“Mail call,” said Captain Mendoza, as he came in with the cart. Hunters were scattered across the Orbital Station lounge, sitting at tables and sprawled in armchairs. Out the window, the planet Crucible glowed.
The weekly resupply shuttle was just undocking. The whole station shuddered as the shuttle clunked free. Tosca dropped a test tube and swore.
“Piece of %$#* space station,” she muttered, as liquid from the test tube began to eat through the table. “Didn’t know the Unity got their ships from the bargain bin.”
At the table nearest the door, she’d been experimenting with…something. Mendoza found it easiest not to look too close.
“Mail call,” he said again. He held up a package covered in freighter class stamps and wrapped crazily with twine. “Summer Iolana.”
Summer didn’t respond. She was dancing in her chair, one hand pressed to her ear. Mendoza had to say her name twice more before she looked around.
“Oh! Sorry, Cap. The song just got to the good part. Hey, is that for me?” She pounced on the package and ripped it open. Out fell a small avalanche of envelopes with Summer’s name on them. Some were written in crayon.
“Breaker Club fan mail!” she said happily. “I’ll answer these later.”
Earl reached down and picked a few envelopes off the floor. “You answer all your fan mail?” he asked.
“You bet! I love my fans as much as they love their champ!”
At the bottom of the box was something soft and blue. Summer pulled out a package of socks with tiny dolphins on them. “Aw, Mom,” she said. She loves dolphins…and she loves me wearing clean socks.”
As Mendoza wheeled over to the next table, Brother looked up. “Look, Rahi, a package,” he said.
From the looks of it, Brother had been trying to teach Rahi how to play Go. The little robot seemed happy for the distraction, and began to open the box with his tiny laser cutter.
Rahi’s look of intense concentration melted into a smile as he saw the label. “It’s from our friends in the Chara III colony,” he exclaimed. Out of the package he pulled an oversized gold key. “The key to the city! Oh, they shouldn’t have.”
“We did save them from those ravagers,” replied Brother. “And—oh, dear. Are those meant to be us?”
Rahi lifted out two lumpy knit dolls that might have resembled Rahi and Brother, if you really squinted.
“From our friend Dahlia!” he cried, holding one up with glee. “I’ll cherish this little Rahi forever!”
“I think that one is me, actually.”
“Hmm. Are you sure?”
Mendoza chuckled and moved on. The next parcel in the pile was a crisp, dark green—and completely unmarked. Mendoza turned it over in his hands. No address, no postage; how did it even get aboard? Suddenly, it was snatched away by a fuzzy, chemical-stained hand.
“What have we here?” said Tosca, flicking it open. The letter inside was the same dark green, rippling with symbols.
The white ink smelled like the sea, and for a moment, it brought Mendoza back twenty years.
“Aww, what? I can’t read this,” complained Tosca.
“Of course not,” said Ajonah, plucking the letter out of Tosca’s grip. “Why would any of you know how to read Orisathi?” She glared at Tosca, and then at Mendoza, as she stuffed the letter into her hip pouch.
Mendoza, who had learned Orisathi during his deployment on Ajonah’s homeworld, had caught the words “High Tide” written in the white ink. The name of the infamous Orisi rebel group.
But he only said, “No touching other Hunters’ mail, Tosca. We’ve been over this.”
“That’s right,” said Shakirri, sipping coffee nearby. “Mail tampering is illegal. And privacy should be respected.”
Mendoza handed her a thick stack of documents stamped with the Great Seal of Na Dakkaru - a tree with two stars in its branches. Shakirri got one every week, and spent hours responding. It seemed that the Prima was very serious about status reports.
Shakirri sighed and tossed down the rest of her coffee. “Duty calls,” she said, bowing, and left the room.
Bugg, who had been politely waiting his turn, approached Mendoza. Just like he had every week, he said, “Hello, Captain! Is there any mail for me?”
Just like he had every week, Mendoza replied, “Sorry, Bugg. No more mail today.”
“Maybe next time!” said Bugg, as he turned back toward the door.
“Mail call,” said Captain Mendoza. “Got something from the Fresh Air Freehaven this week.”
Earl’s face lit up. With thick fingers, he carefully opened the box. Misty had sent one of her signature care packages, stuffed to bursting with kids’ drawings and snacks. He set them out on the table to share.
“Thif if delishuff!” said Summer, munching on an oatmeal cookie the size of her head.
