On one of their earliest Visigoth assignments, Graff and Ell stumble into each other’s secrets (and one significant surprise) while conducting a recovery mission on a mining asteroid scheduled for imminent pulverization. . .
Ell’s been the doctor on the Visigoth for less than a year. We’ve slept together all of three times. He doesn’t know my secret—that won’t happen for another year or so. Right now, no one knows that I’m not totally human, that I have a processor, wiring, self-healing—and that I remember everything. I record my whole life. Everyone just thinks I’m a big lunk of a field operative with a really good memory.
This is our first mission together. I’m looking forward to it. He’s gone weird.
The two of us are on a run-down corporate shuttle ferrying passengers back and forth from a big commercial transport ship to the surface of Pan-Mineral 67B, an asteroid that’s big enough to pretend to be a planetoid but small enough to pulverize to dust when it’s mined out, to get to the last little bit of metals, which is what’s going to happen tomorrow. The transport is third-party commercial and is fine, it’s waiting to carry out the last of the personnel. The shuttle is Pan-Mineral and looks like it’s a few cycles past regular maintenance. This whole operation is shoestring, because that’s what happens when a company knows it’s going to write the whole thing off as a loss at the end of its productive life span.
Most everyone else is going in the other direction—up and out. Officially, Pan-Mineral has an obligation to make reasonable efforts to ensure that everyone’s gone before it sends in the explosives and pulverizers. But once it’s gone through its reasonable-effort checklist, it’s off the hook, and anyone who thinks it might be fun to try to dodge the last search is on their own. We’re right on the edge of Trade Guild space, which means regulatory agencies may or may not be checking up on them. Which is why we got tagged for this job.
We need Ell’s medical expertise for this, but he doesn’t like being in the field. He’s scowling, with his shoulders bunched up like he thinks he’s going to have to charge through a door. At first I think it’s a control thing—hard to control anything in a situation like this. He knows all the variables on the Visigoth, can plan for them and even change them to his liking. But this isn’t his territory and he’s stuck reacting.
Me, I love the unexpected. I love when the crazy starts happening. Predictable is boring. Ell likes predictable, and I’m thinking, how will the two of us ever get along? We’re nothing alike. Good in bed only goes so far. I think that I’d like for us to be good out of bed, too. It means I’m fussing a bit, like a kid with a crush. I should be past that.
“What?” He narrows his gaze at me.
I realize I’ve got a goofy, lopsided grin on, looking at him. “Maybe try to relax? Everything’s fine.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll just shut the nerves right off, thanks for reminding me.”
Then I see it, the way he keeps looking over his shoulder, how he flinches when anyone gets too close.
“Hey,” I say, trying to be gentle. “I’ve got you.”
“Your back. I’m watching it so you don’t have to. That’s my job.”
He stares blankly, like I’m speaking another language, like he wants to argue. Like he doesn’t believe me, and I try not to take it personally. Finally, he sighs. “Okay.”
The shuttle runs a safety video with a litany of terrifying warnings on constant repeat. Where the survival suits are, what happens if everything catches on fire, zero hour for when the asteroid goes into the masher, and, more important, for when the last shuttle is scheduled to leave. Anxiety-inducing, for sure.
The full-disclosure section is especially eye-opening: The installation has a sealed landing bay and most of the living areas have atmosphere, but Pan-Mineral doesn’t vouch for the quality and integrity of said atmosphere so supplemental breathing apparatus is encouraged though not required.
Well, okay then.
The rest of the passengers are cleanup and lockdown personnel from Pan-Mineral. Ell and I have respirators and air canisters from the Visigoth, much better quality than those around us. Nobody’s looked us in the face to notice the difference, or to see if they recognize us. Why would anyone come here who didn’t belong?
Buddy check: I look over Ell’s mask and respirator—seals good, straps fitted, he’s breathing steadily and not turning blue. He does the same for me. We put up the hoods on our coats, adjust our gloves. Everyone else does the same, and suddenly we all look like alien troglodytes.
After landing, the shuttle opens the vents to equalize the pressure and pops the main door to spill everyone out at once. They don’t bother with airlocks because airlocks are expensive. Ell gets even more tense. Honestly, even I’m starting to twitch at the lack of consideration.
“It’s okay. We won’t be here long,” I say to him, muffled through the mask.
“Graff, you’re being patronizing.”
If I try to give him a reassuring touch, just a pat on his shoulder, I’m sure he’ll jump or scream.
We file down the ramp and into the scrum of the landing bay, a partially pressurized steel box full of floodlights and noise, crates and the machines moving them back and forth, air leaking out everywhere and no one bothering to fix the seals because it’s all going to be gone in a day anyway. All the infrastructure will get recycled when they chop up the asteroid. It’s an efficient system.
“Reminds me of home,” Ell mutters.
He isn’t joking, I realize. I don’t know anything about where Ell comes from. It’s not in his dossier. I should know more about someone I’ve slept with more than once.
“Not a good thing, I take it,” I say.
“It’s . . . too many people I can’t help. I don’t think I like planets.”
“This isn’t really a planet—“
“You know what I mean.”
It’s not a closed system that he can control, like a ship or a lab.
With false cheer in his voice as he distracts himself he says, “So where are you from? A planet? A station? Place like this or someplace with actual sky?”
“Planet.” That’s not giving away any secrets. I won’t have to dodge until he asks for a specific name. I deflect before he can. “A pretty nice planet, actually. Clear sky, breathable atmosphere. Mountains.”
“Maybe I can visit you there sometime.”
Ah, no. No one from outside ever goes there. No one who isn’t from there knows about it. Not answering him, keeping quiet, isn’t lying. Not really.
“So why’d you leave?” he asks.
“See the galaxy, they said.” I make it sound like a joke. “Make a difference, they said.”
He actually laughs a little.
It’s an image: two men hunched against the hostility around them, trudging like everyone else.
The mission is more vague than I’d like: retrieve off-network data and tissue samples from a lab in 67B’s office section. Companies sometimes set up research labs in places like this because they want easy access to open space or cosmic radiation, their experiments rely on uneven gravity or other geological quirks of free-floating asteroids, and the rent is usually very cheap. This team was caught flat-footed. They were off-surface when Pan-Mineral issued the destruct order for 67B. The research team’s parent company barred them from returning, because of the liability if they got stuck.
The team panicked—they had irreplaceable items still in their lab. So they hired an extraction specialist: us.
We’re usually hunting down pirates and smugglers, retrieving hostages and cargo. Data and tissue samples is a new one, but it shouldn’t be too hard. They’ve given us codes for the doors and terminals. Ell’s got a portable cold-storage unit tucked under his coat. Identifying the tissue samples is his job. We’ve been assured that no one will be shooting at us, but we need to avoid Pan-Mineral’s security so that we don’t have to answer questions and they don’t try to throw us out. Makes me wonder what this lab’s actually been doing.
I want us to be in and out in an hour. Nothing motivates like a countdown.
The trick to infiltrating a place like this is to keep your head down and act like you hate life just as much as everyone around you so clearly does. You know a place is really shitty when human lives are cheaper than automation. Automation requires maintenance. People, you just replace. Also, there’s something off about a place when there are no families around. This isn’t anyone’s home. Nobody’s ever been born here.
On the Visigoth, we’re supposed to be making life better for people, but no matter how hard we work, we keep ending up at places like this. We hunt pirates, smugglers, thieves, traffickers. The kinds of people who generally avoid the nice and pretty places that have parks and mowed lawns, sculpture gardens, and ubiquitous and well-maintained security cameras. Different kinds of crime happen there, but that’s someone else’s job.
Maybe someday we’ll get a job on a resort planet with gorgeous beaches, or some glittering centers of art and culture. Fine dining and a night at the theater. I miss live music. Good live music, I mean, which isn’t to say I haven’t heard some very good music in the seedy underbelly of everything, buskers making do on scavenged instruments, blowing the doors off a place through sheer force of will and emotional engagement. Even at a campfire in the middle of nowhere under the worst circumstances, there’s a good chance someone will start singing. But it’s not the same as getting to relax while I listen. Best concert I ever saw: I can’t actually pick, there are three that rise through my memories when I ask myself the question. And I can listen to them again whenever I want.
How do you keep track of it all, Ell will ask me a year or so in the future. I don’t have to, I might answer. Everything’s connected.
“Hey.” Ell taps my shoulder. “You’re not distracted, are you?”
I wonder what he sees that makes him ask. “What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? What kind of music do you like to listen to?”
“I’ve never been to a concert. Shouldn’t you be paying attention to this?” He gestures to the chaotic ambience.
So. I now know that Ell comes from a shitty planet, maybe a lot like this asteroid, and has never been to a concert.
