Dear Sis,

The thing that took me most off guard about space travel is the space stations, particularly the smell. You'd think they'd be dirty places, full of grime from mechanical parts and smelling of sweat. They're actually quite the opposite. 24/7 nanintes sweep all the debris from the landing zone and decontaminate any surface which could harbor alien diseases, and as far as sapient-produced smells, well, it's mostly the Geks. You can always tell how well the trading is going based off their vapors, and trust me, there's a difference. I can only handle being around stressed or angered Geks for so long. For the rest of us, our suits do an excellent job at keeping us clean. I once went without a shower for three months without any ill effects, though your hair starts to look a bit limp without shampoo. Most space stations still offer the largely inessential service both for our vanity and to create a sense of home. That and actual synthesized food, not the nutrient mush produced by the suit.

I stop writing and take a long sip of coffee, listening to the odd hum of multifarious languages interspersed with robotic chirps. Even for an introvert it's comforting after months of hearing nothing but weather, animal calls, space engines, my suit's status updates and my own sounds. That and the high-pitched warnings of the Sentinels or the distress beacons which almost invariably lead to dead pilots. After weeks of nothing but that, even a Vy'keen barking that you're in a restricted area is a relief. Space isn't like Earth or the Colonies. Where I wander, you're lucky to meet anything capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation.

Strike that. It's a lot like Earth and the Colonies that way.

I thumb through the pile of physical correspondence, seeing if there's anything I still need to cover from my sister's last letter; weirdest weather I've encountered (a 90 degree Celsius heat storm with cyanide rain), whether I've made friends (she always asks, even though she knows the answer), what to look for in a starship (that it has both wings and the cockpit isn't on fire), my favorite and least favorite plants (Thamium9 flowers and Spiny Whips, respectively) and animals (depends on whether or not it's trying to eat me), how to tell if different sapient species are mad at you (a slap to the face is usually a good indicator), my most disappointing synthesized meal (anything with mushrooms), the price of real coffee (more than gold), how to take a dump in zero gravity (a question posed by my five-year old nephew, who's too young to remember me)— That just about covers everything.

How are mom and dad?

I take the letters to the correspondence terminal and scan them in, attaching related videos and photos as appropriate. I could have just typed or recorded the whole thing and uploaded it in ten seconds flat, but I prefer the personal touch. A lot of us do. If we wanted sterile, we might as well write to Corporate.

I scan my handprint to send it off and open my inbox. As usual, there's not much, mostly news from Corporate and trade organizations, but even with hypernet communication it can take months before I get my mail. The one personal message is a scanned card from my mother with a decadent chocolate cupcake on the front.

Happy birthday! We miss you. Hope you find something special today. Love you bunches!

The age stamp tells me it's from four months ago. Another one I forgot about.

There's an attachment. I press my finger to the screen and a luxury goods voucher pops up. I'm entitled to any deluxe custom synthesized food item of my choice, no Units required.

My mouth waters. I know exactly what I want. I upload the voucher to the on-site synthesis café and order a dark chocolate Bundt cake with cherry glaze, a family favorite passed down for three generations. It probably won't taste like my mother's, but it's been too long since I've had any chocolate, synthesized or otherwise.

A message pings on my HUD. My order will be ready in thirty minutes. Faster than expected, but still plenty of time to linger.

I head to the media kiosk to blow a few hard-earned disposable Units, where a Gek is downloading smell-o-vision. The scents of rocket plasma, Big Macs, lumber, wet dogs and perfume are overwhelming as he samples the selection. Ever since the Everyman Corporation learned about the Gek's scent-based tech, they've been replicating it on Earth. For this Gek, our commercials appear to be the height of entertainment. No wonder I'm the only one in line, though the Big Macs would smell good on their own. Most of my thoughts have been about food lately. Maybe I should look into buying a mini synthesizer soon.

The Gek finishes, exuding a flowery scent as he hums the Menards jingle. Definitely not one of the things I thought I'd see in outer space. I scan my handprint to pull up my account.

Welcome back, Verity!

D West liked your Classic Rock/Pop Playlist.

New Community Music Recommendation: Sgt. Prepper's Lonely Hearts: Free EP.

2 items on your Wish List now 40% off!

I snicker at Sgt. Prepper's name and download the EP. Most of the space musicians are mediocre at best, but every once in a while you find an unexpected gem, like that space trucker who composes hillbilly techno during hyperdrive. There are rumors he might actually get a recording contract on Earth or one of the Colonies soon. But, being space talk, it could just as easily be us projecting our own hopes on him. I swipe to my wish list and select the two discounted items, The Moon Moth and Other Stories and The Little Prince, neither of which I've read, and download one Great Courses series and a couple of podcasts while I'm at it. Might be a while before I find another one of these kiosks. There's a satisfying ping as soon as it's finished. 267 Units spent. It's funny what you can afford if you're not back on Earth.

And it's funny the things you can't. One slice of chocolate cake is luxury enough, but this—it's like stumbling across an abandoned Atlas Stone. Maybe better. I'm smiling like an idiot as I head back towards the hangar. But, then, so do most people when their families buy them food. It's almost a bigger deal than finding a date. Food and a date, you pretty much have it made.

