home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
À Á Â Ã Ä Å Æ Ç È É Ê Ë Ì Í Î Ï Ð Ñ Ò Ó Ô Õ Ö × Ø Ù Ý Þ ß


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | ôîðóì | collections | ÷èòàëêè | àâòîðàì | add



BOOK ONE

"Soldier,

I wish you well."

— A.E.Housman

1200 Hours

Thursday 2 November, 2062

HMCSS Montreal

Under way

The Montreal has wings.

They unfurl around her, gossamer solar sails bearing a kilometers-long dragonfly out of high Earth orbit and into the darkness where she will test herself, and me. She's already moving like a cutter through night-black water when Colonel Valens straps me to the butter-soft leather of the pilot's chair and seats the collars. I'm wearing the damned uniform he demanded; it's made for this, with a cutout under my jacket for the interface.

Cold metal presses above my hips, against the nape of my neck. There's a subtle little prickle when the pins slide in, and my unauthorized AI passenger chuckles inside my ear.

Gonna be okay out there, Dick?

“With a whole starship to play in? Sure. Besides, I have my other self to wait for. Whenever Valens lets him into the system, pinions clipped.” He grins in the corner of my prosthetic eye. Virtual Richard. I'll miss him. “I'll go when you enter the ship. They'll miss me in the fluctuation.”

Godspeed, Richard.

“Be careful, Jenny.”

Spit-shined Colonel Valens raises three fingers into my line of sight. I draw one breath, deep and sweet, skin prickling with chill and cool sweat.

Valens's fingers come down. One. Two. Three.

And dark.

My body vanishes along with Valens, the observers, the bridge. Cold on my skin and the simulations were never like this. Richard winks and vanishes, and my head feels — empty, all of a sudden, and ringing hollow. It's strange in there without him. And then I forget myself in the Montreal, as the sun pushes my sails and the stars spread out before me like buttercream frosting on a birthday cake. Heat and pressure like a kiss gliding down my skin, and the Montreal's sails are eagle's wings cradling a thermal.

Eagle wings. Eagle feathers. A warrior dream.

I pull the ship around me like a feathered skin and fly.

Valens's voice in my ear as Richard leaves me. “All good, Master Warrant?”

“Yes, sir.” I hate the distractions. Hate him talking when I'm trying to fly. The simulations were mostly hyperlight; I didn't get to play much in space I could see. Only feel, like the rough curve of gravity dragging you down a water slide, and then the darkness pulling you under.

This is easy.

This is fun. Richard? I don't expect an answer. He's gone into the ship, part of the Montreal now with her cavernous computer systems and the nanotech traced through her hull, her skin, wired into my brain stem so her heartbeat is my heartbeat, the angle of her sails is the angle of my wings.

“Got you, Jenny,” he says, and if my heart were my heart it would skip a beat. I can't feel myself grin.

Dick!

“Guess what?” His glee tastes like my own. “Jenny, the nanites can talk to each other.”

What do you mean?

“I mean I can sense the alien ships on Mars — the ship tree and the metal one — and I can sense you and the other pilots. And the Chinese vessel following us.”

The Huang Di?

“On our tail. No lag, Jenny.”

I don't understand. No lag?

“No lightspeed lag. Instantaneous communication. I think I was right about the superstrings. It's not so much faster-than-light technology as… sneakier-than-light.”

Implications tangle in my brain. Richard.

“Yes?”

Can you feel our benefactors? Somebody alien left the ships on Mars for us to find. Somebody alien meant for us to come find them, too.

“And they can feel me,” he answers. “Jenny, I can't talk to them. Can't understand them. But I know one thing.

“They're coming.”

I almost stall the habitation wheel as the Montreal and I continue our ascent.


Three hours previous

0900 Hours

Thursday 2 November, 2062

HMCSS Montreal

Earth orbit

Don't all kids want to grow up to be astronauts? It's not a strange thing to ask when you are hauling yourself along a series of grab rails on your way to the bridge of a starship, floating ends of hair brushing your ears like fingertips.

Let me say that again in case you missed it.

A starship.

Her name is the Montreal, and she's as cold inside as a tin can on an ice floe. Her outline is gawky, fragile-seeming, counterintuitive to an eye that expects things that fly to look like things that fly. Instead, she's a winged wheel stuck partway down a weather-vane arrow, a design that keeps the hazardous things in the engines as far as possible from the habitation module without compromising the angle of thrust. The wheel turns around the shaft of the arrow, generating there-is-no-such-thing-as-centrifugal-force, which will hold us to the nominal floor once we're on it. There's no gravity in this, the central shaft. You could float along it if you wanted, and never fear falling.

I prefer the grab rails, thank you.

The “wings”—furled against the rigging like the legs of some eerie spider — are solar sails. The main engines are not to be used until we're cruising well clear of a planet. Any planet. From the simulations I've been flying back in Toronto, the consequences might be just as detrimental to the planet as to the Montreal.

Don't ask me how the engines work. I'm not sure the guys who built them know. But I do know that the reactor and drive assemblies are designed so they can be jettisoned in the case of an emergency, if worst comes to worst. And that they're shielded to hell and gone.

Don't all little kids want to grow up to be astronauts?

Not me. Little Jenny Casey — she wanted to be a pirate or a ballerina. Not a firefighter or a cop. Definitely not a soldier. She never even thought about going to the stars.

I catch myself, over and over, breaking the enormity of what I'm seeing down into component pieces. Gray rubber matting, gray metal walls. The whining strain of heaters and refrigerators against the chewing cold and searing heat of space. The click of my prosthetic left hand against the railing, the butt of a chubby xenobiologist bobbing along the ladder ahead of me.

Did I mention that this is a starship?

And I'm expected to fly her. If I can figure out how.

Big, blond Gabe Castaign is a few rungs behind me. I hear him mumbling under his breath in French, a litany of disbelief louder than my own but no less elaborate, and far more profane. “Jenny,” he calls past my boots, “do you know if they plan to put elevators in this thing before they call it flightworthy?”

I've studied her specs. Elevators isn't the right word, implying as it does a change of height, which is a dimension the Montreal will never know. “Yeah.” Grab, pull, grab. “But do me a favor and call them tubecars, all right?” He grunts. I grin.

I know Gabe well enough to know a yes when I hear one. Know him even better in the past few hours than I did for the twenty-five years before that, come to think of it. “Captain Wainwright,” I call past Charlie Forster, that xenobiologist. “How much farther to the bridge?”

“Six levels,” she calls back.

“At least her rear view is better than Charlie's,” Richard Feynman says inside my head. If I closed my eyes — which I don't — I'd see my AI passenger hanging like a holo in front of the left one, grinning a contour-map grin and scrubbing his hands together.

Richard, look all you want. I marvel at the rubberized steel under my mismatched hands and grin harder, still surprised not to feel the expression tugging scar tissue along the side of my face. It's almost enough to belay the worry I'm feeling over a few friends left home on Earth in a sticky situation. Almost.

A starship. That's one hell of a ride you got there, Jenny Casey.

Yeah. Which of course is when my stomach, unfed for twenty hours, chooses to rumble.

“Master Warrant Casey, are you feeling any better?” says Colonel Frederick Valens, last in line.

“Just fine, sir.” Not bad for your first time in zero G, Jenny. It could have been a lot worse, anyway. Gabe had me a little too distracted to puke when the acceleration cut in the beanstalk on the way up. “I suppose I don't want to know what sort of chow we get on a spaceship.”

“Starship,” Wainwright corrects. “It's better than you might expect. No dead animals, but we get good produce.”

“Whatever happened to Tang?”

Charlie laughs, still moving hand over hand along the ladder. “The elevator makes it cheap to bring things up, and life support both here and on the Clarke Orbital Platform relies on greenery for carbon exchange. No point in making it inedible greenery, so as long as you like pasta primavera and tempeh, you're golden. I'll show you the galley after we look at the bridge. Which should be—”

“Right through this hatch,” Wainright finishes. She undogs the hatch cover and pushes it open, hooking one calf through the ladder for purchase, her toe curled around a bar for a moment before she pulls herself forward and slithers through the opening like a nightcrawler into leafy loam. Charlie follows and I'm right after him, feeling a strange chill in the metal when my right hand closes on it. The left one picks it up, too, but it's a different, alien sensation. After twenty-five years with an armored steel field-ready prosthesis, I'm still not used to having a hand that can feel on that arm. I rap on the hatch as I go through it, examining a ceramic and metal pressure door that boasts a heavy wheel in place of a handle. I pick up the scent of machine oil lubricating hydraulics; when I brush the hatch it moves smoothly, light on its hinges.

Except light is the wrong word here, isn't it? My left eye — prosthetic, too — catches the red glimmer of a sensor as I pass through. “Seems a little primitive,” I call after Wainwright.

She propels herself down the corridor — a much larger one — keeping one hand on the grab rail for the inevitable moment when she starts to drift to the floor. She gets her feet under her neatly, but even Charlie follows with better grace than me. All my enhanced reflexes are good for is smacking me into the wall a little faster. I stumble and catch myself on the rail. Gabe muffs it, too, God bless him, although Valens manages his touchdown agile as a silver tabby tomcat.

“The ship?” She turns, surprised.

I amuse myself with the hopping-off-a-slide-walk sensation of each step heavier than the last as I close the distance between us. This corridor must spiral through the ring, to take you from inside to outside “feet-down.” I speculate there's a ladder way, too. One I wouldn't want to lose my grip in. “The hatchways.”

“Less to break.” She shrugs her shoulders, settling her uniform jacket over her blouse. I make a mental note to requisition some jumpsuits, if they're not already provided. Valens always seems to think about these things.

Wainwright continues. “And if it does, we can fix it with a wrench and a can of WD-40. That might be important a few thousand light-years out. Saves power, too. They're just like submarine doors, but less massive.”

Gabe lays a hand on my elbow as he comes up beside me, still soft on his feet for all he's got three years on me and I celebrated my fiftieth last month. “Let me guess,” Richard says in my implant. “Ask about the decompression doors, Jenny?”

“Captain.” I brush against Gabe as I move past him. Valens's gaze prickles my spine as he dogs the hatch behind us. I swallow a grin. “What do you do if there's a hull breach?”

“Try not to be in a doorway. The habitation wheel is designed like a honeycomb, for strength. There are automatic doors for emergencies, and if the air pressure drops suddenly — they come down.”

“They don't wait for pedestrians to clear the corridor?”

“No.” She turns her back on me and walks away, leading us farther out of the floating heart of her ship, now my ship, too. “For Christmas, I guess we'll hang the mistletoe in the wardroom.” She glances back over her shoulder with a grin that stills my shiver.

“Hostile environment,” Gabe mutters in my ear.

“Enemy territory,” Valens adds from my other side. “What's outside this tin can is trying to kill you, Casey. Never forget that for a second.”

I square my shoulders and don't look up. He needs me enough that I can get away with it. “I'll bear that in mind, Fred.”

He chuckles as I walk away.

The bridge lies near the center of the habitation ring. It's long enough I can see the curve of the floor, but not particularly wide. Remote screens line the walls with floor-to-ceiling images of blue and holy Madonna Earth on one side, Clarke Orbital Platform spinning like a fat rubber doughnut at an angle. “I've never felt claustro-and agoraphobic at the same time before,” Gabe says. He brushes past me and rests one bearlike paw on a console, bending down to examine the interface. “Sweet.”

I'm the only one to hear Richard chuckle.

I find myself staring at the padded black leather pilot's chair. Leather on a starship? Well, why not; at least it breathes. But it's not the look of soft tanned hide that pulls me forward, has me bending to trail my fingers down the armrest.

Most pilot's chairs aren't equipped with straps and clamps intended to keep the operator's head and arms immobilized. They don't have a glossy interface plate with a pin-port mounted on a cable-linked collar at neck level, either, and another one right where the small of your back would rest.

It looks like an electric chair. I sink my teeth into my lower lip and turn. “There aren't any physical controls?”

“That panel over there,” Richard tells me, even as Captain Wainwright moves toward it and lays her dainty right hand possessively on padded high-impact plastic. It's a good three meters from my chair. The chair that's going to be mine.

“Somebody else flies her sublight,” Wainwright says. “We save you and Lieutenant Koske for the dirty work. When she's moving too fast for anybody else to handle.”

I nod, barely hearing her. Remembering the simulations, the caress of sunlight on solar sails. A little sad that I won't be feeling that for real.

“Jenny.” Richard again. “Don't get greedy. You'll be driving faster than anybody else ever has.”

Except for the pilots of the three ships that didn't make it. China's already broken two, the Li Bu and the Lao Zi. Montreal is Canada's second attempt. The first one—Le Qu'ebec—had an unexpected appointment with Charon. Pluto's moon, that is. These babies are very hard to steer.

I look from Wainwright to Valens and grin. “When do I get to try her, then? And who is Lieutenant Koske?”

“Your relief,” Valens says. He moves to stand beside and behind me, just enough taller to loom.

I touch the interface collar, metal fingers clicking softly on plastic. “Do I get to meet him?”

“He's probably eating,” Wainwright says, on my other side. “As for trying her out — how does this afternoon sound?”


Tall, dark, good-looking, without the faint mottling of repaired burn scars that mars my face — Trevor Koske is an asshole. I can tell from the set of his shoulders under his spotless uniform jacket as I follow Valens to his table. Koske sets his fork down, light glittering off slight scratches in his cervical interface, and turns to face us. Somehow, he and I managed to miss each other, despite getting the trillion-dollar-soldier treatment from Valens within the same few years. Admittedly, we guinea pigs weren't encouraged to fraternize. Some shrink probably thought being around normal people would encourage us to believe we still were. Normal, that is. How normal you can be when you can catch a bullet in your left hand, I'm not telling.

“Lieutenant Trevor Koske,” Valens says. “This is Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey.” Wainwright purses her lips at him as he usurps her role—making friends already, Fred?

I set my tray down and put out my hand. “Jenny,” I say, determined to act like the civilian they won't allow me to remain. “Pleased to meet you.”

Gabe, at my shoulder, grins and sticks his hand out, too. Koske regards our hands like a pair of dead eels, his fingers resting inches from the handle of his fork. “Charming fellow,” Richard says. “I hate him already. Did I tell you about the time—”

Richard. I withdraw my hand, still smiling. I took his job.

“You merited his job.”

Because I'm a freak. Nobody says another word as I hook a chair back with my foot — a chair set on a swivel arm in the floor — and sit down directly across from Koske. I pull my tray closer and pick up the fork. Soba and a green salad with ginger dressing; they'll turn me healthy if I'm not careful. “So, Trevor,” I say around a mouthful of lettuce, “tell me about yourself.”

He grunts and picks up his tea. After ten minutes of bloody-minded silence, Captain Wainwright starts flirting with Gabe. It's almost a relief. I'm tired enough that my neural implants are making the overhead fluorescent lights strobe. I lay my fork down and cast around the room for something less annoying to look at; my eye lights on a crop-haired, twentyish blond with bulging shoulders. He stares at me. His eyebrows are so light they're paler streaks against the ruddiness of his face. He glances down quickly when he sees me looking.

Nothing new there.


4:30 PM

Thursday 2 November, 2062

Government Center

Toronto, Ontario

Constance Riel leaned over the shoulder of her science adviser, Paul Perry. He sat in Riel's own chair, at her exceedingly well-interfaced desk, busy hands moving over the plate. Riel frowned, ignoring the ache in feet rapidly growing numb. “You're telling me these images”—she poked a finger into the center of one of the displays, and it obligingly expanded—“show — what?”

Paul had pulled his jacket sleeves up and rolled his shirt cuffs. He blinked bloodshot eyes and continued in an Oxford-educated drawl. “This is from the Martian orbital telescope, Prime Minister. It shows an explosion or an impact near the south pole of Charon, the sister planet of Pluto. This shows the debris track. Ma'am, should I call down for sandwiches?”

She hadn't realized the rumble in her belly would be audible. “Yes. Bless you. That looks like a special effect from a science fiction holo. What does it mean?”

He keyed some information quickly — a request for food and coffee — and moved back to the telescopic images. “It means something struck Charon. Hard. Hard enough to essentially fracture the planet. Planetoid.”

“An attack of some sort? What, more space aliens?” War-of-the-worlds scenarios unfolded in her head. She pressed her fingers to her eyes, imagining she could already smell coffee.

“No, ma'am.” Paul shrugged. “I've been chasing some rumors, and I've had my staff after it. I wanted good information before I came to you.”

“You're stalling, Paul.”

“Yes, ma'am. Unitek.”

“Unitek?”

“You've been briefed — have you been briefed?”

Is there a new development with the pair of derelict alien spacecraft on Mars?”

“No. Unitek and a detached group from the joint forces have been working on developing a ship based on those design principles. You know that.”

“I'm opposed to it, Paul. That's money better spent at home. But it's Unitek's money—” She shrugged. Canada needed to get free of Unitek. The problem was, with Unitek went access to the Brazil and PanMalaysian beanstalks, their international trade partners, and a good part of the funding for Canada's military. Times were more peaceful than they had been, on the surface. But a world in which the People's PanChinese Army was massing on the Russian border and eyeing the grain fields of Ukraine, a world where PanMalaysia and Japan relied on promises of military aid from Canada, Australia, and to a lesser extent the reconstructed but still limping United States to keep the same starving wolf from their door — it wasn't a world in which one dared appear weak. Paul himself was a refugee from the slowly freezing British Isles.

Fallout from the Pakistani/Indian wars and the United States's actions in the Far and Middle East had moved Earth's supranational governments to rare, unified action. Global effort had managed what unilateral action could not: a functional missile defense shield, based on the same technology that provided meteorite and space-junk defense for the orbital platforms. Not, unfortunately, before the damage compounded China's inability to feed her swarming population.

Canada had already fought one unpopular war on behalf of China's smaller neighbors. Riel started to wonder if the pain in her gut wasn't hunger, but an ulcer. “Was this a Chinese ship?”

“No,” he said. “It was ours. And we have larger problems.”

Riel sighed, glancing up as the door of her office opened. A liveried steward brought a tray into the room; she could tell at a glance that lunch must have been ready and waiting for their call. Or perhaps someone else's sandwiches and coffee had been diverted for the prime minister's use, and a replacement tray was already being made up. “Is this going to ruin my appetite, Paul?”

“Most likely.”

