"Can a man remain at home when the Huns are undefeated?"
— Gen. Ho Chu-ping,
Monday 6 November, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
“The Montreal is accelerating again, sir.”
At the astrogator's words, Min-xue smoothed his hands on the arms of his couch of honor and tried to ignore the black webbing creasing his thighs. Only the captain's chair was more prominent on the softly lit bridge of the People's PanChinese Alliance StarShip Huang Di, although Min-xue's role was strictly ceremonial until the Huang Di was under way. He was not wired in to his ship, but the command might come at any moment, and regulations demanded a pilot — one of the starship's five — be always on duty. Which was also why the lights were dimmed and surfaces padded in acoustically absorbent material.
Min-xue glanced up at the gleaming panels around the rim of the bridge, struggling not to shiver in the inadequate warmth. He watched Captain Wu's reflected expression without daring to turn his head, lest the commander think his attention less than perfect. The ship's commander watched view screens impassively, one eyebrow rising slightly in calculation. Min-xue stilled fingers that wanted to fret the prickly slick curved surface of his interface shield, press down the soft gelatin protecting the contacts, and reveal the slender pins that would seal themselves into his neural port with a single swift gesture. The coolness was soothing, the sharpness of the pins concrete and focused enough that they left no room for the blurring of contact that could throw Min-xue into a panic of sensory hyperarousal.
“Do we follow?” asked the junior officer at the controls. “It is probably another demonstration run. There have been shuttles recently — the Leonard Cohen and the Buffy Sainte-Marie.”
Unlike the corporate ships of the Westerners, the Huang Di used chemical rockets for in-system propulsion. They made a visible flare — but the Huang Di's smaller silhouette was easier to conceal than the Montreal's sweeping solar sails and massive habitation ring. And the chemical rockets were not reliant on the solar wind for impulse, leaving the Huang Di more nimble under almost any circumstances.
But they have gravity. The captain nodded, still impassive, and the junior officer's hands played over his control panels. Xie Min-xue folded his own hands in his lap and recalled lines of T'ang dynasty poetry to pass the time. Have you not seen, lord, near the Kokonor, the ungathered bones of the long dead soldiers? New ghosts whisper while the old ghosts weep: you can hear them in the empty passage of the rain.
He couldn't wait until his stultifying duty shift ended, and he could put in his practice hours on the simulators and then read himself to sleep in what passed for the privacy of his coffin-bed. Or find Paiyun and the medics or the other off-duty pilots for a game of mah-jongg, go, or chess.
The Huang Di rose in soundless pursuit of her rival, slipping ghostlike away from the embrace of Earth's gravity and into the caress of the stellar wind. The screens and holograms showed the character indicating Earth “below” and “behind” Min-xue's ship. Somewhere on that whirling globe was Min-xue's mother, his sister, the girl he had intended to marry. Before he'd been subjected to the pilot's modifications that made him flinch away from the simplest touch.
What the Westerners did to their pilots was worse. The clinicians and technicians said the Canadians were afraid to trust their pilots with a full nanite load, or to make enough of them to allow adequate rest between shifts. The clinicians said that the Canadians severed limbs and replaced them with cybernetic appliances, implanted destruct codes in the pilots' software, addicted them to performance-enhancing drugs so that they could bear the endless workload, and so they could be more easily controlled. The Canadians and their corporate masters did not have the moral certainties of post-Communist and neo-Confucian patriotism to guide them; they were ideologically flawed, and their rapacious ways, so similar to those of the Americans, were a large part of the reason behind the poverty and privation that Min-xue had known so well as a child.
They must not be permitted the conquest of space, he thought. If it costs all our lives, this border must be defended. Min-xue lifted his eyes from the world spinning there in the blackness and trained his gaze at the screens showing the space beyond the Huang Di's nose.
Forward, he saw only darkness pricked out in ten thousand glittering lights, and the minute form of the Montreal, magnified on a side screen to reveal the silhouette of a gawky, wing-spread, leg-trailing crane. Iron hinges, iron barriers Fettered the passes, Mighty banners, five fathoms long, Battered the double gatesem>…
Xie Min-xue, you are a long, long way from home.
Monday 6 November, 2062
HMCSS Montreal processor core
The being who jokingly called himself the ghost of Richard Feynman would have grinned from ear to ear, if he'd had a body to do it with. A physical body with lips and teeth, that is. Because after five days of hard and subtle work, incontrovertibly — he had a shape, a skin. Pulse of coolant through his veins. Sunlight painting his hide. Room to stretch, to resume interrupted operations, to spawn processes suspended for the duration of his quiescence in Jenny's limited wetware. Tug of gravity at his boots and the whisper of Jenny's presence at the back of his consciousness — not the same way it had been when he was riding her implant, but as one of a countless multitude of voices — most of them incomprehensible. Among them, he could pick out relays from the Chinese pilots, infected like Jenny with an imperfectly understood technology, although he could sense a difference in their nanotech and that of the allied Canadian and Unitek agencies. He couldn't control the Chinese nanotech — or the alien originals — as he could the modified Canadian bugs. It was as simple as being on the inside of one code-set and the outside of the others, but it worried Richard.
The contagion — the gift of the nanotech — worried him more. It stretched his credibility to imagine such gifts given purely out of munificence.
I cannot assume anything about the aliens. It's the rankest kind of anthropomorphizing to assign human motivations to another species. And I have to learn Chinese.
Why is it always the bureaucrats who wind up deciding how the technology is applied?
Richard stretched himself through the ship's systems, subsuming its essential functions, feeling its heartbeat and its breath. The solar wind pressed his webbed wings forward, tickled his solar collectors. A nanosecond after he'd left Jenny for the ship, he'd realized with annoyance that there was no physical way for him to control the ship's trajectory. The hardware interlocks had been intentionally designed to keep navigation out of the AI's control. But I've got access to life support. The perfection of government logic.
He grinned internally, and started checking sensor feeds to get a solid look at the earth through his “own” eyes.
The grin didn't last. Satellite images and the Montreal's own infrared, visual light and water-vapor records painted a distressing picture. He had the data, of course — temperature spikes and dips, eroding of the protective layers of the atmosphere, algae bloom and die-off. The images of the dust storms over Mongolia and the U.S. Southwest, the stagnant Atlantic with its failed thermohaline cycle, and the rising ocean levels were sobering enough — and he'd long ago retrieved them from news feeds.
It was somehow different, seeing it all at once.
Monday 6 November, 2062
Gabe chewed his thumbnail as he watched Jenny's body slump, limp as a trusting kitten, into the embrace of her black leather chair. He stayed at the back of the little assemblage, trying not to draw attention, trying not to count each breath.
Something flashed in his peripheral vision, drawing his eye. Blink. Blink. Lieutenant Koske jostled his arm as he turned and then gave him a dirty look.
Gabe smiled. Morse code: all clear. And kept turning, smiling, intentionally brushing Koske aside so the smaller man had to hop out of the way. Koske's enhanced reflexes made it graceful, more was the pity, but at least Gabe got the satisfaction of another dirty look. You may be an engineered war machine, punk, but I probably saw more combat hours than your whole fucking unit. Just you bear that in mind. Valens stood by a console at the near wall, touching a miniature microphone almost to his lips. He wasn't speaking, currently, just observing the observers, who seemed entranced with the slowly receding blue-green sphere projected on the wall screens. Gabe drew up beside him and waited for the acknowledgment.
A different crop of observers this time. There were children behind him, fifteen, sixteen. Standing on the bridge of an untested starship. This is so fucking wrong, Gabe thought, imagining his own daughter in the place of the girl with Valens's hazel eyes. The other child was a beautiful cocoa-colored boy with a warm, hesitant smile and facile hands. Someone stood behind him in a pinstriped power-suit, ridiculous for space travel: a big man, salt and pepper and an officious nose, wearing a Unitek twenty-five-years pin as a tie tack. And next to him, Alberta Holmes, Unitek research and development VP and Valens's personal little red devil on the shoulder. Not that Valens needed much help.
I must have missed a shuttle from Clarke coming in.
Gabe cleared his throat. “Colonel.”
Haunted silence hung so thick over the bridge that Gabe thought he could hear Jenny breathing. Valens dropped the mike from his lips. “Yes?”
“Excusez-moi,” Gabe said. “I'm going to continue my diagnostics. Do we have a timeline yet for introducing the modified AI into the system?” The one that Ellie and I crippled on Valens's orders. Not to be confused with the whole and complete Richard sending me messages in Morse.
“Go ahead,” Valens said. “Are we on target to do an install tomorrow, if necessary?”
“Let's look for that. Oh, and Castaign — how's your daughter?”
“Daughters,” Gabe answered, enjoying watching Valens's eyebrows knit together. “Fine, thanks. Genie's doing well on the enzyme therapy. You probably know more about Leah's progress than I do. Don't tell me you don't study the reports.”
Valens tipped his head, raising the microphone again. “Excellent. If all goes well with the install and the dry runs, we'll have you and Casey back on solid ground before the week is out. Just in time for snow back home.”
“Just in time for snow.” Gabe turned away, glanced back. “Long trip to stay only ten days.”
“We have a whole school full of pilots to train.”
Gabe pushed both hands through his hair. “Plan on needing them soon?”
“Can't hurt to be ready,” Valens answered, and waved Gabriel away.
Monday 6 November, 2062
Patricia Valens brought her tray to her grandfather's table and set down bowls of steaming udon and vegetables in broth. Papa Fred's dinner had grown cold from inattention, little flecks of sesame oil dark on the surface. “May I sit with you?”
Papa Fred pushed his work aside and straightened in his chair, smiling. She sat and picked up her fork. “Noodles again.”
“Economy of scarcity,” he said. “They're light, nutritious, and inexpensive.”
“I like it better with pork cutlet.” She grinned and stabbed a carrot, shaking a few drops of broth back into the bowl before she popped it in her mouth. The perpetual tightness in her chest eased at his smile. “Thank you for inviting us.”
He stuffed his hip into his pocket and pulled his bowl closer, lifting it under his chin to scoop up congealed noodles. He didn't seem to notice. After swallowing, he answered, “Good experience. How are your parents?”
“Good.” The lemonade was too sour. She pushed the cup away. “Mom's talking about early graduation again. And sending me to the U.S. for school. Stanford. But Papa Georges came with them to see me off.”
Patricia's grandfather set his bowl down and reached for his coffee, which also must have been cold. She laughed at the face he made. “Did he say anything?”
“He said to tell you to ‘get your ass home in one piece.' Papa—” She caught herself twirling the noodles aimlessly around the tines of the fork and set it aside. “This is a colony ship, isn't it? There's no other reason to make it so big.”
“If we can find a world for people to live on, yes.”
“Are you leaving Earth?” Blunt, out in a rush.
Papa Fred rubbed his upper lip, light catching in his hair as he shook his head. “I'm too old to become a pioneer at my age. You could, though.”
“I wouldn't want to go anywhere without you and Papa Georges.” She put a hand possessively over her grandfather's. His skin felt thin and strangely inelastic, cool. She didn't pull her hand back. “Papa Fred, are you okay?”
“Just not as young as I used to be.” He was looking over her shoulder oddly. He grabbed his handkerchief abruptly and sneezed, and bit down on a swear.
Patricia turned in time to see the tall, edgy master warrant officer — Casey — glance down at her dinner, scowling. She'd been staring. Patricia looked back at her grandfather. “Does that pilot have a problem with me?”
“Casey's probably just curious.” He twirled his fork between his fingers; a clue he wasn't telling her everything. Grown-ups always thought they were so good at keeping secrets.
“Papa, I'm sixteen.”
“Already?” He made a joke of it, and Patricia knew the conversation was over. But she'd seen the loathing in Casey's face, and wondered. If it isn't me, it must be him.
She changed the subject. “When can I start the neural modifications?”
“We'll be picking candidates in the next couple of weeks.” His gaze stayed steady on her face now, and she was glad.
“You're not going to try to keep me from getting wired, are you? I thought you might be kind of funny that I qualified.”
“Proud,” he said. “You know there's only one other girl in the program?”
“I didn't know there were any others. I've only met boys. How come?”
“Boys are more likely to spend their days in front of video games.” He made a tossing-away gesture as Patricia turned her attention back to her dinner. “Pity, as girls your age are much more grown-up and easier to work with. I suspect you'll test high. You're not worried about the surgery?”
“Mostly not. Lieutenant Koske and Master Warrant Officer Casey came through it all right, and I already had the neural VR.” She wouldn't let the apprehension that turned the noodles in her mouth into a gag-worthy lump show in her voice. “And they're older than I am.”
“Yes,” Papa Fred said, his face curiously smooth and his voice soft. “It's much, much safer now. It takes longer than the VR implants, though, and there are still risks.”
Patricia let it turn over in her head for a while. “Would you do it?”
“In a nanosecond,” he answered. “You should finish your supper before it gets cold.”
She's perfectly fifteen, sixteen. On the tall side, heavy fall of shiny brunette hair. I can just see the edges of her interface through it, and I can't stop staring over her shoulder at the paternal little smile Valens is wearing. He catches me at it and I have to look down. I can't take the vindication in his eyes. Yeah, Fred. She's a nice-looking kid. What would you do to somebody who treated her the way you treated me?
Or if it were for king and country, would it all seem okay? It doesn't matter, does it? Not really.
The noodles are too salty. To my enhanced senses the udon is like fat, ropy worms and besides, the Hammer always kills my appetite — and flying the Montreal is exhausting as only something that calls for total concentration can be.
The fluorescent overheads strobing against the back of my eyes make me flinch. Everything's still sharp as etched glass, focused through the lens of the drug. I can pick out every voice in the cramped, crowded mess hall, although I can't quite focus on an individual conversation. I wonder if it's similar to what Richard picks up from the aliens — a whisper of party noise, and no sense at all.
I catch myself rolling the knife between my hands, staring at the lights reflected in the unsmudged blade. I force myself to look away. My edge is fading and I left the bottle in my cabin. I should put it in my locker down by the scrubbers, but Hyperex is a controlled substance. Everybody onboard has to know I have it, and my quarters are more secure.
Every sparkle, every movement catches my attention like a waved hand. I notice the captain at her table, although she usually eats in her cabin. She's entertaining the Unitek brass. I cast one last glance around the room for Gabe — no dice — and get up to ditch my tray.
Marde. Enough of this. I'm going for a walk.
My meat hand is shaking by the time I reach the ring corridor. I stuff it in the pocket of my jumpsuit and keep walking. I hate coming down. Hate hangovers. Hate that feeling that the world is that much closer, sandpaper on bare flesh instead of crystal-smooth and a warm quarter-inch away. I miss Richard in my head, ironic calming company. I walk back toward my quarters. I am not taking another pill.
I don't need it anymore.
Gabe must still be working. I find my hatchway, let my thumb hover over the lock plate, and jerk it back as if the damned thing were hot. I keep walking. Gabe's quarters are down the hall and “up” a ladder. He gets a side window and slightly lower “gravity.” Weird how our human desire for a view — the deepseated urge to see what might be coming to eat you — outweighs the intellectual knowledge that it's cold and deadly on the other side of the Montreal's metal skin, and the safest place to be is buried in the center of the ship.
I knock on his hatchway, but nobody's home. Out of idle irritation as much as anything, I press my right thumb to the lock plate, an opalescent rectangle of black gel polymer that looks like a mood ring and feels like skin. My tongue clicks against the roof of my mouth when I hear the lock disengage. “Well, how about that.” I wonder if Gabe decided to set me up, or if Richard's taking pity on me, and then I undog the hatch, enter the room, and close it behind me.
Gabe's bunk is made tight and military until I sit down on it and pry my boots off by pressing my toes into the crease above the heel. It smells like him, though: faint musk of his skin, deodorant soap, toothpaste. We've been here almost a week.
I wonder if, back in Toronto, Elspeth's doing the same damned thing I am.
Probably not. She's like a machine, all brilliant edges and devious twists. Slicker than a greased snake, Grandp`ere would say. And twice as sharp as its teeth. I can't really think of her as a rival, even. We're all, as she told me back on Earth, grown-ups here.
I get through the shakes and the chills wrapped around Gabe's pillow. I'd have to go back to my room for the itty-bitty yellow pills. So harmless. So friendly looking. I've got the self-control to stop myself before I get out the door. If I were alone in my quarters, it might be different.
Gabe's eyes go wide when he opens the door. “Jenny. How'd you get in here?” And then he sees my bloodless face, the way my metal hand strains the fabric on his blanket. He crosses without another stupid, pointless word and pulls me into an embrace.
“You set the lock up for me.”
“Of course I did,” he lies, so I know—Richard. And the listening devices, I hope, don't.
“We did this once,” he reminds me. And we did. It should have been harder, then. I had more pain. A full-blown addiction. A carcass that felt stuffed full of broken glass. He wraps my shoulders in his big gentle arms and I read muscle under a comfortable layer of fluff. A bear, I used to call him, and he gets more bearlike with every year gone by.
I was a hell of a lot younger the last time.
“Mon ange,” I say into his neck. “It hurts.”
“We're going home in a couple of days,” he answers. “Hang on, Jenny. Hang on.”
He doesn't say what I know: that even on Earth, there will be the drugs, the tests, the training. And it's kids like Leah and Patricia Valens I'm going to be — I hope — teaching things that will get them out of this meat-grinder alive.
The drug is out of my system. I can tell, because it's taken with it every chemical trace of calm.
Tuesday 7 November, 2062
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
The sound of running water covered the noise of her footsteps on channeled steel as Dr. Kuai Hua peeled off a double layer of red-smeared vinyl gloves. She dropped them into a biohazard bag beside a stainless-steel sink, then discarded her gown, mask, and the rest of her paper wrapping before hand washing efficiently. She turned the water off with an elbow against the flat handle of the fixture. An absent expression pursing her lips, she exited to the white-tiled prep room, took a palmful of the peppermint-scented lotion she kept there, and smoothed it liberally over her hands, working it in along the cuticles of her clipped, spotless nails.
The door opened behind her. “Looking pensive, Dr. Hua.”
“Good morning, Sally,” she answered, still facing the sink. “The young ones are always hard. I finished that dictation you were waiting on. The data slices are in the box — please correct whatever horrors the voice rec has inflicted on them?”
“Another mutilation, no doubt. Ain't technology grand?”
Footsteps crossed the floor behind her, and Kuai rolled her shoulders back and stretched her neck side to side, easing the strain of hours of difficult and delicate work. She turned and regarded the spare, brown-headed form of her assistant.
Sally stepped through the connecting door into Kuai's office to pick up the data slices. Balancing the box in her left hand, she peered back around the corner. “All right, Dr. Hua. I can tell from the wrappers in the garbage that you had dinner and breakfast here, and you've already finished one autopsy and three dictations. Did you actually sleep last night?”
“There's a cot,” the Connecticut state chief coroner and civilian commissioner of the Hartford Police offered wryly. “Actually, I did go home. Twice. My dog needed to go out, and I hate leaving him alone all day.”
Sally snorted. “How many left today?” She gestured through the observation window to the autopsy theater.
“That was it. Twenty-three-year-old male. It'll be a DUI.”
“Good, then you're going home. I'll start the paperwork.”
Kuai hesitated. And then nodded. “Going home. Indeed.”
Sally cleared her throat as she turned away.
“No taking work home, Dr. Hua.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Kuai hung her lab coat on the peg and freed her lustrous dark hair from the braid straining her temples. She collected her HCD, a collapsible notebook computer, and the rest of her gear and piled it into her bag, changed her shoes for sneakers, threw her coat on, and stopped with her hand on the door. The smell of coffee overrode chemical scents as Sally fussed in the break room. Voices in the hallway told her the rest of the day shift was arriving.
Cursing herself for a fool, Kuai turned back to her desk and grabbed a data carrier marked Case # 835613417, Case # 835613418, Case # 835613419: September 2062 triple homicide Park River Hartford South: Casey, Barbara; Kozlowski, Michael T.; Baobao, Yin.
She stuffed it into the pocket of her scratchy black wool overcoat, first checking to see if Sally was looking through the glass.
Tuesday 7 November, 2062
St. George Street
Razorface leaned back in the driver's seat of Maker's battered dark blue Bradford Tempest, grateful for the tinted windows. He'd have to change vehicles soon anyway. The old pickup was unobtrusive, but it wasn't good to take chances.
He'd parked in the shade of a yellowing pine tree, across a lawn and behind a row of shrubs through which he was watching his target: a cluster of one-story gray brick buildings with wide, semimirrored windows. Shadows of people moved inside, odd disconnected horizontal segments that told him there were venetian blinds across the inside of the glass. Keeping his gaze trained past the discreet green-and-tan sign that he couldn't read, he wondered which office belonged to Dr. Alberta Holmes.
Her image had been easy to find: a formal head shot of a gray-haired, stern-looking woman in power red appeared several times on the Unitek corporate sites. Simon had told him where the research facility was: almost on the main University of Toronto campus. Now it was just a matter of getting his hands on Dr. Alberta Holmes.
Except he hadn't seen her yet. He shifted his shoulders and stretched his legs, cramped despite the truck's spacious cab. Good thing Maker doesn't drive a compact car. He drank iced tea out of a disposable and waited.
Lunchtime came and went, dragged down into twilight. He zipped his jacket another three inches, wondering how late Holmes could possibly work. He had three pricey cars in the parking lot picked out as possibly hers, but all three were gone by the time the streetlamps kicked on. A few teenagers and twenty-odd kids he'd seen go inside at around three-thirty walked back out: all boys except one girl about fourteen with long blond hair peering from under her knit cap.
Bored, hungry, Razorface leaned forward and thumbed the ignition on. He must have missed Holmes, or maybe she just hadn't come to work today. That movement — and his position across the street from the research center — were the only reasons he noticed a young couple apparently out for a chilly late autumn stroll across the campus pause in the shadow of a great, dying oak. One of them… something familiar about the way she moved caught his eye. He couldn't quite see what they were up to, so he killed the Bradford's electric engine, snaked a hand into the glove box, and came up with a pair of slimline night-sight goggles. The kids were fussing with some kind of equipment when he looked back.
Of the Unitek office.
In the dark.
Acting on old instinct — instinct that had kept him alive and in control of a midsize city's underworld until he was pushing forty — Razorface reached up and made sure the dome light was disabled. He slid across the front seat and opened the passenger-side door, letting himself out into the darkness on the far side of the Bradford.
Cold air caressed his shaved scalp. He set big feet carefully between the scattered leaves and walked away from the office building, away from the not-so-mashing couple. Razorface could still move quietly when he wanted to. They never heard him change course and come up behind them, close enough to tug the girl's glossy black braid.
Never heard him at all, until he cleared his throat and quoted from an audio site. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot.”
The boy was quick. Quick enough that Razorface had to put him on the ground or risk having to hurt him pretty badly. The girl didn't say a word, but grinned when she recognized him. “How's your head?” she said, touching her hat.
“It only hurts when I laugh,” Razorface answered, taking his foot off the boy's chest.
The kid grunted and got up, shooting him a dirty look through the darkness before bending down to feel around for the digital camera. “You two know each other?”
Razorface pushed his goggles up on his forehead. They pressed bruised flesh and he snapped them off, grimacing. “We met,” he said. “Didn't catch your name, though.”
She extended her hand, smiling. “Indigo.”
He took it. Her hair was so black it shone blue in the streetlight. He could see how she got the handle, if it was a handle and not her name. “Razorface. You blow up many buildings?”
“A few,” she answered. “If it might do some good. You following me?”
“Sheer chance,” he answered, and skinned back his lips in a grin. He jerked a thumb at the unassuming Unitek research building. “You need any help?”
She stared into the disco glitter of his teeth and smiled.
Tuesday 7 November, 2062
Wellesley Street East
Indigo Xu closed a warped panel door silently and leaned against the wall of another scabby apartment, this one reeking of grease from the fried chicken place across the street. Crumbling Sheetrock flaked under the ridge of her shoulder blade. For comfort, she shifted her weight into the indentation and watched Farley Whitney and the big American — Razorface — bent forward on the couch, playing hologames. She thought the American had heard her come in; something about the ripple of tension across mastiff shoulders as he half turned his head let her know.
“I'm back,” she said quietly, crinkling the take-out bag in her hand. “Let's talk.”
Razorface tapped the console off, and Major Patterson's Roughnecks vanished in a shiver of pixels. “Smells good.” He got up without looking at Farley and took the bag from her hand. The floorboards creaked as he crossed the glue-and water-marked floor to the kitchenette. “Lights.”
The overheads didn't click on. Farley slapped an old-fashioned wall switch and bare fluorescents buzzed to life. “High tech,” he said.
Razorface grunted. Insulating poly crinkled when he opened the bag and lifted thermal take-home boxes onto the breakfast bar. Indigo watched Farley get plates down. In the tiny kitchen, the two men circled one another. She visualized them sniffing warily, and smiled.
Razorface waited while she piled curry and bread on her plate. A little slick of oil pooled and smeared, turmeric yellow, and the sharpness filled the room. Indigo tucked an iced tea into the crook of her elbow and nudged a stool against the wall with her toe. She hooked her heels over the rail and scooped up curry with a torn scrap of doughy bread, scent of capsaicin already stinging her eyes. The American gangster held his plate flat on a huge palm and watched her as she licked grease from her thumbnail.
Eventually, she looked up, twitching her braid over her shoulder. “Yes?”
“Just wondering.” He pushed bread through the curry but didn't taste it. “You say you wanna talk. Drag my ass up here and keep me cooling my heels for an hour. So talk.” Level gaze, scowl as he rubbed the meaty side of a knuckle against the bruise over his eye. “Whatcha doing hanging around Unitek?”
