Gravity Transcended (Aine & Dreamless)



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Sanja Casella's feet couldn't have been more rooted to the ground had they been glued there. Her posture couldn't have been straighter had there been a rod in her spine. And her resolve couldn't have been firmer had fer 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." Sanja 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 woman since her enrollment in the Earth-Interstellar Alliance; this wasn't characteristic of her demeanor.

Bassett wouldn't have been the first to comment on her change in character, and she probably wouldn't be the last. But that was neither here nor there, and Sanja knew that sitting down would only condemn her to moments longer spent in this office when she 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 Sanja all the more on the defensive. It was a gesture that beseeched her to listen before he committed to any 'hasty' decisions. Apparently her Commanding Officer refused to acknowledge that her decision had been made two years ago, and she 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." She could feel heat creeping into her cheeks, turning them the russet colour of her curly locks, and was helpless to stop it as she recited everything she 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 lady." 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, Sanja. A devastating truth, I know, but a realistic one. You are not going to find her—no one is."

"Acknowledged, Ma'am." Sanja 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; she 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, Sanja 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, Sanja. 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. Sanja wasn't sure if Bassett even had leave to delve so deep into her motivations if she'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 she would be answering on the space craft. Ultimately, she offered a shrug of the shoulders. "Why does anyone pursue the unknown, Ma'am? I have been training as a navigator 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 her response, no doubt. Screening for deceit. Sanja 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."


Sanja, hands clasped behind her 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 her skin, the Commanding Officer left her 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, she offered her what she hoped would come across as a reassuring smile. Given that she felt she might tear a muscle in her face, however, she wasn't convinced—and neither, she imagined, was Bassett.

The lost EIA ship Hestia was supposed to have been Sanja Casella's first excursion into outer space. Instead, it had ended up being her sister, Abigail's, first and last.

Aside from sexual preferences, the identical Casella twins had differed in very little from birth, onward. From similar temperaments to interests, all the way to identical looks and 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 to train to become navigators.
The competition between them had always run strong, but for that reason, their work and effort was never subpar. Which was precisely what got them both ranked in the top 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 Sanja had—for luck or whatever reason—been selected over Abigail for the mission on the Hestia. An opportunity that she 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 her with a broken collarbone. Fortunately for the Alliance, they hadn't needed to go far in finding a perfect understudy.

"I'm telling you, it's just karma," Abigail had boasted, visiting her sister 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, Sanja'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'll get to scope out the cute men before you sabotage it like a bitch, and go on to tell them not to bother with me because I'm as lesbo as you are."

At that, Sanja 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, there was astoundingly no similarity in their sexuality or their sexual preferences. This had certainly saved on heated arguments in late adolescence over crushes and prom dates. But that didn't veto their occasional tendency to be vindictive.

"Oh, as if. You know just as well as I do that guys dig girls who like girls, anyway." Sanja let out a sigh, wishing desperately to could move her arm to scratch an itch near her ribs. The impulse of a flinch only made her 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 Sanja was just too drowsy to properly read into intonation, but her sister sounded almost… sad. Disappointed.

"No," she replied, after a moment of contemplation. This wasn't, she 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 her sister's 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," Sanja 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." She stared at Gail's face, at the dimples in her cheeks and the dark circles around her blue irises. Features that she'd grown up with, that mirrored her own expressions for over two decades. She 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."

Her sister, of course, shrugged it off. "Don't doubt me, Sanja. 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."

Sanja hardly heard the administrator over all of din of the docking bay. Choosing to mirror what she'd seen everyone in front of him do, prior, she handed over her 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. "So you're a navigator… 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 her 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, Sanja could only deduce that D-13 referred to wherever she was supposed to go next. So she left the administrator and the line, and boarded her new home for the next Earthen year: the EIA Ship, Athena.

Was Gail this confused the first time she boarded? She couldn't prevent the question from forming in her 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 herself.

"You're either lost, or wondering what the hell you're doing here."

The unfamiliar voice caught him off guard. Sanja turned to find herself face to face with a young man, gunmetal-clad and with dark hair pulled back from his warm-toned visage. "A bit of both, to be honest." She confessed, self-consciously shouldering her 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 man 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 Sanja turned her back, "And you're not late to the game. Trust me, it hasn't started yet."

"Ah… whatever. Thanks." At that, she picked up her pace and moved on. Not the smoothest way to make herself welcome among her colleagues, perhaps, but the truth was, Sanja 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 she no longer wished to entertain. There must have been something, some unexplained, esoteric connection between people who shared a womb; although she'd had yet to confide in any psychologist, Gail had always felt like more than just immediate family… more like, an extension of herself. Now, in her absence, Sanja suffered the most painful phantom limb syndrome imaginable.

Painful, but not unmanageable. Otherwise she'd never have been able to fly under the radar in being screened for any mental health disturbances. And, fortunately, she 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, Sanja tapped her ID against the sensor near the door; immediately, the light above it illuminated green, allowing her entry. What lay beyond hadn't been quite what she'd expected. She'd had a feeling the bunks would be small, crammed, even stifling; and, to an extent, it was just that. What she 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," she murmured as the door slid closed behind her. Bunk beds, and six drawers that doubled as a desk: this was to be her home for the next three-hundred, sixty-five days. And she 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 Sanja Casella, it was.
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"Síofra?" The young cadet looked up from packing her bags only to be confronted with a pair of big brown eyes. Big brown eyes so full of sorrow that looked as if they belonged to a puppy that had just been kicked with an iron boot. "Why do you have to leave?" Oh boy, here we go again. Her family was generally fairly accepting towards her space-voyaging activities, even deriving some pride from her success, but her little brother was an exception to this rule. Always had been. "Well, I'm not sure whether you've been tracking the newest scientific discoveries, Aiden, but a machine that would disconnect my mind from my body so I could participate in the mission while technically staying at home hasn't been invented yet. Or have you made a ground-breaking discovery you'd like to tell me about?" she smiled and pinched his cheek playfully which only made him frown in turn. Just like all children, Aiden hated being reminded of how young he actually was.

"Haha, very funny. You know I didn't mean it like that."

"No, of course you didn't. You're obviously incapable of contributing to humanity in such a meaningful way,"
Síofra smirked deviously, dodging attack of his tiny fists with dexterity gained through years of practice. "Hey, hey, hey! What about your 'violence doesn't solve anything' mantra? I thought you were a pacifist? Make love, not war and all that jazz?"

"It could solve the problem of your face!" Aiden snapped, which sent her into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. It knocked the air out of her lungs in a manner similar to a punch to her gut, so she staggered a bit and both of them ended up on the floor somehow. "Damn, have mercy on my poor soul, Aiden, I'm giving up!" The whole situation would have been way more hilarious if his "I'm-about-to-burst-into-tears" expression hadn't stabbed her deep in her heart. Damn little brothers and their supernatural-like cuteness. How has he managed to get me feel guilty for pursuing my dream? What is this sorcery and how can I learn it? Does it involve a blood oath to Satan? Sighing deeply, Síofra plopped down on her bed with elegance of an average sack of potatoes and gestured for Aiden to sit beside her. As much as she hated this emotional crap and hoped some lucky turn of events would liberate her from having to justify her stances, he deserved some sort of explanation. He complied, staring at her in accusing silence.

Oh geez, how do I begin? The right to risk my own life whenever I deem fit shall not be infringed? Why do I have a feeling it's not going to work? "Listen, Aiden, remember that one time when you got your first bike? The green monstrosity with black handlebars?" An eager nod was her only answer, but Síofra didn't need to work with more. If anything, it implied he truly paid attention to her for once and that encouraged her to continue painting this metaphor. "Alright, then you surely remember how it felt when you rode it for the first time. Care to share your experience?"

"But what does that have to do with anything?"
Aiden demanded to know, impatience infiltrating his voice. "Everything and nothing. Yes, before you ask, I do love being a tease. It comes with the whole older sibling territory. Hell, it's pretty much the only advantage and it's pretty insignificant when you compare it to perks you have - like being able to blackmail the parents emotionally - so I might as well savor it. Now answer my question," she nudged him playfully. "Alright, fine. I guess it did feel pretty great. I mean, I could finally go wherever I wanted without nagging my mom for assistance."

"Speaking about her,"
Síofra interrupted him, sensing a good opportunity, "how did she react? Was mom happy about you suddenly being so independent?"

"Are you kidding me? Of course not. She almost suffered from a heart-attack every time I went out alone. I think she was paranoid about some car smashing me to bits."

"Well, do you maybe see any parallels between between her behavior back then and yours right now?"
Surprise crept into his expression, but it was immediately replaced by rejection. "That's not the same!" he protested ardently. "I agree wholeheartedly. Probability of a car 'smashing you to bits,' as you said, is way higher than probability of my ship malfunctioning. I have also spent years at the academy, studying all aspects of safe space travel from survival in wilderness to basic repairs, while you took a cursory glance at the highway code. Plus," Síofra raised her forefinger, "the only way you could possibly help the society with your activities would be dying there and donating your organs. I, on the other hand, am going on a sacred mission to expand the collective knowledge of humanity. You can thank me later when the findings I will bring revolutionize our way of life." The bitter reality was that this "sacred mission" she had described consisted mostly of routine reconnaissance tasks because her higher-ups would rather eat their own fingers than let newbies steal fame from them, but he didn't have to know that. It would weaken her argument.

"God, can't you be serious for five seconds, Síofra? Five consecutive seconds: Is that so much to ask?" Frankly, yes, it was. For all his wisdom, Aiden didn't quite realize that his sister wasn't avoiding the topic of dangers tied to her journey because she somehow failed to notice them. That would be a herculean feat with the tragic loss of the Hestia still fresh in everyone's mind. Well, that, and the instructors at the academy were usually more than happy to scare the recruits to the point most of them thought living to see the old age was a miracle on par with immaculate conception. No, Síofra had chosen carefree attitude specifically because of all the risks her career entailed. Ignorance truly could be a bliss sometimes, especially when the opposite approach would likely lead either to paralyzing fear, alcoholism or combination of both. Still, maybe she should try to satisfy Aiden's whims for a while.