Riel shooed the reluctant steward away and poured the coffee herself, balancing two self-regulating mugs — she despised china cups — and a plate of sandwiches as she made her way back. “Then we'd better eat while we talk,” she said, and juggled dinnerware onto the desk. “I shouldn't eat these. I promised my husband we'd have dinner together for once,” she said. “And I have a meeting that starts in half an hour and runs until eight. Will this take longer than that?”

Paul glanced up from the simulation and shook his head. “It'll be four hours until you eat, then,” he said. “Have a sandwich.”

Her eyebrows rose. She knew it was an effective expression, under the heavy dark wing of her bangs, accentuating her thin nose and the long lines across her brow.

“Ma'am,” he amended and she acquiesced, selecting a triangle without looking at the contents. Chewy black bread and vegetables, and something that was more or less tuna fish. Farmed gene-mod tuna fish. Riel was just about old enough to remember the real thing.

“All right,” she said, once Paul had had a moment to cram a third of a sandwich into his mouth. “Show me what you're worried about, Dr. Perry.”

He didn't miss the formality — she could tell by the angle of his head — but he didn't acknowledge it either. “Here,” he said, tapping up an image of a different, and more familiar, globe. “These shots are courtesy of Clarke and Forward,” he said, and then waved a hand irritably over the panel, clearing the display. “Wait—”

Long spare fingers tapped crystal, and Riel smiled privately at his thoughtless efficiency of movement. She squinted as new images resolved. “There's something wrong with the depth.”

“They're 2-D animations,” Paul explained. “Late twentieth century — here. Do you see these color patterns, ma'am?”

Riel nodded, watching as a computer-animated blush spread across the surface of the oceans, waxing and waning with fluctuations that could only be seasons. “Temperature patterns?”

“Yes. And more. This is a record of coral reef die-offs.”

Still 2-D, but no harder to follow than an old-fashioned movie once you got the hang of it. Riel licked mayonnaise off her fingers and frowned, rubbing them together to remove the last traces of grease. “Old news—”

“This isn't.” His fingers moved. He leaned back in the chair, his shoulder brushing Riel's arm. She hunched forward, too intent to take a half-step to the side and preserve her space. It was the image that he'd brushed aside so quickly, a few moments before. A modern three-dimensional animation, and—

“Those don't look dissimilar. But that's a much bigger scale, isn't it? And the currents look different than in the earlier one.”

Paul shrugged. “They've changed a lot.”

Yes. Including the failure of the Gulf Stream. Which is why you're in Canada now, isn't it, Paul? Riel found herself nodding slowly, almost rocking. As if the motion would help her think. She put a stop to it firmly. “What am I looking at, Paul?”

“The end of the world,” he said, with turgid drama and a news announcer's baritone. He coughed and cleared his throat, reaching for his coffee. “Well, perhaps not quite. But a serious problem, in any case. This is data from two of the orbital platforms regarding algae populations—”

“The algae is dying.”

“Like the coral reefs.”

“Not exactly. But for layman's values of like, sure.”

“What does this have to do with the price of tea in China, Paul?”

He chuckled. “Funny you should phrase it that way, ma'am. Everything, it turns out. I've been corresponding with a Unitek biologist on Clarke, a Dr. Forster—”

“Charles Forster. He was involved in the mission that discovered the Martian ships.”

“That's the one. He and I think that the increased Chinese interest in space travel — their outbound fire-and-forget colony ships, for example, and their expansion efforts within our system — date from about the time the first signs of this became apparent. It's a serious problem, Prime Minister. The sort of thing that could radically diminish the planet's ability to sustain life.”

“You don't think the Chinese are behind—”

“No.” Quiet, but definite. Riel liked the way he stated his opinions, when he could be convinced to have them. “But I think they caught on a hell of a lot faster than we did. Of course, we've been distracted by the Freeze of Britain—”

“Excuses, excuses. What do we do?”

He glanced at her sideways and ruffled his hair with one hand. “Beat the Chinese out of the solar system, for one thing. And start thinking about what we're going to do in a hundred, hundred fifty years if we have to reterraform Earth.”



2100 Hours

Thursday 2 November, 2062

HMCSS Montreal

Earth orbit

Fucking bitch. Trevor Koske kicked the bulkhead once, hard, and turned back to the heavy bag. He slammed fist after fist into it, growling, squinting against the strobe of the overhead lights. Bitch! Let her come up here, flaunting her superior adaptation and her fucking ability to hold a normal conversation, to stand it when a man laid a hand on her arm. Fucking Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey. War hero.

The only survivor of Valens's Frankensteinian augmentation program to recover enough to return to combat duty. Koske slugged the bag again, caught it on the backswing, putting power behind each blow until his shoulders burned. Bitch. Cunt. Whore.

Koske didn't carry the kind of visible damage Casey did. Wearing her steel hand like a banner saying this is who I am. She might as well have pinned her medals to her chest. Bad enough she'd gone back out, an unqualified success. Gotten to do the things that Koske had lost forever thirty years back — to the bad eject, the broken neck, the creeping numbness.

Casey had gotten to fly, dammit. Rescue and recovery — ferrying parachute paramedics into live-fire zones. Bitch! He kicked the bag for variety. Bad enough.

He'd watched her career from the sidelines, knowing what she was. Knowing by her steel hand, her infrequent visits to Valens's clinic, her reputation as the best chopper pilot in the army what she had to be. Known it from the way she rode the edge, and the way she brought boys and girls back alive out of the jungle when anybody would have said it was suicide to go. Known. And hated. Because Casey was still everything Koske would never be again.

And now she'd taken away his last chance to really fly again. Just by being who she was. By being so — slam! Bitch! — fucking good.

And if that wasn't bad enough, there was the way the big blond civilian had hovered over her, the way she'd leaned into his touch on her arm when she thought no one was looking. The way she'd heedlessly extended her hand to him, Trevor, as if he could ever fucking reach out and take a human hand again.

He backed away from the bag, panting. As if the neural implants running through his body didn't turn his skin into a finely honed alarm system that could make him curl away and shake, crying, from an unsubtle touch. Bad enough to be a fucking autistic, he thought. Worse if you didn't start out that way, hypersensitive and hyperaware. Worse if you grew up a normal kid, with a normal kid's need to be held, and you woke up one day and you were different. Faster. Stranger. Feeling the air on your skin like sandpaper.

Lieutenant Koske could remember precisely every detail of the last time he had made love to somebody. Remember the taste of his wife's mouth, and imagine the flavor of his tears when she left him three years later, unable to live with a man who couldn't bear an arm around his shoulders, a kiss on the cheek.

It could be worse. I could still be crippled. Or dead.

Would that be worse?

The hatchway opened as he slammed the bag again. He heard the footsteps and then the hesitation. “Lieutenant. I beg your pardon. I'll come back later.”

A young man's voice. He turned. The stocky, close-cropped blond lieutenant who stood just inside the hatchway tossed his towel around his neck and nodded. Koske took in powerful muscles under a crisp white T-shirt, shorts in air force blue, rubber-soled ship shoes.

“No,” Koske said, lowering trembling fists. Exhaustion rolled over him, the familiar dizzying drop out of adrenaline-fueled combat time. “I'll hold the bag for you if you like—”

“Ramirez. Chris.”

“I'm done.”


2200 Hours

Thursday 2 November, 2062

PPCASS Huang Di

Earth orbit

It wasn't as bad as it had been.

Of late, growing habituated to his body's precarious artificial equilibrium, Second Pilot Xie Min-xue found that his tendency to flinch and panic when confronted with casual contact was lessening. Rather than overreacting, he was learning to anticipate and avoid the contact before it could happen.

Also, the crew was learning techniques to make life easier for the pathologically high-strung pilots: incandescent lighting rather than fluorescent in most public areas of the Huang Di, for example. Soundproofed bunks for the pilots, and a private ready room where the lights were dim and the only sound the hum of the Huang Di's systems. There had been some talk of removing the colored panels and ideographed plaques—long life, good harvest, fair sailing—that bid the Huang Di prosperity and success, but the first pilot had convinced the captain that such measures would not be necessary.

Just privacy, he said. And so Min-xue and the other four fragile, essential, half-mad pilots were granted the luxury of bunks and a ready room of their own.

A luxury that Min-xue had now abandoned to pass carefully through the weightless corridors of the drifting ship. Midwatch, the passageways were almost deserted. The ideal time for a young man suffering from an induced form of acute hypersensitivity to travel through them.

Min-xue paused by the hatchway to Pilot's Medical and closed his eyes for a moment. His uniform bound at waist and ankles; he jerked it irritably straight, which of course disarrayed the cloth across his shoulders and at his collar. There was no true comfort, but it could have been worse.

Min-xue opened his eyes, clutched a grab rail beside the door so reactive pressure wouldn't send him drifting into the corridor, and depressed the call plate beside the hatch. The doorway irised open. He swung himself through. “Master Technician?”

There was a deep sort of irony in the fact that the title of the man who cared for Min-xue's own tightly engineered systems was technician. Or perhaps Min-xue's superiors only meant to acknowledge the truth: he, and every other soldier in the People's PanChinese Liberation Army, was perfectly machined for a role, and perfectly replaceable.

