The Calling of the StarsbyFred190666©
Notes from the author: Hi again everyone. I would like to thank all the readers who favored or kindly reviewed my first outing and particularly rnebular for encouraging me to write again. In no small part, this story is for you all. Since it has a science-fiction setting, it obviously won't have any autobiographic musings or settings, but I did try to keep the situations, characters and locations real. Also, even if I aim to keep this story more succinct than my first, relationships do take time to evolve so thanks in advance for being patient with me. I hope you all have a good reading.
P.S. Writing an accessible, stand-alone, futuristic story proved a lot harder than I anticipated, so I would like to sincerely thank the site moderator for patiently goading me into polishing my writing.
P.P.S. This is a Valentine's Day contest entry, so if you like it, please vote... thanks :)
**** ISA space dock Mulberry - Low Earth Orbit ****
"So this will be my home for the next two years"
Christopher Tomlinson spoke out loud, to himself, a phrase he remembered reading from one of his many historic studies, this one concerning impressed seamen in the old Royal Navy. However, floating all alone and weightless in his new assignment, he felt not pressed at all, but rather giddy. Slowly soaring over his crash couch on the bridge, with a goofy smile, and taking in all the machinery idling and waiting to be brought to full activity, he felt like a child whose entire Christmas wish list had been granted and even topped up with extra surprises. He had already inspected the bridge, the terrifying nuclear saltwater rocket that made these five spacecrafts so infamous, his puny private bunk space, the gym, the galley and the cargo bay. He had already gazed adoringly, at space or at Earth, from each and every one of the six observation ports. He had already run every diagnostic routine at least once and introduced himself to the autopilot and the autoengineer. He was reminding himself to discreetly thank his uncle in Operations for getting the assignment he so dearly wished and, in fact, on the very ship he most wished it. He was putting into memory the data posted, near his bunk space, about the twenty different HMS vessels formerly bearing his ship's name: Lion. He took special interest in the 1910 battlecruiser that was Sir Beatty's flagship at the Battle of Jutland, in World War I.
However, technically speaking, Ensign Tomlinson was marking time. His colleague and crewmate, a certain Katsumi Miyazaki, was still on her way. The IFV Lion, a brand new second-generation Interplanetary Fast Vessel, would then cast off for her shakedown cruise. He had perused over lieutenant Miyazaki's public service record and the little he knew about her made him both excited and a little nervous. He knew that, at 29 years old, she was two years his senior. She was a spacer, born and raised on one of the Moon L4 islands. More importantly, she was an engineering graduate with a minor in electronics and a specialization in spaceship systems with impeccable credentials from her mentors and supervisors on her previous tours and internships. Finally, she was a transgender with the sort of chiseled, mysterious and elegant face that rings true to all the geisha cliches. Christopher had no clue why the Interplanetary Space Agency practiced mandatory gender determination and disclosure - it's not like her toiletry requirement would alter much her service efficiency - but, then again, all-inclusive gender equality and opportunity had been the rule for almost a century and she was a prime example of that fact: one of the new interplanetary space crews that would bring their elite numbers to ten. Out of a system-wide population of more than ten billions. Elite? Assuredly... but you could also argue these were the persons reckless enough to regularly ride nuclear rockets for a living. In any case, her qualifications would be a good match to his astronomy pedigree and, since she would be the sole living being he would communicate with on a regular basis for days on end, he was hoping to quickly build a nice rapport with her. He was already aware she would be very pleasing to the eye, a fact he was unsure to call a blessing or bane at this point.
"Lion, this is Mulberry. Confirm your airlock seal for passenger transfer."
"Mulberry, this is Lion. Seal confirmed and permission to come aboard is granted. I'm on my way."
That's Navy tradition for you. Of course everyone knew the seal was secure, there would be a half-dozen alarms blaring otherwise. But since time immemorial etiquette has you requesting permission to come aboard, just as you are expected to knock on a door. Christopher glided down to the main service airlock, right beside the cargo bay, to greet Katsumi. His first sight of her, gliding through the airlock, left an indelible imprint in his soul - a fact he would fondly admit to her many months from now. In short, Katsumi Miyazaki was a knockout... and she almost literally knocked him out just hanging there, smiling and waiting to be welcomed aboard. Transfixed, Christopher barely kept a hold on himself while extending a trembling hand. "Lieutenant Miyazaki, pleasure to have you aboard. Ensign Christopher Tomlinson reporting all systems are go for launch upon receiving assignment."
