Butterfly
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

          I’d been awake for nearly ten minutes when the chime goes off to wake me. I don’t know why, but I always—always—wake up before the alarm. Not an hour or so before, when I might be able to get an early start on things and get some work done, but just long enough to where I can’t get back to sleep before the alarm.

Most days, I don’t know what that’s about. Today, I did. Because it was 0500 hours, Galactic Mean Time, and if you follow the Earth Calendar, the sixth of June.

            My birthday. One of them, anyway.

            I actually have two birthdays, and depending on which one you go by, I’m either twenty-seven or five years old on this day. If this seems strange to you, well, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

            My name is Jayla-2. Yes, pronounced “Jayla Two.” I’m an anti-clone, which is not an official term, it’s just what everyone decided to call me because trying to explain it in a dozen words or less made peoples’ eyes glaze over in a rather unpleasant way.

            I was supposed to be a clone of Jayla Kyren. The late (she’s birthday number one—January 22nd, if you’re curious. I don’t celebrate that one.)  Jayla’s DNA was mixed with a set of alien DNA from some very ferocious species, and I was the result: a frothing berserker weapon, set against the man who allegedly “killed” Jayla.

            The upshot of that is, despite the fact that I’m a clone of a rather skinny, very leggy blond earthling, I am at least a foot taller, a lot curvier, and I have a long mane of black hair. The only way I could be further off the template was if I’d come out male.

            Jayla’s brother once told me “cloning is an inexact science.” 

The way he said it sounded like an apology.

            I don’t remember much of the first two years of my life. My career as a berserker weapon was pretty short—the man I was set against was Kienan Ademetria. You might know him: The deadliest man in the galaxy. Usually people set against him end up dead, but not me. Recognizing that I was part of Jayla, the woman he’d loved, he cryo-froze me and tried to find a way to restore me back to the Jayla he knew.

            He didn’t quite make that happen. While he did find a way to give me some kind of sentience, and all of Jayla’s memories . . . I’m not her. It took a little time for everyone to get used to that, but I think everyone has now.

            It’s been a few months since I had to correct someone by adding “two,” when they said “Jayla.”

            I stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, running all that around in my head when the chime went. I was out of the bed like a shot, padding over to my dresser to get my clothes.

            I slipped on my bra with practiced ease—even the deep breath I always had to take to get the thing fastened around me was so familiar as to be automatic. Over that I slipped a black tank top. I paused to look at myself in the mirror, smiling as I brushed my hair off my grey skin.

            I ran my hands down my shoulders and smiled into the mirror for a few seconds. I was quite proud of my spots, and liked to take some time to admire them—it was one of those things I had that no one else did, and I do like being unique.

            But I was still half-dressed, and I had to get a move on. I stepped into my favorite pair of jeans—huge baggy things with pockets in the front. My first few years on the ship, I’d worn this tube-top thing that was mortifyingly tight, and these jeans.

            The tube top belong to one of Kienan’s lady friends, and while we’d crossed paths a number of times, the opportunity to ask her what in the hell she was thinking running around dressed like that never came up.

            The jeans, I discovered a while later, were Kienan’s. He’d used them as his work clothes when he did repairs on the ship. On him, they fit pretty tight—everything on Kienan fit pretty tight—but on me, they were quite baggy and extraordinarily comfortable.

            They became mine, I guess, because he never asked for them back. I’ve got a few pairs of my own, but they’re still starchy and aren’t broken in as perfect as these are.

            I reached for my belt, threading it through the loops and bucking the jeans around my waist. While I liked my baggy pants, trial and error told me that walking around without a belt with pants like this was not wisest thing one could do.

            I glanced at the clock. I needed to get in gear. I padded back to the bed, plopped down on the edge of it and pulled my boots on. The boots, like the jeans, weren’t mine, but they were comfortable, rugged, and broken in, and part of me took great comfort in wearing things that felt like they were meant for me.

            Okay, I thought, standing up and staring at the door.

Was I forgetting anything?

            My hand went to my neck, and I sighed.

            I was.

