ECV Konoko rumbled through space at one-fifth C, her chrome horseshoe crab figure one of only two bodies within millions of miles. The Ouro corvette cruising off her port side kept engines dark, applying minute course corrections with mothlike flutters of her gravity drive. Responsible for warding off any curious civilians, the sleek warship had maintained radio silence on their long slow way out of the system, tracking their way along the habitats like spiders on a web so as to avoid the vessels emerging blindly in the open spaces. At last they’d freed themselves from the cluttered nest of gravity wells and sailed in the open, through the Oort cloud’s mined-out dregs.
“That’s it, ma’am. We’re live,” Zachariah Obo said to the handy lying by his console. The diagnostics glowed green so uniformly and enthusiastically he had to squint at the screen.
“All right, I’m looping Vivek into the channel.” A pause. “Vivek, Obo’s brought the drives back up and everything checks out.”
“Got it, thanks. I’ll be suited and ready in fifteen minutes.”
“You’ve got first shift?” Obo asked. “Good. She’d like to be walked out the stable, if you take my meaning. Ash’ll ride hard the first chance she gets.”
“Don’t I know it. Confirmed, Systems.”
“In the Nav Suite when you’re ready,” said Lorena.
“Fifteen, like I said.”
* * *
“We can go again if you like. You only need about two and a half, anyway,” Maxi Leaf grinned, reaching out to flick a fingernail playfully at Vivek’s crotch.
“Thought I was doing you a favor,” he shot back, nimbly pulling his pelvis back from her jab. “You always look so bored, you know. Eyes unfocused, up at the ceiling…”
“Yeah, we’re the worst,” she agreed. “Doomed from the get-go. Should just call it a day. I mean, your career’s looking so great right now. Don’t need a tramp like me kicking around.”
He’d worked the black flight suit up over his undershorts to his bony hips, but hearing this he paused and leaned in to plant a kiss on her forehead. “ You shouldn’t call yourself a tramp, not even in jest. Not even to me.”
“This from the man who called me a scav.”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did.”
“Don’t remember exactly; in the Galley, maybe?”
“Oh, that’s convincing. Real documentation, there. I never used the word ‘scav!’ Certainly not to your face.”
“See, you admit it.”
He took a breath and raised a professorial finger. “I do not admit it. I may have, in my life, at some point, used that word to describe someone in your erstwhile profession. But not you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s a good thing, because there’s all sorts of great words the authorities might use to describe you.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Vivek inclined his proud nose to project an aggrieved air. “I’m an upstanding citizen—a Federal service officer who’s simply elected for a change to the civilian sector.”
Maxi cackled and slapped her palm against his muscled, black-clad thigh the way one might in the course of admiring a horse. “You sure are. Investors jump out of their seats for an implanted Pilot with Federal service. We’ll have a light hauler two weeks after landing, deed in hand. Just you watch.”
He pulled the zipper up to its highest point and tucked its tab down securely into the channel. “I believe you. But I don’t think it’ll seem real until we’re back in Terran space. And even the O.T. border is a long way off.”
“We’ll get there,” she shrugged. “We always seem to.”
* * *
Karl Genz rode the cycle in a blaze of pain. Trails of liquid fire ran from each hip down his quadriceps, branching as gravity dictated they must, flooding the meat of his thighs and the cradle of his groin muscles. Sucking lungs worked oxygen in and out of his system in mechanical fashion, given ample room under an arched spine rocking back and forth. Sweat-soaked palms squeaked rhythmically on the grips.
Crude red digits on the dash timer showed 1:48 when Ashley walked in. Karl watched her from the corner of his eye, saw her pull a clean white towel from the dispenser and throw it over her jacketed shoulder—she was not, he noticed, wearing her typical workout clothes. She made her way around the edge of the room, between freestanding machines while he studiously avoided eye contact. She wanted to say something, he could tell, and would take any opening offered, so he passed those last hundred seconds in a state suspended between endorphin-fueled aggression and queasy social avoidance.
Karl wound his legs down slowly once the clock hit zeroes, coming to rest as a vaguely pleasurable rictus settled into the muscle. He dropped his head and heaved; sweat dropped from his nose to patter on the floor.
“Good ride, Karl?” she asked. He clenched his teeth at the small talk; why couldn’t she cut right to it?
“Okay,” he replied, suggesting it might have been better and that might be her doing.
This passed directly over Ashley’s head. “I always thought cycling made my legs too heavy,” she said, holding out the towel to him.
