A Science Fiction Novelette
by Deborah J. Ross
Because he had joined the crew at the last minute and because he was still very young, Devlin felt awkward, not quite accustomed to no longer having a last name, but being only “Devlin of Juno.” During the last stretch of space flight to the planet December, he explored the various work areas, practicing maneuvering in zero-gee, until he found Shizuko, Juno’s engineer, and Verity, the pilot, in the galley. The room was roughly spherical, the walls studded with storage bins.
Heads close together, knees hooked around stabilization bars, the two women were sipping bulbs of what looked like real coffee. Spirals of plum blossoms covered Shizuko’s micropore skins from one arm to the opposite shoulder, leaving the rest of her slender body shimmering silver. Verity’s thunderbolts jagged across a field of palest yellow. Despite his medical training, Devlin’s pulse rate jumped. The skins clung almost as closely as the real thing, revealing every line of muscle and bone, breasts round and soft without the pull of gravity.
“Ohé, Devlin!” Shizuko beckoned him to join them. “Hungry?”
Devlin fitted himself into the frame, banging his knees and one elbow in the process. The natural tone of his postural muscles kept his body pressed against the bars, holding him in place.
Verity smothered a smile and handed Devlin two bulb containers and a flat packet. He bit off the tip of one, expecting the standard reconstitute paste. Instead, the mixture was subtly spiced, with a lingering warmth of ginger. He chewed the accompanying bread, fluffy dough layered with potato and garbanzo filling. The second dish was a spirulina pudding that looked like pale green gelatin but tasted of limes.
“This is good!”
“Araceli’s cooking.” Unlike the other crew, Verity didn’t shave her head, but braided her black hair in scalp-hugging spirals. With her milky skin, he thought her beautiful but hard-edged.
A shadow shifted at the edge of Devlin’s vision. Archaimbault March floated at the entrance, like a silent panther in his jumpsuit of unallayed black. Archaimbault March, like Devlin, had joined Juno at TerraBase, neither passenger nor crew, his mission as well as his military rank never stated. Devlin assumed he was a high-ranking security officer; with his restless gaze and opaque expression, the man reeked of covert power.
“Was there something you wanted?” Shizuko said.
“Your captain tells me you are investigating the lack of communication with the December authorities.”
“That’s true,” she replied, without a hint of defensiveness. “But it’s not unexpected, given the recent stellar flares. We’re still on the other side of the sun from the planet.”
December was a Stage Three planet, with a breathable atmosphere and generous supplies of water. Its five principal continents hosted pristine forests, plains, and deserts, all abundant in compatible biology. It had been colonized and then abandoned ten thousand years ago by an alien race whose enigmatic ruins dotted the temperate zones.
The planet had passed the rigorous process of robotic exploration, followed by years of painstaking Stage Two survey. The first wave of colonists had been there for more than a decade local time, enough to establish a viable agricultural community. Sometimes dangerous conditions didn’t show up right away, but planets usually didn’t make it this far in the colonization process without some indication of trouble.
“I will run diagnostics on our own equipment to make sure the problem isn’t reception,” Shizuko added.
From the faint tightening around Archaimbault March’s eyes, he doubted her reassurance. “Very well. Inform me as soon as you obtain any results.”
“You’ll be the second to know,” she said, her voice carefully neutral. Then added, “After Fidelio.”
Once Archaimbault March had left, Devlin muttered, “He’s sure got a comet stuck up his ass.”
“I don’t trust him, either,” Shizuko said. “Why would TerraBase dispatch someone like him to an agricultural colony?”
Verity looked at Devlin slantwise. “Do all military personnel set you off, or just this particular idiot?”
“Anything in a uniform. It’s a good thing you — we — don’t wear them.”
Shizuko laughed in such a friendly way that Devlin relaxed. “Oh, Devlin, you’re not what we expected.” Her lips drew together like softly rounded petals. Devlin wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
“What did you expect, that I’m not it?”
Shizuko tilted her head, a gesture that substituted for a shrug. “We’re used to being a world unto ourselves. Dirtsiders brush past us like mayflies. But we’re out of balance now. You know that Aimer jumped ship at our last TerraBase refit?”
“He was your previous physician, wasn’t he?” Devlin said.
“He was one of us.”
Us. And with that subtly accented word came the hint, the possibility of an invitation.
In all the years since the Fosterage agent had found him in the slums of D’al-Jarkata, Devlin had never considered the possibility of belonging to another family.
Cautiously, the crew was opening to him, as if he touched some need within them. It wasn’t his medical expertise. Verity had para-med training and the emergency cryo served for anything serious. They didn’t have to recruit another physician. But they had, and hoped.
Behind Shizuko’s dark eyes, he sensed the question, Are you the one?
“Well, back to work.” Shizuko gathered up the containers, slid them into the recycling slot, and glided from the room.
For a long moment, Verity stared at the door. Her brows drew together, furrowing her pale skin. Even with the odd body language of zero-gee, Devlin sensed she was gathering herself.
“There’s something I want you to understand,” she said, “about the way Shizuko is with people, about how we all are. To begin with, Rhea and I were lovers our first year in Academy. Then she connected with Fidelio—”
She was talking too fast, her gaze everywhere but at him, her voice resonant with something strong and hot. “You think he’s gorgeous now, you should have seen him then, with something to prove! He and Aimer had been buddies, then TerraBase assigned us Araceli as quartermaster at the last minute. Maybe they thought he was weird enough to handle us, I don’t know. Our first flight, we did a lot of… um, accommodating each other. I don’t sleep with men and that was all right. Fidelio pretends he’s after everyone’s ass, but he isn’t. He’s actually a very private person that way.”
“Oh.” Warmth prickled the back of Devlin’s neck.
“Anyway, one day between missions, Fidelio came home with Shizuko. We needed an engineer. The one originally assigned to us didn’t work out. It was as if —” her voice dropped in pitch, “— as if we’d all been waiting for her, as if she filled some place in our lives we hadn’t even known was empty. She brought us together, catalyzed us into something more than our individual selves. Aimer left an absence. If Shizuko thinks you —” Verity stopped abruptly, her mouth tensing.
She looked at him, direct and hard. Devlin had seen people killed for less. “If you hurt Shizuko, I’ll kill you.”
“I would never —”
“Nuts to your intentions.”
Devlin touched the back of her hand with his fingertips. The gesture shifted the energy between them, as he’d meant to. “You do care. That’s what this conversation is about, isn’t it? It’s why you made sure I knew how much you love Shizuko and that you aren’t interested in me sexually.”
“It’s possible,” Verity said, without lowering her eyes. Then she pushed herself free, through the portal.
A jumble of feelings surged up in Devlin. Three slow breaths, counting heartbeats, gave him the necessary calm to sort them through. Some he knew, the aching loneliness, the longing for intimacy. Others he couldn’t put his finger on, even with the meditation-enforced stillness. He only knew that if he gave way to them, he would be swept away, never the same again.
A Short Story
by Deborah J. Ross
$0.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-161-0