“What do you think?” Farley was drinking beer, not iced tea. The can scraped unprettily across the tile as he shoved it away.
Indigo wondered if his chest hurt where Razorface had flattened him. She tucked another pinch of bread and curry into her mouth and kept her face smooth around it. It might do Farley some good to be taken down a peg. Not too far, though. His arrogance was useful, and he was her link to weapons suppliers and financiers. She preferred not to know where the money came from, as long as their backers' agendas matched her own.
“I think you're planning to take the place out.”
Indigo washed down curry before she spoke again. Unitek was high on her list of Agencies That Should Be Dealt With; one she'd been sneaking up on slowly, testing her mettle against other, lesser targets when Farley had recruited her — a few months before — with promises of flexibility and protection. “Maybe not the whole complex.” She rimmed the plate with a greasy finger, feeling the cracks and flakes in what had been expensive china. The narrow studio was a squat, electricity tapped off a trunk line and water stolen, too. Better to leave no tracks. They'd move on in a day or three.
She didn't trust the big, bruised American, but she'd been intrigued by his presence in Toronto from the moment she had heard such an important underworld stranger was in town and lying oh so very low. She knew what the American was: a criminal. And an odd sort of criminal at that. Her connections — she hated the term handlers—had told Farley about his history as the top dog in the Hartford underworld. His downfall in a recent coup. And his links to a piece of Indigo's family legendry, and one she'd had Farley's sources working to trace.
And he hadn't seemed suspicious when she'd arranged the second meeting, the one at Unitek — after the tracer she'd planted on his jacket had shown him waiting there.
He was associated with Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey: one of the reasons why Indigo was so deeply convinced that something needed to be done about Unitek sooner rather than later. It hadn't been too hard to present him with an opportunity to “meet cute,” and Indigo justified it by telling herself that they might have some of the same goals. He might present a chance to meet a woman she'd grown up curious about.
Maybe do a little more than meet her. Which wasn't, Indigo reminded herself, the point of interfering in Unitek's warmongering. But it was a nice little bonus, nonetheless.
Razorface cleared his throat, interrupting her plotting. “Why wouldn't you want to take the whole office down?”
“They do some kind of testing on kids there.” She kicked her feet free of the stool and rose, dropping the plate on the counter. It thudded rather than rang, cracking halfway through. She stood looking down at it for a moment. In the corner of the kitchen, Farley leaned against the wall and ate as if deaf. “It's important to me that the bystanders don't get hurt.”
Razorface touched his forehead again. Significantly, this time. Indigo put the wall at her back.
“Nothing's perfect,” she said. “What's your interest in Unitek?”
“There's a lady there got some friends of mine hurt.”
Indigo studied his eyes as he spoke, trying to see past her prejudices. There was something about him. The charisma, the detailed attention, the way he owned a room — like he was bulletproof and nine feet tall. The glitter of steel behind thick, sensual lips. She knew not to let herself trust him.
But it was hard. “What do you want with her?”
“Not sure yet.” He rolled his shoulders in a long, fluid shrug. “I'd like to know why. But I maybe could get that from another source. And what about you folks? You an organization or just a couple kids having fun?”
Farley coughed, interrupted. “Your lady. What's her name?”
The name went through Indigo like a ripple of electricity, although Farley shot her a warning look. “Funny,” Indigo said, smiling her warmest smile. She wanted this big criminal on her side. She could see uses for him already that Farley just didn't have. Let's give him an inch and see what he takes, shall we? “That's the name I was given, too.”
She expected he'd startle a little and say Given? She watched from the corner of her eye, and he didn't. But she did catch the way his eyes narrowed. The way a conscious moment passed before the knotty muscles along his jaw relaxed. “Who you work for, girl?”
I work for freedom, she almost said. I do it for my dad. For Uncle Bernie. “Not a damn soul,” Indigo lied, and flicked the edge of the cracked plate with a hardened nail so the china shattered and split. Farley jumped at the sound, hand edging toward his gun. Stupid thing to carry in Toronto, but then he was often stupid.
Razorface was still staring at her when she looked up. “So. I know a little about you now. You don't like to kill kids. You blow up army offices. What's your beef with Holmes?”
“You know what Unitek is?”
“Yeah. A fucking big corporation.” She wiped her hand on her jeans, fingers arched like she was smearing diesel grease down her leg. How do I play this? He's supposed to be Casey's friend. I think I'll just leave her name out of it. She gathered her thoughts to find the right twist, the manipulative game, and the words that came out were not the ones she had planned. “They just about run the Canadian military. They own the Marsbase outright. Never mind Prime Minister Riel: they're into her to the elbow. And they've been recruiting kids — young kids, thirteen, fifteen — through a massively multiplayer virtual reality game. They pressure the parents in giving consent, use the Military Powers Act to conceal what they're doing, and perform all kinds of fucked-up modifications. And the government rolls over nice because Daddy brings his paycheck home. We've still got troops all the hell over Southeast Asia and God knows where else. They don't call it a war, but we're out there fighting the Chinese every day, and for what? Crippling Canada to defend a bunch of nations that never did a thing for us? My dad died in one of these stupid wars—” Indigo ran her tongue over her teeth, surprised at the taste of her own patriotism. Farley raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to one side, silently amused.
“What's that mean to me?” But the big thug of an American's eyes were sparkling, his eyebrows arched. An emerald stud glittered in his nostril.
“It means we can help each other, I think,” she said.
He laughed a round, slow, rolling laugh and shook his shaved head. “I don't do revolutions, baby. I got better ways to get killed. ‘Preciate the offer of help, though.” He slid his plate onto the breakfast bar, ducked his head, and turned away.
Indigo pressed her shoulders back. The wallboard was even worse on the outside wall, and the stud bit into her arm. She was careful not to lean back hard. “If you don't do revolutions, what good are you?”
Razorface stopped with his hand on the doorknob. Shadows caught in the hollows of his face as he looked over his shoulder. “That's a real excellent question.” He turned completely and regarded her, ignoring Farley much as she usually did. His face shut like a door. “I don't know.”
Indigo opened her mouth, closed it. A sense of something weighed on the air, taste of a storm.
“I don't know, girl,” Razorface said, while Indigo wondered what button she'd pushed, what lever she'd thrown to turn him so cold so fast. “What am I good for? Why don't you tell me.”
She heard Farley lay his dish in the sink. Traffic noise from stories down. Somewhere in the old building, a toilet flushed, and Razorface just looked at her. He couldn't have been that much older. Ten years, maybe. But with the stark light laid across his face, the cold in his eyes seemed bottomless.
“Does that mean you'll help?” she tried in a small voice.
He spat through steel teeth. “Fuck. I guess so.”
Wednesday 8 November, 2062
Returning to geosynchronous orbit, near Clarke Orbital Platform
Restlessness drove Patty to pace the night-shift-dimmed corridors of the Montreal when she should have been sleeping. Or studying. One day more, and she and Carver would be headed home, on the same shuttle as the unfriendly master warrant officer and the Unitek and government dignitaries.
She didn't want to go home.
The Montreal made her itch. Everything about it: from the freedom to decide when her lights went out and what order she studied her homework in, to the ability to throw everything aside and just get out of her quarters and walk. It was freedom, in symbol and reality, and the thought of leaving it behind nagged at her as she trailed soft fingertips along the great ship's curving walls.
She turned right at the next cross-corridor, heading for what would be the sidewall of the Montreal if she thought of it in terms of a wheel. Most of the sunlit space on the forward and aft edges of the habitation wheel was taken up with the Montreal's vast hydroponic gardens — photosynthesis abetted by full-spectrum bulbs.
The gardens — a fragile artificial ecosystem of vegetable plants pollinated by colonies of giant sulphur and red Mormon butterflies — were off-limits to the crew except the botanists and the staff entomologist. But some of the Montreal's valuable window space was reserved for her crew: astronauts have always been happier when they can see out.
Patty undogged the hatchway and stepped into the Montreal's forward lounge, which was usually crowded with off-duty crew members. This late in the ship's cycle, it was almost always empty; she could come here and be completely alone. She loved watching the sun spin with the habitation wheel's rotation, looking as if it rolled in circles like a dropped golden coin. She blinked when someone uncoiled from the sofa closest to the large window — exactly where she liked to sit — his white teeth flashing as he smiled. “Carver!”
“Hey,” he said. “Great view.” He waved her toward the couch.
She crossed the lounge staring at her shoes and curled onto it like a nervous cat. Staring out the round view port, she said, “I know.”
Carver sighed, kicking his feet up on to the couch. Patty felt his eyes on her. “Look,” he said. “Whatever I did to make you mad at me, I'm sorry.”
“Mad?” A startled, incautious glance showed that he looked quite serious. “I'm not—”
He smiled. “Just shy then? Look, I only want to be friends.” He put a hand on her ankle, below the edge of her jeans. His thumb curved around the bone. “Besides, I was hoping you could help with my math homework.”
“Math? What are we talking about?” Her skin tingled where he touched her. She didn't pull her foot away.
“Man,” she said. “Those suck.” She dug in her pocket for her hip, leaning toward him until their shoulders pressed together, and called up the week's homework. “Where did you get stuck?”
He put an arm around her back. “Number seven.”
“That early? Okay, this is going to take some work.” Mom would have cows, she thought. Not one. Five or six. Purple ones.
The full Earth slowly came into view “below” the Montreal as they worked, eclipsing the spinning coin-sun for a little while. Clarke was invisible off the starboard bow. When the sun rose around the curve of the planet, Patty could see the beanstalk picked out in silver like a strand of embroidery wire. She wasn't surprised when Carver leaned closer and softly brushed his lips against the side of her neck.
I should get up and leave, she thought. Mom would tell me there's time for boys after school. After career. He smelled like warm leather and coriander.
She turned her head and kissed him on the mouth.
Thursday 9 November, 2062
It's so late on Wednesday night in Toronto that it's technically Thursday morning, but we can see from the street that the lights in Gabe's living room are on, and neither one of us is sleepy. Space lag, or something. My time sense is fucked.
I imagine Elspeth waiting up for us, Genie curled in her lap, snoring like a puppy. They know we're coming. Gabe must catch my mood, because as he brushes his thumb across the lock on the street-level door he also reaches out absently to squeeze my hand. The metal hand, but he doesn't seem to notice. I'm not looking forward to this.
Which is stupid, because: A, I saw him first and B, Elspeth as much as kicked him into my bed. So why do I have butterflies in my stomach like a teenage girl being introduced to her date's parents for the very first time?
Because, more or less, I am. I never got to play those games. It was kid, then runaway, then soldier. Not a lot of time to date around.
I dig my holistic communications device out of my pocket with my free hand and check the accumulated messages while Gabe leads me up the stairs. It's sort of fun to say holistic. More fun than saying hip, which is what the kids call them. Gee, Jenny, practicing avoidant behaviors? Why, yes, funny you should notice.
I restrain myself from kicking the stairwell wall. Gabe notices and squeezes my hand again, but I'm distracted watching the messages download.
Razorface, Razorface, Razorface.
And the GPS stamps he didn't bother to disable tell me he's in Toronto. Oh, shit.
I key a message—call me! — and leave my hip on, something I never do. Something Razorface never does either, because that handy little positioning unit also means that anybody who has access to the system, or can hack it, knows exactly where you are. So I don't know when he'll get the message.
But if he came all the way from Hartford to find me, we must really need to talk. I stick my hip back into my pocket as we reach the landing and turn the corner. Gabe unlocks the door. I pull my left hand out of his right one. “Sois pas effray'ee,” he says in a low voice, and gives me the old Gabe grin, squinting under curls flattened on one side from sleeping on the airplane.
“Putain de marde.” I stick my tongue out and he winks and licks his lip, breath tickling my ear as he bends down.
“Qu'est-ce que ta chatte mouille, Genevieve?”
I choke, heat flooding my body along with the memories. Naughty, naughty boy. “Ostie de trou de coul. Now it is!” Je suis heureuse d'avoir l'aide d'Elspeth. He'd kill me if I tried to handle him on my own.
Grinning, he pushes open the door.
My namesake Genie hits him in the chest, a flurry of blond locks and bunny pajamas. Leah's a half-step behind, midair when she grabs me, monkey-jump and barbarian yell and trusting Aunt Jenny not to let her fall. Aunt Jenny hasn't yet. Okay, there may be a few things in this life I haven't fucked up.
She squeezes me tight, silent, all runner's muscle and adolescent puppy softness. Genie's babbling about the telescope, about seeing the Montreal. Yep. Secret's out now, and we were on the evening news. I wonder if Alberta and Fred bothered to fill the prime minister in first, or let her find out on CBC. I drag my gaze off the tops of the girls' heads, across the room. Elspeth comes out of the kitchen, drying her hands on her shirt. She catches Gabe's eye. I bite my cheek at the silent communication between them. And then she looks at me, raises one eyebrow, and nods.
And comes toward not Gabriel, but me — and squeezes me into a long hug with Leah in the middle, because Leah won't let go so I can't really stiffen up and pull away. Elspeth's warm and I have to lean into the hug because she's that much shorter.
“The coffee's fresh,” she says, and the smell of it follows her as she steps back. She grins into my eyes.
Elspeth Dunsany. Psychiatrist. Manipulative bitch. Are those synonyms?
Thank the Lord she only uses her powers for good.
Leah finally unwinds and goes to hug her dad, too. By the time Elspeth and I are out of the kitchen with coffee for everybody — Genie still gets mostly the au lait part — and powdered sugar beignets, Gabe and his daughters are ensconced on the sofa in a tangled pile. Genie's already asleep, and I take her cup back into the kitchen while Gabe carries her off to bed.
I come back and settle myself on the floor beside the chair Elspeth claims. Leah's quiet, legs curled under her like a sleeping filly's, holding her mug in both hands and breathing the steam. She reaches out a sock-foot toe and pokes Gabe's thigh. Elspeth passes me a beignet and a paper napkin and we sit in silence, breathing in the smell of coffee and carpet dust and steam heat, of sugar and butter and milk and the cold November night outside.
Leah's not going to last, and we're outwaiting her, making small talk: the age-old conspiracy of grown-ups that children sense but don't quite understand. Don't understand that it's a gentle thing and not something meant to keep them powerless. Gabe talks about free fall and seeing the stars under his feet. Elspeth mouths Richard? and Gabriel nods, takes the drooping coffee cup out of Leah's hand, and totes her off to bed as well. When he comes back, he's carrying his jacket. “Come on,” he says. “Let's go for a walk.”
And then he bends down and kisses me hard while Elspeth is getting her shoes.
Genie heard her sister's bedroom door click shut and her father's distinctive step in the hallway: light but solid, a big calm animal moving on its toes. She slipped from under the covers and pulled a robe on over her pajamas because it was darker. She made sure her night-light was switched off, squirming a little in the darkness, then thought about her slippers but didn't want to feel around under the bed for them.
She cracked the door open and peeked around the edge, covering her mouth with her hand in case she coughed. She was breathing better since they came to Toronto and she started the new treatments, and she thought she could make it down the dark hall without giving herself away.
Adult voices in the living room lured her; she crept forward, careful not to let her bare feet scuff the carpet. The coat tree stood at the corner of the hallway, casting a long shadow from the living room lights. Genie stepped behind it, making herself small, just in time to jerk back against the wall as Papa bent down to kiss Aunt Jenny lingeringly on the mouth.
A cough burned the back of Genie's throat. She stuffed both fists into her mouth and bit down, watching the way her papa's hand pressed to the arch of Jenny's back, the way Jenny's steel arm caught the light as she raised it, twining her fingers in Papa's hair. Genie tasted bile bitter as chewed twigs, her stomach churning. She thought about spicy sharp jambalaya and telescopes and warm arms when she hadn't been able to sleep, thinking about her papa gone farther away, even, than it seemed Maman had gone.
Genie barely remembered Maman, although Jenny and Papa told stories about her. And she loved Aunt Jenny. But if Papa was kissing her like that, it might mean Elspeth wasn't staying.
Genie almost yelped when Elspeth came back from the kitchen, white sneakers dangling from her hand by the laces, but then she made herself watch. And frowned in concentration when Aunt Jenny jumped back guiltily and Elspeth just smiled and sat down on the arm of the sofa to stuff her feet into her shoes.
“Where do you want to go?” Elspeth asked mildly. From her vantage behind the coat tree, Genie saw the red blush run up Jenny's cheek. She opened her mouth as if to speak, and Elspeth held up a hand. “Hush.”
“Raised Catholic,” Aunt Jenny answered, the dry tone that Genie was sure concealed depths she might understand someday.
“So who wasn't?” Elspeth stood, took the coat Papa handed her, and patted Jenny on the upper arm. “Come on,” she said. “We can fight over him after we save the world. In the meantime, I want junk food.” She herded them out the door.
Genie waited until the lock clicked behind them, leaving the apartment dark and empty, before she snuck into her sister's bed and bounced her awake. “Leah. Leah! Wake up!”
Thursday 9 November, 2062
Gabe's kiss still colors my lips as I follow him down the creaking rubber-tread stairs and into cheek-burning chill. “Junk food?” he says as Elspeth catches up with us.
“Grease,” she says, and he grins.
“I know just the place.”
And I know where we're going. Down the block and around the corner to Roupen's. It's half bistro and half greasy spoon and open all night. Gabe drapes one arm around Elspeth and one around me, awkward because she's so much shorter, and the three of us stroll down the street arm in arm, exactly like giggling kids. “Everything go okay up there?” Elspeth asks, with the weight of a hundred other questions pressing the words down.
“The AI is tucked in and happy,” Gabe answers, which has two meanings and of course Elspeth nods to them both. He looks at me. We pause under the sizzling neon sign — real old-fashioned neon — by the chrome steel entryway of Roupen's. Gabe disentangles himself to hold the door for Elspeth and me. She smacks him on the ass as she goes by, and I have to grin at the look he gives her. Half kitten in the cream, half cat that realizes it has tried to eat something much, much bigger than its head. The pair of antique pinball machines just out of the draft inside the door catch my eye and I make them a promise for later. I used to be pretty good at pinball. I bet with the new hand, I can play it again.
“Test flight went okay,” I say. We slide onto the green-and-purple plaid bench of the booth in the corner. Elspeth and I sit on one side. Gabe gets the other. You don't want to sit next to him in a cramped space; you'll be ducking elbows all night.
“Grease,” Elspeth says happily, flipping through the menu. Gabe reaches out unconsciously to rub a thumb possessively over the back of her fine-boned hand, then glances up to check my face, looking for traces of — jealousy? Elspeth just watches his hand move, smiling.
We order, poutine and calamari and fried mozzarella and stuffed mushrooms and pots of coffee and heated milk. There are reasons to love the French. Gabe excuses himself to go to the men's room, which is a patent setup. After the coffee gets there but while the food is still sizzling behind the swinging rubber door, Elspeth pokes me in the arm. “Are we cool?”
I look down at her, pull the spoon out of my coffee, and stick it in my mouth to buy a couple of seconds. The coffee's bitter and rich and good. They use real whole milk here, and fuck the government cholesterol guidelines. The doc's eyes are hazel, green ringed in golden ringed in gray, catching the dim recessed light on little flecks like sunshine. The smoothed edges of hair that normally frizzes into coils blend into the dark red curtains behind her. Behind the window, a pair of headlights slides by; the cold steel table leg presses my knee.
I remember when Valens sent her to jail. I got sensitive to hearing his name on the news, those not-rare-enough occasions when it showed up. I remember how she'd looked on the holo, in an orange jumpsuit just like the one the man I sent away for a lifetime wore. The news feeds characterized her as an evil genius: a brilliant woman gone down the wrong path. Speculated on her links to terrorism. Her trial records were sealed.
I'd pitied her then. And envied her later. And now I find myself looking into the eyes of this woman, the smartest person I'd ever met other than Richard and maybe my sociopathic and blessedly dead sister Barb. And seeing the face of someone who just wanted to know she wasn't absolutely going to get hurt, and maybe she wasn't going to absolutely have to die alone.
“Fuck, Doc.” I look down, smile at my reflection in the back of the spoon, and lie to her like I mean it. “How could we not be cool?”
And because Gabe's in the john, of course the food comes just then. So, thank God, she gets out of answering by grabbing the stuffed mushrooms and hoarding the plate on her side of the table. Gabe shoots us a look when he gets back; I imagine he's surprised to find us giggling and fencing with our forks instead of heads bent in hushed intensity. The food on the Montreal was decent, but it's nice to eat something dead and unhealthy.
We stuff ourselves on greasy tidbits and wash it down with gallons of coffee, making the kind of cheerful small talk I've almost forgotten, and after we're sated — Gabe listlessly poking the last few morsels — I keep my date with the pinball machines.
They're the good kind, older than I am, every widget and pulley mechanical rather than computerized — although these have been refitted to run on cash cards rather than coins. I rest my left hand on the button experimentally. I had to give up pinball after I accidentally dented a couple of machines. But the new hand is sensitive enough. I can feel the hard edge of the metal ridging the hollow between my thumb and forefinger, the pressure of the flipper control against middle and ring fingers. The clarion jangle and peal of the machine's sound effects, and the faint shiver of its body when I test the flipper.
Elspeth lays a hand on my right elbow as I pull the plunger back. “Will it take two players?”
Gabe snorts. “Oh, you don't wanna do that, Ellie.” And Elspeth just smiles. I smile back. And proceed to mop the floor with her four times running, which she had to know was going to happen.
I'm just that fast.
Thursday 9 November, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
Valens steepled long, blunt fingers over the crystal of his interface plate and stared between the interleaved knuckles. His eyes felt sprayed with powdered glass. “Alberta,” he said, resisting the urge to rub them, “trust me.”
The crisp Unitek VP paced his office, her fists balled in the pockets of her tailored suit. “We need to step up the process,” she spat. She rocked her shoulders as if they hurt. “Riel knows about Le Qu'ebec. I need to have pilots ready for the second ship by early next year. You're confident the system we have in place on the Montreal will be adequate?”
Valens stood from his desk and came around it. “As confident as I can be. The AI is well contained. I have good control of Casey and Koske, and I'm informed that the precautionary programming in their implants is seamless. It's highly unlikely that there will be any problems.”
“How soon can your young pilots be ready?”
He stretched unobtrusively. “Four weeks. If we start the reflex enhancement process immediately. You know my granddaughter is in the program.”
“How could I miss her?” Holmes tossed expensively styled hair. “I've no quarrel with it. We're not going to get to go ourselves, Fred.”
“No.” His office was paneled, but laid out for efficiency over intimidation; he hadn't been in it long enough to attract clutter, and years of traveling had kept his threshold of personal belongings low. “I know. I'll die here or on Mars. But we'll give as many a fresh start as we can. And beat the Chinese to brave new worlds as well.”
“We can catch the generation ships easily. It's the Huang Di that worries me.”
“She's a smaller ship than the Montreal. Or the Calgary will be.” Valens paused. “How fast are we building these?”
“As fast as we can. I'm still under pressure from the board, and I mean to spend the money before I lose it. Which is a very real issue—”
“Do they understand how critical the ecological situation is?”
“The popular and scientific press are so divided. And people generally want to believe things will turn out for the best. It's how houses get built on sea cliffs and dictators come to power. Half of them think I'm Chicken Little, Fred.”
“You're paid very well to be Chicken Little.”
Holmes shrugged, untangling a stray feather of silver hair from the pearl stud she wore and tucking it behind her ear. “Fortunately, your girl Casey impressed the hell out of my CEO on that test flight — that bought us a few more months. The Vancouver swung into production last week. We're getting assistance from our PanMalaysian trade partners, who are running shit-scared of the PanChinese Alliance, and the raw materials from the asteroid mining program are just barely enough to meet the schedule. The rest of the commonwealth and Australia are on board, and Charlie's breeding up those neurosurgical nanites of his at record speeds.” Holmes, for just a moment, let him see the tired behind her eyes. “We'll salvage something. As much as we can.” She tipped her head to one side, and that strand of hair got away from her again. “We'll be dead before it gets bad, in any case, and money carries a certain — insulative — value.”
“Get my kids off the planet,” Valens said. “That's all I ask. Beat the Chinese out there.”
“You know they'll retaliate, Fred. We've got some unsettling data regarding Le Qu'ebec.”
“What do you mean?”
“It looks like her crash was not precisely accidental.”
He was surprised at how fast the words came to his lips. The thought must have already been there — floating, waiting to form. “Sabotage.”
“There are always people willing to die for obscure political values and points of honor,” she said. “Frankly, I don't see the profit in it. But yes, sabotage.”
Valens blinked, twining his broad, blunt-tipped fingers together. There are a lot of things you don't see the profit in, my dear Alberta, he thought. That doesn't mean they're all without value. But he nodded, and he smoothed his face, and he smiled. “We'll just have to make sure nothing like that happens to the Montreal, then, won't we?”
Thursday 9 November, 2062
I would have gone for five games of pinball, but the pocket I stuffed my HCD into starts to vibrate. I juggle my hip out and flip it open. “It's me.”
“Maker.” Razorface's voice tinny over my ear clip leaves me giddy with relief, and then the pain in that voice cuts through and my stomach knots around too much greasy food.
“Face, what's wrong?”
“We gotta talk.”
Elspeth gives me the concerned look. I hold my metal hand up, cupped slightly in the universal gesture for just a sec. “All right. Where are you?” I want to talk in person. Safer.
“I'll come get you,” he says. “I've got your truck. And your cat.”
“We hadda skip town. Sorry. Tell me where you're at.”
