Looking for Part 6? It’s here: https://atomicfeminist.com/2021/04/07/its-just-biology-part-6/
Need to start from the beginning? It’s Just Biology – Part 1 – the atomic feminist
Couldn’t it be possible that this Pulsipher fellow wasn’t that dangerous? Nicky reassured himself. No DNA warrant, ok, sure, fine, whatever, shit happens, as the Americanese would say. Perhaps Pulsipher would get the woman off station, ok, fine, whatever, but surely he wasn’t that dangerous. It just couldn’t be possible that the authorities would let a truly dangerous man walk.
They’d get off station, probably that would happen, there just wasn’t time enough to stop it, but then Nicky could track them down in transit, or even back on Kolob. The Tashalos police could file an extradition order since they were humans on a human world and the woman had been taken against her will without a competency hearing beforehand. That she had never officially lived on Tashalos Station was a complication but not an insurmountable one; after all they had the police report that proved her residency.
It might take some finagling and a sympathetic judge, but surely there was some way. Nicky didn’t have to just stand aside and let a woman be kidnapped against her will.
My woman, mine, MINE, that primitive part of Nicky’s mind growled, and he knew no matter what his superiors told him, no matter what the laws on the books might say, he would not be standing aside. Even if he had to resign his commission and upend his whole life, even if he had to spend everything he owned to hire a lawyer, even if he had to break the law himself, whatever it took, he would do it. Prove it, she had said, and Nicky meant to.
Pulsipher couldn’t be that dangerous, really, now, could he? He roughed her up, that much was true, he scared her, of course it was true or she wouldn’t have run, but the man simply couldn’t be that dangerous. If he was well and truly dangerous, he would be in prison, of course he would be. A psychotic obsessed creep, to be sure, but he couldn’t possibly be that dangerous. Right? He couldn’t be or he’d be in prison.
If only they could have got hold of Pulsipher’s financial records, there had to be something there, a payment made, hotel reservations, purchase records, Amazon deliveries, somewhere to start. The Kolobians were taking their sweet time granting them access, that was to be expected, but Nicky had no doubt that with those financial records they would have him. The man might be rich and smart, doing his level best to avoid leaving a trail of crumbs to follow, but he wasn’t infallible. It was the closest thing to impossible to vanish on Tashalos Station. The woman had only managed it as long as she did because no one was looking for her.
As soon as Detective Buchanan called up the security footage for Market 27, she’d appeared, popping up before his eyes on the security cameras like Where’s Waldo. He didn’t even need to run the footage through the ident programs. So easy it had been to find her, he’d assumed she was quite stupid at first, one of those self-destructive types who basically invited being attacked by her perilous lifestyle, till she scrambled up the side of a twenty foot stack of cargo agile as a cat and disappeared. When he’d realized that’s where she was living, hiding in plain sight, in a place no one bothered to look, he recalled how she’d talked about the road less traveled and chuckled.
But she hadn’t vanished. You simply couldn’t disappear altogether on Tashalos, not if someone was looking for you. Pulsipher had to be buying things, food and water at the least. Perhaps he was having drones delivered; you couldn’t do that without an Amazon account and those were easy to track. Nicky decided he would check that first once he was granted access to the financials. Or it could be that he had someone else doing his business for him, an alien, most likely, and harder to track, but surely there would be a link, some link between them, just waiting to be uncovered, because no one worked for free. There was always something you could find if you were looking.
They simply had to find out who was doing the heavy lifting for Ashton Pulsipher, and track their movements. Maybe the q’Lurian, though Stan hadn’t been able to wheedle anything else out of them. More likely others, and without those financial records they couldn’t know who.
Until the authorities on Kolob came through, all Nicky had was the Galactic Database. He rapidly clicked through all the stuff he’d already seen, the vitals he had accessed via the woman’s phone. Employment records came up first so he paged through them quickly; though he didn’t think there would be any clues there, he didn’t want to skip over anything only to realize it later on. Pulsipher worked for Amazon, a lawyer, which fucking figured. He did not have a criminal record, though there had been two inquiries launched; both sealed on order of the courts. See, Nicky reassured himself. He can’t be that dangerous, or there would’ve been charges filed. It’s ok, Nicky, everything is ok, you have time, you have all the time in the world.
Yet why would the woman have run halfway across the galaxy if the man wasn’t dangerous? It made no sense. Even if he pushed her around, even if he scared her, that strong a reaction would have been extreme, wouldn’t it? Nicky felt he was viewing the case through a thick layer of gauze, clearly something was wrong, badly wrong, but he couldn’t make out its form. It remained just out of reach, the facts shapeless and insubstantial.
Mrs. Pulsipher had been a teacher. Preschool, she taught preschool, and he saw pictures of her on the faculty of a primary school. He clicked on a short gif of her singing a song about wheels on a bus; she looked impossibly young and she had a perfectly wretched singing voice, which she made up for with enthusiasm. A schoolteacher for little children, probably in a school with a rainbow and a tree painted on it. There was such a sweetness to it, it made Nicky’s chest ache.
