Iso checked the ship's coordinates and trajectory one last time before switching the controls back to autopilot. The ship was still about 350 light-years out from its projected destination, but who was even counting at this point?
Isobella–or Iso, as her friends called her–had never stepped foot on a 'planet,' per se. Sure, she'd spent plenty of time in the VirtuGrid, the ship's virtual reality program designed to simulate a natural, planet-side environment. She'd also worked in the 'garden' as a teenager for many years, in which the inhabitants of the Starship Shepherd grew fruits and veggies that fed all 267 crew members. Iso had been born and raised on the Shepherd, as had everyone she'd ever known–including her parents and grandparents. She could never remember if it was her great-grandparents or her great-great-grandparents that had been born on a now long-dead planet, but she didn't care too much for history. According to legend, the planet her people were originally from reached a point of unsustainability, which caused the government to launch the Shepherd, along with several other long-term ships, as a last-ditch effort to save humanity.
Iso leaned her chin on her fist, resting her elbow on the cold, sleek console. She knew she should stay alert while she was at the helm, but she'd spent so much time at these controls that her heart had begun to beat in time with the hypnotizing sounds of the tracking system. Her body relaxed and her eyelids grew heavy as she thought about lunch that day with her best friend, Chalia. They'd known each other their entire lives, but for the last few years, she'd started to feel…differently…about her. The way Chalia's dark eyes sparkled as she spoke about the engineering room, the way her blue-black hair curled around her ears (the Cutest Ears in the Universe, in Iso's opinion). Iso knew same-sex relationships were not exactly forbidden on the Shepherd. They were, however, highly discouraged.
It is everyone's responsibility to do their part to ensure the continuation of the human race, she heard her teacher's voice like an epitaph in her head (followed by the subsequent mocking she and Chalia had enjoyed behind their teacher's back).
Of course, they had plenty of ways to artificially produce children. The recent 'Naturalist Movement' growing amongst the people aboard the Shepherd suggested the original form of reproduction was the 'ideal' version. 'Naturalists,' as they called themselves, seemed to think humans might forget the mechanics of the reproduction process if they didn't continue to use it as their primary method. Iso knew this had to be false. She doubted humans could ever forget how certain things worked. Just thinking about Chalia in her jumpsuit (the way the zipper went all the way down her front) confirmed Iso's theory for her. Besides, she was so much more than a vessel for the continuation of the population. Iso would let the whole of what was left of humanity die in the cold vacuum of space for one taste of Chalia's soft, plump lips.
Iso sat up and stretched as her elbow began to ache. She leaned back in the captain's chair and propped her feet up on the console. She knew the posture wasn't exactly professional, but who was around to reprimand her?
Iso’s heart leaped as her mother’s voice barked behind her. Her heavy boots slammed onto the metal flooring as she turned in one awkward motion toward the figure in the doorway. Her face grew hot and her stomach flipped as she realized the curvy shape did not belong to her mother.
“Chalia! What are you doing here? You scared me!”
“How’s my impression of your mom coming along?” Chalia said with a pearly-toothed grin.
“Way too good. Are you off work for the day?” Iso asked.
“Yeah, Dad said I could take a break. I put in a ton of hours this week, and he told me to go home, but I wanted to come visit you,” Chalia said, her dazzling smile growing brighter.
“Come on in! You can be my co-pilot,” Iso said, swiveling the co-captain’s chair next to her (while hoping the dim lighting hid her blush).
“Don’t mind if I do!” Chalia’s work boots clanged against the grating as she walked over to the offered chair.
Iso breathed in deeply as her friend sat next to her. Chalia always smelled of a mix of musk and motor oil, which was equal parts exciting and enchanting.
“Wanna see something cool?” Iso asked, and without waiting for an answer she typed in the command to switch from autopilot data readouts to external cameras.
The screen displayed the endless expanse of space and stars and debris. Iso's smile widened with satisfaction as she heard Chalia gasp. The sight still gave her a hot thrill somewhere in her chest (the same thrill she felt when she saw Chalia–something about the promise of endless possibilities).
“It’s incredible!” Chalia squealed.
“Yeah,” Iso agreed.
“Could you imagine what it would be like to look out there and see a habitable planet?” Chalia asked, her eyes glittering with the reflection of stars.
“I’ve had that same thought many times,” Iso said with a pang of regret, “It won’t happen in our lifetime, though.”
“I know,” Chalia said, voice somber.
“Still, it’s nice to dream.”
Iso thought about the “planets” she'd spent time on in the VirtuGrid. Her favorite sim was a beach with rolling waves and white birds wheeling overhead. Even now, she felt the moist sand between her toes, the sun beating down on her bare skin, the smell of salt in the humid air. She stole a quick glance at Chalia and pictured walking along the waves with her, their hands clasped, running into the water, splashing each other, their clothes getting soaked and sticking to their bodies. She knew they’d never get to see it–not for real. Even if they found a suitable planet, it would likely take decades to terraform the land well enough for anyone to venture out of the biodome.
“Starship Shepherd to Iso, come in, Iso!” Chalia waved a grease-stained hand in front of Iso’s face.
“Heh, sorry, just dreaming,” Iso ran a hand through her short hair, suddenly unable to meet Chalia's eyes.
Both women jumped at an unfamiliar sound.
“What was that?!” Chalia asked.
“I…don’t know…” Iso replied, searching for the source of the sound.
“How could you, of all people, not know?” Chalia’s eyes were wide as she stared at her friend.
“I don’t know,” Iso repeated, “and I don’t like it one bit.”
Iso had grown up in this cockpit, training by her mother's side. The steady thrum of the jets, the various beeps and bops of the controls, and the soothing whir of the nav system provided the soundtrack of her life. Whatever she'd just heard was completely new to her. Iso’s sharp gray eyes scanned the control board until she located a flashing red dot.
“There,” she said, pointing, “I asked my mother about that com panel years ago. It’s part of an old communication system between starships, but we’ve been out of range of any other ships for over 100 years.”
Iso and Chalia looked at each other, then back at the panel as it continued to flash. If Chalia hadn't been there to witness this phenomenon, Iso would’ve thought she was hallucinating. Both women leaned forward to read the message scrolling persistently across the board:
THIS IS AN URGENT MESSAGE FROM THE STARSHIP WAKATA. WE ARE UNDER ATTACK. WE REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE FROM ANY SHIP WITHIN RANGE OF THIS MESSAGE. I REPEAT, THIS IS AN URGENT MESSAGE FROM THE STARSHIP WAKATA...
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab