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Signs of Life

Photo by Jo Hilton on Unsplash

“Hell, Fran,” the ‘tender said, staring at her from the far reaches of a sparkling infinity. “Can’t you manage to scrape a little more life into your face? We’ve got tourists coming in ten minutes; what the hell good are you to me if you’re passed out?”

Fran squinted up at the man, unsure whether it was worth the effort to try to get his face into some sort of focus. From the worn futon on which she lay, it looked as though he stretched past the range of the ceiling and out to the edge of the atmosphere; his voice shimmered with distance. Vaguely, she wondered whether he actually expected an answer.

Apparently not. Impossibly long arms pulled her into a semi-sitting position. The hands vibrated as they moved; Fran giggled.

“Verisimilitude,” Marty rumbled with disgust. “They tell me that they’ll only send their tours here if my place has verisimilitude. Do you know what that means, Fran? That means I have to supply you goddamn pastits with enough shit to keep you flying without killing you off altogether. You have any idea how much work that takes?”

He finally managed to prop her up against the wall. Fran reached slowly over to touch the rainbow face and giggled again.

“I tell them, I can get actors, good actors, will look more like prosties and pastits than the real thing. What do they say? That they’ve got a list longer than the trade route of places better than mine waiting for a chance for tourist gelt. That if I want to stay on their agenda, I’ve got to have verisimilitude. Here. Drink this.”

Something cold and liquid pushed its way past Fran’s lips. She swallowed obediently, enjoying the sensation of the fluid as it fluttered down her throat. Then gasped for breath as it suddenly burst into fire inside her stomach.

“That’ll do it,” Marty nodded, and stood. “Verisimilitude is one thing, but they’re not paying to see you stare at the wall.”

He moved away, probably to attend to the other pastits who camped against the walls of his bar, but Fran was hurting too much to notice.

The fire spread from her stomach into her skin; her clothes quickly became damp as her body tried to get its temperature back down to a reasonable range. She closed her eyes and clutched her hair, trying to hold on to the last residue of the drug that was quickly being flushed from her system.

“My god,” said a distressed female voice above her. “Is she all right? She looks terribly ill.”

Fran’s eyes snapped open and she glared at the source of the disturbance. The woman was about 25 and dressed in the false-torn garb of the small group of City intellectuals who professed sympathy and solidarity with the residents of Downtown. She had crouched down until her face was even with Fran’s, and her eyes glistened with what Fran had no doubt were sincere tears.

Fran’s first instinct was to snap at the woman for interrupting her misery. Sympathy was all well and good, but it didn’t buy her any flytime. However, as one of Marty’s full-timers, she knew the rules. So she bared her teeth in what she hoped was a general approximation of a smile.

“She’s fine,” said another voice that Fran assumed was the tour guide. “Just coming down. If we let her alone, she’ll probably be able to join us in a little while. This way, please.” The young woman nodded, sniffed, stood, and allowed herself to be led away, not without one last glance back.

Fran sighed, and stretched her legs slowly out in front of her, trying to work out the kinks. Starlight might set the neurons free, but it curled the body into a semi-foetal position that played hell with the muscles. She studiously avoided looking at her surroundings, which seemed etched in clear, stark relief. This was always the unpleasant aftertaste of returning to reality: the world seemed uglier, more garish than it had before. Each laser-sculpted tile in the ceiling seemed to jump out at her, every stain on every table cried out for her attention, the pungency of her own scent drifted unpleasantly past her nostrils. A nap, she thought, would be really nice right about now. But Marty had customers, and Fran had a performance to give.

Marty’s place existed exclusively for the use of the businesspeople who came to trade at Oppenheimer IV’s busy spaceport, known to its inhabitants simply as the City. The City was a shining, landscaped and meticulously planned metropolis created and maintained solely for the comfortable transaction of business. Shuttles kept a steady traffic between the planet and the orbiting spacecraft that flocked to Oppenheimer, attracted by its reputation as a center of commerce. There were exquisite housing and cultural facilities for visitors, friendly communities for residents, and even licensed places of recreation for crews restless from long voyages. All the illegal, immoral, or simply distasteful social problems that necessarily accompany any urban environment had been carefully placed at a slight distance, out of official sight and mind, in the warren of hurriedly constructed streets and low buildings that was known simply as Downtown.

Unfortunately, the officials who ran the City found that most of their highly respectable guests couldn’t resist a quick glimpse of the other side of the City — and some weren’t returning. After the requisite amount of bureaucratic wrangling, carefully routed tours were arranged to give visitors a taste of Downtown — without exposing them to its dangerous reality.

Marty, a failed businessman on the lookout for opportunities, decided that this was his chance. He spent a considerable amount of money (most of it borrowed from the Corp, the syndicate which virtually owned Downtown) to bribe the correct officials, and to redesign an old, abandoned prostie bar. The new hangout was a paean to bad taste with just the right overlay of seediness. It was carefully underlit, overheated, and decorated with old crew luckcharms and faded holos of posturing men and women at various stages of sexual play. And as a final added attraction, Marty served up a disney of romantically depraved thieves, addicts and prostitutes (along with overpriced food and watered drinks) to tour groups that were shepherded through three times a day, four on weekends.

His most valued commodity was his crew of pastits: Starlight addicts intent upon chemical self-destruction whose fashionably desperate presence drew the tourists like a magnet. It drew the Downtown addicts as well: a standing joke was that if you lived a good life, you went to heaven after you died; if you lived a very good life, you went to Marty’s first.

Fran had gained access to this haven about two months ago. She had been in her usual spot in the large, heavily populated market square where most of Downtown’s goods — sexual and otherwise — were sold. Hands plunged deep into the pockets of her loose jumpsuit, tightly cropped hair showing its first hints of gray, Fran watched brilliantly costumed prosties of all ages and both sexes coo at interested crew and frightened tourists. She didn’t have the pull or the ambition to gain one of the more desirable perches along the low wall that surrounded the square’s defunct central fountain, and she knew better than to stand too near one of the multitude of tiny storefronts that defined its periphery. Instead, she leaned against a shady wall in the least trafficked part of the square, sucking absently on a piece of hard candy in order to still the pangs in her stomach and occasionally scanning the daytime crowds for a potential client.

Once she had isolated a promising passerby, Fran would stare at her prospective customer with a casual sort of interest, as though she was about to ask directions, or wanted to know the time. This attitude, along with light hazel eyes and a thin, boyish face, usually attracted one or two customers a day — enough to earn what she needed to feed her habit without having to spend too much time at an occupation she considered supremely unpleasant.

“Hey, lady,” murmured a deep voice at about the level of her waist. “Looking for a companion?”

