Stardust (novel) is an unfinished draft and is provided in preview for enjoyment, discussion, and review. Until it is published in print, it will remain free. Unlike lore articles immediately published as canon, the novel may change between now and print publication.
Content guidance: Stardust contains adult themes — "R" or "M" — gore, violence, profanity, sexual innuendo, and hate speech (fictional nationalism and transphobia)

“My friends, our kingdom is an equitable society. All lives are cherished here on Sibyl: young or old, female or male, domestic or foreign. Royalty has decreed for centuries now that no Sibylean or their guest will go hungry, without a roof over their head, or tarried for medical attention. Our realm leaves no one behind! We all are to live to our greatest potential, whether it be to serve Her Majesty, or to chart our own paths in her name. It was Queen Rhiannon the Second’s most impassioned command, her mantra: ‘Build upon the foundation my predecessors laid after the tumultuous Age of Variance,’ she said. ‘Make it known that in victory, we reaffirm our bonds with one another. No person shall go wanting, and no commoner shall be without a voice. I shall abdicate the throne when the dust settles, and allow the people to choose their next leader.’ What confidence she had in all of us!”

Oh, by the dames, no…, I think to myself, as I stroll within earshot of a booming masculine register. My darkly spectacled visage in a giant crowd will keep me safe, but it won’t save me from the white noise of Sibylean politics. No, no, no… Why now, at this exact time?

“We are here today because we wish to follow the forward leadership of House Rhiannon to its logical conclusion. It is time we addressed our fraught relationship with one another; that which goes unsaid for fear of besmirching Her Majesty or the royal lines which have brought us so much prosperity. No, much like our great universities combine intellectual rigor, observation, and impassioned rhetorical fervor, we must accept the sharper, more direct means of discourse as we perfect our nation in this interstellar age. That means acknowledging our differences so that we can learn to grow out of them. And there is no shame in conceding difference, if only to better understand and serve our fellow human beings. For those reasons, please entertain the entirety of the message I bring you.

“The women and men who founded this world were intrinsically distinct in spirit. That is by nature, for one compliments the other, perfected by millions of years of evolution…”

The impregnable metallic squawk of the political lecture reverberates around the wide perimeter of Halcyon Park, a broad green in the precise middle of the Loop. It’s really the Novani ideal of a park more so than the Sibylean, which we might instead call an allalund: or a “natural space for all.” The city administrators decided on using the Novani term for congeniality, with so many hotels lining its circumference, housing those oh-so tired businesspersons and politicos who make the long journey through the void to get here. It is an immaculately tended tract of grass, shrubs, colorful flowers local and foreign, and a few dark Sibylean conifers, with bright, wide concrete paths that meander leisurely in fractured tessellations through the center of the kilometer-wide transit circle. It’s a long way around, so if one wants to walk to the other side at a less leisurely pace, they’ll have to cut through. It makes a fine place to set up events for ambassadors, the landed gentry, and upper-crust business elite, or variously to proselytize to those who have our Queen’s ear. The Klatching is not far beyond in a direction perpendicular to my heading, its comb of metal spires brushing the velvet sky.

I should have known better than to travel down this way on an unclouded rayspan. But now that I have, and Fletcher’s hospital is on the other side, I feel committed. I must see him.

Quite the crowd of people have gathered around the speaker, far more than any ranting apparatchik and their faithful acolytes should acquire in a highly learned society built upon self-improvement and wariness. Sibyleans are typically reserved when it comes to politics. We keep our perspectives and preferences close to heart, saving our most pointed rhetoric for the Klatching.

I keep my distance and take an ancillary chord of clay pathways around the crowd, through a buffer of trees, but avoiding the shrill tenor of the loudspeakers proves impossible. I must also admit that whatever this address is about, it has piqued my curiosity, if only because it seems to have caught the attention of hundreds of people, if not a thousand. They stand in a sea of royal purple and gold banners — Sibylean banners — which is so incredibly redundant for a plaza already lined with them.

“... Brothers, we have carried too much shame in our hearts over the centuries. No man should feel guilty about what their forefathers wrought during the Age of Variance. It was every able-bodied man’s duty to defend the honor of his house, and though the cycle of reprisal went nearly unbroken, we are not our ancestors. Our greatest grandfathers called upon the matriarchs of the most powerful houses to make peace and save the weary and exhausted warriors from themselves. They became the Royal Matriarchs, and our ancestors bent their knees willingly, for the taste for blood and vengeance had become stale, and their hearts exhausted by endless war. Yes, peace at any price was acceptable, as extinction had become a real threat, our numbers not greater than fifty thousand. Our ancestors returned to peaceful farming and labor, rebuilding this world hand-in-hand with our brethren, female and male alike, never forgetting how close our civilization came to ruin.

“But our duty to honor was not lost upon us when our homeworld was threatened by an outside force. We answered the call along with our systrar superior. Together, we fought so valiantly and effectively with what little we had that our flabbergasted adversaries declared détente in but the span of fifty gyres — less than a year! — signaling their wish to assist us in reconstruction, make amends, and become our friends. The end result was the ultimate vindication for our society, and in victory a new interplanetary social order was conceived: a kingdom based on the tripartite motto of ‘Equity, Amity, and Reason.’”

I feel a headache coming on. This turned out to be quite the bumptious and romantic primary school level history lesson, awkwardly delivered in a higher register, private tutors’ Astrilish. Royalty-level gibberish. If I hurry, maybe I can miss the madman’s conjecture entirely. I can’t imagine that any real point has been made yet, but even if it is made imminently, I’m already getting tinnitus. Maybe the lofty oratory is an ostentatious show for the expatriate minority who are sure to be watching, if he needs their support for external pressure. The funny thing is that I notice the attendant crowd is mostly made of men, with just a few women scattered about in support. I continue skirting around the gathered mass of humanity, making sure I pass by as few people as possible.

“That thread of trepidation you feel in your daily lives belongs in the past. And yet, I sense it among you still, and it should not exist in a realm founded on the very concept of communal equity. Since the matriarchs took law, order, and governance into their hands many hundreds of years ago, you have not been as feared as you once were. That is because only power of the highest order — the order of royalty — commands the highest appreciation. You see, my friends, there exists a gap in any community between mutual respect and mutual appreciation. That is a gap our government is unwilling to address. I do not deny the value of tradition. Tradition has brought our nation much success. But, if we are to live up to our kingdom’s motto, we must reinstate the right of men to ascend to the throne, and for commoners themselves to make law.”

Now the speech makes sense to me, as does its choice of locale. Just about the only place one can safely go on a men’s rights crusade is Halcyon Park. There are cheers in the crowd, and in the back of my mind, I can almost hear the reverberations of my ancestors Rinn shouting in violent agreement with them all.

My family’s predecessors and the galère that established House Rinn had gone one step further and called for a fully democratic state; one without the backroom power sharing agreements and slick deal-making between the royal houses and the political colleges they formed together. Some even favored a system much like the Republic. No queens, no kings; a full-throated representative democracy where dialectics are based on lies, ruthless power plays are the norm, and honor has no say in governance. In the words of their detractors, “chaos.”

I couldn’t say I or any of my contemporary house brethren would have agreed with their belligerent methods, however. A considerable number of my ancestors were rash. They made assassination attempts on royalty in the early days of the matriarchy, most notably on Queen Aveline I, who was left paralyzed waist-down. They murdered several members of the Court and the Regning. Their extreme ideology and internecine posturing well beyond the establishment of peace made the rest of us one stop short of pariahs to this day. Political violence is such a waste. In a society as well-educated but reminiscent as ours, forgiveness is both easy and difficult to come by.

But this may be the first time I’ve heard a men’s rights advocate speak seemingly outside of partisan terms and acknowledge the structural heritage and the common law of the Kingdom. And for that, I’m mildly impressed. Only a foundation of unapologetic nationalism seems to undergird the message, which, while pretentious and troublesome itself, would be better received than most attempts to raise the issue, which come off sounding much more like an ultimatum. Much more like a Rinn of old.

As the crowd’s approval dies down, the speaker continues.

