Free Fiction Monday: Becalmed, Part One

Mae, chief linguist on the Ivoire, heads a diplomatic mission to Ukhanda. Her handling of relations with the Quurzod lead to a battle that causes the Ivoire’s anacapa drive to malfunction, stranding the ship in foldspace. Mae can’t remember what she did wrong on the mission: all she knows is that she’s one of the few survivors. If she doesn’t recall it, she won’t be able to prevent another disaster when the Ivoire escapes foldspace. If the Ivoire escapes foldspace. Because what no one talks about—and everyone fears—is that the Ivoire is becalmed…forever.

Part one of “Becalmed,” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook and paperback through various online retailers here. The latest book in the Diving series, The Runabout, was released Sept. 22. Click here for more information and buying options.

Becalmed

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Part 1 of 2

 

Here’s what they tell you when you want to leave the Fleet:

Stay behind. Don’t get back on the ship, not even to retrieve your things. Have someone bring the important items to you.

Check to see if any of your friends or any members of your family want to leave as well. Don’t force them. For most of us, the ship is and has always been home. Life on a planet—any planet—is different. Very different. So different that some can’t handle it, even if they think they can.

Don’t go to a base. Don’t ask to be dropped off. Stay. Create a new life with the grateful people you’ve saved/helped/rescued.

Become someone else.

They tell us these things before each mission and then again as one is ending. They tell us these things so that we can make the right choice for us, the right choice for the ship. The right choice for everyone.

They do this because they used to forbid us from leaving. We were of the ship, they’d say. We were part of the Fleet. We were specially chosen, specially bred.

We were, they said, able to overcome anything.

But that wasn’t true. Even with ships built for five hundred people, there is no room for one slowly devolving intellect, one emotionally unstable but highly trained individual.

No room for the crazy, the sick, or the absolutely terrified.

The key, however, is finding that person. Figuring out who she is.

And what to do about her.

* * *

It had been a slaughter. Twenty-seven of us, and only three survived.

I am one of the survivors.

And that is all I know.

I sit on the window seat in my living area, staring out the portal. I had asked, back when I got promoted the very first time, to have an apartment on the outer edges of the ship. I’d been told apartments that brushed against the exterior were dangerous, that if the ship sustained serious damage I could lose everything.

But I like looking out the portal—a real portal, not a wall screen, not some kind of entertainment—at space as it is at this moment.

But I do not look into space.

Instead, I have activated a small section of my wall screen. I read and reread the regulations. I translate them into different languages. I have the ship’s computer recite them to me. I have the children’s school programs explain them.

The upshot is the same:

I should leave. I should never have come back to the ship. That was my mistake.

Theirs was to keep me and not ask me to remain planetside.

These errors make me nervous. They make me wonder what will happen next, and that is unusual. The ship thrives on structure. Structure comes from following a schedule, following the rules, following long-established traditions.

Tradition dictates an announcement to the entire crew at the beginning and end of each mission: the always familiar, easily quotable regulations about disembarking at the next stop, about leaving if you can no longer perform your duties.

We should have gotten that announcement as soon as the anacapa drive delivered us to this fold in space. We have been here too long.

Even I know that.

Each ship in the Fleet has an anacapa drive. The drive also works as a cloak, although my former husband objects to that term. If the Ivoire is under attack, the captain activates the anacapa drive, which moves us into foldspace. We stay in foldspace only a moment, then return to our original position seconds or hours later, depending on the manner in which the navigators programmed the anacapa. Sometimes, in a battle, seconds are all you need. The enemy ship moves; we do not. We vanish for a moment. Then we reappear, behind them.

Or we don’t reappear for hours, and they think us long gone.

Either way, we are only in foldspace for a moment.

We have been in this foldspace for days.

I bring my feet onto the window seat, press my thighs against my breasts, and rest my head on my knees.

No one will tell me anything. I am shaky and emotional, unable to remember. Unable to think clearly about anything.

And for a woman who has spent her entire life thinking, this change terrifies me most of all.

* * *

After four Ship Days, they open my apartment door.

They don’t knock. They override the locks—locks I’ve programmed in my paranoia.

I don’t recognize them, although I recognize their gold uniforms.

Medical Evaluation Unit: Psychological and Emotional Stress Department.

How many people have I sent to them over the years? How smug have I felt when the medics in the gold uniforms take troublesome workers from my linguistic unit?

Now they’ve come for me—four Ship Days after we entered this foldspace, ten Ship Days after I was medivacked from our makeshift headquarters on Ukhanda, nine Ship Days after they asked what the Quurzod had done and I answered, “To my knowledge, nothing at all.”

To my knowledge.

Which is terrifyingly incomplete.

Two men and a woman stand in my doorway. I don’t recognize any of them. Clearly, they were never on the teams that took workers from my section.

The woman is the spokesman. She introduces herself. The name washes over me even though I try to catch it, hang onto it, remember it.

Her spiel isn’t what I expect. I expected the standard: You have the right to refuse treatment. You have the right to remain in your apartment until we reach planetside. You have the right to your own medical professional.

Instead, she says, “You are about to undergo a battery of psychological tests. Some will prove exceedingly difficult and/or uncomfortable. Some are designed to retrieve memories you—or something around you—have blocked. These tests will provide us with the truth as you understand it. They will also show if you still retain what is commonly known of as your sanity. Do you understand?”

Oh, I understand. I should be relieved by this, but I am not. I swallow uncontrollably. I am shaking.

What I want to say, what I’m trying not to say, is that I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to know.

Just charge me and be done with it.

Take me back to Ukhanda and leave me there, like you were supposed to.

Forget I even exist.

“Do you understand?” she asks again.

One of the men stares at me, as if he’s trying to figure out whether or not I can speak. I can speak in fifteen languages, and twenty-three different dialects. I can understand sixty languages, albeit some imperfectly.

I can speak. And I do understand. I just don’t want to admit it.

She starts, “Do you—”

“Yes,” I say, thinking that will end her spiel.

But it doesn’t.

“You will want an advocate,” she says. “That can be a friend, a family member, or a professional. We can provide you with a list of professional advocates or you can contact one on your own.”

I dry swallow again. An advocate? I’d heard this in legal matters, but not in psychological ones.

What did I do on Ukhanda?

Do I know?

Do they?

“Am I in serious trouble?” I ask.

For a moment, the woman’s eyes soften. I sense compassion. But then, I might be searching for it.

Or seeing it where it does not exist.

“Yes,” she says.

“Could it damage my family?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says.

I have left my family out of this so far. I haven’t contacted them since my return. Nor have I allowed any of them to contact me, although they’ve tried. I have shut them out, changed the contact codes, refused to acknowledge them when they’ve been outside my door.

Now I feel a bit of comfort—what I had seen as selfish behavior will benefit them after all.

“I’m not going with you until I have an advocate,” I say.

“Good choice,” she says, and waits while I contact the best advocate we have.

* * *

I have never met my advocate before, but I have followed her work for nearly a decade. Legal matters onboard ship are often petty, but they provide real-time entertainment of a kind that most fictions can’t.

And when the legal matters spill into the Fleet, then the entertainment ratchets up.

Leona Shearing has handled some of the biggest intraFleet controversies, but she keeps her hand in on the smaller cases, mostly, she tells me when she arrives at my apartment, because she likes to remain busy. IntraFleet controversies happen only rarely. Smaller, shipboard cases occur every day.

She acts as if I’m a smaller shipboard case. I don’t disabuse her of this notion, although she is surprised that three medical personnel have come to take me away, not the usual two.

She is a flamboyant woman who wears her hair down. She prefers flowing garments, unusual clothing in the Fleet, where most every department has its own uniform and the uniforms differ only by color. She does not work for the Fleet. She runs her own business. All the advocates have their own businesses, as do some of the tutors scattered across the ships. Specialists on the Sante often work privately as well, and so do many of the restaurateurs on the Brazza.

Still, working for someone other than the Fleet is unusual, and risky. Many do not acknowledge their difference, wearing clothing that suggests a uniform. Leona Shearing accentuates her difference with her clothing and her hair. Her manner, however, is strictly professional.

She interviews me briefly—asking my name, my rank, my position, as if she’s checking to see if I am of sound mind. Then she turns to the three medical personnel, who have not left the room, and asks them why they didn’t just send for me.

“She needs to be escorted,” the woman says.

“You only need two people for that,” Leona says.

“One stays. We have occasion to search the apartment.”

She frowns, then narrows her eyes as she looks at me. “Did you let them in here?”

“No,” I say. “They overrode the codes.”

She stands. “You need to tell me what she’s being accused of.”

“She ran a team of twenty-seven to study the Quurzod,” the woman says. “Only three returned.”

“I assume she’s one of the three who returned,” Leona says.

“Yes,” the woman says.

“The twenty-four are dead?” Leona asks.

“We believe so,” the woman says.

“You don’t know?” Leona asks.

“We have not verified the deaths,” the woman says.

Something whispers across my brain, too fast for me to catch it.

“Are the other two survivors being investigated?” Leona says.

“No,” the woman says.

“Why not?” Leona asks.

The woman looks at me. “She’s the only one who broke away from the group.”

My stomach clenches. I have to will my hands not to form fists. I lean against the portal, unable to look at the strangeness of space.

“So?” Leona says.

“So she’s the only one we found covered in blood,” the woman says.

I bite my lower lip. Technically, they didn’t find me. Technically, I staggered into a nearby village, and the villagers contacted the ship.

Technically, I found them.

“I still don’t see the issue,” Leona asks. “I’m sure you tested the blood. From your tone and her appearance, I’m gathering that it wasn’t all hers.”

“None of it was hers,” the woman says.

I glance at Leona. I expect her to look at me, then get up and nod toward me regretfully, to tell me that I no longer deserve her services. But she doesn’t look in my direction at all.

Instead, she says to the woman, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we at war with the Quurzod?”

“We weren’t then,” the woman says.

“We weren’t friendly,” Leona says. “We were there at the request of the Xenth, to investigate claims of genocide, were we not?”

The woman stiffens. So do I. I don’t remember genocide. I don’t remember going planetside.

I don’t remember anything except the heat, the dry air. The stench of drying blood.

“We weren’t at war yet,” the woman says primly.

“We were in unfriendly territory, trying to change the balance of power,” Leona says. “That’s as close as you can get without declaring hostilities.”

The woman’s mouth thins. The men haven’t moved. It’s as if the conversation is going on in another room.

I try not to look at them. I try not to look at any of them.

“I am not a politician,” the woman says. “I’m not sure at what stage a war becomes a war.”

“Perhaps at the first sign of bloodshed,” Leona says.

“I think that’s too simplistic,” the woman says.

“I thought you weren’t a politician,” Leona says.

They stare at each other. My heart pounds. I’m not sure what my advocate is playing at.

The woman takes a deep breath. “They say she caused the deaths.”

“Who says?” Leona asks, and I hear a new note in her voice. Triumph? Had she been fishing for information? Was that why she goaded the medics?

“The other two,” the woman says.

“The other two,” Leona says. “Who weren’t covered in blood.”

“Yes,” the woman says.

“Who didn’t stagger out of the desert alone, dehydrated, and nearly dead,” Leona says.

Was I nearly dead? I don’t remember that. I just remember how the heat served up mirages like water, how the air had so much dust it seemed like a live thing, how my skin burned to the touch.

“What were they doing while their colleagues were dying?” Leona says.

The woman gets that prim look again. “I don’t know,” she says. “You’ll have to ask them.”

She’s lying. She knows.

My stomach is a hard knot. I rest one hand against it, hoping to soothe it.

“If you suspect her of a heinous crime,” Leona says, “why did you let her back on ship?”

“She has the captain’s protection,” the woman says.

I wince. I didn’t ask for that. He shouldn’t be involved.

“The captain can’t protect her,” Leona says. “He should know that. If she’s done something wrong, she gets punished—planetside.”

“We’re at war,” the woman says. “We couldn’t keep our people planetside.”

“Then we leave her and bring the innocents back,” Leona says.

I close my eyes. She’s right. That’s what the regulations say. I shouldn’t be here.

“The captain can’t change the regulations,” Leona says. She’s clearly pushing something, but what I don’t know.

“Actually,” the woman says, “that’s a gray area. We have two policies, the modern and the ancient. Both apply in this case.”

Leona frowns. She doesn’t agree. Isn’t it her business to know the regulations? Isn’t she the expert in them, like I’m the expert in languages?

“No one gets left behind,” the woman says. “That’s the ancient regulation. No matter how criminal, how perverted, how sick, no one gets left behind.”

She looks at me as she says those things and she has that look in her eyes again. What I had initially taken for sympathy is something else. Fear? Disgust?

“The captain chose to follow that regulation,” the woman says.

“Is that why he didn’t run the announcement?” I ask.

“I don’t presume to know why the captain does what he does,” the woman says. “He should have left you behind.”

“I know,” I say.

Leona frowns at me and even though I don’t know her, I can read her expression. Shut up. Let me talk. I’m your advocate. Let me advocate.

“You want to tell me why he didn’t?” the woman asks.

I shrug one shoulder. I don’t honestly know. I haven’t talked to him. Since I got back, the entire Fleet’s been attacked. We’ve moved, been hit, then moved to foldspace. I suspect the captain’s been busy.

“Are you sure it was him who ordered me back?” I ask.

“Enough,” Leona says. “We can talk all night, but until we have facts, I can’t help you. And I need to know what you want. I know what they want. They want to test you.”

She’s looking at me, and her eyes hold no emotion at all. Only a few people can effectively do that. She’s clearly learned it over the course of her career. She doesn’t know what to think of me, and she doesn’t want me to know that.

She wants me to think she’s on my side.

As if I know what my side is.

“I can block the tests,” she says.

My heart leaps as she says this, but I dry swallow yet again. I am afraid of the tests. I am afraid of what they will reveal. I am afraid of what they won’t reveal.

“Why don’t you study my case,” I say, sounding calm and logical, which I am not, “and then we’ll decide what to do.”

“We need to take her out of the residential wing,” the woman says. “She’s dangerous.”

“We don’t know that,” Leona says.

“We can assume,” the woman says.

Leona turns back to her. Leona’s expression changes, from that flat look she gives me to something akin to anger. Only I’m not sure that emotion is real either.

“From my understanding,” Leona says, “she’s been here for days. If she was going to snap, she would have already. Lock the doors, post a guard, put some kind of monitor on her. But leave her here. You know as well as I do that familiarity provides comfort.”

But the apartment isn’t familiar.

Well, part of it is. The furniture, the mementos that I have brought from previous trips, my bedding, my clothing.

But the view from the portal—it’s unfamiliar, and bound to become more so.

If I don’t have to look outside the ship, I might feel better.

“Do you have portals in the evaluation ward?” I ask the woman.

“Yes,” she says.

So outside lurks here, there, in any place they’d take me.

I let out a shaky sigh. “Then I’ll stay here.”

As if the decision is sane.

As if I am.

As if I would know the difference.

* * *

They all leave me, Leona who is off to do research, the three medical personnel. They’ve posted guards, just like Leona told them to, and they made a point of letting me know. The guards—both big, muscular men—displayed the laser pistols attached to their hips and gave me a stern look.

The warning was clear. If I tried to leave, they’d shoot.

If I tried to leave.

Which I’m not going to do.

Maybe they’re the ones who aren’t thinking. I’m the one who locked myself in my apartment. I’m the one who has hidden from everyone I love.

My twin sister Deirdre has left me increasingly urgent messages, using her technical skills to override the protections I’ve put on my private communications. She is worried, she says. She has heard horrible things, she says. She wants to see me, she says.

Too bad. I don’t want to see her.

I don’t want to see anyone.

Not even Coop.

Jonathon Cooper, our captain. My former husband. He looks like a captain of the Fleet should. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, dark haired, handsome, and oh, so intelligent.

We married young and I was going to have a thousand babies, or maybe the acceptable two. But the babies never happened. Every time I got pregnant, I had to go planetside on some mission or another, and every time, I lost them.

The prenatal unit offered to harbor the fetuses for me, so that my risky job wouldn’t have an impact on my children, but Coop didn’t like the idea. For a man who has attached himself to a machine—loving the Ivoire more than anyone, anything else—he has very old-fashioned views about children. He believes that a child housed in a fetal unit will not have the warmth and compassion, the ability to bond with others, that regular humans do.

He might be right; Lord knows, he’s shown me a lot of studies, all from the Fleet, all from various points in our history, all very scientific.

I know this, but I also know that gestating a child in the woman is no guarantee either. The fetus gets exposed to whatever the woman gets exposed to, and sometimes that exposure is toxic or strange or just plain terrifying.

Dry, dry sand. Heat so extreme that my skin aches. The blood has dried on my skin and it stinks, rotting, even as it’s attached to me. But I cannot get it off. I don’t have the water to drink, let alone any to clean myself. I don’t have

I stand up. My face feels flushed, my skin tight with dried blood.

I don’t want to remember.

I put my hands on my cheeks. I was thinking about Coop. Coop and the babies that never were, and our perennial argument, and the way that he looks at me, even now, as if I have broken his heart.

We still love each other. But we are no longer in love with each other. If we ever were in love with each other.

I think we were in love with the idea of each other. Coop is a bona fide hero, a man who rushes in when he should hang back, who has saved countless lives, who always puts others first and rarely thinks of himself.

I’m the intellectual, the collected one, the one who thinks before she acts—who thinks in many languages before she acts. Coop has always been intrigued by my skills, my ability to make myself understood, to put myself in the place of another culture, another person, to become someone I’m not, even if only for a few minutes.

There is too much Coop to subsume into another human being, even for a moment. I’m beginning to understand that there is not enough me, and perhaps that’s why I can completely vanish into another perspective, because mine is so fragile, so very frail.

Or is it? Coop always says I have a firm core. He may be right. That may be why I am still here—alive, one of three survivors. But that might also be why I can’t remember, why I feel my brains leaking out of my skull, why my memory skips as if it were a rock skimming a clear mountain lake.

I am standing in the middle of my apartment, back to the portal, in foldspace, guards outside my door, my memory gone. I am here because my former husband still loves me too much to sacrifice me for the good of the ship, even though he makes up other reasons. Ancient regulations versus new regulations. Silly, that. He just can’t abide sending me to the middle of that planet, as the war has heated up, a war we started.

Twenty-four died.

I survived.

Along with two others.

Whom I can’t remember.

Just like I can’t remember what happened to everybody else.

* * *

“Something odd is happening here,” I say to Leona. I’m looking out my portal at foldspace. At least I think it’s foldspace.

I recognize nothing out there, and neither does my computer. When I catch a moment, a moment when I can concentrate, I use my apartment computer, trying to figure out where we are. I have to use the information stored on the computer itself; the ship has cut me off. I can’t get into any systems, even informational ones.

The message system doesn’t even work properly. If I want to send a message to anyone other than the medical evaluation unit or Leona, I have to send it through the approval system. Someone else will listen to my complaints, read my notes, see my anxious face.

Rather than let that happen, I don’t send messages.

Not that I feel like communicating anyway.

“Yes, something odd is happening,” Leona says. “You’re essentially imprisoned in your own apartment.”

She sounds offended by this, which strikes me as strange. I’m not offended. I turn.

She’s sitting at my table, her own portable notebook on her lap. Her dark hair is up, and she’s wearing a formal tunic with matching pants.

“I’m not talking about me,” I say, sweeping a hand toward the portal. “Something odd is happening on the ship. To the ship. I don’t know where we are.”

Her expression freezes as if I’ve said something wrong.

“Is this something you’re not supposed to tell me?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I forgot, that’s all. You can’t access the news.”

Shipboard news is an outside system. I’ve never really paid attention anyway, except when I need to for my work, and even then, I’m not really watching. I’m listening—not to what’s going on, but to how it’s expressed.

I am the ship’s senior linguist, a position as important as the captain’s in its own way. Strange that I haven’t thought of that since I’ve come back. I haven’t identified myself as a linguist at all. I haven’t missed the interplay of languages, the way that the same sentence in one language can mean something completely different when translated word-for-word into another.

Context, subtext, word origins, emotions, all contained in one little phrase, one little word. The difference between “an” and “the” can alter meaning dramatically.

And it’s my job to know these subtleties in every language I specialize in. It’s my job to understand them in the new languages I encounter. It’s my job to make sure we can all communicate clearly, because the basis of diplomacy isn’t action, it’s words.

Words, words, words.

“You’ve gone pale,” Leona says. “Do you need to sit down?”

“No.” I walk back to the portal. It’s space-black out there—not quite total darkness. The universe has its own light, and it’s lovely, most of the time. But usually you can see the source—the star in the distance, the reflection off clouds protecting a planet’s atmosphere.

I see nothing.

I have seen nothing for days.

I sometimes check my own eyesight to see if the problem is inside my head.

(I’m so afraid it is inside my head.)

“What’s the news?” I ask, even though I’m no longer sure I want to know.

She pauses. I turn. She’s frowning. It’s an expression I didn’t expect to see on her face. She’s not someone who lets her emotions near the surface.

I have a clear sense of how terrified she is, and how unwilling she is to admit it.

Although I can’t tell you why I feel that way. I can’t tell you how I know.

I just do.

Something subtle then, something subtle like the things I specialize in.

“The anacapa malfunctioned,” she says. “We’re becalmed.”

Becalmed. A nautical term, adapted from Earth, in the days before ships sailed the heavens. In those days, ships sailed the waters, the seas, they were called, and being becalmed was dangerous.

Sailing ships had no engines. They were powered by the wind. And when the wind was gone, the ship didn’t move. Sometimes, way out at sea, a becalmed ship wouldn’t move for days, weeks, and the men—it was always men—on board would die.

Some say they died from thirst or lack of food.

But other accounts say that men who were becalmed died because conditions had driven them insane.

“Becalmed,” I repeat, and sink into a nearby chair. My heart rate has increased.

Leona watches me, as if she’s afraid of what the news will do to me.

She should be.

The Fleet adopted the word “becalmed” because it’s the best way to describe being stuck in foldspace. The anacapa malfunctions, and we can’t get back. It has happened throughout our history.

Ships get lost, some because they’re becalmed. What no one knows, what no one can figure out, is if they’re stuck in an alternate universe or in the actual fold of space itself.

If there is an actual fold of space.

We don’t know—at least those of us who are in no real need to know. Coop probably knows. He’s probably doing everything he can.

“Has he sent a distress?” I ask, because I can’t not ask. I have to know, even though I do know. Of course, Coop sent a distress. Of course, he’s run through procedure. Of course, he’s done everything he can do.

“Several,” she says.

“And?”

“No one is responding.” She looks at her well-manicured hand. “Some believe that our comm system is down.”

I’m an expert in the comm system. I have to be. Because if the comm techs are incapacitated, someone from the linguistic staff still has to communicate to others. So my technical training—my mechanical training, to use another old Earth term—is in comm systems. I’m as good (maybe better) than Coop’s chief communications officer.

And no one has called me.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t heard any announcement. Not because Coop couldn’t leave me behind, but because another emergency superseded mine.

Maybe I’m forgotten, a byproduct, something the junior members of the staff must deal with until the regular members have time to think about me.

“I have comm system expertise,” I say, again, because I can’t not say it.

“I know,” Leona says.

But she says no more.

“When did the anacapa malfunction?” I ask.

She looks at me, as if I should remember. I don’t remember.

“We were outgunned,” she says. “The Quurzod were right behind us. They fired as we engaged the anacapa. We suffered a lot of damage, and that’s when they think the drive malfunctioned.”

This does not reassure me, which irritates me. Apparently I’d been hoping for reassurance.

“We don’t know?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “It’s hard to do assessments out here. They want to go to a base, but no base is answering. We have limited equipment, limited supplies. We’re on rations—”

She stops herself.

I stand up again. I’m like a child’s toy—up, down, up, down. I can’t stay still for a moment.

“We don’t need to be on rations,” I say. “We have enough supplies to last years.”

Then it’s my turn to freeze. We have enough supplies to last years if we know where we are. If we know where we’re going. If we know we can get resupplied.

“They think no one will find us, don’t they?” I whisper. “They think we’re on our own.”

She nods. Just once, as if nodding more than once would be too much acknowledgement, would make us complicit in something.

“They don’t know where we are, do they?” I ask.

She shrugs, but it isn’t a casual gesture. It’s a frustrated gesture.

Shrugs are part of communication. The nuances of shrugs are something I have learned over time.

“They need me,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “They do.”

But she doesn’t move, and she doesn’t say any more. She’s eloquent in her silences.

They need me, but they haven’t come for me. They believe I can’t help them, because I’m somehow damaged, because I’ve done something wrong.

“Is that why the medical evaluation team came?” I say. “To get me back to work?”

She looks at that manicured hand again. She doesn’t reply. Is that a no? Suddenly, for all my training in subtlety, all I’ve learned about reading gestures, I can’t tell.

Finally, she takes a breath. She was steeling herself to talk with me. She isn’t sure I should hear this, but she’s going to tell me anyway.

“Do you know why the Quurzod came after us so vehemently?” she asks.

“No.” I don’t remember much after staggering into that village, after someone gasped, pulled me aside, touched my caked skin.

I collapsed, and woke up on a bed, hooked up to an IV, liquid applied directly into the veins because I couldn’t drink on my own. I woke up later in the hospital wing on the Ivoire, refreshed, no longer burned, my skin smooth and clean and my mouth no longer dry.

I have no idea how I got there, only that I did.

“The Quurzod came because of you,” she says.

I look at her.

“We lost twenty-four,” she says. “They lost more.”

I cannot move. “How many more?”

She shrugs—oh, so eloquent. Not frustrated this time, but an I-don’t-know shrug, an is-an-exact-number-really-important? shrug. “You tell me.”

I have to force myself to breathe. “You’re saying it’s my fault?”

“I’m not saying anything,” she says.

But she is. Oh, she is.

Because I am responsible for communications, language, diplomacy.

If we went in twenty-seven strong—and we did—that means we went in as a team. A planetside team usually has thirty, but I remember—(do I? Or am I making this up?)—that we lost three because they couldn’t stomach the Quurzod.

Not that the Quurzod are so different from us. We haven’t discovered any aliens in our travels—not true aliens, anyway, not aliens in the way that we define them, as sentient creatures who build and create and form attachments like we do. We’ve found strange creatures and even stranger plants, but nothing like the human race.

Although we have found humans throughout our centuries of travel. Thousands and thousands of humans. Each with different languages, different skills, different levels of development.

But exactly the same—emotional, callous, brilliant, sad—capable of great good and great violence, often within the same culture.

The Quurzod—the Quurzod, oh, I remember the briefings, snatches of the briefings at any rate. They make an art out of violence. They kill and maim and do so with great relish. When they committed genocide against the Xenth, they did so with psychopathic glee—killing children in front of parents, torturing loved ones, experimenting to see what kind of punishment a human body could take before it had enough and simply quit.

The stories distressed my team. Three couldn’t face the Quurzod.

It makes no sense. If I started this, then that was all the more reason to leave me behind. We’re taught from childhood that sacrifices are necessary.

We travel in a fleet of ships 500 strong. We split off for various missions, and sometimes we sacrifice an entire ship if we have to. An individual life—one of at least 500 lives on the Ivoire alone—means less than the mission.

The mission: to provide assistance throughout the known universe. We are the good guys, the rescuers; we are the ones who make the wrongs right. We do what we can, interfere if we must, help when we’re needed.

And when we make mistakes, we make them right.

We don’t run.

It seems like we ran.

“I want to talk to Coop,” I say.

Leona shakes her head. “Not until you can tell us what happened.”

“Then I should let the medical evaluation unit run their tests.”

Her head shaking becomes more pronounced. “You can’t. We need truth here, not legal tricks.”

“Tricks?” I say. “They’ll be using equipment, running diagnostics—”

“Asking you questions, putting memories in your head.” She runs her hand over her notebook. “We’ll wait until your own memories return.”

She looks at the portal, then back at me.

“After all,” she says dismally. “We have time.”

* * *

Sometimes I sleep. The body demands it, and when it can no longer function without sleep, I doze wherever I am.

I have fallen asleep on the divan. I love the divan. I have put it in the center of my living area, where most people have group seating. But I never hold meetings here.

I used to study on it, let words dance around me as I spoke them. They’d turn red if I pronounced something wrong, and they’d vanish if spoken correctly. I loved word dancing. I loved study.

Now I lie on the divan and I stare out the portal at all that nothing, not thinking at all. Words don’t even run through my head. I know I’ve been thinking, but I cannot articulate what the thoughts are.

Yet as I fall asleep, I know I am asleep. I feel the divan beneath me, note that the apartment is a bit too cold, think I should tell the apartment’s system to adjust the heat. Or I should grab a blanket from the bedroom. I should be comfortable.

But I am not. I claw my way through a pile of stinky, sticky flesh. Arms move, legs flop, a head turns toward me, eyes gone. I force myself not to look. I am climbing people and I know that if I don’t I will die.

I jerk awake, shudder, trying to get the images from my head. Leona wants me to remember.

I don’t.

I get up and take a blanket off my bed. Then I stop and look at the wall, the only wall I have decorated.

An old blanket—a quilt, to use the proper term—adds color to the room. Pinks and reds and glorious blues, mixed together in a wedding ring pattern. The quilt has been in my family for generations, given, my mother said, to an ancestor as the Fleet embarked from Earth itself.

I don’t know for certain because I’ve never tested the quilt. I keep it out of harsh light. It’s preservation framed, done by my grandmother, and its beauty should remind us of tradition, of homes we’ll never see again, of family.

I have cousins on other ships in the Fleet, family, some distant in corridors down the way. We are not close. My sister has a daughter, and if I never have children, this quilt will go to her.

I wrap the blanket around myself and walk back to the divan. I recline on it again, look out the portal, see that brightly lit blackness, threatening starshine, but not delivering it.

And—

I’m still climbing. The sunlight beats down on me, the heat nearly unbearable. I’ve been praying for the wind to stop since I got here, but now that it has, I want it back, if only to get rid of the insects and the stench.

I am the only one alive. I do not want to look but I do—faces, eyes especially, eyes glazed over and an odd white. Blood everywhere. I climb, standing on people, and if I look up, I can see an edge to the pit I am in.

I stop, listen, hear only my ragged breathing. If I can hear it, someone else can hear it too. Someone lurking out there. Someone who will—

I can’t do it this way. There is no comfort in this apartment, in these rooms. If this is a memory, then I do not want to be alone with it.

If it is a nightmare, I want it banished.

If it is an example of how I will live from now on, I cannot. I will not. I will die before I continue like this.

I contact Leona. Her face appears on my wall screen, looking concerned. I do not give her time to speak.

I say, “I’m going to have the evaluations.”

And then I sever the link.

* * *

The guards escort me to the medical unit. I’m not used to being escorted. I’m used to leading. But these two men, both bigger than me, walk beside me, brushing against me, making it clear that I’m in their power.

They lead me down one of the main corridors in the ship, so it’s wide enough for people to pass us. Everyone who does averts their eyes, partly because I no longer look like me, and partly because I’m being escorted.

Just because there are five hundred of us on the ship doesn’t mean we all know each other. Some of us apprenticed on other ships. Some of us grew up elsewhere in the Fleet. I met Coop on the Brazza, when we were going to school. That we both ended up on the senior staff of the Ivoire had less to do with our designs than with our abilities, and a gap in leadership at the Ivoire at the time.

Back then I was young enough not to realize that I profited from other people’s failures. I notice now.

Just like I’m being noticed, even though people are looking away. They see a crazed woman, hair down, so distracted she forgot to put on shoes before she told the guards she wanted to go to the medical unit. I’m walking through the cold corridors with bare feet, wearing a knee-length white shirt and matching pants—my comfort clothes—in a place where almost everyone else is in uniform.

The medical evaluation unit is on the fifth level of the medical wing. Everything here is as white as my clothing, with nanobits that keep the walls and floors clean. My bare feet leave footprints that get erased by the nanobits after just a moment. The dirt from the guards’ shoes evaporates as quickly as well.

The staff working in the medical unit must work one week in other parts of the ship. This area is too sterile for good human health, and the medical personnel who do not leave find themselves developing allergies and sensitivities to the most normal things—like skin cells and cooking oils.

I’ve put in time in the medical unit as well—all of the linguists do as part of our training. We program the medical database with medical terms from any new language we’ve learned. We also train the staff to speak the most rudimentary forms of many languages—enough to ask after another person’s health—and to understand the answers.

The guards lead me to the fifth level. There a woman waits for me. She’s not the woman who invaded my apartment. Nor is she anyone I know.

She’s tiny, with raven-black hair, black eyes, and a straight line for a mouth. She extends her hand.

“I’m Jill Bannerman,” she says. “I’ll help you through the evaluation.”

“I can’t do anything until my advocate gets here,” I say. The words come out awkward and ungracious. I’m excellent at being accommodating, at saying the right thing at the right time—or I used to be.

“I know,” Bannerman says. “I’ll get you ready, and then we’ll wait for her. She should be here shortly.”

I don’t know what ready means. It makes me nervous. I shake my head. “I’d like to wait.”

“All right,” she says, as if she expected that. “Sit here. We’ll get started as soon as she arrives.”

She leads me to an orange chair that curves around my body as I sit. I’m so paranoid that I wonder if it’s taking readings from me.

But the Ivoire—the Fleet, actually—has privacy laws. Even if this chair records information off me, no one can use the information without my permission.

Have I given permission by agreeing to the evaluation? I have no idea. I should have checked with Leona first.

That’s what she’ll say.

Jill Bannerman speaks softly to my guards, then she leaves the room. The guards move out of the main area and back outside the doors. I’m alone in a room with half a dozen chairs, with walls that reset themselves, and furniture that changes color every ten minutes. First orange, then red, then mauve, then purple, then blue. I watch the furniture, a bit unnerved by it all.

There is nothing else to watch, no entertainment, no open portals, no other people. Just me and the constantly changing furniture.

I tuck my cold feet underneath my legs and make myself breathe deeply. I want to tap my fingertips on the chair, but someone will read that as nervousness, I’m sure. I don’t know why I’m worried that they will notice—it’s hard to miss, and if the system is recording my vital signs, the nervousness will show in my elevated heart rate, my slightly higher-than-normal blood pressure, and even in my breathing.

The only thing I’m not doing right now is regretting my decision. I’m suddenly quite happy to be out of my apartment. I hadn’t realized how claustrophobic I felt in it, how shut down I had been.

How terrified.

The doors slide open and Leona sweeps in. Her green tunic changes the color scheme in the room. Now the chairs float through forest colors—green, dark green, blue-green, blue. She slides into a chair across from me.

“We can still leave,” she says.

I shake my head.

“We need a consult, and we can’t have it here,” she says.

So I am being monitored. “I’m doing this,” I say.

“You made that clear,” she says. “Now we determine how to do it best for you.”

Whatever that means.

“There’s a privacy room just over there,” she says. “We’re using it.”

I’ve read up on advocacy. She’s not supposed to give me orders. She’s supposed to follow mine. But she’s worried and I’m not strong enough to fight her. Besides, I’m not leaving the medical evaluation unit. I’m just stepping into a private room for a few minutes to consult with my advocate.

I don’t have to take her advice.

She touches the wall and a door slides open. I hadn’t noticed it while I was waiting, distracted (apparently) by the constantly changing furniture.

This room is also white with a black conference table that has grown out of the floor. Two chairs sit side by side. I suppose if more people walk in, more chairs will grow out of their storage spots on the floor.

The overhead lights spotlight the chairs and nearby, coffee brews as if someone set it up for us.

Leona ignores it, but I help myself. As I touch the coffee pot, pastries slide in from the far wall. Pastries and an entire plate of fruit, some of it exotic.

“I thought we’re on rations,” I say to her.

“We are, but maybe the medical wing is exempt.”

The food gets her up and she stacks a plate with strudels and Danishes and things I don’t even have a name for. I grab a banana that looks like it came from one of the hydroponics bays, and something with lots of frosting and raisins.

My stomach actually growls. I’m not sure when the last time I ate was.

We sit down with our food and our coffees, suddenly so civilized.

She picks up one of the Danishes, but doesn’t take a bite. “I know I can’t change your mind, but I want you to know what’s at risk.”

I eat the banana first. It’s green and chewy, not really ripe, almost sour. I don’t care. It feels like the first food I’ve eaten in years, even though it’s not.

“I found out why they brought you back to the ship,” Leona says.

That, of all things, catches my attention. It sounds ominous.

“Why?”

“They need to know what happened planetside. They need to know if it’s our fault.”

A shiver runs down my back. If it’s our fault. Of course it’s our fault. The Fleet meddles. That’s what we do.

“What do the other two survivors say?” I ask.

She doesn’t look at me. Instead she takes a bite of that Danish and eats slowly. I want to push her on this. I want her to tell me everything right now.

But some vestiges of my training remain. I sit and watch, counting silently to myself because it’s the only way I can keep still.

Stillness used to be my best weapon. I could wait for anyone. I could listen forever, and learn, without making a move.

But I seem to have lost that ability. I’m restless now, and time feels like it has sped up. Even though I know it has only taken a moment for her to eat that small bite of pastry, it feels as if she has taken an hour.

“What do they say?” I ask because I can’t wait any longer. So much for stillness.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I haven’t spoken to them directly.”

“But you know,” I press.

She shrugs a shoulder—a sorry-said-all-I-can shrug.

Then she sets the pastry down and wipes her hand on a small napkin. “Look,” she says. “If that mess turns out to be our fault, then you’ll probably be executed. Now do you see why I don’t want you to do this?”

“I need to do this,” I say softly.

“Why?” she asks.

“The memories are coming back. I can’t experience them on my own. It’s better if they all come back at once.”

She stares at me, and then sighs. “I’ll see what I can do,” she says, and leaves.

* * *

I sit in that room for what feels like forever, but really is only about an hour. There is a bathroom next to the service area, and I’m able to use that, but I’m not able to leave the room itself. I pace. I count to ten in fifteen languages. Then in six more. And then I start over because I can’t remember all the languages I just tried.

I’ve just started counting to one hundred when Leona returns.

“Jill Bannerman is outside,” Leona says. “When she comes in here, you tell her what you told me about not being able to cope. Be dramatic. The more threatened you feel the better.”

“I won’t be lying,” I say. “I can’t do this alone.”

Those words are so inadequate. If I close my eyes, I can feel the heat, the blood drying on my skin, the bodies rolling beneath my hands. I can’t sit still with that. I have to move. And the more of it that comes back to me, the more movement I need to make.

“You tell her that,” Leona says. “Make it very clear that this is a medical issue.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because that gives you legal protection. You’ll be considered a patient, not a criminal. If they had taken you that afternoon when you called me, you’d’ve been a criminal. Just like you would have been if you hadn’t waited for me today. This way, you’ll be able to say anything, do anything, and it won’t come out in a legal proceeding. At least not in detail. The ship’s staff can have an advocate in the room, and he can testify to what you say, but it won’t have the force of your testimony. It can only be used to start an investigation, which they’re already running.”

I stare at her. She thinks I’ve done something wrong. They all seem to think I’ve done something wrong.

Is that why I can’t remember?

“Before you decide,” she says, “this is your last chance to go back to your apartment. You can do this on your own and no one will ever have to know.”

My stomach clenches. “And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Will I ever be able to leave my apartment? Will I be able to return to my duties?”

She shakes her head. “You’ll be alive. Isn’t that enough?”

I think about the view from my portal. Stuck in foldspace with nothing to see. The same walls, a different view, if we’re lucky, but the same walls for the rest of my life. No more languages. No more work.

No more friends or family.

Just me. Alive. In my apartment.

Becalmed.

“Send her in,” I say, “and I’ll tell her the truth.”


The truth is that I am terrified of my own mind. The truth is that I’m afraid my memories will kill me. I’m afraid if I never access them, they will kill me, and I’m afraid if I do remember, I can’t live with them.

Somehow I stammer that out to Jill Bannerman and she takes some kind of notes and Leona gets her dispensation or whatever it is and I meet the senior staff’s advocate, a man named Rory Harper, whom I’ve seen before, but I can’t remember in what context.

He’s older, fifties, sixties, silvering hair and a dignity that I don’t like. I don’t want someone like him to see me go through the tests. I don’t want anyone to see me.

But I have no choice.

So I agree to everything, and end up here.

* * *

You never see the whole ship, no matter what ship you’re on. About fifty ships have a specialty. Those ships never go on planetside missions because we don’t want to lose them. I got the last of my education on the Brazza. The Brazza specializes in education, the Santé specializes in medical training, the Eiffel specializes in engineering, and the Seul specializes in officer training, just to name a few.

And even on the Brazza, adventurous and young, I never explored the entire ship. No one did, no one could. There was just too much to see, too much to do.

And here, on the Ivoire, even though I’ve worked in the medical wing, I’ve never seen these rooms.

The testing rooms.

They’re dark and strange, buried deep within the ship. They feel like the very center of the ship, even though they cannot be. The Ivoire, like all of the ships in the Fleet, have a birdlike design—a narrow, curved front, expanding to massive body in the center with wider sections that seem like wings, and a final tail toward the back. This makes the Ivoire sound small, but it is not.

The medical unit is in one of the wider sections, with easy access from several areas of the ship. The unit is several levels down, with a lot of material between it and the exterior, unlike my apartment, which is right on the edge. If an attack destroys a section of the ship, that section mostly will not include the medical unit.

Or these testing facilities.

They seem close, cavelike, and my breath catches as I step inside.

