We’re at Lodestone Aerodrome, waiting for a ground crew to top off our fuel and make a regular post-reentry inspection. My own two crew are unusually quiet as we make our preparations to go home. We are all exhausted and danger-weary. A calm and uninterrupted slumber is what we all need. But despite their work nominally being completed, and nothing but time on our hands, neither Tea nor Fletcher request to be relieved. Which is surprising, because it’s a three-hour journey back to the capital city.
For someone who just came out of an intense firefight, it’s odd that Tea seems the most relaxed. She slouches in her seat, eyes closed and headphones over her ears, with her feet up on her console. Her off-white compression jumpsuit is undressed to her waist—those beautiful braids of hers splayed out—while her helmet and flight wear lie on the deck underneath the monitors. I can tell she isn’t asleep, but she’s made herself comfortable. A little too comfortable. I consider asking her to get her boots off the sterile metal counter, but think better of it. It’s my voidcraft, but it’s her station, and she was just shot at.
Fletcher watches a slugball game on mute, but he stares at it with the intensity of concentration befitting the marksman he is. He sits hunched, burly shoulders forward, his forearms upon his thighs.
Slugball is one of those sports thought to be more ancient than the colony ships themselves, and it continued to thrive in all quarters of The Bary even as the colonists struggled to survive. It’s the only professional sport to still be segregated by gender in the Sibylean Kingdom, and a rare remaining refuge for primal male ego. I don’t think that’s why Fletch follows it so intently. That’s not befitting his character. He’s a gentle giant. Other reasons come to mind, but I refuse to speculate about his personal life.
I swivel back and forth ever so slightly in the pilot’s seat, head tilted to the side, lamenting the absence of a real cushion for my aching neck. I’m not tired—not really—but making the trip back to Tencair is always the most melancholic part of the job.
A general malaise washes over me as machinery churns around the exterior of Windsong’s hull outside. I wonder about the two men we killed hours before. The first time we’ve taken any lives in a while. Like any law-abiding interdictor, I submitted the recorded footage from our helmet cams to the R.C. before scurrying off. And like any other police unit we’ve ever interfaced with, the senior constable made a bare footnote of it for the case manager.
We just do the grunt work. It’s above my station to learn what comes out of an investigation outside of public news reports. But I reviewed Tea’s footage. Those men were very trigger-happy, even for a pair of panicked drug runners. If it wasn’t for a fortuitous timing as Tea kneeled down while surveying the area, I would be bringing her home in a body bag.
Those glittering packets we found were illicit. There was no way to know the actual value from a visual inspection. If it was uncut, it would certainly have a high street value. Perhaps up to three million crowns. If it was refined further with Sibylean Blue Ice, it could have been worth a small fortune. My conclusion is that’s what it was. Refined Compound K is a party drug for elites. Deathly dangerous and addictive to be sure, but one can get a high off so little of it. Unlike the original that hailed from the dark alleys of the Republic, K2 won’t make your arteries bulge and risk an aneurysm. And with that risk of death being mitigated, you’d expect the noble or business elite to indulge in it, because they have the money to feed their dependency.
Every passenger on that ship is suspect, even… no, especially the diplomat, Giroux. I’d bet several gyre’s pay he granted shelter for those two men intending to take a cut. But if that were true, he could have also bailed them out after we left. We can detain, but we don’t make our own arrests. Desperation like they showed, locking down the cargo bay and opening fire immediately...
I pinch the bridge of my nose and massage my sinuses. It doesn’t make any sense. They didn’t need to murder the co-pilot. They didn’t need to attack Tea. Those two men didn’t need to kill or be killed to get out of that situation. What am I missing?
There’s a message from Dad that I’ve been ignoring the entire time we were on watch. With nothing better to do, I tap open the encrypted video file, because self-flagellation won’t make me feel any worse.
Off to a good start.
“Regardless of the state of our relationship, I feel obligated to let you know your sister is in the infirmary—”
I jolt straight up in my seat.
“—at the Royal Navy Research Hospital in Tencair.”
Dad looks troubled, certainly not making the irate face I ensure that I rarely see, and immediately I know this is serious. But then again, my sister has always been their favored child.
“We saw Lydia just now. The doctor says she’s going to be fine. But she didn’t look well. She developed severe hypercalcemia and hairline fractures throughout her body while on deployment. It happened so gradually that they didn’t catch it until she broke her foot while simply exercising.”
