From the author: In honor of Valentine's Day, here's a space opera (with fight scenes) that's as close as I ever get to a love story. This story also appears in the Book View Cafe anthology Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls.
I’ve almost become Lia Bukanan, so I don’t get too nervous at customs anymore. Still, while waiting for the agent, I did a visualization exercise to slow my pulse. It’s a relaxation trick I learned back on Paneris when I got my DNA tweaked to match my docs. I didn’t do it very long—when you’re hooked up to the stress analyzer, too calm will ding the buzzer as fast as too nervous.
The android handling customs had a genderless proto-human face. “Welcome to Galatea Station,” it said, politely, taking my docs and attaching me to the monitor. It slipped my ID in the slot to see if the physical data matched the readout. I watched the readout: female, one point five four meters tall, a string of DNA equations, an approved sign. Then the agent ran a search on both the ID and my physical parameters to see if any planet wanted me.
It gave me an android smile. “Your identity matches, Spacer Bukanan, and your record is clear,” it said.
I smiled back. I like dealing with androids at customs. No station spends the kind of money it would take to program them with first rate AI, so they do everything strictly by the book. High quality surgery and forged docs pass through unquestioned. And, unlike humans, they never ask for bribes.
The agent ran my work history and hiring hall cards through the scanner. “You were temp crew on your last ship, and do not have a new position,” it said.
“I just got paid,” I answered, handing over my credit chit.
The agent ran the chit, punched a couple of buttons to produce a visa, and told me, “Two Confederation-standard weeks.”
“Thank you.” Two weeks would be plenty. Long haul carriers stop regularly at Galatea’s station and they always need temps.
Outside the port complex squatted the usual collection of bars, pawn shops, cheap sleepovers, and crummy little restaurants. The kind of neighborhood respectable people abhor, the local spacerville. Home.
Like Galatea itself, the station used a biodome to impose the Confederation-standard climate and twenty-four hour day. A natural Galatean day would be a Confederation week. No one objected, though; Galatea’s so far from its primestar that its natural climate is far too cold for the humans and other warm-blooded species that currently inhabit it.
Local time made it the middle of the night. Most businesses had shut down; most, but not all. Always something open in spacerville.
I needed food and drink, and maybe a little chaos, something to wash away the hyper feeling I always get when I first hit stationside. The first open place I saw had a liquid light display that read “Bar” in about twenty languages. I pushed the heavy steel door open. A mass of humanity packed the place. I couldn’t see them at first—the lights were turned too low—but I could hear them and smell them and just feel their mass choking the room.
A large presence hovered to my right. As my eyes became accustomed to the light, a man of sorts came into focus. He had the blown-up pecs of the geneto-builder, and looked to be well over two meters tall. Bouncer. He gave me a little nod.
I moved through the crowd with appropriate “excuse mes,” a conscious effort to avoid stepping on toes, and a struggle to keep my small backpack of possessions from hitting anyone. The general atmosphere in the place made me uneasy.
By the time I reached the serving bar and put in an order for a sandwich and beer, I’d figured out why the place felt like an accident waiting to happen. Almost half the people in the room wore union insignia on their overalls—they were the ones making all the noise, muttering into their drinks. Another quarter or so had captain’s bars on theirs: independent haulers, mostly. Officers off the large ships don’t do their drinking in seedy bars.
Most of the rest were folks like me, temps who worked wherever they could get hired. Natural antagonists, all three: each blamed one of the other groups when they couldn’t get work.
Usually I get along okay with the union folks, but I’d forgotten about the big strike at Galatea Station six planetside months earlier. Some of these people had probably been blacklisted—the union lost big time. I grabbed my beer and a sandwich that leaked around the edges, and aimed for what looked like a empty corner in the back near the kitchen so I could avoid the inevitable fight.
I almost made it.
Someone slammed into my right arm, the one holding the sandwich. It went straight up in the air as the someone—a guy in spacer overalls—slid down my leg. The gloppy stuff landed in his hair
The pot had boiled over. Chaos reigned. Cries of “fucking scabs” and “union bastards” mixed in with painful screams and enthusiastic hollers.
I chugged the rest of my beer as I plowed through the crowd of people trying to kill their neighbors. But the guy with my dinner in his hair had no intention of letting me go. He grabbed the collar of my overalls and pulled me toward him.
