Time to Orbit: Unknown


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I leap to my feet. The first stupid, stupid thought to go through my brain is, “Oh no! Zombies!” Which is, of course, ridiculous. It’s not zombies. That’s the alarm for…

Um. I’m not actually sure what that alarm is for. It’s not one of the few I was trained for as a colonist, and being the Galaxy’s Worst Captain, it hadn’t even occurred to me that now that I was in charge of a spaceship I should probably, you know, make sure I know all the emergency procedures.

A glance at everyone else’s faces tells me that no one else knows what it is, either, which is another testament to my failure. I should’ve been drilling people on this stuff. Fortunately, someone’s there to make up for my lapse; Tal, whose first response to any kind of confusion is to reach for the nearest computer terminal, has minimised the movie and is typing away at the medbay terminal.

“It’s a problem with the oxygen system.”

“Not good,” Denish grumbles, taking over the terminal. Lina sighs and stands up.

“Friend, Adin, can you guys help me lug in some space suits? Just in case.”

“Should… should we be panicking?” Adin asks.

“No. It’s a big ship, there’s a lot of oxygen to use up before we all die.”

Denish asks the computer for specifics on the problem, frowns at the answer, switches the language to Texan, and tries again. His frown only deepens. He’s still frowning at the screen when the others come back wheeling the suits on a dolly.

“Any idea what’s going on?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “Is… chemical problem, I think. The… the…” he waves his hands about helplessly and says something in Texan. I don’t understand the words, but it’s clear from the expression on his face that he doesn’t understand the problem.

I turn to Tinera. “You grew up in artificially oxygenated environments, right? Care to take a look?”

Tinera squints at the screen. She and Denish have a brief, presumably technical discussion in Texan. She shakes her head. “The oxygenation system isn’t producing enough oxygen,” she says. “It looks like the problem is probably in the atomic exchange filament; it’s a chemical process and it’s not working as fast as it should. We don’t know why.”

“Chemical?” Lina asks, perking up. She and the Friend take a look, but give up quickly. “This isn’t the sort of chemistry I’m used to. Sorry.”

“Can we open the machine up and take a look?” I ask.

Denish shrugs. “If it is loose cable, might help, but probably won’t. I think problem is chemical; seeing it does nothing. Opening machine I do not understand will probably just break it.”

I nod. “Alright. ‘Nish, find the blueprints for this oxygenation machine and start studying. See if you can understand it. Adin, take one of the doctors, whoever’s the best at oxygen respiration stuff, and find out how long we can survive if we do nothing. I want to know how long we have to solve this. Tal, take the other doctor and go through our sleeping colonists. This is a colony ship sent to terraform another planet, it must be chock full of engineers for life support systems. I want a list of experts to choose from if we need help. Tiny, you’re with me. We’re checking storage for replacement parts for the oxygenation system – there must be plenty of replacement parts. And replacement systems, if we can’t fix ours. There’ll be systems for creating oxygen on the planet’s surface; we can steal one of those if we need. Also, can somebody shut off that rotting alarm?”

Denish taps at the keyboard. The alarm stops.

“Right. Thank you. Let’s get to work.”

We don’t dramatically disperse to our individual jobs or anything, because we all have computer jobs, so we just kind of awkwardly head towards the nearest ring full of terminals (Network and Engineering Ring 1) and then dramatically disperse to different terminals.

There are, of course, the parts to make several different kinds of life support systems tucked away in crates in storage. Nobody had been exactly certain what the atmosphere of Hylara would be like; data on its gravity and orbit suggested that it was almost certainly within a comfortable pressure and temperature range, and scientists had thought that it probably had a carbon dioxide atmosphere, but even with modern equipment (well, old equipment now, I guess, but modern at the time of launch), it was difficult to get that kind of detail on exoplanets. We have several designs at our disposal, and some of them, anticipating the possibility of a low-carbon atmosphere, are built to recycle the gases inside an atmospherically isolated hub, like the systems used on Luna. Or like the systems used in the Courageous. They’re much bulkier, more power-intensive, and require more maintenance than the Courageous’ system, but we can make use of them. If we can’t fix the existing system, they’re decent replacements.

Not that it should come to that – we have plenty of replacements for parts of the existing system, too. Of course we do – this ship was designed with the knowledge that it would never again receive outside help after launch. Of course there’s plenty of replacement material for critical systems.

Yeah, this… this isn’t a big problem. Or at least, it isn’t as big a problem as it could be. We can handle this.

“This is a big problem,” Denish announces.

Oh. Well then.

“You’ve figured out the issue?”

“Not sure. Tal, can you come and look?”

Tal lollops over and squints at Denish’s screen for a few seconds. Then starts typing rapidly.

“What… what’s wrong?” I ask, trying not to panic. Asking for Tal has to mean a computer issue, which probably means our unstable AI is involved. If the dream logic of the colonists has told the AI to shut off our oxygen supply and kill us all or something…

“Hmm,” Tal says. “That’s annoying.” Ke doesn’t sound panicked, but with Tal, that might not mean anything.

“What’s annoying?” I ask, doing my best to also not sound panicked.

“We’re going to have to redo our entire list of potential revivees,” ke scowls. Ke trumps back over to the Friend and starts silently typing at that computer instead.

I give up. “Denish, what’s wrong with the oxygen system?”

“Everything is wrong with everything,” Denish grumbles, which is about as helpful as Tal’s answer.

“… Everything?”

He raises his hands helplessly. “Oxygen is not working properly. Air temperature system is not working properly. Some external sensors are offline, others are not. Much larger machinery is not working properly.”

“The engine?”

“Main engine and rotary adjusters are working normally.”

That’s a relief, at least. “How can so many systems fail at once?”

“I do not know! Because I am not this sort of engineer! Ship is big and complicated, it is not what I know how to do, and the AI tells me nothing!”

“Okay, okay.” I raise my hands in a pacifying motion. Denish is right to be angry; he’s been warning me that this kind of engineering isn’t his expertise ever since he woke up, and I’ve been putting off dealing with that, not wanting to wake more people unnecessarily, not wanting to ruin the equilibrium our crew had reached, not wanting to invite further problems. But ignoring something like this just brings bigger problems further down the line, like this. I should have trusted his self assessment in the first place.

No point in self-recrimination now. “Best guess?” I ask him.

“Only thing that connects the bad systems is power. “

Shit. “You think there’s something wrong with the reactor?”

Denish shrugs. “AI says no. But we already know. AI is big liar!”

“I don’t think she’d lie about that,” Tal says. “She’s been a bit fibby in self-preservation, but she doesn’t want – ”

“It does not want anything! It is computer! It is computer broken with sleeping brains, I am amazed it has not killed us by mistake by now! If colonist dreams say that breaking reactor and saying nothing is good idea then it will do that! Anyway, do you have better explanation?”

“Did you ask Amy what’s wrong?” Tal asks calmly.

“Of course! That is what I am doing! I ask for things wrong with ship, is gives me big long list. I ask for most urgent things, shorter list, still not useful! I ask for new problems, it tells me no new problems, even though this just happened! Giving this computer brains has made it useless!”

“In my experience, any AI you’re not trained to talk to is pretty useless for giving information,” Tinera says. “I’m sure the previous two crews wouldn’t have had these problems, colonist brain tissue or no.”

“I’ve found the root problem,” Tal says.

“You what?” Denish asks. “How?”

“I asked Amy about it.”

“I already asked the computer!”

Tal shrugs. “Well, you asked wrong. Amy limited the power to those systems.”

“Hang on,” I cut in. “She cut off our oxygen without telling us? And then sounded an alarm about the oxygen? And then didn’t tell Denish what she’d done when he asked about the ship’s condition?”t

“Oh, yeah, she’s super broken,” Tal nods. Ke types some more. “Yeah, it’s a coolant issue. Everything she shut off generates a lot of heat, and the cooling system can’t disperse it fast enough any more. She cut it back to avoid cooking us alive.”

