All the Americans Smoke Here

Image: Magic Spleen

“I’m not really that nice,” he says, only half-joking, spinning a flashlight on one finger. “I’m just nice to you.”

He reaches out to pat her thigh, then digs in a pocket under his suit for his vape.

“Anyway, who do you think built this station?,” he continues. “If you ask me, it’s my prerogative.”

“This has been an international spaceport for 600 years,” she reminds him.

“Yeah, and a Galactic Federation station for the last 200, but that’s not the point I’m making,” he retorts as he finally finds the device. “What I asked is who built this. Americans. That’s who.”

He doesn’t have to remind her; she remembers when it became a Federation station. She had just come out of her journeyman training program and had started working engineering on the trawlers that brought tanks of metal-additive out to the station’s manufacturing docks. He, on the other hand, was born just a handful of decades ago. But, hey, if the 300-year age difference doesn’t bother him — and it certainly doesn’t seem to — she supposes she’s fine with it.

She leaks a secret little grin, too, at the “American” thing. It’s been a long time since the United States turned into the Unified Zones, but Americans always have been a traditional bunch, and Americans they insistently remain. She and he haven’t been together long enough for her to stop thinking it’s cute that he uses it — and anyway, the more-or-less half of her that’s genetically human is technically American, so same team.

“Anyway, it has nothing to do with being nice,” she returns. “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get fired?” She throws him a sideways smile. “You’d have to get yourself another girlfriend. I’m not following you off this station.”

“I’m only doing it before we open the panel,” he says, thumbing the activator with a practiced thumb. “Nothing’s getting in. Not from a sealed hallway all the way out here.”

She watches him load the vape with a pinch of what looks like glassy blue glitter. The water ran out centuries ago; after that, nobody could manage to grow tobacco anymore, so the heady organic stuff that used to load a pipe has been replaced. Now, it’s a compound made from a planteral they cultivate on one of the Josephian moons. It worked out well for the Josephians to have figured that out, because their little brew sells like hotcakes — gives all the humans and halfbreeds a chilled little buzz and packs up small for shipping. The only problem is that — well — even the tiniest amount of wayward vapor sends any centralized reactor core system into immediate shutdown if it gets into a vent. And, once it’s in, it takes two weeks for the crews to nanoscrub the filters and convince the core to come back online. It’s only happened once, but now most of the crew’s surreptitious smoke breaks take place in airlocks with the cameras artfully disabled — or deep in the station, where the fire seals on the walls are the tightest, and nobody has bothered to set security monitors.

“Hasn’t happened yet,” he tells her, seeing the nervous edge on her mouth.

“Not to you,” she lilts, warningly, relaxing a little. She decides to take her own break and wait for him, wrapping the closest of her four arms around his waist and leaning on his shoulder to enjoy a secondhand whiff of the sharp-sweet vapor.

She looks up at him, his eyes in a half-shut moment of chemical bliss, his blonde lashes knitting and unknitting, the wan glow of the access panel resting on his impossible cheekbones. Even in this light, he seems lit from within. Made of gold from crown to ground, from the spill of curls on his head to the golden cast of his skin to the improbably shiny golden trail that leads from his sternum to his belly button and below. If she squoze him hard enough, she figures he might leak the stuff. Sometimes she wants to try it. He swears he’s 100% human, but she doubts it occasionally. All that gold…she supposes that even human genetic sequences carry lucky lottery numbers sometimes. If he really is human, he’s proof.

He kisses her forehead, vape in one hand, flashlight in the other. He always seems to kiss her with his hands full, as if unwilling to wait the time it takes to put something down. After he does, he tucks the vape back in a chest pocket.

“Okay,” he says, “Let’s do this.” He puts a hand on her lower back and pushes her playfully towards the kit.

Luck. Luck is the theme, here. Their shared story is all about luck and burning.

The story starts, oddly enough, with junk: The stuff that raw goods arrive in when they make it to the station’s shipbuilding docks. The used packing materials have been a thorn in the station’s side since day one: It’s completely cost-ineffective to ship them back, but it’s equally stupid to store them in-station. Before the Federation cracked down on jettison laws, the station used to compact the materials and slingshot them out into the void with a crane; now, the materials have to be burned. It’s an undertaking, requiring an entire carrier hangar to be cleared for safety, so it’s only done once a year.

