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.
The Council assigned ships a month before the Push, so pilots could accustom themselves to the controls. Naturally they couldn’t take them out, but they were exactly the same as the ones she had trained on–they had to be. Of course she’d been through a thousand simulations before she’d even been allowed to set foot in one of the training ships. There had once been talk of only training pilots on simulations. With resources as scarce as they had become over the years, having five fully equipped Push ships docked permanently at Mars Station to be used only for training was expensive and wasteful.
The percentages were too compelling, however. Pilots who trained only on simulations were thirty percent more likely to die in the first five minutes of a Push. So they started on VR simulations, then moved to the real thing.
Even with each individual ship made precisely the same as the next, ships had their own personalities. They had no names but the names the pilots themselves gave them, against orders of course. The instructors insisted that they smelled the same, reacted the same, but she (and every other pilot) knew better. “Shit, I drew Elsa today,” they would gripe and moan. Elsa froze up on sharp maneuvers, Aurora was sluggish to respond, Belle was smooth and responsive, but not as fast as the others.
No matter how many times the engineers tried to even them out, they always had their little quirks. Maybe that was why they let pilots have early access to their actual ships, when every resource was geared towards getting them ready, when there were still floors missing and pods being shipped in from the yards. Rosa got to walk through the corridors, sit in the pilot’s chair in the bridge, lay her hands on the controls and try to form a bond with the ship that would carry her and the hope of humanity beyond the system’s edge. Beyond the Wall of Mouths.
“Each vessel carries hibernation pods for up to five thousand individuals, plus genetic banks for tens of thousands more in the event of a catastrophic Push. A single ship is capable of seeding a planet, provided the genetic banks are utilized to incubate from variant genetic stock. Obviously we prefer that more than one ship survive the Push, and as such each ship is capable of linking to up to ten others to form a generational ship of up to one hundred thousand individuals, more than enough to colonized a planet successfully.”
“What happens if you don’t like any of the people you’re stuck with?” Rosa whispered to Elanor. “What happens if you don’t want to have kids?”
“They screen for that,” Elanor whispered back.
“Huh, bet that doesn’t always work.”
“Look you’re not gonna get perfect populations, that’s a given, but that’s why there’s room for so many in the first place, you gotta have a margin of error.”
A single hand went up in the lecture theatre, and Rosa swallowed. She knew what Yasmin was going to ask before she even opened her mouth.
“Great, Disaster Yas is gonna depress us all again,” Elanor hissed.
“How many times has the Push been a total failure?”
The professor gave Yasmin a dark look, although it was brief. It was the question everyone wanted to ask, and it was the question that only pilots ever got the chance to pose.
“Of the past forty-nine Pushes,” Professor Locke said, “twenty-eight have been designated total failures.”
The muttering that spread across the room almost rose to a roar.
“Swallow me,” Elanor said. “That’s hellip; That’s three times the amount they say it is back on Earth. Three times!”
Rosa bit her lip. Professor Locke held up a hand and the muttering died down to the odd whisper. Even in their current state, the professor had the power to bring the class back to earth. “I would remind you, however, that since the thirty-first Push, total failures have been brought down to one in five. We’re getting better at this. We’ll get better every time.”
“Until the resources run out,” Elanor said. “We can’t make ships without the metals to do it. Why haven’t the Pushers come back to help us?”
“You’re the one who’s depressing me now, Elle,” Rosa said.
Yasmin’s hand went up again. “Why aren’t we killing the mouths instead of just trying to get past them? Surely that would be a better use of resources.”
That question brought murmurs, but they were happier murmurs. Anything that got them off the topic of how many pilots and cargoes were going to be lost in three years’ time when this Push was ready would bring cheering.