“So we can suffocate instead,” Tinera mumbles. “Wonderful.”

“The AI left the lights on but cut off the oxygen?” Adin asks.

“The oxygen system generates a lot of heat,” Lina points out.

“Still, that’s – ”

“It’s another butchered emergency protocol,” Tal says, still typing away. “She’s definitely supposed to ask for confirmation before she – huh. This one is butchered differently.”

“I thought you fixed those broken protocols?” Tinera asks.

“I have been fixing them, yeah. There are just so many emergency protocols on a long-range spaceship. There are so, so many ways for us to die out here. Did you know that a mere two per cent reduction in – ”

“How is this protocol butchered differently, Tal?” I cut in.

“Oh, it looks properly rebuilt into something different. The other broken ones I’ve looked at, from the Reimann fight, they’ve mostly just had chunks ripped out of them, probably by Amy herself so she could stop Reimann from killing colonists. I think a programmer did this one.”

“Why would a programmer let the computer decide whether the crew gets oxygen or not?” Adin asks, a hysterical edge to his voice.

Everyone’s stressed and upset and we can’t afford panic. “That’s a problem for later,” I say firmly. “How long do we actually have to solve this problem, in terms of our oxygen supply?” Please let it be good news.

“Um,” Adin says, “so long as the atmospheric filtering system still works, we actually have more oxygen than we need. If we’re careful, we can make it to Hylara on what we have. This ship contains the supplies to start a colony; it has oxygen, although using it up on the journey will make actually settling the planet harder. But, um, if the filtering systems also break, we have about six months before we suffocate.” He glances at Lina for confirmation. She nods.

“With our luck, that will happen,” Denish grumbles.

“Six months?” I ask. “This ship has supplies for a permanent colony! That can’t be right.”

“A permanent colony doesn’t need all that much nitrogen,” Lina explains. “We do, in fact, have a lot of nitrogen. More nitrogen than we could ever conceivably need – so long as the air filtration systems are working. The issue is that carbon dioxide is toxic.”

“Right, of course. And if we can’t filter, we have to flush.” I know how atmospheric gases work. I’ve never been much of a scientist, but I know history, and the removal of excessive carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere had been the single most important factor in the formation of my nation and, arguably, our greatest achievement. (Yes, everyone talks about the salt-filtering plant systems as Arborea’s greatest achievement, but while that’s scientifically a lot more impressive, it’s not nearly as ecologically important as atmospheric management.)

The three most important gases in a breathable atmosphere are oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Oxygen and carbon dioxide can be exchanged for each other, assuming a working exchange method, either natural (photosynthesis and respiration) or artificial (the ship’s life support systems). Nitrogen is almost inert in normal conditions; while it plays some small roles in microbial respiration and tiny amounts can be lost through leaks or the use of external airlocks, very little of it should be lost no matter the length of the journey. We have spare nitrogen, for emergencies and filling up habitats on Hylara and necessary industrial processes and soforth, but we shouldn’t need it on the journey.

Unless the CO2 filtering systems break beyond repair. Because carbon dioxide is toxic, and if there is no other way to remove it from our air, then our only choice will be to flush the air into space or into a storage tank and replace it. And air is seventy per cent nitrogen.

I file the thought away. Its an edge case; no reason to think we’ll need to do anything so drastic. Our problem is oxygen. And we have plenty of oxygen. Moreover, even if this takes a long time to fix, we shouldn’t lose any oxygen; the carbon dioxide in the air can be filtered out and stored, and the ship will turn it back into oxygen later once the systems are up and running again.

“Okay,” I say. “Our filtration system is currently working – right, ‘Nish?”


“So this isn’t a huge problem.”

“The broken experimental AI being able to shut our oxygen off without human authorisation isn’t a huge problem?” the Friend asks.

“Okay, that’s a huge problem. Tal?”

“You want me to comb through and make sure Amy needs human authorisation for the stuff she’s supposed to need human authorisation for.”


“Can do.”

“As quickly as possible, please. I’d rather not freeze to death because some colonist is having a nightmare. But first – you two have a list of engineers for us?”

“I still think we should redo it,” Tal grumbles. “If it’s a coolant issue instead of an oxygen issue – ”

“It doesn’t matter,” the Friend cuts in. “Other things are going to break. We made the list in light of that.” It gestures me over to the computer terminal; everyone else follows, until we’re all crowded around the one tiny screen.

“The bottom five on our list of ten are oxygen specialists,” the Friend explains. “For geontal life support systems, but they should be able to figure out a spaceship one, I’m sure. As you already know, the engineers in both previous crews are dead and there’s a dearth of reserve specialists in javelin ships aboard, but we did manage to find a few general ship engineers. Unfortunately our best pick has been claimed by the AI, but these five have specialisations in some kind of ship management system. Positions two to five are such specialists, in order of most likely to survive chronostasis revival.”

“And number one? Tell me about your top pick.”

“Keldin Sands. He’s a manufacturing and systems chemist with a background in electrical engineering. He was actually on the design team for the engines of the javelin ships.”

“Is that good?” Lina asks. “I mean, it’s not bad, but the engine we’re using isn’t a problem.”

“It’s fantastic,” I say. “Fir, my tyber, was on the engine design team, and they tend to pick up a bit of everything. Ke would talk my ear off about disagreements the AI team were having over camera placement and stuff like that. A chemical and electrical engineer from any javelin design team is our absolute best bet in terms of both general engineering knowledge and the most likely specific problems. But I’m guessing there’s a downside, isn’t there?”

The Friend hesitates before nodding. “I checked his position in priority for captaincy. He’s 96th in line for the position.”

“So he – ?”

“Yes. If Tinera’s model for how that priority system works is correct – and I think we can be pretty sure it is, based on the maths – then he’s well and truly in the ‘building a convict slave state’ leadership group.”

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It’s movie night.

We’re about four years out from Hylara, and one of the things keeping us all sane is movie night. Tal insisted on the name and it stuck, even though we also share audio, holograms, books, and occasional games. Every six days, one of us (we have a rotating schedule) picks some form of entertainment that they like, something between one and four hours long, and we all experience it together. It ensures crew bonding time, gives everyone motivation to find good entertainment in their own leisure time (so they’ll always have something to share), and puts us on a convenient six-day schedule that’s easy to map other ship duties around. Tal keeps a tally of how many things we can expect to share before our journey is over, but I’ve asked kem not to tell me what the number is – I think I’d find it too overwhelming, and it’d make the journey seem longer rather than shorter. (Anyway, our timeline is an estimate, because once we reach our destination we have no idea how long it’ll take to get us in orbit around the planet.)

It’s my turn to pick something for movie night. And tonight is a very special night. I’ve been peppering some of my old horror favourites into the mix, and the reception hasn’t been too bad, so tonight I’m taking the plunge.

I’m introducing my crew to my zombies.

The ship doesn’t have a copy of the original Dawn of the Dead, of course. Nobody does. While the movie does predate the end of the pre-Neocambrian age where people started storing their media almost exclusively digitally, leaving us with almost no media or news from that era at all except that found in recovered books and magazines, Dawn of the Dead’s age wasn’t all that great at long-term media storage, either. They primarily used chemically fragile materials to store things through light impressions, magnets, or readable etchings into a physical surface, which tends not to hold up well to decades of flood and fire where people have more important things to worry about than preserving old movies. (Indeed, the ‘preservation’ of such things usually meant making digital copies, which… well, we all know how that turned out.)

What the ship does have is the remake, reassembled from partially recovered scripts and from references made to the movie in later media. I’m sure there are a few inaccuracies here and there, and there’s probably some nuance lost in the decision to make it in the modern Interlingua instead of the dead language it was originally produced in, but I don’t care.