There’s no time to apologize for accidents in bar fights. The rules are simple: there aren’t any. You just do whatever you can to make sure you walk out the door.
I went with the pull, feinted toward his face with the mug I still held in my left fist and put my right elbow in his ribs. He gasped, and I grabbed his hand and tried to duck under his arm. I would have made it without the added size from the backpack.
He grabbed my neck and threw me backward. I went down, but I still had a good grip on his hand. When I dropped I jerked his arm and sent him flying over me into a group scuffling nearby.
Scrambling to my feet, vaguely conscious that I’d clipped a chair with my ribs on the way down, I tried again to find an exit. My mind seemed unnaturally clear as I surveyed the struggling masses that surrounded me. It showed me a possible path to the emergency exit—an obstacle course of people, but a path nonetheless. I ducked under flailing arms, put elbows in strategic locations, did an occasional foot sweep.
I was focused on the flashing “exit” sign, and had almost reached it when someone grabbed me around the neck from behind. I ducked my chin just in time to prevent a solid chokehold and spun around with an elbow cocked.
The elbow grazed my attacker’s solar plexus, and as he jumped back, I followed up with a kick. He moved just in time for it to miss. It was my earlier opponent. Tenacious bastard.
I could have made the exit, but the last attack changed my mind. If the asshole really wanted a fight, we’d fight.
I looked at him, a tall skinny guy with the remains of my food still dripping down his face. He came at me with a hard fast kick. I came inside at the last moment, punching toward his face. He ducked, came up with his own fist. I danced out of range. We’d ended up in an open pocket, with plenty of room to fight. The unnatural clarity had taken over my mind again, but this time it showed me possible attacks, mine and his, instead of escape routes.
The wail of a siren in the distance brought me to my senses. My opponent was coming at me with a fist. I moved just enough to avoid getting hit, and grabbed his wrist. “Patrol’s coming,” I said, pulling him enough off balance to avoid a second punch. “Let’s get out of here.”
He stared at me a second or two, decided it wasn’t a trick, and said, “Go.” We ran for the exit.
Luck had taken our side, for the moment. The patrol hadn’t arrived yet. We raced through the alley, then slowed down at the corner. Looking back we could see that the fight had spilled over into the street. We walked briskly, and had covered a couple of blocks before the first patrol vehicles landed.
“Thanks,” said my former enemy. “You didn’t have to get me out of there.”
I shrugged. “Way you kept coming after me, I figured I might as well.”
He laughed. “Hey, you dumped that shit on my head.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
He looked a little sheepish. “I got carried away when things started happening. Anyway, thanks for dragging me along. Station ships you planetside if you get arrested here, and Galatean jails make spacerville sleepovers look luxurious.”
“You been in one?”
“I used to be young and stupid,” he said. “You making for anywhere in particular?”
“No. Well, sort of. I just got in, and I need to find a bed.”
“What I need is another drink.”
I grinned. “Me, too. But I’ve had enough bars.”
We were standing under a streetlamp. He looked at me. “I’ve got some wine on my ship. For that matter, I’ve got an extra bunk.”
That felt like a pass. I looked back at him, and hoped I was right. Not that he looked like a great catch. His hairline was receding and he had the pasty complexion common to spacers. But in spite of—or maybe because of—a haunted look in his eyes, I thought a few hours together could be fun.
“Your captain won’t mind?” I asked.
“I am my captain,” he said. Pride crept into his voice. He fished a pair of captain’s bars out of his pocket. Smart man. He must have stashed them before going into the bar.
I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t usually move in such high circles.”
He blushed. “Well, at the moment I’m also my entire crew. Rhea’s just a little ship, short-hauler. Jump-capable, though. I usually hire one or two temps, depending on what I’m hauling. But Rhea’s mine.”
“Well, let’s go drink up your wine, Captain . . .” I hesitated.
“Demaine. Jace Demaine.”
“Lia Bukanan.” We shook hands.
We slid our visas through the reader at customs. The system’s designed to let spacers with legit docs go back and forth.
Like he’d said, the starship Rhea was small. She was also old, battered, and held together more by faith than good welds. The cargo hold took most of the interior.