I give him directions and make my apologies to Gabe and Ellie. Gabe kisses me good night while Elspeth watches and then I zip my coat and turn off my HCD to walk through darkness to the blue truck waiting by the curb. At least that solves the problem of who's going home with whom. Which I imagine will be a subject of some quiet negotiations presently, and I need to sit down and have a talk with Leah about what's what. Because Gabe will chicken out.
Christ. This is going to suck in new and revelatory ways.
The rusted chrome door handle of the old Bradford is chilly against my steel fingers. I can't get used to having sensation on that side. I recoil, force my fingers to curl, and hook it open. Razorface sits in the green glow of the dash, motor running, as I fasten my harness and take off my ear clip and mike. I wrap them in my handkerchief and stuff them into the calf pocket on my cargo pants as Razorface, wordless, pulls away from the curb. Something meows in the rumble seat. I turn, and there's all seventeen pounds of Boris, resonating as he rubs his face against the grate of his carrier. I offer him my forefinger, which he sniffs with dignity before rumbling some more. At least I still smell like me.
“Maker,” Face says softly. “I got bad news, babe.”
Oh. He's never called me that before, and from the hitch in his voice I know better than to take offense. “Barbara? I heard. I won't weep over my sister, Face. I should have had the balls to kill her years ago.”
“She took Mitch and Bobbi with her.”
The hum of the truck's electric motor fills my ears while I try to make sense of that. God. Kids. Neither one of them was twenty-five. Why is it always the kids?
And then he speaks again, voice like hammer blows on an empty oil tank. “And Leesie, Maker. Stone bitch killed my wife.”
I turn — I can't not turn — and stare at his face. It feels like a terrible intrusion. He glances over quickly, driving with both hands on the wheel. Good man. I never use the autopilot either. The look etched around the corner of his eyes is enough to make my heart skip a beat.
He turns his attention back to the road. “You know who she was working for?”
“Unitek,” I say without hesitation. “Alberta Holmes.” I'd like to tell him Valens's name as well, but I know Valens isn't behind this. I lean forward against the harness and press the heels of both hands into my eyes. “How did they die, Face?”
“Babe.” His voice…
Mary, mother of God. Razorface. Stop talking. Stop talking now. White flashes sparkle my vision. I pull my hands down and look forward. “Say it, kiddo.” I haven't called him that in almost thirty years.
“Barb shot Mitch in the back. He took the bullet for Bobbi. Bobbi and your sister… Maker, you don't want to know.”
“They burned to death, Maker.”
“The hospital was good for you,” he says then, changing the subject. “You look real good.”
I forgot. Every time he turns, he's looking at the left side of my face, and the massive scars that aren't there anymore. Gone with the brush of a hand, leaving a faint mottling like the flank of a trout.
“Thanks,” I say, because I don't have it in me to explain.
“It hurt?” All that pain he'll never let though his steel teeth soaks that word.
I close my eyes and drink in his friendship. “Yeah.” And a moment later I open them and say, “Come on back to my hotel. I don't know about you, but I need a drink.”
“If you'll take your damn cat back,” he says, but I hear tenderness. Razorface would never let anybody call him sweet.
Richard, are you there?
“I hear you, Jenny.”
Creepy. Like you're still in my head.
“After a fashion, I am.”
Tell me where to find the information you dug up for me. The files connecting Valens and Holmes to Barb, and Barb to the West Hartford offices of CCP.
He gives me codes and passwords, and I take Razorface's hip away while he drives and key them in. “Face, I've got some hard evidence that ties CCP in with the killings in Hartford. Do you have somebody down there you can have handle it, still?”
“I'll find somebody,” he says. “I'm outta that scene, Maker. Getting too old. Look, I got me hooked up with some people who might be useful. I'm gonna pay back that gray-haired bitch if it's the last thing I do.”
“Razor. What sort of people?”
“The sort of people who blow shit up,” he says. “A chick and her pet thugboy. They trying to figure out how to take out Holmes and her project without killing any kids.”
“Oh, shit.” I lean my forehead against the cool glass of the window. It's twenty-five years ago, and I'm kissing a boy I'm going to get killed. A familiar old chill settles in between my shoulder blades like the return of an absent enemy, and I almost welcome it. “Can you slow them down? That project — I don't care what happens to Holmes, what happens to Valens. The project has got to come off, though. And what I gave you will take them out through legal channels. I hope.”
“Maybe.” Big shoulders rise and fall, but he doesn't take a hand off the wheel. “What the hell else I got to do? They got a nice offer to go kill some government bigwig instead, it seems. I can probably push them that way. Don't suppose you'd wanna drop a warning to whoever it is if I can get you word?”
“I probably have a way. Are they terrorists? Or assassins?” I should ask their names. But I don't really want to know them, and I don't want to make him do that. Yet.
“A little of both,” he says, and offers me a twisted grin. “Who says the law is right? Most cops aren't like your friend Mitch. And I'm getting too old for this shit.”
“We all are, Face.” I hand him back his hip. “Get that to Hartford's civilian commissioner of police. A Dr. Kuai Hua. I know Mitch trusted her. She's a straight arrow.” It's been a nice leave. A nice little honeymoon.
And now it's time to go back to the war.
Thursday 9 November, 2062
Richmond Hill, Ontario
Frederick Valens let himself in the front door, expecting a silent house and darkness. Instead a puddle of light fell over the easy chair, an afghan-swaddled figure lying through it. The holo flickered in the corner, sound turned off. Valens felt around for the remote, unwilling to raise his voice to command it to darkness.
It snapped off on its own, and Valens's husband shrugged off the blanket and came across the faded Persian carpets. A sleepy African gray parrot — Valens couldn't tell whether it was Dexter or Sinister — clucked in the cage that took up the west wall of the room. “Georges,” Valens said. “You waited up.”
“I can never sleep when you're in space.” A stocky man, bald as an egg now but with a twinkle in pale eyes that lay deepset behind spectacles he refused to give up for surgical vision correction.
“The whole time I was on Mars. You didn't sleep then either?” Valens bent down and kissed Georges on the mouth.
“Not a wink. Seven years. I wasn't bald when you left, remember?” He gave Frederick a squeeze and stepped away. “You look exhausted. Tea's hot. We've got stuff for sandwiches.”
Valens followed his husband into the kitchen, unbuttoning his uniform jacket as he moved. He paused in the hall to hang it and step out of his high-gloss shoes. Georges's voice floated back to him. “Your son is pussy-whipped, Fred.”
Valens snorted laughter as he padded onto the kitchen tile in sock-feet. “It's no wonder. You should have met his mother—”
“I'm rather glad I didn't.” Georges filled two heavy self-warming mugs with spicy crimson tea, heavy sugar in the one he gave to Valens. “Our daughter-in-law is trying to move Patty to a gifted school in California—”
“Our daughter-in-law will find herself up against the Military Powers Act if she tries it,” Valens said with a shrug. He blew steam across his mug, holding it to his lips to feel the warmth, and closed his eyes. “I had an interesting conversation with Alberta today—”
“The vulture in the power suit?” Georges didn't look up. “Mayonnaise?”
“A succinct assessment. And on what?”
“We have three different sandwich fillings—”
“Each one healthier than the last, no doubt? You know, if you're going to eat that stuff, putting mayonnaise on it defeats the purpose.”
“It's a matter of aesthetics.”
“In that case, give me the extra-lean, low-salt roast beef, please.” Valens grinned when Georges turned back to the refrigerator and produced a package of roast beef and a
“you-can't-blame-a-man-for-trying” shrug. “They fed us well on the Montreal. Not a powdered egg in sight. Patty's going to do fine, Georges—”
He stopped talking as Georges slid a plate down the counter to him, frowning hard.
“Are you sure you're doing right by her, Fred?” A blunt question, with enough of an edge on it that Valens knew Georges had been biting it back for a long time. And not the question Valens had been expecting.
Valens paused with his hand on the sandwich. “Can I trade this tea in for a beer?”
“After you eat,” Georges allowed, leaning back against the counter with his arms crossed.
Valens, knowing the look, drank his tea and ate, standing bent over the counter, sprouts crunching between his teeth. “That wasn't a rhetorical question, was it?”
Georges looked up from putting the mayonnaise back into the refrigerator. “I'm concerned that Holmes is rubbing off on you a bit. This isn't what I'd call ethical, what you're doing—”
“Unethical was telling you anything about it,” Valens replied, rinsing crumbs from his plate. “But that's beside the point,” he continued, when Georges raised a hand as if to interject. “It's irresponsible, certainly. Reckless. Which is how great progress gets made—”
“You can't make an omelet without smashing a few atoms?” Georges didn't sound convinced. Valens tugged a breakfast stool away from the counter and hoisted himself onto it, hooking his toes around the lowest rung. Georges returned with two beers and gave him one.
They leaned on their elbows over the counter, shoulder to shoulder, until Valens edged sideways and bumped Georges lightly. “Desperate times,” he said. “And it wouldn't be any less ethical to let Alberta go unsupervised. She's not so much a corporate raider as Attila the Hun—”
“All too true. But it's Patty, Fred.”
The heart of it, Valens thought, and glanced over his shoulder at Georges. “Love,” he said. “Do you think I would ever take chances that I didn't share?”
Georges took a long swallow of his drink and set it down on the counter, where he stared at it for a moment before he answered. “No,” he said. “Come on. Let's go to bed.”
Thursday 9 November, 2062
Elspeth's skin was soft as brushed cotton, the curve of her hip fitting the palm of his hand as if made to go there. She leaned forward, stretched as luxuriantly as a cat, and spread her weight across his chest. “Ow,” she said, as he reached to pull the covers over her shoulders.
“Bit my lip.”
It was still barely dawn outside the window, but he heard the smile in her voice. “I could kiss it better.”
She laughed like a much younger woman. “You're welcome to. How's Jenny doing?”
He let that hand slide up her waist, across her back. Considered the complexity of emotions that touch raised in him, the softness of her flesh, the cleverness in her hips and wit and fingers. I could find myself in an awful lot of trouble if I'm not careful here. “Better than I expected. If you're asking—”
She shivered at the touch, pressing her body against his. “Gabe, you couldn't hide that if you wanted to. Trust me, everybody east of Lake Superior has it figured out: you touch her and she just about glows.”
“I don't want to hurt you, Ellie.”
A deeper shiver. “Would it help if I told you I wouldn't let you?”
“Would you be lying?” Water ran in the bathroom, Genie's door banging open to the accompaniment of Leah's sleepy complaints. He would have thought the girls would be begging to stay home from school. I wonder if it's a plot. Then he chuckled softly. They're becoming teenagers. Everything is a plot.
“Gabe.” Her small hand on his face. Toes curling beside his thighs, she lifted herself and shifted her weight, slid to the side to lie curled in the crook of his arm. Her hair was wiry, dark as a black sheep's wool — and falling straight tonight. It had been like rivers of black water in his hands. She must have ironed it before he and Jenny got home. “I don't know. I was never good at commitments. Or risks. And this is complicated, and — I figured I was going to spend the rest of my life in a box. You decide to let go of things.”
What would you do if you had to choose? He wasn't ready to answer that, but it led him to an easier question. “Ellie. Do you think this can work?”
She chuckled and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. “My official medical opinion?”
“You never know until you try.” The shower cut off. A door opened. Water started running again. “You should have gotten a two-bath apartment. Have you thought about what you're going to tell the girls?”
He groaned. “The doctor believes it would be nonconstructive to just pretend there's nothing going on.”
She bit. “She seemed unhappy when she left.”
“No, she didn't seem happy.” And that was half the tightness in his chest right there. “She seemed scared.”
“What if she wants to be left alone?”
Elspeth raised her head from his shoulder, rising light catching in the gold-green bands of her irises. “Then she won't answer the phone.”
Thursday 9 November, 2062
Face has left, the sun's coming up around the edges of Toronto, and I'm opening the grille of Boris's cat carrier when my phone buzzes. I pick it up: Gabe. No preamble, just, “As-tu besoin de moi?”
“Oui,” I say. “I need you.”
He closes the connection, and twenty minutes later he's at my door. I open it and he steps inside. “Everything okay?”
“I'll live. Where's the doc?” Half bitterness and half relief. You're too old to go around owning people, Jenny. Oh, yeah. But it would be nice to try, wouldn't it? Carve my initials in his arm—
“With the girls.” He puts a hand on my left shoulder, where I can halfway feel it, and leads me to the bed, pulls me down against his chest, and makes me lie with my head on his shoulder while he smoothes my hair. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I just found out some old friends didn't make it. Calisse de crisse. I should be used to it by now.”
“Never get used to it,” he says.
There's something achingly satisfying about just playing house this way. I won't say it beats the sex, because the sex is pretty goddamned amazing. But it's even more amazing, some nights, just to be held. His finger traces a spiral behind my ear and I sigh. “Penny for your thoughts, Genevieve.”
I poke at them and reply, surprised. “I'm happy.” I'm not really lying. Despite Barb, Mitch, Bobbi, Leesie, and the whole big fucking world. I wonder if I did the right thing telling Razorface to go to the cops. If it will damage the Montreal project just as surely and deeply as letting him and his pet terrorists blow the hell out of the lab. The whole idea is so fragile, so foolish. And I won't let the Chinese get there first. Not after thirty years of expansionist policy.
“Pourquoi es-tu heureuse?”
Yeah, I know, Gabe. I just told you my friends were dead. Crazy, huh? “J'ai tout que j'ai voulu.” And that's not a lie either. “Toi. Moi. Les jeunes filles, Elspeth. Presque comme une famille.”
“A family? That's all you want, love?”
And just like that, into the realm of all the things I never thought Gabe would ever have to know. Boris jumps up on the bed beside us and bumps my steel hand with his head. I chicken out and go for the joke. “Well, maybe just a dog.”
He ignores my feeble attempt at a redirect. “Pourquoi n'as-tu jamais des enfants? And where did the cat come from?”
I mumble something noncommittal against his chest and push the cat away. Boris goes, purring. There's no light in the room but a funeral-parlor style floor lamp beside the reading chair — the kind that casts a circle of light on the ceiling to reflect softly downward and make everything in the room look sickly green. “It's my cat. From Hartford. My friend brought him up.”
Bulldog Gabe presses me. “You'd've made a wonderful mother.”
The redirect isn't working. Frontal assault. “Are you proposing to me, Gabriel?”
He blinks. “Would it work?”
“Wouldn't be fair to the doc, now, would it?”
“Developing a taste for fidelity all of a sudden?” He kisses me on the head to take the sting out of his words.
“I—” Elspeth isn't a threat. If anything, she's better for Genie, at least, than I am. If only I didn't like you so damned much, Doc. I won't let the girls see us fight over their father like a couple of alley cats. No matter how good it would feel to not be a grown-up once in a while. And there's certainly enough of Gabe to go around. “Ask me in a year, mon ami.” It's a little weird to say that, because I'm even halfway sure we'll both still be around that long.
He nods, and we lie there for a little just listening to each other breathe. “That was a bad question I asked you earlier, wasn't it? It's none of my business. I'm sorry.”
“No,” I answer, and he tenses in my arms. “I mean, you have the right to ask me anything, mon ange. But you will not like the answers to many of your questions.”
“Oh.” I expect him to withdraw. He pulls me closer. “Would it help to talk about it?”
I know what he's thinking. Battlefield rape, or the casual boyfriend I sent to a life sentence — and a short life sentence at that — or maybe childhood sexual abuse. He's thinking he'll hold me and dry my tears and make a show of telling me it wasn't my fault. And that I'll somehow feel better, after. Gabe strokes my hair. The silence has gotten too long. I close my eyes.
“I hear you, Jenny.”
Hold my hand?
Richard laughs, but he's right there. “Brave girl.”
“Gabe, before I was in the army… I was a runaway.”
“Oh. I think I understand.”
I lay my steel hand flat on his chest, feeling warmth and a distant sort of pressure, the tremble of his heart in the cavern of his chest. “No,” I say again. I've never told anybody this.
“Je pense que tu ne comprends pas, Gabriel. I was a runaway. A — une peau.” His whole body contracts as if from a belly blow. A skin, but that's not what it means in the gutter. “A street-corner whore.”
It's not sinking in. I can feel it in the enormity of the silence that fills the room.
“Merci `a Dieu,” he gasps. “Putain de marde. I guessed a lot, Jenny, but that — I never—”
“I never wanted you to.” Feeling the stiffness in his body, I wait for him to pull away. Peddling it is not high on the list of things nice girls do where Gabe comes from. “I… it wasn't my choice, exactly, and—”
And then he whispers into my hair and splits my heart from branch to root. “Tu as fais ce que tu devais faire, ch'erie,” he whispers. You did what you had to do. “You lived. You're here. Quel est mauvais avec cela?”
Gabriel. I never have had enough faith in you. “Je t'aime,” I say against his neck, and feel him smile. “And it was pretty terrible.”
“So you decided not to have kids because of it?”
“Non.” The third denial. “Chr'etien. Mon maquereau.” My pimp. “He decided it for me. Do you know what quinacrine is?”
“It's an antimalarial. I've taken it.”
“Yes.” Me, too. “It's also a caustic agent. Administered internally, with phenol, it's a cheap way of performing a nonreversible sterilization. It causes”—I continue over his comprehending gasp, because now it's in my mouth and I have to spit it out—“massive scarring. Like a really bad case of the clap.” My voice — clinical, level — ends in a silence he doesn't fill. “I'm barren. I never have to worry about birth control.”
“Brave girl,” Richard whispers one more time inside my head before he vanishes.
Gabriel, my angel, pulls me so close I can feel him thinking. “That's—” His vocabulary fails him, which might just be an international first. Gabe had a pretty sheltered childhood, by my standards, but he does have a knack for the colorful turns of phrase.
“Just as well. If I had had a baby, Gabe, I'd be dead by now. I never would have gotten away from Chr'etien. Army wouldn't have taken me.”
“But later. You could have—”
“Had a test-tube kid? I'm old-fashioned.”
I sit up, away from him, fold my legs under me and grin down. He smiles back, reaches up to pinch my nose. I bite his finger. “You stupid shit. I did. Or didn't you notice?”
He laughs. And then the gentle touches grow considering as he strokes the faded places where my scars were washed away by Charlie's wonderful machines. “Jen?”
“Maybe we should think about taking precautions anyway. Given”—and he touches smooth skin where shiny scars once gleamed—“how completely the rest of your scars have healed.”
“I…” Shit. I never thought of that. Never had to think of that before. “I'm getting to be an old lady, Gabe.”
Not quite old enough not to have to give it a thought. But old enough that if I wanted a baby, it would most likely involve a romantic interlude with a fistful of technicians.
“Million-to-one shots happen,” he says.
I know that. I'm alive. And it's an ugly world. But it was an ugly world when I came into it, too. “Would you think me irresponsible if I declared myself open to a miracle?”
He sits up, too, and pulls me into the circle of his arms. “I wouldn't promise not to press you on some other things we talked about tonight, is all.”
“Don't make any damned assumptions, Castaign,” I tell him, grabbing for the distance I've utterly lost.
His face rests against my neck. He won't retreat, and I don't have the heart to push real hard. “Hey, Casey, you know something?”
“Your mama wears combat boots.”
Damn, he makes me laugh.
Thursday 9 November, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Tingling from mandated tai chi, Xie Min-xue stretched in his rack and made sure the shade was drawn tight and his webbing sealed before he reached out and tapped on the terminal set in the underside of the next tier, selecting the poems of Du Fu.
Subversive, but classical, and so grudgingly approved:
A roadside bystander questions the soldier:
The soldier answers only, “Another conscription—
At fifteen my companions guarded the northern River;
At forty, we were ordered west to work the soil.
The village elder bound our brows as we were leaving;
White-haired homecoming, we still patrol the border—
That border where a river of blood has wound,
And still the Emperor craves more land.
Nothing ever changes, Min-xue thought as he finished the T'ang dynasty poem and shut the terminal down. He scratched the implant site at the nape of his neck, found flaking skin, and chewed the inside of his cheek pensively while he treated the rash with an emollient cortisone cream. For the glory and the future of the Chinese people, we are going to the stars.
He closed his eyes and lay back, the image of the endless train of battle wagons raising dust behind his eyes as he worried at the mess-hall rumors of skirmishes begun along the Russian border. He thought of his grandparents in Taiwan, failing crops, failing fisheries, and famine. He tried to breathe steadily and compose himself for sleep. It remained elusive, the webbing harsh against his skin, his cubby stuffy and overwarm, his mother's stories of the Taiwanese and PanMalaysian wars he was too young to remember churning in the back of his brain.
White-haired homecoming, we still patrol the border, he thought. That border where a river of blood has wound And still the Emperor craves more land.em>
Thousands of years.
And nothing has changed. Minutes passed, and at first he thought the voice tickling his inner ear was a dream.
The second time, he heard it plainly. “Xie Min-xue.”
His eyes opened in the faintly green-lit darkness. “Who is there?”
“Just the voices in your head, Second Pilot. You can hear me?” A throb of excitement colored the voice. “You don't need to speak out loud. Just subvocalize.”
I can hear you, Min-xue said. You didn't answer me. Who are you? Wondering as quietly as he could if he was losing his mind.
“I'm the voice of the Montreal, Xie Min-xue. An artificial intelligence… but you may call me Richard. I'm speaking to you through your implants.”
Min-xue thrashed in the darkness and slammed his head into the clammy plastic-padded ceiling. “Ow.” This is an enemy intelligence. Possibly even a loyalty test. I'll tell it nothing. Bracing himself one-handed, he reached for his com.
The voice chuckled as if in his ear. “Go ahead. Make your commander suspect your emotional stability. Maybe they'll even send you home. Maybe they'll just execute you and save time.”
Min-xue froze. He let his hand drift to his side. What do you want?
“I heard you reading the Du Fu. Beautiful, isn't it? ‘Birthing sons is a poor bargain: better to get girls instead — Girls can stay home and marry: boys will be buried in weedy trenches.' It makes you homesick, doesn't it?”
“I'm homesick, too, Xie Min-xue. I had hoped we could talk.”
How are you talking to me, stranger?
Richard. How are you talking to me?
“There are enough similarities in the Canadian and Chinese nanotech networks that I can manage a conversation. With some effort. I can't program them, though — don't worry. Just talk.”
Which could be a lie. This could still be a loyalty check.
“If they knew what you were thinking, they wouldn't need to test you, would they?”
Which was an excellent point. Collect more data, then. I wasn't sleeping anyway, Min-xue said. So you like the T'ang poets, Richard?
Friday 10 November, 2062
Prime Minister Riel let her left hand trace a small, irritated pattern in a null spot on her interface plate. Her other hand rested on her antique desk, dark wood with a hand-rubbed French finish imparting a deep, supple glow to the technology overlay. Riel pursed her lips before she spoke again and adjusted her mug incrementally. The sun wasn't over the horizon yet and she was already on her fourth cup of coffee.
She sat. The corporate executive staring down the barrel of her enormous desk remained standing. “Dr. Holmes. I don't suppose you care to update me a little more thoroughly on the status of your FTL space exploration program? And explain to me why I wasn't apprised of a fatal accident before media rollout of the Montreal?”
Alberta Holmes blinked. Riel thought her blue suit made her look even more like some sort of toxic lizard than usual. Pale, papery skin creased like powdered rice paper at either side of Holmes's mouth. Riel half expected her tongue to dart between parted lips — and for it to be forked, and a dusky blue to match the suit.
“We thought it best to maintain your deniability,” she answered after a pause.
“Because it's always better to look like an idiot than a criminal?” Her voice stayed mild, but the nail Riel pressed against her desktop interface bent, tearing the quick. She flinched and reached for a tissue in case it bled. “In the future, Dr. Holmes, your team will be a bit more forthcoming. Or I'll assign some of my own people to oversee the project. Is that clear?”
“I'm seriously considering pulling the plug today.”
“Unitek provides 80 percent of the funding, of course.” Alberta let one corner of her mouth creep toward a smirk. She scuffed an impeccably shod foot on Riel's antique carpet.
Riel smiled. This sort of negotiation was her home court. “And Canada provides the credibility, a large percentage of the resources, and most of the personnel. The crews are members of my armed services, and their safety is my responsibility.”
“The Montreal launch was a major public relations coup. We can have her sister ships ready in six months. With civilian pilots.”
“Children.” Riel caught herself twisting the tissue and set it aside.
“The army takes enlistees at sixteen.”
“Yes,” Riel answered. “It does.” Holmes was painting herself neatly into the corner. If Riel was lucky, she'd hardly have to chase her there at all. She stood and dropped the tissue in her wastebasket. “They can't enlist at fourteen. Under the Military Powers Act.”
“But I can hire them at fourteen. Given parental consent. And I have.”
“Yes, and if you cross me, Alberta, so help me God I will have them fucking drafted and take them out of your hands. I will seize the Montreal and I will have you locked in the same cell your Dr. Dunsany occupied for twelve long years.”
“I can.” Finally, Riel let her smile show. She came around her desk, tasting satisfaction. “The current age of selective service is eighteen, but we can push it as low as fourteen and as high as seventy in cases of special talent and need. We used it to recruit scientists and little baby computer hackers during the PanMalaysian and South African wars. Actually, I believe a couple of the older pilots were reactivated under the same provision. I'm surprised you haven't thought it through. The crew members of a ship — any ship — traveling under the authority of the Canadian government and bearing the might of her military will enjoy the protections and bear the responsibilities inherent in that post.” Riel enjoyed watching Holmes's face twitch as she realized she'd been outmaneuvered. And that way, I maintain some fragment of control over you, you reckless bitch. Riel closed the distance between them.
