Seira sagged against the restraints of the pilot’s chair, sucking air into laboring lungs. Her earpiece had been dislodged in the crash. It blinked an angry red and she could faintly hear a woman’s insistent voice.
“Pilot Kyte? Are you all right? Are you there? Seira?”
She reached for it across the floor. Despite the power of the impact, little damage had been done to the inside of the skimmer. The floors still gleamed from being cleaned that morning, before she left the Waystation. The blank, dead screen on the console before her was sign enough that the impact had been severe.
Her fingertips brushed the earpiece, but it was too far for her to grasp. Seira fumbled with the buckle of her safety restraints. Stuck.
Her head spun; her concentration drifted out of her control. She felt thick, heavy, finite.
“Seira! Can you hear me?”
“Sorry,” Seira whispered, to Danilo, to her father, to them all. Her eyes rolled back in her head as her lids slid shut.
* * *
Six of the seven planets in the Khazar system were uninhabitable. Two were too hot to sustain human life, three were too cold, and of the two within tolerable temperature ranges, one had an atmosphere too toxic to inhale.
The seventh was called Milorad, a temperate planet that was pocked with small, densely vegetated islands. The images the First Landing robots had sent back to the Waystation had sent tremors of excitement through the populations in the home system, had distracted them from their fears of the Khazar system, of the lawless pilots, of their skimmers. The promise of a colonizable world, of something new, had been enough.
It was on Milorad that Danilo hoped Seira’s skimmer had crashed.
As soon as the dispatchers relayed the news that the Marek had reported extreme distress and had severed contact while in the Milorad orbital, Danilo’s heart fell. He had warned her it was too dangerous right now; there was too much debris, the electric disturbance was too strong, too likely to disrupt the navigation systems. She hadn’t listened; her pride was too great—it always had been.
“She should have been all right,” Danilo muttered, his voice echoing softly through the empty locker room. He shrugged into his pilot’s jacket and his fingers lingered briefly on the Federation’s insignia with its embroidered condor. He glanced around quickly, but there was no one; at the news of distress, all off-duty pilots had rushed to the mess hall to listen anxiously to updates.
In deep space, as the Khazar system was classified, rescues were not attempted. They were too dangerous, and pilots too valuable. The Federation was a single tiny colony isolated from the home system; they could not afford to expend manpower in rescue operations.
Seira would have to save herself if she wanted to be saved at all. Even if it had not been against every one of their laws and customs, none of the others would risk their lives—or their skimmers—to save her.
Long hours of practice maneuvering his Swallow starcraft in the debris fields allowed Danilo to leave the Waystation without the necessity of a skilled dispatcher to guide him. The drop into free space from the artificial gravity of the Waystation turned his stomach.
The Federation was so fascinated with the Marek’s distress that no one even realized Danilo was gone until they heard his voice across the transmitter.
“Seira! I’m coming for you!”
* * *
Seira felt the bite of cloth against her neck and a pain throbbing in her head. She forced herself to consciousness, staring at her palms. They were pink and blurry, fading in and out of focus as she struggled for consciousness.
She pressed the restraint release again. It did not free her. She wanted nothing more than to stand upright—or lie flat. Anything but being bound sitting, as the skimmer spun around her in her disoriented vertigo.
She tapped the initiation sequence on the console, but there was no response. Whatever had happened in the impact, it had disabled the control panel. And it’s all my fault, a voice whispered, the only thing she was sure of.
“Think,” she murmured. Her left hand felt blindly along the underside of the chair’s edge. Just in case, her father had said, with the same expression he had worn when she insisted he let her pilot one of the newly-developed skimmers. It was confounded hope and resignation and love that lurked somewhere beneath it, unexpressed. Just in case the unraveling comes, so you can end it…
Her fingers found something; she worked it loose. She held a thin metal blade, not longer than four inches, delicate, flat, gleaming. It reminded her of that cold truth: it was better for skimmer pilots, when the time came, to use their blades to make their own end. When technology could not be trusted, it was all they had.
She cut the strap across her left shoulder. The knife was sharp enough that even in her weakened, disoriented state, she was soon free.
* * *
The Swallow was not made for distances. Along with its chemical propulsion, it had solar panels far more primitive than the light sails Danilo had come selling seven years ago. Had he known then that his sales pitch would lead to a life in deep space, he might have hesitated before taking the assignment. But, he reflected, probably not.
The Swallows were meant primarily for short space trips, repairs, construction, research in the Waystation’s orbit; yet Seira had confi ded to him that with a skilled enough pilot, there was no reason that they wouldn’t be able to venture at least to the Khazar’s fourth planet from the sun. As long as Danilo could keep the craft steady he would survive the so-called “push spots,” the pockets of fast space created by remnant electric disturbance. Inside them, the disturbance excited the basic molecular particles of even solid objects, rendering propulsion infinitely more efficient. Anything inside them was literally “pushed” forward.
As long as he could survive them, he would reach Seira.
“Hello?” he asked again. He had opened the transmitter channel so it would pick up anything he said, and he would hear all returning transmissions. “Seira? Are you all right? Answer me, it’s Danilo!”
“Seira! Oh God, you’re alive,” he said. “Are you hurt? Where are you?”
“Are you in a Swallow? You can’t come, Danilo. Turn back.”
“No, Seira, I need—”
“It’s too late,” she said. He could picture the stern expression on her face. “This is all my fault. Tell them that the package, I don’t know if it made it—when I went to make the drop—I don’t know what happened. The researchers planetside might not—can you tell them, Danilo? Go back, they need to know.”
He had never heard her voice so panicked.
“I can’t leave you. Did you crash on Milorad? I’m coming for you.”
“Seira,” he breathed. The silence between them on the transmitter felt interminable. “Please. Let me come.”
“I never wanted this,” she said. He heard the bitterness, the regret—and something new: the promise of tears. In his mind, he could see them glistening on her cheeks, though she had never cried in his presence before. “I knew this day would come. Why couldn’t you leave me be, Danilo? Why couldn’t you leave me to my skimmer, in peace?”
“You wouldn’t buy my light sails,” he said softly, lamely.
“Please go home,” she said. They both knew he wouldn’t. He had sacrificed a home for her the day he shook her hand.
* * *
“I’m almost there,” he said. “Tell me the coordinates—do you know them?”
“No. The console is dead,” she said. She sounded calmer, but her voice was strange, sad. “Look, it’s got to be Pamuc. The inner moon. It should be on the navigation chart.”
“I see it,” he said. He didn’t bother to remind her, I know how to pilot too.
“I was skimming the ionosphere to drop the package. Before I could release it there was an impact. It must’ve been debris. I was concentrating too much on the drop. It’s bad this solar year. The push spots have been increasing. I should’ve paid attention…”
“You couldn’t do anything else,” he said.
“I could’ve. Oh, Danilo. I knew this would happen. Father warned me.” She barely paused for breath. “You shouldn’t come. I miss you. I love you.”
Danilo bit his lip as a whirring rose from the frame of the starcraft itself. He did not have to ask what it was. He had hit a push spot.
He felt strange. The titanium of the Swallow began to respond to the acceleration—moving—bending, almost. But he knew, Seira had told him, that it was his eyes that could not see. He felt warm and his concentration was tugged away from the task at hand. He almost succumbed to the effects of fast space.
Her voice forced his hands back onto the panel, watching the numbers he had learned by heart, making manual adjustments for the automatic system that had failed in the push spot.
All at once, it was over.
“Push spot,” he murmured, slumping in his seat.
“You survived.” He could hear the pride in her voice. She laughed. “Maybe you could’ve piloted a skimmer after all.”
* * *
Danilo spotted the downed skimmer on Pamuc’s surface. The nose had broken off; it was no longer the long, sleek craft that maneuvered effortlessly through interstellar space. It looked like a bird, injured. His father had always warned that hurt animals were the most dangerous.
“I’m landing. I think I can do it. The computer reads a .34 gravitational pull. The navigation should be able to adjust for it, right?” he asked, leaning anxiously to squint at the numbers.
“Did you initiate the sequence with the deacceleration thrusters?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. He tried to sound certain.
“Just make sure they slow the acceleration to surface levels by the time you are fifty meters out,” she said.
“Got it.” He was always nervous letting a machine take over, but he had not landed on anything but an orbiting station and was sure it would do it better. He felt the thrusters kick in and the irrestible pull of Pamuc’s mass.
“Did you land?”
With startling precision, the navigation system had planted the Swallow only meters from the skimmer. He was still amazed by the technologies their fathers had created, his and Seira’s, almost a perfect substitute for human labor and skill.
“Yes. I’m suiting up.”
“The radiation, it’s dangerous—”
“I’ll see you soon,” he said.
The silence crackled on the transmitter. It had a hard time processing proximity.
* * *
Seira sat in her small personal quarters, deep in thought. Her father had told her that a salesman was coming, someone from the home system looking to sell them light sales, and she was to meet with him. It was the first time he had trusted her with such a large responsibility, but there was something in his voice that had made her uneasy. He was suspicious.
When she received the official appointment confirmation, she learned why. The man was the son of the great engineer, Jorin Seligman. Sitting in the room in her dress uniform, she forced herself to breathe, to calm her nerves before the meeting.
From her perch on the divan, Seira’s eyes fell on the porcelain vase beside the plasma faux window. She had insisted her father bring it, whole, from Earth; she loved the thin translucence of the shell, the way it felt fragile between her palms and warmed quickly, stealing her body’s heat. She had never bothered to keep flowers in it, preferring instead the delicate austerity of the blue designs across its sides.
She sighed, and looked at the faux window. Though she usually preferred the blackness of the space outside, as captured by the the Waystation’s research lens, she loaded a scene titled “Turkish Cityscape 32,” one her father had liked.
She had been earthside only twice, when her mother was still alive. All she remembered was feeling heavy and getting sick— getting her “land legs,” her father had said and laughed a booming laugh. Her mother was raised on an earth island and missed the sea in the infinity of space. It terrified Seira more than anything she had ever encountered, but she saw the joy, the delight in her mother’s eyes when they arrived at the great expanse of ocean.
It was what Seira felt, piloting the skimmer. Nothing on Earth could stand beside that.
After incinerating her mother’s corpse, Seira and her father had stared at each other, as if to say, “You? You are still here?”
Their tiny personal tragedy was overshadowed by a world turning to chaos. The thin soil could not bear the multiplying grabbing hands; the masses desired and were disappointed and languished. Those whose gold had bought power had already left, their scientists and paparazzi and politicians making steel worlds, orbiting in the home system. All that was left were the seething poor, who expanded, demanded, attacked. From the silence of space, Seira heard words that were not real to her: genocide, starvation, terror, murder, war.
Seira and her father turned their backs on the earth that had forsaken them. They went deep into space.
* * *
Seira’s father, the elder Kyte, had piloted the First Landing expedition, proud at the helm of the newest of their fleet of starcraft. The skimmer, Seligman had pronounced it, for its ease at brushing the atmospheres of planets, made to skim the surface—though of course it would have the capability to land on solid earth, if awkwardly. Kyte had been delighted with the controls that responded so quickly to his commands; it made flying effortless. From the first moment, he knew he would never fly another craft.
He did not know he would not be able to.
The studies they had orchestrated from the Waystation had indicated that the electric disturbance radiating from Milorad was not harmful to humans. Kyte leaned in over the controls as they penetrated the atmosphere. The autopilot made quick, smooth adjustments and only moments later they were soaring above one of the largest islands. Kyte felt a rush of exhilaration, knowing he was the first human to fly into this planet; he would be the first to set foot upon it. He would be the first to truly become a skimmer pilot.
He didn’t know what it was that happened, but stepping out of the shell of the skimmer, he felt as if he had somehow stepped into a push spot. He gagged, and he, and the rest of the contingent, found their first act on the virgin earth was emptying the contents of their stomachs.
The moment passed, and they explored, and recorded.
It was not until he sat back at the controls of the skimmer that he realized something had happened. He could feel the ship, as if it was an extension of his own nervous system. As they took off, he could feel the rush of the wind across his metal wings and knew instinctively what shifts to make. The flight mirror made sense in a way it never had; the twisting threads brought his attention to the effortless processes of flight he had always ignored.
They skimmed the atmosphere of Milorad briefly, then, entranced, Kyte took what he would always consider his first true flight through space.
