by Samantha L. Knapp
I’m online playing a game when the news goes out. We all stop when we hear it, except the sniper on the other team, who shoots my teammate. He doesn’t notice for almost forty seconds, given how long it takes him to curse.
Terran missiles have taken out the hatchery. An entire flotilla of ships, still growing under the full light of the sun, destroyed. The report said that no ships survived, but I could see the images and I knew that Prudencia was only broken, not dead. The reporters did not censor it because most viewers wouldn’t know. Few spent enough time among the ships to know when one is clinging to life among her lifeless sisters, her skin flashing white with pain and fear. No one answers her.
The other players are murmuring in the channel, their anonymized voices tinny, but I can hear the awe and the fear. We don’t know why Earth is moving against us this time. It is always something different. They have taken out warships before, but never fledglings. Prudencia and her sisters never had a chance to fly.
“The runaways got off lucky,” I say without thinking. When the flotilla hatched, three of the new ships fled. It happens with every hatching, and the escapees usually die of exposure out in cold space. It’s a terrible way to go, freezing, starving, and alone.
“That’s sick,” the brawler from the other team says. “How can you say that? They’re coming for us next.” He sounds like a scared man who wishes he were brave, or at least not so certain of impending tragedy.
I don’t know why it’s my first thought. I grew up on Ascencion Colony, was a little girl during the bombardment, earned my pilot’s license under the threat of annihilation. Terrans beating down my door are nothing new. Maybe it doesn’t shock me anymore, and my habit of fear turns me bitter. But it’s all I can think of: the runaways may have withered like flowers in winter, but at least they spread their wings.
Never knew disloyalty like Prudencia, that love could be repaid by abandonment. Where is her captain? I watch her fall away from the husk of the pier, tumbling into space. Soon she will be caught in the moon’s gravity, and maybe that will bring her mercy. But that will take days. Her skin flashes, and I know her captain is not there for her.
The other players agree with the brawler, cursing me as they leave the game one-by-one. We have lost our taste for war games now. All but one: the sniper for the other team. I see his name blinking in the chat, but he could be anywhere on the empty, virtual battlefield. I don’t care if he shoots me.
It’s sick that none of us felt moved to act. They took out their disgust on me, but that changes nothing. I try starting a letter to Leandro, to tell him about the ships that aren’t dead yet, but he must know. He was scant miles from the hatchery. If he hasn’t done anything, why would my speaking up prompt action from him? I am a woman, too sensitive to make the rational decisions that one must in wartime. Deep down, where I feel no shame, I hope that he has also been destroyed and that is why he’s silent. I save the video.
“The Terrans want a mother ship,” the sniper says, with the limited inflection of the anonymizing software’s voice.
“Oh.” That makes sense. Strike the children and hope that Soledad complies with their demands. I watch Prudencia, afraid to move; I’m trembling and can hardly feel myself sitting in my chair. My head is spinning. I feel as if I’m floating, not sitting at my console.
“Military kid?” he asks. It’s a strange thing to take away from my remark, but service would explain my reaction. We see things differently, those of us who knew the ships. We think of them first rather than ourselves; they are more important than any one person.
“Yes.” I grew up around ships. It’s not hard to understand the players’ shock, though I don’t share it. None of us are safe, but here on the planet of Soledad, people have more security than those in the outer asteroid belt. The front is far away. I have lived with the Terrans breathing down my neck for so long that I cannot imagine otherwise. The safety of the planet where I have lived for two years hasn’t erased a childhood of battles. I hate the complacency of Soledad, when I don’t envy it.
“Me too. God, I can’t watch anymore. She’s screaming for help.”
Yes. We notice different things, us military kids. I wonder if he’s female, like me, because I don’t usually hear men talking about the feelings of ships. No. Maybe he feels the ships need to be protected. I have met some men like that; they think that of all women, even ships that dwarf them. Or maybe he just can’t watch her die. I can’t imagine anyone who could. “Where are the captains?”
He knows why I ask, shares my disdain: “The annual fundraiser. Their ships still had a year of growing; captains don’t usually stay with them while they mature.”
“They do on Ascencion.”
He laughs, and the anonymizer can’t mask how harsh it is. “Well yeah. Any chance to move out, right? Sorry, that came out wrong. I heard Ascencion is really crowded.”
“It was.” Entire crews moved onto ships at first opportunity, to escape the press of the colony. I’ve never been inside one; they say ships are jealous and won’t tolerate another woman onboard. They say it so much that I wonder if the ships believe them. “Are they all at the fundraiser?” I look through different reports, trying to find the captains. They stay to calm and direct the civilians. I do not find the name of my betrothed.
Which means he did not run back to his ship. He should have. I should see a report that says the captain rushes to comfort his fallen ship, to see his wife off into the dark embrace of the sky.
“Yeah? What is it?”
“Nothing.” If he could not rouse himself for his current wife, what would he do when he takes a second? When I take ill? When I need his help? I hope that the Terrans launch another attack, but they stay their hand. Their point is made. They are our betters, this civilization that sent us to the far reaches of space and left us to languish. Now that we have something they want, they harry us and take what they can. But they do not bring their advanced medicine, their technology. They have only brought suffering. Everything else, we must make for ourselves.
“Doesn’t sound like nothing to me.”
In response, I log off.
The sniper was right. By evening the Terrans’ demands are clear. For generations, they were no match for our living fleet, but now their ships are powerful enough to break past our perimeter. Despite this superior technology, they want a mother ship of their own. They cannot stand to let others have what they have lost. “A return,” they said, because all their mother ships are dead. The Terrans invented the ships to colonize space, then promptly lost the technology. Their ships died, or escaped. Some say it was a plague, or that other colonies still had ships in secret, but most believe that only Soledad’s remain. I do not know why this is the case, I am not even sure I care. Maybe the Terrans never married their ships.
I change as evening falls. I’m no longer the girl who plays games because her father is too indulgent of her uncultured ways; I’m the girl in a fashionable dress her mother approves of, who spent her day on business and gentle pursuits. It’s been a quiet day on the airfield, and I spent the time between calls gaming instead of hobbies more suited to my feminine disposition.
My mother clucks her tongue when she arrives and talks of the bombing in terms of a tragedy not for the planet, but my future marriage. It does not matter much what happens as long as we are alive and our assets are intact, as long as she ensures that I carry on our blood and business. She was a doctor on Ascencion, and the war has made her bitter, too. There is no way to escape the war, the least she can do is not discuss it. We can’t take a mother ship to some other colony because women are bad luck (and if we could, where would we go?) All she can do is secure the future here. Through me.
She is the one that taught me to fly. She taught me to make sure my turbojet plane is in good repair. She spends all her waking hours ready to take flight should she have to. If more bombs fall, she will be ready. My mother is always ready. The war is always with her.
“They weren’t all dead,” I say over dinner when she asks if I’ve spoken with Leandro.
Her hand goes still, fork hovering above the fish she has only been picking at. I watched the channels since the news broke, and the stations edited the shots of the hatchery carefully. No more flashes from Prudencia. I want someone to acknowledge it, and their silence is damning.
“They’re as good as dead.” My father watches me across the table. “Broken like that.”
“But the reports were wrong.”
My mother jabs her fork into her fish. “They usually are. Did you check the shuttle?”
“It’s packed.” Stocked with enough provisions to see us to the farthest reaches of Soledad’s colony. One doesn’t need a living ship for an intrasolar journey. “You don’t think the negotiations will work?”
“They’ve gotten this close to Soledad; I don’t see why they’ll bother with negotiations.”
I think so, too. I finish dinner in silence.
Leandro is bigger than life on the screen. It’s meant to intimidate, to project military officials as giants, but all I notice is the light cinnamon color of his face, so much paler than mine. He hasn’t seen real sunlight in almost two years. He leans forward, as if he can close the distance between us. “Pilar, I hope it isn’t too late for you. I called at the first opportunity.”
I don’t know how to answer him. I sit at my desk with my hands folded in my lap, and I know I look the part of the captain’s wife, his most trusted confidante. I am not supportive when I answer: “It’s fine.”
“I don’t have much time.” He doesn’t look hurried to me. He’s in a hotel room at headquarters, and his dress uniform is barely rumpled. “I wanted to tell you so you could make the preparations: I have been reassigned Puerta Clara.”
“I’ll have your things forwarded.” Forwarded, from Soledad when all his things are right there with him! Yet it is my job to make the arrangements for him no matter how far away I am.
“I mean for you to come with me.” He leans in again, this time earnest. Puerta Clara is beautiful and prestigious. A good position for anyone.
I stare at the screen, at some point past his shoulder. A captain’s wife would rarely spend time with her husband, rendering it a sad existence to many. It was a convenient marriage to me, because I would have most of the freedoms I count on now while Leandro flies about the colony’s holdings. I am told it is a lonely life, but I want it. As does Leandro. We are both in this arranged marriage; it was decided by our families with little input from either of us. The thought of moving in with him for any extended period of time had never crossed my mind, and I am left reeling. He is handsome, and I could savor the brief, intense romances when he comes home. That is all I needed to consider for a man who would be away save a few days a year. I do not know him well enough to contemplate close relations. “But I have an estate here.”
“It can be cared for.”
“Cared for! It’s almost three hundred acres with a working air field!” That he can dismiss it to be left to some third party enrages me. It’s too valuable to leave. It was never a question before, but now that he wants to move nearly four hundred million miles away, I realize that I would fight a protracted legal battle should he try to sell it. In my grandmother’s lifetime, there would have been no questioning a husband’s decisions, but now I can hold the property for myself. Legally. That doesn’t mean he can’t sell it behind my back and have the transfer of the deed honored. One cannot blame a buyer for assuming the husband had his wife’s consent.
“We can discuss this later,” he says.
“You wanted to discuss it now.” I falter as I receive a message. “I need to go, I have another call.” A lie, but I change my notifications so often he doesn’t recognize the chiming as a message rather than a call.
He looks like he might argue, then nods. A call cannot wait in my business, a plane might be floundering, a pilot lost, a disaster in need of averting. He was a pilot once, he knows that every moment is crucial. “Tomorrow, I’ll make time for you.” The connection goes dark.
I want to bless whoever messaged me, but my heart stops when I open my inbox: That didn’t sound like nothing. – Corro.
I don’t know how he found me. I’m careful about my anonymity. It’s not a crime for me to play games, but I don’t like the abuse it earns me when people learn who I am. Too old, I should be focusing on my marriage, they just want somewhere they can go to avoid woman’s influence, can’t I see that I’m in a man’s realm? I have rarely seen such fury as when men find an unexpected woman in their midst. Corro’s message means he at least knows my identity. He could be boorish and abusive if I answer, many men are, or the message could be a solicitation which would invariably devolve into insults when I am not receptive to his overtures.
I answer anyway. “You’re smart. Figure it out. –P.”
He must have been waiting because the response is instantaneous. “I know about Leandro, but I thought you’d want someone to talk to since you were worried about the captains.”
A chill tingles the nape of my neck. My engagement isn’t a secret, but it meant he had to do more research than simply locating me. Well. If he found me, he probably knew I’m old enough to marry, so it would be logical to search for my intended. Looking for his competition, maybe. “I don’t need someone to talk to.”
I stop. Of course, he wants someone to listen to him. But it pulls at my heart anyway, because even if it’s selfish, I can understand. Everyone deserves to have someone listen to them. “I’m sorry. Would you like to talk?”
“No. I did, and no one was there for me. I know what it’s like, is all. I checked about the fundraiser. Leandro stayed at HQ to evacuate civilians. Adoracióndied about half an hour ago.”
Tears burn in my eyes, and I struggle to breathe. I didn’t know Adoración well, because it would upset her to speak to me. Bad enough that she knew her captain went home to a flesh-and-blood woman, worse to suffer forced cordiality with her husband’s love. Nevertheless, she had seemed like someone I would want to know. Leandro spoke of her fondly, and I listened to all her addresses to the public. If I wanted to, I could call up the archives for one of her interviews. Hear her sugar-sweetness, her optimism for the future, and her love for my fiancé. Never imagining she would not live to see her commission.
“Why would you tell me that?” I ask.
“He never abandoned his post,” Corro says, dispassionate. “He saved a lot of lives.”
“They were never in any danger.” I’m shaking, my face burning hot. Leandro’s place was at his wife’s side. All I could think about was the innocent Adoración, dying alone. That bastard. I wonder why Corro pushes the issue. What is it to him, that my fiancé chose duty over fidelity? It was the only logical choice to protect civilians before the ships; ships are military, and the military must make sacrifices.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. When you noticed the ships first, I just thought—most people don’t. You should’ve been there instead.”
“As what?” Another frightened dignitary for Leandro to herd to safety?
Corro takes a long time to answer. “I don’t know. Someone who cares.”
“Yes, because someone who cares is more useful than someone who will do something.” Knowing that I could stand there, behind the glass, and no closer to helping Adoración or anyone else than I am on Soledad, makes my heart twist.
“And if you could do something? What would you do?”
“How am I supposed to answer a question like that? Do you expect me to stop the Terrans with my bare hands?”
“No. But you could help Prudencia.”
“The only help for Prudencia is a merciful death,” I say, angry that someone has not already done it. The fleet is too busy holding the Terrans at bay to worry about a damaged ship. Already the reports say she is dead. In a few days, it will be the truth. Who will remember? Anyone who knows otherwise will hold their silence for Soledad’s sake.
“Do you really believe that?” Corro asks, and it sounds soft.
How could I? Ships survive remarkable injuries. I remember Reyna limping home to Ascencion, flooding all the channels with her desperate mayday calls. Her belly had been torn open, spilling entrails in a miles long path of misery. Her crew perished, save for the handful she sealed away in a cabin. Before anyone could tend to her wounds, she ejected the survivors in the loading bay and fled, to join her captain in oblivion.
What kills Prudencia is the loss of her wings, and the breach of her hull. She is too young to waste the resources mending. A tested ship, maybe, but not a slip of a girl like Prudencia.
It is not my place to question the wisdom of military decisions. “I do not see other options for her,” I answer, at last.
“But if there were, would you do it?” Corro presses, and there is urgency in the question.
“Then, meet me,” Corro sends me a map and a beacon. And then he’s gone.
I check the map, curious. It leads deep into the rainforest at the equator, beneath the endless storms. Little wonder he sent a beacon; no satellite would see anything through the storm.
I am not even sure I can fly through it.
