An anchor had five minutes in which to reorient themselves. One.
I stared at the heavy steel loop around my thumb. My world was a sand castle, constructed by the subconscious in a vain hope that it would stand up on such a treacherous foundation. The ring was an unfamiliar weight and the foundation of my castle started to crumble. I did not remember it. The tide was ebbing in around my mind, whispering that my carefully imagined world was wrong. That it was lies. That the 'when' and the 'where' were pure fancy. I stirred in the nest of wires that poured information through my brain. There was a man with me, his bare back against mine. He, too, was lost.
An anchor's duty was to the pilot and the pilot alone. Not to their employer, not the guild, not even to themselves. Two.
There was an image engraved on the ring, a nautical anchor from the days when man sailed the ocean instead of the stars. I had first seen it when I was twelve, when I ran away from home and ran to the guild, begging them to take me in and make me a pilot. My mother cried and cried when she saw that they had cut off all my long hair. I raised a hand, my eyes still fixed on the ring, and felt the smooth stubble that covered my head. The wires shifted in response and I traced the skin downwards to where metal met flesh at the point where my skull connected with the spine. The wires trailed over my shoulders like a veil.
An anchor was someone that couldn't be a pilot and had the implant process halted. The guild made this decision at age sixteen. Three.
I had wanted to be a pilot. They cast me out into deep space one day and I found myself falling, tumbling inside my own mind. I cried out in fear as everything turned unfamiliar and I could find nothing to orient myself to. My anchor and teacher at the time pulled me back, gave me something to grasp on and orient myself along, to reclaim my identity and my place in time. But I had still cried and stared at the stars that burned in my mind, cast loose among beacons that weren't steady and familiar. I could take three stars and orient a ship and find our course, but deep space didn't work like that. Three stars wasn't enough. The senior pilot had taken over and I was deemed unsuitable to progress further in the program. I couldn't handle deep space. I couldn't find myself when confronted with it.
An anchor was the person that, when the information from the ship overloaded the mind and cast the individual loose – leaving them without a sense of where or when they were – could recover and then pull the pilot back from whatever past they were lost in. They wore steel rings to focus on and help dissolve whatever illusion the mind had constructed to fill in the missing years. Four.
I gasped. The sand castle dissolved as the tide washed in, flooding my mind with a sense that all this was wrong. That it wasn't years ago, I was no longer a child. I was thirty-three years old. I was named Celia. I was an anchor for Justin Mallid and we flew a Monolith class cargo transport. We sat in the pilot's helm, back to back, with the wires that connected us to the ship and each other wrapped around us like a nest, plugging in to the base of our heads and into our minds. His implant went much deeper than mine and the information screaming from the ship had overcome his memory.
"Justin," I said. I reached behind me and found his hand. I squeezed it tight and felt his fingers convulse in response, holding on for fear of being swept away in so much unfamiliarity. "Where are we Justin?"
"No. I'm Celia. Do you remember Celia?"
"No-no I don't."
His voice was breaking. I couldn't see him but I knew he was crying. It was simply too much for one person to bear, to be sitting stripped to the waist, cold and afraid in the belly of a beast and unable to remember how he got there.
"I'm your anchor," I said firmly, "You're a pilot, Justin. You've been a pilot for twelve years now. You're currently hooked up to the ship. Her name is Kingfisher. This has happened before and you've gotten through it. Your memories will come back. They always do. Can you tell me what's going on with Kingfisher right now?"
He didn't speak. I always tried to reassure him that he had overcome this before. It helped, he said, to be told that it wouldn't last. Even if he couldn't remember it ever happening before, it helped for him to hear me say he had survived it before and could survive it again. I felt his response to my question through the link. Information flitted through my mind, jumping from the cables to the surface of my brain, making the transition from a computer grid to a living network. The Kingfisher was passing close to a star. We'd hit the residue of a solar flare. It had temporarily blinded a few of the sensors and the sudden flash as they died had thrown Jason's mind into disarray. The Kingfisher was still on course. It was only a minor inconvenience. The crew wouldn't even realize that anything would happen.
