Check out Ascension, a Tangled Axon novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi, available now from Masque Books!
Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew.
But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego… and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything—even destroying planets—to get their hands on her!
Heat buffeted my face, whipping my locs behind me. Sweat and dirt stung my eyes as I held my breath.
Please let their waveguides hold. We can’t lose another ship.
Aunt Lai and I watched the Series IV Greenbelt disappear into the atmosphere, carrying a team of biosynths with it. They couldn’t even think about seeding the universe with new species without a working ship, and that’s where we came in, the engineers: stitching together humanity’s lifeline out in the Big Quiet.
The biosynths could only cover half the labor costs for repairing their damaged waveguides, but we took the work anyway. Money was money in this economy. Even when it wasn’t enough money.
The team had cast impatient glances toward the sky while we worked, as if those naked planets might bioform without them. I knew that look. That craving to break free of the ground. Dirt doesn’t feel right on the heels of someone born to be in the sky.
I’d had my hands in the entrails of so many ships I’d lost count, but even after over thirty system-years of life on Orpim, I’d never set foot off-planet. An entire universe carried on without me out there in the silence while I kept everyone else flying. I couldn’t tell you how many nights I lost sleep imagining tendrils of electromagnetism arcing through the cosmos, holding together the galaxies and planets our biosynths ignited with life. And there I was, a woman who yearned so hard for the sky there had to be stars in my blood, yet I was stuck in Heliodor City, missing it all.
Neither Lai nor I said the obvious as we stood with dust in our hair and mouths, watching the place in the sky where the Greenbelt had disappeared into the upper atmosphere.
Our last pending job.
Maybe solar winds would blow in another one tomorrow, but we never knew, and debt didn’t pay itself back. When the economy tanked twelve years ago, the freelance shipping industry took the biggest hit. Ships and pilots alike fell into disrepair when manufacturers and medical facilities started outsourcing to Transliminal Solutions in a desperate attempt to save their businesses. Starship surgeons like Lai and me? We struggled along behind everyone else, taking whatever repairs folks could afford to throw at us. Half the ships out there probably floated along in the silence on a spirit guide’s prayer, hoping their sails and waveguides and thrusters held for just one more month, one more year, instead of coming in for the tune-ups that could save their engines when it counted.
During times of need, it was always the people with the least to give who ended up sacrificing the most. Hardly a building remained in our sector that wasn’t a palimpsest of closed businesses.
“Well,” Lai said with one heavy slap on my back, mouth forced into a smile. “That’s that.”
I twisted a copper wire around one finger, coiling and uncoiling it needlessly. A leather tool belt hung heavy at my waist, like old hope gone slack. “Yeah. That’s that.”
She winked at me, gripping my shoulder with a rough hand. Despite her smile, the tension in her muscles betrayed her true feelings. I’d been watching her grow more frightened with every launched vessel. Seemed like the time between jobs got bigger by the day.
“Supposed to get warmer overnight,” she said, heading to the entrance of the shop and inputting the security code. Her hands shook: age and disease catching up with her faster than it should have.
There was so much we weren’t saying as we stepped inside, door whispering closed behind us. So much about our empty shipyard. About the chronic meds we couldn’t afford. About the gear we needed to replace. About the back rent we still owed my sister Nova, and the magnanimously offered debt forgiveness she continued to hold over my head.
“I heard Bran closed shop yesterday,” Lai said. “Took a job at Translim.”
“Yeah, she told me that was coming.” I sat on the counter at the front of the shop, picking at the grime under my nails. Did we have to talk about this? What good did it do to be reminded?
Lai dropped her tool belt onto the rusted table and dabbed the sweat from her face with a towel. “At least they’re paying her decent. Got the shift supervisor position.”
Tension drew the air drum-tight between us at the mention of Transliminal. Quietly, Lai tied back her locs, avoiding my gaze. She traded her cargos and boots for slacks and a tie, and called a transport to take her to her second job at the call center. I wanted to tell her to quit, to have more faith in her work. If all the fringe folk folded, there’d be no one left to hold up our cities.
No point in saying it again. As much as the sight of Lai in that damned costume gnawed at me, I just let her put it on without comment. Old arguments tasted sour, anyway.
