I’ve put off writing this bit for as long as I could. This feels like the beginning of the end. By writing it, it makes it feel more real but I know I need to. I need to explain what happened and why. I need you all to understand.
I guess it started with Cas’ birthday, the day before everything happened. You don’t really need to hear about it I guess but Peggy thought it was important to include. You know, to show we’re just kids. I don’t mind writing about this bit, it was probably the last time I was properly happy, the last time any of us were. It’s the bit that comes next that I don’t want to write…
I don’t really know what to title this chapter. Before now, I’ve broken everything up by things that happened before this and after so I guess this should just be
I opened my eyes as the lights gradually brightened to full daylight and smiled as I noticed the messages we’d programmed flashing on all of the screens around the room. They alternated between saying ‘Happy Birthday!!!!’ and just ‘16!’. None of us had celebrated birthdays before we came to the base but they made a big thing of it here. If the birthday person was on a crew, the entire crew got the day off of all responsibilities, no class, no missions, nothing. It was great. We’d get each other presents and then just spend the day doing whatever the birthday person wanted. But, this year, Cas’ birthday was going to be different. We’d organised with Chal to go see him so Cas could finally get his tattoo. He’d wanted one forever. I think at first it was just to annoy his dad but now he didn’t care about that so much anymore, it was more personal.
Gem sat up carefully to avoid making any noise and locked eyes with me. She hated getting up in the mornings but whenever it was someone’s birthday she was the first one up. The grin on her face was the widest I’d ever seen as she checked out the screens with a satisfied look on her face.
My eyes flicked to Peggy who was edging across the room in silent, exaggerated steps. She reached one of the spare beds and bent down, retrieving the cake we had stashed under there in a coldbox yesterday. I winced as the lid of the box clicked open loudly and our eyes went to Cas who was still curled up next to me, his eyes gently squeezed shut. I listened carefully. His breathing was too even, too smooth. I knew it. He was faking it.
I nodded at Peg to continue in her recovery which she managed to do without any other hitches. She brought the cake slowly back to the bed and looked up at me, waiting for my signal. I looked around my crew. Everyone was ready. Gem hefted a pillow over her head, preparing to swing and I nodded once and flicked my wrist at the screens.
“Happy birthday!” We screamed as music blared to life.
Cas sat up and was immediately hit in the face with the pillow.
“Thanks, crew!” He cried, recovering quickly.
“We got you a present!”
“Okay…” Cas said, looking around for it.
“But we can’t give it to you yet…”
“Why not?” He asked, immediately wary.
“No more questions! Let’s have cake!” Gem called so I didn’t have to answer.
He continued to watch me suspiciously but I only shrugged at him coyly as Peggy cut the cake and handed it out. I leant back against the headboard and bit into my slice. The chocolate cream melted over my tongue, filling my mouth with delicious, rich flavour.
“Oh damn, this is nice.” Cas sighed.
“This is so good! I’m glad we went for the chocolate and not the caramel. That would be too sweet this early in the morning.” Gem said, licking the ganache off her fork.
“Yeah, why are we up so early?”
Everyone looked away from Cas, suddenly very interested in their cake. Peggy intently cut another slice for Gem, refusing to look up. Damn. It was up to me.
“We’re… going somewhere…” I said carefully.
“No more questions. Want some more cake?” I smiled, enjoying the look of concerned confusion on his face.
He accepted another slice, his eyes still narrowed and fixed on me. I smiled down at my plate, enjoying Cas’ reaction far too much.
“I’ll go in the shower first. We should get ready quickly so we can be out by nine.” Peggy put her plate on the spare bed next to the rest of the cake and walked into the bathroom.
“Why do we need to be out so early?” Cas asked, his eyebrows drawn together.
“No questions. I’m gonna go shower too.” I jumped off the bed and raced towards the bathroom before Cas could reply.
I washed as quickly as I could and was just towelling down when I heard Gem.
He’s still trying to find out what we’re doing today.
Good luck getting anything out of Cory. I thought with a smirk.
Peggy’s out there too.
Ah, crap. I pulled my jumpsuit on haphazardly, throwing my still-wet hair into a ponytail.
Help me. Peggy begged desperately.
