Finally, the bell rings. Immediately, everybody in the classroom packs their stuff. The teacher sighs and dismisses the class, “have a nice summer vacation.” I stand up and try to leave the building immediately. Slowly, I move with my bags through the mass of other students that are standing around and chit-chatting. I don't care what they're talking about, but do they have to do it here and clog up all the hallways? There are some people that just want to leave! Steadily, I keep moving towards the exit. Nobody stops me to chat, why would they? I'm not exactly close to my classmates.
Finally, I've made it out! I hurry home to pick up my luggage. After retrieving my bag, I leave the house and wait at the street. I can barely contain my excitement. I have the whole summer break to relax on a resort planet! Just me and relaxing on the beach. Light years away from school. No chores, no homework… And if it goes well, I might even make a friend my age! Maybe even from Terra! Or some other place that's close enough to regularly meet!
A truck is speeding towards me. It decelerates and stops right next to me. The window slide down and the driver ask: “Did you wait long, Aster?”
“Good afternoon, Ranger! No, I just got my bag. How are you doing?”
I open the door and enter the truck.
“So how was school?” he asks.
“Not that well, I still haven't made friends,” I answer, “though, I'm already happy they aren't picking on me because I'm short.”
Ranger laughs, “in this day and age, even junior high schoolers should know not to pick on people because they are slightly different!”
“How is work?” I ask.
“It's as busy as ever. But that's just how this line of work is on Terra.”
We arrive at the space elevator. Ranger stops the truck near the public entrance and lets me out. I bid farewell to him and enter the building. The building is almost empty. I walk to the counter and to speak with an operator I've never met before.
“You're early!” they greet me, “the Daybreak to Nael-Ⅳ is scheduled to arrive tomorrow night. Boarding doesn't start until the day after tomorrow.”
“No, no, I'm going with the Night Owl,” I answer and show them my ID card.
They place the card on the reader and checks my details on the screen.
“Let's see… I see! So you're the young shuttle pilot I've heard so much about. There's a note on your file: you are travelling with the Night Owl to Pris-Ⅱ. After that, you'll fly your shuttle to Nael-Ⅳ. You must have pulled some strings for that.”
Instead of answering, I give them a friendly smile.
“I checked your license, just in case. It's still valid, and your shuttle… isn't due for maintenance until much later this year. All clear, the next trip upwards is in ten minutes. Go ahead and board the cargo elevator.”
They return my ID and wish me a pleasant trip.
Arriving at the top, there are currently two spacecrafts parked. One of them is the Night Owl, the other I'm unfamiliar with, but the form tells me it's a Star Force craft. There are two people waiting at the entrances of spacecrafts. It's a burly man and a shorter man wearing a green fishing hat. The burly man is Niklas Desmond, the captain of the Night Owl, in other words, my boss. I don't recognize the other person. Who is he?
“Good afternoon, Captain Desmond,” I greet him.
“Good afternoon, Aster.”
“Thank you again for taking me to Pris-Ⅱ and letting me borrow one of your shuttles.”
“Don't mention it. That shuttle was assigned to your exclusive use two years ago.”
“So he's the one, Niklas?” the other person asks the captain.
“Yes, Teemo, this is Aster Cayden. Aster, this is Captain Garreth Teemo of the Orion.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you,” I answer, “pardon me asking, but what is someone from Star Force like Captain Teemo doing here?”
“You have an impressive record, Mr. Cayden. Have you ever considered enlisting?”
“I'm sure my mother, Admiral Cayden, would be delighted if I did so. But I am not sure if it's the right place for me. I'd rather pursue my interests.”
“That's what I'm talking about. It's about the AI you've designed. I'm here to tell you it has piqued our interest.”
“Mittens? What's so special about it? Sure, Mittens has a unique look, but that's nothing special.”
“While I'd like to discuss the details with you, I don't get it either. But our researchers seem to think it's a big deal. The gist is: I'd like you to meet them after your vacation. They'd like to meet you right now. But I think you should enjoy your vacation first. Instead of Captain Desmond, I'll pick you up at Nael-Ⅳ with the Orion.”
“Thank you for your consideration! I see no problem with this arrangement.”
“It's nothing special. Besides, I imagine the Admiral would chew them out if she heard they forced you to give up your vacation.”
“You know my mother?”
“Of course, I do. After all, she is the head of the science division, so she's my superior. If you like, we can talk more in private when we get you in two months. For now, go enjoy your vacation. Goodbye!”
