Book: Oblivion Quest
The Oblivion Saga • Book 3
J.R. Mabry B.J. West
1700 Shattuck Ave #81
Berkeley, CA 94709
Copyright © 2018 by J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
Printed in the United States of America
ISBN 978-1-947826-88-5 | paperback
ISBN 978-1-947826-89-2 | epub
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without written permission of the author and publisher, except for brief quotations in printed reviews.
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By the same authors…
BY J.R. MABRY & B.J. WEST
The Oblivion Saga
BY J.R. MABRY
The Berkeley Blackfriars Series
The Temple of All Worlds Series
The Red Horn Saga (with Mickey Asteriou)
The Prison Stone • The Dark Field
Summoners’ Keep • The Red Horn
BY B.J. WEST
Love is the enemy of efficiency.
We were wrong to suffer them to exist for so long.
They are dangerous. They must be controlled.
We have been controlling them. It has not worked well.
But they are as we were. They have potential.
They must be destroyed.
No, he must be destroyed. Kill the one who learned.
How? There is nothing we can do that he cannot.
We must act.
We must not act.
“This just arrived for you, sir.”
Captain Jo Taylor had been on her way to the bridge. She stopped and faced the ensign who had called out to her. The young woman didn’t meet her eyes—didn’t dare—which Jo understood but didn’t like. The ensign held out a small package which Jo received, head cocked. She looked at the tracking code, and her eyebrows raised. Central Command on Devonshire Base to Shams Outpost, then by courier drone to the Talon. Jo looked at the young ensign and nodded her thanks. “Duly delivered, Ensign. On your way.”
“Yes sir,” the ensign smiled her relief and almost ran down the cramped corridor of the battle cruiser.
Jo tucked the package under her arm and continued her journey. Stepping onto the bridge, she hesitated as everyone stood. “Captain on deck,” Shell Ditka shouted.
“As you were,” Jo said. Her B-team commander vacated the captain’s chair and stood by at parade rest.
“You are relieved for the day, Mr. Bourgeois,” Jo said.
“Thank you, sir.” Bourgeois’ face was unreadable.
Jo scowled at him. Sometimes she hated military formality. “Got any plans?”
“I plan to continue my study of the logs of the Eisenhower sir. I hope to have a report for you by this time tomorrow.”
“Excellent,” Jo said. “But I also need you rested. By all means, spend an hour on your report, but…don’t spend more than that. Do something fun. That’s an order.”
“Get out of here.” She waved toward the door.
She surveyed her prime crew, all of them in their places, all of them rested and ready. A vast starfield filled the main viewer, motion detectable only at the outer edges of the screen. A sense of order and rightness washed over her and she stood a little straighter. She was about to sit down, but then remembered the package under her arm. “I’ll be in my ready room, Mr. Liebert. You have the conn.”
“Aye sir,” Liebert said, smiling but not looking at her.
Jo stepped into the small room that was her on-duty sanctuary. She pulled at a red poly tab and peeled the lid off the package. Then she cocked her head again as a furry green plush toy fell out of it, landing with a slight bounce on the table.
Jo picked it up and turned it over. A stuffed animal? Who in the world would send me a stuffed animal? Then she saw that actually it was a stuffed vegetable. Jo raised one eyebrow as she held it aloft by one tiny arm. It was, in fact, a peapod, about twenty-five centimeters long, forest green, with large goofy eyes and a sewn-in smile. There were also two biologically incorrect arms with white-gloved hands emerging from the middle of the pod.
A note had also fallen out. She picked it up and read it.
Don’t forget to do something out of the ordinary on your birthday.
Jo smiled. Her paternal grandmother had called her “sweet pea” since she was a little girl, and never stopped, even after she joined the military, after graduating from officer’s academy with honors, after rising up through the ranks. To Granny Taylor, Jo would always be a little girl in pigtails, her sweet pea. In a life that required her to constantly be so hard, having that touch of softness was a welcome respite.
She tucked the poly tab in the box and set it aside. She sat in one of the chairs and tried to make the plush toy sit up. Surprisingly, she found it had a little pocket of beads sewn into its veggie derriere, and it sat up quite handily. Jo glanced at the plushy peapod. Her grandmother was the only family she had left, and practically the only family she’d ever had. Keeping her safe had been a large part of why Jo had joined the military in the first place, putting herself on the line to stand between her and the Authority, keeping the wolves far away from hearth and home.
As she was discovering, there was no shortage of wolves. She strode back onto the bridge. “Reports, Mr. Liebert?”
“All in, sir.”
“Can you give me a summary?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary, sir.”
Now it was the waiting. Since the Battle of Aken, the Authority had withdrawn—presumably to lick their wounds. That was fine with Jo, but she knew it would be a temporary reprieve. The Authority was not going to back off just because some rookie female captain had handed them their asses. They would regroup and be back with a vengeance. Jo had no doubt of that.
In the meantime, she was not sorry to be given a more pedestrian assignment. There had been a slew of pirate attacks on merchant vessels near neutral space, and they had been assigned a caravan to escort. Jo knew very well she was no slouch in battle, but she didn’t relish the danger. She could get used to assignments like this.
She went to the wall dispensary and punched in the code for Mayan hot chocolate, adding the rider for extra cayenne pepper. She carried it back to her command chair and set it in the shallow well that would keep it from spilling should they hit any minor turbulence.
She looked up and accessed her neural, calling down the reports, and began to go through them methodically. They were routine, and all seemed in good shape, and her mind quickly wandered.
She thought about Captain Telouse. He had been kind to her. She flashed on the image of his corpse lying side-by-side with dead Authority police, and a knot twisted up in her gut.
She’d been pressed into command duty before she’d gotten a chance to figure out who killed him or why. The Captain had said they were there to meet a contact—an old flame of his, as she understood it. And they were there on RFC orders…or at least with permission. Well, which was it?
I’m the captain now, she thought. Jacques is dead. His records are no longer privileged.
She looked up and blinked, navigating on her neural to the captain’s command communications. She’d start there and then move on to his personal log. No one on the bridge would know she was doing anything but reading reports, if they cared. The only one who might discover what she was accessing was Liebert, and she didn’t need to explain herself to him. And even if she did…her crew would understand. Everyone had been fond of Captain Telouse—everyone but Shallit, and Shallit was nothing but an icy-cold gas bag floating somewhere in deep space thirty-two parsecs away.
She saw a blinking blue light in her peripheral vision, and looked up to access the new message. It was another birthday greeting—this one from Palamar. She had known Palamar since her academy days. On the one hand, he was a creepy old man who kept his formidable secrets a little too close to his vest. On the other hand, he was funny, avuncular, and one of her oldest friends.
“I have an errand to run,” Jo said. “Mr. Chi, you have the conn.”
Jo made her way to supply, where Palamar served as senior boatswain in charge of supplies. As soon as she stepped through the door of his office, the old man brightened, and whatever dark cloud had been hovering over him disappeared. “Out, everyone, out. The birthday girl is here.”
There were two ensigns standing in front of his desk with datapads. Both were hesitant to leave—Jo surmised that it was because they had not yet gotten what they needed from Supply. She hated to interrupt them—they were, after all, working for her.
“Please take five,” she assured them, looking them each in the eye in turn and touching their shoulders. “You’ll still get what you need.”
Both uttered some form of “Yes sir” and scuttled from the room.
“To what do I owe this pleasure, Sunshine?” Palamar stretched his arms to their full length and then put them behind his head.
“I hear you have a surprise for me,” she said.
“Surprising you is one of my chief joys in life.”
“Got that right,” she sat and rocked side to side in the swiveling chair.
Palamar opened a drawer in his desk and took out a box. There was no ornamental wrapping, just a loosely-tied tangle of red poly, obviously left over from some kind of packaging.
“You suck at the gift-wrapping thing. You know that, right?”
“Just open it.”
She tugged at the poly, but it pretty much just fell off of its own accord. Jo opened the box and pulled forth an old-fashioned bottle.
“What is this?”
“Whisky. Single malt scotch. Glenfiddich Albert Miser Reserve, 2137. This baby trades for about 14,000 chits.”
“What the fuck, Palamar? How did you get this?”
“Ah…” he scratched at his head. “Let’s say it was tangled up in another deal and there’s no way I can ever move it without getting in legal trouble. More than that you don’t need to know.”
“Uh-huh. So basically, you just want me to drink your evidence.”
“It’s the best damn contraband you’ll ever put to your lips, I can promise you that.”
Jo cocked her head. “Hey, Palamar, what do you know about Admiral Alinto?”
“Ah…your new boss. Trying to figure her out?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Well, let’s see.” He looked up, as if he were accessing his neural, but he seemed to just be thinking. “The word is, she’s an eccentric. When she warms up to you, she gets kind of familiar—but don’t let it fool you. She’s tough as nails and sharp as a diamond. But she does go out of her way for the human touch, especially when she’s giving orders. At least…that’s what I’ve heard.” He leaned in. “But I hear a lot. Most of it’s right.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Hey, the whiskey was a gift, the intel is going to cost you.”
“Like hell.” She laughed. “I don’t know what to do with you, Palamar. I don’t know whether to kiss you or throw you into the brig.”
He smiled at her and reached for the bottle. He cracked the wax seal and pulled two glasses from his desk. “I prefer the kiss, in case you’re wondering.”
“Will you ever fucking grow up?”
He poured two fingers and slid it to her. Then he poured one for himself. “There are two things about me that are immutable,” he said.
She sipped from her glass and her eyes went wide. Her mouth exploded with smoky complexity and water came to her eyes. She wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve and set the glass down as if it were an explosive device. “Oh, yeah?” she asked, trying not to cough. “What are those?”
“I will do anything for a chit, and I am always on your side.”
Jeff rounded the corner, then hugged the wall of the mall corridor. That, he told himself, was hard.
He and his crew had escaped Sol Station, only to be nearly killed on their way to neutral space. Murdered, he corrected himself. But none of that seemed as difficult as what he had just done. He had told his crew—and his girlfriend, Emma—that he was going his own way. Temporarily, he had said, but that hadn’t made it any easier. None of them had been happy about it. And Emma—
Emma stepped around the corner and crossed her arms. “Thought you’d just slip away between courses, did you?” She leveled a gaze at him that could atomize planets.
Jeff looked around for an escape route. There were plenty, but unless he wanted to be seen being chased by a woman scorned… He looked at his shoes. “I thought it would be easiest.”
“It’s certainly the most cowardly.” She was rock-solid, her gaze unwavering. Jeff could almost feel the heat radiating from her angry core.
“I’m trying to protect you,” he said, but couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes as he said it.
“Uh-huh. By leaving us alone and vulnerable in an unfamiliar universe. The logic of that is impeccable.”
Jeff could feel himself about to sweat. A trio of young people—engineers, from the look of their uniforms—approached and passed, talking to one another in gregarious, animated tones. Jeff waited until they were past earshot. “I’m…I have to—”
“You have to go to her. I know.”
“I have to find the shaman.”
Emma jerked back slightly. He had surprised her. He’d almost confessed it to the whole crew but didn’t want to try to explain. But Emma knew about the little man from Peru. He saw that he’d caught her off guard, so he pressed his point. “I can’t explain why it’s important…I just know that it is.”
“So, let me get this straight: You’re suddenly feeling your metaphysical oats, so chasing after some guru is more important than making sure your crew—whom you brought from another universe, remember—is safe and gainfully employed?”
Well, since you put it like that, Jeff thought. He didn’t know how to answer her. “Emma, I know how it looks. This isn’t about personal fulfillment. My gut tells me he knows something. Something…vital. Something we need to know.”
“Then why is he playing cat-and-mouse? Why not just come to you and tell you?”
Jeff looked away again. “I don’t know that.” A thought struck him. “Maybe seeking is part of the finding.”
“See there? That’s what I hate about metaphysics. Nonsense.”
“Emma, I have to go. You have to…let me go.” He finally looked up at her.
Fire flashed in her eyes. “I can’t stop you. I know that. Even Nira can’t stop you, and she would if she could. Did you see her, by the way? She’s crushed. Not just at your abandonment, but by the weight of responsibility. It’s all falling on her shoulders now. She’s a stormy little raincloud back there. On the surface she’s studying the dessert menu, but on the inside she’s about ready to kick someone’s throat in. Preferably yours.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“It would provide a great deal of momentary satisfaction, yes it would,” she agreed. Her arms were still crossed over her breasts, like battle armor.
“I’m sorry,” Jeff said, looking her in the eye. He hoped she would see his sincerity.
“No, you’re not,” she said, speaking the truth of it. Her eye pierced him, deep, pinning him to his place like a butterfly on a spreading board. “But I’ll tell you what you are…”
Here it comes, he steeled himself.
“You don’t trust anyone but yourself. Hell, I don’t know if you even trust yourself, but you sure as hell don’t trust anyone else.”
“That’s not true. I don’t want to endanger them any further—”
“That’s such utter bullshit. Listen to yourself. Sticking together is the safest thing we can do. Throwing us to the four winds—”
“I’m not throwing you—”
“Shut the fuck up, I’m not finished.”
Jeff shut up.
“Throwing us to the four winds is the most selfish, irresponsible act I can imagine right now. You want to go see your shaman? Fine. Let’s all go. Maybe we can all benefit from a bit of his ego-transcending enlightenment crap. I’m game! But you can’t handle that, because you have to be the tough guy who goes it alone—”
“That’s not fair—”
“You’re damn right it’s not fair!”
Emma was yelling now, and other pedestrians were starting to stare at them as they passed in the hall. She looked at the floor, hugged herself and waited for her passion to die down a bit. Then she resumed, at a lower decibel. “We are not expendable,” she said. “We’re your team. You need us as much as we need you.”
Jeff couldn’t hear any more. Inside, he fought back against her reasoning. He felt himself starting to panic. He was sweating now. His own anger was rising, and he knew if he endured any more, he’d lash out. That would be bad. He breathed deeply a few times, stilling his mind, willing himself to be calm. He met her eyes and gave her a sad smile. Then he kissed her cheek. Then he walked away.
“Asshole!” she shouted after him.
He kept walking.
“You coward!” she yelled. People were staring again.
He kept walking, ignoring the eyes following him from all sides of the mall corridor.
“Fuck you! Fuck fuck fuck—fuck you!” she shouted again. He cringed. He’d rather face a battlefield filled with alien hostiles than an angry woman of Emma’s caliber. He couldn’t dismiss her—she was smarter than he was. He couldn’t argue with her—she was more articulate than he was. The only thing he could do was escape her.
“Goodbye, Emma,” he said out loud, although no one could hear it. His gut churned with the incompleteness of it all, the accusations, the betrayal. “What a royal fucking mess,” he said out loud, but whether he was referring to the situation or himself he wasn’t completely sure.
Danny perched on a stool at a small and awkwardly tall table in the back of the bar, sipping unenthusiastically on the worst sazerac he had ever tasted. That it was terrible didn’t surprise him; what did was that a sleazy dive like this one had absinthe at all. It didn’t really matter though, as he wasn’t there to drink.
The bartender had directed him to the table in back, saying that his contact would meet him there when she arrived. This also surprised Danny. Flynn hadn’t said anything about his contact being a woman. It seemed unlikely, considering the nature of the business he was soliciting. He kept watch on the door, taking stock of each new customer who wandered in. They were typical clientele for a dive bar in the grimy lower decks—cargo handlers, mechanics, and other laborer types—probably just off a shift on the docks.
Then she walked in, at first just a silhouette against the smoky glow of the promenade outside. She couldn’t have been more out of place if she had three heads. Easily the tallest woman Danny had ever seen, ducking slightly as she came through the doorway, long slender legs gliding beneath a calf length sack dress. Her long blonde hair shimmered in the few lights that hung from the ceiling as she walked with the elegance of a runway model toward the bar. Her small but perky breasts jiggled freely under her dress.
It couldn’t be, I’m not that lucky, Danny thought. But the day was full of surprises. She inclined her head slightly as she talked to the bartender, then he pointed directly at Danny. She turned to follow his finger, then began striding directly toward him. Danny smiled.
She paused at the table, towering over Danny. She had to be at least seven feet tall. The height of the table suddenly made sense. He could also now see that she wasn’t human. Her skin looked smooth, hard like a shell, and was a pale mint green. Her eyes were almost comically oversized, like a cartoon version of a sexy woman, white saucers with a black dot like an iris, but which appeared to be painted on the surface. Below that, her lower face, with a tiny nose and full red lips, appeared to be some kind of a mask.
“Well aren’t you a tall drink of water…” Danny said, leering.
She stared back at him a moment, showing no emotion, then the mouth on the mask began to move. “No, I am quite solid,” she said in a clear, almost musical voice with just a hint of smoky raspiness that Danny found very nice. “I am Amberline, and I was told you wish to discuss business.”
Danny watched the plump lips move, mesmerized. He didn’t care if they weren’t real, he was already imagining them wrapped around his cock. “I can think of many kinds of business we should discuss.” Was she ignoring the innuendo, or did she not get it? Either way, she gave no response, simply standing motionless. He gestured to the stool next to her. “Have a seat.”
“I prefer to stand.”
Danny shrugged. He didn’t really care either way, and with her standing, her protruding nipples were right at his eye level, which was just fine with him. “Are you sure you are the, uh, person I’m supposed to meet? I’m looking for someone to do some work for me, and it could be a bit…rough.”
She nodded slightly. “Yes, I am here to arrange contract services. I was told you need someone who is not concerned with the legality of the work done.”
“That’s a good way to put it.” He tore his eyes away from her tits and stared into her unblinking eyes. It seemed unlikely she was working for the cops, local or otherwise. He usually had a pretty good sense of whether someone was square or not, and he decided to go for it. “I need two people tailed. I want someone watching them at all times, and I want updates as to where they are. They are currently in Authority custody, but should be released any minute now.”
Amberline nodded. “Understood. That doesn’t sound as challenging as you implied.”
Danny smiled. “That’s not all there is. I also need something retrieved and put into secure storage until I call for it again.”
“That can be arranged. What is the nature of the item?”
Amberline inclined her head slightly, reminding Danny of a confused dog. “Yes. Kidnapping is most definitely illegal.”
Danny laughed. “Yes, yes it is. That won’t be a problem, will it?”
The corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smile. “No, it will not. But it will not be inexpensive.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I figured as much.”
“Is she also in custody?”
“No, she’s free, on Epworth station. I can give you her neural ID; she should be easy to track.”
Amberline brushed a lock of hair out of her eye. “When would you prefer that she be obtained?”
“As soon as possible, but at your discretion, of course.”
She nodded. “Do you have a preference where she will be held?”
“No, just stash her somewhere nobody else can find her and keep her there till I call for her.”
She stood motionless for a moment. Danny watched her breasts rise and fall with her breath while he waited. After a moment, she stirred, and the artificial mouth began to move again.
“Very well. The surveillance will cost you 1,000 per person, per day, plus expenses. “
Danny nodded agreement. “And the... uh, the other thing?”
“100,000 for the initial acquisition, plus 1,000 per day for her care.”
Danny winced. He knew it was going to hurt, but not that much. He considered the leverage this was going to provide him, how much it would hurt Jeff, and it suddenly didn’t feel pricey at all. He smiled savagely, nodded, and pulled a datachip from his pocket. It was an antique, a relic from before the advent of the neural, and the de facto currency of criminals, since it was untraceable.
“This is linked to an anonymous account with more than enough funds to cover your needs for at least a month. The relevant neural codes are on there too.”
Amberline produced an equally old reader from somewhere inside her dress and inserted the chip. She waited patiently for the green light that indicated the transaction had cleared, then smiled.
“Is there anything else you need?”
Danny grinned. “Funny you should mention that. What exactly are you?”
Amberline frowned slightly. “I don’t understand.”
“Your, uh, your species?”
“Ah. Humans call my people Alverians.”
“And you are female, yes?”
He leered at her. “You’ve got a nice rack for a bug. How much for a go?”
“Yeah, you and me in a quiet room somewhere, some music, some drinks, and I get you out of that dress and see what’s going on underneath…”
Amberline stared. “You want to mate with me?”
Danny was practically drooling. “Yeah. How much?”
She threw her head back and laughed loudly, mockingly. Then with a wicked smile she shook her head. “Our parts would not be… compatible.”
“I bet we could make it work. How incompatible could it be?”
Still smiling, she gestured her long arm towards her crotch. “It has teeth.”
Jeff lifted his hand and discovered that if he pressed hard enough, he could erase parts of the room. He pressed and wiped upwards, and the keypad blurred into the wall. He wiped a few more times, and all trace of it disappeared.
That’s amazing, he thought and turned his attention to the window. It was as if he were sweeping a number of items off of a counter. With the motion of his hand and a little pressure, the window was gone. First it was just a blurry smudge, then it blended into the white expanse of the wall.
Fascinated, he kept at it, working his way around the room, wiping away all traces of the vents, the doorframe, the door, the wall monitor, until his gaze was an uninterrupted field of peaceful, blessed white.
“The color of death,” he heard a voice say from over his left shoulder.
He turned to look, but no one was there.
Nothing was there. He turned and turned again. Then he felt his pulse quicken. He had wiped away every feature in this room. He had wiped away every exit from this room—he couldn’t get out and no one else could get in.
Frantically, he began to search for any cracks, any omissions in his suicidal art project. Just a line would be enough—he’d find a way to widen it, he’d find a way to fit through the cracks…
Jeff awoke with a start. Hovering over him was a puffy, elderly man with sagging jowls and a sneer. His nose was drinker’s red, and Jeff could see the veins clinging to its surface like spiders. His eyebrows were six months out from their last reasonable trim, and flakes of skin clung to his forehead. Clearly, this was not a well man.
But he was a familiar man. “Admiral Jennings,” he said reflexively.
“Ha!” the man snorted, “In what universe?”
“Mine, actually,” Jeff said. He sat up and leaned against the wall behind him. He reflexively pulled the bedclothes around himself. Was he dressed? He felt around under the blanket. No, dammit.
“You been following me,” Jennings said.
“How did you get in here?” Jeff asked, beginning to collect his wits.
Jennings ignored the question. “I don’t much like being followed.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“So why are you following me?”
“That’s a long story.”
“I got twenty-four hours before the Annabel Lee is ready to leave space dock and no money to spend on Nancy Boys or the holo.” He grinned. “So entertain me. Especially if you’re buying the whiskey.”
“I think I can manage that,” Jeff said. “Um…do you mind giving me a bit of privacy?”
“I do, actually. I’d like to see you naked.”
“And I’d like to clock you so hard you’ll see red until Wednesday.” Jeff narrowed his eyes.
Jennings’ billowy eyebrows rose and his puffy lips pursed. “That’s the way it is, is it?”
“Wait in the hall and don’t be an asshole, and I’ll buy you all the whiskey you can stomach.”
“And what do I got to do for you?” he sneered. “Since you won’t do for me?”
“I’ll talk and you’ll listen.”
Jennings scowled. “I’ll be in the hall,” he said, and turned toward the door.
The door. It was there. The blessed door. Jeff felt something in his gut relax. As soon as Jennings was clear of the room, Jeff leaped up and threw on his clothes, slightly sour from the day before. He sniffed at his shirt before he put it on. He’d need to grab the rest of his gear from the Kepler before the clock ran out.
Jeff snatched up the rest of his effects from the nightstand. He wondered if perhaps Jennings might have snatched something before he woke, but everything was there. He splashed some water on his face and looked at his own eyes in the mirror. I’m looking at a traitor, he thought.
He reached for a towel and wiped his face.
Not a traitor. Not a traitor, he told himself. Decisive, maybe. Expedient.
But that’s not what his eyes said. It’s not what Emma’s eyes would say, either. He pushed the thought aside. He couldn’t afford to second-guess himself. Not now.
He exited his hotel pod, hearing the door slide shut behind him.
Jennings sized him up. “You’re taller than I thought you were,” he said.
“Meaner, too,” Jeff said, starting off down the hall.
“I’m not mean,” Jennings said. “I’m thirsty.”
“It’s eight o’clock in the morning,” Jeff said.
“There’s no sunrise or sunset in space,” Jennings countered. “It’s always happy hour.”
“It’s weird,” Emma said. “This was our ship. And now it’s not.” She had never felt any fondness for the place before. It was all military grays, with a utilitarian design that yielded not an inch to aesthetics. She supposed it did have an aesthetic of a sort, but not any kind that spoke to her. It was cold, efficient, but also inhuman. “I’m having a hard time sorting out how I feel about this,” she said out loud, although to no one in particular. “I am indifferent toward the ship, you know, as a ship. But now I feel the loss of it. And it certainly does feel like loss.”
An ache tore at her breast. It was like a large black hole in the center of her gut, swallowing all other feelings and concerns. She supposed it was better than anger, though, and her anger at Jeff over the past twenty-four hours had been intense.
She hated herself for being so much at the mercy of her emotions. At times they felt overwhelming, even abusive. This was one of those times. As much as she hated Jeff’s detachment from his emotions, she also envied it. She could see how important it could be on the battlefield. She wished she could just turn them off, as he did—or at least turn them down.
Nira didn’t respond to her comment about loss. She’s like Jeff, Emma thought, under total control. Pho nodded, though. Emma realized she liked the kid. He was eager and sensitive. He didn’t always show the best judgment, but he seemed to mean well.
“Collect your effects and meet back here in five minutes,” Nira commanded.
Emma bristled. She didn’t like being told what to do. She hadn’t had any trouble acknowledging Jeff as captain, but since she wasn’t, strictly speaking, military, she wasn’t sure how much authority Nira actually had over her.
Emma went to her cabin—more of a pod, really—and stuffed her clothes into a poly duffle bag. It only took a minute or two. She didn’t have much to pack because they hadn’t intended to stay on the ship for long. They had only been there to make a jump, an experiment. They had expected to sleep aboard Sol Station that same night. Their Sol Station.
But no one in their universe had survived that experiment—no one but them. The thought made her shudder. They’d been in this universe for weeks now, but she couldn’t get used to the thought.
She slung the duffle over her shoulder and made her way back to the airlock. The others weren’t much longer. As they stepped through to the boarding catwalk, Pho asked, “Does anyone else think the captain seems…a little off?”
Nira said nothing. Emma felt the discomfort of silence growing as they walked back toward the spaceport. “He is off,” she said finally. “He’s crazy with guilt and grief. He’s struggling with a hundred conflicting emotions, and he is barely conscious of any of them. They’re like invisible strings pulling at him, every one in a different direction.”
“You’re awfully forgiving,” Pho ventured, “since he’s basically leaving you…us…to see her.”
He meant Jo. Captain Jo Taylor. Emma hadn’t been surprised to hear he was going to seek out her analog here on String 311, but she was hurt. How could she not be? But she felt like she ought to be a good soldier, to buck up, to take it on the chin. Why? she asked herself. I’m not a soldier. I’m a jilted woman. Why shouldn’t I have my feelings, cry, make a scene? Why shouldn’t I scream at him, punch him, beat him until he’s purple and bruised? That’s what any normal woman would do, isn’t it? Why do I need to be on my best behavior?
She hated the situation. She hated Jeff. She hated herself for allowing it. But what could she have possibly done to stop it? Love him more? Could she have been more doting somehow? And why the hell should she have to do that? She fumed as they walked, her feelings of loss about the ship subsumed now in a sea of hurt feelings.
“I’m sorry,” Pho said, when she didn’t answer. “I didn’t mean to—”
She put a hand on his arm and gave him a sad smile. He stopped talking. That was good. She turned to Nira. “So, what is this rendezvous point? And how are we going to get there?”
They were in the main spaceport now. Above them, arrival and departure information were displayed, names and numbers hovering in the air. Hundreds of people rushed by them, everyone in a different direction.
