Dabbling

It’s been so long since the last time she was grounded that Petra has almost forgotten the trick of staying upright. The long weary hours held against the treadmill by elastic have left her dense enough, but it never switches off, not nights nor weekends. Everything aches.

She spends most of her waking hours in the apartment pool, just floating in a way that is almost but not entirely unlike being out there; anyway her back aches less. The pool is unheated, but she’s got a wetsuit that keeps her warm enough and gives her more support when she moves. Her hair crisps from the chlorine.

She’s sitting on the bottom, weightless with yearning, when a pair of ducks fly over the fence and land on the water above her. She stays still as long as she can, lets the slight current tug her out from under them down toward the filter. When she can’t hold her breath anymore, she cracks the eggshell of the surface with her head, forces herself to breathe slowly and silently.

The ducks eye her warily.

Spare Me and God Will Spare You

Cordray’s been captured, which obviously isn’t ideal, just rotten timing and worse luck, wrong place, wrong time, wrong stars at her birth, maybe. She can hardly breathe for the knee in her back; her eyes still sting with the chemical agent they’d sprayed her with. Mild stuff, comparatively, for her tweaked system, but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t, so she lets herself puff up and weep. The crowd is screaming at the soldiers holding her down. What has she stumbled into?

The one with (his?) knee in her back says something, but of course it’s all gabble to Cordray, who was never supposed to have touched down like this, who hasn’t had the training, who hasn’t had the languages drilled into her. Anger comes through clear enough, though, and fear. She writhes a little and weeps harder, usually that works, but not this time. The knee presses down harder to make her go quiet, and the crowd gets louder, more hostile.

Someone in the crowd throws a rock, and the knee in her back flinches, and it’s enough; she rolls loose and dives into the mob. There’s a loud retort and the crowd sways and for a second she doesn’t understand, then a wave of horror sweeps over her as she realizes what’s happening, what’s been happening, what she’s caught in now.

Anatinus

Anatinus shivers when they cross the line; even after so many voyages the moment itself sends a frisson down hir spine to hir toes. Deeper waters, these, if grown familiar over the years; xie imagines xie can feel the land dropping away beneath the hull and the space yawning open beneath them like a mouth. Not an unfriendly one, but not friendly, either; you take your chances out here.

Hir first tattoo was a snail, as was traditional, someplace close to the bone; on hir collarbone, in this instance, though others prefer the inside of the wrist or close to the ankle under the spurs. A reminder that home is a place you carry with you, and that no place is every truly strange.

They’re going further out than ever before, this time; the coast is a memory vanished in the haze of the horizon, past the islands, through the gates of Herakles, to where only the stars, the clocks, and the logs keep their location fixed. They are here to categorize, to split, to separate the waters above from the waters below, two to four to sixteen to sixty-four and beyond, world without end.

Hir latest tattoo, high on hir thigh, is a human figure with the head of a dog, sitting in a field, his hands raised in supplication or instruction, clothes ragged, eyes dark, a memory of their last voyage, to where the map had ended then, of the people they found there. No matter how far they push, no space is ever truly new, truly unknown; there is home and life on either side of the line.

Apoptosis

No salt spray over these railings, nor swell beneath the keel; no smoother ride than this upon the crest of a wave that never breaks. Petra paces the deck restlessly with legs that never tire, eyes burning with wakefulness. The stars have been eaten by the curve of the glass, but she has faith they’re out there still; if she could get far enough, up, forward, or out, she’d find them there, waiting, uncaring, unmoved. She can see nothing but the blue void of the sky, but she knows that’s nothing but a trick of the light, a construct of dust, distance, and refraction.

Can the world itself be stifling? There is nowhere to go that she can’t go, but she can barely breathe from strain. She sleeps naked on deck, and wakes up still warm, throws herself into the sea and walks along the curved ocean’s floor, climbs the anchorline as easily as a flight of stairs, stands on deck dry as a winter room. What rebellion is possible when rebellion is the motor of the spheres?

She screams in the plastic faces of her shipmates and the eileithyia smile back, unfazed, as remote as the stars she can’t see, as unreachable as the other side of the glass.

Delivery

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

She’s between shifts, tired now, floating weightless at the center of the ship, warming herself around a bulb of throat-shreddingly flavorless ethyl, letting the kinks work themselves loose in the long muscles of her back. Savoring the receding soreness.

“Five hundred days, I said. Do the third row before the second tomorrow, that’s all.” The balear making the pitch isn’t one she knows, but she recognizes the babyface of a habitual sailor, the loose-limbed confidence of a woman who’s spent her life off the islands.

“Why?”

“Doesn’t matter to you. Hell, doesn’t matter to me. Who knows? Somebody wants it in that order, that’s all. Five hundred days. No harm done, hey? What does it matter, an hour or two either way?”

She revolves it this way and that but can’t find the hook. “Deal,” Petra says, and the balear buys them both a drink to seal it. She’s got a good smile, that one, and the long hands of a pianist or rifler. Petra buys the next round, and they take them back to her nest in the rigging to drink them. There’s no privacy, but the baleares are tactful; it’ll do.