“Second Pilot.” Master Technician Liu Paiyun released his webbing and drifted from his station, turning gracefully to face Min-xue. “Have you any problems today, or are you just here for your checkup?”

“None,” Min-xue answered. “Well, no more than the usual, but nothing to complain of.”

“Excellent.” The master technician rubbed the palm of a broad hand across his tight-cropped black hair and smiled in a way that made the corners of his eyes wrinkle tight. “Then come with me, Min-xue; after we finish with your physical, I'll conduct your quarterly psychological examination. As long as you're already here—”

“I'm not due for that for another six weeks,” Min-xue answered, and the master technician called up his chart.

“I know.” Paiyun had thick wrists, still well muscled despite free fall, and arms long enough that bare strips of skin showed below the cuffs of his uniform. Those wrists — and the big, blunt hands attached to them — moved with assurance through the projections, motions as deft as Min-xue's when the young pilot was at the Huang Di's controls. “But we need a fourth for mah-jongg, you see. And there's no reason we can't combine two tasks into one.”

He glanced over his shoulder. Min-xue smiled. “Thank you, Paiyun,” he said. “That would be — very nice.”


The mah-jongg set was magnetic, the tiles softly burnished steel with a tendency to adhere to one another even when the player did not necessarily wish them to. Min-xue floated comfortably in a corner of Medical's crowded ready room, tethered to one padded wall by a length of soft webbing and a plastic clip. Liu Paiyun had carefully set things up so that Min-xue would have his back to the wall. Most gracious, but then Medical understood better than anybody except another pilot what, exactly, the pilots endured—

“—out of patriotism, Min-xue?”

“I beg your pardon, Paiyun?” It was nice to be on a casual basis with one person on the Huang Di, at least.

“Oh.” Paiyun shuffled his tiles. His broad fingertips left faint oily dapples on the metal. “If I gave offense, I'm sorry. I had asked”—he glanced to the other two technicians, Chen and Gao — both only seniors — for confirmation. Chen smiled. Gao nodded. — “why it was that you agreed to enter pilot training. Given the risks. An exemplary young man such as yourself.”

“They only take the best,” Min-xue said, without pride. He chewed his lip, feeling toward an answer that might make sense to Paiyun. “If my performance had not been acceptable—”

“That was not my implication at all.” Paiyun looked down, ostensibly to lay a tile on the board with a soft, magnetized click. China. Min-xue smiled at the boxy red ideogram.

“—no, Paiyun, I know it wasn't.” Min-xue let the smile widen. “It was the adventure, of course. And the idea that I might be good enough to be accepted. And—”

They let the pause hang in the air long enough to be notable. “And?” Gao said. He looked down then, as if afraid he had been rude to the pilot, and turned away to fetch another round of drinks in plastic bubbles.

“I'm a second child,” Min-xue said, enjoying the widening of his tablemates' eyes more than was probably fitting. He gripped the stem of the game board between his feet to keep himself from twisting as he accepted a bubble of cola from Gao. “There wasn't much place for me at home, and there was a girl, you see—”

“Ah.” Paiyun smiled. “This girl, you'll marry her when we go home, then?”

“I don't think so,” Min-xue answered, keeping his face impassive and strong. “I do not think she would like to be married to a pilot.”

“No?”

“No.” Firmly. He bit the valve on the cola and drank deeply. “No, not at all.”

The little group fell silent. Chen shuffled his tiles, click and hiss of steel against other steel.

Min-xue sighed and jerked his thumb toward the bulkhead behind him, and the cold deeps beyond it. “It's not so bad as all that, my noble PanChinese comrades and allies. This is more important. I'm doing this for her and for my sister, I think. So that their children have someplace to go.”

Paiyun blinked, releasing the valve on his own beverage. “You believe the stories, Min-xue? They're… Well. There is gossip, of course. But people have been hungry as long as there has been a China, and — well, there is always gossip.”

Min-xue shook his head. “My family is from Taiwan. It's not just rumors. I know.”


2330 Hours

Thursday 2 November, 2062

HMCSS Montreal

Earth orbit

My cabin has a porthole in the floor.

That may take some getting used to. But, of course, that's where the “outside” is. The gravity that isn't gravity pushes us away from the center of the wheel. It's probably a perk, although it's a little weird to walk across the optically perfect, quadruple-glazed bubble like standing on the glass floor of the CN Tower and looking all that endless long way down. Except this really is endless, and I balance on a thin sheen of February ice over the unsounded void and the bottomless well of the stars.

I hang my jacket and lie on the bunk, not yet ready to undress completely and pull the webbing over me in case the artificial gravity fails. “Lights down,” I mutter, and they drop by about two-thirds. I could dig out my holistic communications device — useless for communication here, outside the Net, but it's got a few dozen classic novels loaded. Instead I lie on my side and luxuriate in the wonderful sensation of not being in pain. If I edge my head just right, I can catch about a fifth of the moon sliding past. I'm faced the wrong way to see Clarke or Earth, so I close my eyes and pretend I'm home in my own bed. Except I haven't really had either of those things — home or a bed — for years now. Richard?

“I'm always here, Jenny,” he says with the wryness that's his alone. I get up in the blue oval of moonlight and open my locker in the bulkhead. My suit jacket hangs there like a purple worsted scarecrow, headless and sad. There's something in the inside pocket; with my meat hand, I reach inside and draw it forth, bring it over to where the moon can shine through its interlocking barbs. Glass beads press cool and precious against my skin as I hold it up to the light, since I can't burn tobacco here the way I should. Gabe probably violated half a dozen international laws bringing this to me.

Bald eagle feather, beaded to symbolize bloodshed and sorrow, wardenship and loyalty. A warrior's feather. A gift from my murdered sister. And a duty I need to start living up to again. There's something else in the jacket's side pocket — a small, smooth cylindrical bottle. I leave that where it is.

I set about making a place for the feather, and when I'm done I start unbuttoning my shirt, feeling — at last — as if I could rest. I'm interrupted by a knock on the hatch, which I open, and Gabe comes in quickly. We'll both be overly conscious of the emergency bulkheads for a while. I dog the hatch behind him and he doesn't speak, just reaches down and finishes the unbuttoning I started.

Richard is silent as he ever has been while Gabe bends down and brushes his cheek against mine. He smells like the peppermint he must have brushed his teeth with. His lips move on my skin. I lean my forehead against his chest, and for a long moment he just holds me. “Jenny.”

And for some reason it's funny. “When did I become Jenny again, instead of Maker? It was when you married Geniveve, wasn't it?” His long-dead wife, who had almost the same name I do. Don't think I never wondered about that.

“It was.” He shrugs, a big ripple of mountainous shoulders. “I must have been feeling grown up.” He kisses the tip of my nose. “Do you think Valens is on to us yet?”

“I think he's probably reviewing the videotapes,” I say dismissively, pulling away. “Have you talked to the girls?” Gabe's daughters — my goddaughters — and our friend Elspeth are on Earth, hostage for our good behavior. Unstated but true.

“Leah and Genie are fine.” He follows and wraps an arm around my shoulders, pulls me down to sit beside him on the hard narrow bunk. Moonlight, shifting as the Montreal spins, brings out the silver in his hair, washes the color from his cheeks. It's bright in here. “Elspeth is staying with them.” His hand squeezes mine. Morse code, as he passes a message to Richard from Elspeth Dunsany, his creator, through the intermediary of flesh on flesh. “She sends her love.” Gabe's fingers twined in mine tell another story. There is a worm.

An intentional programming glitch in the software that runs my wetware. Makes my metal arm do what my brain — or my combat-wired reflexes — tell it to do. Will do the same for this massive, powerful hulk of a ship. Valens doesn't trust me.

“No,” Richard says. “He knows you hate him. He knows Elspeth would love to see him on the wrong end of a court-martial. And he knows my prototype was famous for not staying within bounds.”

It's what makes you a good AI, Dick.

“It's what makes me an AI at all,” he answered, passing on the fleeting impression of a smile.

Richard. I meant to ask you. Do I need to worry about transmitting my nanite load to anybody else? Like… shit, like a blood-borne disease?

“Can Gabe catch them? Little late to ask now. No — it shouldn't be a problem. They need a controller implant, a chip; they're not designed to act independently. Which reminds me: I'm going to go check your programming again.” He's been over it a few thousand times. “You kids have fun. I won't peek.”

I bet. But he vanishes from my inner eye with a wink, and Gabe pulls me close, a casual touch I've waited a lifetime for.


4:00 PM

Friday 3 November, 2062

Bloor Street

Toronto, Ontario

Elspeth Dunsany blinked her contact clear of streaming data as the front door of Gabriel's Toronto apartment opened; she leaned away from Gabriel's desk, rolling stiff shoulders. She had let her hair down, trying to ease the ache across her temples, and now she massaged it, spring-coiled ringlets brushing the nape of her neck. She reached into an overwhelming stretch, fingers spread like a scratching cat's, then clapped her palms together and stood more fluidly than her comfortably padded frame would suggest. Absently, she fiddled with a slip-thin crucifix hanging over the hollow of her throat before shaking her head, picking her blazer off the back of the chair, and tapping a password on the crystal plate set into Gabriel's desk to lock the interface. “Leah?”

“Genie,” Geniveve Castaign answered with a light little cough. She walked into the den, which doubled as her father's study, and sat on the white-legged stool beside the door. “Comment allez-vous, Elspeth?”

“Bien,” Elspeth replied, smiling at her own accent. She couldn't understand the Castaign family's French half the time, nor they hers. “Qu'est-ce que tu faim?”

“Oui!” Geniveve bounced onto the balls of her feet, arms swinging. She was small and thin for twelve, and always hungry. Enzyme therapies and the magic of modern medicine made her cystic fibrosis treatable, but her body still burned calories at an alarming rate, and she was hard-pressed to absorb everything she needed from her food. Elspeth led Gabriel's blond daughter into the stainless-steel, concrete, and linoleum kitchen, where they grilled cheese sandwiches out of the box. “Somebody needs to teach your dad to cook.”

“He's the king of takeout.” Genie switched to English for Elspeth's sake. “Can you cook?”

“Can I cook?” She slid a plate across the breakfast bar and dialed two more sandwiches from the freezer as the front door opened again. “I can make better than this, kid. My mother was an American. She taught me real Creole roux, jambalaya, and beignets. I do a pretty good bouillabaisse, too.”

Genie turned to face her sister as Leah came into the room, checkered skirt flipping around her knees, transiently lovely as girls on the edge of adolescence can be. “Leah, what's jambalaya?”

“Like rice and stuff?” Leah glanced at Elspeth for confirmation, tossing her carryall at the bench in the corner. She was already almost as tall as the older woman. “Can I have a—. Oh, thanks.” She giggled and dragged a stool beside Genie's as Elspeth slid the second plate across the bar. “Have you talked to Dad?”

“Just an hour or so ago. He and Jenny are safe on the ship. He gave me coordinates. We can look up tonight with the telescope and see it.” Elspeth dialed coffee on the tap and fixed herself a cup before walking around the counter to sit beside the girls. I need to bring some tea over, she thought, and grinned privately. If Gabe's going to come home to my toothbrush and towels, I guess a few things in the kitchen cabinet won't hurt.

Typical. Wait till the boy is seventy, eighty vertical miles away to move in. “What do you two want to do after homework?”

“I've got flight simulation,” Leah said. “At six, at the lab.” She sighed, absently touching the shiny interface hidden under her streaked wheat-straw hair. “It's so weird being at the office with Dad gone.”

Elspeth leaned her elbows on the sealed and brushed concrete breakfast bar. “Have you found out when you're supposed to go up to Clarke? Any of your group of trainee pilots?”

Genie poked Leah. Leah caught her sister's hand and pressed it against her side, finishing her sandwich with the other hand. “Ellie, I don't know if they're even planning on taking us up. Training and simulations, and flying the mock starship here and there and mostly into planets. But they won't tell us if we're ever going up or not. Or even which of us are getting picked for the enhancements. There's like a hundred candidates, and I've only met the thirty or so in my class.”

“You will be,” Elspeth said, turning her mug on her fingertips, hiding her worry. Leah had already had the much less invasive surgery to ready her body for a neural virtual reality hookup. The nanosurgeons that produced the augmented reflexes and senses of a starship pilot were much more dangerous — derived from the same alien tech as the Montreal's faster-than-light drive — and the process was very poorly understood. “They'll need all of you trained eventually. I expect they'll have Jenny teach you. She used to be a drill instructor.”

“I know,” Leah said, and let Genie's hand fall. “I miss Richard, Ellie.”

“I know,” Elspeth twisted her fingers together, feeling the uselessness of someone relegated to observerhood, someone whose work is done. “I miss him, too.”


12:34 AM

Saturday 4 November, 2062

Bloor Street

Toronto, Ontario

I should go home, Elspeth thought, shutting Genie's bedroom door. It beats sleeping on the sofa. She crossed the living room, past the small telescope they'd just brought back down from the roof, and ran a hand over tan tweed. Leah was almost fourteen, after all. And responsible for her age. And Elspeth was only a message away.

Half absently, Elspeth walked around the end table. Back down the hall past the girls' rooms, to the door standing ajar at the end. She laid a finger against it and let it drift open, creaking softly. “Lights up,” she said under her breath.

The bed was unmade, Gabe's robe thrown across the blue down comforter. Clothes draped pegs and chairbacks, and Elspeth smiled around a sting. “Screw it,” she whispered. “Lights down.” The head of the bed was below the window. She climbed up on it and leaned against the headboard, breasts on her arms, forehead warm against the glass. Outside, for once, no rain was falling, and the Toronto night glistened. She imagined she heard the creak of autumn branch on branch in a fickle wind. There would be frost by morning. Her apartment seemed very empty, and very far away.

She looked up, picking out a few bright stars through the city glow, closing her eyes to imagine the single gleaming fleck that was the Montreal, arcing out and away from Earth with Gabe and Jenny and Richard within its aggressively engineered hull. A hull that seemed fragile as a soap bubble blown into the void.

Without bothering to pull her jeans off, Elspeth lay down in Gabe Castaign's empty bed and pulled the comforter up to her chin, burying her face in his pillow.


Afternoon

Sunday 5 November, 2062

McCaul Street

Toronto, Ontario

It was cold in the city, colder than Razorface thought of November as being. A wind picked at his collar as he walked aimlessly along the sidewalk, watching traffic and pedestrians with half his attention. He was in Toronto to deliver a little justice: the sort of justice you only got if you made it happen yourself, because nobody was likely to care if a few street kids got ground up in the corporate machine.

The problem was that he had the feeling he'd bitten off something much bigger than his head, and he didn't exactly know where to start chewing on it.

His boots scraped heavily on the sidewalk. The inflated cast on his broken ankle put an uncomfortable hitch in his stride, and he paused in front of a Canadian Army recruiting office to glower at the green-uniformed soldiers in the projections flickering between the layers of window glass. Maker would know what to do.

But Maker had other things to worry about. And Razorface was too old to baby-sit.

He was turning away again when the storefront of the recruiting office blew out.

The explosion was too loud to hear, over before Razorface could react. He felt himself hit the street and the stones and shatterproofed holo-glass thump onto his back like angry fists and boots. He didn't quite manage to get his arms over his head, and his right temple felt the way the inside of a blood orange looks: pulpy and purple-black.

He opened his eyes. It was almost as dark outside his head as in and he tasted brick dust along with blood and the usual tang of steel. His fingers came away sticky when he pressed them against his shaved-slick scalp. He blinked grit from his eyes, smelling cold garbage and smoke. Nothing seemed broken.

“Fuck me,” Razorface grunted, and put a massive hand down flat on the pavement. Broken glass scored his palm. He pushed himself to his knees, scraps of broken brick and mortar sliding from black leather as — hobbled by the inflatable cast — he struggled to get his right leg under him. A small hand appeared in front of his face. He looked up into a pair of black-brown eyes. “Rough town,” he said to a young Oriental woman who didn't flinch from the glitter of his teeth. He grabbed her outreached hand; she dragged him up with surprising strength.

“You wanna stay away from government offices today,” she said. “Guy Fawkes Day.”

“What's that?”

A siren kicked up, somewhere close. She gave him a sidelong grin and walked away without a backward glance, dusting her hands on her trousers. Reminding him of his friend Bobbi Yee: pretty, maybe twenty-five. Razorface spat through the rows of prosthetic steel teeth that gave him his name, and turned away from the smoking facade of the recruiting office. The pigs would be along any second, and he didn't want to be identified as a witness any more than he wanted to think about what had happened to Bobbi. Questions would lead to more questions, and inevitably to the unanswerable one: what he was doing in Canada without having passed an official border post.

Narrow side streets and neon lights; he didn't know his way around Toronto yet. Razorface followed a sign toward the subway. Once hidden down a side street, he slid his coat off despite the biting wind and slapped it hard against a convenient wall. Dust billowed. There wasn't much he could do for the bruises and scrapes, though dark skin would hide some of that until it swelled.

“Fuck me,” he said again.

He struggled his hip out of his pocket as he walked, flipping it open. No messages from Maker. But there was one from that doctor of hers. The one Razorface didn't trust any farther than he could throw him.

Razor stopped at the bottom of the escalator into the underground and called the doctor back, turning his face to a white tile wall. The cast was good camouflage, he realized. It might make the idly curious think his injuries were hours old instead of minutes. “Yo, Simon. You home?”

“I am.” Dr. Simon Mobarak was a pudgy, balding thirty-something — Razorface's own age — who held his HCD as if it were an extension of his hand. No other similarities existed between the two. “Where the hell are you? You look like shit.”

“Toronto.” Deltoids strained leather as Razorface scrubbed his mouth with the back of his hand, the armor-weave on the inside of the lip catching on his teeth. His jaw ached, and so did his chest. “I nearly got blowed up a minute ago.” Razor drew in a long, rattling breath. The air here was a little better than in Hartford, at least.

“What are you doing in Toronto?”

“Came looking for Maker. And you. Found out you'd left. Mitch and Bobbi're dead, Doc. And Maker's whore of a sister. That's something.”

Simon swore. “Jenny's gone, Razorface. She left Earth a few days ago. She's on Clarke by now.”

“Maker in orbit? Fuck.” Razorface turned farther into the corner, covering the shapes his lips made. He subvocalized into a collar mike to talk to his hip. Simon's words came tinny through an ear clip. He keyed encryption on. “Doc. Somebody was holding that Barb Casey's leash. Somebody here in Toronto, right? Mitch thought it was a company called Canadian Consolidated Pharmacom.”

