Book: Oblivion Gambit
The Oblivion Saga • Book Four
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
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 B.J. WEST
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Temple of Andromeda
BY J.R. MABRY & B.J. WEST
The Oblivion Saga
BY J.R. MABRY
The Berkeley Blackfriars Series
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BY J.R. MABRY & MICKEY ASTERIOU
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Summoners’ Keep • The Red Horn
You can survive on your own;
You can grow on your own,
You can prevail on your own;
But you cannot become human on your own.
[ STRING 311 ]
Is the shaman dead? Jeff wondered.
On the bridge of the Annabel Lee, Jeff stared at a scan of the carapace on the main view screen. It was covered with soot, like a gigantic, slate-gray fingernail, torn from its host and discarded. He stood and examined it from various angles, wondering about the life of the being who had grown it, worn it, died in it. A flash of inspiration—he trotted to the command chair and pulled up a panel. He did a planet-wide search for human life forms. There had been two frontier towns, one on this continent, another on an adjacent one. Was it possible that the shaman was there? As possible as anywhere, he supposed. It was much more likely, however, that Jeff had been grinding the little man’s ashes into the dust as he carried the carapace back to the ship.
There’s one way to find out, Jeff thought to himself, feeling an instant curl of dread in his gut. A part of his brain began screaming at him, Going into the All cannot be your first response whenever something happens. That way lies danger and destruction. One day you’re going to push it too far again, and you’ll have another whole universe of souls to bury.
He heard the voice. He felt the twist in his intestines. But still, he took his command seat, gripped the handsets, and closed his eyes.
He sent his consciousness out into the void, as he had done so many times. It had become easier with practice. Once again, he saw the Prox approaching Sol Station.
There’s nothing I can do about that, he thought. He knew that wasn’t true. He felt torn. He could teleport there. If the universe survived, he could ask to captain a ship. In his heart, he knew it wouldn’t stop the Prox, but he might die trying…if he didn’t kill everything and everyone else.
No…he let his awareness widen, searching out the energy matrix that was the shaman. He gritted his teeth, hoping against hope that the little man was still among the living.
He found him.
Jeff felt almost giddy with relief. He surrounded the shaman’s energy with his own, willed his consciousness to descend to where the man was.
A cluster of yurts, a ring of trees, a sky bursting with stars. “Thought you’d lost me, huh?” the little man said. There was no one else around.
Is he talking to me? Jeff wondered.
He backed up, finding the position, the constellation, the star system, the planet. It was…far. Jeff’s body whistled. He did a quick calculation. Doing an equation in his head while holding presence in the All felt a bit like juggling, but he managed it. He figured it would take him three weeks to reach the shaman’s location. How the fuck…? But he knew. Jeff was not the only person playing with fire. Prometheus had a twin.
“Come,” the little man said. “Come now.”
“It will take me three weeks to reach you,” Jeff said.
“It will take less than a heartbeat to reach me. Come.”
Jeff struggled. He could do it. He knew how to do it. He was just…afraid to do it. “I’ve already destroyed one universe.”
“You won’t destroy the universe. I’m here.”
Jeff’s brows knitted over his closed eyes. What the fuck did that mean?
“Come,” the shaman’s voice was insistent. “We’re running out of time.”
Jeff knew it was true. Even now the Prox were closing in on Sol Station. He opened his eyes and made some adjustments to the autopilot. Then he closed them again. Then he simply wasn’t there.
“I have bad news,” Mr. Liebert whispered. He had approached her captain’s chair, which was unusual to start with.
“Nobody likes to hear that, Mr. Liebert.”
“No sir. I’ve found Camil Nira.”
“Surely that’s good news.”
“She’s in prison, sir.”
“Good god.” Jo buried her head in her hand. “What for?”
“It seems that another of the crew members we’re looking for, Martin Pho, was shot in a food court. Near as I could figure, Nira acted to neutralize the threat, but too late. Did a real number on the attacker, though.”
“Shit,” Jo swore. “Now what?”
“There’s one more crew member we were searching for, Dr. Emma Stewart.”
Of course. Jeff’s girlfriend. Jo felt black clouds gathering above her. She ignored them. Duty, she reminded herself.
“She does not appear to be aboard.”
Liebert shook his head. “I have no idea. There’s no record of it, if that’s the case. She’s just…gone.”
She could have just gotten so pissed at Jeff that she took off, Jo thought. Jeff did have that effect on people. “Okay, we can’t do anything about Pho, and Stewart needs more investigation. What can we do about Nira?” Jo realized they were speaking in low, conspiratorial voices, but that in fact, everyone on the bridge could hear them. She felt momentarily ridiculous.
“I don’t know, sir,” Liebert says. “Her sentence is ten years in the Interworld.”
“My god, she’ll atrophy away to nothing. She’ll never get that muscle tone back. That’s practically a death sentence for a military person,” Jo said, thinking out loud.
Liebert did not disagree.
“What kind of pull do we have?” Jo asked.
“Yes. What kind of jurisdictional authority do we have at Epworth Station?”
“Uh, none, sir. It’s an autonomous microjurisdiction.”
“With whom we have a protection pact, do we not?”
Liebert blinked. “I…I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, someone is guaranteeing their security. If it’s not the RFC it’s the Authority.”
Liebert was apparently speechless.
“Don’t just stand there, Liebert, pull up everything we have on any agreements between the RFC and Epworth Station.”
“Do you have an idea, sir?” Liebert asked.
Of course I do, she thought, but she just gave him a hard stare.
“Right away, sir.”
“Hey, babe. Wanna play?” The guy was handsome, a little too handsome. He twirled his pool stick and posed with it at a suggestive angle.
Nira shook her head and turned back to her drink. I wonder what he really looks like? she wondered. He’s probably a little troll, ugly as a pug, with BO and long wisps of single hairs combed over his bald pate. But he’d picked out a nice avatar, that was for sure.
She didn’t get to pick her avatar. It was assigned to her. And it looked like her—kind of. She still had long black hair, now permanently hanging behind her in a pony tail. She was still lithe and athletic. But she was taller, which she didn’t mind at all. What did bug her was that her avatar wasn’t very Latina, it was more generically ethnic. Her skin was a soft brown, which she quite liked—darker than her real skin, and it suited her. But her facial features were just off enough to make looking in the mirror difficult.
Another guy sat down next to her and ordered a beer. He placed his elbows on the bar and glanced over at her. She caught his eye and gave a quick nod. He nodded back. Once more she wondered what he really looked like. Like everyone else here, his avatar was nondescript—handsome, 20s-normative, completely lacking in dandruff or body odor or bed hair.
She took a sip. She knew that every time she did, a tiny amount of ethanol was released into her IV. She could try to get drunk, but at a certain point, the drip would cease. She could drink all fucking night, but she’d get a little tipsy and no more. In some ways that was a relief. In others it was a pain in the ass.
Her own body, she knew, was in a hibernator, hooked up to a snake’s nest of tubing. Tubes to feed air to her lungs, tubes to carry nutrients to her stomach, tubes to carry her piss and shit off to where it could do someone some good. Her mind could amuse itself to death—within limits—while her body atrophied a little bit more every day. She imagined she could even feel it, but it was probably her imagination. There was a mild ghosting effect between her actual body and her avatar, and it was unsettling at first. It was a bit like riding a bicycle—you got the hang of it, and then you just didn’t think about it. Unless you did.
“You’re new,” the guy said.
“You live here?” She narrowed one eye at him.
“Nah. I keep a condo, though.”
She nodded. A lot of folks did. Aboard a space station like Epworth, where real estate was valuable, it was cheaper to rent a coffin pod in the real world and rent a spacious Interworld apartment for your off-hours. It wasn’t a thing that military people did, but she knew lots of folks made their meager paychecks go a little further that way.
“You live here?” he asked her.
She knew what he meant. Was she a cripple, a prisoner, or a freak? She held up her right hand so he could see the red band around her wrist.
“Wow, okay. Now I am intrigued.” He grinned. “I like dangerous girls. What did you do?”
“A hulking Numerian put a blaster hole through the chest of…someone in my care.” She swirled the beer in her glass and took a sip. “So I tripped him. Then I crushed his windpipe with my elbow.” She glanced up. Even his avatar’s eyes were wide. She leaned in so that their noses were almost touching. “Boo!” she said with a sudden jerk.
If he had been there in the flesh, she hoped he would have jumped a bit. But as it was, he turned back to the bar and downed his beer. “I…uh…gotta be somewhere,” he said.
She pursed what passed for lips as she watched him walk away. She turned back to her beer and caught the bartender’s eye. She raised her glass and he nodded.
It wasn’t the end of the world, being in the Interworld. She wasn’t in pain. She could move about freely—mostly. There were premium areas off limits to her, but she could go anywhere the standard package allowed, compliments of Epworth Security. Meanwhile, her every move was monitored, studied, quantified. Most importantly, she couldn’t get into any real trouble here. Her neural worked, but it was firewalled—she could only access information pertinent to the Interworld. She could access the feeds. She could find out about the real world, but she couldn’t manipulate anything there.
They’d started housing criminals in the Interworld about fifty years ago. It was cheaper, it was safer, and it was deemed more humane. The ratio of criminals to the general public was about the same, except that here nothing was truly private and you couldn’t actually hurt anyone—not physically, anyway. You could still break someone’s heart. It was, she realized, an enticing pastime.
She had to admit, being able to roam freely in the Interworld beat the hell out of being locked in a prison cell, but the torture was the same—the inability to get to anyone or do anything you cared about. Sure, lots of people got jobs. She could do that. She could make money, too. And maybe, after enough time, when despair had softened her will into a desperate pool of resignation, she would.
She knocked back the rest of her beer and signaled for a new one. Before it arrived the pool player took the stool next to her and leaned in a little too close. “Wanna get a room?” he asked.
She scowled at him. “You’re barking up the wrong sexual orientation.”
She scooted her stool back, re-establishing a comfortable amount of personal space.
He scooted over, closing the distance again. “I don’t think you’ll be disappoint—”
Grabbing his right arm in her left hand, she swung it like a lever behind his back. With her right hand, she guided his head to the bar—forcefully. The VR provided a very satisfying “cracking” sound as his head hit the virtual wood. She knew she couldn’t actually hurt him, but she could surprise him, and that was almost as good. “Sorry to disappoint you, asshole. But you’re going to back off, or I’m going to kick your ass from here to Sol Station.” It was the only real landmark she could be sure of, but the threat seemed to do the trick.
“I’m going to let you go now, and you’re going to slink off into whatever sleazy hole you like to call your nest—and let me be very clear about this—you’re going to go there alone.”
She released him, but she was ready. He lunged at her and she punched him in the gut. He doubled over, winded and writhing on the ground. Nira wondered how much of that reaction was VR simulation and how much pain he was actually feeling.
Whichever it was, he slunk away as ordered. She turned back to the bar where a new beer was waiting for her.
“On the house,” the barkeep said.
She’d lost her interest in it. She felt disgust—for the moron who’d tried to come onto her and for herself. She accessed her neural and paid. The barman looked up and back down again, nodding his acknowledgement. She stepped out onto the street.
The problem was knowing what to do with herself. She loved her job. More than confinement, more than the shame of her conviction, the thing that ate away at her night and day was the emptiness of her time—as empty of meaning as of content.
She stuffed her hands into her pockets and set off walking.
The Interworld was huge. Many of the wonders of myriad worlds were recreated there, and tourism was huge. Did it matter that the sites were simulations? Surely it did, but not as much as you’d think. She loved walking until she was lost, then stumbling upon something like the Parthenon. It was the one thing that really kept her going.
Passing an alley, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye.
“That’s her,” she heard.
She didn’t think, she just reacted. With skill honed over many years of martial arts training, countless simulations, and real-life battle conditions, her reflexes were fine-tuned and exact. She wasn’t sure how the idiot from the bar had caught up to her so quickly, or how he had amassed a posse, but distance meant less in the Interworld and with a neural you could call almost anyone.
Besides, she didn’t have time to think about how, only to assess the fact of it, the threat, and the parameters of that threat.
She dove into an adjacent alley across the street. Then she positioned herself with her back to one wall, and edged to where the ladder of a fire escape provided an additional out. She was at a disadvantage in that, while free people could “wake up” and exit the Interworld anytime they chose, she was stuck there. However virtual the danger might be, for her it was real since this was the only reality she had.
There were four of them, stepping from the relative brightness of the street into the shadowy confines of the alley. There was the guy who had come onto her, but he wasn’t in the lead—his friends were taking point. “Fucking coward,” she hissed. She assumed the jigotai position, widening the stance of her feet and lowering her torso into a crouch, gathering energy for a possible spring in one direction or another. She raised her hands in the jigotai defensive mudra, but this was deceptive. It was defensive until it wasn’t. They might be in position to deflect and protect, but they were also in the perfect position to strike when the opportunity was ripe.
She didn’t want to hurt any of them, but unless they were prisoners like her, only she was in any real danger.
The two in front both grinned like jackasses, but wore very different expressions. One was tall, with a cool affectation, wearing shades and holding a cricket bat over his shoulders. He swaggered as if he didn’t have a care in the world and was walking toward his next pitch. She named him Batter Up.
Next to him was a hulking ox of a man—an exaggerated avatar, surely, originally intended for fantasy play. But he was decked out not in medieval garb, but in contemporary dress, which she thought odd but didn’t have time to wonder at. He slouched, and his forehead slouched as well, like a landslide of flesh over a scowling countenance. He even seemed to have an overbite. He had a baseball bat—nails stuck out of it at odd angles in a thick, wiry, unruly mass. She named him Menace.
Just behind him was an odd sight, an older avatar. It was a custom job that wouldn’t have come cheap. His hair was thin, and his coat was thick and straight. His eyes were heavy-lidded, like a lizard’s, and his face was void of emotion. She could read nothing about him, other than the fact that he was coming. She named him the Fixer.
And then there was Horn Dog from the bar—coming for his pound of ass, any way he could get it.
Nira seemed frozen, motionless, yet her fingertips quivered microscopically with gathered tension, like the string of a drawn bow. She knew how she looked—small, defenseless, easy prey for goons like this. But she knew something that they did not—her jigotai position was no ruse.
She meditated on her extended fingertips, willed her breath to slow, felt her heart rate lower. She felt time slow down as she watched Batter Up raise his bat over his shoulder, saw Menace draw back his own, ready to take the second blow.
When they were about 2.5 meters away, she launched herself from the wall with a kick, jumped, and caught Batter Up in the face with her boot. She employed an ukemi maneuver, using her arm to absorb the shock of her fall, then rolling. She rolled toward Menace, placing her other boot in his groin with sufficient force to knock him off his feet, howling with pain and clutching at his genitals.
Rolling into a crouched position, she assumed migi-jigo-tai and froze, turning her attention to the other two. Horn Dog was backing away now, finally, perhaps, seeing the error of his ways. The Fixer froze in place, contemplating her with dead eyes. She couldn’t read what was going on in his head, but she imagined he, too, was surprised by her prowess. His eyes narrowed, boring into hers. She imagined that meant, We’ll resume this at another time. But I’ll be watching you. Then he turned and seemed to almost float toward the street—at least, she couldn’t detect any motion from his walking.
“Any more, asshole?” she asked Horn Dog. She started marching toward him, stepping on Batter Up’s head along the way. Horn Dog was still backing up. He tripped over a discarded pallet, and Nira found herself improbably towering over him. She knelt and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling his face up to hers. “Because I’m ready anytime you are. You just bring. It. Fucking. On.”
In her peripheral vision she saw something swinging toward her. She launched herself into a sideways roll to the left, and had to stifle a laugh when Menace’s nail-studded bat connected with the side of Horn Dog’s face.
She gathered herself up to her full, diminutive height and assumed jigotai again. She slowly raised her right foot in anticipation of a kick, but this time it really was for show. Balanced on one leg, she knew how she appeared: regal, otherworldly, dangerous. She might have looked ridiculous if she hadn’t earned it, but she had. She was poised like a tantric goddess, her pose suggesting more limbs than she actually possessed, all of them seen and unseen dangers.
Running or hobbling, they all cleared out now, leaving her alone in the alley. She lowered her leg and sighed. A blinking light in her peripheral vision alerted her to an incoming message.
“Oh, Jesus,” she muttered. Violence of any kind was a violation of her terms of incarceration. She resigned herself to her fate and looked up to retrieve the message.
And there was the beach. And there was Jeff. And there were two moons in a hazy, purple sky.
Jeff flexed his knees. The gravity was slightly less than earth-standard, maybe .83. That would be nice, until he had to get aboard another ship. The air was cool, and thank god, breathable.
“Hungry?” asked a voice from behind him.
Jeff turned and saw a campfire on the beach. Sitting on a fallen log was the man he had crossed the galaxy for, betrayed his friends for, the man whose name he did not know.
His eyes were kind but tired. On the fire was a pot. “It’s just beans and rice. No meat.”
Jeff walked over to the fire and sat down cross-legged on the beach. Now he wished he’d put on his field jacket before transporting. That was stupid, he thought.
“I thought you were dead,” he said.
“Are you cold?” the man asked, as if reading his mind. He looked behind him and grabbed a colorful blanket. He passed it to Jeff, who noted how the man was wearing his, and draped it around his own shoulders in a similar fashion. It felt like wool, and it didn’t take long for him to feel comfortable.
“There are lots of people who wish I were dead,” the man answered the question at last. “But I persist.”
“It was hard to find you,” Jeff said.
“It was easy to find me,” the man countered. “You were scared to come.”
That was both succinct and true. Jeff conceded as much with a nod. “I destroyed a universe…”
Jeff scowled. “What do you mean, maybe?”
“Destroy is a harsh word. There’s a lot of distance between harm and destroy.”
“I didn’t destroy it?”
The little man started humming.
Okay, he’s going to play games with me. Great, Jeff thought. “If something is just harmed, it can be fixed. Right?”
No answer. The little man scooped some beans and rice out of his pot onto a metal plate and passed it to Jeff. He picked up a colorful woven bag and fished in it. He pulled out a spoon and wiped it on his sleeve. He passed it over.
Jeff took it hesitantly and tried the beans. Then he tucked in. He was hungrier than he thought.
“I didn’t destroy a universe?” he said again, his mouth full.
“There was damage. Whether it can be repaired…I do not know.”
“Is everyone dead or not?” Jeff asked.
“I do not know…because I cannot get there.”
Jeff nodded. “So one of the things that was damaged was the connection…to the other strings.”
The man nodded. Okay, we’re getting somewhere now, Jeff thought. His breast filled with hope.
“I’ve come a long way to find you,” Jeff said, trying the rice. “I should at least know your name.”
“Tomás. Diaz.” He smiled, chewing slowly. “Nice to meet you. Again.”
“I’ve just been thinking of you as ‘the shaman.’”
Tomás laughed out loud, and a few grains of rice shot from his mouth. “Ha! Shaman.” He shook his head. “No. I am no curandero.” But he didn’t say what he was.
Jeff discovered he didn’t know what to say. He’d waited a long time for this. He’d put a lot of hope into it, too. But now that it was here... “Um…where are you from?” he tried. It sounded lame.
“The way you number the strings, I’m originally from 308. There, I lived in Peru. Mi familia...they are still there.” His English was good, but Jeff detected a Latin American accent. He found it kind of charming.
“So you’ve crossed over from other strings, too.”
The man nodded.
“Did you destroy…or harm your universe?”
He shook his head.
“You have to know how.”
“And I don’t know how.” Jeff said. It wasn’t a question.
“You know how to see. You know how to move. But you do not know how to move safely.”
“Will you show me how to move safely?”
The man smiled again. “I’ll show you.”
“Will you show me now?”
“I’m going to finish my dinner. Then I’m going to sleep.”
“Okay…” Jeff felt foolish.
“Tomorrow I’ll show you.”
That seemed reasonable. There was a lot of information Jeff wanted from him, anyway, even before any teleportation lessons. Jeff ate another couple of bites, and as he did so a frivolous question occurred to him. He was about to dismiss it, but he realized that one of the things he needed to do was just to get to know Tomás.
“Uh…did you ever look for your double? You know, on the other strings?”
Tomás broke out into a grin, and it seemed to Jeff like he might lose some of what was in his mouth. His teeth did not look perfect.
“Yes, I did,” his head bobbed.
“And did you find him?” Jeff asked.
The man kept bobbing, an affirmative bob, it seemed to Jeff. When he had swallowed his mouthful, Tomás elaborated. “I found him. At Sol Station.”
“At Sol Station?” Jeff sat up straighter in surprise.
“Yes, just a few weeks ago.”
“When you were there…when we met?”
“That was it.” The man narrowed one eye at Jeff, so he would know that what Tomás was saying was significant. “When we met.”
Jeff blinked. “Are you saying that you…and I…that we’re…?”
“Not the same person, no. Our strings diverge too much. Three hundred years ago, your ancestor Captain Algernon Caldwell was sent to the British colonies. In my string, he was sent to Argentina, initially. Your family settled in what became America. My family eventually settled in what became Peru. One decision can alter a lot.”
Jeff nodded. “It’s like we’re cousins, then.”
The man laughed. He did it with his mouth open, showing Jeff all his chewed food. “Mi primo. Exactamente.”
“So how did you…” Jeff didn’t even know how to finish the sentence. “Are you…reconstructed, too?”
“You mean the Ulim?”
“We call them los durmientes.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means ‘the sleepers.’”
Jeff blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“I am not rebuilt. Whatever talent we have isn’t because of any reconstruction.”
“Humans are…what is the word?” He cocked his head. He seemed to find it. “We are mimetic by nature. We see and imitate. I saw los durmientes move through space.” He shrugged. “Then I did it too.”
“But how—?” Jeff began, but Tomás waved him away.
“That is a long story, for another time. But you—I am guessing you saw them move too. And you imitated them.”
Tomás gave a curt twist of his head that Jeff took to mean, So there you have it.
“They took pity on me,” Jeff said. “I would have died. What I don’t understand is why they took pity on me. I mean, beings die all the time. I was on their doorstep but…it’s not like they’re human.”
Tomás set his plate aside. “Actually, they are.”
Jeff scowled. “They are what?”
“They are human.”
Commander Foulon squinted in the dim light of the bar. It was hot, crowded, and just rowdy enough for his liking. He jumped back to avoid two brawling species he’d heard about but never met. One of them swung a short, elephantine trunk at the other, who warded it off with his pincers. Both were weaving and barely upright.
Foulon hopped to the left and skirted the skirmish. His emotions were mixed. On the one hand, he felt a great deal of satisfaction. They had found the ship they’d been looking for. Jo Taylor was here at Epworth Station, at dock just a couple of kilometers away. They had caught up with their prey, and he knew that his work had been essential to that success. His captain was pleased with him.
He just wished he were pleased with his captain. He had come to the conclusion that Hightower was a gasbag who was a little too full of himself. That was okay, Foulon was used to egomaniacal captains. It was, he figured, part of the skillset necessary to be a captain. He looked forward to the day when he was granted his own command and could be more overtly narcissistic himself. But there was something else about Hightower that didn’t sit right with him.
They called him “the Butcher” behind his back. Foulon had liked that when he had first heard it. He’d enjoyed ferreting out the mythology around the captain. He’d even been honored to serve with him, especially as his XO. It was the fast track to greatness, he thought.
But now his stomach turned sour whenever he thought of the captain. He glanced at one of the monitors. There was a news report about the recall of all Authority ships to Sol Station. The talking heads were speculating as to why. He wanted to hear what they were saying. Truth was, he was almost desperate for news. Hightower had cut the ship off from any communication with the Authority. They were running dark—no messages in, no messages out—which meant no news. Whatever Sol Station was facing, whatever Earth was facing, whatever the Authority was facing, they were facing it without them.
Foulon suspected that their entire mission was less strategic than it was personal. At first he’d assumed that Captain Hightower had classified orders to chase down the Kali of Aken and grind her into dust and to use every means necessary in pursuit of that goal. He could get behind that. But…but…but… “Something is not right,” he said out loud, although there was too much noise around him for anyone to hear.
“What are you doing here?” a voice said. An older man sidled up to Foulon and winked at him.
“What do you mean?” Foulon asked. Is this the contact? he wondered.
“I mean every Authority ship in known space is heading back to Sol Station at maximum C. What are you doing here?”
There was no way Foulon could actually answer that question. It was, in fact, the question he had been worrying about himself ever since they’d arrived and he began seeing snatches of news.
“C’mon, I got a table in back. It’s quieter…kind of.” The older man waved him toward the rear of the bar.
Foulon looked around and reasoned that he had no better leads. His contact was supposed to find him, after all. And he knew he wasn’t hard to spot. There weren’t many Authority uniforms aboard station right now. He shrugged and followed the old man.
He almost bumped into him. The man had stopped at a table, where another patron now sat. He watched the man lean forward, put both hands on the table, and press his grizzled face close to the new patron. “This is my table, friend,” he said, with more menace than Foulon thought possible. It was enough, apparently, because the interloper—a small, furry mechanic of a species Foulon didn’t recognize—apologized profusely and wiggled off the bench and onto the floor. He walked straight out from under the table without having to stoop.
“Those little guys, Eppets. I hate ’em,” the old man said, taking his seat. He waved toward the other side of the table. Foulon sat.
“I don’t have time.”
“Sure you do.” The old man pulled a flask from an interior pocket of his RFC uniform jacket and twisted off the lid. He took a swig and handed it to Foulon. Foulon accepted and knocked back a good slug. It was better than he’d expected.
“Authority asshole drinking with a rebel asshole,” the old man said, his face dusty with beard growth and his lips curled up in a smile. “People are gonna talk.”
“Are you my contact?” Foulon asked. It was a stupid question and he felt stupid asking it.
“Are you shitting me?”
Foulon looked at the table, embarrassed. He was used to being in command in situations like this. He glanced at the screen, hoping for some inkling of news from home. But the report was about crop fungus on New Manila.
“Danny said you were a spitfire,” the old man said. “But you don’t seem like a spitfire to me.”
Foulon blinked. A random act of violence might convince the old man of his true nature, but before he could concoct one, the old man leaned forward and said conspiratorially, “What’s eating at you, son?”
It was an opening, one that Foulon hadn’t expected. There was something about the stranger that he trusted, that he wanted to trust. “What’s happening back home?”
The old man cocked his head. “Are you shitting me?” he said again. “Is Danny running you dark?”
The old man scratched at his whiskers and narrowed his eyes. “Now why on Earth would he do that?”
“I just want to know why all our ships are being recalled…and we’re not, you know, going.”
“Danny’s not letting you in on the secret and it’s eating at you,” he said, not as a question, but as an astute reading of the situation.
Still, Foulon nodded.
“Let me tell you a little story about your captain,” the old man said. “He and I were stationed at a little moon near…well, near what they call Deseret now. We had this excellent scam running, where we were sucking about half a million chits out of the indigenous species there. Let’s call it…protection. Mostly Danny’s idea. He was in charge. I got him what he needed to pull it off. That’s kind of what I do.” He showed Foulon his teeth. Then he took another pull at the flask. “Then we get this meteorological report—storm coming. Bad one. And suddenly we got a dilemma. Do we pass along the information to the locals? Or do we hold back a bit until we’ve completed our collection for the cycle?”
Foulon’s eyes moved back and forth as he thought. “It makes sense to warn them so that they’ll be around next cycle to collect from.”
“Yeah, that was my advice,” the old man’s eyebrows rose. “But Danny is an impulsive fuck. Maybe you’ve noticed that? If not, watch out for it. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now. Doesn’t matter who it hurts.” His eyes rose to meet Foulon’s. “You hear what I’m saying to you?”
“Me, though? I’m grateful every day I’m not in command. I got my own little business, and I like that just fine. I like to find the ways to play the system, but it’s small stuff, you know? Let other people decide the fate of millions. I’m just here to make a chit.” He drubbed his fingers on the table. An uncomfortable silence fell between them, despite the noise from the bar. He leaned closer. “Uh…you do have a chit for me, don’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Foulon felt like an idiot. Why couldn’t he just fight or torture someone? He knew where he stood then. But this espionage bullshit made him feel off his center. The guilt about not being wherever the rest of their ships were going was not helping. Foulon suspected that Captain Hightower’s interests and the Authority’s were no longer in sync. And this old guy had all but confirmed it.
Foulon passed an unmarked chit caddy under the table. He felt the old man’s stubby fingers, felt him take it. The old guy rummaged in his trouser pocket. “And for you…” he said.
Foulon felt a small box, about five centimeters square. He pocketed it. “What is it?”
“An encrypted communications device. No real-time messages, but it’ll send and receive texts, undetectable to your people or mine.”
“And you’ll let us know where the Talon is at all times?”
“I’ll send a daily update. No more. No less.”
“Have another sip.” The old man banged the flask down on Foulon’s side of the table.
Foulon didn’t mind if he did. He swigged and returned the flask to the center of the table.
“I guess our work is done here,” the old man said. “I better get back to my post, and you better get back to yours.”
Foulon scooted to the edge of the seat and stood.
“Listen son, tell Danny that Palamar sends his best, okay?”
Jeff woke, the rough blanket scratching at his cheek. His neck hurt from the odd angle. He had slept on the ground before, but it had been a long time ago and he’d had a pack to use as a pillow. Last night he’d just used his arm, and his arm had moved.
He sat up, clutching the blanket more tightly around himself, and tried to loosen up his neck. He smelled coffee. He could see Tomás pouring the steaming black liquid into two metal cups. Camp coffee, he thought. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that, too.
He stood and walked over to the fire, holding his hands out to it.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said last night,” Tomás said, handing Jeff a cup. It was warm in his hands. It was, for that moment, the gravitational center of all things pleasurable and good. “About me being a curandero.”
Jeff cocked his head.
“I think you might be more correct than I thought originally.”
“A curandero…a shaman…is someone who goes into another world to find medicine, and brings it back for the healing of his people.”
Jeff blinked, but the smell of the strong brew distracted him. He took a sip, but it was too hot.
“Is that what a shaman does? I thought a shaman was…I don’t know, kind of like a witch doctor.”
Tomás shrugged. “That is what it would look like to someone ignorant of the traditions, I’m sure.”
Jeff nodded. He could cop to ignorance. Especially about a subject like this.
“So you are a curandero too.” Tomás grinned at him.
Jeff shook his head.
“It is what we do. We go into another world…into the place of all-seeing, into other strings. We retrieve medicine…information, knowledge…wisdom, and we bring it back to save our people from destruction.” He nodded, liking the sound of his own words. “Curanderos.”
Jeff truly had no idea what he was talking about. An uncomfortable silence emerged between them, alleviated only by the crackling of the fire.
“I saw them,” Jeff said.
“Who did you see?” Tomás asked.
Tomás narrowed his black eyes at him. “Prox?”
“Yeah…at least that’s what we call them…called them.”
“What are they?”
“They’re big, twice the size of a man. There are three species that I’ve been able to find. They eat metal—”
“Oh yes. Los Comelones.” He nodded vigorously. “I know them.”
Jeff understood enough Spanish to get it. The Eaters. It was apt.
“What about them?” Tomás asked.
“They’re coming. I thought they were just in my string. But they’re here too now. I don’t know how or where they come from. We called them Prox because they came from the direction of Procyon, but—”
“They can come from any direction,” Tomás said. “They can go anywhere they are sent.”
“They’re moving on Sol Station. I saw it when I was searching for you.”
Tomás nodded. “Then there is no time to lose. Drink up.”
Jeff sipped from his coffee obediently. He had no idea what the little man meant. What were they going to do, just the two of them?
“I saw all of the Authority ships…there were a lot of ships…getting ready for battle. The largest of them were forming a line, trying to stop the Prox before they reach Earth.”
“They will fail,” Tomás said.
“In my world, nothing we tried really stopped them,” Jeff said. “I’ve never faced an enemy that strong.”
“They are not the enemy,” Tomás said.
“What?” Jeff asked. “What are you talking about?”
“If I took this pot and swung it at your head,” he pointed to the pot containing the rest of the coffee, resting precariously on two logs, “who would your enemy be? Me or this pot?”
“You, of course. That’s just a pot.”
“Just so. Los Comelones are not your enemy. They are just a pot, a tool.”
Jeff squinted at him. “So…who wields the tool?”
Jeff shook his head. “Wait, the Ulim? How…?” It was unsettling how all of their conversations kept coming back to the Ulim. The information was just not fitting together. “Okay, wait, back up.” Jeff made the military field mudra for “hold still” with his free hand. “Tell me how all of this is related.”
“Everything is a story,” Tomás said, sitting down. He sipped at his coffee. He pointed to another large log, inviting Jeff to sit. He did. “So I will tell you a story. My people were subdued by the United Kingdom. The histories of your world and mine turn out quite differently, I imagine, as we are a couple of strings apart. The British were ruthless, organized, unstoppable. Sudamerica was…disorganized. We didn’t stand a chance. They used us as slave labor, essentially. Oh, they paid us…but just enough to soothe their consciences, just enough to skirt the law. When their scientists learned how to go inside, we learned it too.” He smiled sadly. “Servants…hear things, you know.”
Jeff sipped at his coffee, now finally cool enough to drink. It was the bitterest thing he had ever tasted. He wasn’t sure it was really coffee. And yet amazingly, it was the most delicious thing he could imagine at that time.
“They had the technology to create a whole interior world for themselves. Eventually they lived completely within their minds. Their bodies were…”
“Sleeping,” Jeff said. “Los Durmientes.”
“Yes. At first, we tended to them. Until some of them ended up dead, of course.”
“That was bound to happen,” Jeff grimaced.
“It was. By that time, they had mastered robotics to a point where we were…expendable. My people fled into the Andes.” He glanced up and Jeff could see for the first time the centuries of accumulated pain in the wrinkles on Tomás’ face. “They are still there. We learned enough of their mental techniques to shield ourselves, but not enough to see…or to travel. I am the first to be able to move between the worlds.”
“And the Prox—er…Los Comelones?”
“Biological machines. They consume metal and forge it, all within their bodies. They are beautifully made, brilliant constructions. But they have no soul, no will of their own. They are títeres, marionettes…puppets.”
“And the Ulim are the puppeteers…” Jeff breathed.
Emma stumbled out of the classroom, her arms dangling limply at her side. Her feet, back and shoulders were throbbing and her mind felt like it had been charbroiled. It didn’t help that she had been wrong about being stuck in kindergarten; it would be far more accurate to call it pre-school. Some of the Alverian “children” had hatched only four days ago and were already outpacing her in learning their native language.
She had been confident going in. She was a fast learner and already knew three Earth languages. How hard could it be to pick up another? Very hard, it turned out. Being a gestural language made class a more intense upper body workout than the most advanced yoga she’d ever tried. The fact that two of her four arms were mechanical should have been cheating. But on the contrary, the mental exertion of learning to control the neural-driven prosthesis was exhausting: a distraction on top of learning a new language based upon an entirely alien mapping of ideas to symbols. She’d begged them for textbooks, instructional videos—anything more in line with how she was used to learning rather than the calisthenics-like drills she and the hatchlings were being put through—but the instructor insisted this was the only way the language was taught. At least that’s what Emma thought she said.
The classes were all the same. An image was brought up on the large video screen at the head of the class. The instructor struck the pose for that particular word. The class, all standing in rows, then matched the pose. Students assuming the correct pose were praised, those that did it incorrectly were called out and corrected. If they were slow in getting it right, they risked getting a smack from the thin, flexible rod the teacher used as a pointer. The backs of Emma’s legs were already bruised and stinging, which she thought wildly unfair considering how much softer her skin was than the Alverians’. Her complaints were ignored, if they were even understood.
She limped into the communal eating area. She hadn’t learned the Alverian word for it yet, so she just thought of it as the cafeteria. She stood in line until she was given a square plate containing the only two dishes the Alverians seemed to eat: a paste made of some kind of grain not unlike Hawaiian poi, and thin slices of boiled gray meat, a thin broth sloshed over both. Neither dish tasted bad per se, but after a week of a completely unvarying diet, eating was becoming something of an ordeal. She forced herself to lift the plate, and shuffled it to the nearest table with an open place.
Here there was none of the drama about who you would sit with that you might find in an Earth school or prison. All Alverians were considered equal, if not completely interchangeable. And with a gestural language, eating and talking at the same time was nearly impossible. Everyone sat on the bicycle seats and ate, barely interacting with the beings around them.
Emma set her plate down and settled on her seat as gingerly as she could, attempting to minimize the pressure on her poor bruised perineum. But since her feet were just as bad, there was no compromise that didn’t hurt. She dreamed about some human pain killers as she began to eat, also wishing for some hot sauce or something to make the bland food different.
A familiar face appeared next to her, dangling from an Alverian neck. “Hello, Emma.”
“How are your studies progressing?”
She put down the small plank-like eating implement and signed “Good.”
Amberline nodded satisfaction and signed “That is excellent.” Then the mask said, “You look tired.”
“Oh my God. I have never been so tired in all my life. If I survive this, I will be strong enough to lift a house.”
“It occurred to me that the difference in our anatomies might be a factor for you, so I brought you something.” She produced a small vial of tablets and set it down in front of Emma.
“What is it?”
Emma gasped and snatched up the bottle. Pendontoline was a powerful painkiller and muscle stimulant, a favorite of dockworkers and other laborers. She shook out a tablet and dry swallowed it, chasing it with a bite of poi. “Thank you. You may have just saved my life. I don’t suppose you have a bottle of Tabasco for me too?”
“What is that?”
“A traditional pepper sauce made on Earth. Don’t worry about it, I’m kidding.”
“Ah,” Amberline said. “You find the food bland.”
“It’s okay, but it’s the only thing you guys eat! I don’t even know what it is!”
She pointed at the paste and made the sign of its name. Emma automatically matched it, and Amberline nodded approval. “It’s made from the seeds of a bush that grows on our homeworld, ground into paste and mixed with water.
“That’s about what I thought. And the meat?”
Amberline made the appropriate sign.
Emma mimicked it, then paused. “Wait, we learned this sign earlier today. Damn, what was it, we’ve learned so many they all start to blur together. No, I remember, that was the sign for male.”
“That is correct.” Amberline pointed away from the eating area, across the common chamber.
Emma looked in that direction and saw the livestock pens and the strange pig/dog/bugs milling about and eating from troughs. “Oh! It’s those! It’s not bad considering it’s meat from an insect…” She threw her eating stick to the table.
Her head began to spin. Several unconnected ideas suddenly slotted together into a horrifying truth. “No…” she sputtered, looking at the meat on her plate.
“Is something wrong?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Are you ill?”
“You called them males.”
“Your males! Alverian males!”
“Yes. You appear offended.”
“Not offended, shocked! You… you’re cannibals!”
Amberline thought about that for a moment. “No. If I ate another female, then I would be a cannibal.”
“But they are the same species as you!”
“Technically, I suppose.” Amberline shrugged. “But they aren’t the same creature. You’ve seen them. They have no intellect at all. They are strong enough to easily leap out of their pens but it doesn’t even occur to them. They are good for only two things—harvesting their semen and eating.”
Emma thought she might faint. “Harvesting their…”
“Semen,” Amberline completed helpfully. “Yes. And they are our only dependable source of protein.”
Emma held her hands up. “Well, I’m not eating them.”
Amberline nodded. “Yes, you will, or you will grow weak and die.”
Emma crossed her arms, both sets of them. “I’ll find something else.”
“There’s gotta be… I mean… you could bring me…”
Amberline shook her head.
A tone sounded through the gigantic cavern. Amberline tilted her head. “You must return to class.”
Emma frowned defiantly.
After a moment, Amberline said gently, “If you do not attend to your studies, you will be assigned other work. If you think learning our language is hard labor, wait until you work a twelve-hour shift in our laundry works.”
Without another word, Emma stood and walked away, leaving the unfinished plate of food on the table.
Admiral Tal held his breath as he watched the monitors. Although there were hundreds of people in the Command Center, no one spoke. If he had time for reflection, he would have found the silence eerie, but his focus, like everyone’s, was riveted on their five largest Dreadnaught-class warships, now moving in formation to engage the Prox in battle little more than a parsec away—which was far too close for his liking.
“I want all the support you can give them,” Tal broke the silence, speaking to everyone and no one in particular. “If they need high-level computations, let’s run them here. If they need power, let’s beam it to them. Be prepared to anticipate their needs and be there with the fix before they even ask. Move it, people!”
That broke the spell. He knew there was little they could do on this end of things, but people certainly wanted to look busy to avoid his ire. That was all right. Maybe it would do some good.
“It’s going to be fine, sir,” Rear Admiral Evans said, leaning in. “We’ve never encountered anything that could get past even one of those ships.”
Tal did not respond. The rear admiral was quite correct. The Dreadnaught-class ships were large, slow, and not the least bit nimble in battle. It was one of the reasons the newly-christened ships had not yet been employed against the rebels. It was hard to get them where they needed to be in a timely fashion. The best speed they could manage was C5.
But what they lacked in maneuverability they made up for in sheer firepower. Each one of them was stocked with a full complement of weapons, which included more than a thousand fission warheads, two hundred particle cannons, and sniper lasers that were much more powerful than the standard issue. They had redundant hulls of reinforced iconel that could take fifty times the beating the next class of warship could endure. They had automatic containment cells. If one portion of the ship blew up, the others would be sealed off and protected.
These five were the best they had. They were lucky that all five were within recall range when they’d discovered the threat. He hoped they wouldn’t need them all, but if they did…they were there.
Tal wrapped his fingers around a guard rail that separated the upper platform of the Command Center from the floor, where hundreds of officers were at their stations—monitoring, measuring, correcting, supplying, supporting. The Command Center was the brain of their effort. Every byte of information flowed into this place, just as every top-level order issued from it.
Tal studied the formation as the Dreadnaught approached the Prox ships. They were arranged in a flying V, with the lead ship at the top, two other ships forming wings descending to either side. The symmetry was perfect, and would need to be if they were going to act as a single unit—the deadliest military force the human race had ever managed to assemble. If this formation had been summoned against a planet, he reminded himself, that planet would be a desolate collection of rubble floating in cold space. One Dreadnaught was unstoppable. Five would be apocalyptic.
Once again quiet settled over the room as the Dreadnaughts closed the distance between themselves and the Prox vessels. Tal saw shimmers emerge from the alien ships, but couldn’t make out what they were. He certainly had a theory.
“Magnification!” he called. “Zoom in! I want to see what those flashes are.”
One of the monitors flickered as the optics feed was disrupted. What took its place was blurry at first, but quickly snapped into sharp resolution. Now they could see the hulls of the Prox ships, and the hulls themselves were shimmering.
“Closer!” Tal shouted.
The picture adjusted again, and Tal swore. At first, he could not figure out what he was seeing. Others around him began to voice the questions going through his own head.
“How can that metal be…moving?”
“It’s like there’s something metallic swarming on the hull.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” Tal said, remembering Captain Bowers’ report. “They ride on the outside of their ships, not the inside. That shimmering isn’t the hull—it’s the bodies of the ships’ passengers clinging to the hull. And they are not immobile. Swarming is the right word.”
“That’s impossible,” Rear Admiral Evans whispered.
“Obviously not,” Tal said. “Just because a species doesn’t do something as we do doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Evans scowled at this, but his eyes never left the monitors.
Tal watched as a tiny dot of light drifted from the lead Prox ship, floating into space. This was followed by another, then another. Before he had drawn three breaths, entire streams of shimmers had detached themselves from the ship and were floating toward the Dreadnaughts.
“How many?” Tal asked.
No one said anything.
“Goddammit, I want to know how many of those motherfuckers are launching themselves toward our ships!” Tal yelled.
“What are they?” someone asked.
One voice caught his attention. It was from one of the engineers on the floor. “I estimate 12,000 of the aliens are spaceborne as of…now. 13,300 of the aliens are spaceborne as of…now. 18,700 are spaceborne...now.”
Tal gripped the guard rail in front of him until his hands ached. The numbers were staggering. But remember, he told himself, those are just soldiers. They’re vulnerable. They have no protection.
“Dreadnaught formation, target approaching Prox soldiers with particle cannons, full array. Fire at will.”
The aliens had drifted close enough for them to get a good look at them. Metallic, crablike, they were cold and efficient killing machines. Tal shuddered as he saw them up close—the folded merus sections, the spiked tips of the long metal legs, the inhuman eyes, the fulminating mandibles. The legs were extended before them, preparing to make contact with the Dreadnaught hulls. Tal thought he could see the pointed tips quivering, but that could have just been the tricky resolution at this distance.
He wiped the sweat out of his eyes, despite the fact that he felt cold all over. This uniform suddenly felt too big for him, as if he were shrinking from the stress. It was a sensation he didn’t understand and couldn’t bother to contemplate. Not now.
“180,000 Prox now spaceborne,” Tal heard in his ear.
“Gods,” he swore.
But the firing had commenced. Tal noted with guarded satisfaction that the blasts from the particle array dispatched the Prox soldiers handily. The problem wasn’t insufficient firepower; it was going to be too few guns.
For every Prox soldier they took out, two hundred more sped toward their targets, their prey. Tal realized that they could fire all day and all night for a week and still not hit all of them. And they were coming fast.
“We need to clear a swath of them with every shot,” Tal shouted. “One at a time isn’t going to do it. I need solutions, now!”
The particle cannons were effective, thank god, but they derived their power from a very focused, targeted burst of energy. The more you spread it out, the less effective it became. The particle cannons were not going to be the answer to this particular problem.
Likewise, the fission missiles were localized—Tal estimated that one could take out a cluster of Prox, but proximity would be everything. With a sinking stomach he realized that even if they launched every fission missile in their arsenal, it wouldn’t take out even half of them and would leave them defenseless against the Prox ships coming up behind them.
And all of a sudden it was too late. The first of the Prox reached the nearest Dreadnaught. Tal watched with his mouth open as the tips of its legs soundlessly touched the surface of the ship’s hull. This was followed a moment later by its fellows. Tal had barely taken two breaths before a hundred Prox had landed on the Dreadnaught. Then a thousand. Then five thousand.
Someone in the Command Center screamed as they watched one of the soldier Prox peel back a sheet of iconel. Then, as they watched helplessly, Prox all over the ship began to roll back the hull. A few seconds later the interior hulls were dismantled as well.
In mute horror they watched as oxygen spewed into the cold vacuum of space with explosive force. Tal fought to control his panic as he watched the debris from the warship shoot across the view screen, followed by equipment, clothing, and the jerky, struggling bodies of the dying crew.
Nira’s clothes had gotten mussed in the scuffle, so she reset them. All it took was flipping a switch in the preferences panel in her neural. Way cheaper than dry cleaning, she marveled. Finally looking presentable, she stepped back out onto the street and looked around. She felt the urge to get to a more populated area, where she wouldn’t be jumped again. She began to walk back toward her apartment.
It was only then, with her hackles beginning to recede and a sense of normalcy returning to her step, that she suspended her constant surveillance of her surroundings long enough to look at the message waiting in her neural.
She dreaded opening it. She realized she was avoiding it. As bad as the Interworld could be, there were far worse ways to spend her sentence. She cursed herself for getting into these situations. I should know better, she scolded herself. Part of her knew that being able—and willing—to fight was exactly what had saved her life in the past. It was also responsible for putting her here. She glanced up and retrieved the message.
—Meet Officer Per Wollenstein at Transition Center at 20:00.
Oh, God, here it comes, she thought, returning her gaze to the street. What would they do to her? Put her back in her body for ten years of solitary? Strand her on an asteroid? Hard labor? Who knew what kind of punishment a micro-jurisdiction like this might inflict? She had lucked out, being put in the Interworld. As much as she hated being confined anywhere, she knew that. And now she had gone and fucked it up.
She glanced up again at her neural. 20:00 was in five minutes. Oh, Christ. She panicked, and broke into a jog. She reached a busy street and turned right, dodging people. The smell of curry wafted out of a shop window. When it became too crowded to jog, she walked as fast as she could.
The Transition Center was where they held classes with newbies. It was where she had woken up after they’d subdued her real body. It was where the government kept offices. If someone needed a public place to have an official private meeting, that was it. It was where she checked in with her warden every three days.
Per Wollenstein was her warden. He seemed a nice enough guy. What a miserable job he must have, she thought. It had never occurred to her to have pity on Wollenstein before, but the irony of it struck her. She was actually free to roam at will—within the confines of the Interworld, of course. She could work or not. She could play all day if she wanted. She could have a pet, have an affair, booze it up. But he—he was stuck in an office, having perfunctory, five-minute meetings with criminals all day, every day. Sounds like hell, she thought.
She turned in at the revolving door of the building and took the stairs two at a time. Her virtual body didn’t get tired, so she wasn’t winded when she got to the top. She sprinted to Wollenstein’s office and, glancing up at her neural, relaxed a bit, seeing that she had a minute to spare.
She saw that the light on his door panel was green, and she held her thumb to the pad. It scanned her ID and the door slid open. She entered and stood at parade rest.
Wollenstein scowled. “You don’t…you’re not in the military here, Camil. You don’t have to…” he sighed. “Never mind. Have a seat.”
She did. “I’m sorry about the bar thing—”
His considerable eyebrows bunched. “Bar thing?”
Nira’s eyes widened. “This isn’t about the bar thing?”
“Do I want to know about the bar thing?” he asked.
“Uh…what can I do for you tonight, Warden?” she nervously adapted.
He raised one eyebrow but didn’t pursue it. He was in his late thirties, but his hair looked like it was transplanted from a much older man—gray with patches of white, a little wild and unkempt. He kept it tied in a short bunch at the back of his head, but it made for an unruly bundle. The walrus mustache only added to the misery. Avatars were generally tidier than people’s actual bodies. When thinking of what the real Wollenstein must look like, it frightened her a little.
“So…what’s this about?” Nira asked.
“What? My sentence is for—”
“Yeah, I know. It’s being commuted, so long as you cooperate.”
She cocked her head. “Cooperate how?”
“You’re being conscripted, into the Revolutionary Freedom Coalition.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “I am?”
“At full rank and pay. How’s that for lucky breaks?”
She blinked. “Uh…what’s the catch?”
“No catch, sign here.” He pushed a pad at her.
“But I thought this station was an independent jurisdiction in neutral space…”
“It is. Wild fucking west. And…this station has reciprocity with the RFC.”
“That doesn’t make any—”
“Yes, it does. We have treaties and agreements with the Authority and the RFC and every other micro-jurisdiction in the galaxy—got ’em comin’ out of our asses!”
“Huh. And one of those agreements…”
“Is conscription. The RFC has had their eye on you, apparently. Although since you have no discernible file, I’m not sure how that’s possible, but that’s espionage for you.” He pressed his forehead as if he had a headache. “Anyway, you’re being given a provisional pardon—”
“Provisional based on what?”
“Provisional based on five years’ meritorious service.”
Meritorious. She fucking did meritorious. She leaned over and pressed her thumb to the pad.
“Eye, too.” He pointed at her head.
She raised the pad to her eye and stared at the indicated portion of the screen. A blue blip informed her that it was done. She didn’t think too hard about how the avatar could have her ID encoded. Perhaps some other machine was reading her actual body. Who knew?
Wollenstein took up the pad and his fingers danced as he finalized the transfer of custody. He looked up with an air of satisfaction. “It’s been lovely, Camil. You are not our standard criminal around here.”
“No, sir. I should hope not.”
“You’re respectful, for one thing.”
“And I think you’re a fundamentally good person.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to ask you to lie down, and you’re going to close your eyes. And then you’re going to feel a kind of a buzz—”
“I’ve transferred before. I got here, remember?”
“Right, of course. Re-entry into your body is going to be rough.”
“It’s only been a few days.”
“So you’re lucky. But your muscles are going to ache like a motherfucker. So…go easy on yourself. We’ve told the Talon that you’ll need rest and physical therapy for a few days to get you back into form.”
“Wait, the…did you say the Talon? Is that the ship I’ll be serving on?”
“I don’t know if that’s the ship you’ll be serving on or not. It’s the ship that’s picking you up.”
“And the captain of that ship is…?” She held her breath.
He looked down at the pad, but apparently not seeing what he needed, he glanced up to access his neural. His eyes flitted back and forth, then he looked down again. “Captain Jo Taylor.”
Jeff started to pace. “The Ulim are human?”
“So they lied to me. They said they had transcended their bodies.”
Tomás cradled his coffee, obviously relishing the warmth in his hands. He smiled up at Jeff patiently. “It was less a lie than it was…” He fished for a word. “Aspirational. It is something they hope for, but have not yet achieved.”
Jeff shook his head. “Okay, but if the Ulim are human, why invent the Prox? Why all the killing? If what you’re saying is true, they actually live in a different universe—308, right? Why send the Prox into my universe, or this one?”
Tomás leaned over and grabbed a stick. He smoothed the sand in front of him and started to draw several almost-parallel lines. At first, Jeff thought he was just being sloppy, but then he realized that there was a reason the lines were set at slightly different angles. “Los Durmientes can see into the All, as you and I can.”
“Question,” Jeff interrupted. “Do they see into the All all the time? Or just when they elect to?”
“It is a good question, and I do not know the answer. But I think it is only when they elect to, because I have been able to do things that they did not know about.”
Jeff’s eyebrows rose. “You’ll have to tell me about that.”
Tomás nodded. “Good campfire stories. En fin…Los Durmientes can see into the All, but they have also learned to see into the future...un poco…a little bit.”
Tomás pointed at the lines he had drawn. “If we start from this point, there are many plans of action we could take. If we did one thing, the universe would unfold in one way, but if we did another thing it would unfold in a different way.”
“Sure,” Jeff agreed.
“Each of these decisions results in a different probability thread. Los Durmientes can discern these probabilities and run them to their conclusions.”
“All of them?”
“I suppose, if they wanted to.”
“That’s a lot of data to process.”
“They have the power,” Tomás shrugged. “They are, after all, a chain of biological computers.”
“They told me they had ascended beyond their bodies.”
“In a way, they told you the truth—they ascended into other universes, existing only in their disembodied form, facilitated by the cristales—”
“Those red crystalline structures,” Jeff made the connection.
“Yes, they are rojos,” Tomás nodded. “Red.” His face twitched and Jeff realized he kept pulling the little man off track.
“Sorry,” he said. “You were saying they can discern possibilities. So is it like running sightlines into possible futures?”
“Yes, that is it exactly.” Tomás nodded vigorously, seemingly pleased to be back on subject.
Jeff felt a cold chill run down his spine. “So…what happens if they see a timeline they don’t like?”
Tomás nodded gravely. “Los Comelones.”
“Even in other universes?”
“Of course. They know the barriers are porosas...uh…” he fished for the word.
“Porous?” Jeff offered.
“Si. I knew it was similar.” Tomás nodded gratefully. “They know the barriers are porous, so they defend themselves against any species that might eventually threaten them. Whenever they discern a possible timeline that might result in their extinction, they snuff it out—”
“By snuffing out anyone who might threaten them.” Jeff finished his sentence.
“That’s horrifying,” Jeff said. “Risk is part of life. Everyone lives with it.”
Tomás shrugged. “Only because you must. If you could eliminate risk, would you not? Is that not why people buy insurance?”
Jeff nodded. The logic was impeccable.
Tomás held up a hand. “Perhaps I am being demasiado dramático, too dramatic. They do not instantly kill. First, they try to manipulate events—to nudge the timeline into a non-threatening stream.”
“How do they do that?” Jeff asked.
Tomás shrugged again. “Oh, lots of ways. Advertising. Feeding memes. Orchestrating diplomatic incidents.”
The hair stood up on the back of Jeff’s neck. “Would that manipulation include issuing false orders…orders that soldiers in the field thought were coming from Command?”
He looked up and met Tomás’ eyes. The little man returned his gaze, and it was full of meaning and compassion. “Si, amigo. It is one of their most frequent techniques.”
Jeff felt twenty years of accumulated shame and self-hatred welling up within him. He balled his fists, and his lips drew back in a sneer as his gaze drifted off into the distance.
“You know something about this technique, I see,” Tomás noted.
“I do,” Jeff said.
“And you are feeling…what?”
“Like I want to kick some motherfucker’s teeth in.”
“Los Durmientes do not use their teeth,” Tomás said. “But they have them.”
“Can you take me to them?” Jeff asked, reflexively balling his hands into fists again, testing their weight against the gravity of this planet, wishing for a bit more heft.
Tomás nodded, grim and slow. “I can.”
When Nira opened her eyes, the light was painful.
She jerked upright, and it felt like her limbs were on fire.
“Whoa there,” a kind voice said. “You need to ease your way back into your body.”
Her vision resolved and she found herself staring at an alien with light blue fur around its neck. She seemed feminine, or at least feline. She purred as she tended to various tubes sticking out of Nira’s body. One by one, she removed them. Her actions were a little more ponderous than Nira would have liked, but they were mesmerizingly graceful as well. Then Nira vomited.
“That’s all right, that’s perfectly normal,” the cat-nurse said. “Just relax.”
Fuck relaxing, Nira thought. It was then that she realized there was someone else in the room.
She looked up and saw a tall woman with captain’s bars. She had long dark hair, dark eyes, and a generous Roman nose. She wasn’t pretty, by conventional standards, but she wasn’t ugly either. She looked tough as nails, however, and that translated to sexy in Nira’s book. She also looked familiar. It took Nira a couple of minutes to make the connection. “Captain Taylor, sir.”
“Commander Camil Nira,” Taylor said, standing at parade rest, her arms locked behind her back.
“Yes sir,” Nira said. A million questions poured through Nira’s mind. She hadn’t known Captain Taylor, but she certainly knew of her. They had never met, but she had seen her from a distance. Nira had looked up her service record once. She knew Taylor and Captain Bowers had been involved. The notion of Bowers having an affair with anyone created some cognitive dissonance, but she could wonder about that later.
“I have need of an XO. Do you know of anyone looking for a job?”
Nira wiped the last bit of spittle from her chin and tried to look professional. “I do, sir. I would be honored to apply.”
“Captain Jeff Bowers recommends you.” One side of the captain’s mouth curled up in a smile. “And if he recommends you, I want you.”
More questions flooded her. In this universe, what would it mean fighting alongside this Captain Taylor? What political alignments was she signing up for? Would she be on the right side? Nira thought back to her time in the cramped jail cell when she and Pho were “guests” of the Authority. The Authority felt a lot like the CDF in many ways. But there was a cruel edge to it that she despised. Plus, they had tried to blow up their ship when making their escape from Sol Station—or someone had. If not the Authority, then whom?
There were too many questions, but there wasn’t time to sort them out. Anything was better than languishing in a virtual prison. Serving any constructive purpose was better than wasting precious years of her life getting into bar brawls and drinking herself into numb passivity every night.
“When do I start?” Nira asked.
Emma finally felt like she wasn’t struggling to keep up with the class. They had shifted to learning numbers and simple math, and at last she had an edge. Where the hatchlings were learning the signs for numbers and operations at the same time as how math itself worked, Emma literally did advanced calculus in her dreams. All she had to pick up were the gestures, and it was going quickly.
Hooray! I’m holding my own against four-week-olds! she thought, but she knew it wouldn’t be for long. The Alverian children learned very fast. They had practically eidetic memories and only needed to cover each topic once or twice, then use the idea practically a couple of times, and it was in there for life. As a paltry human, Emma needed a bit more repetition. She was constantly being smacked on the back of the legs for not keeping up. However, perhaps her appeals to Amberline may have finally been heard, since the teachers did seem to be hitting her less hard than before. Or maybe she was just getting tougher. Either way, it was a welcome change.
After the day’s first class, she went to the cafeteria—she had finally learned the gestures for eating, food, and the room where eating happened—and ate without enthusiasm, trying hard not to think about what she was putting in her mouth. Then back to class for another four hours, and eventually she was released to shuffle back to the sleep chambers, where she flopped on her thin mattress and was generally asleep in less than five minutes. Her dreams were filled with language and mathematics practice, and after what felt like mere moments, her fellow students were prodding her out of bed for the next session.
With no sunlight, Emma was losing track of time. Even her chronometer didn’t mean much anymore. Everything was a blur of learning and practice, opening a new part of the brain to handle functions that had been the domain of another, and non-stop physical exercise.
After a while, the learning took a shift. The language studies became more specialized, focusing on spatial relations and mathematical functions. They also started learning a form of computation Emma had never seen before. The students were lined up in a closely spaced grid pattern. Each student was given a set of instructions such as add 10 to the number you have and pass it forward. Then they held their arms up in a specific numerical value. Occasionally, the instructor would step up to a student on the periphery of the grid and indicate a new instruction, such as “Divide 300 by your current number” and tap a student. That student, already holding a number, would make the calculation, display the result, and tap the student in front of or beside her. That student would use her specific function to combine the previous number with the one they were already holding, and pass it along.
Emma thought of the ingenious scheme as computational tai chi and found that the class could do extremely complex computations surprisingly quickly, by organizing themselves into an organic computer.
The Alverians used a base 4 numerical system, which slowed Emma down at first, forcing her to translate to base 10 and back. But with practice, she’d begun thinking in quaternary automatically and was beginning to feel completely natural and comfortable with it.
That morning she was surprised when she reported to the classroom at the usual time, but none of the other students was there.
“Hello Emma,” the teacher signed. They’d come up with an original gesture to use as her name, a combination of missing two arms and not one of us. She’d been hurt at first, but quickly realized that it wasn’t meant as a slur, simply a statement of facts that were unique to her. She accepted it and mentally understood the sign only as “Emma.”
“Where is everyone?” Emma asked. “I’m not late.”
“You are on time. We have a new assignment for you today.”
Crap. Emma thought. I washed out. She’d been afraid that eventually her classmates would get so far ahead of her that they would either hold her back to a younger class, or simply put her to work elsewhere. Without asking questions, she followed the beckoning teacher out into the tunnel and deeper into the hive. They walked down a long curving ramp to a lower level she’d never been to before. Alverians scampered in both directions down the tunnel, and the teacher danced between them quickly, causing Emma to work to keep up.
The next room they entered took Emma’s breath away. It was huge, possibly even larger than the common chamber. They entered on a catwalk that went around the room; the floor of the chamber was around forty feet lower. Spread out across the entire floor, arranged in a close grid, were thousands of Alverians, all flailing their limbs in computation.
“It’s a super computer!” Emma whispered in English.
Her teacher gestured, “This is a counting chamber. You are ready to put your training to use.”
“Counting.” The teacher motioned for Emma to follow, then clambered down a ladder to the crowded floor. She reached the edge of the arranged mass of Alverians and walked until she found a narrow separation between sections, then turned and disappeared. Emma ran after, dodging flailing arms, keeping the teacher in sight. After counting off about twenty columns, she stopped.
“A number will be passed to you from the person in front of you. Raise it exponentially by the number displayed by the person to your right, then pass it backwards. Do you understand?”
Emma nodded. It was a very simple operation, even if she didn’t know what she was doing it for.
“Good. Take the number that this person is showing and take her place. Now!”
Startled, Emma held her arms up. The Alverian she was replacing showed 6,480. She gestured the same value and stepped into the hole that the previous counter vacated. The other Alverian retreated down the aisle, but the teacher remained, observing.
The person in front of Emma displayed 428, and indicated a pass back. Emma glanced right, where another Alverian displayed 3. She did the math in her head, and displayed 78,402,752, and passed it back.
Another number came. The exponent to her right had not changed. She raised the number to the power of three and passed it back.
Another number, another calculation, another result.
“Good. Continue.” The teacher began to walk away.
“Wait!” Emma said aloud, but also signed. “For how long?”
“Twelve hours.” Without further delay, she walked away.
The person in front gestured another figure. Emma quickly did the calculations, passed the result. She struggled at first, but occasionally got a brief respite when a new number did not come for several minutes. After a while, she began to find the rhythm of the thing. It became automatic, reflexive. She was a component in an organic computer, a logic gate, a register, and part of whatever program they were all running together.
After a few hours, her arms were burning, her feet throbbing, her back screaming, but she continued, trying to keep repeating her function in time with everyone around her. She glanced around the chamber on pauses and noticed a large set of windows higher up one wall, where a number of Alverians were overseeing the process. Runners darted around the outer edges of the counting array, taking numbers from key positions and carrying them forward. Work product, she thought, breathing hard.
A new number came up and she took it, then looked right to get the exponent, when much to her horror, that Alverian’s left arm fell off.
Dead silence. The air in the Command Center was as quiet as the vacuum of space. Then, as if on cue, everyone began shouting at once. Admiral Tal recognized what he was seeing: blind panic. He felt bile run up the back of this throat. Maybe he couldn’t stop those goddam Prox, but he sure as hell could stop this. He looked up, accessed his neural, and connected his voice to the public address system. When he spoke, he spoke evenly, quietly. But the room thundered with his words.
“Quiet! This is a setback, not a loss. I told you this would be a hard-fought battle. Did you think it would be a walk in the arboretum? You are soldiers! Act like it!”
Silence returned. Everyone in sight looked at their shoes. Good, Tal thought. They ought to be ashamed. But they also ought to be scared. He knew that his job was to channel their fear, their panic, in a constructive direction. It could be a fatal liability or it could be fuel. It’s damn well going to be fuel.
“This battle is just getting started. I want to see senior officers in the conference suite—any rank above captain, I want you there. The rest of you, if you have any creative ideas, you shoot them to your ranking commander. Commanders, any ideas that have any merit at all, you bring them to me personally. I don’t care if I’m in the head or having dinner. Bring ’em all. It isn’t firepower that is going to save us, it’s creativity. Now do your fucking jobs.”
He didn’t need to swear, but he couldn’t help it. He stepped off the platform and made a beeline for the conference suite. He saw the other ranking officers doing the same, wending their way through the hundreds of soldiers in the Command Center. Precious souls, every one of them. Every one of them representing a thousand more aboard the station, a hundred more on those ships out there. And all of them his responsibility.
He swept through the door to the conference suite. How many have we lost already? His head swam. A Dreadnaught-class starship carries a crew complement of 400 souls. They’d just lost 2,000 troops. “Jesus,” he said aloud. He noticed that his hands were shaking. They were also cold as ice. He went to the food synthesizer panel on the wall and selected coffee in a mug. He marveled at the normalcy of the action. How many cups of coffee had he ordered, from how many synthesizer units? When the coffee arrived, he cradled it between his cold hands, pressing them together around the cup, still shaking.
When he finally sat down at the conference table, the room was mostly full. Every couple of seconds another officer would come in, but most of the people he wanted there were already seated.
He didn’t waste time on formalities. “I want ideas,” he said, lowering his head but meeting their eyes. He realized he was glowering. Good. “Our best idea just got chewed up and spit out. We just hit them with the biggest hammer we have. If brute force isn’t going to stop these motherfuckers, what will?”
No one said anything. “Now, dammit!” Tal yelled. Keep it together, Jason, he told himself. He gripped the warm cup even more firmly. He was sneering now, he knew. He didn’t care.
Vice Admiral Ankh raised her hand. “Vice Admiral?” Tal acknowledged.
“One of my weaponers suggests we seed the field with fusion detonators.”
“Mines?” Tal scowled. “They went right through our mines before.”
“These can be a lot bigger, and we can generate them quickly.”
Tal nodded. They could create another minefield in time. They could pack those mines with about twenty times the firepower as the last field they sailed through, and about ten times more power than the fission torpedoes the Dreadnaughts rained down on them. It was more of the brute strength approach, which had yielded them nothing thus far, but surely even the Prox had their limit.
“It may not be the idea, but it’s an idea, and unless it takes precious firepower away from another plan, it would be foolish not to try it.” He nodded curtly. “Admiral Ankh, I am appointing you project manager on this. Get it done.”
She stood, saluted, and ran from the room.
“Wormhole generators,” Admiral Pacholok said without raising his hand. Tal was the only Fleet Admiral present, but apparently Pacholok considered himself to be of sufficient rank that deference was optional. Tal let it slide.
“Say more,” he commanded.
“We know how to create wormholes. We can do it wherever and whenever we want. The technology isn’t complicated. We can throw about a dozen of them together before they reach us.”
“To what end?”
Pacholok scowled, as if wondering how Tal could be so stupid. Tal stood his ground. “Don’t make me infer anything, Donald, tell me what you’re thinking.”
Pacholok rolled his eyes. “We can load the wormhole generators onto probes—it requires triangulation, but probes aren’t a problem. We’ve got plenty of them.”
Tal nodded. “Go on.”
“The probes run in stealth mode. We hit all of their ships at once. It’ll shunt them into another part of the galaxy.”
“But wormhole generators aren’t stable,” Rear Admiral Vautin objected. “Nothing that has gone into an artificially generated wormhole has ever survived.”
“And that’s a problem why?” Pacholok cocked his head.
“It’s…a great idea,” Tal decided. “Pacholok, make it happen.”
Pacholok gave a curt nod, rose, and rushed from the room.
“More!” Tal demanded. “I haven’t heard the sure thing yet.”
Rear Admiral Carfew raised his hand, his eyes still rolled up into his head, obviously reading something from his neural.
“Carfew,” Tal spat.
“One of my captains suggests using Mars as a shield. The proximity is right—we’re lucky that way. We can position Sol Station behind it, so that Mars is between us and the advancing enemy, sir.”
“First of all, the Martians will hate that idea,” Tal said, considering it. Don’t dismiss this out of hand, he told himself. It might be a bad option, but it might be a better bad option than any other. “That will shield us from direct blasts, which would be useful against a conventional enemy, but the Prox do not shoot. What would prevent them from simply going around Mars?”
“It would provide a horizon, a target, as they came around,” Carfew was reasoning on the fly.
“That would be strategically useful,” Tal agreed. “But it wouldn’t stop them.”
“No sir, but it would provide a small advantage—the space equivalent of seizing the higher ground.”
“That’s a possibility. I’m going to set that…over here,” he pretended he had a box in his hand and set it on the table to his right. “More ideas. Quickly.”
Rear Admiral Lower Half Wengret raised her hand. “I have an idea for deploying our remaining ships in the most effective way possible.”
She actually stood in place. Tal liked the formality. “If none of the other ideas work…and I hope that they do…I suggest a funnel formation as their ships approach.”
She looked up and accessed her neural. “Graphic display mode, please.”
Around the room everyone looked up and switched the mode on. Tal did the same. When he looked back down, Wengret was drawing in patterns of light with her fingers.
She made a small circle to her right. “One end of the funnel is Sol Station.” She made a much larger circle directly in front of her, as large as her arms would reach, and turned it so that she was holding the edge. “Around the periphery of the wide part of the funnel will be every remaining ship we’ve got.”
She drew three small circles to her left. “These are the approaching Prox ships, at the other end of the funnel. The advantage of the funnel formation is that we can bring every one of our ships to bear without shooting each other. No crossfire.”
“No crossfire for a good long time…enough time to…” Tal didn’t finish the sentence. He nodded. The glimmer of a smile arose at one end of his mouth. “This is good work. Rear Admiral Wengret, I’m putting you in charge of battle plans—”
Someone cleared his throat. Admiral Lukas stood, his face almost glowing. “I like this plan—”
“I do too,” Tal said. “Do you have something to add to it?”
“Yes,” he said. “As the Prox ships approach, they’re going to concentrate their shields at the tops of their ships”—he jogged over to Wengret’s model—“here, to take the fire we’re generating. What about the underbelly?”
“What about the underbelly?” Tal asked.
“They won’t expect to be boarded,” Lukas said.
Tal’s eyes grew wide. A smile broke out on his face, bright as the sun. “No, Admiral. I dare say they will not.”
“What is it you want?” Tomás asked him. It was a question out of nowhere. The little man knelt and began rubbing their dishes with sand.
“I want to strangle someone,” Jeff said. “I want to strangle everyone.” He opened and closed his fists as he stared at his hands. He had good hands, strong hands. They would be very effective at strangling.
“Aren’t you responsible for enough people’s lives?” Tomás did not look at him as he spoke.
Jeff scowled. “You don’t think we should kill the Ulim? Isn’t that the mission?”
“Must you always have a mission?” Tomás smiled.
“I’m a military man. There’s always a mission.”
Tomás shook his head patiently. “You don’t get justice or peace by being as evil as your enemy. Real change comes when you are so kind to your enemy that it breaks his heart.”
Jeff blinked, not understanding where the little man was going with this. “So…are you suggesting we bring the Ulim some roses? Maybe some candy? How about champagne, while we’re at it?” He was joking, but his jests were laced with venom.
“We must not allow them to continue, but this does not mean we must seek revenge. A good parent sets limits for a child, but doesn’t retaliate against a child’s anger.”
“The Ulim are children now?”
“Aren’t we all?” Tomás stood up and brushed the last of the sand from the metal plates. He placed them back in a canvas equipment bag. “Mi amigo,” he said, placing a hand on Jeff’s arm. “You must learn some things before we do anything.”
Jeff towered over him. “What things?”
“You must learn to use those talents of yours. Safely.”
Jeff felt the hair on his neck stand up. He crossed his arms. He was about to refuse when Tomás turned away again.
“It was why you came here. It was why you sought me out. To refuse is to refuse your destiny.”
“That’s dramatic,” Jeff objected.
“It is also the truth.”
Jeff’s stomach twisted into a hard, painful knot. His brows furrowed.
“Do not be afraid,” Tomás said. “I will not let you kill anyone.”
“Gee, thanks,” Jeff said.
“Let us begin then.” Tomás pointed to the log they had been sitting on. “Balance on that log.”
Jeff scowled and did not move.
Tomás sighed. “If you will not trust me, I cannot help you…and we will not stop Los Comelones.”
Jeff uncrossed his arms, sighed, and rolled his eyes. Then he got up on the log. He stretched his arms out to balance and held his pose. “Now what?”
“Just notice. What happens if you lean too far to your right?”
“I’ll fall off.”
“And to your left?”
“I’ll fall off the damn log,” Jeff snapped. “What’s your point?”
“We are healthy when we balance extremes. If we go too far to one side, we slip into chaos, disorder, disease…even evil. If you go too far in the other direction, the same thing happens, only in different ways.”
Jeff cocked his head. “Give me an example.”
Tomás nodded. “Food. Think about food. If you have too much food, you become unhealthy. If you have too little food…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
Jeff did. “You get sick.”
Tomás nodded. “Exactamente. This is true of everything. Poverty and wealth. Humility and pride. Liberty and regulation…”
Jeff nodded. He was tracking with Tomás’ thought. But he still didn’t understand how it connected with their situation.
“This is true of community as well. Let me ask you, mi amigo, would you consider yourself a social person?”
“Uh…no, I would not say that,” Jeff admitted.
“What would you say?”
“I would say that other people are a necessary evil and if I could be alone all the time, I would be.”
“Is that an exaggeration?”
Jeff shrugged while still keeping his arms out for balance. “Not much of one.”
“Isolation is not healthy,” Tomás said.
Jeff did not contradict this.
“On the other hand, Los Durmientes have gone too far in the other direction. They have joined their minds. They are completely enmeshed. This makes them…unwell. And their sickness spreads whenever they make contact with others.”
“Can I get off this now?” Jeff asked.
“Health requires togetherness and solitude, in similar measure,” Tomás continued.
Jeff stepped down without permission. “What are you saying to me?”
“I am saying this is where we start. Would you say that you are a man who trusts others easily?”
“No,” Jeff answered.
“Are you a man who accepts help willingly?”
Jeff flashed back to his childhood, to the time when he caught hypothermia in the wilds of Alaska. He remembered how angry and distraught his father had been that he did not call for help. He heard his father’s voice in his head, You’ve gotta let yourself be helped sometime, Jeff. “Never,” he said.
“Are you a man who relies on others when your life depends on it?”
Jeff shrugged again. “Sure. Of course. Mechanics work on my ship. Superiors give me orders. Cooks make my dinner. I rely on them.”
“What enables you to do that?”
“Necessity, I suppose.”
“Does it always…” he fished for a word, “irritate you?”
Jeff narrowed his eyes. “Sometimes.”
“I think you will be very irritable in the next few days.”
“Because you must learn to rely on me.”
Jeff nodded gravely. “I get what you’re saying.”
Tomás put a hand on his elbow and squeezed it. “Good. Now first, there is no danger in looking, which I think you have discovered. You found me, nothing bad happened. This is safe. You can even look beyond the universe into another—”
“—and this is still safe.”
Jeff’s eyes grew dark. “But moving objects…”
Tomás nodded. “You can move yourself, and you can safely move things smaller than yourself. You do not need to worry about this. But…”
“Wait—” Jeff held up his hand. “I moved a house, and nothing bad happened.”
Tomás shrugged. “You got lucky—that time.” He looked away, toward the horizon. “Do you know why your universe was…disappeared?”
The question came like a punch to the gut. It was also worded strangely, as if it had resonance beyond the present situation, but Jeff was not aware of what that was. “No.”
Tomás knelt and began rummaging in his bag. He pulled out a small poly ball—it looked like a handball, Jeff realized. Then he pulled out a tube of brightly colored woven fabric.
“What is that?” Jeff asked.
“It is a sleeve,” Tomás said.
“I am making a coat,” Tomás said. “And this is the sleeve.”
Jeff had heard of people making their own clothes, but it had always seemed eccentric. He reminded himself that he didn’t know how things were done in Tomás’ culture, let alone in his universe. “Okay, it’s a sleeve.”
“You have two hands,” Tomás said. “Pass the ball through the sleeve without allowing it to touch the sleeve.” He held up one finger. “You cannot palm the ball. That is cheating.”
Jeff nodded and picked up the ball. He held up one end of the sleeve and passed the ball into it. He was able to get about half way, when he needed to let go and hold up the other end of the sleeve for the exit. But as soon as he did so, the fabric over the ball collapsed, touching the ball.
“Uh…okay, this material is lighter than I thought, so it’s not very…it doesn’t stay, so…”
“But what if you had another set of hands?” Tomás said. He pinched the fabric at the far end of the sleeve and held it up. Jeff was able to pass the ball all the way, and he dropped it out the other side.
He looked up at Tomás. “Are you saying that if there were two people making the jump from one universe to another—”
“If one tends to the entrance,” Tomás nodded, “and one tends to the exit, no damage occurs.”
“You can travel between universes?” Jeff nodded, getting it.
“We can do that solo. It’s moving things larger than ourselves that requires assistance.”
“And we can do that,” Jeff said, emphasizing the “we.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement he was trying on for size.
“We can,” Tomás said. “But we must work together to do it.”
Jeff looked down at him, weighing his words, his demeanor, his veracity.
“You must walk off a cliff…and trust me to catch you.” Tomás met his eye.
“That’s hard,” Jeff said.
“Have you ever turned down a mission because it was difficult?”
“Then this is your mission now, isn’t it?”
Jo and Nira stared at one another. “Are you ready to do this?” Jo asked. Her face was hard, but Nira suspected it was always a little hard. There was kindness in her voice, though.
Nira nodded and stood. She was still a little wobbly from her time in the Interworld, but no more so than after a week in bed after a bad cold, she was pleased to discover. She’d been doing physical therapy aboard the Talon for the past few days and was feeling almost herself again. She did not miss the weird appearance of her avatar, although she did miss being tall.
“I think we should just put it all out there,” Jo said. “No need for secrets. People are going to talk; let them talk about what’s real. Okay?”
“Absolutely,” Nira said. “Uh…Captain?”
Jo paused in the middle of her turn. “Yes?”
Jo smiled. “It was the least I could do for…well, for Jeff. You better be as good as he says you are, though.” She narrowed her eyes in mock-threat.
Nira laughed out loud, then brought her hand to her mouth to stifle it. “Sorry.” Jo turned again.
Jo paused again.
“Do you think there will be some resentment? I mean…I’m an outsider.”
Jo shrugged. “Who knows? I stopped thinking I could control what other people think or feel a long time ago. They’ll feel how they feel. Then they’ll fucking get over it or they’ll find themselves on another ship. Can you live with that?”
Nira’s eyebrows rose, but she nodded.
Jo softened. “Besides, people are transferred on and off ships all the time. It’s not uncommon to host a crew member from another jurisdiction. And god knows there’s enough of them out there,” she waved at space, apparently, or maybe at neutral space. Jo met Nira’s eyes and gave her an encouraging look. “It’ll be fine.”
Nira clasped her hands behind her back and puffed out her chest, wishing just this once that her breasts were bigger. The new red uniform fit well, though, and it looked smart on her. She made a good appearance, and she knew it. “Let’s do this.”
Jo finally completed her turn and exited her ready room. Nira stepped through and heard the door slide shut behind her.
The bridge crew were hard at work, but it was quiet work. One by one, they stole a glance over to the captain…and to her.
Nira moved to stand beside the command chair to the immediate right of the captain. Her command chair. The traditional spot for the XO, the Number One.
Before she sat, though, Captain Taylor cleared her throat. “Can I have your attention, please? I’d like everyone to meet Commander Camil Nira, our new XO. She’s not from around here…in fact, she’s from String 310.”
There were some gasps. Jo waited for that to sink in. “It’s true. There she served with distinction under Captain Jeffrey Bowers, a trusted colleague of mine. Some of you met him recently. On their string there is no civil war, no RFC, no Authority. The Colonial Defense Fleet still exists…or existed, until recently. It’s…a long story, and I’m sure Commander Nira will be glad to tell it at another time. The point is, she’s here, now, and she’s in command. You will treat her with the same deference and respect that you do me. Are there any questions?”
There were a couple of open mouths and lots of raised eyebrows. Yes, they had questions. They had a lot of questions. But no one was asking any of them now, which was exactly what Jo anticipated. “Good. Commander Nira will spend some time with us on the bridge today, but starting tomorrow, she’ll command the B team during your off-hours.”
Jo introduced her to the bridge crew. Nira had already read the files and memorized their names: Navigator Marcia Chi, whom she found irresistibly cute. Communicator Tash Liebert, who had an aw-shucks smile. Weaponer Shell Ditka, who was sexy as hell but whose hard look and spiky white hair scared her a little. But it was a good scare, and she would enjoy getting to know her. “After shift, I’ll introduce you to Doctor Mbusa, Commander Ocampo in Engineering, and Security Chief Dixon.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Jo looked at Nira and gave her a curt nod. Nira nodded back. Jo sat. Nira did the same. Everyone else turned back to their controls, apparently eager for a return to normalcy.
Nira took the few minutes of quiet that followed to review their current mission—escorting a caravan en route to Deseret colony. Deseret was on the edge of neutral space, just inside RFC borders. It had been plagued recently by pirates. Their mission was to make sure the twenty-one ships in the caravan made it to the Mormons in one piece. Simple.
“Sir, I have an incoming report from RFC control.”
“Unclassified, sir. It…it’s a general announcement.”
“On screen.” Nira watched Jo shift in her chair, leaning forward. She didn’t know this captain, but she suspected that Jo was exactly the person she aspired to be. She would watch her closely.
The screen flashed and a woman’s fleshy brown face filled the screen. Who in the world is this? Nira thought. She was wearing a red uniform, and she recognized admiral’s insignia. Whoever she is, she’s important.
“All personnel, listen up. As you’ve no doubt seen on the news feeds, the Authority has withdrawn every one of its ships to engage a fight at Sol Station. We now know why. The Authority is under attack from an unknown alien aggressor. We don’t have much, but here’s what we’ve been able to glean…”
Nira’s mouth opened wide as she saw an all-too-familiar sight unfold on the screen—the Prox, approaching with their metallic legs extended. She watched them land and then watched the same legs tear sheets off a hull, shoving them in the direction of their mandibles. Nira shuddered.
She thought she’d left those bastards behind, that they’d been eliminated when her own string was destroyed. It was as if she had awakened from a nightmare only to discover the most terrible part of it was true. The tiny hairs on her arms stood straight up.
It was just a clip. The admiral’s soft, friendly face reappeared. “We don’t know much about these creatures—”
“I do,” Nira said, loud enough to be heard.
“—but we know our enemy is in trouble. We do not wish our enemy evil. Our enemy is our family. Our differences are political, not personal. We have sent overtures to the Authority through official channels to offer our assistance against this threat. So far, we have heard no response. But I want you all to know that we have made them. Go about your business, but prepare for war. Do your previously assigned duties, but prepare your hearts, for if our brothers and sisters call, we will rush to their aid, whatever our differences may have been in the past.” Her features softened from resolute to compassionate. “I know some of you will have feelings about that. The Authority killed my entire maternal family, so…I understand how you might feel. Nevertheless, trouble and opportunity often arrive as twins. Let us not take up only one of them and leave the other on the doorstep. Admiral Alinto out.”
The screen went blank.
Every eye turned to Nira.
Jo cocked her head. “So tell us what you know.”
When Captain Danny Hightower stepped on the bridge of the Horatio Nelson, Ernst Foulon called out, “Captain on deck!” Everyone stood, as he expected. Had there been a hesitation? Danny scowled. And was that hesitation in his XO’s announcement or in his crew’s reaction? It had been a fraction of a second, and memory was plastic. He couldn’t say for sure. He felt slighted, he just wasn’t sure why.
As was his wont, he let them all stand up completely. “As you were,” he said finally. They sat. No one would look at him. What is that all about? he wondered. He was used to not having friends. That was a captain’s lot. But there was something about the crew’s response to him in the last few days that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Report,” Danny said, taking his chair.
“Our intelligence checks out,” Foulon said.
“I told you it would.” Danny flashed him a roguish smile.
No smile from Commander Foulon. Danny frowned. Be that way, he thought. He stabbed at a button on his command chair. “Engineering,” he said. He could have asked Lieutenant Lo to connect him and ordinarily would have, but his teeth were on edge from the cold shoulder he was receiving.
“Tenzin here,” a voice came from the speaker in the arm of his chair.
“Raj, how is the camo coming?”
“Almost finished, sir. Fortunately we’re a small vessel, as warships go, so it wasn’t hard to camouflage us as a transport rig. We even put a few mock storage containers on the underbelly.”
“Good work. What are they made of?”
“Foam, sir! Sheer bulk, light as air. We can jettison them any time we need.”
“Not a scrap of blue left, sir. No insignia. No call numbers…well, new call numbers. We dug up an expired registration from a neutral space vessel out of Trafalgar. The ship was retired for scrap, but it used to do a small circuit and its call sign is still active. We painted the call numbers on our hull and…presto! We’re the Spruce and Bonnet.”
“Spruce and Bonnet?”
“The Brits named their ships after pubs for a while. It was a fad.”
“Good thing.” Danny nodded. This was good, all very good. “Engine signature?”
“That’s the one thing we can’t disguise, sir,” a note of weariness crept into Tenzin’s voice, as if he had really been working hard on this one and still hadn’t been able to crack it.
“You don’t need to disguise it, Commander. I just want you to change it.”
“You can’t make momos into kheer, but you can make them unrecognizable as momos, is that what you’re saying?”
Danny nodded more vigorously, then remembered that Tenzin couldn’t hear a nod. “Just so, Commander.”
“Hmm…I have some ideas about that.”
“I’ll leave you to them. Bridge out.” Danny stood and strode over to Communicator Lo’s station. He saw Lo stiffen. “At ease, Mr. Lo. How is that message coming?”
“I’ll pull it up, sir,” Lo said, his voice quavering. Danny hated that he had that effect on people. He also loved it.
It was a text message, suddenly flashing in the air above Lo’s station. A position requisition to the Deseret Import and Trading Company for a location in the caravan. Danny saw that the message was from a Captain Onigi Hiraja. “I can’t play Japanese in case someone wants to speak to me, Lieutenant.”
“Sorry, sir. That was the name of the captain of record for the Spruce and Bonnet.”
“Shit. Well, ships change captains,” Danny noted. “Make me a Brit.”
“A Brit, sir, yes sir. How about Captain Perry Byrd?”
Hightower nodded. “Captain Byrd. I like it…”
“Make the changes and send it.”
“Mr. Foulon, in my ready room.”
“Yes sir.” Foulon rose and waited for the captain to cross.
Once the door had slid shut, Danny motioned to a chair. “Sit.”
Danny poured two whiskeys and set one of them down in front of Foulon. It was too early in the day for it, but it had become a little ritual for them. It was, Danny realized, an expression of good will. A peace offing.
“Tell me what’s up, Ernst,” he said, sipping at his glass. “The crew is off. You’re off. What’s going on?”
Foulon looked away. Danny waited. He took another sip. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Commander, but I’m not a particularly patient man.”
Foulon glanced back at him, met his eyes for a split second, then looked away again. “No sir.”
“Then tell me. What. The fuck. Is going on?”
“At Epworth, sir. Everyone who went ashore, who needed to…”
“I get it, Commander, people need to go ashore when stocking and such.”
“Yes sir, and they saw the news. I saw the news. We don’t know what’s happening…back home, sir…but we know something’s happening. And it’s happening without us.”
Danny tapped on the side of his glass with his fingers.
“So people are worried, and they’re scared, and if they’re like me, they feel like…well, like we’re not where we’re supposed to be.”
“Is that how you feel?”
Foulon’s eyes narrowed. He came across as edgy but cool. Danny approved. “Feeling isn’t really my strong suit, sir, but your crew is human, and most of them have feelings. It’s something we need to manage.”
It wasn’t untrue. It was, in fact, one of the essentials when it came to commanding a crew. It was just one of the essentials Danny knew he wasn’t particularly good at. “How do you manage your feelings, Ernst?”
“I try to be logical, sir. You are the captain. Your word is law. End of story.”
“Is it?” Danny swirled his whiskey and took another sip. Morning whiskey. He could get a little too used to that.
“And the rest of them?”
“I think we need a cover story.”
Danny bunched his eyebrows, but he smiled. “Tell me more.”
“We’re on a classified mission to eliminate the Kali of Aken.”
“Funnily enough, we are on a classified mission to eliminate the Kali of Aken.”
“We just need to suggest that the mission comes straight from the Admiralty, sir.”
“Without saying as much?”
“Without raising any suspicions to the contrary. We should do things…as we normally do, sir.”
“We could…let them in on the mission.”
“We’re about to engage. That’s standard procedure.”
Danny nodded. “You think that will cure our…malaise?”
“Cure it, sir? I don’t know. Cauterize it…?” There was a tiny curl at the edge of Foulon’s lip. The man didn’t like what they were doing, Danny could see that. Foulon couldn’t quite bring himself to enjoy the conspiracy. “That we can do.”
Admiral Ankh had worked fast. Within a half hour of their meeting in the conference lounge, the first of the scouts loaded with fission mines had launched and sped to a point midway between Sol Station and the advancing Prox ships.
Tal glanced up at his neural to check the time. It was now two hours after the meeting, and already they had succeeded in creating a minefield twenty kilometers thick and six hundred thousand kilometers wide, with mines planted every thirty-three kilometers.
He wouldn’t have thought it possible to deploy them so quickly, but some far-sighted lieutenant in the armory had already fixed warheads to an army of probes. All they really needed to do was dump them at strategic points, and their internal navigation systems would move them into place. They’d also be attracted—as if magnetically—to any hull not pinging out an Authority signal.
Tal was relieved that they’d had the surplus of drones—they’d need more before the day was out. He was also relieved that there was no lack of fissionable material on station. A couple of lucky breaks, he thought as he stood at parade rest at his post in the Command Center. We’ll need a couple more of those.
Tal could sit. He had a chair. But his anxiety was too great. Instead, he obsessively checked the readouts on the great screens in front of him and bounced on the balls of his feet. If he lived through this day, he might lose some weight. The thought caused a smile to curl up one side of his mouth.
It soon faded as he received a message. He glanced up and blinked, retrieving it.
—Mines set and in place. Scouts returning to port.
Tal nodded, selecting a standard “good work” response.
Tal looked at the firepower statistics one more time. The original minefield had been set with 5-megaton fission bombs. That’s enough to blast a hole in the side of a Dreadnaught. The mines they’d just finished setting were 20-megaton bombs. There were no such things as 20-megaton bombs. There had never been any use or need for them before. Why use twenty when five would do just fine? It was a lesson learned from the 20th-century’s Cold War. No one needed to blow up the world thirty-seven times over when one time would do.
They’d accomplished the task by stacking. They literally stacked four 5-megaton warheads on top of one another, wired them in series, and fastened them to the original warhead fixed to the probe. The result looked like an ugly science experiment, but Tal had confidence in his armory. They might look like hell, but they’d work like a dream—of that he had no doubt.
Tal had never seen a ship that could withstand a 5-megaton blast. Not until now. He bit the inside of his lip as he accessed his neural and reviewed the speculative schematics of the Prox ships assembled by the tiny but brilliant xenoengineering team. There were three columns of information, each item cross-referenced to every other related item. The first contained known facts—measurable data. The second was populated by educated guesses extrapolated from the known data. The third column was filled with sheer speculation—possibilities. All of it was useful as hell.
The Prox had three ships. The minefield contained 12,000 mines. Each ship would be met by at least six 20-megaton bombs as it crossed the minefield, no matter what point of access they chose. Tal’s confidence rose a tick. He nodded.
It was a good plan, and he’d need to commend Admiral Ankh and whatever captain had suggested it. It would almost certainly eliminate the threat without loss to a single further ship. That thought caused his mood to darken again. The loss of the Dreadnaughts was a grave matter indeed—not just due to the loss of personnel, although that was all he would be able to acknowledge publicly. He also grieved the loss of the ships themselves. Their loss was almost impossible to gauge—the firepower, the strategic opportunities, the yielding of ground to the rebels, the inestimable financial cost of the great, lumbering ships…
He shook his head. Those ships were nothing but debris now. I can’t let myself dwell on it. I have living people to save here, he reminded himself. As he read the third column filled with speculations, he flashed back on the one man who actually knew something about their enemy—Bowers, a captain in a Colonial Defense Fleet that still existed on some other reality string. He had not really believed it then, and he barely believed it now. But still, he had known. He would give anything for Bowers’ presence now. Hell, I’d make him an official advisor. I’d give him a field commission! He cursed himself for letting himself be influenced by Hightower. The snake. The demon. The very thought of the man—his deceit, his abandonment of duty, his theft of an Authority vessel—made Tal want to spit. He had never trusted him, not in his gut. Turns out his gut was right. Isn’t it always? he thought.
And what did his gut tell him about his minefield? Nothing good. He prayed to whatever cosmic powers might persist beyond the prevalent cynicism of his age that this time, this once, his gut would be wrong.
The PA crackled and a voice announced for the benefit of the entire Command Center, “Lead Prox ship is now approaching the minefield.”
Tal gripped the handrail that separated the elevated command platform from the working floor, tightening his grip on it, threatening to twist it into scrap. The main viewer flickered and resolved on an ideal perspective, the Prox ship nearly filling the screen. The probes were too tiny to be seen, but Tal knew they were there, even now being drawn by their programming—their telos, their reason for being—toward the enemy hull.
“Lead Prox ship has entered the minefield.”
It was only a matter of seconds now. Tal glanced at a map of the minefield, spread out over three monitors. The perspective was bird’s eye, from above. He could see the three Prox ships, the first one having crossed the imaginary line where the first of the mines was placed, somewhere along the six-hundred-thousand-kilometer edge of the field. He could also see that the ship was about to bump into one, no two, of the blinking probes.
“Nukes are armed and ready.” The announcer’s voice cracked.
That’s what’s at stake, Tal thought. That humanity, that vulnerability. We try not to show it, but it’s the only thing that makes us precious.
Tal studied the ships. He saw the teeming soldier Prox, impossibly swarming on the outside of the hull. Their inhumanity made him feel cold, made his flesh crawl. It looked as if the entire hull was in motion, a roiling, shifting substance that could not be solid. The sight of so many alien soldiers on the hull made Tal wonder just who was inside, who was pulling the strings, directing the attack? It occurred to him that it wasn’t the crablike creatures swarming over the hull that was their real enemy—it was whoever was protected inside those impenetrable hulls. The soldiers were just weapons. But whoever was driving those ships—those were the brains behind the guns.
Tal began to count. He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was a way to mitigate his tension as he waited for the first explosion in the minefield. But also, probably, to keep extraneous thoughts at bay. It was a centering technique, although he didn’t think about it. He just did it.
He had reached seventeen when the first explosion hit. Tal narrowed his eyes as the screen lit up, going completely white. He watched the entire room flinch, turn their eyes away from the screen.
It was just a screen. It could only emit so much light, and not enough to hurt anyone, but people shielded their eyes anyway. They did it reflexively. Tal resisted the temptation, but he felt it.
He knew it would take a while for the screen to resolve again. It occurred to him that the time after a nuclear detonation and before a detectable result was a time of pregnant quantum potentiality. In those few seconds, the Prox were both dead and alive. Schrödinger’s Prox. It was a paradox he was eager to resolve.
The screen flickered as the view shifted to another camera, one less affected by the blast. Tal held his breath and leaned over the railing.
The Prox ship sailed on. Tal blinked, barely believing his eyes. Another blast wiped out the screen again, then another took out all their monitors. The lieutenant controlling them cycled rapidly through his options, looking for some shot, any shot, that would give them a clue as to the fate of the enemy.
A young man from the floor stood, addressing him directly. “No visuals, sir.”
“Keep trying, son,” Tal said.
The young man sat and the screens resumed their flickering.
“Surely we’ve got more than visuals,” Tal said, raising his voice.
“Radiation sonar is out,” came one voice.
“Subspectrum light,” Tal said.
“On screen,” someone shouted.
Tal looked up. The picture was monochrome, rendered in differing shades of purple. A flicker, then it was just black and white and a variety of grays. Tal found that easier to look at, which was no doubt why the monitor controller had switched it.
At first, Tal couldn’t find his orientation. Then he realized it was the camera that hadn’t found its orientation. It zigzagged wildly across the star field until it found purchase on a still white-hot explosion. It locked on and zoomed in.
Tal’s jaw dropped as he watched the Prox ship moving toward them, whole and unharmed.