“We tried,” Professor Locke said. “We tried for fifty straight years and you all know the results. Five hundred thousand dead, ships lost, chaos and destruction and we only managed to kill a handful of them, and more came to fill the gaps. We cannot destroy the mouths, not yet, not until we find where they are coming from. Stop them at the source–that is the secondary goal of all our colony ships, after survival. When we can find why they swim in inter-system space and do not cross the border, when we can discover what they are and their weaknesses—then we’ll be able to kill them. And you all know we cannot do that from here.”
She dumped her gear on her bunk and looked around for Elle frowning. She was bone tired, just having spent six hours in escape pod training that she considered utterly useless (what was the point in training with pods when one of the first things they taught you as a pilot was not to go back for pods?) and she knew that Elle had wanted to do a study session that night before they went to sleep. Rosa didn’t want to. She was tired and she was hungry and she didn’t think any studying was going to help Elle focus enough on her navigation exam to actually pass.
A noise from behind the bunk made Rosa frown, and she leaned over to find Elle balled up in a corner, her head buried between her knees, crying.
Elle was getting more and more reckless. The Push was a year and a half away, and Rosa knew she’d been communicating with her parents more than she should have been. Three years older than Rosa, Elle was the third youngest pilot in the program, and there had always been rumors that she’d only gotten in because her mother was a Minister back on Earth.
Why her mother had pushed for her to be a pilot and not some safe cushy government job in one of the few career paths back on Earth that didn’t involve crushing overcrowding and meat rations once a month was beyond Rosa, whose parents had fought tooth and nail against her putting in the application.
It didn’t matter in the end. Elle was depressed. Elle was acting irresponsibly and putting the rest of the team in danger.
“You came to me rather than going to the professor,” Hardison said to her, the day after she’d found Rosa crying. He shared a bunk with some other pilot called Murdoch–a guy Rosa had never much liked, even though Hardison and he seemed to get along just fine.
Hardison, though, got along with everyone.
“She’s my friend,” Rosa said. Hardison was shaping up to be the Push leader; everyone knew it was going to be either him or Yasmin. Rosa wanted it to be him. For selfish, crush reasons. Yasmin was difficult to get on with in ways that Hardison wasn’t.
She wouldn’t complain if Yasmin got the job, of course.
“She can withdraw from the program,” Hardison said.
“She won’t do that,” Rosa said. “Won’t disappoint her mother.”
He made a frustrated noise. Rosa cringed, hating that she’d brought the problem to him, but his face softened when he saw her reaction and shook his head, putting one hand on her shoulder and squeezing with absent affection. “I’m sorry, kid. But I’m not a psych. She should see them, go on meds or something.”
“They’ll kick her out!”
He sucked his lower lip. “Rosa, if she can’t cope with the pressure here there’s no way she’s going to last out in space, we can’t let her continue, and if you’re her friend you’ll tell her that to her face.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Hardison,” Rosa said, her face screwing up in pain. “She’s sick. It doesn’t mean she can’t do her job.”
Hardison sighed and shook his head. “No one would expect someone who had cancer to do this,” he said. “She needs help, Rosa. She needs to be treated.”
She shook her head, standing up and moving to the door. He wouldn’t help. She’d have to do it on her own. At the doorway she turned back. “Please don’t tell the Professor I told you,” Rosa said, heart heavy.
Hardison’s jaw clenched, but he nodded. “Sure, kid. Just. Don’t leave it. It won’t fix itself.”
She nodded. She’d talk to Elle tonight. She’d make her go to the psychs, get help, meds, something to get her through to Push time.
Maybe if she was better she’d see that doing this for her mother was the wrong reason, and she’d go home, where she belonged.
Elle wasn’t in her bunk when Rosa came to find her that night.
The next day in training Elle piloted an escape pod straight into an asteroid. It could have been an accident. If Rosa told herself that enough times, maybe she’d be able to sleep better at night.
The party didn’t exactly wind down as much as move to other places, pilots paired or grouped off and went back to their bunks, or passed out and were carted there by volunteers, until Rosa was one of the few left. She spotted Yasmin talking earnestly to the bartender as the room cleared, and wandered over, not willing or ready yet to admit that the night was over and that the Push began in less than a week.
Yasmin and she didn’t necessarily get on, but there was a certain bond there. After Elle’s accident in second year she’d tended towards solitary introspection, and Yasmin and she were consequently often paired together for group projects, being the only two not fussed about working partnerships.
She respected Yasmin, and she thought that Yasmin respected her.
Rosa pulled up a stool and ordered a mineral water, earning a smile from the bartender and a nod from Yasmin, who didn’t move her chair to face her, but sipped at her drink in easy silence.
“Are you frightened?” Rosa blurted out suddenly.
“Of course I am,” Yasmin replied. “But we all are, aren’t we? All of humanity. All the time.”
“You always did have a way of cheering us up, Yas,” Rosa said. The other woman grinned, lopsided. She was twelve years older than Rosa. While Rosa had had to perform ridiculous feats to even be considered for the Push at her young age, Yasmin had been perilously close to the cut off in the other direction. Youth was almost as important as scores, but Yasmin was very, very good, and in the end the fact that she was older by a goodly number than the rest of the students didn’t really matter. What was a few years, in the end? In all of their ends?
Yasmin swiveled in her chair. “Why don’t they come in closer?” she said. “Why is the only thing they’re insistent on doing is keeping us here, in our solar system? There has to be a reason. I wish we could ask them.”
“We tried that too,” Rosa said. Yasmin snorted.
“You can’t tell me they tried hard enough.”
Rosa sipped her mineral water, weariness prickling at the back of her eyelids. She didn’t want to go home, not yet. Part of her buzzed with the thought that in less than a week she’d be part of the Push, but another part of her, a larger part–she had to admit that–was simply afraid of dying.
“There’s something else they never talk about,” Yasmin said, her voice lowering.
“What?” Rosa couldn’t stop herself from asking, even though she knew that anything Yasmin was going to say was not going to make her feel any less afraid.
“What if they’re not just trying to keep us in? What if they’re everywhere, at the edge of every system, guarding every habitable planet?” Yasmin’s mouth curved in an expression Rosa could only explain as dark delight. “What if we don’t just need to get past them once?”
The trick was to release all the ships at once, as close to the heliopause as possible. The first few Pushes had tried to spread the ships out over as wide a net as possible, but that had been a disaster. Individual ships were picked off too easily, too quickly. Big clumps of ships had a greater chance of survival, although even then a well aimed and determined mouth could go right for the center, scatter the ball, so to speak, and break it up for itself and its fellows to devour before the ball could reform.
It was a dance that they’d practiced over and over again in the years before the Push. Cluster, close, but not too close. Part ways as a mouth dives through. Reform fast enough that your ball doesn’t get picked to bits.
When Rosa first joined up she’d thought being a Push pilot was a solitary thing. She’d thought the list of names on the memorial of those pilots who’d managed to get past the wall were monuments to individual skill. She’d been wrong. The ships of a Push needed to act like a single unit, attuned to each other enough that they could move as swiftly as an individual, but at the same time separate enough that when their fellows were picked off they did not feel the loss like the loss of a limb, but like a trimming of hair.
No more than ten ships had ever survived a Push.
Usually the number was far, far smaller than that.
They had an official send off, the lot of them standing in rows in front of the cameras. Rosa didn’t know how many people ended up watching these things. She had so little connection with those back on Earth these days. Her life had consisted only of training. Training and training and trying not to think too hard about what was coming.
The speech was predictable, rousing, and Hardison, standing next to her, elbowed her in the arm when she drifted, looking beyond the podium and the politicians to the hangar bay where all the ships were waiting.
It was such a thin strip of death, really. A wall comparatively only the thickness of glass when one considered the space and time it took to cross it. No one knew why it was so, why they congregated only there, rather than spreading out across the stars to find other prey. Perhaps Rosa would find out.