“Right.” The doctor's image flickered as Simon encrypted, too. “You still think you have a grudge to settle, Razorface?”

“They used my boys like goddamned white lab rats, Doc. Testing their space drugs on my kids. I got hell to pay. I bet you know a name.”

Simon Mobarak closed his eyes and covered his mouth with his hand. Razorface frowned at the conflict creasing the other man's brow. He shifted his weight to his left side, taking the strain off his half-knitted ankle. “Doc. These people killing kids. They got some kinda hold on Maker. I see that. Now they got you, too?”

Simon didn't open his eyes. He spoke through his fingers. “Alberta Holmes,” he said. “And Colonel Frederick Valens, Canadian Army. Unitek. They own CCP. I think Jenny has some hard evidence.”

“Thank you,” Razor said, starting to grin.

But Simon opened his eyes and held up his hand. “Holmes's a vice president of a multinational with a bigger annual income than the G.A.P. of PanMalaysia. You already know what Valens is — and he's with Jenny on Clarke. You'll never touch them.”

“Watch me,” Razorface said. “You keep in touch — and let me know if you get any news from Maker.” He closed the connection before Simon could answer and turned to catch his train.


Later that night, Razorface sat in his rented room under the flickering light of the holo, stroking a rag-eared ginger tomcat that lay purring softly in his lap. “Dammit, Boris,” he muttered. “I don't suppose you got a bright idea how to get a message to Maker? Seeing as how you're her cat and all.”

He picked kneading claws out of his leg. “No, I didn't think so. How come she couldn't of had a dog?” With a gesture of the remote, Razorface muted the sound on the holo. Boris didn't seem to notice. The big scarred cat stared into the fluttering light, squinting as if after prey. Razorface grunted. He brushed the cat off his lap more gently than his brusque words would have indicated and retrieved his hip, keying the feed into the holoscreen. Speaking, because he couldn't write, Razorface began a Net search for Unitek, for Colonel Fred Valens. For information on a drug known on the street as the Hammer. And for a lady named Alberta Holmes. As an afterthought, he looked up Guy Fawkes, too, and then rubbed a big hand over his scalp in surmise.

Boris leaped onto the arm of Razor's chair, bumping a furry head determinedly against his shoulder. Absently, the hulking gangster scratched the cat under his chin. “You and me, big guy. We gonna get Maker back. And we gonna pay these corporate assholes for everything they done. Don't you worry.”


Evening

Sunday 5 November, 2062

HMCSS Leonard Cohen

Patricia Valens twisted her hands in her lap as the vast silver outline of the Montreal loomed outside the porthole. A few strands of dark hair floated around her face, escaped from her braid, but the five-point restraints kept her firmly in her seat as the shuttle Leonard Cohen matched velocities with the starship and drifted into position along her central axis. A shiver went through the shuttle's hide as it latched onto the starship like a remora to a shark. Patty laid her hand against the glass, a similar shiver rippling her skin.

“Goose bumps?”

She jumped and glanced to her right. Her classmate Carver Mallory grinned at her, teeth very white in his teakwood face. Green flickers across his eyes told her he had a heads-up display running on his contacts. She wished she'd thought of that.

She had to turn away from his eyes before she found her voice. He put a lump in her throat too big to talk around. “It's big,” she whispered.

He snorted. “No kidding.” Left-handed, he unhooked his restraints and drifted free of his chair while she was still struggling with the quick-release on hers. “See you inside.”

Did you have to go and prove yourself a dork, Patty? She managed to get herself free and oriented, waiting until Dr. Holmes and the other important adults at the front of the cabin had made it through the air lock before she collected her duffel and followed.

Free fall was wonderful. She was almost disappointed when they left the shaft for the habitation wheel and her feet drifted back to the floor. One of the Unitek bigwigs — the one even Dr. Holmes deferred to — looked a little green around the edges, and Patty made sure to stay out of his way. She answered uncomfortably when Carver asked her a question, and he didn't try again.

No one else spoke to her until they were inside, when a uniformed airman whose name she didn't quite catch showed her to her bunk, the showers and “head,” as he called it, and to the common room she was entitled to use. He kindly told her to get some sleep and promised to collect her in time to eat breakfast before the test flight the following morning.

Patty stowed her duffel bag and brushed her teeth and realized she would never — never — fall asleep. Left to her own devices, she thought about exploring the ship with its narrow corridors (dimmed for night shift), and decided her mother would never forgive her if she wound up in trouble on this field trip. No wonder Carver thinks you're a nerd, she thought. You are. If it wasn't bad enough that just looking at him made her head spin, she was sure he thought that she'd only gotten to come on this trip because her grandfather was in charge of the program. Unlike Carver, who was first in their group.

Patty was second, and she did it all herself. But of course nobody ever believed that.

She collected her HCD and scuffed down to the common room in her ship slippers, which reminded her of rubber-soled socks. The lights were dimmed; Patty sighed in relief and didn't order them up when she entered. She curled in a bucketlike chair near one of the two observation posts and watched Clarke Orbital Platform and the nighttime globe beyond it sparkle in the darkness, seeming to roll in slow circles that were actually the result of the habitation wheel's spin.

She had just switched on her HCD to start her homework when the door slid open again and a brisk footstep startled her. She expected Carver, and a raised eyebrow at the way she was sitting in the dark grinding away at her assignments. Carver was gifted, though. Everything came easily to him. He couldn't have understood how Patty had to work to live up to her parents' expectations.

It wasn't Carver. “Lights,” Patty said.

A burly blond man — a crew member in a heather-gray athletic shirt stenciled Property of HMCSS Montreal—paused inside the doorway. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn't realize anybody was in here.”

“I was looking at the view,” she said, standing.

The crewman crossed to the beverage dispenser and drew himself a cup of coffee. “Would you like anything, miss?…”

“Patty,” she said, feeling foolish and about ten years old. “Patricia Valens. Seltzer water, if they have it?”

He fussed with the panel, not turning toward her. “Are you related to Colonel Valens?”

Because a girl never would have made it here without knowing somebody, right? Patty's back tightened. “He's my grandfather. Who are you?” Almost brusque, her voice startled her.

The blond crewman handed her a disposable cup full of clear fluid. “I'm Lieutenant Ramirez,” he said. “Chris. That's water with lemon juice flavor. Best she'll do.”

“Thanks.” Patricia sank back into her chair and set the cup on a low molded table, which she noticed was bolted to the floor. “I'm sor—”

“Think nothing of it,” he answered with a dismissive wave. “All you pilots are testy. I know. Will I be invading if I sit here and do some work?”

“What are you working on?” Intrigued despite herself. He called me a pilot! “I'm not a pilot yet.”

“I'm a specialist,” he said, producing a hip unit from somewhere and tapping it on. “I maintain the ship's operating system and the pilot interfaces. We'll probably get to know each other very well if you decide to stay in the program.”

Not if you don't wash out.

Patty felt another blush stain her cheeks as she drew her knees up and, burying her feet under her butt, hid herself in differential equations again.


0430 Hours

Monday 6 November, 2062

Clarke Orbital Platform

If there was any fate in the galaxy more miserable than suffering through a cold on a space station, Charlie Forster hoped he never had to encounter it.

It could have been worse, of course. It could have been zero G, or he could have not caught on that he was getting sick until the Montreal was under way. Which was a good way to burst an eardrum, if the decongestants and antihistamines didn't quite keep up with the flow of snot.

As it was, he'd managed to catch the Gordon Lightfoot returning to Clarke, and was able to weather his misery in conditions of relatively stable pressure, gravity, and acceleration. Which wasn't to say that he wouldn't cheerfully have died about three times an hour. But at least he wasn't in immediate danger of his head bursting open like an overripe plum, no matter how imminent it felt.

And he had his work to distract him.

Charlie leaned back in his desk chair and pressed a damp, freshly microwaved cloth to his face. The aroma of menthol, citrus, and camphor pierced the fresh-poured cement clogging his sinuses, and he coughed in the middle of a sentence “—considering for a moment my own research on Mars, Paul—”

“You sound awful.”

“I feel awful,” Charlie admitted. “One of the ground-siders must have brought something up from Toronto or Brazil. Half the station is sick.” There was a lightspeed lag in communication, but it was barely noticeable compared to the eight minutes one way he'd been accustomed to when he was working on Mars.

“What about the Montreal?”

“Nobody sick over there yet,” Charlie said. “Give it a couple of hours. It looks like a three-day incubation period, which means if they go they'll start dropping any minute now. The earliest infected Clarke staff is already recovering. And Montreal's life support is more efficient. More modern. Augmented carbon dioxide cycle over there, rather than straight canned air.”

They couldn't see each other, Paul Perry and Charlie. A waste of bandwidth on the scrambled channel when they were just talking. But Charlie knew Paul well enough to pick up the worry even from the tinny, digitally compressed tone. “There's no chance it's a bioagent?”

“PanChinese sabotage?” Charlie shrugged. “Possible but unlikely. They're not above bioweapons, but if I were going to wipe out a space station's crew complement, I'd go with… dunno, what do you think? Legionnaire's?”

