Every time he saw her, she took his breath away.
He whispered her name: “Aurora.”
They'd been together more than seven years now, and he knew her well, but familiarity had not bred contempt. He let his eyes wander over her graceful lines and curves, the elegant proportions of her, his gaze lingering here and there on some detail. She was dressed in white, as she had always been, and it was surely her color, showing the completeness of her, warmly glowing in the sun. She was not young but never seemed old to him. She radiated life and joy and energy. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Every time he saw her.
He loved her completely, and knew she loved him too. She had a soul, of that he had no doubt, and it was brave, kind, and noble. He had rescued her from a fate worse than death, and she had repaid him with the fulfillment of his greatest dreams. He ached for her whenever they were forced apart, his heart sang and leapt within him when they reunited. Even now she opened herself to him, beckoning him home, urging him to her embrace.
His aircar gently settled into its cradle in Small Craft Bay Four, at the vessel's waist. The bay door slid closed and the compartment pressurized. Presently the indicator showed green, and he stepped out of his car, floating through freefall to the hatch which led into the ship.
His fingers touched the bulkhead and for a moment he floated there, just touching her, reveling in her solid warmth, the gentle hum and murmur of her life.
“Aurora,” he whispered again.
She was his ship, and he was her Captain.
He was home.
And, for just a moment, wished he weren't.
“Skipper, the RCS fuel-”
“Boss, about the freshwater supply-”
“Captain, the port fees-”
“Chief, that last cargo-”
As soon as he'd opened the hatch to the main passageway his crew – his family in the deepest sense, for all that a third of them were nonhuman – set upon him with the endless details of keeping a ship in operation and out of debt.
He ignored them completely as the craft-bay hatch closed and sealed. They parted before him, still chattering, as he pulled his way to the forward mess, passing through two more hatches, each closing automatically when the mob had cleared it – from his days in the Patrol, and his time after on slackly-run merchant ships, he'd developed the life-saving habit of always sealing the hatch behind him, and the automatic hatches were one of the first things he'd restored.
Solomon Danner was an average-looking man, early middle age at 67 Monticellan years, 42 Terran; mostly Caucasian, 1.8 meters, a well-fed 100 kilograms, plain straight brown hair - the remarkable thing about his appearance was his eyes, a piercing sky blue. He had learned, as an officer of the Patrol, to use them to effect, wordlessly scolding some unfortunate rating, silently protesting his own innocence to Commanders and Captains and the occasional Commodore when fortune turned. He had been with women, and knew he was not unattractive to them, but none had yet captured his heart like Aurora. When he was with her, his eyes were gentle and forgiving.
The mess was in one of the two spinning 37-meter grav-rings which gave Aurora's 161-meter length her distinctive wasp-waist profile. Reaching the 3rpm interface, he moved out/down to the cushioned vestibule and opened yet another hatch, oriented himself feet-“down” and lowered himself down the ladder, his crew following, still begging his attention, waving documents or flashing 'puter displays at him.
There wasn't much “gravity” at this diameter and rotation, only about 1.8mps2, .16 Monticellan or .18 Terran, a touch heavier than Luna; yet there was a trade-off: if the ring spun any faster, Coriolis effects would offset the advantages of weight. There were two rings, fore and aft, counter-rotating to cancel torque. When necessary for maneuvering on the main engines, the rings were halted with reaction-control-system jets, and restarted the same way; hence the question of fuel. The fore ring was the crew's own private quarters, and also the main galley and dining compartment, while the aft was comprised of widely-convertible passenger quarters, from bulk bunks for colonists to luxury rivaling any planetside hotel.
Aurora was an unusual design in her time, and while successful, not one often repeated since. Most ships, of peace or war, spun their entirety to produce weight when not under thrust from their realspace engines. During their service lives, most of Aurora's seventy-nine sisters had locked their grav-rings to save time and power spinning or de-spinning them for maneuvering, or removed them altogether to free up mass and space. The uncommon feature was one reason Danner had chosen her, from a hundred candidates in the sad loneliness of Mothball Orbit, 60,000km above New Texas.
Independent Starship Aurora had been built as JRS Aurora, C63, an Adamant class cruiser for the Jeffersonian Republic Space Patrol, part of the Republic's first real warship building program in response to the Europa Incident. She was three hundred twenty-nine Republic years old, two hundred five Terran, and she was the last of her kind.
Despite twenty-one Republic years in the Space Patrol, which owed much of its structure and many of its traditions to the ancient and extinct United States Navy, Danner had never acquired the coffee habit. Instead he had a sweet tooth and, still ignoring his yammering, gesticulating crew, methodically prepared an open-topped mug of hot spiced apple cider, stirring carefully in the low acceleration. At length he sat, and sipped, and smiled, staring at nothing, until his crew wound down.
This wasn't the whole crew of course, just five of the officers, so far as they could be called such – Danner was no disciplinarian, and Aurora's eleven sentients had come from nearly as many worlds, and five races; he let them be as long as they did their jobs. His first mate, Prrg, the scaly Nikar from Gnop, was not present, standing watch in the bridge – and flapping his arms, or jaws, was not his way.
Aurora had an actual “bridge”, and thinking of it caused Danner to smile again. Hers was the last Republic warship class to have her control center at the edge of the hull, under alumiglas in the very bow of the ship; later designs buried it deep within the ship's spine to protect against damage, and a little romance had gone from the universe. That was another of the many reasons he had chosen her over her poor, abandoned fellows. He could have afforded any of dozens of more modern civilian freighters or liners, or even a Bunker Hill heavy cruiser (the Adamants had been reclassified as light before the War), twice the mass and a century younger, but Aurora was love at first sight.
No, if Prrg had any concerns he would bring them to him quietly later; if they were urgent he would have commed, the only signal Danner accepted any time, anywhere. Finally he allowed his eyes to acknowledge the existence of his “officers”. They tensed but, conceding the game, did not speak.
He started with the young second mate and navigator, Sarah Heusner. Despite her Human name, she was in fact Eyani, typically mixed-Tribe as her race had been for the past century or more, her fur a pleasing pattern of whites, browns and blacks, with surprisingly Human-like blue eyes. Born on her people's first colony, New Eyan, she had been orphaned as a cub, then adopted and raised aboard ship by Humans. A young adult at 35 Republic years, she was more Human than Eyani, and more Shipfolk than Planetkind; someday, like Danner, she would have her own ship and would probably die in it of old age. Maintaining the mystique of the omniscient Captain, he did not ask her to repeat her concerns but answered as though no time had passed since he came through the craft-bay hatch. “RCS fuel will be loaded within the hour and I checked the quality myself. Texans are straight dealers and their prices are fair. Top off, and fill the bladder in craft-bay 2 as well.” The purser shifted nervously in his seat at this, so Danner turned to him next.
“The cargo sold,” he said, comming the data from his 'puter to Daisuke's. “The whole cargo. I reckon that will cover the port fees.” The wiry nikkei from New Israel, normally the definition of reserved decorum, actually made a little happy-noise when he read his display. Gnoppan raptorhide, sparkling with thousands of reflective scales, was quite the fashion among bootmakers in Texas, New or old; and elsewhere on Terra, the phurs from Vuoc were on their way to thousands of ladies' coats. That was three luxury-item runs in a row now; the crew were again starting to call him “Lucky Sol”. Normally the Purser himself would have gone to finalize the sales, but the buyers had invited the more-famous-than-he-wanted-to-be Captain to dinner - separately. In separate time zones. Not wanting to burn bridges, he went - signalling Hlossh to launch with the first cargo shuttle as soon as that deal was done.
Danner tried not to think about how big a gamble this last cargo had been. It had worked out... this time.
“Water should be coming through the umbilical as I speak,” Danner said to the ship's steward, Charles Clancy, the big, good-natured true-Terran-Irishman who, like a hundred generations before him, had gone down to the sea in ships – except now they went up. “Again, top off, and fill the number-eight ballast too. In about twenty hours a chandler will be along with a very complete catalog, including samples. We don't get to Terra often; neoprawns are fine but I like real shrimp. And golden delicious apples, big fat ones from Washington, so crisp you can cut yourself, they just can't grow them the same anywhere else.” Clancy, 55 and vigorous with bright red hair and ever-laughing grey eyes, grinned and made notes. His galley sported the latest model cryopantry, developed from century-old Chikaran technology – if it went in fresh, it would come out fresh a hundred years later.
Next he addressed Jack Epstein, the squat, swarthy, muscular bosun and cargomaster. “Yes, you have permission to open the holds to space to get the smell out.” Epstein was also from New Israel, but had little in common with Daisuke Taniyama. The purser, not quite 50 on the Republic's Monticellan-based calendar, had been born and raised planetside, trained as a banker before some undisclosed scandal or tragedy drove him to the stars; the younger bosun, just 40, had grown up on Haifa Station and had worked as a dockhand since adolescence, until the stories he heard from the crews he met had driven him to seek stories of his own.
Last was his engineer, Jennifer Blain from High City at Wilson's Colony. She had not chattered like the others, but silently waited her turn. Danner knew the details of her personal tragedy and did not speak of them. She was a plain-looking woman of 47, pale, brown of hair and eye, a bit overweight, but an absolute wizard when it came to keeping a ship flying. Aurora hadn't been in such shape since she'd first been commissioned. Danner thought of Jenny as the kid sister he'd never had.
He saw something in the engineer's eyes and said, “All right, the rest of you, beat it.”
The other four trooped back up the ladder to their respective tasks, and Danner fixed another mug of cider for Jenny. He had found and purchased Aurora, but she had brought her back to life – and the ship had returned the favor. Ship, Captain and Engineer formed a chaste, intimate triangle.