More explosions began as the other ships entered the minefield—the ultraviolet sensors were not nearly as disrupted by the detonations, and Tal studied how the blasts seemed to burst outward, away from the ships.
The lead ship was close enough now that he could still see the swarming soldiers. Even they were unharmed.
“Goddammit,” he swore. “Theories?”
But there weren’t any. Not yet. They’d need to study the data, especially when their sensors were all back online. But will we have that data in time?
“ETA on Prox in swarming range of the station?” he asked everyone and no one in particular.
“Twelve hours,” came the response.
Twelve hours to say goodbye. Twelve hours to make love one last time. Twelve hours to mourn. “Twelve hours to fight,” he said aloud.
“Let us start small,” Tomás said. He walked toward the west. Jeff followed. After about .25 kilometers he came to a large felled tree. Its bark was black, and its branches were spindly and twisted.
That is the ugliest goddamn tree I have ever seen, Jeff thought.
“Let us move this tree from here to an equal distance on the other side of our camp.” He smiled patiently.
“Why not?” Jeff shrugged. He appeared nonchalant, but he had started sweating. He felt like he was playing with fire. It was dangerous, irresponsible. He had been carrying the guilt of innocent people’s lives his entire adult life. He didn’t need any more.
“You stay here, I’ll go over there. You have a…” He couldn’t find the word. He pointed to his head.
“A neural? Yeah. No connection here, though.”
“But your reloj…timekeeper…it still works, no?”
“Yes, no problem.”
“In ten minutes, I will meet you in…” he cocked his head. “I have never had to speak of it before. Well, since you have called me curandero, I will meet you in the Otherworld.”
With that, the little man turned and walked back the way he had come.
Jeff wrestled with how to feel about him. He was still not over the fact that, in some tenuous way, Tomás was him. Battling against those feelings, however, was an ominous blanket of dread. He did not want to do this, whatever they were about to do. The tree, fallen and gnarled as it was, was considerably larger than himself. He could do a lot of damage here. He gritted his teeth and steeled himself. It seemed a high price, but it needed to be paid if they were to have any hope against the Ulim.
There had always been something off about them. And as clumsily as they had inhabited Danny’s form, they seemed to have no problem knowing how to act human. At least that mystery was solved.
Jeff shook his head and checked his chronometer. It was time. He sat down cross-legged about a meter away from the trunk of the tree and took a deep breath. As he exhaled, he entered into the All.
It was a familiar feeling by now. He wondered if all those stories he’d heard his whole life about out-of-body experiences had simply been this.
He went out—drawing energy from a nearby star. Then he expanded, filling everything—then contracted, searching for Tomás. He found him. It wouldn’t have mattered if he were .5 kilometers away or 500 million. There he was, and Jeff went to him.
He saw him meditating cross-legged on the ground, just like himself. Then he felt a tug. He looked, and there was Tomás—another Tomás—like a pale, shimmering shadow. “This is the astral form,” Tomás said. The apparition’s mouth was moving, but Jeff heard the voice in his mind. He nodded.
“I want you to go back to the tree and move it. I’ll hold the other side of the…” Tomás pursed his lips, thinking.
“Transport tube?” Jeff suggested.
The ghost of Tomás laughed. “That name has no beauty. But it is good enough for now.”
Jeff turned and instantly found himself looking at the tree again and at the meditating form of his own body. He reached out and pinched a point in space near Tomás, but saw Tomás holding up his hand. Tomás pinched the space, then held his hand out to Jeff. Jeff grabbed hold of the space just under the tree, then reached through to grasp Tomás’ hand.
What he met wasn’t solid, but it was real. He closed his non-fingers around it and felt a tingle of energy. He felt Tomás’ non-fingers tighten just when he thought the force of the energy would make his arm careen wildly—but their connection held. Jeff felt a rush of energy as the tree moved through.
A moment later, the energy was gone. Tomás’ non-hand was gone. Jeff opened his eyes and found himself sitting cross-legged next to a bare patch of ground where a tree used to be.
He jumped up and jogged back to where Tomás was. He passed their camp and kept going. He was winded by the time he saw the little man’s form.
Tomás smiled when he saw him. “You didn’t have to run,” he said, which Jeff took to mean he could have just transported. He wasn’t comfortable with that. Not yet.
Tomás pointed. The tree was there, looking just as ugly as it had half a kilometer away. It was lying on another side, but it was obviously the same tree.
Tomás patted his arm. “How was that?”
Jeff nodded. “It was okay.” It was a little weird, but he wasn’t going to let on.
“Now we will try something bigger.”
Jeff nodded his agreement. “How much bigger?”
Tomás looked around. “Take a look at this place. What’s missing?”
Jeff put his hands on his hips and turned around completely. There were trees, but it was mostly flat plains. “I don’t know. Animals? Hills?”
Tomás nodded. “Hills. This place needs a hill. Or a small mountain. Don’t you think?”
“We’re going to move a mountain?” Jeff narrowed one eye at him.
Tomás grinned. “Que si tuviereis fe como un grano de mostaza, diréis a este monte: Pásate de aquí allá; y se pasará.”
“Come again?” Jeff asked.
“Let’s find our mountain,” Tomás said. He patted the ground next to him. “It is easier to send than to receive.”
“Easier to pitch than catch,” Jeff translated.
Tomás scowled a bit, but it was an amused scowl. “So when we find our pequeña montaña, I want you to teleport there. Then send the mountain to me.”
“If the mountain will not come to Muhammad…” Jeff smirked.
“Who is Muhammad?”
Jeff blinked. “Your universe is definitely different from mine,” he said. He closed his eyes and moved into the All.
He felt, rather than saw, Tomás’ presence. He spoke, and although he heard his own voice, once again it was in his head. “How can I be sure I won’t drop the mountain on top of you?”
“I’ll direct its path on this side. Not to worry.”
And that, Jeff realized—so profoundly that he experienced a moment of vertigo—was the crux of the matter. Jeff didn’t trust Tomás. He didn’t trust anyone.
Tomás seemed to sense his tension. He felt the proximity of Tomás’ presence, although he was sure geographic location had little to do with it.
“Trust is not innate,” Tomás’ voice said in his head. “It is a choice. It is not something you possess, it is something you do.”
Jeff had not thought of it that way before. A moment later, Tomás was gone. He searched for Tomás’ presence again and found it. Not surprisingly, it was near a large hill.
“So, just move the whole…” Jeff began.
“You’ll have to cut it off at some point.” Tomás’s ghostly hand made a horizontal slicing gesture near the hill’s base.
“Just…cut it off.”
Tomás gave him an encouraging smile. “I know you can do this.” Then he was gone.
Jeff reached back and pinched the space near where his body was sitting, then pinched the space where his essence was hovering. Then the brought the two together. When he opened his eyes, he was sitting at the base of the hill.
The universe had not disappeared. Nothing and no one appeared to be dead, or to have suffered in any way. Jeff exhaled an enormous sigh of relief. Then he closed his eyes again, quickly went into the All, and found Tomás.
The little man was waiting. Jeff pinched the ground, a huge swath of it. In his mind’s eye, he scooped up the earth all around the mountain. Then he reached out for Tomás.
He was there. He grabbed at his ghostly, astral arm. He clutched it as tight as he was able.
As the energy hit and the mountain rumbled and shook, Jeff held on for dear life.
We lost a battle, not the war, Tal reminded himself. Repeatedly.
He felt dizzy. He flailed one hand toward the handrail separating the levels of the Command Center, found it. But the buzzing in his head was so loud, so overpowering that he almost lost consciousness. He couldn’t collapse. Not here.
I have a command chair, he thought. He never sat in it, but he had one. Who was going to blame him if he sat in it now? In a haze, he turned and stumbled in its direction.
“Sir, are you all right?” Liu caught his elbow. Bless him, Tal thought, as the younger man held it steady while Tal made his way to the chair. He sat, and Liu darted away. A moment later he was back with a glass of water. Tal grasped it, grateful, and drank it all.
He didn’t realize he was on the brink of collapse until he was there. Then a semi-autonomous and rational part of his brain did a quick calculation. He’d been awake and on his feet for seventy-two hours. No wonder…
He waved at Liu, and the younger man bent, his ear near Tal’s mouth for privacy. “I need a doctor. Nothing acute, I just need…something to keep me awake and alert until…until this is over.”
Liu nodded, but he didn’t dart away again. Instead, he rose to his full height and put one hand on the back of Tal’s chair. Tal’s brain flashed on the image of some ancient sentinel or a lioness protecting her cub. Liu had been the best goddam secretary he’d ever had. The young man was loyal, knew how to keep secrets, and took good care of him. He’d never stopped to consider that he held the younger man in esteem, and even with affection, but he did.
Tal flashed on an image from one of Earth’s historic religions—now largely forgotten—of the great leader (Moses—was that right?) standing on a cliff overlooking a great battle. So long as he kept his hands in the air, his soldiers would win, but when he dropped them, his men began to lose. All would have been lost had he not had the help of another man to hold his arms up for hours upon hours… As long as he had Liu to hold his arms up, they might just win this thing.
He didn’t have to look at Liu to know that his eyes were rolled upwards, sending for the admiral’s surgeon. Will other people worry when they see a physician attending me? He wondered. But he expected Liu would navigate that discreetly. He didn’t need to know how. He had never micromanaged his secretary, and he wasn’t about to start now.
Just sitting down had helped. He felt less dizzy, and no doubt some water had helped his electrolyte balance, too. It is no shame to sit, he reminded himself. It was going to be a long battle, and he needed to take care of himself.
He turned his mind back to the art of war, to the oncoming enemy, to the protection of all he held dear. He punched at one of the buttons on his command chair. “Pacholok, I want an update on those wormhole generators.”
It took a moment to get a response, which is what he would expect from Pacholok. Tal might be in command, but Pacholok was the same rank as he and wasn’t about to let him forget it. “Gimme a minute, Jason.”
Only another admiral would dare call him by his first name. Only another admiral would dare tell him to wait a minute. Tal sighed and began to count. At seven, the speaker crackled and Pacholok’s voice emerged again. “Okay, Jason, here’s what we’ve got. Sixty-three probes, all with stealth capability, all with a top speed of C5. We’ve got them wired into triangulation patterns—so they’ll go out in groups of threes and operate as a single unit.”
“So what we’ve basically got are twenty-one mobile wormhole portals,” Tal said.
“That’s it. The biggest problem was the amount of power it takes to generate and maintain a wormhole. So every ‘team’ of three has one augmented probe carrying an extra reactor.”
“I assume these are dirty reactors,” Tal said.
“Yeah, we didn’t have time or, frankly, room on these little damn things for clean ones. So, an extra advantage if we want to detonate any of them. They won’t make very powerful bombs, but they’ll go boom and generate a shitload of radiation.”
“I can’t imagine needing that, but keeping them light and assembling them fast was the right call. How soon can we deploy?” Tal asked.
“We’re uploading the last of the revised code now. Thirty seconds?”
“And how fast can they engage?”
“We came up with a number of different scenarios and simulated the best of them. The one with the best chance for success—by a long shot—has them traveling at C3.565, then entering normal space about 2,000 kilometers from the enemy ships, directly in their path. It’ll take them four minutes and twenty-two seconds between our bay and their operational positions. There are three of them, so we’ve got seven chances at each of them.”
Tal nodded. If they couldn’t get them with seven tries, they deserved to die.
“Make it happen, Don,” Tal said, intentionally using Pacholok’s first name. Two could play at that game.
“Expect launch in three minutes. Pacholok out.”
Tal noticed movement in his peripheral vision and looked up. Doctor Basiliedes, the admiral’s surgeon, was making the rounds of those on the upper level of the Command Center. Tal saw him putting his hand on Liu’s shoulder, prying open his right eye, checking the pupil, then giving him a hypo-spray injection.
It was a good show, designed by Liu, no doubt, to deflect suspicion away from the surgeon’s attention to Tal. A moment later, however, he was placing his hand on Tal’s own shoulder.
“Admiral, how you holding up?”
The surgeon was Nigerian, black as midnight, in contrast to the coffee color of Tal’s own skin. He was a solid man, and Tal noted how his neck bulged in back as the doctor pried open his eyes—both of them, in succession—and peered into them. The doctor’s eyes were bloodshot and yellow, but then they always looked that way, Tal remembered.
Those yellow eyes narrowed, and without asking permission or saying a word to warn him, the doctor snatched up Tal’s hand and felt the wrist. He could have just accessed his neural for Tal’s vitals, and no doubt had been, but Tal figured there must be some value in feeling for oneself the strength of the pulse, something that mere numbers could not communicate.
“You need to rest,” he whispered.
“Like hell,” Tal whispered back.
“I want a summary of your operational timeline in twenty seconds or less. No arguments or I’ll sedate you and have you carted away.”
“We have an attack starting in five minutes.”
“If it works, I’ll sleep for a week.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Plan C…which is going to take us a few hours to set up.”
“Very well. I’m going to give you a shot.”
“What’s in it—” before he could finish the sentence, Tal heard the spray employ. “Christ sakes, doctor, what did you just do?”
“You have one hour before the sedative takes effect. Make good use of that time. Make sure your next-in-command is ready. Here’s what is going to happen. You’ll get very sleepy and you won’t be able to resist it. So one hour from now, make sure you’re in your room or you’ll suffer the indignity of being carried there in front of everyone.”
“I’ll have your fucking job—”
Basiliedes ignored him. “Then you’ll drop into a hyper-accelerated sleep state. Four hours later you’ll wake up feeling like you’ve just had the best night’s sleep of your life, and someone has given you an espresso IV drip.”
“I like the sound of that.”
“You won’t dream, you won’t waste any time falling asleep or waking up. It’ll be like a light switch, off and on. And when it comes on, no one will be able to stop you.”
“How come you haven’t given this to me before?”
“Because if you use it three days in a row your heart explodes.” Doctor Basiliedes smiled.
“Huh. Okay, good to know.”
“I’m going to move on now. Got to make the show a good one.”
“Of course. Uh…thank you, doc.”
Basiliedes nodded and snagged the next officer he saw.
Tal stayed seated, but barked out using his best command voice. “I want all screens on those probes when they launch.”
“Launch sequence in five…four…three…two…”
Tal squinted as he saw the probes, in neat formations of three, float through the port doors into space.
“Engaging cloaking protocols…”
The probes winked out of sight, as if they had been stars that had moved behind a moon.
Tal gripped at the faux leather of his command chair and leaned forward.
A schematic offered a god’s eye view of the deployment. He could see the three Prox ships moving almost imperceptibly toward them. Why don’t the bastards just flip into C-space and get it over with? he wondered. But he was instantly sorry he asked the question, because he knew the answer. It was as clear as the schematic in front of him. Their purpose wasn’t simply to conquer and consume Sol Station. It was to utterly deplete their ability to resist, to defend the Earth. They knew that the humans would throw everything they had at them now and would have precious little left by the time they got here. They were counting on it.
Tal felt his heart sink within him. The truth of it dragged the one remaining scrap of hope he possessed out of his chest and beat it to a steaming bloody pulp in front of him. He blinked back tears and looked away from the screens. Master yourself, goddammit, he thought.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and wiped his eyes surreptitiously as he did so. He sniffed and set his teeth in grim resolve. He saw a schematic of the first of the probes, in perfect triangulated formation, approaching the lead Prox ship.
He suspected it would stay just ahead of it until the other two were likewise covered. They only had one shot at the element of surprise, and he was sure Pacholok would not waste it.
He was right. He watched as three formations positioned themselves directly in front of the Prox ships. The Command Center was dead quiet, and Tal realized he was not the only person holding his breath.
Then he saw all three Prox ships wink out, the space suddenly black where they had been mere moments before.
“Yes!” Tal shouted, standing. A roar ascended from the Command Center. Officers were jumping up and down and hugging one another. The noise erupting from the room was deafening. Liu leaned in, “Congratulations, si—”
Tal held one hand up and took another step forward, almost right up to the guard rail.
One by one, people looked up at the screens and fell silent. The Prox ships were back. They were all in slightly different positions, but they were moving inexorably onward. They were still there, and they were still coming.
“That’s impossible,” Tal breathed. “Nothing has survived a wormhole generator.”
“That we know of, sir,” Liu corrected him, albeit politely. “Things go in, but we don’t know where. We lose contact with them, and we can’t get them back. But…we don’t actually know what happens to them.”
“So how are these motherfuckers back?”
“I…don’t know that, sir.”
The second string of generators was in place, and once again the Prox ships were wiped from known space.
A couple of seconds later, they reappeared.
And they kept coming.
Tal watched the schematic as the third set moved into position, but this time the Prox ships disappeared before the generators employed, winking back on the other side of the disrupted space. They had simply skipped over, or around, or through—Tal wasn’t sure which—the generators.
“How are they doing that?” Tal asked.
No one had an answer.
Four more generators tried to move into place, but the Prox ships evaded them all, simply by seeming to dematerialize and rematerialize out of range of the danger.
Tal sat heavily and buried his head in his hands.
“Plan C, sir,” Liu said.
Tal did not feel the need to answer him. He stood. He straightened his jacket.
“Make sure we’ve run all the equations for Admiral Wengret’s funnel idea and get the strike team moving. I want them drilling in twenty minutes, running through every scenario they’re likely to encounter when they breach the hulls of the alien ships.” He nodded at the screen. “I want plans for how they’re going to get in and how they’re going to get out. I want a weapons recommendation, and I want them to train with everything on it.”
“Yes sir. You can count on me, sir.”
Tal’s shoulders sagged. He reached out and steadied himself on Liu’s shoulder. “I know I can. I’m…I need to lay down.”
“Let’s go, sir. I’ll make sure you get there. And I’ll make sure everything is in place when you wake up.”
Emma stood in the shower, letting the hot water run over her head. She had to hand it to her captors, when they saw a need for a function, they made that function happen and pronto! It was abundantly obvious that a function was desperately needed after she finished her very first shift in the counting chambers. After twelve hours of what amounted to calisthenics, her jumpsuit had been soaked with sweat, and she reeked. The Alverians had been extremely alarmed when they saw her condition. Apparently losing that much bodily fluid would be life-threatening to one of them, and they were concerned for her health. She explained that such ‘leakage’ was completely normal for humans when physically exerting themselves, but that she would need a facility where she could wash on demand.
She’d expected them to balk at her request, if only for the use of water. Emma still had no idea where their water came from, or how much of a reserve they had. She also didn’t expect for them to expend much effort providing for her comfort. They didn’t seem to value comfort much, even for themselves. But much to her surprise, they didn’t even question the necessity of a shower and built one to her specification before the end of the following shift. The way she smelled at that point may have driven the point home.
She looked at her arms, barely recognizing them as her own. Her biceps were huge and ropey, her forearms bulging. They looked more like the arms of a martial artist than a scientist. Then she realized it had been weeks since she’d seen her own face. The Alverians apparently had no use for mirrors. They definitely didn’t share the same sense of individualism, of self, as humans did. It would never even occur to them to contemplate their own appearance. Aside from minor variations in coloring, they were all shockingly uniform in appearance.
Emma washed her jumpsuit in the shower using the “soap” they’d provided her. It made disappointingly little lather, but seemed to get the fabric clean. She rinsed it, then turned off the water and wrung it out as best she could and hung it on a hook in the wall.
The towel they’d arranged for her was scratchy and coarse, but absorbent enough to do the job. She dried off, fluffed her hair, then laid the towel flat on the floor. Next, she took the jumpsuit, folded it up loosely, and laid it on half of the towel. Then she flipped the other half over it and began stepping on it, walking all over the towel to force as much water out as she could. When she felt she could do no more, she put on the still-damp jumpsuit and hung the towel on the hook.
The common chamber was filled with the usual buzz of activity, but Emma ignored it, willing herself to keep moving. She lined up at the cafeteria, got the same disgusting food, and shuffled toward a table. This must be what prison is like, she thought.
Her mood picked up slightly when she saw Amberline waving, saving a spot for her at one of the tables. Emma smiled and joined her.
“How are you?” asked the mask.
“I am so tired, I barely know what I’m doing.”
“You will get used to it.”
“Maybe, at least until my arm falls off.”
Amberline tilted her head. “Is that likely?”
Emma groaned. “It certainly feels like it. It happened to the person next to me on the counting floor.”
“That is unfortunate.”
Emma ate some poi. “What will happen to her?”
“Which arm fell off?”
“Her left large arm.”
Amberline shook her head. “That is unfortunate,” she said again.
“Will they make a fake arm for her? Like mine?” She gestured to her prosthesis.
“I’m afraid not. The large arms are for lifting. If we made a prosthesis for her, it would be much weaker, not as functional.”
“Can she get by with three?”
“Unlikely. We do not do well when we do not function properly. It does not allow us to serve the hive to our fullest.”
Emma felt herself starting to tear up. “So what then? You’ll kill her?”
Amberline shook her head. “More likely she will kill herself, then be eaten.”
Emma gasped. “What? I thought you said you don’t eat females, that would be cannibalism!”
“Correct. We do not eat females.”
“Then who is doing the eating?”
“She would be fed to the males.”
Emma felt nauseated.
“You do not approve.”
“Would you prefer she go to waste, not serve the hive one last time?”
Emma shook her head. It was too much for her to deal with. She reminded herself that she was not dealing with humans, their ways were not her ways, it was not her place to judge. Still, she could not bring herself to eat any more.
“I have something that may lift your spirits,” Amberline said, pulling a small parcel from her satchel and placing it on the table.
“Is it a hamburger?”
“It is not.”
Emma half-heartedly picked up the package and began unwrapping it. Inside was a new tan jumpsuit. Emma’s eyes went wide. “You found one!”
“It was not hard to procure. I will add the cost to the fee my client will pay when we return you.”
“Thank you!” Now she could allow the outfit she washed in the shower to dry overnight and have a clean dry one to change into right away. She put her arm around Amberline and gave her a squeeze. Amberline allowed it. “This is almost as good as a hamburger.”
She did feel better, enough so to finish her poi. The meat could fuck right off, though.
When Jeff opened his eyes, he felt paralyzed. A great jagged wound marred the landscape. Where just seconds ago a large hill had dominated his vision, there were now only several square kilometers of raw soil. Jeff wondered at the destruction he—they—had just wrought. He felt a tinge of guilt at what must be hundreds of animals they had just displaced, earthworms suddenly bisected, mammals crushed beneath the undiscriminating weight of a small mountain.
“I just destroyed another universe,” he said. Why had he not thought of what would happen before he did it? He felt a wave of shame roll through him once more.
Tomás was suddenly beside him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
Jeff did not respond at first. When he did speak, his voice was thick and low. “I’m tired of destroying things.”
Tomás nodded and looked down. “Today you were a force of natural evil.”
“No. I was a force of moral evil. I…we…chose to do this.”
“We intended no malice.”
Jeff met his eyes. Tomás looked away. “Si, you are right, amigo. Shall we move it back?”
“And add damage to damage?” Jeff shook his head. “I can’t see how that would help.”
“Las tuzas will at least get their holes uncovered. They can get out.”
“Gophers…or whatever pass for gophers on this world.” Tomás gave him a weak smile.
“Yeah. Okay. Save the fucking gophers.”
“I need you to do it.”
Jeff seemed to snap out of it. “Right. Of course.” Then Tomás was gone.
It was easier the second time, almost surgical. Jeff went into the All and tapped into the sun’s energy. Then holding the space where he was standing, he reached through and held Tomás’ arm. He held on and felt the rush of unimaginable energy pass between them. Then when he opened his eyes, the hill was there again.
It was not exactly in the same position. He could see a slash on the landscape where raw soil was still visible, but it was a narrow ribbon. It was close. Good enough. Jeff closed his eyes, went back into the All, focused on Tomás, and was suddenly with him at their camp.
“You’re getting good at that,” Tomás said.
“What now?” Jeff asked.
“Almuerzo,” Tomás said. “Lunch.”
“How can you even think about food right now?” Jeff snapped. “The Prox are about to dismantle and eat Sol Station, we can do something about it, and you want to sit down for lunch?”
Tomás pulled tamales out of a small cooler. “We’ll heat these up with some pimientos.”
“I don’t like being ignored.” There was a growl in Jeff’s voice.
“I am not ignoring you,” Tomás said, setting out a small jar of jalapeños. “You are enojon. Grumpy. I plan to wait until you are kind again.”
“We don’t have time to…” Jeff’s anger rose to the point where he wanted to break something. The little man’s neck would do for a start. He clenched and unclenched his fists. “I’ll be right back.”
Jeff closed his eyes and went into the All. A few moments later, he was back.
Tomás raised one eyebrow at him. Jeff shrugged. “I had to do something.”
“At least you did it quickly.” Tomás pushed a metal plate at him. “Eat. You won’t be any good to your people if you do not sustain yourself. You must eat. You must sleep. You must tomar un descanso…take a break now and then.”
He was right, Jeff knew, which only made him madder. Grudgingly, Jeff sat cross-legged on the dusty ground and picked up the plate. Cold as they were, the tamales were excellent. The corn meal was sweet and nutty. The filling was…unusual.
He screwed up his face into a questioning look and pointed at the tamales.
“Butternut squash,” Tomás said, through a mouthful of food.
Jeff’s eyebrows rose. He took another bite. “Here’s what I don’t understand,” he said.
Tomás grunted, taking a bite of tamale.
“If the Ulim are running sightlines on possible futures, why aren’t they here now, trying to stop us?”
Tomás chewed slowly, and it was clear that he was thinking. He put his plate down and looked Jeff in the eye. “Because you and I…we are no threat to them. What we are going to do…it is impossible. They can see no timelines in which we do them any harm at all.”
Jeff put his plate down and swallowed. He struggled to sort out his feelings. At first he felt defeated. Then he felt his anger rush back, nearly drowning his reason. When that subsided, he was left with resolve. “We’re going to kick their asses,” he said. His voice was quiet but solid. Resolute. It was not an aspiration, it was a fact.
Tomás smiled. “Muy bien! We are certainly going to try.”
“So what’s next?” Jeff asked. “After lunch, that is?” It was an apology of sorts.
“Now, I will take you to see them.”
“To see who?”
“We will cross the barrier, into another string. We will go to my universe. We will visit Los Durmientes.”
“Tell me about our traveling companions,” Captain Daniel Hightower inquired. He unrolled his utensils from his napkin. The last of his senior staff were just now sitting down at the table. He had called the B Team in an hour early to man the bridge, and “invited” his A team for a working dinner. Everyone looked a little edgy and nervous—just the way he liked.
They had joined up with the caravan without incident. Lo had done a bang-up job with the credentials. No one had given them a second glance. Danny had to wonder just how stupid pirates in neutral space could be, if caravans could be so easily infiltrated. He reminded himself that this was not his problem.
Foulon had been right. After they’d announced their “mission” to the crew, morale had improved markedly. They had a purpose, they were doing something important. And most importantly, they weren’t outlaws. It was a shame that they actually were, but Danny wasn’t losing any sleep over that. Admiral Tal would have scolded him to plan long-range, to think further out, but fortunately he didn’t have to deal with that toad anymore. He had one objective, and she was so close he could taste her.
Navigator Galli swept her hair back and cleared her throat. “There are twenty-seven ships in the caravan, including us—not including the Talon. Twelve of them are class six transport ships. I can break them down by make, if you like…” Her voice rose at the end, waiting for Danny’s pleasure.
He waved at her. “Too much detail. Tell me who they are and what they’re carrying.”
Galli looked up to access her neural. “There’s the Sneaky Bison. As you might expect, they transport bison meat.”
“Why is the bison sneaky?”
“I…I don’t know that, sir.”
“Class six, crew complement of eight. Six hundred forty tons of meat.”
“That’s a lot of steak,” Danny nodded, tucking into his own. As he put the meat into his mouth, he realized he had just given everyone else tacit permission to begin eating themselves. He didn’t realize they’d been waiting for him, but he was glad they did. Danny enjoyed deference.
“Then there’s the Craft Angel.”
“Who names these goddam things?” Danny nudged Foulon’s elbow.
Foulon raised his eyebrows and shook his head, his mouth full and chewing.
“What, for God’s sake, is the goddam Craft Angel carrying?” Danny realized he was enjoying himself. He always ate alone. It was a rushed affair, usually, a matter of biological necessity, like shaving or shitting. But he realized he was feeling pleasure here, in the presence of his crew. It was an odd feeling. He’d have to think about it later.
“They….are….carrying….” Galli’s eyes were rolled up in her head, searching for the information. “Beer, sir.”
“Yes sir. 920,000 liters of it.”
“Are all these ships culinary transport?”
“Uh…no sir. I grouped them by cargo. I could start with machine parts or maybe with textiles.”
Danny waved the suggestion away. “No, just curious. Continue with the food. Seems appropriate.” He speared a Brussels sprout—the necessary evil of cruciferous vegetables.
By the time they’d finished eating, they were only halfway through Galli’s list. Danny shut her down. “That’s enough, I think. We get the idea. Send me that list, will you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Okay, then. Our mission is to get close to the Talon, study her, figure out her weaknesses. Foulon, I want engineering on this. I want to know about every weak spot. Look, but don’t let them know you’re looking.”
“We’ll make like we’re at the beach with sunglasses on.”
“That’s my boy.” Danny waved for the galley steward. The young man looked nervous as he leaned down to address the captain.
“Bring dessert. Enough for everyone.”
“What would you like, sir?”
“I don’t give a fuck, just bring enough for everyone.”
“But sir, we have over three hundred desserts on file—”
“Cake, goddammit! Bring some fucking cake.”
“Yes sir.” He started to scamper away. He stopped. “We have twenty-eight kinds—”
Danny threw a fork at him and glowered. He continued with his scampering. Danny turned his attention back to his bridge crew.
“It would be easier to observe the Talon if she were doing something,” Foulon said. “Depending on what she was doing, we could observe and measure different systems. That would help us find a weakness.” He lowered his head conspiratorially. “And we can choose what systems we want to test by dictating what she does.”
“I like the sound of that!” Danny clapped his hands and grinned. “And just how do we dictate what she does, Ernst?”
“Well, for instance, if the Craft Angel were to…I don’t know…lose propulsion, the Talon would have to bring her along with a tractor beam until she could be repaired. That would allow us to test—”
“High power output, voltage fluctuation patterns, energy distribution…” Danny’s eyes brightened. “That’s good. Very good.”
“By the time we reach Deseret, several of the ships could meet with…little accidents…that would allow us to test every one of the Talon’s essential systems—most of them by passive reception. They won’t even know we’re looking.”
“And how do we instigate these…little accidents?” Chief Engineer Tenzin asked.
“Well, that would depend on what we want to go wrong. I’ll draw up a chart of actions that will test every major system, the…incidentals…that will allow us to test for them, the caravan ship best suited to such…incidentals…and the means of causing them.”
“Spectacular, Number One,” Danny felt something like real awe for another human being. It was a novel feeling and he did not like it.
“In the meantime, off the top of my head, assuming that we began with the Craft Angel—”
“Just because we hate the name,” Danny interjected.
“Exactly. Assuming we start with her, I’ve been looking at her schematics, and she has—and this boggles the mind—she has fuel transport hoses that are exterior to the hull, in two places, for half a meter each. Worst goddam design I’ve ever seen.”
“Dark lasers,” Tenzin interjected.
“That’s it, right there,” Foulon pointed at the chief engineer.
“Come again?” Danny asked.
Tenzin was on the other side of the table, so for Galli and Lo the exchange was a bit like watching a tennis match from mid-court.
“Tiny high-power laser bursts. Monitors run at 4700 Hertz, so we time the bursts to sync with that, which will make them undetectable. Dark.”
“It’s not much use in a combat situation, where you need a lot of power focused in a single spot all at once,” Foulon explained. “But this is more chipping away, burst by burst, until the poly gives.”
“Like water dropping on a stone eats through the stone.”
“Yeah. Very Lao-fucking-Tzu, Tenzin, but that’s good thinking. That’s exactly the kind of shit we’re after here,” Danny nodded.
“I’ll have a detailed plan for every…well, sabotage”—Tenzin shrugged as he said it—“that we need to get a full workup of the Talon’s capabilities…and vulnerabilities.”
“This is enough to make a man die fat and happy,” Danny said, just as the cake arrived. He turned to the steward, who was nervously placing slices of cake in front of the bridge crew.
“Chocolate cake? Really? Are you an idiot? I fucking hate chocolate cake.”
Slumped in her command chair, Jo stared into space. The star field in the main viewer rotated imperceptibly as the Talon moved through space, but she didn’t notice. In her head, she was playing Admiral Alinto’s words over and over: We do not wish our enemy evil. Our enemy is our family. “My enemy is my family…” she said out loud, but not so anyone could hear. She was having a hard time wrapping her head around that one.
“Sir, the Craft Angel has dropped out of C-space,” Tash Liebert said. “I’m receiving a distress call from them now.”
That snapped her out of it. She sat up straight and shook the cobwebs from her brain. “Send a message to the whole caravan to reduce speed. Standard propulsion, 1500k.”
“Yes sir.” Liebert touched a few nodes on his panel. A moment later, he said, “Done.”
“Mr. Chi, I want you to take us to the Craft Angel’s current location, with all possible speed.”
Jo turned to Ditka. “Weaponer, any sign of threat agents?”
Ditka didn’t respond immediately. Her fingers were flying, and Jo knew she wanted to be sure of her answer before she responded. “None, sir. Just a bunch of gas and empty space.”
Jo turned to her left, to Liebert again. “Open a channel to the Craft Angel.”
While she waited for the captain of the client vessel to respond, Jo asked no one in particular. “What the fuck kind of name is Craft Angel, anyway?”
“It’s owned by a brewery,” Ditka said. “They make beer.”
“Why is a beer ship headed to a Mormon colony?” Jo asked.
“There was a vice carve-out for ‘gentiles’ in the original colony charter, sir,” Liebert responded. “New Deseret didn’t want it, but the Colonial Union made it a condition of their approval of the charter.”
“How do you know that?” Jo asked.
Liebert shrugged. “Poli sci minor.”
“Well…it’s a stupid fucking name,” Jo announced.
“Yes sir,” Ditka agreed.
A moment later the main viewer flickered and the Craft Angel’s captain appeared. The woman looked distraught. She had a bohemian sensibility, and wore her hair in an old fashioned bun, a style not unpopular among those types. But the bun had become undone, and many strands of mousy brown hair splayed out in different directions from her head.
“Captain Eliza Tanner,” Liebert announced.
She looks like she just woke up, Jo thought. “Captain Tanner, this is RFC Captain Jo Taylor, caravan escort, responding to your distress call. What’s the problem, Captain?”
“We’re not sure yet,” Captain Tanner responded. “We know we’re leaking fuel into space and can’t sustain C-speeds.”
“How fast can you diagnose it?”
The look on her face showed Jo that this was an optimistic guess. The woman had no idea.
“Captain, I can’t ask the whole caravan to run in circles while you sort this out. We have a schedule to keep, and I intend to keep it.”
The woman’s eyes darted back and forth, and Jo saw something like panic arise in them.
“You’re just going to abandon us here?”
“Don’t be stupid, Captain,” Jo snapped. Instantly she regretted it. This cornflake might captain a glorified food transport shuttle, but she was still a captain and worthy of Jo’s courtesy, if not respect. “Give me a minute, please.”
“Off screen,” she said to Liebert. A moment later, Jo was looking at the star field again. It whirled as they came about and dropped out of C-space. Jo punched at a button on the arm of her command chair. “Chief Engineer Ocampo,” she called.
“Ocampo here, Captain.”
“We’ve got a…situation, Chief.”
“I live for situations, Captain.”
Jo smiled. “We’ve got a light transport vessel streaming fuel into space. The caravan is proceeding on standard propulsion for the time being, but we need to get back into C-space if we’re going to get back on schedule.”
“Understood, Captain. Did the ship give you an estimate for repairs?”
“She’s talking out of her colonic-traumatized ass, I’m afraid.”
Ocampo laughed. “One of those.”
“I was thinking a tractor beam…” Jo floated the idea.
“We could do that,” Ocampo said. “Although if there are any exterior repairs to make, we’d have to wait until we entered normal space to make them.”
“Could we carry them the whole way?” Jo asked.
“Sure,” Ocampo said, in the equivalent of a vocal shrug. “Although…it’s not efficient, fuel-wise. We’ll burn twice what we otherwise would just keeping us balanced in C-space. It’ll be awkward as fuck…if you pardon my use of color, sir.”
Jo bit her lip. She had to get this caravan moving again, that was certain. “Chief, how quickly can you do a diagnostic?”
“I could tell you what’s wrong with her in fifteen minutes, but I can’t promise I can fix her that fast.”
Fifteen minutes vs. 150,000 chits worth of fuel. That was an easy decision to make. “Okay, then, you’ve got your fifteen minutes. Does it matter if we’re moving at standard propulsion?”
“Nope, not a bit.”
“Then give me that tractor beam and let’s at least be able to say we’re moving in the right direction. And give me a full report in fifteen minutes. I’ll be watching the clock.”
“No problem, Captain. I’ll get my number one on the tractor beam. You’ll have it in under a minute. You’ll hear from me before the fifteen is up. Ocampo out.”
Jo nodded. Ocampo had the personality sparkle of an assembly-line robot, but he had never failed her. She knew she’d hear something soon. First she’d need to report back to that civilian captain and her bed hair…
Exactly thirteen minutes later, Jo was savaging a fingernail with her teeth when Liebert interrupted her. She realized what she had been doing and sat on her hand. “Tell me some good news, Chief.”
They’d gotten both ships up and moving at maximum speed for standard propulsion. It would take them four weeks to catch up to the rest of the caravan at this speed, but Jo didn’t expect to stay at this speed for long.
“The good news is the Craft Angel is fixable. Begging your pardon, Captain, but this ship has the most ludicrous design I’ve ever seen. It has two poly fuel hoses exterior to the hull.”
Jo scowled. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“No sir. If it was us, we’d be replacing those damned hoses every week or so. They are thick bastards, though—the hoses I mean.”
“It’s a shortcut, that’s for sure. Anyway, we can repair those in about a half hour, but not from C-space. We’d need to do it at standard propulsion. Any speed is fine.”
“A half hour…” Jo gritted her teeth. She did not like the sound of that. “The other ships are not going to like playing patty-cake and leapfrog while we—” Jo stopped and cocked her head.
“Sir?” Ocampo’s voice asked.
“Leapfrog,” Jo said. “Chief, how fast can we go with the Craft Angel in tow?”
“C6, no problem.”
“Most of the caravan can’t do more than C4 or 5.”
“That’s right,” Ocampo’s voice came through the speaker.
“Chief, let’s get the caravan up to speed again, then let’s drag the Craft Angel out in front of them at maximum C. We’ll drop into conventional space while we make repairs. We’ll be done by the time the rest of the ships catch up to us. Any problems with that plan?”
She could almost hear Ocampo nodding. “That should work, Captain.”
“Get on it, then. Taylor out.”
She swung her chair to the left to face Liebert again. “Mr. Liebert, get those ships moving, C4, all of them.”
“Yes sir,” Liebert’s hands began dancing over his panel.
“And open a channel to Captain Cornflake.”
Doctor Basiliedes had been right. One moment Tal was awake. The next moment he wasn’t. It was a very good thing he’d lain down in time.
When his eyes opened, he nearly sprang out of bed. He felt panicked, but didn’t know why. It took a moment or two to remember who he was, where he was, what was going on. Then it all came rushing back—a fact that both comforted him and filled him with anxiety and dread.
The Prox were coming. And they were coming fast.
He rushed to the sonic and realized he had not felt this hale or energetic in twenty years or more. He felt like he could run a 10k race without breaking a sweat. The feel of the sonic on his skin was even more invigorating.
As he dressed, he paid special attention to every detail, making sure no creases marred his uniform, and that every pip was exactly in place, facing the right direction. If this was going to be the fight that defined his career, he wanted to shine.
He was just about to leave his quarters when something in his peripheral vision caught his eye. He turned back, and there, on the bed, was a piece of white paper.
He scowled and picked it up. Was this here a minute ago? he wondered. Had it been on the bed while I was sleeping? Or did someone enter and lay this on my bed while I was in the sonic? How could he know?
He knew he’d smoothed out the bedclothes after rising. It hadn’t been there then, had it?
Even more disturbing, however, was what was on the paper. He felt a shudder go up his spine as he read.
Admiral Tal, I bring you greetings from exile. I have seen what you are up against, and I don’t wish it on you. In my world, Captain Jo Taylor devised a method of protection against the Prox. 150,000 volts through the hull whenever they try to land. It won’t stop them, and it will be less effective with every burst, but it will slow them down and will make them think twice about landing on your ships. Try it or not. I just offer it in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” From one soldier to another, I wish you well in your fight. —Captain Jeff Bowers
Tal felt a seizure of conscience, and his hand went instinctively to his chest. He had wronged that man Bowers. He knew it, and he suspected Bowers knew it too. He had let Hightower sway him, had allowed himself to be poisoned by that snake. He wasn’t sure of much, but he knew one thing: once upon a time, he had chosen between those two men, and he had chosen wrong. He had chosen Hightower, and Bowers had died. And then, little more than a month ago, fate had improbably given him another chance, a do-over he had never anticipated. He had chosen again, and once more he had backed the wrong horse. If I had to choose between them right now, I’d want Bowers on my team rather than Danny, even a Bowers from another universe. Instead, I handed him over to the Butcher.
But here was evidence that Bowers had escaped fate once again. Lucky bastard, Tal thought, smiling. And not only was he alive, but he was putting himself at some risk to send them a message. A message that would help them.
He froze and wondered if perhaps it was a ruse. Maybe the voltage will actually attract the Prox, and Bowers is simply exacting his revenge. It was possible. Don’t make the same mistake a third time, he told himself. For once in your life, trust the right man.
He straightened his coat and walked to his door. He paused as it slid open. With the energy of a thirty-year-old, he strode the corridors toward the Command Center, giving curt, affirming nods to every officer he passed.
Basiliedes is a fucking genius, Tal thought. This was the right move. I hate to admit it, but it was. If he had twenty-four hours of fighting ahead of him, he needed to be rested. And goddammit if he wasn’t. He stepped onto the bridge of the Command Center and four hundred people rose to salute him.
“As you were,” he said, and mounted the stairs with the energy of a bucking baby goat.
“How do you feel, Admiral?” Liu asked him. Liu had held everything together while he’d been gone, and the strain of it was showing. There were hollow circles under the man’s eyes, and he looked shaken and gaunt.
“I feel like a billion chits. But you need some sleep, Lieutenant,” Tal said. “Trust me, it’ll do you good.”
“It seemed to do you good,” Liu affirmed.
“The Prox haven’t wavered. They’re still coming, their speed is constant.”
“And Plan C?”
“Ready to deploy in…” Liu looked up to note the time. He looked back down. “Thirty minutes.”
“Full operational notes are ready for you. They’re linked to your neural.”
“Good. I’ll review them. But…I’ve got something else I want to try.”
Liu’s eyebrows rose. “Did you have an idea while you were sleeping?”
“I had a…call it a revelation. A message from beyond.”
Liu looked skeptical.
Tal ignored him and sat in his command chair. “Get me someone from engineering, and get them yesterday,” he instructed. “We’re not sending another ship to confront those bastards without some protection.”
“I’ve met the Ulim,” Jeff said, his lip curling up in distaste. “I don’t care to meet them again.”
“We will not be speaking to them,” Tomás assured him. “We will simply observe them.”
“Will they know we’re observing them?” Jeff asked, one eyebrow rising.
The rotation on this particular planet was a fast one. Jeff estimated they’d had about eight hours of sunlight, and twilight was already teasing an unfamiliar color palate from the sky.
“They certainly could,” Tomás rocked his head back and forth on his neck. “I think it depends on whether they are paying attention. My guess? There is a war on. They will be plenty busy.”
Jeff nodded. “And…what if they do notice us?”
“I imagine they will try to swat us away, like a pesky mosquito.”
“And would that be fatal?” Jeff asked.
“Would it matter if it was?” Tomás asked him.
Jeff swallowed. “No, I don’t suppose it would.”
Tomás nodded and stood, clapping the dust off his hands. “Then let us get started.” Tomás stretched his arms forward and did a few deep knee bends, as if he was preparing to run a race.
“What are you doing?” Jeff asked.
“Making sure I’m well circulated. We may be sitting for a while.”
“Ah,” Jeff said. Feeling a little foolish, he did the same.
When Tomás sat, he sat next to him. Tomás closed his eyes and placed his hands on his knees. Jeff did the same. To any casual observers, had there been any other sentient life nearby, it would have looked like they were meditating.
“Meet me…out there,” Tomás instructed.
Jeff relaxed and entered the All. His consciousness instantly became diffuse, and he had to concentrate to focus on his own body. He reached out for energy to the star the planet was circling, then he refocused on Tomás, now a disembodied presence in space. It was unsettling to think that he was the same. He felt so much like himself.
Tomás acknowledged his arrival and continued his instructions. “Good,” said the voice in his head. “Now go beyond.”
“Beyond what?” Jeff asked. He could hear his own voice, also in his head, but it sounded strange.
“Beyond everything you understand or know.”
“I’m not sure how to do that,” Jeff confessed. “I am at the edge of all things.”
It was not hubris, nor was it an exaggeration. His consciousness was at the center of every point in the universe. What was it Jo had said? It seemed like years ago now. “Its center is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere.” It was exactly like that.
“Beyond is a metaphor,” Tomás said. “There is no further out that you can go. You must not go out, but through.”
Ordinarily, Jeff would have simply looked puzzled, but he doubted Tomás could see his facial expressions just now. “You’ll have to explain that.”
“If you want to travel from one string to another, you cannot get there by going out, but by going in, or through. Language does not serve us when talking about such things.”
Jeff could hear the weariness in his voice. His heart went out to him. For the first time he thought of Tomás as his friend. The realization warmed him a little. “I don’t understand.”
“It will not be like jumping from one very large rope to another,” Tomás explained, his voice even and patient. “The strings are metaphors, too.”
“All right. What is it like, then?”
“It is like finding a door behind your door.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Jeff said.
“Did you ever try to explain how you moved through space to someone?”
“Yes,” Jeff said.
“How well did you do?” Tomás asked.
“Okay. You get a pass!” It wasn’t possible to actually laugh, disembodied in the vacuum of space, but he hoped some humor came through in the tone of his voice.
“I would take you with me if I could,” Tomás said. “But I would just slip out, and you would just be here by yourself.”
A memory surfaced for Jeff. “I was in Tokyo, on a large pedestrian speedway. The belt was moving pretty fast, but there were these little roundabouts that slowed your velocity just enough so that you could jump off and start walking normally again. Is it like that?”
“No, but…that is the right direction.”
“Should I be worried about this?”
“You should be worried that there are 758 reality strings, and you can pass into any of them as easily as another. I want to be sure we end up in the right one.”
“Oh Jesus. I hadn’t even thought about that,” Jeff said. He was getting used to his interior voice. One wrong move and he could be stranded somewhere very different from his home, or even from this string. Perhaps so different it was uninhabitable. Had there been strings where humankind had not survived its nuclear wars? Surely there were. He shuddered. Why am I doing this again? he asked himself. Oh yeah, because these demonic monsters are hell-bent on destroying the human race. Good enough reason. “I’m open to suggestions,” he said to Tomás.
Tomás was silent, but Jeff imagined he could hear the man think, body or no body.
“I do have one, but you’re not going to like it,” Tomás began.
“With a setup like that, how can I resist?” Jeff quipped.
“You learned to move by watching Los Durmientes move you, si?”
“Then you must learn to shift strings by watching me do it.” Tomás’s voice was logical and resolute.
“Okay.” That sounded reasonable.
“Allow me to inhabit you,” Tomás said. “And then allow me to pilot you.”
Jeff was unsure how to respond. It meant giving up control. It meant a level of intimacy with this man that he was not comfortable with—as he wouldn’t be comfortable with any person. It was also the only path he could see toward victory over those motherfuckers.
“What do I do?”
“What did we find out?” Danny asked, emerging from his ready room.
All heads turned in his direction, but no one spoke.
“What, are you all idiots? What did we find out about the Talon from our little experiment with the Craft Angel?”
“You’ve got a report waiting for you on your neural now, Captain. From Chief Tenzin.” Communicator Lo’s voice quavered, but at least the man spoke up.
Danny cursed himself for not seeing it, but Lo was right. When he looked up he saw the blinking blue light of an unopened message. He strode to his command chair and Foulon stood to surrender it with due ceremony. Danny nodded and Foulon stepped down to his own post. Danny sat and looked up, opening the message.
“What did we learn?” Foulon asked.
Danny looked down and saw him leaning over, his voice almost a whisper. He might be on board yet, Danny thought. There was nothing in the report he deemed secret. Indeed, there was much to be said for the whole team knowing what they’d learned. They were turning out to be more creative and resourceful than Danny had initially given them credit for. They’d be able to see things in the data he wouldn’t. He knew that and it didn’t bother him a bit. If you can’t be smart, command smart, he reminded himself, recalling a maxim from one of his professors at the academy.
