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The Forgetting Navigations - One

By Marlee Jane Ward
Jun 12, 2021 · 3,696 words · 14 minutes

Photo by NASA via Unsplash.

From the author: The Forgetting Navigations is a novella I wrote in 2018. I have attempted to sell it and had no luck. I want it to be read, so I'm posting it here in 4-6 parts. This story gnawed at me until I wrote it, the way that every trauma gnaws at you. The way you gnaw at yourself. It's a bow to every older woman who can teach you how to live without gnawing, 'cause she's learned how. It's a song to friendship and how it can give you something to tether you to life.


1.

My chances in the lifepod are fifty-fifty, but those are the best odds I've got. I slip into the straps of the launch sling and prime the pod, which takes just a few seconds.

He bursts through the bridge lock as I slam the big red EVAC button. In the second before the door comes down, I get one more good look at his boundless eyes, as black and void as the space I’m about to eject into. I see the glint of his knife and hear the shick sound it makes but only in my head. I will always hear it.

The lock slams shut. Acceleration sucks me back against the launch sling, making the straps feel loose, too loose. I clench my teeth at the rattle and bang, but then things go quiet and smooth as I pop out the belly of the ship.

I hold my breath, watching the blips on the info panel as the distance between them widens. Then his ship disappears, dropping off my sensor and into warp again. Relief curdles through my veins, hot and fast, like a shot, like a dose that’s a whisper too heavy.

I’m safe now. I’m safe from him, anyway.

I wait, weightless. The pod doesn’t have a grav panel, so I watch my hair float around for a while. Blood lifts from the graze on my knee and takes to float, spherical. The only sound is my breath that shortens, shortens until I give way and sob sob sob. There’s no one to see or hear or punish me for these tears so I let go, I let my body override my brain for just one moment, to feel and cry. The tears surge into spheres too, joining the blood to float around in the small space of the pod.

It’s a standard shipping route, so I’ll probably bounce around in here for a day or two and then some passenger liner or cargo run will come along and lock a beam on me, easy. It can't take that long.

Can it?

Time gets stretchy in here.

White walls, no view out. The list of things I’d do for a porthole expands as time passes. I could see something approach. I could count stars. I could lose myself in the black. After a while, I beg who or what ever just for a light switch, just to ease the vision of everything so close.

Just so I can fucking sleep.

But when I do finally sleep, I wake in bright light, having slipped the straps, and I hang mid-pod in such deep silence that I think I can hear the glug of blood moving through my veins. I wake, mid-pod, mid-dream of home and my heart hurts. I wake, screaming, to visions of my hatch opening to him and his void-black eyes, and take a while to assure myself that he’s not just on the other side of that steel door, that there’s nothing outside but gentle vacuum.

My own heartbeat, palpitating, wakes me. Time passes and my thoughts are big enough to fill the space. Frantic, slow, frantic again. One phrase starts to circle lazily in my mind, sometimes widening into a gyre and sometimes spinning fast enough to make its own gravity: how the fuck are you going to get out of this one, Evey Et?

A pod has a week of air, water, and starvation rations. The info panel shows the remnants of my air, my water and I mentally divide the gauge into sevens, work out the passing days by how much I have left. I watch the levels dip and dip, the days dropping away with every sip and breath. My waste receptacle malfunctions and contams my water supply. Contams the whole fucking pod. I hyperventilate, streaked in filth, and wonder what state they’ll find me in, if anyone finds me.

 #

Dying isn’t hard. After six days in a one-by-two lifepod drifting further into nothing, and a day floating around in my own shit, death seems like it might be a relief. I look around for something to speed it up, but there’s nothing. Nothing that will be easy, anyway.

So I wait, weightless. I watch the gauges.

I wait to suffocate.

I can’t wait.

 #

 When the blips start to sound, I think I’m delirious. Whacked out from lack of oxygen, or something. I’m filthy, floating and wide-eyed, hovering somewhere between asleep and awake, dead and alive. I am both and neither. I am Schrodinger’s girl, simultaneous until you open my pod.

You’re hearing things, Evey.

I’ve been hearing things for a while. Voices, chanting like songs, prayers. Slow deep rhythms coming from all sides. My mother. My little sister wailing, don’t leave me, Evey. The gruff grunts of pilots, quiet instructions, don’t move, don’t make a sound. The endless shick of knives unsheathing. There’s nowhere to escape the noise.

Now my brain is making up blips so I refuse to listen, turn mid-pod away from the sound and try to shake it out of my head, my ears.