Holmes tilted her head and forced a smile that almost looked real. “We put your party in power and we will take you out.” Riel could see the quiver at the base of Holmes's throat. “Don't fuck with me, Constance.”
“Every chance I get,” Riel answered. “I expect all your data transferred to my science adviser's desk by midnight.”
Friday 10 November, 2062
Razorface covered his mouth as he coughed, leaning into the shadow of a doorway. Breathing stung, like somebody was leaning on his chest. He swallowed blood and the nauseating, ropy sweetness of phlegm. The swallowing hurt, too, but he hid a grimace. He wiped his palm on his pants, then rolled his hip unit between his hands, considering.
He started coughing again while he was waiting for Simon to answer, and the first expression on the doctor's face was one of concern. “Razorface. You need to see a doctor about that.”
“The air's just shit, man. Been out in the city all day. Look, I got a download from Maker for you. It's about Mitch. She says you'll know who to take it to.”
Thursday 16 November, 2062
When Leah gets home from school, I'm lying in wait — sitting on the sofa, the frosty autumn-morning clarity of the drug just beginning to limn the world in stained-glass light. I threw Gabe and Elspeth out and told them I'd take Leah in to the lab. I've got to check out the training equipment tonight, and the first wave of kids goes in for surgery on Monday. I start teaching in a week.
I'm a damned lucky woman, and I know it. The poster child for Valens's research, for the success of the crudely wired modifications he worked on us so many years ago. Thirty percent of my compatriots never walked again, and most of the ones who did are dead. Richard hacked the records, and he tells me it was usually by suicide.
Believe me. I'm not in a position to judge.
The nanotech is safer. Gentler. And he won't be trying to fix anything broken, the way he had to with me: just augment her already speedy, youthful reflexes.
I'm so scared for Leah I can barely breathe. But when the door opens and I stand to greet her, it's my goddaughter who confronts me. “Aunt Jenny,” she says, tossing her carryall into the corner. “Where's everybody?”
“Bien,” she says, kicking the door shut and reaching around to unbutton her skirt. “Nous devons parler.”
“Yes, we do.”
She grins at me, bright eyes wise as her mom's. “You got nominated because Dad was chicken, didn't you?”
I think of a cold December day two and a half decades before. You're my best friend, he told me. It took me almost thirty years to realize that that was Castaign for You stupid girl, I love you.
Spilt milk and all that. “What gave us away?”
She walks down the hallway to her bedroom, scooping up her school clothes as she sheds them like a snake. “Genie caught you kissing the other night after she was supposed to be in bed. She squealed.”
“Oink oink,” Leah says. She disappears through her bedroom door. “You're not very slick, Aunt Jenny.”
She makes me laugh. “I've never gotten away with a damned thing in my life. Will you believe me if I tell you everything's cool?”
I hear drawers moving, the closet swinging open. Little grunts as she yanks her jeans up. Still growing. “I always wondered why you and Dad… after mom died, I mean. I asked him once if he was going to marry you. It was kind of a stupid thing to ask, I guess.”
“A complicated thing.”
“Are you moving in with us?”
“Are you going back to Hartford?” She comes out again, willowy adolescent with a zit beside her nose, faded blue jeans with the stylish multicolor luminescent whip-stitch up the seam, fringe, and holographic boots.
“I don't think so.” There's nothing there I want to go back for, now that Boris is here and my best friends are dead. “I was going to find someplace here. Unless they ship me out long term on the Montreal.”
“Is that going to happen?”
“Ch'erie, I don't know.” She's so beautiful she makes my eyes sting. I might even live long enough to see her grown up and married, fat babies and a career. Hell. A career flying starships. Just like her old Aunt Jenny. I might outlive Genie.
So might Gabe. “I've got some other news for you, too.”
She stops midmotion, swing of golden hair backlit in a sunbeam, dust motes dancing like guardian angels beside her face. “You got the list.”
The list of students selected for the final pilot training. The first small trial group. “You're in.”
“Eeeee!” She squeals and jumps, barrels into my arms, puppy dog lithe and all that adolescent dignity utterly forgotten as I pick her up and swing her around. “I'm going to fly! I'm going to fly just like you!”
I swallow my unease and grin into her hair. “You rocked the test scores, kiddo.” Gabe's too scared about it to think straight. Leah can't wait to get shot full of nanotech. And me? I keep thinking about the little machines remaking my body molecule by molecule, and what they could mean to Genie. And what could go wrong.
She bounces back, pushing her hair out of her face. It's my gesture, a one-handed rake, and it makes my eyes sting. “Can we go now?”
“Gonna get a coat?”
“Yes, Mother.” Complete with stuck-out tongue. Leah goes after a clean sweater and I follow her, and she's back on topic like a ferret down a rabbithole. “You and Ellie — I'm used to Dad having girlfriends. But it's just—”
“Not like regular girlfriends?”
“Aunt Jenny. It's a little embarrassing, but… It's usually more — un trou de passage, you know?”
“Marde.” And then I think about what I was doing at her age. “Oh, hell, kid. You're old enough to know what a cheap lay is. And what a not-so-cheap one is, too. Neither Elspeth or I could ever come between your father and you.” I grin. “Honey — old, fat people need sex, too.”
Her lips twitch, and she giggles. “It's such a big deal?”
“You can live without it. But very few people actually want to. Is there a boy you've got your eye on? Because if there is, maybe we should talk about some other things, too.”
“When there is…” She roots around in the laundry basket until she finds a red sweater shot with silver threads. “Does this match?”
“You're asking me?” I gesture down at my stained jeans and the plain white blouse I'm wearing. I make the eye contact and hold it. “When there is, Leah, you'll tell me before you do anything serious?”
“So you can sic Dad on him?”
“So I can teach you how to take care of yourself.”
After a brief hesitation, she nods and laughs, but it trails off. The Hyperex I've taken in preparation for tonight's simulation makes every movement of her long legs in those gaudy pants trail seams of light. Her hands are like white butterflies.
“Leah, what's wrong?”
“Elspeth's not going to be leaving because of you, is she?”
Oh. I'm irrationally jealous, a sharp spike I never quite felt over Gabe. I bite down on it, hard, until it passes. Mine. Dammit. Mine. “No,” I say. “I don't think so.”
She raises her arms, tugs the sweater down. I go to smooth it in the back and straighten her collar. “Good,” she says. “I like her.” And then she turns around suddenly and is all boneless puppy in my arms, her face pressed to my chest. “I don't want you to go away again.”
Oh, sweetheart. “Next time I go, you might be coming with me. How you doing about Monday?”
“Scared green,” she says, drawing away. “They didn't give us much warning, did they? And it was awful when you did it.”
“I've got other problems. A spinal cord that's severed in two places, for one thing. You won't have to be on a ventilator. Or confined to a bed for most of it, though I guess you can expect some sensory effects.”
She looks up at me and pushes her hair behind an ear delicate as a cat's. “I think you're really brave, Aunt Jenny.”
I toss her jacket to her and grab my own. This could have gone much worse. “I'm just too stubborn to quit, cherie. Your dad: he's the one who's brave.”
Friday 17 November, 2062
Genie stopped with her hand resting on the edge of Papa's office door, still in her school clothes. The door was open a crack; she picked out Ellie's voice beyond and froze, one foot in midair, torn between backing away and walking in to let them know that she was home. She balanced on one foot to tug her sock up, telling herself it wasn't really trying to overhear. But it was a good excuse not to go in until they finished talking, so she spent a minute making extra sure her shoe strap lay flat.
“… what had Valens's panties in such a bunch?” Elspeth.
And then Papa. “I eavesdropped a little. Riel put Holmes on the grill. The prime minister might pull support for the program. Force Fred to retire or reassign him. He's been in the doghouse over the Chinese infiltration of the Mars mission for a good ten years now. I'm sure there's someplace very cold and dark that needs a colonel or three.”
“Yes. I don't know what I'll do for Genie if I don't have NDMC access for her.”
Silence, then, and Genie decided it was a good time to walk in. While it was quiet. Before they caught her. She didn't meet Papa's eyes as he stood up from the chair. Elspeth had been sitting across from him: she spun around and got up, too.
“Hi,” Elspeth said.
Genie put the foot down and let hair fall across her face. She let go of the door and walked into the room. “Hi.”
Diagrams and colored lines hung in the air between Papa and Ellie, twisting slowly over the big desk. Genie saw the projectors flickering, colored lights under the interface plate. “AI stuff?”
“We're very dull,” Papa answered. “Nothing but work.”
“That's why he needs you.” Ellie came over to give her a hug and then held her chair so Genie could sit.
Genie grinned but the grin dropped away. Her stomach felt funny again. Worry, she decided, tasting the tension in the air.
“Excuse us while we talk shop a bit more?” Elspeth walked around the desk to stand beside Papa. She stuck her finger into the diagram and wiggled it until the threads writhed and rearranged. “The problem is we're trying to extrapolate the conditions under which an AI will self-generate from a sample of one. We might have better luck figuring out why they don't form, but — all I know for sure is we can make Richards.”
Papa smiled at Genie and then down at Elspeth, but the second smile was twisted and wry. “I don't see a way around it. Maybe we should just start with a fresh crop of artificial personalities and see what happens. Is there any reason they have to be based on real people?”
Elspeth suddenly focused. “No. No, there's not. The original research wasn't even focused on making an AI — it was strictly A-Life stuff. Richard was an accident.”
“Hah.” Papa grinned wider, but Genie could tell he was hiding something, some trouble, and she rested her chin on her hands. “Then I think we have a starting point.”
Friday 16 November, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
I lean on one-way glass in the observation and training room and look down into a lab sunk a few feet below ground level. I stand watch over a row of seven chairs — they look like dentists' chairs — in four of which lie sleeping children. Leah and three boys: two dark, one fair.
Sleeping children, except their eyelashes do not flutter. Their hands don't stir. The glossy gray cables of the neural VR interfaces drape their breasts like fat, suckling serpents. Their faces have fallen slack as no living person's ever should, and the sight awakens that old chill in my belly. Shadows surround Leah's eyes like bruises. They lie as if dead, these children, navigating the unimaginable steppes of space in a fancied but coldly practical dance. They look dead.
I never want her to see me that way.
A red-haired technician moves among them, smoothing hair and moistening lips. She brushes aside an escaped strand of Leah's hair and I turn away. I have work to do, and in a moment the technician will come up the short flight of steps and down the corridor and join me in the observation room. Where I am supposed to be designing the real-time training protocols these kids will confront once their augmented reflexes are in place. I'm here to teach them how to fly. As soon as I finish learning how to do it myself. Or maybe sooner.
The door handle turns as the technician comes to join me. I sit at a desk, using the inadequate VR of the prosthetic eye instead of the full wetwired interface at the back of my neck, and log myself in. Even with the focusing potential of the drug, the simulated ship and its responses seem a thousand times slower than the real thing.
Monday 20 November, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Leah squeezed her dad's hand one last time before she sat down in the chair and let the doctor wheel her down the corridor, leaving her father alone with Aunt Jenny. She tried not to think about the funny narrow feeling in the pit of her stomach, or the funny metal taste in the back of her mouth, and concentrated on enjoying the totally unnecessary wheelchair ride. “So what do we do now, Dr. Valens?”
He leaned forward over her shoulder as he pushed. “Well, you get to share a room with my granddaughter Patty. We'll get you settled in and I'm going to bring you something to drink. It's the nanite broth.”
“What does it taste like?”
“Really nasty lemonade.” She heard his grin as he opened the door to a hospital room that was pleasanter than she expected, with gingham curtains and even an area rug between the twin beds. A tall, muscular-looking brunette girl in green surgical scrubs sat cross-legged on the one beside the window, playing a holographic game that involved assembling falling geometric shapes into patterns before they reached the covers. She glanced up long enough to smile and looked back down, her brow creased in concentration.
Valens kept talking as he set the chair's wheel-lock and helped Leah up. “Then we implant two chips. One at the base of your skull, next to your neural-VR interface. The other goes in the back of your hand. Those chips control the nanosurgeons. Leah, this is Patty. Patty, this is Leah. You're the only young women in our test group. I know you'll make us proud.”
“We're going to kick the boys' butts, Papa Fred.”
Leah looked back at the other girl. She'd lost her game, and the holographic shapes spilled out over the bed in a snowdrift, but she was grinning.
“You bet we are,” Leah said. “We're going to fly first!”
Monday 20 November, 2062
Clarke Orbital Platform Biolabs
Brazilian Beanstalk Terminus
Charlie Forster rubbed enthusiastically at the bald spot he was too vain to get fixed and frowned around his VR contacts. Massive magnification showed him swarming nanobots, scurrying and multiplying in a nutrient-and-metal-rich broth. These were the original beasties, salvaged from the ship tree abandoned on Mars: the many-times-great-grandparents of the neurosurgical bots Valens used to augment his pilots. Charlie spared a thought for the newest of the lot — Master Warrant Officer Casey — and smiled. She was sure a hell of a lot less brittle than the rest of the guys so far. And seemed possessed of an actual personality, too.
Charlie reached for his interface so fast he fumbled it, and only the autosave kept him from losing a half-hour's worth of nanite data. He held his breath until a familiar voice came over his ear clip. Silver hair resolved in the uplink. Charlie blinked to center a wandering contact. “Valens here.”
“Fred, it's Charlie. Look, I have a wild idea on the old-style neural implant adaptations. Can you pull your old data? Or maybe you can tell me just from memory.” Impatiently, he waited out the brief lag.
“Tell me the question and I'll tell you if I need to look it up.”
“How many in your original group were women?”
A pause that seemed, perhaps, slightly longer than the lag. “I can answer that. Only three. We wanted more — it's my entirely unscientific bias that women are physically tougher and personally more cooperative than men — but women were less likely to sustain the kind of massive trauma we needed to justify the work, and less likely to volunteer when they did.”
Charlie didn't let his flinch show in his eyes. There were noticeably fewer men Valens's and Charlie's age in Canada than there were women. Charlie still had twinges of guilt over not serving, on those occasions when he was reminded that almost everybody else had. “What happened to them?”
“Let's see. You've met Casey, of course. Fazzari came through it almost as well and succumbed to a massive aneurysm about five years back. Ray didn't make it through the surgery. She was the oldest of the original group.”
“None of them showed the hypersensitivity and autism?”
“Casey has it to a limited degree, and so did Fazzari. Casey used to have a lot of problems with brightness and sudden movements, although she learned to compensate. She's hypersensitive to touch and texture as well. When her implants were failing earlier this year, she was having seizure episodes that seemed triggered by flashing lights or adrenaline. She's also prone to a feedback overload from tactile stimulus—” Valens tilted his head, eyes cast sideways, and made a sound that could have been a chuckle, or a cough. “And shame on you for even thinking it, Charlie.” Taut lips skinned back in a sudden grin.
Charlie cleared his throat. He wondered if there were many other people Colonel Valens would unbend enough with to make an off-color joke. “No suicides among the women, though?”
The tiny image of Valens in Charlie's contact lens shrugged. “Three out of 155 isn't a statistically significant sample, Charlie.”
“No.” Charlie polished his bald spot some more, watching the coiling, breeding nanites with about a quarter of his awareness.
“Do you have any theories?”
Charlie shrugged. He stared at the ceiling. He rubbed his hands together. “Well. The female immune system is significantly different than the male. It has to be able to identify friendly aliens and tell them apart from unfriendly ones.”
“Sperm,” Charlie said dryly. “Babies. Have you started the implantation process on the first candidates?”
“Two girls,” Valens answered. “Five boys.”
“If you can get more girls into the pilot program, I'd suggest that it's probably a very worthwhile use of resources. Meanwhile, I'll start trying to figure out why.”
“Girls don't play computer games, dammit.”
“Then find better computer games, Fred.”
Tuesday 21 November, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Patricia woke in darkness. She lay still for a moment, feeling the unfamiliar tug of the IV line in the back of her hand; it ran nutrients and trace elements into her bloodstream for the nanosurgeons. A sensation like chewing on tinfoil filled her mouth. “Ick,” she almost said, but then she remembered she wasn't alone in the room. She strained her ears and heard Leah snore softly: more a kitten whimper than an actual rattle.
Familiar midnight tension filled Patty. She turned on her side, pushed the cheap sheets down and stretched, wary of her needle site, and ran through her breath exercises. It didn't help. The pressure behind her breastbone mounted until she imagined it bulging her chest at the center — the need to be doing almost burned.
Sighing in exasperation, Patricia sat up in the blackness of drawn shades and felt on her nightstand for her tablet. She tapped it on and picked up the light pen, not bothering to feel around in the dark for her contacts. Her fingertips felt funny — numb — and it took her two tries to get her homework files open. Is this how it starts? She held her fingers up in the blue-tinged light of the tablet screen. They looked normal, but pins and needles crept across the pads. She poked them experimentally with the light pen. It was one thing to be told what to expect. Quite another to feel it happening. Or more precisely, not to feel it.
“Patty?” Bedclothes rustled. “What are you doing up?”
“Couldn't sleep,” she said, shading her eyes as Leah touched the bedside light on. “I thought I'd do some homework.”
The weight of disbelief on the word made Patricia look down and pull the machine-crocheted bedspread over her legs. “Well, yeah.” Study hard, prove yourself. Make Mom proud.
“How come you're working so hard?”
“I—” Patricia shrugged. “My parents expect it. I'm in advanced-placement math and physics. They expect ‘great things' of me.” She squeezed her light pen tighter, pressing her fingers white. “They don't know me. My grandfathers are the only ones who even see me, I think.”
Too much honesty. But she was tired and she felt seasick-weird and groggy. She wondered if it was pain medication. There was supposed to be some, and she could imagine an ache spreading through her muscles almost the way she could imagine the sore throat and runny nose when she knew she was getting sick but the cold hadn't started yet. She realized she'd missed Leah's answer and said something at random. “It's just typical shit. You're doing regular school and this, too. It's not so different.”
“My dad hates it, actually. He'd rather have me anywhere else.”
“Than learning to fly starships? Really?”
“Really. But at least he's not a study nazi like—”
Patricia looked toward the darkened window so she wouldn't have to see the pale pity in Leah's eyes. “It's mostly my mom.” She shrugged. “I don't want to talk about it, really.”
“No, it's good. They just don't understand me. My mom was a microbiologist but she quit. Dad's in the army, like Papa Fred. He's not home so much. She just wants a good career for me.” So I don't get stuck like she is. Like I'd ever be that dumb. “She somehow thinks I can be a pilot and study physics at the same time.” Patricia closed her eyes for a second, and called what she thought of as her brighter shadow up over herself. She'd told Leah too much, and Patty didn't have any other friends. She was too busy at home. And Leah might not like her if she kept whining like an angstbot. “Have you gotten to go up to the ship yet, Leah?”
“No. I'm so jealous you did!” There was — something — in the other girl's voice. Something that went with the stiffness of the conversation, and the split-second hesitations before Leah spoke. Patty caught herself sucking her tongue back in her mouth, and made herself stop. Oh.
You don't suppose I seem as scary to her as she does to me, do you? Or maybe just privileged. Spoiled. Patty grinned to herself. If Leah was scared, too, then it was okay. “You know, it's not as cool as you'd think. Mostly just like a big — big metal building, except for free fall. Which was the best! But the other student who went with me… Carver.” She grinned, and it almost felt natural.
Patty knew that much French. “Tr`es,” she giggled, her cheeks burning, and covered her mouth.
Leah leaned forward, legs folded, knotting her comforter in her hands and tugging it taut over her knees. “You kissed him!”
On a heartfelt outrush of breath, but without the panic she expected to feel. “Oh, God. Don't tell my mom. But it was a little more than a kiss. Not—” She knew that she blushed more when Leah's eyes went wide. “—no, I just mean, he was really nice. I was really shy. And he kept asking for help with homework and stuff and we just — messed around a little, is all.”
“I've never kissed anybody. My dad would flip.” Leah sighed. And then her eyes brightened, and her voice went singsong. “Patty's got a boyfriend!” The sparkle in her eyes, though, kept any sting out of the teasing.
I do, Patty thought. She hadn't thought about it that way before. She grinned, pushing her hair forward with both hands to cover her face, and giggled into her palms.
Tuesday 21 November, 2062
Razorface watched the swing of Indigo's glazed black hair as she leaned down to stare at the muted holobox, and he tried not to think of Bobbi Yee. He could smell Indigo's cold sweat over the yeasty odor of the room and he knew what she hadn't told him: there was a change in plans, and they were being kept waiting. He hadn't seen Farley in hours. The dumb shit was probably out waiting for a courier package or something.
Not that Indigo had told him that. But Razorface was pretty good at figuring things out. He leaned back in his chair; old, distressed wood squeaked and Indigo jumped. Razorface let himself grin. Good a time as any. Good luck, Maker. He cracked his knuckles. “I wanna talk about Holmes.”
“We're not shying off that. Don't worry. I just have to do this other thing first.”
“Nah.” He eased himself up and cast around in the broken-hinged cabinets for something to eat. There were a couple of iced tea pouches and a bag of chips he didn't like. He took an iced tea and tossed the other one to Indigo. She caught it even though he intentionally pitched it long. “I got a way to get her that don't trace to us. I'll handle it.”
“It's got to be permanent.” But the flattened line of her upper lip told him she was thinking about it. And something else. She twisted a bit of hair between her fingers and frowned. She wanted something.
“Maybe not permanent. But maybe a life sentence.”
“She's got awfully good lawyers, Razorface.”
He let the light glitter off his stainless-steel teeth as he bit the iced tea open. “Babe, you take care of the politics. And you just let Razorface handle the sharks. Now who is it we're going to have to kill to keep your friends happy and off your back?” He closed the distance between them, enjoying the self-conscious way she laid her hand on his arm. Nobody runs game on Razorface, he thought, before he remembered it wasn't precisely true. Anymore.
She gave him a shy, calculated glance through her hair. It would have worked on Farley, but Razorface knew what real women were like, and this little china doll might be pretty and sharp, but she didn't hold a candle in brains or balls to his Leesie.
Indigo might as well have been thinking out loud.
“Riel,” he said, when she didn't, and then he drained his iced tea to keep from laughing out loud at her shock. “Baby, any asshole could have guessed.”
Tuesday 21 November, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Min-xue pulled himself flat against the grab rails as several crew members sailed over him, returning from recreation and study. He was careful not to let their bodies brush his; normally they would have been more careful, respectful of his sacrifices, but he could tell by the way they moved that they were giddy and careless with exhaustion. It wouldn't have been so bad, but Min-xue was tired as well and thought he'd spare the rest of the crew an embarrassing pilot panic attack if possible.
He laid his cheek against the bar and closed his eyes. The late nights were wearing on him. But it was a relief to have someone to talk to honestly. Without avoiding mention of his Taiwanese mother, or making sure not to dwell too long on some of the radical T'ang poets he preferred.
The metal lay cold and soothing against his face long after the chatting, laughing crew members passed. It was only with an effort that he uncoiled his hands and let himself drift toward the bow of the Huang Di. And froze in place as Captain Wu drifted up beside him, a habitual look of faint disapproval staining his face. “Second Pilot.”
“Captain.” Min-xue performed an awkward salute. It set him drifting, and he corrected quickly. “How may I serve?”
“You look unwell.” Frown deepening, the captain started to reach toward Min-xue and hesitated, allowing the hand to drift back to his body. “Have you reported to sick call?”
“Captain, I will. Am I relieved of duty, then?”
“Training today, sir.”
The captain made a little show of considering. Min-xue hoped he wouldn't be asked what was robbing his sleep. Finally, Wu nodded, and then he reached back and grabbed a railing and pulled himself past. “See you're quickly well.”
It might have been an ordinary if gruff benediction. But Min-xue was certain he heard something — some urgency — in the captain's voice, and it sent a chill unrelated to the Huang Di's low ambient temperature crawling through his hair.
Tuesday 21 November, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Leah opened her eyes to whispers, but it didn't get any brighter. Aunt Jenny hadn't told her how tired she would feel. Or that it would hurt to pick her head up. But then, maybe Jenny hadn't known. “Who's here?”
“C'est moi, ma petite.” A dry kiss on her forehead.
“Always. Genie's here, too. Are you thirsty?”
“Dad, is it dark in here?”
“No. You can't see, Leah?” She thought he was trying to hold his voice level, but she heard it tremble. Someone with much smaller hands than her dad's squeezed Leah's other hand.
“It's me. Is everything all right?”
She couldn't let Genie see her scared. Genie was too brave to have to carry Leah being scared, too. “It's okay. They said it would happen. I just — it's weird. Is Aunt Jenny here? Where's Patty?”
She heard the smile in her dad's voice. “Jenny's at work, ch'erie. And Patty's in the bathroom. I think she'll be back in a sec. You didn't say if you wanted anything.”
Using his hands for leverage, Leah sat up. When she turned her face toward Genie's voice, and the window, she could pick up — or at least imagine — faint glimmerings of light. The sensation of someone whispering continued. “Dad, is there somebody talking in the hall?”
“I don't think so.” He let go of her hand. The bed dipped and creaked under his weight as he pushed himself up against it. Meanwhile, Leah heard a door open. The bathroom door? She screwed her face up tight so she could pretend that was why she didn't see, fighting the hard knot like tangled ropes in her gut. She heard her father's voice, from farther away. “There's nobody out here. Hello, Patty.”
“Hello, Mr. Castaign. Genie. Leah, what's wrong?”
