Very late at night, when the buzz of drill dozers has died out, I can hear her breathing. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t care.
Tonight, I have to concentrate extra hard because there’s a man lying beside me; he’s snoring with the contented abandon of the well-fucked and all that panting has heavied up the air in my quarters. Still, I can hear her, hear her like she’s right behind my ear or curled up inside my heart. She’s not of course. If anything, I’m curled up in hers.
But then again, her dust covers everything, all of us. It coats the inner walls of this station even though it’s airtight. It coats my inner walls. It’s reddish and probably lethal, but who knows? We’ve never seen anything like it before.
The man beside me is Arkex. He is just another dustfucker amongst many; he mans the drill. Today I’m a man too — very much so it turns out — and I was surprised because I’d always taken Arkex for straight. I don’t bother hiding my stares when his muscles gleam in the foul glare of our excavation lights. He never looked back, though, not on my man days, not on my woman days, and I gave up noticing. But tonight he showed up, appeared at my door without a word, just a smile softer than any I’d seen him wear before. Before, his only smiles fought off the impossible monotony of the ‘stroid mines or spilled sloppily out at bad jokes over Vanguard at the Rustvine. This one comes from deeper in him: Comely, it requests permission to be held.
I considered for a few moments, took my time. In these thick seconds, he maybe thought back on the times he’d snickered with the others. The jokes about me I’m sure I’d rather not know, the ones I can see from across the bar in sidewise glances, suppressed laughs. On the days I wake up a woman, Arkex’s sneer thickens. We’re all hidden beneath layers of protective gear out there in the caves, just thick genderless grunts, hard at work and always on the brink of death. Still, word gets out what body I’ve woken to, idiocy ensues.
Tonight, his shoulders hunched, his eyes ask forgiveness. I scowled, took the fullness of him: a tight shirt, once white, now dust red, and those big yellow shield pants, all laden with pouches and rope. Skin red like mine. I stepped to the side and motioned him in with my chin.
It’s not like he’s the first. Usually, I turn them away. They are curious, hungry for a story to yap out at Rustvine, and suddenly meek. The handful I’ve let in, their vulnerability radiated past the layers of dust and couldn’t be faked.
It doesn’t matter to me: their soft smiles and whispered promises in the thick of the heat. They always fall asleep and then I lie there, tuning out their snores so I can hear her breath; trying to match mine with hers. Silently, impossible like love, I feel it inside me. And tonight, tonight, for no reason I can discern and for just a few perfect, rockstar seconds, I catch hold and we do breathe as one, the asteroid and I, taking in the immensity of space. In the moment between, when the air lingers inside, I ask it to shift course. I don’t ask, I plead. Because time is running out. Swerve, goes my prayer. One word: swerve. Because a full turn just seems like too much to ask. A U-turn? Come now: These are celestial bodies, not space ships. So, Swerve, I whisper silently. And when we exhale, together, we release that tiny prayer and mountains and mountains of dust.
• • • •
A few hours later, I’m bleary eyed and raw at the Rustvine. I’d passed out to the lullaby of the asteroid’s susurrations and woke up with wet pebbles in my head. Too much Vanguard. Still, something had happened. It’s nothing I could explain to anyone, not without getting thrown in the brig and losing my hard-earned Chief Engineer position. But I know it was real.
Slid my hand beneath the sheets between my own legs and I’d switched again; soft folds where last night was a full throbbing dick, put to good use, too. It’s happening more and more these days. I linger. A few tasty ghosts of last night at my fingertips: Arkex beneath me, behind me, his hands on my shoulders, mine on his. I wondered if he’d grasp my womanbody with the same savage tenderness. Would he be too gentle? Not interested at all? I leaned over him, my fingers still rolling circles between my legs, but then the gnawing sense of somewhere to be surfaced, overtook everything. The Triumvirate. Their star glider was probably already docked in the hangar, their irritating little envoy slinking his way along our dust-covered corridors to the Rustvine.
I disentangled from the sheets. All my shield pants and dress shirts lay crumpled in the bin. All that was left was this stupid skirt that I only have for stupid parties I show up to uninvited. Absurd. But I threw it on, laced up my caving boots beneath it and pulled on an old Sour Kings t-shirt. Glanced in the mirror, ignored the feeling that it wasn’t quite me looking back and then nudged Arkex with a steel-tipped toe.
“Ay. Got places to be. Find your way out, eh.”
Arkex had mumbled a curse, not even registering I was now a woman, maybe not caring, and turned over. The sheets slipped from his body; the redness even tinged his chest. I poured the dregs of yesterday’s coffee into a stained paper cup and shambled down the corridors.
• • • •
At the far end of the Rustvine, the more ornery dustfuckers trade grimaces and slurp down Vanguard shots. A whispered debate rages, you can see it play out in those tiny face flinches. Everyone knows impact is only a matter of hours now; everyone knows the galaxy may be about to witness the most colossal suicide mission of all time. Discontent catches slow fire, thickens every day.
Arkex is among them now, having risen from his satisfied stupor, and so is Zan, one of the few female squad leaders. From their scowls and studious refusal to even glance my way, I know some foul fuckery is afoot.
They say the best cure for Vanguard pebble brain is Vanguard, so I order my second shot and turn back to the awkward little man sitting across from me.
“Jax,” Dravish says, glaring at me. “Are you even paying attention?”
“His Holiness the Hierophant,” I say, “Minister of the Noble Triumvirate, who you represent most humbly, wants an update on our trajectory, delicately reminds the crew of asteroid Post 7Quad9 that the destruction of the asteroid and the post along with it is on the pulldown menu of possibilities if Earth remains at risk.”
Dravish nods, trying to affect a meaningful glare but only getting a half-smirk peeking out from somewhere beneath his handlebar mustache. “All eyes are on you, Jax. The universe is watching.”
“Even though,” I add unnecessarily, “no one lives on Earth any more. Are you enjoying your stay at our lovely facility?”
He’s a small man with alarmingly long fingers and a tendency to call attention to them by rubbing his hands together like a plotting marsupial. “I don’t like being without my jag pistons. The Barons have spies everywhere.”
I shrug. There’s enough firepower and political intrigue focused on this one hurling rock to destroy several galaxies, so I instituted a strict no firearms policy from the get-go. Anyway, it makes bar fights more fun. “It just means you have to be more creative when you kill people, Dravish. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Dravish taps his steel cane on the tiled floor and snorts.
I have more important things to consider than the Hierophant and his passive aggressive secretaries. The dustfuckers have stopped consorting and spread out across the room; more trouble. Beyond all that, I still carry the memory of that perfect clicking into place earlier, when our breathing became one.
“There’s something else, Jax.” Annoyed that I’m not looking at him, Dravish fiddles his fingers faster against themselves. A murmur ripples through the Rustvine; someone unusual has just entered and the denizens accumulate to catch a glimpse.
My shot arrives. “What?” I throw it back.
“The Hierophant sent his daughter along with me.”
I spit the shot back into the glass. “Maya?”
“He has only one.”
The crowd opens and a figure in a long black robe strides out. The ornate silver machinery of the Triumvirate halos her; beneath it, a gilded faceguard catches the ill orange glow of the Rustvine’s security lights. Elaborate leather belts crisscross her chest and another wraps around her waist. Still, she moves like a leaf pushed in on a gale of wind. Real wind, I mean, not the endless monotony of exhaust fans. She is a thing alive, glistening even, and completely out of place in this underground trashhole of dustfuckers and the taste of disaster.
Moving effortlessly, she sits. I put a handrolled Garafuna in my mouth, light it. Dravish mumbles something and finds somewhere else to be. The faceguard emits a mechanical sigh, lifts, and there’s Maya, smiling like a jerk. “Smoking is bad for the environment.”
I exhale a ringlette and take in her face. It hasn’t changed much since the academy days. Maya has three moles reaching like Orion’s belt from the edge of her mouth to her right eye. That’s the eye that’s always squinting, just a little bit, like she doesn’t quite believe you. It’s the gap between her two front teeth that gets you, though. You can’t miss ‘em, those big ol’ teeth, and whenever she lets that grin loose, the gap reaches out to you and says hi. She has pudgy cheeks, too, like a brown girl version of those horrible little dolls the Chemical Barons distribute to make us all forget how they flooded Earth. Except the dolls are heinous and Maya, Maya is stunning.
