The Journey Begins…

 

1.

The Journey Begins

 

She was running through the night, clutching the small, precious bundle under her cloak tightly to her chest. It was deathly quiet, the only audible sound coming from the flickering streetlamps as they hummed and struggled into life. Her breath caught in her throat, a ball of burning exhaustion rising in her chest. She had been running for what felt like hours, but there was no time to stop and rest. As she sprinted down the street, she caught glimpses of the houses left desolate and empty, abandoned by their owners in fits of panic and hysteria. Cars were parked diagonally across driveways, their doors flung open, awaiting owners that would never return. Dustbins had been overturned and rubbish littered the street as far as the eye could see. Front doors had been left ajar, revealing eerily lit hallways.  She wondered how much longer it would be until the power went out altogether, plunging Earth into a permanent darkness.

She turned the corner and continued to flee down another deserted road. The smell of the salt and seawater filling her nostrils and telling her that she was getting closer. She reached a metal sign cemented into the ground, twisted and warped from the heat of a passing solar flare. The top had come askew, but she could still make out the white lettering against the faded green background informing her that Pentewan train station was half a mile to the left.

Before she moved off, she peered into her cloak to check that her journey so far had not disturbed her cargo. Satisfied that all was well, she began to walk, continuing down another derelict street, the flickering lights taunting her as she went. She closed her eyes to block out her surroundings. For just one moment, she imagined that she was walking down the street on a perfectly ordinary evening, perhaps going to meet friends or returning home after a hard day’s work. She felt the echo of excitement rise inside of her as the sound of faint laughter filled her head, conjured somewhere from the depths of her memories from a time when normality still existed. The Wars on Earth, as they were collectively referred to, had broken out when she was barely a teenager and she struggled to remember a time when conflict and strife hadn’t dominated the day-to-day life of every citizen on Earth. The poverty and lack of resources that had ensued after the numerous wars had resulted in the rise of gangs and looters, causing the fight for survival to move from the battlefield and onto the streets. Once the peace of a mundane life had gone, nothing had ever been the same again.

Her thoughts had clouded her vision, but her legs had taken her to the right location. She arrived at the decrepit train station, flinching slightly at its ghostly appearance in the dark. She pulled a battered pocket watch from her cloak, a prized relic from the old days that she had found on her travels, and clicked it open to read the time, her cold breath illuminated in the clock’s glowing face. It was 11:40 p.m., which meant her train was due any second. Terrified she might have missed it, she began scanning the inky black tracks desperately, relief spreading through her body as two headlights pinpricked the horizon.

The silver metallic train pulled up and halted to a silent stop. Two of its doors opened smoothly, splitting in the middle and coming away so that they blended with the side of the carriage. Without hesitating, she stepped aboard, moving quietly through the dimly lit compartments.  She didn’t need a ticket. There was no driver, no conductors and no ticket inspectors. They had all gone. The magnetic system that ran the trains had been left on, with nobody bothering to switch them off. The trains continued to run, picking up no one and taking them to nowhere. Occasionally, though, they had come in useful, allowing her to move about the country undetected as she had made her vital journey.

The seats were laid back in their reclining position, ready to take tired commuters into the night. A single coffee cup sat upright on one of the cold, white tables that connected one pair of seats to the other. She wondered how long it had been sat there for and under what circumstances it had been abandoned. The faint smell of sweat lingered in the air, almost completely masked by the steely odour of metal that emanated from the train’s walls. At the head of the carriage was an interactive screen, blinking slightly from years of damage and neglect. She walked over to it and activated it with a touch of her finger and was greeted by a clinical female voice as the screen sprung into life.

“Welcome to the I-Train,” the voice said. “The pioneering way to travel brought to you exclusively by The Interactive-Tech Company.”

She selected the main menu, bringing up a display that featured information on the journey. A small icon of a train moved along a virtual winding road, heading towards Charlestown, Cornwall which was marked by a large, red circle. Elsie pressed on the screen and the estimated time of arrival appeared before her, letting her know that she had only fifteen minutes before she would reach her destination.

She swallowed, the fear of failure creeping into her mind like an unwanted pest. She was yet to come up with a proper plan of action to take when she arrived at her journey’s end, and she had so little time to prepare. She was about to sit down and begin detailing a plot with all the information she had gathered so far, when a noise from the next carriage along startled her, causing her to stagger backwards.

She paused for a moment, unsure whether she should run and hide, but instinct told her not to be afraid. Boldly, she pressed her hand to the small, sensor by the side of the door that divided the compartments, causing it to slide open. As she stepped across the carriage’s threshold, she was greeted by a blonde-haired woman, sitting on a rear-facing seat, a tartan push-trolley sat between her legs. She was leaning forward on its handle, smiling coyly up at her new visitor. A middle-aged man sat hunched on the floor opposite her, his legs drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped protectively round his body. He was so thin that he was almost skeletal. His sunken eyes stared fixated at the floor and his mouth hung open, forming whispered words that only he could understand.

“Hello, love,” the woman said cheerfully. “Come and take a seat.”

Elsie hesitated, glancing over at the man with slight alarm. The woman followed her gaze.

“Oh, don’t worry about him, he’s harmless,” she smiled.

Warily, Elsie moved through the carriage and sat on one of the forward-facing seats, swinging her body around carefully so that she could see the other woman.

“The name’s Grace,” the woman grinned toothlessly. She didn’t look particularly old, but her face was haggard, prematurely aged by hardship and sorrow.

“Elsie,” she replied. She wasn’t sure why, but she trusted Grace. It was clear that she had suffered great stress and loss and that somehow gave them a common ground to stand upon.

“I didn’t expect to see anyone on these trains,” Grace said after a moment. Her accent was hard and callous. Wherever she had grown up had left a lasting impression on her inflection.

“Neither did I,” Elsie replied.

“We’re going to see them off, Bernard and me,” Grace continued, gesturing to the man. He did not seem to recognise the sound of his own name and continued gawking, wide-eyed at the floor.

“Them?” Elsie asked.

“You know who I’m talking about,” Grace hissed. “Those who are dearly departing on the Mayfly. I reckon we ought to give them a great send off. Let them know how sorely they’ll be missed. Bunch of fools!”

She spat at the floor and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. There was a fury resonating from her eyes that Elsie had never seen in another human being.

“They think they’ve got it all planned out,” Grace ranted. “Leaving us less important people behind to rot like pieces of rubbish while they fly off to start their new world. Well they’re on a fool’s mission anyway. Mark my words they are. There is more to this than any of those stuck-up fools can begin to get their tiny minds around.”

Her eyes flashed with a passion that Elsie could only interpret as excitement.

“Are you talking about the conspiracy theories?” Elsie asked, beginning to feel she was trapped on the train with a madwoman.

“You’ve heard them too?” Grace said, her voice ragged with enthusiasm.

“Yes, I have,” Elsie replied flatly, her heart twinging with pain as she recalled the fate of the last person she had known to believe in the theories.