He took it. “Hmm.”
“Hey Karl, could I ask you something?”
Not wanting to grant explicit permission, he silently wiped his towel over his face. “It’s not really my business, but I heard what the Emissary said and I thought since, I guess, we had this much in common…” she rambled, shifting weight from one foot to the other. “She said you’d turned down Contact before, in the past. With Second Division.”
“Folks kill for those analyst posts! I mean, not literally. Why’d you say no?”
“It was not a good fit,” he said, dismounting from the cycle.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means what it means,” he replied irritably.
“How didn’t it fit? You’d be making three times the money and living full-time in the Core. The nice part of the Core! Give me that kind of scratch and an office gig and I’ll never look at a flight pod again.”
“Given my meager expenses, the salary does not motivate.”
“Well, even so—“
“It is the office,” he interrupted, agitated, sweeping out scarecrow arms with such rare passion Ashley clammed right up. “Our ancestors lived and died in tiny plots of bare land. They saw the cosmos and thought it painted over the sky. Now we run between stars. If I am afforded the opportunity to meet those stars myself, it is only because the way is paved with a quarter-million years of sacrifice. So to travel to space is necessary, I think, if we are to honor the opportunity and if we are to afford better to those who come later. That is why I joined the Explorer Corps. Though at first it was difficult to learn few of my colleagues share this sentiment, I believe I enjoy my service more than most.”
“I wouldn’t trade flying for anything.”
For the first time in their conversation, Karl smiled. “This I believe. I have wondered at times whether we are the only two aboard who would not wish our circumstances much different.”
“Always wanted to join the Navy. I was crushed when I couldn’t. And now I’ll be running sweet things like Schmetterling all over the galaxy! Life’s funny.”
“Do you know what it means, Schmetterling?” he cocked his head.
“No clue. Some old Terran scientist?”
“‘Butterfly,’ in English. It is an animal, an insect. You know it?”
She shook her head and jabbed a thumb back at her own chest. “Martian, remember? If it wasn’t raised on an agro plant, I never saw it.”
“It has a slender body and enormous, beautiful wings. Much bigger than the body, so big they can barely control them. But still they fly, sometimes for thousands of miles. They may even migrate across oceans.”
“All right,” shrugged Ashley. “That’s neat, I guess. Or were you trying to make a point?”
“I was. I meant to convey…” his eyes flicked up to the ceiling in thought. “That it reminded me of you, in some ways. An unconventional creature determined to fly.”
She stared at him a moment before breaking out with laughter. “That’s sweet, Karl!” she blurted when his face showed a flicker of hurt. “It’s really sweet. You’ve just got a funny way of putting compliments.”
* * *
Vivek Mohinder ambled down the long corridor, stepped bow-legged over a purring cleaning drone and hung his accustomed right into the Navigation Suite. He saw his pod already slid back to the open position and found himself half-startled, like passing an old flame on the street: the cushions’ smooth contours, the control pockets and the black rubber framing the visor so intimately familiar and yet belonging to another time, another Vivek.
“What’s wrong?” Lorena frowned at him, standing bent over the medical console.
He realized he’d physically shook off the disjointed déjà vu. “Nothing. It’s funny to be back here like everything’s normal.”
“It is normal. Just another dive,” she wore a tired smile.
He looked at her a moment, brow skeptically creased, before releasing it and giving a shrug. “If you say so. I just hope I’m not so rusty I plant us into a star.”
She laughed then. “Can you imagine? All of this, and then we toast ourselves on an easy cruise back home?”
“The Emissary’d probably prefer it.”
“Oh, I’m sure she would. Few things would make her life easier—the loss of my precious brain notwithstanding.”
Vivek winced. “It kills me thinking of you trapped in a Contact lab. God knows how that would’ve turned out.”
“Well, it didn’t. Some credit being due you, I think.” Lorena closed a dialogue box on her screen and stood up straight.
“It was all of us. A lot of it was Maxi.”
“I’m still not sure how to feel about that.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “Neither is she. Good news is, I’m sure neither one of you will ever bring it up to the other. The same similarity that makes you hate each other will, for once, keep you from fighting! Isn’t that funny?”
Lorena scowled at the insight. “It’ll be a long haul with you two.”
“Even longer, I think.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh,” he scratched at the back of his neck. “We’re going into business together. Getting our own ship. Commercial routes, that kind of thing.”
She took this in, nodded slowly. “That makes sense, I suppose. You really like her, huh?”