“Have you seen the version they dubbed in it original English?” Tal asks as I set up the projector that Denish built from stuff in storage. (We quickly learned that trying to crowd seven people around a computer terminal wasn’t the best viewing experience, so now, we have a projector in Recreation and Medical Ring 1, positioned so we can sit in the grass under the tree to watch it.) Ke is literally bouncing on kes heels with excitement, a long lollipop between kes teeth.

I frown at the lollipop. “You guys perfected refining sugar from honey, huh?”

“Perfect? No. Good enough to make lollipops? Yeah.”

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to eat too much sugar?”

“Didn’t have a mum. Had three dads, though.”

I roll my eyes. Tal’s right to correct me; I seem to get lazier with the Interlingua every day. I used to write sociology books in this language, but a year in space and I’m already forgetting that the Interlingua was created by people from a very different culture to mine, and that they have unusual generalisations in things that Arborean has specific words for, and make specific distinctions that an Arborean wouldn’t consider needing a new word for.

But I’m educated. I know that a ‘dad’ is just a fancy word for a mother who is a man.

“Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to eat too much sugar?” I correct myself, although to my Arborean mind that’s not what I intended to say at all. To a Texan a mother is a type of parent, though, so it’ll do.

“Nope!” Tal grins and bites the lollipop with a crunch. “Do you have it in English?”

“No, I don’t have it in English! Who speaks English? How did you learn to speak English?”

“Oh, it’s actually pretty easy. English is the mother language of Texan, so you can trace a fair few of the words just from Texan, although you gotta be careful doing that.”

“I don’t speak Texan either!”

“You should learn. It makes it way easier to learn English.”

I get the movie going and we all settle back with snacks. It’s not the first pre-Neocambrian bit of entertainment we’ve watched together, but there are still a few genre-specific details that some people have trouble with.

“So this plague,” Lina says, frowning. “It’s a virus? I just don’t think that this is a particularly effective mode of transmission or action.”

“I’ve never been sure about that,” I admit. “Like, yes, it’s supposed to be a virus, but I don’t know if that’s a mistranslation in the remake – because a lot of stuff made after it turned it into a ‘zombie virus’, and maybe originally it was a curse or transmission beam or something – or if Romero just didn’t know much about viruses.”

“It looks a bit like a variant of rabies, perhaps,” the Friend says.

“Okay, but taking over inanimate flesh… why does it specifically require a dead body to work? This simply isn’t a good transmission process for something like that; how did it evolve?”

“More important: can it be waterborne? Because if so, they really are not taking enough biohazard precautions.”

“Wait, where are they now?” Tinera asks. “That’s a hub zone, like in a moon colony. Why would there be hub zones on Earth?”

“It’s called a mall,” I explain. “It’s a bunch of shops together for discretionary spending.”

“And that one they’re going into now?”

“That’s a bear trap shop. North America – Texas, as you guys would know it, it was bigger before the flooding – used to have a lot of bears in it.”

“Oh, so they’re gonna bear trap the zombies. Neat!”

“Didn’t bears live on ice?” Adins asks. “I’m sure bears lived on ice.”

“Polar bears lived on ice. But there were other kinds of bears. Grizzly bears, black bears, sunbears, drop bears… all kinds of bears.”

“I’m pretty sure that drop bears weren’t bears, actually,” Tal corrects me. “They were like koalas. You know… canines.”

“Could you kill a drop bear with one of those traps?”

“No, they were arboreal ambush predators. I mean they lived in trees, not in either Arborea. They’re from Australia.”

“How could something that ambushed from trees come from Australia?”

“Back then Australia had forests around the outside.”

“What outside? It’s a ring!”

“Back then the inland sea was just a big desert.”

“You’re making that up.”

“Something is weird in this movie.” Denish stares at the screen hard for a bit. “Ah! Where are brennans?”

“There were no brennans in pre-Neocamrbian times,” I explain.

“Wow, thanks,” Tal says.

“I meant that this culture had a binary gender system, not a ternary one. If we went back in time, they would consider Tal, our Friend and I to be basically the same, gender-wise.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Adin frowns.

I shrug.

“So… they’d consider you all brennan, or…?”

“Most of them would try to figure out if we were men or women. The rest would lump us together as a sort of ‘weird people’ category.”

“To be fair, you all are weird people,” Tinera points out.

“The cultist and the obsessive sociologist are weird,” Tal says. “I’m normal.”

“Did you of all people just call someone else ‘obsessive’, Mt. ‘I name all my AIs after an evil supercomputer’?”

“Tal, you are the weirdest person I have ever met.”

“What a creative way to admit that you’re terribly lonely and don’t meet many people.”

“Wouldn’t the brennans just tell everyone they were brennan, though?” Tinera asks. “They’re like a whole fifth of the population. How can people not know?”

“Fifteen per cent,” I correct her. “But if you grew up in a culture with no concept of what a woman was, how well do you think you’d be able to explain your gender to people? How would you even know you were a woman in a world that doesn’t know what that is?”

“Ugh, guys, they’re up to the stupid part,” Tal moans, covering kes eyes with kes hand.

“Ugh, the part where they find the dead security guard’s titoplastic platinum laser gun and – ”

“ – and Steve uses it to take out that zombie before it can get Fran, even though the crystal should already be discharged!”

“I would’ve thought you’d like that part, it’s the most zeelite thing to happen in the whole movie.”

“Yeah, and in a zeelite movie that would be fine! This movie is supposed to be realistic!”

“A… a dead person just tried to eat a woman’s face,” Lina points out, puzzled.

“Realistic apart from that!”

Truth be told, I don’t mind that part too much, because it’s important setup for how the crystal in the laser gun gets burned out, which leads to the best part in the movie. And it’s a nice payoff for Roger being a police officer, since pre-Neocambrian police officers would obviously have to know how to recharge and replace the power crystals in their early laser weaponry.

I can see Tal is as excited as me for the payoff during the biker scene; as Stephen fights off zombies and bikers alike to give Fran and Peter a chance to escape, we lean forward, and we leap to our feet as he throws the overcharged laser gun into the mass of attackers and chant his signature catch phrase with him as it explodes – “Yippee ki yay, motherfuckers!”

Tal holds out a fist. I bump it. We sit back down.

“Does incest tie into the virus somehow?” Lina asks, puzzled.

“No, it’s a taboo-invoking insult,” I explain. I pick up my coffee and take a sip.

“Oh,” the Friend says, understanding. “Like you might tell someone to go cut a treenode?”

I choke on my coffee, spraying it everywhere. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear!”

“This friend swears.”

“Not like that, you don’t!”

“If only they’d saved some bear traps,” Tinera says, shaking her head sadly, “it might not have come to this.” She lays her head against Denish’s chest. He puts an arm around her. “If I were pregnant with your child and running through a mall of zombies, would you explode your only gun to help give me time to escape, Nish?”

“Yes, if we suddenly encounter zombies on spaceship, I promise to do that.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” the Friend warns.

Denish snorts. “Ah yes, when the zombies attack our spaceship – ”

“How many people do we have in chronostasis whose brains have been badly damaged by synnerves now? If there is a way fro them to wake up safely, do we know what they’ll be like?”

Aaand that pretty much kills the mood for the movie. Yeah, no more zombie stuff for awhile.

I open my mouth to attempt to lighten the mood again, at least for the remainder of the movie, but I’m cut off by an ear-piercing, extremely urgent-sounding alarm shrieking through the ship.

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044: EARTH

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I wait for the other shoe to drop. I wait for us to discover some new horrible thing about the stage 2 patients, or for the AI to try to kill us all over something stupid, or for someone to develop some deadly health complication as a result of the synnerves in our bodies. It… doesn’t happen.

