[Short Story] What Purpose a Heart

This story was originally published by Scigentasy on 5/13/14. Looks like it’s not on the website any more, and I happen to really like this story, so I figured I’d repost it here for all to see.

There’s more I’m going to be doing with this universe, trust me. :)

What Purpose a Heart

“Do anything good on shore leave?” Grabel grinned, revealing his front teeth were missing yet again. There were a multitude of possible causes, every one of them involving alcohol and uppers. “Or anyone?”

Malys punched him in the arm hard enough to make him yowl as his bicep cramped. She was small for a female human, solidly built and dark of hair and skin; she was also the munitions officer and spent her days moving the rounds for the ship’s two mass drivers, drill and practice, except when the whole crew was called on to help with cargo. She could arm wrestle anyone and win. “You’re a pig, Grabel.”

“Oink oink. Must not have been that great if you’re in such a pissy mood.” The cargo hold was alive with noise, which thankfully kept his voice from traveling beyond her ears.

“Smell like one too.” Malys knew for a fact that Grabel wasn’t interested in anything not over six feet tall and furred like a Sigma Six Bearcat. He just did it to get under her skin, because that was how shipmates communicated, finding weaknesses and prodding them unmercifully.

“How about–” The docking alarm cut him off, signaling the arrival of the Moshulu‘s last shuttle from Jalalabad station. With the alarm, the clangs and clunks from the docking collars mating, there was too much noise for him to continue gnawing at her insecurities. A moment of silence too brief for more than a few words let the pressure equalize, and then the hatch for the shuttle swung inward.

“Captain on deck!”

All the deck rats went to attention, or an approximation of it. Real navy would laugh themselves sick. There was a reason each and every rotten little misfit here had signed on for a merchant gig.

Captain Sindrov, a little thick around the middle with a salt and pepper beard giving his jaw a bulldog look, and Commander Hollister, her black hair in spikes, gold-flecked eyes kohl-rimmed above her crooked nose, swung from the hatch. They flanked a third slender person, hair covered with a lavender veil. The color interacted strangely with–her? his? no–eir faintly glowing green eyes.

“Oh shit, Grabel, is that–?”

Grabel sucked at his teeth, something he did when he fought the urge to spit. “Yeah. Yeah it is. The fuck is one of them doing here? Bad luck, Mally.”

“Shut up. I don’t believe in luck and neither do you.” Malys hadn’t grown up in deep space like Grabel; she’d walked on strange shores in heavy gravity. She’d never seen a Mahadi before, or the supposed aftermath of one’s passage, but she’d heard the legends. Looking at one in the flesh was a curious treat.

“You’ll believe in luck when we’re atoms smeared across a cubic parsec.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Malys shook her head, freezing in place when Commander Hollister sought out her eyes.

“Mahadi ain’t even human any more. If they ever were to begin with.” Grabel sucked at his teeth again. “Fucking religious nutjobs.”

“You think anyone that says a prayer is a religious nutjob.”

“And I’m right, too.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever seen the point in borrow trouble from gods. Got enough of it here.” Malys followed Commander Hollister with her gaze, the sexless form of the Mahadi just visible past her left shoulder, until they disappeared into the lift at the end of the bay. “More than enough.”

With the Mahadi came seven crates sealed with biohazard markers. There was a scramble to not be the deckhand in charge of unloading that antigrav pallet.

“Fine, I’ll do it, you superstitious keffa shits,” Malys shouted. “Going to start spacing menstruating women next?” That got a laugh, a bunch of cat calls about hell no, females on the rag were way too dangerous.

“Real weird,” Grabel observed from a safe distance, leaning against a mooring net. “Mahadi don’t do cargo. The got some kind of thing against owning stuff. More religious shit.”

Like he was suddenly the expert on Mahadi, when no one knew what planet or station sourced them. “Big difference between cluttering your cabin with ugly vases and hauling cargo,” she observed. “They’re alive, so they got to eat, drink, and have medical like anyone else.”

Grabel gave her an evil look for that jab at his personal collection, bought with whatever money he didn’t piss away on booze. “Biohazard cargo. If that don’t smell like trouble, I don’t know what does.”

