Generation Proxima

Generation Proxima by Samanta Panepinto Voyage YA

It would’ve been chrome if Juno waited ’til after this final exam to break up with me. I knew it was coming eventually—I don’t have my head completely in the airlock. But she’s got a real knack for timing.

We’re in line for routine hormone checks, of all places—the whole class lined up to get our veins pricked before we enter the class bay for our Physics final. Because why not test for all the things the 2Gens were created to do at once? Make sure we can build a colony on a new planet and repopulate it?

At least, that’s what I imagine the 1Gen mission council saying in their planning meeting, as they all sit around eating dehydrated cherries and plotting our future like it’s a game of strategy. 

I’m in line next to Juno, inching closer to Lee and her needle at the front. Juno’s going on about some drama between ZengHe and Dawn that I really, truly, could not give less of a shit about. I’m half-listening, but mostly thinking about the structural problem with my model building that’s sitting in my quarters. How do I get that weather spire to stand up? The problem’s been nagging at me all week. Michaela would say I’m “fixating.”  

“Are you even listening to me?” Juno’s voice cuts through my mental images of building blocks and model mortar. She’s standing with one hand on hip, her carefully messy ponytail flopping in her face.

“Yes.” No.

“No, you weren’t. You never listen to me. Do you even like me anymore?” Her voice is rising, and a hush goes over the line as the other 2Gens stop talking to listen in. Which is, of course, what Juno wants.

I rub my eyes, then run my hands through my frizzy dark hair, cut cropped in the back and longer in front.

Apparently, I take too long to reply, because Juno’s eyes well with tears. But I catch the little smirk of satisfaction that goes with them. She’s loving these theatrics.

I should’ve known it would end up like this when I went to her quarters that night to “help her with homework” and it ended in us peeling off each other’s jumpsuits. She’s always been the one to sniff out a scene. It’s honestly a shame the mission doesn’t need actors because she’s great at it. 

“Are you going to say anything?” Juno’s voice catches on the anything. Either she’s doing a very good impression of someone distraught, or she does really care about me a little. Either way, I have no idea how to handle it.

“I…don’t know what you want me to say,” I murmur, trying to keep my voice down.

“Ugh! That is so typical, Sol! Trying to act like how you think someone in a relationship is supposed to act. But that’s not how it works! I want you to say you want to be with me, and mean it!”

“Juno, I—” but I cut myself off. Do I want to be with her? Yes, yes, my brain answers itself hastily. Those nights in her quarters felt good. You don’t want to be lonely again.

It has been nice, these last few Earth-months: the routine of going to her quarters after hours, trying to show her my favorite vintage Earth movies, and getting about ten minutes in before abandoning.

It was chrome to have somewhere to go. Something besides my model buildings to take my mind off our ever-hastening approach to Proxima b.

Juno lets out a sob.

“I knew it! You know what? We’re done.”

And she storms to the back of the line where Dawn is hanging off of ZengHe, leaving me with sixty eyes on me and my proverbial dick in my hand.

I realize I’m hunching my shoulders in the way that’s become habit since my breasts came in. Michaela says to stand up straight and hold my head high if I’m feeling self-conscious. The trouble with that is: it makes my chest lumps more apparent, which makes me more self-conscious.

Ugh. My nipple tumors. My front-body nuisances. I wish my jumpsuit would hide them more, make them lay flatter, instead of accentuating them by cinching in at the waist. Wish I could steal one of the males’ suits without anyone giving me extra kitchen duty as punishment for misusing resources.

I try to stand up straighter without sticking my chest out at all. The result makes me feel like one of the emergency pods that the 1Gens call a turtle. All rounded back and awkward front.

I steal a glance to the back of the line. Juno has progressed to sobbing on Dawn’s shoulder. I catch Dawn’s eye, and she gives me a look like she wants to feed me my own guts after tearing them out through my belly button.

“Ms. Sol?” Lee’s voice jolts my attention back forward. Somehow, I’ve made it to the front.