“You know what else is bad for the environment?” I take another drag. Exhale. “Blowing up people’s asteroid homes.”
She scrunches her face. “It’s not your home, it’s your job.”
“It’s a busy season; I keep having to sleep at the office.”
“Is that why I haven’t seen you in two years?”
I shrug, tear my eyes away from her face. “I’m not hard to find.”
The Rustvine has settled back into its regular banter: Filthy, dust-covered men mutter their dust-covered prayers to each other, sip Vanguard till everything tastes like oblivion, which is slightly less bitter than disaster. Directly across from me, Arkex hunches over the bar. A few seats away, Zan mutters to one of her men.
“As an opening gambit, I’d say you’ve softened some since our Ac days.”
I look back at Maya, scowl, look away. “You want a drink?”
“People change. You could be a regular heathen like the rest of us now. I don’t make assumptions. A simple ‘no, thank you’ would do.”
“But why pass up a chance to annoy you?”
Finally, I allow a smile out. She’s been demanding one since she sat down and I’ve never been able to say no to her.
She sits back, releases the gap-tooth grin. “See now! There it is.”
“Shut up, Maya.”
A few tables away, Dravish eyes the bar. He sees it too — the small ways that men move when their bodies teeter on the brink of violence, the stiff backs and forced stillness. Dravish’s long fingers caress the empty air above his holsters.
“Anyway, you were telling me what you’d discovered,” Maya says.
I laugh, swig from the bottle of Vanguard that just arrived. “Hardly.”
“Hardly discovered anything or you were hardly telling me?”
I peel my eyes from goings on at the bar and meet hers. “Maya.”
“How much time is left?”
I’m familiar with this wide-eyed face of hers. It is used for pleading. “Depends.”
The wide eyes narrow. This is when Maya doesn’t get what face #1 had quietly demanded. She used to make this one a lot in close combat class. It’s not a bluff; Maya was the only student to make it through the academy without a single point being scored off her and she hospitalized a few of the biggest grunts along the way.
“Hours,” I say. “Less than a dozen. Assuming Earth doesn’t suddenly jump out of its regular orbit. And assuming 7Quad9 doesn’t change course by itself.”
Maya eases out of her attack face, raises one eyebrow. “Is that even possible?”
“Literally, at this moment, and I’m not being coy with you at all, anything is possible.” This is a test. I raise my eyebrows when I’m done. Maya’s face can do so many things right now, and each will be a message.
She hunches her shoulders and leans across the table, a conspiratorial smile across her face. The ever-squinting eye squints tighter. “Go on.”
“I think I can get it to swerve.” I say it very, very quietly.
Now both eyes squint; the smile fades. “Oh?”
“I . . . I know I can.” I hadn’t meant for that to come out; that information is a surprise even to me. The Vanguard may have taken the wheel at this point.
“How? You’re rigging up an engine of some kind? You don’t give updates, Jax! This shit matters.”
I shake my head. “No engine.”
A whole new kind of understanding dawns on Maya’s face; it is wide open.
“There is no precedent for what this is. The dust matches nothing we’ve seen. The corner of space it comes from is a star graveyard: There is nothing there. But something about it is . . . familiar. I think maybe . . .” My voice trails off as I feel the haze of Vanguard settle in a little deeper. “Maybe.”
“Well, look, the Triumvirate wants to study it too, but you’re talking about a matter of hours.”
“Study until it’s a threat and then destroy, huh? That’s the name of the game.”
“Jax, if the Barons get ahold of . . .”
“Shh,” I whisper.
“Wha . . .”
My eyes are closed, purple and green blobs dance across the darkness. I block out Maya’s gnawing impatience, concentrate on whatever it was in the air that just caught my attention. It’s quiet. That’s what it is: It’s quiet. The Rustvine is never quiet. My hands close around the metal legs of my chair, I open my eyes as I stand, swinging the chair over my head. I only catch a momentary glimpse of the dustfucker throng advancing before I hurl the chair with all my strength at Zan. It catches her full in the face, topples her. I grab the bottle of Vanguard and brain the next closest one.
