Through a Gentle Haze
General spoilers. Jagged flow, up-and-down fic. An odd, imperfect piece about self-control and indifference.


The ship makes tiny noises when it first revs up. Most officers expect only the full-throated roar, the chuff-chuff of the engines kicking into gear, but Alex Rowe has listened to the Silvana for years. He knows each of its private moans. The Silvana makes whimpers when its engines are forced to the limit; it yawns when it sails through mist-banks, and groans with every ice storm that it must navigate safely through.

Whenever the Silvana first begins to shiver - a tremble so minute that only engineers know how to feel for it, like the best of intimate doctors - Alex removes a glove and touches his bare hand to the ship's metal. He absorbs the shudders into his own body, where they merge with the beat of his heart. He lets the Silvana dictate his pulse, and each time, Alex finds that he's smiling.

The difference between the Silvana from take-off to flight is like that of Yuris clothed and in his bunk. Yuris's voice undulates when she sighs. It sings when she's breathless. Each whisper exists as a back-burner to her normal speaking tone, so that even when Yuris is about her daily business, Alex knows how to listen for the hint of bedrooms underneath, the way she hitches her throat in surprise and passion both.

Or. Used to.

Once.

Hope is overrated. At twenty-eight years of age, Alex has abandoned every belief save that one, which currently holds firm as his personal three-word codex. You can exist without hope for years, and no one will notice, no one will see. At times, you can even open up the hearth of your soul to see if it can be rekindled, wondering if the next time will be enough to restore any interest in life - but it doesn't. And it won't.

Sometimes a person grows too weary of the world in a slow, gradual graying, a death as peaceful as falling asleep. You can tolerate a great deal while under such conditions; you can even live, despite how poets claim such an existence is shabby and worthless.

It isn't, really, worse. That's the strangest part of all, in Alex's opinion. It isn't a case of becoming so numb that you block out the world to keep from being hurt once more, like a child wailing in petty denial of the obvious. It's simply breathing. Walking through life in a gentle haze, where you have already come to terms with what the world is capable of doing to you, and discovering what was left of yourself afterwards.

The younger Alex had been tutored on shock, along with warnings of eardrum damage that could result from proximity to large detonations. During one prolonged mission, both he and Hamilcal had been provided with sets of earplugs - little more than compressed cotton nubs that barely blocked out enough wind to be useful. Eventually, both pilots had discarded them when the sweat and week-old grease of their bodies had made the plugs too difficult to get a grip on.

Alex spent the latter half of the trip with his ears ringing. Insulated by white noise, he drummed his fingers on the vanship panels and flew by instinct, making gross corrections to his travel path that he later passed off as stunts. The last leg of the mission flight was spent with a sleepwalker's dispassion, Alex growing steadily indifferent to close calls, narrow escapes.

Later, when they were back on the ground, he'd pinched his nose to clear the air pressure of his skull, and had yawned for hours before finally being able to hear once more.

Now that he's older, he's come full circle. It doesn't bother him that he has no certainties about his future. There is a debt to discharge regarding the Exile; there are missions to be flown to bring people to their allotted destinations. Above all, there is a woman to be killed, and the impossibility of ever reaching her bothers Alex as little as the darkness during a mission flight.

Anything less would find his guns freshly loaded, and the man himself bound on the nearest vanship he could steal.

Alex knows how to fly blind. He'd perfected the knack while in the worst of storms, trusting Yuris's directions as she beamed the circle of a tiny flashlight on weather-ripped maps, reciting locations aloud in a tinny bleat that was swept away all too easily on the wind. Alex can navigate equally well on a ship and in his bed, waking himself out of sleep with his eyes fixed shut but every other sense on alert, announcing a gasping, Yuris, what are our coordinates, are we on track? Yuris, are we on course?

Yuris?

After he had experienced the first of the Silvana's trembles - so intimate that they had caused the man's throat to clench and strangle him from breath - Alex had spent days with his face in his hands, scrubbing again and again at the numbed flesh. He was quiet. Head down, tucked in a crook of his elbow like a bird taking shelter under a wing; allowing the ship's vibrations to take possession of him, reminding him of the last time he'd been pressed against a body so tightly that their heartbeat had affected his own.

He doesn't know if he cried. He thinks he screamed once, into his palm, unable to keep desperation from clawing out of his throat. Alex isn't sure how many people knocked on his door, but all that matters was that after a while, he lifted his head and stood up, and it was over.

