(published in Thoughtcrime Experiments)
Grains of Sand Freighter. Deneb, planetary approach. Three weeks ago.
“Do you really want to stop here?” Kate sat in the pilot’s chair, twisted around to face them, with Amara nursing quietly in her lap. “We don’t have much to trade that they want — and even if we did, this planet is barbaric. I don’t want the girls exposed to this culture.”
Iniya was playing in her room. Hopefully. A precocious four-year-old could get into a frightening amount of trouble, even on a small ship where she’d lived her entire life. Joshua kept an ear open, just in case — he was on Ini-watch right now. Honestly, he’d rather be sitting on the floor, playing knights and dragons with her — but the adults needed to have this conversation.
“You say culture like there’s just one,” Sarita said sharply. “What about the engineered species and their cultures?”
“Sarita, c’mon,” Joshua said. “The engineered species and their treatment here are her point.”
“Exactly,” Kate snapped. “The dominant culture on this world is disgusting.”
Sarita said primly, “We’re supposed to avoid value judgments.”
“Kate’s right. It’s appalling, really,” Joshua said. He tried to keep his tone mild, though Sarita in uppity mode would make a saint want to slap her.
Sarita deflated suddenly, flopping down into the co-pilot’s chair. She reached out an apologetic hand to Kate, who, after a moment, took it. Joshua breathed a covert sigh of relief. Sarita said, “I know. They’re awful — but it’s not as if I want to take the girls down there. You can all stay up here; I just need one more vocal grouping…and no one’s ever studied any of the genetically engineered serf-species here.”
“Because no one civilized can stand to be around them. Poor things,” Kate said.
Joshua knew Kate was right, but he also knew that Sarita was going to get her way. She almost always did. She just wanted things so passionately, so intensely, that it became impossible to say no to her. She wasn’t even saying anything now — just looking at Kate with those big dark eyes steady, silently pleading.
Kate sighed. “One week. That’s it. Maybe we can find an isolated beach somewhere in the world to take the girls to while you’re working. Ini’s never seen an ocean, and this world is practically all water.”
Sarita wisely didn’t say anything more — just jumped up and wrapped Kate in a hug, careful not to disturb the baby. Joshua turned and headed back to Ini’s room, grateful that the women had worked it out with only minimal intervention from him. That seemed to work best; when a man was partnered with two alpha females, it was generally wise to keep his head down and count his blessings. Besides, there were several knights and dragons waiting for him, along with one strong-willed princess.
University of All Worlds. Pyroxina major. Seven years ago.
“Professor?” The girl stood before him, her eyes downcast. Dark skin, like so many of his students here; all the locals on Pyroxina were of South Asian descent, from the third wave of Old Earth colonists. The University drew from all the colonies, of course, but it was still tremendously cheaper for the locals to attend. No space fare, for one thing, and a discounted tuition rate.
Joshua smiled gently. “I’ve told you all before, you don’t need to be so formal with me. I’m not even a real professor — just a visiting instructor. Please, call me Joshua.”
The girl ducked her head even lower, her long black braid swinging. “Sorry, professor. I forgot.”
He wished she would look up. All the local girls seemed trained not to make eye contact with strange men; after ten weeks, it had gotten pretty frustrating trying to have conversations with so many tops of heads. It also made it a lot harder to learn their names. “It’s okay. Sarita, right? What can I do for you?”
“I love this class. It’s the best one I’ve taken at University. They should make you a real professor.”
“That’s very kind of you to say.” In fact, his chair had dropped a hint that maybe he should stick around, teach some summer classes, apply for the job that was opening up for next year. But that would mean dealing with all the department politics, working his way slowly up the totem pole. Joshua had seen how hellish that could be in other departments, how much time it took away from your real work. He wasn’t sure he wanted to make that kind of compromise. Besides, he wasn’t ready to settle down in one place, not yet. There was so much of the universe still to see…
“I particularly enjoyed the Grommer-Twince tributary modulations. The way they evoke the musicians’ desperate sense of planetary limits, given their distance from any other system –”
Joshua cut her off, confused. “You wrote a fine paper on the subject, yes.” It was based on that paper that he’d recommended her for the grad student fellowship. “But did you have a question for me?”
“I was wondering…” Sarita looked up then, her eyes meeting his for the first time in the conversation — the first time that semester. “…would you like to have dinner with me?”
