“C’mon, Renny,” Jesmin whispered from the far side of the internal bulkhead. “Don’t get grav-feet now.”
Renny gnawed his lip. There were lots of rules on the transport ship, most of which he was happy to ignore, but the prohibition against going beyond the bulkhead felt different. Like if you got found out, they put you in the detention cells or out an airlock. But that was Jessi out there, with her blond curls and swivel hips and…
Before he could think any harder, Renny wriggled his thirteen-year-old body into the maze of pipes. Some were so hot he could swear he smelled his synthetic coveralls melting, but he was wiry and quick, even in zero-g, and he slithered through the tangle until he popped free on the far side. He grabbed hold of a pipe — cold — before his momentum sent him careening into the blackness.
Renny squinted. “Jessi?”
A soft touch on his arm made the hairs on his neck rise, and he nearly squawked. Instinctive fear of being caught where he shouldn’t be made him bite back the sound, nearly taking his tongue with it.
“Okay, we’ve been here,” Renny whispered. “Now let’s get back.”
“But lessons aren’t for another hour.” Her finger slid up his arm to his neck and curled in his hair.
“And there’s nowhere else to be really,” her warm breath grazed his ear, “private.”
Logic fled in the rush of heat that flooded through him. She smelled of strawberry shampoo and tasted — when her lips touched his — like cinnamon. Jesmin pushed away, leaving him running his tongue over the lingering taste of her.
“Let’s go farther,” she said, drifting into the darkness, her grip on his hand her only anchor. “There’s gotta be a porthole on the outer hull.”
Renny held back. “Why don’t we just, well… y’know, here.” He couldn’t wrap his head around using the word “kiss” in relationship to himself. To her.
“Please, Renny? We haven’t had one glimpse outside this ship since we left Earth, and we’ll be dead before we reach the new home.” The flirtatious tone was gone, replaced by bone-deep longing.
A tiny voice of sanity tried to scream a warning, but he wanted to make her smile. Besides, her fingers were so soft, and it would be so good to taste her again. Maybe seeing stars would bring more kissing. He pushed off from the pipe without consulting his brain.
They floated through the darkness hand in hand. The engines thrummed and Renny imagined he could feel the air vibrating.
A voice reverberated through the empty space. “…two unaccounted for. Security deployed.”
Renny tugged Jessi’s hand. Their bodies collided and he wrapped his arms around her before she ricocheted. They drifted blindly backward. Jessi’s fingers curled in the collar of his coverall, her boldness vanished into silent tremors. He could feel each breath, her heart pounding under her ribs. Renny didn’t need her to tell him she was scared, and somehow her fear lit the fire of his own courage. They hadn’t been found yet. They could still get back unseen. He gave her a quick squeeze.
A moment later, they hit an unseen wall. Renny fumbled for a handhold. Found one. Had they made a sound?
Over the rumble of the engines, a metallic scraping sound rose from somewhere below their feet. Closer. Louder. Had to be a scanner-bot like that kid in electronics was always on about. What had he said their sensor range was? Five meters? More?
It didn’t matter. They had to move.
Renny pushed them away from the wall toward the invisible ceiling. Were there more bots on other walls? There had to be. He struggled to listen over the engine noise.
They rose up, up. Jessi’s hair floated around him like a strawberry-scented cloud. Renny looked overhead. Glimmers of light sparkled in a warped curve. He let out an involuntary breath. Stars. How long had they been on the transport now? Five years, at least, and he’d almost forgotten how beautiful they were.
Drifting closer, he saw the whole section of ceiling was a transparent concave viewport. For a moment he forgot the bots. Forgot security.
He tilted Jessi’s chin with two fingers and her eyes went wide, swimming with starlight. That smile made everything worth it. They floated into the viewport’s cavity.
For a moment, Renny couldn’t look away from Jessi’s face, but then he saw past her. To the planet hanging like an emerald and sapphire marble behind her shoulder. The red and black bruise torn through China, Southeast Asia, India. The once-white clouds now a sickly shade of molded bread and ash. The planet they were supposed to have left far behind. Earth.
Now, Renny understood the prohibition. He couldn’t let Jesmin see this. Couldn’t let the stars and the hope leave her eyes. Before she could turn around, he gauged the spot where they had passed through the bulkhead and shoved off the glass as hard as he could.
They reached the pipes faster than he’d expected, and nearly bounced off, but this time Jessi was the one to react. She caught hold and thrust Renny ahead of her the same moment he heard the telltale scrape of another scanner-bot.
He contorted his way through the maze and was ready for Jessi when she flew out the other side. They glided out of the maintenance room and into an empty corridor, then ducked into an alcove where they caught their breath.
Jessi, still radiant with the spell of starlight, pulled his head down and kissed him full on the lips. “Thank you,” she said. “I needed to see, or I’d have lost my mind.” She tilted her head. “I wonder how far we are now from Earth?”
Renny couldn’t bring himself to answer. Instead, he kissed her back, and tried, for the moment, to forget.
About the Author
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and the Grantville Gazette’s Universe Annex. You can find her at wordsofbirch.com.