“This is a simple request we make peacefully and with good intentions. The Kingdom is strong under the care of our matriarchs. But it could be so much stronger. Much has changed in just the past century. Although Sibyl is now an international power of the highest technologies and greatest deterrents, she remains vulnerable. Our population has grown and we have thrived, but we remain small. And more importantly, we are now open to cultural impregnation from abroad. None of the Eleven have yet to address the issue of this insidious cultural imperialism, some of which our Novani friends may not intend, but nevertheless exists.”

Ugh, here we go with the jingoism, I entertain to myself. The pace of my step quickens. I need to get as far away from these jerks as possible. My destination is just two kilometers away now, but I’ll most definitely be taking the transit system back to the hangars. I’ve bathed in the amber clarity of our society for too long. As I hear the speaker’s words slide into the background, walking away briskly, I find that I miss the clouded sky. We must only be capable of empathy under darkness.

“Under the auspices of princes and kings, I hardly believe such espionage would go unaddressed. Sibyl can have trade, and she can have strength, but she cannot have these if allowed to rot from the inside. Workforce participation has dwindled year upon year, stifling our factories. And while our good sisters volunteer to make up some of that ground, an astonishing number of young men sit in academia or on basic income, brooding, with no prevailing wind to guide them. It is my fear that the inequity of sex at the highest level of power and our unfettered cultural exchange with the Republic is responsible for the growing current of masculine inadequacy. I rally you against that which is driving our population of men to ruin, one more perilous than any time since our darkest Ages. I call not for a strike, but I warn of the possibilities of it occurring on its own, as our honorable laborers run regular shifts of time and a half. Our small kingdom can hardly afford to lose any productivity.”

I roll my eyes inside my head and cross the other side of the traffic circle, rounding the corners of ancillary intersections into windy city blocks that will finally put this righteous diatribe out of earshot, but unfortunately not out of mind.

“Moreover, if you would excuse a brief deviation from my prepared remarks, I fear this sense of inadequacy is responsible for the epidemic of transsexualism among our male youth. This is a recent and disturbing phenomenon that has exploded during just the previous two or three reigns, and it’s no stretch to hypothesize that the Novani have unleashed this scourge of para-gender ideology through our increasingly networked cultural channels wittingly. These memetic reservoirs and their conduits may need to be silenced should they continue to act as a cultural contagion, just as much as, or moreso, than any other. The College Veritae will soon put forward a proposal in the Klatching to address the transsexual question, reviewed by Houses Lamont and Hakon, and presented by House Fjalner…”

The cold wind of the urban canyon carries that last name on a malignant draft, chilling my bones and enraging my heart.

Fjalner.


Overhead, Dowager shows her best and brightest face, an orb of crimsons and purples. But even the clear open sky of Mother Moon muddies it all, draining some of that warm vibrancy she has in her colors when viewed from the void. Her crisp atmosphere asserts her own aggrieved color upon her children, followed up with frigid blasts of air. I wrap my scarf around my neck once again and protect myself as a child might, pretending that such a tempest of familial discord doesn’t exist if it’s out of sight and out of mind.

As I cross yet another city street, I feel a flash of warmth inside me, perhaps a reaction to the bitter winds. But instead, I imagine it must be the indignation I feel from what I’ve just heard. It would have been one thing to stumble upon yet more news about how my very existence is being denied and erased. To hear such callous words associated with my friend’s would-be murderer makes my blood boil. My heart rate increases to cover the cost of rage. It wasn’t the same man up there, no. But it is his house, his purview, and the same damned bunch of power-hungry fools.

I’m alert. My vision seems tighter, and without the boom of invective about me, my other senses feel much sharper, too. Like a fiery descent from the void, I’ve become aware that everything about me could kill, and my extremities are primed to stop that from happening. Not a panic attack, but a state of involuntary hyperarousal I don’t need. I try my best to breathe deep. I remind myself of my destination, count my blessings, and promise myself that I’ll be home soon. I make a little pledge to go out to the woods for a spell when this is all over, if only I can suppress a panic attack for now. You deserve time alone, Ashlee, I tell myself.

That’s when I notice him in the glassy reflection of a passing storefront. A face I would not recognize any other way but through a mirror darkly. My stomach flips. I curse my overworked primal survival instincts. As often as I try to subdue them, they so often seem to be right.

