Lorelei

R. Rozakis


She hadn’t realized the ship’s name was a joke until the dying man at the other end of the signal told her.

 

                                                                                                                                                                      “You never heard the poem?” he asked. “The beautiful maiden luring men to their deaths?”

She shrugged, knowing that he couldn’t see her. “People name ships for women all the time.”

The dying man  wasn’t dying in the sense that his body was failing. But his death was inevitable, so it was easier for her to think of him as dying.

“It’s you,” he said. “Doesn’t it bother you that they’re using you like this?”

What could she tell this soft inner system man? That everyone uses everyone? That there were worse uses one could be put to? “Your captain didn’t have to answer.”

“A distress call? How could we ignore something like that?”

Out here, quite easily. That’s why they needed an appealing voice. A young voice, a female voice. It had to be someone people would want to listen to.

She didn’t have to be told what most of their victims were hoping for after they rescued her.

“Why are you talking to me?” he asked when she didn’t answer.

Her captain gestured  Keep him talking.

“I guess I don’t get to meet many new people.”

“You call this meeting?” he laughed, a high nervous tittering that transitioned into a sob before he choked it off. After a pause, he continued, his voice small. “Why haven’t they killed me yet?”

“They don’t need to,” she said gently. “The rest of your support system is blown. Your own breathing will do it for them.”

She heard his breathing speed up, then slow down as he tried to control it. A few minutes difference, one way or another.

“I could still kill them, you know.” His breath hitched again. “The seeds.”

Ten thousand seeds, genetically modified to survive growing conditions on deep spacecraft. The kind you could start a self-sustaining hydroponics farm with.

They hadn’t known when they attacked, that his ship was bound for the new colony ship being built out beyond the edges of the solar system. No one told scrappers like them things. Their DNA was far too damaged, living out here without niceties like radiation shielding, for things like generation ships. Everyone would rather pretend they weren’t here. And having someone in the hold when they punched through the command cockpit, well, that was just bad luck to cancel the good. But as long as he was flailing around in there, no one wanted to do anything that might damage the cargo. So they waited.

And she talked.

“But you designed them, you said.” She had to keep her own voice from trembling. If she screwed this up…the whole crew was watching her. “So much work, gone.”

His laugh was brittle. “It’s gone anyway. They were supposed to take humanity to the stars. You’re just going to what, eat them?”

Did a plant care whether the person who ate it was worthy? Whether the stomach was cancer-free and educated or belonging to an outer system space rat? Still eaten, either way.

She scanned the manifest he’d sent them in his first desperate call. “Have you ever tasted a—” she wasn’t sure how to pronounce the word, took a guess, “—a tomato?”

“What?” He sounded baffled. “Of course I have, who hasn’t?”

“I haven’t.”

There was a long pause. “What do you eat?”

“Protein bars. Pills. Mush from a tube. What the mining companies will send.” She considered for a moment. No reason not to be honest. “What we can steal.”

“You don’t have basic hydroponics out here?”

“The only seeds they send are sterile.” It was her turn to be bitter. “People stop buying stuff if they can make it themselves.”

“Oh.” There was another pause. She imagined his face, working it out. “I…I hadn’t realized…”

“You hadn’t thought.” She didn’t need the captain’s warning glare to cut herself off. She wasn’t here to pick a fight.

“What…what kind of life would I have…” he trailed off. She heard his unasked question: What if he surrendered?

She muted her line, looked over at her captain. He shook his head. They couldn’t keep him, couldn’t feed him. They didn’t have the facilities for him to be useful; he didn’t have the skills to survive. They couldn’t afford survivors, anyway.

Her silence was too long, long enough for him to think that through, too. “Oh.” His voice was flat.

She held her breath. If he was going to flash-fry the seeds, there was nothing she could do. She glanced at the engineer. The older woman checked her dials, held up two fingers. Two minutes of air left.

“You’ll grow them? You know how to harvest the seeds? You won’t just eat them all in a few months?”

“Yes—” she said eagerly, and then realized the mute was still on. She flicked it off and repeated. “Yes. We’ll take care of them.”

Another long silence.

“What do you look like?” he asked, yawning.

“What do you think I look like?” she temporized. What would a dirtsider dream of?

“Blue eyes. Fair skin, being this far from the sun.”

More like pallor, but close enough.

“Long blond hair…” His words were beginning to slur. “It swirls around you…like a golden cloud.”

She ran one hand across her scalp, laser-treated in childhood to destroy the hair follicles. No loose hairs to slip into the electronics.

“And you comb it,” he yawned, his body struggling for oxygen, “while you sing.”

“Would you like me to sing?”

Her fellow wreckers rolled their eyes as they relaxed. She ignored them.

“It’d be nice…”

She sang to him as the currents of space carried him down to their depths.


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R. Rozakis has the amazing superpower of causing professors and technicians to stare at her lab equipment and say, “I’ve never seen it do that before!” Her current job in marketing in New York City seems so much safer, really. Her biggest argument with her exceedingly patient husband is in what order they should show Star Wars to their preschooler. Previous work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Allegory, Liquid Imagination, Every Day Fiction, and the anthologies Substitution Cipher and Clockwork Chaos.