Gabriel Casella’s feet couldn’t have been more rooted to the ground had they been glued there. His posture couldn’t have been straighter had there been a rod in his spine. And his resolve couldn’t have been firmer had his life depended on it. “Casella.” Commanding officer Bassett furrowed her brow at the cadet from across her desk. “Please, have a seat.” “Permission to decline, Ma’am.” Gabe didn’t break eye contact. Didn’t even blink. “That’s some curious insubordination, Cadet,” the Commanding Officer observed, though not unkindly. She’d known this young man since his enrollment in the Earth-Interstellar Alliance; this wasn’t characteristic of his demeanor. Bassett wouldn’t have been the first to comment on his change in character, and she probably wouldn’t be the last. But that was neither here nor there, and Gabriel knew that sitting down would only condemn him to moments longer spent in this office when he should be preparing. “With all due respect, Ma’am, I know why I’m here. And I am prepared to tell you that I won’t change my mind; I want to go.” Bassett inhaled deep and folded her hands in front of her—a gesture that only put Gabriel all the more on the defensive. It was a gesture that beseeched him to listen before he committed to any ‘hasty’ decisions. Apparently his Commanding Officer refused to acknowledge that his decision had been made two years ago, and he still stood by it. “You’re sharp, Casella; and you’re frank, as usual. I like it. But so am I, and just because I am perhaps the only Commanding Officer on this planet who will let you get away with it doesn’t instill any confidence that you are cut out for this mission.” “I have been cleared physically, cognitively and psychologically, Ma’am.” He could feel heat creeping into his cheeks, and was helpless to stop it as he recited everything he had planned in light of Bassett’s accusation. “I understand mission objectives and wish to apply my skills and training accordingly. I was pegged to leave this planet over two years ago, and should have, had a broken clavicle not prevented me.” “And a damn good thing you broke that collar bone, or you’d be lost to this planet and all humanity, young man.” A beat passed between Commanding Officer and cadet, a silence that, out of sheer obstinacy, neither of them was keen on breaking. Until Bassett saw fit to address the looming elephant in the room: “Abigail is gone, Gabriel. A devastating truth, I know, but a realistic one. You are not going to find her—no one is.” “Acknowledged, Ma’am.” Gabriel looked straight over her shoulder, staring above the streams of sunlight that flooded through the window panes. Anything to avoid that look in Bassett’s eyes. Pity and exasperation; he was sick of seeing it. Bassett nodded once. “And you can look me in the eye and assure me that your missing sister is not the reason you’re are so eager to pursue this mission? That you’re not of the irrational mindset that, somehow, you will find her?” “Yes, Ma’am.” “Because this is only a quick, general reconnaissance task, Casella. As far as the EIA is concerned, the Hestia is gone. We can’t and won’t be risking an entire other crew in its futile pursuit.” So instead you risk the lives of an entire crew in pursuit of absolutely nothing at all, Gabriel thought to argue. But didn’t. “Understood, Ma’am.” “So why, then?” Bassett angled her head and tucked her hands underneath her chin. “You lost direct family to the barely understood vacuum of outer space, Gabriel. You realize that should the same thing happen on the Athena, no one will come looking for you, specifically, let alone the ship. So why do you continue to pursue this?” Her questioning had become increasingly more invasive, more personal in nature. Gabriel wasn’t sure if she even had leave to delve so deep into his motivations if he’d already passed every test, requirement and prerequisite with flying colours, but now was not the time to question the authority of the Commanding Officer to whom he would be answering on the space craft. Ultimately, he offered a shrug of the shoulders. “Why does anyone pursue the unknown, Ma’am? I have been training for this since I was eighteen years old. I have the skills, the inside knowledge, and the will to do it. Do I really need any other reason?” Bassett said nothing for another long and contemplative moment. Measuring the merit of his response, no doubt. Screening for deceit. Gabe wondered if she would find any. Evidently, the answer was no. “Well, then,” the Commanding Officer rolled her shoulders back and unclasped her hands. “I guess there is nothing else for us to discuss.” “No, Ma’am.” “Then you know where to be. An hour early at the docking station, have all of your paperwork ready, and pack minimal provisions—and I do mean minimal. Everything that you will need will be provided for you upon your arrival. Are you familiar with the protocol?” “Yes, Ma’am.” “Then I will see you next week on the Athena, Cadet.” “Ma’am.” Gabriel, hands clasped behind his back, nodded and turned to leave, mustering every ounce of