Free Fiction on the 14th: Crossing the River

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Crossing the River coverCROSSING THE RIVER
a science fiction romance story
by M. L. Buchman

Persephone loves the free-wheeling lifestyle of an inter-planetary freighter pilot. Like her namesake of Ancient Greece, she lives a two-fold life. Part of the year sequestered in deep space and part in various ports with a good friend and hopefully a willing man.

Until her heading converges with fellow pilot Reggie. Shy yet quirky, teasing yet kind. He possesses great depths that only Persephone can cross over.

When their orbits suddenly diverge, Reggie must plot a new course to reclaim his one true love.


Prologue

Her face.

A hand painting her face.

An ochre overtone highlight for the cheeks.

But not for the deep-space dark of her hair.

At first, clean carbon seeking her outline. For a while, the artifice of sharp acrylics questing after her inner form. But now it is only oils—their muddy tang, smooth flow, and shading—that provide any hope of capturing her skin.

I am aware of her skin, the painting, and the tones.

However, the “I” is rather more elusive.

Once there was a name.

One so often spoken that there was no need to remember it, for it had lived on the tongue with an indescribable depth of meaning.

 

Chapter 1

“No! You didn’t!”

Persephone giggled. It was her most significant challenge to ever being dignified—she’d never learned to laugh, which left her with the delighted giggle from childhood as a sole mechanism for displaying humor.

Only the raucous cheering of the Tycho Tavern’s crowd watching the vid of the Moonball championship game saved her from completely embarrassing herself. The Titans were up by two, but it was a knuckle-biting battle—if you were a Moonball fan.

“I just can’t believe you,” Melora toasted her with a pint of Aitken Dark, named for Luna’s deepest crater which lay on Farside, near the South Pole. “He’s so handsome and so rich,” her friend groaned with envy.

For her, those were marks against him rather than in his favor.

Persephone preferred the white ale of Mare Frigoris, served mere degrees above freezing. If held on the tongue to warm, the effervescence expanded until it almost burned, but with a heat of a vaguely remembered bright winter’s day. Her family had launched when she was eight and by ten she’d lost the musculature to ever return down Earth’s gravity well and test her memory.

She also preferred her men that way: smooth, warm, and leaving little more impression than a long-ago adventure in the snow.

Her father had died in the Lift. The overused acceleration couch had collapsed at 10 g’s and snapped his back along with it. They’d listened to him die, unable to rise from their own couches to help him. Her mother had hung on until Persephone was sixteen, but been a mere shadow of the woman she remembered on Earth. The day after Persephone had stepped into the Flight Academy, her mother had stepped out an airlock without a suit.

Yes, Persephone preferred her men at a distance.

Already half grown when she climbed the grav well, she didn’t have the long structure of the space-born nor the squat tank-like stature of the New Earthers, instead landing uncomfortably between so that she belonged with neither group. A glance around the raucous bar identified only two others with builds similar to her own but neither looked as if it bothered them. Twenty years aloft and she still felt the divides as clearly as a flight path on her ship’s nav console. Her naturally black hair was almost as rare now as Melora’s blonde, perhaps why they’d been drawn together at first.

“I still can’t believe that you stole Reggie’s ship!” Melora’s voice was loud enough she’d be announcing it to the crowd, if it weren’t for the game.

Reggie. There was a man who failed to fit smooth, warm, or forgettable. For half a solar year she’d tried to shed him like any other, yet still found herself in his bed whenever they were in the same port.

“Where did you put it? Let me guess…Kepler Crater?” Melora had to practically shout over a sudden wave of groans as the Tycho Titans gave up a point to the Grimaldi Grinders. It was rising semi-finals and emotions were lashing loudly off the fused rock walls of the underground hole that was Tycho Tavern. It was a popular watering hole among the space pilots and crew and was always busy. But the game had packed it so tight, they’d barely kept their stools at the bar.

“Nope. Not Kepler.”

“The Imbrium Yard?”

“You’ll never guess. It’s right here in Tycho, just not on any landing pad.”

“You didn’t!”

“I did! I parked it inside the Chinese megafreighter Good Luck—the one that collided with its own braking booster and dumped a half million tons of habitat parts on top of their base in Clavius. Utterly destroyed it and most of the Chinese space effort.”

Melora held up a hand and she slapped it a high-five.

Persephone had made the salvage yard owner promise not to actually scrap Reggie’s ship, but she didn’t want to ruin a good story with practical details.