Captain Teemo leaves for his ship.
“Is Mittens such a big deal?” I ask Captain Desmond.
“I don't know,” he answers, “I don't dabble in that area. Let's board the ship.”
The captain and I enter the Night Owl.
“Please show him to his quarters,” he addresses an idle crewman. He turns back to me, “I will call you later.”
“See you later, Captain.”
The crewman takes one of my bags and leads the way. I follow him through the large ship. As usual for a ship this size, we rarely meet anyone on the way.
“These are your quarters,” he states.
“Are you sure?” I ask. The quarter I'm standing in front of is one of the larger ones usually reserved for guests.
“For this journey, even though it's just a few days, you aren't part of the crew, but you are a guest. Please you it without reservation.”
“I see. Thank you.”
I walk towards the door, and it automatically opens. The crewman enters the room, places my bag on the floor and leaves. I move over to the computer and get a storage crystal from my bag and place it into the reader. I start the program on the crystal.
“New hardware detected,” a distorted voice sounds, “adjusting…”
A few moments later, Mittens's usual voice speaks: “Adjustment complete.”
“Mittens, how are you?”
“While the hardware is very different from before, it is more than adequate for my regular operations, Aster. Advanced functions will require further adjustments.”
Mittens's avatar appears on-screen. It's a Felinefolk: a humanoid with feline ears and tail. In the Federation, Therianthropic races are in minority. That doesn't change the fact they tend to quite popular, especially Felinefolks.
Just I have chosen, Mittens's avatar looks little younger than I am. It has short dark silver hair and blueish grey eyes. While I haven't set any preferences for clothing, he seems to prefer intricate ones in green. Since he's not fully adjusted to the computer hardware here yet, his clothes are more plain than usual.
“Good, you don't need to bother with the further adjustments. In a few days, we'll be on the Speedy Kitten again. Anyway, our plans for the return trip have changed. The Orion will pick us up at Nael-Ⅳ.”
“The Orion, so Star Force will be picking us up?”
“Yes, apparently, they want to talk about you, Mittens. I don't know why they're that interested, but they wanted to speak with me. Remind me to make a backup of your program before our vacation ends.”
“I will.” Since I'm just staying for a few days, I only unpack two sets of clothes.
“Attention, the Night Owl is about to undock and leave orbit,” the announcement sounds, “please clear the dock area.”
A few moments later, we leave Terra, also known by its official designation Sol-Ⅲ, behind. Later, we enter a tunnel of light — we've entered hyperspace.
“Aster, you have an incoming call from Captain Desmond,” Mittens reports.
“Put him through.”
“Captain Desmond, what can I do for you?”
“Since we're mostly idle while travelling through hyperspace, would you like to join us for a gaming session?”
“Of course, though it's been almost a year since my last game.”
“Don't worry about that. We meet in my ready room in an hour.”
“See you later.”
The captain hangs up. I take a shower and change into a fresh set of clothes. I put my old clothes into the washing machine. They should be clean by the time I'm back. I exit my room and move towards the captain's ready room.
In the room, I see the familiar faces from our little playing group: Captain Desmond, Oswald and Celia.
“It's nice meeting you to play again,” I greet the others, “outside this ship, nobody seems to enjoy this game.”
“Well, it's an old Asian game,” Oswald answers, “I hear people your age care more about life simulation games in Virtual Dive.”
“Is that so? I do play from time to time, but I'd rather get some real exercise: I do want to gain a little in height.”
“I don't see any demerits to being short,” Celia states, “I think it's cute.”
“I am cute? I just think of it as an annoyance.”
“In any case, I think the High School you're entering next year has a club for Riichi Mahjong,” Captain Desmond states.
“Great! I might sign up for that club then. Until then, I'll enjoy playing with you while I'm here.”
“You might get asked to play by Captain Teemo on your return trip,” Captain Desmond says, “I did mention to him, you play with us from time to time.”
“That's good to hear.”
“Let's start,” Celia announces.
We each pick a tile and sit down according to the tile we've drawn. I eye the table.
“This is new, is this an automatic table?”
“Yes, there's only one company on Terra left that makes them. I feel the game is on a rise yet again, so I got one before they rise in price even more. I hear some extraterrestrials are interested in learning how to play.”
