Chapter One

I wake with a raging headache and my cheek plastered to the floor with spit. The ship’s alarms are blaring, the ringing bounces between my ears. The contents of my shelves lie scattered across the floor. I choke as tequila fumes float up from the damp carpet. The shards of my prized bottle litter the desktop.

I stumble to my bed, hoping what little I’ve eaten in the last twenty-four hours stays in my stomach. I plop on the firm mattress and take a calming breath to assess the situation. The last thing I remember was watching Sarka leave with Ash.

And then, nothing.

Just Ash, promising me she wouldn’t do anything foolish. Judging by the disarray around me, I have to assume she did. Goddamn her. For once I wish she’d think things through before jumping headfirst into every situation.

I run through all the facts. There was an explosion. Not aboard the Persephone. We wouldn’t have survived an explosion that big. It must have happened on board the Posterus.

As soon as I stand, the ship lists. I collapse back onto the bed. Glass and debris careen off my desk. Out the window, the stars move in a sickening arc. We’ve lost control of the stabilizers.

Eight months and eleven days. The total sum of my captaincy. I’ve been in charge less than a year and I’ve already destroyed the ship. And this on the brink of embarking on the most prestigious mission of my career, hell, of any captain’s career.

Eight months ago, I walked onto the bridge for the first time gripped with a strange mixture of fear and elation. There was no one else, only me, in charge of one hundred and eighteen individual lives. My choices were no longer for me. I needed to be selfless. A trait prized by every Belter but achieved by few. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. The mines on Epsilon, the farms on Delta, the factories on Beta, or the government on Alpha. It’s the same across the Belt. There’s a saying on Delta: feed the cows first. It’s the farming capital for a reason. They’re not too bright when it comes to articulation.

You don’t come first. There isn’t a single person who hasn’t felt the sting of that lesson. Even on Alpha where they’re taught to serve the people. Life isn’t easy.

Where I grew up on Delta, things aren’t so bad. If you like farming. At least there’s work. On Beta, too many jobs are becoming automated, leaving workers no choice but to head to Epsilon. And on Delta the work takes years to kill you. Not like on Epsilon where working the mines has a life expectancy of months not decades.

And if you don’t want to farm, mine, or slog away in a factory, you can join Union fleet. The life expectancy isn’t much better than Epsilon. But who wouldn’t trade in the mines for a ship? Most of the time we’re hauling cargo from one asteroid to another. But when you compare it to working the mines or farms, it’s freedom.

When I imagined finally docking at the Posterus,this is not what my mind pictured. I had no idea I would show up in a burning wreck, reeking of failure and feeling like crap.

I march, with as much dignity as my wobbly legs will allow, to the bridge. I need to see what that bastard did to my ship. I need to find out if Ash is okay.

It’s chaos.

As soon as the doors slide open, the acrid smell of burning solder and copper slaps me in the face. It’s followed by a heat so scary, my pulse skips a couple times before kicking into high gear. We’re on fire.

“Vasa!” I shout to my comms officer, who has his head stuffed behind a console. “What’s our status?”

The ship lists again. Seven crew members in various positions of panic, grab for a bulkhead. I, on the other hand, flail about until my feet skid to a halt in the doorjamb.

“Captain.” Vasa lurches toward me, but I wave him off. I don’t need his help. What I need is to get this situation under control. The bridge tips again, sending us all starboard. My head glances off the helm controls and I land on my hands and knees.

“What’s wrong with the stabilizers? Why are we listing so goddamned much, Vasa?” I pull myself up, crawling along the starboard controls until I reach comms up front.

“The docking clamps blew, too much strain from the reverberation and now we’re drifting. I haven’t assessed the damage. But I’m going to be honest, Captain, the stabilizers are the least of our problems.” He waves toward the surface in front of him with its blinking lights and swallows hard before continuing. “We’ve got a hull breach and fires on four different decks, including engineering.” His dull brown hair coats his forehead in a sticky mess. Sweat runs down his pasty face.

Fuck.

That’s my first thought. Too many first priorities. That’s my second.