Katsumi had a mixed expression on her lovely face, a mixture of amusement and annoyance. She was obviously aware and used to the effect she had on the male species and yet still seemed to revel in it. As well she should be. At a towering 1,85 m, with every muscle of her legs, calves and abdomen finely honed and defined, sporting a devastatingly voluptuous figure - currently floating and undulating in weightlessness - and with a piercing gaze from a pair of dark-brown eyes that matched the mandatory short haircut of her jet-black hair, Katsumi Miyazaki could easily pass for a fashion top model even while wearing spacecraft interior coveralls. She would be a lot more than pleasing to the eyes and Christopher already had a self-conscious mind to try to hide a burgeoning erection. "Glad to be aboard and, please, drop the lieutenant thing. Call me Katsumi. Can I please call you Christopher?"
"All right, Katsumi, then please call me Chris. All my friends do."
"Why thank you Chris! Tell you what, let me store my few personals in my bunk space and let me get a feel for this wild ride. That way, you can catch your breath and request where we are being sent, OK?" She nudged past him, giggling. Poor Christopher was befuddled, unable to respond. He was embarrassed, blushing and deeply excited. Rapport or not, working with her would be slow torture!
(How do I deal with this? Good Lord! She's prettier than anyone, real or virtual, I've ever seen... what is SHE doing on a spacecraft?)
While Katsumi was doing her own version, with business-like detachment, of the Lion's visit, Christopher requested their first flight plan, all the while creating a rationale to remain functional around his sex-goddess crewmate:
1. - she is out of my league beyond any unit of measure;
2. - she is older than me, so she will see me as an excited immature boy;
3. - she is taller than me, so even dancing would be awkward;
4. - she must obviously have boyfriends or suitors in every station and space dock;
5. - therefore I will never have anything to do with her beyond sharing the bridge... ever;
6. - Good... it's settled... so now relax.
A soft voice from below brought him back to reality. "Chris, how do you address the autosystems?"
"The autoengineer is Francis Harvey and the autopilot is Ernie Chatfield." For sole acknowledgment, Christopher perceived a distant mumbling.
The discussion was rekindled when she came back on the bridge. "So, Mister History buff, why the weird names?" Some part of his brain warmed and mellowed: Katsumi must have also checked his service record to know about his History minor.
"In honor of our ship's namesake. During the battle of Jutland, Francis Harvey sacrificed himself by flooding his turret, thus preventing a chain deflagration and saving the entire ship. And Sir Ernie Chatfield was Admiral Beatty's second-in-command so, if we're going to be playing Beatty's part on the bridge, it stands to reason we'll speak to Chatfield... no?"
"Whatever..." she sounded simultaneously bored and irritated.
"I'm sorry. Go ahead, change the address before we launch. I guess I just got caught up in the lore... you know, for the record, it's not a British bias: I would have made a similar effort if we were crewing the Shokaku... or Eagle, Meduse and Vepr, for that matter."
"And you think I would have cared more in the case of a ship named in Japanese? Chris, I'm not into folklore or macho traditions: this is my job, this is a ride and we will share it with Ernie and Francis here. Don't worry about a thing: we will get along super during our tour. Really... no need to sulk. You just did what I asked and that's fine."
"Sulking? No... but curious though: aren't you fascinated, even a bit, by all the power harnessed by these ships? All of it... wasted, in a sense... so we could do Fast Manned Missions? I mean, surely you know how much enriched uranium233 we have on board right now, in the fuel solution?"
"Of course! Since I suppose we're at full load..." Katsumi hummed to herself while quickly calculating "... almost 839 kg."
"Right... do you have any idea how many weapons of mass destruction were made out of that amount back then? Or how much power would have been created in old nuclear fission reactors?"
"Not a clue."
"Ho... hmm... well, neither do I... besides I think they were using U235 and plutonium... but that's beside the point. A LOT. We have all this energy harnessed... and not by much... only waiting for us to inject it in the engine core so it will reach critical mass and blow up in synch with its exit in the exhaust cone! I mean, the simple fact that it WORKS without us becoming a new comet gives me goose bumps! They must really jade you in engineering school if you take that for granted."
