The Soran spaceliner shut down its fusion engines, choking the white fire from its thrusters as it drifted into an open bay in the spaceport. Propelled by its gravitics, the hulking, yellow civilian vessel guided itself into perfect position. Station-side gravitics and lumionics held the ship stationary, and mechanical gates at the sides of the dock rotated to face the craft, telescoping into place along eight points across the ship’s port and starboard sides.
After a half hour of unloading passengers, Atara and Xannissa passed a lumionic sign warning of possible variable gravity as they crossed one of the dock’s boarding platforms. Wearing their usual Navy standard uniforms, they moved with the crowd as it flowed toward the heart of the Kardann International Spaceport in orbit above Earth. Behind them and visible through the OPEL windows, the spaceliner’s clean hull shined in Sol’s white light. The pair carried nothing with them except their Accellus 4.
The crowd was a homogenous mixture of all six human races. Peach and brown-skinned Terrans walked beside gray-skinned Elestans, blue Zelnarans, lavender Larissians, blood red Yerans, and green Exans. The six races of the Sister Worlds had coexisted peacefully long before the rise of Mirida, and nothing could ever change that now or in the future.
The two left the gate and emerged in the terminal, meeting a mighty river of bodies flowing perpendicularly to them in both directions. Atara took the lead and held Xannissa’s hand, trying to stay together despite the surge of pedestrians. The noise of scuffling and clacking feet and loud voices were drowned out only by the terminal’s public-address system that announced imminent arrivals and departures.
It was almost a complete certainty that everyone in the terminal and station was wearing some form of REMASS clothing. Many clothed themselves loosely—some heavily and some thinly. There were civilians, both male and female, that wore bodysuits as well with some more or less form-fitting than others, a few even defeating modesty. And then there were those who took advantage of public decency laws which allowed males to expose everything above the waist and females everything below.
“Was it this crowded the last time we came through here?” Xannissa asked through her neural interface.
“I don’t believe,” Atara thought, clutching Xannissa’s hand. “Then again, it’s a planet of a hundred billion.”
“And a system of five-fold more.”
Beyond the terminal, they waded toward a balcony like it was the shore, and it overlooked a shopping area that stretched out beneath them. Xannissa anchored her forearms to the railing and leaned against it, watching the people meander in and out of stores and restaurants.
“We can wait here for a bit and see if the crowd thins out,” Xannissa said after facing Atara, despite not needing to move her lips.
“Let’s see,” Atara told her, still unwilling to talk above the noise.
“I know I keep saying this,” Xannissa thought, watching a small child bouncing before his parents, “but I wish Aesho would retire.”
“She’s been the armada admiral at least as far back as Semarah,” Atara said, propping her buttocks against the railing, crossing her arms, and staring into the incessant influx.
“She was one when your mother was alive!” Xannissa added, her transmitted voice filled with vexation. “And they made you quit commanding starships. Talk about double standards.”
Atara sighed and said, “That’s just the way things are.”
“Man.” Xannissa shut her eyes and shook her head. The Elestan thought for a moment, watching the little boy trip and fall, only to stand back up on his feet and keep frolicking like nothing had happened. She turned to Atara and thought, “You’ve done a lot of good as an instructor, maybe even more than captain.”
“You really think so?” Atara asked, turning to her friend. The crowd had dried up some.
“I do,” Xannissa vocalized. “And Naret is proof of that.”
“She still has a lot to learn.”
“Don’t we all? I mean, if you’re not learning…”
Xannissa smiled. She left the railing and straightened her body. “She’ll have the opportunity to build more experience.” She brought her right wrist up and adjusted the end of her sleeve with her left hand before saying, “Shall we go?”
It was Xannissa who seemed to be taking the lead as the pair descended toward the shopping area. Scents of hot brunch wafted from a café as they passed, beckoning Xannissa who had yet to eat breakfast toward the establishment. Atara stopped her halfway through the door saying, “We’re eating lunch soon, right?” Xannissa faced her, sighed, and rubbed her flat abdomen as it ached.
“Fine,” Xannissa huffed. They walked away from the café and continued on toward the station’s core.
They caught a tram to the surface departures area of the station. Shuttles passed through large airscreens and parked next to loading zones. Each zone corresponded to one surface station located on a different continent. The two avoided these, heading instead to the more expensive and direct private cabs. A bright red sports model flashed a lumigraph with “CETALO” written in bold text. They approached the craft, and its top and sides were recalled via a rapid recovery system not unlike that in Accellus 4, revealing the gravidyne’s dark, luxury interior. Atara sat down on the leather front left seat and Xannissa on the right. Once they were inside, the top and sides were rebuilt by REMASS, and OPEL panels surrounded them.
“Greetings, ladies,” the car’s registered Subnet personality told them in a smooth male voice as the gravidyne rose from its parking spot. “Xannissa, I notice you have a reservation at the Sasrin Resort near the Capitol Complex. May I take you there?”
“That’s it,” Xannissa told the integrated assistant. The vehicle crawled through the station’s interior air, passed through an airscreen, and then directed itself toward the planet and accelerated.
“Would you care for some music?” the IA asked. Xannissa looked at Atara, waiting for an answer.
“Why not?” Atara asked. As the smooth music played, Atara turned to Xannissa who was still looking her way and asked, “How is Lieren doing?”
“You mean about the Akkain station? She still hasn’t been able to talk to her father.”
“At least we know he’s all right.”
“The poor girl lost her mother some years back,” Xannissa told her. “I don’t know the whole story, but she was in the Defense Force.”
“I hope she can reunite with him,” Atara said. She rested her left hand on her face. “They seem like they only have each other.”
The sports gravidyne streaked through the upper atmosphere and joined the skylane traffic flow. It was about mid-morning in the western hemisphere. The IA piloted the car to the hotel’s busy main entrance. Fashionable guests walked in and out of the automatic doors, to and from expensive aerospace gravidynes that they either owned or, like Atara and Xannissa, had rented. Once their gravidyne stopped, the top of the vehicle retreated, and the pair stood from the craft. Xannissa’s fare was paid electronically as soon as the cab reached the destination, and the gravidyne departed as soon as the two walked away.
The pair strode through the automatic doors and across the wooden floor of the ornate lobby decorated with metallic statues of dignitaries and at least one instance of stasis art. Four naked performers—two male and two female and very attractive—stood together on a pedestal, frozen in lumionic stasis. It was understood that stasis artists earned a sizable salary, but at the cost of being absent from reality for hours, days, even weeks. Shallow pools separated parts of the lobby; their undisturbed surfaces like solid glass. Leafy trees with sprawling branches shaded open pavilions built atop the water from the sunlight streaming down from the skylight hundreds of meters up. Exposed corridors flanked by rooms upon rooms formed the walls of this great atrium.
An Elestan woman with her black hair in a bun behind her head leaned on the reception desk. She wore the Navy’s enlisted formal uniform consisting of a white shawl draped over her shoulders and concealing a vest underneath. Her bare, neutral gray buttocks and genitals were clearly visible as she wore no bodysuit. When she departed the desk, her black tie hung down her front with its inverted tip swaying above her navel which sparkled from the small, clear gemstone within. Giant hooped earrings hung from each of her earlobes, and hair fell to either side of her face like Xannissa’s.
“No way,” Xannissa mumbled to herself. “Cylenna?” The woman’s eyes had jumped from place to place, then landed squarely on Xannissa. The beaming woman shouted to them as they approached.
“Xanni!” Before Xannissa could properly greet her, Cylenna smooshed their clothed bosoms together, wrapping her arms around Xannissa’s back.
“It’s been far too long,” Cylenna said after releasing Xannissa from her grip. She then followed up with a smooch on Xannissa’s right cheek.
“I’m shocked you haven’t gotten yourself killed yet,” Xannissa told her, rubbing her hand on her face and showing a wry smile. “Anyway, what are you all dressed up for?” she asked despite Cylenna’s relative nakedness.
“Metro Aero,” Cylenna told them. She looked to Atara and said, “How’s the captain doing?”
“Just surprised to find you here,” Atara said. “Other than that, I’m glad to be away from Lanan.” She paused before stating, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear the uniform.” Her rank insignia denoted a master chief petty officer and strike pilot.
“Right?” Xannissa laughed. “It’s like she’s just as proud of that as she is of her own body.”
“Oh? If that’s what you think,” she retorted, knocking away the tie and positioning her hands to unfasten her vest.
“No, no, keep your shirt on,” Xannissa told her older sister, looking over her shoulder to see if anyone was staring at them, but everyone across the lobby appeared to be absorbed in their own worlds. Cylenna grinned and brought her arms down. “So,” Xannissa continued, “Metropolitan Aerospace?”
“Yeah. You’re not here for that?”
“I haven’t kept up with racing in so long,” Xannissa told her. “But it gives us another thing to do.”
“Oh, okay,” Cylenna said, masking her disappointment. “You two just here on vacation?” As she spoke, Cylenna spotted a familiar Terran male walk through the autodoors. Lumionic sunshields hovered before his eyes.
“Something like that,” Xannissa told her, reluctant to mention Aedan.
“Well, it looks like your company is here, so I should be leaving,” Cylenna told them. She squeezed between the two friends and slapped her younger sister’s hyperdermal laminated buttock as she passed.
“Leaving already?” the Terran shouted to her. “I just got here!”
“You can’t keep up with me,” she told him, guffawing as she pranced through the autodoors.
“Older sisters,” said the man walking up to them while shaking his head. His short hair was brown and his skin a shade darker than Atara’s. His casual dress belied the true nature of his life as a serious business executive.
“Kyle!” Atara said, hugging her younger brother as his sunshields disappeared.
“Great to see you, Atara!” he told her with his arms around her. After they released each other, he asked them in his masculine voice, “Have you two checked in?”
“We were about to before we were stopped by Petty Officer Deathwish,” Xannissa said.
“I see,” Kyle told them. He followed the pair to the reception desk, and to the two women’s astonishment, paid for their week-long stay in advance plus extra. He then followed the pair up to their room high above the lobby.
Xannissa sat across from Atara and Kyle in a booth around an oval table. On one side was an OPEL panel with an uninterrupted view of the outside, revealing a lustrous skyline. Distant duralithic monoliths towered above the city, brushing against the rolling cumulus clouds and reflecting the sun’s blinding light. Their hotel, faded by the atmosphere between them, was among the buildings shooting up from the ground. Currents of gravidynes confined to skylanes crisscrossed the air. Below them was a sprawling urban landscape with many of the roofs topped with gardens, greenery, or windows. The capitol district was the most pristine urban area on the planet. If not for the telltale signs of an abundant population, it would have appeared like no one had ever lived here.
On the other side was the dark restaurant. The majority of the light was from the ribbon of OPEL windows wrapping around the outer walls. The restaurant spanned multiple levels, and the interior dipped down into a secluded depression where a party could slip away and enjoy a private meal and drinks. The atmosphere from the waiters and the music to the walls, ceilings, floors, and greenery boasted high class. Other than the music, the air was filled with the clanking of glass and plates, the clinging of silverware, and the mumbling of low voices.
Atara and Xannissa wore their formal uniforms. They sat with their exposed legs crossed and their hands in their laps. Kyle swapped his casual clothing for a suit more appropriate for the venue using his civilian REMASS.
“When is Aedan coming?” Kyle asked, holding his steaming cup of fragrant coffee and looking toward the restaurant’s interior.
“He’s nearing the deadline on a project,” Xannissa told him, “so he can’t leave until this afternoon.
“I see,” he said. He took a sip from his cup. “If we had him, and if I could have grabbed Cylenna, it’d be like our good ol’ high school days.”
“How would Talme feel about you wanting to grab my sister?” Xannissa asked in jest. Kyle set his drink down, bursting into laughter with Xannissa.
“She knows I like Elestan women!” he shouted. “That’s why I married her.”
“Keep your voice down,” Atara told her brother, patting him on the shoulder.
“So, yeah. Speaking of, I probably should return to my wife after this.”
“How are the children?” Atara asked him.
“Sara just turned nineteen,” Kyle said. “Jess and Rin are in high school now.”
“Are they all you have?” Xannissa asked.
“So far,” Kyle said, lifting his cup and taking another sip. “When they clear the nest, we’ll think about raising another upbringing. This time Talme wants Terrans, and at least one son.”
“That’s sweet!” Xannissa said. “We’ll have a little Kyle Junior!”
“Don’t start!” Kyle laughed again. He cut his laughter short as the waitress returned with their food. She left them with three steaming plates and a couple of cold saucers with condiments. The three lifted their utensils and dined upon their lunch.
“Sara wants to join the Military,” Kyle said before taking his first bite. He chewed, swallowed, and then continued, “She reminds me of mom.”
