Part of 2100 CE.
Even with supplemental personnel from the Civil Service, the hospital was never adequately staffed. Hospital management routinely offered bonuses in pay, extra paid leave, paid meals, and commuter subsidies—anything to motivate staff to volunteer for additional shifts beyond their weekly fifty hours. There was no technical obligation to volunteer; those with children most frequently declined the offers, placing more pressure on those without families to commit. More than once a member of hospital management had made it known that an additional one or two days every pay period was not just encouraged, it was expected.
She had herself initially volunteered for an additional ten hours every month, but ten quickly became thirty, and Julia found herself working three seven-day weeks back-to-back, followed by a six-day week, and only one day off. Every day a patient would vomit on her, a concerned mother would scream at her, a surgeon would make an inappropriate comment, and some junior member of staff would interrupt her lunch or dinner or breakfast—or whatever a meal at midnight was called. At home she would have spent that same time staring at her phone, mindlessly checking social media for the nonsense other people in her friendwork posted for the world to see—and, of course, drinking. She had got into the habit of ingesting until she would pass out and then come to work the next morning in a hungover fog.
She could no longer recall his face.
Tamara caught her sleeping in the overnight quarters instead of going home on more than occasion, and she tolerated it for a while. She warned Julia to scale back on her workload and to take more time for herself. But Julia was a good nurse, driven and competent. She had yet to make any major mistakes, and filling those extra shifts kept hospital management off her back. Then one evening Tamara rounded the corner to the E.R.’s ambulance lobby to find Julia in mismatched pajamas standing at the nurse’s station. The younger nurse claimed to have forgotten to file a report earlier in the day, and so had come down to take care of it. But Tamara recognized the signs of sleep-deprivation—and the vodka on her breath, and at once she required Julia to go on leave.
She was supposed to straighten herself out.
The head nurse had also required her to take on a “buddy,” someone to help pass the time—and make sure she actually got her act together. The way Tamara had talked about it, it would be a fun time, like vacationing with a puppy. Maybe it was the Tito’s, but Julia could remember at the time thinking that it sounded like a good idea.
Her buddy came in the form of a young, especially chirpy junior nurse who probably still slept in her childhood bed, surrounded by pink walls and ponies and dolls as decoration. Hannah Guill had a talent for finding even the most negligible amount of happiness in the world she lived in and through the use of her voice, childlike gestures, and vibrating energy, managed to magnify that inexplicable energy a hundred-fold.
It leant her an extraordinary talent for getting under her skin.
“You look angry,” Hannah’s voice burst into thoughts, a mockingbird outside her window just before her alarm.
“I’m fine.” Julia reached into her pocket. It was all she could do to keep herself from crushing the pack of cigarettes when she found it empty, and instead calmly dropped it in a nearby trashcan. She fumbled with finding her vaporizer pen in her purse and then took a long pull. It was not nearly as satisfying.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” Hannah said, a child reproving a parent.
“I can’t,” Julia responded. She smiled at the younger nurse, white vapor rushing from between her lips and teeth.
Hannah flinched. “Well, at least you can admit that it’s bad for you. Not like Nikki.”
Julia’s smile became genuine, albeit mean-spirited. “Nikki just says that to push your buttons.”
Hannah rolled her eyes.
She was more than just younger, she was also prettier, with sparkling sapphire eyes and ruby-red curly hair. The very fiber of her being resonated with the bliss and innocence of childhood. It was strange how that combination attracted men, like flies to honey, and poor Hannah was usually too mystified or inexperienced to understand their true intentions. More than once military police had been called to escort overeager visitors to the E.R., leaving Hannah a crying mess in Tamara’s office.
“Oh, wow, look at that one!” Hannah shouted, pointing excitedly out at a passing sailboat. With the weather unusually clear, a trek to the boardwalk seemed a good idea, and by the size of the crowd they encountered, others had thought likewise. Julia was uninterested in being around so many people, especially these days. There was none of the sunshine from her childhood, much less the beachgoers in board shorts and sport tops. Cold, damp—gray.
“That is a nice one,” Julia said, perhaps a little more mechanically than she had intended. If one day she ever had children, she would do everything in her power to ensure they were not a Hannah. And if the “buddy” program had taught her anything, it was not to stop drinking at work, but to be more careful not to be caught…
“Do you think we’ll see the warship?”
“I hope so,” Julia said. And the sooner, the better.
While Hannah nattered on about different types of sailboats, Julia let her gaze wander. She traced faint outlines on the distant breakers with eyes, shifting her gaze to follow them as they approached and at last crashed against the concrete shoreline. Gradually her eyes met the line of the guard railing and for no particular reason, her gaze followed it northward. As she looked up the concrete boardwalk in the direction of her place, her mind’s eye superimposed atop the present visions of another time. It was as though she were looking at herself leaning against the railing to peer out across the sandy beach which now lay beneath the waves. She was smiling, her hair catching in the wind and waving. She brushed it from her face and looped it over one ear. She was talking to someone. She was talking to the someone standing next to her—
She stared, unable or unwilling to shift her gaze from the ghostly visage. There she was—and there he was. He was turned away from her, giving her only his back, but it was him, as real as the wind and the waves. And he was saying something. It was indistinct, smothered by the sounds of crowds and the crashing surf.
When was this? Could she even remember what he had said? She strained to hear, but his voice—was it his voice?—was so muffled that just the beating rhythm of her heart in her ears would make it impossible to hear.
Why wouldn’t he turn around? She wanted to see him. He was right there.
But then her younger self shifted uncomfortably and looked over her shoulder, and in that instant Julia locked gaze with her younger self. The younger Julia went rigged. Instead of laughing or talking, she stared back, the gaze dark and vacant. All the mirth and joy left her face, and all at once Julia could feel the stare on her skin and the anger beneath it.
