The chronicle of the final voyage of the medical relief ship GSC Nightingale.
Wednesday, September 15th 2213
The skyport was crowded and loud, but the din wasn’t so huge that Lucy couldn’t hear the high-pitched wails of a child in pain.
Lucy paused her frantic dash through the terminal, searching for the source of the noise. It would be ridiculous to jeopardize her chance at a spot on the Nightingale for a child having a tantrum over a cookie, but she couldn’t bring herself to ignore the screams.
When Lucy spotted the shrieking child, she knew immediately that the problem wasn’t cookie-related. He was small—three or four years old, at her guess—and he was doubled over, clutching at his belly. A woman knelt at his side, hands hovering an inch from him, like she was too afraid to touch him. Her face said what her mouth couldn’t: she was terrified.
People passed the child and the woman, most ignoring them completely, but some casting alarmed glances at the cacophony. No one stopped.
Lucy looked at her watch. She had fifteen minutes to get her bag and make it to the shuttle. If she missed that shuttle, there was no chance she’d be available in the event a spot opened on the Nightingale. She hadn’t gotten one of the 200 priority spots, but she had gotten the next best thing: first choice in case a spot opened up. It had taken all her money to come from Mexico City to Lubbock on a tiny, cramped plane she was sure would fall out of the sky if someone sneezed. The plane had had to make a stop in Cuba on the way—the pilot couldn’t cross the border from Mexico into the US without risking a shoot down—so it had taken three days to make the journey. She was so close. She just had to keep walking like everyone else.
The boy wailed, blubbering out a pathetic cry that stabbed into her ears and wrapped fingers of shame around her heart. She changed her trajectory from the terminal exit to the boy, trotting to get there faster. Maybe she could still make the shuttle if she was fast enough.
“Hi!” Lucy called out to get the woman’s attention. “Is he okay?”
The woman looked like she didn’t actually believe that Lucy was coming to help her. “I don’t know,” she said. “He just started screaming, and he won’t tell me what’s the matter.”
Lucy knelt in front of the crying boy. “What’s his name?”
“Boyd, my name is Lucy,” she said. “Is it okay if I touch you?”
The boy looked up at her, face screwed into an expression of abject pain, and he howled, “It hurrrrrts!”
“I’m going to try to help you, Boyd,” Lucy said. “Where does it hurt?”
“My tummy!” He guarded the lower right quadrant of his abdomen.
Lucy licked her lips. Her grasp on anatomy was better than fair, and she knew the appendix resided in the lower right quadrant. She looked up at the woman, who now stood with arms crossed.
“Does he still have his appendix?”
“I think so,” the woman said. “I don’t know. I’m the nanny. I just started working for this family a month ago.”
“I think you should call an ambulance.” As Lucy said this last word, a shadow fell over her from behind. She turned and looked up to see who was joining them.
The newcomer was a young man with deep olive skin, dark brown hair, and big brown eyes. He knelt at the boy’s side, matching Lucy’s posture. When he spoke to her, he had an accent she couldn’t place. “Is he hurt?”
“Uh.” Lucy paused, gathering her thoughts. “He says his tummy hurts. But it looks more like—”
“Appendix,” the newcomer said. He touched Boyd on the shoulder but continued to speak to Lucy. “Have you called an ambulance yet?”
“I just told his nanny to call,” she said.
The nanny blinked, then snatched her phone out of her pocket. She dialed the three numbers necessary for summoning medics and then spoke rapidly to whoever picked up the other end. “Hello? Yes, I’m at Lubbock International Airport. I think my… There’s a little boy and they think his appendix is hurt.”
Lucy tuned out the rest of the nanny’s conversation as she watched the newcomer with Boyd. He put the back of his hand to Boyd’s forehead and mumbled, “Hot.” He then asked Lucy, “Has he thrown up?”
“Not since I’ve been here,” she said.
The nanny clicked her phone off and sighed out, “They said there are medics in the skyport. They’ll be here in just a minute.”
Lucy resisted the urge to check her watch. She smiled up at the nanny and said, “I’ll stay until they get here.”