Vasa stares up at me like a trusting puppy, as if now that I’m here, I’ll have all the answers. The truth about being in charge, and this is the part that sucks, is that most of the time you’re faking. Most of the time you sound like you know what you’re talking about. But you don’t. You’re guessing and hoping your guess doesn’t kill people.

As I stare into the wan face of my third in command, I can’t decide which is the worse of our two problems. Getting sucked into space by a hull breach or the fires sucking up all our oxygen. Either choice I make will kill someone.

“Where is the hull breach?”

“Deck four. There are twelve people on that deck as far as I can tell. But there could be more. The fires are messing with some of the sensors.”

“And where are the fires?

“Med deck, engineering, officer’s mess, and the forward shield compartment.” He traces the blinking lights on the console. Julianna Olczyk, my helms officer, slides up beside us, eager to hear my plan. Her thick blond curls escape her tight bun. I look at the hard faces staring up at me from various stations around the bridge. All with those same hopeful eyes. I know they’re waiting for orders. Waiting for me to take charge.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

“Get a team down to deck four to seal the breach.”

“Comms are down.”

“Christ, Vasa. Is anything working?”

“Emergency life support.”

“Fantastic.” I pace toward the helm to buy myself time. The movement helps keep the panic at bay. I rub my forehead. That helps a bit too. Think of something, and make it fast. I press the heal of my palm into an eye socket, bright blinding pain and light follows. I know what I have to do. I just don’t like it.

“Okay,” I say. Everyone’s attention snaps even tighter, a thread pulled taught. “Vasa, I need you to work on restoring comms. When you get it working, let me know, then contact the Posterusand get a report from them. Olczyk, stay and help him out and see if you can figure out what’s wrong with the stabilizers.” I point to the five other crew members. “You guys, follow me, we’re going to split into groups to tackle the fires and the hull breach.” 

 

v

 

Four chutes and ten minutes later, we’re standing in the landing on deck four, suited up. Two sets of eyes, panicked, await my orders. We’re trained for emergencies, but in truth, these guys aren’t prepared for this. They’re bridge officers. The chances of us finding anyone alive are remote. Our real goal when we enter the deck, is to plug the gapping hole in our hull. I’m unsure if I should prepare them for it. I know none of them will back out now and I’d rather no one throws up with their helmet on.

“Okay, keep your eyes peeled for survivors. There’s a good possibility that no one survived. We all know the textbook description of space exposure, but the reality is much, much worse. Trust me. If you feel sick, don’t play the hero. Head back here.” Nods from both of them. Good. I hope they actually listen. “We need to make it to the starboard side, section fifteen. That’s where the breach is.”

I sent the other three to engineering to get control of that fire first. Without engineering we’d be dead in the water. After that, we’re all headed to the med deck. I have a feeling it’ll be filling up real soon.

I wave my hand over the door sensor and it opens to a silent hallway. The atmosphere is eerie. The emergency lights flash red above and the LEDs blink green along the floor. Each pointing the direction to safety. Opposite the direction we’re heading.

As soon as the door closes behind us, the ship lists again and we stumble along the corridor. I lose my footing and slide face-first onto the floor, inches from a wide-eyed Fukui. His skin is a dull gray, his expression frozen in a horrified grimace. I stagger back. The ship swings aft and my knee slams down on his hand.

It shatters.

In an instant, pieces of the engineer are falling through the metal grate at my feet. With my palm braced on the wall, I take deep, calming breaths, willing my heart to slow and my mind to focus on our task.

The hole, when we reach it, is no bigger than my head. Through the opening the Posterusspins into view as we drift further away. It looks undamaged except for the patch we tore off. Debris streams from the breach like water trickling from a tap.

I’m amazed by our sheer dumb luck. As the vastness of space spreads out before us, the silence is so powerful it’s almost deafening. Our insignificance and fragility has never been so clear. It’s indescribable, this feeling that washes over me. As I stand on the edge, I’m humbled and awed and at an utter loss as the stars, so numerous, swarm my senses. We should be dead. So many moments in our evolution, in our history, should have aided in our extinction. Yet here we are, a misplaced comma in a line of code, so small and yet still capable of wreaking havoc all the same.