She secured a mooring net over the crates. “If there’s trouble, then you’ll get a big enough bonus to buy another dust catcher.”

“You’re too damn optimistic to be a spacer.”

Malys smirked. “‘S not optimism. It’s being contrary.”

#

Commander Hollister habitually had dinner in the regular crew mess every few days. She was well-liked for it, though Malys cynically calculated it kept her in touch with any discontent when it was still in the complaints about rations and lack of shore leave stage. Hollister stuck her crooked nose in the door half a day after their first skip across interstellar space during Malys’s dinner shift. Not a coincidence or a mistake, that, not when she found her way over to the bench opposite Malys after doing the rounds and sharing her impressive catalog of dirty jokes.

They’d been shipmates for over a decade on three different ships, though never by any design on Malys’s part, and she hoped none on Hollister’s. Maybe they just liked the same sort of captain. Maybe it was gravity, or shared karma. Malys had saved Hollister’s life once, carrying her inside when her environment suit air system had a one-in-a-million failure. And Hollister had saved Malys’s life once, when the munitions bay took a hit, dragged her out from under a twist of metal and fought with the surgeon until he agreed to save her leg. That wasn’t the kind of bond anyone could escape easily.

Malys knew Hollister’s home planet (Mu Draconis V), the names of her parents (Lissa, Brett, and Daffyd), what she’d majored in before dropping out to join the Jalalabad merchant navy (Martian Art History), and the name of her first and only pet (Tubbs, an engineered pink Persian cat). Hollister didn’t know anything like that about her. Malys didn’t give away little pieces of herself, not when it meant talking about what she did before the merchant navy.

Hoya, Sergeant,” Hollister said.

Hoya, Commander.” Malys glanced up from under her fringe of red-brown hair. She hated looking Hollister in the eye. She hated it, so that was why she did it. There was too much there, always: command, compassion, lust, and maybe even a bit of love, the thought of which haunted Malys’s dreams and nightmares. She needed to throw herself against those eyes until simple erosion wore away their power. “Not attending the special passenger?”

Hollister snorted. “E joins us for dinner and doesn’t eat. Captain said I might as well do my normal rounds.”

“Got everyone real nervous.”

“You?”

“Nah. Just the same worries that always get me when we’re out in the deeps and have something special on board.”

Hollister tilted her covered cup of coffee. “May God turn a deaf ear.”

“That’s why I didn’t actually say it.” It didn’t have to be said: pirates, or worse, privateers flying the flag of the Corvaris Republic. In her worst nightmares she saw Imir Collective Hunters as warped holes in space, something no one else in the crew knew to fear as more than ghosts. In this quadrant, the Imir Collective was as much a fortress of whispered fish stories as the Mahadi, blood and guts and horror instead of mystical fairy tales. Only Malys knew how much of the blood was true.

She knew because that blood was in her veins, deceptively red and hot. But the Imiri never came this far out. She kept that as an article of faith, the reason she still lived.

“You have a good leave, Malys?”

Her lips twisted. “Everyone’s always so curious about what I do in my time off.”

“Maybe we want to make sure you’re actually taking it off.”

“Maybe I just sleep in a hammock between the mass drivers. It’s quiet when the rest of you are off ship. A body can think.”

There was that look again from Hollister, saying more than could fit in words.

Stupid, running away from someone so determined to save you. Malys sighed. “Other than the normal spacer bullshit about Mahadi, the biohazard in the hold has everyone dancing circles. No one likes thinking about that when we’re breathing recycled air.”

“Law requires anything biological to be tagged like that. The Captain and I went through the manifest, it’s clean. No hazard.”

“Then what is it?”

“Can’t say. Sensitive material, hush-hush, contractual obligations.”

“Right.” Which meant saying the crates weren’t hazardous wouldn’t make a difference, because the minute you admitted you weren’t allowed to say what was in them, the paranoia would soar to new heights. “Sure got you in a twist. Hope the bonus is good.”

“Exquisite. And we’ve got a nice berth at the end of the route before we ship back. Good place for leave.” One perfect eyebrow arched up over her kohl-rimmed eyes.

