An Unexpected Party – Short Story – Shellshocked

Article | Dec 2023

Co-published by Get YA Words Out and edited by Seth Malacari, An Unexpected Party brings together the stories of emerging authors from the LGBTQIA+ community.

Read a short story from the collection.

 

SHELLSHOCKED

by Aidan Demmers

 

Framed against the glittering vault of open space, the Starscraper looks like a nutri-bar that’s been chewed up, spat out, left to moulder for ten years, then picked up by a neon-obsessed four-year-old for their first ever Arts ’n Space-Crafts.

‘Damn, that thing is ugly,’ says Nancy 7.

In the shadowy reflection of the viewport, she sees Jana shoot her an unimpressed look.

‘Get those paws off the glass,’ Jana says. ‘You’ll smear it.’

Nancy tears her eyes from the sickening sight of the Corpo ship, and puts her hands up in surrender.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

In the dark of the viewing room, the only illumination comes from the Starscraper’s lurid neon lights. They flicker across Jana’s face — in red, purple, green — catching upon her large black eyes, thin silver nose-ring, and the curve at the very corner of her mouth.

Their captain’s voice breaks the moment, crackling through the faulty intercom.

‘Nancy, Sanjana,’ Ngaire says. ‘As you may have noticed, we are approaching target. Please make your way to Command.’

‘Copy that,’ Jana says, and arches a brow up at Nancy.

Grinning back down at her, Nancy cracks her knuckles.

‘Let’s go fry that spaceworm.’

 

After 10 minutes of running through The Plan for the billionth time, and fifteen minutes of lecturing about safety and subtlety and other s-words that slip in one of Nancy’s ears and straight out the other, Ngaire lets Nancy and Jana leave the Command room. On the way out, they trade cheerful see-ya-laters with the rest of the crew, and receive a couple of goodies from Ellie, the ship’s slightly unhinged mechanic. Finally, it’s just the two of them suiting up by the starboard airlock.

Well, Jana suits up. Nancy scrapes her rough white hair back into a tie, checks the battery of her two-handed plas-blade, and makes fun of Jana’s suit.

‘Having fun in that fishbowl?’ she asks, rapping a knuckle against Jana’s helmet, a sphere of silver-sheened astroglass connected to Jana’s stylish crimson spacesuit by curling pipes.

Jana raises one of her tiny laser-spitters in overt threat.

‘Having fun with those hands?’

‘Children,’ Ngaire says, voice transmitted straight into their skulls by expensive mission-grade transmitters, ‘stay on task.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ they reply in unison, before exchanging a smirk.

The walk to the Starscraper is uneventful, until one of Nancy’s propulsion boots fizzles out halfway between the two ships. Nancy punches it and curses. The sound is lost to the vacuum of space, but the vibration of her throat is picked up by the transmitters.

‘Foul-mouth,’ Jana says, as she sweeps past, glowing like an ember in the light of the stars.

‘Priss,’ Nancy says, hitting her boot again. It sputters back to life, and she jets after Jana, wincing at the flash of the Starscraper’s lights.

Within seconds, they reach one of the ship’s external hatches. Up close, it’s even more disgusting — the polycrete is stained and blotched, pitted by debris. Nancy wrestles one of Ellie’s toys from her breast pocket, and presses it to a panel by the hatch.

‘That thing better work,’ Jana mutters.

Over the comms, Ellie squawks, offended. ‘Of course it’ll work!’ he says. ‘When have I ever let you down?’

‘If you really want me to answer that, I have a list,’ says Jana.

The device flashes hot-pink, and the hatch judders open.

‘Well, whaddya know,’ Nancy says. The device detaches itself from the panel, and whirs back to her hand, like a space-proof metal insect.

‘Told you!’ says Ellie.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jana says, a little too quickly. Eyeing the device, she pulls herself into the ship. Nancy tucks it back into her jacket, and follows.

The hatch shuts behind them. Sound returns to the world, as air hisses into the cramped space, an off-tone beep announcing full pressurisation. Nancy’s boots lower her to the floor, gravity dragging at her spine. Her left ear pops. She smacks at the other until it follows suit, while Jana tugs off her helmet and ruffles a hand through her silky undercut.

‘This place stinks,’ Jana says, wrinkling her nose as she peers around the room. ‘I don’t want to know how many spores I’m breathing in right now.’

Unsurprisingly, the airlock smacks of Corpo cheapness. It’s fitted all in mottled grey, and its stark strip-lights buzz like dying blowflies. They leach everything of colour, draining the warmth from Jana’s dark brown complexion, and turning Nancy’s own blue skin an unappealing shade of snot.

Jana slants a look at Nancy.

‘Help me with my suit, would you?’

‘Gladly.’

Nancy moves to Jana’s back, and sets about disassembling the sleek red panels that kept all her precious human liquids from boiling. Of course, Jana could do it herself with the touch of a button — but both of them know that isn’t the point.

‘Remember what we discussed,’ Ngaire says, an edge to her tone. ‘I want you in and out as quickly as possible.’

‘Yeah, less flirting, more robbing!’ Ellie says. ‘I wanna find out how well my Terminites work.’

Jana rolls her eyes, as Nancy hands her the last pieces of the suit. She shoves them into her oversized shoulder-bag. Underneath, like Nancy, she wears the uniform of a Corpo security guard — grey and bulky and completed by the ridiculous little cap she pulls on to hide her hairstyle. Corpos aren’t allowed to have undercuts. Or piercings, tattoos, or blue skin, but the hope is nobody will get close enough to notice.

‘So you’ve given up pretending to be competent, Ellie?’ Jana asks.

Ellie squawks again, but Ngaire interrupts him.

‘Stay on task, and get this over with.’

‘Gotcha, Captain,’ Nancy says.

Suck-up, Jana mouths.

Nancy winks at her, and pulls out Ellie’s stupidly-named Terminite. It darts up from her hand, flitting over to the internal door. Jana steps out of its path, laser-spitter raised as if she’s ready to shoot it from the air.

‘You just love that cute little mite, don’t you?’ Nancy asks, without even trying to hide her grin.

This gets her a glare, the spitter’s snub nose turning her way.

‘Keep that thing away from me,’ Jana says.

Nancy snickers as the mite flashes pink again, and the valve groans open.

‘Whatever you want, sweetheart.’

 

The mite leads them through the Starscraper’s creaking maze of corridors. As usual, the cubicle workers in the open-plan sections pay them no attention, too busy tapping at their screens and feverishly trying to meet impossible KPIs.

Making it to the data centre is almost too easy. It’s only guarded by DNA recognition, which the mite fools in seconds. The interior looks exactly like any other Corpo centre they’ve broken into: ranks of rickety servers, wheezing away in the heavy cold dark, red wires spilling from them like human intestines. The mite goes where it needs to, flanked by its five duplicates, which Nancy releases to Jana’s evident distaste. They’re all controlled by the little box in her chest pocket, thankfully, ’cause neither Nancy or Jana could code a toothbrush, and Ellie won’t step foot on Corpo ships.

‘You look good in that outfit,’ Nancy says, reaching to flick at the brim of Jana’s cap. ‘Such a cute little fascist.’

‘Shut it.’ Jana tugs her hat back down, purple-painted lips curving. ‘You just look like a half-dead Tank-Bear, as always.’

‘Oh, you’re calling me big?’ Nancy asks, and flexes.

Jana smacks Nancy’s bicep, smile growing.

Their comms buzz with Ellie’s exaggerated groan.

‘Ugh. Ngaire, chuck me into the nearest black hole, I can’t listen to this anymore.’

‘Keep working,’ Ngaire replies, tone calm in a way that warns of an hour-long post-mission lecture. ‘And cut the chatter, please.’

‘Aye-aye,’ Jana says, and makes an obscene gesture when Nancy smirks. They pass the time with elaborate nonverbal insults, until Ellie gives a triumphant cackle.

‘All ours, baby!’

‘Nice work, Elliot. Ladies, get out of there.’

The first mite flutters back over, leaving its duplicates to burrow into the servers. Jana’s hand drifts to the holster at her hip. ‘With pleasure,’ she says.

They stride back through the musty hallways, more serious now they’re on a timer. From experience, it takes the overworked techies about fifteen minutes to notice the stacking server errors. Plenty of time to get back to the ship, and put a few parsecs between them and the Starscraper, if nothing gets in their way.

Their first warning comes when the mite starts flashing yellow and buzzing around Jana’s head. She curses, swatting at it.

‘Ellie, your stupid bug’s malfunctioning.’