"Okay then, as you wish, my lord. I'll grant you five second without mocking. Wait, no, I'm feeling generous, so make it ten. Ask away, dear." Aiden looked as if he contemplated just hitting her again, but then he decided against it. "Fine, I'll bite. Can you honestly tell me why are you doing this?"

"Because that's what I was born to do," Síofra replied without a hint of hesitation tainting her resolve. "When I look at the night sky, I don't really see stars, constellations or similar shit. I see questions, thousands of them, each waiting to be answered. Don't get me wrong, I understand how dangerous it can be, but all the good things in life have a costly price tag attached to them. No pain, no gain." Aiden surveyed her face for a while, looking almost as if he had just seen her for the first time.

"That... isn't a bad reason, all things considered. Can you at least promise me to try to stay safe?"

"Sure, I'll try to minimize risky stuff like opening windows to get perfect pictures in my photo-album and eating various samples collected on foreign planets just because they seem tasty. And if I happen to die, I'll return as a ghost to bully those who are mean to you at school."


"What? Your ten seconds are up!"

The two then hugged shortly which was the greatest physical manifestation of love their brother-sister dynamic permitted, and Síofra returned to packing her bags. She would have enjoyed the luxury of spending more time with him, but her terrible habit of leaving everything to the last possible moment figuratively tripped her legs again. How am I supposed to cram everything in one small suit? Ugh, I bet this is some unofficial psychological test to weed out the unworthy. Oh well, I guess I won't be taking my books with me after all. Goodbye, my dearest friends. It was good while it lasted, but now I hate to sacrifice you on the altar of science. Gritting her teeth, Síofra braced herself and embarked on the ungrateful mission of eliminating useless junk from her luggage.

Oh my god, judging from how long this fucking line is, one would say there's a free candy at the end of it, the girl frowned at the faceless mass of people who were smarter than her and had gotten up earlier. How many of them would I have to kill to get inside before I die from old age? Way too many for it to be plausible, so Síofra stayed in her place obediently, squinting into the blinding sunlight. It suddenly occurred to her that seeing the sun from this angle would soon be nothing but a distant memory. The thought felt somewhat weird, although she didn't suffer from the nostalgia syndrome just yet. If anything, it only filled her with new expectations and hopes. Finally leaving this solar system - the cradle of life as humanity knew it - was bound to be glorious. Sure, they had warned her gnawing boredom would be an integral part of this journey as the cadets would spend most of the time isolated from the vast big universe in their little cabin, but only those lacking in imagination could possibly complain about it. They were going to write history here, dammit.

"Your ID, please," a tired looking man urged her. It was exactly the kind of grand welcome one would expect at their first space voyage, yet Síofra imagined just how many times he had already said this phrase today and forgave him instantly. It must have been a tedious job. She heeded his orders, and the name Síofra Callahan appeared on his control panel.

"Alright, Miss Callahan, here is a card that will serve both as your key and means of identification, so you'd do well not to lose it within first few minutes of your stay. Your room is D-13. We're taking off at 11:00. Shortly after that, you'll be heading for a briefing where further information shall be revealed to all the participants of the mission. Any questions?" he asked nonchalantly, not making an eye contact with her at all. She could have been standing on her head and the administrator wouldn't have noticed. Síofra had to repress the unexpected impulse to pinch him solely to see whether it could break his robotic streak and fortunately, her common sense won. "No, I think I'm good, thanks!" she smiled at him, feeling a little guilty for her thoughts, and walked to the ramp leading to the ship. Confused recruits were running around like ants in an anthill, except they obviously didn't possess their top-notch skills that would lead them to their destination.

Fucking hell, they're intelligent enough to design a space ship and yet they're dumb enough not to give us maps when everything looks the same here. What should I do, trace my room according to smell like a dog? Yeah, I'm good, but I am definitely not THAT good. The girl didn't panic, though. Firstly, such an exaggerated reaction simply wasn't in her nature and secondly, experience had taught her it rarely accomplished anything. Deducing there had to be some logical system to label the rooms, Síofra began looking for any kind of regularity between the various signs. Picking up on the pattern wasn't exactly rocket science, so she located her room fairly quickly. What surprised her, though, was presence of a copper-haired woman that didn't look like a charlady in the slightest. Not one, but two beds stuffed in the corner also refuted this hypothesis.

"I have a freaking room-mate?" slipped past her lips before she could stop herself. Ah, the joys of having a mouth that works faster than my brain. Good job on antagonizing someone who is going to spend next few months in a close proximity to you with first sentence, Síofra. No, really, it has to be some kind of a world record. Maybe you should apply for an award. "Haha, damn, me and first impressions: the story of pure cringe. Sorry about that. I have nothing against you, obviously, but I was operating under the naive impression they wouldn't force us to turn into human version of sardines," the blonde chuckled quietly, evidently unfazed by her little faux pais. "Anyway, let me invite you for a drink as an apology. I presume they do have a bar here, right? 'Cause if not, I'll have to devise some interesting way how to commit suicide. Just putting a bullet through my forehead doesn't really cut it for me; I'd like to go out with a bang. Oh, and I'm Síofra. Síofra Callahan," she outstretched her hand, "a hopeless newbie who happens to specialize as a fighter."

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No sooner had the realization of the utter lack of privacy on this ship hit Sanja, than a voice from behind confirmed the suspicion. The bunk beds were proof enough, but for a split second, she dared to hope.

And, apparently, he roommate harboured the same sentiment.

"Yeah... well, the ship's only so big," She replied, not in defense of the EIA's method of organizing their employees in space, but simply pointing out the obvious. Space offered nothing that promoted survival; if you wanted to survive, then you had to bring the means of survival with you. Only so much fit on a ship, and corners had to be cut. Even if it meant cutting comforts and privacy.

Something told her that a bar wasn't exactly a priority, either. "This is an EIA explorer... Not a cruise ship," the redhead remarked. Even if she were capable of forming a convincing smile, she wouldn't have felt impelled to do so. "If you find any alcohol here, then it won't be by legal means."

Sanja looked at the hand that Siofra extended. She should have taken it; every unwritten social rule encouraged the gesture. But the fighter--her fighter's--open and inviting body language intimidated her, forcing her deeper into the introverted she'll that had formed around her skin ever since Abigail had gone missing.

She didn't take her hand. "Sanja Casella," came her reply, with her arms firmly at her side. "Navigator. I'm assuming... this means we'll be working together."

At a complete and total loss for words after that point, Sanja was relieved to be saved by the glow of the screen embedded in the wall opposite of the bunks. A shipwide announcement was being broadcast.

Attention Fighters and Navigators of the EIA Explorer Athena: Briefing will take place in the Auditorium in fifteen minutes. Repeat--briefing in the auditorium in fifteen minutes. Please attend on time and in uniform. Thank you.

"We need to get ready," Sanja stated the obvious as a means to escape the awkward introductions taking place, and turned away from Siofra to grab her casual uniform from the bag she was given. "Commander Bassett is kind of a hard-ass; tardiness will go on your permanent record."
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Wait, what? Something felt very off here. Had her new room-mate just defended conditions so atrocious they would cause an uproar between all animal rights activists nationwide if cattle was forced to live this way? Okay, that might have been an exaggeration, but Síofra had always thought that genuine comradeship was traditionally born of complaining about minor inconveniences they had to face and sharing a specific flavor of contempt for authorities.

Nothing brought people together quite as effectively as having a common enemy, even if this particular enemy only manifested in them having to consume shitty parody of digestible food and adhere to curfew. So, what the hell had just gone wrong here? A rupture in the space-time continuum? Eruptions on the sun? Were hidden cameras placed in this room, causing her roommate to parrot the protocol in hopes of dodging criticism? Or had she perhaps been dealt the Black Peter card in the form of a boot-licking roommate who didn't even need hidden cameras to maintain holier-than-thou attitude?

Please, god, I know our relationship hasn't always been the best, but let her not be a boot-licker. I swear I will establish my own sect centered around hedonism and start converting people left and right if I have to spend so much time with a confirmed boot-licker. C'mon, you know your sheep can't resist the prospect of doing whatever the hell they want without consequences, so don't take any chances.

"Oh please, we're not expected to be on duty all the time, now are we? Not giving us any opportunity to unwind would be the equivalent of... well, equivalent of chaining a saleswoman to the counter forever because it's her job. I'm pretty sure that's against the law," Síofra pointed out, although her tone was more playful than patronizing. The blonde would try to get along with her new buddy until she gave her a solid reason to stop pursuing that goal. Since "solid reason" translated to instances such as "shooting her mother" in Síofra's dictionary, such an outcome was highly unlikely. "Hey, now I realize you actually haven't refused my invitation. Okay, challenge accepted."

Sanja's reaction to her introduction did confuse her a bit - what kind of person objected to freaking handshakes? - yet it didn't throw her off balance too much. Stranger things happened; stranger and way more unpleasant. Being used to improvising, Síofra simply transformed her gesture into a slightly awkward wave. "Well, glad to meet you then, Sanja. Sanja, huh? Weird name. Slavic, I presume? They kinda have a thing with -ja ending when it comes to female names. Anja, Katja, Zarja et cetera, et cetera. On the other hand, your surname sounds... Spanish, maybe? Or Italian? Now that's what I call linguistic mess." She would have happily continued discussing etymology of her name whether Sanja liked it or not, but announcement of approaching briefing obviously took precedence over her curiosity.

"Damn, and I thought we'd have more time to become acclimatized. Nevermind." Opening her bag revealed somewhat neutral looking piece of grey cloth. Oh well, I haven't been expecting anything even remotely wearable anyway. Absolutely no surprises there. Her shame extended only so far she turned around to change her clothes, but that was it. They might as well get used to the fact they were going to see each other naked at some point as nudity largely couldn't be avoided in such cramped spaces. "Let's go then, I wouldn't want to get in trouble first day I'm here. I mean, what would I do for the rest of the mission?" Síofra grinned, and the two stepped into the hallway. It was buzzing with activity already since many recruits dreaded arriving late just like she did, which meant they could comfortably join the stream of people without worrying about getting lost in the bowels of the ship.
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"If you check the daily schedules, I think you'll find we are allotted some free time..." Sanja offered, but Siofra was already moving on to another subject. She reminded her of an overly energetic schoolgirl, the kind that she and her sister used to make fun of in secret when they were children, and it was still acceptable to be a little mean. Though her tone... That hint of sarcasm, with an edge that threatened to cut like a knife under the right circumstances, wasn't so unlike her missing sister's typical demeanor...

