The chronicle of the final voyage of the medical relief ship GSC Nightingale.
Wednesday, September 15th 2213
A string of buses ferried the students to the launch pad. The bus Daryush and Lucy rode on stopped beside the pad, but the doors didn’t open. The driver stood; he fastened a pack around his hips and then picked an InfoTab up from his seat. To the first student in the first seat, he said, “Gimme your name.”
The young man hesitated, then said, “Ivan Petrov.”
The driver tapped at the screen, scrolled down, and tapped one last time. He reached into the open top of the waist pack and pulled out what looked like a blank white credit card. He inserted the card into the InfoTab’s slot, waited for a moment, and then grabbed the card when it ejected. With barely a look at Ivan Petrov, the driver shoved the card toward him and asked the next person what their name was.
Daryush and Lucy had gotten a seat halfway down the bus, so they had watched two dozen students go through the process by the time the driver reached them. He looked at Daryush first. “Name?”
The driver’s eyebrow peaked. “You’re gonna have to spell that for me, son.”
Daryush did, and the driver nodded as he tapped. In a card went, and out it came a moment later. The driver handed it to Daryush as he said to Lucy, “Name?”
She licked her lips, fearing she wouldn’t be on the list. “Lucy Hernandez.”
Tap tap, card in, card out. The driver handed her the card and continued on. Lucy held the little plastic rectangle in tight, excited fingers, afraid to look at it, as if that would somehow break the spell over the faculty and they’d realize her presence was a mistake.
Daryush brought her out of her fearful stupor with a nudge. “What does your picture look like?”
“My what?” Now she looked. During the final selection process, the candidates and alternates had been required to submit photos. Lucy had been wondering why, but it seemed the photos were for these IDs. She looked so nervous, and she had gotten a hair cut since the photo was taken. She’d had to do it in Guatemala because of guerilla threats on her city. They’d been evacuated during the military’s occupation of the town. It seemed like the picture had been taken a thousand years ago.
The driver finished giving out cards and turned toward the front of the bus. “Does anyone not have a card?” When no one answered, he said, “Okay, great! Get off my bus. Enjoy your flight.”
The bus emptied quickly, as did the others, and soon two hundred students emptied onto the launch pad. Soldiers in uniform directed everyone onto the shuttles, and each student’s new ID card was scanned as he or she stepped onto the shuttle.
Lucy tried to stick with Daryush, but they were separated. She saw him being swept away by the crowd as she found herself face to face with a soldier. Her gut twisted violently within her. She was sure he’d recognize her Mexican heritage and send her to a prison camp, or back to Mexico, or at least shove her off the base. He didn’t, though. He held his scanner up, and Lucy fumbled in her pocket for her ID. She presented it with trembling fingers, and he scanned it and directed her onto the shuttle.
On the shuttle, seats were arranged in rows in the center and also in a ring around the outside bulkhead. Lucy followed where a soldier directed her and sat in the front row. She could see down a short hall and into the pilot’s flight deck. The pilot and copilot sat in their seats, chatting softly and flicking switch after switch.
As Lucy fastened a harness over her shoulders, a girl plopped into the seat beside her and fastened her own harness as she said, “Hi.”
Lucy glanced up and attempted a smile. “Hi.”
“I’m Emma,” the girl said, offering a hand. Emma had dirty-blonde hair and the bluest eyes Lucy had ever seen.
Lucy shook Emma’s hand. “Lucy.”
“You were that girl on stage, right?”
“Yeah.” Lucy was afraid Emma would be one of the blonde girl’s cohorts and yell at her, and she wouldn’t even be able to escape anywhere because she was strapped in.
Instead, Emma grinned. “Awesome. That’s awesome what you did. We’d all like to think we’d do the same in that situation, but four people didn’t, so I guess that’s that, huh?”
“I guess so,” Lucy said.
Emma pulled out her mobile phone and opened up the camera function. “Are you a nurse or a doctor?” Emma asked.
“Me too!” Emma squealed more than spoke. She leaned over next to Lucy and aimed the camera at them. Before Lucy knew it, Emma had snapped a picture and was examining it: she was smiling brightly; Lucy looked confused. “This is going to be great! So great! I can’t wait!” She wiggled in her seat, doing a dance of excitement.
Emma’s excitement was contagious, and as the shuttle filled and the doors shut and the engine started, Lucy felt herself lifted up by the girl’s enthusiasm. Her nervousness didn’t go away entirely, but it dissipated some. The same went for her feeling of not belonging. They had given her a card. She was in a shuttle that was about to take off. In a matter of minutes, she’d be in space, and on the Nightingale, and ready to start the most important four years of her life.