Fran looked down at the small, dark man who, it was rumored, had been one of the hottest holo artists uptown; when his work went passe, he had crashed badly. Very badly. “You couldn’t afford me, Raul,” she grinned at him, not bothering to move. “Anyway, I thought you didn’t like skinny women.”

“At this point, I’ll take what I can get. Even you.” He motioned slightly with his head, and Fran obligingly squatted down to his level.

“Listen,” Raul said quickly. “I know I owe you for sharing your last couple of takes with me.”

“Last three…”

“Last three, yeah. Want to pay up.” He shook his head at her outstretched palm. “Not that way. Got something better.”

“Something better? Right.”

“No, really.” He leaned forward until his mouth nearly touched her ear. “I can get you into Marty’s. As a perm.”

Fran’s eyebrows dropped. “Not funny, Raul.”

“Truth.” He grinned. “Word is that Marty just lost a female pastit, and is looking for a replacement. Young, so that she’ll last at least a year or so. And with an interesting story. Well, I thought of you immediately — hell, Fran, you were crew; the clients will eat you up. All you have to do is show up, and you’ll be bedding down there tonight.”

When Fran presented herself at the bar, the ‘tender gave her a long, cold stare and slowly nodded. “Raul told me you were coming,” he drawled. “Said you still had some personality left. Good to see I can still trust him.”

He took her elbow and steered her past the seating area, which was crowded with tables that had obviously seen better days, to the back of the room where a layer of worn futons lined the wall. Most were occupied by a variety of semi-conscious pastits, their faces slack and expressionless as Starlight spun wonders inside their heads. “This blue one’s yours,” he said. “You get to fly twice a day, once before we open, once at night. You need anything else in between, you let me know. Two meals, and whatever you can get from the tourists — minus my percentage. I’ve only got two rules here: You only fly when I tell you, and you make nice to the clients. Keep them in mind, and we’ll get along fine. You trip up, and you’re back selling your ass in the square. Got it?”

Fran stared back at him coolly for a moment. Then, without changing her expression, she strolled over to the futon, sat, and held out her hand. Marty grinned, dropped a small blue pill into her hand, and left.

On her right, a large middle-aged man with an impressively thick beard stared at the ceiling, his head cradled in an artificial arm. On her left, an elderly woman wearing a patched shift and a worn pair of gloves stirred and smiled vaguely at her. “Nice to see you, dear,” she wheezed. “You came just in time for dinner.”

Fran swallowed the pill and leaned back against the wall. She was, she decided, home. At least, all the home she’d need for the rest of her life.

#

As usual, most of the day’s customers perched uneasily on the stools that lined Marty’s bar; those who couldn’t find seats stood protectively together rather than occupy one of the empty tables. Looks like a profitable crowd, Fran thought, peering through the low lighting. About 40 people, most obviously well-cashed, even though they had dressed down for the occasion. The usual group of business travelers; should be good for at least a meal. Three young people (including the woman who had stopped in front of Fran) who were trying to look as though they belonged there, and failing miserably. One sour-looking individual whom Fran had seen before, and who was already eyeing the prosties. And a few miscellaneous types: crew, probably, getting their bearings before striking out on their own.

Nearby, other pastits were also beginning to stir; it was time to earn their flytime. Fran pushed herself up onto her feet, waited a moment to make sure that her balance was secure, and headed for the washroom.

When she returned, hair still damp from the shower, several of her companions had already taken up their usual places. Siobhan, her elderly neighbor, was being grandmotherly to the students, while a large, overweight former fighter incongruously named Michel orated happily (if somewhat incoherently) to several amiable crew members at one of the larger tables.

Fran, happily, was under no obligation to make any first moves to the customers. Unlike most of her peers, who were obliged to be as pushy (within limits) as possible, she played the part of the Noble Space Traveler Who Had Seen Too Much. Which was nothing but a great deal of well-decorated crap, but since the role demanded that Fran look haughty and introspective, and lie her head off, she didn’t mind.

She stalked over to the bar and pulled herself onto a stool, a couple of feet away from a stout man with large, curious eyes. “Marty,” she said wearily, making sure the mark could hear her, “you got anything to eat that doesn’t taste like waste recyclings?”

Marty smiled sympathetically at her. Seen without Starlight’s special effects, he was a tall, well-built man with a rapidly fading hairline and a glib, plastic face. “No time for that now,” he told her. “You’ve got a customer.”

He nodded over her head toward the center of the room. Fran twisted around slightly and squinted through the haze.

A square-set woman with cropped hair and a sideways grin slouched easily at one of the smaller tables, legs stretched out comfortably before her. One elbow rested on the table, leaving her right hand dangling casually in the air, her fingers moving in an apparently random rhythm. Except to Fran’s startled eyes: repeatedly, carefully, they spelled out two letters. H-I the woman signed, over and over, H-I.

There was a hardness in the pit of Fran’s stomach; a hardness that she thought she had left behind long ago, along with her pride and her old life. The dark eyes fastened calmly on Fran’s. Whoever the woman was, she obviously knew that Fran understood exactly what her fingers were saying.

Fran turned back to the ‘tender. “No.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Now, listen here, Fran. You haven’t been bringing in a whole lot of gelt lately, and the Corp upped their cut last month. If you want to live here, you’ve got to chip in your share. Now this mark comes in, she hands me a note says she’s looking for an Interpreter with no connections and will pay well.”

“Marty, I can’t interpret. You know that.”

“Why, because they kicked you out of the Guild? Hell, if the lady wanted a certified Interpreter, she could have got one in the City. She wants somebody who doesn’t care where she goes, and who’ll keep her mouth shut. You fit the bill.”

Fran stared at the ‘tender sullenly. His face hardened. “Would you rather try your luck on the streets again?”

“Bastard.” But she immediately stood and pushed toward the table, ignoring the protests of several startled patrons.

As she saw Fran approach, the woman’s fingers relaxed; otherwise she didn’t move. She was somewhere in her late 20s, and her confident mien and the white scar running down one dark forearm showed that she was no tourist. Probably crew — although her clothing was bright and fashionable, it was practical enough for shipboard use. But the steady gaze and quiet face told Fran something else quite clearly.

“You’re Hearing,” she said bluntly, dropping into a chair. The woman’s eyebrows raised.

“You don’t know Sign,” Fran continued. “Not really. All you know is how to spell, maybe a few signs. Enough to get by. Enough to communicate with a crew.”

The woman grinned. “How did you know?” she asked, in a rich, deep voice.

“How about something to eat?”

The woman nodded affably, and Fran immediately raised a hand toward the bar. When she was sure that Marty had seen her she turned back to her customer.

“Your face doesn’t talk. And you were spelling, not signing. Now I have a question: how did you know I’d read you?”

“Just a hunch. And a bit of cash passed to your ‘tender.”

