Cal stepped into the doorway of his shuttle and raised a hand to shield his eyes. The light on Terra was so harsh, particularly this continent. He reached into his coat and pulled out the tinted glasses and the bio-scanner he carried. Slipping the glasses on, he checked the scanner screen to make sure he had landed in the right place. The readout confirmed it: Sol.Terra, Australia, Sydney. A small blip on the corner of the screen told him the Soschan he’d been sent to find wasn’t far away. Too violent for IU membership, many Soschans had taken to using their unique camouflage ability to emigrate Off-World illegally. This suited Cal just fine, as it gave him an excuse to travel there as well to pick them up.
Pocketing the device, Cal stepped down onto the dry grass and looked out across the small park and at the city properly, his breath coming out in a small whoosh. Balloons and streamers of every colour scattered the park and street. Garlands draped across the lamp posts and building facades, and posters of the big blue and green marble hung in every shop front window. Music bellowed from somewhere further down the street, the thumping bass carrying through the soles of his shoes.
Cal’s eyes roamed over the setting, taking in the fresh cladding and new paint, his gaze lingering on the regions of bare scaffolding, wrapped up in plastic, and the odd gaps between buildings that were neatly scraped piles of rubble. The Terrans had done a lot to restore their cities in the last year, but there were still scars. Instead of leaving the wounds bare, the Terrans had decorated the skeletons of their torched cities with paint and ribbons. Cal smiled to himself, there was something infectious about Terran spirit, and Terran resilience. Nowhere else in the universe did people celebrate like they did on Sol.Terra.
The air was hot, too hot for his liking. Cal hunched into his coat; it would keep the worst of the heat off for a short time. A glance at the sun told him that it was nearing evening anyway; he need only wait for Sol to saunter off and take its smothering heat with it. He took a few steps towards the main street and a man in a bright orange vest ran over to him.
“Excuse me, sir, you can’t leave your ship there,” the balding Terran called out.
Cal slipped his badge out of his coat pocket and held it open.
“Oh, sorry, mate.”
Cal passed him, trying to ignore the man’s stare and the piqued interest emanating from him. When he reached the footpath on the street, he was forced to stop to allow a group of Terrans pass. The youths had the blue and green image of their planet painted on their faces. One of the males was shirtless with TERRA written across his chest in blue lettering and a Terran flag tied around his neck like a cape. The group cheered and whooped as they galloped down the street, one of the girls pausing by Cal to throw a handful of silver sprinkles over him. He plucked one of the little stars off his coat.
Cal looked at his scanner again, then started down the street, towards what looked like a parade going past. The entire area was packed with people all rushing around to be part of the activity. Their collective excitement was almost deafening and Cal was forced to close his mind to the psychic assault. He would need to get closer to the Soshan before he could start listening for it, but even then, spotting the one drop of anxiety in a wave of euphoria was going to be a challenge. Of all the days to come here, it had to be Terra Day.
* * *
Pia polished a table that was already clean, absently wondering how much longer she had until the end of her shift. Her fellow waitress was equally disengaged.
“Of all the days to be stuck working, it had to be Terra Day,” Amber said, leaning against the window at the front of the cafe, spray bottle of detergent hanging at her side.
“It’s an annual event,” Pia pointed out, wiping down another table, despite the fact no one had sat in it. “You can go next year.”
“Yeah, but it won’t be the same, will it?” she said, looking back over her shoulder at Pia. “This is the first annual Terra Day, you know, after the naming ceremony. Earth has officially been on the intergalactic map for a whole year.”
“You mean Terra has,” Tony added, emerging from the kitchen and looking at them both from over the counter. “You’ve gotta get out of the habit of saying “Earth”, Amber, we don’t want any Off-Worlders coming here and you confusing them.”
“By “Off-Worlders” you mean aliens,” she grinned. “And God knows we could do with a little business from abroad.” She flung her cleaning cloth across the empty cafe. Pia snatched it out of the air and tucked it into her own apron. “Seriously, Tony, why are we even open today? No one’s coming in.”
“Only ‘cause the parade’s on, but you wait, it’s going to go right past here and then we’ll be flooded.”
Tony returned to the kitchen and Amber rolled her eyes at his back.
