I met Gordy on my first day in junior crèche. I sat on my own in the cafeteria, aimlessly pushing food around, when a sturdily built boy with a shock of unruly hair sat opposite me, grinned, and introduced himself.
Seedlings like us had no families, except for those we formed. Spawned from anonymous embryos, we started life in debt for the privilege of having been born. A tab discharged over decades of indentured service to those who gave us life. For Gordy and me, that meant the Navy.
“Get a move on, sailor,” Gordy grumbled in my room, while I stood trembling in the water closet, out of sight. “Come on, Ari, there won’t be much pie left if we dawdle any longer.”
It was too late to change my mind, yet again. With a deep breath, I stepped out and caught my reflection in the mirror hanging near the door, behind Gordy. We both gasped at the same time.
“Say something, please,” I managed to croak eventually, choking back the tears.
Gordy seemed lost for the longest time, before asking in a whisper, “How do you feel?”
Of all the reactions I anticipated, this wasn’t one. “Naked.” How else could I describe the loss of my warrior’s lock? The missing heft of it swinging behind me like a tail. The trepidatious agony of shaving around it with care. The awkward intimacy of braiding another warrior’s mane. “Whole.” It never felt like it truly belonged to me. In its loss, I gained, somehow.
“You cut the hair but you’ve kept the face paint?” Gordy observed neutrally.
“I’m not a woman,” I blurted, more by reflex than thought. The rest came haltingly. “I’m still me. I don’t think I’m a man either. I’m not sure what I am.”
Gordy suddenly grinned. Whatever tempest of incertitude had clouded his thoughts dispelled all at once. “You’re beautiful. You always were. Lock, paint, I don’t care.” He curled his lips and shrugged.
“You still want to eat in the mess?” It was one thing to show his support in private; another entirely to walk into a packed refectory with me in tow, lockless yet painted.
“Nah,” he said, and my heart sank. “We already missed the serving at 2000 hours. I don’t much feel like heated-over crumbs. Let’s push it to the 2030 slot. Pick me up before then?“
“Sure.” I nodded, more vigorously than I needed to, in time with my pounding heart.
When the time came, I did my best to stay in the shadows. I stuck to the narrower, less frequented corridors, but there was no avoiding my shipmates entirely. I kept my eyes down, and rushed past those I met, thankful for the incessant background din of machinery that masked whatever they muttered as I slipped past.
Gordy’s door opened after one knock. He stepped out in full dress uniform finery sans his warrior lock. “Are you ready for pie?”
By the time the tumultuous years of dysphoria gave way to exhausted self-acceptance, only Gordy remained.
His compassion was unflinching, demand-free, and all-encompassing, as if he’d spent a lifetime practicing my pronouns. I stopped searching everyone else’s stares then for curiosity or censure.
After a year apart, a tour of duty reunited us. No sooner had the battleship left port than Gordy found me in my quarters. He pulled a tiny purple box from his pocket, went down on one knee and opened it with a flourish. A ring sat nestled in the velvet inside. I froze in terror.
“Ari, what’s wrong?” Gordy asked.
“There’s nothing more I want out of life than to spend it with you,” I began, haltingly. “You’re the sibling any seedling would never dare to hope for.”
“Sibling? Is that all I am to you?”
“And my best friend, and constant companion. You’ve always been there for me. You stood by me when no one else would. A debt I could never repay.”
Gordy waited for me to continue, while I sought to stay the blade about to sever the invisible umbilical cord linking us. Impatient, he prompted me. “But?”
“I can’t repay you with this,” I said, pointing at the ring. “I can’t live this lie. Not after what I’ve been through to get here.”
Gordy nodded slowly. “Someone else?”
“There’s no one else.” I shook my head, quickly, unflinchingly. “I don’t think there’ll ever be.”
He looked away, lost in thought. His eyes darted about, looking everywhere, except at me. When he spoke again, there was heat in his voice. For the first time in our lives, Gordy spoke to me in anger. “I don’t get it. We’ve known each other for years. We spend more time together than apart. We made love.”
“We had sex. Once.”
“Is that all it was to you?”
“It can never be anything more for me. I have no idea why I am who I am, but I finally know what that is, for better or for worse.”
“This is it, then? You’re dumping me?”
Gordy looked ready to explode. Despite my reluctance to do anything that might muddy what I had just laid out, I reached for his hands, and he let me hold them. I peered into his downcast, wounded eyes, searching for a sign he might see past his hurt feelings to the sincerity flooding out of my every pore. “I shouldn’t have surprised you,” he said at length, nodding to himself. “You need time to think about it. I can wait.”
“Gordy, please don’t do this. Eons won’t change who I am.”
Gordy glowered at me while I held my breath until I grew lightheaded. Then, without a word, he stormed out.
For days afterwards, Gordy absented himself from every place onboard we might’ve met. He never answered his door. Every unanswered knock moved me from hope, to anger, to self-doubt, to the dreadful realization I’d lost the only person that mattered to me in a galaxy bursting at the seams with humanity. There was a perverse sort of freedom in giving up. Knowing no one cared for me anymore also liberated me from reciprocal obligation.
