Helen stared out the window at the blue sky arched overhead, at the green carpet of grass, at the trees swaying in the breeze.
There was no breeze in space. No grass. No blue sky.
She pushed the thought away and tried to pay attention to Dr. Carlisle. He paced back and forth in front of his whiteboard, lecturing about vectors or something.
Her thoughts wandered to Tony. The path was well worn.
The bell rang, and her classmates scrambled for their books.
“23-H, please see me,” Dr. Carlisle called, scanning the class’s identical faces. Helen sighed. No one else used their numerical designations. And most of the other instructors at least tried to tell them apart.
Jane — 23-J to Dr. Carlisle — shot Helen a sympathetic look, but vanished through the door with the others.
Dr. Carlisle grimaced at her. “You’re 23-H?”
“I go by Helen.”
Dr. Carlisle sniffed. “You’re failing my class.”
Helen’s stomach dropped. Failing? She knew she was behind the others, but she hadn’t done that poorly. Helen fought down her shame. “Only one of us will need it, anyway.”
Dr. Carlisle rubbed his temples. “All of the other batch 23 clones want to be that person.”
Helen’s gaze flicked to the window. “A solo, one-way deep space mission just doesn’t appeal to me.”
“It appeals to the others,” Dr. Carlisle said.
“Just because we all look the same doesn’t mean that we all are the same,” Helen said.
“You’re clones. You’ve all been raised in the same environment, given the same classes. All of the others want the deep space mission. It’s what you were made for.”
“We were made for space. Only one of us is going on the deep space mission.”
Dr. Carlisle sighed. “Is this about my son?”
Helen blinked. How did he know? Tony had promised — had sworn on his soul — that he would never tell anyone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dr. Carlisle pulled his chair from behind his desk and sat down facing her. “You haven’t done anything wrong, 23-H — Helen. There are no rules against clones fraternizing with others. The government considers you fully human, and so does this school.”
“But you don’t,” Helen snapped.
“My feelings are immaterial. What matters is your training. You can’t let Earthly attachments hold you back. Yes, only one of you is going to deep space. But you are all going to space — it’s the only way you can pay back all your debts. You’re only a few months away from graduation. You don’t want to be the bottom of the class, do you? You don’t want to be stuck on a garbage scow for the rest of your life.”
Helen stared past him out the window. A bluebird swooped down and landed on the windowsill, his feathers radiant in the sunlight. “No,” Helen said softly. “I don’t want that.”
* * *
Helen skipped the rest of her classes and went for a walk. She tried to memorize the pull of gravity on her body, the feel of the dirt path under her feet, the sun on her face, the breeze pulling at her hair. But it was too much. She’d never remember it all.
It didn’t matter if she was on a garbage scow or a deep space probe. She wouldn’t be here. And once her body acclimated to space, she’d never be able to come back.
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
She tried to memorize that, too.
* * *
Tony waited outside her dorm, clutching a dozen roses. Pink, with just a hint of orange. Like the sunset. Her favourite colour.
“My father said he talked to you.” His knuckles were white on the crinkly plastic around the bouquet.
He thrust the flowers toward her. “Please don’t be mad.”
She took the roses and held them up to her nose. She kissed his cheek. “I should get these in water.”
He grinned at her. “Okay. Meet me back out here? I want to take you out now that we’re not a secret anymore.”
Helen nodded. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
* * *
She filled a plastic cup with water and perched the roses on her desk. Her three bunkmates glared at her. The silence stretched.
Finally, Kelly spoke. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going out.”
“Where were you all day?” Jane asked. She sounded worried.
Helen sighed. “I was out.”
“If you keep skipping classes,” Irene said, “no one will want you on their crew.”
Jane took her hand. “We’re worried about you, Helen. About your future.”
“Someone’s got to drive that garbage scow,” Helen said. “If it’s me, it won’t be any of you. Stop worrying. I know what I’m doing.”
She paused in the doorway. “Won’t any of you miss it? Just a little?”
“Miss what?” Jane asked, her puzzled look mirrored in the faces of the others.
Helen shrugged. “Everything.”
* * *
Helen and Tony had dinner at a rooftop restaurant looking out over the city. The menu didn’t list prices.
She drank strawberry juice and ate shrimp salad and passion fruit crème brûlée. They danced in the moonlight.
“There’s one last place I want to take you,” Tony said. “It’ll take a while. It’ll be late when we get back.”
Helen weaved her fingers through his. “I don’t mind.”
They drove a long time, away from the city’s lights. Fireflies flickered from dark trees, and the air was cool and soft. Tony sang along with the radio.
Helen wished the trip could last forever.
But eventually, Tony pulled off the highway and parked in a gravel lot. He led her to the middle of a wide field and spread a blanket on the ground. He sat and pulled her down next to him. He checked his watch. “We’re just in time.” They stared up at the stars.
A minute passed. “Just in time for what?” Helen asked.
Then, she saw. Tiny bits of burning debris streaked across the sky overhead, burning up on reentry. “They look just like shooting stars from here,” Tony said. “Thousands of shooting stars.”
“Where do they all come from?” she asked.