Marty dropped a plate in Fran’s general vicinity; he smiled comfortably at the woman. “Can I get you something to eat?” he asked. She shook her head.

The ‘tender lowered his voice. “If you want privacy for your talk,” he continued smoothly, “just let me know. I’ve got a few empty rooms out in back. Fran knows.”

Fran stared at his retreating back. “You know,” she said casually. “He thinks you’re trying to pick me up. Are you?”

“You have any objections?”

Fran shrugged. “Not in the least. I work both sides of the river. But I’m no prostie — which means I’m not as talented, and not as cheap.”

“But considerably more interesting.” The woman grinned again and shook her head. “It’s a nice thought, one which we might discuss at a later date. Right now, I’ve got something else in mind. A different sort of proposition.”

Fran picked up her sandwich, glanced at the insides, and took a bite.

The woman laced her arms on the table and leaned forward.

“My name,” she began, “is Leisant Dima — you can call me Lee. I do tech for an independent tradeship called the Beethoven. Right now, there’s only two crew — myself, and the pilot, Stu McDermott. It’s his ship, and his business, but I get a considerable share for my part in the upkeep.” She paused.

“We need an Interpreter. Tonight.”

Fran swallowed. “You don’t look so broke that you couldn’t afford to pick up a freelancer in the City. How ‘independent’ are you?”

“Oh, we’re legal as all get-out. And believe it: if we weren’t, I could hack our way past any difficulties.” Lee shrugged. “But the problem is, we’re heading into some delicate negotiations. And we need somebody who we can trust to interpret the proceedings.”

“Right. Listen, if you’re crew, you know damn well that the Code would prevent any certified interpreter, even a freelancer, from talking about your business to anyone. You could kill 50 people and sell 50 more — confidentiality would still hold.”

Lee snorted. “Sure. Well, let’s just say that Stu, for one, doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in codes on a planet that’s owned by the local syndicate — the Corp, is it?”

Fran nodded.

“We need an interpreter who isn’t in anyone’s pay — and right now, you look like the closest we’re going to come.” She cocked her head slightly. “I take it you’re not certified.”

“Not anymore.”

“Why? Drug use?”

“No,” Fran snapped.

Lee waited a moment, then when Fran didn’t offer any more information, she shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s your business. Stu’s a good lipreader, but we don’t want our…customer to know that. So we need somebody who’s fluent in Sign and can do a reasonably good imitation of a shipboard Interpreter.”

That brought a sour smile. “Sure,” Fran said. “I know the drill.”

“Then you’ll take the job?

Fran bit her lip and glanced at the bar. Marty was talking in a low tone to a young woman, a girl really, who had obviously been on the ground a bit too long. Fran remembered the street and took a deep breath.

“How much?”

Lee smiled. “Thirty-five for the first two hours; ten each hour after that. The usual rates for a low-grade interpreter.”

Fran considered another moment, then nodded.

“Fine,” Lee said. “This evening, then. At eleven.”

“No.” Fran glanced inadvertently toward the back of the room. “I…I’m going to be busy until at least 11:30. Make it 12.”

Lee stood slowly, her eyes shaded by dark lashes. “Listen, I’m taking enough of a chance with you. I don’t want you showing up with only half your mind working.”

Fran grinned up at her. “Shit, when I’m flying I can’t even count my own fingers. Be here at twelve. I’ll make sure my brain’s up to it.”

The woman nodded, and then looked past Fran toward the tour guide, who was making frantic, ugly hand motions indicating that it was past time to leave.

“Twelve, then,” she said, and walked gracefully to the door.

Fran stared down at her sandwich, but her appetite was gone. She raised her hands to eye level and flexed them experimentally, trying to work out the stiffness of three years of disuse. After about ten minutes, she lowered her left hand and slowly closed the right into a fist, thumb out. A. Opened and flattened the hand. B. Made a half-moon of the fingers and thumb. C.

She smiled. “Well, what the hell,” she told herself.

She ran herself through the alphabet, then through basic signs, sentence structure, idioms — all the lessons that she could dredge up from nearly forgotten memories. Her fingers slipped and she cursed, tried again; her world constricted itself to the space before her and the signs it contained.

Finally, after she successfully finished the Gettysburg Address, Fran stopped and looked around. There were no customers left, except for a few locals. Most of the pastits were finishing off what was left of the food or stumbling back to their futons to get in some flytime before the evening crowd arrived. The room felt airless, oppressive; Fran slowly massaged her hands and took a shaky breath.

“You hungry?”

Marty had dropped into Lee’s chair. The unfinished sandwich was still on its plate; he sniffed at it distastefully.

Fran shrugged. “You know what I need.”

He grinned. “Sure, why not? You earned it.”

He reached into his pocket and brought out a small metal box. “To tell you the truth,” he said conversationally, tapping a combination on the small lock panel, “you would have been entitled to this even if you didn’t take the job. I’m going to have you sit here signing every day — the marks thought you were some sort of starshocked Deaf crewmember; it was better than a sideshow.”

“Forget it.”

The ‘tender stopped, a small object held delicately between his thumb and forefinger. Fran stared at the tablet impassively.

“I won’t,” she said, “play Deaf for you or anyone else. It’s against the Code.”

“Is it?”

Marty smiled, stood, and strolled over until he stood directly behind Fran’s chair. One brawny hand slowly massaged her shoulder and neck; the other, she knew, still held the drug that kept her alive. So to speak.

“The Code is why you’re here,” he said, so quietly that only Fran could hear him. “The Code is why you came into my place, nothing in your pockets, smelling of the streets and looking for a roof to fly from.You broke their Code, and they broke you.”

Fran tried to turn her head, but the warm hand against her neck held her firmly. “You’re wrong,” she told the empty air. “They had no choice. The Code is necessary. If there were no rules of conduct, no guarantee of confidentiality, the whole profession would die. They couldn’t make an exception for me.”

“Of course, they couldn’t,” Marty murmured, his mouth close against her ear. “Much better to kick you out and pretend you never existed. But after all, what did you expect? Pity? Flexibility? From a group of robots who spend their lives repeating other people’s thoughts?”

That touched a nerve not quite dead. She pulled out of the chair.

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she spat, fueled by anger and frustration. “Interpreting isn’t just repetition. It’s an art, a way of communication, something you can’t…”

A noisy group of students pushed their way into the bar, calling for drinks and whistling at the prosties. Fran’s energy suddenly drained away, leaving her tired and apathetic. She slumped against the table, hugging herself against the sudden chill. “Never mind,” she muttered.

Marty smiled at his customers and draped an arm around Fran’s shoulder. “Be right with you,” he called. “Got a pastit here who needs some medical attention.”