Joshua drew in a quick breath, his face flushing. Her eyes was astonishingly dark brown, almost black. Dark like the empty spaces between the stars; the vertigo was dizzying. Before he could answer with the obligatory no, a response Joshua was surprised to find he did not want to give, Sarita had gone on, speaking quickly, her eyes locked on his.
“You’ve graded everything except the final exam, and I’ve gotten straight A’s. I’m going to get an A on that too, and I know you have to have a second-grader on the final anyway, so even if you wanted to give me a better grade than I deserve, you can’t, so it wouldn’t be a breach of ethics to go out with me. I would have waited to ask you until the semester was over, but I checked the flight records and you’re scheduled to leave Pyroxina the day after finals, so if I waited it would be too late. So I had to ask now.”
The only thing he could think to say was, “Those flight records are sealed.”
She smiled then, a wicked grin that he would never, not in a million light-years, have imagined on her. It transformed her serious face. “Not if you know how to hack your way in.”
Joshua found himself fighting back the very unprofessional urge to laugh. “You don’t have a lot of respect for the rules, do you?”
She said solemnly, “I’m actually very law-abiding. My parents would tell you that I’ve been an obedient daughter. I only break the rules when there’s an excellent reason to do so.”
“And I’m an excellent reason?” His pulse quickened.
She hesitated — the first pause he’d seen in her since the day she walked into his class, so serious and confident. “I’m not sure.” And then she smiled again, an uncertain smile that caught at him, made him swallow. “But I think so.”
Joshua knew, knew that he shouldn’t say it. But the words came out anyway, spilling from his mouth as if spoken by someone else entirely. “You know, I’ve recently decided to stay at the university a little longer, teach a summer class or two. So if you have any questions for me once the semester is actually over…” And he was smiling too, helplessly. He had a feeling he was in big trouble.
Deneb IV, Katchari Quarters. Three weeks ago.
Sarita was in trouble. The house-master who had agreed to let her interview some of them (provided that she pay the full sexual use-fee, of course), had warned her she might find it difficult to concentrate on her work. Sarita had thought he was exaggerating, but no. She’d interviewed seven Katchari so far — five females, two males. Even when she kept her head down focused on her notes, kept a broad wooden table between them, the pheromones still had an effect in the small, enclosed bedroom. Quite an effect.
Sarita crossed and uncrossed her legs, trying to get comfortable. It was just so hot here. Sweat dripped down her spine, sliding under her sari’s silk border. She took another long drink from the glass of iced fruit juice on the table, and glanced up, briefly, at the new Katchari entering the room. Gods. This one might be the most beautiful yet. Deep, dark brown fur, and a long, muscular body, at least a foot taller than she was. She had a weakness for tall men.
Professional. The key was to stay professional. She tapped the recorder, setting it going. “Name, please?”
He answered in a low voice, “Chocolate.”
Sarita glanced up, startled. “You must be joking! Seriously? Did your parents actually name you that?” They had discussed the girls’ names for months before naming them, and had been very careful to choose names that couldn’t easily be mocked.
“I never knew my parents.” He stared straight ahead, his tone carefully neutral. “My crèche-leader felt Chocolate accurately described my fur, both in color and silky texture.”
“Well, yes,” Sarita had to admit, trying not to think about touching that fur. “Accurate, maybe. But it’s no name for a person!”
“I’m not a person, mistress. Not legally.” And there it was. He glanced down at her from under long lashes, and on those last words, a spark of anger flashed in his eyes. The others had sung for her, just as she’d asked, and she’d recorded the songs, but they’d all been so sad, so despairing, so broken. Sarita didn’t know whether this one could even sing, but one thing was clear — despite his circumstances, he wasn’t broken yet. She felt her interest stirring.
“I can’t call you Chocolate. Or Choco. Umm…would it be okay if I called you Cho?”
He blinked, slowly, and then a smile curved its way along his face, taking him from beautiful all the way to drop-dead gorgeous. “I would like that.” He stepped closer, and closer yet, until he was suddenly all the way across the room, inches away, on absolutely the wrong side of the table. “I would like that very much.”
Sarita’s parents’ house. Pyroxina major. Six years ago.
“You don’t have to do this,” Kate said.
Sarita frowned. “What, you want me to just run off, leave the planet without even saying goodbye?”
