Lawn stared up at the ship. It would be the last time she would be able to view the outside hull from this perspective for the next two years. The trip to the outpost would take six months. She was assigned to the outpost for a year, followed by the six month trip back. Going up and coming back, she would spend the time in hibernation as the ship—
Deep. Its name is Deep.
—fed her further lessons in astral navigation and everything else she’d need to know about running the outpost once they arrived.
An involuntary shiver ran through her. Two years with the ship. She’d have two years alone with a ship that could project itself in human form. All right, aholographic human form, but still...
The memory of those invisible fingers made her breasts ache for their touch. She’d gotten little sleep last night, but it didn’t matter. Not when she was about to take a six-month-long nap. Regardless, Lawn wondered if she would dream while in suspension. And if she did, would it be about...that?
Where did he get the idea for that particular human form? The one he presented to her? Was it an image of one of the scientists who had worked on the vessel? Or was it the ship’s creation, pieced together from pictures in its memory banks?
Why in the hell did it look so much like the man at the fountain? Oh, God. Another thought struck her. What if the scientists had managed to pull that man's image from her mind? Could they do that?
It doesn’t matter, Lawn. You’re going to have a long time to ask him all the questions you want. Right now you need to get your butt on board and prepare for lift-off.
Hoisting her lone bag of personal belongings over her shoulder, Lawn strode toward the ship as the public address system called for her presence on board. She rolled her eyes and quickly went up the hatch steps. The ship lit the interior as she approached, and quickly extinguished them behind her.
As she climbed up the narrow tube to the walkway, the ship bathed her in several rings of blue lights. The ship was scanning her again, comparing her DNA against the molecular tissue scan it had done on her yesterday. If there had not been a match, the Vogt would have stopped her from advancing any further.
Lawn paused on the lit walkway. “Hello, Deep.”
“Hello, Lawn. Welcome aboard.”
“Got my bed ready?”
“And the sheets warmed.”
Once inside the interior, Lawn followed the path of lights to a short stairwell leading downward. At the bottom she entered the main living area of the ship where she would sleep and eat when she wasn’t working on the bridge.
Lawn paused as she stared at the oval-shaped bed with its raised domed roof. To the rear of the cabin was a set of tall doors, as well as a wall of smaller compartments. Her mental schematics recognized the tall doors as the bathroom.
“You can put your things away while I power up,” Deep told her.
Her eyes immediately spotted the tiny speakers in the ceiling. Next to each perforated disk was a second solid one with a tiny antenna, which she privately thought of as a miniature nipple. The entire ship was studded with these itty-bitty communication combos—the ear and the nipple. Except, in this case, these barely inch-long teats were capable of projecting the vessel’s holographic form. The analogy made her smile. “Sounds like a plan,” she acknowledged.
Rather than unpack, Lawn stuffed her duffle into one of the small compartments and slammed the door. There wasn’t a lot to unpack, anyway. From the moment she was notified she had been chosen for outpost duty, she had begun to systematically give away, sell, or throw away everything she owned, knowing she would have to meet a rigid weight restriction.
Since she had no family to hold any of her things while she was away, she couldn’t see any sense in paying a company to watch stuff that cost less than their fee. Hence, everything she could live without she got rid of. And what she couldn’t bear to part with, she could now pack into a duffle. Problem solved.
That done, she retraced her steps back up to the main entry and made her way into the control room. “Give me a countdown,” she ordered the ship.
“Liftoff in sixteen minutes, forty seconds.”
She took her seat and waited for it to adjust to her contours. At the same time, it strapped her in and moved her toward the shiny control panel. Lawn barely glanced at her reflection in the board as she checked her readouts.
“Central calling Officer Bascomb.”
“Go for Bascomb.”
“Officer Siler has been notified that you are on your way.” It was Captain Brune. He would be with her for the entire two year period as her direct link with the Bureau. Her sole tie to the planet.
“How’s he doing out there?”
“He says it’s nice and quiet.”
“That’s good to hear,” she smiled. That’s all she wanted, too. A nice and quiet stint on the outer fringes of their solar system, followed by a sweet promotion and all its perks and benefits when she arrived back on Earth.
