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Waking Ophelia

Written by E. Catherine Tobler
Illustrated by Jonathan Rollins

I came out of stasis-sleep to the tap-tap-tap of Bel's thin, metallic fingers on my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut—why so insistent, couldn't a girl get a few more minutes?—but the sharp tang of smoke in the air made me jerk upright. Frying circuitry is a smell you never forget, but I'd never smelled it on my ship. Never on Luna.

Bel held my shoulders to steady me, hands taking countless readings as I broke through the surface of stasis and entered consciousness. It wasn't the way a person was supposed to come up. There were supposed to be layers, gentle layers while the body reacquainted itself with normal breathing, with sight, with sounds. Insulated from all that for—

"How long?" I croaked the words, so it had been a while. How long had I been down? How far into the cargo run were we? The lights around me were turned low, thank you Bel, but they still seemed sun-bright to my tender eyes. I pressed a hand over my closed lids, the engine thrum like a growing storm. I welcomed that sound.

"Sixteen years, eleven months," Bel said, the coolly modulated voice instantly calming me. Best AI in the twelve systems, worth every credit.

A straw angled itself between my lips. I took hold of the water canister Bel offered and squeezed, drinking as much as Bel allowed me. The weight of the water in my stomach was a jolt and I didn't object when Bel removed the canister.

The run was supposed to take twenty-two years. "Why so early?" I asked. We were still about five light years from our destination. I squinted at Bel and that smooth voice ordered the lights a step higher. I wanted to smack the AI, but was too weak.

When the ship jolted, I tensed and smelled the frying circuitry anew. What the hell was hitting Luna? Bel moved from my side and I staggered out of the stasis bed, crumpling to hands and knees on the cool floor. I watched Bel's silver-bright feet move out of the chamber and round the corner to the right.

Cockpit. "Come on, body—cockpit." I hauled myself to my feet and the room tilted. I took several deep breaths, felt the steady beat of my heart, and knew that if the room would steady, I'd be fine. I'd be just—

Luna rocked under another assault.

"Blast and damn!"

Doing my best to ignore the tipping room, I headed after Bel, and as I rounded the corner, ran smack into a body that should not have been on my ship. There were only ever two bodies on this ship—mine and Bel's, and this body, this male body, didn't belong.

Strong hands enclosed my wrists and propelled me forward, toward the cockpit. There were other people there—other people! On my ship! Four? Maybe five.

My captor released me abruptly outside the cockpit hatch and directed a look of pure venom toward Bel, who was unmoved by the emotion. "I told you to leave her be," he said, then shouldered his way into the cockpit.

"We've been boarded." I whispered this in wonder as I stood there with Bel, the metal flooring cold beneath my bare feet. In more than a hundred and seventy-five years, Luna had never been boarded. Every mission had gone smoothly, completed on time. I doubted it was some kind of record—stasis-sleep pilots were known for their missions and people respected them. People who clearly weren't among those now swarming my cockpit. My cockpit.

I pushed off the wall, trying to convince myself I felt stronger than I did. The lights and sounds were almost overwhelming as I stepped into the pit, and counted five people touching controls that they had no right to touch.

"What the hell is this?" I asked. I pictured my voice coming out strong and demanding, when in reality, it was still a croak. Blast and damn. I hadn't spoken in almost seventeen years. I tried again. "What the hell—"

"Sit. You're about to fall over."

It wasn't Bel who saw to my welfare and settled me into the buttery leather chair at the ops station. It was a tall man, with warm hands and a dusting of silver whiskers on his cheeks. I looked into his eyes, a shade of gray-blue I hadn't seen since I last passed along the Light Year Nebula, and felt the room tip out from under me again. I closed my eyes and swallowed the nausea.

"I'm sorry about this," he said as the blackness swam inside my eyelids. "We needed your ship."

"My ship," I said. I opened my eyes and his face morphed from blurry to crystal clear. He was scarred close to his right eye, and freshly cut along his chin. Bel could fix that right up, I thought but didn't say. This saphead had boarded my ship.

"Two more out there."

"Not for long."

This dialogue came from somewhere over Silver Whiskers' shoulder. I tried to look, but the room pitched. I thought the nausea was worsening, but no, the pilot just sucked heartily.

"You don't fly Luna like that, milksop," I muttered. Silver Whiskers smiled, a lovely, crooked smile in that somewhat-worn face.

