“Hej,” I chuckle, extending my arm in offering. I balance the rest of my weight over the gently curved boulder, one of many rocks that dot the shallow glacial run. “Give me your hand. I wouldn’t want you to get wet again.”
Tea has already accidentally dipped her left ankle into the icy cold fjard once, and I didn’t hear the end of it for several minutes, along with some tangential cursing about how it’s always so chilly and miserable here. She tried hopping between these scattered stepstones all by herself at a venturesome pace, a tightwire act I don’t think anyone but a ballerina could be capable of. Now, after taking a brief dunk, she seems to think it’s a better idea to have her friend lead her across.
“Ugh, fine. I wouldn’t want to, either,” she grumbles as she takes my forearm.
I gently guide her frame in as she makes the leap over the gap, maybe just short of two meters wide, and she lands more gracefully than before on the other side of my rocky outcrop. Her inertia leads her to me, and I halt her by my side. She looks cute buttoned up in flannel.
“There, see?” I say. “There’s a reason I haven’t been here in forever. You need to think hard about how to make your way across. It’s nearly impossible to ford this water alone without just trudging through it in waders.”
She gives me a look appropriate of an apprentice's query.
“What’d be wrong with that?”
I strategize the next few jumps across the scattered rock path in my head.
“It would armor us against the elements, but would you ever decide to more-or-less bring your work garb with you on vacation?”
“Ick, I guess not,” she vocalizes.
I readjust the canvas bag over my shoulders to make sure my center of gravity is where I expect it to be, and proceed to make several much shorter hops across the tiny dry islands of feldspar and basalt. Like the previous twenty-or-so collections of jumps after Tea stumbled into the drink, I turn back to see how she’s doing.
Tea follows me over the boulders in exactly the same manner as I had traversed them; a skip, a bounce, and a shuffle sideways onto a flatter surface. Every few rocks is conveniently a bit larger than the rest, so I can’t say whether the path is entirely a natural formation or an accessibility guide placed here by other hikers over the past few years or decades. I don’t remember the route I last used to get across all those orbits ago. It’s not marked as a trail on maps, at any rate.
“Where I’m from, we have these things called bridges,” Tea needles my shoulder with an index finger, and my homeworld with her words.
I offer her a half-baked chuckle, threading my fading bangs over my ear. It has been a few gyres since we’ve been on a run, Fletcher still recovering at home, but just about ready to be assessed by his doc and cleared for flight and g-loading. Without any work scheduled, I haven’t bothered to make plans to get my hair touched up. Normally, it would be a standard self-care routine, something to make me feel a bit better about myself. But it’s discretionary spending. I haven’t let my hair down like this in many years, and even though I’ll get it touched up eventually, it also feels nice to relax and not give a shit, I suppose?
I look for the next steps. They shouldn’t be difficult to take now that we’re most of the way across the fjard. It’s the wider gaps that are tricky.
“It’s called a ‘nature reserve’ for a reason, Tea.”
A flight of birds squawk as they glide overhead, a gesture of gratitude made under dull and breezy skies. Astrild herself sends her regards, trickling briefly through the mostly cloudy sky to shine ephemeral sun shafts on the island ahead.
I make the next set of springing steps down the stone path, Tea in tow.
“If this place is supposed to be so pristine, why bring me out this way to go camping? You know my parents were farmers,” she huffs. “They’d say, ‘if you want to be kind to nature, help it along by taming it a bit.’”
“Your idea of camping is more prosaic than mine, I guess. A Sibylean doesn’t go out into nature to simply relax. We have a lawful right to not be disturbed while we commune with the world which has given us everything. The freedom to roam and explore is part of our national identity. Mother Moon is our heritage, our landfall; possibly the only one our ancestors could have made. Sibyl is the only habitable world in our system. She gives us life. Not just the necessities like air, water, heat from the ground, and a modest supply of food to survive, but a challenging environment to build the inspiration and knowledge we need to thrive. Building any kind of infrastructure out here is doing her a disservice. It’s saying, ‘You haven’t done enough for us.’”
“Sounds like mysticism,” Tea opines.
“Call it appreciation,” I reply.
She follows, her legs bounding over rippling freshwater.
“You still haven’t told me where we are going.”
“I haven’t given it a name, Tea. It’s just a nice place to set up camp.”
