Ahmednagar

Whitney Bishop


150.83.39.4
x.3022,y.03,z.-145
0832 (ship’s time)
public address system

Passengers, your attention please; this is your first officer speaking.

We are now seventy-four minutes out from docking at Varaha Prime. In preparation for landing, we ask that you look about your cabin and make sure that all of your personal belongings have been returned to your luggage so that they will leave with you. Smaller personal items you may have brought out during the trip—such as toiletries, reading materials, and the occasional concealed weapon—are easily misplaced, and we’d rather not leave you stranded without the ability to groom, entertain, and/or defend yourself as necessary.

Take care as well to make sure that all undergarments will be leaving with the person with whom they arrived—unless, of course, you’ve made prior arrangements otherwise, in which case: well done, we say! At least someone on this ship should be enjoying themselves.

In approximately sixty-eight minutes, we will be moving into Varaha Prime’s lower atmosphere. At that time, you may feel a slight shift as we transfer from the ship’s gravity to the planet’s gravity. The sensation can be unsettling for first-time passengers, so please do not be alarmed. Or, I don’t know, go ahead and be alarmed. Panic, run around, squeal, it’s all the same to us.

Ah, that thundering noise you can hear throughout the corridors, the one moving from the rear of the ship up to the bridge at what sounds to be a terribly annoyed pace, is both your cabin attendant and the owner of this freighter, so if you hear her pass by, just stick out your little curly tail and I’m sure she’ll be glad to help you with whatever you need. At MRN Spacelines, our first priority is to you, our little pink passengers—no matter how many legs you walk on.

Oh, do you hear that? She’s very close now. Perhaps she’s stopped along the way to fetch me a cup of coffee. That would be terribly generous of her. Why, Lina! There you are! Tell me, did you think to—

[broadcast ends]

***

At dinner the following evening, Arttu informed them all that the cargo holds still smelled of pig.

“Not in a bad way!” he was quick to add. “In a nice way! Sort of a nice piggy smell. Not too much like poo.”

Tijn stopped with his fork midway to his mouth, then sighed and returned it, still full of leftover rice and curry, to the dish in front of him. “Thank you, Arttu. Any thoughts on when it’ll not smell of pig again? I’m still getting it through the vent shafts into my quarters.”

“Those pigs paid for your dinner,” said Lina, who ate her dinner with the gusto of a woman unbothered by odor or discussion thereof.

“So long as they aren’t my dinner.” Tijn gave one of the white cubes in the stewy yellow liquid on his plate a pointed poke.

With a snort, Ghlas kicked back in his chair and put the soles of his boots against the side of the table, just low enough that Lina wouldn’t complain about mixing footwear and flatware. It perhaps wasn’t the most comfortable way to sit, but it ruffled her feathers, and that was good enough for him. “If you can’t tell pork from tofu, you have been in space too long.” He sopped up juice from the edge of his plate with a scrap of bread and popped it in his mouth; it was rehydrated and underseasoned, but it was still food. “Or you’ve lived a life of having both cooked very badly.”

“Say, Mamá, do you think I could get a pig for the ship?” Arttu’s eyes sparkled at his latest in a lifetime of ill-considered ideas. “A little one, as a pet?”

“Good heavens, no. Certainly not.” Lina shot him a dirty look, one which bounced off the hull plating of Arttu’s smile and rolled away, same as it always did. For the five years Ghlas had worked for MRN, he could still count on one hand the number of times he’d seen her perturbation get through her son’s thick skull. “Four is the absolute minimum necessary to keep this ship in legal working order, and thus, four is the number of living things on this ship whose existence I will provide for on a consistent basis. Unless you can find a pet pig capable of overhauling an engine manifold, consider your request denied.”

“You mean more of a pig than the last fellow you hired?” asked Ghlas, peering over his cup of tea at her and putting on the most angelic expression he could while she glared daggers right back at him. Both Ghlas and Arttu were about equally impervious to Lina’s expressions of rage, though at least Ghlas could say for himself that he was aware of her anger as he breezed right past it.

Tijn, however, was another story. “I’ve been reading up on engine maintenance in my spare time,” he said, dashing in with all the speed of a child bound and determined to change the subject before mommy and daddy started fighting. “I believe it’s every captain’s duty to know both how to operate his vessel and how his vessel operates. I can take a look at them while we’re still docked. I might even be able to install some of the components we picked up on—”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Lina; a tense smile creased her lips even as her face went a bit pale at the suggestion. “I’ve contracted with a local mechanic to come give us a thorough look-through before we leave; she should be here within the hour.”

Ghlas couldn’t keep his right eyebrow from rising into a high, puzzled arch. “Why? What’s the matter with them?”

“The matter? Nothing’s the matter!”

“Then why did you get someone here instead of stopping at one of the Garages?” Ghlas tapped his fingers on the side of his mug, trying to puzzle this one out; MRN barely made enough to cover its expenses most trips as it was, and at no time Ghlas had been in its employ had it ever turned what a reasonable person might consider a profit. “We passed one on an asteroid a day and a half out from here, and they’d charge a third of what anyone planetside must.”

“We,” said Lina, steepling her hands before her, “are not going back that direction.”

He’d been hunched over his plate, pushing the rehydrated peas around, but upon hearing his mother say that, Arttu sat bolt upright, knocking his wavy, overlong brown hair into his eyes. “What? Aren’t we going home? Are we fugitives now? Will we have to live our lives on the llama?”

Lina reached over and raked his locks back with her fingers. “Nothing of the sort. No one here has broken any laws in some time,” she said, punctuating that sentence with a smug look in Ghlas’s direction that he wasn’t going to dignify with any response. “But we, as of two hours ago, are going to Earth.”

“Earth! Wow!” Arttu bounced in his seat, his excitement knocking his misbehaving hair right back where it had been before. “I’ve never been to Earth! Is it scary? Are there bears there? Will we see Paris?”

“No, it is not scary; yes, there are plenty of bears there; and all right, if you’d like, you can even go see Paris.” Looking pleased as punch with herself, Lina stood from the table, taking her plate to the disposal unit. “I have arranged that tomorrow, we will take on board a group of twenty passengers who wish to make a pilgrimage of some sort to Earth and have decided that we would be just the vessel to hire.”

Ghlas let out a long, low whistle. “And I suppose you’ve explained to them that our accommodations are not what a person of any good judgment would consider giving all five stars to?”

“Believe it or not, they actually found that a selling point.” With a shrug, Lina sauntered toward the galley exit. “I suppose there’s some spiritual discipline in roughing it; they didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. And since I know this will be a lengthy two-week voyage, after we deposit them in Ahmednagar, India, Earth, I’ve decided to reward us all with a vacation!”

Vacation!” echoed Arttu, as though he’d never heard the word before—and really, considering his slavedriving mother, it was possible that he hadn’t—eyes gone round as moons. “To Paris?”

Lina smiled beatifically as she leaned against the door; indeed, one of the corridor lights caught her from behind in its illumination, turning her teased white hair into something of an impromptu halo. “To wherever you want. Five days off the clock. You’re welcome, gentlemen.” And before any more questions or dumb comments from Arttu could be raised, she turned on her heel and disappeared from sight. For a long moment, no one else moved.

“I’ve got to go read up on Earth!” announced Arttu at last, popping to his feet and scurrying off toward his cabin. Really, Ghlas thought, what would transpire next would most likely be that Arttu would find some Earth-related tome, read the same sentence twelve times, and fall asleep with his nose smashed against his data pad, but it was hard to argue with someone that happy.

It was then Ghlas realized that Tijn hadn’t said anything since Lina’s announcement. “And where are you planning to spend your—” he began, turning, but the sentence got lost in his throat as he saw that the look on Tijn’s face was not delight, but horror. His olive-dark skin had gone chalky, and the brown irises of his eyes were islands in seas of white, staring ahead to a space Lina no longer occupied. His dinner, half-eaten, sat cooling before him as his hand clutched claw-like around his empty fork. “Tijn, are you quite—”

“Fine! Fine. Everything is fine. Fine.” In one more-than-slightly awkward motion, Tijn pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “I suppose I should be turning in. Good night. Have a good night.” A rictus of terror had knotted his muscles, making his escape from the room something of a Frankenstein’s-monster shamble, but with enough speed and determination, he made it out the door before Ghlas could get another word in edgewise.

Well, this was a curious turn of events—and one that had left him to do the dishes. Fine, but it wasn’t as though he’d let any of them forget it.

***

150.83.41.2 Varaha Prime Traffic Control 2851 (local time)

MRN0000-001: This is the MRN vessel at platform three, requesting clearance for departure.

TOWER: MRN, please stand by.

TOWER: Thanks for the wait. Is this customs manifest correct?

MRN0000-001: I–I checked it twice. What seems to be the problem? Is there a problem? There shouldn’t be a problem.

MRN0000-001: Begging your pardon, tower, but what I believe my somewhat repetitive colleague here means to do is assure you that, yes, despite appearances, it is correct.

TOWER: It says here you flew in with livestock.

MRN0000-001: Indeed we did.

TOWER: And now you’re flying out with people.

MRN0000-001: Trust me, from where we’re sitting, it’s not a remarkably different experience.

MRN0000-001: Yes, tower, we had a change of cargo, but as you can see if you pull up our credentials, we’re fully licensed to accommodate up to thirty passengers.

TOWER: …Ey, so you’re the ones the Astro-Krishnites found for transit.

TOWER: Are they going? Hell, it feels like the whole planet just got a little quieter.

MRN0000-001: Begging your pardon, but what seems to be the trouble?

TOWER: No trouble! Just—

TOWER: Have they started singing yet?

MRN0000-001: Singing? No, I… I don’t think they have…. Ghlas, have they?

MRN0000-001: I haven’t heard them, no. Why, are they prone to?

TOWER: Says here it’s a two-week trip.

TOWER: Two weeks? In that tin can? With twenty Asties?

TOWER: Better you than us.

TOWER: Hope you fellows packed earplugs.

MRN0000-001: Come again?

TOWER: Nothing! Absolutely nothing. MRN-01, you are cleared for departure. Have a pleasant flight.

***

Four hours out of port and halfway across his scalp, Ghlas’s razor sputtered and gave up the ghost. He smacked the end of it twice against his palm, hoping to jump-start it, but to no avail. Perhaps the overall effect wasn’t that bad, he thought in the half-second before he looked in the mirror and saw the topography of his scalp now: half shiny brown skin, half covered with a sprouting forest of little black curls. This would simply not do.

He pulled on a pair of trousers and heavy boots—experience had taught him the hard way better than to go around barefoot anywhere Arttu was allowed to take (and thus drop) his tools—but didn’t bother covering his top half; if any passengers roaming about the ship saw him, well, weren’t they the lucky ones? At least he’d managed to rid himself of his whiskers beforehand.

MRN’s only vessel was a bit of an odd bird, which fit well enough, considering that MRN Spacelines was a bit of an odd operation: contrary to expectations from the ‘spaceline’ part of its name, it had only one ship in its entire fleet, which specialized in carrying was whatever Lina could convince someone to pay them to put aboard. The ship itself had no given name beyond its official designation, though Arttu had taken to calling it ‘Marnie’ as some odd interpretation of the spaceline’s initials, and despite everyone’s best disdain for the idea, it had stuck. ‘Odd’ described everything about the ship, from its strange, boxy design to the way all its decks appeared to have been segmented at semi-random intervals. It had what could charitably be described as crew compartments for six, though Ghlas had never seen the fifth filled with anything other than Lina’s personal effects, or the sixth occupied for more than a month by anything at all. Ghlas’s own assigned room was on the middle deck, near the port stabilizer, while Tijn, as the captain, stayed in the room off the hall adjacent to the bridge.

That was where Ghlas went now, climbing the emergency access ladder shortcut that went past the power conduits and straight to the flight deck. It wasn’t the most comfortable of squeezes, perhaps, but he gave no complaint; he’d shown dates around the ship before, after all, and every one of them had stood below and enjoyed the view. In no time flat, he was up in front of Tijn’s door, where he pressed the buzzer. After a moment, a small voice answered: “Who is it?”

“It’s only me,” said Ghlas, trusting that his distinctive baritone would be identification enough. “Come to borrow a razor. Have you got one?”

There was a brief, baffled silence, followed by Tijn’s asking, “A razor?”

“Yes, a razor. You are familiar with the concept, yes? You’re young and apple-cheeked enough, but I don’t believe for a moment that your hairless chin comes wholly without effort.” Ghlas drummed his fingers on the intercom grate. “Might I come in and borrow yours?”

“Of—” Tijn cleared his throat and began again, this time with the lower, chestier pitch he always used when he wanted to be taken seriously, and bless him for trying. “Of course. Come in.”

Ghlas slipped his fingers inside the handle and slid the metal door aside. He knew the layout of room from the times he’d been in there when it had been occupied by Tijn’s predecessors, but since Tijn had taken the position as captain a year and a half previous, Ghlas had only even so much as peeked inside on a handful of occasions. The lights were dim now, and Tijn stood by the side of his bed, rumpled enough that Ghlas felt bad for disturbing him. “Dreadfully sorry, did I wake you?”

Tijn shook his head and brushed his hair back from his face. He had lovely dark curls, not wild like Arttu’s mad mop, but soft and well-kept, long enough to give him a romantic sort of look but not long enough to obscure his vision. When he was on duty, he kept them slicked back and beneath his cap, but now they hung loose about his forehead and cheeks. “No, I was—” He shook his head. “No. Razor’s by the mirror.”

“My vanity and I both thank you.” Ghlas walked over to the basin and picked up the device, letting it rest in the palm of his hand; it was an older model, without many settings, but if it could shave Tijn’s chin clean, it would surely help achieve the desired effect on Ghlas’s head. Vision beginning to adjust to the dimness, he glanced back to Tijn and saw clearly the way Tijn’s own eyes were rimmed with red. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right? If you need rest, I don’t mind having the cockpit warnings come just to me so you can get some extra sleep. We won’t be nearing anything inhabited for another day or so.”