“What’s today?” Atara asked, halting her hands. She looked at her brother with concern.
“Oh-five-two-one,” he told her. “The anniversary. I thought about it at the office this morning before coming here.”
“This year is the first time I haven’t thought about it,” she told them, slowly slicing her food. “I don’t know how I should feel about that.”
“It’s probably a good thing,” Xannissa told her. “It’s been, what? Seventy-seven years?”
“Yeah,” Atara said softly. “You’re probably right.”
Kyle’s boundless generosity, other than making him a subpar businessman in the eyes of his peers, compelled him to pay for the meal and for Atara and Xannissa’s fare for the trip back to the hotel. It wasn’t long after that Xannissa received a call from Aedan saying that he was free for the day and that he would bring a gravidyne to pick them up. From there, the new trio traveled to Blue Road, a shopping and entertainment district spanning the tops of seven close towers.
When the gravidyne landed in the bay, Aedan dashed out and helped Xannissa—in standard again—out of the front seat. She gave him a brief look of subtle annoyance, implying that she was perfectly capable on her own, but she kindly took his hand and rose from the car, smiling at him. Aedan was also a Terran. His jet black hair, parted on the side, glistened in the lights of the lumionics and OPEL panels, and his facial hair was well-kept. He wore a dark gray business suit without the jacket. The thought of leaving the two of them alone crossed Atara’s mind, and that thought must have transmitted to Xannissa because she responded with her NI.
“You coming?” It was then that Atara—also back in standard—realized she was still inside the vehicle. She stood up from the gravidyne and joined them.
OPEL windows were placed throughout the conjoined structures, giving guests the feeling of walking among the clouds. Being at the current cloud level, the only thing above was a deep blue sky. Escalators moved over giant OPEL panels embedded in the floor. The images they projected were so clear that they could have been mistaken for openings with drops of at least a couple thousand meters. Plants and shrubs lined the immaculate white walkways and storefronts, and lumionic lighting streamed down from the OPEL ceiling. The interior design was reminiscent of that at the Lanan Sector Academy, albeit more open and brighter due mainly to the widespread use of continuous OPEL panels. Lumigraphic banners advertised the Metropolitan Aerospace Grand Prix, and Blue Road, being one of the best places to view the event, was already packed with enthusiasts who would stay out until morning.
“Looks like Metro Aero is getting all the attention today,” Aedan pointed out. He walked with Xannissa hand-in-hand. Atara strode by her friend’s other side.
“Cylenna’s competing,” Xannissa told him.
Xannissa nodded, then sighed. “I can’t believe some of the things she does.”
“It may be reckless sport,” Aedan said, “but she’s following her passion.”
“I know. I just don’t want to lose her.”
“I know how you feel, Xann,” Atara told her, “but Aedan has a point. Better to lose her doing what she loves than to keep her doing what she hates.”
The trio moved toward a booth operated by the Federation Navy situated in one of the great atriums. Xannissa was unsure how to feel about the five-meter-tall, flat lumigraph of her sister in standard uniform, and Atara tapped her on the shoulder to look at it as a sort of tease. The petty officers running the booth noticed the rank insignias on Atara and Xannissa’s uniforms, and they jumped up from the young and curious civilians they attended to to give a hearty salute.
“At ease, ladies,” Atara told them as the trio passed by. The group continued to walk toward a more secluded area, but finding one was proving difficult.
“So, Aedan, I thought you were going to be busy,” Xannissa told him. Atara caught her smile.
“Well, deal is,” Aedan said softly, “I practically begged my boss to let me go. I told her my favorite person was in town and I had to leave as soon as possible.”
“Is that true?” Xannissa gave him a playful, inquisitive glare.
“Would you still believe me if it was?” Aedan gave her a smile while gripping her laminated hand tighter. “I mean, you are my favorite person.”
“You’re too sweet. You know that?” Aedan chuckled a little when she said this.
“Give me a break,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in months.”
“Speaking of, how’s that project coming?”
“Really smoothly,” he said. “A lot more smoothly than I ever imagined. The Jackknife will be ready for licensing within the year. I kinda wanted to surprise you with this, but I can’t contain myself. After the Jackknife is done, Klade is moving me to Lanan.”
“Really? That’s fantastic!” she told him before joyfully giggling. The two of them moved closer together, hugging each other from the side.
