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Illiya Chapter 2: Outward Bound

Outward bound

A.D. 3485

Weeks earlier

“Watch where you’re drifting,” said the captain as she pushed Taylor’s feet away from her chair.

“Sorry, Susan.” Taylor spun in a slow midair cartwheel, then grabbed a ceiling hand grip to arrest her movement. She stretched out her left arm and pushed her body ‘downward’ until her feet floated half a metre above the floor. A waist-length ponytail drifted behind her in a rippling waterfall, forming chestnut-brown pools around her shoulders in the slight air currents. She brushed a strand of hair away from her face. “Is that better?”

“Yes, thanks. Most of the controls are locked down, but you still need to be careful.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I’ve been meaning to ask you – how do you feel about coming along on this survey? You’ve been pretty quiet, but you must be happy about getting those extra credits.”

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it feels like you’re bribing me to spend time with you.”

Susan rubbed her forehead and looked at Taylor. “I negotiated those extra credits with the dean of the applied sciences department on Ganymede. He agreed that you would gain a lot from direct field experience, and he thought it was a great opportunity for you. He’s prepared to let you complete your degree a whole semester early based on this trip, as long as you write a paper on it. Just one paper! How many students in your class will get the opportunity to explore a new planet for the first time?”

“Not many. You must have made quite an impression on the dean, being the great space explorer you are.”

“Don’t be cheeky. We had a good conversation, but those credits weren’t meant as a bribe, nor are they a gift. You’ll earn them through hands-on experience. It will be hard work.”

“I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty.”

“That’s good. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience, and we can spend a lot of time together during the survey.”

“You know you can’t suddenly make up for lost years.”

“I know, but at least we can try to get to know each other better. You’ve grown up so fast.”

“It might look that way from your perspective, but that’s because you weren’t around much. I got used to you not being there for me.”

“That hurts.”

“So does being abandoned.” Taylor rubbed at the red spot on the bridge of her nose and dragged several strands of hair over her face.

Susan sighed and studied Taylor’s profile in silence. A wayward breeze lifted the hair away from Taylor’s olive-skinned face, revealing a small mole on her left cheek.

Tall and slim like her mother, Taylor’s face had traces of her father’s angular features, which made Susan’s breath catch in her throat. She blinked her pale blue eyes and took a deep breath. “Taylor, we’ve been in transit for four days now and we’ve hardly talked.”

“Four days is nothing. We can go for months without talking.”

“It’s a lot of time when we’re together. You weren’t like this when I was visiting you back on Earth.”

“That was different. We’ve got two whole months. That’s plenty of time.”

“I thought you wanted to come on this trip.”

“I-” Taylor frowned. “I did. I do.”

“Well, Taylor Alice Neeran, you don’t seem certain about that. It’s too late to turn around, but you could always go into cryo until we got back to Ganymede if you’ve changed your mind about this trip. We don’t need an unwilling passenger on this survey, and technically we aren’t supposed to have passengers at all, but I pulled a few strings.”

Taylor paled. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been feeling myself. Maybe it’s all this time in zero-G. I want to be here – and awake.”

Susan rubbed her eyes. “Good. I don’t want to waste any of our time together, but right now it looks like somebody needs your help.”

Taylor looked around the room. “I don’t see anybody else.”

Susan put a finger to the side of her temple. “Put on your AR glasses.”

“Oh,” Taylor pulled a pair of slim augmented reality glasses out of her pocket. The glasses were a poor fit, unlike her snug-fitting thin haptic gloves. She’d had to save up for a month to buy a second-hand set after she lost her good pair, but there wasn’t much point in paying for a new set when there was a better alternative.

“I wish I could just get the AR implants. Most of the students in my class have them by now,” Taylor blinked her hazel eyes and put the glasses on, trying to avoid the red spot where they had previously been wedged.

“Patience.”

Taylor sighed and reached out her right hand, then pulled a long haired ginger cat back against her chest. She let go of the ceiling grip with her left hand and stroked the cat’s head. “Gotcha, Squilm!”