“Please, Ghlas, I’m fine. Really, I am.” Tijn sat down on the edge of his bed, crossing his legs behind him, looking at once frumpy and comfortable in a loose, long-sleeved maroon shirt and pants. He was a very attractive man, with his long limbs and his sweet face, but he had such an air of nervous fragility to him that Ghlas was content not to push the issue. They had to work together, after all, and the last thing he wanted was for his flirtations to make Tijn any more uncomfortable than he seemed to be in his default life state.

“All right.” Ghlas raised an eyebrow as he brought the razor to his head, gliding across the contours of his scalp by touch alone. “And what was it that had you so distressed last night? You were just saying last week what a shame it is we never get a chance to rest and relax planetside. Well, Earth’s your chance.”

Tijn sighed. “It’s not that, it’s—” With another sigh, this one even more dramatic, Tijn flopped back on his bed and folded his hands over his stomach. “My whole family is on Earth.”

Hearing that surprised Ghlas enough that he nearly dropped the razor mid-swipe. Tijn could be chatty at the best (and, to be honest, worst) of times, but only about job-related topics; his understanding of star charts, flight patterns, gravity fields, and control systems was extensive, and he would natter on at length about anything he perceived to be relevant information at the drop of a hat. About his family, though, Ghlas had never heard a word. “Your parents?”

“Yes, my parents. And my four brothers and two sisters. And four sisters-in-law and two brothers-in law. And sixteen nieces and eleven nephews. And nine uncles and aunts, thirty cousins and cousins-in-law, three living grandparents, four great-uncles, six great-aunts—can I stop there?”

Ghlas, himself an only child of long-deceased parents, let out a long, slow whistle. “Sounds as though you’ve got a family reunion waiting for you when we get there. Looking forward to it?”

Tijn opened his mouth and let forth what might have been intended as a laugh, but instead came out more like a desperate little squeak. “I, ah….”

“Surely they’ll be excited to hear all your spacefaring stories!” With a tap, Ghlas stopped the razor’s blades, then put it back where he’d found it against the sink; he would have cleaned it, but he didn’t know where the internal compartment release was located on an older model like that, and the last thing he wanted was to repay Tijn’s kind loan by dumping hair all over his carpet. “How long has it been since you saw them?”

Closing his eyes, Tijn sighed again. “Three years, six months, and two days. Says my mother. With whom I just spoke.”

Ghlas frowned at the note of despair in audible Tijn’s voice. Once a week, come hell or high water, Tijn had them clear all but the emergency com channels so that he could call home with less chance of the transmission’s being interrupted or garbled. Never before had Ghlas been given a reason to assume that those were anything but happy calls—but then again, he couldn’t now recall having seen Tijn outside his quarters until several hours after each had ended. “Do I detect the slightest bit of reluctance?”

“Oh, no. No, no.” Sitting up, Tijn cleared his throat, then cleared it again, then got five more in for good measure. “That is, I… well, of course I’m happy to see them. They’re my family. It’s been a… while.”

“Are they going to make something of a fuss?”

Tijn shrugged, shook his head, and nodded all in quick succession. “Mother said we’d take a trip. To Varanasi. So more of a pilgrimage, really. With the rest of my family.” With each word he spoke, Tijn seemed to get smaller and smaller as his shoulders slumped and his knees came a little closer to his chest. A short, slight man to begin with, if he really wanted to disappear, he didn’t have far to go.

“Then I suppose we’ve got pilgrims all over the ship!” said Ghlas, trying to lighten the mood; Tijn barely flexed his mouth toward a smile. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. You needn’t be nervous! If they give you any grief over how long you’ve been away, surely you can explain that you’ve been quite busy with your own accomplishments.”

“Ah, yes. My own accomplishments.” Tijn cut himself off with a sharp wave of his hand. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—anyway, it doesn’t matter. A vacation, yes? Yippie. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know, but you make this Varanasi place sound quite appealing.”

“Oh, no.” Tijn pulled himself out from the knot he’d worked into and scrambled to his feet, nearly falling headfirst off the bed in the process. “Oh, no no no, please, no, Ghlas, you’d hate it, it’s hot and so crowded and—and wouldn’t you rather be somewhere more comfortable? With a beach? And people who’ll bring you cocktails? And maybe temples that nobody goes to anymore?”

Ghlas smirked. “Wouldn’t you?”

Swallowing, Tijn stared at the floor. “What I want doesn’t come into it,” he said, and when he looked up again, his face wore a long-practiced painted smile that didn’t quite make it all the way up to his pretty brown eyes.

***

150.83.59.0
x.2732,y.03,z.-114
1505 (ship’s time)
bridge recorder

I’ve got one: the cowboy was deranged.

Very clever, Captain, very clever indeed. But what about the starlet that was defamed?

Oh, damn you, I was trying for something like that, but all I could come up with was ‘de-cast’.

‘De-cast’?

You understand, then, why I gave up. How about… the epidemiologist who was disinfected?

I think you’re perhaps missing the point of epidemiology, but I’ll give you that—if you’ll give me the tennis player who was… unloved.

Argh!

Afternoon, guys! Mamá wants you two to look over these fuel receipts and give them back to her. What are you playing now?

Occupational Hazards.

Like… when you’re under an engine fixing it and it falls on you?

Ah, no, Arttu, nothing nearly so treacherous. See, what happens is that you—well, first you think of a job, and then you think of a way to say that a person was fired from that job, only in a way that sounds as though it’s related to the job itself. So it’s a pun. In a way. Such as… well, here’s an example, the mountain climber who was dismounted.

Or the writer who was described.

Or a ballerina who was disgraced.

Or a poet who was diversified.

Got it! So… a farmer who fell down and broke a really expensive shovel, and then the boss said, sorry, friend, but we’re going to have to let you go!

Why… yes, Arttu, that was lovely. Take these back to your mother, would you?

Right!

…Or the hairdresser who was unlocked.

Wait, Ghlas!

The blackjack dealer who was discarded.

Stop it, it’s my turn! Don’t get ahead!

The electrician who was delighted?

Ghlas!

***

The best thing Ghlas could have said about their passengers was that they kept to the lowest deck. He could have said many, many worst things about them, but if forced to pick one, he supposed that the incessant singing might have been it. As they went through what must have been the three millionth chorus of some violently cheery ditty, Ghlas poured twice his normal ration of sugar into his coffee. He’d earned it.

Lina walked into the galley behind him, one hand pressed to the right side of her head, the other clutching her thermos of tea in the way a drowning swimmer might grab a life preserver. “If I have to go down there one more time and fix the rehydration unit,” she said, plunking it down on the counter and twisting open the lid, “I will not be able to be held responsible for my actions.”

Ghlas frowned at her. “Why, what’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it. Something’s wrong with them.” With a sigh, Lina opened one of the galley drawers and pulled out a tea packet, looked at it, grabbed three more, and tossed all four into her thermos. “They’re farmers, yes, I understand—most of them have never even left their peninsula, much less the whole planet—but farming is not an uncomplicated job! Surely you’d think that ‘insert hose, press button’ wouldn’t be above their general skill level.”

“Surely,” Ghlas echoed. Without asking, he dumped four heaping spoons of sugar on top of her tea. “Say, has Tijn ever talked to you about his family?”