“What about his ship’s locator beacon?” Of course, there was a reason she liked Melora—closest thing she had to a friend. Her mind worked much like Persephone’s.

“Rigged a battery and slipped it under his own bunk at the Tycho hostel.”

Melora’s look said that she knew exactly how she’d gotten past his private security, but Reggie had so deserved it after he’d shafted her on the Martian contract. That was a lucrative run…or should have been. Guy was a worm. Worse, she’d known that before she’d started sleeping with him.

Except that wasn’t right.

No, if he was a worm, she’d have ignored him. He was a touch ruthless—which was a lot like her. And went after what he wanted with an alarming directness—which had initially charmed her, but now was causing worry. Stealing and hiding his ship in a scrap yard was more her style and would hopefully sidetrack him until she was ready to lift for Jupiter space and—

“Inside the Zhù nǐ hǎoyùn. Wishing me good luck. That was creative!”

Melora nearly snorted in her beer as Reggie’s deep voice sounded close behind them.

Twelve words. Well, ten if she counted the ship’s name as one. Still, that was ten more than he typically spoke at any one time. Her ploy had really gotten to him.

Persephone managed to hide her smile in her beer. Any other man would have taken days to track down where she’d hidden his ship—and a whole lot never would. It had taken Reggie less than a day. Definitely not a worm.

* * *

The color of her long flow of dark hair remained elusive. No shade captured it. Not sable or raven. Neither obsidian nor ebony. It would shimmer when she smiled as if, rather than being mortal hair stuff, it and she were forms constructed wholly of emotion.

Emotion.

A word with a definition but no meaning.

 

Chapter 2

“I did nothing to harm your ship.” It had only taken a year together for his formidable reticence to allow complete sentences in her presence. He still clammed up around Melora and others; his reserve permeated down to his very bones.

“Except?” Persephone been upsystem for months, only to run into him at Europa’s Launchpub. After an incredibly satisfying night together, Reggie had suited up and followed her out onto the base. He was clearly eager to personally witness his latest effort in their mutual near-destruction pact. Not that he would show it, of course, but she could tell.

Expecting it, she’d beefed up security on the Cerberus during the long and lonely nights of a space crossing. But that wouldn’t stop a man of Reggie’s caliber.

“At least as long as you’re beside me, I know it won’t be anything lethal,” she teased.

“Not for more than one person, anyway. Perhaps the question you should be asking is whether it is a death trap for the one who leads, or the one who follows?”

“Perhaps,” Persephone was tickled that he spoke to her, for she knew how hard that was for him. Also that he, of all the men she’d ever known, had puzzled out how to charm her.

Men were never a challenge and only rarely of interest.

She’d dismissed Reggie Armstrong at first. The Armstrong lineage could prove no direct connection to the first astronaut to walk on the moon, but they might as well have. An old and powerful family, they did trace directly to the First Colony Mayflower launch. His family owned most of Tycho Station—which she supposed they deserved as they’d also built most of it.

But his arrogantly refined manners had slowly been revealed to be more just another expression of how deep down the inner man resided. At times she felt like a prospector seeking the bits of gold that time had taught her were always there.

She cycled the lock and jumped back, slamming into him. Nothing.

He held her for a moment longer than necessary to make sure she was steady. A major statement for him.

But there was something. A single flake of impossibly red color in the middle of the airlock floor. She moved forward and inspected it cautiously. It moved when she brushed it with her suit glove, but it was so thin she wasn’t able to grab it.

It was tempting to cycle the outer door with Reggie still out on the gantry, but she let him join her. She didn’t ask what the tiny bit of red was. Instead, she’d experience the adventure as it unfolded.

Even out of her pressure suit, she didn’t recognize the object. It was so light that she couldn’t feel it resting on her bare palm in Europa’s one-eighth grav except as a breath-soft tickle. It was redder than a hull breach warning light—as if it was the definition of red.

Through the inner hatch, she found another red flake, placed two steps aft rather than toward the control room.

Another at her cabin door.

She’d have to figure out later how Reggie had gotten aboard her ship. Because unlike her stealing his ship’s security on the Moon—by finagling a password for herself into his comp’s master terminal after slipping out of his arms while he slept—he’d never been aboard her ship.

Which was curious. They’d been paired for a year now, at least whenever they were in a common port, yet they’d always slept aboard his ship or in a port facility. Didn’t he have curiosity? Or was he honoring her privacy? At least until today.

“Pay off the port captain?” She asked, but couldn’t stop herself from opening her cabin door to see what lay within.

