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Voyager

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The room had no windows, yet Margot remained convinced she could hear the ceaseless drumming of the rain. The only time in five years – over half her life! – she could remember not hearing the rain had been when the sun had come out, and the other children had locked her up so she wouldn’t see it.

Margot watched the hospital room’s door and bare walls, painted the same shade of pale green, while her parents talked. Their voices dropped to the soft tone they used whenever they suspected Margot might have one of her ‘fits.’ They were explaining to her that it was impossible for all three of them to leave Venus just then. The portage fees between planets for three people and all their belongings would be prohibitive, even with Margot’s child discount, even if they were to abandon most of their furniture, their crates of books and linens…

Margot did not understand what ‘prohibitive’ meant, but she understood well enough that her parents were condemning her to remain on Venus forever. She wouldn’t even have the illusory freedom of the underground habitats and the corridors in between, for she could no longer stand the sight of rain-streaked windows. She would have to live only in windowless rooms like this one. She would live like a mushroom. She did not resent her parents for this. Her mother’s knuckles were pale because she was squeezing her hands in her lap, and her father kept wiping his dry brow again and again as he talked, although the temperature controls at the hospital discouraged sweating. The nurses had said as much when Margot had complained that she was hot and wanted a drink of water in the middle of the night.

At some point, Margot stopped listening to her parents’ talk. She was plotting which corridors she could take to get from her habitat to the sun-lamp room to which her family was assigned, without having to pass any windows or go through the hydroponic gardens, with their sprinklers, and beads of moisture clinging to leaves and invading the lungs.

So intent was she on mapping out her future routes around Venus that the words ‘boarding school’ bobbed on the surface of Margot’s consciousness for an unknown while before they sank in.

“Where?” was all Margot asked. There were no boarding schools on Venus that she knew of. Children spent mornings in class, then went back to their habitats after lunch.

Her father glanced at her mother. Her mother’s smile trembled at the edges like it was made of Jell-O and Margot had tapped it with a spoon.

Her mother started talking about the different options she and Margot’s father had considered and discarded ‘in Margot’s best interest,’ when all Margot wanted to know was where. Where would they send her, all alone, and at great expense, though manageable if they both took extra shifts at work…

Away from the rain and the other children. Away from her parents.

Mercury was too volatile for anyone except workers on hazard pay who didn’t bring families along. The Moon was too small to support a large enough population of school children to justify the maintenance of boarding schools. Earth itself was too expensive, even though Margot’s parents loved her very much and would have liked nothing better than to send her home.

“Where?” Margot whispered. She loved her mother and father too, but she was just too tired to listen much longer.

Her parents felt certain she would love Mars. With its forests of red cacti and conifers, its dry irrigation canals from defunct agricultural projects like old riverbeds, and its many hours of daylight, it would be the opposite of wet, small, cramped Venus. Mars was also within a transportation grade Margot’s parents could afford, just about.

And Margot did like Mars, at first. She cried at night if she woke and remembered her parents couldn’t have come with her, and her fair skin burned in the bone-dry, dust-carrying wind, under the Martian sun, but other than that, she liked her life after Venus.

By the time she was old enough to tell curious strangers, without her chin trembling, that she no longer missed her parents, Mars’ red-tinged charms were beginning to wear thin. All the dust in the air made the sun seem deceptively mild and always hazy. A lot of people who spent years on Mars suffered from skin cancer and lung problems. Margot’s fair skin meant that she lived her life in a close cocoon of sun block anyway, but she came to miss being able to breathe outside without breaking into a hacking cough.

Her teachers at the boarding school agreed with Margot that she should take the Exo-Terric Sciences edustream and eventually train as a pilot. Pilots didn’t have to make friends, because they had to study hard. Even the most garrulous, gregarious person understood that talking to a pilot could cause their concentration to break, and then something terrible might happen.

After she graduated and earned her license, Margot filled her requisite quota of Practical Skills hours by ferrying cargo between the Martian surface and the big interplanetary vessels in its orbit. She even ferried building materials to Mars’ new space station. Its spindly skeleton hunched over Mars’ gravity well like one of Mars’ indigenous giant spiders, the kind which had looked fearsome to nine-year-old Margot, but would come when called and let themselves be petted if they smelled a sugary treat somewhere on the summoner’s person.

Her final test scores and practical evaluations afforded Margot her choice of assignments. The girl who’d never had much choice about anything found herself spoiled for options, although the Company reserved the right to waive her preferences if her skills were required elsewhere. Margot spent many hours in the library, researching the Solar System and its environs. Her parents acted proud and happy in their vid messages, but they could not offer her any useful advice beyond wanting her to be safe. They were insystemers and had never gone farther out than the Moon.

Margot weighed her options. The insystem bored her or kindled painful memories. Jupiter with its many moons looked interesting, but it was too windy to go outside and always covered in a thick layer of clouds. Saturn and its Belt were rife with colonies of every religious, philosophical, and gender-political variety known to humankind, but the giant planet was far from the sun. The last three may as well have been ice balls orbiting in darkness, the sun much, much too far.

In her later life, Margot often thought how the simplest leaps were the hardest, so used had she been to thinking of the sun as a yellow ball of flame and herself as existing only in greater or lesser proximity to it.

The universe was full of suns.

Sirius would have been closer, which was why the waiting list for assignments to its stellar neighborhood stretched many years into the future. So Margot threw her Residence and Work Permit ballot into the Arcturus draw, and won. She’d never won anything by sheer chance before. She hoped this was a good sign.

Arcturus’ dim companion star meant that, once the first planetary habitats were completed, Margot could look forward to what the Encyclopedia Terrae her parents had sent her as a sentimental graduation present called ‘white nights.’

Nobody would be living on the surface of Arcturus One for years, but the prospect was enough to keep Margot content. She almost didn’t miss the feel of planetside beneath her feet, not the way some other recent arrivals did. They claimed station corridors and cabins, spacious as those were, made them feel trapped.

Margot kept busy: she ferried freight and workers between station and planetside, and even piloted the odd outsystem flight from time to time. A special computer service set up to make new arrivals to Arcturus settle in matched her up with a young man from the Tethys matriarchy, who worked on another station. He was dark where Margot was pale, and as tongue-tied as she when they vidded with each other, but he wrote wonderful letters. The whoosh of the pneumatic tube bringing another of his missives to Margot’s cabin became a welcome part of her dayshift routine.

They kept putting off meeting face to face. Margot felt no need to rush. Life was long, and there was much to do. When Margot went to sleep during nightshift and woke in dayshift, she told herself the sky was more grey than black outside her window. And when she broke atmo descending to Arcturus One, the sky bloomed in every shade from pale orange to deepest indigo.

Whenever her dormant fears and memories, and the unpredictable future threatened to swallow her whole, Margot could rely on that sky with its twin suns: a changeable sky, often patterned with cirrus clouds, never truly dark.