“Not a scrap. Why?” Following her own previous instructions, Lina stuck the small potable water hose into the thermos and pressed the button just long enough to fill it to the brim.

“No reason.” Ghlas stared down into his coffee, watching the steam rise from its surface. “Did you know they’re on Earth?”

For as long as he’d known her, Lina had kept her eyebrows shaved and penciled them back in, giving all of her expressions just that extra hint of well-groomed malice. “Are we going to stand here and ask one another about all the things we don’t know? Please tell me so I can leave the room as soon as possible.”

“Perish the thought.” Ghlas pulled a packet of puck-shaped scones from a cabinet and handed her one before nibbling at the other himself. They tasted like apricots and engine grease; Arttu must have made them. “I just think that it’s odd, our having worked with him for so long and knowing so little about him.”

“So he doesn’t like to talk about himself! Between you and Arttu, I’m not surprised if it’s just because he can’t get a word in edgewise.”

Ghlas pointed at her with the scone. “Very well, I will stop holding my own during meals, and we can just let Arttu regale us with his summaries of whatever information has bounced across his brain this week. Perhaps I’ll even ask him to pick up where he left off last night, about how little girls’ tea parties founded America and the law made everyone from Britain wear a red coat.”

After pausing just long enough to make sure Ghlas had seen the entirety of her rolling her eyes at him, Lina walked over to the table and sat down, and Ghlas followed her there. They weren’t quite friends, she and he, and they certainly weren’t anything more than friends, but after five years of long stretches where each of them had often been the other’s only reliable source of intellectual conversation, they’d reached a middle ground of insults punctuated with grudging respect. “So,” he asked as they got comfortable in their seats, “what’s the catch with this whole vacation thing?”

“Catch? There’s no catch.”

“Lina. I know you.”

“Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant. Still no catch.”

Ghlas drummed his fingers on the table. “Fine. I suppose I’ll just believe that you, out of the goodness of your heart, have decided to take us to one of the most profitable waypoints in the sector and just leave us there on the ground for almost a week, going nowhere, doing nothing, earning you no money at all in the process.”

Lina shrugged as she sipped her tea. “Believe what you want. It’s all the same to me.”

A clash of cymbals from the lower deck sounded, followed by a loud cheer in a language Ghlas didn’t speak. “And how long,” asked Ghlas, as the noise triggered a chain of thoughts that made some very interesting connections fall into place, “do our new friends the Varahans plan their pilgrimage to take?”

“Five days,” said Lina.

“And are we perhaps contracted to return them once they’re done?”

“We are not.”

“We—” The unexpected answer stopped him cold. “Are not?”

“We are not.” Another cymbal clash rang through the decks, and Lina pinched the bridge of her nose. “The leader of the group downstairs, one Ms. Mirmoez, has been very clear: their little sect of whatever rubbish it is they believe in also believes in destiny. Not planning, not calling ahead, not even checking the weather—only destiny. That’s why they hired us at all, in fact: they decided it was time to leave, and we were the first ship both present and available.”

“And if we just happen to be parked at the end of their pilgrimage when they arrive and are ready to return….”

“Presto! Destiny.” Lina clapped her hands together, then shuddered as a third crash, this one louder than either before, resounded. “And it’s destiny that’s paying us very well, may I note, or else I’d dump them at the nearest refueling station and let them plague someone with better soundproofing.”

Ghlas drank down to the bottom of his mug, grimacing as he hit the dregs. Being sober for nearly six years now had brought with it a great many positive changes to both himself and his life in general, and while he regretted the circumstances that had brought him to quitting, he didn’t regret making the decision—but after four nights of a ruckus that could cut even through bulkhead walls, he was starting to miss drinking again. “How well is very well?”

“Would you like to have an engineer on the crew who learned to fix starship engines somewhere other than a correspondence course?”

“That well,” said Ghlas, impressed.

Half of that well.” Lina nodded. “And half of that well again if we’re the ones to ferry them back, meaning—”

“Meaning that the next time we lose the hydraulic system halfway to the Hack Cluster, we won’t be drifting a week while we wait for a tow?”

Lina reached over and gave Ghlas’s knee a good condescending pat. “Meaning we both should learn to love the sounds of tamborines at all hours of the morning. Agreed?”

This was going to take every ration of coffee they had on board. “Such a lovely jingle.”

“I knew you’d see it my way.”

***

150.84.22.8
x.1992,y.02,z.-74
12:23 (ship’s time)
public address system

Ah… ah, hello? Hello? Am I working? Am I— Oh, good. Thanks, Ghlas.

Ladies and gentlemen and gentleladies and… and, well, just men, I suppose that leaves, if you try to swap the first parts around, since there’s not anything—

Right, sorry.

The owner of this vessel and the captain and the first officer of this vessel are wishing to inform you please that we are having our arriving soon at Waystation 449. There will be proliferous opportunities for your disembarkation at that time, provided that yourselves are back with your selves on board at fourteen hundred hours. That’s about an hour and half standard time, so I guess you could go have some fun. There’s loads of stuff to do at a waystation! I’ve never been to this one before, so I don’t know, but at Waystation 1205, there’s a little old man who sells pão de queijo and acarajé, and one time I ate so much I—

Hm? …Oh! Oh, right, I am also asked if I would be pleased to be reminding you that if you do choose to have a disembarkation and you are not back on the ship at fourteen hundred hours and one minute, the ship will be leaving without you. …But we aren’t really going to leave anybody behind. Mamá says she’s going to leave me behind all the time, and she hasn’t so far!

At least, I don’t think she’s left me behind. Maybe she has! Maybe I’m somewhere in another place right now, and you only think this is me. Or maybe I really am somewhere else! Well, I hope I’m having a good time, wherever it is!

Oh, hello, Mamá! Do you want a turn to say something to—

[broadcast ends]

***

The smell of the stew filled Ghlas’s nose as he stepped into the room, and he said a small prayer of thanks to any gods who might be listening that Tijn’s turn to cook had come around again. Both Ghlas and Lina settled for rehydrating or reheating more often than not, and Arttu had been banned from any meal preparation after the last food poisoning incident, but Tijn actually possessed the skills necessary to put together raw ingredients and get out of it something not only edible, but delicious. He offered to lend a hand, and Tijn set him to scooping out rice from the cooker and dishing it into bowls.

“I’ve never even been to Earth!” said Arttu, continuing some one-sided conversation that had no doubt been going on since well before Ghlas’s arrival. He turned a battered old paper atlas toward Tijn and Ghlas, tapping the page about Mt. Kilimanjaro several times to make sure they saw.

“Yes you have, dear,” said Lina as she studied the transit fee forms in front of her. “When you were eight months old, your father took you to Paraguay.”

Really?” Arttu started flipping through the pages with gusto—and really, as much of a testament to the book’s sturdiness it was that it had lasted this long, in the hands of Arttu’s enthusiasm, its days were numbered. “I don’t remember that!”

Lina rolled her eyes quite pointedly considering how she didn’t even look up. “See earlier statement about being eight months old.”

“Did I like it?”