The bundle beneath Elsie’s cloak began to wriggle, causing the fabric to rearrange itself suspiciously.

“What have you got there?” Grace asked, her beady eyes detecting the movement.

“It’s nothing,” Elsie said quickly, stealing a glance through the cloak’s neck hole.

“Are you sure about that?” Grace pressed her as a soft cooing noise emitted from beneath the swathes of cloth.

Elsie said nothing, she knew her secret was out but had no desire to discuss the matter. The true magnitude of what she would lose if she failed to make it aboard The Mayfly was too terrible for her to acknowledge out loud. Grace seemed to understand this, continuing to speak without receiving a response.

“My husband left me, you know,” she informed Elsie. “We were married fifteen years. He had another son by his first wife. It caused a lot of problems between us. I can’t have children, you see, and I resented the boy for existing.”

Elsie nodded, unsure how best to respond to such a personal revelation.

“Anyway, his boy’s mum died. She was killed by looters in one of the Cities. Everything changed after that. My husband and I had both agreed we would stay on Earth come the day of The Split, whatever that meant. He believed in the theories too, you see. Had real evidence for them as well. But when he took his boy in, he changed his mind. Suddenly he was applying for The Mayfly, saying he had to give his son a chance of living. I told him I wasn’t going, no matter what, but he left anyway. Have you any idea how bad that feels? Being left to suffer and die by the one person who’s supposed to love and protect you?” she asked. The question was rhetorical, but it brought a fresh wave of pain to the surface of Elsie’s mind.

“I do actually,” she said. Grace regarded her shrewdly, a moment of silent understanding passing between them.

“Well then,” she nodded. “You know why I have to go and see them leave for myself. It’s not just humans on that ship, you know. I’ve heard whispers”

Elsie nodded but said no more on the subject. She was well aware of the conspiracy theory Grace was referring to and didn’t think it wise to voice her harsh opinions on the matter. The only thing which surprised her was how wide-spread the theory seemed to have become. Stupidly, she had assumed she was among the only few people to have heard it.

“What happened to him?” Elsie changed the subject, regarding Bernard with concern.

“Him? His family abandoned him. His parents have been dead a long while, mind, as most of ours have. He had a sister, though, but she married some rich bloke, got her and her kids a place on board and left him here to rot. Apparently, there was “no room” for him. Truth is I think she was ashamed. He doesn’t have any skills, you see, or money so he’s of “no use” to The Mayfly or the continuation of our species,” Grace explained with disgust.

“That’s terrible…” Elsie said after a moment. Grace nodded curtly. Whatever pity she had had for Bernard’s seemed to have been doused by the overpowering anger she felt towards all those leaving after The Split.

“What about you then?” Grace asked brazenly. “You got any nearest and dearest? Other than the obvious,” she nodded at Elsie’s cloak.

The question hit Elsie like a knife to the throat. She felt her chest closing in on itself in a futile attempt to cushion the pain to her heart that the words had caused her. She closed her eyes and bore the agony, letting it peak to an unbearable torment before it subsided, allowing her to breath once again.

“All dead,” she said thickly, hoping that would be enough to deter Grace from pressing her any further.

“They been gone a long time?”

“Years,” Elsie lied.

Her parents were long dead it was true, but it wasn’t the discussion of their absence that was causing her to silently crumble into dust. She could not even think of her more recent loss, for fear the pain would rip through her body and destroy her completely.

Grace seemed to accept this response and the conversation drifted into a comfortable silence. Elsie allowed herself to be lulled into pleasant numbness, concentrating on the whirring sound of the train’s mechanism as it pulled them forward into the night. Every so often, she stole a fleeting glance at Bernard, who hadn’t moved or changed his posture the entire time she had been in the carriage. She wondered what would happen to him and Grace after The Split, fighting the panicked thought that she might still be on Earth to find out.

The time fell away like rain drops sliding off soft skin and soon enough the robotic, female voice was announcing that they had almost reached Charlestown. Grace rose to her feet immediately, heaving a dazed Bernard into a slumped standing position beside her.

“Well, “she said, regarding Elsie with a look of comradery. “Good luck to you, love. We’re heading up the hills to get a good view of them leaving. If you need to, you can find us up there.”

Elsie attempted a smile, causing Grace’s previously hardened expression to be abducted by unconcealable pity. She raised two fingers to her head in a strange sort of salute and then turned to face the steel doors of the train, which was now slowing to a standstill. With one final lurch, they became stationary, the doors sliding open in one swift movement. Without looking back, Grace disembarked with surprising elegance, dragging Bernard limply behind her. They disappeared into the night. Suddenly, everything was quiet.

Mustering all the courage she could find, Elsie stepped onto the platform. Immediately, she was hit by two powerful sensations. The first was the sharp, crisp air that engulfed her body the moment the train doors shut behind her. It was a deeper degree of cold than she had felt earlier in the evening, and she clutched her arms around her traveling cloak protectively, drawing in as much heat as she could from her body. The second was the bittersweet sting of nostalgia as she took in the familiar appearance of Charlestown, the place that had made her heart leap with joy as a child.

She could still picture it now. Her mother curled up on the corner armchair in their holiday cottage, engrossed in a novel on her I-Reader, her father popping in and out from cooking  in the kitchen to sing silly songs and take requests. Elsie would be sat on the window ledge, her bare feet swinging freely as she relished the relief of the cool evening air after a startlingly hot summers day. Her parents would put the 3D television on for her to keep her entertained while they went about their various tasks, but she sat with her back to it, ignoring its persistent noise as she stared out across the moon-bathed hills, that rose and fell all the way to the silent black sea beyond.

Shaking these thoughts from her mind, she made her way to the green, perforated steps that would lead her out of the train station and ascended, quickly reaching the street above. The shops and houses that flanked the road had once been bustling with tourists and cheerful residents, but were now haunted by echoes of voices and laughter. She walked past the Tall Ships sat bobbing gently in the bay, their decaying masts rising gloomily out of the mist. She rounded the final corner that would lead her to the beach and stopped still, her feet finding balance on the pebbled shore. She had arrived.

 

 

2.

The Mayfly

 

Elsie had heard many stories about the Mayfly, but nothing could have prepared her for seeing it in the flesh. The spacecraft was gargantuan, its metal frame stretching higher than the eye could see. It rested delicately upon the water, the sheer mass of it covering the entirety of the ocean. It’s dark titanium sides ran down the coastline, attached to the shore by open walkways that were manned by intimidating guards. People were still queuing across the beach, waiting anxiously to board in the remaining minutes before take-off.