No. I am not going there.

Pulling the plastic-polyfibre suit over her shoulders, she ignored the tingle of discomfort in her gut that accompanied potential nudity around a stranger--and in quarters where you could hardly avoid bumping elbows. Just one of the many awkward technicalities that she'd have to get used to. "I have no idea... My mother named us after characters in her favourite books, or something," she replied, as Siofra attempted to dissect the meaning of her name. "And my father is Italian. We just happened to get our Irish mother's recessive genes." Which would explain the russet hair and the freckle-prone fair skin.

But Sanja was quick to realize the grave mistake in her explanation: we. The allusion to her sister who, if she could help it, was not going to become a topic of conversation between her and this quick-talking roommate.

"I think it's up to us to get acclimatized on our own time," the redhead sighed, already burnt out from Siofra's onslaught of questions. As she turned, she noticed the zipper on the back of the fighter's neck wasn't properly latched, and she reached out on impulse to correct it. She wasn't about to look bad as a reflection from sloppiness on Siofra's part.

They followed the crowd into a large room with stadium seating, at the front of which stood Bassett, who was already impatient at the time it was taking everyone to setting. Sanja purposely took a seat somewhere in the middle, where hopefully she'd attract little to no attention from the commanding officer, not necessarily inviting Siofra to sit next to her, but it was empty, should she choose to take it.
"I'd like your full attention, if that doesn't convenience any of you," Bassett's voice carried loud and clear through the speakers surrounding the room. "I will keep this short and sweet, so that we might all be on our way. Welcome about the Earth-Interstellar Alliance explorer, the Athena. For approximately the nest year, our primary objective is to collect and interpret information about anything and everything we might encounter. However, as I hope you all know, space exploration has its potential for danger. Hence your specialized training in our attack pods, the Starfighters."

Behind the Commander, a wide screen lit up, with the terms Fighter and Navigator divided down the middle. Below each term was a list of objectives, duties and daily tasks, all of which was available on the entrance and orientation pamphlets that they'd received on boarding.

"We have an enemy, it would seem, that is not of this world. Previous explorers have been taken down by hostile forces, about which we all know very little. What we do know, however, is how to fly, and how to fight." Bassett's eyes scanned the room of new recruits with a mixture of skepticism and hope. "You have been assigned to fight-navigator teams in control of a single pod. Navigators, you are responsible for piloting the Starfighters. Learn the technicalities of the pods. Learn the sensitivities of the controls. You alone are responsible for both successfully going on the offensive, and getting out of danger. Fighters," she clapsed her hands behind her back. "You are the firing power, and your survival instinct is integral to offense. Learn the pod's weapons ans controls. Learn the timing and extent of firing power. Most importantly, know when and when not to fire.

"Regardless of your differing tasks, you are not working in isolation. You were all subject to compatibility testing for a reason. Navigators, communicate constantly with your fighters; keep them in the know of your strategy. Fighters, support your navigators, and fall in tandem with their rhythms. Do not go off half-cocked and fire at will; your lives are in one another's hands, in the dead of space. Without communication and understanding, you will not be effective in the case of encountering hostile forces. I hope I have madw myself clear."

She paused as the room murmured for a moment, and then continued. "You will all have access to training via virtual reality in simulation pods, and are expected to run at least one simulation per day. Simulations will be tracked, so don't think you'll be getting away with slacking; it won't be doing you any favours.

"For anything further, you can refer to the daily agendas on the datapads provided for you in your bunks. If there are no further questions, you are dismissed to take the remainder of the day to familiarize yourself with the ship and your partners."

Sanja stood as soon as the room was dismissed, but didn't manage to push far past the crowd before a navigator-fighter pair blocked her path. Both were painfully familiar, and she immediately knew where the impending conversation was headed.

"Casella! Never expected to see you here," the white-clad navigator grinned. He wasn't trying to be friendly. "You made me lose a bet. I thought you'd be long gone after your sis vanished on the Hestia. A shame; she had the better personality."

"Oh, fuck off, Jack," his fighter, a young man with messy brown hair, offered Sanja a sympathetic look. "It really is good to see you. I'm glad you--"

"Excuse me." Before the conversation could progress, the russet-haired navigator pushed through the crowd, determined to escape. This was not going to happen; she was determined to keep herself together, and that wouldn't happen if she was forced to relive the past.
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"That's pretty badass, actually. My dad wanted to name me Andromeda because he was a huge fan of Greek mythology, but my mom threatened to file for divorce if he, citation: "didn't stop with his juvenile bullshit," end of citation. She apparently thought it came from some cheap sci-fi flick and that convinced her it would turn me into a target of bullying. It's a shame for I would have loved to be Andromeda," Síofra admitted with a barely detectable hint of bitterness lingering in her voice. "Bullying would have been an acceptable cost. I mean, it's a freaking star constellation. What a wasted opportunity, especially considering my choice of career."

The sudden touch in the area of her neck did make her flinch, although it stemmed from pure surprise rather than from any aversion to human contact. The truth was that unexpected movements so close to her head usually signified impeding stealth attack, but she chose to remain optimistic instead of flying into the self-defense mode and the composure proved to be beneficial. Eh? Has she just adjusted my uniform? That seemed to be a bit out of character for a girl frightened by such an innocent gesture as simple handshake. Had she diagnosed her as chronic shyness syndrome sufferer too early? Probably yes; Sanja could very well be your friendly neighborhood weirdo. Síofra would welcome a plot twist of this nature. Overly bashful people were somewhat difficult to get along with in the long term, mainly because they usually bottled up their rage inside until it reached boiling point as healthy communication was apparently the bane of their existence. Paradoxically enough, weirdos could be reasoned with well once you figured out the basic algorithms of their behavior.

"Ah, thanks for that. It's kinda disgraceful I haven't learned to live in symbiosis with my clothes yet." Once they arrived to the auditorium, Síofra couldn't help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people present. Well, it was less about numbers and more about the sense of belonging. She would never know vast majority of them on the first name basis and yet they had all come here to pursue a very specific goal, connected only by shared passion. One could find a certain beauty in that notion. With no other familiar faces in sight, Síofra sat down on the chair next to Sanja and fixed her eyes on their commander dutifully. A spark of impatience that threatened to break out into a full-blown fire flared up in her chest. Did Bassett intend to give a groundbreaking speech or were they about to be force-fed a handful of empty phrases repeated over and over at the start of each mission?

The answer B was correct, of course. Síofra felt exceptionally grateful for Sanja and her strategic thinking in choosing a spot relatively far from Bassett's zone of focus. Disguising her utter lack of enthusiasm proved to be beyond her strength. Yeah, leadership entailed motivational rants and all that came with boosting the crew's morale, yet she didn't think turning into a broken gramophone in order to drone lectures everyone had heard at least three times already was a good way to do it. Okay, I understand I shouldn't shit on the old classics, but spicing it up a little with something new wouldn't hurt your case. Seriously, everyone is already aware learning to operate the machines is crucial to our survival in the crushing coldness of the space. Hestia's destruction is still a big topic among... well, pretty much all people who haven't been living under a rock. Why are we even here? Fortunately, the commander wasn't in love with the sound of her own voice, so she released them quicker than she had dared to hope in her wildest dreams.

Síofra stood up in speed of light, quietly praying to get out of the auditorium before influx of bodies attempting to do the same inevitably blocked the entrance, but fate apparently conspired against this simple plan for it arranged a meeting with an asshole for them instead. The call to Sanja stopped her dead in her tracks, initially in naive expectation of making some new friends through her roommate, except the conversation swiftly took on a sinister tone. So Sanja's sister... Well, fuck. That revelation sure as hell put things in a different perspective. Her overall demeanor, almost shell-shocked vibes she seemed to give off, detached silence; it all suddenly made sense. The girl was mourning. She was mourning the death of her sibling while this massive waste of space just deliberately twisted the knife in her wound. Aiden involuntarily entered her thoughts and her hands automatically balled into fists. Síofra was far from a killjoy who couldn't appreciate an occasional morbid joke, but this hit a bit close to the home. Dead relatives weren't funny. Without really thinking about the consequences, the blonde tapped him on the shoulder from behind.

"What?" Jack turned around and received a well-timed punch to the face. "The fuck, you-"

"Consider it a karmic punishment, you little bitch,"
Síofra hissed through her teeth, still in her fighting stance, when a voice behind her interrupted the shocked silence.

"Callahan! What do you think you're doing?!" Matthew Thompson cried out, positioning himself between the two young cadets before a serious fight could occur. "Are you fine, Perkins?" he asked the guy whose nose was beginning to bleed.

he answered, apparently still flabbergasted over the turn of events.

"Good, but visit an infirmary with that nose. It's in the sector B, room 17. That's an order, so go. And you, Callahan, to my office. Now." The anger he managed to insert in those few sentences sent shivers down her spine, so she followed him without a single attempt to defend herself. The crowd stepped away from their path, some of them looking at her with a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension, some of them ignoring her altogether. Once the door of Matthew's cabin closed behind them, the man walked over to his desk and sighed in a deep consternation.

"Well, that didn't take long. On the contrary, I'd say that's the earliest I've ever had to deal with a disciplinary problem on board. Clap, clap, Síofra. I'm impressed. Seriously, though, what did you think you were doing? Do you have any idea what would have happened had Bassett seen you? Or anyone else but me, for that matter? I hope you understand I still need to punish you, young lady. Do you have anything to say for yourself? Or do you go around punching people just because you feel like it now?"

Feeling guilty for her lack of control, Síofra basically glued her gaze on the ground. "I was defending my navigator."

"Care to explain?"
Matt raised his eyebrow questioningly.

"Do you know Casella?"

"Abigail Casella? The one who disappeared along with the Hestia and all its personnel? What does she have to do with it?"

"A lot. Her sister is my navigator and that guy was essentially making fun of her death. Look, I'm not trying to excuse myself - I know I fucked up royally - but I just... kind of had to deliver justice in the heat of the moment,"
she shrugged.