“The captain only gave me coordinates,” Nira answered. “But I looked them up last night. It’s a rebel outpost at the edge of neutral space. Just a fueling station, really. There’s a hostel there where we can find accommodations, but we’ll need a cover story.”
“Why?” Emma asked. “What’s the purpose of all the cloak-and-dagger?”
“It’s appropriate caution. We possess secrets. Secrets that can…destroy universes. As we’ve seen, people will do a lot to get their hands on those kinds of secrets. Even decent people like the Authority brass.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Emma crossed her arms. “I haven’t met anyone here I’d consider actually friendly.” She wasn’t too sure about some of her crew members either. Especially Nira, whom she couldn’t read.
“There are two freighters heading in that direction. One of them is carrying supplies for the outpost,” Nira said. “I’ve made reservations for us.”
“How much is that going to cost?” Emma asked.
Nira narrowed her eyes at her but didn’t answer.
“I mean, I’m asking because we have only so much money,” Emma explained. Pho’s eyebrows raised as he listened. “It’s all we have in this world. I’m not under your authority. Why should I go to some god-forsaken outpost to wait for…who knows what? I mean, why shouldn’t I go and just make a meaningful life here? I have skills.”
Nira cocked her head. Emma watched a range of emotions cycling just below the surface. Was the little bitch going to punch her? Yell at her? Or perhaps try some more skillful means of coercion?
Emma deflated a little when the commander simply turned her back on her. “The freighter leaves at 2200 hours,” she said to Pho. “We need to be aboard at 2100. Purchase whatever supplies you need. We don’t know what will be available at the outpost, and we don’t know how long we’ll be there.”
“Yes sir,” Pho said, glancing up at Emma.
Without another word, Nira walked off in the direction of the commercial zone.
Pho clutched his duffle to his chest and gave Emma a pained expression. “You’re…not coming?”
Emma fought back tears. “I don’t know…what the hell I’m doing.”
“I’ll be sad if you don’t come,” he said, managing a weak smile.
Emma felt a twisting in her heart. Just this tiny amount of candor and affection nearly undid her. She could survive on this kind of food. She was ravenous for it. And it had been way too long since she’d had it.
She planted a kiss on his cheek and turned away.
She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do. She needed to think. She needed to be touched, heard, understood.
She stopped. Was there a somatic counselor on this station? It was a sizable station—there had to be. She looked up and accessed her neural. There were precisely four, three of them in private practice and one employed by the station itself, available to anyone with Telestock insurance.
She didn’t know what Telestock was, but she chose randomly from the other three.
“Karin Zeufladt,” she said out loud. “I need to talk. I need a massage and a good cry.” She put in a reservation for 1900 hours. Two hours from now.
“Tampons, underwear, and comfortable shoes,” she said, and turned toward the commercial zone herself.
Jeff found a table at the back, reasonably far from eavesdropping ears. He waved Jennings over and was not at all surprised to see that the transport captain had already procured an unopened bottle of whiskey.
“Got my breakfast,” Jennings said, slamming the bottle on the table so loudly that the other patrons stopped their talking or reading to look. “What are you having?”
Jeff tried not to look uncomfortable with all the staring eyes on him. He ignored them and pulled back a chair. He picked up a menu and entered his payment ID. Then he made a selection—whipped eggs, sausage, toast, and lila. He closed the menu, then shook his head at his own stupidity and selected coffee. Large. Then he bumped it to two.
He handed the menu to Jennings. “The solid food is on me.”
“The liquid food is, too. I told them your room number.” Jennings sat with a groan. “Had my knees replaced last year, thank god. Now it’s my hips.” He picked up the whiskey and cracked the seal. “Medicine.”
Jeff ignored him. Where the hell do I start? he wondered.
Jennings took a deep pull from the bottle. He made a face that was somewhere between pain and ecstasy. He blew air through his pursed lips and color rushed to his face. “Okay. Now I’m fortified. The day can begin.” He put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers in front of him. “So, if you don’t want to fuck me, why are you following me?”
“Because I recognize you.”
“From where?” Jennings reared back in his seat, as if ready to bolt.
“From another universe.” Jeff looked him straight in the eye so he could see he was serious.
Jennings’ eyebrows bunched up and he leaned forward again.
“You know about the strings?”
“Everybody knows about the goddam strings. Everybody knows they’re theoretical. Religious folks say they’re a hoax.”
“Are you religious?”
“Sure. I piss on beads of any denomination.” Jennings cracked a smile and sipped at his whiskey.
Just then a meal pod lowered from the ceiling and hovered just above Jeff’s head. Careful not to tip it, he snatched at it until he felt the magnetic grip release. He put it on the table in front of him and released the lid, setting it aside. The eggs were steaming and the sausages were still sizzling. A holder to the right bore two cups of coffee. He snapped open the lid on one of them.
“You want some cream in that?” Jennings held his bottle up.
Jeff hesitated. He shrugged. “What the hell?” he said, and let Jennings pour a finger in, almost making it spill.
“Strings,” Jennings repeated.
“You know what string this is, right?”
“Every schoolkid knows that.”
“Allegedly…we’re on String 311.”
“I’m from String 310.”
“No shit.” Jennings had said this too fast, without a hint of wonder. He didn’t believe him.
“Let me tell you about it,” Jeff said. Taking his time, he ate a mouthful of eggs. Fluffy. Good. “A lot is the same. A lot is different, too.”
“Like the fact that every ship in the galaxy is infested with spiders.”
Now Jennings looked surprised. He hadn’t expected that. “Spiders? Why the fuck…?”
“No one knows. We fumigate, we set traps, we try sonic and electronic arachnid deterrents. Nothing works. You can build a perfectly clean, new ship, and within six months it will be crawling with spiders.”
“They’d get into the electronics and the mechanics—”
“That’s fucking weird.” Jennings narrowed one eye at him. “That’s not something someone would just make up.”
“There’s no war there. There’s no Authority or rebels. There’s the Colonial Defense Fleet.”
“Used to be a CDF…”
“Until Catskill happened.”
Jennings sat bolt upright. He looked around. He looked back at Jeff and his shoulders hunched as he whispered, “Where the fuck did you hear that name?”
“I was there. In my universe, the same thing happened. Only…only there…I was the only survivor.”
Jennings ran his fingers through his gray, thinning hair. He fidgeted in his seat, his eyes darting back and forth.
“I’m Captain Jeff Bowers.”
Jennings’ eyes widened and his mouth hung open. “Bowers?” he said finally. Recognition dawned on his face. “I thought you looked…but you’re older.” The wonder on his face blackened into suspicion. “You’re dead.”
“No, the Jeff Bowers you know—the Jeff Bowers of String 311—is dead. I’m from String 310, remember? I’m alive.”
Jennings stared, his eyebrows raised, his face frozen.
“Let me tell you about the Jennings of String 310. You’re…he’s…well, he’s the finest goddam soldier I know. He’s also among the top brass in the CDF.”
“Shit me. I must be rich.” He took another swallow of whiskey.
“I don’t know about that. You…he made more than I did, that’s for sure. But what’s more important is that he was loved, respected, admired…” Jeff took a bite of sausage. “…by pretty much everyone I ever met.”
“I must be quite a disappointment,” Jennings mumbled.
“You’re…definitely not what I expected,” Jeff agreed. “I was hoping to find an ally. I was hoping there was something of him in you.”
“Sounds like he got some breaks I didn’t. It’s been a hard life,” Jennings admitted.
“I can see that.” Jeff downed the rest of one of the coffees and picked up the other. He held it out to Jennings for a little “cream.” Jennings obliged. “Tell me about what you do.”
“I’m a cargo man.”
“You mean you’re a smuggler?”
“You can call me what you want. The fact is that I have a ship and people pay me to take shit from here to there. End of story.”
“How are you registered?”
Jeff grunted and turned his attention to his toast. He squeezed lila out of a tube and spread it over the crispy gold surface of the bread. “Now you know why I was following you.”
“I guess so. You need a friend in this place.”
“And we used to know each other.”
Jeff shook his head. “I used to know a Jennings in another universe…but not you. You used to know a Jeff Bowers, but not me. I’m getting pretty clear on that. But me and him…we’re related. Just as you and Admiral Jennings are. Like cousins, maybe. Consider me a distant relative.” Jeff smiled sadly.
“So how can I help you, cousin?” Jennings lowered his head and pierced Jeff with one steely eye.
“I’ve got some cargo, and I need to move it from here to there,” Jeff said.
“And that cargo is?”
Jeff shrugged. “Just me.”
“What’s the catch?” Jennings cocked his head.
“No catch. Just…discretion. What’s your fee?”
Jennings pursed his lips and considered for a long moment. “10,000 a parsec.”
“5,000 a parsec.”
Jennings drank. “6,000.”
“Deal. When do we leave?”
“Where are we going?”
“I need to find…another friend.”
Jennings nodded. “Another…analog?”
“Yeah. But the fact is, I don’t really have connections here. Do you know how I can locate someone?”
“Oh, I can find anyone you want.” Jennings gave him a sly smile. “But it’ll cost you extra.”
Communicator Susie Wall’s eyes teared up as she touched the frayed edge of her CDF uniform. It was in a poly bag with the rest of her effects. Time seemed to stand still as she explored the artifacts of her former life.
“All there?” asked the young man behind the security desk. He seemed to be of African descent. Part of his organic head was missing. The prosthetics were well-designed, though, and Wall almost didn’t notice the seams. Not that she was really paying attention.
I thought I would die in prison, she thought to herself as she played with a button. She was still wearing the yellow jumpsuit issued to all prisoners. She felt an urgency to put her uniform on. When she did, she would be putting on her dignity, her identity, her hope. She almost began to strip right then and there, but modesty and a sense of military decorum prevented her.
“All there?” the guard asked again, this time with a note of annoyance in his voice. He sighed. “Sign here.”
Wall realized her reactions were slow because of trauma. Knowing that didn’t make her any faster, but it occurred to her that the guard must be used to this and might make some allowance for it. After all, people were people, and she couldn’t be the first person to find herself overwhelmed with relief.
She signed. “Where are my people?” she asked.
The young man’s brow furrowed—just the organic one. “Uh…how should I know? What’s your ethnicity?”
Wall cocked her head. It took a moment. “No, I mean, where is Captain Bowers? Where is the rest of the crew of the Kepler?”
A slight grin broke out on the young man’s face. “Oh yeah…I remember that guy. Had a woman with him. Older, pretty. Emma?”
“Yes!” Wall said, her face brightening.
“Long gone. Admiral Tal let them go. Everyone’s talking about it.”
Wall’s shoulders slumped. Her face felt frozen. She might just as well have been stranded on a desert planet with no supplies.
“Your neural should be coming back online in a minute or two,” the man said. “Aaaaand…you’re free to go.” He gave her a perfunctory smile. “You have a good day now.”
“But…where do I go?”
“Wherever the hell you want.”
“How will I live?”
“You’ll need to get a job, same way the rest of us do.” His smile faded, and his face changed. She realized that a moment ago he had been looking at a released prisoner. Now he was looking at a homeless person. The difference in his demeanor was palpable. Then he softened. “Look…in the meantime, the Sufis run a hospice on Deck 117. You can get a bed there and a meal. You can take some time to figure things out. They even have a counselor that comes by now and then, I think.”
“Uh…okay…thanks,” Wall said. She looked around. The room seemed sterile and cold. People bustled by in the corridor just outside the glass door. She shrank inside.
“Move along then,” the young man said, making a shooing motion with his hand.
“Is…is there a place where I can change?” she asked.
“Out the door, turn right. A hundred meters down you’ll see a family head. You can change there.”
Wall nodded and turned toward the door and her freedom.
Emma paused by the kiosk, checking the address. The somatic counselor was listed. But when she scanned the line of shops again, their addresses seemed to skip right over that number. She scowled and went to the shop with the closest number, L48. It was a gift shop filled with inexpensive knick-knacks, some from local indigenous species, but most cheap knockoffs. As the saleslady was finishing up with another customer, she paused by a display of plush animals, recognizing most of them. A moment later, the clerk turned to her with a tired smile. “How can I help you?”
“I’m so sorry,” Emma began. “I’m looking for L50, but the next number is L54.”
The woman nodded and pointed to a small door just inside the shop. Above the lintel was a hand-written sign, “L50.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t see that,” Emma said, shaking her head.
“No one does. Go on in. Aspy does good work. I rent to her, and part of it is barter. I get a session a week.”
“Isn’t that…” she was going to say, “a breach of ethics,” but she stopped herself. “It’s good to hear,” she said. “Thanks.”
Emma walked quickly to the little door and opened it. It swung open easily, and she was met with a steep set of stairs. “The somatic therapy begins now,” she said out loud as she began to climb the stairs. At the top was a small but stylishly appointed waiting room, complete with a magazine download kiosk advertising the latest. She fixed her eye on the code and blinked and within seconds the magazine had loaded to her neural. She took a seat and began browsing through it, blinking to access the links from section to section.
Before long, a curtain parted, and a much younger woman than she emerged. Much shorter, too, she noted. The woman had short-cropped dark hair and was dressed in a flowery kimono. She seemed to be rubbing lotion into her hands. “You must be Emma.” She flashed her a professional smile.
“I am. Are you…Aspy?”
“The very same. Come in. Have you had somatic therapy before?”
“Oh, sure. I saw one regularly back on Earth when I—”
Aspy jerked her head. “You’re from Earth?”
Emma realized her mistake at once. “Yes…a long time ago,” she tried to cover.
“I wouldn’t be too vocal about that if I were you.” Aspy eyed her suspiciously.
“Um…thanks for the advice. I’m new here.”
“I guess you are. Well, hop up.” She led her through the curtain into an even smaller room and patted a firm, blocky table that dominated the space.
“Clothes on or off?” Emma asked.
“As you like. My work is easier without them. Why don’t you just strip down to your bra and panties until we get to know each other?” Her professional smile was back, and she began to rub more of the lotion into her hands.
Emma complied and hung her clothes on the hooks just to one side of the table. She lay face down, grateful to find that the surface of the table was not too cold. Aspy pulled a warm blanket over her legs, up to her waist.
Emma was tingling with anticipation. She had come to rely on massages as a basic element of her own self-care, and it had been far too long. She knew her body, how it held on to unresolved feelings and unprocessed events. She felt the accumulated knots of anger and grief and loss contorting her body every time she moved, and she could not wait to have them kneaded out of her.
“I’m going to direct a scent generator toward us. It will help you relax.”
“I like that,” Emma assured her.
Aspy laid one hand on her back and held it there. The moment of connection, one of the most sacred elements of somatic therapy. Emma savored it as Aspy paused.
“A burden shared…” Aspy intoned.
“…is a burden borne.” Emma completed the aphorism, relieved that the ritual was the same in this universe as in hers.
Aspy’s hands dug into her back with languid strokes, and Emma emitted a low moan of pleasure. She could smell the therapeutic aroma now. Lavender and telia.
“Tell me a story from your childhood,” Aspy inquired. This too was standard.
Emma began to relate the time her father had ditched her at an amusement park just to see how she would react. But halfway through, she lost her train of thought, wispy snatches of memory fading into a fog of numb oblivion.
They won’t try it again.
Yes, the one who learned from us
—he is chastened and afraid.
He has destroyed a universe.
We were wrong to help him.
Agreed. We were wrong. We must kill him.
Not just him. If he can do it, he can teach others to do it.
The time for managing them is over.
We must kill them all.
All? Surely not.
All. Before another reality string is severed.
Emma dreamed of voices in the darkness;
“Who is she?”
“Dunno, but she must have done something serious to piss off the Butcher this much.”
“You’ll be next if you don’t get moving.”
Emma opened her eyes but she couldn’t make them focus, She tried to sit up, but couldn’t move. She was lying on a hard surface covered in some rough fabric like burlap, scratchy on her face. The room was spinning, and her thoughts felt lost in fog.
Drugs... she thought. I’ve been drugged.
She reached back, searching for the last thing she could remember. Aspy’s office, getting somatic therapy. She had often fallen asleep as she relaxed, but this was something else.
She forced herself to breathe normally. She could access her neural, it was working, but it wasn’t finding a network to connect to. The clock read 9:00 pm. It had been more than twenty-four hours since her appointment. Suddenly her heart was racing. She still couldn’t move much, but she was able to slide her hand under the coarse fabric and press her palm flat on the cold metal surface underneath. She felt a familiar vibration, the subsonic rumble of a starship cruising at superluminal speed.
Panic swelled in her and she began to tremble, her breath becoming quick and shallow. The only thing that made sense was that she had been drugged and abducted, and her mind began to spin with possible fates that might be waiting for her.
Get ahold of yourself, girl, she thought. You’ll be more vulnerable if you hyperventilate and pass out again. She took a long, slow breath through her nose, then let it out slowly through her mouth. That’s it, be cool. Don’t get caught up in imaginary threats. Be logical. Take stock of your situation. Stick to facts.
She still couldn’t raise her head, but she could look around. She surveyed her environment, which appeared to be a dimly lit cargo hold. A pile of crates was secured to the wall with a cargo net. A long work table ran down the opposite wall. A hatch opened to a corridor on the far wall, and she flinched as someone emerged from it.
It was a tall, almost impossibly slender woman. There was something surreal about her proportions, her limbs too long, her eyes too big. Emma wondered if the drugs weren’t causing her to see things strangely. The tall woman walked to the work table, arranged a mirror, and pulled her hair off. The blonde hair was a wig; underneath, her head was smooth—and pale green. Two delicate antennae had been folded flat under the wig, and they flexed and extended upward. She laid the wig delicately on the table, then removed her face. Her nose and mouth were some kind of mask, and she laid it down on top of the wig. In the mirror, Emma could see intricate mandibles wiggling where the mask had been, not unlike the mouth of a grasshopper. She shuddered.
The macabre striptease continued. The woman—if that’s what she was—gently tugged off her gloves, which came away with a fake finger on each one. She then pulled her floral muumuu-like dress up over her head and tossed it to the floor. Underneath, she was more like a praying mantis than a human. Her knees bent the wrong way, and she crouched into a more insect-like posture, taking several feet off her height.
In Emma’s universe, back in String 310, there were very few extraterrestrial civilizations, and this was definitely not one of them. She wondered why she had seen so many more alien cultures in this universe. Maybe humans had just made different exploratory choices, paying off in more alien contacts.
The alien removed a belt made of some kind of foam material, which seemed to be intended to disguise her articulated hips, making them appear more human-like through the dress. She also wore a bib of the same material over her breasts, only when she took it off, she revealed they weren’t breasts at all, but rather a second set of arms, smaller than the primary arms, which had been held crossed underneath the padding. Lastly, she picked at a corner of her enormous eye and peeled away a thin coating like a layer of white paint. It revealed the green pebbled surface of her compound eye.
As she began to peel the other eye, the mask on the counter said, “I know you’re awake.”
Emma held her breath, slamming her eyes closed. Adrenaline surged through her, breaking the pharmaceutical paralysis. Her transformation complete, the alien turned around to face Emma where she lay.
“The drugs you were given were very precise. You may feel a bit unsteady, but the effects will pass quickly.”
Emma opened her eyes, flinching at the insectoid hovering over her. “Please don’t hurt me,” she stammered.
“I will not harm you. You are safe,” said the mask on the table.
Emma lifted her head slightly, which set it pounding with pain. She gritted her teeth. “Safe? You’ve kidnapped me! Where are you taking me? What do you want?”
The alien gestured dismissively, then turned back to the work table. The mask said, “I do not want anything.” She attached a cord to the corners of the mouth and hung it around her neck, a surreal medallion. The pouty lips on the mask moved, speaking in a soft melodic voice. “I have been contracted to transport you to a remote location and keep you safe.”
Emma carefully rose to a seated position. “Contracted? By whom?”
The alien made a strange circular gesture. “I am not at liberty to disclose that at this time.”
“And where are you taking me?”
“I am also not able to disclose that.”
“If you are hoping to collect ransom, I have some bad news for you. I don’t know anyone in this entire universe.” She chuckled nervously, desperately.
If the alien was amused, she didn’t show it. “There is no ransom sought.”
She began to protest again, but stopped. What exactly is happening here? It was not a basic kidnapping as she understood it. “How long are you going to keep me?”
“I do not know. Until you are sent for.”
Emma shook her head, trying to clear the confusion. Her head was swimming. “What did you give me anyway?”
“Morphex, in the dose indicated for a human of your mass.”
She rubbed her eyes. “I think you gave me too much. I’m really out of it. Would it be possible to get a cup of coffee?”
The alien crossed its small arms. “What is coffee?”
Emma sighed. This is gonna be a long ordeal. “It’s a beverage that humans drink. It contains the stimulant caffeine.”
“I do not have coffee. I can provide you with a mild stimulant if you would like.”
Her eyes brightened. “What do you have?”
The alien stepped over to a cabinet, punched a code into the keypad next to it and opened the door. She brought out a small box and examined the contents. “I have L-lysine-dextroamphetamine in 20 milligram capsules.”
Emma shook her head. “Too strong.”
“Nyarlathotine, 35 milligrams.”
She coughed. “Holy shit, I want a little pick-me-up, not for my heart to explode!”
“Methylphenidate, 12 milligrams.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, that should do.”
The alien plucked a tiny gleaming pearl from the box with her delicate pincer-like fingers and handed it to Emma, who dry-swallowed it. She could instantly feel the mental fog beginning to recede.
“Thank you. That will help a lot.”
Her captor merely nodded and put the box back in the cabinet and closed it.
“OK,” Emma began, mustering some courage, “it sounds like we’re going to be together for some time. Can you at least tell me your name?”
The mask smiled slightly. “You can call me Amberline.”
Susie Wall finished buttoning her uniform and looked at herself in the mirror. The midnight blue cloth was a little rumpled from having been stuffed in the effects bag, but she felt like a new person. For one thing, it fit her properly, unlike the one-size-fits-all yellow prisoner’s jumpsuit that hung on her like a bag. But more importantly, it connected her to her past, her purpose, and her people.
My people, she thought. Where the hell are my people, and how could they have just left me behind?
As if in answer, a light appeared in her peripheral vision. Her neural had come online.
Reflexively, she looked up and blinked. There were two messages, both from Captain Bowers. Her shoulders relaxed and she almost burst into tears from sheer relief. They hadn’t abandoned her after all. She opened the first of them—the earliest of them—and read quickly, her eyes darting back and forth.
It was short and to the point: They had an opportunity for escape. They were taking it. He thinks they’re holding her for future leverage. She shouldn’t worry. They wouldn’t forget her. They would come back for her…somehow.
Okay, she thought. She blinked and opened the second message.
Captain Bowers had opened a bank account in her number. It had more money in it than she could ever hope to earn in her career. They were at Epworth Station, in neutral space. There were coordinates for a rendezvous point.
She lowered her eyes and looked at herself in the mirror again. Her fingers trembled as she straightened her epaulets and smoothed out the creases in her jacket.
Fuck the Sufi hospice, she thought. I’m renting a pod. With a hot tub. Then I’m buying a ticket for the next ship out to Epworth Station. She’d had enough of the Authority’s hospitality, after all. She needed to be with her people.
“Approaching Gamela Three.” Lieutenant Marcia Chi’s voice broke through her reverie.
“Being hailed by the Baronet,” Mr. Liebert added.
“On screen,” Jo said.
A small, mousy man appeared. He sported a wispy blond mustache that made Jo want to retch. The little man’s smile looked like it caused him pain in some minor abdominal organ. “Captain, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your escort.”
“It was our pleasure, Captain.” Jo forced a warmish smile. “It gave us a chance to play catch-up aboard ship.”
“Well, with the war on, I wouldn’t think you’d have time for…well, for protecting merchant vessels.”
“The Revolutionary Freedom Coalition isn’t here just to protect us all from the Authority, but from any danger—including pirates,” Jo assured him.
“That is reassuring, certainly.” The man’s smile now looked very genuine. “Well, thank you again.”
“Good enough. Smooth sailing, Captain.” Jo nodded at Liebert, and the view screen once again showed only stars.
“Course, Captain?” Chi asked.
“I’m still waiting on our next assignment.” Jo shrugged. “Let’s dock. Mr. Liebert, inform Mr. Palamar that he needs to get his ass in gear. I want requisition orders in an hour. Gamela is a major hub, and there’s little we need that we can’t get here. I want us fully stocked by 2100 hours. We’ve got time for a few shuttle loads to go to the main station for R&R. So…let’s start a lottery. Inform the lucky bastards that they need to be back aboard by…hell, by noon tomorrow. If orders come through for anything urgent, I’ll recall them. Let’s get as many of our folks down for a couple of hours of playtime as we can.”
“Yes sir,” Liebert said with a wide smile. He probably wouldn’t make the lottery, but he was happy to see that someone would. And that was what made Liebert a man she trusted.
She stood and stretched. “Inform Mr. Bourgeois that I’m going to my quarters. No need to call him in early. And call me if you need me.”
“Aye sir.” Liebert gave her a quick nod.
She picked up the plushy peapod and headed for the door.
Jo didn’t need to go stationside for R&R. She just needed a little time alone. She craved it, but duty compelled her to stay on bridge, to constantly be “on.” She was exhausted. No sooner had her door slid shut behind her than her shoulders slumped and she sighed. She set the peapod, seated upright, on the small table that hugged one wall of her cabin. “It’s rough being Kali,” she said to it. It grinned back at her, almost maniacally. “You’re going to have to work on that smile,” she told it. “It’s unsettling.”
She turned toward her private bath—one of the few luxuries afforded a captain on a war vessel—and quickly undressed, getting into the sonic. She relished the exfoliation, and when she stepped out, her skin was red and she felt mildly exhilarated. She put on a thin robe, grabbed half a bar of chocolate, and fell onto the bed.
Admiral Tal looked up to see the door to his office slide open. Captain Daniel Hightower stepped in and saluted.
“As you were,” Tal said. “Take a seat.”
“Aye sir,” Hightower said. “Thank you, sir.”
Tal glowered at the captain, uncertain what to make of him. On the one hand, he was the fiercest fighting machine the Authority had. If you wanted killing done, Hightower was your man. On the other hand, he was reasonably certain the captain was a sociopath. His only comfort was that he was his sociopath. God forbid he ever changes sides, he thought, and shuddered.
“What are your plans regarding Jo Taylor?” Tal asked.
“I’ve got some feelers out.” Hightower gave him a confident nod. “I’ll have a bead on her soon.”
“We just received some intelligence that will help you with that,” Tal said. “We’ve heard from one of our contacts in the RFC that Captain Taylor and the Talon are currently in proximity to Teegarden’s Star. I’ll send you the exact coordinates.” He looked up to access his neural and sent them to the captain. He watched Hightower look up and retrieve them.
The captain looked down again. “Teegarden’s Star. What’s there?”
“It’s in neutral space, which means it’s disputed territory.”
“The entire colonial fuckmess is disputed territory,” Hightower objected.
Tal didn’t disagree, but he ignored the ejaculation. “Right now the TAV Horatio Nelson is nearby on active guard. Our intelligence says that Taylor is on her way to engage the Nelson.”
“Faster than we can get support there at C8.”
Hightower whistled, looking down at the desk. He looked up. “Why are you telling me?”
Tal leaned on his desk, steepling his fingers. “We’ve got a new prototype that can do C9. As you know, speed is exponential.”
Hightower grinned. “How much firepower will I be bringing?”
“None, unfortunately. The prototype is a research vessel.”
Danny blinked. “So…?”
