There were bugs down here. Little crawling things that buzzed, chittered, and chirped. Some that weren't so small, too, like the four legged thing that had just run across Tara's feet, its bright red carapace shimmering jewel-like in the dappled sunlight. The nerve on it, too. It stood a short ways away and hissed as if she'd been the problem and it hadn't appeared out of nowhere and frightened a couple years off her life.
Generally harmless, her Interface informed her and then asked if she wanted to learn how to prepare one to eat. 237 recipes were available. Nope. She was good. She planned to be back on the ship long before they needed to eat what the locals had creatively named the shimmer bug. A huff from her companion suggested Brenn's Interface had given her similar results. Tara dismissed them and slapped her neck as something bit. Gross. Hopefully whatever that was also fell into the generally harmless category.
This jungle of vibrant greens, deep browns, and a full spectrum of vivid florals was a beautiful hell of a thousand annoyances. Sure, she could see the appeal of planet life when the scenery was taken by itself, but then she remembered planets had weather, and natural disasters, and whatever that screeching creature was that had just now decided to launch projectiles at them. A tane nut, the Interface supplied. She turned down the settings to make it less sensitive to her thoughts.
Neural interfaces were a great tool for navigating ship and planetary networks and getting on the spot information, but hers could be annoyingly aggressive sometimes. She preferred to keep it passive most of the time, as most people did, but in a strange jungle on a planet on the outskirts of society with the constant risk of smugglers about—it was better to be annoyed than dead.
"Ugh," Brenn muttered and smacked her skin. Tara glanced over. Her friend's nose was all crumpled up with her lips turned down as if she'd taken a bite of bitter melon. Translucent pearls of sweat decorated her hairline above a knotted brow. Did she look more pale than usual under those flaming red cheeks? Were they going too fast? Brenn hadn't complained, but then she hadn't said much of anything, lost somewhere deep in her thoughts.
"We're about halfway there," Tara said, voice raised above the boisterous song of nature. "Are you doing alright?"
No answer. Brenn just kept trudging on as if she hadn't heard over uneven ground booby trapped with tripping hazards. Maybe she hadn't heard. Tara had already resigned herself to being on guard for the both of them. It was either that or chastise Brenn for the effects of a concussion, which wasn't really fair.
"Brenn." This time she tapped her friend's arm to get her attention. "Do we need to rest? You're light years away and I need you here."
For a moment, it looked like Brenn was going to turn down the offer, but then an exposed root grabbed her foot and she barely managed to stay upright. This was the improved terrain, too. They'd found the trail about thirty minutes into their journey by scanning for the kinds of detritus humans left behind—food containers, batteries, bits of machinery and the like. People were such messy creatures. Even here, a shiny bit of metal gleamed half buried in the muck on the side of the trail, and the grass lay flat from hover craft wind. Thankfully, even with all the evidence of regular habitation, they hadn't run into anyone else.
"Maybe we do." Brenn's voice was breathless and strained.
God, this had been a terrible idea from the get go. She should have insisted her mother find someone else. Hell, she should have helped her mother find someone else. What were the odds that after three days in a sweltering jungle, after giving birth alone with no access to medical supplies and limited access to fresh food and water, the woman was still alive? Was it really worth risking Brenn's health on the hair of a chance it could her wife?
Another bug tried to taste blood and Tara slapped it off her arm before motioning to a serviceable log on the side of the trail. It was covered in a blue, mossy growth that looked soft and quite a bit cleaner than the ground.
"I don't know what's wrong," Brenn said as she lifted her pack off her back and dropped it to the ground with a thump. They'd tried not to load her down, but there was only so much gear they could leave behind. Her accent had grown thicker, as it often did when she was exhausted, but Tara had enough experience with it now to understand without too much trouble. "This isn't my first concussion, but I don't remember ever being this foggy when I actually had nanites and meds to treat one."
"Have you ever stomped through a hot, sticky jungle the day after getting one?" Tara dropped her pack beside Brenn's and lowered herself to the stump while Brenn fished out a hydration gummy and her water bottle. Tara almost suggested a stim, but no. Best to wait until they didn't have much of a choice.