The thought made him feel old. It seemed like a lifetime ago. It was, in fact, a revolution ago, a war ago, and in the intervening time he had lost his innocence, his best friend, and his fear of authority. He shook his head to clear it. Then he turned to Foulon.
“The Talon has more juice than I would have guessed for such a small ship,” he said. “They latched onto the Craft…shit, the beer ship…they latched onto it with a twelve billion stroh tractor beam.”
Foulon whistled. “Do all their ships have those?”
“God help us if they do. The best we’d be able to manage is eight billion stroh.”
“It would get the job done.” Foulon cocked his head.
“Yeah, but with twelve billion stroh, you’d be able to not just tow the damn thing, but wave it around in front of you if you wanted to. Solid as a fucking rock.”
“Why do they need that?”
“We’ve already got our answer to that,” Danny said, looking up to check the statistics again. “Our tractor beam would only be able to tow under conventional propulsion—”
“They’re towing in C-space?” Foulon’s face fell in disbelief.
“Yep. Leaped into C-space about two hours ago, looks like.” Danny saw Navigator Galli looking at them over her shoulder, listening. He spoke a little more loudly, for her benefit. “It’s Tenzin’s guess that they’re getting a bit ahead of the caravan to make repairs on the…the beer ship.”
“You just can’t bring yourself to say it, can you?” Foulon grinned.
“God help me,” Danny agreed. “Stupidest fucking name I ever heard.”
“Worse than the Spruce and Bonnet?”
“Don’t remind me.” Danny sighed. “Lo, get me Chief Tenzin.”
“Right away, sir,” Lo said.
“Tenzin here,” a voice emitted from the overhead speakers.
“Chief, good work on your report on the Talon and that beer ship.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’ve made a list of seven primary systems I’d like to test, and fourteen secondary systems I’d love to get to if we have time.”
“Can we double up on any of those?”
“Great question, sir. I’m sending over a grid now of possible…sabotages—”
“Let’s call them ‘experiments,’” Danny suggested.
“Excellent….a grid, then, of possible experiments and the systems each…experiment…will allow us to test. We can cover most of the territory on the grid with four experiments…but I’d love a fifth if we can get to it.”
“And what do you suggest for the next one?”
“Well, if you’ll note on the chart, we’ve got eight primary systems: military, power, societal, maintenance, emergency, communications, sensors, and shielding. The secondary systems—”
“I’ve taken note of all the systems, Chief. Move along.”
“Er…right, sir. The Talon is an Inaffeffew class warship—”
“I’ve never heard of that,” Danny scowled.
“Infaffeffew is an Igberiti word, meaning ‘fierce,’ appropriately,” Tenzin said. “And it’s an Igberiti design. It’s a fairly new class, built especially for the rebels. We captured one about two years ago and reverse-engineered its schematics. So we know a lot about its capabilities as a class, but not much about the Talon specifically. It’s no doubt been modified in any number of ways.”
“I’ve never met an off-the-shelf warship yet,” Danny grunted his agreement.
“Exactly, sir. Every ship shares certain qualities with other ships in her class, but every ship is…tweaked to ready it for its specific mission.”
“And the mission of the Talon is—”
“Well, don’t let its current occupation as caravan escort fool you. Under Captain Telouse, it was one of the deadliest light crafts in the RD…that the rebels had…have, sir.”
“So it isn’t just Captain Taylor who’s a badass.”
“It’s a pretty badass ship, sir,” Tenzin agreed.
“But we need to find out just how badass it is.”
“And its weaknesses, hopefully.”
“Tell me about these two experiments.”
“It depends if you want to test societal or military systems. Or communications.”
Danny could almost hear the shrug in his voice.
“We know a lot about her military systems,” Danny noted.
“Yes, we can extrapolate from previous encounters with the ship. In fact, I’ve already begun to compile a speculative summary.”
“Good work. Let’s find some holes in life support, then.”
“I was about to suggest the same. For that, we just need to tax their systems and watch carefully. It would help if we could access some of their monitoring—”
“Leave that to me. We’ve got a mole on board.”
“Great! Inform him we need the daily societal threadline summary. The good news is those are small, generally, just a few hundred k daily. It would make a barely perceptible data packet.”
“I’ll have the first one for you within twenty-four hours.”
“That will provide a handy baseline, so that’s great. Then we’ll fuck with it.”
“And how will we do that?”
“Tax the shit out of their life support and watch the numbers.”
“And how will we do that?” Danny asked again.
“Easy. We add more bodies than the Talon was built to sustain. Four of our fellow ships are carrying pilgrims, are they not?”
Foulon leaned over. “About two hundred people on each, all of them headed for Deseret with New Zion temple recommends. They do a crazy-ass ritual and then go home, feeling holy and smug and superior.”
Danny felt himself recoil. “Where the hell did you pick that shit up?”
Foulon looked away. “I was raised Mormon. I’ve done this pilgrimage.”
“No shit. What happened to you?”
Foulon looked him dead in the eye. “Part of being a good soldier is knowing what duties you’re cut out for, and what you’re not. I wasn’t meant to be a holy joe.”
“Did you wear the magic underwear, too?”
Foulon held his gaze and did not blink. “Still wearing it, sir.”
Danny started laughing then. Then he laughed harder. He slunk in his chair and filled the bridge with deep belly-shaking guffaws that felt better than a good fuck. “Oh my god,” he said, covering his face with one hand. When he recovered, he sat up and turned back to Foulon.
“So what we need is a life support crisis aboard one of these pilgrim transports.”
“The Liahona has the most people on it, but the Carthage is the oldest and creakiest,” Tenzin said. “If something were to go wrong, that’s the ship that everyone would expect. I took the liberty of doing some quiet scans on it, and it looks like we’ve got about a hundred and sixty life signs aboard. Some of those might be dogs or cats or tendarii. Mormons love their pets.”
“That’s true,” Foulon agreed. “But that’s irrelevant, because the Latter Day Saints aren’t going to let themselves be rescued without their animals, either. A large dog takes up as many life-support resources as a human child.”
“I love the idea of overrunning the Talon with animals. Mormons and animals!” he grinned. “You’d think Captain Taylor was our enemy or something.”
Foulon’s face jerked in an attempted failed smile.
“Okay, how do we 86 the Carthage, then?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Tenzin said. “Not one thing, but three. None of these system failures alone would necessitate an evacuation, but the confluence of them—”
“It’s just rotten fucking luck, isn’t it, XO?” Danny grinned.
Foulon managed an actual smile.
“Rotten fucking luck, sir.”
Lieutenant Commander Avery Harrak stood at attention as Admiral Tal stepped into the room. So did everyone under his command.
“As you were,” Tal said.
The Admiral was clear-eyed and grave. He also exuded strength and compassion in equal measure, a quality that confused Harrak. He aspired to be a good leader—no, a great leader. In the moment, he recognized that the balance he saw in Tal was unusual and had made him who he was. He instantly wanted to claim that quality for himself, but didn’t know how. Was it something you could turn on, like a light? Or was it something you had to cultivate by arcane means? He hoped it was the former, but feared it was the latter.
Then it occurred to him that it might be innate—something Tal was born with, like his kinky gray hair, or the dark brown of his skin, none of which Harrak possessed, nor ever would.
He saw his crew relax, stand at parade rest. “Permission to sit, sir,” Harrak asked.
“Granted, Lieutenant Commander.”
“All right, sit, you grunts.” Harrak was relieved to see the curl of a smile on Tal’s lips.
“You’re no doubt wondering why I called for this briefing with you,” Tal said. Instantly, he began to pace, his hands behind his back, his head low. Harrak could see he was choosing his words carefully. “There are forty-seven specialized units aboard Sol Station at present, from various branches of the armed forces. I haven’t asked for a briefing with forty-six of them…only with you.”
Tal paused, and Harrak could see he was letting this sink in. Harrak looked at his soldiers. There were eight of them. A couple were wide-eyed, but most were serious and resolute.
“I’m not going to sugar-coat this. I’m sending you on as dangerous a mission as I have ever ordered. I cherish and value every one of your lives. You are my responsibility, you are my charges, and because we are navy, you are my brothers and sisters. I would trade my own life for any one of yours, and I would not hesitate, not even for a second.”
Tal had stopped pacing and was looking each of them in the eye now. Harrak did not doubt his words.
“You’ve trained for service above and beyond. You’ve practiced and prepared and studied so that when we need people we can trust in the most dangerous situations to face humankind, you are there to rush in and do the fucking work.”
Harrak saw his people nod. Tal understood them. He got them—their reason for being.
“We need you now.” Tal paused and once more made eye contact with every soldier in the room. “I don’t know how your immediate superiors are presenting the facts, but the media is spinning positive to keep people from panicking…too much. But here’s the unvarnished truth. We’re getting our asses handed to us. And nothing we’ve tried has worked. And we’re running out of options. We need a miracle, and you’re it.”
Tal started pacing again. Harrak’s team seemed frozen in their camo uniforms—a solid block of blue and gray, unmoving and unmovable.
Tal looked up, accessing his neural, and a moment later a 3D hologram of a Prox transport vessel floated in the air to one side of him. “This is the lead Prox ship. As far as we can tell, the other two are identical. As you may or may not know, the Prox do not travel on the inside of their ships. They cling to the outside…somehow.”
Harrak’s mouth dropped open. This was new information for him and for his crew. He heard the buzzing of surprised comments, and he barked, “Silence!” He turned to Tal. “Sorry, sir.”
Tal nodded. “We make allowances for astonishment, Lieutenant Commander.”
“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.” Harrak turned and glared at his team.
No one made another sound. All eyes were on the Admiral. Harrak turned slowly to his commander. “Please, sir, continue.”
Tal nodded. “Each ship is…massive. They carry about 500,000 Prox soldiers. Each one.”
Harrak himself would have whistled at this in a less formal environment. He was grateful that his soldiers controlled the urge.
“But the ships do have an inside,” Tal said. “We can’t see past their shields, so we can’t get a reading on life signs. We don’t know how many of them there are, or of what species. The Prox are metallic, so we don’t know if they’re organic or manufactured, or…some combination of the two. We only know that nothing we have can kill them in sufficient numbers to make any difference at all. We also know that their ships are so well armored and shielded that nothing we’ve thrown at them—including 50-megaton fission torpedoes—seems to have given them so much as a scratch.”
“What do you need from us, sir?” Harrak asked.
“We’re defenseless against their limbs, so we need to cut off their heads.”
Harrak didn’t understand, and he could see that his men didn’t, either. But instead of asking for an explanation, he bit his tongue and waited for Tal to elaborate.
“We need you to board their ships. Then we need you to take out whatever or whoever is commanding these demons.”
Harrak saw his team nodding. Tal reached for a chair and placed it in front of them. He straddled it, resting his arms on its back. Tal’s voice softened. “I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a suicide mission.” Suddenly, he was not the firm, invincible commander, but a vulnerable fellow soldier. Harrak resisted the urge to take notes. “It probably is. We don’t know what you’ll find once you board those ships. We don’t know what kind of internal defenses they’ll have. We don’t know what kind of firepower you’ll face. We only know we’re sending three of you into each ship with absolutely no idea what you’re up against. We don’t have any intel whatsoever as to the biology of their commanders. We don’t know anything about their weaponry. Hell, we don’t even have a floor plan for you to study. We’ve only got this.” He held up a small black box with a neural interface logo on it.
No one asked what it was. They would wait. Harrak felt pride for his team welling up in his chest.
“Every ship has an airlock. Every airlock is the same. Airlocks are simple, they’re reliable, and they’re remarkably uniform from one species to another. This”—he turned the black box in his fingers—“will jam every signal going to and from an airlock and will override any command related to them. There is no airlock known to the Authority that this little gizmo won’t open. Think of it as a master key.”
Harrak cleared his throat. “Question, Admiral.”
“You don’t know for sure that this will open the airlock on the Prox ships, do you?”
Tal shook his head, but his expression did not change. “No, son. No, we don’t. But it’s the best shot we can give you.” He looked them all in the eye again. “And you…you’re the best shot we’ve got.”
Jeff didn’t know what to expect. The dread lurking in the back of his mind was that it would be emasculating. Instead, it was more like shoving twice as much stuff into a suitcase as ought to fit.
He calmed and centered himself, and then he consented. That was all Tomás needed, apparently, because suddenly there were another set of memories, another thinking, feeling sentience filling his interior space.
It was an odd feeling, Jeff acknowledged, but not painful or uncomfortable, or even particularly violating. Just…crowded. I feel like I’m going to step on your feet, Jeff thought. I have no personal space.
That is very true indeed, Tomás acknowledged. But allow me to get you there, and I’ll rectify the situation quickly.
Jeff didn’t answer, as he supposed Tomás could read his assent the same way Tomás’ intentions were laid bare before him. If he harbored any doubts about the little man’s motivations or history or account of things, they had all dissipated in an instant once his memories and thoughts were as available as Jeff’s own. Jeff relaxed. This was going to be okay. Maybe not the human race, maybe not the universe, but this little experiment, this invasion of his space…it was okay.
He felt Tomás navigate to what felt like the forefront, to his volition. His brain substituted the symbolic image of him handing over the reins of a horse to the little man for whatever was really happening. He understood enough psychology not to question this or wonder at it too much, but he did notice it, and it seemed marvelously apt.
Then they were rushing into the All, at a much more magnificent velocity than Jeff was accustomed to. He reminded himself to pay attention. He watched as Tomás slipped between. He saw what seemed like limitless ribbons of reality, each indistinguishable from the others at their height. No, not indistinguishable, he realized. They had feeling tones. The one they were in felt familiar but cold. And there was a dead space where, he realized, his own universe should have been.
A rush of shame and recrimination rolled over him, and he fought to master himself and not let it carry him away. Stay present, he told himself, and felt the calm, reassuring presence of Tomás supporting him.
He struggled with vertigo as they were suspended, it seemed, above all possible worlds—seemingly worlds without end. Then, he felt a sudden rush as they plunged down once more, and he felt the clingy enmeshment with matter tug at him. It occurred to him that this sensation would be much stronger if they had been moving their bodies, but the effect was still perceptible.
And then he and Tomás, two natures united in one mind, were moving through a jungle much like Jeff had experienced on his own planet in his own universe. They were traveling fast, faster than embodied humans can travel, unimpeded by obstacles or entropy.
Before long, he felt Tomás hesitate, then stop. They were still in the thick of the jungle, but as Jeff looked around, he could make out flashes of gray concrete peeking through the green in one direction.
Ulim? he asked in his mind.
Si, Tomás answered, just as silently. Los Dumientes have slept in this place for a thousand years.
Moving around the structure, Jeff noted how unremarkable it was. In his own world, the architecture would have been labeled “brutalist.” It was low, squat, wide, built for minimalist endurance. It yielded not an inch to aesthetic concerns or beauty. Although he did not consider himself an expert in such things, Jeff suspected it may easily have been the ugliest building he had ever laid eyes on.
Are we going in? Jeff asked.
The answer came from Tomás in a rush of images and reasoning, but not in words so much. He just knew that going inside now would be pushing their luck. Right now, they were probably flying beneath the Ulim’s radar. An inside breach would change all of that. Instead, he saw something else—what must have been Tomás’ memories of the place, from an earlier venture inside.
A cascade of images rushed past him. Jeff caught the general layout of the building’s interior. He was shocked at how quickly he could assimilate the information. It occurred to him that after experiencing this rush of memories, if he had to navigate inside the building, he could.
But it was the rest of the memories that truly arrested him. Projected on his mind’s eye was an ethereal scene: thousands of human bodies dangling in free space, each suspended from the high ceiling by black bio-transport lines that must have been carrying electricity, blood, data, waste, and vital fluids. A soft blue light suffused the whole scene with an eerie balance of power and weakness in equal measure. A sense of dread rose up in Jeff’s brain, threatening to paralyze him, to smother his will.
It is enough, Tomás’ voice said in his head. Time to return. A beat later, Tomás added, You steer.
If Jeff could have smiled, he would have, despite the horror still resonating in his memory. With a final look around at the jungle and the concrete, he willed himself into the All, made contact with the sun, then went through. Suspended above the worlds, he felt for the one they had just come from. Intellectually, he knew it was String 311, but that was an arbitrary designation, like street names or the imaginary borders of nations. The feeling of it, however, was real. It told him something true about the kind of place it was—something that could not be easily articulated. Like emotions, he realized.
He entered it, and his eyes snapped open in his own body.
He saw Tomás’ round, brown face turn up in a smile, saw his eyes open.
“Now you know how to go between,” Tomás said.
“Yes,” Jeff said.
“Do you think you could do it again?”
“Do you think you can do it alone?”
“What do you think we should do now?”
“Kick some Ulim ass.”
Emma was grateful that she’d been sent back to school. Her arms had gotten a lot stronger with practice, but the long shifts on the counting floor were still brutally painful, and she was still haunted by the image of the Alverian arm lying on the ground.
Even better, she was now learning Alverian written notation for both language and mathematics. Instead of standing the entire time she was allowed to sit on one of their narrow seats at a low desk with a touch screen built into it. She’d gotten used to the bicycle style seats, after developing what she thought of as a taint of steel.
Once again, she struggled with the language. There seemed to be no logical correlation between the gesture for any given idea and the ideograms used to convey the same idea in print. Most of them were an arrangement of four thin triangles, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the corresponding four-armed gesture. But more often than not, they appeared to be just a random geometrical scattering.
Mathematical notation was coming much more easily; math was universal. Each base four digit was arranged in familiar columns, with specialized marks for operators. The teacher seemed to be impressed when Emma solved a geometric proof almost as fast as it was presented. The teacher paused when she did the same thing with a differential calculus equation. Emma smiled when the teacher presented the class with a linear multidimensional state-space model. The other students reacted with surprise and confusion. Emma just put her head down for a moment, and after a bit of calculation, returned the solution.
“[Only two arms, not one of us], I am aware you are fitted with a neural interface device. I’m sure you are aware that its use is forbidden in this classroom.”
Emma stood. “Of course I am aware, and I would never cheat at something as important as this,” she signed frantically, betraying her frustration. “I have told you people a million times, I am a scientist. This math,” she tapped the touch screen on her desk, “is my…” The language gulf failed her. She thought bread and butter, but there was no Alverian equivalent. “It’s what I do. And this…” again she tapped the screen, “this is easy.”
The teacher stood very erect, and Emma couldn’t tell if she was angry, offended, or impressed. “Please come with me” was all she signed. Then, to the rest of the class, “Continue with your studies.”
“I hope I didn’t offend…” Emma signed as she followed the teacher down the tunnel, but the teacher had her back turned—yet another problem with a gestural language.
They seemed to be walking toward the counting chamber, but at the last moment, they made a left turn and went up a steep staircase. The teacher led Emma into the high room with the huge windows that she had seen from the floor of the counting chambers. The teacher stood silently, waiting to be acknowledged by the dozen or so Alverians in the room. All were wearing a red band of fabric around their upper leg segments. As they waited, Emma looked out the window. The counting chamber was even larger than she thought it was when she was on the floor. She watched the calculations flowing and shimmering as the counters waved their arms, passing numbers, performing operations, weaving math like a living tapestry. She could see patterns; each position on the floor was a component of a larger equation.
Finally, one of the red-banded Alverians waved the teacher over. They began to talk, but Emma wasn’t able to follow much of it, they were talking very fast and using vocabulary that she didn’t know. At one point, the red-banded one got the attention of several of her counterparts, and drew them into the conversation as well. Emma saw her “name” used several times, and the words for language, mathematics, and science, but little else made sense.
One of the red bands broke out of the group and left the room in a hurry. The teacher stepped to Emma. “You will wait here. They will speak with you soon.” She started towards the door.
“Wait!” Emma said aloud, startling everyone in the room. Then she signed, “Where are you going? What is happening?”
“We will have a new task for you,” she replied. “You will understand soon. Please wait.” Then she left the room.
None of the others were paying attention to her, but were talking frantically among themselves. Emma returned to her vigil at the window. Below her, the calculation continued, and she started piecing together the equations. The shifting numbers were difficult to follow, but their relationships remained constant. One number was being multiplied by the number next to it. The product was being divided by another number which was squared. That number was being multiplied by another number which never changed, a constant. She suddenly recognized the equation, which she knew intimately.
“Gravity! It’s Newton’s law!” she whispered to herself. But they were plugging negative numbers into it, and the result was being fed into another part of the overall equation.
She turned to face the red bands and shouted in English, “What the hell are you guys working on?”
Jo felt a squish underneath her boot. She stopped and looked down, but the smell hit her before the sight of it did. “Why is there dog shit in the corridor?” she yelled. But it was rhetorical, and despite the fact that there were plenty of crew around, no one answered her.
Not only were there plenty of crew, but they were in the minority. Every section of her ship was packed with slim, healthy, cheerful people. So much so that it made Jo want to punch one of them. It didn’t matter who.
Not only were they overrun by wholesome, happy people, but with animals as well. Dogs mostly, but cats and tendarii, too. Jo had seen a ferret, a sulaman, and an alpaca on the deck below.
“Sorry about that,” one of the civilians said as he dove for her boot with a poly bag. “I’ll get some cleaner to tend to that.”
“See that you do,” Jo said, but regretted her testiness as soon as she’d said it. Jo removed her boots and carried them so as not to track the shit further through the halls.
The Carthage was a pilgrim transport ship, on its regular run bringing Latter-Day Saints to the New Deseret Temple complex and resort. It had suffered multiple systems failures all at the same time. Jo had been in crisis mode for the past twelve hours, just trying to get all the sentient creatures off the Carthage in time. Her staff were now trying to relocate them on other ships to lessen the overcrowded conditions aboard the Talon.
She finally made it to the bridge and her shoulders sank as the door slid shut behind her. “Sanctuary,” she said out loud. Marcia Chi turned and covered her mouth to stifle a laugh and Commander Nira smiled slightly, vacating the command chair.
Jo felt like running for the isolation of her ready room, but she resisted that urge. Instead, she deposited her boots beside the door and tossed her chin in Tash Liebert’s direction. “Mr. Liebert, get someone up here to launder my boots and to bring me a fresh pair, size 10D.”
“Right away sir.”
“I can take those to the laundry on my way out, Captain,” Nira offered.
“Oh. That’s very kind of you, Commander. Thank you.”
“Not a problem.” Nira seemed to have been in the middle of running a report or something because she didn’t immediately leave the bridge, but instead moved to the XO’s station.
Jo went straight to the wall replicator and ordered a Mayan hot chocolate. Then she went to her command chair. She blew on the cocoa and sighed. “This has been one hell of a run.”
“It’s been a little too eventful, if you ask me, sir,” Nira said.
Jo cocked her head at her number one. “What do you mean?”
Nira checked one more figure on a data pad, then pushed it away. She met the captain’s eyes. “I mean I’m suspicious about the confluence of accidents.”
“You mean too many of them in too short a time?” Jo asked.
It wasn’t like Jo hadn’t had a similar thought. She had dismissed it, though, partly due to triage, and partly because she simply didn’t have enough evidence to support such a theory. She wasn’t the sort to chase after ghosts.
“There’s something to be said for that,” Shell Ditka added. Jo turned toward her spiky-haired security chief. “We’ve had three ‘emergency’ incidents thus far on this run, and they’ve all happened at astonishingly regular chronological intervals.”
Jo scowled and took a sip of her cocoa. “Lay it out for me.”
Ditka got up and started pacing, eyes rolling back in her head gathering data as she spoke. “Thirty-six hours ago, the fuel tubing on the Craft Angel started pumping oxetene hydrochloride into space, forcing us to tow her into port.” She quickly changed the angle of her chin and turned.
“Twenty-four hours ago,” Ditka continued, “the Carthage had a series of mishaps that caused its life-support system to fail.”
Jo noticed that Nira was looking a little too intensely at Ditka. Would she have to give them the whole workplace romance talk? She hoped not.
“Twelve hours ago, Industrial Steel and Fiber Conglomerate Transport Number 92 mysteriously lost their micrometeoroid protection, resulting in fifteen pinprick breaches in both primary and secondary hulls, forcing us to extend our shields to envelop them.”
“It’s been a shitty couple of days,” Jo nodded.
“Too shitty,” Nira said.
“I concur,” Ditka added.
“Sir, begging your pardon,” Liebert’s voice interjected, high-pitched and talking fast. “Engineering reports they’ve noticed a visual distress signal off our port stern.”
“On screen,” Jo said, returning her bare feet to the floor.
The screen flickered and revealed a brilliant field of stars, one of which was blinking.
“It’s standard Morse Code. SOS, sir,” Liebert noted.
Jo nodded. Three short bursts of light and three long, followed again by three short. A moment later, the cycle started again. “What ship is closest to the position of that signal?” Jo asked.
Chi had the flight plan closest to hand. “That would be the Augmented Bovine, sir.”
“Hail her,” Jo said.
“Not responding to hails, sir.”
Jo pursed her lips and stared at the signal. Three short, three long, three short.
“Tell me about her,” Jo commanded.
Nira already had the manifest up on her neural. “Commercial vessel, enhanced dairy products, although they auction off their unused capacity to other vendors. This run they’re carrying 26,000 liters of vita-milk in fourteen flavors, and six varieties of advanced probiotic yogurt cultures for the local dairies. Fully half of their stock is gourmet cheeses from all over. Pricy stuff. But they’re also carrying electronics, tanning chemicals, hydroponic supplies, and toys.”
“Seven, including the captain’s noncommissioned spouse.”
“And what does that person do?”
“Sound collage artist, according to the manifest.”
“God, I hate that noise,” Jo said, shuddering. “What do our scans show?”
Ditka was on it. “Initial scans are inconclusive, but…”
“There’s a pocket of CO2 near them, sir. And there’s no reason for that to be there.”
“That can’t be good.” Jo said. “So, they’re probably leaking from their air reclamation units, and at the same time their communications facilities are mysteriously offline. All of them.”
“Yes sir,” Ditka said. Jo turned toward communications. “Mr. Liebert, brief Ocampa and Dixon. Let’s get a shuttle over there to assess the situation.”
“I’m beginning to distrust the whole coincidence thing,” Jo said.
“Yes sir,” Ditka said again.
“These things aren’t just happening,” Jo reasoned out loud. “Someone is making these things happen. So who and why?”
“Ah…I might have something, sir,” Nira said. Her eyes rolled up and rushed back and forth as she read.
“Make me proud, Number One,” Jo said.
“If these…incidents…began thirty-six hours ago, what happened thirty-six hours ago that changed?”
Jo narrowed one eye, waiting for the answer. She set her empty cup into the holder on her command chair.
“Checking thirty-seven hours, checking thirty-eight, checking thirty-nine, checking…bingo.”
“What?” Jo asked, almost leaping out of her chair.
“Forty hours ago, a ship joined up with us, the Spruce and Bonnet. She’s a crown-registered supply transport vessel, according to her manifest.”
“Crown? That’s a British Colony ship then?”
“Yes sir—under contract with the East Anglia Company.”
“Scan her,” Jo said.
“Wait,” Ditka held her hand up.
Jo didn’t take offense. Instead, she inclined her head. “What is it, Mr. Ditka?”
“If we scan them, they’ll know we’re scanning them. If it’s them, best if they don’t know we suspect them.”
Jo nodded. “So how do we test this little theory of ours?”
Nira stood and stepped toward the main view screen. “Computer, show relative positions for all caravan ships for the past forty hours, one thousand times normal speed.”
Everyone’s eyes flitted back and forth as they watched the computer sketch of the ships’ positions in rapid replay. When the replay was finished, Nira turned back to her captain. She appeared to be chewing on her lip.
“There’s no proximity,” Chi noted.
“There don’t appear to be any interactions between the new ship and the others,” Ditka growled, clearly not liking the turn their investigation was taking.
Jo wondered if they were chasing the wrong rabbit.
“Line of sight,” Nira said.
Everyone looked at her. “Say more,” Jo commanded.
“The Spruce and Bonnet was within line of sight of every ship that developed problems. Watch it again.” She replayed the recreation, pausing every now and then to point out the direct path through space between the Spruce and Bonnet and every affected ship. “It’s not proximity, or even interaction. It’s line-of-sight attack.”
“But no one reported—or even noticed—an attack,” Jo said.
“And that accounts for the length of time between attacks,” Nira said. “My guess is that they’re using low-power, low impact means, probably below detectable scan thresholds.”
“Holy crap,” Jo said aloud. Jeff was right about Nira. She was gold.
“Which leaves us with one question—what do we do about it?”
“Here’s my plan…” Nira said, smiling. She was clearly relishing the moment.
The bottom of the Prox ship loomed above them like a black hole. The light of stars seemed to disappear within it, and Harrak felt as if they were ascending into the Void, into nothingness, into non-being.
And perhaps we are, he thought. His fingers tightened around his blaster as he considered the danger of the mission. He glanced over at his men; his responsibility for them, his affection for them nearly overwhelmed him.
They were coming in 3X dark—no light, no propulsion, no electronics. A field dampener cloaked their life signs and any ambient radiation from the tiny ship’s navigational processor. Unless the Prox were to make direct visual contact with them—unlikely, since the bulk of their ship eclipsed all the available light—no one would see them.
There was the problem of shields, of course. Most ships had navigational shielding and weapons shielding—two completely different systems used to ward off different kinds of threats. The Prox were not in C-space, so second-order navigational shields were not in play. First-order, sure, but those were not as sensitive. Their weapons shielding would be at full strength, but they reacted only to energy.
You’re assuming that the Prox shield system is like ours, Harrak reminded himself. He shoved the thought aside, however, because such speculations weren’t his job. Other, smarter brains aboard Sol Station had assessed this very problem and had judged it no problem. Who was he to second-guess that?
What he knew, and the only thing he knew, was that he was speeding toward the unknown, toward the dark.
Montalbano and Pastore were checking their equipment—no searching reflections for these two. That made Harrak smile. His mind flashed on their other two units, even now ascending from beneath up toward the second and third Prox ships.
Helmets, Harrak signed. He wasn’t about to speak here. They were careful not even to step too hard, not to let a helmet scrape against a bulkhead. Any sound could betray them. Who knew what kind of eyes and ears these monsters had?
Pastore nodded and fitted on his helmet. He was a hulking giant of a man. Not an ounce of fat on him, though. Just tall and thick and mean—the kind of man he wanted on his side in a fight.
Montalbano donned his helmet last. The man was slightly smaller than Harrak himself. But he was quick and smart.
Carefully, Harrak moved to the airlock. The others followed. After the door slid shut behind them, Harrak used his neural to instigate depressurization. Then he made a cut-throat motion, indicating that they should take their neurals off-line.
It was time. Harrak slung his blaster over his shoulder and crouched, ready to spring toward the alien ship. They wouldn’t be using the navigation jets built into their space suits, not if they could help it. They’d be using the old-fashioned energy of coiled muscle, sinew, and tendon to propel them to their destination.
Out of the corner of his helmet, he watched Montalbano get into position. It was not exactly the same pose as a runner preparing for a race—they’d be sprinting up, after all, but it was reminiscent of that just the same. Pastore crouched, but as he did so, his blaster caught the edge of the airlock wall, causing a resounding dungggg that made every muscle in Harrak’s body tense. He moved his head to glare at Pastore and saw him shrink in shame, as much as a man that huge and hulking could shrink.
Then the airlock door burst open, and they took advantage of the rushing air to help propel them toward the alien ship. They pushed off with their legs. Harrak gave it all he could give without throwing himself off course.
It felt exactly as if he were floating into nothing. There were no lights, no stars, no visible structures. Just black, black, black. Harrak closed his eyes. What did it matter?
At first, as they were clearing the airlock, he had felt motion, but now, swallowed up as they were by nothing, he felt like he was floating, motionless, still. He looked down and was comforted by the blanket of stars beneath his feet, so vivid and bright he almost felt like he could walk on them.
But there was metal rushing toward his head. He knew that. He fixed his face once more toward the midnight void and waited for his eyes to adjust.
The ambient light from the stars beneath would serve as their lamps now. It would be enough. Already, Harrak was able to make out their destination—the alien airlock. It wasn’t directly above them—they were flying blind, so that kind of accuracy was impossible. But it wasn’t far.
Harrak put his hands above his head to absorb the shock of contact. He tensed, not against the inevitable impact, but against whatever possible shielding they didn’t know about. They’d been fitted in suits made entirely of poly, specially made to avoid detection. Whatever circuitry they possessed was made of poly superconductors. Harrak braced as he anticipated his collision with the ship—a little too fast, it seemed to him.
But when his gloved hands made contact with the ship, there was no jolt of electricity, no repelling force field. His arms gave, careful not to push back so as not to send him spinning back into space. He rolled, allowing his velocity to be absorbed by the whole surface of his body, and in the meantime, his hand was ready with a carabiner. He found a surface to hook it into and squatted on the hull. Magnetic boots might be detected, so the engineers had adapted mountain climbing gear to keep them in place or maneuver on the ship’s surface.
Harrak stood, feeling his line go taught. It would read his motions, even anticipate his intentions, giving and taking up slack as he’d need it until he positioned the next ’biner. He was terrified his men wouldn’t find a place to hook in, but they both had. Within seconds, both of his men were standing, awkwardly walking, looking to him for direction.
He pointed at the airlock, and they all turned in that direction. Harrak visually scanned the hull for hook points and discovered, to his great satisfaction, that there were many. In fact, the ship was ridged with tiny ledges, giving the effect of siding or even shingles. Of course. The Prox need to hold on somehow, Harrak thought. They hook their little metallic legs underneath these…
The Prox. Surely there were still some clinging to this hull. Harrak glanced around wildly, but he didn’t see any. He allowed himself to relax—a bit. They were further off target than he’d hoped.
They all set new carabiners and resumed their trek. One more length of line and they’d be there. Harrak saw motion through the right side of his helmet and jerked in response. Turning his head, he saw a port blast open, releasing a cloud of vapor or smoke or something, then close quickly. Relax, he told himself. It’s not a Prox. It’s just venting. It’s not a Prox. He repeated this as a mantra until he felt his pulse resume a normal pace. By that time, they were there.
They hooked in again at the airlock, and Harrak crouched, withdrawing the airlock key from his space suit pocket in slow motion. He couldn’t access it with his neural, but there were manual controls along one side. The problem was that the fingers of his space suit were large and clumsy and the buttons were subtle and small. It took him a few tries to enter the correct code. But to his great relief, the proper light flashes informed him that it was in the correct mode, and if it was like any other airlock in known space, it would soon be gushing whatever passed for air in that ship and opening a way for them to board.
With rising tension, Harrak watched the light sequence play out from beginning to end. A red light began to flash. Damn, he thought. He clumsily started the sequence again. Again, nothing. The doors remained closed.
Harrak looked up at Pastore and Montalbano. Through their helmets he saw their eyes, wide with alarm. And of course, they were looking to him for answers, for orders.
He didn’t have a clue. He felt panic leap into his throat and start to twist. He couldn’t breathe. He stood and forced himself to take deep, slow breaths. He cleared his mind of everything except that breath—going in, going out. He waited until he felt some semblance of a center return to him.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up and saw Pastore pointing back the way they had come. Prox! he thought, but no. He couldn’t see any of the crab-like creatures. Pastore was striding away from them, and Harrak felt he had little choice but to follow. It’s not like I have any ideas, he thought.
Pastore made a beeline for the vapor vents. Of course, Harrak thought. They had to re-hook twice to get there, but soon enough they were crowded around the vent, studying its rhythm. Harrak counted fifteen seconds while the vent remained closed. When it sprang open with a great whoosh of vapor, he counted four seconds until it sealed up again.
Four seconds. It was enough. Just enough. But who knows what they’d find on the other side? What was the vapor? Was it an acid that would disintegrate the poly of their suits? Was it radioactive discharge that would poison them?
So long as it doesn’t kill us immediately, I’ll take it, he thought. He was, after all, a soldier. Dying was what soldiers did.
The vent was an oval, about three meters across lengthwise and two meters wide. At the far end of its long side it was hinged with a gear a meter tall. It looked solid and formidable. They might be able to mess with the gear, but it would take time and tools they didn’t have. They’d do better to try a clean jump when the monster ship’s jaws were open.
Harrak was about to signal an order when he saw Pastore crouch, carabiner in hand. Harrak began to wave the abort sign, but it was too late. Pastore launched himself toward the opening, just as a great billow of vapor shot out of it. For a moment, Harrak could not see his man. Harrak thought a quick prayer to whatever cosmic forces might smile on them, but his hopes were quickly dashed.
As the vapor cleared, Harrak saw that Pastore had misjudged his timing. The vent had closed on him, trapping him, especially his legs, near the geared hinge. Vapor continued to spill out, though, because the vent could not seal—it was stuck on Pastore’s helmet.
Harrak’s mind raced. Pastore was larger than both Montalbano and himself. Even their helmets were smaller. Looking up, Harrak saw that Pastore’s helmet had begun to crack. He also saw his man’s face contorted with pain.
Harrak bit the side of his cheek and tensed, knowing action was required, but not knowing what to do. Then he caught a flicker of motion beyond Pastore’s writhing, trapped body. A Prox soldier scuttled over the horizon of the ship and was coming at them full tilt. Behind it, Harrak saw a host of its brothers, all scuttling toward them on quick, soundless, metal legs. They wielded their pincers, their deadly blades flashing in the distant starlight.
Who knew how many more seconds they had before Pastore’s helmet would be crushed and the great jaws of the vent closed again? Harrak knew Montalbano couldn’t hear him, but it didn’t stop him from shouting, “Jump! Jump!”
When Jeff opened his eyes, he was back in his body, and more importantly, alone in his body. Tomás instantly stood up and began rummaging in his pack.
“What are you doing?” Jeff asked.
“Of course you are.” Jeff stepped around behind him, and looking over his shoulder, spied a canteen. “May I?”
Tomás nodded and Jeff screwed the top off, taking a liberal swig.
“What’s your plan?” Jeff asked.
Tomás shrugged. “We go in. We find a way to stop them.”
“That’s not much of a plan.”
“I am not a soldier.” Tomás smiled sadly. “That’s why I need you.”
Jeff felt momentarily frozen. Up until that moment, all of his experience with Tomás had been awash with a sheen of mysticism. In his imagination, Tomás was a shaman, hinting at mysteries unseen, teasing him with revelation.
When he’d actually met Tomás, the relationship had changed. Tomás had become a mentor, training him in the use of his gift. That training had itself been a gift—he had traded the sheen of mysticism for the sheen of destiny. There was some great deed that he must perform, and Tomás was the prophet and guide for that gift.
It did not occur to him until this moment that Tomás wanted something—needed something—from him. Jeff felt a sour taste gather in his mouth.
He sat and took another swig. He needs my military experience, he thought. Of course he does. That’s why he sought me out. That doesn’t make him weak, it makes him smart. He glanced over at Tomás, as if seeing the little man for the first time.
Tomás appeared to notice. The sad smile returned. “You look desilusionado…disappointed,” he noted.
“No,” Jeff lied, “just…coming to grips with what we’re really doing here.”
“I am sorry if I am not what you thought I was,” Tomás said. “I’ll tell you who I think I am. I think I am trying to find a way to save my people. I want them to be able to come out of their caves, to stop hiding, to stop living in fear. I want them to plant and harvest and have niños and love their lives again. I want to stop the reign of terror that Los Durmientes have held over my people for hundreds of years.” He put down a poly bag full of tortillas and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Of all my people, I am the only one with this gift. I must do something. I know how to do many things, but…I do not know how to fight.” He nodded at the sound of his own words. He looked up and met Jeff’s eye. “Does that make me malo? A bad person?”
Jeff handed the canteen back to him. He shook his head. “No. It just makes me an idiot. I just…I’m still piecing it all together.” He stood up and started pacing. “Look, Tomás, I’m not good at people skills. I’m a good commander, and I take orders well, but I’m not so good at…let us say reciprocal relationships.”
Tomás cocked his head.
“Never mind. I guess what I’m saying is, I’ll do better with a division of labor, where I know what I’m in charge of and I know what you’re in charge of.”
“Nobody is in charge of anything,” Tomás said, shrugging.
“They are if we say they are,” Jeff countered.
He started to fit things into categories that made sense to him. “You’re intelligence. You know more about the Ulim than I do. I’ll look to you for information. Same with research and development around our little…talent. You’re my science officer.”
“I am not much of a scientist…” Tomás sounded unsure.
“Play along, okay?”
“I’ll be in charge of military strategy. We’ll consult, then I’ll make a plan. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like a lot of unnecessary nonsense.” Tomás gave him a mock-serious look.
Jeff laughed. “Oh my God,” he said. “You’re right. I’m overthinking this.”
“No, I think I understand what you are doing,” Tomás said, turning to dinner preparations again. “I think you are putting this into a context where you feel competent so you can grasp it and feel effective. No?”
“I guess I am,” Jeff said, putting his hands on his hips.
“That isn’t a bad thing. You had to go there, but now you can come back with a new perspective. Something has changed, hasn’t it?”
It had. Jeff felt less lost at sea, more able and ready to tackle this problem. “Yeah.”
“Good. We must tell ourselves stories to understand the world. This is why we gather around the fire and listen to the adventures of the gods. It tells us who we are. It prepares us for what we have to do. You had to tell yourself a story about yourself and about me. Now you are ready.”
Jeff nodded. “You know, you’re a wise little shit.”
Tomás smirked. “I suspect that even though we went to the same place and saw the same things we noticed very different things. One of the reasons I need you is I need your eyes. I want to know what you saw that I did not.”
“So what did you see?”
Jeff kicked at a rock. “I saw a fortress. I’d need to get closer to see what kind of immediate defenses they’ve got—how do you get the doors to open, for one thing?”
“I can tell you about that.”
“Good, because it didn’t look to me like we could blast our way in…unless…” His eyes drifted off into the distance. “You know, it would be really good to have that option.”
“What option?” Tomás asked.
Jeff looked back down, but ignored the question. “And even though we didn’t see any Prox, the place is crawling with them.”
“Yes. We know them. But how did you know?”
“There was damage to the foliage consistent with the bodies of their soldier species, for one. Then there were tracks—they were fresh and clearly indicated lateral hexapodal movement. I don’t know how many Prox are patrolling the place, but they’re there—no doubt providing security. So whatever we do, we’ll need to be ready for them.”
“I have some ideas about that,” Tomás said.
“Good. Hold that thought.” Jeff chewed on his lip and continued his pacing. “We’ll need to create a diversion large enough that we can slip in without really registering.”
Tomás’ eyebrows went up. “Bueno,” he muttered, eyes flashing back and forth as he thought. “That is just what I was hoping for. How do we do that?”
“Easy. We need a starship.”
“You have a starship,” Tomás pointed out.
“Yes, but if we’re both on the ground, there won’t be anyone in my starship. Besides, my ship has no firepower to speak of. No, we need a warship and a crew. He straightened up and met Tomás’ eyes. “We need a captain.”
“Where will we get all of that?” Tomás asked.
“You picked me for a reason, right? So leave this to me.”
“Mr. Leibert, please summon the captain of the Carthage. Have him meet me in Conference Room Two as soon as he arrives. Mr. Nira, with me.”
Jo strode to her ready room with a bounce in her step. She hated playing defense. She hated reacting to things. It made her feel out of control. But now they had just turned the corner. They were playing offense. They were taking control of the situation, and it made her want to slit someone’s throat and bathe in their blood, laughing hysterically. Or, she could just have a celebratory beer, maybe compliments of the Craft Angel. Still, a girl could dream…
The door slid shut behind Commander Nira, and Jo ordered up that beer. Who cares where it comes from? she thought. “Beer, Commander?”
“I’ll pass, thank you sir. Uh…” Nira cocked her head. “Should you be drinking on duty, sir?”
“It’s just a beer. I won’t be sliding under the table, I promise. But you should have seen Captain Telouse. Oh my God. That man would drink his lunch and would return to the bridge as loose as a clown’s pockets. And he was still the best battle captain I’ve ever seen, especially after lunch!”
Jo set the beer on the table and sat. Nira was frowning, not looking at her. “Camil, what’s wrong?”
“I’ve been reading the feeds.”
“From Sol Station?”
Nira nodded. “Whatever we’re doing here…” she waved around. “We’re just biding time. If we’re not in that fight now, we’ll be in it as soon as they’ve finished wiping the Authority out.”
“Are you so sure the Authority isn’t going to hand them their asses?”
“The Prox don’t have asses, sir. Not that I can tell.”
“Everybody has an ass. It’s the great equalizer.” Jo sipped at her beer. Nira’s fear was infectious, though. The Authority’s war had been like a pin pricking at the edge of her brain for days now, threatening to unravel her peace of mind—and probably would have, had they not been so distracted lately. “But here’s the thing—the Authority has not asked us to help. It would be different if they had. And until they do…”
“We should be preparing. We should be planning…”
“Do you think we aren’t?” Jo asked. “Do you honestly think that Admiral Alinto and the RFC brass aren’t studying every scrap of feed they can get their hands on, trying to figure out how to beat this enemy, should the Authority fail? Do you think we won’t learn from their mistakes?”
Nira looked up at her, then at the floor. “I’m sorry to be so…solipsistic, sir. Of course they are. I’m just…here, so I’m not seeing it.”
“Do you think you could do more good there? Advising the brass?”
“I…kind of. Yes sir.”
Jo nodded. “I’ll talk to the Admiral about it. How’s that?”
Nira’s mouth fell open. She seemed frozen.
“Commander?” Jo waved her hand at Nira’s eyes.
She snapped out of it. “I…that’s incredibly gracious of you, sir.”
“Like hell.” Jo took a swig. “We’re military. We’re all about putting the right people in the right places to do the most damage. Am I right?”
“I hope you are, sir.”
Just then the door slid open. A small man with greasy hair and a rumpled uniform entered. It was a civilian flying corps uniform, but not a corps that Jo recognized. Probably one with its central offices in neutral space. It was the civilian corps that licensed non-military starship officers, and it was exactly what Jo was expecting. What surprised her was not the uniform, but the man.
“I’m, uh…Captain Honig.”
“You’re a Mormon?”
“Uh…no sir. I just fly the route to Deseret.”
“Oh, ’cause—” Jo stopped herself. She was about to say something snide, but thought better of it. She scowled at her beer and pushed it away. “Please take a seat, Captain.”
“Of course. Uh…you said this was urgent?”
“It is. Your ship didn’t suffer a series of accidents. It was sabotaged. As were a couple of other ships on this run.”
“I did have my doubts…” The man had tiny little eyes that creeped Jo out a bit. Those eyes looked away from her as the man thought.
“We have a theory—actually we’re pretty certain—about who is responsible for these…attacks. Let’s just call them what they are.” Jo got up and began to pace, her hands behind her back. It was unconscious, but she felt the shift of power nevertheless. “We have a plan to turn the rats out of their nest, but to do it, we need to impugn your honor. I just thought it was politic to get your permission before we did it.”
“Impugn my honor?” The man’s eyebrows rose. He looked like he’d been slapped. Well, that was appropriate. He soon would be.
“Yes,” Jo said. “We need to board the…suspect ship. To do that we need a cover story. We need to tell the caravan that when the Carthage’s cargo was transferred to the Talon, we discovered…contraband.”
Now the man looked like Jo had just stabbed his sister.
“Contraband? What kind of contraband?”
“I have no idea. It’s a fiction. We don’t have to say more than that.”
“But people will think—”
“Exactly. We want them to think you were up to something illegal. It’s just for a day or so. We’ll set the record straight. What’s more, we’ll give you an RFC commendation for your assistance.”
“That…I can do without.”
The man was right. If he were trying to keep peace with both sides, he did not want a commendation from the RFC in his personal file. He might as well put on a rebel uniform.
“What about a small…reward?” Jo asked, narrowing one eye.
“A reward?” The man’s eyebrows shot up and his face brightened. Now she was talking his language.
“Sure. Let’s say…10,000 chits.”
“Oh...uh…” his eyes were moving back and forth and she could tell he was trying to figure out whether he could hold out for more.
“Don’t try my patience, Captain,” Jo said, an edge creeping into her voice. “I don’t need your permission. I can just wipe your name in shit and toss you to the winds. And when your process server arrives I’ll put a blaster hole in his chest so large you could pass a kitten back and forth.”
The brightness fell out of his face, but his eyebrows stayed aloft. Then recognition dawned. “You’re Captain Joleen Taylor. The Joleen Taylor.”
Jo enjoyed watching the penny drop.
“You’re the Kali of Aken.”
How had he not known who she was? It wasn’t like her name was a secret. Suddenly it occurred to her that she was a celebrity now. And nobody expects to meet a celebrity. The captain had assumed it must be a different Jo Taylor, because what are the odds? Jo leaned over the table, loving every moment of this unexpected turn. “I am. And you know what? I eat greasy little captains for breakfast and shit their eyeballs into space.”
