"Initiate systems check."
"Roger that, Commander Itri," replied Sterling. "Initiating systems check. Mission Specialist Estrella. Fuel?"
"All in order, boss."
"Mission Specialist Hoshiko. Airlocks?"
The question hung in the air for several seconds, an old-timey radio-like crackling the only reply, interrupted by the occasional high-pitched grunt.
As he waited for an answer he became fully aware of the ship's stifling heat, which was only made worse by the insulation layer that lined the inside of his space suit. Several beads of sweat formed at the top of his forehead, almost licking the frontier between his bare skin and the thick forest that was his jet-black hair. The droplets were staggered along his forehead like sprinters poised on a racetrack waiting to hear the gun go off. Eventually, it did go off, in the form of a furrowing of the brow, and they all began their slide down towards the gap between his eyebrows, where they coalesced into one larger drop that rushed saltily along the bridge of his nose before diving off the tip. He wrinkled it around as he felt the tickling, rubbed it with an even sweatier hand and decided to call out again.
"Mission Specialist Hoshiko, do you copy? Hoshiko? Are the airlocks secured?"
The grunting intensified before breaking out into heavy breathing. "Give me... a minute," replied Hoshiko in between ragged breaths, "I've almost... got them..."
When the grunting resumed, Sterling unbuckled and climbed halfway down the ladder to the lower level where Hoshiko was.
He almost laughed out loud at what he saw.
Mission Specialist Hoshiko, who was just over four feet tall, was jumping up and down repeatedly, her arms swinging in the air as she tried to reach the handle of the last open airlock like a blindfolded child eager to puncture a piñata. Across the room from her, Module Pilot Najm was making a laudable effort of pretending not to notice what was happening, her eyes laser-focused on the screens before her.
Sterling cleared his throat in a very deliberate manner, attracting the attention of both women. Hoshiko's guilty expression and Najm's feigned innocence were, at least superficially, on opposite ends of the spectrum.
"Najm, would you swap with Hoshiko? It seems she is having trouble with the airlocks."
She sighed. "Fine."
Pushing her seat back along the rails that fixed it to the floor, she stood up in an obvious huff and trundled over to the airlock as Hoshiko walked diffidently towards the empty chair, hands in pockets and nose pointing at her shuffling feet, avoiding any eye contact with either of them.
"Sorry," mumbled Hoshiko, her voice squeaky.
"You're not the one who should be apologising, Mission Specialist Hoshiko, I am," replied Sterling, making Hoshiko stare up in surprise. "As Second-in-Command, it is my responsibility to assign each crew member the tasks most suited to their skills and abilities. I failed to do that and I apologise to the entire crew for this."
He held her gaze for a few brief seconds as her jaw repeatedly opened and closed in silence. Before she was able to muster up any words, he nodded firmly and climbed back up to the upper level, never seeing the smile he had drawn out of her.
As he strapped himself back down, Commander Itri looked over at him, gesturing for him to cover his comms transmitter. "Well handled, Sterling. I'm glad to have you as my Second-in-Command."
"Thank you, Commander. Now," he continued, buckled up once again, "let's get this thing started."
He finished going through the systems check and, a few minutes later, Itri have him the command to initiate the countdown. He flipped several of the ocean of switches above and to his right, adjusted a couple of knobs and a timer popped up on one of his screens.
"T minus thirty."
New beads of sweat began to appear, this time rushing down his face without a hint of a hesitation. He didn't dare blink.
"T minus twenty."
"Sterling! Your helmet!"
His eyes expanded to the size of coasters. Darn it! He'd been too focused on everything else! Luckily, he was able to reach it without releasing himself from the seat and began to align it with the hard collar of his suit, his eyes never leaving the countdown.
"T minus ten."
His fingers panicked around the edges of the solid bubble now covering his head, scrabbling desperately for the latches that would lock it into place and seal him in with the life support system. He managed to secure the last one as the timer hit five, but as he did the surface of the helmet he was looking out through fogged up. He would have to wing it.
"Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Ignition."