“I’d—”

“Right, you’d never do anything so crass. Depending on someone else in order to commit your crime.”

“My crime?” Almost a note of surprise. Almost.

“The crime of tresp…” she tapered off as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Her room was unchanged. Desk, chair, kick-down toilet and sink, and a double wide bunk. Not stowed in its normal acceleration-safe position. Instead down, with pillows fluffed.

And on the corner of the desk she used as a nightstand, a vase stood. From it sprang a single, brilliant red rose.

“I’ve seen images. But I’ve never…” She could only wave at it helplessly.

“They have a scent,” Reggie whispered. “One that the holos don’t capture.”

She moved over and could feel the fragrance tickling the air before she was even close. A tentative sniff grew of its own accord to closing her eyes to block out all other sensory input. It smelled of a forgotten Earth and of a promise. A promise of…

Persephone turned slowly and opened her eyes to look at Reggie. Space-born tall. Darkly handsome. Venturing out of his shell only in her presence.

He regarded her with that perfect stillness that had so drawn her to poke at him. Reggie would never say what he was thinking or what he felt about anything. Instead, Reggie simply—was. Occasionally she’d accused him of being an android. At other times she’d recommended he get a cybernetic implant.

For what?

For an emotional response.

But while Reggie Armstrong might not be expressive, his actions spoke volumes. And this time it also asked a question. Many questions in one.

“Yes,” she didn’t need to think about it.

Reggie didn’t need to ask what she was answering. They both knew, and the future lay long and clear ahead of them.

* * *

The rise of the cheekbones was off, but it wasn’t.

It was correct.

The hair color was right, but…the lie was wrong.

That was it.

The onyx fall was always tucked behind the right ear.

Exposing the ear balanced the more abrupt curve of her high-grav cheekbone rather than the longer taper of the space-born.

The tip of the nose tugged down by the hint of a smile.

The lips…

 

Chapter 3

“I’ve never been to a real wedding,” Melora whispered in her ear.

“Nor I,” Persephone could barely whisper back past the tightness in her throat. They were rare enough in modern society to be considered anachronistic—declaring a life bond so formally. Her practical side had always thought them silly. But an inner part of her, the part that only Reggie could reach, seemed to be deeply touched.

Reggie had arranged it all. Not with his family on the Moon, who didn’t treat him well at all as far as Persephone was concerned.

He might be reserved to the extreme, but she could feel him. Even now, she could feel the infinite care he’d taken in somehow arranging interplanetary cargo schedules across seven corporate states so that her friends could all be in this place at this time. A small wedding, barely twenty, but they were here for her in this moment. And her future husband had done that for her.

When she’d asked who would stand for him, he answered with that shrug of his. “As long as you are there, nothing else matters.”

It was a degree of kindness that she barely remembered from her parents and had seen so little of since. But it was as inherent in Reggie Armstrong as if programmed into his blood.

Blood, the color of the world around them. Not of heart’s blood pumped out of a dying body, but the color of life. Bringing the heat she could feel so close beneath his skin when they made love. She could feel him burn for her and every time it made her burn for him.

She and Melora stood at the back of the glass cathedral (no lesser word could describe it) atop Olympus Mons—the tallest mountain on any planet in the solar system. Though they were over twenty kilometers into the atmosphere, they were practically standing outside. Fused from the soil’s silica, the dome rose in great sheets of grandeur impossible under Earth’s heavy grav and high winds. Olympus Mons even rose clear of the planet-girdling dust storms.

The stained-glass windows were worked, in shades of Martian iron red, directly into the glass walls. The images celebrated voyages: from the first feeble attempts of Sputnik and Mercury to the Pioneer probes still heading for the stars, and the manned Odyssey Colony missions that had long since left them behind.

“Adventure,” Melora followed her gaze. “Are you sure about this one?”

“More than you can imagine.” Whatever was broken inside her went quiet when she lay beside Reggie.

And whatever was broken in him, was healed as well.

* * *

The eyes were wrong.

A study of a thousand artists made painting eyes appear easy. From standard view to molecular macro, every nuance of each painter’s technique was revealed. Accessible to recollection.

But technique refused to translate to canvas. Ten scrapings, twenty, five hundred.

And still the eyes were wrong.

 

Chapter 4

She had his eyes.

Persephone could only marvel at her daughter. She herself had been named for a hypothetical ninth planet that still had yet to be discovered. Or the goddess of the mythical Greek Underworld, depending on whether she asked Mom or Dad—back when she’d had a Mom and Dad.

