The problem with running so close to the wire with every job was that Mara couldn’t afford to heed every warning broadcast. She knew that a hijack alert had been set on this region and yet she had her ship’s computers set to take her right through it. The hope was that a little one-soul ball-ship like Mara piloted would escape their notice.
Right now she hated all the times that she’d gotten a handful of chips back from the casino: it’d drained her well of luck dry. Her console screamed about weapons just locked onto her. A pirate wave pinged her systems. She shifted a lever to her right and pressed down a pedal, extending her leg a little in the cramped cockpit. The triple jets mounted on the little craft’s back flared up and she zoomed away from the blip on her radar. It was going to overtake her. Soon.
A gravity sling around the planet Numedore was the preferred route to Wezar’s City. It saved fuel, it avoided tricky navigation so pilots could sleep. It had been perfect spot for a light raider to hide and it gave her no space to run, nowhere to go but down on the planet. And she wasn’t going to do that. She had to get to Wezar’s with this package. They’d pay enough cash to keep her afloat for the rest of the year. It was the sort of job she dreamed about landing.
“Listen,” came the voice over her intercom. Seedy. Drawn long. “We just want your fuel and whatever you’re carrying. You’ve got a distress beacon, right? Someone will pick you up.”
“This is nothing you want to mess with,” she said in her deepest voice. “I’m on Alliance business. Unless you want a centurion’s boot up your ass. I’ve got a line in to the nearest relay hub now and you’d better believe that I’m sending your ship’s description.”
They weren’t backing off. Mara punched up a pre-programmed evasion pattern. She didn’t care which one. Anything would be better than a straight path.
The black endlessness ahead of her tiny viewport lit up with the green corona of a destructor beam. It was at times like these she was glad she didn’t have more space to look out. She changed the pattern. One hand gripped a rail above her head, the other shifted through the console so she could stay appraised of a situation moving far too quickly for her and this little craft to handle.
“We’re being real fair here,” the voice said again. “Just give it up. We could have destroyed you right there but we didn’t.”
Mara punched in new instructs for her ship’s computer. This was a stupid idea. She knew it was. But she wasn’t going to give up, not yet. They’d have to catch her.
“Right now all I’m waiting on is for confirmation that they’ve received my coordinates,” Mara said. “Even if you get me first, what’re the odds that they get the signal and come charging after you? Not in your favor, mate, lemma say that.”
“Alright, little girl.”
Everything seemed to explode at once. Not quite literally, to Mara’s thin relief. But the noise of a solid clang against the hull of her ship, the piercing alarm that told her what she couldn’t have missed, the violent rocking of her ship and the loud, droning male voice that told her that her course was being diverted.
“If you don’t wanna deal, we’ll just have to steal.”
She seized the controls and pulled, second by second regaining some stability so that she could actually maneuver. They’d hit her with a glancing shot from their harpoon, thankfully not deep enough to latch on or they’d be reeling her in now. All she could see of them was the angry blip following her on the console. But by the way they’d used that destructor, she figured they didn’t have any more juice for it. Just meant to scare people. If she’d had more to lose, it might have worked.
The harpoon was what she needed to fear. They were pulling it back now, setting it up again. No question about that. Soon she’d have open space ahead of her again, no props to give her direction or change the situation, nothing to do but run until she was snared.
Mara went back into entering her wild program. At the same time, she breathed out the beats as they went by, timing herself by the distance between the destruct and the first harpoon shot. It was a crude measure but the only one available. Hopefully if she kept ahead of it she’d have a chance.
Done. She kept counting. Now she just had to measure it right. Find the best moment to spring. She thought she had time to think, but every second she waited seemed to dig into her spine, each piercing a different spot from the last, until she was so on edge that she had to kick it on.
The immense weight of motion crushed Mara into her chair. Both hands found rails to clutch tightly. The pressure overwhelmed her senses. She’d randomly set two of her jets to cut off and the last to burst at triple capacity — strictly impossible, but the ship put forth every drop of effort it had. Five seconds this torture lasted and then she felt completely loose, free in space, the ball ship surrounding her just an incidental piece of the cosmos she floated through. If this was going the way she hoped, the hijackers were turning around and bearing back down on her, trying to decide what state she was in. She’d given the computer five seconds to float before bringing the engines back on, all three at once. She’d completed the count three different times before they finally started.
Again, her tiny craft jolted, sending Mara’s arms flinging hard into a panel. She cried out and bit it down, trying to focus back on her console. No doubt she’d been hit again, but it seemed like the pirates were still following her old course. If she was very, very lucky, their junkheap would find the turn too difficult to make in good time and she’d be clear.
She stared hard at the console, at the distance growing between the two dots.
They weren’t following. Perfect.
Those jackasses had ruined the Numedore sling, which meant an extra day or two on her flight path. That was alright, though. She’d made it past with her cargo. She could drift a bit, and if she ended up at Wezar’s City with a dry fuel tank, she’d be able to pay to get it topped up in short order.
Her ship woke her up. In her viewport shone the immense ring structure called Wezar’s City. The eponymous Wezar was long dead but what he’d left was a major hub for the pioneer types that inhabited the Arjuna sector. You could find everything you needed here at Wezar’s City.
She set her hailer on automatic. As soon as she was in range, she received a reply.
“Wezar’s City Checking Office, you seeking a dock?”
“Yeah, sure am,” she said. “Mara Neptune, solo-pilot of the miniship Ice Ring. Should be patched in and sending credentials.”
“You are right. Just one second. Okay. And how long are you planning to stay?”
“Not sure. Few weeks?”
“Okay, Mara Neptune, Ice Ring, three weeks–”
“And I’ve got some cargo to deliver.”
“Yeah, a delivery for a director. I’ll need a cart.”
“Ice Ring, I’m not reading any cargo on you.”
Mara squinted. There was no way.
“Let me put down in an unloading bay,” Mara said. “We’ll sort it out there.”
“It’ll cost you. Unloading berths are in demand.”
“I’ll cover it,” Mara said.
Shortly, she received the docking protocols and instructed her ship’s computer. It pushed along toward the interior of the ring without further input. Now having nothing to occupy her, Mara felt her stomach curling tighter in on itself. There was no way.
Her ball ship was a recovered, mostly restored model, sold to her in exchange for a larger but junkier craft that she’d salvaged. It had been upgraded to make it fastlight capable, but it was still a poor little scout not useful for much more than travel and exploration. The only addition she had made herself was the rack overtop of the craft, capable of holding decent-sized cargo. It was how she’d made her meager living these past three years. A relatively crude adornment, simply affixed to the hull. It wasn’t connected to her sensors at all.
The inner circle of Wezar’s City was full of ships, most swimming near the city-structure like piglets seeking mother’s milk. Mara drifted past them and through a set of metal sheets that parted on her approach. Inside, she waited while the shielding was closed and the chamber pressurized. They gave her the go signal. The hatch hissed away and Mara clambered out to confirm what she hadn’t dared consider.
The rack’s arms were twisted, one of the six missing past its first joint. The cargo, that beautiful box of bone white metal, was gone. They’d ripped it out. That second harpoon shot. She slammed her fist against the side of her ship.
“I did tell you that you weren’t carrying cargo.”
Mara couldn’t place the voice immediately, but when she turned and saw the man, she knew who it was. The Checking Office man. Pristine with his epauletted shirt and the bold red sash of his position. He inspected the ship as much as her.
“Sorry I didn’t believe you,” she said.
“You are still on file for the fees of this berth, of course,” the man said, “or for transfer fees which, at this juncture, would be prohibitive. Do you have a local or Alliance-rated account I can link to?”
“No. But don’t worry.”
“So how will you pay for the accommodation?”
Mara climbed up the side of her ship and shut the hatch. She knew the Checking man was watching her. She hopped off the ladder and walked across the bay to the exit door. Stunned, the Checking man didn’t follow.
“I’ll have you know we eject non-paying ships,” the man called. “We can’t afford sympathy here.”
Mara stopped and inhaled.
“I said I’ll cover it, didn’t I?” she said. “So give me a chance.”
She hit the button to open the doors. So this was the end of the line, huh? Ship confiscated and destroyed, broke as all get out, stranded in Wezar’s City most like til she croaked? Mara was not thrilled.
What Mara had in her pocket was a credit chip whose value she didn’t know. The tall channels she and the rest of the Wezari denizens roamed through linked together in glyph-marked intersections. Bright lights and cheery animatrons drew attention to shops of every kind. The pubs drew Mara. With Ice Ring likely to be jettisoned in the next few days, all she could think to do was dope herself. Not likely she had much more credit to spend, anyway.
She poked her head into a few different pubs before she found one she liked: mostly deserted, spread out, with a human bartender. Androids and projected AIs tended to give less of a damn if you passed out in the establishment. In a real rural station she might’ve taken the chance to sleep. In Wezar’s City, she’d rather keep alert.
She ordered a whiskey and two downer tabs from the bar, then retired to a small booth near the back. The bartender brought over the goods, tried to sell her some food or other drugs which she refused. She popped the tabs into her mouth, swallowed, and then took the shot. Then she sat back against the pliable plastic seat and let the deep color fill her veins and warm her skin.
A woman leaned and swayed near a holographic game, trying to concentrate enough to play. She was just plastered most likely. The bartender was racing on uppers, a cocktail. Had to be. Keeping it together, though. Mara sniffed. There was a couple in another corner nuzzling together, each dangling a narghile hose from their fingers. No one looked especially dangerous. No one’s eyes darted around like hers.
For hours she ordered drinks, every now and then another tab. She was part of the couch now, as plastic as it, immobile unless pressured, in her case by the need to become immobile again. She tried not to think about Ice Ring and was mostly successful. Floating in her narcotic pool, she wasn’t thinking much about anything. At some point, Mara asked the bartender how much she had left on her chip, but she forgot again. It didn’t matter. She didn’t plan on saving any of it.
Now she stared at her last shot, super-tuber vodka, and a single downer tab. She was still a little fuzzy, still a little flushed. She could wait. But she wanted it. Her hands were on the table and she felt if every part of the room were converging on her, insisting that she make a choice. Do it or don’t? And if not now, the next moment, do it or don’t?
She picked up the tab. A man walked into the pub. Tall, broad-shouldered, a beard that hid his jaw and climbed down to his collar. On his hip he wore a blaster pistol with a bright purple peacebond attached, preventing him from drawing. She knew that, like most, he’d found some sly way around it.
She brought the tab to her mouth. The man leaned over the bar and talked to the speed freak behind the counter. The bartender nodded at her and the man looked at her. She swallowed the tab.
The man walked over as Mara brought the shot glass to her mouth. He watched her, just across the table. She watched him.
“You gonna drink?” he asked.
Mara lifted an eyebrow.
“I’ll turn around if it makes you more comfortable.”
She drank. The man nodded.
“You want a drink?” He pulled out a chair and sat down. “Baco tells me you’re out of cash.” He signaled for two to be brought over.
“Kind,” Mara said.
“Not really,” the man said. “Opportunistic.”
Mara tried to repeat the word but she felt like her tongue had grown three sizes in her mouth. The bartender set two more shots on the table. A perfect way to clear the trouble.
Mara nodded, then shook her head, then raised her hand. She downed the shot, then beat her chest with her fist and coughed.
“Yes,” Mara enunciated.
“Good. As I was saying, I don’t really do charity. I thought you might want to earn your next drink.”
“Earn? Earn how?”
“How are you with a gun?”
“I can shoot.” She was slurring again. She coughed.
“I’m putting a team together. Hired for some base defense and I need a few more hands. Pay’s pretty alright, 400 credits every week. More if you stay on longer than two months.”
Not fantastic. But better than anything she had going. She started to offer her hand to the man but let it drop again.
“See my man Baco there?” The man pointed with his thumb. “He says you’ve got shifty eyes. On short notice, shifty eyes’ll do.”
Good enough. She held out her hand. He shook it.
“They call me Black Tom,” he said.
“Mara Neptune,” she said.
“Hope you dry out quick,” Tom said. He stood up directly. “We’re off in eight hours.”
Mara waved her hand in the air. “I’ll be fine in eight, sure,” she said.
God in Heaven. Just eight hours to sleep off all this poison.
The elevator hit the ground and bounced lightly before coming to a final rest. People pushed out of the box and went in all directions. Mara let herself be guided by the current until someone grabbed her arm and pulled her in one direction. It was Black Tom. He let her go as soon as they’d set on the right path, down a mostly deserted channel. Near the end they took a turn into another pub, populated by a mild buzz of conversation produced by the scraps of cosmic detritus perched on the stools and hunched over tables.
“Welcome to my place,” Black Tom said as he pushed past her. “Fain will tell you the rules. You can pay for grog at the projection, not that you need it. We’re not selling anything stronger, so don’t ask. Don’t make trouble. And if you’ve got a problem.” Tom, across the room, turned back to her. “Save it.” He announced he was heading to his rack and disappeared.
Fain was a thin man in a tight jumpsuit. He eyed her up and down and seemed to find her wanting.
“Sidearm and longarm,” he said, pushing a blaster of each description into her hands. She staggered but kept her feet. “Weapons are your responsibility. No discharging in here, obviously. We’d have enforcers on us in minutes. Shooting range out back is cleared for limited target practice. Black Tom’s in charge, I’m next, and the rest of you after that. Like Tom said, stow your problems. But if you gotta talk to somebody, you talk to me.” He handed her a credit chip. “We’ll load your pay on that, so don’t lose it. No hacking, no stealing from anybody, no b-and-e, no assaults unless we got to, no drugs stronger than alco, and so on. You been on a platoon before, yeah?”
“So you know the drill. Hell, don’t know why I even asked. Only a vet would take up in this laser hell. Remember, you’re with Black Tom and right now we’re with Far Arjuna. You don’t step out of line, you’ll probably stay alive. You understanding me?”
“All clear, boss.”
“Alright. We’ll let you know when it’s time to get suited up. You’ve got a while.”
He pointed into the pub with his head and returned to watching the door. Mara loped past him and sat heavily on a stool, setting her rifle down with a clatter and thunking the pistol onto the counter in front of her.
Sleep. Eight hours to sleep. She closed her eyes but she couldn’t drift. Maybe it’s what Fain had said. Laser hell. What exactly had she gotten dragged into? She opened her eyes before long, hoping the extra strain would tire her out. It did but she didn’t sleep. She stared at the darkened shapes of distant tables and people and a slowly rotating statuette.
“Hey-ey,” said a man she didn’t know as he sat beside her. “You need a pick-up? Seen you here all hangdoggy.”
Mara lifted her head out of her arms. “What?”
The man leaned in, reddish dreadlocks swaying in front of his face. “Ups,” he hissed. His eyes flashed to Fain. “Keep you on your feet.”
“Uh huh. You think I’d just be here sitting if I had any cash?”
The man frowned and sat back. “Hell, everybody’s broke. You can owe me it, I guess.”
“Playing it safe. We’re all in this together. I like to have comrades on point.”
“We’ve got a few hours yet,” Mara said. “What’s your rush?”
He hunched his shoulders. “Need someone to come with me to the range, watch out no one else comes by. Dunno who’s a snitch here yet.”
“And I’m not?”
“You were so blasted when you came in I was surprised you didn’t just dissolve. You’re no snitch.”
Mara glanced back at Fain. “Well alright.” She started to get up.
“Bring your blasters,” he said. She got them and followed him back through a door to the shooting range. It was a cramped little room with a small port to shoot through, behind that being a thick pane of laser-proof material. They both put on virtual-goggles to create distance effects, making the most of the little space. They had to make a little noise so no one got suspicious.
He introduced himself, before they began blasting, as Waron Laxter. Born and raised in Wezar’s City, though he’d done a lot of his business out of it. He’d been on more than a few mercenary missions but his major line was smuggling. Waron took the upper pill while Mara poured laser shot into the bluish metal, making ripples in the air where they impacted. Waron picked up his longarm and fired a volley of his own. They didn’t share targets so she couldn’t tell how good he was.
“Fain said something to me,” Mara said as she took a moment to relax her shooting arm. “About this being a ‘laser hell’. Only a vet would take it up.”
“Just trying to scare ya,” Waron said. “But it ain’t pretty. The science types at StelloScope don’t really give a fuck about human life in our terms. Been reports of a lot of crazy shit. Surface glassing being just a taste.”
“From what I’ve picked up, we shouldn’t be going anywhere too hot. Ore mining operation that’s a bit testy after the recent attacks. I wouldn’t be worried.”
“Nah,” Mara said. She started to shoot again, holding the pistol grip with both hands.
No reason to be worried. StelloScope, whoever they were, had the firepower to obliterate whole towns from lower orbit. And she was signed up on the other side. Nothing to fear in the slightest.
As it happened, Mara didn’t sleep. She told herself it’d be better to hang on for now and sleep on the ship. Waron said it’d take the better part of two days to reach wherever they were going. Definitely time to catch some shut eye.
Black Tom stormed out of his room as if he was eager to repay some offense. He ordered everyone up, shortly joined in shouting by Fain who had for a few hours been dozing against the entrance. The thirty or so who’d been assembled in Tom’s little spot began to rouse themselves and their neighbors. Mara leaned into the shooting range where Waron was snoring against the wall. Short term boost and he’d worn himself out with the dosage.
She helped him up and they gathered their weaponry. In the channel, Fain did a quick head count and reported it back to Tom. All checked, they trooped after Black Tom to a secondary elevator system. Here they were checked out by city enforcers. One by one they were allowed onto the elevator that took them up to a set of hangars. More enforcers were stationed around the doors or patrolled between the great starships which threw broad faint shadows over the floor.
Their ship was an older transport that had once been intricately painted with dulled and chipped designs still visible against the green hull. Neither Black Tom nor Fain piloted the ship. That job belonged to a red-cheeked man that she’d noticed but not taken note of before. Tom instead stood right at the front of the transport bay, demanding that they all hurry up getting strapped in.
Waron took the seat right next to Mara, which was fortunate as she didn’t have the first clue on how to work it. Before Tom or Fain could see, Waron started to explain the procedure. Calling this a seat was generous; it was really a standing harness with a little rest for her backside. Looking around, she was faced by a dozen squatters looking torn between taking a heavy seat back and pitching forward onto their faces. Waron told her how to work the buckles a few times before she could follow him.
“Hey,” Waron hissed when Tom and Fain got to talking between each other. Mara looked up, then down at his hand and the upper pill proffered.
“I’ve got it on already,” she said.
“Keep your head up til we’re out of here, alright?” He palmed the pill.
Mara hummed. “Maybe I better.”
Waron nodded, and with a flashed glance at the bosses, pushed it out for her to pluck. Mara in turn waited for Black Tom to yell into the cockpit, then for him to be satisfied with the answer. Tom and Fain began to strap themselves in and now, crudely covering her mouth, Mara popped the pill into her mouth and gulped it down.
“We’ll be getting clearance soon,” Black Tom announced. “Once we do, we’ll be off. Everything on the ship’s on my say so, we all clear? You don’t touch those straps unless you clear it with me.”
A general murmur, to which both Mara and Waron contributed. All in it together.
Mara snorted repeatedly, without outward cause, then rubbed her nose to quiet it. The pill was hitting her now, making her clench her teeth, her perception seem to bounce back and forth. For just a moment. Still some electricity, or something like electricity but warm and fluid like blood, thrilling through her. She, slowly, tried to unclench her jaw. She thought Fain was looking at her but when she looked he wasn’t. She tried to stop looking so that he wouldn’t think she was looking and she tried to relax. At least no one would think she was doped dead. Not until the crash, anyway.
The cockpit door opened and the pilot shouted something, then it slammed shut again. Black Tom permitted himself to unbuckle his straps so he could lean out and relay the message: clearance given, jets on in twelve. Waron looked over at her. She couldn’t read his expression. The ship started to rumble.
Automatically, the network of strapping pulled tighter, locking Mara into her position. Some of the others were a bit confused but most, like Waron, seemed calm enough. Mara tried to look normal. She wanted to itch her nose, to rub her nose. She coughed rather than snort again.
There was no way to see what was happening outside. She could only feel. At once there was a huge force beneath her, beneath the whole ship, and they must have been traveling up out of Wezar’s City. The louder howl of the engines quickly died away until there was just the present throb running through the ship. They were being pushed along now. How far, how fast, to where, Mara didn’t know. To a payday, hopefully. And a better bed than this.
The uppers kept Mara rolling for a while, but somewhere along the way she came down. A rush swam up to her brain and her head pounded with a dull unpleasantness. The same seemed to grab hold of her stomach. Her head hung forward. She started to work at her straps but she saw Waron looking at her, worried. She swallowed hard and tried to focus on keeping her empty stomach from revolting. Straight ahead, a few of her companions had fallen asleep, a few leaning across to talk to neighbors. She wondered briefly where everything had been stowed. Anything to keep from thinking about how fast they were going or how the unknown upper chemical was rotting her insides.
Waron dropped asleep. Mara immediately pulled at her straps again, but decided against it. The nausea had mostly gone now. She tried to get her feet flat on the ground, hunting for the most comfortable position. Then Black Tom’s voice cut through the low murmurs.
Mara’s eyes went up as her stomach went down. Those awake looked around anxiously. Abruptly, they all seemed to shift, Mara’s shoulders feeling below her feet, the opposite row of mercenaries not just across from but above her, and they kept twisting. Mara pulled at the straps again. Her stomach was not going to hold up to this.
Banging, muffled by the lack of air outside, nevertheless radiated into the transport bay. Mara’s sense of direction was yanked to one side and lurched back the other way. They were accelerating, Mara could feel that. She had to get these undone.
Another crash, another rocking of the ship. Now everyone was awake and most everyone was yelling. Black Tom, unstrapped, hung from a top rail and held the cockpit door open with his foot, communicating with the pilot in great volume.
“Keep in your places!” Fain shouted. “Stay strapped in!”
Mara wasn’t the only one struggling with her straps. Having been at it the longest, she managed to be the first to free herself and immediately whipped back through the bay, dragged by the acceleration. Her hands scrambled and she caught onto the straps of someone else. The man stared at her in utter confusion. She fought to try and bring herself over to the ladder railings above. She used his chest and the shoulder of the person next to him to climb, always opposed by the ship’s motion.
Then, silently and suddenly, it all stopped.
To Mara, the shift was as violent as any of the previous, and it did what they hadn’t. Overcome by the need to vomit, she released her hand holds and collapsed to the hard flooring in a heap. The flash of pain lingered, hot on her elbow and side where she’d landed. Immediately she retched, spitting up whatever orangeish stuff her stomach had managed to scrape together.
Through her fingers, Mara saw the wall and floor blanketed in strong hues that overlapped in a series that baffled her. What in the fuck had Waron given to her? She puked again. The only sound she could hear was her own struggle.
Slowly, when her impulse had subsided to hiccups and wet coughs, she looked over her shoulder. Waterfalls of blinding blackness roamed through the cabin, the lights swinging out from them like the wings of unreal dragonflies, all-encompassing and immaterial, seeming to exist on top of one another, in the same space but not blended. Appendages of that blinding black like arms reached out, touched the crew, some of them. Their color became part of the overall cycle.
Mara pressed her face against the wall. It was too much for her. She was going to kill Waron, right after Black Tom got done killing her. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and tried to pull herself up. Something next to her left hand was hot, searing. The pain was unbelievable. She cried out and crumbled to the ground again, her head hitting the side of a harness.
She retched again. Nothing. Her stomach couldn’t get settled, though, even despite the lack of motion. Mara tried to get up again. Now, before she made much progress, she felt a heat on her shoulders. Something drawing her back. It was hot and she was cold, frigid. Melting without heating up.
All her warmth came back in a surge that made her cry out. It returned the unwelcome ache to her skull and the throb of recent impacts to the rest of her body. Her stomach felt like it had twisted double, trying to cure itself by wringing out the last of whatever it could find. But she had to get up, she knew that. Whatever the reason for the ship’s relative stasis, she meant to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately, that reason expired quickly. Mara was slammed flat against the wall by the sudden, intense pressure. She supposed that was the direction the ship was going.
When she’d managed to force herself away from the wall, she saw that she had no neighbors. She looked around. Everyone had gone. Most had left no trace, but in a few harness pods there were large, person-tall streaks of burn. The straps themselves were all perfect, pristine. In fact, it seemed that the only signs that anything had happened were the vanished crew, the burns, the vomit, and Mara hauling herself from harness to harness in order to reach the front of the ship.
An alarm rang out, and red light flooded the cockpit. For a moment she seized up, thinking that whatever had happened was coming again, but there was still momentum and she could see the bulbs flashing the red around. She continued pulling, battling against the ship’s reckless motion, her own pain, and her stomach. It was a difficult, awkward climb, legs knocking against the wall features as often as clearing them, but she had to make it. It was only her, it seemed. She at least meant to try and keep living.
The cockpit was, thankfully, still open. Mara managed to hook her leg around the opening and swing through. She crashed hard against the front viewports but managed to steady herself quickly, balancing mostly on the complicated console itself. From this unorthodox view, she tried to figure out what the controls were saying. She’d hoped that, having a little flying experience, she might have an easy time of this. Not a damn thing on the console made sense to her.
She managed to force herself into a pilot’s chair, the acceleration pulling her hard into the chair arm even after she’d buckled herself in. Now she worked quickly, her fingers dancing over the controls, mouth echoing their names, trying to figure out something that might help her. Finally she noticed a little instrument window that told her the absolute worst news she could have received.
They — she and the ship — were being pulled down into a planet’s atmosphere. In a short time there would be absolutely no chance of recovery and they’d be headed for burnup. She didn’t know if this ship was re-entry ready. She didn’t even know if they had the jets on. She did, however, remember the basic emergency re-entry steps for any craft. So she returned to cataloguing the controls.
Mara’s eyes constantly flickered back to that readout, marking how long she had until they’d be past the terminal point. One by one, she located her targets, made the adjustments. There was a lot that she had no clue how to operate, several steps she couldn’t complete, but she had done all she could. Now she just had to wait and hope. And every second the forces working on her grew greater, at first steadily and then exponentially. She was being fused into her seat by force.
At some point, she lost consciousness.
She didn’t know when.
She woke up alive with pain, her mouth open but too hurt to scream. It wasn’t the pain that woke her up, though, nor was it the strange lack of motion. It was the radio. Someone was making contact.
Mara didn’t need to trust them. Soon they were sawing through the ship’s hull. She was still in her seat trying not to let the pain overwhelm her. Translucent console panes were more broken out than intact, shards flung over every surface. Some of the controls had been smashed in by falling objects. Somehow the cockpit was largely okay. Behind her, in the transport bay, she didn’t want to think. She heard no one, so she assumed she was alone. If she wasn’t, she didn’t want to know.
The intercom flashed on.
“Our team is through,” said the person on the other end. “Air will likely be thinning out in there now, might be getting an unpleasant smell. Don’t worry. They’ve got respiratory equipment, they’ll be with you in time.”
“Uh huh,” Mara said.
The air had been thin in here for a while. Having no sensors, she couldn’t tell how much oxygen was left, where the breach was if any. Not that the information would have helped her much. She doubted that she could have done enough to save herself. Sealing up a junker like this in time to keep the air breathable would have been a herculean task. And she was already hurting so much, already finding it hard to inhale.
The saw was still going. They’d get through, they said. Mara waited to hear a different sound.
The room around her was a soft blue like the Earth sky in pictures. She started to sit up and had to fight for it, but she did manage to get her head and shoulders against the headboard. A hospital. Or something like it. This was a private room apparently and, for the moment, she was alone.
Mara lifted her arm to pull the sheets away and grimaced with the fresh, hot pain. She could move, but she would rather lay still. Still, she decided that she’d better get up, even if it meant groaning and straining to do it. She’d only just managed to sit upright when the door opened and a woman in black walked through.
She looked amused at Mara. She quietly pulled a chair over and took a seat. Mara, apprehensive, sat shaking with the effort to keep sitting.
“So you’re feeling better?” the woman asked.
“Better than what?”
“A stupid question, I agree. I apologize. Are you feeling well?”
“No,” Mara said, “but I’m alive. Glad for that.”
“As are we.”
It was too much for her. Mara gave in and sank back to the bed.
“Do you remember where you are?” the woman said.
“This room, I don’t remember. But I know where I’m supposed to be: aboard Sclera’s base-ship.”
“And your name?”
“So at least your memory hasn’t been too affected. Yes, you’re aboard the Sarcophagus. We pulled you out of a wreck on Carnuta. The only survivor, as it happens.”
Mara nodded, kept quiet.
“I’m Bisera Banlon,” the woman said, “a Sclera operative, as you’ve guessed. I just came to check on your health, see if you remember anything from the crash.”
“It’s difficult,” Mara said. “All happened very fast. Tough to pull it all apart.”
“I can give you a little more time if you want,” Bisera said. “You don’t need me bothering you right now. I just want to say that you shouldn’t worry about anything you might have done. We’re not interested in busting you or intervening. We just want to know what’s happened. It was a very… interesting crash.”
Bisera left her alone in the sterile blue.
Sclera. The Whites. Silent guardians of the Federated Alliance. So they called themselves. Mara didn’t think it’d be better if they were trying to bust her but at least she’d know what their game was.
Bisera Banlon checked on her daily, as did a few medics at different times. Whatever IV drip they gave her, whatever they put in her food, it helped immensely. Mara’s pain and stiffness fled much quicker than she’d expected. Before the week was done she was able to walk around her room with only a little effort. Now Bisera brought her a plain civilian outfit and took her through the ship.
Sarcophagus‘s corridors were almost channels, large enough for four abreast, with no threat of anyone knocking their head against a ceiling. Bisera did not name any of the rooms they passed or even acknowledge the other grey-suited agents that they caught sight of. Mara was well out of breath by the time they reached the small interview room. Her legs burned. She was glad to take the seat that Bisera offered.
“So you’re fully mobile,” Bisera said. “That’s good to see.”
“I don’t know about fully.”
“But you’ll mend. And you’re aware of everything? No memory problems?”
“Good. Now like I’ve said, we need to understand what happened in this crash. You’re not traumatized by the experience or anything like that, are you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then why don’t you start with the attack?”
“At Local 22-40, the private ship Garrulous launched two flak salvos that struck the private ship Yancy’s Mule. Did you not feel the impact?”
“Oh, that.” Mara shut her eyes a moment. “Well. I remember the shaking starting. I dunno what it was, we were in the transport bay and we couldn’t see shit. No one was talking to us. I had to get out of my harness. I’d, ah, just popped some ups and they weren’t sitting right with me. I ended up puking right after I got out.”
“We did detect minor levels of psychostimulant in your system.”
“Anyway, I was wrecked on those things for a while. I dunno what was in them. Psychostimulant you said? I never know what goes into these things. But when I came out of it, everybody — I mean everybody — was gone. No idea what happened to em. But we were free-… I was freefalling, pulled into the planet. Managed to get up to the cockpit and hell, I dunno. Can’t say how I survived but I’m here now.”
“You’d set a number of atmosphere re-entry controls,” Bisera said. “You or whoever was in the cockpit before you. Not enough for a proper landing — the ship was irreparable — but enough to keep you alive. Now, can you help me understand this?”
On the wall appeared an image, mostly dark making an irregular border for a small pinched diamond of mingled color. She saw at one point in the color a nothingness that seemed almost to sear through the projected display.
“What is this?” Mara asked.
“It’s something you saw on the ship, before it crashed. We haven’t been able to figure it out.”
“How did you get this?”
“Mind probe, while you slept.”
“So you knew everything I just told you?”
“We put together what we could, but you’ve made a lot clearer for us. Except for this, of course.”
Mara stared at the image.
“That’s your body,” Bisera said. “The dark parts. Your body and a bit of wall.”
“Oh. God. I was tripping like crazy then. I don’t know what those colors are. Like I said, those uppers (psychostimulants, you said?) were wrecking me.”
“You think so? From what we can find, that particular chemical should be non-hallucinogenic.”
“I don’t know,” Mara said. “Had to be something I ate or something. There were a lot of colors while I was puking my guts out. All around me. I don’t know what was happening. If I could tell you more, I would.”
“Hmm.” Bisera stared at the image now, like Mara had actually said something of use.
“So you were watching us the whole time?” Mara asked. “Why were we under attack?”
“The Garrulous was under contract with a dummy of StelloScope, patrolling the region. Yancy’s Mule came onto their sensors at approx Local 19-05 and they stalked you. Seemed to us like just keeping tabs. At 22-28 they suddenly made a dart for you and then things just went haywire. That’s the extent of what we know. That and what you told us.”
“So I’m the only one you picked up?”
“The only one that got out from either ship, as far as we can tell,” Bisera said. “And we’re not sure why that is. But we don’t like to be kept in the dark about these things.”
Mara nodded. Then her eyes grew.
“And you don’t–”
“No, we don’t. You are, with no offense meant, nobody. If you’d had the means to pull something like this off, we’d have found out by now.” Bisera got up from her seat then and invited Mara to do the same. The image clicked off. “Let’s get you back to your cot so you can rest. We’ll have more to talk about tomorrow.”
Mara pushed herself up from her seat slowly. More to talk about. She was glad to be alive, there was no doubt about that, but she couldn’t help feeling like there was a hook in her cheek.
Mara was moved out of the hospital wing as soon as she was able to get around without trouble. Now she stayed in a single dorm a few corridors from that area. Bisera checked in on her once a day, but most of the time she was left alone. The banality of the Sarcophagus surprised her. No one she met seemed secretive or dangerous, though they weren’t necessarily friendly. She spent a lot of her time in the gym, doing a bit of treadmill running and a lot of people watching. They wouldn’t let her have alcohol outside the mess and somehow it didn’t seem the crowd to get trashed around. She tried to be glad that she was alive if nothing else.
This went on for about a week before Bisera Banlon called her back to that little meeting room. She took her seat and Bisera did the same.
“I’d like to tell you something about what’s going on,” Bisera said. “If you’re willing to repay the favor we did you.”
“I figured you were keeping me around for something like that,” Mara said.
“Good. Now, have you heard of elementium?” Bisera brought up an image, an irregular spheroid mass, slightly blue against the blackness of space.
“It’s an extremely versatile substance,” Bisera said. “Mostly it’s used in the production of elementite, one of the most resistant materials ever developed. They’re mined off of these masses here. The size of planetlings, but at least 60% elementium. Right now it’s little known but there is a lot of potential there.”
She brought up the next image, a logo of red stars and the lettering FA. Mara recognized it.
“They were discovered several years ago by the Far Arjun Federation,” Bisera said. The next image, showing a middle-aged man with a dark face. “Ruled by Lord President Charles Onager. They’ve been mining with aplomb since they discovered how to refine elementium. What they want is to create a market from this but they haven’t been able to mass-produce or make anything of size up to now.”
The next images showed at the same time. A purple logo of a stylized radio array and the visage of a worn old woman. “Lord President Rue Sasako, in charge of the StelloScope Foundation. They’re a high-tech foundation and they don’t like any advancements to pass them by. Elementium they want more than any other. They’ve invested a great deal in attack ships to disrupt Farjun operations. Right now, they haven’t made a big hit anywhere, but that could change very soon. From our observations, they’re getting desperate to score a decisive victory over Far Arjuna.”
“So are we going to be trying to stop them?” Mara asked.
“Possibly. We” –and she said it pointedly, to exclude Mara– “can’t be sure of what the right option is at the moment. Our job is simply to watch events and keep things from spilling out of control. Maybe we’ll find that StelloScope’s ambitions here are out of order and have to be shut down. Maybe Earth will want us to help parcel out the masses. We’re still investigating.”
“So what is it that you want me to do?”
“Out here on the fringes, we find that it’s tough to find trust. That makes it hard for us to put agents where we want them. With you, I think we’ve got a chance to put a listener on the Farjun flagship, very close to their top command. With that last piece, we’ll be able to tell Earth everything they need to know.”
Mara scrutinized the face of Lord President Sasako, mostly for the lack of anything else to look at.
“So how do I get aboard the ship?”
“We’ll have that worked out,” Bisera said. “And one more thing. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but if you do see anything odd like what happened to you aboard Yancy’s Mule, make sure you call that in. We still need to find out what’s causing all these disappearances.” Bisera shut the images off and stood up. “How are you feeling?”
“About this assignment.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fun,” Mara said.
Bisera laughed a little. “A refreshing attitude. Hold onto it.”
For this role, Mara needed to look the part of an experienced privateer. She was given darkish clothing, just a bit of blue and green for color; under her blouse she wore an ablative vest against knifings or bullets. A plasma torch would be her main tool, a blaster pistol strapped to her hip for security. Boots were equipped with magnetic soles and with a rudimentary computer bank. She readied her hair its shocking teal and smiled in the mirror as she finished dressing.
What had taken the most time, and been most important to The Whites, was the implant of her communicator node. She needed to have an implant canal dug, a short surgery that she was knocked out for. They had worked the communicator into her ear before she rose. Bisera went over its use several times. Mara wasn’t sure she understood but she was sure she couldn’t forget Bisera’s harangues.
She got a final one on their journey by shuttle to the orbiting manor of one Minister Lar Gosmanian. The introduction was brief. Bisera goodbyed, said she would be watching, and left. A gaggle of servants arrived to shepherd Mara to the dining hall where she ate in magnificence with the minister. She could tell he was interested but she was not, not in him or anything he had to say. Lar found himself talking quite a lot about his work administering postal systems. Mara enjoyed the meal and spoke just enough to make him fill the silence. At least while he was talking he didn’t have that hangdog look on his face.
Three days she had to spend aboard this manor. Bisera told her that they didn’t want anyone tracing a Sclera ship, so they couldn’t come later. The stay was pleasant enough. She got wine and rum when she asked for it. Nothing harder, nothing to actually do in this fancy box, but it could’ve been worse. She tested her communicator out once and got hissed at. So she just lounged and drank and tried unsuccessfully to hit on one of the servants with a nice body.
Minister Gosmanian came himself to tell her that the Farjun ship had arrived. Unluckily, she’d just polished off a glass of rum when he arrived. She was steady on her feet, even if she had to concentrate to do it, and followed him through the channels of the manor. The modest docking bay was peopled by two groups with strained feelings. The first was of Gosmanian’s people, bearing light blasters and seeming scared about it. The second was a more veteran outfit in dark uniforms with rifles. They were led by a woman in a red beret and gold bands on her shoulders.
“Let’s all stand down, at ease,” Lar said, parting his servants to come to the center of the standoff. “Colonel, I thought you said you wouldn’t come aboard my home with weapons again.”
“This is a war, minister,” the colonel said. “We can’t be too careful.”
“Too true. But let this be the last time.” Lar waved at Mara and she stepped forward. Her hand rested on the stock of her pistol. She hoped that she looked confident. “This is the associate of mine I was telling you about. Mara Neptune.”
“Mis Neptune,” the colonel said, inclining her head slightly. “I’ve heard you had an interesting experience, might have some information that we could use.”
“I think so,” Mara said. “All I know is there are people who’d rather it didn’t get out.”
She nodded. “We’ll make whatever use of it we can. My name is Colonel Zerva Mos and I’d like to formally welcome you aboard the Bondsman. Harry?”
A man with a round, shaven head stepped out of the line.
“This is Petty Sergeant Harold McMillian,” Colonel Mos said. “He’ll be showing you to your quarters and telling you about your duties. Hopefully you’ll be of some use around the ship.”
“I hope so.”
“Our supplies,” Colonel Mos said to the minister. “Are they ready?”
“Everything requested,” Lar said. “Ready to be loaded on as soon as the fund transfer is made.”
“Alright. Harry, you take her inside, get her situated. Cal, you come with me.”
The colonel got murmurs of acknowledgement. Harry turned into the ship and Mara followed without prompting.
The Bondsman‘s interior was impressive. Halls almost as big as station channels were able to carry a heavy stream of people, and right now it needed to. Clean metal-gray walls had a number of panels and nooks set in. She would have asked a question but Harry didn’t seem the tour guide type. No one saluted here, like she’d heard the Alliance jocks did when they were aboard ship. In every other way, though, it fit her image of a flagship. She’d never been aboard one before. There was a sense of incredible power here, like she was a parasite inside the stomach of some terrifying beast. Harry opened the door and ushered her into a small room, then closed it behind her.
Darkness. Mara felt forward and after a bit found the edge of a chair, pulled it out and sat down, banging her knee on something as she did. A table. She winced and gingerly felt out to her knee to try and console herself. Well, she hadn’t been expecting much but certainly more than this. Had Sclera’s plan been found out? Did Colonel Mos really trust Lar that little? Mara was barely equipped to even ask these questions. If those damn pirates hadn’t ripped out her cargo, she wouldn’t be anywhere near a foundation war. Yet here she was. One lived as one had to.
The door opened again. Harry McMillian entered, closed the door. He sat down and he put his hand on the table, causing it to slowly glow brighter until he took his hand off. Mara didn’t know if she was supposed to know how the table worked. Harry’s face gave her no answers.
“The colonel is concerned about your story,” Harry said.
“What about it?”
“Your fraternization with StelloScope. It raises issues.”
“The kind that make us wonder how far we can trust you. We’ve rooted out spies in our midst before.”
“Well what do you want to know?” Mara asked. “I thought it was pretty straightforward. I have information to sell you, info you want.”
“How did you start working for StelloScope?”
“Through the minister.”
“That’s him. He said he just wanted to keep an eye on new players in the area.”
“So he got you a place on the ship.”
“Yeah. You’ll have to ask him the details on that. I was aboard their ship for three months or so, contacting Gosmanian frequently. Looking out for movements, especially of weapons and such. Like I said, keeping an eye out.”
“What was the name of the ship?” Harry asked.
“Ah… something like Landstander?” Mara said.
“I’ll check on that,” Harry said. “Where were you stationed?”
Mara rattled off the coordinates Bisera had told her to memorize. Near the edge of Farjun space, a dead planetoid’s station which had been commandeered by the StelloScope Foundation. She’d never been there herself. No reason to visit a burnt out rock like that.
“And what were you doing aboard the ship? Certainly wouldn’t just let you loaf.”
“I was a research assistant,” Mara said. “They run lots of experiments aboard their ships, always messing with something. They were looking with more hands, especially those with experience in this area. The minister put me up for it and they didn’t hesitate.”
“How many did they need?”
“There were six of us, I think. Total. I was the only one from this sector. Well, if any others were, they’d lived away for a long time before this.”
“Mhm. So you as a research assistant aboard one of their ships, name you can’t really remember, you managed to glean some information vital to our war effort. Is that it?”
“I never said it was vital. When I ditched StelloScope and got back to Gosmanian, I told him what I’d found out. He got in touch with you guys. It’s interesting but I can’t say how much it’s gonna help you.”
“So what is this information?” Harry asked. “Gosmanian wouldn’t tell us, he insisted the colonel take you on.”
“Right, and I’m with him on that. Not saying anything unless I get to talk direct to the colonel.”
“You’ll see the colonel. Just tell me what it’s about. I’ll let you give the details to the colonel herself.”
Mara watched him across the dim light from the table. He looked like a floating hallucination, the ghost of a severed head, cloaked in dark except for his glowing face.
“Supply routes,” she said. “Being around some of their maps and tracing where we got chemical reshipments from, I determined two major routes that StelloScope is using to keep their forces equipped. If you want to cut them off or even rob fuel for yourself, it’s right there.”
“And you know how to get at it?”
Mara grinned. “I figured I’d leave that to you guys.”
Harry stood and opened the door. The intense brightness pouring in made Mara throw her arm up.
“Alright, then, come on,” he said. “We’ll get you a cot. If I was you I’d just steer clear of people for a while, until they get to know you.”
Mara stood up shakily and exited the dark little room.
“So I check out?” she said.
“I just ask the questions. If the answers are wrong, the colonel will let you know.”
Mara exhaled heavily. Somehow that was the least friendly thing he’d said since he brought her aboard.
For the moment, Mara Neptune was a member of Bondsman‘s crew. She didn’t know much about life aboard these big mainliners. McMillian showed her the slim room where she’d have a cot. She was relieved of the blaster pistol but was allowed to keep the plasma torch. McMillian didn’t look for anything else. That done, he let her know about her duties. He’d taken into account her lack of experience serving aboard a ship like this. This was a job anyone could do.
She was introduced to Orly Paton outside the mess hall. He was a thin man with stork-like posture and he carried a long bulb-ended pole and a deep bucket. McMillian gave Mara the same. Their job would be to go from room to room, collecting refuse and cleaning the areas. Nothing deep necessary, just to make sure that the ship was in order. McMillian joked that Orly needed some company. Orly didn’t seem to appreciate it. They were told where to return their materials when they’d finished. For the rest, Orly would tell Mara what she was supposed to do. McMillian left them then so they could tackle their first task.
Their sweepers could push and collect most forms of dust and dirt, as well as cleaning some lingering stains. Trash was to be put into the buckets for imminent vaporization. The best way to go about things, Orly said, was to take it corner by corner. They could split this mess hall by half and, if they were lucky, finish before the next lunch shift came in. He didn’t seem to want to let any of this information go but he gave way to the situation. Mara had trouble working the sweeper at first but he yelled over some instructions and she got acquainted with it. The bulb-end of the sweeper glowed just faintly and she could see the cold beige of the floor and cold green of the wall becoming brighter as it passed.
The mess hall saw nearly half the crew in its rows three times a day. Mara wasn’t surprised that it was disgusting but that didn’t mean she wasn’t disgusted. She wondered if Orly was watching her, laughing at her. She caught him looking at times. She never saw a smile on his face. Mara tried to concentrate but now, especially as she worked around the first row of tables, she couldn’t shake the feeling. Avoiding this was why she’d become a courier in the first place, hoping to make it in one of the few jobs that didn’t require a fellowship or a supervisor. She kept her mind on sweeping.
The mess took nearly half an hour to clean and, by the time they were walking out, the first hungry jocks came wandering in to see what was being cooked up. Orly first led Mara down the corridor up to the disposal chute where they dumped the trash. Then they had more to do. Corridors, rec room, weight training room, lavatories, all had to be cleaned. When Mara finished her part she’d sidle over to the exit and look around, try and get familiar with her surroundings. There were markers here and there, colored numbers that she couldn’t decipher. Orly said she’d figure out which rooms they belonged to in due time.
Within Bondsman were several service tunnels that led down to the liner’s cargo bay. Beside one tunnel entrance was a series of six hatches and their accompanying instrumentation. Escape pods, Orly told her. These were miniships for double-emergency situations: no controls, just set for landfall on a planet within range. Main escape vessels were ahead some ways. Mara showed interest but Orly guided her down the tunnel. The cargo bay was one of their biggest jobs. It also required a lot of attention so that “we” — and Mara knew he wanted to say “you” — didn’t put anything important in the vaporizer.
Now that Mara had found some escape pods, she figured she should try to contact Sclera. There wasn’t a chance in the cargo bay. Orly’s eyes were always on her, especially if she tried to wander around a stack of crates or put distance between them. After a while she gave up on trying to rub her neck or scratch her ear or fiddle with her hair. They couldn’t keep her on duty forever. Quicker she got done, quicker she’d have time for herself. Hopefully this partner thing didn’t extend to all hours.
She looked around. Sergeant McMillian stood in the middle of the bay, looking as well. Mara stepped out and answered the call.
“Colonel Mos wants to see you in the boardroom,” McMillian said. “Now, of course.”
“What do I do with this?” Mara asked.
“Leave it. Not in the middle of the floor.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
McMillian hollered for Orly to make sure he picked up the extra tools while he and Mara walked quickly across the cargo bay. He explained that since they were now well underway, the colonel had time to hear out her story. Any sort of edge they could use would be welcome.
“War going badly?” Mara asked.
“We’re okay for now, but we’ve got our full force up against just a fraction of StelloScope’s. If they want to bring more ships, more guns, we’re going to have to be very prepared.”
He opened the door into the boardroom and she entered. It was mostly dark. A table made a hollow square around which were placed a number of chairs, all elegant but narrow and uncomfortable-looking. Colonel Mos and a few other officers stood around the table, illuminated by a sheet of light from the ceiling intended to serve those sitting down. Above the empty center floated a holomap with seven areas marked in blue. McMillian closed the door behind them and stood guarding it.
“Keeping busy, Mis Neptune?” Colonel Mos asked.
“Been kept that way, yeah,” Mara said.
“Better than being idle. I’d like to keep this brief if we can. Gosmanian has provided a lot of assistance to us and he is, of course, a minister with the foundation. He is also a profiteer with a sick reputation. So you’ll understand if I’m not really eager to do him free favors.”
“I work for who pays me.”
The colonel smirked. “Very good. So, Mis Neptune, your information. Something about supply routes.”
“Yes, right. Can you change the map there?”
“Bring up the Lubrian Field?”
One of the officers leaned forward to make the changes. The existing image flashed off, an unmarked collection of dense points and distant worlds replaced it.
“Lubrian?” Colonel Mos asked. “That’s at the very edge of Farjun space.”
“Right. They’re bringing supplies right through it.”
“I don’t get it,” said a male officer. “Space is vast. There’s no reason to go through Lubrian. And even if you wanted to, it’s a deathtrap. No ship has ever navigated Lubrian to my knowledge and I think I would’ve heard if someone had managed to do it.”
“We also don’t put scans right up to it,” said another. “Our nearest settlement is a while from the field. We didn’t think anybody going near it would be of any interest.”
“Are you going to support these claims?” Colonel Mos asked Mara.
Mara lifted a finger, then she put her foot up on a chair. She was about to reach in when she realized she’d put the wrong foot up. Rather than pull out the knife, she changed her feet with a sheepish chuckle and pulled out the little chip that Bisera had given her.
“This will have the coordinates I could track from transmissions, including the locations of what I’m guessing are their escort ships.”
One of the colonel’s underlings took the chip from her.
“How’d you come across all this?”
“I’d been working at a chemical plant which went into a deal with the StelloScope Foundation. For a while I was put on the communications detail. We were getting a lot of exchange from points that didn’t correspond with what I’d been given. I did a little digging and when I came up with that info I decided to share it with Gosmanian. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“That still doesn’t answer how they’re getting through Lubrian,” an officer said.
“I think we can assume that StelloScope’s technology far outstrips our own,” Colonel Mos said. “Just because we can’t navigate it doesn’t mean that they haven’t figured it out.” And to Mara: “Though if you have some information on that, we could certainly use it.”
“From what I could gather they were using very specific routes,” Mara said, “not just having good detection. But I could be wrong. There wasn’t a lot to go on.”
“Alright, Mara. The information’s appreciated and we’ll make sure to verify it. Harold, if you would?”
McMillian opened the door and Mara exited into the bright corridor light. She blinked and a dark spot at the edge of her vision disappeared. She stared at where she thought it should’ve been for a second. McMillian’s insistence brought her back to reality and she hurried on.
For the moment she’d have a few hours to herself. McMillian told her to head to the mess if she wanted to get some food. She was hungry, but as soon as he left she instead ducked into the nearest lavatory. Finally she’d found a tiny bit of privacy to curl up in a corner and press her finger into her ear.
Her ping was repeated several times before she felt a jolt in her neck. Wasn’t used to it yet. They said that would happen. As she rubbed her neck to soothe it she got what she was looking for.
“Eye Op,” said the dulled voice she thought she recognized as Bisera’s. “Remote?”
“Remote,” Mara confirmed. “Checking in. Come across escape pods and I’ve given them the chip. Haven’t been able to do more.”
“That’s good,” said Eye Op. “Still time. Eye wants to know about the ships Bondsman‘s calling.”
“How do I find that out?”
“Backup comm, lower deck. Caution. Forbidden without clearance.”
“Okay.” Not really.
“Secondary: Eye wants to know about Bondsman‘s tactical plan.”
“Where do I find that?”
Mara frowned, confused. “You mean they’ve gotta tell me?”
“I’m alright,” Mara said.
“Good. Eye endcom.”
Another, weaker twinge in the neck. Mara exhaled like she was letting out the pressure. Well, there was one thing that she could do, so she might as well not waste time with it.
During her rounds she’d asked a wide variety of questions related to doing her job better. Especially questions about where everything was. In that mild pestering of Orly Paton, she’d found out where the descent to the engine deck. Now she disappeared down it in search of the information that Sclera wanted.
At the end of the slope she saw the tunnel spread out into a corridor going left and right. Mara stopped at the exit and peeked around both corners. No one hanging out in the halls. A good omen. She stepped out and, moving with what she hoped was a combination of adroitness and speed, hurried along to try and find the backup comm room. These halls were mostly empty. Much of this space probably only saw seldom use. Eye Op’s warning still echoed in her skull. She made sure to check around every corner.
The firing range she found quickly. Some ways on was the damage control room, its door shut tight. She kept moving, kept looking around, back and forward. An entrance to the engine works, the door open but the few people inside too engrossed in their work to notice her springing past the gap. Nothing to help her on the walls. Nothing but more cryptic numbers, and Mara with no legend.
She froze. Something down the corridor. Footsteps, she thought. She shrank back, walked back, trying to hear anything out of order. A voice. Mara retreated now. There had to be a spot to hide, somewhere she might actually avoid notice. Their notice. Two voices, or someone very good at shifting tone. Finally she felt a cutaway in the wall and slipped behind it, pressed up against it. Hopefully they would walk right past.
The footsteps came closer, the voices got louder. An idle conversation, recent happenings, people that Mara didn’t know. She tried not to pay attention. She saw them first by the backs of their trousers: a pair of officers with fingers interlaced. She didn’t wait for them to disappear before slithering around the corner.
Quickly she made up the distance she’d just surrendered and then some. She had no idea when she might actually find this place or if she’d have to double back. There was something to knot her stomach down into her tubes. She just hoped that wasn’t the case.
Mara stopped at another opening to see what was inside. Communications 2. Seemed she was finally in the right place. She was just about to step in when she saw someone sitting inside. Sitting. Working, by the look of it. Not good. She hid behind the wall again and surveyed the area. She was gonna have to get her out of there somehow. Mara’s tongue rode her lower lip as she tried to think.
She slid the knife out of its boot-sheath and held it by the hilt. She peered inside again. The woman inside hadn’t budged. Mara couldn’t believe she was about to do this. She took a deep breath.
“Hey what’s that!?” Mara cried out. A glance, but she didn’t need that because the sound of the moving chair confirmed what she wanted to know. She breathed once and then pitched the knife across the hallway so that it clattered against the wall and the floor. The woman hurried out and glanced down the way the knife had gone. Immediately Mara sprang forward, spinning in the air so that her shoulderblade and back made contact first, knocking the crewman forward onto her face. Mara landed on one foot and caught herself on the lip of the doorway, swung herself inside, and bashed the door control. It hissed shut immediately and she keyed in the lock.
Hell. She didn’t want to do anything like that again.
Mara ignored the banging on the door and moved as quietly as she could to the console. Now she drew out the plasma torch and twisted off the bottom, revealing a secret data plug. Socketed, it began to draw information straight from the console, anything she chose to feed it. She worked quickly. Records were downloaded and, after a second’s hesitation, she also downloaded important outgoing transmissions. Fortunately for her she didn’t have to do much manual work on the console. She’d never used anything like this. The transfer stopped. She removed the torch and screwed its disguise back on, then made for the door.
It opened. No one. Not for long, she was sure. She’d probably beaten them to overriding the lock by seconds. No reason to wait for them to arrive in person. Mara hurried in the direction that she’d thrown the knife since going back the way she came seemed to ask for more trouble than she wanted. Soon she caught sight of a cargo bay tunnel and opened it to escape. If she was lucky, they’d just say some freak malfunction had locked the door and the crewman had been clumsy. Plus, a lot of people had knives. They’d just have to get everyone to shape up, stop leaving things around.
If she was lucky they’d say all that. She tried not to think about it.
It was Orly who had told her about the officers’ dining hall. It was part of their rounds, of course, but they’d made sure to come when all the notables were out already. No good for figuring out what the officers were up to. Luckily, she had a lot of time to herself aboard the Bondsman and that gave her a chance to snoop around. Mara slipped out of her room on a break and walked quickly through the corridors, dipping her head briefly at anyone with epaulettes. Best way to keep out of sight.
The officers ate in a room that was right near several of their other facilities: dedicated shower room and gymnasium, vid library and private parlor. She spun around the corner and wheeled right back again. A pair of them, standing just outside the library, evidently just met. Talking about something in low voices. Mara pressed her back up against the wall and tried to focus her hearing on what they were saying. She guessed it wouldn’t be anything important, not likely that any of the regular officers knew about what defense plan their command had cooked up. Still, a little hint perhaps, a bit of info they’d teased out of a commander’s cryptic comments and turned into the subject of a long-running discussion. Something like that would be nice.
Difficult to hear them. She strained, feeling her neck tighten, as if effort could increase the power of her hearing. Finally she looked. Gone. Damn. But, after going, they’d left the corridor empty. If she was going to have a chance she’d better jump on this one. One foot forward and she pushed away from the wall to trot out.
She stopped on the ball of her foot and turned, gradually. She knew the voice alright just from the couple days she’d been shackled to him.
“What is it, Orly?”
The stork-like man bent toward her like a canopy pushed to lean by some breeze.
“Rounds. We’re on a schedule, you know. Doesn’t start with the officers’ hall, either.”
No point arguing with him, she figured. Just get things done so she could slip away again. Orly Paton had to have something else to occupy him, he couldn’t be hounding her all the time. She just hoped she’d get a free moment before they got to that elementium mass.
The shirt she wore stank and it was a size too big at least. However, it did have epaulettes on its shoulders. Mara hoped it’d be worth fishing the damn thing out of the laundry. More confidently than she had before, or at least attempting to project that feeling, she approached and entered the officers’ hall. Empty, as she supposed it often was with the officers on duty. She couldn’t help the creep that developed in her walk, too anxious about making noise or doing anything to draw undue notice. If there had anyone here, her odd walk might have been just the thing to draw attention.
No one being around, Mara decided to slip into the vid library. Hopefully there was a terminal left unblocked or a datachip lying about, carelessly left for someone curious like Mara to find. The equipment in here was veteran, serviceable but dated, uncomplicated. She tried to access it but found very quickly that there was no chance of getting to ship manuals or any other important information without a security code. Unfortunately, one hadn’t been left in the laundry. She quickly scrolled through what material she could access. Finding nothing useful, she shut it back down and went to poke her head out past the door again.
Now she went to the shower room and lavatory, taking a quick look around before sweeping past the door. No one was taking a shower at the moment, that much she could hear. On tiptoe she advanced, past and around a separating wall to the main area. She stopped, investigating a sound with her ears and mind. Someone straining, taking a shit. She waited a moment in case she might hear anyone else around. No. Just the constipated woman. Might be a good thought to follow her after she got out, though. Mara decided she’d wait. Best place to do that was not in here. She backpedaled softly to the door and opened it.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. He reached to grab her wrist but she pulled it away and foiled him until he finally seized it. She tried to yank herself free but he held her firm.
“Following me into the lav, you creep?” Mara said.
“Keeping an eye on the new girl who keeps sneaking around ship,” Orly said. “Now we’re gonna go see the colonel, you understand? She’s not nice with traitors, especially in a war. She’ll sort you out.”
Mara grimaced. No point in trying to get away from him. They’d just catch her, after all; Sclera hadn’t given her any escape plan. She’d just have to get sorted out. Whatever that entailed.
Orly Paton cradled the uniform she’d pilfered in his arms. He stood beside Mara but he was far more agitated, excited. She couldn’t help the minuscule glances she gave him, trying to see if he was smiling.
The boardroom was fully lit this time. At the other end of the room sat Colonel Mos, distracted by the other officers who sat with her and by a datapad set in front of her. A pair of guards stood at either side of the door which now opened to let in another woman. This new person saluted Mos and the officers, who acknowledged her.
“Lieutenant Varafes,” said the colonel. “Thank you for coming here. I know you have duties, as do we all, so I hope we can be brief.”
“Yes, sir,” said Varafes.
Mos studied Orly Paton. She sighed a deep and heavy sigh.
“Everyone present is aware of the trial procedures underneath the Far Arjuna Charter-Code so I’ll skip the salutations and introductions,” Colonel Mos said. Mara didn’t bother objecting. “We’re here to investigate charges of treason, sabotage, and espionage. Charges are being brought by one Orly Paton, enlisted, on behalf of the crew of the mainliner Bondsman. Charges are being brought against one Mara Neptune… who is aboard the ship.”
“Stowaway,” one of the others offered.
“I don’t think so, we took her aboard knowingly. Passenger, I guess. But we’re not a passenger ship.”
“Tagalong,” said one of the guards.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Colonel Mos. “She’s here and she’s being charged. Mara I’m not going to insult you by asking if you accept the authority of this sitting: you haven’t got a choice. Do you want to admit to the charges or shall we go through with the trial?”
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to have done,” Mara said.
“Treason, sabotage, espionage,” Orly said.
“Orly, just tell us again what you’re suspecting,” Colonel Mos said. “I haven’t got the patience for all this.”
“She’s up to something,” Orly said.
“Up to something.” Mara, flatly.
“If you would?” Colonel Mos said to her. She gestured for Orly to continue.
“I’ve seen her peeking around corners and tiptoeing down the corridors,” Orly said. “Always looking back over her shoulder like someone’s watching you. What are you scared of? We’re all on the same side here, unless we aren’t.”
“She’s up to something.” Colonel Mos, evenly.
“I’m not up to anything,” Mara said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Orly. Maybe I’m a little fidgety, I guess? I didn’t know it was a crime.”
“I saw her coming out of the engine deck unsupervised. No reason for her to be down there and I specifically told her not to go there.”
Colonel Mos looked at Mara.
“It was an accident,” Mara said. “I was there for maybe a minute. I don’t know this ship, went down a stairwell I didn’t recognize, then came right back up. I dunno where this guy was lurking but I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
“Okay, what about this?” Orly said, indicating the epauletted shirt in his arms. “I found her in the officers’ corridor, poking around with this on. What reason could she have for that?”
Colonel Mos asked Mara with her eyes.
“I just found it, was goofing around,” Mara said. “It was in the laundry room. Figured nobody would miss it.”
“So you stole it,” Orly said.
“I would’ve put it back. It’s not like it was just cleaned or anything.”
“Put it on the table,” Colonel Mos said. Orly did and stepped back. “Lieutenant, is this your uniform?”
Lieutenant Varafes stepped forward and picked at it to see. “Yes, my name’s here.”
“Do you know how it got to be in Mara’s possession?”
“You seen this woman before?”
“Can you account for this uniform being out of your possession?”
“Well, sir, I’d skipped the past laundry day of my own fault, so I figured I would–”
The door opened and a soldier stepped in, saluted. Colonel Mos nodded at him but held up a hand. “Continue, lieutenant.”
“Well, I figured I’d just wear this one for a while so I could get the other cleaned. I think I left it a few days without making an order on it, though.”
“Alright, lieutenant. You’re dismissed. Take your uniform and get it laundered. Don’t leave things lying around.”
Varafes saluted, took her uniform, and hurried past the soldier who’d interrupted them. Now Colonel Mos gave her attention to him.
“You wanted something?”
“Yes, colonel, I was told to bring this problem to you. Gun crews having issues in training and I don’t know where the duty technical officer is.”
“Issues?” one of the other officers said. “What sort of issues? Apologies, sir, I–”
“No, I want to know as well,” said Colonel Mos.
The soldier almost blushed under the sudden attention. “I, well, it’s the grid turret drills, sir. Our gunners need to get their patterns right and the autofire isn’t syncing with them, causing some errors.”
The officer looked at the colonel and she told him to take care of it. He got up and went out of the boardroom with the crewman. Now Colonel Mos looked up at Mara and Orly, surprised to see them there for a second before remembering.
“Business,” she said by way of apology. She laced her fingers together. “Now, Orly, do you have anything else or is this bullshit all you’re wasting my time with today?”
Orly stammered, shocked.
“We appreciate your loyalty, Orly, but don’t bring anything like this to me again. I’ve had it. We are capable of looking around ourselves and seeing if anything is wrong. We don’t need you to do it for us. Your duties are custodial and I advise you to stick with them. Understood?”
Orly stammered, overcome.
“And for you Mis Mara Neptune,” said the colonel, “quit fucking around on my ship. We have a war to fight and I don’t need these distractions. Orly’s overreaction notwithstanding, you did take the property of a crew member, even if you didn’t keep it. I can’t overlook that. You can avoid the brig this time but I only want to see you in the halls if you’re being supervised. Otherwise, if anyone sees you around, you can sit in there and in one place. You’re a favor to a minister. I’m not going to let you be a headache.” She looked at her officers. “I think that’s everything.”
“Ah, sir? If I may.” Colonel Mos looked at Mara to hear her question. “Can I get a different supervisor? Orly’s been stalking me, clearly. Even following me into the lavatory.”
Orly’s eyes widened but he didn’t stammer: “Now that’s–”
“No,” the colonel said, firmly. “I’m not taking time out to dig up a new babysitter for you. You put up with Orly on your rounds. If you don’t like him, stay in your quarters off-shift.”
Mara nodded. She wasn’t sure if she was expected to salute or not, so she did. Orly and one of the guards hustled her out of the room.
Mara was in her room, working on the communicator node.
“Remote. Checking in.”
“Not really. Everybody’s just preparing for what they think is gonna be a pretty big battle. Having a little systems trouble, I think.”
“Someone mentioned malfunctioning turret grid drills. No idea what it’s about. I’ve been having trouble keeping out of sight. Lot of people on this ship.”
“You’re doing well. I’m going to send this information to Eye and see what the analysis is.”
Analysis. As far as Mara knew she hadn’t really told them anything. That was their job, though. She lay back on her cot and tried to ignore how hungry she was. Fixing the problem would require contacting Orly and she’d put that off as long as she could.
“Battle stations! Battle stations!”
Mara groaned when she got up, arm draped over her stomach as if that would hold back the ache which had put down tent stakes there. She didn’t have a lot of time to get situated. Someone pounding at the door, the voice telling her that it was Orly. She would have shifted herself more lazily if she hadn’t known what he was here for. Instead, she opened the door and let the gangly man pull her out into the corridor.
Troops of two or three crewmen hustled here and there, reckless in their focus, but those who were less busy knew to just press up against the wall and wait for them to pass. This was too important for normal rules of propriety. Mara didn’t know where her battle station was but Orly was keen to get her there and double time. As they hurried, Mara noticed that a lot of the corridors had their lights darkened. Theirs stayed fully lit all the way down to the cafeteria where they joined a gaggle of others that Mara could only guess where light maintenance workers like herself and Orly. She saw three of the cooks chatting to each other and looking around worriedly. Not a crew that was all too used to fighting.
“What the hell are we doing here?” Mara asked Orly.
“Keeping out of the way,” Orly said. “If we’re needed, we’ll be called on.”
Simple enough. Mara couldn’t stay, of course. A day before this, she’d got an unwelcome twitching in her neck, Sclera contacting to let her know their plan. Her last assignment. If she’d known that Sclera was going to put her up to something like this when they’d dragged her into their conspiracy, she’d have given it up straight away. Now she was in it. Only way to get out was to play ball. Even if she wanted to call it quits and let the crew know what she’d already done, they’d never let her leave this place alive. Not only that, she knew how satisfied Orly Paton would be if proved right. She’d never be able to live with that.
His eyes were on her, she knew that, but she still drew away from him and leaned up against the wall. There, with her body shielding her, Mara rolled her sleeve back to look at the list she’d written. The instructions that Sclera had given her, in shorthand so it’d fit, hopefully enough to get all the important details. She’d only know when she went to do it. She couldn’t wait too long. What she needed was a chance.
The doors opened and closed repeatedly as others filtered into the room. After some time Sergeant McMillian strode into the room, clapping his hands loudly to command attention.
“Alright, everyone, I need you all to keep your heads. We and our fleet are under attack as I’m sure you know. We need all ancillary crew here and in the other gathering quarters in case you’re required for damage control duties.” That made a couple people murmur. “I’m aware this isn’t a battleship but we are battle-ready and we’re confident of victory. Don’t panic and you’ll be of the most use to us and to yourselves.”
McMillian touched a flat panel and soon a projection window opened up against the wall. It showed the unique black depth of space, pinpricks of light far away, other small mottled spots closer, moving minutely.
“Some of you may find waiting more tolerable if you can see what’s happening,” McMillian said. “If not, ignore the projection.”
Those tiny objects who now held so much importance for the crew gripped their attentions totally. It seemed ridiculous to be so afraid of things that small, just specks. But they were only distant, all knew, and despite how small they looked they would be close enough to fight very soon. They stared, eager and apprehensive about that evolution.
Importantly, Orly was eager and apprehensive and he was watching intently. Already against the wall, Mara kept her eyes half-on him while she scooted toward the door. Bit by bit, feeling like she was going by fingerwidths. When the door slid back she pivoted around and outside before too many heads turned.
Mara walked quickly down the deserted corridors. She strained to listen behind her as best she could, if she could, in case anyone started to march in chase. A crewman came past doing a hustling jog and Mara decided to adopt that for herself. She looked serious, she thought. She knew what she was doing. Hopefully no one would ask her what exactly that was. Keyed up as Mara was right now, she might actually tell.
Not knowing where the nearest descent to the engine deck was, she jogged to the stairwell that was closest to her sleeping quarters. Down she went, still lifting her knees at every step. Just as she stepped out, a pair of crewmen hustled past her just a breath too early to knock her down. She went the other direction, looking for her first landmark: the engine room itself.
The Whites made use of the information she’d given them, at least enough to tell her that whatever grid turret thing they had going needed to be taken offline. In a battle situation, most of a ship’s main functions would be relegated to an automatic backup computer so that its primary computer could react more effectively in combat. Without that backup, the strain on the first one would be too much for the system to take. Ship organs would have to shut down, crew would scramble to salvage the situation, and apparently all that chaos would be good for Sclera. All Mara could figure out was that Sclera was taking StelloScope’s side in this and that it really wasn’t any of her concern. She just had to assume that whatever the Far Arjun Foundation had done, it was worth this kind of payback.
Mara reached the backup computer room, the door sliding open graciously. She keyed it locked after she got in just in case Sclera’s assurances that the crew would be too occupied didn’t hold good. She turned around and immediately her face fell.
Unlike the terminal of their backup communications, this monstrosity of dials and small separated screens and button banks was totally incomprehensible to her. There was no way this thing was meant to actually be worked on. Somehow, the lack of a main screen for her to focus on made it sinister, as if born of a creature which hated humans. She tried not to be silly. Out from the loop in her belt came the plasma torch. She rolled her sleeve up and took a look at the instructions again. Time to work.
There were three plugs that needed to be removed in order to sever the connections between this backup and its primary. It took Mara a moment to locate the first one. It was not only plugged in, metal latches secured it firmly against its port. Those latches are why she’d brought the torch out; they’d be hell to remove with just arm strength. Sclera had told her specifically to be careful with them. She wasn’t against that advice.
The hissing of plasma-flame on metal started high and rapid, quickly ended as the torch sliced through. One and then two, and then on the other side, concentrating to make sure her hand didn’t slip. Both latches cut and she gripped the thick cable, pulled, pulled harder and got it free. Bits of metal clanged against the ground.
Mara referred to her forearm again for the location of the next plug. There were too many wires of varying thickness, and she could see that she’d have been lost without the specific directions that Sclera gave. This next plug was shrouded by a series of thinner wires. She pushed them aside and rose onto the balls of her feet to take care of these latches. One, two, and then to the other. Just as she finished, a screaming horn that pressed eardrums flat blared out from she didn’t know where.
“Unauthorized maintenance!” A loud, stern voice cutting through the horn. “Backup computer compromised! Unauthorized maintenance! Backup computer compromised!”
“Hell,” Mara said. She gripped the cable and heaved, finally pulling the plug mostly free. Good enough. No one was at the door yet but that didn’t mean she had time. She hunted for the last one, found it, and simply slashed through the cable. Alarm was already gone, no use wasting time. Now it was time to get out of here. She made for the door, keyed it open, and surged out the instant it slid away.
“Fuc-king!” she called out, stumbling forward after running into something solid. She caught her feet and turned. Someone from the crew, on the ground. She’d just knocked him over. Suddenly, Mara caught sight of the blaster that had skidded free of his hand. She lunged and seized it, coming up with it pointed at him. He was just up on his knee but he froze.
“Listen, I don’t want to shoot you,” Mara said, backing up slowly. “I just want to get out of here. Okay?”
Footsteps from around the corner. Mara spun around and fired at center-of-mass. Another crewman, charging around the corner, seized up when zapped by the bright laserfire, his crooked body tumbling to the ground. Stun blaster. Did the job. She remembered where she was and spun back just in time to threaten the first one into keeping back.
“Don’t be an asshole, man,” she warned. “I hear getting stunned is no fun.”
“It isn’t,” he said.
“Well, as long as we’re on the same page.” She kept the gun trained on him until she turned the corner, then broke out into a run.
There were stairwells up to areas where she could hop into an escape pod, Mara knew there were. What she didn’t know was where they were. Sclera hadn’t been able to help her on that. As she ran, she tried to gather what she knew for sure about this ship. There wasn’t much beyond the basics. The one place she knew for sure had an easy access route to the escape pods was the cargo bay, but at a time like this, it was likely to be crowded and alive with work. She was sure that she’d be noticed, especially with this damn alarm going.
On the other hand, if she kept running aimlessly around here, someone was certainly going to catch her. With no other options, she found the descent she wanted and headed straight down. The gun she held behind her back. She didn’t want to drop it, she might still need it, but there was no point getting people panicked.
When she emerged the cargo bay was pretty much how she thought she’d find it: busy busy busy, people moving to and fro, trying to squeeze out of or into crowds, shouting. Luckily, no one seemed to be doing anything useful or really paying attention to what was going on. She had to move gradually, edging her way past people, taking care to shift where she held her gun or to look away so no one got a good look at her. The voices around her sounded agitated but she didn’t stop. Whatever was agitating them was something she wanted to get away from.
Up another stairwell now, flat against the wall to evade a trio of hard-charging uniforms, then continued. She came out onto a darkened corridor, but a little look around showed her that she was in the right place. The line of pod doors stretched far down this corridor. No need to get fancy, though. She lined up for the first one and started punching in the general sequence Sclera had given her.
The drumming of soles made Mara snap back, gun in position. A woman hurtled across the intersection and into the wall. Flashes of blue and red came from down that way. The woman looked at Mara long enough to see confusion and fear before she turned and tore down the darkened reach away from Mara. Were things going that badly? No boarding alert had gone off and the horn from her sabotage was still going off. She had taken down the ship’s weapons, though, so maybe it was. No chance to stay and look at her handiwork. She hit the sequence and the pod door opened. She was inside, the door closed, and already lighting up the little craft’s engines.
It was a massive pop, bursting all around her so that all she experienced for a second was that sound. Her senses slid back to coherence and she realized she was spinning, still in the escape pod, the initial motion still taking its course. All she could do for the moment was hold on until the stabilizers kicked in. When they did, Mara loaded the craft’s crude detector onto the tiny screen. Closest thing was the Bondsman it looked like. She was clear of anything else. Unless she didn’t get moving soon, which she did have every intention of doing.
But where to go? Mara wanted to just get out. All the way away. The problem was that there wasn’t anything around here but a ship in this battle and this pod wasn’t made to go distances. Only thing she knew for sure would be in range was the StelloScope liner a ways behind their attack squadron. The destination Sclera had given her. She decided it was better than floating around in space or, more likely, getting blasted apart by some stray beam. She set the coordinates and had her pod boost her that way, just a few hours of acceleration and then a long, easy drift.
Her hunger woke up just as she was sliding into sleep. She cradled her stomach with both arms, consoling it.
One and a half star miles was how long she’d been instructed to wait. Once she got that far she could click on the distress beacon and try to find somewhere to dock. Mara had laid down a program to get it all done automatically. She needed to recover.
She wasn’t asleep. She couldn’t sleep. She was in a waking coma of discomfort, of clawing emptiness. What had she eaten last? She couldn’t remember. She had always been inside this little pod, always in this claustrophobic famine. To dream of food was insensible because food was a name she’d given to a yearning she didn’t understand. These and other such miseries occupied Mara’s mind while she stared at the ceiling and hugged herself.
High loud beeps brought her out enough to look at her console. She was being hailed. She stretched her hand out and touched the respond button, bringing up the image of a woman in a crisp silverish uniform.
“This is the StelloScope liner Waxmoth. Can you state your name and business?”
“Mara,” she croaked. She coughed, touched her throat. “Mara Neptune. I was told to ask for a Colonel Bosephal Ahearn.”
“Ah, you’re her,” said the uniformed woman. “We’ve got you on our scanners. Just sit tight and we’ll trac you in.”
Mara nodded, watched the woman’s image zip off, let her head sink back to the chair.
After some time, the woman reappeared to let her know they were about to begin. Mara waited. At once the pod rumbled, just slightly but uncomfortably. Mara listed to the side. The process took some time and the rumbling made every second seem longer. Finally it stopped and all at once she was weighed down by new gravity. She only opened her eyes when she felt the kiss of air against her face.
Two crewmen in silver uniform helped her out of the pod. She stumbled and fell back against the pod’s hull, one hand on a crewman’s shoulder to steady herself further.
“Do you have food aboard this ship?” Mara whispered to the room.
“Well yes, course,” said the man.
“Please take me to the food.”
“We’ll need to have you fill some forms out.”
“Later. Take me to food now.”
The crewmen exchanged a look, then decided to help her to reach that miraculous dream, the illusion made real.
Protein steak, crumbly bread, a bright-looking bean stew. She was sure the crew here hated it but they probably came from some chic metropolitan planet with lots of variety. For Mara, anything hot and competently made would do, especially now. Only a couple crewmen were in their cramped mess to see her devour the chow. Vitamin water was bitter but it slaked her thirst. She got through the steak, the bread, and even twirled her spoon before dipping it into the stew.
It was at this moment that a man with a heavy mustache came by, obviously with her in mind. Mara chewed carefully and watched him likewise.
“I apologize, if I’m interrupting you,” he said. “I can come back when you’re finished. Or you can come see me.”
“No, that’s alright,” Mara said, much recovered. “I figure you’re the welcome.”
“I am. Lieutenant Julio Hui. I was supposed to meet you straight away but apparently my crew thought you needed food first.”
“I did. I was about ready to fold in on myself.”
“It’s good that you got something to eat, then.” He nodded at the seat and looked at her and she nodded at him. He sat down. “You were sent by Sclera, were you? To meet Colonel Ahearn?”
“That’s the shape of things.” She spooned another mouthful in and chewed. A creamy taste, a dull but rich flavor. She used her tongue behind her lips to scrape the rest away from her teeth.
He waited until she was swallowing: “At the moment you’re gonna have to sit tight. The colonel is out on his battle liner commanding our ships. I hope that’s not a problem.”
“Not at all. I could use a chance to kick my heels.”
“That’s fine. Now I’ve got a ship to help run.” Hui stepped away from the bench and straightened his top. “If you need anything, ask somebody, and if they say no, bring it to me. Colonel Ahearn’s instructed me to cooperate fully and I intend to do just that.”
Lieutenant Hui was almost out the door when she called to him: “Hey, does that mean you’re in charge?”
He stopped, turned. “No.”
“I mean, while Colonel A isn’t here.”
“No, I’m not. Minister Nasar is in charge of the mission but he mostly keeps himself to research. Captain Falla is in command of the ship. Why?”
Mara got up from the table, her stew half done and her belly not yet full.
“How about you take me to Minister Nasar?” she said.
Hui frowned. “Why?”
“After the last ship I was on, I’d really like to get an idea of who’s in charge of the place. And uh, as Sclera’s agent, I should probably report to the person with most authority.”
He turned that thin reasoning over.
“Alright, come on,” he said. “I suppose I wasn’t given any orders to confine you anywhere.”
Waxmoth felt tight compared to the boulevards inside Sclera’s Sarcophagus and the Farjun liner Bondsman. She followed directly behind Hui, a train of posters and notices rushing past her eye. When a trio of silver-suited crew came down the other way, they had to go single-file as well and everyone pressed against their wall, not wanting be knocked over but not willing to stop. Here was a turn which Hui took sharply, Mara clumsily. The lieutenant didn’t bother giving her the tour spiel. She didn’t mind. Hui came to a door, rapped twice with his knuckles, and opened it by a switch. She stepped through. He didn’t follow.
“So who are you?”
The sharp question distracted Mara from the door sliding shut again behind her. It came from a man of medium complexion with beetle-like eyebrows and mustache. He was old and swathed in white and silver robes that he had belted and cinched to give himself ease of motion. The room that Mara was now shut inside had instruments of various esoteric shapes lining the walls, and in its center a long and wide table above which danced holographic figures that illustrated the old minister as though he’d been diagrammed.
“I’m Mara Neptune,” she said. “Sent by The Whites to see a Colonel Ahearn.”
“He isn’t here.”
“I know. That’s why I came to see you.”
“Me? No. I’m a scientist. Only here to carry the name of the StelloScope Foundation while their true deputy, Ahearn, takes care of their bloody business. If you wanted to give word to his second, you should have seen the captain.”
“So you’re not in charge?” Mara asked.
“I should be in charge.” The minister, as she presumed he was, straightened up. He plucked at his robes as if that would increase their majesty. “I am in charge. Of research. That’s what the StelloScope Foundation does. But it is necessary at times to go on these medieval expeditions in order to secure what we need for that research. I’m happy enough to leave that sort of thing to those who are best suited for it.”
“Oh, alright.” Mara sucked her teeth. “So how is ‘that sort of thing’ going, if I can ask?”
“I don’t know,” said the minister. “Well, I suppose, or I would have heard. Colonel Ahearn, I’ve found, is brave enough to take credit for success but leaves it to me to suffer blame for a failure. That’s what leaders have to deal with.”
“I guess so.”
The minister glanced back at a console and, seeing something interesting, turned to inspect. Mara slowly walked along the line of odd machines, trying to discern their purposes. A few had inside them plant specimens, seemingly nurturing and observing them. It all dazzled her.
“What exactly do you do here?” Mara asked.
“Research,” said Minister Nasar without turning. “All sorts of research. A curious mind, you see, isn’t restrained to one field. It takes up whatever’s at hand. This is my ship, you know.” Now he turned halfway to her as if to show her both his pride and how much he valued his work. “Colonel Ahearn commandeers it for this mission because it flatters him to command from aboard the only ship StelloScope would consider a flagship: a research vessel. So everything here is truly set up for my purposes, not his. You would be amazed at the scale of discovery that has been achieved aboard this ship in the time I’ve proctored it.”
“Impressive,” Mara said, looking at the door. “Well, I’ve reported in, I guess, so I’ll leave you to your work.”
“Please. Thank you.”
Mara’s hand went to the switch.
“Ah, wait, mis…” the minister said.
“Yes. Please, before you go, I assume that you had been aboard a Far Arjuna ship? That being why we needed to pick you up.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Before you left that ship, did you see any… colors that you couldn’t explain?”
Mara stared at him. She tried to conjure up words that wouldn’t give this man reason to show the same interest that Sclera had. Minister Nasar seemed gratified by her silence.
“You see,” he continued, “I have had the liberty — one of the few given to my station as it is now — to set sensors aboard many of our ships. After the disappearances began, you see. I wanted to know what was causing them. Certain energy fluctuations accompanied these occurrences, fluctuations which I believe could be detected by the human eye as colors. I think in a situation such as this battle we are very likely to see more of these vanishings.”
“I’ve heard of the disappearances,” Mara said. “Whole crews ripped out of nowhere. Into nowhere, apparently.”
“And you know about the colors,” he said.
Again she declined to answer, seeking the right response. Again he kept speaking.
“I hope we will receive some confirmation of disappearances from this action. Terrible for those affected, of course. But it would confirm my thesis. Of course I insisted that Waxmoth stay behind the fighting, hopefully beyond the likely danger area.”
“You’re just going to wait to see what happens?” Mara asked.
“What is there for a scientist to do but wait and observe?”
“You could take this ship out and find out what’s causing this. You should have enough stuff aboard to run the tests and find the answer.”
“I can’t draw Waxmoth away from here,” the minister said. “This is still the flagship of our detachment and Colonel Ahearn will expect it to receive him. Besides, we don’t have enough crew.”
“For what? Running this ship? Ahearn left you stranded here?”
“No. Like I said, this is my ship, a research liner. We do have scout ships aboard. The problem is that they’re five-man crews and I can’t spare five, not now.”
“What if I go?”
Minister Nasar’s heavy eyebrows bent up improbably.
“You?” Now he puzzled over the possibility. “Can you handle a ship?”
“I can handle light craft,” Mara said.
“Can you.” He hummed to himself. “Maybe I can spare two, send you out as a skeleton crew. Yes, maybe we could. I’ll talk to the captain.” Nasar seemed energized now, starting this way and then that as he decided what to do first. He waved at her to dismiss words she hadn’t yet said. “Don’t worry, of course. I’ve provided for safety. You see one of my scouts has been equipped with a disruption device which should injure or immobilize these beings and ensure both your safety and the confirmation of the thesis.”
Mara went over his words again. “Beings?”
“Ah. Hmm. Yes.” He smoothed his mustache with his fingers. “You see, Miss Mara, I don’t believe that these are mysterious disappearances only. I believe that these are mysterious abductions. High traffic areas especially.”
“Such as battles.”
“Such as. I hope this doesn’t change your decision.”
“No.” Though her face did tighten, her eyes lower, in concentration rather than dismay. “No I’ll go.”
The danger of it didn’t bother her. Or, to be more precise, it would have bothered her had she not already been under the contract of Sclera, already proven to be an exceptionally dangerous position. This wild goose chase couldn’t be any worse. Yet she was still drawn in on herself by that one word. Beings.
“Good,” said Nasar. “I thank you. Now, let me… let me get the captain, arrange for your fellow crew.”
The minister turned to a comm device and left Mara to think for a second. Beings. Of course they would be, wouldn’t they. These phenomena had to be caused by something living, something with consciousness.
The only reason Mara was wearing this idiotic silver thing was Minister Nasar’s insistence. Pressurized, he said. Safer for travel, he said. No one went out in a scout ship without it. It looked stupid and it pinched in all the wrong places. Supposed to be tight but couldn’t be tailored to her body. Typical, typical. The stun blaster she’d brought aboard Waxmoth stayed there. She, submerged in the StelloScope uniform, followed behind Nasar and the two crewmen he’d got together on the walk to the attachment hangar.
Only one person waited for them there, a mechanic doing final checks on the craft. Waxworm 2 it was called, a boxy bullet-shaped machine alongside two similar vessels in the well-occupied space. Nasar stood by while the crew satisfied themselves that everything was alright. Mara followed the minster’s example, just a few feet closer in. Of the two, Ensign Estel Borgin seemed most in charge, more experienced, black-haired and hangdog-looking and tall. Her comrade stood a head shorter, Crewman Kammanda Uriel, younger with hair dyed in broad streaks of red, her attention more on the ship itself. Ensign Borgin seemed satisfied and she opened the entry hatch.
“Let me show you how this works,” Minister Nasar said excitedly, stepping forward so he could go on the ship first. Ensign Borgin searched Mara with her eyes and Mara figured she was being called on, clambering in after the minister. Inside the ship were indeed five stations but they jutted against one another, little space for stretching legs or even arms. The center position, the most spacious, seemed like it would have usually been the place of the captain’s chair. Instead of a chair there was a large, squat, vaguely cylindrical device which Nasar adjusted by way of a touch-console and other inputs. Mara came up beside him while the other two got on board and went to their stations.
The operation of the disruptor was fairly simple according to the minister. Mara had to ask him to back up a few times. Most of the controls she wouldn’t need to use, he said. Vital was the start/stop, an obvious green button placed in easy reach. Readouts would show what levels of obstruction the device currently identified; it was primarily for his own use but it might show a presence before they became visible to the naked eye. Regardless, when they noticed the approach — Minister Nasar, maybe tactfully, left out what was supposed to be approaching — they were to hit the disruptor start and only stop when they were clear. The disruptor itself would collect data continuously over the trip. They only needed to go out and come back. Everything else would be taken care of.
The minister bid each of them good luck before he departed the ship. Mara gave the disruptor machine another survey, reminding herself of what it did, before she took up her post. Ensign Borgin sat near the back at the engineering station, ready to slip back for mechanical work if it was needed. Crewman Uriel sat at the front in the pilot’s chair, and Mara was just behind her as the navigator. After touching around a bit, the broad screen in front of her came to light. Goddamn these foundations, so much money to put into everything. She’d never seen a nav console so advanced. Crinkle-browed, she poked around, bringing up new shapes for an instant before dispelling them.
“You know where we’re going?” Borgin snapped.
“Yeah, I’m just…” Mara trailed off as the screen shifted to a totally different area and she fought to return it. “just getting this thing under control. All I need’s the basics.”
She could almost feel the two StelloScopers glancing at each other, rolling their eyes, making faces. She didn’t look up.
They were going, once she could figure out how to plot the course, to the Pas Halhalmian Placid. As the minister told it, ever since the Arjuna sector had been colonized the Placid was a major spacelane, devoid of most microdebris which plagued lots of otherwise-clear zones. When StelloScope arrived (he hadn’t brought up their attack squadrons and she didn’t think it the right time to remind him), they also ran their ships along it, taking care to avoid the Farjun ships. It was also, in more recent times, haunted. About a year ago, half the ships traveling through the Placid had their whole crews vanish. After a few months of that, traffic dropped off drastically but the ratio of incidents flagged only a little. Though Nasar had received no reports in the last few weeks — and no news of anybody successfully running the Placid, either — he felt reasonably confident that they’d find whatever was at the bottom of these abductions.
Finally, Mara stumbled across the controls she needed. She plotted them in and, even though she was sure she was already trying their patience, rechecked it. Uriel and Borgin conversed, coordinated. Mara felt the ship move, creeping out of the hangar, and then all at once fire away into empty space. Mara gripped her chair tightly, waiting for the ship’s insides to regulate. They’d blast in the general direction, cut their jets and drift, then correct as needed as they got close. So, as soon as the boosters died off, all three of them unbuckled from their seats and stretched their limbs.
Velcro’d tethers kept the otherwise free-floating crew attached to their stations. Uriel moved first, shifting through the air with that whitish umbilical trailing, floating past Mara on her way back to meet with Ensign Borgin. Mara buried her nose in her console. The major part of her job was done but she was still to monitor their progress. Plus, this would be a good opportunity to get familiar with this system. If anything happened, anything untoward, she’d hate to be underprepared.
Mara hissed, clutching the back of her head and looking up at Uriel floating past the other way, waving apologetically. The woman’s foot had cracked right into her. Now past, Uriel used her heel against the back of her own seat to slow herself, then a hand on the sloping ceiling to stop.
“Yeah, it’s nothing,” Mara said. “Just caught me by surprise.”
“Sorry, somehow I’m even clumsier in zero-G than I am in standard. Just sharing a bit of info with the ensign.”
“Gotta keep your head on a swivel,” said Borgin. “That’s for both of you.”
Uriel flashed her superior a look of sarcastic agreement before slipping back into her post. Mara tried not to show her smile as she kept her face shielded by the console.
Even sitting in one place it was impossible not to move a little bit. Every time Mara did shift, her borrowed uniform seemed to catch something, grab and pinch something, making her suck her teeth more than once. Sighing, she rolled her neck to work out the kinks and found little pinches digging into her armpits.
“Geez, these uniforms…” Mara said. “How do you guys stand em? Better when they’re yours?”
“You get some alterations done,” Uriel said over her shoulder. “We have a tailoring machine on Waxmoth.”
“Wish I’d had a go at that before we left.”
“Yeah, well, with the minister trying to hurry before Ahearn got back I guess no one was thinking about it. Sorry.”
“Fuck Ahearn anyway,” said Ensign Borgin.
“Sure,” said Uriel.
“What’s he like?” Mara asked. “The colonel.”
“Let’s just say I’m guessing the minister called on us cause we feel the same about that swaggering buffoon as he does.”
“Wanted to get off the ship?”
“Didn’t want to make space for Ahearn and his goons anymore,” Uriel said. “I’ve been with Waxmoth for two years and StelloScope seems like my whole life. I like what we do. This isn’t really it.”
“Two sides of the same coin,” Borgin said. “The StelloScope Foundation wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t kick in doors a few times.”
“Sure. But it’s not what I signed up for.”
“You signed up for this?” Mara asked. “Heading into the Placid hoping we somehow don’t get… vanished like the others?”
“Let’s have a systems check,” Borgin said suddenly.
“Are you serious?” Uriel asked. “We just got out of Waxmoth!”
“We didn’t ‘just get out’ of Waxmoth,” Borgin corrected. “If we’re feeling good enough to converse then I want to be absolutely sure everything’s in working order.”
Mara really didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She’d figured out how to do all the bog-standard operations of a nav console but that was about it. Fortunately, Uriel floated back over and helped her pick through the diagnostics. The check took about ten minutes, the whole time Waxworm 2 cruising engineless at considerable, imperceptible speed.
They journeyed at that incredible drift for hours. Mara’s eyes were frequently on the console, making sure their coordinates lined up with a point along their plotted course. The pilot’s job in mid-transit was mostly to keep the ship steady, prevent the minor deviations caused by particles striking and angling the ship by fractional degrees. Mara was there to let them know whether they were sliding into a different sector or not. A lax navigator and gradually compiling problems had led more than a few crews into uncharted, uncivilized zones where they waited for death by power loss, freezing, and suffocation.
Mara called out as they came close to their destination. Uriel had them strap in and soon retro-jets were flaring, first a bit, building up a fuller burst, the sour whine and rumble through the ship much different than how their departure had felt. Bit by bit they slowed until finally Waxworm 2 was reading at full stop, a hair off from the endpoint she’d calculated, dead in the middle of the Pas Halhalmian Placid. And there, they waited.
Not needing to monitor their course, Mara turned to the dimensional disruptor. A solid heap of confusion, as far as she was concerned. She tried to puzzle out what everything was but she didn’t have the first reference. Uriel had no idea about it, either. Minister Nasar was a genius, she said; she left this kinda stuff to the scientists. Borgin, rather than offer her thoughts, ordered another systems check. Mara and Uriel rolled their eyes at one another and made faces while they got back to their work. This time Mara managed to muddle through with only a few hints from Uriel and the barking prods of the ensign.
If it hadn’t been for the obvious busywork being mandated by Borgin, Mara might have said something. Instead she twiddled her thumbs, here and there zoomed in and out on the console, thought about looking over the disruptor again and dismissed it. She looked back at Borgin and saw her still scowling, not at Mara, at nothing. Or everything. Maybe when they got back to Waxmoth she’d figure out what tore at Borgin’s insides or if it was fear twisting them together.
Mara blinked when she looked back at the console. For a moment she thought she’d zoomed back out but it seemed the image had faded somewhat. And now, steadily and quickly, it oversaturated, almost glowed. She leaned back, stared up at the walls and the equipment racked up against the walls and the seats and the consoles and other machinery built into the walls and the floors, all of it just slightly swimming, blushing, cooling, growing verdant, melding into a sunset. She pushed up from her chair abruptly, knee knocking hard against the nav console. She kicked at her seat, floated over the back of it, and as soon as she was over the disruptor frantically stabbed down with her foot to smash in the start button. The whole air seemed to erupt with blue and green and red and yellow and purple and more, one hue not waiting for the next to dissipate before making itself present. She struck down and turned the disruptor on.
The dull hum that vibrated the ship introduced a slight headache just at the base of her skull. More important to her right now, though, were the tall slashes of undefinable composition, color which could be seen but not comprehended, black emptiness yet full and real and whole if she desired to touch them, which she didn’t. Borgin and Uriel froze with confusion but Mara grabbed her tether and hauled herself along it, hand over hand back to her post.
There were two of those pillars, those beings, with very slight bends as if they had waists. They oriented themselves to the disruptor for a while, distracted perhaps. Mara didn’t wait to see, instead pushing herself underneath her nav console, wedging in as deep as she could manage. She could only think that she’d survived the abductions on Yancy’s Mule because they hadn’t seen her. If she was going to have a chance here, she’d have to stay out of sight.
When the entities moved the colors shifted as if they were the eyes of different tornadoes which whipped those tones around in a pattern that dazzled the eye. Mara tried not to look too long, tried to convince herself it had no beauty, not even an otherworldly kind. From her place, she could just barely see behind her where Borgin was out of her seat, kicking through the air and trying to evade the entity closing on her. Only when Mara saw Borgin’s mouth open did she realize that sound had fled against the coming of these beings. No parting words, no shout of defiance, just the touch of the thing’s outstretched limb, the differing and distinctive coloring of Borgin’s body and clothing leeching out until she joined the swimming waves all around her.
Had she turned the disruptor on? Was it working? She snapped herself out of the fearful reverie, focused again, saw that Borgin had vanished. Abducted. She could feel a heavy, cold stone dropping in her stomach. As the being came back, she watched it keep quite wide of the disruptor, its upper half bent just so as if it was still examining the machine. Thoughts raced through her, schemes about launching out and increasing the disruptor’s potency to drive these creatures out. She’d have to move quickly. Her fingers gripped the side of the chair.
Heat. At first just furious, immediately unbearable, rocketing along her nerves. Mara screamed but she only heard it inside her own mind. Agonized, she craned her neck back, stared up at blackness. An endless, infinitely deep black. Not even black. Devoid of black. Devoid of all color, all substance. She stared into it and soon her gaze had transported her there.
Limbless. Skinless. Organless. Without fingertips or nostrils or auricles. Seeing somehow without eyes. Breathing in a way, but not for oxygen. She was Mara Neptune. She’d been aboard a ship. The ship had been called Waxworm 2. These things she knew. What this was she did not know.
All around her a network of colors that had no names sidewinding against each other, not blending, not mixing, becoming one another, co-existing and separating to join into another sheet of another color. There was no center she could see. No motion she could feel. There was no vantage to be gained, nowhere to turn, no ability to turn, no body to turn with or from. Staring mutely into the swirling chaos, beautiful, rapturous, ecstatic, forever because time either hadn’t been invented or didn’t exist here or ran backwards or up or down in a way that she couldn’t understand, whatever she was now didn’t recognize. Forever into the dream she stared.
A presence, or another body, or something which pressed itself into being against the rippling currents of shades. She felt lessened in relation to this new one, not drained but outshined, as if it existed in a greater degree than her somehow. It was steady unlike the winding sweeps behind, around it. Now she felt she could focus, could find in her vision a direction, and she could not fix it to the presence for fear of losing that precious last sense left to her.
Not the last. Another sense, hearing perhaps but not through ears, as her sight was not through eyes. It burst into life only when the presence spoke:
“One-bodied,” it said, “you are seen. From you I require a knowledge.”
“Knowledge?” The thought rose through Mara’s mind and it was spoken.
“Yes. Those who stayed close to you did not have the knowledge I needed. They said that the knowledge was yours.”
“Who? What knowledge?”
“The other one-bodied. The knowledge of that thing which created in us discomfort. Deep discomfort.”
“Discomfort?” she said. “Disruptor? The disruptor. Yes. It’s a device made by a scientist. To drive off whatever was abducting people.”
“Disruptor. How does this disruptor create the discomfort?”
“I’m not totally sure. It’s supposed to flood other dimensions somehow. I was just told to turn it on when I saw colors.”
“It makes an itching,” it said. Itching, not precise. Itching, deeper, what was scratched out were the deep nails which had first scratched in, worrying like a parasite visibly crawling into a pore and draining the body white.
“I’m sorry. Our people disappear and don’t return, we didn’t know what was happening. We had to defend ourselves.”
“Defense of the self, an instinct all conscious share. So are the one-bodied now having knowledge of our existence?”
“I don’t think so. Some suspect, most don’t.”
“That disruptor, you created it in order to pursue your defense. That is our motive as well. We had thought you not enough developed to understand our nature.”
“Was the minister right, then? Are you a multi-dimensional being?”
“Dimension? It is a concept which I do not understand.”
“Ah. What is this place?”
“We exist now in The Between,” said the presence. “The fullest repose of our consciousnesses.”
“And where we were before?”
“The First Fold. The Solidness.”
“Right. Well, I don’t think we, my people, humans, we don’t exist here in The Between. We only exist in The Solidness. You can exist in both places. That’s multi-dimensional.”
“I understand. Yes, my people do exist across many folds at a single instant, or many.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“You were gathered here in my people’s pursuit of our own defense. It is a necessity for us that you be gathered swiftly. Your gouging wounds us, disperses many of our consciousnesses.”
“What have you one-bodied come for?” A question, not a demand. “Why have you come to our conferences so abruptly?”
“Humans are here to mine elementium from the large space masses.”
“I do not understand. Mine?”
“Um. Dig out. Extract.”
“What is the use of this thing elementium? Why was it necessary for you one-bodied to come for it?”
“What bothers you about our mining? I want to know.”
“What do you believe that my people are?” asked the presence.
“I think, well I know, that you’re multi-dimensional beings,” said Mara. “I think you are extremely advanced and I think that you are somehow vitally connected to those elementium masses. Enough that you’d protect them so vigorously.”
“I understand your answer. The suggestion that I give to you is to remember that all those who exist do not always defend only things of their own, they may also defend those things of their associates.”
And Mara was suddenly alone again.
And joined again after an eternity of a second. The presence, the perception of direction, understanding of away and why she had to look away from the presence. The same jailer.
“One-bodied, you are seen.”
“Yes, I see you, too.”
“I find in your consciousness something strange. I cannot explain it to the others. Compelling. Perhaps you can tell me more about the one-bodied than the knowledges so far gained from our conversations with those we gathered.”
“I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Your people gouge us. Disperse thousands into the wider nothingness. For this thing elementium which we do not understand. The others say it is a necessity of yours or that great consciousnesses among your people have made the decision that it is a necessity that you must gouge us.”
“They’re your planets,” Mara said. “Your homes. We should have known about it, thought about it. Elementium is too advanced to just be natural material.”
“No,” said the presence. “The conferences are not our shells. They are ourselves. Our matter.”
“The Solidness is the center. It is the most real. All things begin there, must exist there in some way. My people long ago spread our consciousnesses to other folds, other times, experiencing the obscure wonders which it is impossible to see in The Solidness. We evolved, stage by stage, consorting with the other many-bodied and other-bodied which exist liberally in this reality. We learned how to make ourselves more present in the other folds, more real. Our whole existences are now spread across the folds. Our sustenance is drawn from wild energies, our rest comes from union, our inspirations allowed fruition in whatever form we can conjure. But we exist first in The Solidness. Without our conferences we would not exist in any fold. As you gouge us we are dispersed, our consciousnesses irretrievable.”
“But there were no life signs. I was never told about any life signs. They were just rocks.”
“Your consciousness cannot perceive beyond your fold. To you, there is no current of life in our conferences because our entire existences take their shape across the other folds. In the First Fold, which we explored for the many millions of years of our ancient existence, we find nothing further to observe.”
“We didn’t know.”
“And if you had possessed this knowledge?”
“I don’t know. I can’t speak for the foundations. They want money, power more than anything.”
“And this great power that you one-bodied seek, what is it? Are our first-bodies your prey, your food? Are we the nutrients for your plants? Why does this provoke war-making between you?”
“They’re supposed to make our ships stronger.”
“How is that accomplished? Are we the energy to power your shells?”
“No. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I think elementium — your first-bodies, sorry — is being used to build machines. Resistant to heat, pressure, radiation. It, they, can make probably the best and longest-lasting drives we’ve ever made.”
“I understand, and more than you know. I had wondered why some dispersed and some did not. Why some lingered, still, without vitality. It is this horror.”
“Trapped inside yourself.” As if it hadn’t heard her at all. “Catatonic, paralyzed, every self of yours collapsing. To be stood around and pitied, existing but not knowing. Not knowing…”
Mara was alone again. She thought about the presence’s reaction forever.
However long passed. The swirling stains and shades, subtle tones and striking colors making shapes at a pace that either was too slow for her to feel or too fast for her to know. Her thoughts sprang away from each other so she might think of that being, the jailer, but who was the jailer. And then how she had gotten here, a question she couldn’t answer. Their first-bodies. Whose? The crew of Waxmoth and Waxworm and Waxworm 2. The cargo she’d lost. Her arms, invisible, disappeared, dismembered. The horror.
That nothingness so empty that it had substance apparated into the sheets of color which wrapped around it like always closing robes throwing layer upon layer overtop a shape which could never be obscured.
“One-bodied, you are seen.”
“You are seen,” Mara said.
“One-bodied, I wonder what knowledge you have of war-making.”
“Our war-making proceeds very slowly. Our existence on the First Fold is still weak. Growing, strengthening, but still weak. It frustrates us, our helplessness, able to neutralize only small groups while many great populations are dispersed and paralyzed into unconsciousness, a useless existence.”
“I can imagine.”
“But you have no knowledge of it. We grieve for those we have lost. We make war upon the humans to stop it. Yet it is not enough. And when it will be, we cannot know.”
“I can speak to them,” Mara said. “Make them understand. They’ve got to understand.”
“Would you speak to your great consciousnesses on the behalf of my people?”
“If you can succeed, we would welcome it. Truly. Yet how can it succeed? We have already heard that your great ones do not accept counsel easily. And you, who are not a war-maker for them, how can you convince such powers?”
“I could try. I’m persuasive.”
“I am gratified by this knowledge, and moreso because our choice has been proven correct.”
“My people have decided that you may be released,” the presence said. “As we feel no hatred in your heart for us, we have no hatred for the human peoples. It has been felt by my people that you wish to pose no threat to us, that you gain no profit by harming us. You are somehow free of those bonds which grip many of the others. And so we will not keep you.”
“I… thank you.”
“We will return you to a place where your existence may continue. There are other humans there. We hope that with their assistance you may continue your existence yet further. But I ask you to excuse yourself from our war-making with those humans who gouge our conferences. It is no necessity for you as it is for my people. Seek your profit elsewhere and leave my people to treat with those humans.”
“Yes,” Mara said. But such a sad thing to abandon.
Mara inhaled, touched a wall to her side, looked down the corridor with its doorways recessed slightly into the walls and some of the doors just apart so that the light from inside could drift out. She was as she had been. She patted her body just to make sure.
She stood up and lurched forward, getting used to walking again, foot after foot. Her hand and forearm pressed against the wall so she could keep her balance. It wasn’t that difficult. Just remembering how this all went. She blinked when she saw a new shape down the corridor, long, a person, a man. Older with brown hair and a brown beard.
“Hey,” he drawled, approaching cautiously. Mara stopped, rocked back onto her heels. “Where in the hell did you come from?”
“I dunno, really. Where is this?”
“Just an out-of-the-way refuel station. Deep Station 21. Only stop for leagues. And since we haven’t had a ship in for a while I can’t figure out where you appeared from.”
“I dunno.” She rubbed her eyes, partly to convince herself that he wasn’t looking so hard at her. “I’ve just been… kinda keeping quiet for a while, y’know? I’m not really sure what’s been going on these past few days.”
“Uh huh.” He sucked his lower lip noisily. “Well, we’ll see. Come on. I’d pat you down but uh… heh. How about you just walk in front. No funny stuff, now. I don’t know who you are.”
Following his directions, Mara walked to a ladder and took it up to the next deck, where they made a turn to get to the control room. Deep Station 21 was cramped, its rooms in a single floorplan stacked one on top of the other, and even the number of decks wasn’t high. The control room was like the station entire, consoles and processors jutting out from every wall and heating up every space that they didn’t take up. The man gestured to a seat for Mara and took one by a console.
“So what’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Doug Simurlane. Nice to meet ya.”
“I’m not seeing anything on a recent manifest. You go by any other names?”
“None that I can think of.”
“Any of these ships ring a bell: Baby Dream, Ardashir, Crooner, Balto Bigson, Green Lemming?”
“Nah,” Mara said.
“Geez. Look, you gotta tell me something. What’s the last thing you do remember?”
Mara thought, skipping over several details. “Wezar’s City.”
“You know it?”
“I was getting loaded. Good and fucking loaded. And then…”
“Like that, huh? Well, there were a few scummy types on Baby Dream, guess someone could’ve been a slaver. You look the type they’d wanna grab. But you don’t know who?”
She shook her head. Footsteps came pounding down the hallway and another man poked his head in. Leaner, younger, with shaggy hair. Mara looked him over and looked away. He let his eyes linger longer.
“Hell do you want, Vitor?” Simurlane said.
“Where’d you put the booze?” Vitor asked. “We did the damn cleaning, stop moving it.”
“If I didn’t keep moving it, you’d just get drunk.”
“I thought that was what this job was.”
“Yeah, but we gotta get shit done, too.”
“Who’s this?” Vitor asked, sticking his chin out at her.
“Stowaway,” Simurlane said.
“Mara,” Mara said.
“What’re we doing with her?” Vitor asked.
“Doing with me?”
“I don’t know,” Simurlane said. “I guess we’ll just have to let her hang around until another ship comes by.”
“How’re we gonna handle that?” Vitor asked. “We’re already gonna cut it close with supplies.”
“I’ll send out an emergency message, explain the situation. Foundation’ll send something out. They want us ready to go after all.”
“Which foundation?” Mara asked.
“Far Arjuna, course,” Simurlane said. “What other?”
“You not heard about the war here, StelloScope invading?”
“Hell would StelloScope want with a rinky-dink spot like this? We’re way out, sister. When StelloScope comes out here we’ll know we’ve lost.”
“Man quit messing around, would ya?” Vitor asked. “Show me where you hid the booze, me and Bet want to get drunk.”
“Alright.” Simurlane shut the program he was running down and got up. “Thirsty myself anyway.”
“You wanna drink with us?” Vitor asked Mara.
“Nah, I think I’m gonna lay down,” Mara said. “Still out of sorts.”
“I’ll give you the tour once I’ve given baby his bottle,” Simurlane said. Vitor hit him between the shoulderblades but not hard as they went out into the corridor.
Deep Station 21 was tolerable. It had been a while since she’d piled onto a cot quite so narrow in a room quite so small, or where she could find no space to really stretch her legs. She managed with her usual stubborn resolve. When they ate she ate with them and got to watch Vitor and Bet snapping at each other, teasing, fuming, feeding. Simurlane watched them and leered at Mara. On the third day, Bet was up against Simurlane, but she got bored with him quickly and headed away, leaving Mara to fend off the chatter of the two oversexed men before she figured she was full enough to go on. For four people there was more than enough space and yet the three crew always found themselves together, especially after one of their short shifts. It was almost a week before Mara decided to take her first drink with them. She would sit back in the tiny sitting room and paint a smile on broad and still, drinking and getting drunk, letting them roar about sports and films, things that had happened months ago, before any of them had come out on this tour. Things they’d probably talked about a hundred times before. Maybe they drank and sank pills into their stomach so that they’d forget the stories they’d told already. Mara tried to forget them as they were being told. With Simurlane closely watching their alcohol, though, she couldn’t get enough into her system.
Bet was somewhat shorter than Mara and kept trying to corner her for a bit of a chat. A rough woman with larger breasts than Mara’s and a hard pair of green eyes that kept Mara from backing up too far. Both of them, Doug and Vitor, were disgusting, she said. She got with Vitor cause he was cute and a good fuck and there was nothing else to do, period. If she could find something she’d do it, anything, but these tours were hell. Locked in a box with two or three other people. Lucky to have someone she could stand to fuck on a trip like this. When she talked about Simurlane, Doug, she said he was alright but she mostly got close to him to piss Vitor off whenever he pissed her off. Which was, of course, what Vitor thought every time Bet pulled Mara aside like this, so he would usually come up after her to ask about what they’d just said. Vitor wasn’t bothered, of course, he could take care of himself. He just liked to know. Bet only liked him cause he could manage to slip booze away from Simurlane, he said. Course if she was really that mad he wouldn’t mind sharing it with someone else. Or if not Vitor it was Simurlane, saying much the same thing except with time for heaps of insults on both Vitor and Bet: inexperienced, clumsy, obsessed with drinking and fucking even as Simurlane breathed whiskey into Mara’s face.
How long would she been stranded here for? Way out didn’t seem a strong enough term for this. She was glad that those beings, her jailer, had released her. She grieved for those elemental things, and not only them, but for Ensign Borgin and Crewman Uriel, Black Tom and all of those mercenaries. She’d escaped it. If she was resigned to this little wad of trash she could live with it for a while. Besides, it might not be that bad. Vitor was kind of cute, after all. There was alcohol aboard, and food. Once Simurlane’s message had gone through, how long would it take for Far Arjuna to send something out? Couldn’t be longer than a month, no matter how far away the elementals had planted her, if the foundation still had things in hand. She could wait that long if she had to. These three were doing it.
The thing about Vitor was Bet. How serious was that? They always told her how little they cared and yet were always close to one another. Maybe they just functioned in dysfunction, always looking so ready to shatter things and despite or because of that kept tightly together. But Mara started to accept his offers of alcohol, taking it from his hand rather than getting it herself. Bet went to bed early one night and Vitor got to talking about his plans for the future. The Prix. Biggest, greatest gun tournament in the galaxy. He’d never been to the Home System of course but that didn’t matter. He’d find a way there and he’d wow all those millions who watched. Not just Ranked, he’d be Grand Champion. The number one ace. He could do it, too. He was close to her now, his little mustache, his broad nose, his eyes running down her body. She excused herself. Clearly she was going to have to decide she wanted sex first if she was gonna have Vitor. He wasn’t going to get that feeling flowing in her.
Bet’s warnings about this place were true, though. She couldn’t deny that. Dead boring, especially for Mara who didn’t have any duties on the station. She could see fucking just to get her mind off this. For the moment, Mara was mostly thinking about how she could get drunker. Even with how much everyone liked alcohol, Simurlane kept their store locked up and always moving. Same thing with the pills which were, really, for medical purposes. If she wasn’t ready to fuck Vitor she was less ready to fuck Simurlane but she couldn’t think of any other way to get him to loosen up the booze supply. A bet, maybe? But what could she wager? Would Simurlane bet booze against her clothes in strip poker? Still pretty unsavory. At least he wouldn’t get his hands on her.
A bright ringing got all their attention. Simurlane forced himself up from the sitting room and headed out, down the corridor to the console room. Bet was sure it was a ship coming into their range. Hopefully alcohol, and also hopefully someone to get Mara on her way. Vitor looked sadly at Mara, hoping she would take notice that she was studiously not trying to show. Soon Simurlane returned, his face twisted, his mind clearly still picking away at a granite wall.
“What’s up?” Vitor asked.
“We’ve got a ship on the scanner,” Simurlane said. “Mainliner.”
“Could it be a Farjun ship?” Bet asked.
“I dunno. Can’t read anything on it. Sent out long hails but nothing’s been replied to yet.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Nothing we can do,” Simurlane said. “Guess we could send out a message to the foundation but I dunno, feels jumpy. Gonna wait until it gets closer and we’ll see.”
Simurlane left again, which concerned Bet more than the news itself. Vitor started talking about old Grand Champions, a subject that Bet was completely uninterested in and probably brought up only to get a rise out of her. They sat, drank, talked, lounged. Simurlane came to bang on the door and get Vitor away from making out with Bet to go do his rounds, then he disappeared. Bet said that Vitor was a horrible shot, he’d never get anywhere close to The Prix. Herself she just hoped to make enough money that she’d never have to take a tour like this again. This was her third one. She punctuated that with a swig.
Now Simurlane returned, jittery. Mara and Bet sat up straight, Mara’s vision skewed and her equilibrium sloshed.
“Uh, I dunno, battle stations?” Simurlane said. “I think we better get ready for something here.”
“Hold on, slow down, Doug,” Bet said. “What’s going on?”
“That ship’s closer now, a lot closer. In definite hailing range. Still not responding. Not just that, I tried to send a message out to the base but everything’s jammed. I think by now we’ve even lost the area sensors.”
“When are they gonna be here?” Mara asked.
Around them a lower, firmer set of rings pealed, faster than the earlier ones. Simurlane shot off towards the console room, followed by Bet and, a bit more slowly, Mara. Inside, Simurlane threw himself into the chair and answered the incoming hail. Video was brought up but it showed nothing.
“This is an officer under the auspices of the Federated Alliance,” came the stern female voice. “We require you to permit docking as per Declaration A7.”
The infamous. Allowing Alliance officials so authorized to board any vessel at their discretion. An abuse of A7 could be appealed, of course. To the nearest Alliance representative, who might be a hundred leagues away, and probably didn’t give the basest fuck about some backworld cargo hauler’s entire living.
“We’re sending certification codes now.”
Figures showed up on the console, shifted, tinted.
“Yes, okay,” Simurlane said. “That checks. Uh, can you give us back area sensors? Don’t want to make a mistake.”
The access was granted. Shortly, the mainliner had attached itself to the station. A further order had all of them come to the dock personally. Vitor, unable to contain his fear, tucked a blaster in the back waistband of his pants. Simurlane didn’t approve but saw the sense of it so he didn’t say anything. All together, the three crew and the stowaway made their way down to the docking platform. Simurlane punched in a keycode which opened the doors, first horizontally, then vertically to reveal the loading tunnel behind. Standing there in all white was a man with a rifle held across his chest and, leading him, Bisera Banlon.
“Good,” Banlon said. “I did hope we’d find you here. Glad to know that I’m not losing my touch just yet.”
“The Whites?” Vitor hissed.
Mara sighed, and even despite her inebriation she felt frozen inside.
“Took you long enough,” Mara said morosely.
Banlon smiled and showed all her teeth and held out her arm. Mara stepped forward, looked back at the three others, and kept going. As if she could say no with Sclera standing right in front of her.
“The comm unit?” Mara asked.
“Oh, no,” Banlon said. “That cut out sometime after the battle. No, we intercepted a message about a mystery stowaway and I put two and two together, brought Sarcophagus out to fetch you.”
“Glad you care.”
“Of course. How couldn’t we be interested? Once again, Mara Neptune, you are the only survivor. You’ll have to tell me how you do it.”
She would. That was what Mara was there for, wasn’t it?
Sarcophagus was much as Mara had left it just a few weeks ago: pristine, sleek, an unnatural perfection in every detail. Bisera Banlon led her to a private room so she could hear the story of Mara’s escape. The sabotage had done its job and Waxmoth had called in that Mara arrived, and about her scout adventure. That was where what Banlon knew ended. The rest was Mara’s job to fill in.
She started with the abduction. The three of them — herself, Borgin, Uriel — approached by the weird beings who had been at the heart of the many disappearances, now disappeared them. The prison dimension and its twisting flavors, linking colors, timelessness. She still didn’t know how long she’d been there. At some points in her captivity she was visited by a presence, one of the beings which had brought her there. She spoke to it. To such a creature, something she couldn’t even have imagined before she was face to face with it. It told her that they were alive, that those masses of elementium were alive, and that the mining was killing them. There was anguish in her jailer’s words that she tried to convey but she didn’t know that she could.
Bisera Banlon noted what Mara said down. She looked up briefly at some details. Mara finished with her apparition onto Deep Station 21 and skipped all the lethargic drunkenness that had followed.
“They said that they were alive,” Banlon said. “The masses were.”
“Yes,” Mara said. “I mean, they’re inert to us, I know, but they live throughout the other dimensions.”
“We have done extensive tests.”
“I know. But how can we really be sure about how to detect multidimensional beings?”
“You may be right. In any case, I’m sure you’re tired after your long ordeal. I’d offer you a place to sleep but we’re currently rushing off to meet Waxmoth. I’ll need you there.”
“To report to the others,” Banlon said. “You’re still our only direct contact with this phenomena. The StelloScope people will have questions.” She smiled, a distant sun in the deepness of winter. “But soon enough you’ll get some good shut-eye.” The door opened and Banlon left Mara to sit for a moment before she realized that she should follow.
When the ships interlocked at their meeting point, three people left Sarcophagus for Waxmoth: Mara Neptune, Bisera Banlon, and the envoy leader Minister Agrippina Soshen. The Sclera minister was a tall woman with short cut hair and a heavy frame, a heavy shawl rather than robes to show her rank. She dominated the corridors they were led through on their way to the meeting hall.
There they were met by three from StelloScope. Minister Jim Nasar sat at the long table in his robes. The slight, ruddy-faced man, straight as a steel beam, this she assumed was Colonel Bosephal Ahearn. The other, a woman in middle years, was introduced by Minister Nasar as the captain of the ship, Narges Falla. Pleasantries were exchanged, the newcomers took their seats. Mara fidgeted a bit but made herself stop. She had to try and be cool here. After all, she was still in Sclera’s grip. Wouldn’t do to have them getting jumpy about her.
Colonel Ahearn, maybe predictably, had one thing on his mind.
“What sort of threat do these things pose to our operations?”
“I’m not sure,” Mara said. “I didn’t really get to read a tactical map or anything.”
“So what did happen?” Nasar asked, leaning forward.
Mara told them about the trip out, the abduction, the conversation with her jailer. Their need to defend the elementium masses.
“You spoke with those beings?” Nasar gasped.
“In a sense,” Mara said.
“And they told you that they’re determined to defend the masses by these abductions?”
“It’s like insects,” Minister Soshen said. “If you leave a piece of fruit out you might find it swarming with flies and ants. Try to take it away again and they might protest, fling themselves around you, but what do they know about it? They’ll find something new to obsess over soon enough.”
“That’s not what it sounded like,” Mara said.
“Yes, well, your story is a bit odd,” Banlon said. “Taken to a strange dimension you call The Between? Disembodied? It sounds like a hallucination.”
“That’s not out of the question,” Nasar said.
“I saw it,” Mara said.
“No one is saying you didn’t,” Banlon said. “But perhaps whatever these phenomena are, they can induce these sorts of hallucinations. It can’t be overlooked.”
“Not at all,” Nasar said.
“And the disruptor,” Colonel Ahearn said to Mara, “how did that function? I assume not a complete success or we would have heard from you earlier.”
“No,” Mara said. “It… did something. I think it affected them but it didn’t slow them down too much. They didn’t seem like they liked it.”
“The design is solid,” Nasar said. “If there’s an issue it can only be in the output levels, which we kept low so as not to harm human tissue.”
“Could you modify it for higher power?”
“Sarcophagus would like one such device,” Minister Soshen said.
“My idea,” said Ahearn, testily, “would have been to outfit our whole attack squadron with them. Synchronize them from a single point so we can make sure that all our ships are protected at the same time. That should give us a free hand in taking out the Farjun defenses.”
“Detection should be at least as important,” Soshen said.
“Agreed,” said Nasar. “But at present we don’t have a sophisticated way to detect presences in other dimensions, there’s not much we can do but wait for them to board the ship and hope we can get a jump on them.”
“It would be preferable,” said Banlon, “if we had someone around who might know the signs of these events and could react quickly before they took hold.”
“Yes, that would be good,” said Ahearn. “In a lead ship, hopefully able to notice something before the rest of the squadron.”
Now the room fell silent. Mara was fully aware that they meant for her to take this critical position. That did not mean she had to give them the satisfaction of volunteering herself.
Mara knocked on the door of Minister Nasar’s study. It opened, showing her the humming and blinking machinery and beyond them the minister looking out at his visitor.
“Ah, Miss Neptune. I didn’t expect you.”
“I thought I could talk to you,” Mara said.
“Concerned about the operation? As am I, but what must be done must be done.”
“Yes. And no. I mean not really.”
“It’s this whole thing about the elementals.”
“No, I understood,” Nasar said. He rubbed his jaw. “I had been calling them ‘color ghosts’. Elementals does sound nicer. More dignified.”
“Yes, go on.”
“It doesn’t even concern you?” Mara asked. “They’re obviously defending the masses. You don’t want to investigate?”
“What is there, exactly, to investigate?”
“Why would they be so interested in the masses at all? Why hadn’t they made themselves known before?”
“They’re interesting questions,” Nasar said, “but not of much consequence.”
“I thought you were a scientist.”
“The mining is obviously aggravating them. If you’re interested in studying them, you’ve got to give yourself a chance to do it. Without all this interference.”
“Once we seize the masses, we’ll be able to study them at our leisure.”
“But they’re killing them!” Mara squeezed her eyes shut, opened them again. “They’re dying, minister. Every little bit we mine, they die.”
Nasar exhaled through his nostrils. His hand drifted to his console but he wasn’t thinking about the console. He looked up with a studied flatness at Mara who wondered how he was not searing under her stare.
“Have you ever heard of leather?” Nasar asked.
“It’s an old material from Earth’s ancient past. The skins of dead animals stripped away from their muscle and bone until they were an unrecognizable sheet. Scraped and drenched in chemicals until it, fundamentally, molecularly, did not resemble what it once was. A cruel process to undergo on all levels. Yet leather was one of the major clothing materials used by humans all across the homeworld. Strong cords of leather were used in a great deal of construction, used for agriculture, for stability. Without leather, many societies would have been held back for the lack of a sturdy material for protection and utility. We only stopped using leather when it was easy for us not to. When we could replicate what leather gave us by other means. Until then, we killed what we sought necessary. It is our lot in this universe, I suppose. To need and to use. To use and to need again. And on and on and on.”
Eleven days aboard Waxmoth went by slowly. Mara stayed aboard the StelloScoper ship when Banlon and Minister Soshen left. They wanted her to get better acquainted with Minister Nasar’s disruptor. Nasar was not the type for conversations or someone hanging over his shoulder, so more often than not she was simply wandering the corridors in her finally tailored silver uniform. She asked someone for where Ensign Borgin had lain her head. When she got there, another woman had taken up the cot and the locker at its foot. They looked at each other strangely, then Mara walked away.
They started moving on the eighth day, movement scarcely felt aboard the ship, but everyone rushed here and there in preparation. Waxmoth wouldn’t be in the fight, of course, but it had a big job ahead of it getting the disruptors set up and linked on all the ships of this combined flotilla. Mara was kept out of that. She didn’t ask to be included. As much as she disliked her sober idleness, she had no wish to help this war effort any more than she absolutely had to. She instead spent her time deciding how much or how little that really was.
Now in a little cosmic placid Waxmoth linked up with its military counterpart, the battle-liner Orban. Mara formed up with the rest of the Waxmoth detachment, marching behind Colonel Ahearn into the new ship and receiving the salutes of enforcers who saw in the colonel a man to admire. She was left on the bridge while the others, the real technicians with real training, got to work setting up the disruptor. A large walking area in the middle of the bridge was now occupied by the bulk of Nasar’s machine, crude cabling running away from it and along the floor into the walls.
Orban was not the only ship that needed equipping. A day or two passed while the crews from Waxmoth moved from vessel to vessel, installing protection against the threat which most aboard knew little about. The delay suited Mara just fine. Unlike Waxmoth, she had a reason to explore this ship. The bridge got her scrutiny first as she floated around the disruptor and pretended to be interested. Communications, navigation, piloting, engines, weaponry, scanning. The captain’s seat and station. If she got too close an operator might twist and glare, and unlike with their sergeants they didn’t wilt at all upon seeing Mara. She stepped away quickly. She wasn’t boundlessly curious and she’d seen what she needed to see.
Colonel Ahearn had sent down orders for her to keep in quarters unless called, keep out of his people’s way. In the corridors, though, in this silver uniform, she was invisible. She had to remember to keep her head down, snap a salute when she needed, but everyone was too busy or too apathetic to give her much obstacle. Sometimes she looked for sadness in people’s eyes, some sort of recognition of what they were doing. But how could they have known? And if she told them? She kept her mouth shut.
Whenever she saw an open door she stepped in. Sometimes just to look inside. She breathed out the number of her steps as she walked. Her own quarters was her main reference but there was the mess, the stairs to lower decks, the lieutenants’ quarters. She took the stairs down, remembered where she came out, kept exploring. Bit by bit she canvassed the ship until she was fairly sure she knew all its major arteries and organs. If she’d been asked to draw it she’d have failed but she trusted her intuition. After all, there was nothing else.
It was only once they’d started moving that Mara was formally called to the bridge for shifts. Her duties were simple, even superfluous, but she was the only one who could recognize what the others could not: she knew what it looked like when the elementals approached and gathered. Nowhere for her to be but the bridge. So she leaned on the disruptor, keeping her body clear of the start button, and stared ahead at the long screen at the front of the bridge, the window of starry space and the bold colors of the navigation profile adjacent.
“Sir?” called a scanning officer.
“Speak,” said the colonel. Ahearn stood tall on the bridge, hands folded and locked behind his back, pacing back and forth more out of boredom than bad temper.
“Got contacts here, antis. Three, four… five…”
“That’s the Farjuns. How far are we from the elementium mass?”
“Seven star miles,” called another.
“Alright. Send a message to the other ships, let’s get into battle array. Get me more info on those antis, let’s make sure our targeting is in order. Lieutenant, call alert stations.”
A harsh alarm, a yellow that bathed the bridge in long flashes. Not the right kind. Mara relaxed as the lieutenant’s voice droned ominously throughout the air. Another window appeared on the long screen, pinpointing themselves, the cluster of green orbs near them, the red orbs separated by space, the gray sphere marking the mass behind it poxed by minuscule red contacts.
“What’s the final count?” Ahearn asked.
“Nine ships,” came the answer. “Two cruisers and seven frigates, no liners.”
“Good. Good odds. Get our targets laid in, sergeant.”
“They’re hailing us, sir,” said the comm officer.
“Ignore it. Bring our weapons online. Let’s make sure we take on those cruisers so the rest of ours can mop up their frigates.”
Closer and closer still. Mara’s fingertips itched. Colonel Ahearn called for battle stations. The whoop of alarm, the flashing reds, which she expected. Closer and closer. When would the order to fire be called? What were they waiting for? On the screen ahead, the slow dancing of the orbs red and green, she waited for them to close, close.
At the moment she saw fit she slammed her hand on the disruptor start button. Instantly she seized up, as did everyone around her. She grit her teeth hard. She could move but she had to think hard about it. And she did. Like shifting through water she brought her arm back around and slammed her palm down on the disruptor again, sluicing that general itch away at once.
Clear tones, high high low, again, again, bloomed into being as her hearing returned. The itching, that tension, dulled everything. There was something else as well. “UNKNOWN INTRUDERS.” droned a voice. “GENERAL ALERT.” It repeated, off time with the alarm tones. When Mara could focus again she saw eyes turned to her. Everybody, or those who weren’t were quickly finding out what the others were looking at and now swiveling around. For a moment, two, Mara had just hope to hold onto. Someone started toward her and she surged back and only then did the regular movement of the universe cease and colors explode into being throughout the head of the bridge.
Swiftly those sweeping and overlapping cloaks of all hues and more saturated everything in the bridge. The sounds of the alarm were far away, imaginary. From nothing, the centers of these clouds of shifting tones imperceptible, emerged those tall slashes of an unfathomable shade, three, more, and they drifted into and out of matter without consequence. Already lasers were firing, another dull and surreal voice crying out in a language that Mara no longer knew. When a beam seared into the space that seemed to contain some solid being it instead passed through, split and streaked against the reinforced hull of the ship. Conversely when an appendage of that unknown thing laid upon the pilot that person’s substance seemed to fold, lose itself, lose its place in time and space.
Mara lunged ahead now, grabbing the disruptor with both hands and vaulting clear over it. Immediately she dashed for the weapons console, trying not to fear the closeness of the elementals too much. She felt heat, growing closer, and screaming without sound she whipped around but the being had moved past. Her body full of tremor she spun back and, seeing the weapons officer nearest her frozen with fear, she grabbed her collar and yanked the woman out of her seat. Mara fussed around with the controls, trying frantically to bring up the target list. A laser bolt exploded above her head and she flinched. She kept working. There it was, and in short order she’d found what she knew she would: StelloScope’s last resort, a target lock made on the entire mine complex itself. She chose it and set everything that Orban had to fire upon the mine.
The system warned her that not all weapons were in optimum alignment but she ignored it. She just needed most of them to land and the computer would take care of that. If this ship had half the power that she’d been led to believe it did, the mine wouldn’t survive a combined blast. She keyed it in and sent off the fatal volley.
No time to wait, not even time to watch. Half of the bridge crew had been gathered by now and the others were spread out, scrambling over equipment to put distance between themselves and the stalking shapes, flinging whatever fire they could without effect. Methodically, the slow-moving elementals boxed people in. Mara set off at a full gallop, this time springing on top of the disruptor device and leaping ahead, landing without losing her momentum until she crashed hard into the force-closed doors. The code was simple, and she got out with only her face and breasts smarting from the impact.
The alarm kept ringing, kept droning, as she made her way down the corridor. There was commotion somewhere further down but she wasn’t eager to backtrack. She kept moving briskly and was somewhat cheered by the sight of the corridor widening, then immediately dejected by the two armed guards standing in the clearing and blocking the way beyond.
“Intruder,” said one. “We’re on sectional lockdown.”
“Yeah, they’re in the bridge,” Mara said. “It’s crazy, I barely got out. You should go help them.”
They looked at each other.
“We’ll call the mobile team,” said the other.
“Well why don’t you let me call them?” Mara asked.
“Can’t do that. Lockdown’s lockdown, nobody goes past without authorization.”
“Look!” Mara stamped her foot, trying to contain herself. “I’ve gotta get out of here, alright?” She tried to push past but they held her back.
“Don’t panic,” one said. They forced her back a few steps. “We’ll be okay ri–” He cut off because abruptly Mara’s forearm had been flung hard into his jaw with the force from the rest of her body behind it. She ignored the pain that erupted from her forearm down to her elbow, instead crushing her shoulder against his body and wrenching the arm around. His shocked comrade couldn’t react in time. Mara spewed laser shot in his direction, one of the beams catching him solidly in the stomach. She felt the man’s hand club the back of her head, not hard enough to knock her down. She retaliated by lunging back and smashing his skull into the wall. Now she freed the gun, pivoted, and burned his hip with a close-range shot. She fished the other fallen blaster away with her foot and kicked it down the corridor she’d come, then hurried on.
Under her breath she marked where she’d passed by, recalling the layout of the ship. The sight of silver made her halt, shift direction, wait to see what was up and redirect. She didn’t think she’d gotten turned around until she saw the head for the second time. Hell. Now Mara tried to figure out just which one this was.
“Mobile team group alpha, to the bridge!” called a voice over the intercom. Not automated. Not good. “Full alert! Groups beta and gamma sweep the ship, we’ve got someone loose! In a Stello uniform, dark skin, flashy pink hair, and she’s armed.”
Mara grumbled as the message was repeated. She probably should have gotten her hair dyed dull at some point, had her spikes settled down, but there had been no time. No time to waste. She got moving and just hoped that she’d stumble upon and recognize the right path.
She turned a corner to see what she’d been looking for: the portway to the lower deck and, ultimately, the pods. But again, something she had been trying to avoid: a pair of guards who noticed her immediately and called out of her to lay the blaster down. In response, she blasted at them. Red streaks of injury lit up the air around her and she dropped back, firing, escaping around a corner. Now they were coming on hard and she spun on her heel, dashing away, her mind fixing the spot of those downward stairs.
As she ran, a flash burst on the wall, its tributaries sizzling away and singing the surface. She swung around, index and middle fingers tugging, pistol loosing bolt after bolt. The others shrank from her fire and she took the cue to keep going. As soon as she’d pivoted away the opposing fire broke forth yet again, but only for a second before the guards were following as well.
Now they were giving out her location. Those other teams would close in quick if she didn’t do something. When she passed a door to someone’s quarters she stopped to boot it hard. Nothing. A guard skidded around the corner, hit the wall, and stumbled. The other smartly dropped to a knee and fired, forcing Mara to move again. But she had to find somewhere. She had to give these guys the slip for at least a moment, get time back on her side.
Mara saw her salvation in a small storage room left open from some recent retrieval. She shifted inside and waited beside the door and a rack hanging with mops. Nearby she could hear the guards, smallish voices, a number of them. Probably discussing where she might be, how to get her. She strained, neck tensing as if that would increase the power of her hearing. The alarm was still going, the warnings still being delivered. She waited. She had to get it right, just right, and even if she did she still might get it wrong. She caught her breathing so that the sound wouldn’t interfere. Her palm sweated but she didn’t dare wipe it clean. She just had to hope that she gripped the gun well enough.
Finally, close came the footsteps. She ticked with her tongue, two, three. At once she spun around the corner and into the hall, arms fixed, firing maniacally at the middle space and striking a guard several times. He crumpled, his gun skittered away. He wasn’t the only one; he had a partner, also armed. But rather than drifting back, Mara charged ahead at full speed. The woman’s eyes swelled in disbelief just before Mara cracked her full in the face with the laser pistol. She didn’t stop running.
Her knees and ankles were biting themselves with every step and her arm still throbbed with pain. She kept going. When Mara reached the descent this time she found it unguarded and practically fell down the steps, just barely managing to keep her feet on the stairs and the rest of her body off. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a silver shape but quickly she was past and down a narrow corridor. If they had seen her they apparently hadn’t recognized her. No time to be thankful. She had a better idea of where she was on the lower deck: with only one destination there were only a few paths to take. It seemed that the stress of the battle had most of the crew occupied, just as she’d been counting on. She tried not to let herself relax but it was difficult. All this adrenaline demanded leave to drain away.
Her foot stamped the ground and she launched herself flat against the wall. Luckily, she had managed to keep her fever marshalled because there were more guards, and not just a couple. Squads blocked all the entrances to the escape pod corridor. Now it was fear clawing up Mara’s throat, stripping adrenaline away, the toxic state hoping to take up residence in evacuated veins. This she choked down. She tried to think. Every heartbeat stretched an hour long.
Footsteps now, hard, heavy, fast. Mara stepped back, and again. Suddenly she fired her pistol, backing up until she could round a corner. Just as she disappeared she saw the silver from the direction of the pods. Two breaths and then the air was savaged with rapid, zipping sounds, the discharge of blasters over and over. In the small space she could see there was no bit of air not taken up by red beam or fading corona. A hell she’d hopefully avoided. Quickly she headed down the other way and made her way around, coming back up to the escape pods’ corridor. Now the squad was arrayed against one exit, kneeling or pressed against the wall, firing down it without a clear idea of who they were fighting, simply seeking to preserve their own lines. And in that same spirit, Mara got her head low, snuck towards an escape pod, and keyed her way inside.
Orban‘s pods were considerably more advanced than those in Bondsman, but this time she had even less of an idea of where she wanted to go. Without a safe destination, she had only one clear direction: away. A short button series and she was being instructed to belt herself back. In an instant her body was flung forward against the straps, the escape pod jettisoned back out of the great battle-liner and into the empty blackness. The ship, a dull grey patched with long strips of green, stayed large in Mara’s vision until she turned the little craft around.
She saw all the contacts undifferentiated on her scanner. Calmly, she adjusted the speed, bringing her up faster. She wanted to clear this battlespace as quickly as possible. A few dots drifted on the console, repositioning. Then two seemed to break formation, no, they had broken formation. And they were coming in a direction that she could only guess was hers. She closed her eyes.
Mara had known, of course, that she wouldn’t get out of this one. Even though she’d had gotten this far — a possibility she’d totally rejected early in her crude planning — there was nowhere remotely close to put in. She’d escaped purely so she wouldn’t be ripped up in the battle. So that if she did die, she’d do it all on her own. And it was with that in mind that she opened her eyes again and cranked the speed up higher.
The escape craft couldn’t outrun any full-sized ship, so even if she didn’t know their size she knew that she was in trouble. The only way to steer this thing was to locate a suitable destination and let the computer take it there. Desperately, Mara tried to key in empty locations in space to force the craft to turn, do anything to avoid these ships. Every destination was rejected, invalid landing zone. She kept her eyes glued on the scanner. She tried in utter futility to will her ship faster.
Of course, it didn’t go faster. But the other ships stopped gaining on her.
And she noticed that dreamy stillness that had become familiar to her.
And she saw a swath of red and then green and something else draw over her.
This thing, cocoon of winding layers which wrapped her in colors unknown, this lack of lung and limb, this The Between. She saw what she saw: the presence from whom she had to avert her eyes, yet this time there were others, a chorus, so that if she could remember her eyelids and remember what closing them was and if she could have conceived of a state other than seeing she would have tried to shut her sight altogether.
“One-bodied, you are seen.”
She wished to look at him, her jailer, but could not bear it.
“You are seen.”
“One-bodied, these my also-consciousnesses wished to discover you, to understand you for themselves. I have relayed to them that it is impossible but they have insisted.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint.”
“There is no disappointment felt by us. Our emotion is of gratitude. And confusion, as is usual.”
“That device which makes the itching,” said the jailer. “Why employ it? It distressed us even at such a distance.”
“I thought it would bring you to my ship. I hoped I could use the distraction.”
“Many of my fellow consciousnesses wished to gather you when we made our approach. I was able to convince them to wait. That you of all the one-bodied might be trusted. And you did us a great and awful service.”
“But why awful?” Mara said.
“Because in your dispersal of that great gouger, many of our first-bodies were dispersed. These we mourn, but as martyrs. It pains us that they have become nothing and yet we know that if the gouger had been allowed to continue, as they do on the other masses, many more of our consciousnesses would be lost to dispersal or…”
Perhaps there was no word for what that lifeless limbo was. Perhaps there was a word but it was too painful.
“I’m sorry,” Mara said. “I didn’t even think.”
“It was necessary. We ourselves may at some time beyond this present be compelled to follow your example. We do not expect that the humans will remove without rancor their great engines.”
“There has to be something that I can do. Someone I can talk to.”
“There may be but I must ask you to refrain. This war-making is not yours.”
“I just can’t stand the idea that you’re being so cruelly… murdered.”
“Do not bear too great a concern for us. Gradually, as we exercise it, we gain more power in the First Fold. It may be very soon that we can drive the humans back. And if not, a countless time have our consciousnesses been in existence, even in our current form. It seems an unshakeable rule of the universe that even races so long-lived as we must at some time fall to fodder. We ourselves have witnessed such withering in others and pitied them. If our continuation has upset some cosmic balance then we can only bow to the sweep of greater currents.”
There was a silence as if mourning this future, as if by that pronouncement it had already happened, as perhaps it had.
“So what happens now?” Mara asked. “Am I to be kept here?”
“No, we will release you again,” said the presence, the jailer. “As long as you swear to us that you will no further involve yourself in our war-making on the humans.”
“I will,” Mara said. “I mean I won’t. What I mean is, I won’t get involved anymore. Promise.”
“This knowledge we appreciate.”
“What about the others? Will they be released?”
“We may release them when this war-making is over, when the humans have been sent back and our conferences left in peace. At this time, we can only see that they would run into the arms of one of your great consciousnesses, the sort which we cannot gather and which appear most devoted to the gouging of our conferences. They have nothing else. Yet after this war-making, what then? It may be many human lifetimes before we end our war-making. Will they thrive in a universe which they no longer understand, which will be hostile to those so uncovered?”
“Think about it. Please. There have to be a few who can pose you no threat, who can even help you.”
“We will. For now, we will bid you goodbye, one-bodied. We can translate you to a place where you may be safe. We cannot translate you a great distance but we can bring you out of the reach of human battle-ships.”
Well then. That narrowed her choices down to just about one.
The stink of ammonia and the broom handle which cracked her across the skull told her where she’d ended up. Gingerly, she pushed the door open and exited the janitor’s closet. It was civilization at least. Not just a station but one with corridors made for serious traffic, with signs telling what was this way or that way or that way. Her mouth was dry and her stomach’s teeth gnawed on each other. Her muscles felt as if they’d been unused in weeks but she pushed on. Step by step down the corridor until finally she saw a sign that told her what she’d been wondering ever since she returned to this Solidness. This was indeed Wezar’s City.
Despite her hunger, or perhaps including it, she forced herself to make a call on the first place she’d parked her ass on her last trip here. The dark joint was much the same as when she’d last been here: holo-game, drugs, drink. The difference she noticed was in the person behind the bar: heavy and black he was, bearded with clean eyes. She reached into her pocket and drew out a credit chip, flopped it on the table.
“Food,” she said. “Something hot, filling. And bring me a water and some beer.”
The man’s eyebrow lifted. “Okay, well what–”
“I’m not in the mood to think of something, alright? Just get me something. If I don’t like it I’ll get something else.”
The man shrugged and turned to the near console, began punching in a code.
“You know a guy named Baco?” Mara asked. “Worked here… hell, a while ago.”
“Baco, sure. Not been around in a while. Off cutting some deal for the bar, he said. Hey, whatever, right?”
The bartender put the water and the beer on the table. He took her credit chip to charge it.
“What about Black Tom, you heard of him?” Mara asked.
“Oh yeah, Black Tom.” He chuckled. “Everybody knows that jackass. Don’t think we’re gonna be seeing him anymore, though.”
“Word going around is that they peeled his ship Yancy’s Mule off of some no-name rock. They say that nobody was found aboard but that don’t mean shit. Where else would he have gone? My guess is that it was just so damn gruesome they decided not to even talk about it.”
“Why? You enforcer or something?”
“No. I just knew Black Tom, wondered what had happened to him.”
“Sure.” The bartender put a plate in front of her, the plate topped with dumplings of dark brown and a stew. She wetted her tongue, then dove into the dumplings. Gusto was the closest word she could think of and it felt far short of reality.
After she’d eaten and had a few more beers, Mara headed up to take care of that other bit of business waiting for her. She didn’t expect much. It was at least a month since she’d been here last, had to be. But she couldn’t move on without knowing for sure what had happened to her ship.
To her surprise, the same official who had checked her in was on duty when she arrived. His eyes lit up when he saw her but he quickly assumed an air of indifference. She tried to smile.
“Hi, remember me?” Mara asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I can’t lie about that one.”
“Oh yeah? Did you really get that much pleasure out of jettisoning my ship?”
He showed his teeth briefly. “I’m sure I would have. It’s usually an interesting sight. But actually, if you’ll come with me I can show you where we’ve got your ship.”
“If you can pay, of course.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Yeah, I’ve got it.”
“Plus the requisite late fees.”
“Right. I’ll cover it.”
The official nodded and clicked a few keys on his side, then came out of his little office and led her through the docking area, activity on all sides as crews maintained, loaded, unloaded, loitered, the ships blinking from tiny service lights that did changed nothing about the overall brightness. Her stomach sank slightly when they passed all the unloading berths, but soon he had brought her to a long window through which she saw her Ice Ring, still intact, tethered at the end of a short link-up.
“I don’t know what to say,” Mara said. “Why did you save it?”
“Well, we weren’t as busy as we had been,” the official said. “And you didn’t seem like the grifter type. I figured I could give you a little rope. Besides, if you didn’t have the money you probably wouldn’t have dropped by.”
“Speaking of.” The official produced a small machine. “We can get this taken care of right now.”
“Oh. Right.” Mara dug her hand into her pocket and came out with the credit chip. She gave it to him and he slotted it into the machine. For a few seconds they were silent while the machine drew the currency.
“Hm,” he said.
“Hm?” she asked.
“211 credits off,” he said, looking up at her.
“Really? Oh, come on, you’re not serious.” She patted her hips, her stomach, her tits. She shook in frustration. “Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.” She scrubbed her hand through her hair. “Well can I get it back? I mean if it’s no good I can’t really part with the money.”
The man looked at her for a while, not speaking, considering. He put the machine away.
“Go on,” he said, walking past her and shaking his head softly. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll get the rest. Just don’t expect that everybody’s gonna be as soft as me, got it?”
“Sure,” she said. “Hey! How do I get on board my ship?”
The directions were simple enough. Still a bit tipsy, a bit full, she made it to the linking tunnel and down through it, slipping back into the cramped comforts of her long-missed miniship. Her console powered up fine, all systems were good, moorings were clear.
She pushed her hand back into her pocket and smiled. Out came two other credit chips, further fruits from her digging aboard Waxmoth and Orban. These would set her straight for a while at least. A good long rest from this madness. She started to plug in coordinates.