“You have to turn this ship around.”
It was an unreasonable demand from a stranger – a stowaway – who’d walked out onto the tiny flight deck of her vessel, but he didn’t appear to think so.
“Any particular reason?” said Jenna, raising an eyebrow. She wasn’t about to let him see that his sudden entrance had alarmed her.
The man turned his head, and then took the few steps left to reach her. “Yes.” He put his hand to the viewing screen in front of her, and pointed to the anomaly she’d been working out a way to avoid. “I need to be there.”
“I don’t,” she said, at the same time discreetly reaching for her weapon. “Sorry. Promises to keep, enemies to outrun. And that – I’m getting strange readings, so I’ll keep my distance, thanks.”
He leant over, and caught hold of her arm; his grip so painful that she released her hold on the weapon, startled. She turned her head, warily, blonde curls falling over her face.
“If you don’t, that ‘anomaly’ of yours will rip space apart. You’ll be the first to die, and your friends back at that space station will be next. The tear will widen and this whole system will be swallowed before it’s satisfied – if it ever is.”
Jenna directed a sidelong glance back at her instruments. She’d said they were strange readings… “All right. Let go. I’m listening.”
“There isn’t much time, and I need to reach a specific point –”
“Co-ordinates?” She made it a challenge.
He looked at her, releasing her arm, but putting his other hand to her shoulder. “It’s not –” He stopped. “I’ll have to… direct you.”
– he is inside her mind, and the suddenness of it robs her of breath. She can see with a startling precision exactly where her ship needs to be. She registers his presence – a cold, purposeful force… Steel. He’s holding back, treading carefully, and she knows with certainty that if he wasn’t her mind could easily shatter.
Jenna lifts her head, her eyes alight. She should know better by now; she does know better, but somehow the danger still makes her feel alive. And this – it isn’t safe, and neither is flying straight at the rift in space and time ahead of her. But she knows only now how much she misses this inhuman connection in her head. While he’s here, it’s as if Zen never left, as if she’s part of her ship again.
Steel glances at her, frowning, but she feels the note of curiosity, and there’s something less dismissive when he turns his attention to her.
Now, he orders, without speaking aloud.
Together, they fly the ship. Jenna knows her vessel and its workings – she’s a good pilot, the best – but he has a feeling for it and its components that goes beyond her. There is no longer three – Jenna, this clumsy, stolen ship, and Steel – but a single being with one aim, and a clarity of purpose.
It’s exhilarating, and she lets it take her, piloting the ship to the required point with an accuracy that should be impossible.
Yes, he says, and he’s surprised again –
Then something hit the spaceship like a wave, flinging the small vessel backwards. Abruptly, Jenna found herself jolted from that psychic unity – and knocked from the pilot’s chair, into temporary unconsciousness.
It’s done, Steel said, his words cutting into her dazed state.
Jenna slowly recovered full awareness, looking up at him. He was poised to leave, she saw, and she found herself stifling panic. She was lying up against the main controls, and everything ached. And she didn’t want him to go. She thought about Cally briefly, and how she’d felt something like this: the fear of being alone in her own mind. Only, thought Jenna, wryly, with me, it’s a computer and a ship, and a… whatever he is. “Steel?”
He was standing over her. “Your colleagues are on their way.”
Enough of that three-way link remained for her to know that the ship was barely in one piece. “We’re –” She stopped, finding that talking hurt, and drew breath to try again. “We’re keeping the ship… together. If you go, it’ll fall apart. I’d rather be… alive when they get here.”
Steel didn’t move, and she had no sense now of what was passing through his head.
She didn’t doubt that he could leave a spaceship in flight. That wasn’t the issue. Jenna gritted her teeth, because she damn well wasn’t going to beg. He’d stay or he wouldn’t. She closed her eyes, though, unwilling to watch him go. It was finished, and he had other work to do. She’d caught that thought at least.
She opened her eyes again, in surprise, as he took hold of her hand. He hadn’t gone; he was crouching down beside her; awkwardly, as if the movement didn’t come naturally to him.
– and there is only space now. Only space, and the ship: her determination, and his strength holding its battered casing together. There is an odd peace about it: no words, no questions, a silent communion. They drift on, holding to each other –
The moment they sensed the other ship approaching, he moved away. Jenna could hear the alarms sounding again, and the rattling noise of the struggling old systems. She tried to sit up, and winced at the pain. He caught her by the shoulder. “Stay still.” Then he gave the slightest smile, and kissed her hair. “You were… useful.” He got to his feet, and grudgingly added, “… Invaluable.”
Jenna gave a small, tight smile of triumph, knowing she’d won an uncharacteristic admission, and then she watched as he walked away, and, impossibly, vanished before he reached the hatch.
It hurt, when he went, as she’d known it must, as if something physical had been torn away. She was still alone even after they found her.
She wondered what it said about her, if she was happiest with an artificial intelligence ruthlessly manipulating her mind. Then she laughed at herself. After all, it was only what every pilot wanted: to be one with the ship, to be the ship – and fly among the stars.