Praise for Quarter Share


"I feel compelled to provide this warning: If you decide to subscribe to Quarter Share, block off a serious amount of time to be listening to podcasts. Why? Simply because once you get started, you are going to get hooked, and there is no going back. You will end up mainlining all of Mr. Lowell's stories…Consider yourself warned. Must Listen" — View from Valhalla


"This is a marvelous story, I like coming of age stories and this is a mesmerizing one...The characters is at center in story, they are detailed, warm and easy to love...Quarter Share is a mesmerizing tale of a young man coming of age and finding his place as a crewman aboard a solar clipper." — Cybermage


"Quarter Share is a love letter to science fiction, an authentic coming-of-age celebration of blue collar “lower decks” folk. Nathan Lowell tells a tale so real, you can practically smell the spaceship galley’s coffee—and almost see the engine oil beneath your fingernails. Hero Ishmael is clearly destined for great things. Thankfully for readers, so is Nathan Lowell." — J.C. Hutchins, author of 7th Son: Descent and Personal Effects: Dark Art


"I wanted to read some classical-ish Science Fiction lately, and decided to dip my proverbial toes into this highly praised series of books. I read through the first book, Quarter Share faster than you can say “Planet Ahoy!“, and got stuck in the world like flies on dung." — themosse.net


"I’ll get the rating out of the way first: I loved these books. I couldn’t stop listening…It’s clear that I found all the books very compelling, and I liked them very much, so I rate them YES!" — A Mammoth Undertaking


"It was just too good not to recommend…Nathan Lowell’s characters aren’t your typical space navy types either. Their more realistic for one. Their more dynamic than virtually any cosmic deckhands that I’ve spent time with in any other novel." — SFFaudio


"Indeed, part of the charm of the Share novels, or “Trader’s Tales” is the sense of discovery that pervades them…For us land-rats the world of the Solar Clipper’s Golden Age has many wonders." — Brother Osric’s Scriptorium


"Incredibly realistic. You would swear Mr. Lowell was writing a personal history of his youth on a deep space cargo ship. Stunningly eloquent and crisp prose takes you on a journey of discovery reminiscent of Dana’s classic Two Years Before The Mast. Only Dana had the advantage of taking such a voyage, Lowell will just make you believe he did, and with this book, he invites you to go with him." — Michael J. Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations




This book and parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by the United States of America copyright law.


Ridan and its logo are copyrighted and trademarked by Ridan Publishing. All rights reserved.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual persons, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.


A Ridan Publication
www.ridanpublishing.com
www.solarclipper.com


Copyright © 2007 by Nathan Lowell
Cover Art by Michael J. Sullivan


ISBN: 978-0982514542
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
First Printing: May 2010



Books in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper Series

Trader Tales

Quarter Share
Half Share
Full Share
Double Share
Captain's Share
Owner's Share*

Shaman Tales

South Coast
Cape Grace*


Fantasy Books by Nathan Lowell

Ravenwood

*Forthcoming





To my wife, Kay
For 27 years she put up with my wanting to be a writer.
For the last 3, she put up with my being a writer.
Now I have to put up a book shelf.




Table of Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28


Chapter 1

Neris
2351-August-13


Call me Ishmael. Yeah I know, but in this case it’s really my name: Ishmael Horatio Wang. My parents had an unfortunate sense of humor. If they had known what I’d wind up doing with my life, they might have picked a different one—Richard Henry Dana, perhaps. Exactly why they picked Ishmael Horatio is a long, and not terribly interesting, story that started with the fact that Mom was an ancient lit professor and ended with my being saddled with these non sequitur monikers.

That particular story was over eighteen stanyers before the two Neris Company security guards showed up at my door with long faces and low voices. Perhaps it was their expressions, or that they were looking for me and not Mom, but either way I knew their visit wasn’t good. I didn’t think they had come to drag me off to juvie or anything. I’d never been a troublemaker like some of the others in the university enclave. They had come for me though—to tell me she was dead.

“Flitter crash,” the tall one said.

They’re not very common but you do hear about them from time to time. You always expect it to happen to somebody else. It wasn’t even her flitter. It belonged to Randy Lawrence, her boyfriend.

“He’s dead too,” the short one explained.

They spoke gently, their words washing past me. Nothing seemed to stick. The security people weren’t going to put me in foster care or anything. Eighteen stanyers made me old enough to live by myself on Neris. Eventually they stopped talking, and I never even noticed when they left.

We had been on our own if you didn’t count the Randys, the Davids, and the occasional Dorises for most of my life. Dad was somewhere in the Diurnia Quadrant. He’d never been a big influence and I didn’t even know what system he was in.

With Mom gone, I was alone—really alone—for the first time in my life. It wasn’t the standard, I’ve got the apartment to myself for a couple of stans kind of thing, but a deep and utter sense of loss. For a time I just walked from room to room in a kind of daze. I woke the next day sprawled across the couch but didn’t remember even lying down. As bad as the night had been, morning brought something worse—lawyers.

First, the plantation attorney showed up and notified me that The Neris Company intended to sue for damages to the granapple vineyards where the flitter crashed. “We’re sorry, Mr. Wang,” she said although there was no hint of regret in her voice. “Mr. Lawrence had inadequate insurance to cover this kind of damage. In order to protect our client’s investment, we have filed liens to appropriate compensation.”

I glared at her. “So, what does this have to do with me?”

She examined her paperwork as she spoke, “We are in the unenviable position of placing liens against both estates since there is no way to determine who was piloting the craft. The flitter came apart in midair, you see. The falling debris and…er…remains damaged an estimated square kilometer of vines.”

That was really more detail than I wanted.

As she was leaving another company lawyer arrived with an eviction notice. Mom was—had been—a Neris Company employee and a member of the faculty at the university for years. Since I was no longer a dependent, I had just ninety local-days to find employment or leave the planet. Survivor benefits would have applied if she’d been killed on the job. Dying on her day off didn’t count.

In the middle of the afternoon, an email from Human Resources informed me there were no openings available for unskilled labor. As Neris was a company planet, the Neris Company was the only game in town, so I figured I’d be leaving.

The last piece of that day’s bad news came from the family solicitor assigned by the company. He showed up wearing a rumpled suit and a tie that looked as tired as he did. “Mr. Wang,” he began after we’d settled at the kitchen table. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Of all my visitors that day, he actually seemed to have meant it. “I don’t want to take up more of your time than necessary, but you need to know where you stand with regard to your late mother’s estate.”

I nodded for him to go on.

“There isn’t one.” When he saw the look on my face, he shrugged. “I should say there’s not much of one. As a faculty member, your mother didn’t earn a great deal. It was enough for the two of you to live in relative comfort, but there wasn’t much left over.” He almost sounded apologetic.

I almost felt sorry for him.

