Author's Note

Hello again. This is my longest story yet. All of the chapters are finished, which is always the case if I am posting a story here. I will be posting chapters once a week. So enjoy!

Chapter 1

The loading docks are quiet today. The usual sounds of large crowds and the whirring of the motors from the small cargo loaders are eerily absent. Even the air is different. It smells cleaner, less stale than it normally does, and I take a deep breath to try and clear out the smell of engine exhaust and unkempt hangers that seems to have permanently imprinted itself into my nose.

I hate the task that I am currently assigned to; standing at the bottom of the ramp and checking the loads of cargo into the log as each loader buzzes by me and up into the ship. Normally my captain, a man by the name of Varta, likes to do this job, I am unsure why, but for now it is my duty.

I am three days out of the command track at the academy and two hours ago Captain Varta had instructed me to take over for him as part of my on-the-job training. I had complained, since I had already been part of his crew for a full month before I had been able to go in for the command track training, one month of basic crew experience in deep space required to even apply for the class, but Captain Varta had just told me to take my position at the base of the ramp and then had promptly disappeared.

I eventually learn from one of the dock workers that Captain Varta is busy elsewhere trying to fill out all the documents necessary after the minor repairs that we were in need of and the dreadfully expensive refueling that we, unfortunately, are required, by law, to take on whenever we are docked and our fuel reserve is 40% or lower.

I check another item off the list as a loader goes by and realize that my boring job is just about finished. One more box to check off and then I can leave. There is a sound of murmuring voices close by and I look up with a smile. A group of five crosses the bay and stops in front of me. My final checked box has possibly just arrived.

They hand me their documents and, sure enough, they are scheduled to hitch a ride out to the Sentai System. After happily checking off my final box, I read off the list of usual warnings and then get them to sign the documents that say that they heard me give my speech and that they were properly warned of the dangers of traveling along the routes we will be taking.

The group that I usher up the ramp and into the ship behind me is not all that different from the types that I often see wandering around the loading docks; poor, tired and worn-out looking, in search of a better life on another planet. All of them desperate enough to ride along with shipments of cargo to the dark corners of the universe and risk the jobs that are constantly opening up on the outer worlds. I pity them. The jobs on the outer worlds are dangerous and tiring. But the pay is good, which is why so many still seek transportation there.

Captain Varta returns moments later, muttering something about how everything costs way too much in this little mud hole of a dock, and grabs the cargo manifest from my hands with a huff of indignation. He quickly informs me that I am to start preparations for take-off, and then disappears inside the ship. I breathe a sigh of relief to be away from this tiny hanger and I am just starting to gather my things together to make my way up the ramp myself when I am halted by the sound of a voice calling out to me.

"Please, do not go yet."

I turn around to investigate the voice and I am dumbfounded by the sight before me.

The woman approaching is not one of the tired and beaten-down types. No, she is nothing of the sort. She is flawless. Her skin is a dark glowing brown and her eyes, of the same mesmerizing shade, glint beneath long dark lashes. Her build is slight, long and slender and graceful, and she is draped, head to toe, in colorful folds of expensive looking material; red and white and yellow.

She is a welcome splash of color in a drab and dangerous world.

She seems to float across the ground as she hurries towards me, fabric fluttering and swaying around her hidden feet, and I do my best to keep my jaw from dropping open. I know just by looking at her that she is from the planet of Pantoo. Her garments are a dead giveaway. She is wearing the traditional style and colors that all Pantuvians wear when they travel. Most planets are more conservative in the -way they dress, going for comfortable, practical, and durable, especially when traveling. The result of that type of clothing choice is that the majority is dressed in drab unassuming clothing. But Pantoo is different. It is a world filled with bountiful resources and its privileged people view color and beauty as necessities.

But no matter where this woman comes from, she is not the type of person that I expect to see in a place as dirty and dangerous as the loading docks.

"I am sorry for arriving so late," she says with the soft purring accent that is common among the natives of Pantoo. She puts a slim hand to her chest and does her best to catch her breath. "I have been trying for hours to get a transport to the outer Sentai systems. I was told that you are the only one for the next two months."

I stare at her a moment, still unsure exactly what has happened to drop something so beautiful into my world.