Susan watched Taylor holding the upper half of the cat against her chest. The lower half dangled beneath her arms, scratching at Taylor’s stomach with its hind legs.

“Squilm doesn’t seem to like that. She may not be able to bite you, but those haptic gloves can still give you a nasty shock. If you were in a full suit right now, you’d be feeling her displeasure all over your stomach. That virtual reality cat is programmed to behave just like a real one whether you have a full suit on or not. I’m reasonably sure you didn’t hold Patches like that when you were younger. You might want to adjust your grip.”

“She doesn’t like zero-G, but she’s not real, so it can’t hurt her.”

“As long as you remember she’s not real. Too many students your age can’t tell the difference. At least now you can take your glasses off so you can be sure what’s real or not.”

“I can tell.”

“So you say now. It’s different with implants,” Susan frowned. “And I still don’t understand why you brought Squilm along. She’s eating up a lot of computing cycles to render all of that hair. This is only a small survey ship, not a cruiser.”

Taylor glanced down and hooked the worn armrest of a nearby chair with her right foot. She pulled herself down, twisting her body around to land bottom-first on the padded sim-leather seat, then grabbed the restraint belt with her right hand and pulled it right through Squilm as she latched it closed. “I’ve had Squilm since Dad died. I wasn’t going to leave her alone in my dorm for that long.”

“You could have just taken her offline until you got back. She wouldn’t have known, and you could have saved some money on rendering cycles. She’s not alive, she’s just a program.”

“Maybe so, but she’s always been there when I needed her. Not like somebody I know.”

“Well, I’m here now, and I suggest we make the most of our time together,” Susan pressed her lips into a thin line. “And while we’re doing that, you’ll be earning those credits towards your degree.”

Taylor repositioned Squilm in her lap and gently stroked her outline. She could feel the cat purring through her gloves. “It will be nice to graduate early.”

Susan rubbed her eyes. “As long as you write a good paper, of course, but you get good grades so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“You know I study hard.”

Susan nodded. “I do, but it won’t all be hard work, so we’ll have plenty of time to visit. I hardly see you at all now that you’re at university, and soon you’ll be starting your own career.”

Taylor frowned. “I rarely saw you before that. You were always far away, working.

Susan sighed. “You know I need to work, just like any other adult.”

Taylor leaned forward, oblivious to the startled reaction of the cat as her elbows passed through Squilm. “That may be true, but it might have been better if you had a normal job. Something on Earth or even in-system, so I could have seen you more than two or three weeks a year in the last decade.”

Susan turned her head away, deep lines furrowing her forehead. She examined the console to her left for a few moments, then took a deep breath. She let it out slowly as she turned back to face Taylor. The annoyed feline had vacated Taylor’s lap, her twitching tail just visible behind her seat.

Taylor looked at her in silence.

Susan straightened her shoulders for a moment and let them slump, causing her to bounce against the restraints. “Perhaps you’re right. I should have stayed and got a normal job trapped on Earth.”

Taylor opened her mouth to speak, but Susan held up her hand. “My career grew out of my studies, and I took opportunities when they arose, just like anybody else. However, bit by bit, those opportunities pulled me further and further away from the ones that I loved.”

You made those choices,” Taylor shook her head. “You chose to leave family behind.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Seems a lot like it to me. You weren’t there when Dad died, and he kept calling out for you in his last days. It was horrible. You abandoned both of us.”

Susan’s eyes filled with tears. “You have no idea how upset I was that I couldn’t be there when he died. I came back as soon as I could, but I was too late, and I can never make that right.”

“Well, after Dad died, you could have stayed any time you came back, but you always left again, and it made me feel like I’d lost all of my family.” said Taylor as she unclipped her restraints and pushed up out of her seat. She grasped the headrest with both hands and propelled herself towards the back wall. She caught a hand grip and pulled herself along the wall towards the open doorway.

“Where are you going?” Susan wiped her eyes as she turned in her seat.