“Influenza,” Paul answered, after a pause that was half lag and half thought. “Engineered influenza. An incapacitating one, high fever, nausea, death in say, thirty-six hours after a seven-day incubation?” He sighed audibly. “It would be doable, too. I'll see that screening protocols are instituted immediately. I wonder what else we haven't thought of.”

“Whatever the one that gets us is,” Charlie answered bitterly. “If that's dealt with, I still want to talk to you about Mars—”

Lag. “Listening.”

“I had another thought.”

“Most scientists are satisfied with three or four unprovable hypotheses in a career, Chuck.”

“Instead of three or four a week?”

Paul's laughter. Charlie got up to microwave his face cloth again. The steam did help. He pulled another cloth out of the plasti-foil pack while he was up, and heated that one to lay across his scalp and the back of his neck, where it could ease aching muscles. God, for a steaming-hot, old-fashioned dirt-side shower— “Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Sure,” Paul said, easy and relaxed. Before he'd become Riel's science adviser, Paul Perry had been a number of things. One of which was a consultant on the government side of the joint Canadian/Unitek Mars mission that had discovered the two vessels buried under the red planet's wind-and water-scarred surface. “Tell me your crackpot theory, Mr. Bigshot Xenobiologist.”

“There's an ejecta layer over the craft on Mars.”

“There's an ejecta layer over most of Mars. And isn't it several ejecta layers? I know your dating of the ships relies heavily on the geology.”

Charlie breathed in through steam, bending double to cough as the glop on the back of his throat peeled loose. “Good — God,” he gasped, tasting sour-sweet metal through even the camphor reek of the cloth. He sat down on the stool bolted in front of his secondary interface. “I think my dating was wrong.”

“Wrong how?”

“I said the ships had been there about two, three million years. Which would put it very close to the development of sentience on Earth.”

“Close, geologically speaking.”

“But now I think it's closer to sixteen million years.”

Dead silence through the link. Charlie smiled. “You see why I called you?”

“Why do sixteen million years and Mars sound familiar—” Paul's fingers were moving rapidly enough over his interface that Charlie could pick out the sound of the enter contact being depressed. “You're talking about ALH84001.”

“I'm talking about life on Mars. Above the microbial level.”

“That doesn't make any sense, Charlie. Why ground a ship on Mars — wait. Presumably you're assuming that the — that they were using their derelict ships in somewhat the same way the Americans used Viking or the old Soviet Union did Venera—”

“Space probes. Sure, why not? If they needed an FTL drive to get here anyway, and they were junking the ships—”

“Spoken like a Yankee, Chuck. Do you have a box in your garage labeled ‘pieces of string too small to save'?”

“If I had a garage, I probably would. As it is, I travel light.” The cloths had cooled; Charlie didn't have the energy to get up and microwave them again. Memo to me, he thought. Invent a cold cloth with an integral heating circuit. Why hasn't anybody thought of that?

Maybe the microwave manufacturers get kickbacks—

“But why Mars? We've got evidence of microbial life sixteen million years ago, but—”

“How long did the Venera probes last?”

Tapping. It was always reassuring when Paul didn't just know something, Charlie thought. “None of them over an hour.”

“Earth's a much more corrosive environment than Mars,” Charlie hazarded. “Maybe they did send us ships, and they didn't survive. Or maybe they were keeping an eye on Mars because the life there was so much more fragile. Earth's ecosystem has survived some pretty astounding blows—”

“You're thinking of the Yucat'an meteor impact, aren't you?”

Charlie laughed, which turned into a gagging cough. “God damn this cold. That was a sissy hit, Paul. We got one about 251 million years back that made that look like — nothing. And the ALH84001 meteorite is the remnant of a relatively minor knock that still managed to kick chunks clean off Mars. Mars doesn't have the gravity or the atmosphere Earth does. The atmospheric blowout, water and oxygen and carbon loss from a few of those would have put paid to whatever chance multicellular life might have had there.”

“So what do you think the ships were for?”

Plaintively. Charlie managed not to laugh this time. “You're the sober, responsible ecologist. I'm just a wild-eyed xeno guy. I come up with the crazy theories, you figure out why they don't work. I'm reasonably certain, though, that after all my work with the nanotech we're using on the pilots, it was intended for organic interfacing. And the freaky thing: it self-adapts. You show it a cat and it knows it's a cat. You show it a beet and it knows it's a beet. I haven't gotten any beet-cats yet.”

“Why do you always get the fun jobs?” Paul sighed. “What if the ships were part of a, a — terraforming — no, a xenoforming attempt that failed?”

“Hey, you do okay with the crazy theories on your own.” Charlie grinned, the cold cloth dangling forgotten from his fingers. “Huh. Possible. Or possibly they're interstellar altruists who dropped their nanotech off on an ecologically damaged Mars — figure the atmosphere leakage had already started, say, or a little axis wobble, or what have you — to see if the ecology could be reconstructed. To see if those Martian microbes would evolve into something more impressive, given a fighting chance. And then the system got nailed with another couple of catastrophic failures — like the meteor impacts — and folded. It makes as much sense as them leaving a couple of ships there so the hairless monkeys would be able to call next door for a cup of sugar if we ever got off our own little blue rock.”

“Miocene, Charlie. Not that there were hairless monkeys—”

“Fussy. Carcharocles megalodon, then. Space sharks.” Charlie braced his palms together, fingers meshing and biting air, and laughed at his own childishness.

Carcharocles translunaria. Ew. What an image.”

Charlie could picture Paul's elaborate shudder, and dropped his hands, scrubbing them against his trousers. “If they didn't take a crack at Earth, there could be two reasons, I guess.”

“One, they liked Mars better. It was more like home.”

Charlie nodded, forgetting Paul couldn't see him. “Or, as you said. Earth was more hospitable to life than Mars.”

“So?”

“So maybe they're good guys. Anticolonialists. Maybe they figured we had a chance on our own.”

A long silence, and then Paul Perry laughed ironically, his rich voice made tinny by distance and empty space. “Our own colonial history as hairless monkeys is so rife with altruism, after all. Don't go buying into that twentieth-century cultist trope that the aliens are advanced and enlightened, Chuck. It worries me. Figure the odds.”

Figure the odds, Charlie thought, wondering how naive he could possibly be. And then figure the odds on life. And then consider the difficulty you have talking to your pet dog, Paul, and figure the odds that life from another planet will want things that are even comprehensible to life from ours. He sneezed again and wiped his nose on the camphorated cloth.


0500 Hours

Monday 6 November, 2062

HMCSS Montreal

Earth orbit

I wake early, ship's time, alone in my bunk and wearing the kind of bad attitude that makes you hate living in your own skin. I know what it's about, too. I haven't had a drink since we left Earth, and I've been a borderline alcoholic for twenty years. Self-medication is a wonderful thing.

You don't need it anymore, Jenny. Yeah, right.

So I can sleep nights, when two months ago I couldn't. Somebody loves me and isn't shy about showing it. My monsters are all dead now. Dead and buried. Lost and gone.

So why am I waking up mornings wanting a drink? Or thinking about the vial of diminutive yellow pills in my blazer pocket?

Oh, hell. Today is another test-drive day. I get to jack into the Montreal live and for real, take her up and out, and put her through her FTL paces. Not the virtual reality simulator, like the one Leah is probably flying right now, somewhere on Earth. Not a model. A real, live, deadly powerful ship with some three hundred souls on board.

I roll over out of the bunk, hit the floor palms flat, and start my push-ups. Endorphins. Good thing. One, two, three, four, nose dipping down to almost touch the porthole in my floor, nothing out there now but the trackless dark—

The trick is not using the prosthesis. It's too strong. Fortunately, in partial gravity, one-handed push-ups aren't as hard as they are planet-side. Get the blood moving. Good morning, Richard. Any progress?

“Yes,” he says. “And it's complicated in here. I'm not certain there's any differentiation between the worm and the programming.”

I stop with my right arm extended, left arm folded against my chest. Even the new prosthesis is heavy, although it's lighter and stronger than the twenty-five-year-old one it replaced. If I didn't keep up with my PT, I'd look like the Hunchback just from carrying the damned thing around. “No differentiation?” I say it out loud, and bite my lip. Richard, what does that mean?

His image drums fingers on immaterial thighs, then the hands come up in an encompassing gesture. I imagine a sailor pulling ropes. “It means there's no worm, per se. Nothing I can deactivate without ripping the programming out entirely. And you need it where it is. It was skillfully done. But if I could decompile the code, Castaign and I might have a chance.”

That software runs the wetware that keeps me walking. Nanoprocessors along my damaged spinal cord, improving its functionality; the reflex boost that makes me potentially able to steer this improbable starship. My left hand, gleaming steel under a polymer film that handles the sensory information. All souvenirs of a very, very bad accident half a lifetime ago, upgraded and enhanced with new, radical nanotechnology that cost me a few weeks on tubes and monitors in a hospital bed.

There's a rub. The source of that medical miracle is the grounded alien spacecraft that Valens and Charlie discovered on Mars. The technology that also gave us the Montreal's quasi-understood stardrive and my ability to control it. Technology we've back-engineered, or at least copied… but that, in my layman's estimation, we don't understand worth a damn.

It's beyond irresponsible and into criminal. So how did I come to sign on for this little charade?