Disgust briefly mirrored on Matt's face, even though it was swiftly replaced by his usual professional mask. "Heat of the moment, as you call it, is no mitigating circumstance. You have grossly violated the protocol. I'm not saying I don't understand why you did it, but my feelings don't matter much here." Massaging his temples a bit, the man sighed again. "You know what? I'm assigning you to the cleaning duty of the D sector. For the entire year. And don't you dare to do as much as look at any superior of yours in a rebellious way because this is your last chance, got it?"

A wave of relief washed over her, making her feel so light she could probably defy gravity right now. "Thank you so much, Matt. I promise I-"

"No, don't "Matt" me. It's officer Thompson for you for the duration of this mission. And get lost before I think it over."

Whoops, I really dodged a bullet there, Síofra thought while returning back to her room. Becoming an instrument of divine righteousness was very satisfying, but risking her entire career for it just didn't seem like a fair exchange. Thank god Matt was there to save my sorry ass. I have to be less impulsive next time. More questions arose in her mind when D-13 finally appeared in her field of view. How was she supposed to treat Sanja now? Would it be awkward between them because some asshole couldn't watch his mouth? Could it possibly influence them negatively as a team in the future? Well, she hasn't revealed the info about her sister willingly, so it's probably for the best if I act as if nothing has happened and divert her attention to something else. Seeing no other alternative, Síofra gathered her courage and opened the door quietly.

"Sanja? Do you want to go practice in the simulation pods together? I know we technically aren't required to start today, but I have some time before I have to clean this damn ship and I am rather interested in the virtual reality's mechanics,"
the blonde offered, unknowingly mentioning her punishment in the process.
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Sanja's pace accelerated as she left the auditorium, looking at and speaking to nobody. But she wasn't so fast that the scene involving her fighter, taking place not far behind her, was beyond her awareness. She... she didn't just seriously... The navigator didn't dare finish the thought, making a beeline back to D13. The hell was Síofra thinking, resorting to such senseless violence on their first day?
Not that she hadn't wanted to give Jack a bloody nose. In fact, part of her frustration stemmed from the fact that her fighter had taken the shot she'd decided against. Rationally, she should have been flattered--grateful, that am almost-complete stranger had stood up for her when she'd shouldered such a low blow from a lowlife individual.

But there was nothing rational about boarding a ship when just over a year ago, her sister had gone missing with one. Rationality didn't seem to be her strong point at that given moment.

As soon as Sanja found herself alone in her room, that pent up anger rushed her veins like hot adrenaline, so intense that her closed fist met the wall. Not the most intelligent outlet for her frustration; on the bright side, there was no way human force could dent the alloy of which this ship's walls were constructed. On the not-so-bright side, she could feel the bruises forming on her knuckles. They're going to push; there are assholes on this ship who are going to push my buttons. They're going to try to put me over the edge; but they won't. Because I will not react. I won't...

Taking a seat on the lower bunk, the navigator hunched over, gingerly rubbing her sore knuckles as she willed her mind to go blank, for the anger to drain. Just when she thought it was out of her system, however, Síofra stepped through the door. And Sanja suddenly didn't feel like holding back.
"You sent someone to the med bay... on our first day," she began, pushed a heavy sigh from her lungs. "What were you thinking? You can't just... go and punch someone because they piss you off! And you're not the only one affected, either. If you get benched, then as your navigator, so do I. And I worked too hard to be here to be assigned to kitchen duty because my battle partner can't behave."

She was angry; and yet, she simultaneously found it difficult to stay angry at her fighter. There was too much genuine interest and sincerity in her offer to do some simulation training, not to mention that that was probably the best way to keep engaged right now and redirect her energy to something productive.
"Look, just... I don't need you to fight my battles for me," she said at last. "I pick my battles, and if one is worth fighting, then maybe I'll go there. Jack DeLuca is not worth it." As a response to Síofra's offer, she moved towards the dresser, where she'd stored her battle attire. Each fighter and navigator had been issued two different uniforms: the ones that they were wearing now, formal but comfortable, were meant for everyday work aboard the ship. Battle uniforms, on the other hand, were purposed for both virtual reality training, and combat in the actual Starfighters. Comfort was not key; they were tight and unbreathable, leaving little to nothing to the imagination. Sanja had been told that if it felt like a second skin, then it was a good fit. Sensors on the inside near the wrists, neck and chest monitored and recorded vital signs, tracked by central command. And, for the navigators, the fingertips of the suit were exclusively sensitive to the controls of the Starfighters.

Changing in close quarters was a little more uncomfortable, this time, what with the tightness of the suit's material. It felt akin to wearing a rain jacket that hugged every curve and crevice of your body. In fact, there was an entire subgenre of porn floating around the internet, thanks to the close-fitting suits, and it wasn't uncommon for women to be perceived as hypersexualized because of it. That was why many fighter-navigator pairs tended to share or identify with the same gender; there would be no end to the potential for sexual harassment, otherwise.

Securing the zipper at her throat, Sanja rotated her arms and shoulders in the suit to test for mobility. Strangely enough, her mobility didn't feel restricted in the least. To the left of her chest, a single white rectangle began to give off a soft glow, indicating it detected a heartbeat. "You good to go?" She asked Síofra, hazarding a glance over her shoulder. The fighter was, fortunately, dressed when she looked. Except for one small thing that was off. The corners of Sanja's mouth turned downward in a frown. "Huh. Apparently, your suit doesn't seem to think you're alive..." Without bothering to ask, she pinched the shoulders of Síofra's dark battle suit and pulled it back, tighter across her chest. Seconds later, that small, white rectangle lit up. Realizing too quickly that she probably should have asked before touching, her cheeks tinted a shade of pink. "Central control needs a way to know we're still alive out in the dead of space... let's go."

The two made their way to the training rooms without much trouble; the ship wasn't so difficult to navigate after glancing at the map. "Have you ever trained in the pods before?" She asked Síofra, as they entered the empty training room. Evidently, they'd be the first to grace the training pods with their presence. "Obviously, I didn't train as a fighter. But I've heard they don't focus as much on actually being in a Starfighter, than they do getting familiar with weapons and controls..." It made sense, where the navigator's job was to pilot the ships and line up the shots for the fighters. But the fighters, they had to have an eye to see the ideal shot to take. The training between the two might have been different, but in the end, always coincided.

Stepping into the first readily prepared pod that she saw, Sanja picked up the helmet from the front seat of the cockpit before settling into its snug interior. "These are different than what I'm used to," she confided. As soon as Síofra took a seat behind her, the top of the pod closed. "Feels a lot more like an actual Starfighter... but I guess that's the point." Breathing out slowly to ward off the claustrophobia of the helmet, her hand hovered over the large, green circle on the screen in front of her that would start the simulation. "You ready?"
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Síofra had expected wide range of possible reactions ranging from being ignored ostentatiously to flat-out refusal, but the swarm of accusations suddenly raining down on her head did catch her off guard for a moment. Wait, so she has actually seen me? Good grief, this day is getting progressively shittier with each passing second. Punching Jack had nothing to do with winning her roommate's approval and everything to do with putting an asshole to his place; Sanja finding out wasn't a part of her plan. Then again, rumors spread like wildfire, especially juicy ones with at least some basis in reality, so it had been rather naive of her to assume her navigator wouldn't hear about it from other crew members sooner or later. Hell, I should probably be grateful she actually got to witness it instead of someone spilling the beans. I bet the gossipers are going to twist the story beyond recognition in a week or so. Imagination of bored people wishing to have fun at someone's expense knew no bounds, so Síofra wouldn't be too shocked if the official narrative ended up being that she was actually pregnant with Jack's baby and the fight had occurred because he had told her to get an abortion. Experiencing such a soap opera scenario first hand would make them all positively giddy. Humans were social animals thirsting after drama, no matter how much they tried to deny it.

"Yeah, I know. Sorry for that," she hung her head in shame and scratched her arm nervously. The body language that spoke of unshakable confidence was gone, making her look like a shadow of her former self. Jack had definitely deserved the blow, but succumbing to the lowest urges while wearing the uniform meant to symbolize her commitment to the mission truly did her no favors. A moment of carelessness could have sent many years of intense training right into the trash bin, and the worst thing about it was that Sanja hadn't been exaggerating about her own involvement in this affair of her creation at all. The principle of collective guilt operated on an outdated system most institutions had discarded already, yet you couldn't escape it here even though they didn't actively enforce it. Navigator-fighter pairs were formed according to lengthy compatibility tests. It took a lot of effort to find the right person sometimes. Needless to say, when your partner went missing or misbehaved, there simply weren't people available to fill the vacant position. Hindsight was 20/20, though, particularly now when red mist of fury didn't obscure her rational thinking.

"I just couldn't help myself because I have a naturally low tolerance for insufferable cretins. I can assure you it won't happen again. When I feel irresistible need to punch someone next time, I'll direct my fist to my face instead. That's not forbidden as far as I know and it has the added benefit of curing me out of my anger issues," Síofra proposed a solution calmly. Thankfully, Sanja didn't want to dissect the topic and accepted her offer to train together without dwelling on her offense too much. What followed was a good candidate for the gold medal of the ongoing contest with working title: "My worst space-voyaging experience." Unlike many girls her age, the blonde preferred comfort over sexiness, so the latex-like material hugging her skin closely and accentuating her curves felt rather foreign to her. It awakened certain kind of half-forgotten self-consciousness within her and she had to wrestle with the sudden impulse to cover herself. Ugh, this is nonsensical. I AM clothed, so there's no need for me to be ashamed. Moreover, I'm going to spend whole eternity in this suit, which means I should get used to it quickly. C'mon, don't be so childish, Síofra, the fighter chastised herself. Everyone wears these, so it's not like they're going to point and laugh. And if they do, you can always punch them to cement your reputation of a mindless killing machine.