* * *
“Light sails are the technology of the future,” the smooth-cheeked salesman had said. “We install large, flexible membrane mirrors on standard-issue skimmer starcraft. Rather than the traditional cumbersome and heavy fuel propulsion systems, the light sails are virtually weightless. The radiation pressure of the mirror reflects photons, producing thrust. Our efficient design makes them virtually equivalent to standard electric propulsion.”
Seira sat with one leg folded across the other. She wore the loose black silk of the Federation’s formal uniform. Her collar was bordered in gold, an addition that was not lost on the salesman. But her delicate features remained immobile, her grey eyes hardening into disapproval. “Mr. Seligman, ‘virtually’ is not acceptable. Are you not aware of the conditions under which the Federation operates? Deep space is not the proper place to smooth out errors.”
Seligman recovered quickly. The self-satisfied smile disappeared from his lips. He had underestimated this woman; he was not fool enough to compound his mistake. “Pilot Kyte, I have test results for you to examine.”
From his handheld computer, he tapped a few keys; the files beeped their arrival on Seira’s device. She touched the screen to accept. “Light sails are ideal for long deep space journeys. Catching a solar wind is the most effective—”
“Mr. Seligman,” Seira said and stood. In the pervasive fluorescent light, she seemed cool and powerful; the strangeness of the Federation was embodied in her distant face. Seligman stepped forward anxiously and eyed her outstretched palm. “I will consider your proposal. Good day.” She shook his hand and left.
Standing in the empty conference room, images of Seligman Light Sails displayed on the wall behind him, the salesman realized two things. The first, that the hard-faced, dark-haired woman whose stony eyes had indicted him for the better part of an hour was in actuality much younger than her stiff carriage suggested. Her smooth, glowing skin hinted that she had only a couple years on him.
The second thing, more startling, more profound, was that in her lonely certainty, she was the single most beautiful woman he had ever met.
Danilo Seligman smiled.
* * *
The first time Danilo watched Seira navigate it had been like watching an artist in thrall. Seated before the console, Seira’s hands flew across the touchpad; Danilo could not follow what she did. He began to understand why skimmer pilots were held in such reverence, why they commanded a wary awe from everyone who crossed their path, Federation or not.
The screen, where he had expected a window to be, instead showed digital strands of color, threads that wove together and apart in a seething mass. “What is it?” the salesman asked softly. She was taking him back to the mid-space station to catch a ride home, but even his previous rides in the large commercial crafts had not exposed him to the intricacies of piloting. It would not be until later that he would learn that the screen, called the flight mirror, was unique only to skimmers and its use exclusive to their pilots.
Without turning, Seira said, “A visual representation of star-flight.”
He looked again. The strands knotted together and separated, their ends somewhere off the screen. They almost seemed alive, breathing. He sensed that somehow, the colors themselves were important. “I don’t understand.”
“No,” she agreed. This time she twisted around, eyeing him. “Too long on land, Mr. Seligman. You see why we will not buy your antiquated light sails?”
He nodded, though he did not know precisely what she meant, only that she would not buy them because the Federation did not need them, she did not need them. She was already free.
“Don’t look so sad, Mr. Seligman,” she said. “Surely your father knew before he even sent you to the Waystation that the Federation would decline. I have heard his name before; he is reputed to be canny, clever. I suspect he’d heard of our… hospitality.”
Danilo frowned, confused. “You move too heavily to pilot a skimmer. But you might fly a Swallow, yet.” She appraised him with a gaze that was palpable on his skin; he held his breath without realizing it. “It’s hard to find bright people willing to pilot in deep space. They don’t like being so isolated from the home system. And they’re afraid of the Khazar’s… effects.”
Her eyes gleamed with challenge. He felt his heart quicken, afraid he would disappoint her. “Are you offering…?”
“On behalf of the Federation,” she agreed.
When she shook his hand this second time, her grip was warm and yielding. He held on.
Gently extricating her hand, Seira captured his eyes with hers, maintaining eye contact until he turned away, dizzy from the depths of the stars he saw flickering in her eyes.
* * *
“You did what, Seira?” her father asked.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. Why else would Jorin Seligman send his son all the way to deep space to sell us light sails, of all things? Skimmer pilots have no use for photon propulsion; Jorin knows that, he helped design the first models. He meant for Danilo to stay,” Seira said. Though her voice was steady, she was afraid of the disapproval in his eyes.
“It’s not his wrath I am afraid of,” he said. His warm voice was mild, flavored with a hint of amusement that masked his censure. “It’s that the great capitalist sent anyone at all, much less his son. Are we in the business of taking those the self-important see fit to hand down to us? Clearly Jorin hopes that he will have a first piece of Milorad when it’s fit to settle. They’ve destroyed the home system, are we to let them have Khazar too?”
“Danilo knows none of that,” Seira said impatiently. “He won’t endanger our plans. There are plenty on the Waystation who are ignorant of what Milorad is—what it really is. He will never know that humans will not be able to colonize it; he will never be able to pilot a skimmer. He doesn’t have the lightness.”
“They long for earth, Seira,” her father said. “They will think we are hoarding it from them, hiding some gift instead of keeping them from…” He shook his head. “We did not know. And they will think we are using Milorad ourselves, growing fat with the spoils…” He trailed off. They both know what the home system would do to the parasites who flew in the stars.
“But the push spots—I still don’t think they will be able to navigate them—”
“We did,” he said heavily. She looked up at him sharply, saw the sorrow expanding through his aging face. “Before.”
Before—when the Federation had been outlaws, and people remembered their crimes. They stole from the metal fortresses: stole supplies, stole spacecraft, but most importantly, stole themselves. The whispers of a new system, a habitable system, had solidified their plan; the rebels had quietly packed their lives away and stolen their own freedom from those who owned the stations, to live and die in the freedom of space. Their intelligence would be their own; they would not be slave to the money that breathed life into the space stations of the home system. And so they had left.
And so they had come. They found the Khazar system, where probes had been years before. They constructed their own Waystation— not an end, but a means. In the silence of light-years, they built and grew and explored. They found the push spots, took readings on the strange electric fields surrounding the planets.
And finally, they landed on the single colonizable world: Milorad. But they had not realized what it was until it had already changed them.
Yes, they had done this without the aid of skimmers.
Seira sighed, defeated. “I had to offer,” she said. “He was not made to walk on land his whole life!”
Her father recognized the look on her face and understood. He had felt it for her mother, before mankind had launched itself into the stars, and for his child, as he held her tiny frame in his hands. He felt it carrying her into zero gravity for the first time, knowing she would always know lightness first, know it best. And he had felt it watching her grow apart and away, traveling the stars on her own feet, chasing her own thirst, desire, for the blackness of space.
This would destroy her, and she knew it, just as she had known when she sat in front of the skimmer console the first time that there was no turning back. Danilo would change her, mark her— damn her.
But he might just be enough to save her.
* * *
Danilo saw little of Seira in the first few weeks of joining the Federation. His days were filled with classes: how to pilot one of the Swallows, how to navigate the conditions in the Khazar System, how to take care of his craft. The lessons were punctuated with menial labor that he completed along with other new pilots. At night, he fell asleep after mess with barely a glance at the tiny cubby that he had been given to live in.
But slowly he began to settle in, and he began to notice the dynamics of the Federation. It was easy to notice a skimmer pilot, even without a special insignia to designate them. There was a hum about them, an energy that no other pilot exuded. And around Seira, it was strongest of all.
She was watching him, he knew. She was monitoring his progress, though she avoided him. That made him smile, and in his spare moments, he plotted how to intercept her.
Finally, the information presented itself: on one of his janitorial bouts, he was given a list of residents’ rooms in the third quartile. And he saw Seira Kyte’s quarters listed.
Nervous enough that the collar of his uniform was damp with sweat, Danilo went to find the woman who had asked him to stay.
* * *
“Did you pick them from Botanicals yourself, Danilo?” Seira breathed deeply; the sweet scent of the blooms assaulting her nostrils. Visitors said that station-grown flowers never smelled “right.” The scent, they claimed, was somehow flat, one-dimensional. They said it in the same tone that they used to complain about the “disorientation” of the artificial gravity. What it meant, Seira had come to realize, was that it was too perfect.
He blushed as he nodded, almost as if his gesture of affection were embarrassing.
