Science Fiction spaceship space quiet story

The Forgetting Navigations - Two

By Marlee Jane Ward
Jun 29, 2021 · 3,676 words · 14 minutes

Photo by SpaceX via Unsplash.

From the author: The Forgetting Navigations is a novella about two bookish women chasing a killer across space. This is chapter 2.


2.

I remember every route we take by what I am reading.

In the long months between Normandy and Qīngtíng, in between my new duties on the ship, I pour over the collected works of Charles Dickens, JG Ballard, and Nnedi Okorafor. When we take a long ride through the Arcadias on a five-stop haul, I go deep into the contemporary philosopher Yasmin Maturo’s books and reconceptualise my place in the galaxy. As we scattershoot across the ALLCorp Group doing short-run live export deliveries, I get into artificial speciation horror, and beg Shirr never to haul livestock again.

I take whatever I'm reading down to the big, fancy, pressurised holds on our rare cryo passenger runs, doing welfare and maintenance checks. I thread through the pod maze, book held up as I move through the gently glowing orbs with their passenger naked and floating. It is no place for ghost stories. I almost give myself a heart attack reading It amongst the spectral forms in the half-light. Painted faces and imagined spiders are potential in every shadowy corners.

Before we sleep we eat books in the quiet.

I do not want to leave. When we deliver our cargo, I don’t often cross the threshold into the elevator station, and when we land I only leave the ship if I have to, and count the hours before we’re back in the endless black.

 I want to stay in the dark silence of space, in the here but not here fold of warp, invisible, impossible to find, existing but not.

I never want to live another way again.

And I let myself get used to things being good. I should have known better.

 #

We see the body on Lozano, in a tumbled pile of garbage spilling out of a dumpster at the dock. The piles of discarded plastic and rotting matter has formed a pyramid on and around the dumpster and the body slumps on the plane of it, brazen and only slightly set back from the thoroughfare. I don’t know why I go closer, because I don’t want to see, but someone has to. After a while Shirr realises I’m not with her and retraces her steps to find me. She doesn’t say anything. I look everywhere but at the body, like taking in the scene around might make the bird-flutter of my heart stop. Trash blooms all around, flowering in the tropical heat, the stink of it nearly sweet. There, next to the cheek, a tiny plastic robot fading in the sun. By the foot, two tequila bottles and a cat’s skull. The silver blanket tings as they spread it out over the body. I can breathe again once they’ve been covered. I can almost breathe again. The small crowd that I didn’t realise had clustered around us sighs and jeers as the blanket obscures their view.

I quake. I am not here to voyeur. This is not entertainment for me.

A Force in her stiff blue uniform is rolling out tape to block the scene, while two others supervise her. They laugh and joke as the red tape goes around whatever’ll hold it up.

‘Dunno why he didn’t just blast her out the airlock before reentry,’ she says, and they all chortle, ho ho ho. ‘Save us the trouble.’

Shirr murmurs and I can just hear her over the small crowd jostling for a look. Scavengers, trying to pick off the remnants. ‘The person who did this wanted us to see her.’

‘Us?’ I ask, feeling the cold fear curdle my blood, my guts.

Shick.

She puts a rough, dry hand on my arm. ‘Not us specifically. Just anyone. To show his power, how they are only visible now that he has made them so.’

Visible. Invisible. Was she like me? Fuck, did I know her? Hitchers don’t mix much, but sometimes we know each other by sight, offer quick nods, swap info on rides and which traders are easily distracted. Sometimes we’d spend time hiding in the ports together if we couldn’t find a ride right away. Once I spent four whole days with a silent hitcher about my age, their sweet-oiled dreadlocks spilling across my face as we fucked and ate what we could scrounge and slept together behind a dumpster in Porti on Masa. Two was better than one to keep out the icy air on that cold planet. They didn’t tell me their name. I didn’t tell them mine. The dumpster was a lot like this one.

I don’t want to think about that. I try to put it away. It’s so hard. It’s too hard. It makes me so tired, folding up all the little boxes I put these things inside.

Shirr takes my arm and leads me away. ‘Remember what you saw,’ she says, as if I could forget.

‘As soon as they realise she isn’t chipped, that will be the end of it.’ I say.

‘How do you know she’s not chipped?’

Because we’re invisible. No one cares if we disappear. It’s probably why he left her like that, all brazen. Because he can do it and no one will stop him and he knows it.’