“Liftoff in nine minutes, sixteen seconds,” Deep said.
“Good luck, Lawn,” Brune said. “I’ll see you on arrival.”
“Thank you. Bascomb out.” She manually closed communications, since the ship was busy with last-minute details before liftoff. In fact, she had little else to do. Once they were out of Earth’s atmosphere, she would hand the ship over to itself, and then she would climb into her little bed capsule for a six month sleep. My hibernation.
She was determined to make liftoff textbook perfect. Although the ship followed a predetermined navigational route to the outpost, it had one glaring blindness. It couldn’t steer itself. Which was why it needed a human counterpart to tell it when to dodge something when that something unexpectedly got in the way during liftoff.
Like the crash of ‘27. Lawn grasped the two throttles and steeled herself. She had been eight years old when she’d first seen the vidcast of the horrible accident. When a passenger airline had unexpectedly crossed the outpost ship’s airspace, and both had exploded in a fireball. Over nine hundred lives had been lost. To this day, the bureau showed that clip as a lesson to every cadet in the program.
“Liftoff in sixty seconds,” Deep told her. “All is secured. We have a go with command.”
Lawn nodded. “I’m ready. Let’s do it!”
Deep started voicing the countdown from twenty. Beneath her feet she could feel the engines vibrating as they increased power. So far, everything felt exactly like the simulation. The only difference was that once they reached the upper atmosphere, the lights wouldn’t go down and the captain wasn’t going to open up the faux door to the control room to tell you how badly you screwed up.
“Four. Three. Two. One. Starting acceleration.”
The Vogt ship arose from the landing pad and hovered momentarily as it waited for Lawn to aim it upward. Once the landing gear retracted, the ship pointed its nose at the sky and began its ascent.
“Watching my back, Deep?”
“You’re clear,” the ship assured her, meaning her airspace was wide open.
Before she knew it, the Vogt was in the upper atmosphere. Quickly, she rolled the ship so that the sun’s rays would strike the protected underbelly as they continued out into space.
After another sixteen thousand miles, Lawn could relax both figuratively and mentally. So far so good. Now it was time to bed down.
Undoing the harness signaled the console seat to release its hold on her. Lawn got to her feet and took one final look out the viewscreen. The sight of the unfolding universe never failed to enthrall her. It was one of the reasons why she had chosen this vocation.
“You bed is ready,” Deep informed her.
“So am I.” And it was the truth. The stress of the past three years getting ready for this mission had taken its toll on her. The option of sleep had often been sacrificed in order to get in whatever extra practice or drill she required to hone her abilities. Any fraction of a second she could shear off her time trials had placed her that much closer to being chosen for this kind of mission. The next six months would be her reward for her sacrifices.
Downstairs, she quickly stripped and went into the bathroom to relieve herself. Once she was placed under hyper-thermatic sleep, her bodily functions would almost cease, negating the need to visit the potty in mid-transit. Still, she wanted to make sure she crawled under the covers with an empty bladder.
For a split second she caught the reflection of herself in the mirror above the collapsible sink. Her hand involuntarily lifted to touch her cheek. Angrily, she straightened up and glared back at her image. “It’s over,” she told herself firmly. “For the next two years there’s nothing holding you back. Nothing. Got that?”
“Got what, Lawn?”
If she didn’t know any better, the ship sounded sincerely curious.
Naked, she climbed into her pod bed and turned onto her side, in her favorite sleep position. The bed’s transparent lid lowered itself, and she heard the muffled clicks when it secured the seals.
“Breathe regularly,” Deep instructed. “Don’t be afraid if you start to feel disoriented or dizzy.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, Momma.”
She had to give credit to the ship for not responding. Vaguely, she wondered if the Vogt had been programmed to give snappy comebacks.
A soft mist began to fill the pod, silent and white. She reached up to feel it, and found it cold. Lawn drew the sheet up over her body, found a comfortable position for her head on the thin pillow, and closed her eyes.
The last thing she heard before she drifted off was Deep wishing her a restful sleep.