“So will I,” the young man said. “Did you hear that, buddy? There are some medics coming to take you to a hospital. They’ll help you there.”
Tears squeezed out of Boyd’s eyes as he clutched at his side. “They’ll m-make it stop hu-hurting?”
“You bet they will.” As the newcomer spoke, a siren became distinct over the general noise of the terminal. A few seconds later, a medic cart squealed to a halt beside them and uniformed medics jumped out. The newcomer and Lucy stepped back, and at that point she checked her watch.
She wanted to wish the nanny good luck, but the woman was preoccupied with the medics and her hurting charge. The newcomer also spoke to the medics, and Lucy decided they wouldn’t miss her. She slipped away and ran down the terminal toward baggage claim.
Her suitcase was tangled with a pile of others rotating around on the luggage belt. She tried to squeeze past the crowd but it was too thick and people were too intent on keeping their spot at the front. After what seemed like a century of attempting to find a route to the front, she decided to abandon her suitcase. Nothing inside was worth missing a chance at the Nightingale.
The information packet she had received weeks earlier had said the shuttle left from the curb outside baggage claim Area 4. Lucy ran toward that exit, dodging other travelers, purse flapping on her shoulder.
As she reached Area 4’s exit, she saw the shuttle outside, still at the curb, and she dared to release a sigh of relief.
And then, the doors closed.
“No!” Lucy shrieked.
She sped up, lurching through the partly open exit doors just as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and into traffic. She could see people sitting inside, silhouetted against the tinted windows as the shuttle moved away.
Lucy stood on the curb, chest heaving in the Texas summer heat as she tried to catch her breath, as her dream of the Nightingale vanished. She was too shocked to even feel like crying. She expected she’d probably do a lot of that later, though.
“Wait!” A man’s voice echoed down the crowded roadside. Lucy turned to see who was making the fuss, and was surprised when she recognized the man who had helped Boyd just a few minutes earlier.
He ran just as she had, desperately searching the traffic. He came to a stop beside her and panted, “Shuttle? Left?”
Lucy nodded. “We missed it.”
“Shit,” he swore, then put a hand over his mouth for a moment. “I’m sorry. I just—”
“I get it,” Lucy said. “‘Shit’ is probably the mildest word you could use for this situation.”
“I agree.” He lifted his hand and stepped toward the curb. “Taxi! We can take a cab. We’ll make it if we get one now.”
A spark of hope smoldered in her chest. “You think?”
“Absolutely.” He shouted for a taxi again, and this time one glided to a stop in front of him. He opened the door and tossed his shoulder bag in. “Get in. Hurry.”
Lucy jumped into the taxi and the young man climbed in behind her.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked.
“The GSC launch port,” Lucy’s companion said. “As fast as you can, please.”
“You got it,” the driver said, and he pulled into traffic.
Lucy fastened her seatbelt and let herself crumple against the seat. They might make it. There was still a chance.
She turned to the young man and said, “My name is Lucy.”
“Daryush,” he said. They shook hands. “We’ll make it, Lucy. I have faith in our driver.”
“I hope so,” Lucy said, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. “I’m so screwed if I don’t make this class.”
Daryush laughed. “Are you here for medical or nursing?”
“Nursing,” she said. “You?”
“Medical,” Daryush said. “Surgery, specifically. My parents are both surgeons. Figured I’d keep the family business alive.”
“My grandmother is a nurse,” Lucy said. “And a curandera. A traditional healer.”
“With herbs and plants?”
“Sometimes,” Lucy said. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Well, good healing is a holistic process,” Daryush said. “Anything that helps the patient doesn’t really need explanation.”
Lucy beamed. “That’s… You know, it’s rare to find someone interested in medicine who doesn’t scoff at the idea of a traditional healer.”
“My parents would,” Daryush said. “But they don’t really heal. They just cut off whatever they think the problem is.”
Outside the taxi, the traffic opened up. The driver changed lanes, rising above the commuter traffic into the higher express level, doing what seemed like his best to get Daryush and Lucy to the port in time.
“You sound like you’ll be a great surgeon,” Lucy said. “I just hope we make it so you get the chance.”
