excerpt of Slip Point
Atop a hill on Centuris, a girl and a boy eyed each other warily. He'd come prepared, a blanket rolled under his arm and binoculars dangling from his neck. The binoculars were still swaying with the force of his stop after he'd dashed up the hill and saw her at the same moment she'd spotted him.
Shayalin had run here, too, knowing her mother wouldn't approve but unable to stay away. This was the best hill from which to see ships descend to the spaceport, and they came to the colony only once a year.
"I'm watching the supply ships from here," she said, waiting for his reaction. The boys of her acquaintance liked ships, but when they played with their models they crashed them into each other in mock space battles. They never listened when she pointed out that ships used long-range weapons instead of brute collisions.
He fingered the strap of his binoculars. "So'm I."
Return to impasse. She knew the shadows were creeping longer and arrival was approaching.
"I guess we can both watch," he said, sounding resigned in the face of time slipping away.
She sat down on the grass and hugged her knees.
"You're going to stain your skirt."
She turned to stare at him, wondering if her mother had suddenly appeared in his place. But standing there still was the same boy with freckles and ruddy hair and no business telling her about the state of her clothes.
He looked abashed. "That's all the girls in school care about, not getting dirty."
"All the boys care about is fighting."
"I want to fight," he said. "But in a ship."
"My dad fought in a ship," she said.
He was suitably impressed. "A pilot?"
But now he grew skeptical. "Of a scout ship?"
"Cargo," she admitted.
"And he fought?"
"Pirates attacked his ship. He died. Before I was born."
He was quiet.
She looked resolutely upward, although the stars were blurred through her tears. Shayalin had never known her father, but how many times had her mother said in exasperation that she took after him? He would have understood her and her longing to get off-planet, she was sure.
There was a soft rustle and then, "You can sit on it too." He'd spread out the blanket and sat on one side, leaving enough room for her.
She accepted his peace offering, scooting onto the nearest corner. "I had to come out when my mom wasn't looking. So I didn't have time to change."
"She doesn't like ships?"
"She doesn't like that I want to be on one. She wants me to stay on Centuris and take up her hearth and help the colony grow. But I want to go up there, just like my dad."
"Yeah, when I grow up I'm joining the Corps. I'm going to be a fighter pilot! I'll take care of those pirates." He aimed an imaginary blaster and pretended to blow pirates out of the air.
"I'll take care of them myself," she said.
"Not if I get to them first!"
They glared at each other.
She was wondering if she should get off the blanket when his gaze shifted and he threw an arm upward to point. "Look!"
It was a bright star at first, flaring against Centuris's atmosphere, but it grew swiftly to dwarf everything else in the evening sky. She knew it was headed for the spaceport, but for a moment she imagined it was coming toward her. It was a supply ship, all bulk and blank metal, but to her it couldn't have been more beautiful.
"Horizon-class," the boy said, binoculars glued to his face.
She ached to ask but bit her tongue. He sensed the question anyway. To her surprise, he lowered the binoculars and said diffidently, "Want to see?"
She held them up just in time to watch the ship turn, as though to show its best profile for her. She could even read the name on its hull: Cornucopia.
"There's another!" he said, and she swung the binoculars over to drink in the gleaming lines of another ship. They always sent more than one to the Rim colonies in case some misfortune befell one — pirates, perhaps, or a slipspace miscalculation.
Space was dangerous, her mother always said. That was the point, Shayalin thought. Centuris was safe because nothing more exciting than occasional livestock raids happened here. Except the ships that came every year.
She handed the binoculars back. By then the ships were close enough for her to admire with her own eyes, but he used the binoculars until both ships settled into their cradles. It was almost night but the spaceport was brightly lit, and she was sure there was a commotion of people and machines as unloading commenced.
"I guess that's it 'til next time," she sighed.
"Yeah, it's too bad — but who can blame 'em?" He swept out his arm to indicate the planet they were on. "I wouldn't want to come to Centuris, either."
"I guess it's like waste duty," Shayalin said. It was the universally most hated chore, but it had to be done, and of course the adults foisted it off on the children.
"Guess what I'm supposed to be doing now."
"Oh." She was a little disappointed he was leaving, although there was nothing left to see.
But he didn't start down the hill yet. And instead of the doleful expression that usually accompanied announcements of waste duty, he wore a mischievous grin. "Want to try to sneak onto the spaceport and meet the crew?"
It never would have occurred to her to even dream up such a stunt, but spoken in his conspiratorial tones it seemed like the perfect thing to do.
She opened her mouth —
"Shayalin Cho!" It was her mother, standing at the base of the hill, stern even from down there.
"That's me," she said with a sigh.
"I guessed." He grinned again. "I'm Jayce."
He was all right, she decided. "Bye, Jayce. Thanks for letting me use the binocs."
"Bye, Shay," he said.
She picked her way down the hill, careful now that she was under her mother's watchful gaze.
"Who is that?" her mother asked, already holding out a jacket for Shayalin to slide her arms into.
