They were floating, flying in tandem, punctuated by the last of the year’s sunlight, perfectly together. Nothing could separate them. The voices of children, the rush of the wind, the first pinpricks of winter’s chill all passed by, but for them, there was nothing but the beating of wings and the buzz of life and the closeness. There was stability and freedom, peace and chaos, everything but—
Her seal broke with a whooshing gasp of stale air and she was suddenly painfully conscious. In old movies, they always showed the process of coming out of stasis as a long, slow, sleepy affair fraught with atrophied muscles and impending alien invasion. Then again, in the old movies they were always going to other galaxies and staying in artificial sleep for months, even years. Things hadn’t progressed that far yet in the real world. Stasis was a matter of hours or at most, a weekend. It ended suddenly, and it hurt.
The spaceport was at the top level of human habitation, painted and designed to feel open and airy even though it was underground, embedded below the crumbling peaks of what had once been the Rocky Mountains. After traveling hundreds of meters down, she stepped into a slender, refreshing tube of free-flowing air and pale blue light.
She was still groggy from the standard-issue painkilling shot administered after disembarkation. Instinct and old habits took over at immigration and customs, and instead of going through the express sensor for special personnel, she went through the one for regular travelers. Something buzzed and she was ushered into the orbit of an unhappy man with eyes the color of robins’ eggs and a permanent pout caused by a slight underbite.
“Is this your final destination?”
“Uh…yeah…I don’t know. I may go to Hoover City to visit my aunt on this trip.”
“You don’t know?” He tapped the space on her landing pass labeled “address” impatiently. The blunt end of his stylus circled the word “subterrane” repeatedly.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Really? You bring anything with you from the colonies? Souvenirs?”
She nodded her head obediently and glanced longingly over at the express line. Several of the crew members from her flight were already through after walking through the sensors. There were no buzzers, no guards.
Her keeper saw her glance and thrust his chin in her direction, gesturing up and around his own head. “I’ll need to search that hair.”
She sighed and dropped her bag from her shoulder to the ground, obediently bowing her head. She thought of insisting that he wear gloves, but she simply wanted this to be over with. If he insisted she take off her hairbands, then she would insist on gloves. Of course, if she insisted on gloves, he’d insist on a more thoroughly mechanical search, which meant hours spent in the airport being poked and prodded and disrespected. Better to just take it, silently.
He ran his forefinger gingerly over her hairline, then plunged his whole hand into the center of the massive puff gathered at the back of her head. She had a moment to worry about how it felt—her hair always got so dry on space flights—but just as quickly decided she didn’t care if the officer got a few frizzy handfuls. Her hair wasn’t for him.
Satisfied, but still with a cold, puzzled look in his eyes, he turned back to her landing card. “Occupation?”
“What?” He was genuinely startled.
“Pilot!” She was finally starting to feel like herself again.
She heard her name being called from across the floor. Rigby, her co-pilot, was standing in the express line, with his habitually unsanitary bare feet tapping the cold yellow tile, waving her over hesitantly. He was too far away to hear well, but she caught the words “Captain” and “why”.
She mouthed back, Shoes! Nasty!
He grinned, shook his head, then turned suddenly serious and confused, face angled towards the security officer as if to say do you need help? She shook her head as discretely as possible and turned away.
The officer was eyeing her again, not coldly, but with a peculiar combination of avidity and disbelief. “There’s nothing in your documents that says you’re a pilot.”
She thought for a moment of telling him that he was too lazy for his job if he couldn’t bother to read her code into the terminal but instead muttered, “It’s my first flight. I don’t have updated cards yet.”
“First flight, eh?” He finally punched her code into the terminal, slowly and manually, then carefully read the projected information, lips moving. He stared at her for a long minute. “My apologies, Captain Harrison. You don’t see many pilots from the Understr—uh, the subterrane levels, to be honest. Please, go right through.”
“You can call it the Understreets. That’s what I call it.” She shrugged her bag back onto her shoulder without another word and walked into the terminal to catch up with Rigby and see if he wanted to share a cab part of the way home.
The Understreets were actually better lit than the old overground neighborhoods had been, but still always seemed dark due to the lack of moon and stars. The cab had let her off just under a tall halogen lamp-post whose soft white light quickly dissolved into the black murk of total underground.
She thought there was a fire at first—a billow of smoke rose from the curb just at the edges of the light. She moved closer and saw it was him, squatting in his strange way reminiscent of the men in old Third World aid appeals and smoking, inhaling hugely before puffing the smoke out dramatically from his nose and mouth in multiple streams. It wound around his head and neck so thickly that when he turned his head at her approach, she couldn’t see his eyes.
She stopped and looked at his skinny, crouching body topped by a smoky, eyeless head for a moment, and felt an uncomfortable doubling sensation, as though one of her was walking away and the other standing still. Then he puffed out a last gout of smoke and stood up, crushing the cigarette butt into the soft gray stone underfoot. When his head cleared the mystifying smoke, he became himself again, thin and tired and familiar, with bright black eyes set in a narrow brown face surrounded by hair nearly as fantastically huge and brambly as her own.
They embraced briefly and he smiled, tight-lipped, showing off a knuckle-deep pair of dimples. “So. Your first flight.”
She nodded, hanging onto his waist, enjoying the solid earthy feel of his body.
“How was it?”
She thought for a moment as they began to walk, using the next street light as a beacon to mark their way. Her arms were still around his waist, awkward with the bag hanging from one shoulder, but still she couldn’t resist squeezing him now and then. “Big. Very big.”
“How articulate.” They laughed together at this, softly. “Well,” he said, “It’s only space. I’m glad you came back.”
She squeezed his waist tighter and replied, “Me too.”
“I wish you wouldn’t leave again.”
She squeezed him again and said nothing.
The placard was small and the same color as the plastic moss that surrounded it. The lighting was bad and cast odd shadows through and around the protective glass, magnifying and doubling the dark gold text on the card. She leaned over to peer at it carefully.
Scientific Name: Anax Walsinghami
Common Name: Giant Darner Dragonfly
Curated By: Jeffrey Green, Ph.D. (ABD)
She heard him walking up behind her, smelled tobacco and ash, and smiled. “Your name in lights,” she whispered, just before he caught her shoulders and pulled her up into a backwards hug.
She was sure his face pulled into a self-deprecating smirk, but the warped lighting and dark reflection made it look like a sudden death’s head mask. She twisted around to get the image out of her mind and look at his actual face, leaner and more laconic than ever with his wild hair held back with a band made of rope and shells. He was wearing a slim forest green jacket with suede patches on the elbows. The first time she’d seen it, she’d made a face. She made another now.
“Where did you even find this old thing?”
“Same place I found those lovely specimens behind the glass–inside of a 3D printer. Do they look alright?”
She made another face at the implied expense of the jacket and stepped away from him to look at the insect replicas behind the glass. “They do look good. And there’s so many!”
“Twenty-three. They all have names. Do you want to hear them?”
She shook her head and laughed, half-distracted as she leaned into the glass again to get a closer look. Some were suspended, in clever invisible fashion, flying above the false pond at the bottom of the exhibit. Others rested on leaves or skimmed the surface of the cleverly rendered “water”. They were all so ugly–bulbous eyes, too many limbs, and sheeny, scaled torpedo bodies. If she’d seen a live one it would have scared the daylights out of her. But something about them still resonated with her, and perhaps only her. There was no-one else inside the dark, lonely museum except Jeffrey. There hadn’t been for a while.
“Did they make a noise? Back when they existed, I mean?”
His voice behind her was dryer and more professorial than the usual tone he took with her. “The wings made a sort of buzzing or rustling sound. Some of them could hiss—not that type, but some of them, when threatened. But mostly, they were pretty quiet.”
She hmmed in response and kept looking. She came to a pair of them, locked together in what looked like a piggyback ride, suspended over a tumble of rocks. They were so closely aligned that she’d initially thought the pair of them were one large mutant creature, but as she looked, the limbs and eyes and bodies sorted themselves out. They were posed in a way that gave an impression of moving very quickly in perfect tandem and she stared, wondering what it would have been like to see such creatures fly past her in real life.
Jeffrey breathed in her ear, “Those two are mating.”
She jumped, looked around and slapped at him, trying to hide her annoyance with a playful smile.
“Isn’t it great,” he said, catching her hand to his chest, “to move through the world so completely together?”
She hmmed at him again and tried to pull her hand free, eyes on the dragonflies.
Her next flight was a commuter shuttle, a few days of straight flying and a long stasis leap to the nearest space station, swapping one tired set of engineers and asteroid pickers at the end of their 5-year contract out for another equally tired but better fed set. After another brief leap, there was a quick stop at the moon to swap the picker’s goods out for hydroponically grown food, imported back to Earth for those who could afford it–which technically included her, now, she thought with a start while signing the cargo manifesto. Then she headed home again. No more stasis for a while. This time she remembered to go through the special personnel line at spaceport customs.
Jeffrey had ridden in the taxi with her to the spaceport when she left, bitching constantly about the lack of funding and visitors for museums and the lack of respect for his craft, grumbling about the need for preserving the past for the sake of education. When he picked her up eight days later in another taxi, it seemed as though he had never really stopped having the conversation in her absence.
“I mean, I just don’t understand it. Extinct animals and plants are important. Public school kids used to go to museums during school, as part of their history lessons or their science lessons. They knew about the natural world. Hell, they had the natural world and still took the time to learn about it, too. All our kids have these days is rocks and lights and physics and calculus, so they can beat their brains out taking tests so that maybe one day they get the pleasure of living on a pile of junk in space or flying around between those piles like…oh. Baby, I’m sorry. I don’t mean it like that. Baby? Gardenia? Are you listening to me?”
She was staring out of the cab window into the darkness. She didn’t even understand why cabs had windows, anymore. They didn’t have drivers. The darkness beyond where the light ended was absolute and terrifying. Space was dark, but it was an open dark. There were always more stars, more to see after a long sleep. Here, there was just nothing.
He was almost shouting. “Gardenia!”
She turned suddenly. “What is it?”
“I was just saying…we lost our funding.” His voice was soft, and he suddenly looked like a lost child, abandoned in the endless dark. “I was hoping—I’ve been looking for another job. Somewhere outside of the Understreets, a little higher up, a little better lit. Less scary. But you know me—I can’t leave.”
She knew him. She was still halfway lost in the dark herself, but answered anyway. “Why?”
“Because if I leave, the museum will close for sure. Everybody needs to know their history—our history. I’m the only thing keeping this alive for us, for our community. I have to stay.”
He relaxed all of a sudden, slumping his long body against the door of the cab. “Thank you, baby. I knew you’d understand. The hours, the pay cut, everything. I mean, the money is no problem, right? I have this great idea for an exhibit on salmon, you know, the extinct fish?”
“Yeah.” She nodded and made agreeing noises in all the right places, staring past him out of the window into the endless darkness that they were flying into together.
She remembered sitting in a café on the closest moon with Rigby, his bare feet resting grossly on a videosill while they sipped expensive coffee made from real beans, yet lightened with fake milk that had never seen the inside of a cow or any other animal.
The surface of the moon, broadcast on the videosill, was gray and bumpy. Rigby’s toenails, having been exposed to the soil of a dozen different surfaces but rarely to the inside of a shoe, were also gray and bumpy. The rest of him was as smooth and speckled and tight as the skin of a pinto bean, topped with narrow gray eyes that tilted like a cat’s and a few centimeters of almost-fuzzy black hair.
“The new world is out there, you know. It’s like the ancient colonial days. The old European empires. We get to go and find the new center of the world. Find the people—the beings, I guess–who will take our places.”
“And also steal their land and cultures?” she retorted, and immediately regretted it.
“No, of course not.” Rigby leaned towards her, over his coffee cup, tucking his gross feet away underneath the table at last. He laughed. “We know better. We think we do, anyway. But we’ll probably get it wrong, anyway. There’s so much we don’t know. So much we can’t know. So many new things to imagine—you know what I mean?”
She knew. She met his eyes and smiled.
Six months later, she sat in a small apartment carved into the rock over the museum, made bright with too many expensive lamps and fluorescent paint, and listened to Jeffrey’s wounded cries.
“Rigby? RIGBY?” He was wearing the green jacket with its odd patches again, but it was open and wrinkled, flapping about him frantically as he paced and stumbled around all of the furniture. “Rigby. I-can’t-fuckin’-believe-it. That nigga don’t even know how to wear shoes!”
She was past the point of caring what he thought. She just wanted to get past this awful and necessary moment and get back into space. Still, she sighed and shook her head. “Don’t talk like that. Don’t say “nigga”. You sound like someone’s grandfather.”
He stopped moving and stared down at her, nostrils flaring, eyes wild. “How could you, Gardenia? Baby, why?”
She opened her mouth, hesitated. Took a breath, hesitated again. Finally, she was able to put together words that she thought might make sense to both of them. “I’m a dragonfly. Not a salmon.”
He tilted his head and squinted at her, hard. “What?”
“I don’t want to come back home and breed and die all alone in the dark. I want to fly off to a new place and be perfectly together with someone.”
He sat down carefully on one of their overstuffed chairs, flipping the jacket neatly behind him before touching down. His eyes were wet. “I don’t understand you.”
“I know. But…I took a job, okay? A long-distance job. Part of a crew making the first trade flight to the old Mars colony. The one we thought was lost.”
He stared at her for a heartbeat and his face crumpled and sagged. He caught it in his hands and groaned.
She continued. She knew it was merciless, but she also knew she had to do it. “I’m part of the crew and so is Rigby and we just—we can fly together, you know? Perfectly together. Like we can’t.”
He groaned again, around his wet fingers. “Stop saying that.”
“I thought we were perfect together. You and me, from the Understreets. We could have got out, could have moved up higher, but we came back, right? We came back to our community. We’re giving back.”
Her breath caught and she shook her head. “You still believe that? Really? When was the last time somebody came to your little museum?”
He was suddenly angry and tall, knocking over a pedestaled lamp and growling, swearing, crying. She was ready. Her bags were packed in Rigby’s neat carpeted two-bedroom house, several levels higher in the city. Jeffrey had been so busy printing out 3D fish and mounting them on plastic bubbles that he hadn’t even noticed her slow defection from their life. All that was left to do was snatch up her handbag and flee, leaving Jeffrey in a maelstrom of shattered bulbs and heartache.
They were speeding through a wide, open dark punctuated by endless points and pricks of light. They broke into the first pocket of light in Mars’ atmosphere, fingers intertwined, breathing the last few slow breaths of chemically induced stasis before waking. Their ship, bathed in the reddish light of Mars, caught a plasmaspheric breeze and took up a swooping, soaring pattern.
She gasped and took a painful new breath. Beside her, Rigby did too. She let go of his hand and breathed even deeper.
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