He steered her to her futon, handed her the pill and watched approvingly as she took the tablet and swallowed it.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “You do what I say, and I’ll make sure you’ve got food, a dry place to sleep, and enough Starlight to keep you from hitting the ground. And I don’t have a code to break.”

#

The damp mist that signaled the end of summer had hit Downtown early. A few minutes before time, Fran edged wearily out of Marty’s and stood, shivering, next to the entryway. Too nervous to face solid food, she had quickly gulped down some thick protein mixture in order to have something on her stomach for the night’s work, but she was still not sure whether it would stay there.

The stores that lined the narrow commercial street were just beginning to close. Directly across the way, the proprietor of a clothing shop that specialized in used uniforms and other oddities had just hit the security shield, producing a vague glow that bounced off the gathering mist. The hard-padded walkway muffled all footsteps efficiently, so that the street had a lonely, rather dangerous feel in spite of the occasional passerby.

Fran pushed her hands into her pockets, mentally running over all the old guidelines. Luckily, her clothing was dark and plain enough to provide proper contrast. Her loose sleeves had given her a few uneasy moments until she managed to beg a couple of pins from Michel and fastened the material tightly to her wrists.

Who do you think you’re kidding? she finally asked herself. For the past three years, you haven’t been within shouting distance of Deaf crew. You haven’t conversed in Sign or played with Sign or even thought about Sign…

But that was untrue. Even when Starlight sent her soaring, even when the world vibrated and broke apart into scintillating crystals, she sometimes spoke to herself in complete images that had no sound, but whose texture she could feel through her fingers and face. Sign was ingrained into whatever was left of Fran Levi, and she was not yet free of it.

“Fran?”

Startled, Fran squinted out into the darkness at the small figure who had approached while she was lost in her own head. “Raul? Hey, how you doing?”

Raul hunched his shoulders up against the chill and joined her by the wall. “Not bad. Not bad at all. Got a job since you made it into Marty’s. A good one too — pays big, little danger.”

There was still no sign of her client. Fran slid down until she was seated on the ground; she embraced her knees and stared out into the street. “Nice going. Wish I could do as well.”

“You could.”

Fran swung her head around. “Don’t bull me, Raul. I’m glad you’re finally in with the Corp — it is the Corp, right? — but we both know they don’t take in pastits. This is as good as I get.”

“Agreed.” Raul smoothed down his dark, thick hair. “But occasionally my employers — who represent a certain powerful faction of the Corp — need a favor. And they appreciate favors.”

“From me? You’ve got to be kidding.”

The man grinned tightly. He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned over until their faces were only inches apart.

“Listen,” he whispered. “This Deaf pilot you’re interpreting for — don’t interrupt, it doesn’t matter how I know — do you know what he wants you for?”

Fran shook her head.

“He’s intercepted some information, or rather, his hack’s intercepted some information, about a politician in whom my employers have a controlling interest. Financial information. Do you understand so far?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer. “He is selling this information to an — independent operator — who has ambitions. And who is, temporarily, out of my employers’ reach.”

The hand tightened.

“It would be of great help if you were to…make a few mistakes while interpreting for this pilot. So that the information is not transmitted quite accurately.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fran hissed tightly. “His hack is Hearing. She has some Sign — she’ll know something’s wrong.”

“She’s going to stay on their ship.” A corner of Raul’s mouth twitched. “Whoever your client is, he’s not an idiot. He’s due back at the ship at a certain time. If he doesn’t show, if he has an ‘accident,’ she calls to any outbound craft. And you know what that means.”

Fran knew quite well. Interdiction.

Before discovery of the Jump sent Earth’s populations streaming toward the stars, its Deaf communities continued to occupy their traditional place in the Hearing world. Isolated within their own culture and language, closed out of the burgeoning technical marketplace by prejudice and lack of training facilities, the few who made it into higher positions pushed desperately for sparse public funding to improve their schools and pay for interpreters. When space flight started to become viable and the first commercial enterprises pushed past the atmosphere, Deaf technicians fought for their percentage of the new jobs — unsuccessfully. After all, reasoned the corporate personnel managers, what if there were an emergency? They couldn’t hear the alarms, couldn’t use the radios — obviously, there was no place for the hearing impaired in space.

Until the scientists who perfected the Jump discovered why ships were continually being lost during what should have been clean operations. Although computers handled all of the exacting mathematics involved in entering and emerging from the “fold” that was created in space, although the human mind perceived no time difference from the beginning of the Jump to the end, something about it affected the inner ear. Badly.

Dizzy, disoriented, numb with pain, crewmembers would be suddenly unable to handle the normal functions of their ships for hours at a time. Even when the computers were programmed to handle operations until the crew was once again capable, it was obvious that they could not expect to operate safely with ships full of incapacitated people. Doctors tried drugs, hypnosis, biofeedback. Nothing worked.

Until they crewed the ships with men and women whose inner ears had already been destroyed. Deaf crews.

The corporations came to the Deaf communities, job lists in hand. We have jobs for you after all, said the personnel managers. Isn’t that wonderful?

Very nice, answered the Deaf community politely through its interpreters. We’ll be happy to crew your ships. For a price.

Within a generation, all the intersystem routes were run by a strong Deaf hierarchy that had slowly gained controlling interests in the companies that administered the ships. Interplanetary trade and travel was maintained totally through the Deaf organizations. Military and enforcement authorities, unwilling to concede any power to civilians, originally sought legislation to draft all hearing-impaired 18-year-olds for two years of service, but changed their minds when all trade shut down for a month. Now they, along with the corporate community, hired pilots and primary crew on a contract basis. For the first time in human history, the Deaf held power — and they used it carefully and effectively.

The Deaf crews who ran civilization’s space lanes were particularly intolerant of any harm coming to members of their culture — even independent operators. If Lee sent word that Stu had been injured or killed, all space travel to Oppenheimer IV would immediately cease — until a standing committee that handled such matters was satisfied either that his death was an accident, or that the offenders were suitably punished. Or until the planet, strangled by shortages and economic collapse, died.

Fran stared into the evening. “You know this pilot can lipread.”

“Who told you that? His hack?” Raul snorted. “If he’s so damn good at lipreading, why’s he paying a Downtown pastit to do his talking for him?”

She shrugged. “How much would I get for my cooperation?”

“You’d be suitably recompensed. And you would avoid the problems that might occur should you not go along.”

“Dammit, Raul…”

The man raised his head alertly, revealing a small transmitter attached to the back of his ear. “I think your customer is coming.” he said, and stared at her seriously.

“Fran, look. Forget my job. Forget payment. Take my advice — as a friend. Don’t make life harder than it has to be. You don’t owe anything to this pilot — but the Corp controls your life.”

Fran sat still for a moment, thinking. Then she shook her head, grinned and touched his cheek lightly. “Don’t worry, Raul,” she whispered. “I know who my friends are.”

He reached up and squeezed her hand. Then without another word, he walked quickly down the street.

Fran stood, resigned. Hell with it, she thought. If the Corp wanted her to falsify her interpreting, she’d do it. She’d have to. There wasn’t really anything to consider.

She waited.

The man was tall, his details obscured by the gathering darkness. He stopped when he was still several feet away, obviously wishing to verify Fran’s identity. His hands moved.

Unexpectedly, something clicked inside Fran’s brain. She stepped back so that the lights illuminating the front of the bar would encompass her, and let her hands carve language in the chilly air.

SORRY. LIGHT BAD, YOUR SIGN NOT-SEE. AGAIN, PLEASE?

He moved closer, into the light. Absently, Fran noted brown eyes set deeply under thick, dour eyebrows and lank brown hair, pulled back at the nape of the neck. He wore a clean, loose-fitting jumpsuit of the sort preferred by working pilots planetside and stared back at her with the direct, unabashed gaze of those whose communication skills were based in sight. Who couldn’t afford to cater to Hearings’ need to gaze politely off-center.

F-R-A-N L-E-V-I?

She nodded.

INTERPRET BEFORE WHERE YOU?

The question was hostile and Fran’s stomach was still rebelling, but she felt more relaxed, more at home, than she had since… She felt her body freeing itself from the restraints that verbal speech held on it; her face crinkled into a wry grin.

BEFORE MY BUSINESS. INTERPRET ME CAN, ENOUGH FOR YOU. WANT TEST?

Each word a symbol, a sign, a structure of meaning built from the position and movement of the hands. Each subtle intonation a shift in the set of the body, in the movement of the eyebrows. Language and dance merged into one complete whole.

God, she had missed it.

The man stared at her for a beat, then grinned back. OKAY. TRUST YOU MUST. BUT I TELL YOU, LIPREAD CAN. SEE WRONG SIGN, WRONG SPEECH, TROUBLE-LARGE. UNDERSTAND?

UNDERSTAND.

He nodded. OKAY. S-T-U M-C-D-E-R-M-O-T-T ME, NAME-SIGN STU (the letter “S” tapped lightly on the side of the head indicating knowledge, a common name-sign for a pilot). YOU?

Fran shrugged. NAME-SIGN NONE. LOST LONG-AGO. DOESN’T-MATTER.

DOESN’T-MATTER? His eyelids drooped slightly, deliberately provocative. OKAY, FINE. FRAN. (The letter “F” tapped against the upper arm. The sign for an injected drug.)

Fuck you, Fran thought. You think I don’t know what I am? She shrugged again, her face bland and unmoved.

HURRY. WILL LATE.

As Fran strode alongside the pilot, she stared at his profile thoughtfully. There had been something wrong with his Sign. No, not wrong — different. At first, she thought that she had simply become unused to the language, had lost some of her familiarity. But that wasn’t it. Perhaps an accent? Some new affectation that had come into fashion since she left?

And what the hell was he doing out here anyway? All reasonably competent Deaf crewmembers were assured of well-paying berths the moment they hit the job market, and skilled Deaf pilots could write their own ticket. If this Stu was halfway good at his job, there was no good reason for him to be wandering around a backwater slum hiring decertified interpreters.

Fran shrugged mentally and placed the puzzle at the back of her mind. Her client’s motives were none of her business. Anyway, right now it was more important to stay alert.

Dusk quickly passed into night. Most of the shops had already closed, and the streets glowed with their security screens. The planet’s short night ensured that most of Downtown’s underground economy was conducted in the twilight of the late afternoon; it was only those transactions not privately condoned by the authorities that took place after dark. Fran wondered what she had gotten herself into — and whether it was worth the fee she had agreed to take.

Stu obviously had visited Downtown before; he strode unerringly through the maze of streets and into the square. The marketplace was nearly empty; most of its business had been completed, and the unfortunates who had not managed to sell either their goods or themselves were beginning to drift off, trying to find someplace to spend the night. One couple, their arms twined around each other for companionship or warmth, called out to Fran; she nodded at them but didn’t answer. They grinned back, obviously in the belief that she had found herself a well-paying client for the night. They weren’t, she thought, that far wrong.

The pilot walked across the square and into a small side street that, Fran knew, held some of the major drug distributors for the City. These were powerful people, most working on behalf of legitimate City politicians and corporations. The storefronts here were deceptively modest, even bedraggled; Fran had heard rumors of the elegant office suites and living quarters that they hid. But she had never dared to even walk down the street — as a bottomline pastit, she knew better.

The back of her neck prickled as they approached a small, unimpressive storefront near the end of the alley. They were certainly being carefully watched. Fran fervently hoped that this Stu knew what he was doing. If anyone got nervous about his presence, they wouldn’t stop to ask why she was there with him.

When they reached their destination, they stopped and stood, waiting. No words needed to be exchanged; they wouldn’t have been there unless they were invited. The dark, glowing entry suddenly dulled as the security field was turned off. They stepped in.

And squinted. After the dark alley, the well-lit interior was nearly blinding. Suddenly anxious that she would be ready for the first words spoken, and knowing that her addiction had sensitized her to light, Fran fought to clear her vision.

Luckily, she and the pilot were its only occupants. It was, as she had suspected, expensively and tastefully furnished: well-chosen holographic repros of famous sculptures lined the walls, comfortable chairs were scattered about, surrounding a low table that held a few readers and some small bowls. Fran’s breath caught in her throat and she peered at the dishes in a confused welter of hope and fear. She had heard that distributors often offered samples of Starlight to guests the way most hosts offered food. Fran knew that her life was worth very little here if she fouled up, but logic had nothing to do with the craving that suddenly clutched at her stomach. The bowls held only small, hard candies.

There was a sound at the back of the room, and the two turned, Stu moving only slightly slower than his Hearing companion. A carefully coiffed young man barely out of his teens approached through one of the repros and smiled cordially at them. He wore a loose, gaily colored robe that shimmered slightly as he walked; Fran found the effect chillingly reminiscent of flytime dreams.

But that had to be ignored now. Her hand went automatically to the place over her heart where the small badge had once been pinned. An interpreter’s badge displayed the profession’s double helix symbol over the ship’s colors; when touched, the sensitive metal faded to a dark hue, the darker helix only slightly visible. That change indicated that its bearer was in Interpreter mode and no longer an individual responsible for her own thoughts and words. She had become a conduit through which her clients’ conversation passed, to be translated from verbal language to Sign and back again. She was permitted no interruptions (except to ask for a clarification), no opinions, no use of the first person to indicate her own existence. And, according to the Code, no memory of the conversation.

Fran’s badge had been removed, with little ceremony, right after her expulsion from the Guild, but old instincts died hard. She quickly pulled her hand back, but not before Stu noted the movement. Now he knew she had been a shipboard Interpreter. A professional.