Brenn gave a lopsided smile. "No, but I did have to physically repair the lift mechanism of a fishing net in the middle of a squall an hour after getting one. The blood was still dripping into my eyes."
"Squalls, yet another reason to leave the planets to those of you who want to live on them."
She popped her own gummy and it burst into a mouth coating it in a blast of something sweet and mildly-fruity that missed the mark as so many synthetic solutions to organic problems did. It worked though. It took away the dryness and would combat this planet's nefarious attempts to slow roast her.
"As long as the planet isn't a hell-hole like this one," Brenn said, wiping her brow, before her gaze turned inward.
Tara let her as she did another scan for life signs. In an environment so full of life to confuse the sensors, they wouldn't know for sure until they were practically on top of each other, but it was always a good idea to check.
"Okay, come on." Tara said, after a few more minutes. "We've only got a little bit longer as long as the trail doesn't wind about too much more."
It seemed fond of winding and splitting off only to turn back onto itself again, but if she were smuggling people and goods between two adversarial settlements, she wouldn't want to build a straight double-wide highway between Point A and Point B either. Tara sighed at the claustrophobic tunnel of foliage ahead and the dust dancing in the motes of sunlight the canopy allowed to break through.
"This is truly awful."
"It wouldn't be much of a smugglers road if it were easy to scan." Brenn stepped up alongside Tara. She gazed down the path the same direction as Tara, dark eyes searching the shadows that shifted between the trees.
"Let's get going."
Brenn merely shrugged, her pack bouncing on her back. Tara took a deep breath and ventured forward. There was something primal in the discomfort of being alone in a forest and uncertain of what to expect. It harkened back to the fairytales humans and Aesir still told their children. Would they find a woman and a baby magically preserved? Would Brenn's princess be waiting for them in a tower in a clearing? Or were they about to stumble on the Big Bad Wolf?
My, Rora, what big teeth you have. All the better to eat you with.
Had sensors not said there were multiple metallic structures a quarter kilometer off the trail, and had she not had the aerial view up through the Interface, Brenn would have missed that they needed to turn off the trail. Whatever infrastructure that had once existed had long since been consumed by the jungle.
From their place on the trail, it was nothing but thick vegetation: trees so tall she had to crane her neck to see the canopy; high grasses; rope-like vines with flowers the color of flames that snaked their way around tree trunks; and wide-fronded ferns with purple tips. But there were buildings in there—some of them quite large—so there had to be a way to get to them.
Brenn closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to focus through the splitting of her skull and constant churning of acid in her stomach. It grated how her thoughts seemed to start and end as if clipped like the threads of a sewing project, as if her mindscape had become a piece of embroidery worked on by an uncertain embroiderer. The flowers should be red. No. Snip. Blue, perhaps? No. Snip. Maybe there shouldn't be any flowers at all.
Her own brain was an alien thing, driven by some other power, taking her back to places she hadn't been in years. The way the sun broke through the canopy reminded her of the Galway Cathedral and its stained glass windows and how when the people sang their voices carried up to the eaves and filled the church with their hopes and dreams of a better future. She, a non-believer, had sometimes wondered if there really was a God science had yet to prove the existence of, and if the beauty of it all could reach him up in the heavens.
'I wonder if anyone ever asked God if they wanted the responsibility of minding all these humans.' Rora had asked that night under the stars.
She wasn't back in Galway City. She was boiling in this fecking jungle and half blind to danger with her mind wandering all about the place. She needed to pay attention.
"If the smugglers are using the place as a refuge, there'll be a way in somewhere, but it won't be easy to see." She tried to enunciate and failed, her accent rolling out as thick as it had back home.
"What am I looking for?" Tara asked, her eyes sharp, worry-lines on her forehead. The struggle between whether to be a captain or a friend that kept playing on Tara's face said Brenn looked exactly as bad as she felt. So much for keeping it under wraps. Tara's hand snapped up to grab Brenn's arm and steer her away from a low branch she'd almost walked into.
At least she was at an advantage here, so long as she could keep her eyes on her surroundings. Much of Ireland had been reclaimed by natural forests long before the Aesir took control, aided by human conservationists. Tara had never had to find a repurposed deer trail in the middle of a moonless night with the whir of patrol drones closing in. She had.