Elsie gulped and began to move towards the spacecraft with leaden legs. Somehow, she had to get past the guards and onto the Mayfly without being exposed. She had never received formal permission from the Government to board. All the Mayfly’s passengers were required to either have a special skill that could be used to rebuild civilisation, or be rich enough to be allowed to board from status, although the latter was kept secret from the general public. The applications had been rigorous and had taken up to six months to be processed. It had been an agonising wait and she had waited everyday with baited breath, wondering if she would be delivered a message of safety or of doom. Despite all her hard work studying at College, her request to board the ship had been denied with no explanation. All she had to cling onto now was hope. She had found the location of the Mayfly by following whispers on the streets and the tales of fellow travellers, but there was no way to guarantee that she would successfully make it aboard.

She reached the cobbled beach and made her way towards the nearest queue, which had dwindled into a number of thirty people or so. She slipped inconspicuously to the back of the line behind a middle-aged married couple, who were chattering between themselves about what lay beyond the giant metal doors in front of them.

“I heard the Mayfly has its own water park and multiplex cinema,” the man told his wife. “Apparently, all the luxury apartments have their own coffee machines too!”

“Honestly, Jared you shouldn’t listen to ridiculous gossip. How on Earth would they be able to make coffee in Space?” she replied with a roll of her eyes.

“It’s true, I’m telling you!” the man named Jared insisted. “Colin from next door said his brother is part of the team who make all the food and drink on board. They use some sort of cloning procedure to replicate organic food. All they need is one coffee bean from Earth and they can use it to make thousands of pots of coffee.”

“Well I certainly hope you’re right. I’m not sure I could handle many early mornings with you without a cup of coffee,” his wife scathed. Elsie knew immediately that they must be from one of the gated wealthier communities which had guards protecting them and the best pick of resources delivered to their door for an exceptionally high fee. To still be worrying about something as insignificant as coffee after all the devastation that had ravaged Earth for the past decade was unthinkable to Elsie.

The line moved forwards and the woman in front drew her damask cloak around herself.  She itched ahead with her husband, the moonlight illuminating the taught tweed patches on his overcoat. Elsie followed them closely, trying to stay silent so as not to draw any attention to herself. The woman began looking around wistfully, her arms folded against the wind. She had pulled her scarf over her mouth to keep out the cold, distorting her voice so that her husband could no longer hear her.

“All the coffee in the world won’t make it Earth though,” she muttered, glancing at the Mayfly with disdain.

Elsie stood on her tiptoes, vying to get a glimpse past the gruff guards who were blocking the entrance to the Mayfly. Elsie counted ten of them, checking the prospective passengers thoroughly before they allowed them to enter. Soon it would be her turn. She felt sick. She was sure her legs would disappear at any moment and she would collapse loudly onto the floor. She tried to distract herself, looking up towards the beautiful velvet sky with hundreds of stars visible across its dark canopy. They twinkled majestically, their shiny light winking at her from across the galaxy. This would be the last time she ever saw the Earth’s sky, regardless of whether she was successful in her mission or not. No matter her own fate, she was determined that she would save her son, whatever it took.

He had been sound asleep for the entire journey, the motion of her movement lulling him further into the sweet ignorance of his dreams. She peered down to look at his peaceful face. He was only a few months old and had no idea of the suffering and torment that had passed in his short life. It was her dream that he would never know the pain she had felt. Even if she was not allowed on board, she would plead with the guards to take her innocent son. There was no way she was going to let him die on the disease-ridden Earth.

She closed her eyes and thought of Austin. If she was going to die tonight, that meant she would see him soon. She imagined him greeting her and the two of them sharing a joke. She terribly missed the way he used to laugh, his head tipped back, his eyes closed in hysteria as a loud and infectious noise burst from within him.  She was pleased by her ability to so accurately conjure him in her mind, even after spending months trying to erase his image from her brain. Despite his final act of betrayal, she found that thinking of him still brought her great comfort, particularly in what she was beginning to feel certain would be the final moments of her life.

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes to re-join reality and found that the woman in front had been staring at her most curiously. She gave her best apologetic smile, hoping that she wouldn’t fear her insane and alert the guards. She was just about to turn to her husband and say something, when a stern voice from ahead distracted her.

“Next!” it called. They were at the front of the line. As soon as one of the guards finished with their passengers, Elsie would be next. She desperately scoured the reaches of her mind for something clever to say when questioned, but found she could think of nothing. All too soon, she was called ahead.

“Ma’am” a guard to her left called, motioning her forwards. She reached the Mayfly’s entrance and stood perfectly still, awaiting his next instruction with a sense of dread.

“Present your fingers please Ma’am,” he told her, holding up a DNA scanner. Elsie sized him up. He was tall and stocky. The lines around his eyes and mouth placed him in around his mid-forties. He had scars on the back of his hands and across his face from years spent in service. One of his eyes was discoloured from a blunt trauma and he had no emotion in his face whatsoever. His body language was indifferent, his gaze unseeing. He was a man who was simply doing his job. Elsie could tell that there was no way begging was going to work on him.

“Your fingers, please Ma’am,” he prompted her. Unsure what to do, she pulled her arms out of her cloak, careful not to disturb her son. She delicately placed her hands on the screen of his scanner. A whirring noise and a blue light indicated that the reading of her fingerprints was taking place. After a few seconds, the screen flashed red with a large thick “X” in the centre.

“Access denied,” a woman’s voice informed them. Elsie tried to keep her expression neutral, fearing that a show of any emotion would give her away.

“Ma’am, can you confirm that you have received permission to board this spacecraft from the Government of the United Kingdom?” he demanded.

“Er… I… yes,” Elsie stammered, not knowing what else to say. The guard’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and then began roaming over her, looking for a clue or a sign of danger. He faltered upon the bundle beneath her cloak and froze, his whole stance changing from nonchalant to alert in a matter of seconds. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his weapon, pointing it directly at her.

“Put your hands in the air,” he said, his voice shaking.

“No! It’s not what you think! Look!” she motioned to undo her cloak and reveal the sleeping baby underneath, but this only caused the guard to begin shouting even louder.

“Do not put your hands under the cloak!” he yelled. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Several of the other guards turned to see what was going on, running over and abandoning their posts as they rushed to join the confrontation. The last handful of passengers waiting to board on the beach gasped and screamed in horror.

“It’s not a weapon!” Elsie pleaded, but it was no use. None of the guards could hear her over their frenzied shouting. The man who had first discovered her was talking into his Personal Device that was strapped tight around his wrist.

“Do I have permission to shoot, Sir?” she heard him say.

She tried to scream, but the sound caught in her throat before it could escape. Her vision began to blur, the world around her whirling faster and faster. It was happening. The guard was going to shoot her dead. She took a deep breath to steady herself, wondering with desperation if there was any way to protect her son from the bullets that would surely hit her at any moment.

“Hold on,” a voice said from the other end of the Personal Device. The voice sounded eerily familiar, but Elsie couldn’t make it out over all the commotion.

“Stand down, stand down,” the guard informed the others. They stopped yelling and lowered their weapons. Elsie remained frozen, petrified that even a slight movement would give them incentive to shoot. A black silhouette appeared in the long corridor that led to inside the Mayfly. The guards stood statue still, their backs to the approaching figure and their faces fixed in a new expression of calm.

