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Constellations Orion's Belt Orion's Bow Lovers Star-Crossed Romance Gay Fantasy

Spring 2024


A malfunction during space travel could be the end in this science fiction short story by Nikoline Kaiser

Sparks flew and Vali let out a string of curses sure to make her parents spin in their graves. She’d foregone her gloves, and the electricity danced across her knuckles, making the fine hairs there sing and stand up.

The ship wasn’t crashing yet. But.

The main difficulty right now was that she couldn’t get a hold of Harper. She’d comm’d her when the ship had first lurched, sure that Harper would be on the other end, asking about it. But no, of course not. The actual Captain of the ship was probably sleeping so soundly, the ship could lose its gravity-field and she still wouldn’t notice. Harper had said don’t wake me for anything, though of course that meant wake me if the ship is exploding or we’re crashing, but don’t you dare otherwise.

The ship was not crashing yet. Nor was it exploding. Yet.

Vali still thought Harper might like to know that the mainframe keeping the engine cooled had glitched and then decided to go out in a shower of dust and warm air. She should have cleaned it out sooner, but she had honestly forgotten. Things had been a little hectic lately.

She had contacted Hector next, her comm beeping anxiously for too long before he had finally picked up. He hadn’t been asleep, but instead buried in star-maps and equations. The man worked even in his sleep; she’d checked up on him in his berth a few times, and heard him muttering numbers from dreams. Maniac. It was why he’d never been able to stay long on the larger ships, where he had to share sleeping quarters. That, and he corrected everyone else’s Math and they hated it. Onboard The Adamant, no one did Math but Hector. No one wanted to do Math, but Hector.

Focus. The monitors had all gone out, and the emergency light in the engine room had started flashing. Vali had been reading in the kitchen, putting off cleaning, when Sif had notified her of what happened. The AIs crisp voice had held no notes of panic – why would it? The engine was still running, it was only the system monitoring it that had gone out. Because Vali had forgotten to clean the damn filters.

Perhaps a damp cloth and a clean towel to wipe it all down,” Sif had suggested, and had she been an actual physical presence in the room, Vali would have thrown said cloth at her. She knew how to care for the ship’s engine, thank you very much. She had just forgotten this one thing.

And really, who could blame her? Harper wasn’t the only one going with next to no sleep lately. They all were – even Sif’s tone of voice held less patience than usual, affected by the mood among the crew.

Vali had gone to the engine room, emergency lights flashing ominously, and started meticulously taking the monitoring computer apart, wiping down the frame, the exhaust port; careful with the wires. It was always warm in the engine room, but because of her irritation, it felt even warmer. Sweat dripped in her eyes, and when she instinctively wiped her forehead with the cloth, she left a smear of dust across it. Her eyes hurt from the blinking lights, but nothing could be done about them before the monitor was back online. Sif kept her silence as Vali worked, but she could hear the light humming from the in-built systems that made up her body. Sif was present in all parts of the ship, but she could dedicate most of her focus to a specific place. Vali felt watched, and it made her irritation grow.

She had put everything back into place, fingers finding an old rhythm, before rebooting the system. It came back online; the first thing it did was turn off the emergency lights. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Then a warning flashed on the screen. And another. Vali stood up and stared, ready to figure out which wires had been crossed - literally.

.Boosters overheating.

.Mainframe overheating.

.--Unable to connect to emergency ventilation system. ERROR. Unable to connect… -.

Then the emergency lights started blinking again.

Their ship was an old Fighter-class, Type IV, made for recon more than actual fighting, though Hector’s berth had once held missiles rather than textbooks. It had then been remodeled to be an on-planet ambulance for troops, and only after the war had it been outfitted for long-distance space-travel. The dealer told them all of this in great detail when they’d been at the lot looking for a ship, and Vali had already decided that no, they were not interested in that old piece of junk. It’d held more corpses than living people – that was a bad sign.

A small ship,” Harper had said, when the two of them had first decided to leave their old crew and strike out on their own, buy their own ship and be their own bosses. “An even smaller crew. I’m the captain, you’re the engineer. Then we just need a navigator. If we can get an AI, even a low-grade one, we don’t need more crew, but we can have an extra berth for passengers or if more hands are needed. Just us, us and the ship.

She had turned to shake her head at Harper, only to see her looking with a dazed smile on her face; right at the old, run-down ship. Vali had sighed, already knowing she would cave, despite her misgivings. The ship was well within their price-range at least.

