The hatch swung open. Galen Quolar took a few slow steps through it and along the docking tube, gazing through the window.

It still felt so unreal. Was it really happening at last?

How long had it been now? Five standard years at least – seven by the local calendar, almost eight. Shorter though they might have been in technical terms, the passing of those extra seasons had made it feel that much longer since he’d had to abandon his old transport, as it made ready to explode around him.

No one’s fault, the recovery teams had said. The black box had shown a failure in the reactor’s cooling pump, but the maintenance records were good and the parts had all passed QC. It was just a fault that had slipped through the net – not the pilot-owner’s fault, not any technician’s, not the manufacturer’s; just blind bad luck.

The squirrel hadn’t known all that at the time – he’d just seen the reactor heat warning suddenly surge up into the red and keep rising, and after a few futile moments trying to get it to shut down, scrambled for the life pod. Those moments had cost him; venting coolant from the damaged pump had got into the vents, overwhelming their failsafes, and he’d taken some nasty scalds even on the short jaunt to get to the pod.

Then he hadn’t quite got to minimum safe distance before the reactor went up. His pod survived the blast, but not without getting knocked hard by a chunk of plating. The flare of the blast had still been bright in his eyes when the impact knocked him out cold.

And when he’d come to, it was flat on his back on a hospital bed dirtside, in intensive care – made all the more precarious by being a light-worlder and long-time spacer on a heavy world, his heart and lungs struggling just to function, never mind let his body mend from burns, broken bones, and a bit of a concussion.

Gurajat was a long way from the Imperial core and the latest and best medical technology, but it was, thankfully, an Imperial world through and through; his near-empty accounts, drained to fill his hold with the fine industrial electronics that by then were so much scrap, hadn’t been an issue in the way of getting lifesaving care, and weeks down the line, just as he was mustering enough strength to sit up in bed, the insurance had come through and given him the option of more thorough treatment – grafts and replacements that would, the doctors assured him, let him return to full condition – in time.

But oh, how excruciatingly frustrating that “in time” had been. The surgery had seemingly undone all his tenuous progress, leaving him without the strength to even lift his arm unaided; the cybernetic rig hadn’t adjusted well to him, or him to it, or something, taking over a month to finally stop plaguing him with random spasms and disorienting phantom sensations.

It had been a year after the accident before he’d been able to start learning to walk again, and then the crushing gravity had redoubled its efforts to defeat him.

He’d almost given up, been about to throw it all away, but one of his nurses had seen the signs in time to get him into full psychiatric care. Not the indignity of confinement to a ward, thank the stars – but it still burned him inside to know that he’d needed a death-watch for an entire bleak local year.

Even once he was past the worst of it, it had been hard to make any more progress. He was destitute, with no local contacts to speak of, no word from his far-flung family or scant collection of friends, no ship, no prospects; it had been a struggle just finding work to live off of, never mind get back to his old life.

It hadn’t been all bad, though. At least his exile to Gurajat had brought him to Shelanna. The tigress had taken the effort to open up to him when he was still mired in black depression, pushing everyone away – and she’d still been there when he’d taken some steps on the long road to recovery, ready and willing to keep him company on the way, to let him lean on her shoulder when the burdens got just too heavy.

And when he was finally ready for it, she’d taken that companionship further.

She’d always pushed for him to keep pursuing his dream, though, however distant that dream was – even though that dream would take him away from Gurajat and from her. “You need to fly,” she’d told him. “I won’t be the one to cage you. But I will be here whenever you need somewhere in the area to perch.”

Flying had seemed like an unattainable goal right then, but she’d encouraged him to persist, helped him build a network, working up from labour that he could barely accomplish on this heavy world to technical work he could actually excel at – and then, finally, he’d started to gain momentum. Debts ebbed and finally vanished, and in their place, he started to build up a savings.

Five local years after the accident, his doctors had finally pronounced him physically fit for a space career again, fully in harmony with his new pieces – organic and otherwise; they would not fail him if he got into another emergency like the one that had grounded him. He could finally dare to hope, and that hope had been the last handhold he needed to climb out of his pit of despair.

He’d been off medication for a standard year. Three months back, after a number of uneventful, just-in-case assessment sessions, his psychiatrist had stopped scheduling appointments, saying that while he was welcome, she’d consider it the greatest of successes if he never again came to her office in need.

Two months ago, he’d caught wind of an opportunity – not quite the deal of a lifetime, but certainly one of those chances that didn’t come up very often. He’d grabbed it on the spot; his awakened enthusiasm had sparked a memorable session with Shelanna at the beach that would have damn near been worth it all in itself.

But the true payoff was in front of him now, sleek, shining, fresh from its proving trials at the shipyard: a brand-new Triton-class fast transport, its hold packed with good Gurajat woodwork, all properly treated and sealed.

