Content guidance: Stardust contains adult themes: gore, violence, profanity, sexual innuendo, and hate speech (fictional nationalism and transphobia)

With Windsong down on all fours and secure in an underground hangar—and Tea’s vomit cleaned off of her console—I run through the post-flight checklist with Fletcher. That finished, I give them both leave. We say our sleepless goodbyes, and they both stroll off the gangway with duffel bags slung over their shoulders. They make distant conversation while they head off to the nearest maglev station and their mandated couple rayspans of rest. The government wants its voidborne personnel as healthy as is reasonable, whether they be Royal Navy, Constabulary, or even the more expendable independent contractors like ourselves. We must spend a third of our time at rest on-world or upon port habitation rings so that our livers can flush the mix of anti-wasting drugs out of our systems. If we want to keep our warrants, we have to do nothing for a time. Fine by me.

Melancholy claims me. I learned to fly so I could get away from the rabble of this world and have some agency. I have always loved Sibyl and can’t imagine existing anywhere else, but I feel so dejected in this place. Here, standing alone, after my crew has disembarked. It’s lonely. Sometimes, I’ll fly Windsong solo out to the middle of nowhere; a tundra on the border of the Folklands or the northern shores of the Raina Mare. Most of the time I just hide in my quarters until the next sortie, passing the time by working out or re-reading the Sagas of Settlement. A hierarchy of solitude: the curious void above, the obscurity of sleep, or the fantasy of another time.

I switch on the news radio and set to work reconfiguring my quarters for homeside accommodation these next couple of rayspans.

“—the erudium shortages are expected to abate as the Royal Army Engineering Corps finish their mission hardening power grids on Sibylean outposts across the Astrild system. Analysts caution that there may still be market volatility for several years to come, with pent up demand in the aerospace and transportation sectors taking a back seat to energy security. Queen Avlynn the Third made such infrastructure commitments in the wake of The Anomaly which knocked out power on several worlds throughout the system seven years ago.”

“The protracted case of Haida Koval versus the Ministry of Health has been dismissed by the Appellate Court after its narrowly-approved referral from the Klatching ten gyres ago. Haida’s lawyers allege their client was denied health coverage on the basis of their gender identity. The government maintains it does not cover the costs of follow-up surgical care from a private source, such as from for-profit Republican clinics. In a brief opinion, Judge Vinerva Hakon stated that Haida had no standing to sue the government for redress in a private matter.”

“Fuck. Off!" I exclaim at the innocent newswoman, and the speaker that relayed her voice.

This past decade in Sibylean politics has been nightmarish.

A moral panic is an information overload where national identity is at stake. Things aren’t so great for people like me right now. Despite the perceived openness of Sibylean society, there’s quite a bit of reactionary knee-jerking against Republican cultural imports, and fear and skepticism of Novani soft power.

I know Her Majesty has no interest in imposing restrictions on trade like some radicals in the Regning and the Klatching insist. We need agricultural imports from Maridea to feed our growing population. But in the simmering socioeconomic upheaval of closer trade relations with the other nations of The Bary, the government has failed to acknowledge what has been true since long before the détente. We transgender people exist and have always existed, on Sibyl and elsewhere. Despite that fact, there has been no legal movement on increasing access to the otherwise common resources we request; not even in our largely planned economy, where citizens are supposed to be taken care of. After all, why would an age-old matriarchy want to recognize such extreme physiological changes in its inferior citizenry?

I accepted myself through the consumption of Republican pop culture. It was only offering a reflection of what I felt: that I was more than the sum total of what I appeared to be. But where there is only empathetic storytelling, sometimes the paranoid see a plot. According to some acrimonious jerks mouthing off in the wider Sibylean media, trans women are a dangerous re-assertion of the patriarchy that nearly led our early civilization to ruin. If men can be women, they say, and in the highest positions of power, the tribalism of old might return, and just imagine the resource wars we’ll have again over… uh, the hull plating of the colony ships?

Idiots. We don’t live in that time. And it was the male tribal leaders, exhausted by war, who asked the jarlja to broker peace. But I doubt any of these women—and they are mostly women—have fully read a single saga. If only we still lived in such a time of scarcity and desperation, they might care so much about something that actually mattered.