In moments, the sight is gone as we place a panel over the hole and apply welding tape to bind it in place. As soon as the weld is complete, a whoosh of sound breaks free and surrounds us.

“Come on guys, let’s go put out some fires.”

The intercom crackles in my helmet and I hear Vasa’s voice make contact.

“Do you copy, Captain?”

“Status report.”

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

I huff at him. “Get to the point. What’s happening on the Posterus? Do they know what happened? What the casualties are?” Is Ash alive?

“That would be part of the bad news.”

“Only part?”

“You should come up to hear this, Captain.”

“I’m a little busy right now. I’m about to rendezvous with the fire teams.”

“Fire teams just checked in. All but one have been neutralized. We need you on the bridge.”

“Was that the good news?”

He hesitates. “No, I’ve got comms back up and working.”

 

v

 

“Shut those goddamn alarms off, Vasa.” I growl as I step onto the bridge. I turn, startled to see Sarka leaning against the wall. Olczyk’s got a gun pointed at his stomach and there’s an insouciant grin on the bastard’s face.

I jerk a thumb at him as I stomp toward the helm. “Part of the bad news?” Vasa only nods. He’s focused on the chart in front of us.

“The Posterusisn’t much better off than us. Sensors are down, but they were able to launch a probe.” He transfers the chart to the front holo. It darkens to become a mass of stars and ping times running up along the side.

“What is that?” I ask, stepping closer to examine the chart.

“That’s where we are.” Our call sign pulses lost—along with the Posterus’s—amid various colored dots. Each represents a different type of star. I don’t recognize a single configuration.

“That can’t be. The probe must be malfunctioning.”

Vasa shifts, running his hand along the front of his tunic. “They sent out three, all came back with these results.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means this ain’t Kansas.” Still leaning against the wall, Sarka grins. It’s wolfish and mean.

Vasa frowns. “Um, I’m not sure what Kansas is, but we’re definitely not in our solar system anymore.”

 

Chapter Two

“Why can’t we go back?”

The room, which a second ago had been full of screeching representatives, goes deadly silent at this question. The question comes from a short man with bristly eyebrows too large for his forehead. His light green uniform holds the insignia of the wellness division. It’s a lie that there are no stupid questions. And judging by the reaction of Captain Harrios sitting next to him, he agrees.

Two days have passed and we still have no better understanding about what’s happened. Somehow we’ve traveled to another galaxy. We have no idea how, or even the distance from our own. It’s as if some giant hand has lifted us from one pond and plopped us down in another.

I’m not a religious person. I’ve never believed in a higher power. Yet, I’m always intrigued by the theories we are either dust in the grooves of someone’s floor or a simulation. These theories explain when science can’t. They’re like the gods of our past. There’s always a scientific answer and I know there must be for what’s happened to us. We have to be patient.

“Go back?” Amit, the Posterus’s head of engineering stands, an incredulous look on his face. “How? We don’t even know where we are. It would be like blindfolding you in a maze, leading you to the middle, and asking you to make your way out the way you came.” The giant man spits as he talks. He peers around the table, silently asking for confirmation that this man is stupid and should leave.

The room stays silent. A few of the members, bored already, gaze out the window onto the enormous concourse of the Posterus. Everything is shiny and new. Compared to the Persephone, which has years of smells, the Posterusis sterile. Every dent, scorch mark, burn and stain on my ship comes with a story. This place feels like the packaging hasn’t even come off yet.

Captain Harrios—our representative for Union fleet—clears his throat. While I agree finding a way to get back is the wrong focus for this meeting and our immediate goals, I keep quiet. As Captain Harrios reminded me before the meeting, I’m a side note. I’m only here to give a brief on the events that occurred with Davis Sarka.

Having to explain how the leader of the Burrs hijacked my ship was not how I wanted to spend my morning. Never mind trying to explain the logistics of turning a human being into a bomb.

Call him what you want, a terrorist, space pirate, pain in the ass, his involvement is the reason we’re here, stuck in this unknown system. We’re in this mess because of his ideals about humans and interstellar space travel.

