io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Spaceship Joyride” by Dominique Dickey. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
The most beautiful boy you have ever seen in your life is hot-wiring a spaceship.
It’s an objectively unsexy spaceship, insofar as a spaceship can be unsexy—a six-seater built like a 2008 Honda Odyssey, a car model you’re only aware of because it continues to appear in memes.
The boy is decidedly not unsexy, though. His name is Eddie, he’s your xenobiology lab partner, and he’s currently bent over the spaceship’s popped hood. And he’s in his pajamas. His fleecy pants have rubber ducks printed on them, which he seems entirely unashamed of, which only makes him more compelling.
“You’ve done this before?” you ask him, just to have something to ask him. From the way his hands move . . . of course he’s done this before.
“All the time,” Eddie says. The spaceship makes a stuttering sort of whirring sound as it powers up. Eddie slams the hood down. “Bingo. Let’s go.”
He swings into the driver’s seat. You climb into the passenger side. You try not to watch his slender hands as he buckles his five-point harness, thinking, Eyes on your own work, kid. You’ve done this half a million times and you still fumble the buckle over your chest. The straps click into place and cinch down tight.
Eddie glances over at you. His smile is lopsided, like half of his mouth is slow on the draw. You feel something shift in your gut. “You ready?” he asks. You nod, not sure why you don’t trust your voice. He puts the spaceship in gear. He has one hand on the wheel, the other on the back of your seat, so close to touching you. If he were touching you, you think you’d lean into his hand. He’s touched you before, easy: a handshake that leads into a momentary hug, a slap on the back, ruffling your hair. Like he touches all his friends. Like there’s nothing to it. Like it doesn’t make his gut do . . . things. Not the way yours does.
He’s nothing like you. He’s normal, and you aren’t. What’s not normal about you? It’s just that he is a boy, and you are a boy, and boys aren’t supposed to feel like this. It’s that looking at him makes you want to set yourself on fire—and then at least your outsides would match how you feel on the inside, like every surface of your body is rippling and set alight.
And goddamn, the way he rolls his lower lip between his teeth as he looks back over his shoulder makes you feel something you don’t have the words to name. You force yourself to look out the windshield, at the receding parking bay of Sacred Heart Secondary School. Behind you, open space grows closer. You’ve half a mind to wish it would just swallow you and save you from the ways you’re certain to embarrass yourself tonight.
The vacuum of space is cold, cold enough to put out this ungodly fire.
The spaceship picks up speed, then tips backwards out of the parking bay and into the void. You float, straining up against the straps holding you in place. Your hair probably looks stupid in zero gravity, a cloud of waves around your face, but Eddie’s is perfect. He clicks a button on the dash. The door to the parking bay rolls shut. The ship flips over, though it doesn’t matter anymore which way is up, and then you’re zooming away from Sacred Heart.
“Where are we going?” you ask. You’ve realized you don’t know, and that’s stupid and more than a little bit reckless. Who are you to get in a stolen car with a heartbreakingly beautiful boy without a destination?
“I know a place,” he says. “About an hour out, tops.” He types a set of coordinates into the dashboard display. They’re unfamiliar to you, but not far away.
“What kind of place?”
“You’ll see.” When he grins, it lists to one side.
The radio is busted, or maybe it’s the speakers that are blown out. All that comes out is a tuneless rattle that morphs into abrasive static, and Eddie quickly turns it off.
Either way, the sound system is shot, you have an hour of driving ahead of you, and nothing to do but talk to Eddie. He’s easy to talk to—you like talking to him—but being alone with him in the little bubble of the spaceship is not making you any more eloquent. The low light from the dashboard turns his skin smooth and bluish, but you know it only washes you out, and any hint of a flush will be even more visible on your face. You hope he doesn’t look at you. You really wish he were looking at you. His eyes slide back and forth from the windshield to the dashboard monitors, his hands at a perfect ten and two.
It’s an hour of driving and you have to talk about something. So, you talk about the latest xenobiology lab, because this is how you are useful to him. You want to be useful to him. You want him to like you, and usefulness is how you’ve always conned people into liking you. And Eddie’s good people, or at least determined to humor you, so he asks you questions about xenophyophores and makes little noises as you ramble to signal that he’s really listening.