"Yes, uh… Yeah. But I, um… I think... This is a cargo transport," I finally manage to blurt out.

She smiles, a small but brilliant thing, and clutches at the cloth that drapes gracefully around her face.

"I am aware of that," she says.

"Look, Ma'am," I say when I realize that I am going to have to be more specific. "We run cargo to the outlying industrial worlds. We travel through very dangerous areas. We are not exactly in the business of transporting passengers."

She frowns and then points up the ramp behind me. "You took on several passengers just a few moments ago."

"Yes," I say. "But they are workers that are scheduled to travel to one of the worlds we are delivering cargo to. They have no other way of getting to where they need to be since no civilian transport routes are available in that area."

"Please," she says, "I must beg for passage aboard this vessel. I do not have much baggage and I am willing to pay however much you ask. I assure you that I have the funds to allow for a healthy sum."

I take in the sight of the richness of her clothing and the fine quality of the jewelry that she wears.

"I have no doubt of that," I say. "But, we don't take civilians. I am afraid that you will need a worker's pass to travel with us."

Her face takes on a desperate look and she shifts anxiously, her hands fiddling with the folds of her immaculate garment.

"I am aware that you are just doing your job," she says finally, her eyes staring directly at me, piercing and pleading. "But I also know that civilian passengers are not unheard of on cargo transports. No law states that I require a worker's pass. I just need you to give me a document to sign that says that I am aware of the dangers inherent with traveling with you. Then it is just a matter of you stepping aside so that I may board."

I know that she is right and I reach up to rub the back of my neck. I breathe out a frustrated sigh. I want to help her, I really do, but I am hesitant. I have not had a lot of personal one-on-one experience with the man, but I do know that Captain Varta is very strict about the passengers that he allows aboard his ship and I will probably get an epic chewing out if I grant her passage.

I slowly start to shake my head no, but stop almost immediately when she leans in close, places one soft hand on my arm, and catches my gaze with her own.

"Please," she says with a mysterious type of longing in her voice and I can feel my resolve weakening.

"Do not make me beg," she almost whimpers.

Captain Varta will definitely not be happy.

"Alright," I say feeling like a traitor to my own captain. "But I feel that I must warn you again about how dangerous this is."

Her eyes take on a brilliant sparkle of joy and she nods enthusiastically, the silver bobbles lining the edges of her head-covering jingling merrily at the movement.

"I thank you for your kindness," she says with a tone of quiet gratitude.

Through the process of checking her into the passenger list I find that her name is Neeka and that she is indeed from the planet of Pantoo. Not that there was any evidence to suggest otherwise. We quickly agree on a reasonable price, she signs the appropriate forms, and I help her with her luggage, two small bags that are light and of high quality. I then show her the way up into the ship, closing and locking the ramp behind me.

"I am sorry that you have to go through this," I say as I help Neeka to adjust the straps of the restraint system built into her seat. "But we don't have the high quality inertial dampeners in the main ship, only in the cargo containers. Low quality inertial dampeners means that the law requires everyone to be buckled in until we get into the travel lanes."

She nods quietly and does as I tell her to get the buckles to properly click into place. After she is safely strapped in, I go about checking the rest of the occupied seats in the section and then move down to yellow deck to check that the rest of the crew is ready to go. Final checks completed, I make my way up to red deck, where the small bridge is located.

"You're sure you don't want me to come back up here once I'm finished?" I ask as I lean forward to flip the last few switches that will ensure the ship remains within the designated travel lane. I know I sound desperate but I cannot believe that I am actually on the bridge and I want to learn so much more than just steering the ship towards a travel lane and calling in our destination to the flight control center.

Captain Varta shakes his head and waves his hand airily in my general direction. "No, I'll be fine up here. You are better off doing other things." He pauses and looks back down at the passenger manifest that he had been perusing while I settled the ship into the proper lane. After a moment he raises an eyebrow and then looks back up at me with an unusually blank expression on his face. "I see that we have more than just workers traveling with us on this trip."

I nod warily, the vision of Neeka hurrying towards me fluttering through my mind, and I wait for the dreaded speech that I know is coming.

"Couldn't resist a pretty face, huh?" Captain Varta says in a startlingly amused tone and I look up sharply.

