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Authors: Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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BOOK: Becalmed
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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 fold-space.

 

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.”

BOOK: Becalmed
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