The truck pulled up to a gate on a lonely side road. Mia took her ID card out of her pocket while Captain Galhardo showed his to the ranger on guard duty. Then Jun showed theirs.
The guard blinked a couple times. “Are you the Jun Kim?”
“Have been all day.”
“And Galhardo. You wouldn’t happen to be related to…?”
Captain Galhardo didn’t answer, only staring.
The guard gave both of their cards back and opened the gate. “Sorry, you can go ahead!”
“You’re letting us go without verifying our other passenger?” finally spoke the captain.
“Right, sir! My mistake, sir!” Saluting in a panic, the guard then approached Mia’s window. She gave him her ID and relief washed over his face, probably because she wasn’t someone he recognized. He gave it back and returned to his post. “You’re all clear to go. Have a nice afternoon.” While he didn’t say anything else, he looked about two seconds away from blurting out, ‘Please don’t tell your dad!’
The gate finally opened. Captain Galhardo drove through into an area with diverging streets, greenery, and beige, boxy buildings. A brick sign to the left read Fort Stillman. It felt odd to still be able to see the sky with so many buildings around, but they were all so short. Mia liked it.
“That happens to me a lot.” Jun moved their bangs. “Me and Roxie got past a guard on the Moon Base last month ‘cause they recognized me. Apparently we weren’t supposed to get in without you?”
Captain Galhardo shook his head. “What a disturbing lapse in judgement. It’s a good thing I let that guard know his error. That should teach him to be more careful about who he lets in.”
He made a few turns, then entered a parking lot. The truck finally stopped near an island of grass and small trees. To get out, Mia and the captain would need to step in it.
“Captain?” She watched him exit the car. “Is it alright to step on that grass?”
“It is permitted.”
Mia stepped out of the car, grass crunching beneath her shoes. She couldn’t resist lifting a foot up and placing it back down again just to feel the sensation. This was actually familiar to her, but she hadn’t felt it in so long, it might as well have been new.
A glance at the captain and Jun prompted her to quit messing around and follow them to the building ahead.
“There’s grass under the dome, isn’t there?” Jun called back.
Mia hurried up to them. “Yeah, but mostly in the park.” The park reminded her of happier days. Much more naive days. “I haven’t had the time to visit in so long.”
She took one last look at the island before entering the building. The greenery looked lonely, trapped in an artificial surrounding it could live in, but not thrive. But something else caught her attention.
“The other truck was pretty far behind us.” Her eyes lingered on the empty parking space beside their truck. “Will Em–Will the lieutenant know where to go?”
Before the captain could finish his sentence, the blue truck could be seen driving past the building on the road to its right.
Inside of the building was kind of dim, kind of dull, and kind of grimy. The tiles and fluorescent lights had brownish stains. She could imagine the Moon Base officers screaming their heads off if they saw something like this, though she had to agree she wasn’t a fan. The ranger behind the counter carried herself prim and proper despite her surroundings.
Captain Galhardo approached her. “Excuse me,” He took out his ID card, “I’m here to retrieve a fuel shipment for the Celestion-5. How may I contact the star ranger in charge of it?”
“May I have your ID card,” she looked a little surprised when she finally looked up at him, “sir?” After accepting it, she typed something, then handed it back. “Let’s see… You are Captain Lorenzo Galhardo-Alverez of the Celestion-5, correct?”
She frowned at her screen. “Hmmm, we haven’t received a fuel shipment for your ship, sir.”
“Are you certain? I could’ve sworn I sent it…” His voice grew quiet, reminding Mia he was only 19, just like her.
The receptionist continued typing. “Oh! I see where you placed the order, but whoever processed it didn’t send it through. I’ll handle that for you.”
“Basara.” The Interstellar Forces should really invest in nametags.
“Ranger Basara. Do you know when it should arrive?”
“It should be here by the end of the week, sir.”
“...Thank you.” The captain sighed, then turned to Mia and Jun. “I’m going to call the spaceport to see if our parking can be extended. If it can, I’ll arrange for temporary lodging.” As frustrated as he looked, Mia crossed her fingers for that option. A whole week of staying on Earth was more than she could dream of.
A somewhat portly older man strolled down the hallway as this exchange happened. His eyebrows rose when he saw Captain Galhardo. “A captain! It’s not often we see your kind around these parts.”