I step forward and roll up my sleeve, doing an internal eye roll at being called “Ms. Sol.” If I focus on being annoyed at that right now, maybe I can avoid processing the emotional battery of what just happened with Juno. Or the existential panic of the ship’s imminent arrival at our destination, at which point I’ll be expected to cheerily build and reproduce, as is my purpose.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s the “Ms.” or the “Sol” that bothers me more today. Who thought it was cute to name me after the star that gave their planet life, but I have never and will never experience? The Sun, the thing that all the 1Gens go misty-eyed when they talk about, faces glazing over with memories of warmth on a balmy afternoon, while I grimace and nod, knowing only the cold metal and artificial UV light of the ship. Whoever named me deserves to get vented. And the “Ms.”? Well, don’t even get me started on that right now.

“Hey, Lee,” I mutter, holding my arm out.

“Hello, Sol,” she replies, pleasantly enough. She doesn’t look up at me, just reaches for my arm, like you know how this goes. I do. It’s the cold swab of alcohol and then the bite of the needle. The same as all the other million times they’ve checked my hormones to make sure my body will be habitable when we land. 

Lee’s a tiny 1Gen—shorter than me by almost a head, with shiny black hair that’s always pulled into a tight ponytail. Or, her hair used to be black, at least. I realize, standing there with the needle in my arm, that it’s more gray than anything these days. And her eyes are puffy, with more lines around them than I have in my mental image of her. Is she extra tired? Or just aging? 

I push the idea out of my head as quickly as I let it in. Of course the 1Gens are aging. They’ve been on this ship for thirty-six Earth-years. And they were grownups with PhDs when they left Earth to start with. But thinking about it makes me think about Michaela getting old and being gone, and I can’t deal with that thought. I need my mentor at least a little longer, even though these final exams are supposed to mark my passage into adulthood.

A choked sound rings out from the back of the line. Lee’s head jerks up—probably muscle memory from all her years of medic training—but she quickly rolls her eyes and returns her attention to the needle in my arm. I don’t need to turn to know that it’s Juno. She probably lost a few spectators and needed to pile on the dramatics to win them back.

The 1Gens tend to look at the social complexities of 2Gens like they’re a mildly amusing soap opera. They don’t discourage us from having sex: since our hormone implants make sure there’s no unexpected pregnancies, there’s no real reason to regulate our relationships. I think, unofficially, they also want us to practice, since our main purpose when we land besides building the settlement will be to populate it. Which, as Instructor Sharon explained with tight lips when we were twelve, will involve a boatload of sex. At least, certain kinds of sex.

Lee’s sensors beep with a reading. 

“Progesterone is fine, estrogen could use a boost. Not to worry, I’m adjusting your implant a bit for that.” 

“Great,” I say. The last time Lee gave me an estrogen boost, it made my chest lumps swollen and tender. Which is inconvenient when I’m trying to forget that they’re there. 

I must let more sarcasm than intended leak into my voice because Lee looks at me with a raised eyebrow. 

“Huh. Maybe it’ll do something for that mood as well,” she says as she types the adjustment into her tablet. 

“Sorry,” I mutter. It’s not Lee’s fault that going through puberty has made me want to eject myself out of my body into deep, frigid space. At least the implant stops my period while it ensures my womb stays habitable. “Thanks.” 

Lee nods and waves me off, already looking at her list for the next 2Gen. 

I press the button to open the hatch door into the class bay and slide through it. A smattering of desks are filled with the 2Gens who were in front of me in line, pawing madly through tablets in last-minute cram sessions for the Physics final. Instructor Sharon nods at me from her big desk at the front.

The class bay has gray titanium walls, like everywhere on this ship, but someone goes through the trouble of hanging posters all over them each year. Which might be kind of nice if they hadn’t been brought from Earth and are now thirty-six Earth-years outdated. Or more, I suspect. The one depicting famous physicists doesn’t even include Aminata Fofana, who developed the fusion engine powering this very ship.

Looking around at my peers, I wonder if this is what the great minds of the mythical Earth envisioned when they conceived this voyage. When they sent the 1Gens on their way with a hundred fifty frozen embryos, and instructions to implant them in the single-use artificial wombs after twenty Earth-years. Frozen embryos in fake wombs that would grow up to be this: me and my classmates. So, if all went to plan, we’d be almost at prime fertile age when we landed on Proxima b. Just enough time to build a settlement before getting down to business. 