It meant they could afford a better AI. Sif was a good fit, even if her tendency towards long silences after one said or did something stupid felt incredibly judgmental. And Hector had been the only applicant when they’d put out the call for a navigator; he’d been the only one willing to risk working on a ship with no reputation or actual jobs this far.

He’d had nowhere else to go. It all worked out.

Almost six years later, they’d become known as reliable, willing to take smaller jobs that most of the larger transport-ships didn’t want to bother with. They’d had their ups and downs, their close- calls and long discussions of whether to stop now, sell the ship, settle down planet-side and just forget this whole life. Maybe it was time.

The discussions had grown greater in both length and frequency over the last year. Still, they’d all stayed. Despite it all.

And then this had happened.

Apparently, Vali forgetting to clean the monitoring system was actually a good thing; it meant the reboot was done two days earlier than scheduled, and so the fact that the engine was slowly, but steadily overheating, was caught that much sooner. It could have been disastrous, especially if Sif hadn’t noticed it tomorrow or the day after.

The engine could have actually exploded. Out of nowhere. Or, more likely, if Vali wasn’t being completely fatalistic, just caught on fire. And stopped working as the emergency systems put it out. Meaning they would still probably have crashed.

Not that they were crashing now. Not yet.

Hector’s voice came in over her comm. “Harper didn’t respond when I knocked on the door, but Sif confirms she’s just sleeping. They both are.

Great. The ship’s sudden, erratic movements hadn’t woken her. Vali had asked Sif to turn off the alarms before they even went off – she was already aware of the problem now, there was no need to make everyone’s ears bleed.

It was mostly her own panic that made her think it would be really nice if Harper was here. Awake and alert. Or, at least awake. But Vali didn’t have time to go running down to the sleeping quarters, and Hector was far too timid to do more than a light knock.

That left Sif. “Are you sure you do not want me to rouse her? I assure you I can do so in the gentlest way, it will not disturb the…

“It’s fine,” Vali had snapped back, before taking a deep breath. A burst of steam from the engine had nearly hit her in the face, reminding her that she really should grab some safety-gear. She’d already singed her hand. “Thank you, Sif. Just keep watching the engine for any other signs of malfunction, and let me know if another alert comes up, I might not hear it.”

Understood. It will be fine, Vali.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Finer still if you covered your skin before it all melts off.

“Right, okay!”

Half an hour since her reading had first been interrupted. Eighteen minutes since Hector had run to the command deck in case they needed manual piloting. Vali could imagine him, small and frazzled, a state he always seemed to be in equal measure, whether the ship was crashing or they’d run out of yogurt. In many ways, Hector didn’t belong on a ship in the middle of space, but his fate seemed to have been determined from an early age. His Vitiligo had developed on his face in a way that rather resembled a patchwork of stars, set against the deep, black night-sky. It had just seemed meant to be, even as he’d first spent years on huge freighters, uncomfortable around so many people. Vali was glad that he’d found them, that he had decided to stay.

She’d like it more if she didn’t get him blown to smithereens alongside the rest of them.

Thirty-two minutes. Eleven minutes since she’d carefully replaced the grate over the main exhaust port for the engine, the folds of her shirt standing in place of proper gloves. Vali’s hands were calloused from years of working; she barely felt it. Mostly, it was annoying when she needed to go through scanners. Her fingerprints had been mostly burned off from her first days as an intern, twelve hours in a row holding electric spanners, wrenches, breaks spent on quick bathroom-visits that didn’t cool her hands down nearly enough to prevent the damage.

Not that Vali would ever regret it. She’d met Harper on that ship.

Three minutes since she’d actually put on her work-suit, the material clinging to the folds of her normal clothes. Two minutes since she’d climbed on top of the engine, the heat carrying through the protection and making her back slick with sweat.

One minute since she’d started fiddling with the overhead compartments, trying to ignore the sparks and jolts that flew everywhere, pinging against her safety-goggles, catching against the steel above and beneath her.

Exactly ten seconds since her heart had started pounding wildly with fear as she realized she might not be able to fix this.

Hector’s voice: “We’re losing a bit more altitude, but it won’t let me turn off the thrusters. We’re fine for now, I think. How’s it on your end?

Vali blinked. “Fine. Hector, we’re fine.”

Eight years and two weeks since she’d met Harper. Her hair had been cropped short back then, and in Vali’s memory, it made her seem shorter, smaller, compared with the great volume of hair she had now, flowing up and then down, over her shoulders, curls growing rapidly. Seven months since she’d cut it again, a bob reaching her chin.