Taylor looked back over her shoulder. “I need to feed the cat.”

“You need to what?

Taylor flushed. “Look, Mum, you may be ready to talk, but I need a few minutes alone to think. You’ve had years to talk to me, or would have if you’d been around more, and fifteen minute vid calls on my birthday and Christmas don’t count much for relationship building. This is a lot to take in, and right now that virtual cat is still more real to me than the mother I should have had.”

Susan blinked away tears as she stared at the empty doorway.

 

Echoes

Taylor drifted down the central corridor that ran the length of the ship, her eyes rimmed in red. She slipped off the AR glasses and tucked them into a pocket. Taylor had no particular destination in mind, but she had to leave the bridge. She couldn’t just stay there while her mother was being so reasonable. It even sounded like she was trying to apologise, and Taylor wasn’t sure how to handle that so she had left before she burst into tears.

She didn’t really mean what she said. She vividly recalled her mother’s expression before Taylor disappeared around the corner, Susan’s pale, shocked face ghostly against her short-cropped blond frizz, eyes red as chains of tears escaped into the air.

I’m a horrible daughter.

She didn’t mean to hurt her mother, but what she said was true.

The idea of what a mother could be, what she had dreamed her mother should be, was as insubstantial as vapour. Wishing and wanting couldn’t make it become real. The woman she had just crushed on the bridge was the only mother she would ever have.

Taylor had always been well-behaved during her mother’s brief, infrequent visits and during the vid calls. Deep down she had been afraid that her mother might stop calling, stop coming to see her, that her mother would stop sharing tiny scraps of time with her only child if Taylor misbehaved in any way.

And now Taylor had said that. She might as well head for the nearest airlock, but deforming the ship’s protective field lines in null space would tear the ship apart, she knew that much from her studies. She wasn’t suicidal, but she felt more alone than she had in a long time, and it ached deep down into her bones.

Taylor took a ragged breath and looked down the long central corridor, noticing she had drifted to a stop against the pressure of the air currents flowing towards the front of the ship. Henry was off somewhere in a side corridor, humming a tuneless song closer to the bridge. Taylor stretched out an arm and caught a hand grip. She pulled herself up against the wall and pushed off towards the cargo bay, continuing towards the aft section of the ship.

After each visit and call with her mother, Taylor had simply shut down. At first it had lasted for days, with Taylor refusing to eat or leave her room. Over the years this had transformed into an anaesthetic numbness as she went through the daily motions of life and school on auto-pilot. The pain of loss would gradually fade until the spark returned to her eyes and she would allow herself to smile again.

The psychiatrists had told Taylor that she was normal and deserving of love, just like everyone else. They said there was nothing wrong with her, but what did they know? They had probably grown up with parents, plural. By the time she was ten years and two days old, both of her parents had abandoned her.

 

Her mother had set her course long before, and now their orbits intersected only briefly, like a comet shooting past the Earth in its long elliptical journey.

 

Taylor had watched them lower her father into the cold, hard ground on a bitter autumn day shrouded in sullen grey clouds.

 

Taylor was left to wander the house as her grandparents packed up room after room of memories into plain brown boxes. Echoes filled the empty spaces where her mother should have been, but Susan had left the day after the funeral and was already light-years away.

The neighbours came over to say farewell and promised to take good care of Patches. Taylor hugged the cat tightly in her arms, but no live pets were allowed in the tower where her grandparents lived. She held back tears as she said goodbye to Patches and to her best friend Sarah. Taylor walked away from her empty home holding the warm, wrinkled hand of her grandmother. Her grandfather locked the front door and steered their suitcases towards the waiting levi-taxi. He let Taylor unbuckle her seat belt to look out through the back window as they drove away. Her house blurred into the distance as the seat grew damp. She cried herself to sleep the first night in her grandparent’s apartment, calling out for Patches and her father. They bought Squilm and Taylor’s first set of AR gear the next day.

