Raised in the mountains of Montana on a hippie commune by a single mother who had top-secret clearance on the Apollo 1 program, Heather is as comfortable hiking in the mountains as she is visiting and exploring large cities and space museums.
Fangirl of anything YA, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and paranormal. Geek girl.
The freezer bag already has her name, dates of birth and death, cause of death, and her class designation within the Delta Station. I place the small implant into the bag and push the completed specimen through the secure slot near the lab door. I hear it plop into the container with the others I've removed this week. These bags will be picked up by security tomorrow. They will sanitize the chips, download the data, and then reprogram them for the next Delta newcomer.
Exhausted, I sink back onto the metal stool. I've spent all weekend in this cold autopsy room. A virus had spread throughout one of the barge ships that docked with our station a few days ago. Although Delta Station is the last civilized stop at the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, it does have well-implemented rules and regulations. Thankfully, one of those is the twenty-four-hour quarantine on all ships docking here, whether civilian or galactic. Scans of the barge were able to detect the sickness before they cycled the ship’s seals open. This saved the rest of us from being infected.
The woman on my table and her crewmates in the freezer must've lived on Delta at one time before working on the barge ship because they all have Delta chips. The triangular-shaped implants serve as currency, identification, and station access to all those who live and work here.
Following protocol, I document everything and then cover the body back up.
When I take my gloves off to dispose of them, they rub against my own Delta chip, making me wince slightly. My dark skin is still irritated by the recent implantation. As the medical examiner's daughter, my chip gives me high priority access to most areas of Delta. The only place I'm not allowed is the main security office, which I find strange since they're right next door to the morgue. We even share an emergency door between us.
I glance around the room to make sure everything is back in order before I push the body back into the freezer and close the door. I lean my forehead against the metal, welcoming the cold burn. After Mom died, I had to leave behind my home under the domes of Mars Colony to come here to live with my dad on Delta Station. And if losing Mom and having to move halfway across the galaxy wasn't enough, my apprenticeship started over here on Delta. This means I missed out on applying for the medical team on the 2080 long-term mission to the heart of the Carina Dwarf galaxy.
My throat tightens as I fight back tears. Mom was my best friend and my greatest supporter. I love my dad, but we're still getting to know each other. I take in a deep breath of cold, metallic air.
A trio of beeps startles me, and I pull my forehead away from the door and look at my wrist.
Red digital numbers glow faintly through my skin from the implant, letting me know I’m going to be late for school. Phobos’ dust, not again. I pull myself from my dark thoughts and strip off my scrubs and wash my hands.
My quarters are just down the corridor, and I hurry to grab my bookbag. They use 3D vids in the classrooms, but I still like taking my own notes and sketching on my tablet. I'm also trudging my way through some of Mom's medical textbooks, so I always have one with me at all times.
I slip out the front door of the morgue, pausing only long enough to listen for the soft hum of the door lock engaging. Officially, they call this leg of Delta the Gray Sector, since the color strips along the mechanical walking paths are marked either black or gray. But everyone on Delta Station usually just calls it the dead sector. It contains the medical examiner's office, the morgue, the medical and dental offices, a small hospital, and security.
Most of us who work in this sector also live here instead of in the main residential area, the Blue Sector, which I'm very grateful for. This lessens my chances of running into other people.
I don't mind working with the dead, it's the live ones that I'm afraid of.
I take a short cut through the business district, ducking down connecting corridors that lead behind the businesses. I then hop onto the main business walkway, the metal grids softly grinding under my Vans. The business district is the Red Sector. When I first moved here, I would take these walkways for hours. Gray, red, blue. At each leg of the triangle, I would have to hop off that walkway and jump on the next one. I enjoyed listening to the hum and click as it moved me effortlessly around the station. It reminded me of the mining machines deep in the red Mars dirt that I grew up watching.
This sector – one of the legs of the triangle that makes up Delta station – contains clothing and gift shops, restaurants, entertainment rooms, and the school and daycare areas. Space docks are built at each point of the triangle.
