"Beautiful view, isn't it?"
Daria looked up, a slight frown momentarily crossing her brow. "I'm sorry?" she said.
"This view," a tall, muscular looking woman wearing baggy cargo pants and a muted yellow shirt stood next to her, "It's been a while since I last saw it." She gestured at an empty seat at the windowside counter, next to Daria. "Do you mind if I sit here?"
"Oh, sure, go ahead," Daria glanced around the diner. Busy but not crowded. She looked back to the window, "I'm sorry, I was miles away."
On the other side of the thick plexiglass window was the vacuum of space. Below, Earth rolled past, with small wisps of white cloud scattered across the islands of the Caribbean and the blue of the sea.
"I know that feeling," the woman laughed, "miles away is how I spend most of my time." She dropped a weighty looking bag on the floor under the counter, before climbing onto the stool and picking up a small flatscreen menu.
"You're a spacer?" Daria asked.
She nodded and grinned. "Reiko Ishikawa. First engineer aboard the Whispering Nautilus. At your service!"
"Daria. Daria Vlasova. And I'm," she paused, "no one important." She smiled faintly, watching Haiti roll past below. "I like your ship's name."
"It always makes me smile," Reiko tapped on the flatscreen. Switching the language to Japanese, she flicked through the menu. "Anything you you'd recommend here?"
Daria looked down at the empty teacup in front of her and tapped a couple of buttons on her flatscreen to order some more. "Depends what you like," she said. "The tonkotsu ramen here is really good. Also the maple dumplings. And sometimes they have fresh mango."
"Oh mango! Do you have any idea how long it is since I last had mango?"
"It's hard to find. The trees need the right growing conditions," Reiko said, flicking through the menu, "not easy in a dome city. Harder in orbit. Ah, here it is!"
Daria looked up to see her Reiko's face light up with glee, tapping the buttons to order something. She had a square jaw and thick eyebrows. A red scarf was tied around her neck, with a couple of scorch marks on it. A cook placed a cup of black lapsang souchong tea on the counter in front of Daria, interrupting her thoughts. “Spasibo,” she said quietly. The cook smiled briefly, before hurrying away.
"I like being out in the black, but it's always good to come home," Reiko said, putting her flatscreen down.
"Where have you been?" Daria asked, watching a swirling tropical storm above the Atlantic ocean.
"All across the Solar System," Reiko said, resting her chin on her knuckles.
"I wish I could visit the planets," Daria said quietly.
The both sat in silence awhile, watching Earth's surface darken as night fell on the planet below. Daria took her teacup in her pale hands and inhaled the smoky aroma, sipping it gently, enjoying the savoury flavour of it.
"So why did you say that before?" Reiko asked finally. "That you're no one important?"
Daria hesitated, nervously twirling a strand of her curly, brown hair between her fingers, "I err," she faltered, "I just mean..."
Reiko leaned over slightly closer. "Because let me tell you," she continued, "I've travelled billions of kilometres, and I've never met a single person who wasn't important."
A smile broke across Daria's lips. "That's really nice of you to say," she met Reiko's dark brown eyes briefly, before looking away. "I just don't feel like I have much to offer."
"Well, aside from your lovely personality," Reiko flashed her a grin, "you must have a few things you're good at, surely."
"I do enjoy cooking, and people tell me I'm good at that," Daria nodded. "And I'm good with numbers."
"I studied maths," Daria said, watching Earth's night underneath them, seeing the coast of Morocco approach, marked by city lights. "I used to enjoy it too. Numbers are simple. Ask the same question ten times, and numbers will give you ten identical answers."
"You see?" Reiko grinned, "those are useful things to be good at!"
Daria couldn't help but smile at the enthusiasm.
"So if you want to see the planets, why don't you? I'm pretty sure you could if you put your mind to it."
"I," Daria bit her lip. "I just can't."
Reiko opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a chef placing a plate down in front of her, together with a hot towel which she quickly cleaned her hands with. Khao neow mamuang, a Thai pudding made with sticky rice and coconut milk with some juicy looking slices of fresh mango. She exchanged a few quick words in Japanese with the chef, and he laughed before walking back towards the kitchen.
Daria looked over at the plate. It did look good, and it was so fragrant too. She was briefly tempted to order some herself.
"This is amazing!" Reiko said with a grin, picking up a piece of mango with her fingers and biting into it. "Mmmmm! Oh, I missed this so much."
Daria smiled and sipped her tea. "Maybe you could take a few mangoes with you when you go."
Reiko paused for a moment, picking up a spoon to eat her rice. "Yeah, but they wouldn't last. They never do."
"I guess you have to make the most of things before they're gone, right?"
"True, true," Reiko said, between mouthfuls. "But," a pause, "if I lived here, I could have this often!"
"Well, that's–" Daria drew in a sharp breath, as she was interrupted by a buzz from her pocket. She pulled out a phone hurriedly, and looked at it. Not a message. She let out the breath she'd been holding and put the phone away.
