Falsgate summoned me to command midway through my abandoned work cycle.
Accompanied by a pair of regulators, I left Amaya at my quarters and rode a silent tram to the aft of this ship. I found Falsgate standing inside the sphere, hands brushing the surface of the smooth interior. NA’s Magpie and Salazar sat at substations, monitoring the stitches holding the Chimera in place. They looked up as I approached. Magpie’s eyes sharpened for a brief moment before returning to her work.
Falsgate turned to face me but didn’t exit the sphere.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“She’s cold and silent, isn’t she?”
“You won’t find her in there if that’s what you’re trying to do.”
“You’re wrong about that. I can feel her. She’s a prisoner.”
Falsgate stepped out of the sphere. Her hair fell behind the left shoulder of her black uniform. “And once we reach Elypso, she’ll be shut away inside Salix, waiting for the day we might have need of her again. A day that might never come.”
“It will come when all our debts are settled. Someday our great grandchildren will found their own, free colony.”
“I didn’t know you were religious,” Falsgate said.
“You must be. To believe something so far-fetched. That or you’re in denial.”
She wanted to trap me. To draw me into saying something she could use against me later. “I believe in honoring agreements,” I said. “Once we have paid back what is owed, our ancestors will form a new life for themselves, either at Elypso or elsewhere.”
“You might have made a career in politics if not for your ability to hold The Everything.”
“Far more politicians than potential navigators,” I said.
Falsgate smiled in tacit agreement. “I suppose I should congratulate you.”
“I hear you’ll soon be a father.”
I forced myself not to react, relying on my years of training in high stress scenarios to keep my face expressionless. How had she found out? She couldn’t have overheard my private conversation with Amaya inside the sound envelope. That left the ride in the tram line. She’d ported into one of our CATOs, or monitored a hidden mic aboard the tram itself.
“They say children are a blessing,” Falsgate said.
“Who’re ‘they’? And why are you listening in on my private conversations?”
“You abandoned your work. Turned off your CATO. Disappeared into the core access. All after I gave you specific instructions to keep your CATO on at all times. You’ve given me plenty of reasons not to trust you, Samuelson.”
“You don’t have to trust me. What’s more, I don’t care if you do or don’t. But you need me to find a new navigator, and unless you can convince the Chimera otherwise, that job is mine and mine alone. So go fuck yourself.”
Magpie and Salazar’s heads shot up from their terminals, shocked expressions illuminated by glowing screens. Falsgate didn’t seem phased. “I’m a regulator, remember? You think I’ve never heard nasty words before? And you’d do well to remember that we both want the same thing here.”
“Sure we do, free daughter.”
Falsgate pursed her lips. “I’m not your enemy. The opposite in fact. Chief Regulator Nivven wasn’t pleased by your abandonment of secondary. He tapped your CATO, not me. I merely consulted with him on how to deal with the situation. He was going to have Amaya taken into custody and questioned. I convinced him not to. I also convinced him not to take disciplinary action against you or her, so long as you return to testing next duty cycle and we avoid any more irregularities.”
Amaya taken into custody. I swallowed, then nodded. “Thank you for that.”
“Don’t thank me, just do your job. I won’t be able to stop Nivven the next time. Do you understand?”
Her humorless pupils locked with mine. “Good.” The word carried a depth of implication. You have more to lose than ever before. I have leverage over you, and I will use it if I need to.
Over the last eighteen cycles of testing, I’d managed to improve throughput by nearly two-hundred percent. I offered no second chances, and had adopted an impersonal, almost unpleasant demeanor. I’d also learned to use my regulator escorts as part-time receptionists, part-time bouncers. They ushered new testees into secondary and escorted time-wasting dawdlers back out again with nothing more than a nod from me. I could now process seventy or more candidates a day. The efficiency pleased me, but also caused me to question my increasing detachment from my fellow colonists.
As an NA, I never sought attention, never basked in the limelight of being a ship’s officer. I preferred anonymity and quiet down cycles with Amaya. I considered myself an important part of a thriving ecology, but no more or less important than anyone else. Now, in charge of testing potentially every colonist on the ship, I’d been made more important than I cared to be. The very nature of my work forced me to see other colonists as interchangeable units that I needed to process as fast as possible. My interactions were mechanical and impersonal because they had to be, but that didn’t free me from the sense that I’d irreversibly compromised on some value I hadn’t known I held dear until it had been stripped from me by hundreds of hours of dull, repetitive work.
I’d finished with Nivven’s list and found no one with even a hint of aptitude for neural sync. Moving on to my prioritized list hadn’t produced a better result thus far. Not that I expected it to—the odds of finding a suitable person in the first thousand testees was four-tenths of a percent.
I met Amaya at her quarters after another frustrating day, anxious to touch her, to smell her. To wrap my arms around her. Around my child growing inside her womb. She’d gotten her hands on a multi-imager from the medical deck had started sending me full-color videos of the tiny, alien fetus. His heart thumping away inside his translucent chest, arms cradled against his torso. Closed eyes. Nominal vitals. A face developed enough to reveal a sloped nose like Amaya’s, a forehead shaped like mine. My boy. My son.
“How’d it go?” Amaya asked, arms draped on my shoulders, fingers of one hand stroking the back of my neck.
“The same,” I said.
“I can feel the stress in your muscles,” she said, strong hands working down the backsides of my neck.
“It’s going to take time.”
Amaya took my hand and led me to the sofa. “Sit. I’ll get you some tea.”