“We’ll make it,” Daryush said. His words sounded less sure, more of a wishful thought or a prayer, and Lucy swallowed hard.
The Galactic Settlers’ Command launch port was a massive compound surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. On approach to the main gate, signs mounted on tall poles said “GROUND LEVEL DRIVING ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED.” Energy cannons swiveled to follow the taxi as it obeyed the signs and dipped closer to the ground. The taxi driver stopped at the guarded main gate and informed the soldier standing guard there that he was taking two people inside.
The soldier looked unconvinced, so Daryush reached past Lucy and rolled her window down.
“Excuse me, sir!” Daryush said to the soldier. “We missed the shuttle. We’re here for the Nightingale.”
The soldier pulled an InfoTab out of his vest. “Names?”
“Daryush Golshenas, and—”
“Lucy Hernandez,” she said, hoping her name would be on the list since she wasn’t technically a student yet.
The soldier tapped in their names and then nodded. “Okay, go on it. Take the first right and follow the signs.”
The driver thanked the soldier and continued onto the base, turning right at the first opportunity.
Lucy watched out the taxi’s windshield and saw the shuttle they’d missed. It was parked beside an enormous glass-paneled building. There were no longer silhouettes at the windows, and no one milled on the sidewalk. Lucy gulped. Everyone was already inside.
The taxi parked behind the shuttle and the driver said, “Twenty-seven fifty.”
Lucy’s heart dropped into her stomach when she remembered she had literally no money in her purse.
Before she could confess her egregious error to Daryush, he handed the driver a wad of cash and said, “Keep the change.” He shoved the door open and jumped out, reaching in to help Lucy exit the vehicle.
On the curb, Lucy said, “I’ll pay you back for the fare.”
Daryush shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s go.”
They hurried without running, and as they approached, the reflective glass doors of the building opened and a soldier with a rifle slung across his chest stepped out. He put up a hand, signaling for them to stop.
Lucy expected the soldier to tell them they were too late. The information packet had been very clear about lateness. Even a second past the time and a candidate’s spot would be taken away and given to the top person on the waiting list.
But instead, the soldier said, “Daryush Golshenas and Lucy Hernandez?”
They both nodded, and Daryush said, “Sir, I know we’re late, but—”
The soldier shook his head and interrupted Daryush’s excuse. “I don’t need to hear it, son. Please follow me.”
The soldier ushered Daryush and Lucy into the building. Inside, the foyer stretched up several floors to the ceiling; the entire wall was one giant window looking across the street to the launch pad. A model of the Nightingale spacecraft hovered over a pedestal in the center of the room, which was engraved with the ship’s nickname: “The Angel of the Stars.”
The soldier took Daryush and Lucy up a staircase to a landing. From there, the view out to the launch pad was more comprehensive. Lucy could see people rushing around the pad and in and out of the dozen space shuttles parked around the pad’s periphery.
Two hundred people will be riding those shuttles out of the atmosphere tonight. She swallowed hard, hoping she would be one of those lucky two hundred.
The soldier took them around the landing until it ended, then opened a door into a dim hallway. Down the hall, they could hear the muffled sounds of an electronically magnified voice speaking in a large space.
The hall ended at a door, which the soldier knocked on gently. It opened and another soldier on the other side said, “That them?”
“Yep.” The first soldier waved Daryush and Lucy through the door.
Lucy’s curiosity climbed higher and higher, as did her anxiety. It seemed like they were being taken backstage, but why? Were they about to be made examples? Publicly humiliated? That was just what she needed. Broke and trapped in a hostile foreign country and utterly mortified in front of over two hundred people.
Lucy’s mother’s voice in her head reminded her that medical workers were heartless people only interested in making money off the infirm and vulnerable. She shook her head a little to quiet that voice.
She took a deep breath and told herself she was overreacting and turning this into a catastrophe. They were probably just being taken to a side door into the auditorium so they didn’t disturb the speaker.
The new soldier stopped by a door, and Lucy chastised herself for freaking out earlier. In a moment he’d open the door and tell them to find a seat quietly.
