She slips through the emptiness, a vision of silver and light. Her name is emblazoned across the side, an emblem of her celestial status. Beneath her skin lies the histories of an old blue planet, constellations and gardens growing in her belly. She carries forward her forgotten world, a perfect piece of time and place, discoveries waiting to be awakened from a long and drifting slumber.
Excerpt from “Ode to the Veronica Speedwell Starliner” by Bis Onalaion, poet & conveyance crew member.
Nova Dufau coasts through the concourse, steering her bike clear of passengers heading back to their cabins after a night of enjoying the Veronica Speedwell’s many attractions. The multi-tiered starliner isn’t the biggest in the fleet of cosmic cruisers, but it’s the only one to boast an Earth-experience. The vast domed ceiling, programmed to follow Earth Standard Time, displays a velvety black sky with a scatter of glimmering stars. After hours of cycling around the ship to make dozens of deliveries, Nova is ready to turn in for the night. She stifles a yawn and smiles politely at passengers whose eyes catch her gaze, mindful that she’s still in uniform. As she nears a huge wall mural of the Momoa Islands, Nova eases up on the brakes. A set of hidden doors slide open at her approach, activated by her coded armband. Every tier of the Ronnie has an artfully concealed staff section, this particular one leading to the docking stations where the conveyance crew pick up and leave their bikes.
The doors close behind her, sealing off the sounds of passengers in various stages of jollity. A dim chamber stretches before her, filled with long gleaming rows of sleeping two-wheelers. The air is quiet and cool, filled with the smell of worn rubber and old grease. Indicator lights above glow like tiny beacons, showing if a spot is empty or occupied. Nova dismounts next to an open slot and presses the small blue button on her handlebars. The pedals tuck in and the handlebars fold upwards until they meet together like a unicorn horn. Magnetic rails activate, navigating the compacted bike into the narrow stall with a soft hiss. Nova envies her bike, already exploring the wide roadways of its pedal-driven dreams. She turns towards the change room, her mind on the things she has to do before she can even think about going to sleep.
Bis is pulling on the same black and silver uniform as Nova. He’s the only person in the change room. No matter the hour, conveyance crew have to be on hand to keep an eye on things. There is no end to passengers craving snack samplers, wanting more of the Ronnie’s complimentary toiletries, or needing outfits laundered for the next day.
“Hi Nov,” he smiles as she walks in. “Shift over?”
“Yep, just ending,” she replies, watching as he re-applies the white streak down the middle of his naturally black hair. A “skunk tail” he once called it. Bis glances down at the expiry date before tossing the dye bottle back in his locker and nudging it closed with a finger.
“Still doing that, huh,” she nods towards the snow-colored runway on his head.
“The more they remember you, the more they tip you,” he says with a wink. His locker door creaks open.
“Um, hey,” Bis gives a short laugh, shoving the door closed harder than necessary. “A bunch of us are heading to the Labyrinth tomorrow night after the Captain’s gala. You in?”
Nova shakes her head. “I’m really…”
The locker door creaks open.
“Your locker okay?”
“Hmm? Sure, must not have closed it right.” He pushes the door shut and keeps his hand there.
Nova shrugs it off. Bis was always up to something. She grabs a towel and a change of clothes from her locker, and heads to the showers.
Bis grins as she walks by, his eyes darting like those Earth rodents they keep in the petting zoo. Squirrels, she thinks to herself.
He’s long gone when Nova returns to the locker room, pleasantly drowsy from her hot shower and dressed in comfortable clothes. A few other crew members are at their lockers, preparing for their shifts. Nova greets them but doesn’t stop to chat. All she wants to do is to curl up in bed with a mug of hot tea and enjoy her biweekly vid-comm with Chuy. After that, she’ll finally be able to activate the blackout setting in her cabin and get some sleep.
Nova drops a tea tab into a mug of water and within seconds the liquid is gently steaming. Cradling the mug in her hands, she settles cross-legged onto her bed. “Activate vid-com,” she says and a screen on the wall blinks into life. “Initiate comm with Ch—” The door to her cabin suddenly slides open and Nova jumps to her feet, spilling her tea.
Cursing, she wipes her wet hands on her pajama shorts as she crosses the short expanse from her bed to the door. Leaning out, she sees nothing but empty corridor on both sides. Frowning, she taps the door control and watches it slide shut. Except for the Ronnie’s Security Officers, who have ship-wide emergency clearance, Nova should be the only person able to access her room. She decides to wait until morning to submit a memo to Maintenance about the door glitch. With a sigh, she changes into a dry pair of shorts and climbs back into bed. “Initiate comm with Chuy.”
