"You have to get back out there."
The young pilot looked up at Ann. Her dark brown face did not show her bruises, but her eyes were red-rimmed and raw.
"You think I don't know what I'm talking about?" said Ann.
The teenager shook her head.
Ann couldn't work out what was wrong. Any pilot showed wear after a jaunt, but there wasn't any organ damage and she'd passed her psych exam. She wasn't even space stoned from too much gap.
"So," Ann accused, "you've just given up."
The girl didn't argue.
Ann sighed through her teeth, upper lip puffing out.
Pilots quit. Sure. But this one! Until yesterday Ann figured she'd be after her job. Now she was crying to be flown home like cargo. All over one little set back.
"So you time slipped," said Ann. "Don't you think it happens to the best of us?"
"Us?" The girl batted the word back.
"Yeah," said Ann. "Us. Pilots." The show of spirit gave her hope this was just adolescent angst, but she wasn't the understanding sort. Amel was. What was keeping him anyhow? Too busy being fussed over in the station's rec centre to make himself useful, no doubt. That made her mad. He was hers when he was on station, damn it all.
"Maybe it would help if we went over what happened out there." Ann said, leaning back in her morph chair to get comfortable. "You were doing one skim factor?"
"That's on record."
"So what's not?" Ann paused. "Doing anything unusual?"
The girl tucked her thick black hair behind an ear, looking as uncommunicative as a deaf mute.
"Look, if it's just that you're embarrassed, believe me everyone's had their bad moments. There was one time -- " Ann changed her mind about confessing and laughed.
"What?" The girl asked.
Ann tapped brown fingers on the yellow stretch cloth over her thighs, wishing she hadn't brought it up. "Well," she said, "there was one time I had this gut feeling I was going to manifest around something that would tear me up. It wasn't rational. I mean, no more rational than the hour before. I just had this bad feeling. You know what I'm talking about?"
The girl gave no response.
Ann barged on. "I tipped my mix hard towards gap. Axed my risk of shimmer damage like that. Time slipped half a day, of course. Dumb. But you get weird notions when you reality skim too long." Ann paused. "So, uh, did you do something like that?"
The girl answered her clearly, "No."
Okay, Ann thought, Amel could put in an appearance any time now.
Or she could give up and let the kid go home. Tough as it was flying mail runs into Sevolite territory, volunteers were never in short supply. But the girl reminded Ann of herself ten years ago. Some people couldn't afford to give up. They had to risk adventure's avalanche of mixed results.
On the other hand, why should she waste her and Amel's time? He seldom stayed more than a few days, always fresh from the mysteries of the Sevolite empire, and about to be swallowed up by them once more. Maybe never to come back. If he did move in, she'd probably screw it up of course, but that only made it more imperative that when he was available she got all of him that she could stand.
And here she was squaring off against a sullen faced teenager instead of being with Amel down at the rec centre, where he was probably being flattered and chatted up and offered massages and rub downs.
"I don't get it," Ann told the girl off, "one day you are begging to fly solo to Blind Eye Station, and the next you want to give it all up. What happened?"
"I guess I swallowed too much gap," the girl mumbled.
"Bullshit," said Ann.
The girl looked mildly shocked.
"Play that tune to the shrinks if you want," Ann told her. "But I know space-stoned. I've been there. And I know stubborn and self-absorbed." She did not add that she had done that, too. More than once.
"If you know so much," the girl said sourly, "you tell me why I time slipped an hour."
"It was gap," said the girl. "I can't cope with it." She folded her arms. "Now get out of the way of my psych discharge."
'Bullshit again,' thought Ann. Oh, she was technically right of course. Gap made you time slip, and doing it was quite an education. The sort of thing young pilots scoffed at, and veterans didn't talk about. But it only happened if you lost your grip on the here and now. Your sense of who you were and what you wanted to get done. There had to be a reason for that, and it wasn't the usual one which was either lack of character or sheer exhaust.
Ann was cross with Amel by now. What was the point of having your very own, tame Sevolite if he could not be applied for the awe factor on demand?
Her conscience gave her a slap on the wrist for that. Sevolites were legally human, bioengineered or not, although most of them made her regret it for the sake of the obstruction that posed to inter-reach vermin control. Amel wasn't one of those. He belonged to the rarer, exquisite sort that the meaner ones had all but wiped out.
"Do you want to give up?" Ann attacked. "Do you want to paralyse what's pilot in you, and suffocate it in a life that will never measure up. Edit yourself to fit someone else's rut. Is that what you want!"
"It's none of your business!" The girl fired back.
"I'm lead pilot and space service triumvir of this station, girl. Who do I have to be, huh?" Ann bore down with every intention of making an impression. When the girl's eyes went wide she thought she had. Then she noticed she was staring past her towards the arch that opened onto the corridor.
Amel must have joined them after all, thought Ann.
She counted down from three, to herself, without turning around, expecting her secret weapon to produce the usual bumbling reaction. It didn't matter how often you had seen Amel on record, seeing him live was a jolt. You didn't know where to look first, and you couldn't help taking him in whole: cream and rose complexion, grey eyes like cut crystal, a dancer's self-possession and a face which was beautiful first and male second, iced in jet black hair and eyebrows. Animals and small children loved him on sight and even adults tended to smile and sigh a lot.
The girl exploded out of her chair and stood stiff as a cat with its back up.
Afraid some strange and frightening Sevolite had somehow responded to her summons, Ann spun around.
Amel said, "Hi, Ann." He was wearing loose white pants and a matching steam-room jacket, worn open over a recently-oiled torso. White chocolate, glazed, thought Ann, and made a point of reminding herself she was mad at him for taking so long.
"I came as soon as I could," he apologised. "Lila, at the rec centre, wouldn't let me up until I was done."
"Uh huh," said Ann. Amel was a Sevolite highborn. He could have picked Lila up with one hand and chucked her across the room.
"Well," he admitted, "getting rubbed down felt good, too."
Lila was going to need to learn self-defence, Ann decided, if she was going to get physical with visiting Sevolites. She'd offer her a private lesson. Soon.
Amel's attention shifted to the young pilot. "Gadar, isn't it," he greeted her by name in his excellent Reetion.
The girl bristled, fists knotting her small, dark hands. "Don't you dare use my name to me, Sevolite."
"You know each other?" Ann was taken aback.
"No." Amel folded himself into Ann's empty chair and tipped his lush black head back. "I looked her up in the public record."
"That's the only kind we have," Ann reminded him. It was one of the cultural differences Amel never quite grasped. She came to stand behind him, attracted by his mild vanilla perfume: more confirmation that his ancestors were as much designed for their purpose as the nastier, warlike sort. Exactly what that purpose was Ann didn't like to dwell on much for fear her body knew and was a guilty fan. The nasty ones were weapons that had turned in long dead hands. And fair enough! She just wished she wasn't stuck with living on the fringes of someone else's richly deserved 'oops'.
Ann let her hand rest on Amel's shoulder. His sauna-heated skin radiated delicious warmth but he wasn't paying much attention to her although he touched her fingers with his own. He was focused on the girl, Gadar.
"Your name means 'apex', in an old Earth language," Amel told Gadar. "The summit of a mountain. You chose it yourself when you were twelve years old, right after you received the results of your piloting aptitude scores. You scored the highest, overall, of any pilot of your age group on record." He looked up over his shoulder. "Even higher than you, Ann."
Ann didn't like that very much, but couldn't come up with a defensible reason. She just frowned.
"Sevolites don't do aptitude tests," Gadar sniped at Amel, her mouth twisted. "They just put you in a cockpit soon as you can sit up and wham, you're cruising at five skim factors!"
"It would be a bit vain-glorious," Amel kept his voice neutral, "to cruise at five skim'facs for no reason. Even for an adult."
Gadar's face got hot, her shoulders stiff with tension. "You could do it, though, couldn't you. I couldn't. Not ever. I'm human!"
Amel flinched at the implication, but didn't argue. Sevolite grip was an order of magnitude greater than ordinary people's. Perhaps he didn't feel up to quibbling about her definition of 'human'.
"I don't think I can help, Ann," he said. "I think I'm the problem."
Ann had a hard time viewing Amel as a problem. Just dessert. Her conscience stung her again. Amel was an intelligent human being, saying sensible things to her. "Okay," she said, focusing on that part. "Go away. But don't go too far."
He kissed her palm before shedding her hand to get up, then recaptured her fingers, facing her. He was taller than she was, which always surprised her on those regrettable occasions when they did their talking standing up.
"I have to leave in a few hours," Amel said.
"I can't give up on this just yet," Ann surprised herself, and suffered a vengeful pang of lust.
"I know." He drew back wearing an easy smile. "I'll rest in your room, if that's still all right."
"Being there, sure. Resting?" She played the backs of her fingers across his lips which were a soft pastel a few shades nearer red than his rose-tinted skin tone. He was strong despite looking ethereal. And stamina? A few hours was just about right for them, including interludes, unless he was fresh from some really hard flying. Which he wasn't. Not this time around.