Life gives you a choice. You remain yourself and die. Or change yourself and live, but sometimes at the cost of being unable to reconcile what you become with what you used to be. Eventually, Alex realizes that there is something cold inside him, something calm and patient, where once there had been an individualwho had been loved for his soft heart. That man is a creature who seems alien now, existing only in a fairyland where he gives sheep toys to children and smiles when soundboxes bleat noise.

Neck bells jingle, teenagers laugh. Alex has seen the children of friends he once knew; he has noticed the looks that Sophia gives him when she thinks he is half-asleep. Nothing changes the somber feeling of absolute conviction inside him. Every nerve tells him that he is right. Maybe not by most definitions, and he can't even justify it to himself when the array of logic parades before him, but he knows it is acceptable to have his crew serve him, because they serve the ship, and the Silvana is what will bring Alex to the very doorstep of Maestro Delphine.

It is acceptable, what he is doing, because it is the only reality that is left.

Alex has lost interest in who comes aboard his ship and who leaves, caring only for what might interrupt their course. Lover's dramas snap the air around him like glowbugs fighting on a summer eve, bouncing their shimmering bodies against each other and accomplishing exactly nothing. In the end, one of them will die, or the other, or everyone; Alex knows exactly how doomed all relationships are, but he can't condemn them for trying, either.

At night Alex goes to bed and closes his eyes so that he does not have to look at how narrow the cot is for holding only one. In the morning, he keeps his lids shut so he can pretend he has not wrapped himself around the pillow in his sleep. The echoes of the crew rattle down the halls; Alex ignores them in favor of the ship's whispers, which tell him how quickly they are flying through the air and hurtling towards the climax of it all.

He is not alone. He is calm. Yuris is with him, in his thoughts and in the ship. Nothing else is left for him now, nothing else matters. Alex is accountable to no one's standards. A ghost cannot be penalized further; his damnation has already been passed.

When they coast through storm banks, it's felt in every room on the ship. The Silvana undergoes deep vibration for hours, depending - long rolls of motion as it absorbs nearby thunderclaps and ingests buffeting winds.

Alex wakes up in a different way then, discovering that he's twisting against the sheets, his fingers clawing the mattress as he buries an open mouth against his arm. There is always the split-second of cold realization of what is about to happen, and then it's too late and the sharp tang of his dream is rising like a sin buttered out beneath him. The smell is halfway complete. It's missing the other part of the equation, Yuris's soft laughter and wet thighs rubbing against his own.

There's only Alex's body now and bleached linens, musk mixing with detergent. Sterilized. Solitary.

In the darkness Alex sinks back to the bed and the hum of the ship is like Yuris's mouth on his ear, soothing his hair down and telling him it's all right.

He falls back asleep sometimes like that, and wakes up hours later to find the sheets sticking in cooling patches to his stomach.

Numb. But not numb - aloof, transcendent, detached from all earthly cares without losing his skyborne perspective. Alex hasn't severed himself from reality. He's just learned to look past it, using the eyes of a dead man to recognize what he can and can't do anymore. He can fly the ship, blind. He can't make it go anywhere other than its final destination.

And even that is forbidden for the time being, debt after debt holding Alex in place, the Maestro's location under guard.

So Alex waits.

Meals all taste the same unless he pays attention. People sound the same; the missions refuse to distinguish themselves as anything more important than work, which is simultaneously paramount and trivial. Alex strolls daily through this paradox, and it parts before him with the hum of a ship's engines, the grey humidity of morning mist.

It's cruel of you, the ship says one day, while Alex is having tea and the sun is dipping the horizon into lava. To allow your crew to follow you like this. To remain alive, and by doing so, keep their hopes up instead .

After a long time, Alex inclines his head. "Yes, I suppose it is."

Yuris's face wavers in his thoughts; the Sylvana turns slowly in the air, scudding across plump cotton clouds. Distantly, a swarm of footsteps pounds down the stairwells, kicking up a riot of noise that reverberates like a metal marching band. Even though Alex can't see the Maestro's ship from his window - he couldn't with days of travel, weeks, even if he could assault it with any degree of success - he likes to pretend that it's just out of sight. Throttle the engines to full, and he'd be able to catch up with her; only a little more distance to close, a fraction of space, and Alex would finally be able to seize the creature that killed his Yuris so many years ago. Yuris and Hamilcal and George and so many others, so many that the grand total doesn't matter now, because nothing does.

The thought causes his chest to constrict. Setting down the teacup, Alex touches his fingers to his shirt, and fights the sudden urge to punch through the glass.

Instead, he leans against the wall and closes his eyes.

"Ready whenever you are," he whispers to the pale, mocking face in his memory, a fretted vow that comes out panting from the effort of not caring. "I'm ready."