The soldier had a wireless comm device clipped to a shoulder holster, and now he turned his head to that side and said, “Find Corporal Westboro. Break. Corporal Davis. Break. I’ve got the two from the airport. Waiting at the west door, over.”
“Corporal Westboro. Break. Roger,” a voice on the comm device said.
Lucy leaned close to Daryush and whispered, “What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Daryush said. “This is strange.”
“Isn’t it?” Lucy said, and then blurted the loudest thought in her head. “I’m so glad I’m not alone, though.”
Daryush smiled, and Lucy’s heart beat faster.
The comm device spoke, preventing any further discussion between Daryush and Lucy: “Corporal Westboro. Break. Ready for them. Send them on, over.”
“Corporal Davis. Break. Roger.” Cpl. Davis turned the door handle and said, “Out you go,” as he pushed the door open and herded Daryush and Lucy through.
It was much brighter through the door than it had been on the other side. Lucy squinted away the brightness with Daryush doing the same at her side, and then they heard a booming, echoing female voice say, “Welcome to orientation, you two.”
The repeating laughter of a substantial crowd seemed to wrap around Lucy, and her eyes finally adjusted enough for her to determine where she was.
On a stage.
On a stage in front of what she assumed was the candidate class of the Nightingale. She couldn’t see them because of the lighting: they sat in shrouded anonymity while she stood exposed on the bright stage.
Oh god, I was right. We’re going to be tarred and feathered.
A gleaming metal podium at the center front was the only object on the stage. A woman with dark skin and darker hair, dressed in a sharp suit, stood at the podium. Lucy recognized her from the Nightingale’s website and brochures: Doctor Paulina Grey, the medical school director. She beckoned Daryush and Lucy over.
“As I was saying,” Dr. Grey said as Daryush and Lucy made their way to her, “healthcare requires that you put the patient before yourself, no matter the circumstances. One hundred and twelve of you arrived here yesterday or the day before, but eighty-eight came through the skyport today. The six of you who arrived on the last two flights, from Miami and Los Angeles, were presented with the opportunity to help a stranger.”
Daryush and Lucy had reached the podium. They came to a halt, and movement from the back of the stage caught Lucy’s eye. She looked up to see a still image from what was clearly a security camera, displaying the skyport terminal where she knelt with Daryush next to Boyd as he hunched over.
Dr. Grey lifted her arm up toward the giant image. “We set up little Boyd here where the final flights will funnel through, just before the final shuttle. The students have to make a choice: help the boy, or make the shuttle.”
The image changed: Daryush and Lucy standing at the curb outside the skyport. The shuttle was visible in the distance, driving away.
“The Nightingale boasts the unique mission of humanitarian efforts while training nursing and medical students,” Dr. Grey said. “We emphasize patient care and personal sacrifice, and students who will jeopardize their positions as members of the Nightingale’s class in order to help a stranger are exactly the kind of students we want.”
Now, Dr. Grey smiled at Daryush and Lucy. The genuine warmth on her face calmed Lucy’s anxiety from a minute earlier. “Miss Hernandez here even left her suitcase at the baggage claim in an attempt to make the shuttle.” She winked at Lucy. “We picked it up for you.”
Lucy nodded dumbly and attempted a smile. It felt like more of a grimace on her face, but Dr. Grey didn’t seem fazed by the awkward expression.
Dr. Grey’s smile fell away as she turned to the crowd of students. “Four of you walked past Boyd as he screamed in the terminal, and three of those four have had their line numbers revoked. The fourth passed by after he saw that Miss Hernandez and Mr. Golshenas had already stopped. Those three line numbers will be given to the top three standby candidates.”
Dr. Grey straightened her elegant suit jacket and then turned to Daryush and Lucy with a pleasant expression. “Congratulations, and thank you for being willing to help a little boy in pain.”
Daryush and Lucy both mumbled thank-yous and you’re welcomes before Dr. Grey said, “You can have a seat in the audience now.”
Lucy felt like diving straight off the stage, but instead she followed Daryush down a set of steps as the class applauded for them. Two seats had been saved at the front of the auditorium. Daryush and Lucy slid into those seats, and it was only as Dr. Grey began talking about uniforms and textbooks did the reality of the situation strike Lucy fully.