She could carry a maximum of four crew, and even spacers would have found the quarters over-close: four bunk slots, each two meters long and one wide; galley to one side, head to the other; and the bridge after that.
The builders had put time into designing the bridge, though. They’d set up four work stations, but they adapted easily to a two-person crew. And one person could run it in a pinch.
“It’s a dumb name, Rhea,” Jace explained. “An extinct bird, one that couldn’t fly. But this Rhea flies.”
Jace beamed with pride as he showed me around. He couldn’t help it. Every thing he said, every move he made told me he loved that ship, with all her dents and bruises, her minimal power, her limited capacity.
And I knew why. The first time I went up in a ship, I fell in love with it. I’ve loved every ship I’ve ever been on, even the clunkers, even the ones where I had to work some shit job because that’s all they had.
I sat in the galley, drinking some of Jace’s cheap wine, fantasizing about how nice it would be to have your own ship, be your own boss. And studiously ignoring the ripped seat covers, the storage cabinets held shut with tape, the chips out of the table top—all the things that never get repaired when you don’t have money, because the money goes for engines, for comp repair, for bribes.
Jace stood in the head, trying to get my dinner out of his hair. “What did they put in this shit?” he said.
“Damned if I know. I didn’t make it. I was just trying to eat it when you careened into me.”
“Careened? Somebody knocked me into you.” He came out, toweling his hair dry. “I didn’t start the damn fight either.”
“Yeah? Well, you sure got into it. I figured I’d have to knock you cold to stop you.”
He tossed the towel back in the head, poured himself a little wine. “You mean you’d have tried to knock me cold. I was winning when we got so rudely interrupted.”
I shook my head. “Terrible thing to see delusions in a man. Anybody could see that I was going to kick your ass.”
He gave me a nasty grin. “I wouldn’t put money on that.”
“Why not?” I said. “It’d be more fun with money on it.”
He laughed, and then he reached out, took my hand. I felt a little jolt. Lust, yes, but something more. Maybe connection.
Funny, but we sat there talking the rest of the night. And not about anything in particular, really. We kept teasing each other about who could beat up whom, told stories from our respective pasts with a lot of the details left fuzzy on purpose, every once in awhile said something kind of serious.
And every time we touched, the charge ran through me again. Lust, and something more. I wanted him; he wanted me. And neither of us wanted to hurry.
Felt weird. Spacers, we meet somebody stationside, we know we won’t have lots of time. So usually we just go for it. On ship it’s worse. You got to do it quick, because there’s so damn little privacy. Plus it’s sort of ship’s rule never to get really involved with another crew member. Jealousy can destroy the crew’s ability to function, and people can die if the crew doesn’t function. A quick fuck is fine; love, that’s for planetsiders.
Jace and I kept touching each other while we talked, though, and finally we just couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Then everything speeded up and we couldn’t do it fast enough.
Afterwards, we found ourselves lying in the square meter of open space. The legs from the galley table were digging into my sore ribs, and Jace’s feet were actually on the bridge.
“Can’t sleep like this,” Jace said. He got up, folded the galley table into the wall to make some space, and pulled a couple of pallets out of the crew bunks. We built something that resembled a bed on the floor, and started over, taking time, a long, long stretch of time.
We’d have probably slept all day, if a com buzzer hadn’t gone off. Jace shot up like a man possessed, spent a few seconds shaking his head like he was trying to figure out where and who he was, and then dove for the bridge.
I listened. “Demaine here . . . Yes . . . Absolutely . . . No problem . . . Half an hour.” He punched out. “All right! I’ve got a load.” He looked at me. “I could use some crew. You want a job?”
He must have seen the hesitation in my face—even temp spacers don’t work short hauls on small ships if they have any chance of something better—because he added. “It’s just a quick trip, a one-jumper to Melpomene. If you can’t find a good post there, I’ll bring you back to Galatea.”
What the hell. I’d made good money my last trip. I could afford to work cheap for a month or so. And we could keep having fun. “Sure. Why not.”
We scrambled around to get ready to ship out. He cleaned up fast so he could go meet with the shipper. “Let me have your docs, and I’ll register you as crew.”
I handed him what he needed.
He started out, hesitated, and looked back at me. “These okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You won’t have any problem with them.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. I knew my docs would go through registration without glitches.
He looked closely at me, nodded, and said “See you.”