"What?" I ask. "For all you know, she could be uglier than that… thing that tried to eat through our food supplies just before I left for command training."

"Residents of Pantoo are always easy on the eyes," he says with a wide and somewhat wistful smile. "Never saw anybody from that planet that wasn't good looking." He looks at me with a tilt to his head and the smile changes into something more mischievous. "What'd she do? Flutter her eyelashes at you until you caved in?"

I huff a short laugh and shift my gaze away. "She was desperate," I finally say. "She practically begged me to let her board, stopped just short of dropping to her knees." I give an apologetic shrug. "I just couldn't stand to hurt her feelings by refusing her."

Captain Varta lets out a hearty laugh and claps me on the arm. "I probably would have done the same thing in your place." He puts his hands on my shoulders, pulling me around to face him directly. His expression has lost all traces of amusement and turned dark and serious.

"She is in your charge for the rest of the trip," he says in a tone that brooks no argument. I finally find some courage and look him directly in the eye. "You took on that responsibility as soon as you had her sign that document," he continues. "I expect you, and you alone, to make sure that she has whatever she needs, whenever she needs it. Do you understand me?"

"I understand perfectly," I say quickly trying not to cringe under the intensity of his gaze.

"Good," he says breaking into an unnerving smile. "That should teach you to take on another civilian passenger without consulting me first. And remember, if you do something like this again, you risk your future job description on this ship making an abrupt and unwelcome change."

I swallow hard, knowing full well that he could still just as easily send me down to work in the dark frightening underbelly of the ship for the remainder of the trip, which happens to be just over two months.

"It won't happen again," I say when I find my voice again.

"Good man," he says as he reaches up and ruffles my hair. He then abruptly turns me to one side and shoves me towards the door at the rear of the bridge. "Now, quit slacking off and get going on your duties."

I am nervous as I wander off the bridge and head down to the lower decks. Captain Varta is devious, but smart, to place Neeka in my care. Keeping a rich and privileged woman happy aboard a run-down cargo ship for over two months will definitely be a full time job. I am sure that I am now going to be wary of future civilians begging for passage, especially good looking ones.

Surprisingly, Neeka looks completely comfortable when I travel through the passenger area on my way down to check on the cargo. I had been expecting her to look lost and nervous, like she has absolutely no idea what she is supposed to do once the passengers are allowed to move around, but the truth is far from it. She quickly catches sight of me and her face lights up instantly.

"The other passengers aren't too friendly," she says as she practically bounces over to me. "I was hoping to at least get a little bit of conversation before everyone left. I would have followed them, but I wanted to talk to you first. I want to thank you again for allowing me to come aboard. You do not know how much I appreciate it."

"You are very welcome," I say as I inwardly wince at the thought of her getting left behind and forgotten. The other passengers had most likely wandered off to the community bunk rooms that are so common on these types of ships. They don't need to wait around to be told where to go since all of them are more than likely completely used to the routine of ferrying between jobs.

I shift my thoughts back to the present when she mentions how she should get going and get settled in before all of the other workers take all of the good bunks."

"You don't need to worry about that," I say quickly, before she can leave. "If you follow me I can show you where you can bunk for the rest of the trip."

"I am willing to bunk with the others," she says with a slight wrinkle developing between her brows. "I do not want to put you out any more than I already have. I have heard from the others that your captain does not always take kindly to having civilians aboard. You must already be in a lot of trouble. Again, I thank you for your kindness."

I can only shrug and offer her a gentle smile. "The captain is okay with the situation," I say. "He told me that he wants to make sure you are comfortable. There are some decent single quarters that are usually used for crew. But we have a smaller compliment this time, so a couple of them are empty. You can stay there."

She grabs hold of my arm with one hand while the other reaches down and snatches up a handful of her fluttering skirt to keep it out of her way.

"Lead on then," she says, the broad smile making a triumphant return.

I hesitate when I reach the door to the empty quarters. I know that she is used to the higher class passenger transports that have much larger and nicer accommodations and what I am about to show her is much smaller, cramped, and equipped with only the basic necessities.

Doing my best to ignore my nervousness, I reach out to push the button that activates the door.

"I'm sorry that we don't have anything better to offer," I say as she steps into the room ahead of me.

