“Feeling better?” he asks, brushing his lips across my temple.
“Much. What do you want to do today?”
If he’s correct—and he generally is—this is our last rec day before we go back on rotation. We should make the most of it.
He pretends to consider. “We could spend the day naked.”
I raise a brow. “Aren’t you tired of me yet?”
“Never. We still haven’t done it upside down or sideways. I could requisition a pair of antigrav boots.”
Kai is the only one who ever makes me giggle. “I’m not sure this room is big enough to accommodate such ideas.”
“Damn. And imagine the looks we’d get if we tried to use the sports deck.”
“Well, there is a certain athletic quality to what you’ve proposed.”
He shakes his head with mock-sadness. “But I’m afraid I never thought of sex as a spectator sport.”
“So no antigrav boots on the sports deck. Where does that leave us?”
“Together,” he murmurs.
I love the way he wraps me close, chin to shins, and tucks his face into the curve of my throat. He breathes me in as if I’m as essential to his well-being as oxygen. The day passes in a sweet blur of lovemaking and playful teasing.
Later, we take a walk on station, hand in hand, and I don’t even care that people mutter jokes as we walk by. Yes, we’re a big cliché—pilot and navigator, madly in love. We’re another statistic, another couple who couldn’t resist the enforced intimacy of jacking in together.
I like to think it might have happened anyway, even if we weren’t a pilot-jumper pair, but at base, I don’t really care how it happened. I’m just glad it did. He makes me happy, happier than I can ever remember being.
With Kai I have a sense of security and equilibrium. His gentle patience keeps me from flying to one extreme or the other. He checks some of my destructive impulses, helps me think before I act; but I never feel like he’s trying to control me. Kai makes a joke, and I laugh, but then I realize he has a point. I stop and think, something I wouldn’t do on my own.
We have dinner at the Starburst, a restaurant on station whose walls are patterned with the constellations outside. The food is good, the company, exquisite. To my mind, this has been a perfect day.
In the morning, we go back to work. We’re supposed to explore a slice of stars in the Outskirts, jump from a little-used beacon, and see if we can find anything new out there. This is my favorite part of the job.
“So who do you want from the pool?” I ask. “We need a medic and a gearhead.”
“Not Watkins. The guy drives me nuts.”
Kai draws me close, and I snuggle up, closing my eyes. The insistent beep of his comm annoys me. A bleak feeling comes over me, and I desperately don’t want him to answer it. I even grab his hand to stop him.
He frees himself with a puzzled look. “I have to take it, Siri. It’s the CO.”
I feel like I’ve been hit in the chest with an iron fist. Oh, no. No.
“Mauro Kai here.” He pauses, listening.
I’d almost forgotten his first name was Mauro. I never call him that, though he prefers calling me by my given name. To me, he’ll always be Kai. I move, restless. Foreboding builds like static in the air before a storm.
“Yes, sir. No, it’s no problem at all. We’d appreciate the extra time off afterward. We’ll be glad to help you out.”
Somehow I know what he’s going to say. We’re not going exploratory tomorrow. Someone has fallen sick, so we’re taking a passenger vessel, the Sargasso, to Matins IV instead. A shudder rocks through me.
“We can’t go.” I push upright and clutch his shoulders, trying to think of a way to warn him, some way he’ll believe me. “I had a terrible nightmare about this. I . . . dreamed you died, Kai. So . . . please, humor me. Let them find somebody else. When the ship lands safely, you can laugh at me if you want.”
In the half-light, his smile is excruciatingly tender and sad. “But I did die, Siri. I can’t stay with you here, much as I want to, because you have work to do out there. It’s time for you to wake up, love.”
I awaken, weeping as if my heart will break.
It’s like losing him all over again. With her hallucinogenic spice, the Grand Administrator has done an unspeakably cruel thing. In a long history of being wounded, I don’t think I’ve ever hurt so badly when the loss wasn’t fresh.
He didn’t just die yesterday. I wasn’t just in bed with him. He didn’t just tickle me in the shower and tell me he can’t possibly live without me. Outside the dream world, his face has started to grow blurry. I can’t remember his features without looking at them. I can only remember the way he suffered before he died.
They built a monument to the Sargasso on New Terra, for Mary’s sake, and it has his name on it. He’s one of the lost now. Tears pour down my cheeks unchecked. Through the blur of new grief, I see Vel and Constance hovering. They don’t know what the hell to do with me, it seems. The room smells vaguely of sickness, and mortification joins the awful broil in my stomach. I hope I didn’t make too much of a mess.
Then Vel proves he’s learning. He hugs me, claws cradling my shoulders. It’s less awkward than the way he embraced me on Lachion. His chitin feels cool and smooth against my overheated skin. Before now, it’s not a brand of comfort I would have acknowledged as effective; but even through his chitin, the contact helps. It’s not an aggressive act. I’m not his hostage; I’m his friend.
Whatever happens, I don’t doubt that Vel cares about me. He must be experiencing scorn and discrimination on levels I can’t even fathom, but he’s here. I don’t know what to do with my arms, whether I should hug him back or sit quiet.
He answers the question by helping me up. “The worst is over. You may experience a little dizziness, but the bulk has burned through your system.”
Calamity averted. Nobody important saw me melt down, so I guess that means it never happened. I smile, but the movement hurts, and it’s a parody of what a smile is supposed to signify. “No, the worst is just beginning. See, I lost him . . . again.”
They both pause. My PA is probably searching her files for references to this mysterious “him.” Then Constance touches my hair tentatively, as if testing the idea of contact as an instrument of reassurance. “I have nothing of value to contribute. My parameters do not expand to encompass loss.”
I’m sure for her, one human is much like another. Mair stopped accessing her files, then I showed up. Out with the old, in with the new. Right now I half wish she could rewrite my brain to make me more like her.
“Forget anything you dreamed while under the influence,” Vel says quietly. “Or it will drive you mad.”
Easy for him to say. I’m utterly humiliated. Did I writhe and moan, dreaming of how we made love on our last day together? My thighs feel sticky, proof of how real the delusion seemed. Did Constance log my dream-orgasm for later deconstruction?
“You have one hour before Councilor Devri’s social event,” the PA adds. “I can ready you for the occasion if you permit it.”
Ah, what the hell does it matter? Despair washes over me. Kai is lost to me, and after last night, I’m starting to think March might be, too. My fingers brush my throat. All I have left is work, so I need to do my duty; but the only way I can manage is to turn everything off. Compartmentalize.
None of this matters. This didn’t happen to me. It was some other Jax they broke.
I stagger toward the san-shower—copied from our design and installed to make us feel more at home—undress, then rinse off the sour stink of fever sweat. Since neither Vel nor Constance cares about nudity, I emerge naked and ready for them to pick out my clothes. He’s supposed to escort me anyway. He may as well take a proprietary interest in garbing me appropriately.
I already wear his pattern on my skin. For all I know, that means I’m now his chattel, and he could sell me to the mines if he wants to. Mary, when will this ache go away? I feel like I did back on Perlas Station, trapped and helpless, with no way to assuage the ache.
Like a passive doll, I stand quiescent while they do the work. If I hadn’t promised to attend, I would send excuses—but Devri and Sharis might take offense—and I cannot afford to alienate my few allies. In the glass, I see a remote stranger, pale but well-groomed. The gold robe strikes the only familiar note, but I’m indifferent.
I feel hollow.
“You are now suitable for a diplomatic function,” Constance pronounces.
“Good. Would you show Vel the readings you took at the first summit? The ones of Councilor Devri.”
Maybe this numbness is a good thing. Otherwise, I would have felt embarrassed about grilling Vel over sexual matters. Now I just wait for him to view the footage Constance feeds into the terminal.
Devri comes up via thermal imaging, and I can see the hot spots right away. Vel studies them for a moment, then turns to me. “He was stimulated by your display of confidence and expertise during the session,” he confirms. “If you were . . . interested, he would present for you.”
“Really? Why?” I don’t even ask what that entails. “I thought your people found humans disgusting.”
“In most cases,” he agrees. “But a powerful, dominant female lays the most eggs, thus providing the most offspring—and the best chance of dynastic immortality. Thus, we are conditioned to be attracted to such displays. In your case, the attraction is more psychological than biological, and for Devri, it is apparently strong enough to override your lack of physical beauty.”
“Good to know. I might be able to use that. Turn off the feed, Constance.”
The PA complies. “It is good to have my suppositions confirmed.”
I should feel something, knowing one of the Bugs wouldn’t mind doing things with me that I can’t even imagine. Shock, revulsion, naughty interest? But there’s nothing. Maybe if I close my eyes, if I go back to sleep, I’ll find Kai again. It felt so real. I couldn’t remember anything of my life as it is now. I went back to before any of this happened. Before I lost him. Maybe I can get back there. Mary knows I want to.
But not right now.
“Is it time to go?” I ask.
“Yes. Are you ready, Sirantha?” Vel gazes at me as if in assessment.
Maybe he wonders if I’ll hold together long enough to show off my wa for Sharis and Devri. Well, I’ll do my best. I want to succeed here. I want to leave something behind that matters when I join Kai, so in a hundred turns, people will look at the solid friendship between humanity and the Ithtorians and say: Ambassador Jax did that.
Seems like a worthy legacy.
“Let’s do this.”
My balance feels a trifle unsteady as we walk but nothing disastrous. The jungle wonders of the government complex leave me unmoved for the first time. It seems like a lifetime since we came from the Grand Administrator’s apartment.
We pass through a tunnel that leads to the councilors’ annex. I have the sense of being entombed, but not even my latent claustrophobia can penetrate this thick, lovely veil of numbness. Nothing can reach me in here. Nothing can hurt me.