‘Huh? What’s it doing?’

‘It’s gone yellow,’ says Nancy. ‘And … frantic.’

‘Oh, shit,’ Ellie says. ‘That’s the seccy alarm. You’ve got company.’

Nancy’s hand goes to the hilt tucked into her belt. ‘I thought the mite was leading us away from the patrol routes?’

‘Well, someone’s gone off-route.’ His voice is taut with frustration. There’s only so much he can help from back at the ship — the one thing Corpos don’t skimp on is remote shielding. ‘I don’t know where they’re coming from, but—’

‘Get to cover,’ Ngaire cuts in, but Nancy’s been scanning their immediate surroundings, and it’s nothing but bare polycrete.

‘There isn’t any,’ Jana says. Her dark eyes slip over to Nancy’s, and they exchange a nod.

Nancy leans against the slimy wall. She pulls out a pack of stim-cigs, as the mite flutters back to hide in her pocket, alarm received.

‘Time to act natural.’ She offers a cig to Jana, before flicking one out for herself.

Hiding her trigger hand behind her waist, Jana takes a puff.

‘Ugh. Bubblegum, really?’

‘What’s wrong with bubblegum?’

‘Nothing, if you’ve got the taste buds of a Spit Grubbish.’

Footsteps sound down the corridor — two sets, coming from the left. Without a word, they swap positions, so Nancy’s back is to the approaching seccies, hiding her blue face.

‘Still better than grape,’ Nancy replies.

‘Screw you,’ Jana says, as the seccies round the corner. Nancy can’t see them, but she does see Jana give a very macho chin-jerk, before her gaze slides would-be-casually back to Nancy. ‘Grape’s delicious.’

The steps pause, just behind Nancy.

‘You girls on your ten?’

It’s exactly the voice Nancy would’ve expected. Too loud and too deep, clearly practised to be as gruff as humanly possible.

‘Yep.’ Jana exhales another curling cloud. ‘Making the most of it.’

‘Feel that, bro,’ says the second seccy, who’s managed to become even gruffer than the first. ‘Never seem long enough, do they?’

The purple glow of the cig catches in Jana’s eyes, which are shadowed by the cap’s low brim, and as scorching as the plasma-oceans of Nancy’s home planet. Calling her bro was a mistake — both too familiar and too masculine for Jana, who the world mistook for a boy, until she set things right at the age of seventeen.

‘So true, bro,’ she says, baring her crooked canines in a grin.

‘What’re y’all up to?’ Nancy asks, turning her head a little towards the seccies. While they’d definitely deserve a sting from Jana’s spitter, Ngaire probably wouldn’t be too happy about it. ‘This ain’t the regulation patrol route.’

‘Oh, ain’t it?’ Gruff asks, casually.

‘Why you asking?’ Gruffer asks, even more casually. ‘Gonna report us?’

Shit. For a moment, Nancy forgot about the fragility of the seccy ego.

‘Nope. None of my business.’

Too little, too late.

‘Oi,’ says Gruff. ‘Why won’t you look over here?’

Nancy gives Jana an apologetic grimace.

Jana rolls her eyes.

‘You ignoring us?’ Gruffer asks.

A hand lands on Nancy’s shoulder.

‘Well, well,’ Gruff says, ‘that skin sure ain’t regulation.’

Jana sucks up the last of her cig, and flicks the casing away.

‘Please be careful,’ Ngaire sighs.

The hand on Nancy’s shoulder tugs. She follows it, pivoting on her heel, and sees just a flash of Gruff’s face – clean-shaven and pale beneath a too-low cap – before her arm swings out, following her momentum, and hits the centre of that bulky chest.

Gruff goes flying, smashing into the bend in the corridor twenty metres down with an unfortunate crunch. The world turns lurid red, a klaxon screeching through the silence: the Man Down alarm, triggered by a change in any seccy’s monitored vitals.

It is, unfortunately, a very familiar sound.

Nancy turns back just as Gruffer crumples to the floor, bulky gun clattering across the stained polycrete. Jana lowers her spitter, the tiny weapon glowing.

‘Two down, six hundred to go,’ she says, alarm lights glittering off her grin.

‘Get out of there,’ Ngaire says, ‘or I’m coming in to get you.’

Nancy winces.

‘Yes, Captain.’

 

In the swamping red of the corridors, the mite winks yellow.

