Iona wanted nothing more than to turn back and run. Her heart raced like she’d ran a mile and butterflies fluttered in the pit of her stomach as she followed the petty officer. This is so stupid. She wished she could just go back to her room and forget all about it. But she couldn’t, not now. She’d already come too far.
It had taken until the late afternoon to work up the courage. After she finished training with Sahel and Boltan, Iona went straight to her room where she spent the next few hours pacing, thinking, imagining, and weighing up consequences. The ship remained in its place above the forest, no matter how many times she went to the window hoping to find an empty sky. She knew what she had to do. It was going to be painful, and awkward, but she decided to bite the bullet before she had another chance to lose her nerve. That morning was the first time in five years she’d seen her big sister. It could be another five or even more before she saw her again, if she did at all. This was no time to let fear get the better of her. She had to do it. She had to see her.
The halls were deserted, as was usual for the time. Once teaching finished for the day most students either retired to their rooms or hung out in one of the common areas. Iona would have been there herself had she not been hopelessly distracted by her encounter with Llannaeia. Soon enough, she was at the main entrance. She told the receptionist she was only going out for some fresh air and promised to be back before curfew began.
As soon as she was out of the front doors, Iona started down the path toward the forest, looking over her shoulder every few seconds to make sure no one was watching. While it wasn’t against the rules to leave the confines of the academy before curfew, it was to enter the forest without being accompanied by one of the training staff, especially close to night when many of Selson’s more dangerous creatures became more active. It was risky, but she couldn’t let that get in her way. She’d probably be fine. The ship wasn’t that far away, and she wouldn’t be gone for too long.
The forests of Selson seemed just as active in the early evening as in the morning. As she traipsed between the trees, Iona listened to the disorganized symphony of alien calls though their sources were still nowhere to be seen. It was warm now but still just as damp. Her trainers and the bottoms of her jeans were soon soaked again. She kept her wits about her for any creatures that may be lurking in the undergrowth, waiting to pounce. Iona’s stomach fluttered when she recalled what Boltan said about the Mahleeka earlier. But then she remembered it was Matva Kulo he’d heard it from and didn’t feel as nervous. The ship hadn’t moved. Iona wasn’t sure how she was going to get aboard. She hadn’t given that part much thought. She could only hope there would be someone around to help, or some way she could contact those on-board.
The forest got a lot gloomier all of a sudden. The bars of sunlight through the cracks in the canopy had vanished. Iona looked up to find she was directly below the ship. Not far now. Passed some bushes, she found a clearing similar to the one she trained in with Sahel and Boltan. Instead of a boulder at the centre, there was some kind of platform that looked to line up with the opening on the bottom of the ship. Iona guessed it was a grav-lift. A couple of soldiers stood guard around it though they seemed more interested in chatting than keeping watch. Iona was almost halfway there and they still hadn’t noticed her.
She moved with all the caginess of a cat sneaking up on a mouse, very much conscious of the big guns cradled in their arms. Finally, one of them turned his head and seemed to get the shock of his life. They shouted and swore and raised their guns in her direction. Iona’s heart skipped a beat. She’d never had a gun aimed at her before. She stopped still, threw her hands in the air, and begged them not to shoot. The soldiers approached with caution, demanding to know who she was and what she was doing there. She told them the truth: that she was from the academy and her sister was aboard the ship and she needed to see her. They weren’t impressed in the slightest but started taking her a little more seriously when she said her sister’s name.
“Sister or not, we can’t let you aboard”, the slim Ralenta told her though Iona wasn’t about to take no for an answer. She reasoned and implored, even flashed some puppy-dog eyes and turned on the waterworks a little. She sniffed and pretended to hold back tears as she told them how she hadn’t seen her sister for many years and worried she may never get another chance. Either moved by her pleas or just wanting to get rid of her, they agreed to contact the ship’s captain, which was the best they could do according to the Haelqen with red hair. Iona waited as they explained the situation through their communicators and, to her surprise, was then cleared to board, though only if she was escorted at all times and didn’t go anywhere she wasn’t supposed to. She supposed she could manage that. The soldiers then led her onto the platform and with the touch of a button they began to ascend. Iona had never been on a grav-lift like this before: no walls or ceiling. She didn’t like it, especially when they passed the canopy and she could see the tops of the trees. She’d never liked heights.