“I want you to assume command of the Nelson in time to engage the Talon when she drops into normal space.” Tal’s voice was icy as he spoke. “I want you to shoot the shit out of every bolt on her ship. I want vids of her clutching her throat as she succumbs to the icy void, pinwheeling off into space.”
“You should have been a poet, sir.”
“I mean it. I don’t just want you to blow up the Talon. I want to see her die with my own eyes. Not only that, we need to broadcast it. It’s the only way to undo the damage she’s done. Morale is low throughout the Authority. The civilian authorities on Earth are thinking about reshuffling the admiralty. We need results, and we need them quickly.”
“I’m your man, sir.” Hightower stood, saluting.
Tal didn’t return it. He looked down at his desk. “And Captain, if you don’t succeed…” He looked up and pierced the captain with one steely eye, “…don’t come back until you do.”
Jo hadn’t even taken a bite of her chocolate when a hailing signal woke her. “Nuuuhhhh,” she moaned. She raised her head wearily. “Computer, what time is it?” she asked.
“2017 hours,” came the response.
“Who the fuck is hailing me?”
“Lieutenant Tash Liebert.”
“Oh Christ. Okay.” She rose, snatched at the chocolate and bit off an enormous bite.
Chewing, she said, “Answer hail.”
Jo slid out of her robe and snatched her trousers off the hook at the foot of her bunk. She heard a connecting beep. “Captain here,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing wrong, Captain. The computer selected the lottery, and we currently have thirty-six lucky people enjoying the station.”
“Almost complete, sir.”
“And you woke me because…”
“Incoming hail from an unknown vessel, the Annabel Lee. Their captain asked for you by name.”
“What sort of vessel?” Jo fastened the buttons on the flap of her red, double-breasted jacket.
“What does he want?”
“He’s asked for permission to come aboard.”
Jo scowled. She didn’t know any merchants. Nor did she care to. Most freelance merchant captains were little better than pirates, in her opinion. “What’s his name?”
“Uh…” Liebert was obviously checking. “Captain…Carl Jennings.”
Jo stopped short. “Christ,” she said.
“Something wrong, sir?”
It had been twenty years since she’d heard that name. Old ghosts tugged at her, raising her pulse and making her heart shrink in trepidation.
“Nothing wrong, Lieutenant. I’m…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She wasn’t fine. “What does he want?” she asked again, senselessly expecting a different answer this time.
“I don’t know, sir. He said he had a private delivery to make. Should I call security?”
Jo blinked, thinking this over. From the far depths of her memory, she latched onto the slim wisps surrounding Jennings and hauled them to the surface. She remembered him as an able captain, about ten years ahead of her and Jeff and Danny. Jeff and Danny had both served under him, briefly, before…
She felt momentarily dizzy. She sat, steadying herself with one hand on the small table. The peapod grinned at her.
She hadn’t thought of any of them for a long time. The memories weren’t so much painful after all these years as they were tender to the touch. She looked up and accessed her neural, calling up Jennings’ file. She pursed her lips and scowled as she read. “You’ve been a busy little beaver since we met last,” she said out loud.
“What’s that, sir?” She could hear the lilt of surprise in Liebert’s voice.
“Uh…nothing. Tell Captain Jennings permission is granted. Have security meet me at the shuttle bay.”
“Aye sir. Expect him in ten minutes, sir.”
A sudden rush of memories flooded over her, released now from the vault of what seemed to her ancient and irrelevant history. She remembered Jennings’ ribald jokes, Danny’s incessant teasing, and the sweat and smell of making love to Jeff. She remembered the sting of his beard stubble against her cheek, her thighs. She remembered the night her roommate woke her when the notice guard and chaplain had arrived with the news that Jeff was missing in action. Later, they had pronounced him dead, and she remembered the agonizing time between the first notice and the second, the torture of not knowing, the cruelty of hope.
She shook her head to clear it. The air was thick with ghosts. Too thick. She felt sick to her stomach. She went to the wall dispenser and pressed her thumb against the activator tab. “Vodka, two shots, ice cold,” she said. A moment later, she reached in and withdrew a glass. It was freezing. She took a large swig and then stared at the glass, at the slenderness of her hand. It was shaking.
Commander Nira glanced up, checking the chronometer on her neural. It was time. Looking down, she scanned the crowd again. She could see thousands of people, from as many planets and cultures and races, all of them hurrying somewhere. The noise was overwhelming, as was the chaos in the spaceport.
“Where is she?” Pho asked, for about the seventh time.
Nira saw no need to answer him again. She didn’t have the authority to do a neural search, not here. She could go to security and request one, explaining their situation, giving them Emma’s neural serial number, waiting for clearance… Their ship would be long gone by then, and the local authorities would know way too much about them. She scowled and tapped her foot.
“She said she might go her own way,” Pho offered.
“She was just talking,” Nira said.
“Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she was serious. Send her another message.”
“I’ve sent her twelve messages. Thirteen isn’t going to change things.”
“If she were going to go her own way, she’d answer,” Pho reasoned. He was pacing, his impossibly thin limbs slicing through the air with nervous energy. “Which means something must be wrong.”
No shit, Nira thought, although she maintained her command demeanor. “I’m guessing that even if we did request a search, and even if they did it, and even if they told us the results…”
“There wouldn’t be any results,” Pho finished.
“There might be results, if she’s dead.” Nira countered her own thoughts.
“Don’t say that,” Pho said, his voice rising and starting to quail. “I liked…like…Doctor Stewart.”
Nira didn’t disagree. The doctor wasn’t the kind of woman Nira was into, or would even hang out with, but she admired the scientist’s grit—not to mention the way she handled Captain Bowers. The woman has balls of steel, she acknowledged to herself. And it was for that reason, and probably that reason alone, that she couldn’t just let it go.
“If she’s off grid, we need to know that,” Nira said. “And if she’s dead, we need to know that too.”
“So should we go to security?”
Nira chewed on her lip, her hard, pretty face a mask of tension as she thought. “First things first,” she said, looking up. “I need to cancel our flight while I can still get a refund. We’re going to need every chit we’ve got.” Her eyes flashed back and forth, blinking occasionally as she navigated to the merchant site and called up their purchase order. A moment later, she looked back down and nodded. “We lost our deposit,” she said, “but got most of it back.”
Pho nodded, his elfin face looking uncharacteristically sad. “Where do we start?”
“With a neural search, obviously,” Nira said. “Just not an official neural search.”
“Uh…how do we get an unofficial neural search?” Pho asked.
“We need to find people who will work…unofficially,” Nira said. She started to walk. She looked up, calling down a map of the station, searching it.
“Uh…okay,” Pho said, obviously trying not to sound too stupid. “How do we find those people?”
Nira stopped and faced him. “Just where do you think you’d find disreputable people who know things?”
Pho’s eyes moved back and forth as he thought. “Uh…I have no idea, sir. I’ve never really been around…disreputable people.”
Nira’s eyes narrowed. She wanted to say, What good are you? But it occurred to her that Pho’s usefulness in the situation was not a measure of his worth. His worth was not at issue. Hers was. It was her job to keep him safe—and Dr. Stewart, too. She had no idea what Captain Bowers was up to, but she was determined to deliver his crew to him intact, or she would die in the effort. She started walking again. “We’re not going to meet the people we’re after right off,” she explained patiently. “We’re going to find people who know people who know the right people—people who can make an introduction.”
“Uh…and where do we find those people?”
“Where do you think? Where the grease monkeys drink.”
Jo stood at parade rest as the airlock pressurized. Her face betrayed nothing. It was an impassive landscape of hills and valleys with dried, cracked riverbeds forming deltas at the corners of her eyes. She heard the sound of air rushing in, then the deep-bones click of heavy, moving metal. Then the door slid open.
Captain Jennings stepped through, squinting in the bright light, attempting to take in his surroundings. He appeared to be alone. His face brightened as his eyes adjusted and he recognized her. “Jo Taylor,” his skeevy lips drew back in a smile.
“That would be Captain Taylor,” Jo corrected him.
“You look like a million,” he said, running his eyes up and down her slender form, his eyebrows raised in appreciation of how her uniform clung to the contours of her body.
“You look like a tired old goat,” she said.
He laughed. “That is an entirely fair assessment.” He put his hand out. She didn’t take it. “Ensign,” she said over her shoulder at her security detail, “take Captain Jennings into custody. Captain Carl Jennings, you are under arrest on six outstanding warrants—three counts of smuggling, one count of suspected piracy, one count of indecent exposure, one count of fraud.”
“Not guilty,” Jennings said as the security men turned him around roughly and placed his hand in poly secure-cuffs.
“Not interested,” Jo said. “Save it for your arraignment.”
“Surely you didn’t come all the way down from your perch in the catbird seat just to oversee my arrest,” Jennings sneered.
“No, my security team is more than competent. I just wanted to see the look on your face while they did it.”
Susie Wall felt almost human again after a good night’s sleep as a free woman. She had drunk champagne and lounged in her private bath—the first since her incarceration—and it had felt wonderful. She flipped her hair back as she boarded the ship bound for neutral space. She met the purser and was directed to her pod. It was the third from the floor, but that didn’t bother her. She climbed the ladder, opened the door, and climbed in.
The pod was about 1.25 meters across and a meter high. It was about three meters deep. One couldn’t stand in it, obviously, but crawled. The bed took up most of the pod, with a small silver sink to one side. Beside that was a place to hang clothes, with fixed hangers already in place. She saw that they were covered with foam so that they wouldn’t keep you awake clinking together when the ship experienced turbulence. And, blessedly, the foam was still in place—they weren’t new, but nearly so. Stretching out, she looked up and saw the view screen on the ceiling. All the usual entertainment streams were there. She poked at the screen and called up the flight plan, noting the countdown. That was the last thing she remembered before the engine’s whine woke her. Then the red alert siren.
She punched at the view screen—it showed there was a red alert, but not why. She scooted to the end of the pod and hit the release handle with her foot. The door swung open and she crawled down the ladder, jumping the last couple of feet. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her boots, so she was ready to go. She swung the door to the pod closed and began to jog to the common area. Every passenger on the ship seemed to be there, all of them staring at the massive view screen taking up one wall. Some were looking out the port window, but Wall couldn’t see anything there. The action was all on the view screen, it seemed.
She pushed past the other passengers, trying to get a look. She was short, so she didn’t feel bad about it. Besides, now was not the time for—
She froze. Ice poured down her spine like water. Her lip began to quiver.
“What is it?” people around her were calling.
“What kind of ship is that?”
“What kind of creature is that?”
She’d seen that kind of ship before. She’d seen those kinds of creatures before.
“Prox,” she breathed.
“Bonus score,” Jo said, turning on her heel and returning to the bridge. Jennings had been objecting, shouting something about a package, but she didn’t need to bother herself with his nonsense. He wasn’t much of a prize, but the RFC regional authorities would be pleased. The door to the bridge slid open and Tash Liebert called, “Captain on the bridge!” Everyone began to stand until she said, “As you were.”
She sat in her command chair and sighed. Reports. There were always reports. I’m so fucking tired of reports. Still, it was the job. And god forbid she should miss anything. She looked up and accessed her neural.
“We’re being hailed, sir,” Mr. Liebert said. “Text only.”
“That’s medieval,” Jo scowled, relieved to have a distraction from the reports. “Display.”
—Can we get a status update on Captain Jennings?
Jo pursed her lips. “Computer, reply with text. Captain Jennings is under arrest. Please articulate new command structure.” Maybe there’s more than one criminal in this nest, she thought, and wondered why she hadn’t thought of that before.
There seemed to be a long several minutes before a reply manifested on the screen.
—Permission to come aboard. One man. Unarmed. Request meeting with Captain Taylor.
“Oh sweet Christ on a donkey!” Jo said. But she was intrigued. Something was going on here, and the mystery sure beat the hell out of reports. “Mr. Liebert, inform security chief Dixon I’ll need yet another detail at the main airlock in five minutes.”
“Computer, reply with text. Permission granted. Access in five minutes.”
She stood. Marcia Chi looked back at her, one eyebrow raised.
“I’m getting my exercise,” Jo said to her.
Chi raised the other eyebrow and looked back to her console without comment.
Jo turned and headed for the door.
She retraced her steps through the ship, muttering to herself, but it was a routine. She wasn’t as annoyed as she played at being. The corners of her lips even turned up a bit as she passed the mess, the gym, the common lounge.
She arrived at the airlock first. The security team scuttled in a few seconds later, their heads lowered sheepishly for not having arrived first. She narrowed one eye at them. “Did you have to finish your game level?” she asked.
One of the team members’ eyes opened wider.
Nailed it, Jo thought. Well, he won’t do that again.
She bounced a few times on the balls of her feet, waiting. Whoever it was, she’d take them into custody first, then she’d run their neural code for offenses. If they were clean, she’d apologize and plead appropriate caution.
The airlock pressurized and the door slid open.
Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Her hand moved in slow motion, but her feet were rooted in place.
His mouth turned up in a slight, patient smile. He was older…as old as she was. It was wrong. He had scars and lines on his face from battles and stresses that he could not have had. Corpses don’t age, they rot, she thought.
“What kind of trick is this?” she finally managed, feeling for the wall behind her. She found it. She leaned against it.
“It’s the cruelest fucking trick the universe can manage,” he said.
“You’re dead,” she said.
“That’s true,” he agreed.
“So…what the fuck is going on?”
He didn’t answer that. Instead, he said, “I’m not the person you loved. But I’m…I’m like him.”
She shook her head. Comprehension did not seem possible.
“Why…why are you here?” she asked. She couldn’t think of another question.
“That’s…complex,” he smiled. She knew that smile. She loved that smile. She bit her lip, she wrestled within herself as her throat swelled and tears rose up behind her eyes, threatening to flood her, to drown her in grief and memory and a million fantasies of a life unlived.
“I’m here mostly because I loved you…or someone very much like you. And I had to see her…you…again. I wish that were the whole of it.” His shoulders sagged and he looked at his feet, sighing audibly. “I’m also here because I need help…although I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m up against.” It wasn’t much of an explanation, and he seemed to sense it, because he looked up and smiled grimly. “More immediately, though, I suppose I’m here to get my captain out of jail before his indiscretions completely derail any chance I have of…finding what I need to find.”
She could see the intensity in his eyes even as she fought against the raging storm in herself. “Are you Jeff?” she asked.
“I am. But not the Jeff you loved.” He grimaced. “I could try to deceive you…but I can’t do that to you. It’s…we’ve both been through enough.”
She nodded, still frozen to her spot.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
“Can we drink?” he added, his grin widening.
“It really is you,” she said, her face betraying her wonder.
“No. No it isn’t. But strangely…we can still catch up.”
Captain Daniel Hightower called down the summary report on his neural. Right on target, right on schedule. He smoothed the blanket over the bunk in the tiny ship’s even tinier cabin, pulling it tight so that a medal tossed on its surface would bounce, as if it were the head of a drum. He quickly surveyed the room. Shipshape, he thought. He turned to his toiletries and ran his fingers over the stubble of his beard.
It was the style in the Authority these days to shave every third day, so as to let the stubble grow. It was considered sexy, tough. Danny just considered it sloppy. He shaved daily, and he did it the old-fashioned way. Eschewing folljacks, the grooming neutralizers that were ubiquitous in every bath and hotel room, he pulled forth a straight razor and lathering soap from his toiletries kit.
He didn’t mind using a laser-based sharpener on the razor—one must make some concessions to modernity, after all—but he relished the feel of the warm soap on his face, and the surgical precision of the blade at his throat.
He imagined holding it to Jo Taylor’s throat. For a moment, he was twenty years old again, holding a knife to her temple as he drooled on her face, his mouth hovering above hers, his cock pounding into her, hard enough that they both had welts afterwards. He remembered her angry protests, how she had struggled…but not much. Good times, he thought. There were moments when he missed her, moments when he thought he might have gone in a different direction.
“Family man,” he said to himself, looking at his soapy face in the mirror. He laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. Besides, this was Jo he was talking about. Did he honestly think he could have broken her, domesticated her, even if he had wanted to?
“That would have been a challenge to sink my teeth into,” he confessed to his reflection.
But holding a knife to her temple again? That was the opportunity of a lifetime. A career-making opportunity, given what Jo had become, or at least, had come to represent. He felt the thrill of it rise within him. It made him hard.
He wiped the last of the soap from his face and inspected his work. One tiny nick. Good. It confused people. He liked keeping people off their balance. He quickly donned a crisp uniform and buttoned the black double-breasted coat. Starships were always cold, after all. He didn’t know why. But he liked his uniform, and he liked the cool air on his cheek, so he wasn’t complaining.
He grabbed a cup of coffee and a muffin from the synthesizer and settled into his command chair. There was no one to command, of course, and he might have sat anywhere, but the ship was small, and it really was the most comfortable place to settle in, probably by design.
“Detail reports,” he called out to the computer. He could have pulled them down on his neural, but the damn thing made him feel claustrophobic. If he wanted to live in his head, he’d have become a scientist. He was a warrior, and he relished his kinetic attachment to the world. Computers left him cold. He craved flesh and steel and sweat, the satisfying crack of bone, the primordial machinery of hard muscle lifting humanity from ignorance and chaos into the serene beauty of domination and order.
The reports contained no revelations. He had a single starboard engine manifold pushing an acceptable fluctuation limit, but there were thirteen others. Even if he had to take that one offline, it wouldn’t cripple him. It would slow him down, but it had done its job. Arrival in twenty minutes.
He swiveled the chair and opened the small safe used to house sensitive documents and withdrew the hand-written letter from Admiral Tal and folded it once, creating a neat crease. He placed it in the upper left-hand inside pocket of his jacket and buttoned it closed.
“I could get used to this little ship,” he said out loud. “It would make me the fastest man in the universe.” But as soon as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true.
If everything Jeff Bowers had told him was true—the other Jeff Bowers, he reminded himself—he was faster. Jeff couldn’t use that speed, so he had said, without destroying the fabric of space-time, but the fact that he had it, that he could if he wanted to… Danny felt the heat rise in his face. He didn’t mind being a captain. He didn’t mind taking orders or making the admiralty feel like they had some authority or control over him. That was, after all, the game. But to have one man out there who could actually best him? Danny’s teeth ground together at the thought of it. A man he had already mastered, dominated, eliminated…
“Why couldn’t you just stay dead?” he said out loud, though he was barely aware of it.
He had his orders, but those orders didn’t limit his agenda. There was more than one name on his hit list, and he already had plenty of feelers out there. What was it Jeff had said about spiders in space? Danny was the spider-master. He had an army of spiders, all spinning silk threads that would lead him to his prey.
“This place…is not my place,” Pho said, his voice rising with anxiety. They’d gone down fourteen levels and emerged from the lift in what felt like another world entirely. Instead of the gleaming frosted white poly surfaces they were used to on Epworth Station’s promenade, the walls here were slate gray and often stained with something Pho could not identify. Instead of the opalescent poly flooring, there was metal grillwork beneath their feet, and every now and then moisture of mysterious provenance dropped from above. It was only a matter of time before some of it fell in his hair, and Pho was not looking forward to that.
“Below your pay grade, huh?” Nira asked, not looking at him. She was glancing around, taking stock of everything and everyone who moved. Pho didn’t know what she was looking for, but he trusted her completely. Whatever they were there to find, he knew Nira would find it. He’d known her long enough to know that you did not stand in her way if you expected to see tomorrow.
“I’m not saying that,” he answered. “I don’t think that what we do is more noble than what these people do.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “Very egalitarian. Just try not to get a neck ache from holding your nose at that angle.”
Pho’s shoulder was bumped by a passing gaggle of people in blue-gray coveralls. Some had smudges of grease on their faces, none of them seemed clean. The hallway was swarming with people, none of whom paid any attention to them at all.
“I’m not—” he didn’t bother to finish. She was right, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to deny it.
“They can smell condescension and patronization a mile a way,” she said. “So let me do the talking.” She paused at an intersection—two wide hallways at right angles to each other. One seemed to head into an industrial area, the other into a rough commercial zone. Nira followed the neon.
“My dad was a grease monkey,” she explained. “He was a better man than half of those I’ve ever met in uniform. In fact, I’m the first person in my family to trade the coveralls for the uniform. It doesn’t make me better, just…angrier.”
Pho’s lips pursed. Nira needs more anger like a starship needs a crack in the hull, he thought.
She held her hand out, palm down, facing backwards, next to her thigh. He took the signal to mean wait, and slowed, letting her take point. It turned out to be sheer expedience, as the hallway was jammed with people either scrambling to grab a meal or rushing back to their shifts.
Nira’s head jerked back and forth, and Pho realized she was tracking where people were headed, and probably what kind of people were headed where. The dim corridors were lit by multicolored signs promising “hot grub,” “cheap eats,” and “quick fucks” all jumbled on top of one another. Pho felt a drop of mysterious liquid light on the top of his head and grimaced.
“This way,” Nira said, grabbing the front of his uniform and pulling.
She ducked into what looked like an ancient airlock door—the kind you might have seen on ships built seventy-five years ago or more. Pho had to duck to clear it, stepping over a gunwale that seemed inordinately high. If there were a fire, he thought, every single person would trip on this trying to get out.
Inside, he found his senses assaulted by light and sound and not unpleasant smells. It took a couple of minutes to take it in, but it appeared to be a bustling tavern. Grease monkeys of every species were sitting at large, family-style tables seating twenty people or more. They ordered from kiosks and meal pods descended from the ceiling. Most of them seemed to be drinking something, and from the level of gregarity, Pho guessed it was probably alcohol or some other intoxicant. A live band was playing—the start-stop jerky rhythm of Stomp, a genre of music popular among workers that involved harpsichord and tympani samples in 11/8 time and the trumpeting wail of a dragon sax. Pho liked the music when he heard it, but wouldn’t be caught dead seeking it out. He wondered, for the first time, if he considered it beneath him. He realized he did. He frowned.
Nira tugged at him and pulled him toward a press of bodies that began to part before them as they approached. No doubt due to Nira’s scariness, he thought. But then he realized it was probably also the uniform. It occurred to him that a change of clothes might have been a good idea.
Once through the crowd, he saw a bar, and Nira was making a beeline toward two seats, improbably empty. Someone is watching out for us, he thought, hopping up into one of them beside her. He swiveled in it, taking in the overwhelming chaos of the place. Near the band—a trio consisting of a keyboardist, percussionist, and dragon sax player, as he expected—several people were dancing. Many more were joking or arguing or fighting. Pho could barely hear himself think over the din.
Pho looked at Nira for her next signal, but she was too busy to give him one. She was studying the crowd. He had no idea what she was looking for, but he could see she was looking hard.
“What’ll you have?” the barkeep asked. He was about Pho’s own height, his head shaved, his bicep about twice as big around as Pho’s own.
“Uh, nothing for me,” Pho said.
“You don’t order, you don’t stay,” the barkeep said flatly.
“Oh…well, then…a water, please.”
The barkeep narrowed one eye. “I’m going to pull a beer for you, and one for your friend, and you’re going to pay for it, or you’re going to vacate those seats before I turn around again.”
“That…that sounds perfect,” Pho said. “Uh…but in that case, please make mine an IPA, the hoppier the better.”
“That’s more like it.” The barman grinned for the first time, and Pho felt his shoulders relax a bit.
“Stay here,” Nira commanded, and without waiting for his response, waded out into the crowd.
A moment later, the barman placed two beers on the counter, one slightly darker than the other. “This here is the IPA.” The barman slid the slightly darker brew in front of Pho.
“Thank you,” Pho said, and took a tentative sip. He brightened. “That’s excellent.”
“It is,” the barman agreed. He seemed to be warming up to him. “Grimy down here, isn’t it?”
Pho could tell the man was watching him carefully, as if gauging his response. He steeled himself for caution. “What…uh…what do you mean?”
“You’re uniform people. Lieutenant, am I right? Never could get the hang of insignia. Besides, I’ve never seen yours before.”
“Well, we don’t get many lieutenants down here. Must seem pretty grimy to you.”
“Uh…” It was true, but Pho didn’t want to offend. It occurred to him that the man had as much prejudice against him as he did against the grease monkeys that frequented the place. At least we’re talking, he thought.
“Up top, that’s your place, where it’s all white frosted poly and crisp, clean uniforms. Am I right?”
Pho had known some engineers in his day, and had even had some friends in engineering, but that wasn’t the same. He blinked noncommittally. That didn’t seem to stop the man.
“Every station is like this,” the barman continued. “The top floors are gleaming, not a stray hair or dust speck allowed. That’s where the people with money are, and the military folk, like yourself. Underneath, it’s messy, dirty. We’re the folks that keep everything working up there. You make as much in a month as we do in a year. You wanna know why?”
Pho could hear the resentment in the man’s voice. He didn’t want the conversation to go south, but he didn’t want to lose track of Nira either. His eyes scanned frantically and finally found her, leaning her head down to talk to a large, fleshy man in coveralls sitting at a booth.
Pho glanced back at the barman and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything the barman plunged ahead.
“I’ll tell you why.” He leaned over and said in a slightly lower voice, still audible above the din. “Neo-Platonism.”
He leaned back and nodded, giving Pho a satisfied look of arcane knowledge successfully transmitted.
Pho shook his head. “Come again?”
“Neo-Platonism,” the man said again. “Spirit is good, clean, pristine—it resides at the top. Matter is bad, grimy, dirty—it sinks to the bottom. Everything in between is a mixture—purer at the top and fouler the further down you go.”
“Uh-huh,” Pho said. He had no idea what the man was talking about.
“It’s hard-wired into the human psyche. So we build our stations to reflect it—top levels are clean, bottom levels are covered with shit. You look at stations built by other races—are they like this? Not a chance. Their designs are built on other metaphysical assumptions. They make no goddam sense to us. But to humans, this just seems right and proper. Virtue rises to the top. Shit gathers at the bottom. Same as it ever was. Excuse me.” The man turned away, apparently needing to fill a drink order.
That was fine with Pho, who didn’t really know how to respond to the man’s philosophical monologue. It was finally starting to make some sense, but Pho didn’t find that comforting. What he was saying was actually pretty disturbing, and it was exactly the kind of thing Pho would rather not think about if he could help it.
Pho’s eyes sought out Nira again and found her. Now she was huddled up with two of the mechanics—or whatever they were. She was talking in an animated way, smiling broadly, as if joking. This is not a Nira I know, he thought, and realized it was an act. He saw her shake hands.
Pho turned back to the bar and noted a light blinking in his peripheral vision. He looked up, and located a new message—a bar tab. He authorized payment, along with what he hoped was a generous tip for the philosopher-barman.
Nira was walking back toward him now, one lip curled in satisfaction. She resumed her seat with only a bit of difficulty due to her height.
“Well?” Pho asked.
“Just gotta ask the right people,” she said.
“And did you find the right people?” Pho asked.
“I have an address and a name,” Nira said.
“That’s…that’s good, isn’t it?” Pho asked.
“It’s exactly what we came for,” she assured him.
“And we have beer,” he said, pointing to hers. “Consider it a celebratory indulgence—for a job well done. It’s on me.”
She raised an eyebrow, but lifted the beer to her lips anyway.
“So where do we go now?”
“To the one place where no one asks questions about neural code searches, and no one wants to know more than they have to.”
“And…where is that?”
She knew she shouldn’t be excited. She knew she should be afraid. She was being kidnapped after all, but as kidnappings went, this one didn’t seem as bad as it could have been. And Emma was a scientist after all, and here she was, meeting an extraterrestrial for the first time. Since there didn’t seem to be anything she could do about the whole abduction thing at the moment, she decided to make the most of it.
“Amberline, what are your people called?”
The insect-like alien made a series of intricate gestures with all four arms, while also clicking its mouthparts. The mask hanging around her neck remained silent.
