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losing the stars without a sky

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Her hand terminal chirps in the middle of her physiotherapy session and Drummer is ready to smash the damn thing. The notifications have been coming in fast since she was discharged from the recovery room of the station’s new medical deck. The notifications are mostly trade requests and business proposals along with the occasional message from Ashford. He asks after her well-being and finishes with a pointed question about her return to duty and whether she should take off a few more shifts. He would, of course, be willing to assume command during her recuperation. Asshole.

Even so, the notification nags at her, and it’s as good an excuse as any to cut short her PT. “We’ll pick this up later, Keya,” Drummer grunts at the physiotherapist standing by the treadmill.

Keya presses her lips together in disapproval. She clearly is not fooled by Drummer’s sudden interest in her hand terminal, but she leaves anyway, her red curls bouncing behind her. Drummer looks down at her hand terminal, sees the name flashing on the screen, and is very glad that she sent Keya away.

The message is from Naomi Nagata.

Hey. I wanted to check in and ask how the surgery went. Are you still in the med bay?  

Things have been going fairly smoothly on our end. The rail gun is to die for, you should see it. We spend a lot of time on preparations.  

I want to ask if you’re in much pain. I’m guessing you won’t want to tell me. But you can. If you want.

Naomi.

Drummer stares at the message, gripping on to the nearby railing for balance. It’s the first message from Naomi in weeks. Three weeks, four days and seven hours.

Her lips curve as she types back. The med bay is fucking boring. I nearly watched ‘Sanctuary Moon’ the other day. 

Then, because it feels necessary, she shoots off another message immediately after the first. Tell Holden not to make any speeches while you’re down there. The world’s messed up enough as it is.

The ‘Sending’ icon spins for a while until the green tick appears beside the message, indicating a successful transmission. Naomi’s reply will probably take a while to come back, even if she sees Drummer’s message right away. Drummer tells herself that as she watches the screen. There is no need to expect an immediate response. She drags over the mech legs to get back to the recovery ward. These pain killers make her stomach churn.

Her position as a captain allots her a private recovery room. The sight of the gurney in the empty space is disturbing in its relief. Normally she would only feel relieved to lie down after a hard shift’s work, not after walking on a treadmill for half an hour. Drummer disengages the mech legs and forces herself to shuffle the few steps over to the gurney without leaning against the wall for support. At least it makes the exhaustion seem a little more earned.

She heaves herself onto the gurney and her spine aches in protest. Her arm slides into the med cuff and she surrenders into sleep. Her dreams echo with the roar of machines grinding her into a pulp, eating her alive.

When she wakes, a message blinks on the terminal screen.

Points for predictability. I knew you’d evade everything. Fine, then I get to bore you silly.  

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE ROCI

We begin, as always, with coffee. First meal of the day is red kibble. Amos and Jim say I add too much spice because they’re weak.

Following this, I get my tools. First, the spanner. Then, the wrench. Things must be repaired in the proper order. I start the upgrades on the power grids. Mid-shift meal is leftover lasagne. Warming up the lasagne turns out to be a mistake, because it ends up chewy and smells like Alex’s socks.

I hope this has been boring enough for you. Maybe next time you’ll be so desperate you’ll actually give a proper answer to a question.

Naomi.

PS: Sanctuary Moon is not that bad really. Things start to kick off after the first season, and the lead actor has a nice ass.

 


 

They send messages back and forth over the next two weeks. Usually it’s comments about the latest tech upgrades and the occasional funny story from Naomi. After the first lasagne story, Drummer realises Naomi is sending them to cheer her up. She enjoys them more after that, even if they are a reminder of a part of Naomi’s life which does not include her.

Many of Naomi’s messages end with a not-so-subtle inquiry about Drummer’s recovery, which Drummer then ignores or dismisses with some off-hand comment. It almost becomes a routine.

I know you’re avoiding talking about this, Naomi’s latest message reads. Drummer reads it over twice, the accusation spelt out on her screen, then deletes the message.

Naomi does not ask again. She does, perplexingly, send a moving image of what appears to be an Earth creature known as a hippopotamus, glowering stubbornly at the camera. Perhaps Naomi should check the Roci’s oxygen levels again.

Drummer does not want to say that her recovery is frustratingly slow. That nearly every PT session leaves her gasping, gripping white-knuckled onto the support railings as her skin drips with cold sweat. That she pictures the woman on Tycho who ran the station with iron efficiency and still found time to dance and play sport and chat up women in bars, and wonders how she could ever have been so sure of her position in the universe.

Fuck the protomolecule. Fuck Dawes and fuck Fred Johnson too. Fuck Earth, fuck Mars, fuck the fucking OPA.