            I walked by to my dressing table and grabbed the long yellow collar, pressing it to my throat as I flipped my hair forward like I was cracking a whip. I quickly snapped the collar around my neck as I felt around for the other thing with my left hand. My hand closed around the red jewel as my hands found both ends of the chain it was attached to, and I put it around my neck as well, uttering a quiet curse because the stupid spring-clasp wasn’t designed for someone with claws and after so many years, I should’ve been able to do this automatically.

            Click.

            Nope—the chain slipped off my neck.

            Damn it, I thought, finding the ends and getting the clasp open again. That time, it worked, and I flipped my hair back over my head, smiling and looking at myself in the mirror again, as I brushed a few strands of hair behind my pointed ears.

            The collar was working, the green light pulsing and the two lights registering translation. This was my vox collar. Typically aliens who couldn’t be bothered to learn languages wore them; it filtered and translated their words based on the resonance in their voice boxes.

            I needed it because I had the opposite problem—apparently, I could speak every language at the same time, and the vox collar was needed to filter it all down to plain old Basic.

            Claws, pointed ears, spots, multi-lingual—I was quite inexplicable.

            The red pendant, having found its usual place between my breasts, was Jayla’s. It was the only thing I had of hers, and the only thing I allowed myself to keep of hers.

            To change me into what I was now, they’d needed something of Jayla’s, and the pendant was all Kienan had left of her.

            I wore it every day, not because it was Jayla’s, as much as it was because that was how I came to be. Jayla’s Omega, my Alpha, if you want to look at it like that.

            I looked at the clock. 0510.

            Not my best time, but at least I wasn’t running late--yet. I opened the door of my quarters and stepped out into the main corridor of the Silhouette, the ship I’d lived on pretty much non-stop in the five years I’d been alive.

            Kienan’s ship. Named after his ex—yes, the one with the tube top. I walked past her quarters (she hadn’t been a regular resident for many years, but Kienan always kept her room for her, because Kienan has strange tics like that) at a brisk pace, climbing the stairs from the quarter deck to the bridge.

            The Silhouette was a modified freighter, designed to look innocuous to the untrained eye, like the ship of a private contractor hauling a load from one system to another. From the outside it was battered, weathered, and looked like it had seen better days.

            Which was the idea.   

            I cut across a couple more decks, including the galley. I considered stopping in for a quick breakfast—we’d had a lucky find of apples on Maera Colony three days ago, and I think if they’d let me, I would have eaten every single one of them.

            But I needed to get a move on. My apple would have to wait. My day was due to start on the bridge.

*          *          *

            I stood on the bridge, studying star charts, trying to figure out where we should go next.  That was kind of important because the Silhouette had to stay on the move almost constantly, so we frequently zigged and zagged around the Frontier and the border regions, never staying in one place for too long.

            When I first came aboard ship, it had been enough that we looked like every other privately-owned freighter around—they crisscrossed the shipping lanes by the hundreds, so many it was nearly impossible to keep track of them.

            Then Kienan had a very bad couple of days and became a renegade. Three years in, and I think I’d stopped counting how many people he was wanted by.

            I should perhaps take this moment to tell you: I knew Kienan killed people for a living. I learned that about four days after I became . . . myself. He was very good at it--I know this because I’d seen him do it several times, sometimes to save me, most of the time, he didn’t.

            My attitude towards it is that I don’t take a position. Because during those particular bad days that led to this state of affairs, I killed someone, because they’d just murdered a friend of mine.

            Everything went red, and by the time I could see anything, I’d killed someone. I’d love to tell you I felt like the scales were balanced—eye for an eye and all of that—but I didn’t.

            That moment crystalized how I’d feel about killing for the rest of my life: Sometimes it’s necessary, but it always costs you something.

            Because I remember the anger I felt when I saw them kill my friend. Just—slash!—and they let her body drop, like she was nothing. Her life was gone and she was disposable.

            I can’t ever remember being more angry. Not just that she was murdered, but because her life meant nothing to them, and was so precious to me.  And I remember . . . nothing had hurt me so bad, and I was angry, and then . . . I was still angry, but I never stopped hurting.

            Kienan never told Jayla what he did. The problem is, what he does is a big part of who he is, and that’s a lot to keep from someone. It also meant there was this big wall between them, and Jayla didn’t know what was on the other side.

