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Nightbird fly

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Jane Eyre was born in hyperspace. Her uncle John Eyre fussed to no end over this, as it left him unable to draw up a proper natal chart for the infant girl. “She'll get no guidance from the stars,” he grumbled to his younger brother. “Who knows what her path will be? Poor kid; that's not a way I'd want to live.” But her parents were too enchanted by their new baby, with her fuzz of soft hair and her big moony brown eyes, to pay him much heed.

“Nightbird Fly preparing to dock with supervessel Thornveldt,” Jane said into the handcomm.

“Everything's all ready for you, dear. Dock away!” The other voice, slightly fuzzed over with interference, was a low-pitched alto; female. Surprisingly nice. Dear?

Jane shifted in her bucket seat; she hated first meetings, hated them worst of anything. The pressure of guarding herself against strangers, the playacting.

It hadn't been a good morning.

She'd slept well enough in her hammock, used the folding toilette kit to actually wash her hair with water instead of instant cleaner in anticipation of her imminent landing. Well, docking – the Thornveldt, while nearly as big as the station she'd grown up on, was a spacefaring body, not attached to the orbit of any planet or moon. In a way, it was more like the Nightbird than a normal polity, despite the vast disparity in the two crafts' sizes. The notice she'd read on the datanet looking for a computer engineer who would make house calls had been filed under the name of Shipmaster Edward Fairfax Rochester. She didn't think the female voice on the comm had been his.

After she'd eaten her breakfast that morning she'd set out to distract herself from her pre-docking jitters, knowing that watching the eta countdown would only drive her mad. She brought up her freeplay program on the cockpit holoscreen. Unlike the formal datapackages she traded in, or ran repairs on when she went out on housecalls like this one, the freeplay program virtual space was made for messing, set aside for nonlinear creativity and the occasional expression of destructive impulses. Not everyone liked them. She was attached to the hip at hers; it was one of the few things of value to her in her bundle-bag of a life.

The space around her hands had shone red like blood; in the crimson light her skin looked blacker than black. Ahead of her, illuminated against the far curve of the wall, the round shape of the red moon was being eaten away by a growing shadow, hollowing it out until it was gone.

Jane had recognized the inspiration readily enough; this was the lunar eclipse that had taken place at Gateshead Station just after her ninth birthday. Why was it so close to the surface of her mind, to leap into the program like this? She made it a point to think of Gateshead as little as possible.

She was tempted then to disengage – but the progression of the already-begun holo-eclipse swept her along inexorably. Gateshead Station was been in orbit around a red moon; the lunar eclipse had been the first time she'd ever properly seen the stars. They were extraordinary, there up above the dome, points of luminous energy hanging, defiant, in the infinite black.

As the horrible constant red light had reappeared, pouring into the room like a tide of bright blood, a limitless ocean of exposure, small Jane had started to cry, clutching her little secrets close to herself, shrinking back in distress. The sudden return of red light had made it look as though all the stars were being eaten by a god of fire.

They hadn't let her out of the fearsome brightness until she'd been reduced to screaming, at which point she'd got a lecture on managing her temper from her aunt the Administrator …

The hailing call from the Thornveldt had interrupted and minimized the play-program, putting Jane's memories of her Reed family back down out of sight and out of mind, which was where they belonged. She engaged the landing program, and a moment later felt the judder of the Thornveldt's tractor locking in on her, towing her in. The landing bay doors slowly closed behind her, and as airlock began to cycle the ship-normal gravity kicked in, making her heart and head pound. Dizzily, she popped her cockpit canopy, letting the new air rush in over her face. The atmosphere of the supervessel Thornveldt was cool and dry, pure and clean, but also still, so still, drained of some necessary component of atmospheric vitality. Jane unstrapped herself and unfolded her legs, pushing up and out and down onto the main deck; the sound of her low boots impacting coincided exactly with the sound of the docking-bay doors beginning to work open.

“My dear Mx. Eyre,” that low female voice came again, even more booming and resonant once it was not filtered through a comlink, “welcome, welcome. Please come in and let me get you something hot to drink.”

As Jane grew steady enough to make her way around the Nightbird Fly's bow, she got her first look at her new employer, and was momentarily taken aback; whatever she'd been prepared for, on her first off-site long-term job, it hadn't been someone like the person who she assumed must be Edward Rochester.