She raises the vodka bottle to her lips and the burn down her throat feels like a fitting punishment for having once felt so comfortable in her skin. The plexiglass bottle clangs heavily against the countertop as Drummer fumbles with her hand terminal. Naomi’s image blinks in the corner while she types with clumsy fingers.

I’m not one for poetry or metaphor. You know this. But I’ve had far too much vodka and I’m a maudlin drunk. I hope no one cracks the encryption on this because I don’t need the Inners to know that it takes one bottle to get me spilling my guts.

So. This is what you wanted to know.  

I need the mech supports when I wake up because my back feels like it has been torn in half. The doctor says I need to wean off the pain relief. The doctor is a dick. There’s a physio named Keya who knows more about my body than any woman I’ve ever fucked. Yesterday I spent half my shift clutching the console because vomiting in zero-G sucks and I’m not sitting down in front of Ashford’s lapdogs.  

I miss you, Naomi. I miss you, and that hurts the most.

Don’t read this. Or if you do, pretend you didn’t. The rate I’m going I probably won’t remember I sent this anyway.

Drummer.

She presses ‘Send’ before she has the time to reconsider. Naomi’s reply arrives twelve hours later at the end of Drummer’s next shift, when she is trying to concentrate on updates from the cargo teams and only partially failing. Naomi’s message begins with another grumpy hippo image.

Idiot. Of course I read your message.  

I’m worried about you, Camina. I’m going to try to call when we’re in range. Please don’t ignore it.

Naomi.

PS: Go to your fucking therapy sessions. I know you’ve been skipping them.

Drummer taps out a quick response. Stalking me now? You know that’s not cute, Nagata.

The reply comes sooner than expected. The Roci must be close to being in full range. Of all the things in my message, that’s what you choose to focus on. This time Naomi ends with an image of a blonde teenager rolling her eyes.

Drummer is raising her hand to type a reply when a call comes in from the bridge. The latest Martian delegation is approaching. She sets her jaw and shoves the hand terminal into her pocket. There can be no distractions, not when a bunch of Inners are trying to cheat Belters out of a fair deal. 

She steps into the elevator to the bridge and locks her mag boots down to the floor to counter the movement. It’s little use; gravity still pulls on her spine as the elevator begins its fast ascent, setting her implants throbbing. This must be what it feels like to walk on a planet; an unseen force weighing you down, binding you to the surface. She tries a few shoulder rolls to relieve the ache, with little effect. She types a message instead in the hope that it might take her mind off the pain.

I probably won’t be able to take a call. Everything is backed up with meetings and Ashford is breathing down my neck.

The meeting is predictably long, frustrating and incredibly boring. Drummer considers it a personal victory that she manages to resist the urge to space the entire Martian delegation and most of her own staff as well. In the end they manage to negotiate an easing of tariffs for the slow zone in exchange for a reduced price for Belter ships visiting Martian fuel stations. It will make travel more affordable for families, she knows, but every concession feels as though the Belt is giving up one thing more.

She knows what the Inners see when they look at her. A youngish Belter woman in a uniform which barely covers the tattoo across her neck, inexperienced at negotiations of this scale. Drummer likes to subvert their expectations. It sometimes works, sometimes does not, but at least they never leave a meeting believing that she is a weakling. To think that after a lifetime spent fighting her way from the slums of Ceres up through the ranks of the OPA, she had once believed she was done with proving herself.

She does not check her hand terminal until she is back in her quarters. A message from Naomi is blinking on the screen.

If you can’t answer the call, I understand. But it’s probably the last time we can talk before the Roci goes to Ilus. We’ll be out of range for much of anything in a few weeks.

Ilus. They’re actually going. Her gut twists and she rubs her palms against the rough fabric of her jumpsuit to dry them.

I’ll try. Can’t promise anything.

 


 

PT still fucking sucks.

Drummer pushes her limits every time, just wanting it all to be over, damn it, but Keya insists on sticking to the planned routines. Maybe Keya should take up negotiations with the Earthers; no threats seem to faze her and she has zero tolerance for excuses. It’s almost kind of hot. Drummer would ask her out for a drink if it weren’t for professional boundaries. Plus, there is the added factor of Keya knowing exactly which of Drummer’s muscle groups is hurting at any one time, and that isn’t information which Drummer is keen on discussing. It’s bad enough that every step feels like a triumph.

The worst days are the ones where she can barely walk at all. The ones where Keya quietly suggests that perhaps Drummer should use the mech supports during the shift. The days where Drummer snarls at Keya to fuck off, and she looks at Drummer with something which is horribly close to pity. On those days she locks her mag boots to the deck and leans her arms on the console, her back cold and clammy beneath the thick, stiff fabric of her uniform. When she returns to her quarters she wipes her eyes and tells herself it’s sweat dripping into her lashes.