I yanked my zipper up and threw the door open. Peggy looked at me with panic in her eyes.
“So, we’re going to be out all day?” Cas asked smugly, already knowing the answer.
“We might be,” I said, my eyes narrowing.
He stood and strutted towards the bathroom door, smirking at me.
Smug ass. I insulted him.
We both know it’s your favourite thing about me.
Gem threw the bathroom door open grinning wildly and I turned away from her to hide my blush. It wasn’t my favourite thing about him but it was pretty high up there on the list. His smugness and his ass.
“Peg, have you sorted the flight plan?” I asked quietly, glancing at the bathroom door and knowing that Cas would be listening in.
“Yeah, I submitted it a minute ago, it’s just been approved.”
I grabbed my flight bag out from under my bed and began checking I had everything I needed in it.
“So we’ll go to the restaurant after Chal’s?” Gem asked quietly, sidling up to me.
The shower stopped and we fell silent. Cas pulled the door open quickly, his jumpsuit tied around his waist and towelling his hair dry. My eyes roamed his body before snapping back up to his face with a lot of effort. He was watching me, a slight smile on his face. My face flushed again and I looked back down at my bag to avoid looking at him.
I could feel Gem’s eyes on me and her salacious grin as she bumped her shoulder against mine.
“Don’t even say it.” I threatened, still refusing to look up.
“I would never… but…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows at me suggestively.
“What do I need to pack?” Cas asked.
I was a little disappointed to see that he’d zipped up his jumpsuit but thankfully it meant I could now look at him without blushing.
“Just your normal flight bag,” I replied.
“Not even snacks?” He sounded scandalised.
“We’re swinging by the stores on the way.”
“Oh, sweet!” Cas zipped up his bag and slung it on his back.
“We all ready?” I asked.
I waited for everyone to answer before lifting my backpack and walking out the door. The base bustled with life around us as trainees rushed to get to class after breakfast.
“Shall we take the service corridors?” Peggy asked, checking the time.
I checked as well.
“I think we have enough time to go the normal way. Which would you prefer?”
“Mmm… the normal way I think. If we’re not in a rush?”
I smiled at Cas and led the crew to the stores.
“So… Where are we going?” Cas asked.
“You’ll see,” I said, trying to hide my smirk.
“You’re really not going to tell me? But it’s my birthday!” He whined.
I pulled the door to the stores open feeling the rush of refrigerated air rush out.
“You’re going to need to wait out here,” I said, putting my hand on his arm to stop him.
Cas looked around at us in outrage.
“What? No fair! What if you forget something?” He demanded.
“We got this,” Cory said, handing his medbag to Cas as he stepped past him into the room.
He raised his eyebrows at me.
“What, so you want me to just wait out here?”
“Yep.” I gestured with my head for the rest of the crew to enter.
“That’s not fair!”
I stepped into the room, turning to look at him and pulled the door mostly shut.
“We won’t be long.”
“Make sure you get purple fizz!” Cas shouted, craning his head around the door just before it closed.
I smiled and turned around to face my crew.
“Okay crew, spread out. We know what we’re getting and we need to make it quick. Peggy, you get the special items from the freezer.” I ordered, pointing towards the back of the storeroom.
She nodded and rushed off to get them.
“Gem, Cory, you get the snacks, I’ll get the rest of the drinks.”
We turned and dashed into the aisles of towering shelves of snacks, candies and drinks. The storeroom was huge and stocked with basically anything you could want. It had everything from sweets and crisps to fresh fruit and vegetables. It was mostly Nova food but if you wanted something special you could put in an order for it, like we did. Andy said he knew what it was like to come from a place where you didn’t get fed all the time so he made the storeroom free and always open.
My eyes scanned the shelves looking for Cas’ favourite purple fizz. This felt like a regular full crew search and rescue, with the exception of Cas not being here. The entire crew had fanned out, running to the locations we’d discussed earlier and retrieving the required items.
Got it! Peggy thought victoriously. I think they ordered extra.
Take the amount we ordered and then if no one else claims them by tomorrow we’ll come back and get the rest. Come help me here when you’ve got them? I answered.
The rest of what? Cas thought eagerly.