Emma leaned toward Lucy. “Are you from Mexico?”
“Is this weird for you?”
“Being on a shuttle?”
“No,” she said. “Being in America.”
Lucy didn’t know what to say right away. She had mentally prepared for this, but now that the moment had come—and not from some obvious bigot, but a seemingly nice fellow student—she found herself unable to think of any response.
Emma continued, “Because of the war, you know?”
“I know,” Lucy finally managed to say. “It’s a little weird. Getting a passport was complicated.”
Emma leaned toward Lucy again, phone out to snap a picture. “Smile!” she trilled, and Lucy managed to do so before Emma took another picture. She examined the photo and said, “That’s a good one. See?” She showed Lucy the phone.
“Yep.” It was better. At least Lucy didn’t look totally perplexed in this one.
“I’m going to send this to my dad,” Emma said. “Because you don’t seem like a terrorist to me.” She spoke aloud as she typed onto the phone’s screen: “Dad, there’s a Mexican girl in my class. She’s really nice. I’m pretty sure she’s not on drugs. Send!”
Lucy sighed. Emma seemed so genuinely pleased that she’d met a Mexican who wasn’t a drugged-out terrorist. Lucy was aware of the stereotypes Americans had about Mexicans, but she had been under the impression that people on the Nightingale would assume the best about her.
Emma’s phone dinged as it received a message. She read the message on the screen. Lucy peeked and read it with her: She’s probably leaving behind a clutch of fatherless children.
Lucy rolled her eyes.
“Do you have any kids?” Emma asked.
“I’ll tell him.”
“You don’t have to.” In an attempt to change the subject, Lucy asked, “So, are you scared of flying?”
“No way.” Emma waved her hand dismissively. “I’m scared of failing miserably. You know? Being the first student ever to flunk off the Nightingale.”
Lucy shrugged. “I don’t know. You wouldn’t have been chosen if you weren’t smart, right?”
“I guess.” Emma laughed. “You’re right. It’s going to be the most amazing experience ever.”
“I didn’t say—”
Before Lucy could finish, the intercom buzzed and a man’s voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the CHK-5 shuttle. I’m Captain Thomas Lowell and I’ll be your pilot today.” He turned in his seat and waved back at them. “Please make sure your harnesses are fastened securely, as my First Officer will be engaging the harness wheel locks in thirty seconds. If you’re not buckled in now, you won’t be for the entire flight, and that’s a bumpy ride.”
Lucy heard scrambling around her as students frantically fastened their harnesses. She looked down to double-check her own, comparing it to Emma’s. They looked the same until she got to what appeared to be a groin strap. Emma had one fastened; Lucy didn’t.
“Oh no.” She leaned down and swept her hand in front of and under the seat. There was nothing hanging there. “Oh no.”
“What’s wrong?” Emma asked.
“I’m missing a strap,” Lucy hissed, continuing her frantic search for it. “I don’t think I even have one.”
“The crotch strap?”
“But you’ve got the others, right?” Emma asked. “I think the lap and shoulder straps should be enough.”
Lucy didn’t trust four straps when she needed five, so she lifted on hand up and said, “Excuse me” toward the flight deck. The pilots had headsets over their ears, and neither responded to her. “Excuse me.”
A metallic shunk sounded throughout the cabin, and Lucy’s harness suddenly had no more give when she tried to lean forward. She assumed that the wheel locks, whatever those were, had been engaged. The pilots couldn’t hear her, and they probably wouldn’t turn around to see her, either, so she leaned back in the seat.
Emma giggled so Lucy looked at her. She said, “I tried to lean over but I can’t move anywhere.” She demonstrated with a wiggle from side to side. “I was going to say you’ll be fine. They’re not doing aerobatics or anything.”
Lucy nodded, and didn’t say out loud what she was thinking: They put those groin straps in for a reason.
The shuttle rocked a little as the thrusters pushed it off the ground to hover. Lucy could hear chatter from the cockpit but couldn’t make out anything. The shuttle hovered in place for a moment, and then began moving forward.
Emma clapped excitedly, and Lucy gripped the armrests with sweating hands. She couldn’t stop worrying about the groin strap. She could see down the hall and out of the front windshield. They were following a line of other shuttles, each waiting its turn to use the launch pad.