She stands in the center of the tiny room, taking in the sight of the fold-up bed, tiny workstation, storage closet, and adjoining, equally cramped, washroom. She turns in a circle, just absorbing everything and then ceases her turn when she is facing me once more.

"This is perfect," she says as she runs her hand over the surface of the work station. "All of the other transports did not have any open crew quarters and so I bunked with the workers. Community bunks are an interesting experience." She ends with a wrinkle of her nose and a tilt of her head before switching over to a nod of gratitude. "This is much nicer. Thank you."

I can feel my cheeks heat up with a soft blush. I do not have the heart to tell her that giving her one of the empty crew quarters is actually never done on any of the cargo vessels, passengers usually kept far away from the crew areas. I had been quite surprised earlier when I received a message on my datapad from the captain telling me that I was allowed to put Neeka up in one of the empty crew cabins.

Despite popular opinion, Captain Varta is actually quite soft in the middle when you can get past his prickly exterior. To say anything that would ruin popular opinion is forbidden, however, (Captain Varta says so) and I am only allowed to smile and look down at my toes when Neeka's glowing expression of thankfulness settles full force on me.

"You're welcome," I say. "I will let you get settled in while I go and take care of my duties. I am cleared to leave my post to make sure that you have anything that you need so, please, do not hesitate to call."

I start to turn away but I stop when I feel her slender fingers curl around my wrist.

"Please," she says with a hesitant tone. "May I ask who I am to call for? I am afraid that I do not even know your name."

Embarrassment spikes as I realize that I never even introduced myself to her.

"I am very sorry," I say. "My name is Lothan."

She nods and then seems slightly puzzled. "Am I to call you by your name? Or do I refer to you by your rank?"

"Just ask for Chito," I say with a lopsided grin. "It's what everyone else around here calls me."

"Chito?" she asks, her face growing even more puzzled.

"It's kind of an awkward story," I say. "Ask me about it again sometime."

"It is a deal," she says as she releases my arm and holds out her right hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Chito."

I take her hand in mine and she shakes it vigorously.

"Now," she says when we release our grip. "You must go before someone comes looking for you and you get in trouble for not attending to your duties."

I open my mouth to argue that keeping her happy is actually a large part of my duties now, but she waves her hands in a shooing motion and I stumble backwards through the doorway. The door slides shut in my face and I am left standing by myself in the corridor.

It takes several hours to make my inspection of the cargo. I am worn out by the end since half of that time is spent readjusting several containers that had not been stacked properly and have shifted out of position. It takes the help of two other crew members, but everything is eventually put back into order and I am free to return to the upper decks.

I make my way up to yellow deck, wandering into the passenger commons area by way of the kitchen. The room is busy, filled with the clatter of food trays and the steady buzz of conversation. The workers have reemerged and have apparently attacked the food line. Pickings are somewhat slim as I make my choices for lunch.

I am in the midst of looking for an open place to enjoy my meal in the common area when I spot Neeka at one of the tables.

She is hunched forward, arms laying on the table and hands clasped together so that her arms make a large ring in front of her. Her head is bowed forward, almost touching the table, and her shoulders are shaking in a sporadic rhythm.

I hurry across the room and gingerly settle myself down in the seat across from her. I am about to ask her what is wrong when she seems to sense my presence and looks up. But, instead of being confronted by a tear stained face, I am surprised to see that she is smiling, wide and bright. What I had thought to be the result of silent sobs had actually been due to laughter.

"Chito!" she says happily when she sees me. "Have you finished your duties?"

I am still in a sort of shock over the misinterpretation of her emotions and so I simply nod.

"That is good," she says and then suddenly her head tilts to the left and she snorts with amusement. "Atti, please, I am talking to someone."

I blink at her in surprise and then notice that she is directing her words at the area of tabletop that is contained within the circle of her arms. I glance down and see that there is a tiny creature there, a small bird not much bigger than my thumb, and its tiny beak is clamped down on several strands of her sleek black hair.

"Oh," Neeka says in response to my unashamed gawking. "I am sorry. I did not introduce you to my Zeather. Chito, this is Atti."

I stare down at the little bird as it releases the strands of hair from its beak and then jumps up onto Neeka's arm, gripping the fabric of her sleeve with tiny clawed feet.