He took out the paperwork then, her life insurance, will, and the settlement forms from the vineyard liens. We spent the next half-stan going through them in haze of sign here, and here, and here. Finally I had to sign the insurance forms to receive a check which was the payout amount adjusted for the plantation claim and cremation costs. The NerisCo people were efficient; I had to give them that. Barely a day had passed and my mother’s remaining net worth was in my hands. It would be enough to cover my rent for the ninety days and I’d have a bit left over. I could accept it or fight and become tied up in probate with Neris Company arbitrators, and Neris Company lawyers, for the next Neris Company stanyear.

Company planets suck. I signed. What else could I do?


***


Three days later, a courier delivered the urn containing my mother’s ashes. I placed it on the coffee table. She’d liked coffee, and we’d spent a lot of time sitting there with our feet up, talking—mugs of fragrant brew in hand.

That was it. Nobody else showed up, not my mates from the enclave, not company people, not Mom’s colleagues from the university—nobody.

To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of friends to begin with. I’d read about best friends in novels and such, but I’d never actually had one. Angela Markova had been the closest thing when I was a kid, but she left Neris when her father took a job with another company at the end of fifth form. I’d never really found anyone to take her place.

Something about being booted off-planet made you an instant pariah—no need to add water. I’d seen it before when people ran afoul of the company. Within ninety planetary days, I’d have to be gone. Nobody would bother to reach out to me in the short time I had left.

For more than a week I went through the motions of what would be considered a normal life. Eventually, the voice in my head stopped saying, “I can’t believe she’s dead,” and shifted to, “Now what am I going to do?”

In a month I was supposed to start at the university. Growing up with a professor, I really didn’t have a choice. We’d had several long, and occasionally heated, discussions on the subject. I hadn’t wanted to make a decision about what to do with the rest of my life with so much of it left ahead of me. Over time, I’d come to believe there might be some value in getting a degree in plant biology. If nothing else, signing up for college had gotten my mother to stop bugging me about it.

As a company planet, the University of Neris restricted enrollment to employees and their families, but even so it had a surprisingly good curriculum and one of the best biology departments in the quadrant. Its reputation was bolstered by being on a planet full of granapple vineyards. The university’s standing, combined with the corporate incentive provided to dependents of university staff, made U of N a good option.

I just didn’t know what to do with myself when that option expired.


***


By the end of the second week, it became clear that I had a serious problem. Passage off-planet cost more than I had—a lot more—several kilocreds more. I couldn’t afford to buy passage, and I couldn’t stay. NerisCo would repatriate me to the nearest non-company system, Siren, but they would charge me for the ticket and I’d start my new life deep in debt.

I needed work that would pay to get me off-planet. Unfortunately, I could only see two options left: enlisting in the military, or signing on with one of the merchant vessels that visited periodically. The Galactic Marines recruited aggressively on Neris. There were always kids looking for any way to get out from underneath the company, but I knew I could never be a marine. I lacked the soldierly instinct and that whole killing and dying thing wasn’t for me, so my only real choice was the Union Hall. I confess I really didn’t want to go there either, but beggars have few choices.

The next morning, I gathered my courage and trammed over to Neris Port. It was one of those perfect, bright, warm days when the soft breezes carried the spicy, tart smell of granapples out of the vineyards and into every corner of the town. The delicate bouquet covered even the hot-circuit board smell of the tram. It made everything seem too cheerful and pleasant. I hated it.

The Union Hall occupied a refurbished hangar at the edge of the shuttle port. When I stepped in out of the sun, the cavernous hall felt cool and smelled faintly of an institutional-grade floor wax. My footfalls echoed from the far wall as I walked past a row of data terminals and a long counter with five workstations, only one of which seemed to be in use. Aside from the functionary behind the counter, a slightly scary looking older fem with an artificial left arm, I was the only person there. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the light level, and by then I had reached her station.

“Whaddya want, kid?” Her voice bounced off the ceiling.

I crossed to her position at the counter, noted her nametag said “O’Rourke.” I smiled tentatively at her and said, “I need to get off-planet.”

“Son, this is the hirin’ hall. The ticket office is down thata way. Just keep goin’. Ya can’t miss it.” She smiled a bit nastily I thought and pointed with an artificial finger.

“I can’t afford a ticket. I need to get a job that will give me transport.”

O’Rourke looked hard at me. “Ya need a lot more’n that, I’d wager. Ya lookin’ to hire onto a ship?”

I nodded dumbly.

“Ya ever sign The Articles before, kid?”

I could hear the capital letters in The Articles as she spoke the words. I shook my head.

O’Rourke rubbed the back of her neck with her good hand and cast a why me look up at the ceiling. Finally, she sighed. “Okay, kid, everybody has a story. What’s yours?”

I didn’t know how much to tell her, so I gave her the rough outline. “I was supposed to start at the university next month. My mom is—was—a professor there, but she died in a flitter crash. Now the company says I have to get off-planet because she’s no longer employed, and I’m no longer a dependent.”

O’Rourke stared for a moment but then something changed in her expression. “Good story. Where’s yer card?”

I pulled out my identification and slotted it into her reader. My particulars popped up on the display. O’Rourke examined it, scrolling and tsk’ing as she scrolled. She’d only checked through date of birth, and education level, before starting to shake her head. “Forget it.” Her voice was not unkind but she also didn’t look at me. “No specialty and you’re just barely eighteen. Technically, I could offer The Articles, but we got no open berths for quarter shares just now.”

I wondered what language she was speaking for a half dozen heartbeats before she noticed my complete lack of comprehension. She explained again, slowly, “You’re old enough to be contracted, but ya need to have a ship willin’ to hire ya—give ya a berth—before ya can get a job. With this skill level, that means somethin’ entry-level, what we call a quarter share, and nobody’s got an open one on file.” She pointed at the data screens mounted on the wall. “We have three ships in port now, and two inbound over the next week or so. Only one with a postin’ is the Cleveland Maru but that’s a full share berth and you’re not qualified.”

I examined the crawl carefully and it seemed to confirm what she had said. The listing showing CleveMar had an AG2 position, whatever that was.

“What’s all this stuff mean?” I pointed at the display. My brain had already shut down, although I hadn’t realized it, and my mouth engaged without conscious control.

She considered me for a tick, and then shrugged. “Sit down, kid. I’ll show ya a few things.” She took me to one of the data-port alcoves and demonstrated the use of the terminal. It allowed spacers to scroll through the various jobs, ships, and companies. I’d seen help wanted posts on NerisNet before, but this was a whole different bag of granapples. The display showed ship names, company affiliations, size, cargo capacity, propulsion systems, and even a list of the berths. The default setting showed only the openings, but with a little manipulation, I could find out how many positions of each kind were on every ship.