She had made it.
She was going to sail on the Nightingale.
The orientation took up the most inspirational hour of Lucy’s life. As Dr. Grey congratulated the students on their acceptance and welcomed them to the Nightingale, Lucy’s chest tightened with pride and exhilaration.
She needed to call her abuela.
She had sold her mobile phone in order to collect enough money for the plane ticket, but she was sure there was a phone somewhere she could use; there always was.
On the stage, Dr. Grey said, “The remainder of your orientation will take place on the Nightingale itself. The shuttles are scheduled for launch in an hour and a half, so you have about forty minutes to enjoy Earth.” She smiled as laughter rippled up from the audience behind me. “So you’re all dismissed for now. Please stay in this building or immediately outside, and be attentive to announcements.”
Dr. Grey walked off the stage and students immediately began to either chatter or disperse. Lucy turned to Daryush and said, “I can’t believe it.”
He grinned. “I told you we’d make it.”
“Yeah.” Lucy was nearly breathless with excitement as she stood. “I’ve got to go make a phone call. My grandmother will be dying to know what happened.”
Daryush nodded and stood with her. “I guess I’ll go outside. I can’t just sit here.”
They joined the flow of students out of the auditorium and into the open, windowed atrium that they had followed the soldier through. Students milled here and there, in groups of two or three. Off to one side, a group of three girls stood around a fourth, who was bawling.
Lucy glanced at the noise for a moment, then away quickly. The crying girl must have been one of those whose line numbers was taken.
As Lucy paused to look around for an office that might have a phone in it, she heard someone shout, “Hey!”
She looked. It was reflex. Most of the people around her looked, as well. One of the crying girl’s companions glared at Lucy, finger extended.
“You!” The girl stomped over to Lucy, her blonde hair bouncing with every step. She came to a halt inches from Lucy and glowered down. In what sounded to Lucy like an odd English accent, the girl yelled, “You got Deborah’s line number taken away!”
Lucy winced away, mortified. “I didn’t. I’m sorry she—”
“So now she’s got to go home and wait four more years!” The blonde girl’s face was turning red. “How could you do something like that?”
Lucy wanted to say it was Deborah’s own fault she hadn’t stopped to help Boyd, but she couldn’t move her lips to form words. She just cowered before the blonde girl, needing to defend herself but wholly unable to.
A ring had formed around Lucy and her blonde assailant. “If you had any decency in you at all, you’d go tell Doctor Grey to give Deborah her line number back. But you won’t, will you?” She looked around at the crowd, and then leaned toward Lucy. She hissed, “Watch your ass, Miss Hernandez. I’m going to make you wish you’d never made it to the launch port,” and then spun away. The crowd parted for her as she stomped back to her friends, and then every pair of eyes turned to Lucy.
Lucy hurried away, heading the opposite direction of the blonde girl. A hand around her upper arm made her startle; maybe the girl had decided yelling wasn’t enough.
Lucy spun, lifting her hands to defend herself. But it wasn’t the girl gripping Lucy’s arm. Daryush said, “What was that all about? I was walking and I thought you were right there and then I heard yelling…”
“One of those girls got bumped because of the whole kid thing,” Lucy said. “Her friend thinks it was my fault.”
Daryush snorted. “What?”
“I know it’s not,” she said. “I still feel bad.”
He shrugged. “Why? It’s her own fault she didn’t stop.”
“Don’t beat yourself up.” He smiled. “Didn’t you want to call your grandmother?”
Lucy sighed. In her fluster, she had completely forgotten. “Yeah. I need to go find an office with a phone.”
“An office?” Daryush asked. “I think your mobile should work here.”
Lucy hesitated. “I don’t have a mobile. I sold it.”
“Oh.” Daryush rummaged through his pocket for a moment before pulling a small plastic square out. “Well, use mine.”
“Oh, I can’t,” Lucy said. “You already paid the cab fare, and now this?”
He shrugged again. “It’s the last time it’ll get used for a while. And you can just… I don’t know. Disimpact a patient for me.” He grinned.
“Ew.” Lucy laughed and took his phone. “Thank you.”