But then there was a wedding license issued, linked to a glowing announcement posted on social media with hundreds of well-wishes and congratulations. Photos he didn’t have time, nor the heart to look at. And there the employment records stopped. She’d stopped working when she got married, it seemed, even though they had no children. A childless housewife was a notion so antiquated it seemed positively medieval, though it did not surprise him; Nicky had learned in his psych classes at the police academy that some domestic abusers stayed intentionally childless because the abuser couldn’t bear sharing the spotlight with a child.
Detective Buchanan was surprised to find that since her marriage, the woman had no social media accounts of her own. They were all joint husband and wife accounts, which struck him again as incredibly old-fashioned. A human, even an offworlder, without their own personal social media account was rare indeed. He recalled a crime called coercive control, in which victims were systematically isolated from friends and family and the workplace so their abuser became the only authority figure in their lives. Buried in some cobwebbed corner of his mind he rarely visited, Nicky recalled learning that historically one of the biggest red flags for coercive control was abusers curating their victims’ social media accounts.
Coercive control had first been made illegal in the 21st, and of course the very notion of anyone not having social media became so unusual in the centuries since it was considered downright taboo, the sign of a dysfunctional weirdo. Everyone had social media, even the cultists and isolationists had social media, even if they didn’t use it much. Thus the police viewing it as cause for concern had mostly fallen by the wayside.
Nicky found policing another adult’s social media near unthinkable; it was so archaic, it felt as if he’d just learned the woman was married to a cattle rustler. But that was clearly what the man was doing. Suddenly her inexperience with phones came into focus; she probably had not been allowed one. Nicky wondered if coercive control was illegal on Kolob, or if it was just another form of the abuse Pulsipher apparently kept getting away with. Regardless, whatever accounts she’d had before her marriage had been not only abandoned, but deleted. Undoubtedly they were archived somewhere, but he’d need a warrant to access them and he had no time for the paperwork. Decades old, they probably wouldn’tve shed any light anyway.
Though he would have loved to spend hours going through Ashton Pulsipher’s social media accounts, satiating his ravenous curiosity regarding how the man’s twisted brain worked, he had not the time for it, so he clicked ahead to the most recent posts.
Pulsipher had created several “Find Tammy” pages on various sites. Tammy. She’s called Tammy, a nickname. Of course. Why did she not tell me that? Tammy, Tammy, the nickname came off his tongue easier than her full name did. Tammy.
The man made it out as if his wife had simply gone missing with no explanation. To Nicky’s disgust, the pages had hundreds upon hundreds of followers and kind words of support. The official backstory appeared to be that Tammy Pulsipher had suffered from an uncurable mental illness she refused to be treated for and had probably suicided; there were lots of awareness posts and badges and ribbons and sympathetic messages from strangers who had endured a similar loss. But it was lies, all of it lies. She had run, she had gotten away somehow, bravely and cleverly, run away to start a new life. He felt a surge of fierce pride in her, swallowed up by equal parts rage and despair. Thirty fucking minutes the judge gives us. Thirty minutes and no DNA, a fucking insult was what it was. He may as well slapped me in the face, the bastard.
When Nicky thought of the police resources that had been expended looking for the woman when all along she hadn’t wanted to be found, he found it enraging. How stupid were the cops on Kolob, anyway? He knew he wasn’t being entirely fair; they were clever lies, to be sure – creative, skillfully compiled, well executed – and cops all too often assumed that rich and successful equaled functional. Nicky was ashamed to admit if he’d read the barest generalities of the case he too would have assumed Tammy Pulsipher had taken her own life, and closed the case just as the police on Kolob had.
In truth, their dereliction of duty had probably been a good thing, because if they’d looked harder and found the woman, they likely would have simply turned her back into the hands of her abuser. Nicky considered the possibility they might’ve given up the search deliberately. Perhaps he was being uncharitable; perhaps his fellow cops on Kolob did know what was happening, but their hands were tied by the law just as his hands were tied. Perhaps they’d let Tammy escape her abuser. The longer he thought about it, the more convinced he became that was exactly what had happened, because no one could be that inept. They’d run cover for her.
A cop willing to look the other way in a disappearance meant a bad man, a very bad man indeed, and Nicky’s frantic assurances to himself that Pulsipher probably wasn’t that dangerous turned to ashes.
And what had Nicky done but let her be snatched back up again? What had he done?
He swallowed down the lump in his throat and kept reading. The very last post was an upbeat one; they’d gotten a lead and were checking it out. Dated two months ago. Two months. That was quite a long time for the man to know where she was and not acted on it. Why? What had she been doing two months ago, anyway?
Two months ago. Nicky had a thought and dialed a phone, paying extra for an interstellar connection; he’d fill out the paperwork for it later. “Hello?” a voice answered. Well, that wasn’t actually what the voice said, but the translator in Nicky’s ear enabled him to understand the language.
“Mademoiselle Quilnaucht, this is Detective Dominic Buchanan with the Tashalos Police…”
To his surprise, before he could explain further, Mademoiselle Quilnaught interrupted him. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We left like we were supposed to! They said if we left that would be the end of it!”
“If you left? If you left the station?
“Who told you that?”
“The man from the FBI! He told us if we didn’t leave, leave right away, that my husband was going to jail for…well, you know.”
“Actually, I don’t know. Can you fill me in? Don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble.”
“Human pornography,” the alien hissed into the phone, as if she was ashamed to say it aloud.
“Human pornography?” Nicky repeated, utterly confused.
“We had a human girl working for us for a while, and…oh, I guess it put some unfortunate notions in my mate’s head. She was undoubtedly overly familiar with him, undoubtedly. He downloaded some materials, from curiosity, just…just to see, you know, and, um. Sigh. We’re working it out between the two of us?”
“Someone informed you that was illegal?”
“Special Agent J. Edgar Hoo-bvher, of the FBI, told us that my husband would go to Leavenworth Penitentiary, which is a penal colony on Earth, and…oh, what was it? Break rocks for the rest of his natural life if we didn’t leave Tashalos right away! Rocks! Without any machinery for assistance! Like Cool Hand Luke, he said! Paul Newman, 1967!”
Under any other circumstances Nicky would have felt quite sorry for the poor unimaginative Quilnauchts, genetically incapable of comprehending they’d been lied to by a human who could vomit up falsehoods effortlessly, so unable to fathom such deception they hadn’t even double checked the man’s claims. But their stupidity had put an innocent woman, my woman, mine, MINE, through hunger and hardship, and now into danger. Nicky despised them for it. “The FBI was disbanded in 2037, Mademoiselle Quilnaucht, and human pornography isn’t illegal, not on Tashalos, nor anywhere else. Whomever you spoke to was an imposter.”
“Oh! An imposter? Does that mean…?”
“You’re not in any legal trouble at all,” he said brusquely, and hung up the phone without further ado. It occurred to him the moronic alien couple would simply believe him instead, with no independent verification of what he was saying either, but he didn’t have time to care.
Pulsipher’s scheme coalesced before Nicky’s eyes. Get his errant wife fired from her job, let her suffer and struggle and starve for a time, and then arrive on Tashalos just in time to gallantly rescue her. Undoubtedly the “kidnapping” by a foul-smelling two-headed mushroom koala bear alien had been part of the plan. Because it wasn’t quite enough to show up and just snatch her back again, now was it? Even if she was hungry and desperate it wouldn’t be enough.
The man needed to win his wife over again, that was the key, to win her trust, to prove to her that he’d changed. He needed to make her so miserable with her life as it was, that his new and improved self seemed the better option. Without providing adequate encouragement for his wife to come back to him voluntarily, it would have been but a hollow victory – he might possess her body but not her spirit. This man, Ashton Pulsipher, wanted nothing less than his wife’s unconditional surrender on every front. He didn’t just want her back, he wanted her to love him again.
Since she did not seem so inclined, that did not seem to be at all a good sign.
A woman refusing to love a man who demanded her love often ended in violence. Nicky found himself praying that the woman would just give her husband what he wanted, whatever he wanted, everything he wanted. He prayed she would stay alive long enough to be found, though that primitive voice inside of him felt rather differently on the matter.
How bad a sign? How bad? A bad man, Nicky, he could hear her voice in his head, saying it, in her peculiar cadence. A bayd may-uhn, Nick-eeh.
How bad? How bad? Surely he couldn’t be that bad, or he’d be in prison. Surely. He told it to himself though he knew full well it was a lie.
With great trepidation, Nicky looked up Tamsin Pulsipher’s medical records, starting with the early days of their marriage, finding, as he’d dreaded, yet known that he would, an escalating string of strains and sprains and broken bones. Then a concussion, a retinal detachment, a fall down the stairs in which she had fractured her hyoid bone even though that usually only happened when someone had been strangled. After that, they’d been in a strange car accident that appeared to be caused by the driver accelerating rapidly and ramming the passenger side of their vehicle into a bridge – fortunately his passenger had emerged miraculously unscathed, protected by airbags deploying and a generous application of impact-resistant foam.
The driver claimed the accelerator had stuck and while the data from the car’s computer did not support that conclusion, the inquiry had been quickly closed. There was a gif from the insurance examiner and Nicky clicked on it; images of an impossibly handsome man, literally impossible, he had clearly had extensive work done, sprung to life. Nicky loathed everything about him on sight. “I mean, they tell me it’s a miracle,” Pulsipher said on the screen, with a greasy, inauthentic smile revealing perfect white teeth. “If I hadn’t bought the safest car available on the market, Tammy would never have survived. I mean, you could really say I saved my wife’s life that day. You could call it a miracle, I suppose, but just like they say on The Incredibles, luck favors the prepared.”
The car accident had been nearly immediately followed by an incident with an overdose of pain medication Nicky figured for a suicide attempt borne of desperation, or else the man had injected the medicine into her throat in a rage.
He noticed the pits of his suit were sweated right through. This was not just abuse, this was escalation, the sort of escalation no cop ever wanted to see on any domestic violence case, let alone one that involved a person you knew and cared about. There was no way he could turn it around in his mind, no way he could sugar coat it, no reassurance he could give himself, not any more. A bad man, indeed, she had not been exaggerating.
