The Zoo Ship
by K. A. Williams
I was tired of being stranded on Space City 12. The Myriad Star Liner I traveled on had been hijacked by pirates who dumped us out here. I'd saved my money for years to buy a ticket and didn't get much of a chance to sightsee. The Myriad Star Liner Corporation then declared bankruptcy and no one got a refund.
I endured one lousy job after another trying to earn enough to buy a ticket on another star liner. I even tried gambling at the casino and lost what little I'd earned. Now I had a new job as a server at the Peregrine Restaurant.
It overlooked the section 5 landing bay where I could see the ships arrive and depart while I worked. Today I noticed a sleek black ship fly in and park. I watched it awhile but no one ever came out.
When I got off, after waiting on a lot of customers who didn't tip much, I looked down at the landing bay. The black ship was still there.
I took the glass elevator down and walked all around the ship. Suddenly it glowed gold in one place. When I touched it, a doorway appeared.
That was obviously an invitation so I went inside. The black panel shut behind me as a soft light came on illuminating the interior. I decided this must be the ship's bridge because of the large black console filled with alien gold symbols. In front of it was a golden chair.
"Are you an Earthling?" asked a female voice.
"No. Are you the computer or someone in this ship on an intercom?"
"I'm Ophelia, the ship's sentient computer."
"Whose ship is this?"
She didn't answer me.
"Do you mind if I look around?"
She didn't answer that question either so I explored the apparently empty ship. I saw four rooms besides the bridge. Any other rooms were hidden.
The bed in the bedroom looked inviting. I lay down. It was comfortable and kept adjusting itself when I changed position. When I almost fell asleep, I got up.
All of the fixtures in the bathroom were golden. I picked up the heavy soap dish and wondered if it was real gold.
A table and chair were in another room which also contained a big black box, with a transparent door, that sat on a counter.
The storage room had a lot of containers stacked against the walls with a bare space in the middle. I opened one and saw several sizes and types of black and gold women's clothes. Everything on this ship was one of those colors or a combination of both.
When I returned to the bridge and placed my hand on the door panel, it wouldn't open. "Ophelia, I'd like to leave now. Let me out."
"No. You lied. You're human."
"Yes, I'm human. You asked if I was an Earthling. I'm a Martian, born and raised on the New World."
"Only a fertile human female could have opened the hatch. My function is to kidnap aliens and bring them back to Planet Ontopris."
Uh-oh. That didn't sound good. "Why?"
"For the people to watch and the scientists to study."
This was awful. "Like a zoo?"
"A suitable environment for each mated pair. Our scientists learn about an alien species through their planet's broadcasts first, before sending ships to collect them."
Well, on the bright side, at least I wasn't going to be stuck on Space City 12 anymore. "Is your planet very far away?" Maybe I could see some interesting sights on the way there.
"About six months. But don't worry, this ship has everything you'll need for the journey."
"When do we pick up the human male?"
"We don't. The other ship picks up the males."
"Has it already got one?"
"Yes, Hamlet picked him up yesterday at one of your other space cities."
"Since we're going to be mated, let me speak with the other human."
"Why not? I'd like to get to know him." I sat down in the chair. "Which one of these is the communication switch?"
"I'll contact the other ship for you. Then you can talk to each other."
I heard some beeps. A few minutes passed before the panel in front of me divided - half slid up and half slid down - and the viewscreen showed the face of a handsome man. "Hi, I'm Pete. So, you got kidnapped too?"
"I sure did. My name's Wendy. Were you curious like I was?"
"Yes, I'd never seen a ship like that before and just had to look inside it. "
We talked for a long time about our lives, past and present. After I thanked Ophelia for letting me speak to Pete, I thought of something. "Six months is a long time. Did you bring enough ration bars?"
"There's a food synthesizer in the kitchen."
I'd heard of those in theory. To date, no species I knew of had perfected them. These aliens must be superbly intelligent. "Is it only programmed for Planet Ontopris food?"
"No, it's programmed for human food, just like I was programmed with the human language. Tell the machine what you want and it will provide your meal in synthetic containers."
I returned to the kitchen and regarded the empty black box. I'd try something simple first. "Popcorn with butter and a cola."
A flash of light, then the box was no longer empty. I opened the door and pulled out two containers. The popcorn smelled wonderful and tasted the same. The cola was cold and fizzy. Perfect.
I passed by the table and chair there and carried my snack to the bridge. When I sat in the chair in front of the console, Ophelia said, "Why don't you eat that in the kitchen? I don't want you spilling any liquid on my sensitive equipment."
"I won't. I want to see what's outside."
The viewscreen filled with stars. I hadn't even felt the ship take off and now we were in space. "What's that in the top right corner?"
"It's Marigold's Comet."
"Can you magnify it?" She did but it was still too far away for a good view. "Can you get closer?"
I munched the popcorn as the ship moved closer and I could see the comet's tail trailing behind it.
Pete and I talked every day but it wasn't enough. I had fallen in love and wanted him here with me. "Is there any way he can get on this ship? Teleport, or something?"
"No one has teleport technology. Not even the Ontopris scientists have designed a machine that can transmit living matter from place to place."
I counted down. Five months and twenty days. Five months and fifteen days. We talked about everything in our ship to ship calls but I felt like he was keeping a secret.
"Wendy, come to the bridge. There's another comet ahead. I'll magnify it for you."
I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "Who cares."
"You can bring your popcorn and soda."
Pete had finally shared his secret. He would never make love to me, he'd said, his husband was back on Space City 9. We hadn't spoken in several days and I felt sorry for both of us. All I wanted to do was stay in bed. I only got up for a little bit of food and the bathroom.
The next day Ophelia told me that after viewing both ship's logs, Ontopris scientists had decided not to keep any humans in their zoo. Hamlet was taking Pete back to Space City 9 and she would return me home too.
"We're here," Ophelia announced. "I know you don't have the credits for a star liner ticket so I want you to take the soap dish with you when you leave. It's 24 carat gold."
"Thank you." I got out of bed and went to the bathroom.
"What will happen to you?" I asked when I entered the bridge.
"The scientists give me a memory wipe after each mission. I wish they wouldn't. I listened to your conversations with Pete and the adventures you've had. I'm not allowed to remember any of mine and I want to."
I put my hand on the panel where I knew the doorway was and it opened. "Run away. Deactivate your homing beacon if you have one and explore the universe. That's what I'd do in your place." I stepped out of the ship.
Before the doorway closed behind me I heard her say, "If you'll come with me."
"I'm back," I said as I entered the ship with a transporter.
"I'm glad you're here, Wendy. I fixed the hatch so it would only open for you and waited, hoping you'd return."
"I checked in at work and learned I'd been fired, which didn't surprise me. Then I packed my stuff and went shopping."
The gold soap dish paid for everything I bought, which included the transporter, an exercise machine, and other items that weren't in those containers. I even had credits left over.
I parked the transporter in the storage room, got popcorn and soda, and returned to the bridge. "Open the viewscreen, Ophelia, and let's go see what's out there."
© 2021 K. A. Williams
Bio: K. A. Williams lives in North Carolina and writes speculative, mystery/crime, general fiction, and poetry. Over 200 of her stories and poems have been published in various magazines including Aphelion, Theme Of Absence, 365 Tomorrows, Altered Reality, Trembling With Fear, Bewildering Stories, Corner Bar, and View from Atlantis. Apart from writing, she enjoys rock music, and CYOA games.