I’ve done it. I’m staring at my name at the top of the Third-Year Final Test results, right below the St. Augustine Space Flight School letterhead. I try for a deep breath and find it’s stuck somewhere between elation and panic.
I’m staring at three years of late nights at the library, after-hours simulation practice till my eyes crossed, and sacrificing social time to study. Not that I’m good at the social time anyways. But it worked, and there I am.
Thea Edgecombe. Out of all 300 third-years, I scored the highest. Now I’ve got a chance at fulfilling my promise to Mika. The thought should fill me with joy. That promise is what kept me going through all those late nights studying. But instead, I just feel queasy.
I can’t tell if I’m being jostled incidentally by other kids trying to find their names, or if people are slapping me on the back on purpose because they’re pretending to be happy for me. In either case, it’s way too much physical contact. I duck under someone’s arm to snake my way back out of the crowd. The perks of being five foot nothing — a small silver lining amidst the six months of panic I went through when I stopped growing at age 12. When I realized I’d always be too short to be a fighter pilot, and had to switch ambitions. Maybe my body knew I’d grow up to be socially anxious, and kept me in a small package to facilitate quick escapes.
My dorm is just the next building over, but the inside of my heavy cotton jumpsuit becomes lined with sweat immediately upon stepping out of the AC. At least Florida in September is the same as always, while the image of my name at the top of that screen feels like it’s pulling me forward at a speed I never agreed to. Mercifully, I manage to dodge the few classmates I see in the dorm hallway and make it to my room.
Farha’s in the lab, so it’s quiet in here. I peel off my sweaty jumpsuit in one motion and collapse on the bed in my sports bra and regulation granny panties. I’ve been so focused on prepping for this test that I never stopped to think about what would happen if I actually scored the top spot. Sure, theoretically, I know what happens.
The top score is automatically made one of the three senior captains, and guaranteed their own crew and first pick on missions. It carries a certain amount of clout with the faculty, which I’ll need if I’m going to finish what Mika started before her injuries from the explosion ended her Spaceforce career: proving the gender parity regulations are bullshit by taking an all-girl crew to the moon.
Now I’m poised on the edge of doing it, or something close to it, and all I can feel is terror. I press the heels of my hands into my eyes. What am I doing? This is Mika’s shit, not mine. She’s the sister who would stand up to bullies on our block, who refused to wear her uniform skirt in elementary school because she said she couldn’t play as well at recess and got the whole dress code policy changed.
She’d been railing against the gender regs since her freshman year.
I swear she talked about it every time she called me that year — my little 6th-grade self hanging on her every word. I can still hear her voice coming through the phone, the slightly-lagging video function freezing her expressions: But it’s such bullshit, Thea! What if more than 50% of the best people are girls?! They’re acting like they’re doing us this big favor by making sure it’s even. But that’s not what fucking equality is!
I loved that she talked to me like I got it. Like I was her age. Like I could do anything she could do. But I’m not her. I’m just quiet, studious Thea following behind her.
Plus, Major Daniels has taken over the Captains program since Mika was a senior. And everyone knows he fully subscribes to the Commander in Chief’s no-women-in-combat-roles-and-trans-people-don’t-exist school of thought. Even though most of the faculty doesn’t. If the way Daniels second-guessed all my decisions when he was teaching my Simulations class last year is any indication, there’ll be some shit to deal with from him.
As though on cue, my wrist comm lights up with a calendar notice. Meeting with Major Daniels tomorrow at 0900 hours. When I’ll officially accept the captainship and submit my crew choices. I let my arms flop back down on the bed. I should call Mika to tell her the news, but I’m not sure I can handle her reaction right now.
A knock on the door makes me jump. If it’s someone coming to congratulate me, I don’t want to deal with it. I pad as softly as I can on the tile floor to the door to look through the peephole.
My heart twitches when I see Kai’s face on the other side, oddly distorted through the peephole but still criminally cute. They’re running their fingers through the front of their short dark hair in a gesture that has no business being as sexy as it is.
Shit. I haven’t seen them since Thursday night. I haven’t been avoiding them, exactly. But I’ve been nervous to see them. I don’t know how to act around them now. Before, we’d hug when we saw each other. Do we still hug? Do we kiss hello now? We certainly kissed on Thursday. I’m overthinking it.
