The entrance hall of the shuttle bay was enormous. With shuttles easily being a hundred floors tall and the shuttle bay needing to be able to access all areas of a shuttle, the immense hall was as tall as any building Aurelia had ever seen. The echoing space above her made her stomach feel watery so that she clutched her father's arm.
“It's not as empty as it looks,” her father said, noting her discomfort. “Look more closely.”
Gazing into the height of the hall, Aurelia could just make out the movement of semi-transparent drones flitting around. “What are they for?”
“Most of the ones in here are simple message drones,” her father said. “They're programmed with messages from Lunar City to the Ruling Class in Earth Empire cities. They're good messengers because they can be programmed with a message and then programmed to destruct if they're messed with, as well as sending back an alert to whoever programmed them saying that a message was safely delivered or that the drone was forced to destroy itself. They'll ride on the shuttles too.”
“Aha,” said Aurelia, taking in the information and filing it away in case it became useful later.
“Most of the ones in there,” said her father, pointing towards a large gate that marked the entrance to the terminal waiting rooms, “are Security drones. They're there to make sure that no one gets on a shuttle who shouldn't be on one, though mostly they redirect lost passengers to their allocated shuttles.”
Aurelia glanced over at the gate. “I guess...” she began.
Her father nodded, looking at the time reader on his wrist. “I guess so,” he said.
Aurelia swallowed. “You can't?”
“No, I can't go past the Security gate. You need travel coding to get past,” he said. “But you need to go on through. If you're not through in time, your reservation will automatically be cancelled.”
“Okay.” She hesitated for a moment, then hugged her father.
People milling around the entrance hall looked over at them. Such displays of public affection weren't common in the city, at least between parents and children.
“You're gonna do great, Aurelia. Don't worry.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she said, into his shoulder.
“Go on then,” he said, pushing her away. “Off you get. And don't forget to intercom.”
He turned quickly, but not quite fast enough that Aurelia couldn't see a glint in his eyes. Tears. She swallowed again and sniffed, willing herself into control as she watched her father in his grey-and-blue tech Worker uniform fade back towards the entrance doors and the walkway that would take him to the transport pod.
After several Seconds Aurelia took a breath and squared her shoulders. Let's do this thing, she told herself, and she started walking towards the Security gate.
There was a line of passengers waiting to go through the gate, and Aurelia joined them. As she waited she passed the time watching the elegant fluttering of the messenger drones circling inside the hall. About halfway through the line, the one queue split up into several different channels, and Aurelia waited for an orange indicator light to tell her which channel to join, then resumed waiting.
At the front of the line was a Worker dressed in a drab uniform coloured light grey and dark grey, marking him as a transport Worker.
“Number,” barked the Worker.
“1-3358-7-43-22-3,” said Aurelia without thinking. She'd repeated the number so many times in her life that it was as familiar to her as her name.
Suddenly, a buzz sounded and a red light began flashing over the head of the Worker she was speaking to.
“Incorrect,” the Worker said. “You lack the appropriate travel coding.”
Aurelia was so shocked she didn't know what to do. “But that's impossible!” she said. “I know I have the coding.”
There was a gentle cough from behind her. Aurelia turned to see a young military Clone standing there.
“Sorry,” he said, in a gentle voice. “Couldn't help but overhear. Are you on your way to your first posting, by any chance?”
Aurelia nodded dumbly.
“Ah, and have you already been given an accommodation number?” he inquired.
Again she nodded.
“That'll be the problem, then.” He grinned at her, his deep blue eyes twinkling. “You've just given him your old accommodation number, and your travel coding will be under your new number.”
Gods, she'd forgotten all about that. Of course, since she was moving her number was going to change. Her old number reflected her old address. The only problem was that she couldn't remember her new number. She was sure she'd committed it to memory, but in all the excitement it had escaped her. This fact she admitted to the military officer who had come to join her at the desk.
“No problemo,” he said. Turning to the Worker, he asked for a Tracker to be sent over.