            But she knew to be afraid of it, because it threw a big shadow over the two of them.

            And that fear, and those secrets, probably played a role in how she turned out, and how she felt about Kienan.

            So yes, Kienan is an assassin. A murderer.  I can’t equivocate—I’m an eyewitness to it.

            But then, I look back at the person who was on the bridge with me. Conscience. Conscience was another member of the crew, and in some ways, the most important member. She’s physically tied into the Silhouette—being linked to the ship kept her alive (though immobile) and allowed her control of every single system on the ship.

            Like me, she wasn’t human. She, like her two “sisters,” was a Marionette—a robot designed to simulate a human in every way. She’d been critically damage trying to help Kienan, so they told me. In other hands, she might have been destroyed.

            But Kienan wouldn’t lose her. So he connived to tie her into the Silhouette to keep her alive. He raced against the clock to save her, no matter the cost, no matter what he had to do—he wouldn’t lose her.

            And while it was true that it meant that what was left of Conscience was anchored into the ship and she would never leave it again, I kept coming back to the simple fact that he wouldn’t lose her.

            And he still kept a place for Silhouette, and kept Conscience, and her sisters, Vain and Mirage on board, and did everything he could to bring me back to myself.

            The same person did all that.

            What does that mean? What kind of man does that make him?

            I didn’t know. I still don’t.

            And because of that, I never could judge him. Some things he did appalled me. And sometimes I felt such pity for him. Sometimes he was right, sometimes he wasn’t.

            The most I could ever do was just to take him as he was, and not let the other stuff color my judgment.

            Sometimes, I even succeeded.

            Reviewing navigational data was a dull job, and Conscience wasn’t ever very talkative—being that she was overseeing trillions of tasks at the same time, her attention was split, most of the time, and if I got a single word out of her, I was doing well.

            After about three hours we settled on a course for the Uzo system—a nice, quiet backwater with a single planetary colony. Sleepy enough, I hoped that we could stay a couple weeks and relax before we had to move on.

            I had a few minutes before I had to get to the hangar, so I decided to stop off and have my apple after all. I sat in the table in the galley, alone, enjoying the quiet, trying to get my mind clear and forget about my birthday and my heavy, heavy, thoughts for a little while.

            For one thing, I hated chasing these thoughts round and round in my head and never getting to any conclusion, so I wanted to push them out. For another, in about fifteen minutes, I was going to fly.

*          *          *

            Flight lessons were always “fun,” but “fun” in an “eventful, yet terrifying” sort of way. Conscience’s sister, Vain, supervised my flight training with a patience (good thing—I was never great pilot material) but unyielding firmness. It was always a very exhausting experience, and I oftentimes found myself spending five minutes psyching myself up for it as I was getting my flight gear on.

            Not my flight gear, though—not yet. I wore Conscience’s old flight suit, which was the tightest damn thing, even before I activated the pressure-seal and it clung to my body. Conscience was very dear, and I loved her like a sister, but we were built different, and that’s all there was to it.

            Once all that was done, I made my way down to the flight deck, to my fighter, the Angelfish. Again—not quite mine, actually it belonged to Mirage, the third sister, but it was the one I trained on.

            The Angelfish was a beautiful ship, one of a pair—all graceful angles and curves and it was this gold-bronze color. Just . . . beautiful. Whoever designed and built it must have been an artist.

 They’d stolen the two prototypes from someone—Vain told me the story once of how they’d acquired them—by mailing themselves to the location they were being held and stealing them.

            I guess that’s one way to do it.

            I secured my helmet and climbed into the Angelfish’s spherical cockpit. It was almost perfectly transparent, except for a few banks of controls on the periphery of my vision—so that the pilot had as unobstructed a field of vision as possible.

            I activated the Angelfish’s maneuvering thrusters, engaging the drive in gradual steps so the ship lifted off the Silhouette’s deck and did a 180-degree turn towards the launch doors. Once the doors opened, I engaged the main thrusters, accelerating out of the ship as I released another catch in the cockpit: the one I always waited until the last minute to disengage.

            The Angelfish had a somewhat quirky feature—the cockpit stayed upright while the rest of the spaceframe rotated freely around it. The theory went—so Vain told me—that this allowed for tighter maneuverability and not so much disorientation when the pilot had to perform complex aerial maneuvers.