Like finally reaching the surface from the depths of the sea, she inhaled sharply, and everything was as it had been: the boardwalk, the crowds in sweatshirts and jeans, the cold wind, and Hannah staring at her. She was saying something, though it came to Julia as though from a great distance.
And then it was closer.
“Are you okay?”
Julia blinked again, willing the memory to return. But the specter was gone; the pressure of the stare had disappeared. “Yeah. Yes, I’m fine.” She gave Hannah a reassuring smile she did not herself believe. “I’m just tired.”
Hannah looked her over suspiciously. “Are you sure? You totally checked out there for a hot second.”
“I’m fine, really,” Julia said. “It’s just been a long week.”
The younger nurse clearly remained unconvinced, but she nodded anyway. “Okay… If you say so.”
They walked northward, towards the more commercial portion of the boardwalk. The spicy smell of Cajun food wafted towards them, and with it the sound of a small brass band. They were passing through the narrow corridor spanning Atlantic and Pacific avenues of Little New Orleans, a district constating of seven blocks typified by businesses and restaurants meant to recreate the sights and sounds of the Big Easy, and in particular Bourbon Street. Their residents were, at least initially, part of the city’s diaspora, resettling following the city’s final evacuation. Cities like Houston, Birmingham, Athens, and Savannah viewed the displaced as little more than unwelcome refugees, a veritable menace blamed for every new crime, the rise in poverty level, and strains on civic services. By contrast, northern cities saw in that population a relatively inexpensive labor force meant to fill urban areas depopulated by the way, and so the government gladly welcomed them, embracing quaint and kitschy versions of the French Quarter and the Garden District from the Maine coastline to New York and south to Hampton Roads. Of course, the fact that only the more well-to-do of New Orleans could move so far out, while the majority remained unwelcomed refugees by their own government, was conveniently overlooked.
As they approached a stall selling what the keeper reputed to be authentic witch doctor and Voodoo trinkets, a strange hush suddenly came over the crowd, and even the incessant seagulls went silent, all replaced by a deep rumble and the rising whine of jet engines. At first it sounded like just another military flight, there being no less than ten major military bases within ten minutes of the oceanfront, but as she stood listening to the stallkeeper trying to sell her a real life shrunken human skull, she realized that what she was hearing was no normal jet. Instead of growing louder and higher in pitch as it approached, the whine became increasingly overlaid with the low, deep thrumming, like the world’s quietest jumbo jet.
Ignoring the stallkeeper, she turned to look—and felt her breath catch. “Jesus,” she breathed. It was as a big as fucking building!
Far beyond the guard railing, gliding some hundred yards above the waves, the massive white warship cruised slowly through the air. Red and white running lights—like those of an airliner—blinked on and off along its sleek, angular hull. On one of the exterior decks she saw tiny figures of people moving back and forth at their work, indistinct dark silhouettes against such a massive ship. And despite its size, it made very little noise, just that same whine of jet engines and the deep, thrumming rumble as it glided past them.
Next to her, Hannah nodded contentedly. “Four hundred meters in length,” she said, seemingly reading Julia’s thoughts. “It’s bigger than the ocean-going aircraft carriers in the Navy. It’s actually one of the largest ships in the Space Forces fleet!”
The hull was long and narrow, with its front divided into two sections that extended forward beyond the main body, like the front paws of a giant sphinx, while the back flared into a large thruster section. Two pairs of flimsy-looking wings extended at angles from either side of the ship, forming a roughly X pattern, with the lower wings glinting with the waters of splashing breakers. Its hull was painted entirely white but for more small accents in blue, red, and yellow, while its underbelly—its ventral side, Hannah explained—was black from the affixed thermal reentry tiles. She might almost describe it as beautiful or majestic, though in a strange and unsettling sort of way, like something out of an old sci-fi flick.
And it flew.
She blinked again at the sight before her. It was not floating on the ocean, it was actually over the ocean, casting only the slightest bit of downdraft on the water’s surface. The damn thing was flying.
“—aerospace assault carrier,”—Julia realized Hannah had been speaking—“though it’s not really meant for sustained atmospheric flights. It’s really designed for space, though I guess they have to test everything—sheesh.” She smiled at Julia. “I feel stupid, because I totally forgot it was coming back, not going out. They launched from Cape Canaveral and that’s where they landed.”
Julia gave the other nurse an odd look. “Hannah, what are you talking about?”
“The Tijuana,” the younger nurse replied, pointing out at the passing ship. “I know a lot of stuff about the California-class. Like, for example, did you know it was originally called the ‘Sphinx’-class? Also, it’s the first spaceship of its kind, capable of atmospheric flight—or hovering, I guess. It’s because of the ACS, the Atmospheric Craft System. It was developed by a professor at MIT, Dr. Minov—”
“Hannah, how do you know all this?”
The younger nurse gave her a blank expression. “I majored in Physics.”
“Also, my dad is on the Board of Directors at Newport News Shipbuilding.”
Out over the waves, the ship was passing them, showing them its stern with extinguished thrusters like those from a rocket. It moved with a smooth, calculated grace unnerving for something of its size—like some sort of monstrous seabird.
A few minutes later, they could hardly hear its unseen atmospheric thrusters and soon nothing at all as its gleaming white hull disappeared into the low-lying fog.
Hannah was grinning from ear to ear. “With these new ships, we’ll soon see an end to the war!” she announced proudly to anyone listening. “And then everyone can come home.”
In the distance Julia could just make out the ship’s running lights blinking through the haze. She sighed. “I hope so.”