“But they’re not speaking to you,” Joshua protested.
“That’s their choice. I’ve been a good daughter. I’ve done everything I can to make them happy. I found a nice professor — ”
” — agnostic, white-skinned, and can’t even speak Tamil — ” Joshua interjected.
” — introduced them to him, or tried to. Didn’t even have sex with him until we were contracted…”
“That depends on how you define sex, don’t you think?” Kate asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“…stayed in school, kept majoring in Engineering, the way they wanted — ”
“Sneaking in a second major in Music & Ethnology,” Kate continued.
“Engineering. Where I happened to meet a very nice freighter captain while interning at the spaceport.” Sarita smiled, too brightly. “You could argue that it was actually all their fault that I met Kate, fell in love, got you to redefine our contract as a threesome — ”
” — and in the process, broke your poor parents’ hearts. Not that I’m complaining,” Joshua added hastily. He definitely thought he’d come out ahead in that deal.
“It’s not like I’m the first in the family to have multiple spouses,” Sarita said, with just a little too much defiance in her voice.
“I’m not sure your parents will think that our situation is exactly comparable to your many-times-great-great-grandfather and his three wives, back on Old Earth. I don’t think I’d recommend that as your first line of attack,” Joshua said. “How do you know that after not speaking to you for over a year, that they’re going to be willing to talk now?”
“I don’t know,” Sarita said, her voice finally breaking. “But they’re my parents, and I love them. I have to try. Okay?”
“Okay,” Kate said, her own voice shaking a little. She reached out and took Sarita’s hand in hers.
“Okay,” Joshua said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do this.” He reached out to push the doorbell, bracing himself for the coming storm.
Deneb IV, Katchari Quarters. One week ago.
Sarita sank down into the bed. “They’ve agreed to stay another week. It took some convincing, but Josh told Kate that it really wasn’t unreasonable for the work to take another week, especially if it was going well.”
“When was the last time you actually recorded a song?” Cho asked, his face unwontedly serious.
She smiled. “Two weeks, six days, and seven hours ago. Just before I met you. Unless you count the noises you’ve been making…”
“Have you told them about me?” He curled around her, his hands reaching to massage her back, claws retracted.
“Not yet. But I will.” Sarita’s eyes closed, involuntarily, at his touch. They’d trained him in massage, but it was more than that — Cho seemed to have an instinct for exactly the right places to touch. Animal instincts, she thought. But she would never say that out loud.
“You don’t have to tell your family,” he said.
“I want to.” She opened her eyes, reached out to stroke a finger across the short creamy fur of his cheek, marveling again at its softness.
“It’s pointless.” His voice was dark, empty.
Sarita reached out, trying to hold as much of his long body in her arms as she could. “Shh…” She didn’t want to talk about that, didn’t want to think about the end that was inevitably coming. Racing towards them, like the nose of a great ship, diving through space towards a Jump gate.
Cho said softly, “As you command, mistress.”
She stiffened. “Don’t ever call me that. Never, never, never. Do you understand me?” Her voice rose; her fingers clenched, digging into his pelt.
“Shh…” Now it was his turn to pull her into an embrace. They sank deeper into the bed.
Grains of Sand Freighter. Deneb, fourth planet, stable orbit. Two nights ago.
“Amma. Amma. Amma.”
“Amma’s not here, baby. Shh… Do you want me to read you your story?” The girl’s father sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead.
“Amma! Amma amma amma amma amma!”
Joshua glanced over to where Kate stood in the doorway, her hands twisting together in front of her. She was the calm one, but she’d never make a good poker player. Her hands always gave her away. “Maybe Mommy will sing you a song?” They were usually careful not to break the routine — bath, book, song, bed, in strict order. The adults had long ago agreed that the children needed as much routine as possible in their itinerant lives. But Sarita hadn’t come home for three nights now. The story was her job.
Kate came forward, her voice lifting in a low croon, soft and wordless. The baby quieted. This would be enough for her, for now. It wasn’t the first time Sarita had disappeared for a night, after all. Sarita had warned him when he met her — she wasn’t the type to settle down. Joshua understood that. And it wasn’t as if she was in any danger — the planet might be cruel to the engineered species, but Sarita should be well protected as a Pyroxina citizen. But still — three nights. Three days and three nights. What the hell was she doing?