            They’re full of crap—I was never in the thing when it started whirling around that my stomach didn’t start squirming. Bad enough there’s no “up” in space, but when you take away every reference point a pilot has relative to their position, it takes a bit of time to get used to.

            I was fairly used to it by now—provided I didn’t look at it.

            The Silhouette gradually vanished as I banked away from it and headed for the training area. It was a rather unremarkable area of space—no nebulae or planets or asteroids to hide behind. I wondered what the point of the lesson was going to be, as I set the scanners to long-range.

            Then, as if in answer, Vain, piloting her Angelfish, came screaming out of the stars at me. Running on instinct, I banked to the left really hard, the ship beginning to spin around me and the apple in my stomach not seeming like a great idea in retrospect. Vain looped around as I engaged my maneuvering thrusters and gave chase.

            No tricks today, I thought, increasing my speed. Just a straight fight.

            I can do that.

            I was nearly closing the distance: too close for her to turn and counterattack, but not quite wingtip to wingtip with her. It was more a race than an actual fight, and we were headed back in the general direction of the Silhouette.

            “I’ve counted about ten opportunities you’ve had to get tone on me,” Vain’s voice came through on my helmet radio. Her voice was always calm and neutral, almost like a patient mother’s.

 “What are you doing, Jayla-2?”

I didn’t say a word—I was too busy following her complex maneuvers. She was doing everything she could to try to shake me—complicated rolls, 180s, 360s, whatever would shake me off for the two seconds she’d need to turn and fire.

I matched her, maneuver for maneuver. Anything to keep her in front of me, and at a constant speed. The Silhouette came into view—long and sleek. Any minute now, we’d be in range of it.

Vain broke hard and made a run for it, actually buzzing the ship. I’m serious—she was maybe fifty kilometers above it, flying with no fear. Lacking the faith in my piloting skills than Vain had, I slowed down and plotted an elliptical course around the aft section of the Silhouette.

But she’d been counting on that and popped up from amidships, weapons blazing. They were low powered “tag” shots—only designed to mark which ship took a “hit,” but each one did some damage to my pride.

I went into a wild spin, and only took glancing hits as I spiraled down alongside the Silhouette. Above me, Vain was preparing to dive and catch me, but I had a surprise for her.

I gave her a few seconds to commit to the dive as I let my momentum keep me spinning, then, as I cleared the Silhouette, I hit my booster and cut across, disappearing under the ship. I willed myself to only look at my instruments, as the sight of my ship doing this wouldn’t help the nausea any. I hit the reverse thrusters and spun around, quickly programming a sequence with my maneuvering thrusters and resting my thumbs on the fire controls.

I’d been thinking of this trick for a few days now—tired of constantly being shot down by Vain, I’d looked over the specs of the Angelfish to see what it could do, and also checked some articles on space combat.

If it worked, I had a clear shot when she came around the Silhouette’s etheric keel. If it didn’t, she had a clear shot at me before I could stop the preprogrammed maneuver.

Today, I’d decided, was the day I’d put it to the test.

It would be a hell of a birthday present to win for once.

My instruments bleeped as Vain roared into position and I hit the button for the thruster sequence as I jammed my thumbs down hard on the fire buttons. My ship’s spaceframe began to spin as my reverse thrusters shot me backwards while I fired.

In theory, the sudden backwards acceleration, coupled with the spin, would cause my shots to spiral inward towards Vain’s ship, hitting it with a heavy barrage directed to a small point.

Everything went a bit blurry—as everything was spinning and accelerating and perhaps felt more out of control than it actually was. I was vaguely aware of some buzzing in my helmet and I tried to shake out the cobwebs.

“Jayla-2? Report status.”

Vain, I thought. Her voice either sounded concerned, or I was reading that into her question. Could be either of them—Vain pretended to be an emotionless machine, but I always wondered. She took looking after me very seriously, after all, and all of that couldn’t just be that she always followed Kienan’s orders to the letter.

The cockpit was a symphony of whines and bleeps and I was having a little trouble focusing, but I gently goosed the forward thrusters and the ship moved forwards, and things began to even out.