I will be alone in here, with doctors of all kinds, as well as my advocate (Leona) and the ship’s advocate (Harper) observing through the walls. Or through something. I am a bit unclear on the mechanism.

Jill assures me that I will be safe, that the monitors in the floor, the walls, the very room itself, will know when I am too emotional to continue, and will pull me back. I will rest, then, and maybe even receive something to help me into a dreamless sleep.

I do not like this room. I do not like the low light, the dark interior, the cushy floor. I want a portal or a screen or something familiar. Before the door closes, I catch her arm.

“Is there somewhere else to do this?”

She shakes her head. “This room is safe.”

“I don’t like it,” I say. “There’s nothing here.”

She gives me a sad look that I suspect she intended as compassionate. “We need the room to mold around you. Nothing in here can contradict what’s happening inside your mind. That’s probably what’s making you uncomfortable.”

I cannot go inside. I remain in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t do this.”

“It will help you.”

I shake my head—or rather, I shake my head even more. I don’t realize until this moment that I’ve been shaking my head all along.

“No,” I say. “I can’t go in this room.”

Somehow Leona has found her way to my side. “If she doesn’t want to go in, she doesn’t have to.”

Leona’s voice is firmer than mine. Its forcefulness makes my stomach muscles tighten. I feel nauseous.

“People often balk before going in,” Jill says. “It’s part of the process. Your memories are difficult, and the fear you feel has to do with them, not with the room.”

I’m still shaking my head. “No.”

Leona slips her arm around my back. She leads me out of the area. Jill follows, uttering soothing words, trying to coerce me back into that room.

I can’t. I won’t.

We get to the main room—the room that constantly changes—it’s white now, with yellow accents—and I burst into tears.

Part of me stands aside and watches myself cry. I don’t cry. I can count the number of times I’ve shed tears, including the day my parents died.

The crying feels alien, as if there is a part of me that I cannot control.

“I’m sorry,” I manage.

“It’s better,” Leona says.

But it’s not. I’ll be alone, in my room, dealing with the memories all by myself.

At least I’ll have a portal.

That views foldspace.

Nothingness.

Becalmed.

* * *

But the dreams are gone as if they have never been. As if a mere attempt to enter the room has taken the memories from my head and made me feel more human.

I clean up, then I clean the apartment. I find a language in the database, an old language, a dead language (or so they think) and I proceed to learn it, word for ancient word.

I am digging in for forever, when my door chirrups. A preprogrammed signal, the only one I’ve put in my door’s system.

For Coop.

My breath catches. I don’t want to see him. I do want to see him. I want him to go away. I want him to tell me everything.

I go to the door, but do not open it. I engage the comm. “You’re supposed to be running the ship.”

“I am,” he says. I recognize that tone. It’s constrained—his captain’s tone. His I’m-not-alone-so-don’t-bother-me-with-personal-stuff tone. “I’m coming in.”

He’s captain. He can override any command on this ship.

I step back, run a hand over my hair, check my blouse. I’ve been dressing like a professional ever since I came back, ever since I started my new language, even though I never thought I’d see anyone again. I need the pretense.

I need to think I’ll have a use again.

He comes in, and waits as the door closes behind him.

I’m always startled at how much older he looks. Not that command has aged him, although it has, it’s just that I remember the boy I fell for, the handsome dark-haired boy full of promise, and now that boy has become a man—a powerful man—who stands before me.

He’s wearing his black uniform with silver piping, the everyday uniform, nothing special. He would look normal if it weren’t for his hair. He hasn’t tended to it in days, and it has grown long, brushing his collar, making him seem almost unkempt.

“They say you’re refusing treatment,” he says.

I can’t tell if this visit is compassionate or a ship problem. I can’t tell if he’s here because he’s my former husband and still my friend, or if he’s here because he’s the ship’s captain, or both.

I’m not sure I should be able to tell.

“I went to them for help, but I can’t go in the treatment rooms.” It sounds crazy. I sound crazy. But I’m beginning to come to terms with that. I think I am crazy.

“The doctors say you’re claustrophobic,” he says. “That’s why you can’t go in. You’ve never been claustrophobic before.”

I look at him, a denial about to cross my lips. Then—

–the bodies pile on top of me. I’m drowning in them, afraid to move, afraid not to move, my head wedged in a slightly angled position. I catch some air, but not much. Enough, apparently, to keep me breathing, even though I feel like I’m being crushed.

I curse and realize that I’m sitting down. Coop is crouched before me.

“What was that?” he asks.

I tear up. I blink, hoping that he won’t notice. “The memories,” I say. Then I take a deep breath, determined to change the subject. “Why are they letting you in here? What if I’m dangerous?”

He smiles. “You’re not?”

“The medical evaluation unit thought I was.”

“They’re wrong,” he says.

“You don’t know that,” I say. “You can’t know that.”

“You got brainwashed in a month planetside? You’ve a firm core, remember? No one can brainwash you. That’s why you’re such a good linguist. You can keep your sense of self while understanding others.”

“Anyone can change,” I say. My heart is beating hard. “They think I killed twenty-four people.”

He has taken my right hand. He holds it gently, and rises just a little so that he’s not crouching any more. He sits beside me, like a shy lover, but there’s nothing romantic in his posture.

“Twenty-four people died,” he says. “And you didn’t. That’s what we know.”

“Why didn’t you leave me there?” I ask. “That’s protocol.”

“I wasn’t about to leave you there,” he says.

I look at him. I don’t know how to respond. So I say, “You should let me look at the communications array.”

“I’d love to,” he says. “But I can’t. Not until we know what you’ve done.”

“What do the others say?”

“They say you abandoned them.” His voice is harsh. “They say you left everyone to fend for themselves.”

“I would never do that.” The words come out of my mouth before I can stop them.

This time his smile is real. “I know,” he says. “I think they’re lying.”

 

To be continued…

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Asimov’s SF Magazine, April/May, 2011
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © by Glazyuk/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

One response to “Free Fiction Monday: Becalmed, Part One”

  1. savantefolle says:

    Diving into a good, strange story!

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