Laughter slipped past her lips when Sanja pointed out the suit's malfunction. "But what if I'm a zombie? That's livism! Racism against forms of life who don't have a pulse! I won't stand for this injustice where well-meaning creatures are deprived of their humanity through systematic-" Yet another unwarranted touch forced out a tiny gasp of surprise this time and crimson stained her milky complexion. It was innocent. She's a girl, Síofra reminded to herself to get rid of inappropriate ideas, but this argument didn't exactly hold water considering the fact she was a female as well and her interactions with fellow women had been anything but innocent. Something about the subtle change in mood from the navigator's side told her Sanja didn't really view at as a casual gesture, either. Could it be that they shared their interest in the same gender? Because she touched me in a manner anyone would regard as impolite and subsequently felt a bit ashamed? Yeah, what a brilliant deduction. Sherlock Holmes would turn green with sheer envy. "Of course."

"Actually, no, this is going to be my debut,"
Síofra admitted as the two arrived to the training room. "I had a fairly good results on other types of simulators and I don't expect it to be much different, though." The fighters usually had to rely on their reflexes and eye-to-hand coordination; skills which could easily be honed to perfection through religious dedication to video games. Saying it aloud would have been akin to social suicide, but the blonde had actually spent many nights trying to beat the current high score of her latest discovery she had been obsessed with. "After all, what would be the point of having to use them if they couldn't prepare us for the real deal?" Putting on the large helmet, Síofra took a seat behind Sanja and grabbed the controls. "Huh, weird. I thought it would be uncomfortable here since the pod is so small and all, but it's rather... cozy. I feel like a piece of puzzle that has just been placed correctly." Wanting to get a bit familiar with the pod first, she caressed each lever and button with the amount of gentleness typically reserved for children.

"Here goes nothing, I guess. Yes, I'm ready, or at least as ready as I can be." The world in front of her disintegrated into pixellated particles and when she blinked few times to solve the problem with her vision, it reassembled itself into the cold emptiness of space. The darkness that enveloped them was so intense one could drown in it. Only stars shining faintly in the distance brought some solace into this cheerless wasteland. "That is... excuse my language, but pretty fucking impressive. Okay, Sanja, lead the way. Show me how well you can pilot this beauty."
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Without further hesitation, the navigator tapped the screen, and the simulation began.

It truly felt like being inside a Starfighter--at least, in the sense that Sanja imagined it would feel. She, herself, had yet to take a fighter pod to do battle in space, but the virtual reality certainly lent the feel of movement in what was actually a stationary training pod. To get a feel for the controls, she took a few gentle turns, then a couple of sharp ones, experimenting with acceleration and brakes. "You all right back there?" She called to Síofra, realizing in hindsight that she should have warmed her before those roller-coaster spins. "If this thing really is anything like the actual Starfighters, then it sure as hell won't be a sluggish ride... the controls are really sensitive."

They weren't allotted much time for practice, however, before red triangles began to appear on the glowing green radar. Enemy pods... So the game was officially on. "I'm going to assume you know what to do," Sanja mentioned, before steering the ship towards the the flashing enemy on the screen. The enemy pod looked entirely exaggerated, with spines sticking out of its wings like a mutated sea urchin. Is this what they actually look like? Or does the EIA just have a really wild imagination?
The pod took a shot at them, but Sanja easily maneuvered them out of the way. Now that she knew where the blasters on the enemy were located, it would be easier to keep them out of its line of fire. "Going on a 45 degree angle," she announced to Síofra, giving her a heads up. "That should give you a pretty clear shot."

Really, there was no challenge in that first shot. Síofra effectively eliminated the threat with ease, and all was quiet again. "Huh. If I thought it would be this easy, I'd have brought a newspaper or something..." Sanja murmured, mostly to herself, but loud enough for her fighter to hear. "Is this honestly what combat is going to be like?"

As their fake starfighter continued to move through space, however, the level of difficulty did increase. They encountered what appeared to be an asteroid belt, one around which it was impossible to maneuver. The only way through was literally through it. "Hope you're not prone to motion sickness," the navigator mentioned, as the ride became laden with more tilts, twirls, and sharp turns, to avoid collision. But the asteroids, as it turned out, were the least of their problems, when more enemies began to show up on the radar. The skills of both navigator and fighter truly began to be put to the test.

"Shit... okay, just keep your eyes open for clear shots," Sanja advised, as she focused her energy on maneuvering through the asteroid belt, while simultaneously avoiding the increasing cluster of enemy ships. Síofra wasn't awarded many opportunities to fire, especially when a larger, far more menacing enemy ship showed up among the asteroids. It had the ability to fire in all directions, making it a near impossible target, on top of the smaller pods that still posed a threat.

"The hell is this? There must be forty of them!" Sanja hissed, biting down on her lower lip in concentration. The simulation had effectively set them up for failure!


"Síofra," she said, the gears turning in her head as a strategy formed. "If we take out the big one, it'll swallow the rest in the blast. Then all we'll need is to get out in time...If I take this thing full clockwise, then make a beeline for the big ship, you'll have maybe two seconds to get the shot you need." Two seconds, and that would be it. Or they'd be taken out by the mother ship's anti-matter canons. "How confident are you that you can do it? I think it's our only option..."
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Sanja was determined to meet the challenge of proving she could pilot the pod head on for it didn't take her long to start practicing fancy maneuvers capable of emptying contents of weaker stomachs. This obviously didn't apply to Síofra; only an exceptionally self-destructive individual could ever voluntarily sing up for a job that put their entrails through hell on a daily basis. One could use a plethora of insults to describe her in the most colorful ways and still be somewhat correct, but the label of masochist would have been a blatantly false accusation. No, the blonde didn't mind at all. Actually, her relationship with danger ran much deeper than lukewarm tolerance. Breakneck speed along with spins so crazy the borders between terms like "up" and "down" became blurred pumped pure adrenaline into her veins, making her brain release few happy endorphins in response. Just like every drug, even this one fostered addiction, and Síofra found herself hungry for more.

"It's sweet that you care, but I barely noticed anything out of ordinary. My bowels are practically made of steel, so keep it coming!" she reassured her navigator, almost forgetting this was a mere simulation. Authenticity of the movements trapped her in the illusion and since trying to snap out of it would have been counter-productive, Síofra embraced it instead. After all, the main advantage of playing pretend lay in its ability to fool your mind into thinking it was real, so why sabotage it through deliberate resistance? For all intents and purposes, her brain had accepted this situation as genuine. Enemies could no longer be dealt with via pushing the button that would shut down the program. It was just her, Sanja and the advanced weapon system inbuilt in their pod standing between them and utter destruction. "You bet," Síofra nodded even though her partner couldn't see it and clutched the lever tighter. Her heart was pounding in her chest wildly, excited at the prospect of some action, but her voice didn't betray a single emotion. Feelings simply didn't belong in the cockpit, period.

The first shot found its target with laughable ease and the predator within her roared in satisfaction. A child's play, Síofra thought despite her contentment. Ten bucks says this is just a warm up round. It has to be, otherwise this would be the most overpaid job in the entire galaxy. The navigator didn't seem to stand by her opinion, though. "Oh geez, Sanja, you just had to say it, didn't you? Don't you watch movies at all? Shit always hits the fan when someone complains the mission is too easy or asks questions like 'what could possibly go wrong'. You're clearly tempting the fate." Or, in this case, a very well programmed simulation, but Síofra didn't get to fix her statement for they were heading right for the asteroid belt the likes of which she had never seen before.

"Well, looks like we're in for a crazy ride, eh?" For a moment, the fighter felt grateful the burden of navigating the ship through danger wasn't resting on her shoulders as the weight seemed to be crushing. Her job which essentially boiled down to shooting at everything that posed threat to them almost looked primitive in comparison. Of course, allowing herself to make this observation apparently equaled to a thoughtcrime which earned her a punishment in the form of a fresh squad of enemies ready to fry them alive. Great, and now what? The video games Síofra loved so much generally offered cheat codes to get out of trouble, but the engineers responsible for designing the pod hadn't been kind enough to include this escape route in their invention. Luckily, Sanja didn't hesitate to come up with a plan.

"Confident enough for us to try it. I'm ready when you are." Resisting the need to close her eyes, Síofra purged all the unwanted thoughts from her mind and focused solely on her task. Inhale, exhale. The lever was beginning to feel like a natural extension of her body. Inhale, exhale. They were getting closer, but the opportunity to fire hadn't arrived yet. Shooting too soon would bury her chances of not butchering the shot that really mattered. Inhale, exhale. Her finger was getting a bit twitchy. One, two, three... Now! Breath caught in her throat for the few seconds of uncertainty; had she missed, condemning them both to failure? Then a wave of flames scorched the enemy fleet, signifying Síofra could congratulate herself for the perfect aim. "Fuck yeah, call me the conqueror of skies!" The happiness was short-lived, though, since new enemies appeared on the screen, this time approaching from the sides in a clear attempt to encircle them.

"Sanja, if you manage to get under one of them, we'll disrupt the formation and I'll be able to test out non-primary weapons," she suggested. The two continued practicing, going for increasingly complicated maneuvers to push the limits of what was possible just a little further. One of those daring moves rewarded them with a stray missile hitting their pod right into the windscreen and the seat sent out angry vibrations into her body as a clear "game over" message. "Damn," Síofra freed her head from the helmet and ran her hand through her hair, "that sort of backfired. And 'sort of' is actually a codeword for 'spectacularly'. Nevermind, at least we know trying to pull this shit off in a real Starfighter isn't going to get us anywhere unless the goal destination is coffin. All in all, I'd say it wasn't so bad for our first time. I've certainly had worse," she blurted out without really thinking and heat rose in her cheeks again. Wow, I'm really on a roll today. Beating up random people? Check. Sexually harassing my navigator? Check. What will be next, initiating a mutiny?

"A-anyway, would you like to go grab something to eat? I have no idea about you, but I'm starving. I'm probably going to devour furniture in our room termite-style if I don't get some nutrients soon."
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Sanja had to admit, Síofra seemed to really know what she was doing. The fighter had an eye for accuracy, and hands that accommodated. Paired her with her own near-flawless maneuvering, maybe their was some credit to be given to compatibility testing. A competent navigator and a bulls-eye fighter, hypothetically, was the equation to a perfect team.
Except for the fact that they appeared to differ in one very crucial area.