Harrios opens his mouth to speak but Amit interrupts him. “We aren’t going anywhere, not until we repair the engine. And that’s going to take months.” Amit flops back in his seat. It groans from the weight. “Months.” He throws his hands in the air to emphasize his statement in case anyone thinks he’s exaggerating.

The room explodes again. Politicians, engineers, doctors, even the chef and botanist have opinions. I lean back and observe as each screams louder. Each hoping their voice will be the one to rise above the din, even though they refuse to listen. I watch as Ash’s great hope disintegrates into ego and rhetoric. Our first chance to prove we can govern better than the Commons and here we are, no better. Each section thinks they know best. Each representative bullies for their opinion to matter. It makes me sick to think how right Vasa is.

When we began the planning stages of this journey, we also created a new way to govern. We formed committees with one representative from each of the sixteen departments. No one is in charge, everyone has equal say. Each section votes on their representative.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of this whole mission to find a suitable planet to colonize? So what if our starting position has changed, why does the mission? Why can’t we continue from here?” It isn’t very loud. I say it more to myself than anyone else, perhaps that’s why it gets noticed. Everyone stops and turns to me. Captain Harrios’s nostrils flare as he shoots me a venomous look. There is a clear warning in his eyes: keep quiet.

Harrios stands. His six foot four inches tower over the table. He runs his hands down the front of his uniform, emphasizing the medals displayed at his breast. What an ass. “I suggest that while the engine is being repaired we use this time to assess how we got here. Figure out how, if possible, we make it back. If we have no idea where we are, there’s no possible way we can find Kepler 980f from here.” His build and stature remind me of my father when he was a young lieutenant. From the pictures I’ve seen, they both have that same cocky attitude pouring out of every orifice. Only Harrios isn’t so young and it’s beginning to show. His cheeks are drooping off his face like pudding sliding down a wall and it’s getting harder for his uniform to hold in his paunch. It protrudes out the bottom when he forgets to keep it sucked in.

Captain Harrios is the epitome of career officer. He was born into a family of generals leading back to several world wars. He’s made a name for himself by stepping on anyone willing to bend over enough for him to get a foothold. While I don’t deny my own similar ambitions, I doubt I’ve left the same wake as Harrios. There are several rumors flying around that he bribed his way onto the mission. It’s the only way to explain why someone ten years older than the age cap made it onto the mission roster. Only a select few in extraordinary circumstances have been able to bypass the age cap. I almost didn’t make the cut myself. At thirty-four I slipped in with one year in my favor.

“I’m not suggesting we do. I’m suggesting we find a different planet, one that’s closer. I’ve been studying the information sent back by the probes. It’s clear there are planets in the sweet spot within a hundred light years of us. And while we’re waiting, instead of sitting on our as—sitting around, why not send out the fleet ships? We can mine from some of the surrounding asteroids.” I’m not about to sit around for six months waiting for other people to decide my future. I’d rather be in charge of that myself.

I didn’t choose the best career path if I wanted to be in charge of my own life. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent the last fifteen years doing everything I could to get where I am today. Granted, lost in an unknown galaxy fighting over who’s in charge is not the end goal. But I’m captain of my own ship. I at least have command over my own officers. With the Union fleet commanders a distant speck, I can steer myself and my ship with more say. Harrios may be our representative, but he doesn’t command me. We’re the same rank. I’m not going to let him take charge and decide what the Persephonedoes for the next six months.

There are nods around the table as my idea takes hold. We started this mission with the knowledge that none of us would make it to our final destination. Our estimate is that it would take us over a hundred years to make it to Kepler 980f, the planet we’ve chosen for colonization. But any number of things can set us back. There’s even the possibility we’ll get there and it won’t be suitable after all. This mission is a big risk. The asteroid belt can’t sustain our species forever. It was only a temporary solution until we could find something more permanent.