There’s no reason, I suppose, to expect anything sinister to happen. We’ve been living with this AI for months and while I don’t trust it to make good decisions about our lives (it did nearly kill Denish that one time by forcibly evacuating CR1, only to then be unable to stop me from ejecting the ring full of dreaming colonists it was trying to protect, so… a step backward for everyone involved there), it’s mostly doing its job competently.

I’m not happy about it, mind you. Not only does the very idea that this thing is preying on my colonists, who I’m supposed to be guiding safely to their new home, give me the urge to start cutting it off from its supply Reimann-style, but there’s a reason that AIs are made to be limited in scope. It’s because they’re fucking stupid, and making them ‘smarter’ makes them more dangerously stupid, it allows them to make more mistakes at a faster rate. AIs are terrible at adapting to scenarios that they weren’t specifically programmed or trained for and their lack of true understanding means that they tend to be really bad at recognising a mistake and self-correcting, and whatever the lofty dreams of whoever set this up were, I don’t think enhancing its processing capabilities through giving it literal dream logic can result in better decision-making.

But it’s had these capabilities for years, and it hasn’t killed us yet. So.

I guess this is just… the state of the ship. And we just have to deal with that.

Still, the issue weighs on my mind for months, no matter how life just goes on as normal, and I’m not the only one. We finally organise a day to replace the painted memorial doors in Habitation Ring 1 so that we can use the space without endangering them, and as Adin holds a door steady for me while I unscrew the hinges, he suddenly asks, “We are going to Hylara, right?”

I stop screwing and look up. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, this whole synnerve computer brain thing. That’s not an accident. Somebody used us as a fucked up medical experiment, right? So… why would they send that to another planet? Why not keep it where you can actually see the results? How do we know we’re not just near Earth?”

“No, we go to Hylara,” Denish says from the next door over. “Remember when we go outside to turn off kill switch? No sun close by. We are well out of solar system. Also, I look at stars – very significant…” He says something in Texan. “The colours of stars, they show that we are going very very fast.”

“Right,” Adin says, “but they could’ve just sent us out into space and back.”

“No. Big waste of resources, big waste of fuel, very very big waste of time. Going fast means big time dilation. Forty years for us, in at least a century for them, probably much longer. If you do forty year experiment, why make it take a century? Why spend money on big fancy spaceship? Easier to do in secret bunker on Earth!”

“Yeah,” I say, “and that’s not getting into the marketing of the Javelin Program in the first place. All that publicity, all that investment, for a space lab? To do something you could do on Earth? No.”

“I think what we’re looking at here,” Tinera cuts in from her position unscrewing Denish’s door, “is more of a hijack. Let’s look at what we’ve got so far. Humanity discovers a bunch of exoplanets that look pretty habitable, gets super excited. Some people are like, ‘hey, let’s traverse the galaxy’ – ”

“The Exodus Phenomenon,” I say.

“Sure, if you believe in that kind of stuff, and some rich bastard sees a chance to become a space king and uses grandaddy’s money to essentially buy himself the Courageous. Maybe rich bastards do this for all the javelins, I don’t know. It certainly makes more sense than humanity actually working together for the sake of exploration and advancement. So rich guys have already hijacked the project, and they’re getting together their science teams and their computer specialists and whatever else hey need to live a halfway comfortable life in their new colonies, and some nutso scientist is like, ‘oh, I see you have a twenty year chronostatic timeline with five thousand people, that’s a massive number of chronostatic people for a ridiculously long time. I’ve got an experiment that needs that,’ and gets themselves aboard and does whatever fucked up nonsense they had to do to get this to work. Sure, they’ll be in a new colony when their experiment is complete, but if they’re trying to build actually intelligent computers, and if they were happy to be a colonist anyway…”

“This is getting ridiculous,” Adin mutters. “By the time we actually get to Hylara, we’re going to be five layers deep in the colonial plans of various dead and sleeping people.”

“Look on the bright side,” Tinera says. “When they all wake up and have to deal with each other, we get to watch the show. This door’s safely off now, ‘Nish.”


“I’m still not sure how we’re going to disable thousands of kill switches before waking up anyone with the codes for them,” I say. “It’ll have to be done while the ship’s shielding is still up… it’s going to be a logistical nightmare.”

“Maybe we can rig up a smaller version or something,” Tinera suggests. “Denish, can that be done?”

“I do not know. I am not spaceship scientist. I know breaking shield to steal, not building them. Doctor?”

Lina, who had just walked into the ring, looks up. “Hmm?”

“Is there a way to make small, local form of ship’s shield? Perhaps with radiation and scanning equipment in medbay? For the hearts of colonists.”

“Uh… I have no idea. I mean, I doubt it.”

“Probably for the best,” Adin says. “I mean, I don’t like the kill switch thing any more than the rest of you guys, but waking up thousands of rapists and murderers and, I don’t know, cannibals or whatever, and having no way to control their behaviour at all, might be – ”

“Whoah, hang on a second,” Tinera says, “are you suggesting that we keep these people on kill switches? As a matter of policy? We’re safe so fuck those other guys, right?”

“No! I’m just saying that we should take things slow, establish a rule of law and do individual threat assessments of people before we – ”

“Establish a rule of law while their necks are still in the noose, yeah, that’s gonna be an equitable and democratic meeting. And who the fuck are you to decide whether someone’s enough of a threat to deserve keeping their kill switch?”

“Not me! A proper court!”

“Staffed by who?? The arseholes who dragged us out here to be their labour force?”


“Other convicts, then; the ones you apparently don’t trust?”

“No! What about people like Aspen?”

“Hey, leave me out of this,” I say.

“I’m just saying, we shouldn’t just wake everyone up with no thought and no way to establish ord –”

“They’re colonists! That’s how things are meant to go!”

“We don’t know what these people have done!”

Tinera glares at him.

He swallows. “I’m, I’m just saying, we should actually look at the crimes and histories and mitigating circumstances of – ”

“Oh, here it comes. Do you think I’m a threat to you, Adin?”

“N-no. I mean, you’ve saved my life and all. I just… well…”

“Yes, Adin? Do you have a question for me?”

“It was actually self-defense, right? That guy you killed?”

The silence stretches for several seconds, before Tinera says, “No. it wasn’t. I wasn’t in any danger.”

“A.. a friend, or a family member or…”

“Nobody was in danger. I killed him because he deserved it.”

“Right, right! So there was a mitigating circumstance, right? Like, he was a really abusive boyfriend or something. It wasn’t really murder, it – ”

“Why do you care so much about this?”

“Why do I care whether my superior officer is a murderer?!

“And what about the people you’ve killed?”

“I never… I haven’t…”

“No?” Tinera gets up off the floor and strides over to him. Adin, despite being a full head taller than her, flinches back. “You think I don’t recognise your type? Snivelling, shrinking, polite little boys doing what they have to, but being nice about it… you think I don’t know those kinds of tattoos? I know what kinds of lines of work people like you go to prison for, and if you never killed anyone, that just means you were too pathetically bad at your job to be successfully enough for there to have been casualities. You were… hmm. My guess is drugs? Probably one of the neurostims, given what little I know of your lifestyle.”

“Neurostims don’t – ”

“You know they hook as many kids as they can, right?”

“I never sold anything to kids!”

“You had other dealers? Did they sell to kids?”

“I don’t know what other people did, but I – ”

“Not your problem once it leaves your hands, right? Why would you need to ask questions? Adin, if there’s no blood on your hands, that just means you were too shitty at your job to have enough customers to kill any.”

“Unlike you, I wouldn’t know about killing peop – ”

“Enough!” I shout. “Both of you. Stop. I don’t ever want to hear this topic being raised again.” I get up and dust off my knees. “Earth is lost to us. The good parts and the bad parts. I don’t care about the circumstances under which Tinera killed that guy. I don’t care what dangerous substances Adin sold to who. It doesn’t fucking matter any more. Everyone on Earth you could possibly have killed or not killed is dead anyway by now. Whoever you used to be, now you’re crew. Fucking act like it. We got on this ship because we needed a fresh start – ”

“I got on this ship because they threatened to send me back to Luna if I didn’t,” Tinera says. “And I thought you got on because your Exodus effect got you?”

“Y-yes. I did. Look, it doesn’t matter. The point is, whatever either of you did on Earth, I don’t care, and neither should you. If there was blood on your hands, it’s long washed off now. Besides, I’ve gotten to know both of you pretty well by now, and I find it pretty hard to believe that you’re guilty of anything truly bad in the first place. Whatever happened with either of you, I’m sure you made the best decisions that you could. I don’t think any of those people’s blood is on your hands.”

“Acacia Greaves’ blood isn’t on your hands either, Captain,” Lina says quietly from behind me.

I spin to face her. “Shut up. What the fuck do you know about that? Did you know Shia? At all?”

“No, I – ”

“Well you sure as fuck didn’t know me. And you were in prison at the time. So whatever version of the story you heard, whatever you think you fucking know, you don’t. Shut up.”

“I know you now. And your sister – ”

“Don’t. Don’t fucking talk about Shia to me. She’s dead. Same as everyone else any of us knew on Earth. It doesn’t matter any more, and I don’t want to talk about it.” I storm out of the room, leaving the others to finish with replacing the doors. I have other stuff to do, anyway. Important captain stuff.

This ship is going to be the death of me.

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“Artificial intelligences aren’t truly intel – ”

“Nope!” Tal raises a finger. “Artificial brains aren’t truly intelligent. Circuits can’t do what neurons can, no matter how you design or program them. But you know what can do the job of neurons? Neurons. You guys have seen those robots with the mouse brains, right?”

“They’re cute, but useless,” Lina says. “Nobody’s going to put a pile of mouse brains in charge of an interstellar ship, no matter how much actual hardware is around it. That’s pointless. They can’t do the job.”

“Also, they can’t survive for thirty five years,” the Friend says.

“And they are not on ship,” Denish adds. “I have looked at all schematics and checked systems with my own eyes and hands. No giant tanks of brain matter.”

“And I’ve inventories all storage areas,” Tinera adds. “None of the artificial wombs are in use, obviously. Nothing weird in the lab or medbays that the doctors didn’t put there.”

“There might be parts of the ship that I’ve missed in maintenance so far,” Adin says, “but there definitely aren’t any tanks of brain matter lying around.”

“Oh, but there are!” Tal leans forward over the table. “There are nearly four thousand tanks of brain matter lying around.”

We stare at kem.

We stare at each other.

We stare into space.

“That’s not… possible,” I mumble. I look to the doctors. “Is it?”

“I, I would have said no, it isn’t, but…” Lina looks at the Friend. “I mean, synnerves transmit and receive information. Could you… offload some decisions to… I mean, I don’t know how computers work, but…”

“Forget computers, can brains do that?”

“Oh, yes.” the Friend nods. “You see it with traumatic brain injuries all the time. Even in a healthy brain, bits are just off doing their own thing, running their own calculations, and then at the end a bunch of the data is gathered together and the brain pretends it was acting at one unit the whole time. A cerebral stimulator is supposed to stimulate hallucinations – dreams – in the comatose patient; that’s its entire job. If there was, theoretically, a way for it to get coherent data back…”

“Then it could ‘learn’,” Lina murmurs, “to send specific things, converse through trial and error… could that work? Use machine learning to establish a way to give and receive information from the sleeping brain, and have the brain learn to respond?”

“No idea,” the Friend says. “How would you even go about figuring out if that was possible? Figuring out how to do it?”

“Run the experiment, I suppose.”

“Whoah, whoah. Hang on.” Tinera throws up her hands. “What, exactly, are you guys talking about here? Are you suggesting that the AI of this ship is some kind of, of human brain hivemind existing in the minds of our sleeping colonists?”

“Oh, no, that wouldn’t be possible,” Lina says.

“Right, good, because it sounded like – ”

“What Tal is suggesting is that our perfectly standard ship’s AI can, through as yet undetermined means, interface with more specificity with human brains than intended, via the cerebral stimulators. And that it is presumably offloading some of its tasks into human dreams.”

Tinera glares. “Oh. That’s so much more sensible.”

“It makes perfect sense, when you think about it,” the Friend says. “Conceptually. People tend to remember dreams as weird and wacky, but most of the dreams we have are in fact very normal. They’re simulations of going about our day, practicing mundane tasks. And a dreaming brain will accept and process odd kinds of information without question. It will sometimes reach ridiculous and nonsensical conclusions, but if you put your data through a whole lot of brains simultaneously, and collate the data with your own included, the most egregious errors should even out. It’s one way to give a better simulation of understanding.”

“You’d need a lot more synnerves for that, wouldn’t you?” I ask, thinking of the unusually invasive synnerve growth in our bodies.

“You know that scan that shows the synnerves?” Tal asks. “How well can you do it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Could you get a really clear picture of just the brain?”

Lina rubs her chin. “The machine isn’t designed for that, but we could try.”

The Friend nods. “We should make that a priority. We have to know what that thing did to our brains.”

Modifying the machines and taking scans takes Lina, the Friend, and Denish the better part of a day, and I’m not really involved except for having my brain scanned. I spend my time trying to freak out as little as possible about things I can’t control.

We gather in the medbay before bed. Lina paces back and forth, hands fluttering; the Friend stands stoic at the computer terminal.

“Okay,” Lina says, breathing a little too fast to be calm, “here’s what we have so far. Keep in mind that this is mostly conjecture. We’re viewing this synnerve thing as a sort of two-stage infection, infecting everyone aboard the Courageous. Stage one is an unusually extensive synnerve growth stimulated by the cerebral stimulator. So far as our scans show, the synnerves in stage one – which we all have, obviously – are more prevalent than expected, but don’t appear to be doing anything particularly sinister. They’re just there. This infection drops revival viability to a bit over half, but carriers of the DIVR-32 geneset are immune.”

“Do we know why?” I ask.

Lina shrugs. “Could be any number of reasons. Better blood pressure and temperature regulation are both good things to have to survive a coma, especially if these synnerves are unintentionally affecting regulatory systems. My money’s on the increased resistance to anoxic brain damage, personally. Without knowing specifically what’s dropping the viability, it’s impossible to be sure, but there are many potential dangers that DIVRs have resistance to. We also noticed that the DIVRs scanned had slightly less invasive synnerves within the brain itself, especially in the region of the hippocampus, but we only have scans from seven people, so that may or many not be a real difference.”

“Stage two infection,” the Friend continues, “involves a massive increase in the growth of synnerves. We can’t scan the synnerves in the dead since they can’t metabolise the tracers, but we compared the mass of nerves attached to the cranial ports from our stage 2 dead and even when cleaned of foreign material, they’re… bulky. This friend estimates that they have at least ten times the concentration of synnerves that stage ones do, by comparing the cranial ports to our scans. Also, knowing what to look for, this friend reexamined their skulls and it believes we have an answer to their fragility. It’s not about the growth and maintenance of the bone tissue at all – the ports simply tried to grow so many synnerves that they grow through and crack the bone.”

“Gross,” Tinera says.

“When you say we’re, uh, ‘infected…’” Adin says.

“There’s nothing for any of us to worry about.” Lina grimaces. “That I know of. Firstly, all of us except for the captain have been through the electrostatic shield, which we know killed the synnerves in your artificial foot, so we can assume that the synnerves are completely unviable in everyone except Aspen. Second, even if they weren’t, they’re not dangerous. There are myriad dangers to synthetic nerves being laced randomly through the body, but if you haven’t experienced symptoms of anything strange yet, I wouldn’t worry. With our cerebral stimulators detached, they can’t grow any further. Even if you stuck another stimulator in, they wouldn’t do anything; it would grow a new network of nerves. That’s why repeated chronostasis is so dangerous; the nerves grown uniquely each time and can only communicate with their stimulator. So, yes, we’re ‘infected’ in that these synnerves are in our bodies, but they’re not going to grow and do anything new.”