Within five minutes the shuttle arrived, the letters “TS” slicing across its black hull in sharp, iridescent white. As the transport attendant grabbed Lai’s hand and helped her up, I caught a glimpse of the face below the pilot’s helmet. My heart stuttered before I could ice it over.
Kugler, my friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-ex-wife. The girl I grew up chasing around the Adul research station on our school breaks, three planets away, while our parents worked on translating an alien language. The woman I’d thought I’d fallen for until I realized the difference between love and nostalgia.
I leaned on the shuttle and shoved my hands in my pockets. “I didn’t think you worked this shift anymore.”
Kugler was quiet for a beat, eyes darting over my hair, my work-worn clothes. The crisp lines of her pristine uniform looked alien out here on the fringe. Even more so on her.
A memory flashed through my mind—an image of her face pressed against a viewport on the station, making goofy expressions at the Adulan giants floating outside. She’d painted a stolen dermal layer over her cheeks; it shimmered in cascades of white and blue as it translated our message into the Adulan color-language. White, blue, white, followed by a complex ripple.
Do you dream?
Or at least that’s what we were trying to ask. We knew it was probably gibberish to the Adulans, and that we’d never understand the response even if we got one.
Today, Kugler ignored me while Lai settled herself into the nearest transport seat, making no effort to conceal her eavesdropping.
“I thought you hated nights,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” Kugler said. “Third shift pays better. I bet you’re still barely scraping by just so you can flirt with old ships.”
I clenched my teeth.
“Thought so,” she said, then turned toward the navigational controls. I wanted to retort with some nasty comment about roping women into long-term relationships with grand promises of metal and flight, only to tell them to give it all up for babies and real estate. Our final argument—a year ago—happened when she tried to get me to leave the shop to work for Transliminal Solutions like her. “Stability is more important than playing with dying vessels,” she’d said, clutching one of my medical bills.
I felt lied to. With her rakish hair and quick wit, it was as if she’d promised me someone more independent and left-of-center than she ultimately was. Seeing her there now, wearing her cool posture like a mask, she couldn’t fool me—she still hated me for choosing my work, just like I hated her because I lost her friendship in the divorce.
Whether it was dignity or pride that kept me from saying anything while standing in front of the transport doorway, I don’t know. Maybe it was the lines around her mouth that were now much deeper than when we’d met. Heliodoran life wasn’t kind to anyone.
A light pressure landed on my arm. Lai crouched in the shuttle to reach down and touch me, jogging me out of my bitterness. Her soft-but-stern expression said everything: Be the bigger person.
“You take care of yourself, Kugler,” I said, then turned to my aunt without giving Kugler room to respond. “Do you have your medication?”
Kugler rolled her eyes and threw herself into the pilot’s seat, passive-aggressively checking the time display embedded in the sleeve of her jacket. She tossed me a final glance—one I couldn’t quite parse—and activated the anti-glare lenses over her retinas, darkening her eyes.
Lai held up a bright blue bottle, then raised her eyebrows to ask me whether I had my medication too. I held up my own: Yep, I’ve got it.
We popped the lids, fished out a pill each, did a mock toast over the short distance between us, and tossed them back. We were pros; no need for a chaser.
I backed away as the shuttle took off toward downtown Heliodor, kicking up a small vortex of dirt. Every time Lai left, I worried about her. She didn’t fit into the city center’s culture, Translim tech coating it to a high sheen. Out here, we were all old stone and rotting wood, with a grotesque touch of high-tech gloss here and there where someone had dumped their savings into one last push, one last effort to not be left behind.
But let’s face it. We were dirt to flick from the shoulder of the city, nothing more.
As I went back to cleaning up the mess we’d made working on the Greenbelt, I fell into a natural rhythm that helped me think about something other than money. I recalled the distinct sounds of the Greenbelt’s engine, its song stuck in my head. Metal and coil resonating quietly around a heart of fire. Every piece of scrap felt good in my hands, and the heft of my tools was as natural to me as my own skin. Nothing that provided this much purpose and joy could ever be in vain, no matter what Kugler said.
