible for synthetic grafts. It would be like the accident never happened.”

“Dad!” Cait slammed her steel hands on the edge of her console. “For the last time, I am not going into the academy as some charity case because I’m a General’s daughter. Do you think my cohort would take me seriously?”

“They’d never know.”

“I’d know! And that matters. It’s my life. I’m going to haul water, and gas, and whatever else for like a year and stash all my money while getting practical experience, and then I’m going to enrol on my own merits, when I’m ready.”

On the end of her sentence there was a hiss of air and the tube outlet opened by her hand, her hot bag of coffee floating slowly into the air. She grabbed it and popped the sealed strawcap and took a sip as she stared down her father. There was a long pause but eventually her father’s expression softened and he started talking again.

“I won’t bring it up again. But my offer is open should you ever change your mind.”

“Thank you.” Cait sighed. “Now what’s this thing you actually called about?”

“Oh, yes.” He looked out of frame, apparently reviewing something on another screen. “Another vessel making the same run ahead of you hasn’t made scheduled contact with any of the outposts after it should have cleared the comms dead zone and there are some concerns. I’m sending you a plotted trajectory. We just need you to adjust to that course and scan for any signs.”

“Do they think it’s lost?”

“We don’t know. It could just be anything.”

“The dead zone is a month wide for your average cargo haulers, it could just be late.”

“This hauler had an engine retrofit and should have cleared the zone in about three weeks, so at this point it’s more than a week overdue.”

“Oh.” Cait pursed her lips. “That’s much faster than the Chariot.”

“Yes, but we don’t expect you to catch up with it. It’s either in the dead zone somewhere, or lost. We just need you to follow their course, perform a sensor sweep, and report any findings.”

“Ok, sure.” She sipped her coffee again. “And there’s no Fleet ships available for this?”

“They’re en route, but you’re still closer.”

“Ah. So what’s the classified part?”

“Classified.” Her father said, pressing his lips together.

“Even from me?” she fluttered her eyelashes, mockingly.

“I’ve told you what I can. Just scan and report. You don’t need to deviate from the course, or stop for any reason.” His tone came across as weirdly grave.

“Dad, level with me, is there trouble?”

“I just worry for you, especially knowing there’s another ship lost out there.”

“So why is there even a classified element to this? Just a lost hauler, with suspiciously powerful engines.” Cait teased.

“It’s what it was hauling.” Avery replied. “And that’s all. I only mention it because there’s a chance you’ll pick it up on your scans.”

“What was it hauling?”

“There’s no need to tell you at this point.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Cait.”

“Ooh, is it expensive?”

“Caitlyn.” Her father said warningly, using her entire name.

“Ok, just teasing.” Cait said, then sucked down the rest of her coffee and returned the bag to the tube to be sucked away to the recycler. “Is that all?”

“About the mission? Yes. We could take a minute to catch up though.”

“Sorry, you’re starting to break up, the computer is telling me we’re about to lose this signal so I’m going to sign off and tell Rhys about our new course.”

“Switch to voice only, it uses a narrower band.” Her father insisted.

“Sorry, what?” Cait flicked a few switches, one of which just degaussed her monitor, but produced a satisfying feedback hum that was sure to annoy her dad into letting the call end.

“Ok, ok, I can take a hint.” Her father relented. “I’ll wait to hear from you in about a week.”

“As long as you’re picking up the relay charges from Ganymede.”

“Of course.”

“Ok, see you dad.”

“Love you, Cait.”

Cait terminated the call and let herself float out of her chair again. She was about to kick off and float through the tunnel back to engineering but Rhys was already pulling himself into the small bridge, barefoot and shirtless, wearing a pair of long cargo pants.

“I heard yelling.” Rhys was tall and lanky, with narrow shoulders that gave him an advantage in cramped spaces. He had a pair of welding goggles perched on his head but Cait couldn’t remember him ever having to weld anything. He seemed to just like wearing them maybe because it kept his fringe out of his eyes. He was fairly muscular for his build, a side effect of forcing himself to exercise to counter the effects of spending so much time in zero G.

“Dad called.”

“Oh, neat.” Rhys said sarcastically. A few nights ago while they’d been getting to know each other better Cait had spilled the story to him about her arms, the academy, and the neverending conflict with her father about starting her military career later than The Plan. It had been difficult for her to open up to another person especially about her injury and she had would up having to mop tears pooling under her eyes, which was humiliating enough by itself. In return he’d told her about his dreams of designing new ships but how he’d had to abandon postgraduate studies when his sister fell ill and hadn’t found his way back after she had died. With the forced intimacy of their close living quarters and the emotional vulnerability of the conversation, they’d fallen into each others arms and had engaged in a prolonged makeout session, but Cait had put a stop to it when Rhys tried to slide a hand up her singlet. It wasn’t that she wanted to turn him down, but as the Captain she had a professional responsibility – and on a personal level, physical intimacy was difficult. Her accident had given her a number of body issues she wasn’t prepared to deal with.