A magnificent greenhouse enclosed under a clear dome fills in the middle of the triangle. I trail my hand on the glass as I allow the pathway to carry me down the corridor. I enjoy seeing the lush greenery through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Trees and bushes bloom with every color imaginable.
As much as I enjoy this side of the station, the outer side is still my favorite. The windows of the outside walkways face out into space. From those pathways, I can watch ships coming and going from the station against a background of dark space and a thick blanket of stars.
I hop off the walkway in the middle of the business sector. Here the noise level is the highest in the whole station. Most of life aboard the station happens here. It's the social center, which is why I usually avoid this area, especially during peak times like this. But I'm late, so I endure it since it’s a shortcut to school. I step onto the yellow walkway that bisects the business district, and that leads to my school. It moves too slowly for me this morning, so I jog at the far edge, earning glares from other riders.
The pubs and cafes are brimming with loud voices and the aroma of coffee and breakfast foods. My stomach rumbles, and I realize I forgot to eat again. I'll have to remember to check my pack for a nutrition bar.
Several survivors from the barge ship sit quietly around a table at one of the crowded restaurants. Their unusually bright uniforms are hard to miss. Miss Ana’s is the local favorite, especially among the indie shipping crews, since she has a magical way of making everyone welcome with her never-ending smile and delicious food. As usual, several security guards are milling around, keeping an eye on the crowd.
I step off the walkway at the front door of the school and place my wrist on the scanner. After it beeps, I hurry through and try to slip quietly from the corridor into my regular seat in the back of the class. The hard plastic creaks loudly, and I cringe.
The desks are in tiered rows so I have no hope of going unnoticed by our teacher, Mr. Thomas. I'm also tall for my age, and of course the new girl. So as hard as I try to be invisible, I'm not.
There's quiet laughter to my right. "Hey muerta, you have a ghost to take care of this morning?" Derek Paz leans around his friends, an ugly grin on his otherwise handsome face.
I swallow hard and stiffly turn in my seat toward the front. I clutch my growling stomach as I try to block them out. They're being juvenile. Just ignore them, Bren.
Mr. Thomas glances up but continues on with his lecture. He has 3D images of old starships projected behind him. As different classes and models of the space-faring ships light up, I lean forward, extremely interested in every detail. I've memorized just about every starship created. Now, this is more like it. We're finally getting to space history.
Although I loved living on Mars Colony, the one thing that frustrated me was their deliberate ignorance toward space colonization. The ruling council discouraged any travel off Mars and didn't allow space history or technology to be taught in the upper grades.
Mom felt safe under the domes of Mars and didn't want to travel farther, anyway. But Dad always wanted to explore the unknown, to see what was beyond Sol system. Eventually, they ended up going their separate ways. I guess my wanderlust comes from my dad.
I sigh as I look at the rotating ships. It took a lot of begging Mom in order to apply to test for the 2080 mission. I had studied on my own, downloading textbooks off the vids. Now I'm not sure what my future holds. I might not still be stuck under the domes of Mars, but I'm still living on a station when what I really want is to be exploring space from a starship.
I pull out my electronic tablet pen and start drawing the starships as Mr. Thomas drones on beneath the detailed vids. I know each and every one of them inside and out, but I never tire of hearing about them and all the places they've explored. Drawing always relaxes me, and soon I have several ships outlined and filled in, my fingers aching for more.
I whip my head up, warmth creeping up my neck. "Yes, sir?"
Mr. Thomas stares up at me, his eye cam gleaming.
More laughter comes from all around the room as my confused image is projected onto the vid screen behind our teacher. Horrified, I sink lower in my seat. The hard plastic presses painfully into my spine.
"Since you seem to be daydreaming instead of listening to my lecture, I'm volunteering you for the first set of field trips. This hands-on experience will be half of your grade for this class."
I groan inwardly. Not because of the field trip – I love getting off station – but because I was caught not paying attention again.
I hear snickering to my right and turn to glare at Derek.