Grains of Sand Freighter. Saltair Expanse. Four years ago.
“Try this,” Sarita said, bringing over a bowl to Kate’s bunk. “My mother sent the recipe; she swears by it for nursing mothers. Of course, she’s not happy that I’m not the one nursing Ini, but still — can’t let her only granddaughter starve, can she? It’s a white curry, full of coconut milk. Milk to bring in the milk, they say. Although it’s actually the fenugreek that does the trick; stimulates milk production.”
“Can’t I just take some pills?” Kate asked. “I’m not hungry.” She lay sideways on the bunk, eyes closed, Iniya curled naked against her chest.
Sarita poked her arm gently. “That’s just the exhaustion talking. Who would have thought the tough freighter captain would be laid low by a little baby! C’mon, try a bite. For me? It took me hours to find all the ingredients on that last planet we stopped at, and they cost a fortune.”
Kate opened her eyes, sighed, and then opened her mouth and let Sarita spoon the curry in. She chewed wearily and swallowed. “You’d think after all these years they’d have found some better way to feed babies.”
Sarita kept feeding her, one bite after another. “You were the one who insisted on breast-feeding. Joshua and I would have been fine using formula. They’ve duplicated the ingredients found in breast milk, you know. Perfected the recipe two decades ago.”
“It’s not the same,” Kate insisted. “I can’t prove it, but I’m sure it isn’t.”
“And so we bow to your motherly instincts,” Sarita said, smiling. “After all, you’re the one who has to wake up every three hours and stay awake until she’s done eating. We’re just the support team.”
Kate bit her lip. “Neither one of you has gotten any work done in months; I’m so sorry…”
“Shh…” Sarita brushed damp hair away from Kate’s forehead. “That was the deal. It’s fine. We knew what we were getting into — as much as any parent does, anyway. Besides, the little monkey’s actually kind of cute.” Sarita put down the bowl and gently scooped Ini up into her arms, bending down to smell the baby’s hair. Vanilla. She’d swear Ini’s hair smelled like vanilla.
Kate yawned and rolled over onto her stomach, her eyes closing again. “If they could just figure out a way to make babies’ stomachs bigger, so they could eat more at a go. It ought to be a simple engineering problem.”
Sarita laughed. “How about you work on that when you wake up, okay? After another hour or two of sleep, I’m sure you’ll be able to solve it.” Sarita bent down and pulled the blanket up to cover her partner, dropping a kiss on her forehead.
“Okay,” Kate said, and went to sleep. Sarita walked away, carrying Ini up to visit Joshua in the pilot’s chair. Three more weeks until they made planetfall again. Three more months until they could start the baby on solids. She thought they would make it. Probably.
She had no idea how two-parent households survived.
Deneb IV, Sea of Frustrated Desire. Yesterday.
Kate checked her comm unit again. “She’s not even answering her comm now.”
“Stop worrying. Probably ran out of power; she always forgets to charge it.”
Kate called out, “Ini, stay where we can see you!” The sleepy baby on her chest muttered, “Amma….amma.”
“Hush, baby. Hungry?” Kate offered her breast, and Amara took it peacefully enough, though she didn’t look happy.
Joshua blinked at the peaceful picture — Kate with light-brown Amara bare against her pale skin. Thinking again how lucky he was. “She’s always hungry. She’s going to be tall, I think, like her mother.”
“Her mother who ought to be back by now.” Kate’s voice was even more acerbic than usual.
“Aren’t you enjoying our little seaside vacation? Pink sand, turquoise water.”
“Three weeks of vacation is plenty. Why hasn’t she called?”
“Deep in her research, probably. You know how I get when I’m working on a project.”
“And what about your work! Selfish, that’s what she is.”
“I’m mostly on paternity leave now anyway, you know that.”
“You love your work.”
“I do, but it was miserable enough trying to work when Ini was an infant — I didn’t need to do that again. Tenure is a wonderful thing. Be patient with Sari; it’s different when you’re still in grad school — much more anxiety-provoking. And she’s been a grad student a long time now.”
“Where’s Ini?” Kate sat up. “Ini? INI!”
Joshua jumped to his feet, scanning the sand and ocean around them. No sign of the child. He started walking, then running in the direction they’d seen her last, clambering over a rocky outcropping. His heart was racing; he couldn’t breathe. But somehow he was still shouting out her name, “INI! INIYA!”