“This can’t possibly be that interesting,” you say after a while. You check the dashboard display—you’re about fifteen minutes out from your destination, now. Damn. Either time’s sped up or Eddie’s really hauling ass in this clunky spaceship, probably because he’s realized that he’s trapped in it with you and your endless science bullshit. “I’m boring you,” you say. “I must be boring you. Your turn. You talk about something.”
“Hand to god, you’re not boring me.” His voice comes out with the same earnest intensity as his litany of well worded follow-up questions. “I think it’s really cool that you know all this stuff.”
Right. Because it’s useful.
“It’s useful, at least,” you say.
He makes a sound, glances down at the dash. “It’s not just that it’s useful, it’s that you really care.”
“Well, it was xenobiology or football, and you don’t want to see me attempt a free-throw.”
He reaches over and shoves your shoulder, laughing, and your gut does that thing again. Is this what people mean when they talk about butterflies in the belly? You hate how much you love the feeling.
Last semester, when you first came to Sacred Heart, you didn’t care about making friends. You were the new kid, starting your senior year in a strange place due to a series of follies that you’d left half a galaxy away. Whether or not the students here liked you was beside the point. Your objective was to hit your graduation requirements, pass all your classes, and hopefully get into a decent university along the way.
Then Mrs. Marian, the xenobiology teacher, paired you with Eddie for lab. Not being liked became a terrifying prospect. You wanted this boy to like you.
You got lucky. It was easy to make Eddie smile. When he laughed it came out all at once, like the sound waves were pushing past a bottleneck in his throat. He invited you to eat lunch with him and his friends in the garden. You said yes. He invited you to study with him and his friends in the commons. You said yes.
Halfway through last semester, the invitations stopped coming. After the initial stab of panic in your chest, you realized why: because your presence was a given. He didn’t need to invite you, because he knew you would be there. Because you were his friend. You’d made it.
A few weeks ago, the invitations started up again. Always texts, never questions, as if he knew you wouldn’t say no.
Meet me by the pine for lunch. I’ll bring sandwiches.
But why? Why would he go out of his way to invite you somewhere you were already bound to be? More importantly, why does he know your needlessly complicated sandwich order: a turkey and swiss with only one slice of bread toasted, extra mustard, and the barest smidge of mayo on the not-toasted slice?
Meet me at the statue in the commons. Let’s do the lab report together.
You showed up everywhere he told you to, at the appointed time, even if it meant extricating yourself from other commitments.
Meet me by the library steps. I’ve got a question about the xeno quiz.
Sometimes—more often than not—the rest of his friends weren’t there. This made you feel awkward at first, but Eddie’s easy as hell to talk to, and then there’s the matter of feeling like you’ve got the sun under your skin when you’re with him. How could you say no to even a second of that?
Meet me on the parking deck after lights out.
How could you possibly say no, even if you know he doesn’t feel the same? He’s trying to be your friend. The least you could do is let him.
“Ta-da!” Eddie says, with a flourish that is probably an attempt at jazz hands.
According to the GPS, you’ve arrived. According to the view out the windows, you’re precisely in the middle of nowhere. You look around, blinking, a bit afraid that you’re missing the joke.
“This is it.” Eddie kills the engine. The location indicator on the dash shifts back and forth along with the ship as it bobs freely in space.
“This is it?”
He turns towards you without taking his seatbelt off. “Yeah. I, uh, didn’t really know a place. I just wanted to take you for a drive.”
“Are you taking anyone to prom?” he asks, utterly without preamble.
All his friends—who you still have to remind yourself are your friends, too—are asking girls from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the girls’ school on the next rock over. Who would you ask? Who would ask you? You huff. “No,” you say.
“Do you want to go?”
“I mean, it’s a tradition, right? I can’t be the loser who doesn’t go—”
“Shut up.” He makes a sound that you can’t place, until you realize he’s halfway to laughing, holding it back. “I’m asking if you want to go with me. Do you want to go to prom with me?”
“Yes.” You don’t have to think about the answer. Your only worry is that you’ve made yourself sound too eager.
Eddie looks at you, nods, starts the spaceship’s engine again. “It’s a date,” he says, with that capsizing smile, and you’re surely blushing now.