“Remember to keep together,” Hardison said over the comm. His voice was different when he was in the pilot’s chair. None of the cheer that normally infused it, none of the subtle flirting that it had taken Rosa nearly a year to realize he used with everyone. Sometimes she wondered if that was the reason they’d chosen him to be the leader. Everyone wanted to do what Hardison said, just to feel like they were wanted.
She was as guilty as the rest of them on that count.
“Roger that, Commander,” Yasmin was the logical second in command, and her voice sounded the same on comm or off, dry and focused..
Now that the ceremonies were over, now that they were actually facing the Push, Rosa was calm. She knew the ship better than she knew her own family. The people lying in their cryo pods, stacked floor to ceiling high in the chambers behind the flight deck, those people were important. They were her duty. She didn’t think too hard about the fact that if she failed nearly ten thousand people would die with her.
Thinking about that would paralyze her.
You didn’t see much when you were piloting in the middle of a bait ball. She was close to the center, despite her protests. They’d always tried to protect her more than the other pilots because of her age. Part of her resented it, but part of her understood that there were things people needed to do to make themselves feel better. Hardison and Yasmin and the others treated her like a baby because she was one, comparatively.
At first, what she could see on her monitors was mostly the ass of everyone else’s ships. There was minimal chatter over comms, pilots course correcting, making sure the ball was tight, standard stuff that she’d heard a hundred times before in training. The voices were more hushed though. There was a strain to them, a realization that this was the end. In the corner of her display screen was counter display that read 50/50. Fifty ships. All functioning.
She knew better than to expect that number not to change drastically in the coming hours.
Everyone knew when the first pilot spotted a mouth.
The swear words that slipped out over comm made a couple of the other pilots giggle. Not all of them were as mature and humorless as Yasmin after all.
“Cut the chatter,” Hardison said. “We all knew what they looked like.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Each mouth had subtle differences, and the standard VR representations tended to be the biggest and most ferocious types, possibly to make sure the pilots were faced with the most terrifying first.
There was no way they weren’t going to be detected. That was the first rule of thumb. Previous Pushes had attempted stealth, but the mouths didn’t hunt with any senses that humans knew how to predict, and a stealthy ship was eaten just as quickly as a noisy one.
They did look like mouths. That was the frightening thing. Giant sea slugs, covered in spikes that may or may not have been poisonous, one end capable of swallowing a ship whole with a little bit of work. Part of the reason their ships were the size they were was because it took time for a mouth to completely engulf one. That was time a ball could use to get further away.
The jury was out on whether they were organic or synthetic. Whenever they managed to destroy a mouth the other mouths devoured its remains before any samples could be taken, and they were alien, so it was even possible that what looked organic was simply very sophisticated machinery.
Rosa tried to stop herself from looking at the monitor that displayed the wall. The first mouth–the one that had made Yancy swear, slowly moved towards them, its undulating body graceful and alien, and subtly wrong in ways that turned Rosa’s stomach.
Two more mouths approached from different sides. This was a formation that they’d practiced. Rosa readied her hands on the controls.
Murdock panicked and broke formation, splitting from the ball. This happened. They knew that it happened, and everyone had resolved that they would not be the one to do it. It wasn’t just because it was cowardly, it was also stupid, as demonstrated by a mouth–one they hadn’t even seen in the initial contact–lazily sliding close to them and latching onto Murdock’s ship.
The computers knew to switch off comms when a ship was taken. That was a lesson the first Pushes had learned very quickly.
“Shit,” Urich said. “Shit shit.”
“Keep it together,” Hardison said. “This is only the beginning.”
Six more mouths approached, and Rosa calculated which of the ships on the outer edge of the ball were most likely to be targeted.
“Port sixty degrees,” Hardison said, still softly. There was no need to shout. The mouths were silent, like everything else out here, and Murdock’s comm had been muted. No one would hear him scream. The crunch of metal and the destruction of his cargo would only be heard by him.
Rosa felt sick.