The sun set on the city while I worked, orange light glinting off the opalescent albacite exterior of its central buildings. Heliodor’s eyelids grew heavy, but out here we never really went to bed, just in case a job showed up. You slept in your office, your shipyard, your bar. Some of us even figured out how to nap on our feet. The trick was to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hips in front of something solid in case you leaned forward. And to make sure your neural interface’s notification settings were on if you had one; nothing woke me up like a screech in the ear when someone walked into the shop.
As if reading my thoughts, a notification buzzed in my right ear, followed by a sonorous voice: Monthly check-in with Doctor Shrike, due within the hour. My fourth reminder today.
I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today—hands that should have been learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It’s just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function—to do the one thing I’d loved since childhood—was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals.
No use dwelling on it. Besides, after three years of saving, my bank account said I was halfway to the Transliminal Solutions remedy that would fix both me and Lai—our system’s medicine could only treat, not heal. Transliminal would cure.
I washed my hands and turned on the comm panel at the back of the shop. An old model left over from when this place was a dentist’s office, before my sister bought it. I beeped Dr. Shrike, and her face soon appeared on the screen.
I barely recognized her. In lieu of her usual short blond hair, she’d grown parrot feathers. Her aged skin was now smooth and youthful, while storms of shifting color undulated in her eyes.
Transliminal mods. Envy surged in my gut.
“Doctor,” I said, leaning back into my chair and resting my hands on my stomach. “You’ve had work done. Going on vacation?”
She laughed and looked away, nervously touching her feathers
—the anxiety of the privileged. “How are you feeling, Alana? Any pain today?”
“Some. Just the usual.”
“Hands? Back? Neck?”
“Legs?” Each time she blinked, it drew my attention to the auroras in her eyes.
She took notes on the implant along her inner arm. “We can try anti-inflammatories to—”
“No, that’s okay. I can’t afford it.”
“We have payment plans for meds. I really wish you’d consider one and upgrade your pain management. Doing these check-ins is already a stretch. What I really need is for you to come in every month and let me examine—”
“I have the Dexitek. I’m good.”
She sighed and shook her head a little, then continued with her litany of questions. She tried the same thing every month, and every month I refused. People like Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food. How could she understand? And if I paid for a new cocktail of pain management meds now, I wouldn’t be able to afford the real treatment later.
The one that would mean saving myself.
“Any lameness, numbness?” she said. “Loss of motor function?”
“A little tingling in the fingers of my left hand about a week ago.”
She nodded and tapped in my answer, feathers bobbing. “Nothing to be too alarmed about. Loss of visual or aural acuity?”
“Very funny. Loss of appetite?”
“Only when I beep you, Doctor.” I bounced my eyebrows at her and laughed when she tried ignoring my flirting. Though I did get a tiny grin out of her.
“Any reactions to the medication or other concerns to report?”
“All systems functioning within normal parameters, Captain.”
“Okay, okay.” Shrike swept a finger along her implant and its light went dim. She clasped her hands together and leaned closer to the screen. “Alana. This,” she said, gesturing to her modifications, “feels incredible. I don’t even experience light the same way now—”
“How nice for you.”
Shrike raised her hands defensively. “I’m getting to a point here. I had no idea how easily Transliminal could manipulate the body until I experienced it myself. This has real promise. I know you’re saving for the treatment, but I’m sending you a free Translim sample.”
“Of what? Feathers?”
“A slow-acting cure.”
I sat up. “What do you mean?”
“This is a viable alternative to the one-time treatment. It’s a proven cure to Metak’s Disease, PTSD, agoraphobia, drug addiction, even Holme’s—”
“And Mel’s Disorder?” I nearly whispered.
“Yes, Alana.” Shrike smiled in that condescending way doctors had when they believed they could save you. “Mel’s too.”
A small light flickered near the bottom of the screen, and the distribution panel next to it flicked open. Inside the compartment was a small, clear package vacuum-sealed around a tiny purple pill with a “P” engraved on it. I took it between my fingers.
“Stands for Panacea,” she said. “Appropriately.”
“How does it work?”
