by M. Raoulee
I learned why most ships won’t carry Sovers on one of my early voyages as an able spacer. It was first watch on the bridge of a ketch making for Delphi 9. The second mate left to have a smoke. I sat alone at the helm surrounded by the glow of the instruments, and the cold, comforting darkness of space.
A scent rose, floral and piquant. Blue sky unfurled around me. The air breathed humid beneath twinges of sunlight. The heavens seemed to crack, but the shatter lines took on reflections of their own, settling into small trees with clasps of white blossoms between their dark leaves.
I reached out to touch one with a hand which was not my hand, but one worn and fine-boned. Someone called to me in a tongue I could not recognize, but I knew the sounds as my name. I beheld a woman, bronze-skinned and clear-eyed, petals spangled in her hair. Affection— intense beyond all measure, a year of longing captured in a mere second —filled me.
I knew this moment belonged to a presence outside of my own, even to the instant it fled and I toppled back into to the quiet black.
When the second mate returned, she said, “Gods, are you blushing?”
All I could do was stammer, “Did you see it?”
My words startled her at first, but she caught herself and put her hand down on mine. “Oh, right. We got a Sover on board. Welcome to special hell.”
The first Sovers were born without Fashioning, a quirk of human genetics. They carry Perfect Empathy, which lets them share the memories of others, know why sentient beings feel the way they do and what will help them better themselves, their communities, the whole galaxy.
Without Sovers, humans would have been trapped on Old Earth, unable to manage the cooperation it took for them to settle the stars, let alone learn how to Fashion themselves or the manufactured life which has come to sustain them in the desert of deep space. In my time, all Ceodoms keep a bevy of such people ready to negotiate and serve.
But the thing about Sovers is that their Perfect Empathy sometimes works backwards when they dream.
Those first few days after I encountered the phenomenon myself, my mind seemed to recognize how little the wandering memory belonged to me. I thought over it the way children touch their healing wounds. Even the most artificial whiffs of lemon came to bother me. I flushed at the scent of the boatswain’s espresso once she spun lemon peel into it. Much abashed, I staggered out of the saloon and down into the stores, where I sat for a long while in the dark.
There I realized that I did not enjoy the stellar stillness as much as I had before. My thoughts threatened to tug other images across it. The Sover’s grove blossomed tart-sweet in my senses and her sky filled the empty space above me. I cringed, but I cringed with a kind of wonder.
A scrap of another person now resided in my body. I looked into its heavens. I scented its air and I wanted the beautiful woman there. The moment, alien though it was, compelled me as it had the person who lived it, and I could not imagine letting it go, despite its otherness.
Otherwise, my spacing career skimmed forward like light in a transmission cable. Three new planets were settled in a decade. Trade routes had to be strung between solar systems. Sovers filled the suites on passenger ships and displaced captains from their quarters on conscripted yachts.
I preferred to keep to smaller vessels where I might have time at the helm. They were seldom anything luxurious, but contracts waited for no Sover and my crews saw many.
If I changed crews at all, it was because I developed a willingness to step up when spacers begged off jobs including such passengers. I made space time enough to take my officer’s exam filling places on voyage after voyage.
Soon, my credentials and I made gentleperson’s agreements in Spacer Union Halls rather than riding the tide of need. At some ports, I arrived to find myself expected for a waiting contract. I seldom refused these invitations. The stray moments which found me through them never quite lost that their wonders, at least not to me. I came to cherish their cool strangeness resting in the back of my mind.
Many found me over the light years.
Some were simple, of bars in the midnights of urban planets, or diving through water light as soda fizz. My body isn’t suited for swimming, so have never done such a thing, all memories aside. I carry no Perfect Empathy, but I nonetheless saw myself tending to a Ceo at the end of long evening with whole moons at stake, met another barefoot in a hotel room and was stunned by his candid demeanor.
Others recollections held thick, shining gravity. I wandered a conflict zone, a bruise of a place where ashes ran-ankle deep. I watched my mother die, holding her hand to my cheek as she slipped away. Dawn broke over the limn of the planet ship where she had been born and lived and now was finally at peace.
In my deepest honesty I recalled an entourage. We spent days stranded on a rusty little planet. Heat and boredom overtook us. Our lips strayed and then our hands. We became one shimmering fit of pleasure, lost in one another.
