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.” “Ma’am.” 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.