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Fiction

A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas

A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas

Don’t sell her.

The thought rises like a tide in the back of Jeri’s mind, where she’s spent three Nikutan launch cycles struggling to contain it. It leaves her breathless, drowning in guilt, and trying to hide it from the krosuta-whitened stare of the Henza abbess.

This is Cleo, not a load of ore. This will break her.

And how could it not break her? She’s a lumbering old Juno-class cargo beast, poor Cleo, one of the earliest models, clumsy with emotive-adaptive programming, hungry for adventure. Every vent and door and switch—even the color of Cleo’s walls—is designed to respond to the crew’s emotional state, to warm a chill, to feed a hunger pang. To console the lonely tears that might come the first time a young human captain, fresh off Icara’s glitter-sand shores, sails alone through three unbroken circuits of the lithium moons.

Less a ship, in fact. More an enormous hound dog, red-buffered carbocine hide mangy with age and radiation. Leashed to her solar bay at Port Sud, waiting for her captain to return.

Drooling up at the sky, eager for the chase between stars.

Loyal.

All while her captain stands in a Henza temple, preparing to sell her off.

Abbess Ocala waits, smiling, pale and still. She holds the final contract slate out to Jeri, but doesn’t press. She might as well be making an offering, so gentle are those whitened eyes, so peaceful the turn of her tattooed lips. The towering granite-carved goddess of trade, Eloji, looks down on them, keeps guard over the smoky negotiation quarter of the Henza Nikute temple where the two of them stand; even the goddess, eyes jeweled blue as an Icaran sea, looks as if she understands the ache of letting go.

Bill of Sale, reads the vertical Nikutan script across the face of the slate. Mooncarver Juno Prima. Vessel Identification Code CLE04451103.

Jeri accepts the slate. The abbess gives a little bow, smiles wider. The slate’s shockingly heavy, as if the contract’s etched in lead. The temple incense, thick as honey and grassfire, seems suddenly overwhelming, oppressive.

But the numbers, the numbers. A mantra of asset and increase. Thirty-seven percent gain in acceleration. Eighty-three percent decrease in fuel consumption. Fourteen percent expansion in cargo capacity. Sixty-five-point-eight percent improvement in sustained cruising speed. Compared with Cleo, the Archer is simply a better ship. An advantage. One Jeri’s finally in a position to afford.

Don’t do it. Don’t sell her.

Abbess Ocala raises an eyebrow. “You’re reconsidering.”

No,” Jeri snaps, then regrets it. The Henza abbesses, kind smiles aside, are known for shrewd dealing, for widening the cracks in a customer’s resolve. “I’m just confirming the terms. No salvage. It’s in the contract?”

Again, a peaceful smile, a nod. “The ship would be valuable as scrap, of course,” she says. “Carbocine’s selling high right now. Titanium, too, in the right markets.”

“I won’t sell, then.” She imagines Cleo picked apart, her ruby-red dermal buffer peeled back, her carbocine shielding sliced away, her titanium skeleton laid out, bare and pale, in the ghost-white light of the distant Nikutan sun. She heaves the slate toward Abbess Ocala. “If she’s headed for scrap, I won’t even negotiate.”

The abbess waves her hand; her fingertips are ringed in platinum, frosted with ice-blue stones. “You’ve been reasonable with your asking price and respectful in your negotiations. In any event, we have a buyer in need of an entry-level mining vessel. An ideal exchange.”

“I want it in the contract.”

The abbess blinks. Her whitened Henza eyes are unnerving, her pupils invisible through the krosuta glaze. Is she calculating? Scrutinizing? Her smile is bland but beneficent, her lips rich with the blue ink of high Henza rank. Could she, perhaps, be sympathizing?

“It is in the contract, of course. As promised,” says the abbess. “But I understand your concern, so I offer my verbal assurances as well: Your ship will not be scrapped.” She gestures at the slate.

There. In the rightmost column. Conditions of Surrender. Item one: Salvage Prohibited.

“As I’ve told you,” says the abbess, “we have a buyer.”

Jeri lifts a hand, places her thumb at the slate’s top right corner, then presses her ring finger to the bottom left. Her trade reputation is high on Nikute, as it is in every system within a hundred light years; her prints authorize instantly. A single Nikutan word appears, scripted in bright Henza blue.

Neccima.

A sharp word, so cold and final. The first Nikutan a hauler learns. It is done.

I’ve done it, I’ve signed her away, Jeri thinks. I’ve let my Cleo go.

The thought leaves her gasping.

The abbess takes the slate back. She is speaking words, making shapes with her mouth that move the air, shift the whorls of incense in the patterns of nonrefundable and currency exchange fee and wisest of the holiest, Eloji. Jeri doesn’t respond. Her fingertips have gone numb—I’ve let my Cleo go—and she can hardly hear through the buzzing shock of what she’s done.