"I don't know if it's entirely safe," Sanja worried, at Síofra's suggestion to seize the opportunity to test some auxiliary weaponry. They could just as easily end the simulation if they efficiently took care of the enemies present, before the simulation decided to throw more at them. But, then again, maybe she had a point... There, in the safety of the pods where their lives weren't actually in danger, they had the freedom to experiment and practice, to get to know the controls and how effective they'd be in the midst of real combat. When your life was actually at stake was not an ideal time to become acquainted with weaponry... Maybe taking a few risks in the simulation wasn't such a bad idea. Anyway, they already seemed like they had a solid grip on the machinery... Perhaps adding on to what Sanja was sure was already a perfect score was possible?

Or... not.

There was no avoiding the stray missile that met their ship head on. Sanja's heart nearly felt like it would jump out of her chest; the pod was even programmed to respond as if it had been hit, vibrating and rocking, before conclusive words on the screen indicated an end to the simulation attack run.
Suddenly, the helmet she wore was more claustrophobic than ever. As soon as the top of the pod lifted, exposing the fighter-navigator team to fresh-air again (or as fresh as air could get on a space craft). Tresses of Sanja's russet curls stuck to her neck from perspiration. "Damnit... You know these are recorded, right? They're scored, so the higher-ups can decide who they'll be more likely to send out, in the case of alien attack. Reckless decisions like that will get us benched. We should have just stopped while we were ahead..."

But one glance at Síofra cut her rant short. She'd made a mistake--they had made a mistake, and like the fighter said, it was only their first go at a simulation together. It really could have gone over far more poorly. Once again, she was overreacting.

"Nevermind--I'm sure other people will bomb out worse than we did. We managed to keep going for twenty minutes... surely that must mean something."
Grabbing a bite to eat didn't sound like such a bad idea, at least, not if the two of them headed down to the mess hall together. Sanja wasn't convinced she'd be able to face an entire room full of people again, at risk of having someone ask her something about Abigail (or, worse, how it felt to be in space when her sister had gone missing the same way). Having Síofra around would at least mitigate the potential for anyone to feel like bothering her.

Leaving the VR training facility, the two made their way down to the mess hall, just in time for the lines to have died down, it would seem. The mess hall was packed with fighters and navigators alike, some sitting in pairs with their designated partners, while others clumped together in small cliques. Only the first day, and already people were forming friendships and trusts. Sanja didn't anticipate that she'd be a part of any of them; and she was perfectly okay with that.

"I can go try to find us a table, if you want to snag whatever's left for food," She offered, preferring the task of searching out some seats as opposed to standing in line, where she'd be more readily visible. Before Síofra could reply, she was already walking away to find somewhere (preferably a quiet corner) to sit.

But Síofra wasn't standing alone in line for long. "Hey--you're Sanja's fighter, aren't you?" A familiar face and voice approached her; the young man from earlier, fighter to the navigator who had harassed Sanja. The navigator that Síofra had sent to the med bay. "Not that should really be condoning violence or anything, but... My navigator was--is--a real asshole. I think I only got stuck with him because I'm the only one who can tolerate him... Anyway, I just wanted to apologize. To both of you. Just so there's no bad blood between fighters." Flashing an awkward smile, he offered his hand. "I'm Avery. Went to the same training facility as Sanja... and Abigail, for that matter, but... well. Jack won't apologize anytime soon, so I hope you can accept an apology on my behalf. Could you pass it on to Sanja, though? I'd tell her myself, but..." He glanced of Síofra's shoulder at the solitary, red-haired navigator towards the back of the room. "I don't think she really wants to talk. Not to me, anyway."
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In a direct contrast to her own go-with-the-flow attitude, Sanja was shaping up to be a pack of neuroses held together exclusively through perfectionism. Had she always been like that, going into angry tirades over every minor detail? Or could it be that her sister's death had sort of kicked her survival instincts into overdrive now when the same could easily happen to her and following all those little annoying rules to a tee was her way of coping with the risk? Did she think an exemplary behavior would protect her from the horrors lurking just behind the edge of the explored universe? Maybe, maybe not. Síofra wondered whose bright idea it had been to assign what were practically polar opposites into the same team in expectations of a smooth cooperation, though. Not that it bothered her personally, but if Sanja's reactions so far could be considered a good indicator of things to come, then a prolonged exposure to her antics would surely give her a heart-attack sooner or later. Knowing herself, "sooner" seemed like the safer bet out of the two.

"Chill out, Sanja," the blonde recommended to her partner, sounding like a kindergarten teacher explaining to her students food picked up from the ground shouldn't be eaten. Relaxed, kind yet uncompromising at the same time. "So what if everything is recorded? Are you afraid they're going to rate our performance as inadequate? Well, yeah, you'd probably be right since being shot down isn't exactly the dictionary definition of success, but we didn't fail out of sheer incompetence. Penchant for tempting our luck was our downfall, not incompatibility or clumsiness at the control panel. Okay, lesson learned, no more fucking around next time. Isn't it the entire purpose of the simulation? To weed out bad habits before they cause us to become a battle casualty?" Prepared to defend her opinion, Síofra subconsciously assumed something very similar to a battle stance, but her partner waved the white flag before the verbal jousting could even begin.

Huh. Have I been magically transported into an alternative dimension where people actually back off when they're wrong? Perhaps this partnership wasn't a mere roll of the dice based on numbers spat out by a cold, unfeeling machine. Maybe they were actually supposed to complement each other in a yin-yangy sense of that word. Looking at herself from a critical angle, presence of someone who would tame her temperament when it got out of hand would only help her grow as a person. Conversely, Sanja could benefit a lot from leaving her introverted shell. Nah, you're just over-thinking it. You are not on a symbolical journey to discover yourselves and fight your deep-seated emotional problems, you're here to kick some alien ass.

A seductive smell of freshly cooked meal welcomed them to the cafeteria and Síofra inhaled the scented air hungrily. "Am I having olfactory hallucinations or have my prayers for digestible food actually been answered? No, don't say anything; my heart is too weak to handle the harsh truth. My hopes have been dashed one too many times in the past, so it's a sensitive topic. Just let me find solace in my delusions, no matter how naive they might be," she closed her eyes theatrically. Sanja proceeded to waltz away, presumably to occupy a free spot for both of them, although Síofra did have a creeping suspicion her navigator just didn't feel like standing in the line. Eh, whatever. I can bring this sacrifice on the altar of our friendship because I'm just that awesome. A male voice suddenly severed her string of thoughts, dragging her back to reality. Hey, isn't it that guy from before? The one I encountered when teaching Jack how to treat a lady? Her guard was up immediately in case he had approached her to avenge his fallen comrade - better be safe than sorry - yet the carefully calibrated asshole radar she had developed over years soon told her Avery didn't register as one. Actually, he might be a bit too nice for his own good.

"Síofra Callahan," the blonde accepted his hand without hesitation. "Well, I'm a big fan of personal responsibility, so it's not really your place to apologize here, but it's a considerate gesture anyway. Thanks. I'll make sure to tell her when the right opportunity arises. Anyway, my condolences for getting stuck with Jack. He does strike me as the type that drowns kitties for fun. Has a doctor dropped him on his head as a newborn or does he have some beef with Sanja? Or Abigail?" Síofra found it hard to believe no prior conflicts had influenced his decision to make fun of her dead sibling; only super-villains from comic books resorted to such tactics. No, the intention to go beyond mere teasing and open not-so-old wounds had clearly been there. What could have motivated him aside from his general nastiness?

Meanwhile, Sanja was facing her own share of unexpected attention. She had been able to secure a relatively empty table for the two of them, but that didn't stop others from noticing her. The lonely figure amidst chatty cliques automatically attracted gazes. One of the groups in particular erupted into excited whisper, barely restraining themselves from openly pointing at her. The conversation was growing more and more intense with each word and, just like every heated debate, seemed to be halfway on its transformation into a full-blown argument. A dark-haired girl apparently didn't wish to deal with this nonsense any longer and stood up from her seat, heading towards Sanja. "Hi, I'm Emily. I don't wanna bother you, but aren't you the source of the latest drama on the ship? I heard that chick supposedly attacked that guy because they were competing for your attention. I call bullshit because it seems to be too early for love triangles, so what happened there?"
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"Eh, Jack is from a rich family that never made him accountable for anything, as far as I know," Avery explained, surveying the mess hall in case Jack was somewhere nearby. Unlike most navigator-fighter pairs, he didn't really tend to make a habit of sitting with his borderline-sociopathic navigator. If Síofra thought she had it hard being paired with her navigator, she had no idea what it was like having to learn to work and cooperate with the guy who'd been sent to med bay.

Grabbing a tray, he began to load up what the cooks had to offer--which was nothing special, but at least it was edible. "Try to enjoy the meat and vegetables while we've still got 'em," he advised Síofra, stocking his plate high with both. "Some of the veteran fighters on this ship have informed me that we'll only have it for a week, before everything we eat becomes non-perishable. Hope you're a fan of pasta and canned food; we might get home mad bread, apparently, if they're feeling generous. But anyway." Moving his tray aside to give Síofra room for hers, he went on to answer her question.

"So, I don't know how much of this is true, but I guess Jack had, like, a major, possessive crush on Sanja's sister, Abigail, when we were all still training to be navigators. But Abigail wasn't having any of it--not that I blame her. This is Jack, after all. But he's not someone who likes to take no for an answer. So he started to give her hell about it, and even dragged Sanja into his line of fire, shooting derogatory marks about the fact she's a lesbian... it was just really stupid and distasteful. But both she and Sanja ended up reporting him for sexual harassment. So neither of them have ever really been on his good side, and when Abigail went missing, I'm sure he took some sort of sick pleasure in the fact that she wouldn't be around anymore to stick up for her sister. Together, they were pretty much untouchable, but seeing Sanja without her now..." Avery cast a glance over his shoulder, at Síofra's navigator, who sat alone at a table away from everyone else. "It's... almost like she's only half the person she used to be. But she's still really cool, I promise, even if she's more distant than she used to be. And we'll all be too busy, I imagine, for Jack to have any time to pick on her."