I strafe over another handful of smaller rocks, and forward another two steadier ones. The gentle rapids trickle pleasantly under my feet. We could drink directly from these lifeless, aerated waters and if we spend enough time here, we probably will.
“Besides, you asked me if you could join the moment I said I’d be out of town for Remembrance Day.”
“Well yeah, I…” she says in fits and starts as she hops across, “I wasn’t looking… forward to… taking the brunt of your country’s indignation for a whole rayspan. Any excuse to get out of Tencair for a little while, you know?”
I turn to face my good friend and coworker, Teresa Shaaban, standing alone on an opposing rock, tiny trickles of whitewater turbulence rushing between us. Is that really what she thinks would happen if she stayed in the city? That some drunk and unruly political chauvinists, conveniently forgetting we all come from the same mysterious place in the unknown depths of the void, would give her a hard time for planting roots here? Moreover, has that happened? I stare at her, concerned as a stunned psychiatrist might be after absorbing a troubling new revelation from their patient, only with a care that isn’t just professional kindness. The gentle but persistent wind blows our bangs — and her braids — across my line of sight. I nudge the portage pack over my shoulder, although it’s really just a fidget of sudden discomfort.
“What do you mean, Tea? The governor of fucking Maridea is here to pay his respects alongside the Queen. The Republic dumped huge sums of reparations into the Kingdom’s coffers. It helped us clean up our skies. Our homeworlds haven’t been at war for most of a century. Moreover, you’re Celadonian, not Maridean, and you speak perfect Astrilish, at least in my opinion. Who or what is scaring you out of Tencair?”
“No one— Nothing, just drop it, okay? It’s just been, you know, a feeling.”
“Are you telling me you feel unwelcome here after all these years?”
She gives me a dark, sardonic look, before hopping over to my rock.
“Yeah,” she snorts, “and you don’t?”
She moves on ahead, anxious to make it to our destination. I would stop her, but the rest of the path across to dry land is easier steppings, and I’m bewildered. Tea faced some problems when she first came here, and worked some jobs that were demeaning, but I thought she was over that.
Recovering from my shock, I holler after her.
“The fuck, Tea? Where did this come from?” I yell. “What’s on your mind?”
She makes it to the island embankment and parks herself up against a broad and well-rooted tree, dropping her own bag full of camping supplies to the lush mix of mossy and rocky ground. She pats down the ankle of her trousers and takes her affected boot off, tipping it upside-down in an effort to get any loose pebbles or water out.
“I just don’t want any trouble with the locals, Ash. That’s all,” she bluntly replies, once I’m within earshot. “We’ve only ever been on patrol together during the memorials since I joined up with you.”
I make my way up the pebble beach and stop at her side, letting my pack down next to hers. Its burden hasn’t been exhausting, but it has been consistent and we could both use a break. I lean against the same sturdy broadleaf tree and cross my arms, waiting for her to say something more. Tea declines to, and instead whips out a spare cloth to wipe down her foot, then the inside of her boot.
“Alright, fine,” I say. “You’re right. Far be it for me of all people to make observations about how well you’ve absorbed into this place. I know you had a rough go of it the first couple of years here. But I should at least know how you feel, right now, as your friend. If something is on your mind about your naturalization process, or how other people are treating you, tell me. I promise you can’t cause offense.”
She polishes her boot, then slips it back on.
“It’s a new century of the Royal Era, right?” she asks matter-of-fact.
“Yeah…,” I stammer, failing to see the point. “10th century R.E., but the calendar has been based on Congressional Years since before we were both born.”
Tea ties her laces together. She begins, “Don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way, Ash. I don’t feel any physical harm would come to me here. Not on the street, anyway. Sibyl is good about that; better than any of the worlds of the Republic. That's why I left. I was sick of the endless rough and tumble, the posturing and ceaseless fighting over scraps my friends and I endured day in and out while the corporate and political elite used their privilege to elevate their own hand-selected few up the food chain. I lost sight of what I was fighting for in the Fleet. Free trade doesn’t make a free society, y’know? At least here, every commoner is just about equal, your nobility is charitable enough under the weight of law and precedent, and no one is forced to tussle over what little is left on the bone for the amusement of corporate sadists.”
She stands, dusts herself off, and faces me.