She was clearly female, by the pattern of subcutaneous fat deposits beneath her hairy skin – although perhaps “fur” was a more apt descriptor than “hair.” The figure striding toward Jane with hand hospitably outstretched was tremendous, large and bestial, mammalian, only vaguely humanoid. “Shipkeeper Fairfax at your service, dear,” the large person said, and it was the kindly voice that she had heard over the comm. “I work for Master Rochester. Good to meet you, welcome aboard.”

Grabbing her workbag, Jane followed Shipkeeper Fairfax into the gloomy interior of the Thornveldt.

She soon learned from Fairfax – “Just Fairfax, dear, if you please” – that the master of the vessel was away – “as he so often is,” said with a maternal sigh, for, as Jane was become aware, Fairfax had been long with the Rochester family, and had known the current master since his boyhood, and was evidently sentimental in her attachment. Left behind were Fairfax, the Advanced Directional Electric Lexicon, or ADEL, the ship's hyperspace computer AI, which was glitchy, and which it was Jane's mission to communicate with and repair – and Bertha, whose acquaintance she did not make until several days later, but whose appearance went far towards explaining the somewhat mysterious character of the place.

After spending that first day cooped up with ADEL, talking to the AI interface and building up the bonds of trust that would be necessary before she'd be able to run a proper diagnostic on the system, Jane emerged into the corridors of the ship late in the evening, stretching and popping her bone-joints. The light was low and brown-yellow, running low around the floor and throwing up dramatic shadows as you moved. Small sounds of machinery met her ears, whirrings and tickings, a distant clank – and down one turning, the sound of low voices. She followed the sounds of her fellow-organics, for once in her life hungry for company.

The corridor opened up onto a room, still dark but with a flame burning in an oil lamp that hung in the center of the ceiling, giving the space a warmer vibe than the eerie dark blankness that prevailed throughout. Two figures were seated at a table, kicked back in folding chairs and holding close hands of holocards: Fairfax, looming and creaturely, and across from her another large-built person, a long-limbed, voluptuous woman with broad shoulders, high cheekbones, and dark coiling hair hanging loose. If it were not for the hair, her dusky complexion might have seemed that of a Euro, but the fine frizz of baby hairs that curled at her brow and temples showed that she shared Jane's own roots, at least in part.

“Technician Eyre,” Fairfax told the other, indicating Jane. “This is Mastersclone Bertha Mason; she lives here, even when Master Rochester is away. You are not prejudiced against clones?”

“No, indeed,” Jane said. “We are not answerable for things done to us before birth; only for the things we do in life.”

“You do not advocate non-judgement, I notice,” the clone-woman, Bertha Mason, said; her voice was a low alto, fierce, focused, and predatory.

“That is a fault of mine,” Jane said. “I have been tasked before now with being vengeful, and I will confess that I do not find it easy to forgive those that I have seen engaging in immoral acts.”

Bertha's eyes, dark and commanding, focused on her own, and for a moment Jane found herself sliding uncontrollably into memory –

“No,” she'd said. “It's always better to return kindness for cruelty, and passivity for violence. Getting angry only makes things worse, Janie-baby, don't you see? The more you antagonize people like Brocklehursts, the more they bear down on you. You only end up encouraging escalation, and inevitably intensifying hostilities. It's bad strategy.”

“I don't agree with that,” Jane had protested her friend's gentle, implacable words. “I can't.”

“Why not?” Helen had asked. “Haven't you been fighting all your life?”

“Sure, I guess. I don't pick the fights, but that doesn't mean I can't end them.”

Helen had looked at her then, not saying anything, just looking, her round face as tranquil and untroubled as the moon. Her pale eyes had glistened in the light of the monitors as she'd finally asked Jane, “Has it gotten you anywhere? As a tactic, has taking the offense proved effective? From where I stand, you're as fucked as the rest of us, baby, just more tired at the end of the days”

and then she was back in the fire-lit cabin of the Thornveldt, with the gengineered keeper and the master's clone. “You have an interesting mind, Technician Eyre,” the clone-woman said. “Lots of thoughts under those braids. Edward's going to like you.”

“And you?” Jane said, daring.

Bertha stretched her shoulders and settled, a pantheress relaxing on high ground. “I'm going to like watching you fuck him up. I hope he doesn't fuck you up too bad in turn, but if he does, he does, it's not for me to save you.”