A series of indicators on the dash light up. The speakers crackle and hiss. Beneath the static, you can hear an aborted, muffled siren.
“Where is it?” he asks, and there’s not a hint of mirth left in his voice.
You duck your head, then look around. Eddie curses. “Still veiled,” you say. There’s an emergency vehicle pulling up on you and it’s undetectable by radar or by sight, blending into the starry background. A threat you can’t make out.
You hear the staticky blare of the sirens and you are afraid, because you think about how your father’s black skin turns midnight blue in the darkness, how that darkness becomes dangerous. Not in the way a weapon is dangerous, but the way a target draws danger towards it. The bluish glow of black skin is a threat, in the sense that it is threatened.
You feel your father’s fear: a fear so old, so deeply ingrained, that you don’t know who put it there. Was there ever a single moment when the world taught you to be afraid? Or were you born running from this menace, flinching at sirens? The latter seems more likely.
You think of your father’s fear, your father’s skin.
You think of Eddie’s fear, Eddie’s skin. The beautiful boy behind the wheel turns blue in the dark. Not you, though. You’re safe, and you’re afraid—not for yourself, but for the effortlessly cool boy in the goofy pajama pants who hot-wired a spaceship just to ask you to prom.
The police ship appears all at once, sleek and black and looming above you, lights flashing red and blue. There’s an aperture in the ship’s belly. A voice comes through the radio, but the words are splintered into nonsense sounds. Still, you know what it’s saying: You are being pulled over. Please enter the law enforcement vehicle. Failure to comply with further instructions will result in consequences. You are being pulled over. Please enter the law enforcement vehicle. Failure to comply with further instructions will result in consequences.
“Play it cool,” Eddie says, as he steers through the gap.
You’ve never been cool a day in your life. You rest your hands on your knees like you’ve been taught, eyes forward. The siren stops. The bottom of the police ship closes behind you, sealing you in. There’s the hiss of pressure changing, the gut-wobbling feeling of artificial gravity settling. This is definitely not butterflies.
Eddie puts the ship in park and rolls down the window. An officer in a classic dark blue uniform strides up to the driver’s side. You scan his chest, trying to memorize his name and badge number in case anything goes sideways. Quickly—you’re meant to be facing forward, in a situation like this. It’s what you’ve been taught to do.
“Are you aware of why I stopped you?” asks Officer Holt, badge number 070963.
“No, sir,” Eddie says. His voice comes out with such a strange quality that it’s impossible not to look at him. A muscle jumps in his jaw. You can see where his pulse resides under the skin of his throat. You wonder just how fast his heart is going. You don’t want to know. His hands flex against the wheel, a grip so tight it must be painful.
You look down at your own hands in your lap, your pale skin washed out by the dashboard lights, the blue veins showing through, your red plaid pajama pants.
“Loitering in an active roadway,” the officer says, which is stupid, because space doesn’t even really have roads. Eddie doesn’t say anything. The officer asks for his license and registration. Eddie announces every move before he makes it—“My license is in my pants pocket. I’m going to reach into my pocket. The registration is in the console. I’m going to reach over and open the console.” He hands the documentation to the officer, who takes it and walks away.
Eddie’s hands return to the wheel, falling back into that same tight grip. “I’m . . . scared,” he says. It’s not a confession, because it never was a secret. You could see the fear in the way his skin tightened into goosebumps from the siren’s first sound. You’re certain he could see it on you, too.
“I’m in this with you,” you tell him.
“You’d be fine,” he says, but there’s no bitterness in it, like you think you’d be bitter in his place. He turns his head just far enough to look at you. “I’m sorry I lied.”
“It’s okay.” You don’t know what he was even lying about, until—
“I don’t do this all the time. I never do this kind of thing. I just wanted you to think—”
“I already think the world of you.” Maybe it’s too honest, but the situation seems to warrant that kind of honesty. “Wait, then why do you know how to hot-wire a spaceship?”
He shrugs. “Tutorials are easy to find, if you go looking.”
This boy, who learned to commit a felony from a goddamn YouTube tutorial, will surely be the death of you in one way or another.
