Children of the Lonely Stars: Part Three
Strixa's ship was meant for longer flights – unlike the shuttle that Subi had rode to come to the Space Station, the cockpit with its seats and seatbelts connected to a central room ringed with bunks so people could walk around, eat, and sleep at the circular table in the center of the room. There were four bunks with two beds each, as well as eight seats crammed into the cockpit, but they were the only passengers, and Strixa the only crew. Subi looked around as they walked in. "Isn't there anyone else?"
Strixa patted the wall affectionately. "The Harmonia is a good girl. Alien Aisha technology. When we're out in the void, she practically flies herself. If she was fully battle-capable – which she could be, mind you – she'd need a full crew, but for what I do we're fine. You get your bag put away, kid? I'll need to check to make sure your harness fits you in the cockpit. Don't often have passengers your size."
Paloma merely nodded – her moon and star clips were scattered throughout her hair again. In the meantime, Rin took a few straps and secured his violin case to the pole of his bunk. Subi couldn't believe he was bringing that precious instrument on a trip to the back end of nowhere, but he wouldn't listen to her if she told him not to. Subi would just have to keep her eye on the violin case to make sure that nothing happened to it.
Subi slung her own bag under the seat. She hadn't brought much. She had a few sets of clothes, her toiletries, some spare Neopoints, a few battered paperbacks, and her copy of the score of the Kreludan Nocturnes. She did want to practice a bit of "Aurorae" if she got the chance to look over it – the alto section was weak enough that they couldn't afford to have anyone guessing at their notes. They'd probably have the time, as the flight out to Filion would take two days even at the Harmonia's fastest speeds.
Subi hadn't asked. She wasn't sure how to. But she wondered whether Strixa might be receiving things the way Paloma did. She couldn't think of another reason for the Alien Aisha to be so desperate to get out to Filion, and so frenetic during her pre-flight check, even flipping some of the dials and levers with her ears so her hands could be free for more involved tasks.
Rin took Paloma into the cockpit, and gave her the seat next to the pilot's. He knelt in front of her, adjusting the harness straps so that the little Shoyru was secure in her seat. Next to her, Strixa said, "I've got arti-grav – artificial gravity – once we're in flight. You'll want to stay strapped in until I say, though."
Rin sat next to Paloma, and Subi took the seat on the other side of Strixa. The shuttle up to Virtupets had had no windows, and Subi wanted to see as much as possible of the sky out where the light and air of Neopia grew thin.
Rin said across the seats, "Fasten up, Subi! Would the Neopian Philharmonic travel without their harnesses fastened?"
Subi groaned. "No. Not Maestro Magnus. Not here. Not now."
Rin snickered. Subi explained to the confused Strixa, "Community orchestra. The conductor always compares us to the Philharmonic."
Strixa nodded, and put on a headset. "Initialize launch safety check."
Subi asked, "Didn't you already check?"
Strixa put a finger to her lips. Subi thought it through – maybe the computer itself had to check the software. That made sense. The main computer under Strixa's hands reported, "Launch safety check completed green."
"Initialize launch prep sequence." Strixa started playing the screen under her hands like a piano, sliding and pressing different icons. "Affirmative. Affirmative. Affirmative."
Paloma giggled with excitement. Subi nearly did as well.
The computer reported, "Launch initiated."
The pressures were enormous – it felt like Subi was being crushed backward into her seat. It was much more intense than the big passenger shuttle up to Virtupets. She heard a little "Whoo!" of excitement from Rin, and gripped the handles of her seat as the rockets roared and the whole shuttle shook with the forces involved. All the while, the ship's computers beeped and chimed in a strange electronic melody, and above it all, Strixa laughed with exhilaration as she grabbed the controls and threw her whole body into the effort of steering.
Soon everything leveled off – though Strixa warned them to stay put, Subi was actually able to look out the window. Neopia blazed behind them, as did the Space Station with its legion of lights. But as those lights grew dimmer, farther away, Subi was able to look out into the endless night and see stars that she'd never seen before, popping up like scattered glitter all throughout the constellations.
This was worth it. This very sight was worth it. She kept thinking that, and then she'd look up, and there'd be some new star that she hadn't seen before, some other hint of color, and then she'd think it again. How could it keep getting more beautiful?
This was the sort of thing that Subi had always wanted. The wilds of space. She hadn't admitted it to herself – she'd put it back in the mental cupboard with the princess dreams she'd gone through a few years before. But she wondered just how much of the mature, reasonable, rational decision to take a job at the Space Station had been due to its proximity to the vastness of the stars. Even when Strixa told them they were free to move around, Subi sat in her seat, just watching.
What finally brought her from her seat was the sound of Rin's violin, playing the old Meridellian ballad "The Draik from the Low Country." Rin had had violin lessons, and could play the classics wonderfully, but he always turned to mournful old folk tunes when he was worried or unsettled. She went into the main room of the ship – Paloma was still in her seat, watching Strixa at the controls.