Before Nancy can so much as switch on her plas-blade, Jana sends a hail of laser beams bouncing around the corner. Sequential thuds announce the success of her move, and she spins her twin autobeam pistols with a self-satisfied grin.

‘Show-off,’ Nancy says. ‘How many guns did you even bring?’

Jana pats her bulging shoulder-bag. ‘Only a couple.’

‘Well, you’re the one who’s gotta carry ‘em,’ Nancy says, and jogs around the corner.

Jana follows with a rattle of guns.

‘Like you’re any different. How many blades have you got stowed away in those pockets, hm?’

‘Wouldn’t you like to know,’ Nancy says, stepping through the tangle of incapacitated seccies.

Jana clicks her tongue. Beneath it, Nancy hears another click, like an echo. She turns. Movement at the corner of her eye, one of the bodies shifting, a glint in a black-gloved hand.

Jana starts to speak. ‘Maybe I –’

‘Down!’ Nancy snaps, shoving Jana back. Jana goes stumbling with a gasp, as something flashes through the air, sparking red in the lights. Some part of Nancy recognises it immediately. She hurls her body forward, curling around it and slamming to the ground.

She goes down hard, the thing digging into her stomach. She feels it vibrate against her hip, hears Jana shout, sees a spidering crack in the polycrete before her eyes.

Then:

The world is grey, and silent. She feels light, like she’s back in zero-grav, like she could drift kilometres with a single flex of her pinkie.

Her pinkie won’t move.

Her eyes are open, but she can’t see anything. Only the grey. Blinking takes so much effort, and her lashes cling to each other, so she has to force her eyes back open.

Red bleeds into her vision.

Jana?

Nancy tries to open her mouth. Something gushes out of it, spilling from the corner of her lips, pooling warm against her cheek.

She’s lying on her side. She feels so light.

Something before her eyes, flickering blue.

She blinks again, forcing her lashes apart, some tearing free.

The mite – Ellie’s Terminite.

She can still taste her cig’s synthetic sweetness. Can still feel Jana’s shoulder beneath her hand. Can still feel the grenade purring against her hip.

Nancy forces out a breath, hears a strange bubbling hiss.

‘Jana,’ she says, but it sounds awful, weak, wheezing, too much like …

‘Nancy!’

Movement in front of her, something warm touching her face. After a dazed moment, it resolves into Jana’s hand, pressing against her cheek.

‘Oh, shit,’ Jana says. Her breath brushes Nancy’s lashes. All Nancy can see is her uniform, dark Corpo-grey drenched in scarlet light. ‘Oh, Nance.’

Nancy’s hip buzzes. But she can’t feel anything else below her ribs – can’t feel her stomach, or legs, or feet — can only feel an emptiness, an absence, and an awful thin leaking.

‘Nance,’ Jana says again, her voice painfully gentle. ‘This one’s done, darling. We have to go.’

Nancy breathes out. More liquid trickles from her.

Jana’s thumb strokes beneath her eye.

‘Come on. I’ll get us out of here, trust me.’

Hesitant with the absence of sight or limbs, she pushes part of her body out into a tendril, dragging it along the bitter metal until it meets the release button.

Nancy knows what she means. And that is worse than the absence, worse than the leaking — so much worse.

‘No,’ Nancy says.

‘No? Is it broken?’ Jana’s voice is sharp with worry. ‘I’ll do it. Tell me how to fix it, tell me—’

‘No!’

Nancy grits her teeth, her mind jolted into clarity.

‘Just leave me,’ she says, through the fluid burning in her throat. ‘Go.’

‘I’m not leaving without you.’

The alarm’s still flashing, and they’re still stuck in a Corpo ship, alone, with hundreds of guards after them, but Nancy can hear that Jana means it, that she’ll kneel here until they’re found, if Nancy doesn’t give in.

Nancy can’t let that happen.

‘Fine,’ she whispers.

Jana exhales, her breath hitching. ‘Tell me what to do.’

‘Open my shirt. I’ll do the rest.’

Jana fumbles against Nancy’s neck, undoing her buttons. Jana’s never so uncoordinated — always sure, always graceful. Feeling her fingers shake makes something inside Nancy twist.

‘Not the context I imagined saying that in,’ she croaks, and forces her mouth to curve. Only half of it obeys, but it’s enough to make Jana huff, her hands clenching in Nancy’s shirt.