“Papa?” And there she was, toddling back around the rocks, not so far away after all.
Joshua swept her up in his arms, hugging her sticky, sandy body close. “We told you to stay in sight! Foolish child! You could have been drowned! Or eaten by dragons!”
Ini just giggled. “There aren’t any dragons here, papa.”
He carried her back to Kate in long strides, sinking down on their blanket with Ini still cradled in his arms. Kate scanned her for any possible injuries, and then, finding her daughter intact, lay down again. Joshua relaxed his own grasp a little. “What were you doing, going so far without us, monkey?”
“Looking for Amma. I want her to come home.”
Joshua swallowed. “Us too, monkey. She’ll be home soon, I promise. But you can’t go wandering off like that again, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, nodding her head several times.
“Good. Now go play in the water.” He thumped her bottom and sent her off towards the gentle wavelets. The water here was incredibly calm — the most peaceful shore he’d ever seen. He said, “Sea of Frustrated Desire. Why do you think they called it that?”
Kate sighed, her eyes closed. “They probably had children. Or a wife.”
Grains of Sand Freighter. Deneb, fourth planet, stable orbit. Five minutes ago.
“I signed a term contract,” Sarita said. She stood silhouetted in the open hatchway, gasping for breath as if she’d just run a mile, the stranger behind her.
She hadn’t even called up first — just banged on the hatch door until they all came running, Joshua and Kate trying to keep Ini behind them until they looked out the porthole and saw Sarita there. Then they couldn’t get the door open fast enough, but this was not what Joshua had expected to hear.
“You what?” Joshua asked.
Iniya clung to her leg, murmuring ‘amma amma amma,’ and Sarita stroked her hair as she talked, her voice low. “Shh…baby…shh. It’s okay. I missed you too, monkey.” She looked at Joshua. “It was the only way to get him out. I signed over five years of my service, in exchange for thirty years of his. Engineering work only, which they value highly. That’s specified in the contract. I’ll be fine.”
“Like hell you will!” Joshua said.
Kate frowned. “Josh, hush. Iniya’s upset…we can finish this conversation later.”
“Kate — this concerns the kids too. Whatever she’s got to say, she needs to say it in front of them.”
“Josh, no. You’re angry, and you’re wrong. Ini, sweetie, c’mon.” Kate bent down and peeled Iniya off Sarita’s leg. The poor kid immediately started howling, and Kate shushed her as she walked away, down the corridor. Sarita stared after them, looking lost, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides, as if she wanted to grab Ini back. The alien brought his hands together in front of him and laced his fingers together, as if he wanted to reach out and touch her, but was deliberately refraining.
Joshua was grateful for that — if the man said or did anything, Joshua wasn’t sure what he would do in response. He bit his tongue, waiting until Ini’s wails quieted down before asking in a fierce whisper, “Sarita, what possible excuse can you have for all this?”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. “I couldn’t leave him there, like that. I love him.”
“You lust after him. That’s what he was built for.” Joshua had never been attracted to men, but even he could feel the pull of the cat-man, with his lithe, perfect body. His soft fur was chocolate brown streaked lightly with copper. He looked utterly edible. But that was programming, biology, pheromones. It didn’t mean anything.
Sarita insisted, “It’s not just lust. That’s why you haven’t heard from me, the last three days — I needed to enter the bondservant quarters where no comms are allowed. I needed to live with him, to be sure. It’s love. The real thing.”
How could she betray them? Joshua couldn’t even think, he was so angry. He wanted to just shove the man out the hatch, drag Sarita in, by her damned hair, and take off before she could say one more idiotic thing. “How long have you been seeing him?” He was proud that his tone was steady.
Her voice was soft. “Three weeks. Since the day we landed.”
“You’ve lied to us for three weeks!” All this time, when they thought she’d been working, she’d been going down to the planet every day to see him. Those last three days, she hadn’t even bothered to come back up…
“I know, I know. And I’m sorry, I really am. But I had a good reason. I love him.”
Joshua found himself shouting, “You can’t love him — you barely know him!”
Sarita smiled then, a smile with tears in it. “I barely knew you, or Kate. But I knew who you were, deep down. Was I wrong?”
