This story is by Claire Chandler and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Gravity may have brought Lairn down to earth but her mind was still airborne. Returning home the glow from the kitchen window welcomed her, it was comforting and safe although only a room in shared barracks. Things were going well, looking up. After years of surviving by luck on the street she now had a job that she was good at, and she was getting noticed by senior officers. She’d even been assigned to the same unit as her old mate Jack. Not bad for age seventeen with no family or education. Oh, she loved to fly. She’d been doing it practically since she could walk. She would be mad to leave this, crazy to abandon a place where she could see a path for her future.
No one else in their unit spent any time in the kitchen so light in the window meant Jack was home. Hopefully it also meant dinner as she was hungry and Jack knew food. Even his soup and bread would not disappoint. She opened the door into the kitchen, breathed in and smiled. It smelt amazing and set her stomach rumbling. Warmth from the kitchen lit up her face. Was she blushing?
“Hey,” said Jack, looking up from the table where he was finishing his meal, “You’re later than I expected. What have you gotten into now? Trouble?”
“Far from it! Respic took me out in the Big Beast after my shift finished. We were going to have a picnic, but we, ah, didn’t quite get round to it…” She realised she was grinning. And that the blush was real, not just from coming in from the cold.
“You are outrageous,” said Jack, handing her a cold beer but declining to return the grin.
“Don’t be so serious,” Lairn said, sticking her tongue out. The conversation wasn’t going quite how she anticipated, she’d wanted to share her fun with her best mate. She dropped her things and went to investigate the soup. “Pumpkin! How creative…” Filling a bowl she sat opposite Jack and began to eat.
“You don’t think the amount of attention Respic is showing you is unusual?”
Lairn shrugged and slurped her soup.
“I asked around and he has a terrible reputation for picking the best flyers of each intake for ‘special attention’. Especially the female pilots! And none of them seems quite as promising as everyone first thought when he’s finished with them.”
“He says I’m a natural flyer. Let me fly the Big Beast on my own.” She really had to stop grinning; it was only going to infuriate Jack even more.
“Are you mad? You’re not rated to fly her! Tell me you didn’t go orbital unauthorised? You’ve barely out of probation! You finally have something to work towards that’s not just surviving on the streets…”
“You know Jack,” Lairn snapped, “This is actually none of your business. You’re my oldest friend, the nearest thing I have to family, you built the first thing I managed to get airborne, we’ve saved each other’s necks too many times to count. But on this…” Lairn stopped, too frustrated to put her feelings into words. Jack stared at the wall. Lairn stared at the floor.
“She flies like a dream by the way. Such power…”
“Don’t think you can win me over with tech porn. You pilots all think you can push the rules don’t you? And natural ability doesn’t mean you don’t need to focus!” said Jack, interrupting her.
“Just because there aren’t any dreamy senior engineers to take you out to lunch.”
Finally Jack started to grin. “I’m serious Lairn, watch yourself. Be careful.”
She smiled and stood up then kissed him on the nose. “Who needs a big brother when I’ve got you! I’m going upstairs, see you tomorrow.”
Lairn left before first light the next morning as usual. She used the time before her shift started to increase her flight hours. There was only an emergency crew at base when she got there and managed to sign out a light helicopter without speaking more than a handful of words to anyone. Cleared by the tower she took off for the calm air space over the hills beyond the city limits. She never got bored with helicopter take off. It was as if you just lifted into the air. This must be how a bird of prey feels, hanging on the wind, seeing for miles, ready to react.
She looked across the city in the dawn light enjoying the mix of buildings, water, and park land in all its autumn splendour. Her eye was drawn south to the poor, sprawling, chaotic district that she’d called home until a few months ago. Her stomach churned as her brain struggled to make sense of what her eyes were seeing: fire and smoke and spreading fast. She called it in and began to fly south.
The fire break between the outskirts and the more genteel, and of course richer, districts did its job magnificently. The south slum, dry as a bone in the autumn drought burned bright. Flames merged with the multiple reds tones of the leaves and spread with such speed that getting residents to safety was practically impossible. Those evacuated owed their lives to the early responding units. For many the only way out was by air, but few craft were available in time to save more than a few.
Lairn sat in the grey, bleak medical centre corridor. She felt like someone had pulled out her insides and jumped up and down in the hole. Just when she thought she’d calmed down a big, bone shaking sob erupted from her, accompanied by acid in her throat along with the urge to vomit, and she knew there was nothing left to come up. She tried to calm her breathing, but then the sobbing and shaking returned. She’d forgotten if she still needed to be there. Did she still have a report to make? Did she already do that? But if she was done she could think of no reason why she should leave. With her head in her hands she tried to breathe normally. Footsteps alerted her that someone was coming. She looked up and saw Jack. He sat next to her, put his arms around her and hugged her to him.
“You flew like a fucking eagle,” he whispered.
“I couldn’t save them,” she replied, shaking her head. “There were too many. I had to leave so many behind.” She buried her head in his shoulder. He held her tight, rocked her gently and kissed her hair. They stayed like this for several minutes. Lairn’s breathing evened out and she began to relax. Jack sat back and loosened his hold on her.
“Lairn, we need to talk. I know this is far from the best time, but we need to discuss things now.” She nodded and looked at him, trying to remain calm. “The offer from The Foundation. You remember? The deadline is tomorrow. We dismissed it before but… Well I’m going to take it. I’ve changed my mind. Today changed my mind. I’ll be accepting the position. Research engineer…” Lairn sat back and looked up to meet his gaze. “Which means that I’ll be leaving. And I’ll be shipping out in two weeks.”
There was silence. Jack let the silence sit for as long as he could. “Come with me,” he said.
More silence. He saw fresh tears on her face. “We make a good team. You can fly anything; I can fix anything. They want both of us. Test pilot and engineer. Additional training as we need it. This new tech, I’m sure it would have allowed you to get to more people. To get more of them out. I’m sure it will make a difference…” He stopped speaking. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling. You don’t need to hear this now, but we’ve run out of time.”
Lairn covered her face with her hands as if she was trying to shut out the carnage of the day, to stop the images and the sounds replaying in her head.
“Come with me,” Jack said.
Lairn looked up. “Why?”
Lairn noticed fresh tears in Jack’s eyes. She raised her hand to gently touch Jack’s face and traced the tear line down his cheek. He raised his hand to hers, holding it against his cheek and raised his hand to her cheek in turn, shut his eyes and sighed. A smile began to form on her lips, then reached her eyes and began to calm the storm in her guts. The path was right in front of me all along, she thought.
“Looks like we’d better get packed Jacaranda Matters…” she whispered.
“Hey! It’s just Jack,” he replied as he kissed her hand.