The exodus from Earth to the Belt wasn’t something that happened overnight. It took decades. Over fifty years of planning. Fifty years of knowing there was nothing to do but watch a planet die around you. The ecosystem that humans once fit so perfectly in was disintegrating around them. I can’t imagine what it would be like to know your children wouldn’t grow up in the same world you did. Millions of others before you destroyed that for them because of ignorance and laziness and greed. Those fifty years were the worst.

There was poverty and death like nothing the world had ever seen. The wars were over, leaving nations devoid of resources and money. The only way to survive was to pool together and start fresh. That’s how the Commons started. The dregs of the world’s nations banded together and created the rudimentary council that became the Belt’s government.

They constructed ships and made plans. They built modules to transport up to the asteroids in the Belt and constructed the first cities. They started on Ceres, which was the largest of the asteroids, a dwarf planet which became Alpha. They established the first colonies and the Commons to oversee the rest of the settlements. There were five. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. A stray asteroid destroyed Gamma over fifteen years ago. Few survived.

But before all that, before even the last wars, humans had pipe dreams of terraforming Mars. They spent almost a quintillion on the project. The last three countries with space programs sent up five ships with a different purpose. The Frontier missions. Robots manned the first four and established the settlement. Each dropped off a set of supplies for the fifth and final mission. The last one, manned by five astronauts.

But the ship never made it to Mars and no one knows what happened. The ship didn’t explode. It didn’t crash. It disappeared into the unknown. The program bottomed out after that. And then the resource wars started and all thoughts of building settlements on distant planets vanished.

After Gamma’s destruction, the Commons proposed our current mission. We needed to think bigger, think long-term. They designed and built the Posterusover the next twenty years. A generational ship carrying over 45,000 people to begin a new life on a new planet. Only now, those 45,000 people are stranded in an unknown galaxy with no clue how we got here.

“How long would it take to send a ship to one of these asteroids?” The captain of the Posterusis a squat woman with short, stylish white hair. I’d only met Captain Wells one time before, but she struck me as someone you didn’t want to cross or piss off. I get the impression that Harrios is coming close to doing both.

“A couple of weeks—”

“Depends on the asteroids’ orbitational position—”

Harrios and I both speak at the same time. Before Harrios can commandeer the discussion, I stand and launch into my proposal. “There are two asteroids within easy reach. I propose we send each of our ships out, the Persephoneand the Brimleyand investigate. It would only take a few weeks, a month at most, to get to each, mine resources, and get back. We could be there and back in under six months, easy.”

Sixteen people focus on me. I’m leaning forward, my palms pressed into the hard metal surface of the table, my heart thumping hard. Before anyone can reject the idea, I push forward. “It’s the reason they included our ships in the mission. We’re faster and more maneuverable than the Posterus. It’s better we spend our time on something productive.”

“You’d want the ships to investigate together?” Someone at the far end asks.

“No.” Both Harrios and I speak at the same time. He looks at me. It’s a brief glimpse, but I see his disdain. He hides it as he turns to Captain Wells. “No. It will be faster if we travel separately.”

“The asteroids are in opposite directions. It’s better if we split,” I say. Even if they were close together, I’d find another asteroid. I don’t need Harrios micromanaging my day to day.

Amit snorts from his seat. “And of course you’ll want to take Hartley with you?”

“Of course. He’s my head of engineering. I’m not going to leave him behind.”

“We need him for the repairs to the engine. It’s his engine.”

This is true, but I suspect Amit wants Hartley to make the work easier for himself. There’s no reason they can’t rebuild the engine without him. “You don’t need Hartley. He may have designed the Posterus’s engine, but he didn’t build it. He’ll be more use to me on my ship.”

“Is this true?” Captain Wells asks.

I nod. “We’re still making repairs.”

“What if he’d rather stay here? Hartley’s a scientist, not an adventurer.” Amit raises his eyebrows at me.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s Ash, my first officer, who knows Hartley best. But it doesn’t matter. I’m going on this mission with Hartley or not at all. I have to find the diplomatic way to make this clear. “If you need help with the engine rebuild I have no problem transferring crew from my ship. Fukui has been working under Hartley for the past month, he would be as good…” I trail off, remembering Fukui’s blank stare. The weight of it crushes me. We knew starting out there would be casualties. Space travel, even in this century, is dangerous. But we’ve barely begun, and already our death toll is at sixteen, eight of whom are from the Persephone. I try to think of Fukui as a number, one among many, but it isn’t possible. I can see all eight faces as if they’re standing in front of me. 