Joshua’s hands were shaking. “None of this makes any sense. Why did they even let you leave the compound with him? Do they have a tracer on you?” His mind was spinning with questions. How could she do this to them? How could she betray them like this, without even a warning? Had she ever really loved them?
Sarita bit her lip. “They didn’t let me leave. I hacked the security codes on the gates. Spliced in a tape of us in bed. It should hold them about an hour, and then they’ll realize. It took us twenty minutes to get here — we ran. So Cho and I need to go back, now.” She took a deep breath, and Joshua could see the tears in her eyes. “I — I wish we had more time.”
Cho was silent through it all, a quiet presence at her back, his eyes and stance saying that he would follow her anywhere. Sarita whispered, “I just had to say goodbye. Let me say a proper goodbye to the girls, and then we’ll go. I’ll comm you from the surface, so you can reach me to fill out all the paperwork. I’d like to stay in touch with Ini. And Amara. If it’s all right with you both. You can send me holos of them, and I’ll send holos back to them, I promise.”
“Holos? As if that’s a replacement for a mother? Never mind about us — how can you do this to them! You have responsibilities!” Joshua slammed a fist into the bulkhead, barely feeling it split the skin on his knuckles. He was glad to have an excuse to hit something.
Now the tears broke, flowing down her face. “I know — but I can’t leave him. Not to that life. The girls — they’ll be okay without me. They’ll have both of you, a mother and a father, a perfect little family. You’ll all be okay without me, and he won’t. Can’t you see I don’t have a choice here!” Sarita hesitated, as if she wasn’t certain whether to continue. But she’d never lacked courage.
She said, her voice dropping again to a whisper, “You — you don’t have to dissolve our contract. It’s only five years. Depending on how you felt, at the end of the term, you could come back here…” Her eyes were wide and her hands were balled into fists at her sides, as if she were afraid to open them, afraid that asking was going too far.
It was. Joshua was ready to let her go. Just take the goddamned cat-man who had screwed up their lives and get off the ship for good. Joshua opened his mouth to say so, to squeeze the words past the choking lump in his throat, but before he could say anything Kate stepped out of the hatchway to stand beside him and say, “Don’t be an idiot. You’re not going anywhere with him.”
University of All Worlds. Pyroxina major. Five years ago.
Joshua rolled over in bed, sliding his right arm under Sarita, pulling her close. “I want a baby.”
She tucked her head in his shoulder, in that spot where she fit so well. “What, right now?”
“No, not right now. But soon. What do you think?”
Sarita raised an eyebrow. “Do you think we’re stable enough?”
“We’ve lasted almost two years. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever been in. Feels stable to me.”
“Me too.” Sarita grinned. “If Kate’s up for it…”
Kate raised her head from the far side of the bed, where she lay curled against Sarita’s side. Her face was drawn, ten years older than it had looked moments ago. “I can’t have children.”
“What?” Joshua asked, startled. He’d assumed that Kate would be the one…
“I tried. Miscarried four times. The last time, uterus ruptured, almost died. So that’s it.” She lay her head down again, turned away, so they couldn’t see her face. “Maybe you two should go ahead, do this without me. Always knew this was too good to last. Probably time for me to be lifting off again anyway, head for the empty stars. The short hauls were starting to get to me.”
Sarita thumped a gentle hand against Kate’s head. “Don’t be crazy. I don’t want to be a mom.”
Kate turned back, confused. “But you just said…”
“Not the main mom. I’d like to help, but I’m not ready to be tied down, feeding some brat twenty-four/seven. I’ve got years of fieldwork to do, and itchy feet.”
“But you’re willing to bear a child…”
“I guess. If I have to. But as soon as that thing is born, it’s all you. You take the hormones, get the milk pumping, feed the kid, sing it songs, change the diapers, the whole bit.”
Joshua interjected, “I can sing songs and change diapers too.”
Sarita sighed, fluttering her eyelashes. “Oh, I suppose I can change a diaper or two. Once in a while.”
Kate was silent, her fingers twisting. Sarita took her hand in hers, interlacing their fingers, stilling them. After a long silence, Kate said, in a voice almost too soft to hear, “So you’re both in this. For the long haul.”
“Looks like it,” Sarita said, squeezing her hand.
Kate glanced at her — then looked up at Joshua, finally smiling, “Well, they say that the gods bless lovers and fools.”
