The alarm sounds barely an hour after they sent the pod containing her mother's ashes into the black.
Margaret rolls off her bunk and dabs at her eyes with her jumpsuit sleeve before rushing out of their sleeping area. She pauses for just a moment in the receiving room, glancing at her father where he's sitting behind the desk. Reverend Hale doesn't stand to join her, doesn't return her look or say anything at all; if it weren't for the unsteady hitching of his breath and the rise and fall of his shoulders, she'd probably think he'd—well. Margaret shakes her head and continues out of the family quarters, racing down the corridor as quickly as she can.
She bypasses the lift (still broken, she'll find the parts to fix it somewhere) and takes the stairs two at a time, the impact of her boots against the metal barely audible above the alarm. The hatch into the navigation and control room is open, and Margaret slides inside just in time to witness Dixon push the ship into hyperspace. She stumbles back at the sudden shift in speed, then rights herself and presses the control to shut the alarm off.
"Sorry about that, ma'am," Dixon says. "It all happened too quickly, I didn't have time to—"
Margaret waves a hand to interrupt her. "It's fine, but what happened? Were we being attacked?"
"Imperial ship," replies Dixon, a grim set to her jaw. "Must've noticed the ejection and came to investigate. I don't think they registered us, but I didn't want to chance them sweeping the area and disrupting the ship's cloak."
"You did the right thing." Margaret pats Dixon's shoulder and sits down in the chair to her right. Her heart is still racing from the adrenaline. "How far are we from the new settlement?"
"At this speed, only a few more hours. They sent us the landing codes already."
"Alright. I'm going to double-check that everything's packed and ready for disembarkation."
Margaret stands and starts to leave, then hesitates. Dixon's barely looked at her since she made the call to cremate her mother's remains rather than make the long journey to their home planet of Helstone and bury her there. She doesn't blame her for being angry. Margaret doesn't blame her father for shutting down and refusing to make the choice himself. She doesn't blame her mother for not telling them how sick she was before they got out. She doesn't blame Frederick for standing up to his commanding officer, or for running away rather than stand trial and be executed. She doesn't blame J—
For a moment, a thick cloud of anger and exhaustion and sorrow wells up inside her and knots in her throat. She swallows against it.
"Dixon," Margaret says.
"It's going to be alright, you know."
She leaves the control room and heads down into the cargo hold.
The latest transmission from Ambassador Bell had said to expect some settlement bigwig (Margaret might have been just a little distracted during the planning stages of the move and can't quite recall hearing the person's name) or one of their representatives to meet them at the docking station on-planet. This person would direct them to their new living situation and provide them with some initial supplies and a list of potential employment options. The Hales could then fade into obscurity as the settlement expanded, and eventually the Empire would forget they existed—not exactly a happily-ever-after scenario, but there ceased to be a point in being picky about that years ago.
Upon disembarking from the ship, Margaret immediately regrets not paying more attention to the ambassador's plans when she sees John Thornton waiting for them on the dock.
"You," she says before she can stop herself.
"Ah, John," Reverend Hale says. His voice is low and rough. Margaret hasn't heard it in days. "Thank you for meeting us here."
"Of course," John says, looking directly at Margaret. His expression is just as intense and severe as it was in their academy days, and she self-consciously takes a step back, flushing nervously. "I was surprised to hear from the ambassador to expect you. I thought the Hales couldn't be pried away from their beloved planet."
There's silence for a few breaths, just long enough to make it awkward, before the reverend says, "Yes. Things do change, don't they."
Not enough, Margaret thinks.
Margaret had hated the Imperial Academy. Not as much as her cousin, of course, who'd actually arranged a marriage for herself just to get out of the final mandatory year of military training, but she hated it passionately all the same. Her parents and brother had never spoken outright against the Empire in her presence, but she'd often overheard her friends' parents talk about the current emperor and his cabinet, how they ruled with impunity and met the slightest notion of dissent with crushing military might. She'd learned quickly, too, why her family never spoke this way, as she watched these people be taken away by the Imperial guard and come back weeks later, quieter and gaunt, if they returned at all. Universities didn't accept anyone who hadn't graduated from a government-approved secondary school, however, so Margaret dutifully stayed and suffered through the propaganda and the drills, with only a minimal amount of reprimands for insubordination on her record.
John Thornton had been the reason for every single one of those marks.
He'd been appointed class captain after their first trimester, stodgy and serious even as an awkward 13-year-old not yet grown into his own limbs, and he'd retained that position until the day they graduated. There was no denying that he was strict but fair, but he seemed to hold a special, unbending place in his heart for Margaret, who matched him grade for grade in academics but did the bare minimum when it came to physical requirements. Their arguments those first few years became the stuff of legends, and though she insisted that he provoked her, they were somehow always obviously her fault.
They formed a truce after Edith left the academy, after learning that John's father had committed suicide and his family's business was gone. Margaret's grudge dissolved when she heard the other students viciously gossiping about his situation and saw the tense set to John's shoulders and jaw. She couldn't bear to watch the cruelty of his so-called friends abandoning him the way she imagined his mother's acquaintances must have done.
And so one day she sat down next to him during lunch, and that was that for the next year.
And then, on graduation day, John had taken her aside and—
—and Margaret, having just found out a few minutes before that her brother was wanted for mutiny, dissention, and treason, and that her parents were being questioned as to his whereabouts, and that she herself was to report for the same that day, could only laugh in his face and walk away.
The settlement is in its infancy and hasn't even been named yet, John explains to them as they unload their belongings into the house Ambassador Bell arranged for them.
"The factories have been up and running practically since day one, but the greenhouses and farming units have only just begun producing crops," he says. "We've survived on Empire handouts and replicators for the most part. I managed to salvage an extra unit for you. It's not the prettiest piece of machinery, but it'll feed you."
"I'll go check on that," Dixon grumbles, wandering off into another room before anyone can tell her otherwise. Margaret opens her mouth to call her back, then stops and shakes her head. Dixon has warmed up to her in the last few hours, but it's a fragile connection at best. They're all of them still grieving.
"Thank you," Margaret says instead, turning to John and looking him right in the eye. "We appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to help us get settled."
John holds her gaze for a moment before nodding sharply. He shakes her father's hand goodbye, and Margaret follows him to the door to see him out. He pauses on the front step and fusses with the control bracelet on his wrist.
"Did your mother stay behind on Helstone?" John asks. "I wouldn't blame her if she did. I visited there once, after. It's a beautiful planet."
Margaret's breath catches in her chest. She should tell him now, should explain why she did what she did that day and everything that's happened since, should tell him that her mother had been sick for years because they tortured her, tortured all three of them for information about her brother…
"She died a few days ago," Margaret says, and she closes the door.
A few rooms away, she hears Dixon muttering about the replicator and parts they'll need to take from the ship to make it function to her standards. Margaret finds her father sitting in an armchair by a window. He's staring outside toward the factories in the distance. There's a slow, steady thrum of noise that reaches them even here, a mile or more from the massive industrial complex that houses fifteen various manufacturers. Margaret stands in the doorway between the hall and the sitting room for long, silent minutes and takes in the mess of boxes all around them.
There are roughly 15,000 people currently living on the planet, a mixture of individuals and young families lured out to the furthest edge of the galaxy by the promise of a better life. In truth their lot hasn't improved by much, though Margaret supposes the relative lack of imperial oversight could be construed as something akin to freedom. It's not until John returns a few weeks later to discuss occupations for them, however, that she realizes just how different life is out on the fringes.
"Teacher?" she repeats after he finishes rattling off the list. "That requires a university degree, which I don't have."
John gives her a curious look. "I thought you'd been enrolled at New London."
"I had been," Margaret tells him. "I never went."
"I...see," he replies, then shrugs. "No matter. I know you're a capable instructor. I wouldn't have passed my language requirements without your guidance that last year."
Margaret flushes. "Still, if the inspectors ever discovered that I—"
"If the inspectors find out, we'll have more to worry about than your lack of official credentials," John interrupts. "Our settlement charter doesn't include education. I petitioned for it personally, but it was...mysteriously left out of the final version. If anyone wants their children taught more than what skills they can learn on the job, they have to be sent off-planet."
"Which is too expensive for anyone but the factory owners," Margaret says, a hot flash of anger pulsing through her. John nods. "I don't know how I'll manage to teach all of them, but I'll do it."
"It'll be just my workers' children. The others are making their own arrangements," he tells her. "It would attract too much attention any other way. I'll have to put you on the roster under some other title, but I don't think it will ever be a problem."
Margaret has her doubts about that. She sighs and nods in assent.
"It would help," he continues, "if you told me why you came here and why Bell swore me to secrecy about it."
She freezes under his gaze. "You should really talk to my father about that," she manages to say.
"I tried. He changed the subject."