That memory never made me blush the way the lemon flowers did. Instead, it left me with this sense of relief, like a bell finally ringing on a ship that’s been too quiet.
My own bell rang at the edge of all these strangers with their strange hearts. Newly certified a captain, I bought Jerrah.
Jerrah was my schooner as well as my first mate. Nanocard AI ships had gone out of favor by the time we met, but I appreciated their vintage quirks, their tinny voice, the way their core rattled when I fed them new destinations. Besides, having at least one of my crew Fashioned purely of silica helped mitigate the loss of any spacers who objected to my intended passengers.
I can still hear Jerrah booming “Really?” over every speaker when they discovered that I’d advertised us with, what was it?, Sover Concierge Service Available.
“Why not?” I asked them.
“I’ll have to keep an eye on you every minute of every day in case you zone out on feelings crack!”
“I’m the captain, so you do that anyway. Besides, I kind of like Perfect Empathy leaks. It won’t be so bad.”
They huffed and said nothing more about it, not even come the voyage where their cabins were packed with a bevy of Sovers relocating to another star system. In my dreams that night I saw a boy Fashioned with horns. Planetside insects sang in the evening as I watched him walk home instead of practicing my mandolin.
We cruised on, one transit to another, and through them Jerrah developed a curious habit, as their make often does. They would resist my command at the most picturesque moments. Say, Suzhou Station rested golden on a moon that housed headquarters for a dozen Ceodoms and somehow this made the forethrusters twitch alight. Jerrah suspended the champagne and platinum brightness in the viewscreen. Orchestra music welled from their speakers. The mate beside me began to laugh, either out of confusion or joy.
It was only a moment. Our course righted when I put pressure on the wheel. The music stopped.
I thanked Jerrah on my earpiece, and they insisted they’d had nothing to do with the show. I thanked them, though… it wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate my own memories. It was more I believed I would never hold anything in them which could move me quite the way the lemon flowers did.
At the end of that voyage, I delivered two Sovers to Suzhou, lost one of my ordinary spacers, and before I could replace her, had taken on three more Sovers according to the tickets which arrived on my tablet.
I remember— I saw the bevy on the dock, pouring over a minicomp and pointing about the ships moored nearby until they found Jerrah.
Piera styled herself neo-renaissance fashion down to lacing her clothes on. Martine was a bit younger, dressed in black except for a turquoise jewel fiber necklace. They arrived at the gangplank all smooth smiles and saxophone twitter laughter.
The boy merely followed. I say boy if only because he had puppy fat on his cheeks. As for his suit, well, I’m no manager, but it didn’t seem fitted well in the shoulders.
I tipped my hat to them. “I see you good people are off to Delphi 9.” The route held some nostalgia for me, and although it was a long haul, I was happy to travel it once again.
“Yes!” Martine exclaimed. “There’s a conference. We can’t be late. We’d like to leave at once.”
The boy spoke up, “We can try to help get ready.”
Piera plopped her hand to his forearm, winking at him. “You just want to nose around.”
“I’ve never been on a bridge before…” He trailed off and briefly met my gaze.
With that, Piera winked at me as well. I had this flash where I saw the space station where I was born, my whole community singing through another Repairs Day. I remembered the joy of the work well done come evening. In the present, I still had to tell my passengers, “We’ll be half a day at least. You’re welcome to come aboard, however. I’ll have your berths turned over.”
This suited them well enough. Once I showed them to their cabins, I pressed my crew to restock with some speed. We made due much faster than I suspected we could, and in spite of the impressive collection of trunks which arrived for our bevy. By first dog watch, we were ready to depart, and we did it with all three passengers pressed against the starboard portholes, admiring the view of the Suzhou Station as it flickered away.
I didn’t catch any of their dreams that night. There was only the bridge steeped in the familiar star-freckled black, the sound of myself, asking Jerrah, “There are such things as male Sovers or did I read his ID wrong?”
Elevator music played as they accessed their knowledge banks. “They’re rare,” they reported. “Because they can’t be Fashioned with purpose.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have that answer.” They seldom responded with the formal lack of information statement. I had to settle for that, and recording how quickly the day had passed. Only when I retired did I realize how easily I’d been coaxed into doing the biddings of others that morning.