The Worker sighed in irritation, but he pressed a button on his desk. “Wait over there,” he said to Aurelia, pointing towards a small table directly behind his desk.
The military officer gave his number to the Worker and then came to join her.
“I'm Nicholas,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Aurelia,” she said, shaking it. “And I feel like such an idiot.”
“Don't worry, I'm sure it happens all the time; must be the excitement.”
“Bet it's never happened to you.” She smiled, then could have bitten off her own tongue. Of course it had never happened to him. He was military, which meant he was a Human Clone. Clones’ numbers not only never changed but were also ingrained onto every single part of them in a microscopic pattern of dots.
Nicholas smiled at her, knowing that she hadn't meant to insult him. “Well,” he observed, shooting his cuffs to hold out his wrists with their raised dot numbers, “these do come in handy from time to time, like when I'm too excited to remember who I am.”
Aurelia laughed. “Sorry,” she said, meaning it.
“It's fine. And I think I see your Tracker.”
The Tracker in his white uniform bustled over to the table. Without a word he produced a small device from his top pocket, and Aurelia rolled up her sleeve and presented him with the crook of her elbow. She felt a slight pressure as the Tracker pressed the device onto her skin. Her new number, including her new accommodation number, had been coded into her with her last injection, so all the Tracker had to do was take a reading. Aurelia rolled her sleeve back down and pulled a wry face at Nicholas as she followed the Tracker back to the Worker's desk. Taking the device, the Worker read off her new number.
“Fine,” he said. “You're cleared to pass through. Try and remember your number next time.”
Aurelia rejoined Nicholas, and together the pair made their way down a corridor and into the waiting areas.
“What now?” Aurelia asked.
“Never flown before, huh?”
Aurelia shook her head.
“Well, now there's an agonisingly long wait until the shuttle is ready for boarding, during which time you may avail yourself of the many facilities in the pre boarding area.” He spoke solemnly, gesturing to the small snack bar that was in a corner of the hall.
“You make it sound so glamorous,” Aurelia said.
“Oh, travel is very glamorous. You get to meet all kinds of people. Like me, for instance.” He grinned again, and Aurelia saw how his sandy hair was styled to fall just so over his forehead, making him look younger than he probably was.
“Treat you to a coffee?” she asked. “As thanks for your help,” she added, not wanting him to think that she was asking him for a more personal reason.
“Sure,” he said, and they began walking towards the snack bar.
“This isn't everyone waiting, is it?” Aurelia asked him as they walked.
“Nah, we're all divided up. The Ruling Class have their own waiting room, obviously, and then the rest of us are divided up by which decks we'll be flying on. Makes the shuttles easier to load.”
“You know, coffee used to be made from beans,” Nicholas said idly as they joined yet another queue to get a hot drink.
“Mmm, I know,” answered Aurelia. “Weird, isn't it, thinking of drinking something made from beans?”
Aurelia knew as well as Nicholas probably did that what they called coffee was nothing more than a Chemical formula designed to stimulate certain taste buds and replicate a particular taste in the mouth.
“Here, there's a table over here,” said Nicholas, as Aurelia paid for the coffee with a small token.
“So, which shuttle are you on?” Aurelia asked him, pulling back a chair.
“The 18:30,” he answered. “You too, right?”
“Yep. I'm a bit nervous about flying, though. It's a whole lot higher than a public transport shuttle.”
Nicholas laughed. “It's a piece of cake. Nothing to it. You won't even realise we've left the atmosphere, promise.”
“Are you stationed in Lunar City?” Aurelia said, stirring her coffee and then taking a sip.
“Something like that, I...”
But he was interrupted by someone shouting Aurelia's name. Looking up, Aurelia saw a familiar face: Jaki, one of her classmates until recently. Hurrying over to the table, Jaki squealed with excitement.
“I can't believe you're here too!” she said. “Are you on your way to your posting?”
Aurelia nodded. “Yep, and what about you?”
