November 2, 2032

The F-35's engines scream at nearly full thrust. The plane wobbles in place, ready to lunge forward. Aula finishes her pre-flight check by testing her ailerons. Green lights flash in the darkness underneath her wings. Snow slithers across the tarmac. She waits for the all-clear and prepares to release the brakes. The traditional Heads Up Display is now fully integrated into her helmet. A readout of her current airspeed, heading, target, and other essential information is fed into the display in her visor.

"Cougar 20, you are clear for takeoff."

"Cougar 20, clear for takeoff."

Aula eases the brakes and the F-35 surges underneath her. Glowing markers on the runway flick by faster and faster. In a few seconds, the G-forces will push her into her seat. The plane will lift off into the night sky at a steep angle. There's no feeling quite like it.

Her lights catches on a bright white square hovering in the air. It's a sign. A sign someone is holding. Aula throttles back the engines and breaks without thinking. The plane bucks forward. She can feel the momentum piling up from behind her. The nose wheel takes the brunt of it, but she can hear all three squealing.

"Shit." Aula's neck snaps forward then back against her seat.

Although the F-35 is smaller than its predecessor, the F-22 Raptor, it can kill someone at any speed. She cranes her neck despite the pain branching into her shoulders. The engines die down, but snow still swirls across the ground.

An Inuk woman stands on the runway's median not five feet from the F-35's nose. Her sign flashes brightly in the light. Too bright to read whatever message is scribbled on it. Her expression is resolute. She takes a step forward and lifts the sign even higher. The jet's wash whips her hood back. Dark hair whips against her face, but her eyes are still.

Aula raises her visor and stares.

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The trespasser is a short pudgy woman. She sits on the tarmac with her hands handcuffed behind her back while two MPs go through her belongings. By the time Aula finds them, the wind has eased slightly. It still cuts through her flight suit, but she doesn't care. The MPs take one look at her face and tense up, but she stops out of arm's reach.

"Look at this runway," she barks. "Because you could've ended up as red slush on it."

The woman looks up at her. "If you hadn't stopped."

Aula puts her hands on her hips and takes a deep breath. The air is like a knife into her chest, but she suppresses the urge to cough. She looks at the nearest MP, a Quebecois named Fortin.

"What's the sign say?"

Fortin takes her time answering. "It's blank, ma'am."

The other MP, a Kenyan Canadian named Shah, holds it up. The cardboard sign is bright white and has nothing written on it.

Aula frowns. "You snuck in to wave a blank sign?"

The woman doesn't answer.

"What's your name?"

Again, she doesn't answer. Fortin clears her throat to end the stalemate. "Sophia Aaluk."

"Aaluk." Aula lets the name roll around her mouth. "Why's that familiar?"

The two MPs bend down to help Sophia stand. When all three of them straighten up, Shah says, "Premier of Nunavut is John Aaluk."

"Tell me there's no relation."

Shah shrugs apologetically. Her aspirations to become an astronaut aren't secret and nearly running over a member of the premier's family won't look good on her CV. Aula clamps down a rising sense of panic and stares at Sophia, who stares straight ahead with a closed expression. No answer there, either.

The wind starts to pick up again. White ribbons of snow glide over the ground and between their feet. Aula glances back towards the base, which is a dark outline fuzzed by snow and crisscrossed by lights. The weather and isolation is an adequate deterrent for most. They're not an installation that's authorized to use deadly force.

"You couldn't send a letter instead?" Aula cranes her neck so they're at eye level. "You had to endanger your life and mine by playing chicken with a fucking plane?"

Sophia doesn't answer, but her chin makes a telltale quiver. At least something hits home.

She raises her hands in disgust and walks away.

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