Sage relished the last moments of peace before the chaos began. She returned everyone's smiles, happy to have earned extra supplies for the people of her home ship. But the more she had to see the smiles of her friends, the less genuine she became. The problem she couldn't get over was that the upcoming journey would require her to leave everyone behind.
She wanted to avoid the idea of saying goodbye. She feared being alone. She dreaded how her duties as fleet Champion would change her life. That was, if she was to be Champion of Empyrea. She was one of two selectees, but the comfort of thinking she could escape selection was over.
There was no place to hide in the ship's small, metal gymnasium, with only enough space to house a volleyball court and a few rows of benches on one side. The air was thick with the scent of worn-out shoes, old benches, and sweat. Though small for a gym, it was a rarity of space for the factory skyship Solvang, where most corridors and rooms were cramped. Only warehouses and tractor causeways were spacious. The Solvang was also a rarity among the civilian ships, in that it had a large enough population to sustain an athletic program. Other factory ships gave up their gyms to use as extra warehouses.
Sage considered the possibility of fleeing the room, since she was the first player to come in for a meeting with her coach. But she summoned the courage to stand in place, stare out at the scratched and rusted metal walls, and make desperate attempts to calm her breaths.
Every time she thought of something to say to each of her friends, memories welled up and she went into a small panic. The echo of each tiny sound was of little help when it forced her to hear how panicked her breaths had become.
"I'm terrified I'll never see my friends again." Sage was surprised by her admission, but also comforted by venting the thought. The slight echo in the room helped solidify her acceptance of the words.
Coach Whitney huffed and nodded a few feet away, the only other person in the gym who waited for the team to arrive for a meeting. The lean, athletic woman patted Sage on the back, then closed her eyes and pressed a fist up to her mouth to cover her saddened expression. Her auburn, short-cropped hair would have allowed her entire face to be seen otherwise. She wore a gray blouse and pants, the same as Sage, and almost everyone else on the ship.
Sage fought against a storm of emotions when she looked at her coach. There was a seven-year age difference between the two, but Whitney had played with the only other Champion to have come from their ship. If anyone knew what was in store for her friends, it would be the coach. She wanted to comfort the twenty-three-year-old woman beside her, but felt like it would seem disrespectful to try. So she stood in place and listened to the mild background hum of the skyship's flight engines.
Whitney blinked away her tears and sighed. "Promise me you'll make it back. Don't do to your team what Forty-Five did to mine."
Sage tapped her feet on the floor's rusted metal panels. It hurt to think of the former Champion, a girl who could've grown into a strong factory worker, as nothing but a season number. But she knew how much pain Whitney went through to even think about her. "The Void took Heidi. It won't take me."
Together, the coach and team captain turned their attention to a plaque over the gymnasium doors. The plaque featured a faded photograph of a brunette girl at the prime of her life, a picture taken on one of the last color sheets of film in the fleet. It was the only portrait of the girl, as even her parents had been unable to afford to have a print made from the negative. A brass plate under the picture identified her as Heidi Paris, Champion, Season XLV. Everyone revered Heidi for her accomplishment, for being a daughter of workers, not a daughter of soldiers, who was chosen to go to the Void.
Whitney looked away from the picture and brought her free hand up to hide more of her face. Her voice became a hiss when she spoke. "Empyrea's traditions killed Forty-Five. The tyrants feed girls like you to the nightmares in order to keep the fleet alive." Whitney was low-key about her beliefs, but everyone knew she, her husband, and her father-in-law were the biggest dissidents on the ship. She hated the military dictatorship that held dominion over the entire Empyrean Fleet. "They should send down actual soldiers." She narrowed her eyes. "Their claims of needing seasonal Champions are hollow excuses to keep us from rebelling."
"Someone has to rise up as the people's Champion and save humanity." Sage shivered at the idea. "I never dreamed it would be my turn." She considered the burden of having all quarter-million people depending on her. "But whatever happens to me—"
"Don't talk like that." Whitney slammed her hands on her hips and gave Sage a solemn look. "Only consider your return. Dying down in the Void isn't an option. Make hope glow in your heart and use it as a beacon against the nightmares."
The team captain exchanged a long and painful stare with her coach. Both fought tears. Sage wondered if Whitney was as happy as her that no one else was in the gymnasium. Not that there was much of a chance of random passersby. All the adults were too busy with work and the ship's security ignored safe areas like the classrooms and gym. That meant only other members of the volleyball team might intrude. Which was why Whitney and Sage met early.
"Is your father-in-law going to conduct the ceremony?" Sage's throat tightened with dread.
Whitney shook her head. "Captain Hale isn't a monster." She pulled a bundle of red fabric from her pants pocket. "I told him this should be a small, private ceremony. No audience. No mixture of applause and gasps echoing around us." She extended her hand with the palm-sized bundle. "He agreed. And my being his daughter-in-law had nothing to do with it." Her mouth tensed for a moment. "I think you should see it before the team. To take away the burden of having all their eyes upon you. I know you'll agree."