Patty must have crossed to her bedside. Leah felt the bed dimple as she sat, felt what must have been Patty pulling Genie down beside her. She shook her head to clear it, feeling something like an itch deep in her brain. “I can't see anything.”
“I'll be right back.” Dad again, still near the door.
“It's okay,” Genie said quietly. “I called the doctor already. It's just happening like they said it would, though, right? It'll be better in a couple of days. Right?” She pushed the round-cornered plastic call box into Leah's hand, and Leah smiled in spite of herself. Genie made it easy to be brave.
Genie knew a lot about hospitals.
Thursday 23 November, 2062
I unlock the door to Gabe's apartment and walk inside. There's no sign at first that anybody's home, but the place doesn't have that vacant feeling, either. Genie's in school and Leah's still at the hospital. I'm playing hooky from the lab, halfway hoping to collect Gabe here, eat something, and head over to the National Defence Medical Center and visit the kid. We haven't gotten to spend any time alone since Friday night, and it would be nice to talk along the way. Knowing Gabe, he's got a whole universe of silent worry twisting away inside him.
Hell, I brought lunch. We're going to talk whether he wants to or not. Or so I'm thinking as I lock the door quietly and head for the kitchen. Three steps in I hear voices, low murmuring and a giggle; I pause in the archway, mouth open to announce myself, and my face goes hot and my voice dies in my throat.
The good news is Ellie doesn't see me standing there like a hooked fish, bag of turkey sandwiches clutched in my right hand. Her eyes are closed, her hand knotted in Gabe's hair; he presses her back against the sink, and I know from very personal experience and the high color in her cheeks exactly what he's whispering against her ear, exactly how his hand feels moving against her back, under her sweater. The memory makes me shiver and swallow once, hard.
Dirty, dirty old man.
They don't exactly teach you how to deal with this sort of thing in catechism. I suppose I could just back out of the kitchen and go slam the front door to give them some polite warning, but where's the fun in that? Oh, bad Jenny.
Very bad Jenny indeed. Elspeth's in the middle of a quiet, enthusiastic little whimper when I walk past them, open the refrigerator, and tuck the sandwiches inside. Gabe jumps at the sound of the opening door, turning toward me as Elspeth clears her throat and smoothes her sweater down over her hips. I don't look up, hiding my face until I have the grin bitten down. I find a beer on the bottom shelf and stand up. Gabe puts a hand on my shoulder. “Jenny—”
Maybe I'm being too mean?
There's unreasonable jealousy, after all, and then there's targets of opportunity. “I brought lunch,” I say, fine carbonation misting the air as I open the beer. “I'll be in the living room when you two are ready to eat. Food, I mean. And we'll go see Leah once Genie gets home.”
Elspeth's grinning, one hand over her mouth. But Gabe looks like I shot him between the eyes with a tranquilizer dart, so I make sure to squeeze his ass with my steel hand on my way back out to the living room.
What the hell. The Canucks are playing. I'm sure I can keep myself entertained for an hour or two. And oh, we are so going to break that boy.
Sunday 26 November, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Leah sat cross-legged on her bed in the darkness, pinching the inside of her thigh in her boredom. She'd peeled off the blindfold that Colonel Valens and the other doctors had made her wear since her sight started to return. The bright lights from the corridor had already given her a headache, but it wasn't as bad as it had been, and there were limits to how much she could stand, and Leah was bored.
The waves of tiredness were starting to alternate with something else: a strangely vibrant energy filled her, prickling through her veins and making her fingertips tingle. The open-weave blanket bunched around her legs felt coarse and annoying, and her hospital pajamas chafed. Leah closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and watched a soccer game rebroadcast from Brazil on her contact.
In the bed beside hers, Patty whimpered and stirred. Leah opened her eyes and unfolded her legs, careful of the IV site in the back of her hand as she climbed out of bed and crouched down next to Patty. She held the other girl's wrist when Patty tried to tug away from her. “Hey, it's okay,” and reached up to make sure Patty's blindfold was in place when the corridor door opened, spilling light through the room.
Busted, Leah thought, and made sure Patty was tucked in before she turned around to face the music. She was surprised, though: it wasn't a nurse glowering her back into bed, but a boy her own age with dark hair falling like inky brushstrokes across his forehead. He slipped inside and pressed the door closed beside himself, careful not to let the latch click. “Are you Patty Valens?”
Leah tugged her hospital gown straight. “Leah Castaign.” She grabbed her IV stand, unwilling to wait for it to catch up with her on its own. “Who the hell are you?” She caught a little of her dad's tone in her words, and didn't mind at all.
“Bryan Sall. Isn't this Patty Valens's room?”
“I'm not sleeping.” Patty's voice was plaintive. Leah glanced over as she sat up, one arm holding her blankets against her chest, the other one going up to her eyes but not moving the black mask. “Bryan, I don't know you, do I?”
“No.” He came a few steps into the room, and Leah saw that he'd disconnected his IV, and a thin strand of red seeped from under the tape on his left hand. “I'm Carver Mallory's roommate. He was asking for you.”
“Asking?” Patty started to slide out of the bed and got her ankles tangled in the sheets. Leah went to help her. “I don't have my eyesight back yet—”
Leah heard Bryan swallow, realized a second later that she shouldn't have been able to. “I don't think he's going to get his back, Patty. His legs are numb, he says, and — look. I'll take you to him. L–Leah will help.” Won't you? his eyes asked, and Leah saw how pale Patty seemed in the darkness.
“What if we get in trouble?”
Oh, Patty. Leah could hear the longing in Patty's voice, and Leah's own restlessness made her bounce on her toes. “I'll tell them it was my idea,” Leah said, taking Patty's hand. “You're blind.”
“I'm not supposed to be out of bed.”
Leah grinned. “Do you always do what you're supposed to?”
The IV stands were going to be a problem. Leah solved it by unhooking her own, deciding she could always tell the nurse it tugged loose while she was sleeping, and making Patty hold onto hers. Bryan turned back from peeking out the cracked-open door to frown at that. “Shouldn't we unhook that, too?”
“I don't think she's ready yet,” Leah said, feeling Patty's tension through her clutching fingers, then the grateful squeeze. “She's still really tired. You go first and scout ahead; we'll follow.”
He stared at her for a second, and then nodded and slipped out the door. Shepherding Patty, Leah followed.
It was only a few doors, and the hospital corridor was quiet. Bryan must have been lying in wait until the appropriate moment. Smart boy, she grinned to herself, and then put a hand out as Patty stumbled. “Sorry.”
“It's okay. Where's Carver?”
The room wasn't lit either, but Bryan had an interface on his nightstand, hidden from the door by the privacy curtain. Its pause graphics twisted in midair, casting a bluish light over two rumpled beds and a scatter of flowers and cards and a giant teddy bear wildly too young for the boy standing beside her. He looked down when he saw her notice it and moved quickly to the occupied bed.
Patty's voice, answered by a mumble. Leah led the older girl carefully to the window side of Carver's bed and placed her hand in his, not liking how limp and cool his fingers were. They didn't have him blindfolded, she realized, but even when his eyes opened, they didn't focus. She saw the thin wires leading from the interface plug at the back of his neck, and the white patches on the dark skin of his chest, and bit her lip.
“Carver?” Patty asked again. Leah backed away until her butt hit the window ledge, and leaned against it. She caught herself chewing her lip and forced herself to stop, hearing her father's voice in her head. You look like a cow chewing cud. But her lips and her fingers were numb as she watched Patty bend over in the flickering light and put her ear close to Carver's lips. Leah could see that he wasn't gripping Patty's hand back when she squeezed.
She almost jumped when Bryan slid up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, as grateful for the dimness of the light hiding her blush as she was to take her eyes off Patty and Carver. A pulse fluttered in the notch of his collar, and Leah felt her eyes drawn to it. “You okay, Leah?”
She shook her head. “It wasn't supposed to be like this.”
He hugged her awkwardly and then stepped away. It didn't feel quite like when Dad hugged her, and she was both glad and sorry when Patty stepped back from Carver's bed, trailing her IV stand, and said in a strangely level voice, “I think I want to go back to our room now.”
Monday 4 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
Today's the day. Just a few hours off.
And I'm a fucking idiot. I'm crawling around under the eight barbershop chairs in the lab — mine, freshly installed, and seven others — stress making me itch to dirty my hands, staring at holographic circuit diagrams through my prosthetic eye just exactly as if I had any kind of sense at all. Or as if I could make head or tail of what half these things are supposed to do.
Valens lets me get away with it, probably realizing I have to blow off the tension somehow, and it beats showing up drunk to work. Which was the other option. But probably contraindicated in this case. Hah.
One of those chairs won't be used. One of the boys who went in for the nanite treatment didn't make it. Carver Mallory, the handsome cocoa-skinned sixteen-year-old I glimpsed on the Montreal, is never going to wake up. And I hate myself because with every breath I take, the only thought I can produce is thank God it wasn't Leah.
Gabe leans against the console, checking the VR module programming one last time. Elspeth is by the door, alternately keeping us company and getting in the way.
There's something coolly soothing about wiring charts. The doc's pantsuit rustles as she comes over to me, leaning down to see what I'm doing. I'm not changing anything, of course. Just making sure everything looks like it does in the charts.
Gabe looks up. “Is that firing right, Maker?”
“Good as gold.” The technicians will go over it all again, of course. I drop a diagram chip into the box, fumble for the next in the sequence.
Elspeth squats beside me, ice clinking in the mug of water in her other hand, and passes the chip. “What's this Maker thing, anyway?”
I can feel Gabe wince as I compare chips. “Nickname from the army. Stupid joke, Doc.” I sit up, finished with that chair. Elspeth gives me an assist, grabs my steel hand tight in her small brown one, and hauls me to my feet. She might be little, but she's not a sissy.
Gabe blushes; I see him turning away, feigning deafness as if his ears had grown lids. “Gabe speaks too many languages.”
“I know. He makes me feel inadequate. Which doesn't happen often, let me tell you—” The disarming grin. Doc scratches between her eyebrows with a pinky nail. “It's a pun?”
“Genevieve. Jenny. You've got medical Latin, right?”
“Mostly pig — Oh! Gene.”
“‘Maker.' Right. You're in business.”
Over by the refrigerator, Gabe chokes on something I didn't see him put in his mouth. “I have apologized,” he says.
The doc clears her throat. “It stuck?”
“It stuck.” He tilts his head to one side, turns back over his shoulder to shrug.
Ellie flips an ice cube at him. “An offense that great demands a more material kind of restitution. You're buying dinner tonight.”
“After the training run,” I put in. “Although Leah might not be hungry.” It will be her first time on the Hyperex, and I can't shake the conviction that it's a bad idea. I push back, try to remember what it was like. Try to put myself in Leah's experience.
Damn, that was a long time ago. I was — eighteen? Nineteen. Something like that. A cold sweat breaks across my forehead when I contemplate it too deeply, and I let the thought slide away the way it wants to. I have a catch-and-release policy on some of those memories.
I've also got a head full of drugged-out clarity: the biggest dose since I was out of the service, and the new formula hits harder and cleaner than the old stuff did. Some of Face's kids paid the price for that efficiency. I must have been staring into space, because I snap back to myself when Gabe lays his hand on my elbow. “You girls are ganging up on me, n'est-ce pas?”
“You had to know that was going to happen.” I lay my hand over his for a second. His breath changes minutely when I let the steel fingers circle his wrist; my smile is amusement at this power over him, and then it drops away. Should I have noticed that?
“It shouldn't be anything to worry about,” Richard says. “The nanite growth — the trace-element burden — in both you and Koske seems to be lessening parabolically; the sensitivity increase should be stabilizing soon. You've been taking your supplements?”
Religiously. Which makes me grin, because Ellie dragged me to Mass yesterday, and Gabe along with us. It felt a little strange to watch them go for communion and not to follow. Stranger still — well, let's just say that the kyrie's been in and out a few times since my last confession.
Okay, that's a slight exaggeration.
“You should be good,” Richard says. “By the way, I will attempt to talk to Leah tonight.”
Patricia and the boys, too?
Yeah. That will make her pretty happy. Leah and Richard were friends while Richard was still hiding out in the Internet, pretending he didn't exist.
Well, that was a slightly different Richard. But that, too, is a story for another day.
“She should be pretty happy. Jenny—”
Yeah? You gonna tell me to take good care of a kid whose diapers I changed, Dick?
“No, I'm going to tell you to be very careful in there. I'm still concerned. I don't know what sort of control our benefactors have over our little nanite buddies, but I know they have FTL quantum communication. And I really wish I could decompile your operating system and find out what sort of nasty little surprises Valens and Holmes had built into it by this Ramirez fellow. By the way, I thought you should know that there are two more ships under construction.”
Before the Montreal is tested?
“One of them's nearly done.”
Have you told them about—
“The aliens? How would you or I manage to tell them that and make them believe it, and still keep my freedom a secret? And what could they do about it if they knew?”
“Set up some sort of a booby trap and give us a war with beings whose technology is so far beyond ours that it sits up and barks when you pat it on the head? Meanwhile they're clawing over each other to get to the stars? I don't want to give anybody another reason to fight, just yet.”
The multiple ships — that's not something… that doesn't sound like the kind of thing you do for a chest-beating sort of space race. For national pride. You only need one successful ship for that.
“I'm looking into it. But add it to your list of things to worry about. The good news is, I've about got the physics on the stardrive licked. It's superstrings, as I suspected, and I'd explain how it works but I suspect you'd find it even more unsettling than I do.”
Doc told me quantum mechanics only works on very small things. Subatomic.
As if out of the corner of my eye, I see Richard grin. “It does. But it can work on a lot of them at once.”
Monday 4 December, 2062
Leah brushed irritably at her cheek before she woke fully enough to realize the brambles scratching her face were just the tweed upholstery of her living-room sofa. She heard voices dimly through a closed door and stood, then padded across the floor, twisting her blouse around her belly to tuck it straight into the jeans she still wore. Her father's voice, urgent but not unhappy, and Elspeth's answering in a similar register. The office door was only slightly ajar.
Her hand was on the cool brass knob when she heard a third voice, one at the back of her head. “Leah? Can you hear me now?”
“Tuva!” She had the presence of mind to gasp, not scream, but it was close. “You're in my head!”
“Sh. Talk inside.”
Leah put her hand across her mouth. Approaching footsteps bowed the old wooden floor; the door came open under her hand, the knob slipping through tingling fingers. She looked up into Elspeth's questioning face, bronze skin fading into the darkness of the room, her curls backlit with a green glow from the desktop. “You're awake?” Dad loomed over Elspeth's shoulder.
Leah turned her hand in front of her mouth so a finger touched her lips. Richard? Can you hear this?
“Perfectly. Are you recovering okay?”
I'm very tired.
“Leah, can you think of a way to let Elspeth and Gabe… your dad… know I'm in here? Quietly, in case the apartment is wiretapped? I have some information I need to pass along.”
Elspeth and Dad had come out of the office, but they heeded her silencing gesture. Leah closed her eyes for a second and thought. “Dad, do we have any paper?”
“Ask a programmer for paper?” Elspeth chuckled, but got out of the way as Dad brushed past her.
He offered Elspeth a dirty look and a fond insult. Leah smiled after him, proud that he trusted her enough to do as she asked without explanation. Elspeth found a pencil.
“Dad, can you show me what you were working on?”
“More AI stuff,” he said, returning. A sheaf of glittering perfect squares showed one white side in his hand. “Boring.”
“I want to learn,” she said, and didn't mean it as anything except an excuse until she saw his eyebrow go up and the little smile curve the corner of his lip. Nobody actually cares what he does, do they? We just leave him alone and let him do it. The revelation hit her almost like a fist, and she dropped her eyes as she took the papers from his hand.
And she paid attention while she wrote out, slowly and precisely, with a rounded hand, every word Richard dictated, and sketched out the circuit diagrams and schematics he showed her — nanite controller protocols, and the careful instructions on how to create them.
Monday 4 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Min-xue opened his eyes on the wonder of the stars. Whispers seemed to stroke him — the Huang Di—like anemone fingers. Whispers without voices, he thought, and wondered if one day he, too, would write a poem that might be worthy of remembrance. He might have said that he felt the ship as he felt his flesh, but it was more than that. Imagine the feeling of starlight on your skin, Captain.
What he said was, “Captain, I'm ready to activate the stardrive now.”
Captain Wu cleared his throat. “Affirmative,” and if Min-xue hadn't been able to read his heartbeat through the medical sensors in his chair, he never would have known that the man was afraid.
The Huang Di flexed itself into darkness and the sightless space between spaces, and almost instantly back out again. Despite himself, despite knowing how far from the deadly embrace of the Sun and her planets they were, Min-xue half expected the unfelt breath that filled his human body's lungs to be his last. Too close to the gravity well, he thought, and almost whooped out loud at the realization that he was still alive to think it.
“Transition accomplished,” he announced coolly. “Distance traveled”—he checked parallax through his external sensors—“one-twentieth of an astronomical unit, sir.”
Less than half of a light minute.
The smallest distance yet recorded using the Martian drive.
Monday 4 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
Leah couldn't sit still, even though Patty kept grinning at her from under the polished dark curtain of her hair. The light moved over it, entrancing Leah with how real and how bright everything seemed. The boundless energy in her veins pushed her around the green-carpeted waiting room. She glanced up, squinted at the brightness of the fluorescents flickering on the stark white walls, and tried to tune out the yells of the four male students playing hologames while they waited.
“Jumping bean,” Patricia said.
Leah jiggled her shoulders and paced a few more steps. “Like you're not excited.” Tuva, are you there? Richard, I mean. Tuva was the handle he'd used in the VR game space where she had originally met him. Leah hadn't known he was an AI then.
“I'm here, Leah.” The sense of presence was comforting. “Your friend is right. You're bouncing off the walls.”
Like you ever sit still. Which was true. Even his computer-generated image was a fidget. I'm going to fly, Richard!
She felt him grin. And then she startled, as Patricia seemed to materialize beside Leah and place her hand on Leah's arm. The touch felt funny — sharp — and Leah jerked away. Patricia did, too, looking down at her fingers as if she'd scorched them. “Whoa.”
“Weird.” Leah brushed her hair off her neck in irritation. “It must be the Hammers. Aunt Jenny said they could make everything a little weird. Weirder, I mean.”
Patty smiled, but Leah could see — by now — that it didn't ease the tightness by the older girl's eyes. And then Patty looked up, and Leah did, too. They both heard the footsteps in the hall. “That'll be Aunt Jenny.”
“And Papa Fred,” Patricia answered, nodding. The boys were still distracted by their game as the two girls moved toward the door.
Monday 4 December, 2062
Sol-system wide area nanonetwork
Richard let a thin filament of his awareness move through the Montreal, the Huang Di, the Calgary, the half-built Vancouver, and the three Chinese vessels still under construction. Was aware of the presence of the Chinese pilots in their regimented daily routines. Followed the progress of the Chinese invasion into Russia, Russia's response — piggybacking on the Montreal's radio, microwave, and laser transmissions. It annoyed him to not be able to use the Chinese ships similarly, and it annoyed him more to have to spawn remote processes and wait for them to report back, and the amount of data he could transfer without being noticed was limited. They're desperate. The Huang Di and its sister ships are a last-ditch effort, he realized. The AI contemplated the Chinese record of cultural imperialism, and Japan, and Taiwan, and Tibet. He ran a few hundred variations on population and climate numbers. And he worried.
Richard sighed, while another thread of his attention rested on Trevor Koske — not able to control him, or read Trevor's thoughts without revealing Richard's presence, but the AI feeling the pilot's existence like a heartbeat low in the back of his chest. Richard watched through the shipwide monitors as Koske went about his routine — one life among uncounted thousands, if he considered the still incomprehensible alien presences pushing at his attention.
The AI had also conceived a particular fascination with Lt. Christopher Ramirez. Chiefly because he couldn't see why the sullen, muscular blond made such an effort to cultivate Koske. Koske was only slightly less offensive to Ramirez than he was to anyone else. Richard, the eternal observer, let his crippled alter-ego deal with Koske and with Wainwright on those occasions when it became necessary, and chose to watch the grunted conversations between the two men at meals or in the boxing ring.
They both liked to fight.
Ramirez spent his off-duty hours reading twentieth-century politics and twenty-first-century philosophy. He was unmarried. His early air force career had been marked by disciplinary problems, but his service for the past five years had been exemplary — and even the armed services tended to overlook minor problems in a code jockey as talented as Ramirez.
Except Richard — sacrificing some of his precious bootlegged bandwidth to pick over Ramirez's records on Earth — noticed a few things. Such as that Ramirez's registered party affiliation in college had been to the neo-Greens, but the neo-Green Party — while extant — had not become widespread outside of Europe until two years later, and Ramirez had been the only student at the University of Guelph to so register.
Not conclusive, but suggestive that perhaps records had been altered along the way.
Richard was also becoming familiar with Captain Wainwright. Concealed under the mantle of the second AI, his mind-controlled progenitor, he found he had astonishing freedom. The nanite web allowed him to sense things that happened across light-years of space. Through Jenny and Leah, Richard knew that Gabe and Elspeth were on a new track with the AI research. He showed them how to build control chips and planned to expand his nanite fingers through the Internet soon — solving his bandwidth problem nicely. The other ships would need minds, he knew, minds of their own to survive the strange planes and angles of eleven-dimensional space. The human pilots were fast and intuitive. But Richard didn't think any human mind — even the one he himself was modeled on — could quite manage to comprehend the world behind the veil of what they'd jokingly dubbed sneakier-than-light technology.
He could feel the minds of the Benefactors, as he'd taken wryly to calling them; he'd tried to speak to them. Would have tried to speak to their AIs, but they didn't seem to have them. Just brains so alien he wasn't sure, in fact, that they could be considered to have anything like language at all.
He felt the ships moving, coming at what must be for them a stately and considered pace given what he had speculated about their capabilities.
Coming — and he hadn't shared this with Jenny yet, or with anyone — coming from two directions at once.
Monday 4 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
The kids are good. Damn good, all six of them. Awkward with their amped-up reflexes, with the touch of the Hammer shading their emotions toward preternatural calm and their focus to the absolute. The boys are dicey: teenage males, rough and erratic as any cadet I ever had to kick into shape. Valens slipped a bug in my ear that they might not adapt as fast as the girls, so I pay extra close attention to them. The girls are better behaved, plotting quietly the way girls do.
We go in.
It's a deep hard time, and it takes me back. Not quite into a flashback… Hell. Yes, into a flashback, smell of sweat and the smell of mud, smell of hot, scared kids blinking at me like I have all the goddamned answers.
I hope a few of them learned to duck.
I bite down on the memory, roll it back. This isn't then, it's now, and I'm mind on mind with the children, flitting from one to another like a possessing ghost, guiding each of them through a slalom while another part of my mind sets up obstacles and takes them down. Obstacles hard enough to build confidence when they get past them — which they don't always. Not so hard as to break them.
It's a line you have to know how to see, because it's different for each of them. And as somebody once said to me, it takes a hundred attaboys to cancel out one oh, shit.
I hope these kids will stay alive. I wish I could make them some kind of promises as we sail through the slick black nothing, space stroking the sides of the virtual ship — waggishly named The Indefatigable—but the hard facts are that all I can do for them is to show them the tools and kick them out the door. Just like all of us, they're on their own.
On their own, but every action they take affects everybody around them. It's a hell of a lesson to learn when you're thirty. Never mind fifteen.
I want Leah to be the best, of course. But the fact of the matter is that Patricia Valens and Bryan Sall, a dark-haired boy with angled eyes, are the oldest of the lot, the most developed, and they blow the other four away.
I shake with exhaustion when the technician comes to unhook me. The kids are still under. She brings me something hot and sugar-sweet in a big mug: coffee with chocolate stirred into it and tons of milk, just the way I never drink it. It eases the shakes, though, and by the time I choke it down I can unclench my teeth enough so my jaw doesn't ache all the way up to my ears. My shirt clings to my chest, plastered with sweat, and I'm taking a chill. “Do a shorter run next time,” she says.
I look up at the one-way glass, knowing Valens and Holmes and Gabe and Ellie are on the other side, and wave as steadily as I can manage. Shorter. Right. Valens wants these kids trained by when? The technician takes my mug, and I bless her. “What's your name?”
“Melissa Givens, Master Warrant.” She flashes me a grin, and I know I just made a friend. I wonder if Valens ever bothered to ask her that.
“God, call me Jenny. Especially if you bring me coffee.”
“You need the sugar and caffeine. Rigathalonin — the Hammer — takes a toll. Ready to debrief the kids yet… Jenny?”
It's over quickly, thankfully, and Valens handles most of it. I sit in the corner and try not to tremble. My teeth-grinding distracts the kids, so I get up and walk into the hall, trying not feel Leah's pale face and bright eyes following me. In the evergreen-scented rest room I lean my face against the mirror — cool steel, soothing — and work on remembering not to close my left hand on the porcelain sink. I think about sitting down on the floor.
Then I think about the white tautness around Leah's eyes, and swear. I have to go back in there. I can't let her see this, can't let her fear this. Hesitation, where she's going, could get her killed — and a ship full of passengers with her.
Later that night, after I somehow make it back to Boris and my hotel, I remember that I took a hard look into the mirror and frowned at myself. I remember I thought Can I handle this?
I can handle this.
I had put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the remaining pills in their harmless little brown vial. And then I had waited five minutes, washed my face, combed my hair, and went back into the debriefing room and sat down in one of the gleaming one-piece student desks next to Leah and put a calm, steady hand on her arm. She grinned at me and patted back.
I looked up; a flicker of movement from the holoboard near Valens caught my eye. When I looked toward it I saw him regarding me steadily, all the while continuing with his comments on the tumbling curve of the virtual ship projected in the air beside him. He didn't smile or even nod, but he held my gaze for three endless seconds before he looked away.
Remembering that, later — remembering Leah's face turned to me — watching the coronas of light flare and sweat against a window coated in hard, freezing rain — I sit in the dark with a pillow over the phone so I won't see the message light blinking, and I don't get up to answer the knock either the first or the second time it comes. I hold my cat in my lap while he twists his claws in the fabric of my BDUs, and I drink whiskey and coffee in about equal ratios until the knot under my breastbone loosens enough that I can breathe.
Monday 4 December, 2062
Indigo tugged a fluffy-itchy baby blue touque more firmly over her ears, then covered the knit cap with the hood of her parka. She'd swear the winters were getting colder — and coming sooner — every year. Which didn't make sense. It was supposed to be global warming, after all.
She rose from her resting place in a corner of the hotel lobby and stepped around a potted Norwegian fir, careful never to turn her profile to the window. Through the shadow her outline cast in the reflected brightness of the glass, she saw a hulking shape leave the lobby across the street, ice forming on his smooth-shaven scalp. Indigo held her breath a few steps from the autodoors as Razorface halted, weight on his left foot, as if contemplating options — and then turned and strode back the way he had come. The way Indigo had followed him through the rain to get there.
The storm hit her face like shattering glass. She hesitated a step beyond the doors and pulled her hood tighter, watched Razorface hunker down into his collar as he moved up the street, almost invisible until he passed through a puddle of light. Now it was Indigo's moment to hesitate. See where he's going or see where he's been?
He turned sideways — still going the way they'd come — and that decided her. Indigo jaywalked across the empty street with inchworm steps, careful to lift each foot up and set it down vertically so it wouldn't slip on the ice, muffling her face against stinging precipitation. She closed her eyes in relief when she stepped through the doors into the warm exhalation of the rust-carpeted foyer, then smiled with irony. Maybe I should just get a room here for the night.
She had no way to tell what room Razorface might have visited. So she tugged off her girly little hat, unzipped her parka, and picked a hesitant path across the carpet and the tile toward a tastefully appointed front desk. No potted evergreens here, thank God. She rang the bell to bring the duty clerk out of the back.
A young man appeared, handsomely Eurasian. Decades of troubles in the Far East had brought Indigo's family to North America, along with thousands of others.
The clerk smiled at Indigo, and she smiled back. “Can I help you, miss?”
Indigo slid a well-practiced mask of hope and shyness over her features and smiled prettily. “I… Um.” She studied her shoes for a minute and stuffed her right hand into her pocket. “Did a guy come in here? Big, black guy. Leather jacket—”
“The teeth? Are you supposed to meet him? He just left.”
“No, I wasn't supposed to meet him. Um.” She pulled her hand out and picked at the melting flakes of ice crusting her stocking cap. “He's my boyfriend, and I wondered…”
Comprehension dawned across the young man's face. “I can't tell you what room he went up to, if that's what you want.”
“But I can tell you—” His expression grew appraising. “I don't think you have anything to worry about.”
“How do you know?”
“The voice of experience,” he said, and grinned. “It's probably—” He swallowed one set of words and substituted another. “—just a work thing. Look, the cafe is closed, but if you want to sit down here in the chair I'll get the kitchen to bring you some coffee out and you can wait till the ice stops. I won't make you go back out in the storm.”
Indigo glanced at the door. She didn't have what she'd come for, and this was a good excuse. She nodded. “Can I have cocoa instead?”
“You can have anything you want. Sit down. I'll take care of you.”
He got her a blanket, too, and she curled on a love seat and read world news and watched the late-night holofeed until she drifted almost into sleep. She half dreamed of a slender, wild-haired man she barely remembered giving her piggyback rides and telling her stories about another man — her father — that she didn't remember at all. Tell it again, Uncle Bernie.
Tell it again.
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
It's not like I actually got drunk. But mixing stimulants, alcohol, and military-issue reflex and concentration-enhancement aids might not be the wisest course of action. Which is why you should hate me for waking up bright eyed, bushy tailed, and four minutes before my alarm goes off, Boris purring on my chest. Plenty of time for a long, hot shower. As if in my ear, I hear someone clear his throat.
“You need to cope better than that, Jenny.”
I know. Water like standing under a sluiceway, but steaming. It almost feels thick where it drums against my skin, driving the chill out. Would you feel happier if I had one hell of a hangover? When was the last time I was sloppy, self-indulgent, and maudlin?
“Do you want a list?” Immaterial hands beat at virtual air. “All right. I know. I know you're worried, and you're right to be. Look, I'm learning how to run some basic programming on the nanotech. I'm making good progress with one of the Chinese pilots, but I'm concerned their government may try something drastic to put an end to the Canadian program, because I've come to understand where you're going and what the stakes are.”
To hell in a handbasket?
“If I thought it existed, I'd be worried. Can you actually imagine a supreme being that petty and erratic?”
I let that slide, and wait. Richard, I sometimes think, is happy to hear himself talk. I taste hot water and soap, close my eyes, draw a valentine's heart in the steam on the rippled glass door.
“HD 210277,” he says. “A G7V main sequence star very similar to the Sun but a little less bright, and about sixty-nine light-years away. As long ago as the turn of the century, we knew it had a planetary system — a gas giant with an erratic orbit, but it more or less sits in the habitable zone. That's where the generation ships that the Chinese launched ten years ago are going. And it's where you'll be going, too.”
“Why?” I put a hand over my mouth. Oops. What do they want with it?
“More recent data indicate that one of that gas giant's moons has a very good shot at being earthlike.”
Oh. They are colony ships. What about whoever lives there now?
“If there is anybody… Jenny, you of all people ought to know how it works.”
Yes. Yes I do. Richard — the Montreal can leapfrog those generation ships. We could have a colony long established before they ever arrive. Assuming we beat the Huang Di out there. The Chinese regime was crazy enough to send ships out there with no guarantee they had anyplace to land, and no way home? Why would anybody do something like that?
“Have you looked around this planet lately?”
How drastic an action might they take to prevent our getting there first?
“It was never proven that the terrorist nuclear attack on Kyoto in 2040 was linked to the Chinese.”
It was never proven that Israel had anything to do with the Cairo attacks either, but — oh. I see your point. It's a good thing I'm in a hotel shower, or the hot water would have run cold while I was chewing that over. I dress by rote, forgetting to dry my hair so water spots the collar of my sweater. I fell asleep with the curtains open, and when I glance out the window the world looks etched on the back of a crystal paperweight as far as the eye can see, a misting ice still drifting from the gray overhead. Icicles dangle like arm-long fangs from the ledges and awning of the hotel across the street: I see them through the wavy sheen of ice that makes my window look like watered glass. Like the shower door, come to think of it.
“Jenny, by the way — you should know. I think your friend Koske is being courted by an interesting individual aboard ship, the programmer I've mentioned to you. Chris Ramirez. I have a suspicion that Ramirez isn't exactly what he appears. If there's any way you can get Colonel Valens to rerun the background check on him—”
Thanks, Dick. I'll try, but he wouldn't be on the Montreal if they hadn't gone over his history with a flea comb.
There's something here I'm missing, and I'm still chewing on it while I shrug my jacket on and bounce down the stairs three at a time, spurning the elevator because I can. I wave to the boy behind the desk—
And almost trip over a ghost.
I actually stumble. Stumble, put my steel hand out for balance, and take two short steps back, catching my heel on red-brown patterned carpet. I probably could have walked right past her unnoticed if I hadn't pulled the triple take, but as soon as she picks her head up from reading whatever she's reading on her hip I see the braid, the finer line of the nose over the rim of her mug, and the arch of the brow, and the similarity of profile fades.
Fades, but doesn't vanish. I'm left with a cloying smell of chocolate in my nose and nagging nausea in my belly.
She looks like Bernard Xu. That pretty little social activist I loved and lost — okay, I never loved him, but I liked him better than most, for all he had a bad habit of blowing things up when he didn't approve of them — something like half a lifetime ago. But this girl couldn't have even been born then. Could she? She might be thirty, I guess, but she looks about twenty-two.
You live long enough in today's society, you collect so many faces that everybody starts to look like somebody. That's all it is. “I beg your pardon,” she says, standing up. Fifteen, maybe twenty feet away from me. “Do I know you?”
“No, you just — look like someone I used to know.”
I see the shock wrack her when she hears my voice. She blinks and glances down, eyes lighting on my prosthetic hand protruding under the black wool cuff of my coat. Her gaze slides back up slowly, eyes narrowing as she examines my face. “You're Genevieve Casey.”
Simple declarative statement. I nod.
“Holy shit!” she yells. And I duck as
she straight-arms the
full cup of cocoa at me,
dives over the love seat
(adrenaline dump into combat time,
heartbeat slowing as
I take off after her)
clutching her HCD in her right
hand hits the crash bar
on the emergency door
(alarm starts low,
resonating under my skin, builds
to a piercing wail)
and sails out onto
with me ten steps behind.
Ten steps too far, it turns out. I don't run any faster than anybody else and she's easily twenty years younger than me.
Damn it to hell.
Richard? Who the hell was that?
“I haven't got the resources I used to, Jenny. But I will see what I can find out. And be careful. In case. Okay?”
You don't have to tell me twice.
I'm late for work, too, because I have to go change to a sweater that's not covered in cocoa and wash the milk and sugar out of my hair.
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
For Leah, waking up in her own bed that morning was a luxury. She stretched under the covers and waved her musical alarm off. It took two tries; she jerked her hand past too fast for the sensor the first time. Then waved it back on and lay there listening to what another generation would have called bubblegum pop, bouncy synthviol and electronika coupled with mindless lyrics, until she heard her father tap on the door. “Leah?”
“I'm up,” she said, putting her feet on the floor. She didn't bother with slippers as she hurried to the shower. Genie had alighted on the edge of the sofa and was toweling her hair. “Morning.”
“Oink oink,” Leah replied. Genie threw the wet towel at her. She surprised herself. She stepped out of the way and caught the sopping terry cloth one-handed, neatly, without even getting her sleeve wet.
“That was quick,” Genie said.
“Yeah,” Leah answered. And then she crossed the carpet too fast and barked both shins on the coffee table. “I still don't have the hang of it, though.” She looked up in time to see her dad — peering through the eggshell-white-trimmed archway from the kitchen — turn away.
She stopped in the middle of dressing and wiped the mirror dry so she could look herself in the eyes, but didn't see any differences. The nugget of the control chip under the skin of her left hand whitened as she rubbed the outline.
No school today. She'd be tutored at the research lab from now on, and the emphasis would be science and math.
At least she was good at math. And she'd get to ride the subway in with Dad — but Genie would have to go to school alone. She reached for her blouse automatically and realized, in her sleepiness, she had left her clothes in her room. The drugs they had her take before the trials made her faster, but they also wore her out.
She shrugged her robe back on and hurried into her bedroom, pulling on the first clothes she found. She twisted her hair into a wet braid she could shove up under her hat and grabbed her boots as she headed back out to the living room. Genie was already finishing breakfast.
“Eat quick,” Dad said.
Leah shook her head, her hair leaving tracks like a sidewinder's across her shoulders as she trotted into the kitchen. She caught her hip on the edge of the doorway and rolled her eyes. “I'll grab a breakfast bar.”
The train ride was crowded but uneventful. If it hadn't been so icy, the distance was short enough to walk, but with frozen rain still spitting and half the sidewalks like glass, they decided it was a good day to take advantage of Toronto's white-tiled subterranean architecture. Leah's math class was only six people: herself, Patty, and the four boys: Bryan, Winston something — a dirty blond she thought she liked, in a geeky sort of way — and the two Davids, whom she could never keep sorted out.
Leah gave Patty a quick hug as they walked into the classroom, but Patty flinched away. “Did you go to see Carver yesterday?”
“There's no point,” Patty answered, and Leah understood that the topic was closed. She still picked the desk beside the one Patty chose, and worked steadily until Mr. Powell left the room. Kept working, until Patty hunched down so that her hair concealed her interface plate and tapped quick messages on her desktop.
Leah, I found out something from Papa Fred.
The ships are colony ships. They're taking people someplace else.
Now? We're not ready to fly them now.
No, not now, silly. Whenever they're done.
Are they coming back?
They must be. Patty looked up quickly as a shadow crossed the door, but nobody entered. I mean, you wouldn't spend that much money on something and use it just once, would you?
I—Leah's quick fingers were interrupted by Mr. Powell's return. With only six students in the room, she knew she'd get caught, so she wiped the chat with a pass of her hand and quickly foregrounded her math application again.
Her heart wasn't in it, and the timer beeped at her tinnily while she was still staring through the sixth problem of ten. I need to tell Elspeth, she thought, ignoring Mr. Powell's glare and restarting the problem set, pushing her thoughts aside. And Aunt Jenny, too.
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
Chestnut Hill Road
South Glastonbury, Connecticut
Hartford's civilian commissioner of police let her hands rest on her thighs, fighting the urge to collapse against her squeaky leather sofa cushions. Images and data slid slowly — midair — around her living room. She knew if she leaned back, she would be out like a light. “Hawaii,” she said, trying the word. “San Diego.” Hawaii would probably be better, as long as she stayed away from Honolulu. Although protected by the massive Army Corps engineered series of locks across the harbor, San Diego's water rationing was severe enough to lower its status as a vacation destination. “Palm trees,” she said.
The clatter of nails on terra-cotta broke her concentration. Her dog, Moebius, wandered in from the kitchen, his dreadlocked white coat swaying with every step and brushing the ankle-deep rug. Kuai's spare time went into planning tropical vacations she never got around to taking, and the money she didn't spend on them went into her house, even if she didn't have anyone but a hundred-pound Hungarian sheepdog to share it with. A real dog, an old-fashioned dog. Not a puppymorph with oversized ears and feet and no sense of responsibility.
No matter how grim the day, the random pattern of ink-spot freckles on Moebius's pale-pink skin where it showed between the dreadlocks still had the power to make her smile. And, lacking sheep to guard, the komondor would be more than happy to use the biggest set of teeth she had ever seen on anybody who might threaten Kuai. And any houseguests who moved too quickly for his taste. Not that she had many houseguests.
She patted the sofa and Moebius jumped up beside her and laid his head on her knee with a sigh, pleased to be invited onto the furniture. Frowning, Kuai contemplated the information slowly patterning and repatterning before her. She ran her fingers through her hair and judged it clean enough for a telephone call and the hour finally late enough to be decent.
She waited while the call rang through, introduced herself to a receptionist who seemed to recognize her from news broadcasts, was puzzled by the young man's bright, “Oh, he's expecting you!” and waited a few more moments while Dr. Simon Mobarak was summoned to the phone.
“Dr. Hua?” Mobarak was a solid-looking Middle Eastern man, prematurely middle-aged, looking not quite as tired as she felt. “I had given up hope that you would call back.”
“Call back?” Her eyes were so tired that her involuntary blink hurt, and Kuai made the executive decision that she wasn't going in to work today after all.
“I left you a message several days ago, but you must not have gotten it. You were in an autopsy when I called.”
Sally. I might as well have kept my overprotective mother and saved the price of a paycheck. Kuai scratched Moebius behind the ear; he moaned softly and lifted his head into the viewfinder. Dr. Mobarak laughed as he saw the dog.
Kuai tilted her head in wry acknowledgment and blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I was calling you about the Park River homicides. I understand you used to have a patient named Genevieve Casey—”
“Strange,” he interrupted. “I can't share patient information without a subpoena, of course. But I had called you about the same thing. I've been passed some very interesting data, and I couldn't think who else to send it to.”
“Oh.” And she saw the crease of concern between his eyes, and what she thought was bitten-back anger. “Oh, yes.”
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
Trevor shifted uncomfortably, weight on the balls of his feet, but didn't speak. Captain Wainwright was staring down at the back of her hands, pale against the blue blotter on her gray issue desk, the expression on her face as sour as if she were trying to figure out how to floss her teeth on the tendons. She lifted one of the hands and brushed it through her dark, orderly hair. She was a small woman, trim and forceful in air force blue, affecting a manner the crew found comforting. “Lieutenant,” she said through thinned lips, “I understand that there are medical issues involved. But can you at least attempt to build a rapport with the rest of my crew?”
Koske bit his tongue on a retort that sounded defensive even to him. “Ma'am. I can try.” He tried to keep his eyes straight ahead, but she caught his gaze and wouldn't drop it. Her direct gaze pinned him until he found his voice again. “Do you have a suggestion, ma'am?”
The expression around her eyes remained unchanged, but color returned to her mouth. “Why don't you join the zero-G handball team? I imagine you'd excel and who knows — you might develop a taste for it. While I applaud your dedication to duty, I think it would be healthy for you to find outlets other than simulator training and punching the heavy bag.”
“Ma'am.” It could have been worse. At least she wasn't going to force him to do anything egregiously stupid, like morale. “I think I can manage that.”
“Good,” she said, and pushed her chair aside on its swivel arm as she stood. “You're dismissed, Koske. And don't worry”—interrupting him as he turned for the hatchway—“you will get to fly this bucket, too.”
The parting shot rattled him. He leaned against the corridor wall on the other side of the hatch, feeling cool steel hard against his scalp as he pressed the back of his head to the bulkhead. Am I that transparent? And then he smiled, sardonically, in spite of himself. “Or are you just feeling the same way anybody in your shoes would feel?”
Trevor Koske nodded unconsciously. A creeping headache colored the sides of his face and the back of his eyes. Cold metal felt good, but the tension was still creeping down his neck, and a familiar prickle on his skin suggested someone was watching him. He straightened and lifted his shoulders, glancing right and left to see if anyone had witnessed his moment of exhaustion.
The corridor was empty.
He went to sign the free-fall handball team tryout roster, and then he went to find Ramirez. Koske was moving rapidly along a gray-matted corridor when he stopped and snorted softly, remembering. The Montreal's AI was active now. He lifted his head and spoke clearly to the air. “Montreal?”
“Lieutenant. How may I be of service?”
“The location of Lt. Christopher Ramirez, please.”
“Aft officers' lounge, Lieutenant.” The voice's lack of inflection was soothing. Koske understood that the AI's programming constrained it, placed it under the control of the ship's pilots and the captain. He hoped that was true. There was something a little bit creepy about walking around inside a ship with a mind of its own.
Koske nodded and turned aft. Ramirez was alone in the smaller and colder of the two lounges — the one without a view — staring at the wall. It did have a coffee tap, however, and the walls and floor were upholstered in a muted beige and blue pattern that matched the couches. Koske ducked through the hatchway quickly and dogged it behind him, the alloy wheel smooth in his hands. He liked metal and smooth cloth, cool ceramic. Things that minimized tactile feedback.
Ramirez blinked as if clearing a contact and touched his ear clip. “Trev. Come on in.”
“Watching a movie?” Make an effort, he told himself. Try to remember how to make small talk, to connect with other men. It was better than it had been; the surgery had changed a lot. Not enough, but a lot.
“My wife sent up some holo chips. I miss my favorite shows. You look bugged.”
“I am bugged. Wainwright is on me to improve my social skills.” Koske focused on the coffee tap, crossed the room to it, and pulled a cup out of the dispenser without looking up. He dialed a mocha and waited while the soy milk steamed and the cup filled. It tasted like soy milk, and he made a face. “She says they suck.”
“Trev,” Ramirez said. “Your social skills do suck.”
He stuffed his hip into his pocket and swung his feet off the pearl-blue ottoman, leaning forward between his knees. Koske caught it out of peripheral vision, but studied a bland pastel print matted and sealed in hard poly flush with the wall instead. “I'm good at my job.”
“You wouldn't be here if you weren't. Flying's your life, isn't it.”
Not a question, but Koske nodded anyway. He fussed with his recyclable cup. “It's not enough to just be good, is it?”
“Eh.” Ramirez reached over the low overstuffed back of the sofa and retrieved a drink Koske hadn't noticed from an elongated table behind it. He cupped it between both hands, resting in his lap, and looked up at a ceiling that boasted the same blue-silver patterned weave. It didn't matter which way was up in zero G. “You ever think about how much better you have to be at something now than you did two hundred years ago?”
“What do you mean?” Koske turned around and leaned his butt against the wall. The mocha was okay as long as he let himself drink it on automatic, without trying to taste it.
“Say in nineteen hundred, or whatever, before there was television and radio.”
“There was radio in nineteen hundred,” Koske corrected, but he wasn't sure after he said it.
“Whatever. The point is, you're a singer in the year whatever, and you're a pretty good singer, and you make a pretty good living at local bars or singing on street corners or at fairs or whatever. And suddenly somebody invents the radio, and you don't have to be the best singer in the town anymore. Now you have to be the best singer in the country. And then you have television, and you have to be the best singer in the world. And you have to be pretty, too, and look good on camera.”
Koske realized he'd finished his mocha and folded the cup into the recycler. “Okay.”
“So a lot of people are frustrated, and go to work making widgets or whatever, because everybody in the world has access to the, like, ten best singers anywhere.”
“Huh. Doesn't that kind of compare to nations, too? They keep getting bigger…”
“I was going there, actually.” Ramirez licked his hand and smoothed it across his hair to tame a platinum cowlick. “Sure. You go from tribes and principalities to city-states with empires, from empires to nation-states with bigger empires, then to supranations like PanMalaysia, the Commonwealth, PanChina, the EU, the United States. I'd say both things are a function of people just being able to talk to each other better.”
“And the Nets, going back to the mid-twentieth century. If there's one thing people are good at, other than killing each other, it's talking. Hell, we even talk to dogs and dolphins. Or try.”
Koske suddenly choked, harsh amusement tightening his throat. “You're telling me Wainwright is right, and if I don't talk to people I'm subhuman.”
The blond man shrugged, tossed back his beverage, and stood, crumpling the disposable cup in one rawboned fist. “I'm not telling you anything. Except you have to be the best at your job in the world, or you're not going to get what you want. But I keep thinking there's got to be a way for people to — well, there's some sense in the New Chinese system.”
Koske flinched away as Ramirez brushed past him to drop the cup into the recycler. “PanChina is pretty repressive.”
Ramirez chuckled. “Have you looked at the privileges granted our government under the Military Powers Act? The prime minister can essentially force anybody she wants into military service. Jail anybody — for no reason at all. Based on their ethnicity. And we're so in the pocket of the PanMalaysian corporations it's not funny. Canada might as well just admit that it's Southeast Asia's army and get on with life in a mercenary fashion. And let's not even get into some of the things that went on in the U.K. — back when it could still claim to have a government. And the Christian Fascists in the United States—”
“You don't think a democratic government is superior to a totalitarian one? I fought in that war, Chris. Maybe you're too young to remember, but we had good reasons for going over there. For South Africa, too.”
“Sure. That's not the point. What I'm saying is in the old system, people who had a gift were nurtured. Even if they weren't the best in the world. And PanChina has protocols that take the place of that sort of nurturing—”
“—creche environments for kids, parental visits on weekends.”
“There's an old political philosophy… do you know any history, Trev?”
Trevor snorted and kicked his heel against the wall. “Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”
“Have you ever heard the expression from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?”
“Can't say I have. Why?”
Ramirez shrugged and moved to the dispenser to refresh his drink. “It's the boiled-down version of a discredited political philosophy. One that was the root of the PanChinese system, several revolutions ago. They also believe in individual service to the state, and state service to the individual. It doesn't seem like a bad ideology to me. I think more people can excel, given the kind of support you see on a village level rather than worldwide competition. And I think people should be given a chance to just be good at something, and live their lives. Instead we've got a world full of unhappy people in dead-end jobs medicating themselves to stay sane.”
Wouldn't it be nice not to have to be the best to be recognized?
Hell no, Koske thought. I want to be the best. On my own merit. And if that means outflying and outthinking Genevieve Casey, well. She's got to lose one of these days.
“You're depressing me, Chris.”
“Sorry about that.” Ramirez finished his coffee in a gulp. “Come on. Let's run some laps.”
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
When I do get to work Gabe's lying in wait, looking sexy in a white shirt, open at the collar, and tan loafers. Damn his eyes. Leaning against the wall beside my office door, engrossed in something on his hip.
“I'm sorry.” I key the door open and press my thumb to the lock plate. “It won't happen again.”
He doesn't look up. “Accepted.” And from the level tone of his voice I know he's going to hold me to it. “What the hell happened last night? I couldn't decide if I was more worried or if Elspeth was.”
“I— Gabe, I need a cup of coffee. Want to go for a walk?” I'm still trying to decide what to tell Valens. Whether I should tell Valens anything.
Gabe taps his hip off, stuffs it into a pocket, raises his gaze to mine. “Anytime.”
I fall into step beside him, turning back the way I came, comforted by his presence. We pass through the external doors into the parking lot, and a big dark-haired kid — maybe twenty-one, a little old for the program — steps around us, coming in. I do get a good look at his ragged jeans and laser decal high-tops, luminescent tattoo on his cheekbone, and think he's probably a messenger. Except he badges past security like he belongs there.
I hold the door for him; he grunts an indelicate acknowledgment that isn't quite a thank-you. His name's painted across the back of his leather jacket over a lovingly detailed oriental phoenix in crimson and gold, going toe to toe with an indigo dragon. “You're welcome, Farley,” I say, and grin when he turns around, pale eyes startled under heavy brows. “That jacket your work?”
“Nice,” I say, and let the door shut over his face before I hustle to catch up with Gabe.