“According to him, you cried a lot.” Lina’s ex-husband was a topic of very infrequent discussion aboard Marnie, yet the few things Ghlas had ever heard about the man gave him no trouble imagining why there was an ‘ex-’ in front of the title. “But you can go there again this time, if you like. You may even have some fourth or fifth still cousins running around.”

“Paraguay, Paris….” Arttu frowned as he tried to coax apart two pages that time and ill treatment had fused together. “Are there any other places that start with P-A-R?”

“Are you thinking of making it a themed trip?” asked Ghlas, holding their bowls close to the pot as Tijn ladled a beany brown stew over the rice.

“We’ll be landing near a city named Parbhani,” said Tijn, “and there’s a city named Paradise somewhere in America. But that’s all I can think of off the top of my head.”

“And have you ever been to Paradise, Captain?” Ghlas gave Tijn a wink and was gratified to see that Tijn’s exasperated snort couldn’t quite keep down his handsome smile.

“In fact,” said Tijn, taking two of the bowls and letting Ghlas carry the other two to the table after him, “I have not. But I grew up near Parbhani. Not near near, but close enough. I have an aunt whose sister lives there, so once in a while they’d have us over for some occasion or another.”

Arttu, who seemed to have given up looking for Paraguay somewhere in the G section, took the bowl Tijn handed him, but seemed far more impressed at the moment by Tijn than by the food. “You’re from Earth?”

“We’re all from Earth,” said Lina, setting aside her work for the moment. “Some of us just have much longer roots.”

“My great-great-great-great-great grandmother was born in what used to be Benin,” said Ghlas; Arttu, distracted from both food and awe by the information, started plodding backward in the atlas. “But as I recall, that’s as close back as I have family ties to the home planet. Still, I think that’s where I’ll be headed. I hear they’ve got some fabulous beaches there.”

“You said the magic word.” Lina closed her eyes and smiled. “I was thinking more Mediterranean, myself.”

“Somewhere with sun and sand and attractive young near-naked things to bring me beverages,” said Ghlas, winking at Tijn. “Now that is a vacation.”

Arttu at last shut the atlas and settled into his supper. “Beaches sound great. Maybe I’ll go to a beach in Paraguay!”

Lina shook her head. “So sorry to disappoint you, but Paraguay is one of those pesky landlocked countries. No beach.”

“What about Paris?”

“Elsewhere in France,” said Ghlas, “yes. Paris itself has the Paraguay problem.”

“Then what about the one you said, Tijn?” asked Arttu, sighing the sigh of a man grasping at beach straws.

“Parbhani. And I’m afraid not.” Tijn was making an earnest effort to look like he was eating his supper, but Ghlas could see the food in his bowl had less disappeared and more just gotten stirred around exceptionally well. “Completely inland.”

“Paradise?”

“Nevada,” said Lina, pointing to a map she’d pulled up on her data pad. “So no.”

Arttu frowned. “I don’t think Earth has enough beaches.”

“It has plenty of beaches,” said Ghlas. “It just doesn’t have enough that fit your exacting and somewhat arbitrary specifications.”

“But everybody else gets to go to a beach! Are you going to a beach too, Cap?” asked Arttu, turning to Tijn.

“No,” said Tijn, the light tone of his voice a poor match for his downcast gaze. He forced a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Not this time.” And his contribution to the rest of the evening’s conversation ended at that.

***

150.85.93.9
x.940,y.02,z.-35
2213 (ship’s time)
bridge recorder

Did you hear about the firefighter who was put out?

Hm? Oh.

Or the organist who was stopped? …The investor who was unappreciated? …The whiskey-maker who was distilled? …Tijn, I’m fully twelve points ahead of you right now. Perhaps we ought to start naming stakes if it’ll get you back in the game. We could even amend the rules to include near-puns, such as the gravedigger who was disheveled. Or working animals, like the racehorse who was distraught.

I’m sorry, I just… don’t feel very creative right now.

…It’s really got you bothered, doesn’t it?

What?

Seeing your family again.

It’s not a big deal.

It must be. I’ve never seen you like this.

I’m not like anything.

You haven’t told me a fact about asteroid field navigation in nearly a week.

We haven’t been near any.

We’ve been through six.

Well, perhaps I don’t have any new facts left.

I can’t think of a time that’s stopped you before.

Ghlas, please! …I promise. It’s nothing. I’m just… tired. In fact, I think I’m going to go turn in.

Oh, don’t leave on my account. I’ve got other things I could be doing elsewhere on the ship; I just thought you might want the company.

I… thank you, but I’m all right. Just tired. Sound the alert if you need me. Good night.

…All right. Good night.

[seventeen minutes of silence, followed by a heavy sigh]

***

After the eleventh night, all sounds from downstairs ceased so abruptly that Ghlas found himself woken for a change by a lack of noise. Perhaps, he thought as he lay there in the dark, their ritual preparations had come to such a head that they’d all decided to throw themselves religiously out an airlock. The thought made him smile as he closed his eyes and went straight back to sleep for another eight hours.

“They said they were doing fast praying,” Arttu was saying as Ghlas walked onto the bridge. Tijn was there already, sitting behind the captain’s seat with a half-finished book opened on his personal data pad. Protocol for carrying passengers demanded only that at least one of the pilots be awake and on the ship at all times, able to reach but not necessarily at the helm. Even so, nine times out of ten, when Ghlas went looking for his captain, he was to be found at the front of Marnie’s top deck, keeping an eye on the things autopilot could handle effortlessly. “How do you think someone prays fast?”

“Do you mean, fasting and praying?” Tijn waved his hand across the top of the pad to shut it off; there’d be no reading while Arttu was around.

“It did seem kind of slow,” said Arttu, stroking his chin with thought.

Ghlas took the co-pilot’s seat and swung his feet up atop the control panel, letting the heels of his boots land just above the topmost row of controls. “I don’t care what they’re doing. I got a good night’s rest, and that’s all that matters to me. Do you want to go to bed now?” he asked, looking over to Tijn.

Tijn shook his head, though the dark circles under his eyes had begun to look like shadows during an eclipse. “I think I’ll be up a little while longer, thanks.”

“They’re all really nice people,” Arttu continued, mindless as ever of the other conversations going on around him. “They said we were destined to meet them. Isn’t that great? I’ve never been destined to do anything before!”

“Or perhaps everything you’ve ever done is what you’ve been destined to do, hm?” Ghlas nudged Arttu’s back with the toe of his boot.

Arttu’s face lit up like a sunrise. “Wow! I never thought of it that way. I guess that’s the kind of thing they think about though. Did you know they’re all a family? I told them they’re lucky that they get to travel together. Mamá and I travel everywhere.”

“Which thrills her to no end, I assure you,” said Ghlas, knowing the sarcasm would shoot right past Arttu and letting it launch anyway. “Are they all related by blood, then, or do they just call themselves a family?”

“I—” Confusion darkened Arttu’s features. “I don’t know. Can they do that?”

“Can they what?”

“Just call themselves a family, even if they’re not actually related.”

Ghlas shrugged. “Well, if they want to, I’m not going to stop them.” He linked his hands behind his head and leaned back as far as the chair’s base would let the seat bend. “I was mostly just curious, since the few I saw didn’t look much alike.”

