How Ocean Merlani Stole their Navigator | Part 1: The People We Call Home | Chapter 5

Really, though, you didn’t have to terminate the sim early again, Waves,” says the almost pouting voice of Cadet Lewis over Merlani’s earpiece. “I would have fixed it—

“—There isn’t any ‘fixing it’ if you break my concentration like that while I’m stabilizing the Drive for real,” Merlaniinterrupts, glaring at the readouts from one of the computer interfaces in their simulation chamber. “And my name is Ocean.”

Aw, okay—I thought ‘Waves’ was a cute one, though. Don’t worry, I’ll come up with something better.

Merlani pushes off from the ceiling and floats over to the wall where the chamber’s gravity control panel is and catches on to the anchor bar with their tail. They roll all three eyes, even though they know their training partner can’t see it. “I don’t want you to give me a nickname, Cadet Lewis. I like my public name just fine. Now, will you please just focus on filling out your paperwork? I’m done with mine and I need to take my earpiece out to run some checks on it.”

If Cadet Lewis replies, Merlani doesn’t hear him. They pluck the little ball of the earpiece out from their left ear and unclip its safety barrette from their hair. With a groan of frustration, they turn the little device off and tuck it into the breast pocket of their uniform jacket.

Stars,” Merlani asks the air, now that they know no one is listening, “why does he make this so difficult?”

This is the fifth attempt at a basic jump simulation they’ve made with Cadet Lewis today. In the two weeks since he was officially assigned as their training partner, the two of them have only successfully completed a simulation once. None of the Nav cadets Merlani had worked with last year had been so frustrating, not even the two who left the program altogether halfway through their time as training partners. Cadet Lewis, though, seems incapable of learning the first rule of Astral Navigation: don’t distract your jumper.

Merlani floats there in their little simulation chamber for a few minutes in silence, trying to re-center themself so that they can be polite when they step out of it. They focus on the distant but comforting sensations of the system’s star, Sol, and the various planets and moons that dance around it. With one carefully controlled breath after another, they release the frustration they’ve been feeling.

Thankfully, there’s not enough time left in the class period for them to have to make another attempt. They’re exhausted enough as it is that they’re not sure they could manage to run another sim safely even if it was one of their parents on the other end of the intercom.

Once Merlani has found their calm again, they let out a deep sigh and tap the access panel to return the simulation chamber to Earth’s natural gravity. They land gracefully on the floor beside the chamber door. A few taps of the analog buttons built into the door frame, and one by one the safety seals on the door disengage.

Unfortunately for Merlani, when the door opens, their training partner is waiting on the other side.

“Okay,” Cadet Lewis says with a grin, “Paperwork’s filed. I’m ready to walk home when you are, since we’re out of sim time—here, I got your bag for you!”

Merlani holds in a grimace, although their tail swishes with annoyance as they accept the bag they carry their school-issued datapad and water bottle around in and slip it on over their shoulder. “Thank you, Cadet Lewis,” they say, trying their best to remain polite, “but you really don’t have to get it out of my locker for me when we’re done for the day…”

“I don’t mind!” Cadet Lewis laughs, reaching out as if to ruffle Merlani’s hair. “Besides, Anton gets Kingfisher’s bag for them all the time—”

Merlani catches his jacket sleeve to halt the motion of his hand and steps around him. “—You know I don’t like it when you touch me without asking, Cadet Lewis. And Condrey is Kingfisher’s Navigator now. If they’ve given him permission to open their locker and carry things for them, that’s between the two of them.”

“Aw, now, Seaweed, I’m just trying to be nice…” Cadet Lewis follows them out into the hall connecting the various simulation chambers with the rest of the Nav/Quan department’s workspaces. “Besides, if I’m going to be your—”

“—Cadet Ocean?” Entile Wyndi interrupts, popping their head out of their office as the two cadets walk by. “You doremember we were going to chat once you finished for the evening, don’t you?”

Merlani smiles, holding in the sigh of relief they desperately want to let out. “Yes, Commander Cerulean, I remember!” They turn to their annoying training partner with a polite but curt nod. “Don’t wait for me, Cadet Lewis. I don’t know when they’ll be done with me.”

