By Jordan Legg
When I arrived that morning, the launch station mess hall was nearly full, and quieter than I had ever seen. The competitors were all dressed in uniform, cycling through the food service dispensary for their morning protein solutions. I tagged onto the end of the line, grabbed my cup, and scanned the hall for any sign of Rico. He was sitting at a table by the window, looking out into the abyss and sipping breakfast from its lidded plastic cup.
“Mornin’,” I said as I took the seat opposite him.
“Kinda,” he said. “It’s funny. I’ve been imagining this for years, and it still feels weird to not see the sunrise every twenty-four hours.”
I nodded. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” he breathed.
We drank down our breakfast and then walked briskly to the main hangar. It was a massive air lock, with a massive set of sliding doors on the one side, ready to open the moment it was time for the race to begin. Spec-checkers weaved in and out among launch crews on little rovers, checking down their lists against the ones in the observation decks that lined the outer rim of the hangar. The other ships towered over us in an imposing, well-organized row. I tried not to look at them. I didn’t want to think about what we were up against.
Not Rico though. Rico couldn’t take his eyes away. He had been that way since the day we first arrived. Wide-eyed. Like a little kid. Rico had always been a little kid about this kind of stuff.
“Don’t look,” I told him. “Best to just focus on our ship, and not to think about the competition.”
“If we do that, Desiree,” he said with a smile, “it won’t feel as good when we win.”
Rico was like that. Irrepressible. Fearless. For him, failure just wasn’t a possibility. Let him look, I figured after that. But if I looked any longer than I had to, it’d paralyze me.
We arrived at our ship. I looked up at her and sighed. It didn’t take a seasoned vet to figure out there was a difference between our ship and everyone else’s. Her hull was pieced together with metal from half a dozen different other vehicles. It looked like a checkerboard stretched over a tubular frame. Most of the propulsion system was outdated. Most of the materials were scraps. We had spent months testing her, touching her up, making calculations and running diagnostics, and we knew she should be able to get us there and back again, but I cringed at the thought of comparing her to the other ships in the hangar.
“You really doing this, kid?” I heard someone ask.
I looked under the ship beside ours. The question came from a tall, well-built blond guy, a few years older than both of us, outfitted in high family uniform with captain’s bars lining his shoulders. He raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, Trevor, I really am,” Rico said.
“And you think there’s a chance that thing’ll fly?”
“We know she will,” I said heatedly. “We got her up here, didn’t we?”
“That thing’s a piece of junk, kid. Literally. That’s how you built it. My advice, bow out now. You don’t have a chance.” He turned away, smiling. I hated how much that smile bothered me.
Rico didn’t seem to think about it for very long. He walked along the starboard side and ran his hands over the hull, like a sculptor putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. I smiled and thought about the first time I had really understood what this meant to him.
We had been about thirteen years old. I was just heading out from my first day at the Institute when I noticed him picking his way into one of the portals in the tech hall. I followed, curious.
He was a sloppy raider. You could tell just by looking at him that he didn’t go to the school. No uniform, just an oversized brown jacket and backpack. Grease and grime covered his bronze-colored Latino face, and his short, thick black hair poked out in all directions, as if someone had tried to style it with a strainer. He would have been sent home if any of the teachers had seen him walk into a class like that.
He left the door open. I followed him down into the machine shop basement and found him looting through the junk heaps, stuffing various bits of machinery into his backpack.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
It had been an accusation, but I don’t think Rico ever thought to take it that way. He looked directly up at me, with a force in his expression I didn’t quite know how to handle. “I’m taking what I need,” he said.
“From our machine shop?”
“It’s junk. Salvage. Old parts they strip off retired ships that don’t work anymore for teachers to use as visual aids. There’s loads of it here; no teacher needs this many of the same spare parts. Nobody’s gonna miss ‘em.”
“What are you gonna use them for?” I asked.
He disregarded the question. “Help me find a usable thruster cap in this stuff.”
I helped him look for a thruster cap. I don’t think I really know why I did it, other than that Rico had this odd habit of disarming anyone who reproached him. Even when you disagreed with him, he never made you feel like you were his enemy. He made you want to help him.
We rummaged through that junk heap until we had checked off as many of the parts he’d written onto his list that we could carry (or fit into our backpacks). Then we climbed back up the staircase, closed the door, and walked to the L-train station. We rode the train for about twenty minutes before we arrived at his stop, and descended the stairs to an old empty warehouse on the underside of the city. Rico unlocked the gate, threw up the floodlights, and revealed his masterpiece.
She was just a few disconnected metal frames the first time I saw her. At the time I wasn’t even sure what she was supposed to be. I probably wore a look of disgust. But Rico didn’t notice. He just walked over to the frame he’d built so far, dumped out the parts we’d salvaged, grabbed a toolbox out from under his book-drowned desk, and started working.
“What is it?” I wondered.
“It’s going to be a starship.”
“Yeah. It’s gonna get me into Command Academy.”
“You’re going to enter this into the Icarus Interstellar?”
“Sure. There’s no entry fee, as long as you’ve built the ship yourself. That’s the whole point—it’s a recruiting tactic for TerraFleet. They don’t care who your family is; they just care that you can fly and manage a spaceship. All I gotta do is make it fly.”
“You also gotta win.”
“So I’ll win.”
I laughed. “Seriously? With this thing?”