They were so far up she could see for miles though there wasn’t all that much to look at except the deep green sea that stretched all the way to the horizon. The academy was about the size of a paperweight at that distance. Everything went dark for a moment and then she was standing in a big room with metal walls and pale lights. They were met by a male officer who seemed just as confused as everyone else. There were other crew members there. Everyone was looking at her, puzzled. Iona looked to the floor and shuffled her feet. All the eyes on her almost made her feel naked. The officer said he would take her to her sister and they began their trip through what could only be described as a maze of corridors. The officer tried making small talk though Iona wasn’t paying attention, far too focused on what she would say to her sister when she finally saw her. It was her first time on a navy ship. She didn’t like it very much. It was all too sterile for her. The lights irritated her eyes and the clanking of their feet on the metal floor annoyed her to no end. She wondered how her sister would react when she saw her. She imagined all kinds of scenarios, some pleasant, some not so much. Iona couldn’t help but linger on the bad ones, especially given how she reacted to seeing her in the forest.
They stopped at a big hexagonal door, one of what felt like hundreds they’d passed already. Iona’s heart jumped when she read the sign on the wall. She drew the deepest breath she could as the officer touched a button on the holo-display. This is it. She’d never wanted to run away from anything so badly in her life.
“Yes”? A shiver travelled up Iona’s spine when she heard the familiar voice.
“You have a visitor, Captain”, the officer said into the intercom.
Silence. Iona wasn’t sure if she’d ever felt her heart beat so fast. “OK”, the voice said, sounding a little confused.
The door parted. Iona looked through the opening to see her sister sitting on the edge of her bed. The universe seemed to stop as they met each other’s eyes. She couldn’t believe she was standing so close to her after all this time. Iona’s mind went blank. All the words she thought of on the way had vanished in an instant. She ended up saying the only thing she could think of.
Her sister almost seemed not to recognize her, eyes and mouth devoid of expression. Iona guessed she was probably the last person she expected to see darkening her door. Then her face changed, as if coming out of a trance, indifference morphing into searing rage. She leapt to her feet and stormed toward them with the ferocity of a raging bear. For a moment, Iona was afraid she might hit her.
“What the fuck is this”? Llannaeia barked at the officer.
“Captain, this woman wishes to speak with you”. The officer could hardly get his words out. For most her life Iona had feared her big sister. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like having her for a commanding officer.
“And you just let some random fucking stranger board a naval vessel? What are you? A fucking idiot”?
The young man was white as a sheet. “Captain Oross cleared her to board, Captain. She says she’s your sister”.
Llannaeia went quiet, fists clenched so tight the skin lacked colour. Her glare left the officer, and fixed on Iona. “I just want to talk”, Iona said, sounding more like a frightened mouse than anything else.
“Leave us”, Llannaeia said to the officer who was gone in a split-second. She went back to the bed but didn’t sit. Iona wasn’t sure if she was waiting for her to speak first. “You really are stupid, you know that”?
“You can’t just come onto a navy ship just because I’m on it”.
“I needed to see you. It’s been so long and I didn’t know if I would ever get another chance. I’ve missed you. We all have. The whole family”.
“My family is dead”.
“Not all of it”.
Llannaeia spun like a whirlwind. “They are to me! All of you”.The words were like knives piercing Iona’s stomach. It took all her strength not to burst into tears.
“Please come home, Llann. Everyone’s worried about you”.
“That’s not my home. And besides, I’m in the fucking military, stupid. I can’t just leave whenever I feel like it”.
“Well what about when you’re on leave or whatever you call it”?
“I’d rather not. There’s nothing there for me anyway”.
“Your family’s there. We’ve been there ever since you left. How could you just leave the way you did? How could you leave your home behind like that”?
With that, Llannaeia exploded. “That’s not my home! It never was. It’s not yours either”.
“It’s the closest thing we have to one. It’s all we’ve got not now”. In the middle of a compound on the outskirts of Tylest sat the villa they’d called home from the ages of eleven and fourteen. Three stories of light brown sandstone with a verdant courtyard and fountain at its centre. Iona recalled many a hot day spent playing in the fountain with their adoptive parents, Aldett and Gaelenna and their sons, Corlon and Devad. A few years older than her and unbelievably handsome, Iona would ogle Corlon in his swimming shorts at every opportunity she got. Llannaeia would spend most days cooped up in her room.