“I am paying attention. You okay?”
“You don’t have to keep asking me that. I’ll tell you if I’m not okay.”
He doesn’t answer. I think: He doesn’t trust me to take care of him. Then I think: He doesn’t trust anyone to take care of him. Third, I desperately want to ask him: What hurt you so badly?
“You want to tell me about where you came from?”
“Can you promise you won’t feel sorry for me if I do?”
I’m not sure I can promise that. We’ve gone to bed together three times, which is starting to seem like a lot. I like Ell. We live on the same ship, I work with him, and sleep with him. And I want to keep doing it, which is an opportunity to progress in a relationship I haven’t had since the academy. I’m a little put out that he doesn’t want to tell me about his home planet.
But I can’t push him to tell me because of everything I’m not telling him. And I can’t tell him my secrets because they aren’t entirely mine. I don’t ask again.
The conversation dies.
The nice thing about the low-grade panic suffusing the place is that no one is paying much attention to us. I’ve got the layout in my memory. Ell is glancing nervously down passages, curving hallways opening into caverns, none of which is straight or makes sense because they follow the progress of the mining operation, tunnels dug into seams of metals and mineral deposits. I know exactly where we’re going and don’t hesitate.
A couple hundred meters in we reach an airlock sealing off the residential section and corporate offices, because people working here have to sleep sometimes, and sleeping in reliable atmosphere is generally considered the bare minimum for survival. I hate Pan-Mineral a little less, just for a moment.
Before we can cycle through, we hit an actual living security guard, a guy in an environmental suit that looks worn, the helmet scuffed, with visible patches on the sleeves and legs, like he’s been working here awhile. Nameplate on his chest reads Weeds.
He stops us. “This section’s already cleared, no one is allowed in.”
We knew access was restricted to this section. It’s why we were hired to get in. The airlock cycles and spills out a trio who hurry away to the landing bay. Everyone’s leaving, we’re swimming against the flow.
I go a bit manic and chipper. “Hey there, Mr. Weeds. Special authorization issued for asset retrieval.” I show him a handheld with official seals, several corporate logos, and lots of fine print. I forged the whole thing. “You’ll see on that line there that Pan-Mineral will be liable for any losses if the retrieval fails. It’ll only take twenty minutes, I promise. Plenty of time.” He can’t see my smile behind the breather, but he should be able to hear it.
The guard turns to Ell. “What about you? Is it a two-person job?”
“Technical crew,” I say and point to the handheld. “It’s all right there.”
He should have let us in by now, but he’s glaring. “You know, I’m personally liable if anyone is still in there when the bombs go off.”
“First off, I promise you we won’t be. Second, Trade Guild regulations state that good-faith efforts to clear the area fulfill the liability clause. I think this counts as a good-faith effort. You got a waiver or something I can sign, to let you off the hook?”
He doesn’t, because it’s easy enough to check that every person who’s entered this airlock has come back out. This guy’s being paranoid and twitchy, and I’m trying to be patient because his paranoia is understandable.
I press. “Please. We’ll be in and out in twenty minutes, tops. You know how management gets on your case if you don’t do the thing? I don’t have time to go higher up to get my bosses to convince your bosses.” I make my eyes look as sad and desperate as possible.
The guard steps aside and punches the control panel to start the airlock cycle. “Zero hour’s been on the books for a week, you should have been in here way sooner.”
“Yeah, tell that to my manager,” I shoot back as I herd Ell into the lock. “Thanks, you’re the best.”
The door slides shut. Vents open and hiss air, equalizing the two sections.
Ell’s eyes under his mask crinkle. An actual smile.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m enjoying watching you work.”
He’s never seen my field-ops work before this. I preen a little.
The light goes green, the inside door opens, and I pull down my breath mask and fill my lungs. The air has this metallic, tangy scent to it, and dust scratches my throat. Breathable but they aren’t bothering to filter it anymore. I can handle it for twenty minutes.
Ell is more reluctant, but as we walk down the hallway, he pulls his mask down around his neck. Winces when he gets a smell. “I’m tempted to run an analysis on what we’re taking into our lungs here.”
“It’s only twenty minutes,” I say, and he glares.
This area is better laid out, a grid of levels and structures, neatly labeled. Almost like a ship interior, which I hope will calm Ell down. I find our destination, a nondescript metal door with a keypad, no other markings beside the address. It’s locked, but I punch in the code the lab crew gave us.
And the light pops red. The door remains closed.
“Well, now what?” Ell says tightly.
I’m guessing Pan-Mineral locked everything down to keep people out. I’m also wondering if what’s in here is really important enough to deal with all this nonsense. Either way, this is a small obstacle. This is why I’m the one who does these missions.
With my internal processor, I’ve already got remote access to the asteroid’s entire network, keeping track of the countdown and all the other chaos. It takes about three seconds to drill through the security system and override the lock. I punch a couple of keys to make it look good, the light goes green, and the door opens.
“There, that’s what,” I say, beaming.
“How do you do that?” Ell says admiringly.
“Practice, I guess.” Not totally lying, just not being totally accurate.
The first room is a small office-looking area with a couple of desks, a sofa, and a kitchenette. Packets of tea and instant soup are still lined up on the counter. The desks are neat, organized. The lab staff left everything in order, expecting to come back. That’s how fast 67B got put on the chopping block.
A door separates the office from the next room. It isn’t locked and we go straight in.
This is the lab. A couple of safety lights are on, providing a soft amber glow. I turn on the main lights, illuminating all. It’s just as neat and organized as the office, which is a relief. We won’t have to go sorting through junk. Bottles and boxes sit labeled on shelves; a refrigeration unit hums against the far wall. An air filter must be running, because the room is missing the industrial tang of the exterior. It doesn’t even smell much like a lab—no strong odor of solvents and antiseptics. There is something odd, though—earthy, organic. Fertilizer? Some experiment growing and rotting unsupervised, maybe.
I turn to Ell. “I’m suddenly more worried about breathing in a weird fungus than I am industrial fumes.”
“You’ve got a point. I think I’d rather deal with carcinogens than necrotizing fasciitis.”
“Well, that’s a terrible thought. They’d have warned us, right? If they had something really awful floating around in here.”
He laughs curtly. “You want to bet?”
With the generalized lack of intel on this job? No, no I do not.
I head for the terminal to download everything onto a memory stick while Ell scans the shelves, reading labels. Next, he opens the refrigeration unit.
“There’s no tissue in here,” he says. “Not so much as a microscope slide.” He digs deeper, moving aside containers. “It’s all reagents and solutions. I was expecting petri dishes, at least. Have you got an inventory file?”
I scroll and search, find the inventory. “Yeah, here.”
He comes to read over my shoulder, his eyes darting, scanning lists of polysyllabic words that don’t mean much to me. “These are all inorganic compounds. They were developing synthetic lubricants—they wouldn’t have tissue samples here unless they were safety testing but I don’t see any sign of that. So why did they send us for tissue samples?”
And why does it smell vaguely like ammonia in here? I give the room another look, and that’s when I see the box of sand in the far corner, under a table. Missed it on the first search, because why would what we were looking for be in a box of sand under the table? On the far counter is a hopper full of some kind of kibble and feeding bottle hooked up to a faucet. Food and water. Litter box.
If I focus, I can hear heartbeats. I can sense heat sources, especially if the room is chilled, but this one isn’t. The heat was left on, so I didn’t catch it right away, but I spot it now: on a high shelf, curled into a tight ball, tail wrapped around its body, green eyes glittering back at me.
Cat. It’s a cat.
It’s soft gray all over, fluffy, the size of a loaf of bread. It’s been studying us the whole time with a vaguely managerial air.
“Welp,” I say.
Ell puts a hand on his hip and sighs with consternation. “They could have just told us the tissue sample was still alive.”
“I bet they thought we wouldn’t go through the trouble for a cat.”
“But we would for a stack of petri dishes or a set of test tubes? How does that make sense?”
I’m thinking of how this sort of thing looks on corporate memos, and yeah, the lab team probably assumed we wouldn’t go through the trouble for a cat.This job has now officially gone sideways. Not completely sideways, not like ninety degrees sideways. Maybe only twenty degrees sideways. I’ll just have to think of this as a hostage rescue now.
Ell’s studying me. “You’re not thinking of—”
“Well. ‘Tissue sample’ as a phrase doesn’t specify ‘alive,’ and you’ve got this look on your face—”
“Oh thank goodness.” He slumps, relieved.
“Did you really think I would—”
“No, no, of course not.” He touches my shoulder. Reflexively, I pat his gloved hand. We’re both a little tense, it turns out. “So now what?”
We collect it, of course. Get it out of here, somehow. Do the job.