“It’s been a long time since we first broke the light barrier,” he pointed out. “Outdated hyperdrives are lying all over the place if you know where to look. No one wants them anymore because they don’t think they can compete with modern commercial or military spacefaring. And they can’t. But in a race like this, where you’re only allowed to use what you and your crew have built yourself, I might be able to make it.”
My first instinct was to scoff. Everyone knew about the Icarus race. Every contestant built their own ship, but a lot of people had their parts funded by outside sponsors, either commercial or familial. Rico had nothing. But his eyes told me he was dead serious. Too serious, I realized, for me to disbelieve him. Right then I knew that there was more to this kid than a backpack and toolbox in an abandoned warehouse in the underside.
“I want to help,” I said.
He nodded. “Alright. My name’s Rico.” He offered his hand.
I shook. “Desiree.”
I was right to help him. Rico was a hard worker. And he knew his stuff. His dad had been an engineer for one of the big spacing companies before he died. Left him a lot of blueprints, instructions, and general know-how. And what Rico hadn’t inherited was readily available at the public library.
All Rico lacked was the parts. And six out of ten times I could help with that. There was plenty of manufacturing equipment at the Institute. No one ever stopped us, no one ever asked about the stuff we took. For the preliminary work we had to do, it was perfect.
After about a year of studying, salvaging, and tinkering, Rico started working as a grunt for the spaceport. I didn’t think he’d get the job, given his age and education, but once he made them understand how good he was with tools, they took him on. He’d spend the days working at the port, crawling all over every inch of every craft that came through, making sure he understood exactly how each system worked. His supervisor was happy to let us use parts she didn’t need for ship repair. Everything we couldn’t get that way we traded for or saved up and bought.
So we worked. Hard. Built the thing together. Screwed up a lot. Tried again. For me, all the late-night sessions in that warehouse, trying to figure out how to do things like bind engines together, tighten up the airlock, or work the old ceiling cranes became the highlight of any given week.
Eventually the ship got too big for the warehouse, and we had to move it out to a rented lot on the spaceport. We had to start using magna-cranes, more advanced and complex than the ceiling sliders that had served us so far. I’m pretty sure with all the favours Rico and I called in to learn the ropes, we robbed the Institute of a crash course in Advanced Mechanics. We ran the tests. Patched up problems. Asked for help when we needed it. And after seven years of working, we had built ourselves a spaceship.
The first time we threw the lights on underneath our little masterpiece was a night I’ll never forget. She stood there, bathing in flickering white incandescent glory, in star-bound defiance to the last remnants of the skepticism that had hidden inside me for the last seven years.
“She needs a name,” I had told him.
“The Chance,” Rico said.
Looking up at it now, surrounded by bigger ships and more experienced crews in a TerraFleet space station an hour before the race, I wished we had picked a different name. I didn’t like giving in to the assumption that there was only a chance our ship would work. I knew that wasn’t what Rico had had in mind when he first suggested it, or when we spray-painted it along each side of the hull, but Trevor’s insult still echoed in my head.
Rico lowered the boarding ramp and we began our final systems check. It didn’t take long. We’d done it a million times before. Rico knew every inch of the ship, inside and out. By the time the race’s official inspection crew came around to make sure our ship was up to code, I almost wanted them to just take our word for it. They checked their way through the ship’s corridors and fuel tank, cockpit, food and water supply, waste expulsion system, propulsion system, pressurization system, and up and down the outside to make sure there were no cracks in the hull. After a thorough inspection, they gave us the go-ahead and moved on to the next ship. We waved them out and sat together in the cockpit, waiting.
Rico looked over at me through the eye-glass that hung from his captain’s headset. A light on his eye-glass display flashed green. He grinned and gunned the ship’s engine to life.
The air lock doors above us slid open into the vacuum of space, and we rose, slowly, deliberately out of the station and into the void. A massive artificial ring rotated before the air lock doors—the interstellar equivalent of a starting line—and Rico edged the ship forward; careful to make sure he didn’t turn to the right or left and hit a neighbouring vessel before the launch ring’s lights changed from red to green. The cockpit glass’s periphery was lined with other ships, all bigger and more impressive than our own, floating toward the edge of the miles-wide launch ring as it rotated in the starry blackness.
“Locking in target coordinates,” Rico said. He punched the numbers into the interface and flipped a few switches. The target-lock symbol lit up.
It was a whole five seconds before I realized I was holding my breath.
“This is it,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah it is.”
“Thanks for helping me with this, Des,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Rico,” I said, slowly, “just so you know—it’s okay if you don’t win this thing. As long as we make it to the checkpoint in Alpha Centauri we’ll have done better than anyone ever thought we could. Heck, if we make it, they might take you into the TerraFleet just because of how well this ship holds together. And we both know it will.”
Rico just smiled at me.
“Screw it,” he said. “We’re gonna win.”
I smiled back.
The launch ring began to light up green.
“Engaging hyperdrive,” Rico said. He yanked the hyperdrive throttle down the control panel. We shot through the launch ring and the stars disappeared.
About the Author:
J. A. Legg is originally from Oshawa, Ontario, and holds a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor. He’s been published in MTLS.ca and Metaphorosis, as well as anthologies like Antares Vol. 1, Heart of a Man, From the Corner of Your Eye: A Cryptids Anthology, and the upcoming Strange Religion. He’s also received Honourable Mention from L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest in 2016. Currently, he teaches high school and middle school at a private school in South Asia, where he has lived for several years. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheJordanLegg.