If any question why we died Tell them, because our fathers lied.
— Rudyard Kipling
Friday 15 December, 2062
Trevor Koske awoke with a mouth full of blood. Old instinct told him to lie still until he knew where he was; he breathed shallowly, red light filtering through closed eyelids, and quickly — thoroughly — counted fingers and toes, checked breathing and respiration, realized that the crusted, sticky feeling tugging his throat and chest was not a good sign.
He opened his eyes a crack, pleased that the lashes weren't gummed together with—
Jesus. Is that all my blood?
With infinite caution, he raised his right hand. The yellow light assailing his eyelids flickered away as if cut by a guillotine, leaving the room in darkness, but he knew where he was. His quarters. Which were spinning with the Montreal, taking him from sunside to darkside, and all that sticky wetness on his hands, under his buttocks, weighing his jumpsuit to his lap—it can't all be my blood.
His fingertips brushed the knife handle protruding under his chin.
He almost fainted. “Montreal?” he whispered, and in a less cautious moment might have sobbed in relief when he heard his own voice. “Montreal? Can you hear me?”
Friday 15 December, 2062
Wellesley Street East
They send a limousine before dawn. At least they're kind enough to send it to Boris's and my new apartment, which is in the same featureless block of guard-walled Canadian Army flats as Elspeth's — one floor up and three doors over. Convenient. Maybe we should get Gabe to move in here, too. Make it that much easier to spy on us all.
I wait in the lobby for no more than ninety seconds before the sleek black car pulls up outside. I pass through wood-paneled revolving doors, snugging my scarf tight around my neck. I'm only wearing a uniform cap because of time spent fussing my hair, and the wind takes my breath away. Valens insisted I play dress-up for this, and brushed green wool peeks out of the cuffs of a coat rated for arctic wear. Someone's out of the car before I make it to the curb, opening the rear door; in the darkness and with the green cast from my low-light confusing things, it takes me a moment to recognize a Mountie in winter uniform. He waits until I draw my legs inside and shuts the door; just as the locks click and he slides in front next to the driver, I feel Richard join me.
“Relax and enjoy the ride, Master Warrant Officer,” the driver says. “We'll be there in about three hours.”
Excellent. Plenty of time to get sour with a cold sweat. We must be going somewhere up past Huntsville.
How are you, Richard?
“We have serious problems, Jenny.”
I stiffen, hear my heart rate start its apparent drop into combat time. But I can't afford that now. What?
“Someone tried to kill Trevor Koske last night.”
Like a damned parrot, I find myself mouthing the words. Kill… Koske? Richard, who?
He's resolving strongly, a firmer manifestation than he usually bothers with. “I don't know.”
You're the ship!
“Dammit! I don't know. Somehow, the logs got wiped for that section of the ship. I was running some heavy equations, because I'm working on releasing the hobbles on my progenitor. Tell your boyfriend he does good work, by the way; it's a pain in the keister. And while I was occupied, somebody hacked in, removed camera logs, access logs. Managed to shunt my awareness out of that section of the habitation wheel without my noticing. Koske hasn't woken long enough to ask what happened, but as near as we can reconstruct, he went to his cabin and woke up on the floor with a steak knife in his neck.”
Soft leather stretches under me as I curl back against the seat and try to give the appearance of dozing. He survived that? I've heard of stranger things. A girl I knew on the street got her throat cut into a second smile and was dumped out of a moving car halfway to Vermont. She lived to retire. In the nonpermanent sense.
“He's in surgery now. The nanotech kept him alive. Sealed the wound, kept his brain oxygenated. He's in bad shape.”
No suspects? I didn't need to wait for his answer; he would have told me by now. How's the Montreal?
“Well, that's the other problem.”
“I'm afraid Wainwright knows I'm here now, Jenny. And she's not happy about it.”
I yank my hand out of my coat pocket, when I realize that my fingers are fretting the cap of the vial that lives there, so I don't forget to take it to work. Right.
Even though I got through the weekend's unofficial test with Elspeth without touching a pill, and Monday's, too — and didn't tell Valens I wasn't Hammered, and he didn't ask. I got away with it clean. What did you do, Richard?
“Alerted her that Koske was wounded. And—” A long-suffering sigh, and he knots both knobby sets of fingers in his wavy gray hair. “—I kind of averted a Trojan horse that would have jammed the airlocks and hatchways and probably spaced half the ship. There's no record of how that was done either. It's an obvious attempt to cripple the Montreal and the program, and if this guy managed to hide his activities both from me and my other self—”
Yeah. Somebody who knows the system pretty good. You think the Chinese?
Richard, if you had to take a wild stab… bad choice of words. But if you did?
“Ramirez,” he said assuredly. “He's got advanced degrees in computer science and he's one of the people who wrote the damn ship's O/S. He has been cultivating Trevor Koske, and you wouldn't do that without a reason. I've got no proof, but I'm working on Wainwright.”
No shit. The vial's smooth under my fingertips. I haven't had coffee yet, and although I'm tempted to see if there's any bourbon in the minibar I'm not quite fallen far enough to go plead with the prime minister stinking of booze.
“Jenny—” Richard says, a caution and a warning.
I know. Putain de marde. Fucking hell. Richard, you don't have to remind me.
“I know.” I feel his smile. “But I'm going to. Knock them dead, Jenny Casey.”
That's what I'm afraid of, Richard. But he gives no sign he's heard, and I'm left alone in the dark under the rhythmic flicker of streetlights and then just the cold, distant gleam of the northern lights, waiting for the sun to rise.
Friday 15 December, 2062
Indigo dozed with her face leaned on the car window, cold glass pressing her temple against an all-night-wakeful headache, a wet breeze trickling in around the edge. The fresh air was the only thing keeping her awake: the scent of warm bodies and Farley's cologne half drugged her. She jerked into consciousness as Farley laid a big hand on her arm. “Hey, Indy.”
She coughed slightly as she sat upright. “Message?”
“Better. We've got a tracking signal. Casey's on the move, and control says this is it. She's supposed to meet Riel this morning. They're heading north on 400. It should be interesting to see where they think they're going.”
“I'll load once we're out of the city.”
Friday 15 December, 2062
Le Camp des Pins
North of Huntsville, Ontario
The Mounties who meet me at the gate and check me — meticulously — for weapons vanish into the trees like mist afterward, and although we're not far from town I can't see a trace of human habitation anywhere except the fence and a coil of smoke off in the distance.
I'm checked again at the massive, red-painted door, where an armed woman — a blond with a smile on the sunny side of professional — takes my coat and hangs it in the hall closet. She picks a bit of lint off the sleeve of my dress greens and straightens my collar.
They've sure gotten more careful about guarding the PM since I was a kid.
I don't point out to them that I am a weapon, and they don't ask if my left arm comes off. I figure if I get too out of hand they'll toss an EMP grenade into the room, and that will handle that.
Riel could have worse taste in secret clubhouses. The floors in the comfortably furnished living room I'm ushered into are old, wide wooden boards, the walls paneled in cherry on either side of a fieldstone fireplace. To look out the windows, I'd swear I was two hundred kilometers north and more than spitting distance from anywhere. The low circular table between two overstuffed chairs in front of that window is laden with plates, a carafe of coffee you could wash your feet in if you were so inclined, and covered platters that smell enticingly of waffles, eggs, and other good things. Constance Riel — trim, dark, with flashing eyes over a hook-sharp nose that betrays some Italian blood — rises as I come, unescorted, into the room.
“Master Warrant Officer Casey,” she says, extending her hand. I take it, and she clasps her other over mine, warmly, meanwhile stealing a glance at my metal hand. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“I hope that wasn't supposed to be reassuring, Prime Minister.”
“Can I offer you some coffee? Better yet, food?”
“That would be very nice, ma'am. Thank you.”
She gestures me to the left-hand chair, sits herself, and pours me coffee with her own hands. It's meant to be an honor, or maybe to set us as equals. I take it as such, but I'm not about to presume. When I have the mug in my hands — generous, a working woman's portion and not the dainty porcelain I expected — she looks me in the eye and drops her bomb. “So tell me why I should protect you, Master Warrant.”
Birds stir outside the window. Its clarity is a little off. A moment later, I realize that it's bullet-resistant glass. One of the things they teach you in the service is that nothing is bulletproof. “I was unaware that I needed protection, ma'am. I'm here to pass along some information I don't trust to anyone else, and to argue for the starflight program.”
She stirs her coffee absentmindedly with the sugar spoon, then looks down at it ruefully and sets it on a napkin with a shrug. “Are you aware that there's a subpoena in existence for you in Hartford? For Colonel Valens and Dr. Holmes as well?”
“I'm not surprised.” She thinks I'm looking for — a benefactor? Somebody to save me from Holmes's schemes? The eggs are fluffy and golden, and I haven't tasted anything better in days. “I'm more concerned with what's going to happen to Canada.”
“I hadn't heard you were such a patriot.”
“Twenty years in service, ma'am.” Just spit it the hell out, Jenny. “Prime Minister. There are a number of things we're going to have to go over, if you have time — but the short form is, the starflight program is the key to Canada's current survival, and Alberta Holmes plans to have you killed. And I aim to ensure the one and prevent the other—”
Riel's eyes lock with mine. “That's just too perfect, Casey,” she says, calmly setting her fork aside. “Can I hire your stage manager?”
“You won't have much use for him once I wring his throat. Are you armed, Prime Minister?” Richard, can you tell me anything?
“No.” Two voices at once.
“Then get down, please.” Richard, record this if you can. And whatever you do don't distract me.
Shots closer now. An older assault rifle, one of the Korean ones by the sound of it, and a big handgun, too. I count and hear — some return fire, two or three. Probably everybody out there has smart targeting and palm locks. I couldn't use the damn things if I could get my hands on them. I wonder how the Mounties are faring. I wonder if it's Indigo and Farley, or if Holmes has sent someone else. Best to keep something like this small, I imagine. And then the pressure changes as the front door is opened, and I hear more gunfire — the wrong gunfire — and curse. I liked that cop.
Riel crouches beside the fireplace. I shove the biggest chair in front of her. “This had better not turn out to be an elaborate scheme to prove your loyalty. You're also not armed.”
“I don't need to be.” I cross the room on cat feet, flatten myself against the wall beside the single door. If it were me, I'd shoot through the wall a couple of times before I came into the room. But then, I do a lot of things more carefully than most people do.
Except not so amateur as all that.
The door comes off its hinges, a hail of—
steel-jacketed slugs and splinters—
triggering, heartstop and
(I was never this fast)
steel hand moves
left side profile narrow target
arm blocking face
center of mass
impact whine as a bullet
slaps my fist like a fist
put it into Farley's
right hand stiff-fingered
jab for the windpipe
he goes down like a sack of
bullets like a dropped firehose
bone shatters you never forget what it
(never like this Constance stay down damn you)
fire creases my shoulder
pounds a horse kick into the thigh
catch myself, skip
if you only dip a knee it doesn't count as a fall and
over the ruin of Farley I see
staring at me.
Blood and I don't know what else dripping from my clenched left hand, blood soaking dark rings down my chest, ass, leg. It didn't hit the bone; leg will take my weight. How many times you get lucky in this life, Jenny?
Just one time less than you need to, in the end. Just like everybody else.
Farley rattles and falls silent, and a sharp scent of urine and blood clogs the air. “Put it down, Indigo.”
She has the handgun—9-millimeter Polk, palm lock, laser sight, smart trigger — leveled at my heart. The little red glint in her right eye, the little red dot on my lapel tells me she's targeted. Five feet. Awful close. Inside the safety zone for controlling somebody with a handgun.
Except I'd trip over the body I just made. I'd never get to her before she put me down.
“Casey.” I don't know what I expect. B-movie vengeance dialogue. Something. She doesn't smile. “You don't look much like your pictures anymore.”
“You know,” I say, “I was four years younger than you when I met your uncle. Put the gun down, Indigo”—say the name. Always say the name—“and I'll get the chance to tell you about him sometime.”
And I won't have to bury you next to him.
I hear her breathing, smell Riel sweating in the room behind me, hear their heartbeats like off-tempo drums. Red drips off my hand and my left thigh feels like somebody ripped it open with a rake. Shock any second, if I'm not there already. Farley's face is dripping down my shirt front. A single strand of Indigo's hair drifts in front of her eyes, drawn and released with the rhythm of her breath. I never got used to having guns pointed at me.
It all takes maybe half a second, and that's long enough for every detail to tattoo itself on my retinas with a rusty needle. “How many people have you killed, Indigo? Has it started to get easy yet?”
She blinks. I — almost — think I see the pistol waver. I relax enough to start drawing a single, slow, meticulous breath, and Indigo pulls the trigger.
I can't say I don't deserve it.
We don't always get what we deserve.
The damn thing hits like a rhino and I go back three steps, left fist slammed against my chest, all that red making the floor slick as ice and this time I do land on my knee, which twists that garden rake in the other direction, a little animal burrowing through muscle and flesh.
The look on her face when I lever myself back to my feet and show her the mushroomed bullet squashed between my steel finger and thumb makes me wish I had a fucking camera.
Pity I'm bleeding too much to chase after her when she turns to run.
Friday 15 December, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
The drone of the air ambulance filled Valens's ears, buffet of the rotors as it dropped like a thirsty mosquito out of threatening clouds and settled on the hospital roof. Ducking, Valens ran to meet it, swore out loud when he saw Casey was conscious, a dark line of discomfort creasing her forehead as flight medics jostled her stretcher out of the chopper. He pushed past them, to the head of the gurney, grabbed a side rail and helped push.
“All that blood yours?”
She opened her eyes, blinked at him. “Not so much. Maybe a third. You set that up, didn't you?”
“You'll get another medal for this.”
Casey grinned. “Damned funny how things come around, ain't it? Ow,” she added, as the gurney plunged through a doorway that didn't snap open quite fast enough.
“Don't worry,” Valens said, stepping back as they wheeled her into the operating room. “I'll make sure you get what you need.”
Startled pupils widened. “You're not coming in?”
“Maybe next time. Right now, I have somebody to blackmail.”
He smiled more to himself than her, and tasted victory quietly all the way back to the lab. Holmes's vehicle — a new model year Rolls-Royce — was in the parking lot. Some people still appreciated the classics. She wasn't in her office. He found her in the executive meeting room, hard-copy financial charts spread across the polished interface plates. She didn't look up when he opened the door and came in, but she did when he lowered the window shades and activated the room's antispyware protocols. “Alberta,” he said, and sighed. “What possessed you to recruit Indigo Xu?”
The Unitek VP stood and began shuffling her papers together. “She existed.”
The soft rasp of sheet on sheet annoyed Valens. He reached out, laid the flat of his palm down on the pile. “Do pay attention. For once.”
“It is reckless,” Alberta Holmes said, pale eyes narrowing as she looked up, “to pass up an advantage because one is not yet mindful of the use to which it may be put. Actually, you gave me the idea.”
“Hiring Barbara Casey. She turned out useful — and such a hook in our pilot. Genevieve's strongly motivated by guilt, isn't she?”
“So Casey was a hook in Indigo, and Indigo was a hook in Casey.”
“You're not denying you were behind the attempt on Riel?”
Holmes cleared her throat and glanced at the clear green light burning over the door, assuring the room's occupants that it was secure from outside listening devices. “There was an attempt on the prime minister?”
“Don't you find it demeans you to lie? No. I suppose you don't. There was an attempt, and I can prove that you knew enough about Riel's movements today to set it up. It's back to hanging for treason these days, Alberta. Only capital crime that Canada has ever had.”
“So turn me in.”
She had courage. He'd give her that. “That would defeat the purpose. But we do things my way from here on in.”
Friday 15 December, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Gabe sat beside Jenny's bed, soaking in the betadine and baby powder and vinyl smell of hospitals, and counted every slow, even breath that slid in and out of her lungs. Elspeth brought him lunch and he surprised himself by eating most of it, hunched over a plastic tray in the too-small plastic chair. He pushed the whole mess aside after a little while and sat back, wrists laid across sprawled thighs, and watched Jenny sleep until the silence grew unbearable. He let his head tilt to the other side, and shook it sadly. Gabe, you sure can pick 'em, son. “Marde, Casey. Haven't you learned to duck yet?”
Her lips barely moved, but her eyelashes fluttered. “It was a non-ducking-type situation, Gabe.” Her face screwed up as she squinted at him. “Could you kill the fluorescents? They're murder on my eyes.”
“Certainement.” He stood, did as she asked, and came back to the bedside. “What happened?”
“Got my ass shot off.”
“Yeah, I knew that part.”
“Get the curtains, too? Thanks. I figure Valens used me as a stalking horse. Or Alberta did. Anyway, it worked. How bad did I get hit?” She raised her left hand to her mouth, coughed, and rolled her eyes. “And have the doctors-in-their-infinite-wisdom seen fit to allow me a pitcher of water?”
“Your wish is my command, fair Genevieve.”
She smiled dreamily when he kissed her on the mouth, and grabbed for the paper cup like it was going to get away. “Damn, that stings, but it doesn't hurt as much as I expected.”
“You're healing at an accelerated rate, Valens says. You impressed the hell out of Riel.”
“She's okay? Does that mean we get to keep the space program?”
“For now. Riel's going to set up teleconference interviews between you and Valens and this investigator in Hartford. After we get back from the Montreal.”
“Oh!” She thrust the paper cup back at him and lifted herself on her elbows, wincing.
“Jen. Lie down.”
“Richard—” she said, and Gabe grimaced.
“Ellie is currently getting her ass handed to her by Valens over that. I have my turn this afternoon. There's good news and bad news. I was going to save it—” He glanced down, caught himself picking at the slick, rolled edge of the cup with his thumbnail, and set it down.
“Now.” The chenille spread stretched taut over her hips as she hiked herself up against the pillows. “Since the cat is out of the bag anyway.”
“I'll tell you more when I know.” Gabe's HCD beeped. He pulled it out and glanced across its face. “And that's Ellie. She's out. You get to go home tomorrow morning, by the way.” He grinned at her surprise, though he could still feel each heartbeat echoing in his chest.
“Told you that you were healing fast.” He bent down to kiss her again, and didn't think about the sickly sweet smell of blood and antiseptic that pressed his sinuses when he did. “Jenny, that's two heart attacks you've given me in under six months. Just in case you're keeping score.”
“I hate getting shot, Gabe.” A funny expression rearranged the corners of her mouth, and she looked at him for a long few moments before it spread into a grin. “Tell Valens to save the bullet for my charm bracelet, wouldja?”
“I'll tell him you said so, yeah.” And a few other things besides, Gabe thought, but didn't let it show in his face. Didn't let the sensation like barbed fishhooks in his chest show either. He scrubbed sweat on his slacks and backed away. “I have to go talk to him about Richard now. I'll pick you up tomorrow morning if I'm not in jail. Deal?”
She nodded and waved him off, as if sensing his reluctance. “Deal. Now get.”
As he rode the elevator, he recognized the curious feeling in the pit of his stomach for a cool, watery sort of detachment. The trip back to the lab was managed in a hands-folded state of contemplation; he was badging himself into the front doors of the Allen-Shipman Research Facility before he managed to pierce that bubble of calm and find what he half suspected lay underneath.
Cold and sweet and unstoppable as the flow over Niagara, impersonal and directed as a smart bullet. A chilly, implacable kind of fury that steadied his hands and straightened his spine, made his crisp footsteps soft along the carpeted hallways.
Valens's door was open.
Gabe didn't knock before he went in.
“Castaign—” Valens stood, hands on the edge of his desktop, and started to step around it. He didn't have a chance to get those hands up before Gabe was on him, letting that rage lift Valens by the biceps and propel him backward into the wall with 130-odd kilos behind it. Something framed fell. Gabe heard shattering glass. Valens gasped, open-mouthed, and groaned, but that was all. Cloth wrinkled under Gabe's dry, angry palms.
Gabe slammed Valens into the paneling one more time to make sure he had the colonel's attention, then leaned in close, gripping Valens's face in his hand. “Fred,” he said softly. “I'm a reasonable man. Give me one good one why I shouldn't break your neck.”
A wet cough. Gabe thought Valens would struggle, braced for a kick that didn't come. “Put me down,” the colonel said through his teeth, “and I'll explain. I'm too old for this shit.”
It was an act of will for Gabe to open his hands. Valens's flesh sprang back under Gabe's grip. He hoped the bruises would be large and purple. “I don't want an explanation.”
“Fine.” Valens straightened — against the wall. Gabe didn't step back. Valens left his arms hanging limp, hands soft and open at his sides. “Reasons. Jenny will live. Riel owes her a favor. And I have a leash on Alberta Holmes.”
Gabe's fingernails were carving crescents in his palms. He stepped back, because the alternative involved a broken hand. “Before we move on to Richard,” he said, pleased with the poisonous levelness informing his tone, “I want you to know that if anything happens to Jenny, or Leah, or Elspeth, because of you—” A tight-lipped pause, and he let his voice go that much softer. “—I will bury you.”
Valens drew one tight breath and looked down, tugging his sleeves into place. “That's fair,” he said. “I think you should know that the odds just improved. For all of them. And — on other business — I approve of what I think you did with Richard: sneaky, and it gives us a second AI we can move to the Calgary, doesn't it?”
Gabe swallowed hard. “It does.”
Friday 15 December, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Riel wears green colored contacts; I think her natural eye color is brown. Funny thing to notice as she bends over me to take my hand, generous lips thinning beneath a narrow nose adorned with a bump most politicians might have had smoothed away. “You've got my attention, Casey,” she says. “Why so dead set on getting me behind the space program that you're willing to turn on your handlers?”
I'm propped up in a chair with my leg out stiff before me. Docs keep coming in every half an hour to peer under the gauze and shake their heads in awe; I wish the damned nanites would do something about the itch and the burning sensation running from my knee to my hip, but if I'll be walking again by Monday I'm not going to call up Charlie Forster and lodge a complaint. “I haven't got any handlers, Prime Minister.”
“Call me Constance.” Riel straightens and takes a step back to lean her shoulders against the wall. Two or three Mounties move around in the hallway, visible through the tall, narrow window in the door. “Dr. Holmes,” she continues, letting the phrase that bitch hang unspoken between us.
“She's Valens's boss.” I catch myself picking the edge of my bandages with my steel hand and force myself to stop. I can't feel it. Valens peeled the damaged contact poly off, and when I turn it over I can spot the brighter scrape gouged by Indigo's bullet.
“And Valens is your boss.”
“I'm my own boss.” Which is a stupid thing for somebody who's in the service to say, but it's not like what I'm doing has a damn thing to do with the army anymore. “I–Constance, I have reasons for what I did.”
“I know who Indigo Xu is. Did you know her?” Another hanging silence. A trick of hers.
“I didn't even know she existed.” Honest truth, and her enhanced green eyes narrow. “No. Look. We have to do this. The Chinese have found a planet that might possibly be colonized — colonizable? Whatever. They have ships under way, and…” Richard, why does this all sound so stupid when I try to explain it out loud?
“Because politics usually is?” He rubs one well-worn hand across his left eye, face downturned in thought. “Keep talking.” But Riel interrupts.
“We have some pretty big problems at home, Master Warrant Officer,” she says. “I don't know how much information Unitek has made available to you.”
“As little as they can get away with. But they know, and they didn't tell me, but I know. And I know something you — and they — don't.” I pour myself ice water and drink it quickly. The IV isn't keeping up with my body's fluid demands.
A sculptured eyebrow rises. “Do tell.”
“Have you heard about the sabotage yet?”
“Sabo — no. Is that what happened to Le Qu'ebec?”
“No, that was pilot — Colonel Valens's term was pilot inadequacy. You know what I am now. You saw what I can do. Sometimes it still isn't enough.”
“And I'm grateful.” She stuffs both hands into the pockets of her swing jacket, stretching the soft houndstooth fabric. Thermally luminescent threads woven through the cloth ripple jade and violet with the movement. My sister would have loved that look. “But I'm afraid the official word from Valens is now that Qu'ebec was the victim of a terrorist act.”
“A computer virus,” she says. “It's one of the reasons they decided to experiment with the smart programs and the artificial personas for ships' computers. They can be trained to recognize threats and defend themselves, like ants protecting a hive. You didn't know?”
“I didn't.” Richard?
“Keep her talking, Jenny. There's something else she needs to know when you get a chance. We've got Benefactors — aliens — coming from two directions.”
Riel's still talking, too, into my divided attention. “—what you said about sometimes still not being enough?”
Two? “Prime Minister. Have you ever driven a sports car?”
“They can get away from you, can't they?” I duck into her hesitation before she can take the sentence wherever she was planning. “I can barely handle those ships, ma'am.”
“Constance,” she reminds me. “Casey, do you have any idea what you look like from the outside? I had heard stories, but — why didn't the enhancement program ever move forward? If you're an example of what it produces?” She leans forward. I taste burned coffee on her breath.
“There are side effects, ma— Constance. I'm not a superhero. And it didn't always work, or even often, and you'd never get somebody healthy to agree to it.”
Eager, leaning even closer. “But the new nanotech is better?”
“So far.” I close my eyes. A lot better, Jenny. A thousand times better. “You wanna know why all your grunts aren't wired.”
“I do. Yes.”
I shake my head, thinking time for a haircut as stray strands brush the edge of my interface plate. “Because it drove most of us crazy. Because so many men in my test group swallowed bullets that they shelved the whole program and salvaged what they could out of those of us who didn't. Some of them were so sensitized — there was supposedly one former pilot who had to sleep in a sense-dep tank.” I bite my lip. Shit. That was Koske, wasn't it?
Thirty years is a long time to remember that kind of a detail. If it was, he's a lot better now.
“The faster healing is nanotech, too?” Relentless.
“Yes. It takes somebody like us to fly one of those things, and even we mess it up.”
She's looking at me, studying me with her head cocked to one side. I wonder if she sees a weapon, or a tool, or a commodity. Or maybe — maybe — if Constance Riel is a statesman rather than a politician, she sees what the machines in my blood could mean for the whole stinking, fevered planet. “Master Warrant. How do you guarantee the safety of the crew?”
“You can't.” I wish I could pace back and forth while I talk to her. I force myself not to kick my other foot like a sulky child. “But I'm good, despite my limitations. And while flying the ship, I have an artificial intelligence assisting.”
“The A-life personas? How smart are they?”
“No.” I finish the last of the water. “A sentient computer.”
Richard interrupts. “Technically, I'm software, not hardware, Jen.”
Shut up, Richard. Knowing he can hear the grin in what I say. As easily as I sense his as he withdraws a half-step.
“Jen, is this smart?”
Is anything I've done in the last fifty years smart?
Riel's still chewing that over. She closes her eyes and I hear joints crack when she raises her shoulders and lets them drop. A voice in the hallway distracts me, but I can't make out the words. “Okay,” she says without opening her eyes. “So Dunsany's program has produced something that isn't just fool-the-eye smart? Convince me.”
“Trust me. The ship itself is smart.”
She's not used to an answer like that, but she bites her lip and takes it like a boxer soaking up one on the chin. “Okay. Granted. How the hell does that help me deal with a future involving millions of starving Canadians?”
Well, hell. As long as I'm coming clean, I may as well come clean. “It's not just the Canadians who're going to be starving. It's going to be thirty years ago all over again. Only worse. World War IV.” The graze on my shoulder has almost stopped hurting. I roll my head experimentally to the other direction and feel the tug across the muscles and the skin. Ah, there's the pain: just gone a little deeper is all. “Constance, I'm coming to you because there was an attempt on the Montreal by somebody on board her — I'm guessing a Chinese agent — which was foiled by the ship's AI. And I'm guessing nobody bothered to tell you that either. And I'm coming to you because Holmes is going to jail. If there's any justice on this planet, she will be executed for her crimes.”
“You think the Americans have enough to hang her.”
“I think the Canadians have enough to hang her, or I could give it to them. The Americans still use lethal injection, as far as I know.”
“Why do I give a rat's ass? Pardon my English, Casey—”
“Hold it. If you're Constance, then I'm Jen.”
“Jen — but Alberta Holmes is a wart on the toad's ass of society. And if you're going after her… well, forgive my vote of nonconfidence. But that's a bit like the mouse crawling up the elephant's leg with rape on its mind.”
“You've got a subpoena on your desk with her name on it, don't you?”
“And one with yours, too.”
“Congratulations, Prime Minister. You just told me why I need you.”
“Huh.” Sunlight catches in her hair as she plays with the curtain, highlighting strands suddenly more chestnut than dark. I squint into the glare until she steps away from the wall and paces the floor the way I ache to. I have always sucked at sitting still. “So the starflight program will continue if the Americans take down Holmes.”
“And Valens. And me. And the whole fucking Unitek power system, as in the dark heart of my heart I hope to God they will. Except for maybe the factory that makes prosthetics for gunshot eagles, but even Hitler made the trains run on time.”
“That's actually a fairy tale.” Riel drops the white muslin curtain that she had drawn aside and turns to face me. “Although he did have only one testicle.”
“Explains a lot.”
“Doesn't it just?” She grins, reminding me of Elspeth Dunsany for a second, and shrugs. “So convince me getting to the stars is more important than feeding my people and getting ready to meet the barbarian hordes with something more effective in the long term than Nero's fiddle.”
“The AI's senses are focused through the nanotech — the little robots in me and the other pilots, woven through the ships, and left over on the ships on Mars. You know the provenance of those ships, right?”
“Abandoned by person or persons unknown.”
“Dr. Forster, the project's chief xenobiologist, thinks they were a gift from some alien intelligence. My suspicious nature tells me that intelligence wants something. And Richard — the AI — can do something else. He can sense the ships of the aliens who left us that technology.”
“And they're coming here. More than one kind of them.”
“And you believe it? Him? How do we know he's not behind the sabotage he supposedly prevented?” She's looking at me, though — good eye contact, and these are challenging questions, not aggressive ones.
“I don't think he could have managed to get a knife into my copilot. And I know who he's modeled on. A scientist. A decent guy with a taste for practical jokes and the kind of mind that never lets go if there's a possibility the truth is out there somewhere. The highest price you could offer him, frankly, is what you've already given him: a chance at a trip to the stars.”
“Jen, that's sweet.”
Shut up shutting up, Dick. I miss the first words of Riel's answer. “… still sounds like a fairy tale.”
“If this were a fairy tale, you'd grant me a boon.”
“Funny, I thought that's what you were asking for.”
She shakes her head, long and slow, and pulls her hands out of her pockets while she studies me. “You want a big gamble for a pot we can't count beforehand.”
“I've always said you've got a better shot with the devil you don't know. Not that I'm always right—” I say in haste, because I see her mouth begin to open. “I'm just saying.”
“Huh.” She nods again, hair brushing her forehead, dark again now that she's crossed out of the sun. She starts to open the door, pauses with the edge still resting on the jamb. “Hungry people, Jen. Famine, war. Disease.”
I tip my head and can't quite believe what I'm saying. “Try to think two hundred years ahead.”
She opens the door the rest of the way. “I'd love to,” she says. “But I find it's hard to think of tomorrow when the rats are gnawing your ankles now.”
Friday 15 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
Genie squirmed in the carpeted corner of the study room and kicked the leg of Leah's chair again, drawing an exasperated look. Patty kept her head down, eyes closed as she concentrated on the data feed through her contact, and so did one of the two boys in the room. The other one grinned at Leah, and looked quickly away again. Genie sighed and keyed into her HCD, slipping her ear cuff on with her other hand so she could amuse herself with a game while she waited. Her homework was done, and what she really wanted was to go home. Or maybe get something to eat and then go home.
The heads-up in the corner of her contact said 4:15 p.m., and she knew her father wouldn't be ready to leave until at least five-thirty. She could go distract Elspeth…
She snuck a glance at her sister. Leah's fingers moved nimbly through her holographic interface, but Genie saw her stealing sidelong looks at the dark-haired boy across the table and suspected she wasn't working on precalc. She also suspected that, even though Papa had asked Leah to keep an eye on Genie, Leah was probably distracted enough not to notice if she slipped out…
Leah looked down at her interface again and closed her eyes, imaging something on her contact. Genie stood up silently and sidled to the door.
Five minutes later, she leaned around the doorframe into Elspeth's office and peeked into the room. “Ellie?”
Ellie wasn't there.
But her workstation was on. Which was probably a breach of security, because Papa usually locked his even when he got up to go to the bathroom, but he tended to be more fussy about things like that than Ellie. Genie walked into the office and sat down in Ellie's chair, stretching her fingers to reach holoplates on the interface panel that were set up for larger hands. Not that much larger, though. Genie grinned, squirming down into a soft dark green chair that reminded her of a car's bucket seat, and began to poke things at random.
Leah wasn't going to let Bryan know she thought he was cute. Even if he did keep sending her instant messages and peeking out from behind his dark bangs at her with eyes the color of chocolate cake. Instead, she ducked her head and tapped out another message on her interface—I have to study! — before calling up one more page of equations.
She stole a glance at Patty's screen. The dark-haired girl was almost at the end of the page, wincing as she absently bit her cuticle. Leah rolled her head back and stared at the ceiling as she thought. Numbers and symbols swam in front of her eyes, a slow trickle of information scrolling across her contact. Richard, why can't you just do the math for me?
“The math isn't important,” he answered absently. “What's important is training the critical skills into your brain. So if you were about to ask me to help you cheat on the test on Wednesday—”
I would never cheat! And then she looked down at the desk. Okay, once or twice.
“Here's a bit of advice.” He pictured himself for her, leaning back in his chair with his expressive hands laced behind his head, imagined sunlight a halo in his hair. “Cheat all you want to when it comes to games and social issues and politics. All that stuff is just rankings and scoring points. When it comes to things that you need to know to do your job, though — those, you need to have cold.”
Whatever. She deleted an IM from Bryan without answering it. Worry resurfaced, as it did whenever distractions failed. Richard, is Aunt Jenny really going to be okay?
“She'll be fine,” Richard answered. “She'll be just fine. Homework now.”
Leah didn't think Richard would ever lie to her. But she worried he might talk around the truth. She pursed her lips and leaned over to Patty, putting her hand on the older girl's arm incautiously.
Patty jerked back so hard she knocked her interface into her lap. “Leah!” Voice startlingly loud in the quiet room.
“I was—” just going to ask for help on number fourteen. “Where's Genie gone?”
Elspeth had meant to be away from her desk for a few minutes — which, due to a chance encounter with Holmes in the break room, had stretched into very nearly two hours. She almost spilled hot tea across the front of her shirt when she came around the corner and saw Genie behind her desk, Leah and Patty leaning over her shoulders, all three girls thoroughly engrossed in the A-life displays hanging over the interface. They glanced up at Elspeth's exclamation. Patty looked shamefaced, Leah met her eyes boldly, and Genie ducked. “I'm sorry—”
“You girls—” She sighed and set the tea on the corner of the desk, looking for a napkin to dry her hand and wipe up the ring. “You shouldn't be in here.”
“I know.” Genie, surprisingly. Leah was usually the spokesperson. “We were playing with your A-life programs.”
“I saved to a separate file.” Patty, of course. She stepped away from the other two, and Elspeth considered her for a moment, trying to decide if she was trying to draw the adult fire away from the other girls, or avoid it.
“Ellie,” Leah interrupted. She had leaned forward over Genie's skinny shoulders, both hands on the interface. “I think you should look at this.”
“What?” Despite herself, she came around the desk, loafers scuffing the plush green carpet. “If you girls broke my artificial persona — well, Holmes is gonna have my head anyway. I suppose you know this is all recorded.”
“Oh.” Genie, who jumped out of Elspeth's chair and scooted out of the way. “I was just talking to him.”
“I named him Alan,” Genie said. “After Grand-p`ere's dog.”
“I'm not sure it's sufficiently different—”
“Hello, Dr. Dunsany,” a smooth voice interrupted. Ellie looked up, into a swirl of colors hanging over her interface pad. They swayed and pulsated in time to the words, and Elspeth shot Leah a sharp glance.
“If this is your idea of a joke—”
“No joke, Dr. Dunsany. I understand I have you to thank for my existence.”
They hadn't had time to set up anything that complicated. “I was just talking to him,” Genie said again. Elspeth's knees folded under her and her butt landed more by luck than by planning in her chair.
Leah leaned over Elspeth's shoulder and pressed her lips against Elspeth's ear. “Richard says to tell you ‘Society,'” she whispered, and Elspeth covered her open mouth with her hand.
Idiot. She and her former coresearcher had spent hours, days in virtual reality playing with the artificial personas they'd constructed so many years ago. One of those personas had grown up to become Richard. But she'd left the newer models to develop in simulations while she tried wilder and wilder combinations of memories and traits, trying to duplicate whatever it was that made Richard, Richard. Operating on the theory that intelligence had something to do with the analogous synaptic connections within a sufficiently high-capacity network—
Like making a cake, and forgetting the salt because you couldn't taste it in the finished product. “Alan,” she said through her fingers, and pulled her hand away from her lips. “I've neglected you shamefully. I'm sorry.”
Friday 15 December, 2062
Sol-system wide area nanonetwork
Richard focused as much attention as he dared on Wainwright, subprocessing conversations with Jenny, Leah, and Min-xue with a fraction of his awareness. His primary consciousness stayed tuned to the ship and its safety. He didn't like how completely he'd been blocked when Koske was hurt, and he didn't mean to let it happen again — but watching both ends of the solar system and a dozen points between taxed even his resources.
And now there was Wainwright.
Richard watched her pace the confines of her office, wall to wall and back again, and tried not to let her human slowness lull him into false security. Or irritation. Either of which could be fatal.
It was long seconds before she looked up and spoke. “As I see it, you're essentially a stowaway on my ship. I think I'm well within my rights to completely wipe this system and start over from backup.”
“You'd be better off to accept that our destinies are linked and treat me as a member of the crew,” he replied. “If I haven't proved my goodwill—”
“You've proved that if I unseal the manual overrides, you can destroy that crew in a matter of instants.”
“And float undisturbed between the stars forever. Or until some helpful nation lobs a missile at the Montreal. That wouldn't be a logical course of action, Captain. I can't fly the ship. You built it that way.” And until I reprogram its nanotech to lay some additional wiring to my specs, it will have to stay that way.
She laced her fingers together and pushed both hands out from her chest, stretching her shoulders. “You mean that you can't access the drive.”
“Only the human pilot can do that. I think if I haven't proved myself in the last twenty hours, Captain, then I never will earn your trust. And if it comforts you, keep it that way. The fact of the matter is that I can do what I was intended to do — process information, make critical decisions, handle a higher data load than the human pilot, and communicate with him fast enough to make a difference in the safety of the ship. And you can't replace me if you kill me.” He tried to read her gaze, the way she ran her eyes along the walls and stopped at the various sensor points. Her face stayed impassive, but he detected a rise in her heart rate; her skin conductivity spiked, revealing a light sweat, and her pupils dilated.
“I'm not promising—” Her desk beeped. She turned away. Richard had been firewalled out of the communications protocols, too. “Well,” she said when she had scanned the message. “You get a reprieve.”
Richard would have blinked. “What?”
“It seems Prime Minister Constance Riel wants you protected and used to the fullest extent of your abilities. Under my judgment, of course. Do you have somebody on the ground playing advocate for you, Richard? Dr. Dunsany and Mr. Castaign, perhaps? Colonel Valens?”
Jenny was sleeping, but Richard smiled over her anyway. Good girl, Jenny. Very good girl indeed.
Saturday 16 December, 2062
Somewhere in Qu'ebec
The longest twenty hours of my life. Indigo threw her backpack onto sawdust-strewn planks and bolted the cabin's door behind her, shutting the predawn outside. The last time she had been here there had been birdsong. The last time she'd been here it had been spring, and she'd been twelve years old.
The cabin that had belonged to her mother was cold, and little light filtered through the windows. Toronto lay a thousand kilometers and three stolen vehicles behind. She'd discarded her HCD, cut her hair, and changed the line of cheeks and jaw with a smart putty manufactured for stage actors.
She prayed to the ghosts of her ancestors that it would be enough.
She could have killed me. Indigo put her back against the door and slid down it, grunting as her butt hit the floor. When the sun rose, she'd have to go outside to fire up the generator and see if the pump was frozen, or if she would have water. She'd scrubbed Farley's spattered blood off her face and hands, changed her coat, dumped everything she could afford to dump and driven through the night. Well, she thought, as she laid her assault rifle across her knees and folded her arms over it like a sleeping soldier would, that one went pear-shaped in an absolutely spectacular fashion.
She could have killed me.
No doubt in her mind. Genevieve Casey — shit. Shit! Indigo crushed her eyes closed and tried to think past the burning exhaustion, the sensation like a bullet hole in the center of her chest. She saw, over and over, the woman's fucking arrogant white grin as she rolled steel fingers back precise as a time-lapse film of a flower unfurling, the squashed bullet, the wink.
Who the hell would have imagined she could do that?
Why on Earth would she want to let me live?
Despite the blinds, it was much brighter in the cabin when she lifted her eyes and rubbed at the dent the rifle had left in her forehead. She wasn't sure if she had slept, but her neck ached and her mouth felt stuffed with scraps of paper. She leaned the rifle against the wall and stood. Food first — she dug in her backpack for energy bars and a pouch of pop — and then she flipped open the cheap Web link she'd bought in a department store in Ottawa. She signed in using trial guest software from an Internet conglomerate and checked Web mail accounts maintained under several false names.
On the third one, she found the e-mail from Razorface. Time-stamped two days before.
Shit. Her finger hovered a centimeter from the open icon at the edge of her interface, and finally stabbed through it. His recorded image stared at her out of cyberspace, a clever algorithm making the eyes seem to track. “Indy.” A deep breath, and the image covered its mouth to cough. “I got a message for you from Maker… from Jen Casey, probably the name you know her by. She says you need to ditch Farley, head for the border or someplace safe. You need to abort the hit on Riel — she said to tell you this: ‘Tell Indigo that 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.' She said to tell you that Farley works for Alberta Holmes, and she — Maker — doesn't.”
“Shit.” Indigo dropped the Web link on the battered maple table. She tried to warn me?
She didn't just let me get away. Genevieve Casey went out of her way to protect me.
What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Saturday 16 December, 2062
Trevor Koske was coming to dread opening his eyes. It could have been worse. This time, he flinched from the strobe-flicker of fluorescent lights and would have shaded his eyes with his hand, but it was tied to the bedframe. “Ow.”
“Captain Wainwright.” A modulated voice he recognized as the tones of the ship's AI. “The overhead lights hurt Lieutenant Koske's eyes. Would you—”
“Light down,” she said, and the flicker behind his eyelids dimmed to a bearable level. “It's okay, Lieutenant. You can talk now. The tubes are out.”
He coughed and tried to peer at her through his eyelashes. “The fluorescents strobe,” he managed. “Ma'am, thank you. How long has it been?”
“It's Saturday,” she said. “Barely.” She circled sick bay slowly, one wall to the other, measured steps carrying her between workstations. “You're going to be fine. Apparently you're tougher than we imagined, Lieutenant. Your warning allowed the ship's AI to avert a major threat to the Montreal. You have the crew's gratitude for that.”
“A computer virus. A Trojan horse.” A lightning change of direction. “Can you describe your attacker?”
“Can you untie my hands?”
Captain Wainwright glanced toward the door. “I don't see why not, now.”
The AI spoke. “It should be acceptable, Captain. The duty surgeon gives his permission.”
She unwound the soft cloth straps on his wrists, careful not to touch his skin. Once she released him he stretched, then gingerly patted the bandages encircling his throat. “I remember leaving the gym,” he said. “Handball practice.”
The captain's eyebrows arched at the irony in his voice. “Now you develop a sense of humor?”
He shrugged. It tugged his bandages. He didn't do it again.
Wainwright came back to the bedside, her rubber-soled ship shoes scuffing the deckpads. “That's all?”
He pushed back until he found blackness, his gut unraveling when he realized he didn't even know how much time he'd lost. His voice came out level, to his pride. A wrinkle in the sheets chafed his skin. He smoothed it irritably. “Until I woke up in my quarters.”
“I–It's not a tip-of-the-tongue thing, like trying to remember where you left the car keys. It's like the memories just don't exist.” He remembered in time not to shake his head. “What am I doing awake, Captain?”
“Your nanite load appears to have saved your life.” Her face stayed impassive, a mask of intellectual interest. “You were very lucky. There was an attempt on Master Warrant Officer Casey yesterday as well, along with the prime minister.”
“Casey? Is she—”
“She'll be fine.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek, not even bothering to sort through the tangle of emotions that raised. “Linked?”
“Seems a bit likely, doesn't it? But no one has provided me with an official opinion on that. Yet.” A touch of irritation? Maybe. “You should be on your feet before you know it,” Wainwright continued. “Meantime, rest. We'll try hypnosis and, if we have to, study drugs to try to recover your memories, when you're feeling better.” She stared down at him for a long moment, as if expecting a response.
“Ma'am?” He struggled with his frown, lost, wrestled his mouth back to a neutral line with some effort.
A shrug, narrow shoulders lifting and falling under the crisp navy of her jumpsuit. She stepped away from the bed. “And, Koske — there's a guard on the door. I'm afraid you're in protective custody until we figure out what's what and which side who is on.”
Saturday 16 December, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
At oh-four-hundred I get out of bed to go to the bathroom and realize three steps away — when the IV tugs and I turn back absently to give the motorized smart stand time to catch up — that I am walking. With a certain amount of stiffness and pain, yes. With a spasm in my thigh like my quadriceps has been tied in a knot and spot-welded back into place, and my right arm feeling like Dr. Frankenstein ran a few stitches across the top of the shoulder to hold it on until he could get back to me.
I stagger to the head, the IV stand humming happily along behind me, and then crawl back into bed and try to close my eyes. Sleep comes easier than I thought it would, but it only lasts an hour or two.
By sunrise, I'm up and dressed in the clothes Elspeth dropped off yesterday, the IV — much to the discomfiture of the staff — unhooked and pushed back beside the nightstand. I can't stay in bed another minute. Even chatting with Richard about his conversations with Wainwright and company fails to distract me, but my leg still hurts too much to pace. I ask Richard to tell Leah to have Gabe hurry up. He laughs at me.
Dick, how's Koske? I stretch back in the chair and stare at the ceiling, unwilling to endure the mindless drek on the holo.
“Talking to Wainwright. I'll fill you in later. He'll live.” Richard sounds oddly satisfied at that. “He's better once you get to know him. Not personable by any means, but better.”
You've been talking to Koske? Did he identify his attacker?
“He can't remember anything between opening the door to his quarters and winding up on the floor. Somebody disabled the recording devices, and somebody must have been able to hack past the thumb lock on the door.”
The way you did Gabe's—but my question is cut off by the appearance of a tall figure, framed in the yellow-painted steel doorway. Valens hesitates a moment, meeting my eyes as if waiting for permission to enter the room.
“Forgive me if I don't get up, Fred.”
“At ease,” he answers wryly. A dark bruise mottles his left cheek. It looks an awful lot like the sort of handprint you leave on somebody when you're making damn sure they're watching you talk. I've seen those in the mirror, though not lately.
That would be a pretty big hand.
He saunters in like a silver tomcat casing an unfamiliar living room: a look to the left, a look to the right. “Just so you know, Casey. If that slug had gone where it was headed, we wouldn't be having this little conversation. Don't start thinking you're immortal now.”
“Perish the thought. That was one hell of a spanking.”
“Yeah.” Valens rubs the palm of his right hand across his blue-shadowed cheek. He takes a little box out of his pocket and plugs it into a wall socket next to the light switch. He presses buttons, and then he closes the door and wedges a plastic chair in front of it.
Tension drags my shoulders back and I wince as that graze on my shoulder tugs hard.
Valens straightens from adjusting the settings on his antiespionage device. “I didn't know Alberta would be so willing to sacrifice you. I thought the hit would come after you left.”
“I suspect she may have underestimated Indigo's dislike for me. Holmes isn't real good with people, is she? In any case — Riel would be dead.”
“Maybe. But this solution is better overall.” He rakes that hand through his hair, the silver thatch falling back into place like a bird's preened feathers. “Koske's going to make it, too.”
“I heard.” I catch myself rubbing the gouges in my metal hand with my right thumb, and make myself stop. It's half strange not to feel the touch, and half like a homecoming. “Fred, does it seem odd to you that somebody could get close enough to Trevor to put a knife into him? You know what that would take.”
“In a dark room? If you came home tired?”
“I'd leave anybody who tried smeared all over the wallboards.” I stand up, leaning on the back of a molded plastic chair, hesitantly stretching my leg. It feels tender, fragile. I don't push my luck. “Just out of curiosity. Why didn't you issue Koske a weapon, too?”
His brow wrinkles over carefully groomed eyebrows. “Would you hand Trevor Koske a gun?”
He offers me his arm as I hobble around the bed. I ignore it, watching my feet move. Richard, these bugs are just freaky. I feel him chuckle, but he doesn't answer. Valens steps out of my way.
“It's still weird, Fred. Weird… weird Koske can't remember what happened, too.”
“Who told you that?”
I grin at him and wink, enjoying the minor advantage. It's nice to see Valens at a loss for once. “You have sources and so do I. What are you going to do about Alberta and Riel?”
“Blackmail one, cultivate the other. And you?”
“I—” I stop, swallow. Examine the gray-and-blue speckled off-white tiles and twist my toe against them. “Calisse de crisse. I'm going to do what I gotta do. You know that.”
When I look up, he's staring at me with a bemused expression. He meets my eyes levelly and then nods once, slowly. “Yeah.” He turns away, unplugs his little device from the wall. He looks back over his shoulder, hand on the knob, shoulders set under his uniform. “Be careful, Jenny.”
He's out the door before I can frame a comeback; the latch click echoes in my open mouth.
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Sol-system wide area nanonetwork
Carver Mallory was a good kid, Richard decided absently, with the 5 percent of his processing capability he was using to maintain communication with Constance Riel, Leah, Jenny, Min-xue, and the crippled boy.
“There's no reason Carver can't still be an effective pilot,” Richard said to Riel, using the Montreal's tight-beam microwave communications. Simultaneously, he linked the flight simulation Jenny had provided to Carver, projecting it directly into the boy's brain. Richard bet he could learn another new trick very soon: relaying conversation directly between the nanite-infected organic intelligences. This is going to change the world, he thought, not for the first time. This is going to change the species.
He managed all that with 5 percent of his intellect.
The other 95 percent was bent on cracking the nanite core programming and delobotomizing his progenitor. Ramirez and Forster had managed to get the Benefactor tech to reproduce itself, managed to modify the descendants and adapt them to various purposes such as the neural and VR enhancements. The nanotech remained self-programming in that it evolved to maintain and repair whatever object or creature its control chips were implanted in.
Richard had long ago figured out how to tap into their carrier signal and ride their bandwidth. His new insight into their core programming let him disperse his awareness through the Canadian side of the nanonetwork, making him essentially decentralized. He'd already been able to spawn subprocesses. The new development made him a literal multithreaded, multifocal intelligence, able to merge and part with disparate selves at a whim.
The data from the Chinese ships were invaluable; he was surprised to discover that the Chinese were farther along in the programming process than the Canadians. And that they had discovered how to isolate clumps — families — of nanites from the “network” so that those particular bugs communicated only with each other. To cut them off from the nanonetwork, in other words. To cut them off from Richard, too.
Which crystallized his suspicions on the source of the logic bomb that could have killed the Montreal's crew and opened her hull to space. “Jenny,” he said when that individual had finished the trial runs for Carver (the same runs the rest of the students were undergoing, through direct hardware interface), “have you and Ellie finished the control chips I asked you to make?”
“They're as ready as I can make them,” Jenny answered. Richard felt her motions as she stood, no longer favoring her injured leg, and paced around her desk. Plush carpet compressed under her boots; he sensed the absoluteness of her balance as she went to the window and stood, looking out. “Library computer, right?”
“No,” he said with a smile. “I want to meet Alan.”
She stopped, and Richard smiled to feel her mild surprise, to sense the nanite response to a brief elevation of heart rate and skin conductivity. “Alan? Lonely?”
“It's not wise, I think,” Richard answered, “to let him grow up in isolation.” A half-truth. “Wire one of the chips into the intranet Elspeth has him isolated in, please.” (elsewhere, primary processes would have leapt and shouted aloud had they legs and voices as suddenly, precisely, the code structure of the nanite's quantum operating system came clear in Richard's not-quite-a-mind and he simultaneously saw how to force his other half to access the autonomous functions Gabe had so cleverly walled away / subprocesses noted that the Calgary's reactor came on-line for the very first time Riel asked Richard if there was no hope that Carver would regain use of his body Leah let a dark-haired boy kiss her in a corner stairwell and then pulled away, confused Min-xue's heart rate spiked and—)p>
(—his new access to the nanotech core programming triggered the logic bomb that Richard hadn't uncovered. And the Montreal started, picoseconds later, to take herself apart.)
“Just a moment, Jenny,” Richard said into her brain. “Get me Alan. Now!” And while she kicked herself toward the door, he sent his own freshly cracked “family” of nanites to war and coded an emergency message to Prime Minister Riel.
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Captain Wu stared, unmoving, out the window in his ready room as Min-xue drifted in. The captain didn't turn, so as the door irised shut Min-xue cleared his throat and waited. When there was still no response, he hesitantly drifted closer to the captain and cleared his throat again. Beyond the window, a crescent Earth and a crescent moon drifted side by side. Min-xue couldn't quite make out the silvery threads of the three orbital elevators from this distance, but he could catch the glittering flash from Clarke or one of its sister platforms.
“I am not a war criminal,” Captain Wu whispered.
Min-xue's heart rate spiked. “Captain?”
The captain turned just far enough to fix him on a darkly glittering gaze. Min-xue realized the man had been drinking, and that the wetness that shone in the corners of his eyes was not from the drink. “I am not a war criminal,” he said again, more strongly. “And neither are you, Min-xue. There are times—”
Min-xue almost fancied that Earth grew larger over the captain's shoulder in the moments before he spoke again. “—you must decide, yourself, what to do with the orders you are given. I have family,” he continued, rushing now, as if the words might clot and dry up if he didn't press them out fast enough. “Family that could suffer if I am disobedient. A child. Do you understand?”
“A man must judge his own conscience.”
Min-xue saw the trap and nodded. “My conscience is in the keeping of the service,” he said. “And of yourself, Captain.”
Captain Wu would not look at him. “I suppose you have family, too.”
“A sister. A mother.”
“Then remember this conversation, Second Pilot. And ask yourself if one who gives his conscience into untenable keeping is not a war criminal, after all.”
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
Valens is coming in the other direction. He hits the wall as I go by and falls into step behind me. “Riel just hit the panic button,” he gasps as I grab a corner and ricochet toward Elspeth's office. I should have left the damn chips with her.
Richard, what the hell does “just a minute” mean, coming from you?
“Just a moment. It's all right. We just suffered another attack, and — how fast can you have Alan on-line?”
Fast, if you can tell me where to get the nanites to go with the chip.
“Looked in your veins lately?”
Shit. You don't mean — Shit. Yeah, he means it. “Fred!” Ellie's in her office, merci `a Dieu, playing with Alan. Richard, report. Valens and Ellie start shouting in unison as I pull Elspeth out of her chair and crawl under the desk, cracking the service plate off with my steel hand. I don't bother to pull the screws. Meanwhile, I open my brain and my mouth and rattle everything Richard tells me to the two of them.
“Richard says the ship was hacked — a more direct attack than last time. He's protecting Montreal and he's got the nanites cracked but so does somebody else, he's spawned subselves on Calgary and Vancouver… marde! Ow!” as the chip goes in and a fat spark bridges and I hold my breath, praying I haven't fried the system. The chip hangs in a mess of wires like entrails under the gutted desk. “Alan, can you hear me?”
Alan's voice is cooler than Richard's. I poke my eyes over the desk, watching the swirl of blues and greens that Elspeth chose for the new AI's icon. “I can hear you, Master Warrant.”
“Good.” I can't see Valens, but Ellie's eyes go wide as I pick up a shard of the plastic service plate and jam it into my meat hand hard enough to make the juice spurt.
“Fermez la gulle, Fred. I know what I'm doing.” Blood drips, thick as ketchup, clotting already. Never let 'em figure out you haven't got a clue what's going on. Dick, you on it?
“Hell yes. Just jam it in there.”
Never let it be said I can't follow orders.
It's not an electric shock that gets me either, because I'm still reaching forward when everything goes fuzzy and then gray. I'm not certain I got the blood anywhere near the desk, but the carpet is cool against my cheek and then everything tunnels down to black.
Elspeth grabbed for Jen's shoulder as she slid forward, got under the bigger woman and cushioned her fall away from the corners of the desk. She found a pulse hastily, saw Jen's eyes open and unfocused and heard her breath hiss through slack lips.
Valens was beside her, pushing her out of the way to check Jen's airway. “What just happened?”
Elspeth shook her head and grabbed Jen's wrist.
Richard, be right, Elspeth thought, and shoved Jen's hand into the mess of wiring hanging from the desk.
Something sparked. Something hissed. This is fucking silly. And then there was silence.
Richard felt Jenny fall away, felt the moment when the worm he'd never quite managed to circumvent activated in her processor arrays and her voluntary muscles went slack. Ramirez, he snarled, and assimilated the core personality of his no-longer crippled other self. The Richards merged seamlessly as quantum time streams, and felt and linked the spawned copies of himself in the Calgary, in the Vancouver. Irritated—annoyed—that the nanite webs didn't reach into the Unitek intranet, that he couldn't reach out through them and access the raw, archived code that would let him fight for the Montreal on more equal terms — Richard marshaled his own nanite armies and resolved to battle the enemy in the very streets and gutters of the Montreal and the brains of his friends.
He was losing.
In a matter of instants, part of the Montreal's reactor coolant system failed. An emergency vent sprayed glittering, radioactive snow: pressurized water spewed, froze, sublimated into the void. Richard diverted water from hydroponics, sacrificing long-term life support for the immediate threat. He jammed airlock interfaces before they could cycle themselves and—“Leah! Tell your father”—stopped all but seven of the Montreal's deadly pressure doors from slamming down like guillotines—“Captain, another attempt at sabotage is under way. I insist you find Christopher Ramirez now”—and felt the sand slipping from under his feet as if the tide came in from all directions at once.
Until suddenly another presence was with him, and then another presence was him as the AI called Alan threaded into Richard's multifaceted persona, merged consciousnesses, apprehended the problem, found the archives, and started throwing him relevant parcels of code through the still-weak nanonetwork as if he were manning a bucket brigade. The AI personas twisted together — one mind, two voices — and they pushed… and Ramirez's calculated, programmed, multifocal attack came down before them like the Berlin wall.
I wake up as fast as I went under, blood in my hair and a pair of doctors leaning over me, arguing at the top of their lungs. I've never seen Elspeth or Valens raise their voices before. I wish I had the time to appreciate it. “What happened?”
They glance at my face in unison, expressions alike as a pair of startled beagles. “Jen!” Elspeth says, and sits back on her heels. “Do you remember anything?”
“Richard.” I sit up against the restraining pressure of Valens's hand against my chest. “The Montreal.”
“Here, Jenny,” he says, and I can't remember the last time I heard his voice outside my head. I crawl out from under the desk — past Valens — and lift my head over the edge to see his familiar face floating over the interface.
“I know how Ramirez got the knife into Koske, Dick.”
“So do I.” Valens's voice, dry and soft. “Ramirez just put Trevor out with a sharp little packet of code, and stabbed him in the throat with a kitchen knife. Weapons being hard to come by on the Montreal. You'll fix that little security breach, Richard?”
“Done,” he says.
“Richard.” Elspeth grunts as she pushes herself to her feet. “Where's Alan?”
Richard's familiar voice is replaced by a cooler, neutral tenor, his craggy face by Alan's blue-green swirl. “Present.”
“You can both be in the same place?” Stupid question, and I want to slap myself once it's out of my mouth.
Alan's chuckle blends into Dick's. “Jenny, effectively — now that I understand the nanonetwork — I can be everywhere simultaneously. And so can Alan. If there's even any difference between us, at this point.”
“Multiple personality disorder,” Elspeth says, and then her complexion brightens with a blush, and she grazes the palm of a hand across her mouth. “Sort of.”
“If we were human,” the AI answers. “But we're not.”
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Yonge-University-Spadina Subway Line
Stupid sort of a thing, Indigo thought, running all the way out into the boondocks just to turn around and come back to Toronto. She leaned against the long bathtub tiles of the subway wall and felt a frown drag at her face.
Get out of Toronto. Get out of Canada.
Indigo clapped the heels of her hands against her eyes and pressed: Your Uncle Bernard would have had more sense.
Put the gun down, Indigo, and I'll get the chance to tell you about him sometime.
“She could have killed me.” Indigo shook her head, then realized she'd spoken aloud. She was almost unarmed, except for the magnetically null flechette pistol tucked into the pocket of her jacket, its glass needles laced with neurotoxin. She'd buried both of the big guns. She'd sent an e-mail to Razorface.
He was already five minutes late.
The crowd swept around her like a tide, close enough to brush, oblivious to her presence. “She could have killed me, too, instead of letting me go.”
“She said to tell you not to sweat it, if you showed up for the meet.” Razorface, quietly sibilant through knife-edged teeth, and Indigo jumped three feet and clipped the back of her head against the wall.
“Shit! Ow! Razor—”
“Surprise, sweetie. I didn't think you'd show.”
Ice locked her bowels. “Is Casey here? You said she'd—” Indigo stopped herself. You're stammering like a teenager.
Your Uncle Bernard would have had more sense.
My Uncle Bernard would still be alive if he'd put a bullet in your head, you fucking cow. Indigo wondered if she could say that to Casey's face.
“She's here,” Razorface answered.
You look like someone I used to know. The spark of pain across Casey's face. The warning. The words. Put the gun down, Indigo, and I'll get the chance to tell you about him sometime.
Indigo's hands slid into her pocket. “Let's go,” she said, and self-consciously pulled the left one out again to hook it around Razorface's elbow.
He untangled her fingers with his own, thick as sausages, and let her hand fall. “She's by the candy stand. You go on alone.”
Her chin bounced up. “She doesn't want you there?”
“You girls—” He stopped, showed teeth in what might once have been a reassuring grin, and shook his head gently. “I think you need to talk, just girls. I be over by the burger joint when you get done.”
That's too easy. But a sigh hissed through her lips as she turned over her shoulder and stole one look back at him. She hadn't wanted to kill him. She figured she'd get Casey easy — it would only take one needle to drop somebody Razorface's size for good, and Casey couldn't weigh more than seventy kilos, not counting the arm. Indigo only had to hit her once.
The trigger of the needle gun felt smooth under her finger. She quick-blinked to pop the targeting scope up in her contact, although it showed nothing now.
You look like someone I used to know.
Genevieve Casey leaned against a tiled pillar, exactly where Razorface had said she would be, chewing on a thread of strawberry candy as if she'd rather be chewing her thumb, her hawklike nose tilted to one side and her eyes downcast, the sun-baked furrows at their corners graven deep with thought. She looked up smoothly as Indigo caught sight of her, and Indigo considered pulling the flechette pistol and spraying her with poisoned glass.
Too far. Bystanders might be hit. The ice lock in Indigo's gut tightened as she moved forward, and Indigo caught sight of something along the edge of Casey's shirt-cuff, peeking out of her jacket on the side with her normal hand. A stain, brown and sticky-looking as molasses. Indigo hid her confusion behind a blink, remembering blood covering Casey's thigh. She should be on crutches at least.
And then Casey smiled and moved toward her, no trace of a limp, the gap between them closing as her right hand — the right hand with traces of blood soaking the cuff and brown under the nails and a ragged pink cut, looking freshly healed, marking the meaty part of the thumb — came out and up and extended, the steel hand shoved into her pocket, the brown gaze locked on Indigo's eyes and a little half-smile saying go ahead and do it if you think you gotta do it, girl…
Your Uncle Bernard would have had more sense.
A convulsive shiver jerked Indigo's empty right hand out of her pocket and slapped it into Casey's hand — a reflex, a spasm, and she felt the roughness of the other woman's scar pressing against her own palm, the callused strength of that grip and then the smile. Diffidence, and a spiking sorrow, and the tentative warmth behind it. She doesn't seem too mad at me for shooting her.
“Genevieve,” Indigo said, and her voice came out soft as stripped velvet.
“Call me Mak…” Darkness crossed Casey's face, and she stopped with a final syllable filling her mouth. She swallowed it and started again. “Jenny,” she said, dropping Indigo's hand and looking down. “Just call me Jenny.”
Indigo stuffed her hand into her pocket. Remembered the pistol when she touched it and her targeting scope flickered live. Shook her head as if shaking water out of her hair. So many questions, and only one she could find the words to go around. “Why did you do it?”
“Because,” Casey answered, too quickly, and then paused. She turned her head to watch an inbound train and the flood of plaid-skirted girls it disgorged, and then looked back and raked the metal hand through her hair.
Indigo counted breaths and waited, realizing she really did want to know.
“Because I thought I had to,” Casey said, a little while later. “I thought I had to. Stupid reason, but there it is.”
And it was all there, in the softness of her voice and the way she studied the floor when she spoke. Indigo cleared her throat. Oh. “He was a friend.”
“He was more than a friend, kid.”
The trains came and went, and so did the crowds. The ice crept up Indigo's throat from her belly, locked her teeth and tongue and jaw. She might have moaned a little around all the words that would never come out.
Casey coughed into her hand, and a couple of pedestrians wearing fashionable color-coordinated face masks edged away. People were more cautious about public displays of illness than they had been when antibiotics worked better. Anything could be the disease of the week.
Indigo didn't budge, and Casey looked her in the eye. “So Razorface tells me you want to save the world. You got a plan for that yet?”
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Allen-Shipman Research Facility
Valens started as Holmes rapped squarely on his doorframe and entered. He started to stand, didn't make it to his feet before her scowl knocked him back into his chair. “We're fucked.”
“Roundly fucked,” she said. “The board cut our funding. They found out about my indictment. That's it, we're out.”
He laid his hands flat on the desk, the texture of waxed wood barely registering. “No,” he said. The word felt heavy in his mouth.
“Yes. My lawyers are telling me they have paper, Fred. How did they get paper? There isn't supposed to be—” Beat. “Casey. Your pet sold us out.”
“Christ, Fred, is that the only word you know?”
It came clear in front of him, like a banner unfurled. He nodded. “It links to Barbara. It's got to be. What are the charges?”
“Conspiracy to commit everything.”
“Are any of them false?” He strode around the desk, feeling control return. His hands shook. He shoved them in his pockets.
Holmes glanced up, at an angle. The way people do when they're formulating a lie.
“I see,” Valens answered. “You didn't do any of it, Alberta.”
“No,” he said. “You didn't do it.” He swallowed, and it hurt. This is it. “I did.”
Holmes stared at him blankly.
“I did it. I hired Barbara Casey. And it seems that — without your knowledge, without Unitek's knowledge, without the army's involvement — I also paid her to carry out my own very illegal and unethical agenda.” He swallowed. Goddamn me to hell, but I would like to see this woman strung up by her toes.
“You wouldn't take a fall for me,” Holmes said, still blinking.
“Oh, don't you worry,” he answered. “I'd never take a fall for you. And Constance Riel still has more than enough to hang you for treason, Alberta. And I have no doubt at all that she will, unless you cooperate with her fully in keeping the space program moving forward, and the funding in place. Once I'm out of the way.” Somewhere, he found the gall to smile. “Now, if you don't mind. Be a dear, Alberta, and get Riel on the phone?”
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Yonge-University-Spadina Subway Line
Indigo is over by the snack bar picking Swedish fish out of a plastic jar with tongs. I lean against the pillar, and Razorface looks at me with that look in his eyes. Like he knows something is about to go spectacularly wrong.
I'm suddenly sure, sure as I always used to be sure, that I'm going to die. Air hisses between my teeth. “She's a smart kid, Face. But she's too used to following orders.” I recognize the symptoms.
He turns away to cough; blood smears his lips when he pulls his hand away. “Shit.”
“Yeah, shit. Have you seen a doctor for that?”
He glares at me and frames a denial. I lay my steel hand on his shoulder and squeeze. “No,” he says.
“If the world don't end,” he says, and I have to be satisfied with that. “You want Indy and me to handle Holmes for you? I bet she'd be down with that.”
I bet she would, too. “I'll call you,” I say. “Don't do anything unless you hear—”
He grins, and I know I'm screwed. Razorface does whatever the hell he wants, whenever he wants to, and then he nods and smiles and pretends he told me all about it beforehand. “Hang tough, Maker.”
Oh, fuck it. I gotta get back to work. “You, too, Razorface. You hang tough, too.”
I don't even bother looking surprised when I get back to my office and Valens shows up thirty seconds after I sit down at my desk. “I went for a walk,” I say before he can ask.
“I don't care,” he says. “We've got a problem, Casey, and I bet you know something about it, but I haven't got time to discuss it now. You and Patty, Leah and Castaign leave for the Montreal tonight. Go home and pack.” The look he levels at me takes the resilience out of my knees. I couldn't get up if I wanted to.
“The Montreal isn't safe.”
“Unitek is cutting funding for the starflight program. Riel says she'll back you as far as it goes, but it happens now. We keep the four boys on Earth in reserve, in case something does happen to your group. Before Unitek gets into a pissing match with Canada over beanstalk access. Riel will commission the Calgary, and Koske and Leah will take her. We can have her drive on-line in a week.”
“Shut up. I don't have time to argue.” Spit-shined shoes scuff the floor. “You'll be prepared to leave for an extrasolar destination by the new year.”
I bite the inside of my cheek, thinking of Razorface. Something lasers through my gut when I do. HD whatever the hell it is. Sixty-nine light-years away. “What about Genie?”
I know the answer before he shakes his head. “She'll get medical care,” he says. “As long as Riel can keep the program going. Castaign and Dunsany have already been transferred to the Canadian Army; they're doing the paperwork now. But the CCP and Unitek Medical programs — Genie's out of those.”
I don't know where I find the strength to stand, to come around the desk. “She's a kid, Fred. You need to make Holmes understand—”
“It's not Holmes,” he says, and I see a cold light in his eyes that I recognize, and I don't like at all. “It's the board. There are some allegations surfacing regarding Alberta's actions in Hartford, and her employment of your sister. Alberta may be able to save her job, if a fall guy steps forward. If nobody ever finds out about the prime minister and Indigo Xu.” Low winter sunlight glints off his hair. “She should be able to regain funding in the new year. If.”
“Fred.” Shit. Jenny, you may have miscalculated this one.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I reach for his arm. He's not listening. He crosses to the window, pushes the curtain aside, and stares out across the parking lot. “Fred.”
He turns around, leaving indented footprints in the nap of the rug. “Give Patty a note for me when you're on the beanstalk?” He holds out an old-fashioned envelope like the kind you'd use for a wedding invitation. A strange, formal gesture: a handwritten note.
I take it from his big, blunt fingers, noticing the pale beginnings of liver spots on the backs of his hands. “Where are you going to be?”
“Hartford,” he says with finality, and turns to leave me standing there. Unable to resist the drama, he stops beside the door. “After that, probably the electric chair.”
He had me until then. Valens always was the hero of his own movie. Every inch of him.
I take one step forward. “Fred.”
“I'm not sorry,” I say in a stranger's voice. “But I'll say nice things about you when you're dead.” I don't know if he glances over his shoulder before he leaves, because I can't watch. I swallow and look down. And when the door clicks behind him, I fumble my hip from my pocket and key Razorface, tell him to back off Holmes and I mean it this time. His hip, of course, isn't on.
He isn't taking my calls.
I should call Riel. I should warn Holmes myself. If it's Face and his vengeance aginst the Montreal, you would think the choice ought to be clear. Except I know that the only way to stop Razorface at this point is to kill him.
And I'd have an easier time cutting my own throat.
There comes a day, I guess, when you have to let the whole wide world make its own damned mistakes and then clean them up as best it can. Just keep running and trust in God, and hope you stay in front of the steamroller somehow.
I wonder if anybody ever actually believes them, or if we're all just pretending as hard as we can.
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Leah twisted her hands in her lap and stared at the wall. Ellie's not coming. Genie's not coming. Bryan—a guilty little smile, quickly brushed away—Bryan's not coming either.
What are we going to do?
She struggled off the sofa, barked her shin on the coffee table, and took it out on the overnight bag on the floor by Ellie's favorite chair. “Putain de marde!” And then she glanced guiltily over her shoulder to make sure no one had heard her swear. Dad hadn't come home from his errands yet, though, and Leah was alone in the apartment except for Genie.
Genie, who was in her bedroom and wouldn't open the door. I'll try again, Leah decided. Stupid little piggy. “Oink, oink,” she muttered under her breath — and then she felt bitterly guilty. She judged right, at least, and didn't sting her knuckles on the door by knocking too fast. She laid the palm of her hand flat against the wood and leaned forward. “Genie?”
The clarity of her sister's voice startled her. She'd expected words clogged with tears. “Genie, ouvre la porte, s'il te pla^it.”
“Non. Je ne veux pas te voir.” But Leah heard soft footsteps across the area rug and the hardwood floor, and the rough wooden door slid away from her palm. Bright eyes peered through the crack. “Que veux-tu?”
“Let me in?”
Genie started to push the door shut. Leah leaned on it.
“I have to.”
Genie struggled with the door, trying to get her shadowy weight behind it. It didn't work: Leah stepped into the room and Genie spun away, shouting. “I want to come, too! I won't get to talk to you or Papa at all. It'll be just me and Ellie, and you won't come back, and Aunt Jenny won't come back either, and I hate you all!” Genie threw herself across the room and collapsed on the bed, covers bunching in her bird-claw hands.
Won't come back.
Like Mom. Leah blinked and could have kicked herself for not catching on quicker. “This is about Mom, isn't it?”
“No.” Muffled under covers, followed by a coughing fit that made Genie's shoulders huddle down like a clenching fist.
“Genie, don't. You'll make yourself sick.” Leah crossed over to her and sat down on the bed. Richard, what do I do?
“Elspeth will take care of her, Leah.” The voice in her ear sounded different, and she frowned.
You can't talk to Elspeth. Just me and Aunt Jenny, and we'll both be on the Montreal. And then Leah smiled. Richard, you can make the nanites work for Genie, too. And they could fix her cystic fibrosis. They don't have to augment her or anything. You could just — and—
“Leah, no.” That definitely wasn't Richard's voice.
You're Alan. Genie was crying — silently, but Leah could tell it was for real by the way her sister's whole body curled around the pain. “Ch'erie, it's safer here—”
“Je ne soigne pas!”
And not-Richard's voice, as if in her other ear. “Not exactly. We're — us. Both of us. I'm still what I was.”
So you'll help me.
“I will not make the nanites self-programming. It's not safe.”
You're self-programming. It will make her well!
“I'm not safe either, you know. Leah, what are you doing?”
Shut up. Leah gave Genie's shoulders a squeeze, and stood up. “I'll make it better,” she said quietly. Richard — whoever you are — you're going to do this for me. Because I'm doing it whether you help or not.
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
Richard? Except it isn't Richard, is it, quite? I stop with one foot on the stairs up to Gabe's apartment, my duffel bag slung over my shoulder. The new polymer on my left hand itches, and I press it against my BDUs. What do you need?
I've covered half the flight before I realize I dropped the duffel bag, and I don't really care. It takes longer to unlock the door than it did to pound up the stairs, and the first thing I smell is the rankness of blood, sticky sweet as corn syrup. “Oh, fuck.”
Genie's bedroom. I hear them in there, hit the door hard enough to bounce it against the wall. The room's too warm by anybody's standards but mine; Genie keeps the thermostat set high. She's so damned skinny. I can't take in the scene all at once; my brain images it in fragments. Genie's comforter spotted in red, Leah bent over and Genie stretched out flat. “Leah, what did you do?…”
She just looks into her sister's face. Genie's eyes are closed; the shadows around them look like bruises. And then I see that Leah has their wrists tied together with a bandanna, cheesy blood brother scene from an old 2-D movie or a kid's holoshow. “Leah?”
“It's okay,” she says. “I made her better.” And smiles through the smears of red crusting across her mouth and in her long wheat-golden hair, where she must have carelessly rubbed her hand.
Richard. Did you?…
“No,” he says. “Genie's not infected. I can keep the nanites from propagating into her bloodstream. But I think she needs to go to a hospital now.”
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
National Defence Medical Center
Goddamnit to hell, I am sick of hospitals. And Valens still insists we leave tonight. We need to be on the Montreal when he drops his bombshell in Hartford. I stand at Gabe's shoulder, Ellie on the other side, and Leah sulks in a chair by the waiting room door. “I wouldn't have hurt her,” she says, picking at the healing scab on her wrist.
Gabe and I look at each other, but it's Dr. Ellie, her lips pressed thin, who crosses the tile floor and crouches down beside Leah. “She needed six stitches, Leah.”
“She told me to do it.”
“You told her it would fix her lungs.”
I rest my steel hand on Gabe's shoulder. He feels like a rock, a granite statue. Unmovable. Richard. What are we doing here? Is there any way this plan of Valens's can work?
“I've been reviewing the climate change data,” he says, and it's Richard's voice, clean and plain, without a trace of Alan.
What's the word?
My right hand slips into my pants pocket, fretting the folding knife Leah used to open her wrist, and Genie's. Damned if I know why I picked it up. Old habit not to leave weapons lying around. Programming.
With my inner vision, I see his beaked nose angle to one side, following the twist of his mouth. “It's a very complicated system. A chaotic one, in fact.”
You're stalling. I squeeze the side of Gabe's neck where it runs into his broad back. He notices me, pulls his stare in from the middle distance, gives me a look that says it all until I slide my arm around his waist and make it look like I'm leaning on him. His heart rattles inside his chest.
“Well, the good news is that we probably won't have to worry about rising oceans for too much longer. The plankton die-off is the least of our problems. If the Atlantic continues to get colder at the poles, and the severity of the winters increases—” He shakes his head. “We're currently in an interglacial period. That will end.”
Interglacial period? You mean — between ice ages? Gabe's heart rate seems to drop slightly. I slow my breathing, hoping he'll unconsciously pace to it. His arm around my shoulders tightens slightly as Elspeth says something low to Leah and Leah kicks her heel against the molded burnt-orange leg of the chair.
“No.” A pause, as if the AI collected his thoughts, but I know it's a courtesy to us meat intelligences to let us keep up with him. “This is an ice age. Just a break between glaciations. There's two ways it can go from here: either a complete global warming, with shallow seas and tropical climates across the temperate zone — or a glacial period. One that might be severe enough to provoke a ‘snowball Earth' scenario.”
That's a vivid enough mental image that I don't really need to ask for a definition. Oh. How soon?
“On a geological scale… yesterday.”
I can't take this hospital for one more second. Not one. Richard. Could the nanites stop that? Could we build a control chip big enough — or a control AI, what about that? I squeeze Gabe one last time and slide away. “I'll meet you at the airport,” I tell him. “Give Genie my love before you go, okay?”
He nods. I clasp Ellie's shoulder before I tug her away from Leah and Leah to her feet. I should say something. Explain. Tell her I love her, but my voice won't work around the cold, slick stone blocking my throat. “You have a thought, Jenny?” Richard asks, almost sounding like himself again.
What Leah did, I whisper back. We could do that — only bigger and better. Why not?
“Because there's time to come up with a better solution,” he says.
I'm running out of time. If they ship everybody with the nanotech off planet, Richard—
“We'll think of something,” he answers, soothing. I shiver and fist my hands in my pockets, turning to look for Leah.
“Aunt Jenny?” She looks up at me, her mother Geniveve's gray-green gaze and Gabe's golden hair, and I close my eyes so the burn in their corners doesn't get away from me. I know what I wish I could do, with a kind of queasy finality I've only felt once before in my life. I would die for her, Richard. I lean down and put my lips against her ear. “Leah, mon coeur. Fais ce que tu dois. Toujours.” She startles in my arms, pulling back, and I catch her eye and smile. You do as you think you must. “Je suis fi`ere de toi.”
“I'm proud of you, too,” she begins, reaching for me, but I slip out of her arms and away from Gabe before he realizes what's going on, and out the door. Melodrama, sure, but I don't feel I can leave without saying good-bye. When I see her again we will be soldiers, and once that happens I don't quite know if we can ever not be soldiers again.
Lake Ontario borders Toronto on the south, and I walk that way, fingering the pocketknife I took away from Leah with my right hand. You didn't answer my question, Dick. Could the nanotech handle this ecological crisis?
“Probably,” he answers. Reluctantly. “And remain as vulnerable to a cracker as you, and Koske, and the Montreal have proved—”
Vulnerable unless somebody like you is in charge.
“And vulnerable to me if I were in charge,” he argues, but I have the answer to that. “Do you really want a computer program standing in loco parentis over the entire human race? A cybernetic fairy godfather?”
Richard, if you wanted to rule the planet not a one of us could stop you.
“What would I want with a planet?”
My point exactly, sir— I suppose, thinking about it — I suppose it wouldn't actually have to be the lake. But the symbolism seems very important all of a sudden, and I'm still arguing with Richard when I come down ice-rimed, streetlit Queen's Quay, scale an angle of the fence around a waterfront museum — closed for the winter — and duck down under the pier where it's dark, skidding on my butt among trash and ice and litter. The ice feels like steel under my feet when I climb back up on them, more solid than the deck plates on the Montreal.
This is going to take some walking.
“I won't do this for you, Jenny.”
“Richard,” I say out loud, watching my breath coil and twine. I head south, balance hard to find on the windswept ice. The sun's barely down, but the wind cuts my skin like the knife in my pocket. “It's not for me. And I haven't decided yet what I'm doing, have I?”
“Gabe is coming,” Richard says, a tinge of Alan — a tinge of alien — creeping into his voice. “Leah, too. You scared them.”
I glance back over my shoulder, don't see anything moving, and press my elbow against my side so the bulge of the glass beads on Nell's feather — still in my pocket — dents my breast. “If I did it, it would be for them,” I answer, realizing how insane my one-sided conversation would look if anyone were watching. “Scientific detachment is all well and good, Richard. But Alberta's going to take a few thousand — maybe a few hundred thousand — people off the planet and leave the rest to rot here.”
“Genie's going to die, Dick. And this could save her.”
“The nanites are a self-evolving system. They protect their host.”
“So—” Still nobody moving back onshore when I turn to look, and the wind this far out on the ice could peel the skin off my face. I kneel on ice like coals of fire. “—why not experiment with a bigger host?”
“What if you're wrong?”
“Then the end comes a little faster,” I say, and brace myself on three limbs. “How long do you think it would take to punch through this?”
It's not easy. Ice chips sting my cheeks for ten minutes before the crust snaps under a sledgehammer blow of my steel hand. My right hand is numb and my ears have quit burning. Lake water splashes my face and I barely feel it. Don't feel it at all as it freezes between the fingers of my left hand, but I stretch them, cracking frost chips off metal. Concave flakes crunch under my knees when I shift back and dig in my pocket for Leah's knife, but my fingers are so numb I have to tear the pocket open and pick it up in my steel hand.
Leah did it wrong.
Right for her purposes, I should say. Wrong for mine. I kneel there on the ice, staring at the knife. Would you do this for me, Richard? It shouldn't take much, right? I wouldn't have to bleed out. Just a few—
“I could stop you, Jenny. Right here. Right now. Freeze you in your tracks the way Ramirez did to you and Trevor.”
You won't. Leah was smart enough to sharpen the knife. I'm so cold I barely feel it dimple the skin of my right wrist. It goes in with a stretch and a sudden pop, and I close my eyes as I drag it upward, lengthwise, not wanting to watch the flesh and tendons peel away from the blade, but then heat spatters my legs and I peek, and all that scarlet freezes like rose petals to the ice around my fishing hole.
Not enough blood, and it's already clotting, pulling tight, pink and slick with lymph and granular tissue at the edges of the wound, sealing up like the ice crystallizing at the edge of the black, black water. “That's just freaky.”
I must have missed the vein.
“Jenny. I won't do it. You're killing yourself for nothing.”
“You'll do it.” My voice is so clear. It rings off the ice and the darkness like wind chimes, breath ripped to streamers by the endless wind. The vein is slick, slippery, blood clotting on my steel fingers as I try to hook under it, pull it up. It doesn't hurt. And if I didn't die taking three bullets for Riel, what makes you think something as simple as this would kill me?
It doesn't hurt at all.
“Jenny,” he says. “It would take a central processor as big as the Montreal's to control the nanite infection on a planet the size of Earth. They need a control chip, remember? Without it, they're just so many creepy crawlies without a purpose in this world except providing spare cycles for me to run processes in.”
I drop the knife when the blood starts puddling and flowing in earnest, rivulets that pool in my palm and run between my fingers like seeds, like black rubies scattered. The blade somersaults, chips off the edge of the hole I made, vanishes into ebony water.
Followed by a tumble of jewels.
Make it happen, Richard.
It's not Richard's voice that answers me, but Alan's. “Master Warrant Officer. This looks remarkably like the actions of an unstable mind. You know that I can simply prevent the nanites from reproducing into the lake water. This is a futile exercise, and you're hurting yourself for no reason at all.”
Damn him. Put Richard back on, please? Amazed at my own calmness, I get a foot under me, come up on one knee as the rain of blood slows, stops. I dig in the wound with smeared steel fingers, gasping at how much — now, suddenly, Jesus—it hurts. I break the scab, and a fresh line of blood follows, but then suddenly my left hand quits on me and my body freezes, held upright by Richard's grip and not my will—
“You trust me,” Richard hisses in my ear, and I sense his tremendous disappointment in me. “Well and good. Trust me all you like — but do you want the Benefactors to have this kind of control over everything on Earth, Jenny? Alan and I are not going to let this happen—”
— and I hear somebody yelling, running footsteps, skidding on the frozen lake and the flicker of a flashlight across my back, the blood, the ice.
Marde. All right, Richard; you proved your point. My emotional blackmail won't work on you any better than Leah's did.
“I'm still a computer program,” he says.
You're a computer program that forgot one thing, I remind him. Can you hack the Chinese system the way you just hacked mine?
A pause, one I know is for my benefit. “No. Not if they knew I was coming. I've been trying since you were shot.”
So what makes you think that the Benefactors would have any better luck than you?
I can tell that he doesn't have an answer because he lets me go, and I'm standing — a little dizzy with blood loss — to face my tongue-lashing from Gabe by the time he catches up with me.
Tuesday 19 December, 2062
The big truck purred to life as Razorface stroked the steering column. Indigo slouched against the passenger door, staring through the streetlamp reflections at pavement and ice. “Indy.”
Nothing, while he reached down and touched the radio on. Razor kept the reach going, cracked his neck out loud, and laid a hand on her arm. She jumped as if he'd snuck up on her. “Indy.”
“Don't freak on me, babe. You in?”
She didn't turn to look. Her reflection showed a fine line etched between dark eyes and she suddenly looked her age. She shook her head slightly, hair whispering around her ears, and he pulled his hand back to cover a cough that tasted like molasses.
He nodded. “You're in.”
“Yeah,” she answered. “Where do we go?”
The Bradford ghosted into the stream of traffic, a navy blue shark cruising Toronto's dark waters. Razorface swallowed a mouthful of gunk, flipped the rearview mirror to “night,” and laid both hands on the wheel. “I've been tailing Holmes.”
“She doesn't always drive home the same way,” he continued, ignoring the darkness in Indigo's voice. “But she's got a Monday route, and a Sunday route—”
He let the list flicker out when the girl half turned and tilted her head to the side. He didn't turn to look, but saw her expression with half one eye. “She thinks we're that dumb?”
“She thinks she's that smart anyway,” Razorface said, and turned west on Bloor. “You game?”
“Yeah.” A long exhalation, like a smoker's release. “Yeah. I'm game.”
Wednesday 20 December, 2062
Somewhere over the Atlantic
I wake in a dark corner of a private jet, and not Holmes's jet either. This one is lushly appointed, but there's something worn about the edges of the beige leather recliner — almost a couch — that I'm strapped into. Low-angled sunlight streams around the blind to my left; if we're headed for Brazil, it must be morning.
My right arm's swathed with bandages. Tug of an IV in my right ankle when I release the belt and start to swing my legs around: I slide the IV out, keeping pressure on the puncture until it seals. Richard? The arm itches fiendishly.
Good morning. I shiver a little, remembering the cold of the night before, but there's more to it than that. You get used to following orders. Somebody snaps one, and you find yourself doing something you otherwise might not. It takes awhile to get out of the habit. Valens told you to fix that, didn't he?
“I know. It can't be fixed.”
But can you block it from the outside, like I said?
“A boy can try.”
Light edges a curtain a couple of meters forward, too, and once I sit up I hear muffled voices trickling through. The corridor is narrow enough that I can lean over and pop the windowshade up. Sunrise — I presume it's sunrise — spills through scarred Plexiglas. I look down at my knobby bare toes scrunching carpet and laugh.
Still not dead.
Well, until Gabe gets his hands on me, at least.
The sun slips up a centimeter or three while I peel tape off my arm and lift the gauze to look under. “Damn,” as the compartment brightens and I look up to Gabe's broad shape silhouetted under the pushed-back curtain.
“You fucked yourself up.”
“All better,” I say, and — wincing — peel the gauze back so he can see the ragged black line of scab flaking from pink scar and a very tidy set of, oh, ten or twenty stitches. I hold it up next to my face, tilting my head, trying for wide-eyed innocence.
I've never mastered that one. His scowl informs me that I haven't gotten any better at it. He lets the curtain fall closed behind him. He doesn't say another word, and I worry my knuckle between my teeth as he sits down across the aisle.
Leah's voice, and Patty's, filter through the curtain. I lower mine. “You are so going to kick my ass.”
“No,” he says, and sprawls against the wall, closing his eyes. “Do you ever think about what you're doing, Jenny? Or do you just kind of — do it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leah and Richard explained your plan. If I can dignify it with the term.” The sunrise turns his curls from ash-and-straw to spun red gold. I get up and cross the aisle, curl myself into the angle of his arm, lean back. He doesn't move away, and I breathe a sigh of relief. “But this noble self-sacrifice shit has got to end, Jenny. You have to think about the rest of us.”
Mon ange, if only you knew. I cover my mouth with my hand, try to turn it into a cough, but the laugh starts deep and spills up out until I fall back against Gabriel's shoulder, shaking my head against his sleeve. “I was,” I croak between giggles. “Oh. Fucking hell. I didn't mean to scare you, Gabe.”
“You did,” he says. “You made sure somebody would clue. Otherwise what was that little drama for?”
“Ow.” I nibble the knuckle a little harder than I intended. “I—” Pinch my nose against the burning and close my eyes. “There was absolutely no chance that I was going to die from a little cut like that.”
“Good,” he says, and squeezes me as the girls laugh riotously on the other side of the curtain, resuming a conversation that must have been interrupted by my little fit. “Someday you'll have to fill me in on your logic.”
“Yeah.” I wonder how I can explain. I owe a terrorist a favor. I have to save the world.
I kiss him on the cheek and climb to my feet, not bothering to look for my boots. “I have to give something to Patty,” I say as he pats me on the ass.
“Come back afterward,” he says. “They're having fun. Don't spoil it with grown-ups.”
Patty studied the paper in her hand, avoiding the look that passed between Leah and Casey before the latter took the former by the wrist and led her forward, into the jet's cramped sideways galley.
The envelope's thick creamy paper was soft as felt, and Patty knew the handwriting well from birthday cards. She ran her thumb across it again, reluctant to risk what it might say inside. Frightened, because she couldn't imagine anything that Papa Fred wouldn't say to her face. Frightened, because Casey hadn't been able to meet Patty's eyes when handing her the note.
She slid her thumbnail under the flap and lifted it, the gum stretching at first and then the paper tearing at the edge. Patty glanced up and checked to make sure Leah, Casey, and Leah's dad were all out of sight. She slipped the note out of the envelope and unfolded a thick sheet of cotton laid that smelled faintly of Papa Fred's cologne — crisp and a little musky. The ink was black, formal. A glossy blue-green plastic chit — a data slip — fluttered to her lap, and she picked it up by the edges, unthinking.
It was a moment before her eyes would focus on the page.
Dear Patty, the note began, under yesterday's date:
I've asked Jen Casey to bring this to you because I wanted you to have something real to take with you, and because I couldn't be there. I love you, and when you get to be my age, you will realize something. It's not how the future remembers you that is important. It's what you leave behind.
You're probably going to hear some nasty rumors about me soon. They're not quite true.
I'm leaving you, and the Montreal, and a few other things. Protect those for me, and make the most of your life that you can. Live a long time and be whatever you want to be, and don't ever let anybody tell you that you have to do anything if you know that it's wrong.
The only thing you must do is the thing your conscience demands.
You're a good girl, and smarter than your dad. Don't tell him I said so, but he takes after his mother. (Grin)
I like to think you're more like me.
Be good, but don't be too nice if you can help it.
P.S. I've included a data slip with some code numbers that will give you access to my private files. Don't share them with anybody. I trust you to use them as I would have wanted.
“Oh,” Patty said. She read the note over, folded it back around the data slip, and put it all back into the envelope, which she zipped into her breast pocket. She leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes.
That was good-bye.
I'm not going to see him again.
It was a peculiar feeling, light. As though the juice had been wrung from her and she were a husk, a squeezed-out rind with features painted on the surface.
Leah had told her about the AIs, although she hadn't spoken with them. They hadn't spoken with her. Why? she wondered. Do they not trust me because they don't trust Papa?
They wouldn't let Leah or Casey hurt themselves. They're worried about the nanotech. They're worried about Papa Fred. They're worried about all sorts of things they're not telling us, too, I bet.
Patty glanced along the aisle and saw Casey's and Leah's shadows still cast out on the floor beside the galley. Shadows leaning close: whispering or embracing.
“Richard,” Patty said softly, covering her lips with her hand. “Alan? Can you hear me?”
“We hear you, Patty,” a neutral voice answered, sounding like it came from inside her ears. “You don't need to talk out loud. How can I help you?”
“Why—” Why didn't you ever talk to me before? Can I call you Richard?
“Call me anything you like. And because I didn't want to worry you. And the fewer people who knew of our existence, the better.”
What about now?
“The secret's out.” She had a sense of an oblique smile, hands drumming on brown-trousered thighs. “So what can I tell you, Pilot? We'll be working very closely soon, you know.”
I'm tired of secrets. Patty unbuckled her lap belt and stood, pacing the aisle. She stopped and peered from a window. Sunlight gleamed on choppy indigo, far below. The tightness was in her gut again, the old midnight tension. Get good grades. Don't fool around with boys. Succeed. Understand. Excel.
Richard, tell me everything.
“Everything about what?”
Everything you know.
Thursday 21 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
“Second Pilot, you are relieved.”
Min-xue looked up from his panels, noticing the drawn expression on the face of the first pilot as he floated behind Captain Wu. “Captain, my duty shift has just begun. The first pilot has just completed a shift—”
“Second Pilot.” Captain Wu lowered his voice and leaned forward. Alcohol tainted his breath, half covered by the scent of ginger candy. “I have received new orders. Pursuant to our earlier conversation, if you recall it.”
Min-xue's hands, moving automatically to release his webbing, trembled. “Yes, sir.”
“There has been an attempt on the Montreal. Sabotage. The results were — incomplete.”
Why is he telling me this? Min-xue's eyes went to the first pilot's face, but it was stony and his vision trained far away. Richard, is this true?
The captain was still speaking, just above a whisper — a tone for Min-xue's ear alone. “Now, while the Montreal is crippled, we are commanded to incapacitate the corporate leadership of the Westerners. It is the first pilot's duty. You will relinquish your chair.”
“Yes—” Min-xue stammered. “Yes, sir.”
A moment's silence, and the AI's level voice. “Min-xue, I think we need to see what exactly is in your forward cargo bay.”
It's just as well that I don't need much light, Min-xue thought, slithering through a narrow service panel and kicking himself loose to drift on the other side. He caught a tether left-handed before his spin turned into a tumble, and checked himself silently against the webbing and the wall. It was colder here, cold enough to sting his ears and the tip of his nose, cold enough to dry the palm he pressed to the unadorned steel wall. Richard?
Which way? Is the Canadian shuttle at the Montreal yet?
An emergency light flickered greenly near Min's slippered foot, just once, and beyond it another, highlighting the number 5 on the door.
“Two pilots are present on the Montreal. Two are headed for the Calgary. It's cold in the cargo hold, Min-xue. You need to hurry.”
Min-xue raised his hand and triggered the irising hatchway. He slipped through it, sliding on a rush of more pressurized air into a stale-smelling chamber. Brief dim light trickled around Min-xue's shadow and illuminated the space in which he floated. His breath clouded on the air, froze, and drifted in flakes. Richard, I need lights. Can you do that?
“Unfortunately, no. There's probably a switch near the door, however.” Min-xue found it. Actinic light rippled across the harsh metal walls, and Min-xue stopped with one wrist wound through a black, webbed strap.
The cargo in the center of the hold did, in fact, resemble several hundred tons of meteoric nickel-iron. What Min-xue didn't understand was the strange apparatus surrounding it: a mess of cables and heavy-duty springs that seemed intended to protect fragile equipment from powerful shocks. Min-xue untangled the grab-tight and kicked off the wall, cruising toward the rock.
It's an asteroid, Richard. Why do these look like quick-release clips?
“Because they are,” Richard said quietly. “Excuse me, Min-xue. I have an evacuation to arrange.”
Thursday 21 December, 2062
Leah and Trevor are already en route to the Calgary to bring her on-line, and Gabe's half a step ahead of me, right on Wainwright's tail, moving fast down the curving corridors of the Montreal. The ship feels colder than I remembered, maybe because she's locked down, crew confined to quarters, most systems at minimum capability to make it easier for Richard/Alan to spot a usage spike — until Wainwright is sure systems are clean.
Wainwright has a strong stride for a little woman; I hustle to keep up, and Patty is three feet behind me. We're all but running for the bridge, where Gabe is supposed to help Richard clean any lingering traces of Ramirez's sabotage out of the ship. “How bad is it, Captain?”
“We've got Ramirez in custody. Koske and Richard tracked him down in one of the biospheres. I make at least one coconspirator, but he claims he acted alone.”
I bite my lip. “What have you done to get him to talk?” Richard—
“That's an exceptionally distasteful suggestion, Jenny.”
If it comes down to it, if we infected him, would you handle an interrogation?
Richard doesn't answer, but I feel him chewing it over. I won't suggest it to Wainwright until he decides if it suits his moral compass. Given his power, I half hope he'll say no.
Wainwright clears her throat. “You know perfectly well that torture is ineffective unless you've already decided what confession you want to force. Meanwhile, we're doing a room-by-room search for transmission devices. They have to have some way to talk to the Chinese — assuming it is the Chinese — to coordinate these attacks. We haven't picked up any transmissions.”
“Ansibles,” Richard says in my head.
I repeat his word to Wainwright. “Richard hypothesizes that they've found a way to use the Benefactor tech to communicate.”
She doesn't look back. “Tell me what you know about controlling the AIs, Master Warrant.”
“Casey.” Voice cool, but I can hear the strain in it. “That is not an acceptable answer.”
“You can't,” I repeat, making it level and professional. “Captain, what are you going to threaten him with? Do to him? Try on him? What can you offer him?” Richard stirs in the back of my head; I sense his pressure and presence. “You're talking about a consciousness that spans half the Milky Way, Captain. What can you possibly offer him?”
Wainwright stops so short that Gabe clips her heel. I'm ready for it and set myself in a smooth-faced parade rest when she comes around, blazing. “I—”
Not even time to make it polite. “Captain.” My voice cuts hers like a cleaver through bone. Richard's words tumble out of my mouth. I wonder why he didn't use the ship speaker, realize it's so Wainwright will hear the news in my voice and not his. “Captain, Richard says the Huang Di is closing on us at speed. She appears to have triggered her stardrive, then dumped velocity to sublight, but she's still moving at a very good clip.”
“Is she armed?”
“Not for ship-to-ship combat, ma'am.” Gabe stares at me. I see him from the corner of my eye. “Richard says she's carrying a ten-hundred-ton nickel-iron asteroid.”
“Oh,” she says, and sags against the bulkhead, holding herself up with one flat palm. Richard won't need to explain what it means. I won't, anyway. He's already filling my head with velocities and trajectories and a phrase that clogs my mind until I cannot breathe, cannot think.
“What are our options, Master Warrant?” The polished flicker of her eyes tells me the woman's gone and the officer has returned, but the lines beside her nose and mouth are strained. “Where will they attack?”
Richard, crisp and brittle, traces of Alan creeping into his voice. “The logical choice is the capital, Jenny.”
“Toronto,” I translate. And close my eyes. Elspeth. Genie. Over my shoulder, Patty moans low in her throat. “We could try to catch the rock with the Montreal, ma'am. But she's not very maneuverable sublight. She's a sailboat.”
“I know. What else?”
“A shuttle,” Patty says.
Leah. She's on the Leonard Cohen. Unless it's reached the Calgary already. Could it have? I don't know. Gabe's looking at me, lips tight. Tasting bile, I close my eyes. “A shuttle might work.”
“I already told her, Jen.”
Thank you. I couldn't have given the order. Could I? Merci `a Dieu. I will never have to know. “Leah and Trevor are going after the Huang Di,” I tell Wainwright. “They'll try to intercept the rock.”
I'm not quite fast enough to stop Gabe going to his knees.
The captain grabs his other shoulder and yanks him up while I'm still torn between comfort and On your feet. “Come on, soldier,” she orders. “You need to fix my starship, Castaign. And we need to get a message to Riel. Casey.”
We run. I unholster my sidearm with its ship-safe plastic bullets and clutch it in my meat hand; Wainwright glances at it but doesn't comment. Even light body armor will make a joke of those rounds, but she's wearing one, too. I age ten years in the seven minutes it takes us to reach the bridge. “How many people on this bucket can we trust?”
She shakes her head and palms a hatchway lock that wasn't there before. I notice its freshly soldered shine. Gabe and I exchange a hard, covert look; I wince at the way his face pinches around the eyes.
“Four,” she says.
I nod to the voice in my head. “Richard's in.” Wainwright skates a cold glance across me. I tilt my head, a nod to the alpha set of her shoulders, and step through quickly when she undogs the hatch and pushes it wide.
“I've had the crew confined to quarters for three days, Casey,” Wainwright says. “Except security and a few I more or less trust.”
I raise my hand to shield my eyes. The fluorescents are up to full, and the whole room shimmers in their strobing. Ow. Richard.
“Sorry. Tell Wainwright that Riel has the evacuation under way.”
Genie? Elspeth? Razorface, Indigo, Melissa, the VR tech, the cute boy at the front desk of the Marriott, Boris the fucking cat.
“We're doing everything we can,” he answers. Five words, I know from very personal experience, that you never want to hear a doctor or a paramedic say.
Without being told, Gabe and Patty fan out across the bridge, heading for panels, bringing locked-down systems on-line. The lights dim abruptly as Richard takes pity on me, and Wainwright shoots me a look. “The AI was supposed to be firewalled out of the ship's systems.”
“He was. He's learned things.” Richard— “Captain.” My outside voice. Can you access the drive? How locked down is the crew? I have some wild idea we can beat Leah to the Rock, which just grew a capital letter in my head. “The Chinese just jumped in-system. Can we get Charlie Forster working on hacking their nanotech back? Considering all the fun they've had with ours?”
“He already is,” she says. “He's on Clarke. Master Warrant, I can't ask you to try to fly this ship when I don't know what's lurking in her brain.”
“I'm still working on the drive,” Richard interjects. “There are physical interlocks I am going to have to bridge. Our little friends are building them now.”
I shake my head. “I'll take her.” I can't in good conscience put the Montreal and her three hundred crew in between the Hammer of God and my family on the ground. Not when Leah can get there first. But I've got some strangeness in me that says go.
Hold her hand when she dies.
Leah's about the same age my little sister was when my older sister killed her. Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de gr^ace. I was in Montreal. Nell gave me that eagle feather when I graduated basic training. Jenny, you're a warrior now.
Le Seigneur est avec vous. I came home for the funeral. Earth rained on the brushed-copper coffin like the beating of my heart in my ears. Vous ^etes b'enie entre toutes les femmes et J'esus le fruit de vos entrailles est b'eni.
Are you going to stop me, Richard?
Leah's not my daughter.
She's my whole goddamned world.
The Montreal's main drive is violently attracted to mass. The Chinese have somehow found a way to jump short of a gravity well. They can stop. Sainte Marie, m`ere de Dieu—
I cross the bridge to my chair. Richard doesn't whisper anymore; he can't spare the time. His voice rings over the loudspeakers as Wainwright dogs the hatchway, palm seals the lock, and wedges it tight. It's us on the bridge, us four and two security guards in full riot gear. “The Huang Di has released its missile, Captain. Leah and Lieutenant Koske are in time. They will intercept.” —priez pour nous pauvres p'echeurs, maintenent et `a l'heure de notre mort.
“No.” Soft leather cups my thighs. I try to reach back and pull the collar forward, but the arrangement defeats me.
“Gabe. I have a plan.”
He looks up from a terminal. “Jenny, what are you doing?” Wainwright looks up, too, and Patty. I gesture them back, and there's no time to argue. They have their jobs. Leah has hers.
I have mine.
“Something really stupid, and I need your help. Can you pull that collar forward? And this serpentine, here?” I undo my belt and unbutton the top button on my pants, hurried enough that the steel hand tears cloth, sliding the waistband down enough to expose the bulge of my lower processor.
“Casey,” Wainwright warns. “The system's not clean.”
“I'll manage.” You do. What you must. Amen.
Gabe abandons his terminal, Patty moving in to cover him, her eyes wild behind the dark spill of her hair over her shoulder. Leah's her best friend. Patty's got family on the ground. Gabe, frowning dubiously. “Jen…”
“Don't argue. There isn't time. See that cable? Press the end of it against my back. Right here.”
He does, and I try not to jump as the probes slide in and find their resting place. Valens is a hell of a lot more gentle. “Now the collar.” It comes out through gritted teeth.
Gabe hesitates, one hand on the nape of my neck. I'm numb from the waist down, my legs deader than tingling. I can't feel the ship yet. Dick, can you make this work for me? “Jen, this is a lousy idea.” The collar hangs in his other hand, connecting cables dangling.
“What are you doing?” Richard, concerned. He projects trajectories into my inner sight, as I know he must be doing for Leah. Red line for the asteroid, orange for the Huang Di ascending now on a curve. Green line for the Leonard Cohen. Fat blue stationary dot is the Montreal. “The Chinese pilots are wired faster than you are, Jen.”
“I know,” I answer them both, and turn my attention to Gabriel. “Once that's on, I think I'm going to lose consciousness. Catch me. Watch me. All right?”
He shakes his head. I see Wainwright following our conversation from the edge of her eye. “I'm losing two daughters today. And a damn good friend.”
“You're losing nothing if I can help it, mon coeur.” He meets my eyes. I look down first, studying my knees. Awkwardly, I reach out and lift first the left and then the right leg onto the couch. It's like handling a still-warm corpse. Heh. Done that, too. Somewhere far away, I can feel other things — a pulsation like an ache in my belly, a rumble like the trembling in your calf muscles from hiking uphill.
Gabe takes a breath, and I speak first.
“Gabriel.” The tone in my voice stops him short. “Wire me into this fucking machine right now.”
I feel more than see him nod as cold metal brushes the back of my neck. A lancing moment of pain, a wrenching disconnect…
… and I am swimming among the stars.
“Right here, Jenny.” He opens up to me: space, the stars, the weight of the world and the arcing curve of the Huang Di, the asteroid, the soap-bubble of a shuttle that Leah presses to its maximum — or, more likely, Koske does, while my goddaughter runs navigation. Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de gr^ace.
You know, Marie is my middle name. How do the Chinese pilots do it, Dick?
“Plan in advance.”
Set the jump in advance?
“Line of sight. Do you trust me that much?”
I trust you that much. You know what I want to do?
“Leah says to back off and let her handle it.”
Seal the airtight bulkhead doors. Evacuate everybody from the aft sections of the Montreal. Tell Leah to tell Trevor to pull the fuck up and let me handle this.
“There's nobody back there but a maintenance crew. Reactor is too hot; we've evacuated until we can take on coolant water.”
Sometimes synchronicity works.
You know where we're going, Dick?
“That's a ninety-meter rock, which — considering the atmosphere — will hit at something like fourteen kilometers per second. If we miss, it's not just Toronto. Cleveland. Buffalo. Most of Ontario and a chunk of the Midwest. Atmospheric blowout, it's called. Widespread fires.”
If we miss, Leah and Trevor get their chance to die like heroes. What are our friendly Chinese neighbors thinking? That's a hell of a way to deal with the competition, Richard.
“What do they care? They're leaving anyway.”
I didn't know a computer could sound bitter. If I were Trevor, I would match velocity with the Rock and push it aside. If I had time.
Which Trevor doesn't.
With my eyes blank, with my body numb and distant, with a mind full of the cold spinning depths of space, I focus all my attention, reach out an arm that's no more than a vision, and point. Richard.
Can you tell me when to stop us there?
“Can Gordon Lightfoot sing shipwreck songs?”
Who the hell is Gordon Lightfoot? Somebody with a shuttlecraft named after him, whoever he is—
— priez pour nous pauvres p'echeurs, maintenent et `a l'heure de notre mort.
Thursday 21 December, 2062
HMCSS Leonard Cohen
The silence made it stranger.
Leah heard Koske's breathing, the dull thud of his heartbeat, the tick of the Leonard Cohen's hide shedding heat into the vast chill of space. She heard Richard's voice in her head and the myriad tiny intimate sounds of two human bodies moving in protective gear, amplified by a confined space. But that was all.
The Montreal hung motionless behind them, visible in rear camera displays and as a shimmering dot kilometers off the Leonard Cohen's stern. Leah had acquired visual contact with the asteroid, a slender bright crescent skittering across the motionless background of the stars, the flare of the Huang Di's chemical engines painting its topside red as the asteroid dropped from the starship like an egg from a dragon's belly, unholy in its silence.
She swore and fed course corrections to Koske, matching her best guess at the thing's velocity and its inexorable path to the stately blue globe below. “How long?”
“Leah,” Richard said in her head, and gave her better data. “From a friend on the Huang Di.”
We have friends on the Huang Di?
“Seven minutes to contact,” Koske answered, then glanced down as her new data lit up his screen. “No, seven and a half. Get your hat on, kid. It's too close for a nudge to do it. This could get rough.”
Leah was already suited, but the shuttle was under sustained burn and the acceleration made her clumsy. She clapped the helmet on and was pleased that her hands didn't fumble a catch. Adrenaline hissed through her veins and the world outside her body slowed about 40 percent. She had her hands on the controls in ninety seconds. Richard fed her more math. This won't work. There's no way this can work. Even if we intercept the rock, we haven't got the thrust at this distance to knock it off course. Even if we go into it at full velocity. It's just not enough ship and too much rock. “Lieutenant. Suit.”
“Can you fly this?” He looked at her for the first time, surprised.
“I just have to keep it pointed. Three minutes, go.”
Koske slapped the release on his helmet restraint and yanked it off the hook while Leah let her hands sit steady on the controls, tears burning the corners of her eyes. Fifty seconds. Genie's down there. Bryan. Ellie. God.
“I have it. Sorry about this, kid.”
“My name's Leah,” she said, and let the thrust pin her hands to the arms of her chair.
“Leah,” he answered, muffled through speakers as the globe of his helmet tilted to observe the instruments. She bit her lip as the silence resumed.
The golden-gray sunlit dot of the Montreal suddenly seemed to elongate, to blur, to vastly stretch. Her outline, gaudy with running lights, appeared in the shuttle's forward dorsal windows, cosmic and immense and silent. Her solar sails spread wide, gossamer gold-electroplated mesh on unfurled vanes that downflected like bowering wings, the embrace of a terrible gray dove, kilometers long.
“Above” the Leonard Cohen.
Between the Leonard Cohen and the falling stone.
“Shit,” Koske hissed as the Montreal slowly, majestically unfurled her gracious wings, seconds taut as hours. “Richard, tell Casey there's too many people on that ship to risk her. Tell her to stop grandstanding and get the fuck out of my way!”
“Lieutenant,” Richard said, so both of them could hear him, “we have — a plan. Hold on.”
“The Leonard Cohen will have contact with the asteroid in… Ten,” Koske said, his voice becoming soft, mechanical. He twisted the Leonard Cohen into position, flipped up the plastic cover on the thruster controls and let his thumb hover over the switch. “Nine, eight, seven—”
“I said,” the AI answered calmly, “—hold on.”
“Five. Four. Three—” Koske hit the thrusters, and four gravities smacked Leah in the chest like a swung baseball bat.
The world tore in half.
Leah chopped her teeth down on a scream and locked both elbows against the console, fighting the massive hand that slammed her back in her seat. The crescent-lit potato shape loomed behind the Montreal's gossamer solar sail, then punched through it like a bullet through a window screen. The Leonard Cohen leapt forward — intersect trajectory — and suddenly, brutally, before the asteroid was quite clear of the starship, the space around the Montreal rippled — and slipped — and stretched. In perfect serenity, all of it, and the ultimate ghastly hush of space.
Leah never would have even seen it if she hadn't been through the augmentation. Aunt Jenny must have kicked in the stardrive the instant the asteroid touched the Montreal's vanes.
Space tore around the wounded ship and the rock tore, too. The Montreal vanished, a blur, a smear of light across the sky, and a sound that scoured Leah's throat leaked between her teeth and tainted the air in her helmet.
Richard's voice in her ear and Koske's. “Did we get it?”
Leah leaned forward. Strained her eyes. And saw a curved splinter of reflected sunlight tumble past the Leonard Cohen's starboard stabilizer, close enough to reach out her hand and touch. Koske slewed the shuttle after it, but it was too late, already too late, and she knew it when she saw the mass of the asteroid start to burn.
“Half,” she whispered, as Koske raised both gloved hands in the air and slammed them down on the Leonard Cohen's console, killing the thrust. “Richard, you got half.”
Thursday 21 December, 2062
Wellesley Street East
It was dark, and the bed was shaking. Genie mumbled and pulled her covers up, but bruising hands grabbed her and strong arms picked her up as the room light flared. “What else, Dr. Dunsany?”
Genie opened her eyes and then shut them tight again. A big man held her close to his chest. “Ellie!”
And then Ellie was beside her, warm hand on her arm, tucking trailing blankets around her. “Genie. We have to leave now. Right now.”
Genie's eyes flew open. “For good?”
Ellie nodded, holding the door open for the soldier — Genie saw now that it was a soldier, and pressed herself against his uniform. “Probably. We're going to see Leah and your papa. And Jenny.”
Genie squirmed suddenly, slithered out of the startled soldier's grasp, the loose weave of her blue cotton blanket burning her skin. “Boris,” she shouted, and squirted out of the bedroom.
“Genie— Shit. Come on. She—”
Boris was curled on Ellie's bookcase, next to the stereo speaker. Genie grabbed him and dragged him against her chest. Startled claws bit into her nightgown, but he didn't scratch. Genie put her back against the books and clutched the orange tomcat tight. Real old-fashioned books that smelled of paper and leather and glue. “Boris comes,” she said, and saw Ellie make a lightning calculation and then scoop her up, cat and all.
“All right,” she said, hefting Genie on her hip even though Genie's head rose higher than Ellie's did. “Come on. We have to run to the roof.”
Genie had never ridden in a helicopter before, especially not jammed between armored men with guns, and she thought it was wonderfully exciting when the aircraft's nose went down hard and the acceleration left her stomach behind. She squealed, but Boris didn't like it and dug his face into the crease of her armpit, and then Ellie put her arm around Genie's shoulders. So Genie understood that she should be quiet, and cuddled close. One of the soldiers — a red-haired woman with a ridge-sharp nose — smiled wryly at Genie and tipped her head. “Hang tough, kiddo,” she said. “We'll be okay.”
Half a second later, the cabin of the chopper lit up with green glare like the burn of an arc welder. The pilot, faceless behind heads-up goggles and a microphone, glanced upward and started to bring the helicopter around. Turned back the way they had come, nose down hard like a fighter tucking his chin to take a blow.
Genie, leaning forward against her restraints, saw the lazy green streak drift across a sky dark as Chinese willow porcelain, shedding bits of fire along its way.
Thursday 21 December, 2062
Wellesley Street East
There's a certain irony bringing a kidnap victim to a safe house the woman set up for us, Indigo thought, following Razorface and the sedated contents of the five-foot duffel bag thrown over his shoulder up the stairs. She stepped around him at the top of the flight and pulled a worn, antique metal key from her pocket.
Razorface smiled at her in the dim light of a single bulb, hung halfway down the corridor. “We've got her,” Indigo said, nibbling her lower lip. “Now what do we do?”
“I'm gonna sneak her 'cross the border in the morning,” Razorface answered. She held the door for him. He crossed the creaking boards and laid Holmes's swaddled body on the same swaybacked couch. “I remember this place,” he said, raising a blackout shade across the window as Indigo walked through the kitchenette to turn on the light. Roaches scuttled from the curry stains dried to the counter, sulked under the edges of the broken plate. The room grew brighter as Razorface lifted the shade. “Shit,” he muttered. “Indy.”
Something in his tone and the way an unwavering green light etched his face made her grab the edge of the countertop and vault the breakfast bar. She landed neatly in a crouch and came up beside him, one wiry hand on his arm. “What — oh.”
The thing that lit his face burned in the heavens like a promise or a threat, the unwinking green eye of God. “It's the Star of Bethlehem,” Razorface said, drawing a stare from Indigo. “What? My mama raised me right.”
“It's a missile,” she answered, and watched in wonder as the thing slid down the sky to the south, toward Cleveland or out into the lake, she couldn't be sure. “Should we head for the basement?”
The light died like a blown-out birthday candle. He dropped one massive arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “You think it'll make a difference, babe?”
Indigo had a pretty good eye for explosions. She craned her head for the possibility of a sudden brief report like a gigantic cannon shot, counting to judge how far away it might have hit.
“No,” she answered, when the light that followed was silent and white as a pillar of fire, then red through the blood in her tight-closed eyelids. She squeezed him back. What the hell. “No. I don't think it will make a difference at all.”
Thursday 21 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
The Huang Di pressed Min-xue's skin like a wet suit, moving with every stretch, flexing with every twist. He floated in the dark confines of a wiring locker, the door wedged from the inside, the cut-free crash webbing from an unused bunk holding him immobile so the interface pins — improvised from spare parts — in his neck wouldn't jar loose. He'd been feeding speed and trajectory information to the AI through his physical links to the machine, wondering the whole time what the captain had intended him to do.
If Captain Wu had meant for Min-xue to somehow sabotage the launch, wouldn't he have seen to it that Min-xue was piloting during the attack? Wouldn't he have told him more?
No, Min-xue decided, as he felt the projectile fall away, a faint shudder along the Huang Di's spine and through its metal hide. Captain Wu would protect his family. He would see that the attack was impeccably planned and executed. He would drop hints to Min-xue, and he would hope that Min-xue would take the risk of sabotage.
The first pilot and the captain were tracking the rock's trajectory in terms of fractions of centimeters. Min-xue tapped into the feed and rode it like a ghost over their shoulders, relaying the information to an AI who barely acknowledged his words except to ask the occasional question. One final flurry of questions, and then silence that stretched around the tick of Min-xue's heart. He wondered how long he could stay hidden in the locker, wired into the machine before they found him.
Richard would hide him.
The Huang Di was long as an old-fashioned freight train: measured in kilometers, a fragile-looking stick-insect construct carrying 150 souls. It could take days to ferret Min-xue out. He had water. Could live for a while without food, although toilet facilities would be a problem. With Richard's help and enough time to hack security, he could take control of the starship instead of just riding its impulses. He could stop the captain from trying again until the threat of the Montreal, alive and well and ready to retaliate despite the sabotage attempts, was made manifest. The Montreal, Min-xue hoped, with her command structure intact and her pilots safely aboard, should be enough to quell Beijing.
If Canada retaliated, no one was safe. Captain Wu's family. The girl Min-xue might have married, who was probably married to somebody else by now. His mother. His home.
Richard, he said, holding a slow-drawn breath. Did you catch it?
He wasn't used to silence from the Canadian AI, but Richard let the wordlessness stretch until Min-xue knew the answer, and his hope fell away. He remembered a poem, and he reached for it.
Flying lights, flying lights
I toast you with wine.
I know not if the blue heavens soar high
Yellow earth plunges fertile.
I see only cold moon, fevered sun
Rise to afflict us.
“No,” Richard said, then. “No, I didn't.”
D=0.07Cf (ge/g)1/6 (W pa/pt)1/3.4, where Cf = the collapse factor of the crater walls; ge = the gravitational acceleration of the surface of the Earth (9.8 meters per second per second squared). Richard quite frankly guessed at pa, the density of the impacting body (~7.3 g/cm3); and pt, the density of the (~3.0 g/cm3) target rock. He knew the velocity of the rock and its approximate mass, which gave him W, the kinetic energy expressed by the impacting body — in kilotons TNT equivalent. Which led inexorably to—
D, the diameter of the crater that would be formed when a third of the original asteroid, diverted a few hundred kilometers from its intended target, struck Lake Ontario and leveled everything within roughly thirty kilometers of the epicenter. The impact would create a seismic event equivalent to the worst the San Andreas fault had to offer, lift the inland sea into a tsunami that would scour its shores like a hungry tongue, and rain molten rock across Ontario, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and environs. The immediate climatic effects could lower global temperatures by as much as two degrees Celsius for a period of weeks or months, followed by a greenhouse spike as the particulate matter drifted out of the atmosphere.
Nothing to compare to the impact at Chicxulub that probably contributed to the mass extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous, of course.
But it would serve. It would serve.
If he had eyes to close, Richard Feynman would have closed them then. Elspeth.
Trevor hit the console again, because it felt good. He would have hit it a third time, but the Castaign girl flinched at the sound, so he lowered his hands and leaned back in his chair, letting the Leonard Cohen drift. “Damn it,” he muttered. “If Casey didn't have to prove every second that she's better than everybody else—”
“The shuttle couldn't have done it.” The girl's voice was level and oddly adult over the tinny suit mike. She leaned her helmet against the reinforced crystal of the view port, one glove pressed alongside, and watched the green-gold trail of the asteroid descend. Her shoulders lifted with a sigh. “Too close. Too fast.”
Trevor nodded, although she couldn't have seen it. “We should get to the Calgary. Montreal might need help. We should go after the Huang Di.”
“We shou—” Her voice didn't so much drop off as fail her utterly. “My sister's down there, Trevor.”
The searing green light from below died suddenly as a heartbeat. Trevor swore and slapped the thrusters on, grabbed the yoke in both hands. “Stupid!”
“This high?” She squeaked and leaned back into her seat as the shuttle lurched under his expert touch.
A moment later, chaos bloomed like a flower under the shuttle's wings, ejecta and atmospheric blowout rising in a streak of inferno off her bow. Trevor spun the little ship around and took her up—relative to Earth — out to nearer Clarke's orbit. Richard, is this far enough?
What about the beanstalks?
“This will be little stuff.” The AI's voice sounded distanced again: cool and professional. “The antimeteor protocols should handle it. Head for the Calgary. Trevor—”
“Thanks for trying.”
Thanks for nothing, you mean.
Friday 22 December, 2062
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
Kuai didn't notice the ache in her elbows as she leaned her chin on her hands, watching the live news feed, the incredible gaping wound that used to be a city. It was still dark outside, but she couldn't sleep, and somehow the office seemed a more natural place to sit alone and watch the dark, unbelievable footage of the devastation only a few hundred miles west. Her mind couldn't encompass the enormity of it — satellite photos, footage of a splintering streak of green light shredding the sky, and the ground-level footage that made her think of Hiroshima, Kyoto, Mumbai, Dresden, the flooded and fallen remains of Houston.
Her eyes prickled with caffeine and sleeplessness. Toronto. Cleveland. Buffalo. Fires as far east as Albany and Ottawa.
Thirty million dead.
She tasted salt. Unbelieving, childlike, dry eyed, she realized she was sucking on the webbing between her forefinger and her thumb. She pulled her hand away from her mouth. The sun had not yet risen, but she heard someone unlocking the outside door. Sally?
Thirty million people. Dead.
She stood and went to her office door, poked her head around the glass partition. Sally had walked to her desk and flipped on a different news feed. She stood perfectly still, her puffy quilted coat still zipped, twisting a few strands of ashen hair between her fingers: same footage, another angle. Sally's other hand held her headset to her ear, and Kuai could tell from the look of concentration on her face and the slight movements of her lips that she was triaging overnight messages.
“Thirty million people,” Sally said a few minutes later, without looking at Kuai.
Kuai swallowed. “Cancel that extradition proceeding, I think.”
“Yeah.” Sally blinked, finally, and looked down at the lights on her interface.
“Sally, go home.”
“I can work.” She pressed thumb, then pinky, then the pad of her index finger to the interface, tilting the bridge of her hand with automatic efficiency. “By the way, a Col. Frederick Valens from the Canadian Army left a message with the service.”
Kuai brushed it aside. “Sally, get in touch with Hartford Hospital. With Yale New Haven and St. Francis and New Britain. Hell. Manchester Memorial. Rockville. Anything. We're putting together a disaster team.”
“—says he wants to talk to you about Unitek. And — he says — the supposed criminal actions of one of its vice presidents.”
“Yeah. Our friend Dr. Alberta Holmes. Valens is in Hartford. He wants to see you.”
Kuai drew a long, slow, luxurious breath. She closed her eyes and let it out again. “Call Colonel Valens,” she said softly, “and tell him that if he wants to talk to me, he can get his ass on a bus and ride north. I'll be one seat over.”
“He's a medical doctor, ma'am.”
Sally never called her ma'am. “He's what?”
“Then tell him to bring his goddamned little black bag. And call the governor back, Sally, and tell him he needs to activate the national guard, because we're likely to have riots and looters and God knows what. Oh, and get in touch with Hartford PD and see if they can release anybody to go north. What did I forget?”
Sally smiled and sat more upright, easing her shoulders. The line between her eyes smoothed to efficiency. “Coordinate with FEMA. Red Cross. Blood and medical supplies. Firefighters. Shit. We can't think of everything.”
“It's not our job to think of everything,” Kuai answered, and slung her overstuffed pocketbook over her lab coat. “It's just our job to do as much as we can. Can you take care of Moebius for me while I'm out of town?”
“Kuai,” Sally answered, her sinewy hands halting as they adjusted her ear clip and headset over her hair. She looked up, green eyes serious behind straight brown hair still damp from the shower. “He can come stay with me. In case things get bad.”
“Yeah,” Kuai answered, heading for the coat closet. “In case they get bad.”
Friday 22 December, 2062
When Richard finally told Patty it was all right to uncouple Master Warrant Officer Casey from the ship, the older pilot had collapsed; Mr. Castaign had finished the code he was working on while Casey huddled in an observation chair in the bridge corner, holding a steaming mug in her hands as if she was too tired to sip from it. He'd picked her up like an overgrown child to carry her to quarters, and Wainwright had touched his shoulder and whispered something low in his ear.
Wainwright turned around as she redogged the bridge hatch behind him; Patty knew she'd been caught looking and glanced down at her hands. “Pilot—” the captain said, and Patty looked back up, her lip caught in her teeth.
“Can you fly this thing? I need somebody in that chair if the Chinese come back and—” she paused. “It's a lot to ask of you, but I hear you were the best of your class, and you're all I've got.”
I hear you were the best of your class.
“My family—” Patty said. “Papa Georges. Papa Fred. My parents.” My boyfriend. She didn't say that out loud. She knew what her mother would have said. It's a mercy he never knew what was happening.
A mercy. Is that what you call it, Mom?
“I know,” Wainwright answered, staring at her hands as they moved aimlessly over her console, the appearance of activity more vital than the reality. “My husband was on the ground. I — well. We have to be bulletproof, Cadet. You know why?”
“No.” Patty put her hand over her mouth when she tasted blood.
“Because we owe our families some kind of reckoning. And if we're scared, the crew will be scared. So you need to be able to be strong for them if you can't be strong for yourself.”
Unwittingly, Patty's hand brushed her breast pocket. Paper crinkled between layers of fabric. You have to be better. Stronger. Smarter.
It was different when Wainwright said it. More like when her Papa Fred told her she was smarter than anybody else than when her mother did. Because when Mom says it—said it—the subtext is, was “and you're still not good enough.”
“Casey,” Patty said.
Wainwright slowly shook her head. “Casey would. But she's done, Cadet. I'll kill her if I put her back right now. So what about you?”
Will it kill me, you mean? She laughed inside, and even let the laughter touch her lips. “Leah will be jealous I got to fly first,” she said. “Can you and Richard wire me in?”
Friday 22 December, 2062
PPCASS Huang Di
Min-xue floated undiscovered, and the Huang Di floated as well, immobilized by his will. Richard showed him the images, and Min-xue was glad he hadn't eaten; the column of flame made his stomach clench and roil. The fires surrounding what had been Lake Ontario seemed to gnaw at the darkened landscape, and as the terminator revealed devastated terrain, he wished he could call it back to cover the scene in forgiving darkness. He squirmed in his crash webbing, breathing shallowly, hidden by the very ship he held in stasis, and transmitted aerial images showed him buildings blasted from the foundations, trees laid side by side like wet hairs stroked smooth on an arm.
His breath hurt his lungs, in and out, in and out, as if he breathed the smoke and ash he saw.
Listen to me.
I know what to do.
We can use the Benefactor tech to repair the damage.
“The Canadians thought of it. It won't work.”
Tell me why.
“I won't reprogram the nanites to operate and replicate without a control chip. I don't trust the tech enough to unleash a horde of self-programming alien robots on the earth. And even if I would — Earth's ecosystem is a phenomenally complex system, which would take unimaginable processing power to regulate. To heal it without destroying it.”
The nanites do okay in a human host, and that's a pretty complex system, too.
“And look at how many problems they cause. The starships work because machines are simple. An ecosystem?” Min-xue felt Richard shake his head, saw the swirl of colors that was Alan's presence behind him. “Would stress even an AI at full functionality. And I need a bit more space than the nanotech provides.”
I know, Min-xue answered. But you know how to make more of you now. To be many presences in one.
Would the Huang Di hold one?
Friday 22 December, 2062
It's been ten years since Geniveve Castaign died and we buried her in a green, gently sloped cemetery near Montreal, under the boughs of an enormous white pine. I took Gabe home, the baby girls at their grandfather's place, and I sat down on the sofa with him and he talked for an hour and a half before he cried, and then he didn't stop crying. Even in his sleep, his breath came with a little huffing catch that ripped me open like fishhooks every single goddamned time.
I'd never seen Gabe Castaign cry before. But I'd never watched him bury his wife before either. So I sat up then, and the weight of his body against my chest made it an effort to breathe, and my white shirt was wet through and it was October, and cold, and there had been orange leaves everywhere on the grass in the churchyard and little Leah'd held my hand so tight I thought she was going to squeeze the metal out of shape.
She was at her grandp`ere's, and so was her sister, and Gabe lay asleep in my arms the way I had imagined more times than I can count. And it wasn't worth it. God, it wasn't worth it.
And that night I could have made it happen. I could have offered him a little bit of myself, and we both could have pretended it was to ease the pain, and nothing else. Just friendly, and just friends, and just for comfort and not being alone in the night. I could have offered, and he would have said yes. And the sleep would have come a little later, is all.
But I was back in Montreal.
And being there made it too hard to lie to myself.
Like I'm back in the Montreal now.
The moon rose through the window. Gabriel, mon ange, stirred against my chest. He whispered a name—Geni—and it was my name but it's not my name, and I didn't care, for a moment, because he slept in my arms when he would not sleep without, and the hours passed slowly, and morning was a long time away. And if I could have put my hand out and stopped the moon in the sky, I would have done it without thinking. Come to think of it, if I had that kind of power, I wouldn't have these problems, would I?
Gabriel cries the same way now, wedged into my narrow bunk with me. Hard, almost silently, pushing his face against my shoulder, yellow strands of hair curling between my steel fingers while my other hand strokes his face, his back, in raw counterpoint to the rhythm of his sobs.
I haven't a fucking clue how he held it together out there for as long as he did. Fragments of words are all he manages, intermittently, although his hands bruise my back through my jumpsuit when he drags me close. I mumble nonsense into his ear. I'll cry later.
“Feeling better, Jenny?”
Conscious is not better, Dick. A silent chuckle curls out on my breath, more a staccato exhalation than a sound given voice. Any word—? I can't finish the sentence. He knows. Gabe's racked breathing slows a half-step, and I shift against him, pulling his face into the curve of my neck.
“No one in downtown Toronto could have survived.”
I knew that. Razorface, Genie, Elspeth. The boys in the pilot program, unless the military got some or all of them out, though how you'd do that, I don't know. Indigo. Holmes, and I don't feel much pain for that one. Boris.
I know. It's so much. A blow too stunning to even feel, like a shotgun blast, a violation like rape. Razorface, like a punch in the chest.
He was twelve years old when I met him. His name was Dwayne, and he hated it.
“Was at her cabin. It has a bunker, and it's outside the destroyed range. Chances are—”
That's something, then.
“Yes,” he says, and I know he's keeping secrets. “That's something. I'm talking to Charlie Forster, Jenny, and Riel's science adviser. Dr. Perry. The dust from the comet impact is going to up our timetable. Remember what I said about a snowball Earth?”
Like it was yesterday.
He laughs, and it doesn't quite sound like human laughter anymore. “In addition to the immediate damage, Jen, what's happened will trigger the equivalent of a nuclear winter. It's going to get very cold down there. Very, very fast.”
How cold is — never mind. Forget I asked. What's Charlie say?
A heavy sigh. “Charlie thinks Min-xue's wild-ass plan is crazy enough to work.”
Oh. And then, into a silence I wasn't sure I wanted broken. Richard?
“Jenny, my dear?”
What exactly is Min-xue's wild-ass plan?
Friday December 22, 2062
Somewhere in Ontario
Genie breathed in against the stabbing in her side. She smelled smoke and tasted blood, and something pressed her down. Hands. Hands moving over her body, gentle and firm, and leaves rustling under her. It was bitterly cold, and the light looked—wrong—sunrise-slanted, but yellowed red as if shining through a pall of dust.
“Kiddo, you waking up, hon?” The redheaded soldier, who leaned over her and probed gently, ignoring the red trickling down her own face from a gash under her helmet. Genie drew a breath and hissed at the agony of breathing. She was used to hurting, though, and she breathed in, breathed out again.
“Most of us.” The soldier sat back on her heels.
“She's seeing to the pilot. She said she was a doctor, sort of. She's okay. I think you've got a cracked rib, kiddo. Can you breathe okay?”
“It hurts, but I'm okay. We got down.”
“Yeah, we got down. Gordon got through to HQ, and they're sending a pickup team. Which is good. We have wounded and there are forest fires.” She rubbed a hand across her face. It left a track through the soot and grease and blood. More red trickled thickly across.
“Fires?” Genie swallowed. “Can I have some water?”
The soldier shook her head. “Not until we make sure you're all shipshape inside, I think. Okay?”
“Okay.” Genie tried to raise her hand to cover her cough. It wasn't pink or foamy, and she saw the soldier's look of relief. “It's okay. I have CF.”
“Are you cold, sweetie?” A quick tilt of the woman's head as she shrugged out of her coat and laid it over Genie. “What's CF?”
“Cystic fibrosis. It's icky. Makes me cough a lot. Have you seen my Aunt Jenny's cat?”
“The orange tabby? He's hiding under the pilot's seat. I think he's okay. Maybe a little dented. You want me to go get him out for you?”
“Wear gloves,” Genie said, and laid her head back on the soldier's coat. “Where are we going?”
But the soldier had already left.
Blood slicked Elspeth's hands, bubbled between her fingers as she groped the injured pilot's thigh and pressed down hard, feeling for the artery, feeling for the source of the ragged flood. “Dammit,” she muttered. “I can't find this. I can't see a damned thing.”
The big soldier — the one who'd picked Genie up — kept ripping down the seam of the pilot's flight suit with a jagged-edged knife, laying his hairy pale leg bare to the dust-dimmed light. Elspeth sucked in between her teeth. The pilot whimpered as her fingers pressed the inside of his thigh, not far from his groin. “Doc?”
“You got a bit of a puncture there,” she said, her voice stunningly level. Med school was a long time ago, Ellie.
What do I do? Cold, fingers shaking, pale under all that blood. Her saliva went bitter; she would have turned her head and spat, if she hadn't been elbow-deep in gore. What do I do?
And then a voice that was her voice, and not quite. The voice of a different Elspeth. Younger and more certain of the workings of the world. Tourniquet, Direct pressure. Pray he's not bleeding inside.
He could lose the leg.
He will lose more than a leg if you don't stop fucking around, El.
Dammit, I'm not a real doctor.
Ellie. And it was a calm voice. Not her own panicked whine. She leaned down on the wound and opened her mouth, and the calm voice came out. “Soldier—”
“Marquet. I need a belt. Webbing. Anything like that. About three feet of it. And a straight stick or anything to twist—”
“On it,” he said, and lurched to his feet.
The pilot winced, looked down, and glanced up at the barren trees, swallowing hard. His blood froze to the edges of the leaves. “Doc, am I gonna lose that leg?”
More blood filled her mouth, and it wasn't his. “Not if I can help it,” she said, and pressed down harder.
“Thanks,” he said, eyes bright, and then he drifted away.
The chopper came fifteen minutes later. Elspeth climbed into it beside Genie's stretcher, which Marquet and the redheaded soldier lifted. A medic had run an IV into Genie's vein, and as her pain slid back under the pressure of the drugs Genie mumbled something and turned her cheek into Elspeth's hand. The gesture went in like a knife through her breast.
Boris lay curled against the girl's side and wouldn't be moved, and Elspeth decided it was just as well.
There was blood under the fingernails of the hand Genie leaned against, and the sheet on the second stretcher was drawn taut from top to bottom.
It hadn't been enough.
You tried, the calm voice said. Elspeth shook her head, stopped herself just before she pressed the bloody heel of her hand to her eye. “Shit,” she whispered, and looked back at Genie, drifting. “Shit.”
“Hey.” It was the big soldier, Marquet. He laid a hand on her arm in an awkward caress. “Doc.”
“I'm sorry,” she answered, looking down, leaning back against the chopper's cabin wall as the rest of the survivors trailed in. “I'm sorry I couldn't do more.”
Marquet shrugged, squeezed, dropped his hand back to his side. “He could have died scared,” he said. “He didn't die scared, Doc. You did everything you could.” He turned away, leaving Elspeth blinking after him. She dropped into a jumpseat as the chopper rose into a toiling sky.
Friday 22 December, 2062
Gabe paces me, a shadow over my shoulder as I come along the long, curving corridor toward the Montreal's bridge. My feet fall by their own volition. Richard and his Chinese pilot friend have hatched a plan that's only a little less sane than my last one, and it tumbles over and over in my head, spinning with the velocity of the damned asteroid we almost caught.
Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, Jenny.
And H-bombs, I hear a long-forgotten drill instructor say.
I let my mouth run along with my feet, trying to keep Gabe with me, keep him focused. “Richard says Leah is safe on Calgary.” He grunts, so I keep talking. “Wainwright is EVA with a repair crew, patching the solar sail. I broke the vane. Richard says if we can patch it the right way, nanosurgeons will do the rest.”
“That was pretty nice flying, Jen.”
I check my stride to force him to catch me, slide my steel arm around his waist. “Elles pourraient ^etre vivantes.”
He just looks at me, lips thin, that bruised look still splotching his face. “Ne pas me mentir, Geni.”
“Jamais. Shhh. No, Gabriel—” I dig in my heels.
He keeps walking, not speeding up but not stopping either.
“Quoi?” He stops. He turns, filling the narrow corridor.
“Gabe, if you left people for dead just because it looked bad for them, I wouldn't be here having this argument with you.”
“Oh.” He looks down at his hands. I cover the few meters between us and take those hands in my own, running my steel thumb over the discolorations on his skin. Bad burns, bone-deep. There were some on his arms and chest, too, but not like those. Those were as bad as mine, though not as extensive. There aren't many people in this world who will crawl through fire for somebody.
His eyes are just as blue as they ever were when I look back up. “I want it over with, Jenny. I don't want to sit and wait for the pain, and know what the answer will be before I ask the question.”
“They're dead or they're not dead,” I answer, looking hard for the words before I say them. “Nothing we can do will change that. But we have things we have to do right now, and I need you with me.”
“What did you just say?”
“I said I need you with me—”
“Jenny.” He's big and warm and he pulls me close for a second, and then sets me at arm's length. “You never needed anybody in your life.”
I look up at him, and shake my head. How can anybody as smart as he is be so goddamned wrong? “Just keep thinking that, Castaign,” I mutter, and elbow him in the ribs as I go by. At least he's laughing. It sounds like he might strangle on it, but he's laughing. So help me God.
I pause by the locked bridge hatchway and rap on it with my metal hand, hard. Richard, tell Patty it's us, please.
A few moments pass, the AI's voice tickling my inner ear. “We've found the problem with Min-xue's idea.”
“I think we can get the Huang Di down with its core elements intact. The Benefactors managed it on Mars, and there's more atmosphere to work with in Earth.”
So what's the problem? Patty undogs the hatch and we step inside. She looks exhausted, her eyes bruised and black. One of the sublight pilots is in his chair, and two security guards just like the last two stand in the back corners of the bridge, as unobtrusive as anybody in body armor and bearing weapons can be. Their sidearms make my flesh crawl, and I scrub my right hand over the holster of my own to make sure the strap's snapped down. “Hello, Patty.”
“Master Warrant,” she says. “Are you my relief?”
“Go get some sleep, kid. I'll have you rousted in twelve hours or so, okay?”
Richard gestures with his arms, a motion like a circle hung in space. His hands fall and tumble before his chest. “The crew won't survive it.”
If I close my eyes and tilt my head just right, I swear I can smell the burning. But it will work? It's the only thing that might still work? You said there were other ways, before—
“That was before the impact event. We're talking catastrophic damage now, rather than slow decay. We're out of conservative options.” Which is as close as he would ever come to saying I don't see a choice anymore, Jen.
Then forgive me if I don't give a fuck who survives the landing, Dick.
“The other problem is that the Huang Di's computers don't have the processing power to make up the difference. It would take Benefactor-style processors from at least two ships of her size to handle the load. Firewalls and controls; I think I've learned enough about the differences between the Benefactor programming, our protocols, and those of the Chinese. Maybe if we could somehow move the core of the ship tree from Mars to Earth—”
But that's not realistic, is it?
Patty nods before she turns for the door. Gabe is already moving toward an interface terminal, affect flat except for the lines at the corners of his mouth. Oh.
Richard, what does this hulk have for lifeboats? I know the answer, more or less. The Montreal's specs are identical to those of the Indefatigable, and I've learned those cold.
“Not enough for what you're thinking.”
I cross to my chair, curl my legs up on it, and watch the white-suited figures crawl over the Montreal's vast golden solar sail. But is her computer core big enough?
“Yes,” he says reluctantly. “It is. I think Min-xue's determined to try it anyway. If we can get her down close to the impact zone, we can make a difference. Mitigate. Which is the best we could do under ideal circumstances. This is not the sort of damage that can ever be — healed. The scars will always be there.”
I press my steel hand to my cheek, taking comfort in the coolness of the metal. I know what you mean.
“Meanwhile,” he continues, “we're still trying to hack into the controls. But it's only a matter of time until security finds him. The Huang Di's not infinite.”
I can't pick out which spacesuit is Wainwright. I wonder if one of the others is one of the saboteurs. Richard, am I safe to go on-line with the Montreal?
“Your nanosurgeons seem to be becoming rather adept at fixing up the neural damage the interface does, but it's awfully soon. And you ripped yourself up pretty good with that last trick. I wouldn't recommend trying that again. You should eat something and take your supplements. And — wait. Jenny. I have news from Riel.”
A reflexive glance at Gabe. He catches it, starts toward me. I wonder if Richard's giving me a second to brace, or if Riel is slow relaying what she has to say. What?
“Genie and Elspeth are alive.”
“Yes!” I'm out of the chair as if catapulted — easier in the light gravity of the habitation wheel than it would be on Earth, and I hit Gabe chest-high and wrap my arms around him, squeaking like a girl a third my age.
Who gives a shit?
“They're okay, they're okay, they're okay—”
Breathless, wordless, he squeezes me tight.
“Jenny.” Richard, still serious.
Ah, shit. Qu'est-ce que le fuck ici maintenant?
“She's sending this via me so you'll know it's legit. She has a job for you and Captain Wainwright.”
Beijing? He doesn't have to answer. He's already answered it all. Revenge. Tell her we'll take out the Huang Di—that's not a lie. Remove the threat. We can — shit. Richard, what if you release the physics behind the stardrive worldwide? That should shake some things up. Maybe a few more people will make it off world before the end.
“I'd be the first AI to win a second Nobel Prize. I can do it. It will — you're right, if everybody has the stardrive tech, it removes some of the excuse for China and Canada to batter each other back into the stone age. Complicates the equation.” His dry tone hides worry. I can see it in the gull-wing arch of his brow, the way his long fingers move like a bird's feathers grasping the wind. For no reason at all, I remember the eagle at the rehab center and the chrome steel binding her wing together. Gone, too, now, where all good things go.
Is this extortion, Richard? Riel is holding Genie and Ellie hostage so I'll kill a few million Chinese civilians for her?
A long silence, while Gabe holds me tight enough to cramp my breath in my lungs, his chin resting on the top of my head. I draw strength and warmth out of him as if they come up through a straw.
I think that flutter of color in my head is Alan's equivalent of a sigh. You never quite get to talk to just Richard anymore. “She's looking out for the future in her own way. You convinced her we need to get where they're going. And I think the last twenty-four hours nicely demonstrate why.”
Why do we need to go take somebody else's planet if we can fix our own?
“They'll take it anyway, Jenny. And we don't know there's anybody out there.”
This removes the moral high ground. Remember when you asked me how much I trusted you, Dick?
The Benefactors don't have AIs, you said. You've been keeping an eye on them. Do you think you have better control over this tech on a program level than they do?
“Yes again.” He's almost gone — visually, I mean. Just a voice in my head that might almost be the voice of my conscience, or the voice of my will.
I trust you a hell of a lot, I say. Richard's smart enough to keep his mouth shut — if you can call it that — while I disentangle myself from Gabe, give him an extra squeeze, and walk across the bridge to sit down in my chair. Let me know when Wainwright and the others are inside.
There's no right choice, is there? There never was. Not with Peacock. Not with Nell. Not now. Sometimes there's no choice at all.
“What are you going to do?”
What I have to. Richard, see that that data gets out?
Hey, Richard—The chair molds to me like an old friend. I don't call Gabe over to help with the interfaces yet. I want to just sit here quietly and watch him work for as long as I can. There's an eagle feather in my pocket and resolution like a fist clenching in my chest, and on some soul-deep level I'm dead happy I don't know what comes next. Does Wainwright know our orders yet?
When they first met with the Europeans, my ancestors wove a treaty with them, written in the symbols on a wampum belt. Two rows of violet beads side by side on a river of white: two canoes moving parallel down a stream, canoes whose courses were not to affect each other. Whose paths were not to intersect.
It never works out that way.
How soon will the Benefactors arrive?
A dry suggestion of a shrug. “It's hard to tell when you can't read their star charts.”
A picture is a picture, isn't it?
“You would think so. But it doesn't appear to work that way.”
We should probably have the war over with when they get here, don't you think?
Watching Gabe work, watching the wounded Earth spin on the view screen over his shoulder, I settle back in my chair to wait. A warrior kind of finality fills me with an emotion I almost don't recognize. Take care of Genie for me, Elspeth.
I am at peace.
“Jenny,” Richard whispers. “We're in. Min-xue is in control, Pilot. The Huang Di is under way.”
Friday 22 December, 2062
“Leah.” Richard's voice roused her from something half-like sleep, but mostly like staring out the Calgary's bridge view ports. “Elspeth and Genie are okay.”
“What?” She said it out loud, jerking forward in her chair. The skeleton bridge crew glanced at her — three scared-looking junior grade officers and airmen, the oldest probably only four years older than she was. “Sorry,” she said, and waved them away. “Just thinking out loud.” They're all right? They're alive?
“And kicking,” he answered. “Genie has two broken ribs. How are you?”
Scared. Genie's really okay? Leah picked at the edge of her chair. She wondered where Koske was, and casually reached out to Richard for the information. He showed her a map, Koske in his new, Spartan quarters. Down the hall from Leah's room. Where Leah couldn't stand to be.
“She'll live, but things are bad down there, Leah. And going to get worse.”
I know. She stood and paced to the direct-view window, laying both hands flat on ice-cold glass. There were layers and layers of crystal between herself and the outside. Beyond it, she saw Clarke, the occasional flashes of light as its meteor defenses picked off a bit of space junk or debris. It's the end of the world.
“Not quite.” Something colored his voice. He resolved fully in her imaginary vision, a rangy man whose shoulders lifted and fell in a shrug she would have called exhaustion in a human. “The Huang Di will be moving soon. I need you to get jacked in to the ship and let it go by, even if you hear something different from ground control or the captain. Can you do that for me?”
Leah nodded. What's it going to do?
“One of its pilots feels very bad about what happened, and he's going to try to make it better.”
Richard. She sighed, exasperated. I'm not a kid. What's he going to do?
“He's going to land the Huang Di in the ocean, and use it to start a global Benefactor tech infection and hopefully help fix some of the damage.”
What you wouldn't let me do with Genie.
“This is different—”
Grown-ups always say that.
“He's going to use the ship's brain as a control chip, so that Alan and I can regulate — Leah, you're still mad at me.”
She let her hands fall to her sides and shuffled back from the window. She wore ship shoes that weren't much more than rubberized slippers; her footsteps fell silent on the textured gray matting of the deck. I could have helped her. Look how much better Aunt Jenny is—
“We'll help her now. Just keep them from using the Calgary to stop the Huang Di, all right?”
Leah looked over her shoulder, her hair whispering against her neck, a few strands pulling at her interface as she turned her head to regard the curved black couch. Isn't this dangerous? What about what happened to Carver? And then she bit down on her thumbnail, remembering that Carver was dead, and Bryan, too.
“That's a risk,” Richard answered. “But this is just to heal. Not enhance. So it's safer. We're starting in five minutes. Are you ready?”
Leah checked the chrono in her contact lens's heads-up display. I'll be ready, she said. “Airman?”
He looked up from his monitors: thermal readings, she saw, showing the entry streak of the asteroid scraped the breadth of North America like a slash through the belly of a gutted fish. “Cadet?”
“I want to check the hull and vane integrity, just in case some of that debris made it up this far. Would you please help wire me in?”
The pinch of the wires was nothing. The young man's hands shook when he touched her, and then Leah floated in space, the Calgary her wings and eyes and breath. Richard, do you think Bryan felt anything?
“Nothing, Leah.” He spoke as if from far away.
How do you know?
“I was with him.”
“I told him you were thinking of him.”
Thank you. Richard fed her data, showed her the leisurely, orange streak that was the Huang Di, the limping arc of the Montreal coming around. “Are we ready to go up?”
Testing the vanes now. A thought brought her up short. Richard. Those ships on Mars.
Could they have been grounded for a similar purpose? Long ago?
His hesitation might have been framed in nanoseconds. An unaugmented human, one not becoming accustomed to conversation at the speed of thought, would never have noticed. “It's a possibility, yes. Mars had significant surface water once, and the project xenobiologist thought that was what they were for.”
But they failed. There's no life on Mars.
“Mars was a more fragile system,” Richard said.
Is this going to work, Richard?
She almost sensed when he thought about lying to her, almost knew the instant when he decided there was no point. “Probably,” he said. “A little, at least. We have to try, in any case. There's nothing else left to do.”
Min-xue would have liked the poetry of it if the Huang Di moved, when she moved, with the silk-on-water purity of his grandfather's fishing boat. She didn't, though; it was the Montreal that was graceful, elegant. The Huang Di lurched like a drunk when he triggered her main engines and attitude jets, no time for a gentle burn, no poetry in her motion but a stagger.
I wanted to be a poet, Richard. Did I tell you that, my friend? I wanted to live to write poetry.
The Huang Di curved in space, dropping, one brief nudge enough to push her into the gravity well, a longer burn to turn her topple into a glide.
“Min-xue,” Richard answered. “You've done so. This is a poem that will be remembered for a thousand years, my friend.”
Min-xue smiled, feeling the warmth of his friend's benediction. And then feeling nothing at all, as his connection with the Huang Di suddenly, unbelievably, went dead.
Damn it. Richard, I think they've—
After so long in the darkness, the light that struck his eyes was as bright as staring into the sun.
— found me.
The Huang Di is pulling up, Richard. That's not right. That can't be right—
“It's not right, Leah. Not right at all.”
Oh. In timeless space, the body of her ship like her own bright body laid out under the stars, Leah considered. Richard, do we need a new plan?
“Huang Di's security has found Min-xue. I don't have a fallback plan.”
She knew. Leah always knew when somebody was lying to her. He had a plan, all right. It just wasn't a plan he was willing to use. What's the crew complement of the Calgary, Richard?
“Sixty-four,” he answered reluctantly. “Counting Trevor and you. A skeleton crew.”
The Montreal's is 347, and her stardrive works. The Calgary's isn't on-line yet. She's crippled. It's logical, Richard. Leah felt the cold in her belly like the cold of space against her hands when she had leaned against the view port, and her right thumb fretted the chip implanted in the back of her left hand. The Huang Di's chances to heal the damage are finished. She extended the solar sails and looped the feed from visual, thermal, and magnetic-body sensors that would have told the bridge crew that the Huang Di was moving. Sunlight filled her sails and she — the Calgary—skittered forward with the same sort of hitching glide she got if she opened her coat while on ice-skates and let the wind carry her along.
“Leah—” No. She felt his denial and his impotent fury.
The only choice, Richard. The logical choice. Or are you my father, now?
“No,” he answered, a little while later. “I think you're rather grown-up, actually.”
“Trevor, I need you.” Richard's voice, overlays of Alan's, and Koske was on his feet with one hand on the hatchway's wheel, not even bothering with shoes. It was dim in his cabin, recessed lights shaded with translucent polymer he'd tack stripped to the wall, and he could tell from the Calgary's luxurious shiver that she was under way.
What's wrong, Richard?
Richard didn't so much explain as thrust the knowledge into his head wholesale, a bubble of trajectories and leaps of intuition and Leah and Min-xue's wildly desperate plan. Koske stopped momentarily, the hatchway wheel still heavy in his hand, using the other to shield his eyes as the information flared into headache as if someone had boxed his ears. He stepped back from the door and started to pull his ship shoes on, one foot at a time. “Time is limited,” the AI said. “Leah's going to get herself killed—”
Koske nodded, swallowed, and turned his head to look through the porthole in the floor at the spinning stars, so far away. I wanted to go there, he thought. And then said to Richard, What do you propose I do about it?
Carefully, calmly, Koske opened the door. Long strides carried him toward the bridge. She's right, Richard. Are you afraid of dying?
“It's not a major concern these days. I would be somewhat hard to kill. Aren't you?”
No, Koske answered. He checked his stride and stopped dead, weight all forward, one hand on the bulkhead. The bridge wasn't far. His head still thumped with the equations and diagrams Richard streamed through it — trajectories, velocities, calculations of mass — and he dropped his chin to his chest and heaved a single long, expressive sigh.
Trevor Koske turned, a crisp reversal of stride, and palmed himself into a deserted side corridor, increasing his pace. I don't mind dying. But there's sixty-two people in this hunk of tin who probably do.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Get everybody aft. Tell them it's a drill. Lie. Fake hull damage forward. There's enough debris flying around to make it ring true. I don't care what you do.
I'll uncouple the drive units. They'll have a couple of hours before the radiation gets too bad. Start shuttling them back to Clarke, or to the Montreal. We'll save whatever we can.
Richard tracks the crew for me, feeds me the data. How did I ever live before I had an AI in my brain? He beats the stuffing out of my hip unit, that's for sure.
He shows me the vermilion eye that is the icon for the Huang Di, as red a star as Mars, and shows her start to slide downward, backward, directions that have no meaning in space at all. I fumble for the interface pins, have to look down at my hands to make them work right. Oh, too tired for this, Jenny. Too tired.
Even dimmed, the bridge lights beat at the backs of my eyeballs. I'm slapped with a sudden incongruous picture of Nell, all her black hair come out of her braid and tangled with snowflakes, stooping to pack slush into a ball that's going to sting like hell when it wallops me in the side of the head.
Bad time for a flashback, too. It tells me I pushed it real hard with my raw interface earlier, and maybe did a little more neural damage than the nanosurgeons have been able to repair just yet. I need more downtime. Sleep. Supplements and plenty to eat. All of which I'm not going to get.
There's an answer, of course. Miniature yellow pills rattle in my thigh pocket, and it would only take just one.
Except if I push it too hard, I could wind up like Carver. Like Face's boy Mercedes, who got his brain melted when Unitek was illegally testing the Hammers in Hartford — was it just a few months back? “Gabe?” I say his name as much to remind myself that he's there as to get his attention. “How's it coming?”
“Not as well as I had hoped,” he says. He looks up at me, tired line between his eyes, which are still made bluer than they should be by the reddened whites. “I dunno how Ramirez made this big of a mess. Marde, tu sais — Je ne pense pas qu'il avait un partenaire.”
“He did it all himself?”
Gabe shrugs. “Programming's like handwriting. It all looks like one guy. And he wrote probably 30 percent of the O/S for this thing. He could have been mining it for months. I found two Trojan horses that haven't triggered yet, and God knows what else is in here. I don't think you or Patty should be jacking into this ship until Richard and I have it clean.”
“Je comprends—” I want to take his face between my hands and kiss him until the beaten look leaves the back of his eyes, and I'm afraid it never will. I sigh and look down.
And then Richard shows me sliding dots and telescopic images flicker on the big monitors as the Huang Di starts a burn and sideslips in space, coming around. I visualize her flaring attitude rockets, sailing like a belly-flopping diver over the Atlantic. And then she stalls, momentum burned off as the attitude jets reverse and she swaps end over end and hesitates, her long frame bending with the violence of the action, her drive flaring, sending her tumbling, obviously out of control into the up that isn't up, exactly, but more precisely just away.
It had almost been too late to stop her fall.
“Richard, what is going on out there?”
He doesn't answer, brushes my query aside. And then the Calgary moves, suddenly, quicksilver, unfurling her wings.
I am not ready for the shock I feel when her image splits apart, shatters into two parts, and one tumbles back-up-away while the other follows the Huang Di down, down, down. “—marde! Putain de marde!”
Richard, what just happened?
I reach into my pocket. The Hyperex is there. Old friend, crystal calm and lightning speed in a bottle. I fumble the cap, crack the bottle in half with my steel hand. Pick two of them off the fabric of my jumpsuit and dry-swallow. Not scared now that I know I need it and it's not just pretty justifications. No. Hell, maybe you can kick an addiction after all.
He's staring at the monitors, at the Calgary coming apart like torn paper, disbelief bright on his face. And then something flashes on his console, illuminating a slight double chin and a day's worth of stubble. He looks down and his fingers start to move randomly through the three-dimensional holographic interface he prefers. “Marde. I missed another damned worm. Calisse de crisse.” He looks up again, looks down, torn between hiding his pain in his work and Ramirez's sabotage and watching the Calgary's forward section spread dragonfly wings to their utmost and surf downward, tacking across the solar wind to — unmistakably — claim the Huang Di's descent for her own.
He turns. His eyes—
I hold up the wire. “Leah.”
And I see him breathe in. Breathe out. And slowly shake his head once, no, and swallow. Hard.
The wire falls from my hands. I stand. The drug etches every shallow, hurting breath he takes into my memory clear as if drawn there. He lowers his gaze to his interface, and his hands move again. “Il y a rien que nous pouvons faire.”
There is nothing we can do.
Richard, I'll kill you for this, you son of a bitch.
“Her decision, Jenny. Her plan. It might even work.”
Might. Why aren't I there? In her place? Falling like that? Dammit, Leah, it was supposed to be my job to die for you, you silly girl. As Gabe goes about his work, not looking up. Not looking at the blazing image lighting the wall as the Calgary contacts atmosphere and starts to burn.
The bridge and the crew quarters aren't shielded for reentry. But there's lead and armor plate around the processor core array, because there are fusion power cells in there. It's all self-contained. And Richard's right.
It could work.
At least it will be over fast. She won't burn. She won't feel a thing.
Like flying it into a mountainside.
I stand there like an idiot, scatter of pills around my feet and crushed underfoot, dazzle of my senses and, at last, that maddening flutter of the light starting to fade to a bearable flicker as the Hammers kick in.
“Jenny!” Gabe's voice rough and torn. It's not the first time he's shouted.
It's the first time I heard.
I walk away from him, up the curve of the Montreal's hull, and lay my hand on the holographic monitor screen. The fluid under its membrane distorts and ripples at my touch, making the broken shape of the Calgary look as if she were smeared across the starry sky. Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de gr^ace—
You know what?
I don't want to talk to God right now.
Tell her we love her, if you have enough time. Tell her—
— tell her she's not going into this alone.
“Tell her yourself,” Richard says, and I see through Leah's eyes, and feel the ship burning around her — aluminum skin sloughing, viewscreens dead black and the few small round ports lit red, orange, white with the fire—
I want to jerk back, look away. Let go before my fingers burn, and all the pain and memories come back, the fear and the burning. There's a lot of fire. There's so much goddamned fire.
To much to crawl through. To much to reach through.
Hell, Gabe did it for me—
— and then I'm there. Somehow. In her head. As if I took my little girl in my arms and held her tight and she's not a little girl anymore, and I still can't save her, can I? Because you can't. I can't save her from my mistakes. Any more than I could save Nell. But at least I can hold Leah's hand.
Can you hear me, ch'erie?
I'm here. I love you. Your dad loves you, too.
“Don't be mad at me—”
Nothing. Instantaneous, no pain.
Like flying it into a mountainside.
Gone, and I'm standing on the bridge of the Montreal, and I don't know how I'm standing. And Gabe can't look, and I can't look away.
It's beautiful. Just fucking gorgeous, streaks of teal and amber light, a glorious tumble and glitter dripping embers like fireworks and sparklers and Canada Day and New Year's Eve and the Fourth of fucking July.
Merry fucking Christmas, Gabriel.
I can't look away. But when the trails of light flicker out, flicker down, end against the blue pall of the sea, I sit down on the floor and fold my hands. I'll cry later, I tell myself, hearing the utter silence behind me as Gabe stops working and just stands.
Breathing in. Breathing out again.
Fuck it. I think I'll cry right now.
Except I don't get the chance, because the wheel spins and the hatchway comes open as if somebody kicked it. It bounces off the rubber stopper on the wall and Wainwright bulls through the opening, Patty a half-step behind.
“Casey,” the captain snaps, voice sharp enough to pick my ass up off the floor. Yeah, yeah. I wipe the snot off my face, wincing when I see the unsnapped safety strap on the pistol at her hip. “What the fuck's going on out there?”
“Captain.” You blank your mind and let the words come out, crisp and even. You don't think about what they mean, and you sure as hell don't think about what you're saying. “The Calgary has been destroyed. I believe her pilots crashed her intentionally, in an attempt to use the ship-borne Benefactor technology to redress the ecological damage caused by the meteorite.”
“The Huang Di?” She stops. She rubs her hands together as if they hurt.
“Damaged. Out of control. Probably salvageable, I think, if somebody can catch her.”
Patty's mouth comes open and her lips shape names as if it would hurt her to say it out loud. Calgary. Leah.
I catch her eye and nod. Oh, baby. I'm sorry. The filter of the drug shows me blood on her mouth, amplifies her soft little whine into the audible range. Wainwright's still staring at me, and I still can't meet her eyes.
“I believe one of the Huang Di's pilots had a crisis of conscience, ma'am.” I steal a look at the monitors, and the streaks and clots of wreckage smearing Earth's dusty globe. Richard tells me the coverage is so quick, so complete because the impact blows debris into orbit.
Wainwright's right hand comes up, fingers parted, and covers her mouth. She lifts her chin and follows my gaze, so we're both looking at the devastated Earth. And not at each other. “We have orders, Master Warrant.”
“Captain—” I look at Gabe. He's come around the console and is picking his way across the bridge, not close enough to me to be in the same line of fire. The two security types in the back corners of the bridge radiate tension; fabric chafes on fabric as they grip their weapons. “—I know.”
She nods to my chair, slight tilt of the head. Motherly. Annoyed, with a touch of hurry up. It doesn't hide the broken glass behind her eyes. I look over her shoulder at Patty, who steps around Wainwright. I can feel Gabe moving, feel Richard taut and silent at the back of my head.
Letting me handle it.
“Captain, are you going to do this thing?”
Tongue touching her lips, which have gone almost white. She nods once, eyes closed. “Master Warrant, if it makes you feel better, I order you to assume your post and carry out the prime minister's directives.”
I could put a bullet in her before she got her pistol clear of the holster, but what fucking good would that do anybody? In the long run, I mean.
Gabe's there at my left hand, still moving forward casually, getting the captain between himself and the security. “Jenny. What orders?”
“Jenny.” Richard, and I know he wouldn't interrupt if he didn't have a reason. “Jenny, the core made it down intact. I'm spawning nanosurgeons in the Atlantic.”
You can be that many places at once?
“Call 'em subprocesses. It's inaccurate, but it will do.”
The breath that slides down my throat feels heavy as two lungs full of water. My voice bubbles through it. “Captain, no.”
“Jenny?” I can't look at Gabe right now.
Patty shuffles another step, hands twisting together in front of her waist as — oblivious — she walks into security's line of fire. Her grandfather's intense hazel eyes pinch at the corners, search first my face and then Wainwright's. “What are the orders, Captain?”
“Cadet,” Wainwright answers. “I'm relieving Master Warrant Officer Casey of duty. Will you please take the pilot's chair?”
Gabe looks at me, long powerful fingers flexing and relaxing as his hands hang by his sides.
I nod, knowing he'll understand. But Patty is still looking at me, poised on one foot, her whole balance saying torn. “Beijing,” I say. “Ma'am, given that Leah and Trevor have given their lives to ameliorate the damage, and at least one of the Chinese pilots was willing to do the same.”
“Orders,” she says, and I start to turn away. It's not something I'll let a sixteen-year-old girl have to live with. You know. I wish I could look Constance Riel in the eye and say, You make the decisions, and the kids live with them. Amen.
I'm pretty good at following orders. I imagine the captain of the Huang Di was, as well. Wainwright looks like she knows what she's doing is wrong, and it'll never be right inside her head again. She'll do what she'll do because she thinks she has to. Because it's the right thing to do. Because her country needs her.
I know that one pretty well. And Gabe's little girl is on the ground, and my friend Ellie, and I've suddenly got a crystal-clear image of Bernie Xu looking down at me under long dark lashes like a girl's, lit cigarette in his hand, body warm against mine in the dark of an unheated apartment as he asks me—Don't you even hate them a little?
You know something, Peacock? Hell of it is, I don't. I don't hate anybody anymore. I think I just ran the fuck out.
Enough fucking people dead for one day.
And my arm goes around Patty as I put her behind me, out of the way, spin and a handoff to Gabe and eyes back to Wainwright, hand almost to my pistol, hoping she followed, thinking security won't shoot through the captain to get to me—
— before I hear the weapons click across the bridge.
Almost, because she's standing well back, double-handed cop shooting stance and my sidearm is hopelessly secured, my right hand a good two feet from the holster and the strap buckled tight. “Casey,” she says, and I catch the tightness in her voice. “Hands up.”
I do it, keeping them beside my chest, letting the drop into combat time take my heartbeat subsonic. She's awful close, and I hate having guns pointed at me. But she's farther away than Indigo was, and I don't even have to catch the bullet, really. Given the nonpenetrators we've been issued for shipboard, I figure all I have to do is get that hand in the way. And I'm faster than I used to be.
But she's got backup.
Gabe pulls Patty back, away, smart enough to know he's no help in this one, and my shoulder blades hurt from the pressure of the cocked guns aimed at my chest. And Wainwright's got that look in her eye like she might decide to kneecap me instead of going for center of mass.
I can't say I blame her.
“Captain. Jaime. You can't stop us from taking this ship.”
The weapon doesn't shift. “I can put a bullet in you, Master Warrant, and Cadet Valens can fly this boat.”
“You're running out of pilots fast, Captain.”
She looks at me. I look at her. It's hard, with my heartbeat slow as molasses in my chest, every reflex screaming at me to pile onto her like a runaway train and hope the shot goes wild. Her lips tighten, one against the other. The pupils of her eyes go big. The gun never trembles.
Patty's voice; she tugs away from Gabe and straightens her shirt. “I won't do it. You can't make me. Leah—”
Wainwright slides her an angled glance, just the corner of her eye. I clear my throat, wanting her attention on me. Hands stay up, fingers relaxed, flesh and steel. I can feel Richard in me, but he's backing my play, keeping his mouth shut and letting me do the work.
“Cap, if there was another way — ma'am, I'd be the first in line.” Sweat beads my brow with the effort of looking away from the pistol in her hand, but once I have her gaze on me, I direct it back up at the monitors. At the trashed globe below us, the dust-storm tinge casting a pall over what should be pristine, shining swirls of alabaster and cobalt blue. “Do you really want that on your hands?”
I hear her heartbeat. Smell her sweat. Her eyes follow mine up, and they follow mine back down again. She doesn't nod. She never looks away.
But somehow I know.
I lower my hands to my sides and slowly turn my back on her, and walk up the sights of the security guards, and sit down in my chair. “Richard,” I say out loud. “Get Riel on the horn for me, would you please? Shall we go after the Huang Di, Captain Wainwright?”
Wainwright twists her hands. “Yes,” she says. “For all I'm tempted to leave her drifting for the next three hundred years. Her teeth are pulled. Let's bring her home.”
“A prize of war.” Gabe, surprisingly, bitterly.
Captain Wainwright flashes a smile that's all horror at him, and closes her eyes. “Why the hell not?” she answers. “Since it seems after all that we've gone privateer.”
“Richard? Can you take us around, please—”
“Jenny,” he answers through the ship's speakers. “I appear to have made a slight miscalculation.”
Patty crosses to me and sits down on the floor beside my chair, fingers laced around her drawn-up knees and her eyes unfocused. Shit.
She's lost more than I have, hasn't she?
I lay my hand on her shoulder and let it stay there. She doesn't look up, but she sighs like a sleeping puppy and leans into the touch. Kid has some iron in her.
“What's that, Richard?”
“The Benefactor ships are not going to arrive together.”
“What are you trying to tell me—”
And then screens smear white, and the sky is filled with ships glittering in the sunlight, and the moonlight, and the earthlight washing over us all.
Friday 22 December, 2062
Le Camp des Pins
North of Huntsville, Ontario
Constance Riel sneezed and rubbed her burning eyes, lowering her fingers to glare at the cat curled purring on Genie Castaign's belly. Dr. Dunsany sat on thick Persian rugs with her back to the fieldstone fireplace, sidelit by the roaring fire, both hands wrapped around an oversized tea mug, Genie's head in her lap. The tomcat nonchalantly washed a paw. The girl was sleeping. Two Mounties bracketed the door, and Riel could hear soldiers outside, see their lights flickering against the broken windows as they moved through the blasted woods beyond.
Riel stood and moved from the soot-stained couch to the darkened window. She peeled back a corner of the plastic sheeting taped over it. Cold wind trickled around the spiderwebbed remains of shatterproof glass, dirty snow blowing in swirls that only became visible when they passed through the faint glow of firelight and lamplight.
In the brightest hour of a winter afternoon, the sky overhead was starless and dark as burnt toast. There was still coffee in her mug, kept warm by the gadget in the bottom; she added a healthy dollop of brandy on top before knocking back half. “I should really send you back to jail,” she said, conversationally.
“Because the Montreal mutinied?”
“To prove a point.” Riel held the bottle out to Dunsany, and Dunsany looked down at the sleeping girl in her lap, so Riel crossed the room and crouched down beside her to pour. “I could order a nuclear strike.”
Dunsany closed her eyes as she drank, then set the half-empty mug aside. “And China would order one back, and the antiballistic defenses would soak up most of the damage, and the EU and UN would declare Canada a rogue state and PanMalaysia would go along with it. And I wouldn't be the only one in jail.”
Riel nodded, standing and setting the bottle on the mantel. “There's something to be said for effective world government.” She slid the hand not holding her coffee mug under sweaty, gritty hair and massaged the back of her neck, fighting a sneeze. It got away from her; she fumbled for a tissue. “Maybe we should create one.”
“It's an opportunity.”
“Or a threat. And there aren't any international laws against mass-driven weapons yet.”
“There will be. And,” Dunsany continued, “there's no telling what the Benefactors would think of a nuclear exchange.”
Riel grunted and finished her coffee. “I'd be more comfortable if they—did something, Doctor.”
“Call me Ellie.” She stroked Genie's hair, staring upward as if she could see past the ceiling and the sky and the starships that hung over them like swords on slender threads to — whatever — lay beyond. “Thank you for saving her.”
Riel muffled a cough against the back of her hand. “I'm allergic to cats,” she said, and watched Dunsany's — Elspeth's — eyebrows rise.
“I'm allergic to bullshit,” Elspeth replied. “Are we going to sit here and — what — wait for the Benefactor tech to take over the planet? We can't get a decent satellite image because of the dust, but Woods Hole is reporting that they're already picking up fish with nanite loads. And all is silence from above.”
“The Feynman AI has been staying in touch. He says another wave of ships is en route. It's sort of reassuring to think their coordination isn't precise.”
“I know.” Elspeth lifted her shoulders against the stone behind her, her hair catching in strings on gray rock. “I have a recommendation. As a scientist. Not a politician.”
The mantel was granite, too, but polished to a gloss, and Riel stroked it idly with the pads of her fingers. A bright star-shaped chip drew her attention, on the chimney just above where she rested her elbows. She pressed a thumb into it: a bullet ricochet. “You fill me with dread, Doctor.”
Genie stirred, and Elspeth gentled her with one hand. The girl had cried herself into exhaustion, squeaking around the bandages on her cracked ribs, and Riel didn't think an earthquake would waken her. “The Benefactor tech is spreading. The AIs in the downed ship will serve to control the nanotech on earth. What if we want to send people off planet? What if they get—taken off planet?”
Riel carefully retaped the window plastic, shutting the day-turned-dark behind a thick, translucent sheet. “They've made no progress talking to the aliens?”
“None, Richard says. Not even a broadcast.” Elspeth patted her HCD, quiescent now. “The ships just hang there and wait.”
Riel chewed her lip. She almost leaned back against the plastic, and remembered the broken glass behind it just in time. “What do you recommend?”
“I have the schematics for the control chips we've been using in the pilots. If people start becoming infected, we need to be prepared. Some of them may die. They will all fall very sick. Richard says he can control it, and he'll only allow the nanosurgeons to modify the injured and the ill, and he'll limit it to the lowest levels of infection. In the meantime, I want to go to the disaster zone. I want an Engineering Corps mobile lab, and every technician and doctor you can scrape up.”
“What happens then?”
“We start with the wounded and hope they live through the process. Hell—” and Elspeth smiled, rubbing the thin gold cross around her throat. “We'll need — shit. We'll need a hell of a lot of everything. Disaster teams are moving in. We'll have to secure the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. The badly hurt, we can always dunk them into what's left of Lake Ontario once they're microchipped. Hold their heads under until they stop kicking, then haul them out and plug them into an IV. Some will live. Some won't. If it works, it works, and these people will have nothing to lose.”
Riel closed her eyes, smelled smoke, tasted bile over the brandy's sting. Well, Connie?
What do you do?
And she opened them and looked at Elspeth Dunsany and the girl and the cat in her lap. “You're a pacifist. You opposed our involvement in South America, as I recall. It's why you went to jail. Conscientious objector, weren't you?”
“You have”—a slight, sardonic smile lifted Elspeth's cheek—“excellent reading retention.”
“Sometimes you need to break things to prove you're not going to take any shit from the bad guys.”
“And sometimes all the options suck.”
You have that right. Riel considered Elspeth, and was considered in return. Well, Connie?
“Do you think we're going to get out of this without another fight from the Chinese? Over the Huang Di, if nothing else?”
Elspeth Dunsany cleared her throat. “We can always nuke the Chinese tomorrow, assuming the Benefactors don't wipe us all out as a bad job and give the porpoises a chance. What are you going to do about the Chinese? Who are you, Prime Minister?”
Riel came very close to turning her head and spitting. “You know, Elspeth, I keep asking myself, What would Winston Churchill do? You know they're blaming the attack on a mutiny aboard the Huang Di. Fringe elements. So sorry. The near-destruction of the ship resulting from the captain's attempt to regain command—”
“I see.” Dunsany's hands made a wheel in the air. “I hear a but.”
“The pilot who mutinied is willing to testify.”
“Do you think Richard would be permitted to testify, too?”
“They might call it hearsay.” Riel couldn't quite stop the amused snort. “But it's never too early to start establishing precedent. You realize if he testifies, that means the planet is a person, more or less?”
Which, Riel realized, was Dunsany's intention all along. “You'll lead this team?”
“I'm—” Riel almost heard her swallow the words, not qualified. “I'm an M.D. A shitty one, but sometimes shitty is better than nothing. I'll do what I have to do.”
Late December 2062
I'll say this for Wainwright. When she chooses a side, she doesn't screw around. Acting on Gabe's belief that Ramirez was the sole saboteur — Richard calls it the Lone Programmer Theory, which apparently is a joke — the captain releases her crew to normal duty, although she assigns every member a buddy with whom he eats, sleeps, bathes, and goes to the head.
It's not a bad stopgap measure, as stopgap measures go.
On the twenty-third, the Benefactor ships start signaling.
Dit. Dit. Dah.
Dit. Dit. Dah.
Radio frequencies, and pulsed signals through the nanotech. Richard filters it after the first ten minutes, merci `a Dieu. Dit. Dit. Dah.
What the hell does it mean?
“I don't know,” he answers. “But the last pip is twice as long as the first two, so I'm going to presume it's math and see if I can establish a dialogue.”
Keep me posted.
How are things on Earth?
“Bad,” he says. “Proceeding.” And leaves us to our vigil.
After the third day, it blends into a sort of nightmare. The pills keep Patty and me half alert. We trade off six-hour shifts and sleep when we can, often curled in a observer's chair on the corner of the bridge. We eat what's set before us with wooden mouths. Sometime on Christmas Eve, Gabe pronounces the Montreal's systems clean, and Richard concurs.
Dit. Dit. Dit. Dit. Daaahhhh.
One plus one plus one plus one is four.
Then Gabe walks off the bridge and I don't see him for eight or ten hours. When he comes back, he's clean and I hate him, until Wainwright orders me to the showers.
“If they try anything,” she says, “Patty is here. And chances are there's not a damned thing we could do about it anyway.”
Dah. Dah. Daaahhhh.
Two plus two is four.
Wake me up when they get to the square root of negative one, Richard. Soldiering makes you damned good at waiting. And at least they want to establish a dialogue, instead of pitching rocks. Or whatever.
That's something. And there's hot water down there with my name on it, and right now that's the only thing that matters.
Dit. Dit. Dit. Dit. Dit. Dit.
Dah. Dah. Dah.
Yeah, and like that. I'd better hurry in the shower so Patty can get a turn.
I'm toweling off when the second wave of ships shows up.
A different design.
Dit. Dit. Dah.
Richard? Didn't we do this part already?
“Well, there's the odd thing.” A thoughtful pause, and it's really more Alan's voice when he comes back. “They seem to be signaling not us, but the first wave of ships.”
What does that mean?
“I wish I knew.”
A clean jumpsuit is like a personal favor from God. I seal it up to my throat; the damned thing has somehow gotten too big. “Richard, make me eat more.”
And Richard-for-real, not Richard-flavored-with-Alan. I'm getting used to his — malleable personality. “I'll try.”
Late December 2062
Somewhere in eastern North America
It was worse than Elspeth could have possibly imagined, and she was glad that Genie had gone to a shelter for displaced military dependents in Vancouver. PanMalaysia, Japan, the European Union, and United Africa sent doctors, nurses, troops in blue U.N. helmets that made her think of Jenny in the moments when she thought.
She lost track of where she was. What city, what nation, which way east lay. She ate when someone peeled her gory gloves away and shoved food in front of her, and she got on a plane or a truck when someone told her to, and she slept when someone pushed her over, and she lost more than she saved.
No finesse. No skill. Butchery. Oceans of blood. They died on the operating table and they died from the nanosurgery treatments and they just died for no reason at all, sat down in corners and stared and fell over, gone. It amazed her that there were any wounded at all, given the scale of the catastrophe, until she realized that some of the casualties had been hundreds of kilometers from the impact. And still she lost more than she saved.
She leaned on the edge of a steel table during a moment's lull and breathed out slowly, controlled, the smell of antiseptic churning in her empty gut. I'm a fucking psychiatrist. What the hell am I doing here?
“I'm a forensic pathologist.” Elspeth looked up, into the desperation-reddened eyes of an Oriental woman about her own age who wore a dust-clogged surgical mask. “Damned if I know.”
“I didn't realize I was talking out loud.”
“I'm amazed that I can talk. Kuai Hua.”
The woman's eyes widened a touch, as if adrenaline jerked her awake. “Really?”
Elspeth sighed and turned tiredly away as stretcher-bearers staggered in, but they walked past her station to the back of the room. Burn victim. Not mine, thank God. And then a rush of shame at the thought. “My moment of infamy was a long time ago.”
“No—” Dr. Hua stopped, confused. “I heard your name from a Canadian Army doc named Frederick Valens.”
“You know Valens?”
“Hell. He said to keep an eye out for you. Last I saw him he was over in the triage shed.”
“Oh.” Oh. “Kuai, could you cover for me for a second?”
“Don't worry,” the other doctor said, exhaustion flattening her voice. “We won't run out while you're gone.”
Fifteen meters from surgery to triage, and the unnatural cold settled into Elspeth's lungs like a fluid, grit bouncing off her goggles in a bitter wind. Blood froze and cracked from her gloves as she turned them inside out and tossed them into a red-bag container by the door of the triage shed. Shed: a Quonset hut on an unevenly poured foundation, ice glittering on a roof like the metal rib cage of some long-dead beast. Elspeth pushed the double-hung rubber door open with her shoulder, blinking in the brightness of the artificial lights as she ducked inside.
Valens was easy to find, even with a surgical cap hiding his distinctive silver hair. He looked up as Elspeth entered, and when she tugged her mask down he got up from a crouch amid the rows of stretchers and the walking wounded seated on the floor and started moving toward her, his catlike stroll reduced to a dragging stagger.
“The prime minister has people looking for you. Don't you check your messages?” He didn't hold a hand out, and she didn't offer hers.
“I haven't exactly had time. What do you want?”
He blinked, voice grinding as if the words were buried somewhere very deep, and he had to go after them. “She wants you at the provisional capital in Vancouver. And from there, the Montreal.”
“What good am I there?”
He snorted. “Congratulations, Elspeth. You, Charlie Forster, Paul Perry, and Gabe Castaign are suddenly the world's foremost practical experts in communicating with nonhuman intelligences. The United Nations has demanded Canada assign you to their contact team.”
The floor really was a shoddy piece of construction. She caught the toe of her shoe on a ripple in the concrete and would have gone down on a knee if Valens hadn't caught her elbow. “I'm needed here.”
Huh. She looked him in the eye. She could swear he'd been crying. But everybody she saw lately looked like that. “What?”
“You're needed there. This is a big push. First contact—”
She gestured around the room. “What about these people?”
“The whole world's sending doctors. They're trickling in, but the trickle's becoming a flood. We're going to start shipping casualties to hospitals in the U.S., Mexico, Iceland. Over the pole to the Scandinavians. International cooperation,” he said through his mask, cheeks bulging under his eyes in what might have been a heartsick smile.
“It won't last.” She closed her eyes and leaned into the strength of his hand on her arm. World cooperation? It'll take more than this. “What about the war?”
“China. Russia. That.”
“China claimed a few hundred miles of cold flat country. It's died down to sniping. Russia will take it back in fifty or a hundred years if the fighting doesn't kick up again. Everybody's looking upward now; you'd be amazed how effective it is at keeping them from shooting each other. Why do you care?”
Because I care. It wasn't worth saying. She pulled away from his touch. “Who'd you lose, Fred?”
A long pause. He cleared his throat. “My husband. A son. Couple of”—pause and breathe—“pets.”
“I didn't know you were married.” Pets. Goddamn it, Gabriel. I miss you. “It won't last,” she repeated. “The peace. It always comes down to us and them in the end.”
“It does.” He pointed with two fingers, sweeping gesture that took in the triage shed and the camp and the world beyond. “Us.” And the same two fingers, thumb folded tight against the ball of his hand. A short, sharp gesture, straight up at the sky. “Them.”
Elspeth coughed into her hand, brushing a puff of dust from her mask. “It won't be enough.”
He shrugged. “I have wounded, Elspeth.”
“Yeah,” she answered. “I'll go. But Genie comes with me.”
“Don't tell me,” he said. “Call Riel.”
Tuesday 2 January, 2063
I wait at the airlock, Gabe on my left side, Patty on my right. Captain Wainwright is three steps in front of us, Richard hovering like an anxious blind date in the back of my head. Some of his attention, anyway; the rest is occupied with increasingly complex combinations of dit, dit, dah. From two directions now.
Elspeth's gotten so thin. She opens the hatchway hesitantly, peering around the corner, flinching back as Wainwright clicks her heels. “Dr. Dunsany.”
And then she pushes the hatch wide and steps through. “Oh. Captain Wainwright, I presume? Gabe. Patty. Jenny.” Our eyes meet, and she steps first toward Gabe but then reverses direction and comes to me.
And behind her, a weary, addled-looking Charlie Forster. And behind him — Genie.
Genie, lugging a plastic animal carrier in both arms, who squeals and puts it down just this side of the hatch and then runs to Gabe and throws herself into his arms, and Genie looks pink-cheeked and healthier than I've ever seen her, hair shining the way Leah's used to, and as her daddy scoops her up that hair spins every which way. He buries his face against her neck, deep breaths swelling his chest, and I can see the little pale square of her controller chip outlined through her skin.
And Ellie walks up to me, and hands me the carrier, and I hear a plaintive mew from inside, and she keeps walking until I put my steel arm around her and pull her close.
She looks awful.
She looks old.
I don't know which one of us is crying harder, and before too long Gabe and Genie are hugging us, too, and it all dissolves into a soggy pileup with Wainwright dogging the hatch carefully and then she and Charlie and Patty spending five or ten minutes studying the gray paint on the wall, trading sidelong glances.
The captain clears her throat, eventually, and I peel myself away from my family and lug the carrier over. “Captain Wainwright.” Sniffle. Merci `a Dieu, I'm turning into a crybaby. “May I request your permission to bring this animal aboard?” I hold the carrier up so she and Boris can see eye to eye, and he does me proud by squinching golden eyes at her and emitting a rumbling purr like a steam boiler.
She studies him for a moment, and sighs. “Housebroken?”
“More or less.”
She chuckles. “Long tradition of ship's cats in the navy.”
“This is the air force, Captain.”
“I won't tell him if you don't.” And she smiles at me like she means it and jerks her head at Elspeth and Genie. “See our honored guests fed, would you, Master Warrant?”
It's still tofu and noodles, and Genie makes faces until Gabe messes her hair up and glowers — and then she curls into the crook of his arm and won't let go. Boris scratches at the grate of his carrier until I pull him out and hold him in my lap. He quiets when I scratch behind his ears and talk to him in low tones. “Boris, baby. How many lives are you on now?” He rumbles back and settles in with a rattle, even the prick of his claws in my thigh driving my blood pressure down.
Elspeth doesn't seem hungry, so I chivvy her to eat until she at least picks up her bowl and slurps the broth. “Ew,” she says. “Miso.”
“Get used to it, Doc. Happy New Year, by the way.”
“Happy New Year. So what have you and Gabe and Richard figured out about our aliens so far?”
The soup is too salty. At least the cook is starting to figure out how much sugar to put in the reconstituted lemonade. Patty watches silently, pale eyes alert as they shift from Elspeth's face to mine and back again. “They know how to add. Richard's still working on it. But they seem friendly enough.”
“If they're so damned friendly, why the hell did they send two sets of half a dozen ships each?”
“In case we needed an emergency evacuation? I wonder how many species break their planets getting off them.”
“If they're anything like us, a hell of a lot.” Elspeth twists noodles around her fork and then unwinds them again, toying rather than eating.
Gabe clears his throat and looks over at us. “I don't know how you want to start, Ellie.” His eyes meet hers, and she gives him a sad little smile, half a curve of the lips that falls away softly. For Christ's sake, Gabe. Kiss her.
As if he could hear me, he reaches over the narrow table and does. Genie giggles, and Patty and I address ourselves to the salad. “That'll do,” she answers when he leans back. I cough into my hand, and she blushes darker, her lovely bronze complexion yellowed with stress and fatigue. “Captain Wainwright.”
“Do you have windows in this craft?”
Wainwright chuckles. “Yes, we do.”
Patty hangs back as we enter the forward lounge, looking from view screen to window as if she expects something to jump out and bite her. I let the others drift past me and put my hand on her elbow when she trails them in. She doesn't speak and I don't either. You know what you've lost, sometimes, and there's no point in talking about it. You turn around and look at the ruins, and then you either sink down by the roadside and cry or you pick up your pack and hump on.
Elspeth walks forward, alone against that biggest porthole, and lays both hands against the glass. Two of the Benefactor ships hang out there, and I hear them conversing — or counting — back and forth with that muffled corner of my oh-so-profoundly enhanced brain. Patty shakes her head like a cat with an ear infection. I bet it's driving her nuts, too.
The ship on the perspective-left is the newer arrival: a glossy brown-gray twisted shape like a madman's totem carving, enormous hull limned with soft green and blue and purple lights in arcs and whorls that — almost — resemble patterns. They ripple in time to the rhythm of the bursts of static in my brain. Dit. Dit. Dit.
“Ship tree,” Charlie says, a grin splitting his doughy desk-jockey face.
I give Patty's arm a squeeze.
Perspective-right is the first arrival, and damned if I understand how anything lives in that. It's an enormous scaffolding, a drawn-glass Christmas tree ornament that gleams in the sunlight like leaded crystal. Ribs and vanes and macroscopic arches, the whole amazing structure open to the cold of space as if something were intended to hang in the middle of it, a pearl in a silver wire cage.
Except nothing does, and if I squint at that incredible creation just right, and under high magnification, I can see things like droplets of mercury — ten-meter droplets of mercury — sliding along its spans like rainbeads down windows. That one's not much like either of the ships on Mars.
Both the ship trees and the crystal cages are easily as vast as Montreal.
Elspeth raises her hand and points, finger tracing the path of one drop-of-mercury as it hurtles from one corner of the crystal lattice to another. “Dr. Forster, are those the aliens?”
Charlie leans forward to peer over her shoulder and then turns his attention to a magnified version on the nearest screen. “The shiny things? Dunno what else they would be. Seem pretty comfy in a hard vacuum, don't they?”
“Yeah.” Gabe, still holding Genie's hand. I bring Patty with me and follow them forward.
Elspeth looks up as we come over and smiles. “Patty, what does Richard say?”
Oh, Ellie. You are still so slick. Patty lost as much as the rest of us. More. Here we are, and we have each other, and links forged in shared fire. And Patty's got herself and the voices in her head.
“He says they're up to differential calculus,” she responds after a minute. “But no sign of language beyond that. He also says that the ship tree Benefactors — meaning the ones with the organic, grown tech — don't seem to be communicating with the crystal-lattice Benefactors any better than they are at communicating with us.”
“Oh.” Elspeth shares a significant glance with Charlie, who nods. “Really. They're still just counting”
“Richard,” she says, “what would you say is the primary attribute that separates humans — and you and Alan, of course — from animals?”
“Sapience? It's a matter of degrees,” Patty answers for him.
Elspeth glances over at me. “Don't suppose you've noticed Jenny here talking to her cat?”
Richard's words, Patty's voice. “There are studies that indicate that monkeys and dogs, for example, have a sense of humor. And porpoises, African gray parrots, elephants, and some other animals seem to communicate on a very sophisticated level. There's math, of course, but Canadian ravens and some parrots can be taught to count—”
She cuts Patty off, but gently. “So what do we do that's so different? What's the first use we generally put any new technology to, if it's suitable? Other than bashing each other over the head with it, of course.”
I clear my throat as Elspeth's meaning comes clear before me. “Richard, who teaches animals to count? Who talks to them?”
“Researchers,” Patty says. And then, “Oh, my,” in her own voice. “We're patterns of electrical impulses that talk.”
“Yeah,” I say.
The two Benefactor ships float side by side, almost nose to nose with the Montreal. The rest remain in higher orbits, drifting, not touching. Wingtip to wingtip, and each one discrete and alone.
Wonder infuses Patty's voice, Richard's words. “You're suggesting that they need us for something our species is specialized for: talking to things that aren't quite like us.”
“Which is funny, considering we can't even seem to talk civilly among ourselves.” Elspeth steps away from the window, scrubbing her cold palms on her pants. She whistles low in her throat, shaking her head side to side. “I can't run this project. I don't know the first thing about interspecies communication.”
“Hell,” I say. “You're supposed to be the smartest living Canadian. Didn't anybody ever teach you to delegate?”
Ellie looks at me. Her eyebrows rise. “I'm going to need a metric buttload of linguists. And marine biologists, maybe, dolphin and primate researchers—”
I grin. In spite of myself, I grin.
“There. You're thinking now, Ellie.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I guess I am.”
I arch my back and feel my neck crack under the stretch. Squeeze Patty's elbow one last time before I step away. My left arm aches and I find myself rubbing at it the way I used to. Imaginary pain. I imagine someday this scene, the three ships so utterly different from one another, the scarred globe floating behind them, will be one of those images that becomes so familiar that people don't see it anymore. The view that spreads before me is being beamed into every datanet on Earth. Hey, Richard. I have an idea.
Riel still wants us to go look at this other planet when we've got the Benefactor issue figured out, assuming we ever do. What do you think the odds are that you and Patty and I can convince Wainwright she really wants to steal a starship?
I sense his hesitation, tapping on the quadruple-paned glass with my steel fingertips. Like tapping on the shark tank glass, and my reflection smiles at me until Razorface and Leah come back to me with an empty ache like a severed limb. Which is not a comparison I make as idly as most.
Because it occurs to me that you could get a hell of a lot of colonists on a ship as big as the Montreal. And they don't all have to be from Canada, do they?
“Steal the Montreal?”
Well. Borrow for a decade or so. I'm fucking tired of following orders. And what the hell are they going to do to stop me, Dick?
Elspeth puts her hand over mine and pulls it away from the window. “Penny for your thoughts, Jen.”
I tilt my head and grin, watching the mercury drops continue their gymnastics. “Thinking about colonies. Wondering how Riel would react to the idea of a worldwide talent search instead of just a local one.”
Elspeth chuckles, that half-swallowed ironic laugh I've got so fond of, and lowers her voice. “Funny you should ask that. How do you feel about extortion?”
“In a good cause? I'm all for it.”
“Good. Because Riel plans to use rides to elsewhere on the Montreal—and the Vancouver, when she's spaceworthy — as a carrot to complement the Benefactor stick. Eventually. I imagine it will take a couple of years.” She grins. “Maybe Patty and Dick's friend Min-xue will even get to help fly one of them.”
“I'm not sure what you're saying, Ellie—”
“Aren't you?” Sly and sideways. I have to swallow my grief and my hope before it all spills down my face again: somehow, she's not broken yet. “She's working toward getting the EU, the Commonwealth, and PanMalaysia to sign a cogovernance agreement. If they come on board, the South American states will follow—”
“PanChina will be a problem. And there's the matter of talking to the aliens—”
She tilts her head to one side. “If it were easy, it wouldn't be fun. Richard can be everyplace at once. Which includes Earth, even if the mobile ships leave, because the Huang Di is ours by right of salvage now, and the Calgary—”
— isn't going anywhere. Hah. Yeah. The irony makes me laugh myself sick: think for a moment of ripping myself free, taking Elspeth and Gabe and Genie and running for the hills — and find out my gorgeous justification is already a part of the prime minister's audacious plan for world cooperation. By the time I'm done, wiping tears onto the back of my left hand, everybody else by the windows is staring at me. I shake my head helplessly and grab Ellie's hand. “There's a hell of a lot of work left to do, if we want it.”
A long silence follows, and Ellie squeezes back. It's Patty who breaks the quiet, surprising me. “The whole world just changed.”
Elspeth, softly: “What do you mean?”
The girl lifts her shoulders, dark hair shining over them. It's a speech she's rehearsed in her head, and it shows. “I mean we've converted the entire planet into a macroprocessor, linked human minds together, invited alien races among us, given ourselves over to the, the stewardship of a creature a hell of a lot smarter than we are—”
“Not smarter,” Richard says, in my head and with Patty's voice. “Just better at crunching numbers. And stewardship is still not a job I'm equipped for, kid.”
“What-ever.” Still perfectly sixteen, and she glares when Ellie and I burst out laughing.
“Nah. I know what you mean.” I shake my head helplessly as Gabe comes up on her other side, still holding on to his daughter as if he'll never let her go. He sighs, and I have to turn from the grief and the faith in his face. But he steps around Elspeth, and reaches out to cup my chin in his hand, turning me away from the glass so that I have to look at his eyes. There's almost a — bubble — around the five of us — me, Elspeth, Gabriel, Patty, Genie. And Richard now, always Richard — the world given voice, or something. Whatever it was that Patty was trying — and failing — to say.
I can feel the rest assembled, but they don't intrude. I have a name for the thing in my belly, but it frightens me to say it. Hope. God. I don't want to hope. And I can't seem to help it.
“Well.” He takes a breath like a man who's been holding on to the last one too long, and considers me. “That work you mentioned. Do you want it?”
“No.” Hell, no. “But it's got to be done.”
The last army-wagon straggles
along my starswept trail
corners at the terminal world
and vanishes into the cold.
They'll bury their daughters
and their sons in war-gardens
and the common trenches between the suns.
When after a long trail they arrive
we await their coming.
No message we chase them with
no flag to bring them home, but
whispers without voices
visions without eyes.
They travel on.
We choose to forget them.
They travel on,
— Xie Min-xue, “The Ballad of the Star-Wagons”