"It will probably be an animal trail. A small break in the foliage that looks sort of..." she stopped, searching for the correct word in the Intergalactic Creole Tara understood. It formed first in Irish and then when she tried again, in English. Ah, there it was. "...trampled on."
Why didn't that sound right? Tara nodded her understanding, though, so it must have been correct. She hadn't spoken her native tongue since she left Earth, save for the short missives she sent her cousins to let them know she was still kicking out here in the Deep. Why did she struggle with Creole all of a sudden?
What had that bastard done to her head?
"Are you al—" Tara started, but Brenn cut her off.
It wasn't true and it was annoying how her voice gave her away, but she didn't want to stay out here. The smuggler's road left them too exposed and too many ghosts of close calls in the past haunted the ever shifting shadows. Rora had used a smuggler's road the night she'd been murdered, but had stepped out of it at the wrong moment. She'd bet her entire savings Sig had sent people in to retrieve his child—Rora's child.
Regardless of who the mother was, she didn't want to be on the road to meet with them. Here was hoping Sig's henchmen had even less information than they did.
"Just let me know if you need to rest again. I'm worried you're pushing yourself too hard."
She definitely was. A dizzying wave of nausea blurred the world around her, and it wasn't the first on this walk. She took deep, intentional breaths as she stepped over the rutted soil and ropey roots until everything righted itself again. The nausea passed, but the feverishness that'd been creeping in for the last hour remained. Her Interface claimed her vitals were in the normal range, save for a too quick heart-rate, yet she clenched her teeth to stop them from chattering as waves of cold washed over her despite the heat. The pounding in her skull had become the beat of the drum she marched to and she was grateful for the shade because every time the sun managed to burst through, it seared her eyes.
When they had their charge safe on the Hestia, she was going to sleep for a week or more if Tara let her. Take some time and relax.
"I think I need a vacation," she said aloud to appease Tara.
"Take as long as you need. Maybe I'll put the whole ship on vacation while you figure things out and we find a couple of people to crew with us."
Tara stopped beside Brenn, gaze following her pointed finger. A subtle gap in the trees stood up ahead, almost imperceptible. If it remained the same width throughout, they'd have to walk single file while branches and the pointed fronds of ferns scraped and scratched. It probably didn't look like much to Tara, but this was it. She was certain.
"Are you sure?" Tara glanced at the entrance then back to Brenn, nose wrinkled. It was less a question of doubt and more one of hope. Maybe, today, on this mission Brenn would finally say, 'you know, I think these fine upstanding individuals with no fear of the authorities or patrol drones took this smooth, well lit, and paved road over here. And look, no more bugs!'
That would be nice, but Brenn knew what she knew.
"I'm afraid so."
"Well, let's go, then."
They hadn't gone more than two meters before it was impossible to see the main thoroughfare, such as it was. The jungle had closed in around them, grabbing hair and clothing with greedy hands and tasting their blood one scrape at a time. In here, the jungle song had become an overwhelming cacophony of unfamiliar animal calls. The sun hardly reached the ground. Perhaps if she got out her torch it'd feel less like a tomb with writhing green walls.
Another wave of nausea hit, the dark greens and blacks swirling together. For a moment Tara disappeared from view and it left her disoriented and unanchored—confused.
Jesus Christ. Poor Rora.
Suddenly she was wrapped in images and sensations so visceral it was as if she'd lived them before. As if they'd been ghostly impressions left coating the leaves of the trees, waiting for her to brush up against them.
Two, large human men flanked her. Their clothes were plain and dark, their skin a light tan they may have been born with or may have come from the sun. The only thing significant about them was how much she depended on their mercy. Her hair and clothing were soaked through with sweat. Fluid dripped down the inside of her stinging, chafed legs. If there'd been enough light, she knew she'd see trails of blood and dirt painted on her thighs beneath her long, now torn, skirt.
The men kept a fast pace and she had no choice but to follow, though every so often a band of fire squeezed her middle, pulling tight, until she couldn't breathe and all she could see was white. It took everything in her power to stay upright and stop herself from collapsing on the peat-covered ground screaming. The contractions were still uneven and too far apart. There was still time. But Jesus, where were they taking her?