“But I’ve been here long enough to get to know you Sibs, and I’ve formed some of my own conclusions, for better or worse. You’re all quite proud of the progress you’ve made in your last nine hundred years, from a society on the brink of collapse and facing extinction to one smart enough and strong-willed enough to embarrass a much larger one with imperial ambitions. Somehow, you were able to do what my own ancestors couldn’t. You were globally unified in purpose, we were fractured.
“So I understand that your pride comes not in spite of the hurdles you’ve overcome, but because of them. Nothing was offered to you easily for many centuries, and you never forgot that. You are Sibyleans: hardy, communal, honorable, and chivalrous. You are survivors of conquest and strong and independent in spirit. I love that about you all. I wish Celadon could pick up some of those qualities.
“But dare I say, it also makes you vain. You’re the smallest player on the stage, bereaved of any ambition beyond your immediate surroundings, the result of which is that you’re obsessed with yourselves, and with your own sovereignty. And not just political sovereignty; cultural sovereignty. Benevolence aside, you are an ethnocentric state, and you don’t acknowledge it. Maybe you don’t because you can’t, wrapped up in your own history as you are.
“That’s a breeding ground for thousands of little acts of resentment that I just don’t want to stick around for on a particularly conspicuous holiday, okay?”
My head is a busy exchange of dialectics as I try to understand. I consider that speech I overheard in the Loop, the one the politician from House Fjalner made; the petitions of Haida Koval, the protests over my very identity so often lashing out at the Novani as if it’s their fault I’m trans. I even think about that diplomat Giroux, who described his anxiety about the Republic. I’ve never judged someone based on their background. At least, I don’t think I have, and my crewmates are both immigrants. All my life I’ve made the assumption that the Novani were friends and partners. But Tea is right: I can name few people who don’t approach the topic of our greater international relationship without at least some trepidation. They are the juggernaut only thirty billion kilometers away.
She places a hand on my shoulder in a gesture of reassurance that makes me choke.
“Tea…” I start, softly, brows furrowed with hurt for my friend.
“You know, I kind of envy you. At least people tell you they resent you to your face. It’s best to not dwell on it, Ash. We’re both foreigners in your land, after all. Paranoid as I may be about anything bad going down, I feel safer on this world of yours than I ever did where I came from, and safer still in these woods with you. There’s no place I’d rather be than here with you, right now.”
Tea gives me a soulful sapphic smile, one much more characteristic of the outgoing and confident woman I’ve come to know over the years. She picks up her bag and wanders off down the roughly cleared path created by past campers. I follow, perplexed, with a catch in my throat. Fletcher was right. I’m not the only flygirl with demons, after all.
“Are you ready to turn in?” I say, as I duck out of the tent.
The twilight hour is particularly long, and the sky is mottled with dense, crimson-bellied clouds. I hear the howl of the wind lash across the lake and land as I step over the embers of our campfire. In the distance through a clearing of evergreens is one of my favorite views: a glacially carved mountain range shaped like the blades of a saw, gently inclined toward the freshwater sea. Tea is sitting leisurely out there, looking up into the sky, almost as wistful as I was all those years ago. I wonder if I should tell her this is where I came out to myself.
I’m not sure she heard me, but she notices my approach. Between the crashing of the waves and the wind rustling the trees, there’s no other sound out here at this hour. She puts her forearm up on her knee.
“I’ve never really been much of a stargazer,” she says as I approach.
I take a seat by her side, disturbing the detritus of the taiga forest under my person. I glance upward. The stars are just now starting to reveal themselves behind the fast moving bulk of burgundy cumulus fuzzballs. But they will still be there when we wake up.
“Hard to be one if you’re always busy in the field, or if you don’t get out of the city,” I say. “Harder still if the weather isn’t cooperating, as it so often isn’t here.”
“I don’t know,” she replies. “The Celad tales I heard never really had a strong tradition of astrology or anything mystical like that. I guess most of us are fairly practical and earthly people. But we had fair skies and lots of starlight back home when I was a kid.”
She fizzles with a smirk of recollection. “I loved running around the village and getting into trouble, making the lives of farmers and foresters miserable. Our little friend circle made a pact: none of us would submit to the laborious lives that broke our parents day in and out, even if it meant enlisting when we came of age. I was a little rebellious piece of shit, honestly. I wanted nothing to do with farm life.