At the end of my shift, a week later, I found Gordy waiting for me in the refectory. I beamed with autonomic exultation, before I noticed the tiny purple box in his hand. I groaned, shook my head, and made to leave, but let him stop me before I did.
“Just hear me out,” Gordy pleaded. “I don’t want to lose you, and if friendship is as far as it goes, I’ll take it.” He opened the box, and showed me a little charm, a smiling golden Luna.
I brushed the shiny, textured surface with a fingertip. “Where did you get this?”
“The commissary,” Gordy replied. “The next shore leave we get, swap it for anything you like. So long as it’s not a ring.”
“The shape makes no difference, if it still means the same thing to you,” I objected, feeling pressured by his ardor. His hope reborn from the ashes left by my truth.
“It means whatever you want it to mean,” Gordy insisted. “I’ll never demand more of you than you’re willing to give. Every year, I’ll bring you one of these to remind us both of what we stand to lose if we walk away from the only other person we cherish.”
“Shit.” I dropped my head.
“Don’t say no, Ari,” Gordy said, lifting my chin to look at him.
“I volunteered for the Lighthouse detail.”
The supermassive black holes got all the attention, but the galaxy was littered with smaller yet no less dangerous fathomless pits, lying in wait to ensnare the unwary. Navy Lighthouses in dynamic orbits around them acted both as sentries and beacons.
“Are you mad? There are easier ways than a black hole to commit suicide,” he exploded. “Is this about me, about us? If you don’t want the damn charm, don’t take it.”
“Not everything is about you.” I reflected his outburst. “Twelve months in this Lighthouse wipes out fifty-five years off my seedling debt. I’ll be free of the Navy half a century sooner.”
“If you survive.”
I nodded. “If I survive, I’ll have the rest of my life to live it as I want to.”
“Fifty-five years without me.”
I tried to stammer out something consoling, but before I could find it, Gordy turned on his heels and left the refectory. He was nowhere to be seen when I boarded the shuttle to my new post.
I came to with a start. I bolted upright, and hit my head on the bulkhead.
The earthquake in my dream was nothing more than the Lighthouse’s ever-present shudders and groans, as it flexed in the immense gravitational eddies buffeting it.
Drowsy and unbalanced, I staggered to the control deck. After only a week into the solitary year-long assignment, I remained uncertain as to what constituted normalcy for the fragile station perched on the edge of oblivion.
“What’s going on?” I asked the proxy.
“A shuttle on approach is not matching delta-v for docking,” the proxy responded obliquely. It didn’t need to explain what happened if the shuttle didn’t decelerate in time.
“Boost us to a higher orbit.”
“Negative.” I imagined a robot solemnly shaking its head at me. “Drives are operating at peak nominal thrust.”
Panicked, I was halfway to the lifeboat, when the proxy provided an update. “The shuttle decelerated and initiated docking approach.” Barely a second later, strobing alarm lights came on. I rushed to the dock, just as my visitor was disembarking.
“Gordy, what in Hades are you doing here?”
Gordy winked at me and engulfed me in a fierce bear hug. When I eventually untangled myself from his clutches, he produced a small velvet box from one of his jumpsuit’s pockets. Inside, a golden snowflake caught the muted lighting of the corridor and sparkled.
“Happy anniversary, Ari.”
“It’s been a week,” I protested.
“Actually, it’s a little less than a year since I saw you last,” Gordy said. “I had to choose between shore leave that was a little early, or a little late, and didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten.”
“I’m sorry, Gordy, I’m the one who forgot about time dilation this close to the black hole.” The same dilation that allowed me to discharge a lifetime’s servitude in a year. “And another thing, mind how you approach a Lighthouse. You were coming in too hot, you know. I almost bailed out in a lifeboat.”
“With only me onboard, I packed a little extra reaction mass for a delta-v boost,” Gordy explained. “I wanted to spend as much time as I could with you, even if it meant an hour of bone breaking nine-gees,” he added, walking past me, towards the control deck. “Come on, show me this tin can you’re calling home. I’ve only got a hundred minutes here, before the Navy declares me AWOL when I don’t return from my two weeks’ leave.”
We chatted, and ate, and laughed, and almost forgot where we were. Gordy had a year’s worth of news and gossip, while I had barely had enough time to unpack. Too soon, his chronometer chimed a reminder, and he beat a swift retreat to his shuttle.
“Here,” I said, reaching out to him with the tiny velvet box. “Take it with you.”
Gordy lost his smile when he saw the box in my hand. “Still?”
“No,” I stopped him, frowning. “Just the box; I kept the charm. But if you’re planning on doing this every week, I can’t take on all that extra mass. The charms are a gram or so each, which I can live with, but the boxes will quickly add up to more mass and space than I can spare.”
I produced a translucent polymer pouch from my pocket, and showed it to him. Two golden charms twinkled inside. He grinned, and took the box uncomplainingly, stuffing it into one of his pockets. “That’s a pretty large pouch.”
“For all the charms still ahead,” I said, grinning back at him.
Back on the control deck, I watched Gordy’s shuttle on the external feed. It fell away from the station, slowly at first, before accelerating until it was little more than a bright speck of light that soon vanished entirely.
At one time or another an engineer, educator, and entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at yoakeim.com.