“Glad it’s still fresh,” said Earl. “It travelled thirty five hundred light years to get here.”
He turned to Mendoza. “You want a cookie, pal?”
“Your loff, Cap!” sprayed Summer.
Shakirri used her butter knife to deflect a stray crumb. With her other hand, she thumbed through a fresh pile of documents.
She paused. From between two pages, she drew a small, lilac-colored envelope. Unlike the ostentatious Great Seal, this one was marked with a simple letter K. Shakirri looked at the envelope with a kind of soft fear that Mendoza had never seen on her before.
“Oooh, who’s K?” said Tosca, right behind her.
Shakirri’s reflexes were fast, but Tosca had the element of surprise. She grabbed the envelope and teleported away, cackling.
Shakirri knocked over her chair as she sprang up. “Give it back!” she shouted, flushed with anger.
“Yeah, yeah, when I’m done,” replied Tosca, starting to open it.
Shakirri launched herself at Tosca, who blinked away again. Her laughter was cut short as a harpoon dart snatched the letter out of her hand and nailed it to the wall.
“Hahaha-hey! You’re not allowed to have that gun in here!”
“Privacy should be respected,” said Ajonah, reloading.
There was a pause as Tosca weighed her odds.
“Your secrets are probably boring, anyway,” she said, and she stomped out. The sound of her cursing faded away down the hall.
Shakirri unpinned the letter, fingers shaking slightly, and tucked it away inside her jacket. “Thank you,” she said to Ajonah, who nodded.
Mendoza wheeled the cart past Rahi and Brother, who were having a whispered debate. “It’s a nice thought, Rahi, but he’ll know it was us,” Brother was saying.
“Hmm. Maybe we can disguise it,” said Rahi. “Hush now—he’s coming!”
They both fell silent as Bugg approached Mendoza.
“Hello, Captain! Is there any mail for me?”
“Sorry, Bugg. No more mail today.”
“Maybe next time!”
Earl watched as Mendoza left the room with the empty cart.
“Mail call,” said Captain Mendoza.
“Hello, Captain! Is there any mail for me?”
“As a matter of fact, Bugg, there is.”
Everyone in earshot looked over in surprise as Mendoza handed Bugg the package. It was a small soft bundle wrapped with an orange ribbon. “From a friend,” read the tag.
“My first mail!” said Bugg happily, waving it in the air.
A long moment passed.
“So…are you going to open it?” asked Rahi.
Bugg untied the ribbon. Nestled inside was a lumpy knit doll. It was hard to tell what kind of creature it was supposed to be, but someone had glued a blue plastic flower to the front.
Bugg made a noise of pure digital joy. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my plants,” he said, and flew out of the room with the little doll gripped tight.
Rahi crossed his arms in satisfaction. “I knew it would make him happy,” he said to Brother.
“You’re the expert, Rahi,” replied Brother, bumping his arm in affection. Beaming, Rahi confidently laid down a black stone on the Go board.
“King me!” he boomed.
Summer and Earl sat at the third table, still eating snacks from Misty’s bottomless care package. Earl was writing a reply to Misty. As Mendoza passed their table, Earl looked up and offered him a cookie.
“No, thanks,” said Mendoza. He was smiling down at something in his hand.
“Got some mail of your own today, huh?” said Earl, encouraging.
Mendoza held it up. It was a nature magazine. On the cover, a dark-haired young zoologist was feeding nutrient gas to a translucent baby jupiterfish.
“Oh,” said Earl. “A magazine?”
“Sure. What else would it be?” Mendoza’s smile was gone.
“I guess I was expecting something more, uh, personal.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. I don’t get personal mail.”
Earl took a thoughtful bite of his cookie as Mendoza left.
Long past lights out, Earl found Mendoza in the lounge. He was sitting in an armchair, reading his magazine. The glow of the reading lamp was the room’s only light.
As Earl sat down in the other chair, Mendoza removed his reading glasses. “You need something, Earl?”
“You must be proud,” said Earl.
“Proud? Of what?”
“Of her.” Earl pointed at the zoologist on the magazine cover. “She’s got your eyes.”
Mendoza looked at the young woman’s face, smiling at the baby creature, and then looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t get personal mail.”
There was a short silence. Out the window, dawn began to roll across Crucible.
“I’ve still got some cookies left. Want one?” asked Earl.
“…Yeah, okay,” Mendoza replied. “Thanks.”