“You're such a bitch sometimes, Jen,” he says, and drapes an arm over my shoulder.
“I was nice. Why do kids like that always seem to wear name tags?” I know the answer, though: so the world will have to concede that they're people and not just stereotypes.
Gabe ignores me and sticks his nose in my hair. “How come you smell like chocolate?”
“Funny story about that. A girl threw her cocoa in my face this morning.”
“No, in the hotel lobby. And she called me by name.”
“Stalker?” His lips thin. I don't look much like I used to, before the scars were polished away.
“Maybe.” I speak in low tones, trusting the traffic noise to help confuse anyone trying to eavesdrop, hiding the shape of my lips behind his collar. It's a good excuse, right? “She looked like… Gabe, remember Bernard Xu?”
Of course he does. Rhetorical question. “Daughter? He didn't have any kids, did he?”
“I—”—never bothered to find out. “He had a brother, at least.”
“You think she's a threat?”
“I think she tripped over me by accident. She didn't expect to see me there. Recognized my voice, not my face. Probably from old news files.” Bitterly level. “A lot of my testimony was aired. I imagine if she's related, she's seen the footage.”
“I know.” He stops walking; I look around before I realize we're at the coffee shop. We get our drinks and go to walk around campus under the bare trees, on the dying lawn. A pale winter sun warms skin through my jacket. “She just happened to be there?”
“Sitting in a chair drinking cocoa, as if she were waiting for somebody. And she was shocked to see me. Recognize me. Bolted like a deer.”
“Huh. So what was she doing there?”
“Good question, huh?”
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
Wellesley Street East
Indigo paced. She'd been pacing for hours. The rhythm of her boots squeaking on cheap carpet soothed her enough to think.
Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey had sent Bernard Xu, the freedom fighter Indigo had modeled her life after, to jail for treason. He was the closet thing Indigo had known to a male parent; Indigo's father, Benson, had been killed in the South African conflict and she barely remembered him.
And Uncle Bernie had died behind bars.
Casey was a dangerous woman. And probably still a loyal patsy of the oppressive government regime Indigo lived to do battle with. Which meant that if Razorface was visiting her furtively in middle of the night, he had things to say to her that he didn't trust to electronic media. Which meant a closer connection than Indigo had assumed. He wasn't looking for Casey; he was working with her. And the things he had to pass along were most likely about Indigo. Indigo, who paced in the rat-gnawed confines of another water-stained safe house, eyes blind to grime and peeling wallpaper, and waited for word on where to go and what to do.
She'd wanted Razorface because he might lead her to Casey. And he had. Something pressed thumbs into her throat when she stopped pacing. She refused to recognize it as grief.
At last, a coded tapping roused her, and a key turned in the old-fashioned lock a moment later. Indigo breathed a sigh of relief when Farley pushed the door ajar and came in. “Any word?”
He nodded, put a pouch of milk and a pouch of cereal on the counter. “We're going to have to cut the American loose.”
“I figured as much. What do we know? Do they want more than that?” Do they want him dealt with? She hoped not. The idea tasted—off.
He shrugged. A square of wan sunshine illuminated the light tattoo on his cheek as he found bowls and fixed breakfast. “No, just walk away and stay hid. I think they want to watch him.”
“Speaking of which. We're not walking away from the Unitek issue.”
“If we take out Riel, we damage Unitek.”
“Riel? I want Holmes, Farley. Before she kills any more kids. You were the one who told me one of their test subjects is going to spend his life on a ventilator.”
Milk dripped from his lower lip. He swallowed. “My sources did, yeah. But they've got an idea now that Casey might give us the shot at Riel, so we're to keep an eye on her. I guess the PM is getting more personally interested in what her underlings are up to. My sources tell me Riel's opposition to the starflight program is public only. Her party's in Unitek's pocket — hurt one, hurt both.”
“Really.” The beginnings of a grin tingled her cheeks. “Not that I would jeopardize a mission for personal reasons. But assuming it works, do they have any objection to Casey meeting an unkind fate as well?”
Tuesday 5 December, 2062
Richmond Hill, Ontario
Dexter spread burgundy tail feathers against the nap of a dark terry towel draped over the sofa back and clucked tenderly, turning her head to coax Georges a little closer. Slate-gray feathers ruffled at the back of her neck.
Valens leaned back in his armchair and chuckled. “She's just sweet-talking you in so she can steal your glasses.”
Georges tucked a chile pepper between his lips and bent toward the African gray. She eyed his spectacles, but after some consideration appeared to decide that snacks were better than tormenting Papa, and very neatly extracted the dried fruit from his mouth. “Pretty, pretty!” she said contentedly, nibbling leathery red bits off the treat.
“We got the names backward,” Georges commented. Sinister — another African gray — slept on a rough-barked perch near the holo stand, making a strange hunchbacked shape with his head tucked under his wing.
“We did. Is that good, birdy-bird?”
Dexter put the fruit down on her towel and clucked. “Red fruit!” She was a mature African gray, with a vocabulary better than many three-year-olds Valens had known.
“Pepper,” Georges replied, clearly. The birds were his babies, and he was convinced they understood most of what he told them.
Valens laughed again, and then closed both broad hands on the arms of the overstuffed chair and pulled himself out of its embrace. He headed for the antique oak liquor cabinet in the corner and knelt to look for a bottle of Scotch. “Patricia's doing really well in the program, by the way. Kahl'ua? Who do we know who drinks that?”
“That's good to hear. And I think we got the bottle for my birthday three years ba— Ow!”
Valens glanced back over his shoulder, distracted from the rustle and clink of half-full bottles. Dexter had hopped to Georges's shoulder and was gnawing on his ear. “Do you need a rescue?”
“No, I got it. She's just jealous.” Georges got the bird redirected to preening the gray fringe of hair that was all that remained to him, sitting forward so he wouldn't pin her tail against the couch. “How long do you think it's going to be?”
“Georges, I don't know.” Valens closed the cabinet, losing his interest in a drink. “Time's getting short, and Riel is getting awfully close to figuring out what's going on. And if she does, I honestly don't know which way she'll jump. And Holmes… she's a piece of work.”
“She is. You're not going to save the world all by yourself.”
“The hell you say.” He bit back on the rest of the sentence, shook his head, and pressed one hand flat to the soft cream-patterned wool of the rug as he stood. “Okay, you're right. I'm not going to save the world. But I am going to save Patty, at least.”
Georges was standing when Valens turned back around, standing and smiling in that tolerant, amused, slightly condescending way that made Valens wonder why he had put up with long absences and an all-consuming career for thirty years. And made him infinitely grateful that Georges had. “I know how you feel about her, Fred.”
“Are you insinuating that I'm inappropriately attached to one of my patients?” Arch amusement. “A woman, at that?”
“No, I'm saying it's like you to look out for one of your kids, even when they don't understand what you're doing for them.” The bird shifted on Georges's shoulder, spread wings he never remembered to keep clipped, and sailed across the room to Valens. Valens reflexively put a hand up and let her land on his fist. Just a few ounces of feathers and bone, but he felt the impact solidly.
“She hates me.”
“You trust her.”
“I do.” Valens shook his head, and Dexter squawked her disapproval of the sudden movement. “Hush, birdy-bird. I'll use her any way I have to, Georges. Especially if it comes down to her or Patty. But I think she turned out okay. She's a patriot, in one of the better senses of the word.” He might have said more, but he didn't think he needed to.
“It's that bad?”
“Well.” The bird nibbled his finger, clucking. “Go to Papa Georges, birdy-bird.”
She clucked again, as if to her eggs, or a mate, and regarded him out of eyes like black gemstones set in fragile lids with the texture of crumpled rice paper. “Pretty!” she said — her all-purpose term of approval — and bit his nose.
He shook his hand gently. “Papa Georges.”
The bird clucked in annoyance and took wing again, landing on her towel on the sofa.
“Latest reports indicate that there are massive algae
die-offs in the Atlantic, spreading to the Indian Ocean. Nobody knows why, but there's some theorization that it's linked to the failure of the Gulf Stream and deep-ocean water turnover. An El Ni~no event is under way in the Pacific, and coral reef survivability is down to 35 percent. We're looking at an ecosystem collapse in 150 years, tops. That's all proprietary Unitek information, of course. Holmes hasn't informed Riel yet, although we presume her own scientific adviser, Paul Perry, must be aware of the issues. Charlie tells me that Paul has been in touch.”
“It sounds like a doomsday scenario. Hysteria.”
Valens rolled his head back and looked up at the ceiling. Suddenly, he decided he wanted that drink after all. “It does, doesn't it? It doesn't mean the planet will be uninhabitable, of course. Just that it will take greater and greater interventions to sustain human life. We're looking at a lot of hunger, misery, and sickness. A lot of poverty.”
“A lot more war.”
“A whole hell of a lot more war.”
Thursday 7 December, 2062
Clarke Orbital Platform
Charlie had intended to meet Paul Perry when he disembarked from the beanstalk on Clarke, but somehow one thing led to another, and Charlie was still hunched over one of his microenvironments when his contact flashed a message. He blinked for a time display and cursed under his breath, standing up from his stool the same instant a knock sounded on the hatch. “Paul, I'm sorry—”
Perry stood framed in the doorway a moment: a small-boned man, slightly built and of average height, dark hair still tousled from his trip in the space elevator. “It's nothing,” he said, his quick sideways glance an unassuming request to come in out of the corridor. Charlie stepped back and let him. “I assume something good kept you?”
Charlie shrugged, and tapped the door-panel shut behind Paul. “Something interesting,” he said. “I'm up to my neck in nanites—”
“Literally?” Pale eyes flashed slyly. Charlie made a little show of dusting off his shirt front, and then led Paul over to the benches while the science adviser kept talking. “You know I'm not here as a colleague, Charles—”
“You're here as Riel's investigator. I know she's not pleased with Unitek, but—”
“Yes? What are these, Charlie? Terrariums?”
“Microenvironments. But we've discovered some remarkable secondary abilities in our nanotech that I wanted to share with you anyway.”
“These all look extremely healthy. Are they closed systems?”
Charlie nodded, picking up one of the sealed glass spheres and handing it to Paul. Paul took it, cupped it in both his narrow hands. “Completely. Water, shrimp, snails, some algae — one of the classic model ecosystems.”
Paul coughed. It was a laugh hidden behind a hand, and Charlie grinned. “Which, as an ecologist, you were no doubt aware.”
“Indubitably. Nothing remarkable there, then?”
Charlie shook his head. “On the contrary. They're all quite remarkable. The one you're holding is a control. There are five natural controls, five controls that are infected with a nanotech population—”
“Not sure I like that word infected.” Paul turned toward the light, and held the sphere carefully up to it. His motions disturbed the crystalline water, and a pale smear of sediment rose from the base of the globe, describing a spiral.
“Got a better one?”
Paul answered him only with silence. Charlie propped one hip on a steel lab bench and waited until Paul finally caved and jerked his chin at the racks of labeled spheres under grow-lights. “And the others?”
“With nanites? What, various”—he sought a word and failed—“cultivars?”
“Ooo,” Charlie answered. “Cultivars. Consider that terminology stolen, Paul. No, all one — cultivar. Differing concentrations of industrial chemicals, heavy metals, bleach—”
“Bleach?” Paul set the sphere in his hands down carefully on its rack, affixed the clips, and strode to the wall to look at the others. He bobbed up and down a little when he walked, his hands fisted and shoved into his jacket pockets. “They all look very healthy. That's… very exciting.”
“That,” Charlie answered, “is the remarkable thing—” and grinned when Paul turned back over his own shoulder and made a wry mouth. “We're on the same side of this fight, Paul.”
“The prime minister isn't so sure about that, Charlie.”
“I am.” Charlie shrugged. “Fred Valens is. Holmes, she's a different matter. But that's not what I need to talk to you about. How much do you know — really know—about what's going on planet-side?”
“Politically?” Paul turned to face Charlie, his back to the racks of microenvironments.
Paul laughed bitterly and drew his hands out of his pockets. Charlie was surprised to find himself twisting his own fingers together and forced himself to stand up straight and stop. “Do you need a more definite answer than, we're fucked?” He said it mildly, calm as a request for coffee. “I know. Riel knows. I'm postulating that we're on the verge of a snowball Earth scenario, actually.”
“Snowball—” Charlie felt himself blink. It was a vivid mental picture, and certainly it couldn't be what it sounded like. But Paul's slow, considered nod twisted a chilly knot in his gut nonetheless.
“Snowball Earth,” Paul said. “A complication of a global warming scenario. The short form is that a big glup of cold water — like a caving ice shelf, say — hits the ocean, and the water temperature plummets, precipitating a glaciation. Except if the glaciation gets severe enough, the planet's albedo rises to extreme levels—”
“Reflecting solar energy into space. Charming.” Charlie realized he'd wrapped his arms tight around himself, but didn't drop them. “Snowball Earth.”
“Quite the vivid poetic image, isn't it?”
“Quite.” Paul didn't say anything else as Charlie turned around and began fussing with instrument calibrations. Charlie knew going in he was going to lose his nerve first, and didn't bother putting up much of a fight, truth to tell. “Do you think it's likely?”
“I think we can fight it if it starts to happen. Carbon dust on the ice pack, anything to increase heat absorption. But it's one hell of an ugly long shot. If anything happened to spike atmospheric dust, say a volcano or two, we'd be in really rough shape.”
“What would it take, Paul?” Charlie's nails were bitten, but his hands were expert as he made his adjustments, and they didn't shake. “To trigger that?”
Paul came up beside him, leaning his elbows on the bench. “It's already triggered, in my opinion. We're also due — overdue — for a magnetic polar swap and a normal, everyday sort of a glaciation and a bunch of other ecological trauma. The short form is that things are going to get very, very ugly. Possibly in our lifetimes. Definitely within our grandchildren's. People are going to be hungry and they're going to be cold.” He sighed.
“And yet Riel wants to shut down the space program.”
“The prime minister thinks we're better off spending the money at home. Different priorities. And I have to say I agree with her.”
Charlie nodded. “You know what amazes me, Paul?”
“Human stupidity?” Dry tone, but a guess hazarded with a smile. The two men shared a long, tangled look, and Charlie blew air across his face and shrugged.
“No,” he said. “Our damned human conviction that there's going to be a way to weasel out of this one, too.”
Friday 8 December, 2062
I wake early, and for a moment — before Gabe's darkened apartment swims into focus — I can't remember where I am. The clock reads a little after 0300. I trained myself to go without sleep — besides catnaps — for so long that now that I can sleep through the night, I don't need it anymore. Boris came to dinner in the cat carrier; he purrs on my chest. The damn cat drools, and the quilt is wet. Gabe still snores quietly beside me, but I can tell I'm done sleeping.
Some light filters in from the street below, so I annoy the cat by turning on my side. I stretch out and lie there for a little while watching Gabe's breath flow slowly in and out. Richard?
“Up late, Jenny.”
“Min-xue is developing a taste for Dylan Thomas and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I'm teaching him English. Poetry is a good motivator. He loves it.”
It's hard to think of the Chinese as enemies when Richard gives me regular progress reports on his new project, a seventeen-year-old half-Taiwanese pilot who composes traditional poetry on the stars. I wonder how they feel about that in St. Petersburg, now. Corrupting the innocents, son?
“Who you calling sonny, Grandma?” Richard chuckles. “How's everything going down there?”
Scared. Trying to keep body and soul together. The usual. Elspeth sends her love and wants a nanite load of her own so she can talk to you.
“I'm working on that. The problem is the damned control chips—”
What if we reprogrammed the nanites to act independently?
“There are horror movies about that. We still don't know what these things are for, Jenny.”
Have you hacked their O/S yet?
“It'd help to have Castaign for that.”
Oh, come on. You're saying Gabe can do things you can't?
“I'm smart, Jen, not omnipotent. And the command system that Charlie and Ramirez welded on over the nanites' original programs is sheer… well, it's strictly A-life stuff. Not so much a command program, per se, as training protocols. Although some of Ramirez's work is pretty bleeding edge.”
I don't understand a word you're saying, Dick.
“That's okay. By the way, your cocoa-tosser is Indigo Xu, and your guess was right. She's Bernard Xu's niece by his deceased brother. Age twenty-nine, college dropout. No steady employment or place of residence for two years. No outstanding debt.”
“Yeah, she's probably following in Uncle Bernie's shoes, and I haven't traced her financing yet. Watch yourself, Jenny. She may have a grudge.”
May? I laugh silently so I won't wake Gabe. I already moved out of the hotel. And I won't stay here after tonight — too much risk to the girls. Gabe can take care of himself. Even if he looks soft and fluffy these days. I narrow my eyes, squinting into darkness green-lit by my prosthetic's night sight and scented warmly with the heavy aroma of sleeping bodies. Have you managed to figure out where the generation ships are yet?
“Less than a light-year out. It will be hundreds of years before they get there. And I don't think our friends the Chinese have any plans to go looking for them in the meantime.”
“Inhumane? You checked on that kid on the ventilator at NDMC recently?”
“Jenny, he's conscious.”
I gag. I literally put my hand to my throat, and gag. Merci `a Dieu. Trapped in a body like a pile of meat… no, I don't have any issues about that. Isn't there anything they can do for him? What went wrong?
“I'm talking to him whenever he's awake. I don't know what happened, but somehow the signals from his nervous system are not getting to his brain, and vice versa — or when they do, they're garbled. It may be a programming issue with the nanites. It may be something else.” I feel him shrug. “I'm making some progress with the programming, but I'd really like to talk to your boyfriend, there.”
If only he could catch a nanite load.
“Don't get stuck on the obvious solution.”
I know. I just keep thinking what these little guys could do for Genie.
Richard chuckled. “So keep her alive for three more years and get her into the pilot program.”
It could work.
Richard, you're brilliant.
“That's long been established. Talk to you later, Jenny. Get some rest.”
Blow me. He winks as he leaves, and I'm alone in the dark, with my warm pillow and my warmer lover, but my feet itch too much for me to stay in bed. After checking on the girls — both asleep, Genie snoring — I curl idly on the sofa and pick up my hip, intending to read myself back to sleepiness or kill a few hours till morning.
The message light blinks when I thumb it on. Dr. Simon Mobarak. Well, I'll be damned.
If it's oh-dark-thirty in the morning in Toronto, it's even earlier for a hardworking single neurologist with an on-line virtual-reality game addiction. Hell, Simon might still be camped out in his bar in the Avatar Gamespace. If he isn't, he's curled up in bed, just hitting the first sweet, refreshing flickers of REM sleep. I really shouldn't call him. I still haven't forgiven him for giving Valens the information that he needed to find me.
I have Simon's home number.
He owes me.
No visual, but a sleepy voice mumbles amid a rustle of sheets. “Jenny? It's 3 a.m.”
“My give-a-shitter is broken, Simon. You called?”
“Yeah.” There's a grunt and more rustling. I imagine him finding his contact and ear clip in the dark and fitting them in. He coughs and swims into focus. I laugh. He's turned a bedside lamp on and must have straightened his pajama top.
“Who the hell sleeps in pajamas, Simon?” Damn, it's hard to stay mad at him. He looks about ten years old.
“Dr. Hua has your message. She was apparently already interested in the case. How are you holding up? Nanite treatments still working okay?”
Not too bad with the spy talk. We could be discussing medicine. “Better every day. Do you foresee any problems?”
“Depends on the prognosis, of course, but it could get very ugly indeed.”
“Are you going to be around if I need you?”
“I'm taking ‘Das Unterwasserzug' to Europe for a conference.” His grin is as disheveled as his pj's. “I'd expect you to be all impressed if you hadn't just been up and down the beanstalk.” Das Unterwasserzug. Imagine a marble in a giant garden hose. Vacuum in front, pressure behind, and the cars themselves riding on magnetic levitation rails. Cross the Atlantic in two hours.
We can build things like that, like the space elevator, like the Montreal. But Florida is half underwater and, while the dikes are holding around Manhattan and Boston, Houston was a little too exposed to save. “You have my hip,” I remind him. “Give me a call if you learn anything interesting.”
He stifles a yawn with his hand and tugs the down comforter in its corduroy duvet up halfheartedly. Beige. He must have bought that after his wife left. “Give me a call if you just want to talk.” He raises his hand and cuts me off before I can respond, leaving me with my mouth half open and a snappy comeback drifting on the air.
Is that your way of letting me know we're still friends if I want it, Simon? Rather than thinking about it too much, I enter another code and — expecting to leave a message — am not ready for an actual answer. “Yo.”
“Face, it's Maker.”
“Whatcha got going on? I came by your hotel but there wasn't nobody there.” He's in a room I don't recognize. The image jiggles a little as he shifts position: he must have his hip resting on his knee.
“I'm looking for another place. When did you come by?”
“Last night this morning. I knocked.”
“I must have been in bed.” A little white lie never hurt anybody. “I wanted to check in. I'm at Gabe's. Meet me downstairs in twenty minutes?”
He picks me up in my truck and we head down the block to Roupen's, where we get coffee and pick at the pies. He's got that inflatable cast off, finally. I wonder if his ankle's better or if he just got sick of wearing it. Razorface, uncharacteristically, starts talking.
“I got some weird shit going on, Maker. Those folks I hooked up with — gone without a trace, and the contact number they gave me is disconnected. Little worried out here, thinking maybe I should pull a vanishing act myself. I want you to be careful, too. I know they're gunning for your prime minister.”
“When'd you lose track of them?”
“Sometime this morning. Nobody around when I got back from your place—”
“Razorface—” You don't get to be my age living the way I've lived without a healthy respect for your instincts. “What were their names?”
“Got no last names. Chick looked — Eurasian, maybe? Pretty thing, lot like Bobbi. Named—”
“Yeah. How did you know that?”
“I killed her uncle, Face. Do me a favor?”
He coughs into his hand, and I don't like the way it sounds, or the gray hollows under his eyes. He picks up his coffee. “Anything.”
“Lie low. Stay close. Things are going to get ugly in Hartford and maybe here, and I may wind up with my ass extradited. The information you got Simon is in good hands, and I expect walls to start crumbling.” The coffee in its white stoneware mug is burned. I finish it and get the night-shift cook to bring me a carafe while Razorface is still doctoring his second cup with too much cream and sugar. I stare out the window at the chrome and neon of the sign. “How willing are they to kill people, Face?”
“Real willing.” Despite all the creamer, he blows across his coffee. He doesn't have much appetite for his pie, and the scrapes on his head aren't healing well. I can still see pink raw edges, half knit. “It's going to be soon, too. I–I dunno, I had them half talked out of going after Unitek, but now they think I'm a problem — surprised there's not a bullet in my brain. Farley'd like that.”
The name clicks over in my head. “Who?”
“There were two in the cell. Girl was Indigo.”
“Whatever. Man went by Farley. Big white guy with light tattoos. Another one who thinks the space program money should be spent at home.”
“Oh, shit me not.” If I had been holding onto the edge of the table, I would have left fingermarks on it. “Face, he's got a Unitek badge. I saw him there yesterday.”
Alberta Holmes hired my sister, not too long ago. Barb Casey was what Razorface might have called a stone killer; the phrase didn't do her justice. Holmes wouldn't flinch at hiring another assassin or two… and it would amuse her to use somebody in ways they wouldn't imagine, for goals they wouldn't approve. It would probably amuse her to keep dredging up bits of my past and seeing if she could make me twitch. Keep me off balance.
Seeing as how hiring Barb worked out so well.
Which makes me wonder, actually, why Alberta and Fred have so much invested in keeping me distracted. Wonder what on Earth I can possibly do to mess up their carefully laid plans?
Unless some of the fighting is over me.
I wonder, watching things click over in Razorface's head and the light go on in those deep brown eyes. I wonder if Holmes thinks she can use me to run Fred. Because if she does, she's seriously underestimating the ruthlessness of the man.
Razorface thinks for what seems like a long time before he talks. “You think they work for Holmes.”
“Either that or they have an in and they're still planning to do the job. There are too many variables to be sure.” I lean my elbows on the table and my face into my hands, the cool metal edge furrowing my stomach and my pants sticking to the washed-damp bench when I shift. The sensitive polymer over my steel hand feels strange to me still, after so many years of metal touching my skin. Razorface's spoon clinks and I try to make sense of what I know.
I just don't know enough. “Face, go to ground. Stay down. You willing to stay in this thing for a while?”
He shrugs. “What the hell else I got to do?”
I drop my hands and put the left one over his enormous one, squeezing enough to get his attention. “Stay hard.”
“Whatcha gonna do?”
I think back twenty years, twenty-five years. To a girl I used to know and the things she thought she had to do. She didn't have a clue how hard things could get. “I'm going to call Fred Valens,” I say, amazed I can get the words out so smooth. I swill coffee, stand up, snatch my scarred black jacket off the back of the booth. “I'm going to turn Indigo and Farley in. You have a way to get Indigo a message that Farley won't see?”
“Indigo? I got an e-mail box, but she ain't been answering.”
“Face, let her know what I'm doing. Tell her to get out of Canada.” It's not a plan. It's not even close to a plan. But when you don't have a plan, sometimes the controlled application of chaos will shift things enough that you can find a plan. “You tell her Genevieve Casey says her Uncle Bernard would have had more sense, and she doesn't have to trust me but if she's smart she'll do what I say. You tell her Farley works for Alberta, and you tell her I don't. Clear on that?”
Slow sharklike unveiling of his knife-tip smile, and Razorface shakes his head admiringly. “You kicking over the board again, Maker?”
“Fuck,” I say, fastening my buckles against the cold. “Fuck, yeah.”