Suddenly, a man stepped out of the doorway and Elsie blinked. There was a moment of confusion followed by a crippling sense of relief. She knew this man. She knew him very well.

“Alfie,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. Alfie smiled, his unmistakeable features coming into focus.

“It’s ‘Captain Alfred Sommers’ now,” he grinned.

She took in his uniform; the white high-neck jumper made from smooth airy material, the sleek black trousers that seemed to fit perfectly, the golden badge depicting two planets with a dotted line between them. Her mouth hung open. Alfie noticed her expression and began to laugh. She flinched, momentarily transported back in time by the musical sound.

“Come inside, Elsie. We can talk,” he said. His voice enveloped her in a warm blanket of comfort and without having to think for a second, she stepped over the threshold of the Mayfly, watching as he motioned for the guards to return to their posts and continue their duties, forgetting about the entire event.

“Just wait there a second,” Alfie smiled. Elsie stood still in the Mayfly’s entrance, watching as he conversed with the guard who had discovered her.

“If they show up, don’t let them board, their apartment is no longer vacant,” she heard him say. There was some murmuring before the guard nodded and saluted Alfie, rotating back to face out into the night.  Alfie returned to her side and indicated for her to begin walking down the long passage. She did so, looking around with hesitation. High walls of sheeted metal rose up around her, spanning over her head to form a strange titanium archway. Yellow lamps had been fixed into the wall at periodic intervals, their dim artificial light leading the way to another door a few yards ahead of them.

“I can’t believe you’re a Captain now,” she said to Alfie as they headed towards it. He looked at her with confusion, perhaps wondering how she could make light conversation after having been seconds from death.

“Yes, I applied for my Captaincy after we left College,” he explained.

“Well, congratulations,” she praised him.

“Thank you,” he replied, his face suddenly twisting into an awkward expression of discomfort. “Sorry I didn’t keep in touch Elsie. I meant to, I really did, but I was so preoccupied with all of this…” he gestured to the Mayfly. “Time got away from me.”

“We were all busy,” Elsie smiled. As she spoke, her baby grizzled from beneath her cloak and began to stir.

“What was that?” Alfie asked.

Elsie pulled the cloak over her head and revealed the sleeping baby underneath, his little head resting daintily on her chest. Alfie craned his neck so that he could look into his face.

“It seems you’ve earnt a ‘congratulations’ too,” he beamed. “He looks just like you. What’s his name?”

“William,” Elsie replied.

“After your father,” Alfie nodded.

“Yes, I thought the world could do with another William James. Although,” she paused, her voice faltering with confusion. “I’m not sure if I can even say that anymore- ‘the world’. There is no world anymore, is there?”

Alfie grinned.

“There will be,” he assured her.

“I assume Austin is the baby’s father,” he said after a few moments, his tone matter of fact.

“Yes,” Elsie answered.

“Where is he?” he asked as casually as he could, keeping his eyes fixed on the door ahead of them.

“He’s dead,” she said wearily, the extreme emotions she had experienced that day beginning to take their toll. Alfie stood still, immobilised by the news.

“He’s dead?” he repeated in shock. Elsie nodded. He began shaking his head back and forth, his eyes darting from side to side as if he were trying to solve an equation that had no answer.

“How did it happen?” he asked, deep confusion spreading across the recesses of his usually composed face.

Elsie gave him a meaningful look and he nodded, piecing the clues together in his mind as he began to understand.

“He didn’t let it go, did he? His belief in the ‘Great Conspiracy’”

“No, he didn’t,” Elsie replied.

There was a brief moment of silence, during which Alfie cleared his throat several times, stalling as he determined how best to phrase his next question.

“Do you ever think about…them?” he asked, his tone suddenly fearful. Elsie sucked her breath inwards.

“No,” she told him. “I don’t. If I did, I’d end up driving myself mad like Austin. Besides, there’s bigger things to think about now.”

Alfie nodded, folding his arms behind his back and straightening his posture as they came to the end of the passage. A sensor on the left-hand side of the door flashed impatiently, demanding a fingerprint to scan.

“Well Elsie, are you ready?” Alfie asked her. Elsie smiled at him weakly. She lacked the energy to indulge his schoolboy excitement as he prepared to show her his shiny new toy. She longed to find the oblivion of sleep and lose herself in it, exhausted by the emotional toll of her long journey. She was certain that nothing could impress her enough to keep out the sadness that was slowly creeping into her mind, pouring through the floodgates that had been opened by her painful thoughts of Austin. To her shock, she found that she was wrong.

The door opened with a touch from Alfie’s finger and the pair of them stepped into the heart of the Mayfly. They found themselves in a gigantic lobby, the size of at least two football pitches. The floor was made from smooth white marble that gleamed and glistened from the reflections of the numerous lights that were fixed overhead. Large, oval, glass elevators were transporting people from the ground to the floors above, moving smoothly at first before suddenly jolting in all directions. The lobby itself was circular, and transparent walkways ran around its outer edge on every floor. Elsie could see passengers hurrying along them, some carrying bags and suitcases, others strolling with their families, pointing with enthusiasm whenever they saw something new. The ground floor was filled with venues designed for the passenger’s entertainment, with coffee shops, clothing boutiques and toy stores making up just some of the available outlets. Her eye was drawn immediately to the familiar ‘I-Tech’ logo hanging above one of the shop windows, every gadget and device imaginable laid out on display. A gigantic wafer-thin screen hung from wires in the centre of the floor, presently displaying the fifteen-minute countdown to The Split.

“It’s so big,” Elsie mused, her bleary eyes struggling to comprehend the wealth of new sights in front of her.

“Come this way,” Alfie urged, leading her towards the nearest lift. The lights seemed to become a hue brighter as she stepped somewhat dubiously into the oval pod. Alfie tapped on the glass and an interactive screen appeared, his fingers moving across it at such a speed that she could not discern what he was typing.

“I’m taking you to your apartment now,” he informed her.

“I have an apartment?” she replied with confusion.

“Yes, you’ll be on the top floor with me,” he confirmed, pressing a final button that caused the lift to begin vibrating wildly. In a flash, they were flying up towards the ceiling, with Elsie certain she had left her stomach behind on the ground floor. Their speed increased as they shot past the different levels of living accomodation, the blue carpeted corridors blurring into one gigantic sea of cotton. Elsie closed her eyes and turned away, the sight beginning to make her dizzy. By the time they had reached the top floor, they had reached such a speed that she was convinced they would break through the ceiling, launching into Space independently from the Mayfly.

Mercifully, the lift slowed to a smooth stop and they disembarked into a small but extravagant atrium. A large chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting dancing shadows across the floor, which was paved with marble in hues of swirling gold and bronze. Five sets of wide double doors stood at precise intervals around the walls, each marked with a number. The doorknobs were made of crystal, and silver-plated archways twisted around the doorframes. Alfie led Elsie to number ‘three’, delicately taking her hand and touching her finger to the sensor pad beside it.