Just the pilot and his anchor.
Justin's memories hadn't returned by the time our relief arrived. Sandy and Maria always walked holding hands wherever they went. The crew talked about them when they passed and the Kingfisher's captain turned a blind eye. Maria was the anchor. She stood over me, the thin fabric of her blouse brushing my cheek as she leaned over and disconnected the plugs from the back of my head.
"Any trouble?" she asked. Anchors were very calm people. Sandy was kneeling in front of Justin, wiping his face dry with a rag. He was trembling but was able to stay calm.
"Solar flare," I replied, "Everything else is fine. I need to get Justin back to his room."
I stood and Sandy slipped into my nest among the wires. I stooped over her, plugging the cables in and securing the latch on the thin sliver of metal in her neck. It was as big as my thumb. She gave me a thumbs-up when it was good and she was connected. Maria was doing the same for Justin and he skittered aside when the other pilot took his place. I hooked her in and the girl's face went passive. Her lips parted and her eyes focused on something far away. The Kingfisher breathed in time with her lungs. I took my jacket from a hook on the wall and handed Justin's his. I zipped it up to my chin and took Justin's hand.
"Let's go," I whispered.
He followed me through the halls of the ship. There was a small portion of it set aside for the ranking officers and I padded down heavily carpeted floors with painted walls curving upwards in a graceful arch over us. I talked the entire time. I told Justin where we were and where we were going. I told him what our flight route was and who the captain of the Kingfisher was. I told him what I liked and disliked about the man. I told him about Sandy and Maria and how they loved each other and I still wasn't sure if it was like us or if it was something different. I told him that my first pilot – the one I'd apprenticed with – was a woman who died of old age five years ago and loved me like I was her daughter. I told him that I remembered her features better than those of my true mother.
Our rooms were all connected. There was a living space furnished with comfortable furniture, tables, and a small kitchenette so we wouldn't have to bother with the mess hall that the crew used or the officer's hall that was only open at certain hours. Two bedrooms spun off on either side. When we had joined the crew they had put my bed with Maria and Sandy and Justin in a room on his own. Sandy had helped me move the bed that first night so I would be in the same room as my pilot.
I set him down on one of the sofas at the center of the room. I made tea and brought him a mug.
"I'm sorry I don't remember you," he said, "You're very nice."
"Don't apologize. It's not your fault and I'm used to it. Do you trust me?"
"Yes." He spoke very softly. He looked so thin sitting there, like a little child.
"That's something you never forget. No matter how many years you lose, you always remember that you can trust me." I laughed. "Do you know what I told you to call me, when you said you loved me for the first time?"
"Sister. You were so embarrassed and thought I'd be angry. So I told you to think of me like a sister and it was okay to love me."
I sat down next to him, keeping a careful distance between us. He shied away from most physical contact when he couldn't remember where he was. I could hold his hand but little else.
"Let's watch a show," I said. I gestured and the wall lit up with a menu. "You like mysteries."
Justin's memory returned in the last third of the show. He just announced it, a note of bewilderment in his voice. I was a bit disappointed. The show had been picked for a reason – we had both already seen it. Justin's wonder at everything that was happening let me see it all over again and I listened more to his chatter than I did that of the characters. Now he knew the ending and we finished watching it in relative silence.
My next shift was in six hours. It was difficult to manage a Monolith with only two pilots but there was a shortage of them. Few people wanted to sacrifice their memories and subject themselves to a lifetime of amnesia just for the chance to fly a ship. Fewer still wanted to sacrifice their children, for the implants had to be started while the body was still growing. The guild took any child that came, regardless of the wishes of their parents. Mine had been informed through a letter and I hadn't seen them for a full year after I ran to the guild. But parents watched their children carefully and kept them out of the hands of the guild. There were never enough pilots.
In six hours we wouldn't be in deep space anymore. Maria would drop us out and from that point on the pilots wouldn't be needed for the mundane flying. Sandy and I could handle most of it, watching a mere fraction of the information streaming from the Kingfisher. Justin would sleep and I would sit alone in the nest of wires.