“Ugh, no such luck,” Jaki said. “But I do get to do a week of training at Lunar City Hospital before coming back down. After that I'll be at Hospital 1-24 right here in the city.”
“Cool,” said Aurelia, knowing full well that Jaki would kill to have her posting in Lunar City.
“It's pretty exciting. There's a group of us going up, all for the same training,” Jaki told her, her eyes lingering on Nicholas.
“That's nice.” Aurelia knew damn well that Jaki was angling for an introduction and wondering just exactly what Aurelia was doing sitting with a Human Clone, but she wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of an answer. Jaki could be so nosey, a quality that wasn't much admired in a society where everyone lived so close together. Plus, if Aurelia were being completely honest with herself, she felt a little uncomfortable about the situation. She hadn't really given much thought to the fact that she was sitting opposite a Clone, but, well, it wasn't exactly normal.
“So, er, well, I guess, you know...” Jaki trailed off, her eyes still directed towards Nicholas, who was smiling blandly.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Aurelia. “Have a safe trip.”
“You too. And congratulations.” Jaki took one last look at Nicholas, then gave Aurelia a fake smile and walked off to rejoin her group.
“Sorry about that,” Aurelia said, turning back to Nicholas. “Just an old school friend. That's all.”
“And does she have a name?” His smile was gone, though he looked more sad than angry.
Aurelia shifted in her chair, feeling uncomfortable but unable to quite put her finger on how to solve the situation. “I think I owe you an apology,” she said, finally.
Nicholas nodded. “And why is that?”
“I, er, I should have introduced you. It was very rude not to, and I'm truly sorry.” Once she'd made up her mind to do something, Aurelia generally just did it. Life was easier that way, she'd found.
Nicholas smiled again, but he still looked a little sad. “It's okay, I understand. You feeling a little strange?”
Aurelia raised an eyebrow at him. “Strange?”
“Well, I'm guessing it's not every day that you have coffee with a Clone, right?”
Gods. At least he was joking about it, though. “No, it's not. I'm a bit unsure about the etiquette.” She smiled.
“You're having a big day, aren't you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Nicholas. “Your first shuttle flight, the first time forgetting your new number and now your first time having coffee with a Clone. Jeez, it must be exciting to be you today.”
Aurelia started laughing, and Nicholas joined her. His openness encouraged her to question him more closely. She knew what Clones were, of course, and knew their role in the Empire. She also knew that their lives were far more strictly controlled than her own as a Worker. Clones weren't allowed to breed, for example, though there was good reason for that. Clones’ being copied was considered dangerous, since the more times a code was copied, the more chance there was of a mutation. All Clones were created directly from source material rather than from other Clones. Even as Medical personnel, there was no chance that Aurelia would be called upon to treat a Clone. They had their own doctors more skilled in the kind of specific genetic diseases that could occur in Clones, so she knew little about their biology. But she was curious.
“You can drink coffee,” she began.
Nicholas laughed at her. “As you can see, yes.”
“Do you eat the same things as we do?”
He shook his head. “For a future hot-shot Medical girl, you're not exactly making a good impression,” he said. Then he grinned. “Let's take it from the top. I'm a Human Clone, right?”
“Which means that I've been cloned from original Human source material, right?”
Again she nodded.
“Which means, in turn, what?”
She bit her lip, annoyed at her own stupidity. “That your body systems are identical to that of the material you were sourced from, so essentially you're human.”
“Right. In every way except one I am exactly the same as you are. Well, not exactly.”
Aurelia looked puzzled, and Nicholas leaned a little closer over the table as though about to impart a Secret. “You're a girl,” he whispered. “I'm not.”
Aurelia startled herself by laughing at this. “Indeed you're not,” she said.
“So really, the only difference between us, other than that, is that whilst you had a mother and father, I simply had a donor. That's all.”
“Not quite all,” Aurelia said, draining her coffee cup. “I mean, you were bred to be a particular way, right? I mean to specifically be a soldier, so you're strong and agile.”