The planners probably pictured perfectly-coiffed, serious, obedient little starshippers like Cassini, who at this very moment is sitting ramrod-straight with her tablet propped in front of her, a serene look on her face as she reviews what look like meticulously-prepared notes. 

But the Cassinis of the ship are few. Instead, there’s Ulysses sitting in the back corner, hands interlaced behind his head and legs spread wide, staring at Rosetta’s ass as she leans forward in her desk to whisper frantically to Licia. Just because the males are outnumbered two to one for procreation purposes, some of them think they’re the best thing since the zero-gravity latte. 

I want to tell him how extremely unspecial he is. How he could’ve been replaced with sperm on ice if the mission director hadn’t had a thing about absent fathers. Director Liukin couldn’t stomach the idea of our offspring not having stable father figures in our new civilization on Proxima b. 

Which is weird. Because it’s not like our setup when we get there is going to resemble the “normal” Earth family structure anyways—the one I see in the old Earth movies with one dad, one mom, and a kid or two. That setup is inefficient. A waste of good sperm to have just one male per female. 

So, since we’re already bucking tradition, it seems a weird place to draw the line. The way I see it, the most important thing is that everyone has someone to care for them. What does it matter if one of the people caring for you happens to have a dick? But I guess people get sentimental about strange things. 

Let me not be like Ulysses, though, and think I’m such a gift to the discipline of Physics that I don’t need to refresh. I pull up notes on my tablet and start thumbing through them. It’d be a shame if I let Juno distract me out of a good score on this final, jeopardizing my chances of getting one of the Builder assignments, the only one I’ve ever really wanted. 

The studying actually pushes the Juno situation to the margins of my mind, where I’m happy to let it rest for now. 

By the time the whole class has filtered in, everyone’s so engrossed in their tablet-cramming that Instructor Sharon doesn’t even need to raise her voice to get our attention. 

She does anyway. I’m not sure she has another volume. 

“Okay, 2Gens,” Instructor Sharon shouts. “I don’t need to tell you that this exam is important. You know we’re looking at this data to determine roles and assignments when we land. You also know we’re expecting to detect Proxima b on the long-range sensors any day now. So it’s pretty much your last shot to impress. Begin.”

The exam goes fine. Juno pops into my mind once or twice—an unbidden image of her hair spread across my pillow, a shadow of the swell I’d get in my chest when I made her laugh. But I’m able to push those aside. Plus, I’m good at physics. 

I finish the last problem and hit Submit. The score comes back instantly: 94%. Well, that should guarantee me the Builder assignment I want. 

I wait for the elation to hit. Or at least relief. But the score doesn’t release any emotion at all. 

Michaela would say it’s because I have “underlying shit to work out.” 

Instructor Sharon’s already looking at me when I glance up from my tablet. She frowns in approval and nods at me, having just seen my score pop up on her feed. From Sharon, that’s practically a hug and kiss. I flash her a half-hearted wave and push out of my seat, picking my way through the dwindling number of test-takers and into the hall. 

Juno is still hunched over her tablet, chewing her lip and squeezing handfuls of hair. Her ponytail has gone from artfully messy to utter mayhem. It gives me a pang of perverse pleasure to see her struggling. 

She knew I was into her before we started. She’d catch me staring in class, in the mess bay, when our suit-up drills coincided. I couldn’t help it. She’s got that shiny red-brown hair and those eyes…dark and sparkling all at once. I’ve never liked the way I look: I’m all angles, a long face and a nose that’s too big for it. I want a stronger jaw and cheekbones and features in proportion to one another, like Skeet Ulrich in Scream. But Juno told me I was beautiful that night. And it felt…really good.    

Nope. I don’t want to reminisce. 

But once I’m out in the cold hallway, with no more finals to study for and nowhere I need to be, looking backward feels much more inviting than looking forward. And besides, isn’t Michaela always telling me to feel my feelings instead of pushing them away?  

Okay. Here goes. Feelings. I’ll let my feet walk me around the ship and…feel them. 

I’m…upset? 

“Upset” seems a woefully inadequate assessment of the situation. But I guess it’s a place to start. 

I do feel out of sorts. But not strictly because of Juno ending things with me. I’ve known she isn’t right for me since I made her watch Galaxy Quest with me and she hated it. (Sol, this is…not what space travel is like. I don’t get it. Can’t we watch Pride and Prejudice?) 

Even so, Juno added softness to the harsh monotony of life on board. Our evenings together gave me something to look forward to. 

And now I’m staring down the bleak prospect of the rest of my existence. My future, filled with terraforming and compulsory procreation. All the reasons my stomach turned over when Command made the announcement last week that they’re expecting to spot Proxima b any day now. At the time, I pretended the feeling was excitement, like everyone around me. But if I’m honest, I know it was at least part dread. 

My feet take me to the greenhouse. Usually, it gives me a little boost to sit in here when I’m in a funk. Michaela says it’s the plant life simulating nature, and the “sunlight,” both of which have proven mood-boosting properties. I push through the first doors to the vestibule and wait while I’m decontaminated, then move into the humid, UV-lit oasis. 

The greenhouse is vast: filled with rows of edible plants that would take hours to walk all the way around. That’s the functional part. But my favorite spot is just a little ways from the entrance: a tiny corner that serves no purpose at all, except being peaceful and pretty. 

It’s a flower garden. Blossoms of all different heights and sizes and colors. Towering sunflowers, turning as the light fades from one side of the greenhouse to the other, mimicking an Earth-day. Roses, stately and thorny. Wildflowers growing around the taller flowers’ ankles. A little bench, wide enough for two butts, to sit on and just stare at them. 

Which I do now. The pollinators love this corner, and I’ve lost hours watching them flit from bloom to bloom, tiny and impossibly complex. Their low buzz calms me a bit. At least enough to allow me to think, really think, without feeling panicky. 

So far, my whole life has been preparing to land, settle, and populate. And I am excited about parts of it, especially if I get the Builder assignment. It’ll be chrome to get off the ship and be able to actually create something. 

But the procreation piece…I try to picture myself pregnant with Ulysses’ fetus, giving birth and nursing and all that. My chest lumps getting even bigger. And I can’t do it. When I try to imagine it, it’s someone else’s face. 

I don’t mind the idea of kids in general. Babies in the movies are cute and funny. I could hang out with one. Maybe even parent one. But turning my body into a walking incubator with swollen nipples? It makes me want to melt my insides and let them flood out through my nose. 

But that’s why we’re here. What’s the point of building a new civilization if there’s no fresh generation to keep it going? I was created, groomed, and trained for this exact task, right down to the pairing of my parents’ genetic material to optimize intelligence and physical prowess. So I’d have top-notch DNA to pass on. To give the human race its best chance at survival. 

I have two jobs: build and reproduce. Then I can die in a meteor crash, for all the mission directors care. 

Really. We were all reminded of the directors’ zero tolerance for violations or failure to perform when one of the medics, Jay, was caught stealing pain meds from sick bay for personal use a few years ago. The 1Gens tried to keep it quiet, but everyone knows they vented him the same day he was caught. 

So I can’t exactly just not perform my purpose. What use to the mission is a Builder who won’t procreate? There won’t be room in our new society for anyone who serves only one function. We all have to do both.  

I need to talk to Michaela. 

The wave of warm air in the exit chamber washes over me, blowing away any pollinators that tried to hitch a ride. I say a silent “sorry” to them. It’s not a crime to want more from your life than what you were brought on this ship to do.

It’s a short trip to Michaela’s office, along more steel-riveted halls flanked by big windows into space. The door is closed, like always, shining chrome against the dull steel jamb. The nameplate stares at me as I knock:

Michaela de Silva, Licensed Mental Health Counselor

United States of America

“Enter,” she says.

