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More Important Than the Stars

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Joanna is 15 when she hatches a plot to sneak aboard the Enterprise while her mother is on her honeymoon. Roger, the new husband-to-be, seems alright when Jo feels like being honest with herself, which is rarely. Mostly, she hates him because having a stepdad means that she and her mother have to give up the cozy, cluttered, and familiar life that had belonged to them and them alone. They no longer eat packets of instant ramen on the couch together while talking about celebrities they find attractive. Instead, Roger cooks well-balanced meals where all five food groups are represented, and they eat at the dinner table, where he asks trite and awkward questions like "what did you learn at school today?" Once, her mother had waved an airy hand over a sinkful of dirty dishes and proclaimed that they'd worry about it on Cleaning Day, which never seemed to happen in spite of their best intentions; now Roger leaves polite notes asking her to wash up if she leaves a glass in the sink overnight. And sometimes, before dinner, Roger prays.

She snaps one night over the Lord's Prayer and a plate of peas. If she is going to have a father, she is going to have her own, she decides, and not some milquetoast substitute who probably just wants in her mother's pants. She was young when her father left, and most of their contact has been by subspace transmission since, but she remembers cussing and whiskey bottles, and that sounds a hell of a lot better than washing dishes and saying grace.

Getting to him isn't going to be easy, but she narrows her eyes and takes stock of her resources.

"I think you guys should stay in Paris for two weeks," she says abruptly, breaking into a conversation about painting the house blue.

Her mother's eyes instantly fill with concern.

"Honey, we would never leave you for that long."

Roger lays a hand on top of her mother's.

"Your mom's right. Just because we're getting married doesn't mean we're going to gallivant all around Europe and forget you."

She smiles sweetly.

"I just want you guys to have a good time. You deserve an extra week to yourselves."

They don't agree that night, but her mother looks touched, and Jo knows what she's doing. One night, she asks her friend Margie to come over and rhapsodize about Paris; the week after, she calls her mom's travel agent and explains that her mom really, really wants to go away for two weeks, but she needs a little push to do it. The week before her mom has to book the hotel, she uploads pictures of Paris to the photo screen on the wall and says she's celebrating the wedding a little early.

At night, she carefully reviews her bank balance. Ever since she was 12, her dad's child support payments have gone directly to her. She knew that her mother didn't really need the money, and she was sure that the large, court-mandated monthly remittance had been part of her mom's get-back-at-dad-for-leaving settlement. She is beginning to admit to herself that she wanted the money just because possessing it would make her feel older, but self awareness is kind of a bitch, so she prefers to stick with her old reasoning, which varied according to her mood. When she loved her dad, she told herself that she was protecting him from her mom's vengeance; when she hated him, she claimed that she was the party most injured by his departure, so she deserved a cash settlement too. Her mother knew none of this, of course; she merely thought she was preparing her daughter for a responsible, independent adulthood by making a non-traditional decision to let a 12-year-old manage large sums of money. For two years, she had had to show her mom the monthly bank statement and make spreadsheets tracking her expenditures, but she'd done it so well that they'd gradually dispensed with the formality. Now the money is all hers, and by the time her mom declares that the honeymoon will last for two weeks, she knows exactly what to do with it.

***

On the dark side of Luna, she purchases a high quality fake identicard and uses it to open an account at a bank not known for asking questions of its customers. The process is sleazier than she'd imagined but inexplicably anti-climatic. She had pictured herself spending weeks sleuthing out the name and location of a reliable forger -- who would of course be ruggedly handsome -- and negotiating with him aggressively in a dimly lit bar, where she would impress him with her unusual ability to hold her liquor (also a legacy of her mother's penchant toward non-traditional decision making). Most likely, they would make out afterward, and they might even conduct an illicit long-distance affair.

Instead, getting the card is a simple matter of asking Dulat, a Cardassian refugee at her school, where people buy such things. He charges her 200 credits for the information, and she fakes a field trip to Luna, which is easier than she expected with her mom so distracted by the wedding. At the dark side space port, she is horribly conspicuous in the skintight leather pants all the holovids claimed smugglers and miscreants wore. Instead, everyone wore cast-offs from the Starfleet surplus store, patched and stained flight jackets, threadbare uniform pants and scuffed combat boots. Most of them smell like whiskey, and she doesn't see a rakish spark of mischief in anyone's eyes. She feels desperation and hardship in the air, and she does her best to ignore it.

"Who's Cynthia Mason?" she asks, studying the blond woman on her new fake ID.

"Someone no one cared to report missing," replies the man who sold it to her. She had been right about one thing: he does want to make out with her, but she doesn't go for men with no teeth.

Back at home, she stores the card in a plastic bag taped to the inside of her toilet tank, a trick she'd learned from the movies. Then she puts the whole disgusting and disappointing trip to Luna out of her mind and concentrates on the future.

If she talks about her father more often than usual, her friends are too kind to question the change. She's been like this all her life -- hating him one minute and worshiping him the next, the extremity of her emotion covering the simple truth that he is absent and irrelevant.

Three weeks before her mother's wedding, she sends a transmission to her father. "What's up?" it says, the same lame text messages she sends to her friends when she's bored of homework on Thursday nights. It's all she knows to write, and she knows that he won't know how to respond, but she's got to start deciphering the whereabouts of the Enterprise sometime. Starfleet doesn't exactly broadcast the coordinates of its flagship, but if she's lucky, the transmission data leaves clues about where they are. Selvin, her Vulcan friend at school, can help her figure it out. If her father answers that is. If he can answer, she corrects herself. A lot of the time, he can't; that's why she doesn't bother writing much anymore.

Her inbox chimes, far too early for her to have received a response even by subspace transmission. She opens the message anyway, even though she already knows the contents by heart: Dear loved one of a Starfleet service member, we regret to inform you that the nature of your recipient's mission prohibits planetary communication at this time. Your message will be delivered at the earliest possible star date, and you will receive a delivery confirmation by email at that time. Thank you for your patience and sacrifice.

She closes the screen with a small sigh. It's been like this her whole life. Sometimes, she doesn't even get the automated Starfleet reply. When the Enterprise is under deep cover, the 'fleet pretends each message goes through, and she waits weeks or months for terse replies that begin with "Sorry, Jo, three weeks of radio silence this time." She can't be mad at him, not really, because none of it is his fault. She's not the only kid at school with a parent in the service, and they all know the drill: four years at the Academy paid for by five years of service, every able bodied graduate in deep space since the Narada blew up half the fleet.

Absently, she picks up an Andorian doll her father had sent her when she was 13 and really a bit too old for such things. Her room is cluttered with souvenirs like these, which she half-dramatically and half-sincerely calls part of her divorce settlement. Rationally, she understands that the rarely answered transmissions are not her father's fault; still, she blames him for it sometimes, partly because if he reacts to her anger, she knows he still cares. And he never fails to react -- sometimes with angry transmissions, more often with strange mementos of even stranger worlds. She ends up with a room full of things she can pick up and touch and remember that he cares, and that buys her acceptance for six months or a year.

There is a soft knock on her door, and Jo puts the doll down carefully before she answers it. She wants to avoid even the slightest appearance of melancholy in the weeks before her escape. The attempt is futile.

"What's wrong?" her mother asks the moment she walks in the door.

"Nothing." She pauses. She has never been good at lying to her mother because telling the truth always felt better. "I just sent a message to dad."

"And?"

"Dear loved one of a Starfleet service member..."

"Mmmm," her mother says. For other parents, it might have meant they did not know what to say; in her mother's language, it meant that she understood and better yet, would not try to pretend she could fix the problem with a few comforting words.

"I just don't think I know who he even is, Mom," she bursts out without quite meaning to. She looks at the not-quite-appropriate souvenirs that crowd her room and adds in a smaller voice, "I don't think he knows who I am."

Her mother settles beside her on the bed.

"No, I suppose not. He's missed a lot."

She waits for her mother to say that she'll have a chance to show him one day, but her mom's not like that. She tells the truth even when it's hard, and the truth is, her dad might not ever get to know her. He might die. Or he just might not want to.

Her mother's lips curve into a small smile.

"You're growing up fast. I've been thinking, there's no reason to pack you off somewhere while Roger and I are gone. You'll be in college soon enough, and you might as well start learning to feed yourself and get to school on time."

What her mother doesn't say hangs in the air between them: I trust you. It's been like this for almost as long as she can remember. Unlike the other kids at school, she doesn't have rules or a curfew or a chart of chores hanging on the wall. The only punishment she's ever known was the loss of her mother's respect, and it had always been enough to make her behave as much like an adult as she could. Now, realizing just how much she's about to violate that trust makes her literally want to throw up, but instead she pastes a smile onto her face.

"Thanks, Mom. You're the best."

Late at night, she lies beneath her pink and white flowered bedspread -- her father wasn't the only one who bought gifts inappropriate for her age -- and whispers, "I'm running away from home. I'm running away from home." And then, in an even smaller voice, "I'm running away from home." The words are alternately cliched, stomach wrenching, and despairing, until finally she resolves not to think of it that way anymore.

"I'm taking an unexpected vacation while my mother is out of town," she says a little louder. It sounds better that way -- more like something an ordinary girl would do, less like a betrayal of the only person she'd been able to rely on since she was born. Better yet, it sounds like something she might do on a whim, the way a bored and wealthy woman might warp off to Risa for a long weekend. Thinking she might not do it makes it paradoxically easier to sleepwalk through the wedding -- she's the maid of honor, of course -- and make final preparations to get out of school. Her friend Steph's big brother is finishing off his residency at Atlanta General, and he survives the busy schedule by living vicariously through his little sister's less responsible friends. Everyone knows he's good for hang over cures and excused absence from school, so she hits him up for a letter saying she's suffering from a highly contagious infection. That at least should stop the principal from calling her mom. Even though she's still pretty lukewarm about Roger, she doesn't think she could forgive herself if she ruined the honeymoon.

The night before the wedding, her inbox chimes again. The usual terse note from her father is there, along with an automated notification from Starfleet saying the Enterprise will spend the next two weeks at Starbase 24 for shore leave and repairs. She brushes aside the hurt that he didn't tell her this himself; he probably didn't realize Starfleet sent her messages like these, and he thought he was sparing her the hurt of shipping packages when the Enterprise usually left spacedock long before her carefully chosen gifts arrived. The truth was, she would have appreciated any invitation for contact, but dwelling on that is pointless when she's going to see him so soon anyway.

She curls more tightly into her desk chair, tucking a blanket around her legs. The only light comes from the glow of her computer screen, the only sound her fingers tapping on the touchscreen. Plotting a route to Starbase 24 doesn't take long; it's far away, but it's open to civilians, and she can get there in a week if she's willing to travel by cargo freighter. Her fingers hover over the "purchase ticket" button uncertainly. She tries to picture the moment her father sees her, the expression on his face, the conversations they might have. None of it will come into focus, not even his face. She has photos and holos of course, transmitted from distant starbases and unexplored planets, but looking at those hurts somehow. Seeing him so far away from her, living a life that she can't even imagine, makes him feel even more distant and unreal than the endless cycles of radio silence and terse messages. But she doesn't like looking at photos of them together on Earth either. The easy smiles and unlined face aren't him anymore, and if she looks at those pictures too often, she'll create a man who doesn't exist.

She should click the cancel button, shut down the computer, and go to bed, she knows. These thoughts only prove that he's not her father; she should give up and let go, accept that her best hope lies in a distant future. But paradoxically, the blurry mental images, the blankness in her mind when she thinks of him urges her on. If she cannot fill the holes with her imagination, she'll have to fill it with reality instead.

She buys the ticket.