End of training celebrations were typically riotous and sometimes ended in injury. Rosa, seventeen years old and technically not allowed to consume any type of mind altering substance, sipped her drink when others gulped, and gently declined the more extreme offers of hallucinogens. She wasn’t concerned with fitting in, not today, and in any case she had heard some rumors that excessive indulgence lead to lowered reaction times, even weeks after the fact.
She was the youngest there, naturally. They’d tried to keep her out, telling her that it was just bad luck she’d been born two years too late, but her scores had been so good, and, she suspected, her letters and video calls and campaigns so annoying that they’d admitted her in the end, possibly just to shut her up.
She knew they’d expected her to burn out, like seventy percent of candidates did, and she’d half believed that she would. When she didn’t, when she did well enough to scrape into the top ten percent, when she’d graduated with the rest of her class, standing slightly shorter and grinning a damned sight wider, well?
She had cause for celebration. Just in her own way.
She was going to make it through the Wall of Mouths.
“Rosa, you’re a lightweight.” Hardison was one of the few other pilots who didn’t care that she was so much younger. He’d told her on no few occasions that he would have done the same, if he’d been born, like she was, too young for a Push. Some of us are meant to fly, kid, he’d said to her. You and me, we’re meant to do this, you’ll see on Push Day.
Here, now, he swayed to the music, eyes heavy lidded, full lips curved in a smile. “A lightweight,” he repeated. “Have a drink you’ve earned it.”
“I’m seventeen, Hardison,” she said, smiling up at him. He was the tallest guy she knew, all lean muscle and deep black skin, and she’d had a hopeless, harmless crush on him ever since training had begun.
He was way too old for her. But that didn’t matter in the land of hopeless crushes.
“No one here cares that you’re seventeen, girl. You’ve proved yourself a thousand times over. Most of them wish they were half the pilot you are.”
She shrugged and sipped her drink, even as another pilot came up behind Hardison, draped his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss.
Rosa flushed and looked away as Hardison returned the kiss enthusiastically, then shoved the man away.
“Who was that?” she asked, and Hardison shrugged.
“Don’t know. Good kisser though.” His eyes narrowed, looking at her again. “I know it’s a bit wild here,” he said. “If you need me to stick with you.
“I can take care of myself, Hardison,” she said.
She could. Although, in its own way, the heaving mass of humanity in the relatively small bar was more intimidating than the final exams and practicals had been back in the arena. The graduates were celebrating life, she could understand that, and, when it boiled right down to it, she hadn’t lived as much as they had.
And possibly wouldn’t.
The night wore on and she found herself in a corner nursing the same drink, legs crossed as she watched men and women and everyone in between do things she’d never even dreamed of, in the name of celebration, in the spirit of life.
There was a desperation to it that she was finally coming to understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid.