From the author: The Forgetting Navigations is a novella about two women who chase a killer across space when they'd rather be reading. This is part 4.
I need a chip to do anything: call the Force, report Shirr missing, launch our hauler to follow them. All my hesitations vanish in a second, chased off by the look in Shirr’s eyes, her eyes that play in my mind-eye on a loop.
I’ve felt the sharpness of that knife.
I can’t use the public access panel to check the launch logs without an Ident, but the bots haven’t even started reloading his haul, so I’ve got time. I’m lucky that I’ve been to this port before. I take flight across the docklands, spinning past the bays and cranes, reaching out to touch corners as I pass, to steady myself, to help me keep in reality and not give in to panic as the infinite ways that he might be hurting Shirr cascade across my mind. I try to calm myself, thinking: the walls I brush past, yes, those are real. My footfalls on the crackly paved road; real. The imagined tortures are not.
The woman I’m looking for is in the spot I remember, seated languid at the front of a hothouse, long limbs slick in a tight bodysuit. Her thick, black braids puddle around her seated form. She looks like any other hothouse flower, seated here with the arrangement on the balcony, lit orange with heat lamps, but she owns the joint.
‘Uh, Phane?’ Is that it, do I have her name right?
‘Yes?’ she says, her voice as smooth and the syllable as elongated as her form.
‘Do you see women. Can I book you? ?’
Phane laughs. ‘Ha! Of course I do. My sexuality is money,’ she says, the vowels rounded with her accent. ‘Do you have it? Money?’
I nod and she stands, towering over me on the raised balcony. She gestures for me to follow. I clatter up the steps behind her and hold out the little account chip Shirr gave me to pay for my coat. She’s got her wrist scanner poised for me, and it tings gently as the charge goes through. I have no idea how much Shirr has in this account, but it’s enough for the cost of a ten-minute service, which is what I need to start.
Phane leads me through the hothouse, the shape of her disappearing now and then into the shadows of the tight hallway. The velvet of her catsuit bleeds into the shadowed hallways. She stops before a door and leads me into a large room, heavily accented with gold and red, the bed a centrepiece and laden heavy with furs and pillows.
‘I need a chip,’ I say as she shuts the door, no time for pleasantries. Phane looks me up and down, brings out a small detector from the cavern between her breasts, and she checks me for surveillance, malware, and Ident. Nothing registers.
‘Ah, that kind of service. You’re undocumented?’
‘Yes. Pirate or built, whatever I can afford. It doesn’t matter.’
‘Do you have the creds?’
‘I have no idea. I need you to check.’ I wave the account chip at the detector and she assesses the balance.
‘You could get a built chip and an entire night with me with what’s in this account.’
‘I don’t have a night. I just need the chip,’ I say. But a small part of me, the part not overtaken with panic and horror, wishes I did have the night. Just to feel that gilded skin. Just to be folded in those arms. Any arms.
‘It will take me a little while to build you a history.’ Phane goes to a gilded cupboard in the corner, where she pulls out a hand unit and a small, carved wooden box. ‘Take a seat, miel.’
I can’t settle. I worry the tassels of fabric between my hands. She sets a gleaming new chip on the reader and it sets to glow as she activates.
‘Name? Where were you born? What age are you?’ Phane asks, entering commands with the practiced fly of hands that have made these motions many times before.
‘Evey Et. Nineteen. Wherever you like, I don’t care about the specifics.’
‘You’re from the Cult of Et?’ she says, lifting one carefully painted eyebrow.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘that’s why I’m undocumented. I was born on their altar ‘stroid. My mother was an acolyte.’
‘I’ve not met anyone who left that cult. Come by some time, I’d like to pick your brain.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Yes, yes, I’ll do whatever, just code the chip!
‘Why now? What’s the hurry?’ She pauses in her work. I put my face in my hands.
‘My friend, she’s been taken. I have to find her or follow her. Can you get me listed on the crew manifest of a hauler at dock? The Algea?’
She winks one of her liquid brown eyes at me, though they look black in the red light of the room. ‘I can. So who took your friend? The Force? Debtors?’
‘A man. Just a man,’ I say, desperate.
‘Men do these things, don’t they?’ Phane goes back to coding my chip. ‘There, Evey Et. You’re now Evey El, nineteen, from Coliv. Parents deceased, no siblings. I’ve given you an extensive travel history, so it doesn’t look suspicious. Where was the last port you called at?’
‘Lozano,’ I tell her. ‘We picked up tea and…’ I don’t know why I say it, but my mind-eye fills with the scent of the dried leaves and the image of steam coming off cups in the library and I start to cry. Phane slips the chip into an implanter, holds up my arm, pulls my sleeve back and fires the thing into my wrist. I barely feel it, but too, I feel it so deep and the pain cleans out the inside of my head. Phane sits beside me, gathers me up in her arms and lets me sob into her lap.
‘Is okay, miel, this one is on the house,’ she says, patting my hair with the practiced stroke of someone who has done this many times.
It’s funny how I can go from illegitimate to not in the time it takes to load an implanter and fire. It is so easy. Something I’d avoided so long, turned into such a mountain in my head and my heart, and it was as easy as that.
I’m a human.
I have rights now.
I’m visible. I feel it in the way I walk, the way I make eye contact. There's a new fear to being visible, a fear like the old one but its own thing.
I’m almost too scared to use the chip, afraid the Force will see the fresh wound and know I’ve got an illicit one. It’s Shirr, though. She’d do it for me. I don’t know how I know this, but I know it with every part of my self; in my blood, my skin, my cells, my heart. She would do it for me.
I’ve never felt so seen as I approach the two Force who stand by the entryway to the docks. I’m not used to it. There are advantages to being invisible. They shuffle in their stiff grey uniforms but come to attention as I get closer.
‘Yes?’ the first woman asks, moving her hand over her blaster, not unholstering it. Yet. I am flinching away from them, internally shying.
‘There’s something wrong,’ I say, barely a whisper.
‘What?’ She says. She can’t hear me.
‘There’s something wrong. My copilot, she’s been taken.’ They come alive a little. They don’t ask to scan my ident. Just me having it is enough. I move with the presence of someone real, the chip pulsing sore beneath my skin. No undocumented would ever approach the Force, but I’m human now. It makes me even madder, because I was a human before too.
‘Where?’ she asks, gathering herself, unholstering now. I shy away from the movement. I’ve never been this close to a Force, close enough to see the stitching on their coats. Well, once, but I wasn’t paying attention then.
Sprung into action, I follow them to the dock where he is, the bots crawling insectile on the cargo, making the last of the hitch to the new haul. The Force send the hail signal and the hatch lowers. He strides forward, down the ramp made by the falling door, and he steps off just as it touches dirt.
‘Yes?’ His eyes are a regular depth, not boundless. Just a standard pilot about to pull off this bitter cold moon, set sail for warmer worlds.
How can he be these things at the same time?
How can he hold that violence without anyone knowing?
How do men contain such darkness and still act human? How?
‘We’ve had reports of a woman on your vessel against her will. Permission to come aboard?’
‘Permission granted,’ he says, moving aside to make room for them. ‘But she’s not here against her will. She’s just cleaning up, I’ll get her for you.’
The Force look to me as he recedes into the ship with expressions like irritation. They quick-step up the ramp but don’t go far in, giving the interior the most cursory of glances. I look away, back into the ship, and two dark figures clarify, come closer. One is Shirr. My heart surges. She’s walking. It can’t be that bad if she’s walking?
‘See? There’s no problem here,’ he says, looking at me and smiling. The eyes pull back for just a second and I see the void in them. Just a flash, then back to normal.
He’s going to kill me. Not right now, but when he can, he’s going to kill me.
Shirr comes forward, pulling her sleeves down over her hands. She’s trembling, but she doesn’t seem to be hurt. There's relief, like what I felt the first time I saw her. Her wiry form, the chop of her steel-grey hair, it makes my heart sing and my mind swim, she’s alive, she’s alive. There’s a look in her eyes like she’s seen the blackest of black holes, but she's alive. She walks down the ramp stiff, her head a little too upright.
‘See? No problems here,’ he says, as Shirr comes to stand beside me.
The Force looks Shirr up and down. ‘Is that the case?’
‘Yes,’ she says, in a voice like catching tinder. ‘I’m fine.’
‘We just had a little encounter,’ he smirks. ‘I think her friend there is jealous.’
The Force turns to me. ‘Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t write you up for giving a false statement?’
He interrupts the woman as she glares at me. ‘Just an honest mistake,’ he says. ‘There’s no need for that.’
It starts to snow now, the first flakes dusting gently down, getting caught in my eyelashes.
‘You’re lucky it’s too fucking cold for this,’ The Force says. They walk off, muttering, glancing back now and then at us in our frozen tableaux, until they disappear into the worsening storm. For the first time ever, I want the Force here. I want their witness, need them to see what he is. I turn back towards him, hand reaching blindly out for Shirr’s. She clutches at it, crushing my fingers.
‘No problems here,’ he says again, the faintest of smiles dancing around his bluish lips. His eyes flash to void again, sinking further back, deeper than I could ever imagine. ‘If you follow me, there will be problems.’
I just nod, unable to speak or breathe or scream or run, gripping Shirr’s hand back until I’m sure one of our fingers will pop or snap. There’s sick, hot fear zagging out from my heart, spreading warmth out over me until I’m afraid I’m going to double over, heaving. He walks back up the ramp and hits the button, making it rise up slow. He stares at us as the ramp ascends, and I can’t help but look back, back into his boundless eyes until the metal rising breaks the gaze.