But the worst was yet to come. When he saw the pictures of the woman with her face half gone, he grew sick and weak and shaky. It was a damn good thing he had not eaten much that morning, because his stomach jumped and heaved. He read the police report where the husband claimed she had jumped, though there was security footage of him throwing her, throwing her off a third floor balcony. He read that the security footage had been mysteriously erased from the Cloud in a data breach, though that should have been impossible, and in the end no charges had been filed for want of evidence.
That was why he hadn’t been in prison. Otherwise he would have been. He wasn’t free because he hadn’t done anything so very bad, he was free because he got away with it.
Afterwards, Mrs. Pulsipher had refused surgery, refused it adamantly; Nicky did not fully understand her reasoning, but he suspected she was amassing evidence against her husband the only way she could, since Pulsipher appeared able to lie and cheat his way past both computer data and security footage. But she’d been declared incompetent and left defenseless in her husband’s care, for him to do with as he would. Only then had her face been reconstructed, after a judge’s order she submit to it. He remembered that panicky expression on her face at the shelter when she had asked about the doctors.
A bad man, and Nicky had let the bad man get her.
If Pulsipher could not make his wife love him again, then he had come to kill her, Nicky knew it with every fiber of his being. After reading all that, he realized to his great dismay it was entirely possible she was still in the restaurant, dead already, hidden away under a table or in a freezer or in a coat closet. He could see it as if it happened right before his eyes, Pulsipher snapping his wife’s neck and shoving her somewhere, anywhere, to get rid of her, and fleeing the scene. Then Nicky envisioned himself opening a cupboard and her body falling out of it, rolling over softly onto his feet, her golden hair spilling out around her head like a halo, her pretty face mottled with lividity. He cursed his imagination, wishing that instead of being human, he was as unimaginative as Mademoiselle Quilnaucht, only able to believe in the things she had been told were true, and not every bloody terrible thing a twisted human mind could invent.
Nicky realized that as dangerous as her husband was, Tammy never would have left the apartment voluntarily, and pulled the phone records, which someone should have done in the first place, but apparently no one had gotten to it yet. He died inside realizing someone had sent her a text. When he read it, he noted the phrasing of the message was deliberately left ambiguous. She must’ve thought it was me, Nicky realized. The fucker had texted her on the stupid fucking phone Nicky had insisted she have, that he’d even bought for her, and pretended to be him.
She had gone to meet HIM, not her husband, and as that sank in Nicky felt…no, he KNEW…that he’d failed her. He’d failed her because on some level, he thought she was afraid over nothing, being melodramatic, making a fuss over nothing. It hadn’t even occurred to him, not really occurred, not truly occurred down deep in his guts, that she was telling the full truth. Every human lies, he thought, every human exaggerates, every human stretches the truth, especially women, because women like attention. He’d assumed it, and he had not warned her, not well enough. In assuming she was probably lying – which, ok, that was reasonable, it was a cop’s nature to doubt – he’d overlooked the possibility that she hadn’t been lying at all.
He looked at the clock on his phone. Twelve minutes. Twelve minutes, that is, if she wasn’t already dead and stuffed into a cupboard in the restaurant or stuffed into a rubbish bin in a marketplace or stuffed in a suitcase in a cargo hold or put through an air exchanger and sent out into space. Tammy could be out there now, frozen and floating. Maybe her last thought had been hoping that Nicky would come for her, maybe she had reassured herself that he would with her dying breath.
If Judge Airecophf had appeared before him in that moment, he would have strangled the fucker, strangled him till his bizarre ugly humanoid face was purple or whatever color his species turned when strangled, punching him several times for good measure. Because without that DNA warrant, not only wouldn’t they find her alive, they surely wouldn’t find her dead, and her body would be sent off in a garbage scow to rot, or left to float forever in space, which seemed even worse than rotting. “What do you care,” Nicky imagined Airecopfh saying to him. “There are 400 quadrillion sentient beings in this galaxy! What difference does one life make?” A difference. She made a difference to me. My woman, mine, MINE. God, she could be in the bloody GARBAGE.
He dug his thumb into the spot between his eyes, and his lids felt heavy from despair, so he shut them. When he closed his eyes the image of the woman lying on top of the Uber bleeding came to him, and he opened them again.
Stan burst in and he had with him the Sophroid that worked in victim support. He assumed Stan had brought the Sophroid to counsel him or impart upon him some nonsensical bit of psychobabble, all things happened for a reason, or when one door closes, or even if you love something set it free, because Stan, without the benefit of human empathy, didn’t understand that none of those things were even remotely close to what Nicky wanted to hear right then. Stan thought that the way people talked on fiction programs was the way to talk to human beings in real life. “Don’t distract me,” Nicky said, even though he hadn’t been doing anything but trying not to completely freak the fuck out. “Go away, Stan, you’re distracting me.”
“You gotta hear this, buddy,” Stan said, and something in his tone made Nicky stop staring at the computer and glance back over his shoulder. He noticed the Sophroid was holding a child, a smaller, cuter version of herself. “It’s a hell of a story.”
Tamsin noticed some feeling coming back to her extremities. Not completely, but it was there, definitely. It felt like she was pricking all over with pins and needles. She was careful not to give the game away, but when the men looked away from her, she focused on testing her limits, wiggling her fingers and toes ever so slightly, trying to see how reduced her capabilities yet were.
As the minutes passed by, Ash had grown increasingly paranoid. Even though the men he’d hired were halfheartedly trying to convince him that the shuttlecraft delay had nothing to do with them, Ash went through the world thinking everything was about him all the time, that he was the center of the whole galaxy. It made him prone to paranoia, because he assumed that everyone was thinking about him all the time, either admiring him, or plotting against him.
The funny thing was, she wasn’t totally convinced he was wrong. That gate clanking shut, preventing the shuttlecraft from launching, had gotten her hopes up. It was weird, even the shuttlecraft pilot had seemed to think it was weird, and though Tamsin was clutching at straws, it seemed like in this case, weird might mean possibly good.
Probably it was just wishful thinking, probably Nicky didn’t even know she was gone, and even if he did, he probably didn’t care. Yet that stupid hope slithering around in Tamsin’s belly just didn’t wanna call it a day. Tamsin knew it was just X-Files Syndrome, she wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that the delay was because Nicky was trying to find her. She wanted to believe it so bad, not only because she’d maybe get rescued, but also because it made her happy to think maybe this time she had someone on her side finally, that maybe someone legit cared about her.
If it had been just the alien authorities looking she’d know that it was over, she was fucked, they were too fatalistic about the number of beings in the galaxy to give a shit about her fate. But if a human man was trying to find her, well, human men didn’t just shrug and tell themselves there were enough people in the galaxy already. That’s not how human men worked. Human men kept going until they couldn’t keep going any more.
He probably wasn’t, but what if he was? A half an hour just wasn’t enough time, she didn’t think. She had to give Nicky more time. As the men argued, she managed to push herself closer to the door, and closer still.
“I don’t get paid enough to butter your balls, Pulsipher.” one of the thugs said to Ash. “I’m here to tell the truth, and the truth is, sometimes shuttles get delayed, and it doesn’t MEAN anything.”
“But how do you KNOW that,” Ash replied. “We don’t know that, and it seems to me like we should shoot our way out, or something.”
“You realize, don’t you, that shooting our way out of Tashalos Station is not exactly inconspicuous,” the pilot explained, as if he was talking to someone very stupid. “Not exactly the best way to make a clean getaway.”
“We’d be to the jump point before they came after us.” Ash just had to be the expert in everything, even things he’d never done before in his life like piloting a shuttlecraft. As far as Tamsin was aware, Ash had never even ridden on a shuttlecraft, let alone flown one.
“But how do you KNOW that,” one of the men said, and Tamsin realized the man was mocking Ash again. They clearly disliked Ash. She hoped that their dislike bestowed some benefit on her upcoming escape attempt, though she still didn’t count on getting the slightest bit of help from them.
Ash, despite his many flaws, was not completely deluded. He realized he was being mocked. “Well, you certainly won’t be getting a recommendation in the future,” he said, as if his good opinion meant anything to a professional thug. Ok, maybe he was completely deluded.
“Hey, fucktard, I don’t care about getting a recommendation in the future! I care about not getting my ass shot and/or arrested.”
“If it’s a money thing, I can double your salary. But you’re going to have to earn it.”
“Mr. Pulsipher,” the pilot said, patiently, as if he was talking to a child or someone incredibly stupid, “there’s not enough money in the galaxy to make me shoot my way out of a space station. You get that? Shooting your way out of a space station – if the shuttlecraft survived undamaged, which it probably wouldn’t – is generally considered the beginning of a life-ruining series of bad decisions.”
“Well maybe I’ll do it then,” Ash half-stood as if he was going to make a move towards the shuttlecraft’s arsenal.
That was enough for the pilot. “You idiot, it’s damn near been thirty minutes. All we have to do is wait a few more minutes and we’ll be free to go. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I can’t believe you think they’re just going to let us leave,” Ash protested. “This is obviously happening for a reason!”
“Not everything is about you,” the pilot replied. “Now sit down and shut up, or I’m going to have to restrain you.”
An alarm started sounding and Tamsin heard some familiar clunking from outside the ship. The gate that had swung out over the shuttle bay door in the floor before them was opening, and her window of opportunity was closing. Using every ounce of the limited strength she possessed, she managed to push to her knees and reach up. With the tips of her fingers she managed just barely to hit the button that opened the shuttle door. As she did it, she was already falling so she made sure she fell forward, out of the door as it slid open before her. She scraped down the shuttle’s stairs and hit the floor hard because she had no strength in her arms to stop herself. Even though she didn’t feel much courtesy of the painkillers, it really rang her bell.
“Uh oh, we got a runner,” one of the thugs said in a bored way.
“Do you blame her,” another one of them said. “Having to live with this douche? I’d try to kill myself too.”
Run. Run! Tamsin urged herself onward, but her body just wasn’t working right. She got her feet up under her for a moment and took a couple sliding steps on the slick cement, then fell again. She struggled to crawl forward, then gave up on that and dried to drag herself with her arms. She wasn’t even close to the exit from the shuttlecraft bay and she heard a defeated sob escape her lips. Her limbs were so weak it reminded her of the first few steps she’d taken after the accident, but at least she’d had physical therapists walking right alongside her. She rolled over once, then twice, and then she was so exhausted all she could do was lay there.