What in the Queen’s own cunt?” That one. The frightened one. The one who stood back and watched.

I do a double-take in the glass facade as I pass by. Yes, the same one. Jean? Jules? Joss? Whatever, the red-headed teenage prick. Is that really him trailing behind me? Fuck.

My clenched fists dig into my jacket pockets and I instinctively look for an out, or at least a way to confirm my worst fear. At the intersection of streets ahead, I take the dead-end turn, one that leads only to loading docks, dumpsters, and service alleys for the businesses that line this artery’s length. I need to get out of sight, I need to see where he’s going, and I’m confident that with every public establishment open right now, I can walk in through a backdoor and give him the slip.

Down a short flight of concrete stairs and into the loading zone, I make another right and head for the next cover I can find: a black brick pilaster that appears regularly between the doors lining the alley. I pocket my shades. Quietly and carefully, I check that the door to the establishment is unlocked by gently turning the knob without opening it. It is, so I have a means of escape. But do I really want to escape?

He’s there, at the top of the steps, in black leathers and shredded Novani denim. He looks confounded. I can’t see better without giving myself away, but I can hear acutely the sound of another person muffled in the canalized urban breeze. Questioning intonation. Feminine? There's silence, and an abbreviated response.

Footfalls. Just one pair of chukkas against concrete, then asphalt.

Hej lo?” from the man.

I look at the heavy closed service door in front of me. I could take it. But I don’t know where exactly it leads. My heart throbs.

Thump, thump, thump.

The clatter of footsteps closes in, and stops not far from me. You picked a hell of a time to be indecisive, A—

“Alex?”

Thump.

In a flurry of events that seem completely backwards, I’m staring down the dumbfounded opponent I just knocked clear on his back; I hear a loud crack, my fist flaring in pain, the pungent odor of newly drawn blood tickles my nose, and I stand limp, nearly stumbling from the spin outward from the wall cover I made. Planting my foot back, I recover from the adrenaline shock and get into a tense, defensive posture. My mind hasn’t comprehended my choice yet. I didn’t think one could make a decision to move their limbs after doing so.

He writhes dizzily against the asphalt, covering his face with the back of his hand. After a moment of silence the pain must catch up with him, because he hollers as he slides his jaw. He backs up and attempts to sit up against a dumpster.

“Jules!” another voice shouts.

I look up through my now unkempt icy bangs. Yes, there was a woman with him, blond and beautiful in similarly cosmopolitan attire. She rushes to his side as if she doesn’t even notice me, helping him upright.

The blood-rashed young man slides his freshly brindled jaw a couple of more times and checks for blood loss with a loose fist. His vacuous windpipes refill with a theatrical heave. I assess the damage I’ve done from a distance: a fresh bruise to his hollow-looking face, some blood on the inside of his lips. He’ll live. Several deep but shorter breaths later, ignoring the woman with him, he takes a look up at me, and his companion’s gaze follows with a slight tremble.

“Yeah… okay…” he huffs, gathering himself. “That was a risk.”

The vignette at the periphery of my dizzy vision begins to fade, but angry as ever, my teeth are clenched, making it difficult to speak.

“The fuck are you doing following me around, Jules?” I have to spit out the interrogative.

He breathes with exasperation, “‘Follow’? I noticed you two blocks back.” His body comes to a less obtuse angle, sat up against the dumpster for support. “It was the way you wore your hair.”

“Wait, you two know each other?” the woman says, looking between us, her hand lazily pointing at me in gesture.

In another couple of seconds of morbid silence, I feel that acute stress response begin to subside, eased by the fact that I see no one else around. We’re alone in this alleyway, and I control the situation.

“Yeah, unfortunately,” I say.

He rubs his lips and shakes the blood off his hand, like most of it isn’t just going to stick there.

“Look, it has been a long time, I know. We were just lab partners in general chemistry. But I never saw you after that night,” he sputters. “The rest of you had just graduated, and all of you blew like chaff to the polar winds. You were just another dorky schoolkid like me, one class ahead.”

He sighs deep and swallows the blood that must have gathered in his mouth. The back of his head clangs against the thin green metal receptacle. “So, there was never any way to apologize to you,” he says with a matter-of-fact inflection.