Two months since…

A spark found its way onto the skin exposed between where her glove ended and her shirt began, just barely snaking its way in. Vali pulled her hand back with a curse.

The ship groaned; the engine cried.

The problem seems to be internal,” Sif said. “Clearing up the exhaust ports has not worked sufficiently and your tampering with the wires now is not a bad plan, but it likewise seems to be doing very little in terms of preventing our imminent death.

Vali sighed. Don’t get mad at the AI, she’s just helping, she thought. “What do you suggest?”

The back-up ventilation system has not kicked in, but the reinforced hull around it has kept most of the heat away from the inside. It is also large enough for a human of your size to crawl through.

Dammit. Vali had been afraid she would say something like that.

“Alright.” She closed the hatch she’d been uselessly working on, and started sliding down the other side of the engine. She hit her comm as she did so.

Hello?” Hector’s voice trembled only a little. “Status?

“I’m going into the engine,” she said, ignoring the frantic questions that sentence prompted. “Look, it’ll be safe for now. I’m keeping the line open on my end, so you’ll hear if something goes really wrong. Don’t wake Harper,” she snapped when he kept asking. “If this goes wrong I don’t want…” I’d rather she not be awake as we blow to pieces. “I’m going to fix it, alright, Hector? Standby to help me if necessary.”

“Yes. Alright. Understood.”

It was so against protocol it was almost laughable. Had they been on their old ship, with their old, hard-ass of a captain, he would’ve had her keelhauled for not alerting the line of command. But there was no line of command on their ship; it was just their captain, their engineer, their navigator. Their AI. And…

Besides, Harper wasn’t just her captain. She was her wife.

Vali was going to keep her safe in whatever way she could.

The emergency ventilation system was wide and tall only so that a lot of air could be pressed in or out all at once. A giant fart-machine, Vali had once called it, making Harper scold her even as she tried not to laugh. Vali did feel rather like shit, crawling through it on her hands and knees. Getting further inside the engine, the heat started to smell, a low burn in her nose that steadily grew, threatening to climb up and into her brain.

You’re almost there,” Sif said, her voice tinny as it filtered through Vali’s private comm and the room outside simultaneously.

Vali didn’t respond; it was getting harder to breathe as the heat pressed down on her. An engine running, running, pumping out enough energy for a ship to fly, to move, to breathe. It would always be damned hot in there, and now it wasn’t working properly.

Vali had always thought that engines worked rather like humans – if they got a bug, they started heating up, trying to burn out the sick. Didn’t matter which part of the body the bug was in – it all had to go nuclear sun.

The last time Harper had gotten sick (five months, six days ago), Vali had felt so helpless it had nearly crushed her. She’d made tea and not slept, staying awake to hear Harper breathing, counting each heartbeat.

It’s just the flu,” Harper had said, equal parts annoyed and endeared at all the coddling that was being heaped on her.

Just the flu. Yet.

Hector had been almost as bad, but he had at least proven more competent than Vali in taking care of a sick person. His sisters had looked out for him when he was younger, making bland and spicy foods in turn, piling him with blankets and vitamins. Harper had slept through the flu almost as much as she slept now. Five months. Two months.

The difference between an ill person and a machine was that Vali knew how to fix the machine.

There,” Sif said, and there was no denying the relief in her voice now. Vali felt it too, as she saw the part of the engine that had clean sliced through a part of the ventilation system’s ceiling. It must have happened during their rough landing on Koda VII. It likely hadn’t registered on the monitoring system as anything more than a light shifting of the engine’s insides – the emergency ventilation had not been online. No breach had been detected.

But heat had started fizzling out slowly – thinking back on it now, the engine room in general had been getting warmer over the last month or so. And the engine had started running hotter to make up for what it believed to be an internal flaw, easily fixable by itself. Just put more heat on it. If that doesn’t work, add even more heat.

They needed to upgrade their entire system, so this kind of thing could be caught in time. Or Vali just needed to climb into the vents more often.

But she could make a quick fix for it now, and then they could look at other options later. When they weren’t actively crashing.

Hector came in over the comm. “We’re picking up speed. I haven’t touched anything.

Yep. Definitely crashing now.

“I found the flaw,” she said. “Fixing it now.”

He sighed with relief. She could feel his curiosity, but Hector knew by now not to interrupt her with idle chatter. Not while she was working on something important.

She reinforced her gloves further, and reached up to press against the metal jutting through the hull. She hoped she had enough strength to just manually shove it back out long enough to seal the gash. Please, she thought and started pushing. This could still go so very wrong.

