Chapter 1. Asra

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Captain Hari Esteban hadn't intended to stand and wait his turn for a view at the holoscreen like the newest of space virgins eager for a glimpse of their destination, but there he was—in the line—waiting impatiently for the family ahead of him to finish oohing and aahing and get a move on.

Finally. His turn to stare at Asra, or its image, to be exact. Asra, "Night Traveller," the smallest planet in the Aurigan system. In solo orbit around the binary star system of Menkalinan, it would take 348 years to complete one elliptical journey. Consisting of rock, covered by frozen nitrogen and altogether too cold to interest anyone, it had been ignored for centuries. Until the nitrogen ice began to melt as the tiny planet approached the nearest of its two suns, forming a thin atmosphere. Then humanity sat up and took notice; there were minerals to be mined.

Mining companies built a dome and established a small settlement. Many of the buildings had their first storey carved down into the rock for protection, then, as the dome proved secure and mining commenced, new buildings sprung up on the surface. A temporary settlement, expected to last for only fifty years—until Asra's orbit took it back out into space and the thin atmosphere froze again.

Asra. An iceball of a planet, with maybe a thousand inhabitants and no future. When he'd left ten years ago, he had expected never to see the place again. So why, when he needed somewhere to recuperate from his part in the latest Patrol operation, had he chosen to return to Asra? Why did he feel as if he was coming home?

An hour later, Hari disembarked into the small Arrivals room and endured the mandatory bio screening with enforced patience, watching as the scanner examined the plasrod grafts in his right leg, and itemised his recent weight loss and present exhaustion in rather depressing detail before spitting out—somewhat to Hari's relief—an approval for temporary residence.

Hari placed his wristcom in the slot provided to enable exit from the room and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the shiny surface. He flinched—no wonder the bio scanner had hesitated. Tired grey eyes stared back above thin lips drawn tight in a grimace of anger or pain. His chin was bristled except for the long scar on his right jaw and his brown hair—usually cut neatly close to his scalp—was frankly shaggy, streaked with grey at the temples and long enough to brush his collar. And when had that happened? Evidently he needed this recovery time more than he'd thought.

He shrugged, right now he needed a shower and a shave and at least two weeks sleep. Preferably more.

He emerged from the Arrivals room and halted briefly, looking up with the other passengers at the underside of the pale blue dome which covered the whole town. Most people didn't like looking out at constant storms so the dome had been lined with opaque blue, representing an open sky many had never seen in person. Hari shifted his weight awkwardly, favouring his injured leg, and hoisted his backpack over a shoulder.

Despite himself, his eyes scanned the small crowd which had gathered to meet friends and colleagues, searching for a familiar face. Not surprisingly, he recognised no-one. A young lad approached him with a polite smile of enquiry. He wore a bright yellow singlesuit, with soft soled boots of a slightly darker shade. There was a small hologram of a rising sun on his left shoulder.

"Captain Esteban? I'm Tomas, from the Rising Sun Hotel. You have a booking with us for the next three weeks?"

"That's right."

The lad smiled again. "If you'd like to follow me, Captain, I'll show you the way."

Hari was pretty sure he could remember where the Rising Sun was located, but he fell in beside the boy, unobtrusively trying to shake the stiffness from his right leg as he walked.

"Would you like me to carry your bag, Captain?"

"No," Hari answered, shortly. "Thank you."

The boy fell silent and Hari gazed around. Nothing much had changed since his last visit. Grey box-like buildings lined the streets, housing for those people staying longer than a few weeks. As he remembered, about half the population at any one time was transient; working out three, six, or twelve month placements.

"Is this your first visit to Asra, Ser?" Evidently Tomas felt obliged to make polite conversation.

"No. I've been here before, though it was a few years ago now," Hari answered, making an effort. "Does Serra Yoshida still own the hotel?"

"Yes, Ser. And her mother before her," Tomas announced proudly. "The Yoshida family is one of the oldest on Asra. First Settlers."

Hari couldn't help smiling to himself. That would be all of twenty five years, he guessed.

A minute later, Tomas halted in front of a largely open space with a small hut in the centre. Four slender poles held up a roof resembling a mesh of plant fronds. Tables and chairs giving the appearance of liquid metal, were dotted around, complete with waist high refreshment units.

"Our Roof Garden," announced Tomas, with a smile. He waved his wristcom and a bright yellow circle, just over a metre in diameter, appeared in the ground in front of him. "Welcome to the Rising Sun, Captain."

Tomas stepped onto the circle and gestured for Hari to join him. The circle descended slowly beneath the surface. "Most of the hotel is underground," Tomas explained. "It's one of our special features. It was one of the first buildings constructed on Asra."

The disc descended gradually to the floor below, and they found themselves in a large reception room. A young woman wearing the same bright yellow uniform came forward with a professional smile to welcome Hari and escort him to his room.

"I think I may have met your mother," ventured Hari. "I stayed here for a couple of months, about ten years ago."

The young woman smiled more warmly, "Indeed, Captain. My mother still owns the hotel, but allows me to run it—most of the time."

Hari felt for a moment as if he had stepped back in time. He was on Asra, in the very hotel he had occupied ten years ago, the owner a mirror image of the woman who'd run the place back then. Was he the only one who'd changed?

Hari hesitated for a moment, then asked as casually as he could. "Is AISS still operating? Asra Interstellar Security Services," he explained. "I used to know some of the people there." One in particular.

"Oh yes, Captain. It's still going. We have a small Patrol presence here—although you probably know that," she added quickly, glancing at his dark blue uniform. "But there's still a lot of work for a private company, what with all the mining and trading."

Hari stopped short of asking any more questions and Serra Yoshida showed him to his room and left him to settle in. He looked longingly at the bed, but made himself have a quick shower and at least remove the hair on his face, if not his head. He was on leave, perhaps a longer cut would be acceptable for a while, though a long buried—and hitherto unsuspected—vanity was prodding him to remove the grey.

Feeling at least clean, if not refreshed, Hari fell on the bed and was sound asleep in a matter of seconds.

(A short story in four parts, three more chapters to go!)

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