Before she turned into a dragon, Kathy Cutter was Comanche Zariphes’ best friend.
You might say Comanche Zariphes was Kathy Cutter’s only friend.
That wasn’t because nobody wanted to be friends with Kathy Cutter. It was because Kathy Cutter didn’t want to be friends with anybody else.
Kathy Cutter’s hair was blonde and her eyes were green. Her face was a perfect geneshaped oval and she had a discreet little interface button that gleamed like mother of pearl behind her left ear. She was smart enough but not too smart. She wore cute tailored clothes from the fancy boutique.
Comanche Zariphes’ mom eshopped at ConsignMart and everybody knew it.
Kathy Cutter’s dad was a pediatrician and her mom was an architect. They lived in a big house with trees and grass so green it looked fake and a swing in the yard. They had a personal car, not just a sharecar. They ate fresh food and somebody else cooked it for them, and they were all rightminded to perfect happiness and stability. Supposedly.
Comanche Zariphes’ eyes were brown and her hair was brown also. She didn’t know what she looked like to Kathy Cutter, because her family couldn’t afford the skins and simware that people like Kathy Cutter’s family ran to control their environmental experiences. Comanche never asked Kathy about that, because she was afraid Kathy would tell her.
Comanche was too smart, and not smart enough to keep anybody from finding out about it. Her mom was a guitar player and her dad was a playwright, and everybody knew they were always broke and weird. They lived in an apartment with a cement balcony, and her mom grew tomatoes in laundry buckets and planted runner beans in window boxes so they grew up the pigeon wire. Other than that, they ate staples and worried constantly about staying in the maximum-rebate bracket of their carbon budget. They didn’t even have a sharecar.
Nobody could spell her last name.
ALL KINDS OF GIRLS tried to be friends with Kathy Cutter, but Kathy Cutter was a hard girl with whom to be friends. She was snide, and she was superior. She was insulting, and she was irate. There couldn’t be anything wrong with her, because she had been raised with all the therapy and all the rightminding her family could afford, so if anybody complained to the teachers or administrators about her it was obvious that there was something wrong with them.
And she was always just waiting to be offended. She collected injustices, and if she wasn’t getting enough insults, she invented them. She collected them the way she collected her china dolls and china horses, and she was as jealous of letting anyone touch them. Once she had an insult, she rubbed it and rubbed it until it shone like jewelry. She polished it into a shape she liked, one that showed the slight to its best advantage, and she committed it to a memory jewel so she could wear it everywhere.
By the time they started high school, Comanche was still Kathy’s only friend. And Kathy had so many insults saved that she could wear them on chains. The memory jewels were colored like rubies and emeralds, pearls and amethysts, and she had ropes of them in colors to suit every outfit. Some of the slights were Comanche’s, but because Comanche wanted to be friends with Kathy she didn’t mind when Kathy wore those, and showed them to her.
Or she told herself she didn’t mind.
There were a lot of them. The time in second grade when Comanche gave her a Valentine’s card with Kathy’s name spelled with a C. The time in fourth grade when Comanche didn’t give Kathy a Valentine’s card at all. The time in sixth grade when Comanche borrowed Kathy’s baby pink cardigan — a color that didn’t suit her, though it looked wonderful on Kathy — and gave it back with a tiny ink stain on the sleeve.
Kathy remembered every mistake Comanche had ever made. So Comanche remembered them also.
Every jewel Kathy wore had the capacity to hold all of those memories, and a hundred years of popular music besides. But Kathy wanted a jewel for each slight — and her father, Comanche knew, would provide. He always gave her expensive gifts, strangely grown-up gifts.
As if he were making amends.
THEY STAYED FRIENDS all through school. Comanche followed Kathy into the A.P. classes, and to college, and when Kathy picked her grad course in astroengineering Comanche got into the same program.
Kathy encouraged her. Kathy drove her. Comanche was very, very careful never to score higher than Kathy on anything.
ONE DAY AFTER GRADUATION, Kathy said, “I’m emigrating to Io. They have dragons there.” As if she didn’t care at all what Comanche did.
