by M.K. Hutchins
Ever since they burned the calculus out of my brain, I’ve gotten into pudding: lemon, chocolate, coconut. I leaned against the rail, watching the alien ocean wash under us — a mix of pistachio and blueberry. It reminded me of home, but I didn’t know why. I couldn’t remember what home looked like.
“How do you feel?” A butterscotch-colored hand rested on my shoulder: Ulin, my stabilizer.
“Isn’t this relaxing? Don’t you feel better?”
Relaxing? I digested the word. Right. They’d just released me from the Institute to sail me to the mainland; space travel was too destabilizing, they said. The ocean was nice, though they warned me not to swim. It dissolved human flesh.
I wiped my hands on my jumpsuit. Some part of me said I should hate it because it didn’t flatter my curves, but I didn’t know why that should matter.
“Ocean’s nice,” I said instead. Maybe there was pudding on the mainland — the Institute didn’t have any. Or did they? I remembered eating bread while someone cried. I remembered something shiny on my head, Ulin pressing buttons, and heat. I remembered that I’d once loved calculus and it was gone.
“Good, good.” Ulin’s voice was smooth as churning milk. My head told me he was my friend, but my gut told me he was bad. Like a man who stole pudding. “I’m glad to see you’re still stable. I didn’t think you would be.”
Stable. Was I unstable? I ran my hand over the stubble on my scalp. Hair had been important to me, once. And calculus. I looked at the waves under the boat, curving waves. Integrals. The word appeared into my head and vanished, not like pudding licked from a bowl, but like smoke, leaving a stain. That’s why I’d been unstable. I could do lots of integrals in my head. I was a threat. I knew something more important than my favorite flavor of pudding — which was lime.
“I am stable now.” I lied because my stomach was more trustworthy than my head. My stomach tells me to eat pudding, after all.
“Good, good. Would you come inside with me, then?”
I blinked at his eyes, round and sincere as spoons. “Is it because of the beeping?”
It had started maybe fifteen minutes ago, too loud for a kitchen timer.
“The siren, yes. Come inside.”
“Why?” Maybe I shouldn’t have said it — maybe I should have pretended we were friends.
Ulin pursed his lips and looked me up and down, as if I were a flavor he didn’t like. “Someone sabotaged us.”
“Who?” I asked.
He frowned, face like lumpy custard. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me below deck.
“Who?” I asked, stumbling along the silvery corridors.
But someone must have: Ulin said sabotage. My brain itched. No one. There was someone Ulin wasn’t supposed to mention. Lumpy-faced Ulin left me on the broad room of the first deck. Something must be wrong with the bottom of the ship, because this room was crowded. Some of the other unstables screamed or cried — their stabilizers stunned, then sedated them.
I sat quietly in the corner, hugged my knees to my chest, and thought of the saboteur. He had to be my “no one.”
I rubbed my scalp, trying to remember. The smell of raspberries tickled my nose. Did the “no one” like raspberry pudding? Not pudding. Gelato? Raspberry cheesecake? My “no one” was here, sinking a ship full of stabilizers and unstables, like me. Didn’t that make him a bad man? I shouldn’t feel calm when I thought of him.
“They’ve hit the mining platform, too,” Ulin said, but not to me. He never spoke harshly to me. “No other liners nearby to help us.”
“Space ships?” Captain Nenva asked.
“The closest will take a week just to get our distress transmission.”
The captain clenched his fist and swore. “Load up your charge on a life raft. The Facility will gut us if we lose anyone.”
I’d heard Ulin talk about the Facility before. They were going to “dissect us to make better bioweapons.” I’m not sure what it meant, except that dissect sounded like bisect, and that had something to do with angles or lines.
Ulin grabbed my wrist again. “We’re loading up.”
I thought about raspberries as he dragged me through different corridors to the top deck. He ushered me onto a tiny, creamsicle-colored life raft. He tried to lash our rafts together and swore at the silvery rope. I heard voices on the deck as our raft floated away from the boat; others coming for rafts, too.
“Just stay calm,” he said, voice lilting. “Soon we’ll reach the Facility, and you’ll be fine again.”
“Do they have pudding there?”
Ulin mumbled to himself, “Ship sinking in a flesh-eating ocean and the dim-witted barbarian just wants pudding.”
My stomach was right. Ulin was a bad man. I grabbed the silvery lashings.
“What are you — ”
I kicked his raft. As we drifted apart, I threw the rope into the ocean. It bubbled and turned to smoke. Ulin gaped at me. “You idiot! These rafts only last two days — and I’m the one with the distress beacon for pick-up!”
“You don’t like pudding.” I tried to say it with all the loathing I felt — the four words weren’t enough to explain.
Ulin couldn’t bring me back. I kept my hands in my lap, away from the pistachio-blueberry, flesh-eating ocean.
We drifted apart. Night settled, my boat rocked. I was alone. The sky turned black, like…
Not like pudding: pudding wasn’t black at all. The sky was like an onyx. My heart beat double. Onyx was a ship — the ship I was born on. The stars were her eyes. It came to me in a rush.
I used calculus to see through the gravity wells of stars, to understand the world and spy on the stabilizers who tried to destroy our nomad people — the people Ulin didn’t want me to remember. My people have a machine. It could transmit information instantaneously through pits of strong gravity. The calculus…I needed that to calibrate the machine? To read it? I couldn’t remember.
I stared at the stars — the nomads’ eyes. Onyx would come for me, if she could find me. Someone aboard Onyx loved raspberries. Loved cheesecake? Loved me? I just needed to catch Onyx’s gaze.
If they get you, just use your eye, someone whispered in my memory. My people wanted to find me.
I undid my belt. I held the latch firmly in my hand. Then I rested it against my left eyelid. My eyelashes fluttered light against my cheeks. I hesitated. I pressed the latch against my eye, but my hands shook. No. I couldn’t do this slowly.
I curled up in the bottom of the raft and braced my head against the creamsicle wall. Then I rammed the latch through my left eye.
Black spots swirled my vision, each one a tiny bowl pouring fiery pain into my face. My eye-fluids slid like hot pudding down my cheek. My body shook. But the metal connected with something hard, something that now beeped softly.
I closed my good eye and breathed raggedly through the pain and the nausea. I’d found the transmitter. The Institute couldn’t see it, couldn’t deactivate it, because Onyx was clever enough to hide it behind my eye.
Onyx would come for me, if someone aboard could still look through the stars and see my signal.
Fast communication across any distance. That’s what made us good nomads. That’s what made us feared.
The pain took over. I drifted on the sea of pistachio and blueberries and dreamed of cheesecake.
I woke to strong, familiar hands lifting me — not Ulin’s. The raft drifted behind us, a shuttle glowed ahead. I knew that coppery hull, those stars etched in the side: Onyx‘s shuttle. I knew that arms that carried me aboard.
I look up and saw his face. He smiled down at me, gray beard longer than I remembered. “I’m sorry they cut your hair, sweetie. I’m even sorrier about your eye.”
This man loved raspberry cheesecake. This man loved me.
“I promised you I’d never let those bastards keep my niece. They’re too busy rescuing the others and containing the mining platform to notice us — we’ll get away as clean as I’d hoped. I’m glad we were able to find you. You’re safe now, Tani. Just rest.”
Tani. That was my name. I closed my good eye. Cheesecake, éclairs, cookies — there was more to the world than pudding. I’d found it again.
M.K. Hutchins‘ fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Leading Edge Magazine. She says, “With the idea that it would help me write rich science fiction and fantasy, I studied archaeology and linguistics in college. Now I’m a work-at-home mother who sneaks in time to write when (or should it be if?) the little ones fall asleep.”