“Jay—“

“I’m here, Vain,” I responded. “The ship got away from me a little.”

“As reckless as you were flying, it’s no surprise,” Vain said. I blushed.

“Just something I wanted to try.”

“I see.”

“Did it work?” I asked, dreading the answer a little.

“That depends on what your intention was,” Vain responded.

“I was trying to tag you, for once.”

“Then perhaps you should check your instruments?”

Oh, I thought. Probably should. That spin discombobulated me more than I thought.

I checked my targeting computer—a thin wireframe of Vain’s ship sat in the center of the screen in the crosshairs of the targeting reticle. The wireframe was red, indicating that Vain’s ship had taken damage.

It had worked. It had almost knocked me loopy, but it worked.

I smiled. How ‘bout that?

“That was an impressive maneuver,” Vain said. “It could use a bit more finesse, but it showed an excellent understanding of astronics and space combat. You’re learning.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You sound almost impressed.”

“I am satisfied. It’s gratifying to see that our sessions are producing results,” Vain came back. “Form up on me—we’ll dock back at the Silhouette and discuss the matter more fully.”

I accelerated, coming up on her left as we flew back to the Silhouette, my stomach calmer and my mood brightened quite a lot. On the way back I pondered what the bigger win was: Tagging Vain, or the implicit compliment she’d paid me afterwards.

*          *          *

About an hour after that, we were in the locker room, stripping off our flight suits and getting back into our normal clothes. One thing I’ll say for Vain and her sisters—they could carry off clothes I would have been mortified to wear. Not just that they had the bodies for it, as much as their utter indifference to “sexy” or what people considered attractive.

People seemed to take that for confidence, so they always drew attention, and I was more than happy for them to take my share and spare me the pressure.

Most of the time after flight practice, we dressed in silence, but right as I was fastening my boots again, Vain piped up.

“Mirage told me it was your birthday today,” Vain said, eyeing me with her iris-less doll’s eyes. She’d dressed in her usual lightning-quick fashion (her reflexes were a few times faster than mine—one of the many reasons I rarely won our little dogfights) and she was sitting on the bench watching me dress.

I nodded, tugging at my boot to get a fold out it. “I didn’t say anything. Didn’t feel any need to make a fuss.”

“I see,” she replied. “Why?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Vain, but you’re not party people,” I said, smiling. “Any of you.”

“Perhaps not,” Vain said. “That you mark time like that is  . . . odd, I think.”

If you think birthdays are odd, I thought in response, Imagine having two of them to keep track of.

“It’s just a way of marking time,” I said aloud. “Depending on how you feel about it, it’s either a day you look forward to, because you’ve made it another year, or dread it, because you’re one step closer to the end. Some people ignore it altogether. Everyone’s different.”

“Kienan has never had a birthday.”

I entertained the image of Kienan in a party hat for a brief moment and almost smiled, but was able to suppress the urge before it crossed my lips.

“N-no,” I said, getting control of myself. “Kienan is definitely the type to ignore it.”

“And how do you feel about it?”

I shrugged. “All in all, I’m happier about tagging you out there. Birthdays come automatically—I’ve been trying to tag you for four years now.”

Vain nodded. “We’ll practice again tomorrow,” she said, rising from the bench and stowing her gear in her locker. “I think I can give you some tips to allow you to keep control of the ship.”

I laughed. “I’ve had less success with that than tagging you.”

“The Angelfish is a very delicate ship.”

“Delicate is one way of putting it,” I replied, folding my spacesuit up and placing it on the bench, laying my helmet on top of it. “Possessed might be another. How long did it take you to master flying yours?”

“An hour, perhaps two,” Vain said, her voice even and measured. Somehow, it still sounded like a boast to me. “Of course, that was before I tuned the craft as extensively as it required.”

“Ah,” I said, putting my space gear in my locked and closing the door. “Mirage tried something like that with me—getting me to disassemble the Angelfish’s systems and put them back together, so I’d better understand the underlying technology and form a personal connection with the ship.”

“How did that go?”

I flashed on the memory of several embarrassing moments including but not limited to malfunctioning engines, inoperable weapon systems and a horrible fluid leak that I’m always reminded of whenever I’m embarrassed.

