Last night’s worries were unfounded. Tey wakes before I do and when I finally drag myself out of bed, I find her on the couch staring quietly into space. We eat breakfast in silence and she leaves for her shift while I clean up. After a quick sonic shower, I walk to the bottom level of the orbital where the compartment for the Departure, Approach and Final duties are housed. I step into the darkened chamber lined with controller panels. Tey, working an approach slot, is already having a bad day.
“You worthless fucking asshole, Scott, don’t you dare apologize to him.” Despite the intensity of her words, she’s not screaming.
Scott Dawson is one of the supervisors in the orbital, and our boss. He’s currently trying to speak into his headset microphone while shielding it from Tey’s invective. I give her a questioning look.
Her green eyes blaze. “This fucker is busting speed restrictions along the entire Q-Ball V-STAR.” She throws up her arms in disgust and glares at Scott. “And, apparently, it’s my fault that asshole can’t slow down.” Her words won’t carry through his mic. Tey never raises her voice.
STAR stands for Standard Terminal Arrival Route and is covered by Section 7100.9D of the STC Guidelines. STARs act as off-ramps for the major navigation lanes. V-STAR means the route is variable and a controller can change its shape and length to accommodate the volume of traffic as needed. A controller assigns a ship to a STAR and it automatically knows exactly what course to sail and at what speed without any additional guidance. It’s extremely efficient when it works.
Although Tey’s tone remains muted, Scott closes a hand around his mic and sighs as he returns her glare. “I’m pretty sure he knows your feelings on the matter.”
I move my attention to the panel closest to me. The controller I’m replacing is about to give me a relief briefing. I’ll be working the coreward Final position, a personal favorite. On the screen, the ships under Final’s control are blue dots to me but other positions see them as the letter “V.” Spinward Final’s identifier is the green letter “A.” By design, the bottom of the V or the top of the A on any controller’s screen points toward the represented ship’s correct course for final approach.
The briefing takes a full two minutes. Meanwhile, Tey manhandles her traffic like a militant Brevic on Euphoria. Her voice is crisp, clipped and absolute. “SeventyThreeDeltaLeopard, TurnRightHeadingTwoSevenZero, ReduceSpeedToPointZeroTwoC.” Her voice can crack like a verbal whip when she wants and this morning, the lions feel every lash.
We’re seated next to each other and she will eventually hand off any of her traffic destined for the orbital to me. I can practically feel waves of aggression rolling off her body.
Tey wears her headset like I do and I can hear Leopard’s faint reply. “Right to two-seven-zero, speed is set at point-zero-two-C, Seventy-three Leopard.” She jabs irritably at her screen to a data block that contradicts the helmsman’s report and says, “Fucking liar.” A gasp immediately follows her declaration. In her rage, Tey accidentally transmitted her profanity. Her hand jumps away from her keyboard and the button she hotkeys to communicate. She looks at me in horror even as Scott stomps his way toward us. Her full lips have formed an “O” and her eyes are the widest I’ve ever seen them.
In a hushed voice, I rush out, “Ask if he’s reporting a fire.”
Scott grinds to a halt behind a petrified Tey at the same time the Leopard’s indignant helmsman comes through the channel. “Sabine Approach, say again?”
A trembling hand returns to the keyboard and Tey answers, “Seventy-three-Delta Leopard, did you just say that you’re reporting a fire?”
The moments draw out painfully until Leopard drops the matter. “Negative, Leopard has no fire.”
“Seventy-three-Delta Leopard, contact Orashi Station Final on one-tw-twenty-three-point-five.” Her words trip over a frequency she knows by heart. In her fright, she forgot to actually hand off the starship to me inside the computer system before telling it to switch channels but that hiccup is rapidly solved.
Scott’s hand comes down on Tey’s shoulder. “Take a five minute break,” he orders. His voice is stern and there’s no room for argument. Tey brushes his hand away and shoots daggers at him with her eyes. She rises from her chair and trudges out of the room as he takes her place in front of the screen.
I slow Leopard down further after politely asking him to say his speed and he lies to me. Then, I slow him down even more because I hate him. By the time I’m finished, he is the slowest sailing ship on my screen. He might make it to the orbital faster if he faces away from it.
“Nice save back there, Jake.” The voice comes from my right, from Scott.
I give him a smile. I’m not a fan of management but I’ll take compliments when they come. Life is much easier when your boss thinks you like him. Still, I cannot resist. “She’s right, you know.”
Scott’s goodwill evaporates. “She should’ve just given him a speed restriction.”
“I wasn’t talking about that,” I admit. “She’s right about you being a worthless fucking asshole.”
There are barks of laughter around me. To Scott’s credit, some of it comes from him.
Tey returns and things settle down as much as they can when hundreds of starships want to park in the same spot in space. As usual, traffic from her position is razor sharp. Also as usual, the traffic Niven hands me looks like it’s been sorted with all the precision of a person riding in a combat dropship under heavy fire. Five hours pass and lunchtime comes around. Whenever possible, Tey and I take lunch together. I hand off my panel to a floater who helps cover the different positions and enter the breakroom. It’s empty except for Tey. She’s using a butter knife to pry open a locker. Her jawline is set and I can see muscles tensing underneath the smooth skin of her cheek.
“Did it jam on you?” I ask as I move toward her. The lockers in the breakroom have flimsy locks and if you close the doors the wrong way, they can stick. “Is your lunch trapped in there?”
Tey grunts with effort. Her face is scrunched up and she digs the blade of the knife deeper into the gap between the locker door and frame. “No.” Pry, pry, pry. “This damned thing won’t open.” Pry, pry, pry.
I put my hands near the widening gap. “Try it near the top and I’ll get my fingers in.” She does and I do. The locker is now pinching my fingers but I have solid purchase on the door. I rip it open like a Federation marine opening the last crate of ammunition in a firefight. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” I say triumphantly. When I look inside, there’s an ugly sweater and a datapad in the locker. Neither belongs to Tey. “Where’s your lunch?”
She snatches the datapad off the shelf with a delicate hand and uses it to gesture to a nearby table. Her lunch is sitting there next to a pot full of water. We have a small kitchen in the breakroom but nobody uses it. There’s no time to cook an actual meal and controllers just bring premade food and occasionally heat it.
Tey hums as she moves gleefully to the table and drops the datapad into the pot. It makes a splash and gurgles to the bottom. Before I can ask her if this is a new diet fad, she shoves the pot into the kitchen’s freezer. She adjusts its controls to the coldest setting and then looks up to me with innocent, wide eyes. “You have to help me get the block of ice out of the pot before Scott gets off work.”
We return to our day jobs and finish the shift without violating any more FSTCA communications guidelines. After work, we can’t get the ice out of the pot so Tey just shoves the entire, frozen mass into Scott’s locker. She takes off but I stick around to watch the reaction. Nearly everyone in the breakroom is amused. Scott is less so but awards points for creativity.
On my way out, I make my customary stop by the Administration section of traffic control. The admin offices are where Sail Data works along with Personnel and Information Management. Sail Data, staffed by controllers, answers comms and inputs sail plans filed by starships. It’s the start of the STC process, when people are planning but nothing is actually moving through space. It’s therefore the easiest, least stressful position in STC and where every developmental controller first checks out.
I circle around the SD desks and slip into an open computer slot. The information I’m looking for is secure and I cannot access it on my datapad. I navigate the menus, eventually working my way to the jobs board. When Tey and I first agreed to try for Level 12, I searched these boards for openings once a week. After a few months, I began looking every few days. With things the way they are between us now, I search at the end of every shift. Sabine is killing us and I know if we can just get to Ophion and accomplish what we’ve dreamed about, everything will be better.
The search has been a daily disappointment. Despite the FSTCA being understaffed, Level 12 spots are ridiculously hard to come by. Dual slots are even harder. As always, my heart rate spikes as the page loads but I brace myself for the inevitable letdown. Today my heart nearly comes to a screeching halt as I read the screen.
Fifteen minutes later, I burst into my apartment like a lunatic. I’ve run the entire way from STC to my humble home. Tey looks up at me from the living room, frantic. She blurts out, “I have to go,” and locks her datapad as I race toward the couch. I must be scaring her, the way she scoots away. Charging into a room like a madman can do that. I try to dial back my grin from maniacal to ecstatic.
“Babe, there are two controller slots open on Prime!” I reach excitedly for her hand and pull. We have to dash back to Administration and apply before someone steals our dream.
Tey’s expression morphs from the surprise at my grand entrance into something I can’t read. Maybe it’s the shock of the news. Prime is the capital of the entire Solarian Federation. Its official name is Theia but everyone calls it what it is: Prime. Before it was named Theia, humanity looked up into the night sky of Terra and called the distant triple star system EZ Aquarii.
I’m still holding Tey’s limp hand and give it a firmer tug. “We have to apply right now.”
Her long fingers unwrap from mine and she reclaims her hand. She’s staring at her datapad.
“Tey, we have to get our names in now.” It’s only a Type-B tunnel dive to Prime from Sabine, allowing instant access. We are its neighbor and our applications will reach Prime via standata in a matter of hours. Jobs aren’t “first come, first served” but they can be filled before applications from more distant systems reach the queue.
There’s still no response from my girlfriend and I study her face. Sharp jawline, high cheekbones, a classical Greek nose and those piercing green eyes. Even with her eyes downcast, she’s gorgeous. I think I finally interpret her expression. Is it doubt? Sure, we’ve been studying for Ophion but Prime is too good of an opportunity to let pass. It’s our golden goose, our white whale. Uh, scratch that last one. Between heartbeats, Tey is standing. I’d be relieved except for the look on her face.
“Jake, I need to go.”
“I’m right behind you!”
She throws a hand up and places it on my chest. “No. I need to go. I need time to think.”
“Tey?” Her eyes finally meet mine. They’re liquid jade. “Honey, don’t be nervous. It might not be where we were thinking but we can do it.”
Her watery eyes close as if my words were a slap. Her eyeliner is beginning to smudge. “I don’t know if it’s what I want.” Her words are breathless and require effort. “Jake… I don’t know what I want.”
She’s shaking her head slowly and I feel like we’re losing our dream. “It’s all we’ve talked about for nearly a year, Tey. We’re so close to the finish line.” A little reminder about what’s at stake might help put her doubts aside.
“It’s all you’ve talked about!” she hisses. There’s a new emotion coming over her, creasing the softness of her face. It’s one that I’ve witnessed all too often lately and very easy to interpret. “And I don’t think for a second that this is the finish line! It’ll never be enough for you.”
I step back before she can add insult to injury and push me away. After five years, I’ve given Tey my heart. At least, I think I have. I cross my arms, partially in defiance but mostly to protect what’s beating in my chest. I’ve got to keep focused, keep the dream alive. “You’re just scared, Tey. I know this is a big step but you’re ready for level twelve. You can handle Prime.”
Tey opens her mouth to answer but stops. Her jaw clamps shut and her lips become a cruel thin line. She retreats toward the door. Its sensors detect her approach and the portal opens. For a brief moment I panic that she’s just leaving, that there’s going to be no resolution, but at the threshold she turns to face me. She’s lost the sharp edge to her emotions and her words lack the bite they held a few seconds ago.
“What you have is never good enough, Jake. You’re always looking to the next mountain peak and each one will never be enough for you. I’m never going to be enough for you.” Rather than complete her dramatic exit, she hesitates at the doorway. Waiting.
I want to be supportive but I know time is running out. I say the first thing that comes to me. “Babe, you know I love you. It’s okay to be scared but once you’ve calmed down, we really need to apply before they fill our positions.”
She’s gone an instant later.