A few decades ago, some of the dockworkers decided to get creative, making structures and sculptures out of the compacted blocks before they set them alight. Cheekily, they invited a few friends to come and check it out. By now, it’s an annual event; sanctioned, even. The Burn draws pretty much the entire station (and the recreational drug market from the surrounding 20 parsecs, predictably). It’s a great valve for the fractious crew energy that builds up on a big, old, middle-of-nowhere station with a long list of ride-or-die rules. And it’s eerily beautiful, in a place that often isn’t. She tries to never miss one.

photo : mdanys, Burning Man 2009 (license)

It was at one of these shindigs that she met him. She had arrived solo, uncharacteristically unkeen, shoved out the door by a well-meaning friend (“You can’t stay home tonight! Get out of here!”). She had posted herself, both pairs of arms crossed, somewhere near the back of the churning crowd of onlookers. When he wandered in front of her and stopped, she had huffed a sigh. She’d stood there because she wasn’t used to someone taller enough than her to block her view; just her luck, tonight of all nights, that someone truly towering would choose exactly this spot to stand. She tapped his arm, perhaps a little peevishly, and he turned slightly to look down at her.

That tilt of that mouth. Those blue eyes. If he’d punched her in the face it couldn’t have had more of an effect. The clamor of the surrounding crowd snapped into a clean vignette around the mantle of hair pulling firelight into tidy curls around his forehead and, for a second, she was very sure her gravity boots had failed.

It wasn’t long after that the burn had finished, the party had started and she’d resigned herself to the total cognitive meltdown of his lips on her skin.

They’d been spending a prodigious amount of time in bed from then on. And, since he’s technically in the same department, she had managed to get him assigned to her, despite the massive difference in their certifications. More luck: they work well together. And she certainly doesn’t mind having a tall, handsome motherfucker drag around the toolkit, back here where the antigrav skids don’t have room to maneuver.

The engineering terrain this deep in the belly of the station is something of a museum. Some of the parts down here have never been replaced since their actual installation; it’s a lesson in engineering history just to pull off a piece of sheeting and gaze upon those ancient innards. As he unpacks the kit, she gets to work freeing the seals around a section of wall, careful not to shatter the time-fragile poly. As she pulls back the panel, her mind boggles. Wires. Actual wires. She doesn’t think she’s seen any of these since her school days, and that was a long time ago.

She pops her head out.

“Can you pass me the laser stripper, babe?,” she asks. “Wires.”

“I think Seb’sav might have borrowed it,” he says, digging. “I don’t see one in here.”

She extracts herself from the wall and leans over the kit, bending at the hips to ferret through one of the lower subsections. As she does, she feels his wide hands find the curve of her hipbones; feels his thumbs press into the wings of her pelvis, giving little steering inputs she can feel in the soles of her feet. He pulls her back against him, hard. She can feel him smiling.

Before long, she’s naked down to her boots, his trousers are in a pile at his ankles and she’s against the wall, her legs wrapped around him, her head inches from the open panel. One set of arms props her up on the hiprail; the other draws seeking fingernails along his strong shoulderblades as she melts into breath and sweat and feeling.

Slowly, another sensation elbows into the sweet blackness of her fugue stage. It’s shrieking. Mechanical, repetitive, insistent shrieking. She tries to ignore it for a moment; fails. Suddenly, she realizes what it is: the klaxon. Reactor core overheat. Imminent station failure. The explosive kind.

His face is still buried in the soft curve of her neck, oblivious. His thrusts almost seem to keep rhythm for the alarm; god, she’s so close now. She does not want to stop; not now, maybe not ever, whether or not the goddamn piece-of-shit station explodes.

But she has an idea.

She grabs tight to his neck with her upper arms. She sneaks one of her lower hands between them, just briefly, dipping it into his chest pocket. She grabs the vape, thumbs it, takes the deepest breath of her life and exhales into the open panel behind and above her, letting his pressure on her body push out every last curl of smoke.

For a moment, the world is suspended in skin sounds, the sweetness of his filthy mutters and the wingbeat fireworks of her own peaking pleasure.

Then, suddenly, the station’s mechanical heartbeat starts to thud incompletely, in increasingly faltering cycles. The klaxon stops mid-wail, as if surprised. Then, as he groans, the station judders behind her back. Hard.

For a moment, the darkness and silence is almost complete. As he leans against her, spent and sweating, she can hear the low volume of shouting voices half a kilometer down the access tunnel, staggering half-drunk through the stolen joy of a panic hangover. Then the secondary life support systems clunk on, gases hissing, weak backup lights shining through their dusty housings.

“Huh,” he says.

He brushes her hair from her face as he leans back to look at her, smiling in a puzzled-but-slowly-figuring-it-out sort of way.

“Uh huh,” she grins. She giggles. She spins the vape between her fingers.

“Can I have it back, please?,” he asks, grabbing for it as she tosses it deftly from hand to hand.

“Never,” she giggles, finally capitulating to have her hands free to pull her clothes back on. Suddenly, a panicked thought strikes her.

“…Are you going to tell them?,” she asks, catching his arm. “I mean, I know, but the policy is still…I’d probably have to leave.”

“All the Americans smoke here,” he says. “Coulda been anyone.”

He presses their foreheads together, one hand snuggling into the back of her neck.

“Coulda been anyone.”