I agreed to meet her in the relative quiet of station night.
A space station never sleeps; the same work goes on all the time. But in a nod to our animal selves, some of the station’s lights dim at a certain hour, and business tends to be done more quietly while not quite half the people sleep.
I knew why she wanted to see me. We had a history. It was almost businesslike; we would make an exchange, and then I wouldn’t see her again until she wanted to make another exchange.
I walked slowly down the twilit corridor toward her apartment. Station personnel like me have quarters; civilians have apartments. It’s a nice distinction. Someday I’d like to have an apartment, but what would I do on Outreach Four if I weren’t in Spacefleet?
At her door, I paused. If I got caught, I’d be cashiered and sent back to Earth. Worse, her part of the exchange…
The door slid open before I could push the chime. Quarters have buzzers; apartments have chimes.
“Hello, Tiarnan. Come in.”
“It’s so nice to see you again.” So far as I knew, she meant it. Her smile, her gentle hug and kiss – they all seemed real.
“You, too.” I don’t suppose I sounded convincing at all, even though part of me was so happy to be with her again I could have cried.
She overlooked my reticence; she always does. She had drinks ready for us and went to get them.
“Look, Lianta,” I heard myself say, “here’s the information you want.” I took the data solid from a pocket and held it out. “You can have it, and I’ll just go.”
She turned back to me and actually looked hurt.
“You don’t have to…” I couldn’t look at her then. “I mean, we don’t…”
She came back to me and took the solid, tossing it lightly onto a table. She put her arms around me again in that gentle hug I needed so badly.
“Tiarnan, I can get the patrol data from other sources. I don’t come here just to find out those things. You know that.” She pulled her head back to look at me; one hand gently raised my head so our eyes met. “You know that. You have to let yourself believe.”
I did believe. I lay awake in my quarters night after night believing that her visits were about more than the upcoming Spacefleet patrol routes and the ships’ transponder frequencies. And then, when the reports came in about illegal asteroid mining or rare materials being smuggled, I felt like a fool for my belief.
But she was here now. Touching me. Few other women wanted to do that, not after they got a good look at me. And she kissed me again, more firmly than before. A kiss meant to shore up my faith that she cared for me.
We were on the bed almost immediately. Lianta seemingly couldn’t wait, as though it had been a long time for her, too. Maybe it had been. She began to undress me, and I cringed. She stopped.
“Tiarnan, I’ve seen you. You know I’m not like the others.”
“I know. It’s…”
I let her take off my uniform and reveal the myriad thin metal rivers that stitched in and out of my flesh and held my broken body together. That let me walk and hold things and be a useful human being. That provided strength to bones and muscles that had been all but destroyed in the accident. That went up my neck almost like a cage, behind my face and into my brain so I could control myself almost like a normal person.
Lianta either ignored all this or just considered it part of who I am. She was the one who touched both the original parts of me as well as the unavoidable additions. She was the one who lay on top of me and over the beautifully slow course of the night made me feel like a whole man again.
And if I really let go of my doubts, she made me feel loved.
That was worth a few cargo holds worth of stolen rocks, and it was worth betraying Spacefleet, which put me back together after I was wrecked.
In the morning, a soft chime woke us. Quarters, buzzers; apartments, chimes. We had held each other even in sleep, and we kissed good morning.
As I dressed, Lianta said, “I’ll be here for a few days this time. Huppert’s reworking the thruster assemblies.”
I took a deep breath and said, “There are rumors of a shakeup. I might be transferred to another department.”
Her smile, the look in her eyes, they didn’t flicker for an instant.
“That could be good. You might enjoy a new assignment.”
“I might not be able to give you the patrol data.” I know I looked scared and pathetic.
She sat by me on her bed and put her arms around me once more. “I told you: I can get that elsewhere.” She kissed my cheek. “Come back tonight. Come earlier. We’ll have dinner. We’ll have more time together.”
I left feeling hopeful that maybe Lianta really did care about me and not just the patrol data I provided. Maybe we could even have a real future together.
Then I passed by a mirrored section of a bulkhead and the metal above my uniform collar gleamed in the light.
I have to avoid reassignment. I have to have access to the patrol information. I can risk my commission and prison on Earth, but I can’t risk losing the one woman who at least pretends to care about me.