“We’d better get at least one decent alien in here,” she said, weaving around the tables to Pia’s side and taking back her cloth. “I wanna see a really creepy one, with tentacles or something. Most of them could just be people in costume. How are you supposed to tell?”
“Doesn’t hurt to just ask,” Pia said, taking an empty salt shaker to the counter to be refilled. “Or just check and see if they’re wearing those translator things. They wouldn’t need one unless they were from Off-World.”
Amber nodded and opened her mouth to respond but the sound of drumming and voices cheering drowned her out. Both women turned towards the front of the cafe and Amber darted back to the window, letting out a loud sigh.
“They’re playing the broadcast from the Union rep from Tentarvo,” she called. “We’re missing it.” She turned back to Pia. “Aren’t you even a little bit annoyed?”
Pia shrugged, leaning a hip against one of the tables. “It’s a parade, followed by a pre-recorded message played on a big projector.”
“Of an alien. Don’t you want to see them?”
“Of course I do, but not just because it’s on a screen, or one wanders in for a coffee. I want to see Tentarvo and the other worlds for real, I want to see the whole galaxy.”
“You can’t just up and leave, Pia. It’s not like flying to Europe, you’re talking about another planet.”
Pia pulled her Intergalactic Union passport out of her back pocket and held it up for Amber to see. Her application had been accepted two days before, and she hadn’t let go of the precious document since.
“Now that Terra’s fully registered, I can go anywhere in the IU.”
Amber gave a tiny snort and turned back to the window, leaning her shoulder against the glass. “Well, good luck with that, because working a public holiday to get the time-and-a-half isn’t going to cut it. So unless your mum finds some rich single guy in India and marries you off to him, you’re never going to be able to afford the ticket.”
Pia put the passport away and pulled out her cloth again. “I’ll get the money, somehow. And once I do, I’ll be on the first ship to Tentarvo.”
“Why are you so damn keen to get off world? I mean, sure, aliens, and that’s cool and all, but do really want to leave home?”
Amber hopped away from the window and a moment later a young couple entered with a child. The little boy, his face painted like the world, was babbling about the parade at top speed and waving his Terra Day balloon. Pia followed the couple to their chosen table with her order tablet.
Tony had been right; within minutes, the cafe filled with celebrators from the parade outside. Pia was running between tables, taking orders, while Amber ran drinks and food out to the customers.
“Pia,” Amber hissed, pulling the other girl to her side before she could head out across the floor again with a double shot espresso. “That guy in the corner, the one by himself, I think he’s an alien.”
Pia glanced in the direction Amber had indicated, trying to be subtle. It was the table she was supposed to be taking the espresso to. The man was short, middle aged with terrible fake tan and a beer gut hidden under a lurid Hawaiian shirt.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “He looks pretty ordinary.”
“Yeah, but he’s got a translator. I saw it on a chain around his neck.” Amber turned back to look at him then grabbed Pia’s tray. “I’m going to ask him.”
“What?” Pia grabbed the tray again and held onto it. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not? You’re the one who said it doesn’t hurt.”
“I didn’t mean here, if Tony finds out you’re harassing his customers.”
“Don’t worry,” she tugged the tray from Pia’s grip and batted her eyelashes. “I’ll be polite.”
Pia sucked in a breath and turned back to the cafe door as it swung open again. The man who entered had a face more angular than any she was used too, with a sharp nose and pointed chin and dark brown hair that stuck up in every direction from running his fingers through it too many times. He removed his sunglasses and slipped them into a pocket in his long over-coat.
He must be mad, Pia thought, wearing that coat in this heat.
He was holding something else in his palm, a flat device similar to her tablet. He looked at it then across the cafe, as if searching for someone.
“Can I get you anything?” Pia asked. The man turned quickly to face her. He was very tall; Pia felt like a pixie beside him. Although that wasn’t uncommon, her brother, Harry, had gotten all the tall genes in the family.
“Ice,” he said, turning his face towards the air conditioning vent. “Well, not just ice, something with ice would be good.”
“How about coffee?”
“Does that have ice in it?”
Pia held back a smile. “We can make it with ice.”
“Great, one coffee with ice.”