Deep breath. Grip the door handle. Open it.
“Oh, hey, um…” Kai glances down and then averts their eyes, cheeks going pink.
I look down at myself. Shit, I’m still in my bra and undies.
“Oh, fuck. Hang on.”
I close the door again, immediately cursing myself for not just smoothly inviting them in. It’s not like they haven’t seen me in my bra and undies? But that was a different moment.
Maybe that would be way too forward, and they’d be freaked out. I pull on a t-shirt and gym shorts, take half a second to re-pile my hair on top of my head, and pull the door back open.
Kai’s still standing there, half-smiling, hands in the pockets of their leisure suit that’s identical to the one in a heap on my floor. Except above the breast pocket where our names our embroidered, white thread on the navy-blue heavy cotton.
You can faintly see the outlines of the “l-a” that used to be on the end of Kai - the letters they ripped out in an attempt to eradicate the name, once and for all. They said it was worth the six weeks of kitchen duty they got as a consequence for “defacing school property.”
“You want to come in?” I mean for it to sound smooth and inviting, but it comes out almost aggressive. Why can’t I be a normal person?
“Yeah, thanks.” Kai sidesteps around me and plops down in my desk chair, stretching out their long legs.
I hop back on the edge of my bed and hug my knees to my chest. I feel like I need to make my body as desexualized as possible to make up for the fact that half my brain is distracted by thoughts of where Kai’s hands were the last time I was alone with them.
“Congratulations,” they say, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Thanks,” I whisper, forcing a smile that immediately collapses.
“Oh, shit. I know that face. That’s the anxious face. The morning-of-Simulations-final face. What’s up?”
“Urghghhhhhhhhh,” I groan and flop back on the bed. “It’s so stupid. This is what I wanted, right? Kids would kill for the top score on the captain’s test. They probably have. Mika’s gonna be so excited.”
“Mmhmm,” they nod. “So, why do you sound so miserable?”
“I guess...fuck, I guess I’m scared? I’m gonna go into this meeting with Major Daniels tomorrow and say ‘fuck the gender parity regs’ by requesting this crew that doesn’t have any boys on it, and nobody’s tried that since Mika, and we all know what happened there.”
I break off, and we’re quiet for a second. I know we’re both picturing Mika’s ship’s crash-landing, the horrible waiting as rescue teams pulled out bodies, the official report the next day that the crash was due to human error. Mika’s eyes ablaze in her hospital bed, swearing on our mom’s life that it wasn’t her team’s error, that the mission had been sabotaged. My fourteen-year-old self nodding along when Mika grabbed my hand and asked me to promise, to swear I’d prove those assholes wrong when it was my turn.
We hadn’t needed the announcement the next week to know that from that point forward, the gender parity regulations would be strictly enforced. The official line from Major Daniels was that we wouldn’t sacrifice safety at any cost. The unofficial line, which he spouted loudly and often, was that this tragedy just proves that specific roles for certain people exist for a reason.
I bring my focus back to Kai’s face, sharp cheekbones leading into the sloped nose. That open, questioning stare that makes me feel like I can tell them anything.
“So it’s gonna be a whole big thing, and everyone’s is gonna be talking about it and what if I can’t handle the pressure? I’m not like Mika.” It comes out fast and jumbled.
“No, you’re not.” Kai agrees. I snort a tiny laugh.
“Why do you assume that’s a bad thing?” I stare. The idea catches me off-guard.
“Let me ask you something,” Kai continues. “Why do you want to do this?”
“I promised,” the answer comes automatically.
“Yeah, sure. Maybe that’s why it started. But I’ve watched you work your ass off for this. And I’ve heard the way you talk about it. Don’t you think there’s a little more to it than fulfilling someone else’s mission?” I sit up. Somehow, I’ve never thought about it like that. But when Kai says it, it seems so obvious.
Kai levels their eyes at me, and I meet their gaze for the first time today. Impossibly thick lashes around blue, the color of the ocean from orbit.
“I’ve known you since freshman year, T. Well enough to know that you’re not the kind of person who does shit just because someone else wants her to. Just because you’re quiet about it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a rebel badass.” I smirk at that.
“I am so not a badass. Fully just a dork.” Kai shrugs.