She flushed. “That, I’m not sure. Transliminal is playing its cards as close to its chest as it can. We do know the Nulan government has sanctioned it, and that it’s a genetic treatment that comes in a series, but I couldn’t get more than one sample dose per month. They may be doing a lot to help the people on our side of the breach, but profit is still the bottom line, and they want you to know what you’re missing after you’ve taken just one. You’ll develop a temporary dependency after one dose. Take it, but only when you’re absolutely sure you want to. After the first treatment, you will either need to take it the rest of your life or suffer a . . . very uncomfortable week of withdrawal. Your condition might even worsen. Be careful.”
“How much?” I said, weighing the package in my palm.
“Alana, we can figure out—”
“Doctor Shrike, how much?”
“Three-thousand credits a month.”
I sighed, examining the unassuming little thing that could supposedly give me a small taste of healing. Take the pill, and I’d know what it meant to be in a state of no-pain for four weeks, but to stay that way, I’d have to come up with more than I usually made in a month. Translim sure knew how to rope us in.
“Transliminal does offer payment plans, Alana,” Shrike said quietly.
Great. I knew all about their “payment plans.” More like indentured servitude. They’d own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life. Not sure how I felt about this so-called panacea.
She avoided looking directly at me. “I still think asking your sister to help you would be a good idea.”
“I told you. She doesn’t support Transliminal’s technology. She won’t even take clients who work for them.”
“Well . . . ” Shrike fidgeted. “As I said, they do have payment plans.”
“Don’t you have to work for Transliminal to qualify?”
She was quiet for a beat. “I think they could use someone with your experience in their outreach department—”
“No.” Make that hell no. Not if I had to hang up my tool belt.
“See you next month.”
I cut off the transmission.
I couldn’t think about it anymore. I shoved the Panacea sample into my pocket where it snuggled up to the familiar vial of Dexitek that would keep me going until I could afford something else, whatever that ended up being.
Exhaustion chewed at my muscles, so I grabbed a plumberry from the kitchen, cut it up, climbed up to the roof, and lay down on my sweat-soaked back. Spasms twitched across my neck to my arm, nerves firing with referred pain. The inevitable consequence of physical labor when you lived in a body like mine.
Every part of me that wasn’t hurting melted into the albacite tile Nova had installed when she bought the place. An unfortunate reminder that she’d gentrify the whole fringe if she could, but I still loved it up there. It was the closest I could come to the Big Quiet. On the roof, I could set aside all the financial woes and the nerve pain and just let myself be for a while.
I held a slice of the fruit up to the full moon, pale light shining through it, turning it into a jewel. Juice dripped down my fingers and mingled with the dirt beneath my nails, trailing in syrupy rivulets down my arm.
A gift from my sister. Every time she finished leading a new client into a deluded, mindless stupor—what she called “raising their vibrations”—my sister sent me something from the planet’s biocatalog to celebrate completing another guide contract, another notch on her belt. Sometimes it was something nasty, like the wrong end of a sea creature masquerading as a local delicacy, but this? Heaven. It’s like my whole childhood burst on my tongue, all the sweet and sour of it, the sunbaked possibility I’d lost somewhere on the way to adulthood.
I licked the juice from my arm, relishing in the sugar mixed with a metal tang that was practically seared into my skin from a lifetime of making love to machines. A thrill shivered up from the soles of my feet to my legs, my hips, my chest. Fringe folk learned how to take pleasure in small things.
In that moment, I could forget about Dr. Shrike and my disease, forget about making decisions about treatments. I could forget that Lai was being scrutinized by Transliminal Solutions while cold-calling failing businesses to solicit tech upgrades. I could forget about the money we owed the hospital, or about the power my sister had over our shop. I could even still the ache in my chest where my parents lived—parents I hadn’t seen in over three years because none of us could afford interplanetary travel anymore. And they didn’t want Nova’s charity any more than I did. Not when it came packaged with lectures about the pointlessness of scientific research in a universe where “real magic could be found within.” Or something like that.
Now, between the fruit and the moon, there was only me. I relaxed my sore body, weary from work and illness. The stabbing along my right arm was almost welcome, a reminder that I was alive despite it all, and that I was working as hard as I had to if I wanted to get out of this pretentious hole of a city, disease or no.
