33. A Battlefield Promotion
Fear is a funny thing, reflects Lai. It is an unruly visitor that arrives unannounced in the times and places where you are least expecting it, overstaying its welcome for days and making a nuisance of itself all the while; and then, when you are either prepared for or grimly resigned to it, it never puts in an appearance, and its absence can be just an unnerving. It is useful in the same way that a fickle friend is useful, always keeping you wary and alert, tolerable in small doses. For several days it’s been clinging to her like a filmy residue of dust carried back from the Amity division. But today, on the day that she should be pumped with anxiety about her departure from Earth, it is nowhere to be found.
Just this morning, as she was packing the last of her toiletries in preparation for the off-planet voyage, Lai’s comm vibrated with an incoming voice feed from Lady T. She answered it immediately and was greeted by the deadpan voice of her superior. “Ah, excellent, you’re awake. I was hoping that you would be.”
“Of course I’m awake.” Lai flicked at her bangs absently. “It’s the day of our first mission, and we’re supposed to leave in, like, an hour. Why would I still be sleeping?”
“Such commendable spirit.” The dry smile was audible in Lady T’s voice. “That attitude is exactly why you’re being promoted.”
Lai nearly dropped the comm. “Promoted? What,now?”
“No time like the present. As it turns out, there’s been a slight change of plans. Some of my colleagues have decided, rather at the last minute, that going up in two exceptionally large groups as originally intended would be too conspicuous. Squadron 3 will now be split into three factions instead, and we need someone to lead the third group.”
Lai was grinning. “Lady T…I don’t know what to say. Thank you!”
“Don’t thank me, thank yourself. You’re the one who put in the hard work to get to this point. I’ll send you your group roll sheet and the rest of the information right now. Oh, Alec may be assigned with you. I hope that won’t be a problem, I know that you two don’t get along especially well…”
“We don’t really get along badly.” Lai thought back to her recent conversation with Alec on the veranda, and she shrugged. “Yeah, it should be fine.”
“If you say so. Good luck, Lai. And I’m proud of you.”
Lai is still glowing now, in her seat at the front of a spacecraft, revealing no trace of her typical impatience as she waits for the takeoff to Orbital 9 to commence. The spacecraft is first class, meaning that it is small but luxurious, and the plush chairs laid out in rows behind her are occupied by thirty-one other members of the Uniters. She’s in charge of them now…and yet she’s radiating genuine happiness instead of smugness.
Alec has taken his place next to her, and he is staring at her rather quizzically. “This is quite an alteration from your emotions last night,” he remarks.
“I feel like I’ve just been given everything I ever wanted,” she replies, and she still sounds amazed at the prospect. She does not believe that her current situation is a dream, a hallucination, or any kind of falsehood at all, but having most of her aspirations suddenly realized has filled her to the brim with a sort of blank, sated happiness. Perhaps this is how Ema feels every day…or every day before the war began, anyway. “I’ve earned my leadership position,” she continues. “I’ve found something that I like to do and that people praise me for. And I’m about to leave home and see a brand new place, and have brand new experiences.”
Alec arches his eyebrow. “And the matter we discussed yesterday evening?”
“Well…” She hesitates. “I guess I would like to find out if our theory is right or not, but we can worry about that once we find the Amitys.”
“Have you related our speculations to anyone else? Ema, perhaps, or Lady T?”
She shakes her head. “I haven’t, and I wasn’t planning to. I mean, Ema would just tell me that it’s all in my head, and Lady T has plenty of other things to worry about. Besides, she just appointed me a leader. I can’t let her down, I have to be totally focused.”
“A wise approach.” Alec nods approvingly. “You are certainly beginning to view things logically.”
Lai offers him a slight smile. “Well, it definitely helped to puzzle things out with you. So thanks.”
Much to her amazement, he smiles back. “You are most welcome.”
“Five minutes to departure,” states a pleasant female voice via the spacecraft’s speaker system. “An attendant will be around to ensure that all restraints are properly secured. Please stand by.”
Lai pulls a thick, heavy seat belt across her lap and tugs two similar harnesses over her shoulders. Alec, meanwhile, places his hand on the armrest controls and cuts off the window’s video stream, removing their view of the outside word. As the wall beside their aisle turns bland and featureless, she pouts. “I wanted to watch while we were taking off!”
He shakes his head. “Takeoff can be an unpleasant experience, and if I can recall correctly, the speed causes especially severe motion sickness for those who attempt to observe their window feed.”
“Fine.” She leans back into the generously cushioned chair, rolling her eyes. Of course, Alec was employed on an orbital in his mysterious original line of work, so he most likely knows what he’s talking about. “You know, soon you’re going to have to tell me how exactly you got your orbital expertise.”
“As far as you have progressed, Lai, you are not yet ready to learn of that.”
An attendant steps into the aisle beside them. She eyes Alec suspiciously for a moment, then says, “Sir, ma’am, you two will want to put in your ear plugs now.”
Lai obediently removes the pair of fresh ear plugs from the dispenser in her fold-down tray. She molds the bits of soft plastic into a comfortable shape, then pokes them into her ears. They are actually specially designed devices which are replaced after each flight, able to both effectively block the noise of ascension and prevent the wearer’s ears from experiencing the worst of the pressure popping.
A message appears on her armrest controls, asking her if she would like to select any music to listen to during takeoff. Her fingers patter across the little touch screen, and she selects an orchestral piece that she recognizes from the list. Soon all she can hear are the lilting tones of string instruments, augmented with occasional thuds of percussion, as the song is streamed wirelessly to her ear plugs.
She looks around the spacecraft’s interior to ensure that everyone in her group is complying with the safety regulations. Fortunately, all of the imps are nervous first-timers, unwilling to risk anything by disobeying the rules. Even Alec has inserted his ear plugs, although he looks rather nonchalant (and she isn’t sure how much he really needs them).
“All systems go,” chimes a stewardess’s voice, briefly interrupting the flow of Lai’s music. “Passengers, please brace yourselves for takeoff. If you experience any motion sickness, please activate the help button on your armrest controls for assistance.”
The spacecraft is rolling slowly now, disconnecting from the solid Orbital Boarding Station building. Lai feels a pang of thrilling anticipation spurt through her abdomen. Her adventure has nearly begun.
“The duration of your flight will be approximately thirty-five minutes,” continue the instructions. “We will be docking at Port 30, and you can retrieve your luggage from the accompanying baggage claim. If you have any questions, feel free to access the help application of your armrest controls any time after takeoff has completed. Now, please place your trays in their full upright positions and prepare for departure.”
Clicks echo throughout the cabin as the last few dispenser trays are locked against seat backs. With a jarring rattle and a low mechanical moan, the spacecraft heaves itself into contact with an empty launcher. From there, they find themselves tilted to a vertical angle with surprising rapidity. At exactly the same rate, the passenger seats rotate so that they will remain parallel to the floor.
Lai’s feet dangle below her freely for a moment, before a footrest extends from under her chair and places a solid surface beneath the soles of her boots. Everything around her is vibrating, and she is certain that if there were any loose bolts in the spacecraft, they would be rattling wildly…but every apparatus is tight and sure, remaining steady as the powerful generators surge with energy and progress from a barely audible hum to a definite, impatient growl. She can hear nothing but the orchestra in her ear plugs, swelling in perfect synchronization with her emotions.
And suddenly, they’re going up.
She isn’t quite conscious of the moment that they first leave the surface of the Earth, because it happens too quickly to perceive. She has flown before, of course, in aircrafts, but that is nothing like this. This is so much faster – faster than an aircraft, faster than sound, faster than anything but light. She has become a comet streaking out of the Earth’s atmosphere, returning to her mother space. The little spacecraft bucks and jitters, and G-force keeps her more or less locked rigidly in place; she now understands why her seat has such thick cushions. Even with the plugs embedded within them, her ears cloud over and pop whenever she swallows.
Alec gently lays a fingertip atop the back of her hand, and they lock eyes. His mouth moves to form words, and since he knows that she cannot hear him, he exaggerates the curve of his lips:“Marvelous, is it not?”
Lai nods, mesmerized. Some of the other Uniters have their hands pressed against their faces or their heads between their legs, but her eyes are wide, absorbing everything. Exhilaration burns within her chest like a single, condensed flame, or a clear and shining high note held at a perfect pitch.
She finds herself laughing. There is music blaring in her stuffy ears, and the spacecraft is shaking violently around her, and it couldn’t be more absolutely perfect. Her heart is swelling with everything she’s never felt, for a single instant and for forever.
And then it’s all over, and the feeling over her senses expanding and exploding ends just as quickly, leaving behind a fond memory. Her stomach rises for a split second before the artificial gravity kicks in. All around her, other Uniters begin muttering about their fear or discomfort to one another, but she cheerfully ignores all of them.
“That, I think, was the closest I have come to experiencing the greatest extremes of emotion,” Alec declares, once they have been given the confirmation to remove their ear plugs.
“You said it,” she agrees. “I thought my head was going to blow up! But in a good way…you know what I mean?”
“Oddly enough, I do.” He smiles wryly, calling up the armrest controls once again. “But for now, here is a quieter pleasure.” And he reactivates the window’s video stream.
In crystal-clear, three-dimensional images, she is presented with a view that would be much more muddled if she were seeing it through a real window – a view of the stars. In Settlement 209, the night sky is always wholly or partly obscured by light pollution, so this is something she has never really seen before. And it strikes her all at once how much she has missed all her life. All around her are smatterings of molten silver droplets on a background of the purest black velvet, so soft that human hands cannot feel its celestial texture. The sheer scale of everything is enough to snatch the breath from her throat.
Alec gazes over her shoulder wistfully. “Do you like it?” he asks.
“It’s beautiful,” she gasps. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Yes, it is like nothing on Earth. It will be even more stunning once we arrive on Orbital 9. Then the stars shall surround us on all sides…”
The metallic equivalent of sad nostalgia has begun to infiltrate his voice, but Lai doesn’t notice. She is staring off into the distance, where the orbitals themselves seem to hang perfectly still in space, like baubles dangling from invisible hooks and strings. There are so many of them. They almost shimmer with a thin film of rainbows, as if they are distorted soap bubbles suspended at the edge of the atmosphere. The spacecraft is approaching them quickly, and she realizes that she is actually travelling quite fast, although she can barely feel any movement at all.
“How many are there?” she asks.
“How many orbitals? Twenty, if I am not mistaken,” replies Alec. “Or perhaps twenty-five, now. It has been a while since I last checked.”
Lai’s seat turns underneath her as the spacecraft angles itself out of its vertical liftoff stage. The starts beyond the window rotate as well, but that doesn’t impact her much, as deep space has already obliterated her sense of direction.
Her eyes lift to the overhead bin above her, where her messenger bag is undoubtedly tethered down and waiting. Before she left, she made sure to carefully tuck her Notebook Number Three into an interior pocket. She hasn’t written anything in a while, but hopefully this mission will give her an interesting story to record.
Yes…that’s all she needs to be perfectly happy. If she gets that, then she will have every one of her wishes fulfilled. The most interesting story of her life…