“How did you get on with ADEL?” Fairfax asked, visibly concerned with the need to change the subject back to something more socially acceptable.

“Seems like a nice system,” Jane said. “Playful. Does she always use a female pronoun?”

“That was Celine's doing,” Bertha Mason's voice came rolling out in a sarcastic tide. “She was a shit programmer, crappy actress too. Edward was an idiot about her, bought her shit, brought her back here to live, let her get her tentacles in to everything. She installed ADEL. Teach a computer nonsense, it learns to be silly.”

She caught and held Jane's eyes again. “Wonder what you'll teach it, Technician Eyre,” she said. “You're not silly. But you've swallowed too much of yourself; you're all deep down, you do not make a sound.”

Fairfax stood, breaking the spell of the moment. “Let me show you to your quarters, dear, you must be tired.”

“I can sleep on the Nightbird,” Jane said, nonplussed at the offer. “That's what I'd planned for.”

“Nonsense,” Fairfax said. “We have so many empty rooms … you would be doing us a favor, I assure you, if you would inhabit one or two for a space.”

Two weeks later, she received a notif that the shuttle Gytrash was due in dock. “Master's back,” Fairfax said with happy satisfaction, when asked about the vessel.

Bertha had banged off into her part of the ship, closing off the big corridor door behind her – “I don't want to talk to the motherfucker today, I swear to you, Fairfax, if you turn those damn cow eyes on me I will end you –”

“I'm going to see if he needs anything,” Fairfax said. “You sit tight, and we'll send you a note if he wants to see you tonight. It might well end up being the morning before you're wanted.”

But he had wanted her that night, summoning her to his admin workroom, where he sat in an aged red leather chair presiding over layered console arrays; he looked like his clone, naturally enough, a broad, stocky man with dark eyes and a kinky fringe of hair, not handsome but intense and compelling, with the spice of contrariness to lend him charm. And he had charmed her.

They had pulled ADEL up on his console array, and he had been pleased with the organized arrays and thought-paths she'd set the AI to learning. As he had examined her work, he had spoken to Jane like an equal, without pretense or distance, as if she were a man and an administrator instead of a plain-faced itinerant girl tech of no particular background.

It was not that she found him so beautiful, with his heavy frame and lidded eyes – but in an odd quirk of interpersonal chemistry, she found his abrasive character charming as hell, and it leant him attractiveness in her eyes despite his lack of personal beauty. It had been fun talking to him, fun like she'd never really had in her life before. She had loved Helen, but they had suffered together more than they had played, despite their youth.

It was not the last time she'd talked with him so, far from it. Master Rochester – Edward, as she sometimes allowed herself to think of him, following Bertha's practice, in her most daring internal moments – was a better playmate to her than she'd ever had before, found only now that she'd reached the brink of adulthood and pulled herself over. It was remarkable. He had told her stories of his unhappy boyhood and misguided life, and then had called her by nicknames and exchanged sarcastic barbs with her in the easiest possible way – although there was something electric under it, as well, a fizzing spark of heat and light.

Still she had not dared say his given name aloud, more conscious than he of her own lack of standing. He could afford to be oblivious – he was a shipmaster, the heir to an empire.

That had been something else she'd begun to find out about, putting together the circumstances that had led to the ascendency of the pair of clone-sibs to their patrimony. Although Master Rochester seemed to genuinely share her own interest in programming languages and computer communications, his family wealth was in biotech, not computer engineering; his forebears, it seemed, had been gengineers for generations. More than the family business, it had evidently become a way of life for the Rochesters, who had begun to tinker with their own genetic line as a way of pursuing all possible innovative perfection.

Edward and Bertha, she had discovered by way of Fairfax, were as much products as the creature herself, made male and female versions of the same person, he conceived and she copied – and, according to Fairfax, it was known to both of them which had been the child and which the experiment. It seemed to Jane that all three identities, creature, conception, and copy, would be difficult in their own ways to bear, and in the later two cases her observations certainly bore her out.

The second night Master Rochester was home, Bertha set a fire in his room – a risky thing to do on a space station, where oxygen was stored as a precious resource – and laughed like a madwoman as smoke filled the room. Rochester had growled and snarled through the following day, but the day after that had seemed restored to his earlier manner, at least when he'd been in Jane's company; she wondered what his face looked like when he spoke to his clone-sister alone.