A deep rumble erupted somewhere below, slow at first but picking up rapidly. It reminded him of the growling belly of a dragon as it smelled its prey – or what he'd always imagined it would sound like, that is. As it intensified, so did the vibrations inside the ship, within seconds making them feel like they had been caught in an earthquake. The neck of his suit began to chafe at his glistening neck while the air support system let in the smell of burning fuel and out any excess humidity, clearing up his view in time for him to see everything around him shaking uncontrollably.
Eventually, the roar calmed down – or his senses got used to it, he wasn't sure – and the blur of lights before him reconvened into screens once again, the numbers on them indicating everything was running as smoothly as things could run when 11,000 pounds of fuel were burned every second somewhere under your feet.
Less than half an hour later, once they had verified all systems were still live and healthy, the computer's auto-controls took over, allowing them to stand up and roam the ship. They all quickly gathered round in the viewing room, so called because of the panoramic window along one of its sides, which provided the best views of the planet below.
They all floated together, staring down in wonder, Itri and Sterling included – it didn't matter whether it was one's first or tenth time up in orbit, the view never got old.
"I think I can see my next-door neighbour Mr. González down there, walking his dog," said Najm.
"Don't be stupid," interjected Estrella, grabbing her hand as she was lifting it up to wave, "you can't see anything like that from here. We're over two hundred miles up in the air."
"Present company excluded," added Commander Itri, "the closest person to us is now farther away than Los Angeles and San Diego are from each other."
They all considered her words in silence, pondering on how alone they really were up here and how exposed they felt despite the thick layers of metals and polycarbonates separating them from the cold, black vacuum of space.
As their thoughts began to meander and they started to consider their chores within the ship, they heard a sound that chilled them all to the very bone, the last sound they ever expected to hear where they were, 250 miles up in space.
They heard someone knocking.
It was quite a casual knock, the kind you might hear in a toilet cubicle, but to them, out here in the middle of nowhere, it sounded like an ogre pounding on a castle gate, a club in one hand and a shield on the other, a full army backing it up.
They looked at each other, staring, thinking, not daring to say anything in case whoever or whatever was doing the knocking heard them. They waited. After several seconds of silence they heard it again, four taps, knock knock knock knock, and realised they could no longer ignore it. They all looked at Commander Itri, who was busy regaining her dark complexion after the blood had drained from her face. When she did, her face took on the kind of decisiveness that had led her to the position of Commander in the first place and she began to pull herself through the ship, grabbing onto the many rungs splayed about every surface, using each one to give herself the impulse that would take her to the next, until she was floating practically still before the thick metal door the knocks had come from.
She looked back at the crew, who had followed her at a distance and were now consuming twice the amount of air per breath as had been originally estimated by their engineers down at home base. As her pupils were making their way through each of the pairs of eyes that were watching her, the knocking was renewed, four taps once again, making her flinch.
Knock knock knock knock.
She looked back at the door and got as close as she could to the its surface without actually touching it.
"Who's there?" she called out.
"It's me, honey. I brought you kids some ice-creams and cold lemonade. It's roasting out here and I know how much the treehouse can keep in the heat."
In a matter of seconds, the space ship around them dissolved before Sterling's eyes. The round walls of shony metal became rough and edgy, the wooden planks it was made of chipped at every other place. The seats they had been sitting on minutes before were once again old, squashed-up boxes, piles of crumbling bricks and cracked pallets, the computer screens now sheets of paper painted in many colours, the levers and knobs simple pieces of wood and rope arranged in various combinations. The other crew members were no longer wearing space suits, but shorts and t-shirts, overalls, hairbands and sneakers, half of the laces not even tied properly. The heat was real, though, there was no denying that – the patches of sweat could attest to it.
Itri, who had gone from terror to frustration as quickly as their environment had been transformed back into the treehouse, stamped her feet on the floor.
"Mooooom! I told you not to interrupt us while we're on one of our orbital flights unless you're willing to be the space monster!"
"Oh, is that what you were doing? Sorry, honey! I'll get out of your way!"
They heard her footsteps as she walked away.
"No, wait!" cried out Itri.
"You all as hot as I am?" she whispered at the others.
They all nodded vigorously.
"Leave the tray next to the tree! We'll be down in a minute!"
"Sure thing, Commander!"