“I do. And there’s that old saw about bonding through crisis…”
“You don’t have to convince me. I’m in no position to mete out discipline.”
There was a pause then. “We ready to go?” Vivek blurted to break it.
“We are, so long as you’ve plotted out the dive. I didn’t check.”
“It’s in there,” he promised, moving toward the pod and lifting one leg to get in.
“Vivek,” she said, halting him. He turned and found her already there, wrapping up his ribs. “Thank you,” she mumbled into his flight suit’s chest.
He put his arms around her shoulders and squeezed back. “You’d have done the same.”
“But I didn’t. You did. You gave up everything.”
“Not everything. They could’ve shot me.”
“Exactly. But you came to get me. And then you stayed behind.” She was crying again. She had very much hoped not to cry.
“Thank you,” she pulled back and her watery eyes met his, coal-dark and dry. “Thank you. You’re a great officer. You’re a great friend.”
“Will it be like this the rest of the way?” he joked, grinning. “You’ll burn out your tear ducts before we hit the O.T.”
She broke away and reached up to rub her eyes. “I just needed to say it before we left. Before we got back to routine.”
“It’s fine,” he assured her as he climbed into the pod. Prone on his stomach, he slipped his hands into the pockets and mentally mapped the unseen controls under his fingers.
She took up the leads, reaching to plant them in the suit’s spine. “Remember to take it slow, at least for the first few hours.”
“All right, then,” she took hold of the pod’s long handlebar and began to push. “Have a great flight.”
* * *
A chime sounded and squeaked abruptly into silence; Zachariah Obo’s fingertips struck it dead with a viper’s speed and practiced precision. Green text novaed into the computer’s Engineering alert feed: navigation reporting a live link with Vivek’s physiology. All parameters consistent with presets. Manual flight requested and handed off.
“Controls free,” the Senior Pilot stated over the intercom. “It’s been a while. I forgot how sensitive she can be.”
“Just take it easy,” Lorena advised.
“No, I like it.”
“Work it out if you like,” said Obo. “Throttle back to point-oh-five C when you’re ready to dive.”
“Everything’s fine. Ready when you are. Mohinder out.”
Obo let out something between a grunt and a sigh, pulling up the drive outputs for a final check. Yellowed eyes under skin-tagged lids ran down the ticking graphs paired side by side in an interminable list. “Looking good, cap’n,” he called.
“Okay,” Lorena’s voice popped in the speaker. Obo supposed it needed cleaning. “Is it strange I’m nervous?”
“Haven’t a clue. Feels like a little like we forgot something.”
“Everything’s wrapped up, ma’am.”
“I guess I feel like once we start this, it’s got to have an ending. And I don’t want it to end, even if it’s been hard. Maybe being hard makes me like it more. You know how I beat myself up.”
“It’s been said.”
“Before we dive out, I just want to say you were great. Zach. Everyone was so great; I don’t deserve you and it kills me giving you up.”
“It’s how things go, Lor. Beginnings, middles and ends. And it’s only the middle for you! You’ll have years, security and options ahead.”
“Lord, I’ve barely thought about that. Take a long break, first thing. Breathe some Earth air. I never did sell the cabin.”
“You used to complain about that place. I seem to recall the word ‘albatross.’”
“Yeah. I’ve gotten some fresh perspective. Should be interesting to go back.”
“Just back to Titan for me. Get old and fat—older and fatter, eh?—while the girls shuffle me out the way.”
Lorena laughed. “That sounds great. If there’s got to be an end for any of us, I’m glad it was that. I’m glad it was you.”
“You can visit if you want. Any time you want! I won’t be the one cooking and cleaning.”
“They’re lucky to have you. We all are.”
“Well, now you’ve made me blush, we’d best get this circus cart on the road. Mohinder’s probably thinking I dozed off.”
“Right you are. Activate the Chen-Hau field and begin dive.”
“On it, ma’am. Best ship?”
* * *
Aswim in cold space, ECV Konoko trailed a million miles of hot ions. From a respectful distance the Ouro corvette watched her decelerate, watched her angle coreward, spinward and ever so slightly counter-planeward, raising her port fin in so doing, her horseshoe-crab form turned to expose a shining chrome belly marked only with the seam of her docking collar. She caught local sunlight in a glint of grateful farewell, the image arriving in Ouro telescopes simultaneously with a last EM burst stating the same, and with a sudden yet subtle twisting of light and space’s greedy black, she was gone.