“Yeah, but…” Arttu chewed on his lower lip for a moment, thinking—a process that Ghlas wasn’t going to rush. “Mamá and I don’t look much alike.”

“What do you mean?” asked Tijn. “You and she look exactly alike. Same eyes, same smile, same skin color, same curly hair—”

“Well, all right, but she wears lipstick and I don’t!” said Arttu, laughing as though he couldn’t believe Tijn, of all people, had missed that crucial detail. “Completely different!”

“He’s got you there, Tijn,” said Ghlas with a wink.

Arttu smiled. “They’re polite, too! Always concerned about me. Asking if I’m happy. And I say yes! I am happy! I’ve got the best job in the world, and the best friends, and I get to meet new people and see new places, and last week I got to pet pigs!”

Any attempts at proselytizing aimed at improving Arttu’s mental well-being were doomed from the start to fail. “Well, Arttu,” said Ghlas, “you’re a very lucky young man. You’re living your dream! Flying all about the stars, helping out where you can, being able to strike up endless conversations with people you’ve hardly met!”

“I am!” Arttu folded his arms across his chest, looking quite pleased. “Say, Cap, are you?”

Tijn narrowed his eyes. “Am I what?”

“Living your dream?”

“I—” Tijn paused and swallowed, and then all his face seemed to change, shedding worry and exhaustion in one smooth wipe. He was only twenty-six, and a young twenty-six at that, but the way his eyes widened made him look even younger. “I suppose I am. I’ve always wanted to be a space pilot, did you know?”

“Yes, you’ve only said as much ten thousand times or so,” said Ghlas, but with the far-away look in Tijn’s eyes, Ghlas didn’t think for a moment he’d been heard.

A bell sounded in the cabin and Arttu perked up; if he’d been a dog, his ears would have pricked. “Duty calls!” he announced, and he took off in search of his mother, who no doubt had found something else that was coming apart at the seams. Now that the party in the ship’s belly had ceased, getting to their destination as quickly as humanly possible no longer seemed as vital as it had earlier, but even under the best of circumstances, he’d just as soon Marnie not break down at all.

None of the warning lights showed a problem, though, so Ghlas was content for now to proceed on the assumption that everything was all right. Even so, as long as he was here, it would hurt nothing for him to run a few diagnostics. He gave the order to the computer and watched the screen as readings ticked forth, every number in the green type that vouched for its being all right.

“When I was young, no one in my whole family had been farther away from Earth than Ganymede,” said Tijn, his voice small and yet startlingly loud in the vacuum of sound Arttu often left behind him. He placed the pad atop the console and walked forward to the foremost window, staring out at the starfield before them. “For my fifth birthday, all I wanted to do was go to the Moon. It was all I talked about for weeks, my family tells me. I promised to give up all my other presents, to forego all other celebrations, if I could just get on a shuttle and go to the Moon.”

Ghlas rose from his chair as Tijn spoke, but stood behind the console, keeping his distance. “And did you?”

“In fact, I did.” With Tijn turned away, Ghlas couldn’t see his face, but he could see the way Tijn wrung his hands behind his back as he spoke. “My mother and I got on a transit shuttle, and when I told the flight attendant it was my birthday, he was so impressed that he got my mother’s permission to take me up front and see the what the pilot did. And since we weren’t staying, I got to turn around and ride in the same spot the whole way down.”

“And?” asked Ghlas, who’d gotten into piloting when he’d been seventeen, on a whim, because he’d been bored and smart, and because the person he’d been sleeping with at the time had said they thought it was a sexy profession. By the time Ghlas had broken up with them, he’d been three-quarters of the way through training and had learned to love it by virtue of being fantastic at it.

Tijn laughed, though the sound was mostly air. “And I wanted to go again every day. It was all I wanted to talk about. My parents got sick of hearing about it, so they gave me reading material on different subjects and hoped I’d grow out of the phase.”

Ghlas smiled, tapping buttons on the console as he confirmed the end of the first diagnostic and started a second. “I take it their efforts were unsuccessful.”

Beyond unsuccessful. I learned to stop talking about it. But I didn’t stop reading anything I could get my hands on.” Tijn raised one hand to the glass and splayed his fingers wide. “All right, they said, if I didn’t want to study marketing, if I really wanted to spend my days looking at numbers, I could at least study economics and math, because the family’s business interests could always use an honest bookkeeper. One more accountant.”

“Can’t quite picture you as an accountant.”

“That makes two of us. So I told them, no, I was going to go study physics and go to flight school. And they said if I was planning on doing that, I’d best be planning to cover it out of my own pocket.”

“And so you did!” Ghlas walked out from behind the console and crossed the distance to Tijn with slow steps. “Good for you.”

Tjin laughed again, but this time there was no warmth behind the sound. “No, I went to university to major in accounting. Because I was a coward. I took all sorts of business and economics classes. And on the side, pleading with the professors not to put anything on my transcript, I attended every spaceflight physics class that would let me in the door. I read the manuals in every second of my spare time. I turned down every date my parents tried to arrange for me, telling them I had to focus on my studies.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, even stream. “The day after I graduated, I went straight to the pilot licensing center, took the test, and failed. So I studied more for another two months, all the while my parents were trying to set me up in my new job. Took the test, failed again. Failed a third time three months later. That’s when I studied for three more months, memorizing every bit of information, getting behind the wheel of a simulator anytime I could. I told myself then, if I failed that time, I’d just give up and accept that fate wanted me to be an accountant.”

Ghlas barely wanted to speak, for fear that he might somehow shatter whatever spell it was that had gotten Tijn talking. He’d never been easy to read, but Ghlas had figured he’d had Tijn’s spoiled, nerdy number enough to know where he’d come from. He’d no idea how wrong he’d been. “Is that when you passed?” he asked, getting close enough that he could rest a friendly hand on Tijn’s shoulder.

“Nope,” said Tijn, turning to Ghlas with a sad little smile on his face; his eyes were haloed with red, and two damp lines marked his cheeks. “Or the fifth. I knew all the information, but the actual flying was… never so good. The sixth time, over a year after I’d started working for my parents, I finally managed to squeak through a digital asteroid field and land the shuttle safely. The next day, I saw Lina’s job offer. Marnie was literally the first real, non-simulated time I’d ever been at any helm.”

Well, this put all the bumpy departures and none-too-smooth arrivals during the first year or so of Tijn’s employment in perspective. “I’d think that’d make them proud of you.”

“Oh, they’ve made it clear on several occasions what I’ve done that makes them proud. It’s not much. Little things. Such as getting married, having children, tending to my aging parents’ needs, joining the family business, settling down in a nice house, becoming a respected member of the community—oh, wait, I’m sorry, I’ve done none of those things. Instead—” Tijn turned away again. In the dim ambient light, Ghlas could only see half of Tijn’s body reflected against the inside of the window; the rest was made of stars.

“You are young,” said Ghlas, and when Tijn sighed and thunked his forehead hard against the glass, Ghlas squeezed his shoulder. “What I meant to say is, you’re not a hundred years old, looking back on a life wasted. You’ve got time for whatever parts of that plan you want, and to hell with the rest of it.”