She heard a noise and turned her head. Ash was standing in the open shuttlecraft door. “This is getting real tedious, Tammy,” Ash said, as he jumped down to the ground, grabbing the guard rail around the atmospheric force field and resting his foot on the metal railing. He rested his forearm against his thigh, striking a pose like a model or something. “Dr. Brooks says you only run away from me because you want me to prove my love for you, but what more can I do here? I mean, do you want me to knock you out totally? Because I can do that if you want. I don’t care if you’re conscious, I guess, I mean, I thought we could get reacquainted on the way home, but if you’re gonna be difficult, fine.” Ash shook his head incredulously, and went back to peer inside the shuttlecraft. One of the thugs met him at the door, Tamsin could see him standing there, blocking Ash’s path. “Hand me the dermal injector and the horse tranquilizers, would you?”
“Yeah, no, sorry. We talked it over and decided you’re probably right. Something is up with all this. It just feels….I don’t know. Hinky.”
“Hinky?” Ash repeated.
“Yeah, hinky. And um, we’re, we’re just gonna head for home now. We don’t want trouble. This is your plan, not ours. If anyone is left holding the bag, it’s gonna be you.”
“Um, excuse me? NO, that is not happening. You can’t do that. I’m a very important man on my homeworld!”
“Eh,” the thug said. “Who isn’t?” He kicked Ash in the chest, a pushing kick with the sole of his black boot, which he could do easily because he was up on the steps and Ash wasn’t. Ash fell over backwards onto his ass and slid a little ways across the slick floor of the bay.
The shuttle door slid closed and then its wheels started turning. The shuttle rolled towards the hole in the floor covered by the atmospheric force field. With her limp arm across her belly, panting and completely spent, she watched as the shuttle teetered on the brink and then rolled down the ramp, passing through the atmospheric force field, launching into space. The shuttlecraft would freefall for a few seconds, and then when it was safely clear of the station, the pilot would ignite the engines. The thugs would head off for one of the jump points that surrounded Tashalos, each of them leading to a station, a planet, a transit hub where people could change shuttles or catch a bigger transport to one of the more distant systems. A distant system sounded great; Tamsin wished she was going somewhere far away, like Stan’s homeworld, whatever it was.
Ash scrambled to his feet and ran after the shuttlecraft, staring dumbly as the last little bit of the roof was swallowed up by the atmospheric force field. The shuttle descended into space. Ash sighed. His shoulders slumped. The gate of the guard rail started to swing shut but he stopped it with his hand and just stood there staring after the shuttle. Tamsin couldn’t help it, she started to laugh. “Oh you think so, do you?” Ash pushed the gate back open again and shoved the sleeves of his sport coat up higher on his forearm as he walked towards her. But it was just so fucking funny, she couldn’t even stop herself from laughing. “Prepare to get your wish, Tammy. You said you’d rather I killed you than take you home, well, it looks like that is definitely on the agenda for today!”
Men are afraid of women laughing at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. She had read that somewhere, and yet she couldn’t stop laughing. The look on Ash’s face as the shuttle disappeared, leaving him behind, was priceless. It was like watching all his hopes and schemes and plans go right down the drain.
Ash dropped to his knees beside her. He put his left hand around her throat and started choking her and she still laughed at him even though she had no oxygen. He was so pitiful and sad. All he could do was kill her. But he couldn’t make her obey. He couldn’t even make her stop laughing at him. Maybe he would kill her, but her laughter would live in his head forever, she knew it, living there rent free, just like people said. As for her, her spirit, it would live on too. Somehow. It would live on in a lot of other women, women all across the galaxy, that sisterhood borne from finally realizing that even if they kill you, even if they steal your whole entire life away, they’ll never defeat you, as long as you lived on your own terms for as long as you could. Even if it was only a minute or two.
As the black spots rose before her eyes Tamsin realized her fear was gone, entirely gone. Because freedom, true freedom, lay in accepting it was your life and yours alone. Nobody else could own your life, nobody else could own you. Even if that knowledge cost you that life, the truth that a woman’s life belonged to her was something that men like Ash were petrified in terror of women finding out about.
As long as you held fast to that truth, they may kill you, but they would never win.
Ash tried to pick her up by her throat like a villain with super strength lifting an enemy, but he struggled to climb to his feet. He couldn’t manage it, he wasn’t strong enough. Nicky could have done it, could have done it easily, but Ash wasn’t strong enough. Nicky could have done it, but he wouldn’t have done it, that was the thing. Not all men are bad, you know.
Tamsin was able to suck in a breath and she started laughing all over again, laughing at how puny and weak Ash really was, that was why he picked on a defenseless little girl when there were creatures in the galaxy that could have ripped him right in two without even trying. She dropped from his grip onto her stomach, the palms of her hands hitting the cement with a smack. Ash stood up and took her by the hair instead. Once he had the weight of her upper body under his control, he shifted her over so he had her by the hair and the black shiny belt he made her wear. And then he dragged her forwards, the belt digging into her stomach so much it made it hard to take a breath. She kept laughing anyway.