“You’ll be able to gain entry yourself now,” he explained. She nodded, her head swimming as she attempted to take it all in. Alfie’s mahogany eyes and dark eyebrows blurred into his brown hair when she tried to focus on his face, leaving her to wonder how much longer she could stay awake without collapsing.

She followed him into her apartment, a vast space that was as lavishly decorated as the atrium would suggest. Plush rugs spilled across the laminate flooring, so soft she could almost feel their tenderness through her worn and beaten boots. Large mounted paintings of vivid landscapes from Earth hung across the wall, providing a comforting reminder of home. A shiny electric fireplace was attached to the wall at the end of an elongated black glass table, complete with matching chairs. A series of white sofas and chaises were arranged in the living room around a quartz coffee table that had a variety of brand new tablets laid out on its surface, never having yet been touched.

“This is it,” Alfie announced. “There are also three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a spacious kitchen.”

“Oh…” Elsie replied. “That’s good.”

“I expect you’ll be wanting to get some rest now,” he noted and she nodded readily, allowing him to lead her semi-conscious body into the master bedroom.

Once inside, Alfie strode over to the large wardrobe and produced a pair of red, silk pyjamas from its depths. He laid them on the bed and then turned his back to her, tapping on a small rectangular screen that was fixed into the wall. Elsie undid her travelling cloak and removed it, along with her boots. She carefully detached William from her body and placed him gently onto the bed, his sling falling to the floor with a delicate thud. Hastily, she pulled off her mud-covered trousers and fraying jumper and put the fresh pyjamas on in their place. Her whole body sighed with relief as she found herself physically comfortable for the first time since she could remember. She sat down on the bed, ready to fall asleep at any moment.

From across the room there came a whirring noise. Alfie’s head snapped to the direction of a hatch carved into the furthest wall. It was protected by a curved, metal door which opened upon Alfie’s touch, revealing the contents within. Elsie gasped with surprise. Sitting inside was a beautiful cream cot, complete with a holographic mobile depicting whirling planets and zooming spaceships. In one swift motion, Alfie heaved the cot into position next to Elsie’s bed.

“You can order anything you want from there,” he said, pointing to the rectangular screen. “The people downstairs will send it up.”

Elsie wasn’t sure what any of this meant. She watched somewhat distantly as Alfie picked William up and placed him into the cot, pulling a soft blue blanket up to his shoulders and tucking him in.

“Thank you,” Elsie murmured, falling backwards and allowing a feathery pillow to catch her head. “For everything.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Alfie replied, putting the warm duvet over her aching body. “So long as you’re aboard my ship you’ll never have to worry about a thing. You’re safe now.”

There was a moment’s pause as he stared into the distance.

“You should remember that I said that,” he advised her mysteriously, turning on his heel and walking from the room, his arms folded behind his back.

Elsie lay in the dark for a moment, letting the silence swallow her up. She looked over at William’s peaceful face, his mouth hanging open as he slept deeply. She had done it. She had saved him. She was victorious in her quest, yet the strangest feeling of emptiness engulfed her as the Mayfly’s engines burst into life, shaking the room from floor to ceiling. Unable to cling on any longer, she succumbed to the lull of sleep, knowing that by the time she awoke, they would be deep in Space. Life on Earth was over.

 

 

 

3.

Thirteen Years Later

 

Will opened his eyes, blinking as they adjusted to the light in his bedroom. Reluctantly, he kicked off his duvet and sat up, swinging himself out of bed. Feeling groggy, he walked across the room to his wardrobe, his bare feet padding across the dark blue carpet. He opened the doors and picked out a maroon jumper and pair of sleek black trousers to wear. Even though he was thirteen years old, his mother still chose his clothes for him. She had them specially made by an upmarket designer who lived alongside them on Floor One. He shrugged out of his pyjamas, the light grey material crumpling into a pile at his feet. Once he was dressed, he folded his nightclothes carefully and put them in pride of place in his top drawer. They were adorned with images of his favourite Rocket Racer, Pablo Pianthus and his famous Solo Rocket XR2. Last year, he had broken the record for the fastest ever journey undertaken in a one-man rocket. When Will grew up he wanted to be just like him, though he hadn’t told anyone about this particular dream. He was certain that his friends would make fun of him and that his mother would panic at the thought of him catapulting through space at top speed in a small metal rocket. She wasn’t the biggest fan of flying, mostly due to the fact that Will’s father had died in some sort of spacecraft explosion before he was born. He had never been told the full story, but he knew enough to be sure that his mother wouldn’t be cheering him on should he choose racing as his career.

After he had finished getting ready, Will headed over to the computer screen fitted securely into the wall above his desk. He sat down and turned on the display, which told him the date – 1st of September 2113. A large dialogue box popped up, flashing to announce a message of some sort.

“Good morning Will, this is a reminder to inform you that you will be departing for The Space Academy today at 11.11 A.M”,” the robotic voice notified him.

Will swiped the notice off the screen. As if he could have forgotten! He suspected that Marie, his private tutor, had logged the event into his computer’s diary. He brought up another screen and checked his inbox. A small, speech bubble icon informed him that he had one new message from Spencer Hullington, his friend who lived across the hall. He opened the message and began to read:

“Hello Will,

Just letting you know that my father has pulled some strings and managed to arrange for our rooms to be on the same floor at the Academy, just like here! He designed a lot of the school’s architecture and they owe him a few favours. Anyway, I’ll see you later on the Shuttle. It leaves at 11.11 exactly so don’t be late! I’ll try to save you a seat.

From Spencer.

P.S Have you packed yet?  I think I’m going to ask Anita, our maid, to do mine. She’s so much better at folding than I am!”

Will frowned as he finished reading. He supposed that he should be excited that he and Spencer would be living near each other at the Academy, but instead he felt a thud of disappointment. He had looked forward to making a fresh start and experiencing something different, finally free from the confines of his life on Floor One.

Spencer’s message had reminded him about packing. He had promised his mum that he would finish it before he went to bed the night before and yet he hadn’t managed to pack a single thing. He had spent the evening playing his favourite virtual reality game “Earth Wars” instead and had been so absorbed in it that he had completely lost track of time. He had been in the middle of killing the last evil General, jumping about his room with his virtual sword and fighting the holograms that were spawning around him, when he had suddenly noticed the time and realised it was far too late for him to be awake. He had shut the game down and scrambled into bed, shutting his eyes and willing himself to sleep before he was caught still awake in the small hours of the morning.

Rummaging under his bed, he found the brand-new suitcase his mum had got him from the lobby the week before and pulled it out, yanking his clothes from their hangers and throwing them inside in a haphazard manner. He wasn’t sure how many outfits he would need, and so decided to pack his entire collection. He left his Pablo Pianthus pyjamas in their drawer, selecting a few pairs of plainer nightwear that he felt were less likely to embarrass him.

