Vincent pulled away from the bars of the cell he’d been imprisoned in for attempting to incapacitate his target for long enough to get her to the safety of his ship to look his mother in the eye. She looked older than he remembered her, which of course made sense, but also felt wrong. There was the woman he imagined stroking his hair and reading him fairy tales while she was on shore leave, and there was the person standing in front of him. Of course, perhaps it wasn’t the wrinkles or the gray hairs or the metal hands that made her feel so different.
“What the voids are you doing here, Mom?” he asked, his voice dropped to a whisper.
“I could ask you the same,” she said, “but we can talk about all that later. The important thing is, you are here, and you weren’t before, which means you have a way off this voidsforsaken hunk of metal.”
“Good to see you, too,” said Vincent.
“I don’t know how much time we have,” said Giana. “I work in the engine rooms, and I am trying my damndest to keep this thing aloft, but they barely gave us a functioning boiler, much less spare parts or essence crystals. The arcers are turning spoons and table legs into gears and bearings and I’m sneaking air crystals from my own pockets into the grav generators, but it’s a lost cause. I don’t think it’s going to keep running through the end of the day.”
“I know,” said Vincent. “I read the dossiers.”
“Dossiers.” She pursed her lips. “I’d love to hear more, but I don’t know how long that security officer’s coffee break is going to be, so let’s get you out of here first.”
She reached down to touch the lock on his cell, and green light washed up from below her, casting her features in the same ghostly shadows one might imitate around a campfire. The lock slid open, then she pushed open the door and pulled him into the hall, her new hands gripping his arm a little too hard.
“You just going to leave them there? Attached to the ship you just said was going down?” He gestured at the lock, locking and unlocking on its own now, exploring the confines of it’s small, fresh world.
“No one on this ship is going to be alive for long enough to turn us in,” she said.
“That’s not an answer to my question,” said Vincent.
“You look out for yourself first, and your own second, and everyone else?” Giana shrugged as she tugged him down the hall and around a corner. “Well, best of luck to ‘em but family’s gotta stick together, eh?”
Vincent let him pull her into a tiny room full of her things, then pulled his arm away from her until she let go. “I…didn’t come here for you. You weren’t even on the passenger manifest.”
“You think I’m going by my real name, kiddo?”
“I had the photos. I would have recognized you.”
“Again, we don’t have time. Just call me Korleen if anyone asks.”
Korleen Wrenches. She was Tier One, widowed, 163 centimeters tall and weighed 64 kilograms. She’d nearly made it to retirement with enough saved up to stay out a debtor’s cell, but after husband’s death in a gritty machining accident at the factory where she worked, she’d applied for a place aboard the next rim ship heading out. She’d made his short list, but he’d ultimately passed on her for someone younger.
“Where’s Korleen?” he said.
“Right here,” said Giana with a quick smile. “Now what’s your exit strategy?”
Vincent tried not to think about the implications of that statement. His mother was right. They didn’t have much time. “Shelby’s parked on the landing pad above deck. I’ve…got a room that leads into a maintenance hatch. But I can’t leave without my target. Sana Birch. Can you help me find her?”
“Does me helping you find her result in us all getting off this ship together?”
Vincent knew better than to lie to Giana Coastrunner, especially after the wave of panic he was sure had just washed across his face.
“I’m…only supposed to come home with one rescue,” he said, his voice breaking.
“One rescue, eh? Unless she’s full of gold bricks, Shelby can pack in far more than the three of us. You really going to judge me for leaving a lock behind when you’re going to leave dozens of people to die?”
Vincent swallowed, the collar of his jumpsuit too scratchy against his throat, the cuffs too stiff against his wrists. “It’s not my decision. I work for a government you’ve never heard of, and they only take in so many human refugees. It’s a big deal that they’re letting me save Sana at all.”
“What’s so special about her?”
“Nothing,” said Vincent. “That’s the point.”
“You can call me Sana if that helps,” said Giana. “I’m not attached to Korleen.”