Exactly the kinds of things the auto-doc and the catheter in my clavicle are supposed to allay, for no more than a few rayspans at a time. Last I spoke with Lydia, she had been assigned to an anti-piracy patrol on a corvette of some sort. Too small a vessel to have habitation rings.
“Anyway, Alex,” my dad stumbles. He’s fidgeting. I can almost see a spark of conflicted humanity about him.
“It made me think of you and what you do. Don’t think I’m not still upset about how you stole from your mother and I—”
He conveniently omits the part where he was repaid with interest.
“—but if you wish to see Lydia while she recuperates, she may appreciate it. Don’t let your fear of us stop you. We love you.”
The message ends and I sit back, feeling a tear accumulate on the inside of my cheek.
It hurts to have confirmation that my parents still haven’t changed after all this time. There’s something unduly cruel about parents disowning a child, adult or otherwise. I’ve tried to psychoanalyze Dad. I came to all sorts of conclusions. The first was that he feels abandoned as the only remaining man of the family. But no, that’s not it. He doesn’t see me for who I am. Maybe he thinks I'm cheating life itself. He could feel like he’s at fault for how I turned out, or that I spoiled some master plan he had for me. All of which is horseshit.
After wiping away the tear with the back of my wrist, I stand and leave the conn, walking past a pair of eyes I can only assume are following me curiously along the way. Tea and Fletch might have decided they don’t need a moment, but I do.
“Let me know when they’re done outside,” I communicate weakly.
I close the bulkhead door behind me as gently as I can secure it, but it still makes a resonant thud. I take a resolute stride that begins and ends with the clang of boots against metal mesh and make my way down the corridor to my quarters. Waving my hand in front of the biometric security panel, a more welcoming sliding door opens for me with the sound of a timid metallic whisper, provoking the hairs on the back of my neck.
I step inside my sanctuary. It’s a beautiful mélange of gunmetal and homier golds and oranges from the low-temperature fairy lights Tea and I long ago draped across the exposed piping. It reminds me of the Kingdom’s national heraldry, but only in a positive and calming way, like an Astrilish sunrise. Because I’m the only one to live aboard Windsong and we have an odd number of crew, I allowed myself double the room, welding two adjacent quarters together. And right now, I need all the space I can’t currently get from the void.
Upon entry, a concordant symphony of soft music starts. Venerable string instruments this time. Random compositions from all over The Bary, because I’m not picky. Several articles of spartan furniture sit bolted to nooks and wall inserts. The sheetless bed rises from the floor in a fashion I’ve only ever understood to be encouraging in some deliberate but also primal way, beckoning me toward it. I oblige, unzipping my jumpsuit down the back and kicking it off my legs before falling backwards onto the foam mattress with a bounce.
I exhale deep and take a moment to collect myself before I flail an arm to the side, waving my hand once again in front of another biometric sensor that secures the safe next to the bed. I grab one of the sealed tubes and a few alcohol pads inside, and lock the safe back up.
After brushing the area clean with a wipe, I don’t hesitate a moment. The needle comes out and goes directly into my thigh. When beginning my transition, I had to work myself up for this every couple of gyres. But time and experience change you. Stepping into a dangerous role where there’s a non-zero chance you could die every few ‘spans changes you. Getting shot at changes you. You only grow more resolute in the face of death. A puny injection doesn’t register as anything anymore.
The needle comes out and I safely dispose of it in the biohazard capsule.
I’ve got maybe thirty minutes before I need to be back at the helm for taxi and takeoff. I lie and close my eyes, descending into the depths of my bed, the next best thing to disconnecting in the weightless embrace of the void.
Floating is the only way I can let myself feel.
The curiously clear sky above is a color-drained chasm, filled with the aggressive urban afterglow of Tencair. I’m feeling sights and seeing sounds. An orchestra of tinnitus savages my eardrums. There’s the faint but pungent smell of blood, and I’m surrounded by a haze of vague and violent shapes discharging toward me rhythmically; hatefully.
Thump, thump, thump…
I can’t feel any of it. A concussion, perhaps. But I can feel the heat of angry bodies, and of the fresh blood veiling my pathetic face. For every shadow that passes by, a new measure of flesh is extracted. Veins throb under my skin. With each blow, I’m disconnecting further from my body. I want to scream, but my jaw feels slack.
“You think you’re better than the rest of us?”
“Think you’re fooling anyone? Fucking crossdresser.”
I’m passed on like a ragdoll. A thing.
“You like creeping on women, huh? Does that get you off?”
One of the shades shakes with trepidation somewhere.
“Stop! You’re going to kill him!”