Thirty-seven percent gain, she tells herself. Sixty-five-point-eight percent improvement. Percent of what? The numbers are abstractions. Cleo is real. An advantage, she thinks, shoving back at this avalanche of guilt, but already the mantra’s lost its magic.

“You will unbind your identification from the ship before compline tithes,” says the abbess. “Contact us when it’s done, and once we’ve confirmed—”

“Wait,” Jeri says. “I need to meet the buyer.” The words surprise her; she hadn’t intended to speak them aloud. An unjustifiable request, especially now that the contract’s authorized.

The beneficent blue-inked smile evaporates. “That’s not in the contract.”

“I don’t care.” Jeri shudders at the desperation in her own voice. Gentler, she thinks. Respectful. “Please. Just ask the buyer. I’m not backing out, I just want to meet them.”

A blank stare, white as Icaran pearl.

“You can ask, can’t you?”

The abbess tightens her lips. “It’s not in the contract. However, as I’ve said, you’ve been respectful, and we hope to trade with you in the future.” She tilts her head, blinks. “We will arrange it, if we can.”

• • • •

Jeri lays her right palm on Cleo’s hull, just outside the frame of the crew gate. The ship’s dented red hide is warm, soft as shoe leather, the combined effects of the solar refuel and the exothermic dermal buffer regeneration process. “It’s me, girl,” she whispers. “I’m home.”

The Juno class can recognize crew by the lines of the hands, the prints of the fingers, the pitch and lilt of the voice, the hue of the skin, even the unique chemical compounds excreted in sweat. All of the above, in fact, and more, should the captain desire exhaustive security measures.

A whisper and a touch: that’s the combination the younger, unworn Jeri chose seventeen years before, when she and Cleo first launched. A personal connection, more than the mere opening of a lock.

Cleo opens the gate and Jeri steps through.

Inside, Cleo’s walls shimmer. Green paneling, deep as the sea, explodes into glittering sheathes of gold. Just like schools of wheatfish, Jeri thinks, surfacing from the Arkwright Abyss off her grandmother’s barge on Icara.

This is a game Cleo plays. If Jeri touches the walls, the golden streaks will race away, like fish startled by a fishergirl’s hand. They’ll shift color, turn squid-pink or white as widowsharks; they’ll shrink or grow; they’ll race down the hall toward the galley and wait, swirling, for Jeri to follow.

Cleo is happy to see her.

No, she tells herself. The ship just senses you’re sad. It’s programmed to cheer you up.

Jeri can’t bring herself to reach out. The golden streaks circle, then fade.

“Cleo,” she says, but all that comes out is a brittle whisper, a choke. She tries again. “So, Cleo. Some things are going to change soon.”

The ship thrums; her walls fade to purple-black. There’s a low growl from deep in her core. She’s lighting up her engines, shifting out of dormancy. Getting excited for launch.

Jeri bites her lip. It bleeds. The pain’s like an anchor; it grounds her.

“There’s someone you’ll meet, soon. And then . . . then I’ll be gone.” The purr dies down, the walls lighten to gray. “Just for a bit, Cleo, okay? Just for a bit. Then we’ll head back toward the Michener system. Or maybe even farther, maybe—”

Jeri feels the lie spinning out of control and stops herself. No, she thinks. Tell her the truth.

Acceleration. Fuel use. Sustained cruising speed.

An advantage.

It’s only a machine.

“Cleo. Listen. You’ll be meeting someone new tomorrow. Someone special. And then you’ll have lots of fun. I promise.”

Cleo’s walls shift to violet again; her engines stay low, a soft stir below Jeri’s feet, resigned but hopeful.

She’s dreaming of bright golden moons, Jeri thinks. She’s dreaming of asteroid fields. The thought is a knife in Jeri’s heart.

These old Juno-class ships, they were built for adventure.

Jeri steps forward and presses her cheek to Cleo’s wall. Golden streaks burst on the surface around her face, fade to silver, swim away.

Just a machine, she thinks, just a machine. Warm inside and out.

• • • •

“Is the climate control broken?” asks the buyer. Tria, she calls herself. She’s a tall woman, youthful but gaunt in the tithe-starved fashion of the Nikutan bourgeoisie, may Eloji bless them for giving so well. She wears a rough, unbleached tunic and clutches the hem, fanning herself with the loose fabric.

“No,” says Jeri, “The temperature’s intuitive. It’s my preference. She—the ship, I mean—it will intuit your comfort levels and adjust.”

“You like it this hot?”

Jeri flushes, suddenly aware of how warm the air around them really is. Moist, too. Cleo, sensing a stranger’s gaze, has painted the walls with soft-moving rivers of cool violet and blue, but she’s ramped up the temperature and humidity just for Jeri.

“I’m Icaran,” Jeri says, “I’m used to that climate.”