He started towards the atmospheric force field and Tamsin realized he was planning to throw her into it, out of it, just like how he’d thrown her off the balcony. Only this time she’d be going into space, not onto the ground below; there was something unbelievably horrifying about that. What if they didn’t find her? Would she be floating around out there forever? No one would ever know what happened to her, she’d just be debris, flotsam, or jetsam maybe, alone in the cold and dark till she got scooped up by the cleaner robots and incinerated.
That was why he’d opened up the guard rail, the part where the shuttle left through, to throw her out into space. Ash walked past the rail, as close to the force field as he could. “I don’t think an Uber is gonna save you this time, Tammy,” Ash said, then he flung her with all his strength at the force field, which stretched out beneath her like a swimming pool, only pink and sparking.
Just like when she’d fallen from the balcony, there was a long moment of weightlessness. She figured that since she was going into space, that weightlessness would probably last until she died. If you held your breath when you went from atmosphere into space, your lungs would burst and you’d die faster, or so she’d heard. Dying faster sounded good, so she held her breath, and shut her eyes too because she’d heard your tears would boil on your eyeballs otherwise and it was supposed to be the most painful thing that a human being could ever experience.
But the feeling of weightlessness went on and on and on and her lungs never burst. She had to take a breath so she did, but her lungs still didn’t burst. Reopening her eyes, Tamsin realized that she was still in the shuttle bay somehow. The force field was right in front of her face, but she was hovering in midair for some reason, stretched out like Superman. There was a hand around her leg pulling her back. She started to panic, flailing and kicking, even though she was still very weak and really couldn’t move much at all. Her hand penetrated the force field, and she felt the cold in her fingers for a split second before she snatched it back again. Then she was so exhausted she ran out of gas and just hung there.
“Tammy,” a voice said, and this time, it was the right voice, because it said “Tah-meh.” She whipped her head around, and the momentum spun her entire body. Her legs got all crisscrossed because someone had a hold of one of them. She didn’t see Nicky until she looked down. It was his hand around her leg; such a big hand it was, his fingers went halfway up her calf and she felt like he was an anchor, tying her to life.
She realized Nicky had shot her, he had shot her with his weapon, which was not a gun apparently, but some sort of zero-grav device like the ones they used to move the pallets around in her old home the cargo bay. Only it was smaller. His one hand held the device aimed at Tamsin, and while she couldn’t see any beam coming out of it, the air was wiggly between them, like a heat mirage. His other hand, of course, was around her ankle while she floated there like a balloon. He had come all the way out onto the launch ramp to get her, which was very dangerous because it was really steep, like forty-five degrees steep. His toes were right on the edge where the force field began and it scared her, not for her own sake, but for his.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve got you. Stop fighting.” Tamsin realized that every time she moved her momentum pushed her closer to the force field, and she nodded. Nicky pulled her backwards so she was no longer right above the forcefield, but at the edge of the ramp. He didn’t seem to be able to move her any further than that; there seemed to be some conflict with the way the anti-grav device functioned. He had to keep it aimed right at her a particular way for it to keep working, it seemed like. “Ready?”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen so I don’t know if I’m ready,” she said.
“Just…be ready,” he said, frowning so much it made the lines in his cheeks and between his brows very prominent. “Whatever happens, I want you to hold very still, do you understand? I won’t let you go, I promise you, if you go we’re both going, but,” he breathed a shuddering breath as if whatever was about to happen was so difficult and so dangerous he was even afraid himself. “Make it easy on me, eh?”
All at once, he let go of her ankle with a yanking movement pulling her upwards, and he grabbed her around the middle with the same arm in the very next nanosecond. When he shifted her so much, so suddenly, the anti-grav stopped working as she’d feared it might, and she flew forward again with as much velocity as if Ash had just thrown her. But Nicky was there, and he had her, though she was upside down and falling off to his left side. As she fell, he pushed back on his feet so he ended up on his butt beside her. She hit hard and felt herself sliding but Nicky managed to keep hold of her.
Then they both started sliding. If you go, we’re both going, he had said, and they were both going. He dropped the weapon to grab ahold of the guard rail with his right hand, barely snagged it with the tips of his fingers, and then he jerked her upwards with all his might, till she was up on his lap under his arm. His gun, which he had dropped, slid down the ramp and through the forcefield into space. Tamsin could see it floating end over end and away.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I should have come sooner.”
“You came right in time.”
From Nicky’s perspective, he had very very much not come right in time, but several minutes too late. To be honest he wasn’t sure if he’d really saved her or if he was imagining he had, that’s how close a thing it had been. He was afraid he was going to blink and come back to reality, to see her floating off into space, or to realize he had slipped down the ramp after her and her freezing was the last sight he’d see while the tears boiled off his eyeballs.
“You got it, bro?” Stan asked, somewhere off in the distance where Tamsin couldn’t see him, in a strained voice that made her think he was fighting.
“I got it,” Nicky said, and so he did. Using his legs he push-pulled Tamsin up the ramp, easing her back onto the flat floor of the shuttlecraft bay, making sure she was safe before he pulled himself up after.
Stan had Ash down on the floor and Ash was screaming. “Get it off me! Get it off me!”
