My friend Andy’s perched on the back of his friend Gabe’s couch, and I can tell from the way he’s pulling on his ear that he’s formulating a speech. The others don’t notice because they’re watching the blippy vid feed Andy’s other friend, Lora, patched in from Earth, where a guy in a plaid coat is saying words like “refugees” and “quarantine” before some other guy in another plaid coat takes the screen to suggest we shouldn’t be allowed to land at all.
“Leave them in orbit and they’ll be dead in a year,” the interviewer pushes, pretending to defend us. His hair shines like one of the beetles that took down our crops in Year 20.
Plaid Jacket’s response is full of words like “choices” and “consequences.”
All I know is we made no choice. We’ve been heading back to Earth almost as long as we’ve been alive. We don’t remember the stars in our parents’ eyes — we’ve only ever seen the reflection of a planet they thought we’d never touch.
Mom was one of the few people on board who never seemed to mind the change in plan. Beatrice, she used to say, drawing out the syllables of my name like I was some kind of Greek goddess, wait until you smell rain.
Before the interviewer can respond to the Earthen dudes who basically want to murder us, Andy flips off the vid.
“And now,” he says, and I can practically see the speech gelling in his brain, hardening into something delectable and strange, “on the eve of our deliverance or doom, four prodigal wanderers shall engage in a battle of hide and seek.”
Andy does not half-ass his speeches.
Gabe hops up beside Andy so fast that his flop of brown curls goes airborne for a second. He’s tall in that muscular, wiry way, his skin light brown. “To the death?” he whispers, clapping a hand on Andy’s shoulder, and I can see why Andy likes him. The joke lands, though it shouldn’t. It’s too near, but even Lora cracks a smile.
Andy’s been my best friend since before life kicked us out of kid-dom, but I always compartmentalized myself from the rest of his chosen crew. It’s not because I’m in love with him — I’m not — it’s just the way I am.
Andy is larger than life. There’s only room for one of him.
Still, sitting in this room now makes me wonder who else I missed being friends with.
“No,” Andy says, returning Gabe’s half-hug but not his smile. “To the life.”
Hide and seek isn’t the obvious activity for tonight. We should be panicking. I should be panicking. But it’s like my brain decided to deal with disaster by installing a survival-mode filter. Fear is still there, but it’s at arm’s length.
Right now, hide and seek feels like just the thing.
I draw the short straw. I count to a hundred.
And then, I’m seeking.
Finding Andy will be easy. I know all his safety zones. I’m absolutely going to find him on the recreation level, where he’ll let me poke around in the silence, maybe rustle some leaves to scare me before jumping out from behind a tree. We’ll laugh, maybe lie on the grass for a few minutes and talk the way we used to, before seeking out the others.
I take the utility ladder up two decks to the rec level. It’s really an Andy thing to do, flaunting the rules like that, but who’s going to stop me? Earth’s about to decide our fate. There are more important things to worry about than breaking a regulation or five.
I’ve always wanted to do this. I even stop halfway up, give the old Starfinder a good once-over. It might be my last chance. The open levels of the residential balconies, the shining pathways of the railings gleaming in the low glow of the emergency lighting. It’s been on “emergency” for months, and it’s so dim I can’t even see the crop deck. There might as well be an ocean below me, for all I can tell.
I guess they thought putting crops below residences would make a soothing view. By the time I came along, it just served as a reminder of all that went wrong.
The rec level used to have window ceilings, so people could stroll up for a peek at the stars. I remember sitting here with my mom on one of her handmade quilts, looking out at the wilderness of space, her hand in mine. They didn’t shut the lead panels until the radiation shields started to fail.
The rec level has lots of stuff that doesn’t work anymore — arcade games they shut down to conserve power, VR modules they shut down to conserve power, and even a fountain that used to pump actual water, which wasn’t a failure so much as a really, really bad idea.
But the rec level also has a playground. Nothing to shut down there. It’s a maze of wooden bridges, spiral slides, a tire swing, and a network of ladders that reaches halfway to the ceiling.
I’m expecting to find Andy here.
Instead, I find Gabe.
He’s not even hiding. He’s swinging across the rope course like it takes no effort at all, catching one after the other like he’s done it a hundred times. His curls take to the air behind him, giving him this ethereal, haloed look.
“I bet this is harder to do on Earth,” he says, mid-swing.
Gabe must have superhero senses, if he heard me come in. That or he was waiting on Andy. I fold my arms, trying to look unsurprised. “Why? We have gravity.”
One system that, thankfully, didn’t fail.
“Yeah. Lora thinks they got the numbers wrong though.”
“That would not surprise me.”
The words taste bitter, like betrayal. Yeah, they screwed up. I know they’ve done their best to make it right.
Knowing is one thing. Feeling’s another. Mom used to say that.
Gabe swings to the platform and straight onto the slide, like it’s nothing. The rope flies back to its spot, sending the others swinging wildly as it ricochets against the platform. Gabe rockets down the slide, hands in the air, and lands with a puff of dust on the mat at the bottom.
