Nia Ross scares me a little bit. We smash through the prison’s perimeter barrier in a relentless surge of acceleration and streak away into the darkness of a stormy night with a piece of wire fence flapping against the roof. The thin air carries clouds of tiny dust particles that obscure vision, but don’t offer a lot of physical resistance.
“You shouldn’t be going so fast in these conditions.”
“I know what I’m doing, Mel…vin? It’s Melvin right?”
Now I notice the small object she’s holding to her eye. “Yeah, but I prefer Jayce. What’s that?”
“It’s my multitool. The optical viewer translates all wavelengths of light into visible ones. Dad’s friends got it to me along with an experimental nanobot injection. That was a risk, but it paid off ‘cause I was able to mentally hack the prison security systems.”
“I’m assuming you have a destination in mind.”
“Yeah, plan is to meet dad and his friend at one of our hideouts in the canyons. First I need to check on my ship though.”
“I need to get back and check on my mom.”
“That’s one of the places they’ll expect us to go. They’ve already got drones watching it, I guarantee. Best to get help first, and go back when they expect us to be somewhere else.”
Nia slows the cruiser so abruptly my head flops forward and the harness punches the air out of my lungs. She takes a hard left and then we drop over some rough terrain and my stomach lurches. She stops the cruiser and then kills the engine and flips down the visor of her helmet. “Out, and make it quick.”
“You can’t stay with a stolen craft. They’ll track it in a hurry. Now come on, we’re pretty close to my ship.”
I follow her through the darkness, or rather I follow the narrow blade of light from her multitool’s flashlight function. Suddenly the light vanishes and I shout in surprise, thinking she’s fallen. I stop, and see that she’s actually begun climbing down a steep ravine into the canyon. There’s no way I can keep up with her.
“Hey, Nia. I’m gonna lose you if you don’t slow down.”
She looks back and the light almost blinds me.
“Ouch, careful with that thing.”
My suit gives me a first warning of low oxygen. I climb down to Nia as fast as I dare, and show her the oxygen level, putting two fingers over my mouth with my lips sealed. She nods, understanding.
We make the rest of the climb in silence. I don’t know how long it takes, only that I use half my remaining oxygen to do it. Nia checks my level at the bottom and gives me a thumbs up, but I don’t know if she’s being honest or keeping me from panicking.
I follow her at a brisk walk, watching my oxygen tank slowly deplete. It’s reached about five percent when we turn a corner around a large rock formation and Nia stops.
“Here,” she says.
She giggles and reaches out her magic nanobot-infused hand to touch the rocks. Lights flash all around me and the side of the cliff changes color. It takes my mind a moment to reprocess what I thought was rocks into a spaceship lying on its side. I’m too dazzled to say anything.
“It’s beautiful, right?”
“Yeah.” I feel a sudden jolt of excitement like I haven’t experienced since childhood. I loved everything about space and moving to Mars was a dream come true. I miss that feeling.
“One of the ion thrusters is broken but it’ll still limp us over to the hideout.”
“Won’t they see us?”
“Not if I keep the main engine off and stay close to the ground. It’s basically just a big cruiser like that garbage we stole, except it’s camouflaged and untrackable.”
I’m a little hurt to hear her call the Mackin 8500 garbage, but her spaceship is undeniably beautiful, even a bit smashed up. I follow her into the cockpit and strap into the seat, which is difficult with gravity pulling me sideways. Once the cabin is pressurized and she gives me the all-clear signal, we remove our helmets. Then I watch as Nia deftly brings the ship to life, fires thrusters manually to right it, and locks it into a stable hover two meters above the ground. She gives me a quick look and a grin as she fastens her own harness.
“Are you ready, Jayce?”
“I don’t know.”
“I like your honesty.” She grabs the yoke and in an instant I’m pressed back in my seat, feeling my cheeks pulled toward my ears. It’s a sort of force I’ve only felt once before, on the rocket when we left Earth. When we reach a speed I am very uncomfortable with, she stops accelerating, but remains so focused on avoiding obstacles that I don’t dare distract her with questions or comments.
We fly for a few minutes before she decelerates nearly as forcefully, which almost makes me puke. For a few seconds I think we’re about to crash into the cliff, but then I notice a sort of cloaking curtain is opening into a hidden cavern.
Once we land and Nia powers down the ship, I let out a very audible sigh of relief.
“It was that bad?”
“I, well, it’s quite the experience.”
“No shit. I think it’s one of the best. Put your helmet on, the hangar ain’t pressurized.”
I do so and we exit the ship. Hangar is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s more of a hole blown into the side of a mountain big enough to fit a small ship. Nia leads me into an airlock set in the rock wall, and then we come out at the top of a stairwell. The walls are sealed stone, and atmosphere readings are good so we take off our stolen pressure suits.
“Ah, home,” Nia says. “One of them, at least.” She holds her multitool to her eye and scans all around. “Nobody here. Fuck.”
“I’m sure your dad is on his way.”
“Yeah, but his friend was supposed to be here.”
I follow her down the stairs into an expansive cavern, which is lavishly decorated with luxury items. A full bar takes up one corner, stocked with all sorts of top-shelf alcohol from Earth. Nia goes straight to a window and looks out into the canyon through her multitool.
“No sign of pursuit,” she says. “Damn that feels good. Oh, hey, what’s that?”