Captain Honig looked for all the world like a wax replica of himself. He was completely immobile. Jo wasn’t sure the man was breathing. She put one hand on the table and leaned down so her nose almost touched his. “So what’ll it be, Captain? Shall we treat you as a friend or an enemy?”
It took a few moments for the man to find his tongue. “I…I would like to be your friend.”
“I’d like that too,” Jo said, straightening up and smiling. It was not an insincere smile, either. After all, they were friends now. “Can I offer you a beer?”
Honig shook his head.
“Too bad. Okay, then, I’m going to say some terrible things about you. But you’re not going to take it personally, and you’re not going to refute it. You’re going to say…what?”
Honig looked at the table top, his tiny black eyes moving back and forth quickly as he thought. “I’m going to say the Carthage crew is cooperating fully.”
“Excellent!” Jo said. “Text me your account information so we can arrange that reward.”
The man brightened. “Yes sir. Right away.” He got up, then froze. “Uh, may I go?”
“I wish you would,” Jo said, waving toward the door. “We’ve got a shitload of work to do here.”
Emma looked up as Amberline came into the room. “Thank God you’re here!” she shouted and ran to embrace her.
Amberline awkwardly returned the embrace. The mask said, “I was told I was needed as translator.”
“That’s an understatement! First off, who are these people?”
Amberline tapped her thigh and made the gesture for science.
“They are scientists, like me?”
One of the red-banded scientists approached and began gesturing. Amberline translated for her. “She says that your teacher brought to her attention that you are an Earth scientist of great distinction.”
Emma brushed the bangs out of her eyes. “Well, that’s relative, of course. But let’s just say I know my shit.” She waited to see how Amberline translated it.
She just gestured, “Correct.”
The scientist gestured her to follow and brought her over to the largest video table she’d seen in the hive. It was completely filled from edge to edge with complex equations that continued past the edges of the table. “Does this make sense to you?”
“Wow,” Emma said, taking it in. “This is some serious…” she trailed off as she got lost in the numbers. She tapped one set of equations. “This is a multidimensional transfer function, looks like, uh, eight dimensions… This is a time-dependent Schrödinger equation, uh… stability coefficient, cosmological constant… whoa.” She looked up. “You are calculating the distance between two strings.”
Amberline translated, and the scientists talked among themselves excitedly.
One of them stepped forward and actually bowed towards Emma. “We are pleased to meet you,” she signed. “We knew that there were formidable scientists among the humans, but we never thought we’d get to meet one.”
Emma signed back, “The honor is mine.”
A second scientist pushed forward. “Your understanding of our work is remarkable, but incomplete.”
Emma laughed. “Considering I’ve been looking at it for two minutes, I’m not surprised!”
Amberline translated, and they all made a quivering gesture with their right claw.
“Is that laughing?” Emma asked.
Emma smiled and made the same gesture. “Good to know. So, what’s the rest of the picture? Is this just theoretical work?”
Emma scratched her head and momentarily wished again for conditioner. “In everything I’ve ever read, the space between strings should be zero.” She made the sign for zero.
The one that appeared to be the lead scientist shook her head and signed “not zero.” There was something about her bald head and round eyes that reminded Emma of an old Earth philosopher named Buckminster Fuller. She decided to think of her as Bucky.
Bucky pointed to a region of the equation set, highlighting a couple of key functions.
Emma looked them over.
“Interesting. You’ve added provisions for uh...a kind of pressure between the strings.”
Amberline signed frantically. Bucky signed back, “Correct.”
“And if that pressure is strong enough, it fills the space between the strings, pushing them apart.”
Emma looked up, imagining the phenomena. “You’d get a sort of bubble sub-universe. But you’d get some strange interactions where it pressed upon the adjacent strings.” She perused the equations; they had indeed noted the interaction in their calculations.
“Yes,” Bucky signed, as Amberline vocalized. “And you would expect the pressure on the two adjacent strings to be equal and symmetrical.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“So what do you think it would mean if that were not, in fact, the case?”
“I would think that it would indicate the density of matter in the adjacent strings was not equal.”
“Correct. Now what if your observations indicated that the density of matter in one of the adjacent strings was zero?”
She shook her head. “That’s not possible. The only way you could have a zero matter string would be…” She stopped suddenly, unable to breathe. “This isn’t theoretical, is it? You’ve measured this.”
“And this bubble universe you’ve described. It’s real.”
The Alverians huddled up and began signing frenetically. They clearly didn’t agree about something. One of them just signed “No!” over and over, and then stormed out of the room. They glanced over at Emma. They apparently thought she didn’t know their language at all, because they made no effort to conceal their words.
“How can we trust her? She’s not one of us.”
“She is one of us, she’s a being of science.”
“There is too much at stake.”
“We have to do something.”
“Even if she can be trusted, what could she do about it?”
“Maybe nothing, but we have to try.
“The council should decide.”
On that point they seemed to agree. Bucky broke from the huddle and came forward again.
“We must discuss this with our leaders,” she signed, and again Amberline translated. “We are dealing with matters too important for mistakes.”
Emma nodded. “I understand.”
“We will send for you when we have an answer.” Bucky gestured a farewell.
Amberline gestured for Emma to follow and left the room. “Are you hungry?” Emma asked as they walked down the stairs.
“I had just arrived when they sent for me and I am very hungry.”
“Uh, I’ll sit with you, but I don’t know if I can eat right now.” Her head was spinning. “Did you understand any of that?”
“I understood the words, but not many of the ideas. I am not a scientist or a mathematician. I serve the hive differently.”
“Whatever it is,” Amberline said as they entered the common chamber and moved towards the cafeteria, “they were very concerned about it all. It must be very important.”
“Yeah,” Emma said solemnly, then fell silent. Maybe to me as well.
The lid of the venting port was wedged open like a clamshell, threatening to crush the pearl of Pastore’s helmet at any moment. Montalbano launched himself at the tiny wedge of an opening. Harrak watched as if it were in slow motion as the smaller man acrobatically positioned his body to slide through with the minimum amount of contact. Only his helmet scraped the lip of the vent.
Once he saw that Montalbano was going to make it, Harrak followed. He jumped, felt the nauseating vertigo of weightlessness, then promptly banged his knee on the lip of the vent. He allowed himself a yell—after all, who would hear it? But as soon as the red flash of pain subsided, he was subsumed in steam or smoke or something. He could see nothing.
In his mind’s eye, though, he watched the Prox soldier coming closer. Damned if they’re going to get Pastore, whether he’s dead or not, he thought. He searched for a purchase point and then felt around for Pastore’s suit. He found the big man’s arm and pulled. He put both feet against the side of the vent, his buttocks hugging a small lip about 20 centimeters wide. He pulled with everything in him. He couldn’t see Montalbano, and had no idea what had happened to him. He needed the help right now. Dammit, where is he?
There was a catch, and suddenly Pastore was tumbling inward. Harrak almost lost his balance and clutched at the little lip he was sitting on. Pastore fell inward just as the smoke cleared.
Harrak’s stomach lurched as the vapor cleared beneath him, revealing giant rotating blades, spinning at high velocity. Duct fans and blood spatter were all he could see. He leaned forward, hoping against hope to see that Montalbano had found a way to save himself. Harrak almost lost his balance again and hugged the wall of the vent for safety.
His heart was pounding in his chest, in his head, in his ears. The vent had sealed now that Pastore’s body was no longer propping it open, but the vapor was beginning to accumulate again, too. Suddenly the lid of the vent flew open, and precariously balancing on a ledge too small to hold him, poised above the certain death of the vent fans, Harrak found himself staring into the stalked eyes of the soldier Prox.
He remembered that his blaster was hanging from his shoulder, but he wasn’t quick enough. The alien jabbed its claw into the vent and the sharp metallic tip of it pierced Harrak’s suit. He felt an ache in his chest, followed by a cold that seemed to creep downward toward his gut. He pushed the tip out with his hands, and nearly tumbled. Then the vent door was closing again and the Prox snatched its claw back just in time to avoid being crushed.
Fifteen seconds, Harrak thought. I’ve got fifteen seconds before that vent opens again. The only light he could see was coming from behind the fans. He tried not to look down at them, not only to stop the vertigo, but so his eyes could adjust and, hopefully, see another way out.
He saw another lip of sorts, although it was perhaps simply a design element…or almost anything else. In the dark, and from his angle, it was hard to tell what it was. But it was something. Whatever it was, it lay halfway between himself and the fans.
He estimated it was about six meters down to the fans. He tried not to look at the macabre pattern made by his friends’ blood on the walls. He edged himself around to get a better look at the…whatever it was. And then he ran out of time.
From the shudder of the metal that held him he realized the vent was opening a split second before the gap appeared. He breathed a quick prayer, and launched himself toward whatever it was on the far wall side that broke the monotony of the cylindrical walls, just barely ducking the frenzied stabs of the Prox’s claw.
Free falling, so slow it seemed to tease him, he beat back the image of the great circling blades snapping through his space suit, rendering his life support pack a useless scrap of mangled poly and shredding his body’s meat into tiny slivers of gore.
He realized with horror he had misjudged the leap. He twisted in free space, reaching for the…whatever it was…but he saw with a sinking feeling in his gut that he was going to miss it. He screamed into his helmet and punched out with his gloved hand.
“Sir, I’ve got a message from the Talon in the queue—general broadcast announcement to the whole caravan.”
“Let’s hear it,” Danny said. He narrowed his eyes and looked over at his XO. Foulon smiled weakly, but nodded firmly. Danny nodded back and turned his attention to the screen.
His stomach gurgled. They’d been so busy with their sabotages that he’d forgotten to eat. The first rule of combat was to take care of your body, and he’d let it go. Ah well, he thought. I’ve never been as disciplined as some. He instantly thought of Jeff. He instantly regretted it.
The image of Captain Joleen Taylor filled the screen, looking as hot in her forties as she ever had in her twenties. The uniform fit her frame snugly, expertly, accentuating every enticing curve. Despite himself, his loins stirred, and his eyes looked momentarily sad.
“Attention all Captains traveling in this Deseret-bound caravan. This is Captain Joleen Taylor. As you are probably well aware, this particular passage has had more than its share of…inconveniences.” Danny watched her shoulders sag and a sad smile form at one side of her mouth. She shook her head. “I’d say there’s never a dull moment in space, but I’m sure you all know differently.” Danny heard a couple of chuckles around the bridge. She had gained some leadership skills since he’d seen her last, he had to give her that.
“Unfortunately, there have been some troubling developments that will require your attention and cooperation. I’m sorry to say that this cooperation is necessary, not optional. I hate to invoke your transport contract, but…well, that’s how serious it is.”
She looked down, apparently regretting the news, or perhaps dreading her next statement.
“She can’t see us—right, Mr. Lo?” Danny asked.
“Oh, no sir. I’d never activate the camera without your permission. This is a view-only broadcast. One way.”
“Just checking.” Danny turned back to the screen.
Jo cleared her throat and looked back at the camera. “I don’t want the rumor mill to spin wild tales, so I’m just going to tell it to you all straight. We are all captains, after all, and worthy of our rank and respect. Sixteen hours ago, the Carthage suffered multiple systems failures. Unlike many of our other ships, it was not repairable or salvageable, and we had to evacuate her crew, passengers…pets”—she made a face—“…and cargo to the Talon. Everyone is safe, but…I am sorry to report that we discovered contraband among her cargo. Serious contraband that we suspect was intended for one of the Fundamentalist LDS separatist terrorist organizations on Deseret.”
“Holy shit,” Navigator Galli said aloud.
“Just our luck,” Foulon breathed. “Damn.”
“Why, what does it matter?” Lo asked him.
“Wait for it,” Foulon said.
Ernst was right, Danny knew. He felt a sinking in his empty stomach, and it wasn’t for lack of food.
“I will require a private, face-to-face meeting with the captain of each ship. You’ll be hearing from our communicator, Mr. Leibert, soon to arrange shuttle transport and a schedule. After our interview, prepare to be boarded and searched. When you come, make sure you bring all cargo and passenger manifests. If you like, you may send those by data packet anytime between now and your interview.”
She looked down again, her face grave. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, and we’ll try to be as expeditious as possible. Thank you for your cooperation and support.”
The screen flickered and was replaced with the RFC insignia.
“Well, shit,” Danny said. “What were the odds of that contraband? I mean…jeez. Mormons, right?” He looked at Foulon.
“Orders, Captain?” Foulon did not react to the insult.
“Incoming message from the Talon, sir,” Lo said.
“That was fast,” Foulon said.
“Well, it’s just a scheduling grid. Two of them, actually. One for the interview, and….” his fingers tapped at his pad, “…one for the search. They have suggested times for both. Captain Taylor would like to see you at 1400 hours.”
That was only two hours hence.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but Captain Taylor doesn’t know my face,” Foulon said. “She only knows the name Captain Perry Byrd. It doesn’t have to be you who goes over.”
Danny held one finger up in Foulon’s direction. He nodded. “That’s good thinking, Number One.” He swung his chair back toward Lo. “When do they want to board us?”
“That can’t happen,” Galli said.
She was right, of course. They could disguise the outside of the ship, but one step past the airlock and it would be screamingly obvious that this was a war vessel, not a culinary transport. Danny wanted to say, “No shit,” but bit his tongue. He didn’t need to alienate his A-crew right now.
Danny stood, a plan forming in his mind. “Mr. Foulon, from now on, you are Captain Perry Byrd.”
Foulon nodded once. “Yes sir.”
“You are also acting captain of this vessel in my absence.”
“Absence, sir?” Foulon’s eyebrows rose. He looked concerned.
“Yes, Number One. You’re going to meet with Captain Taylor. You’re going to assure her of our full cooperation. Then, at 0750, you’re going to jump into C-space and head back toward Authority space. You’re finally going to get your wish. You’re going to rejoin the fight against…whatever is threatening Sol Station and Earth.”
“And where will you be, sir?” Foulon asked.
“I…well, I still have a score to settle.” He smiled grimly. “Don’t I?”
Harrak caught the lip of something with one finger of his gloved space suit. Whatever it was, it was set into the smooth wall of the venting tube. In the dim light he couldn’t make out what he had caught. He pulled with his finger and was grateful that in the relative weightlessness of his environment, it wasn’t hard to counteract inertia. He began to float toward…it. With overwhelming relief he saw that the break in the wall was, in fact, a hatch. A standard, no-nonsense industrial service hatch, no doubt placed here to access and repair the blades and perhaps even the vent itself.
From this angle, Harrak could see tiny ridges all the way up, invisible from the other direction. Ridges no doubt used by the Prox as footholds on the otherwise smooth surface of the tube. They were too small to be of any use to him—not even the finger of his space suit would fit into one. He might be able to wedge a single-axle climbing cam in one…but that was an experiment for another time.
He clutched at a recessed disk set into the hatch. How does this work? he thought. At least he could hold on to the damn thing and not fall while he figured it out. He wished there were enough lip for him to sit on, or at least gain purchase for his feet, but that was perhaps asking too much. He hung from the disk, exploring its contours with the numb fingers of his gloved hand.
He wished he had the advantage of his nerves, his skin, the tips of his fingers. He had never truly appreciated his skin as an organ of perception—not until this moment. He pulled at the disk but nothing happened. He tried to twist it, but to no avail. He tried to push it one way, then the other. Nothing.
Breathe, he told himself. He stopped and paid attention to the oxygen rushing into his lungs, then to the carbon dioxide he let out slowly, intentionally. Okay, how would this work if you had pincers? The thought reminded him of his suit, of the fact that he was probably leaking air, that he was probably wounded and simply pumping out so many endorphins at the moment that he couldn’t feel it.
He summoned an image of the pincer that had stabbed him. It had happened so fast that he hadn’t seen it clearly, hadn’t even thought to study it. He had a vague notion of its shape, however, and it was like nothing he could make his own hand do.
But what about hands? He had two of them after all. And even in the space suit, they were posable, movable, pliant. He conjured an image of the pincer, according to his best memory of it. Using one hand to hold onto the disk, he inserted the other hand as close to it as he was able and pushed forward. He felt a plate beyond it give. Then the whole hatch lurched inward, and once again there was a lip to put his knee onto. Still holding fast to the disk with one hand he pushed the door open with the other, and pushing with one knee, he fell forward into it, gibbering with relief.
He rested on the horizontal surface of the service tube, just grateful to feel something solid beneath him. He gave thanks to whatever cosmic powers had rescued him from certain death. His chest heaved with sobs as stress and grief wracked him. It also started to hurt.
After several minutes of just lying there, prone, he felt his breathing return to normal, felt the tension seep out of his limbs, felt an overwhelming fatigue roll through him. He could sleep. Right here, in the tiny, cramped confines of the service tube, he could sleep, and wanted to.
But I’ve got a fleet to save, he thought. A people. A planet. It’s all on me, and the clock is ticking. If I sleep, all of this will be for nothing.
He kicked against the edge of the hatch and wormed his shoulders forward. The blaster was between his shoulder blades now and tremendously uncomfortable. With every twist of his torso, pain stabbed in his chest. He forced himself not to think about it. It couldn’t be too bad, or he wouldn’t be alive, after all.
After a few feet, the hatch widened, and he found he could crawl. That, too, was a relief, as he was beginning to feel claustrophobic. Should I turn my neural on to check my suit’s condition? he wondered. No. Knowing won’t change anything. He would either run out of air or he wouldn’t, and turning his neural on wouldn’t change that. It would only alert whoever was driving this death machine to his exact position.
Instead, he set his face toward the oncoming tube and crawled as quickly as he was able. He moved like a soldier, regulating his breathing, timing his movements for maximum speed and efficiency. He also quieted his flailing emotions, demanding their submission, and getting it. Pastore and Montalbano will not have died in vain, goddammit, he swore to himself. He briefly flashed on the other two ships, the other two missions, and wondered what was happening to them.
But he didn’t dwell on it. He just kept moving. Eventually, he came to the end of the service tube. It concluded in a T. He could continue to the left or to the right, or he could exit the hatch directly in front of him. The idea of moving about on his feet appealed to him. It would hurt less, for one thing, if he was not using his arms for locomotion. He moved his gloved hand before him into an approximation of the shape of a Prox’s pincer, snatched at the disk with one hand, and pushed with the other. The hatch fell away from him with smooth precision. Damn, I’m getting good at this, he thought. He crawled through and tumbled onto the floor of a corridor. Only then did he realize that he had experienced no increase in gravity. On an Authority ship he would have felt the artificial gravity at some point as he got closer to an inhabited deck.
There was gravity, but it was slight, so he tumbled to the floor without damage. He stood and unslung his blaster. Despite the fact that its electronics might be detected, he powered it up and cradled it in one arm. Then he pushed off against the wall, weighing how quickly he would be able to walk without launching himself toward the low ceiling.
Not very, he grumbled to himself. Still, it was better than crawling.
He discovered that he could move more quickly by holding one hand above his head, jumping off with his feet, and pushing down with his hand. Hopping like this, he traversed the corridor, towards…he didn’t know. He stopped and felt himself fall back to the floor. Where the hell am I going? he wondered. At any moment, he knew, a Prox could come around the corner and spear him to the wall. He would not be so lucky as to receive another flesh wound again.
He summoned up his memory of the approximate schematics—Sol Station’s engineers’ best guesses as to what the Prox ships might look like on the inside. He located himself as to where they had landed, where the vent had been, how far he must have crawled and in what direction. At the end of all that, he had a vague notion of where he was on the map in his head, but of course, it was all speculative. And he had probably gotten turned around somewhere.
Then he laughed. He laughed at all the guesswork and the danger and the corpses of the men under his command. He laughed at the cosmic justice of the Authority being subdued by a superior force—they who were accustomed to doing the subduing. He doubled over as the hilarity poured out of him, purging from his guts all the stress and fear and grief that had been building up, needing to blow like the vent on the skin of the ship above him.
Spent, he crouched, resting his arms on his knees. If someone came around the corner, they’d think I was taking a shit in their hallway, he thought, and that set him off again. Once that wave of laughter subsided, he stood up, feeling light-headed and a little sick. He reminded himself that he was wounded. He reminded himself he had a job to do. Walking in one direction was as good as walking in another. The thing to do was just to walk, to explore, to find…whatever was here. And then to destroy it.
At any moment he expected to round a corner and be attacked by solider Prox. But at every corner, he found just another empty corridor. He ventured into some of the doorways and found nothing but empty rooms. Empty of Prox, empty of equipment, empty of anything.
This is a fucking ghost ship, he thought.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He had been frightened of boarding an enemy vessel—who wouldn’t be? But that was his job, and it was his job to be courageous and to act despite the fear. But this wasn’t just scary, this was surreal.
He quickened his step. If there are any Prox inside this ship, I’m going to damn well find them. And kill them.
The corridors seemed labyrinthine, but eventually something changed. He came to a large room. He stopped and blinked in the dim emergency lighting. He turned on his helmet light and stepped into the room.
Tables and chairs. There were tables. And chairs.
Harrak caught at one of the chairs and steadied himself on the back of it. He almost sat down. Instead, he pressed ahead. A mess deck, he thought. This is a mess deck. A human mess deck.
On the other side of the mess were showers and a head. Then the berthing area, and even a few cabins, presumably for officers. Inside each was a bed, long unslept in. Across from each bed was a small utility sink.
The thought of lying down on one of the beds and sleeping was overwhelming. It would be dereliction of duty, he reminded himself. He pressed on.
The ramifications of what he was seeing overwhelmed him. He did not know how to make sense of it. The Prox were as alien a species as they had ever encountered. They were utterly inhuman. How could their ship possibly be made for humans?
He stopped and straightened up. Perhaps the interior was not for a crew, but for prisoners? Was this a slave transport ship? That didn’t make sense, either. These weren’t prison cells, these were accommodations much like those he had lived in his entire adult life. And where were the jailers?
He skirted what must have been the periphery, if the portholes were any indication. Then he climbed down, into the belly of the beast. If there were a bridge, it would not be topside—it would be in the heart of the thing, as far away from the hull as possible, with as many layers of sealed decks between it and the vacuum of space as its designers could manage.
He found a rounded wall and followed its curve. It ended at a massive set of doors. Like doors aboard Sol Station, these slid shut. He pushed awkwardly at the doors, trying to wedge his glove in between them.
He succeeded, and he shifted his body to prise them apart, ignoring the pain in his chest as he did so. After some effort, he succeeded in pushing them far enough apart to fit his helmet through. He walked onto the bridge and saw an arrangement that would not have been out of place on an Authority ship.
In the captain’s chair was a figure. He froze. Aiming his blaster, he carefully picked his way around the circumference of the room, keeping his eyes trained on the figure in command. As he came about to face him, he saw the eye sockets were empty, its uniform long faded and slack on its deteriorating frame.
“So, what happened to you?” he asked out loud.
The slack jawbone of the captain offered no answers, but the questions multiplied in the silence. Harrak slung the blaster over his shoulder and sighed. He turned on his neural and checked the time. A new urgency leaped within him. There was only one place he needed to find now.
Danny entered the hangar deck with a swagger that was larger than he felt. He hated spacewalking. Despite the fact that he’d had to do it numerous times in his career, it always made him nauseated.
As he drew near the shuttle, Chief Engineer Raj Tenzin looked over his shoulder and stood, saluting.
“As you were,” Danny said.
Tenzin knelt again and finished fixing a clamp.
“I take it I’m riding in the undercarriage?” Danny asked.
“That’s the only place that will be out of sight,” Tenzin nodded. “You’ll need to go dark with the suit—life support only, on quiet mode—and you’ll need to turn off your neural, too.”
Danny’s lips pressed together in a grim line. Fear is just something to be faced, he remembered from his academy days. Who had said that to him? Palamar? Yes, it was Palamar. The irony was rich, since Palamar was the most cowardly person he had ever known.
He couldn’t let on that this whole crazy notion made him nervous. The only thing to do was to bluster through. I can do that, he thought. I have to do that. “It’s going to be hard to maneuver under there in the space suit,” he noted.
“Well, the design is misleading, because of this apron and the lip.” Raj pointed to the flare near the bottom of the shuttle’s hull. “Actually, there’s about .75 meter’s clearance between the skis and the undercarriage. Even with your helmet, that’s plenty of room. I’ve been under there for the past hour and a half getting you a transport carriage set up that won’t tax your arms and legs.”
He threw himself on the ground and turned over, pointing to the undercarriage. “Take a look, sir—I mean, begging the captain’s pardon—if you’d like to take a look, I can show you what we’ve done.”
Danny grunted and went down on one knee. The space suit was bulky and made it hard to bend. Once down, he pivoted and allowed himself to fall onto his back. He wormed his way under the shuttlecraft, smarting from the indignity of it.
“There, and there, we’ve got X-clamps that will fasten to the bio-pack on the back of the suit. It’s the most rigid part of the suit, and the heaviest, which means it was designed to distribute its weight across your hips and torso. This is good for us—”
“Because it goes both ways. If I’m the weight…” Danny began.
“Exactly. It’s well distributed to the pack. You’ll essentially be hanging from the pack, face down.”
“What about release?”
“We’ve rigged up a tiny remote that you can reach with your glove, right there.” Tenzin pointed to a small box with one red button on it. Simple. “It’s actually wired, since any kind of remote signal could give you away.”
Danny nodded, though he knew Tenzin couldn’t see it. “That’ll take care of my torso. What about my feet?”
“Two E-clamps, right there. They’ll function like stirrups. We’ll get you into them. Just don’t pull your feet out until you’re ready to…disembark.”
“Will they slip out mid-flight?”
“Not unless you intend it. Once we get you harnessed up, you can practice getting out of them. You’ll see…it won’t happen accidentally. It’ll take some mild gymnastics.”
“But the suit—”
“Sir. It will be fine. I know we haven’t been serving together for very long, but…have I let you down yet?”
Danny turned and looked at Tenzin, as if seeing the chief engineer for the first time. “No, you haven’t. I’m…” Danny was momentarily at a loss for words. He’d never considered Tenzin’s loyalty or competency before. It was just a fact—like the tensile strength of wire or the refraction of light. For the first time it struck him that he was saying goodbye to this crew and this ship…and his career.
Something wet caught in Danny’s chest. He swallowed it. “Thank you for your stellar service since I’ve been aboard, Tenzin.”
“It’s been an honor, sir.”
Danny reached up and, grabbing a strut, slid himself out from under the shuttle.
The doors slid open and he saw Foulon coming toward them, dressed in a civilian captain’s uniform. Foulon saluted, and Danny returned it.
Foulon circumnavigated the shuttle, inspecting the camo job. “This still looks like a military shuttle,” he said. “The paint is good,” he pointed to the graphic of the spruce branch crossed with a Victorian Easter bonnet, along with their new call designation, “but civilian transport shuttles often have racks on the top for extra cargo.”
“Those are coming,” Tenzin said. “I’ll have them in place by launch—five minutes from now. I’m just waiting—ah! Here they are.”
Two ensigns with engineering insignia approached, carrying a bundle of rails on their shoulders.
“Those look pretty light,” Foulon said.
“They won’t be functional,” Tenzin said. “They’re just poly—note the sag in the middle between them. But they’ll look right, and that’s the important thing.”
The ensigns put the rails on the floor.
“Quick epoxy those to the topside hull, running bow to stern, parallel, each with a meter between them. I thought there were supposed to be five of them?”
“We checked, sir. The most popular brand only has four.”
Tenzin nodded. “Good for us. Faster.” He jerked his head toward the top of the shuttlecraft. “We could have put you up there, but for two things—the rails would have had to be functional and they’d have been more likely to inspect them.”
“Good thinking,” Danny said, although in truth he’d much rather be under a tarp up top than clamped to the bottom of the damn thing.
The bay door slid open again and two men with civilian security insignia came toward them. “That’s my crew,” Foulon said. “Captain, let’s get you stowed away.”
All of the muscles in Danny’s body tensed as he saw the floor below him start to move. It was surreal, being so close. He could reach out a hand and touch the floor, if he chose to, but he wasn’t stupid. He crossed his arms and even hooked his gloves on little spikes near his shoulder patches. Those were designed for sleeping in the suit, upright, under weightless conditions, but they worked fine for him now. Hugging his chest, he closed his eyes as the floor started moving faster and faster.
He wanted to check in with Foulon, but his suit was dark and his neural was off. He was alone, strapped to the bottom of a shuttlecraft, with nothing between him and the certain death of the vacuum of space but the thin curve of his helmet. God, I hate this, he thought.
To take his mind off of it, he thought about Jo. He thought about their lovemaking, all those many years ago—the animal roughness of it. He remembered his hands around her neck, and the bruises she’d left on his lower back the next day. He relaxed. They should make a way to jerk off in these suits, he thought, but it would be like trying to tickle someone rolled up in a carpet, gangster-style. Not happening. Ah well, he sighed, and returned to the fond memories of hair-pulling, blood-letting, and the shrill cursing of various gods.
“Sir, the envoys from the Spruce and Bonnet have just landed in the main landing bay. Security are on hand to escort them to the conference room.”
“Thank you, Tash,” Jo said.
She saw motion and swiveled the command chair to face her XO. Nira had been pulling double shifts and it was beginning to show. She was a determined cuss, and reminded Jo of herself, more every day. “Do you have something, Mr. Nira?”
“Yes sir. I’ve completed my analysis. From everything I’ve been able to glean via passive scans, it is my opinion that the Spruce and Bonnet looks more like a light-class warship than a culinary transport.”
“That explains a lot…” Jo nodded slowly.
“You could be walking into a trap,” Nira said.
“On my own ship?” Jo scowled.
Nira stood, as if preparing for an oration. “First, captain, we don’t know the provenance of that ship. It’s most certainly not from the UK colony and it sure isn’t carrying bangers and mash. We don’t know what their endgame is, what technology they have, or what they’re capable of. To allow you into a sealed meeting room, alone with them—”
“I’ll have security with me—”
“And they’ll have theirs. It’ll be an even match in that room. And before any help could get to you…” She did not finish the sentence. She did not have to.
“Well, I have a captain waiting in a meeting room and the clock is ticking,” Jo said. “We have a plan. So just what do you suggest?”
“I suggest you leave the small stuff alone and face up to the real threat.”
Jo froze. It was a man’s voice, coming from behind her. It was Jeff’s voice. She stood and spun around. Everyone else turned as well.
And there he was, standing behind her, unshaven and looking like he’d slept in his clothes for a week. Beside him was a smaller man, much smaller. He looked Mesoamerican, and the clothes he wore were definitely traditional Latin American.
Nira launched herself toward the upper riser, but it wasn’t an attack. It was a bear hug. The relief and real affection pouring out of her XO made Jo blush, despite her own pleasure at seeing Jeff. Was her XO sweet on her…her what? Boyfriend? What was Jeff to Jo, anyway? It was too complicated to parse. But no, this hug wasn’t infatuation. It was something good, something wholesome. Something the universe needed a whole lot more of.
Jeff laughed and hugged Nira back. Nira then stiffly separated herself and turned to Jo. “Begging the captain’s pardon, sir.”
“No pardon required, XO.” Jo smiled. “I’m glad to see him too.”
If she had any doubts whatsoever, they vanished in the next moment as Jeff stepped down the riser toward her, caught her up in his arms and kissed her.
The kiss seemed suspended in time, and Jo wished it would go on forever. When their lips finally parted, Jo stepped back and straightened her uniform jacket, trying to reclaim some of her dignity. The eyes of her crew were like saucers as they stared at her and at Jeff, as if they were some roadside attraction or a machinery accident.
“You smell like you’ve been sleeping in a grizzly bear’s anus,” Jo said, pushing him to arm’s length. She shook her hair and raised her chin.
“I do my best work rank,” he said. He snatched at her hand, pulled her in, and kissed her again.
This time she just melted into him and let him kiss her.
Like all kisses, it ended. When they finally separated again, she found her crew very, very busy doing something, anything. She saw that they were also trying very hard not to smile. All except for Nira, who was watching them with her hands on her hips, grinning like an idiot.
“So, you two…”
“It’s a long story, Mr. Nira,” Jo said.
Jo put her hand on Jeff’s chest. “Um…not that I’m not glad that you’re here, but…we’re kind of in the middle of something.”
“Forget it,” Jeff said.
“What’s that?” Jo asked, her eyebrows rising and her jaw tightening.
“Don’t get like that. Can we talk?” He pointed to her ready room.
“Maybe Nira and Tomás could join us.”
Jo didn’t know who Tomás was, but assumed Jeff was referring to the little man with him. She nodded and led the way. The door slid open, and she found her spot, sitting as the others found chairs. Once they were all seated, she turned to Jeff. “So what’s this about?”
“Sol Station is under attack,” Jeff said.
“I know,” Jo said, her shoulders slumping. “We offered the Authority our help, but they refused it.”
“They’re idiots, but it wouldn’t have helped.” Jeff folded his hands in front of him on the table.
Tomás sat beside him. Was the little man mute?
“The creatures they’re fighting…well, we were fighting them in our universe. It’s why we’re even here. We were trying to develop a way to beat them.”
“And it didn’t work out so well,” Jo said tentatively.
“No,” Jeff agreed. “I…I didn’t know what I was doing.” He turned to Tomás. “But he does.”
“You found him. Your shaman,” Jo said.
“Yes. Tomás has been mentoring me in how to…use this gift of ours.”
“You have it too?” Jo hoped that by addressing the little man directly, she’d hear his voice.
Jeff answered for him. “We know how to…move, and move things…without putting the reality string at risk.”
Jo nodded, still not quite believing it all. But she’d just seen Jeff appear on her bridge, hadn’t she?
“Jo, the Authority doesn’t have a chance. I know they’re your enemy, but if they’re destroyed, it doesn’t help you, because the Prox will just come after you next—after they destroy the Earth, that is. And you won’t stand a chance, either.”
She didn’t dispute it. She didn’t know what to think.
“Whatever you’re dealing with here, it might be nefarious, but it’s small potatoes. If you want to subdue the real enemy, here’s your chance.” He jerked his head toward Tomás. “We need you. You can either help us now, or you can wait until billions more people have died.”
He paused and looked her in the eye. “What will it be?” he asked.
“I’m just supposed to drop everything and put myself, my ship, and my crew at your disposal?” Jo asked.
“I’m asking you to save the universe.”
Jo blinked. “Well, when you put it like that…” She looked down at her hands. She saw a hangnail. She desperately wanted to chew it into submission. It mocked her. She looked back up at Jeff. “How can I just abandon my orders?”
“Contact your admiral. Explain the situation. From everything you’ve said, you have her trust. Surely she’ll see the advantage to dealing with this now before the colonies are devoured by metal-eating monsters, one by one.”
He was probably right. Admiral Alinto would listen to her. She was sure of it. “What am I supposed to do about this caravan? I can’t just abandon it here.”
They sat in silence for a long minute.
Nira stood. “Sir. You should go with him. I can bring our mission to completion here, with your permission.”
Jo scowled. “Mr. Nira, how will you accomplish this? We only have the one starship, and it’s full of Mormons at the moment.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but we have two.”
Jo cocked her head.
“We have the Spruce and Bonnet, sir. We don’t know whose warship it is, but it’s a warship, without a doubt. We have their captain isolated now. How hard could it be to commandeer it…for a good cause?” She smiled. “We could bring over a skeleton crew and then move the Mormons.”
“And what will we do with the Spruce and Bonnet’s crew, Mr. Nira? They won’t fit in the brig.”
“We could transport them to their homeworld,” Jeff said. “How long will it take you to make preparations?”
Nira looked surprised that her idea was being considered. “Uh…at yellow alert, thirty minutes.”
Jeff and Tomás looked at each other and nodded. “We can empty a starship by then.”
Danny was beginning to sweat. He was used to hangar decks being cold as hell, but once the blast doors had closed, the heat had pumped in quickly. His space suit was still running quiet, which meant he had no temperature regulation. In space it had gotten very cold, but since docking, Danny had begun to sweat. He watched as a bead of perspiration gathered on the end of his nose and dropped into the bowl of his helmet.
He was beginning to collect a pool.
He couldn’t be sure how long he’d been suspended there. It felt like hours but was probably less than one. Be patient, he told himself. The right moment will come. Timing is everything here. But he was terrified that the meeting would conclude and Foulon and the others would get back aboard and take off—with him still riding the undercarriage. Like hell. He decided a little more risk was probably going to be necessary.
And then the moment arrived. The lights went out, which meant the last human had exited the deck. It might be momentary, it might be for hours. That was impossible to know, but what Danny did know was that, for the time being, he was alone.
He retracted his boots from the E-clamps one at a time and then felt for the button that would release the X-clamps on his pack. He fell the .75 meters to the floor, breaking his fall with his gloved hands, emitting an audible “Oof.”
He felt a bit like a turtle, struggling to turn over, and then tore at the zipper of his suit.
It was no small feat, getting out of a space suit on one’s own. For the whole of his career, Danny had had someone to help him—other grunts, and later, men under his command—to tug and pull and fasten it in the places he couldn’t quite reach.
Finally, however, after a good deal of thrashing and pulling, the suit lay in a heap beside him, and he took a deep breath, enjoying the cool air against his wet skin.
It quickly turned cold.
Working with haste, he stowed the boots and gloves inside the suit and reattached it to the X-clamps. The suit would go out the same way it had come in. Then, beginning to shiver, he crawled out from under the shuttlecraft.
Instantly, the lights blazed. He shielded his eyes with his arm and fought back panic. He was about to dive back under the shuttle when he realized what was happening. In all likelihood, no one had entered the bay—now that he was no longer shielded by the shuttle, he had simply triggered the motion-detector and the lights had come on. The only danger is me, he thought. He smiled at that.
Before leaving, the Horatio Nelson had sent a message to their mole, so a fresh uniform should be waiting for him underneath the concave poly bottom of a waste can. There were probably several of them around the bay, but he jogged to the one nearest him. He knew he’d make quite a sight sprinting across the landing bay in his underwear. He could have brought a change of clothes, but it would have been the wrong clothes.
He snatched at the large trash receptacle and got lucky on the first try—beneath it was a short stack of neatly-folded clothes.
He dressed quickly, wishing he’d had a pair of dry underwear, too. But there was no time for that, or even for wishing. Just as soon as he’d finished with the last fastener, he heard voices. He froze.
He cast around for a hiding place. There was a space under a workbench, but it looked greasy. He didn’t want to soil his new uniform so quickly. There was another shuttle in the bay, nearer to him now. He dove under it just as two mechanics entered the bay from a connecting corridor.
“Oh my god,” one said. “That’s not the way I heard it.”
“How did you hear it?” This was a woman’s voice.
“I heard she launched herself at him and wouldn’t stop kissing him.”
“That is not the way it happened. I talked to two people who were there.”
“How do you know the A-crew on the bridge?” he asked.
“I don’t. I was in the mess. They came in. I listened,” she answered, a note of mock hurt in her voice. “Where did you get your information?”
“From the cook.”
“And she heard it from…?”
He didn’t answer. Danny assumed he had shrugged or something.
“Look, you can believe your fifth-hand information if you want, but I heard it directly from people who were there,” she said.
“Here, hold this,” he said. “Okay, so what really happened, then?”
“He just appeared out of thin air.”
“Is that some kind of transporter technology? Because if so…”
“No, I don’t think so. I think he just…appeared. Him and another man. Little guy. From Peru or something.”
Danny scowled. What the hell were they talking about?
“And then he ran to the captain’s chair and kissed Captain Taylor.”
Danny’s eyebrows jumped. This was getting interesting.
“And she kissed him back. And then he did it again.”
“No shit. I guess that’s a little more dignified.”
“You better not diss the captain,” she warned.
“I do not want to get on the wrong side of the captain,” he agreed.
“So now what?”
“I have no idea. Top secret shit. They’re interviewing the other captains, right? That’s going to take a while.”
“No, no, no. I heard we’ve got new orders coming,” she said.
Danny cocked his head. New orders?
“Yeah, but there’s always new orders coming, and you can never second-guess them. So, until they get here…what’s on our checklist?”
Danny heard the clatter of someone dropping a data pad, then the woman cursing.
“Okay, here it is. Three items, so we’re doing pretty good. First up, quarterly check of the atmospheric filters.”
“Doesn’t Environmental do that?”
“It’s on our checklist, so…I would guess no.”
“You know what makes me all wet and trembly?”
“No…and I don’t want to,” he answered. Danny could almost hear the eye-rolling.
“The idea that Captain Bowers would travel all the way across the universe—or even from another universe—to kiss me…her. That’s…that’s a fucking kiss, right there.”
Danny’s head jerked up. Bowers? Bowers was here? Now? Two birds, he thought. One stone. Oh, this is going to be a good day…
It took more than thirty minutes for Jeff and Tomás to empty the starship—but not much more. Jeff commandeered a uniform from one of the Spruce and Bonnet’s visiting security men and teleported aboard the ship. It only took a moment to ascertain where the ship was really from. He strode into the mess like he owned the place and took a seat at one of the tables, hanging his head over a discarded cup of coffee. Then he went into the All.
He found Tomás there. They’re not from a UK colony, he thought, knowing Tomás could “hear” him. And the Spruce and Bonnet is not the name of this ship. This is an Authority warship.
He heard Tomás’ voice in his mind. Then we will take them to Earth.
To Earth, Jeff agreed. In the All, he felt Tomás teleport away, found him again, distant yet near, available. He reached through and grabbed Tomás’ arm. Jeff flashed back on Tomás’ explanation of the sleeve. Tomás was holding his end of the sleeve aloft. And then the portal was open.
As if in two worlds at once, Jeff rose and began to circumambulate the mess hall. There weren’t many people in it, and no one seemed to be paying attention to anyone else. All for the better, he thought.
At first it was hard to navigate. Jeff was seeing the universe from the perspective of the All, but superimposed over it were the images his eyes were registering from the Authority vessel. It was disorienting, and Jeff stumbled once, striking his thigh against a table. “Ouch,” he said out loud.
“Hey, are you all right?” a woman asked him. She was putting a tray down on a table. “And what’s with that uniform, are you—”
With a flourish of his arm that was completely unnecessary, Jeff sent her tumbling toward Tomás, toward Earth. He saw her with his physical eyes first, sucked into nothing. One minute she was standing there, the next minute she wasn’t. Then he sensed her traveling through the All.
Got her, Tomás said. We must hurry.
Hurry he did. Jeff surveyed the room, then began to walk in the direction in which he’d be able to approach the most people from behind. He didn’t need any drama. He certainly didn’t need anyone to raise an alarm. The best way to empty this ship was quietly.
He walked up behind a man hunkered over a bowl of soup and sent him spinning into the All. Next was a woman standing at the food synthesizer panel. Gone. He turned and approached a table where four people were eating and talking with some animation. Do I need to send them individually or can I send them in groups? he asked.
We are pleased to accommodate parties of any size, Tomás answered.
Jeff grinned. He approached the table and leaned over it, placing his hands on its edge.
The conversation stopped and everyone turned to look at him, their eyebrows raised in surprise. Then the four of them were gone.
“Hey, what just happened there?” a man asked.
Jeff turned and gave him a disarming grin. “Oh, it’s the coolest thing. Take a look at this.” He offered his hand as if he were going to shake it. The man reached for his hand, and the next moment was tumbling into the All.
Jeff looked around at the empty mess. He put his hands on his hips and sighed.
Enough self-congratulation, Tomás’ voice resonated in his head. We have a starship to empty.
Jeff nodded and headed toward the door. None of his subordinates would have said something like that to him. And none of his superiors would have been in a situation like this. Jeff wondered at how odd it was to be working as a team with someone. Jeff was used to taking orders or giving them. But to work with someone…he found that he enjoyed it.
He imagined the layout of a typical warship of this size. He couldn’t be sure the Authority would design their ships the same way as the CDF, but thus far things seemed pretty familiar. He got his bearings and began a systematic sweep of the ship, sending its crew tumbling one by one into the All, toward Tomás, toward Earth.
Emma had been lying on her mattress in the sleep chamber for hours, with no word from anyone. She hadn’t been summoned to work in the counting chambers, nor had she been directed to go to class. It was the first real downtime she’d had since she arrived at the hive. She should be relishing it, but instead, she was fretting.
The implications of the Alverian scientists’ calculations were staggering. It was clear that whatever they had been observing, the balance of forces involved had been disturbed when String 310—her string—had been destroyed. If there was something pressed between two strings, and then suddenly one of them went away…
What? Would it suddenly expand to fill the newly vacant space? Would it be flung away from the remaining string like a child bouncing on a trampoline? This was unmapped territory, Emma had never even read speculation about such things. She had to know more. If only the Alverians could find the courage to trust her.
She heard a commotion in the tunnel outside the sleeping chamber. Any Alverians who had been sleeping stirred to look. Emma felt certain that whatever it was probably concerned her, so she leapt to her feet and ran out to try to restore the peace.
“People are sleeping,” she signed to the crowd in the tunnel. Bucky and Amberline were there, along with four of the red-banded scientists and a taller Alverian. She wore a sort of gold-colored scarf draped over her shoulders and a powder blue circle painted on her forehead. It was the first personal decoration that Emma had seen in the hive. She felt that this Alverian must be important, so she bowed and signed a respectful greeting.
“Greetings and welcome, human,” she replied. “I am Blue Circle, leader of the council.”
Well, nothing beats a literal name! Emma thought, amused. Certainly makes it easy to remember.
Blue Circle continued, with Amberline vocalizing. “I am being asked to take you into our confidence, to trust you with our most dear secret. Nobody outside the hive has ever been given that level of trust before. Do you understand?”
“I do,” she said, nodding. “At least in part.”
“If we place this trust in you, and you betray our confidence, even without intending to, it could mean the death of the hive and the end of the Alverian people.”
Emma’s stomach churned. She’d already helped destroy one universe, and that knowledge stabbed at her whenever she allowed herself to think of it. She couldn’t bear the responsibility for wiping out another civilization.
Blue Circle studied Emma’s face, which must have been as alien to her as the Alverians were to Emma. “Normally I would not even consider a risk so great, but these are not normal times.”
Bucky signed emphatic agreement.
“Our scientists tell me that you possess very advanced knowledge in the matters concerning us, that you and you alone may be the key to understanding them.” She then stood silently.
Emma glanced to Amberline for guidance. “She wants you to confirm that,” Amberline whispered.
“Although I do not fully understand the matter at hand, I offer my full expertise and will serve the hive in any capacity I can.”
Amberline’s mask smiled as she signed the translation.
Blue Circle nodded contemplatively. “Very well. We will open the hive to you fully. I beg you to care for it as we would.” She made a few gestures toward the scientists that Amberline did not translate, turned and walked regally away.
The scientists suddenly appeared nervous, or perhaps just excited. Bucky signed to follow, and led the party down the tunnel. They walked in silence until they arrived at a bank of elevators Emma had never seen before. One of them stood open, and Bucky stepped inside. None of the others joined her. “Come,” she motioned to Emma.
“Uh, where are we going?” Emma muttered, suddenly apprehensive.
“To the heart of the hive.”
Emma took a deep breath and stepped into the lift. To her great relief, Amberline followed close behind. The doors closed and the elevator began to descend.
Admiral Tal sat. He was beginning to feel weary again. He saw Liu pass and reached out to snag his sleeve.
“Are you alright, sir?” Liu asked.
“Just winded, Lieutenant. Bring me caffeine in any form, please.”
“Yes sir. Right away sir.”
Lieutenant Liu was not a glorified waiter. He knew that. Liu was a highly skilled military secretary. But if Tal had a friend aboard Sol Station, Liu came closest to that category.
Tal had been obsessively checking the board for information about their strike teams. All three were dead silent. The Prox ships just kept coming. Tal said a silent prayer for the teams’ success and wondered for the thousandth time what was happening to them.
In the meantime, there were preparations to make. Tal rolled his eyes up to check for reports on the funnel formation. There it was—a report from Admiral Wengret herself. He blinked to open it and dove in. His eyes flashed from side to side as he read. She had done a very thorough job. Her assessment of the funnel formation’s strengths and weaknesses left no stone unturned, so far as he could see. He found himself nodding as he skimmed through the relevant sections, skipping ahead to find the tables for ship deployment. A ring of sheer firepower, with Sol Station on one side and the approaching Prox ships on the other. He liked it. He didn’t know if it would work, of course, but if they had any chance at all with conventional weaponry, this would give it to them.
He made a few notes and sent it back. He expected Wengret would turn it around in minutes. The next draft would go out with orders. He glanced at his chronometer. Just enough time to get everyone in formation.
If only we had the rebels with us, he thought. We should be fighting this war together. He felt suddenly sad. The rebels were not, after all, without justification for their rebellion. They had legitimate grievances, and any thinking person would say so. It was how they chose to protest those grievances that made them outlaws and enemies. Every now and then, though, at three in the morning, when Tal considered where he would be if he had been among those who had been wronged, he wondered what side he would have come down on. In his secret heart he knew the answer to that, and for that reason he did not judge them too harshly.
“Here you are, sir,” Liu said, handing him a cup of coffee.