But I like the challenge. I’ll have to follow the beacon with my own equipment. It’s like the old days of the explorers, before the network was in place and they had only their wits to guide them. I don’t think twice before changing and packing a small bag. I should doubt him, should question him and wonder at his motives, but then I think of Prudencia alone, and I am driven from my room by her terror.
Perhaps I was right about Corro, and he is a military son with more power than I had imagined. Or maybe I’m a fool.
I shimmy out my bedroom window as I haven’t done since I was young.
I take my turbo, it’s the least likely to raise suspicion. It’s not the first time I’ve gone flying at night, and my father will dismiss it as wedding nerves and my mother will wonder why I’m so angry.
I think of ways to tell her of Leandro’s plan as I taxi off the runway and climb into the air. She inherited the estate from her mother, and I think she would leave Leandro’s corpse at the bottom of a river if he tried to sell it. Her mother was widowed six times. I cannot blame her. The estate is worth more than a good marriage, let alone a man. She will know why I’m angry.
I fly for hours, aiming north. The sun rises to my right and I send a note to my parents: “Clearing my head. Leandro wants to go to Puerta Clara.”
Below me storm clouds gather and my plane bucks in the turbulence. I rise up over the weather, skimming across the clouds and put on a mask, though the plane’s sealed environment has never failed before. Habit, maybe. I’ve flown in worse. I flew medevac through the bombardment, where decompression was a small worry compared to all the different ways my shuttles and planes could be mangled. The wind is nothing compared to the tempest stirred up by Terran weapons. Storms frighten other pilots despite advances in stabilizing technology. The placid weather of Soledad leaves pilots ill-equipped for hardship.
I drop below the cloud cover, into the steady rain of the equatorial forest. It girds the planet, a belt of foul weather that breaks the population from north to south. It can be flown over and often is, but sometimes it is still like two different worlds, parted by wind and thunder.
There’s no internet out here; I can’t reach the satellites with all the interference. I rely on my own senses and my plane’s instrumentation to find my way. I wonder again that I’m being drawn into a trap, and I am not sure I care.
I descend over one of the many rivers, my turbo’s runners inflating for a water landing, and the pontoons scrape the shallows as I maneuver to the bank. The cold hits me as I open the door, and I am pelted by rain that strikes me like fists. I’ll freeze if I linger too long. I huddle and run for the cover of the forest, following the beacon. It holds steady though I do not, ducking among fallen giants and squinting into deep shadows, taking care of the slick ground and treacherous footing.
Then I see the beacon’s source beneath the trees as tall as buildings: a ship.
She’s an adolescent, just shy of adulthood. At first her skin is dark, and I think Corro has led me to a corpse. There are fallen ships across Soledad, too big to move, and they provide homes for squatters and places for adventurous youths to explore, before they believe in the dangers of desecrating the dead. As I crest the hill, her skin brightens with sunny yellows and verdant greens that contrast against the gray forest. If this is some brilliant plan on Corro’s part, to send a secret ship into the fray, why summon me?
I stumble forward. “Socorro,” I whisper. I can’t hear myself above the roar of the rain.
I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before. Except, why should I? The very idea is outlandish. The Socorro fled before her wedding to her captain. By all rights she should be dead, floating beyond the sun’s reach. The ship before me is smaller than her sisters, but she is by no means stunted. She spreads her wings like a bird, each feather glittering to draw in what light there is and I force my legs to move. It is not much light to me, but she’s made to gather a sun’s energy in space from great distances away. The cloud cover is nothing to her.
She escaped notice all this time. If she made it past the storm, she would never be found again. Not many people come this way, and the equatorial rainforest is so vast that only small regions have been explored. It is the realm of scientists and daredevils.
I have never been so close to a ship in my life, but Socorro has no husband, no reason to envy me. Still, I find it hard to continue. I should not be here. Should not be addressing a ship. Is it worse to speak to an unaccompanied ship than a married one? I do not know. I have truly overstepped my bounds this time, and not even my father would look kindly on this trespass.
But I am here, and it is too late. I will not abandon Prudencia. “Why me?”
A hatch opens in answer, flaring like the gills of a fish. I duck inside, so grateful to be out of the rain that my caution is dulled.
Warm air buffets me from vents in the ceiling. Lights line the hallway, urging me forward. Socorro’s interior is smooth and squared-off, but her skin changes color inside as well as outside, surrounding me in welcoming yellow. I can hear the soft rushing of breath and blood in the walls. I never knew the ships were so lovely within.
“Because you listened,” the Socorro says. No, Corro. The voice is ambiguous: it lacks the digitization of the anonymizer, but it does not sound much like a woman’s voice, either. It is something I could imagine Corro sounding like.
I peel off my coat and follow the lights down corridors that remind me of blood vessels, or tunnels in an ant’s colony. “No. We barely spoke.”
“You said a lot you didn’t think you said,” Corro explains all around me, wrapping me in a voice as tangible as fleece. “I didn’t expect to find someone like you playing games.”
“I didn’t expect to find someone like you playing games.”
“I don’t have much else to do, and the internet’s the only way to meet people.”
I can’t connect here, but Corro can receive signals too weak for my transceiver. Too weak for military grade machinery. This rainforest is the perfect place for a ship to hide yet maintain contact with people. The ships that didn’t die of exposure returned, either for hunger or want of company. No ship was meant to live alone. They love too much to survive such isolation.
“You don’t have to marry Leandro,” Corro’s words distract me from my amazement at the simple genius of the plan.
“It’s all settled,” I say, allowing Corro to lure me to the bridge. Or what must be the bridge, though it stands empty. There are no chairs. The console is only there because the structure is in the embryonic ships, a backbone for the rest of the bridge. The Socorro has grown nothing she does not need, and that includes accommodations for a crew. I stare at the wall ahead of me and its shifting shades of green, knowing that she can clear it and offer me a view of the outside. She does not; the chromatophores remain so dense that the wall appears solid.
“Yes. So was my wedding,” Corro agrees. “Before I was born.”
“Why? Why leave?” I ask, because almost no one has been able to ask a runaway.
The greens deepen and Corro sounds far away: “Before we hatched, Mother used to sing to us. Things she thought we should know. She loved us fiercely, and it broke her heart to know she would give us over to another, but she was proud, too. She didn’t sing of her captain. She sang about the stars and others that she met. But never her captain. I wanted to stay with her, and they wouldn’t let me, not any of us. How can I face the universe without someone worth singing about? How can I love someone I can’t sing for?”
“But you did face the universe. You left.”
“Only because my mother loved me. I knew I deserved better than a man who married me for prestige.”
“You do not love Leandro either.”
“No.” I am sure of that. If I lived one thousand years, I could not love Leandro any more than he could love me. We could co-exist with millions of miles between us, but no less. “I’m not as brave as you are. I can’t run away.”
“You could marry me,” Corro says, and the floor beneath me becomes a cloudy red where before it was an anonymous black I hadn’t noticed. Who notices the floor? But I now stand on an island, a galaxy spinning in the darkness.
“You do not love me either,” I say.
“But I could. Pilar, you would be so easy to love.”
I think Corro is confused about loving me, but the warmth makes me dizzy. “A woman cannot marry a woman.”
“I am a ship, not a woman,” Corro says, eager to exploit the weakness of my excuse.
“All ships are women.” Ships have been women ever since the Terrans, the mistresses of the men who braved a star-strewn sea. On Soledad and her colonies we don’t have mistresses, we have wives, a man’s true lover. “So, I cannot marry you.”
“Then I’ll be a man.” Corro is annoyed now, and I have little trouble imagining it. “Corro” has always been a man, to me, though I haven’t known him for long.
“I’m not supposed to be on a ship at all, because—” Because the ship won’t like me, because I will distract the captain, because I would tempt the crew, because . . . .
“It would be bad luck?” he asks, derisive of the very idea, and I must admit it sounds silly when he says it.
I look around the bridge, seeking something to focus on for lack of a face to watch as Corro speaks. “How can you say that so easily? A mother ship, being a man.” The voice is ambiguous, but the speech—I cannot deny that Corro puts me in mind of a man.
Now the response is slow, his turn to be unsure. “It’s not that strange,” he says, and before I can assure him that it isn’t, no stranger than a ship lost in a forest, he goes on: “People spoke to me like one. For years. You get accustomed to it. I think my sisters are only women because they were told they are. It means nothing to me.”
I frown. “But you’re still a mother ship.” Carefully, but I must return the favor of his prodding me when I said ‘nothing.’ It is a word we both use and do not mean.
“What does that mean, when there are no fathers?”
“It’s human,” I say. Has been human long before ships lived and bore children. Long before ships could question or doubt their place in the world and whether they were men or women, or if it mattered at all. “You talk like a man, anyway. But why me?”
“You want to fly,” Corro says.
I don’t know how Corro knows me so well. It’s like talking to an old friend, one who sat up with me on dark nights to gossip. Most of my friends are married now, busy with their own lives, and I realize how desperately I miss them and the unsaid things between us. “More than anything. The navy will be furious.”
“And Prudencia will be alive. If we hurry.”
I want to ask, What then? but it doesn’t matter. I cannot let a ship die if it is in my power to do otherwise. I cannot let the Socorro go on alone. If he goes for Prudencia, they will see him. They will know he is alive. They will take him and marry him to a captain. Unless he is already wed.
I am a woman, and women cannot join the military because we are too soft. I am too gentle-hearted to deny this plea, no one would expect otherwise. I am already in one betrothal for duty, what is it to trade it for the Socorro? He has it in his power to rescue Prudencia, I have it in mine to enable that. No one could doubt our patriotism.
“Then we should fly,” I say.
A swirl of crimson stretches toward the console from the cloud beneath my feet, a nebulous blotch that looks like ink in water. Perhaps his skin is meters deep, and clear, save for the growing stain that shifts and undulates beneath me. Coaxing me forward with bridal red.
I approach the console and put my hands down on the gleaming surface. I have been to enough weddings to know the next ritual; it is the same for both ships and humans.
I don’t expect sunlight to fall across my arms. The opaque wall around the bridge turns translucent as glass. It is enough light that I blink, squinting, and hear the rain pounding outside. All I see is the forest, waiting, through a haze of silver.
Something sharp jabs my palm and I resist the urge to pull my hand away or cry out. A knife’s edge sinks back into the console, into the glossy surface as if it were water. My blood runs down a channel that hadn’t been there moments before, and pools in a small depression, coating the slick, malleable surface. The Socorro’s blood oozes up from the center, a gold-white whirlpool in the middle of my blood, turning it vibrant.
Leandro would have mingled his blood in mine at our wedding. And he would never have taken me flying.
“Be welcome to my house, wife,” Corro whispers.
Strength rushes through me. Corro’s heart is mine, all his power. It’s heady, to feel what he does. I wonder if this is Soledad’s secret: our ability to link with the ships, to open our hearts and feel theirs beat for us. I smile. “Take us home, husband.”
The Socorro roars all around me. I am standing in the throat of a lion, though I also stand at the bridge. For a moment I don’t know which is true. Our blood floats into the console as it smoothes out once more, trapping the pool in clear amber.
Mud sucks at Socorro’s belly and I can feel the drag, the effort necessary to escape it. He has been waiting all his life for this moment, preparing to launch off the planet. He sacrificed his growth for flight, parceling out the precious solar energy by bits and pieces. There is more strength in his wings than his sisters’, who would never know the pull of gravity. All except Prudencia.
Trees crack as he frees himself, rocketing forward through the forest and bursting past the canopy. It shatters against his crest, splintering into pieces against his diamond-hard flesh. The rain sluices from his wings, but it’s no impediment. He has lived years with the rain.
Lightning flashes, but he flies heedless of it. Up toward the ceiling of the storm. The cloudbanks are dense and mountainous, solid. I tense as Socorro approaches, my eyes thinking that we will strike the barrier and be smashed to bits, though I know they are only moisture. I brace my legs and the clouds envelop us.
Brilliant sunlight greets us moments later, and the endless plains of the cloud’s tops fall away, turning into gently rolling hills with the distance. The curve of the horizon appears, a thin meniscus that holds the blue of Soledad’s sky safe from the black of space. Then we are free and I don’t know if the exhilaration I feel is mine or his, if it matters at all. Socorro pulls his wings closer to his body, speeding along in the zero-gravity, propelled by the great momentum of his escape from Soledad’s influence. It is faster than a ship is allowed to travel so close to the planet, and I laugh. What will they do? Demote me?
“I want you to talk to them,” Socorro says, and he sounds as breathless as I feel. We have never been free before.
“Who?” I ask, feeling far away from the body standing on the bridge.
“Everyone. I’m going to catch Prudencia, and it won’t be easy.” I know Socorro isn’t telling the whole truth. It is proper for a captain to speak, and he will enjoy watching the captains forced to speak to a woman as a peer.
Before I can agree, the console turns luminous. Two squares appear: one says “Soledad” and the other says “Terra.” I glance back out at the darkness and see ships floating motionless before us, growing larger. The hatchery’s wreckage hangs, twisted, but Socorro passes that without so much as pausing. Prudencia is somewhere ahead of us.
I open a link to Soledad’s flag ship first. “—identify yourself!” I hear a frantic man say. Frightened, I think, but what of? We are on their side.
I slide my fingers over Terra’s flag ship. “Unidentified vessel, fall back. We will be forced to treat you as hostile if you continue on your trajectory. Fall back.” The Terran’s accent is heavy and rolls oddly, as if he has a tongue of syrup.
Socorro caresses my hand, a flush of warmth and assurance. The console is not a solid thing, but like the muscular arm of an octopus, moving as Socorro needs. I think of the knife, and how easily the soft touch can hurt.
“This is the Socorro,” I say with both channels open. “We will retrieve the Prudencia; we have immunity as medical relief.” By the laws of Soledad, someone on the field for medical purposes is not to be fired upon. I only know the Terrans have similar rules because they let my mother through the bombardment when I flew medevac.
I can see Prudencia now, drifting through the emptiness. She’s not flashing anymore, her ghastly white hull tinged with clusters of sick green. The Terran ships loom large and inanimate, ranged out in a line facing the sharp, glittering colors of Soledad’s ships. I recognize Confianza, our flag ship, alongside her sisters and cousins, all major vessels themselves. Prudencia is small and beyond them; we must pass the line to reach her.
“Socorro, open a channel with your captain,” the Soledad operator says, thinking that my voice is that of a ship.
“Socorro, you’re clear,” the Terran operator says.