Maya dives forward, out of the fray and out of my sightline, and then they close around me, a throbbing mass of yells and pumping fists. Someone’s chain club finds my cheek and a few more get their hits in as I stumble to the side. They’re easily stumped, though; my fall makes them sloppy with such a quick victory. I catch one with a steel-tipped boot to the ‘nads, and then slip on spilled Vanguard. I roll out of the fray, topple a table, and rise just in time to see three dustfuckers collapse beneath a vicious swatting from Dravish’s metal cane. Each hit is precise and the aging Triumvirate secretary moves easily out of the way from dustfuckers’ haphazard flailing.
I’m tensing to launch into the throng when Dravish stops moving. His cane clatters to the ground and a rusty metal shaft pokes out of his chest.
Zan’s face appears behind Dravish. She’s bleeding from where she caught the chair with her face. “Kill the faggot middling and his Triumvirate bitch friend,” she says into the sudden silence. “And then we take the ‘stroid.”
Dravish sputters, blood speckles his elegant mustache, then he drops. The dustfuckers turn to me. I have the Vanguard in my hand still, and my stupid skirt on. And I’m tipsy. I smash the bottle on the floor and hold up the business end. Two of the bigger guys come swinging forward and then for a millisecond everything goes bright white. A bang so loud I can feel it inside my brain shatters the air around me. I’m ducking when the second one erupts. Zan and another dustfucker lay hemorrhaging in front of me; the others have all scattered for cover.
“C’mon,” Maya says. Smoke rises from the jag piston in her hand. She doesn’t even look fazed.
“You . . .” I stutter.
“Come. The fuck. On.”
I’ve never stopped loving this woman.
• • • •
When we first carved our way onto this asteroid with drill-headed subterranean tanks and dynamite, we didn’t know there were actual canals reaching through the thing. It’d be rock rock rock and then nothing, and the nothing was deep enough to crash a few of our best drillteams. Maybe two dozen dustfuckers got crushed or incinerated before we figured out we could build the outpost along the natural corridors instead of going against them. Now, reinforced steel lines the canal walls and wraps above them, creating wild, windy corridors that dip and circle through the asteroidal bowels. Red dust stains every surface, a mottled, ever growing paint job that no one knows how to keep at bay.
“You have a jag piston,” I say. We’re both panting, working a quick, careful path through the tunnels. The overheads cast grim specters of light, divided by darkness.
“I saved your life.”
“I know, I wasn’t complaining. I’m sorry about Dravish.”
The corridor winds around a sharp curve, becomes dim. We stop and breathe. Maya shakes her head, one arm leaning up against the wall. “Dravish died doing what he loves the most.”
A clamor of boots and angry voices echoes down the corridor. “My room,” I say. “I have a codex. We can get a message out to your people.”
Maya doesn’t follow me, gazes instead down the hallway behind us. “The Chemical Barons have someone down here. They’ve infiltrated the dustfuckers.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised. They’ve gotten so irritable from so much of the same. Makes ‘em easy to rile up. And that fight was more coordinated than I’ve ever seen them.”
“That and the imminent collision with Earth. You could see how they might have a pretty decent gripe. Anyway, Zan was probably in on it, but there’s someone else, too, from what we can tell.”
She’s right. My mind begins cycling through faces, but part of me already knows.
“If the Barons take control of the ‘stroid, they can weaponize it. And then . . . well, game over, so to speak.”
I just shake my head. “It wasn’t enough fucking up Earth? They gotta ruin everything else too?”
Down the corridor, someone screams. “Get him down,” a voice yells. “Get him.” There’s more yelling, another scream, and then the sound of boots stomping gets louder. I imagine Arkex is with them.
Maya pulls the shiny cylinder from her robes, holds it ready.
“How many shots you got in that thing?”
We climb a slope, wind around another corner and then I tap a code into a keypad and a section of the wall groans and gives way into darkness. Maya eyes me, then ducks in.
The floor is littered with rumpled clothes and yes, a few bottles. An ashtray — not spilled, though. Not spilled. There’s a desk somewhere beneath all those paper stacks and books.
“Doesn’t this even bother you on the days you wake up as a woman?” Maya says.
I sneer. “Your simplistic ass. I’m even messier on my woman days. Anyway, look.” Wires snake out of a brand new hole in the wall. “He took my codex and the damn mount I charged it with.”
“Arkex. The Chemical Baron’s man underground.”
“How’d he . . .”
By way of an answer, I look at the ruffled sheets on my cot.