A different officer comes up to the spaceship. He moves real slow, his hands on his hips, and leans so far forward his head is almost in the window. “Gentlemen,” he says, “would either of you care to explain why you’re out riding around in a stolen vehicle?”
The panic prickling behind your sternum feels like it lasts for weeks, months, years, but it must only be a moment because by the time the spots clear from your vision, by the time you stop thinking shit-shit-shit-shit-dammit-dammit-dammit-motherfucking-hell, Eddie still hasn’t said anything and Officer Moreno, badge number 061941, is still awaiting a reply.
“There must have been a misunderstanding,” you say, before you even know what you’re saying, where you’re going with this.
“Oh?” Officer Moreno asks. Eddie looks at you with so much fear behind his eyes that it downright hurts you to see.
“Yes, sir,” you continue. “We’re students at Sacred Heart Secondary School. The school owns this vehicle, and a fleet of others like it, and regularly loans them out to students for excursions off-campus.” So far, all of this is true. The best lies are mostly truth. “We’re on an outing, and something must have been misfiled in our paperwork, leading Sacred Heart to believe we’d stolen the ship when we intended to sign it out for a few hours. See? A harmless misunderstanding.” You smile at him like you’re in a toothpaste ad. It can’t hurt.
Officer Moreno chews on his lip. “An outing, huh? Where were you even going at this time of night?”
“Nowhere in particular.” You’re surprised by how smooth the lie comes out. “We’re just practicing driving. It’s easier, you know, with fewer ships out and about.”
“Huh,” Officer Moreno says, and shuffles away.
You hear your heartbeat in your ears, but it sounds wrong. It’s like the rattling of the broken radio. Static instead of a steady thrum. You look at Eddie. He’s facing straight ahead, his expression betraying absolutely nothing, his hands still on the wheel.
Officer Holt walks back over, taking ridiculously long steps—seriously, the way he walks can’t possibly be easy on the joints. Eddie’s jaw tenses. The officer stops beside the open window.
“All right, boys,” he says, “here’s what’s going to happen next: we’re going to give you a ride back to Sacred Heart and get this whole misunderstanding sorted out. You two just sit tight, and we’ll have you back at school in a jiffy.”
“Yes, sir,” Eddie says, in a voice that hardly sounds like it’s his. Officer Holt walks away. Eddie is still gripping the wheel, facing forward.
“I think you can roll up the window,” you tell him, just to say something, to maybe get him to move, because the frozen way he’s sitting looks so tense and unnatural, so unlike the boy you know.
“Right,” he says. He presses the button to raise the window, then goes back to gripping the wheel with both hands, even though the ship’s engine is off. It doesn’t feel like you’re moving, but the location indicator on the dash begins to shift back towards Sacred Heart. You twist your hands together in your lap and wonder how soon you’ll get back, and what will await you when you arrive.
Eddie doesn’t seem that interested in talking and, honestly, neither are you. You think about a series of facts, to give yourself something to puzzle over in the silence:
Eddie wants to take you to prom.
Eddie drove you an hour out into the middle of nowhere to ask you.
Eddie must’ve been confident you’d say yes, or else ballsy as hell to risk an awkward drive back to school after you turned him down.
Eddie knows you like him.
Eddie likes you? Unclear. Maybe he wants to go as friends.
Eddie said it was a date. That’s a figure of speech. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
Eddie’s beautiful hands are still vise-tight on the steering wheel.
When he speaks, it startles the thoughts clear out of your head. “I thought sneaking back in would be the hard part, but it looks like that plan is shot,” he says. “Who’s on tonight?”
“Mrs. Marian.” Your xenobiology teacher is the resident supervisor on duty—a fact you only know because you had to slip past her on your way from your dorm to the parking deck.
“We’re in trouble.” The tension is starting to fall out of his voice, which makes it clear just how much he changed himself under pressure. It’s endearing and fascinating and honestly a little bit terrifying.
“We were already in trouble,” you say.
“We’re more in trouble.”
“She likes me.”
“Everyone likes you,” he says and again, there’s no bitterness in it.
“Plenty of people like you.”
Eddie makes that half-laugh sound again, like he’s holding the full force of it behind his teeth. It makes something ache in your chest: you want to hear the real thing. “After the past half hour, I wasn’t so sure,” he says.