Emma waited, then realized what had happened. “Oh! That’s your language?”
“Correct,” said the mask.
She shook her head. “Wow, that’s…” she held her arms up like a mantis, then smiled. “I don’t have enough arms.”
“Correct again. Human scientists have chosen to call us Alverians. That will serve for you.”
“So Amberline isn’t your actual name then.”
“Correct. That is a label I use when dealing with humans, because they can’t say this.” She made a swooping gesture with only her primary arms, punctuated with a single sharp mouth click at the end.
“That’s beautiful!” Emma repeated the gesture and mimicked the final click with her teeth.
Amberline suddenly stood taller. After a moment the mask spoke again. “That was fairly close. I have never seen a human even attempt our language before. They have always been very willing to allow us to conform to their needs.”
Emma nodded. “Yes, I believe that. We can be very self-centered. Do you deal with humans often?”
“That is my primary function.”
“Like, an envoy?”
Amberline shrugged. “I do not know that word. My people do not choose to interact with others often, so when they do, they send one of us to represent the hive. I have been trained to represent the hive when dealing with humans.”
Emma’s mind was racing. “Oh! That explains your… the uh, the outfit you were wearing when you came in!”
Amberline nodded. “Correct.” Emma was getting used to her voice coming from the artificial mouth hanging from her neck. “When I first began interacting with humans, I encountered resistance or discomfort. I learned that humans fear or distrust beings different from themselves. I began wearing garments that would minimize my differences, make me appear more human. It seems to be effective, especially with the males of your species.”
Emma giggled, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand. “Yes, our males are, well, extremely susceptible to manipulation, especially where sex is concerned. We do a lot of similar things ourselves—makeup, high heel shoes, corsets, padded bras…” She noticed that Amberline merely stared at her without response. She probably had no idea what she was talking about. “What about your males? Are they easy to manipulate as well?”
“Our males are not like us. They are not sentient. They are creatures of instinct alone.”
Emma gasped. “How unusual.”
Amberline shook her head. “It is you who are unusual. As with most species throughout the galaxy, females and males are distinct and dissimilar. Even the animals of your Earth have clear sexual dimorphism. With humans, males and females are nearly identical, and what few traits do distinguish you are largely superficial. I can barely discern one from the other. Even so, that seems to cause you… great confusion.”
“What do you mean?”
“You do not appear to know how to behave toward each other. You are uncomfortable in each other’s presence and become entangled in meaningless rituals and dominance struggles.”
Emma suddenly remembered Jeff, the way he smelled, the sound of his voice, the way he abandoned her at the mention of Jo Taylor’s name. Her face grew flush with pain and anger; the corners of her eyes grew damp. She frowned and shoved him out of her mind. “Yeah, you got that right.”
“Our way is easier, less ambiguous.” Amberline shrugged again. “But I suppose you are locked to your own biology, as are we. And as I’ve said, that confusion is easy to take advantage of for my own purposes.”
Emma nodded. It made perfect sense. “Ah, and your, uh, mask, thingy…” She made a circle over her sternum, approximating where Amberline wore her false face.
“It is a communication device, converting my thoughts to human speech via neural link.”
“Yeah, I get that. But it could have looked like anything. You made it look like a woman’s face, and a very kissable one at that.”
Amberline gently touched the mask. “I did not design it, but I was informed that humans find our mouth parts disturbing and would find this configuration more pleasing. Many purposes are served at once. It is highly efficient, and that is something my people value.”
“We would call it an elegant solution.”
“Yes. I can see the rightness of that phrasing.” The false mouth smiled, revealing tiny, perfectly even teeth.
Wall felt paralyzed. Her mouth dropped open as she saw the soldier Prox detach from their ship and float off in formation—directly toward them.
“No no no no no…” she repeated, until other passengers started to look at her.
They noted her uniform, and someone asked about it. No one recognized it, of course.
“I’m not from around here,” she explained, tearing her eyes away from the view screen. “But I’ve seen those before…where I’m from.”
A babble of voices began lobbing questions at her. She suddenly felt claustrophobic. She backed up, but ran into more people. They were shouting questions, too.
“They’re Prox!” she shouted above the din of their questions, above their confused, frightened babble. The blaring of the red alert siren didn’t help.
“What’s Prox?” she heard distinctly, although she couldn’t make out who asked it. It didn’t matter.
“They’re death,” she said simply.
So they exist in this universe too, she thought. Of course they do. Most things are the same here. They just found us a little bit later on this string. But they found us. Of course they found us. And of course, they want to kill us. That’s what they do.
She wasn’t actually sure of that. She was sure that they wanted to eat their ships, they wanted to feast on the metal. She wasn’t sure that the species had any animosity toward humans at all, or that they were even aware of the existence of human beings. We have metal, so we’re just a ready supply of food, she thought. It was how it seemed to her, anyway. We’re pesky when we fight back, but otherwise, they seem perfectly content to ignore us… as they eat the ships that surround us and protect us. That seemed to be as good a warning as any.
“They don’t want to hurt us,” she said. Amazingly, everyone became quickly quiet so as to hear her. They didn’t know if what she was saying had any veracity, but it was the only information coming at them. Truth be told, Wall didn’t know if what she was saying had any veracity. But it was her best guess, based on what she had seen. She raised her voice and said again, “They don’t want to hurt us…because they don’t care about us. They would completely ignore us if…”
“If what?” someone asked.
“They just want the metal,” she said. “They eat it.”
People looked confused. A buzz arose as they started to whisper and discuss.
“But the ship is made of metal,” one of them protested.
“Right,” Wall affirmed. She’d never thought of herself as a leader, but she was an officer of the CDF. It was time to step up. “We have about five minutes to live. If there are people you love on board, you need to tell them so.”
People started shouting at her, but she moved through the crowd as if parting the Red Sea. She couldn’t take her eyes off the main view screen, and she had to get closer. She watched as the ship’s meager defense batteries opened up on the advance guard Prox, thousands of their fellows in a swarm just behind them, nothing but a blurry cloud. The first of the Prox were clearly visible now, their metal, crablike legs extended, pointed toward the hull. The ship got off a couple of lucky shots—she saw two of them in quick succession spinning away from the blast force. But more were coming, and quickly.
Wall was arm’s length from the view screen now. She reached out and touched it. As she did so, the first of the Prox landed with a metallic thud on the outside hull. The sound of it reverberated throughout the room, even over the hubbub of voices. The hull screamed as great sheets of it were torn off, rivets popping, seams shorn open, until there was a great rushing of wind and Wall felt the air sucked from her lungs by an irresistible force.
Jeff poured himself a scotch and held the bottle out to Jo. She nodded. He poured two fingers into another glass and pushed it across the table to her. They were in a small lounge, alone. The lights were dimmed, and soft piano music played in the background.
Jo picked up the glass and knocked it back, slamming it onto the table in front of her. “Hit me,” she said, pointing to the bottle.
Jeff laughed and filled her glass again. He was putting a good face on things, but inside he was awash with emotions that threatened to undo him. I’m barely holding it together, he admitted to himself. He kept his hands under the table. They were shaking. Then he noticed that Jo’s hands were shaking too, and his heart nearly melted.
Here we are, he thought. We’ve traveled through hell and back to find each other, and we don’t know what to say.
She was beautiful. He couldn’t stop looking at her. He forced himself to look at the table. He bit his lip.
Jo was not beautiful by the standards of conventional attractiveness, he knew that. Not that he cared. She was thin, certainly, but her nose was a little too large, her cheeks a little too hollow. She had a hard look to her that put many people off. But it was precisely such imperfections that fascinated him. He loved her severity—loved it so much that he felt nearly paralyzed.
Jo knocked back another glass. Jeff sipped at his, relishing the acrid smokiness of it. The silence between them became long, turned awkward.
“Out with it,” Jo said finally. “Tell me how it is that you’re…alive. Goddammit.”
“What?” Jeff asked. He had heard her. He just didn’t understand where the edginess of her final words had come from.
“You were dead. I had to…” She looked away. “Okay, it’s not fair to go into how I suffered because you died. But…” She rocked back and forth a little. She was fishing for words and not finding them. Jeff wished he could help her, wished he could do anything for her. “I never thought…” she started again but got no further.
Jeff sipped his whisky again. He held up his hand to stop her from struggling on. “First, I want to say I’m sorry,” he began. “In my universe, I did something that…that resulted in your death.”
He found he couldn’t meet her eyes. He stumbled forward. “I didn’t mean to. I would do anything to go back and…” He forced himself to look up. He held her eyes with his. “I’m sorry.”
“So here, you were dead and I’m alive,” she clarified. “And there, you’re alive and I’m dead?”
“And just where is there?”
“You know about the string universes?”
“Right now, we’re on String 311. My world, where I was born, is String 310.” He looked away again. “But String 310…isn’t there anymore. I…I destroyed it.”
“You destroyed the entire universe?”
He nodded. To hear it said out loud like that, it sounded grandiose, megalomaniacal even. He had trouble believing it himself. But it was true. “Every creature, every person, every world in every galaxy…gone. Including you. And it’s my fault.”
Jo pointed to the bottle again. “Hit me.”
“That’s a lot of guilt,” she said, picking up the glass. She didn’t knock it back this time. “How come you’re not crazy with guilt? How come you haven’t slit your wrists…or overdosed on Morphex?”
“That’s a good question. I did…I went through a tough time on Sol Station.”
“You were on Sol Station?”
He nodded. Her eyes narrowed. He sighed. “Perhaps I should…begin at the beginning.”
“Perhaps you should.”
So he did, beginning with Operation Catskill. After all, what did a classified designation mean in a universe that was no more? And maybe it was still classified in the Authority, but what did that matter to Jo, the Authority’s sworn enemy? Besides…this was Jo. Not his Jo, but still Jo. And she was more like his Jo than he had expected. In fact, he had yet to divine a way to prove that this Jo was not identical to his own.
He held back little. He told her about Danny’s death. He told her about Admiral Jennings, the Prox, the Ulim, and his miraculous resurrection. He told her about Emma and their experiments, his teleportation, and the attempted teleportation of the Bohr. As he related the death of Captain Jo Taylor, he forced himself to look up, to watch her eyes. They were wide, searching, haunted. Her lips pursed into a grim circle, her cheeks growing even more hollow than usual.
He told her about the final experiment, the quantum seismological readings, their being boarded by Danny. He told her about Admiral Tal and the arrest of his crew, as well as their escape and near destruction by Danny’s treachery. He told her about how he had abandoned his crew.
Throughout it all, she sat rigid, leaning forward, wanting more, straining for every flake of detail. He did not disappoint her. When he finished, he polished off his glass of whiskey and poured another. “And then I found Jennings…the Jennings of your world,” he said, shaking his head. “And hired him to bring me here…to you.”
They sat in silence for what seemed like an hour, but must have only been a minute or two.
“That’s quite a story,” she said.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t throw you into a cell with Jennings, as a spy?”
He shrugged. “You could do that.” He narrowed one eye at her. He watched her shoulders sag, watched her look away. But she’s not going to do that, he said to himself.
“Why did you come here?” she asked. “Why did you come to me?”
Jeff felt a wave of panic roll through him. Wasn’t that obvious? Yet…maybe she just needed to hear it.
“Because I…uh…I love you,” he said. It could have sounded facile or manipulative, but it didn’t. His voice caught as he said it, and he met her eyes. If she couldn’t see the truth of it, there was no more he could say. “I always have. And I lost you once, and now…”
Incredibly, he felt himself tearing up. Instantly, he hated himself for it. He bit his lip and nodded, waiting, pleading inside for the water to recede. It took a few moments of hard mastery, but the pressure eased. His throat unclenched. His breath slowed. He looked up at her again. “I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
It was a very general apology. It could have meant that he was sorry for killing her, for ending a universe, for the momentary awkwardness, or for allowing his control to slip for a fraction of a second. And in truth, it was for all of these things.
She reached across the table and placed her right hand down, palm up. He lifted his own right hand from beneath the table and clutched at hers. They held onto one another for dear life.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” she said.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” he repeated.
“So that makes two of us then,” she said. Then they both laughed. The awkwardness was almost unbearable.
“What now?” she asked.
“There’s one part of the story I didn’t tell you,” he admitted. “Aboard Sol Station, I met someone. He was from Earth, from Peru. He…knew.” Jeff was nodding, but it was a compulsive motion, not a response to anything. He continued to squeeze her hand.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Knew what?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But he seemed to know about me, about what I can do, about where I came from. It was all very…mysterious and evasive. It was like he was telling me he knew all about me, but didn’t want to say it in case anyone else was listening. It was…I don’t know…it was like spies talking.”
She nodded slowly, thinking. “If he knows…he might know a lot more.”
“Right,” he nodded, relieved that she seemed to get it. “I have to find him.”
“He could be anywhere.”
“I have…talents, remember?” he said. “When I’m ready to find him…I can find him. I can find anyone.” He fixed her eye and held it. “I found you, didn’t I?”
She nodded. “Okay. I get that. I believe you, too. Just…how do you know you won’t destroy this universe, too, if you…you know…use your talent?”
“I don’t,” he admitted.
“Oh.” she said. “So that’s bad.”
“It is,” he agreed.
“Hey Jeff,” she said.
“Don’t kill me again.”
He felt like someone punched him in the chest. That was Jo, all right—straight for the jugular.
“I’m going to do everything in my power…” he started, but it sounded feeble. He shut up.
“Don’t. Kill me. Again,” she repeated, slower and lower this time.
He nodded. He couldn’t look at her. He poured himself another drink. He picked it up and looked at it. He set it back down. He needed to ask something but didn’t know how. Finally, he just blurted it out. “I have a favor to ask.” There, he’d said it. He’d forced it from his throat like rocks on a cheese grater.
“It’s a little soon, don’t you think?” she asked. Until that moment, he hadn’t given any indication that he had an agenda, other than finding her. Now he felt slimy, as if he was playing her and had just been found out. He hated himself.
“You can say no,” he said. “And it kills me to ask. But…if you can…well…I need your help.” He cringed at his own words. Every one of them hit him like the stab of a hunting knife in naked flesh.
She crossed her arms. “What?”
“I have to find this shaman…or whatever he is. I have to find out what he knows. I know I don’t…I don’t know anything. But my gut says it’s the right move, and my gut…”
“Your gut was always right,” Jo said.
“Okay, you need to find him. You need transport…because we don’t want you destroying the universe trying to teleport,” she reasoned it out. “Which means you need a ship, which means you need Jennings.” She sighed. “You want me to release Jennings.”
“Uh…actually, Jennings is a disaster. He’s nothing like Jennings…the Jennings I know.”
“Thank God.” Jo rolled her eyes.
“You take him off my hands, I can fly his damned ship and won’t have to deal with his bullshit.”
“That’s cold.” She smiled.
“Yeah, but…fuck him. He’s a pain in the ass.” He smiled back.
“So that’s not the favor?” She cocked her head and waited. Finally, she seemed to get tired of waiting and said, “So what’s the goddam favor?”
He leaned forward. “I’ve got a crew—the finest XO I’ve ever served with, a better-than-average navigator, and one of the most brilliant quantum seismologists in known space. They need jobs.”
“I left them floating with some lame plan about a rendezvous. A rendezvous I can’t make. I want to make sure they have a place to land, so that I don’t have to…”
“So you don’t have to worry about them,” she finished his sentence.
“You’re a good captain.”
“I just suck at the whole human being thing,” he countered.
She laughed. It wasn’t a big laugh. It was more of a chuckle. She played with her glass but didn’t ask him to refill it. “You’ve made some shit moves,” she said, “but this…this isn’t one of them.”
“It sure feels like it, though. But…thank you for saying that. It would…it would mean a lot to me, and it would be a great relief.”
“The RFC is always looking for good recruits,” she said.
“You won’t find better.”
“You realize you’re asking me to rescue your girlfriend, right?”
He said nothing.
“That part is fucked up.”
He pursed his lips and nodded.
She teased him further, adding in a sing-song voice, “‘If you love me you’ll rescue my girlfriend.’ That’s what you’re saying. You know that, right?”
He tried to stop the smile. He couldn’t. And when she leaned across the table and kissed him, he grinned like an idiot.
“I’ve never been to a morgue,” Pho admitted. They stepped into a lift, but it was nothing like the gleaming elevators they were used to. Nira could see Pho react to the griminess of it. For one thing, it wasn’t completely enclosed. If she wasn’t careful, a girl could lose a limb if she stuck it through the grillwork. Nira kept her hands behind her back, standing at parade rest as the elevator descended.
“I didn’t think there was any further down to go,” Pho said, his voice almost despairing.
“It’s a big station,” Nira said.
“Not compared to Sol,” Pho said. Nira didn’t find the comment worthy of answer. She stared at the floors passing by rapidly through the grillwork. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Pho notice and react to the mess on the floor of the lift. It looked like raw sewage but wasn’t. It didn’t smell for one thing. It was the typical mixture of water, grease, and grime that collected in the bowels of any ship or station.
“At least there aren’t any spiders,” Nira said.
“I never thought I would miss the spiders,” Pho said. For a moment, they shared a smile. She could tell it helped him.
Eventually the elevator found its level, and the cage door rattled open. Nira pushed past it and stepped out on to an equally grimy bit of grillwork scaffolding.
“This seems precarious,” Pho said.
She was beginning to tire of his trepidation. She looked up and consulted the map on her neural. “This way,” she said, heading through a low metal door to their left. Pho followed.
The hallway was almost deserted, but every now and then they passed someone wearing the light blue coveralls of a mechanic. A couple of people passed them, arguing excitedly in a language Nira didn’t understand, dressed in street clothes that had seen better days. “Do people live down here?” Pho asked.
“Of course they do.”
Nira ignored him. She paused, checking the number stenciled above a wide metal door. “This must be it.” The door, she noted, hung from thick metal tracks. It was made to slide open along the wall—she could see the tracks end about 2.5 meters from the door’s edge.
She looked around for an entry pad. She would have settled for an old-fashioned door knocker, but there was nothing.
“Aw, hell,” she said. She kicked at the door repeatedly with the steel toe of her boot, trying to make as much noise as possible.
Pho’s eyebrows rose.
A moment later they heard movement. The door swung open a crack. “What do you want?” came a voice that sounded like it had been sleeping moments before.
Nira put her face to the crack. “I need to find someone. Elba Jannar recommended your services. Under the table.”
“You Authority pricks?”
“You station dicks?”
“Legally, you have to say if you are,” he insisted.
“We don’t represent any law enforcement agency or…existing government.”
“You represent a non-existing government?” She saw a milky eye widen.
“I guess we do.”
“You get points for novelty,” he said.
“We can pay,” she said.
“Well, then, that’s the magic word.” He slid the door open far enough to admit them. Nira slipped past him and motioned for Pho to follow. The man scowled at the hallway outside and looked quickly one way, then the other, then slid the door to. He turned, and Nira caught her first complete glimpse of him.
He was middle-aged, overweight, with wispy strands of hair clinging to the top of his balding head. He wore a stained surgical apron. His eyebrows were feral and his nose was bright red and bulbous. This is not a man who eats well, she thought, but didn’t say it.
The room was large, industrial, well lit. Several gurneys were lined up in one corner—she counted six—empty, silver surfaces gleaming. On one of them there was a pile of light blue sheets, roughly folded.
“Okay, explain,” he said, walking past them and waving them through a swinging door into a further room. Nira caught the door as it was about to close and followed him in. It was cold inside, and she noted that the gurneys in this room were not empty. Most of them held what she assumed to be cadavers, most of them covered head to toe in light blue sheets. One gray wall was made entirely of what looked like meter-square refrigerator doors. Nira could guess what those were for. She felt Pho behind her and wondered how freaked out he was becoming. I need to trust him to be professional, she told herself. Focus.
She had always prided herself on reading a situation right and acting with speed and precision. It hadn’t failed her yet. The fact that no one expected such efficiency from her challenged her to even greater heights of meticulousness. Her family lacked a gene for ambition, and she had no idea how she had acquired one. And some others assumed she was lazy because she was Latina. It was a racist stereotype which had persisted far too long yet was still prevalent. Had been prevalent, she thought, before our universe was destroyed. She had no idea whether Latinos in this universe suffered the same injustice. Probably.
“I am an officer of the Colonial Defense Fleet,” she said.
“The Colonial Defense Fleet splintered into the RFC and the Authority twenty years ago,” the man scowled, his flaky eyebrows knitting.
“Not in our universe.”
“Huh,” he scanned their uniforms. “I haven’t seen a uniform like that since I was at school,” he admitted. “So you’re either some weird, alien CDF or you just picked those up at a thrift shop. The latter is more likely.”
“It probably is,” Nira admitted. “It’s just not what’s true.”
Something in her voice seemed to make him pause. “Well, your provenance is none of my concern, so long as you’re not security.”
“We’re not. I promise you that.”
“Give me access to your neural.”
“What?” Nira’s eyes went wide.
“If you’re not security—of one kind or another—prove it. Give me access to your neural.”
Nira knew that if she did that, the man would have full access to her life. Not memories—neurals weren’t that deeply embedded in the brain—but certainly all the details of her life, including her bank account. “Sorry. I can’t give you that.”
“Eh, it was worth a shot.” The man shrugged and pulled the sheet back, revealing the corpse of a species Nira had never seen before. There certainly seemed to be more aliens in this universe. The creature was humanoid, but obviously not human. It had gills, for one thing. The man leaned over it and pried open one of its eyes. The pupils were bright gold but very dead.
Nira panicked inwardly. It seemed like they’d been on the brink of losing their opportunity when she refused him, but the man hadn’t kicked them out yet. She tried to establish a new connection with him. “What’s your name?”
“No names. You can call me Goat. I’ll call you Mouse.”
Nira didn’t like being called Mouse. She certainly didn’t like being reminded that she was small. She made a decision to ignore it. “What about him?” She pointed at Pho.
Pho looked around as if he were suddenly on stage.
“Him? I haven’t seen the need to call him anything. The only thing I can see that he’s good at is listening. Let’s call him Ear.” Goat shot a half smile, half sneer in Pho’s direction. “What are you, Chinese?”
“Vietnamese,” Pho said.
Pho’s brows knotted. “Buddhist.”
“Huh.” He turned back to the corpse and began flaring one of the gills with a silver instrument. “So out with it,” Goat said. “What do you need?”
“We need to find a friend of ours,” Nira said.
“You need a neural scan of the station,” Goat inferred.
“And you can’t go to security for that.” It wasn’t a question, but Nira answered it as if it were.
“This ‘friend’ of yours. Why do you want to kill him?”
“What?” Nira asked. “No! We don’t want to kill anyone! And it’s a her.”
Goat stood up straight and leveled one narrowed eye at Nira. He didn’t bother looking at Pho at all.
“Huh,” he said. “So if you don’t want to kill…her…why do you need to find her?”
“She’s a member of our crew, and we were supposed to meet up at a rendezvous point yesterday. She didn’t show.”
“Maybe she decided you weren’t her type.”
Nira ignored the jab. “She isn’t answering any messages. We parted on good terms. There’s no reason she shouldn’t answer a message.”
“Unless she’s offline,” the man said.
“Or dead,” Nira admitted, looking down at the corpse.
“She could be here,” the man said.
“She could be,” Nira admitted. She looked around at the other covered corpses.
“Well, let’s find out.” Goat began a circuit of the room, uncovering each of the bodies in turn.
Nira followed behind him—not too closely—and shook her head after each.
“Huh,” the man said when they were finished.
“How about those?” Nira pointed to the refrigerator cells in the wall.
“Too old,” Goat said. “She died…disappeared…yesterday?”
Nira breathed a sigh that was part depression and part relief. “About that neural scan…”
“Okay, okay.” Goat raised the sheet on the last of the cadavers. “You know this is illegal, right?”
“Of course. That’s why we’re here and not at the security office.”
“So you know it’s going to cost you.”
“Yes. We’re prepared. How much?”
Nira put her hands on her hips. Her face screwed up in a mask of instant indignation. “20,000 for thirty seconds of effort?”
“Hey, I’ve been talking to you for ten minutes now, haven’t I?” Goat spread his hands as if to say I got nothing to hide.
Nira sincerely doubted that. “10,000.”
“10,000.” Nira held firm.
“15,000 and that’s final.”
Nira nodded sadly. She looked at Pho and jerked her head toward the door. “C’mon. We’ll find someone else.”
Pho’s eyebrows shot up, but he followed her as she headed for the exit.
“Okay, okay. Jeez!” the man said. “10,000. Christ.”
Nira turned around, almost bumping into Pho.
Goat didn’t seem to notice. He went to a work station and tapped out a few lines. Then he handed her a black datapad. “Enter her neural number.”
Nira did. She handed it back to him, but he ignored her. He scowled at his panel, and his fingers flashed as he ran the number. His seborrheic eyebrows bunched as he read the answer.
“What?” Nira asked. “What did you find?”
Goat looked up at her and crossed his arms. “Pay me first. Then I’ll tell you.”
Nira scowled, but she nodded.
Goat touched several nodes on his panel, then pointed to the datapad again.
“Enter your payment ID.”
She looked at him uncertainly. “I’m not going to give you my account number.”
He shook his head. “You really aren’t from around here, are you?” He blew air through his cheeks. “Okay, in your neural, navigate to your account…”
“Uh…Nira,” Pho said. “On your account page, in the upper left corner, there’s a code. It’s your payment code. You enter that whenever you want to pay for something.”
Nira looked up and found it. She looked back down. “How did you know that?”
“I…it’s different from how we do it in our world…but not very different. It’s just kanji rather than numeric. I had to find it to pay for the beer.”
She nodded. Then she looked at the pad. She switched to the kanji interface and entered the code.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Goat asked.
Nira ignored him. Goat continued doing something on his panel, then he looked up. Probably checking to make sure the money was transferred, she thought. He looked down again and gave them a professional smile. “Nice doing business with you.”
“The results?” There was a sharp edge in Nira’s voice, and she moved her body into an attack position.
Goat must have noticed because he put his hands up defensively. “All right. Sheesh. She’s not here.”
“What do you mean, ‘She’s not here’?”
“If she were dead, I’d still be able to ping her neural. No ping. Even if her power was depleted, there’s a backup cell for just these kinds of situations. All it does is ping the transponder. No ping,” he repeated.
“What if she’s just offline?” Pho asked.
“Same thing. She wouldn’t be able to access the Net, but we’d still be able to ping the hardware. No ping.”
“Which means she’s off-station,” Goat said.
“Where did she go?” Nira asked.
“You’ll need to find another criminal to tell you that,” Goat said, standing and heading for the door. Nira realized he was showing them out. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have dead people to desecrate.”
“Captain on deck!” a crewman shouted. The bridge crew of the Horatio Nelson began to stand. They expected him to say, “As you were.” But he didn’t. He let them stand. One of them even faltered, off balance for having expected to sit right back down. Captain Daniel Hightower narrowed one eye at the offender. He then looked around, meeting the eyes of every member of the crew, making sure they knew where their respective roles were in the Authority pecking order. Finally, the captain rose from his seat, a middle-aged man with a healthy head of brown hair and graying temples. He didn’t need to stand for him, but Danny took it as a sign of courtesy, respect, and just plain friendliness. He shook the captain’s hand. “Captain Oswald.” He gave the captain a professional smile. Dropping his hand, he surveyed the room again, waiting—keeping every woman and man on the bridge standing, subject to his whim. “As you were,” he said finally, as if it were a gift.
The air was tense. He could feel it. It was exactly what he had intended to create. No one doubted his command, not even Oswald.
“We weren’t expecting you, Captain,” Oswald said, cocking his head.
