Camila glanced over at the elevators, and her heart lurched when the shining doors opened. But it still wasn't Hailey. Perhaps she wouldn't come after all. Perhaps something had come up. Perhaps she'd put the phone down on Camila and immediately forgotten her, moving on as smoothly as she always had.
"Hey," said the barman, shouting over the music and putting a Coors down on the glossy-black bar. "This is on the house."
It was a cheap bottle, sure, but shit--free is free, yeah? "What for?" Camila shouted back.
"Shipping out, right? To the squidwar?"
Camila nodded. "Kapteyn-B. How'd you know?"
"You got that final-night look. You and a few others here. Enjoy it while you can."
Camila raised the bottle in acknowledgement and navigated across the sticky dancefloor to a sofa at the back of the club. She picked at her beer label as she stared over everyone's heads (dancers bobbing like waves, a sea of hormones, salt-sweat on the air) to the city beyond the glass: edges and angles detailed in neon; interstate traffic reflected on dark skyscrapers like a galaxy across the sky; headlights like scattered stars, drifting fog like nebulae.
The last time she'd see it like this, even if she made it home. The war wasn't going well--fucking squids kept popping up all over, and leadership was struggling to unlearn centuries of strategy meant for human opponents--but twenty-six light years of near-c round trip meant this'd all be dust and history by the time she got back anyway.
She noticed Hailey walk in out the corner of her eye, and tension flooded through Camila, churning in her stomach and stealing the air from her lungs. It wasn't until Hail stood in front of her, head cocked sideways, that Camila realised her mouth was open and she was staring. But shit Hailey looked good in that dress: dark sequins and holo-vertices, the thin green lines sharp against the sheen of her black skin and juddering with the heavy beats that thumped the air.
"I thought," said Hailey, shouting over the music to make herself heard, "that signing up for the front was the stupidest thing you could do. But dragging me out just to stare at me is stupider."
"Shit, Hail, I'm sorry. You dress like that and expect me to retain the power of fucking speech? You doing it on purpose?"
A smile cracked the mask. Yeah, she knew what she was doing. She sat down on the sofa and took the bottle from Camila's hand, stole a swig.
"Your last night then, huh?" said Hailey.
"Looks like. Leaving for the L5 station tomorrow, then out on a ramship for the stars."
"When'd you make a stupid decision like that?"
When you left me, when'd you fucking think? "Guess I figured it was time I did something with my life, and, hell. I've always loved the stars, right?"
Hailey looked at her, those big brown eyes seeing straight through the bullshit but knowing why it was necessary for Camila, for them both. "So," she said, serious and intent. "We gonna dance or what?"
Camila collapsed back on the sofa, exhausted, bass still rumbling through her guts and lungs but unable to animate her anymore. Hailey followed, sexy with sweat but still full of energy and delight, venting her excess joy with laughter like a ramship vented heat.
"You quitting already?" Hailey asked, folding her smooth legs neatly onto the sofa.
"Only for a moment, gimme a moment." Camila shuffled and laid her head on Hailey's lap, looking out at the crowd, all dancing, flirting and posturing their way through the Saturday night motions. Existing not living, drifting through, concentrating so much on the moment they'd lost the perspective of the years. Winning battles against tedium and losing the war on irrelevancy.
Camila knew that feeling. Shit, if she was honest, that was why she'd signed up. She'd lost her sense of purpose after Hailey left, couldn't see what good she'd ever come to without her. Fighting for something new out there, among the stars, was the only meaningful act she could think of.
"Hail?" Camila tilted her chin up.
"Yes hun." Hailey was idly stroking Camila's hair, pulling her fingers through it.
"I'll stay if you take me back."
Hailey's fingers stopped. She kept silent.
"You know... you know I'm never coming back, one way or another? Even if I survive Kapteyn, the sub-light travel... shit, Hail, it'll be decades before I'm back here."
"I know." Camila read it on Hailey's lips more than she heard it.
"This'll be it. Our last night."
Hailey shook her head, box braids swaying. "I can't. You stay for me and I'll be trapped. How could I ever leave you? How could I be independent if I had to check every act in case I upset you? I'd be a robot, only doing what you want so I can keep you happy, forever justifying your decision to stay. You really wanna suffocate me with that pressure instead of just... moving on and shipping out?"
Camila bit her lip, bit down on it hard to stop the tears, and swallowed the warm salt blood. "How about one last fuck, then?"
Hailey gently moved Camila's head and stood up. "I'm going back to the dancefloor. You coming, soldier?"
"In a minute." Camila blew a kiss up, and Hailey slipped away through the crowd. Camila wouldn't fuck her. She shouldn't. She didn't want their last night to be a pity fuck any more than Hailey did.
Light washed over the dancefloor like breakers on the shore. Hailey was in the centre of it all, arms high and smile wide, everyone else swirling round like they were caught in her gravity. Strobe lights caught the sequins of her dress and lit her up like a constellation: stars glittering in the darkness, flaring supernovae and blinking pulsars.
Camila slipped out to the elevators, leaving old battles behind.
All content (text and images) is © Matt Dovey 2021 unless otherwise noted.
2-column layout based on design by Matthew James Taylor.
Background photo by NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.