NO, EVEY, DO YOU HEAR THAT?

It’s not real.

IT IS EVEY, DO YOU HEAR IT?

Whoever she is, she’s right. Something has dropped out of warp, right by me. It picked up my distress sig and didn't ignore it, hasn’t just blinked past. Hot, fast hope races through my bloodstream like a kid bouncing off the walls of a ship corridor. I make my eyes focus. Up until now there hadn’t been a point, so I’d let them go lazy. I wipe piss and shit off the info panel.

There, a shape. A ship. A big one. Passenger ship? Cargo haul? Is it the Force? Is it him? Has he come back for me? I bump into the wall as they lock and start to reel me in. The gauges are at one-half of one-seventh. I hadn’t bothered looking at them for a while. I didn’t want to know.

There’s a noise, a real noise as my pod locks to their dock. The fear screams alongside the sound. My mind flickers possibilities, images and scenarios shuffling like cards.

The lock opening to friendly eyes of an old couple, wrinkled and wizened, ready to nurse me back to myself.

The lock opening to a line of Force, guns drawn and screaming GET DOWN, GET DOWN.

The lock opening to the worried staff of a passenger liner, a bus in the black, with a neat, warm infirmary in which to care for me.

The lock opening to him, void-eyed and knife drawn.

I can’t know. It could be anything, but anything’s better than this.

I float up straight, summoning as much dignity as I can, even while globes of my own waste orbit. There’s a I wait. The hatch flies up without ceremony, a new world.

I need to see.

 #

Here’s how one ends up hitching rides across the galaxy with only a backpack full of books and a blade: be born on a cult ‘stroid, birth unregistered, run away at thirteen cycles. No chip: no identity: nowhere to go. Simple as that. I mean, it’s not, but it’ll do.

What keeps me on the run, that’s different. I could hijack a chip, or buy one, sure. That’s easy if you’ve got the funds. But I don’t. I haunt the ports, run from the Immigration Force, beg rides from planet to planet. Always going, going everywhere, going nowhere.

Sometimes I wonder if I will do this forever. Or if I’ve got a death wish. Maybe I just keep going because it’s easier than thinking of an alternative. Like, I keep on running because it’s easier than imagining how I’d stop and live with… whatever.

The best pilots to hitch a ride with rank thus: non-binary folk; cold women who don’t talk about the past; old couples retiring on cargo hauls; twenty more combinations of every kind of person; and last, cis men. I only take rides with them if I’m desperate, but I am often desperate. I try to read them as best I can between dodging port officers and lifting supplies from distracted traders at the docks. If they are good, they just leave me alone or seek me out for conversation over dinner, maybe a game of chess or mah-jong now and then, happy for company. Sometimes they try to arrange an agreement for the length of the trip which I (mostly) decline to responses that range from sulking to violence.

And sometimes I wake up to a hand gripping my breast.

I don’t want to talk about that.

 #

I need to see.

I need to know.

I don’t want to know.

Fuck.

Please.

My heart surges, the adrenaline makes me want to vomit. The hatch flies up unceremoniously and I want to close my eyes against it, but I don’t.

In the doorway is a tall white woman in a plain grey coverall. She’s got grey hair, shorn close to the scalp. She has a blaster holstered, her arm cocked and hand poised to take it out, but when she sees me her hands go up to her mouth. Then her nose.

I reach out, use the edges of the seal to pull myself forward, my filthy hair floating behind me, collecting orbs of waste, then I step into gravity. The force of it takes out my knees and I crumple to the floor, dragged down by the grav panels.

Sweet gravity. Sweet air.

‘How long have you been in there?’ she asks, closing the hatch.

‘Seven days,’ I say but my voice grabs at my throat. I haven’t used it in so long.

She looks horrified but then her face goes back to hawkish and and taut so quickly I wonder if it even happened. ‘Is there anything you need in there?’

‘No. Get rid of it. Please.’

She heaves the lever and blasts away the pod, sends it into space so it can hold its secrets alone in the dark forever.

‘Let’s get you cleaned up,’ she says, reaching out a hand. I ignore it, there’s no use wasting water cleaning the both of us up. My knees crack and tremble as follow her to the bathroom. It’s so small, and I try to box up all the thoughts that cascade  

But then the water spills out, and it is warm and gentle. The filth sheds with the flow from the shower head and I spend a quick few minutes and precious water trying to scrub away the memory of his voidy eyes, the week in the pod, my whole life.

I think I am expecting too much of the shower.

