I have the odd impression I’ve been here before.
What do they call that? Déjà vu.
Kai snaps his fingers to reclaim my attention. “I asked if you’re ready twice now. Are you all right?”
I rub my head, which pounds like a class P drum. “I think so.”
“Are you sure?” His gaze searches my face. “I know this is a long haul. Do you have a couple more jumps in you before we hit station for some R&R?”
I flash him a grin. “Absolutely. Where are we headed again?”
His fair brows go up, indicating we’ve been over this once. “That’s it, I’m bouncing a message to command. You’re not—”
“Sure I am.” I catch his hand before he can call. “We’re scouting for new beacons to the Csom Run, then we’re checking one with a weak signal on the way back.”
That sends a little shiver of pride through me. We’re one of only ten teams experienced enough to repair the beacons. It’s not a physical repair so much as a mental adjustment, and we’ve only been doing it for six months. Without an influx of our energies, linked through the nav com and filtered through me, the beacons would die. Other races help, of course—humanity doesn’t do it alone.
Kai levels a long look on me. “You’re acting weird, Siri.”
“I’m good to go, I swear. We’re in the hot zone?”
In answer, he powers up the phase drive. We’ve chosen a sexy two-seater this time, no messing around with medic or engineer. Our CO doesn’t like it when we go off on our own, but payroll approves because they don’t have to cover the extra personnel, so nobody objects formally.
I’ll be spending a long time in grimspace this run. Mentally, I prepare myself for it as I jack in. Kai’s already there and waiting. He welcomes me with a chaotic burst of warmth. I could swim in him like this forever. Bits of memory brush me, revealing what he treasures most. There’s such sweetness in him, a candor and simplicity.
The ship shudders as we make the leap, passing into grimspace. Pleasure spikes through me, as if I’m taking a hit of my favorite chem. It sings through my veins, echoing the mad whorl of colors outside the view screen. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s like entering the heart of a dying star.
I close my eyes to the pull and listen to the beacons pulsing. They offer me their locations, and with them, the keys to the universe. From here, I can go anywhere, as long as I know what the echoes mean. Over drinks I once gave the analogy that it’s like interpreting sonar for the deaf, and that’s near enough.
Kai holds the ship steady, waiting for me to parse the pulses and translate them to distance in straight space. I’m looking for an echo of the Csom Run, the farthest we’ve ever gone. It’s past the Outskirts, well beyond the borders of civilized space. Beyond the Csom Run lies the Empty Cascade. And nobody knows what’s out there.
We won’t know for sure until we get there.
But yes, I’m all but positive I’ve found which beacons mark the Csom Run. We’ll know when we come out the other side. Kai guides us smoothly to where we need to be. Colors burn outside the ship, immolating us in the glory of the cosmos. I luxuriate in the feeling, as I never feel more at home than when I’m right here. Leaving is always terrible, as if I’ve lost a part of myself that I can never get back.
At least not until the next jump.
The phase drive hums as we make the leap back. It was a smooth run, no surprises, and I’m purring with satisfaction. I unplug and check our location on the star charts, then punch the air. The Csom Run.
Kai’s green eyes glow with the joy of our shared achievement. “We did it, Siri. Nobody’s ever been out here before.”
And here we sit, taking it in. Beyond the view screen, threads of red light swirl, kindling the darkness. For a moment I just watch in awed silence. We’re not close enough to be imperiled, thank Mary.
“Twin planets?” I ask.
“It looks like it, but I’ve never seen two so close to a red giant before.”
“We should log this, take some images, and get out of here.”
He nods. “Agreed. Once we check out that last beacon, we can go home.”
Kai handles the vid footage. The Science Corp will have a field day with this. They’re studying the age at which a sun becomes a red giant, and methods to prevent the transformation. Personally, I think the credits could better be spent elsewhere, but you never know when a dying world will be willing to pay through the collective nose.
I feel sure and strong as we jump again, as if I could do this forever. Though I know that’s not true—I’ve seen the damage grimspace has done to my colleagues—it doesn’t feel like it can touch me. Without false modesty, I know I’m the greatest navigator of my time, and I love my life.
Grimspace reels me in like a lover. I soak in the delight without losing myself to it. Beacon 1476-1 needs a look, so we make our way to a spot where I can reach it. There is no distance in grimspace as we conceive of it in straight space, more points of contact from which one world leads to another. I’ve entertained the idea that we could access other dimensions from here, but it’s not time to test my theories. Not that Kai would let me.
I wouldn’t, he tells me. Humor permeates me. We have a job to do.
This beacon is faint and thready, on the verge of going out. Since it’s one we use often, that can’t happen. I reach out to it and find it’s drenched in darkness. The beacon fills my head with alien images, as it always does when we touch them. Kai and the nav com keep me anchored while I work, letting the necessary power flow through me. I don’t like being a conduit, but sometimes there’s no choice. It doesn’t hurt precisely, but I can’t imagine it’s helping me either.