“Icaran,” Tria says. “That explains it.” She gives Jeri a playful smile. “Surprised your whole planet hasn’t sweated to death.” It’s a one-sided smile, crooked but not insincere. Bony as she is in her loose brown shift, she reminds Jeri of a stray dog, begging entrails off the knifewomen as they clean the day’s fish. Ragged but innocuous. “Can I make it colder, then?”

They’re inspecting the captain’s quarters: a narrow bunk, stripped; three shelves, now emptied of Jeri’s rubber-bound Icaran monsteria novels; an aluminum desk, polished bright as noontide, with three slate displays and a conspicuous empty spot where Jeri once grew a swath of bright yellow whalebeard kelp in a jar. Tria’s hand is in that spot now, tracing the gleaming curve of the desk, leaving prints on the aluminum.

The whalebeard would die in a cold room, Jeri thinks. She might, too.

“There’s a climate override system,” Jeri says, “but Cleo will adjust to you automatically. Once you’ve bound to her, that is.” Once I’m unbound, once I’ve left her for good. She’s careful to keep her voice level. “Cleo’s a good girl.”

Tria looks up from the desk. “Who’s Cleo?”

“The ship. That’s her . . . it’s what I call her.”

A blank look crosses Tria’s face, then vanishes. “I see. You named the ship.” Again the bent smile, then Tria looks away, taps a clipped fingernail on a bookshelf. “Of course. I just didn’t hear you.”

A chill passes through Jeri’s body. Your spirit pulled down toward the deep, her grandmother would have told her. Follow it. Don’t let it drown.

It’s the first question she would have asked, the first question she did ask, when Cleo’s hull was still red as fishblood and smooth as a moonless sky: What is the ship’s name? She wonders if this scrawny Nikutan girl has ever commanded any vessel, let alone a cargo hauler of Cleo’s mass.

“It’s an Icaran practice,” she says, scrutinizing Tria’s expression. “Naming ships. A tradition from Old Earth.”

“Right.” Tria shrugs. “I just forgot.”

Or you never knew. “You can change it. If you like.”

“No,” says Tria. “I like Cleo. I’ll keep it.” The smile again, but this time it’s unsteady. She looks away, quick as a wheatfish. “So how do I bind to her?”

Jeri ignores the question. There’s a shimmer of panic in her gut. She imagines Cleo, careening into the heart of the Michener belts, or towed into the clouded orbit of Megara and then crushed in its helium seas. “Where will you take her first?” she asks.

“I haven’t decided,” Tria answers. She keeps her eyes on the wall, follows the curve of a violet river across the paneling.

Do you know what you’re doing, Nikutan tithe-princess? Do you know the dangers you’ll face?

“You should head out to the Luric system,” Jeri says, testing her. Luric’s a hot zone, the brutal face of the Uriline conflict. Basic knowledge for a working hauler. She watches Tria’s expression in profile; Tria’s eyes flick away. “Easy money,” she continues, “pulling copper and manganese for the Sturmond operation. Good way to break in. Sturmond’s fair, even to new haulers.”

Tria turns. “Luric?” She laughs. “You’re joking, right? Sturmond’s holding up fifteen hundred fighters against a Uriline uprising right now.” The smile’s back. Still crooked, but renewed. Certain. “I want to haul ore, not get cooked by a rebel nuke.”

“You could shortcut through Parsine, bypass the conflict entirely.”

“And get stuck in a three-month quarantine?” Tria looks dumbstruck. “They’re hemorrhaging out their eye sockets in Parsine!”

She knows Luric, then. She knows her routes, the risks. Maybe she is qualified. Jeri looks away, embarrassed that she doubted this girl. “I’m just—”

“—worried.” Tria crosses her arms. “About your ship, I’m betting.”

Yes, Jeri thinks. I’m scared for Cleo.

“I know what I’m doing. I have two younger brothers. I signed the Henza guarantees to let them sail. I taught them.” She reaches out a palm and lays it on Jeri’s shoulder. There’s a brutal white scar, sharp as a star, across the inner flesh of her wrist, half-covered by the sleeve of her tunic, but her touch is warm as Icaran wind. “Cleo’s safe, I promise. I’ll be good to her.”

She knows how to sail, then, and she knows how to treat a ship. The chill of worry dissipates. All that’s left is the cold stab of impending loss, lodged deep in Jeri’s chest.

“She’ll be good to you, too,” Jeri says. Then, before Tria can remark on the crack in her voice, Jeri orders Cleo to unbind.

A stern series of codes in Jeri’s rough voice; Jeri’s lined hand on a streaming blue-violet wall.

The engine falls silent. The walls fade to gray.

The room, so blank and spare and unspeakably empty, begins to cool.

Just a ship.

“I’m sure she’ll be wonderful,” Tria says. Her crooked smile is polite, but her expression is clear: The transaction is complete. It’s time for Jeri to leave.