When I get out, I can see the woman has hung a coverall on a hook for me. Deep green, almost charcoal, it is soft and worn. It smells so clean. It’s too big, she’s very tall, but I roll the sleeves and cuffs so it doesn’t drag and I pad out of the bathroom unit. My feet leave steam marks on the cold steel floor.

She’s in the bridge, sitting at the control panel, a pair of cups steaming in front of her.

‘Do you drink tea?’

I perch on a clear panel and take the cup, then sip it slowly. I already quenched my thirst with warm shower water. It’s too hot to gulp, anyway. It is strong and sweet and she takes it with a good amount of soya milk.

‘Thank you for coming out of warp for me,’ I say.

‘No problem,’ she says, like it was nothing, as if it didn’t set her schedule back. Then again, if she was on such a tight turnaround, she probably wouldn’t have stopped.

‘I’m Evey. Evey Et.’

She nods. ‘Shirrr Krus,’ she offers back, stiff, like it’s hard to even say that much.

‘This a cargo run?’ I ask.

Shirrr nods. ‘Hauling minerals to Seris.’

I don’t know it, but I nod and keeping sipping my tea. She doesn’t ask about the pod, or how I got there and I don’t offer, and we sit there in silence for a while, watching the stars curve around the warp bubble. It’s not an uncomfortable silence. It’s just quiet and it doesn’t mean anything. Cold women who don’t like to talk about the past are my fourth-favourite type of ride.

‘Do you have a place to go?’ Shirrr finally asks. My brain starts to churn out a story, running back through all my usual lies for the best one, but then I stop. I don’t have to. I’m already on the ship.

‘Not really. I’m just headed wherever you are.’

‘Like that, is it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Ok. Well, I can take you to Seris, it’s my next port. But I can’t offer you anything more.’

‘That’s perfect,’ I say, wondering about Seris and if I’ll be able to fit myself out again seeing as all my stuff is gone. I don’t mourn any of my things, except the book I wasn’t finished yet. I don’t need things. I’m my own things.

But thinking of that unfinished book in my backpack makes my thoughts spiral, back to my bag, to that ship, to the shick of his knife, the cold press of steel against my neck…

I don’t want to think about that.

I lock it in, try and coat the memory in layers of forgetting, box it up and send it out into space. I’m good at this and getting better. I want to be a cold woman, just like Shirrr, the past locked away and unspoken. I’m already on my way. From the chair she watches me, sipping from her steaming cup. I think she senses the forgetting navigations I’m doing, but still, she says nothing.

In sleep, those hard-won boxes of forgetting all open. I can’t control it. They rocket their way back through space, pulling in like they’re locked to me. They open, flooding my mind with bad air.

Clammy hands on cool skin.

Don’t move, don’t make a sound.

The shick of knives. Eyes like black holes.

I wake up screaming.

Footsteps thump across steel and I’m still not sure where I am, so when I feel hands on me, trying to gather me up, I fight. They hold tighter, pulling me into a warm body that rocks me gently and I still struggle now, but less. Shirrr murmurs into my hair.

‘It’s okay. You’re safe now.’

 #

We take the same spots as before we slept. Shirrr is in the chair, of course, and I’m perched on the clearest section of the control panel. We both look out at the stars, not at each other and drink her perfect tea in perfect silence. She doesn’t mention last night, my dreams and the screaming, and I don’t either. We sit comfortable in the fable that it didn’t happen. Just thinking of it has power, though, and a little flash of memory escapes.

We slide into warp like nothing, slip into a little pocket of space and time and the shick of a knife cuts through the silence, the cold press of a blade to my neck. It has been a long time since I heard this song but I know the words by heart cause I’ve felt the cool burn of sharpened steel once or twice. He’s behind me pressed tight in the passageway from the bridge to the sleeping rooms, just a steel wall, me, him, then steel again, not much room for a whisper to pass between us and outside there is nothing, nothing, just the suck of the black.

I try to think of Shirrr and her arms around my body in the dark. The black tumble slows, stops, and I catch the little bubble of memory and fear. Box it. Send it out across the galaxy.

‘We’re two days away,’ she tells me. ‘You know what you’ll do once we get to Seris?’

I go to think up a lie, an instinct that is so deep that it is always my first one, but then I remember that I don’t have to bother. There’s no grim mining father or sick grandmother or worried mother to make up. The truth feels so strange when it passes over my lips. I don’t know what to do with my face as I say it, don’t have the expressions practiced perfect, so I look out at the stars instead. ‘Get some supplies. Find some new books. Hitch another ride.’