“Thank you,” she said. “They’re lovely.”
In the plainness of her flat—a small bedroom and living space; there was no room for luxury in as small a complex as the Waystation— the flowers seemed bright and endlessly intricate. She wordlessly passed them back to him as she plucked the porcelain vase from artfully arranged shelves.
Filling the translucent porcelain with water from the non-potable tap, she said, “You’re lucky I have a skimmer allotment. Otherwise I would have to let them dry out.” She didn’t mention that even had she exceeded the limit, she was the one who would review the usage reports. On the Waystation, they called her “Pilot,” just as she called them, but no one doubted the reaches of her authority. She was second only to the elder Pilot Kyte. Since he had lost control of his skimmer and gone missing, it had been unfettered.
She held out the partially filled vase to Danilo. He slid the bouquet in and stepped back to admire both the flowers and the woman who held them. “Beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, following his gaze. “It was painted in China.” She grinned as he blushed again.
* * *
He kissed her that first night, her cheeks flushed with laughter, her eyes bright and dancing. Her cheek fit into his hand, human, close, and her breath warmed his lips as they moved together slowly, like passing stars.
He closed his eyes and kissed her and could taste it: the ephemeral life flickering inside her, dancing, twisting, writhing. He could taste the grayness of her eyes, the pink of her lips, the black endlessness of her hair, and knew that these were important. He devoured all but that part of her that was not her.
When he woke beside her the next morning, he found himself gazing at the vase holding the bouquet on the bedside table, pristine and untouched. In the sunlight streaming bright and clear through the plasma window, it was illuminated.
He realized, squinting, that the vase that had seemed so flawless the night before was not the virgin masterpiece he had first thought. The delicate blue designs that decorated the translucent porcelain were inlaid over an even more complex motif: a thousand tiny cracks consumed its pale surface.
In the artificial morning sunshine, they glowed.
* * *
Seira heard the airlock open, close. The motor pumped air into the chamber with a soft rumble. It was such a small space to fill that she barely had time to be afraid before the inner door opened, and there he stood.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
He stared at her, frowning, silent.
“It’s the skimmer,” she said, helpless. She knew what he saw. It was what they had seen in the first rescued skimmer pilot, years and years ago, after her father and Jorin had perfected the craft. Once a pilot lost control of the skimmer, they changed, just as they changed when they commanded it, truly, for the first time.
“I can’t explain,” Seira said. She had never thought she would see the day his love turned to revulsion. She thought she would die in the impact, or he would be restrained on the Waystation. “It’s why we have to protect Milorad. Its atmosphere changed us to this. Like the push spots.”
“What—” Danilo stopped, swallowed. “What are you?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. She found herself clutching the knife tightly in her sweaty hand. “I wanted to fly the skimmer. If you operate it from Milorad’s surface, the radiation gets into you, into it. Your atoms buzz. The electrons’ orbit—I don’t know really, Danilo, I’m not a scientist.”
She sought his gaze. “All I know is that when I fly I see it all, perfect, whole.”
And he knew too; he had seen it in her eyes, and he had thought it beautiful.
“But you’re pulling apart,” he said softly. “I’m losing you.”
She stepped forward, her gentle steps sending her soaring in the low gravity before settling lightly again on the ground. He hesitated, then joined her. Their hands met and he held her quivering flesh and felt the directionless energy humming in her skin. She pressed the handle of the knife into his palm.
“Until you came to the Waystation, I had only this,” she said, glancing back at the console. “I didn’t need the earth or the heaviness, the squabbles, the humanity. I didn’t need anything from the home system; I didn’t want it.
“I didn’t want to end this way, but I knew. How could I not? We only have so much time. We pay dearly for the thrill of flight, for the wonder of exploration. I knew what it was, Danilo. I would choose it again. To be in virgin space, to feel the solar wind across the threads of Marek…”
Her eyes shone with madness even as he realized what was happening. “You were the only reason I lived so long. I am old, for a skimmer pilot, and the populations are coming to reclaim Milorad. Our ways are ending.”
She kissed him and he could feel it—all of it—again.
“I love you,” he said.
The moment before she died, he saw the cracks shine brilliantly.
And then, she was gone.