“There were . . . some hurt feelings,” I said.

“That reminds me,” I added, gathering my things and taking one last look around the locker room. “I’m due to spar with her in about twenty minutes. You going to be around later?”

“I should be,” she replied. “It depends on what Kienan needs me to do.”

I smiled and nodded. “I was just wondering.”

“Why?”

I blinked. Didn’t expect to be asked that. I sometimes forgot that despite how they looked, Vain and her sister’s weren’t human any more than I was. But I forgot I wasn’t sometimes, too.

“I was hoping to talk to you.”

“About what?”

I shrugged, heading for the door.

“Don’t know,” I said. “If we do catch up later, I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

*          *          *

Vain always made a big deal out of the fact that despite looking human, she really wasn’t, and as such, she might have come off a little cold to people. Her sister, Mirage, was the exact opposite—she fully enjoyed seeming human and would crack jokes and of the two . . .well, she felt more like a big sister than Vain, who had always seemed to me to be almost parental—someone whose approval I was trying to get.

Hanging around with Mirage was much less stressful, even when we were getting ready to beat each other up. Like Vain teaching me the finer points of space combat, Mirage had been invested with teaching me the finer points of unarmed combat.

That came a little easier for me than the flying did—I was designed to fight, after all. But I never got close to Vain and Mirage’s league, for reasons Vain termed my “lack of a killer instinct.”

I understood the value of knowing how to protect myself and joining a fight if we were attacked—on this ship, everyone pulled their own weight, and that’s just how it was.

But I took no pleasure from killing—even when I felt like I had good reason for doing it.

That need to find another way or stop short if possible held me back, but I didn’t consider it a liability. I’d fight to protect what was mine and who was precious to me, but if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t kill.

And the reasons why I wouldn’t cross that line were usually foremost in my mind at moments like these.

Of course, even with that handicap, I was pretty formidable—almost as strong as Vain and Mirage, and I had a few tricks still left over from my berserker days.

Mirage stood on the far end of the chamber, toeing a line made with peeling marking tape. I toed my own line, adopting a defensive stance and eyeing her as she began to circle me, looking for an opening. Her eyes, just as jet-black and irisless as her sister’s seemed to gleam with a kind of mischief as she circled in tighter and tighter.

Mirage hopped forward, as if she were going to hit me with a spinning back kick, but stopped short, planning her leading leg and spinning the other one around. I moved my hand down to deflect it, and then slid under her legs, trying to knock her support leg out from under her.

Mirage hopped up, somersaulting through the air and landing behind me. I had just enough time to roll to my feet before she advanced on me, her hands a hurricane of blows.

Even more dangerous Vain and Mirage’s strength was their speed. They were so quick that they often ended fights before they’d begun. There was no way I could parry any of those punches without ending up a bruise, so I sidestepped and jammed my boot into the crook of her knee, sending her to the ground and giving her an opportunity to blast me with a kick from the floor.

It caught me above the knee and white pain blasted out my senses for a moment, as I backpedaled. Mirage bounced back to her feet and tried to sweep my legs out from under me. I couldn’t leap with as much grace as she did, but I managed to rock back and push my legs in the air, avoiding the sweep and rolling back to my feet.

My leg screamed at me in agony to stop, but there was no stopping now. Mirage came at me with a straight punch at such speed that it was clear she was putting everything into it.

I shut out the pain I felt and tried to slow down time, in a sense, concentrating and waiting for my moment. As she hurtled towards me, I ducked and turned into her, shoving my shoulder under her outstretched arm, pivoting (my stricken leg now having gone from “screaming” to “burning agony”) and hoisted her onto my shoulders for a split second before I let her momentum bend me over and dumped her to the floor like a sack of laundry.

Mirage rolled to her feet, a little slower than usual.

“Nice move,” she said, rising to a standing position. “Good awareness of your strength and position. “I think you’re getting better,”

She threw a punch and I whipped my left arm out, batting it aside.  She then tried a straight kick, but I thrust myself backwards, only just missing her foot.

“But—“ she continued. Punch, punch, punch, then kick. I kept dodging. “You’re just avoiding. Fight back.”