A banshee’s cry. A voice I recognize. Someone that I was only hoping to be honest with, because I thought she loved me. I trusted her with my most personal secret. There should be no secrets between partners. But she immediately betrayed that trust. She could have mentioned it to any of these goons. Now look at me.
“Would anyone miss him?” Someone else spits.
“I… I don’t know. But I won’t be part of whatever this is,” the banshee replies with a raspy breath.
There are whispers between the figures. In collapsing and giving up, I regain some measure of sensation in my nerves, and it isn’t welcome. My entire face is on fire, and my nose doesn’t feel like it is where it should be.
And then there’s a different kind of thump.
A sudden silence slices through the incessant hum of power units and transformer coils. Distant rhapsodic notes from a street band screech to a halt. Lights out. There’s a thunderclap in the distance.
The base of my skull strikes the concrete when one of the savage figures lets me go, knocking out what little breath I have left in me. I cough in fits. Every convulsion feels like a conflagration across my torso.
“What in the Queen’s own cunt?” One of the lesser sadists in the gang who has stood back sounds confounded; terrified, even. In his trembling obscenity I think I recognize a peculiar inflection: the echoes of a frightened little boy unsure of his place in our interplanetary kingdom. Much like myself at one point, perhaps. There’s always a binary choice between lashing out despite oneself and searching for peace with oneself, balanced precariously in our heads, as fragile as a quantum experiment.
I can’t stop coughing, and the blood is plastering upon my face. The contents of my stomach are halfway up my throat.
A civil siren blares. First one, then several in terrifying harmony.
“A magnetic storm?”
“Fuck, let’s get out of here!” from one of the women. Footsteps hit the pavement, dashing away either in a frightened stampede, or repelled by the living corpse they left to rot.
When I stop coughing and vomiting, I look up through a sea of tears. At first, I see nothing: a sky more brilliantly black than I could have ever imagined. As the world comes back into focus, a fortuitous dreamscape presents itself. Through the gaps between brilliant dancing aurorae far more colorful than I’ve ever witnessed, I see the stars.
Not just some of them.
All of them.
A reverberation in my head.
Thump. A fist against metal.
“Hey skipper, are you alive back here? ‘Cause we’re ready to go and Tea is threatening to jump in the pilot seat.”
Ah, shit. I’m upright with a start. My head aches almost as much as it did that night. I rub my eyes to shun the light and obfuscate my face.
“Yeah, thanks, Fletch. I’ll be up there in a moment.”
Gathering myself, I try my best to expel any lingering dulled agony with a commanding sigh. I look up. He’s still there in the doorway, and he is regarding me as a friend now.
“Would you like to stay with Ejtan and I for a few ‘spans after we disembark?” he inquires with a gentleman’s politeness, coming off sounding like one of the waiters that might service my parents at a fancy five-course dining establishment. “We enjoyed hosting you and Tea over the new year. Ejtan had nothing but nice things to say after you left. Said he understood why I kept working with you. It was good to see you unwound and untroubled for once. You’re always welcome in our home, Ashlee.”
I struggle to work my jumpsuit back on as he speaks. He stands there, watching. I’d think it was creepy if I didn’t know any better, but I do. This isn’t the first time he has played the willing therapist.
“I appreciate that, Fletch. I really do. But I’ve got some things to attend to once we’re off. Personal matters.”
I zip up and see him respond with an abridged nod. He makes way for me as I exit my quarters, and I put my hand gently on his shoulder as I pass. There’s not another word as he follows behind.
Back on the flight deck, I'm relieved to see Tea isn’t yet at the conn. In fact, she’s still got her feet up on her console.
“I told ‘em you were taking a shit,” Tea remarks while chewing on a lollipop. “I could report you to the Guild or the Royal Aerospace Authority for frivolously stepping away from the helm like that.”
I pass by her station.
“But you won’t,” comes my debonair response.
Tea takes the candy out of her mouth, her attitude breezy.
“But I won’t,” she replies.
I suppress a snicker and sit back down, taking the conn. Sometimes I wish I could be more like Tea: not afraid to just be yourself and let it ride. But this world was built for her, not for me.
Rotating the chair back into position, I get my readings from the computers. We have a lot more fuel and battery power.
“Back to your stations, you two. Ready preflight. Secure for decoupling and taxi out.”
My crew rustles behind me as I look up out the canopy into the clear blue-gray polar atmosphere beyond, Dowager now a shimmering crescent of immense magnitude, hiding behind the clouds.
“Time to head home.”