We spent the rest of the day loading the cargo—fancy foodstuffs for the Melpomenean gourmets. Watching Jace work, I discovered that his skinny arms concealed wiry muscles. He approved of my strength, too. “Damn, woman, I didn’t think anybody your size could lift fifty kilos like that.”
“Practice,” I said. “Lots of practice.”
We shipped out as soon as we finished loading, even though we both could have used some sleep. The port gave Jace the choice of twenty-two hundred hours that night, or whenever they could work us in the next. He took the first slot. Short-haulers can’t be picky.
I worked com and comp, while Jace piloted us out of dock. Rhea’s engines kicked in, and we broke free of gravity with more ease than I’d expected. Jace patted the console. “Good girl,” he said. A planetsider might have laughed. I didn’t.
We took it easy pulling away from Galatea. I familiarized myself with the comp functions, so I could do fast calcs for jump. Jace ran through some maintenance routines, the kind best done while moving. Once we’d traveled far enough from the station, Jace called up the automatic pilot and waved me back toward the bunks. “Get some sleep,” he said, reclining the captain’s chair. “We got a long time before the jump point.”
Exhausted as I was, I lay awake awhile, wondering what I was doing, working on an independent. Jace probably saw me as a bonus: crew he could fuck. Well, hell, I was getting paid to play around. I’d get a real job when we got back to Galatea, I told myself firmly as I drifted off to sleep.
The next watch, as we came up on jump point, Jace took a look at my numbers. “Dead on for Melpomene,” he said with approval.
“You know the coordinates by heart?”
“I’m from there. But don’t worry. I’m not taking you home to meet my mother.”
Jump. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been through it, and most planetsiders haven’t. Passenger liners give travelers drugs, but spacers take pride in their ability to deal with the time shift. No real spacer takes drugs for jump.
We don’t talk about what happens there much, even with each other. It smells of religion, of dreams, of the occult, of a hundred things a cynical spacer would prefer not to believe in. But we do believe in it.
Jace pushed the buttons that sent us into hyperdrive, reached over, touched my hand, and time . . . changed. I was aware of Jace beside me, but I also saw another Jace, another me.
They floated in a pool of water, these others. Jace’s eyes held innocence; they had not yet seen the evils of the world. Mine were bright with anticipation of things I might yet do someday. Laughing in the water, we explored each others bodies. And minds. I saw Jace before he lost his parents and had to finish raising himself; he saw me before I joined the Corps and made the last stand for Atropos. “I think I love you Ane,” he said, and then we came back to normal time.
And started pushing buttons to figure out if we had indeed ended up on the edge of Melpomene space. Not to mention figuring out whether all of Rhea’s systems had survived jump. One thing about an old ship—FTL flight tends to stress all the working parts. But we’d made it in clean, this trip.
Jace put the system on automatic, and we grabbed packets of revitalizer out of the cabinets in the galley. He gave me a funny look as we both gulped them down, trying to replace a couple of weeks’ lost energy reserves.
“What’s your name, really?” he asked. “Lia or Ane?”
I flinched. As much as I’d enjoyed the jump visions, I’d kind of hoped he’d had different ones. Clearly he hadn’t.
Lying wouldn’t work. He knew. “Ane,” I said. “Ane n’Mara.”
“Thought you told me your docs were okay.”
“They are okay. They’re fucking better than okay. But . . .” I shrugged. “I’m from Atropos, Jace. I fought in the resistance.”
“I figured it had to be something like that. So the Confederation has your name on a list.”
I just nodded.
“Fucking stupid, the Atropos resistance. Anybody with any sense could see you didn’t have a prayer against the Confederation.”
“You ever wish you hadn’t done it?”
I kind of grinned. “I often wish I hadn’t had to do it,” I said.
“That’s not the same thing.”“Oh, Hell. I was nineteen, and the bastards wanted my home. A little planet, orbiting a minor star—not really important to anyone except for all its damned tserinium. Now it’s just another satellite, a little piece of the Helian Confederation. And I don’t have a home.”
“Oh, come on Lia . . Ane. The Confederation’s not all that bad. They just want to run the commerce and stuff. Otherwise, they don’t interfere much with the way the planet’s run. It’s not that big a deal.”