I looked up at the gradient of atmosphere and space, with me at one end and everything at the other. Maybe gravity is more will than physics, and all it takes is a lapse of faith to float away. Lying there, juice-soaked and tired, I could believe it. The roof seemed to lift away from the building in a swell of vertigo, my brain convincing my body it was actually floating into the black by sheer force of desire. I opened my arms to the Big Quiet beyond and imagined I was falling up into the oil-dark blood of the universe.
Lost in the magnetic upward pull, I started fantasizing a ship descending toward me, belly open as if it would swallow me right there on the roof and carry me into the silence. She’d come a long way, I imagined, for the chance to be heard by someone who knew how to listen to her song. For someone to heal her—a sky surgeon. Me.
Don’t you worry, sweet thing, I thought to the ship. I hear you. I’ll hear you even when I’ve gone deaf with age. I’ll hear you through my skin if I have to, and I’ll help you live forever.
Yeah, I know. I talked to ships the way other folks might talk to a lover who haunted their dreams. But me, I wasn’t waiting for someone to rescue me. I waited for vessels I could rescue from death by chop shop. Beauty didn’t deserve to go out like that. All that metal wrapped around a beating plasma heart, an engine full of fire. No human could compare; people fell dim in the shadows of the ships I touched.
When my imaginary ship kept descending toward the repair lot, stirring the Orpim dirt into a frenzy, I sat up. The air around me bent and rippled with heat from the ship’s secondary thrusters as they blasted the land. Bands of plasma illuminated the yard, zapping the rods we’d set up around the landing area. Dust whipped around the vessel, grit stinging my eyes despite my high vantage point.
This was no fantasy. It was a job.
The transport ship seemed to stare at me with its bridge windows like two unblinking eyes, challenging me to diagnose it, heal it, send it back into the Big Quiet. And in return, I’d be a small percentage closer to the treatment.
“You got it, gorgeous,” I mumbled with a grin. I didn’t care how tired I was or how nauseated the Dexitek left me. My hands itched at the sight of her. I scrambled to my feet and almost slipped off the slick white tile.
A small figure disembarked from the vessel’s cargo bay and headed for the shop below, but I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I tried shouting at them, telling them I’d be there in a minute, but the engine noise drowned out my words. I braced myself on my way back to the ladder, careful not to slip again.
Moments later, an urgent voice came via neural interface.
“Hello? We’re looking for Ms. Quick.”
I flipped the tiny transmit switch behind my ear with the tip of my nail, connecting my voice to the intercom in the shop. “I’m coming! Hang on a second.”
“It’s important,” the voice barked.
“I hear you, I’ll be right there. I’m coming down.”
At first I took the ladder to the stairwell one rung at a time, but I couldn’t get down there fast enough—I bypassed the last dozen rungs by sliding down while lightly gripping the banisters. Taking two steps at a time, I banged my way down the metal stairwell to the office, wiping my hands on my pants to rid them of juice and grease.
A voluptuous woman stood in the doorway of the shop, her dark hair pulled back in a high ponytail, toes of her shoes barely crossing the threshold. She bounced in place, eyes darting around the lobby as if she were looking for something specific.
“What can I do for you?” I said, nodding my chin at her. “How’s your drive—”
She strode forward and placed a hand on my shoulder. Her nails were short like mine, but not anywhere near as dirty. Between her joyless face and the tension in her hand, I figured there must be something seriously wrong with her vessel. Bad for them, good for me.
I peeked around her to determine whether I could diagnose the ship at a distance, but everything I could see from that angle looked fine. I’d need to examine her hands-on, and believe me, I wasn’t complaining. My blood raced just thinking about working on an old Gartik transport. They didn’t make those anymore, not since Central bought up the Gartik Shipyard fifty years ago and turned it into a pharmaceutical distribution warehouse. So where’d this one come from? Someone had done some serious mod work on her, from the look of it. An extra structure bubbled up out of the starboard side, shimmering each time a tendril of plasma discharged from the electric rings around her engine. Just gorgeous. Whoever owned her clearly loved her hard enough to treat her like a lady even in this crap economy.
“You’re Ms. Quick, right?” the woman said, jerking my attention back to her. “Marshall and Thia’s daughter?”