“Just give me a sec.”
I take a couple of deep breaths to psych myself up and try to make my demeanor calm and reassuring. Take off my gloves, so the cat will smell person and not industrial grit. Cautiously, I approach the shelving in the corner, climbing up on the counter.
“Hey there,” I murmur soothingly. “It’s okay, everything’s going to be fine.”
I think I’m fast enough to just grab it and tuck it under my arm before it can murder me. I am not.
First, the critter arches its back and hisses, pressing itself even farther to the back of the cabinet. Of course it’s scared, but that’s not all of it. No, the problem is it knows what I am. It can sense the artificial current running through me, all the hidden bits of me that don’t smell right. We have pets at home, cats and dogs and chickens and the rest, but they’ve grown up with us for generations, they’re used to us. This cat has never met anyone like me and it’s not taking any chances.
The cat swipes a paw and just about flies off the shelf, to the next set of shelves, to a table, then the floor, and under the desk on the opposite side of the room, all in a second. It’s just a streak of fur.
I let out a curse—that swipe got me, and a gash on my hand is welling blood. I stare at it a moment, resigned. I knew it was going to do that, and I let it anyway. So that’s plan A trashed.
Ell snorts a suppressed laugh. “What, were you mean to cats in a past life?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Is it bleeding? Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” I pull my gloves back on to hide the wound. My self-repair system is already handling it. It’ll be healed within the hour.
The cat is in hiding, and we have five minutes left of the twenty I told the security guard. A few hours before we need to be off this rock, and that might not be enough time. It’s not just about getting hold of the cat. We now have to rig up a climate-controlled carrier for the thing. And I’m going to have to forge live-cargo transport passes on the fly.
“I assume that thing’s not carrying any weird bugs that would be a problem,” I say.
“I don’t know, I need to check her over. I don’t think so, though.” He settles on the floor, edging carefully toward the cubbyhole where the cat has retreated. A bit wryly he asks, “What’s the plan, Commander?” We hardly ever use ranks with each other. This is a reminder that there’s a mission on.
“I’m going to rig up a carrier. That’ll give us a minute to think. Maybe we can lure it out with food?”
I go over the shelves again and study the boxes, bottles, and storage containers. There’s a box, sealed with clasps, a bit bigger than cat sized. The problem with a makeshift carrier is air, and the fact that I don’t know how long the cat will have to stay in there. Also, hard to get a respirator to stay on a cat’s face. I hunt around some more, both in the lab and the front office, and find the emergency survival gear which includes a portable air bottle. Back in the lab I find an awl, some tape and tubing, and splice a feed into the box.
Next time I look over at Ell, he’s sitting cross-legged on the floor and the cat is on his lap, bumping its head and rubbing its body against him. He’s gently scritching its shoulder and whispering.
I think it’s that exact moment I fall in love with Ell. Not just that I like him and like sleeping with him and want to do more of that. But an aching, overwhelming, my-heart-will-break-if-anything-happens-to-him feeling, because in the middle of a mission that has him low-grade freaked out, he’s sitting on the floor making friends with a cat and it’s perfect.
Gently, slowly, Ell takes hold of the cat, cradling it against his shoulder so it can’t decide to flee again, and the cat nestles up to him, paws on his chest, eyes half closed. That rumble—it’s purring.
I’m a little jealous of it, to be honest. “How is it?”
“Mrew,” the cat says, an almost musical tone.
“Good. Healthy. I hope you don’t need my help because I’m not letting go of her.”
Yeah, we probably won’t get another chance to catch it. Her. “Not a problem, I think I’ve got this done.”
I grab a pouch of kibble and an extra bottle of water to stick in my pocket. Find a bag to stick the box in that I can sling over my shoulder.
Murmuring all the while, stroking her to maintain her calm, he carries her to the box, slips her inside, and I get the lid on. Ell makes me move it back an inch so he can look in and make sure she’s okay. He puts in a handful of kibble. Her back arches, and she huddles there, looking small, but she doesn’t complain.
I sigh. We might actually get this done.
“Hey, let me see your hand.” Ell pats my arm.
I take off the glove and show him. There’s no blood, no scratch. Self-repair already finished.
“Huh. I could have sworn she scratched you.”
“Naw, she just missed. Maybe she didn’t have her claws out.” And that is a straight-up lie, and I power through it. I’m used to lying, I don’t know why it bothers me so much, lying to him. Just that . . . I wish I didn’t have to.
We give the place one more look-over and don’t find anything else that could be classified as tissue samples. We get the hell out.
When we reach the airlock, we’re past the twenty-minute deadline I’d told the security guard. The problem with a choke point like an air lock is if the guard decides to press the issue, he can just keep us here without cycling the lock through. I can override the system through the network if I need to, but stuff like that attracts attention.
I take the bag off my shoulder and hand it to Ell. He gives me a questioning look.
“In case I need my hands free.” I’m not expecting a fight. But, well . . .
He slips on the strap and hugs the carrier to him.
We put on our respirators, buddy check each other for straps and seals. Then we wait, in a closed little closet. I’m lining up contingency plans. Ell’s shoulders are back up by his ears, and his gaze has gone hard.
“Are we in trouble?” He says this so calmly, it’s hard to recognize as panic. He’s usually more expressive, emotive. But his voice has gone flat.
Yeah, Ell really hates being in the field.
“Trouble is a very broad term,” I say, then quickly add. “No, not yet.” Which won’t make him feel better, but I can’t lie about this.
Finally, air hisses and the light goes red, warning us of the hostile environment outside. The door opens and we flee.
“You’re late,” the guard says, stepping up like he’s going to get in front of us. Ell stiffens, his suppressed panic deepening.
“We are?” I say, playing dumb goon, and keep walking. “Well, it’s all taken care of now, nothing to worry about.”
“What were you doing back there?”
Ell hangs back, like he actually thinks we need to talk to the guy. I put my hand on his shoulder and haul him with me. He stumbles, a boot catching on the floor. I’ll pick him up and carry him if I have to, but that would draw an awful lot of attention. I mean, at this point I’ve decided I’ll carry Ell anywhere for any reason. But this will be easier if he stays upright.
He recovers and walks, keeping pace with me. The guard does not come after us, because we’re not his problem anymore. I’m relieved.
We’re on the third to last shuttle that leaves 67B.
When the shuttle takes off, everyone sighs, releasing tension. Even me. The compartment is filled with people carrying crates, bags, boxes, cargo. There’s not enough space and we’re probably violating weight and cargo regulations, but everyone manages to make room, squishing together, holding boxes on laps, tucking them under feet. Ell doesn’t look out of place, desperately hugging the case with the cat in it. I hope the thing is okay. I listen for scratching or meowing, but the rumble from the engines and the ambient noise of breathing and conversation drowns out anything the cat might be doing, which is probably for the best.
The air vents are blowing, and a green light comes on. The crew announces full atmosphere, and everyone pulls down their respirators with groans and sighs and all kinds of organic human noises.
It’s a nice moment. Fraught. I’ll remember.
Ell leans his head back and closes his eyes. Back on a ship, back in space, where he feels safest.
I tilt my head to speak softly, a private conversation. “It’s not a control thing, is it? I thought it was a control thing, that you can’t control all the variables in the field. But that’s not it. You’re afraid of getting stuck. Trapped. You felt trapped down there.”
His lips twist, smile or grimace, I’m not sure. His eyes are shining, tears gathering. He takes off a glove and rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. I don’t have a handkerchief to give him, and I’m covered in grit so it wouldn’t help anyway.
“Yeah, I suppose,” he says. “My home planet—Brazon’s membership in the Trade Guild is probationary because they’ve had a civil war going for . . . I don’t even know how long. Everyone’s conscripted. Mandatory. No one leaves. Governments don’t issue anything like passports. You’re born on Brazon, you fight for Brazon, grow up, have kids because that’s all there is to do really, and repeat. I trained to be a medic because I thought I’d be less likely to have to kill anyone.”
He slumps, miserable. He’s still got a death grip on the crate.
“This one time, Trade Guild sent down a delegation. Observers and mediators to try to sort out the mess. They do that every couple of years and it never works but they keep doing it. There was a bombing, one of them got badly hurt. I was the medic on hand, so I treated her. Saved her life. Stayed with her while we loaded her onto a shuttle to get back to her ship and better medical facilities. And . . . suddenly I was in orbit. Off world, without authorization. I asked for asylum. The delegation gave it to me. I left home with nothing and never looked back. I was nineteen.”
His official dossier starts with him at medical school on Centauri. Doesn’t mention where he was born. This is probably on purpose. It didn’t seem odd when I first read it.
“You’ve never wanted to go back?”