I didn’t get mad. I’m long past getting mad. “Maybe it’s not. Maybe they even run the place better. But we didn’t want them there, don’t you get it? It was our planet, and we wanted to be left alone. Why couldn’t they have just left us alone?”
Jace didn’t have an answer for that. He looked at me for a long time, then said, “Your docs—are they really that good? I’m not going to run into some kind of customs fuck-up?”
“I’ve worked spacer jobs for the past seven years, Jace, and never had a problem. Individual planet customs never give me any trouble. Long as I don’t come up against heavy Confederation security, somebody who can get past the mind barriers, I’ll be okay. I didn’t just buy phony papers.”
“And if I get caught, I’ll tell them I lied to you. No reason they wouldn’t believe it. It’s my problem, Jace. It doesn’t have to be yours.”
He just nodded again. Then he reached out, took my hand, and ignited all that hunger one more time. We barely got back to the bridge in time to begin docking when we got close to the station.
On Melpomene, Jace got a quick consignment bound for Bellona. He didn’t kick me off; I didn’t look for a better job. We got to Bellona, and another order fell in our lap. Another one came along shortly after. After a few months, neither of us questioned that I was staying on.
We had lots of time to tell each stories. Rhea had originally belonged to Jace’s uncle. A couple of years after his parents had died—killed in a robbery at the store they had run stationside—his uncle had shown up on a run to Melpomene, and taken Jace on as crew.
It was hard work: margin running, short hauls. His uncle had bent all the rules just trying to survive. Jace had already learned a few tricks living on the streets, and he learned more from his uncle.
“I came of age in spacerville bars,” he said. “Learned all my fighting there and on the docks. Learned how to drink there, too, the hard way.”
“Saw the inside of a few jails?” I asked.
“Like I told you once, I used to be young and stupid.”
Rhea became his after his uncle died. Rhea, and a bunch of debt. He’d gotten desperate enough to consider selling her once or twice, but he never could bring himself to do it.
“I’d rather die,” he said. “I ever get in so deep they try to take her for my debts, they’ll have to kill me to get her.”
Sounds melodramatic, I guess, but I understood it. I watched him when we were in port, saw how he glowed when they addressed him as Captain Demaine. He loved Rhea and he loved being his own boss.
In jump we saw other things about each other, things we couldn’t always put into words, things we might not have been willing to admit to ourselves. We always seemed to have a shared vision, even if we weren’t touching. He saw me blast a man as I found a way off Atropos after the resistance crumbled. I saw him stab a man to death on a deserted dock. Two people capable of killing for their own ends, two people who didn’t forget their enemies.
We connected so strongly in jump that I began to think we’d become that strangest of all contradictions, two spacers in love. We were happier than either of us had a right to be.
We were doing okay, for folks on the margins, getting regular work. Rhea’d only needed a couple of minor repairs, and Jace had paid me twenty-five percent of the net—good money for a temp on a short-hauler.
We sat in a spacerville bar early one evening, before the chaos took over. Jace said, “You know, I like having you around. I’d be willing to make you permanent crew, give you a stake, if you want one.”
I didn’t answer right away.
He said, “Course, I’ll understand if you want to get a real job here. Risky, hanging out with me. Economy’s pretty good right now everywhere, so there’s lots of business. Come a downturn, I’ll be sitting in dock, piling up fees, wondering where a job’s going to come from.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “We’re better off if I stay temp crew, stay way in the margins. Easier to convince security you didn’t know about my past if I get caught.”
“Yeah, well, fuck it. Life’s risky.”
I shook my head. “Safer for me, too. Security’s less likely to look close at me so long as I’m a temp.”
He nodded, finally, and we left it like that.
Nothing crashed down on us right away, but trouble started chipping away at us. Rhea’s com system broke down, and we depleted savings to replace it. Work started drying up. The economy took a downturn on Cybele, the lead Confederation planet, and markets throughout the five solar systems followed.
We sat in the dock in Bellona Station, running up fees, next to nothing on our chits, nothing even close to a job in sight.
Jace fussed around the ship while I looked for work. Obviously he couldn’t sign on to another ship. And by port rules if he’d taken a job stationside, we’d have had to move off Rhea and pay rent in addition to dock fees. You can’t live on ship and work stationside. Just another way the system sticks it to the small independent. It didn’t matter about me; the rules don’t apply to temps.