“Oh… are you sure? I was hoping we could hang out later…” Cadet Lewis gives them one of those annoyingly pitiful looks he seems to think will make them want to be around him so he won’t be sad.

Merlani, so far, has found it has the opposite effect. “I’m sure.” They slip into their entile’s office before he can say anything else. The door, thankfully, shuts behind them.

“Long day, I take it, Merlani?” Entile Wyndi asks, flicking their ears curiously.

Very long day.” Merlani sighs and plops down onto their entile’s couch, grabbing one of the small pillows and hugging it. They’re grateful for the unspoken permission to be informal. “Have you read my sim reports yet?”

Their entile sits down beside them. “That’s why I called you in, yes. I thought you might need a hug after all that—and perhaps an excuse to take a break from your training partner?”

Merlani nods silently.

Entile Wyndi wraps them up in that hug they’d offered, lightly untangling a bit of Merlani’s hair with one hand. “Better?” they ask after a minute or two.

Merlani finds themself relaxing into the familiar warmth. They absently run the tuft of their tail through their lower pair of hands. “Sort of. Thanks, Entile Wyndi.”

Their entile releases them partway, settling back into a comfortable position with their upper arm around Merlani’sshoulders. “That’s what I’m here for, kitten.”

Merlani is silent for a few minutes, just soaking up their entile’s reassuring warmth. Finally, they look up from the tail-tuft they’re still straightening over and over again. “Remind me again how much longer I have to work with him?”

Entile Wyndi shakes their head. “Not much longer, I promise. Sarge and I had to adjust the rotation schedule a bit, thanks to Kingfisher, but you should get to have a new training partner the week after the fall break. We’ll give Cadet Lewis a final chance to see if Jay or Bunting can hear him then… and if they can’t, he’ll be returning to his previous course of studies and we’ll sort things out to bring in one of our alternates from last year’s trials.” They twitch their ears teasingly. “Unless, of course, you decide you want to continue working with him for the rest of the year.”

“I can promise you I won’t,” Merlani says dryly.

“That’s fine.” Entile Wyndi smiles. “Thank you again for giving him a chance, Merlani. I know he’s not the easiest human to work with…”

Merlani sighs again, hesitating for a moment. “Entile Wyndi… I know it’s probably wrong for me to ask… but how in the stars did he ever pass Nav trials? He can calculate hex points, sure, but the boy never lets me even get far enough to take them.” All of the frustration they’ve been feeling begins to spill out as they speak. “And he’s always acting as if I’m supposed to like the way he talks to me and like it’s mean that I don’t want him to be all touchy-feely with me when we barely know each other—and he never listens to me about anything…” They let out a groan, burying their face in their upper hands. “I’m trying to be nice, I promise. It’s… just going to be a very, very long time until November.”

“I know you are, dear.” Entile Wyndi sighs lightly themself. “And I appreciate your patience with the situation. As far as how he passed Nav trials… his letters and qualifications are incredibly high, by the Administration’s standards, and Elder Cloud and I were satisfied enough with his background check and our ability to hear him that we couldn’t refuse when Assistant Chancellor Lewis insisted we give him a chance ahead of some of our other candidates whose scores were lower but personalities might have been more suitable.” They shake their head. “Human politics is frustrating, even to me… but it’s rare that I have to give in when someone tries pushing a Nav Cadet in like that.”

Merlani looks up at their entile curiously. “Wait. Assistant Chancellor Lewis… as in the woman who runs the Accommodation Lottery and most of everything else around here? What’s she got to do with… oh.” Somehow they’d never made the connection between the two names before.

“His mother, yes, although I appreciate that Cadet Lewis is at least not the sort to go telling everyone that as if it should garner him special treatment.” Entile Wyndi’s tail swishes with annoyance. “Keep all of that between your ears, will you?”

“I will.” Merlani nods. “It… does explain a lot, though.”