“Is your ready room available?” Danny jerked his head toward the door at the side of the bridge, the traditional place for such rooms.
“Of course.” Oswald turned. “Kasweki, you have the conn.”
A young woman with a blonde ponytail and a scar across her cheek rose without comment and occupied the command chair. Oswald gestured toward the ready room. Danny led the way, pausing only to wait for the door to slide open. A moment later they were alone, seated across from one another at the small table that filled most of the space.
“This is highly unusual,” Captain Oswald began. “Of course, I’m always glad to see you.” He smiled.
Liar, Danny thought. He and Oswald had known each other at the academy…briefly. Devin Oswald had been two years ahead and moved in different circles. But they knew each other well enough to recognize one another, even to make small talk as they had on a handful of occasions since graduation. “You won’t be glad of this.” He withdrew Tal’s note from his pocket and tossed it at him.
It almost slid off the table, but Oswald caught it. “What is this?” he asked.
Danny said nothing, but watched as Oswald broke the seal on the envelope. “Pretty arcane technology.” He grinned in Danny’s direction, but it was a complicated grin, as it should be. In it Danny saw trepidation, fear, dread. Oswald unfolded a cream-colored sheet and moved his eyes over it.
He wasn’t smiling now. He threw the paper on the desk.
“You’re relieving me of my command?”
“Not me. I’m just here to take over.”
“Why is Admiral Tal relieving me of my command? Has there been an ethics inquiry that I don’t know about?”
“Should there be?”
Oswald scowled. His eyes flashed sheer venom. It was a side of Oswald he hadn’t seen before. He discovered he suddenly liked the man more than he had mere moments ago. Danny didn’t know what to do with “nice,” but he certainly knew where he stood with hate.
“You’re to collect your effects immediately and board the Faraday. It will take you back to Sol Station for reassignment.”
“How do I know this is really from Tal?”
“You have an ansible. Send a confirmation text.” Danny’s face was impassive, calm, in control.
Oswald was a tense knot of suspicion and hurt. His hands clenched into fists and released unconsciously. He looked up, blinked a few times, and looked back down again.
Danny knew exactly what he had done. He had connected to the ansible and had sent a vague but pointed inquiry to Admiral Tal directly. Not everyone could contact the admiral without going through his office staff, but captains could.
Danny counted twenty-seven breaths before Oswald looked up and blinked again. He looked down, and his eyes were smoky but resigned. “I’ll get my things.”
“Don’t take it personally, Devin,” Danny smiled. “It’s nothing you did. You’ll get an even better ship, I’m sure.”
“I’ll take your command spindle now. Are all the codes on it?”
Oswald fished in his pocket and withdrew a datachip in its holder. “All. At least the codes to the codes. As per regulations.” He placed it on the table between them. Danny noted that the label on the holder was written by hand. How quaint, he thought.
Oswald leaned over the table, his voice lowered. “What I don’t understand is why you are replacing me.”
Danny stood, straightening his coat. “Devin, nobody doubts that you are a solid captain. You run a tight ship. Your crew likes you and respects you.”
Oswald’s eyebrows rose.
“I’ve read your files.” He smirked. “There was a lot of dead time in transit. Even at C9.”
“Enjoy it,” Danny said and headed for the door.
“Wait, you didn’t answer my question,” Oswald objected. “Why you?”
“Because everyone generally agrees that you are a good man. This mission requires something less…or more. This mission requires ruthlessness.” He waited for the door to slide open. It was his ready room now. But before going through, he looked over his shoulder at Oswald, still sitting motionless, probably in shock. “We need someone who isn’t afraid of blood.”
Danny grinned, aware that his teeth were showing. He was a handsome devil when he smiled. It was something he liked about himself. He also knew that it was a smile that scared people. He liked that; in fact, he cultivated it. It was one more weapon in his arsenal. “And that person is me. I’m dying for blood.”
Their lovemaking was fierce. Every regret he’d ever felt over the past twenty years around how things had ended between them poured out of him. He wanted to make it up to her, wanted to make it right. All of his grief at losing her made him clutch at her all the more tightly—an improbable but precious second chance to express all of the passion he felt for her that he hadn’t spoken, hadn’t admitted, even to himself. Her ferocity had matched his, snarl for snarl, moan for moan. As he entered her from behind, she ground against him with a fury he didn’t remember her having, and he realized she was making up for lost time and lost opportunity as well. He clutched at her breasts and heaved himself into her, edging nearer the point of no return until the white-hot explosion in his brain obliterated all knowledge, all sensation, all concern…until it subsided, leaving him panting, jerking with the last spasmodic remnants of passion.
He withdrew and collapsed beside her, feeling heavy and blissful until his worries rushed in again like oxygen filling an airlock. He groaned and rolled toward her until their foreheads were touching.
“All my bones have dissolved,” Jo said. “That’s awkward.”
Jeff laughed and pulled her closer.
Jo nuzzled his neck. “That…was not like old times.”
“No. That was different.”
“I could do that again.”
“Uh…give me a few minutes,” Jeff said, chuckling. He had no doubt that his newish body was up to a repeat performance, but even he needed a bit of reset time.
They lay in silence for a time. At first, it was delicious. The sound of Jo’s breathing was like music. The feel of her beside him was like the best dream he could imagine—and far better than anything he let himself fantasize about. After a while, though, Jeff began to feel anxious as the quiet continued. Did he really have nothing to say to her? Or her to him? Or was he just too chickenshit to say it?
He sensed the rightness of that. But just what was the “it” that he needed to say?
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
Her arm was thrown across his chest, and she pulled him closer to her. “I missed you too. Kind of…crazily.”
He smiled. “I never even let myself hope…”
“No,” she agreed.
“You know, the Danny you got here is a real piece of work.”
“He’s an assbag maniac.”
“Was he like that in…where you come from?”
“No. Nothing like. He was…he was a good friend.”
“They call him the Butcher here.”
“Did they call you that…in the other universe?”
“At least there’s that.”
“But I felt like it.”
She hugged him close.
“What are you going to do about Jennings?”
“Turn him over to the authorities. I told you. You can fly his ship, right?”
He could. But her question brought them to the uncomfortable subject of his intentions. After a long moment, he said, “I have to go.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yes, you do.”
She was right. Deep down, he knew he had to go, even wanted to go. But he felt torn, too. “I’ll come back,” he promised.
She kissed his stubbled cheek. “You better.”
Emma was relieved by Amberline’s openness. She’d always associated kidnappings with cruel, violent men who tortured their captive for sport, at least until the ransom was paid and the victim was returned alive—if she was lucky. But Amberline was a gentle, almost gracious host, and she wondered what that said about the character of her own species.
Emma’s offline neural indicated that they had been flying for nine hours at some unknown speed, when an alarm from the control room drifted back through the open hatch. Amberline stood from her crouch and walked towards it.
“May I come with you?” Emma asked. Amberline beckoned her to follow and walked away.
The control cabin was tiny compared to the spacious bridges of the military ships she was used to, two beefy flight seats arranged in front of a complicated control panel, nestled into the transparent bubble at the front of the ship. Amberline folded herself into the left seat, Emma clambered into the right. She glanced at the controls and found that all the labeling was in an unknown script that looked a bit like cuneiform, which Emma assumed was the Alverian alphabet.
Amberline’s claws danced lightly on the controls, and the ship shuddered and dropped out of superluminal space. The stars, which had been irregular smeared squiggles, again became clear bright points of light, and ahead of them was a small asteroid that must be their destination. It was mostly a naked rock with no atmosphere. There were no visible structures that would give Emma a sense of scale. Without knowing how big it was, she couldn’t even guess how far away it was. She decided it didn’t really matter, they’d be there soon enough.
“Is this your homeworld?” Emma asked.
“No,” she replied. “This is the hive.”
Emma had heard Amberline mention ‘the hive’ before, it still held little meaning to her even as she was seeing it grow larger and nearer by the minute. Her captor was no doubt communicating with the asteroid via neural, providing authorization codes and receiving approach vectors. On the surface, a ring of landing lights blazed to life in the shadows of a small crater, and Amberline guided the ship toward them with expert precision. Before long they had landed, and a boarding tube extended and docked with the ship.
Amberline rose out of the seat. “Come with me.”
Emma winced at the formality of the command, but stood, following her captor to the airlock. Amberline clawed at a keypad, and the hatch unlocked and slid aside. The air that rushed in from outside was hot, humid, and had a strange, metallic aroma.
Four Alverians waited in the chamber outside, varying slightly in height and coloring from Amberline. One of them wore a bright red sash tied around her waist. Amberline bowed deeply to them, and then, suddenly, the group all began waving their arms wildly and making ratcheting sounds with their mandibles. Was it a formal greeting or an argument? Emma had nothing to compare it to, no context to provide meaning. Every few seconds, one of them would reach out and tap herself or another sharply on the shoulder or thorax, making a hollow-sounding clack. As aggressive as it looked, Emma surmised it was just another part of their vocabulary. More than once, one of them would point at Emma, and they would all look over. Clearly she was at least one of the topics being discussed. She stood respectfully still until they finished. The four nodded and broke away, scrabbling off down the corridor. Amberline watched them walk away, then turned back toward the ship.
Emma followed her. “So, how’d that go?”
Amberline continued back into the cargo bay and began unlashing the crates from the wall. “Not exactly as I had hoped.”
That surprised Emma. “Did they know you kidnapped me?”
“Of course,” said the mask, “the contract was sanctioned. But since the decision was made, they have begun reconsidering the wisdom of bringing a human inside the hive.”
“Why? What happened the last time?”
Amberline waved horizontally at shoulder height.
“What does that mean?”
“It means there was no last time.”
“Wait, are you saying I’d be the first? Ever?”
“That is correct.”
Emma whistled. “Well, I wouldn’t want to cause you any trouble. You can just let me go if it makes things easier…”
Amberline paused as if she was actually considering it, then shook her head. “No. The plan is already set in motion. You will remain here, in the hive. Would you please carry this case?”
Once again, Emma knew consciously she shouldn’t be anywhere near as excited about this as she was.
“Sir, I have an incoming message from RFC Command…text,” Lieutenant Tash Liebert’s voice was urgent.
“Display it,” Jo said. She didn’t want to be on the bridge. She wanted to fuck Jeff’s lights out. Again. She sighed. At least the message was a welcome distraction.
“It’s classified, sir. Your eyes only.”
“Port it to my neural, then.”
In a few hours, Jeff would be fully stocked and be on his way. She would lose him again. Everything in her screamed against it, everything but the military decorum that kept the rest of her intact and restrained.
Jo looked up and blinked, seeing the flashing red dot attached to the message. She blinked with her right eye and the message opened.
—AA to JT, classified. JT, proceed immediately to co. 47920-95138. Engage Authority warship Horatio Nelson. Destroy it.
Jo looked down. Everyone was looking at her. She sighed. So much for the quiet of their R&R time at Gamela station.
“Mr. Chi, recall all personnel. And plot a course for…” she glanced up again to retrieve the coordinates and read the message again. Then she stopped.
She chewed on her lip. This was an official order. Everything seemed proper and in place. But it was cold, formal… Jo paused, an intuition unfolding in her guts. No human touch, she thought.
She rose and headed for her ready room. “Mr. Chi, belay that. Mr. Liebert, I need a direct, secure ansible connection to Admiral Alinto. Now, priority one.”
“Yes sir,” she heard Liebert say, his voice high and loaded with questions. Then the door slid shut behind her. She sat down at the table and summoned a holo viewer.
It took longer than she had expected, but finally an image flickered and materialized. Admiral Alinto was there, but there were bags under her eyes, and she was wearing a teal muumuu. In the distance she could see mussed bedclothes and a giant lump beneath them—a lump she assumed to be Alinto’s spouse. It didn’t occur to her to question the gender of that spouse until just this moment. It looked like a male lump.
Alinto rubbed at her eyes. “Captain Taylor? What’s the emergency?”
“Admiral sir, I’m sorry to disturb you, sir. I just received a classified text from you.” She must have scheduled its sending for a time when she was in bed—but why would she do that? Jo’s eyebrows knotted in confusion.
“You did?” It was Alinto’s turn to look confused. Her broad Maori forehead pushed her flattened nose downward. “Naw, that was not from me.”
“I’m supposed to proceed to 47920-95138 to engage with Authority warship Horatio Nelson.”
“You will ignore that…spurious order, Captain.” Alinto looked disturbed. And worried. And awake. “And forward that message to me immediately. I want to find out who sent it. And why.”
“And if you get any other messages that are supposed to be from me—”
“I know how to tell.”
“Do you now?” Alinto narrowed one sleepy eye. “You’re a sharp one, I’ll give you that. “You know, some folks are starting to call you the Kali of Aken.”
“I have…no idea what that means, sir.”
“Look it up in the morning.” She yawned, then the holo winked out.
Jo turned, swiveling in her seat and chewing on her lip. She vaguely remembered something that Jeff had said about Catskill. She rose, straightened her uniform jacket and strode back onto the bridge.
Tash Liebert looked at her expectantly. “Mr. Chi, you have the conn.”
“Sir?” Liebert asked without asking.
“I need to…check something out,” she explained without explaining.
He raised one eyebrow but didn’t pursue it. “Aye sir.”
Marcia Chi rose and settled into Jo’s command chair without a word.
Jo left the bridge and made directly for the docking tube leading to the space dock of Gamela station. She glanced up to retrieve the docking manifest available to all ships in port, and a few minutes later she was standing in front of what she assumed to be Jennings’ ship.
She sent Jeff a message and waited until the airlock on the connecting tube opened. Boarding the cargo vessel, she wasn’t surprised to see Jeff meet her at the airlock door.
“Did I forget my underwear or something?” he asked. He leaned in to kiss her, but her arms were crossed. She was in business mode. He straightened up. “What’s wrong?”
“I just got a message,” she said. “From Admiral Alinto. Except it wasn’t from Admiral Alinto.”
“It was a fake,” Jeff said, a feeling of dread running through him. “What did it say?”
“New orders. To leave off here and proceed directly to engage Authority vessel Horatio Nelson.”
Jeff’s brows knitted and he crossed his own arms. He waved her toward the nearby mess and sat at one of the small tables. She joined him, her lips set in a tight grimace.
“That’s what happened to me,” Jeff said.
“That’s what…I thought you said something about a false order at Catskill.”
“Yes.” He drummed his fingers. “Were all the proper protocols in place?” he asked.
“How do you know it’s a fake?”
“Because I called Alinto on the ansible to verify.”
“And she didn’t send it. She told me to forward it to her immediately, so she can have intelligence investigate.”
“Jeff,” Jo said. “Do you think…that whoever sent your message to you at Catskill is the same person…or persons…who sent this message?”
Jeff blinked. A long silent moment passed. Finally, he said, “No. I don’t think there’s even the smallest chance of that being true.”
“Except that you know it is.” She nodded slowly.
He held her eyes. He did not contradict her.
“What now?” Pho asked.
“Lunch,” Nira said. “C’mon.”
She waved him toward a busy hub.
“Can’t we go topside to eat?” he asked.
“What are you worried about?” she scowled up at him.
“Look at all these people.” She gestured at everyone before them. “Do you think they eat topside?”
“Uh…no. They can’t afford it.”
“Many of them, no. But that’s not the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“Are they sick?”
“Uh…they look okay.”
“They eat down here every day, at the little corridor vendors, at the hole-in-the-wall noodle places. They don’t get food poisoning.”
“Some of them must. We get it topside every now and then.”
“Some of them must,” she conceded, rolling her eyes. “But what are the odds of you getting it in your odd meal down here?”
“Better than getting it topside.”
“Don’t….” she shook her head. “Just don’t.”
“Don’t what?” he asked.
“Don’t make me crazy,” she grumbled. His neurotic babbling had gotten the best of her, and she hated it. She paddled hard to keep Pho’s nebbishness at bay with strict military decorum.
She was tired and stressed, she knew that, and she could see no straight line between where they were and getting Emma back. Until she saw that straight line, she’d be rattled. One thing at a time, she told herself. Just do the thing in front of you.
“Can we at least pick a place that doesn’t look botulistic?”
“Botulistic isn’t a word. Botulism isn’t an adjective.”
“Botulistic is the adjectival form of botulism.”
“You just made that up.”
He grinned, proud of himself. She was pretty close to punching him. But then he’d win. Again.
“Or at least can we eat in a place that doesn’t look like it’s held together with rat poop.”
Nira halted in her tracks. “Will you stop?”
Pho looked genuinely surprised. “Stop…what?”
“Stop being so goddam…” she faltered, searching for the right word. So goddam Pho? It wasn’t fair to ask that of him, any more than she could stop being Nira. She straightened her uniform. “Are all Vietnamese people this annoying?”
Pho scowled. “Are all Hispanic people so irritable?”
It was a fair question, and it answered hers. Her shoulders relaxed and she shook her head. “I’m sorry.” She put her hand on his arm. “I’m just…”
“Stressed to the gills,” Pho answered. “I get it. You’re in command, and things aren’t…going as planned. If I were in your place I’d be running in circles making loud ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ noises. I think you’re doing great.”
Her mouth tightened into a thin attempt at a smile. “Thanks,” she said.
“And we’ll find her,” he continued. “I know we will. I believe in you, Commander.”
It was a little too much, but Nira let it pass. He was trying to comfort her, after all.
They were on the periphery of a mid-sized hub. She could see four main corridors going in different directions, all emptying out into a massive, if grimy, shopping district. The smell of grease and body odor battled for primacy with diverse cooking aromas. It was a pungent punch in the nose.
“What are you in the mood for?” Nira asked.
“Pho,” he said.
“You’re Pho,” she said, her eyebrows bunching in confusion.
“Pho is the Vietnamese word for ‘noodle soup,’” he said.
“Wait…your last name means ‘noodle soup’?” She put her hands on her hips.
“Not exactly. It’s pronounced a little differently.”
“Still…didn’t you get teased about that?”
“Not in Vietnam. It’s a very common name.”
“Huh. Well, let’s find you some goddam Pho, Pho.”
He brightened. “Right over there.” Apparently he could read the stylized Vietnamese script, because she didn’t see “pho” written on any of the signs in either Latin letters or kanji.
She let him lead for the moment, freezing only when Pho nearly fell over after bumping shoulders with a tall, meaty alien of a species Nira did not recognize. Pho tottered and righted himself. “Sorry,” he said. It wasn’t at all clear to Nira that Pho was in the wrong, but he wasn’t the kind to let his ego get the best of him. Better to just apologize and move on. Nira approved. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the alien.
He—at least Nira assumed it was a he—was half again as tall as Pho and twice his girth. He was humanoid, but his head was thick, elephantine, though without a trunk. There was an elongated snout, however, that rose in indignation. The creature raised his head and looked down on Pho through baggy, thickly-lidded eyes.
“Watch where you’re going,” he commanded.
“Of course,” Pho said. He apologized again.
“What kind of uniform is that?” the alien asked.
“Colonial Defense Fleet,” Pho said proudly, although Nira knew he knew there was no such thing here. Not anymore.
“CDF,” the alien said and snorted.
“Yes!” Pho’s face brightened. “You’ve heard of it!”
“Heard of it?” The alien’s mouth twitched and one side of it rose up into a sneer, revealing his pointed fangs. “The CDF conquered my planet forty-five years ago. You killed my father and my uncles. You threw my entire family into poverty. My mother became a prostitute to support us.” The alien’s snout began to twitch.
Nira felt the hair on her neck rise to attention. A voice in her head began to shout Intervene! Intervene! and she moved to insert herself in between the two. But before she could get there, the alien had pulled his blaster and pumped two rounds into the thick of Pho’s chest.
Pho went down like someone had cut the strings of a marionette, his gangly limbs folding up on one another as he sank to the floor in a tangle. Nira didn’t hesitate. She pounced, throwing the whole of her weight into a horizontal kick that took out the alien’s left leg. She heard the clunk of bones separating from their rightful sockets and rolled away before the giant creature came down on top of her.
There was no question in her mind that he would go down—and when he did, she was poised with her next attack. His shoulders hit the grillwork with a meaty thuk and a surprised yowl erupted from his snout that was not, she realized, terribly dissimilar from an elephant’s trumpeting. She positioned her elbow like the point of a spear and launched herself at the fleshy part of his throat, catching the meat of it and crushing it instantly. She felt the cartilage give way and saw his enormous eyes bulging almost beyond their baggy lids.
She kicked at his blaster, watching it skitter off into the crowd in her peripheral vision.
Satisfied that her enemy was subdued, she leaped over his body to her fallen comrade. She knelt by Pho and felt at his neck, hoping against hope for a pulse. But the two gaping, dripping cavities of gore adorning his chest told her all she needed to know. There was no pulse. There was no way there could be a pulse. Pho’s eyes stared at the ceiling, void of life. His mouth was open, as if ready to form one more aggravating observation. But it never came.
A crowd had gathered, but she was oblivious to them. It was all too much. The stress and the strain of command welled up and a scream of rage exploded from her. It wasn’t Pho himself she was grieving—a part of her wasn’t even conscious of him. It was the death of her self-image as a commander, as a person who could lead, who could keep her people safe. She’d had only one job, and she had failed. Miserably. She howled until security arrived and dragged her away.
Admiral Tal lowered himself into the hot pool at Sol Station’s one and only sento. Instantly he felt the stress melt out of him. He felt his muscles relax. He almost felt human again. The lights were low and the only sound was the soothing white noise spray of a waterfall in the near corner. “Ahhhhhh…”
He couldn’t let down his guard completely, of course. There were about twenty other bathers in the sento, of various genders and species. He didn’t dare do or say anything undignified, so he moderated the volume of his moan, even as he succumbed to it.
The sento was a public place, of course, but it was also his oasis. It was the place where he could escape from the duty and the detail and the constant vigilance of his role. He couldn’t visit every day, but he relished the times he could.
But even as the hot water leeched his stress from him, his mind couldn’t let go. He thought about Hightower, about sending him to take over the Horatio Nelson without warning Captain Oswald. In a week or so, he’d have to face Oswald and would need to give him an explanation. Tal did not look forward to that.
Conflict was the business of the military, and Tal had no trouble firing on an enemy. But he had little stomach for conflict with his inferiors, those with whom he would have to work on a day-to-day basis. Killing people wasn’t a problem. Getting along with them was.
It was the one thing about leadership that he hated—making the hard choices and setting boundaries for those under his command. It didn’t matter how battle-hardened his captains or lieutenants were, their egos were always as tender as snails, and there was nothing Tal hated more than stepping on a shell.
Let it go, he told himself. Feel the water. Deal with this another day…
He heard someone clearing a throat. That wasn’t good. He opened one dark eye a tiny slit. Adrian Liu stood before him in full uniform, the only person in the sento not naked.
“This better be good, Lieutenant.”
“Bad news, sir. You’re needed in Ops immediately.”
“How bad can it be?” he asked rhetorically. Then again, there was a war on.
“I can’t say here, sir. This is…well, will be…classified.”
Tal scowled and rose, reaching for his towel.
He climbed from the pool, wrapped the towel around his ample midsection, and without another glance at Liu, made his way to his locker. Five minutes later, he was fully dressed and walking crisply beside the lieutenant toward Operations.
“What are we dealing with?”
“I’d…rather not say, sir. Not where someone might hear.”
Tal grunted. It was the right answer, of course, but Tal expected people to bend the rules when instructed. But he didn’t press. Instead, he bided his time until the door to Ops had slid closed behind him. Then he turned and faced Liu.
“Now, Lieutenant, what the fuck was so important that I couldn’t be left alone for a half-hour soak?”
Liu glanced around, taking note of others in the room. Everyone he could see had clearance, and many of them were looking at Tal expectantly.
“We just received a transmission. You need to see it, sir.”
Liu strode toward where a small gaggle of brass was gathered around a viewing table. As Tal approached, they parted to allow him the prime spot. Then the air flickered and Tal scowled, trying to orient himself to what he was seeing.
Liu noticed and narrated. “This is the exterior feed from a civilian transport ship, the Jackrabbit Sage.”
“Jackrabbit Sage? What the hell does that even mean?” Tal asked no one in particular. The feed was sexto-directional, showing a steady field of stars he assumed to be from the transport ship’s bow, stern, starboard, port, topside and keel cameras. “I mean, does it mean a rabbit flavored with the herb sage or does it mean a wise rabbit?”
No one answered. No one else knew either, obviously. Tal scowled. Just what the fuck was he supposed to be looking at, anyway?
Liu indicated the stern view. Tal leaned over, placing his hands on the table, getting as close to the view as possible without losing resolution. Then he saw it. A creature, looking a bit like a cross between a jellyfish and a crustacean sped past the camera at lighting speed. If Tal had blinked he would have missed it. But he didn’t miss it. Long, spinning tendrils extended behind its cigar-shaped body.
“What the fuck was that?”
“We don’t know, sir. There’s nothing in the database that’s a match for that particular xenobiology,” Liu said, his face taut and grim.
“So…we have an interesting new species for the scientists to…” he cut off midsentence. He saw something else emerge from the inky blackness of space on the viewer. “What the fuck…” his eyes widened.
There were thousands of them. Maybe tens of thousands. They were coming in a great swarm, blocking out the stars. Now they were filling the screen. Their metallic bodies shone silver, dappled with shadow as their fellows blocked the feeble light emitted by the Jackrabbit Sage.
“What are they?” Tal breathed. It didn’t matter that no one answered him. His jaw hung open as he watched the first of them heading straight for the camera, spindly silver crab-like legs extended. He saw the legs disappear as the thorax of the alien filled the camera’s view. He saw the slight shudder of impact, or at least he thought he did. A moment later the camera cut out, its picture replaced with a buzzing distortion pattern.
Tal looked to the other cameras, until one by one, they too went blank.
He straightened, looking around at his fellows. There were three admirals in attendance, but he was senior. There was also a captain and Liu. All of them looked grave. No one knew what to say.
“Was there any report from the Jackrabbit?” Tal asked.
“Yes sir,” Liu said. “A text message. It said simply, ‘We are under attack.’ That’s it.”
“That’s it,” Tal repeated, leaning back down on the table. He shook his head slowly.
“There’s nothing on this species…these species…in the database?”
“No sir, except…”
Tal’s eyebrows bunched. “Except?”
Liu pulled up a sworn statement and blew it up large enough for Tal to read it without transferring it to his neural or grabbing a pad.
Liu nodded. “These creatures exactly match the description he gave of what attacked the Colonial Defense Fleet in…well, in the other universe. String 310 to be precise.”
Tal blinked, reading the description. “Three subspecies. We only saw two, but…they sound like the same creatures.”
“Yes sir. He called them ‘Prox.’”
Tal straightened up, his eyes still flitting over the text. “They’re unstoppable, he says.”
“They were…for them.”
Tal shook his head. “Have there been other sightings?”
“Yes sir. We’ve got this.”
A blurry, distant image hovered over the table.
“What is this?” Tal asked.
“It looks like a ship.”
Liu anticipated his question. “It matches Bowers’ description too. Yes sir.”
“And where is it headed?” Tal asked. All the hair on his neck and arms rose to attention. He did not want to hear the answer he knew was coming.
“They’re headed directly for us, sir. And if they get through us, they’ll be on course—”
“For Earth,” Tal completed the sentence.
Aboard the Talon again, Jeff steeled himself as he prepared to say his goodbyes. He paused as a frosted white door slid open. Inside, Jennings was waiting, alert, upright, and unnaturally sober.
“This was a bad idea,” Jennings said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your outstanding warrants?” Jeff stepped inside and heard the door swoosh shut behind him.