“Unlike the people still in chronostasis,” I murmur, “who are at risk of developing stage two.” Should I take a trip through the electrostatic shield? Just in case? It probably isn’t worth the risk, but the synnerves are really starting to creep me out.

“Presumably,” the Friend agrees. “We assume that stage two patients are the ones whose dreams are being outsourced to by the AI, but we have no idea what stimulates the progression. Whether the AI chooses it, whether it’s something that just flares up when the body can’t resist any more, whether there’s some other trigger. We don’t know how to predict it or how to protect people, other than waking them up.”

“Stage two only happens in CR5, and in CR1,” Denish points out. “Must be environmental. CR1 now gone, so we only need worry about CR5.”

The Friend nods. “Probably.”

“So waking more people up from CR5 might increase their chances of survival, by getting to them before the AI does. Or, depending on how exactly stage two is triggered, it might just be waking people up, putting strain on the ship, and putting everyone in danger for no reason. We basically have no idea whether waking people up is helpful or not.”

“Better question,” Tinera says. “What about the people already in stage two? What do we… do… with them?”

We all look at each other in grim silence for a bit.

“They’re dreaming, right?” I ask. “They can’t wake up, but they’re essentially dreaming right now?”

“That’s our hypothesis,” Lina says.

“Are they in pain?”

“There’s no way to tell.”

“So… what are we doing with these people?” Tinera asks. “Are we just gonna let the computer do this to them?”

“The alternative is killing them,” I point out.

“Reimann seemed to think that was the right call.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure how much I trust Reimann with – ”

“The people who put this together did. They trusted his judgement enough to put him in charge. And we don’t know how he found out about all this, or how much he knew. I’m not saying we should start axe murdering, I’m just saying that we need to be braced for the possibility that he knew something that we don’t. Maybe he just found this personally unacceptable and snapped… or maybe he knew more than us, and he knew that destroying this mind farm thing was the right call. We need to keep ourselves open to the possibility that this might pan out to be even worse than it sounds.”

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“Um,” I say. “Yes. It does.”

“Nope! The ten per cent category is, so far as I can tell, a zero per cent category. Every single person you’ve tried to revive from that category has gone into fits and either immediately ripped their own brains out via their faulty cranial port, or ceased functioning as soon as you cut power to their stimulators. He,” ke points to Adin, “is a DIVR from the eighty per cent and upward group. She,” ke points to Tinera, “is from the fifty to sixty per cent group.”

“We took them from the lowest part of the viability list,” the Friend says, puzzled.

“Nope! No you didn’t. Not unless you misremembered when telling me about it. You had Amy list everyone in viability order and tried to revive the bottom person, and they died when they started seizing and ripped their cranial port out. You didn’t pull anyone else from that list, though, did you? You just asked Amy for a low viability candidate, and believed whatever she told you.”

“Is there a difference?” I ask.

“Of course there’s a difference! Assuming that those two things will give you the same names is assuming that Amy is being honest with you!”

“Why would AI lie?” Denish asks. “AIs are bad liars. Everyone knows that.”

I nod. “They’re not smart enough for it. They can fake proper understanding, but they can’t actually understand concepts well enough to know when lying is appropriate, or pull off a long con.”

“Do you guys remember that factory in Sengki?” Adin asks. “Where the AI to the apartment building that housed most of its workforce noticed that all its residents were sleep deprived and added two hours to the clocks, throwing production into chaos for a month?”

“She is a bad liar,” Tal insists. “I noticed it didn’t make sense immediately. The math doesn’t work out. I’m surprised you didn’t notice. If you were reviving people with such a low chance of survival, why weren’t there a lot more failures? Sure, that kind of good luck is possible, especially when working with such small numbers, but – ”

“Well, if you noticed immediately, why didn’t you – ?”

“Because you wouldn’t have believed me without evidence! You’d have called me mad. I needed to be able to show you. I needed to show you all.”


“Everything. A complete theory. And I have proof now.” Ke points at the Friend. “Daisy Dukes.”

“What about them?”

“You discovered three DIVRs in the low viability group. Two of them are still in chronostasis in CR5; you can look them up in the system yourself if you like. But Amy was really cagey about giving me information on CR1. I couldn’t confirm the third low viability DIVR directly.”

“Until this friend told you it remembers it being Daisy Dukes,” the Friend says. “Meaning…”

“Meaning it isn’t me,” Adin finishes quietly.

Tal nods. “Adin’s a DIVR. Lina confirmed it with a DNA test, and more importantly for this little puzzle, Amy’s records confirm it. But he wasn’t one of the three low viability DIVRs that Amy listed for you. Meaning that when you asked for a low viability person to wake and Amy gave you Adin, she was lying. And knowing she was lying, and knowing the high success you had in that revival session, I conjecture that she was lying about most of the people you tried to revive that day, including Tinera.”

“But how?” Denish grumbles. “Computers are not smart enough for big lie! Cannot understand well enough to put them together! Are you saying that Reimann programmed the AI to lie about this?”

“I don’t think Reimann programmed any of this. He locked some doors and vents open behind a password, but every time we’ve come across some messy nonsense that looks like sabotage, we’ve assumed it’s Reimann. I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Who else?” I asked. “Are you saying he was responding to a mutiny, or – ”

“I’ll get to that. I can explain all of this and I will, but just for the moment, let’s leave Amy’s intelligence aside, okay? Accept that she does have reason to deceive us and she is smart enough to do it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I will explain later.” Tal leaps up from the bench and starts to pace. “Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Amy. You have limited perspective and limited senses. You have a ship full of colonists to look after, and some of these colonists, for reasons I won’t get into right now, have a really, really low chance of waking up. One day, the ship’s captain decides he wants to kill these colonists. You try to stop him, but your abilities are limited. He does everything he can to make sure you can’t stop him; he cuts off your speaking and voice recognition capabilities before you can understand what’s happening, to limit your ability to see what’s going on or get help. He locks the airlocks to the chronostasis ring open behind a password – ”

“They were locked closed,” I point out.

“Yes, but Reimann locked them open, give me a minute. He locks them open, so you can’t shut him out of the ring. He locks the air systems for the whole ship open, so you can’t close off the ring he’s in and knock him out with gas. He does whatever little sabotages he can get away with, but mid-sabotage, loses an arm; now he’s on a clock. He heads into the chronostasis ring and starts trying to wake up the zero viability patients, to get their pods open, but you lock him out, so he takes his axe to the pipes and pumps below them to force emergency revivals to get them open. You have to use systems he didn’t think about. You can’t close the airlocks normally because he’s locked them open, so you trash your emergency airlock protocols and replace them with something that will, then release a gas that will trigger the protocols, locking him in CR1 so he can’t get to the CR5 colonists. You can’t control the airflow down the ventilation systems, but you can control the vents to each ring, so you close off CR1 and resign yourself to the loss. Your remaining crew is cut in two, and they slowly die off, and honestly I’m not sure what happened there, I don’t think it matters for this. Point is – Amy’s messed up systems aren’t all Reimann’s fault. He locked her out of some things, but some of it, she did to herself. This was a fight between them.”

“Why?” Adin asks.

“How?” Tinera asks.

“I’m still not buying the magically smart computer,” I say.

“I’m getting to all that stuff. Point is, you’ve got a shipful of sleeping colonists and drastically reduced internal sensory capabilities because of what Reimann did. You can’t understand verbal words so you can’t hear what’s going on a lot of the time, but you don’t have a crew any more so who cares. But then you reach the part of your journey where you need to decelerate the ship. You can’t turn on the fore engine because your fight with Reimann cut off your access to that half of the ship. You can’t turn around and use the aft engine, because it’s not powerful enough; it needs ten or fifteen years to decelerate since it’s broken, and you don’t have that kind of time. So, you pick someone with a high chance of successful revival and quick recovery, who has a good enough general skillset to complete the task, and you wake them.”

I frown to myself. It always had puzzled me why the AI had woken me. Not why it had chosen me – if you just need someone to turn on an engine, ‘likely to survive and be able to walk right away’ is a good criterion – but the fact that it had been coded with that kind of protocol in the first place… unless it hadn’t. Unless it is that smart.

“So they do that, which is fine, and they ask for stats on the colonists, which is fine, and they start waking people, which is fine. You do your job and give them the information they ask for and everything is fine. Until, they – there’s two of them now – ask for a list of colonists by revival viability, and immediately go to the person at the bottom of the list, and kill them. Just like Reimann. So, when they ask for the next name on the list, what do you do?”

“You give them someone who isn’t guaranteed to die,” Adin says quietly.

Exactly. Look, I checked everyone, living and dead alike. The people that you woke by asking for someone in the bottom category like this? Skulls and ports are fine. The people that you knew were in higher categories? Skulls and ports are fine, living and dead. But. The first guy you woke, from the original list, when Amy had no reason to lie? Faulty port. Da-Bin, who we chose for other reasons, and then looked up her viability individually and found it was in the lowest category? Faulty port. The first person you tried to wake in CR1, which we know was full of people in the lowest viability category? Faulty port. So far, the people we have reason to believe actually were in the lowest category, and only those people, have the faulty ports. So.” Tal holds up two entwined fingers.

“That explains the emergency in CR1,” the Friend says thoughtfully. “We go in there, we kill one of the very group that Reimann was killing…”

“Don’t agree with kem!” I exclaim. “It’s a computer, it – ”

“But how do you fit into this, though? Why did it wake you up?”

Tal shrugs. “My best guess? IT. Remember, Amy can’t understand speech right now. She’s guessing what’s happening based on some video input and on what we type into her, and she’s still not all that smart. Your previous searches about colonists included a lot of questions about viability, and enquiries specifically about doctors, engineers and IT specialists. You already had a doctor and engineer on crew, so…”

“So it gave us the best IT specialist in CR1 just in case that’s what we wanted, and triggered an emergency to get us out of there and lock the ring. So it… did it want us to eject CR1 or not? I’m confused.”

Tal shrugs again. “She’s still just a computer. ‘Want’ isn’t really applicable. So far as I can tell, some of her short-term goals are inconsistent and conflict, which is normal if you start fucking with some of an AI’s protocol without looking at how it affects the whole system. This is why we don’t put machines properly in charge of anything; their decisions look fine on a small scale but if you leave them too long they start to work against themselves and make decisions that make absolutely no sense.”

“You’re drawing a lot of conclusions based on very little,” I point out. “All we can be pretty sure about here is that either our Friend or the AI made a mistake about the number and identities of the low-viability DIVRs. You’re suggesting that this AI has the capacity for true understanding; you’re going to have to give us more than that.”

“No, I’m not. I’m suggesting that she has the capacity to behave as if she understands, within a limited scope. You need more evidence? Fine. How did she know what happened to Reimann? He left his ID chip behind that wall panel, but she correctly tracked him until he died and logged his actions as if reading from the chip.”

“So? It can recognise bodies and faces from camera footage. AIs have been able to do that since pre-Neocambrian times. The only weird thing here is that it logged its conjecture the same as reading the ID chip, and somebody’s screwed up a bunch of stuff in there like the emergency protocols, so maybe that protocol is glitchy too.”

“She knew that he died of infection. He didn’t have access to a medbay at the time. That was sheer conjecture based on visuals alone.”

“Maybe… one of the other crew somehow found out what had happened and… logged it…”

“Found out what had happened in the locked ring that you guys had to cut your way into? What about Captain Kinoshita? There was no one to log the details of her death. Amy’s audio recognition was, and still is, offline, and Captain Kinoshita was nowhere near a terminal. She couldn’t possibly have been in communication with the computer.”

“She… she could… hmm.” That was a good point. The AI had given me the day and circumstances of Captain Kinoshita’s death. It had explained to me that the captain had become pinned under a crate, managed to gain access to a space suit, and died of nitrogen asphyxiation.

Thing is, the only data that the AI would have had access to was the cameras, and ambient sound (being unable to translate words). It would have seen her become trapped, had a view of her dragging the space suit over, and registered that her ID chip was no longer in a living body some time later. For a human, it was pretty easy to deduce what had happened – there’s no way to use a space suit to get out from under a crate, but death by dehydration is long and painful, and death by nitrogen asphyxiation is not. To a human, Keiko Kinoshita’s fate is obvious.

To an AI, it shouldn’t be. Not based on such scant data. And there was no one left to log the death, no one to explain what had happened to the AI. Either someone had programmed this ship’s computer with abilities massively beyond its scope, or…

“You still haven’t explained how the AI could be magically alive,” I grumble.

Tal’s grin widens. “Oh, that’s the best part. You’re gonna love this.”

I doubt it.

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I lie back and stare at the ceiling, deep in thought. Tinera stops nibbling on my collarbone and pulls herself up onto her hands to glare down at me. “You’re working.”

“What? No, I’m here with you.”

“You’re working here.” She taps my skull.

“There’s a lot going on! People are waiting on me to make decisions, and the complications – ”

“Uuuugh you’re such a nerd.” She drops herself back down and lies her head on my chest. “What are you thinking about?”

“Reviving more crew.”

“Oh. That.”

“It’s a complicated decision.”

“It’s not complicated, it’s simple. It’s just difficult. But simple. We have limited crew space but we need more personnel to move forward. You want a psychologist because we’ve all already met our quotas of untreated stress and trauma and we still have another five years or longer before we even get to the planet and begin our real jobs, and doing that unsupported is a recipe for disaster. Denish wants an engineer who actually knows about this kind of spaceship, which could pay off massively if they’re able to increase our crew capacity, our Friend wants a scientist to help tackle the weird bone thing and various other minor mysteries which, again, could pay off massively if they find anything, and Lina wants a previous crew member in the sixty per cent viability range so she can see that their synnerves look like, because that will allow her to either tentatively confirm or rule out time as the factor in that little issue, and if they do have normal synnerves then she can rule them out as the cause of the viability dropoff. Which may or may not be a huge deal. You can get a twofer if you revive a previous crew member who fits one of the other bills, but all the engineers from the first crew are dead, meaning it’s between a scientist and the psychologist.”

“And the crew 1 psychologist is in the ten per cent category,” I say. “I checked.”

“Oh, not great. Then again, you’ve got two living ten per centers on the crew already. None of that is complicated, but the issue is that you have no way of knowing which revival will pay of until after you’ve done it. A psychologist is a reliable choice, but doesn’t really move us forward. An engineer is theoretically the most important, since they might be able to increase our overall crew capacity, but if they can’t then that’s the biggest waste of all, because we already have a good engineer and we don’t have a psychologist or scientist yet. The scientist is the best choice if they’re able to provide insight into the bone and synnerve mysteries, but if that’s an impossible task, then having a scientist is less useful in general than a psychologist or engineer. And, of course, you’re still worried that if we reach capacity and decide it’d be really useful to have someone else, our Friend might do something drastic to itself to free up a space.”

“Yep,” I say. “That’s the long and short of it.”


“What do you think?”

“Fucked if I know. It’s not my job to make hard decisions.”

“You’re my second in command. It is your job.”

“The computer chose badly, then. I’m gonna go find some breakfast.”

“It’s five in the morning!”