“Looks like a cruiser, heading away from here.”
She gives me a look through her device, and something about the little smudge of light seems familiar.
“Can you show me the spectrum of the engine?”
“Sure.” Nia grabs a tablet off a nearby desk and syncs it with her multitool. A spectrum analyzing app quickly shows us the engine’s unique fingerprint.
“I recognize it. Holy shit.”
“What is it?”
“One of my dad’s engines. He made four, as far as I know.”
“Who has them?”
“Me, my brother, my uncle, and one of dad’s rich friends, I don’t know who. I can’t tell them apart by the spectrum either.”
“Maybe someone stole yours?”
“Possible, it was left parked at work when I was arrested.”
“Hmm.” Nia looks out the window again. “I’m hungry, what about you?”
Nia grins. “The kitchen is through that door. Bathrooms are that way. I’m gonna take a shower first.”
That’s when I notice how sweaty I am. “I should do that too.”
“Sure, there are two separate rooms, and dad has some clothes that should fit you if you want something fresh. Follow me.”
Taking a shower after nearly a week in prison is like drowning your tongue in ice cream after licking a hot pepper. The perfectly warm water carries away the grime and stink, and some of the anxiety. I feel a bit more like a human, less like a pulsing ball of pure stress. I try to force my body to relax, but my neck and shoulders remain tense no matter what.
Standing with my head bowed, I let the water hit the back of my neck and pour over me. Nia told me the shower system cycles the water, purifying and heating it, so I don’t have to worry about conserving it. I can stand here for as long as I want. I stare at my gross little penis, feeling somehow both far away and painfully present.
How is this real? All I’ve ever done is try to follow the rules and take care of my mom. If I’d stayed in prison when the others escaped, maybe they would’ve seen I wasn’t a threat and my claims of innocence weren’t an act. Fuck, why am I thinking like that! The urgent desperation to get out of there is still so vivid in my mind.
I’m trying to cling to a system that has failed me yet again. Oh god, I have Stockholm syndrome! Is that what it’s called? When it feels like you don’t deserve your own body? Or is that something else.
I run my hands from my hips up my sides, trying to sense the boundaries of my body. It feels like someone else is touching me, like I’m touching someone else. I’m dissociating again, I guess. I drop my arms back to my sides, and my hand brushes my penis. Nausea twists my gut and I turn off the water. For a moment I stand with my eyes squeezed shut, breathing heavily, trying not to think about anything.
I wring out my hair, wrap it in a towel, and then emerge into the bedroom Nia told me was her dad’s. A double door opens to a huge walk-in closet, which is divided clearly into two sections. On the left, suits, jackets, all manner of uniforms and men’s outfits. It’s the wardrobe of someone who knows how to seamlessly fit into every corner of society.
And on the right, a colorful array of dresses, tunics, flaring pants, vests, lingerie, bras, everything a lady needs for any occasion. At first I think they’re Nia’s clothes, but on further inspection they’re obviously far too big for her. Perhaps her dad had a partner? A different thought flashes into my mind, and my stomach lurches a bit like it did in the spaceship but in a more exciting way.
My mind races as I take a red velvet dress off its hanger. Can I? There’s nobody to stop me. I just escaped from prison, I can do whatever the fuck I want. Oh crap, I’m gonna do it.
Slowly, in a bit of a daze, I hang the dress over my arm and stand in front of the full-length mirror at the back of the closet. With my free hand I pull the towel out of my hair and drop it on the floor. My wet locks hang heavily over my shoulders, nearly reaching my nipples, which look strangely small.
This is a bad idea, says something inside me, but the rest of me ignores it. I zip up the dress and then pull it over my head. It takes some squirming, but once I get into it, I fit with a little room to spare in spots. It feels good, like I’ve just put on something I want to wear for the first time.
I stare into the mirror, trying to keep the snarling dread locked down. For a moment I see someone I’ve never seen before, who is at the same time overwhelmingly familiar.
Then the magic breaks and I retch, turning away from the mirror and frantically wriggling out of the dress. Memories flash into my mind, selfies I took in my teens, weird things I said to people at school, recurring dreams I’ve had for as long as I can remember.
It’s too much. I’m not ready. I’m panicking and somehow in the mental fog I manage to put on an undershirt and a pair of sweat pants from the appropriately manly side of the closet. Then I sit on the floor in a corner, trying to shut the lid on this cauldron of shit I’ve been hiding away. How could one dress do this to me? Men wear dresses sometimes. I know some of them. I’m cool with it.
Why am I panicking? Right, I just escaped from prison. But that’s not what the panicking is about, and I know it. I can’t gaslight myself this time.
I hear a tremendous crash and the ground shakes, momentarily distracting me from the hurricane of anxiety and thoughts. I scramble under the bed, afraid chunks of rock might fall from the ceiling.
After the brief shock, everything goes quiet for a second and then Nia shouts. “Jayce, are you ok?”
She comes into the room as I emerge, and she looks as frazzled and anxious as I feel. “I think something exploded downstairs. We need to get out of here fast.”
I sit on the floor and stare at her, at the dust and smoke curling into the room behind her.
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“I said I’m alive.”
She frowns and seems to be analyzing my body language. “You look absolutely terrified.”
I try to force myself to relax again, and without warning the pressure in my belly surges upward and I double over sobbing.