“Your turn,” he says.
“I’m supposed to be seeking.”
“I’m supposed to be hiding.”
Again, it strikes me that I understand why Andy chose Gabe. They’ve got similar views on supposed to. But there’s something about Gabe that feels light. Like if you hang with him long enough, you’ll start to believe everything’s going to be okay.
It’s a lie, but I don’t hold it against him.
Gabe gets up from the mat, his palms burnished with stripes of red from gripping the ropes. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll race you.”
Andy had always liked rules, the same way he liked lab experiments. How far would a rule bend? What caused it to break? And, perhaps most importantly, what would happen when it did?
Running outside Designated Recreation Level? Gentle reminder.
Picnic on the crop deck? Twenty-three-minute lecture on the fragile ecosystem of the Starfinder. (Facts no longer applicable.)
Use of lab equipment for brewing moonshine (which Andy branded as “starshine”)?
Hardcore guilt from his father.
“You’ve got to get ready for life on Earth,” Dad said. He wore his blueberry-toned jumpsuit, his unlaced boots forgotten in the wake of the angry call he’d received from the guys who’d found Andy’s starshine in the lab. “We didn’t come this far for you to dabble in delinquency.”
“You’re right,” Andy said. “We came this far to swing the universe’s biggest u-turn.”
Dad bent to tie his laces before responding. When he straightened, the angry purple color had drained from his face. “They’re guaranteed to see our return as a failure. Let’s not prove them right.”
We’ve been conserving oxygen for such a long time that it feels wrong to pump my lungs so hard. And maybe we shouldn’t be running — maybe Earth will turn us away, and all we’re doing is shortening our lives.
Gabe beats me to the slide, but I’m right on his heels, and we land together on the mat in a pile of limbs. He helps me up, both of us gasping with effort and laughter, and I’m surprised when he reaches out to wipe a tear from my cheek. I didn’t even feel it fall.
“Better find Andy before he tries to land this hunka junk on Earth by himself,” Gabe says.
The idea of it freezes my smile in place, because it’s exactly the sort of thing Andy would do. Better a prison on Earth than buried alive in orbit, I can picture him saying, and I know Gabe’s thinking the same thing because he doesn’t waste any time in heading for the door.
We swing through the kitchens, but I don’t really expect to find him there. Gabe gives the place a cursory glance, and I bend to check under the sinks, but we know he’s not here.
Tonight, Andy’s going to do better than that.
We breeze through the cafeterias and through our old classrooms. There are dozens, built for generations that were supposed to expand, to carry humanity into the stars. We only ever used four, maybe five.
I know about museums, mainly from heist flicks, so I know that one day the Earthens may land this ship in a museum-friendly spot or bring rocketloads of tourists up here to walk through our failure. If the gravity boosters keep chugging, they’ll find everything as it ever was.
Andy is not in the classrooms.
“What if Andy is trying to land?” I ask, and Gabe shrugs, because the answer is that this vessel can in no way handle a dramatic entrance into Earth’s atmosphere. We’d be fried and quartered.
We head for the pilot’s dome.
Andy isn’t there. Lora is.
If Gabe and I were being reckless by running and sucking up oxygen, Lora’s taken the whole “we might die soon” thing an extra step.
She’s opened the lead-lined window panels. They’re our greatest defense against radiation now that the shields are down.
I can’t bring myself to care.
Earth fills our sky. Earth is the sky. I’d been picturing us farther away, though of course that’s a ridiculous thought now. “In orbit” means there, lassoed to the planet’s gravity. But in my imagination, Earth looked much smaller.
There has been no basis for comparison.
Lora is silhouetted before the gemstone planet, her jeans loose, her multi-ringed fingers tucked halfway into her pockets. “I’m pretending it’s the new world,” she says. “The one our great-great-grandchildren were supposed to find.”
My eyes are watering, even with the sun off to the side. “It’s so bright.”
“We thought Andy might try to land the ship,” Gabe says.
Lora hasn’t turned toward us, hasn’t wrenched her eyes from Earth. She licks her lips. “So did I. Then I got up here, and I thought, ‘What’s a little extra radiation on a Saturday night?’”
“That’s the spirit,” Gabe says, and it’s not mocking at all. I’m thinking I’ve been viewing this situation wrong. Andy might be the heart of my world, but it’s Gabe who holds this little family together.
“And then I saw that,” Lora says. Her rings catch the glare of the sun as she points, sending sparks of light skittering around the room.
From the way Gabe starts, I can tell he hadn’t seen the rocket either. A pill-shaped capsule, rising from Earth in a determined arc. A shuttle, like a fleck of glitter drifting beside a whale.
For a second I think it’s a missile, on its way to annihilate us.
“They wouldn’t come all this way to tell us no,” Lora says. “Would they?”
A Starfinder passenger wouldn’t. An Earthen? Well, who’s to say?