His secretary had been thoughtful—he’d put cream in it, even though he knew Tal didn’t ordinarily use cream. But it would cool it off for faster drinking. Liu thought of everything. “Thank you, Liu.” Tal took a large swig and placed the cup in his chair’s holder.
A communications operator down on the floor stood and turned toward him. “Sir,” he yelled over the din, “I have a transmission from Commander Harrak.”
“General PA,” Tal yelled back, “Back it up to the beginning.”
Everyone froze and stopped what they were doing. The operator threw himself into his seat and started tapping at his console. A moment later, Tal heard Harrak’s ragged voice through the PA.
“Commander Sean Harrak to Sol Station.”
Why was the commander breaking radio silence? Tal stood, his tiredness forgotten.
“This is Admiral Tal, son. How is your team?”
“Sir, my team is…dead, sir. I’m the only survivor.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, commander. Tell me what you’ve got there.”
“Sir, I’m in.”
Tal nodded. He waited. He knew in his gut that what came next would be important. “What did you find?”
“It’s a…you’re not going to believe this, sir. But…it’s a human vessel. Parts of it seem to have been adopted for use by the Prox, but the basic vessel is outfitted for humans.”
Tal scowled, and a general gasp arose from the Command Center. People began to talk until the hubbub threatened to drown out Harrak’s voice. “Silence!” Tal shouted, holding his hand up. The room froze.
“At least humanoid. But…it looks weirdly familiar. There are tables and chairs, and showers in the head with corporate logos on them. There are sleeping berths and officers’ quarters almost identical to our own. There’s a bridge, too, with a human cadaver in the captain’s chair.”
Tal sat back down again, reeling from the shock of the information.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. I’m transmitting a data packet with everything I’ve captured on my neural since I turned it back on, sir.”
“You turned on your neural?” Tal said. “Aren’t you worried about being located?”
“Uh…begging the Admiral’s pardon, but there’s no one here. Except for the cadaver…I appear to be the only inhabitant. There’s literally no one aboard. And it doesn’t look like anyone has been aboard in a very, very long time.”
“How is that possible?” Tal breathed. “Who’s flying the thing? Who’s navigating? Who’s giving orders?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, sir. I only know that they’re not here.”
Tal’s head spun with the dissonance of the information. He looked around at all the astonished faces, the slack jaws, the wide eyes. “Does anyone have a clue?” he called to the room at large.
No one spoke.
Tal rubbed his jaw and shook his head slowly. “Where are you now, Commander?” he asked, finally.
“I’m in engineering, sir. The engine room, specifically. It’s the only place where…where I can be sure.” The voice quavered and faltered.
“Admiral, will you tell my parents…and my girlfriend…will you tell them I love them?”
“Commander?” Tal stood and raised his voice.
He waited. His eyes travelled to the central monitor. He expected to see an explosion as the commander activated his nuke. But there was nothing.
“Commander!” Tal demanded.
“Nothing, sir,” the communicator called over his shoulder.
“Get him back!” Tal commanded.
Silence. After several minutes of frantic attempts, the communicator stood and turned to look at him. “We’ve lost him, sir. His neural signal is gone, too.”
“Gone? Gone where?” Tal thundered.
Every eye in the room was on him. But not one of them had any answers.
“Goddammit!” Tal roared.
He glanced up at the schematic on the right-hand monitor. The Prox ships were still in formation. They were still moving. They were still coming.
Tal rose, his fatigue forgotten. On one monitor he saw the whole array of his forces, in ring formation. Sol Station was also depicted, hovering in the center of the ring, but about 20,000 kilometers above it. Also in the center of the ring, but about 40,000 kilometers below it, were the approaching Prox.
Tal still could not shake the eerie stillness that had pervaded the Command Center after Harrak’s voice had simply…stopped. Where had he gone? What had happened to that brave young man? And the other strike teams, were they all dead, too? He realized these were questions he may never find the answer to, if only because he may not live long enough to investigate them.
Tal waved and got a communicator’s attention, a wiry-haired red-headed young woman. She inclined her chin. “Yes sir?”
“Open a channel to all ships. Make sure the news feeds on Earth can hear me, too.”
“I’ll need a few seconds, sir,” she said, putting her head down and tapping away furiously.
He nodded his assent, even though she wasn’t looking at him. A few moments later she looked up again and held his eye. “Channels open, sir.”
“Authority fleet, this is Admiral Jason Tal. Our enemy is coming….” He paused. What in the world should he say? He hadn’t given this speech a moment’s preparation. But they were on the cusp of the deadliest battle humankind had ever faced. Surely something needed to be said. “Our enemy is coming,” he repeated, “and we are ready. Thus far the Prox have resisted our attacks, but they are now faced with the full might of our fleet.” None of which add up to much more than the firepower of one of the Dreadnaughts, he thought, but he pushed the objection away. “Our ships are arranged in a ring of pure, deadly firepower. I’m going to call this the Wengret formation.” More like the Wengret gambit…our chances are not good. But it’s the only thing standing between us and oblivion. “Cadets a hundred years from now are going to study it. They are going to study what you do here today.”
He paused and took a deep breath. “Those three ships are coming to kill you. They are coming to dismantle and destroy this station. And if you let them, they surely will. But they will not stop here. Once they have shredded our ships and our station into scrap metal, they will head toward Earth. Earth has defenses…but not half as many as are arrayed here. We are the defense of the Earth. The only thing standing between these alien killers and the murder of every man, woman, and child on Earth is you.” He let that sink in a moment. “There has never been a battle with higher stakes than this one. There has never been a greater force assembled in the history of warfare. We have never faced an enemy so deadly.”
He was on a roll now. He paused for effect. “There has never been a more glorious cause than this one. There has never been a night so dark and cold and long as the one we will tumble into if we do not…” his voice caught. He cleared it. “…if we do not prevail.” He waited for his emotions to settle. Master of them once more, he said, “We must prevail. Every laser, every mine, every particle cannon, every torpedo, every nuke in our arsenal is powered up and loaded and locked onto those ships. Hell itself could not withstand the fury we are about to unleash.” He looked up and watched as the Prox ships crossed the 20,000-kilometer threshold, exactly mirroring Sol Station’s position on the other side of the ring. “Captains, fire at will.”
Jeff stumbled into Jo’s bed, not even bothering to undress.
“No,” Jo said. “I don’t care how tired you are, you are not sleeping in my bed with your clothes on.”
Jeff had known bone-crushing weariness before, but nothing like this. The energy it took to teleport a ship’s complement, a crew of nearly two hundred, was more than he had expected. He had not noticed before that each teleport drained his energy. But then again, he had never teleported this many people or objects, nor over such a long period of time. It registered in his brain—somewhere far off, it seemed—that Tomás must be equally tired. Good, Jeff thought. Serves him right.
Jeff turned over and undid his belt. He raised his hips and shoved his pants over them. Then he just lay there.
“Oh, that’s a good picture,” Jo said. “Goddammit, let me help you.” She started with his boots.
“That’s a good idea,” Jeff mumbled.
“Do you need a doctor?” Jo asked.
“Maybe,” Jeff said.
“I think I just need some sleep.” He heard one boot fall to the deck. Then another. He felt Jo grab the ends of his pant legs and pull. A shock of cold air met his legs. It felt good.
Jeff turned slightly onto his side, raising one shoulder, and froze there.
“You are fucking pathetic.”
She grabbed his sleeve and started to pull his arm out of it.
“I want to see Emma—” Jeff started.
“You’re about to get into my bed, and you’re asking me about your girlfriend?” Jo snapped.
“Is she okay? And the others…”
He heard Jo sigh. She stopped working on his jacket. Instead, she sat cross-legged on her bed beside him. “Maybe we should talk about this once you’ve had a good sleep.”
Jeff forced his eyes open. Then he forced himself onto one elbow. This does not sound good, he thought. “What? Nira’s here. I thought…”
“Whoo boy. Where to start?” Jo wasn’t looking at him.
“Now you’ve got energy?”
“Jo. Tell me.”
She was nodding. “Martin Pho is dead. Killed in a brawl or something. In a food court on Epworth.”
Jeff’s mouth dropped open. “No…” he said.
“Nira was there when it happened. She killed the bastard that did it. She went to jail. We sprang her. You’re welcome.”
Jeff looked down at the bed. He shook his head slowly, trying to take it in. “Pho…Pho was…well, he was goofy but capable.”
“So I hear. It’s not the kind of epitaph a family wants to read on your columbarium tube, though, is it?”
Jeff’s head snapped up and he looked Jo in the eye. “And Emma?”
Jo shook her head. Then she put her hand up. “She’s not dead. Not that I know of. But she’s missing. Kidnapped, as far as we can tell. Nira hasn’t given up on her, but all of our leads have gone nowhere. Her neural signal just…stopped. She’s no doubt somewhere, but we’re damned if we know where.”
Jeff struggled to a sitting position. “That’s not…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
Jo didn’t press him.
“I have to find her,” he said.
“You need to sleep. Wherever she is, she’ll still be there when you wake up.”
“I should have checked in on her.”
“The fact that you didn’t says a lot,” Jo said.
Jeff gave her a wounded look.
“I’m sorry,” Jo said, softening. “But it’s still true.”
Jeff reached out and grabbed her hand. He didn’t know why. Intuitively, he supposed, he was looking for support, maybe even for energy. He closed his eyes and projected himself into the All.
“Where are you goi—ope, there he goes…” he heard Jo’s voice, becoming rapidly distant.
He felt his consciousness expand into every point in the universe. The battle with the Prox was raging near earth…but there were countless other battles, too, many among species humans had never encountered.
But he didn’t care about any of that. He reached out for Emma’s presence, but there was…nothing. A part of him began to quail. His hands began to shake as his desperation escalated. He felt around for her corpse—something residual. But there was nothing.
She was not in this universe. And there were 756 more universes to search. He could not do that now. He could barely balance on one elbow. He sank back down on the bed as his consciousness resumed its customary seat.
“She’s not here,” he said.
“No shit,” Jo said.
“No, I mean, she’s not in this universe.”
“Wow. You just searched the whole universe? You couldn’t even take your pants off.”
“Her corpse isn’t here, either.”
Jo didn’t say anything to that.
He closed his eyes. His will felt pulled in different directions. He bit his lip.
Jo reached out and held his hand. She squeezed it. He squeezed back.
“I’m sorry,” Jo said.
A long silence passed between them.
“I have to find her.”
“In another universe? Like you did me?”
“No.” Damn, he thought. I’m too beat for this. If he wasn’t careful, he’d say something stupid and ruin it with Jo. “I don’t mean find her analog—”
“Oh. I’m just an analog. That’s swell.”
Goddammit, he thought. “Jo, listen to me. If…if whoever took her brought her to a different universe, I have to find her.”
“I get that. Leave no man behind. But listen to me, soldier, you have priorities. Save the universe from the Prox. Then find your girlfriend. You ever hear of triage?”
Despite himself, Jeff smiled. “I love you,” he said. He hadn’t meant to say it. But there it was, out in the open. He felt a moment of panic, wishing he could take it back, bracing himself for whatever stupid repercussions were to follow.
Then he felt her lips on his, tender and even trembling a bit.
“Don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not. But if you don’t let yourself sleep, I’m going to get a doctor in here to drug you into oblivion. I’m not joking.”
“Take your goddam coat off. You’re not fucking sleeping in my bed in your coat.”
Danny finished his sandwich, noting what a good idea it was to put food synthesizers in engineering—it enabled those on active duty access to some refreshment without going too far from their posts. He made a mental note of it.
He rose and nodded curtly at those he passed in the halls. No one stopped him. No one questioned him. So long as he did not venture into those areas of the ship where he was likely to see someone he knew—which was basically Jo or Jeff—he found he could move about fairly freely.
The uniform left for him had the red engineering patch on the shoulder, so that helped. It gave him a place to “be,” and so long as he didn’t draw the attention of the chief engineer or one of the other commanders, he should be all right.
He had to hand it to the rebels. The myth prevalent in the Authority was that the rebels were disorganized, even feral. But what he saw here was a well-oiled military machine, one that he’d be proud to command. Perhaps that was the way the rebels really were…or maybe that was just Jo running a tight ship. It was hard to tell, but he suspected the former.
He made his way to a computer terminal near a port isolation hatch. He assumed it was there in case a hull breach necessitated interior segmentation—so that those trapped in an isolated segment would not lose access to the mainframe. Neural connections were unreliable in emergency situations, after all. If the neural transponder goes down, it’s down. But a mainframe connection was hard-wired and reliable so long as emergency and backup power were running.
No one would question his presence here—his patch saw to that. But no one was likely to even notice that he was here, which pleased him greatly. It was a quiet place to work, where no one would be likely to ask why he was working at that particular work station. He had spent four shifts down there, and had slept there once. Not a soul had disturbed him.
Sure enough, once he passed through the port isolation hatch, he saw no one. It wasn’t easy to find a completely deserted place on a starship. Every inch was precious, and engineering liked to pack as much into every square meter as it could. But every ship had odd corners, too. You just needed to know how to find them.
Danny grinned once more, recalling his good luck. He was here to kill Jo, “the Kali of Aken,” and that goal was so close his fingers itched. He remembered how they felt around her neck in the days of their youthful love play. He felt them pressing in on her slender windpipe again.
But the fact that he had another shot at Jeff, too? Well, that was pure gold. When Jeff and his crew had “escaped” Sol Station, he had expected to destroy both him and Jo. He had packed enough explosive into the hull of their ship to peel back the hulls of ten war-class starships. And somehow, impossibly, it seemed, they had eluded death…and eluded him. But now, it seemed, fate had given him another shot.
He flashed back to the academy, where his rivalry with Jeff had begun. Their friendship had begun there, too, but it had been one based largely on competition. They were always trying to outdo one another, always trying to best each other.
“Just like old times,” Danny said aloud.
He saw the computer terminal and stepped toward it, but doing so, he almost ran into a cadet. He had not expected to see anyone down here, and the cadet’s presence shocked him.
“Cadet,” he said, pivoting to move past her.
She was a dark, short, young woman. Pakistani? Hard to tell.
“Lieutenant,” she acknowledged. Her face looked troubled. “Uh…” she hesitated.
He cocked his head. “Something wrong, Cadet?”
“Uh, no sir, except…I think someone is sleeping down here.”
“That would be me, Cadet.” Danny squinted. He was thinking fast.
“I have an H-317 medical dispensation.” He gave her an apologetic smile. “It’s…well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
She looked away, reflexively moving her hand to her chest. “Oh…I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s nothing secret or anything. I just…I need frequent short catnaps. Ten minutes every hour or so. It’s a chronic fatigue injury I got from exposure to chemicals during an Authority attack.” He appeared to wince at the thought of it.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
He shrugged. “You live with it. You do the best you can.”
“So, I don’t actually sleep down here, you know, when I’m off-shift. It’s just impractical to climb up to my berth every hour. Besides, when the fatigue hits…well, I just gotta lie down.”
She held her hand up and gave him a pained, apologetic look. She opened her mouth, but before she could protest, he offered the pièce de résistance.
“That’s why I work down here…I don’t want to disturb anyone, and I don’t want anyone tripping over me. Chief thought it best to set me up, you know, out of the way.”
“I totally understand,” she said.
“Did you need something, though?” His eyebrows shot up. He gave her the open, curious face of someone who wanted to be helpful.
She blushed. “Sometimes, I just…I need to be alone.”
He nodded sympathetically. “There aren’t very many places where that’s possible on a ship like this.”
“That’s it,” she said. “Thanks for understanding.”
“No, your secret is safe with me. You come down here anytime, except that…well, when I’m on shift, it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”
“It’s not a necessity. I won’t bother you again.” She pushed past him and shot him a sad, grateful smile over her shoulder.
He waved at her. Once she was out of sight, he let out the breath he had been holding. Whew, he thought. Almost had to kill her.
He strode to the workstation he had made his own and saw that he had stupidly left a pile of blankets and a pillow beside it. He cursed himself for his carelessness and cast about for a place to stow them. He found one—a half-empty storage cabinet only a few steps away. He quickly folded the blanket and put it on top of boxes filled with god-knew-what. He put the pillow on top of it and closed the door.
He walked back to the workstation and began tapping. He’d gotten a login code from his contact, and it was working perfectly. He pulled up a schematic of the weapons system, and began to study it. He nodded as his eyes flashed over the images. Yes… he thought. It would need some minor modifications, most of which he could do from his workstation, but the most important change would require a climb through the service tube to the aft gunnels. No problem, he thought. I’m up for a climb.
“We need a plan,” Jeff said. They were in Jo’s ready room—he and Tomás and Jo and Nira. Jo was sitting with a steaming cup of Mayan hot cocoa in front of her.
Jeff’s poison was black coffee. Tomás had the same. Nira had declined. All business, Jeff thought. Well, that’s all right. It suits her. He’d hoped for a chance to take her aside, to say how sorry he was about Pho. But this was not the time. After the…operation, perhaps.
He hated that word. Operation. It always reminded him of Catskill, the place where everything had gone awry, where his life had started to spin on the wrong trajectory, where Danny…his Danny…had lost his life. That reminded him of Emma, how he didn’t know whether she was alive or dead. He shook his head to clear it. It was time to focus on the matter at hand.
“Tomás and I have done some reconnaissance on the Ulim,” Jeff said. He looked up, accessed his neural, and a moment later scenes of the concrete bunker in the forest were on display, courtesy of his neural’s image capture feature. “We’ve surveyed the outside.”
“But you haven’t been inside?” Jo asked.
“I have…on a previous occasion,” Tomás said.
All eyes turned to the little man. Jo seemed surprised that he could speak. “Uh…welcome to the party, Tomás.”
Tomás smiled at her as if he did not get the joke. But Jeff knew better. Tomás was as cunning a bastard as he’d ever encountered, and then some. He knew how to play on people’s erroneous estimation of him, and it seems he did it for fun.
But the time for fun was over, and Tomás was stepping up. Good.
“Why didn’t you destroy the Ulim when you were there before?” Jo asked. “What prevented you?”
“I was six, and I was looking for a frog,” Tomás said. “I had been training him for a jumping contest, and he got away from me.”
“Oh…” Jo pursed her lips, obviously amused. “So…you grew up on this planet.”
“I mean…in this universe, the universe the Ulim come from?”
“Yes. I believe you would call it String 308. The Ulim are native to it and continue to reside there. Here,” he waved around the room, “they are just interlopers.”
Jeff nodded. That’s what they were, all right. Enemy interlopers. “The first thing we’ll do is transfer the Talon to String 308.”
“How do we do that?” Jo asked.
“Leave that to us,” Jeff said. He blinked and the forest display faded out. “It will happen very quickly. What worries me is what will happen when we get there.” He turned to Tomás. “Does Earth have a moon in String 308?”
Tomás shrugged. “Of course. But it actually is made of green cheese there.”
Jo seemed delighted to be seeing more of Tomás’ personality. Jeff raised one eyebrow and ignored the joke. “I suggest that when we teleport, we appear on the far side of the moon. It will shield us from detection until we’re ready to strike. Then we can do a brief acceleration and be in firing position in less than a second and a half. I’m estimating, but it’s close enough.”
“Then what?” Nira asked. Her eyes were wide, and Jeff was beginning to suspect that she was sorry she wasn’t going to be on this mission.
“Jo has enough firepower to reduce the entire Ulim compound to rubble and ash.”
Jo and Nira were nodding.
Tomás cocked his head. “There is only one thing wrong with this plan.”
Jeff scowled across the table at him. “And what’s that?” There was an edge of irritation to his voice that he did not intend, but Tomás had recruited him to handle the military planning, had he not?
Jo’s eyebrows rose and she sipped her cocoa silently, her eyes flashing back and forth between the two men.
“Because Los Durmientes are people. We cannot just kill them.”
Jeff blinked. “The Ulim are our enemy. They are wiping out every human soldier the Authority has as we speak. Killing the enemy is kind of the purpose of the military.”
“I hope we do not need to go into a debate about just war theory,” Tomás said patiently, “but the purpose of the military is not to kill the enemy, but to protect the vulnerable.”
“And the Ulim are the vulnerable all of the sudden?” Jeff could not believe what he was hearing.
“I am saying that, if we can, we should accomplish our goal without becoming as monstrous as Los Durmientes.”
“They are enemy combatants. They have forfeited their right to life by attacking us.”
“They showed you mercy, mi amigo. You must show them mercy in return.”
It was clear Nira was not following the nuances of the conversation. Her brows bunched up like knotted cords. Jeff noticed but did not feel like explaining. He put his head in his hands and moved it back and forth slowly. Then he moaned. “Then for god’s sake, what are we doing here?”
“Why did the Ulim have mercy on you?” Jo asked, although it was not clear whom she was asking.
Tomás turned toward her and smiled. “Everyone has a flaw, a moment of weakness. Los Durmientes are human, after all.”
“Why is it a flaw when they do it, but a moral necessity when I do it?” Jeff asked.
“It?” Nira asked.
“Not killing,” Jeff clarified. She really had lost the trail of the conversation, hadn’t she?
“It is, as Augustine called it, felix culpa,” Tomás explained. “A happy fault. A sin to rejoice in. A fortuitous mistake, even. You are alive, are you not?”
“Hip hip hooray,” Jeff growled.
“Let us rejoice in the mercy we will show them, as well.”
Jeff’s teeth were grinding. He felt ready to bite the head off a rodent. Tomás would do, in a pinch.
“Killing them is an option,” Tomás conceded. “But should we not examine all our options, to discern which is the best, most moral way ahead?”
“What are our other options?” Jo asked in a conciliatory tone. Jeff glanced at her and saw how very, very much she was enjoying seeing him ready to spit nails. Goddam her, he thought.
“We could simply stop them,” Tomás said. “We could wake them, disconnect them from their life support, so that they will need to return to the fold of human community in order to survive.”
“Wait, I was in the Interworld for a few days and felt like hell coming out,” Nira noted. “How long have these fuckers been on life-support?”
“Two hundred and thirty-seven years,” Tomás said.
Nira whistled. “That will kill them, too.”
“They might wish themselves dead,” Tomás nodded. “But they will not be dead. They will, however, cease to be a threat to your world, or any other.”
“What will stop them from just going back into the All once we’re gone?” Jeff asked.
“Shame,” Tomás said. “My people will come out of hiding and tell them our stories.”
“Don’t they know your stories?” Jo asked.
“Knowing a story and meeting a person who is hurting are very different things,” Tomás said. “In this world, I believe this process is called ‘Truth and Reconciliation.’ It is a worthy goal.”
“It’s easier to blast them into oblivion,” Jeff noted.
“It is easier,” Tomás conceded. “But easier is not always better.”
“So you’re saying our goal should be to infiltrate their compound and disconnect them from their life support—”
“And from their computers,” Tomás added. “That is very important.”
“Why?” Jeff asked.
“Because it augments their brains, connects them.”
“Are you telling me that what you and I can do organically, they require a computer to accomplish?” Jeff asked.
Jeff took a moment to let that sink it. His brain was racing.
“I think we just witnessed an ‘Oh shit’ moment,” Jo whispered to Nira.
“We can destroy their computers,” Jeff said.
“Oh, yes. I have no problems with that,” Tomás said. “You may indulge your every violent impulse against their computers.”
“May I?” Jeff raised one eyebrow. Was Tomás calling the shots now? Jeff had been operating under the impression they were partners, equals. Probably he just spoke imprecisely, he reasoned. English is not his first language, after all. He set the offense aside.
“Okay, boys, if you’re done growling at each other,” Jo put her cup on the table and leaned on her elbows. “Let’s talk this through. It sounds like stopping the Ulim is preferable to killing them. That’s good military logic.”
Jeff’s brows darkened, but he didn’t interrupt.
“We’re materializing on the far side of the moon. Then what?”
“Then Tomás and I transport into the Ulim compound,” Jeff said, a grudging note still coloring his voice.
“And then what?” Jo asked.
“If the shaman here has no objections,” Jeff scowled in Tomás’ direction, “the Talon provides cover for us by creating a diversion.”
“If the two of you can move the Talon to that universe so quickly,” Jo reasoned, “why won’t the Ulim just zap it to another universe as soon as they notice it?”
“They may well do that,” Tomás said, “but I do not think they will notice it until her part is played.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you talk funny?” Jo asked.
“I am not from here,” Tomás smiled patiently. He took a swig from his coffee, now probably as cold as Jeff’s own. “Los Durmientes are engaged elsewhere. All of their attention will be focused on the battle against the Authority. Remember that they are controlling about 1,500,000 Comelones—”
“Prox,” Jeff translated.
“—and that is no small task. Los Comelones are machines—with some biological components, si, but with no will of their own. There are no other spacefaring races in my reality string. Los Durmientes know of no race that can cross from one universe to another. They will not be paying attention to whatever may emerge from behind the moon in 1.5 seconds.”
“It’ll give us what we need,” Jeff said.
“What’s to keep the Ulim from flinging us into the sun once they do notice us?” Jo asked.
Jeff and Tomás looked at each other. “Nothing,” Tomás said. “We must hope that they do not think of it, or that mercy will prevail. The best we can hope for is that they…fling you…” he seemed to enjoy wrapping his mouth around the new word, “elsewhere, where you will not be in danger.”
Jo shrugged. “Well, every military action has risks.”
“Wherever that is, we can find you,” Jeff said, “and we will retrieve you.”
“So long as you’re not dead,” Jo said.
“So long as we’re not dead,” Jeff agreed.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Jo asked. She shot a look at Nira. “Don’t you wish you were coming?” The sarcasm was thick, and Nira did not answer.
“Let’s go,” Jeff said.
“One thing,” Tomás said. “I have a gift for you.”
He disappeared from sight. Nira jumped in her seat, her eyes wide.
Jeff held his hand up. “You get used to it.”
A moment later, Tomás was back, holding the carapace Jeff had found.
Tomás turned it over and placed the plate of Prox armor on the table, its rounded edge down like an upside-down turtle shell. He slid it over to Jeff.
Jeff scowled as he picked it up. Inside the shell, Tomás had somehow fashioned anchors. He might even have filed them directly into the carapace, judging from the marks inside the shell. Onto these anchors he had woven leather strands, which secured a single gauntlet, a perfect fit for Jeff’s own forearm.
“It is a shield,” Tomás said. “Guaranteed to withstand the attacks of Los Comelones, because it is un Comelón.”
Whatever irritation he had been feeling toward the little man evaporated. Jeff chewed on his lip as he turned the carapace over, then fitted his left arm into the gauntlet. Perfect.
“I’m…that was very kind, Tomás,” Jeff said. “Thank you.”
“It was not kindness, not really,” Tomás said. “You will need it.”
“And how about you?” Jo asked.
“Every military action has risks,” Tomás said.
[ String 308 ]
Jeff stood behind Jo’s chair on the bridge, watching the preparations. Weapons were operational, and Jo had her best weaponer at them. Jeff glanced over at the young woman with spiky white hair. Shell, he recalled her first name. Weird fucking name. But she looked capable enough. Hell, she was fierce.
The jump to String 308 had been far easier than Jeff had imagined. Tomás had gone first, holding open the sleeve, while Jeff gathered the space directly around the Talon and reached through. It had required a tremendous amount of energy, but Jeff could tell he was getting better at it. The moon in the new universe was shielding them well, providing time to rest and prepare. Jo’s chief engineer had everything running at 100%. Shields were fluctuating between 95 and 98%, which was optimal. Jo had made sure her A-team was well-rested as well.
“Battle stations,” Jo said. A yellow alert icon appeared in the corner of every visible monitor. She stood and turned back to Jeff and Tomás. “What are you two still doing here? You’ve got a mission to perform, haven’t you?”
“A word with the captain before we embark?” Jeff asked.
Jo’s eyes narrowed, and he saw the small curl of a smile at the edge of her mouth. “In my ready room, Captain.”
Jeff put his hand out, a signal to Tomás to stay put. The little man’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t follow as Jeff and Jo walked to the door.
They stepped in and the door slid shut behind them. Jo turned and grabbed the lapels of Jeff’s uniform, pulling him in, kissing him. His mouth met hers hungrily and for a few precious moments, nothing existed but the sensation of her wet, lovely mouth on his. He felt intoxicated by the smell of her, the solidness of her. She, whom he had betrayed, now restored to him, and miraculously, loving him. He felt desperate, sad, anxious—an emotional mass that he did not have the facility to untangle or the vocabulary to articulate.
“You be careful, soldier,” she said. “I want you back on this ship and in my bed by 1800 hours. You can even wear your jacket…” she kissed him again, “…but only your jacket.”
“Yes, sir,” Jeff agreed.
Then she gently pushed him away, shook her hair, and straightened her jacket. It occurred to Jeff that Jo didn’t wear lipstick, so at least they didn’t have to worry about smears. Unlike Emma, Jeff thought. Emma is a lipstick kind-of-woman. He pushed the thought away and focused on the task at hand.
The door slid open and, all business, Jo walked straight to her chair, ignoring the slight smiles and raised eyebrows of her crew. Jeff walked over to Tomás, stooping momentarily to pick up his carapace shield. “Let’s go.”
“Weapons, Captain?” Jo swiveled her chair and shot Jeff a look over her shoulder.
“They should be ready in the armory now,” he said. “We’ll leave from there.”
“Make it so,” Jo said.
Jeff smiled at her presumption of operational command. He knew she was teasing him, but did not take the bait. He turned on his heel and paused at the door of the bridge, waited for it to slide open, and stepped through, Tomás on his heels.
He reminded himself to walk slower than he ordinarily would. Tomás’ legs were shorter, and he’d have to work harder to match Jeff’s typically broad stride. He matched himself to Tomás’ speed, watching his friend in his peripheral vision.
Soon they were entering the armory. When Jeff and Tomás approached the desk, the lieutenant on duty looked nervous. “Uh…Captain, I’m sorry, but we didn’t have the gun you requested, so I had to send a message to supply. They’re synthesizing it n—”
The door opened behind them, and a large, older man swept in, instantly filling the room with the force of his grin. “Jeff Bowers, you rat-in-a-hole!”
“Palamar?” Jeff was confused. “But you’re…” he was going to say dead, but he stopped himself. Whatever might have happened to Palamar in his own universe—and there was a great deal of speculation about that—it had not happened here, or at least it had not done him in.
He shook the older man’s hand vigorously, not objecting to the low-ranking man’s familiarity. He was too much in shock to take offense. “Uh, Palamar, this is Tomás, my…” he paused. Analog? Mentor? Shaman? Who or what the hell was Tomás to him anyway? He didn’t know. “…friend,” he said at last.
“What the fuck is that?” Palamar pointed to the shield hanging from the gauntlet on Jeff’s forearm.
“It’s the dorsal plate off one of the creatures that is currently eating Sol Station,” Jeff said. It came out sounding more callous than he’d expected.
Palamar reeled a bit. “Whoa. For real? That’s…disturbing.”
“We’ll be facing them down there, too,” Jeff said, referring to the planet. Earth, he reminded himself. In this universe, that planet is Earth. “Tomás made it for me. Our guess is that nothing will protect us from the Prox better than the Prox.”
“Huh,” Palamar grunted. He handed Jeff an Echo 47M Blaster. “So this is for you?” The old man seemed surprised.
“It is. Best damn blaster in history,” Jeff said.
“Uh…it does belong in a museum.” Palamar cocked his head.
“Is it full?”
“It’s got a full charge, if that’s what you mean,” Palamar said. “I just topped it off myself.”
“You look good,” Jeff said…for a dead man.
“You’re looking pretty damn good yourself, for a dead man.”
The old man put his hands on his hips. “Well, you be careful down there.”
Palamar offered his hand again, then he left.
“That man is muy grande,” Tomás said.
“He can suck the air out of any place he’s in faster than an open airlock, that’s for sure,” Jeff agreed.
He fastened the blaster holster to his belt, inserting its tab into his combat trousers, mid-thigh, to keep it from flopping about. It felt solid. He withdrew the weapon and checked its settings. Palamar had been right—it had a full charge. He holstered it again and turned to Tomás.
“You’ll need a weapon,” he said.
“I do not think so,” Tomás said.
“Have you ever…shot a weapon?” Jeff asked.
“Well, no. Not as such,” Tomás said. “Do bows count?”
“As in bows-and-arrows?” Jeff asked, his voice rising in disbelief. “You’re shitting me, right?”
“Oh God. I just assumed…we should have been practicing at the range here.”
“It is too late now.”
“Uh…” Jeff cast around, giving the armory officer a panicked look. “What do you have that’s powerful, small, and simple—a TX5?”
The young man scowled. “TX5?” he repeated. He obviously had no idea what a TX5 was. So, no TX5s in String 311, Jeff thought. Good to know. He snapped his fingers. “Powerful, small, simple,” he repeated.
The young man’s forehead bunched as he thought. He put one finger into the air silently, waited until Jeff nodded, and disappeared through a door behind his desk. When he returned, he was holding a little black blaster that looked exactly like a TX5.
“This should do it,” the young man said. “A Gibbon 7.”
“Gibbon?” Jeff asked. “Isn’t that a small, furry marsupial or something?” It didn’t sound deadly.
The young man shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. That’s just the name of the gun. Maybe it was named after the inventor.”
Jeff nodded, suddenly aware of the time. If they didn’t hurry, Jo would be giving them a nudge. “How many tar can it deliver?”
“42,000 tars per burst.”
“Shit,” Jeff said. “I’m tempted to trade in the Echo.”
“It’s comparable, but…the amperage is greater on the Echo. I checked out the schematics while Mr. Palamar was synthesizing it.” He shrugged. “It’s an unusual gun and I’m…kind of into guns.”
“It seems, sir, you have found your niche,” Jeff said. “Rig my friend up with a holster, please. How complicated is the Gibbon?”
“Point and shoot, sir. There is a power adjustment, but you can only turn it down. It’s a battlefield weapon, so it always defaults to full power. There is a safety, here,” he pointed it out to them. “Slide it back with your thumb and it’s ready to shoot. The safety does not automatically engage, so you need to be sure to slide it up when you’re out of danger.”
“Got that?” Jeff asked Tomás.
Tomás gave him a moon-faced look that he was beginning to hate. It seemed to express both disagreement and non-cooperation without actually saying “no” to anything. Inside, Jeff growled.
He knelt and fixed the holster to Tomás’ belt.
“There’s no tab receptor in his pant leg,” Jeff said to the man.
“Try this.” The young man rummaged in a drawer. He pulled out a length of leather. It might have been a boot lace. “Old school,” he said. “Tie it to the bottom of the holster—there’s an eye there for it—and then tie it around his leg. Not too tight.”
“What is this, the wild fucking west?” Jeff said. He worked quickly, and in less than a minute he stood up and surveyed his work.
“I feel absurd,” Tomás confessed.
“You look badass,” Jeff countered. It was an outright lie. Tomás looked ridiculous.
“We should go,” Tomás said.
“Thanks for the help,” Jeff said.
And then they were gone.
[ STRING 311 ]
Since there was no traditional floor indicator like those found in human elevators, Emma couldn’t tell if the lift was going incredibly slow or travelling a very long way. She stared at her feet, occasionally glancing at Bucky and Amberline for clues as to whether they were getting close or not, but their faces were as blank and unmoving as ever.
She began to detect a high-pitched ringing sound, but she couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It was growing louder, as though they were approaching it. And then she started to feel queasy.
“Something’s wrong,” she said, reaching out to steady herself on the wall. “I feel sick.”
“You will be fine, it’s just disorienting.”
“No,” Emma insisted. “I feel really weird.” Her head was spinning and her stomach was clenched in knots. Her feet looked very far away and seemed to be receding. “I think I’ve been drugged. Did you drug me again?” She stared accusingly at Amberline.
“No, I assure you. There are no drugs involved,” Amberline said, raising a claw in oath.
“Then… what’s happening?” Her feet detached from the floor. She looked at the two Alverians, who were now floating in the cab, stretched into surreal, elongated versions of themselves. The high-pitched sound was now deafening, threatening to split her skull open. Emma was terrified and closed her eyes, trying to hold on to her sanity. That only made her nausea worse, so she opened them again. The elevator cab appeared to be fifty feet tall, the floor—and her feet—disappearing into the distance, as was the ceiling above them. Emma curled up into a fetal position, trembling. She felt Amberline’s steadying touch, turning her over until her feet were aimed at the ceiling. But were they? She opened her eyes and couldn’t see any difference, the elevator was almost perfectly symmetrical vertically, and if she had turned, so had the Alverians.
The floor and ceiling were slowly moving back towards each other. She was compressing like a stretched rubber band being slowly released, the others returning to more normal proportions. Gravity was also slowly returning, and she settled gently to the floor on her side. Emma tried to clamber to her knees, but her stomach could take no more. She began vomiting uncontrollably, and when her stomach was empty, she was wracked with dry heaves. Crying, she tried to get up to her feet, but was too shaky. Amberline reached down and helped her up.
Everything appeared normal again, and the ringing sound was receding below them. Yes, it felt like the elevator was going up now, but at the same slow, trundling pace. Emma glanced at the puddle on the floor; the cab was filled with the smell of her sick. She glanced at Amberline. “I’m sorry.”
Amberline made the sign of dismissal. “I am the one who should be sorry. We did not take your physiology into account. We should have prepared you better.”
“Prepared me for what? What was that?”
“The heart of the hive,” Bucky signed. It didn’t explain much.
Ashamed, Emma stood in silence until the elevator finally stopped and the doors opened, letting in a breath of blessed clean air.
They stepped out into a large lobby of sorts, or maybe a waiting room. A row of Alverian chairs was set up along one wall, a large archway opened through the opposite wall. Bucky gestured to follow and walked into the dark chamber beyond.
“Where are we going? What is…” Emma trailed off as her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
They were in an observation gallery, a long building on the surface of the asteroid. Enormous windows opened out onto a breathtaking vista of space. A field of stars brighter and more crowded than anything she had ever seen before wrapped around and above the rocky landscape. A reddish planet dominated the sky, illuminated by a small red dwarf sun.
“Not an asteroid, a moon…” she whispered, reluctant to break the silence.
“Yes,” Amberline’s mask said. “This is our homeworld, and the hive is its moon.”
The planet didn’t look hospitable by human standards, but then it wasn’t meant for humans. It was relatively dry-looking compared to Earth, with very little standing water and sparse, rugged-looking vegetation. But it was clearly inhabited. Complex cities spread out across mesas and plains, all arranged radially around a central hub, all connected by highways or maybe travel tubes. On the dark side, intricate webs of lights twinkled and danced. In the distance, she could see small spacecraft rising up from the planet’s surface and drifting toward the hive.
“Wait,” Emma said, confused. “I saw the hive from the outside when we first approached it. It wasn’t orbiting a planet. There was no planet.”
“Incorrect,” Bucky signed. “This is the outside of the hive. What you saw before was the inside of the hive.”
[ STRING 308 ]
Jo chewed on her fingernail. It was at the point where if she chewed any more it might bleed. She put her hand under her thigh.
Waiting was the worst part of command. And there was so damned much of it. Jo looked around at her team. She couldn’t honestly say that any of them were the best she had ever worked with, but they were all, in their way, talented and competent—occasionally exceptional.
That was fine. Jo was a believer in the “good enough” crew. That was, after all, the only kind she had ever known. She suspected that, outside of fiction or the vids, it was the only kind there really was.
“I’m reading two human life forms on the ground,” Mr. Liebert said.
Two human life forms in danger, she thought. If only I didn’t love one of them.
Tomás was a strange little man. Jo didn’t know quite what to make of him. He seemed trustworthy. He even seemed…strangely familiar. She supposed they were lucky to have someone from this reality string on their team.
That thought made her close her eyes and shake her head. Too weird, she thought. It’s just too weird.
She thought back to Jeff’s kiss, just a few minutes ago, just before he and Tomás had disappeared. She breathed deep, reliving it, feeling the emotion and the chemicals surge through her brain and body. It felt heady, intoxicating. She wanted more of it. Which meant that, somehow, she needed to keep Jeff alive. Well, I’ve got a starship with enough firepower to take out a large city, she thought. That’ll have to do.
The idea had been Jeff’s. The Ulim compound would be crawling with Prox—standing guard outside, certainly, but that wasn’t a problem. Jeff and Tomás would simply teleport to the inside of the facility. But that’s where most of the Prox would be, according to Tomás—tending to their masters. The Talon would create a diversion that would send the Prox scrambling to meet the threat, leaving Jeff and Tomás free to approach the Sleepers and sabotage their computers.
Jo didn’t understand why they didn’t just take out their power source. All they needed was its location, and a well-aimed particle cannon would take it out, cleanly and simply. But Tomás had nixed the idea with some bullshit about life support and keeping the Ulim alive until they could breathe and eat and poop for themselves again. Bullshit, she thought. But they had agreed on a plan. She glanced up at her neural’s chronometer. Time to execute it.
She stood and straightened her jacket. “Mr. Ditka, power aft particle cannons. As soon as we’re in position, I want you to lock onto the mission target and prepare to fire on my mark.”
“Aye, sir.” Shell Ditka’s fingers began to fly over her console.
“Mr. Chi, I assume you have that course locked in and ready?”
“Locked in and ready, aye sir.”
“Then take us in, Lieutenant.”
The Talon shuddered as the sub-light drive kicked in, shoving the ship out from behind the moon.
“In position, sir,” Chi called over her shoulder.
“Fire,” Jo said.
In her peripheral vision, Jo saw Ditka’s fingers enter the command. Then the impact hit the bridge.
Everything happened quickly, but in Jo’s memory, in slow motion. The lurch came first, throwing her off her feet, pitching her headfirst into Marcia Chi’s navigational panel. Jo heard the crack of her own skull, felt her neck jerk out of alignment with a sickening snap. Blood gushed from her forehead as she struggled to regain her feet.
The bridge was a cacophony of warning lights and sirens. It shuddered beneath her like the most dramatic earthquake she had ever experienced enhanced by several magnitudes. Gravity was askew, making the bridge seem like it was at an impossible slope. The ship around her shuddered with some unknown, unseen impact, and she heard the screams and groans of twisting metal deep in the guts of the ship.
Jo crawled toward her command chair, and with a cry of exertion she did not bother to moderate, she swung herself into the seat and strapped herself in. “What the fuck was that?” she called out to her crew. She was relieved to see that they were all strapped in and alive. Not waiting for their answer, she wiped the blood out of her eyes and looked up, hoping to find some real-time data about the state of her ship online.
“Explosion in section 27D,” Liebert said.
“The aft weapons system…” Ditka’s voice sounded desperate. “…it exploded when we tried to fire.”
“What happened?” Jo spat.
“No idea, sir,” Ditka answered. “Weapons were checked and double-checked. They were in perfect condition. I…don’t have any explanation, sir.”
One more sabotage, Jo thought. Was there a connection? She didn’t have the time to wonder about it.
“Damage report,” Jo yelled, although she could already see some of it filtering into her neural interface. The data was sporadic and feeding from only about half of the sensors. She gave up and looked down, deciding to trust her people to mediate what was important.
Liebert’s head was moving back and forth as he tried to synthesize the information he was seeing from different sources. “Hull breaches in four places,” he called. “We got active vacuums on decks 21, 22, 26, and 30. Structural integrity at 22%…and dropping, sir.”
“This ship is going to fold up like a tin can,” Jo said out loud. Instantly she regretted it, but she didn’t have the leisure to soften her remarks or second-guess them. “Signal abandon ship. Let’s get everyone to the pods. Now!”
The red alert was blaring, but on top of that the evacuation siren began screaming.
“Move out, all of you,” Jo yelled above the din. “Go straight to the pods and don’t look back!”
“What about you, sir?” Chi asked.
“That’s an order!” Jo answered. “Now move!”
She watched as they struggled to unbuckle themselves without falling.
“Faster!” Jo demanded.
They struggled uphill toward the bridge door. Once they were out of sight, she put them out of her thoughts. She transferred helm control to her command chair and called up an image of the planet on the only remaining monitor. It was coming closer. It was coming fast.
Then the lights went out, and in the few seconds of absolute dark before the gentle glow of the emergency lighting kicked in, she heard her own breath, the pounding of blood in her head, and the twisting groan of metal as her ship folded in on itself.
When Jeff opened his eyes, he was surrounded by the same lush jungle he had seen before. It was relentlessly green. He glanced to his left and saw Tomás crouched like a tiger, vigilant.
“What?” Jeff asked.
Tomás pointed. “Don’t move,” he whispered.
Slowly, Jeff turned his head in the direction Tomás had pointed. A Prox soldier was scuttling through the trees about twenty meters away. Reflexively, both Jeff and Tomás started to lower themselves, very slowly, to the ground.
“Shit,” Jeff whispered. “Do you think it saw?”
“I think if it saw us, it would run toward us,” Tomás said.
From where they were, Jeff could see the Ulim bunker. At least, that was how he thought of it. He knew it was probably massive inside. He had seen that, after all. It didn’t look that big from his current perspective, however. He noted that the building abutted a large hill, and guessed that it extended into it for some distance.
“As soon as the Talon starts its battery, we’ll jump inside,” Jeff said, repeating aloud the details they’d both gone over many times.
“Tell me about the location we’ll be jumping to,” Jeff requested.
Tomás shrugged. “It has been a long time, and I was very little. There were lots of places to hide, and when I was there before, it was largely dormant.” He grinned. “That word is the same in your language and mine.”
Jeff ignored the linguistic diversion.
“I’m guessing that once the explosions start, any Prox that have their pincers in a tub are going to scramble to protect the Ulim, so the laundry room will be empty.”
“That is a logical assumption, I think.”
Jeff scowled. The little guy really does irritate the shit out of me, he thought. He looked back over to where they had seen the Prox and rose up slightly to see over the tangle of vegetation that shielded them. It was moving away, not swiftly, but steadily.
“I think we’re in the clear,” he said.
“They are not terribly perceptive,” Tomás said. “They are built for strength, not sensitivity.”
He could be describing me, Jeff thought. It had never occurred to him that he and the Prox had much in common. He did not like the idea.
He studied the bunker. There were windows, but they were as narrow as prison windows—too narrow to allow passage. Are they trying to keep people in or out? he wondered. It occurred to him that the building might have been originally constructed for another purpose. Had it been a prison at one time? If so, where was the wall? Perhaps it had dissolved into the jungle over the centuries.
“How many of those patrols are there?” Jeff asked.
“When I was a boy, I counted six, each with overlapping territorios,” Tomás replied.
“You were either one brave motherfucking kid or a stupid one,” Jeff said.
Irritating as fuck, Jeff thought.
“Any time now, Jo,” Jeff said through his teeth. He glanced up into his neural to check the time. “Five seconds,” he said.
“We should be on the ground,” Tomás said.
They both crouched as low as they could, steeling themselves for the shaking earth that would soon result from the particle barrage.
“…2, and 1,” Jeff counted, his hand instinctively going to the blaster on his thigh. Every muscle in his body tensed against the coming assault.
His breath drew in, it went out. It came in, it went out. His tensed muscles ached.
He glanced at Tomás. Tomás glanced at him. Nothing.
“What the fuck, Jo?” he whispered. She was a professional. He was counting on her. What the hell was she up to?
Tomás slapped at his arm and pointed up. “Observar,” he whispered.
Jeff looked up.
The sun was bright, but the sky was clear. There wasn’t a cloud anywhere to break the solid curtain of powder blue. The sky was only interrupted by a tiny flare of light blooming in the middle of the air.
[ STRING 311 ]
Tal had seen plenty of warfare in his time. He had never seen anything like this. The Wengret ring, as he’d come to think of it, contained, at last count, 2,927 ships—all of them armed, all of them with weapons trained on the Prox ships. And then all of them were firing.
Nearly three thousand ships arrayed against three. The odds would seem to be in their favor. For a moment, Tal allowed himself a flicker of hope at the thought of this.
But the problem, he reminded himself, isn’t the three ships—it’s the hundreds of thousands of Prox soldiers, each of them spaceborne, each of them deadly, each of them so small they’re almost impossible to hit at a distance—that’s the problem.
They’d worked on a solution to that—rapid-fire, computer-controlled particle cannons that could pinpoint the Prox soldiers and hit them where it hurt most, to the tune of 27 shots per second. But there were a lot of “ifs” involved before that system would deploy—if they got past the Wengret ring, if the distance didn’t too badly erode the particle burst, if the targeting algorithm was sufficiently accurate. The good news was that the closer the Prox got, the more problems were solved with the system. The bad news was that the closer the Prox got, the closer they were to the Prox.
Tal shook his head to clear it. That was another battle. One he hoped he did not have to fight. He hoped the Wengret ring would do the trick.
Tal looked up at the ashen, drawn face of Lieutenant Liu. He was standing by Tal’s chair, ready for anything the Admiral might need, but the man couldn’t take his eyes off the monitors. Tal’s gaze travelled down, sweeping over the Command Center. Liu wasn’t alone. Everyone’s gaze was frozen on the monitors. They didn’t even seem to be blinking. It occurred to Tal that if they lived through this, there were going to be a lot of sore necks in the morning. He almost smiled at the thought.