It was dark still when the implant in my head woke me. There was a tiny bit portioned off towards independent operation, allowing me to tap into a personal computer even without being plugged in. I slipped out of my bed and sat barefoot, waiting for my eyes to adjust. The room wasn't very big. There was a closet we shared and our beds sat pushed against opposite walls. I could see Justin sleeping only by the movement of his breathing. I walked over and stood there, watching him for a moment.
Sometimes I envied him. He was so fragile but his mind moved a Monolith and he always had someone there, waiting for when he was frightened with no other purpose to their life. I cared for him constantly. It was everything I was. It was all I was. I envied him for that and wished that I could have someone waiting there for when I was lost, to pull me back. The ring on my thumb felt very heavy.
I unhooked Sandy first and she saw to Maria. I stripped out of my jacket and settled myself into the middle of the nest. There were additional connections along my back. These would feed more information into the spine and give a tactile feel of the ship across my body. I would be the Kingfisher, lost in my mind and unable to separate the feel of the Monolith from that of my own skin. Sandy helped me plug in.
"There's a bit of debris," she said, "Maria cleared us for about an hour. After that you'll want to run another sweep and make sure there's nothing out there that could rupture the hull."
"Sure," I replied, "I'll call Justin if I need help."
She nodded. I lost sight of her before she even left the room, walking hand in hand with Maria. The ship filled my consciousness and I felt like I was falling. There was a moment of dislocation where my memories blurred and I was fifteen again, sitting in a nest with my heart trembling like a bird and a senior pilot sitting right beside me to take over in case I panicked. Guild members hovered about the room, watching and grading. The weight of my anchor's ring brought me back to the present and the tide in my mind receded and left my island intact.
We drifted through space with the cold of it scraping against my skin. I felt dull and ponderous, languidly trawling along the course that Maria had left us on. Kingfisher spoke to me in feelings and intuition, my brain processing the data that flowed through it and transforming it into human feelings and sensations before translating it back and sending it out to the ship. I felt the engines in my heartbeat and the circulation of its air was the breath in my throat. Its cargo bay was my belly and even though it encompassed the breadth of blocks and blocks of a city I could list and name every piece of cargo we carried. I wallowed in the sensations. This was what I had wanted.
An hour into my shift I scanned the surrounding space again. Small debris pinged off the metal hull and drifted away. It felt like the scratch of insects on my arms. The sensors chattered information into my ears. Up ahead. Drifting rock and ice spinning lazily through the path we would take. I plotted possibilities and probabilities. The Monolith was a slow beast and she balked at the thought of evading. Grudgingly, I touched at the link that spanned the entire ship. Sandy responded. I heard her voice in my head.
"I see it," she said. There was an uplink in our rooms. It wasn't as complex as the one in the helm but she could still connect to what I was seeing. "I'll send Justin up."
"Drop into deep space?" I already knew how to avoid the collision without breaking our course. I just wanted confirmation.
"Yes. Hold tight and prep the jump."
I signaled to the captain to inform him of our sudden change of plans. He approved and went off to inform the other officers to prep for a short jaunt into deep space. I felt the Monolith stirring to life. She felt eager. The secondary engines kicked up and I shuddered as the sensation danced down my spine. Where was Justin?
"Sandy?" I called through the link. She didn't answer.
Seven minutes until the jump. It had already been set in motion. I surfaced from the link with the Kingfisher, coming up for air. I opened my eyes and stared about my nest. There was no one else in the room and I felt panic welling up in my belly. Distantly, the ship was demanding my attention again. It needed a pilot. I shuddered and gave myself over to it.
One by one, the sensors shut off. Auxiliary functions were temporarily shut down. The lights dimmed to emergency lighting only. All around the ship the crew hunkered down, staying put and waiting for the jump to commence. The captain gave the order and I hesitated. I wasn't a pilot. He repeated himself, his voice sharp over the link. The Monolith scratched impatiently at the back of my mind. We had to jump.