After a few ticks of walking me through the controls, O’Rourke went back to her place at the counter. I could see what she meant about the open slots. I went through each ship’s particulars. Her summary of the situation seemed to be depressingly accurate. As large as the ships were, they didn’t need a lot of crew. Out of that small number, the entry-level quarter share ones accounted for only a tiny fraction.

“What’s a share?” I asked, calling to her from where I sat.

“A share is extra pay ya get if the voyage is profitable. Owners, captains, and the other officers get the most, but everybody gets somethin’,” she called back.

“So in an entry-level position, I’d get a quarter of a share?”

“Yeah, but don’t be plannin’ to retire on it. It’s not much. Better than a spanner to the cranium, but it isn’t all that many creds.”

As I looked through each quarter share listing: engine wiper, mess deck attendant, cargo loader, I realized these were the dirtiest tasks and probably boring to boot. I sighed. Beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers. Unfortunately, even begging couldn’t get me a job where none existed. I shut down the terminal and headed for the exit.

“Thank you, Ms. O’Rourke,” I called over my shoulder, as I braced myself to step back into the midday glare.

“Hey, kid, if ya’re serious about gettin’ a berth, pack a bag and be ready to go.”

I stopped with my hand on the door feeling like a big, cartoon question mark was rising over my head.

O’Rourke beckoned me to the counter. “I like ya. Ya remind me of my nephew. Here’s how this really works. No ship will pull in here with an open quarter share, but they often unload a troublemaker. Some idiot signs on but then doesn’t pull his weight. He gets here, to the ass-end of nowhere, and put ashore with no income and no way home. A few days dirt-side gives him a bit of motivation, so to speak, to do better. Of course, that leaves the ship short-handed.”

“And if I’m ready to ship out…?”

“Well,” she said slyly, “ya’d have to be ready to go on a few stans notice and can’t take much with ya. Twenty kilos is the mass allotment for a quarter share. But ya don’t need clothes and there’s hygiene gear on the ship. Only thing ya really need to take is entertainment cubes and personal stuff.”

“I don’t need clothes?”

“Shipsuits, lad, shipsuits. They come with the berth. Ya pay for them out of yer first few chits. But they don’t count against yer mass allotment. One change of civvies will get ya through, if ya’re careful with ’em.” She smiled at me, and I felt she’d just given me some valuable insight. I just had to figure it out.

“Thanks, Ms. O’Rourke. How will you contact me?”

She pointed to the display that still had my data on it. With a couple of keystrokes, she saved it and gave me a broad wink. “I think I’ll be able to find ya, kid. If ya’re serious, be ready. The Lois McKendrick is comin’ in late next week. Rumor has it she’s got some deadwood that needs seasonin’ dirt-side. That gives ya about ten days to get ready.” She pulled a data cube from a rack under the counter and tossed it to me. “Here, read up. It’ll save ya some problems down the line.”

I nodded with a smile of thanks, stuffed the cube in my pocket, and headed home to figure out what to take with me. How do you fit a whole life into twenty kilos?


***


It didn’t take long to get back to the flat I’d shared with my mother. It still felt weird walking in and knowing she wasn’t there—that I was really alone.

The hardest part was going through her personal things. It made me a bit queasy dealing with her underwear drawer. I felt silly for being so squeamish. I had folded her bras and panties hundreds of times while doing laundry, but this was different somehow. Finally, I took her suits and dresses to the local charity drop. I just emptied the rest into the refuse bin without really looking.

She had a ton of professional stuff like books and papers and such. Her peeda had been with her, and lost in the flitter, of course. She had left a portable computer though. I donated her books to the library, while her pictures, data cubes, and records went into storage boxes. I packed her diplomas on top. Altogether it didn’t amount to much, maybe a hundred kilos in five boxes.

In contrast, looking around my own room, I realized I could walk away and probably wouldn’t miss any of it. My peeda was already stocked and I had some spare storage cubes and my good boots. The problem was my bag. I only had a heavy suitcase. It massed three kilos empty and seemed kind of clunky.


***


After three days of sorting, tossing, filing, and just generally working my way through the flat, I finally finished. I took out O’Rourke’s data cube and slotted it into my peeda. The title was The Spacer’s Handbook published by the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade. The CPJCT, it turned out, was the arbiter of all things trading related. The cube reminded me of the scout manual I had as a kid. It had everything you needed to know about being a spacer: what to wear, how to wear it, and when and whom to salute. A little holo clip showed the proper technique for the later. The saluting part wasn’t too difficult, and you only did that under special circumstances, and only to officers.

The manual listed the various ranks and shares: quarter share, half share, full share, and on up to owner’s share. The thing was huge. I checked the size on the chip and gasped when I saw just how big it was. The Encyclopedia Galactica was smaller. I hoped I wouldn’t need to read the whole thing.

The introductory chapter caught my eye with a small section titled: Shipping Out. It explained the mass allotment increased as you rose through the ranks. As O’Rourke had said, the shipsuits were provided and items like toothpaste, shampoo, and shaving gear were all standardized and available on board. The Handbook recommended that a new shipmate should report wearing decent civilian attire and not worry about a change of clothing. The illustration showed a somewhat dated picture of what a well-dressed person might wear to a casual dinner with a friend. The jackpot in this section was the recommendation of the duffel bag for loading your gear. The lightweight mono-mol bag encompassed almost a half-cubic meter of volume, but massed less than twenty grams and could be folded up to about the size of a handkerchief when empty. Spacers considered it a standard and, according to The Handbook, “could be purchased at a reasonable cost at any Union Hall.” I smiled, thinking I should pay another visit to my friend O’Rourke. In the meantime, I started weighing out gear on the bathroom scale.

Twenty kilos turned out to be a lot.


Chapter 2

Neris
2351-September-03


My peeda trilled sharply, jarring me awake. The display showed a simple text message from O’Rourke: Time to go! I was more than ready. I wanted to get on with it before the anticipation drove me crazy, or my money ran out. While the payout from the company had been enough to cover ninety days’ rent, I had other expenses to cover and my funds evaporated at an alarming rate. The sooner I stopped paying to live on Neris, the better.

Shipping the personal artifacts turned out to be part of Mom’s employment contract. A team from Neris showed up to take our stuff to a storage facility on Siren. Mom had designated it as origin-of-record on the employment forms but I didn’t recall any connection we had there. I think she named it because it was the nearest Confederation planet. The storage company would keep our stuff as long as I made the payments. Pre-paying for a stanyear took a big hit to my cred reserve, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Between O’Rourke and The Handbook, I’d managed to get my duffel properly stenciled with my name and ID. In the end, I’d kept Mom’s computer, a relatively new portable model. It had processing capabilities that my peeda didn’t. Her computer credentials gave me almost unlimited access to the university and I used them until administration cut me off. I got quite a bit of stuff downloaded including materials on astrogation, environmental sciences, advanced math, accounting, materials sciences, and even some on plant biology. These were all subjects recommended as useful by The Handbook. They looked overwhelming, but I burned them onto cubes and stashed them in my duffel. Even with the holo and music cubage, I was way under my allotment and only had about eight kilos.