Pia nodded and tapped Ice Coffee on her tablet. “Take a seat.” As the stranger settled himself at a table, the chain around his neck fell forward slightly against the open collar of his navy-blue shirt, and she caught a glimpse of a small intergalactic psychic translator.
* * *
Cal watched the little caramel-skinned waitress who had taken his order disappear back into the kitchen, long, dark braid swinging behind her. He allowed his mind to open a little and began to sieve through the emotions in the small eatery. Most of the people were still buzzing from the day’s events, some eager for the night show to come. No one gave off a vibe that was anxious or wary, but then, if the Soschan thought it was safe, it had no reason to be concerned. Just as Cal was considering ways to prompt the Soschan into revealing itself, a second waitress approached a vibrantly coloured man in the far corner.
“Excuse me,” she said, speaking in a stage whisper that carried across the whole room. “I was just wondering what planet you’re from.”
The orange man looked up at her, small eyes bulging. “I beg your pardon, miss.”
“It’s all right, I’m just curious. We don’t get many aliens.” She no longer pretended to keep her voice down and several of the cafe’s other patrons turned to look in their direction.
“I’m not an Off-Worlder,” he said in a gruff voice, his indignation mingling with her curiosity. “I’m–I’m from the Americas.”
“Americans don’t carry space translators.”
The man’s emotional signature changed from irritated to angry as he pushed himself up from the table. Cal also stood, his hand reaching into his coat for his inhibitor cuffs. Every eye in the cafe was locked on the waitress and the man, but one pair turned to look at Cal, sending towards him a sudden jab of fear.
Cal spun around and met the gaze of a young man, sitting with a Terran woman and a toddler with a painted face. The two stared at each other for a moment. The man launched himself off his chair. Cal lunged for the door, barring the way.
“Jeff, what are you doing?” the woman called, and for a moment the orange man was forgotten.
Cal pulled out his badge. “Intergalactic Union Fugitive Retrieval Department. I’m going to need to see some ID,” he looked to the orange man too. ‘Both of you.”
The man in the floral shirt raised his hands then held up a wallet with an IU passport tucked inside. Cal didn’t bother to examine it more closely, judging by the man’s stature and attempts to dye his skin so it looked more Terran, Cal guessed he was Umberran. Umberra was a Union planet, his presence on Terra was completely legal.
Cal turned his attention back to the second man, who was still facing him.
Cal sensed the Soschan’s fear and anger along with its growing desperation. He didn’t dare reach for his inhibitor cuffs again, lest he provoke it into attacking. The Soschan stared at him. It had already realised Cal wasn’t Terran, but if it guessed correctly what he was, it would know its chances of bluffing its way out were over.
“What’s going on?” the woman asked, her eyes moving between the two and coming to land on Cal. “He’s a Terran! That’s my husband.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Cal said as the Soschan stared at his eyes. Cal felt the realisation click into place in the Soschan’s mind. “But you’re wrong on both counts.”
The Soschan snarled. Its jaw opened farther than any Terran’s could, revealing several rows of pointed teeth. Its skin turned grey and slick as a row of suckers appeared along the insides of its tentacle-like arms. Its eyes popped out onto stalks and its clothes split and slid to the floor as its body swelled and its legs fused together into a thick tail. Several people screamed as the Soschan reared up. Cal pressed his back against the door, wondering if he should try and wrestle with the creature’s tentacle limbs, or just snap his inhibitor cuffs around its eyestalks.
“All right, now hang on a second,” Cal said, as the Soschan roared, spittle flying from its teeth.
“What are you?” The woman bellowed. “Where’s my husband?” Jumping to her feet, she grabbed a small flower vase that was sitting on the table and threw it. The vase hit the Soschan’s spongy side and bounced off, smashing on the floor, its flower skidding under a table. The Soschan rounded on the woman and roared again. Its tail whipped across the cafe as it turned, smacking the tray out of the waitress’s hand and sending iced coffee spraying through the air.
Cal jumped in front of the woman before the Soschan could attack her. It pulled back one tentacle arm and thwacked him in the ribs. Cal was thrown across another table, knocking more plates and glasses onto the floor. He hit the tiles hard, landing on several shards of porcelain but the thick fabric of his coat prevented the sharp edges from cutting him. Slime coated the floor, making movement difficult as people scrambled over the furniture and each other to get away from the Soschan. Cal rolled onto his back and looked up to see the Soschan, its attention now back on him as it loomed above him.