“Hey, bomboncita,” Chuy beams at her from the screen. He’s leaning against their kitchen counter, a half-eaten empanada on the plate in front of him.
“Hola, handsome,” Nova smiles at her boyfriend, then notices his food. “Oooh, I miss those.” Chuy and his cousin run a luncheonette close to a major transport hub on their home planet. The empanadas are made with finely synthesized flour, hydroponic produce, cultured meat and a secret spice blend provided by Chuy’s mom.
“Well, you can always jump ship and stay planet-side,” he says, smiling. “I promise to make all the empanadas you can handle.”
Nova laughs this off, but she knows Chuy isn’t joking. Not really. They’ve been together for four years and for half that time she’s been leaving to work long stretches on the starliner. She wishes she could say something to reassure him. Instead she asks, “How’s the fam?”
Chuy rallies, “Good, we’re all looking forward to your layover next week…” Something off to her right captures his attention. “Uh, Nova?”
She glances over her shoulder and sees nothing but pillows against the wall. One of which appears to be twitching. Nova sits back on her heels and grabs a hairbrush from the nightstand.
“Should you call Pest Management?” Chuy leans towards his screen as if trying to get a better look.
Gingerly, she pokes the now wriggling pillow with the hairbrush handle. A muffled yowl escapes the pillowcase, followed by a furry head shaped like an inverted triangle. Nova doesn’t know which is more startling, the creature’s luminous amber eyes or the oversized ears perched atop its head.
“¡Dios!” Chuy exclaims, his voice is mostly wonder, with a hint of disgust. “Is that a bat?”
Nova peers down at the little creature and shakes her head. “There’s no wings.”
“A wingless bat?”
Nova hesitates as she looks at the long slender tail curled around soft round front paws. “I think it’s some sort of…cat.”
“What kind of cat has ears like that?” Chuy’s finger taps on the screen for emphasis.
“This one, apparently,” Nova says. She reaches out her hand. The creature tilts its head up and walks forward, curving its back under her palm.
“She’s so soft,” Nova breathes as the warm fur glides beneath her fingers. The cat looks up smugly before circling around for another rub.
“Is she a petting zoo escapee?”
“No clue,” Nova’s finger snags on a small length of binding twine around the long neck, almost hidden beneath the white wavy fur. “But the zoo animals aren’t collared and this twine is definitely from the Ronnie’s packing area.” Nova looks up at Chuy’s face, which by now, is so close that all she can see onscreen are the bushy twin arches of his eyebrows. “I think someone smuggled a pet on board.”
“Oh, that’s a big no-no. You gonna turn her over?” Chuy pulls back, and takes a bite of his empanada. Nova hears the crisp crunch of the fried batter and, for a moment, she imagines herself back home in their kitchen.
“First, I’m going to get this thing off her neck,” Nova pulls open her nightstand drawer and grabs her nail clippers. The cat bounds into her lap and settles down, not even flinching as Nova snips off the twine.
“Second,” Nova stifles a yawn. “I’m going to say buenas noches to you and get some sleep. I’ll bring her to the Security Office in the morning.”
Purr. Clink. Clink. Purr.
“Lights!” Nova yelps. 1,600 lumens of medium grade light slam into her eyes. She groans. In between blinks, she can see clothes scattered and bunched on the floor. Her room is tiny and it’s clear that no one else is there. But, she does hear purring. She also notices that the small bowls of water and freeze-dried tilapia she’d set by the door are empty.
“Cat?” Nova calls out. The purring stops. A trail of clothing spills from the open closet door. Nova stumbles out of bed, rubbing her eyes, and bends down to pick up what used to be one of her freshly laundered starliner uniforms. There’s a scattering of white cat hair on the black fabric.
“Cat?” she peers into the closet. A pair of amber eyes hover next to the floor safe.
Nova gets on her hands and knees and reaches in, ready to pull back her hand at the first sign of claws, but the white head raises in anticipation of a rub. Nova strokes the soft fur between the giant ears. “Boy, you’re trouble, aren’t you? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t march you down to Security right now.”
The cat purrs, the sound rising and falling in sequence. There is a soft clink as the safe lock disengages, and the little metal door swings open.
Nova stares down at the cat. The cat blinks back.
The Observation Deck is on the top floor of the starliner, a whole cross section of the capsule-shaped ship with a glass ceiling viewable to the stars. Footpaths wind around several small gardens, cushioned loungers and couches positioned here and there. In the center of the all the flower gardens, herb gardens, and rock gardens, is the starliner’s pride and joy; a labyrinth made of real Ilex aquifolium.
Esheserat scans her bracelet at the entrance and waits.