I laugh involuntarily and take a step forward, towering over the two with righteous indignation.

“You,” my index finger thrusts towards him, “want to apologize to me?” I point back at myself, for clarity. “Oh, how fucking precious that is.”

I step away.

“Alex…”

“That is not my name,” I growl over my shoulder.

“Then what is your name?” he asks emphatically. He follows up with, “Alex is a perfectly good gender neutral name. I didn’t know.”

After practically shouting after me, his voice has lowered down to a benevolent and tender softness, a near whisper, that sounds most familiar around my sister, of all people. I didn’t know men like him could speak like that with sincerity. Or if not sincerity… charity?

I feel my shoulders collapse.

“Ashlee… is my name,” I say poignantly, swallowing a tear that has accumulated from the fever of my rage.

“Then, Ashlee, yes, I followed you. To tell you that I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it any other way. Not from afar; you disappeared from the ‘Lace. I didn’t know if you had changed your name. I barely remembered your face. When I thought that I saw you, I had to try. My conscience wouldn’t allow otherwise.”

The blond-haired woman looks between us silently.

I don’t have any reason to take this apologetic posturing at face value. But I always wanted to ask the question.

“Why?” I say, turning on my heel.

He has his girlfriend help him to his feet. I take an abridged backwards step, feeling a trickle of adrenaline again. But he doesn’t approach.

“I was scared,” he starts. “Scared of you, I admit. But far more scared of the guys who beat you senseless. I’d never seen such savagery before, and I thought they might turn on me if I made like Gudrun—”

I recoil at the name.

“—and said something. They could have killed you. You were incredibly fortunate to be saved by the blackout. It was almost like a sign from our ancestors. I’ll never forget it.”

In a hushed incredulous tone, I offer, “Our ancestors have nothing to say for me. Nothing in the sagas. Nothing in the history books. No grand plans or instructions from the loikvin of old on how to deal with a distempered psyche at odds with all the projections society effectuates upon her. No law-woman, no judge, no doctor, no therapist, no regular fucking mortal being has any damned idea how I feel. How can they say anything helpful about that which they willfully keep themselves completely oblivious to?!”

“They had one thing to say,” he replies.

For the first time I look at him straight in the eye.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“‘Empathy is the foundation of a strong society.’”

I cock my head, unconvinced.

He gently pulls his girlfriend toward him, and she acquiesces. She looks lost, and a bit frightened still, but perhaps more so of him? Maybe he never told her that he once was an accessory to a crime?

“Look, she can tear me down for divulging later, but Maeve’s brother Jesh came out to us as transgender a couple years ago. I didn’t even know women — sorry, men — could feel that way. And watching him light up like a firefly in the darkest night of the Aveline has been incredible. We’ve become good pals, isn’t that right?”

Jules looks at the woman for a positive response. Most Sibylean women are more assertive in a stand-off, but it’s easy to mistake distraction for bashfulness. She has probably been stunned this entire time. She lowers her brow in annoyance, maybe for his borderline condescending tone, or perhaps for divulging a family secret so brazenly. But whatever it is, she seems to also understand this anecdote means something to him in this moment.

“Yes, that’s right,” she says, with hesitation. “The two make camping trips insufferable. The bastards don’t stop ragging on about meaningless double-A slugball statistics when they’re together.”

He offers a genial smile and looks at me.

“Look, Al—” he stops himself with a huff. “Ashlee. You don’t have to forgive me for being a coward. I’ll live with that for the rest of my life. But I never wished any harm upon you. I hope you can just forgive me for being there; for being part of what must have been an awful experience.”

I look over these two people I don’t know: one short, thin man with a glob of blood crusting over his face and lips; the other a modest, blond middle-class inamorata, confused and out of place in this moment, and probably just wanting to get out of here. I’ll never regret defending myself, but this wasn’t what I expected. And I feel something funny, tingling the back of my mind in scintillating but insufficient measure. Not closure — far from that — but something I’ve desired nonetheless. A concept that has been lost on me for the better part of a decade, maybe my entire life: hope.

I nod once in affirmation.

“Okay,” I say, fighting every learned urge to respond otherwise.