One session goes so poorly that Keya calls it off early, though that may be because she’s had enough of dealing with Drummer’s temper. Whatever the real reason, Drummer finds herself in the rare position of having fifty minutes without anything which requires her immediate attention. If that ever happened on Tycho, she would use the time to work out or get in a quick game of handball, maybe chat up a girl or two. Now she slinks back to her quarters, too sore to do anything but bear the punishment of her own company. The pain closes its jaws on her spine, eating its way deep into her bones.

There is a message blinking on her hand terminal when she pulls it out of her pocket. It is an eighteen second video of Naomi lifting dumbbells aboard the Roci, with the caption ‘our plans have weight.’ 

Her gut clenches, bitterness choking her throat, and she fires off a message without thinking.

You know going down to the surface of that planet is a fucking stupid idea.

A return message arrives almost immediately. Let me be the judge of that. 

Drummer’s lip curls as her thumb flies across the key pad. Lot of work you’re doing just to walk on solid ground. Hope that crew of yours appreciate it. Better be worth the trouble.

Naomi’s reply is short, clipped and to the point. They do. And it is.

Naomi is silent after that.

 


 

Drummer hand terminal chirps again during yet another dull meeting. Her chest clenches, but the message isn’t from Naomi this time. It’s from a woman she used to sleep with now and then back on Tycho.

Sica Tride is the captain of a long haul supply ship, the Earhart. Her crew earn a living making runs between various stations. She is pure Belter muscle, with tattooed arms and a roguish smile. Her ship used to stop at Tycho for resupply every few months and she and Drummer would often meet for a drink and then a tumble in Drummer’s bunk. Sica is mercifully uninterested in politics or committed relationships. She has never called Drummer ‘Camina.’

According to her message, Sica’s ship has been contracted to deliver goods to Medina. The message is short and professional, a simple statement of arrival times and inventory, except for a short postscript. I’ve got some Ceres whiskey stashed away. Hit me up if you’d like a taste.  

Why not? The months of PT are finally starting to pay off, and it’s been a long while since Drummer got off with anyone other than herself. She sends off a reply with a smirk. 

The Earhart docks on Medina a few days later and a few hours after that, Sica is grinding against Drummer’s hand, her head falling back in tiny, blissful gasps. Drummer strokes her the way she likes it, impatient to work them both to the end goal. Sica’s lips brush her cheek and Drummer grits her teeth, leaning back against the bulkhead. Her spine aches and the alcohol sloshes in her belly as she tries to shift Sica into a better position next to her. The light above them flickers, casting their ghostly shadows across the walls. She should get one of the engineers to check the power fluctuations on this deck.

Sica sits up, frowning. “Look,” she says, “I know it’s none of my business, but I can’t help noticing the lack of enthusiasm here.”

Drummer takes her eyes off the light fitting. “Got a lot on my mind,” she replies as a way to apologise without actually making an apology. She cups Sica’s breast and tries to find the rhythm again.

Sica pushes Drummer’s hand away and shifts onto her side. “Hey. First, I don’t fuck girls who don’t want to fuck me, second, I’ve known you for years, Drum. I think I can call you my friend. So, as your friend, I’m asking you. What’s on your mind?”

Drummer glowers at her. “I liked you better when you didn’t ask questions.”

Sica’s grin widens wolfishly. “Sorry,” she says slowly, not seeming it at all. “Maybe that should be who’s on your mind?”

Drummer says nothing. Her instincts scream to tell Sica to either get her off or get out, but she likes Sica and the sting of Naomi’s last message still lingers. Her head tips back against the wall with a sigh.

Sica laughs, holding her hand to her heart in a mockery of shock. “Well, shit. The great Drummer, bitch queen of the solar system, finally head over heels. Tell me, who has the honour? Don’t worry, I’m not offended that it isn’t me.”

“She has a boyfriend,” Drummer mutters, looking at her hands. Damn this whiskey loosening her tongue. She hasn’t had a conversation like this since she was an awkward teenager on Ceres who hadn’t yet grown into her limbs.

Sica waves her hand dismissively, blue eyes glittering. “So? That doesn’t mean you two can’t arrange—“

“They’re going to Ilus.” The words hang there, echoing, unable to be taken back or denied. Naomi is leaving and Drummer could never follow.

Sica’s face softens. “Oh. That sucks.” She pushes her fringe out of her face and settles back on her elbows. “Have you told her how you feel? Wait, that’s a stupid question. Of course you haven’t.”