“Figured they were kind of common knowledge.” Jennings gave a pained smile. “Now I got a question for you: Why didn’t you stay dead?”
Jeff smirked. He sat on a white poly seat and fought back a feeling of claustrophobia. If he were Jennings, he’d be angry too, but… “Why did you take the risk?” he asked.
“You take risks for friends. Especially old ones.”
Jeff could not deny the simple truth of that statement. For a minute the two men sat in silence. “I tried to get Jo to release you.” He shook his head. “Her hands are tied.”
“That woman gets exactly what she wants 100% of the time, so that’s not exactly an argument that’s gonna hold any water for me.”
Jeff shrugged. “Whatever. I tried. She didn’t budge.”
“That sounds like a more honest assessment.” He nodded. “I hate spin.”
“You hate spin when it’s other people spinning, I think,” Jeff commented.
Jennings grunted. “What’s going to happen to my ship?”
“Jo wanted to confiscate it.”
“Booty.” Jennings raised his eyebrows.
“I talked her into…well, letting me keep it in trust for you. I promise to take good care of her so that when you get out—”
“If I get out.”
“—when you get out,” Jeff insisted, “you’ll still have a living.”
“So you’re here to very kindly explain to me how you’re stealing my ship,” Jennings deadpanned. Jeff opened his mouth to protest, but Jennings waved it off. “Don’t bother. It’s okay. It’s not okay, but it’s okay.”
More silence stretched out between them. “Look, Carl, I never intended for this to happen,” Jeff said. “I’m sorry it happened this way.”
“Despite it being such an outrageously convenient outcome for you, yes, I’m sure you are.” Jennings ran his hand over his balding head. “You don’t have any whiskey, do you?”
Jeff glanced up at the camera, then down again at his friend. He pulled a bottle out of the double breast of his uniform jacket and set it on the floor. There was no way the camera didn’t see it, and he knew they were being monitored. He also knew it was technically illegal, but he didn’t care. Jo wasn’t going to throw him into the brig for a class five infraction, and he owed his friend at least this much.
Jennings seemed mollified. A genuine grin lit up his face. He leaned back against the wall, calm and satisfied. “You gonna go find that shaman of yours?”
“Huh.” Jennings’ eyes travelled from Jeff’s face down to his belt, then back up again in a way that made Jeff feel a little slimy. “Suck your cock before you go?”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Last chance…I could show you some tricks.”
Jeff stood, wishing his final meeting with his old friend could have ended differently. He reminded himself that this Jennings was not his old friend and that his behavior was entirely in line with everything he had observed about this particular Jennings. He sighed, but he wasn’t surprised.
Captain Daniel Hightower looked down, once more entering the bridge. He’d spent the better part of an hour reading detailed reports on all aspects of the Horatio Nelson. Most of it was routine. With the exception of a couple of maintenance projects underway in Engineering, the ship appeared to be in good shape, so that didn’t worry him. Weapons were at 100%, he was glad to see. Crew morale was good, although the real-time psyche barometer—in which he had never placed any credence whatsoever—was registering troubling fluctuations starting from the moment he had relieved Captain Oswald. It was an annoying distraction.
What had troubled him more was the crew profile, specifically his bridge crew. Mr. Anderson was a faggot. He hated faggots. Tess Maruka was Tongan. The Tongans had a sub-colony on New Manila and had originally declared for the rebellion. Cooler heads had prevailed—that and the threat of sanctions against the tiny island nation—and all of the colonial Tongans had been recalled. Some of them returned, some of them didn’t. But in his mind, all Tongans were suspect.
Worse was Oswald’s XO. She certainly wouldn’t be his XO. She was Mauro, a religious sect made up of humans who followed the alien Mauroxilian religion. The Mauroxils had managed one monolithic faith for their entire planet. Danny admired the ruthlessness that must have been necessary to root out dissent in their history. He didn’t even necessarily object to the basic tenets of the faith. It was a form of strict moralism handed down from a largely absent deity, so far as he could tell. And that was the problem. The Mauro were not only traitors to their indigenous, human religions, but they were inflexible when it came to what they called “the Moral Law,” which, of course, people jokingly referred to as “the Mauro Law.”
Doing a few quick searches, he pulled up files of crew members he thought would make good replacements. Especially appealing was his candidate for XO. Commander Foulon had numerous infractions against him—most of them derived from field duty, where his decisions had been deemed too violent, and one where he had been disciplined for questioning the decision of a superior. Looking into the incident further, Danny discovered he agreed with Foulon. Some idiot commander had ordered him to be “easy” on the enemy civilians during a skirmish. Foulon had blown away anyone who got in his way, and he accomplished his mission objective. He was a man after Danny’s own heart. He summoned the man to the bridge.
Might as well get the unpleasantness over with, Danny thought. Although in truth, he enjoyed conflict, and he would enjoy this. He stood and straightened his black jacket, the orange piping popping to the fore. He cleared his throat and addressed the bridge crew. “We’re going into battle, men, and I need an A team I can trust. Mr. Anderson, Mr. Maruka, Mr. Cashan, you are dismissed. Please report to HR Command for reassignment.”
He waited for that to sink in. No one moved. Danny counted to ten. Still no one stirred. He touched a node on the arm of his command chair. “Security, please send an armed escort team to the bridge.” That got them moving.
Maruka rose first, incomprehension and anger clouding her eyes. She was a bulky, fleshy woman, having inherited the solidity of many Pacific Islanders. She didn’t directly challenge him, however. She didn’t even look at him. She just marched toward the lift. Good soldier, Danny thought.
Mr. Anderson was next. He, too, kept his eyes averted. He seemed masculine enough as he walked, and for a brief moment Danny wondered if he had been wrong about him. Nah, he thought. Doesn’t matter what he looks like. I’ll always know what he is. Queers had been fully integrated into society for centuries, but that didn’t mean there weren’t dissenters. And Danny had always dissented from this particular point of sociological dogma.
Cashan, however, did not go quietly. She stood and faced him, standing at parade rest, her arms fixed behind her back, her chest full and proud. Her black hair was tied tightly behind her head in a bun. She was about thirty, he guessed. Her face betrayed not a hint of nonsense.
“Captain Hightower, I have held this position for three years, with distinction. If I am to be dismissed, I respectfully request to know your rationale.”
“You have no right to my rationale, Commander. You are dismissed.”
“Respectfully, sir, I will go willingly and without complaint—just as soon as I hear your rationale.”
Hightower sighed. A pissing contest, then? She could not hope to win that. “Mr. Cashan, if I told you to execute a prisoner, would you obey my order?”
Cashan’s eyes darted back and forth. “That would be a violation of both Terran Authority policy and my personal moral code.”
“Then I can’t trust you, can I?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but obedience to one’s superiors is not absolute. It can’t be. Terran Authority regulations state—”
“I know Terran Authority regulations inside and out, Commander. But out here, I am the Terran Authority. And I interpret the code. Do you have a problem with that, Commander?”
“I do, sir.”
“Then I have a problem with you. You are dismissed.”
Cashan did not move. “I suspect, Captain, that my dismissal is due to the fact that I am Mauro. The Terran Authority Code enshrines the complete freedom of religious expression within the armed services—”
“Don’t make me kill you, Commander. Disobeying a direct order is mutiny under the Terran Authority Code, section 26, subsection C. I will drop you where you fucking stand.”
He saw her shoulders wilt. Then he saw her eyes search for some internal connection. She found it. He saw her shoulders straighten, her chest puff out again. She continued in her defiance. “I would like you to point out to me, from my previous record, where I have ever been disloyal or lacking in my service. Sir.”
You poor, stubborn fool, Danny thought. Just then the bridge doors slid open and the security detail poured onto the bridge.
“Security, please escort Mr. Cashan to the brig to await my further orders.”
He saw Cashan’s eyes narrow, her chin harden. She did not protest as she was led away.
No sooner had security cleared the bridge than Mr. Foulon stepped aboard.
“XO on deck,” Danny announced, grinning as everyone stood. He let them stand up all the way and watched them turn to face his new XO. Mr. Foulon saluted. A nasty red scar violated his face, stretching from one cheek, across his nose, and to the corner of his mouth, creating a disturbing effect. Danny returned the salute.
In the hall once more, Jeff headed for the airlock. He bounced on his toes in the lift, once again considering going to the bridge to see Jo one last time, but he knew he couldn’t risk embarrassing her in front of her crew. The lift slowed gently to a stop and the doors opened, revealing Jo leaning against the opposite wall of the corridor like a magic trick. She looked up and smiled slyly.
“You don’t get away that easy.”
Jeff stepped out of the lift sheepishly. “You didn’t have to see me off.”
She wrapped her arms around him. “You know better.” She kissed him deeply. After what seemed like an eternity, she loosened her grip. “You keep yourself alive. I won’t lose you again.”
“No ma’am,” he agreed. “You’ll…” He wanted to make sure she’d rescue his crew, but didn’t know how much she wanted her own crew to know about it.
But she caught his eye and nodded. “You leave it to me.”
He smiled gratefully. Then he clicked his heels and saluted. “Captain,” he said.
“Captain,” she saluted back. He turned on his heel and began down the boarding ramp to the Annabel Lee, his throat swelling up. He was grateful she could only see his back, couldn’t see him struggle with his feelings.
When the elevator door slid open, Emma gasped. It opened to a gigantic cave, its rough ceiling arching in a jagged dome above them. Brilliant spotlights shone against the darkness, shining down on the multitude of Alverians spread out across the floor below.
Emma stopped and bent down to feel the rock floor with her fingers, noting the fine dust, the larger grains of sand on its surface. Amberline was not slowing down and she rose, doubling her pace to keep up.
A loud hum of activity filled the chamber, reverberating off the ceiling high above. The workers were grouped in wedges by activity, though much of it was baffling to Emma. In one section, hundreds of workers were wrapping a band of fabric around what appeared to be a paper wrapped ball. In another, they were boiling some kind of grain in huge vats, clouds of steam roiling upward. No wonder it’s so humid in here, she thought. In another section, she saw huge machines that looked like giant mechanical spiders, clacking as they wriggled their legs. Alverians darted between them, trailing cords that unrolled off the large spools they carried.
Broad pathways separated each occupation, converging on a central courtyard like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The Alverians milling about the center wore brightly colored bands of fabric on their limb segments or tied around their waist, like the ones worn by the welcoming committee Amberline spoke to previously. They huddled in groups, gesticulating frenetically, then quickly darting to another group for more interaction. Occasionally they would run into the apex of the work group they were probably managing, communicate further, and quickly return to the fray in the middle. It reminded Emma of historical videos she’d seen of the old stock markets back on Earth.
Amberline strode directly into the middle of the melee, Emma scurrying close behind, suddenly terrified of the hard limbs and sharp elbows being flung all around her. She ducked, raising her arms to protect her face; several Alverians stopped and turned toward her expectantly, shrugged, then went back to whatever they were doing. They though I was going to speak! she thought, amazed. In her surprise, she nearly crashed into Amberline, who had stopped without warning in front of her. She gesticulated wildly, talking with several others. Then one of them pointed off down one of the wagon wheel lanes radiating back out toward the walls of the chamber. Amberline glanced back at Emma, gestured for her to follow, then started off in the indicated direction.
The section they walked through next could only be described as a ranch. Low walled pens made of some kind of mud teemed with animals, thousands of them. They looked like a cross between a pig, a dog, and a cockroach, but colored a vivid blue-green, some with bright yellow stripes or spots. Ahead of them, down the road, a team of Alverians had opened a gate in the wall and were prodding a group of the creatures out of the pen with long poles. Once twenty of them were out, they closed the gate and began herding them toward the nearest arched portal in the chamber wall. Amberline followed them through the portal into a low, poorly lit tunnel. The shepherds steered their flock through an opening on the right, while Amberline continued straight on.
Emma peeked through every doorway they passed. Some of them were sleeping chambers, containing long rows of Alverians sleeping on thin mats on the floor. She realized that Amberline hadn’t discussed the nature of her captivity here, whether she’d be sleeping with the others or kept somewhere with more privacy. Would they even understand privacy? Would they value it as humans do? She hoped Amberline’s expertise in humans included what they ate.
“So,” Emma said, trotting up along side Amberline once they were alone in the corridor, “Where are you taking me?”
“That’s the question we are going to answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“We all serve the hive. We will need to determine how you will serve the hive while you are here.”
“You mean you’re going to put me to work?”
“So now I’m not just a hostage, I’m a slave.”
Amberline stopped abruptly. “I do not understand. What is a ‘slave’?”
“Slave is the word humans use to describe someone who is forced to perform labor against their will.”
“I still do not understand. Humans... refuse to work? To serve?”
Emma shook her head. “Uh, not exactly. We reserve the right to choose for ourselves what we do for a living. We call it self-determination.”
Amberline began walking again. “It sounds... unorganized.”
“Well, it is,” Emma agreed, falling in step. “But we take freedom very seriously. That’s why we severely frown on things like, say, kidnapping.” She glared pointedly.
After a moment of walking silently, Amberline’s mask said, “Interesting. Yes, we have a very different set of values. We all serve the hive. It isn’t a choice, it is merely the way we are. The specifics of our service are determined by our strongest abilities and the greatest needs of the hive.”
“What happens to someone who can’t serve the hive?”
Amberline shrugged. “They die.”
Emma’s mouth dropped open. “They die? Or they are killed?
Amberline shrugged again. “Either. None of us could survive the shame of a useless existence, a life without value or purpose.”
Emma thought a moment. It made sense, but she wasn’t sure how it applied to her specifically. “I will be required to serve the hive.”
“And if I can’t, you’ll kill me.”
Amberline’s mask smiled. It wasn’t comforting. “Of course not. You are not of the hive. But you don’t have to worry about that. I have no doubt we have work that even a human can do.”
Tal stared out the window of his study at the stars. He knew they were violent, flaming bags of radiation, but from a distance they seemed peaceful, serene. “Everything seems better at a distance,” he said out loud.
The Prox were still at a distance. But they were coming. He knew that the panic he felt now would steadily rise as their proximity increased. He was only at the beginning of this ramp. It was a familiar feeling, being on the cusp of an inevitable battle, yet there seemed to be something more ominous about this one.
He couldn’t get the images of the Jackrabbit Sage out of his head. He had never seen destruction like that. He had never seen an enemy like that.
He glanced up and accessed his neural, sending a call for Liu. A moment later the door slid open and his secretary entered. “Yes sir?”
Tal motioned toward the window with a jerk of his head.
Liu came near, standing at parade rest at about arm’s length.
“Do you ever just look at the stars, Adrian?”
Liu looked out the window, then back at the Admiral. “Um…sometimes. Yes sir.”
“How do they make you feel?”
“Feel,” Tal said.
Liu bit his lip and hesitated.
“C’mon, it’s not a trick question.”
“They make me feel scared, sir.”
Tal reared back. “Scared?”
“You’re telling me that when you gaze out at the stars you don’t feel peace or wonder?”
“No, sir. When I look at the stars I see everything we don’t know. I see the space we haven’t conquered...the enemy lying in wait. I see the unseen threat.”
Tal grunted. “I read a psychologist once who said that when some people encounter mystery, they find it enticing. Other people find it threatening.” He looked away from the window and narrowed one eye at his secretary. “I never took you for the glass-half-empty sort.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, sir.”
“No apology needed. It’s…good to know.”
Liu stood there. Tal could feel the tension rise in his secretary. The man had work to do, after all. “Will…that be all, sir?”
“Adrian, do I often call you in here to stargaze?”
“I’m not going soft in the head yet. I want you to recall every ship we’ve got. And I don’t just mean military ships. I want you to requisition and commandeer every civilian ship with anything greater than a grade-two laser attached.”
Tal waved. “Oh, I know we’re not going to get 100% compliance, but we’ll get a lot. Just call them. Top speed that they can safely get here. Those that can get here quick we can refit for greater firepower.”
“How far out, sir?”
“When I said ‘every ship,’ I meant ‘every ship.’ Our ships in neutral space, our spy ships in RFC territory, those doing deep space exploration. Ships that are doing security work on our colonies, all of them. We’re going to need every gun we can summon to meet these fuckers.”
“Put out the call right now. All possible speed.”
“And…reason given, sir?”
Tal nodded. “You’re afraid of creating panic?”
“The panic is coming, no matter what we do.”
Liu didn’t disagree. He only nodded.
“Oh, I don’t know, Lieutenant. I’ve gone round and round about this in my head. Truth is, I can’t think of any reason that won’t sound fishy. So…let’s give them no reason.”
“Here’s what I’m thinking. We make it a top-priority, mandatory rule, but don’t say why. What will the feeds be talking about?”
“They’ll be falling all over themselves with speculations.”
“Will they be crying foul at the conscription of civilian property?”
“Sure…but probably not as much.”
“My thoughts exactly. Instead of freaking out about civil rights, or even about the Prox, they’ll be fascinated with the ‘why’ of it all.” Tal clapped his hand on Liu’s shoulder. “You see, Adrian? Sometimes mystery is our friend.”
Once more aboard the Annabel Lee, Jeff dropped his duffel in the tiny compartment that had been his cabin. He imagined he’d eventually move into the slightly larger captain’s cabin, but he’d need to clear Jennings’ stuff out of it. That would be a good way to pass the empty hours of interstellar travel time, but he imagined it would also require hazardous waste disposal and multiple showers in the sonic.
First things first—disengage from the Talon and find a quiet stretch of space where he could simply put the ship on autopilot and move into his mind for a bit.
He perched himself on the edge of the command chair and swung his analog interface into place. He opened the communications panel and tapped out a few quick commands. “Annabel Lee requesting decoupling protocols at O-nine-hundred-twenty-three hours,” he said.
“You have clearance for undocking Annabel Lee,” came the reply.
A moment later, a tiny green light illuminated his screen, and he heard the metallic jolt of the boarding tube detaching.
Four minutes later, he engaged the conventional drive and backed the Annabelle Lee away from the Talon. Once he was at a safe distance, he switched to the aft thrusters and began the acceleration protocol needed to make a successful jump to C-space.
The acceleration was uneventful, and he glanced up to call up the stellar cartography charts for this region in his neural. There was a 4,000-parsec region of empty space less than 0.5 parsecs away. He made the slight course adjustments necessary and rose. “Unpack,” he told himself. It would be about twenty minutes until the ship entered the dead region. He wanted the ship at a full stop before he ventured beyond.
Most of his effects were still aboard, still in place. It only took a few minutes to empty the duffel and do some minor housecleaning. As he did so, he struggled with his feelings about Jo. Did they reawaken old passion? They had. Was that wise? Probably not. Was it fair to Emma? Decidedly no. He felt like a heel. And at the same time, he felt like an elated teenager. He wondered how much of his euphoria was due to the newish body the Ulim had bestowed upon him. Would his old, middle-aged body have been buffeted to the same degree by the inner storms that tore at him now? He didn’t know. He realized he also didn’t care.
I love her, he admitted to himself. I always have. I lost her. Then I killed her. And now I have her back. There was no arguing with that. There was no shaming him for that. He felt a mass of roiling emotion that included guilt and infatuation and lust and elation and confusion and pity for Emma and he didn’t fucking care. I love her. That was the truth of it. No more needed to be said.
He had just gotten a cup of coffee from the tiny mess station when he felt the conventional thrusters kick in. The jolt was minor but noticeable, and he had expected no less. He positioned himself in his command chair and set the coffee down beside him. He closed his eyes. He knew the coffee would be cold when he opened them again. That was all right. There was always more coffee.
Nira’s eyes opened, but she didn’t know where she was. She felt a pinch in her arm, and looked down. An IV was feeding some kind of light aqua liquid into her vein. She looked around. She didn’t seem to be in a hospital. She was sitting in a comfortable recliner, the kind you might see in someone’s living room. But it was clearly a clinical place she was in. It didn’t make sense.
If not a hospital, then…what?
A door slid open and a young man entered. He seemed almost impossibly young to her. What did that say about her? She blinked.
“Ah. You’re awake. Good. How are you feeling?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Nira asked.
“I’m Doctor Chujan. My first name is Ram. You can call me whatever you like.” He gave her a smile that was warm, genuine, and professional. She noted his straight black hair, cropped short and stiff. His eyes were slightly almond-shaped and his skin was bronze.
“Are you Chinese?” she asked. Instantly she felt stupid. Why had she asked that? “Sorry,” she said.
“Don’t worry. You’re on a sedative, and it decreases inhibitions. It’s easy to say the first thing that comes into your head and harder to filter things. I’m not offended. My people are Thai. Although I have an Irish grandfather. Word has it he was a bit of a rogue.”
Did he just wink at her? Maybe she was seeing things. “Why am I…” questions flooded her brain. She didn’t know which one to ask first. They came out in a rush. “Where am I? Why am I here? Why am I on a sedative?”
He smiled at her patiently. He’s very kind, she thought. He’s also just a kid.
“I’ll take those in order. You are aboard Epworth Station. You are in the Wesleyan Psychiatric Clinic for observation. You are here because you have experienced a very traumatic event—”
“I did?” Nira’s eyes grew wide. It was a strange feeling, the mixture of adrenaline and deep peace. It reminded her of the focused, heightened state of calm she experienced in the heat of battle. Except that she felt scattered now, not focused.
“The authorities will also want to question you about what you saw, and what you…well, what you did. Don’t worry. They just want to ask you some questions.”
Nira realized she wasn’t wearing her uniform. She was wearing a flannel jumper. It was nice. Comfortable. Utilitarian. She liked it. But it made her feel naked, as if her identity had been taken away. “Where’s my uniform?”
Dr. Chujan cocked his head. “Your uniform was…soiled. It’s also evidence. We gave you some clean clothes. You can choose a different style if it will make you more comfortable.”
Nira felt confused, but not frightened. A part of her mind realized that whatever was being pumped into her vein was making her feel very good indeed. A part of her objected to that. A part of her wanted it to go on forever.
“Can I talk to you about your uniform?” Dr. Chujan asked.
“It appears to be the uniform of the Colonial Defense Fleet, a military coalition that doesn’t exist any more.”
“Yes,” Nira agreed. “Well, it does in my world. Except that it doesn’t.”
“Why don’t you back up and tell me about that from the beginning?”
“Oh, and legally, I must inform you that we’ll be making a holo of this conversation and anything you say may be used as testimony either for or against you.” He smiled reassuringly. “Is that all right?”
Nira felt wonderful. Everything was all right.
She started to talk. For the better part of an hour, she told her story. It simply flooded out of her. She could see that he was trying not to look surprised, but failing. When she got to the point in her story when they were looking for noodle soup, she stopped short. Her eyes grew wide. She sat up, and despite whatever drugs they were pumping into her, she felt panic. “Where is Pho?”
“I’m so sorry, Nira. Martin Pho is dead.”
She remembered now. Her lower lip began to tremble and she felt agitated. “I’ve got to…” She reached for the IV needle with her left hand.
“You just leave that there,” the doctor said. He reached for the interface on the IV drip and tapped at it a couple of times. In a few moments, Nira felt calmer and a little cloudier.
Dr. Chujan once more gave her his full attention and a very compassionate look. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“That alien shot him.”
“That would be Charjath Vlat, a Numer centurion. You crushed his windpipe.”
“Is he dead?” Nira asked.
“Good.” Nira felt satisfied. She had avenged her friend. Her score was settled. She could die now. It would be fine.
“Did you know Centurion Vlat previous to your encounter in the food court?”
“No. He just…attacked Lieutenant Pho. I just…defended him.”
“Mr. Pho had already sustained fatal injury when you attacked Centurion Vlat.”
Nira shook her head. “I was…it seemed…I just…” Her words trailed away.
“You know what?” Dr. Chujan said. “This has been a lot to take in.” He patted her arm, the one with the IV drip in it. “We are going to keep you here for a little while, in this safe place. The detectives are going to come and talk to you. And of course, I will be here. Anytime you want to talk, you let me know. Every now and then, I will come and ask you questions. Will that be all right?”
She liked him. That would be fine. She nodded.
“All right. You just sit there and relax and try to remember as much as you can. That’s your job right now. You don’t need to think about the future or about work or about your captain. Just…try to remember as much detail as you can about the incident. The more you can tell us, the better we can help you, and the better we’ll be able to discern the best way forward for everyone.”
He smiled, but didn’t explain further. “Well, for you mostly, but also for Centurion Vlat’s family. But no need to think about that right now. What happened to your friend and to Centurion Vlat was very sad and very complicated. Together, we’re going to tease out what really happened and what should happen now. Doesn’t that sound like a good plan?”
It did. It sounded like an excellent plan.
“All right then. I’m going to do some rounds—”
“I have some other patients to see. There are other people who are hurting just as much as you are, and this is what I do. I help them.” He rose and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be back soon and we can talk some more.”
With another encouraging smile, he rose and left the room.
When he left, it seemed all of the life and warmth left with him. The office suddenly felt small and cold and clinical. Although, she had to admit, it was a nice chair.
There was something nagging at her, something on the tip of her consciousness. She wanted to think more about the chair, but she…
Pho. Now she remembered. In her mind’s eye she watched the centurion’s blaster go off in slow motion. She saw the flesh ripped from Pho’s chest, saw him go down. Again.
“Oh shit,” she said. Through the sedative haze she caught a glimmer of where she was, of the situation she was in, of the dangerous chemical dripping into her, sapping her of caution, propriety, of her capacity for critical thinking. “You fucking prick,” she said, meaning the nice doctor, and eyeing the IV needle as the enemy it was.
“Feels good though,” she said. Then she ripped it out of her arm and stifled a howl as the jagged stab of pain rooted her once more in reality.
“Approaching neutral space, Captain,” Navigator Galli said. Her short black hair reflected the blue light coming from the communicator’s station, and her nose was unconventionally large. She would have been pretty except for that. Still, it made her unique. Her voice was brisk, efficient, all business. She will do well, Danny thought.
According to the daily reports, they would need supplies soon. And Danny had no clue where to start his search for Jo Taylor. A space station or a trading post or a planet with a sizable population would allow them to restock, and would afford him an opportunity to seek out some intelligence. “Mr. Galli, find us a place to restock. Preferably a place that gets a good deal of traffic.”
“Mr. Foulon, in my ready room.” Danny rose and headed for the door to the side of the bridge.
Ernst Foulon’s eyebrows rose, but he got up and followed the Captain. When the door slid shut behind them, Danny waved him toward a chair and put two glasses on the table. He reached for the scotch.
“On duty, sir?”
“We’re going to drink, not get drunk.”
Foulon smiled. “I’ve heard you bend the rules a bit.”
“But I never break them.” Danny returned the smile. Foulon’s scar was unsettling. It would take some getting used to. It made him appear angry even when he wasn’t. “I bet you’re wondering what we’re up to.”
“The thought has crossed my mind. I want to support our mission, of course, but…”
“But it would help if you knew what that mission was.”
Danny poured two fingers in each glass. “What do you think of Mr. Lo?”
Foulon cocked his head. “He’s a good communicator. Intuitive, quick, creative.”
“He used to be a she.”
Foulon shrugged. “I saw a duty report from…before. No loss. She wasn’t much of a looker.”
Danny laughed. Oh yes, he was going to like this guy. “It doesn’t bother you?”
“Lots of trans people in the service. It never bothered me any. Have you never served with a trans?”
“They give me the willies. Always had them transferred out.”
“Well, if you are interested in my counsel—”
“Well then, sir, I’d give Lo a chance. He’s loyal and he’ll work hard for you.”
Danny nodded. He sipped at his whiskey. Then he set the glass down and tapped at the display interface. An image of Jo came up. The one from the news site—riding the two spaceships like a rodeo cowgirl, her long black hair trailing behind her in the wind, wild triumph in her eyes.