Piera and Martine spent much of their time in the saloon with their hand-painted Conquerelle set. I usually spotted them playing with the spacers off watch, and sometimes with wine.
Anyway, they offered me wine with my invitation. “Captain!” called Martine, lifting a leatherglass goblet my way. “Come join us! We’re only two battles in.” She might have said bottles.
I declined the wine but accepted a territory on the edge of the board. “Most people bring books.”
“We have plenty of books,” said Piera. “But, your crew plays.”
Martine chimed in, “And it’s not every day we get a chance to challenge people who don’t turn this into emotional kangaroo court.”
“That’s how your bevy does it?” I asked, jingling my tokens in my palm before I placed them in a classic arrow formation.
“Oh, do they.”
“That’s interesting. How about my crew?”
“Your crew has a lot of lucky people.”
Her companion finished the thought for her. “We’ve lost a few games. How exciting is that?”
If I suggested it must be very much so, it was, nonetheless, not exciting enough for them to spare me. Piera made her last few moves hiccupping her words and Martine chided her for beating “our gracious host”.
As I took my leave I realized that the boy had not joined us.
I found him on the observation deck. He had folded himself beneath the arch of the dome, knees hugged to his chest. When he saw me, he clambered to his feet and shot down the ladder. “Sorry,” he called back. “I-I don’t play.”
I didn’t see the boy again until Jerrah passed a check gate out of New Tangiers early in the morning watch. He tiptoed past my crew, drooping and askew as if he was barely out of bed. Like that, he presented himself to the customs officers. “Harper of Heilige. I’m here as…” he yawned. “There are three of us on board. Ah, three Sovers. I can speak for all of them.”
The customs officer gave him a look, but dutifully read over his films and those of the two women besides. “Well, you’re passengers with no imports to declare, so on you go. Have a nice voyage.”
He took himself out of the way and then knotted his fingers as he tried to reroll his films. I watched him struggle for a bit, then offered him the pen I used on my own documents. “Or I can do it if you like,” I said. “I have some experience.”
“Ah, thanks,” he replied, sheepishly pushing everything my way. “I’m not used to this yet.”
“Piera and Martine are still asleep?” When he gave me a sour look about that remark, I met it with, “The three of you have a lot of work ahead. It’s better if you try to relax. You included.”
To this he shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Is there anything I could have done to improve your cabin?”
“I ah… I don’t know. It’s my first conference. I just… things.”
“If you think of something.” I returned the films.
He hustled out of customs with the rest of us, insisting on walking slightly too close to the spacers, as though concerned he might lose them in the dawn bustle of the wharf.
Once we reached the docks, I climbed onto Jerrah’s bow, and captain or not, sat in their dewy coat of space dust. Harper remained on the pilings, glancing between my shoulder and the New Tangiers space stations whirling a silver spiral in the distance. “Didn’t the other two bring any books you like?” I asked.
“I brought some of my books. But, I…”
The crew went about their inspection around me. I was usually one to join them, and I knew that whatever I happened next I would still do a walkover myself later. I owed that much to them and to our passengers, but I also felt that this passenger in particular would fare best if I said just one more thing.
“Would you like some of my memories? I’d be happy to share them. I have plenty of nice ones, some from Sovers I’ve travelled with.”
Harper straightened himself out. He yawned though before he managed to speak. “Okay. It’s just, you should know I’ve never Sovered anyone like you before.”
“Not many wholly artificial Fashions on Heilige?”
“None I ever met.”
“I assure you, my nervous system is eighty percent biological.”
“I’m not worried about that.” He shook his head, but nonetheless moved to stand at my feet. His hand traced along his temple as his eyes closed.
The settling of his consciousness into mine had a clear immediacy to it, quite unlike Piera’s or the dreams I was used to. I breathed and the wharf scents, the ozone and the sunburned solar panels, clutched an unfamiliarity to them which I had long forgotten.
I believe it was my faint hesitance to show Harper the lemon flower memory which drew him to it. Through him, I experienced the moment more purely than I had since the scent first left me to blush. The woman who said my name slipped through my fingers and the sky thrilled. I breathed the breath of the Sover who had stood there, bright with sunshine.
Yet, there came this echo in it.