I tossed what few things remained into the disposer, and shouldered the nearly empty duffel bag. At the door, I stopped and looked back before flipping the light switch. I could feel a lump start to harden in my throat and my eyes water. This apartment had been home for most of my life and I was walking away forever—the connections severed cleanly, surgically. I looked around, smiling at the memories and listening for the echoes of our time in the flat. In the end, I heard nothing except the soft whooshing of the environmentals. I flipped off the lights and locked the door behind me for the last time.


***


When I got to the Union Hall, it was a madhouse. For the first time I saw somebody there besides O’Rourke or the Assistant Hall Manager, a mousy man named Fredericks who didn’t talk much. People filled the hall. They queued up in lines to use the data ports or waited to see O’Rourke or Fredericks. All of them talked loudly to each other and their accumulated voices made the huge, echoing space almost unbearable.

Shrugging off the sensory assault, I got into O’Rourke’s line and arrived at the counter in a surprisingly short time. She smiled when she saw me. “You ready to go, kid? There’s no backin’ out once yer under Articles.”

I nodded. I knew the drill from The Handbook. Once I signed, I would be committing to serve for two stanyers. It wasn’t quite the military, but it was close and I had no other options. This door opened on a new future. My tongue stuck to the inside of my mouth and my stomach cramped. “Yeah, I’m as sure as I can be. Thanks for everything, Ms. O’Rourke.”

She smiled wider at that. “Good to go then, lad.” She pressed the buzzer that opened the counter and nodded toward a door. “Through there. Captain Giggone will want to talk to ya. Pass the interview and we can get ya processed.” She winked. “I put in a good word for ya so don’t make me look bad.”

Swallowing hard, I pushed through the gate and into the office. A harried-looking, gray-haired woman sat behind the desk. She appeared older than Mom but somehow more energetic. I stood at attention and waited for her to acknowledge my presence. The captain examined me for a few heartbeats while I did my best not to shake. “Sound off!” she barked.

“Wang, Ishmael. Unrated. Applying for an available quarter share berth, sar.” O’Rourke had coached me in the appropriate responses. She had me practice the drill several times on my last visit so I knew what to do. The Handbook also provided instructions on how to address various officers under different circumstances. The book covered this precise scenario, complete with a sample script.

“Why do you want to ship out?” she asked.

“I need to leave before the Neris Company kicks me off-planet. I don’t have enough creds to buy passage.” Belatedly, I remembered to add, “Captain.”

“You know this is going to be difficult, don’t you, Wang?”

I nodded.

“Excuse me, Wang? Did you say something?” she barked.

“Um, yes, sar, that is, no, sar. That is. I know it’s going to be difficult, Captain.” Gods, I sounded like such a jerk.

She stood up and looked at me. “Ms. O’Rourke says you’re good people. Why would she say that, Mr. Wang?” She asked the question with a softer tone to her voice.

The fact that she didn’t follow the script caught me off guard and I blinked in confusion. “I—I don’t know, Captain. I’ve only met her a couple times. She’s been very helpful.”

After a moment’s pause she resumed her previous tone. “You need to know I run a tight ship and don’t put up with crap. You’ll be the lowest of the low, and work your backside off for the next two stanyers. The work will be boring, difficult, and unrelenting. Your shipmates will taunt you, and the living conditions will be challenging to somebody used to having his own room on a nice, quiet planet. In short, your ass is mine and will be until I say it’s not, or your contract expires, whichever comes first. Can you deal with that, land rat?”

I paused for a second, or perhaps two, before answering her. She summed it up succinctly and brutally. I had no idea which quarter share berth I might get. It really didn’t matter. I needed to get off the rock and had few choices. “Honestly, I don’t know, Captain. But I’d like to give it my best shot.”

She smiled warmly then. “Good answer, Mr. Wang. Welcome aboard.” She stuck out her hand and I shook it. “You’ll get a standard contract, steward attendant pay plus quarter share. Do well and I’ve always got a slot open. Now, go get your contract signed and your shipsuit on. Most of the little band we call crew will be off the ship, and we can get you settled in without a crowd of hecklers to help.” She grinned and I saw a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you, Captain,” I told her and meant it.


***


Time shifted to an accelerated pace. I thumbed my contract and was officially under Articles, employed by Federated Freight, the Lois McKendrick’s owner company. Fredericks, the Assistant Hall Manager, punched through the paperwork, sending the notifications to Neris Company and snipping off the few dangling threads of my old life. He showed me to a changing room. O’Rourke had taken my measurements earlier and already selected the right sized shipsuit and boots in Federated Freight colors of green and gold. The suit fit my meter and a half perfectly and the shipboots molded to my size twelves as if they had grown there.

As I packed my shore leave clothes into the duffel, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A stranger stared back at me from what I realized was a mirror. He looked me over from the sandy mop on my head, down the tailored shipsuit, to my new boots. I was thin after three weeks of eating my own cooking but Mom had always said I was wiry. That was apparently a good thing. The stranger smiled and I found myself smiling back. He straightened up and shouldered his duffel. I gave him a kind of salute and headed out the “Crew Only” doors to find the shuttle.

The hallway beyond the doors led to a security checkpoint and an entry tube. Mom and I had taken trips up to the orbital before. It was a popular tourist destination for residents as it was technically Confederation space and not owned by NerisCo. The exotic shops and restaurants provided variety from the largely homogeneous life on a company planet. This trip, however, was much different. The stark behind-the-scenes entry had no decorative panels or padding. The floors, ceiling, and even the walls, had a certain gritty look—a kind of utilitarian plainness that felt disconcerting at first. Stenciled labels stood out on exposed pipes, electrical runs, and hydraulic lines. After the passenger port’s careful, pastel decor, the crew tube felt strange but refreshingly more real.

All this splashed across my brain in a surreal time warp where everything progressed at light-speed around me, but where I moved in a kind of paradoxical slow motion. In the next blink, I stowed my duffel in the overhead and strapped down on a well-worn shuttle seat. Again, the shuttle felt at once familiar and strange, like the difference between a passenger flitter and a cargo crawler. Even the seat belts were unfamiliar, with a cross-the-chest X harness instead of the single shoulder strap I normally used. It was easy enough to figure out, just different. This was going to take some getting used to. My eyes kept trying to focus, but the starkness of my surroundings made everything blur together.

The shuttle pilot came through the cabin smiling and nodding professionally as he examined the craft. “We’ll be up to the station in just a few ticks,” he said. “No time for beverage service and if you need to use the head, I’d do it now.” This was apparently some kind of joke because he chuckled.