Hospitals are bright, colorless places. I find that lack of character is why I don’t like them, despite all the good they do. You might think it would be helpful to add warmth and charm wherever possible for the benefit of patient comfort and recovery. But instead, a hospital is an unnatural expanse, a highly sterile and artificial one, meant to project the illusion of safety when in reality all that exists is a labyrinth of corridors. These endless white halls suggest entrapment, like water being channeled against its inertia to flow where it has been redirected. It’s a purposefully liminal space, transitory in nature, that doesn’t feel right in our world. Like the Realms of Mist our foremothers believed in. Or, what’s that other nonsense the Lucian priests of the Geminese Dominion believe in? Purgatory.

It's bare, bright installations like this that make me wonder how much sincerity there can really be in showing sympathy, professionally, time and time again. Even the sparse artworks that adorn the walls are hollow, naive representations of Sibylean myth, lore, and collective unconsciousness, hung between more exacting portraits of medicine women and men of old. I don’t expect a doctor to have read the legends of Kassandra Ginevra Atysdottir’s sojourn in remote mountain villages, journeying with her party through the cragged tundra to announce the ascension of the Royal Matriarchs, their intent to pardon all combatants, and the imminent coming of peace, but I do expect an artist to get the basic details right. It was a time of pain and suffering only recently supplanted by hope. Rebuilding this world would take decades, if not centuries. As relieved as the people of the time would have been to see her, I just don’t think they would have accumulated so much indicated wealth in remote villages after fleeing endless brutal house warfare.

At least the shroud of the void above us remains forever natural and genuine. The shrouds that we put up ourselves are so often unnecessary and deleterious in effect, faux walls meant to remind us that where we are, we don’t belong.

I’m really only comforted by the fact no one is going to cause any trouble here. I can relax, and I’ve kept my shades in my jacket pocket; the fluorescent light burns but I’ve gotten sick of hiding behind them. Walking the halls and passing by doctors, nurses, patients, contractors, and other visitors, I’m reassured that no one seems to care about the tomboy-boy in feminine street attire, or at least so much as notice. Just about everyone else sauntering about is in their own state of transition, whether it be the medical professionals hurrying from patient to patient, or the patients themselves being moved from one ward to the next, or maybe one plane of existence to another.

However, I know that I’ve successfully navigated the labyrinth when I stop passing by so many living apparitions. And I know I’ve found his room when I’m nearly knocked over by Ejtan coming around the corner.

Fletcher’s husband looks much the same as he does, only he is even taller, older, with the beadier eyes of a businessman, a square jaw, and a less muscular stature. Moreover, he dyes the natural age out of his hair, whereas Fletcher doesn’t bother to mask the few grays he has. He’s almost always dressed better, too, and has all those outward hallmarks of a CEO who really wants to pay you mind, but needs to be somewhere else in five minutes. The few times I’ve met him he has been hospitable and gracious enough, but as I step back to apologize for running into him, he gives me a glare I’ve never seen before.

“Sorry, Ejtan… I…” I stammer.

At first it looks like he’s going to apologize as well, but then there’s that piercing glance, that sudden recognition, and he goes cold. Instead of the charisma of a socialite, I receive something more like the disapproving scowls I sometimes get on the street. He walks away wordlessly, and I stand there, the same, watching him disappear down the hallway, confounded.

I languish for a moment. I was never any good with people.

The doorway is open and I step inside Fletcher’s single-occupancy hospital room. It’s a darker space, but flooded with the natural light from Astrild shining a dull amber unabated outside, blanketing a decently framed view of the city in warmth. It’s instantly a more comfortable space. A human space.

Fletcher lays upright in his bed, looking out the massive window pane at the end of the room. It really has been an abnormally beautiful rayspan. Only now have the clouds begun to descend over the distant mountains, promising the beginning of the end for this fair weather. A pair of small white songbirds have found cover from the gusts of wind lashing against the hospital’s reinforced steel frame. They sit perched on a ledge, chirping at each other. It’s rare to see birds outside the thick cover of the forest. The birds seem to satiate both his boredom and his curiosity.

I try to smile.

“Fletch, are you awake?”

He rolls his head toward me. He grins, his bassy voice warm and welcoming, like that of a retired old man receiving a cherished, rare guest.