 

By the time Taylor turned sixteen, only a few of her closest friends could tell when she’d had ‘the call’. However, the aftermath of her mother’s visits were unmistakable. Taylor would withdraw into herself for days until the good-humoured attention of her friends would eventually draw her back out into the warmth of social interaction.

 

She was on Ganymede for her nineteenth birthday call, partway through her second year of studies and far away from her grandparents and childhood friends. After the call she walked to a nearby club and drank five glasses of astro-vina. It had a bitter edge to it, as if they had decanted the synthehol vat too early, or perhaps too late. Students didn’t care too much what they drank, and the bar had to keep up with demand. Exams had recently finished, and the vats hadn’t had time to recover. The liquid had quite a kick and tasted more like the starchy mash they coaxed the synthehol from than any attempt at something drinkable, so it was likely from the dregs of an overused tank.

She made a face as she swallowed another mouthful, trying to imagine it was a glass of wine at her grandparents’ table. She finished off the last glass, paid the bartender and pushed away from the bar on unsteady legs.

Feeling lost and alone, she tried to console herself by letting a Zelani massage her for an hour, then returned to her dorm. Taylor spent half an hour crawling around on the floor of her small room looking for Squilm, then realised that she had left her AR glasses on one of the Zelani’s sensor stalks for a joke, practically useless as they only saw in infrared. She lay down on her bed until she felt a familiar nudge against her gloved hands. Taylor cried until she fell asleep, her body curved protectively around the cat she could feel but couldn’t see, like she was suffering from a selective form of blindness.

In the morning she ached from head to toe from a colossal hangover, but she couldn’t manage a single tear. There wasn’t any point. Her childhood was gone, stolen and devoid of mothering memories. Nothing could make things better, could make her mother go back and fill that void. Her grandparents had tried their best, but it wasn’t the same.

If both her parents had died, not that she wished that, of course, it would have been different. Two of her friends had lost parents, they tried to help, but they didn’t understand. Taylor’s mother had chosen to leave her daughter behind, and Taylor had resigned herself to nibbling away at the crumbs of a shared life, dished out a week or two at a time with long periods of staring at an empty plate in between. And then Susan had invited her on this trip, and Taylor had leapt at the opportunity. It wasn’t about the credits, she would have done the trip anyway, just for the chance at a few more crumbs. But now that she was actually here on the ship with her mother for two whole months, Taylor was afraid.

Afraid of what? Afraid of everything, really. Of being measured, assayed and found barren and uninteresting, like half of the planets her mother explored. Of being not good enough, or perhaps almost-but-not-quite worthy of further attention. Perhaps this was a final act, a last family trip to try to wash away the guilt of not being there in one grand gesture, then Taylor would see her mother no more. Taylor was growing up – almost grown, soon she would be out and working, and she would see even less of her mother. There would be the birthday vid calls, of course, and perhaps Christmas. But what little was left of Susan’s mothering responsibility would be washed away as Taylor moved on with her adult life. She was afraid of all of that, and more. Worst of all, she was afraid of being loved, to have it once again wrenched away after a preciously short time together.

 

Normal kids lived with a parent or two and visited their grandparents; who in their right mind reversed the equation?

 

Taylor drifted into the cluttered cargo bay. Nobody was there, and that suited Taylor’s mood just fine. She spent a few minutes poking around the crates and cubby-holes, then slipped on her glasses. Squilm was sitting on a nearby crate, licking herself.

Taylor floated towards Squilm, arms outstretched, but the cat saw Taylor coming and leapt up onto the ceiling.

“Finally figured things out, have you? Well, at least you can choose which way is up. I’m pretty messed up, even with gravity.”

Squilm walked along the ceiling and out into the corridor, ginger tail waving in the air.

Taylor pushed off of the crate with a sigh and directed herself towards the doorway. The gentle air currents nudged her along the corridor as she drifted back towards the bridge.

 

Middle ground

“Hello, Mum.”

Susan turned around in her chair to find Taylor holding the hand grips on either side of the doorway, her fingers edged in white.

“You came back.”

