The woman had close-cropped, dark hair in an unfamiliar style. But Dez rarely recognized styles, be they clothing, hair or make-up anymore. It was the marker of all the time that passed while he was in-ship. That was its own time, both faster and slower than the time for those outside it. He lived his days normally, as any other, and on these worlds decades, sometimes even centuries passed.
So much changed that he often experienced a sense of vertigo when he emerged to see what there was of the universe. What did not change, what was constant as the stars themselves, was the urge. It was quiet in-ship, biding its time, knowing that its moment would come. But once he stepped onto these teeming planets, ripe with possibility, it could not be denied.
The woman did not notice him slipping into the flow of the crowd to follow her down the street. This city had streets, open to the elements, as Dez’s own home had. He could remember so little specific about it now. Somehow in-ship had become his default environment, what he associated normal with. Off it, the assault of color and noise, the press of people, the endless space extending on through vast constructions, was all foreign and other.
Most of those who went in-ship did so on one way voyages. They had their reasons. Others, a select few, such as Dez, lived in-ship, going from port to port, letting the centuries drift past. They would grow old in-ship and die there, a thousand years or more after their birth. It was a kind of immortality, though a meager .
And a sequestered one, for most could not stomach more than brief visits while in port to the worlds and what they held. Some drink and some companionship, though even those basic needs could become complicated by several centuries of cultural detritus, were all they were looking for. Most of his shipmates avoided it, staying aboard and interacting only with those on the docks, where they were treated as a kind of bizarre nobility. Dez always availed himself of the opportunities to stretch his legs and see what there was to be seen. As claustrophobic and nauseous as it was, there were things he had to see to.
The woman stopped off to pick up some food, or at least that was what Dez surmised she was doing. The shop looked like what he had known as a grocery store, with brightly colored boxes lining endless shelves. He loitered outside the shop, enjoying watching the shifting crowd move around him.
Dez was so immersed in the crowd’s movements that he almost missed when the woman emerged from the store and started down the street. She made her way to what Dez referred to as the air-train—he had ridden one on his way from the dock—and he was behind her when she got on. He stood near enough to get a taste of her scent, but not so near as to draw her attention. The car was crowded with people heading home from work and no one paid him any mind.
Nor did anyone pay any mind as he followed her into the vast complex that proved to be her apartment building. By its exterior, he would have guessed it was a manufacturing plant or something like that, and perhaps it once had been. He almost lost her again in the maze of corridors—the elevators, heading in every conceivable direction were utterly baffling. But he did not panic and, eventually, he came upon her trail again.
When the urge was upon him, the heat of it in his blood, his instincts were always true. That was why he was not at all surprised when he slipped into the tiny cubicle where she made her home, to find she was alone. It meant he could linger and take his time, which he always preferred. Like anything else, there were some he enjoyed more than others. Some that seemed rote, some that he regretted. But this one was special, the liquidity in her eyes, when she realized he was there, was breathtaking.
As he took the air-train back to the docks, he was overcome by a wistful kind of regret. Even one like this—where everything had gone as smoothy as he could imagine, and where the act itself had been glorious and overwhelming—could never compare to what was in his head. That was why, he was certain, the urge always returned. Someday he would craft that perfect act and he would be done. He could walk back into time.
But he never would, he knew. There was no perfect act. Nothing could quell the urge that swelled within him, like clockwork when the end of his in-ship spell ended.
He was back on ship before dawn broke. In all likelihood, he and his vessel would already be launched and on its way to its next destination before the body was even discovered. That was how he planned it, and except for a few clumsy attempts, how it normally went. He was a ghost in the system, flitting in and gone, out of time. Not even a suspect or considered.
Once he had returned to the planet he had been born without realizing it. The site of his first. Centuries had passed. People had lived and died and the woman—a striking thing with green eyes and freckles he could still picture—had long since been forgotten. Another case unsolved. The governments responsible for finding her killer had collapsed and been reborn a half dozen times or more since. Nothing remained of her but his memory of those final moments.
It was dark, the sky still filled with stars, including the one that he would be going to next, when he arrived at the ship. By the time he came to rest again, everyone on this world would be dead, and he would be somewhere else, following another woman.
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