“You have a listing for someone to share your accommodation?” it asked, its voice hopeful.
Heron saw the woman size it up. There was speculation in the gaze but nothing that made its skin crawl, no half-hidden lecherous leer or tight grimace of revulsion.
“That old listing?” Heron’s heart dropped and something must have shown on its face because the woman laughed a little nervously. “I mean, it’s still available, but it’s just that I posted it so long ago, I’d almost forgotten about it. Please,” she said, standing aside and gesturing with her hand, “come in. I’ll show you around.”
It was a modest space with two bedrooms, both with secondary doors opening into a common bathroom. Privately, Heron thought it would be a bit cramped with more than three adults sharing the quarters but beggars couldn’t be choosers, as the ancient saying went.
Subah Doisson must have misread Heron’s silence because she added apologetically: “I know it’s a long way from the rest of the accommodation wing and you can sometimes hear the water pumping in and out of the recycling pipes behind the walls. Because of that, though, it’s not as expensive as some other family quarters—”
“I’ll take it.”
“You will? I mean, that’s good.” She gave a quick smile and Heron’s heart bumped momentarily in an uneven staccato. “This will be your room,” she indicated the bedroom on the right. “I’m one of the Sanitation engineers so I work pretty regular hours for the most part. It will be interesting having someone else to share quarters with again.”
That makes two of us.
“What about your husband?” Heron knew family quarters were never allocated to single women, no matter the circumstance. Space stations were the epitome of pragmatism.
“He died five years ago.” Her eyes clouded briefly. “A reactor accident. I thought I would be relocated but these quarters are not very popular and, in the end, I just ended up staying. I’ve been looking for a co-tenant, on and off, for more than a year now.”
And, Heron thought, she didn’t have a clue how to go about it. She should be full of questions: who are you? Why are you interested in renting here? Do you have a job? Where did you live last? Heron was tempted to force her to throw it out, just to show how undesirables should be dealt with.
Instead, in a calm voice, it asked, “How much is the rent?”
“Five hundred credits a month, plus outgoings. Say, six-fifty for the first month?”
Good. At least it had that much in its possession.
“Sounds fine,” it said, trying to sound brisk and businesslike. “I’ll transfer the funds immediately.”
There were questions here, in this strange little place of bedrooms situated amidst the recycling operation. Heron could feel the mystery in the air, but K’liven’s heavy threat hung over its head. It couldn’t afford to harbour any doubts, especially when this was the only accommodation choice it had.
“Have you had anything to eat?” Subah asked, moving to the small galley.
Heron was on the point of saying “yes” until it realised its last meal was more than eight hours ago. “Ah, no.”
“Then I’ll fix us something.” Her eyes crinkled with humour. “No charge.”
Left with nothing to do, Heron gave her a tight smile and went to stow its backpack in its new room. The space was cosy, but there was also a small desk extruded from the wall, with an attached swing-out chair. The ubiquitous computer was small, black and cube-shaped, perched on a corner of the off-white desktop.
After a quick look around, it bent down and stroked the bed’s smooth amber coverlet. It was thicker than the blankets the detention centre offered, without the patches or holes it was used to. The Republic had technology to travel the stars yet still couldn’t develop material that didn’t tear or wear out. Couldn’t...or wouldn’t.
Six years ago, Heron wouldn’t have looked twice at such furniture trappings. But now, a plain coverlet in good condition was the height of luxury.
With a wry smile, Heron walked over to the computer and inserted its chip, authorising a funds transfer to Subah Doisson, once he found her in the station’s directory (Engineer, Sanitation, as she had indicated). The screen chirped acknowledgement and a little over half of its money was instantly gone. It hoped the handful of job opportunities it had been offered were legitimate.
When Heron returned to the living room, Subah was ready with something to eat. The food was simple and uncomplicated but tasted wonderful.
“Don’t you want to know who I am?” Heron asked.
“I know your name is Heron Meed. I was notified of the transfer while I was in the kitchen. It’s a nice name but a bit unusual.”
“I come from the Morhea Sector.”
Subah’s expression was interested but blank. Somehow, it was vitally important to Heron for Subah to understand who―and what―it was.
“I’m what’s called a hermaphrodite,” it persisted. Didn’t she notice what had been so immediately evident to Immigration Officer Fusmic?
Subah nodded. “I know about the Morhea Sector. You forget, I’m a bio-engineer.”
Heron’s eyes narrowed. This seemed too good to be true. “So you don’t have any problems with renting a room to someone like me?”
She looked at it with large green eyes. “Why should I?”
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