Taylor drooped her head. “Not that many places to go to, it’s a small ship. Squilm came this way, so here I am.”

Susan looked up at the ceiling. “Ah, there she is. Did she enjoy her meal?”

“What do you mean? She’s just a-”

Susan pressed her lips into a thin line. “Glad you remember she’s not real. But more substantial than I am, apparently.”

Taylor looked up, her eyes red. “I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t fair.”

Susan inclined her head. “I’ve been called worse.”

“Not by me, not until now.”

Susan shook her head. “Well, I’m sure you said a few worse things while you lived with my parents.”

Taylor’s eyes went wide. “They told on me.”

“No, I’m guessing at that part, but it would be normal, I suppose. I know they were worried about you, with you falling into days of silence after the calls and my visits home.”

“I had no idea you knew.”

Susan raised an eyebrow. “No? Well, your grandfather gave me very detailed reports. They didn’t think much of me leaving you with them, you know. I think he wanted me to know what parenting should be like, what I made them go through with you. I don’t know which was worse, him laying it out on the table, or your grandmother trying to pretend everything was okay all the time.”

“So you were spying on me?”

Susan sighed. “No. Nothing like that, but I talked to them every week to see how you were coping.”

Taylor’s cheeks flushed. “But you only called me twice a year, and just the two visits! What the hell?”

Susan put her hands over her face. When she pulled her hands away they were wet, small globules of tears drifting away from her face. “Look, if there are a hundred ways to mess up as a parent, I’ve probably done them all and invented a few more. Not on purpose, mind you. It’s not like you get a parenting manual or anything.”

“There are plenty of parenting books and vids. Hundreds. Thousands. I checked.”

“I didn’t know what to do. Call you more? Call you less?”

“If you’re trying to build a relationship with your daughter, generally more is better.”

Susan sighed. “I spoke about it with your grandparents a lot in the first year after your father died. We experimented, but the null-space vid calls have such a lag when you’re over a hundred light years away unless you’ve got a jump gate nearby, and it was really hard on you. After a while we settled on two calls a year, and in-person visits whenever I could manage it, twice a year at least, but it was hard to do more. We had planned to make the calls more frequent once you were older and the lag wouldn’t be so upsetting. But the two calls a year became a tradition, so it never changed.”

“More is better. Trust me.”

Susan took a slow, deep breath. “Look, Taylor, I never told you any of this before.”

“There’s lots you haven’t told me. You never had the time for it.”

“Let me finish, this is really hard for me.”

Taylor sat in silence as Susan wiped at her eyes.

“I couldn’t do much about how often I came home, but I was committed to it, twice a year. I almost got fired one year by refusing an assignment, just so I could make that second trip home to see you.”

“You could have just quit and come home if your boss was that bad.”

“He wasn’t that bad, really. He understands, even though he doesn’t agree with my approach to the situation. And as for the calls, well, I really had planned to make them more frequent, but I was afraid. Every time I called or visited you would shut yourself off from the world for days afterwards.”

“Do you blame me for that?”

Susan shook her head. “No, I don’t blame you, it’s all my fault. But you reacted so badly, every time. During every call, every visit, you acted so… normal. It spooked me, because I knew-” she sniffed, “-I knew what would happen afterwards. I thought that over time things would get better, but for a while they got even worse.”

“I was a teenager, Mum. Hormonal and moody.”

Susan smiled hesitantly. “True, there was that. But I was afraid that if I called you more often, you might react that way every time. Every call, every visit was so hard on your grandparents, with the emotional wreck I dropped in their laps every time. I didn’t know what to do.”

“We could have talked about it.”

Susan shook her head. “You had to grow up fast without me there, but you weren’t always this mature.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Susan wiped her nose. “I was afraid of having that conversation, about how and when we should communicate, because what kind of mother talks to her daughter about arranged calls and visits?”

“Someone in prison.”

Susan blinked. “I never thought about it like that.”

“It might have been easier that way.”

“I appreciate your assessment of my character, but that wasn’t what I meant.”

You stole my childhood, Mum, and I can’t get it back.

“And I missed out on being a mother to a wonderful daughter from all accounts, so we both lost out.”

The pair sat in silence for several minutes.

“Look, Mum, you could have called more. I wanted you to.”

“You never said that to me, and I was afraid to ask.”

“Why?”

“Because-” Susan sniffed, “Because I was afraid that you might get worse. Sometimes it was weeks before you were close to normal again.”

“You should have tried talking to me-” Taylor flushed.

“But I thought, if we can manage to make it through one more call, one more visit, just pretending to be like a normal family, this time might be better than the last. So you could pretend to be happy to see me when I came.”

“I was always happy to see you, Mum. I just hated it every time you left me behind or hung up the vid.”

“I couldn’t risk it. The little that you allowed me to share of your life had to be enough. Lord knows I didn’t deserve any more, considering how I treated you.”

“That I allowed you-?

“Look, Taylor, nobody is perfect, and everybody is afraid of something. I was terrified of losing you completely. I had to settle for the crumbs, and I recorded every weekly report from your grandparents. I was so proud of you, but I didn’t deserve to be a full part of your life.”

“That’s ridiculous. If you wanted to be part of my life every day, I would have accepted you. You could have quit your job and come home. There would have been some initial adjustments, but we could have been a family.”

“I-” Susan looked at the large view screen, which showed the occasional random shimmery traces of null space. “I couldn’t do that.”

“Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?”

“Both,” Susan sighed. “But I hoped-”

“You hoped what?” Taylor snarled as she pushed off towards her chair. She snagged the headrest and twisted around into the padded seat, then strapped in. Squilm leaped off of the ceiling and landed in her lap.

“I hoped you would understand one day.”

“I don’t understand any of this. I just know that I’ve lived half of my life as an orphan with visiting privileges.”

“I’m sorry, Taylor. I really am. I wish I could change it, go back and be a proper Mum with a job on Earth so I could have been there for you.”

“I wished that a lot too, but it’s not going to happen, it’s far too late now. And there’s no such thing as time travel. I checked into that too.”

“I’m not saying this very well.”

“That’s the understatement of the year. Explain to me why you felt you had to abandon your only child.”

Susan dragged her nails through her hair. “Taylor, why are you taking extra-solar studies? Deep-space sciences?”

“Because I find them interesting.”

“So you left your grandparents to go to Ganymede University, just because you found the topics interesting?”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“Really? There was a university in the city. You could have gone there, they had a lot of the same courses. Your grandparents miss you terribly.”

“But-”

“Tell me the truth, Taylor. Tell me you feel driven to go into space, just like I do. At first I thought it was the thrill of exploration, but after the first dozen planets they are all variations on a theme. And yet, I need to be out there. I get claustrophobic on populated planets, but in a cramped ship or standing on an airless rock I can breathe. Do you understand that?”

“I don’t know-”

Susan sighed. “Sorry, that wasn’t fair, you have your own reasons to get away, stretch your wings, it’s a normal part of growing up. If not Ganymede, then perhaps it would have been Chicago or Sydney, Shanghai or Auckland, it would have been somewhere, anywhere. Maybe you chose Ganymede because your father and I went there too. I have no idea.”

“They have great courses and professors-”

Susan waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter, you have your own reasons. But you’re right, I should have been more responsible and got a job that let me come home at night, or even one on-planet so I could have done normal mothering things like bake cookies and fix your torn clothes, pack your school lunch, put bandages on skinned knees and kiss them better.”

“You would have been bored.”

“I would have been fine,” insisted Susan. “I was young, and selfish. I put my career first, and pretty soon it was too late to change things, and then the irresistible pull of space wouldn’t let me go. But I shouldn’t have left you to be raised by my parents.”

“You left me with Dad at first,” corrected Taylor.

Another tear formed at the edge of Susan’s left eye, then drifted away. “Yes, that’s right, I did – but not for long, not nearly long enough.”