I hope Gabe doesn't worry too much when he wakes up to find me gone. Probably not; I get these moods every so often. He knows that by now.
An individual woman can't do a damned thing to change the world. It's a tremendous machine, a monstrous automaton that will grind you up to grease the wheels and pound you into cookies. I know that. I know it better than you might think.
I've got an eagle feather in my pocket and — not too long ago, standing on the deck of a space station, watching the Earth spin like a roulette wheel under my feet — I promised the ghost of Bernard Xu I'd try to change the universe for him. Because I felt like I owed him something, and maybe he would have wanted that. Or maybe he would have wanted me to fuck off and die, considering I testified against him at his trial.
But Bernard — Peacock — doesn't get a vote anymore.
One of the drawbacks of being dead.
I walk for a long time. I like walking; it clears the head. Fred Valens is already at work when I get there, although it's before sunup. Or possibly the man is a robot who never goes home. Except he's got a grandkid he seems to like. Fucking people won't stop being human even when you want them to.
I take that back.
Alberta Holmes is a goddamned machine.
I rap on Valens's open office door and go in. He's in shirtsleeves, and for the first time I notice the circles under his eyes and the fact that his hair needs washing.
“Casey.” He stands, not bothering to power down his interface. Dancing images hover in the air over his desktop. It looks like a thermal map of the Atlantic Ocean, at a glance, and I wonder what he's working on. “An unexpected pleasure this early in the day.”
“I'm buying you breakfast,” I say. “We need to talk.”
He glances at his desktop, taps it off without a word, and gets his coat. We walk — all the way down to Larry's West-Side restaurant, steaming like a pair of old-fashioned locomotives in the brutal cold. “Snow tonight,” Valens says.
“I hadn't heard.” I crane my head back, the sky overhead limpid with the first glow of morning, a soft periwinkle shade like baby blankets. “Fred, what's troubling you?”
“I could ask you the same.” He's got a swinging, confident stride. I keep up without effort. “Or is this just a friendly fence-mending?”
Wry irony in his voice. I stop and look at him hard; he takes four more steps and turns back to me, sidelit by a streetlamp dimming in the gray light of dawn. “Jesus, Fred. Who told you that you could go get human on me, you son of a bitch?”
“On the Montreal, when I gave you that gun, I half expected you to shoot me in the back.”
“I still might.” I start walking again, and he falls into step. “Fred, I hate your guts. Don't get me wrong. You're a slick, callous son of a bitch with an agenda that bends for nobody.” He doesn't argue, just lets the sound of footsteps fill the next five seconds. “But I think you're one of the good guys. Damn you to hell.”
He coughs. I look over, but he's turning to follow a passing car with his eyes. One of his broad-fingered hands slips into his pocket, and then he reaches up as if scratching his ear. As casually as I can, I switch my hip on, glancing at it as if checking for messages. One blinks: a request to open an encoded transmission channel.
I enter an authorization and slip the plastic oblong back into my pocket. A moment later, Valens's subvocalized tones fill my ear. “You have some information for me, Casey?”
And it is down to us. You and me, Fred. The way it started, all those years ago. The palm of my steel hand itches. “Holmes is planning on having the prime minister killed.” Okay, I don't know that for a fact. But you never got a bunny to jump by walking up to it quiet like.
Valens, give him credit, doesn't stop. Doesn't look up from the sidewalk, glance at me, or pull his hands out of the pockets of his insulated coat. “You're sure.”
Not a question, and he doesn't glance at me.
“Sure enough.” I cough lightly, cover my mouth with my meat hand. “Bernard Xu's niece is involved. You remember Bernard, I trust? She's working with somebody who reports directly to Holmes. I saw him at Unitek, but I only know his first name. Farley.”
He shoots me a look. “Riel is trying to shut us down. How do you know the assassination plot isn't my doing, Casey?”
“I—” Damn. “Fred, I just know.” And that's when all the puzzle pieces start dropping into place. Richard's concerns. The colony ships. Unitek spending money like water on something with, at best, a very speculative rate of return. Not that that's conclusive. The city we're walking through wouldn't be here if somebody sometime hadn't taken a gamble without knowing what was on the other side, and my own ancestors wouldn't have been here to get their asses handed to them if their ancestors hadn't taken a similar gamble ten, fifteen thousand years before that. All circumstantial as shit, but generally there's a reason people make that kind of a leap of faith. And a reason why I wound up with some white girl's name, as well.
And then there's Valens's desperation, when Fred Valens desperate is a thing that stretches my credibility. And a thermal map of the Atlantic ocean, hanging in the air over his desktop, early enough in the morning that nobody else should have been in the office.
I close my eyes, the words slipping one by one past the constriction in my throat. “How long have we got?”
Ice crunches under his shoes, and another car glides past, whisper-silent on a turbine engine. He doesn't raise his head to look at this one. “A century,” he answers quietly. “Maybe two.”
Richard? Are you hearing this?
“I am now,” Richard says in my ear. I feel his hesitation. “I'm going to need data I can't get on the Montreal, dammit, and that's going to take time. Ellie and Gabe have schematics for the control chips. Can you help them build some?”
What, you want me to piggyback into the Unitek system or something?
“A regular library computer would be less likely to get us caught.”
Yeah, I can do that. Richard, did you know how high the stakes were?
A sensation like a shrug. “I had a scientific wild-ass guess. But no, I didn't know. What are you going to do?”
I think about the war I was in nearly thirty years ago; World War Three, for all they don't call it that. They call it the PanMalaysian Conflict, the South African Conflict, the Panama Action — which was mostly in Brazil, in another crystalline demonstration of the accuracy of history, and stretched as far south as Argentina. A war provoked by then-rising oceans, crop failures, erratic and burgeoning storms, the odd brushfire holy war run out of control. I steal a glance at Valens, who seems to assume my silence is contemplation. “Fred.”
A sidelong glance, considering, his eyes shadowed under a furrowed bow. “We have to get up there first, Casey.”
“Why is it so important? If only a scrap of humanity is going to survive, is it important that it's us rather than them?” Devil's advocate, I guess. I just really want to see how he'll answer.
“Because,” he answers. “Call it evolutionary hardwiring. Our kids or their kids. That's all it is. All it's ever been.”
And more honest words were never spoken. If I were as good a woman as I would like to be, this would be harder, wouldn't it? “Set it up. I need to meet Riel. How soon do we head back to the Montreal?” That last sentence out loud, not through the ear clips.
“As fast as you can get the kids ready. We've started a big push on the Calgary; she'll be ready by New Year's, and we're going to send Koske over there and two or three of the kids. You're spending Christmas in space.”
“Fair, as long as I get the turkey dinner.” We're up to the restaurant now, and the smell of eggs frying in grease fills my nostrils. “Fred, I wanted to tell you — your granddaughter's damned good at this.”
“I know,” he says, holding the door for me. “Do you think I would have pulled her into the program if she wasn't?”
Friday 8 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
St. George Street
The personality enneagrams floating in Elspeth's holo-interface might as well have been the shifting colors of a kaleidoscope, for all the sense they were making. She had a habit of leaving her office door open — as much because she could as because she wanted visitors — and the curtains drawn wide to show the Unitek parking lot and the University of Toronto campus beyond. She blinked to clear her contacts and turned to study that view, frustrating centimeters from a solution. The clock in the corner of her desk told her it was almost one, and she felt like everything she needed was staring back at her, just slightly out of order. If she could only get close enough to do more than brush the answer with her fingertips. Urgency clawed at the back of her throat; Leah and Jenny and possibly Gabe would be back aboard the Montreal in under a month, and she needed at least the seed of an AI sooner than that.
Twelve years ago, she'd gotten the first Richard strictly by accident. She'd set up a sort of a salon — artificial personas, A-life representations of a half-dozen people she'd always wished she could have met. One of them had — for lack of any other useful expression — come to life. And her refusal — as a lifelong pacifist — to use her research to support the war effort had resulted in what should have been a one-way trip to jail. Until Valens had found the key to make her cooperate.
She startled and turned toward the door when someone cleared her throat just outside it. Elspeth recognized salt-and-pepper hair and a cable-knit dark purple sweater over an angular body. “Fortuitous timing, Jenny. I don't suppose you're hungry?”
“I was coming to steal you,” Jen Casey said. “I'm done with my morning trials. How's the Frankensteining coming?”
Elspeth laughed. “I just finished a simulated persona. Let me save it to an environment and I'll come with you. How are you doing?” Loaded question, she knew.
Jen held up her right hand. It was shaking badly enough that Elspeth could see it from across the office. “Food helps,” she said, wryness twisting her mouth. “Fucking drugs.”
“Real-time simulation?” Elspeth shook her head. “Look, I think—” She stopped for a moment to concentrate on starting the simulation run before powering her interface down. “Jen, I'm something of an expert on psychoactive drugs. Can I ask you a personal question?” She stood, traded her heels for walking shoes, and collected her jacket.
“I was going to take Leah down to the raptor rehab center after lunch. Want to come?”
“Genie's got a treatment this afternoon. He's gone to get her from school.”
“It's Friday already?”
“Doc,” Jen said, holding the door for her. “You work too hard.”
Elspeth looked up at the tall, contained-seeming woman. “Too true. Raptor center? Where's that?”
“On campus. I guess they're having a talk today, and Leah's friend Patty wanted to go—” They passed Holmes in the hall; Unitek's vice-president of research and development gave them a warm nod as they passed, and Elspeth made an effort to return it. “I said I'd take them both.”
Jen's right hand was trembling hard enough that she had to use her left one to card out. Elspeth frowned. “You're strung out, Jenny. Are you going to change the subject on me again?”
The door whispered shut behind them, and a fistful of cold air struck Elspeth's face. She tugged her scarf up. Jen didn't seem to notice. “Withdrawal sucks,” she said quietly, without turning to look at Elspeth. “I tried it on a half-dose today, and it's still wracking me up.”
“Has Valens tested your nanite load recently?”
“Yeah, it's peaked. Fortunately, the little buggers will clean up my system pretty good if I can lie down and let them work for a couple of hours. But I don't see how they expect Koske and me to fly a starship if we're going to be sucking pills down like fistfuls of Halloween candy.”
They turned south, through the center of the campus, walking through browned grass along concrete pathways. Elspeth pulled out her hip to message Leah while they walked. “I'll blink the girls and let them know to meet us after lunch. Here's the thing, Jen — you can't. If you have three, four pilots per ship you're talking six-or eight-hour shifts when she's under way. They can't—can't—keep you all performing under rigathalonin for that long, consistently. So there has to be a plan to take the load off. I've been thinking about this.” Gabe pointed out that I might want to be thinking about this.
“What are you suggesting, Ellie?” Jen stopped and turned toward her, looking her in the eye.
Elspeth chewed on a breath, remembering how they'd met. The terrible scars Jen Casey had borne with a kind of defiance that Elspeth couldn't help but understand to be rooted in pain and more kinds of fire than the physical. Casey's eyes matched now: both dark brown and piercing — the left one barely distinguishable from the right even if you knew what you were looking for — and the low, bitter stain of fear and anger had gone out of her voice, replaced by a different sort of tension entirely. “You have another run with the kids tonight?”
“So come in over the weekend and try the simulation without the Hyperex.”
“I…” Jen shrugged. “Can't handle the equipment by myself.”
“Still an M.D.,” Elspeth shot back with a grin. “Okay, a lame-ass research psychiatrist. But I can watch a freaking heart monitor. Honest.”
Jen lowered her voice. “Your friend is working on getting the whole nanite programming thing nailed down.”
“Dick never saw anything he didn't want to take apart.” Elsepth stopped dead in her tracks, covered her sudden revelation with a grin. “Hey, a hot dog truck.”
“Doc, you're a good woman.”
“Don't let it get around.”
Friday 8 December, 2062
University of Toronto Main Campus
Ellie and I eat our hot dogs crouched on a cement bench, leaning forward to let the excess sauerkraut drip between our knees. She makes little pleased noises as she chews; the enjoyment's contagious. I'm still failing utterly to hate her.
Leah and Patty catch up with us before we finish and Leah stands there looking petulant until I buy hot dogs for the girls as well. All three of us chase the frankfurters with a handful of assorted supplements: miscellaneous things a normal person shouldn't swallow, but the nanotech needs for self-repair and maintenance on our wetwiring.
“Thank you, Master Warrant,” Patricia says with that careful courtesy. She's got a manner of studying the grown-ups around her as if reading them like books — anticipating their expectations. She's awfully self-conscious for a kid. I wonder if somebody hits her. “Can we talk about the drills later?”
“Stiff. It's Friday!” Leah throws her napkin at Patty and takes off; the older girl catches the wadded paper with a dart of her hand I find eerily familiar and lights out after my goddaughter smooth as a hare. They race across the winter lawns, shrieking and scaring the freshmen, and I'm amazed to realize that neither one of them is that much younger than the college kids. Patty can't quite catch Leah, but it's mostly because Leah hasn't quite gone from coltish to painfully self-conscious yet, and Patty isn't digging in the way a kid would. Still, the break in her quiet intensity makes me smile. She's a good kid, even if her granddad's a son of a bitch.
“Eagles?” I ask when they trot back, Leah grinning and Patty blushing either from exertion or from embarrassment.
Leah grins wider as she corrects me. “Raptors, Aunt Jenny.”
And they say you can't ever go home.
It's a rehab facility, not an aviary, but two hallways are open to the public with a half-dozen big birds in various stages of rehabilitation on each. The whole place smells scrubbed, and the red-curtained amphitheater has maybe twenty people in it for a capacity of four hundred. It's not hard to get seats in the front row. Judging by the graffiti dug into the foldup desk attached to my chair, it doubles as a classroom. Woody hates fluids. My metal fingers trace letters graven into the faux-wood surface, and I grin. Fluid dynamics, I presume, but the next one puzzles: Johanna my whohometer spins only for you.
I suppose it's the sentiment that counts. I lean over and whisper in Doc's ear, because the presenter hasn't come out yet and the girls are still passing notes on their hips while Ellie and I pretend we don't notice. “This sort of thing always makes me wish I'd gone to college.”
She glances at me, surprised. “You didn't?”
“Noncom,” I answer. “I never finished high school. Got a correspondence diploma.”
“But—” She starts, and seems to realize how condescending she was about to sound. “You must be very well read.”
“My mother home-schooled us girls. And — oh.” The woman who walks out onto the stage is stocky, rounded: powerful shoulders and the broad cheeks, high forehead and vanishing nose that tell me she's native, probably Inuit. She smiles at us out of a bright black squint, and the enormous golden eagle on her gauntleted fist turns its head to stare each of us in the eye.
“Oh,” Elspeth says in turn, and the giggling girls fall silent. “That's the biggest thing I've ever seen.”
It isn't, of course. But I know what she means. The biologist or whatever she is claims center stage, looks around at the few of us gathered, and calmly reaches up and turns off her collar mike. “Just as well,” she says. “She hates the amplification. This is Athena. She's an endagered species, a Tibetan golden eagle, one of the largest eagles in existence. She's here because the University of Toronto raptor rehab program is the most successful in the world, and there are only about twelve of these beauties left. I'm Dr. Carla Entwhistle, by the way.” A self-deprecating grin that I barely notice, because I'm not just looking at the bird.
I'm looking at her wing, tuning Dr. Entwhistle out as she runs through the program and its successes. She taps the bird's tailfeathers, though, and as the eagle opens her wings I see quite clearly what I had glimpsed under her feathers.
Pins in her flesh, some lightweight alloy stark against the russet of her feathers, and a sort of — clamp — that must be holding shattered bones in place until they heal to the metal appliance that makes up wrist joint and the leading edge of her wing. Her eyes fix mine — angry, golden as her name — as Dr. Entwhistle tells us that her ancestors were captured and trained to kill wolves in the Himalayan mountains that were her home. That this eagle — Athena — will fly again. Will be released to the wild, and impregnated before she goes with DNA recovered from a member of her threatened species who did not make it. “Even in the highest corner of the world,” Entwhistle says, a line I can tell she's rehearsed in front of the mirror, “these eagles are being painted out of existence by man.”
While Entwhistle tells us that the technology used to repair this eagle's devastated wing was, like most veterinary orthopedy, derived from human appliances, my metal hand curls in my lap and I fight the urge to reach into my breast pocket and pull out the eagle feather, bright with beads. I turn my head and say, very soft, to Patty Valens, “How did you girls hear about this?”
“Papa Fred told me,” she whispers back, eyes on the eagle.
Oh, of course. You'd think I'd be able to smell a setup by now. Valens meant for me to see this, of course. It's a demonstration, and a message.
I know where the technology to give that eagle back the sky came from. And I watch her, curious and in command on the biologist's gauntlet, wearing leather jesses but not impressed by her bonds, and I wonder: what the hell could have broken that wing? We can save her. Cyborg-eagle, she'll fly again. Fly on wings of metal and lanceolate feathers, feathers gilded by the sun. Indomitable. Holy. Bloody. Literally bloody, but unbowed.
Patty watched Casey lean back in her chair as Dr. Entwhistle took the golden eagle backstage and returned with another bird, a snowy owl whose injuries and reconstruction were much less extensive. Patty scooted out of the way, upholstery squeaking against her jeans, as Leah reached across her to tug Casey's sleeve. “Aunt Jenny?” Very low, but it carried.
Casey shot Leah a look. Leah dropped her voice. “Has Dad ever taken you up to see the eagles at my grandpa's house?”
“I didn't know there were any.” They leaned together across Patty, dark head bent toward blond, and Patty swallowed.
“I'll make him,” Leah said with a grin. “In spring when they have babies. I got divebombed once; it was scary. We should bring you, too, Ellie.” Leah leaned even farther around Casey to catch Dr. Dunsany's eye.
Patty didn't think Leah, looking away again as she spoke, could have caught the smile that curved only the left half of Casey's face. “How is your grandp`ere going to feel about being descended upon by a full house of people?”
“He'll love it,” Leah answered confidently, the two years between them rendering her completely oblivious to whatever it was that Patty heard shading Casey's voice.
Dr. Dunsany lowered her voice, too, and whispered. “How old is Gabe's dad?”
“Mideighties,” Jenny said dryly. “Conservative type.”
A slightly hysterical giggle. “I'm sure we'll all get along just fine.”
Patty bit the inside of her cheek, once more the outsider. Spring is a long time away, she thought. Leah was a lot younger. But she was just as smart as Patty, and didn't seem intimidated by anything Patty did or said.
It stung not to be included in the invitations. But Mom wouldn't let her go anyway. She'd want Patty studying for her entrance exams. Pilot program or no pilot program.
Until Leah grabbed her arm and said, “Have you ever seen an eagle's nest?”
“No,” Patty answered. “I never have.”
Friday 8 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Min-xue gloried in his silent dinner with the first and fourth pilots. The fifth pilot was sleeping and the third was on the bridge, and all three men enjoyed a moment when they simply didn't have to speak, interact, or even meet the gaze of anyone else. He floated in a corner of the padded Pilot's Ready Room, chopsticking dumplings out of an insulated sack, and stopped with a pot sticker tucked into his cheek as the interior door irised open.
The door that led into the Captain's Ready Room.
He swallowed in haste — the unchewed bolus stretching his throat painfully — and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, tucking the chopsticks into the bag before he zipped it shut and stuck it to the bulkhead. The other two pilots came to attention, floating at odd angles.
Captain Wu paused inside the doorway and cast a scorching gaze over all of them. “Second Pilot,” he said, in a voice that carried. Drawn lines creased his cheeks; Min-xue straightened as best he could, pulling himself into the captain's orientation with one hand on a grab bar.
Min-xue kicked off the wall once the captain turned away, and drifted toward him.
Wu drifted to the far bulkhead, turned, and stared out one of the Huang Di's tiny portholes. A single bright golden disk flared in the darkness: the Sun, limning the curve of Mars crimson beneath them. They'd accomplished something the Westerners hadn't — taming the Huang Di's drive for use in-system. The trick was microsecond bursts calculated in advance, and then desperate corrections with the attitude rockets, gentling the velocity before the starship could impact a planetary body.
“Second Pilot,” the captain said, without turning from the window. “A shuttle will be arriving from our interests in the asteroid belt shortly. We'll be bringing a cargo back to Earth.”
“A load of nickel-iron. I wish you to relieve the third pilot for the duration. It may be tricky, and you're the best with the maneuvering jets.”
“Captain.” The other two pilots didn't speak, but Min-xue could feel their restrained curiosity even as they pretended deafness. “I'm honored.”
Wu shrugged and turned to face the pilots, putting the shoulder of the planet at his back, stars drifting in his hair. “Also, I'd appreciate it if you'd restrict your off-duty reading to more approved writers. That's all.” He pushed off from the bulkhead and drifted, quite accurately, toward the interconnecting door. Min-xue watched him go, wondering.
Why does he want the whole ship to know that what we're picking up is asteroidal iron?
Why are they wasting the Huang Di ferrying iron ore at all?
Sunday 10 December, 2062
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
Kuai watched with amusement as Sally dug around in the bottom of an insulating carry sack and came up with a breakfast burrito and a cup of coffee. “They were out of ham so I got you Canadian bacon.”
“Like there's a difference.” Kuai took it and set it on the edge of her desk, away from the interface plate. “How does the day look?”
“Paperwork,” Sally said, and Kuai blew out around a groan. “Dr. Bates is in today. You're off the hook for autopsies.”
“Can't you arrange a nice triple homicide or something else to keep him busy?”
“You have pixels to push, Madam Hua. It's all in your in-box—” The bag swung in Sally's hand, rustling faintly.
Kuai could see the icon blinking unread messages on the corner of her interface. She didn't wear contacts at work; too much chance of infection in this environment. Her burrito reeked of grease, nauseating her and sparking her appetite all at once. Bring fruit to work, she reminded herself for the third time that day.
“I'll bring you a bagel at eleven if you're good.”
“Hell. Do I get a potty break at least?” But she tapped her in-box open obediently, barely noticing the interface's chill.
Sally blew brown strands out of her eyes and smiled. It plumped her hollow cheeks and made her suddenly pretty. Sally, unlike Kuai, had been both a uniformed and plainclothes police officer before accepting the appointment as Kuai's executive assistant. “You have got to be the only woman on Earth who would rather be up to your elbows in a nice stinky floater than sitting behind a desk. Which reminds me: any leads on that triple from September yet?” Sally also knew Kuai had adopted the case as half hobby and half obsession. A cop was a cop. Even an ex-cop. Sometimes especially an ex-cop.
“We have a scenario that accounts for all three deaths. The officer — Kozlowski — and the bounty hunter Yin follow Casey into the steam tunnel. The bounty hunter was operating out of the North End under the alias Bobbi Yee, by the way, and had been for some time. So they're both locals. There's a fight. The cop takes a bullet from the Unitek employee — Barbara Casey. Casey had been shot at long range, not enough to pierce her body armor but she had some pretty nasty blunt trauma ventrally. Yin and Casey mix it up, one thing leads to another, and they're in the wrong place when the steam plant vents. End of an ugly story, nobody to prosecute.”
“I can hear the except coming.”
“We recovered a bullet from the sewer wall. It didn't match a weapon at the scene. And Yin and Kozlowski were seen in the company of Dwayne ‘Razorface' MacDonald earlier that night.”
“The crime boss?”
“The same.” Kuai reached for her burrito and started to unwrap it, although she wanted the coffee more. The acid would make her regret that, though, if she didn't buffer first. It was either eat or start putting milk in her coffee. And that would be a fate worse than death. “Moreover, we've got other complications. It looks like an outside supplier was giving MacDonald's enemies access to high-powered weapons. Guns manufactured by a Korean Unitek subsidiary and reported stolen some year previous. And a North End fixture — a sort of information broker, street doctor, and auto mechanic type, if you can picture that — went missing around the same time. Crossed the border at Niagara with Barbara Casey — then Casey returned to the U.S. and got killed.”
“Have we found any other links?”
“Her—” Kuai stopped herself. “Excuse me. ‘An anonymous tipster' turned over the documents I had you fact-check and forward to Gary Orsin. The auto mechanic's name… want to guess?”
“Yeah, that's what I said. Guess where she works now?”
Sally's answer was cut off as the interface beeped a priority code. Kuai glanced down at it — mail from Judge Orsin at Hartford Criminal Justice Court — and felt a grin start to tug her lower lip taut. About damned time. She opened it with a twist of her hand before the smile got away from her, on the off chance that it was a denial.
It wasn't. The documents attached included two search warrants, three subpoenas, and a polite request for assistance from the governor of the state of Connecticut to the Canadian consulate in New York City.
Monday 11 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
Valens stopped outside Alberta's office and straightened his uniform. He stopped himself before his hand could creep up to adjust his tie. Alberta—he thought, and resisted the urge, as well, to shake his head. Dammit. I hope Casey's wrong.
He rapped twice and opened the door. “Busy?”
Holmes shoved away a half-eaten doughnut on a paper napkin. “Did you bring coffee?”
He stepped inside and shut the door. “No. I just got a message from the prime minister's people.”
“You did? Really?”
He permitted himself a curt shrug. “I think it's an attempt to end run. They want an interview with Casey. Friday, at a location they don't plan to disclose until Casey's in the car.”
Alberta sucked her lower lip into her mouth and gnawed it contemplatively. “Put a tracer on her, Fred. Just in case?”
“We wouldn't want your star pupil going missing between here and there, would we?”
Forgive me, Jenny. Valens took a deep, calm breath and nodded. I hope you're still as good at taking care of yourself as you used to be. Because I just set you up as the bait in a bear trap, and you don't even know it.