The shuttle in front of Lucy’s moved forward, and she realized it was about to launch. She watched as it taxied to the middle of the launch pad, and the noise of its engines boomed outside. It began to pivot back, so its nose pointed straight up. An enormous cloud of vapor billowed up and around it as the engine noise became louder and louder, and then the shuttle blasted upward and out of Lucy’s line of sight. The engine noise dissipated quickly, until they were back to hearing only their own.
Now, it was Lucy’s turn.
They taxied to the launch pad and rotated back: the nose went up, pointing to the sky, and soon they were all smashed into the backs of their seats. The shoulder straps tightened, and Lucy let herself believe what Emma had said, that the groin straps wouldn’t be really needed.
The shuttle roared upward, forward, pressing the students into their seatbacks even deeper. Some of the students made noises. Whether they were cries of fear or excitement, Lucy couldn’t tell; the deafening thunder of the engine drowned out all other sounds as they rocketed into the blue above them. The shuttle trembled and shook and kept up its atmosphere-busting upward thrust. Lucy gritted her teeth and watched as they parted their vapor cloud.
The pilots handled their equipment with a casualness Lucy felt was inappropriate for the gravity of what could go wrong. One of them turned to look at the other, and she saw his lips move as he spoke. Then they both laughed and went back to watching out the windshield.
If Lucy had been able to move, she would have thrown a shoe at them. But she couldn’t. All she could do was just sit there and watch the blue sky outside darken until it was entirely black.
When that outer blackness became complete, the noise dissipated. Lucy didn’t feel crushed into the seat anymore but the harness became tight around her neck. It took her a moment to figure out what was going on. They had left gravity behind, and she was floating out of the harness through the empty groin strap spot.
“Urk!” Lucy pedaled her feet in the air as they floated upward. At the same time, she grasped the shoulder straps with her hands to hold herself still.
Emma grabbed Lucy’s pants at the knee and pulled her escaping legs back to the seat where they belonged. With a laugh, she said, “Whoa! I guess we know what that crotch strap is for now, huh?”
“I guess,” Lucy said as she wiggled her butt into place against the seat cushion. “Thanks.”
“Well, we can’t have you floating all around,” Emma said. “What will happen when we dock on the Nightingale and they turn the gravity on?”
The smile on Lucy’s face came unbidden, as did the laugh as she said, “I don’t know. I guess I’d be the class’s first trauma patient.”
Emma laughed with Lucy, and their combined mirth only tapered as they both noticed something approaching through the flight deck windshield: an enormous, white boxy shape against the darkness of space. Lucy had seen the ship in pictures a thousand times, but those glimpses couldn’t impart a fraction of the majesty that the real ship radiated.
The Nightingale. They had made—
Lucy was floating out of her seat again.
“Whoa!” she yelped, and Emma grabbed her pants.
The shuttle docked within the Nightingale’s bay and the doors hissed open without any fanfare. The captain’s voice on the intercom said, “Welcome to the Nightingale, folks!” and the shunk of the harness wheel locks disengaging sounded throughout the cabin. The sounds of unbuckling followed quickly, and everyone got up and made their way toward the open door.
Emma practically leapt out of her seat and turned to Lucy. “Ooh let’s go! Space ship!” And she scurried off to follow the other students.
Lucy sat in the seat for a few seconds, then bent forward to search for the groin strap. Free to use her eyes and not just her hands, she could see the buckle had been stuck between the cushion and the seat itself. She sighed, pulled it out, and followed Emma. She was the last student out. The shuttles had been arranged in a circle, all the doors facing the inside, and in the center of that circle, a twenty-foot hologram of a uniformed man loomed.
The class stood around him and he examined them with holographic eyes. Then, he said, “Welcome to my ship.” His voice boomed from speakers embedded in the ceiling and echoed all around the bay. “I am Captain Leland Azikiwe. My crewmen are standing by to take you to your assigned rooms. It is close to midnight on ship’s time. The newcomer’s brief is at zero six thirty tomorrow. I suggest you all find time to sleep. Until then.” The hologram took a step away, and then vanished.
They all stood in silence for a moment, and then movement and noise descended upon them. The crewmen Captain Azikiwe had mentioned appeared, hollering and herding students into lines.
Lucy fell into a forming line so she wouldn’t be snapped at, and then followed it as it moved slowly toward a wall with numbered doors in it. As she neared the front of the line, she saw a crewman with a handheld scanner, running the device’s red light over the ID cards the students received earlier.