And then Jeri is alone, shut outside the crew gate, her feet on the icy granite of the solar bay.

And Cleo is twenty meters away, then thirty, then fifty. Humming, purring, her jets alight, her props receding, her mass leaping upward, out of the port locks. A hundred meters. A thousand. A bright speck, red as a pricked fingertip, withdrawing through the dusky Nikutan sky.

• • • •

The Archer, champion of the Vitala featherweight fleet, quick as a widowshark, light as a wheatfish, with a hull that can swallow whole moons’ worth of ore.

And all Jeri can think is how plain it is.

The bonding’s complete; the Archer belongs to Jeri. It should have acknowledged her by now. But the interior walls—the ones not built of ultra-efficient titanium mesh—are still dead-star black. Unchanging.

And the ship is cold.

“How long will she take to adapt?” Jeri asks.

The Nikute Nord porter is a man; the Henza tattoos across his face hide a series of deep scars. Chattel, Jeri suspects. Uriline, based on his slight build and sharp accent. Likely captured and sold after a Sturmond raid.

He looks up at Jeri. It’s the first time since greeting her at the Henza temple that he’s looked her in the eye, and he looks surprised.

“Adapt?”

“The AI. It’s cold in here. When will it adapt to my preferences?”

He blinks at her, then looks away quickly. “Climate adjustments can be made through the command module at any station—”

“It’s not intuitive?”

“Intuitive programming reduces efficiency and requires extra space. Vitala employs it only for necessary functions.”

“I see,” Jeri says. Eighty-three percent decrease in fuel consumption, she thinks. Fourteen percent expansion in cargo capacity. She taps the access code—a code!—into the command slate and brings up the climate menu. Nineteen degrees. How cold is that? How warm does she want it? And how does one even measure ambient humidity? Climate’s an abstraction to her, an alchemy of heat and damp she entrusted entirely to Cleo.

“Can I upgrade? I’ll pay extra for intuitive climate.” She glances at the vacant black walls. “And some color, too.”

The porter looks frightened, as if her dissatisfaction is a threat to his life. She thinks of the Henza abbess, those unreadable eyes. Perhaps it is. “The Henza are authorized to upgrade the Archer class programming. Locally—here at Port Nord, if you like.” He pauses. “They accept payment in advance profit pledges, in the name of wisest Eloji, if you’re short on liquid assets.”

An ongoing debt to the Henza! “No,” she tells the porter. “No, thank you.”

She sets the temperature to twenty-five degrees and sighs.

“Does she at least have a name?”

The porter stares. “The vessel’s ID is in the command module, if you forget it.”

No name, then. Just a soulless identification number. Jeri waits for the porter to scurry out the crew gates and then lays a hand on a light-draining swath of black wall and waits.

Nothing. The wall remains textureless, lifeless. Cold as the Arkwright Abyss.

But it is alive, she tells herself. It must be. She can feel the buzz of its fierce little engine, strung tight, lively as a rabbit bounding through the hull. Yes, she thinks, a rabbit, or a squirrel. Who needs color? The Archer is a creature meant for sprinting unseen, for breaking untouched through a Luric front with the silent ease of a proton. These colorless walls are part of its character, Jeri tells herself. An efficiency. Camouflage. No frills for this fiery little beast.

It’s no Juno-class hound dog, but it’s thrumming, it’s alive. There’s warmth in here somewhere.

“Are you ready?” she whispers to the ship. “We’ll launch tomorrow, before dawn tithes. How about Yesemin, for a first stop?” Navigation, at least, is voice-responsive.

She waits for a reaction, for some shift in the engine’s pulse, some evidence that the Archer welcomes the plan, shares the thrill of deep space.

There’s a sharp ping to acknowledge the order. A bright map of Yesemin lights up the command slate.

But the engine hums on, its pitch unchanged.

The ship, Jeri realizes, is utterly indifferent.

• • • •

“You’re sad,” says the krosuta dealer, crooked in the corner of his underground den, his eyes not quite as white-glazed as the Henza, but close. His expression, like theirs, is ambiguous, peaceful. “Lonely, too. You’ve lost someone.”

He pushes a clay cup across the table, smaller than his palm, along with a tiny wooden paddle. The cup’s filled with blue-white paste, watered and syrupy. It smells like burned sugar and grass.

“Wine,” she tells him, waving the cup away. “I don’t do krosuta.”

The dealer pulls the cup back, then tilts his head sidewise and squints. “Hauler, then?”

“Hauler,” Jeri answers.

The dealer pulls a blue-green amphora off a lower shelf—Icaran slipwit wine, Jeri notes, though she hasn’t told him a thing about herself, let alone where she’s from—and tilts it into a cup. “You’ve sold off your ship, then.”

Jeri looks up. She’s never touched krosuta herself; it’s expensive, addictive, sourced solely out of Henza temples. A good way to chain yourself to the Henza for life. But she’s heard about the benefits as well: an increased awareness of others’ emotions, of body language and nuance, along with a blunted personal emotional response. Heightened understanding, without the discomfort and inconvenience of true empathy.

The dealer grins, proud of himself. He taps a finger by his right eye. “The krosuta helps. But this close to Port Nord, we see plenty of heartbroken haulers. You’ve sold off a Mooncarver, from the look on your face. An Artemis?”

“Juno. Her name is Cleo.”

“A Juno. Wisest Eloji, haulerwoman, I’ve seen rougher girls than you weep outright over a scrapped Juno.”

Jeri sips the slipwit. It’s genuine, an Icaran import; there’s a coating of bitter grit at the bottom, residue from the fermentation of free-grown kelp. “Cleo’s not scrapped,” she tells the dealer. “I sold her to a Nikutan sailor. Good price. A girl from the tithe classes.”

“Oh?” He slides the amphora back into the shelf. “I’m surprised. Not much demand for Junos these days. That adaptive programming—gone out of fashion. A liability. And demand’s high for carbocine scrap with the uprisings out in Uriline.”

She’s not scrap.” Jeri’s stunned by the sharpness of her own voice. “It’s in the contract. No salvage.”

The dealer laughs. “There’s no beauty so beguiling as a Henza contract.”

“What do you mean?” The words pierce the docile chatter of the den. In the far corner, a pair of haulers, both younger women and stronger, eye her. “What’s wrong with the contract?” Suddenly the walls of the krosuta den are too close, the ceiling too low, the air stale as the hold of a barge filled with slaughtered squid.

The dealer just shrugs, gives her a beneficent blank-eyed smile.

All at once she’s done with the filthy down-level krosuta den, with the dealer and his blank stare, poking at her hurt like a child taunting an injured gull. She pushes her cup of slipwit back toward him. “I’m done with this.”

The dealer looks her over. His smile feels condescending, full of false pity. “Of course,” he says. “No charge.”

He pulls the glass back across the bar. As he does, Jeri catches a glance at his right wrist.

There’s a scar. White. Star-shaped.

Just like Tria’s.

“Your wrist,” says Jeri. “What happened to it?”

His smile widens, as if she’s invited his favorite story. “I slipped the Henza! Whole family’s indentured, but I was young. Thought I was smart enough get away, maybe do better in life. They ran me down in Parsine. Took them less than half a cycle.” He rubs his wrist. “The tracer’s bolted to the bones in my arm now. Took a long time to heal. Longer to stop hurting.”

A tracer. Indentured.

“The tracer—you’re still indentured, then? They can follow you?”

“Oh, haulerwoman,” says the dealer with a laugh, “the Henza own me. Nine-tenths of my profits, every day ’til they decide I’m dead.”

Tria.

She didn’t even know you’re supposed to name a ship.

“Where’s the Port Nord scrapdock?” she asks the dealer. “I’ll pay you to tell me the way.”

• • • •

As the Nikutan sun surrenders to night and the Henza cantors call out vesper tithes, Jeri finds Cleo again.

She’s sunk in the scrapdock’s very first berth, as if she’s meant to be found. Spotlit, with rickety scaffolding climbing her hull like a creeping vine. Her engine’s silent. Her running lights are out. Her dermal buffer, once red as a starfish’s belly, is dusty and brown. Two immense rectangular swaths are cut away entirely, baring her dark carbocine shell.

No.

Jeri breaks into a run.

There are figures on the scaffolding. Metalworkers. Four of them. Their faces are shielded in masks, like soldiers. All of them wield lasers. They’re shearing away sheets of red buffer, slicing down to the carbocine beneath. One of them glances over a shoulder and despite the spotlights, brighter than the Nikutan sun, despite the noise of the sparking lasers, she looks right at Jeri, right where she’s sprinting down the darkened port, screaming for them to stop.

The others switch off their lasers, too, and watch.

As if they’re expecting her.

A leap, a scramble. Jeri feels the fabric of her jumpsuit catch and tear on the scaffolding, but doesn’t slow. Faster, she tells herself. Then she’s up, she’s pulling herself onto the highest platform, five meters at most from the masked workers.

She lays a hand on Cleo’s hull. It’s cold. No regeneration, not even the weak radiating warmth of dormancy. She’s shut down entirely, unresponsive.

“What are you doing?” Jeri screams. “She’s not scrap!

The nearest worker, thin and tall, reaches up and pulls her metal mask away, lets it hang at her side.

There’s a mark on her wrist. Star-shaped. White.

The worker smiles. The smile is crooked but honest, a stray dog stealing scraps. Tria.

Stop!” Jeri screams. “The contract said no salvage!”

“Maybe your contract did.” Tria moves closer; in the fractured shadows of the spotlight she looks predatory, like a widowshark circling a bloodied whale. “But I’ve sold her back to the Henza. Different contract entirely. There’s nothing about salvage in my terms.” The half smile’s become a smirk. “And that’s all a Juno’s good for, isn’t it? A big old pile of secondhand carbocine.”

No beauty so beguiling as a Henza contract.

Jeri lunges.

Tria lifts her arm and with a swing like a fishergirl tossing nets in the sea, she slams her mask into Jeri’s face.

As Jeri falls, as she tastes her own blood in the back of her throat, as reality shifts and blackens and the four women on the scaffolding carry her away, all Jeri can think is not Cleo, give me back my Cleo.

• • • •

“We honored the terms of the contract,” says Abbess Ocala. “We resold your ship intact.” She kneels next to the cage and through the bars she blinks her white eyes at Jeri, who is bound and still bleeding from the nose. Behind her the goddess Eloji watches, jewel-eyed, smiling.

Jeri folds her anger inside herself, forces indifference. “You scrapped her.”

“The buyer scrapped her. That’s the buyer’s prerogative.”

“The buyer’s got a tracer scar. She’s indentured.” She looks the abbess in the eye, searches the white krosuta glaze for the black shadow of a pupil. There is none. “You own the buyer. You planned to scrap my ship all along.”

A grandmotherly smile. “Do you know why Mooncarver discontinued the Juno class? It’s hard to sell a hauler a new ship, when they just don’t want a new one. It’s the reactive programming; there’s just too much of it. A hauler bonds with her ship like a pet. Or worse: a lover. She tries to upgrade, but then she’s back three cycles later, begging for her inefficient old Juno. There are women who’ve sailed the same Juno for forty years, because they can’t bear to part with the silly thing.”

Seventeen years. She was my Cleo for seventeen years. Jeri blinks, turns away from the abbess’ stare before the tears come.

“You’re the same. You can’t hide it. I saw it the day you offered to sell.” The abbess stands, turns away. “In a few days, your ship will be fully dismantled. I do have an offer for you, however. An opportunity. If you accept, I can halt the scrap process with a word. Your ship can be repaired, and quickly.”

Jeri knows what’s coming before the abbess says it.

Nine-tenths of my profits, every day ’til they decide I’m dead.

“You keep the ship. We’ll bond her back to you, pardon your assault on a Nikutan citizen, and ensure that you leave Nikute safely, and soon. You maintain your haul routes with Sturmond, and you’re free to pursue better routes if you find them. Your life goes on—with your ship—just as it was. Better, in fact, as you’ll be under the aegis of the Henza, wherever you choose to go. And for this, you tithe ninety percent of your profits to the goddess Eloji.”

No, thinks a small part of Jeri, the part that grew up weighing every gram of fishmeal, the part that abandoned the hot Icaran seas for the limitless cold profit of space. It’s only a ship.

But the thought’s a lie, too small to be true.

“Ninety percent,” Jeri whispers.

Abbess Ocala smiles. “You’re free to refuse. You will serve a sentence for your unfortunate encounter at Port Nord, of course—one Nikutan annum of labor—but you will still have your Archer, and it is a far better ship than that ragged old Juno.” She waves a long hand as she walks away. “All that carbocine. Such a generous offering to Eloji, don’t you agree?”

• • • •

There is no movement in the Henza temple except the footsteps of the night priestesses and the shivered prayers of a cluster of supplicants, coatless in the cold, their faces pressed to the flagstones. There is no light but the soft glow of incense, reflected sharp in Eloji’s eyes.

The cage is small, hardly room enough for a child. Jeri lies on her side, her knees folded to her chest. The incense is suffocating, thick enough to singe her throat. Her suit is torn at the shoulder—a separated seam, easily repaired, but enough to let in the frost of Nikutan midnight. Sleep is impossible.

Just a ship, she tells herself.

She will still have the Archer. Thirty-nine percent gain in acceleration, she thinks—or was it less? Eighty-three percent decrease in fuel consumption, and Jeri’s in good health, she has many profitable years ahead. Better to serve out a sentence and go free than to submit to Henza bondage. Better to let Cleo go.

Jeri swallows back a sob.

She is a hauler, she is Icaran, she is stone and salt water, she is fortitude embodied. When she was a child, she watched a young fisher drown in the shallows, paralyzed by a pack of coal adders while foraging oysters. She watched, emotionless and unafraid, even as they netted his venom-bruised body and dragged him back to the barge. She’s left her home, she’s spent years alone in the dark between stars—alone but for Cleo—without breaking down. Sentimentality is a weakness, and costly. If there are tears pooling on the floor where she rests her face, then it’s only the pain of a broken nose, the exhaustion, the cold.