“It’s not your fault.”
“It’s the textbook definition of my fault.”
“Okay. Maybe that’s true. But I said I’m in this with you and I meant that.”
That’s what finally gets him to look at you. “Thanks,” he says, and something about the intensity of his voice makes your gut do that annoying and wonderful thing again. Butterflies? No, xenophyophores.
The aperture in the bottom of the police carrier opens. Eddie starts the ship, and you watch him look around as he orients himself. The parking bay of Sacred Heart is below you and a bit to one side, and for a moment you’re in space and it doesn’t matter which way’s up, and then you’re in the parking bay and all the angles feel wonky from the sudden shift in orientation. Eddie has one hand on the steering wheel, the other curled in his lap. He puts the ship in park.
“Shall we gaily march to our execution?” he asks—because of course Mrs. Marian will be right inside, waiting for you.
You should just undo your seatbelt and leave it at that, but you have to ask, while you’re still in the spaceship with him, because you can tell that as soon as he opens the door something will change. The night won’t be what it was, anymore, and that will be both a relief and a sharp sorrow.
“Wait. You said— You said it was a date. Did you mean that the way I think you mean it?”
He unbuckles his seatbelt and leans across the console, close to you. He doesn’t kiss you, but he touches your face, and it feels more intense than you’ve ever imagined a kiss could be. He’s dead serious when he says, “What the fuck are you talking about? We’re already dating.”
It’s your turn to laugh, the sound coming out broken. He looks wounded. You want to touch the wrinkle between his eyebrows, so you do. His face relaxes under your fingertips. You are aflame.
“Was this not a date?” he asks.
“You take me to all the nicest places,” you say. That gets a proper laugh out of him, his head tipped back and his mouth open wide. You feel like you’ve swallowed a star.
“What about all those times I brought you lunch?” Eddie asks. He touches your face again, a momentary brush of his hand.
“Okay,” you say. There’s nothing else to say.
“You’re a dumbass,” he tells you. You can’t argue with that.
“Well, let’s . . . gaily march forth, and all that.”
He looks at you like he doesn’t know what to do with you, then presses a button on the dash. The ship’s doors click and unlock. You climb down on wobbly legs.
Mrs. Marian is waiting as soon as you clear the parking bay. She’s a small brown woman wearing a white bathrobe open over a pajama set, her hair tied up in a silk scarf. You’ve never seen the way anger changes her face before.
“The police went around to the front entrance,” she says. “They wanted to talk with the headmaster.”
“Christ on a bike,” Eddie says, voice barely a breath.
You watch Mrs. Marian as her eyes scan over you—two teenage boys in their nightclothes, faces still tight with worry—and her furious expression breaks into one of concern.
“Were you scared?” Mrs. Marian asks.
Eddie looks at you for a moment before he nods. “Yeah.”
“I was, too.”
“It was my fault,” you say, before you even know what you’re saying. Why not? Falling on your own sword is just another way to be useful, and maybe Mrs. Marian will go easy on you.
Eddie rakes his hands over his short, tight curls. “Can you shut the hell up?”
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” says Mrs. Marian. “You’re both grounded for the rest of the term. You go to class, you go to study hall, you report to your dorms. That’s it.” When Eddie starts laughing—that real, loud laugh again—Mrs. Marian pulls him into a sudden hug. He’s way taller than her but he goes limp at the contact, eyes falling shut. “What the hell is so funny?” she asks, once she’s released him.
Eddie opens his eyes and looks at you, smiling off-kilter. “Guess we aren’t going to prom after all.”
Dominique Dickey is a writer, editor, and cultural consultant working in RPGs and fiction. In addition to creating TRIAL, Plant Girl Game, and co-creating Tomorrow on Revelation III, Dominique has written for Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Dungeons & Dragons, and Pathfinder. Their fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and Nightmare Magazine, among other venues. They live in the DC area, and are always on the hunt for their next idea. You can find them on twitter at @DomSDickey or at dominiquedickey.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2023 issue, which also features work by Wendy Nikel, Sarah Grey, Elad Haber, Kyle E Miller, Ruth Joffre, Deborah L. Davitt, Rich Larson, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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