"You aren't in any shape to fly her yourself," he said.

"A hundred credits says otherwise." As the milksop at the controls worked his magic, the ship lurched again and propelled me out of the chair, straight into Silver Whiskers' arms. But the thrust carried him backward too and we ended up in a pile between the pilot's chair (my chair) and the nav controls. "Out!" I stepped on Silver Whiskers as I climbed to my chair and grabbed the milksop's arm. He was small, young, and clattered back to the decking.

My chair was warm from milksop's backside. I'd never known that sensation before. This leather was always cold until I warmed it. Always.


Bel slipped into the nav station and we worked in concert. Two ships remained in the starry sky before me, unfamiliar to me in both marking and design. They were small, sleek, almost the color of the heavens and easily lost as we crisscrossed back and forth. They were armed with cannons which shook the hull when they fired and I dodged. Luna had fairly primitive weapons—I'd been meaning to upgrade but hell's bells, no one bothered stasis-sleep cargo ships. No one. There was a respect, damn it. Granted, there were pirates—hell, was that what Silver Whiskers was?


I skirted a debris field and rounded back toward the unfamiliar ships. I drew in tighter and tighter circles, Luna like a long-time lover under my hands. Someone behind me whispered "Jesus" as we circled closer to the near-black ships. If that old deity could help us, by all means pray, but it was Luna who would save our asses. She always did.

The ships crisscrossed and misjudged Luna's turning radius; their wings caught and broke, and the ships collided in a fireball. I bisected the flames with Luna, debris pattering on the hull as we cleared it. I looked over my shoulder at Silver Whiskers.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. "Were those Terran credits or Vegan?"

* * *

I tucked Luna into orbit around an uninhabited planet and retreated back to the infirmary, where Bel scanned me, gave me more fluids, and eventually pronounced me fit. As fit as a girl could be who'd come out of stasis the way I had. I settled into a broad chair that didn't threaten to dump my still-adjusting body to the floor and was brushing my hair when Silver Whiskers peered into the room.

He was good looking, broad in the shoulder and narrow in the hip, and exactly the kind of thing I didn't need to get involved with. Not now, not when I had another five light years of travel. But those hands and those lips, they beckoned like water and the memory of fresh roasted meat. I was hungry, for more than just food.

"Bel tells me you're Ophelia Solomon."

"Bel should be melted and sold for scrap," I said without meaning it, and looked at the AI, quietly organizing the equipment used in my post-stasis scans. I tossed my hairbrush aside for all the good it was doing and Bel tucked it into its proper place.

Every time I came out of stasis, I expected my chin-length hair to be down to my waist, but it was never so. I looked as I looked the day I went in, no older. No matter how many times I expected to see lines around my eyes and silver in my blonde hair, it was never so. I pulled my hair up and clipped it to keep it out of my eyes, and looked at Silver Whiskers, waiting for him to say something more. Anything, so that I could stop noticing the way his belt rode low on his hips, and the easy way his black tee fit him. He had discarded his jacket—relaxing on my ship? My time? Was this what a pirate did?

"Why'd you jack my ship?" I asked when he didn't say anything.

"Name's Larkin," he said, which did nothing to answer my question. The way he said it, the name had a reputation attached, and when I didn't react, he chuckled. It was a pleasant sound, but alien on this ship. Bel didn't chuckle and rarely did I.

I shrugged a shoulder. "I spend more time asleep than I do awake," I said. "I'm not familiar."

"Daniel Larkin."

As if adding a first name was going to somehow cause bells to ring inside my head and light to flood over him. Illumination did not arrive in any form.

He leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. I caught sight of a chain around his neck, and a tattoo along his left biceps. A merchant tattoo, three diagonal lines crossed by one diagonal in the opposite direction. His chain would hold his tags then, ID and perhaps letters of permission that allowed him to work a certain territory.

"You're marked a merchant," I said and slowly stood from the chair. I nearly cheered out loud when the room didn't tilt sideways. "Merchants aren't known for jacking." So why the hell was he on my ship?

"When Luna set out, I bet these trade lanes weren't here," he said.

I scowled at Larkin's cocky tone; had he made the lanes himself? Stasis-sleep cargo ships avoided known trade lanes, ferrying goods from one star system to another because merchants like Larkin couldn't get into deep-space with their ships. Bel didn't require stasis-sleep, so if a course change had to be made once the primary pilot went into stasis, Bel was fully capable. So why hadn't we made a course change to avoid this new trade lane?