“Ah, welcome . . . Esheserat, the Reluctant Queen of Bronchitis.” The words end in a gurgle as the Queen glares at the little man through yellow narrowed eyes. She knows a lazy maître’d when she sees one, like this fool feeding guests’ names through the default medium grade e-translator. If he had taken the time and care to enter the syntax into a proper pronunciation calculator, a more accurate version of her title might have been, “Esheserat, Defiant Queen of the Fire-branching Wind Tunnels,” a reference to the lava tubes that her home planet mined for rare fiber crystals.
Esheserat runs a nail along the soft ash-grey skin of her cheek. She hates these events, these new luxury starliner cruises, but Bis was right. This place is the best way a person of her status can blend in and do some less than noble business. On this eve of the Captain’s dinner, with many well-dressed dignitaries milling about, perhaps a less than accurate name would be acceptable.
The little maître’d is lucky. Esheserat, the Reluctant Queen of Bronchitis, is in a good mood. A special delivery is coming very soon.
She steps past the little maître’d without a word, smelling the rank exhale of carbon dioxide as the little man lets out a long shaky breath.
The Reluctant Queen of Bronchitis makes her way along the paths, nodding at dignitaries in their finest silks and high-ranking officers in their impeccable dress whites, balancing champagne flutes and hors d’oeuvres in their hands. She pauses to touch the glossy leaves on one of the outer walls of the labyrinth, testing their pointed edges to see if they’ll prick her skin.
“They’re almost too shiny to be real, aren’t they?” A rumbling voice inquires from behind her.
Esheserat takes a breath to soothe the irritation that arises whenever she’s forced to make small talk. Her lips spread into her practiced and polished “meet’n’greet” smile as she turns around.
Captain Perry stands behind her, his grey hair slicked back, white uniform pressed and spotless. His hands are folded behind his back, making his chest puff and the medals on his chest stand out. She manages to keep the smile fixed on her face.
“Captain,” she says. “What a delightful setting for your dinner. I was just admiring this beautiful labyrinth. We don’t have much greenery on my planet, I’m afraid. Not many plants can survive the heat of our ground.”
“I regret that I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting your planet,” the Captain says. “Not much vacation time running this ship.”
“Really.” She knows Perry’s lying, about both being on her planet and the vacation time. “You must visit one day. It’s quite different from this Earth experience. Beautiful, in its own way, glowing lava rivers and moss-covered plains,” her voice tapers off.
“Have you seen the Veronica Speedwell?” He points to bunches of purple and pink flowers that line the walkways. “The ship’s namesake.”
“They’re lovely,” Esheserat says, ensuring there’s just enough expression in her voice to sound impressed.
“If you’ll excuse me your Majesty, I must make a few more rounds. Please enjoy your stroll through the garden,” the Captain bows.
She watches as Perry walks away. He doesn’t recognize her, she was only a girl back then, but she remembers him, remembers what he did. The dozens of miners he left behind in the tunnels, their lives worth less to him than the loads of crystal fibers taking their places in the transporter. The Queen curls her fingers into a fist, nails digging into her palm.
Esheserat strides down the corridor to her suite, relieved that the evening of exchanging inane pleasantries and ingesting bland Earth food is finally over. She hears a whirring of bike tires from behind and turns to see Bis. He pulls up beside her and dismounts, the bike’s kickstand activating. She watches as the crewman with the ridiculous hair retrieves a package from the bicycle’s carrier rack.
“The Ujimi pine oils you requested, your Majesty.” Bowing slightly, Bis offers her the box.
Esheserat opens it and sifts through tissue until she sees the data device imprinted with the Terran Transporters & Loaders emblem. A flush of anger heats her face as old memories rise, but her voice is steady when she speaks.
“What excellent service,” she says, “I’ll see to it that a generous gratuity is credited to your account.”
“Much appreciated, your Majesty.” Bis bows again before hopping onto his bike and speeding down the hallway.
“Welcome to Sub-level 3, Security.” the lift’s cheery androgynous voice announces as the doors slide open with a hiss. Nova’s last visit to the Security Office was years ago when she was hired to have her crew armbands coded and activated. It hasn’t changed since then. The office is an homage to the American Police Station, circa 1980, with an open floor concept bullpen, worn beige linoleum, fluorescent tube lights flickering from the ceiling, and clunky metal desks topped with square terminal computers. Behind the bullpen is a row of offices, dusty blinds gaping in the windows.
It’s early enough that even the bullpen desks are empty. Nova spies the small round shape of her friend Agril manning the front desk. Even though his Galivinian physiology allows him to go for days without sleeping, he looks wiped.