Well, she thought defiantly, at least he’d find out that she was a damn good one. She composed her face and walked over to the young man, standing slightly at his side, facing Stu. Their host watched her approach calmly, his curiosity evident.

Stu waved out a quick, irritated sentence, pulling the man’s attention back from Fran. “Never mind her,” Stu told him, “I’m the one you’re dealing with.”

The young man smiled.

“Of course,” he said. Fran’s hands worked. “My name is Jerem, and I am the proprietor of this establishment. Thank you for coming.”

“Stu McDermott, pilot of the independent tradeship Beethoven,” Stu answered.

“Interesting name,” Jerem commented. He swept a manicured hand toward the group of chairs. “Please, sit.”

He dropped comfortably into one corner of a low couch. Stu, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled a chair over until it faced Jerem directly. Fran waited until they had both settled themselves, then sat on the couch a few inches from Jerem.

The young man offered one of the dishes to Stu, who shook his head. “I am, of course, aware of the rules of conduct concerning interpreters,” Jerem continued, replacing the bowl. “However, I am a bit surprised that a man as obviously savvy as yourself would hire a pastit who’d sell herself, her friends, and her mother for a two hour flight. Not exactly the most trustworthy interpreter you could choose — especially for these delicate matters.”

The man’s gaze didn’t shift from the pilot, but his words were obviously meant for Fran. Stu knew it, too. He smiled politely back.

“I am quite aware of my interpreter’s qualifications,” Stu said smoothly through Fran. “I am also aware of the influence that your associates have with many of the businesses on this planet. I decided that I’d be more comfortable with an independent operator.”

Jerem nodded politely. “Perhaps. But it is my duty as your host to make you aware that your ‘independent’ interpreter was ejected from her guild in disgrace about three years ago for a rather serious violation of their Code. I believe it had something to do with repeating an interpreted conversation.” He raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to hire someone a bit more reliable? We have several quite reputable agencies in the City who would be happy to let you verify their standing with the guild.”

Fran interpreted without a pause. Jerem obviously suspected that his enemies had gotten to her and was trying to replace her with someone he could trust. At the very least, he probably hoped that, by indirectly taunting the interpreter, he would enrage or embarrass her enough to make her step out of her role — forcing Stu to accept a substitute.

But that would not happen. At this moment in time, Fran didn’t care what Jerem said. She had found the center of calm and efficiency that she had been trained in years ago and that formed the base of her persona as a professional Interpreter. It meant that nothing that any of her clients could say, about either herself or anything else, could touch her. In effect, Fran Levi didn’t exist. The woman who had tried to submerge her disgrace and failure in a bright narcotic universe had been replaced by an Interpreter. Who spoke and listened with her voice, her hands, her ears, her eyes. Who took into herself a sentence, drew meaning and purpose from the words, and then returned it transformed but still whole. Who enabled two cultures to communicate.

Nothing else mattered.

She finished and waited.

Stu stared at her for a moment. Then, slowly and deliberately, he shifted his gaze to the young man and began to sign.

“I appreciate the advice,” Stu said. “But I think we have more important things to discuss than my choice of an interpreter.”

The man shrugged, and carefully smoothed the front of his robe. “Whatever you say. Shall we begin?”

The discussion seemed to race by, as though both men were equally impatient to get the whole thing over with. Fran absorbed the gist of the talk while her mind raced to keep the conversation moving, to replace the words as new ones were said, were signed.

Lee had, explained Stu, in her off hours, intercepted a message in an unfamiliar code. Always open to opportunities, she had spent over a month working on the code, until she had deciphered it. It confirmed that a sizable amount of money had been deposited by the Corp into an account on a neighboring planet. Lee, intrigued, pulled a few strings and determined that the account was in the name of nobody either on that planet or this.

She had persuaded Stu to visit Oppenheimer IV, and had set to work. Luckily, the corruption that pervaded the City had made its way into its computer centers; the hacks that ran the machines were happy to let her play with certain files in return for some vaguely illegal coding.

Lee discovered that the City’s Attorney General was overseeing a murder case in which the Corp had some interest. The Attorney General was worried that any interference in the case would make her involvement with the Corp easier to detect and she wanted to hand it over to the Governor’s office, under a minor legal point. The Corp, whose hold on the Governor wasn’t quite as strong, had established the offplanet account so that the Attorney General could, if any awkward information about her background came to light, comfortably re-established herself elsewhere.

Jerem was interested. The Attorney General was a powerful figure; it would be very large feather in Jerem’s cap if he could bring the woman down. He would be even more interested if Stu could give him the number of the account. Under what circumstances would that be possible?

The negotiations began. This, Fran knew, was the point at which she should start paying attention to her opportunities. She couldn’t fudge on the price Jerem offered for the information; that would be too obvious. Besides, they might still come to some sort of an agreement. But the number of the account would be simple enough to misinterpret. And by the time Jerem discovered the mistake, Stu would be long gone and Jerem would, no doubt, blame the pilot for a bad faith deal. That was it. Of course. And Fran would be back on her futon in Marty’s, free and clear. And flying.

Remember, Fran told herself fiercely, you don’t owe anything to this pilot and his damn smart mouthed hack. Raul knew what he was talking about — the Corp can cut off your supply, and that means no more flight time, that means watching the world get darker and grayer minute by minute until cutting your throat will seem like a reasonable proposition. You don’t have any choice. No choice whatsoever.

She finished interpreting Stu’s final offer. Jerem, who had remained as calm throughout the business as if he were discussing the state of the weather, nodded to himself for a moment. “Fine,” Jerem finally said. “That seems perfectly agreeable. I assume you wish payment now?”

Stu grinned and seemed to relax slightly. He doesn’t like being here, Fran realized. Wonder whose idea this deal was in the first place?

“If that would be convenient,” Stu answered easily.

“You realize, of course, that should the information be false, I should be terribly upset.”

“That is a chance you are taking.” The pilot shrugged. “And the reason that the price is considerably less than the information is worth.”

Jerem, without altering a muscle in his face, stood. “I will only be a moment,” he said, and disappeared the way he had come.

Stu turned to look at Fran. She touched, this time consciously, the bare place on her shoulder.

THINK YOU WHAT? he asked.

Fran glared at him. The pilot had slumped back comfortably in the padded chair, obviously relieved that the whole affair would soon be over.

NOT MY ROLE she answered irritably. KNOW THAT YOU!

He shrugged. WONDERED. DOESN’T-MATTER.

He glanced around the room restlessly. Fran stared down at the table, mentally rehearsing her role. Jerem would soon be back with payment, and she would have to be ready to change one of the characters of the account identification. One of the middle characters, perhaps. She would increase it one digit — that would be easy to remember….