Nicholas nodded. “Yes, that's true. But that's not me. I mean, it is, but only because my original human donor was chosen because he had precisely those qualities. And then I've been trained to nurture those qualities, that's all.”
“And,” added Nicholas, grinning again. “I don't eat exactly the same as you do.”
“No?” she asked, furrowing her brow.
“Nope. I bet I get way bigger rations than you do. Gotta build up these muscles, after all,” he said, flexing his arm like a cartoon macho man.
Again, Aurelia laughed. She was starting to like this cheeky young man. Clone. Whatever. “So, it looks like we've exhausted the possibilities of the snack bar. Unless you want another coffee to build up your muscles?” she asked him.
“Nah, I'm cool. Wanna check out the viewing deck?”
“I presume that's where we can go and watch the shuttles land, right?”
“Yep, come on, I'll show you. It's pretty fascinating if you haven't seen it before.” Nicholas pushed his chair back and stood.
He led her to an elevator shaft in a corner of the waiting hall. No one else was waiting, and when he hit the button, the elevator dinged and the door opened.
“After you,” he said with a mock bow. “Looks like everyone else is too jaded to want to come up and have a look.”
The viewing deck was a circular room on the very top of the terminal building, with huge glass windows so that Aurelia could glimpse every angle.
“Whoa,” she said, watching as a shuttle shuddered, hovered for a moment and then pushed itself off the ground and began its vertical climb.
“Yeah, I know,” Nicholas said, coming to stand beside her at the window. “Amazing, huh?”
As the first shuttle disappeared into the gloom, a shimmering silver reflection began its descent.
“There's just so many of them,” Aurelia said in wonder, watching the next shuttle grow bigger as it neared the Earth.
“There's a lot of business between here and there,” Nicholas told her. “And they're not all carrying passengers. Most of them are cargo shuttles, or even just messenger shuttles. The trip is relatively cheap these days, especially now that we can use syntho-fuel, so most people don't think twice about sending a shuttle down with a couple of drones in it.”
Aurelia could feel his warmth, though he wasn't touching her. He seemed to emanate heat, making her aware of her own pulse under her skin.
“Come here often?” she asked jokingly, turning to him.
“Here? Or here?”
Aurelia raised an eyebrow.
“The viewing deck, not so much, not since my first couple of trips. Earth, yeah, a few times. Whenever I'm sent. I trained here for a while, but I was stationed back at Lunar. Every now and again I come down for more training, or sometimes just with a message pack that can't be trusted to a drone.” He shrugged. “It's no big deal - just a long trip, that's all. Tiring sometimes.”
He didn't look tired. But then, Aurelia wasn't sure if Clones ever did. Since they were bred for their strength and fighting abilities, she assumed that whilst they weren't exactly superhuman, the Clones were more than just regular human.
Nicholas looked up at the sky, where the faint ring of the moon was just visible. “And what about you?” he asked, still gazing upwards. “Going to be back and forth a lot?”
Aurelia sighed. “I doubt it. I've got a lot of work to do up there; there's not going to be much time for travelling. Besides, I won't get my seven vacation days for another twelve months after I start.”
“Are you excited?”
“Yes. And no.” She paused to collect her thoughts. “I'm excited about the work. This is what I'm good at; it's what I was trained and bred to do. It will be challenging, but I can make a difference. Like...” She started to blush. “I mean, it sounds grandiose, but I'm a Med Worker. I can literally make the difference between life and death.”
This caused him to turn and look at her. “Life and death.”
“Yes. You know, in the old days they believed that life was given by God and that when you died you went back to him. Some even prevented Med Workers from giving treatment because they felt it was interfering with God's plan.”
“Now, we do it for the Empire. Every person I save will give more to the Empire than I could give individually. They will work again, produce again, contribute again. Does that make sense?” She looked at him earnestly.
“Yes,” he said. “But what about the ones you don't save? The ones that you give to death?”