"Say hello, Atti," Neeka says jostling her arm slightly.

I try my best to look non-threatening.

Atti looks up at me with first one eye and then the other, switching back and forth a couple times before settling on fixing both eyes on me at the same time and glaring with an air of distaste.

It is a cute little thing, all a beautiful iridescent black accented with white on the tips of its wings and tail and a small patch under its chin, but I must admit that it would be much cuter if it was not looking at me like I had just insulted its entire family.

"I don't think he likes me," I say as the bird continues to silently judge me.

"Zeathers are always a little leery of strangers," Neeka says. "He will warm up to you eventually. You'll know he likes you when he makes up a song for you."

She reaches out with her free hand and uses one finger to stroke the top of the bird's head. I can tell that it enjoys the attention by the way its eyes roll back and its little eyelids flutter closed in contentment. Neeka pulls it back in towards her and draws a large pendant out from the folds of her garment. She sets the wood and silver pendant, an odd somewhat flattened egg with a hole in the center, on the tabletop and Atti jumps down from her finger. The tiny bird flutters its feathers, delicately hops over to the pendant, and wriggles happily into the hole in the center.

"You have never seen a Zeather before, have you?" Neeka says, startling me out of my stare.

I shake my head and watch as she tucks the pendant back into its proper place.

"On Pantoo," she says, "they are a popular gift among friends. Some are even given when two people fall in love. In each instance they are a fitting gift. Zeathers are known for their loyalty and fierce love of their owners. They are also known for their incredibly long lifespans."

"They sound just like what love is supposed to be," I say. "Fierce, loyal, and long lived."

Neeka nods even though her eyes are somewhat distant, almost mournful looking. I risk a glance and notice that there is a black ring on the middle finger of her left hand. She is married.

I want to ask about the story behind the origin of her Zeather, but I know better. To ask such a question would be considered an abhorrent act of privacy invasion. The people of Pantoo are very quiet about their lives, preferring to keep their loves and sorrows to themselves. Since I am an outsider I am therefore viewed as someone who is to be kept at a distance. Her Zeather could be a gift from an admirer which means that the only way I am ever to hear the story is if she herself decides to bestow it on me. And that type of thing is a rare event indeed.

I decide to wait and see if maybe she will tell me more of the story of her little bird, but she remains quiet for a long time. Eventually she smiles at me and I drop my gaze to my lunch tray.

I go about eating my lunch as Neeka launches into an animated narration of how the tradition of gifting the little birds got started and I listen with half an ear. It is not that I do not want to hear what she has to say, but as she talks I find my mind drifting to other questions. Ones that I know I will not be able to ask outright without fear of maybe stepping into a subject that might be forbidden. This is going to be a long trip indeed.

Finally she says something that I can respond to, even though I am not sure if I really want to. The answer is a bit embarrassing to be truly honest.

"So why do people call you Chito?" she asks.

I nearly drop my fork at the question, but I manage to put on a smile as I look up at her. How do I answer without making her think that I am still a complete newbie around here?

"Umm," I say. "I, uh, I guess it's a good thing when you earn yourself a nickname on a cargo ship. It's almost like a right of passage now."

"Go on," she says when I go silent for too long.

I guess the only way to do this is to just say it.

"I talked a lot when I first came on board," I say. "I was new to being a part of a crew and I asked a lot of questions. I annoyed my assigned mentor a lot and he was always telling me to be quiet, but he always said it in his own language. Chito, in his language, means 'be quiet' and he said it so often that people started thinking that was my name."

Neeka giggles softly and then puts her hand over her mouth to cover it.

"No," I tell her. "It's okay. I got it all straightened out after a while and people now know what my real name is, but the nickname just kind of stuck. It's okay to laugh if you want."

Neeka drops her hand and smiles sympathetically at me. "I am not laughing at you," she says. "It's just that your story reminds me of my little brother. He was exactly the same way growing up. Always asking questions. But asking questions is just a part of the way we learn. It is nothing to be ashamed of."

"Thank you," I say.

"For what?"

"For making me sound like a normal person."

"I am only stating facts," she says. "You sound like a normal person because you are a normal person. Not because of anything I have said."

I smile widely and look down at the table top. Maybe this trip won't be so long after all.

To be continued...