“We’ve checked the obvious places,” Gabe says. “We’d better find him before they get here.”
“He wouldn’t go to cargo,” Lora says. Her tone is flat, like she doesn’t want to entertain the horror of it.
Gabe’s staring out at the capsule, hands balled into fists, and all I can think is how much time we spend wondering what Andy won’t do.
So I think back to what Andy did do. I think about the blanched horror on his face when he came to get me, the way Mom hugged me so hard when she saw him, because she knew. The way I shook her off, embarrassed, and how much I wish for one more hug, just one, with her soft lemony hair brushing my cheek. I’d hug her back this time, squeeze her so hard that she’d walk down to cargo with no doubt of exactly how much I love her.
No. I couldn’t hug her like that and then let her go. That was the point, I guess.
Outside, the capsule rises, rises.
I know where Andy is.
Andy’s dad was not a middle-of-the-night adventure kind of a person. He was a systems engineer, a serious man who kept serious hours.
So when he woke Andy in the dead of Starfinder’s artificial night, Andy had a feeling that rules were about to be broken.
Andy was more of a…. Well, he didn’t know what he was, exactly, except that it wasn’t going to be an engineer. Poet. Performance artist. Entrepreneur. There might not be room for such a thing on Starfinder, but Earth would be a new story.
Dad marched through the ship, and it occurred to Andy that the good old Starfinder was quieter tonight than usual. No nighttime maintenance workers changing shift, no insomniacs out for a stroll. Andy had avoided these eyes often enough in his midnight wanderings to feel a prickle of unease at their absence.
When they reached the CO2 filter containment room, Dad’s hand hesitated on the door. Authorized Personnel Only, the sign read, and Andy wasn’t Authorized.
Andy moved Dad gently aside and opened the door himself. “There. I broke the rule.”
Dad gave him a grateful look.
Andy wasn’t an engineer, but he knew what it had to mean when those particular needles on those particular machines all dropped to red. The majority of Starfinder’s plants were long dead. The passengers still breathed. And now, the backup filters were failing, with Starfinder just now bumbling past the invisible plane of Mars’ orbit. Nearly a year out from Earth.
“We can’t get back,” Dad said.
“How long do we have?” Andy asked.
Dad’s eyes were rimmed in red. “Wrong question.”
We haven’t been in Andy’s cabin since that night. It’s the same utilitarian setup as the rest, but it feels wrong now. The cabinets are neatly shut, dishes forgotten on the rack beside the sink as if someone might return to put them away.
Andy’s sitting on his bed, cross-legged. His paintings cover the walls and ceiling, the paper peeling at the corners. It’s abstract stuff, blurred pinpoints of color. I’ve always thought he meant it as an answer to the black vacuum of space.
“We’re still breathing.” His body is folded in on itself, a question mark of a boy. His hands are on his face. “They’re coming to save us, and we’re breathing.”
We are. I think of how my lungs burned on the rec level, though, and how Starfinder’s been feeling stuffy for weeks. If they decide to leave us up here, I can sense the time would be short.
“How many more could I have chosen?” he says.
Gabe’s looking at the floor — he had an older brother — and Lora’s studying the paintings like they might have an answer.
I sit on the bed beside Andy. “They’re coming for us. We should meet them at the airlock.”
Andy pulls at his ear, like he does when he’s preparing a speech. But all he says is, “I’m staying.”
“The captain goes down with his ship?” I think I meant it to come out like a joke, but the words slice into the thickening air, sharp enough to wound.
Andy looks at me, and it strikes me that he’s startled to find I know him that well. “Something like that.”
Lora and Gabe are frozen where they entered. Though I can feel their eyes on us, I don’t look their way, and neither of them speaks. I wish I could hear their thoughts — whether they think Andy’s right — but all I know is what I think.
Andy is not the captain of this ship. He’s not even the captain of this group. He didn’t ask to be chosen. He’s just a survivor, like us.
I reach for the cluster of blankets at the foot of his bed, and a fold of cardinal-red fabric peeks out of the pile like it’s reaching for me, too. Eyes stinging, I drag the quilt to my lap.
And all at once, Mom is there beside me, sewing patches she collected from around the ship, laughing as she tells the story of Andy’s attempt to climb the res-deck rails as a toddler. Each quilt is a web of tales, childhood pranks and sacrifice, mischief and friendship, and sometimes even tragedy.
I unfold the quilt, running my finger along the stitches Mom sewed with her own hands, and all at once my brain’s emotion filter fails, just another one of Starfinder’s doomed systems, and my shoulders are heaving along with Andy’s wracking sobs.
Mom is with us, and her presence breaks the spell. Lora drifts to Andy’s other side, and Gabe extends both hands to us. Andy takes one. I take the other.
I unfold the quilt, as colorful as the paintings above, and Lora helps me wrap it around Andy’s shoulders.
Mom told the story of Starfinder with these quilts. The story of us.
“Let’s do this,” I say.
To the life.