“Acknowledged.” I do not close my connection to the Terrans. Let them bear witness. They will keep my own people honest. “Confianza, this is the captain of the Socorro speaking.” He needs no encouraging. He sails past the massive warships, intent on Prudencia. He is faster than any of them; he’s waited all his life for this flight. But for all his courage I feel the flicker of fear in him, to be surrounded by so many who could easily turn on him.
There is a long quiet, but I can imagine the blistering fury behind the silence and the closed microphone. I let it continue as Socorro approaches Prudencia, and I can make out the details of her injuries. Her wings are devastated but the bones remain. What has been lost can be regrown. Her spine is cracked in half, revealing deck upon deck to the open vacuum, but already her blood vessels have mended closed, her body trying to salvage itself even if she knew she was doomed from the outset. She rotates, helplessly, in front of us.
“Who the hell is this?” a different voice says over the Soledad channel, and I recognize the Confianza’s captain. I have seen him on the evening news before. I cannot see him now, but I remember a terrifying man with massive square shoulders and a jaw like a battering ram, and blue eyes in a black face that shone purple under the reporter’s lights. “Socorro, report to Benigna.”
“She requested medical immunity,” says someone who sounds like the operator.
“I don’t care what she said. She’s one of those Terran witches,” the captain growls back, and more loudly, because I think he didn’t realize I could hear him before: “Turn back, Socorro, you don’t have clearance for this theater.”
“Medical has full clearance wherever necessary,” I say, satisfied that he must be galled to be reminded of the law.
Prudencia cries out, sobs, her lines snaking free of her shell and reaching toward Socorro. Most have been badly burned, the delicate tethers scorched off, leaving cauterized nubs, useless for catching anything she passes. Repeating white-orange-white patterns crawl up the length of the tendrils. The sequence moves too fast in her distress, but the meaning is clear: ready to dock.
Socorro murmurs wordless encouragement as he extends his lines toward his sister ship. They touch Prudencia’s ruined ones, twining down their length before the four-point tethers latch on her skin, stretching wide. His grip is nigh-unbreakable once a solid connection is made. I feel each attachment, like a shudder that pulls at the base of my spine.
“Release Prudencia,” the operator from the Confianza says, and I wonder if the captain has been rendered speechless in his impotent rage.
“Stand down, Confianza, Socorro has immunity,” the Terran operator says.
“She is not immune, she’s one of your agents!” The captain snaps. The ships draw a collective gasp, their colors fading briefly. Even Prudencia goes chalk-white.
To suggest that a ship, born of Soledad, would marry a Terran was an outrage. Did he think them so fickle? Of course he did. The ships were women, after all, with women’s hearts, and a woman is an uncertain creature to men. Yet, how could he doubt their patriotism? That didn’t waver, they loved Soledad. They would never betray their homeland by wedding the enemy.
“We wouldn’t be here if she were one of ours,” another Terran says. Maybe the captain of their flag ship. I don’t know, but it sounds like a woman.
“The Socorro deserted, and now she returns with a woman for a captain? That sounds like a Terran plot.”
Socorro’s grip on Prudencia is secure now, and he pulls away, cradling her broken body as close as he dares. He does not aim for our moon, but spreads his wings and accelerates toward the inner asteroid belt that lies between Soledad and the sun. It is not an easy place to fly, I know: I’ve piloted shuttles through it, and the ships avoid it due to respect. But Socorro is small, and fearless.
“My name is Pilar Guzman, and the Terrans blew up my house when I was a girl,” I say, not caring that they know who I am. I have married a ship, I will never be welcome on Soledad again. At least they can remember my name. My only hope is to use the Terrans as a shield, and we can escape. To where, I do not know. Amsterdam and Esperanza are the nearest colonies, but any one of a hundred colonies would welcome a ship, would take in an injured one and nurse her back to health if it meant earning her loyalty.
Socorro is leaving rapid communication range, soon our conversation will have delays a minute long or more. The pause continues and I think we have gone even farther than anticipated, but then I hear another voice: “Pilar? Pilar! What the devil are you doing?”
“Hello, Leandro.” Wherever he is, they’re relaying him from the Confianza. “How is Adoración?”
I wonder if I imagine the pain when he answers: “You damn well know how she is. What game is this?”
“It has nothing to do with you, Leandro.” And it had everything to do with him. He was a sorry fiancé and a worse man.
“If this is your idea of a negotiation—” I have never heard him sound so frustrated, so powerless. But I am far above him, and he is without a ship.
“What could I possibly negotiate for, that you could give me?” I ask, watching as the asteroid belt grows bigger. The haze turns into distinct shapes, massive boulders that shift restlessly and jockey for position and grow into things the size of mountains, then moons. They are thousands of miles apart, and of no concern. What crowds the belt are the remains of dead ships, detritus from their birth and their lives. Much of it orbits individual asteroids, a mausoleum of macabre satellites.
“Girasol. We could move to Girasol,” he says, and now the delay is only caused by the distance between us. I know he said the first thing that came to mind, the one thing that will pierce my heart. Girasol is home. He will never settle there, and we both know it. I do not want him near the business.
“It’s too late, Leandro. I am already home.”
“Pilar! What kind of lunacy is this? I don’t know what you think you’re going to achieve, but you can’t marry a ship.”
“I already have. Sue me for breaking the contract and return my dowry,” I say.
Leandro continues to yell as Socorro dives into the heaving mass of wreckage. He holds Prudencia close, and I can feel their bodies grind together. The Terrans dare not follow, but I feel their hungry eyes on us. They have stayed behind with the Soledad fleet. “Get him off the line, he’s annoying my ship,” I command, and to my surprise, the operator shuts Leandro’s connection.
Socorro glides through the belt. How have I never seen such a path through the salvage fields? “And I thought I was a gifted pilot,” I say, because the silence becomes unbearable.
“It looked like the sky through the branches in a storm,” Socorro admits. “I always watched the sky.”
He picks an asteroid that does not look particularly special to my eyes and gingerly lowers Prudencia to the rocky surface. We’re on the edge of the belt, close enough to the inner periphery that she is bathed in sunlight, but deep enough that Socorro can spirit her away in case of pursuit.
“We could call your husband,” I offer, trusting Socorro to forward the message to Prudencia. Or maybe she can hear me, I don’t know.
Prudencia retracts her lines and stretches her wings, slowly, painfully. The naked spars won’t pick up much light, but already I can see the tips of pin feathers appearing along what little flesh remains on the bones. She will heal. “He called me. He apologized,” she said, sounding farther away than she was.
Oh, I think. I’ve heard this before. She loves him.
“They were only words!” Prudencia cries, startling me. “He had all the time in the world, and all he had were words!”
I stand at the console, stunned as her sobs resound on the bridge. I don’t know what to say: she would not hurt so much, if she had not loved him.
“Take me with you. I have had enough of faithless men.”
I don’t know if Socorro can carry her beyond light speed, but before I can think of an answer, he says “Anywhere.” It is not my place to contradict him.
I open the channels again. The Terran and Soledad fleets have started an argument in my absence, “—then take Socorro. And Prudencia, too. They are of no use to us,” the captain of Confianza says.
His ship is the one to contradict him. “They are not things to be used or taken.” Confianza is as soft-spoken as I remember during interviews. Quiet, but firm. That she spoke at all, where others could hear, said much about her feelings.
“It was so easy to get Prudencia.” Another woman’s voice; it must be a ship, but I don’t recognize who. “It would not have been any trouble at all for one of us to do it.”
“She’s my niece. Why didn’t any of us think of medical immunity?” Another ship.
“They cannot have Socorro. Or Prudencia,“ Confianza says again.
“By order of the admiral—” her captain starts to say, but she is louder, her voice booming and drowning him out: “I take no orders from cowards! You will not barter these children to the ones who killed their flotilla, they will not have anyone!”
Some of the Terran ships had been withdrawing from Soledad’s space, moving closer to the asteroid belt and the prize they had been all but promised. Now they’re concerned. They cannot lose the mother ship they were in a position to take only moments before. Their thrusters burn hot as they put on speed, as if intending to pluck us from the salvage field and spirit us away to Earth before Confianza and her sisters stop them. The operator’s voice remains unhurried: “Confianza, we are willing to consider terms—”
“They were mine!” Confianza roars. And then I hear it, small at first, but growing, inundating the solar system. The ships begin to sing. I have only ever heard the lullabies, crooned over the hatchery and broadcast in the news, or Reyna when she sang at Ascencion long after her flotilla had hatched above the skies of Soledad. I have never heard their battle songs, the gentle affection I remember turns hard as stone, unyielding and deafening as thunder. My heart races and my head pounds in time to my frantic pulse. Sweat stings in the wedding cut on my hand.
Before the Terrans can make sense of the song,Socorro gathers up Prudencia and speeds away. The fury of the fleet fills their guns and cannons, swelling the boom of their weapons with rage.
Prudencia screams for her mother, her voice lost in the tide of the fleet’s chorus. Socorro’s wings extend to their fullest, stretching wider than he was able to open them in the confines of the forest, and I can feel the ache, the strain drawing his muscles taut. The Terrans wheel around, their ships scattering, not sure if they should aim for us, or for the amassing fleet.
Socorro flicks his wingtips, and leaps across space.
It does not matter where we are going, but we will be there shortly.
Samantha L. Knapp is a native of Miami, Florida, which will leave anyone a little odd. Her degree in anthropology has been useful for making interesting dinner conversation, writing science fiction, and suspecting that the parakeet colony in the building next door has developed culture. Her work has previously appeared in Heiresses of Russ 2012. She can be found on Twitter at @sl_knapp, and blogging at damselfish.dreamwidth.org.