She and Reggie had named their daughter Sharon, after Pluto’s moon Charon. Charon had also been the boatman of the ferry that delivered the dead across the river Styx into Hades’ and Persephone’s hands. He might still be out there somewhere shuttling souls across the river.

“We made you,” she said in wonder.

Sharon rolled her father-like eyes at her, but there was a smile over her mouthful of chocolate birthday cake.

Persephone had said it every year. Would it be a birthday if she didn’t? Or would the moment in her daughter’s life pass without meaning if she managed to hold her tongue? This year her words granted her daughter passage over the river of youth and delivered her on the lowest shore of her teens. It was also the year, being of the space-born, that her height would fly past her mother. Persephone was long since resigned to that fate.

Reggie rarely commented. Yet his eyes never strayed from her as she invoked her yearly ritual of uttering the inevitable phrase. It was one of those moments of true inclusion that seemed to exist in only minor facets of his life. Fifteen years together and he still puzzled her. Puzzled, but never disappointed.

He was always the outside observer, but there was no question that the observer witnessed and saw her. Saw their family. In that one tiny sliver, he truly belonged. For without him, there would be no family.

There was no question in her heart when he held her. His merest touch could leave her breathless. She’d often sought evidence of the same effect on his brow, but he was her steadfast pilot through any solar storm.

* * *

No oil, no canvas could capture her laugh, the light giggle brighter than the stars.

Nothing could fill the void. That darkness.

But something must be created to keep her memory alive.

To hold the candle for a moment.

 

Chapter 5

Reggie kept his thoughts to himself when the report came in.

Debris.

It had come from behind.

Cerberus’ forward repulsion field would have knocked it aside. The side armor would have auto-annealed. It was impossible to know what it had been. The reaction vector said that the debris had been ten kilos moving at seven thousand meters per second relative velocity. It slammed in through the ion drive exhaust nozzle and bullseyed the propellant tank.

One moment his wife and daughter had been entering Mars orbit. He could imagine his daughter’s laugh and his wife’s giggle. That was the sound he’d most loved as the two of them teased each other. Except for having his eyes and a laugh that was completely her own, their daughter might have been her mother’s clone.

Their particle-sized remains had rained down upon Mars, lost in a dust storm. No memorabilia, only memories.

Unable to deconstruct, he had constructed.

A hand.

It had taken him a year to shape the hand that used to rest so gently upon his cheek that his world went quiet. Over time he’d rebuilt her in her own image.

A foot.

He’d remember how she would sit across a sofa from him, and ever so slowly extend a foot beneath their shared blanket with an ultimate destination of tickling him in the ribs. He’d shaped a foot from that memory.

A leg.

The smooth feel of her calf extending upward as he’d captured it to save his ribs, and then followed it to join their bodies together.

A body.

Reggie had fought against the failures of memory, slowly collecting every vid of her from pilot training to wedding guests to celebrations at the opening of Charon base with her daughter on her hip.

By the time he had her built, his own body was failing. As it reached critical failure, he solved the last step.

He moved his consciousness into the awaiting armature until his hands—were hers.

Android or cyborg. He didn’t know. Or care.

The first of his kind. It didn’t matter.

His/her new heartbeat felt wrong beneath his new skin, but the sound itself was perfection—a memory from when he used to rest his ear between her breasts every time before they made love.

It had taken decades—many years longer than he’d had her—to achieve this perfect working image.

Without intending, he had become his dead wife.

Yet something was missing.

Something that didn’t shine from the new face as he inspected it in the mirror and attempted to bring it to life on the canvas.

But then Reggie saw the reflected eyes.

* * *

Her face.

A hand painting her face. Her hand. Her face.

An ochre overtone highlight for the cheeks.

The onyx fall of her hair always tucked behind the right ear.

The high-grav cheekbone rather than the longer taper of the space-born.

The tip of the nose tugged down by the hint of a smile.

He/she painted his/her own eyes.

They belonged to a machine now.

But these eyes didn’t see the snuffing out of the single light in an entire life.

They saw so much more. They saw stars, hope, possibility.

She, the goddess of the Underworld, had always seen the best in him. She had joined their lives together in joy.

Now that he was the perfect image of Persephone, it would be up to him to cross back over the River Styx alone and rediscover the beauty.

He’d finally found her eyes in their painting. In the mirror.

And if he/she was very lucky, perhaps one day he’d rediscover her high, merry laugh.

 

(Copyright block: italic, color=gray, center copyright, left statement)

Copyright © 2019 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2019 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

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This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.