She grasps at the numbers like fragments of a storm-shattered raft. She will not let grief pull her under. Fourteen percent expansion in cargo capacity. Sixty-five-point-eight percent improvement in sustained cruising speed.

But at what cost? Apart from a year’s hard labor, what do the Henza stand to gain from setting her free? They lied to her once—no, not lied. Tricked her. They’ll do it again—and again, she won’t see it coming. How far do the Henza roam? To the edge of the Ursuline blockades? Beyond? Just how much of the galaxy can wisest Eloji see?

Dawn spills through the temple oculus. One of the midnight supplicants, bone-thin and bent as a fishhook, finally lifts himself first to his knees, then upright. His wrists are bare—he is not indentured—but he sheds first his leather purse, then his belt, then his threadbare tunic, and last, his worn pair of black boots, and folds all of it neatly beneath the statue of Eloji. He turns to leave, wearing nothing but a loose pair of breeches.

On his way out, a pale-eyed priestess gives him a soft smile and a blessing.

Nothing, Jeri thinks, he has almost nothing.

And then she understands. Whatever choice she makes, the Henza will somehow take it all, leave her with just enough to keep her alive, to keep her profitable.

But at least she can still have Cleo.

When the abbess returns, Jeri’s eyes are closed. Through her lids, the midmorning light shines warm and red, like the buffered hide of a bright new Juno-class hauler.

“Well?” says the abbess.

“My ship,” says Jeri. She keeps her eyes closed. “I just want my ship.”

• • • •

The walls are green as the Arkwright Abyss and swirling with streaks of wheatfish gold.

Jeri taps a forefinger of her bandaged right hand on the wall; the impact shakes the tracer freshly bolted into her wrist, makes her bones ache. The gold streaks flutter away, then stop two meters down the hall and swarm in a circle. She follows them, taps them again. Another two meters. They’re leading her toward the captain’s quarters.

The ship—her ship—can tell she’s tired. They’re bonded deep as any starlit sea.

“Oh, Cleo,” she says, “I can’t go to sleep. I tried.” She’s tried for three cycles, in fact. Failed. The Henza retrieved her monsteria novels, polished the desk, even replaced her jar of whalebeard kelp, but even with her quarters in perfect order and the climate just right, she can’t slip deeper than the surface of a dream before the pain in her wrist—and the sheer mass of rage at being indentured for life to the Henza—reels her back to wakefulness.

She turns away from the golden streaks and heads toward the navigation slate. She doesn’t have to look to know that Cleo’s glittering school of gold is following right behind.

“Help me decide where to go, will you? We’re cleared to lift tomorrow, before terce tithes.” She taps the slate, brings up the map for adjacent systems. “What do you think of Noriador? Not much business, but it’s close.” She sighs. Ninety percent. “And it’s not like business matters all that much anymore, does it?”

The slate blinks. A map of Luric appears with a route between the local moons traced out in gold.

Jeri pulls the slate back to Noriador. “Noriador’s the gateway to the Shala systems, though. Those are more profitable. We’d be outside Sturmond’s territory, but we might—”

A blink. A flash of gold.

A map of the Luric system again, with a route laid out straight through the Uriline blockade.

Jeri sighs. “Luric’s under attack, girl. We could get killed.”

She pulls the slate back to Noriador, then links to the map of Shala. Fourteen moons, mostly manganese and copper. She taps a series of waypoints, halfhearted.

The slate goes black, then flashes back to Luric—then beyond Luric, past the Uriline colonies, through Mnemosyne and Cyril and the White Shield system. Past unnamed stars, unmapped planets, unbroken moons.

Straight into the dark heart of space.

The thought gives her a chill.

Your spirit pulled down toward the deep, she thinks. Follow it.

Jeri’s breath catches. If the solar winds of the Luric system are at their back, if the rebels look away just long enough for a tattered old hauler, tracked by the Henza, to slip past unscathed, if the range of a tracer fades with each passing star . . .

The ship—no, her name is Cleo—understands.

A sprint through Luric means freedom. If they’re fast enough. If they survive.

She begins to speak, to confirm what Cleo’s suggesting. Then she catches herself. The Henza have almost certainly bugged Cleo’s walls, traced her navigation slate. They’re listening, watching.

Still. Jeri’s mind swirls, fast as a widowshark. Could they make it? Cleo’s all but healed; her hold is empty. They’d move fast and light—but it may not be enough. The Henza fly only the newest Vitala fighters. Sturmond might assist them, right up to the blockade’s edge, if the Henza attach a bounty. And then, of course, there’s the Ursiline fleet, a shifting wall of pure firepower.

But the Ursiline rebels are frayed and tired; their wall is imperfect. Just how fast can Cleo fly?

Only Cleo can tell her.

“I don’t know, Cleo,” Jeri says aloud. She does her best to sound dubious, in case the Henza are listening. Cleo, she trusts, will understand the subtext. “If we broke through Luric, we’d be outside Henza protection.”