We ignored him, continuing on our mission. I’d located the target items and started loading them into my bag. Whoever developed the pressure defiant packaging all of the snacks and drinks the base stocked deserved some kind of Council prize. It was genius.
“Aries, I need your advice!” Gem shouted from the other side of the room.
I dropped my bag with a clunk and rushed to the end of the row.
“Yes or no to these?” She held up two packages I could barely see at first because of the distance.
My eyes automatically zoomed in on them. Zorrela's and Boiu Craem cookies.
“Yes to the ones on the left!” I called back.
She stuffed the Zorrela’s into her bag and turned back down her aisle.
“Aries, how much blue fizz do you think we need? I have five but I don’t know if we need more. Cory won’t drink it but Cas might want two and we are going to be out all day.” Peggy said as I returned to where I’d dropped my bag.
I counted the number of drinks we had, including the ones that she had already picked up.
“No, I think we’re alright with five. Put them in my bag, yours looks heavy enough already.”
I helped her load the drinks into my bag, making sure to place my space suit over the top of them so we could change on Frida without Cas seeing the snacks.
“Okay, just a couple more I think. What do you think, orange or pink?” I placed my hands on the cans.
“Mmmm I think Cas prefers the pink? But can you grab a couple of orange for me please?” Peggy replied.
“Of course!” I loaded them into my bag and rearranged it again.
I lifted the bag experimentally. Heavy but manageable.
I think we’re done here, are you? I thought to Gem and Cory.
Done with what? Did you get the purple fizz? Cas replied immediately.
We’re done here. Just trying to reign Gem in. Cory thought back.
You don’t have to! Cas thought back excitedly.
I smiled and walked to meet them at the exit where Gem was trying to stuff an extra box of fudgy chews into her already straining bag. Cory looked up and shrugged at us with a bemused smile on his face.
“Oh, give it here, I can put it in my bag,” Peggy said finally after watching Gem try valiantly to get her bag to zip up and failing again.
“Thank you! You’re as generous as you are intelligent!” She said, managing to zip up her bag.
“Has everyone put their flight suits on top so Cas doesn’t see the snacks when we get changed?” I asked.
“I won’t peek!” Cas called through the door where he was clearly listening in.
“Damn it!” Gem fumed, dropping her bag and rooting around in it.
I watched, suppressing a smile, as she tried to close her bag again with difficulty.
“Aha!” She stood, sweat beading her forehead from the effort.
“Okay, ready?” I asked, waiting for my crew to nod before turning to the door.
Cas was standing on the other side, his eyes instantly drawn to our now stuffed bags.
“Get everything you wanted?” He asked, trying to sound innocent but really just wanting more information.
“Yes,” Cory said, taking his medic bag back from Cas.
Cas waited hopefully for more information but we said nothing, turning towards the garages.
“Asses.” He muttered.
I nudged him with my shoulder, my hand accidentally brushing his.
“Wait five minutes and you’ll see.”
His face lit up and he started walking noticeably quicker. I laughed as I sped up too.
“Are we going in Frida?” He asked as we reached the garage.
“Good! It was weird flying in that other ship when Frida was booked last week.”
“I know what you mean. I get that it’s good to get used to flying other models and everything but still, it was weird.”
“Yeah, but we fly other ships every week during class. I didn’t like using another ship for a mission. Frida is our ship.” He said patting the door seal as he walked onto it.
“She’s not ours yet,” I said, dropping my bag into the pilot seat and tapping the console lovingly.
“Yeah but she basically is. No one else really uses her, apart from last week.”
I stepped into my flight suit as the rest of my crew did the same, trying to keep Cas from peeking into our bags. I don’t know why we were being so sneaky, we’d just got his favourite snacks nothing that special. It was just way more fun this way.
“It’s been five minutes.” Cas finished zipping up his suit and turned to me.
I laughed and zipped up my bag again quickly, stashing it in the locker in the cockpit.
“Wait until we’re in the air.”
He groaned and threw his head back dramatically.
“That wasn’t what you said before.”
“It’ll be a few minutes! You can wait!”
He dropped into his seat, crossing his arms and pretending to sulk.