“Hammock.” Malys smiled as something pulled painfully in her chest. “The munitions deck will be so quiet with the children gone.” She scraped up the last bit of reconstituted mashed potato from her tray, wiped it onto her tongue like the spackle it resembled, then rose. “I’ll see what I can do about drawing down the paranoia a little.”

Hollister watched her stand, lips pulling wryly. “Thanks, Malys.” Those gold-flecked eyes begged her to stay, or maybe continue the conversation later… in private.

Malys left, pausing only to throw her tray into the recycler and let the computer know she’d eaten her rations. She’d once used food to exert control over her body because that was the only way she could, still plugged into the Collective. Control by diet wasn’t possible on ship, when every calorie was counted. But she’d found other, more vital things to deny herself.

Like Hollister.

#

On the way to the munitions deck, she caught sight of a pale shape down the corridor. The Mahadi was swathed in pale yellow today, green eyes glowing in eir smooth, too alien to be beautiful face. Malys’ steps slowed until she halted.

The Mahadi watched her. She found herself wondering, what e looked like under those layers of yellow silk. Was e human or something entirely alien? Smooth and sexless, warped into strange shapes that would make her go mad if she took a peep? It was a mystery she didn’t like, things deliberately hidden.

“Twisted.” It took her a moment to realize those soft words had been spoken, a strange little whisper with discordant music to it. The Mahadi tilted eir head.

She’d been called worse and cared less, but that word was a deep, old wound that never stopped bleeding. Diagnosis: fundamentally unable to cope in Collective society. She’d grown up surrounded by face after face that was a copy of hers and still hadn’t figured out how to belong. Malys hissed at the Mahadi. “The hell you think you’re lookin’ at?”

The Mahadi’s expression didn’t change, but she heard em laugh as she turned on her heel and fled.

#

That wasn’t the last time she saw the Mahadi as the ship followed its route, hops across folded space punctuated by the slow journey between stable gravitational points. E always greeted her with that little head tilt, which she sometimes read as curious, sometimes ironic, sometimes even amused, though the Mahadi’s perfect face always showed the same expression.

First it made her angry, then filled her with dread, wondering what secret the Mahadi had seen that e wanted to prod – her first ship, being disowned, discipline problems, escape, it was a lottery with a million choices. She couldn’t help but buy into Grabel’s nonsense, not when it kept looking at her like that.

Then somehow, she looked forward to it, staring back just as curiously. Because e looked at her like she was something more.

#

The proximity alarm grated out a shriek that shoved her heart into her throat. Malys dropped the data pad she’d been about to hand over to Grabel as she bolted back into Munitions Control, chased by the sound of a crash and his cursing. “Get ready to load!” she shouted over her shoulder.

Noting the tac displays were still in standby, she slapped on the comm to the bridge. Hollister’s face appeared in the display. “What is it?” Malys demanded.

“We’re not sure yet.” Hollister glanced over her shoulder. “We’re running a diagnostic on the sensor array. It alarmed, but nothing is visible. Just an anomaly. Stand down, weapons.” The screen flicked off.

Malys cursed, head feeling light and far away. Just an anomaly. Maybe just. But she knew other things that looked like a hole in space until they ran hot for combat, and those things were keen in her mind after the constant needling of the Mahadi. She punched the wall. Ask, and raise suspicions? Admit what she was and where she came from over a false alarm? Betray a people she hated all over again? If it came to combat, to hanging in space helpless and waiting to be boarded, she knew the right words to say to get out alive. My family holds the black flag. Take me home. She wouldn’t be left waiting to die in a decompressed hulk.

A rustle of fabric, and she looked up, expecting Grabel though the big man had never taken a step that quiet in his life. It was the Mahadi, eyes glowing, head tilted slightly.

“Get the hell off my deck.”

The Mahadi raised a hand, long fingers reaching out to touch her even as she flinched away. E tapped her on the arm, on the forehead, and then hesitated, finger hovering over her chest. Eir head tilted slightly more.

“Damn you,” she whispered. “I’m no business of yours. If you’re that worried about your fucking cargo, you do this.”