There’s a grumble in the hull beneath Jeri’s feet. A confirmation. A growl. The map of Luric pulses gold. A breeze picks up in the navigation suite, a whirlwind of moisture and heat, like a rising storm on an Icaran sea.

All around her, on every wall, are dancing streams of green and gold.

• • • •

It’s midmorning. The cantors call out terce tithes. Staffing at Port Nord is spare; most of the guards have departed for the Nikute Nord temple to make their offerings to the goddess Eloji. Still, about two dozen personnel remain, scuttling like armored blue crabs across the icy granite, weapons raised. Jeri watches them from a surveillance slate. Their interest is elsewhere; a gleaming new Vitala Stiletto fighter has just docked three bays down.

Good, she thinks.

They’re late for launch, Jeri and Cleo. There’s a prohibition on liftoff during tithes. Jeri’s hand shakes as she opens the command slate and files a request for launch exemption. Her justification is reasonable—if they delay until tithes end, they’ll miss the orbit of the Nikutan moons and waste valuable fuel as they leave the planet.

The justification is a lie. Their delay is intentional. Reduced port staff means a slower response.

Jeri keeps the navigation slate locked on Noriador and waits. She filed an impeccable flight plan with the Henza temple the night before: an easy, reliable run through Noriador and then a riskier foray into Shala, with generous profits deliverable to the Henza temple at Noria City. The temple approved it immediately, with the goddess’ deepest praise.

The launch exemption, on the other hand, is taking much longer. Terce tithes are still underway, but already several guards have returned and joined their team to ogle the bright hull of the Stiletto.

Jeri holds her breath. Much longer and Port Nord will be fully staffed.

A swirl of violet and blue passes through the wall above the navigation slate. Dark and soothing, like the waters of Icara rocking a barge on a sleepy, moonless midnight.

Cleo is keeping her calm.

Jeri places her sore right palm on Cleo’s wall, closes her eyes, and breathes deep. Whatever happens, she thinks, Cleo is here with me.

There’s a chime from the navigation slate. The launch exemption is approved, with the blessing of wisest Eloji.

Three of the guards pull away from the Vitala and gather at Cleo’s hull to supervise liftoff. They keep their guns high and ready.

“Okay, Cleo,” she says. “It’s time.” The blue-and-violet walls flash to a lively green. The hum of the engine grows. The port locks release. Unleashed, they ascend.

On the surveillance slate, Jeri watches Port Nord fall away. The Henza temple is several thousand meters to the northeast, a pale white-spired structure casting shadows over the residential districts. As they rise, it dissolves, becomes an imperceptible speck on the vast curve of Nikute’s tundra.

They pass both moons and head outward, toward the periphery of the Nikutan system. Jeri keeps her eyes on the navigation slate; on it, she and Cleo are a single white dot sliding through a constellation of waypoints that will deliver them to Noriador within five cycles.

They reach the outermost edge of the Nikutan system.

Cleo’s engine growls. She knows the edges of systems: They are the boundaries of wild space. They are the point beyond which she can play, where Jeri lets her heave her engine into supralight and run hot and fast and free until the next system slows them down.

Jeri is suddenly dizzy with terror. From here, their future diverges. A portside turn will take them into Noriador. Safe. A starboard turn will send them straight to Luric and into the midst of the Uriline conflict. Not safe at all.

But if they make it through, they’ll be free.

A thread of gold shimmers across Cleo’s bright green walls. A question. She’s waiting for Jeri’s answer.

“Okay, girl. Let’s go.” Jeri inhales, pulls the navigation slate to Luric, and confirms their path.

The gold thread on the wall glows, expands, then explodes like rockets all around the navigation suite. Cleo’s engine hums, whines. There’s a shift, a rattle as she prepares for supralight.

A message appears from the Nikute Sud temple, from Abbess Ocala. It’s a warning, a threat spelled out in bold Nikutan script. Jeri sees the words punishable by death and pushes the message away. “Starboard,” she tells Cleo. “We enter supralight on go.”

A second message appears. No mere threat this time: a formal judgment. She recognizes the word.

Neccima.

It is done.

Jeri brushes the message away. She’s breathless now with fear; already there’s a fleet of Henza fighters on the navigation slate, lifting off at Port Sud and headed her way.

But she still has her ship, her great mangy red-hulled ship with its sweat-hot air and glittering walls and clumsy programming and boundless, loyal heart. And the old Juno class haulers? They’re built for just this kind of adventure.

Go,” Jeri tells Cleo.

Cleo leaps into supralight, howls her engine like a hound beneath a bright gold Icaran moon, and then they’re both gone, lost in the chase between silver-streaked stars.

Sarah Grey

Sarah Grey

Sarah Grey’s stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online, and have twice received an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She lives with her family near Sacramento, California.