"Chris, I see you're far too excited and happy being here to be afraid of this manned missile, so I'll guess you're a romantic thrilled to be free riding in the stars?"
"You bet I am! You have me pegged square on the nose at that! Ever since I lifted my head and watched a full moon sky on East Lake Toho, I've been hearing the calling of the stars! And this is as close as I'll get to them in my lifetime! Isn't it why you're here too?"
"The calling of the stars... sheesh. Come on now... enough foreplay. Chris, where are the stars summoning us right now? They must be wondering what we're doing at Flight Control."
(Anyone who's seen you would not be wondering and instead have lewd images... ha... come on, Chris GET A GRIP!)
Christopher zoomed out the flight plan on their bridge displays and eyeballed it quickly. "Straight in-and-out round trip between Earth and Mars, taking advantage that the launch window is decent right now. We make an acceleration burn to... wow... a shade above 210 km/s, we dash to Mars, make a correction burn during a slingshot orbit and dash right back to Mulberry. All in all, about 1,6 AU of distance in about 13 days, during which we will have the usual series of shakedown cruise drills."
"Right... and a decent burn it will be. Exactly 3 hours at 1,0 MN... that will pin us down nicely in our seats..."
"Eugghhhh... 1,94 g, not comfortable!"
"Yea... OK, let's get serious. Have Ernie confirm that all systems are go for launch and, Chris, what do we have in the cargo bay?"
"Just ballast, for testing the tie-downs and for manipulation procedure drills along the way."
"Very well. I'll call Flight Control and coordinate the ignition sequence. Strap in."
"Aye, Aye, Captain..." Christopher chuckled "... I always wanted to say that!"
**** FMM 437 - IFV Lion - shakedown cruise ****
If a spectator was around, in space, to gaze at the silent spectacle of the IFV Lion clearing its moorings and then hurling itself in space, he or she would probably sum it up as a 52 tons cosmic lollipop disappearing from sight with a disheartening lack of sound and visual effect, if you discount the flaming finger of radioactive steam and plasma belched from the massive exhaust cone at the hellish velocity of 4 740 km/s. In fact, almost two thirds of the ship's mass is engine and fuel confinement, plus a tenth for the fuel solution itself. The command module, located up front and built perpendicular to the ship's horizontal axis - so that, during a burn, the crew feels the acceleration as a "downwards" force - houses the bridge, the cargo bay, the nuclear power plant, the attitude thrusters, the emergency magsail plus the water, supplies and all of the instrumentation. Topping it all is the abrasion cone, which is not a cone at all but a perfect half-sphere of almost frictionless coating, hence the lollipop look.
During the rocket burn, both Katsumi and Christopher were on watch, heavily seated in their crash couch. Afterwards, back in weightlessness, they traded places on 6 hour watches, mostly to keep a human presence alongside Ernie who did the actual navigating and Francis who did the actual engine and reactor monitoring. The fact is, there isn't all that much to do during transit in a Fast Manned Mission, so Christopher was a little disappointed that Katsumi kept most of her off-watch time to herself, either to rest or do the regular workout required to maintain one's body from the decaying effect from prolonged weightlessness. Although he would eagerly agree she was now inhabiting the vast majority of his fantasies, Christopher found there was an aura of mystery about her, an unquantifiable factor in her behavior, that kept drawing him up to her, mostly after his own sessions in the ship's small gym, alongside the cargo bay. Most of their chatting took place at these times.
It was during one of these chats that they had a first, brief, heart-to-heart exchange. "So, Katsumi, you haven't told me why you asked for FMM crew duty, since you don't share my calling of the stars... or even why you joined the ISA, for that matter..."
"I joined the ISA to pay for this..." she said while pointing at her ravishing body, and Christopher could not help but notice that her breasts were once again fluidly floating, so he consciously fought with himself to stay focused on her mesmerizing gaze, which was not helping much "... the assignment on the Lion... just happened, I guess."
"Come on, Katsumi, you could be anything - tether operator, hyperplane pilot, station commander, reactor tech, PR rep and what not... if this is just a job, why did you choose this one?" Christopher noticed the PR reference made her almost flinch.