Oh, hell.

She was an Interpreter. Who, whatever her past was, followed the Code.

No matter what she told herself, Fran would be unable to purposefully misinterpret the conversation. She would, she knew, transmit the correct numbers. And Stu would leave. Jerem would bring down the Attorney General. And Fran would, she had no doubt, die.

Unless, she thought desperately, her failure could be attributed to a lack of opportunity.

She leaned forward and touched his knee lightly.

LISTEN she signed quickly. IMPORTANT.

Stu waited.

DON’T-WANT KNOW ACCOUNT NUMBER she told him, her fingers flying in anxious speed, the gestures small, quick, whispered. MY BUSINESS NONE. WRITE NUMBER.

Stu’s eyes narrowed. WHY? he asked. WRONG WHAT?

DOESN’T-MATTER. WRITE NUMBER, GIVE HIM, TELL HIM READ, DESTROY. TELL ME NOTHING. MY BUSINESS NOT. UNDERSTAND?

“Am I interrupting anything?

Fran jumped and stared up at Jerem, who stood next to her chair, observing her as if she were a child who was suspected of stealing an extra cookie. She swallowed, stood, touched her shoulder, and interpreted his words to Stu.

The pilot seemed unaffected by both Fran’s recent demand and Jerem’s sudden reappearance. He didn’t answer; he simply held out his hand.

Jerem, without pausing, handed him a small safety box. “It’s not coded,” he said. “You can set the lock yourself.”

Stu opened the small drawer and glanced carefully at the contents. Then he closed it and tapped quickly at the number pad on top of the package. Finished, he glanced up at Jerem.

“Now, about the account number?”

The pilot extended the box in one hand. Jerem looked puzzled for a moment — until he looked down at the small readout. And smiled.

“I see,” he said, “you don’t trust your interpreter much more than I do. Wise.”

He examined the readout more closely, obviously committing the figures to memory. After about a minute, he nodded. Stu withdrew the box, and, after tapping for a few moments more on the keyboard, slipped it into a pocket.

There was nothing left to be done. Jerem smoothed down his robe with obvious satisfaction. “You know the way out,” he said contentedly. “Have a good flight. Both of you,” he added, grinning at Fran, who interpreted it without a pause. He turned, and left the room.

Fran watched him leave and then turned back to Stu. The pilot stood, stretched, and in a quick, unexpected gesture, gently touched Fran’s shoulder.

FINISHED NOW he told her. COME.

The square was abandoned, except for a few bodies huddled near the glowing shop doors. Stu headed straight for the fountain and settled himself on the small wall. Fran followed slowly.

Although the fountain had not been used for years, the lights which had been meant to highlight its waters still worked — and probably would until the structure itself fell apart. This did not endear it to most of Downtown’s inhabitants, who tended to avoid well-lit areas after dusk. But it obviously made Stu feel a lot more comfortable; he grinned at Fran and patted the stone next to him, offering her a seat.

NOT BAD he told her approvingly. WHEN L-E-E COME, TELL ME SHE HIRE YOU DRUG BAR, I TELL HER SHE CRAZY, FOOL, GO FIND OTHER INTERPRETER. SHE TELL ME, NO TIME, STUCK ME. I THINK SHIT, WHOLE DEAL FAIL, FINISH. THERE, M-A-R-T-Y-S, I MEET YOU, SEE YOU SIGN, THINK MAYBE L-E-E RIGHT. NOW, KNOW. REAL INTERPRETER, YOU. WHY YOU HERE? WHAT HAPPEN WITH GUILD?

None of your business, Fran thought. But she buried her impatience and simply signed YOU HEAR-BEFORE. BREAK RULE.

GOOD REASON YOU?

She shrugged. DOESN’T-MATTER. SECOND CHANCE NONE, FINISHED.

Stu nodded slowly, and his eyes narrowed. UNDERSTAND he answered, his movements sharp, angry. SEE SAME ME LONG-AGO. JOIN ORGANIZATION-LARGE, HAVE POWER-MUCH. IF YOU DIFFERENT, THINK FOR YOURSELF, FORGET-IT, SCREW YOU. He glanced at the surrounding trash-strewn square with distaste. BUT WHY HERE?

Fran took a moment to rub her eyes. It was becoming an effort to move, to even think; the world was closing in on her and making too many demands. In the garish light that illuminated the dead fountain, Stu looked like an actor on some small, colorless stage. His hands flickered in complex patterns that were too exhausting to concentrate on.

ENOUGH, she signed wearily, forestalling any further conversation. JOB FINISH. PAY-ME. NOW. She held out her hand.

The pilot peered thoughtfully at her for another moment, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. Then he relaxed, shrugged, and dug a small cashcard out of his pocket.

And paused as her outstretched arm began to tremble. He raised his eyes and stared at her coolly; Fran, annoyed, grabbed the card.

SUGGEST she told him YOU GO SHIP QUICK.

And without another word, she turned and left, running down the darkened streets towards home.

#

“Hell, Fran, what did you get yourself into the other night? Fran?”

Fran cracked open her eyes and stared up groggily. Marty knelt next to her, one bony finger stabbing at her shoulder. She pushed his hand away impatiently.

“What are you babbling about,” she murmured, trying to shake the sleep from her head. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and squinted around the place. The other pastits were still fast asleep; a sliver of orange light had begun to illuminate the bar floor.

“Dammit, Marty, I thought I told you….”

She stared at the ‘tender and a hard, cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach. “Marty, what’s wrong?”

He shook his head angrily. “Fran, what is it with you pastits? I can’t hold on to one of you long enough to blink. You had it good here. I treated you fairly. Why did you have to blow it?”

“Blow it? Blow what? What did I do?”

“Here.” He put a bag into her hand; she held onto it reflexively. “That’s breakfast. You’ll have to eat it outside; I can’t have you here when I open.”

They found out. The cold place in her stomach expanded until she began to shiver slightly. “Marty, I tried, I really did, but he didn’t let me interpret the number, I didn’t get the chance…. you’ve got to tell them, it’s not my fault…”

The man shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to,” he said intently. “But you’ve crossed the Corp, and they don’t take excuses, you should know that. Especially from pastits. Fran, you’ve got to leave. Now.”

“Okay. Okay.” Fran ran a hand through the bristle on her head. “Can I at least use the toilet?”

“Five minutes. Then you’ve got to be gone. I’ve got four groups coming in today; I’ve got to get ready…”

Fran pulled on her boots and stood. She picked up the bag and glanced inside. A sandwich. A drink. That was all.

“Marty?”

He turned.

She simply looked at him. He sighed and shook his head. “Shit, Fran, I wish I could. But they’d find out. And they’ve spread the word: you’re grounded. Nobody can sell to you. Nobody.”