“You worked a cycle just like I did. I can make the tea.”
Amaya smiled. “No offense, but your tea is rubbish.”
She left for the kitchen alcove while I waited on the sofa, wondering if Nikko would be home soon. I wanted more than tea. Since the Chimera had chosen me to find her new navigator, lovemaking with Amaya had been forced into the small pockets of time when our down cycles overlapped and we both had the energy for it.
Amaya returned with two steaming drinking bulbs of tea. The warm globe felt good in my hand, and the pungent aroma of tea filled my nostrils. It reminded me of so many down cycles in the past: Amaya and I alone, unencumbered by fears for the future.
“It’s good,” I said after taking a sip.
“Of course it is. I made it,” she said in a teasing tone. Playful. Interested.
I took in the shape of her, the way her pants hugged her hips and thighs, the slight curve of her neck. Dark hair accenting her lovely brown skin, the shape of her hands, the dip of her cute, unpierced earlobes. She sat beside me and I slid my arm around her waist. Let my fingers play with the soft fabric of her off-duty cotton top. I leaned in and kissed her above her bindi—a sparkling pink-pearl today.
“When do you expect Nikko back?” I asked.
“I don’t,” Amaya said. “He’s holding down station duty next cycle.”
“Really?” I asked, lifting the hem of her shirt, running my hands up her warm midsection and cupping her breast.
“Really,” Amaya said.
“We might get up to all sorts of things in his absence.”
“Yes. We might,” she said. “It’s been a while since we did things properly, isn’t it?”
She set her drinking bulb down on a nearby table and pushed me backward. Straddling me, she slipped her shirt over her head and undid her bra. I fumbled with my shirt, trying to free myself, to get as much of my skin in contact with hers as possible. Amaya laughed and came to my assistance, working the shirt up my torso and over my head. She kissed me again, longer this time. Her lips worked down to my neck, to my chest.
I sighed, hands pushing back her hair, stroking the nape of her neck. Body electric, my pulse rushed as the warmth of her enveloped me, the tingles traveling down my legs and into my toes.
Falsgate in a kimono. Falsgate’s not-quite smile. Falsgate’s hand brushing against mine.
I lurched, trying to sit up, but could not, my lower body pinned beneath Amaya.
“Are you okay?” Amaya asked, looking up at me with worried eyes. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“I’m sure. Don’t stop—I liked where things were headed.”
She didn’t stop, but the energy had gone and it wouldn’t come back. Why had I thought of Falsgate? Why would I do such a thing? I loved Amaya. My lover. The future mother of my child. Falsgate was nothing to me.
Amaya rose and rested her head on my chest. “You’re not fine.”
“I am,” I insisted.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No, I don’t.” I kissed her, too hard, forcing things. I felt sweaty, sticky. The farthest thing from aroused. I sat up and reached for my shirt.
“What did I do?” Amaya asked. “Just tell me.”
“Nothing. It’s okay. I’m stressed out, that’s all. I’m sorry. Don’t take it on, it’s not your fault.”
“Is it because I’m pregnant? I read that some men don’t like the idea of … you know … being so near the baby.”
I laughed. “What? No way. That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“Is it because I’m getting fat?”
“You’re not getting fat! Christ. It isn’t about you. I told you the truth the first time. I’m stressed. That’s all.”
Amaya folded her arms across her breasts. “You just … disappeared,” she said. “One minute you’re with me, the next you’ve drifted away. It’s like when I first met you. Eyes going vacant mid-conversation. Are you having the dreams again?”
“I’m too tired to dream.”
“You are, aren’t you? The fields of grass. Getting sucked underground, suffocated. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
“Amaya, look at me,” I said. “Look me in the eyes.” I waited for her impossibly beautiful eyes to meet mine. “I’m not having any dreams. That’s over. It is. This was something else. I don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you, and you don’t need to worry about it.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“You keep saying that. Like I’m just going to disappear or something. It isn’t going to happen, and I don’t want to hear about it again.” I realized I’d raised my voice.
Amaya put on her bra and pulled her shirt back over her head. “I’m not worried about you choosing to leave. But what if whatever killed Navigator Black has affected you as well? Maybe you just got a lower dose of it?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “There’s no evidence to suggest such a thing.”
“Maybe not,” Amaya said. “But would you go get yourself checked out anyway? It’ll make me feel better.”
“Chimera keeps an eyes on me through CATO. She’s better than any doctor.”
“That didn’t help Black,” Amaya said.
No, it didn’t. I scowled. I had too much on my plate to waste time seeing doctors. There was nothing wrong with my mind. I’d cleared every psych evaluation they’d thrown at me pre-launch. And there was nothing wrong with my hardware either. My mind was tired, but still sharp. It was stress. That was all. Stress didn’t make you think of Falsgate while having sex with your lover.
Amaya came forward and took my hand. “I can schedule something for you.”
I shook my head, about to say no, then thought better of it. “If it will make you feel better, I’ll do it.” She pulled me close, and brought her lisp to my ear and whispered, “I know someone who will keep them results off the nets.”
Off the nets.
I nodded my agreement, hoping that Falsgate and her underlings had the decency to stop monitoring us some time ago. If they hadn’t, I would have more than just Amaya interested in my health.
“You don’t have to go,” Amaya said as I moved toward the door.
“Nikko doesn’t like it when I stay over.”
Amaya didn’t argue. I left her alone, turbulent images of swaying grass, Falsgate, Amaya, and my unborn child overlapping in my mind.