Finlay’s alarm blared at eight a.m. ship’s time, waking him from another dream about Alaia. He opened his eyes to a room flooded with cold light. The stale, chilly air of the ship filled his lungs, and the distant engines whirred sharply.
For one moment, he still felt her arms around him.
He screwed his eyes shut, trying to savor the feeling, but it was already fading. He groaned and hauled himself up.
Seventeen days to Earth.
Reports flashed by on his personal viewscreen while he dressed. The passengers weren’t happy. They were never happy. The Golden Bird was a cheap option for offworld travel, but it was cramped, it smelled like recycled fumes, and its walls were thin and blank.
A star streaked by as he glanced out the single window. Their speed blurred it into one long trail, like a candle flame blown sideways in an empty winter night.
He’d been in space too long. He needed to get back to Earth. Back to Alaia.
They weren’t married—yet. She always had a reason to wait. Sometimes through the long weeks of travel, she felt even more distant than Earth. But he’d convince her. Someday.
In the hall, he nodded to Cynthia, meeting her mismatched eyes. His engineer was more metal than human, but her smile was the warmest thing on this cold ship. She tossed her hair out of her face and saluted. “Morning, Captain.”
He smiled back, though he didn’t feel it. “Morning.”
“There’s coffee. Should I bring some to the bridge for you?”
He felt this smile a little more. “Yes, please. Thank you.”
Night and day shifts crowded the bridge, exchanging laughs and yawns. Finlay sank into his chair, staring out the viewscreen. Nineteen hours until he could call Alaia.
They ticked slowly by, one inconvenience after another. Hour three: coolant leak. Hour seven: a fight between passengers. Hour eight: a fight between crew. Hour twelve: meteor impact. Cynthia was on the bridge long past her shift’s end repairing the damage, her bionic eye flickering, her brow creased into a distracted frown.
At hour fifteen he finally turned in, but lay staring at the ceiling until his second alarm blared at two a.m. ship’s time.
Nine a.m. EST.
The comms were full of static. He bent over the console, waiting for her to pick up. His eyelids were heavy with sleeplessness, his shoulders heavy with a hundred burdens.
She usually only had a minute to talk. If she was even in her office. He tried again.
More static. It drifted around him like waves. He was floating, weightless. Sunlight touched his face. Fingers tangled with his in the water. Alaia floated beside him, tanned skin glistening, water beading on her nose, eyes crinkling into an uncertain smile. “Captain Finlay?”
That wasn’t Alaia. She never called him Captain.
He blinked, hard, and lifted his head from the console. It was Cynthia, and there was still nothing but static on the comms.
Her metal fingers lifted from his shoulder. “Sorry, sir—I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s—fine.” He staggered up, glancing at the screen: 4:53 a.m. “I—I should go.”
He dropped like a corpse into bed and woke to his alarm two hours later.
Sixteen days to Earth.
The hours blurred together. Cynthia brought him coffee without asking. Another fight between passengers: same two, same argument. He shuffled their quarters to separate them. The meteor strike had damaged systems that would take days to repair. He put extra crew on it, knowing it would cost them all sleep.
Five hours until he could call Alaia. Then three. Then one.
“Michael? I only have a minute.”
His shoulders unknotted for the first time in days. “Hey, baby. Feels like it’s been forever.”
“I’m sorry.” She sounded so far away, echoing over the long, long distance. “I’ve been so busy.”
“Yeah. It’s been crazy here—”
“Look,” she interrupted, “could we talk more tomorrow? I have a plane to catch.”
He bit his lip. “Sure. Love you.”
The comms flipped off. He exhaled shakily and went back to bed.
Morning. Fifteen days. His alarms felt only minutes apart. He scrubbed a hand over his stubble. Counting the hours didn’t make them go faster, but he couldn’t stop.
Hour two. Another coolant leak.
Hour four. Navigation shorted out.
Hour ten. Comms down.
“I’ll fix them on time, sir, I promise.” Cynthia fiddled with the controls, her metal knuckles ticking. Finlay barely had the energy to nod.
Two a.m. Another alarm. He could hardly make himself stumble to the bridge. He dropped into the chair, fumbled with the comms.
Was he too late? Was she busy?
He dialed again. There was less static tonight—Cynthia must’ve tuned the comms for him—but it only made the emptiness louder.
He rested his forehead on his fist. He couldn’t do this. He needed her. He needed not to be alone.
Cynthia. He turned. “What are—”
“Every night.” She twisted her fingers, metal against flesh. “Every night I review the comms logs. Every night I hear you, telling her you love her. She… never says it back.”
His chest ached. He opened his mouth but had nothing to say.
“You’re so lonely. You need someone to listen, and—she won’t even do that. She’s never there, Captain,” she whispered. “Not when you need her.”
His eyes welled. Her figure swam like quicksilver.
“But I’m here.” She stepped closer. “I’m here.”
Finlay stood unsteadily. Cynthia’s right eye flickered out of sync with her left. Her lips trembled.
She was here. She’d been here all along, going out of her way for him. Nervous. Helpful. Eager to please.
He took her hand. Everything else vanished—rank, protocol, the emptiness of space. Everything but her fingers, cool as water, and her sudden smile, as warm as sunshine.
A call lit up the console. He reached down, flicked the switch, and the light winked out like a candle.