I look up to see everyone staring at me. “Um, Fukui was one of our casualties.” I take a deep breath, I need to be strong about this. “But you can have your pick. Not Hartley. I need someone who knows my ship. And it’s not a good time to introduce a new head of engineering to my crew. Not with everything else that’s happened.” I let that thought sink in. Everyone knows we’ve had the greatest loss. I’m sure many see it as a failing on my part, but that’s not something in my control, so I let it wash away. I have too many other things to worry about.

“That’s a reasonable request,” Captain Wells says, pulling everyone back to the situation at hand. “If no one else has any other questions why don’t we take a vote?” There will be seventeen votes. Because this is a Union fleet matter, Harrios’s will count as two. I have a feeling he’s going to shoot down the idea, knowing him, he’d rather play it safe. And sure enough, when it comes his turn, he votes no, so does Amit for obvious reasons. But Captain Wells, the man from the wellness division and eight others vote yes. That means in a couple of days, once we finish repairs, the Persephoneis going exploring. 

 

Chapter Three

The meeting breaks up shortly after the vote. I elbow my way through the crowd formed at the door, searching out Captain Wells. I keep at least three people between Harrios and me at all times. The scowl on his face has hardened and I don’t want to get in front of that.

I catch up with Captain Wells near the lifts. It amazes me, still, the sheer size of the Posterusstretching before us. We stand on an upper deck overlooking the main concourse two kilometers in length. I can hardly make out the details at the other end. Above us, the ceiling towers. It’s covered by metallic glass, projecting a constant night sky. 

I found a book once, among my father’s things, called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And it always struck me, that he never once thought of the sky, only the ocean below and the way it felt to dive toward it. The air through his feathers, land rushing to meet him. I remember wondering how something so much a part of the sky could take it for granted. I felt let down that he didn’t spend more time describing the sky. If I had the chance, I would never take the shades of blue and the clouds and the lightness of it for granted.

“Captain Wells, may I have a word?” She turns, her head at breast level, and stares up at me with dark, expectant eyes. “As you know, we have Davis Sarka in our brig. I don’t want to take him with us on our exploration. When can we arrange transfer to the Posterus’s brig?” 

Of course he survived. The man is indestructible. When my crew found him wedged under a bulkhead, there wasn’t a scratch on him. Both members of his crew weren’t so lucky. We still haven’t found them.

She blinks a couple of times, her eyes, if possible, going darker, then says, “Our brig?” She shakes her head. Her white hair moves with it like it’s sculpted. She takes my arm and pulls me aside and, from her expression, I know what she’s about to say will not make me happy. “I know it will be an inconvenience, but it’s best if you keep Sarka with you. Union fleet has training to deal with the Burrs that we don’t.” She gestures to a man standing a few feet away. He’s so thin, his stomach is concave. His pale face searches the crowd, watching, but it’s only cursory. Behind those eyes, no one’s home. His mind is miles away.

“That’s Brian. He’s our security on board the Posterus. He won’t be much use if we have to deal with Sarka.” 

“That’s your security?” I’m stunned. I look out again at the vastness of the station.

“He’s not our only security, but he’s a good representation. We’re a small community, Captain Kellow. Yes, the ship is big, but the settlement itself is small, especially if this were the Belt. Both the Persephoneand the Brimleyhave brigs and ample security. We don’t foresee the need to have more than that.” Someone beside me snorts.

Harrios, who has maneuvered his way through the crowd, says, “We’ll see how long that lasts.” For once we actually agree, but I keep my mouth shut.

“But what am I supposed to do with him? I can’t keep him in my brig forever. It’s tempting, believe me, but inhumane.”