“Mmm. It certainly does.” Entile Wyndi shakes their head, then brightens and gives Merlani’s shoulder a squeeze. “So, dear, how would you feel about coming home with me for dinner? It’s been a while since we’ve got to have you around—I think Reba said something about bringing home pie from that bakery we like near the Medical Center…”

Merlani smiles. They’re glad now that they don’t have any other plans for tonight aside from studying, since it’s their ‘late evening simulations’ day. “That’d be nice, Entile Wyndi. I could use a night off with family.”

“You’re always welcome to come over if you need a break from campus, Merlani.” Their entile stands and stretches, heading back over to their desk and the holoscreens they have open on it. “Just give me a bit to get the last of my day’s paperwork done, and then we’ll go track down my Navigator and head home.”

“Okay.” Merlani makes themself comfortable on the couch with one of the bright-colored blankets tucked up around them and gets out their pocket-com so they can read through some of their homework while they wait.


It’s starting to rain when Merlani and their instructors get out of the Nav/Quan building, and heavily storming by the time the three of them reach the small old-fashioned two-story house just outside the city where Entile Wyndi lives with their Navigator and his wife. Merlani finds themself properly soaked just from scampering between the carport where the flitteris parked and the front door.

“Ugh,” says Entile Wyndi, peeling their own soggy jacket off. “Next time, Sarge, I am not letting you talk to anyone in the hallway when I know there’s rain coming.”

“Fair enough.” Uncle Julian laughs brightly. “But hey, I got us home, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Entile Wyndi teases, “and you didn’t even get us lost…”

“Ye both had better dry off before ye catch a chill,” calls the familiar strongly-accented voice of Auntie Reba from the kitchen. “And leave ye shoes at the door, Julian—I’ve set too many broken bones today to care to deal with ye slipping on the stairs again.”

“Yes, Reba!” he calls back, still chuckling, and plops down on the storage bench by the entry to pull his boots off. “Stars,” he mutters dramatically, “a man falls down the stairs once because of a puddle and no one ever lets him live it down…”

“To be fair, Sarge,” Entile Wyndi says with a giggle while they’re removing their own soggy shoes and socks and setting both by the door to dry, “she had just warned Heather and Mereday about tracking in puddles the first time you did that.”

Merlani smiles through a shiver while they’re peeling their soaked-through outer layers, shoes, and socks off. Their instructors might do their best to be formal out at the Academy, but it’s always comforting being around them when they’re just being themselves like this. They hadn’t realized just how much they’ve missed spending time in this house before now.

“Here,” says Uncle Julian, pulling a shawl down from the coat rack above him and passing it to Merlani. “Wrap up in this so you don’t get too cold and head on upstairs. You still know the way?”

Merlani smiles and flicks a bit of the water off of the tuft of their tail at him. “Of course. Thanks, Uncle Julian.”

“I think you still have a spare set of pajamas in Heather’s closet,” Entile Wyndi tells them, also accepting a shawl from their counterpart. “If they’re not there, come let me know and you can borrow some of mine while your things are drying.”

Merlani gives their entile a rather soggy hug on impulse and then scampers up the stairs to change. Their cousin’s room hasn’t changed since the last time they were here—it doesn’t have a reason to, since Heather is still off-planet doing some sort of extended inter-species medical residency. Merlani’s only met her twice in person, but they like her all the same. Back during their first year at the Academy when their housing situation was still being sorted out, hers had been the room they borrowed.

Once they’re all dried off and changed into the cozy yellow flannel pajama top and trousers which had, in fact, been waiting for them in the closet, Merlani goes back down to the kitchen.

“Ah! I did hear a wee stray coming in from the storm, then.” Auntie Reba laughs and gives Merlani a rather warm hug. Her bright reddish curls have come free of the braid she was wearing them in, framing her freckle-spotted pale pink face with a halo of hair frizz. “Good to have ye home, Little Ocean.”

“Thanks, Auntie,” Merlani hugs her back. “I missed you too.”

A lightning strike somewhere outside echoes through the walls of the house, setting Merlani’s skin on edge. They let go of their aunt and smooth some of the static sensation out of their hair.

Please tell me ye be staying here tonight instead of letting me husband try to take ye back all the way into Houston?” Auntie Reba clicks her tongue, shaking her head. “This storm’s supposed to stick around until midnight and I ain’t having the two of ye out in it if I can help it.”