He couldn’t avoid it any more—he looked up at the monitors himself.
The Prox ships were steadily advancing, 10,000 kilometers and closing. The funnel formation on the schematic monitor was beginning to be blunted on one side, the neat symmetry of the formation eroding now as the Prox side of the funnel became shorter.
Tal glanced at the display from the exterior camera, zoomed in to provide an adjacent perspective to the Wengret ring. Their ships were wedged so thickly into the ring that Tal could imagine a giant hopping from one ship to another, all the way around. But the scene still seemed serene.
The real action was on the infrared and ultraviolet monitor, since the energy signatures of most weapons were not visible to the human eye. It was on this monitor that Tal saw every ship firing at full capacity. He could still make out the ships, but they were obscured by a tangled fog of light—manifested on the screen in either red or purple, depending on weapons signatures.
He could see that some ships were blasting wide, hoping to catch as many of the Prox soldiers as possible. “Liu, contact the captains of the ships that are blasting wide, inform them that they are just wasting their shots. The energy from the blasts is too dissipated to do any damage to the enemy. Tell them that narrow, targeted bursts will be more effective.”
“Aye sir,” Liu put his hand to his earpiece and began issuing orders.
In seconds, Tal saw his adjustment take hold. He also saw the tally of Prox kills increase dramatically. He nodded his satisfaction, but the tally would still not be enough.
“Prox ships are at 5,000 kilometers and closing,” one of the engineers called.
One glance up told Tal what he feared most—the furthest Prox soldier was considerably closer than that. 1,000 kilometers, then quickly into the hundreds.
Tal gripped the arms of his chair.
Three thousand ships were in open fire, sending the most deadly array of energy humans had ever mustered against an enemy, and yet the Prox floated on serenely, as if nothing were happening. It chilled Tal to the bone.
At least the Prox soldiers were dying—the death count increased as their proximity closed and targeting became more precise. Tal watched with a thrill of pleasure as the count soared into the thousands. That’s good, he thought. But it’s not enough and not fast enough.
“The first of the Prox soldiers is approaching the ring, sir,” called one of the people on the floor.
This is it, Tal thought. His fingers dug into the arms of his command chair. “I want all ships in that quadrant of the ring redirecting their firepower from the ships to picking off individual Prox,” he ordered.
“Aye, sir,” Liu said, communicating his orders immediately.
With one eye, Tal watched the blur of energy detonations on the IR/UV monitor, with the other he watched the death count. They were making headway…but…
“The first Prox soldier is about to land, sir. Twenty seconds…nineteen…”
“Oh, Christ,” Tal said out loud. “Employ the DPB.” The DPB was what Tal had called the intelligence Captain Bowers had left him, a deterrent power burst wired into the hulls of the ships. They’d gotten the devices wired up in nearly half of their ships, but Tal had no clue about their effectiveness. For one thing, they’d had no time to test them and no opportunity to test them on Prox. For another, there was no uniformity—they had sent the plans by data packet to every ship in the formation, with orders to construct them as seemed best for each individual ship design. They had a hodge-podge assembly of three thousand very different ships, and each one was interpreting the schematics in its own way—some of them eccentrically, he was sure. Half had completed the deterrent in time, half had not. None of them had been tested.
He was about to find out how well the engineers of the Spearhead had interpreted the plans. It was a class five warship, assigned to the Deep Space Marines. It was a good test case. The DSM were highly efficient. If anyone could adapt the plans quickly and effectively, it would be their engineers.
“Zoom in on the Spearhead,” Tal barked. “I want to see this thing in action. And get an IF/UV monitor on it, too.”
It had been such a simple idea—a high-voltage burst along the surface of the outer hull. But Tal had no idea if it would work, or how effective it would be. He only knew that he trusted the man who had brought it—a man from another universe; a man he had exiled; a man who had outmaneuvered him.
“Let’s hope you are right, Captain Bowers,” Tal breathed.
“Sir?” Liu asked.
Tal waved him away and focused on the monitors. He held his breath as he saw the first of the Prox approach the Spearhead, its spindly legs held out in front of it, ready to absorb the impact with the ship’s hull. Tal nearly tore the fabric of his chair as the Prox landed, then hopped and skittered with the force of its contact—it had been really moving. But now it had extended all of its legs—and all seemed to be working. Tal watched as it raised one great pincer, ready to pierce the iconel sheets of the hull.
And then he saw a flash of electromagnetic energy on the IF/UV monitor, showing up as yellow. He bit his lip as he saw the Prox soldier freeze, then drift away from the hull, motionless.
“Yes!” Tal shouted. But a moment later he regretted it.
The soldier must have rebooted itself, because within seconds its limbs were working again, and it was moving toward the hull once again. It landed, and once again the electrical burst lit up the screens. This time, however, the Prox was ready. It still needed to reboot, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Tal squinted to see why, but couldn’t. Had it magnetically attached itself? Or had it hooked whatever passed for a Prox toe onto a structural feature of the ship? He couldn’t tell from this distance.
The voltage hit again, but with each blast, the Prox soldier seemed less fazed by it. An abyss formed in Tal’s belly as he watched the pincer rear back, strike, and pierce the skin of the hull. His mouth dropped open as he saw the creature roll back the plates of iconel. He shook with rage and frustration as the atmospheric seal was breached. He saw a great gush of oxygen and heat and scrap metal blow out past the Prox soldier. He felt numb as he watched the writhing bodies of marines shoot out into the vacuum of space, gasping, twitching, dying.
[ STRING 308 ]
The explosion filled the portholes, and everyone in the escape pod jerked to cover their eyes. Danny grimaced, trying to tough it out, but even he had to move his hand in front of his face. Even with his eyes screwed shut tight, the light coming through his eyelids was painfully bright.
The light was intermittent, however, because the pod was tumbling end over end. Danny felt his lunch lurching for his throat. He clenched his fists and bore down to keep his food where it was. At least with his eyes closed there was little sensation of motion, so he kept them that way.
He had just barely made it to the pod in time. I misjudged that, he thought. That was stupid.
But it was a near thing. He couldn’t be seen hanging out near the pods. People would have wondered how he knew he’d need to board it. Then they would have concluded that he had caused it, after all.
Instead, he had searched for a food synthesizer nearby and ordered up a snack. Who knew how long it would be before he had another meal?
He hadn’t known exactly when Taylor would use the particle cannon. It could have been minutes or days. He didn’t know what she was planning. He only trusted that she had a trigger finger that wouldn’t quit.
He had tumbled into the escape pod just before the door had slid shut and sealed behind him. I am one lucky bastard, he thought. And he was not the only one. The pod was already full. Twelve people were strapped in. Danny and four others were holding tightly to straps and poles as their bodies were drawn into the middle of the weightless room, like cantilevers at odd angles to one another.
“Hey, it’s you,” a voice said. It was a high voice, female, familiar. Danny twisted around to see the speaker. It was the Pakistani cadet he’d met in the corridor.
“Hey there, cadet,” Danny said, swallowing the bile that was threatening the back of his teeth again.
“I’m glad you made it,” she said.
It was a kind thing to say. Maybe it was even sincere. Too bad he couldn’t return the sentiment. In his heart, Danny cursed everyone in the pod but himself. Every survivor was a failure, after all. Every escape pod, every living human body still breathing was a potential kill that he hadn’t been able to notch onto his blaster.
He grimaced, showing her enough teeth to pass for a smile. “Good to see you too, cadet.”
Jeff and Tomás didn’t even need to speak. Nor did Jeff think. Acting on pure instinct, he closed his eyes and projected himself into the All. His consciousness surrounded the Talon like a cloud of presence, taking in every aspect of its situation, every detail.
It wasn’t pretty. Jeff could see the escape pods drifting away helplessly, little aimless pockets of breathable air scurrying away from the listing beast that had been home. He could see where the explosion had taken place—in the aft weapons array. There was nothing left of that, nor indeed of the portside C-drive accelerator. There were hull breaches on almost every deck. There was nothing left of engineering, save for the first couple decks, and those were badly damaged.
The fore of the ship fared better, and Jeff found several people still alive who hadn’t made it to the escape pods. And Jo? There she was, her presence strong and defiant, in her captain’s chair, ready and willing to go down with her ship.
“Not today,” Jeff said.
He squashed space and teleported to the Talon, materializing just in time to send four of the crew spinning into the All toward Tomás. Jeff sensed the little man’s will, his intention, just as he knew Tomás was reading his own. They acted as two halves of a single brain, coordinating their own set of skills toward a common purpose—saving as many lives as possible.
Jeff snatched people up as he jogged through the corridors, pacing himself so that he wouldn’t tire and have to stop. He dispatched them into the in-between place; he sensed their safe reception. He had no idea what Tomás was doing with them, only that he was doing something, only that they were safe.
As he ran, he sent his consciousness out ahead of him. He played with his field of vision, now in a mess hall, now encompassing the ship, now radiating out to two decks above and below, now three. He wasn’t systematic, but he wasn’t chaotic, either. He was making it up as he went along, trusting his gut, and every time he went wide, encircling the ship, he assessed his progress. And it was good.
An explosion rocked the deck under his feet and he stumbled. Pain shot through his ankle. “Shit!” Jeff said aloud. He put his hands out to break his fall, and rolled to absorb the impact. Once in a sitting position, he felt at his ankle. Not broken. Sprained maybe. He stood and, limping, continued his survey of the ship.
The center of gravity was off, making it seem as if he were running uphill. The only way that was possible was if the hull were buckling and the deck was out of skew with the sight horizon. If that was the case, there was no saving the Talon. Its less damaged decks might allow it to serve as a lifeboat to get them home, but that was all it would be able to do at this point. And Jeff was not even sure of that. There was no way life support would be sustainable with engineering out.
Jeff heard an echoing scream of metal that made his flesh crawl. That’s not just the hull, that’s the lateral ballast struts, he thought. He had never heard of a ship losing those.
His pulse pounded in his ears as he limped around a corner. There was a door up ahead, and two people huddled within it. He didn’t need to touch them. He didn’t even need to open the door at this point. He reached out with his mind, found them, propelled them into the All, toward Tomás, toward an unknown safety.
Jeff had made a circuit around the surviving portions of the ship. Now he headed for the center. There was only one person left. I don’t need to hobble there, he reminded himself. He closed his eyes and projected himself into the midmost section of the ship, to its most protected kernel—the bridge.
He opened his eyes and saw Jo, her hands gripping the arms of her command chair, as if holding on to her purpose, her identity, until her dying breath. Were her eyes wide at the terror of oblivion, or at his sudden appearance out of thin air? He didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.
He rushed to her and caught her up, embracing her fragile frame and fumbling at the straps that held her.
“No—I—there are people—”
“No there aren’t. I got them all. And now I’ve got you.”
“Jeff, I’ve got—”
“You will not go down with the ship, goddammit. Not today.”
He got her free, took her hand and pulled her out of the seat, then closed his eyes and propelled himself toward Tomás. As he did, he felt the bridge erupt behind him as the oxygen in life support exploded, bathing the remaining decks in fire.
Jeff clutched at Jo’s writhing body, pressing her to himself as they traversed the void. In his mind, he reached out, seeking Tomás’ energy, his presence. He found him. He willed himself there, and in moments he was setting Jo down on the floor of a cave. He was surrounded by people, destitute people, small people. He glanced about to get his bearings. Harsh sunlight illuminated one side of the cave—the entrance, no doubt. Fire flickered deeper in. Tomás was arguing in Spanish—so quickly and ferociously that Jeff couldn’t catch any of what was being said. He gathered only that they were not entirely welcome.
Jo pushed him away and jumped to her feet. Then she fell. Jeff caught her. Pain shot through his ankle again and they both almost fell. He lowered her to the floor of the cave and sat beside her. He saw an item of clothing near by—a bright strip of cloth that might have been a scarf. He leaned over and snatched it up. “Jo…” he knew giving her orders was not going to fly. He struggled to mediate his response in a way that she could hear. “The teleportation is…disorienting. It’s best to sit for a bit before standing up.” He took off his boot and examined his ankle. As he suspected, it wasn’t broken. He tore the scarf lengthwise and began to wind it tightly around his ankle.
When he looked up, Jo’s face was a confusing mixture of rage and fear and incomprehension. She looked as helpless as he had ever seen her. Even when they had been making love, she was entirely in control. His heart twisted a bit at the thought of how uncomfortable she must be. He reached for her hand. He was grateful that she did not jerk it away.
Instead, she clutched it, and using it as leverage, she hoisted herself to a sitting position. Then she kept holding it, nodding at some interior dialogue, and beginning to take in their surroundings.
All around them were what remained of the crew of the Talon. Many were still on the floor, but some were trying their legs out again, a couple were walking around the circumference of the cave.
Tomás’ people let them be. Jeff noted with surprise that among his people, Tomás was tall. He smiled at that.
“What?” Jo asked. “What are you smiling at?”
Jeff looked back at her. He didn’t feel like explaining. “Tomás seems to be in a bit of a pickle,” he said instead.
She looked over at where the supposed shaman was arguing, gesturing wildly with his hands with a small gaggle of old men and women. Jo cocked her head.
“He’s been exiled,” Jo said. “They’re angry that he’s back.”
“I didn’t know you speak Spanish,” Jeff said.
“They’re even angrier that he’s brought all these gringos,” she said.
“They did not say ‘gringo,’” Jeff said. “I would have picked that out.”
“No, they’re saying los ingleses,” Jo said. “Same thing.”
“Huh. None of us are English that I know of.”
“Just shut up, please.” Jo was listening.
Jeff squeezed her hand and let it go. He stood to his full height and tested his ankle. It hurt, but the new support helped. He walked and was able to do so without an obvious limp. Walk it off, he thought, and headed over to Tomás. Tomás was engaged in conversation and didn’t seem to notice him. Jeff sensed a presence behind him and turned to see the hard, determined features of Shell Ditka.
“Mr. Ditka,” he nodded.
“Captain,” she said.
He turned back to Tomás. There seemed to be a stalemate.
“Care to explain what this is all about?” he asked.
The elders glanced up at him, as if noticing him for the first time. He forced a smile and waved awkwardly at them, even though they were close enough to shake his hand.
Their eyes travelled down from his face to his uniform, to his captain’s bars. Their eyes widened.
“Uh…do they like the military, or not so much?” he asked Tomás.
“They don’t like power or servitude,” Tomás said. “They are afraid you have come to enslave them.”
“What?” Jeff jerked his head back, blinking.
“When every stranger you have ever known is a tyrant, every stranger looks like a tyrant,” Tomás said. The sadness in his voice seemed infinite.
“Uh…have they noticed that we’re refugees?” Jeff asked. “We have wounded people here. We’re vulnerable—”
“You have weapons. Therefore, you are there to exploit and enslave them.” He sighed. “It is a simple equation, really.”
“Too bad it’s wrong.” Jeff put his hands on his hips.
“It is,” Tomás said.
“Did you tell them why we’re here?”
Jeff realized it was rude for them to be talking in English in front of the elders, but it was a tricky time for propriety. “What did they say?”
“They say that we are here to destroy them. They are afraid we will wake los Durmientes, that we will somehow lead them back here. They accuse us of bringing their doom upon them.”
“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?” Jeff scowled.
Tomás shrugged. “It is what they believe. It is not unreasonable.”
“You know, your habit of seeing all sides is really irritating.”
This elicited a smile. Jeff was glad to see it. “It is good to know that you care,” Tomás said.
Jeff met the eyes of the elders. “So let me get this straight,” he said, speaking to Tomás. “They are not going to help us destroy their oppressors.”
“That is correct.”
“Will they give us food or shelter?”
“They will not. They want us out of their caves.”
“Are there more caves?”
“There are twelve hundred of them, roughly.”
“And los Durmientes don’t know you’re all here?”
“We learned enough of their art to shield ourselves. We have a temple. The priests have one job—concealing our village.”
Jeff shook his head. “Twelve hundred caves? This is more like a city, Tomás.”
“They cannot rest for a second.”
“I was able to find you,” Jeff said.
“That was because you know me,” he said, emphasizing the last word. “Los Durmientes do not know any of us. They do not care to know any of us. Therefore…we are invisible to them, because they do not have a someone to look for.”
“They can’t just go into the All and see all of you?”
“The shield is not observable if you do not know it is there. And if you are not looking for a particular presence…” he shrugged. “It seems precarious, I agree. We are, I think, hiding in plain sight. But we have done it for a long time. It is how we have survived.”
“And you were exiled because…?” Jeff cocked his head.
“Because I have learned to do more. And that frightens them.”
“Don’t rock the boat,” Jeff said.
“I do not know that idiom, but I understand. It is apt.”
“Well, I guess we’ll have to go it alone,” Jeff said. “Can you translate for me?”
“Look, Tomás, these are your people, I get it. Their rejection hurts. Everything they say triggers some kind of painful childhood memory. But I don’t give a damn about them or what they think about me. So just…translate what I say—accurately.”
Tomás’ eyes widened. He nodded.
“We mean you no harm,” Jeff said. “But my people’s enemies are your people’s enemies. And we have come to do battle.”
Jeff halted and waited for Tomás to translate. So far as he could tell, Tomás was executing his duty with fidelity.
“We do not seek your approval. We do not need your permission to attack our enemies. They have killed many of our people, and our blood is in their mouths.”
Tomás spoke quickly. The elders’ eyes were nearly popping now, and they started arguing among themselves.
“Silencio!” Jeff shouted. They stopped. Jeff continued. “You will give our people hospitality. You will tend their wounds and feed them. You will keep them safe until we can bring them home. If you do not do this, then when we are finished with our enemies, we will turn our wrath upon you.”
Jeff enjoyed employing the stilted, mythological language. Even more, he liked seeing its effect. But when the elders hung their heads in resignation, his delight turned sour. I don’t want to defeat these people, Jeff thought. They’ve been beat up enough. “Care for them well and we will reward you. First with your freedom, and then with supplies, with food.”
The elders blinked. Their faces were impossible to read.
Apparently, Tomás could read them. “They do not believe you.”
“About what part?”
Tomás shrugged. Jeff hated that shrug. “About any of it.”
“Well, then, we’ll just have to prove them wrong.”
Jeff nodded at Tomás. Tomás nodded at Jeff. They closed their eyes.
“Hey, hey, hey! Wait just a minute,” Jo said. She picked her way around the crew members sitting on the floor of the cave. Weaponer Ditka was right behind her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To battle,” Jeff said.
“Not without me you’re not,” Jo said, checking the blaster in her holster.
“Jo, I…” Jeff didn’t know where to start. Should he say, I don’t want to lose you? He had lost Danny in a battle situation—his Danny, the real Danny…real to him, anyway. He wasn’t about to lose Jo. But he knew it would insult her if he said it. Jeff fumbled for words. It seemed an impossible situation.
“Out with it,” Jo put her hands on her hips.
“You said that.”
Jeff blinked. Then he had an idea. “Look, I know these are Tomás’ people, but they’re not happy that we’re here. I need someone I can trust to make sure they don’t try anything. I need someone strong to stay here and protect your crew.”
“Mr. Ditka can do that,” Jo said.
Ditka’s mouth opened to protest. She was determined to come with them as well, apparently.
Jeff felt more confident now. He held his hand up. “I need you here. Your crew needs you.”
“You just want all the macho glory for yourself.” Jo’s eyes narrowed.
It was such a ridiculous statement that Jeff almost laughed out loud. He wanted to say, Sure, you just go on thinking that. I’ve got a universe to save, but he restrained himself.
With one hand he patted the carapace slung across his back; with the other, he confirmed his blaster was in place. Then he nodded at Tomás again and they were gone.
He knew that he had left her spluttering, mad as a wounded hornet. But that was Jo’s problem.
The problem before him now was infinitely more complex…and dangerous. When he opened his eyes, he was in a room. The walls were unpainted concrete. Rivulets of water-stained rust ran down them at irregular intervals, their only adornment. The place looked impossibly old.
Jeff pulled his blaster from his holster and slid the safety off. He doubted it would do much against a Prox soldier, but it was what he had. The futility of the task before him washed over him like a wave. He felt defeated already, and they hadn’t yet begun.
“Hey Tomás, do you think we have a chance?”
“If I didn’t think we had a chance, would I have brought you here?”
“How much of a chance?”
Tomás looked up and met his eyes. “Not much of a chance.”
Jeff nodded. It was the answer he had expected. “Well, let’s die trying.”
“Si, amigo,” Tomás agreed. He stepped toward an archway that opened into a hall. Jeff raced to get in front of him and signaled for him to wait. Jeff unslung the carapace and fitted his forearm into the gauntlet, holding it against his chest. Then he flattened his back against the wall along one side of the arch. He peered into the hall, first one way, then the next.
“Clear,” he whispered. “Which way?”
Tomás pointed to the right.
“How do you know?” Jeff asked.
“Great….” Jeff growled. “Do you think maybe we should think this through a little more?”
“I don’t have a complete map in my head,” Tomás said. “I just know that los Durmientes are that way.”
“Okay, okay.” Jeff held his blaster in front of him next to his shield as he entered the hall. He only lacked a battle helmet. He wished he had one for Tomás even more. That was standard gear, so why hadn’t he thought of it?
Jeff stepped with long, catlike strides, ignoring the pain in his ankle. Tomás trotted behind him as if he were on an afternoon stroll. There was a lot about the little guy that Jeff simply did not understand. And that needs to be okay right now, he told himself. Focus.
He reviewed the plan in his mind. Find the sleepers. Find their computer. Blast the shit out of it. Don’t get killed.
They came to a T in the corridor. Jeff looked at Tomás. Tomás pointed to the left. Jeff flattened himself once again against the wall and peered around the corner into the new hallway. “Clear,” he whispered.
He was amazed at the lack of security. But then again, these were a people with no natural predators. What were they to be scared of? Who would dare enter here? Except for Tomás’ people, who even knew where they were? And Tomás’ people were no threat…except, it seemed, for Tomás.
Jeff froze. What did he really know about Tomás? He’d come out of nowhere. He’d left Jeff clues to follow. And he’d brought him…here. Jeff’s brain buzzed with suspicion. The Ulim knew he was a threat to them. All they needed to do was to send someone to lure him to them so they could eliminate him.
He jerked his head around and looked at Tomás. He stopped short of pointing his blaster at him. He stared at the little man.
Tomás cocked his head, looking confused. “¿Que pasó?” His eyes looked like the eyes of a puppy. He exuded innocence. If Tomás had been enlisted by the Ulim, it would explain his estrangement from his people. But then why would he have trained Jeff? The Ulim would not have wanted him to know more about how they did things, would they? It made no sense.
He had to make a call. He knew that. He could shoot Tomás dead on the spot and carry on with the plan. Or he could choose to trust him. Jeff felt paralyzed.
There’s no one calling the shots but you, he told himself. There are no superiors to blame if this goes sideways. It’s all on you. You can’t even blame the Ulim for this one. No one is sending false orders. There aren’t any fucking orders. There’s you and the enemy and this…unknown factor.
The unknown factor’s eyes shifted back and forth, and Jeff saw a splinter of fear in them now.
“Jeff,” Tomás said. “What are you thinking?”
He wasn’t good at trusting people. He knew that. It was why he had taken nothing but solo jobs for the past several years. He wasn’t even sure he trusted himself, but he trusted himself more than anyone else. He raised the weapon and pointed it at Tomás.
“Are you one of them?”
“No. I…” Tomás looked around. He seemed desperate. “How could you think it? Los odio! I hate them! They destroyed by people. They hunted us. We have barely survived.”
“Then why don’t you want to kill them?”
Tomás shook his head, almost as if he pitied Jeff. “Because, amigo, I will not let them turn me into un monstruo...a monster. I will not let them make me like them.”
Jeff’s brain buzzed. Tomás was displaying a level of self-awareness far higher than that possessed by the pseudo-Danny that the Ulim had concocted back in String 310. He retracted the blaster, holding it parallel with his own chest. If he squeezed the trigger, he’d blow off his own chin.
“Muy bueno,” Tomás’ eyes showed both understanding and compassion. “It is hard to know who to trust.”
Jeff nodded. Then he sensed movement behind him. They were at another archway. Beyond it he saw the Ulim suspended from wires…or was it rods…from the ceiling, dreaming their dreams of domination and empire.
And coming straight at them, scrambling on six legs moving so fast that they blurred together, was a soldier Prox.
[ STRING 311 ]
“It’s a wormhole!” Emma shouted excitedly. “What you call the ‘heart of the hive’ is a wormhole, connecting this, uh, bubble universe, with the one we know as String 311.” She was frantically putting it all together in her head, twisting imaginary geometry through multiple dimensions until it fit what she was experiencing. “The hive, as you call it, is like a Klein bottle, with two apparent surfaces, but twisting through four-space into one continuous manifold…”
Amberline had stopped signing. Her mask spoke. “You are beginning to use terminology I do not know how to translate.”
Emma did not seem to hear her. “Did you build it? The wormhole, I mean. Did the Alverians create it?”
“No, the heart of the hive has always been here. Though we did not always know about it,” Bucky signed, with Amberline vocalizing. “We first crossed the distance of space and began settling our moon fifteen generations ago. We began digging tunnels both for shelter and to explore the structure of the moon. As we tunneled deeper we discovered anomalies in gravity, in the curvature of space-time. We investigated. At the center we discovered the heart, and the universe beyond it.”
Emma nodded. “Okay, yeah, that makes sense. At some time in the distant past, millions of years ago, maybe thousands of millions of years, something caused a portion of String 311 to twist, forming a bubble separated from the whole. She began pacing. “This region of space-time, including your star, your home world and its moon, were drawn into the bubble and trapped. I can’t even imagine forces strong enough to make that happen, but, well…” She gestured at the windows. “Here it is. The opening between the two domains would twist closed, kind of like making a balloon animal, resulting in the wormhole.”
“Balloon…?” Amberline sounded confused.
“I’ll explain later. Hell, I’ll show you! But not now.” Emma waved it away with her hand. “Over time, this end of the wormhole would be attracted by gravity, eventually settling into a stable spot at the core of the moon. It might have rested there for millions of years. You would never have found it if you hadn’t dug…” She suddenly looked down. “Wait, did you dig all the way through the wormhole? You’d have to, to come out the other side of the manifold…”
Bucky was nodding. “It took many generations. Many Alverians were sacrificed. The digging was most difficult at the center of the hive.”
“I can imagine!”
Amberline interjected, “Keep in mind, the heart of the hive does not affect us as adversely as it does you.”
She nodded. “Of course. But you’d still be floating in zero G, disoriented, and boring through solid rock.”
“We are accomplished tunnelers,” Bucky signed, then gestured towards the planet. “What you can see of our cities from here is just the surface. The portion below ground is vastly larger.”
“I would like to see that someday, if it’s allowed.”
Bucky made the sign best translated as the future is uncertain, or as Emma preferred to think of it, we shall see.
“Oh my god, when they finally reached the other surface…”
Bucky tilted her head. “It was the birth of our fascination with multi-dimensional science. We’d theorized about other universes before that, but it was mere speculation, mathematical curiosities. Of course, now we understand that we hadn’t actually found a new universe, but the original universe that our region of space had been separated from.”
Emma was impressed. “And you had your own personal, secret doorway between them!”
Amberline nodded. “That secrecy was fortunate. We were not aware of any other sentient people in our region of space. As soon as we began to explore this side of the heart, we encountered humans, and it was not always… amicable.”
“I bet,” Emma agreed.
“We saw many worlds held by humans,” Bucky signed, “and the way they fought over them. Such brutality we had never seen before. We felt that if humans knew of our homeworld, they would likely take it from us.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, that’s entirely possible.”
Amberline’s mask frowned. “That is why we keep our secret so carefully, and why you are the only human who has ever been here.”
Emma found herself tearing up. “I…I am humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me. And I swear to you, I will never betray that trust, even if it means dying.”
“You can thank Amberline for that,” Bucky signed. “If she had not testified to your character, your trustworthiness, and your scientific expertise, we would never have allowed you to see even the hive, much less our homeworld.”
“Thank you, Amberline.” Emma bowed deeply.
Amberline nodded back. “In dealing with humans for so many years, I have learned that not all are savages, and that in many areas, your science has progressed much farther than ours. When I was contacted by my client to detain you and I learned of your credentials, I hoped it might be destiny.”
Emma was astonished, “What destiny? It looks to me like you have this all figured out, and have had for some time.”
“Not all of it,” Bucky signed. She made a huge sweeping gesture across the gigantic windows.
“I don’t understand,” Emma said.
“The stars,” Bucky signed.
“What about them? They look normal to me.”
Bucky stared at her native sky like she’d never seen it before.
“Until about one Earth month ago, only 18.7% of them were here.”
[ STRING 308 ]
The Prox soldier was coming fast. Jeff’s blood began pounding in his head and time started to slow down as his adrenaline peaked. He didn’t even feel the pain in his ankle as he leaped across the archway and pushed Tomás back, out of the soldier’s line of sight. Then he dropped to the ground, crouched behind the carapace and raised his blaster.
The scrambling Prox was almost upon him when he heard Tomás shout, “Aim for the legs! Just above the second joint!”
The information was noise. Jeff squeezed off three shots in rapid succession into the middle of the Prox’s body. He double checked the setting—maximum. It hadn’t even slowed the beast down for a second. “Aww…shit,” Jeff breathed.
“Legs!” Tomás shouted. He kept shouting it.
The Prox was almost upon them. It halted just shy of the archway and reared up, flaring out its legs and claws as wide as they would spread. What is it hoping to accomplish with such a display? Jeff wondered. Is it trying to inspire fear and awe? It was working.
He glanced back at the little man and saw him fumbling with the blaster Jeff had given him. “Oh, Christ,” Jeff whispered under his breath. “That was a bad idea.” Tomás would probably shoot him in an effort to shoot the legs off that thing—
The legs. Why was he screaming about the legs? To aim for an appendage went against all of Jeff’s training. If you are going to shoot, you shoot to kill. And that means a chest or head shot, period. You don’t want to wound your enemy. You want to fucking end him.
But this enemy was not going down. What was I thinking? flashed through his brain, quickly followed by, A blaster is no match for a particle cannon. But the particle cannons had taken these suckers out—one-by-one, anyway. Why not a blaster?
He shook his head to clear it and turned back to the Prox, which had, it seemed, finished its victory dance, and rearing back its barbed tail, stabbed toward Jeff with a lightning movement.
Jeff curled onto his side, letting the carapace take the full impact of the stab. It held, but even so, it felt like someone had just hit his spine with a wrecking ball. He nearly blacked out from the impact, and then watched with wide, horrified eyes as Tomás rose and confronted the beast.
The little man fumbled at the blaster, trying to work the safety, trying to find the trigger. He almost dropped the gun, and in catching it, activated the trigger, which sent an errant bolt of destructive energy zinging by Jeff’s ear. Holy Christ, he thought. Holy fucking Christ…
But then Tomás caught the gun and pointed it in the general direction of the Prox, who began its threatening dance for Tomás. Jeff could see the gun shaking wildly. I do not want to be in his line of fire, he thought, and rolled toward Tomás’ feet. He jerked himself upright and raised his blaster again, aiming for the tiny head of the creature. He squeezed off three more shots, and the little head disintegrated, resulting in an arcing shower of sparks.
But it did not stop its dance. The head, apparently, was not where its motherboard was located. No, if its designers had any sense at all, it would be in the thick of the chest, the most heavily-armored section of the creature, just as the bridge of any reasonable starship was deep in its bowels.
Tomás got two shots off, but they were wide of their mark. Plus, the little man was aiming for the legs. Jeff’s eyes narrowed as he considered that. But what the fuck did Tomás know about Prox or blasters or war, for Christ’s sake?
“What the hell?” Jeff said, raising his blaster and targeting the Prox’s forwardmost legs. He aimed as Tomás had instructed, just above the second joint.
But before he could squeeze off a shot, the Prox’s claw stabbed out again, straight at Tomás.
Tomás twisted, just in time to avoid being skewered through the heart, but it still caught him in the chest. Jeff’s blaster roared, and so did he. Two shots, and the two front legs of the Prox soldier folded up beneath it. Off balance now, the claws began gyrating wildly, but to no avail. The Prox tumbled to the cement floor, almost rolling straight into Jeff, its barbed tail thrashing.
Jeff leaped up and snatched the collar of Tomás’ shirt, pulling and running as far from the Prox as he could manage, as fast as he could. He looked back at the Prox soldier, on its back now like an upside-down turtle, all of its legs turning helpless circles in the air. A tail of bright red blood pointed from the Prox all the way to Tomás’ dripping feet.
Jeff dragged Tomás through another archway into what appeared to be a supply room. Jeff didn’t have time to divine the nature of the supplies. He dragged Tomás against the wall, shoved him into a seated position, and put his blaster on the ground beside him. “Tomás, Tomás!” Jeff shouted.
The chest wound was massive. The blood trailing from Tomás’ mouth told Jeff his lung had been punctured. The realization struck Jeff in the head like a bolt from a blaster—Tomás was not coming back from this. Tomás had seconds, maybe minutes, but that was it.
The little man’s eyes were already glassy. He turned his head. “The legs,” he said in a raspy voice that sounded obstructed and wet.
“Yeah, I got it, the fucking legs,” Jeff said.
His past came rushing back to him—the moment he had lost Danny at Catskill, the moment he had killed Jo when he jumped the Bohr, the moment he had destroyed every living soul in the universe he called home. And here he was again, responsible for the death of his partner, his accomplice, his friend.
Jeff howled, not knowing what to do with the feelings pummeling him, nor even what they were. He just felt the animal intensity of them, and it made him want to kick, lash out, stab, kill.
“Jeff, I do not think I’m going to…sobrevivir,” Tomás said.
Jeff had no idea what the word meant, yet he understood.
He clutched Tomás to his chest and held him close. Jeff’s teeth ground furiously and his face darkened into a mask of frustration and rage.
“This is not something you can do alone,” Tomás said. His voice was growing thin, his breath raspy.
“I’m not letting anyone else die,” Jeff said.
“Then you will…we will…fail.” Tomás coughed. Bright red blood appeared on the floor beside him in perfect, symmetrical drops.
“You must bring Captain Jo,” Tomás said.
Jeff wasn’t going to argue with him. He just needed to hold him until Tomás died. It wouldn’t be long. “I’m not going to fail, goddammit. You are not going to fail. But I’m not going to let anyone else die.” There he was arguing. What was he doing? He squeezed his eyes shut and rocked back and forth on the cement floor.
Images flooded his brain. He saw the way Catskill had affected him, how the trauma of it had twisted him. He saw how he had cut himself off from Jo, from his family, from everyone who mattered to him. He saw how his isolation had made him into less of a man, not more. Emma had tried to tell him, and he had rebuffed her, abandoned her. And now she too was lost.
“Estar solo no te ayuda,” Tomás said.
“What?” Jeff asked. “What does that mean?”
“Being alone…it does not serve you, mi amigo.”
Tears squeezed out of Jeff’s eyes, but he was not aware of them.
“Pero para mi…to die…it is to be gathered to my people.” Tomás’ breathing had become ragged. “But I have no people.”
Jeff tried to understand what that meant. He flashed back on the cave, the grim elders. There must be something there that Tomás loved. He knew that other cultures were far more communal than his own. It was a concept, not something he had seen. It was like speculative astrophysics—a mind experiment, nothing more. And yet…
He listened to Tomás’ breathing. He could hear the obstruction in his chest. There was an unnatural gurgling that just sounded wrong.
“We can teleport back,” Jeff said, “back to the cave.”
“No.” Tomás spoke the word emphatically. There was the force of shame behind it. Tomás did not want to be nursed by the people he had failed. He did not want to die under their disapproving scowls. Jeff didn’t blame him.
And then Tomás’ limbs went slack.
Jeff lowered Tomás’ body to the floor. He checked for a pulse, but it was as he suspected. “You were not a little man after all,” Jeff said out loud.
He stood and felt suddenly weak, drained, dizzy. He reached his hand out to steady himself against the wall. He bit his lip and breathed deep, steeling his resolve.
A part of his brain was lashing out, screaming at him about letting another comrade die. About surviving. “There are already about 600 trillion notches on my gun,” he whispered to that voice, coldly, evenly, “that I know of. What’s one more?”
It was a tough line. And right now, he wished he believed it. He needed to be hard. He needed to be focused. He didn’t need the distractions of guilt or shame or despair or anything else vulnerable or human.
I need to be a killing machine and nothing else, he thought. But he knew that was wrong, too.
For a moment, Jeff felt lost. A vertigo washed over him and threatened to bring him down. He did not know how to balance the military needs of the moment with the frailty of his soul. He realized what he needed was a chaplain…or a shaman. And what he had was a corpse and a roiling mass of interior conflict.
“Use it for fuel,” he told himself.
He snapped a new battery unit into the hilt of his blaster and locked it into place. He listened for the whine of the gun charging up to full power. He slung the carapace over his back. Then with a final glance at the shell of his friend, he stepped into the corridor.
He did it without looking. That was stupid, he told himself. But except for the Prox soldier on its back, pinwheeling its legs at the far end of the hall, it was empty.
He strode toward the struggling Prox soldier, and unslung the carapace. Holding the shield between himself and the fallen Prox, he hugged the wall until he cleared the archway that led to the room where the Ulim were sleeping.
Just beyond the archway, he paused and took in the Sleepers. The Ulim were human, just as Tomás had said. They hung suspended from the ceiling, their torsos flat, their thin, atrophied arms hanging limply from their sides. There must be a plank or something beneath them to support their bodies, Jeff thought. Otherwise they’d bend at the waist.
However it was they were suspended, the effect was eerie. The natural sunlight coming through the high, narrow windows was fading, and Jeff blinked as his eyes adjusted to a ghostly blue glowing emitted by the machinery below the sleepers. Jeff hadn’t noticed that before. Below every one of the Ulim was a little black box about a meter across and half a meter wide. Tubes ascended from it, snaking into the orifices of the sleepers.
He stepped to one side and saw that there was a passageway of sorts between two hanging Ulim. He stepped into it and gasped. To his right, stretched out into what seemed like infinity, were hundreds, maybe thousands of Ulim. To his left was another bank of Ulim stretching out just as far. The little blue lights formed a pattern as they grew smaller at the far side of the cavernous room, like a runway with guidance lights to pilot by. Little blue lights… “Fireflies,” he said out loud. He flashed back on the memory of his rescue, of the first time he had met the Ulim, the little blue lights that had seemed real and unreal at the same time. “Well here they fucking are—the Ulim fireflies.”
He shook his head to clear it and adjusted his blaster, readying it to fire at the smallest movement—but there was no movement. He shook his head at the magnitude of the task before him. Even if he wanted to kill every Ulim in the building, the slaughter would take days, maybe weeks. He wasn’t sure if Tomás had been right about the morality of the genocide of the Ulim, but his alternative plan was, quite simply, much more practical.
“Find the mainframe,” he said through his teeth.
It was tempting to just start shooting. It would feel good. He could blast the desiccated flesh off of every one of the hanging motherfuckers in sight, and it would feel so good. He would blast them for Danny, for he was sure it was they who had sent the false orders all those years ago at Catskill. He would blast them for Jo…his Jo, killed in a mangled lump of metal when ships from two different universes fused together. He would blast them for every living soul in his universe that had been snuffed out…or had they? Tomás had implied that his universe was still there…somewhere. But goddammit, he would blast them for Tomás, and for every human on String 311 where the Prox were killing right this very moment.
But he didn’t.
He kept moving. His strides, initially slowed by wonder and rage, picked up again. He was almost jogging when he caught movement out of the corner of one eye. He jerked his head to one side and crouched, aiming his blaster in that direction.
No matter how busy the Ulim were with their war against the Authority, someone had been controlling that Prox soldier, he reasoned. Someone would sound the alarm. It was just a matter of time before every Prox in this facility would be raining down shit on him. This must be the first of them, he thought.
But when the movement came, it was not a Prox soldier. It was small. It was human.
It was Danny.
Jeff stood as the figure came closer. Danny’s steps were halting, his hands up, as if he were being arrested. His face was soft, friendly, even a little sad.
“You found us,” he said.
It was not the Danny he had left behind in Authority space. Nor was it the Danny of String 310, the one who had died at Catskill. This was the Ulim Danny, the analog he had first met on the moon of New Manila.
“Hello, Danny,” Jeff said. I’ll play along, he thought. Why not? He knew they were using Danny’s form to manipulate his emotions. He was under no illusions that these bastards played fair.
“What do you intend to do?”
Jeff cocked his head. Was there really any reason to talk to these assholes? No. There was nothing they could say that would divert him from his path. And talking to this Danny-puppet would only slow him down. He realized with a grunt that this is exactly what they wanted.
“What do I intend to do? This,” he said, and blasted a hole through Danny’s chest.
[ STRING 311 ]
Admiral Tal felt sick. He felt helpless. He felt like a failure.
In mute desperation, he watched the last wave of Prox soldiers detach themselves from their ships and launch into space. He watched them swarm toward every ship in the Wengret ring.
There were no more orders to give. It was open, mad, furious warfare. Tal struggled to keep up with it all—but there were too many ships, too much territory, too much death.
One by one, Tal watched the Prox soldiers land, feet extended like spears, barbed tails slicing, piercing the hulls. He felt every attack as a stab at his own heart.
There was no stopping them now. Any hope Tal had nurtured that they might prevail turned sour once he saw the sheets of iconel being stripped off all over the ring.
He saw Liu falter. He reached out and grabbed the forearm of his secretary, squeezing an unspoken entreaty for courage.
Tal saw that smaller Prox—with eight legs, not six—were landing as well, many of them riding on the backs of the larger soldiers. He remembered that Bowers had called these “Workers” in his report. Tal saw that these were more systematic and ruthless about the project of dismantling their ships. Another kind of creature whizzed by. This must the be third species Bowers wrote about, he thought. An Expediter. It reminded him of a squid or a jellyfish, touching the soldiers and the worker with one of the tendrils tailing after its body. Tal had no idea what function this being served.
It would all have been intellectually fascinating had he not been witnessing the genocide of his people. Instead, he simply watched in mute horror as ship after ship after ship was breached, their hulls peeled back like a tin of rations, their crew suffocated by the ruthless void of space.
“We failed, Adrian,” Tal said. His voice was weary. He was still clutching at his secretary’s arm.
Liu looked down at him. He was biting his lower lip, and his eyes were brimming. He jerked free of Tal’s grip and grasped his hand instead. He shook it, held it, and held Tal’s eyes as well. “It’s been an honor serving with you, sir.”
“We’re still going to pummel the hell out of them with our particle array when they start coming for us,” Tal said. “We can pick off twenty-seven of them a second with every gun we’ve got.”
“It isn’t going to be enough,” Liu said.
“No. No it won’t.”
“We’re going to die today.”
“Yes.” Tal didn’t say the next part, and he hoped Liu wouldn’t either. The Prox’s next stop would be Earth. Tal shuddered.
“The doctors want permission to distribute the Happy Ending tablets—especially to the children and noncommissioned adults aboard, including the tourists.”
Tal nodded. He’d hoped it wouldn’t come to that. The pills would provide a minute and a half of euphoria, then sleep, then the heart would stop. It would be over in three minutes. “But the seals will remain locked until I give the order.” They could hand them out, but no one would be able to open them. Not until…
It was the order Tal hoped he would never have to give.
It took four hours for the Prox to board every ship in the Wengret ring. It felt like four years. Tal felt the pang of every death, took it personally, bore the moral weight of it in his bones. He was responsible for every death. If there had been a plan that might have succeeded, he did not find it. It was all on him. He sighed, and it was a despairing sigh that revealed an agony too deep for words.
Everyone in the Command Center continued to watch the screens. Tal knew what would happen next. It was like a play or a vid he’d seen several times before. Inside, he’d say, Oh yes, this bit. When the last of the ships had been defeated, the worker Prox stayed to finish the job while the soldiers launched themselves once more into space, their legs leading, pointed straight at Sol Station. Oh yes, this bit—the final act, his own death, and the death of everyone who toiled and lived and loved under his command and protection. Oh yes, this bit.
“Estimated time before those fuckers arrive?” Tal asked no one in particular.
“Forty-two minutes,” a voice replied. Tal didn’t notice whom.
“Forty-two minutes,” he repeated.
He stood. He straightened his jacket. “Weaponers, at your stations. I want every particle cannon we’ve got trained on the enemy. Pick your shots carefully while they’re at a distance. Open up and make the most of their proximity as they get closer. Leverage every advantage you can find to kill as many of them as you can before they get here. The rest of you…take thirty minutes to say goodbye to the people you love. Then I want you back at your posts.”
Tal looked down from the screens and saw that everyone in the room was standing, facing him, staring, not moving. “Go!” Tal shouted.
The room erupted into motion. The weaponers looked busier than ever, but everyone else trailed toward an exit.
“You too, Adrian.”
“I have no family aboard, sir.”
“I have some friends, sir, but…my place is here.”
Only then did Tal realize that he was still gripping his secretary’s hand. He squeezed it. “Good man.” He let it go.
The joints in his fingers ached. He wondered at that, at how good and wonderful it was that his joints ached, that he had joints, that they could ache. An hour from now, he would not have them.
“You know that I can’t eat salt or butter…”
Impossibly, he saw his secretary smile. “Yes sir. What would you like, sir.”
“Bombay butter chicken, I think. Extra spicy. What do you think of that?”
“I think I would like to join you, with your permission, sir.”
“Nan and saffron rice.”
“Muttar paneer on the side,” Liu said.
“Why the hell not?” Tal agreed.
“Anything to drink, sir?”
“Scotch,” Tal said without thinking. “And you’ll join me in that, too.”
Tal enjoyed the meal, but he enjoyed the scotch more. Liu had snagged the oldest, most expensive single malt on station. It seemed even more buttery than the chicken. Tal felt a warm sentimental glow flood his brain as he finished his first glass. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and pointed to the glass. Liu filled it.
Tal had never seen Liu smile this much. He’d always taken his secretary for an efficiency machine, but never so much as a person. Not that Adrian had ever showed much personality in the performance of his duties. But he seemed to have let his professional guard down now, and Tal decided that he liked the man more than he thought he did.
Maybe that’s just the whisky talking, he thought. Maybe it was. But who the fuck cared now?
Minutes later, the chicken was finished, as was the nan. Liu carried away a tray bearing the last of the rice. A moment later he added another finger to Tal’s scotch.
Tal set it in the cup holder built into his command chair. Then he forgot about it. The communicators and navigators and astrophysicists and brass were filtering back in again. Their faces looked broken, crumpled, puffy. Tal wondered if some of them had gotten into fist fights. But no…it was grief, not pugilism that disfigured them. Some wiped at their eyes, some assumed an air of detached dispassion that fooled no one. Some of them did not return. Tal sipped at his whisky. He could hardly blame them, and he didn’t. The Command Center did not need to be fully manned for them to die, after all.
Like most people in the room, he watched the schematics monitor, watching the enemy death count soar as the particle cannons did their worst—their worst, but not enough. The death count was 346,000 Prox dead and climbing. The numbers changed faster than Tal could easily make out.
But it would not be enough. 1,150,000 more of them were on their way.
Tal shifted his eyes to gauge their proximity—500 kilometers…450…400…
There were no speeches left in him. None were needed.
“Incoming Prox, sir. Contact in 5, 4, 3…”
Tal watched the monitor as the first of the Prox soldiers landed. Its barbed tail reared back over its tiny head, then speared forward, puncturing the space station’s hull.
[ STRING 308 ]
Jeff stepped over the pseudo-Danny’s body. I need to move more quickly, he told himself. Fortunately, his boots felt strangely light beneath him. His adrenaline was pumping. He could feel it rising with the danger.
They definitely knew he was here. They were probably freaking out. Good, he thought. Hopefully that will distract them from killing humans back at Sol Station. That was another universe away, his brain reminded him. So what? he answered. Distance meant less and less to him now.
Except for the distance beneath his feet. He could just project himself into the All and materialize at the mainframe…if he knew where it was. But there was nothing to feel for. But I can search more quickly that way, he reasoned. But, countered his brain, you would leave your body vulnerable—blind, dumb, and helpless—until you squashed yourself into the new space.
That is not optimal, he had to agree. It was good when his brain and he agreed on something.
The Ulim went on forever. The sunlight coming through the windows had completely faded now, and his eyes had adjusted to the glow of the blue fireflies that filled the cavernous room. He tried to estimate how many football fields might fit within this space. Twelve? It was massive. Most of this must be built into the hillside, Jeff thought. That was when he noticed that the windows were only on one side. He kicked himself. That was the kind of thing he should have noticed before.
Instinctively, he unslung the carapace and held it before him, sliding his forearm into the gauntlet. His blaster was powered up and ready in his dominant hand, his finger light on the trigger.