Aurelia had never struggled with this idea before. It had been a part of her training for so long that she didn't question it at all. “I give them to death because it's better to die than to be a drain on Earth Empire. I do it only when there's no other option, only when there's no way that the patient could be a productive member of society if they survived.”
“I see,” said Nicholas quietly. “And do you not think about the right to live? What if those patients wanted to live, even if they no longer worked? What if they wanted to see a sunrise again, or have one last cup of coffee?”
Aurelia shook her head. “It doesn't work like that,” she said. “Part of having my responsibility is sacrificing one to save many.”
“Or sacrificing many to save one,” Nicholas murmured, looking up at the moon again.
“What?” Aurelia thought she had caught his words but wasn't sure; they hadn't made sense.
“Oh, nothing, don't worry about it.” He looked down at her again and grinned. “We're getting awfully serious here, don't you think? Far too serious for someone who should be celebrating a whole day of firsts. You can't get on your first shuttle all depressed.”
“I'm not depressed!” Aurelia protested, and then something caught her eye. “Whoa.”
“Ah,” said Nicholas, looking up at the looming ship blocking out the light. “That's a merchant shuttle, bringing resources back and forth. Ore, that kind of thing. Big, isn't it?”
They watched as the humongous shuttle delicately floated down, seemingly not moving and yet growing bigger and bigger by the Second. Finally, just when Aurelia thought the ship would crash into the earth, long ropes where thrown down and the ship was tethered.
“Back and forth?” asked Aurelia, who had just taken the words in. “Stuff goes from Earth back to Lunar City?”
“Of course.” Nicholas looked puzzled at her question. “Why?”
Aurelia tried to fit the information into everything else she knew, but it just wouldn't work. “I don't know,” she said after a moment. “I just sort of thought that Lunar City was organising Earth to be self-sufficient, but taking resources from the planet up to the moon doesn't really fit with that, does it?” She lifted her shoulders. “Oh, well. There are plenty of things that I don't understand.” She turned away from the window. “Tell me about Lunar City.”
“Ah, so that's what's worrying you about going up there?” Nicholas said, looking amused. “Look, you've no need to worry. Lunar City is definitely special, but for the most part it's not going to be terribly different from right here. I mean, everyday life is pretty much the same. The only real difference is that you're likely to see more Ruling Class up there than you've met before.”
Aurelia looked a little disappointed and yet relieved at the same time. “Oh,” was all she said.
“Well,” Nicholas added in a conciliatory way, “you might find a bit more trouble to get into in Lunar then you're used to.”
“I don't want trouble!” Aurelia said, horrified at even the thought of making waves.
“I didn't think so,” Nicholas smiled.
The two spent another ten minutes watching the shuttles land in the increasing twilight. Pollution made the nights fall faster, and it would be fully dark before their shuttle left at 18:30. The big fans that cleared the centre of the city had some small effect on the outskirts but not enough, and they were switched to low power at night, anyway.
“Why do we have to wait so long?” Aurelia asked after a while, growing bored.
“Told you travel was all about glamour,” Nicholas teased her. “Wanna go back down?”
“Mostly we're waiting for Security reasons,” he explained as they waited for the elevator to return. “They need to check everyone getting onto the shuttles. The longer passengers are kept waiting, the more impatient and nervous they become and therefore are more likely to give away tell-tale signs of being up to something. It's simple psychology.”
The elevator doors hummed open, and they got inside the cabin.
“Plus, we're all given different arrival times so that the roads around the terminal don't get too clogged up. There's enough pollution around here as it is.”
“Really?” said Aurelia. “I didn't know that. About the arrival times, I mean.”
Nicholas nodded. “One of the privileges of being Ruling Class is that you can swan up ten minutes before your shuttle is supposed to leave. Some of these low-grade Workers, on the other hand, have been waiting since this morning.”
He found them both seats in the waiting area and then excused himself. “Got some things to take care of. I'll be back in a while. Definitely before we get called for boarding.”