"And you, Mr. Paz, will be on her team."
I smile as Derek now looks like a just-caught fish with his mouth hanging open.
"But Mr. T, I've already got a group signed up." He gestures to his friends on either side of him.
"I don't care." Mr. Thomas shakes his head, a smile playing across his lips. "Seems neither you nor Miss Teves needs the benefit of this lecture, so you'll be the first in the class to tour the Valiant."
Murmurs and low whispers fill the room. My stomach twists painfully as everyone's attention focuses on Derek and me.
"There's a security team waiting for you near airlock 2C."
I look over and Derek's dark eyes flash as he pushes himself out of his seat.
I quickly put my tablet away and stand up. Although I'm excited to finally be able to get off the station, I sure didn't want to do it with Derek. This is definitely the worst thing that's happened to me since coming to Delta. I'll have to spend the day with my least favorite person, and the one who gave me the nickname of la muerta, the dead girl. I throw my pack over my shoulder and head toward the exit, careful to keep my head down as heat creeps up my neck.
Thankful that I always sit in the back, close to the door, I take long strides out of the classroom. I've tried hard to be invisible, not speaking up, not trying to make any friends. The irony is that I already have my high school diploma. My dad thought a senior year on Delta station would help me make friends. But all I want to do is to finish my last year of school quietly and apply for the Carina 2080 mission. Again.
With my head down, I hurry through the business sector, past the security offices, morgue and medical offices. I then cut through the back passage to the windows to the stars. I hop onto the walkway and allow it to gently carry me along. I face the window and enjoy the serenity of watching the occasional spaceship pass by. Bright stars glimmer against the black background of space where I imagine one day I will join them.
Too soon I'm at the space dock. There are a series of seals to go through that lead out to the actual docks. The dock master's office and supply station are also out here. I place my wrist under the bio scanner, and the glass door shimmers green as it slides aside. I do the same with the next seal. Here the dockmaster greets me with a smile. He's one of the few people on Delta not put off by the job my dad and I do. Most people don't want to touch or be around us since we work with the deceased. Dad's gotten used to it over the years, but I find it hard to be treated like I've got some kind of infectious disease. It wasn’t like that on Mars.
"How's it going little lady? Coming out to see the new ships docking today?"
"Not this time, Mr. Daneel. I–"
The door behind me whooshes open, and Derek saunters in.
I frown. This is going to be a long day. I look back at the dockmaster. "We're going on the first trip out to the Valiant today."
He narrows his eyes, looking between Derek and me. "Just the two of you? They just cleared that relic not too long ago. Are you sure it’s safe?"
Derek steps forward, his perfect white teeth gleaming. "Of course it's safe. The sergeant cleared it himself. Our team is waiting." He waves to the outer lock impatiently.
I control my urge to bang my head against the nearest wall. Instead, I give the dockmaster a weak smile and take care not to look in Derek's direction. Mr. Daneel shakes his head as he punches a code into the control panel, allowing the double seals in front of us to part. It opens up into a small chamber, which Derek and I step into.
As the chamber goes through its decontamination process, I stare at the wall and mentally recite the major systems that make up the Valiant to avoid talking to Derek.
I chance a peek at Derek. He's too quiet, and that's not his norm. I find him staring at me, an amused expression on his face. I'm taller than most girls, which means I'm looking nearly straight into his dark eyes.
I look quickly down.
The next seal opens with a hiss and I practically run out of the chamber. I don't look back as I make my way to dock 2C. I know every dock's location and what types of ships can use each one. I have a lot of time to myself when I'm not in the morgue working.
I slow my pace as I find 2C surrounded by a small security team dressed in dark maroon Delta uniforms. Derek soon joins us and starts up an animated conversation with the security team. Since he's a security apprentice he knows all of them.
Of course. This day just gets better and better. I sigh and lean against the thick clear glass that separates us from the vacuum of space. I frown as I notice that the dock is empty. Our ship hasn't arrived yet. 2C is a medium-size dock, so we could be expecting anything from a fast four-seat planet cruiser to a medium-size reliable sixteen-person interplanetary transport.