By the time we’re done, the beacon pulses strongly, back in tune with the others. To my mind, the beacons are almost like living musical instruments, full of tones and resonance that take us where we need to go. I’m tired now, so I locate the one nearest to the station. Kai responds, sensing my failing stamina.
We push through, and I’m shaking. Repair work takes a lot out of me.
The gutter press greets us like conquering heroes. Since we filed our report on the way in, they already know about the Csom Run. We pose for a few minutes, answer some questions, then it’s off to the bar to celebrate. The night blurs into random faces, loud music, and too much liquor.
My head pounds as I open my eyes. The décor gives me no clue as to where I am. Bunk, wardrober, plain gray walls: it looks like any number of generic stations where I’ve been quartered over the turns.
A slender hand with long, artistic fingers pushes the hair away from my face. I melt a little, tracing my gaze from his palm to the crook of his elbow, up over his shoulder and onto his dear, beloved face. He wears a tender, amused smile.
“You really tied one on last night, didn’t you?” Kai asks. “I didn’t think you were going to wake up before nightfall.”
Happiness sparkles through me. I never get tired of seeing him here when I wake up. But my head really does hurt. I struggle upright, moaning. “I . . . did I really—”
Shit. That’s not good.
He confirms, “Twice.”
“Did it make the midnight bounce?”
“Doesn’t it always? Don’t worry, love, you have a great pair.”
That’s only marginal comfort, given the way I feel. I’m going to hear about having my tits on the news again from my CO. Not looking forward to that conversation. But maybe the Csom Run will win me some slack.
The man doesn’t seem to have a perceptible sense of humor, so he’ll lecture me on how I have a responsibility to maintain a certain image, uphold the good name of the Corp. It didn’t work when my dad used that line on me, so it sure won’t now.
“How long did we slam? Are we due to jump soon?” I can’t believe it, but I’ve totally lost track of time.
“Not until tomorrow. We have one more day of R&R before we go back on.”
“Any more ‘rest,’ and I’ll die,” I mumble, falling back onto my pillow.
He brushes the hair away from my face, whispering, “Don’t even think about it, lovely. There’s no way I could live without you.”
A sweet little spear runs me through. He says it gently, easily, as if there’s no shame in his need. Despite my aching head, he can do the craziest things to my heart. After Simon, I swore I’d never let another man matter to me like this. I promised myself I’d live hard, a different warm body in every port, and refuse to give of myself in any way that mattered. And for the longest time, I did.
“You’re such a sweet talker.”
He shakes his head, fingers threading through my tangled curls. “Nothing’s sweeter than the truth, Siri.”
Ah. He’s the only one who ever calls me that. At first he did it to irritate me because it’s such a soft little name, and I didn’t think it fit me. But slowly, he tamed me to it. I may not be a gentle woman by most standards, but I melt for him.
Right now, I do it literally as he finds pressure points just beneath the base of my skull. The headache from excess drinking starts to fade. I can actually open my eyes all the way without feeling like daggers of light are slicing through my brain.
“Mmm, thanks. You’re the best. What did I ever do to deserve you?”
“Nothing,” he says, straight-faced. “You’re a very bad woman. I just took pity on you and decided to save you from yourself.”
That’s not too far from the truth. After I split with Simon, he watched me run wild for months, going through more men than whose names I could remember, before he asked, “Why not me? You’ve tried everyone else in the known galaxy.”
If it hadn’t been so accurate, I might have taken offense and asked why he’d even be interested in such a slut. In my mind, he’d always been off-limits. I mean, we had to work together. And if I screwed things up between us, as I seem to have a knack for, then it would make our job downright awkward. I can’t even remember why I said I’d think about it, but I know we wound up drunk that night. Maybe he did that on purpose because Mary knows, after I’ve downed a few, I’m a sure thing.
I smile, as he means me to. “Shower?”
Kai agrees, swinging me up in his arms with a whipcord strength that used to surprise me. He’s not tall, slim rather than muscular, but it would be a mistake for anyone to judge him weak. We fit like interlocking puzzle pieces, and I love him so much it hurts. Our relationship didn’t start like fire-works, but more of a gradual spark building to a high and steady flame.
I never think about losing him. Lucky for me, jumpers don’t have to worry about that. We don’t live long enough to grieve, except for each other—and that’s why I stopped making friends among my fellow navigators. After I spoke at the fourth funeral in as many turns, I just didn’t have the heart for it anymore.
Like in all station quarters, the san-shower is small and cramped when you wedge two people into it, but we manage. He’s the only person who ever dares tickle me. It’s a little-known secret that I go mad when you go for my ribs. Kai carries me out, clean and squealing, when we’re through.