“Morning Agril, rough night?”
“Morning Nov,” Agril shakes his bald head. “If anyone ever asks you to sub in as a maître d for an elaborate party, no matter how much extra they credit to your account just say—
Holy Hades, what is that thing?”
Nova smiles as she looks down at the white fur bundle in her arms. “A cat, I think. I wanted to see if anyone’s reported her missing.” The cat gently bumps her head against Nova’s chin.
Agril lowers his voice, “Maybe bring her back later. The Captain’s quarters were broken into last night. Something was stolen, but he won’t say what, security footage was wiped and there’s a lot of pressure for the Chief to find . . .”
“Giving away secrets of our investigation, ensign?” A voice booms from one of the offices. At seven feet tall, the Chief Security Officer’s long legs take seconds to cross the bullpen and stand towering over the diminutive rotund ensign.
“Conveyance Crewman Dufau.” The Chief’s gruff tone makes Nova’s spine stiffen. “As the ensign says, there was a break-in last night. The only evidence found at the scene was the hair of a very rare species.” His eyes narrow at the pair of furred ears huddled in Nova’s arms. “Felis catus.”
Nova swallows hard, wishing she had just given the cat more freeze-dried tilapia and gone back to bed.
“Please,” The Chief motions with a hand, “Step into my office. We need to talk a few stories.”
Nova cuddles the cat closer. Ignoring Agril’s worried stare, she follows the Chief past the islands of empty desks into his office.
The door closes behind them.
Nova emerges from the Chief’s office hours later, an aggrieved expression on her face. She passes Agril at the desk without seeing him. He scurries after her into the hallway.
“Nov? Are you well? Where’s your cat? What did the Chief say?”
She waits until they’re in the privacy of the lift to speak. “They’re putting me off the ship at tonight’s maintenance stop,” she says, jabbing angrily at the lift buttons. “I’ve been relieved of duty upon suspicion of collusion.”
Agril’s mouth drops open in shock, “That’s not right! You wouldn’t do such a thing!”
“The Chief said I should consider it fortunate that nothing of the Captain’s turned up when they searched my cabin.” Nova shakes her head in disbelief. “But then, there’s the cat.”
“They can’t spring to that conclusion because you happened to find the cat!”
“Well, they did.” Nova says. “And it was actually the cat who found me. Listen, can you do me a favour?”
“Of course, yes.”
“Please make sure she’s taken care of. I can’t stand the thought of her left in a storage area until they figure out what to do with her.”
Agril nods vigorously, “Yes, I will do that. I will make sure she’s taken care of.”
“Thanks, Agril.” The lift reaches her floor and Nova gives the small man a quick hug before exiting.
Nova waits by the loading area as the Ronnie pulls into Maintenance Bay 62. Agril is at her side, a security measure for the Chief, but Nova is glad for the friendly company in her final moments aboard the ship she’s called home for years.
“Hey Nov,” a voice says from behind them. They turn to see Bis step out of the shadows.
Agril looks between Bis and Nova, and raises an eyebrow. Nova nods.
“I’m going to, um, search your trunk one more time,” Agril says. He waddles over to the jumbled pile of luggage and supplies waiting to be offloaded.
Bis watches the rotund little body walk a few steps away before turning back to face Nova. He shifts back and forth on his feet, uneasy. The light catches the white strip in his hair. It looks a little droopy today.
“That was your cat, wasn’t it?” Nova says, breaking the silence.
Bis nods. “Thought I lost her last night. The Captain came back early and I had to half drag her back through the air vent. String got caught on a metal edge and she got loose.”
“How does she…?”
Bis shrugs. “Best I can figure out? That cat in particular seems to be able to modulate the frequency of her purr and disrupt the locking mechanisms. Maybe she can hear something special with those ears.”
“I hope it was worth it,” Nova says, picking at her plain khaki jumpsuit. “Whatever it was you stole.”
“Captain Perry’s old ship logs, from back when he was a transport pilot. The proof needed to overcome his interplanetary immunity and finally have him arrested for some very shady dealings. It was for a good cause, Nov, honest.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Nova sees Agril stiffen and stare at the luggage pile with wide eyes. A curved white tail is weaving and bobbing between corners of bags and edges of boxes. It stops by her trunk, and a few seconds later, the lid pops open. A white furry body with huge ears hops in.
Agril shoots her a grin as he closes the lid and re-secures the luggage lock with a flick of his wrist.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Nova shrugs, looking back at Bis, eyes brightening. “I think things might be better out there anyways.”
And of course, she thinks with a smile, Chuy will be happy to have her back. He promised a hot platter of empanadas would be ready for dinner.