Michaela’s office is like no other space on the ship. Where everywhere else is sleek and modular and made for function, this office is plush and clearly made for humans. From the thick cotton rug to the squishy leather couch to her maple-wood desk, everything is made from natural materials found on Earth. Which she did on purpose, like she does everything. Something about giving her patients a connection with home. Her 1Gen patients, of course. For us 2Gens, the ship is “home.” Or, as much of a home as you can have when you’ve spent your whole life traveling from someone else’s home to a home that doesn’t exist yet.

Michaela herself is behind her big wooden desk. She glances up from her tablet when I slide through the door, and nods for me to sit down on the couch. Her smooth dark hair streaked with gray is tied back in a neat bun, and the crease between her eyebrows shows she’s thinking hard. She’s gotten more lined in the last few years, the folds on her copper skin deepening and extending.

She sets the tablet aside and fixes her attention on me. I squirm under her gaze, picking at a seam on my jumpsuit leg.

“What’s bothering you?” she says, after a moment. She can always tell. I guess that comes from a) being a professional, and b) being the closest thing to a parent I have in the Universe—even if she was assigned to be my mentor and had no part in my actual creation. That was Leon Peters and Abbi Colangelo. An Olympic marathoner and NASA engineer, respectively. It’s public record that they donated their reproductive cells to make the embryo that became me, which is as clear in my long legs and analytical brain as it is in the ship’s database. But that doesn’t make them my parents. Michaela’s the one who’s been here my whole life.

“I’m just…I dunno. Juno broke up with me this morning.”

Michaela lowers her chin at me, says nothing. She can wait me out in silence as long as it takes for me to spill.

“But that’s not it. Or, not completely. I knew Juno and I would break up eventually. I didn’t dream of having a hab with her when we get to Proxima or anything. It’s like…the breakup, combined with having finals, and the announcement that we’re supposed to detect Proxima b any day now, maybe, it made me think about what’s next. And it just feels really…bleak.”

Michaela nods.

“Say more about what feels bleak,” she says.

“It’s like. I was created for a purpose, right? A purpose for the greater good of humanity. And it’s supposed to be an honor. I’m supposed to be brimming with satisfaction and job fulfillment. But honestly? When I think about landing and setting up habs and terraforming and popping out babies? It just feels kind of…I don’t know. Like I wish there were more mystery to it. I wish I didn’t know exactly how my future was going to look. Or at least, I wish I had some more choice? Okay, like…this is kind of dumb. But you know how at the beginning of Galaxy Quest everyone else is so excited, but the cast feels like they’re just going through the motions? I kind of feel like that.”

I pause, take a breath. 

“And I really wish my future didn’t involve being pregnant. I just…the thought of that…I don’t know, it feels wrong. Like my body isn’t meant to do that. Even though I know technically it is.” 

Michaela waits a moment, probably making sure I’m finished. She told me once that people tend to say what they really feel when you let them talk longer than they’d planned for someone to listen. 

But she speaks now. 

“I have something for you,” she says, rolling her chair back and coming around the desk to the closet behind me. Her jumpsuit, the navy-blue of the 1Gens, fits her perfectly, like it’s molded to her body. 

I wish my life would mold to fit me like that. 

Michaela turns around with a pile of folded gray fabric in her arms, the exact color of the jumpsuit I’m wearing—the women’s cut that feels all wrong on me. 

She drops the pile in my lap. 

“Just one for now,” she says. “It should fit, as long as you haven’t grown too much since your last physical. If this one feels good, we can make your other set with the same specs. I saved the pattern on the fabricator.” 

I shake out the heap she dropped on my lap. A jumpsuit. But it’s not shaped like the jumpsuit I’m wearing. This one has square shoulders and a straight hip that looks…I guess it looks the way I picture myself looking. 

“Where…?” I blurt. Resources are tightly regulated on the ship. You can’t get so much as a spare sock out of the fab department. 

Michaela shrugs. 

“Angelo in fab is an old friend. Told him I’d trade my next suit for this one. What do I need with a new suit anyways?”

I eye the faded joints of the suit she’s wearing. When I reach for my voice, I find a tiny whisper.

“Thank you.” 

She waves this off. 

“Well? Try it on!” 