That day, she'd shown him the stored holoimages that she kept to commemorate her best sim work, vivid CG images that were nevertheless mere shadows of the iconography of her mind; he had grown pale and thoughtful, looking at them, and she had not understood why.

Though he had not yet shown Bertha's penchant for arson, Master Rochester was also himself not a reliable safe keeper for a tender heart. Jane knew that she was being played with like a falcon on a gyre, kept just hungry enough to keep returning – but return she did, compelled by his growls and moods as much as by his brighter avices. Somewhat more dampening to her spirits was his action, after about a week of residence at Thornveldt Station, of inviting a bevy of girls back from – somewhere – elegant young ladies of class and standing, to be sure, the sort of young prospects that worked at family firms, not as contractors, and that were assured of a smooth way up, well-lined with tailored suits. Jane, in her coveralls, with her plain braids, pinched face, and unremarkable figure, knew that she could not compete with them at any level; and so she hid herself away in the bowels of ADEL's backup servers and took her meals and kept her sleep on the Nightbird Fly.

As far as she'd been able to tell, Bertha had been keeping a similar low profile; and so she was startled, when creeping quietly into the store larder for dinner supplies, to see the big clone-woman sitting, wide, colorful skirts spread out around her like a wheel, planted at the entryway to the saloon, where the master and his party were sure to come within the hour.

“What are you doing?” she asked, having learned that the other, who did not hold herself to standards of normal politeness, would not begrudge similar directness from others.

“I want to borrow my brother's toys for an evening. He won't begrudge me; he never does.”

“He often does; he is always thunderous when he discovers that I have spent time in your company.”

“Ah, but you are not one of his toys, you see. I admit, he does play with you – cruel thing – but you must understand, my dear, that he means it in deadly earnest.”

“You sound like Fairfax,” Jane said. “Since when are you so temperate in your invective when speaking of your twin?”

But Bertha held up a peremptory hand. “Listen! They are coming!”

In a whirl of silvery skirts, scarves, fringe, and bangles, Master Rochester's guests came sweeping down the corridor, giggles like froth spilling out before them, secure enough in their elegance and status to openly display frivolity. Jane found their concentrated allure, approaching her so directly, more than a little overwhelming. Bertha sat back and looked up, her black eyes challenging under her heavy arching brows.

“Oh,” said a pale woman with yellow hair worn in finger-curls, “a fortune teller! Edward's sent us a fortune teller to keep us entertained!”

“How good of him,” another said sardonically, but the first cut in,

“No, Blanche, I'm going to enjoy this and you can't stop me,” she said.

“Well missy,” Bertha said, “shall I tell you your future? You must withdraw yonder and speak with me alone.”

“Oh yes,” the blonde woman said, and followed Bertha into a nearby alcove.

Jane was in an idle, heavy, self-sabotaging mood, and so she did not withdraw back to her sanctuary, but remained with the rest of the master's pretty guests, making contrasts between them and herself. It was an unworthy thing to do, but she could not help herself. It seemed to her that she had been doing a great many unworthy things of recent weeks.

At least she seemed to remain invisible to the other women, who took no notice of her as, one by one, they went be told secrets that invariably made them blush or giggle. But when all had gone save Jane alone, attention turned to her, and Bertha came up and grabbed her hand. “Come, Mx. Eyre, it is your turn to have your palm read.”

“I hold no truck with prophecies,” Jane warned her.

“I don't need the second sight to see your future, sprite,” Bertha said, and pulled her away from the others.

Jane's hand was not released, however. “Do you not need to look at my palm to read it?” she asked.

“It is in your face, not your palm, that your future is written,” Bertha said. “Have you ever heard of the ancient pseudoscience of phrenology? Prehistoric humans believed that the shape of the skull expressed the character of the individual. Pure nonsense, of course, and it was often applied in shockingly racist ways … but although biology is not destiny, as we well know, you and I, yet still there is a truth that is visible in the face for eyes to see that can, if they are willing to wait and watch patiently. Jane, I have watched you so very patiently.”

The voice was grown hoarse, and the hand that came up to touch her cheek was rough and square. Suspicious, Jane looked more closely at her interlocutor – and recognized the master in his borrowed guise.