“Hey, it’s Tiresias herself.”

I step inside and partially close the door behind me.

“What?” I chuckle.

“Oh,” he reciprocates. “My mind was just wandering. Please, sit.”

Fletcher is bedridden and wearing a bleach white polyester medical gown, buried under several bedsheets at the waist, with his broken ankle slightly elevated and in a padded carbon fiber cast with some small device I don’t recognize intermittently pulsing a faint blue on its outside. His hairy chest somewhat comically spills out of his v-neck, and I notice they’ve also utilized the bioport he has below his clavicle, same as mine. But he isn’t flushed of color, and looks startlingly well.

I pull up the padded wooden chair that Ejtan must have been sitting on just now, sliding it across the laminate floor. I take my place beside him. I cross my legs and fold my hands. I’m glad to see him well, but I have to say what I came all this way to.

“Fletch, I…” I begin.

“No apologies,” he interrupts.

I look at his handsomely grizzled face, which betrays nothing.

“They could have amputated. It was my decision to delay you care,” I say regretfully.

“It was the right decision,” he follows, confidently.

“If only I could have been sure who I was handing the ward over to…”

“Don’t make excuses, either, Ashlee.”

Sighing in deferrence, I lower my head. He can never take a compliment, an apology, or a pleasantry of any sort, but he offers all three readily in turn. Fletcher can be such a humble bastard, and yet he tells me that I’m closeted and unapproachable.

“How’s the leg?” I ask.

He looks down at the cast.

“‘Doc said the fibrin gel is doing little miracles. I should be out of here come morning, walking with the cast and crutches, and resting at home for a few gyres until it's time for it to come off.”

“They get all the spall out?”

“Yeah.”

There’s a moment of silence between us.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so distant,” I offer.

“I said ‘no apologies,’ Ash—”

I interject, “This isn’t about that.”

He studies my face until I’m ready to continue.

“I made a choice, a long time ago now, about who I wanted to be; who I could only be. And I lost nearly everything making that choice. I’m not saying that I regret it, but nothing has come easy since. I lost all the good fortune, all the respect, all the love I had available to me, just because I couldn’t lie to myself or to others any longer. And I couldn’t find anyone like me for emotional backup because, well, I didn’t vibe with any of them, and there are so few of us.

“I just wanted to get away from the people causing me so much harm. I couldn’t stay on Basic my whole life, and working for myself was the only option available to a trans woman. So I became a pilot, then an interdictor. It was just about the only profession I could learn quickly enough that would allow me to reclaim any modicum of respect, and only the begrudging respect of authority at that.

“But that gig turned out to be a constant roll of the dice, threatening my life with just about every inspection, the danger only building year upon year. So I started assuming the worst. Always. Companionship became an alien concept to me, then empathy, and finally civility. I tried to do everything myself. When that was no longer sustainable, I willfully chose to keep only the minimum company possible in order to stay alive. I put up as many walls between us as I could.”

My immobilized engineer looks upon me with compassion.

“But even if the job continues to be dangerous, even if I never have the same rights as everyone else, even if most people will never accept me for who I am… I can’t continue to ignore the few who do.”

I look up at his face to signal that I’m finished. Fletcher nods tersely.

“You are a strong woman, Ashlee. But strength is a reserve that runs dry for everyone, and our work in the heavens is more hazardous than most. That’s why I wanted you to open up about your feelings.

"And it’s not wholly selfless, you know? I lent an ear because helping you process your feelings helps me process mine, even if I can't possibly understand all you've been through. Catharsis is something we all need from time to time, to keep us from falling into irrecoverable cynicism. The wisdom of adversity alone can’t be our guide through life. We need each other.”

He offers his hand. I take it briefly.

“I’ll try to remember that,” I say.

We smile at each other and sit silently together for a couple of minutes, watching the songbirds chatter amongst themselves. They make conversation no human can understand, but their bright vocalizations are enchanting nonetheless. They fly away on a shifting current of air, a segue to cardinal directions unknown. The gentler song of new winds that blow away from the building accompany them to their next destination.

“By the way,” I start. “Who is Tiresias?”


Proceed to Chapter 14 >