He passed row after row of Ulim, sleeping but not asleep. Dead, but not dead. Vulnerable, yet dangerous. It was hard to connect all the events of his past—all the hardship and failure and guilt and self-loathing, all the death and destruction and bone-breaking toil—with these seemingly serene figures, floating in their reverie, still and dormant for centuries, basking in the soft, ghostly light of their machines. They were several universe strings away. They were peaceful monks, surely. They were hibernating scientists.
“They are killers,” Jeff said aloud through gritted teeth.
He saw an opening to his right and stopped. A corridor led into dim space where he saw a bank of blinking lights. He turned toward the lights and nodded. Lights equal machinery…and maybe computers.
He started down the hallway to investigate. The hallway opened into a larger, windowless space, surrounded by a glass enclosure. Behind the glass, about a hundred meters in front of him, was what could only be a mainframe.
It would take quite a computer to link the minds of all the Ulim, to calculate their movement, their society, their communications and interactions, their entire life in whatever Interworld they had assembled for themselves. It struck him as ironic that what his people considered a punishment, a form of prison—as Nira had been sentenced to—these creatures had chosen as preferable to the sensual life of the body.
The bitterness of it struck Jeff in that moment in a way that had not occurred to him before. In rejecting the physical world, the Ulim were rejecting everything that made life dear—the touch of skin, the preciousness of time, the ecstasy of lovemaking, even the poignant frailty of the body. It was the Gnostic rejection of the gift of creation, removed from myth, discarnate through binary code. The irony of transcending dualism through the fundamental duality of the distinction between zeros and ones suddenly seemed sweet and apt.
But this was the stuff of late-night college conversations over drinks and cannabis. He shook his head to clear it of such heady thoughts. Then he noticed motion in his peripheral vision. He jerked his head to the left to see a Prox soldier scrambling on its six legs to intercept him, to block his access to the mainframe.
Jeff raised his blaster and aimed for the creature’s legs. But he was too late—skittering behind the soldier was another, then another, then another. In rapid succession, a whole platoon of Prox soldiers spilled into the passageway, forming a line to block his advance.
In mere seconds the hallway had gone from being empty to being a writhing mass of pincers and legs. Jeff estimated there were fifteen, maybe twenty Prox in a line ahead of him. How many of their legs could he shoot before the others rushed him?
“Not enough,” he breathed.
Jeff heard something behind him, and spinning around, he saw another ten, twelve, fourteen Prox blocking his retreat.
They had found him, all right. And now they were advancing from both directions. Jeff turned back to the Prox guarding the mainframe. Their pincers scissored the air in front of them, snapping and slipping and flashing, even in the dim light…all but one.
This one remained where it was, scooting forward only after its fellows had entered the hall in Jeff’s direction. Jeff knew he needed to squash space and jump out of here, and quickly. But at least he knew where the mainframe was. Now he could get back here.
As the Prox grew closer, his eye travelled to the one that lagged behind the others. It stopped altogether. Then it waved. Then, holding one great pincer over another, it gestured toward itself, mimicking a motion that was all too familiar to Jeff.
Jeff flashed back on the time Tomás had showed him the sleeve from the shirt he was making, when he had explained how they could safely move objects through space. Could it be? Could it be that this Prox soldier was pretending to hold aloft a sleeve?
Jeff projected himself into the All. He knew he would have to be quick, because until he actually teleported, his body would be vulnerable, and he had Prox rushing him from both sides. It occurred to him that it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, if you had to go—projecting your consciousness away from your body as whatever happened to it…happened. But then what would happen to your consciousness? Tomás had just raised that question in a way that Jeff could not answer.
He quickly located the cavern, found Jo’s presence and gripped it between two fingers. He squashed space, bringing the Ulim compound and the cavern together, then letting space snap back, trusting its elasticity. He opened his eyes and found himself looking at Jo nursing a wounded member of her crew. She jumped when she saw him.
“Jesus! Do you have to do that?”
“I guess I could materialize out of your field of vision and then walk into it,” Jeff conceded. “But that seems a little silly, given the circumstances.”
“And just what are the circumstances?” Jo asked. “Where is Tomás?”
Jeff looked down.
“Oh shit,” Jo said. She patted her crewman and stood up. She reached out and touched Jeff on the arm. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I. But—” But what? What could he say? It’s okay because Tomás’ consciousness is now living inside a Prox soldier’s body? Well, why not? “It’s okay because Tomás’ consciousness is now living inside a Prox soldier’s body,” Jeff said, wincing.
Jo blinked. “You’re shitting me, right?”
He shook his head. “It’s how we’re going to get you there without destroying this reality string.”
“Get me where?”
“Into the compound.”
“Hold on. Back up. What the fuck are you talking about? Did you destroy the Ulim computer or not?”
“No. They killed Tomás, and then I was attacked by Prox. But I found the mainframe. I know where it is. I can take us directly there.” Jeff realized he was wasting time. Every moment they stood here talking was a moment closer to the Ulim contriving a way to stop them. It was comforting to know they were not omniscient or omnipotent. And he wanted very much to take advantage of the fact that their attention was divided.
Jo put her hands on her hips. “Wait just a goddam minute. Are you saying you need my help? My help? You don’t just need my starship—which is a steaming pile of twisted metal right now, thanks to you.”
Urgency filled Jeff’s limbs and made him impatient. He didn’t have time for Jo to gloat. “We need to go—”
“No, goddam it. I want to hear you say it.”
“Say it, fuckhead. Say it now or you’re on your own.”
He could probably enlist Shell Ditka instead, but she would need Jo’s permission, since she was under her authority. Jeff’s captaincy had no real relevance beyond his now nonexistent world. He was stuck. He looked at his boots and closed and opened his hands, feeling the tightness of his fists.
“All right. Fuck. Jo, I fucking need you. You. Not your ship. You. I can’t do this without you.”
A smile curled at the edge of Jo’s lip. “Damn straight.” She withdrew her blaster and checked its charge. “Was that really so hard?”
Jeff continued making fists but didn’t answer.
“Mr. Ditka, you have the conn—”
“The conn, sir?” Ditka stood up from where she had been tending another of the wounded crew members. There was no conn—the Talon was a smoking piece of space detritus in orbit around this planet.
“You know what I mean,” Jo said, rolling her eyes.
Jo nodded, turning back to Jeff. “What are you waiting for, soldier?”
[ STRING 311 ]
Admiral Tal glanced at the monitor fixed on what was left of his fleet—scrap metal floating in random, chaotic patterns. The only order he could detect was the systematic dismantling of anything connected to anything else by the Prox. It occurred to him that he was looking at a living icon depicting the state of his own heart—chaos punctuated by destruction.
He forced himself to look away, staring this time at the incoming Prox troops sailing toward them through space—a vast host descending on them like rain, moving fast yet eerily still. He marveled at the serenity of the images compared to the aggression of their intent.
More were landing now, twelve, twenty-eight, seventy-two… They hit the outer rings of Sol Station first and immediately began digging in. They ripped up the iconel plates and pulled insulation and wiring out, setting them free from their intended servitude to float into space, forming webs of detritus that rippled and flowed like underwater fauna.
The station had rotated from its standard position in order to put the largest array of particle cannons between the Prox and the rest of the station. Those cannons had done their worst—and now they were food. Tal watched as the alien soldiers ripped their guns up with their mandibles, fewer of them firing now. Soon, none would be operational.
Tal had ordered all civilians into the section of the station furthest away from the enemy, but he could see how hopeless that was. Tens of thousands of Prox were landing now, and tens of thousands more were simply sailing past the batteries, past the engineering decks, straight toward the gymnasiums and theaters where the civilians—the children and businesspeople and tourists—were huddled together and taking instruction in the use of their Happy Ending pills.
Overcome with grief, Liu had become faint. Against his will, Tal ordered him to sit. He had not objected. Tal felt the distance between them acutely. So much so that he rose and walked behind Liu’s chair, putting both hands on his secretary’s shoulders. “We failed, Adrian.”
“We tried, sir. We gave it our best.”
“Our best…was not enough.”
There was no answer to that. The words caught at Tal’s conscience, however. We did not give our best, goddammit, he thought. Our best would have been to reach out to the rebels, to call a cease fire until we defeated our common enemy.
That was out of his hands, but he still felt the moral weight of it hanging from his neck like a noose.
“Here they come, sir.” One of the weaponers stood and looked at him.
There was nothing to do but watch them come. They had no weapons left, no defenses, no prayers…no hope.
“Here they come,” Tal repeated.
The Command Center, like the bridge of the space station, was not nestled safe into the guts of the place, as it would be on a ship. The station was a series of concentric rings, with no part of it any more or less safe from attack. It was not, after all, a fortress or a warship. It was a way-station, a habitat, a merchant center. It launched ships to protect itself, ships that were now nothing more than floating scraps.
“The Prox are approaching the Command Center, sir.”
The lights suddenly went out, leaving the room in complete darkness. Tal counted five seconds before emergency power came on. The monitors flickered and resumed their dreadful reports, but only some of them had working cameras now.
Tal could have ordered Happy Endings for the people under his command, but he had decided against it. It seemed unmilitary. If they could not go down fighting, at least they could go down staring the enemy in the eye. They would not yield the moment of moral confrontation. But as he saw all the young men and women in front of him, when he thought of how, mere moments from now, they would die, and die horribly, he questioned his decision.
But it was too late now. He heard a booming clank as a large, heavy object made contact with the hull around them.
“They’re here,” one of the weaponers said. No one was working now. There was nothing to work on. There was nothing to do. Nothing to do but die.
Yet it seemed someone was still watching the monitors. “The Prox are approaching the recreational ring, sir.” The recreational ring, where the civilians were huddled.
Adrian looked up, accessing his neural, sending the order for the civilians to swallow their pills. In mere moments, fourteen thousand women, men, and children would peel back the plastic top of the tiny bottles and swallow the euphoric poison. Babies would be injected.
Tal’s eyes welled up and he cursed his own finitude—not the fact that his life would soon end, but the fact that he had not done enough, had not been creative enough, strong enough, brutal enough to save his people. He hated himself, and he roiled in that loathing. He hated himself more than he hated the Prox—the Prox, who seemed to have no actual animosity toward them. To them, humans seemed to simply be irrelevant. They seemed to be interested only in the metal. They were like great whales feeding on plankton. There was metal to be eaten, and now the eaters were here.
[ String 308 ]
Jeff projected himself into the All. Then he reached out for Tomás. It felt like a stab in the dark. After all, Tomás was dead. How would his essence manifest? And he realized he might have been imagining the whole sleeve thing. Maybe the Prox soldier was just experiencing a malfunction. It was possible.
But in his heart he knew. He knew that somehow, Tomás had once again beaten the Ulim at their own game. They somehow controlled the Prox by the imposition of their will on the monsters’ circuitry. Tomás, in the moments before he died, must have figured out how to do the same.
If Jeff was wrong, he would know in seconds. He cast around for Tomás—first he cast wide, as he normally did, but then narrowed in on where he expected Tomás to be. But Tomás was not there. Jeff fought a moment of panic. Relax, he told himself.
From a long way off, he heard Jo’s voice, as if underwater. “Are you just going to stand there, or what?”
He sent a call into the All. It was not something he had thought of before, and he was not sure where the idea had come from. But he sent it just the same. And a moment later, he heard a familiar voice in his brain. I am here, amigo.
Jeff relaxed, relief flooding his body. Oh my God, I’m so glad to hear your annoying little voice.
Hmm…tell me how you really feel, amigo.
Jeff’s body smiled. He heard Jo’s voice afar off. “What’s so goddam funny?”
Are you ready with the sleeve?
Ready, mi amigo.
Here we come.
Jeff hesitated. Yes?
This is a good move. I am glad you are bringing Captain Jo.
Yeah. Uh…let’s just get this done.
Jeff snagged the space around himself and Jo. Then he reached through and felt for Tomás’ arm. He had a moment of panic as he realized that Tomás no longer had an arm. Would he feel a cold, metallic pincer, instead? But no, there was an arm, or at least the suggestion of an arm, as real and solid as anything was in the All. He clutched at it and brought himself and Jo through.
When Jeff opened his eyes, he saw that Tomás had navigated them past the bank of windowed walls, directly into the room containing the mainframe. Jo wobbled on her feet; Jeff reached out instinctively, hands on her waist, steadying her. It only took a moment. As quickly as Jeff could blink, Jo had assumed a solid, wide stance, bringing her blaster into position—whining up to full power, ready to fire.
Jeff was slower to assume a pose. He turned around, taking in the room. Like everything in the Ulim compound, the place was massive. Jeff estimated it to be nearly 25 meters deep, maybe half that wide. The mainframe took up the bulk of it, its towers two meters tall, stretching to the uttermost limits of the room.
Unlike the outside chamber, where the Ulim hung, this room was well lit. Soft, yellowish, light-emitting orbs were suspended from a high ceiling, much as the Ulim were. And light radiated from the mainframe itself—thousands of towers, each casting a warm orange glow from the code in constant, rapid display across what looked like stacked metal casings that were also monitors.
Jeff wondered at the sight—it was the container for a world a people inhabited. It’s an electronic planet, Jeff thought. Hundreds of thousands—hell, maybe millions—of souls were residing in those stacks. Or were they residing in the bodies floating in the massive room adjacent to this one? Or were they, somehow, both? They did, after all, need their bodies or they would not have kept them alive. And they needed this virtual world, or they would not have the mainframe.
Suddenly, the Ulim seemed far less omnipotent. The precarity of their situation pricked at him. He almost felt sorry for them. Because he was here. And Jo was here. And they weren’t here to make friends.
Neither were the Prox. As Jeff finished turning around, his focus returned to his more immediate surroundings. About twenty meters lay between him and the mainframe. But standing in a line, from one side of the room to the other, were a hundred Prox soldiers…or more.
They were inordinately still. It was as if they had been moved into position and then powered down. Only the fact that a couple of them were opening and closing their pincers reflexively alerted him to the fact that they were online and ready to attack the moment their masters so directed them.
Then, almost as one, the line advanced.
Even though there was plenty of distance between them, both Jeff and Jo instinctively took a step backward. Jeff quickly assessed their firepower. It was woefully inadequate. Even knowing that they should disable their legs, even with Jo and him firing non-stop, they would not be able to bring enough of the fuckers down before they were overwhelmed. It was the same strategy the Prox employed when attacking larger targets. Individually, they were stoppable. Together, however, they were overwhelming. And that was their secret.
“I love you, too,” Jo said.
“What?” Jeff asked, momentarily shocked out of his thoughts.
“Look…if we’re about to die…I want you to know. I’ve always loved you…whatever you there was. I loved the you that died here. I love the new you too. That’s all I’m saying. Don’t get weird on me.”
Jeff blinked and turned back to the line of advancing Prox. Their legs skittled on the hard floor beneath them. They could rush them, but they weren’t. The Ulim were enjoying their kill.
But then one of them suddenly broke ranks and scrambled toward them with lightning speed. Jo aimed and fired—projecting a pocket of disruptive energy. It caught the Prox soldier square in the chest, a direct hit, but as Jeff anticipated, the Prox’s defensive shields dissipated the blast, rendering it harmless.
“Two things,” Jeff said. “First, if you want to stop these fuckers, aim for their legs—second joint from the bottom. Second, that particular Prox? I don’t think he’s the enemy.”
Of course Jeff couldn’t be certain. But while the Prox seemed to be operating in unison, this one was not. And he knew that there was at least one Prox soldier hosting the soul—or the consciousness or the essence or whatever damn thing it was—of his friend.
“It’s the little man,” Jeff said.
“What?” Jo asked, aiming for the legs.
As the Prox skittered dangerously close, Jeff caught Jo’s blaster and forced it down so that it pointed to the floor. “It’s Tomás.”
Jeff didn’t need to look at her to know that her eyes were wide with alarm. And…he could be wrong, of course. But in his gut, he knew he wasn’t.
Almost upon them, the Prox’s legs began to skitter backwards, trying to halt its momentum. It tipped forward, bashing the edge of its carapace on the stone floor.
It was close enough to touch now, halting no more than a meter in front of them. Its legs gyrated before them, as if pedaling unseen bicycles. Jeff reached out and patted its carapace. “Hang in there, buddy. You’ll get the hang of how to operate that thing.”
The Prox righted itself and made a quick, jerky bow to Jeff and Jo. Glancing at Jo, Jeff suspected that if he poked her, she’d fall over. Instead, he clutched at her elbow and squeezed. “No, really. It’s Tomás. Somehow, when he died, he was able to…I don’t know, take one of them over.”
The Prox-who-was-Tomás towered over them. It skittered its legs, turning to face its fellows. It took a step forward, interjecting itself between Jeff and Jo and the gauntlet of Prox.
“He’s not a little man anymore,” Jo whispered.
“He’s neither little…nor a man.”
“Are you through?”
“I’m….nervous as fuck.”
“Me, too.” He glanced over at her. She smiled. He smiled back. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Not threatening your manhood, then?”
“Fuck you, Taylor.”
“That’s a date, Captain.” She winked.
The line of Prox had momentarily halted, assessing the new situation. If they were confused about the fact that one of their own had just taken up with the enemy, their crablike demeanor did not betray it. A moment later, they began advancing again.
“You know, Tomás, it’s great that you’re here and all, but we still can’t stop them.”
“Who needs to stop them?” Jo asked.
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t need to stop them,” she said. “We just need to finish the fucking job.”
She took aim again. She fired.
Jeff scowled. She had not hit any of the advancing Prox—and Jo had always been an ace marksman. She damned well hit what she aimed at. She was aiming at the computer towers.
Jeff suspected they were shielded, and a split second later his suspicion was confirmed—the blast slammed into a rippling wall of blue energy, behind which the computer stacks remained whole and unharmed.
“We could do that all day,” Jeff said. “We’d deplete our blasters before we wore down those shields.”
Jo didn’t respond but fired in what looked like a random pattern—left and right, high and low. Every now and then she hit a Prox soldier, but Jeff suspected that was by accident.
The Prox were getting close. Jeff saw Tomás hunker down, raising his deadly pincers, digging in his legs for traction as he prepared to spring forward.
Jeff started firing at legs.
“What are you doing?” Jo asked.
“The legs, goddammit. Fire at the legs.”
He took down one, two, three…five. Deep inside he felt a wet flipper of joy twitch every time one of them rolled onto its back, legs pinwheeling helplessly in the air.
Gotta love design flaws, Jeff thought.
But it would not be enough. He knew that. It would be their last stand. He knew that, too, and he hated it. He glanced over at Jo and loved her. He glanced up at the Prox-who-was-Tomás and loved him. And suddenly, despite the certainty of his death—and theirs—he realized that there was no place in this universe or any other that he wanted to be. To die on this battlefield, with these friends, that was as much as any soldier could hope for.
“Incoming,” Jo said, jerking her head behind her.
Jeff looked over his shoulder and saw another swarm of Prox skittering their way through the archway, into the corridor that led from the Ulim to the mainframe.
The Prox from the gauntlet, however, were already upon them. Tomás reared up, doing the angry dance he and Jeff had witnessed before, brandishing his pincers, making himself as large as possible. But the Prox ignored him, attempting to move past him directly to Jeff and Jo.
Tomás slashed down with his right pincer, the large one, tearing a split into the metal hide of the foremost Prox. Only then did they seem to notice his presence. Suddenly there was an eruption of Prox legs, as the attacking Prox met Tomás’ dance with its own—and then immediately engaged.
Jeff heard the metallic crunch as their bodies pounded into one another, their claws and legs a roiling blur in the air almost directly above him. He jumped and rolled as a projectile came at him—just missing his skull by mere centimeters. It was a discarded leg, sheared off in their clash.
The attacking Prox was nearly crawling over Tomás now, its pincers reaching for Jeff, quivering in the air, eager but frustrated that it was not able to reach its prey when it was so, so close. Tomás looked like he was about to be crushed by the sheer determination of his enemy, when other Prox began to swarm past him. He stuck out whatever legs were not immediately engaged, but they did nothing.
“We need to get out of here before Tomás goes down,” Jeff shouted to Jo, “because if that happens, we can’t both get out of here.”
He saw the look of fear in Jo’s eyes and knew that she understood him.
“We’re trapped,” Jeff said. “We need to teleport out. Now.”
“We have not completed our mission, soldier,” Jo said.
“And we’re not going to,” he said. As romantic and glorious as the idea of dying with Jo and Tomás beside him would be, he couldn’t let it happen to them. Not them.
It required both of them to take Jo with them without endangering the fabric of space. And Tomás was going down fast.
Jeff closed his eyes, but Jo yelled, “Like hell.”
Jeff felt his blaster being ripped out of his grip.
Jo had grabbed it. She had transferred her weapon to her non-dominant hand and reared back. Then, with a graceful motion that seemed out of place, Jo lobbed his blaster into the air, over the heads of the approaching Prox, into the thick of the mainframe stacks.
Faster than Jeff could track, she took up her blaster in her right hand again, took aim, and fired. Jeff expected the blaster to hit a force field and clatter to the floor, but it kept going, falling now into the midst of the computer stacks. At the last possible moment before it disappeared from view, an energy pocket from Jo’s blaster caught up with it, connected with it, ignited it.
Jeff’s field of vision erupted into a wall of fire.
[ STRING 311 ]
Tal heard the booming sound of the hull being pummeled and punctured. The booms were scattershot at first, and then they were legion—a hundred dread hammers beating down upon them. He knew that all up and down the hull, the atmospheric seals were being breached. People were dying as the air rushed out into the void, leaving their lungs heaving, then collapsed.
And then, as if someone had just severed a power cord, the beating just…stopped.
A dreadful silence followed. Tal saw everyone around him with their shoulders hunched up to their ears, anticipating one final blow before the air was sucked from the room, from their lungs. But the blow did not come. The silence was louder than the hammering had been.
Tal jerked his head up to whatever monitors were still giving a picture, and his mouth dropped open. The Prox had ceased their warlike crusade. They did not move. They did not cling to the hull, nor did they attack it. If there was any life in them, he could not see it. Instead, he saw their bodies floating aimlessly away from the hulls of the station, once more lost in their mindless serenity, only now it was an unconscious serenity.
Are they really unconscious? Tal wondered. Are they dead? Or are they simply void of will? Has the connection with whatever power directs them been momentarily severed? Would they, moments from now, power up and resume their slaughter?
Tal did not know. He only knew that he was grateful for the reprieve, for even another minute of life.
Terror struck him. “Adrian!” he shouted. “Belay that order!”
He had given the order to the civilians to take their pills. How long ago had that been? It felt like hours ago, but in reality he knew that it had been less than a minute. But a minute could be too long…
“Adrian!” he shouted. He saw that Adrian’s eyes were rolled up into his head. He knew his secretary was doing all that he could. He bit his lip as he saw the man’s eyes drop, then look down. When Liu finally did look up again, Tal saw the saddest eyes he had ever beheld.
“Are they all…?” He could not bring himself to finish the sentence.
“Not all,” Liu said. “But…many. The adults made the children go first.”
“Oh Christ,” Tal cradled his head in his hands. “Oh Christ.”
He waited for the sound of the hammers to resume, but the only sound he could hear was the pounding of his own pulse in his ears.
[ STRING 308 ]
The force field surrounding the mainframe held steady, containing the flames from the explosion of Jeff’s blaster, and concentrating the force of the explosion within it. But the force field was only three meters in height, and a cloud of flame and percussive energy erupted from the top of the force field, spilling out into the room.
Jeff raised his arm to shield his eyes from the ferocity of it, and rolled onto his back to get as low as possible, turning the carapace on his back toward the blast. Jo had stumbled from the force of the explosion. Grabbing her arm, he jerked her down to the floor beside him. A second explosion rocked the foundation, so powerful he felt the cement bucking beneath them, then a third, a fourth, a fifth—as the liquid oxygen cooling mechanisms in the mainframes began to explode, taking every working computer node with them as they went.
The explosions didn’t stop, nor did they increase in intensity. The sound was oddly familiar, and it took a moment for Jeff to connect with what it sounded like. Popcorn, he thought. It sounds like popcorn, if I were two centimeters tall and inside the pan as it was popping.
The mainframe room had been massive, and Jeff curled his body around Jo’s, trying to protect her from whatever falling detritus might strike them as the explosions continued, random yet constant for the next several minutes as the massive mainframe exploded, node by node, down the length and breadth of the cavernous room.
Finally, however, the explosions happened further and further away, less and less frequently, until finally they stopped altogether. The floor stopped bucking. The heat subsided. A quiet descended that seemed timeless and equally unfixed in space. Jeff felt a familiar spinning of vertigo until he opened his eyes and grounded himself in proximity to concrete things. Here was Jo, curled within the protective tangle of his arms and legs. He reached out with his awareness to check his own limbs. Yes, he could feel them. Yes, he could move them. He felt the sensation of metal scraping on the back of his hand, and received it with the force of a divine revelation. He was embodied. The one he loved was alive.
For now, his brain said. He jerked upright. And the Prox. The explosions might give them pause, but—
“Jeff,” Jo began to uncurl, emerging from the fetal position nestled under his belly. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah…I think so. You?”
“I don’t know. Give me a whisky and a hot bath and I’ll let you know.”
Jeff couldn’t help grinning. This might not be his Jo, but it was sure as fuck Jo.
He sat up and lunged to snatch Jo’s blaster from where it had fallen. He checked its settings, made sure it was powered and ready, and only then did he look around.
Smoke hung heavy in the air. The lights had been taken out with the mainframe. He could see only by the glow of the ghostly blue light seeping in from the room where the Ulim hung. Jeff fished in his pocket for a hand torch. He clicked it on and fixed it under his shoulder epaulet. Its beam produced a solid pillar of smoke wherever he turned. He fished a handkerchief from his trousers and began to tie it around Jo’s mouth.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Put your filthy hanky over your own mouth. I’ve got one.”
Jeff did as she said. Then he started to study their surroundings. The Prox were still here. Many had rolled onto their backs—probably from the force of the countless explosions. Some were still upright, balanced on their spindly metallic legs. But they were frozen in place, as if someone had switched them off, as if they were replicas in a museum—empty suits of armor, reminders of a bygone era, discarded by time.
Then he noted motion. He swung the blaster around, aiming it at the one Prox soldier still moving. It had been blown onto its back, and its feet were scrambling to find purchase in empty air. Jeff wondered if the break in consciousness was temporary, and this was just the first Prox to recover from the shock.
But then he heard a voice in his head. If you do not mind, amigo, I could use un poco de ayuda…a little help.
A comical image flashed in his mind of a Prox soldier wearing the ridiculous little bowler hat that had been perched on Tomás’ head the first time Jeff had met him. He laughed out loud.
I do not see what is so funny, Tomás’ voice complained.
“Sorry, amigo,” Jeff said, struggling to his feet.
“What are you talking about?” Jo asked.
As soon as he felt solid, he offered Jo a hand up. She took it.
“It’s Tomás. He’s…talking in my head.”
“Oh great. The psychologists are going to love you now.”
“At least Osprey is dead.”
“Never mind…another universe, another Jo.”
“I am never going to get used to that.”
“Neither am I. C’mon, Tomás needs our help.”
By the limited, intermittent light of the torch Jeff picked his way through wreckage and the frozen, motionless bodies of innumerable Prox soldiers. He followed the motion of Tomás’ pinwheeling legs until he was able to lay a hand on his friend’s carapace. “I’m here, amigo,” Jeff said. He looked behind him and held his hand out to Jo. She took it and he guided her beside him. “How do we do this?” Jeff asked.
I believe I can find a foothold on my left side, Tomás’ voice said in his head. If the two of you can push my right side up…once we get my carapace perpendicular, gravity should do the rest.
“Right,” Jeff said.
“Okay, you’re hearing things I’m not hearing,” Jo said. “So if you want my help, you need to read me in.”
Jeff nodded. It was a reasonable request. “Tomás has a good foothold over there—you can see where the concrete has buckled, creating a ridge. He can get his pincers and legs fixed against that, no problem. We just need to tip him up and over.”
“You and me.” She sounded incredulous. “You realize that’s like us trying to flip a shuttlecraft, right?”
She was right. He knew it. Then he had an idea.
“Tomás, we don’t need to move you. You can just teleport out, and then back in the right position.” It took a moment for Tomás to respond, and Jeff was amused that this had not occurred to his friend.
Soy un idiota, Tomás’ voice said in his head. A split second later, Tomás winked out of sight, and then rematerialized upright, with all six of his legs beneath him.
“Feel better?” Jeff asked.
I would feel better in my own body, Tomás said.
“This body might have its advantages,” Jeff reasoned.
It might indeed, Tomás agreed.
Jeff turned in a circle, taking in the wreckage of the place. “We did it.”
“You’re welcome,” Jo said.
[ STRING 308 ]
“We need to get back,” Jo said.
The Prox soldiers lay where they fell, devoid of soul, will, or, it seemed, electricity. They were nothing more than silver hills dotting the smoky, apocalyptic landscape of the bunker’s interior.
“There’s something I have to do first,” Jeff said.
He holstered his blaster and slung the carapace over his back. Then he set out for the room where the Ulim hung. Jeff heard a scrambling of metal legs on cement and flinched, ready to draw on whatever was coming up behind him. But it was only Tomás. The Prox-who-was-his-friend skittered in front of him to block his way.
Jeff, what are you doing? What do you intend?
Jeff halted and held up his hand. “No harm, amigo. I just want to talk. Trust me.”
Tomás hesitated for a minute, then bowed slightly and backed up. It occurred to Jeff that he had not seen a Prox retreat before. It looked like an unnatural movement.
Jo fell into step behind him as he approached the nearest of the hanging Ulim. It was a woman. Jeff hovered over her and studied her. She looked young, yet Jeff knew that it was only the chemicals that kept her so. She was, he reasoned, impossibly old. And now she was more alone than she had been in several thousand years.
Jeff slapped her face, and her eyes snapped open, large with surprise.
“Now you know what it’s like to be cut off,” Jeff said. “Now you know what it’s like to be isolated.” Now you know what it’s like to be me, he thought. All the years of self-loathing after Catskill, all the hiding, the self-imposed exile, all the loneliness, it rushed in on him, flooding him with rancor, with bitterness, with rage. These people started it all. They killed Danny. They twisted my soul into a hard, dark thing, curled in on itself, festering with guilt, with shame.
But what did he want her to say? There was nothing she could say that would undo the damage. She could give no apology, even if she were inclined to offer one, that would give him his years of exile back, or that would restore the pieces of his soul that had been cut off and discarded over three universes. There were no possible words and no possible penance that could restore his Danny or his Jo.
But there was something he wanted to say to her. “You saved the wrong motherfucker. Everything you have built is gone, and you will never get it back. And if you try, I will come back here and tear your limbs from your miserable, atrophied bodies with my own fucking hands. That’s not a threat, that’s a promise.” He waited a moment for that to sink in. Then he leaned in so that his nose was almost touching hers. “Now you have a new project. Now you must learn to live in isolation together. Just like the rest of us.” As he was saying it, he realized that this was his mission now, too.
He straightened up and stepped away from her. “Now what?” he asked his friends.
Tomás’ voice rang out in his head. Now I will go back to my people.
“Whoa! I heard that!” Jo said, clutching her head.
It would be rude to speak only to Jeff, Tomás explained.
“Okay, true, but a little warning…”
“What will you do?” Jeff asked, putting a hand on his friend’s carapace.
Well, first, I must convince them that I am me, despite my appearance.
“Uh…I wish you luck with that. Now they’ll have two reasons to hate you.”
True. But as Lo Tan says, “At the extreme of yang, yin begins.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Jeff confessed.
Tomás did not explain. Instead he placed a metal claw on Jeff’s shoulder, which would have nearly crushed him if Tomás had allowed him to bear the weight of it. And then I will lead my people back here, where we will minister to los Durmientes. We will feed them and work their muscles and make their bodies strong again. We will teach them…how to be human.
“You,” Jeff said, a smile breaking out across his face. “Are you going to teach them how to be human?”
“You are the weirdest motherfucker I have ever met,” Jeff said. Then his eyes grew moist. “And I’m going to miss the hell out of you.”
Well, you can visit anytime, Tomás reminded him. Now that you know how.
“There may be times when I need you,” Jeff said. “Especially, the new you. For one thing, I need help getting some things…and people…back to their proper places.
Then let us make haste. We have much to do if we want to save los Durmientes.
Jeff wasn’t at all sure that saving the Ulim was at the top of his list, but he didn’t argue with his friend.
[ STRING 311 ]
“Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?” Liu asked.
Tal slouched in his chair, covering his face with one hand. His study had been unmolested by the Prox attack. He had been lucky in that. There were plenty who were not. Large barracks had been set up in the recreational centers with hundreds of makeshift cots and pallets in neat rows after the destruction of so many private quarters.
“Oh, uh…no, Adrian. Thank you. I’ll…I’ll call if I need you.”
“I’ll just be in the next room, sir.”
The door slid shut after Liu. Tal was alone.
Tomorrow the work of cleanup and rebuilding would begin. Every time Tal shut his eyes, though, all he could see were the lifeless Prox floating away. He still half expected them to roar to life again, to turn around and finish the job.
There were plenty of rumors about what had happened to the creatures, why they had just suddenly shut down, but no one knew anything. Not really. The Abrahamic Union and other religious groups were saying it was the hand of God. Maybe it was, he thought. But Tal had little use for a God whose help came so late.
Suddenly he heard noises he couldn’t account for. Close noises. Noises in his own room. He lifted his face out of his hand and opened his bleary eyes.
Then they went wide.
“Admiral,” Jeff said.
Tal stood, his weariness and grief momentarily forgotten.
Captain Jeff Bowers stood in front of him, blaster drawn. A living Prox soldier stood behind him, almost too large to fit into his study. The creature had to stoop not to bash its head against the ceiling. Kneeling in front of Bowers was Captain Daniel Hightower.
Hightower looked like he’d been on the wrong side of a bar brawl. His hands were cuffed behind his back. He looked madder than a hornet.
“What is that—that—doing here?” Tal pointed to the Prox.
“Relax. He’s with me. He’s my muscle. He’s on our side.”
“He is?” Tal’s voice cracked as he spoke.
Bowers smiled. “He is. I’ll tell you the whole story…soon.” He nudged Hightower with his boot. “Is this one yours?”
Tal locked eyes with Hightower. Hightower sneered.
“No, he is not.” Tal met Bowers’ eyes. It appeared to Tal that Bowers saw the truth in them, because he nodded, apparently satisfied.
“We were able to stop them,” Bowers said. “The Prox, I mean. No thanks to him. Because of him…we almost didn’t.”
“If you are the one that made them stop…then I owe you my life, and the life of everyone on board. Not to mention the life of everyone on Earth.” Tal looked down at his desk. “It’s too bad it came too late…for so many.”
“I saw the wreckage on our way in. Horrible. I’m sorry. That’s…what we were trying to stop.”
“That’s not the half of it. I had just given the order for the civilians to take the Happy Ending pills,” Tal said. He looked up to meet Jeff’s eyes. “That’s when you stopped them, I guess. We were able to belay the order…but not before the children ...” He saw Bowers wince, the pain on his face evident. “They’re calling it the Children’s Massacre. People are already wearing black armbands. Even soldiers. I’m not stopping them. People need…”
“They need to grieve,” Bowers said.
Bowers holstered his blaster. “While you were fighting them here, I was with the RFC fighting them…elsewhere. We prevailed. You don’t owe your life to me…or not only to me, is what I’m saying. Captain Joleen Taylor of the Revolutionary Freedom Coalition saved you, along with her crew.”
Tal nodded, feeling a momentary spin of vertigo. “If that’s true, the implications of that are…substantial.”
“It’s true. I’m hoping that we can make good use of this moment. I’d like to suggest that you and Admiral Alinto of the RFC have a private meeting first before bringing in the civilian authorities.”
“I would be…open to a clandestine meeting,” Tal affirmed.
“Good. That’s a start then.” Jeff stepped over to where Hightower was kneeling. “Can I trust you to take care of this one?”
“He stole one of our ships and took himself and his entire crew AWOL,” Tal said. “He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I can promise you that.”
“Good. From what I’ve heard, the Authority’s penalties are a good bit more severe than the RFC, so I thought I’d let you deal with your own.”
“We are obliged to you for that, too, then.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Hightower spat.
Jeff’s eyebrows furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“I had an inside man on the Talon. I didn’t do it alone. If I’m going down, I want to make sure he goes down with me.”
“Who?” Jeff asked.
“No shit.” Jeff sighed and shook his head. “I’ll let Jo know. It’ll kill her, but she needs to know.”
“You do that.”
Jeff kicked Hightower over and put his boot on the man’s neck. “Now there’s just one more thing that I need from you before I’m through with you forever.”
Tal rose and walked around his desk so that he was standing beside Bowers, staring down at Hightower. He was aware that there was a live Prox soldier breathing down his neck, but he suspected he was hallucinating half of this anyway and decided to just flow with it.
“You remember Emma, don’t you, Admiral Tal?” Bowers asked without looking at him.
“Middle-aged woman, just a little younger than you. Quantum seismologist.”
“That’s her,” Jeff acknowledged. “Not long after we left here and docked at Epworth Station, she disappeared. And there’s only one person I know of in this universe shit enough to do something like that.” He pressed his boot down. Hightower squirmed, turning red. “So, I want to ask you first, Admiral Tal—as a man of honor, did you have Dr. Emma Stewart kidnapped?”
“I did not, Captain. You have my word.”
“Well, since no one else in this universe even knew we existed, that leaves this miserable motherfucker.” He lifted his boot off Hightower’s neck. Danny sputtered and wheezed, trying to gain a lungful of air. Jeff knelt near Hightower’s head and spoke softly. “Danny, we were friends once. I want to know what you did with Emma. Where is she?”
Emma sat at a table near the back of the restaurant, though someone coming in from the front might not have seen her because of the stack of plates she’d accumulated. She ecstatically ate the last of her of Caribbean-style shrimp, chewing slowly, then licking the cayenne pepper and salt off her fingers. She was so lost in reverie that she didn’t notice anyone approach until he spoke.
As she looked up from the double order of escargot, her eyes grew suddenly wide with delight. “Jeff!” she squealed, leaping out of her chair, throwing her arms around him, and squeezing as hard as she could.
“Jesus,” he grunted. “Have you been working out?”
After a moment she released him, then realized she’d smeared grease and spices all over Jeff’s crisp, clean uniform. “Oh god! I’m sorry, let me get that…” She turned back toward the table to grab a napkin, but Jeff caught her by the wrist.
“Forget about that! Are you okay?”
She noticed the look of concern—bordering on panic—on his face. “What? I’m fine! Why?”
Now he looked angry. “Because you were kidnapped! Why do you think?”
Confusion crossed Emma’s face, then she burst out laughing, which didn’t seem to help Jeff at all. “Yeah, I guess I was! It’s not like that though, not really.”
Jeff struggled to understand. “Really? Then maybe you’d like to explain why I just had to pay your ransom!”
“The woman I talked to said that even though I wasn’t the original client, I still had to pay the price Danny had agreed to if I wanted to get you back, and it wasn’t small.”
“Damn it, Amberline… I’m so sorry, Jeff. I’ll pay you back…”
Jeff stared at her speechless. “I don’t …”
“No! Of course you don’t! Sit down, I’ll explain. Would you like something to eat? I’m absolutely stuffed, but I can’t stop eating. This place is amazing!”
Jeff slowly pulled out a chair and sat, surveying the carnage on the table. “Yeah, apparently…”
Emma also sat, laughing at the pile of dishes. “Sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve had any real food. I’ve been living on poi and man-meat so long, I guess I got carried away.”
Jeff stared. “Man meat...?”
Emma laughed again. “It’s so good to see you! I have so much to tell you, I don’t even know where to start.”
“How about starting with where you’ve been?”
She opened her mouth, then stopped. “Actually, I can’t tell you that.”
Jeff’s brow furled. “I looked for you, you know. I searched the entire universe for you, literally. And I should have been able to find you. When I go into the All, I can see everything. I can see everyone. And you weren’t there. I was afraid you might be…” He couldn’t finish the thought. “But then I got my hands on Danny.”
She gasped. “Is he still alive?”
Jeff smiled darkly. “Just barely.”
“It was him, wasn’t it? He set me up?”
He nodded, scowling, furious. “Yes. And I still can’t figure out how he hid you so well. I’m a little creeped out by it, if you want to know the truth. How could Danny know enough about my…ability…to find a way to hide you from me?”
“He didn’t, he just got lucky. It was really the people he paid to take me.”
“And when I get my hands on them…”
Emma shook her head slowly and gently put her hand on his. “No. They are really… interesting people.”
Jeff stared at her, incredulous. “Is this what Stockholm syndrome looks like?”
“No!” She laughed. “I know it sounds strange, but even though what happened to me did start as a kidnapping, it turned into something different. Yeah, I’ve been working my ass off, and the food has been terrible. But I’ve stumbled onto something very interesting and important.”
Jeff looked hurt—no, annoyed. “Well, I’m glad you’ve been having a good time while we’ve been out risking our lives and saving the universe!”
Her joviality melted away. “I figured you’d all be lying low. Wasn’t that the plan?”
“Since when do plans ever go as…uh, planned.”
“Never. At least certainly not for us!”
He looked away.
“Hey,” she said, taking his hand. “You don’t have to worry about that. I understand. And I’m okay, really. You lost someone you loved, and she came back from the dead. That’s pretty extraordinary! You did find her, yes?”
He nodded. “How did you know?”
She barked a laugh. “Have you met you? You’re not hard to read.”
He smiled reluctantly.
“And your shaman? You found him too?”
“Yeah, I did. And good thing. We ended up fighting the Prox again.”
Her eyes snapped open with fear. “Prox? Here? In this string? Oh shit!” Her eyes darted around as though looking for an escape route.
“Don’t worry, we took care of it.”
She paused a moment, taking in the implications, the sheer magnitude of what he’d just said. “You found a way to beat them?”
He nodded. “Just barely. But it turned out the Ulim were running them the whole time. I had to fight them instead. A lot has changed. A lot of good people died in the fight. We lost Suzi Wall, I’m pretty sure she was on a spaceliner that the Prox took out. And Pho was killed in an altercation with one of the locals.”
She looked down. “I’m sad to hear it. They were good kids. I liked them.”
Jeff nodded solemnly, then shook his head. “Look, we can do this on the ship. There’s so much to catch up on.”
Emma shook her head. ”I’m not coming with you.”
“What? You’re going back?”
“Well, I have some shopping to do first…”
“The alien I paid the ransom to said you are free to go.”
She smiled, thinking of Amberline. “I am. But I have something I’m working on, something big. It’s going to re-write a lot of what we know about string theory.”
“And you can’t work on it with us?”
“I’m afraid not. And to be honest, I don’t want to.”
She saw the hurt in his face. “It’s not like that! It has nothing to do with you, or us, or any of that. I’ve found a place, a group of people, who really need me. I can make a difference with them, and in turn, I’ll be making a difference for the whole universe. You don’t need me anymore, and I’m happy for you.”
He couldn’t argue. “Well then, if it’s what you really want, I’m happy for you too. Just be careful. Don’t destroy a universe like I did.”
She saw the pain darken his face. “Yeah, about that. What if I told you that you didn’t?”
“Of course I did. I’m not trying to shift that responsibility to…”
“You didn’t destroy String 310.”
“Who did then?”
“Nobody, you dumb oaf, listen to me! String 310 wasn’t destroyed. It was just… moved.”
She nodded, smiling. “And I know where it is!”
His jaw dropped. “Well let’s go home then!”
“It’s not that simple. The region of space it’s in is an isolated subset of String 311.”
“How is it isolated?”
“Somehow, it’s been rotated in four-space so that it’s out of phase with…” She noted his glassy expression. “It’s difficult to explain.”
“To a dumb soldier like me, you mean.”
“To anyone. Just take it as isolated. You can’t get there from here.”
Jeff puffed up his chest. “You forget, I can go anywhere.”
She smiled. “Believe me, I haven’t forgotten, I know that better than anyone. But this is an unusual situation, even by our standards!” They laughed, then just sat a moment, smiling at each other. “Trust me on this. I have some work to do first. There’s a lot to learn, a lot of calculation to do. Luckily, I’ll have a lot of help working the problem. And once it’s sorted, I’ll contact you.”
“It’s a lot to take in. I thought I’d killed, well, everyone.”
“You can let go of that guilt now. I’ve got our old universe in a bag on a shelf, safe and sound. And I’m fairly certain that Earth—our Earth—is somewhere in that bag, and I’m going to find it.”
Jeff beamed at her. “You really are amazing.”
She nodded. “So I’ve been told.”
“And you’re really going back to, well, wherever you were?”
“This is weird.”
“It really is.”
“Can I have a hug before you go?”
She smiled and stood, holding her arms out wide. Internally, she reflexively tried to open her smaller sub-arms as well, but since she wasn’t wearing the prosthesis, nothing happened. She laughed at herself and wrapped her arms around Jeff again, pulling him close, smelling him, his skin, his fresh uniform, his after-shave. Her heart was breaking, but it was as much with fullness as it was with loss.
Jeff felt weary as he stepped aboard the Horatio Nelson. How long had it been since he’d slept? Too fucking long. He felt beat up and traumatized and exhausted—up until the present moment, getting clean and rest and writing up reports were objects in the distance. He could see them, and they were true, but none could be acknowledged or addressed, not yet, not now.
But now…the image of a hot bath flashed through his head. Such a thing was impossible on a warship, but it was a nice fantasy. He stumbled once as he made his way to the bridge, the weariness finally catching up to him.
When the door to the bridge slid open, Jo swiveled her chair around to greet him with a full smile. Looking around, Jeff saw Ditka and the rest of Jo’s A-team. He gave them a quick but friendly nod. Nira was there, too, in her position as XO. He winked at her.
“Come,” Jo said, rising from her seat and heading for her ready room.
“Yes, sir,” Jeff answered, and followed her. When the door closed, she kissed him.
“Hello, Captain,” he said.
“Hello, Captain,” she returned.
“Do I always have to call you that?”
“Only in front of the crew,” she said. “In private, you can call me…” She looked up, thinking. When she met his eyes again, there was a girlish, playful smile on her lips.
“You’re solo,” she noted, changing the subject.
“I’m solo,” he confirmed. It occurred to him that those two words contained many layers of meaning, all of them true.
“She’s not coming with us?”
“That’s what she says.”
“Why the fuck not?”
Jeff shrugged. “She says she’s onto something.”
“You mean a suspicious-woman something or a science something?”
He held her close, enjoying the warmth of her. “The latter. Whatever it is, she said it’s big. We need to leave her an ansible.”
“Like hell. Do you think this pile of crap has a spare ansible aboard?”
“We just need to let command know that we’re giving ours away so they don’t worry. We’ll get a new one installed at the next port. Besides…this ship isn’t going to be your permanent post. We have to return it to the Authority, so what the fuck do you care?”
“Spoils of war.”
“Or an olive branch.” He kissed her nose.
“Hm. Well, when you put it like that… Funny you should mention command, though. Alinto wants to see you, so command is our next stop.”
“What’s she want with me?”
“Probably to give you a shiny piece of crap to hang on your uniform.”
“I don’t have a uniform…” That wasn’t true. He was wearing one. But the thought of it, of what he had lost, of being clothed in what amounted to a field of ghosts… He shuddered. “I don’t have a uniform that stands for anything…not anymore.”
“Don’t be too sure about that. She wants you to mediate the talks between the RFC and the Authority. Then she wants to propose a joint, elite RFC-Authority military unit, headed by you, of course.”
He scowled and cocked his head. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He was here, after all. Now that the enemy was defeated, what was he going to do, become a short order cook? He would need to do something, or he would go stir-crazy very quickly. “I don’t know. This…this place is like home…but it isn’t home.”
“Well, where the hell else are you going to go?”
He looked away.
“Hey,” Jo said, putting her hand on his chest. “Isn’t there anything about this universe that you like? If you spend enough time here, you might warm up to it.”
“I like the fact that your ships aren’t crawling with spiders.” Jeff tried not to smile but failed.
“It’s also got me.”
Jeff nodded, still not looking at her. “I was kind of hoping to go off by myself for a while…you know, sort through some shit.” He swore more when he was around Jo. He liked that.
“Yeah, well…I figured you’d feel that way, being you and all. But…” she pointed at his heart with her index finger, “mature adults don’t give into their base impulses and temptations. It’s what makes them mature.”
He blinked. “Well, when you put it like that—”
“Plus, you’re a soldier. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you weren’t a soldier. And a soldier goes where he’s needed and does what must be done.”
“Royfeld’s class. Theory and Art of War.”
“I still remember a thing or two from the academy. Besides all that…” she met his eyes, and looked into them, deeper than he had permitted anyone to see in a very long time, “you found me. Do you really want to let me go again so quickly?”
She was right, of course. He couldn’t lose her again, not after all they had been through. And because words are inadequate, he answered her with a kiss.
A note from the authors:
Thanks so much for reading our book—we hope you enjoyed it! If you can, please post an honest review at amazon or 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
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