The airlock whispers shut as it pumps out the air then releases me into the hangar's vacuum. My footsteps don't make a sound as I descend the metal stairs. Rows of starships line the expanse, mostly company models which belong to relatively new hires, but also a handful like mine which were either bought outright or salvaged from some God-forsaken world. Mine belongs to the latter category, a Vy'keen Jinokuch S17 personnel transport I found on one of my first planets. It was smoking when I arrived and guarding a freshly-dug grave. I crossed myself as I passed and said a brief prayer as I entered the cockpit, half afraid of what I might find inside. Fortunately, all I found was a green smear of dried blood and all the military paraphernalia hastily removed. The hull was still in good condition and, despite the burning secondary equipment, all the main systems were more or less in order. After a few cursory repairs, I flew the still-smoldering vessel back to a nearby space station to relay the location of my company ship and make final repairs. Now I know what a potentially deadly decision that could have been, but I was a rookie and didn't know better. I'm still a rookie in some ways.

I stow the cake in the cargo hold next to emergency stores of carbon and drinking water. I plan on savoring that thing, preferably parked next to a lake on a friendly planet; a feast for the stomach and the eyes.

The interior of my ship is a far cry from the openness and sleek Tron Legacy-esque retro futurism of the space stations. It's still very much a utilitarian transport vessel, save the small personal touches like the family photos in the cockpit and the crucifix hanging over the spot where I found the blood. Latté, a greyhound-like White Healer Lizard, and a Ginger, a tawny, six-legged Grass Hound, nap on a pile of colorful fleece and hypothermia blankets, and a couple of flowering alien Tillandsias protrude from unoccupied spaces in the weapons rack. My pacifist grandmother would almost be proud.

I tiptoe to the cockpit to run an initial systems check. Neither of my pets can sleep during hyperdrive, and considering how far the next uncharted star system is, I don't want to wake them. I pull up the pre-exploration scan. The system's name is the usual procedurally-generated gibberish, followed by the computer's best estimations of its nature.

Fijonstevar

Class: G2V

Planets: 4

Resources: Regular

Flora: Scarce

Fauna: None

In other words, completely normal. The probes never detect as much wildlife as there really is. Any time I see none, I estimate at least ten species per planet. Granted, the initial probes were programmed to find Earth-like planets, not the mono-climates you mostly find here. According to all mathematical models, life simply shouldn't exist in such conditions, yet almost every planet in the Euclid Galaxy has multicellular organisms. Three even spawned sapient species, though xeno-archaeologists believe there used to be more. Science still has more questions than answers about this place, many of which the computers can't even begin to answer, which is why they need humans on the ground.

Ginger is the first to wake up and rests her head on my right leg as I run through all the ship's life-support systems. I paid corporate IT to convert all the digital read-outs to English, but the manual controls are still in Vy'keen, which makes even simple checks like this a pop quiz. Fortunately, I seem to be learning. Environmental shielding. Check. Atmospheric control. Check. Temperature control. Check.

Latté wakes next, galloping like a horse through the fuselage. There are only three modes with that animal; sleeping, full speed ahead, and motherly. That and occasionally puking her guts up when she gets nervous, which can be really fun in the middle of a subspace dogfight. I've started giving her tranquilizers before long trips.

Next, there's the propulsion systems and the weapons check, which I can't completely perform until I'm out of the hangar. Other pilots tend to get testy if you shoot their ships even accidentally, which happened the first time I ran a systems check on this ship. Back then, I didn't know much Vy'keen and mistook the pulse cannon for the pulse engine. A financially costly mistake, to say the least, and one I still haven't quite lived down at Alpha Station. I'm just lucky Corporate didn't terminate my contract and send me back to Earth, which most of my previous employers would have done. Sure, the Everyman Corporation is just as money grubbing as every other company I've worked for, but at least they make a good show of caring. They have to if they want to keep up their reputation.

Launch thrusters. Fueled and on line. Pulse engine. Fueled and on line. Hyperdrive. Fueled and on line. Photon cannon. Loaded and on line. Pulse cannon. Loaded and on line. Shield. Up. All systems go.

I buckle my pets into their seats and give them their nutrient cakes, Latté's laced with mild tranquilizer, before strapping myself in and getting the all-clear from flight control.

"Ready, Rocko?"

My ship vibrates from the sheer force of its engines, as if excited to take to the void. I smile and pat the wall as we lift off and speed down the lighted passageway. I wish I had a high-speed drone outside. I've always wondered what this looks like from a third-person perspective.

In less than two seconds, we shoot out into open space. An ocean-covered planet is directly below us, spinning so slowly it looks like it's sitting still. I pull up the galactic map and plot a course for Fijonstevar. A message pings onto the main screen, confirming the system's uncharted status and updating the database to let other explorers know I've called dibs. There's still a chance someone might not get the update and arrive there first, but as big as the galaxy is, it's not likely.

"All right, kids," I call back into the fuselage. "Get ready for the jump."

I activate the hyperdrive, and my ship falls completely still. Five, four, three, two—