Brenn blinked away the image. She clenched and unclenched her fists. Five things. Five real things. Trees and ferns and— Jesus Christ. It was like she'd become someone else for a moment; like she'd stepped into another woman's shoes. She knew that woman, and more, she knew her mind almost as well as she knew her own.
"Hey, are you alright back there?" Tara called.
Bile burned at the back of Brenn's throat. The shadowed world began to blur again and she tried to breathe through her nose but it was too late. She slammed to her knees and vomited on the trail behind them, shoulders shaking, until there was nothing left in her hollowed out stomach.
Then Tara was there, one hand helping her to her feet, the other offering a water bottle. A small hollow barely large enough for the two of them served as a place to rest, and there was no denying the need. Brenn rinsed her mouth and took a couple of small sips to soothe her acid-burned throat. She tried not to see the level of concern in Tara's eyes.
From the moment Tara had told her of Helena's suspicions, the need to know for sure had driven her like an engine. Even when she couldn't find her wife's mind in all the fog, it'd been a desperate need. But this? She was losing her mind. Losing it completely.
Some people were ready to see magic and gods in the world around them. Some held on to hope, no matter how slim. They dreamed of impossible and improbable things to cope with a life of battering winds and sharp stones. Brenn wasn't like that—like her mother who'd prayed to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for miracles and then left bowls of milk and honey by the door for the faeries as added insurance only to end up executed anyway.
Rora was dead. Executed like her mother, the way they always knew might happen. She'd watched each bullet hit. Saw her on the ground too. Saw it in her mind all the time. A body bleeding out with auburn curls splayed like a crown. A universe of potential stolen.
No one came back from that.
So why did it feel like she was here?
"I'll be right back." Tara spoke in a hushed tone, the kind she reserved for the poor souls they brought aid to. Traumatized people who were often unpredictable and emotionally fragile. Brenn's cheeks burned.
She listened to the shkt, shkt of the shovel as Tara covered her bodily fluids so they wouldn't attract animals and sipped the water. Her stomach ached and her hands shook.
What if she hadn't been able to connect to Rora's mind because it'd been there all along and she hadn't recognized it? What if Rora hadn't answered because she couldn't, because something was desperately wrong?
Tara returned and crouched beside her.
"What's going on in that mind of yours?" She asked, making eye contact. There was no judgement there.
"In my dream, Rora was screaming for me to help her. That dream was about the time..." she trailed off, unable to continue. "Everything's gotten worse the closer we've gotten to her."
Had Rora regretted leaving the breeding facility as the men left her in this jungle with only the spirits of the mams and babes she hadn't been able to save back home for comfort? Or had she thought it better to give birth as a free woman, even if it meant death, instead of staying to suffer pregnancy after pregnancy with each babe stolen away, her arms left empty?
Rora loved children. They'd planned to take in one or two who needed a pair of loving mams when the time was right. When a wean needed a home and no one else could provide one.
"It might still be someone else," Tara said, though she no longer sounded convinced.
"She's not doing well," Brenn whispered. "We need to go."
Tara rooted around in the bag and pulled out a medical injector. "Not before you take a stim."
Brenn nodded her consent. The injector was cold on her neck as Tara moved it around. It beeped when it found the artery and Tara released the medication. She sighed as the warmth spread through her veins, hopefully to give her enough energy and focus to face whatever was out there. Something was. She was as certain of it now as she was that it was Rora waiting for her.
'I'm coming,' she said through their bond. 'Just hold on a bit longer, mo chroí, and I'll be there with you.'
- United States
- Owlish Intergalactic
23 years ago an awkward 13-year-old with thick frames perched on her nose sat down at her brand new Tandy computer and wrote her first fanfiction; a Paris/Torres ship fic for Star Trek: Voyager. It was gloriously terrible and the start of an amazing journey.
Today I still tell human stories set against the backdrop of space--love, hurt, comfort, and all of the wonderful messiness between. The ways we stick together, and the things that tear us apart. How the stars, in their infinite vastness, give us the freedom to be who we are. And I tell some of the stories we don't see enough of, the stories where characters like me-a disabled, gay, mother over the age of thirty-get to be the heroes.