Shirr doesn’t say anything as we

‘Meet me at home,’ Shirr says. ‘She hasn’t been there long. I’m going to DL the manifest file for today from the info dock.’

‘Can you do that?’

‘Freedom Info,’ she says and bustles away, lost in the crowd. I begin a guarded retreat, locking eyes with every man who passes, looking for him. I know it’s probably not the him I escaped from in the pod, but all the bad men in all the worlds melt together into his form, as if there’s only one, as if the galaxy isn’t seething with them.

‘You,’ someone says from behind. ‘ID scan. Now.’

I don’t even turn. The old instincts kick me in the ass and I leap into a sprint, the kind of fast-zipping, dodging sprint that comes from years running away from the Force. Before, it was just life: run, get away. Now, I’m running towards something, now I’ve got a place I would mourn if I lost, if they found me wanting an Ident and slammed me in some fetid prison on this tropical port.

No books there. Just a shaved head, one meal a day, and a long sentence for lack of personhood.

I don’t lead The Force to Shirr’s cargo hauler; that’s a newbie move. You never run towards your stuff, always lead them away, lose them and circle back. I take the Force on a round-trip past the market, close by Immigration but not too close, and then down to the tethers and landing pads with their great, grey cranes towering overhead. I lose her among the passenger ships. She’s game for the chase, but I she’s got nothing on my evasion skills. She gets nowhere near my closest shave; five years ago a Force grabbed me by my hood and I twisted free of it, leaving him holding nothing but an empty coat. I’d vowed to never let anyone get that close again.

Shirr is waiting by the hauler, hands wringing and a worried look on her soft-lined face.

‘Where were you?’ She asks, fear seeping out of her eyes.

‘Force,’ I explain, stepping quickly up the ramp and into what feels like safety. I don’t quit my pace until the hatch is closed behind us. ‘Random ID check, but not so random, you know? Guess I still have that look in my eyes.’

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah, it’s nothing new. Just gave chase, took her on a tour of the docks.’

Shirr hands me a small pile of new books. ‘I have a friend here, he keeps these for me.’

For once, not even the sight of new books can cure my shakes.

 #

Even though I’ve done it hundreds of times, and Shirr probably thousands, launch never ceases to set my heart to pound and free a swarm of pollinator bots in my stomach. Once you’re going fast in space it doesn’t feel like anything. But lift off feels like everything you’ve ever felt times a million and all at the same time.

First the tug comes and hauls us to the cargo bay, where the bots make the hitch with the load. We’re right-angled to the ground, hanging inside by the grav panels, The hitch on our ship cradling the cargo. Two huge boosters clang into position, and the bots scurry down the cranes to fix these in place. My breathing is shallow and fast as the ship creaks and groans with the weight. Shirr fusses with the launch sequence, mumbling to herself in the way that she always does. I cinch the straps across my chest tighter, tightest.

‘One minute to launch,’ comes across the comms, and Shirr gives the okay. The countdown flashes on the view. As the numbers click down, I close my eyes and concentrate on my breath, trying to make it deep and slow. When the counter hits single digits, my body flows with adrenaline, heart slamming hard.

With ignition, The Algea shudders and everything is suddenly a roar that envelopes the whole world. My chest clenches and I hold my breath even though I’m trying hard not to. The ship rises slow-then-fast, the whole thing shaking, threatening to tear itself to pieces. I’m never as aware of how fragile the ship is until fire and gravity battle to lift or keep us on the ground. I can’t help but wail as the sound splits everything apart inside me, but I can’t even hear myself do it, just feel it rising up out of my throat, quaking with the tremble of the ship. I’m sucked back hard in my seat, the Gs holding me tight there, driving my body to ground. I feel so small, so fucking fragile. My body was not meant for this, not meant to bear these forces.

If I wanted to open my eyes, I could watch the sky go blue-white-black in the view, but I keep them closed. I know what it looks like. The first few times it’s beautiful, now it’s just land then sky then black.

I could try to enjoy it. It’s inevitable: what goes down must go back up again, but I can’t help my fear response, my body is primed in fight-or-flight at all times. 

Launch is something scarier than a thought or a memory. It’s something real and whole to be afraid of; fire, decompression, mid-air break-apart. My soft body torn apart by forces to big and fast to even see, only feel. Fire and flames and melting steel. I let my body feel this fear; this fear is natural. It’s healthy.

 #

As we share a pot of tea, Shirr hands me her hand U. I scroll through the screen, peering at names and dates and times.

'Port manifest,' she says, though I've already figured that out.