Tijn snorted. “I can’t even begin. That’s why we’re going to Varanasi—to see if we can’t, as a family, pray away even my most basic of failures. They wanted me to settle down with a nice girl, and they were very insistent about that last part in particular, especially once I hit puberty…” With a wave of his hand, Tijn cleared the rest of the sentence from the air. “And well, for so many reasons, ‘a nice girl’ has never really been an option, not for me. So there’s never… really been… any options.”

Ghlas’s poker face was well-made and long-practiced, and thus he managed to keep his eyebrows from rising up to the ceiling. Certainly there wasn’t much time for anything but the most dedicated of long-term romances in their line of work; there were, however, ports of call and layovers aplenty, and they did spent whole weeks grounded when Lina had no jobs for them. Ghlas had never expected that sweet, awkward Tijn might be any sort of master at picking up companionship for the evening, but he hadn’t expected that to have accumulated him a conquest total of zero. “None at all?” Sweet, awkward Tijn was sweet, after all, and some people found awkward endearing, even appealing. People, for instance, like Ghlas.

Tijn shook his head. “So no, I really haven’t ever been to Paradise, as it were. But I don’t care about that. Well, I do, but right now I…” Clenching his hands into fists, he swallowed hard. “I just wish I’d come back to them with something to show for my running off.”

“Something more impressive than being a captain before thirty?” asked Ghlas, smiling as he tipped Tijn’s hat brim down, obscuring Tijn’s eyes. Ghlas himself had been a captain well before thirty, and of a much larger ship than Marnie, but now, for once, was not the time to bring that up.

“Ha,” Tijn muttered, nudging the hat back but keeping his eyes downcast. “Should be you.”

And that was the hell of it, for both of them—Ghlas should have been the captain, and the ad Tijn had responded to should have been for a first officer, someone willing to endure a few years low salary and work experience before moving along elsewhere. Tijn should have had a great deal more practical experience before being given command of a vessel. Ghlas should have stopped drinking long before Lina’d become the only one willing to hire him, and even then not as her lead pilot. A lot of things should have been different.

“I,” said Ghlas, slipping his fingers under Tijn’s chin and turning his face so they could see eye-to-eye (or at least as eye-to-eye the several-centimeter height difference between them would allow), “think you’re doing a fine job.”

Tijn’s eyes went as wide and round as they had the night before embarking on their current voyage, and when he opened his mouth to speak, no sound came out. A blush was beginning to filter out across his face, infusing his olive complexion with a dusty rose hue. After a few stammers, he gave up and took a deep breath. “You don’t have to lie to make me feel better,” he said, or said something like that; the exact words were lost in a heavy mumble.

“Believe me, I don’t and I wouldn’t.” With a sigh, Ghlas lay one of his hands on each of Tijn’s shoulders. “You’re a very good pilot and a very good captain. Prone to panic during disaster, perhaps, but that’s why you have me. And if your family won’t be impressed by what you’ve accomplished here, then they’ll never be by anything, and it’s not worth to keep trying for the impossible. But you’ve impressed me.”

Ghlas considered himself a fortunate man on many fronts, and one of those was how his intuition about when someone was ready to be kissed was very, very good. In fact, he’d never once been wrong about it, and thus he had not a single doubt in his mind as to what would happen when he leaned in and pressed his lips against Tijn’s. Tijn made a strange squeak-like noise as he drew in a sharp breath through his nose, but he didn’t pull away, and in fact, after several seconds of standing ramrod-still, he leaned in ever so slightly at the contact. He kept his lips pressed together so tightly Ghlas found almost no lips there to kiss, though he wasn’t going to let a little thing like that that stop him, not when presented with a moment like this. He would have been a fool to do so, and if there was one thing Ghlas was most certainly not, it was a fool.

Tijn was shaking so badly that Ghlas could almost feel it vibrate the air between their bodies, but he didn’t quit, and in fact, it was Ghlas who leaned back first—and when he did, Tijn lingered in place a moment longer, eyes shut and jaw tipped forward. With a soft laugh, Ghlas caressed Tijn’s cheek. “Captain, you are relieved of duty,” he said, his voice gentle but firm. “Report to your quarters for some rest.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Tijn lowered his head and nodded, though he looked almost pained when Ghlas pulled his hand away. “I, ah.” He nodded again, as though convincing himself more than anything that leaving was the right choice. “I suppose so.”

“Sweet dreams,” said Ghlas, who stood at the front of the deck and watched as Tijn made his way on shaky legs down the aisle between the flight consoles and out the cabin door. He remained in place until he heard the door to Tijn’s quarters close, then walked back to his own seat and began tapping out a letter to one of his contacts. He had only a few days to pull this off, and he had to make it good. Fortunately, he didn’t know how to do anything any other way.

***

150.85.93.9
x.416,y.01,z.-33
0045 (ship’s time)
subspace communication log

MRN: Sun-yi! I take it you got my message.

MARS 482-919: Got it, but I’m not completely sure I understand it.

MRN: Really? I thought it was self-explanatory.

MARS 482-919: So is the sentence, ‘Please throw me out an airlock,’ but if I hear it, I’m still going to want something more first.

MRN: I fly a cargo ship. You have cargo you need flown. Is that enough explanation for you?

MARS 482-919: Maybe if you wanted to haul something with a sky-high profit margin, or ferry around a rock star, or something like that. But nobody wants this run. Promise me this isn’t covering for something illegal.

MRN: Come now, Senator, you know I’m not like that anymore.

MARS 482-919: I know exactly what you’re like, you charming bastard. If we were in the same room, I’d invent some new blood oath for you to swear by. …Don’t make that face. Look at it from my perspective: I haven’t heard from you in four years, and here you come in, volunteering for a trip with no profit margin, and you won’t even tell me why! Either you’re smuggling or you’ve lost your mind.

MRN: I am not smuggling, and I have not lost my mind. I promise. Can’t a man offer his aid out of the goodness of his own heart?

MARS 482-919: A man? Maybe. You? No.

MRN: I simply have my reasons. That’s all.

MARS 482-919: …What’s their name?

MRN: Beg pardon?

MARS 482-919: Whoever’s got you over a barrel.

MRN: You really think I’d let myself be blackmailed into philanthropy?

MARS 482-919: I didn’t mean over a barrel like that.

MRN: It’s… not like that.

MARS 482-919: Yeah, but if you’re doing this, it’s not for a lack of trying.

MRN: …What if I promise to bring him by to meet you and yours for dinner?

MARS 482-919: Then I’d say in nine hours, MRN Skylines will have its name on thirty bio-stasis crates waiting at Ahmednagar Central Spaceport.

MRN: Thank you. Truly.

MARS 482-919: Of course, you welch on me about dinner and I’ll throw you out an airlock without your even having to ask first.

MRN: My dear, I’d expect nothing less.

***

“Dear heavens,” said Lina, shaking her head as she walked up onto the flight deck; she looked more than a little disheveled, and the scarf she’d tied around her neck earlier hung askew. “I think I’m going to start putting a new policy in client contracts: under no circumstances is it permissible to hug the owner.”