I feel a grin crack the edges of my face. The way the muscles strain tells me it’s been a while. 

Suddenly, I can’t get out of the suit I’m wearing fast enough. I scramble for a second in my white undershirt and briefs to grab the new suit then step into it. 

The legs fall exactly to the tops of my feet, the sleeves to the meat of my hands. 

“Come see,” Michaela says, opening the closet door to reveal a full-length mirror. 

The suit squares off my shoulders and falls straight to my hips. My legs look a light-year long. 

I shake my head, loosening the shaggy ear-length haircut I bribed Rykard in Personnel to give me. Cutting off my long ponytail felt like decreasing gravity by a whole g. 

If the haircut made me feel lighter, this suit makes me feel more solid. Like I was something less-than-corporeal before. 

“You look chrome, kid,” Michaela says. She’s beaming as she leans against the door, arms folded. “Come on. Can I drag you away from admiring yourself?” 

She settles herself on one end of the couch. I follow to sit on the other, marveling at the way nothing pinches my waist as I sit down. 

“Now. Let’s talk about your bleak future.” 

I look at my hands. I feel guilty now, for coming in here so dejected, only to have my spirits raised so much by a stupid suit. 

“I was being overdramatic. I—”

“No.” Michaela cuts me off gently. “You have every right to feel frustrated with the situation you were born into. You didn’t ask to have the future of the human race put on your shoulders.” 

I open my mouth, then close it. Yes, exactly. But I’ve never heard a 1Gen say it. 

“But this mission was the best option on a long list of terrible options, and we’re here now, so we’ve got to work with what we have. The thing is, the people who designed this mission didn’t know you. They didn’t factor in your exceptionality. But they’re back on Earth, and we’re here. So why should we limit ourselves by their lack of vision?” 

Michaela smiles, probably amused at my gaping goldfish face. 

“You say being pregnant feels like it isn’t meant for your body. And yet, that often feels like the most important thing we have you kids for. Repopulation. I know the way everyone talks about it, it feels like the only thing. But what good is creating new humans if they’re born into a void? Society is more than just the presence of life.”

She takes my hands in hers, bores into my face with her oil-slick eyes. 

“Now, it’s a shame they only sent us with enough artificial wombs to grow you 2Gens. They were expensive, considered a luxury, didn’t want pregnancy interfering with ship business, yadda yadda. But there will be more roles. This mission values efficiency way too much to let anyone’s talents go to waste. We’ll figure it out as it comes. We’ll find a role in repopulation that feels good to you. Maybe it’ll involve pregnancy, maybe not. But it will be critical, and it will recognize you as the whole person you are. I’ll do everything I can to ensure that.” 

I’m so grateful for Michaela. Every 2Gen has a mentor, but some of them barely speak. Michaela doesn’t have to come through for me like she does. 

“For example,” she continues, a glint in her eye. “Your hormone implant? There’s no reason it couldn’t be programmed to do things besides prep your womb for pregnancy. It could make extra testosterone, just a little. Enough to make your voice a little deeper, maybe some chin hairs. Definitely make you smellier.”

I can’t do anything but stare at her.

“That’s…an option?” I manage, finally.

“Not technically, according to the mission directors. They’d probably call it misuse of a mission technology. But it’s certainly possible. On Earth, people used hormone therapy to make their bodies line up better with their minds. I wonder if making yourself a bit more masculine would feel good. Make you feel more at home in your body. I’m just saying there are options. We’ll get around the mission directors. We’re smarter than them.”

I manage a nod, suddenly certain that any attempt to speak will end in tears. She’s speaking casually, but we both know a misuse of resources like that could get her in serious trouble with the mission directors, maybe even vented. Or whatever the equivalent will be once we land. She’d risk all that for me? 

The ship’s announcement system breaks up the moment with the ear-rending beep that’s meant to jerk you out of the deepest slumber. 

Attention, crew. Our long-range sensors have detected our destination. We will arrive at Proxima b in approximately thirty-four stardates. Move to final phase preparations. 

The whole ship seems to go silent when the announcement finishes. The regular quiet buzz of human activity is absent. Michaela closes her eyes and breathes. 