She still gripped my shoulder, but I held out a hand in the hope that a little courtesy could calm her split nerves. “I sure am, where did you hear about us?”
Ignoring my hand, she pulled me out the door by the shoulder. “We’re going for a ride.”
I stumbled along with her. “Who are you?”
“We’re contracting you for a month or so,” the woman said, hurrying me toward the ship. “Already put the request through your agent. Straightforward guide work.”
“Whoa.” I twisted away from her and held my hands up in front of me. “Guide work? I’m an engineer, not a spirit guide. Where’d you get that idea?”
She sighed. “Nova Quick?”
“Alana. Nova’s my sister.”
She paused, eyes flicking to the side while obviously listening to someone over comm. Her movements were harried but professional. I tried not to betray my eagerness while I waited.
“She’s gone,” I said at length. “Nova hasn’t been back here for about six months now. But where are you headed to? If you need some work done—”
The corner of her mouth twitched downward and she looked at me again. “We didn’t know about you. Where is she? Your sister.”
“I don’t know,” I lied. Nova would kill me if I told anyone how to contact her while she was on vacation. I wasn’t about to bite the hand that feeds.
“Seriously?” She raised her eyebrows as if I were just being difficult.
A passing Transliminal transport’s light illuminated us from above, the overwhelming whir from its engine joining the Gartik’s song in a cacophony of sound, prolonging the silence between us. Our eyes remained locked, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that would placate her. How could I work this to my advantage? There was an opportunity here; I could feel it.
“You have no idea where she is?” she said, wrestling with her obvious impatience.
I shrugged and put on my best nonchalant expression. “There are a few possibilities, but I’m her sister, not her assistant.”
“She owns this place, doesn’t she?”
I straightened my back. “The building. Not the business.”
Again her eyes flicked to the side as someone stole her attention over comm, while I was equally distracted by the metal lady behind her. The slick curves of the vessel glinted under the moon and yard lights, even while covered in the wounds of a long life. There was grace left in her yet. They’d kept the drive on a low cycle; I swore I could hear music in the plasma arcs dancing around her thrusters. My heart cracked open and peeled apart, desperate for a chance to let her in, to learn the rhythm of her.
Nothing was ever enough. I always craved one more ship, one more surgery. Kugler didn’t leave me because I didn’t want to be tied down. That was just easier to digest than the truth. Every woman I’d ever been with had left me for the same reason, just variations on a theme: I’d never put them before my work.
Could you blame me? Look at the old girl, all power and freedom dressed in light. I could never give up the dream of wiping the dirt off my heels and living in the black.
Now I wondered why I had to open my fool mouth about Nova. I could have pretended to be her long enough to get on the ship. Not that I looked anything like a spirit guide—my surgeon locs alone should have given that away—but it would have been worth a shot.
“Hey,” I said, but the woman held up her hand to tell me to be quiet while she listened to whoever was on the other end of her comm connection. Her captain? What kind of captain buys and mods an old Gartik like that? I felt like a little kid waiting for the right time to interrupt her parents to ask for a new toy. My hands shook, I was so anxious for the chance to change my life. Or maybe it was the medication. Never could tell.
I readied myself, preparing a speech. Lai told me sometimes you have to be rude to effect change since the people with power have no reason to listen.
“I hate to interrupt your call, but I can tell you’re in need of a new engineer. Fresh eyes, fresh hands. And mine know what they’re doing. I’ve been working with ships since my fingers were too small to fit around—”
“Never mind,” the woman said to me, cutting off her comm connection. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
She was already heading back to the ship before I could gather my wits. I jogged to catch up and hurried along next to her, locs bouncing down my back. “Wait! Please. If you bring me with you, you won’t ever worry about drifting in the silence without a working engine. I guarantee it.”
“We have an engineer and two shuttles for emergencies,” she said, still walking.
“Okay. But what if something happens to your chief engineer? Couldn’t you use a second?”
The electricity grew louder and more dangerous the closer we got to the ship, but I wasn’t afraid. No one who belonged in the black feared the ships that delivered us there. If anything, the power of it thrilled me.
“You need me,” I shouted over the noise as she hurried and I scrambled to keep up. “You need a second—”
“What we need is your sister.”