I tried to sign on with a long-hauler, figuring to make some money for both of us, but even the big ships hurt for business. No one was hiring. After I gave up on spacer jobs, I spent a week on the stationside docks, looking for any kind of work. No jobs there either: if the ships aren’t going out, there’s not much call for port crew.
Jace was going over the books when I came back after the last frustrating day. He took one look at me, and knew my news was bad. “Fuck it,” he said, and left abruptly. If you could slam a door on a starship, he would have done it.
He came back ten hours later. I pretended I hadn’t been worried. He didn’t look happy. “Ane, I’ve cut us a deal, something to haul.”
“But I don’t want to tell you what it is. That way you can play dumb. You’re temp crew, you don’t know what we’re hauling, you can’t get in any trouble. It won’t be your responsibility, on your conscience.”
“Fuck it. Whatever you’re in, I’m in.”
He shook his head adamantly. “No. Hell, no. This one is all on me. We get caught, something comes up, you had nothing to do with it. Nothing.”
“Jace, we can’t have this between us. You have to tell me.”
“Listen, damn it. I’m doing this to keep Rhea, okay? I’m doing it for me, for my own selfish reasons. Let me carry the weight. Please.”
He wore me down, eventually. Maybe because I was scared to find out just how far he’d go. Or even worse, just how far I might go.
So I got lost while he dealt with the cargo. It didn’t take long. Had I already guessed the cargo was human? Honesty compels me. Even in a bankrupt economy, some of the rich can still afford the luxury of buying other beings. I figured we’d sunk into slave-trading. I tried not to think about it.
Jace didn’t tell me our final destination. We didn’t talk much on the couple of days it took to get from Bellona Station to the nearest jump point. I guess we both feared what might get said if we spoke. The silence didn’t affect our communication; we ran the boards as smoothly as ever.
When we reached the point, I plugged in coordinates for Melpomene, and slipped . . . into . . . jump. For a time, we sat and stared at boiling clouds, chaotic in their movement. And then they faded away, and we saw ourselves.
Both of us were dressed in what seemed to be the formal attire of some sort of warriors, but of no soldiers we’d ever known. We looked like something out of forgotten ancient history, in tight-fitting black pants, blousy white shirts. Each of us carried a metal sword, and the blades gleamed brightly, reflecting light from every possible source.
We took positions opposite each other, just far enough out of range that each of us would have to take a step to strike the other. And then we bowed, moved into a formal stance, and began to fight.
I could not follow the moves. The fighters flowed like they were dancing, thrust and parry, parry and thrust. The blades struck each other with a musical ring. One of us¾I could not tell us apart¾cut the other, and blood flowed across the white shirt. Indeed the swords were lethal.
Thrust and parry, parry and thrust. And then we came out of jump, fell to the work routine, grabbed the revitalizers. “I wonder what that sword fight was about,” I said.
Jace shrugged. “I’ve heard some people practice that kind of stuff as a religion. Maybe we’re going to take it up.” He laughed. I didn’t. “Anyway, it sure was beautiful, graceful. We moved together like we do on the bridge.” He reached out a hand, touched me gently. “Like we do in bed.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But we were trying to kill each other.”
But the touch electrified me, as Jace’s touch always did. I wanted him, perhaps more than I ever had. It turned out much like the first time we’d made love. We contorted ourselves in the gap between bridge and galley, trying to make two bodies fit in a space not large enough for one.
I sobbed as I came, big gasping sobs as if my heart had broken. He tried to comfort me, stroked my hair, my face, and told me he loved me. I pulled him close, wanted never to let him go, never to know what happened next in our lives.
But next had to happen. The warning signal beeped on the bridge. Time for a live pilot. We took our positions, set things in motion. Jace closed his eyes briefly, and said, “Punch in coordinates for Atropos.”
I looked at him, said nothing, just looked.
“I need those coordinates, Ane.”
Again I said nothing, scared of anything I could possibly say.
“Damn it, Ane, that’s an order.”
That broke the spell. “Who are we carrying back there, Jace?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The cargo. It’s a person. Or persons. Isn’t it?”
His turn not to respond.
“Who am I betraying, damn you?” I stood up.