“Thanks,” I answered, somewhat dazedly.

As he finished his inspection, half a dozen people wearing gray and blue shipsuits came into the cabin and strapped down. Small patches on their shoulders read “Murmansk.” I assumed that was the name of another of the ships docked at the orbital. They nodded pleasantly to me, but absorbed themselves in chatting up one of their group who apparently had engaged in some misadventure overnight. She seemed embarrassed by the attention but the group teased her in good-natured fun and she gave as good as she got.

My ears popped when the pressure doors closed and the locking rings thumped away from the hull. The speakers gave a ping-ping-pong sound and a woman’s voice said, “Secure for lift.” With no more ceremony than that, the shuttle got underway and boosted into the clear, golden afternoon light. I took one last look out the port at the rows of granapple vineyards arrayed across the landscape as we spun upward crawling out of the gravity well. The acceleration pressure pinning me to my seat seemed incongruous with the perceived decrease in speed as we gained altitude. The shuttle rolled and I lost sight of the ground, just the darkening sky and a bit of the stubby wing, flashing red from the blinking navigational lights along the side of the ship. The engine noise ramped back as we climbed and the air outside became thinner. Soon, the only sound came from the airframe itself. I settled down and zoned out completely until the heavy clunks of the docking clamps shuddered the craft. The trip had taken a full stan, but my warped time sense made it feel like a tick. The cabin speakers gave a pong-ping sound and the other passengers unbuckled even before the woman’s voice said, “Docking complete.” I let them clear out before I hit the releases and retrieved my duffel.


***


Outside the shuttle bay, a kid waited in a green and gold shipsuit like mine. I thought he might be older than I was, but his baby face made him look younger. He grinned when he saw me and held out his hand. “You must be Wang. I’m Philip Carstairs. Everybody calls me Pip.” His green eyes had a laugh in them and I found myself grinning back.

“Hi,” I replied. “Call me Ishmael.”

He blinked a couple of times then looked at a note on his tablet before guffawing. “Oh my gods and garters—that’s really your name?”

The familiar reaction usually grated on my nerves, but somehow coming from this guy it didn’t seem so bad. “Yeah,” I admitted a bit sheepishly. “My mother had a strange sense of humor.”

He clapped me on the shoulder and motioned down the passage. “The first mate sent me over to collect you. Let’s get you settled aboard and you can tell me all about it. By the way, you don’t snore, do you?”

It seemed like a strange question and it caught me off guard. “Snore?”

“Yeah, Gilly, the guy whose berth you’re getting, gods, but he made a racket. I don’t think I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep since we left Albert.”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I never noticed.”

He laughed, again. “Well, then we’ll let ya know.”

Pip led me through the utility corridors halfway around the orbital. We left the shuttle bays and moved into the commercial docks. The decor didn’t seem quite so spartan, or perhaps, I was growing used to the blatant utility exhibited at every turn. It somehow already began to feel right.

As we threaded our way through the station toward the ship’s lock, I was conscious of my old life spooling out behind me. Each step took me further into an unknown world and I began to get a bit, not scared, exactly, but anxious. The what-have-I-done feeling had just settled around my lungs when my escort stopped at a lock. On the display above it read: Lois McKendrick 51-09-07 16:00. Pip swiped his ID card and tapped a quick code on his tablet. The status light flipped to green and the lock cycled open. We stepped in and the lock cycled closed behind us. The inner lock revealed a crew member who looked up from her screen at a station just inside the hull.

“Hey, Pip. This the greenie?”

They butted knuckles and he answered, “Yup. Meet Ishmael Wang. Ish, Sandy Belterson.”

Her dark brown hair and ice blue eyes were an odd combination. Added to the distinctly olive skin tones, she was an anomaly on two legs. She nodded with a friendly smile and said, “Welcome aboard, Ish.”

I nodded a greeting and answered something I don’t remember but it must have been adequate.

She turned to my escort. “Mr. Maxwell wants to meet with him in the office. He’s there now.”

“Yeah. He messaged me, too. Thanks.”

Sandy waved and settled back to her reading. As I passed I noticed it was a lesson of some kind, charts rotated in simulated 3D while text scrolled rapidly across the bottom of the screen.

Seeing my glance Pip said, “She’s studying for Spec II in Astrogation. Let’s go see Mr. Maxwell before settling you in. We don’t want to keep him waiting.”

Aboard ship, the corridors—passages, I corrected myself—were barely wide enough for two people to pass. I followed Pip as he led me confidently through the maze. Every so often he’d comment on a space, “environmental section down there” or “officer country that way” but little of it meant anything to me. I hoped there wouldn’t be a test later. He halted outside a door simply labeled: Office and knocked.

A rumbling voice behind the door said, “Come.”

We reached a door, a real one with a knob and hinges and all, not like the airtight hatched we had pass along our way. Pip stepped into a cramped room, and announced, “Attendant Carstairs reporting with Attendant Ishmael Wang, Mr. Maxwell, sar.”

The man behind the desk didn’t look up from his screen but just waved us in and wordlessly indicated we should wait. He was built like a knife with razor edges outlining his face and hardened steel in his bearing. A solid gray buzz-cut covered his scalp, not the white-gray the faculty members on Neris had, but a hard, dark gray. I didn’t know if that reflected his age or just some genetic variation I hadn’t seen before. Whatever the cause, it suited him. He wore the green and gold with collar pips and some discrete hashmarks around the sleeves that were pushed up to his elbows. He tapped a few keys and the document on his screen vanished.

“Mr. Wang.” His head didn’t just turn—it swiveled. His eyes tracked like the twin barrels of some odd gun, precise, mechanical, dead. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “The captain sent me your file and I’ve assigned you to the open quarter share berth in the ship’s mess. Mr. Carstairs will show you to the berthing area and introduce you to the rest of the mess crew.”

It was as much instruction to Pip as it was a command to me and he responded with an, “Aye, sar.”

Maxwell continued, “It should come as no surprise to you that you’re taking the place of a crewman who failed to perform to our satisfaction, Mr. Wang. Please see to it that we don’t have to provide the same courtesy to you in our next port of call.”

“Aye, sar. I’ll do my best,” I replied in what I’d hoped was a steady voice.

“Dismissed, gentlemen.” He swiveled back to his screen, bringing up the next document.

Pip stepped back into the passage and I followed as quickly as I could without making it seem like I was running. After we closed the door I started to speak, but a shake of Pip’s head stopped me and we headed down the passage the way we’d come.

After we’d taken a couple of turns, Pip took a deep breath and said, “That went well.”

I blinked at him. “Is he always like that?”

Pip shook his head. “Naw, he’s usually not so friendly. You must have got him on a good day.”