Consequently, between their ill-conceived makeout session and working together in confined quarters for over a month, Cait suspect Rhys was experiencing some significant frustration. She’d noticed him stealing glances at her in her tight singlets that had tough bands of material that compressed her sides and chest but were otherwise light and meshy for breathability, while her preferred shorts were loose and flowy. As much as that might bother Rhys, she wasn’t going to force herself to be uncomfortable just so he wasn’t distracted. Cait didn’t know what his expectations were going forward especially since they were going to be stuck in confinement for at least another ten or eleven weeks. He’d not approached the subject yet, but she felt like there was tension still brimming under the surface, waiting for an excuse to bubble over like it had when they’d engaged in their shared misery.

“Yeah, we got into all that academy shit again. But that’s not the main reason he called.” She drifted back to the console and pulled up her father’s message with the new course, wanting to keep the tone businesslike. “We’ve got a missing ship, maybe lost, he just needs us to scan the area on our way through and report back.”

“Isn’t he Fleet?”

“Yeah, but the ship is a private hauler and we’re still closer than the nearest Fleet vessel.”

Rhys let out a low whistle.

“Kinda mindblowing to think that those big fleet ships can’t get out here in under a month.”

“I guess they don’t see the point in patrolling when there’s too much space to cover.” Cait mused. “The adjustment will take us about a day or two out of our way but otherwise we’re all good?”

“No issues down below, more than enough supplies.”

Cait tapped the keyboard built into the console and imported the updated course after checking it to make sure there were no glaring navigational oversights.

“There we go, all set. Chariot should be adjusting course momentarily.”

“Great.” While she was working Rhys had sidled up behind her and she felt his hands gently take her by the hips, pulling her back against him. She froze momentarily not sure how to react to the umprompted closeness. There was an unexpected comfort in letting him hold her, but after a few seconds she pulled away and turned to face him as they gently floated apart.

“What’s wrong?” He queried.

“Look, the other night…” she began. She reflected on how it had happened. They’d both been frustrated and in hindsight maybe them baring their souls had just been an excuse, since they weren’t allowed to get drunk. Cait had to concede that the idea of hooking up and blowing off some steam would have helped her mood tremendously but it wasn’t something she was prepared for, emotionally or professionally and even in the confines of their shared quarters she had to keep her defences up. Here, in the harsh light of the instruments and computers, Rhys coming onto her was too bold, brazen, real.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a good working relationship if we get too involved. I’m sorry if you thought I was leading you on.” She said gently, with sincere apologetic regret.

“Ok, I get it.” Rhys said, putting his hands up defensively, studying her face as he seemed to be looking for something to say. Inwardly Cait guessed he was trying to assess whether he should try this again later, some way to leave the door open. He seemed nice enough but she just didn’t want to create any expectations.

“Look, I’m not trying to just shoot you down here, but it’s complicated.” Cait said, trying to set the tone for any further conversation. “And technically I’m your boss.”

“Come on, that doesn’t matter out here.”

“It does to me.”

“You know we’re basically glorified babysitters on this thing. There’s two of us here. That’s not a chain of command, that’s…” Rhys waved his hand vaguely looking for a metaphor but not finding one “…nothing.”

“Even if true, that doesn’t obligate me to get involved.” Cait said incredulously.

“I’m just saying if you wanted to, it wouldn’t affect the job.”

“Firstly I disagree, and secondly I don’t want to.”

“Really?”

“Is that so hard to believe?”

“Come on, four months in space, just the two of us working together, bored out of our minds. You don’t get frustrated?”

“No.” Cait lied, though quite convincingly.

“Well I think there’s no harm in a little fun. Come on, it’s the 24th century.”

“The calendar does not dictate my feelings on the matter.”

“Alright, look, I’m sorry. I’ll drop it.”

“Thank you.” Cait said simply, not wanting to drag this out and further increase the tension between them. “Now let me just be clear – I get where you’re coming from. Working in close proximity, I guess it can create some issues. And I know it doesn’t help that we’re bouncing around here half undressed but it’s hot. Now let’s please focus on our duties.”

Cait pulled herself into the navigator’s chair and reviewing the new course to make sure the ship’s slow manoeuvring was proceeding safely.

“Aye, Captain.” Rhys said as he pushed himself towards the door. There was a trace of disappointment in his tone but no frustration or bitterness. He’d get over it.

“Hey.” Rhys said from behind her, apparently still lingering.

“Yeah?”

“This is your first time to Jupiter isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re about to hit the dead zone.” Rhys pointed to the screen above her that showed the projected route crossing a large field of red that showed when they would be completely out of radio contact with the rest of the civilized universe.

“So we are.” Cait glaned up at the navigation monitor that marked the region of space where their long distance communications would cease to be effective and put them out of contact with the rest of human civilization for the next month.

“It’s a milestone for every spacer doing their first Jovian run, especially when you’re also Captain. Congrats Cait.”

“Thanks, Rhys.”

They watched in silence as the diagram of the ship crossed into the red area on the display and the coms panel light dimmed showing they no longer had any active connections. Eventually, Rhys went back to engineering and Cait went back to reading her book.
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