He kissed her lightly, saying, "Wake me up." Then he was gone. She inhaled deeply, feeling like a ninny to be so endorphin-soaked and knowing she'd kill before she gave it up. Two more reasons they were better off the way things were. If she got to keep him, she would never get anything else done. Or she'd get acclimatised and the painful, sweet intensity would wear off. She admitted her attraction was perverse. But when you got perverse right, it could be good.
"So," Ann rounded with refreshed resolve on the young pilot. "What's with you and Sevolites?"
"You have to ask!"
"Yeah. In case you haven't noticed, I'm sort of fond of at least one."
"You mean you like him warming your bed," Gadar grumped.
"This is hard to understand?" Ann asked, unperturbed.
Gadar frowned and dropped back into her chair. "Just let me get out of here, all right?"
"Because -- what? You are mortally embarrassed that you aren't 'the best', 'the summit', the pilot with the highest score any more?"
"I knew about Sevolites before I came out here!"
"Yeah, but you had never been passed by one when you were going flat out. Is that what happened? A little impromptu race. Not with Amel. He'd have stopped. You are lucky you only slipped one hour!"
Gadar locked her jaw.
"Or were you purposefully dunked?" Ann demanded, getting serious. "Because that's aggression even by Sevolite standards. If you were, I will damn well see that the Sevolite leadership -- "
"No!" Gadar blurted, and sunk back into her chair, dejected. "No, it was nothing like that." She dragged her arms to hug herself. "I just picked the one that looked the liveliest and tried to keep up."
"To prove what?"
Gadar gave her a doleful look. "I was wrong, okay?" She straightened up. "But it's not fair. Producing pilots like that -- it's not natural. The people who did it must have done awful things. Trial and error. Culling. Experiments. Okay, so that part's ancient history -- it still matters. They shouldn't exist. But they do." She swiped hair off her face and jerked her head up. "And it's true. They do fly way better than humans. Even me."
"Even you?!" exclaimed Ann. Her objection was visceral. A head to head challenge. "Kid, I don't care what you scored in some lab back on Rire. I've earned my laurels where it really counts. Out there." She gestured at random with a thumb. Any direction on a space station was 'out'. "And as for the 'who's better than who crap', let me ask you this. At what? You won't find many Sevolites running the Reetion mail. They don't share our values. And if you've got to discount everything that can't be measured straight up, how about Amel? He's one of the best they've got, but even he can be outclassed. You've heard Sevolites fight while they fly?"
Gadar nodded. She looked a bit numb but at least she was soaking Ann's words up.
"Amel's better at running away by his own account. He says he doesn't have the instinct for combat. Others do. The Sevolites are so tied up in their weird feudal politics we shouldn't have to worry about it too much, but if we ever do, we'll need good Reetion pilots. Like you. You have a gift. It isn't about whether you're the best at it. Not by anyone's standards. It's about being what you are. Do you think," Ann finished, laying down a fist, "the outpost that gets medical supplies on time, or the people you might be able to protect, are going to give a rat's ass whether you are the 'best' at a straight run? All you've got to be is out there making the difference you were born to make. You understand?"
"So you are a good Reetion altruist, are you?" Gadar shot back. "The great, Sevolite busting Ann! You get off on them! That's what! Or is sleeping with Amel military research of some sort!"
Ann slapped her across the face, hard.
That registered as an assault. Alerted by the ubiquitous station arbiter, the room quickly filled up with people wanting to take statements, treat Gadar's bruise and do a psych assessment of Ann to decide whether she was culpable or overflown.
Gadar and Ann sustained a masterfully united front, but shedding societal intervention was a tedious business that cost them a full hour.
Ann was thoroughly miserable after that and heartily sick of her teenage charge, all the more so because she now owed her one. She couldn't afford another assault on her record or she'd be taking drugs to keep her temper under control. If there was anything that made sense to her about the Sevolite system, it was making it legal to kill someone who pissed you off so long as it was honourably done.
"Thanks," she muttered to Gadar on her way out. "You can go home if you want, now. I'll withdraw my 'no' vote."
Gadar blinked, looking churned up, but Ann didn't care any more. She deserved Amel to cheer her up. She was going to spend some time with him before he took off.
Gadar caught up to her in the corridor. "I owe you an apology, I know!"
Ann stopped. An apology she could probably stand.
"I understand now." Gadar touched Ann's elbow, saw Ann look down, and retracted her fingers. She caught her breath, squirming with eagerness to spit out whatever was brewing behind her bright, oval eyes. Ann had to admit it was nice to see her lit up with boundless energy once more.
"Pilots don't play by the normal rules." Gadar gulped, and caught her breath. "We invent our own. And we get away with it because even people who don't approve of us are just a little bit in awe of what we do. Of what we are. Good or bad. I am a pilot, Ann. Just like you. One of ours."
It was hard to resist a student who had caught on. Ann clapped her on a shoulder and followed up with a quick, hard hug. "Great kid. We'll talk. In an hour or two."
"Ann!" Gadar caught up as she started for her room once more.
"The hardest you've ever flown. It was three skim'facs?"
"Almost," Ann said testily. The facts were all on record.
"Amel was flying, yeah, of course."
"But you survived."
Ann began to get suspicious. "Where are we going with this, kiddo?"
'I don't believe I am doing this,' Ann thought twenty minutes later, watching Amel wake up.
He slept naked. The sauna clothes were heaped on the floor and his Sevolite flight leathers hung over a chair. He never put his things away. Watching him stir reminded her that you could look all you liked but it was touching that discovered Amel. Touching and being touched.
His smile of greeting thinned to a look of concern as he propped himself up. "Is something wrong?"
'I don't dare,' Ann thought, 'get into bed with him.' It was tempting to think that she could. Just for one kiss. One hug. One chance to stream his hair through her fingers like a fourth state of matter, neither solid nor liquid nor air, which demanded she define it better before she could stop.
She inhaled deeply, watching him watch her and knowing all too well what she was giving up when she said, "I've got a favor to ask."
SkyBlue Station maintained one rim dock for Sevolite visitors whose overpowered cardiovascular systems couldn't tolerate the low g's at its hub. Amel waited there, dressed in white flight leathers decorated with a single, beige fern crest done in painstaking hand-embroidery. Sevolites had supernatural beliefs about natural products like leather and hand-made work of any sort. They were supposed to be charms against the effects of gap. Or something like that. Ann wasn't an anthropologist.
She hugged him and didn't move clear again.
"Are you sure she understands the risks?" Amel asked as she toyed with the beige fern over his breast. His left hand cupped her ear, exploring in the roots of her short, dark hair. "It seems so strange to me that someone would want to fly harder than she could, herself."
Ann stopped herself asking when she'd see him again. He wouldn't know. "Kiss me," she said.
Kissing Amel was a conversation, changing in tone or urgency on the strength of clues private to themselves. She forgot there was a larger world until Gadar announced herself with a boisterous, "Hi Ann! Hi Amel!"
Ann detached herself.
Gadar was suited up in pearl colored overalls, less romantic but more practical than flight leathers. Both were equally marginal as protection against shimmer hazards, but the Reetion suit blocked radiation better and came with attached hood and gloves.
"I am so grateful you agreed to do this for me," Gadar told Amel.
Amel gave Ann a last, worried look.
"She's signed off on all the usual permissions," Ann reminded them both. "But if she starts glazing over on you, come back and stop over another night. You could do that, couldn't you?"
He compressed his lips. "I'd have to. For that."
"I am not going to bum out on you," Gadar promised. "I want it just the way it happened with Ann. If she coped, I can."
Amel lifted both sharply defined eyebrows. "But we were escaping pursuit. There's no point to this."
"Speak for yourself," Gadar told him, and grinned like a fool.
"I don't like it, but I'll do it if you want me to," Amel told both women, and gave Ann a parting peck on the cheek.
When he went to prepare his ship for launch Ann felt as if she'd suffered a blow to the sternum. She was in for it again. Acute Amel withdrawal.
"Thank you for this," Gadar gushed.
Ann frowned. "Remember, when you get to Blind Eye station, on their side, you wait for the next mail exchange to pick you up. You got that?"
"I'll be fine," she grinned. "There's something I've been meaning to ask."
"Does he stop over too, on Blind Eye?"
"Amel. You know. To rest up."
Ann's jaw locked. She coaxed it loose slowly as Amel returned and checked Gadar had everything. Gadar beamed. He smiled back. "You are sure you want to do this?" he asked.
"Oh, yes!" she said.
They disappeared through the airlock to the docking chamber, Gadar chatting away vivaciously at his elbow. Just as the airlock closed, something she said coaxed forth Amel's musical laugh.
'The next time I hit her,' Ann thought, 'I'm going to do it somewhere that murder is legal.'
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Ann of Rire is torn between mentoring a younger pilot and spending quality time with her Sevolite lover, Amel. Story set in the Okal Rel Universe.