“Why not both? Who foiled John Evans’ cheating ring in second year by acing the shit out of the Physics final and throwing off his curve calculation?” I hug my knees tighter, but can’t stop the full smile now.
“Okay, yeah, that’s about as nerdy a way to foil a plan as you can get.”
“Nerdily badass, I’d say.” Kai smiles bigger now.
“Yeah. I guess…I want a better system. One that respects me for what I can do. One that acknowledges your existence.”
“Yeah, that’d be very cool.” Their smile fades a bit. Kai’s been trying to get their gender changed on their official records since second year, but it’s been incredibly slow going. They lock their eyes in on mine, suddenly intense.
“Let’s make it happen, then. We can fucking do it.”
I force myself to nod. Come on, Thea. Kai believes in you. You believe in Kai. Just get your shit together and apply that thinking to yourself. You can make this shit happen together.
“Um, is it cool if I come to sit over there?” Kai says, tone much softer than a moment before.
Hell yes, I want to shout. Come over here and keep talking to me and maybe run your hand up my leg till I get goosebumps. I settle on a nod. But before I can say anything, there is a beep and a whirring sound at the door, unmistakable indications of a wrist comm scanning in.
Farha seems to blow through the door, her six-foot frame extended further by the twelve different bags she’s always carrying around her person. She can never be bothered to put all her mechanic’s tools back in their proper places in their carryall, so they just stay hanging from her arms, her belt loops, her fingertips. Her shiny black hair fans out behind her like always, her deep brown eyes glittering behind wire-frame glasses.
“Kai! My friend!” Farha drops her bags with a clunk and spreads her arms wide. Caught halfway to standing, Kai pivots towards Farha and gives her a squeeze. Kai gives me a what-are-you-gonna-do look over Farha’s shoulder. Farha releases them, beaming, then turns on me.
“And YOU. You did it!!!” She takes a running leap and knocks me flat back onto my bed. “I’m – so – PROUD!” Her voice comes muffled from somewhere near my armpit, her full weight smooshing me into the bed.
The roommate gods got something right when they placed us together the first year. I don’t think Farha, and I would ever have become friends otherwise – her extreme extroversion would’ve scared the shit out of me. And she probably never would’ve noticed me. But she has this defrosting effect on me, especially in social situations. They’re uncomplicated and fun for her, where I overthink everything.
“So!” Farha rolls off me, sprawling at the head of my bed and fluffing a pillow for herself. “What’s your plan of attack when you meet with Daniels? I know you didn’t want to put together the crew list so you wouldn’t jinx yourself, but I also know you know exactly who you want on it.” I crack a tiny, embarrassed smile. She knows me better than I like to admit.
I look from her to Kai, who’s settled back in my desk chair, arms crossed over chest flattened by the tightest sports bra available in the uniform supply store. They’d shaken their head gently when I’d tried to take it off on Thursday night. Not yet.
I shake my head, trying to rid myself of that feeling, and swallow back down the excitement I’d had for a second at the thought of touching them again. No time for that now: Kai and Farha are both looking at me expectantly, ready to spring into action. It feels weird to have them both looking to me like I have the ideas. But I guess that’s the deal of being a captain. I’ve gotta get used to it.
I buzz Major Daniels’ office door at precisely 0900 the next morning, compulsively punctual as always. I take a deep breath as I wait for him to open the door, trying to hold on to the buoyed-up feeling I had last night from Kai and Farha’s confidence in me. Their words of advice echo in my head: stay focused on your talking points, don’t make any compromises, act like you earned the right to demand shit.
Confidence, self-assurance — attributes that come so naturally to people like Mika and Farha, who say whatever they think, whenever, and fuck whoever disagrees. Kai, too, though they’re quieter about it. I try to channel that energy, to imagine it comes as naturally to me as it does to all of them. Not for the first time, I wish I could borrow someone else’s brain to get through this task.
But the door opens, and it’s just me and my same old noggin facing Major Daniels, heavy-browed with crew-cut as always. Wearing his usual expression of contempt, which I’m sure will only intensify when he sees my request.
He doesn’t say anything, just steps back to let me in and waves his hand at the chair across from his big metal desk, built to be intimidating. I sit, noting that the chair is a few inches lower than regulation, while it seems like the one he sits in is a few inches higher. Kai’s voice in my head: He wants you to feel powerless. Don’t let him. I sit up straighter.
