It was late, and we were loud, but for tonight, that was alright. Tabby had told us hours ago to not worry about it. The corner table at the pub was ours as late as we wanted it. And so far, no one had seemed inclined to complain anyway. The only looks that came our way were smiles and nods, and Reuben and I didn’t end up paying for any more than a third of our drinks. The rest were covered by our friends, and a couple of rounds appeared at our table, courtesy of grateful, generous strangers. The other members of the crew were probably doing the same thing with their own friends in some other bar.
We tried not to call it a suicide mission. It might have been. Probably was, really, but on the off chance that it wasn’t, we promised each other that we wouldn’t count ourselves out until our ship was blowing up around us. Either way, we were leaving the next morning. Our ship was already prepped and ready, and it waited at the launching grounds at the edge of town with the course out to another system and another planet somewhere beyond colonized space already programmed into its computer.
But that was tomorrow. Tonight, we were still here.
“So, Erin.” Reuben’s dark eyes glittered wickedly at me from across the table, and even the fuzz left by my last beer wasn’t enough to dull the feeling of sudden dread.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said.
“Think about what?” His grin showed more teeth than it ever did when his motives were good.
I grinned right back at him. “The same thing you’ve been hounding me about since it happened.”
“Come on, Erin. It might be our last chance. Everyone wants to know the old tractor story.”
A general clamor in Reuben’s favor went up from our friends, encouraged as much by his sly fox smile as my pretended scowl of disapproval.
“You’ve got to tell it now!”
“Cat’s half out anyway.”
“One to remember you by!”
“You’re a bloody cheater, Reuben,” I said, but there was nothing believable about my frown.
“So, will you tell it or will I?”
“You.” I balled up a napkin and threw it at him before he could start. “But not until your sister gets here, because she’s been demanding the details since it happened and she’ll kill me if everyone else finds out before she does.”
His smile faltered. “I’m not sure she’s coming.”
I gave him a quizzical look, but he waved it off and I didn’t push. I just paused for a moment, playing along with the game before giving the answer everyone knew I’d give. And I still smiled when they cheered. Our joviality was fragile, but it was enough.
The only thing I would have changed would have been to have Luca there with us.
An hour passed. Another one followed it. The late night grew later, and we grew sleepier and even a littler quieter. The pub’s other patrons left, one by one. So did a couple of our friends, citing the years they had gained since we’d first met. They promised to see us at the launching tomorrow as they went.
Luca never came, and it didn’t need to surprise me to hurt. I’d sent her a handful of messages throughout the evening, surreptitiously touching my fingers to my commphone’s controls to activate the contact display and tap out the words I wanted. Reuben caught the telltale, electric glimmer across my eye the second time I did it, but he didn’t say anything, just offered a quiet, sympathetic smile and looked away before anyone else noticed. I’d tried to be as present as I could the rest of the time, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded. It was hard when I was waiting for a response that didn’t come.
At least, it didn’t come until the night was over and last few of us were finally admitting that we should sleep. My contact display lit up, and I jumped despite myself. The message was short and simple, but it said everything it needed to.
I’m out by the launch field.
It took me less than a second to get up from the table. I grabbed my jacket, apologizing as coherently as my midnight-addled tongue could manage and confirming that I would see them all for last goodbyes before we left. Reuben gave me a look that I returned as best I could, and then I took off. I broke into a jog before I was five steps out the door.
I found Luca leaning back against the wall of the maintenance bay, staring towards the dark outline of our ship where it waited in the field. She turned her head as I approached.
“We missed you tonight,” I said. I think I said it without letting it sound like an accusation. I didn’t mean it to be.
“I’m sorry,” said Luca. She paused before saying something about being at the launch tomorrow.
“For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it,” I said. “Reuben will too.”
She didn’t respond, quickly or otherwise. I’m usually comfortable with silences. The stretch of wordless seconds that clings to the edge of a conversation has always just been another way to enjoy a friend’s company. Nothing more, nothing less. But this one wasn’t like that.
I forced a laugh. “Hey, if we get ourselves killed, at least you won’t have to worry about keeping us out of trouble anymore.”