But Comanche knew that if she didn’t say, “I’m emigrating to Io too,” that would be the biggest, shiniest ruby of all. So Comanche kissed her mother goodbye, and kissed her father, and packed up her few worldly things. Kathy gave Comanche Kathy’s old datageneral, because Kathy’s family had bought her a new one as a graduation present. Comanche couldn’t use a lot of the functions because she didn’t have the wetware, but it was better than the cheap one Comanche had bought with her grant. Comanche had planned to use the last of her stipend to purchase a ticket, but she surprised herself by applying for and getting a good entry-level technical job at the sulfur plant, so Iocorp paid her passage.
Kathy and Comanche took the elevator to Skypoint together, their duffels following obediently.
They couldn’t sit together on the shuttle because Kathy was traveling first-class, but they used their datagens to text back and forth — no vids so the sound didn’t annoy the other passengers, since Comanche wasn’t wetwired. Once they disembarked on the Activist, Kathy let Comanche sleep in her stateroom. That way Comanche could run out for ice or whatever and Kathy would not have to wait for a steward when she wanted something.
The stateroom seemed luxurious by Comanche’s standards, but Kathy seemed restless and disappointed in it. She wouldn’t order in food, complaining that the ship charged premiums for cabin service, but Comanche couldn’t coax her to go to the commons, either. Kathy paced the room, petted her jewels, refused to answer her phone, and gnawed on her cuticles until white streaks grew into her nails.
Often, Comanche brought back cheese and bread and fruit, and cups of coffee. Kathy could be a horrible person sometimes. But Comanche knew she had her reasons. And every time she looked at a screen or out a porthole, every time she kick-glided the length of the Activist’s central gangway, Comanche was glad she’d come.
IO WAS A WORLD like dragonscale, vermilion and goldenrod mottled and crackled with white. Comanche had arranged to be at one of the viewports as they came up on it, and she drifted with her hands pressed to her thighs as her new home hove into sight. The arc of one of its sulfur volcanoes was visible against the jet-black horizon. Coman- che could almost convince herself that those glittering sparkles she saw around the eruption’s border were the dragons.
It took Comanche’s breath away so thoroughly that she almost forgot to turn around and take in the round of Jupiter’s belly as well, an echo of Io’s colors so huge it was only partially visible through the port. Comanche held out her hands, imagining she could feel the fat world’s tidal pull.
Kathy was back in the cabin, possibly watching the arrival on her wetware, possibly reading technical docs. She didn’t have a job on Io yet, but it wasn’t as if an out-of-the-way worldlet had a lot of competition for employment. She’d have to find something soon. True, Co- manche had never seen her worry about money before — but it was probably just being so far from home and feeling insecure.
THEY SHARED A ROOM on Io, too. Comanche got one as a perk of her job, and it was taking Kathy longer to find work than they’d expected.
“I don’t want to keep taking money from my parents,” Kathy said. “And I need to save mine for something that will get me a job.”
Comanche approved. Kathy needed to cut the apron strings.
Comanche paid for everything. Nearly everything; every few days, Kathy brought home some kind of a treat — imported food, beers, a video player. She was often gone. “Working on getting a job,” Kathy said, and then gave her that look that meant, Boundaries.
Barter, then. The hidden economy. Even out here.
Kathy was working on a new cuff. The first stone was an emerald as big as a cat’s eye, one Comanche hadn’t seen before. She knew it wasn’t hers, because Kathy would have told her. Kathy always told her when she made a mistake.
The work was hard but interesting, though Comanche struggled with Kathy’s datagen. She liked her shift leader, Arachne Jericho, whose expectations never changed from moment to moment. Mary Manley said Jericho was wanted on Mars for a murder that was really a justifiable homicide; Comanche never quite managed to not believe it. But if Jericho had killed somebody, they probably needed killing. And this was Io, not Mars.
Comanche’s job paid well and it used her brain; she did external science and maintenance in a suit. As she walked from place to place, her boots kicked up plumes of sulfur dioxide frost. They hung in Io’s frail gravity for long seconds before drifting gently down again. Comanche tended to frolic around outside when she thought nobody was looking.