"Didn't have a choice but to jack you," Larkin said, "not when those raiders set on us. Luna's bigger than anything we run—hell, Killian is sitting in your docking bay right now."

How had he docked, I wondered. Had he blown out the doors? Overridden the controls? For the safety of Luna, I rather hoped Bel had allowed him to dock.

"Did you jack the FTL drive?" I asked. "You—You pulled us out—you saphead!" I wanted to throw something at him, but there was nothing within reach. He could have killed me and destroyed the ship in one easy move. I wasn't sure which upset me more. Larkin nodded and had the decency not to look pleased with himself.

"And why would raiders be chasing you?" In my experience, merchants kept it simple. They ferried whatever the FTL sleeper-ships didn't, mostly fresh goods between planets in the system. Animals, produce, and combustibles. Pirates? Now they carried anything and everything, including contraband.

"A system merchant who hauls—what? Surely nothing more exciting than trade goods. Tomatoes, sheep, fuel?"

Larkin smiled in a way that made my stomach flip-flop. I told myself I was still coming out of stasis. My system was subject to all manner of quirks.

"I need your ship, 'Phelia," he said and the shortening of my name didn't thrill me. Like we were intimates.

"No, no way in all the heavens am I letting pirates take this ship." His eyes narrowed a bit at the word "pirates," but I didn't care. "I don't care what your tattoo says you are. You jacked this ship off its course and have delayed the goods for Sedgwick. You're lucky you didn't jack the colonist ship—"

"Lucky!" Larkin had the nerve to laugh, a sound that scared and delighted me all in the same instant. How long since I'd heard a man laugh like that? Sixteen years, eleven months . . . give or take. "Lady, it'll be luck if we get my cargo where it needs to go."

Cargo. Hell's bells. I didn't want to know what he was carrying, I really didn't. I shouldered past him, but he caught my arm before I could stalk down the corridor. I looked into his gray eyes and waited.

"How old are you?" he asked.

The question didn't surprise me. People always wondered about stasis pilots. I wrenched my arm out of Larkin's hold, but rather thought he let me go. If he wanted to hold me, he would.

"Twenty-eight," I said.

Larkin's mouth curved in a smile. We both knew that was bullshit, but he didn't argue and let me stalk down the corridor, all two hundred and twenty-eight years of me.

* * *

Twenty-two lights years out, twenty-two back. A girl should age forty-four years in between all those stars, but in stasis, time stops. Everywhere else, time keeps moving. Everyone I'd known—everyone I'd grown up with—was long gone.

I joined the military straight out of school to become a pilot. There was nothing better than flying across a bright sky, and then later into the stars. I worked the Sol system for a good five years before I stasis-slept my way to Alpha Centauri. I worked that system for another five. They offered me Luna and her stasis runs and I couldn't say no. There were five other settled systems to see. And now, we've got a total of twelve. Humanity keeps pushing, out into stars never before seen. Sedgwick colony comes next, and Luna carries supplies for the colonists.

All I want is to get there on time. Get there and get back into stasis where the living is quiet and dark. This world is too bright, too loud; I want only to sleep.

Plan was, I'd hit the system alongside a ship of transport workers—cargo is quiet, and there's that respect for the work we do, so it's just me and Bel on these runs, in the empty spaces between stars. A secondary AI remained on board but deactivated; we'd never needed it.

Plan was, we'd get the supplies down before the colonists arrived. "Wish them well and jet to hell"—that's the old saying. Some people are made for solid ground, and others for stars.

I couldn't figure which Larkin was. I'd say stars, but then I'd hear him talking to his mates about forests and rivers and how he missed them.

Daniel Larkin was the son of a printer, or so Bel told me after accessing records on him. The Larkins lived on Copper IV, and printing was in their blood. Bel traced them all the way back to the Sol system, seventeen-hundred-something. Older than me. It made me smile a little.

Learning they were printers, it wasn't hard to guess what he was hauling and why raiders wanted it. I watched Larkin and his mates in the galley, eating like they hadn't eaten in a dozen years. I'd had nothing but liquid from a tube for more than that, yet found it hard to consider joining them for their meal. At least Bel was there to serve and see that they didn't eat more than they should. I had five more years ahead of me once they let me go.