Merlani stifles a giggle. “I wouldn’t mind staying… I just got dry, after all.”

“Good. Ye be a smart one.” She ruffles Merlani’s ears softly. “Now, come help me set the table?”

“Yes, ma’am.”


Over the course of dinner and generous slices of the promised blackberry pie, Merlani enjoys the opportunity to properly catch up with this little segment of their extended family. Part of them still wonders why they were ever set on living on campus like the other Florivan students do—especially considering how lonely they’d been in the evenings all summer and how awkward their living situation has become now. The other part knows that they do genuinely enjoy being so close to their classes and, now that they have Reese and their teammates, their friends. They wouldn’t change things now, but they’re glad for the reminder that they do have this place to come to as a refuge when they need it.

“So, Little Ocean,” Auntie Reba asks after they’re all comfortably seated in the living room after dinner to listen to the rain and relax, “Penny tells me ye be doing well working with her other students?”

“I am, I think.” Merlani nods happily. “The rest of the folks on the team are really nice… I wasn’t expecting to have quite so much fun training with them. We have our first regional competition coming up next week, too.” They pause to take a sip from the cup of tea they’re holding in their lower pair of hands, then look over to their uncle. “Thanks again for letting me out of classes and simulations for the week so I can go to that.”

“Hey,” says Uncle Julian, “standard procedure for student athletes—but I’m excited for you. It sounds like your team has a good shot at winning a few titles, too, and I don’t mind at all getting to brag to my buddies over in Sec/Tac about you.” He absently strokes Entile Wyndi’s long, still-somewhat-damp hair as he talks, since as usual they’ve curled up beside him and Auntie Reba and fallen asleep nestled across his lap. Merlani can already hear their entile’s contented purring from where they’re sitting in the cozy armchair across from the couch.

“Well…” Merlani feels themself blushing slightly. “Don’t brag about me too much until we manage to come home with actual trophies for you to brag about, okay?”

“Okay.” Uncle Julian grins at them. “Doesn’t make me any less proud if you come home just with a participation ribbon, kid. I’m just glad you’re getting to have fun doing something you enjoy that isn’t your homework.”

Merlani stifles a giggle. “Thanks, Uncle Julian.”

“Same here,” says Auntie Reba, taking on her ‘doctor voice’, “but do try not to get yeself hurt. I know Penny trains all of ye to take care of yeselves and not do anything too dangerous, but I’ve had her come to me enough times after one of her matches needing mending that I worry about ye.”

“Yes, Auntie.” Merlani nods as solemnly as they can. “I’ll pass that on to the rest of the team, too.”

Auntie Reba chuckles. “See that ye do. I like me champions best when they ain’t showing up in my office.”

“Now really,” Uncle Julian says, stretching and setting his free arm around Auntie Reba’s shoulders, “you and I both know that Penny’s more likely to get into trouble next week than her kiddos are.”

Auntie Reba seems to think about it for a moment, then smirks at him. “Aye. I’ll drop by and give her me lecture on coming home uninjured and setting a good example for her students tomorrow.”

Merlani shakes their head in amusement. Their Auntie always teases their Uncle and Aunt Penny about how much the two of them get into trouble. That stands to reason, though, since she was the doctor who took care of their squadron when they were all serving with the Defense Fleet during the War and Entile Wyndi was just a kitten.

“Say, I meant to ask: are you rooming with Penny for the trip?” Uncle Julian asks, pointedly changing the subject, “Or has she put you in with some of your teammates?”

“Oh, I’m Reese’s travel buddy—Cadet Vasquez, I mean. From what Aunt Penny said, it’ll be the guys in one bunk room and me and Reese and Martins and Lavine in the other.” Merlani laughs softly. “Hopefully those three are were only joking about staying up late playing card games, though, since we’re going to be competing most of the time we’re gone and all.”

“I’d wager there’s going to be a bit of sleepover mischief,” says Auntie Reba. “If Penny’s young pilots are anything like the ones I know, she may have put ye with them in hopes ye can keep them out of trouble for her.”