He nodded as she dialed her abuela’s phone number. It rang five times before someone answered.
“¿Quién habla?” Consuela Hernandez snapped in Spanish. “Who is this? I’m not buying anything. Take me off your list.”
“Abuela, it’s Lucy!”
“Lucy?” Consuela’s tone changed from irritated to surprised. “Well, you’re not crying. Did you get a spot?”
“Yes!” Lucy almost squealed with excitement. “I got on, Abuela. I’m going to fly on the Nightingale!”
Consuela whooped. “Oh, Lucy! I knew it! I prayed, you know.”
“Your mother did some kind of hocus-pocus,” she griped.
“I figured that, too.”
“Well, aren’t you so smart,” Consuela said. “Oh, Lucy, I’m so happy for you. When do you leave?”
“Today,” Lucy said. “In about an hour.”
“Well get off the phone and go walk barefoot in some grass,” Consuela said. “It’s good for you. And they don’t have grass on space ships.”
Lucy grimaced. “I’ll do that. I love you, Abuela. I’ll write as much as I can.”
“So will I. Be a good girl. Study hard.”
“I will,” Lucy said, swallowing the hard lump in her throat. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Consuela said. “See you in four years.”
Lucy hung up and handed the phone back to Daryush. She made sure she wasn’t going to start leaking tears before she said, “Gracias.”
“I don’t speak Spanish,” Daryush said as he accepted his phone.
Lucy laughed. “It means ‘thank you.’ How do you live in the United States and not speak Spanish?”
“I’m not American,” Daryush said.
“Of course you’re not.” Lucy tapped her open palm against her forehead, feeling like an idiot. He didn’t even sound American. She wanted to ask where he was from, but now seemed like a bad time. “Sorry. I’m not really all here today.” She pointed her thumb toward an exit. “My grandmother told me to do something. If I don’t do it, she’ll find out and I’ll be in trouble when I get back.”
Daryush lifted an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “I’m curious.”
Lucy laughed, embarrassed. “She, uh… she told me to walk barefoot on the grass.”
She expected Daryush to tell her that her grandmother was crazy and walk away. Instead, he smiled. “That’s a good idea. Who knows how long it’ll be before we walk on grass again?”
They left the building and headed toward the nearest patch of grass. A minute later, they sat on the green, shoes and socks in a pile by the sidewalk, running their feet over the short blades.
After a few minutes of amiable quiet, Daryush said, “This was a good idea.”
“Yeah,” Lucy said. “My grandmother is always right about stuff like this.”
“My grandmother would tell me to drink some tea,” Daryush said. “When I’d come home from school stressed out, she’d make tea and it would actually make me feel better. I think grandmothers must be right about most things.”
Lucy smiled, hesitated, then said, “I don’t mean to be rude, Daryush, but where are you from?”
“That’s not rude,” he said. “Persia. Iran. It’s in the Middle East.”
Lucy nodded. “I know where that is.” She did, mostly. A little. She pointed south. “I’m from Mexico.”
Daryush beamed. “Cool.”
Lucy scrunched her cheeks in an awkward smile. “You don’t know about the war, do you?”
His eyes widened. “Apparently not. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Lucy said, waving her hand in an attempt to dissipate the tension that was forming. “It’s hardly even affected anyone.”
The words felt dirty coming out her mouth. She’d never said a more untrue thing in her life. Why had she lied to him?
She didn’t have time to wonder. The nearby door opened. A soldier leaned out and barked, “Ten minute warning! We’re leaving in ten minutes!” Then he was gone back inside as quickly as he’d come.
Daryush plucked a blade of grass from the soil and held it up, examining its thin body. “I guess this is goodbye to grass.”
Lucy ran her hands over the blades of grass at her sides. “Well, who knows? Maybe they’ll grow it in one of the colonies. I’ve heard they do that. Agriculture.”
They put their shoes and socks back on as students began to file out and mill on the sidewalk. Lucy could sense their anxiety, or maybe that was just her own. It was normal to feel that way, right? It was her first time to space, just as it was probably all the other students’ first time into space. She completely expected someone to throw up before they broke atmosphere. She just hoped it wasn’t her.