Lucy presented her card to the crewman when it was her turn, and the scanner beeped. He looked down at its display screen and said, “Area Two.” He pointed to a door with a large white “2” painted over it. “Wait through there. Next.”
Through the door, a group of six students milled in a bare room. They all looked at Lucy when she walked through the door. Two familiar faces stood out: the blonde girl who had yelled at her and, mercifully, Emma.
The blonde girl let out an enormous scoff and said, “Oh, good. The usurper.”
Lucy ignored her, hurrying toward Emma. She waved as Lucy approached.
“Hi!” Emma said. “Area Two! What’s that all about?”
“I bet it’s where we’ll be sleeping,” Lucy said, not thrilled at the prospect of bunking with the blonde girl.
Emma’s eyes widened and she leaned toward Lucy. In a hushed voice, she said, “But there are boys here.”
Lucy followed her gaze. There were indeed boys there. “Well, it’s a whole area. I doubt you’ll be sleeping with the boys.”
The door opened, and they all turned to look. Daryush scooted through, looking apprehensive. Lucy waved at him, momentarily surprised by her relief at seeing him, and he beamed as he waved back. He joined Emma and Lucy.
Lucy introduced Emma and Daryush, and before they could really begin to converse, a panel on one of the walls slid open. A uniformed crewman poked his head in and said, “Area Two? Follow me.”
They did, into a gleaming gray corridor. Every dozen or so feet, a panel inlaid in the wall featured a sign that said, “EMERGENCY PERSONAL OXYGEN SUPPLY.” Within, what looked like silver satchels hung neatly on hooks.
The crewman indicated one of those panels and said, “These are the EPOS panels. In the event of an emergency, you are to find your nearest panel and don one of the EPOS’s.” He continued on and they followed on his heels.
Down the corridor, left, right, straight, right again. Lucy was completely turned around by the time they arrived at their destination. The corridor changed color from gray to subdued blue, and “AREA TWO” was painted in white on the floor as the colors changed.
The crewman stopped before a closed door, and he turned to the students. “All the sleeping Areas are intended for access only by the individuals assigned there. You are not to allow visitors from other Areas into your Area. There are common rooms for studying and socializing. Your badges have been coded to only allow you inside.” He indicated a scanpad beside the door. “The door keeps track of who comes in or out. If you don’t badge in, you can’t get back out, and vice versa. Your room assignments are printed on the doors inside. No changes are allowed. The Dexter will be here tomorrow at zero six to take you to the briefing.” He walked away then, heels clicking on the floor as he retreated.
Daryush was the first to wave his badge over the scanpad. The doors slid open, and he turned to the others. “Let’s do this.” In he went, and the rest followed, tapping their badges on the scanpad as they went.
They emerged into a hexagonal room with couches in the sunken center. Four of the walls sported doors with two nametags apiece on them. The other wall was one enormous screen, which was turned to a channel with a pastoral meadow scene on it. The grass rippled in the digital breeze as the students shuffled around the periphery of the room, searching for their names.
Lucy found hers and read the name of the student paired with her: Stacy Weber. She was disappointed that it wasn’t Emma, and horrified that it would be the blonde girl.
The door had no apparent handle, and it wasn’t motion-activated. A scanpad on the side reacted to her badge when she waved it over, and the door slid open.
The room was tiny. Two tall beds had been pushed up against opposite walls: the mattress was on the top, like a bunk bed, but instead of a second mattress below, there was a desk with a bookshelf and a rolling chair. Each bookshelf was stocked with books, and after looking back and forth a few times, Lucy determined that the books on each shelf were identical with those on the other. On the wall between bunks, an open door offered a glimpse into a tiny bathroom.
Each bed had a nametag on it. Lucy’s was on the right bed, and Stacy’s was on the left. The foot ends of the beds were tall dressers with six drawers each. Lucy pulled a drawer open on her bed. A set of bluish-gray scrubs were folded within.
God, she hoped Stacy wasn’t the blonde girl.
The door opened, and Lucy turned with fear in the pit of her stomach.
Stacy was not the blonde girl.
A tall blond man stood just inside in the doorway, a confused look on his face. They stared at each other long enough for the door to close, and then Lucy said, “You must have the wrong room. This bed is for Stacy.”
He smiled, lopsided, with shining white teeth. In a smooth, deep voice colored with an Australian twang, he said, “I am Stacy.”
Lucy didn’t know what to say. The only thing bouncing around in her head like an echo in a canyon was the thought, This is going to be one hell of a voyage.