My breath catches as I see what comes toward us. I look at Derek who grins and winks at me. I roll my eyes and look back as the sleek security patrol ship glides up to our dock and latches on. There’s not even the slightest bump. I've never been on one of the new security ships, but I hear they have the latest Sol technology. It briefly crosses my mind as I mentally drool over the ship in front of me, that maybe I should’ve become a security apprentice. They seem to get all the new technology.
"Ready for the ride of your life, muerta?"
Well, that killed that idea.
I clench my hands and force myself not to respond. I wait until I hear the airlock open before I turn around. Derek shrugs and moves through the airlock with two of the guards. The other two hang back, supposedly waiting for me. I walk past them, noticing that neither one makes eye contact with me. I'm not sure if they're embarrassed for me because of Derek's comment or they don't like the idea of being near me because of my muerta status. I make sure to step as closely as I can, making them take involuntary steps backward, and grin to myself as I enter the security vessel.
As soon as I step onto the patrol ship, I forget all about the guards, Derek's remark, or pretty much anything else. Every surface gleams as if the ship was just rolled off the assembly line. It even smells brand new. All of the consoles have bio-interfaces and are color-coded, I imagine making it easier for any level of pilot to fly.
But what truly takes my breath away are the walls and ceiling. Where gleaming metal should be all around us, we see everything outside our patrol ship. The effect makes the walls seem invisible so that we see the dock, the other ships around us, and the stars beyond.
In the tight space, I turn to take in the whole view, only to find Derek right next to me.
"Pretty cool, isn't it?"
I close my mouth. My face is warm at being caught gawking.
"Mira esto. Watch this." Derek reaches around me and presses a button. The walls and ceiling suddenly revert to a glittery beige metal surface.
I take a step away from him but run into the wall behind me, which is now no longer an expansive view of space, just the glass vid overlaying the ship's gray metal structure.
"Careful muerta, there's nowhere to go in here." He waves his arm across the ship's cabin.
His use of the hated nickname feels more personal and more hurtful in this small space. I turn to face him, gritting my teeth, and squaring my shoulders.
He freezes and lowers his arm. I know he's popular at school with the girls, but since he's always teased me unmercifully, I've rarely taken too close of a look. But now, I can see how good looking he really is. He has long eyelashes that emphasize his obsidian eyes as the cut of his dark hair frames his clean-shaven face. Model perfect.
He takes advantage of my hesitation to take a step backward. His handsome smile turns into a sneer and all thoughts of how perfect he vanishes instantly from my mind.
"Don't like being called muerta?"
"No, I don't." My emotions, already strung tight, snap. "How do you feel about being a secondary apprentice instead of a full apprentice like the rest of us in our class? I might be working with dead people but at least I have a career path. You're just extra muscle for the real security guards."
His sneer fades and his eyes turn cold. "This is my career." He juts his chin toward the other guards.
I shake my head. "No, at graduation you'll move up to serve as an apprentice for another year while the rest of us start getting paid for our jobs on Delta." I place my hands on my hips and mentally brace myself for Derek's retort. I'm usually pretty good at ignoring his biting remarks, but he's pressed my buttons one too many times.
His lips press together into a thin line as he looks between me and the guards behind him. The guards are deliberately ignoring us. Stiffly, he turns and sits down. His neck and face are turning a dark shade of pink as he stares straight ahead without saying a word.
I’m left standing with anger boiling inside. I stomp across the room and buckle into a chair as far away from Derek as I can get, and take out my tablet. I scribble furiously, trying to ease the desire to throttle him.
"Here we go," calls out one of the maroon-outfitted men at the ship's console. There's humor in his voice. "Everyone needs to be buckled in for departure."
I feel a slight movement as we disconnect from the dock. They turn the vids back on allowing the hull to show the view of the outside again. My emotions relax as we slip past several docked starships swarming with space-suited mechanics. I smile as I watch the space station slip away from view.