“Congrats, Edgecombe,” Daniels says, in a tone most people use to say fuck off.
“Thank you, Major,” I replied, careful to keep my voice steady and gaze straight.
He’s not even looking at me, though, but swiping through a projection on his wrist comm, the tiny images in their boxes glowing in front of his face.
“I’ve always questioned the practice of giving a crew to the highest score on the Third-Year Final,” he says. Closes his wrist comm projection and looks up at me for the first time. “Scholastic aptitude doesn’t usually translate to the best leadership. Ends us up with captains who are…how should I say this…weak. Book smart, but lacking leadership skills. I’m sure you catch my meaning.” His mouth twists upward in probably the closest thing he gets to a smile.
I feel my jaw tightening and the roots of insecurity taking hold in my brain. Squeezing the synapses til they say, he’s right — you’re weak. Not today. I forcefully relax my jaw and raise my chin. Stick to my points.
“Sir, I have my crew request.” As smoothly as possible, I open the prepared form on my wrist comm and hit send.
Daniels grunts as his comm vibrates to indicate the new submission. I watch as he opens it up, scrolls past each crew member’s official school ID photo next to their credentials and the little blurb I wrote about why they’re the best person for the job. Yael, Communications, petite shoulders barely filling up the frame of the ID photo. Mari, Navigator, hair gleaming blue-black. Leila, Pilot, staring defiant, and unsmiling. And Nell, Operator, whose owlish eyes seem to pierce the camera. Kai and Farha, of course, as our Programmer and Mechanic. The projection is reversed from my perspective since I’m looking through it from the back, words, and images eerily mirrored.
I hold my breath as he reads. I’ve spent so much time stressing over this moment — pictured him laughing at me, getting angry, just straight up denying my request. But in this moment, I don’t feel anything. He finishes reading and leans back in his chair, hands behind his head.
“Edgecombe. Sister to Mika, of course.”I swallow.
“Yes, sir.” Long pause.
“I’ve about had enough of this,” he says finally, voice low. “Do you think a team full of…women could have invaded the Middle East and kept our country safe from weapons of mass destruction?”
“My point is, Edgecombe, that certain roles exist for certain types of people for a reason. There are roles that men are better at, and, hell, I’m not sexist, there is stuff women are better at, too.” My jaw clench is back.
“Everyone trying to change the natural order of things for the sake of…what? Progress? Equality? Let me tell you something. We were better off before all of that.”
So that’s it, then. Major will reject the request, force me to do the regulation 50/50 gender distribution.
“But you don’t have to take my word for it, Edgecombe. I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. That’s why I’m going to approve this crew.” I open my mouth to say thank you automatically, but it doesn’t feel like the right response. He’s not doing this to help me out. I close my mouth again, eyeing him. He leans forward over the big metal desk and looks me in the eye, his cold brown irises shadowed under the heavy brow.
“This way, when you fail in a fiery blaze, like your sister did, maybe we’ll be through with this female-domination nonsense once and for all.” He taps something on his wrist comm, and mine buzzes immediately. Crew Approved.
I clench my jaw. A million things to say flash through my head, but I push them all down. I have what I need. I can get the hell out of his presence. I stand, turn on my heel, and leave.
The two weeks between the crew approval and our first mission pass in a blur. Every morning, I put "call Mika" on my to-do list, and every evening it’s still left unchecked. I can’t bring myself to do it. I have a feeling I could figure out why if I really tried, but no time for that.
I call crew meetings, simulation practices, and redundant equipment checks. We become excellent at working together.
I run into the other two senior captains, Ben and Travis, in the common rooms and the library. I get there before them and stay later every day. Both of them in the top ten percent of the exam, hand-selected by the faculty based on observed leadership potential. Both tall, all-American-looking boys who stay calm under pressure. They congratulate me and are perfectly pleasant. Their crews are both the regulation 50/50 — 3 girls, 3 boys. They carefully avoid asking me anything deeper than “How’s your mission prep going?”
There have been fights between captains in the past — for simulation time, instructor attention, you name it. First missions are all the same: a supply drop to the moon, pitting the new captains in not-so-subtle competition with each other to prove who’s going to be the best. The moon drop is pretty straightforward but just complicated enough that you can’t get there without a well-functioning team. Any halfway competent team can bullshit their way through a blastoff/touchdown drill, or even a push to orbit. A moon landing is where it starts to require real skill, real practice. And when the stakes start to become life or death.