Stan looked at Nicky with an amused expression. “I think this feller would prefer to deal with the human detective, Buchanan.”
“The human detective is off sick for the night, sorry to say,” Nicky said dismissively, as he stood up. That surprised Tamsin a little, because she knew if the shoe had been on the other foot, that Ash would have beat the shit out of Nicky and probably even killed him if he thought he could get away with it. Even though honestly she would have loved to see it, she was kind of impressed by Detective Buchanan’s forbearance. It was like he thought of Ash as not even worth his time, which he wasn’t.
“That’s probably for the best,” Stan said to Ash. “I hear he doesn’t like you very much.”
“Are you all right?” Nicky asked. Tammy was still sprawled out on the floor, breathing hard. She looked bloody awful. The brute had knocked her around badly, and Nicky’s clumsy rescue hadn’t helped; she’d fallen hard and he hadn’t been able to cushion it, because it had taken every ounce of his strength to keep her from tumbling into space. Her lip was split and her nose bloodied, her cheek was blackening. There were bruises forming up and down her bare arms and she had barked one of her shins terribly. The tights she was wearing were all ripped away, the skin was peeled off and the flesh was weeping clear liquid.
“He gave me something that made me all woobely,” Tamsin explained. “I don’t think I can stand up.”
Nicky helped her to her feet, but she couldn’t stand without help. He put his arm around her, but she couldn’t support her own weight even with assistance. He swung her up into his arms like a baby. The full skirt of her dress must have fallen forward and gone into space, because it was frozen solid. She inhaled sharply when the coldness hit her legs. “You need a doctor,” he said, authoritatively. “A hospital. I’ll take you…”
“No,” Tamsin said.
Nicky thought about it, thought about everything she’d been through, medically speaking, and gave in. He had a feeling making demands on her would not be well received, for obvious reasons, and firmly resolved never to make any. “No doctor,” he said, envisioning carefully pressing a warm cloth against her wounds to cleanse them, dabbing them with antiseptic cream, pressing a soft kiss onto every one of her bruises.
Some uniformed policemen hurried into the cargo bay to help Stan subdue Ash, though honestly it didn’t look like Stan needed much help in that department. They dragged him out and the whole time he was crowing about wanting a lawyer. “I want one, too, Ash,” she said. “A divorce lawyer.”
“That was some sharp shooting, Wyatt Earp,” Stan said. Then he looked at Tamsin with an incredulous expression as if she had come back from the dead and laughed.
“Was it close?” Tamsin found herself vaguely curious how near she came to death this time.
“Closer than I would have liked,” Nicky said, drily. And it had been. Because the antigrav didn’t completely stop forward momentum, only slowed it, she would have gone out into space anyway if he hadn’t been able to pull her back again; he would have had to make the terrible decision of letting her die slowly freezing bit by bit, or taking his finger off the trigger and letting it happen all at once, effectively killing her himself. If the foci blurred and the beam had fallen out of phase, which could easily have happened if she’d kept wiggling around, or if his thumb had slipped off the trigger, which it very nearly had when he’d sprinted across the bay after her, that full forward momentum would have been restored. Antigravs were handy as hell when trying to catch a fleeing criminal in an enclosed space, where you could just shoot them again if you lost your focal point, as often as you needed. Not so much for preventing someone from plummeting through an atmospheric force field. If anything had gone the slightest bit wrong, he’dve lost her.
“I thought you were gonna be a human female popsicle for sure,” Stan said. “No joke.”
“Shut up, Stan,” Nicky said, and kissed her, very gently. He could taste her blood on his tongue.
Just then the Sophroid walked in. “Urgh!” she said, as if disgusted, and covered her baby’s eyes.
“I know, it’s fucked up, right?” Stan said, incredulously. “They keep doing it!”
“Did I do the right thing, Mother?” the baby Sophroid said, in a high little piping voice, trying to peek around her mother’s appendage to see the show.
“You did, darling girl,” the Sophroid replied. She had never had a female offspring before, only males, and although she loved her sons very much, she found that she was very pleased by the prospect.
Then, attracted by the pheromones that the Sophroid gave off, the Sophroid’s remaining offspring – only four left now – came into the shuttle bay, snarling and snapping and wringing each other’s necks with their appendages. The Sophroid watched them for a long moment, and then calmly stomped them one after the other. A small cry of protest escaped Tamsin’s lips, and she was happy to see a shocked, disgusted expression on Nicky’s face for a moment before he wiped it away. Xenophobia, party of two.
“Are you gonna eat those,” Stan asked.
“Please, help yourself,” the Sophroid said. “I think we’re going to get pizza.”
“Oh can we, Mother?” the baby Sophroid gushed.
“Yes, darling girl, the Sophroid replied, and she and her daughter left.
Stan started whistling a sea shanty through his pointed teeth as he picked up the dead ephyrae from the floor. “There’s plenty, guys, what do you say?” he asked, and then continued in a terrible faux Australian accent. “Shall we throw some shrimps on the barbie?”
Nicky and Tamsin looked at each other and were both very happy to see a human staring back at them. “Pizza, sounds pretty good, to me, honestly,” Tamsin suggested.
“Agreed,” Nicky said. “Pizza it is.”