I should rest, but I’m in a rage of thought. I’m too tired to work out. So instead, I prepare to go out. I need to see Lydia.

In my quarters, I wash my face with warm water and pat it dry. Looking up into the mirror darkly with a scowl, I’m startled by my grimace. I’ve been in medical transition for well over five years. Seven, if I count the bogus shit I was maining just after I ran from home. Now, I suppose I look different. My skin is softer. My eyes are wider and feature a brighter color, approaching a powder blue where previously they were as gray as the clouds overhead. There’s no longer any semblance of facial hair beyond peach fuzz. I have breasts, and down below, I’ve rid myself of the two boys. But my brow ridge and those deep eyebags haunt me. If the eyes are a window to the soul, then my eyes communicate a complex past I don’t want to dwell upon. I sigh, reaching up to comb through lavender hair, careful not to damage the raven black roots.

I carefully apply a mousse to the part and pull an off-center length into a traditional braid separating the long hair from the undercut over my temple. Emulating the jarlja of centuries past would get me in all sorts of trouble as a child. I was teased incessantly on the playground simply for being enchanted by the stories we were all told by our teachers; for wanting to be as strong as the women who founded this world were. There was lots of shouting at my parents from those teachers, I remember. And I couldn’t have my hair fashioned this way in my teenage years. To the headmaster and my parents alike, it was absolutely off-limits.

By taking charge of my life and adding makeup, I can do a little better. Sometimes I even feel good enough about myself that I attempt to go stealth on the streets. I’m just going to tough it out presently. I’m only off to see that my sister is alright. Part of me wishes I could take my firearm along, but that’s quite the legal risk. If I get any looks on the train, my fists are clenched. I’m not the faltering dolt I used to be.

I get out of the skin-fitting jumpsuit and into multiple layers of warm, looser clothing. It's near freezing outside. I don’t bother looking at the rest of the forecast. That will change on a whim. I pick up my things in order: a taupe leatherette jacket, gold tweed scarf, ankle-rise boots, dataslate, purse, and a plastic identification card that reads: “Ashlee Rinn Jensdottir. Sex: M.”

Locking down the gangway with my biometrics and voice—my other voice, not the practiced one—I take a few steps around the port quarter and admire the giant bird-like machine that got us home. I put one hand on her off-gray hull, right where she would have taken the most heat on descent. Brushing the ventral forward plating just under the wing with my fingers, I feel for any possible chafing. The ground crew will give her a standard once-over, of course. But while the ablative panels certainly took some plasma, they look healthy enough for another run up and down the sky. I’m amazed. She was already a good ship. But every time Fletcher can get his husband to work with her, she improves dramatically.

I don’t know what I would do without Windsong. I don’t know that I would even be alive today without her. She is well worth the personal and emotional cost I paid to acquire her.

With some pathetic human sentimentality for a machine out of the way, I’m off to the elevator that will take me back to the surface.

The wind is frigid, stabbing my exposed face like transient static shocks. We’ve spent several rayspans in orbit, soaking up nutrients through a tube. All I desire now is the warm embrace of coffee and one of those sticky buns drenched in its sweet, caramelized mother liquor. On the way to Lydia’s apartment, just outside the maglev station, I pick up one of those for us to share, and two dark, scorching beverages. They will cool fast in the chill, so if I’m not able to visit Lydia for whatever reason, I endeavor to consume all of it alone.

My status as a registered interdictor allows me the pleasure of breezing through the gate security of the military housing compound with little question. I feel the heat of side-eye from a pudgy, rough shaven MP, but fuck him. Briskly walking through rows of kaleidoscopic five and six story nanoconcrete blocks in the algid mist, I make one turn. I temporarily get lost among the scant variety of architecture, so I make another two turns. I’m relieved when I pull open the lobby doors of an unassuming pale green cube, balancing takeaway in my other hand. I wave my slate in front of the tenant intercom to announce my presence.

The entrance unlocks and I head up a one-half flight of steel mesh steps, then up another two wooden stairways to Lydia’s floor. Too much of a climb for a poor sibling with busted legs. I spin on my heel as I round the corner, and she’s right there, leaning on a crutch in the entryway of her flat.

“Ashlee…” comes the calm, chivalrous voice of the only family member who will say my name, her surprise hidden in an ellipsis of words.

Haeja, little sis.” I smile sheepishly. “I… heard… a bit late. About what happened…” It has been nearly a full revolution around Astrild since I’ve seen Lydia in person, so I stumble on those words. “I brought a little something to lift your spirits.”

I wag the paper bag back and forth breezily and I see her beam with voracious excitement. It’s almost entirely present in her eyes. Neither of us are the particularly expressive sort, but we read each other like our favorite books. Most of those books are the sagas. We’re boring like that.

“But should you not be feeling well…”

She stands aside by applying her weight to her crutch.

“No, of course. I’m happy to see you. Come in.”

Sauntering about inside and noting how warm it both looks and feels, I place the beverage carrier and bag of foodstuffs on the quaint circular dining table at the far end of the studio, just under a slit window and some kind of uninspired, abstract wall art. Lydia has said that I’m always welcome to visit her Navy-supplied accommodation, and I appreciate that, since I don’t bother buying or renting my own. Keeping a residence down the gravity well would be redundant. My home is in the void now.

“Kind of toasty in here,” I remark, setting my jacket on the back of a chair. I sort out our coffee break upon the table, a customary offering of coffee or tea and sweets for one's host.

Lydia approaches from behind on the crutch, and as I turn around, I see that she’s having trouble with her feet whenever they meet the floor. They both twist slightly whenever her heels step upon the area rugs that are draped over polished nanoconcrete.

“I’ve been feeling chilly in my limbs. It makes it difficult to keep to a circadian rhythm; such as we can have on this dark little world of ours.” She steps up by my side. I also hadn’t noticed at first how pale she looks. Lydia has a typically rosy countenance, but not at present. Her visage is grim.

She sets the crutch against the wall as she prepares to sit. “So yeah, the heat has been turned up. Nice to get all the warmth we need from the ground, isn’t it? Our good matriarch Dowager provides.”

Lydia winces as she takes a seat. Her ringed sapphire eyes struggle to look alive and betray a more compromised interior, one clearly struggling to not communicate some manner of pain.

“Can I…” I start, beginning to reach over.

“No,” she protests. She exhales hard, gratified to be done with whatever hurt has afflicted her.

I have the opposite seat and unpack the sticky bun and eating utensils for her. A meager smirk creeps along her countenance, but I can’t just reciprocate that cheerfulness myself. My little sister is in pain.

“What’s wrong, Lydia? Tell me everything.”

She’s silent as she clenches her coffee—the finest red eye beans imported from Maridea, or so the sign said—taking a whiff of aromatic steam through her nose, and then a delighted first sip. I follow suit, not wanting my beverage to go too cold before I can evaluate it, but also keeping my gaze firmly locked on every micro-expression she makes.

“The doctor said I’m suffering from anemia—damn, that’s nice…,” she sets her cup down. “A bout of hemolysis from being out on patrol in zero-g for half a year.”

I furrow my brow and shake my head a bit in misunderstanding. I say, “But you’re on the same drugs I am, right? And you’re on orbital control duty for no more than a gyre at a time, or thereabouts?”

She clears her throat. “Yeah. Standard anti-wasting regimen supplemented by regular exercise. Great when it works.”

“And it didn’t?” I inquire as she takes a second drink, this time more of a gulp than a sip.

“It didn’t.”

“Damn, Lydia…” I trail.

“I’m fine—” she coughs, briskly covering her mouth. “Well, I will be.”

I cant my head and meet her eyes, bringing a hand closer to hers.

Hej…” I start as I lean in, as softly and assuredly as I can muster with my feminine voice, “...​​detta laga sei.” I offer that ancient platitude more as an aspiration than a known quantity. It certainly didn’t apply during the Age of Variance and yet our ancestors said it all the time.

“No, it won’t work out, Ashlee,” she takes my hand. Hers feels cool to the touch, so I sandwich it with my other. “Not the way I had it going. But I’ve had a little time to think about it. I’m okay. So what if I’m not fit for duty and discharged? Mom can’t argue with that, right?”

“No, I suppose she can’t.”

Lydia imbibes some more of her beverage. I do the same, returning one hand briefly to the lukewarm cup.

“I’ll serve in some other capacity. Maybe I’ll join the merchant marine. That way I can enjoy continuous gravity simulation on long runs to the Republic. Don’t think I could stomach making the jaunt across The Bary to Lux or The Alizarin Twins, though. That’s far too much time away from home.”

“Last I heard, you were shooting up the ranks. They would toss you out of the Navy just like that? They won’t consider moving your post to a cruiser with a habitation ring?”

“There’s only so many of those, sis. Besides, we’ve got to stomach the drugs for readiness. If I can’t, or they don’t work, I can’t continue to be an officer. That’s just regulation.”

“Fuck,” I whisper, grasping her hands tighter. “I’m so sorry, Lydia.”

“Don’t be,” she says, looking into my eyes and offering a forced smile. “I thought I wanted to follow in Mom’s footsteps and do one better: become an honored dame and command a vessel with all the prestige and responsibility that entails.

But you know what? None of that ambition shit matters if you don’t feel it in your bones; and my bones are telling me it's time for something else. I’ve now spent six years training and serving as a Royal Navy officer. I went through the motions; did my duties. And when I received my first promotions—when I got those first ribbons and upgraded insignia over the breast of my uniform—I realized it made Mom happy, but it failed to make me happy. I started questioning whether I was doing it all for myself, or just for Mom and her wilted ego.

I tried to contort myself into the shape someone else wanted me to fold neatly into. But we’re not all cut from the same cloth. And that’s just fine. Imagine a Sibyl where everyone endeavored to be a soldier like Mom. We would have no society left to protect. There would be no one to create and build, nobody to help others, none to advance the very science that helped us survive against all odds on this lazily rotating, barely habitable rock.”

She pokes at the sweet bun with a utensil, bringing a gooey piece to her lips. “No pastry chefs to master the art of indulgences.”

I snicker, stabbing at the pastry myself. No way is she eating it all.

“We’re all different, right? Not better or worse: just distinct. We judge too harshly. What’s important is that after we stumble, we don’t let the setbacks get to us. We learn about ourselves, we learn about others, we grow in our empathy, and use those accumulated experiences to continually shape what life means for us.

Mom has projected her own failure to become a dame onto me for most of a decade. And when you ran away, she doubled down. Okay, parents want what they think is best for their children. But she manipulated me into thinking it was something I wanted for myself.

No one else gets to say what life means for me, not even Mom. It took a couple of broken limbs for me to face that down.”

I cup my beverage for what little warmth it has left while I listen. Minding the unsaid space between Lydia’s words, it appears as though she knows her fate is sealed, and she’s anticipating the closure of one book and the opening of another. That’s allowed her to re-evaluate her relationship with our parents, especially Mom. I’m happy she has made this leap. It was the last real friction in our own relationship as siblings.

“I’m glad you’ve learned that children aren’t responsible for rectifying the sins of their parents, sis,” I muse. Maybe I worded that too harshly.

I hit a nerve, and Lydia looks a bit more sour. “Running away from home and cutting out your family for three whole years isn’t responsible, either,” she counters.

Touché,” I concede.

Lydia sighs and leans in. Our hands clasp, and for the moment, it feels like an encore of the love-hate sibling rivalry of our youth.

“Something’s troubling you, too,” she notes.

I feel my eyes lose focus from her face, like I’ve lost voluntary control over them while my mind enters overdrive.

“Yeah,” I admit, faltering into my old voice. “We killed two people on the last excursion. And I’ve been trying to fathom why.”

Lydia lowers her voice, even though it’s just the two of us. As I regain control of my faculties, I notice she’s mirroring all the concern I showed for her just now. Her short, auburn bob cut bounces as she moves closer.

“Surely it was all by the book—” she starts.

“No, yeah,” I interrupt as I clear my throat and regain composure. “Of course it was. We were fired upon first. I just can’t make sense of it. They murdered a civilian who had stumbled upon them in cold blood. It was like they had made some mistake and were desperate to keep a secret. But they were just running drugs smuggled from the Republic. They probably didn’t need to be guarding them in the first place.”

Lydia rolls her lips and pats my hand.

“Whatever was up, I’m sure the Constabulary is taking care of it.”

“That’s the sinking feeling I have,” I remark.

End Act 1