"For one thing, FMM is a top-of-the-line posting, and one that I earned, not one I got for looking the way I do." She replied in an almost harsh tone.
"Oookay, that goes without saying. So you made it... you must be pretty happy and proud, and your family too I suppose?"
"I have not contacted my parents since joining, nor do I intend to."
"Ooh... so you're telling me the only person you want to prove your accomplishment to is... yourself?"
That seemed to crack her armor... just a little. "Don't make it sound so shallow, please... you can't possibly get it. Just because laws and recruiting boards promise no discrimination doesn't mean you never encounter any... people are people, after all, and there are all kind. I don't have a chip on my shoulder, but I am aware..." and she let that thought drag out "... so what about you? How proud of you is your family?"
"Pretty much, I would say... I mean, sure, mom would have preferred I stayed in Florida and hand her two more grandkids to fuss over, but my sister Phoebe is on top of that mission and our household seems genuinely happy I do my part to keep the family tradition going."
"Family tradition? Are you related to admiral Tomlinson?"
Christopher had a look of surprised embarrassment on his face. "Sorry... I guess I DO have a chip on my shoulder about that and I take for granted everyone knows... yes, the admiral is my paternal uncle... in fact, all of my forebears have been either in the ISA, the World Bank Space Finance Trust or the UN since the late 2000s. And the family creed is strong on heritage so, yes, that's why we ALL minor in History. I would like to think I earned the posting by merit - just like you - but I'm not naive enough to think that my wishing for it has not made its way to my uncle's ears. In fact, I already wrote dad and sis about it to make sure he hears how appreciative I am."
"Wow... that must be nice..." she let the thought trail yet again, with a total lack of enthusiasm. "Thank you for being so candid about it, and not smug at all, which is what I would have expected from an entitled man!" That barb got Katsumi to giggle.
"Ha! Entitled my ass!!! Seriously, though, I'll always be candid with you, Katsumi. You're my partner and friend: that means no secrets, no excuses and no regrets." Christopher had said all that in earnest. It was obviously a heartfelt truth for him.
"I believe you, Chris... but we have just met and, truth be told, I myself don't quite know how to behave with you yet."
"Why? What's wrong with me?"
"For one thing, you keep having these ridiculous boners when you join me on the bridge, but you always try to hide them. It goes without saying you're not gay, but then again you don't hit on me. You truly behave like a friend would, and have been nothing if not open and honest, so you're not biased or put off by me... Chris, are you blushing? Oh my God you ARE! You got us into this... now is not the time to be shy!"
Christopher was barely whispering "Come on, Katsumi, you're not being fair... you cannot ignore how amazing and desirable you look and yet I have to function with you. Not only do I endorse the ISA's code of ethics on fraternization but, even if I didn't care about that, I care about you and you deserve a crewmate that actually works with you, not ogles you while hoping to become a crewmate with benefits, a fuckfriend or whatever it's called... I value our partnership, you know..." Katsumi was a little mollified by this shy outburst and Christopher saw, for the first time, a smile of tenderness, but his heart was set on a heading and he kept on going "... besides, if you and I were everyday citizen, you are so out of my league I would not even get to say hello." Now both of them had hurt expressions.
"Now you're the one who's not being fair... I don't have any idea how we would meet in so-called normal circumstances, but you are selling yourself way too short. Chris, you seem like a nice man and I'm sure I would want to get to know you better, just like I do now..."
"Really? Well, being one who was always relegated to the friends zone or befriended by pretty girls only in time for science teamwork term papers, you will excuse me for being doubtful about that... and if I hadn't joined, I would look even more plain than I do now, because I would not have the PT routine drilled into me..." In fact, Christopher Tomlinson did not look plain, just rather average. At 1,75m, with hazel eyes and clean-cut brown hair, his most redeeming features were his warm smile and his lean frame, from always trying individual sporting disciplines like athletics and gymnastics. He had a springy grace and a center of mass that helped him immensely in zero-g training, but not in courtship. "... so, tell me, how WOULD you know?" There was a flash of anger in that final quip.
"Chris... I didn't always look like this... I DO know..." Christopher was mortified upon fully grasping what she meant.
"Oh Jeez! I am such an ass... please accept my apologies... some would-be friend I am, huh? I finally have the luck of a real conversation with you and I wreck it..."