Story of my damn life.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why don’t you just ask her agent where she is if you want her so badly?”
She didn’t answer, but came to a halt and looked straight at me. There was a flicker of tension across her face.
“Please, just let me talk to the cap—”
She cut me off. “Sweetheart, we hear the same thing in every city. Everyone’s looking for a job. Everyone’s a damned expert who can change your life. What makes you so special?”
“I’ve been doing surgery since I was old enough to—”
“Save it; that’s an old story. It’s not up to me. Sorry.” She started back to the ship.
I kept following her, so she paused again, and put a hand on my chest. Beautiful though she was, she was also a formidable human barrier between me and the craft, all black hair and fierce eyes. “If you’re such a great sky surgeon, you’ll know to stand back.”
“And if you need my sister so badly, you’d recognize I’m the only one who can help you.”
She stepped closer to me and jabbed me in the chest with her finger. “You do know where she is, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
I shrugged one shoulder, then slowly pushed her hand away from me. “Mind not touching? As for my sister, that depends.”
She clicked off her comm link, scrutinizing me. “How much do you want?”
“Look, you’re deluding yourself if you think you can just bargain your way onto a ship’s crew, especially this one. Anyway, the captain heard our conversation and I told you, she said no.” She leaned in, voice barely wavering. “Please. We really need your sister.”
I picked at my fingernails and shrugged again. Desperate or not, I wasn’t about to hand over my leverage. When I looked up, I stood alone. I just watched as the woman walked swiftly toward the ship and disappeared into it without wasting a single glance back.
I sat on an old crate and stared at the cargo hold, watching crew members move in and out of the ship. A large man examined the thrusters on both the port and starboard sides of the vessel for their pre-takeoff checks, while the woman I’d met dropped off a few crates in our yard. Sweat darkened her shirt beneath the arms and along her back.
Eventually, she glanced at me, making eye contact. She looked angry when she saw me see her.
Let her see you. Let her be reminded of what you can offer. Be patient.
If they wanted my sister badly enough, I’d let them come to me. I had something they wanted, and more importantly, they had something I needed. Money. Opportunity. I could make at least five times as much on a crew than I did on-planet. Sure, the income wasn’t reliable, but neither was the work down here. Better to try something new than keep bashing your head against the same wall.
At least out there, I’d be worth something. Engineers were insurance against a dead vessel. I could do a lot more for me and Lai if I could land a position on a crew. Send money back to her. Get us out of debt, get her up there with me. Get our treatments from Transliminal.
See my parents again.
I’d been trying for years. Asking around. Seeing if any crews were looking for a surgeon, but they never were. Either they already had one or they were saving to upgrade to a ship that ran on Transliminal’s “dark energy.” Whatever that was. Crews came to us for minor repairs to major damage until they could shed an old skin for a new one. Perfectly good old skin that just needed a little help to stay healthy.
Even in the dark, Heliodor wrapped its heavy, hot arms around me and squeezed the water from my pores. I wiped the back of my hand across my forehead, smearing sweat and desert dirt across my skin. I was used to it, but I could tell the crew wasn’t. The engineer wiped his broad face with his shirt while he worked, and the woman looked more agitated with every passing minute.
Finally, she approached me again, makeup now smeared around her eyes from the heat, black strands of hair plastered against the side of her face.
“Sorry,” I said, grinning. “Bathrooms are for paying customers only.”
“Look.” She scraped her teeth over her bottom lip and looked as if she wanted to punch me. Instead, she patted the air and looked away for a moment, as if calming herself down. “This is ridiculous. You can’t expect—”
“I don’t expect anything. You have needs, and so do I. Didn’t your mother ever tell you no one gives you anything for free?”
“Will you just listen for a second?” She glanced at the ship, looking nervous. “You can’t expect me to reverse the captain’s decision. She has good reason to be paranoid about extra folks milling around our ship, no matter who they happen to be related to. But it seems to me if a ship has its external comm systems offline, then its sensors are offline too. Seems pretty easy for cargo to make it on board without anyone noticing.”