She stiffened and pulled away, glancing back to where the group stood socializing – but they were not paying attention, having no investment in her drama. “Sir,” she said, “I think your sister will be very angry with you when she discovers you have taken such liberties in impersonating her. To do so with your guests is bad enough, but to attempt to prevail on me as well is – sir, I am very angry with you, that much I can say for certain. But I will not make a scene in front of your guests.”

He was defensive in the face of her anger. “Jane,” he said, “it was only a game. I am sorry I involved you; it was only that I couldn't help myself, I wanted to tell you that your future happiness is written in the curve of your mouth and the sweep of your forehead, the shell of your ear and the sparkle in your eye when you laugh and oh Jane, once again I am saying too much. I should not wear Bertha's things; I come off quite a madman.”

She said nothing, and he sobered. “I told them things that were true, but that would not hurt them,” he said, earnest, passionate. He added, more gently, “I did not mean to hurt you.”

“You were right about one thing, sir, at very least,” Jane said. “I am not your toy. Please do not follow me.”

She bolted for safety; looking at his face for one more second would have been more than she could bear. Only on the other side of the ship, in the dusty racks of data storage, did she feel far enough distant from him to stop vibrating in resonance to the beat of his blood and the rhythm of his breath.

It all went to shit soon after that, though she would not recognize it for some time.

She had gone off to nurse her wounded pride in her hole, and saw no one for three days. She'd seen that Rochester's guests had departed soon after the “fortuneteller” escapade, the notifs as their shuttles headed off to nearby stations and hub transfer points chiming on her console through the interface with ADEL like so many tolling bells, but she had not come out. She drew her own face in the freeplay program, again and again and again: self portrait falling, self portrait disintegrating, self portrait becoming liquid, becoming glass, becoming honey, becoming dust. No matter how many times she sculpted it, her face never seemed to her a beautiful one, nor one with a destiny of good fortune written in its bones. She could only think that he had been playing with her, to say so.

On the fourth day he – having as she later discovered quarreled with every other person on the Thornveldt, including having a tremendous row with Bertha over his ransacking of her wardrobe – had appeared unexpectedly there in the hangar beside the Nightbird Fly, and had pounded on her cockpit hatch until she'd given it up and flipped the release to let him in.

She had meant to let him talk and sit herself in stony silence, but to her horror she found that the words poured out of her mouth in a torrent as soon as they came face to face, a litany of grievance that ended with her lashing out and declaring her intention to seek a new programmer to finish the remaining work with ADEL.

Bending with the force of what affect she could not name, he had declared then that he loved her and never wanted her to leave, that he wanted to contract solely with her, to share with her his fortunes and to bring her to his bed; and she had been trembling, had lain her head against his shoulder, had only managed to whisper “yes” the first few times she'd got it out.

He'd kissed her. She'd stayed. That was the beginning of the downward slide.

First they'd fucked on the main command console of the Nightbird Fly, and it had been the best sex of her life – until she could compare it to the sex they'd had the next night, when they'd actually made it back to his bed.

After that, it had run on for two incredible, maddening months, split about evenly between the most mindbending makeouts of her life – and the most fucked-up weird fights she'd ever had with anyone.

He'd dumped a whole heap of old romance holonovels into ADEL, undoing several days' worth of logic-building work in the process; it had been adorable, but the mess he'd left behind had been terrific, and she couldn't afford to let him impact the quality of her work like that, she couldn't. Without her reputation, she had nothing.

He'd shown up with fancy evening gowns for her to wear to dinner; she didn't like them, and Bertha growled like a dog whenever she caught sight of Jane in one of the new filmy robes.

“What?” Jane asked her, once, turning in exasperation.

“Better for you to wear your skin,” the clone-woman had grated, and Jane had blushed and then paled, and gone on in silence. She didn't see Bertha much after that, nor Fairfax, though she was spending more time in her quarters on the Thornveldt, away from the Nightbird Fly, than she ever had before.

“I love you,” he'd gasped out as he shuddered against her in orgasm, and she had felt herself dissociating, rising up out of her body to look at herself pinned beneath the broad plane of his bending back.

“I love you,” she said, scarcely knowing what she meant by it; the words came from her lips involuntarily, as helpless as her climax a moment later.