‘Say it again later, then,’ she replies. ‘When we’re back on the ship, and Ngaire’s done lecturing us.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

With that, Nancy withdraws from her Shell.

 

It’s been five years since she last did it, but it’s not something she could ever forget. The sensation of leaving her body — her skin, her eyes, her muscles and bones and breath – for the tiny little thing encased within it, in the warm black pressure of her home-world’s atmosphere, will never leave her. However much she might wish it to.

In the space of her body’s chest cavity, Nancy curls into herself. She can taste the metal surrounding her, its coppery tang sinking into her flesh. Can taste, beneath it, the familiar brine of her homeworld, infused into the ammonia-rich space.

Hesitant with the absence of sight or limbs, she pushes part of her body out into a tendril, dragging it along the bitter metal until it meets the release button. A sharp hiss, and she’s assailed by the sudden change in air pressure; feels herself swell like a lung, bloating into something even more shapeless. The odours of the world pour in: prickling smoke, and clinging blood, and Jana — the scent of her skin and sweat and hair oil, her anxiety and grief and relief.

‘There you are.’ Jana’s voice, murmuring through Nancy’s skin. The air shifts, the complex column of burnt-sweet scents that is Jana moving closer. Nancy feels her hands approach, and recoils a little, shrinking back into the shadow of her Shell.

Nancy knows what she resembles. She’s seen holos of her species through the eyes of her Shell. Knows she looks and smells and feels like a fruit left to rot for weeks upon weeks, gone soft and grey and reeking.

Jana’s fingers scoop beneath her. Nancy tastes their salt and lavender hand-cream, feels them twitch at the greasy sensation of her flesh. As she is lifted from her cavity, she breathes in the cold stillness of the seven dead seccies, the vinegary fluids of her destroyed Shell, and the cloying sweetness of Jana’s distaste.

None of her crewmates have ever seen her true form, though they were all aware her Shell was only that. She knew they’d never be able to treat her the same way, if they saw this part of her. And she can’t blame them for it. Especially Jana — Jana, who’s so neat and clean, who can’t stand mess or dirt or small disgusting things.

‘Here,’ Jana says, cupping Nancy before her chest. ‘Is this alright?’

Nancy’s distracted by a shrill zipping, at a pitch her Shell wouldn’t have been able to hear. Ellie’s mite, still functioning, which means its control box is still intact. They’ll need it to get out, and they’ll need to keep it safe, so the other mites can finish their job.

She’ll have to speak.

She doesn’t want to.

She has to.

Resigned, Nancy puffs herself up, then contracts, forcing out what passes for her voice in this thin blend of oxygen and nitrogen — a faint wheeze, tiny and pathetic.

The box. Chest pocket.

It takes a moment, but Jana’s translator must still be working.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Is there … anything else I should take?’

Nancy doubts much of her stuff survived the blast, if it was strong enough to blow her Shell in two.

She just wants this over. Wants to be back on the ship, in the reserve Shell stowed in her room. Wants to stop speaking, stop shivering, stop tasting the evidence of Jana’s revulsion.

No.

Jana nods, and reaches down to retrieve the control box, tucking it into her belt. Nancy hears her transmitter buzz, vibrating with Ngaire’s voice.

‘Sanjana, Nancy, update. Are you two almost out?’

‘Captain,’ Jana says, and hesitates. ‘We got hit by a bomb. Nancy took the worst of it, protected me, but she …’

Her voice wobbles. For a moment, her stress and sadness wash over Nancy, overwhelming her disgust.

‘Shit,’ Ellie whispers.

‘Tell me,’ Ngaire says, voice unnaturally flat.

Jana’s hand tightens briefly around Nancy.

‘She’s okay. Her body — her Shell — it’s destroyed, but I got her out. I have her.’

There’s a long silence, before Ngaire speaks.

‘Keep moving. I’m coming in.’

Nancy responds immediately.

No!

She can’t take it. Jana alone is bad enough. The thought of Ngaire, her Captain, her friend, seeing her like this — she can’t take it.

‘No,’ Jana says. ‘Ngaire, I can do this. The mite’s still working, and I remember where we are. We’re almost out.’

Another silence.

Nancy trembles.

‘Alright,’ Ngaire says, heavily. ‘Be careful. And get back to me, both of you.’