I barely see Farha or Kai outside of practice. When I get back to the room at night, Farha’s already snoring, sprawled out starfish-style on top of her covers. Kai sends me a few messages — silly things or little notes of encouragement — that come through my wrist comm when I’m in the control lab or poring over records of old missions in the library. I reply, but can’t muster the energy for anything beyond a quick phrase or a thumbs-up. I can’t deal with sorting out my feelings on top of all this mission prep.
I arrive at the bridge of the Diana early as hell on launch day. My boots make the familiar soft thud on the riveted steel, lonely in the empty, still air. The rest of the crew isn’t scheduled to arrive for another thirty minutes, which gives me enough time to make preliminary checks myself, even though I did them already, obsessively, after everybody left our final practice last night.
I’m checking the oxygen levels (again) when footsteps make me jump and spin around.
Kai’s standing on the bridge, flight suit clinging unfairly to their muscled shoulders, dark hair falling in their eyes. I realize I haven’t fully let myself look at them for the past two weeks. But I indulge now, allowing myself to drink in this person who’s been my friend since first-year orientation, who’s one of two people at school who’s seen me cry. When did I start noticing the curve of their muscled shoulders, the way their nose slopes perfectly from the side and feeling something stir behind my bellybutton?
“Hey Thea,” Kai says. That voice I haven’t heard them use since that night. Low, quiet, like they’re whispering directly into my ear. “I’m early…I can come back later? If you need a minute?”
But they lower their bag off their shoulder as they say it. Because we both know I want them to stay.
“No, um, absolutely. Stay.” The words come out more breathless than I’d imagined. They hold my gaze for a beat too long in the silent moment that follows. It’s not a look exchanged between just-friends.
“Cool.” They lower their bag all the way to the floor, push their hair back again. “I just wanted to double-check the oxygen tanks. The sensor was acting up last week.”
They close the distance between us in three strides, boots making those same muted thuds as mine did. I take a half-step back to make a path to the display for them, but they pass too close to me anyways, shoulder brushing mine as they lean down to look.
Their hair, longer in front, hangs heavily in front of their forehead, giving way in the back to a short buzz. I catch myself staring longingly at the nape of their neck, where the hair fades out into smooth olive skin. I force myself to look away. This is not the time to give in to these feelings. When I look back, they’re looking up at me out the corners of their eyes.
They straighten up and turn around, leaning their butt against the control panel at an angle that makes us almost the same height.
“The oxygen levels seem okay now. But we should keep an eye on them since it’s not clear why the sensor wasn’t giving proper input data the other day.” I nod, bite my lip.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been very available.” It’s out of my mouth before I can think about it. Okay, cool, brain. Apparently, I have no say over when it’s time for a feelings talk.
Kai half-smiles reaches out to trace my jawline with an index finger. They open their mouth to say something when—
“HELLOOOOO party people! Who’s ready for the best supply drop mission EVER?!” Farha has entered the control room. Normal people might have looked at our body language, the way we’re standing a few inches closer than a captain should stand to her crew engineer, and intuited that they’d interrupted an intimate moment. Not Farha. She drops her duffel next to Kai’s and beams at us.
I open my mouth, but I’m saved from having to say anything by the arrival of the rest of the crew. The four others fall in behind her, Yael standing on tiptoe to peek over Leila’s shoulder.
“We had a feeling you’d be here early, Captain,” Yael pipes up, her chin-length dark hair bobbing enthusiastically. “We didn’t want you to be alone.”
I look around at all of them. Some of them are the stone-cold best at what they do, like Leila, and some of them are great at their jobs, but also have something special that can’t be measured by a test or work output. Like Farha with her superhuman ability to smooth over any uncomfortable situation. Our simulations have been getting better and better.
For the first time, looking at all of them, I feel like I’ve got this.
Everyone has naturally formed a circle, and I realize they’re looking at me. I glance at Kai. They’re still leaning against the control panel, but angled towards me, hitting me with that open, trusting stare that says they have absolute confidence in me.
No pressure. Deep breath.
“Okay, everyone. Welcome to the Diana.”