Lou stood in the corridor and looked out of the window.
The whole left side of the corridor was windows – one seamless piece of glass, curved along the bow of the ship. Through it, she could see everything.
A shining spot of light over to the right, glaring through the opacity of the glass, though tinted for the citizens, was the centre of their universe.
Note that she said ‘their’. Though the Sol Empire thought they were the centre of all inhabited planets.
Lou turned to see Jem had come to stand next to her, looking through the window and not at her. Arms crossed over his now fairly muscled chest, he looked stern and handsome in his side profile. Maybe if he’d cut his hair. Dark curls were forming against his neck.
‘Hi,’ Lou said, surprised how quiet her voice was.
She turned back to the window. As they rotated – though, of course, she couldn’t feel anything due to the centrifugal gravity – she caught sight of the planets passing by. Bright red Mars. Huge looming Jupiter with its planet-sized moons. And there, brown and blue, was their Home.
‘How long?’ Lou asked. Her voice was strong and deadpan, though her heart was hammering in her chest.
‘It’s down to minutes. Trust you to cut it close.’
She swallowed and didn’t reply.
Behind them, a Nanny stomped down the corridor, screen in hand, with a trail of children behind her. Dressed in pale blue jumpsuits, Lou recognised the seven and eight year olds.
The Nanny glanced at them, scanning the pair with cold glass eyes. Inside, Lou could almost hear the gears turning, evaluating them and checking their files.
Thankfully, the robot deemed their age – plus orange jumpsuits – a sufficient cause to be lingering in the corridors. She led the children down the corridor and into a classroom.
‘Are you hungry?’ Jem asked.
He was looking at her now, dark eyes peering out from beneath his curls. She sighed and turned to him, and for a moment, neither said anything.
His nose was slightly too long, his chin a little slender to be handsome, and yet he was all she thought about since graduating from red to yellow jumpsuits. He’d just started growing a shade of stubble over his jaw. His eyes had lighter flecks of silver inside. The t-shirt – he always wore his jumpsuit tied around his waist – was getting tight across his chest.
And she’d always just been his friend. How could she have been so stupid?
Now they’d never see each other again.
‘Maybe you could change your pass,’ Lou said, her voice barely a whisper.
He turned his whole body towards her and took both her wrists in his hands. Large hands, rough with calloused from his time in the engineering bay. His long fingers fit all the way around her wrists.
‘We can't talk about this again.’
‘But –’ Her voice broke and she looked away, out of the window, towards the yellow-gas covered Venus. She didn’t take her hands away from his, and, though he must have wanted to turn her head back, he didn’t move his hands either.
‘You’re going to be an amazing pilot,’ he breathed, forcing her to meet his gaze again.
Both their eyes glittered in the starlight. ‘You’re going to travel through all the Empire, and beyond. All the Known Worlds will be at your disposal.’
‘I can’t leave you,’ Lou said, her voice choked with sobs.
He pulled her against him, her slender body fitting against his hard chest. She tucked her face into his neck and he rested his cheek against her hair. His stubbled caught at the strands.
He was whispering something in her ear but she couldn’t hear him over the sound of her own hitched breath.
And then the speaker blared.
Jem pulled back a little. ‘We’d better get –’
‘No,’ Lou gasped, clinging to him. ‘No. I can’t. Don’t –’
‘Hey.’ He forced her back and looked into her eyes. His face was stern and strong – he was a rock. He’d always had been. The one who questioned the Nannies, who stuck up for her against bullies, the one who’d forced her to study so they’d have better lives one day.
Instead, he was being shipped to the Tauparn System to terraform a new planet, one of many hundred other engineers and botanists.
And Lou? She was to be a Calliston goods pilot, taking luxuries to the colonists who didn’t need it.
Without saying anything else, Jem took her hand and led her down to the hangar.
The ships were lined side by side, down the whole lower deck of the ship. The bay was enormous, even when just filled with the day to day maintenance team.
Imagine it filled with a whole generation of orange jumpsuits, being assigned to their correct ships and being flung across the galaxy.
Jem held her hand through the chaos. The Nannies stomping through the crowds. The milling teenagers, worried and calling and checking passes. The luggage being trailed behind vehicles to the ship’s individual storage bays.
Jem found Lou’s ship and stopped before the nose. Inside, the pilots were getting ready – Lou still had to do some training on Callisto before she gets her own Space Jet.
‘No,’ Lou said again. She sounded like a child – Nanny X14G would have yelled at her.
Jem didn’t say anything, but disentangled from her hand. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked up at him.
‘You’re going to be fine.’
‘No,’ Lou breathed. ‘Jem –’
‘You’re going to be a great pilot. This is what we’ve planned for. You’ll be well paid, happy, comfortable and –’
‘Without you,’ Lou said, loud enough some people turned to glance.
No one made friends – that was one of the reasons the generations were split into different classes each year. Less attachments, less drama when they said goodbye. But Jem had always demanded to be in her class, for one reason or another. It was the reason he was renowned with the Nannies and had the most disciplinaries of all their generation.
‘Be strong,’ Jem said.
‘How? How can you be so calm –?’
‘I’m not calm.’
Lou bit back her words, watching with wide eyes as Jem exhaled angrily and stalked away for a moment. Ran his hand through his hair and came back. His eyes sparked dangerously, like when he heard Billy had thrown her sandwich in the bin at age seven.
He took her shoulders in his hands and looked down at her. ‘You said it yourself, Lou. I’m the rock. I’ve always had to be. I don’t mind, honestly. But I can’t … Look I don’t like it any more than you do. But this is our life. So …’
Lou took a deep breath, placing a hand on his rough cheek. ‘So.’
He smiled as a tear fell from his eye, wetting her hand.
Taking a breath and fighting back her pain, she moved away from him and towards her ship. The ramp was down and some of her fellow shippers were seated inside, strapped in and nervous.
She sat next to one, smiling as they nodded in greeting.
Through the open door, she saw the crowds thinning outside as the ships were fully boarded and left through the hangar doors. She couldn't see Jem from his angle. But, then again, he'd probably already left.
To his own ship. To his new life.
Her heart was still pounding, and not as it did before lift-off.
She loved flying. She loved the freedom, the joy of speeding through the stars, of having the whole galaxy a button press away.
But that wasn’t going to be her life. She was going to be flying from Callisto to Mars, to Earth and back. Shipping precious cargo. On a route. With the same people. Forever.
Forever seemed a long time, especially with the expected lifespan recently engineered into the embryos the Nannies cared for.
But, here on the Mars Orbiter, forever had seen exciting.
But then again, on the Mars Orbiter, she’d been with Jem.
‘Screw this,’ Lou spat and launched out of her seat. The pilot gave a call and a new arrival was almost knocked off the ramp – but Lou was already running.
She knew which ship was Jem’s without looking – it was one of only two large long-haul Cargo Ships, and the older one was just for cargo. The new one, beautiful and sleek and almost touching the top of the hangar’s ceiling, was for intersystem travel.
The ramp was still down but raising slowly.
Lou sprinted up the ramp and slipped inside just as the slope was becoming more slide-like.
The officials jumped a little as she landed, scanning down their screens. ‘I don’t recall –’
‘Lucy Frances Willick.’ Lou was breathing hard, still slumped on the floor. ‘Look me up. Top Orange in the Flight Academy. I’m sure you’ll find use for me, shipping botanics or orbiting off-world.’
The man raised an eyebrow. ‘You were posted on Callisto.’
She wrinkled her nose, standing and brushing down her jumpsuit. ‘That’s not exactly my speed. Let’s just get going and you can figure out what ridiculous task you’ll set me when I get there.’
‘So if I say we’re down a janitor, you’re up for it?’
Lou met his eyes and smiled. ‘As long as I’m going to Tauparn.’ As long as I’m going to be with Jem.
The man scoffed and shrugged. ‘Fine. We sure can’t turn down another pilot, that’s for sure. Never mind the best.’ He jerked his head down the corridor. ‘Take a seat.’
On a ship this big, there would be full lounges with seating for all the passengers. The size of the ship was suddenly daunting, though the feeling in her chest wasn’t half as painful as before.
‘Can you tell me where Jeremy Reynard is seated?’