“Friendly? Are you crazy? That guy scared the crap out of me. Are all the officers like him?” I didn’t remember being afraid of the captain—awed, maybe, but not afraid.

Pip chuckled. “No. Actually, Mr. Maxwell is pretty decent. With him, you never need to wonder where you stand.”

“He was like some kind of robot,” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, most people say that when they first meet him. But after you get to know him, you’ll realize a robot is actually much warmer than he is.” He lowered his voice. “Rumor is that he’s ex-Spec Force. He moves like that because he doesn’t want to kill anybody.”

I gaped at him.

“Close your mouth, greenie,” he snickered. “It may or may not be true, but either way he’s the best first mate I’ve ever served under. He really knows how to keep the ship running efficiently.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“You bet. The more efficiently we run, the larger our shares,” Pip said as he headed down the corridor.

I started to wonder if I’d done the wrong thing by signing up, but I pushed that aside as soon as it entered—it was too late for second thoughts. I hurried down the hallway to catch up with Pip.


Chapter 3

Neris Orbital
2351-September-03


Pip took me to the berthing area. I’d braced myself for something out of Hornblower with hammocks crammed together in dark squalor, but I found a large, airy room with ten pairs of bunks with corresponding full-length lockers. There was a table and chairs that were, of course, bolted to the deck, and a sanitary facility with more privacy than I had expected.

“There’s another berthing area just like this across the passage for the Engineering Division. We don’t have a full complement of crew so there are some spare bunks.” He helped me pick one across from his, reset the palm-scan on my locker, and stow my gear. We drew linens from stores and he showed me how to make up a bed bordered by walls on three sides.

“Shipshape and Bristol fashion,” I mumbled.

“What?” asked Pip.

“Nothing, just something my mother used to say.” I smiled as I remembered my introduction to C. S. Forester.

After that he took me to the third mate, Mr. von Ickles, the systems and communications officer where I got my ShipNet credentials and tablet so I could access the ship’s network and information stores.

Finally, he introduced me to my immediate boss, Specialist First Chef Ralf al-M’liki. A small, wiry guy with black hair and flashing eyes. He originally hailed from one of the M’bele planets and his galley was redolent of the spices and scents of his home world that were peppery, sweet, and sharp all at once.

We were in the mess and after brief introductions he walked me over to three, huge twenty-liter coffee urns that gleamed from a counter prominently mounted near the center of the mess. I’d never seen anything like them and I must admit I felt intimidated. They were resplendent in polished copper and stainless steel and had built in plumbing serving each one. The fact that my new boss spoke of them with a kind of solemn reverence didn’t help matters.

“These urns provide the life’s blood of the ship,” he explained. “The whole crew worship at this shrine to caffeine.” The chef took a heavy mug from the rack, filled it from the valve at the base of the middle urn, and handed it to me. “What do you think, young Ishmael?”

I peered into the cup. A rainbow sheen floated on the oily sludge in the pristine white china. A burned, musty smell wafted up. An irreverent thought about burnt offerings drifted through my head but I had the good sense not to say anything about that. I took a tentative sip. It was better than it looked, even black. “Not bad, Mr. al-M’liki, but I think it could be improved.”

He smiled. His shocking white teeth flashing against his olive skin. “Just call me Cookie, that’s what everyone else does.” He pointed to the urn on the near end of the counter. “Alright Mr. Wang, let’s see what you’ve got. Use that pot. Do whatever you must to make me coffee to die for.” he instructed before retreating to the galley.

When he was gone, Pip rushed over. “What in the name of anti and uncle matter do you think you’re doing, Ish?” His eyes were wide in shock.

“Looks like I’m going to make some coffee. That’s what Cookie asked for.”

“Don’t you think you’re taking a hell of a risk being critical on your first day?”

I smiled. “I may be a greenie on the ship, but when it comes to coffee, I’m an expert. Even making it twenty liters at a time can’t change that.”

With a kind of focused detachment, I rolled up my sleeves and started in. First, I dragged over the stepstool, clambered up on the counter, and examined the container. Sure enough, a dark and peeling film coated the inside. A quick investigation showed the plumbing included both hot and cold feeds, and worse, lukewarm water filled the pot.

Nodding to myself, I clambered down, dragging the filter cone with me. I took it into the main galley and scrubbed it in the deep sink with a stiff brush and a mixture of hot water and white vinegar until it gleamed. I returned to the mess with a liter of vinegar and poured it into the urn. Cookie pretended not to watch, so I pretended not to notice, but I caught him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye.

Pip, however, rubbernecked with a red face and eyes bulging in alarm. “What are you doing? Good gods, man, do you know what it’ll taste like if you use that?”

“I’m not making coffee with it,” I clambered back up on the counter with my scrub brush. “I’m going to use it to scour the sludge out of this urn.”

It took quite a while. I had to ask Cookie for a wrench and a bottlebrush and he showed me where to find them without comment. I took the level indicator tube off the front and scrubbed it as well. After more than a stan I finally got it sparkling inside and out to my satisfaction. I gave it a final rinse with scalding water and then shut off the hot water valve and cranked the cold tap all the way open.

Pip showed me where to find the supplies. The high quality paper filters fit the cone perfectly. The coffee, on the other hand, was another matter. When I popped the lid off the air-tight, I found some pathetic crud masquerading as coffee. I dumped it into the waste disposer, and dusted out the air-tight with a towel.

“This is too stale to brew properly. Where are the beans and grinder?”

Pip just blinked at me. “Beans? Grinder? We just put two scoops from the air-tight in the filter and let ’er rip.”

“Who stocks the container?”

“Cookie.”

I sighed and searched for my new boss. He smiled an odd little grin at my request and showed me where to find the beans, in vacuum sealed buckets stenciled with Djartmo Arabasti, and a Schmidt Coffee Mill that looked large enough to grind a whole bucket at a time. I pulled up the calculator function on my tablet.

Pip, who had followed me, gaped openly. “What are you doing? This is crazy!”

“I can’t make anything worth drinking with that stuff.” I concentrated on my measurements and my math. “This is going to be rough until I figure out the right combinations, but it takes from seven to fourteen grams per cup and there are about seven cups per liter. Based on that sample Cookie gave me, I should make a strong batch. So, I need about a hundred grams of coffee per liter. That urn is twenty liters but I’m only going to make a half pot, so I need about a kilo,” I concluded, looking up from my calculations. “We’ll see how well that works and then I can adjust the grind or the amount next time around.”

I weighed out the beans into the empty air-tight and used a small brush clipped to the hopper to clear out the discharge chute. The unmarked grind scale didn’t provide much information, so I just set the dial in the middle hoping for a medium grind and trusted the Schmidt. I dumped a tub of beans into the hopper and I carefully collected the ground remains as it spilled from the chute. I rubbed them between my fingers and brought the grinds to my nose. It looked good, had a nice texture, and a pleasant scent. I sifted the calculated amount into the filter and went back out to the mess. I watched the fill indicator carefully until I had exactly ten liters in the reservoir, then I scooped a bit of the cold water in a mug and used it to wet the grounds before locking down the lid and punching the brew button. While it dripped, I went back to clean up the grinder and put away the beans.

