Upon Jess's return, they had exchanged surreptitious nods, an unspoken agreement not to mention what the man had done to their minds. Then, the secret hanging heavy between them, they had fallen into an uneasy silence for the remainder of their time on the shuttle. Sam caught sight of Lawrence chatting to others across the room, but he didn't look their way.
In that windowless room, with only the airplane-like sway to inform them of their progress, Sam's mind wandered. Almost a decade ago, the pattern in the sky had begun to change, stars of all colors twinkling out of existence to be replaced by yellow twins of the sun. The change had spread across the heavens in a wave, propagating at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Theologians, scientists, and astrologers had all been in high demand on every news program in the world, offering wildly divergent narratives. It was a sign of the end times. It was proof of simulation theory. It heralded a wondrous new age. The world had hung on every word for months, until it became exhausted of the constant speculation. Normal life had resumed.
Until the Angmari fleet had been spotted decelerating into the solar system from relativistic speeds. The excitement had been riding high in all the years since then. First the burning question had been what the aliens were like and what they wanted from Earth. Then the ships had grown close enough for radio contact in the past year and the world had been astounded to learn that the aliens used similar digital encodings for their communications and that, even more shocking, the decoded messages were in English. In the past month, the aliens had reached orbit and begun negotiations with the planet below. Their first visit had prompted speculation on whether the Angmari were actually humanoid or if they had assumed a form similar to the locals.
Sam had followed every news story along the way. She loved living in a world full of boundless possibilities. Aliens had come to Earth using an unknown method of propulsion. They were to all appearances friendly. One of their first actions had been to start recruiting Earthers to join their fleet. There had never been a question in her mind that she would show up at one of their recruiting events to be tested. Bringing along her best friend had been a bit unexpected, helped along by a bad breakup and a general ennui towards college classes.
The force of gravity slowly waned, decreasing her apparent weight until she could keep herself aloft with gentle taps of her foot. The tug of their acceleration began to predominate so that the occupants of the room began to drift towards the rear, the friction of their feet no longer sufficient to keep them in place. Sam and Jess beamed bright smiles at each other. Whatever their new life looked like, they would fulfill at least one fantasy by experiencing zero gravity.
"Prepare for contact!" The shout startled them. Then it was echoed back by the other Angmari present. "Prepare for contact!"
Jess turned wide eyes on her. "What do you think they mean by . . . ."
There was a clang and one of the walls suddenly began to move towards them. Sam squeaked as she joined the pile of humans squished together.
"What the hell? Did we just ram into our destination?" Sam rubbed a bruise forming on her cheek from an errant elbow delivered during the rapid deceleration.
"Earthers, exit the shuttle in an orderly manner!"
Sam barely had time to get her bearings before an Angmari woman gave her arm a tug, sending her tumbling towards the door in an awkward dive. She at first thought she would just miss her target, but then the room slowly rotated around her so she mostly made it through, the effect only spoiled by her foot catching on the frame. She crashed into the airlock and hit her face into the back of someone already there. Before she could correct her posture, someone plowed into her from behind. The door to the outside clanged and opened.
In short order, she found herself pulled through another airlock and into a larger room. The rest of the Earthers from the shuttle were soon all around her. Then the shouted orders began. They lined up to have their biometrics checked. Then they were separated by sex and led deeper into the structure. Sam managed to slip through the line to be beside Jess. "I don't think I like microgravity," she confided.
Jess had gone pale and moved with a delicate lethargy. "You're telling me. I think I would have lost my lunch already if they didn't have me distracted with all of the excitement."
Every corridor they passed through moved slowly about them, giving the uneasy sense of a funhouse mirror maze. "The Angelship rotates for gravity," Sam said. "If we go away from the hub it should be almost like standing on real ground."
The woman leading them looked back, dusky Angmari skin contrasting with stiff white uniform in a manner that was both stern and beautiful. "Hold your vomit. We are moving edgeward shortly." The rebuke in that glance silenced any further speech from Sam.
They entered a long shaft and began to traverse it. The turning of the vessel around them soon brought the wall into contact with their small cavalcade, allowing them to do something approximating crawling. Soon ladder rungs appeared, which allowed them to propel themselves along more rapidly. Suddenly, after pushing off from one rung, Sam's inner ear informed her that she was hurtling headfirst towards the ground. She panicked and grabbed onto the next rung, which she clung to for a moment. She constructed a mental model of her surroundings in her head. The shaft, a semicircle rather than the square corridors from earlier, was in fact one of the spokes of the Angelship. They were indeed moving down towards the outer rim, which placed her upside down to the direction that would become the ground.
"Keep moving," the woman behind her said.
Sam reluctantly moved forward, this time moving slower and trailing a hand along the wall for assurance. Bit by bit, the sense of gravity increased until the wall seemed to be pushing back at her. Only the wall was not straight down, instead its surface seemed like a playground slide, eager to shoot her along its length and spit her out onto the surface below. Fortunately, the ladder rungs became more frequent until she could reorient herself feet down and climb downward in a sane manner.
The ordeal finally ended when she stood on a floor. Gravity this far from the hub felt almost normal. If she turned her head fast enough, she could notice a weird discrepancy, but otherwise she could put the weirdness from her mind to get a look at her surroundings. The ladder inside the spoke had ended in what appeared to be a tunnel. They stood at one end of it and the other opened into what appeared to be daylight. They followed their guide out into a pristine mixture of tall steel-and-glass buildings, open parkland, and tiered faux-adobe houses with rooftop gardens. Tall walls of porcelain boxed the valley in and the abundant light shown down from arrays of light fixtures set into it.
All around, dusky Angmari going about their business slowed to stare at the Earthers filing past them. Sam hurried her pace to bury herself in the middle of the pack. She didn't exactly feel welcomed by the locals. They marched into one of the skyscrapers and the door closed behind them. The woman who had been their guide did a quick count to ensure they were all present, then nodded to herself. "Welcome to the Angelship. I don't know what you were told prior to this point, and I really don't care. You're all working in agriculture now. I'm going to show you to your sleeping berths and give you a tour of the facilities. You will be going on duty today, so prepare yourselves to learn. This isn't a planetside farm where you shove things in dirt. It is precision work in a technological food production facility."
One of the other women in the group spoke up. "So, like, that door locking behind us. Do we get to go outside?"
"Outside is the vacuum of space. You don't want to go there." The woman didn't quite smile. "As far as wandering free among the populace . . . that would not be safe for you at the moment. We need workers very badly, but not everyone is willing to accept the help of outsiders. Eventually we will move you to one of the other ships we plan on constructing. For now, though . . . this building is your home. Welcome to the Angelship."