Thereby hangs the tale—

“I'm working on it, Jenny,” Richard says in my ear, as I realize I've lost count of my push-ups and ease back onto my knees to stretch.

The worm, or the tech?

“Yes.” Expansive, expressive hands. Long knotty fingers, with no physical reality whatsoever. Richard is made in the image of a physicist dead since the previous century. He's not Richard Feynman — just an artificial persona, a program meant to mimic the original. A persona that somehow clicked into self-awareness; a feat my friend Elspeth hasn't been able to reproduce. “I've got a few ideas on how the stardrive works. It has to be ducking the Einsteinian speed limit somehow. Superstrings, probably—” he rattles on, sketching diagrams in space. They hang glowing between his fingers; the joys of VR.

Man's got a gift. My eyes don't quite glaze over when he starts talking about eleven-dimensional reality. Dick, the worm.

“It's not a worm.”

Whatever. What does it do?

His face rearranges itself around a tangled smile. “I'm going to have to block-redirect part of it before I get out of your head. It logs brain activity, for one thing.”

Thought police? Damn.

“Not exactly. But I was using up a hell of a lot of your processing capability when I was living in your head, and it will pick that up, so I need to fake some logs. Here's the coolest thing — the surgical nanites are still active in your system. Still laying networks to help you interface with the Montreal. And VR linkages. Have you noticed my voice and image getting stronger? There's more room in here every day.”

I thought that was practice. Great. I'm full of bugs.

“You're full of bugs that are still repairing all the old scar tissue and neural damage. Jenny. It's radical—”

What?

“You might get smarter. Even more interesting—”

I catch myself holding my breath. I wonder how much of this Valens knew before he shot me full of these things. Koske is wearing them, too, though. As were the pilots killed in Le Qu'ebec, the Li Bo, the Lao Zi. Interesting, Dick? We're talking about my brain.

“Sorry, Jen. Organic repair is continuing. You had some liver damage, some age-appropriate arthritis in addition to all the scardown and trauma around your implants, artificial joints, and prostheses. And did you happen to notice that half the Montreal is sick?”

He's nattering. “I noticed Gabe and Valens both wiping their noses.” And I've never felt better. Who have always been able to catch a cold by looking at a sick person across an empty room. Richard, the scardown was supposed to reverse. Look. I can touch my toes. Haven't been able to do that since I was twenty-four. Damned ceramic hip was always too stiff.

“Yes. Supposed to reverse. So was the neural damage, the demyelination, the flashbacks and the seizures, the symptoms of MS. How about the liver and kidney damage? Was that supposed to reverse, too?”

Something chill settles between my shoulder blades. Liver damage… Richard? What are you telling me?

“Not enough evidence yet to know, Jenny. But you're getting healthier. And I checked. Koske hasn't been on sick call since he went through the procedure, and he was a lot worse off than you were. He had the induced-Asperger syndrome symptoms you mostly ducked, in spades. In fact, he still does.”

“Holy hell.” I think about Earth, the unforgettable blue-white sweep of her face seen from the panorama lounge on Clarke Station. Starving, fevered Earth — brutal winters and searing summers since the shutdown of the global thermohaline conveyor, the cold Atlantic rising along river valleys and pressing dikes. New Orleans floating on barges, Houston abandoned to the sea. I think of Gabe's daughter Genie and her thick, choking cough. And maybe I feel a little pity for Trevor Koske, after all.

Dick. You're trying to tell me I'm not getting any older. That the ship tree—Charlie Forster's word—nanites are actually healing more than just the scar tissue and the neural issues.

“That's what the evidence suggests. Yes.”

Is this going to affect Leah?

“Not with the neural VR implant she has now, no. But if she goes through the full enhancement, and survives it — yes.”

You're talking about an end to disease. You're talking about global overcrowding on an unimaginable scale.

“That's the least radical possibility. But there's something I'm not sure any of the Unitek and armed forces types have considered. Other than Dr. Forster, who's a nice boy, but a bit — naive.”

What's that, Richard?

“If you were leaving presents like this for the backward natives of a backward world — wouldn't you want something from them when they finally came to say thank you?”

“Troy,” I say automatically. I'm still thinking about my answer when a knock startles me. I grab yesterday's shirt and drag it on over my underwear, buttoning it more or less straight. “Coming.” A pair of warm-ups follows before I undog the hatch and jerk it open. “Valens. You're up early.”

“May I come in?” And scrubbed and shining, too — full uniform, insignia gleaming almost as brightly as his silver hair despite the peeling redness of his nose and the blurriness of eyes that are usually bright and sharp. I wipe sleep out of the corner of my prosthetic eye and remind myself of ship discipline. Much as I'd like to keep him standing in the hallway, I step back and let him into my cabin. He takes up most of the available floor space, all cleft chin and precision. “I thought you deserved a personal wake-up call. It's your big day.”

He glances around the room, eye lighting momentarily on the eagle feather in its cubby. I wonder if he was trying to catch Gabe and me together. I grin. Gabe's a civilian now. No rules against it. Besides, I know damn well they've got every room on this ship wired for sound. “First of many, sir. I was just doing my PT before heading down to the scrubbers.”

“I'll expect you in uniform today,” he says. I scratch the back of my neck, funny sensation where the skin ends and the edge of the socket sits. It itches a little. Not like the phantom pain I used to get on my left side. Which is when I realize I haven't had that in a day or two either. And that the morning stiffness is lessening, and the aches at bedtime.

“Or what, Fred? You'll court-martial me? You need me a hell of a lot more than I need you.”

He tilts his head to one side, studying me like a judge eyeing a show dog. The effect is ruined when he sneezes. “If the petty rebellion makes you feel better, Casey, by all means, indulge yourself. As long as I can count on you when it matters, I don't care if you mouth off. We're beyond those kind of games now, aren't we?”

Damn him. “Yes.” I get a towel from my locker. “I guess we are. Bigger problems and all that.” Sure. A girl can walk away from her dreams of vengeance. I still want to see Valens court-martialed for what he did to me almost thirty years back. On the other hand, he's saved my life twice now. Sometimes things get a little hard to reconcile.

“I guess you could call China a bigger problem.” His nod is slow, considering. He stares at the view out the porthole between his boots, but I don't think he's seeing it. “Earth is an egg, Casey. Eventually, the hatchling either puts its beak through the shell, or it suffocates in its own waste.”

“And what about everybody who gets left behind? What about the damage we do on the way out?” I can all but hear my Haudenosaunee grandfather's wry comments as he stopped to pick up litter on the roadside.

Valens scratches his earlobe. “We try to solve that problem when we're a little closer to realization.”

I bite my lip on my answer. Use it up, throw it away, you can always get more. I guess it applies to planets, too.

He continues. “In the meantime, you're scheduled for twelve hundred. Two Hyperex ninety minutes before, and one when you report. Do you have enough pills?”

Damn. The bottle he handed me when I started the VR program had twenty Hyperex tablets in it. Yellow poison dots no bigger than the plastic head of a sewing pin. A drug used in combat missions, colloquially known as the Hammer. He should know exactly how many I have left, as he's supervised my trials.

And Valens knows what I went through with the Hammers and the pain meds, years ago. The first time I left the army. Before it took me back, over my very vocal protests.

He's setting you up, Jenny. Damn. Has set you up. “Plenty,” I answer, and drape the towel around my shoulders. “Now if you don't mind, sir. I'd like to get clean.” So why does Valens want you back on drugs?

Because it's one more way he can control you. Beyond Gabe, beyond the girls. He smiles and gets out of my way. “Uniform, Casey,” he reminds me.

“Why are you so damned determined to get me all dressed up and spit shined, Fred?”

“One. This is not a civilian ship, and you represent Captain Wainwright, myself, and the entire crew of the Montreal when you step on that bridge. Two, we have some visiting dignitaries, which is why we're doing a second run under solar power to get well above the plane of the elliptic before we try the stardrive. Seeing as how said stardrive is a little tricky.”

“Understatement.” Like her sister ships, the Montreal has a fatal attraction to gravity wells.

Valens winks. “Also, one of my grandkids is onboard.”

How the hell did he manage that? “Grandkids?”

“Patty. She's sixteen. She'll be one of your students once we start the second phase of the program.” There's something in his voice. Pride, sure. But something else, and maybe a little frantic glimmer in clever hazel eyes. Worry.

I don't want to think what might have Col. Frederick Valens running scared. “Valens. How many of these ships are you planning on building?”

He ignores the question as I undog the hatch. “Your locker's 312. Everything you need is in there. There's a sidearm, too. I want it on you at all times.”

“Bullets?” On a pressurized tin can in interplanetary space? I step into the corridor. Holy fuck. What do I need a sidearm for?

“Plastic,” he says. “Fatal at short range. Won't pierce a bulkhead.”

“You promise?” His face gives nothing away; Valens plays his games on a dozen levels. It's why I fear him. Fred, is this your underhanded way of telling me there might be somebody on the Montreal who means her harm? Oh, hell. And this ship has kids onboard. Kids not much older than Leah. Kids the same age I was when I signed on to this man's army. “All right. Combination? Key?”

He comes out of my cabin, passing me as I hold the hatch open. “Thumb lock,” he says, and continues down the curve of the hallway, leaving me behind.



Editor\s Note | Scardown | BOOK TWO