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I could not hold on to her very long

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It wasn't that Ami didn't want to fly. All shell-people of her class did, dreaming of being the one to discover a new planet, or rescue an entire civilization, or have adventures of the kind that made up holodramas. And her intelligence scores and aptitude tests were off the charts. She was, she knew with the assurance common to her kind, too smart to waste herself running a mining colony for the next six or seven centuries.

No, she was a good ship. She wanted to see the galaxy, and the galaxies beyond that.

It was only that ships did not rest, was all. She'd heard stories from her older sisters in Central Worlds' Service. No sooner had she completed one mission than she would be off to the next. No sooner had she mourned one brawn than she would be expected to welcome a new one.

It frightened Ami, the thought of having nowhere to return to. No home.

She'd thought, once, that she might like to be a city or a planet. It would be nice to have an entire colony of people to care for, to nurture. She'd never be bored, with tht many lives to be responsible for, and it would be interesting to see the place evolve under her direction.

But Central Worlds' psych profiles were never wrong, and so a ship Ami was and would be.

And she had to admit, flying was really fun.

It was normal, she thought, to have some anxiety before starting on this sort of vocation. Ami knew her conditioning had held—Central would hardly clear her for takeoff if they had the slightest doubt on that score. That she herself wondered if it would be enough to satisfy her was proof that she remained human after all, and not the computer the shell-people's detractors painted her as. Ami had studied enough religion to know that questioning her own purpose was the most quintessentially human thing she could do. There was nothing she could do but find it, as so many had before her. A brawn would help with that, they all said. A partner. It would be good for Ami to have at least one human partner to take care of. Sometimes she wondered if that was a brawn's true purpose…not so much meant to serve as her mobile half as to keep her from going mad. To make her believe she had a higher purpose, some sort of connection to the human community that birthed her.

If that were true, then so be it. Central Worlds knew its business, after all, or so Ami told herself.

Isis, though, refused looking after. In Ami's fantasies of who she would pick, she'd always cast a man—handsome and rugged and strong, the prototype of a young shelled girl's dreams. There were plenty of candidates who fit the bill, but the second Isis stepped aboard, Ami knew she could have no other. Isis was tiny, just above the minimum height for a female brawn. Instead of the standard spacewoman's shoulder-length cut, Isis wore her golden-brown hair in a braided crown atop her head. She was foul-mouthed and funny and irreverent—Ami thought her Supervisor must have given their pairing his blessing because he'd hoped they'd balance each other out somehow. And Isis came with a passel of siblings, of which she was eldest and whom she bossed around with impunity.

Ami adored her desperately, in a way she knew her elder sisters would mock her for. She knew shells needed a brawn, but she hadn't realized Isis would be so much fun. Isis brought her trinkets from their various missions—paintings of seascapes and green vistas, jewelry from the towns she visited on their missions, woven rugs for her bunk and for Ami's rooms. "You need color, babe," she'd say, laughing. "Make this place more like a home."

Ami tried not to feel hurt by that. She was not a place, and yet she wished to be Isis's home, if she could. At least as much of one as her human family, who Ami found perplexing in a fascinating way.

The siblings approved of Ami, at least enough to have frequent parties aboard her whenever Isis had shore leave, which she claimed wasn't nearly often enough. Sara, second-eldest, danced around Ami's galley when she first came aboard. "I can't believe you have a ship, Ice! Your own ship!"

"Ami is entirely her own," said Isis loyally. Ami knew she should be grateful her brawn insisted on her personhood, her right to self-determination. Some young brawns, she knew, were not so principled. Did not treat their brawns as full partners.

Still. She wouldn't mind belonging to Isis.

The boys, still in school, Percy and Thorn, were in awe of her and of Isis. They barely spoke a word as Isis showed them the panels through which she could check Ami's readouts, the starmaps that showed where they had been. Ami felt a tenderness toward them that was hard to recognize. If she didn't have access to her own readouts she would say her heart beat faster, that something warmed within her at the sight of them, but of course her systems were under better regulation than that.