She also spent a lot of time watching the dragons, wired into their integral armor, looping overhead. Their jobs were something like hers, but they were doing the real observational science out there on the edge of the solar system. They glittered, their metal bodies paved with synthetic diamonds and sapphires that held massive amounts of survey data in a permanent holographic matrix. Some were gold, some white, some blue. One in particular was a shade of padparadscha orange that caught her eye every time it passed.
She found it hard to imagine that they had been human once.
Io was one of their waystations, but they traveled throughout Jupiter’s solar-system-in-miniature at will: Ganymede, Callisto, Metis, Amalthea… If they could get a lift back out of the gravity well on a survey rocket, some of them even visited the upper atmosphere of the giant world itself. Some of them went farther out, too — there was a colony on retrograde Triton with its nitrogen geysers. She guessed some of them were indentured to corporations too… but some had to have bought off their contracts. They could go places only drones could, otherwise, and that made them valuable.
They might be the only free things in the solar system. Only Europa was off limits to them. Europa with its water ice and its primitive life. Nothing that had not been sterilized and resterilized was permitted anywhere near Europa.
Watching the dragons, Comanche was reminded that she needed better hardware — and the attendant wetware — if she ever wanted to be promoted past a certain level. She didn’t want to be like them — human body lost forever in a shell of alloy, ceramic, and memory jewels — but she needed to skin, and she needed to link, and she needed to be faster on these repairs in the way she only could be if she were projecting a schematic immediately over the work.
She couldn’t save money while she was taking care of Kathy, not unless she had a better job, and the wiring cost a lot more out here than it did back on warming, overpopulated Earth. Iocorp would pay to have her wired… but it was a loan, not a gift. She’d belong to them for thirty years after, mind — quite literally — and soul.
BACK INSIDE, she found a note on her locker to talk to Jericho. Apprehension twisted her gut as she walked into Jericho’s office — a broom closet, about the size of the room Comanche and Kathy shared. Jericho — a compact woman with Asian features and broad shoulders, her slick dark hair cut in a utilitarian bob — stood as Comanche came in, which wasn’t a good sign.
But her words replaced Comanche’s worry of personal failing and punishment with a different worry indeed. “Hey,” she said. “Have you noticed stuff out of place on your rounds?”
“Tool kits,” Jericho said. “Oxy backup. First aid. Anything that gets left in the lockers.”
Comanche shook her head. “Shouldn’t there be access logs for all those things?”
“Yep,” Jericho said. She tapped her fingers on the desk. “You keep an eye peeled. Stuff is going missing; I’d like an idea how. And we have to replace it. Or somebody’s going to get caught outside without enough ox.”
ONE NIGHT — not really a night, but the language wasn’t adapted to the world — Comanche came back to the room to find Kathy home, and in bed already. She was curled up on her side, head resting on her fist. Her body under the sheets looked strangely lumpy.
She raised herself as the light came on, but only from the waist — pushing herself up on her arms like a sick dog. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey.” Comanche dropped her gear kit inside the door. Kathy would normally give her hell for not putting it away immediately, even though she left her own stuff all over the place. “What’s wrong?”
“Give me a hand up,” Kathy said. “And you’ll see.”
HER LONG LEGS ended in perching talons and glittered with memory jewels. All in different colors, arranged in rainbow belts — an angled spiral that peaked above her left hip in that big, green emerald. Her stabilizing tail ended in a hooked barb that put Comanche in mind of a safety knife, and which served the same purpose.
She was still a girl from the waist up.
“You’re a chromatic dragon,” Comanche said, even though she knew Kathy wouldn’t get it. The look Kathy gave her told her that one wasn’t quite enough for a jewel of its own, but she was adding it to the bank. “I didn’t know — “
“My parents cut me off.” Kathy’s human hands sounded funny, tapping on her jewel-encrusted metal knees. “When I told them I wanted to emigrate here. My dad said he wouldn’t pay for me to leave him. I had to save my money for this — “
“Of course,” Comanche said. “It’s expensive, becoming a dragon.” She heard the aggression in her own voice, but for once Kathy didn’t react. She sat down on the bed beside Kathy and sighed. “I couldn’t afford it. I can’t even afford the upgrades I need for my work. I’m going to have to sell out to Iocorp.”