“See this woman?”
“Yeah. Crazy bitch. Read all about Aken.”
“I used to fuck her.”
Foulon’s eyes grew wide. “No shit,” he said. “What was she like?”
Danny smiled at his informality. They’d be pals, then. Good. He needed a right-hand man he could really trust. “She liked it rough.”
“I’ll bet she did.” Ernst sipped at his whiskey. He cocked his head. “How’d she end up on the wrong side of the war?”
“Uh…we were involved in a bit of a love triangle. My best friend, Jeff.”
“Uh, you and Jeff didn’t….?” He left the sentence unfinished.
“No. It wasn’t like that. But we both liked Jo. She picked him.”
“Yeah. Then he got killed under my command. Jo blamed me.”
“Damn,” Ernst said again.
“She was convinced there was some kind of conspiracy. A cover-up. Didn’t help that the mission was top secret.”
“Ah…I see it coming.”
They sat in silence for a few moments. “It’s a pity,” Ernst said finally. “She’d have been an asset to our side.”
“She’s a fucking monster,” Danny agreed. “But…she’s not on our side. In fact, she’s a thorn in our side. We’ve got one mission and one mission alone.”
“Find her. Stop her. And send her back to Earth in a jar.”
“That’s a shame. She’s pretty. Fuckable thing like that…” Ernst said.
“She’d eat you alive, Commander.” Danny narrowed one eye. “And then she’d shit you into space.”
A hailing signal pierced the air. Danny jerked his head toward the sound. “Speak.”
“Begging your pardon, Captain,” Mr. Lo’s voice was high-pitched, agitated. “I have level one orders from Admiral Tal.”
Danny scowled. “Thank you for the alert, Mr. Lo. I’ll take it in here.”
He looked up at Foulon’s scarred face, noted the concern.
“Do you want some privacy, sir?” Foulon made to rise.
“No, sit. Whatever it is, I need my XO on board.”
“Yes sir.” He sat again.
Danny punched at the panel, and the static image of Jo was replaced by a moving holo of Admiral Tal. “Attention all Authority vessels. We have a Code Red alert. Alien hostiles are converging on Earth. We need every gun we have. Whatever your mission, whatever your orders, break off and return to Sol Station. Your planet needs you.” The holo flicked off.
“That was dramatic,” Danny said. His face was impassive.
“Sir?” Foulon began. “Should I give the order to set a course?”
Danny tapped his fingers on the glass. “There are over five hundred vessels sailing under Authority colors—more than three hundred of them are battle-class. This is not a battle-class ship.”
“What are you saying, sir?”
“I’m saying that whether we’re there isn’t going to alter the outcome one way or another.” He finished off his whiskey. “I’m saying we never got that order. I have an…well, I have an old flame to snuff out. And I mean to do it, aliens or no aliens.”
He looked up and studied his XO. For such a hard man, he was amazingly easy to read. Danny saw the uncertainty, followed by confusion, followed by a moment of panic. Then he saw the resolve settle in. Danny raised an eyebrow. Was he going to like this resolve, or was there a bug that needed squashing? The truth was, he didn’t care either way. Either way, there was fun to be had.
“I’m your man, Captain,” Foulon said. “If you say we didn’t get this, we didn’t get this.”
Danny grinned. “Tell Mr. Lo that due to the sensitive nature of the message we just received, we will no longer be sending or receiving messages from Sol or any other command station. We’ll be running dark from here on out.”
Jeff settled into his command chair and looked at the expanse of stars before him on the view screen. The Annabel Lee was at a complete standstill. The space around him was dead quiet. Except for his own breathing and the occasional blinking of lights, all was still.
He knew it was an illusion. He knew that every point of light he saw, every star in the universe was a roiling furnace of unimaginable violence and fury. But here, all seemed serene. He sank into that serenity and closed his eyes.
For a moment, it felt like he was falling. There was a bottom, a ground within himself, and he found it. He rooted himself in it. But he was tempted to stay there.
It was, after all, peaceful there. It was safe. It was even pleasurable. He had never been much of a meditator—hadn’t seen the point. But he understood this. There was a peace in silence, in stillness, in the depths of his own being that he had not given its proper due. He regretted that now. But at least he had discovered it.
He hesitated to step away from that center. He remembered what had happened the last time he had willingly done so. He had become an unwitting avatar of Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. He, personally, had been responsible for snuffing out the light of every being on every world in an entire universe. Truly, he was the Lord of Death.
He shuddered at the thought of it. Back on Sol Station he had struggled with the guilt and shame of it like he had never struggled before. He coped now mostly by not thinking about it, by drowning it in a single-minded drive for…for what? For what he was about to do.
For this, he had betrayed his friends. For this, he had sold Jennings to the justice system, such as it was. For this mystery he was abandoning his duty. And for what? What was it really? He didn’t know. A hunch.
He breathed, feeling the air fill his lungs, then letting it go. He was about to step off of the brink again, fully aware of the consequences of his actions, the potential for even greater destruction. He hated himself for it, yet he felt compelled. He hated himself for that, too.
He gripped at the arms of his command chair. What would Emma tell him if she were here? He felt another wave of regret at the thought of her, yet she more than anyone—perhaps in this world or any other—understood the risks. She would say, “You’re not trying to move a starship. You’re not trying to move anything. You’re just…looking.”
There was a name for what he was doing. Remote viewing. He remembered, in some dusty corner of his military training, hearing of spies in earlier centuries using their alleged psychic abilities to remotely see what the enemy was doing. But the difference between what I’m doing and what they’re doing, he thought, is that I can fucking do it.
He snapped his eyes closed and once again found his center of peace. Then he reached out with his mind.
He reached far. It was easier now than it had been. He thought perhaps he would be out of practice, but no. It was like muscle memory. It was almost too easy. He felt his consciousness reach out to the furthest limits of this universe, saw the outermost stars surging toward the void in every direction, toward No Thing, toward space that is not space, that doesn’t conceptually exist until something, anything, is there.
He knew it all, with himself at the lopsided center of it. He felt every creature’s existence, their joy, their struggle, their sorrow, their births and deaths, all of it at once. He could disentangle the mass of emotions and experience of each one individually if he wanted to, but he kept his focus diffuse, general, a massive soup of sensation.
Then, as if his mind were a bullet fired into the sky, it reached as far as it could go, froze in midair as gravity overwhelmed velocity, and began its descent. He shifted from the general to the particular.
He was tempted to check in on Jo, on Emma, on Nira, even on Danny—but he dismissed the thought. Yes, he could spend all day spying on his friends and enemies. It would be a satisfying, if slimy way to pass his time. But he needed to maintain his objective, and he did so with military precision. He felt for the presence of the shaman…
…and he found the Prox. A shudder ran through him.
Holy shit, he thought. Where the fuck did they come from? As far as he knew, there weren’t any Prox in this universe. On the other hand, he hadn’t experimented with his…talent…since the accident. If they were in his own late, dearly departed universe, why shouldn’t they be in this one? He focused in, saw their entire horde, the hundreds of thousands of them clinging to the surface of their ships. He saw the three subspecies: the crablike soldiers, the relentless, bulky workers, the spinning, squid-like expediters. And they were headed for Sol Station.
And once they had consumed that, he knew, it was only a short hop to Earth.
He felt his pulse leap, heard the pounding in his ears, felt the rush of blood in his head. The danger in the phenomenal world matched the panic in his interior. The medieval axiom “as above, so below” had never made sense in the way it did now. With this awareness, this unity, he finally understood how all things were connected. It wasn’t academic, nor was it theory. It was experiential fact.
And the experiential fact of Earth’s imminent destruction caught him up in a tornado of cosmic urgency. He flailed inwardly, paralyzed by panic. A thousand action plans unreeled before him in his mind’s eye. And in his sinking heart he knew that not one of them was worth a damn. Every idea he could think of involved moving something large, and that, he suspected, would put an end to this reality string just as it had his own. If he tried to save this universe, he would destroy it. He wasn’t certain of much, but he was certain of that.
In the midst of his panic, he felt a pinpoint of calm. Instinctively, he moved toward it.
“There you are,” the little man said. Jeff recognized him instantly. The poncho, the weird little hat, the wise eyes, blacker than space.
He watched the shaman smile, but it was a grim smile. It was a smile that said, I’m glad to see you. You are almost too late. “Come,” he said. “Come now.”
As if holding a finger on a map and backing up, Jeff noted the position of the shaman’s consciousness in space, and with a god’s eye view, took note of what surrounded him.
He recognized the galaxy as the one he was in, the star system as not adjacent, but not far as interstellar distances were reckoned. He noted the planet, the continent, the forest, the mountain, the cave.
He knew where the shaman was.
And he knew he had a choice. He could abandon this ship and just go there. He could be there in the next heartbeat. Or he could spend the next few days getting there by starship.
He knew what he wanted to do, but he also knew the risks, and he wasn’t willing to take them. He might be the destroyer of worlds, but it was not a mantle he would assume intentionally or even willingly. No, he would go against every impulse that was relentlessly driving his gut. He would take the time. He would play it safe.
“On my way,” Jeff said aloud. His eyes snapped open. He set a course and steeled himself as the Annabelle Lee punched into superluminal space.
Jo sipped at her hot chocolate, savoring the bitter, spicy aftertaste. She looked up and called forth the image of Kali from her neural. The ancient Hindu goddess glared at her—no, she seemed to be looking past her, or maybe into her, which was unsettling. She was blue, her naked breasts full and firm. Her only clothing seemed to be a necklace made of severed heads and arms strung together, all of them dripping blood. Her right foot was crushing the corpse of a dead man—also blue, with an impressive mustache. She had four arms, each hand holding a grisly trophy—a bowl of blood, a scimitar (also dripping with blood), a severed head, and the last hand raised in greeting, or maybe blessing. Talk about a mixed message, Jo thought. But what really drew her attention was the goddess’ face—round and hard, her tongue unnaturally long, almost prehensile, hanging down past her blood-soaked chin. And on her forehead, a third eye—sideways, staring…elsewhere.
They’re calling you the Kali of Aken, Admiral Alinto had said. Jo could understand the blood on the chin part—she had noted she had blood on her chin when she took over the Eisenhower. It tends to happen when you bite off people’s thumbs, she thought. A wave of vertigo washed through her. Oh my god, I am her.
“Sir, incoming orders from Central Command.”
Jo looked up to retrieve the message. This one wasn’t from Alinto, personally, but was a more standard directive. All the protocols were in place. Still, the bogus orders had made her gun-shy and suspicious.
The order was routine—accompany a caravan of ships from New Avignon to Deseret. She looked down and tapped her fingers on her command chair, thinking. Then she rose and walked over to the communications panel. She leaned over Tash Liebert’s shoulder and noticed him stiffen. “Relax,” she said quietly in his ear. “I don’t want to alarm the others. But I want you to run two level C redundant confirmations on that order, and every other order we receive from now on. I don’t even want to see it until you have two independent confirmations from real, live beings that the order is legit. Understand?”
“So, three independent information points for each communication?” Liebert whispered.
“I know…that’s a lot of work. And if anything’s urgent, go ahead and loop me in earlier. But if it’s standard stuff…run your checks before passing it on.”
“The more classified it is, the harder—”
“I know. The classified stuff is…I’ll be able to tell. It’s the routine stuff that I’m worried about.”
“Got it, sir.”
She patted his shoulder and turned back to her command chair. As she did so, he caught the scent of the communicator. The sharp, spicy male body odor that wasn’t offensive, so much, as…she straightened her jacket and sat. It reminded her of Jeff. That connection made her flash on another. He had asked her to rescue his crew. She looked up and accessed stellar cartography. Jeff’s crew was aboard Epworth Station. She located that first and put an electronic pin in it. Then she located New Avignon and Deseret. Finally, she added a pin for their current location. She zoomed out and studied the resulting constellation.
Epworth wasn’t along any direct line, she was sorry to see. However, if they took an elliptical path to Deseret they could, conceivably make a stop there first. But why would they need to?
She stood. “I’m…going to take my break,” she announced. “Mr. Chi, you have the conn.”
“Aye sir,” Chi said, rising to take her place at command.
Jo strode to the lift and chewed on her lip as she traversed to Deck 11. She nodded as she passed crewmen, acknowledging their deference and smiling encouragingly. She loved this part of her job—and hated it. She had to be “on” at all times when about the ship, and if there was anything bothering her, she couldn’t let it show, for the sake of morale. It was often exhausting.
Fortunately there were people she could be real with. She entered the boatswain’s office and noted everyone snapping to attention at the sight of her. Her presence here was unusual, and the supply crew was not prepared. “As you were,” she commanded them. She stepped to the counter, behind which a young ensign almost cowered, his eyes growing huge at her approach.
“Ensign, is there a problem?”
“Is he in?”
“Palamar. Is he in?”
“Uh…yeah, he’s in. He might be…” He didn’t want to say.
“Asleep?” Jo asked.
“Do you mind?” She indicated the counter with her chin.
The young ensign’s hands shook as he swung the counter up, allowing her to pass through. She didn’t say another word to him, but strode to the door of Palamar’s office. She entered her master code and it slid open.
Palamar was inside, snoring on a cot. She stepped in and went to the wall synthesizer. Ordering up a cup of water, she grabbed it and stepped to the sleeping old man. She poured it over his head.
Palamar woke with a start. He spluttered and wiped his face, emitting a howl of protest. Then he recognized her. “Jo. Shit. You scared the hell out of me.”
“You’re supposed to call me Captain.”
“Fuck that. Uh…it’s always good to see you…but I usually don’t end up wet. So what’s up, Sunshine?”
“I need some advice,” she said. “I need privacy.”
He shrugged. “You got it.” He rose and went to a wall panel. He opened it up and located a grouped plug with his thick fingers. He tugged it out and left it hanging from its wires. He pointed to the camera in the corner. The omnipresent red light beside the lens was gone.
Given the ease with which he had performed this maneuver, she wondered just how many “private” conversations he had had over the years, how many times he had removed that particular plug, and what kind of deals had been made with no one the wiser. She decided not to think about it.
“I had them all routed into this one plug. It’s out, so we’re completely offline.”
Jo jerked at the thought. “Disconnect,” she said. She looked up to access her neural.
“No, don’t,” he said. “It’s suspicious. Run a diagnostic instead. Nothing goes in or out for a diagnostic, nothing is recorded, and it takes three minutes to reboot. So talk fast.”
It was a great hack, and not one she had thought of. She instigated the diagnostic, and noted he had done the same. She waited for him to look back down, then lost no time. “I don’t need advice.”
“You never do.”
“That’s not true—never mind. Listen, I need a favor. We need supplies that will take us to Epworth Station.” She winked at him.
“We do?” His eyebrows rose. “Oh. We do. Of course we do. I’ll put together a requisition. It will be marked urgent. Sorry I didn’t notice we were getting low on all these things.”
“Don’t let it happen again, Boatswain Palamar.”
“No sir. Sorry sir.” He winked at her.
Commander Foulon checked his neural to make sure he had the number right. He did. He scowled. This doesn’t look like a shop, he thought. He pushed the button on the service plate. The light flashed. Foulon bounced a couple of times on the balls of his feet. Patience was not one of his virtues.
Foulon disliked space stations. He had spent several years of his life aboard them, but their immobility grated on him. If you’re going to be in space, you want to be moving, he had said more than once. It wasn’t much of a life axiom, but it was his.
Still, for short periods of time, they were all right. They were, at least, a necessary evil. Not everyone liked the peripatetic life, he realized. Some folks liked to be rooted in a place. Planet dwellers, for instance. Some people, like him, preferred to be on the move. And folks who lived on space stations? He supposed they were somewhere in between.
He’d never considered it before, but it was a liminal kind of life—in between planet and ship, in between here and there, in between coming and going. He rarely thought this deeply, however. It made his head hurt. He blinked and focused on the door.
A voice came from the speaker on the service plate. “Who is it?”
“Terran Authority Commander Ernst Foulon. I’m here on business.”
“What sort of business?”
“Whatever…the sort of business you…do…here.” Foulon faltered. Really, he had no idea. He would feel like he was on more solid ground if it was an actual shop.
“Are you here for yourself or on Authority business?”
“I’m here on behalf of the Terran Authority Ship Horatio Nelson and her captain, Daniel Hightower.”
“Fuck…” he heard the man mutter. “The Butcher of Catskill Daniel Hightower?”
“That’s supposed to be classified.”
“Fuck me. People tell that story to their kids. It’s like Mother Fucking Goose around here.”
Foulon grinned and rocked back on his heels. He could almost smell the gears burning in the man’s head as they churned. He leaned in to the service plate and whispered. “You don’t want to keep the Butcher waiting, do you?”
“How do I know you are—”
“I’m sending my creds now.” Foulon looked up, accessed his neural, and forwarded his credentials to the address he was standing at.
A moment later he heard, “Fuck me.”
“It’s easier to talk without a door between us,” Foulon suggested. “Easier to do business, too.”
A moment later the door slid open. Foulon stepped in. It took a moment to get his bearings. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting. He supposed, if it wasn’t a shop, it would be an industrial space. But it wasn’t. It was a domicile. It was a rough domicile, short on aesthetics, but it was roomy. It was also strange. There were ramps here and there, leading to different levels, some of them non-permanent, like risers. He blinked, unsure of what he was seeing. There was also a large hoisting robot, the kind you saw in warehouses, dormant in a corner.
A whine pierced the air, and Foulon jerked his head toward the sound. A hover chair glided into view. “Sorry, I was in the loo.”
The man who lives here is an invalid, he thought. He purposely used the out-of-date, disrespectful term for the differently-abled. It was closer to how he felt. Nevertheless, the notion that he needed something useful that such a man could provide did not strike him as odd. Unfair perhaps, unjust, but not odd.
“Shit. You are from the Authority.”
“Are you Tavin Neeks?”
“At your service.”
“What is this place?”
“You mean the space station? Drona Station. You didn’t notice the constant stink of curry?”
“No, I mean this place?” Foulon waved around.
“What happened to your face?”
“I usually answer that question with a demonstration,” Foulon sneered. “Care to participate?”
Neeks visibly gulped. If the man had been able to stand, he would have come up to Foulon’s shoulder. As it was, however, there was no way he was leaving that chair. His body was twisted, his muscles thin and atrophied. His hands waved in front of him, but his fingers were misshapen, and they looked as if they were no longer prehensile, if they ever had been. A tube was permanently fixed to the man’s throat, the other end attached to the inner workings of the chair, no doubt. Foulon couldn’t guess what it was for.
The little twisted man chose to answer the original question. “This is my home. It’s also where I work.”
“What do you sell here?” Foulon was determined to sort out his confusion.
“I don’t sell anything here, you—” the man caught himself. What was he about to say, —you dolt? Probably, or something very like it. Foulon let it pass. He believed he was a generous man at heart. “I’m an accountant.”
“Oh.” Foulon blinked. Well, that made sense. It was a good job for a man of…limited mobility. He didn’t need a shop, it was all data anyway. Foulon nodded. It made sense. He could proceed. “We need some information.”
“What kind of information? And why me?”
“You work for Aerospace Partners Limited?”
“Nobody has called it that for a century. APL, it’s just APL.”
“The articles of incorporation—”
Neeks waved his objection away. “Yes, I work for them. Jesus.”
As in, Jesus what an idiot? Probably.
“We know that,” Foulon said. “We’re not idiots.”
The two men held each others’ eyes for a tense moment. Foulon’s eyes narrowed, as much as his scar would allow.
“Why don’t you get that fixed?” Neeks pointed to his own face.
“Why don’t you get that fixed?” Foulon pointed to him, to his chair, to his condition.
They both stared at one another until Neeks looked away. “What the fuck do you want to know?”
“All starships burn thorium—”
“All C-drives burn thorium,” Neeks corrected him. “Not all starships have C-drives.”
“All starships that hope to travel anywhere in the lifetime of their crew burn thorium,” Foulon said, an edge creeping into his voice.
Neeks waved his assent with a gnarled hand.
“Commercial-grade thorium is only produced in the neutral zone by APL.”
“That’s not a law or anything—”
“It’s just a fact,” Foulon said. Neeks waved his assent again. Foulon was getting tired of the cripple’s bullshit.
“I want to know who bought thorium and where.”
“What? In the whole neutral zone?”
Foulon watched Neeks’ eyes roll. “Do you have a time frame?”
“In the past month.”
“Oh, well thank God you have some parameters.”
Foulon was not fond of sarcasm. In the past, before he had achieved his rank, he had often been the object of it, and just as often missed it while it was happening. People rarely insulted him twice. He clued in to the sarcasm this time, however.
“Some sales will be under the table, you know.”
“The one I’m looking for won’t be.”
“And which one are you looking for?”
Foulon grinned. It was an ugly, wicked-looking grin. He knew that and used it to good effect. “That is classified.”
“Ah.” Neeks chewed on his lip. “You know it’s illegal for me to give you information like that, don’t you?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Well, it’s against company regulation.”
Foulon shook his head. “Not my concern.”
“I could lose my job.”
Foulon shrugged. “Not my concern.”
Foulon noticed a normal chair. He retrieved it and sat it down near the hover chair. He rested his elbows on his knees. Even sitting, he towered over the invalid. “Besides, who needs to know? We’re not going to tell anyone. We just want to know what we want to know, and we’ll delete the file after we get what we need. We promise.”
He could see Neeks wrestling internally. He knew what was going through the little twisted man’s mind. He was wondering what would happen if he said “no.” Foulon decided to show him. He rose and strode the short steps to the man’s chair. He saw the cripple’s eyes widen, and his squeaky voice begin to protest.
Foulon ignored him, and took the tube running from the man’s throat to the bowels of his chair between his thumb and forefinger. He pressed the tube together, collapsing it momentarily. “Just out of curiosity,” Foulon said, “What happens if I do this?” He pressed it again, and held it there.
The squeaking emitting from the little man rose in pitch. The twisted body began to squirm. Foulon’s face was unreadable, as if he were shaving or scanning a news feed. The chair began to rock as the little body bucked against it. Must be oxygen, Foulon thought. Good to know.
He released the tube, and the twisted little man gulped greedily at the air, now restored to his use. His eyes remained huge, however, as was his air of disdain. Foulon appreciated that. “Where were we?” he asked. Then he answered himself. “Ah yes, we want a comma-delimited-file. Every thorium fuel sale in neutral space in the past thirty days. From every vendor that stocks your product.” Foulon smiled patiently.
Neeks was still hyperventilating. His eyes narrowed in hate. “It will cost you.”
Foulon sighed. He picked up the tube again. Then he put it down again and patted the twisted man on his chest. “How much?”
Neeks’ eyes flitted back and forth. “Fifty thousand.”
Foulon had been authorized to offer twice that, but the little man didn’t need to know. “Done. Would you like that transferred to your commercial account, personal account, or perhaps…a private account?”
“I’ll give you a number.”
Foulon looked up to access his neural. “I’m ready.”
Neeks rattled off a string of numbers. Foulon entered them, then engaged the transfer. He looked down and watched the little man’s eyes roll up into his head as he checked his own account. He looked back down. “Okay, this will take some time.”
“How much time?”
“I don’t…okay, I do know. Thorium is a Schedule B substance in most jurisdictions—even in most micro-jurisdictions in neutral space—and all sales are tracked as a matter of course. I run a report every seven days. It takes two hours to compile. It’ll be a big file.”
Foulon looked up at his neural to note the time. Two hours was enough time for a drink and a fuck at the local cathouse. He felt his pulse quicken at the thought of it. But he also smelled foul play. He would leave and come back and there would be no sign of the little man. “That’ll be fine. I’ll sit right here while you work. But I’ll take some whiskey, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t have whiskey.”
“You can order out. And Neeks,” Foulon leaned in so that his scarred nose was almost touching the cripple’s own. “Don’t fuck with me—or there isn’t a hover chair in the universe that can spoon you up and carry you around. Got it?”
Emma paced in the corridor. The door to the council chamber was closed. In the entire time she had spent in the hive, it was the only door she had seen, so the fact that it was closed seemed especially significant. Inside, Amberline was addressing the Alverian rulers—she did not understand how the Alverian government was organized, but anyone watching Amberline bow and defer to them could tell which ones were in charge—and the topic of conversation was how Emma could best serve the hive.
She thought back on the tasks she had seen the Alverians working on as she passed through the main chamber. There had been groups of Alverians washing fabric, though Emma was unsure what it was for since, except for Amberline, she hadn’t seen anyone wearing much that counted as clothing. She’d seen food being prepared—her stomach gurgled at the thought. It had been hours since she’d last eaten, and she was apprehensive both about how long it was going to be before she was offered food, and what that food was going to be. Clearly, she was going to be unsuitable for most of the work the Alverians needed done. She didn’t know the language, anything about the culture, and she was missing a pair of limbs. Even the “chair” they had provided for her to sit on while she waited was a bad fit, something more like a stationary bicycle with no wheels than anything a human would sit on. But then, it wasn’t made for a human.
She was suddenly annoyed that the Alverian language was primarily gestural. If it were a meeting of humans on the other side of the door, she’d at least be able to tell if someone was shouting. Even the cuneiform-like markings on the door mocked her. She hated not understanding what was going on around her. It was a big part of why she became a scientist in the first place.
She checked her neural. It was still offline, but it wasn’t because she was locked out; there wasn’t even an indication that there was any network to connect to. The greatest miracle of human technology, the ability to link the brain directly to computer networks, allowing effortless access to the sum total of knowledge or any other person anywhere in the galaxy, all reduced to a very expensive surgically implanted clock. And the clock told her that she had been waiting in the hallway for more than an hour.
Emma was standing directly in front of the door when it swung open, startling her. She leapt to the side as Amberline stepped out, closing the door behind her.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” She expected Amberline to miss the reference.
Much to her surprise, the mask replied, “We have, your honor,” as Amberline started down the corridor.
Emma trotted alongside. “So what’s it to be? Garbage collector? Fish skinner?”
“First things first.” Amberline said nothing more, merely leading Emma though a confusing network of tunnels.
Emma tried to makes sense of the signs at each junction, but the symbols remained as alien to her as the Alverians themselves. After what felt like a hundred random turns, she began to wonder if Amberline was lost, but just before she could say anything, the alien stopped and entered a room. Emma followed her into what appeared to be some kind of equipment locker, with floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with arcane devices of unknown function. No! There was a device she recognized—a false human face mask, nearly identical to the one Amberline wore.
Amberline searched the shelves until she found what she was looking for and picked it up, carrying it over to Emma. “I believe this will be compatible…” She held it up to Emma’s chest. It was a prosthesis, a fake set of the Alverian’s smaller arms. “Please hold this here.” Emma held the base plate of the arms while Amberline fastened and adjusted the straps around the back of her neck and around her waist. When she was done, she pressed a button on the base, and a small red light came on. She stood back and watched as the arms activated and assumed a neutral posture.
“Wow,” Emma said. “How do they work?”
“You should find a device on your neural now.”
And she did. Her neural indicated a device ready for pairing. She activated it, but nothing happened. “Nothing’s happening.”
Amberline nodded. “It may take a while for you to gain control of them. It would be instinctive for an Alverian. We have these sub-arms from the day we hatch. These are made for one of us who has lost their sub-arms in an accident.”
“I thought someone who couldn’t serve the hive was put to death.”
Emma was surprised by the level of offense the fake mouth was able to muster. “Not if there is a way to overcome the reasons someone cannot serve. We aren’t monsters.”
Emma smiled and resisted the urge to tell her that they certainly looked like monsters. “No, of course, I apologize.”