He grabbed my wrist. “Ane, please. We don’t have any fucking choices left. Let it be. Just let it be.”
I pulled my hand free, moved toward the hatch for the cargo hold. This time Jace grabbed for me, but I was moving already. I slammed an elbow into his throat. He stopped, gasping, and I back kicked him square in the solar plexus. It knocked him to the ground. I heard him wheezing.
I ran to the hold. My hand trembled as I fumbled with the keypad. I could hear Jace behind me as I got the door open, hit the lights.
A man sat there, shackled to the wall, blinking in the unexpected brightness. It had been more than eight years, but I recognized him. Maratin n’Veron.
He wasn’t anybody special to me. Not a former lover, not somebody in my squad. Not a commander I’d looked up to, or a subordinate I’d been responsible for.
No, just another Atroposian like me, someone who’d fought in the war, given up his whole damn life for a losing cause. Nobody special. Just someone like me.
Maratin gave me a puzzled look, like he thought he recognized me, but couldn’t believe it. I heard Jace behind me. Turning around, I backed deeper into the hold.
Jace stood in the doorway, some kind of weapon hanging loosely in his hand. He looked so sad.
“Bounty hunter.” I couldn’t keep myself from snarling those ugly words at him.
“Not by choice, Ane. You know that. By necessity.”
“Necessity! You’d justify selling a man to the Confederation, so they can kill him, or lock him away forever, on necessity. Nothing’s that necessary.”
“Survival, Ane. Survival’s that necessary.”
“Some things are worse than dying.”
“Is he somebody important to you, Ane? A lover, a friend?”
“No, damn you. Just another person like me, another person who threw away his whole fucking life to do the right thing. Like me. You going to throw me to the Confederation next time, Jace?”
That shocked him. “I love you, Ane.”
“Yeah, I know.” I did know. “But you love this fucking ship, too. Loved her longer. What happens the next time, Jace? What happens when there’s no outsider to sell?”
“I love you, Ane.” He wasn’t going to answer the question. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he couldn’t face the answer.
“Jace, we can’t do this, can’t turn this man over to the Confederation. Especially not on Atropos. Those bastards running the place now, they’ll crucify him. They want to prove to the Confederation that they’re really loyal. Hell, they torture folks whose resistance work consisted of turning a blind eye now and then. He fought, Jace. Just like me, damn it. Just like me.”
He closed his eyes briefly, and sighed. “People like you and me, Ane. Nobody’s going to give us a fucking thing. We got to do terrible things to survive. Terrible things.”
I knew then that this wasn’t the first time he’d sold people. And it wouldn’t be the last. Wouldn’t be my last time, either, if I went along. I knew something else, something very ugly.
“I know, Jace.” My voice cracked. “And I’ll do them, most of them. I’d already guessed we were hauling human cargo, and I did nothing. Do you understand? I’m no better than you. But I can’t do this, Jace. If I betray this man, I’m betraying everything I fought for back then.”
“Don’t you think I’d have tried something else, if there’d been a choice, Ane? I knew you would hate this. I did my best to keep you out of it. But now we got no choice.”
“We can head for Paneris. We could . . .” I couldn’t say it. Even then, I couldn’t say it.
Jace finished the sentence. “Sell the ship. I won’t, Ane. You know that. We got no choice.”
“Maybe you don’t, Jace. I do. I won’t let you do this.”
He raised the gun toward me. A cheap thing, the kind you see in bar fights and back alleys.
“You really willing to shoot me, Jace? Better make sure you kill me, then.”
He threw the gun away, threw it so hard it bounced off the wall. For a moment, a brief moment, I thought he’d given in. Then he said, casually, “We never have figured out who could outfight who.”
Hand to hand, then. Like the ancients. Before anybody invented guns. It seemed appropriate.
I moved deeper into the hold, where there was room, trying to draw him to move. Jace had size on me. Better to let him commit. He feinted once, out of range. I didn’t move. He tried it again, then followed with a kick. I moved in time for it to go past me, got right behind him so he couldn’t kick with the other foot, and grabbed his shoulder as he shifted his balance, pulling him backwards.
He half fell, twisted around, and I brought a hand down on the back of his neck. He leaped into a forward roll before I could hit him. I moved with him, tried to kick him in the head as he came up, but he moved too fast for me.
Jace did the feints again, came with the kick, and I repeated my earlier move. But this time he’d held something back on the kick. He backfisted me as I entered. I turned aside enough to catch it on the side of my head, instead of dead in the nose, but my head rang.
As he came around with the other backfist, I grabbed his arm and the side of his head from behind and pivoted fast. He moved with it, equally fast, and then dropped almost to his knees, scrambled around, and came up behind me in the same move.
Now he spun me around, one hand tight on my neck, holding my head firmly against his body, the other loosely resting on my arm. I grabbed hold of the loose arm with both hands, and went with the backwards fall when he half picked me up with his hip and threw me.
And, just as in our first fight, I jerked his arm as I went, and he flew through the air. But there wasn’t a pile of people to fall on, or even some open space. I was half a meter from the steel wall of the hold when I threw him. He tucked and tried to roll, and his neck hit the wall first.
I heard it crack. The noise echoed throughout the hold. He slid down the wall, landed in a sideways heap, and didn’t move.
“Jace,” I screamed. “Jace. Are you all right? Answer me, damn you.”“He’s dead, Ane.” Maratin spoke for the first time. “Or very close to it. You broke his neck.” He sounded satisfied, grateful.
“No!” I felt the tears start to take over. “No. Don’t be dead, Jace. Oh, please, don’t be dead.” I crawled over to him, tried to straighten his body out. His head flopped at an angle. There was nothing in his eyes.
“He’s dead, Ane,” Maratin said again. “The bastard is dead.”
“Shut up,” I screamed. “Shut up, or I’ll break your neck, too.” I lay beside Jace’s body, stroking it, and felt my pain come out my throat in a mournful sound.
“Ane,” Maratin said again. “He was a bounty hunter, like you said.”
“Shut up. I don’t care what he was. I loved him. Don’t you get it? I just saved your fucking miserable life, and I loved him and I don’t give a damn about you. So please shut up.”
I don’t know if he heard my words, my rage, or my fear, but he didn’t say anything else. I lay by Jace’s body. I cried all my pain out, poured it over his body, until there was nothing left inside me, nothing at all. And then I pulled myself shakily to my feet, and did the things that had to be done.
I found the keys, released Maratin. Moving to the bridge, I set the coordinates for a different destination: Paneris, where everything can be bought and sold. It would take two jumps to get there, but they have a small Atroposian exile community. They’d take Maratin in, at least for awhile.
I wrapped Jace’s body in some sheets from the bunks, and spaced it before we left the Melpomenean region. Gave him a spacer’s funeral, near his home. The best I could do. I’d have said a few words, but I didn’t have any except “I loved you.”
Maratin kept his mouth shut, ran comps for me. He’d been badly treated. I didn’t care.
The first jump felt horrible. Everything turned black, and stayed that way the entire time. Nothingness. Jump can seem long or short; this one had the feeling of eternity.
When we finally came out of it, my heart was racing. All spacers fear that black nothing, fear being stuck in nowhere for eternity. I’d rather be disemboweled. Slowly.
It made the idea of jumping again terrifying. Maybe I’d never see anything else in jump, but the blackness where Jace was now. But I forced myself to jump again, to finish the job in front of me.
Everything turned black again as we jumped, and I began crying. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, a white light showed at the corners, and gradually it took over, blinding me for a time. As my eyes became accustomed to it, I could see Jace and myself, standing there. He smiled his little grin, and handed me something. I looked at it; it was a little figure of a flightless bird, the rhea of the ancients.
“Keep her for me, Ane. Keep the ship.” And he faded away as we pulled out of jump on the edge of Paneris Station.
I’m going to do it, going to keep Rhea for him. I know it’s crazy, know any sane person would sell her on Paneris. The people that Jace got Maratin from back on Bellona, they’ll be wondering what happened. Confederation security’s likely to get wind of this one. I don’t sell her, get new docs, tweak my DNA again, they’re sure to find me. No way I can keep the ship, and live.
I know all that. I don’t care. Maybe Jace will be there in jump again. Maybe we’ll have a few times together there, before they catch me.
And when they do, if they don’t just blow me up, maybe I’ll get off one last jump, without coordinates, and end up sitting out in space throughout all eternity.
Maybe Jace will be there with me.
Or maybe nothing will.