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She loved planes with all her heart, but she was happy to have fallen asleep on this one. The seventy-two hours since her new orders came in had been hellishly hectic for Lance Corporal Nadia Lorena White, ground detail, mechanic, and the Earth Federation’s Women’s Middleweight Champion of the Tokyo Beerfest for four years running. Just on the eve of her 22nd birthday party, she’d gotten a letter so embossed that she’d thought maybe she’d won five thousand dollars a year for life or something. Instead, she’d gotten orders that – once upon a time – would have made her even giddier. The letter was less of a letter and more of a Golden Ticket for pilots like her – it contained orders to report to within the week for participation in the Federation’s FAW-022 Raptor Program. The program was legendary for pilots like Lauren White – cutting-edge technology, the first transformable Walker in history (unless you believed the rumors of the spacers, which were chock full of outlandish Walker designs and names that the old rogues swore the Federation would never see until the mechs were marching through their capitals) and the chance to be a part of its initiation into the military mainstream. It had been in the works for five years, supposedly been worth the GDP of small Federation-states, and it was goddamn exclusive – jockeys, airmen, marines, it made no matter…as long as you were one of the best pilots on the planet. For the time it took her to get through three paragraphs, reading the letter was better than sex. The only problem is that the Raptor Program was being hosted in the Federation’s six spaceports, massive cities built around the mass drivers that were the planet’s arteries into space. Tokyo, Japan was not one such city, and it was in Tokyo, Japan, that Lauren had met... Don’t think about her, don’t think about her, don’t think about— Too late. ***** She was Lance Corporal Inoue Ayane, ninth generation soldier, first generation mech jockey, devoted girlfriend, and the Earth Federation’s Women’s Middleweight Runner-up at the Tokyo Beerfest, four years running. Lauren loved Ayane with all her heart, but she was not – to her family’s chagrin, she’d often joke – one of the world’s best pilots. Her girlfriend had been so supportive that it broke Lauren’s heart – and, to her dismay, had flatly refused to let her turn the orders down or risk something that would mean a discharge. You wanted a Walker long before you ever reached Tokyo, Ayane had chided her gently, her voice catching even if her face was still as a pond. If you gave that up for me, I’d hate myself. She was right on both counts, but as their final hours whittled down, Lauren had grown more and more despondent, finally not even leaving the bed to shower or grab a beer on her final day in Tokyo. To cheer her up, Ayane had done her best to make it the perfect day - preparing breakfast in bed, sharing stories of the memories they'd shared, and, several times, reminding her that sex was, in fact, better than any piece of paper. In the end, however, they resorted to a prone, quiet state, curled up against each other in the bed and listening for the sound of the plane that would take Lauren from the hangar on base. They lived together in an apartment just outside of that base, in a small, cozy setup outside Tokyo Bay. It was small and cozy, borderline cramped, but the place was a quaint little home that Lauren, poor growing up and the only daughter of an irascible Somali mechanic in Vancouver, had ever known. Ayane had moved into it with her jointly on their first day on assignment together as eighteen year olds, so similar to a college dorm that Lauren had jokingly asked if there was a sorority they should join. Within six months, the confines of the apartment had driven them firmly into couple status. The three and a half years between then and now had been the happiest of Lauren’s life, so as they lay together, Lauren’s breath as jumpy as a student’s before a presentation and Ayane’s slow and sad, she’d tried to focus on anything but the sinking feeling that her life was ending by the second. When her girlfriend promised her, in a quiet voice, that she would seek transfer after her the first chance she got, the dam broke – the first tears in three days ran down Nadia White’s eyes, and she rolled over onto her side to kiss the Japanese girl. Their lips had locked for several seconds – or maybe minutes – before the dull, bestial roar of a jet touching down on base reached their ears. Wiping her eyes and searching for her clothes with a fist, Nadia had given the woman she loved her best grin. “You gonna wish me luck?” she asked, as close to teasing as she could manage, fumbling with her bra. “I’ll need it if the thing wants to transform into a giant fusion-powered windmill or something.” Ayane had giggled. “The only way you screw up,” her girlfriend had promised, reaching out to hold Lauren’s hand before she could pull her tank top on, “is if you let yourself, babe. So don’t let yourself. That’s an order.” She’d growled teasingly to punctuate the sentence. Lauren had only planned on making a quick joke and saying her ‘I love yous’ as punctually as possible. Thanks entirely to Ayane, the jet was kept waiting on the tarmac for its cargo for so long, the lieutenant in charge of her case was forced to make way to their apartment complex and knock on the door herself. Typical Ayane. Always getting her in trouble. Sweet. Sweet trouble. The thought put a wan smile on her face until the second her back foot left the tarmac. ***** Said Lieutenant, one Grace Noah of Mission Control, turned out to be a bit of a chatterbox. Lauren could at least appreciate that, being a social animal herself, and they’d chatted politely about her job the last several weeks – processing the life stories of marines, pilots, and mech jockeys from the Western and Eastern Divisions of the Federation, as well as all four fleets and even the border patrol that was responsible for guarding Earth’s assets from more radical facets of the Ark Union. When the brass found a candidate they liked, it was Noah’s job to get on a plane, fly to whatever backwoods part of the planet they could be found at, and then bring them back to Horizon, the spaceport she was assigned to. It all sounded insanely busy, and Noah – a pretty girl with a geek physique who was a few years older than Lauren, with blonde hair and bright blue eyes that offset caramel skin – looked the part of exhausted errand girl. There were deep bags under her eyes, her hair needed a come, and - when Lauren joked tiredly with her about it to her face - her smile made it clear that she'd been at least been brushing, but in quite the hurry. After a few more minutes of chatter about the Raptor Program and the South American climate of Horizon, Noah finally reached an arrangement with her charge to get some well-deserved shut eye on the flight from Tokyo to Spaceport Four in Horizon. Within seconds of the deal being struck, it seemed like Noah was out, and Nadia, pleasantly, found herself following suit. She hadn’t slept at all in the three days leading up to this flight…and asleep, at least there was a chance she wouldn’t dream of Ayane. For eleven hours, her mind was a peaceful slate, a blank and relaxed opposite to her personality even on a normal day. In her current emotional maelstrom, the R&R was even more of a godsend. When she found herself being roused awake by the Lieutenant, it was nearing dusk. She could see the streaks of orange and purple through the sky, like God had declared scorched earth on his entire domain; the plumes of clouds in the sky were painted dark by the sunset. Nestled into this backdrop, like a prized egg in a nest, sat Horizon – a clean, orderly metropolis with view screens and skyscrapers Lauren could see from here. There was an expansive natural beach that the Lance Corporal caught sight of as they flew over top of it, and the roof of the Federation base glinted as they began their approach. But those were all sights that were shared by her old locale – even the Federation outpost, which Japan had refurbished during Lauren’s first months of deployment back in 2080, looked that sparkling new. But there was one thing that Horizon boasted that was a rarity in the rest of the world – the mass driver, a long, lean, cylindrical structure which seemed to pulse blue with life. Nadia’s eyes, glazed over in shock, trailed a Federation ship as it docked with the driver like it was the most casual thing in the world. “Welcome to Horizon, Lance Corporal,” Grace Noah said cheerfully, putting a hand on Lauren’s shoulder. “The Jewel of Panama. Not that anybody calls it that in the real world, that’s just a tourist trap thing. Remind me to dig you up a couple brochures from the Chamber of Commerce here, they’re fantastic for a good over-the-top laugh.” Lauren was ushered out of the jet more than she walked out under her own power, and as she stepped out onto the tarmac to get her first taste of South American air, her eyes briefly traced over a single man at the end of the runway, arms crossed and stance casual. She took note of him for only a second before her eyes found her way back to…back to… “Jesus Christ,” she whispered. Lieutenant Noah laughed. “Careful who you say that to. They might tout him on the brochures next.” -Tyler