Drummer grits her teeth and glares up at the ceiling.

Gently, Sica rolls over and flicks her tongue over Drummer’s nipple, breaking the moment. “Now, would you rather be alone to mourn your lost love, or…”

Drummer shoves her hand between Sica’s legs and the time for conversation is over.

 


 

After two weeks of silence, Drummer thinks, fuck it.

If you’re going to burn it all down, might as well go the whole way. The terminal shakes in her hand.

I don’t know if this will even make it to where you are. Did you know, Naomi, that I can never go down to a planet? The med implants will break in 1G. I don’t think I ever told you that.

Holden promised he would tell you what I said to him in that elevator shaft. I want you to know that I meant it. I did what had to be done to protect my crew, but I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I pushed you away.  

I love you. I’m a fucking coward for waiting until you’re too far away to hear it. But it’s true.  

Drummer.

Her fingers hover over the spinning wheel icon on the panel. The message is taking too long to send. The Roci is too far out of range after all.

Delete.

 


 

The bleep of a notification cuts into her sleep. She wrinkles her nose as she reaches for the hand terminal in the stand above her pillow, eyes still glued together with fatigue. So much for downtime.

Drummer flicks open the lock screen on the terminal, letting the light of the screen illuminate the darkened room. If this is yet another Martian diplomatic memo she may just throw the hand terminal out the airlock.

Naomi’s icon blinks on the screen. Naomi, with shorter hair now and as beautiful as she ever was. Drummer swallows, throat suddenly dry. The notification is blinding in its brightness as it opens.

I got your message. Can we talk? Please?  

Drummer stares. She got the message. Naomi got the message.

Her stomach lurches as if hitting zero gravity without mag boots to lock her down. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, oh fuck.

She deleted that message. She could have sworn she deleted that god damn message. She rubs a hand through her loose hair and her cheek feels clammy beneath her wrist. Her lungs contract, leaving her gasping, aching, gripping the sheet for something tangible to lock her in to reality.

In sending that message, she may as well have cracked open her ribcage and carved out her heart, offering it up pulsing and bloody to Naomi’s hands. Take it, she should say. It’s yours.

Instead, she sends one word.

Yes.

 


In the days of the Behemoth, Naomi would come and go as she pleased, mostly delivering engineering updates or borrowing equipment. Today, she stands by the door, arms loosely by her sides, too close and too far away at once.

“Are you in pain?” she says.

Yes, Drummer wants to reply. I can’t sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. I drag myself to every shift. Each day gravity crushes me all over again.

“Sometimes.”

Naomi winces, but she does not refute it. The gratitude sings pathetically beneath Drummer’s skin.

Naomi moves closer, but still out of reach. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, eyes resting somewhere around Drummer’s chin. “Did you mean what you said, in the message?”

Drummer swallows down the knots in her throat. This has to be right. She has to get this right. “You know I do.”

Naomi’s voice is choked. “I love Jim. But I don’t want to lose you too.”

“You have me.” You always have.

Naomi bites her lip, her hands folding and unfolding in front of her belly. “We could find a way to make this work, Camina. If you want it.”

“I…” She studies the scratches in the surface of the floor, mapping out every line and curve. She has been without hope for too long to start wanting things. “We could talk. About how you think it could be.”

Naomi lets out a long sigh and in seconds she is standing in Drummer’s space, her hand smooth against Drummer’s jaw until Drummer tilts her face up to meet her. Their foreheads touch for the briefest moment. The ship hums around them, spinning loop after loop, keeping them locked in orbit.

Naomi traces the edge of Drummer’s mouth. “I was so worried about you after the surgery. I think I am, still.” She drops her hands to her sides, as if she is unsure what to do with them. “Can you show me?”

The air clenches in Drummer’s throat. Slowly, she turns, cheeks burning as she reaches for the tab of her zipper. The zip works its way down, each interlocking tooth revealing another millimetre of skin until she can shrug off her sleeves, exposing the metal implants breaking through the raised scars along her spine.

She uses all her willpower to keep still, unable to see Naomi’s face. Then she feels Naomi’s warmth behind her. Drummer holds her breath, scared even to move, until Naomi softly presses her lips to the scar at the nape of her neck.

It’s the strongest sensation she has felt in months. Her head falls forward, shuddering at the intensity of it, the kind of shudder which fights its way up through her chest into her throat and threatens to burst from her mouth into something worse, something she hasn’t done in years.

Naomi coaxes her around until they are face to face, her fingers smoothing down Drummer’s hair. “Shhh. I’ve got you.”

She curls her head into the crook of Naomi’s neck, feels Naomi’s arms gently close around her shoulders, and finally, lets herself breathe.