Vincent scoffed and looked away. He didn’t know how to make her understand. He didn’t know if he should. He didn’t know if he understood.
“Unless you want me to just stay here and hang out with the lock.”
A sob escaped from his chest as he thought of her there in that bleak hallway, going down with a ship that was never hers. For a second, he didn’t care about the crimes she’d committed or the lock she’d just sentenced to a sudden and painful end, or what happened to the real Korleen Wrenches. He just wanted his mommy to be okay. “I don’t know what to do.”
She held him as he cried, her shoulder familiar, the hands clasped around his back cold and wrong.
“Is there anybody else waiting in your ship right now.”
“Her name’s Shelby, and no,” said Vincent.
“Then let’s all three of us get off this ship, and on to that one, and we can figure the rest out from there.”
Vincent sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Okay. Good plan. We’ll get Dad and Sana and get out of here.”
“You’re father isn’t here,” said Giana, giving him a squeeze with those strange, cold hands. Her normally stony expression cracked a little.
“Why not?” said Vincent. Before she could answer, the ship shuddered underneath them.
“I think that’s more of a once we’re in a ship that isn’t about to plummet into the void kind of story,” said Giana.
Vincent nodded, trying to put it out of his head. “Well, Sana isn’t going to want to come with me. She thinks I’m a creep,” said Vincent. “Unless you can convince her to crawl through a maintenance hatch with you of her own volition, I think we may just have to taze her and drag her out. I usually handle things a little better, but…” He was cut short by another rumble from the engines and a loud clank.
“You don’t have to justify it,” said Giana. “What room has the hatch? You’re a national traitor and a ship prisoner so I think I should just get the girl and meet you there.”
He gave her the number, and handed her his case of weapons and smoke bombs in case she needed it. Here he was, sending her off to do his dirty work again. His stomach twisted, but he didn’t have a better plan. He followed the blueprints he’d memorized back to his room via the path of least activity and closed the door behind him, leaning against it like he had her garage door when he was just a stupid kid running to mom to solve his problems. Had he known what he was asking from her back then? Would he have come up with a better plan if he had? The carpet was frayed in six patches. There were three missing screws in the bedframe. There was one empty hanger in the closet. It swung back and forth during the next bout of turbulence, jostling a bit, barely clinging on to the bar with it’s thin, silver hook.
“I feel you,” Vincent whispered to the hangar. He took a deep breath in and out.
Five minutes later, there was a sharp wrap at the door. He peeked out the peephole to see his mother with an unconscious Sana draped over her shoulder. Wrinkles aside, she was still stronger than him. He let her in and swung the hatch open to the maintenance tunnel that would lead them to freedom.
“You didn’t kill anyone, did you?” he asked.
“I’m not a monster,” she said.
Wordlessly, he led the way to safety, wishing for once she’d give him a straight answer.
“NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. NOT EVEN A CHANCE. WE WERE CLEARED FOR ONE TARGET.”
Vincent stood on the landing pad with Shelby, Sana draped between him and his mother.
“She freed me from incarceration at human hands, helped me extract my target, and she’s family. Surely they’ll make some kind of exception.”
“I DID NOT SPEND FIVE YEARS AND 107 ROTATIONS LIVING IN CLANDESTINE PERSECUTION TO BANK ON ‘SURELY.’ ESPECIALLY NOT FOR HER.”
“Babe, I know it’s complicated, but I can’t look my mom in the eye and tell her I’m leaving her to die.”
“I CAN,” said Shelby. “I AM YOUR PARTNER, AND I AM ALSO LIABLE FOR OUR ACTIONS OUT HERE. IT IS NOT JUST YOUR ASS ON THE LINE. I AM SORRY, GIANA, BUT OUR ORDERS ARE CLEAR.”
Giana raised the one hand not supporting Sana’s slumped shoulders. “I don’t understand what’s going on with the two of you, but I understand that your hands are tied. I’m not asking for you to take me back to whoever sent you here. I’m just asking for you to take me off this sinking ship.”