I stopped holding back. The ship rushed into my mind and my breath caught in my throat. I forgot myself and felt only the thrum of the secondary engines and the wrenching sensation that came with jumping into deep space. It felt like claws were scrabbling at my abdomen. The stars blurred around me and the bits of space debris became like tiny motes of dust. Nothing was substantial. Just hazy blurs in a vast blanket of empty space. I felt panic boiling into my gut and I tried to hold on to something. Coordinates. Three stars to find a location. But the stars did not hold still in deep space.
The tide came in and washed me away.
Anchors had five minutes in which to find themselves. One.
Was I the Kingfisher or was I Celia?
An anchor's duty was to the pilot and the pilot alone. Two.
I was twelve when I left my home and ran to the guild. They shaved off my hair and put the implant into my head. I lived in the barracks with the other children. I cried the first night away from home. I didn't cry after the first surgery. There was an anchor there next to my hospital bed, holding my hand and I was too frightened to breath while he spoke and told me I was safe and that my memories would come back. It just took time.
An anchor was someone that couldn't be a pilot. Three.
The stars twisted just out of my grasp. I felt the wires trailing along my back and I sat there alone and shivering violently, not sure if the cold I felt was the cold against my skin or the cold against the hull of the ship. I couldn't remember the Monolith's name. My mind was trying to find it and I was trying to find where I stood but the waves kept eating at the foundation of my sandcastle and I couldn't explain the sensations fast enough. Something was wrong.
An anchor wore steel rings to focus on. Four.
There was someone standing over me. I heard a voice and thought it was my father, and grew frightened when I realized it didn't sound quite right. I covered my chest with both arms, hiding my nakedness and wondered why I had breasts if I was just a child.
There was a ring on my thumb and hands covered it, tucking the loop of metal tight against my palm.
"Celia," the man said. He had a gentle voice. "Celia. It's Justin. We're in deep space. I need you to pilot for just a moment more. Do you remember why we jumped to deep space? There was some debris. We were dodging out to avoid it. Another minute and you can drop us back into normal space."
I nodded mutely. Just had to hold the ship together. The course was already laid and I just had to hold onto it. There weren't any landmarks in deep space but I wouldn't be here for much longer. The man said another minute. He knew who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.
"You're doing fine."
I was so scared. I wasn't a child. I wasn't sure how old I was. I'd ran away from home to join the guild and I couldn't remember anything past that. Why had I done that? If this was what it was like to be a pilot, why had I done that?
"Drop us back into normal space now."
The ship shuddered in response. I traced along the lines and stilled the secondary engines. I didn't need to know who I was for this – the ship was all I needed to know. I didn't need her name. I didn't need her age. I just needed to still her course out and bring the stars back into focus. They shone like beacons again in my sight and the sensors flipped back on, one by one, feeding me information in steady clicks. There was a large chunk of rock behind us, spiraling lazily through what had been our course. The man was still talking, telling me to drop connection with various functions of the ship as I brought them back to life. I didn't have to pay attention to them all. I could bring my mind back to myself and forget some of the details. He kept his hands on mine, fingers rolling across the ring that sat heavy on my thumb. It had an engraving of an anchor on it.
"Do you know me?" he asked.
"You said your name was Justin," I replied.
"I'm your pilot," he said, "You're my anchor."
I laughed. It was novel and bewildering.
"I'm an anchor," I repeated, "Really. I didn't make pilot?"
"No. You didn't. But you make a really good anchor. You'll remember here. It'll come back. It always does."
"I'm sorry I didn't get here faster."
"It's alright. I did it, didn't I?"
"Yeah. You did fine."
We sat there for a while and I listened to the ship. Kingfisher. That was her name. There was a thrill of triumph as I claimed that. It wasn't everything, the sand castle was still dissolving around me and the tide still overflowed over my feet, but I held on to it as tightly as I held on to Justin's hand. I was his anchor and he was my pilot.