‘Yes – yes, Captain.’

The mite whines about Jana’s head. Her revulsion is suffocating, seeping from her palm and into Nancy’s skin.

Jana exhales a long breath.

‘I’ll get us out of here,’ she says, voice strengthening. ‘Trust me, Nance.’

And, above all else, Nancy does.

 

Without Nancy goading her into showing off, Jana is a lot more stealthy. She empties her bag of guns, leaving them with Nancy’s broken Shell, and takes only her suit and her spitter. She moves slowly through the corridors, taking stock of crannies and storage closets on her way. Whenever the mite flashes a warning, she doubles back to squeeze herself into a space Nancy’s Shell could never have fit into, filling it with her sharp-citrus determination. Nancy keeps herself as still and small as possible, reluctant to remind Jana of her existence.

In one closet, crammed in beside a pile of defunct cleaner bots, waiting for a pack of seccies to stop arguing in the middle of the corridor, Jana speaks.

‘So,’ she whispers, beneath the sound of one seccy insisting they’re being raided by space pirates, ‘what are we?’

Nancy has no idea what she means.

What?

‘I mean –’ Jana pauses, something that tastes oddly like embarrassment itching at Nancy’s flesh. ‘Like, are we girlfriends? Partners?’

At first, Nancy has absolutely no response to that.

Then, she hears a shrill, hitching rasp, and realises it’s herself, laughing.

You’re asking that now?

‘Why, is it a bad time?’ Jana asks, half-seriously.

Outside the closet, another seccy calls the first a pulsar-brain, and announces the ship is obviously being infiltrated by spies from a rival company.

Within the closet, Nancy inhales dust and mould and congealed hydraulic fluid, apprehension and discomfort and distaste.

You’re disgusted by me, she says. I can smell it.

Jana stays quiet for a long time, longer than her translator would need to decipher Nancy’s wheezing. Nancy listens to the seccies bicker – another raising Fair Work as their assailant – and starts to regret being so blunt.

Look, don’t worry about it. Let’s just get out of here, and we can talk when I’m –

Nancy swallows something jagged.

‘It’s my problem,’ Jana says.

Nancy pauses. Jana’s scent is going acrid, going angry.

‘It’s my problem,’ she repeats. ‘If I’m—if I feel that way. It’s my fault, not yours.’

Her voice is rising, and the seccies’ argument is dying down. Panicked, Nancy shushes her.

Okay, Jana, just –

‘There’s nothing wrong with you!’

Nancy holds back another laugh, worried about provoking Jana further.

Seriously, it’s alright. She wishes she had a hand to put on Jana’s shoulder, eyes to meet hers with. Realises, too late, that she’s put out a little tendril, touching Jana’s callused palm, and quickly retracts it. I know what I look like. You don’t have to force yourself.

Jana lets out a sharp breath. Raises her hand, until Nancy must be right before her eyes – her beautiful, brown-black eyes, bright and blistering as Nancy’s plas-blades.

Then she brings Nancy closer, and kisses her, pressing her lips briefly to Nancy’s flesh.

‘I’ll force myself all I want,’ she says, as the taste of her grape lipstick sinks through Nancy’s skin, curdling into an emotion so overwhelming that Nancy can’t move, can’t speak, can only curl down into herself, as Jana pushes open the closet door, raises her spitter, and prepares to get them out.

Nancy 8 runs a hand down her arm.

It’s completely smooth, without scars, or burns, or tattoos – none of the signs of life she’d accumulated over five years in her last Shell. This body is a blank canvas, perfect in every way.

Perfect for a new start.

Some part of her had always known Jana would see her real body, eventually. Nancy had joked and argued and flirted, while knowing it would all come to an end.

She’d known. But some small part of her had hoped it wouldn’t happen — a part she only discovered upon its death, which has left her listless, waiting for the inevitable.

After alighting back on the ship, Jana had hurried through the waiting crew, her hands clasped around Nancy’s body, hiding it from sight. She’d gone straight to Nancy’s quarters, opening up her reserve Shell and placing her inside, before going to report to Ngaire.

And here Nancy waits, in her undecorated room, in her undecorated body.

The door chimes. It slides open a second later. Nancy’s room doesn’t lock against Jana; she’s been here too many times.