“He died when I was ten, Mum, and I guess we did okay before that. And it’s not like I’m unique, lots of my friends come from mixed family situations and broken homes. Grandma and Grandpa did the best they could after Dad died. They took good care of me.”

“I should have come home then,” sniffed Susan. “And I mean to stay – not just for James’ funeral. I thought about it a lot, but in the end, I couldn’t.”

Taylor released her restraints and pushed away from her chair. She drifted over to her mother and grasped her in a firm hug. “It wasn’t your fault that he died.”

“Maybe not, but I wasn’t there – not for him, not for you, other than those couple visits and calls every year,” Susan sniffed.

“We did OK, Mum,” said Taylor. “We had each other, and he loved you, no matter how far you were away.”

“And here we are now,” sniffed Susan. “Far away.”

“Together,” said Taylor. “For two months – that’s a lot longer than normal. Maybe we can actually get to know each other for a change.”

Susan let go of Taylor and rubbed her eyes. “You really think so?”

“I wasn’t sure at first, but I think now we can give it a try,” Taylor pushed away from her mother’s chair and drifted back towards her seat. She hooked the armrest and slid back into her seat, re-latching the restraints with one hand.

“I’m looking forward to that,” smiled Susan.

 

Henry

“Two light years out from the system, Captain,” called out a male voice, followed closely by the body of the ship’s dark-haired navigator as he floated into the bridge.

He looked at the two women and seeing reddened eyes decided it was best not to hang around. “Forward scans are clear until we approach the system, no gravitational anomalies, we should be dropping out of null space in about an hour,” he called out as he hovered on the edge of the opening, grasping one of the grips with his  brown hand.

“Thanks Henry, let us know if anything comes up,” said Susan, regaining her composure.

“Sure thing, Captain,” said Henry, as he disappeared back through the open doorway. His soft whistle faded as he turned a corner and drifted down a narrow side corridor.

Taylor watched the space that Henry had just vacated and turned to face her mother. “Hey Mum, why are the rest of the crew in sleeping pods? It only takes four days to get to the Perseus Transit from Earth with the jump gates they installed during the war, it’s not a long trip anymore. I mean, the nearest gate is less than fifty light years from the edge of the transit. That’s just over a day for this ship through null space.”

Susan turned back to the console. “Well, you might say they were conserving food.”

“But they went in three days ago,” said Taylor, “and we have enough food for four months!”

Susan wiped a spot of moisture off of her cheek. “Ten thousand light years is a long way from home. If something happened to that jump gate, the next closest one is over twenty days away. But after one day with a moody teenage girl, I think most of them volunteered to go into the pods.”

Taylor’s mouth fell open. “Mum, you can’t be serious! I mean, yeah, there’s an age gap, and I guess I was sulking. But I’m almost twenty. I’m considered an adult on most planets.”

Susan nodded. “Uh-huh. You won’t be twenty for a few more days yet, and you would still be classed as a juvenile on dozens of planets. Actually, I asked them if they wouldn’t mind going into the pods so we could spend some private time together. It’s hard to get that on a small ship, and it’s not like it’s a dangerous trip getting here these days.”

“Henry’s still awake,” Taylor pointed out.

“Regulations,” said Susan. “We always have to have at least two crew out of the pods, in case something happens.”

“Makes sense. How old is he, anyway?”

Susan put a finger to her lips, concentrating. “He’s… um, let me think. He joined the crew just over a year ago, and back then he was… let me see… dammit!”

Susan yelled towards the empty doorway. “How old are you, Henry?”

“Twenty-three!” echoed out of the passageway.

“Is he listening in on us?” Taylor whispered, motioning at the control panel.

“No, he just has great ears, don’t you Henry?” yelled Susan.

“What was that?” came the reply.

“Smart,” nodded Susan. “He knows when to keep himself out of trouble. But you should remember you’re on a small spaceship. No place is very far from anyplace else and nothing is truly private, so be careful what you say. It’s best that you learned that now before the others wake up.”


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