He scanned his room carefully for anything else he would need.  His Personal Device that would allow him to send and receive messages was already attached to his wrist after he had fallen asleep wearing it. Other than that, he didn’t have many possessions that he treasured, save for a photograph of himself and his mother that had been taken when he was a baby. He was sat on her lap, wearing a pair of green dungarees over a stripy T-shirt, beaming at the camera with very little teeth. He picked up the frame and wrapped it in his dressing gown, placing it in his suitcase with the rest of his things.

When he had finished packing, he pulled the zip on the case to ensure it was secure and positioned it in the middle of his room, making sure it would be immediately noticeable should his mum come in to check on him. He stepped out of his bedroom, the doors sliding apart automatically, and walked down the hallway into the dining area. His mother, Elsie, was sitting at the long glass table, drinking a cup of hot coffee whilst reading her day’s schedule from the tablet in her hand. When Will entered the room, she looked up and smiled.

“Good morning, darling,” she said, motioning to the chair beside her. “Come and sit down”.

Will went and sat where she had gestured and began delving into the breakfast spread that the family’s assistant, Derek, had laid out for them. Derek insisted on being referred to as an ‘assistant’ and not a ‘maid’, ‘butler’ or ‘cleaner’, or else he refused to do any work. Will could hear him in the background as he ate, cleaning the bathroom and muttering curses under his breath. He stifled a laugh as he heard something heavy drop and smash, causing a string of obscenities to pour from Derek’s mouth, forcing Will to take a long swig of orange juice to stop him  from choking with amusement.

“Well, today’s the day,” Elsie said, leaning on her hand and looking at him wistfully. She was smiling, but her voice was choked with emotion. In all his life, Will had never seen his mother cry. However, he had learnt to look for the sadness in her eyes, which often gave her away.

“I know,” Will answered, suddenly becoming fascinated with his breakfast muffin.

“How do you feel?” she asked, folding her arms and leaning back, as though he were one of her counselling clients.

“I don’t really know,” Will answered with a shrug, devouring the rest of his breakfast.

“School was very different back on Earth, you know” Elsie began. Will tried to fix his face into an expression of interest as he prepared himself for another ‘Earth’ story.

“We didn’t learn nearly as many interesting things as they teach at The Academy,” she continued. “Only College was really exciting, and people were lucky to be able to get a place there. That’s where I met the Captain, you know.”

“And Dad,” Will said casually. As soon the words had escaped his mouth he regretted them. He scrunched up his face and cringed at his unfortunate mistake. Elsie swallowed and looked away. Composing herself, she turned back and continued chattering brightly.

“I’ve cleared all of my appointments this morning so I can take you to the Shuttle,” she informed him. “We haven’t got long until we have to get going.”

“Already?” Will asked incredulously. He felt as though he had only just got up. He glanced out of the large windows that hung along the right-hand wall, but it was impossible to tell the time of day by looking through them. Special UV lights had been installed across Floor One to give the impression of sunlight flooding through from outside. However, the illusion could easily be broken by sitting in the same room for a long period of time. The lights were set to a timer, coming on with a sudden burst at eight in the morning and disappearing again abruptly at eight p.m. From what he had been told by old Earth dwellers, this had nothing on the real beauty of a brightening sunrise and faltering sunset.

“Get your coat on,” Elsie’s voice interrupted his reverie. “We’ll be meeting Alfie and Lois soon. Have you packed?”

“Of course I have mum what do you take me for?” he replied. His mum narrowed her eyes but said nothing. She called for Derek and asked him to fetch Will’s suitcase from his room. He nodded and repeated the word “certainly” several times before balling up his fists and storming pointedly into Will’s bedroom. He returned with the black suitcase, wheeling it to the front doors before stepping away, heading off to continue with the day’s chores. Seconds later, there was a loud knock on the door. Will pressed the sensor pad with his finger, opening the door to reveal Alfie and his daughter, Lois, standing out in the atrium. Alfie was stood behind Lois, his large hands fixed on her shoulders as he grinned in a bemused sort of way. Lois stood stony-faced, not seeming to have inherited her father’s cheerful nature. Her long, blonde hair was scraped back into a high ponytail, fastened with an over-sized black hair band. She wore a green tartan dress with a black shawl, bright white tights and a pair of brown, clunky shoes. Will thought she looked like one of the frightening china dolls available to purchase in the toy store. She was clasping a large, pink travelling bag between her hands and had three more suitcases on a golden luggage rack behind them, currently being manned by one of their many staff.

“Hello Elsie, hello Will,” Alfie greeted them each with a nod of his head. “Are we all ready to go then?”

Lois frowned as though even standing in the doorway was causing her a huge inconvenience.

“Yes, we’re all ready here,” Elsie beamed.

“Great!” Alfie grinned. “Lois is really excited, aren’t you Lois?”

Lois could not have looked less excited if she was being chased by a ten-legged alien. She continued to scowl furiously into the distance, refusing to look any of them in the eye. An involuntary laugh burst out of Will before he could stifle it, causing Elsie, Alfie and Lois to stare at him strangely.

“Sorry. I just… remembered something funny,” he stammered in a feeble attempt to cover himself.

With Will’s suitcase added to the luggage rack, the group set off through the atrium, their footsteps echoing across the walls as they walked. They reached the lift and climbed in, Elsie tapping the screen on the glass to key in their destination. There was a sudden lurch to the left, causing them all to lose their balance as they began whizzing away from Floor One. They whooshed up and down and side to side, hurtling in all different directions until finally the lift slowed and turned a corner, it’s mechanisms clicking as it shuddered to a halt.

They stepped out, blinking as their eyes adjusted to the sudden stillness of their surroundings. Will didn’t recognise this part of the Mayfly. The carpet was a worn beige and the walls were painted in a dull shade of grey. There were several heavy-looking brown doors running down the hallway, which appeared to open manually with a handle instead of by the touch of a sensor pad. A small sign stuck to the wall informed them that “Loading Deck E” was to the left, a helpful arrow pointing them in the right direction. Alfie took the lead, guiding them to a set of thick steel doors. He turned around to face the rest of the group.

“Well this is it,” he announced. “Are you two ready?”

William and Lois exchanged a nervous glance, the first time they had properly interacted on their journey so far.

Will nodded, a sudden surge of nerves passing through him as Alfie opened the doors. The group stepped forwards and found themselves on a large loading platform, usually used for the purpose of transporting goods between the Mayfly and other spaceships. That morning, however, it was bustling with hundreds of people. Mothers and fathers were saying goodbye to their children, brothers and sisters were chattering with excitement and friends separated by the long school holiday were gleefully calling out and waving fervently when they recognised eachother. The biggest transporter ship that Will had ever seen was sitting stationary on tracks that ran across the shiny white floor. The ship sat calmly, unmoved by the gathering hordes of Space Academy students and their families. There were five doors along its side, which, as Will watched, opened to reveal comfortable blue leather seating inside the ships belly. Crowds of students began moving towards the doors, hugging their parents and siblings goodbye and then hustling forwards. Will and Lois looked at Alfie and Elsie, unsure what they should do next, only to discover their own dumbfounded expressions reflected on the adults faces. Their uncertainty was addressed a few minutes later when the sound of a strong, female voice carried across the platform.