She felt … luxurious, in a way that she was not accustomed to. Her work was often interrupted, but as the malefactor was also her employer there was little real risk – just enough, seemingly, to make the workplace dalliance excitingly forbidden and therefore tantalizingly appealing.

She was not used to laughing so much. She was not used to being so carefree – so careless. She still felt awkward when she tried to say his name, and so did not call him by any name at all. She should have anticipated the crash.

She was lying spooned in her bed with Rochester when the notif came that a Richard Mason was requesting to come aboard; and Rochester had become grim, rage washing over him like a wave, and risen then and left her with no word but only a kiss. She resented the exclusion, and followed after him.

When she finally made it back to her room, hours later that felt like years, it was to find Bertha slashing every pretty thing he had ever given her into ribbons with a laser scalpel. “Richard's a dick,” the clone-woman said, looking up from her handful of mutilated white lace. “Edward's not much better. Should have listened more carefully to Fairfax, Technician Eyre.”

“Should I?” Jane said colorlessly.

“Maybe I should cut out Richard's throat with this scalpel later tonight,” Bertha replied, turning the weapon in a contemplative manner. “Would you want me to kill Edward, too?”

“Mr. Mason informed Master Rochester of a number of clauses in his inheritance contract that limited the use of his person,” Jane said.

“Wrong word, Technician,” Bertha said. “Do you think we haven't always known what we were made for, my clone-twin and I? He chose to forget – and chose not to inform you.”

The clone-woman rose and drew close, so that Jane could feel the heat of her breath; so like her brother's, that Jane had not half an hour fled from, that Jane shuddered at her approach. “Well,” Bertha said. “So now you understand what we are: the creatures of our house, bound by self-interest to uphold the ones that made us not-quite-human. Edward likes to play foolie-foolie games with himself, pretend he's not the house's creature, but he always comes crawling back here in the end.”

“How can it be worth it?” Jane said. “To be so compromised – what could be worth that?”

“Money and status are not without value,” Bertha replied with a sneer. “You who have never had them may find it easy to cling to purity, but we have had other experiences. I do not begrudge my brother his decisions, only his hypocrisy.”

“I need to get out of here,” Jane gasped, the walls seeming to close in around her.

“You can't leave yet,” Bertha purred, “you haven't collected your fee.”

“I don't need it!”


“I'll get by – I've done it before.”

“You don't want to contract with him, stay with him, enjoy his smiles, the other benefits?”

“Not anymore,” Jane said, and tore herself away from the other woman, bolting out the door and down the corridor like all the hounds of hell were on her tail.

She hadn't been lying, not exactly, when she'd boasted to Bertha that she could get by without the fee for her work on ADEL – she'd had enough to get into free space, but not a lot after that, and when hunger pangs had finally forced her down she'd had to stay where she'd landed.

Zhǎozé was a water planet, all lilies and rice fields and crayfish ponds, and there wasn't any technically-skilled work available, though after a few weeks of backbreaking work in the paddies word of her background had gotten out, and she'd been able to start helping the boss, a pale pretty man with white hands, manage his accounting and investment applications. Sinjin was a nice enough guy, for all that he was a member of the managerial class, but he was wound at least three turns too tight, and sometimes Jane found the clean fire of his conviction almost threatening. He'd converted to Buddhism and relocated to this backwater, taking up farming as a sop to his over-tender conscience. The contrast to Edward Rochester should have been illuminating – but it was not. Her responses to the two men only confused her. Was there really no way to match her ethics to her erotics? Was the choice really so stark, so unforgiving?

She'd started having nightmares as soon as the Nightbird Fly had left the gravitational pull of Thornveldt Station behind: dreams where she melted into the metal of the station and became a cyborg, dreams where she gave birth to Edward Rochester's child only to discover that it was a monstrous minotaur with the head of a bull atop a baby's brown torso. She'd begun to meditate with Sinjin as a way of keeping the dreams at bay, at first, before she'd begun to enjoy the practice for its own sake.

She took her out her braids and wore her hair in a little afro puff. One night, when she felt particularly centered and serene, she called home – meaning Gateshead Station, where she'd lived with her tyrannizing Aunt Reed before being sent out to the orbital school at Lowin One. She hadn't called back there in a long time, not since she'd emancipated herself and gone out into the black. Her Aunt Reed was, she learned, dead; there was a document packet that they'd been holding for her, but hadn't had an address. Could she access a streaming connection?