It galled me, the idea that I couldn't escape them. I couldn't abandon the cargo or Luna—while my pay is generous, it would never cover the replacement costs. Neither could I overpower them. Milksop would be the easiest, but the others were grown men. Fully armed grown men.

I didn't join them. I left them to their meal and headed for the docking bay. Larkin had jacked my ship, so I saw no reason why I shouldn't jack his—at least as much as I could under current conditions.

Killian was neatly docked alongside two shuttles. Larkin's ship was twice the size of the shuttles, sleek with a warm green cast to the hull. Someone had left the hatch open, the stairs down, so I welcomed myself onboard.

The ship had a closer feel than Luna does; more personal. It smelled, too, like men and fermented beverages. I found the cargo hold in the rear of the ship, packed with dozens upon dozens of crates and containers. I touched the first wood crate I saw; the rough wood under my fingers was alien. Couldn't remember the last time I touched wood.

When Larkin's hand caught mine, splinters bit into my fingers. I gasped in surprise and pain both.


"What do you think you're doing?"

I looked up at Larkin and laughed. "You jacked me out of FTL. I thought I'd see why. Where are the books?"

Larkin didn't release my hand; if anything, his grip tightened. He stared at me and I stared back, damned if I'd be cowed.

"Daddy Larkin is a printer," I said. "Makes quite a fine living at it on Copper Four, too fine a living." I tried to twist my arm free, but Larkin was having none of it. My fingers ached. "If you expect me to cooperate and not contact the Federals, you're raving. You can't pilot Luna without me."

"That's why we didn't let the milksop kill you when we boarded."

I went still, somehow never realizing the kind of danger I was in until that moment. Not the danger of Larkin's hand around my wrist, but the danger of them jacking the ship while I slept.

It was fine to say that people respected the work of stasis-pilots, but there were always stories about those who didn't. About pirates who jacked FTL ships and murdered the crew in stasis. I had always laughed it off, because pirates wouldn't know how to pilot such a large vessel; it wasn't like piloting a shuttle or even Killian. But sometimes, people did things just to say they'd done it.

"Found you, sleeping like some storybook princess," Larkin said softly, easing his grip on my wrist.

He looked at my fingers then drew one into his mouth. I jerked at the contact—his mouth so hot and wet—but couldn't pull free. His teeth abraded my finger, his tongue licked and warmed, and when he withdrew my finger, the splinters were loosening.

"Milksop—Rand wanted to poison your nutrient line. But your AI was already up—security I guess?"

I said nothing but thanked my lucky stars for Bel. The second Luna had come out of FTL, Bel would have been activated. Bel came for me. Saved me.

"We found your AI with you." Larkin chuckled. "Rand nearly pissed himself." Larkin put my finger back in his mouth and sucked. He pulled the finger free with a soft pop. "I needed you. It's Rand's first outing."

As if that excused contemplating murder.

"Where are the books?" I repeated my question, fearing that anything else I might say would involve "bed" and "now."

Larkin dropped my hand and turned away. I followed him deeper into the cargo hold, my finger throbbing. >From the splinters or the remedy, I didn't know. This is why stasis was easier; there were no questions, just blissful solitude.

He lead me to a plas-container, nothing that would stand out from anything else in the stacks. Unlocking a complex combination revealed a smaller box inside, and inside that were five books. From the twentieth, it looked like. Older than me—and it made me smile a little.

Five books, when a man could live on the income from a fraction of one. I started to touch them, but Larkin caught my wrist again, gentler this time.

"It's not about the money," Larkin said, but I was doubtful. How could it not be about the money? I looked at those five books and boggled at the amount they would bring.

"Then what?" My voice sounded hoarse again, as though I'd been silent for years.

"I'm doing this for my father."

Still it was about money. "It would explain the easy life your family has lead," I said and Larkin dropped my hand. "What, did you inherit a stash of books somewhere along the way, and sell a few every now and then? How much money does one person need?" Myself, I didn't need much.

"My father is dead, did your AI tell you that? He's dead, and this was his last wish."

Larkin said the words softly, softer than I would have imagined him capable of. I bit the inside of my cheek. My parents were long-dead, of course; everyone I'd grown up with was dead. Death didn't bother me, but then I didn't have much experience with it.