It was easier to say than she’d expected. It didn’t hurt any less, though — she’d followed Kathy all the way out here, and Kathy was going to keep running. That’s what it was, Comanche realized. Armoring up and running.
“I can pay for it,” Kathy said.
“You need — “
Her armored lower body creaked as she stood up. “I’ll be able to afford both. Just listen to me.”
I’LL BE ABLE to afford both. I will.
Comanche heard it. Heard it, as she had heard what Jericho said to her. Heard it and put it away.
She’d be extra careful policing the supply lockers. She’d make sure everything was fully stocked, and nobody’s safety was compromised. She wouldn’t help Kathy — but it was Iocorp she was robbing, not a person, not a charitable organization. Iocorp that brought people out here and then controlled the price and supply of everything.
Kathy was leaving her. Comanche needed to be able to take care of herself. She stroked her own soft arm with her fingers. She didn’t want to be a dragon, though she thought she knew why Kathy might. The same reasons Kathy might want to come all the way out to Io to get away from her family.
Comanche wasn’t naïve. She knew there were things Kathy had never told her.
Things she only told her jewels.
IT WOULD BE ONE procedure for Comanche and just one more for Kathy. Then she would be sealed into her untouchable armor shell. Bonded to it. It would become her body, forever.
Well, maybe not forever — Comanche supposed that some dragons, somewhere, must have changed their minds. But it was a tremendous expense to get that way. A commitment. Getting back out again would be worse, and you wouldn’t be the way you had been.
WHEN COMANCHE AWOKE from her surgery, Kathy surprised her by being there. Her iridescent armor encased her in rainbow spirals to the delicate wings of her collarbones, which were framed by the attachment points for her helmet. Comanche tried to sit up, but her head seemed to be part of the pillow.
“Can you feel anything?” she asked, looking at Kathy’s hands, one gold and one violet, and the way the light caught in the facets of her jeweled carapace and shattered.
“I can feel more than I want to,” Kathy said. “Look, here’s my new face.”
She reached between her knees and lifted it from the floor. Comanche had never seen a dragon helmet up close before. The great glassy eyes were packed with sensors. The stone-crushing jaws could detect any number of chemical compounds. Comanche looked at Kathy’s perfect porcelain geneshaped face, and thought she knew why Kathy might want to hide it forever.
Did your father tell you how pretty you are?
“I think I might go to Titan,” Kathy said. The new interface points all around her shaved hairline shone when she tilted her head. “Did you know the atmosphere is transparent in the infrared?”
“When are you leaving?”
Her expression was trying to be a smile. “Soon. But not tomorrow.”
COMANCHE HEALED FAST, and Kathy refused to leave before she was sure Comanche could take care of herself. It was as if the armor changed her, made her tender. Gave her the strength to be somebody who could care. But the spectral jewels that shimmered with every move were a constant reminder: Kathy would never forget.
And every time Comanche asked when Kathy was leaving, Kathy said, “I’m not ready yet.”
There was work for dragons here on Io. Despite herself Comanche more or less began to hope.
I can’t follow you this time, she whispered in the dark, when she could hear Kathy breathing. This time you have to stay with me.
COMANCHE WAS ONE of the three inspectors on shift when Mary Manley’s distress call went out. Suit breach. Comanche made rapid contact with Jericho, and Jericho gave her the go to make a run. Comanche went bounding across the yellow-white frost, glittering sprays kicking away from each stride. She ran until she strained her suit respirator, the rasp of her breath drowning out Jericho’s instructions and calm tone, and staggered and ran on.
Comanche was the closest help, but close was still halfway around the outside of the complex and the leak in Mary’s suit was too big. It was one of those cascading errors where nobody should have died — but a suit seal gave way the same day an airlock failed to function, and when Mary tried to jam herself into the panic pod beside the failed airlock she found out the hard way that somebody had disconnected the ox and walked off with the bottle.
Comanche brought her body inside, all the way around the long outside of the complex to the next airlock. It wasn’t heavy. Not in this gravity.
Inside, Jericho was waiting with a physician-coroner and a team of medics. There weren’t enough people on Io for postmortem staff not to have other, primary jobs. Comanche’s shift mates lined the corridor bulkheads. She felt like she was passing a court of judgment as she carried Mary over her shoulder to a gurney, frost flaking from the joints in her suit.