She could; and, with the help of Sinjin's terrifyingly efficient sisters, who ran a distance translation service over the nets that they could take with them to whatever out-of-the-way place their brother dragged them, she had the files in her hands by mid-morning the next day. There was an apology from her aunt, which she set aside, next finding the reason for it: the title to a private trading fortune, deeded her from her uncle, John Eyre, who had perished on a wormhole route gone wrong some ten years before. Her aunt would have known of her inheritance for some time before she'd left home, and had apparently suppressed the information.

With a feeling of detached amusement, Jane imagined what her reaction would have been, if the secret had come out right away; how she would have raged in Helen's ears late at night, how it would have driven at her like a scourge to know that she could have purchased her sweetheart the medicine and rest that would have saved her life. Helen, ever the optimist, would have said that things happened the way they did for a reason, even if you couldn't see it clearly in the day-to-day. Jane hadn't agreed with her then and didn't agree with her now, but Helen's way had gotten her through.

She wondered what Bertha would have made of Helen. In an alternate universe where Jane had successfully accessed her inheritance while still at school, would she and Helen have ever made the acquaintance of the worldly, tainted demi-monde where the Rochesters and other families like theirs were the rulers, trading in fantasy and flesh? Fantasy, maybe – she'd been interested in holoprogramming, but hadn't pursued it because practicality had been a priority.

She'd been alone by then, and Helen's sweet sugar-pink body had been circling a planet in a coffin. Maybe she would have gone to the demi-monde alone, caught Edward's eye the way his previous conquests gad. Would things have gone any differently, under those circumstances? Would it have changed things between them if she hadn't been in his employ? Obviously, if things had been different they'd have been different – but she couldn't seem to figure out just how.

With the inheritance from John Eyre, Jane found herself suddenly at a loose end – she had been working to claw herself back from oblivion, and now there was no longer any need, because she was safe and secure. It was not quite that she would never need to work again – she would get bored without work, she feared – but she would never need to scour the newspages for “help wanted” postings, or take on any projects that didn't please her, and that was difference enough.

Sinjin wanted her to go in with him on a combination startup/techno-commune, but while she could see that he would love it she wasn't quite sure if she was into it.

One night, she had a more vivid dream than any that had come to her for months. Bertha was there, trying to hush the minotaur-baby, and when she saw Jane she held it out to her. “Look,” the dream-Bertha said, “I'm not saying that it's not a monster. It is. That doesn't mean you don't love it.” And, coming close, she dropped the baby into Jane's arms, where it cuddled up and cooed, all warm fur and cow eyes. Two mornings later, there was an anonymous message waiting for her; when she opened the data package to see Bertha's holographic form in the console, she was not surprised.

“Freeholder Eyre,” Bertha said – so they knew of her good fortune back on the Thornveldt, Jane wondered how – “I tried to get in touch with your dreaming, but you've been doing something of late that's got me blocked. What a bother, pushing me into language. Anyway, I wanted to let you know, quite without any pressure of course, that my drip of a clone-sib has been marooned. ADEL, Fairfax, and I decided that we'd had enough of his moping. We're going to take the Thornveldt off on a voyage, we've all been sitting stuck in that backwater corner of the galaxy for far too long. Edward decided he'd rather continue his fit of conscience – I have to commend you, you really did a number on him – and so we let him off before we left. He signed his controlling interest in the family corporation over to me first, of course.

'He's licking his wounds at the bubble-habitat we keep at Fernseed; I'm including the coordinates in the data packet. He doesn't mean to ever let you know, but I don't mean to let him have all his own way, it's not good for him. You are. Do go rattle his cage, there's a good girl.” And with that, the transmission ended.

Sinjin's sister Mary helped her look up the attached coordinates. The bubble-habitat was a freestanding orbital moving around a station, out of the way but not so remote as to be inaccessible to common trade routes. “You could do a lot worse,” Mary said. “Zhǎozé, for example. And I dread the day that Sinjin takes it into his head to drag us off somewhere even further out. He's got that bug, I know he does. We're going to end up in the desert or the jungle, sooner or later. That's why Diana and I have taken such pains to keep ourselves portable over the years. We could leave him, of course,” she added, seeming struck by the idea.