Apparently sitting far away from people wasn't enough to give them the hint that they should leave well alone. As Sanja waited patiently, leaning on her elbows on the table in front of her, a shadow fell over her and the stark, white surface. When she looked up, she was met with an unfamiliar face. While she contemplated how to politely ask the girl to go away (whether she was a fighter or a navigator wasn't clear to her; she had yet to chance into her uniform), however, she was taken aback by her appraisal of the situation that had gotten Síofra a warning. "I... love triangles? What?" Heat rushed to her cheeks. She didn't know this girl, so unless information spread really fast (and she wouldn't put it past Jack), there was no way she should have known that her particular romantic interests would have made a 'love triangle' like that possible.

"I... what? No, Jack was being an asshole and my fighter stood up for me, that's all," she insisted--which was the truth--but the rouge in her cheeks might have hinted otherwise. She noticed a few people from the table the girl had stood up from were hiding ill attempts at their smirks and half-expect any of them to cachinnate at any given moment, like she was the butt of some joke. "Look, I'm not really in the mood to talk... If you're really that interested, why don't you talk to my fighter about it. She's the one who punched him, anyway."
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Oh, so the first significant thing I did on this ship was antagonizing a petty rich guy who probably plucks wings off insects because it's entertaining to him? Good, I see my suicidal inclinations are as strong as ever. Nevermind, surviving to enjoy the benefits of retirement is overrated anyway. Besides, it's pretty fucking stylish to leave behind a beautiful corpse. It was peculiar, but her unnervingly accurate inner compass somehow always led her to the greatest potential menace available while her mouth which liked to declare independence on her brain fairly often usually took care of the rest. Granted, "talk-to-the-fist" attitude deviated from her standard methods, yet the gist of it remained the same. She had angered someone influential again. Someone influential who likely held onto old grievances for whole eternity because that seemed to be their modus operandi. Yay for making new, powerful enemies! Shame they don't pay me for this, really. I would have been a millionaire by now had the world appreciated my talents in this department.

Appreciating Avery's advice, Síofra filled her plate to the brim with both meat and vegetables. The cafeteria may have been far from a five star restaurant, but she could feel her mouth watering anyway. Food was food, as far as the fighter was concerned, and anyone who bitched about its quality for reasons other than it causing total blockade of intestines unironically deserved to go on a forced hunger-strike. The fact her sweet mother primarily cooked in self-defense must have scarred her for life, sure, although it had also prepared for the military routine quite well. After a moment of deliberation, the girl grabbed a second plate and repeated the process so Sanja wouldn't have to waste her time in the line. "Eh, I admit loss of real meat is going to be a hard blow for my taste buds, but I'll endure it. If worse comes to worst, we can found a support group for carnivores and talk about the glory that is rare steak endlessly to numb the pain. And hey, at least we'll have something to look forward to when we return. Can you imagine just how much tastier everything will be after a year long fast?"

As Avery continued to speak, Síofra's face gradually grew more and more resentful. Disguising emotions had never really been among her strong traits, so now she looked like a serial killer contemplating taking her next victim for a quick torture session. "Okay, now I can say with absolute certainty that punch was worth it. Thanks for helping me erase last traces of doubt from my subconsciousness." How much of an entitled bastard did he have to be in order to not understand that people weren't his toys to play with? "No" had to be the most straightforward word in the entire dictionary and yet disturbing amount of individuals added alternative meanings to its definition, most often direct contradictions such as "convince me" or even "yes". Mocking someone's sexual orientation was just an icing on the proverbial cake. Síofra would have normally been quite satisfied since her prediction had turned out to be correct, yet fury overshadowed all lesser feelings. What was he even doing on the ship with the dubious history of harassing his fellow cadets? Shouldn't it have left a permanent stain on his records? Money talks, I guess, or they haven't gathered enough evidence to successfully expel his sorry ass.

"Jack isn't going to be a problem if I have anything to say about it," she reassured him cryptically. Even if good old violence was obviously out of question - Matt would eat her alive for another offense - warfare consisted of more than just physically destroying your enemy. With a bit of resourcefulness, those non-confrontational ways could do more permanent damage than any punch. In other words, if Jack didn't behave himself, he would soon discover she and her friends were not to be fucked with. Maybe it was just her big sister complex affecting her ability to think rationally since it shouldn't really bother her that much, but bullying someone in such a fragile state did trigger a protective streak within her. "Well, nice to meet you, Avery. Hopefully we'll get to speak together again soon," Síofra said her goodbyes and headed for Sanja's table. Strangely enough, it seemed her introverted navigator had somehow turned into a social butterfly.

"Ah, well, I'd love to, but she isn't there, so I went for the next best option and that's you," Emily explained, evidently a bit disappointed at her lack of cooperation.

"Who isn't there?" Síofra asked and put one of the plates in front of Sanja, bowing in a comically exaggerated manner. "Here, enjoy your lunch, ma'am. Finest selection of food on the entire Athena. If you happen to be a vegetarian, I can give up my portion of delicious vegetables in exchange for more meat. Anything for you, my lady. Except maybe for surrendering my meat, but that's only because you don't want to deal with me when I'm low on protein. Trust me, it's not a pretty sight and disadvantages outweigh any merits it could possibly bring."

"The truth is I was talking about you,"
the unknown girl admitted, capturing her attention fully. Could it be that gossipers had come out of the woodwork already?

"Is it about that little brawl shortly after the briefing? Have you come to hear my official version of the events that transpired before that fateful incident?" Emily merely nodded and Síofra opened her mouth so she could recommend to her to keep her meddlesome nose out of other people's business, but then a bolt of inspiration struck her. They were likely going to lead a smear campaign against her anyway, so why not have some fun and maybe tarnish Jack's reputation a bit in the process? "Alright, there's no need to hide it. Jack was making some very ungentlemanly advances on my friend here, so of course I had to defend her honor. We girls need to stick together in times of crises," the fighter lied without blushing.

"Wow, really? He seemed like such a nice guy..."

"Oh, he probably is. We all make mistakes from time to time and I'm sure he just got a bit carried away, so please, be discreet about this. I may have overreacted a bit, too. In any case, I'm sure he learned his lesson and I wouldn't want to ruin anything for him."
Of course, any equivalent of "don't tell anyone" translated directly to "inform all your acquaintances immediately" in mind of an average woman, so she expected this to spread like forest fire. Good. Emily mumbled farewell under her breath and returned to her table, eager to share her findings with her little group. "Hook, line and sinker," Síofra grinned. "And while we're at the topic, I met Avery during waiting in the line and he wants you to know he's sorry for his navigator's behavior." Even though her tone sounded casual, she actually approached it with utmost care, examining whether it made Sanja uncomfortable or not. Where exactly were the boundaries that shouldn't be crossed?
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Sanja could hardly believe what she was hearing, incredulous as she fixed her eyes on the girl. Was she for real? How explicitly did she have to articulate go away before Emily left her alone? Drawing a deep breath, the navigator prepared to stand, tell her off and walk out of the mess hall (with the intent to apologize to Síofra later on for bailing), when the fighter herself butted into the conversation, placing two heaping plates of food on the table in front of them. The redhead looked on in a mixture of gratitude and relief as Síofra rapidly deescalated the situation, sending Emily away at last. She hadn't realized how tightly she was holding her breath until she let it out in a deep sigh that relaxed her shoulders.

"I don't... need to have my honour defended," she said at first, unable but to feel slightly diminished in the presence of someone who was so much more easily able to diffuse tension than she was. "But... thank you. I don't think she would have left, otherwise. A disproportionate amount of people on this ship don't seem to know how to take no for an answer." Glancing at the plate in front of her, Sanja added, "And, no; not vegetarian. Thanks for grabbing me a plate before all of the good stuff was picked over."

Suddenly it felt as though she had nothing but gratitude to express to her fighter. Perhaps Síofra felt bad for having put them on the Commander's radar for punching Jack earlier, along with getting them killed in the simulation, and was now trying to make up for it by going out of her way to be helpful. But the truth was, the navigator had overreacted from the moment they'd met. She struggled to keep her cool while Síofra was nothing but the epitome of cool, and she had no right to fault the blonde for making light of situations that she'd blown out of proportion.
This was only one of hundreds of days that they'd be expected to work together. Even if she didn't feel quite human, the least that Sanja could do was pretend to be a decent human being and treat her fighter with a little more respect.

"Oh--yeah, Avery has always been pretty down to Earth. Even in space," she quipped, picking at the food on her plate as she willed herself to feel some semblance of an appetite. They wouldn't have fresh meat and vegetables for long; if she didn't try to enjoy them now, the opportunity might pass her up. "I don't know how he got stuck with Jack, and it really shouldn't be him apologizing... But watch your back, okay?" She looked up from her plate then, meeting Síofra's eyes. "Not that I don't think you can't hold your own--you obviously can--but Jack doesn't take well to not getting his own way, and that includes losing fights. I wouldn't put it past him to try to mess with you for throwing a punch. He'll find the best possible way to get under your skin and use it to his advantage..." In Sanja's case, that meant harping on Abigail's assumed death. Fortunately, Síofra didn't appear to be carrying the same sort of baggage, but everyone had their demons. And if Jack wanted to find out what they were, then he would, one way or another.

Managing to eat about a third of what was on her plate, the crowd finally began to get to Sanja. Too many glances accompanied by whispers cast in her direction made it all the more clear that Síofra had certainly made them the hot topic of conversation. With any luck, that would change by tomorrow. "I think I'm going to grab a shower and turn in early," she announced at last, standing from her seat. "Today's been kind of exhausting... I'll see you later, okay?"

Flashing an apologetic smile, Sanja made her way back to the bunk, stripped out of her battle-ready uniform and welcomed the hot water from the shower in their tiny, ensuite bathroom to wash the day off of her skin. When the heat at last coaxed her muscles to relax, she dried and stepped out into the less humid air of the bunk. Along with the uniforms, the EIA had issued pajamas, which only consisted of dark grey shorts and a paler tank top, both which felt too tight on Sanja's hips and around her chest. Definitely not equipped for the female figure; just another sign that the EIA was, at its core, still a little sexist and biased as to who they expected to recruit. "It's like they expect no one here to have breasts..." The navigator muttered to herself, pulling at the tight synthetic fibres of the tank top, before giving up and collapsing on the bottom bunk, wet hair and all.