willpower not to sprint from Bassett’s office. As if she could smell the apprehension emanating from his skin, she left him with just a few more words. “And, Casella? When I say go light on the provisions, I’m not just referring to physical baggage.” Touché.. Before leaving Bassett’s office, he offered her what he hoped would come across as a reassuring smile. Given that he felt he might tear a muscle in his face, however, he wasn’t convinced—and neither, he imagined, was she. --- The lost EIA ship Hestia was supposed to have been Gabriel Casella’s first excursion into outer space. Instead, it had ended up being his sister, Abigail’s, first and last. Other than sex, expressed gender, and eye colour, the fraternal twins had differed in very little from birth, onward. From similar temperaments to interests, all the way to identical intelligence quotients, they were the case study in genetics and upbringing that doctors would have killed for. That said, it came as little surprise to anyone that the two of them aspired to enroll in the services of the Earth-Interstellar Alliance. The competition between them always ran strong, but for that reason, their work and effort was never subpar. Which was precisely what got them ranked in tenth percentile in terms of aptitude, at which point they had successfully overshot enough applicants that the rivalry had come full circle, and petered out. Once more, they stood as equals—as they always had. That was until the Gabriel had—for luck or whatever reason—been selected over Abigail for the mission on the Hestia. An opportunity that he was forced to pass up for a stupid loss of balance at the worst of times; a short fall from a staircase that had landed him with a broken collarbone. Fortunately for the Alliance, they hadn’t needed to go far in finding an understudy. “I’m telling you, it’s just karma,” Abigail had boasted, visiting her brother in the hospital the day after his unfortunate slip. At that point, the doctors hadn’t been convinced that surgery wasn’t necessary. “Or maybe someone put a hex on you. I’ve never seen such shit luck in my life.” “Karma doesn’t happen until after you die, dumbass.” Coming from someone doped up on pain killers, however, Gabriel’s insult didn’t have much of an impact. Abgail shrugged, vermillion curls bouncing on her shoulders. “Well then, maybe the universe took pity on me: for once I get to scope out the cute men before you call dibs on them and go on to tell them not to bother with me because I’m as gay as you are.” At that, Gabe couldn’t refrain from grinning. It wasn’t uncommon for people to assume that, given all their similarities, they also shared in non-heterosexual orientations. The truth was, the similarity was not at all in their sexuality, but in their sexual preferences. This had sparked heated arguments in late adolescence over crushes and prom dates. That was where similarity became particularly problematic—and, at times, vindictive. “Oh, lay off. You know full well that they always prefer boobs, anyway.” Gabriel let out a sigh, wishing desperately he could move his arm to scratch an itch near his ribs. The impulse of a flinch only made him wince in pain. “Seriously, Gail, can we not do this? I really wanted to be on the Hestia tomorrow—you know that. I’ve been preparing for weeks, and I’ve never felt so damn… depressed.” “Would you be less depressed if they hadn’t slotted me into the spot that was supposed to be yours?” Maybe he was just too drowsy to properly read into intonation, but his sister sounded almost… sad. Disappointed. “No,” he replied, after a moment of contemplation. This wasn’t, he realized, about jealousy. “I don’t think so. Though it is gonna be weird, not having you around to harass me for a year. So I guess that’s kind of a bummer.” Abigail snorted and planted her weight on the edge of his bed. “It’s gonna be weird not having you to harass. But maybe if you come to miss it, you’ll appreciate it all the more when I get back.” “Jerk,” he murmured, but her grin was contagious. “Can I say something really stupid and obvious?” “You kind of just did. Well, stupid, at least.” “Something else, then.” He stared at her face, at the dimples in her cheeks and the dark circles around her blue irises. Features that he’d grown up with, that mirrored his own expressions for over two decades. He wouldn’t see them again for an entire year, and the thought was unsettling. “Be careful? I mean it. Lots of shit can happen up there, and after a month, you’ll be too far from Mission Control to radio in for help. And don’t give me that look—you’d be telling me the exact same thing.” His sister, of course, shrugged it off. “Don’t doubt me, Gabe. I’d like to go into space with your full confidence in me, if you don’t mind.” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Doubting you would be like doubting myself; and my ego is too healthy for that.” “Yeah. Well.” Abigail smiled. “You can count on seeing me again. I’m not gonna pass up the chance to rub it in and gloat about how great it was.” “Is that a promise?” “I don’t make promises,” she’d replied. “I just state facts.” It was the last conversation that the two would ever have. Four months later, after an indecipherable transmission that never should have been able to reach Earth at that distance, the Hestia and all of its crew disappeared completely. Mission Control attempted to send signals to retrieve its coordinates for four more months, until they stopped trying altogether, and it was nothing more than a lost cause. “I don’t make promises. I just state facts.” You lied to me, Abgail. The fact was, Abigail Casella was as good as gone. --- “ID, please.” Gabriel hardly heard the administrator over all of din of the docking bay. Choosing to mirror what he’d seen everyone in front of him do, prior, he handed over his EIA identity card. The balding administrator tapped it against a crystalline screen, which was soon flooded with sapphire font, with a picture of the cadet appearing in the upper right corner. “Casella, huh? Hey, wasn’t one of the people on the Hestia—” “Can we get this moving?” No amount of noise pollution could have dulled his ears to the topic that the man had been about to breach. And it was not up for discussion. “The line behind me is kind of long.” The administrator frowned, punched a couple of buttons on the keypad beneath the screen, and handed back the card. “D-13. Remember that, ‘cause that’s where you’ll be spending any and all hours that you don’t happen to be conscious,” he went on to explain. “Uniforms will already be waiting for you at your bunk. Better get your shit together; take-off is in 11:00 hours, and expect a briefing as soon as you’re outta the stratosphere and everyone’s settled.” Having only picked up on half of the man’s words, Gabriel could only deduce that D-13 referred to wherever he was supposed to go next. So he left the administrator and the line, and boarded his new home for the next Earthen year: the EIA Ship, Athena. Was Gail this confused the first time she boarded? He couldn’t prevent the question from forming in his mind as the narrow white-and-steel corridors opened up before him, already semi-crowded with people in their gunmetal-grey uniforms. For all the money the EIA put into a ship, it was poorly marked; or, at least, ill-equipped for newbies, such as himself. “You’re either lost, or wondering what the hell you’re doing here.” The unfamiliar voice caught him off guard. Gabriel turned to find himself face to face with a young woman, gunmetal-clad and with dark hair pulled back from her warm-toned visage. “A bit of both, to be honest.” He confessed, self-consciously shouldering his tiny bag of personal belongings. “I’m supposed to find D-13. I’m guessing that’s either where I’m supposed to put my stuff, or I’ve walked into the weirdest game of battleship.” “A bit of both,” the woman quipped. “Keep going straight, then take a sharp left. D quarters should be down that hall. Your ID’s also your key card.” “Straight, left, ID. Got it; thanks.” “Oh,” the stranger called, just as Gabe turned his back, “And you’re not late to the game. Trust me, it hasn’t started yet.” “Ah… whatever. Thanks.” At that, he picked up his pace and moved on. Not the smoothest way to make himself welcome among his colleagues, perhaps, but the truth was, Gabriel hadn’t so much as considered the merit of even casual acquaintances since the Hestia—and therefore, Abigail—had gone missing. Every snarky remark, warm gesture, or even playful insult dredged up memories that he no longer wished to entertain. There must have been something, some unexplained, esoteric connection between people who shared a womb; although he’d had yet to confide in any psychologist, Gail had always felt like more than just immediate family… more like, an extension of him. Now, in her absence, he suffered the most painful phantom limb syndrome imaginable. Painful, but not unmanageable. Otherwise he’d never have been able to fly under the radar as he’d been screened for any mental health disturbances. And, fortunately, he was already well prepared to be unpopular. Do the work. Get the experience. Get home. Don’t think about Abigail. With no further problems locating D-13, Gabriel tapped his ID against the sensor near the door; immediately, the light above it illuminated green, allowing him entry. What lay beyond hadn’t been quite what he’d expected. He’d had a feeling the bunks would be small, crammed, even stifling; and, to an extent, it was just that. What he hadn’t counted on was that the small, crammed, stifling room was to be shared with someone else. “Huh… and here I thought Bassett was just being a bitch when she told me to pack light,” he murmured as the door slid closed behind him. Bunk beds, and six drawers that doubled as a desk: this was to be his home for the next three-hundred, sixty-five days. And he couldn’t even count on a moment of solitude. “Too bad Gail never had the chance to warn me about this.” Stop it. Don’t think about Abigail. This isn’t about Abigail. Except that it was. In a very big way, for Gabriel Casella, it was.