By the time I finished in the galley, the coffee was almost done. I noted the color in the level indicator, knowing it would appear weaker than it actually was. When the ready light came on, I pulled a fresh mug from the rack and poured it about half full.

Looking in, I saw a beautiful, rich brown brew without any hint of rainbow or oil on the surface. A satisfying aroma steamed out of the mouth of the mug. I took the brew to Cookie and offered it to him without a word. He tilted the cup and examined the color. He pushed his nose below the brim and inhaled deeply as a smile began to form. He took a slurping sip and then a deeper swallow, his eyes closed in concentration. Pip fidgeted beside me, but I waited patiently for Cookie’s assessment.

He spoke without opening his eyes. “So, young Ishmael, is this the best you can do?”

Pip inhaled sharply in alarm, but I thought I knew Cookie’s game at this point. “I don’t know. It might be. There are just too many variables for me to know for sure.”

His eyes snapped open and he peered at me, hawkishly. “Such as?”

“Mainly, I need to determine the correct brewing time. If the pot brews too fast, the grind needs to be finer. That’s going to depend somewhat on the grav-settings. I’m assuming we’ll keep this general level of gravity all the time, or at least while we’re making coffee. Next, I need to know more about the beans themselves. How fresh are they? How are they stored? What are the characteristics of this particular bean? Last, I need to know the crew’s preferences.” I ended with a smile. “Judging from the sample you gave me, they like it strong, dark, bitter, and oily. I prefer to skip the bitter and oily part but we must always consider the tastes of the drinker when brewing a perfect cup of coffee.” My mother’s voice echoed in my head as I said the last part. I remembered her saying those exact words as we explored the mysteries of bean and water together. I found it comforting as well as saddening.

“Pip,” Cookie crowed. “You could learn from this one.” He patted me on the shoulder. “You’ll make an excellent cook. Now both of you drain and clean the other two urns.” He filled his mug again before returning to the galley.

Pip grabbed china from the rack and drew off a mug of his own. He buried his muzzle into it and sucked down a swallow. His green eyes went wide as he dove for another drink. “Where’d you learn to do that?”

“My mom always said that coffee cost too much to make badly and she taught me how to brew at a young age.”

“This might be the best this ship has ever had.” Pip looked up to where I was working on the next urn with newfound appreciation. “And to think I knew ya when…”

While we worked together on the remaining machines, Mr. Maxwell entered absorbed in reading something from a tablet. He didn’t acknowledge our presence. I could feel Pip holding his breath while the first mate poured and then sipped. He kept right on moving back out of the mess, never looking up from his reading.

Pip and I exchanged glances and I’m sure he was wondering the same thing…did he even notice? My unasked question was answered when I heard his voice from the passage. “Good work, Mr. Wang. Carry on.”

Pip’s face split in a broad grin. “How do you suppose he knew it was you?”

Cookie was strolling over to refill his mug. “Because, Mr. Carstairs, he’s had your coffee.” He gave me a wink and returned to the galley.

I had to chuckle at the look on Pip’s face but I hid my grin by returning to scrub the urn.


***


My duties, at least in those first couple of days, were pretty easy. Pip showed me where to find the duty roster and helped me learn how to find ingredients in the various storerooms and pantries. Mostly, my job consisted of ensuring there were plenty of sandwich fixings in the cooler and keeping the urns filled with fresh coffee.

I learned that there were three main seatings for meals: 06:00, 12:00, and 18:00 ship standard time. Most of the crew went ashore when the ship docked so we only served watch standers and the few others who stayed aboard. Officers shared the mess with the crew, although they sat at one large table set aside for their exclusive use.

As the time for our departure approached, more and more people ate meals aboard. “Broke, most likely,” Pip explained. Knowing the prices on the orbital, and the nature of Neris Port, I judged he was probably right. The pace in the mess picked up accordingly. Cookie took care of the menu planning, but he had me and Pip crawling through the storage spaces, pantries, coolers, and freezers to check the computer inventory against the actual stores. Where we were going, it wouldn’t be possible to step out to buy a gallon of milk if we came up short.

“How much stuff is there?” I followed Pip to what felt like the tenth walk-in freezer of the morning.

“We carry stores for up to a hundred twenty days, but we’re seldom underway for more than sixty at a stretch.”

When he told me that, I got a strange feeling. “Sixty days? That’s two months.” During the short time I’d been aboard, I’d been too busy learning my new job and finding my way around to think much about being cooped up inside the ship for weeks at a time. What would it be like when I was trapped for two solid months?

Pip poked me. “Ish, It’s okay.”

I took a deep breath. “Sorry. It just hit me and I…”

“No worries. You’ll be fine. Just keep working.”

“I suppose, but the ship just seems so small.”

He looked at me oddly. “Small?”

“Yeah, everything all packed together. The narrow passages…you know…small.”

He paused and frowned at me for a moment. “You’ve never seen the ship, have you?”

“Of course, I have. I’m on it, aren’t I?”

“No, I mean the whole ship.”

He bipped Cookie on his tablet and asked, “Can I have permission to show Ish the way to the bridge?”

Cookie’s response came right back. “As long as you don’t get in the way up there, permission is granted. But don’t take too long, the crew will be back aboard in three stans and we’ll need more coffee.”


***


Pip led me up a couple of levels and down a passage. At the foot of a stairway—they called them ladders on the ship I reminded myself—he paused. “Don’t touch anything. Just look. Pay attention to any directions from the bridge crew,” he said quietly to me before climbing the ladder. At the top, he used a formal sounding voice to announce us. “Request permission to enter the bridge.”

“State your business.” A woman at the top of the ladder spoke formally but smiled at him.

“Orientation for new crew member.”

“Granted.” She grinned at me as I stepped off the ladder.

Subdued lighting revealed a relatively large space with comfortable looking chairs bolted to the deck in key locations. A collection of nearly identical work stations formed a phalanx around the room. A doorway, with a real door, not a hatch, opened at the back of the bridge and revealed a small conference room. Panels and consoles flickered giving the area an odd radiance. I could see one screen that displayed what I took to be a Neris schematic with the orbital base and planetary surface plotted. A larger scale display showed the whole system with a blinking, blue path curving across it. It took me a few moments to register that there were actually ports facing forward and I could see that the ship nuzzled up against the outside of the orbital. I’d seen pictures of the station, of course, and watched it on shuttle approach, but I’d never been this close. It looked near enough to touch. I could see little scratches and blemishes in the surface finish and some kind of polarizing filter blocked the glare reflected off the orbital’s skin. I turned slowly realizing that ports faced aft as well and I saw the rest of the Lois McKendrick stretching out into the star spackled Deep Dark.

