by Suzanne Palmer
Khifi traded the warm embrace of her wife’s arms for the pricking of cold air on her bare skin and a regret she knew she would not dispel until she was back here again on the far side of a ten-hour shift. She danced on her toes across the metal floor and out of their small sleeping alcove, sliding the screen doors closed behind her. Lema had more than once suggested she keep her boots at the bedside so she could slip straight into them, but if she did she couldn’t sneak out without waking her.
She checked the apartment monitors to make sure oxygen was optimum, all systems running green. Not that they ever weren’t, but she required that brief reassurance. Pulling clothes out of the post-wash basket, she shrugged into a sports bra, bright red tank top, and black pants before wrapping her vambrace over her left forearm. Her boots were by the door, and she stepped into their fuzzy warmth with a sigh of relief as they adjusted around her feet. As the kitchenapp kicked on to start the coffee, she skimmed the news, disinterested. There were no big Tanduou stories, and anything else local worth knowing—and that she didn’t already know—wouldn’t be on the feeds anyway.
Rummaging through the foodkeeper, she pulled out an oblong shape and tucked it carefully in her backpack that hung near the door. “Khif?” Lema called from the other room. She sounded like she wasn’t sure if she was awake or asleep. “Are you stealing the whole loaf of protein bread again?”
“Only half of one, Lem,” she said, “and it’s the stale one from two days ago.”
“It’s only stale because you don’t eat enough.”
“It’s only half a loaf because I ate plenty,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
There was a long silence, and Khifi had just concluded that Lema had done exactly that when she heard, sleepily, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said. “Gotta go.”
She slipped on her jacket and backpack, took her coffee out of the maker, and left the apartment feeling warm enough after all.
* * *
At the fastlane station, she slid her license through the reader and waited the four point three seconds for it to verify that she was rated for the lane and deposit an empty sled in the tube. Climbing in, she made sure the lid on her coffee was fully sealed before she put the thermal mug in her backpack, tied the pack down at the base of the sled, and strapped herself in. She put her hands on the dual joystick controls on either side and ran though a mental self-check to make sure she was awake and alert enough. Once she was sure she was good, she launched herself up into the tube at top acceleration.
Navigating the branching maze of the Tanduou tube system was almost an art. More than one overtired, over-intoxicated, or over-selfestimated tube-noob had turned themselves into a pulpy obstruction in the system before skill-ranked licensing was implemented. It had reduced, if not eliminated, fatality-related delays.
Eight turns, the surface rotary loop, and two timed junctions later, she kicked her sled out the exit for the Paxillo Docks. As she braked the last quarter kilometer into the transit station she could see the city-lit underbellies of ships shifting overhead like a perpetual storm cloud of rusty junk. The bright yellow-brown disk of the nearby planet lurked behind them, a faded sun never quite able to break through.
Her eyes looked for trouble, found none.
Shouldering her pack, she left the transit station and merged into the cramped hallways of the underbelly of the Docks. As she turned a corner toward the central hub, faint footsteps fell in behind her, distinct from the usual heavy-booted crowd. For a half-second she thought about the three knives she had within easy reach, then instead abruptly stopped walking mid-stride. Her follower slammed right into her. She spun around in time to catch the chagrin on his face. He was eight or nine standard years old, although he was small enough to be younger and had the eyes of someone older. “Morning, Mole,” she said. “Where’s your partner in crime today?”
He shrugged. Traffic in the hallway moved seamlessly around them, uncaring. “Birdie had business.”
“You were looking for me?”
“Figured I might run into you,” he said, and almost smiled.
She glanced around to make sure there was no one in the halls who could make trouble, then slid her pack off and set it on the floor. She took out the half-loaf and handed it to him. “You okay?” she asked. “No one hassling you?”
“No one new,” he answered. When she waited, he added, “I’m okay.”
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Devi ran for the single ship. It was cradled in the docking bay, like a hammock rolled up against a wall. The single ship liked her the best. Like a ship’s cat—always liking the one that hated it.
But she piloted the single ship better than anyone else. LaFayette said that was because the symbiosis worked with her and the single ship. LaFayette claimed to know. He’d parented half a dozen single ships in his day, raising them from a traumatized nub of consciousness to something large and glorious and thoughtful.
Or at least, that’s what he believed. He loved single ships, and dreamed of piloting one some day. But piloting one permanently meant giving up other relationships for a single relationship—bonding with a ship and not another person, and LaFayette was an extrovert. He loved his crew. He loved his warship, the Yue Fei.
He loved Devi, even though she wasn’t supposed to know that.
Devi found single ships creepy. This one rolled itself out of its protective cover the moment it heard her footsteps, sensed her presence, tracked her movements—whatever the hell it did to figure out she was there. She had no idea how it tracked her and she never asked.
Just like she never asked why the thing liked her. She could barely bring herself to say its name when she spoke to it. Matilda. Who the hell named a ship Matilda?
Devi knew the answer to that: the ship picked the name itself. Single ships had gigantic naming rituals, with champagne and humans in full dress uniforms and—
The single ship’s door irised, revealing the dark interior. Devi could smell the talc and humidity, turning her stomach.
God, she hated that single ship. And she had to clear that thought before she got to the ship, because it just might know. Single ships weren’t empathic, but some of them had the same level of intuition that other humans did. She never knew if the Matilda was one of those, but only because she never asked.
Devi braced herself, then dove into the iris, wincing as she did. The single ship closed around her, cradling her. Good single ship pilots—the ones who actually loved the single ship experience—said it was like being back in the womb.
Not that she could remember being in the womb. Forty-five years from her mother’s womb, she had no memory of it at all—and she hadn’t opted to have those memories revived. Humans were designed to forget their first few years of life. There was a reason for that, if you believed the Universe had some order to it, which she did.
The single ship wrapped around her, warm and pulsing and much too soft. She hated all the fake organics, the way that the single ship’s interior was supposed to mimic the touch of human skin. Cilia brushed against her face, making her cringe. READ MORE