“All new students this way!” the voice called.

The four of them began following in the direction of the voice, bustling their way through the crowd, Alfie’s member of staff trailing behind them, the wheels of the luggage rack squeaking on the cold, hard floor. They edged their way past a family of mousy-brown haired children. The mother had her hands around the youngest boy’s face and was talking to him in a soft voice, her eyes full of tears. An older boy and girl were stood to the side, their arms folded around their chests as they rolled their eyes and huffed in the direction of their mother. There was a younger girl too, clutching her mother’s hand. The little girl was looking around apprehensively, craning her neck to see into the faces of everyone who was passing by. When Will’s group drew level with the family, the girl’s eyes widened and she let out a gasp, tugging on her mother’s coat and pointing at them with her mouth open.

“Mummy, mummy it’s the Captain! Look!  It’s the Captain!” she shouted.  Her mother turned and stared at Alfie, as did the rest of the family.

They all stood perfectly still, gawking as though they had never seen another human being before. As they stood in their strange, fascinated unison, Will couldn’t help but notice the tatty and worn state of their clothing. The mothers canary yellow coat was fraying at the edges and the younger boy, who looked to be about the same age as Will, was wearing trousers that were slightly too big for him, their hem dragging across the floor. The older girl and boy’s clothes looked as if they had been hand stitched together by somebody who wasn’t very skilled and the youngest girls flowery dress and navy coat were clearly hand-me-downs, their once richer colours faded with time and use. Will knew these sorts of clothes were not produced by the designers on Floor One and he had never seen a family dressed in such a dishevelled manner before. He pulled at his own jumper self-consciously, suddenly embarrassed by the rich quality of its material.

“They must be from a very low floor” Lois whispered to no one in particular, as if this hadn’t already been clear. The family stood out vividly against the sea of smooth fabrics and dark colours that swarmed the platform, making it hard not to notice them. Alfie smiled diplomatically in their direction and then continued steering Lois through the crowd of people. However, it soon became evident that the little girl’s shouts had attracted the attention of more than just her family. A ripple had started to spread across the platform and a tide of faces turned to watch as they passed.

Lois’ cheeks flushed a dark shade of magenta as she tried desperately not to meet the eyes of their onlookers. Will saw her face visibly flood with relief as they caught sight of their old tutor group from Floor One. She moved with haste, settling herself in the midst of the other girls, while Will went to stand quietly between Spencer and their friend Alasdair. The tutor group was stood amongst a crowd of about ninety other students their age, every single pair of eyes fixed on a young woman who was stood at the head of the gathering.

The woman’s arms were folded behind her back as she waited somewhat impatiently, scanning the crowd for anyone new approaching the group. Her dyed-blonde hair was scraped back tightly against her head and her lips were fixed in a permanent pursed position. Will turned to follow her gaze, which was currently patrolling over the perimeter of the platform, and wondered how much longer it would be until everybody else arrived. Whilst looking for other students, he was pleased to see his mother and Alfie standing close behind them in a small congregation with the other parents, relieved he hadn’t missed his chance to say goodbye.

After a few more minutes, the severe woman began to count heads, whispering to herself as she did so. When she finished, she clapped her hands together and immediately commanded the attention of everyone around her.

“Hello,” she boomed, more as an announcement than as a greeting. She flashed a brilliant white smile in the direction of the parents, seeming to direct her speech over the student’s heads and straight to them.

“My name is Miss Fortem. I am a teacher at the Space Academy and it will be part of my job this year to look after all of the first years and make sure your transition to life at the Academy is smooth,” she explained with a carefully inflected tone of voice.

“As you can see, we are standing next to a large transporter ship, aptly named the ‘Shuttle’ which will be taking us to the Academy shortly. For many of you, this will more than likely be your first ever journey through outer-space and you may be feeling quite anxious about the experience. Rest assured that the Shuttle has been tested by both the Academy and officials aboard the Mayfly over one hundred times and is among one of the safest built spacecrafts we have. Despite knowing this, the first time flying can still be nerve-wracking and so I urge any of you who are feeling scared once we are aboard to approach me without hesitation and I will do all I can to ensure the rest of your journey is more comfortable.”

She smiled her dazzling smile, her eyes still fixed on the parents as she stressed her point. Will started to wonder if Miss Fortem was always on the platform to give such an encouraging welcome, or whether the school had simply gotten wind that The Captain’s daughter would be starting that year.

“Right then,” Miss Fortem clapped her hands together causing several members of the crowd to jump. “Without further ado, I must ask you to board the Shuttle,” she gestured to the giant spacecraft next to her. “We will be leaving at 11.11 am precisely! First-years must board through the first door on the left. I ask parents and those helping to take any luggage to the stewards, who you will find outside the back compartment of the Shuttle.”

At these words, the parents poured upon their children and began their emotional goodbyes as butlers and staff began to hurry towards the rear of the Shuttle. Will found Elsie, who was standing in a clearing of people and smiling proudly at him from a distance. He walked over and she crouched down to tidy him up, readjusting his coat and smoothing his hair, which he immediately ruffled again. Elsie smiled and cupped her hands around his face.

“Well,” she said. “I suppose this is goodbye.”

“Don’t worry Mum, it’s not that long until the school holidays.” Will smiled.

“I’m sure you will have a fantastic time,” Elsie said, fighting hard to keep her sadness at bay, “but I will miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too mum,” he replied. “At least you’ll have Derek to keep you company.”

Elsie laughed. It was a lovely sound and Will wished he had heard it more often in his childhood. The two of them embraced briefly and then pulled apart, Elsie blinking back tears as she released him.

“Make sure you call! ” she ordered him, though her voice was light and weary.

“Of course I will, all the time! You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Will grinned. He would miss home, it was true, but the excitement of starting a new adventure at the Space Academy was luring him. He could be anyone he wanted to be there.  He no longer had to be ‘Will from Floor One’. He had always felt a powerful conviction that there was much more to life than he had known and he was filled with a burning curiosity for all the things he was yet to discover and all the people he was yet to meet.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, forcing his feet forward and into the Shuttle. The voices of the other first years filled his ears and the smell of new fabric shrouded his nostrils as he entered the large transporter ship. He allowed himself a moment’s pause before he opened his eyes again and began the next chapter of his life. His entire transition from a boy into a man would occur at the Academy and he struggled to comprehend the significance of the moment.

“Erm, excuse me?”