Both Cal and the Soschan turned to see the small waitress holding a salt shaker. She wrenched the top off it and flung the entire contents of the bottle onto the Soschan’s back.
The creature screamed as its skin bubbled under the salt. Cal clamped his hands onto his temples, barricading his mind against the Soschan’s pain.
The screaming stopped abruptly as the Soschan morphed back into its Terran form and raced out of the cafe. Cal leapt to his feet, ran past the waitress and followed it out onto the street. The light seared his eyes. He grabbed for his glasses, but they had smashed when the Soschan had thrown him across the room. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, Cal pulled out his bioscanner again.
“Wait,” the waitress’s voice called from behind him.
Cal found the Soschan’s signal on the scanner and began running. As he raced through the city, the skyscrapers blocked the light of the low sun and Cal was able to move without being blinded. The streets were even busier now than they had been during the day. Strings of blue and green lanterns were being lit, criss-crossing the street between lamp posts, lighting a path to Observatory Park. Cal’s scanner led him in the same direction, to a park covered with colourful tents and stalls. People clustered around the glittering merchandise and walked away with flags, hats and flashing hairclips. The thick scents of garlic, soy and all things deep fried sat heavy in the air, and the music blaring from the stage left the glass in the observatory windows quivering.
Cal heard a scream from up ahead and raced towards it, pushing through the crowd. He saw the Soschan up ahead, still in its naked Terran form, arms raised against a woman who was beating it with her handbag. Cal ran towards them. The Soschan noticed him and tried to flee, but Cal managed to grab ahold of its slimy wrist. He reached for his inhibitor cuffs to prevent it from changing shape again, but the pocket where he kept them was empty.
The Soschan turned, realising the man who held it was unarmed. Morphing back into its natural form, it wrapped a suckered tentacle around Cal’s neck and roared.
* * *
Pia stood in the cafe doorway as the stranger tore off down the street in pursuit of the slug-alien. She looked down at the thing he had dropped, she had snatched it up off the floor as the two Off-Worlders ran out of the cafe. It looked like a pair of handcuffs with green LEDs along them. If the stranger really was with the Union Police, he probably needed them.
Pia pulled off her black apron and tossed it back inside the mess of the shop.
“Pia, where are you going?” Amber, white-faced, ran to the door.
She glanced back and held up the cuffs. “To see an alien.”
Pia began running but she was soon swamped inside the crowd. Unable to see over anyone’s heads, she was forced to push through and just hope she was going in the right direction. She followed the masses towards Observatory Park, where the main events of the evening were to be centered. Climbing onto the side of a small rotunda, Pia managed to get a look over the crowd, but with the sunlight almost completely gone now, it was impossible to pick out either of the Off-Worlders.
A scream drew her attention. She saw a woman bashing a naked man over the head with her handbag. She guessed he had made a grab for her, looking for clothes to cover himself after he’d shredded his other ones.
Pia jumped down off the rotunda and back into the crowd, weaving her way through the packed bodies towards the woman’s shouts. When she finally broke through the crowd, she was standing in a ring that had been cleared around the aliens. The slug monster was back, one of its tentacles coiled around the neck of the man from the cafe.
Pia’s grip on the handcuffs tightened and she ran forwards.
“Hey, slimy, leave him alone.”
The eyestalks swivelled in her direction and the creature balked, releasing its hold and slithering away at an impressive speed. The crowd jumped aside to clear a path for it as it surged through.
Pia ran towards the man, now massaging his throat which had an ugly red sucker mark on it. She knelt down beside him, about to put a hand on his back but stopped herself.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” he croaked then turned to look in the direction the slug had run. “It certainly remembered you. What are you doing here?”
“You dropped these.” She held out the handcuffs and he grabbed them, getting to his feet.
“Thanks, you should go,” he said with a hint of an accent that was familiar, but not Australian. He started jogging after the slug, following its slime trail through the crowd.
“I can help you,” she called out, racing along behind him trying to keep up with his longer strides.