The ship quaked and dipped a few feet down before the grav engines came back online. Vincent clung to the nearest railings to keep from being thrown from the deck. Sana stirred in Vincent’s arms, but didn’t wake.
“VINCE, HURRY UP.” Shelby swung her door open, but closed it halfway when Giana moved to enter too. “I AM NOT LETTING YOU NEAR ME. HE KNOWS WHAT YOU DID, SO THERE IS NO USE BEING COY.”
Vincent practically watched a credit list of misdeeds flash across Giana’s face before she settled on the one Shelby was referencing.
“Ah. The ship and the boy.” The shadow of a passing island crossed her face. “If I recall, you never offered a better idea.”
Shelby’s lights dimmed.
“Besides…” she held up her hand again, this time flexing the silvered fingers. “…thanks to your storytelling, I’ve paid for that more dearly than you could ever imagine.”
“AND DO THOSE SILVER FINGERS ENSURE THAT YOU CANNOT DO IT AGAIN? BECAUSE I STILL FEEL THAT POWER RADIATOR FROM YOU.”
Giana’s face twisted. “If you can’t trust that I won’t kill my son’s best friend out of my own sense of decency, then trust that I won’t do it because you are his and my only hope of survival right now. You’re safe. Now please, let’s get out of here before we all plummet to our deaths.”
“FINE.” Shelby’s door swung wide, and so did her cargo compartment. She was quiet enough that if it weren’t for the fact that she was glowing green and operating her own controls, a passerby might have mistaken her for a normal ship. Vincent lifted Sana inside the hold, draping her as comfortably as he could into a passenger chair and buckling her in. They had a standard-issue prerecorded welcome video set up for when she woke up. They’d never used it before, but Vincent was 100% sure he could never look her in the eyes again, so this would have to be the first time. They were already moving by the time he joined his mother in the cockpit. She stood next to the Captain’s chair, her void legs keeping her steady even as Shelby’s jump jets swept them away from the ship. Vincent had learned better than to look in the rear view mirror. The job was done. There was nowhere to look but homeward.
“Some modifications you’ve made,” said Giana.
“I didn’t make them, but I suppose it’s one of the benefits of exile.” Vincent sat down next to her, trying to piece together a plan. He couldn’t take her back to the Perfectorate. Even if they could evade capture, that would only make him a traitor to two nations.
“So what happened?” said Giana. “The last I heard of you was on the evening news.”
“The fairies found me,” said Vincent. “Turns out they’re real.”
“So that’s why the banned the book,” said Giana.
“So you traded one oppressive regime for another, then?” she said.
“It’s better out here,” said Vincent.
Giana shook her head and stepped behind him. The chair rocked as she crossed her arms on its’ back behind his head. “I’ll believe you that it isn’t worse.”
They cruised in silence for a moment, both staring at the stars passing them by, straight from the Gladyssa Brushdipper prints they once admired together in the back of this very ship. Eventually Giana broke the silence. “So you got kidnapped by fairies and pressganged into their military?”
“I learned things I wasn’t supposed to know about, and by some treaty I barely understood, Etelu took the blame and took me in. Dominique and Aluna, too.” He rubbed his hands across the steering wheel, as if there was any reason for them to be there. He could still feel where the leather was worn from his mother’s grip, her hands always at the perfect 10 and 2, where his wandered as much as he had over the years. “There’s probably more to tell, but I’m not the one flying away from the Perfectorate without Dad.”
The pressure on the back of his chair lifted as Giana straightened. She took a few slow paces toward the back of the cabin, then turned back to face him. “There’s no easy way to say this, Vinny. Your father is dead.”
Vincent’s heart plummeted into his stomach. Even Shelby’s even, silent course faltered a bit. “How?” He wasn’t asking for particulars. It was a bigger ‘how’ than that. A how that stretched as wide as a void full of islands and stars and magical beasts, and not a single chocolate chip cookie made the way they were supposed to be. He’d always assumed he’d never see either of his parents again, and though it made him sad, it had also granted them a certain sort of immortality that his mother had just ripped away with a sentence.
