It veered into the patch of grass beyond the end of the sidewalk, backing up carefully as to not hit the fence. Finally, it stopped a few feet from where Mia and Roxie stood. They huddled over to its side.
“You came back!” The driver’s window didn’t have a chance to come down before Roxie shouted her appreciation.
“The door is unlocked.” spoke Captain Galhardo.
Roxie practically hopped into the back seat, offering Mia a hand once she got settled. The latter wrung out her shirt before getting in. Both were too soaked for it to make a difference, but Mia figured she’d be polite.
“Thank you, Captain.” Mia smelled the leftover scent of chicken salad.
“We are grateful for your salvation!” Roxie took off her own coat, revealing a blue shirt much drier than Mia’s. “If I may ask, is it okay if we turn up the heat? I would like to protect us against hypothermia as much as possible.”
Without a word, Captain Galhardo turned up the heat dial. Roxie and Mia thanked him while he checked the road for passing cars. There were none.
He eased onto the road, looking warily at his passengers. “...What were you two doing on your own? Where is the lieutenant?”
“There wasn’t enough room in the other truck.” Roxie answered. “So we walked!”
“Why not wait for him to pick you up?”
“Ranger Basara was ordered to drive us,” Mia explained, “but she had duties to attend to, so she dropped us off halfway.”
Mia listened to the sound of rain pounding against metal. She found out during the picnic that cars come with built-in radios. Emil seemed particularly horrified upon finding out that his brother never turned his on, but she didn’t mind right now. The wind and rain provided its own tune.
Within minutes, they drove into the wooded area. The road turned, leading into a real life Earth neighborhood, where small, quaint, nearly identical houses were packed together. The blue truck could be seen sitting outside of one. It’s driver typed on his cellphone under a canopy. Around the same time, Mia saw a text he sent Roxie asking where they were. He watched as the red truck parked.
Roxie left the car after Mia, holding up her phone. “We’re here!”
Emil smiled upon seeing the two of them. “Heeeey, I was just coming to get you guys before you got,” his smile dampened, “soaked.” The captain caught his attention. “You’re back fast! Did you get everything set up with the spaceport?”
“I didn’t go.” answered Captain Galhardo. “We’ll need luggage, so I came back to take crewmembers to get theirs. I’ll be needing Rangers Summers and Kelly.”
“Leon went next door for something, ‘cause, uhhh…” many expressions of discomfort played out on Emil’s face. “Actually, why don’t you come in? It’s easier than explaining.” He opened the door. “Don’t bother taking off your shoes, you can’t do much more damage than what’s already done.”
“Damage?” The captain stepped in first. “Who caused damage?”
“None of us!” His brother held his hands up. “Trust me, we couldn’t get the chance.”
Mia entered the house last, stepping on a mold-green carpet, it’s furry texture an affront to hygiene. The smell proved just as much. A silver bug skittered across her path and along the cracked, textured white walls–at least the parts that weren’t stained. She could tell she stood in a combination living room/dining area, but from what decade, she didn’t know. Most of the furniture looked older than Lunaria itself, some older than her mother. She sneezed.
“This place looks very, um,” as she struggled to find a polite word, a spider attacked the silver bug, “very lively.”
Emil laughed. “Yeah, this house kinda developed its own ecosystem along the way. The living room isn’t that bad, though. A couple spiders here, a couple–” He squinted at the silver bug fight. “...What the heck is that? Anyway, it’s the rest of the place you should worry about.”
Roxie nearly sat down on a floral print couch.
“Woah woah woah there Roxie! We still haven’t got a verdict on the bedbug situation here yet–”
“I didn’t find any bedbugs!” Jun’s voice called from the hallway.
Roxie resumed sitting down.
“Did find cockroaches though. Lots of ‘em in the mattresses. Way grody.”
She immediately jumped up.
“How could any star ranger let a lodging facility come to this?” Captain Galhardo entered the hallway, inspecting a bunch of paper towels shoved under a door.
“Dunno if I can blame the cleaning crew. If I got assigned this place I would nnNOT touch that door!” Emil hurried over to him.
The captain drew his hand away from the doorknob. “What’s behind it?”
Before Emil could answer, the door behind Mia opened, hitting her in the back.
“Oh, sorry Mia, I didn’t know you were there!” apologized a lightly drenched Leon. He turned his attention to Emil. “The next door neighbors said they’d trade us wasp spray for mouse traps.”
“We don’t have any mouse traps.”
“We don’t have any mouse traps!” Leon relayed. Mia heard a door shut from outside.
“Aww, they have mice?” asked Roxie. “I wish we had mice.”
“Ranger Summers, I need you to accompany me to the spaceport.” ordered Captain Galhardo.
“Of course sir, I’d love to!” Leon stepped inside. “There’s a diorama back there that I meant to take a picture of, anyway.”
“Now where is Ranger Kelly?” The captain addressed his brother.
“Yoooo, this is a whole rainbow of mold!” echoed Aiden’s voice. “Jun, come check it out!”
“Do not check it out!” Roxie bolted into the hallway. “Check out of the mold room immediately!”
Emil faced the captain. “Hey bro, we should get hotel rooms.”
The captain crossed his arms. “Hotel rooms are expensive.”
“We can afford ‘em! Sure, we might get paid less than–”
Mia sneezed a few more times, interrupting. The captain seemed relieved at this. “Excuse me.”
“No prob. You okay?” Emil smiled when she gave a thumbs up, then resumed the other conversation. “Look, it’s not like we’ll be spending loads of money in space. Might as well use what we have now! Besides, imagine if we bring any of these little creatures home, and heaven forbid, they infest the new guy’s bed. He’ll think we’re a buncha slobs!”
His brother exhaled. “You’ve made your point. But we’re not getting hotel rooms. A different lodging facility should suffice.”
“I dunno.” He tugged at one of his curls. “If the neighbors were begging for mouse traps, we might be swapping one infestation for another. But anything’s better than the wasp nest room.”
“The what?” Captain Galhardo flinched away from the paper towel door. “You could’ve just told me–”
Roxie returned with Jun and Aiden’s arms hooked into hers. “We’ve returned, free of spores. I think.”
“Ranger Kelly, you are to accompany myself and Ranger Summers to the spaceport to retrieve your luggage, understood?”
“Understood, Captain.” Aiden sounded like he’d rather do anything else. He sulked behind the captain, following him to the door.
Leon opened it, and after the other two left, he turned to Mia. “I hope you’re enjoying Earth so far! Too bad I couldn’t see you experience it more.” How tragic. “Hopefully I’ll be back in time to see your reaction to–”
“Sorry, sir!” He glanced back at Mia. “I guess it’ll have to be a surprise. Goodbye, everyone!” With a wave, the door closed behind him.
Emil re-entered the living room, along with Roxie and Jun. He lifted his arms. “Well, I guess it’s just us!”
“Cool.” Jun stood awkwardly with the others. “What do we do now?”
He grabbed a remote from the possibly-cockroach-infested-couch. “We could watch TV while we wait for the others.” Emil pressed the power button, but the TV didn’t turn on. He tapped it many times to no avail. “Huh. Maybe it’s not plugged in. Mia, can you check since you’re over there?”
Mia looked beyond the spider claiming its silver feast into a tangle of wires behind the TV set. She couldn’t hope to make sense of them even if she tried. Thankfully, she didn’t have to.
The TV turned on. Then off. Then on again, repeating the cycle rapidly until a loud pop sent Mia jumping away. The TV turned off again… along with all of the lights.
Emil’s jaw dropped. So did his remote, which he backed away from as if to avoid blame. “So. TV’s a bust. Annnd we’re stuck in a dark, musty, buggy house.”
Staying far from the TV, Mia walked around and over to tacky floral curtains. “We could open these. Then it wouldn’t have to be dark.”
“That’ll solve one problem!” Emil winked.
She cautiously parted open the curtains. The whole room carried such a diseased aura that she felt itchy just being there. Specifically on her right hand. A fuzzy spider happened to be crawling on top of it.
“O-Oh, hello there!” Had she flinched any more, it would’ve flown off her hand into who-knows-where. Her hand pressed against the curtain, and thankfully, it took the hint. “There you go.” Earth creatures didn’t respect personal space.
Now Mia could get back to her true purpose for doing this: watching the rain. It had mostly died down by this point. Still, watching raindrops merge into one another one the windowsill entertained her more than the cable network ever could.
Roxie joined her by the window, instead watching the spider. “Go free, fuzzy friend! Join your brethren!”
Mia glanced over to see it climb onto the window sill, filled with black, fuzzy things that didn’t quite look like spiders. Maybe they were eggs. “Do spiders normally lay that many eggs?”
“No, no, spider eggs don’t look like that. That’s…” Roxie’s eyes grew wide with alarm. “That’s mold.”
“Wh-Wha–? Whachoo! Achoo!!” A sneezing fit interrupted Mia’s question.
“Looks like it got in the air vents too.” Jun joined Emil over in the kitchen area. Above them, black speckles caked an air vent.
“Geez, no wonder Mia’s been sneezin’ up a storm!” Emil backed away from it. “Weeee should probably get outta here, huh?”
“Immediately!” confirmed Roxie. “This house belongs to the mold now!”
She took Mia’s hand and rushed out of the door. Jun and Emil followed. The four fit like sardines under the two-person canopy, but at least they weren’t getting poisoned!
Mia glanced back at the door. “I was really looking forward to seeing nature, but I think I prefer when it’s outside.”
Jun laughed. “Don’t worry, not all houses here are that gnarly.”
“We’re getting a better one if it takes all day.” Emil marched forward. He jingled his car keys. “No time like the present to get started.”
“Sounds good to me.” Jun walked with him and so did Mia.
Roxie, however, stayed behind. “Wait! This house may be claimed by pests and pestilence, but it has one good thing going for it!”
“Location! Legend has it that a lake rests beyond the trees.”
“Oh yeah!” Mia forgot. “Naila told us there’s lake nearby.” She reiterated to the others.
“We should let Mia see it before we leave. Pretty please?” begged Roxie.
“You don’t have to–”
“Who am I to refuse?” Emil shrugged. “Might as well view something worth lookin’ at after experiencing,” he grimaced at the house, “that. Where is it?”
Jun leaned over. “I think I see it behind the house.”
“Well then let’s go!” He waved an arm and changed direction. Roxie bounded past him.
Mia lagged behind the others, too busy watching the sky part, revealing a beautiful blue once more. Earth changed so constantly, she didn’t know what to expect. How could any of this be mundane to so many people? A surprise waited around every corner! Somehow, this didn’t scare her. It brought exhilaration.
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?