Oh, dear. He'd just switched to "River Sakh," a haunting desert melody. It was gorgeous, but that meant he was really worried. Subi sat down in a chair across from his bunk. "Rin, what is it?" She kept her voice quiet – the cockpit was still full of chimes and chirrups from the monitors, but she didn't want anyone to overhear.
Rin shrugged as he moved his bow over the bridge of the violin. "Bad feelings. Nothing I can name. Something just doesn't feel right."
Subi thought about it. "Do you think Strixa's not on the level?"
From the cockpit, they heard a "Haha!" from Strixa and a high-pitched squeal of joy from Paloma.
Rin said, "She seems too... up-front... to be pulling something. I'm inclined to think she might be receiving something like Paloma is, and just doesn't want to tell us. I wouldn't. And she is getting us out to Filion." He bowed up a quick string of high notes, then continued, "But it just feels like we might have done this too quickly. It was all too neat. It wasn't a day ago that she got the message! Should I have slowed down? Am I taking Paloma into trouble we won't be able to get out of?"
Subi said, "If someone's in danger, we shouldn't have taken extra time. And, anyway, we're already on the spaceship." She smiled, and started singing the first verse of "Lay of the Star-Mariner", letting her voice slide effortlessly into the strong rhythms of a sea chanty:
"Heave-and-ho and turn the wheel
Hull of iron and sails of steel
Shining bright in the frozen night
On to find the morning!"
Rin went into the violin part, and when Strixa and Paloma came in to the cabin and found them singing together, Subi and Rin were able to hide any doubts that they might have had.
The next two days were quiet ones. Paloma read, drew, or played cards with Strixa. If she continued to receive anything, she kept it to herself, though it seemed to Subi that her eyes were a thousand miles away, and far heavier than those of a ten-year-old ought to be. Rin spent hours with his violin, either practicing or just playing, though he joined Paloma in games whenever she requested it. Subi did, as well, though she also had time to read, to write a bit in her logbook, and to look over her music. Maestro Magnus would have been stunned – he always swore that no one in the choir looked at their music outside of rehearsal.
Strixa continued to be trustworthy, if slightly manic. She darted in and out, sometimes eating with them, playing cards with them, or telling them rather improbable stories of the Alien Aisha empire, and at other times making minute adjustments to the computers that did the business of running the ship or taking the controls in hand to navigate around space debris.
After one of those trips, she said, "We're in sight of Filion, now. Would you like to see it?"
Paloma was up out of her chair so quickly that she leapt into flight, and bumped her head on the ceiling before she got her wings under control. Rin put his violin back into his case, and Subi waited for him, flicking a strand of blonde hair out of her face as she did so. She adjusted her beanie over her hair, as well – it was chilly on the Harmonia. She curled her tail a little closer to herself to keep it warmer as she walked into the cockpit.
Strixa pointed out a small light smudge on the horizon – Subi wasn't sure whether she saw a shimmer of color there, or whether it was a trick of the glass. "It's big, almost half as big as Kreludor – the Alien Aishas argue as to whether it should be considered another moon of Neopia. Your folk don't much care. I wonder whether they'd even care for Kreludor could they not see it in their sky."
As they sat, the smudge was already more distinct. Paloma said, "It's very rocky – the entire asteroid is like mountains. That's what my book says. It's something about those mountains that keeps the air in place so they have an atmosphere."
Strixa snorted. "There's no way. It's not near big enough for an atmosphere – it's got as much air as Kreludor, though it's so much smaller. And then there's the sky of lights, which is enough to make anyone's hair stand on... whoa!"
The craft jerked abruptly. Strixa warned, "Strap in! I don't know what's... whoa! Hey!"
They bounced around some more, and Subi strapped herself in hurriedly. Their pilot called, "I think I can get us through... ah!"
Rin clutched his violin close to his chest with one arm and took Paloma's hand with the other. Subi gripped the straps of her harness as they bucked and rocked and shook.
As Strixa fought the controls, Filion grew bigger and bigger – Subi could now see the spiky, rounded form clearly. Finally, Strixa looked up. "The currents are too strong – I think it's electromagnetism, but I've never encountered any like this! Not sure I can land the Harmonia if I can't even get an orbit established, but if you three get in the escape pod you'll make it down. I'll catch you later!"
Another roll accompanied her statement. Subi didn't like the idea, but she didn't see another option, so, holding onto the walls and Paloma, she half-crawled into the main room and grabbed her duffel as Rin followed Strixa's shouted directions and unscrewed the table. Rin dropped through the exposed hatch, and Subi followed, with Paloma close behind.
The escape pod was a close little chamber, cold, with a single window that currently showed nothing. They barely fit in. Above them, the door shut, and as the ship continued to shake, Strixa's voice came through some sort of audio link. "I've managed to give you a homing fix on Filion – it's not so big a place, I'll join you when this dies down and I can actually land the Harmonia in one piece!"
And with that there was a clatter and a roar, and Subi was thrown against the side of the pod as they were shot toward the surface of the mysterious asteroid.
To be continued...