I remembered remembering in the same space that I felt Harper soaring through for the first time, snagged silken on that longing, filled with it and flushing himself, more than I had.
I swore I saw his hand reaching out alongside the one which wasn’t mine in the memory.
Then it was over.
Harper fled back onto Jerrah, cutting between spacers to do it. I went after, but I heard the door of his cabin slam all the way from the corridor.
Next dog watch I excused myself from my mate and went to the observation deck. Only stars rested there. I watched them for a short while, then returned to the corridor.
A cabin door opened at the sound of my footsteps. Harper peered at me as I approached.
“Mister Harper,” I said, doffing my hat.
“Miz… ah, excuse me, Captain Estevez.” He tipped his head, then stepped out beside me.
We walked in silence as it was as if only by chance we came to the bridge he had asked to see on the first day of the voyage. I dismissed the mate who’d been minding it and so we stood there alone. “It’s dark,” Harper said.
“It is. I’m told people grow used to it, though I was Fashioned here and I can’t speak for those who weren’t.”
He nodded. I thought he might glimpse towards the window next— so many planetborn people approach deep space as if enamored of the emptiness and yet quite afraid to show it.
Harper, though, lifted his head to me and spoke softly across the faint starlight. “I like what I can do. I like it a lot. I just don’t want to do it sometimes.”
“I feel used.”
I confess, I was taken aback, unable to quite answer him straight off.
“I have memories too, you know. Maybe I’m not a Ceo, but they’re mine. Maybe I just want to take them somewhere with lemon flowers and play with them.”
“The memory I showed you doesn’t know where that is,” I confessed.
“B-but did you ever look? Maybe a little.”
“I’ve had no reason to. Space has been good to me.”
Shuddering, he did then fix himself to the sight of Jerrah’s prow.
I told him, “And those trees were likely gone before I ever saw them.”
“There might still be a grove there though.” I knew it was small consolation, but I also knew I had a bit more to offer him. I strode to the helm, beckoning him after me. “Tell me, have you ever taken a ship’s wheel?”
Harper shook his head. He padded over and I showed him how to center his weight at the pedestal before he tried turning, how to unlock turns at all with a flick of the triggers on the handles. He did these things and he steered Jerrah gently to port, then back again, off by a few clumsy seconds. I had him do it once more, and stray numbers still floated at the end. On his third try, his grip shifted beneath mine, becoming something quite sure. He did much better that time.
At captain’s liberty, I moved myself to last dog watch for much of the rest of the voyage. I received little complaint save for one mate who preferred later watches, and so I brought her with me. She showed Harper how to strip transmission cable for recycling, then how to sweep the drift of broken filament ends this made. Together, we taught him how to clean airlock seals and how to check for leaks after with colored smoke.
He seemed most content on the bridge with the systems open before him and I could not blame him. What were all of Jerrah’s dials and displays but their thoughts playing in a way that he could reach them?
“You don’t need to poke that,” they told him. “If you think it’s really wrong, you send the lowest ranking member of the crew down to engineering to see if something’s on fire.”
Without a word, he stood and walked to engineering himself. They were only a bit puzzled to see him.
Harper mustn’t have needed much sleep. We kept him for six hours at one point, but he never missed a meal, or a spot at the portals when we passed close to interesting systems, although he did drink rather a lot of soda.
Meanwhile, Piera and Martine tired of Conquerelle. They started on dice instead, and then some elaborate card game I couldn’t follow despite several mornings spent observing. On one, they gave me wine.
“We’ll have to pay import taxes on it if we get to Delphi 9 and there’s any left,” said Piera.
Martine trilled at her. “That’s not it at all!” She turned to me and added, “This is the best ride we’ve had in ages. We’re all very happy.”
That time, I drank with them.
When we made port, Piera and Martine dressed in staid Corporate attire— gray suits and black patent heels. They arranged much the same for Harper and for the occasion braided his queue.
When they asked to disembark first, I agreed and changed into a formal coat to go as their escort.
The gangway descended and we made our way into the throes of Delphi 9. The wharf toppled on for miles beneath a clear dome glinting with ships, the blue-green whirl of Delphi 9 itself. Airbikes buzzed between cargo vessels and courier shops. Everywhere there were people, innumerable Fashions of them.