“So, perhaps the agrarian night sky just became like wallpaper to me. Maybe I took it for granted because it was always there, and I never stopped to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos. One handful of strange stars among trillions. It’s humbling.”
I tease gently with as much warmth as I can muster, “Is that why you’re such a pain in the ass?”
“Maybe,” she airs, shrugging her shoulders just a bit. “It certainly makes me feel smaller.”
Tea looks at me sidelong.
“Thanks for bringing me out here, Ash,” she says softly.
“No problem,” I respond with a smile.
We sit together, gazing at the sky every so often. Clouds shift, break, and form and reform in ethereal patterns. Over the next half hour, we talk about mundane things like friends, food, and fashion. Tea is a much better conversationalist than I am, so I let her lead me along. I learn that she isn’t actually planning to leave, that she has just been jesting about wanting to start her own outfit. She says she’s very comfortable where she is. I felt that must be the case after what she said earlier today, but it was something I always had anxiety about. Finding a good, honest crew is just about the most difficult task there is in our business, and Windsong won’t even operate in orbit without all three of us. In fact, despite the automation and certification for single-pilot operation, I’m short one backup co-pilot that I really should have.
The starfield becomes full behind the veil, a mesmerizing dotted firmament of gas and dust. Many of the lights twinkle as Sibyl’s wild winds make the distant nuclear fires flicker in strange ways.
“Think you can find Nova up there? I’m not sure it’ll be out tonight, but it’s the brightest star in the sky.”
“Yeah,” she says, pulling out her dataslate from a knapsack. She has shown such restraint not fiddling with it thus far. I’m almost proud. It took me years to learn to ignore my own slate when I’m out here, even when disconnecting and communing with natural history was very much the point.
“I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll get a right ascension and declination from the Lace.”
She navigates the device for a few seconds and points it upward at the sky. I lean over and look at the screen, softly illuminating our faces.
“Right ascension’s ‘bout six hours—,” she halts herself and makes a gesture on the device. “Sorry, I should use azimuth for you. One hundred eighty-three degrees, declination twenty four degrees. Oh, it’s ahead of us behind those clouds.”
The celestial map is an augmented reality projection, and shows us exactly where we need to look.
“They’ll probably pass in a few minutes,” I say.
Tea puts the slate down. It has a ruggedized edge for the outdoors.
“Wonder why I didn’t notice it before,” she openly contemplates.
“I don’t know, we were busy talking.”
“Which I really enjoy, when I can get you to open up.”
We wait for the clouds to pass in the general direction the Lace told us to look. Astrild has fully set now, the clouds a deep mid-night blue, and only the slivers of several crescent moons in the Dowager system remain. An unique and beautiful sight, Tea remarks. I agree, although that’s always been like wallpaper to me, too.
The scintillating aether opens ahead.
“That’s funny… didn’t it say…?” Tea starts.
She grabs the device again and checks that she didn’t make a mistake.
I chuckle breezily and roll my neck. I’m starting to feel tired after the long day’s hike and I want to go to bed.
“Did you punch up Lux or Abigail by mistake?”
I hear the resolute tapping of Tea’s fingers against the slate.
“I can’t find Nova, Ash.”
“The star. It’s supposed to be right there.”
Tea firmly points in the direction she had indicated several minutes earlier. I follow her jabbing gesture. It’s all glittering stars in that spot, but no blue-white behemoth is present.
“Weird. Atmospheric turbulence?” I inquire.
“Too bright for that,” she says with bewilderment.
We stare bedeviled into the same patch of the void, the gleams of many hundreds of visible stars mocking and coruscant, until we are too tired to be interested further, and a transient Sibylean rain starts to fall.
A distant crack, like rare thunder, or a firearm. Then another, closer.
I’m disturbed, but my body protests. It’s too comfortable here.
A bang, and a whoosh.
That last blast of noise startles me upright, and I throw my blanket aside with a gasp and a huff. The dim yellow light of the lantern burns my face more than it should.
Tea plants herself upright over her sleeping mat with the assistance of her arm. She wipes her eyes and groggily yells in a rising crescendo, cursing the sky.
“Ugh, what the frajj is that?” she exclaims, mixing in some of her own tongue.
“Sounded like a sonic boom,” I start, adrenaline upsetting my balance.