'What are we looking for?' I ask, glancing down at the list and searching it for an entry that jumps out.

'Anything familiar?' She asks.

‘Familiar?’ My eyes dart back and forth across the lines. ‘Wait, Shirr, you don’t think it’s… him, right? It can’t be, it would be too much of a coincidence. He’s probably millions of K’s away.’

‘I know,’ Shirr says, but she’s not convincing me.

'This is useless,' I tell her after trying to read the manifest for far too long and failing. My eyes glitch, refusing to focus and seeing only patterns in the spaces between the text. 'We don't even know what we're looking for.'

'Do you remember the name of his ship?'

'I think so? I’d know it is I saw it, I think,' I tell her. ‘But Shirr, it's not him. He's just one of millions. They're everywhere.'

'What are?'

'Bad men,' I say. I exit the list and do a search for imgs of the scene. A picture clarifies on the screen. It’s her. I remember the soma bottles at her feet. I blink and see her behind my eyes, too.

I will never unsee this.

I do a broad reverse search on the image, and the screen fills with hundreds of thumbnail imgs of splayed limbs on piles of trash. Crime scene images, a few fashion stills and some random garbage pics. Shirr looks over my shoulder and I feel the shudder go through her even though we're not touching. I highlight an image and it fills the screen. I wrestle the urge to look away, to throw the hand U down and stomp on the screen until the picture obscures in a cascade of touchscreen cracks. I don't. I read the report attached and then I go back and highlight another one. And another. Another.

'Can you imagine how many more are put out of airlocks?' Shirr says.

She's right. These are just the ones they've bothered to dump. It moves into the inside frame of my mind, the part that likes to show me things, awful things both real and imaged. Memories and dreams. The space in my mind fills with a body floating lonely and frozen through space forever. Fuck. My mind eye flashes forward to an img-memory of me floating in the lifepod, one I could have never seen 'cause it's like I'm looking at myself from a long way away, and I'm not dead or alive but something else, hovering in a space between yes and no, up and down, life and death.

I don't want to think about this.

I want to go back into the library and keep reading the book on fractal engineering that I'm halfway through. I want to get in the shower and waste a bunch of fuel recycling a torrent of hot water that I can use to scrub away the memory of these girls, the lifepod, the shick and shiver of a knife at my throat.

I want to obliterate myself and find a way to forget my entire life.

 #

I wake the U which has set itself to sleep in the night, and I start scrolling through the manifest. The names blur together. All except one. It stands out amongst the others, stark, the pixels seeming sharper, more jagged than the others.

‘Shirr?’ I call out, my voice turning to dust and my heart jump-jumping in its shroud of bone and muscle. A vision of the blocky, unjoined letters spray painted next to the hatch jumps into in my mind-eye. ‘Boş. Class C cargo hauler.’ My words don’t sound like mine, flat and quiet and droning. ‘I think that’s it.’ I remember the cedilla below the ‘s’ and knew it was a class C by the sight of it. I thump the U down.

‘It’s likely,’ Shirr says, face rumpled to one side from the sheets. ‘How many pilots with a history of violence land on the same day there’s a body dump?’

I give Shirr a look that obviously says hundreds.

‘Where’s he headed?’ she asks, changing the subject.

‘Vica. Hauling for the Meyer Corp. Minerals.’

‘Then we go to Vica.’

‘What about your haul?’

‘I can cancel this haul. Tell them I’ve had unexpected repairs. They’ll have a backup.’

‘What about the next, and the next? Aren’t you booked up in advance?’

‘We’ll think of something,’ she says. There’s a look in her eye like focus. Like burden.

‘Why did you stop for me, Shirr?’ The question jumped into my mind and I said it with no pause between.

Shirr doesn’t say anything for a bit. She pulls out the things for tea. We’d been running low, but this planet, tropical Lozano, has conditions around the sun-belt that are perfect for growing. We took in vacuum-packed sacks of tea leaves, fruits and colourful vegetables, sealed tight and timeless in bioplast casings. Shirr is silent until she comes back with the cups. She watches me take the first sip, and then she starts to talk.

‘I don’t like talk about things in the past, you know this.’

‘It’s why we get along,’ I say.

‘When I saw the blip and heard the warning, I was this close to coding it in as an error. I had the command highlit, was about the confirm the action. But your blip, it was in the middle of so much nothing. It made me feel sick and I came out of warp without even realising I was making the command. Then I saw you, the state you were in, I felt sicker because I nearly left you to that.’