Her body was exhausted, yet her mind remained wide away and working to process thoughts she'd rather not be thinking about. To take her mind off of that constant loop of regret and hindsight, she grabbed the flat datapad from the nightstand next to her and read over the agenda for the next day. Awake at 6am for physical fitness training...? Great. I thought that was just for fighters.
Tomorrow, it seemed, would be the beginning of yet another very long and very tiring day. So long as people stayed out of her face and gave her the space she required, maybe she'd get through, unscathed.
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"Of course you don't. I simply felt like it," Síofra pointed out calmly, although corners of her mouth were twitching. The implied intent that basic human decency didn't apply to her because she was strong enough to shield herself on her own should have been sad rather than entertaining, but something about her demeanor amused her. Did Sanja seriously think people only stood up for each other when they perceived the person in question to be too weak to speak on their behalf? If that's the case, I have some bad news for you, girl. You had some of the shittiest friends in existence. Not that Síofra considered Sanja to be her friend just yet; some handed out this title like cheap candy, but the fighter believed it meant more than just being able to spend longer periods of time with someone without actively trying to kill them. No, true friendship went beyond mere acceptance. Unless you were willing to steal your buddy's identity so you could go serve his sentence in a jail in his stead, you didn't get to enjoy her official seal of approval. Go big or go home was her motto and unlike those bound by good manners, Síofra didn't have to betray her values by pretending otherwise.

The food felt like a symphony for her taste buds with the meat practically melting in her mouth, so she took her sweet time to savor it. With fresh ingredients being such a rare commodity in the vastness of space, the blonde was determined to treat this meal as a great culinary experience instead of acknowledging the school cafeteria level of dedication invested in its preparation. Choosing to find beauty in the most mundane of pleasures instead of bitching about minor inconveniences could very well be the key element in preserving your sanity in these conditions. And since the proper food culture allowed no chatter while eating, Sanja was about to witness one of the strangest phenomenons occurring in nature; namely, Síofra voluntarily shutting up for more than five seconds. The warning to watch her back did make her look up from her plate, though. The girl's lips curled up in a smile, except not a trace of mirth could be spotted in that gesture. A cold fire burning in her eyes drew some disturbing parallels with a snake observing its future victim.

"Thanks for your concern, but I'll be fine. You seem to be forgetting two can play this game." The game also wasn't rocket science-tier complicated, either. Egos of bullies lay on brittle foundations and a single shove applied with the right amount of force could send the whole construction to its knees. Jack - a guy who still couldn't get over over his crush's refusal even after whole year had passed - probably didn't deviate from the formula much. There's no way he doesn't have some sort of inferiority complex underneath all that bravado. His behavior practically screams insecurity. "Okay, see you later then!" Síofra waved her navigator goodbye before turning her attention back to her meal. Sanja's discomfort over being turned into main protagonist of the hottest rumor circulating around the ship escaped her, so she simply assumed her colleague wasn't hungry anymore. Then the communication device on her wrist beeped, signaling it had received of a new message. Huh? Have I managed to score a secret admirer already? The fighter touched the screen lightly only to see Matt's name popping out. Alright, probably not.

"Just a quick reminder not to avoid your duties,"
Síofra read. "You'll find the equipment necessary in the utility room; I've sent you both the map and the password in the appendix. Enjoy and remember this wouldn't have happened had you acted like a civilized human being. I'll have someone checking on you, too, so don't you dare to slack off.

Swallowing the desire to respond with a venomous remark that would likely earn her another punishment, the fighter closed the message. Eh, what the hell, I should probably go do it now so I don't have to deal with it later. Procrastination was a never a good approach to practice, after all. The map guided her to her to her destination safely; to Síofra's infinite dismay, it quickly became obvious that absolutely no progress had been made in the delicate art of cleaning because the instruments available were rags, brushes and pails. Stupid science, always focusing on unimportant stuff such as ending world hunger and trying to invent a medicine that would cure cancer. Where are my sentient vacuum cleaners? Nevertheless, the blonde refused to waste more time with complaining and got to work. Once she finally finished the task, her back hurt and odor of chemicals had imprinted into her skin so deeply it was likely to stay there forever. Too tired to do anything else, Síofra returned to her room and practically collapsed on her bed. Shower or changing clothes could wait until tomorrow.

Sleeping with her uniform on proved to be a smart decision since shrieking sirens interrupted her dreams few hours later. Síofra sat up, squinting in confusion for a while, but then the mist in her head dispersed. Alarm in the middle of the night could only mean one thing, and it wasn't arrival of a delivery guy bringing them pizza. "Enemy has been detected, enemy has been detected!" a robotic-sounding female voice called out from the speakers on the wall. "Fighters, navigators, to the Starfighter room!" Panic started growing in her chest - didn't the aliens know it was polite to wait until they got familiar with the controls? - yet she silenced it before it could take over. Such a primitive feeling wouldn't claim her ability to think clearly. Síofra wasn't going to fall for such a primitive trap. "Well, fuck, they waste no time, don't they? Well, nothing like learning from experience, I guess." Giving Sanja some privacy, the fighter turned around until she dressed herself and then they ran out into the corridor together. Frightened faces of their comrades as far as eye could see offered a very poor consolation, so the blonde concentrated on forcing her way through the crowd rather than on absorbing everyone's mood. Defeatism could be terribly infectious. Not really thinking about it, she grabbed her navigator's hand and pushed aside anyone who didn't move fast enough without any regard for their well-being.

The aggressive policies paid off for they ended up being one of the first few pairs to get to the Starfighters. Or more precisely, they would have been able to get to them had access not been blocked by a bunch of older pilots waiting for them.

"Hmm, this is not half-bad," one of the guys looked on his watch, "your reaction time was fairly satisfactory. You'd still probably die, but you'd die with honor and this isn't a small accomplishment. In case you haven't understood yet, this was a false alarm. One of many trials to come. Yeah, fucking with you in all ways imaginable is a big tradition here. Welcome to hell, newbies."
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Sanja's slumber was fitful, at best. There was nothing comfortable about a mattress that felt like glorified cardboard, and her nerves ran so raw that every sound, from voices and footsteps outside her door, to the moment when Síofra finally came in and went to bed, that it took little to nothing to awaken her. The navigator tossed and turned, undecided as to whether she was too warm or too cold for a good deal of the evening, her blankets ending up down by her feet one minute, then pulled up to her chin the next. It was very, very late (or, by contrast, very, very early) before at last she succumbed to exhaustion, and slumber claimed her.

No sooner did she begin to feel herself drift, however, that the loud wail of a siren, accompanied by a rapidly flashing red light above the door of their bunk. Sanja sat upright, heart practically in her throat as an urgent voice over the intercom called all fighter and navigator pairs to the hangar immediately. They hadn't departed for outer space more than twenty-four hours ago... How was it that they'd encounter hostile life so soon? Were they even beyond Earth's orbit, yet? And, if so, why hadn't danger been detected sooner?

"They're not serious..." The navigator murmured, as if saying it aloud would make it true. But she knew better than that, and if they really required all teams to the hangar pronto, then there was no time to waste.

Scrambling for her battle-ready uniform, Sanja stripped out of her clothes without a thought to her modesty and slipped into the skin-tight material of a suit that was supposed to be efficient for being that much closer to outer space. She had yet to understand how the material was really supposed to hold up in a Starfighter without causing the wearer to become too hot, or too cold. "This is crazy... we've hardly even had time to practice in virtual reality!" She hissed, zipping the suit up the back before leaving the room with her fighter. "And I doubt everyone has even had a chance to train.. It hasn't even been twenty-four hours since we boarded!"

They were thrown into the throng of scrambling people, a crowd large enough that anyone with claustrophobia would easily have fainted. It didn't seem to bother Síofra, however, and Sanja found herself struggling to keep up with the blonde. "Hey, hold on--we're supposed to stick together!" She called, though the fighter was always several steps ahead of her, not afraid to push people out of the way. Sanja wished she had that gall, but if Síofra made it to the Starfighter before her, well, she'd have to wait for the vessel's navigator, in any case. What did she have to prove in pushing to the front of the throng of agitated bodies?

In the end, it didn't seem to matter. Because it wasn't real; it had been a drill.

"You... have got to be fucking kidding me." Sanja's shoulders slumped, and her heart decelerated among the various moans and 'come on's that the new recruits murmured. "I'd heard that they might pull a stunt like this, but I didn't think they'd actually do it... Haven't they ever heard of the consequences of crying 'wolf' when there's no wolf around?"

"Pretty shitty, huh?" Avery, just as bleary-eyed as any other recruit, sidled up to Sanja and Síofra as the crowd dissipated, with everyone returning to their bunks. "Hey, listen, though. My buddy, Alex, is one of the senior fighters on this ship. I just found out he knew they were going to pull this, so while everyone was running around like a chicken with their head cut off, he managed to, er, 'borrow' some booze from one of these smart ass's secret stores. If you guys are interested, a few of us are having a little get-together in the fitness facility after hours tonight to partake in some well-earned inebriation."

"'Well-earned'? Avery, we've barely just boarded this ship," Sanja chastised him gently. "And I mean... yeah, this was a pain in the ass, but I'm sure drills like this are necessary. If you guys are caught, you'll get into deep shit."

Avery scoffed. "If we're caught. Don't have such little faith, Sanja. C'mon, you should be there tonight. It'll be fun--don't worry, Jack is so not in on this."

"I've already just narrowly avoided a trip to Commander Bassett's office once," Sanja told him, glancing sidelong at Síofra. Their antics (at least, her fighter's antics) that had landed Jack in the med bay were still being talk about among their cohorts. "I'm not about to risk putting myself on her radar any more than I already am. Thanks, Avery, but I'm out... I'm going back to bed. I think we've still got a couple of hours before were actually required to be up."

Watching her walk away, Avery sighed and shook his head. "What a shame. A few drinks would do her good... oh well. If she changes her mind, let her know she's still welcome," he said to Síofra. "But hey, are you in? I find it can be really hard to get to know other people on ships like this, aside from your assigned partner. There aren't exactly any EIA meet and greets, so... we have our own social sessions." He grinned. "So, what do you say? Fitness facility at 23:00 hours. Though it's invite-only, so don't go spreading the word. There are too many people here who would rat us out."
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