Captain Wells shrugs. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. The jurisdiction is clear. He’s Union fleet’s problem.” My mouth falls open and I close it. Harrios raises his hands like it’s not his problem either. Great. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Her attitude is understandable. Sarka has a reputation for being brutal and dangerous. If I were in her position, I would do the same. He’s a problem no one wants. Most of all me. A large part of me wishes he’d died in the explosion. It would serve him right after he tried to blow us all up.

Captain Wells steps into the lift, and I move to follow, but Harrios taps my arm. I suppress a sigh, hold back, and watch as all hope of offloading Sarka disappears behind two metal doors.

I turn toward the stairs instead of sticking around to hear what Harrios has to say in front of a dozen or so strangers. The meeting has dispersed, but there’re still a lot of people milling about. Every few seconds I have to squeeze between one person or another. Behind me the captain huffs and snorts, like he’s walking up the stairs instead of down.

He catches up to me at the bottom, matching my stride. It’s getting on my last nerve the way he stomps after me. I stop and turn and he almost rams into me.

“What?” I put my hands on my hips. “Is there a reason you’re following me?”

I don’t like his expression. His face is so pinched the skin between his brows has almost swallowed his eyes.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, Kellow. If you want my position on the council, you’re going to have one hell of a fight ahead of you.” Again, his hands slide down the front of his tunic. His fingers caress the medals like they’re announcing he’s better. My uniform is bare compared to his, especially today. The only pin above my breast is my captain’s insignia.

With everything that’s happened, I’ve had no time to think let alone worry about my appearance. Harrios plays the career officer well. If he hadn’t joined this mission, he would’ve done well in the Commons. I was surprised when I heard his was the other fleet ship selected because we all assumed he’d go into politics.

I huff and turn to leave. I don’t need any of his posturing bullshit. Not today. But I know he’ll stalk me all the way to the med center. So instead I say, “The idea of laying up for half a year when we have one of the greatest opportunities human exploration has ever known, is shortsighted. But if that’s your thing, by all means, have at it. But I’ll be damned if I give up this chance to see what’s out there.” You can keep your fucking council position. I don’t say the last part. Letting it loose in my mind makes me feel better.

“You expect me to believe that show was so that you didn’t have to sit around for the next couple months?” He smirks, as if I couldn’t be telling the truth. His tone and that look gets my back up like nothing else. I can actually feel my nostrils expanding like a bull ready to charge.

But I hold it in. I tuck the anger deep, like always. “To be honest, I don’t care what you think.” I stomp off and leave him standing in the middle of the hallway, dwarfed by the soaring concourse.

It’s a good hike from the command center to the med center, and as always, the exercise helps calm my mind. It feels almost like walking through one of the major avenues on Alpha. Only this is more—I don’t want to say rustic, because it’s not. But there’s a pioneer vibe to the whole thing, as if they’ve channeled Earth’s early settlers.

Some of the stores are still boarded up, having sustained damage during the explosion. But others, like the food stalls and cafes, are packed with customers. There’s a party vibe floating around. And why not? We all survived our first test. Space is a dangerous place. If you don’t have the balls to hack it, you shouldn’t be out here.

Most of the Posterus, the ones who will make up the majority of our population, are looking for a better life. They’re from places like Epsilon and Delta. I don’t blame them. Who would want to stick around for a job mining or farming? I sure as hell didn’t. Others are adventurers. They’re looking to explore without having to join Union fleet or become an asteroid miner. And others still are looking to get around the one child law. Out here, it’s encouraged to procreate. Back on the Belt, pregnant women are viewed with equal parts envy and wariness. Resources are scarce. 

After humans fled Earth to colonize the asteroid belt, food was less a privilege and more a luxury. I’ve heard of kids starving to death, especially in the group homes on Epsilon. There are a lot of accidents in the mines. If you’re unlucky enough to be born on Epsilon and your parents die in the mines, they put you in a group home where one day you’ll take their place. Every child, once cherished, is now seen as another mouth to feed. It’s no wonder thousands signed up. Everyone here will be dead long before we reach our destination, but it’s still a hell of a lot better for some than life on the Belt.