“Greetings, Staff Major…”
“Staff Major Johannson.” He shook the captain’s hand. “You know, you look like a dead ringer for… Ahhh, what’s that guy’s name? The chief commander, you know the one, with the huge sideburns and eyebrows that look like they could kill a man. If you had a mustache, you’d be his twin.” He looked over at Jun. “And you look like Jun Kim!”
“I get that a lot.”
“Prettier though. You actually look like a woman!” The staff major laughed.
“Uh, cool, thanks?” Jun laughed as if they wanted to die. “Not really sure how to react to being called a prettier version of myself.”
Now it was Johannson’s turn to wish for death. He didn’t seem to have a response, so he changed the subject. “Sooo, Captain, what are you all here for?”
“We came to retrieve a fuel tank for our ship.” explained Captain Galhardo.
“And out of everyone to help you with the heavy lifting, you brought these lovely ladies?”
Mia couldn’t remember being called a lovely lady before, but if this was how it felt, she’d rather not be called it again. She briefly met eyes with Basara, whose chipperness seemed… off. Different than before he showed up. Jun managed to keep a straight face though.
The captain took a moment to respond. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t see what difference it makes. If they couldn’t pass the physical exams, they wouldn’t be in the Interstellar Forces.”
Technically, Mia was a few pounds too heavy for her height range, but otherwise passed her physical exams, so a superior took pity on her and gave her an exemption. She didn’t feel the need to bring that up now, though.
“Ranger Kim passed even before the exams were adjusted by sex.” he added.
A thin smile Johannson’s face. “You’re rational. Straightforward. A man of logic. I like that, but… have you ever had a girlfriend?”
“You’ll understand when the time comes.” He chuckled, then winked at Mia for reasons she couldn’t understand. It’s not like she’d ever had a girlfriend!
Her wrist vibrated. She took off her bracelet and converted it into her phone to see a message from Jun.
‘yikes. this guy’
Mia texted back. ‘Not a fan of this guy’s wink.’
‘he’s no emil’
‘Emil should sue.’
Jun stifled a smile.
“I hope Naila’s been treating you nice.” Johannson continued. “She’s a sweetheart.”
“Thank you, sir.” Basara replied in a voice not too different from an AI.
“Make sure this guy gets his fuel tank.” He spoke to her like a child.
“Sure you are.” He thumbed at the captain. “He seems like a good catch!”
‘yo she looks dead inside.’ Jun commented. ‘hold on a sec.’ They pocketed their phone and got Captain Galhardo’s attention. “Excuse me, Captain Galhardo, would it be okay if I–”
“Galhardo! That’s who I was…” Johannson stared at the captain as if he was a ghost. “By Jove, you’re Galhardo’s son, aren’t you? The one on that experimental project!”
Captain Galhardo nodded hesitantly. “Yes, sir. Please excuse me, but I need to make a call to the spaceport.”
“No, you’re fine. I was just going to,” the staff major tapped his fingers against his thigh, “I was just going to attend to some things. Good luck on your journey. Nice meeting you.”
Both hurriedly parted from each other, with Johannson practically knocking Mia over to get out of the building. The captain bolted to the waiting area opposite of the reception desk.
He looked back at Jun, dialing his phone. “Ranger Kim, see what you can find out about the lodging arrangements. I will let you know if we need to rent them.”
“Understood, Captain.” They gave a thumbs-up and headed over to the desk.
With the other two busy, Mia wondered what to do. Or she would’ve if her phone hadn’t buzzed again. This time, a call from Roxie. She answered it.
“Hiiiii~ We’re lost!” Roxie’s voice chimed over the speaker.
“We kinda fell behind at the check-in gate.” Leon’s followed. “The guy checking our IDs was really thorough!”
“Do you know your whereabouts?”
“Ummmm,” Mia tried to think of directions, “you passed us a while ago. If I remember correctly, we turned right from the gate, then left, then made another right. I think your truck went straight ahead instead. Does that help?”
“That helps a lot!” Emil called from farther away. Did Roxie have her on speaker phone? “Ask her if she wants anything from McBeefy’s!”
“Would you like to partake in McBeefy’s?” Roxie repeated.
“Thanks, I heard Emil. We’re not allowed to eat inside the buildings, are we? It seems a little rude.”
“You guys shouldn’t be in there long, right?” asked Emil.
“Actually…” Mia watched as the captain gave Jun the okay to rent. “We might be here for a few days.”
Noisy celebration blared from the other end. Mia may’ve dodged a bullet by not riding in Emil’s truck.
“I guess I’ll pay for a vanilla milkshake. Small.”
“Don’t worry, it’s on me. What about Jun and my bro?”
Mia looked back at the others. “Uhh, they’re both kind of in the middle of something.”
“Not to worry!” Roxie reassured her. “For this truck is equipped with Jun and Captain-knowers!”
“Yeah, we’ll figure somethin’ out for them.” added Emil. “See you in a few!”
She heard Leon next. “Bye, Mia!”
“Bye-bye~” Roxie’s voice sounded so cute.
“Bye-by–” Mia shook her head. Right. Speaker phone. “Goodbye, everyone.”
Roxie and Mia hung up one after the other. When the latter looked up from the tile, she saw the captain finish up with his conversation.
He hung up his phone. “The Celestion-5’s docking time can be extended as late as August 3rd, but I have to arrange it in person.”
“Good to know.” Jun turned to Ranger Basara. “So I guess we’ll be renting for six days.”
“Sir, won’t we just have to come back on August 6th?” asked Mia.
The captain adjusted his hat. “Yes, but we’re already overstaying our welcome. We’ll have to trust that our fuel will get here on time.”
“Oh, it should be here by then for sure!” assured Basara.
“Y…Yes, thank you.” Captain Galhardo nodded toward her, but didn’t make eye contact. Not that that was weird for him. This time, though, Mia would’ve thought he believed looking at her would turn him into stone. He immediately exited the door.
Mia caught up with him just as he reached the truck. “Captain! The lieutenant is on his way here. Shouldn’t we wait for him?”
“Of course. I just figured we should wait out here.” He crossed his arms, looking around.
Jun did not follow them. From where Mia stood, she could barely make out their form, still standing by the reception desk. The captain turned his attention there as well.
“Did Ranger Basara take an interest in me that seemed excessive or out of the ordinary?”
“Not that I could notice.” Mia heard him exhale when she told him that. Did he think she was spying? He didn’t get cagey with her until after Johannson showed up, so something else might’ve bothered him. Being so guarded all the time, maybe he found it difficult to talk to people he didn’t know. She still hadn’t gotten used to that either.
A pale blue truck turned around the corner and ran over her train of thought. It parked just beside the red one she and the others came in. As soon as it stopped, poofy blond hair poked its way out of the driver’s window.
“Someone order a chicken salad?” Emil waved a container around.
“No?” responded the confused captain.
Emil leapt out of the car and gave him the salad. “Well, lucky you! You get one for free! And before you lecture me about how we have food back on the ship,” he took a bite from a chicken sandwich, “Mia already told us the situation.”
Captain Galhardo glowered at the salad. He took it, defeated. “...Thank you.”
“I come bearing your milkshake!” Roxie’s arm stuck out from the back.
Mia didn’t know if ordering food had gained her the captain’s ire and left before she could. Just then, Jun emerged from the building.
“Captain, I got the directions to the place we’re gonna stay.” They waved some papers. “Plus some other stuff you might want like payment details.”
“Very much appreciated, Ranger Kim.” Captain Galhardo took most of the stack, leaving them with only one. He made his way back to the truck. “I’m going to go make some arrangements at the spaceport. We can meet back at our rooms.”
“Cool! See ya later!” Emil waved his brother goodbye.
The captain drove off, leaving the others behind. Everyone else enjoyed their meal outside, with Emil opening the bed of the truck so people could sit there. Mia opted to stand to the side of it instead. Aiden leaned against the other side.
He handed a bag to Jun. “Here’s yours.”
“Yoooo, you guys got me the spicy nugs?” Jun rummaged around in the bag, pulling out a container of reddish chicken nuggets. “Niiice.” They hopped on the edge of the truck bed next to Emil.
Mia continued sipping on her milkshake while the rest of the group ate. Occasionally someone would ask her how she liked Earth so far, but the conversation went so many places at once that no one had the time to barrage her with questions. They were too busy laughing and joking around.
Spending time with people she didn’t completely hate, not saddled with anyone else’s responsibilities, and doing so under a gentle breeze and the summer sun, Mia found herself having fun. Was this living the Earth Girl lifestyle or just how it felt to not miss out on a social life? She couldn’t know, but it felt so pleasant it started to scare her. When would it all go wrong?
An oddball group of astronauts are sent into the unknown with little experience and problems ranging from minor to Ursa Major. Will the crew of the Celestion-5 go down in history as humanity's first travelers to Neptune, or will lousy luck, personal problems, and military mismanagement be the doom of these future stars?