Leviathan never seemed so appropriate a term.

Gantry lights ran down the spine of the ship, illuminating the container tugs that wrestled the big, triangular cargo boxes ever-so-gently into place before locking them down. Twelve sections of containers extended into the distance. At the far end of the main spine, a small white light, twenty kilometers out, marked the stern post. In one instant, I went from feeling like I was crammed in a shoe box to something akin to a flea on a pachyderm. It was staggering.

Pip was watching my face. “You’ll get used to it. Do you still feel like the ship is small?”

I shook my head, unable to speak.

My tablet beeped. Cookie’s voice came over the speaker. “Your presence is needed on the mess deck, Mr. Wang. Number two urn is out of coffee.”


Chapter 4

Neris Orbital
2351-September-07


The duty watch stander woke me and Pip ending a long stretch of restlessness. I’d thrashed around the whole night unable to sleep knowing the ship would leave Neris Orbital and get underway for Darbat later that day. Pip slid out of his bed and slipped past me heading for the san. I chided myself for being nervous as I straightened the blankets on my berth and secured my loose gear. I had already been confined for days but now it would be different. We’d be heading out into the Deep Dark and I would be locked in. I stretched to straighten my pillow when a voice startled me. “Nice package, sailor, but would you mind moving it out of my face?” The sound came from the approximate level of my knees.

The voice, a woman’s voice, startled me so much that I fell into the empty lower berth under Pip’s, banging my head on the upper rail. She lay in the bunk under mine. Even as I struggled to my feet, I noticed how attractive she was with her dark skin and hair. She wore just a ship’s tee over an extensive collection of tattoos and blinking blearily she said, “You must be the new guy.”

I tried to stammer something apologetic but didn’t know what the appropriate comment might be. “C-c-c-call me Ishmael.”

She propped herself on an elbow and squinted at me. “You’re kidding, right?”

I shook my head, unable to think of anything else to say.

Pip, wet from the san and struggling into a fresh shipsuit, rescued me. “Beverly, stop scaring the help. Ish, get your butt in the san. We don’t have much time to get to the mess deck.”

The woman held up a slender hand to shake. “Beverly Arith, pleased to meet ya. Wake me for afternoon watch?”

I shook the offered hand, mumbling, “Ishmael Wang,” before retreating to the san.

Pip gave me grief all morning. “You’ve never seen a girl before, Ish?”

“She startled me. I didn’t realize anybody was there until she spoke.”

I’d known there were women in the berthing area. Tabitha Rondita slept on the other side of the partition from me, a nice woman and I didn’t mind her little snorty-snores through the wall. We all shared the san and that didn’t bother me. Bathing is bathing and everyone likes a little privacy when pooping. The shower and toilet stalls all had doors. I’d lived with my mom and she was not shy so seeing women in various states of undress was no big deal. All told, it felt like summer camp except we were adults and not giggly kids—supposedly.

When Beverly came through the serving line at lunch, Pip nudged me.

For her part, Bev just smiled, nodded, and moved on.

“NOW HEAR THIS. SECURE ALL LOCKS. STOW ALL GEAR FOR DEPARTURE. DEPARTMENT HEADS REPORT TO THE CAPTAIN’S READY ROOM.”A countdown timer ticked on my tablet showing the stans and minutes until we would get underway. Remembering the size, and assuming the mass of the ship, I found it difficult to believe that we’d be moving at all, let alone sailing out of the system on nothing more than pressure from the sun on an electronically generated field.

We’d had a particularly robust lunch that day and many people sat around afterward to catch up with each other. After the sparsely attended meals I’d grown accustomed to while docked, it seemed crowded and noisy. Even some of the officers stayed for a bit, chatting.

After the lunch clean up, Cookie took me and Pip aside. “Gentlemen, we’ll be doing dinner differently today because of departure. The captain has scheduled pull out at 16:00 and we’ll still be maneuvering at 18:00. We’ll be doing bento-boxes for the evening meal. Mr. Carstairs, you know the drill. Mr. Wang, it’s important that we have plenty of coffee, but make certain the urns are secured. We may get bumped a bit and I want to keep things under control.”

I nodded my understanding. Each of the urns had a lid that made them spill-proof once locked. A simple system of curved pipes kept the pressure normalized inside without violating liquid integrity. “Two urns or three, Cookie?”

He thought about it before replying. “Load and prep all three, but only brew two. We can hit the button on the last when needed.” Obvious and logical, I should have thought of it myself and I made a tally on my personal mental midget list.

All the preparation talk made me a bit nervous and Pip noticed. “It’ll be fine, Ish. We might get a little bump, but usually it’s nothing. We just don’t want hot stuff splattered around if we happen to get a rough tug skipper. Once we get pulled back and the sails are up, it’ll be smooth again. You’ll think we’re docked.”

There was nothing I could do about what was going to happen to the ship. The professionals would be working that end of things. To distract myself, I obsessed over the minutiae of keeping the urns full. I ground enough coffee for six full batches, throwing the extra into an air-tight and dropping it in a chiller to keep it as fresh as possible. The trick was in the timing. With everybody on board again, I assumed they would consume an amazing amount. The Handbook told me that everybody should be at their duty stations about a half-stan before the actual departure, so I figured we needed to have the most brewed about a stan before. Accordingly, I timed the urns to be full at 15:00. I needn’t have worried so much, but it kept my mind occupied.

Bento-boxes turned out to be the ship board equivalent of takeout, finger food that wouldn’t make a mess while eating. Cookie drew on his ancestral heritage and made up a couple of variations of spicy fillings. We spread the mixture over flat bread rounds, folded, rolled, and then wrapped them in clingfilm. Pip, Cookie, and I set up a production line. Forty-five crew needed a hundred and twenty of these little buggers. I thought it would take a long time, but it took less than a stan once we had a rhythm going. We’d done them at a rate better than three a tick. I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised considering Cookie did two for every one that Pip and I completed. Spread, roll, wrap, stack—a mindless, but oddly social task. The three of us gathered around the prep table and worked side-by-side to prepare for the evening meal.

I thought we’d put them in paper bags for easy carrying but Cookie had a better idea. He pulled out a stack of stamped, creased cardboard sheets and quickly formed one into a box with a clever folding lid. He repeated the action slowly for me to watch. I mimicked his moves and produced an identical box. It was as if I’d been born folding them. Even Cookie seemed impressed by how rapidly I caught on and he left the folding to me while he and Pip filled the boxes: two rolls, one piece of fruit, a cookie, a package of sliced vegetables, and small cups of dressing for dipping. The condiment was the only thing that might have spilled, but each container