"I'm not selling the books," Larkin said. He leaned against a stack of crates, lacing his fingers over his flat belly. "I'm taking them to my grandmother."

My eyes narrowed. "And you need an FTL ship for that?"

Larkin nodded, then flashed me a smile. "She's headed for Sedgwick."

"A colonist?"

"A transport worker," he said. His smile deepened right then, revealing dimples. "Just a little older than you."

I stared at Larkin, unable to think straight. I was getting too old for this shit.

* * *

"Nine-times-great," Larkin said. He worked his thumb under an orange peel, that bright scent exploding between us to sweeten the galley. We'd moved a crate there, to sit in comfort and talk. He was trying to convince me as to his cause; I was trying not to be convinced, but those damn pretty eyes of his didn't make resistance easy.

"Or something like that. It's so long, I just call her grandmother."

"My age?" I asked. Larkin offered me a segment of orange and I took it, eagerly eating it. The oranges were part of his cargo, but if Larkin didn't feel guilty about eating a few, then neither did I.

"She started her stasis runs when she was about thirty."

I couldn't imagine having family that went back that far. If I had family out there, I didn't know about it and in my line of work, there wasn't exactly a reason to find out.

Larkin's orange-wet fingers slipped over mine as he offered more fruit. The juice stung my fingertips and I worked them against my teeth to ease more splinters out.

"My father was sick for a long time, knew he wasn't going to be able to make the run," Larkin said. He sucked an orange slice down, eyes slanting over me. "He didn't want me to jack a ship, but with Meg on her way to Sedgwick . . . " Larkin shrugged and his black tee stretched over his shoulders. His tags clinked.

"So you jacked a ship to Sedgwick," I said. "Only you planned it for years, didn't you? I mean, Luna's been en route for almost seventeen years now. Transport workers left a couple weeks behind—but thanks to this delay, maybe we'll get there together." I frowned. "How old are you? Forty?" Larkin nodded and I smiled, glad I hadn't lost the ability to judge. Whenever I had a planet-side break between runs, I found myself compulsively studying every person I saw. What was age, I still wondered.

"You were twenty-three when you started planning this?"

"Figured out the route to Sedgwick, and pushed the shipping lanes as close as I could get. Took a while to establish them. Had no idea it would be so long."

"There's only one problem with this," I said and dried my hands on the towel Larkin offered. "Sedgwick is still five years off. Five years, Larkin." What exactly did he intend?

"Here is where I part ways with the others," he said. He discarded his orange peel in the open crate, among other oranges. "They agreed to help jack Luna, but that's it."

"And you?" I stared into his eyes. He wanted something illegal, because this wasn't a passenger boat. "You want a ride to Sedgwick." It was something I wasn't supposed to give, and being that Luna typically traveled at FTL speeds, hitchhikers weren't an issue. They were now—a very pretty hitchhiker and his valuable cargo.

I opened my mouth to say no, and maybe sensing it, Larkin kissed me. Covered my mouth with his own and swallowed whatever I meant to say. Couldn't say anything like that, not with his mouth over mine and eating me as though I were an orange slice.

His mouth was rough, in need of a shave as he was, but warm and wet, and something I hadn't had a taste of in sixteen years, eleven months. I reached for his arm, needing something to steady myself, feeling like I might tip right off the bench and onto the floor. Larkin's arm curved against my waist to pull me closer, allowing me to feel the hard heat of him.

I could have stayed that way for a good long while, exploring his mouth, the line of his jaw, the rapid thump-thump of his pulse. But the wail of the alarm flooded the ship and we jerked apart, both breathing hard. His hand held me by the hair and my hand—I swallowed hard. My fingers were tangled in his belt, in the middle of loosening the buckle.

Larkin stared back at me, looking as puzzled as I felt over the alarm. I bolted from the table (and a hundred what ifs at the thought of being that close to Larkin) and headed for the cockpit, but found Bel in the corridor.

"Unauthorized docking bay departure," the AI said. "Unauthorized—"

I pressed past the AI to the cockpit, feeling Luna shudder as the bay door went up. At my screens, I watched a ship emerge from Luna's belly. Light from the distant sun gleamed on the green hull, confirming Killian. The way she tipped against the stars, I bet on Milksop at the controls, which drew a growl from Larkin as he joined me in the pit. Milksop had the nerve to fire on Luna as he departed; she shook with a deep growl of her own.

"Can you stop them?" Larkin asked.

"If you meant to jack a ship with firepower, Luna isn't it," I said. "I have an EM burst, but that's about it." At Larkin's stare, I scowled. "She was going to get an upgrade, but no one attacks an FTL! No one!" Larkin didn't look at all pleased that he might be the first. He was about to lose his ship in the process.

"Use it," he said.

"It'll fry Killian, make no mistake." New sensors began to scream at me; Luna had taken damage during Milksop's escape.

Larkin's jaw tensed. "Do it."

I directed the electromagnetic burst toward Larkin's ship, and Killian stuttered. Every bit of circuitry on that ship would be fluttering, the rapid one-two-three count before everything went dark and dead.

While Killian's panels would be useless, my screens were flooded in red; Milksop had disabled Luna's entire portside. Every control, every system—including the stasis beds. I swallowed my panic and watched Killian paint a fiery streak through the planet's atmosphere. I tracked the ship, maneuvering Luna into orbit above the crash site. My scans showed life signs, but I couldn't tell how many.

* * *

The memory of Larkin's kiss distracted me from the idea of damaged stasis beds, so I welcomed it.

Larkin helped me prep a shuttle to take planet-side, and while he seemed as cool and in control as he had from the moment he jacked my ship, I remembered the taste of his mouth. Sure he tasted like an orange, but under that—there was warmth and the flavor of skin. Salt.

I watched his hands work the controls and thought of the way his fingers had tightened on my waist. I watched him scowl as something didn't give him the reading he wanted, and thought about the happy curve of that mouth against mine.

No question he'd been happy. Just as happy as I'd been. Damn milksop, jacking Killian. It did come down to money, it always did. Why else would the kid want the ship and its cargo? Larkin couldn't come up with another answer, either.

"He's not doing so well," I said, after the shuttle had left Luna. Larkin looked at me with raised brows. "Milk—Rand. Wanting to murder an FTL pilot, jacking a ship, and a load of books—all on his first time out. Kid must be space sick."

That drew a smile from Larkin. "Maybe he's just got hidden talents." Larkin's teeth worried at his bottom lip.

I'd be bothered, too, if my entire crew jacked the cargo we'd agreed to handle together. Another good reason for pilot and AI to travel alone. Another good reason to sleep the years away. Precisely what I couldn't do with the beds disabled. I bit back the panic that wanted to rise.

We would get the books back. We'd get the books and—And—I'd be damned if I was about to spend that five year trip to Sedgwick awake and aware. There wasn't anything worth staying awake that many years.


Larkin's hand skimmed my shoulder, coming to rest along my neck. He gave me a gentle squeeze. I looked at him, wondering if he was worth the years.

"You've been on edge since you took Killian down and I would have thought you enjoyed that."

I allowed myself a smile, then shook my head. "When Rand hit Luna, he did some good damage. He took out the stasis beds." I stepped out of Larkin's touch. I tried to stay focused on prepping the shuttle. Get the books back and then—Well, I'd tackle that when it came. I could get Bel started on the repairs, I could—

Larkin touched me again and I jumped this time, like I was going to come out of my skin. I shrugged his hand off.

"One fondle doesn't entitle you to more," I said.

Larkin raised his hand and backed off. "Ophelia—"

"I didn't ask for anything," I muttered as I worked a diagnostic on the shuttle's support systems. It was fine, but I ran it again. "Didn't want anything but a smooth run, but there you are, plotting for sixteen goddamn years—"

Larkin's laugh surprised me into silence. "What pisses you off more?" he asked. "That I took you out, or that I was awake for those years? Actually living, while you slept the sleep of the dead."

I bit my tongue and didn't answer. Couldn't force an answer beyond the lump in my throat. I ran a scan on the nav console, though I knew it was fine. Every system on this shuttle was fine and flight-ready.

Larkin's hand covered mine, holding me hard. "Scares you to death, doesn't it?"


"Being awake."

I swallowed the lump. "Yes."

The admission came as something of a relief. I felt my shoulders sag, felt something move out of me, maybe the truth I'd concealed from so many for so long. I passed in and out of lives without consequence; lovers didn't have to worry about me, no sir, I was the one who never stuck around because she couldn't wait to get back to work—to stasis. Consciousness was messy, filled with people who wanted things other than what I wanted, with bodily functions and emotions, and the bright light of day.

Larkin moved off without another word and I silently thanked him. We'd get the books back. And then? And then.

* * *


If the planet had a name, I didn't know it. Larkin couldn't come up with anything either. The surface was a jumble of rock and cliff, scrubby brush trying to grow which said there was water somewhere. The sky was a cool blue, the sun slanting low across the horizon by the time we arrived.

I set the shuttle down a good distance from the wreck of Killian, close enough to monitor the one life sign. The signal was stationary, around a central fire. I wondered if he'd found anything to eat down here. I wouldn't turn down a warm meal.

Larkin offered me a weapon and a cold snack pack, nothing more than a dried bar of protein-based nutrients. I took both silently. We chewed in silence, our small fire sputtering before us. Only when Larkin rubbed at his eyes and I saw the glistening tears there did I realize something was wrong. I watched him without saying a word. He finally looked at me and laughed harshly.

"You probably can't even understand it," he said. He threw the rest of his snack pack away. It bounced off the end of the log we sat on, into the dust. "Don't know that I do, but those people—"

"Those people who stole your ship and cargo?" I asked.

A muscle in Larkin's jaw leapt. "I fooled myself into thinking they were my friends, just in this to see if they could do it—you know? Get those books to Meg, across all those light-years, despite every person who laughed at us. When all along, it was for the money, wasn't it? They saw a profit to be made."

"At least you had the courage to do it," I said. "You crossed stars no man had crossed before." I took Larkin's hand and rubbed the snack pack crumbs from his fingers. "You did it awake."

Larkin's fingers closed over mine and he pulled, just enough to get me off balance. I fell to my knees, in between his legs.

"There are things worth being awake for," he said and smoothed his fingers over my face. His kisses were feather light, over lips and cheeks and nose; heat rolled down my spine. "Have you ever ridden a horse? Ever walked barefoot through a field until you're so tired and your feet ache? But then you find a river and dip your feet in. Dig your toes in mud?"

"Messy," I said, bracing my hands on Larkin's knees.

"Definitely," he said and kissed my mouth hard. "Do you dream in stasis?"

I shook my head. "No. At least I don't think so."

I couldn't remember stasis dreams, only those I had in the waking world. I dreamed of my father pushing me on a swing—though he never had. I dreamed of my mother baking gravity-defying moon pies—but she didn't bake. I dreamed of my dog, running across dreamscape fields, but I'd never had a dog.

"Come on," I said as my mouth broke from his. "Let's go get your books." We could wait here all night, or take the books by force. Given the choice, I'd take the latter every time. Larkin would, too.

The wreck of Killian was still sputtering with smoke when we approached. Thin spirals of smoke vanished into the sunset sky, the heart of the ship shattered over the rocky ground.

Rand sat near his fire, absently stroking the locked container which held the books. He glanced at us as we approached, but didn't seem alarmed. Larkin kept a gun trained on Rand, but Rand had eyes for me alone.

"Do you dream?" he asked.

Larkin had asked me the same. I rounded the campfire to crouch opposite Rand. "I don't think so," I said.

"I can't take that emptiness any more," Rand said. He scrubbed a dirty hand over his jaw where golden whiskers had begun to show. "But I can't take dreams, either. There's no middle ground."

"What are you saying?" Larkin asked. He stood by my side, not lowering the weapon he held on Rand.

"My parents were sleepers, some four hundred years ago."

Rand looked all of eighteen, unsure and timid, but—

He laughed hollowly. "It's all an act, you know. Playing the apprentice, only to swipe the cargo farther down the line." His eyes flicked to Larkin and I thought I read an apology there.

"God man, you have books." Rand shook the container and the books inside thumped. "Can't unlock them though, can I? Told myself this would be the last run." Rand sniffed and I realized he was crying. "Just can't take more of it. I'm tired, so tired."

But sleeping outside of stasis meant dreams. What did a man that old dream of, I wondered. I wasn't sure I wanted to know.

Rand abruptly stood and threw the container at Larkin. It struck Larkin's raised arm and threw him off balance, giving Rand enough time to leap on me and attack with his entire body. There was no shoving him off; Rand clung to me like he meant to crawl inside my skin. I jabbed and kicked and bit, but he held firm, until I finally fired my gun.

Rand sank against me with a sigh akin to pleasure. He smiled at me while his life bled from him.