Sage nodded and stared at the fabric bundle. She was grateful to escape the pressure of having her friends present for the moment of reckoning. She was free of any possible judgment of her reaction to the league judges' decision. However, she wanted the support of her friends.
Whitney took a deep breath and tensed her jaw before she began. "Sage Mustang, your diligent leadership and cunning use of unconventional tactics brought the Earthquakes to a league win. It's my great honor, as ship's representative of the H.D.S. Solvang, to deliver this judgment from the Empyrean Volleyball League."
Sage reached out for the bundle and forced herself to wrap her fingers around it. The bundle was just fabric with a coin inside, but it felt heavy to Sage, as if it was a lead brick.
"Go on," Whitney said. She tilted her chin in support and pushed up with her palm. "You led your team to a season victory. You defeated swarms of military brats to get here, to this moment. Don't let this package defeat you. It's just a disc made of worthless gold."
Sage clutched the bundle and brought it up to her chest in both hands. The sensation that it was a lead brick swept away, and she knew it was only a piece of metal. She recalled her parents and her grandmother telling stories of a time before the Cataclysm, when gold was considered valuable.
Sage quelled trembles that threatened to rattle her hands. "Is it too late to forfeit the tie?" She thought of the other girl up for selection, a fierce soldier's daughter who Sage remembered most for baring her teeth during every play.
Whitney's eyes glistened as she reviewed her team captain. "That would mean dumping the burden on, what was her name, Cassia, right? If you had the power to seal her fate in order to protect yourself, would you?"
Sage pulled the bundle closer to her chest, until her fingertips pressed against her tattered gray blouse and she could feel her racing heartbeat. She closed her eyes and recalled moments of Cassia snarling on the volleyball court. "To be honest, if I was given that ability." Sage's heart raced faster and her breath stuttered at her decision. "If the judging council gave me the ability to choose." She opened her eyes and had to blink away the tears.
"The whole team knows what you'd say." Whitney put a hand on Sage's shoulder. "You'd select yourself to go down to the Void, to allow Cassia to live the rest of her life among her friends." She made an expression that was half-grin, half-wince. "You're too kind for your own good."
Sage pressed the bundle harder against herself. She took a long moment to collect her thoughts. "Maybe fate won't play out the way I'd want it. Maybe I get to be Reserve Champion." Her mind quaked at the thought, of entering the same training regiment as the Champion, only to sit on a bench and wait as a substitute for word of the Champion's death.
"You're the most honorable young woman I've ever met." Whitney squeezed the hand on Sage's shoulder. "Every time I look at you, I see the greatness of our people. No matter what that coin shows you, you'll always be remembered for your greatness by the populace of the Solvang."
"Thank you." Sage's gratitude was muffled as she rushed forth to hug her coach. They embraced until both of their panicked breaths calmed. "Coach, this isn't the end."
Whitney broke away and hid a sob with her fist. "You're right, this is the beginning for you. There's no reason to be afraid."
Sage brought the bundle before herself in both hands and examined the fancy, red fabric. The high thread-count and soft feel were unlike any of the worn-out fabric on the Solvang. It became the most valuable belonging she owned. She might be able to trade it for an expensive meal for her family. Fried fish seemed like a wonderful final dinner to have with her parents and grandmother.
The importance of family rushed through Sage's mind. She wished they didn't have to work late into the night. There was no way to have them present when she opened the bundle, even though it was them she most wanted present for the moment.
Sage perked up from her thoughts. "Can you call in a favor with Captain Hale? If my portrait ends up on the wall next to Heidi, please get a copy of the picture for my grandmother. The only pictures she has are from Earth, when my father was little. It would mean so much to her to have my picture."
"Consider it done." Whitney motioned for her team captain to open the bundle. "Stop delaying. Do you really want your friends to show up and witness this moment?"
Sage pulled the edges of the fancy fabric. The folds came undone in a simple pattern of square and triangle creases that draped over her hands. A gold disc was in the center and shimmered under the gymnasium lights. Letters were stamped into the disc so that it made an unmistakable declaration to Sage: CHAMPION, SEASON LXXII.
Sage's heart raced and her knees shook. Her hands trembled enough to risk dropping the coin. She quelled a scream, fought off the need to sob, then stuffed the coin and red fabric in her pocket. She didn't want anyone else to see the proof that the league judges had sent.
Whitney rubbed her hands across her face. "I'm so sorry." Her voice was hoarse with dread. "This isn't right. You, of all people, don't deserve this. It isn't right for them to send you to the Void!"
"I'll have a month to train for my ordeal." Sage peered at the gymnasium door. The room felt alien with her new perspective, but at the same time comfortable without extra people around. "They'll teach me to use a sword and a gun." She let out a nervous chuckle at the idea of using weaponry. "They'll guide me in controlling my fears. The Void won't have anything to use against me."
"That's what Forty-Five thought." Whitney's expression was bitter. "Do you know how she died?"