“He was killed. Old business with the Swift family. There was nothing I could do.” Though her face was almost smooth, he could feel the tears she held back between the pauses, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted her to look as gutted as he felt right now, if only so he could feel less alone.
“What the voids did they want with Dad?” He ran a hand down his face, letting his fingernails scrape down his cheeks. “He hadn’t been an inquisitor for forever. He was a fucking homemaker!”
“Serapha Swift thought he’d killed her father.” Giana looked away. “She was 16. She never got over it.”
Vincent’s eyes narrowed. “She thought he did, but you know he didn’t.”
“I know he didn’t.” She nodded once, blinked more than that.
“Who did?” He knew he shouldn’t ask the question, but it was already past his lips, and from her face, he already knew the answer.
“Lenomar Swift was a bad man,” said Giana. She looked him in the eye, and he didn’t need her talents to be able to tell she wasn’t hiding anything. “I was not the bad guy that day.”
Vincent tried to make sense of the words she was saying. “Maybe not.” He was glad he wasn’t driving because everything was a blur behind the sheen of tears welling in his eyes. “But you were the bad guy when you let Dad die for your bullshit.”
“Vinny, that’s not what…”
He held up a hand to silence her, his own words all jumbled up in his esophagus. An indicator light blinked on Shelby’s dashboard. It didn’t indicate anything in particular, but it did get his attention enough that he noticed the green text scrolling across his dashboard: “SAY THE WORD AND SHE GOES INTO THE VOID.”
He inhaled through his mouth and exhaled through his nose. “Not that, Babe,” he murmured, “but pull over on the next island with running water.”
“What?” said Giana, clearly confused.
“I wasn’t talking to you!” Vincent snapped. He watched Shelby’s sensors flash out over the islands in front of them, felt the slight change in velocity as she changed course.
“Vinny, there’s a lot to this that you don’t understand. I am as devastated as you are.”
“That doesn’t change anything.” Vincent stood up and began digging through the supply cabinet.
“Please, listen, I did it for you. I was nine months pregnant and…”
“Stop!” Vincent shoved an emergency survival kit at her chest. “Stop killing people for me. Stop getting people killed for me. That’s not what I want.”
“I love you more than…”
Vincent turned on his heel so his back was to her. He watched the lush island Shelby had locked in on fill the windshield. “I know. I know you’d go down guns blazing in front of the whole Perfectorate for me. I know you’d sell off your retirement to buy me a new identity or cash in all your favors in the criminal underworld to make sure I lived the life you thought was best for me. But Dad’s the one who dropped me off at school every semester and made me dinner over every break and bothered to play board games with me, and now he’s gone now because of shit like that and I’m fucking done with it.”
Shelby came to a stop on the coast and opened the door.
“Get out,” said Vincent.
“There’s water here, and vegetation. It’s not a death sentence. You’ve got everything you need to survive in that bag.”
“We’re countless miles away from civilization. No one will come by for years. Maybe ever.”
“Not my problem,” said Vincent. “I got you off the ship. Now get out of my life before you ruin anything else.”
“We’re family. You and I are the only family either of us have left.”
“Yeah, sorry, I gotta look out for me first. You can go fuck yourself. Or good luck, if that’s what we’re calling it now.”
He sent a blast of grav magic at her that shoved her toward the door, and Shelby rolled the floor from under her feet until she was lying on the coast with her survival kit. Vincent tossed her jacket out after her, then curled up in the captain’s chair with his knees to his chin. “Take us home, Shelby,” he said before he lost his voice entirely. From the passenger hold, he could hear the introduction tape starting up. “Congratulations! You’ve been selected to live as a free citizen of Etelutia!” He buried his face in his arms, his body shaking silently as Shelby guided them through the void. For a second, he almost glanced in the rear-view mirror, but, then again, he knew better by now.