Reiko raised an eyebrow. "Everything ok?"
"No. I mean, yes. I mean," Daria took a deep, slow breath. "It's fine. Don't worry."
Reiko looked slowly at the phone, and then back at Daria, studying her face for a moment. "I know that look," she said.
"The one you had on your face when you checked your phone. Everything's not really ok is it?"
Daria reached for her teacup, her hand trembling slightly, but it was empty. She wrestled with words in her head, but couldn't find the right ones.
"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to," Reiko said quietly, "but if you–"
"I have to stay because of him," Daria interrupted, a little too loud, shoving her phone away, across the counter. "Because he won't let me travel anywhere." She breathed a heavy sigh. "Or do anything."
Reiko was silent for a moment, putting her spoon down on the now empty plate and pushing it to one side. "Maybe you should do it anyway," she said, conspiratorially.
Daria looked up, her heart beating a little faster. She said nothing.
"I don't know who this guy is," Reiko said, "but I know how you feel. I've been in your situation."
Daria nervously played with her empty teacup, looking at Reiko questioningly, but staying quiet.
"It was a long time ago," Reiko said wistfully, watching the city lights of Egypt pass by underneath them. "I was a student, living on Mars, studying hard to be an engineer. It should've been easy for me, but," she trailed off.
"But the woman I was living with seemed to do her best to make my life difficult. I started to feel like I wasn't worth anything. My studies began to slip. I realised I needed to get out."
"So what did you do?"
Reiko looked Daria square in the face. "One day, I left her. I got on a spaceship and went. Never looked back."
Daria stared, open mouthed. "Just like that?"
"Well," Reiko said, "it wasn't a snap decision. I took a lot of time to consider. Eventually, I realised how many nights I'd spent lying awake, just wishing I could fly away. I knew then that it was what I really wanted. You know?"
Daria nodded, her heart still racing. She knew. She definitely knew. "So what happened?" she asked.
"Well, I started going to the bars near the spaceport. And a few diners. A little like this one, actually, except on Mars." She grinned. "The view there was a different colour."
Outside, an orange light began to shine through Earth's atmosphere. Dawn was breaking, and the first rays of sun were catching the peaks of the Himalayas. Daria took a second to admire the view, smiling nervously.
"Eventually, I met someone who needed an apprentice engineer. So I signed up. Two days later, I was on a cargo ship taking a freight delivery to Ganymede."
"But," Daria frowned, "your studies?"
"Finished them remotely," Reiko said, matter-of-factly. "And did better than I would have stuck on Mars. Direct experience with a working spacecraft and much less emotional stress did wonders for me. I also got a lot healthier, physically and mentally."
Daria looked down, watching the morning light over the plains of Tibet. Worry still creased her brow. Her mind was reeling with thoughts.
"You know," Reiko said, not taking her eyes away from the same view of the Earth below. "My captain's being talking recently about taking on an apprentice navigator, and we have accommodation on the Nautilus. You mentioned you were good with numbers, right?"
Daria bit her lip. Eventually she breathed a heavy sigh. "Look, as much as I love the idea, I just–"
"Can't." Reiko finished. "I understand. Our ship's going to be docked here until tomorrow morning. Then they'll be going to Saturn. And that's a view worth seeing too."
"You said 'they' will."
"Oh," Reiko looked back out of the window, "yeah, I've been talking about taking time out from the crew for a while now. I'd packed a few things but I was still undecided. Until I came here and enjoyed this delicious mango. Now I think I might go down to Earth and visit some family of mine. Next time the Nautilus is in orbit, maybe I'll see how I feel."
"So for now, the Nautilus will be a crew member short," Daria said softly.
"Like I said," Reiko shrugged, "they'll be breaking orbit tomorrow. Anyway, I should go. I need to finish packing."
Daria sat back, looking at the morning light glinting off the South China sea as it rolled slowly into view. As she did so, Reiko stood, lifted her bag back onto one of her broad shoulders and turned towards the door.
"Wait," Daria said sharply. "If I decided," she hesitated, "If I wanted to go, what would that involve? How does it all work?"
"All crew members get as much food as they need from the farm section, and have a lot of free time between dockings. Anything that gets earned from cargo runs gets split evenly. Helpful if you find yourself in a place which still has a capitalist infrastructure. And the crew are basically like family." She smiled. "I think they'll like you. I already do."
"And what does a navigator do exactly?"
"It's all numbers, planetary charts, and calculus," Reiko pursed her lips, "Not my thing, if I'm honest. If you're interested, I'll take you to meet Captain Bergman. He can tell you more."
"Yes. Please. Let's go!" Daria stood, her skin tingling with excitement. After so long dreaming of flying away, perhaps this might finally be her chance.
Reiko was still looking back to Earth. Daria followed her gaze, to see Japan rolling into view.
"It'll be nice to see Osaka again," Reiko grinned. "I have old family to go and see." She met Daria's eye. "And you have new family to meet. Come on."
Daria walked beside her new friend. Out of the diner and into a whole new life.