Nostalgia aside, it was a better ship than his old, battered Sundew-class had ever been. The hold was bigger and could be configured for more cargo types, and more easily compartmentalized for a variety of goods. Her range was far superior, her speed – both in-system and FTL – quite a bit higher. The showroom model – one of the first production vessels, with a few records to her credit, now an advertisement, almost an ambassador for the line – had boasted snug but quite comfortable appointments, and he’d been promised no less for his new Triton.

Finally snapping out of his reverie, he strode down the docking tube. As he rounded the bow, he could see the bold markings there – CMS-GJ-5299-679045 was the registry number, quite a mouthful; but proudly emblazoned under it was the single word “Perseverance.”

Shelanna had suggested the name. In some respect, she’d be travelling with him.

The front hatch yielded to his retina scan, shifting inward slightly, then sliding quietly aside. The snug corridors were lit only by safety strips, but that was enough for him to swing “down” to the main accessway – actually sideways while the ship was under planetary gravity – and climb up to the cockpit.

He strapped into the comfortably-padded flight seat, leaning over another scanner and meeting its mechanical gaze. “Galen Quolar, captain and owner, takes command. Perseverance, activate.”

The scanner glowed a moment, then turned a ready green. Instruments lit up all around the cockpit. “Welcome aboard, Captain,” announced a pleasant male baritone. “The Perseverance is ready to serve you.”

Stars. After so long on Gurajat, it was almost a shock to hear that they’d coded a Sharillan accent into the ship’s virtual intelligence. Galen felt a sudden stab of homesickness.

Well, he had been wondering just where to take his cargo. It was Gurajat’s main export, so the choice of what to bring hadn’t been hard, but where… had just been settled. He could have never made the trip directly in his old ship, but now?

Sharillas always had a demand for quality artisan-work, especially in natural materials. It’d do nicely.

“Power status,” Galen directed, turning towards the appropriate displays.

The ship status overview shrank to a corner of the display, which instead brought up a plan view of the power systems. “Reactor is offline and in lockdown,” the Perseverance announced. “Startup systems ready.”

The fuel tank was full; the starter capacitor was charged. “Release lockdown,” Galen instructed, flight-suited fingers hovering over the controls. The moment the red lockout indicators vanished, he started working buttons and switches.

The VI was intentionally limited in its scope. It controlled physical access, it could engage some particular time-critical emergency procedures, and it enforced system lockdown; but to actually start the ship took its pilot’s doing.

Galen had spent much of the past two weeks in a mock-up cockpit, acquainting himself with the controls. It went flawlessly; the Perseverance came to life around him, under his control for the first time.

He’d already booked his launch window; now there was just the matter of waiting for it. He took a quick tour of the ship. The hold was in impeccable order, and he took up his datapad to wire a modest tip and a glowing commendation to the dock crew that had loaded it thus. His quarters were everything that had been promised and more – a small space, yes, but cozy enough that he actually relished the thought of having company there, and stocked with a few Gurajat treats he’d come to appreciate, like a bottle of the world’s very fine peach brandy.

If only Shelanna hadn’t already said she had no wish to leave the world, Galen would have invited her along. As it was, he felt a sudden rush of longing.

He could savour her memory in the comfort of his bunk when the ship was safely en route, just as he could take the time to arrange his belongings in something other than the transit-secure but not-exactly-accessible bundle they were now in. For now, he had a launch window to make.

The usual exchange with Traffic Control went quite smoothly – Gurajat’s port staff were, it seemed, very good in general. Once he’d confirmed that the Perseverance was producing power and life support herself, a pair of technicians disconnected the spaceport hookups and stowed them away; he saw them clear, looking up at the cockpit, and waved back to acknowledge them. The docking tube disengaged and pulled clear without incident.

“Perseverance, you are cleared to taxi,” the traffic controller announced. “Turn right into the lane and proceed to runway three.”

“Runway three, confirmed,” Galen replied, touching the thruster controls and nudging them forward slightly. The Perseverance rolled clear of its hangar, the sky opening up above him; then it swung to starboard and trundled past other hangars, towards the end of the runway.

He asked for and got permission to mount the runway; then, finally, he heard something the likes of which he hadn’t in far too long: “Mr. Quolar, you are cleared for takeoff. Have a safe journey.”

Galen took a deep breath. “Acknowledged, Control,” he said, and swallowed hard… then flexed one hand on the flight stick and slid the throttle forward with the other.

The Perseverance sped down the runway and lifted clear, turning upwards easily, speeding through the thinning air even under low power as though it shared his eagerness to fly. The landing gear folded away as they ought; the crushing force of liftoff began to ease.

And then, as sky gave way to stars, Galen Quolar escaped the grip of planetary gravity for the first time in far too long. With the thrust of the Perseverance’s engines the only palpable force, he swung about, burning for the edge of the system – and for other suns beyond.