“Does that mean yes?” Joshua asked.
“I suppose so.” She bent down, dropped a kiss on Sarita’s cheek. “Yes.”
Grains of Sand Freighter. Deneb, fourth planet, stable orbit. Now.
Grains of Sand, come in. Come in, star-freighter Grains of Sand. You are not cleared for departure.
“Josh, shut that damn thing off.” Kate’ voice was tense as she worked the pre-Jump checklist, flipping switches, turning knobs. Joshua reached up to the far right of the co-pilot’s chair, shut down the ship-to-planet comms.
Sarita stood behind their chairs, saying tensely to Kate’s back, “You don’t have to do this. Please, please don’t. We can go back.”
Kate turned her head, raised one eyebrow. “It’s true — Amara would forget you soon enough,” Kate said, deliberately cold. “But Ini is too old. She’ll always remember that her mother didn’t love her enough to stay with her. She’ll always know that her mother abandoned her.”
“I don’t want to leave her!” Sarita had tears in her eyes again, which made them look even larger and darker than ever. Space between the stars.
“So don’t,” Kate said softly.
“But your ship — nine years of work to buy this ship, another nine of sweat and tears building up the business…to risk losing it all?” Sarita gulped. “I can’t ask that of you.”
“So you’d ask us to let you go instead.” Kate took a deep breath, trying to steady her voice, but despite her best efforts, it cracked on the next words, “Are you trying to break my heart?”
“I’m sorry, Kate, I’m so sorry!” Sarita was sobbing now, great gasping sobs that had to make it hard to breathe.
“Just go!” Kate snapped. “Get in back, check on the kids, prepare him for his first Jump. Jump in ninety.”
Sarita turned and fled out of the cabin, leaving them alone with the screens.
Joshua waited until she was well down the corridor, out of earshot, before asking, “You were a little hard on her, weren’t you?” His hands moved automatically through the final checks. The first wave of fury had passed, once he realized that they weren’t actually going to lose Sarita. He didn’t know how he felt now. Relieved. Numb. Worried.
Kate shrugged, frowning. “She’s made us all into criminals. We’ll never be allowed back into this system, that’s for sure. If it weren’t for the fact that nobody else likes these folks, I’d be seriously worried for the business.”
Joshua raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t tell her that. She probably thinks we’re going to turn pirate.”
“Good,” Kate said sharply. “Let her worry for a change. Once we get through this Jump, I’m going to tear some strips out of her hide for scaring us like that. She is never going to go out of contact like that again. Idiot. And god knows what we’re going to do with him — I don’t even know where we’re going to put him. He’s going to have to sleep on the engine.”
“But you were never going to leave her here.” Joshua said the words as if he had no doubt — but if Kate hadn’t stepped in, he would have let Sarita go, would have thrown her out, off the ship, out of their lives. Maybe.
Kate paused a long moment. Then she sighed and said, “Of course not.”
Joshua nodded, feeling the tension sliding away. “It’s in a good cause, anyway.”
“What? True love?” Kate looked as if she wanted to spit, if there had been anywhere safe on the control board to spit. “Bet it doesn’t last a month. She barely knows him.”
Joshua frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not so sure. Remember when you two were like that? All she could talk about was you.” He could tease about it now, but he remembered how he’d felt at first. Angry. Scared. If he’d known then what he knew now — well, maybe he’d be just as scared. But he wasn’t sorry. “I was ready to scratch your eyes out; I was sure you were going to take her away with you, up to the stars on your big, fancy ship.”
“Don’t mock my ship,” Kate said, frowning a warning. “It’s saving your butt.”
“I would never mock the ship — or its beautiful, gallant captain.” Joshua blew her a kiss from across the cabin.
“Oh, hush. Idiots, the both of you. Sometimes, I don’t know why I bother.” She flicked the last switch, poised her finger over the final button. “Prepare for Jump.” She paused, took a deep breath, and said, “I love you.”
And that was why. They always said it before a Jump. Jumps had been mostly reliable for close to a century now, but still. Just in case. They always said the words. Joshua flicked on the intercom, so they could hear the rest of it throughout the ship. Sarita, the children, and now this new one, this stranger. Beloved of Sarita, gods knew why, and so. “We love you.”
Kate’s steady voice read out the final count. “Jump in five. Four. Three. Two. Jump.”