The world turned cold. Starlight’s addictive qualities were predominantly neurological: a substance-starved brain would quickly founder in hallucinatory depression until thirst, starvation or exposure took its toll. She didn’t have much time.

“Marty, for god’s sake.” She dropped the bag and moved toward him, her hands digging frantically in her pockets. “I’ve got gelt. See, I’ve got a cashcard worth 35; I’ll give you the whole damn thing, just for one day’s worth. Oh, for god’s sake Marty!”

“Fran, I’m sorry. Really.” Marty reached over and squeezed her arm sympathetically. She pulled away.

“Go use the toilet,” he sighed. “Then you’ve got to get out of here.”

Fran went to all her old contacts, including a few whom she wouldn’t have spat at in the old days. Everywhere it was the same: the Corp wanted her grounded for what remained of her life — if she got even a single tablet from anyone anywhere, they’d find out who it was and extend the ban. It was that simple. Even Raul seemed to be avoiding her; the prostie who had taken over her old corner said he hadn’t been seen for a couple of days.

After hours of wandering desperately through Downtown, Fran finally ended up across the street from the small two-story structure that served as the area’s Guild hall. She had come with the vague idea of appealing to the Guild for help, for a job, for something to keep her going. But once there, she lost the will to enter.

She shivered and squinted at the bright double helix above the doorway. Few people came and left; there wasn’t much call for interpreting services Downtown. Fran was finding it increasingly hard to concentrate. Instead, she began to wonder what had happened to the thin, anxious man who — was it really three years ago? — begged a Deaf crewmember to help him commit suicide. He was ill, he said, and tired of pain. He wanted the medical technician to “accidentally” overdose him with the drug provided to Hearing passengers during Jump.

Fran leaned against the wall behind her, ignoring the protests of an irritated store owner. She had disliked the man even before she met him, for waking her halfway into her sleep cycle for an emergency job. She began to hate him during the conversation for the way he kept staring at her and talking to her, ignoring the etiquette of interpreting. She hated him even more for sending her out of that room caught between breaking the confidentiality rule or letting a stranger die. But she despised him for his weakness in being unable to take his own life.

“I understand,” she whispered to him now. “I couldn’t do it either.”

Depression pressed down on her like a stone. Perhaps, Fran thought, I should have tried to buy something quick from the last peddler I hit. He might have sold me that. If I had the courage to use it.

Somebody — the storekeeper? — pushed her away from the wall, screaming at her with meaningless intensity. Fran stumbled away, clutching at irritated pedestrians, unable to see through the hideous glare of the afternoon. The light cut into her head, making it impossible to think. All she wanted to do was sit and rest, but every time she stopped, hands would pull her up, force her to move on. It was as if she were being buffeted by a bright, rough sea, and no longer had the strength to swim.

Until she finally found herself curled inside an abandoned doorway, staring listlessly out at a narrow alleyway. Pain became an abstract concept, part of a body she no longer controlled. The street lost whatever color it may have possessed. Reality was a two-dimensional cartoon of blinding white and gray tones in which flat people-like creatures occasionally passed. Time ground to a halt. Everything took on a malign sameness, which would go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever…

#

There was hot liquid in her mouth. It had no taste, but it was food, and she was hungry. She swallowed it reflexively. Some sort of cup was placed against her lips, and she swallowed again.

The cup was withdrawn.

Fran blinked, opened her eyes, and tried to focus.

The alley had disappeared. She was propped up on something considerably more comfortable than the doorway in a place that was considerably dryer. There was a ceiling over her head that curved slightly in a familiar fashion; directly ahead, she could see the tiny cubicle that, she knew, held toilet and washup facilities. Crew quarters.

Something moved at the edge of her vision. She turned her head. The pilot.

Fran stared at him with a sort of passive curiosity. He looked washed out, as though she were watching an old historical tape in which the colors had faded until they were barely discernible. It was too much of an effort to wonder where he came from; she lay limply back against the pillow and waited.

Stu signed to her, but it didn’t mean anything. Somewhere inside her brain, she knew, the signs were being automatically registered and understood, but at the moment she wasn’t capable of making the connection. And didn’t much care. She closed her eyes.

“Look at me, damn it!”

A male voice. Too loud, uninflected, but undeniable.

She looked. Stu glared at her, his mild face contorted with anger. “Yes, I can talk,” he said clearly. Too clearly for somebody who had learned to speak solely through the feel of the words. Suddenly Fran realized why his Sign had struck her as strange and, at the same time, familiar. He signed like an Interpreter. Like somebody fluent in a foreign language. The Beethoven’s deaf pilot had been neither born, nor raised, Deaf.

This interesting development was enough to push her into a semblance of alertness. She watched as he sat at the foot of her bunk.

“We had a visitor yesterday,” he told her in the flattened tones of a man who can no longer hear his own voice. “Called himself Raul. Said you had been ordered to falsify the account number when I gave it to you. Said that the organization that runs this place found out the number passed was correct. Said that you were cut off from your drug supply.”

He leaned forward.

“Listen. This is a small cargo operation. I own and pilot this ship; Lee hacks. We do enough to get by. I’m a legitimate freelancer — I’ve got no ties with the main trade associations, but I stay away from anything real illegal. Lee knows enough Sign to get by on ship, but for outside negotiations we need a good interpreter we can trust. And who will take on gofer duties during flight. What you don’t know about ship work, we’ll teach you. And you’ll get a fair percentage of the cut.”

He stood.

“Don’t want your answer now; you’re obviously in no condition. But if you decide to sign on, you leave your habit planetside. You need medical help to kick, fine, but that’s it. And I want a professional. Don’t know why you broke the rules, and I don’t particularly care. But when you work for me, you follow the Code. You have any problem with what I say, you’re free to tell me — when you’re off duty.

“That’s it. Think about it.”

Fran watched as he walked to the narrow exit and wondered how a man who remembered sound had managed to fit into the strong culture of the Deaf crews. Probably, she thought wryly, he hadn’t. Functionally Deaf but psychologically Hearing — no wonder he had gone independent.

She swallowed, conscious of the uneasy feeling in her stomach and the gray mist that still clung to the edges of her vision. Although she had passed through the worst of the withdrawal, Fran knew that it would be a long time before the taste of Starlight was out of her system. But her head was clear. And she could feel the Signs twitching at her fingers.

Stu turned, making a final check of the cabin. Fran took a deep breath, concentrated, and managed to move her right hand until it fanned out, thumb side down, from the center of her chest.

FINE.

The pilot nodded at the incomplete gesture, satisfied.

“Fine,” he said.

<end>

“Signs of Life” originally appeared in the anthology Memories and Visions: Woman’s Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Susanna J. Sturgis and published by Crossing Press in 1989.

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