I nod, keeping silent. She doesn’t want my thanks or for me to even say anything. She’s not done.

‘So, we’re going to Vica. Because I can’t bear the thought of this happening to someone else. Because no one else knows what he might be, but we do. And if he does it again, it’s on us now.’

‘No, it’s on him. It’s always on him.’ I say.

Shirr nods. ‘Yes, it’s on him to choose not to kill. But he isn’t choosing that. So, it’s up to us to stop him. No one else knows. No one else cares.’

‘No one else will,’ I say.

She nods.

‘No one else will.’

 #

There’s only one sentence about the body in any of the reports from Lozano.

An undocumented female was found deceased in the port, an undocumented male charged with her death. I DL the pictures of the crime scene, but I don’t need to, the image is seared into a frame in my mind-eye that I can pull up at any time. The Force report is Freedom Info and it’s basic, nothing I can’t figure by calling that image to my mind.

I show Shirr and tell her, ‘They got two birds with one stone, two less hitchers stinking up the port. They made it go away.’

‘Did you expect anything else?’ she asks.

‘No.’

There’s a long silence, and then the kettle boils.

‘Did you find his name?’ I ask as I make the tea. It’s my turn.

‘Yes.’ Shirr looks down.

‘Well?’

She says his name. It feels like an understatement. I shake it off. In my head, it’ll always be him.

 

We’re poised to come out of warp and prep for entry when I slam the book onto the dining table, making all the plates and cups jump. Shirr comes running in from the bridge.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asks.

‘So many dead girls,’ I say. She looks to the cover of the book, face-up amongst the dinner things I was supposed to be clearing away. It’s a murder mystery. ‘Are we out of warp?’ I ask.

‘Yes, we break the atmosphere in ten minutes. You need to clean this up before we do.’

I stand and clear the things, tucking the plates and cutlery into the dishwasher. ‘Every single one of these that I read, it’s always a dead girl. Too many dead girls. It’s like a game to play, solve this puzzle. But it’s almost always a woman, and she’s always dead. That’s not a puzzle, it’s not entertainment. It’s a tragedy.’

Shirr hurries back to the bridge and soon there’s the familiar bump as we enter the atmosphere and the rush of noise replaces the silence. I stumble around, finishing up the kitchen, then head to the bridge myself, strap in for landing. We cut through the cloud and the view of Vica clears in the front window. The planet is icy, in its perpetual winter, great crags snow-capped and growing closer. The main cargo port on the continent of Arcadia is in a city called First and it takes us thirty minutes or so to descend. It exists in the shadow of a plateau a kilometre high, and cradled on the other side by a lower mountain. I’ve been here before. It’s a fucker of a place. Its only sun warms the city for a few hours a day before it’s lost again, dipping behind the mountain.

‘I hate this place,’ Shirr says.

‘Me too.’

‘You’ve been here before?’

‘Twice. Not a great place to rough it, but it’d not just the cold. The Force here are vicious.’

Shirr has loaned me a few layers to put on under and over my coverall. She’s only got the one coat and offers to buy me one at port, but I decline.

‘Nah, I can get one,’ I tell her, grinning. I don’t want her to spend all her creds on me.

‘No stealing,’ she says, her face hard. ‘We can’t draw attention to ourselves. And we’re fifty-fifty. Okay, we’re eighty-twenty, but room and board doesn’t eat it all up. You’ve earned your way.’

I shrug. Even though she says the currency is mine, that I earned it, it still feels like she’s doing me a favour. I don’t like the weight of someone helping me. It feels wrong, but Shirr insists.

We thump down into an empty bay, the great space swamping our tiny, cargo-less hauler. Once we’re docked, Shirr looks to me. I look back at her.

‘What now?’ I say, asking her only because she’s the elder, as if that means she’ll be in charge or possess any idea at all about what we’re going to do. She obviously feels the burden of this role even though we haven’t talked about it. Really, if it’s anyone it should be me. I’m the one who’s been reading all those murder mysteries, up to my elbows in dead and missing girls. Trying to ignore the zing of the hair at the back of my neck and the persistent echo of knives unsheathing.

‘We’ll Freedom Info the manifests and work out where he is.’ Shirr adds the emphasis too, as if she can feel his shick every time she says the words.

‘And then?’

‘Then we’ll kill him,’ she says. Simply.

‘Oh,’ I say softly, even though I knew it in my guts all along.


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Marlee Jane Ward

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