She stepped back and waited, chest heaving, eyes on fire. Not because carrying Mary was hard, not in this gravity. She had other reasons.
Jericho came up behind her while she watched the medics work. “She’s cold and dead,” Jericho said. “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
Comanche nodded. “Cold comfort.” It wasn’t funny. She leaned a shoulder against the bulkhead and struggled with her helmet.
Jericho lifted it off for her. “Your half-dragonish friend was here,” she said. “Looking for you. She ran off.”
“Mary — “
Jericho put a firm hand on her shoulder. It kept her from turning around. The shift boss shoved the helmet under Comanche’s arm. “You can’t help here. I’ll need you for debrief in a half hour, but right now you’d better go see to your friend.”
KATHY CURLED UP beside a condenser, small despite the armor. Her human body seemed thin and collapsed, like an empty fire hose run through the armature of her dragonish carapace. In this dark corner, even the glitter of her jewels was muted.
“Hey.” Comanche crouched next to her. She knew better than to touch Kathy uninvited (that was the Tanzanite that lived at the small of her back now), but her hands hovered over her friend nonetheless.
Comanche waited. When Kathy didn’t answer, she said, “I think you maybe owe Mary one of those stones now.”
Kathy raised her head. She’d been huddled, hunched over her dragon helmet. Her eyes were rimmed red, her cheek cobbled with indentations that the stones had pressed. The armor could have been sealed across her face for all the expression it offered.
Flatly, mechanically, Kathy said, “You took the money.”
“Yeah,” Comanche said.
She turned around and slumped down against the wall where Kathy could see her. In her suit, sitting wasn’t comfortable.
“You need to stop stalling, Kathy. Leave if you’re going to leave. Because I have to tell Jericho. And then you won’t be able to go. You’re a free dragon. Get out of Iocorp jurisdiction, you’ll find work. Resupply.”
Kathy’s cheeks were crimson spots in the center of bone white. “You’ll lose your job. You might go to jail. Iocorp won’t hire you again. How will you get home?”
“If they want to put me in a jail, Iocorp will have to ship me home.” She snorted and looked at the back of her hand. She turned it over and looked at the palm.
Kathy started to her feet, talons clutching and skittering at the floor. “You’re just threatening me because you’re jealous!”
“Because you’re going where I can’t follow? Maybe. I followed you to the fucking end of the Solar System because… because you expected it. Be- cause that’s how things are with us. And now you’re leaving me. And you always planned to be leaving me.”
Comanche paused. She could have told Kathy that she had always been a dragon, really, even before she put the armor on.
But the truth was, Comanche had liked being the person who could walk with the dragon. Even if she got a little clawed or scorched. She’d made her choices. She was responsible too. And now she was making a different one.
She didn’t need to hurt Kathy by explaining.
So she just said, “I’m not saying I’m innocent. But that doesn’t change the fact that Mary is dead.”
Kathy stared at her, wide-eyed. Breathless. “Come with me.”
It could have been a punch in the solar plexus. “Kathy — “
“Come with me,” she said. “You’re the only one who ever wanted me for myself.”
Comanche pressed her lips together. Maybe it would be good for Kathy to think that was what Comanche had wanted.
Kathy said, “You said I just expected, before. Well, I’m asking now.”
“Kathy. You’re a dragon. I can’t follow.”
Kathy’s mouth opened. It closed. “I don’t know how to —”
You should have thought of that.
“Five minutes,” Comanche interrupted. “You can be here when she comes to get you, or you can be on your way to Titan.”
Comanche turned her back. She put her helmet on. She squared her shoulders. She closed her eyes.
Eighty-seven seconds elapsed before the puff of displaced air told her Kathy had gone. Comanche still gave her the full five minutes lead before she went to Jericho.
About the Author
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the author of a number of science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories and has received three Hugo Awards, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (2005), a Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award, an Asimov’s Reader’s Choice award, a Spectrum Award, and an honorable mention for the Philip K. Dick Award. She lives in a drafty Victorian in Massachusetts with a giant, ridiculous dog. Find her online at elizabethbear.com and on Twitter @matociquala).