The Mahadi smiled, then tapped her chest. “What purpose, your heart?”

The familiar words felt like a gut punch. And what is a heart for? It pumps blood, and blood belongs to the Collective. Goddamnit. I should have had Hollister when I had the chance. Ten years of missed chances.

Malys keyed the comm back on. Hollister’s face appeared, expression faintly annoyed. “Sergeant, this isn’t–”

“What kind of ‘just an anomaly?'” Malys demanded flatly.

Hollister might not know the facts of Malys’s life, but perhaps she heard the words unsaid. “Let me send you the read.”

Malys slapped her thigh with one hand as she waited the minor eternity it took for the data to transfer down. She keyed up the visualization and her stomach dropped to her toes. “Commander.”

Hollister’s eyes widened. “I don’t like the way your face just went gray.”

“Get the mass drivers cycling up. It’s an Imiri Hunter.” Never mind that their two small mass drivers against a Hunter, a ship that couldn’t even be properly tracked, was a pathetic bet indeed.

“Sergeant, I –”

She fought the urge to scream. “Do it, Anikka. I served on one. I know what they smell like.” Malys licked her lips again. “And when they offer to take our surrender, tell them to go to hell. They’re lying. We didn’t… they never take prisoners.” And now I’m one of you in a way I was never one of them. What purpose, my heart, Commander?

Hollister nodded once, sharply, and the screen blanked. General quarters sounded, lights flipping over into lower visible registers as power diverted to the ship’s only weapons. Malys rested her hand briefly where the woman’s face had been, then drove herself away from the wall, voice raised to shout, “Stack ’em high Grabel, shit tide’s rising!”

#

In the cavernous space of the munitions deck proper, Grabel and Malys, then the second shift man Derwin, stumbling in with his eyes still half shut, followed the smooth lines of drill and procedure. They prepped the drivers, shifted the ammunition on palettes, smooth spheres of depleted uranium each as big as a military ground assault vehicle.

Then waited.

“Tell me this is a fuckin’ drill, Mally,” Grabel muttered. “Three years and we ain’t had to do more than threaten.”

The generators for the mass drivers rose to a fever pitch, a sound that was felt rather than heard, like electricity across the teeth.

“Here she comes, boys!” Malys shouted. They all clapped their hands over their ears uselessly. It was a sound that was not a sound, gravity locally distorting as the first of the two mass drivers fired, releasing the round loaded with enough kinetic energy to vaporize a shuttle.

The question was if it’d be enough energy to put a dent in the shielding on a Hunter, if they’d even have the accuracy to score a direct hit to begin with.

“Next round, go!” As they reloaded, the other mass driver fired. Grabel screamed. Malys laughed, head so overloaded she could do nothing else.

The ship shuddered around them, gravity cutting out for a moment. Another alarm sounded, a different pattern of long and short–hull breach–and they cursed along with it. The comm came alive, no picture now, just Hollister’s voice in a snarl that barely concealed terror. “Sergeant, we can’t get a fix on them. You’d better have something.”

Of course they couldn’t; that was the point of the Hunters. Strike unseen, fade away in the black. “Put the targeting computer through here. I think–”

“Give me something better than think, Malys!”

“I remember the phase shifts.” If they hadn’t reconfigured the fleet in the last decade and a half. Why not, can’t kill us all any worse. “Give me the computer.”

Hollister didn’t bother to respond; the tac display shifted over to something far more complicated. As Grabel and Derwin prepped the next round, Malys rushed to recalibrate the tac computer with shaking hands, whispering prayers for accuracy, doing calculations on the fly punctuated with glances at the cut-rate display that showed the trajectories of their first rounds and a distorted hole in space she mentally translated into the right shape.

It was that for a sweat-soaked eternity, minimized air recycling turning the atmosphere into a fetid swamp, gravity sputtering so they had to use the maglocks on their boots, all power to weapons. Three more hull breaches sounded and the air screamed from the munitions deck, snatched from their lungs. Malys held her breath, eyes tearing as she keyed in codes by feel; Grabel fumbled a breather mask over her face, giving her a bloody nose in the process. The rush wind cut off a moment later as the bulkhead doors locked down. Her throat went thick and tight as the Moshulu shuddered around them like a whale giving birth, firing again and again.

She pulled up her mask and pressed a desperate, shaking kiss onto the side of the next round, not caring if her lips fell off twenty years from now because that meant living through this battle. Eyes burning with trajectories from the tac display, Malys did one last calculation, clapped hands over her ears again as the mass driver fired. The ship shuddered. Gravity cut out.

The generators hummed but didn’t cycle up again.

For a frozen moment she envisioned the bridge gone, bodies floating off into space. “Bridge? Hollister?” she squeaked. “Anikka, talk to me — to us –”

The all clear sounded.

For a moment she thought Grabel was choking her, but it was a hug, and he laughed. “Oh shit, Mally! Oh shit. We just skunked a fucking Imiri Hunter. Oh shit. You did it with your two little hands, you beautiful fucking woman.”

Malys laughed so hard she cried.

#

Malys approached the combination victory party and wake in the mess with dread, but no one questioned how they’d picked a Hunter out of space like that. They were just that good, that lucky, that beloved by the gods of the void. Malys stayed quiet and drank, until she had to hold onto the wall to keep vertical.

She rolled down the hallway for the passenger cabins, the maglock on one boot engaged and adding a limp to her swagger. She hit the comm panel over and over at the cabin she wanted until the door opened, revealing the smooth, unreal face of the Mahadi.

E tilted its head. Curious, she decided drunkenly. She was on to em, and eir little moods.

“You,” she informed it, “got a lot of nerve.” She propped her shoulder against the door frame and fumbled for the zip of her flight suit, started pulling it down. “But I like nerve.”

The Mahadi laughed.

“You think that’s funny? I’ll give you somethin’ else to do with that damn mouth–”

E smiled, reaching out to grip her hand with shocking strength. “What purpose, your heart?”

Her blood ran cold at those words “You little–” She zipped her flight suit back up with more conviction than she felt, catching skin in the zipper. “You still… you still owe me.”

Another head tilt.

A question, she needed a question, an excuse to be here. “What’s the cargo? Why were the Imiri after it?”

E smiled. “My people.”

It didn’t matter what e meant, actual people in boxes or just genetic material. Suddenly she knew why the Imir Collective would want it, for its gene banks, the same ones that had produced her. She wished she hadn’t asked. Her stomach churned.

If the Mahadi had told her that before, she never would have hesitated. “Why–”

“Twisted,” e remarked. “But in the wrong way. You want what you don’t want and don’t want what you want.” E tapped her forehead with one finger. “Thinking twisted will serve us well.” Then tapped her chest. “This, not so much.”

Malys stared at it. “I’m a deck rat.”

“Not always.”

Alcohol formed those words into something portentous and terrifying. Malys rubbed her eyes, shook her head. “I am too drunk for this shit.” She stepped back, the sound of the door hissing shut mixing with another chuckle from the Mahadi. “Fucking Mahadi,” she muttered. “Religious bugfuckers.”

Don’t want what you want. She had herself under such a rein so tight that at long last, the Collective would be pleased. Only she’d just celebrated blowing one of their ships out of the sky. If she wasn’t free of them now, would she ever be? It was her damn heart, what was it for?

The place she really wanted was two decks down. She managed it with only a minor fall down a ladder, scraping the knuckles of her left hand. Anikka Hollister, blinking sleep from her eyes and dressed in something red and far more feminine than Malys had ever seen in her most fevered dreams, answered the door.

“Malys?”

“You didn’t tell anyone.”

Hollister huffed out an exasperated sigh. “No one cares about that drek but you.” She reached over to close the door.

“But–”

“You saved your ship today, Malys. Stop punishing yourself. It’s getting pathetic to watch.”

“Look, I know I’m…” Malys rubbed her face with her hand. This level of exasperation from Hollister felt curiously like love. “Can I come in?”

Hollister looked at her for a long moment with those beautiful green-flecked eyes, and then nodded, a faint smile coming to her lips. “But I’m not nursing you through a hangover.”

“‘S okay. It’s what I want.” Malys let herself fall into Hollister’s arms. She smelled like home.

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