“I’ll be shot for desertion if I do. I’ll never go back. Anyway. It was a year before I could step outside a building without having a panic attack. Five years before I stopped waking up from night terrors.”
“You still do. Or at least you did once.” The third time we slept together he broke out in a cold sweat, shivering, without waking up. I held him, whispering wordlessly, until he stopped.
“You didn’t say anything.”
I shrug. By morning, he’d seemed fine. “Most people feel trapped on ships. Claustrophobic.”
“Ships are safe. It’s hard ground that tries to kill you.”
I put my arm over his shoulders, just providing some comforting weight. Sighing, he leans his head on my shoulder, and I feel like I’ve won a prize. I kiss the top of his head, and finally he relaxes.
He’s told me his secret. I still can’t tell him mine, even though for the first time ever, I want to.
We go home, to our ship.
Immediately, Cat is the most popular living creature on the Visigoth.
We set up a habitat for her in a corner of the briefing room. Ell takes charge of her, which makes sense since he’s our life sciences guy, but there’s more to it. He’s gone downright paternal. There’s a box, a bed, a litter box, food and water, and pompoms on string that she bats around in an adorably theatrical manner. The whole crew comes to watch and coo over her, even crew that’s supposed to be on duty, which requires a stern speech from Captain Ransom. But he’s in there watching just as much as everyone else. What a novelty.
She is aloof enough that when she sidles up to a new person and makes a tentative rub against their hand, they are ecstatic, like they have been blessed. Like they’ve earned her affection. I’m pretty sure Cat does the aloof thing on purpose, because people are so happy when she deigns to let them touch her, she gets double the attention. If they take her affection for granted, it wouldn’t be special.
I never get past the door because she arches her back and her fur bristles whenever she sees me. “I saved your life, buster,” I mutter under my breath, but it makes no difference. She’ll never let me pet her and I’m trying not to take it personally. There’s a rational reason for it. Too bad people aren’t generally very rational about cats. The rest of the crew picks up on Ell’s joke, that I was mean to cats in a past life, and cats remember.
I can’t tell them the real reason. Let them laugh, they’re enjoying it.
Ransom pulls me aside. “How’d he do?” He knows Ell has trouble in the field.
As much as I’d like to paint a rosy picture—and keep Ell around—I’m honest. I shrug a little. “He’s not a natural, but he powered through. When he has a job to focus on he’s fine.”
“Is the issue aptitude or temperament?”
“Past trauma,” I say. “Manageable.”
“Would you take him in the field again?”
“Yes.” No question. The guy’s a cat whisperer, why wouldn’t I take him everywhere, just in case there’s a cat? “I checked in with him. He knows what his issues are.”
Ransom gets that narrowed, calculating look in his eyes. “You like him.”
I blush in response. “I’m perfectly objective.”
“Oh, I know. Not saying a word.”
He goes to sit on the floor next to Ell, who is playing with Cat.
I march off to ops because somebody still has to run the ship.
A few days later, we dock at Tre Ateyna, a large commercial station where we do a lot of business. Ransom, Ell, and I meet with the laboratory’s team in a suite they’ve rented. It’s a man and woman who I’m pretty sure are a couple. Doctors Whitson and Shula.
They don’t even look at us. Their attention is solely on the soft-sided animal carry case slung over Ell’s shoulder.
“Felicia!” the woman nearly screams, and they both rush forward, arms outstretched.
Ell quickly deposits the case on the table before they can tackle him, and in a moment the lid is peeled open and Cat—Felicia, apparently—is out, and the pair has enclosed her in a group hug. They’re making lots of embarrassing noises of affection.
Cat doesn’t look like a Felicia, but what do I know?
The man, neatly turned out, wearing an unremarkable suit, looks back at us. “Thank you so much. This means so much, thank you, thank you.” The woman sniffs back tears. She’s hugging Cat to her face; the animal looks nonplussed.
“Thank you for responding promptly to the invoice,” Ransom says wryly.
“Why the hell did you even have a cat there in the first place?” I burst. “And what’s with the tissue-sample excuse? Why not just tell us to go get your cat?” On the scale of low-intel jobs, the stakes on this one were pretty low, but I’m still put out.
Whitson says, “If we told you the target was a pet, would you have taken the job?”
Ransom looks like he’s biting his tongue.
“Called it,” I say. I turn to Ransom. “I think we need to add ‘successful hostage rescue’ to the invoice, though.”
“Anything,” Shula says breathlessly. “We’ll give you—”
Whitson puts a hand on her arm, and she falls silent. Yeah, everybody got what they wanted, no need to complicate things, right?
Shula hasn’t turned away from her cat. Sheepishly, she explains, “We weren’t supposed to have a cat there. We were out in the shuttle for a couple of days to collect mineral samples, she would have been fine until we got back, but . . . Nobody expected the evacuation order when it came. Traffic control wouldn’t let us land, we couldn’t get authorization—”
“There should have been more lead time. There’s a collective lawsuit brewing against Pan-Mineral about that.”
Pan-Mineral isn’t going to care. Waiting would have cost them more money than a lawsuit will.
Ell says, “We would have, you know. Taken the job even if we knew the target was a pet.”
They might not have believed it if Ransom or I—the guys who look like soldiers, who look merciless—had said it. But Ell looks like a doctor. He looks safe. Even though he’s probably seen more blood and violence than either of us put together. Not to mention, Cat adores him.
They let Ell say goodbye to Felicia properly, one last scritch and cuddle, and we part ways.
Tre Ateyna is a good station for shore leave. Lots of fresh food, supplies, hostels with showers with real water and everything. I could use some shore leave.
“How much time are we spending here, anyway?” I ask Ransom.
“Let’s say six hours. You think that’s long enough to wait for any messages to catch up to us?” He sizes us up. Lifts a brow.
Long enough for messages to catch up to us. Yeah. Sure. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Right. You kids go crazy.” He makes a half-assed salute and stalks off toward the docking bays, leaving us to our own devices.
I glance at Ell. “Do you want to get a room? I mean, if you can still stand me after all this.” Not the most romantic thing I’ve ever said. Not the least, either.
“Yes, yes I do,” he says and hooks his arm around mine.
A year or so later, we’ve slept together a lot more than three times. I remember every single time, but Ell has lost track. And he’s learned my secret. I didn’t tell—an accident sliced me open and spilled out my partly synthetic guts. He had to put me back together.
He and Ransom would have been well within their rights to throw me out an airlock or ship me off to some secret R&D lab. But they didn’t. Still, it’s taken a while for us to get comfortable again. A lot of surreal conversations. Surreal for me, because I’m suddenly talking about stuff I’ve never had to explain, that I’m not supposed to talk about.
Honestly, it’s kind of a relief.
Right now, Ell and I are in his office in medical, eating noodle bowls on a lunch break. He hasn’t brushed his pale hair today, and he’s holding the bowl right up to his face so anything he drops goes back in. Very efficient. He’s pausing between bites, looking at me over his chopsticks. I keep shoveling in noodles, letting him look. He’s got a question brewing, in the furrow in his brow. Like he’s got a dodgy blood sample in front of him.
“Ask,” I say, between bites.
“How do you keep it all straight? If you remember everything, how do you know what’s important?”
The flip answer is that it’s all important. But I shrug. “The thing is you don’t always know what memory is going to be important while you’re living it. Something happens years later that reminds you of that one little thing. Unmodified memory works like that too. You know how you smell something and it turns out it’s the same floor cleaner that got used at the school where you went when you were five? You might not have thought you remember, but you do. It all gets cross-referenced. It’s the same for me. Kind of.” I wince because I’m not sure I’m explaining it very well.
“Huh.” Which could mean, “oh yeah,” or could mean, “I have no idea.” He seems thoughtful, his gaze downcast. “Like that stupid asteroid we were on that one time. The one that gave me the stupid flashbacks about home.”
The stupid asteroid job is one of my favorite stories.
I grin. “I was just thinking about that.”
His brow scrunches up even more. “Why?”
Remembering is one thing. Explaining is another. “You. You’re cute when you’re rescuing cats. You’re cute when you’re eating noodles. You’re just cute. It’s all connected.”
He gives me a familiar, fondly frustrated glare. “That’s almost romantic.”
“The cat really did scratch me, by the way. It just healed up before you saw it.”
“Hm. I’d forgotten about that.”
Things have changed. Things are tough. And good. “That mission was when I realized I love you.”
That gets a smile out of him. He gives his remaining noodles a stir. “Now that is definitely romantic. The sentiment, not the mission, mind you.”
“No, that was a shitty mission. It’s still one of my favorites.”
“Yeah. Mine, too.”
“Not the Most Romantic Thing” copyright © 2023 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2023 by Eli Minaya