"Thank you," he said and died in my arms.

I forced myself not to turn away, to see the mess of this life. Rand was still warm in my arms, and heavy, so heavy, like water in an empty stomach. I thought his eyes might flicker open, but knew that for fancy, because life had fled this body and wouldn't return.

I eased Rand to the rocky ground. Maybe there was a reason life expectancy wasn't so long; we could barely handle the waking world, escaping it each night to sleep, to dream, only to escape that with waking. Ultimately, there was no escape, not even in stasis. What were we running from?

Larkin looked at me, his gray eyes steady. "I've got a shovel on board."

"A—" I shook my head, not understanding right away. And then I did. The dead are buried. This was the way of life, and I set myself to it with Larkin along side.

The evening passed above us as we worked, sunset colors washing to gray and black to reveal the stars that looked so different from this angle, through this atmosphere. We buried Rand with those killed in the crash, and Larkin salvaged what he could from Killian before we returned to the shuttle, and then to Luna.

There, Bel told me the stasis beds were damaged beyond repair. It came as no surprise; Rand's shot had taken out the very sections of Luna that might have been used to repair the complex stasis systems.

I sought the solitude of the infirmary, knowing I had no choice but to continue on toward Sedgwick. The cargo was undamaged and necessary.

It was only five years, I told myself. Surely I could do five years. What of the stories, of the early pilots who traveled without benefit of stasis-sleep? The idea that people had done such a thing still chilled me. How brave they were; how cowardly I was. I stared at my face in the mirror and thought that at last, I would see that face age.

I closed my eyes, to forestall tears, and when I opened them, found Larkin behind me. I turned to face him and didn't feel the need to force a smile. I let him see my doubt and my fright.

He didn't say a word, just kissed me. I kissed him back, losing myself in the feel of his hands against my skin. Larkin was heat made solid, restless and awake under my touch. I divested him of his shirt and his worn leathers, to know every inch of his skin as he shortly knew mine. I pressed him onto the infirmary's one bed and covered his body with my own, knowing with each motion that I was placing myself on a path I'd never before walked. Larkin's hands on my hips, easing me over him, him into me, were a silent invitation—to not walk alone.

There would be no running this time, I thought, and I was grateful, feeling perhaps the same thing Rand had felt at the end of his journey. You have to stop running sooner or later. It was time for both of us to stop.

And to begin. Larkin afforded a thousand beginnings for me, not the least of which was a bedtime story.

That first evening, he perched on the edge of my stasis bed, a book in hand. My breath caught at the sight of the man and the book alike. I didn't see the pouch until he tossed it. I caught it against my chest.

"I owed you," he said.

"Terran or Vegan?" I asked, but by the weight of the pouch, I knew the answer.

"I was feeling generous."

Terran credits then. They would be more than welcome as we crossed the stars toward Sedgwick. I nodded and shifted from foot to foot, uncertain what Larkin wanted from this moment.

He and Bel had modified the stasis beds, but his was farther down the corridor, in another undamaged section. The lids had been removed; my bed would not seal around me tonight with a sibilant hiss.

"I don't know about this," I said. "Sleeping and dreaming. I keep feeling Rand in my arms." Dead weight, awash in the warmth of his blood.

"Bad dreams are part of the deal," Larkin said. "As a kid, my parents took turns tucking me in, usually kept the bad dreams away."

"Tucking in?" It was an unfamiliar phrase to me.

Larkin smiled. "Sure, fluffing the pillows, making sure I was snug in the blankets. Reading me a bedtime story." He lifted the book he held. "Let me tuck you in."

I climbed into the bed and Larkin fluffed my pillow, though there wasn't much to fluff. He pulled the blankets up around me—I could hardly fathom this, being that it was Bel who would prep me for stasis sleep. But this wasn't stasis, I reminded myself.

"Here." Larkin eased the credit pouch from my grip and tucked it under my pillow.

Larkin smoothed his hand over my hair, my hair that would grow these next five years and change as my body would change. Larkin, too, would change; I wondered how long he would let his whiskers grow, if the smile lines around his eyes would deepen.

I closed my eyes and the book pages rustled under Larkin's hand. His voice rumbled as he read to me of disappearances, of frightening tunnels, and hope-bright landscapes that no one had laid eyes on before.

Against my closed lids, I saw it all, easing into peaceful dreams with Larkin at my side.

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