‘Books?’

‘Yeah, I like books.’

‘You can read?’

‘They taught us in the temple,’ I say without even thinking about it, but she doesn’t ask.

‘Are you going somewhere in particular?’

‘No. Just gotta keep moving. You know how it is.’

She almost nods but doesn’t. ‘You’re unregistered?’

‘Yeah, I can’t leave the docks.’

‘So, you thieve supplies and read books and hitch rides. That’s it?’

I move my head in a way that is not quite yes, and not quite no.

‘Does that life make you happy?’

The question is so unexpected that I look at her before I can stop myself. But then I’m not sure what to say. It takes me a bit to figure out how to answer, and I keep looking at her the whole time.

‘I think…’ I start, but that’s just to get words started, or I might struggle to answer her question forever. The rest comes without thinking, though. ‘Being happy is a luxury most people don’t get to have.’

She purses her lips like she’s going to say something, but she doesn’t, and we both look out at the view of the black for a while. Finally, I feel her gather her breath to talk.

‘What were you reading?’

It is not the question I expected. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Were you reading something before you got in the pod?’

'Oh. Um, Emre Rigan. The Edge of the Worlds.'

Shirr laughs, her eyes crinkling at the edges, and I'm so surprised to hear the jagged burst of her laughter that I forget myself and laugh too. ‘So dry!’ she says. ‘And a brick too. I made it four chapters and gave up.’

'There's always traders in port with a couple of books in with their stuff. Or booksellers, sometimes. But I don’t always get to choose what’s easiest to take.' I shrug and look down at the dregs of the tea. At home I never drank the last mouthful. Too sweet, always pure sugar. ‘It was okay, though. I like that Rigan keeps distance between himself and the information. Gives it a…’ I can’t find the right word.

‘Gravity?’

I nod, that’s exactly it.

‘How far did you get in?’ She asks.

‘About three quarters through.’

We sit in silence again.

'My father was a trader,' Shirr says, out of nowhere. ‘He always had a box of old books with his things. He used to read them to me. I liked the smell.'

I nod, not wanting to break the spell by making any sound but it’s over anyway when Shirr drains her cup and places it back on the control panel with a small click.

I don’t like the smell of old books, that musty vanilla tang.

Once, when I was lost in the twists and turns of a packed bookstall, an older man approached me. He had shadowed eyes that glowed red where the white should be.

'You’re such a pretty girl. How old are you?' he said, coming closer, too close. I shrank back into the books as his eyes ate me up. The stink of old paper, binding glue was overwhelming. He came closer and I was cornered, pressing into the stack of books at my back so hard, wishing I could go further, wishing I could disappear into them. Eat me up, books, before he does. They didn’t.

I have never liked the smell of old books, but I don't tell Shirr that. I don't want to ruin the moment.

‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’ Shirrr says. I’d been waiting for her to ask but wasn’t sure if she would. I’ve been dreading it. Everything in me wants to slide off the panel and retreat to somewhere quiet, not have to think about it or talk about it, but she’s asked now. Fuck.

‘I hitched a ride,’ I say, slow, trying to phrase it just so, just enough and nothing more. ‘He pulled a knife. It happens.’

She nods, breath leaving her body in a huff that jets steam out of her nose in the cold air. ‘Happened before, has it?’

‘Yeh. Not like that, but it’s happened.’

‘Did he—’

 ‘No. No, I got away this time.’ This time. I don’t know why I said that. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

She nods and is silent for a while and I sit there, uncomfortable in the echo of it for once.

‘I have a question for you,’ she says, but she doesn’t ask it. Instead she walks off down the hall instead and I’m not sure if I am supposed to follow her. Then she turns and beckons. I slip off the control panel, the softness of my thighs scraping against the cold steel corner.

Shirrr is stopped at the door between our sleep rooms. Her hand is on the lever but she doesn’t flip it right away and waits for me to catch up. It’s kind of like docking with her ship all over again. My mind jumps over possibilities: a collection of costumes that I’ll have to wear for her amusement? Her collection of Hitcher Bitch skulls? It could be anything.

It’s not anything though. It is something very specific. Something that I cannot say no to, and I think she knows it.

When she opens the door, the small room is completely lined with shelves and each of the shelves is lined with them, they heap on piles on the floor, surrounding a chair that is soft like I have never seen.

Books. The room is full of books.


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Marlee Jane Ward

Marlee Jane Ward writes speculative fiction and dreams of the future.