“I don’t need to transport cargo. I need—”
“Seems to me,” she said, stepping closer, “that if the cargo were discovered once said ship were well out of orbit, there’d be no sense in wasting fuel just to turn around and drop the cargo back off. Especially when the cargo turns out to be useful.”
She raised her eyebrows at me, then took a few steps back, shrugging. “Not that a medical officer would be able to do anything to help the cargo once it’s discovered, because what does a medical officer know about cargo, anyway? We take off in five minutes.” She gave me a pointed look, then turned around, and headed back to the ship.
So that was it. Stow away for a chance to change everything, or go back inside. Go back to the debt and the illness and the thin strand of hope that tethered me to Heliodor.
I waited. The shaking in my hands grew worse, so I shoved them in my pockets and grabbed the Dexitek bottle with my right, fingers brushing the free Panacea sample from Dr. Shrike. If I left, there’d be no time to beep Lai first. No time to take anything with me. If I wanted this, I had to do it now.
The engineer came back outside and did the pre-takeoff checks. I couldn’t help wondering why it was him, and not the pilot. Everything about this felt strange. Why was the medical officer the one doing all the talking? Why didn’t the pilot come outside?
Why did my bones ache at the sight of this ship?
At least a few minutes had to have passed. Make up your mind, Alana.
I waited until another minute passed without anyone emerging from the cargo hold, then I moved forward and hid behind an old hull panel closer to the vessel. When I still didn’t see anyone come out, I moved from the panel to the other side of the ship in a low crouch, trying my best to hide behind molded crates and metal scrap.
The ship’s mouth yawned in front of me. Inside, stacks of sturdy crates were belted to the hold floor. Not a crew member in sight.
If you had dogs at your heels and all the galaxy’s glittering possibility in front of you, where do you think you’d go? Backward or forward?
Electricity zapped one of the yard’s dissipator rods, sparks raining down on the ship, and I swore I felt her sizzle in my own veins, twining electromagnetic fingers inside me. She was calling, this ship. More than any of the other vessels I’d met, she wanted me. I felt it. All her heat and light pulsed like blood, scorching my body, urging my feet onward, toward the mouth, whether I wanted them to move or not. Seeing her close-up like this made me come unbound; my old life peeled away like shed skin, making room for her. I felt like a new soul, naïve and open.
The ship was connecting to me through her song. Welding us together. Heat like that was bound to leave a mark.
Only part of me was aware of my movements. The rest of my consciousness was lodged deep inside the metal of the Gartik transport, beckoned by the mind of the ship. One step after another, I headed into the cargo hold, tucked myself into an empty crate, and held my breath.
Minutes later, the cargo door screeched and slammed shut. Hunger growled inside that sound—a crunching and gnashing of metal teeth. I couldn’t help feeling like the vessel was digesting me and turning me into a new organ, a pacemaker stitched into her heart.
Vibrations from the takeoff threatened to shatter bone and tear ligament as I braced myself against the flat walls of the crate. My body rattled as badly as my heart while I crouched there, sweaty and scared, barely dodging a panic attack. I guess in light of my situation—and by situation, I mean crime—I figured I was doing pretty well.
My thick locs hung heavy over my shoulders and back, rendering the heat in the crate all the more oppressive. Pills rattled in my pocket, a chattering of tiny white teeth reminding me of what was at stake if this went as badly as it could. If you run out of Dexitek . . .
I tried ignoring the sound of the pills, focusing on the ship’s rhythm. Her engine’s pulse. Her voice. Letting her inside just as I insinuated myself into her.
What’s your name, beautiful?
Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh. It was the only hint of spirit guide-like talent that had seeped its way into me. The rest had gone to my sister. When I worked, I imagined shrugging into each ship’s hull like a second skin and feeling her ailments inside myself. Getting the scent of her on me until we were more a gradient than two distinct bodies. Each job made me feel alive.
Now, thinking about the vessel peeling up out of the atmosphere and into the silence, the last bits of Heliodor’s dirt shaking from the soles of my boots, I felt a little like I was dying. I was in a box, after all. Curled up and hurled into the Big Quiet.
A smile crept along my lips and I pressed my fingers harder against the walls.
I’d take it. I’d take death for a new life.
Ascension © Jacqueline Koyagani, 2013