Jane sat in silence. What was she going to do? The decision was too big – as if a life-path had suddenly appeared at her toe-tips, and as soon as she took one step she would be irrevocably changed.

She asked the others what they thought.

“Don't go,” Sinjin said. “It's not rational to think that something that was broken once will be better now. And you've got too much potential.”

“Go,” Diana said quietly. “If it's not right for you, you don't have to stay – but you'll regret it always if you don't, I think.”

“I can realize my potential and go to my – my friend – at the same time,” Jane told Sinjin. And so the decision was made, and it was not too big, but simple as breathing. She was going to go and find out. Always that was what she had done before: she had gone to find out. And her faculties had never failed her yet.

She had to put the Nightbird Fly in spacedock at the station and take an orbital carrier out to Rochester's bubble; they talked of him in hushed voices there, and she gathered that he really was in a tremendous sulk.

“I guess he used to be one of those titans of commerce,” the tech told her. “Equipped with foresight and all that. Lost it all – no one knows why, exactly, but he's no more than a freeholder now.”

“He was a master of commerce, yes,” Jane said. “Though I am not sure what's going on at present; I'm a bit behind the times.”

“You knew him before, then?” the girl said, evidently impressed. Jane nodded, no other response seeming indicated.

The carrier only had a small window, so she couldn't see much of the habitat as she approached. It was only after the pod had latched on and the airseals had opened that she was able to apprehend much of the environment where Rochester had gone to ground. It was not as wet as Zhǎozé, but the air was warm and humid nonetheless. It was a greenhouse bubble, rich with smells of nutrients and chlorophyll; when she stepped out into the main corridor, soft mosses cushioned her steps. The light was yellow-gold, like late summer sunshine.

She walked back through the rooms of plants in flower, grafted trees each bearing dozens of different fruits, rows of tall hemp, a trellis of exotic orchids. The habitat was not large, and everything was fit close together ship-style.

She found him in the back, wrestling with a heap of scrap metal, a compactor, and a replicator intake tube. He did not seem surprised to see her – “It's all very well, your showing up,” he said in a tone of mild complaint, “but you're not going to be any help to me here.”

“Am I not?” Jane said, and went to him. “You don't think the girl from the charity school knows how to handle reprocessing tech?”

He pulled back from her, eyes wide and startled. “Jane?”

“Who else?” she said, and moved closer, so that he had only to bring up his hands to clasp her waist; he did it, and she sighed to be enfolded in the familiar power of his embrace.

“You're real? I'm not dreaming?”

“I'm real,” Jane told him. “I was given to understand you'd lost your keys to dreamworld, sir.”

“I am no 'sir' any more, Jane – only Edward.”

“Edward, then,” she said, and he smiled.

“I've hung them up, you impossible thing – they were of no use to me, when you had slipped through my fingers. I'll not let you go so easily this time.” And so saying, he gripped her closer, nearly lifting her off her feet; he had not kissed her, yet, but she was overwhelmed already by his sheer presence. She let herself go limp in his grasp, surrendering to his demanding hands; and he gave a great shuddering sigh and dropped his dark head to rest against her shoulder.

Jane slept that night tucked away in Rochester's narrow bunk. They had the Nightbird and the Gytrash, both in dock on Fernseed Station, and Bertha had loaded ADEL's backup data on the Gytrash before she'd left – so they had the AI, too, at least in a rudimentary form.

“I shall miss Fairfax,” Jane said, cutting up a mango for their breakfast.

“She'll be happier where she is,” Edward answered her. “I was never sociable enough for her, kept her cooped up by herself too much. Bertha will do better; she understands those things.”

He reached out to touch her cheek, and Jane felt herself melting. “You understand me well enough,” she said, and pressed a kiss to his fingers.

“I haven't always done that, either. Have I apologized yet, for being a fool who tried to buy and sell a woman who was above my level from the get-go?”

“You haven't,” Jane said, “but the apology is accepted.”

“So, Freeholder Eyre,” Edward said, “what are we going to do next?”

“Do you know, I don't know,” Jane said.

“I've given up my foresight,” he cautioned her. “All I've got left to go on is ordinary human intuition, and that's no great lodestone to guide a course.”

“That's all right,” Jane said. “There's plenty of stars out there to steer by. Pick one out and it won't be wrong.”