Amberline bowed and made a pose with all four arms that Emma interpreted as acceptance of the apology. Emma returned the bow and made the same gesture, the sub-arms moving in a sloppy semblance of what she imagined.
“Good!” Amberline shouted. “But the right sub-arm should be higher, with the hand pointed more to the right.” She gently guided the artificial hand to the correct posture. “The way you had it implies that the acceptance is insincere, and that you are mocking the one apologizing.”
Emma laughed. “We call that sarcasm.”
The mask smiled. “Of course humans would have a word for that.”
Amberline gestured for Emma to follow and left the room.
“Hey,” Emma said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you—where is the neural network?”
“There is no neural network in the hive.”
“Really? But you have a neural…”
“I have to have a neural as part of my function. I need to use this prosthesis,” she gestured at the mask, “and I need to interact with the humans in their own world. A neural was absolutely necessary.”
“Nobody else has them?”
“Very few. Our brain is not well suited to the surgery. More often than not, the subject does not survive the surgery.”
Emma’s mouth dropped open. “You took that risk?”
Amberline shrugged. “The hive required a... what was your word? An envoy? The hive needed an envoy to interact with humans.”
“And you answered the call.”
“We always answer the call of the hive.”
Emma shook her head. “Even though you might die?”
“I was the fourth to attempt the surgery. I was the first to survive. That is how I came to my function.”
Emma fell silent, flexing the false arms as they walked. They moved, but not reliably, and with no coordination. “It’s going to take a while for me to get the hang of these.”
“Yes. It will take you a lot of practice to develop enough competency with the prosthesis to speak our language.”
“Oh, for sure. Wait, what?” Emma followed Amberline through an archway into a room crawling with miniature Alverians, some not much more than a foot tall, their chitinous shells nearly translucent. Two adult Alverians stood in front of a large video screen at the front of the room. Emma looked around and instantly realized what she was looking at. Kindergarten. “Oh, no, wait a minute... Amberline, can I have a word with you outside?” Emma stormed out into the tunnel.
Amberline followed momentarily. “Is there a problem?”
“You’re sending me to primary school? I’m a scientist! I have three master’s degrees in physics, two in advanced trans-dimensional theory, and one in quantum seismology! I’m published, for god’s sake…”
Amberline shook her head slowly. “And none of that is of any use if you cannot tell anyone about it.”
“I can tell you about it!”
“I cannot serve as your translator. I have other work to do, and the hive requires that I return to it.”
Emma worked her mouth, but she couldn’t find a rebuttal.
Amberline continued, “As I said, if someone cannot serve the hive, we do whatever is needed to overcome the difficulty.”
“Right,” Emma said, smiling and nodding. “You’re not monsters.”
Nira stood and discovered her legs were rubbery and unreliable. She stumbled toward the door and fell, hitting her right elbow on the floor. Bolts of pain lit up her brain, clearing it of much of its fogginess. She rolled on the ground, cradling her elbow with her left hand, stifling a groan of pain. Fine. I’ll crawl, she thought. Blocking out the throbbing from her arm, she turned onto all fours and scuttled toward the door. This might actually be a good thing. They won’t be looking down, she thought, then realized this was ridiculous. The only thing more glaringly obvious than a person stumbling around in pajamas was a person crawling in pajamas.
This is not a good plan, she told herself. Fuck. This isn’t even a plan.
She scuttled to the door and hugged the wall, thinking. I need a place to recover, to wait until my head clears. What was wrong with the chair? It was exactly where people expected her to be—she wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. She’d need to fix up the IV so that it looked like it was still attached. She could do that. She’d give it a half hour or so, and then she’d try again. Play the long game, she instructed herself. Don’t be impulsive. Easier said than done. Still…it was the beginnings of a plan.
She crawled back to the chair, climbed into it, and was relieved to see the tape that held the catheter was still sticky enough to adhere to her skin. She pressed it, smoothed it, and then sat back and clawed through the cobwebs still sticking to bits of her brain. Once she got up, then what? She’d go to the door. I’ll be seen, she thought. She didn’t know the layout of the clinic. She didn’t know where the exit was. I’m wearing pajamas, she reminded herself.
The doctor had said she could choose other clothes. Surely he wouldn’t be the one helping her with that, would he? No. He was a doctor. So who would? Patient Services. Was that even a thing? she wondered. One way to find out.
“Computer,” she said with a voice of command. “I want to pick out new clothes. Can you connect me with…Patient Services?”
It took a moment. Then she heard a soothing voice, speaking in an accent she couldn’t quite identify. “The duties of Patient Services were assigned to Patient Care three years ago. Shall I put you in touch with Patient Care?”
“Yes, please,” Nira said, her eyebrows rising.
“Patient Care,” said another computerized voice. “Please tell me about your need. Use complete sentences and spell your name.”
“Commander Camil Nira,” she said. She spelled her name. She might not, technically, be a commander in any military branch recognized by this universe, but she sure as hell was not going to surrender her rank or her identity.
“Do you know what kind of clothes you want?”
“Uh…no. Is there a catalog?”
The air in front of her shimmered, and beautiful models wearing bland hospital gear began to circle in front of her eyes.
“Uh…you know what? It’s hard to get a good sense of what these really look like—”
“Shall I adjust the resolution?”
“No, no, I…could you just send someone with a few of the most popular for me to choose from. I…well, I prefer people to computers. No offense.”
“None taken!” The computer chirped. “I’ll send someone by in about fifteen minutes.”
“That would be perfect. Thank you.”
“You just sit tight, Camil. Would you like to enjoy some relaxing music while you wait?”
“Sure. What the hell?”
“Would you like to hear ‘What the Hell’ by the medulla trance group Apnia Collective or the ‘What the Hell Suite’ by minimalist composer Hishashito Stewart?”
“Uh…neither. How about Mozart’s Requiem?”
“I have that right here. Enjoy.”
“Thank you. You’re…very pleasant to talk to.”
“Would you like me to keep you company until your Care Specialist arrives?”
“Uh…no, that’s okay. Thank you, though.”
“I’ll just be standing by. You let me know.”
Nira had met friendly AI’s before, but this one seemed special. She genuinely liked it. Of course she knew that there was no one to like. But the experience had been pleasant. She shook her head to clear it of distractions. Focus, she told herself. The cobwebs were receding, and she needed to take advantage of that.
She thought furiously, making plans and contingency plans. She’d only have one shot, and since she didn’t really know her circumstances… It was a long shot, she knew.
The swish of the door sliding open broke her reverie. Can I stand now? she wondered. I fucking better.
“Hi there!” A chipper young woman in her early twenties crossed the room and stood in front of Nira’s chair. Her long dark hair hung behind her in a pony tail, and her uniform fit her in a baggy way that did her no favors. “I’m Tish. I’ll be your Care Specialist today. I understand you wanted to see some clinic wear options.”
“Yes,” Nira said, forcing a smile. She’s too damn perky, Nira thought. I will have to kill her.
“I brought five”—she held up one hand so Nira could see five fingers, and she spoke loudly, just in case Nira was deaf, apparently—“so you’ll have the best selection of our best designs. Sound okay?”
Tish placed a tote bag with a navy blue Epworth Wesleyan Clinic logo on it on the counter near where the doctor had been sitting. From it she pulled a short stack of options, each individually wrapped in poly. She pulled the poly off the top one and allowed it to cascade dramatically before her. It was a sand-colored set of scrubs. Tish held the shirt up against her own torso, holding it at the shoulders, which she moved back and forth in a silly approximation of a model on a catwalk.
She held up the trousers briefly, did a weird little curtsy, and then opened the second bag.
And so it went, for five bags. By the end of it, Nira found that she hated Tish’s ponytailed guts.
“I like the first one,” Nira said.
“The sand scrubs?”
“A lot of people do. It feels the most ‘normal,’ and then there’s the whole ‘When in Rome,’ thing.”
“When in Rome?”
“You are in a clinic, so why not dress like the staff?” She indicated her own scrubs—light blue string-tie trousers and a white top.
“Right, that’s what I was thinking.” Nira smiled. “I’m a little woozy, so can you help me out of this?”
“Uh…I’m not sure you should stand.”
“I’ll be okay. The drip ended a while ago.”
She brightened. “Okay. Let me just get this for you.” She disconnected the IV line from a port close to Nira’s wrist so she could get her arms out of her shirt.
Nira stood. I am still a little wobbly, she thought. But it’ll have to do. She rested one hand on the arm of the chair and gave Tish a smile that said please be patient with me.
Tish nodded encouragingly, raising her arms, ready to snag Nira’s shirt as soon as she was ready.
“Uh…could I have a little privacy, please?”
“Oh, I thought you wanted help,” Tish said, her voice rising in surprise.
“You’re fine, but…the computer. I don’t want some assholes in Security or Patient Care jerking off to my boobs.”
“Ha!” Tish covered her mouth with her hand and gave Nira a look that said we could be girlfriends! “I love what that stuff makes people say!” She pointed to the IV.
“No, it’s totally okay. Computer, privacy mode, please.”
“Privacy mode engaged. Please say ‘Computer’ again to reengage.”
Tish cocked her head and readied her hands to pull Nira’s shirt over her head again. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Nira said, lifting her arms. Then she twirled and struck Tish at the base of the neck. The girl crumpled and collapsed in a heap at Nira’s feet. Nira was ready and squatted quickly, making sure the girl’s head didn’t hit the floor. “Prissy bitch,” Nira said. Then Nira started to undress her.
It was an accident of orbit. Sol Station kept an orbit around the sun midway between Mars and Jupiter. It was the jumping off-point between the home planet and the rest of space. It just so happened that the Prox’s approach would encounter Sol Station first—thirteen months from now, at the other end of their elliptical orbit, that would not have been the case.
But it was the case, and Admiral Tal was grateful. It was not as if Earth had no defenses. They had plenty. But if they could stop these bastards here, there would be no reason to test those defenses. And those defenses paled beside the staggering might now amassing for battle.
Tal leaned over and put his hands on his desk, his broad nose almost touching the edge of the holo display. He had adjusted the display to be as wide as possible, and indeed, the projection ran the whole length of his formidable desk, hovering and shimmering above it.
His eyes darted back and forth, checking the position and readiness of each ship under his command.
He had seen his share of battles before, but even the largest of them had paled in comparison to this. Every ship in the fleet had been recalled. And they had all come…except for one. Tal tried to put it out of his mind, but he felt a painful stab in his gut every time he thought about Hightower. The man wasn’t a traitor, exactly. He just wasn’t obedient, and that was a fatal flaw in a military man. As fatal flaws went, Hightower had a whole complement.
He looked to the right to check the summaries—a column of tabulations collating the sum of the many statistics being displayed. He had a total of 314 ships, 65 of them battle-class, with over 150,000 personnel on board. All of them were armed to the teeth with a total of 6,441 repeating particle cannons and 12,679 nuclear torpedoes. They all had lasers as well, over 6,000 of them, but Tal wasn’t putting much stock in those.
They had laid mines, out among the asteroid belt, with photogenaic trip-wires between them. They’d be harmless to any Authority—or hell, any human or allied ship with the proper code. But if anything didn’t send the proper handshake, it’d be in for a rough ride. Tal didn’t know of a single ship in existence that could weather the beating those mines could dish out. Thank God we had enough time to lay them, he thought. If they held, he wouldn’t need to lose a single ship, even a single man.
He straightened up. He turned toward Lieutenant Liu and gave him a grave smile. “Now it’s just the waiting.”
“We’ve done everything we could do, sir.” He didn’t say, Let’s hope it’s enough, but it was implied.
“No, we didn’t.” Tal looked at his shoes. They were real leather, made by hand. He knew that was eccentric, but he didn’t care. Every other pair of shoes he’d ever had on his feet hurt. But he could stand in these shoes all goddam day and he felt like a million chits. They were imported from Argentina and cost enough to make a midshipman gasp. Tal wasn’t married. He didn’t have a life apart from the service, not really. His shoes were one of the only indulgences he allowed himself.
“What do you mean, sir?” Liu cocked his head.
“I mean we could have asked for a truce with the rebels. We could have asked them to stand alongside us. We could have doubled our numbers here, if we…” he trailed off.
“If the civilian leadership would have allowed it.”
“Hell, I’m not sure I could have rammed it through the military authorities. But we should have tried. It might have…I don’t know, shifted things.”
“‘Enemies who fight shoulder to shoulder emerge from battle friends,’” Liu quoted.
“You dabble in that religion?”
“No sir. But I’ve read pretty widely on it. It’s…pretty wise, I think.”
“You and half a million human converts.”
“There’s a lot more people who admire their philosophy that aren’t believers.”
Tal grunted. “Your quote is apt. I think there was an opening there. We didn’t take it.”
“Did you try?”
Tal looked up at his assistant. It wasn’t an accusation; it was a sincere question.
“I floated the idea. Burned a lot of good will, I’m sure. It was shot down. As I knew it would be.”
“A part of me thinks that’s a shame.”
“And the other part?”
“Understands why it was shot down.”
Tal grimaced, but nodded sadly.
Liu looked up suddenly, and Tal knew the moment had arrived. “Estimated time of contact with the enemy is less than an hour away, Admiral. They’re calling for you in Battle Command.”
Tal straightened up and adjusted his uniform jacket over his sizable midsection, the orange piping popping into place. He gave a curt nod and headed for the door.
It slid open and he strode down the frosted white corridor toward the command center. Liu fell into step just behind him. He held his head high and squared his shoulders, projecting more confidence than he felt. They’d need every bit of it, he feared, feigned or real.
The door to Battle Command slid open, revealing a buzzing room filled with people—hundreds of people. The noise was deafening, and he looked up and switched the dampeners on in his neural. The noise level plummeted to where he could focus comfortably. Anyone speaking to him normally would come through fine, but the ambient noise was screened out. It had been an expensive feature, and he had almost passed on it, considering it a concession to old age, but now he was grateful for it.
Massive holo displays mirrored the one he had been studying in his office, but with much greater detail. Most folks were working at small stations and everyone seemed to be talking to someone not present. Fingers flew, eyes rolled, and everyone he could see was getting ready for battle.
Some of his fellow Admirals were poo-pooing the preparations, calling it overkill. Tal had kept the vids from the Jackrabbit Sage classified, but what the Prox were capable of was no secret to his peers. Maybe it was denial, maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was sheer stupidity. But Tal saw anyone not taking this threat seriously as a problem to be dealt with every bit as much as the approaching enemy.
Tal’s eyes flitted to a task list hovering over one of the doors, feeling a rising sense of satisfaction as the items disappeared. There were only two items left when he heard a voice from behind him.
“Sir, the Prox have just entered visual scanning range.”
The air above them shimmered, and Tal looked up to get his first live glimpse of their enemy. In the back of his mind, Tal reminded himself that if they survived this, his neck was going to hurt like a motherfucker by the end of this day. He’d be craning it up for hours to see the holo displays and he could already feel the tightening muscles in his neck and shoulders. There was Morphex and a muscle relaxant in his future. If I survive, he reminded himself.
The ships looked just as they had on the Jackrabbit’s vid, only there were three of them. If each ship carried 500,000 enemy soldiers, as they had estimated based on the vid…he did the math. He had never loved numbers, but he actively hated these.
“Enemy ships are approaching the first mine field,” Liu called from behind him. Tal clutched at the faux-leather back of the chair in front of him. Every eye in the command center was glued to the displays. Tal held his breath as the first of the mines erupted, sending a billowing flash of nuclear energy across the display. “Come on, baby,” he breathed, not conscious of his own words.
As the resolution on the display adjusted to the brightness, Tal’s stomach sank into a hard knot of dread. The Prox ship had sailed right through the line of the mines. He watched the explosions, biting his cheek, and then saw the Prox ships emerge whole from the fireballs. If there had been any damage it wasn’t evident. “Holy shit,” Tal breathed. Then, with a voice of command, full of courage he did not feel, he announced, “Battle stations, all personnel. This is going to be the fight of your lives.”
Nira looked in the mirror. Tish’s uniform—the white scrubs with the light blue bottoms—hung on her. Nira was shorter than Tish. Nira was shorter than most people. She took one knee and rolled the pant legs up. They’re not going to stay up, she noted to herself; the cloth was too thin and light.
It was the best she could do. She smoothed out the top, and then noticed the blood and puncture marks from where she had ripped the IV from her arm. She spat on her hand and rubbed at it, ignoring the pain. Most of the blood came off—enough of it, anyway.
Time to get out of here, she thought. Standing as straight as she could, she forced her face into a mask of professionality. She needed to look like she belonged here. She held her head as high as she could and waved Tish’s badge in front of the doorplate. It slid open, and she stepped out into the hall.
First, she thought, I’ll circumambulate the floor to get my bearings.
The corridor was nearly deserted. Every now and then she passed a doctor or nurse, even the occasional worker. Are they visiting friends or loved ones, or are they here for outpatient treatment? she wondered. Without talking to someone, it was impossible to tell. And she was determined not to talk to anyone.
Turning a corner, she saw an elevator straight ahead. She made a beeline for it and waited for it to arrive. She looked at no one. She looked at nothing. She stared at the doors until they slid open, then she stepped on.
She was distressed to find she was not alone. There were two people already on the lift, and another stepped in behind her. She turned and faced the doors, studiously avoiding any of the faces.
Where do I go once I get out of here? she wondered. No doubt they would be monitoring her accounts. If she tried to make any purchases… Her neural. They’d be able to find her, no matter where she went. Her neural signal, so long as it was connected, would be traceable anywhere in known space.
Shit, she thought, and felt a rising spike of panic. I’ve got to get offline.
She could do it, if she had the tools—the right interface, the right computer programs. Surely, she could find others who could do it quickly and easily. Can I get to the underdecks before they notice I’m gone? She gritted her teeth. The elevator door slid open.
And there, on the ground floor, was Doctor Ram Chujan, looking impossibly young, with a full complement of security officers standing behind him. Her brain kicked into high gear. Can I take them all? she wondered. She would try. She had to try. She crouched for a spring and got hit with a poly disruptor that left her twitching and prone on the clinic floor.
Doctor Chujan knelt beside her and placed a compassionate hand on her arm. She could break that arm, if 53,000 volts of electricity hadn’t just completely derailed her nervous system. “Commander Nira, this is too much excitement for you. We need you calm for sentencing.”
Sentencing? Nira’s brain churned, stumbling and stuttering over the word. Sentencing? Shouldn’t there be a trial?
Doctor Chujan seemed to be on the same wavelength. “The security cams captured your whole…event. Security has been able to construct a complete 3D rendering of your actions. And now there is, it seems, another event—the assault of our Care Specialist, Ms. Patricia Lyon. Let us hope she is all right, or there will be more cards added to your stack.”
Doctor Chujan’s head jerked, and he looked up, accessing his neural. “Ah, sentencing is complete. Civil ritual code aboard Epworth Station requires that you be standing to receive your sentence, as you are able. Are you able?”
Nira’s thoughts raced and her pulse pounded. It was all happening so fast. Was there no due process here? Were there no lawyers? Would she not be able to present a defense? Could she not tell her side of the story? It appeared she could not. She was still twitching as two of the security guards shoved their gloved hands roughly into her armpits and yanked upwards.
They held her upright and steady, even as her knees were buckling beneath her. Doctor Chujan stepped back as a uniformed security officer stepped up, standing formally at attention, and looked up, accessing his neural and blinking as he navigated to the document he needed. His voice, when he spoke, was thin and high and reedy, completely inappropriate for the gravity of his words.
There was so much about this that was wrong, but there was no opportunity or means for her to protest any of it. “Commander Camil Nira, in the incident labeled Nira vs. Vlat, you have been judged guilty of criminal assault in the first degree and manslaughter in the first degree with extenuating circumstances. In the incident labeled Nira vs. Lyon, you have been judged guilty of criminal assault in the second degree. For these crimes you are hereby sentenced to VRE Rehab, beginning with level one, effective immediately.”
“Shit no,” she breathed. “No no no no.” But her protests meant nothing. She was not in command of her limbs, let alone her powers of persuasion, not that it would have mattered. She knew what the sentence meant, and what it entailed, and what was about to happen to her. And she would not wish it on her worst enemies. She let out a flailing attempt to break free from the officers who held her arms, her voice rising in an inarticulate siren of protest, but to no avail.
She felt the momentary sting of the hyper spray, heard the puff of air that accompanied it, and felt what little strength and will and resolve and consciousness she still possessed melt into oblivion.
After fifty-six hours of superluminal travel, The Annabelle Lee reentered normal space. Jeff had spent that time sweating over his decision, his insides grinding away in an intestinal infestation of doubt and self-recrimination. He had left off showering, and he knew he was rank, even to himself. A part of him felt he was not worth cleaning.
But he was here. He would soon be in the company of the shaman. The answers were so close he could taste them. He checked the course and the time. It would take forty minutes to reach the planet under standard propulsion. For the shaman’s sake, he would shower. He jerked upright and headed for the sonic.
As the silent sound waves beat at him, stripping away bacteria and dead skin, whipping his flesh into red, fresh wakefulness, he leaned against the wall with one hand and wished there were some analogous process for his interior scuzziness. I need a soul shower, he thought. Something that can pound away guilt.
But wishing does not make it so. He knew that. He wasn’t fine with it. He would live with it. He dressed and shaved and emerged from the head looking like a human being, even if inside he felt like something less.
He prepared for landing, and made sure the entry trajectory seemed plausible. It did. The computers were rarely wrong, but it was always worth a glance. As the landing sequence unfolded, the computer’s soothing voice kept him apprised of the various stages as they were initiated, most of which bounced off his conscious awareness. If anything had been out of the ordinary, he would have caught it, but the routine was almost unconscious by now. The computer’s voice registered about as much as his autonomic system’s commands. It was like breathing—when he tuned into it, it was somehow comforting to see that it was still happening.
He looked up and blinked, accessing whatever files he could find about this particular system and this particular planet. There wasn’t much. There were a host of indigenous species, some of them sentient, none of them self-reflective. But it was lush and wild and, from all reports, beautiful.
He set down about a click from the cave he had seen. He waited for the atmosphere check to run. The air on this planet was a little higher in argon than Earth-normal, but breathable. He scowled as he read the results. The particulate matter was far higher than the files he had read indicated. Perhaps there’s a forest fire nearby, he thought. After all, fires were natural occurrences. A lightning strike can cause one. The meteorological conditions were such that lightning was possible. It hadn’t been observed, so far as he could see, but it was possible.
He readied his weapon and inserted it in his holster. He checked the exterior temperature and adjusted the temperature setting on his field jacket—instructing it to maintain a steady 21 degrees centigrade. Satisfied that all was ready, he pushed the access button on the airlock.
As he descended the ramp, his jaw dropped.
The soil was black. He could see no living tree or bush. Turning in a full circle, he beheld an utterly desecrated landscape, charred and stinking of ash, as if it had been firebombed.
Jeff’s nostrils twitched and he scowled. The sky looked nothing like it had in the files. It was hazy and a deep, murky red. He knew that was from all the burnt particulate matter in the air. It seemed apocalyptic. It was the perfect mirror for how he had been feeling ever since he had glimpsed the Prox.
He reached into his field jacket and pulled up a face mask. The flexible fabric settled comfortably over his mouth and rested on the bridge of his nose. In seconds, the air was cleaner and he was able to breathe more easily—the tiny scrubbers in the field jacket were doing their job.
Scowling, he checked his direction on his neural and set out for the cave. There was still smoke rising from several clumps of what had no doubt recently been organic matter—trees, probably. So whatever had caused the destruction was recent. It had happened in the last twenty-four hours, he guessed. It had happened since he had seen the shaman during his last…exploration.
A vague suspicion arose within him, but he chose not to speculate. It was too easy for his imagination to run away with him, and that way led to conspiracy theories and madness. He wasn’t the scientist Emma was, but he was still a man of science. He’d speculate when he had the facts.
The terrain was crumbling and silty, and more than once he stumbled. Every now and then he passed a rock jutting out of the hellish terrain large enough to lean on and push against.
Then he saw it—as he approached a dark, ashen hill, he saw the gaping mouth of the cave. He made a beeline toward it—there was nothing left of the landscape to impede him, after all. Without hesitating, he ducked and entered the cave, switching on the electric torch set into the chest panel of his field jacket.
The place was empty. He saw bones in one corner, however, and an arrangement of what looked like straw or some other fibrous plant matter heaped together to make a rough mattress. Someone had been here, and recently.
“Goddammit,” he said out loud. The shaman was not here. Of course he wasn’t here. If he were here, he’d be dead. Was he dead? Had Jeff unwittingly just climbed over the charred remains of the little man? Who could know?
“Who did this?” Jeff asked the smoky air. “Who the fuck…”
There was no use spending any more time in the cave. Jeff walked back into its recesses, and confirmed that it did not go far back. It was empty of life, as far as he could see.
Grinding his teeth, he set out again toward the ship. The knot in his stomach tightened. It’s always something, he thought. There was always something keeping him from finding this motherfucker. One obstacle after another. If it wasn’t duty, it was distance. If it wasn’t friendship, it was fear. He wanted to scream. He stopped. Then he let it come. He squatted, and allowed the pressurized rage that had been building up in him explode, hearing himself roar like an animal for the first time. Ever. He did it again, feeling the raw power of his own voice, his own creaturely passion, his aggression toward the universe, toward fate, toward God, toward whatever cosmic powers were at play.
Spent, he stumbled to his knees. He rested for a moment, panting on all fours.
He plunged his hand into the ash, trying to find purchase to push himself up, and connected with something solid. It was curved, it had a lip, like the shell of a giant tortoise. Puzzled, Jeff lifted it from the ash. Then he dropped it in horror, leaping to his feet, struggling backward, away from the object.
It was indeed a shell—an exoskeleton, to be exact. And he knew the shape of that shell. It was shaped exactly like one of the apron plates of a soldier Prox. It could be a coincidence, his brain rattled off. Perhaps the indigenous life here is also a giant, crablike… he let the thought die. There was nothing in the files even remotely like that.
He turned in a circle, taking in the landscape anew. This wasn’t just a lightning strike. He knew that now. This was a hit. This was a gut-punch aimed directly at the shaman by…by the Prox or whomever commanded them. Snarling, he picked up the carapace and balanced it on his back. Setting his feet with resolve, he marched back toward the ship, a tiny voice in his brain still screaming with alarm.
Will Jeff find the shaman?
Will Danny succeed in murdering Jo?
Will the Prox destroy Sol Station...and Earth?
Find out in the thrilling conclusion
—get Oblivion Gambit today!
A note from the authors:
Thanks so much for reading our book—we hope you enjoyed it, and that you will continue the story in Oblivion Gambit.
And if you can, please post an honest review at whichever site you purchase books from. It doesn’t have to be long, just a sentence or two with your feelings and opinions. It helps authors so much when you leave a review, and we’d be so grateful for yours! Thank you for taking the time, and thanks for reading!
—J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
Continue the adventure in the next
thrilling novel in the Oblivion saga:
by J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
An invincible alien army is closing in on Earth. Only one broken man has any hope of stopping them. Power up your weapons, boys—this shit is about to get real.
Crossing the universe in search of a nameless Peruvian shaman, Jeff Bowers finds him…and the ability to control his own mysterious powers.
Only the destruction of the universe stopped the Prox from attacking Earth. Now, here in a new universe, another Earth is staring down the most ruthless alien army imaginable.
Only Jeff knows what’s really going on. Only he has a chance against the Prox. And as the shaman says, “If you want to kill a snake, cut off the head.”
Oblivion Gambit is the fourth and final book in the thrilling Oblivion saga. If you love Star Trek and Starship Troopers, you simply cannot pass up this adventure.
Get Oblivion Gambit today!