Aurelia looked around at the other passengers, and then, to distract herself, she reached into her top pocket and pulled out what looked like a pen. Pressing a button on the device caused the pen to unroll into a screen, and Aurelia loaded up some of her training notes and began to get a head start on what she guessed would come up during orientation.
Wriggling in her seat to find a comfortable position, Aurelia found herself constantly scanning the hall for signs of Nicholas. Weird. They'd known each other for just a few hours and already she felt a connection with him. If she didn't know better, she'd say that she might just have a little crush on him, like the ones she’d had on fellow students in school. Of course, Nicholas was a Clone, though, so she didn't have a crush. Nope, not at all. He did make her laugh. He was funny, that was all.
Her stomach writhed a little again as she checked the time. Only an hour until the shuttle left. Gods. She just wished it could be over with by now. After spending the trip with her father and wanting to remain earthbound as long as possible, now she just wanted to already be in Lunar City. Or Lunar, as Nicholas called it.
His voice came from behind her as he covered her eyes with his hands.
“I hate this game!” she squealed, trying to escape from his grasp.
“Oops, sorry.” He removed his hands and plopped down onto the seat next to her.
“You're back,” she said, rolling up her screen and putting it back in her pocket.
“Obviously. Told you I would be. We'll be boarding soon, so I wanted to keep you company for a while.”
Three bells rang in succession from an intercom in the hall, and a garbled announcement was broadcast.
Aurelia looked worried. “I didn't hear a word of that,” she said.
“Yeah, it's just the pre boarding announcement. If you've got a good reason, you can board first. Like flying with a kid or having one leg or something,” Nicholas said airily. “You don't have a good reason, do you?”
“Two legs,” said Aurelia, looking down at them. “Nope, no good reason.”
“They'll call us soon, and then we board by deck number. It's easy. See the channels over there?”
“When they call your deck number, go stand in the channel that has an orange flashing light and follow everyone else. When you're on board, the steward will show you your seat.”
A thought struck Aurelia. “You mean we can't sit...” She was about to say can't sit together, but she caught herself in time. “We can't sit where we want?”
Nicholas shook his head. “You should know better than that. Everything in order. You'll have a seat number in your coding. Don't worry, you'll figure it out.”
“Could we change seats?” Aurelia asked, knowing the answer and feeling childish for asking. “I mean, it'd be nice to have some company on the flight, someone to talk to.”
Nicholas looked uncomfortable. “Sometimes you can, but we, er, well, we just can't this flight. Sorry.”
She kept forgetting. She guessed that maybe Clones had to sit on their own decks or something. Then she was sorry she had embarrassed him. She didn't know why she kept forgetting his status. His uniform obviously marked him as a Clone. Though even without it, Aurelia thought she would probably have known. Clones always had the look of being a little too perfect, something you couldn't quite figure out, but something different. Then she realised she was thinking about Nicholas with no clothes on and hurriedly put a stop to the thought process.
“We could maybe get a coffee in Lunar?” she asked. “Is that allowed?”
“Worker and Clone mixing, you mean?” Nicholas said, arching his eyebrows. “Well, as long as we're not planning on breeding there's no law against it. Not common, though.” He saw that she was looking disappointed again, so he added, “It would be cool to hang out a little. You know, if we can. After work's finished and all that.”
Aurelia smiled. “Let's try.”
Another announcement came over the intercom, and a light began flashing in one of the channels. Several people stood up and went to queue.
“Do you remember your deck number?” Nicholas asked.
“Er...” Was her memory really getting so bad?
“It'll be between 25 and 35,” he said.
Aurelia closed her eyes and thought carefully. As she took a deep breath and calmed herself, all the carefully memorised numbers came back to her. “27,” she said.
“You'll be up soon then; they start from the bottom.”
She wasn't sure what to say to him, this person - wait, Clone - who had become so strangely close to her in such a short time. Then there was no time to say anything. Nicholas poked her.
“Go, that's you!” he hissed.
She stood up and then turned back to look at him.
He smiled that charming smile again. “We'll meet again,” he said. “Now go.”
And with that, Aurelia went to join her line.