“Don’t worry, I can manage.”
“Yes, you’re doing wonderfully so far.”
They came to a stop, the slime trail had dissipated and the crowd had closed in. He looked down at her.
“You didn’t bring any more salt, did you?”
“Good. Call me Cal.” He extended a hand.
“Pia Lockheart.” She shook it and he started moving again. “Wait, what was that thing?” She hurried after him.
“Shape changer from the planet Enda.Soscha,” Cal answered back over his shoulder.
“Never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t have, they were kicked out of the Union.”
“They wouldn’t stop killing people.”
Pia stopped, then forced herself to keep moving before she lost Cal. “Does that mean that man, the woman’s real husband, is he…”
“Dead,’ Cal finished, “Soschans drain their victims and then become them. He would have killed the rest of the family eventually.”
“Do you really work for the Union?” she asked as Cal came to a stop again and pulled a device out of his pocket.
“Yes,” he said, keeping his eyes on the small screen as he turned slowly.
“Is that thing going to find the Soschan?”
“Not in this crowd,” he put it back in his pocket. “Too much interference.”
“So how do we find it?”
Cal continued to turn on the spot until a singing hiss drew both their gazes. A red light shot up into the sky and exploded with a resonating boom into a ball of coloured sparks. The crowd cheered and three more fireworks were launched into the sky.
“The fireworks, where are they coming from?” Cal asked quickly.
“The Observatory tower,” Pia answered, pointing in the direction of the old stone building.
Cal started running again and Pia raced along in his wake, letting him clear a path through the masses for both of them.
“What’s wrong with the fireworks?” she called out.
“It’s the noise,” he shouted back over the next boom. “Soschan’s are attracted to vibrations, that’s why it came here in the first place, it followed the music.”
The sound of cheering became screaming as Pia and Cal reached another wall of people around the base of the building. Event organisers in orange vests pushed people back from the Observatory where a giant slug was pawing at the stone wall, trying to heave its body up the brick surface. Even using its tentacles for aid, the Soschan couldn’t climb the building. Its soft body reared up, only to slide back down again.
“The gravity on Soscha is a lot less,” Cal said to her quickly. “That’s why they take Terran forms, they can’t survive here in their own bodies for long.”
Police officers in blue hats and flak jackets surrounded the Soschan, guns raised as they shouted orders. Their voices went unheard over the booming pyrotechnics display.
Cal looked at the armed officers and shoved his way forward. An orange vested official tried to hold him back, but Cal flashed his badge again and ducked under the official’s arm with Pia right behind him.
“Stop, stop. Don’t shoot it,” he called.
One of the police officers spun around, pointing his weapon at Cal instead.
“Behind the line,” the officer shouted. Cal held up his badge again.
“IU Fugitive Retrieval. Sorry, officer, I’m afraid I get first dibs on this one.”
Another officer moved closer to the Soschan, barking at it to get away from the Observatory wall. The slug ignored him. The officer nudged the creature with the tip of his gun and it screeched, lashing out with a tentacle and batting the officer into the air. He flew back and crashed into the wall of onlookers.
The other police began shouting again, both hands on their weapons.
“Don’t shoot,” Cal ordered again.
“It’s attacking us,” an officer bit back.
“Because it’s in pain,” Cal snapped.
Pia looked up at the Soschan, its basic physiology looked the same as any terrestrial gastropod. That was what had prompted her to grab the salt in the first place. In the flashing light of the fireworks and torches, she saw an ugly burn mark on the creature’s back where most of the salt hit it.
Pia glanced to her left and right and saw two people carrying bucket sized sodas. She snatched the drinks from their hands, ignoring their cries and squeezed the cardboard cups to make the tops pop off. Then she raced forwards and emptied both vessels onto the Soschan’s skin.
It yelped, but the cry was one of relief, not pain. The Soschan pulled back off the brick wall and slumped down onto the grass, momentarily placated.
Cal stepped up to Pia’s side and glanced down at her with a smile. “Nice work, Pia Lockheart.” Raising his handcuffs, he clipped the two halves together. Opening it into one large cuff, he placed it against the Soschan’s middle. Green lights flashed along the metal and a glowing strip extended around the creature’s body, locking the cuff in place. “Inhibitor cuff,” he said in answer to her questioning look. “It will prevent it changing shape again.” Then he turned his attention back to the Soschan. “You are being placed under the arrest of the Intergalactic Union on pending charges of murder, assault, and the unauthorised breaching of Union borders. If you have anything to say in your defence, save it for Tentarvo.”
Cal turned his back and began walking. This time the orange and blue officials lent their aid in clearing a path. Pia thought for a moment that Cal was simply going to leave the Soschan behind, but as he reached a distance of about five metres, a green light on his wrist flashed, repeated by the lights on the inhibitor cuff and the Soschan seemed to be yanked forward a step. Rather than struggle, the slug turned and began crawling along after him.
Pia watched them until both Cal and the Soschan were out of sight. Her hand went to her pocket where the hard corners of her passport jutted through the tight denim.
“Wait,” she called and ran after them. She emerged back onto the main street and looked left and right, but neither Cal nor the Soschan were visible.
The orange glow from the street lamps lit up a silvery line across the pavement, heading towards the docks. Using the Soschan’s slime trail as her guide, Pia ran down the street to the where the crowd thinned near the marine watch tower. The sound of water slapping the docks carried across to her on a salty breeze. In a small grassy reserve, behind a children’s playground, she spied Cal, leading the Soschan towards a compact shuttle that looked like the sliced off nose of an airplane.
“Wait,” Pia called again, jumping down onto the grass. Cal paused and looked back, his eyebrow lifting when he saw her.
“Did I forget something else?”
He looked at her again, a mix of curiosity and puzzlement on his face.
“You’re going to Tentarvo,” she said. Cal nodded. “Take me with you.”
“You’re serious,” he said after a moment, his eyes evaluating her.
“Completely. Take me with you.”
“No.” He turned back towards the shuttle. “The only passengers who get on my ship are wearing inhibitor cuffs.” He nodded to the Soschan as he spoke.
“You wouldn’t even have your prisoner if I hadn’t helped you. Come on, I just need a lift. I have a passport.” She pulled it out to show him. “Now I just need a ride.”
“What are you running from?” he asked, looking back at her.
Cal shook his head. “No one opts to leave their home planet without so much as packing a bag unless they’re running from something.”
“Will you take me or not?”
He stared at her for a long moment before giving a shrug and turning back to the shuttle. “All right.”
“What? Really?” Pia stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Yes.” He glanced back. “Now come on, before Luna gets in the way.” As he spoke, his gaze flicked up to the moon and, in the silver light, his eyes suddenly lit up.
“Your eyes are glowing,” Pia said, but Cal turned and ducked inside the shuttle.
“No they’re not,” he called back as first the Soschan and then Pia followed him into the cramped pod.
“I’m telling you, they are.”
Cal looked directly at her, his face less than a meter away. His eyes now had returned to their usual brown.
“They’re reflective, they don’t glow.”
Pia edged her way into the cockpit, keeping her back pressed against the curved white wall to leave as much space between her and the oozing Soschan as possible. Cal edged around the floorspace and sat in a chair facing a command console that was all buttons and lights.
“What, like a cat’s eyes?” she asked, grabbing the back of the only other chair and swinging herself into it. She twisted around to keep one eye on the Soschan, but it hadn’t moved and Cal didn’t seem at all concerned about it.
“Like a what? Oh, a cat, yes, I suppose so.”
He flicked a series of switches and held down a button for three seconds until it beeped. The word Return appeared on the screen and Pia felt the thrum of engines through the shuttle’s body. It took her a moment to realise that the lights visible outside the window were getting further away.
Pia leaned forward in her seat to peer out the window and watched Sydney spread out under her. A light feeling bubbled in her stomach. She had actually done it, she was on her way to Tentarvo. And from there, to the rest of the galaxy.
“That pleased, ay?” Cal asked and she turned to see he was watching her with that curious look again.
Pia sank back into her chair and stared at him instead, noting again that hint of an accent.
“How come you have a Scottish accent?” she asked.
Cal shrugged. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I don’t,” she laughed, “I’m Australian.”
“Well how would I know? You’re speaking perfect Lomar as far as I can tell.”
“Lomar? Oh, right,” she looked at the chain around his neck again, “intergalactic translators work psychically. Well if it’s psychic, why is your accent Scottish?”
“Do you like Scottish accents?”
“My dad’s Scottish.”
“Great, no, that’s weird, I’m not your father.”
“I know that.”
“Good.” Cal nodded once and pressed another button on the console.
The screen readout changed to Docking in Progress. A small ding followed shortly after. Cal leapt up from his seat and slid past the Soschan, hitting a button on the far wall. A large section of the shuttle floor, under the Soschan, angled downwards, forming a ramp that led into a wide cabin.
“In you go,” Cal said and the Soschan slid down into the hold, leaving a thick mucus trail behind. Cal’s nose scrunched up as he looked at it.
“This is why I hate picking up Soschans,” he said, pressing another button to close the shuttle floor off again. A moment later, his gaze flicked back up to Pia, who had tentatively risen from her seat. “And in you go, Miss Lockheart.” He pressed another button and the back wall of the cabin split and opened up to reveal the command deck of a much larger ship.
Cal stepped back and held an arm out, guiding Pia through onto the deck. The entire cabin was lit with a soft, amber glow, which reflected off the polished white walls and floor. Three small steps led up to the main deck, where another console was spread out and black windows stretched above her, revealing the night sky and all the stars she had ever bothered to learn the names of. She wouldn’t be seeing those stars again for a while, at least not from that view.
“Welcome aboard,” Cal said, stepping inside and closing off the shuttle behind him. “This is a Tentarvin Starhunter, Stingray class, designation Raden.”
“Stingray class?” Pia turned to look back at him. “If it’s a Tentarvin ship, why’s it named after a Terran animal?”
Cal looked at her with confusion. “It isn’t. Oh, translator,” he pulled the chain out from under his collar and held the silver disc up to her. “It’s picked up a foreign word and given you the Terran equivalent. That will happen sometimes, particularly with nouns, and some phrases. Best to just go with it.”
Pia nodded and let her gaze wander around the ship again.
“Make yourself comfortable.” Cal slid into one of the moulded chairs in front of the console array. “Gravity level is set similar to Terra, but you might feel some g-forces as we pull away from the planet. If you’re going to be sick, there’s a bathroom behind you, to the left.”
Pia hurried to another chair and sat down, looking for some sort of seat belt, but Cal didn’t seem to be wearing one. She turned her attention instead to the vista beyond. The west coast of Australia was just visible below them. To the right of it, the dark swath of the Tasman Sea. The nose of the ship angled upwards and Australia disappeared. Pia felt as if she was being pushed down into her seat. The feeling was like taking off in an airplane, only much more sudden.
“Once we get out of the atmosphere, we can zip over to the local gate. Got your passport?”
Pia scrabbled to pull her passport out of her pocket and clutched it in both hands. Within minutes, they had cleared Terra’s atmosphere and the ship lurched forwards. The local gate, a huge ring sitting in perpetual orbit above the American Union, appeared before them. A holographic image of a woman’s face materialised on the ship’s window, above the console.
“Starhunter, designation Raden. You are carrying three life forms,” The hologram announced in a monotone voice. “Please provide evidence of authority to travel, and enter your destination.”
Cal nodded to Pia and then to a glowing panel on the console. Pia leaned forward and placed her open passport face down on the scanner. After a moment, it flashed blue.
“Pia Lockheart, authorised,” the hologram stated.
Pia’s heart stuttered and she clenched her hands to stop them shaking.
Cal, grinning slightly, lay his badge over the sensor next. It flashed blue again and he tapped a few extra keys below it.
“Callinoe Darros and prisoner, authorised. Destination selected, designation Eadilon.Tentarvo. You are now cleared to travel. The Intergalactic Union wishes you a safe trip.”
The hologram vanished and Cal turned to her, eyebrows raised and a smirk tugging at his lips.
“Are you ready to leave home, Pia Lockheart?”
Pia looked at the giant gate, pulsing faintly, waiting to carry them to the other side of the galaxy. She turned back to Cal and let her own smile, too timid to come out before now, spread across her face.
She nodded. “Let’s go.”