Chapter 2:

The engines roared as Jenson opened the throttle, taking advantage of the speed we'd gained from the magnetic take-off. I held my bench's bars for dear life as we accelerated faster than I'd anticipated. The great thing about spaceflight is that it lacks turbulence. Because there's no atmosphere, there is no wind resistance. No drag. No outside forces. Just forward motion. In fact, once we reached our proper velocity and trajectory, there was no immediate need to man the cockpit. We wouldn't slow down at all until we enabled the reverse thrusters.

That didn't stop Jenson and Jarrod from being our pilots though. They liked being in control, and I even think they enjoyed showing off from time to time.

Jenson had grown up in Ohio, and worked at a bottle factory before joining IPS. The factory manufactured beer bottles for multiple big-name breweries like Budweiser and Coors. It hadn't been a special job, just busy work. This is where he met Jarrod; and for three years they inspected bottles on an assembly line as the monotonous tasks of the regular day grew into despair. They craved a purpose. They wanted responsibility, important responsibility. Somehow inspecting glass bottles and storing them in crates didn't fit this criteria. So when they heard on a radio add one day that a new company, IPS, was in need of a few good men, they signed right up.

And the last two years have been the best years of their lives.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you are free to move about the cabin," Jarrod called over the loudspeaker for no important reason. He thought he had a wonderful sense of humor. The rest of us knew better. Occasionally I'd laugh at his jokes, but this one in particular I've heard before.

My bench seat was an ugly, turtle-green color. The cushion was only an inch thick, and the upholstery was torn down the left side, revealing its yellow insulation. It resembled an abused kitchen chair from the last millennia, something you would see on TV Land. The original TV Land. There was even an imprint from my rear end. I stood up and made way to the birthing area.

Our living quarters, called "birthing" for some reason I'll never understand, were small. Two columns of racks, stacked three high. Like really small bunk-beds. We didn't spend too much time in them during flight. Someone always had to be in the cockpit to man the communications system. I stayed awake most of the time, praying that there'd be no mechanical emergency whilst among the stars. Kyle never slept during flight. Since he was "in charge," he felt the need to maintain consciousness whenever we were underway, even during eighteen hour flights.

I climbed up into my rack, which was conveniently located at the very top. Getting in was the difficult part. There were just small slivers of an opening on the sides. My opening was slightly larger than the rest because it extended to the overhead ceiling. With just a small curtain for privacy, this is where I spent most of my flights. Like a hermit crab in the sand, I burrowed up into my rack, only to be bothered by a faulty control or an eager crew-chief trying to "get to know me better."

I was glad to have my own environmental control system. I turned the heat on and adjusted the temperature to a comfortable sixty-eight degrees. That may not seem very warm, but compared to the absolute zero of outer-space, this was nice and toasty.

My comm-tablet vibrated again, reminding me that I had a missed call. I pulled it out of my pocket and gave it a look. Turns out my mother had called me, probably inviting me to Christmas dinner. She didn't leave a message, which is outside the norm for her. We didn't talk much. Our typical means of communication was just "phone tag" with short video messages, not really revealing too much of anything. I talked to my father even less. Our relationships were fine, there was no bad blood or bitterness. They were both still married to each other as well. I suppose that I've just always been independent, and didn't really need any parenting once I left home at eighteen.

Whatever the case, I didn't ponder the missed call for too long. I locked the device and put it back into my pocket.

During spaceflight, our hauler resonated with a constant hum, complimented with a slight continuous vibration. This was all courtesy of the engines, keeping us all well informed that they were functioning properly. And I'm grateful for the reminder, because as long as that noise was around, I had nothing to worry about.

"All personnel are needed in the cockpit," Jenson's voice called over the loudspeaker. I rolled my eyes. What could they possibly need me in there for, I thought. I threw back my little curtain and let myself down. Slowly.