Maya shakes her head. “Oh, Jax.”
“Occasionally, I make very reckless decisions.”
“But . . .”
“We don’t have time for you to browbeat me at this moment. They’re sure gonna head straight for my den.”
Maya’s mouth wrestles with a retort but she stays quiet.
“If we go out into the corridor, we’re done.”
• • • •
For a few minutes, the only sound is our knees and elbows clanging along the corrugated metal air duct and me panting and wheezing. Then we stop, and when I catch my breath, I light a Garafuna. Maya just rolls her eyes.
“I know,” I say. “And I’m not interested.”
“You don’t think they’ll smell it? They’re already probably crawling through these pipes trying to get to us.”
I shake my head, take a drag in a nonchalant kind of way that I’m sure drives Maya up the wall. “They don’t know I have an entranceway through my room. They’re scouring the corridors, and there’s plenty for them to scour.”
“Well, then, what now?”
I point down. “The hangar’s right below us. They’re going to check it. Then we put you on your ship and send you on your way.”
“You’re not . . .”
Far away, someone yells. A metal clanging echoes its way through the vast open space beneath us. We wait. Nothing happens. We wait.
• • • •
“Do they care here?” We have our backs against opposite sides of the duct; our bent knees form an M shape in the middle of the passageway.
I give her a look. I know what she means but I want her to say it.
“About . . . you know . . .”
“Of course.” I relent. I don’t have it in me to play games with people’s discomfort after all. “They’re quieter about it than they were at the Academy, of course, but only because I’m in charge here. And they don’t try to study me here like they did there, no more pee samples and blood draws. Here they just glare and mutter. I shut things down quick with a few nasty scuffles at the Rustvine and everyone got into place.”
“You always were quick to clobber a fool that stepped out of line.”
I shrug, look away. “Survival.”
Maya stares at me. I feel that glare burning into my cheek like laser beams and I think maybe, maybe, she kind of understands. So I look at her. Those eyes have gone wide again; they want something. Her lips are slightly parted, those round cheeks illuminated by the dim light strips along the duct. Framed by her robes and the Triumvirate crown, Maya’s face looks like the moon. I realize how long it’s been since I’ve breathed fresh air, felt the embrace of the night instead of the air conditioners and vent systems.
“More than a year,” I say.
“Been on this thing.”
“What about it?”
“Reminds me of the moon.”
I’ve never said anything like that to Maya. I don’t say things like that. I think them. Sometimes, on nights drenched in Vanguard and the loneliness of the life on an asteroid, I write them on sprawling messages on my codex, put her communique address in the To field and let my finger hover over the Send button. Then I delete them and troll whatever porn the dustfuckers are posting till I pass out.
Maya doesn’t smile, doesn’t even move, and my stomach clenches. I don’t look away though, a tiny victory over my usual chickenshittedness. She doesn’t look away either. Is there a move I’m supposed to make? It’s easy with the others; they come to me. I turn them away or I don’t. With Maya, all my move-making information always seems to get lost between my two bodies: out of reach. For all our intimacy, she never reveals what she has a taste for. Maybe nothing. I’ve forgotten, for a moment, what I woke up as today. In the chaos it ceased to matter, or maybe it’s being with Maya that has rendered it irrelevant. Maybe, but no: Then it comes crashing back down and I’m neither-nor and woefully not enough and anyway.
And anyway, I feel filthy. Filthy from the dust of a year of asteroid life. Filthy from Arkex and Delmond, Catinflax and Sastra. Filthy from all these cheap nights with heartless fucks I barely bothered staying awake for and then gleefully booted before dawn. Looking back, they become a blur: Some were men, some the rare female dustfucker. Sometimes I was a man, sometimes a woman. I topped and bottomed, sighed, grunted, cursed, came. And still I am empty.
Maya reaches out her hand, palm out. I put mine against it. According to Jax’s third rule of booty-getting, if I close my fingers, the culminating momentum will peak and the sudden burst of energy will propel us both forward into a tangled embrace, layers will slide off easily, like all along our bodies had been begging to be naked together, and together we will float slightly above the corrugated steel as our belts and boots dance through the air away from us. My fingers will find their way inside her, and hers inside me and I will hear the asteroid breathing like it does when it’s very quiet, late at night.