I spun to the side, avoiding a kick to my stomach. I didn’t say anything—my mind was too busy anticipating her moves. Besides, she’d told me a few months back people would talk to you in fights to distract you, so it was sensible strategy.

She popped off the deck with an amazing spin kick that I only just avoided –the wind from it came so close to my face I could feel myself getting goose bumps. Then, when she landed and raised her fists, ready to hit me with a combination, I caught her wrist, flexing and turning to deny her leverage enough to throw a punch. She tried with the other hand and I caught that one, turning with her until I’d immobilized her hands and trussed her up with a hold. I cinched it tight, so she knew I was in control of the fight now.

But not for long. She coiled her body up and pushed against the floor, causing her to spin out of the hold and throw me backwards. I backpedaled, trying to get my balance back, but Mirage was already on me, roaring toward me with a flurry of blows.

I parried each of them in turn, holding her at bay but never taking the offensive. The usual thing that happened in this situation started happening—I could fight well enough if my life depended on it, but I couldn’t pretend to fight for my life if I wasn’t . . .so I did what she told me not to do. I held back. It was the strangest feeling too—I was still doing what I was supposed to be doing, but it was like I was outside myself, looking at me, wondering what I thought I was doing.

Mirage soon figured that out and stopped throwing punches. I could have sworn her eyes flickered with something like irritation for a moment, and, feeling ashamed for being caught out, I stared at the ground.

“Okay,” she said, after a time. “Fight’s over.”

I let her go and she shook her arms the way a human might dry their hands. Then, satisfied nothing had been damaged, she turned to me.

“Better,” Mirage said. “But I thought we’d agreed you’d make an effort to be more aggressive in these sessions. The holds and the throws are pretty clever, but of limited use in a real fight.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. I was half-listening, while also concentrating on my leg to hurry up and heal or at least smooth out the pain. “I guess I’m a little distracted today.”

“It’s your birthday, of course.”

I smiled. “I . . . it is, but that’s not why I was distracted.”

“No, because it’s happened off and on for a while now. If not that, then what?”

I smiled and turned away. “It’s nothing,” I lied.

*          *          *

Later on, I had what passed for my birthday meal in the galley. Vain didn’t make it—Kienan sent her off the ship for something, and I was busy with Mirage so I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

I’d been in a weird mood since the thing with Mirage and I really didn’t know why. I’d had that feeling of disconnection a lot, but once our training sessions were over with, that feeling of detachment would roll off my back as I went on to the next thing.

But not today.  I just felt sad, disappointed and disappointed and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Dinner didn’t help much—it was fine for what it was—flavored protein molecules trying very hard to be orange chicken with vegetables, but today the illusion wasn’t coming together as it had countless days before.

I found myself wishing Kienan had cooked something. From time to time, and for reasons that he kept to himself pretty much always, sometimes Kienan would cook something, with fresh ingredients, usually something spicy with a lot of rice.

It was strange—Kienan was quite good at cooking, but he seemed to take no pleasure from it, and I never quite understood why he’d do it sometimes, but not other times. With other people, you’d guess it was a matter of them having a “good day” or a “bad day.”

Kienan’s days never quite broke down into neat categories like that.

I gave up on dinner after a half-hour of half-hearted eating and walked back to my quarters, rifling through my junk drawer for something. A couple years back I’d got quite fond of collecting knickknacks—nothing really fancy, just little gimmicky things, that I was quite taken by.

My “magpie phase,” as I later called it.

If this seems strange to you, I should mention that part of my fascination had to do with the fact that I was seeing all this stuff again for the first time. I don’t know if that explains it, but it’s the best I can do.

I found my favorite toy—a simple rubber ball, then stood at one end of the hallway. I threw it hard—and it bounced with a surprising sound, ricocheting off the bulkheads on an erratic course back to me.

I leapt high into the air, plucking it out of its wayward path and firing it back down the corridor. One I had a rhythm up—throw, catch, throw—my mind drifted back to that odd desolate feeling.

And maybe it was because I was occupying myself, that it became a bit clearer to me.

I was missing Angela.

When the thought crystalized in my head it stopped me short, and the ball whizzed right past me, bouncing to a stop a few feet behind me.