I glanced back at my crew to check they had all changed into their flight suits and stashed their bags in the lockers before dropping into my chair.
“Frida, did you receive the flight plan Peggy sent earlier?” I asked causing Cas to stop his preflight checks and look at my screens.
“Yes, Captain Aries.” She replied.
“Great! Can you only display it on my personal screen to the right so that Cas can’t see it?”
Cas slumped back down again as the screen lit up with the flight plan. I scanned it quickly, ensuring to angle my body so that he couldn’t see it and closed it again. We were going to Chal’s, obviously, but Peggy had created a longer journey to our normal one so Cas wouldn’t realise.
“Awesome. Ready to go everyone?” I called.
“Yeah. I have no clue where we’re going but everything is clear. Should be a good flight, I’m guessing.” Cas replied cheekily.
All good back here! Gem informed me.
“Alright. Let’s do this.”
I directed the ship out of the garage and eased the thrusters up, lifting us into the air and finally through the atmosphere of the planet. I checked the scanners and the flight plan before looking across at Cas. I allowed myself a few seconds to watch him work, his eyes fixated on the scanner, a small smile forming on my face. He looked so cute when he was piloting.
I checked the flight path again, we were following it perfectly and out of the area where I’d need to direct Frida. I tried to subtly move my hand towards the button on the console that would turn on the light in the main bay, our secret signal, and I pushed it, pretending to wipe some dirt off it.
“Are you hungry?” I asked to distract from the quiet scuffling noises behind us.
“I’m always hungry. What have you got?”
A huge grin broke out on my face. I’d given the crew twenty seconds. That’s how long they’d said they needed.
“Frida, engage autopilot please.”
Cas’ hands went to his harness immediately and he smiled at me as he stood, practically bouncing with excitement. I smiled back, slipping out of my chair and retrieving my bag from the locker.
“Am I about to find out what it is you sneakily grabbed from the stores?”
I smiled back at him.
I gestured for the cockpit doors to open revealing the main bay where the rest of the crew had finished setting up, putting bedrolls down on the floor so we could sit comfortably and scattering piles of snacks everywhere. I dropped onto the floor and started pulling out drinks from my bag too.
“Oh, you thought of everything! Wait, is that n’hitel? How did you get that? I thought it was restricted again!” Cas gushed, grabbing a can and hugging it to himself.
He ripped it open and took a long chug.
I smiled, watching the look of total bliss settle on his face.
“This is my absolute favourite drink.” He said with a happy sigh, holding it out to me.
“We know.” I teased, accepting the can from him.
I took a sip. The tangy fizz bounced around my tongue, bubbling wildly and filling my mouth with a sweet, warm and almost spicy taste. It was unlike anything else I’d ever tried before. It made my mouth tingle with delicious flavours for hours after. Cas was thrilled last time we found it at a ramen bar way out past Stroeve but we hadn’t been able to find it anywhere else since. Apparently, there were rumours going around that some of the ingredients had been banned by the Council but that seemed unlikely.
“So, where are we going?” Cas asked, reaching for a bag of crisps.
“Still not telling you,” I answered, grabbing a crisp out of his hand and eating it.
“It’s a surprise, obviously.” Gem answered rolling her eyes.
“Urgh! How long until we get there?”
I checked my wrist monitor.
“A little while still.”
He narrowed his eyes at me and I smiled as sweetly as I could manage in response.
“So… Are we going to be out all day?” Cas tried again to get more information.
“No, we’ll probably be back in time for dinner.”
“Interesting. Got anything else planned after that?”
I pursed my lips, considering telling him more as he pretended to nonchalantly examine the candy he’d just picked up.
“Yeah. We’ve booked out the gym for later.”
His eyes flashed to mine and behind him, I saw Gem grin.
“Capture the flag?” He asked excitedly.
“Zero-G.” I confirmed, raising my eyebrows.
I looked around at my crew. No matter how we split the crew capture the flag was always great, we worked really well together. But there was one way that always resulted in the most epic and violent plays.
“You and Gem against the three of us. You know, brawn versus brains.” I nudged his shoulder playfully.
A devilishly attractive smile spread over his face as he looked at me.
“That’s not fair. We’ll destroy you.”