I don’t close my fingers, though; I close my eyes. I hear her long breaths, they let me know she’s in this moment, too: Her heart beats through her palm. Beneath that I hear something else: the asteroid breathing like it does when it’s very quiet, late at night.
And then, just like that, Maya’s breathing falls away and there is only the asteroid, and our breath is one. I keep my eyes closed, because if I think too hard, if I allow the rest of the world in, everything will shatter. Our breath is one and I let the tiny prayer erupt from me, swerve, but this time, instead of another breath, there is a tremor.
Somewhere far, far away, Maya says, “What was that?”
The world trembles, a lover on the brink. Swerve. Not pleading this time, a command. Another shiver erupts. Maya yells but me, I’m smiling. I exhale, the asteroid exhales with me. Because inside me, there is dust, it coats my lungs, my heart, it heeds me, and inside the asteroid, there is me, tiny, complex, and alive with desire. We breathe as one.
“Jax.” Maya’s eyes don’t ask for anything now. They’re wide, yes, but not with pleading. Her jag piston glares out at me from her robes.
I cock my head to the side, frown. “You never came to negotiate.”
“The sitdown was a ruse.”
“Well, I did want to speak to you.”
One of my eyebrows goes up; the skeptical one. I can’t help it.
“But I knew you wouldn’t listen.”
“The Triumvirate has given up on the asteroid.”
“Long ago. I’m the only thing keeping them from blowing it, and you’re the only thing keeping me from keeping them from blowing it.”
“I’ll be that.”
“Jax, you’re coming off this thing with me. And we’re sending a transport for the dustfuckers. If the Chemical Barons get a hold of it . . .”
“They were a bar fight away from doing it just now. And if you can’t divert the thing before it hits earth.”
“Jax. What just happened?”
“Come with me, I’ll show you.”
Maya doesn’t lower the gun but ever so slightly her face relaxes. Tears slide down the round cheeks, her jawline, her neck. Instead of kissing them away, I stand, smile, help her up.
I’m sure I’m glowing. Or maybe it’s the dust that covers my body, the dust that marks places on Maya’s body I have touched.
• • • •
She removes the paneling and climbs down a ladder into the hangar. More yelling erupts from somewhere, not far away; I can’t tell if it’s celebration or anger. I don’t care. The hangar dwarfs everything; we are two tiny specks crossing beneath its cavernous void, darting between the landing gear of dust-covered transporters and armored drilldozer wheels to the Triumvirate’s sleek star glider. It’s already slightly reddened from its brief stay here. In the small cockpit, she turns to me and is about to speak when a codex crackles to life right beside us. “Triumvirate Station Seven-five to Harpsbringer, copy.”
Maya’s jag piston is already out and directed at the cockpit storage closet when the door swings slowly open.
I roll my eyes. “Don’t shoot him.”
Arkex is crying, cradling the codex, hemmed in by tubes and wires like some pathetic saint in a box. “I . . . I . . . Last night wasn’t just about this,” he gurgles. “I’m sorry.”
“What did they give you?” I ask.
“They promised they’d get me offa here. Said we’d crash into Earth if I didn’t.”
“Triumvirate Station Seven-five to Harpsbringer, do you copy?” the codex crackles. “We have an urgent message. Do you copy Harpsbringer?”
I put out my hand and Arkex gives me the codex.
“This is Harpsbringer.”
“Be advised, your course has changed, Harpsbringer. Repeat, your course has changed. New coordinates take you outside of the Earth’s gravitational pull.” In the background, I hear celebrating. Cheers go up around the ship. Arkex has tears streaming down his face.
Maya just shakes her head. I give Arkex the fuck-off look and he stumbles off the ship in a hurry. I’ll deal with what needs to be dealt with later. “So,” Maya says.
“Don’t look so pleased with yourself. Whatever you did, the Barons are still gonna be throwing whatever they got at this thing to get it on their side.”
“Good thing I have friends in powerful places with lots of spaceships and fancy guns.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Then we pause and the moment becomes thick between us, I breathe deep, the asteroid breathes with me and I let the moment slide away, because there will be another, better one in the not too distant future. Right now, though, right now the galaxy around us has just let out an enormous cheer all at the same time, like a breath released in perfect synchronicity, as one.