“You said this was a nature reserve,” she seethes.
“Then why are there several thundercunts violating the airspace?”
I grab my jacket, a torch, my holster, and firearm, although I’m still in my pajamas.
“Stay here,” I command.
“No fucking way,” she says as she comes to. “I’m coming with you.”
“Fine, take a torch and stay behind me.”
We exit our tent and look around the camp we set up in the forest clearing. It’s dark and empty, and this island is not a good place to get a sense of what’s going on.
“Come on, let’s get down to the beach,” I bark, forcing myself awake and aware.
There’s a strange sense of vertigo I feel, stumbling under the watchful shine of many Sister Moons. Tea and I trudge through the mossy clearing and down toward the pebble sands in our nightwear. Our searchlights flail about in every direction as we rush down there, whether we point them purposefully ahead or not. The freshwater sea opens before us and we look into the sky, searching for something, anything.
“Think it’s a drug runner being particularly brave?” I wonder openly.
“Fucking stupid you mean,” she replies.
“Yeah, I meant that.”
“That would be a hell of a thing, for us to grab an interdiction while camping.”
I hear the fine resonant whooshing of an aircraft, subsonic this time, creeping toward us. It takes me a few seconds to pin down its bearing. Then I hear a second.
“Shit, they’ve turned around?” Tea renders in mild fright.
“Look,” I point at the horizon.
Red and green navigation dots, and the white blinks of a tail light and a forward beam, are joined by another set in close formation. A vague shape is outlined in the dim, reflected moonlight all around us, but it’s difficult to make out… until they close in on us, directly passing overhead. Gobsmacked, the two of us can only stand on the beach looking upward, like roaming ungulates caught in the headlights of a speeding vehicle.
The aircraft buzz by at low altitude and a leisurely pace, whisper quiet for their distance and velocity relative to us. I catch a glimpse of their suave, crosswise contour under the gentle white Sister Moonlights above. I know what I saw. Moreover, I know that particular resonance of low-key engine hum.
“Matron’s tits, those are Crossbows,” I say emphatically.
“What?” Tea challenges.
“The Royal Navy’s new fighter,” I reply with a stumble. “Trans-atmospheric, and blazing fast at that.”
Tea shines her torch in my face, dazzling me just enough to make me flinch.
“Just who the hell did you piss off, Ash?!”
“Huh? No one! Put the light down,” I moan.
Tea does so, and as my eyes adjust and make their way toward the treeline, they catch the advance of several other torchlights, methodically making their way toward us. It appears that several individuals have passed right through our camp and tracked us down here. I tremble as I gesture for Tea to get behind me and reach toward my weapon. Fuck, fuck, fuck, what is this? What should I do? What’s going on?
A deep feminine voice in the alto range sounds salutations.
The group of figures has shone their searchlights upon us, and confirming it’s futile, I start raising my hands. Tea does the same.
The voice speaks out in a more friendly manner as she enters earshot.
“You sure are a difficult citizen to find, Madam Rinn.”
I cant my head in confusion, looking to make out the person speaking at me. Keeping my arms up, in case the people behind those lights carry guns.
A well-toned, red-haired, and emerald-eyed woman appears before me, eclipsing the wide field of incandescent beams behind her. She is attired in the midnight black expeditionary uniform of the Royal Navy. The one with minimal ostentatious ribbons and insignia, for when they are on mission, or when they know they’ll need to wash it sooner than later, like when trudging through a forest.
“At ease, Interdictor,” she enunciates. “You are not under arrest.”
I put my hands down and crease my face in vexation. Before I can get a word in edgewise, the servicewoman continues.
“Marine Colonel Rafelle Shaw Kristinsdottir. Madam Rinn, you have been summoned by the Royal Household. Queen Avlynn requests your counsel.”
She looks the two of us over.
“When you are better dressed,” she adds.
I can’t believe what I’ve heard. An audience with the queen is an honor a Rinn hasn’t been offered in many centuries. And me? Why? I’m just an interdictor, a privateer who does the dirty work the Constabulary won’t. What wisdom in the Five Flames do I have to offer the Queen of Sibyl?!
My lips part in astonishment. I try to not let my jaw go slack.
Tea leans in behind me.
“What was that you said about the right to not be disturbed?” she cracks.