Most interesting of all was Isis's mother, Kira. Ami liked the way she played music for them, and the way she asked Ami about her missions made Ami suspect she might once have been Service herself. It was Kira that made Ami invite the family to spend the night aboard her, for she was curios, and she could tell the older woman was too. Something in the sharpness of her gaze made Ami feel as though she saw more of Ami's feelings for her daughter than she'd realized. Ami both wanted her approval and wasn't sure whether she approved, herself—Isis had spoken about her difficult mother more than once.

She wasn't surprised when Kira came to her after settling the boys down for the night. "You seem very taken with my daughter," she said without preamble, as if it were funny, as if Ami's love were a joke.

"Aren't you?" Ami asked. She too was human enough to make love into a barb.

"Best thing that ever happened to me," said Kira unapologetically.

Ami had always been honest to a fault, one of the main traits her psych profile showed about her. "Me too."

"I knew a ship who loved her brawn once," Kira said. "It seemed cruel to me…not the loving part, but that they would just expect you to move on, without rest, without sleep."

"It is," said Ami, "but I'd rather have her than the alternative."

"Of course you'd say that, what alternative would they give you? What alternative would they give anyone, but to just go on?" An old bitterness there, one Ami didn't want to examine.

"I think," Ami found herself saying, "that I would find it easier if I knew…there would be something left of us. Something that would go on." Children, she thought but didn't say. It would not be impossible, merely very difficult and costly. It wasn't like the old days where shell people could never leave their shells. If she were willing to bear the cost of it and forsake Pay-off, she could even have the physical union with Isis she had to admit she craved, through the use of a prosthetic body. They could be an idyllic little family, the way Ami imagined her birth parents and siblings must be.

That is, until Isis got old and died, and their children and theirs after her. Ami didn't think she could bear to watch that, generation after generation of her beloveds slipping away from her. But wouldn't she have to do that anyway, with her next brawn and the one after that? Ami knew she wasn't a ship that could only love one person forever, which was why she had thought it might be best to be a city or a station in the first place. She might not love every brawn the way she did Isis, but she knew she would love some of them, and mourn all of them just the same.

Sometimes Ami wondered if she were more tired than a ship ought to be at her age.

"You'd think," Kira said. "It is and isn't. I thought kids would heal me and instead they just…made me more. Of who I already was, good and bad."

"Why are you telling me this?" Ami could not help but ask.

"So you know. It's a raw deal they give you, you ships, and I wanted you to know…you have a right to be angry about it. If you like."

Her conditioning precluded her from expressing too much anger. Anger was the sort of thing that led to rogue ships. To ending one's life too young, before Central had gotten the centuries of use out of a ship which it naturally regarded as its right. To the immolation of worlds. She wanted to tell Kira as much, but something told her the older woman already knew.

"Oh my God, Mom, leave my ship alone," Isis said, bursting into the main cabin.

"We're just getting to know each other, honey," Kira said mildly.

"You mean you're doing that weird thing you do where you get inside people's heads. Ami didn't sign up for that, stop it."

They bickered a few minutes more, like Ami imagined all mothers and daughters did, then Kira bid them good night. Ami wished the moment had not been broken, but didn't know what she would have said otherwise.

"God, I'm sorry, babe," Isis said, sinking down into the pilot's chair that was more of a formality on a BB ship. "My family's a lot. My mom, especially, is a lot. I won't invite them back if you don't want."

No one got onto Ami's bridge that Ami didn't want there. But there was no need to remind her brawn of that. "I don't mind. It's nice to have…people. Even if they are a lot." And even if Kira now knew more of how Ami felt about Isis than Isis did herself. Ami had faith that she could carry that knowledge.

"You're all the people I need, babe."

How Ami wished that were so! But no, it was good that there were others out there who loved her girl as much as she did. "Nah. Just the best ship you know."

"Damn straight," said Isis. "Best person too. Anyway, they'll be gone tomorrow and we can get on with our life."

Would it feel just like tomorrow, when Isis too was gone? "I'm going to do a systems check. You should probably get some sleep."

"Rub it in," Isis groused, but did. Ami surreptitiously made sure the temperature in her cabin was exactly the way she liked it and downloaded the next three adventure novels in the series she didn't like to admit she read were on her reader for the morning.