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"Last round. What constellation does that one look like?" Alaric Wynn asked, pointing up at a string of stars beyond the glass dome of the arboretum. Enara stirred. Alaric had ten points to her nine, which was a miracle since she didn't name constellations by naked eye. Her telecom identified them in seconds, so she never saw the point in trying. Except when Alaric insisted on playing Stellar.
Enara framed her hands around the constellation, trying to see what it could be. "Grus, I think?" She guessed. When met with silence, Enara turned toward Alaric lying on his back next to her. Short blades of grass covered parts of his grin.
Enara groaned, covering her face with both hands. "I'm wrong, aren't I?"
Alaric chuckled. "Very wrong. Grus has eight stars while this one only has five." He said, gesturing to the constellation.
"Well, are you going to tell me the name?" Enara said playfully. "Or is my telecom going to?" She reached in slow motion for it on her wrist.
"Don't you dare!" Alaric said, grabbing her hand. Enara smiled and moved her hand back to her side, but Alaric kept his hand resting on it. She looked expectantly at him.
"I will tell you, but only if you admit I won our game." She rolled her eyes. Enara loathed losing; less so when she lost to him, but still. Stellar was the one game he was consistent in beating her at. Which wasn't why he chose it often; Alaric just loved astronomy.
"Fine. You are the Stellar champion." Enara grumbled, suppressing a smile. Alaric smirked, his different colored eyes shimmering in the starlight.
"Thank you, that's all I needed to hear." He looked back up at the stars. His hand shifted below hers and their fingers intertwined. "It's Cassiopeia."
Enara stared up at the bright constellation through the glass, the stars connecting in her mind as a crooked L. "Damn. I can't believe I didn't see it!"
"It's okay, you'll beat me next time." Alaric said with a light squeeze of her hand. Enara frowned. There probably wouldn't be a next time, but he didn't know that yet. Even if there was, she wouldn't win. He spent too much time in her lab reading about astronomy. He might as well, since Enara wasn't allowed to take him out of his room unless a test was being run. The Adrastus Station was strict; one slip up could mean getting fired.
Enara stayed silent and closed her eyes as she breathed in the scent of the daisies. In quiet moments like this she could hear the hum of the lamps warming the plants.
After a moment, Alaric looked over at her, then back up at the sky. "Even if you don't win, you have your revolutionary project."
Enara snorted. "You don't even know what I'm working on."
"No, but I'm sure it is, even if you don't tell me. You're quite secretive, you know." Alaric said.
"I know." Her thumb brushed over his in a soothing motion. They stayed silent for a moment. She studied the infinite expanse of space above them. The stars surrounding Earth wink at Enara as they glow shades of reds, blues, and purples. Next to them, Earth looked drab in comparison.
Her telecom flashed blue. The test was done. She had an hour left till she found out the results. Pass or fail, either way, she felt like a failure.
"Would you like to hear what I'm working on?" Enara asked. Alaric turned quickly to look at her.
"I thought it was classified?" He searched her dark eyes for a joke or sarcasm.
Enara turned onto her belly and propped herself up on her elbows, her hand still tangled in his. She looked down at him and said, "Only some of it, but I can tell you a little. I also need something from you."
"And that is?" Alaric asked in a drawn out way, looking down at their clasped hands resting on his chest. Enara swallowed hard. She gazed into the mirror doors, fixating on her reflection; unable to look at him. She hoped the people watching them could feel the heat of her gaze. Even now that it was done she was sure they were still watching her.
"Advice." She said in a hushed voice. Alaric stared up at her with an eyebrow raised. "About the project." She finished. His face schooled itself into neutrality.
"I'm all ears. Tell me about your mysterious project, Dr. Kayne." Alaric said, tucking a loose strand of pitch black hair behind her ear.
"I have this project. I've been working on it for three years and it's almost done. It has to pass this last test today--"
"Wait, what's the test?" Alaric asked.
Enara clenched her teeth. "It's complicated..." He gave her a confused look.
"Anyway, I don't know if I want it to pass. I'm not ready to share it with the world."
"Then why not keep it?" He asked, searching her eyes like he was trying to find a constellation in them. She avoided his searing gaze.
"Well, I kinda want it to pass so it can help people."
"Enara, I don't care if it helps people. If you're not ready then keep it. It's your project." She let out a sad laugh. He didn't get it.
"I can't do that. I'd never get to work on another project again. Besides, it would be selfish. If it passes, I have to let Earth benefit from it." She said, gazing at the grass.
"Look at me please," Alaric said. Enara met his eyes. "You owe Earth nothing. What you've created is yours. Don't sell yourself out to them just because you think they deserve it."
Enara remained silent and he sighed. They had reached a stalemate.
"Alaric, it also means that if it passes we won't be able to stargaze anymore."
Alaric stiffened and dropped the hand he was clasping. He scrambled to sit up. He looked as if Enara slapped him. "Why?" In the three years she had known Alaric, this was the most upset she had ever seen him. Enara sat up to look him in the eyes.
"Because if this passes we will both have more duties outside of the lab. You will forget me and who knows if we will see each other again." Enara said in a pained voice.
Enara watched Alaric as he took her hand and pressed it against his chest. "Do you feel that, Enara?" A steady heartbeat thumped against her hand. Her heartbeat synchronized with his. She nodded.
"I'm here and I'm not going to forget you. We will find a way to keep doing this." Alaric said. Enara smiled sadly as she removed her hand. He brings his hand onto her brown cheek. His blue and green eyes looked deep into her, waiting for something. Enara stared back, paralyzed by the moment. Alaric leans forward, inches from her face. The air was taken out of Enara's lungs. She closed her eyes.
"No, we won't. I'm sorry Alaric, but you have so much good to do." His face fell as understanding pierced his wonderful eyes. The eyes she spent weeks making for him. Her colleagues thought making them different colors was a bit robotic, but she wanted him to be special.
A tear fell from his blue eye. Alaric recoiled, and she suspected he might run. Previous models had tried but he didn't. He sat there, staring right through her; his hand still on her cheek. Enara swallowed. He's not real, she reminded herself. But he felt real to her.
"Model A2WN, please enter rest mode." Enara said, her voice shaking. The light went out of his eyes. His face relaxed. She pressed his pale hand to her cheek one more time, then placed it back in his lap. Enara stood up on shaky legs. She left him sitting there, knowing one of her colleagues would come to collect him. Enara marched to the mirrored doors, never looking back. Her telecom rang with one message: Test 1648 status- A2WN passed as human; no AI detected. The next phase may begin.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 28th, 2022

Author Comments

"Stellar" first came to me as an image of a boy and a girl lying in a field. I felt like these two had a bond and one was harboring a secret. This later developed into my first Sci-Fi flash fiction story. I was nervous about writing this because I've never written Sci-Fi. But I realized that this story was about their relationship and the Sci-Fi elements were to add context. I think that's what made me like this story. There is a lot going on yet it focuses on these characters who care about each other.

I wrote the first draft of "Stellar" on a flight. In the first draft it was too long and the Sci-Fi overshadowed their relationship so I cut a lot from it. One of the many things that didn't make it into the final cut was details about what Enara and The Adrastus Station plan to use Alaric for.

- Charlotte Edwards
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