Atara couldn’t help but smile as she watched them. Aedan was a good man, and she could see few others with her best friend. The only thing she questioned, and she discussed this with Xannissa on rare occasion, was Aedan’s seeming reluctance with regard to marital commitment. Of course, neither she nor Xannissa were yet married, but their former lives abroad obstructed that to a high degree. Aedan had only one good excuse, and that being he was waiting for the one.
As the sun was setting over the city, the three made one more leisurely lap around the indoor gardens before heading back to the bay and grabbing a cab. They had eaten a pleasant dinner at a restaurant next to an artificial pond shaded by a sprawling oak. Children ran through the grass while their parents and families sat and stood, watching the Blue Road reach critical mass leading to the grand prix.
Atara entered the hotel suite first, followed by Xannissa and Aedan. The lights were low, and the distant skyline seen through the living room OPEL glittered like platinum. With their standards still on, the two officers removed their boots in their bedroom. Like their hands, their toes were laminated separately, allowing them to wiggle and move independently from each other. A wide couch sat in the dim room in front of the window through which the sum of the city’s urban light streamed in from. After sitting down upon the cool upholstery, Xannissa darkened the low lights, leaving the kilometers of outstretched capitol, the glowing from the open bedroom door, and the subtle luminescence from parts of their Accellus 4 as their only sources of light in the night. Atara sat cross-legged with her legs on the seat. Xannissa brought her legs up to her body such that her thighs touched her breasts. She wrapped her arms around her legs and pressed her face against her knees, looking over them out at the dense sprawl. Aedan crossed his legs at the ankles, slouched down into the couch, and meshed his fingers together over his abdomen.
The majority of the skylane traffic that should have filled the sky was gone, redirected to lower altitudes. A new surge of gravidynes appeared far off. Three-hundred racers, all on aerobikes, charged through the air on a virtual course that took them around buildings, through open air, and inside transit hubs. The course was in a constant state of change with the layout of the invisible track changing from one lap to the next. Pilots were encouraged to stay within the bounds of the course with the promise of penalties when it came time to calculate final scores.
“This is one of those moments,” Xannissa whispered to them, “that you just want to pause and experience forever.” The flock of gravidynes arced across their view. Cylenna was somewhere among them having the time of her life.
“I agree,” Aedan said. Suddenly, nervousness and apprehension filled his body. This was supposed to be a moment to enjoy with his longtime friends, yet his true goal screamed in his mind. In order to fulfill that objective, destroying this ideal moment was an inevitability.
This is it, he told himself. I can’t let a passing comfort interfere with this opportunity.
“Aedan?” Aedan stood up from the couch.
“I have something I want to ask you.” He kneeled right in front of where she sat, looked her straight in her blue, glistening eyes, and said, “Will you marry me?” His hand reached into his pocket, and from it he withdrew a ring of shining platinum banded with orivar.
Atara and Xannissa both gasped, processing his most serious question. In an instant, and seemingly on a whim, their peaceful moment turned into an important life decision. Aedan, a man who had not, to Xannissa’s knowledge, romanced another soul in his one-hundred-fifteen-year life, prostrated himself before her. She knew everything about him and loved him for who he was and had always been, and he the same for her. She dropped her legs to the floor, passing them to either side of him. Bringing her whole torso to the edge of the couch, she leaned forward.
“I will,” she whispered before kissing him on the lips. Atara sat with her hands clasped in front of her face. After their brief exchange, Xannissa asked through a grin, “What took you so long?”
“When you went away to the Academy all those years ago,” Aedan said, returning to his seat, “I thought I would stop loving you. I never did. Ever. Plus, now that you’re an instructor, what better time to settle down and start a family?”
“Hold on,” she said. “We’re not married yet. First things first. I know you’re excited, and so am I, but you can have me after the wedding.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he told her.
The three of them spent the rest of the night alone in their suite high above the urban landscape, watching distant racers compete for glory in a dangerous sport upon open gravidynes. They reminisced about their lives, both the interesting highs and fascinating lows. They even discussed the nature of life itself. As the hours dragged on, Xannissa rummaged through the foodfab’s programs for a snack, and Aedan admitted he had work in the morning. Three became two, and then two became one as Xannissa, still high on emotions, sat awake and alone in the living room until the eastern sky broadcasted the earliest sign of the beginning of a new dawn.