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.

Ontogeny

She’s tired of death.

Petra gets a job as an eileithyia on a barque making the centuries-long loop between Here and There. It’s quiet work, and warm, a far cry from the rigging and the rifles she got used to on her trip out, though she still bunks with the baleares. They go up and she goes down, through the ship’s envelope of water, through gardens, past gravity, into the gentle near-weightlessness of the creche.

The bags are arranged chronologically, so she recapitulates phylogeny over the course of her shift, zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus to infant; eyes sprout, fingers bud, legs kick. Squib work, nothing too complicated: she monitors hormone levels, implants placentas into amniotic sacs, recycles the 4% of implants that fail.

Decanting happens on the other shift, but she attends as often as she can. There’s always a good crowd arranged quietly against the dura, bearing witness to the orderly parade of births. It’s good luck, they say, a safeguard against radiation and the drag of the islands. They hold their breath while the eileithyia scrapes off the caul and a new crewmember draws their first shuddering lungful of air; united, however briefly, in purpose.

The Gentle Art of Passing

Death when it comes for Petra is boring, not worth all the bother. Pop, and she’s alive again on the other side. Maybe her clothes are cleaner? If they are, she can’t tell. It’s a lot more crowded here than it was before, that’s how she knows, that and she makes eye contact with a prick with giant muttonchops and he winks and curls down into age, all liverspots and rheum, then further down into springy adolescence (awkwardly hunched forward over a boner, dear GOD), then unfurls back as he was.

Some sort of welcome, she guesses.

She was a roving sort before, and not much for city streets, but there doesn’t seem to be an end to this one, or maybe they’ve all bled together, cities piled high and strung along an endless network of rivers. She walks for centuries and never sees a tree without a sidewalk girdling it or a house spread underneath it, and everywhere EVERYWHERE people, thousands deep. You’d stifle if any of them weighed a damn. As it is she never quite gets used to people sliding through her; always a plucked nerve, or one thin violin string that never falls silent.