The two women strode after me into the throng and Harper behind them. I brought us into a strand of cruise ship passengers, all stumbling along with their cameras out. In their midst, I fell back, calling out that I had been mistaken and our destination was in the other direction. Harper wriggled his way to my side. We turned shoulders first through the spindrift of other bodies.
We ran. Well, as much as we could. It was more shoving and apologies with sprinting in between. Twice luggage trolleys put us out of sight of one another.
We peeled further and further into the churning crowd. I was no more Fashioned to run that I was to swim, but run I did. The servos in my hips tripped. Harper nearly lost his briefcase breaking a line of managers. One demanded his name. He nearly gave it, but instead grabbed my sleeve. People skidded around us in a burst of shouts, Martine’s above them.
“Harper! What the hell! Come back! You’re gonna get in so much trouble! You’ll get fired for making a scene!”
I should have pulled him on, but there came this easy twist of movement between us as his voice cracked on the one word he offered her. “Good!”
The merchant Spacer Union Hall rose up before us, as well as line of spacers and civilians kissing their farewells. We thrust our way through one last time, yanking the doors closed behind us. I heard a crash not long after, then our footfalls over the music on the radio.
We slammed into a registrar desk. “Excuse me,” I said. The bellows in my chest struggled to cool my insides. “Captain Estevez, Gilese Colony. This man would like to apprentice to me as an OS.”
Harper reached into his suit. He dropped his electronic book on the counter as he fished out his ID film, but he did do that, unwinding it from my pen still clasped in the center. “I’m eighteen standard and I’ve been released from all legally required education.”
The registrar inspected this, then offered him a tablet of her own, a contract lit up on the screen. She began to explain how and where he’d need to sign. The doors gave way behind us.
“What are you doing!” Piera shrieked.
Harper turned over his shoulder. He shook his head and took hold of the desk. I moved to stand behind him as I had at the ship’s wheel.
“I ah… I already have some space time,” he began to babble. “And I know how to clean an airlock seal!”
The registrar nodded, procuring a form for me to certify his hours. “Well, that’s a start,” she said.
Behind us, Martine sank down on the floor and began to weep, dribbling her makeup down her chin.
Harper sobbed a little himself. I offered him my thoughts once more. As he took them, he returned his own.
Lace curtains billowed in the breeze of an open window. I, or the I that was Harper, sailed two wooden boats against each other in the sink. The yellow came off of the one I’d only just painted. At first, this squeezed sadly in my chest, but then I realized the first boat, she was fine.
This must be a rescue mission then.
I have finally come planetside on Delphi 9.
Shadows of clouds brush my awareness in their unexpected shifts. Behind them, the sky runs deeply blue and yet, I know this is not the blue we’re searching for.
At our table, Harper has a platter of fried fish to himself. His ordinary spacer uniform fits him better than his suit did. At least, he seems to be enjoying the short sleeves. As we walked here, he kept stretching his arms in the sunlight.
He sighs. I feel a tap of his mind against mine.
“We’ll only be a few days.” I assure him. “Jerrah needs some work. Besides, the interplanetary archives run faster down here, if we’re going to go looking for, well, anything.”
“It’s not that. I… I know you brought me here to say goodbye to being on the ground and things like that,” he says, and he takes a sip of his soda. I can smell the lemon in it. “It means a lot to me.”
“It means a lot to me that I’ll be able to share these memories with someone,” I tell him.
“Can I see the flowers again?” he asks.
It’s not what I expected him to say. Then again, my life so far has had enough small accidents to it. “After supper.” I tell him.
Then again, these memories of ours— some of them may be the same, but the vantage does change the way any one of them reflects the rest. At his small suggestion, I see myself on the bridge of the Ketch headed here, feel my heart answer that name that isn’t mine. The darkness around me spreads into sky. First the one that brushed that night, and then, this one, clouds and fingerprints on the window and all.
“Ah, now. Spacers put their elbows on the table,” I remind him, teasing.
“I can’t toast like that,” says Harper. He raises his glass.
I do the same. As we clink them together, he leans over.
He presses a chaste little kiss to my cheek and I blush over something besides lemon flowers for the first time in so many lingering years.
“Lemon Flowers” (© M. Raoulee) was published in Issue 12 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.