“But you’re just so cuddly,” said Ghlas with a smirk, switching off the exit runway lights now that their passengers had finished transferring from Marnie to the high platform of the Ahmednagar Central Spaceport; he pretended not to notice that she was trying to kill him just by looking at him.

Arttu scuried in behind her, covered in long strands of wooden beads and wearing an odd, conical pink hat. “Wow! Look what they gave me! They’re the nicest people in the whole galaxy! Can I hug all the passengers from now on, Mamá?”

“Absolutely not,” Lina said, and then it was her turn to keep her eyes forward as Arttu’s face fell. “But their pilgrimage is on the way, and we have docking arrangements set, so I will see you all in five days and not a second before!”

“Actually—” Ghlas turned in his chair, tapping the end of a stylus against his lower lip, and three faces turned to him: Arttu, bright and vacant as ever; Lina, crooking her mouth at the side in anticipation of whatever funny business her troublesome first officer might have in mind; and Tijn, who’d barely said two words unprompted to flight control on the way in, expression blank in the manner of a man ready for his trip to the gallows. He let them all stay like that a moment, savoring the anticipation, before continuing: “I believe, Lina, that Tijn has something to say that will be of great interest to you.”

A bolt of clear terror sparked life into Tijn’s face as it was now his turn to be at the center of attention. “I, ah, I do?”

Ghlas stood and handed Lina a data pad, smiling smugly all the while. “As much as it pains me to give up a chance for some lengthy and much-deserved recreation, Tijn has found us a way to spend our time in this sector in a way that both would be a profitable use of our being here and will give us a chance to return in five days to give the second part of our destiny with the Varahians the proper little push.”

“Transporting medical supplies?” asked Lina, skimming through the text on the pad while Arttu and Tijn both peeked over her shoulder.

“And only to Phobos, which certainly wouldn’t take a full day there and back—except that these are very sensitive supplies. Volatile molecular structures. Synthetic components with nanosecond-long half-lives. Which means—”

“Which means they’re too unstable to be taken through any translight channels,” said Tijn, clueing into the situation with such an obvious snap that Ghlas almost expected to see an actual lightbulb blink on over his head. “And at only standard power, counting in loading and unloading times, the trip will take—”

“Five days,” Ghlas finished for him. “And as the government of Phobos has classified this an errand of mercy, not only will they be covering all our transit fees and expenses, they’ve located some of MRN’s debt held by Phobos-based enterprises and are willing to negotiate forgiveness of a substantial portion of what this skyline owes.”

Lina was still scanning through the flight plans and storage requirements, but Ghlas knew he’d had her the moment he’d mentioned debt. “And… Tijn, you found this opportunity?”

“Of course he did,” said Ghlas before Tijn could even open his mouth. “But he was too modest to bring it up, and you did mention vacation, which was so very generous, and he didn’t want you to think him ungrateful.”

“I’m—I’m very grateful.” Tijn nodded so hard he knocked his cap askew. “But… there’s poor sick babies on Phobos.”

“Babies!” Arttu clasped his mother’s shoulder. “Sick babies?”

Ghlas reached over and tapped the top of the pad. “But we’d have to leave straightaway. Supplies can be onboard in ten minutes, provided you think this is a worthwhile use of MRN’s time.”

“And,” Lina said, looking at the three men around her, “you’d prefer this to vacation time?”

Tijn sighed like a true martyr, as though Ghlas couldn’t tell his heart was fixing to burst from his chest with excitement. “I couldn’t possibly be so selfish as to take time off and relax when tiny, tiny babies are suffering.”

Lina handed over the pad and drew herself up to her full still-diminutive height, looking back and forth between Ghlas’s steady smile and Tijn’s hopeful visage for nearly a full minute before finally sighing. “Something is very suspicious here, and fortunately for the both of you, I don’t care. If you two are, of your own free will, amenable to giving up your vacation time to creep vaccines along to a moon—”

“And we are,” said Ghlas.

Tijn nodded. “Oh, yes. Quite.”

“Then I suppose we’re bound for Martian orbit.” Lina swatted Arttu on the shoulder. “Go on, get the holds ready. We’ve got precious cargo to take on.”

Though this conversation, as most others like it, had flown over Arttu’s head at some considerable elevation, the crux of it looked as though it was beginning to sink in; he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the landing pad, but he could put two and two together, given enough time and fingers to count on. “So we’re… not going to Paris?”

“Afraid not,” said Ghlas, “but I have it on excellent authority that some of these medicines will be delivered to a rather large zoo on Phobos—which does, in fact, have on display an assortment of bears.”

All lines of worry on Arttu’s face disappeared beneath a sunny smile. “Wow!” He clapped his hands together and scurried off, no doubt dreaming already of visiting the ursine menagerie. More than once, all their lives had been made just that much simpler by how easy Arttu was to please.

Lina watched him go, then turned back to her pilots, still wearing a shade of her earlier suspicious frown. “Weren’t you,” she began, turning to Tijn, “going to see your family while you were here?”

Tijn drew a hand to his chest in a fantastic impression of surprise at his own forgetfulness. “Dear me. I suppose I should give them a call and let them know my expert skills are needed elsewhere.”

“On account of your being a hero,” said Ghlas.

“On account of… of my being a hero,” Tijn echoed, as though he almost didn’t believe the words himself. But as excuses to break a family engagement went, Ghlas himself would have been hard-pressed to imagine a more noble humanitarian one. Tijn couldn’t avoid them forever, of course—they were family, after all, and family came with certain inherent obligations—but if they destroyed his fragile confidence now, he might never be the person he could one day become in spite of their disapproval. And Ghlas was starting to like that person very much, especially now as Tijn looked over to him the moment Lina’s back was turned and mouthed thank you.

With a wink and a smug smile, Ghlas sat back in his chair and sent his contact a signal that they were good to go on the plan. It hadn’t been easy to arrange, much less to do so in secret; he’d had to cash in every favor owed him by any person on or even anywhere near Earth. But one look at the smile of blissful, perfect relief and gratitude on Tijn’s face as he began to jot down his regrets to his mother made Ghlas certain he’d do it again without a moment’s hesitation. Some things were simply worth it.

***

150.87.49.2
x.0,y.0,z.0
1018 (ship’s time)
bridge recorder

Roger, Ahmednagar control, we are awaiting your clearance. …You know, I was thinking about the equestrian.

Equestrian? Which one?

You know, the one who was derided.

Oh, yes, that one. Winds ten knots from the southeast; adjusting atmospheric stabilizers to correct accordingly. Easier to manage such weather conditions with a sorcerer, but the only one we had around was disenchanted.

Green light from control; we are cleared to depart. Might be a nice day for all kinds of flying, except for that poor balloonist who was deflated.

Ready to depart on your mark. But then what about the captain who was delayed?

Delayed? That doesn’t make any sense, that’s not…. Oh.

On your mark, Captain.

Ah, r-right. Um. Thrusters on, locks disengaged, flaps ready, so… mark.

And we’re off.


 

Whitney Bishop is Editor-in-Chief of and frequent contributor to the long-running anthology Shousetsu Bang*Bang, for which she has written nearly forty stories under the pseudonym "shukyou." She's to blame for eight years of homosexual erotica, and she could not be prouder.