Jana hasn’t even changed out of the seccy uniform. She’s ditched the hat and jacket, though, so she’s just in the heavy pants and grey tank. Her short hair is slicked back with sweat, and the moment she sees Nancy, her entire body relaxes.

Nancy swallows something jagged.

‘Hi,’ Jana says. ‘You’re okay.’

‘Thanks to you.’ Nancy tries to smile, but knows it comes out half-hearted. ‘Did you get lectured?’

‘Nah. Ngaire’s saving it till we’re both there, so she doesn’t have to give it twice.’

Jana steps closer, gaze skipping down Nancy’s figure. It’s strange, to no longer sense her emotions – though judging by how Jana ducks her head, Nancy knows what she’d smell. Nancy wanted to check out her new body, so she’s wearing nothing but a pair of skin-shorts, and Jana’s always had trouble looking away from her muscles. Nancy’s known for a long time that Jana finds her body attractive.

This body.

Her Shell.

‘I’m sorry for kissing you without asking,’ Jana says, suddenly.

Nancy very carefully doesn’t think about that moment. She shrugs one shoulder, and leans against her bunk.

‘No worries.’

‘I –’ Jana folds her arms, purple-painted nails digging into her defined bicep. ‘I don’t like how you talked about yourself, Nance. And you never answered my question.’

Nancy scratches at her neck, gaze drifting to her room’s tiny viewport. It’s completely black, an inky hole in the warm amber space.

‘Jana,’ she says. ‘I don’t want you to force yourself.’

Even if Jana meant what she said earlier, Nancy can’t accept it. She can’t accept such a fragile relationship. Can’t accept Jana being with her while being disgusted by her, being with her while knowing what she really is.

‘Don’t these things always take effort?’ Jana asks.

‘I guess, but –’

‘What, you never have to force yourself to like me? Not even a bit?’

Nancy frowns. ‘No, of course I don’t.’

This makes Jana scoff, so acerbically that Nancy looks back to her. She’s pissed, really pissed, in a way Nancy hasn’t seen in years, not since Nancy first joined the crew, and kept offending everyone because she hadn’t figured out human interaction yet.

‘Bullshit,’ Jana says. ‘There’s no way you find me perfect and desirable all the time. I have crooked teeth and a monobrow and I sweat too much. I might not be able to smell it, but I know I annoy you, when I get too pedantic about holo-game rules, or cleaning the fridge, or leaving your hair everywhere, or –’

‘I –’

‘And that’s okay,’ Jana continues, loudly. ‘We’re all ugly and annoying sometimes, you know? Are you gonna look me in the eyes and tell me I’m perfect?’

She stares straight at Nancy, challenging.

‘Because if you do – I don’t want that. I’m a sapient, just like you, and we’re all complicated and stupid and unattractive. And we love each other despite it. That’s the point.’

Nancy looks at Jana’s mouth, and remembers it pressing to her flesh. That same strange emotion rises through her again, twisted and sickening and unnameable, like disgust but not, like longing but not.

‘I’m not sure I can,’ she says, voice coming out small, uncertain, weak. ‘I don’t know if I can accept you knowing … what I am. I don’t know if I can stand it.’

Jana’s expression softens. She takes another step closer, until even Nancy’s Shell can smell her.

‘Yeah, you clearly have some serious self-esteem issues you need to work on.’ She holds out one hand. ‘But so do I. And we can try and figure it all out together, if you want.’

Nancy looks down at the offered hand.

It’s small, littered with peeling calluses, and intricate, flowing tattoos, and dark liquids of various origin.

This hand has touched her flesh. Held her revolting little body, flinched from the texture of her skin, shielded her from seccies and the eyes of her crew.

It’s Jana’s.

Nancy reaches out, and takes it.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ she says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aidan Demmers authorAidan Demmers is a freelance editor and creative writer living on Jagera and Turrbul Country, who has recently graduated from QUT with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He loves queer romance, genre fiction, and the Oxford comma, and hopes to someday publish a book featuring all three.

Currently, they are working as Commissioning Editor of the queer sci-fi anthology Celestial Bodies, which will be published by Tiny Owl Workshop in 2023. Their poetry can be found in Baby Teeth Journal and Scratch That Magazine.

Follow Aidan Demmers on Instagram

 

Author: Seth Malacari

Category: Children's, Teenage & educational

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Fremantle Press

ISBN: 9781760992699

RRP: $19.99

Reader Comments

Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews