Five months after I graduated from jump pilot's training, I finally caught a break.
"You still looking for a job, Halani?" my friend Annessa asked me over lunch.
I nodded. "Everyone wants to be a jump pilot these days," I said. "Most of them aren't willing to spend three years going through the training, but enough of them are that it's hard to find a job. I can live off my citizen's stipend, but if I wanted to do that I'd have skipped all the extra school, you know?"
Annessa smiled sympathetically. "I didn't really have any trouble, but I guess I did score a little better on the practicals," she said. "Anyways, apparently Kaleia quit her position at Medirunners, and they're hoping to fill it as soon as they can so the Gliese route doesn't get backed up."
"Kaleia?" I asked. "Like, Kaleia from gardening club?"
"Yeah, her," Annessa said. "Why, is something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, exactly, I'm just surprised," I said. "Kaleia loved jump training, even the boring seven-dimensional geometry parts." Privately, I had also enjoyed the geometry parts, but I didn't really want to lord that fact over Annessa. "Anyways, I'm sure everything is fine."
Annessa shrugged. "Well, she didn't tell me why."
I sent in an application to Medirunners, and had an acceptance in hand less than a standard day later. Apparently Annessa had been serious when she said they wanted to fill it as soon as she could.
I was scared, at first, that Kaleia had quit for a reason, but my coworkers seemed fine, and I made my first run without incident. Still, that only made it weirder that Kaleia had left. A month into the position, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I sent Kaleia a message asking if she wanted to meet up the next time I had a day off.
Less than ten minutes later I had a reply. Yes, of course. There's actually something I wanted to talk to you about.
Kaleia and I met in the Northcoast Botanical Gardens. She looked almost exactly like I'd last seen her, wearing one of her signature red cardigans, with her hair pulled back in long braids. The only thing that had changed was her expression, which had an edge to it now, a stark contrast to the wide-eyed twenty-year-old I'd met in jump pilot's training.
"I heard you quit your job," I said.
Kaleia nodded. Without giving her a chance to elaborate, I kept going. "Why? I thought you wanted to be a pilot. What changed?"
"I wanted to be able to actually make a difference in the world," she said.
"That makes no sense," I said. "You were working at Medirunners before. Unless you're going to tell me that the thing where we bring people to different planets for medical treatment is a front, and we're actually smuggling weapons, or something."
"No!" Kaleia said. "No. Uh, it's just, lots of people want to be jump pilots. It's important, obviously, and I'd do it in a heartbeat if there wasn't anyone else to, but if I don't do it, someone else from our class will -- I heard you got the job?"
"Yeah," I said. "And I don't think I was even the only one from our year who applied."
"Exactly," said Kaleia. She paused underneath an archway with morning glories winding around it. "You remember when the gardening club tried to join the city garden contest, right?"
I giggled. "Yeah, it was a total disaster. Half the club decided to just focus on building a nice water feature, since that was a quarter of the score for some reason..."
"Exactly," said Kaleia. "It was obviously important that we do it well, but we didn't need more than a few people actually doing it."
I nodded. It sort of made sense, that if everyone wanted to be a jump pilot, it wouldn't help the world as much for her to be one as well. "That's great and all, but what do you actually do?" I asked.
"I'm a jump safety tech," she said. "Researching how to make jump drives safer. It's great, lots of seven-dimensional geometry, and most of the people who are qualified don't want to do it, it's not exciting enough."
"Jumps aren't that dangerous," I said. "Less than one in a hundred die on the job each year."
"Yeah, and multiply that by everyone piloting and you have a big problem," she said.
I frowned. "I guess? But that only matters if you can actually do anything about it, right? If you can't do anything fix it, you're just wasting your time."
Kaleia smiled slightly. "Maybe. But thirty years ago it was one in fifty, and it's getting lower every year. I don't think it's totally intractable. I'm working on fixing the issue where sometimes the destination seeker breaks and the ships intersect with objects, and I think I've got a pretty good angle on figuring out how to fix it -- that one's responsible for about five percent of jump pilot deaths." She paused for a moment, as if she were considering something. "You know, we're always hiring. I remember you were good at geometry, in school."
I thought about it, for a moment. It did sound interesting, but it all seemed so abstract, and besides, being a jump pilot had great job security. Plus, I could actually see the people I was helping; they weren't just statistics for a star-brained twenty-three-year-old to rattle off.
"I don't know," I said. "It all seems so abstract to me."
She dropped the subject, after that, but I could tell she was disappointed, and we made our way back to the entrance of the garden in silence.
"Jumping in ten," I said, bracing myself for the trip back to my home planet. The ship's computer beeped loudly, as though it was echoing me, even though I knew rationally it was just on a timer. "Nine, eight..."
As the countdown hit zero, we lifted off. The jumps themselves are instantaneous. It's the prep work that's difficult, but I had triple-checked my calculations, like always.
Pain tore through the left side of my body as we landed at the other side of the jump. I looked over to see something jutting out from it, near my stomach. My copilot gasped audibly, then started fiddling with the controls on our ship.
I don't remember what happened next. According to the copilot, I blacked out before he could properly land. Jumps are point-to-point, and there's no reason the point can't be five feet off the ground, but presumably it had taken them some time for me to get to a hospital.
"--pretty sure you jinxed it," someone said. "Seriously, of all the examples to pick..."
I blinked, forcing my eyes open. Two people were sitting on the other side of the room from me. I blinked again, trying to bring them into focus, and eventually made out the faces of Annessa and -- Kaleia.
"Okay, Annessa was my roommate, I probably forgot to take her off the authorization list," I said. "But how are you here?"
"I can go, if you want," said Kaleia, trying to enunciate her words clearly.
I shook my head, as much as I could, which wasn't very much. "Don't want you to go. I'm just confused."
"You added everyone from gardening club after the incident with the trowels," Annessa said briskly. "Are you alright, Halani?"
"I mean, I'm in the hospital," I said. "So not really. But at least I'm not dead, right?" I glanced at Kaleia.
Kaleia didn't say anything, just nodded.
I considered asking her right then if the place where she worked was still hiring, but I was pretty sure changing careers while in the hospital was a bad idea. Still, everything felt so much realer now. I could have died, and one in a hundred jump pilots did, each year. With how many of us there were on each planet, and how many planets ... well, math had always been one of my stronger subjects.
Still, when I'd finally been released from the hospital, and I'd had the chance to actually think about what she'd been saying, it made a lot of sense. I wrote out several drafts of a message asking if her company was hiring.
She replied almost instantly. Yes. Always.