They followed formation. A mouth slammed into the side of the ball, trying to scatter them. They folded around it, and when the mouth came through the other side, Anka and Gillen were both gone.
They’d been in the wall for eight minutes.
“Formation six,” Hardison shouted, and they split into two groups as four mouths approached. As hoped, the mouths scattered, and Rosa and the others pulled back into one complete ball without losing any more.
Eight more mouths approached.
The average time a ball spent in the wall was two hours. They lost seven of fifty in the first five minutes. Seventy thousand people. Seven pilots. Seven people Rosa had known personally.
Time blurred, and her hands sweated on the controls. The silence felt deeper, when punctuated by the hard thump of her heart in her ears. How long could a body cope with this level of stress before it gave up?
The edge of the wall inched closer.
“Rosa, on your port,” Yasmin shouted, and she twisted to see one of the three remaining mouths coming at her at speed. There was nothing she could do–no space to maneuver. A shout in her comm precluded Hardison’s ship sailing through ahead of her, knocking into the side of the mouth and spinning it and his ship away.
“Hardison!” Rosa shouted.
The ships were all fitted with escape pods, and they all knew how to pilot them. Elle had known. Stupid, Rosa had always thought. There was no way an escape pod could survive the mouths when a ship hadn’t—and who was going to pick up an escape pod out here anyway? Every second was precious during a Push, if you had time to pick someone who had been unfortunate enough to have a collision you had time to get away.
The small dot that broke away from the larger dot made her heart leap into her mouth.
“Dammit, Hardison,” she muttered.
“Rosa you don’t go after him!” Yasmin shouted into comm. “We’re almost through!”
“Sorry, Yas,” she muttered.
Maneuvering close enough to the pod to pick it up meant flying right in front of a mouth. Rosa was certain she was going to die, certain the whole, silent minute it took to put the ship in the right spot. It took her a few moments to calculate, but Hardison was clever, either through blind luck or extreme skill he’d managed to shoot his escape pod towards the edge of the wall—she didn’t have to go back into the swarm to pick him up. She might have been suicidal—they all had to be at least partially to even do this–but there were limits to what she would do, even for him.
The trip line she sent out connected as she swept past the gaping maw of the final mouth. She could see inside, lights and what she hoped wasn’t the remains of another ship, a dark hole into all the parts of the universe that she’d never wanted to explore. She coaxed a final burst of speed out of the engines, a high pitched whine and a shudder through the controls registering the ship’s protest at her treatment. The mouth was no longer on her screen.
And they were beyond the wall.
Nine ships had survived. A successful Push. Not the best, but a respectable showing, and there were enough of them to break into groups and to go in different directions.
“You were stupid to come after me,” Hardison said.
She shrugged. There was room on the ship for two. Hardison’s escape pod had genetic banks but no other crew members–even so her ship was now the most diverse of the sixteen that had made it through.
“Worth it to save you,” she said. He gave her a smile that made her duck her head and blush, but she kept her voice firm. “Just so you know, this is my ship. I’m the captain.”
Hardison chuckled. “Yeah. Yeah, you are.”
“You got a system chosen?” Yasmin said over comm. “I figured you’ll need a partner ship, since one of you was stupid enough to get yours killed.”
“You’re welcome to tag along,” Rosa said. They didn’t talk about the ones they’d lost. The other ships had peeled off, some with the partners they’d made plans with, others alone. The three of them would go together.
“You still want to find out where they come from, don’t you, Yas?” Rosa said.
There was a silence over comm. “I do,” Yas said eventually.
“Got any ideas on how to do that?” Rosa tried to keep her tone light.
Hardison keyed their statistics and the names of the successful pilots into a radio message and beamed it back towards Earth. They’d have their plaques, and their glory, even if they never came back to see them. Humanity had another small chance. As the message shot off, he looked back up at Rosa and nodded. “It’s as good a plan as any,” he said. “Let’s go.”