Hadn’t thought about her in a while.

Angela was my first “normal” friend (say what you will about Kienan, Vain, and the rest—I liked them fine, but neither they nor I was “normal”) She was a bright kid from Kienan’s old neighborhood, and she’s decided Kienan was her surrogate big brother, a decision which made for many a day where Kienan looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

Being something of a “kid” myself, we became pretty fast friends and had a lot of fun. I always looked forward to seeing her and spending some time with her when we were in port.

But . . . things took a turn, didn’t they? I thought, firing the ball down the corridor a lot harder than before. And worse than usual for these turns—we had to leave.

And Angela got killed. Right in front of me.

The ball almost hurtled past me, until I snatched it out of the air. I didn’t throw it again, because I was squeezing it too tight.

I tried very hard not to think about that, and it bothered me that it could rise so easily and in crystal clarity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day.

I got angry. Thought paying back the people who’d killed her would help.

 It didn’t.

Stayed angry for a long time, too. Angry at the situation we were in, angry at Kienan for putting us in that situation, angry at how unfair it all was—I mean, we kinda chose this life, but Angela never did, did she? She was just a kid, and wanted to have fun, is all.

And I was angry at everyone for not keeping her alive, myself included.

I was her friend. I should have done something—that’s what friends do.

I never had an answer that satisfied, never had an explanation that let me off the hook, never really healed that wound. The best I ever did with making peace with it was to not think about it, until I forgot I wasn’t supposed to think about it, thought about it, and got mad all over again.

I bounced the ball down the corridor again, trying to shove all that aside again, by concentrating on a simple task while I wished life was so simple.

Throw the ball, catch the ball.

*          *          *

The rest of the night was uneventful—most of it taken up with busy work—cleaning up some areas of the ship, preparing the navigation charts for tomorrow . . . not really anything that needed a whole lot of thought put into it, and I was pretty happy about it, as I felt like I’d done enough thinking for one day.

As I was leaving the bridge, I decided to stop off one more place before I called it a night, and clambered up the stairs to the observation lounge. Sometimes, when days like this were dragging me down, I stopped there, sat under the stars and relaxed.

After an hour or so, in that quiet and beautiful silence, I’d felt better, and after the heavy thoughts of Angela and everything else, quiet, beautiful, star-streaked silence sounded quite good.

I stopped at the doorway, staring into the large round room.

Obviously, someone else wanted quiet too, I thought.

Kienan was curled up on the bench that lined the far wall, very much asleep. Despite being what passed for “relaxed” for him, his body was tense, and it was easy to imagine him popping up in an instant, ready to kill. In the pale light of the room, his golden skin looked very pale and washed out, and the long braid he wore his hair in was draped over him, slipping over one shoulder, and then pooling beside him on the bench.

Every now and again, Kienan would sleep here, rather than in his quarters. Like his on again/off again desire to cook, I never knew why and he never offered an explanation.

It wasn’t so strange that I wouldn’t see him—despite the ship being small, it was very easy to stay away from one another with little effort—but it was very strange to see him here, like this.

From his silhouette he looks like an old grumpy housecat, I thought. I allowed myself a thin smile at the image of that. But it didn’t last, because every time I looked at Kienan, a whole welter of complicated feelings and memories brimmed up in me.

Jayla hated him, right up to the end of her days, I thought. After all this time, I don’t know how I feel about him. I’ve seen him do awful things, and more than that, I know that he’s responsible for even worse.

And there’ll always be what happened with Angela between us—they were trying to get to him, and they go to us because we knew him, and . . .

And, I continued, he paid them back a hundredfold. And before that, he saved me and did all he could to bring me back. And he saved Conscience, and he took care of Vain and her sisters, and me, and everyone else that mattered to him, one way or another.

I couldn’t judge him, and he never seemed to fit into a nice, neat comfortable box marked “Evil—Hate him.” It was a shame too; it would have made a lot of things easier.

But it wasn’t that easy, I sighed, looking at him. Too much good in the bad to be all bad, too much bad in the good to be good.

Just like everyone else—me included.

So I did the only thing I could do—I left him to sleep under the stars as I headed for bed myself, wondering if I might get closer to an answer for either of us tomorrow.