The thing is—Margaret had wanted to tell John everything years ago when it first happened, had thought wildly about asking him to marry her and run away for a split second after Ambassador Bell told her about Frederick and her parents. She's told herself for years that their friendship those last months in the academy was only a truce, a cease-fire, that she'd simply felt sorry for him, but that's not exactly how it was. Margaret spent her internment locking up her feelings for him as tightly as possible since there was no point in having them at all.
Now, though. Now she's tired. Her mother's dead, her father may as well be, and Dixon's angry with her. She hasn't heard from Fred since before he ran. But John—John is here, and he wants to know.
Margaret tells him everything.
Despite John's claims that she's a good teacher, Margaret flounders for the first few weeks. She likes children but hasn't been around them for long periods of time since she was one herself. Trying to formulate a curriculum also stymies her. How many know how to read or do basic sums? How many have already learned more advanced mathematics and engineering from shadowing their parents in the factories? And, most importantly, how much does she remember of her coursework?
"You realize we graduated almost ten years ago now, right?" Margaret had asked one evening, not too long after they started the education program. "I haven't done any formal classwork since then."
"Good thing this isn't entirely formal, then, isn't it?" John had replied, and tipped his glass against hers.
It had made her laugh at the time, really and truly, for the first time in—she doesn't even know how long. Margaret doesn't remember John being funny, just intensely focused and driven. The decade or so since they last saw each other has mellowed him out, it seems, and she can't help but notice how well it suits him.
Eventually Margaret establishes a format that seems to function well enough. After the second trimester, some of the older children volunteer to take on the beginning classes, allowing her to take a break every once in a while. She grows fond of all her students, enjoys being someone they look up to and admire in return. Teaching isn't at all what she thought she'd be doing with her life, but she finds it...satisfying. Rewarding, even. It keeps her mind off everything else, at the very least.
Except John, who seems to be everywhere. He makes regular visits to the storeroom Margaret had commandeered for lessons, both to observe and to lend a hand when he's able. He comes over to the house for dinner often enough that Dixon and Reverend Hale find it odd when he's absent. He brings her homemade pastries (the ingredients for which are expensive and could only have come from off-world) that he swears were extra made by his mother but are messy enough that that couldn't be true. It's sweet, and it does absolutely nothing to make her feel less awkward about the topics they seem to be pointedly ignoring, like the fact that he'd asked her to marry him, and her family's past imprisonment.
This avoidance goes on for the better part of a year, until he's walking her home one evening.
"My mother lost everything when my father died," John says. They've been strolling along in a comfortable silence for several minutes, and Margaret snaps to attention. "It wasn't immediately apparent. There was enough money to settle his funeral costs and my education, and then suddenly the board of directors sold the whole company and had the banks seize our house and holdings. We came close to losing Fanny, too. Someone made a false accusation of child abuse, but Mother sorted that out somehow."
Margaret lets out a string of uncharacteristic curses. "Did you ever find out why?"
"Why?" John shakes his head. "Jealousy. Greed. Imperial sabotage. Who knows? I didn't pay much attention to the business then, and I don't think Mother did either. I'm sure Father had his reasons for keeping the reality of our situation a secret, but I was...angry with him for many years after it happened. If he saw it coming, how dare he abandon us to deal with it on our own? And if he didn't, how could he not have?"
Margaret reaches out and takes hold of John's hand, unsure of what to say. He squeezes hers tight.
"Seemed pointless to stay mad at a dead man," he continues, "so I worked my way up to the top of one of the imperial vehicle factories and volunteered to move out here when the opportunity arose. Fanny's off exploring the rest of the galaxy to her heart's content, and Mother manages the factory when I'm otherwise occupied."
"John," Margaret says, "I don't—"
"What I'm trying to get at," he says, "is that I wasn't in the best mindset on our graduation day, and I want to apologize for asking you to marry me out of the blue. It wasn't fair to you, and I was desperate for...something normal. I'm sorry."
She nods and says, "I understand," thrilled when her voice stays steady despite the sinking sensation in her stomach.
"And I hope that you also want to try again. Well, again for me."
Margaret stops. John stumbles a little at the sudden halt, but he also stops and turns to face her, though he keeps his eyes trained to her feet. His cheeks and nose are flushed red, and she is unreasonably charmed by the sight.
"Are you asking me to marry you again?" she asks.
"Uh. Not yet?"
Margaret laughs and pulls him closer to her. They aren't too far from her house, and she's sure Dixon and her father are wondering where they are right now. She decides they can wait for a little while longer and kisses John square on the lips.
"Alright," she says when she finally pulls away. "Let's try. Again."