"Jayce. He came to watch the ships too."
Her mother's lips thinned. "I hope you're not planning to spend too much time with him."
As simple as that, Shayalin decided Jayce was her new best friend.
* * *
Jayce won the race with his long stride and a triumphant grin cast backward as he crested the hill. He'd grown unfairly tall in the last several months, Shayalin thought as she put on a spurt of speed to catch up to him.
He wrapped an arm around her, pressing an affectionate kiss to her temple. "I counted three whole seconds," he said. "You're always making me wait, woman."
She caught his double meaning. "Silly Neanderthal. You have to subdue a saber-toothed tiger first to impress me before I'll run off with you."
"Is your mother a tiger then?"
She groaned and gave him a little push. It was true her mother disapproved of Jayce, but Shayalin rather thought she would have warmed up to him if not for the fact that he fueled her ambitions starward.
The Steaders who had colonized Centuris had come here by star-travel themselves, of course, but what they sought was what they called hearth — a home to stay in and care for with the simplest of lifestyles, nothing to do with star-spanning travel. They took their caretaker duties seriously, to the point where children were bound to their parents' households until they reached their majority. And Shayalin's mother had, of course, forbidden her to apply to the Corps. Dear, loyal Jayce, raised by a more lenient aunt who had even let him take a job in the spaceport as a translator, could have already gone. But he was waiting for her.
Shayalin glanced up at him. They were both sweaty from their run, his hair wind-tousled, the sun warm on the features of his face. He looked, she thought, utterly irresistible.
She stood on tiptoe and pulled his head down so she could kiss him. He made a noise, surprised but not unhappy, and kissed her back. His arms came up around her, and she drank in the feel of him, the musk of his sweat, the insistent weavings of his tongue. It was enough to make her forget the aches of the day's work.
When they eased away from each other he said, "See you tonight?"
She grimaced. "Can't. Sheep-watch. We lost some last night, and I've got to stand guard." She thought the sheep had simply strayed, as they were wont to do, but her mother insisted they'd been stolen.
"Your mother thinks rustlers would've stuck around?"
"That's what I said. But she gave me that look — you know the one — and a lecture about how the thief had already figured out how to do it, and that he'll try again. Just a few each night, so we'll think they wandered off on their own."
"How does she figure?" Jayce sounded genuinely curious. "It almost sounds like she's tried her own hand at rustling."
"She says people are lazy." She sighed. "I guess I haven't helped convince her otherwise, the way I take forever at my chores." Because she kept sneaking off to see Jayce. "And apparently the easiest place to hide is right under the seeker's nose."
"She has a point," he said thoughtfully.
"Don't you two start agreeing now."
He grinned. "What I meant was, how about I come out and help you guard?"
The offer was tempting, but. "You've got to get up early for your job in the spaceport. Besides, you'd distract me too much. They'd take the whole herd while we were fooling around."
"Why, Shay," he said, "I do believe that was a compliment."
"My mistake," she said archly. "What I meant was that I'd distract you." She stepped in close and rested her fingertips upon his face, centering his gaze on her. She ran her tongue over her lower lip.
His breathing roughened.
She kissed him deep and slow and heated, and one of his hands slid onto her waist. Then he suddenly bent and swept his other arm behind her knees, lifting her off her feet. She squeaked. "Jayce!"
He laid her down on the grass and bent over her to continue the kiss as though it had never been interrupted, stealing away her indignation. And her breath. And any intention to get back home anywhere near on time to guard the brainless, wandering sheep.
He pulled back to take in the sight of her. "Hey," he said softly, as though he'd only just discovered her.
"Hey, yourself." She arched up toward him, unwilling to keep any distance between them. She could feel her effect upon him, and she let her body slide along his length.
Jayce sucked in his breath and rolled off to one side. "Careful," he said, and there was a new note in his voice.
"Something the matter?" she asked innocently.
"You should get back before we go any further," he said.
"So sure of yourself?" She grinned, feeling cocky herself.
"Witch." He closed his eyes and let his head fall back as she licked her way up his neck and along the curve of his ear.
"You think I'm a hag?" She nipped at the lobe then sucked.
His breath caught before he could manage to respond. "As in bewitching."
"Flatterer." But when he opened his eyes she saw how he looked at her with simple wonder. There was only one other thing that put that look on his face — the promise of the stars.
He could've been there already. He was waiting for her.
Her birthday was still months away, and it felt like an eternity. After that, they'd have to wait for a supply ship to come in and ride it to the nearest station with a recruiting center.
She rolled onto her back and gazed skyward. The sun had dipped low, and darkness was gathering. In a while they'd be able to see the telltale shine of the next planet over, and the countless points of light that stretched farther than their eyes could see — but not past the reach of their dreams.
"We'll be going there soon," she said.
He didn't ask where, for they'd talked of it a thousand times. She slid her hand through the grass to find his. Their fingers tangled.
After a little bit she disengaged her hand, stood and dusted herself off. He didn't protest her going this time. After all, they would leave Centuris together.