It went slightly wrong as the ship lurched again, trying to make up for it’s quickly-gaining momentum. Her grasp slipped and the metal slid forward, widening the gash even more. Vali only just held back a string of swearing. She didn’t want Hector to worry.

Captain Harper is stirring from her sleep,” Sif informed her.

“Let me know if she wakes up.”

She appears to have rolled to her other side and is going back to sleep.

Of course. Vali reached forward and pushed, as hard as she could. She had to do this. Her muscles strained, and she realized that she didn’t even know how big the part she was pushing at really was. Small enough to be able to shift among the internal machinery. Big enough that its momentum had broken through a reinforced sheet of steel.

How long had it been? Forty-two minutes since. Since she had a bit of peace and calm. Since there was peaceful sleep, and Hector was doodling in his textbooks and Sif was playing a gentle lullaby over the radio.

Forty years since the Fighter-class Type IV ship that Harper named The Adamant in the hope that nothing would ever break it, had first left the manufacturing line and been ready to go out into
the world.

Come on. She was reaching up from her knees, legs digging into the cold floor. The sharp edge of the metal she was pushing against threatened to cut through her gloves.

Four years since she had married Harper. In the middle of a harbor on some planet she couldn’t remember the name of now, a place completely unimportant – wretched, even – save for the fact that it was the place that Harper had pulled her aside and said, “Now, let’s do it here, let’s do it right now.”

Vali’s eyes had gone wide. “In public?!

Harper had laughed and laughed. “Get married, you dolt. Come on!

Five years since they’d gotten engaged. Eight years since they’d met. Six, almost six, since they had bought their own ship, gotten a new home, made their own life. Five years and ten months.

Two months. Nine months.

She managed, finally, to push the piece up, even managing to slide it away from the opening; it rested precariously on the edge of the gash, just on the other side. If the ship moved suddenly again, it would fall right back through, probably make the hole even bigger.

Vali pulled out a small blowtorch from her toolbelt, and with unsteady hands and shaking arms, started sealing the hole up.

This was, in a way, all the baby’s fault. They’d hurtled their way through space and landed on Koda VII because Harper’s water had broken and the contractions had started almost immediately after. Hector had followed them around, reading aloud from the textbooks he’d bought about pregnancy and birth. They mingled among his books on navigation, space-travel, math, math and more math. Apparently, the birth had been speeding ahead way too quickly. His constant commentary had not exactly helped, nor had Sif’s assurances that she was piloting the ship quickly towards the nearest planet, as quickly as she could without making them crash on impact.

Now Sif was silent, as the glow of the flame almost blinded Vali. She tried to keep steady. Think of Harper in her wedding-dress. Of the first time you saw the stars on a ship in space. The books Hector always buys for you. Think of Harper singing you to sleep when your mother died. Of Sif mimicking her voice when she had to go planet-side for a month and you were alone.

Think of Ada. Little, perfect Ada, asleep in her crib next to her mother.

She finished the sealing, quickly spraying it with cooling liquid to make it harden. Come on. She’d barely pulled her hand away before the ship lurched again; she heard the clang as the metal hit against the hull once more.

It did not break through.

It worked,” Sif said, in a way that meant she hadn’t expected it to. Vali was going to yell at her about that later, but for now she was too dizzy with relief to do anything but sit there and breathe.

Her comm crackled: “The ship is slowing! We’re righting our course and I – yep, I’ve got full control again. We are officially no longer crashing!

It was probably only her imagination, but Vali felt as if the vent around her was getting colder already. She crawled her way back out, taking her time now, letting Hector’s voice give her updates as she made it back to the engine-room.

She’d barely set foot outside before her comm beeped. There was only one other person on the ship who could be calling her.

“’Morning, sleeping beauty.”

Hi.” Harper’s voice was predictably groggy. She always took a long time waking up after sleep; it made having a two-month old even harder. “Did something happen? I woke because I thought the ship moved weird just now. Is everything okay? … Vali, why are you laughing at me?!

Nikoline Kaiser is the author of several poems and short stories, including “ode to an asexual” published with Strange Horizons and “The Dawn Was Gray” with Underland Arcana. Their work focuses on family, feminism and queer themes. They hold a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and a BA in Comparative Literature and Museology from Aarhus University.

When not writing they work on a project communicating knowledge about women authors around the world. Learn more about them and their work at 

Copyright © 2024 by Nikoline Kaiser
Published by Orion's Beau
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