Sometimes the simple things keep us sane.


1. Stargazing

Ethan couldn’t decide what was more beautiful, the gorgeous woman lying in front of him, or the stunning view of a glimmering, golden star peaking out from the far side the enormous, hazy blue planet that shone from the window just behind her. He looked back and forth between the two, partially stalling, partially deciding.

In one hand, there was Sergeant Madeline Kistler, the dazzling woman she was. Smooth, pale skin lay interlaced with grey sheets, that contrasted with her body. She’d taken most of them, tangling her long legs in the cloth, and depriving Ethan of any. Short locks of yellow and brown hair, made shiny by the thin layer of oil developed over the water rationing practice of the last two weeks, sat strewn across her face. A small, flat nose sat right above thin, pink lips and between brisk, heather blue eyes hidden under closed eyelids.

In the other, Neptune hovered, magnificent and ancient, floating like a perfect sphere of exquisite color and prehistoric grace. It seemed to be rough, like clay, and smooth like glass all the same. It did not age. It did not wither. Instead, it existed in perfect, natural harmony with the vast emptiness around it—which was a beautiful thing in itself. It garnered awe and respect and fear and love; the way watching a hurricane rip through your town makes you sit back and enjoy the beauty, despite the fact that families and households are being ripped apart.

He could feel the seconds tick by, each passing moment tugging at his attention, and thought about what Maddy would decide. “Neptune,” he imagined her saying. “It’s so pretty. And I look like a pea.” A smile manifested in the corner of his lips their common discussion about peas, and how they did or didn’t look like people invaded his thoughts. The alarm on the nightstand buzzed again, a low hum that stood out just enough from the natural hum of the ship to signify that the snooze time had run out.

Without opening her eyes, Maddy gave a little smile of her own; as if she had been thinking the same conversations, and spoke. “You need to get going.”

A sigh. “I know…but it’s just so pretty. Almost as pretty as Neptune back there.”

She opened her eyes just to roll them and told him to shut up. A grin overtook his face as he cautiously clambered out of the bed. It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to the artificial gravity—the entire crew had spent weeks on the ship in for the specific purpose of becoming accustomed to it—but rather that he’d never really had that much grace to begin with. With heavy eyelids, he put on his uniform, clipping all the extra buttons and decorative medals and whatnot. When all was said and done, he looked more like a navy officer than an explorer, and he hated it. All the pseudo-military bull. Maddy wasn’t a sergeant, she was an engineer. Ethan wasn’t a captain. Neither was Stix, or Sam, or Jessie. He was just a frontiersman, trying to look at some shiny new stars and their pretty planets. It was the sponsors that wanted the grandeur.

Something about how it ‘reinforces a sense of duty, which pushes for a more efficient ship,’ or some crap. Ethan knew it was all just for show—so that the biographies and documentaries that the sponsors would get paid royalties for were more dramatic and sold better. Maddy had called him paranoid, but agreed that it was stupid. He finished toying with his hair in the mirror and took a deep breath. The nerves and anxiety for today were bad enough. He didn’t need the tight uniform that made it hard to breathe to top it off.

Quickly, he kissed Maddy on the forehead and slipped out into the hall. It was silent, for the most part. The hiss of the air vents and the purr of the engine filled thee pristine white corridor. A wave of relief washed over him at the sight of nothingness. Claustrophobia never really bothered him before. In fact, he’d always loved small, quiet spaces. But, despite the contradiction, there really wasn’t a lot of space in space. Smaller ships were fine. It was a smaller area, but they weren’t brimming with five hundred people. The Dependence was a different beast. She was enormous, designed to hold way too many humans and scientific equipment. It always felt crammed. Someone was always somewhere, and getting time alone was rough. Especially for the captain.

Ethan shuddered to think about what it would be like once the voyage actually started. The stress had been bad enough during the preparation weeks, and he worried for the upcoming years he’d spend on the opposite side of the galaxy. If he could pray to the council and his fellow captains, he would. But for now, he was simply happy he’d gotten time alone to breathe and think and walk—even if meant waking up half an hour before onboard sunrise. His hands shook as he thought over the day ahead of him, and he wondered how long they’d been doing that, and hoped that Maddy hadn’t noticed.

Not that it mattered; she knew how stressed he was anyway. They’d intended on having sex the night before, but by the time they’d actually gotten around to it, he was too much of a nervous wreck for anything to actually happen. Both of them were; she got stressed easily herself. But it wasn’t without reason. It was the night before launch day. The night before they ventured out into the unknown on a ship that had never been flown to go see places that they weren’t even sure existed. Tensions were high; emotions ran strong throughout the ship, not just in the Kistler quarters. A ninety-eight thousand light year journey through an unstable wormhole will do that to a crew.

He carried on through the engineering deck, headed for the bow lounge. Hopefully it was empty, and for just a moment, just a few minutes before the lights switched color and the day cycle started, he could get a moment alone with the stars. The door slid open in front of him and gave way to the empty room, the lights flickering to life as Ethan entered. Without hesitation, he reached for the switch and turned them back off. It was nice, the darkness, and the only illumination came in the form of a soft, blue glow as sunlight lit up the the planet. Just a few kilometers off starboard, the Anaconda, Jessie's ship, floated elegantly, matching the Dependence in size and grace. Stix and Sam and their respective ships were on the other side of the wormhole.

With closed eyes, he took a long, deep breath and thought back to when he was a kid, and he'd go stargazing in the backyard with his telescope—a Hanukkah gift for an 11 year-old that was fascinated with space. Ethan opened his eyes and looked off into the distance, at the thousands of twinkling lights. Sometimes he and Maddy would just sit and stare at them, admiring their beauty and dreaming of what they were like up close. She didn't share his love of the night sky—at least, not as deeply, but she did love him. And at was enough. The two would spend hours together, wrapped up on the couch and admiring the little white dots and the wonders they held.

Thoughts of beautiful jungles, sparkling oceans; planets that he would give his right arm to go and see, filled his mind every time he looked at the distant suns. That idea of exploration had always been what drove him. The love of getting there first—seeing mountain ranges and canyons and pulsars that no one else had ever seen. Charging head-first into the unknown for a chance to see something spectacular. It was all so fantastic to him.

His stomach twisted into a knot has he started to wonder whether or not he'd bitten off more than he could chew this time. Exploring was nothing new to him; he'd spent the last five years mapping stars on the outer rim in his little frigate—it's how he'd met Stix, Sam, and Jessie. It's how the three of them had devised this trip and proposed it to the sponsors. But now that he stood there, captain of a crew over five hundred times his size, on one of the most advanced scientific spaceships ever built, floating in a degrading orbit around a weakening wormhole to the opposite side of the Milky Way, he couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, he was going to get everyone killed.

His watch beeped, and the Dependence's engines got louder. Over the loudspeaker, Jordan Keith, Ethan's first officer, filled the entire ship with his voice. "Morning, everyone. Rise and shine: it's launch day. T-minus fifteen hours 'till we go through the 'hole. Before we head off, the captain and I need diagnostic reports from..."

Jordan's voice trailed off as Ethan closed his eyes again, and focused on the pang of despair in his stomach. Some part of him thought he could feel the knots in his back tighten. One last deep breath, and he headed out into the hall.

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