Then, cheers erupt from the halls and adjacent chambers. Michaela’s eyes flutter open and she breaks into a smile, exhaling deeply. 

“We’re almost there,” she breathes. But she’s not saying it to me, it’s like she’s putting the sentence out into the universe to see how it reacts. Apparently, it approves, because she says it again, louder, squeezing my hands that she’s still holding onto. 

“Sol! We’re almost there! I know we’ve been expecting to pick up on it any day now, but somehow…”

She trails off, shaking her head. I don’t need her to finish the sentence to know what she means. That even though we’ve had plenty of warning in the last Earth-month that we’re approaching our destination, somehow it never felt real. Until now. 

I think it would be physically impossible not to smile back at the excitement in Michaela’s eyes. She’s been waiting thirty-six Earth-years for this. Probably longer, since who knows how long she was preparing on Earth before the mission. 1Gens are the cream of the crop in their respective fields. They had to be. And they had to be willing to leave everything they knew behind, permanently, to go on this mission. They had to believe in it that much. 

Looking at Michaela now, it suddenly clicks that she needs me just as much as I need her. And I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m about to be a fully-credentialed member of the crew. 

And what Michaela needs right now is someone to celebrate with her. Despite the fact that the mission has limited my options in a lot of ways, this is a choice I can make: I can choose to show up for Michaela the way she’s always shown up for me. 

I squeeze Michaela’s hands back and, on a whim, pull her to her feet and spin her around. She lets out what can only be classified as a giggle, looking younger than I’ve seen her in years. My insides feel a bit lighter. 

“Here,” she says, letting go of my hands and trotting back over to the closet where she’d been hiding my new suit. She rummages for a few moments before pulling a green-tinted bottle out of somewhere deep in the back. 

“For special occasions,” she says, breathless. “I think this warrants, don’t you?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“Stand back,” she says, untwisting the wires crisscrossed over the top of the bottle. “I haven’t done this in…a while,” she finishes, shaking her head. 

I’m in the middle of wondering what dangers this bottle could possibly hold, besides maybe being easily breakable, when something shoots out the top of it at warp speed and ricochets off the ceiling. 

I react instinctively, a whole life of safety drills taking over my body. 

More giggles from Michaela make me look up. She’s still standing, a few feet from where I’ve hit the deck in what I realize, too late, was a gross overreaction. 

“It’s just the cork,” she laughs. I’ve never heard her laugh this much. It’s pretty cute, incongruous as that is with her professional veneer. A high, clear, tinkling sound. 

Now she’s taking a sip, straight from the bottle. She closes her eyes and swallows slowly. 

“Mm. That’s good. Come here, try some. Go slow, though. We actually don’t know how alcohol will affect 2Gens. Most likely, you’re all serious lightweights.” 

I unfold myself from the floor and take the bottle from her cautiously. I know about alcohol from the movies: the stuff that makes people fall over and say dumb things that they were thinking all along. It’s intriguing. 

I tilt the bottle up, letting the tiniest sip into my mouth. It’s unexpectedly fizzy, like filling my mouth with velcro, but pleasant, somehow. And light and fruity and just a tiny bit sweet. 

I take a bigger gulp. This one bubbles its way down my throat, a few of the bubbles feeling like they escape the back and visit my nose and brain. I hiccup, surprising my whole body. 

“Okay, easy there,” Michaela swipes the bottle back, grinning. “Hey. What do you say we join the party?” 

Michaela nods towards the cheers in the halls, the chatter that’s only grown louder since the announcement. 

I hesitate. I don’t want to leave the safety of Michaela’s office. Being in here has let me forget everything that went on this morning with Juno and Dawn and ZengHe—who are probably all furious at me based on whatever story Juno has fed them. But I’m a part of this crew, even if I end up fulfilling a different role than I was intended for, and the crew is out there celebrating. Michaela cups the back of my head gently. 

“Listen. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I haven’t forgotten, and I won’t forget. We’ll get there, one day at a time.” 

I nod. 

“One day at a time,” I echo. “But today, we celebrate.”

“We celebrate. Let’s go.”

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