A voice snapped him out of his reverie, forcing his eyes open as he whipped his head around to see a tall, lanky boy with dark hair standing behind him, clutching a rucksack with a bemused look on his face.

“Did you know you were just standing there with your eyes shut?” he smirked. “You’re holding the whole queue up!”

Will tried with all his might to stop the inevitable flush of red that was making its way up through his neck to his cheeks. He looked over the boy’s shoulder to see a line of students, peering around one and other to see what was holding up the line.

“What were you doing?” the boy pressed him. “Were you having a seizure or something? Should I go and get a medic?”

A few of the boys behind him began to snicker. They were all staring at him, trying to work out if something was genuinely wrong or if he was just incredibly strange.

Will’s mouth moved soundlessly as he tried to think of something to say that would save him from eternal social damnation. Those who were already seated around him had stopped their conversations to see what was going on. Whatever he said next would determine their first impressions of him, and yet he could not come up with a single reasonable explanation as to why he had been stood completely still in the middle of the Shuttle with his eyes closed.

“Leave him alone Rudy, he’s probably just nervous,” said a girl’s voice from within the queue. Will was both simultaneously grateful for her intervention and morbidly embarrassed that he had to be rescued by a stranger. He turned and began making his way towards the rows of seats decorated with navy blue upholstery that filled the first compartment, wishing that the metal bottom of the Shuttle would give way and let him fall through the platform and into deep Space. He was mortified when he noticed that the seats were designed for two people, realising with a sudden fit of panic that nobody was going to want to sit next to him and he would have to face the humiliation of riding the entire journey on his own.

He slumped into the nearest chair and pretended to be very interested in looking out the window, hoping he would blend into the furniture and disappear.

“Mind if I sit here?” a voice said.

Will jumped and looked up to see a girl standing over him. She flicked her long, chestnut hair from her shoulders and smiled at him, her arms folded nonchalantly as she awaited his response. He recognised the voice as belonging to the person who had saved him from Rudy’s mockery.

“Y-yes of course,” Will stammered, caught off guard. The girl sat down beside him and swung her handheld luggage onto the floor, resting it safely between her knees. For the first time in his life, Will became acutely aware of his limbs and wasn’t sure where to place them. He was certain that even an accidental brush of his arm against hers would cause his head to explode in a fire of embarrassment and so positioned himself awkwardly against the wall. He didn’t have much time to worry about how to seat himself however, for no sooner had the girl sat down than Rudy had begun to call out from the back of the compartment where he and a group of his friends were sitting.

“Emily what are you doing?!” he scathed.”I know there’s obviously something wrong with that boy but you don’t have to feel sorry for him. Come and sit with us!”

Emily continued staring forwards as though Rudy had never spoken, her deep blue eyes flashing with contempt.

“Just ignore him,” she told Will. “He’s always like that.”

“Wow!” Rudy continued, ensuring that he was in earshot of everyone around him, “it must be true love! Good job your mum’s a nurse Emily, I think that one is going to need all the help he can get.”

Rudy’s gaggle of followers burst into exaggerated, raucous laughter, though Will didn’t find the insult was particularly clever or funny. He looked around to see if any of his peers from Floor One would jump to his defence, but they were all doing an extremely convincing job of pretending not to recognise him. In fact, Lois seemed to find him completely invisible when he attempted to catch her eye. She looked around wildly, terrified that somebody would have seen her with Will on the platform and would expose her for knowing him.

“We used to be tutored together, Rudy and I” Emily explained calmly, as though this situation was a regular occurrence for her. “He always seemed to think that we were friends. I don’t know why, I never liked him. I was hoping that going to school would mean I could get away from him and make a fresh start.”

“I can relate to that,” Will replied, throwing a cursory glance towards Spencer, Alasdair and the rest of the tutor group.

A wave of silence suddenly fell across the compartment. Will looked around in confusion, unsure what was going on. It took him a few seconds to notice the boy from the ragged looking family he had seen earlier, frozen in the doorway of the Shuttle, aware that every face inside was turned towards him. He was holding on to his patchy bag so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. Sitting down on the very front seat, which was vacant, he turned his back on all his spectators and positioned himself as motionless as a statue. Before a single word could be uttered, Miss Fortem appeared, her presence alone stifling any taunts or nasty remarks that might have been aimed his way. Will saw his shoulders sag with relief as Miss Fortem began to speak, distracting everybody’s attention towards her.

“Okay first years,” she began,”the Shuttle is about to take off at any moment. Please make sure you have arranged yourselves as two to a seat. There are protective seat belts located to the left of each person, however they will be not needed unless we experience any difficulties-”

Will swallowed hard. He wasn’t entirely sure what ‘difficulties’ they might encounter flying through Space and nor was he in any hurry to find out.

“If they are required, you will see a flashing red light in the compartment at which point you must immediately take your seat belt and clip it across your waist, securing it firmly in the slot on the right-hand side. I must ask that you do not move around whilst the Shuttle is in motion, unless absolutely necessary. “

Will remembered her soothing words in front of the parents about approaching her on the journey if anybody felt scared and was suddenly convinced that anyone seeking her help would find more peril going to her than they would ever encounter in outer-space.

“The journey takes roughly fifteen minutes,” she continued. “When we arrive at the Academy, we will enter into the Gathering Hall where you will attend your first assembly. You will be addressed by the Headmaster who you are to refer to as ‘Admiral Allance’. After that, you will be assigned into three classes and further instructions will be given to you. Does everybody understand?”

There were a few nods and noises of compliance.

“Good then. Without further ado, I must ask that we prepare for take-off.”

Miss Fortem sat down at the front next to the ragged boy. He turned his body sideways, shrinking into the window and resting his face against the glass as he stared blankly at the back wall of the platform.

At that moment, everybody in the compartment began leaning backwards and forwards, stretching their bodies as high as they could manage to see onto the platform as they attempted to get one last glimpse of their families before they launched.  Will caught sight of his mother moving through the crowd, pushing her way right to the front so that she was almost touching the Shuttle. She blew kisses to him with both hands and waved furiously. Will grinned and waved back, bemused to see his mother so expressive.

The engines beneath them whirred into life, shaking the entire ship with the force of their activation. They lifted into the air, Will’s mother and the other parents pushed backwards by a sudden surge of energy that pulsated out from under them as they took off. They hovered towards the ceiling, floating higher and higher until the people below began to resemble toys in a dollhouse. Will kept his eyes on his mother, even as she became minuscule, fixated upon her figure until the metal roof of the platform snapped shut and they found themselves in an enclosed capsule. As one roof closed, a second one above their heads opened, providing their exit into Space. They ascended through it, sitting suspended for a moment as they hung still in the infinite black sky. Will felt Emily stiffen beside him as they waited in the silence, full of bewilderment and fear. The moment lasted only a few seconds before there was a sudden jolt, flinging them forwards as the Shuttle began hurtling through the air.

“This is it!” Emily said.

“This is it,” Will repeated, taking a deep breath.

 

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