Finally, the bell rings. I stand up and try to leave school 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, I just continue my way towards the exit. It seems I’m the only one that’s in a hurry. Once I’m out, I make my way directly to the main station. I board a fast train to my intermediate stop. It’s just a brief trip, but I can barely contain my excitement.
I now 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 smoothly, I might even get a girlfriend!
I arrive at the space elevator and enter the building. The building is almost empty. I speak with an operator I’ve never met before.
“You’re early. The Daybreak to Nael-Ⅳ is scheduled to arrive tomorrow night. Boarding doesn’t start until the day after tomorrow.”
“No, I’m going with the Night Owl,” I answer and show him my ID card.
He places 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.”
“It helps a lot when you do good work from time to time,” I answer.
“I checked your license, just in case. It’s still valid, and your shuttle… isn’t due for maintenance until October. All clear, the next trip upwards is in ten minutes. Go ahead and board the cargo elevator.”
He returns my ID and wishes me a pleasant trip. I enter the elevator. The room is full of boxes. They’re secured to the grounds with belts. I take a seat in the personnel area. Another worker sits across me.
“Hi! Good to see you again, Aster,” she greets me, “how was your school year?”
“Hi! School is the same as always, Caera,” I answer, “I still don’t really get along with other students.”
For some reason, I get along with my coworkers a lot better.
“So I heard you’re not working this summer?”
“Yes, I want to take it easy in my last year before entering High School.”
“I see. It’s important to enjoy your summer vacation while you still can. I simply have to wait till next year to work with you again.”
A gentle bell sounds. We’ve almost reached the top. We buckle up for the last part of the journey upwards. Without the belt, we’d start floating towards the ceiling as the cabin gradually slows down.
“Is it bothering you, I’m taking it easy this year?”
“No, that’s not it. It’s just refreshing to have someone like you around.”
As we reach the top, another bell sounds. Artificial gravity is about to kick in. I feel the force pulling me down in my stomach.
“I still can’t get used to the force suddenly pulling me down.”
“You don’t? Well, with you primarily flying shuttles, that’s no surprise. I’ve gotten so used to this, travelling in a passenger elevator just feels wrong now.”
“What’s different? Come to think of it, I’ve never been in a passenger elevator.”
“The cabin slows down at a slower rate, and they gradually activate artificial gravity when the cabin slows down.”
We arrive at the top. I help Caera untying the cargo and accompany her to the ship. The captain stands at the entrance of the ship, waiting for me with another person.
“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.”
“It’s nothing. 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 from Starforce.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I answer, “pardon me asking, but what is someone from Starforce 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. 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.”
“Since that’s settled, see you in three months. Goodbye!”
Captain Teemo leaves for his ship.
“Is Mittens such a dig deal?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Captain Desmond answers, “but let’s board the ship.”
The captain and I enter the ship.
“Please show him to his quarters,” he addresses an idle crewman. He turns back to me, “I will call you later.”
“See you later.”
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 are a guest.”
“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 an Ailuranthrope: a humanoid with feline ears and tail.
“Good, don’t 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.”
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 before our vacation ends.”
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 Earth behind. Later, we enter a tunnel of light — we’ve entered hyperspace.
“Aster, you have a 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 of 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.”
“Oh those? I don’t like those simulation games. The NPCs in these games don’t feel real to me.”
“I can’t tell — I have never tried those. But I think the High School you’re entering next year has a club for Mahjong.”
“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,” Captain Desmond says, “I did mention to him, you play with us from time to time.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Let’s start then,” 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 one company on Earth 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 dice in the centre roll. Their value is 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…”
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.”
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,” an unfamiliar voice greets me.
“Good morning,” I answer, “have we met?”
“No, we haven’t met until now,” the boy answers. He’s about my age. “I’m Isaac, Isaac Igglesden. I’ve heard much about you. I think it’s neat you already have a license and even a shuttle for your exclusive use. But I digress, I’ve checked the systems for you. The shuttle is in need of some maintenance, but it should be fine for the trip.”
“Thank you. If you keep up the work, you’ll get a shot at your shuttle license soon.”
I enter my shuttle. Unlike usual shuttles, there’s a crystal reader in the main console. I put Mittens’s crystal in the reader and secure it.
“Welcome back, Mittens.”
“It is quite early,” Mittens answers, “have you checked the systems yet?”
“Isaac, whom I just met, 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.
“Captain, there’s an emergency message from Isaac.”
“Put him through.”
“Sir, the Speeding Kitten has just engaged the Hyperdrive!”
“Yes, he did just as planned,” the captain answers, “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.”
“Open a channel to the Speeding Kitten!”
“Sir, the Speeding Kitten has already vanished from the Subspace sensors. No signs of either explosion or debris.”
“So he got flung who knows where…” Captain Desmond is slightly eased, “Isaac, how was the state of the other systems?”
“Life Support and Sublight Propulsion was fully functional, sir.”
“That should buy him some time. With his luck, he should end up near some inhabitable planet. Contact Starforce, tell them they need to send a search fleet. I hope they can find him…”