I enter the med center located on the Posterus’s lower decks, looking for Ash. With everything that’s happened, I haven’t had a chance to see her. I’ve been going nonstop since I woke up in my cabin two days ago. Every time I tried to come see her something else would come up. I haven’t even had a chance to sleep. I only have the doctor’s word she’s alive. But I need to see it for myself. I need to make sure she’s all right. 

I still don’t know how it’s possible. No one does. Even Hartley said she should be dead. We all should. I spoke to him yesterday evening. He said he grabbed her so she wouldn’t fall into the engine pit. As soon as he touched her his hand felt heavy like it had become the weight of her and himself combined. And then there was this sense of lightness like they were floating and everything went white. That’s all he’ll say. He can’t remember anything else, and I can tell it’s infuriating him not knowing.

He woke up on the floor in the engine bay with Ash next to him. His grip was still fused to her forearm. He wasn’t hurt.

But Ash was.

The doctor said she had burns on most of her body and a dislocated shoulder. Her right hand gripped some device of Hartley’s. He removed it along with most of the skin on her palm.

I hear her before I even reach her room. She laughs at something someone’s said and I walk a little faster.

I stop before I enter and stare. From where I stand, I can see her, but she can’t see me. A blue sling holds her arm tight against her chest, keeping it immobile. She’s in a hospital gown, her leg flung on top of the blanket. There’s a deep purple bruise along her calf and grafting bandages on most of her left side. She looks so small sitting in the hospital bed, I have an urge to encase her in protective foam.

Her face is still lit up from laughter, acting as if she were sitting in the mess not the hospital covered in burns. She doesn’t look like she almost died two days earlier. She’s pulled her auburn hair back into a messy ponytail. Her pale skin has a healthy flush to it.

There’s someone sitting on the bed in front of her. I can’t see who it is, but when I hear that booming laugh, I realize it’s Hartley.

“I guess I should be happy, even if I don’t get a school named after me. You think the captain will let me name the incident after myself? That is, when I figure out what and how it happened. The Hartley incident sounds pretty cool, right?” he says.

Ash’s face drops a little. She picks at a piece of lint on the bed. “Have you seen her?”

“The captain? Yeah, I briefed her on what happened in the engine room earlier. She has a meeting with the council today. I didn’t tell her it was your idea to eject the core. She seemed kind of mad at you, so I let her think it was my idea.” I roll my eyes at this, like I thought for a second anyone but Ash would be behind such a self-destructive idea.

“Thanks, Hartley.” She reaches out and grabs his hand. “But I doubt she bought it.” There’s silence for a few moments and then she asks, “How did she look? She didn’t get hurt or anything did she?” I feel guilty now. I shouldn’t be eavesdropping on such a personal conversation. I begin to move away to come back later, but Hartley’s next question stops me.

“Is it true then? You and the captain?”

I’m surprised as hell to learn this has been a topic of conversation. Not that much happened. One night. But I thought we’d been discreet.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She scowls, pulling her hand back.

“Oh come on, everyone’s heard the rumors. Well, I guess you haven’t since no one ever talks to you except me and the captain. And also the rumor’s about you, so I guess they wouldn’t tell you even if they did like you.” He takes a breath, then continues, “But there’s a rumor going around about you and the captain.” He lets the sentence trail off and everyone’s imagination goes places it shouldn’t.

But what she says next tears at my insides more than anything. “Do I look like I’d be dumb enough to get involved with my commanding officer?” He doesn’t say anything. Ash huffs and turns away from him, her free arm coming up awkwardly to cross at her chest. “Well, I’m not, Hartley. There’s nothing going on between us. And I don’t care who thinks there is, they can go to hell.”

I lean my head back against the wall. I close my eyes and breathe for a few seconds. Of course, she’s right. There isn’t anything going on between us. There can’t be. But if I’m being honest with myself, there’s more there. Our relationship goes beyond command and friendship. The way she says it though, like it’s nothing to her, fills me with shame. Shame at the way I behaved, shame at my own constant selfishness. Always that.

I push off from the wall and rush toward the exit, almost laughing at my own unerring selfishness. If I see something I want, it doesn’t matter what I have to do, who I have to hurt, I’ll get it in the end.