“The garbage scows. Some of the operators post their schedules, so people know when to look up.”
She searched his face, but there was no mockery there, no hint that he knew where she was probably heading.
She rested her head on his chest and watched the trash paint the sky. She wondered what it looked like from above.
* * *
Helen fell asleep on the way home. Tony woke her with a gentle kiss and walked her to her dorm. “I’ll see you soon,” he whispered.
“Thank you for tonight. It was amazing.”
The campus was well lit, so she could see him blush. “I love you, Helen.”
“I love you, too.” The words were easy to say. She wished they’d be just as easy to live with, but she knew better.
The hallways were dark and empty, but Jane was waiting up for her in their room. She grabbed Helen’s hand and pulled her back into the hall. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
Helen sighed. She was tired and didn’t want to fight.
“Of course I’m going to miss it,” Jane said. “But I’m excited, too. We were made to be weightless, Helen. Don’t you remember our zero-G training? How wonderful it felt? How right? We have been given a gift. The gift of purpose. All our lives we’ve known what we were meant to do and where we were meant to do it. In space, with others of our kind.”
Helen had forgotten how wonderful zero-G training had felt. And she did long to see the Earth hanging in the darkness like a blue-and-green jewel.
Jane continued. “So, no more skipping classes, okay?”
“Promise me,” Jane said.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
The next morning Helen hurried to Dr. Carlisle’s office. “I want to drop your class,” she said, clutching her hands together.
“You can’t be serious,” he said.
“I want to schedule extra practice time on operating and repairing magnetic arms.”
“And you think my class is a waste of your time?” Dr. Carlisle asked.
Helen shrugged. “Isn’t it? We both know I’m not pulling the deep-space assignment.”
“What assignment are you hoping for, then?” he asked.
“I want to pilot a garbage scow.”
Dr. Carlisle laughed. “You had me there for a minute.”
“I’m serious. It’s an important job. And — and it’s close to home.”
Dr. Carlisle frowned. “You know that things won’t work with you and Tony. In the long run. You’ll be in space. He’ll be here. Low earth orbit isn’t really any closer than deep space.”
Objections caught in her throat. It didn’t matter that she loved Tony, and he her. She knew that Dr. Carlisle was right. But it didn’t matter. Helen squared her shoulders. “Can I drop your class or not?”
“Thanks.” She turned to leave.
“Good luck, Helen.”
* * *
The time before graduation flew by. Helen practiced grabbing floating trash with long, multijointed magnetic arms. It was like a game. She pushed herself until she could snag a single nut over ten meters away. After classes, she’d drag Jane on walks or go out with Tony.
Graduation was simple — they walked across a stage and were handed their diploma and work assignment.
Jane got the deep-space mission.
Helen got her garbage scow.
* * *
Helen lounged in Tony’s arms and stared up at the stars. “I’ll never see them like this again,” she said, tracing Orion’s belt.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” Tony said.
Helen snuggled in closer to him, listened to the rhythm of his heartbeat. “You’ll keep living.”
His arms tightened around her. “Maybe I should kidnap you. Take you away. We could live off the grid.”
Helen shook her head. “We both know that’s not going to happen.”
“I’ll think of you every time I look at the sky.”
“I’ll fill it with shooting stars for you,” she said.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
* * *
Helen pulled on her jumpsuit with shaking fingers. Fear, loss, and excitement roiled around in her chest. She’d kissed Tony goodbye. She’d eaten her last fresh salad — she’d be pretty much living on meal bars from now on. She’d taken her last walk in the sunshine.
“How are you doing?” Jane asked.
“Okay.” It was a surprise, but it was true. “I’m okay.”
Jane tugged on her already-perfect sleeves. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Helen nodded. “Of course.”
Helen’s stomach twisted. After today, she’d never see Jane again, either. And Jane would never see anyone. “You could request another assignment. It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Jane just smiled. “Yes, it is.”
* * *
The G force pushed Helen deep into her seat. It was enough pressure to crush a normal human. To Helen, the pressure felt comfortable — like a friendly embrace. The pressure faded, and gravity went with it. One of the other 23s let out a cheer, and everyone else followed suit. Even Helen.
She looked out her window and saw the planet glowing beneath them, even more beautiful than she’d imagined. Her breath caught.
They were in space. Where they belonged.
It felt right.
* * *
The rest of the 23s watched Jane float into her deep-space probe. She didn’t look back. Her voice, broadcast over the ship’s speaker system, went through her preflight checks calmly and precisely. The pod slid away, slow and graceful. Then it jumped to light speed, and vanished.
This time, Helen didn’t join in the cheering.
* * *
Life on the garbage scow was just as she’d expected. She scooped up debris, climbed out into vacuum to loosen stubborn bolts, and tried not to miss real food.
She didn’t even try not to miss Tony. He sent occasional emails, and she answered them. But it wasn’t the same.
She waited till she’d filled her scow’s storage bay to the brim with tiny pieces of trash. It took over a year. She sent him a one-word email. “Tonight.”
She watched it trail out behind her, then burn down toward the planet below.
It looked completely different from above.
But it was still beautiful.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. Her story, “What Comes After” appeared in AE #13. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.