“This is my home now”, her sister continued to rage. “Everything else is gone. Because of you”. That last part was another knife to Iona’s gut. She couldn’t hold back her tears any longer.
“I never asked for any of this. I didn’t ask for this thing inside me”.
“I never heard you complain. You always loved telling people about your gift, didn’t you? You loved the attention, everyone always making a fuss over you. But you never told them what it cost you, or me, or mother and father”.
Iona’s cheeks were starting to sting. “There was nothing I could have done. It’s not my fault”,
Llannaeia’s frown twisted into a smirk. “Of course not. Nothing ever is, is it”?
“I was only a child. I couldn’t control it. It just happened”.
Llannaeia sighed and brought her hand to her face. “What do you want”?
“I just want my big sister back. I want you back in my life”.
No answer. Iona couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of hope. Her sister met her teary eyes with a frigid stare. “Well she’s gone, and she’s never coming back. She died a long time ago, and a long way from here”.
Fresh tears rolled down Iona’s cheeks. She said the only thing she could think of. “I love you”.
Llannaeia’s face was stone. She said nothing, but Iona knew her answer. After everything, it was the silence that hurt the most. It reminded her how powerless she was. It reminded her that nothing she could say would make her sister see reason.
Another voice broke the silence, this one from the intercom. “Captain Aventius. We just got word from engineering. We’re clear for take-off. If you and your sister have much left to discuss you better do it fast”.
Llannaeia went to the console by the door and hit a button. “No problem, Captain. We’re done here. Ready to leave when you are”. She sounded so upbeat, like the previous few minutes never happened. She hit another button and the door opened. The petty officer was waiting outside. “Help her find her way out”.
Iona hesitated, like her sister might have a change of heart if she waited long enough. The moment never came and she headed for the opening.
Iona stopped in her tracks. It was the first time in years she’d heard her big sister say her name. It had to mean something. The glimmer reignited, a flickering candlelight, but still enough. She turned back, trying not to look too hopeful.
“It is your fault. They’re dead because of you. You killed them”.
Iona felt like she could die. Since they were small the relationship between her and her big sister hadn’t been great, but she’d never known her to be so cruel. She felt like part of her had been ripped out, the part holding onto any hope that they could be reconciled. For the first time it was clear that she was too far gone, and nothing could be said or done to bring her back. Iona didn’t answer, knowing it would only be a waste of breath. She followed the officer back the way they came. She’d done well not to break down in front of her sister but as soon as she heard the door close she couldn’t hold back any longer. She wept all the way back. The ship’s personnel whispered as she passed but Iona pretended not to hear them. Some of the robots reached out to comfort her, only for her to dodge out of the way and keep going. She was still crying even once the grav-lift had returned her to the forest floor.
The evening sun turned the sky the colour of fire. She’d been gone longer than she thought. She’d have to hurry if she was going to get back before curfew began, at which point all the entrances would be locked until morning. The soldiers offered to escort her but Iona turned them down. She much preferred to be alone with her thoughts. She also didn’t want them to see her sob any more than they had already. She ran as fast as she could, tripping over tree roots and scratching herself on thorns though the stinging of her skin was nothing compared to the pain she felt inside. Llannaeia’s words cut deeper than any sharp object.
Iona reached the top of the hill just in time to see the U.S.N Rimor begin its ascent, silver hull like a mirror in the sky. Its engines roared to life and sent a thunderous whoosh through the valley. Iona stood at the spot where the hill began to slope and watched the ship accelerate towards the clouds, growing smaller and smaller until it was little more than a dot before vanishing completely. She stared at the spot she last saw it long after it was gone, no idea what to do with herself. Ever since she left home, she’d dreamt of the day that would see her reunited with her big sister. She’d envisioned a happy reunion, one where her sister had let go of her anger and agreed to come home and be with her family. Only now Iona realized how naïve she’d been. Llannaeia had said it best. The young woman who left home five years ago was dead and, no matter how much she wished it were not so, things would never be as they once were.