Sage nodded. "She protected an extraction shuttle from a swarm of voidforms. Her actions saved the shuttle, and all of the Empyrean Fleet. It's why she's a hero." Her skin crawled at the idea of voidforms, shape-shifting monsters that existed only to kill. The very things she was going to face. She, not Cassia.
"A sweet lie." Whitney's bitter expression worsened as she shook her head. A tear rolled down her right cheek and she brought her fists back up to block her face. "She brought her orb to an extraction shuttle. But that Void energy is pure evil. She left her hand on it for a split second too long. The shuttle pilot watched as she was incinerated on the spot."
"I'll take that as a lesson." Sage fought against rapid breaths. It was bad enough the Void had the ability to turn fears into physical threats, but the deadliest encounter she would face was going to be with the aethergen orb. The very thing she would be tasked with collecting as Champion. "No holding or pushing that orb. I'll only strike it."
"See that you do." Whitney coughed to collect herself. She slowly put her hands at her side. "At least you have youth working in your favor. You're a few months younger than Forty-Five was, so maybe it's true that you'll have less fears built up in that head of yours."
Fears were a driving force in the Void. If someone was afraid of machines, the Void and its voidforms would become deadly machinery. If a person had a phobia of spiders, the voidforms would become colossal arachnids. If an individual was scared of dragons, the shapeshifting Void would manifest those otherwise mythical creatures. It's why Sage would be sent alone, to face the fears of a single person, rather than the collected worst fears of a whole squad. She made a mental review of the things that scared her.
Sage's breath went irregular for a moment. "I haven't shared this with anyone, but being alone is my greatest fear."
Whitney allowed the hint of a smile to form on her lips. "If that's the case, the Void will be wide open. No monsters. Just a big, empty path for our monophobic Champion." She smiled and patted Sage on the back. But it was obvious her smile was as fake as the one Sage returned.
Sage made several attempts to talk, but had to calm her fast breaths to do so. "I'm going to be alone on this journey," she said at last. "I'm going to be down there with no one at my side. Even if there aren't monsters, there will only be me. It'll be the worst time of my life."
Whitney's face went deadpan. "But it won't be the end of your life."
The hinges on the gymnasium's double doors creaked as they opened for a lone figure to walk in on the coach and team captain. She wore gray and was the same height and lithe build as Sage, but her skin was dark bronze and her black hair was worn in a shoulder-length bob. Her face was serious, but her large, brown eyes were friendly and supportive as she locked her gaze on Sage.
Whitney put her arms akimbo. "Adriana, can you wait outside a few minutes?"
The girl rushed past the coach and right to Sage, fixated on her team captain the entire time. "You did this without us, didn't you?" She wrapped her arms around Sage and cradled the captain's face against her shoulder. "You're going to be okay."
Sage always felt embarrassed on the rare times that Adriana went into surrogate big sister mode with her. Adriana was the oldest member of the team, and acted like a protector among them.
Sage accepted the gesture of kindness. "But you don't know what the coin said."
"I don't need to see that coin." Adriana wrapped her arms more tightly around Sage. "I saw your face. That told me exactly what I need to know."
"You're crushing me." Sage wheezed for a moment after being released. She grinned in a genuine show of gratitude, but only for a split second. She was no longer alone with her coach, and word would get out. From that moment onward, she would need to wear a hero facade. Everyone would be watching her and passing judgment. Could she act like a Champion? Sound like one? Look like one?
Adriana gazed at her friend. "Champion Sage Mustang. How does it feel?"
"It wasn't so bad when Coach Whitney and I were joking about monophobia." Sage returned Adriana's gaze. "But now that you know, and now that I know all three-thousand people on the ship are going to know?" She patted her own chest. "It's like I'm being crushed so much that time's crawling to a standstill. I can feel each heartbeat about to explode. Every breath is like a wave crashing through me."
"You can make the announcement," Whitney said to Sage. "You can choose the words. I won't interfere with the way you want to let this out to the people you care about."
Sage shook and huffed in panic.
Adriana's face softened to show her concern. "It's not something you absorb and recite to your friends in an instant. 'Hey everyone, I'm being sent on a deadly ordeal for the good of humanity. So long and thanks for the cheers.' No, you need to escape, don't you? You need to find a quiet place to take this in."
"Sage, you can't run away and hide from this." Whitney's face was stern. "You have little more than twenty-four hours until soldiers from the Columbia come to take you to your training. You need to spend these precious hours saying goodbye. Not hiding somewhere."
Adriana folded her arms and cast a furious glare at her coach. "Respectfully, Whitney, you're wrong." She snapped her focus to her friend. "Sage, find a way to take this in. But do it in your own way. If you need to reflect somewhere peaceful, so be it. If you decide you want to remain here and talk to all of us at once, we'll support you. Which would you rather do?"
Whitney put a fist against her face to hide her trembling mouth. Adriana blinked to keep the tears away.
Sage spun toward the doors and rushed out of the gym.