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​​​​Twenty-Two

The girl at the lectern waits for a moment, scanning the crowd, before she exclaims, "Oh, come on! No one wants to volunteer to be the first to discover the first ever alien city Humanity has encountered in this entire galaxy? Because if you don't, I will, and you can bet I'll do a triple barrel roll to make sure everyone knows it was me!"

Now you remember who she is – Princess Vesta, the heiress to Starlanes Shipping, the Solar System's oldest freight network. Unlike what you'd expect from the heiress to a billion dollar business, she'd been flying Starlanes ships since she was a kid. She was also the youngest solo pilot to circumnavigate the Solar System. She'd been all of sixteen and all over the news channels, when you were still struggling to get your submarine licence so you could keep running the ferry service to Sunshine City.

"The captain said I have to give other pilots a chance to get into the record books. So, last chance…any volunteers?"

A chair scrapes behind you as someone stands up. "I will, Commander Vesta. And if those Titan bastards come after me, I'll take as many down with me as I can."

Vesta looks disappointed, but she nods. "Thank you, Brand." After a few words about the patrol roster for the week, you're all dismissed.

As no one seems to have anything specific for you to do, you decide to take a shower and go hunt for some breakfast.

Twenty minutes later, you can't decide what's worse – the chewy, tasteless ration bar, or the black liquid that smells like coffee but tastes like charcoal. Surely the Genesis had a hydroponics level, or some sort of real food to supplement the subsistence rations. You can't remember the food being this bad when you first woke up from stasis.

"Hey, newbie. Want to go watch Brand's mission for some pointers? Training Room 3's available."

You look up to find three crewmembers in flight suits staring at you expectantly.

"If this is some sort of hazing ritual, I'm not interested," you say. "I've probably clocked up more flying hours than Princess Vesta, and most of them were done helping construct this tub. I may be new to this crew, but I'll be out of here as soon as – "

"Shhh," one man cautions, casting a surreptitious look around the mostly empty mess hall. "Don't ever let Commander Vesta hear you call her that. She hates the name Princess. Who wouldn't?"

You nod slowly, acknowledging that you wouldn't like to be called a princess, though you wouldn't mind some of the other perks that came with being the Starlanes heiress. Your own space ship, for a start.

"I figure because you're new, you wouldn't know all missions are broadcast on a live feed in Training Room 3. Usually only the trainees bother watching the patrol flights, but the mission Brand volunteered for might be interesting. Kind of like my patrol yesterday, when I spotted two unidentified craft."

You blink and recognise the voice you heard over the comm yesterday.

"You shot down the Titan following me?"

"Stars yes. What do you think we're patrolling for, micro singularities?"

You manage a smile. "Everyone knows micro singularities don't exist."

"Everyone thought aliens didn't exist, either."

"I wish they didn't." You extend a hand to the pilot. "Thank you for saving my life yesterday."

You shake, then he says, "So, you coming to Training Room 3 or do I have to make it an order? Because I think you saw what I saw yesterday, and if you don't want to see more, I want to know why."

You nod, then rise. You don't even consider taking the remains of your breakfast with you.

Eagerness and a little curl of dread twist in your belly, anticipating what Brand's reconnaissance flight might uncover.

At least you know you weren't hallucinating when you saw that city.

The training room is half-full, so you don't have to sit in the front row again.

"Approaching the coordinates now," you hear Brand's voice say over the comm through the crackle of static.

The view of stars dips until the camera focusses on the shadowy rock surface of Omega. If those are the city's coordinates, you wouldn't have guessed it from the barren landscape below.

"I'm going in," Brand says.

The view angles into a shallow dive. Like he's about to do a bombing run.

No, that's just your imagination, you tell yourself.

"Take that, you alien freaks! This system is ours!" Brand shouts.

One moment there's just bare rock, and the next, there's a dome city, before orange blossoms in front of the camera, growing larger until the picture goes black.

Brand screams obscenities for a moment that stretches for an eternity, before he, too, goes blessedly silent.

"It attacked him."

"The city attacked him."

"It's hostile."

The murmurs come from all sides, filled with disbelief.

One voice cut across them all. "Brand shot first. The city was only defending itself."

"Yeah, but…"

"What if he saw Titans? And that's their stronghold? We should strike first before they spot the Genesis."

"What we should do is send in another reconnaissance flight, to see if there really are Titans down there."

"And lose another pilot, and another shuttle?"

"No one's crazy enough to volunteer for that mission. We all know Brand joined up for revenge – he had one of those implants that's supposed to block Titan powers – but no one else is that kind of hellbent. Anyone who gets close to that city is dead."

"I wasn't," you hear yourself say. "I flew that close to the city yesterday, and I'm still alive. I could do it." You know it's true, even if no one else does.

And there's something about that city. You need to see it again, to see more of what you only glimpsed…

"Are you volunteering for a second mission, Medina?"

You turn to find Commander Vesta sitting in the back row, her eyes fixed on you.

Slowly, you answer, "I'm volunteering for a reconnaissance mission. In my shuttle. Not a kamikaze bombing run like Brand did." Your gaze doesn't waver as you hold hers.

"Brand disobeyed orders. His was supposed to be a reconnaissance mission. He's lucky he didn't make it back after the stunt he pulled. He got off easy. I would've keel-hauled him," she said.

She would've…what?

"Isn't that what ancient sailing boat captains did? Made their crew scrape seashells off the bottom of their boats?" someone whispered.

"No," whispered someone else. "That's careening. Keel-hauling is where you tie a rope to someone and drag them under the boat while it's in the water."

She sure was a sadist. "So what is the mission, sir?" you ask carefully. Best that you know, so you don't get it wrong and end up with some horror punishment.

"Fly over Omega, as close to the city as you can. Get me better pictures than we have already. If you can, find out who lives there. Then come back alive, with your shuttle intact."

You nod. "When do I leave, sir?"

"How about now?"

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