Captain Desmond, who sits opposite of me, presses the red button. The centre disk raises, and we push the tiles on the table into the hole under the disk. The captain presses the red button again. The disk comes back down. And four walls of tiles appear. Oswald sits to my left. He presses the black button in the centre that's closest to him. The two six-sided dice in the centre roll. Their values add to five.
Oswald draws four tiles from the wall to his side. I draw four tiles right of the tiles that Oswald drew. Celia draws, finally Captain Desmond draws. We continue drawing until every one of us has twelve tiles. Oswald draws two more tiles. Everyone else draws one tile. We sort our hands. Oswald discards one tile.
“Ron,” I declare, “Blessing of Man.”
I reveal my tiles.
“Woah! What's with your luck?!” Oswald exclaims.
“It's just 8,000 points. Just a good start.”
“A good start, he says…” Oswald sighs.
We continue playing for several hours.
“You definitely haven't lost your edge over the year,” Celia says, “you've won a lot today!”
“It's just luck,” I answer, “I just hope having this much luck in a game won't backfire on me.”
“Anyway, thanks for the games,” Captain Desmond says, “we all have different shifts to cover. If nothing goes wrong, we can play the day after tomorrow again. While I'd like to move the shifts around, so we can play more, it'd be unreasonable.”
“I understand,” I answer, “I'm looking forward to it.”
“Since that's settled, let's go eat.”
We leave for the cafeteria.
A few days later, we are about to arrive at Pris-Ⅱ. It's early in the morning. I stash the crystal with Mittens's program and carry my bags to the shuttle bay.
“Good morning, Aster,” a familiar voice greets me.
“Good morning, Isaac” I answer, “how are you?”
“I… I'm doing fine,” the boy answers, “thanks.” It's Isaac Igglesden. He's about my age, though he is a little taller than I am. Plus, he's definitely better built than I am. He's a prodigy engineer and an oddball. For some reason, he gets flustered quite easily. It seems he was quite busy, as I didn't get the chance to play with him this time.
“How is work? You seem to be quite busy.”
“Yes, serial defects on some shuttles. The crew has been working overtime fixing them. I've already checked the systems for your shuttle,” he continues, “it's in need of some maintenance, but it should be fine for your trip. So don't worry if you see some systems set to override. I'll fix it up after you return.”
“I see, thanks for the info,” I answer.
I enter my shuttle, it's a double length shuttle. Another difference to usual shuttles is there's a crystal reader in the main console. Captain Desmond had this shuttle customized for me. I put Mittens's crystal in the reader and secure it. I boot up the systems.
“Welcome back, Mittens.”
“It is quite early,” Mittens answers, “have you checked the systems yet?”
“Isaac has already checked them for me. He says they should be fine for the trip.”
“I see, that explains why some warning systems are set to override.”
“We've arrived at Pris-Ⅱ,” I hear Captain Desmond announce.
I start the shuttle.
“Night Owl, this is Speeding Kitten, requesting permission to take off,” I radio.
“Permission granted. Have a pleasant trip, Aster.”
“Thank you very much, Captain Desmond. See you next year then.”
Slowly, I manoeuvre the shuttle outside. Once outside, I speed up and bring some more distance between the shuttle and the cargo ship. I steer the shuttle in the direction of Nael-Ⅳ and engage the Hyperdrive.
This scene is from the perspective of Captain Garreth Desmond.
“Captain Desmond,” one of the operators addresses me, “there's an emergency message from Isaac.”
“Isaac, the engineer? Put him through.”
“Sir, the Speeding Kitten has just engaged the Hyperdrive!”
“Yes, he did just as it was planned,” I answer, “what's the emergency?”
“Sir, I thought he was just going to the unfinished space dock on Pris-Ⅱ! The shuttle is only operational for short range travel. Hyperdrive and Subspace Communication are faulty.”
This is bad. I mean, really, really, bad!
“Open a channel to the Speeding Kitten!” I yell.
“Sir, the Speeding Kitten has already vanished from our Subspace sensors. No signs of either explosion or debris.”
“So he got flung who knows where…” I state. I breathe a sigh of relief. That's a silver lining.
“Isaac, how was the state of the other systems?”
“Life Support and Sublight Propulsion were fully functional, sir.”
“That should buy him some time. So there's still hope. With his luck, he should end up near some inhabitable planet. Contact Star Force, tell them they need to send a search fleet. The Orion should be in communication range. I hope they can find him…”
I really hope they do.