"Glad you could join us," Kyle said as I entered the room. He waved his hand out toward my bench, inviting me to have a seat. I don't know what he expected, I had nowhere else to sit. Jenson and Jarrod were both sitting in their chairs, turned around on their swivel to face Kyle. The safety brief had already been given, so whatever good ideas Kyle had now I couldn't possibly imagine.

"We've been given a special mission," Kyle continued. Great, I thought. "Once we reach the Establishment, we're picking up a special package. For security reasons, I couldn't inform you guys during our pre-flight brief."

"Does this package include beer?" Jenson chimed in. He was a simple man, always honest. During our trips he'd been the real form of comic relief, even though Jarrod attempted otherwise. The best part was that Jenson wasn't trying to be funny. He was just himself, and that was enough to keep the four of us from losing our minds out here in the perils of this unforgiving frontier.

"No, it does not," Kyle replied, pointing both index fingers in Jenson's direction. "But I'm happy to stop somewhere and get some. And hold your tongues, we can debate the quality of a good brew in just a moment. The package we're picking up is a man. He's an official government courier, he – technically he's not the package, he's carrying one – but his name hasn't been given to me."

"So we're taking him to IPS," I asked, trying to get to the point. Kyle loved the sound of his own voice, and any time he'd been given the opportunity to toot his own horn, there was no letting up. While he was a native of Michigan, and not Boston, he never failed to remind us that he's a die-hard Red Sox fan. He was exceptionally pleased to learn that I myself am a Massachusetts native. And while not a sports fanatic myself, I was certainly a Sox fan. I was glad to have this common identity with my chief.

"We're taking him back to IPS, refueling, and then bringing him to Earth," Kyle finished with excitement in his voice. We were no strangers to the planet Earth, obviously, and all four of us were natural-born Earthlings maintaining citizenship with the United States. It had been several months since our last visit home, though, and so I could understand Kyle's anticipation and good vibes.

"Home, huh," Jenson said, unimpressed by Kyles good attitude. His voice had a deeper, scratchy note that dominated the rest of ours with masculinity. He often had a five o'clock shadow, yet I'd never seen him shave; and talked about different girlfriends on occasion, though I've never him paired. "Where in particular are we taking him?"

Kyle shrugged. "I don't know yet, and I don't know when that information will be disclosed. Probably not until we get back to Sky Six. As soon as I learn anything new, I'll inform the three of you. I'll make every effort to keep you guys in the loop."

"Sounds good," I said, trying to end the conversation before Kyle got off topic and went on to something even less interesting. He was a good dude, overall, and I know he means well. But he just never stopped talking.

Some chatter started coming in over the communications system. Occasionally, we'd receive transmissions from other vessels navigating the local orbit, making small talk until they reached their destination or went out of range. Some people even broadcasted their messages openly on all channels and frequencies, letting everyone know who's there. These people were the attention whores of the solar system, mirroring the crazy morons who sit in local park squares or busy street corners, telling you to repent because the end is coming.

"Hold on just a minute," Jarrod said openly, operating the communications and engaging the loudspeaker. "This is Sky Six mobile, say again your last."

Buzz, buzz, click, click, click… Our reply entailed nothing but static and white noise. Jarrod tried thrice to make contact with our invisible acquaintance on the outside. Interference from the multitudes of satellites, drones, hubs, stations and other space-junk was common, and many conversations started and ended in just the same manner as this.

This time, though, a difference was upon on. A change in the baseline, a deviation from the norm, was the look on Jarrod's face. With genuine concern, he fumbled about the controls, trying to maintain dominion over the reins and curb the interference.

Gizshh… The hauler made the ever classic sound of the engines bogging down. The communications cut out completely, leaving Jarrod beyond frustrated. He lobbed his headset, useless as it was, across the cabin. It skidded across the deck until it stopped at Kyle's feet.

"Relax, man," Kyle said affirmatively.

Before Jarrod could reply, the overhead lights cut out. Oh jeez, I thought. I slumped down and picked my tool bag off the floor. I was certain duct tape was quite going to do the trick this time. I could feel Kyle's eyes on me, piercing the darkness like a fine arrow.