This short story originally appeared in Jump Point 9.05.
June 2544, Terra system. Three years into the First Tevarin War.
“Impressive, isn’t it?”
“That the biggest one we got?” I asked with eyes glued to a massive ship sporting the largest gun I’d ever seen.
“Not even close. Our biggest ships don’t fly in atmo, so we keep ‘em docked at space stations all across Terra.”
“How much bigger are they?”
“Like floating cities. Every recruit that leaves with us today goes straight to one waiting just out of atmo. That means there’s one watching over you right now, protecting you from the Tevs. You interested in flying?”
I glanced at the young Navy starman. A massive Invictus recruitment banner hung over her head. Terra’s afternoon sun glinted off a button on her freshly pressed uniform. I looked away and shrugged, “Only ever done it once.”
I nervously shifted a bag of groceries from one hand to the other, thinking about being hurried aboard that first ship during the Tevarin orbital bombardments of Idris IV. I’d always hoped to one day leave Idris but never expected it to be like that. Crammed into a suffocatingly crowded cargo hold next to mom as she cried hysterically over Florin’s decision to stay and fight. Nothing had been the same since.
At the refugee camp, mom barely ate and spoke less. She spent most of her time staring vacantly at the horizon or sleeping. A doctor put her on meds that helped, but things got bad again after we moved into long term housing in New Austin. Mom started having unpredictable mood swings that vacillated between angry, sad, and completely zoned out on meds. Making matters worse, she became extra vigilant about my whereabouts, worried we would be separated if the Tevarins ever launched another surprise attack. I reassured her we were far from the front lines, but that didn’t really help much as we constantly argued over the smallest things. I religiously watched the news for any positive update about the war on Idris, hoping that something, anything, would break her out of her mood.
“Well,” said the starman, regaining my attention, “sounds like the perfect opportunity to step aboard your second ship. I’m leading a tour of the beauty you’ve been admiring in a few minutes if you’re interested.”
“I’ve got my groceries.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the starman said while glancing at the bag’s meager contents. “Sure we can keep it safe for you while you’re onboard. How about I save you a spot, just in case?”
I glanced at the ship again, wondering what it must look like inside, and then nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you Atsuko. I’m Starman Marinos,” she beamed a smile. “Just one spot? There a friend or a parent that might want to join you?”
I lowered my eyes and shook my head. Mom didn’t even know where I was right now. Not after I stormed out after our latest fight. It began when I literally dragged her out of bed for the one piece of news that should have cheered her up. Florin was alive. He could be clearly seen in a news vid about freedom fighters on Idris IV. He was part of a group calling themselves the Greys, homegrown rebels who hid in the Corsti mountains outside of Tanys. In the vid, Rachel Locke, their leader, implored people to do anything and everything possible to save their own system from suffering Idris’ fate. Florin stood among the soldiers stationed behind Locke. His face aged a decade and visibly scarred, but proudly letting us know that he was still alive.
I pointed to the image of him frozen on the vidscreen, “Mom, look….”
Mom looked at Florin and then walked back to her room, “Not like we’ll ever see him again. I told him staying there would only get him killed.”
Her response crushed me and I asked why she didn’t see this as good news? That’s when the screaming started. After several minutes of mom ranting about how it was selfish of Florin to abandon us to play hero, I couldn’t take it anymore. What Florin was doing was brave, but nothing I said would change her mind, so why try anymore?
I raced out of our apartment complex and wandered the streets. It felt freeing to do what I wanted for once without worrying if it might anger her. Walking without a destination cleared my head, but deep down I knew the only place I had to go was the one place I couldn’t stand anymore, home. I wandered into a store to grab a few essentials then decided to take the long route back. Along the way, I saw a stream of people following massive Invictus banners announcing a shipyard full of the Navy’s latest ships. Curious, I followed. I’d seen news vids of Navy ships, but never one up close.
“And how old are you?” Starman Marinos asked, bringing me back to the present.
“How old are you, Atsuko? Technically no one under 17 can take the tour alone.”
“Good, good,” Starman Marinos tapped on her tablet. “And you’re from here, right?”
“I’m sorry,” the starman stiffened and lowered the tablet to look at me. “Were you evacuated here with your family?”
I just glanced at my feet. Not sure how to explain that the mother I knew and loved never really left Idris. “My brother stayed behind to fight. He’s with the Greys.”
“Really? That’s incredibly brave of him. You must be proud.”
“Wish I would’ve stayed with him. Would’ve done more good than what I’m doing here.”
“We all have our part to play.”
“It’s just… I wish I could do more.”
“Well, that’s what Invictus is all about. We’re here today not only to show off the Navy’s most incredible ships and tech but to help people figure out how they can best support the war effort.” Starman Marinos hit more buttons on her tablet. “Have you given any thought to how you’d like to help?”
“I mean, a little. Don’t really know what I could do though.”
“Don’t worry, I can help you figure that out. We have a handful of simulators set up to test your skillset.”
“Really?” I remembered Florin had used a mining simulator at a job fair once and spent days talking about how real it felt. “Always wanted to try one of those.”
“Let me just reserve one for you,” Starman Marinos hit a few more buttons and then smiled. “Come on. I’ll let you jump to the front of the line so you get a good view of everything and can ask me any questions you want.”
“Okay,” I said while following her past a long line of people waiting for the tour to begin.
“I think you’re gonna really like the tour. You’ll get to see exactly what it’s like to spend your day as a Navy starman.”
I nodded, imagining how proud my brother would feel knowing that I had joined the fight against the Tevs. He understood the importance of doing everything possible to help save Humanity, even if it meant leaving those you loved. Then I thought of mom sitting at home alone, probably furious that I wasn’t back already. Hopefully she made some lunch, though I doubt she cooked anything for herself. At least there were a few meal bars in the cupboard.
“You okay on time?” Starman Marinos asked, noticing my slowing pace.
“Good, because I think once you see what a Navy ship looks like inside, you’ll never want to leave.”
At the front of the line, Starman Marinos reached for the bag of groceries but something caused me to instinctively pull it back.
“It’s ok, I’ll have Starman Haas personally watch over them,” she said while waving Starman Haas towards us.
“Actually, I should go.”
“You sure? I thought you wanted to see the ship.”
“Then let’s go. The only thing stopping you is yourself.”
“I wish that was true.” With that, I turned and started to walk away. Faced with the reality of signing up for the military, I’d realized something surprising.
“Atsuko,” Starman Marinos called after me, “I thought you wanted to help save Humanity?”
I did, but first I had to try and help save mom.