“What the hell, Erin?” She jerked away from the wall. “Seriously?”
An apology slipped off my tongue, and I followed her out into the field, into the deeper shadows where the hull of our ship blocked the light of the moon. An excuse or two stuck in the back of my throat, whispers and mumbles about coping mechanisms and an attempt to lighten the mood. But Luca kept talking before I made anything worse.
“I wanted to sabotage this thing, you know.” She was looking up at the hull. “To find a way to break it enough that it would never get you to deep space.”
My stomach tightened. Only the fact that she kept talking kept me from making some stupid inquiry after the state of the ship.
She shrugged, or that’s what it looked like. “I might have actually done it if I thought it could have stopped you.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Keep us behind, safe and sound. That’ll work great until the bad guys come and kill us here instead.”
Luca snorted in disgust. “There’s every chance they’ll do that anyway.”
“No! Not every chance. If this works they never get past Relfa.”
“If!” She hissed the word through gritted teeth. “’If’ means nothing! ‘If’ means we’re down to dreams and delusions!”
“’If’ means that some of us haven’t given up just yet!” I shouted, and my words echoed out across the field. They faded without interruption.
Her response came slowly, cold and delayed. “Or maybe it means you’re just going to die in denial.”
“Better that than whatever it is you’re doing.”
Her hand moved in the darkness, and I braced myself for a blow that never landed. Her fists jerked at the air above her head instead, threatening to beat her own skull. A ragged scream wedged and died in her throat. “How can you say that? You! Of all people! I’ve been in every meeting you have, come up with dozen insane schemes of my own—I lost my husband to one of them and it never stopped me!”
“It broke you when Aaron died!” There was a moment, just a moment when I could have kept from going further. “If he was alive he would have been the first to volunteer”
I thought she was going to hit me. I’d have deserved it. If I’d been her I probably would have. The dead silence was worse, and it remained unbroken even when she left half a minute later, leaving me alone to justify myself to the snarling in my head. It was a lost cause, and I gave it up after the barest handful of seconds.
I woke early the next morning, well before my alarm and only five or six hours after I’d finally collapsed into bed. I should have been able to fall back asleep. Exhaustion squatted on my chest, and I didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that my eyes were bloodshot. Another hour of rest would have smoothed the roughest edges if nothing else. I knew without trying that I’d never manage it. A resigned curse escaped through my teeth, and I dropped my feet to the floor.
Not that I had much to do before the launch. My bag was packed and skulking by the door. My uniform hung over the back of my chair, waiting for me to pull it on. A pile of letters sat on my desk, filled with sentiments I’d already said out loud to the recipients, though perhaps not so eloquently as when I put pen to paper. Actual paper. It was old-fashioned, perhaps, but it seemed fitting. It would be something to hold onto if things turned out the way we feared the most.
One of them was for Luca. It was one of a dozen, but when I looked at the stack it was the only one that mattered. Fortunately, I’d written it before last night, and the things inside were things I meant, things that I wanted her to know and remember. If she decided to read it instead of burning it, it might bring her a little peace.
A twisting in my gut told me that I was still angry. Of course I was. I would be until we made up, and unless Luca felt like seeing me in the next few hours, I was just going to have to live with it. Or die with it. One or the other. I gave a snort. It was as close to a laugh as I could manage.
It didn’t take me long to get dressed and ready. My uniform went on easily, comfortably. I dragged a comb through my hair until it was vaguely presentable and able to be tied back in a tight braid. I tossed my dirty clothes in a laundry basket. I made my bed. I yanked my boots onto my feet and laced them up. Within fifteen minutes, I was out the door with my bag slung over my shoulder and the packet of letters clutched in my hand.
The colony was quiet. The streets weren’t quite empty, but the few of us who walked them were more inclined to enjoy the silence and the solitude than to strike up a conversation. We exchanged civil nods when we passed and little else. When I reached the little shop that operated as a post office of sorts, I dropped off my letters with a minimum of talking. Old Man Rufus who ran the place did the same, though he offered his well-wishes and only charged me half price for sending the letters. I smiled and thanked him and left.
I wandered the streets after that. I still had hours before launch, hours even before the crew had to be there for our early checks, and I wasn’t about to spend the last of my free time aboard the same beast of tech and metal that I would be tied to for the next weeks. My bag wasn’t all that heavy, and I took simple comfort in its weight against my back as I said my goodbyes to the colony.
I was halfway to Luca’s house before I realized where my steps were taking me. I stopped walking. The urge to turn and go back the way I had come thrummed in my chest. I could put aside the argument from last night. I could make myself believe it didn’t matter. I could bury it deep and let it fester until the mission was done or I was gone. Just not if we came back for round two now.
But if we didn’t, there was no way we were going to reconcile. The odds weren’t good for any encounter turning out that way, but it wasn’t as if I was paying much heed to probabilities these days anyway. I started for her house again with a sigh and a muttered prayer.
Of course, everything hinged on her actually being home and willing to open the door. I’m not sure which one of those wasn’t true, but I imagine that in the end it doesn’t really matter. After the fifth time I knocked only to be met by silence, I admitted defeat and wandered back the way I’d come.
I passed the rest of my time in one way or another. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Half an hour saying goodbye to the hollow in the corner of the park where I’d always hidden when I wanted to get away. Forty-five minutes getting lunch and coffee at my favorite cafe. Seconds and minutes and hours that I used to make sure I remembered.
Finally, I made my way back towards the launch field. We still had an hour to go before the crew was scheduled to gather for our final checks and any last updates on the mission, but it was close enough, and I was ready to not be alone anymore. I wouldn’t be the only one of the crew already feeling drawn to the ship.
I didn’t expect to find Luca there, but as I emerged onto the launch field I saw her there, standing next to Reuben. She saw me too, said something to her brother, and started making her way across the field to meet me. As soon as she got close enough for me to see it, the dark look on her face made me hesitate.
“You were out of line,” she said. “Tell me you know that.”
I didn’t want to. I did know it, but the words shriveled on my tongue and others to describe her own faults grew in their place. I choked them back and said nothing instead.
But Luca didn’t say anything else either, just kept staring me down even as I dropped my gaze. I tried again.
“I went too far.” It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It was lame, and it wasn’t what I should have said. I hoped it was closer than anything else I’d come up with.
“I’m supposed to say it’s all okay now. That it was nothing,” said Luca
“Yeah,” I said. “But neither one of us believes that.”
“At least you’ve got that right.”
I felt the words of an apology trying to form just behind my teeth, but I couldn’t tell if they were sincere or self-serving. I could express remorse without taking blame, voice regret without admitting error. Smooth our feathers. Steal goodwill for an hour.
I could. I didn’t. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” I said. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
If Luca was surprised she didn’t show it. If she accepted my apology I couldn’t tell, and the time that passed before she said anything at all left deep dread in the pit of my stomach. When she spoke, her words came slow and with a terrible deliberation.
“I’m still mourning Aaron, and you used him just to make a point.”
She looked me in the eye, and I kept her gaze, barely, as she continued.
“Maybe I should be able to let it go. Maybe it was only thoughtless words spoken in the heat of the moment. And maybe you’re right. Maybe if he was here he’d have volunteered right along with you and Reuben, and I’d be watching the three people I love most climb onto a deathtrap instead of just the two I’ve got left.”
She paused and shook her head, and her mouth opened and closed as she hunted for the right words. “But the fact that you’d use him against me without thinking hurts deep. And I can’t just forget it and I can’t just let it go. Even if maybe I should.”
I set my jaw and nodded once. Before I managed a single word she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.
“But I forgive you.”
Her hard look cracked just long enough for me to see a whisper of a smile. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug, and as she did the same a weight I’d tried ignoring slipped off my shoulders.
“We’ll need to talk about it,” she said. “When you get back.”
I nodded, still hugging her. “Then I’ll make sure we come back.”
“You’d better.” If her words were an act to make me feel better, then I couldn’t tell. We stepped apart and she smiled again, and this time it lasted a little longer. “And you’d better tell me the tractor story before you go.”