Uncle Julian rolls his eyes teasingly. “You do remember who raised this innocent little nibling of ours, don’t you, sweetheart? If trouble runs in the family…”

“Ye be one to talk, Julian.” Auntie Reba playfully pokes him in the ribs.

Merlani takes a sip from their tea, then lets out a small sigh. “I’ll take troublesome pilots over the fellow I have as a training partner any day, Auntie. Pilots at least make sense to me…”

Uncle Julian stifles a laugh at that.

Auntie Reba pokes him again and looks over to Merlani sympathetically. “Wyndi mentioned ye be having difficulties with him. How are ye holding up, then?”

Merlani hesitates, nodding slowly. “I’m managing. It’s a bit frustrating, especially because he lives in the room next to mine… but I can handle him until November.”


“That’s when their training partner gets his last chance to stay in the program,” Uncle Julian supplies. “The boy’s a bit of an odd duck, to say the least—not that I’d go saying that outside the house—but we can’t do much about him until then, thanks to certain meddling administrators…” He shakes his head. “I’ve been meaning to ask you if you want me to talk to him about boundaries and such, though, Little Ocean.”

Merlani looks down into their half-filled teacup for a few moments. “I wouldn’t mind if you did… but maybe you could just… talk to all of the Nav cadets about that again, so it doesn’t come across as me complaining to you and him getting singled out? I don’t think Cadet Lewis would take being pulled into your office alone very well.”

“Okay. I’ll add that to my schedule for while you’re out of town, then.” Uncle Julian nods, taking on a genuinely sympathetic and concerned tone. “But remember, you can always come to me if he keeps making you uncomfortable. It’s my job to protect you and the other young jumpers, you know.”

“I’ll remember.” Merlani looks up and makes a point of smiling at their uncle. “Thank you.”

“Well, I’m glad ye be working to resolve all of that,” says Auntie Reba. “Now, I seem to recall ye were going to tell me more about ye teammates and the people ye do get along with? Maybe ye can start with that Vasquez girl—she sounds nice.”

Merlani smiles genuinely now, grateful for the change of subject. “Oh, Reese is wonderful. She’s incredible at Judo, for one, and she’s going to be a Fleet captain someday.” They giggle softly. “She always teases that she’s going to recruit me for her ship’s jumper when that happens—which I wouldn’t mind, really, even though I’m not specifically aiming to join the Fleet… You’d like her, I think, Auntie! She’s a lot like Aunt Penny, actually.”

“Oh, is that so?” Auntie Reba shakes her head. “I can see why ye like her, then.” She looks up to Uncle Julian with a teasing smirk. “Maybe ye should have Penny help pick ye new Navigators next time instead of the Administration. She has better instincts for folks.”

Uncle Julian laughs. “Now, there’s an idea… and then we can just have all of our Nav cadets cross-trained as pilots, just like most of us were during the War.” He strokes his beard thoughtfully.

“Oh, dear, and then me poor students will have twice the chance to practice patching them all up when they go and get themselves in trouble…”

“Or they’ll be better off with nice counterparts to keep them out of trouble?” Uncle Julian grins. “Like me!”

“Have ye met yeself, Julian?” Auntie Reba raises her eyebrows at him knowingly. “Poor Wyndi’s spent their whole life trying to keep ye out of trouble, and ye still manage to find ye way into it more often than not.”

“Heh. Point taken.”

Merlani’s not sure they get the whole joke passing between the two humans, but they can certainly agree that they like Aunt Penny’s students better than most of the Nav cadets they’ve met.

“So, ye friend Reese is wonderful,” Auntie Reba says, clearly stifling laughter herself now as she redirects the conversation. “What about the rest?”

“Oh, they’re great too. It actually turns out I have a class with Katz, since he’s minoring in geothermal engineering…”

Merlani spends the rest of the evening chatting with their Aunt and Uncle about their friends and their classes and the latest news from the scattered members of their extended family. As they curl up into their borrowed nest in their cousin Heather’s bedroom and listen to the now-gentle sounds of the rain outside, they feel more at ease than they have in a long time. They make a promise to themself as they drift off to sleep to make sure that they come to visit their family more often. They hadn’t realized just how much they needed a night like this before now.


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