“We’re in deep space and don’t have a sun. The time of day is a social construct.” She pushes herself up. “And I’m hungry.” She pads over to the door.

“Put some clothes on!” I call after her as she closes the door. “You might meet a Texan!”

“It’s five in the morning, everyone’s asleep! I’m not gonna meet a Texan! Oh, hi, Tal.”

“Tiny, why aren’t you wearing pants? Also, have you seen the captain?”

“It’s five in the morning. The captain’s probably still asleep.”

“Oh. Alright. I’ll see if I can get more details over the next couple of hours, then. If you see them, tell them that the doc’s found something on the CR1 footage.”

I haul myself out of bed and rush to the door, tripping on a sheet and practically falling through it. “Found something? Found what?”

Tal shields kes eyes. “Can you put pants on?”

I grumble and hurriedly tie the sheet around myself in an Arborean wrap. “There. Found what?”

“You’d better come and look.”

I come and look.

The Friend is in the spare medbay, the one it uses for dissections and autopsies, grinning at the computer screen. It looks up as we enter, eyes sparkling. In the months we’ve spent together, this is the first time I’ve seen it truly excited. “Aspen. Come and look at this.”

I weave my way around Tinera (who Tal is resolutely refusing to look at for reasons of nudity) to look at the screen. It is, as expected, footage from the Friend’s suit in Chronostasis Ring 1. I expect it to show Captain Reimann, but it’s from earlier than that; on the screen the Friend is inspecting the slaughtered colonists.

Next to me, Tinera turns faintly green. “Do I need to be here?”

The Friend shakes its head distractedly. She leaves. I lean closer to the screen. “What am I looking at?” I ask.

“You remember this bit? Let me turn the sound up.” On screen, the Friend examines a body. Tinera remarks that the wounds on its shoulders and chest, missed attempts at decapitation, are pretty shallow. There’s a brief discussion about how Reimann was probably weak from blood loss and exhaustion at that point.

“Yeah, I remember,” I say.

“Right. So, look at this.” The doctor skips to an earlier point in the footage. On the screen, it’s inspecting a severed head. A deep crack nearly splits the skull in two. The viciousness of the strike has shifted the bones enough to crack the back of the skull and let the cranial port fall out.

“So maybe he had a better angle on the – wait.” The cranal port had fallen out. “Were they all like this?”

The Friend grins wider. “All unexpectedly deep strikes? All with detached cranial ports? Yeah. Every head that shows up on camera is like that.”

“They had unusually weak skulls,” I breathe. “And easily dislodged cranial ports. He was targeting people with the port problem you’ve been looking into.”

“Probably,” the Friend agrees. “It’s possible that it’s a coincidence, that this problem is just endemic to Chronostsass Ring 1 for some reason. But Tal’s from that ring, and kes skull is fine. It’s very, very likely that this was targeted. Reimann knew about this problem, or at least something correlated with it, and for some reason made the decision to kill everyone with it.”

“By himself. So the crew didn’t agree. Either he chose not to tell them, or they didn’t think the colonists should be slaughtered. Either way, whatever he found was a big enough problem to make him do this, but not a big enough problem that he expected crew support in doing this. What kind of situation could that even be?”

“No idea. But… he found it out. He could tell who had fragile skulls before opening the chronostasis pods. Meaning there is a common characteristic between the people suffering from this. A characteristic that’s discoverable from the information on the ship. We don’t know what the common element or cause of this is, but it exists and it can be found.”

“That’s… that’s great,” I say. “That’s great news. But the fact that it’s something Reimann thought worth breaking the ship and killing himself over. Which is not encouraging.”

“It might be,” the Friend agrees. “Or, this might be more of his ‘sabotage’, another action he took trying to reach some other goal. This is just the point in his plan where he died.”

“I don’t see what the point of this would be, either way. We haven’t managed to wake anyone with this condition up without them dying immediately.”

“Which is interesting in itself, isn’t it? The fact that he thought this was necessary means that he, at least, thought they had a chance of waking up. Doesn’t it?”

“Meaning he either didn’t know any better, which is possible since his crew never revived anyone to our knowledge, or…”

“Or they had a method of waking them up successfully.”

I nod. If there’s a way to safely diagnose this bone thing, and a way to safely wake up the colonists with it, then we need to know both of those things. Colonist lives depend on it. Our current ‘open up the pods and hope the person inside has an intact skull’ system was getting people killed. And if Reimann had a good reason to throw his life away trying to rid the ship of these colonists… well, we need to know about that, too.

Tal suddenly points at one of the pods on the screen. “That’s Daisy Dukes.”

“What?” I ask.

“Pod 1-092. I skimmed the colonist manifest awhile ago and remembered because of the silly name. See, in preneek times, ‘daisy dukes’ were a type of clothing.”

“Dukes… Dukes…” I rub my chin. “Might be a side-cousin of mine. I think one of my parents was from the Dukes cluster.”

“Sorry about your side-cousin,” the Friend says.

“I didn’t know them.”

“They were in the ten per cent viability group, if that helps. So their chances of survival were already pretty low.”

“How can you know that?” Tal asks. “I’ve been trying to look up the past viability of dead crewmates and Amy just pretends not to know what I’m talking about.”

“They were one of the three DIVRs in the low viability group. This friend remembers the silly name back from when we were – ”

“You’re sure?” Tal asks, insistent. “Daisy Dukes was a DIVR?”

“Y-yeah, I saw – what?”

Tal giggles hysterically. “Oooh, I’ve got you now, Amy!” ke declares. “There’s no worming your way out of this one!” Ke dashes out of the room without further explanation.

“Should we… be worried about that?” I ask the Friend.

It shrugs. “If our IT specialist has gone Full Supervillian, what exactly can we do about it?”

“Fair. Okay, let’s see if we can learn anything else from this footage.”

“It must be something in the biofeedback,” the Friend murmurs as we watch. “He must have found some kind of measured marker that tells him which colonists are suffering from the bone problem.”

“We already know the system doesn’t measure bone density or port integrity,” I point out.

“No, but there must be other effects. Synnerves are grown to send signals into the body and also to receive them for biometrics. If whatever’s causing this also causes, I don’t know, a slightly different heartbeat or blood oxygen level or body temperature or something, and if Reimann knew what to look for…”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

We scrutinise the footage for a while longer, but don’t find anything new. Before we know it, it’s breakfast time.

“The crew will probably have some ideas on what this means,” I say.

“This friend hopes so,” the Friend says, “because it’s stumped.”

We’re the last to arrive for breakfast, so we don’t have to wait for anyone new before launching into our story. The crew listen patiently.

“So is this fragile skull group something we need to worry about?” Tinera asks. “I mean, was Reimann right to…” she makes an axe cutting gesture.

Adin leans away from her. “Don’t… don’t do anything drastic, okay? We don’t know what’s going on, so don’t just start killing people.”

“Why would I… just because I killed one guy doesn’t mean I’m going to go all axe murderer!”

“Okay, I just… just making sure. I mean, you said it wasn’t self-defense, so – ”

“It’s also none of your business!”

“And a while ago you were talking about killing the captain.”

“Only in self defense if they tried to kill us first!”

“Well, I – ”

Lina cuts in before this could get out of hand. “How do you guys think he identified who to kill?” she asks hurriedly. “There must be some kind of biometric…”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Tal says. “He probably did the same thing that the cap and Friend did, first thing.”

“What same thing?” I ask.

“You know. Ask Amy for a list of colonists by revival viability. Can’t be certain at this stage, but I’m about ninety nine per cent sure that this whole cranial port thing is just the low viability category.”

“No, it’s not,” Tinera says. “We checked that, remember? Adin and I are both from the ten per cent viability category and our skulls are fine.”

Tal shakes kes head. “Nope. You’re not from any ten per cent viability category.”

“Um, yes, they are,” I say.

“No. They’re not. Because there is no ten per cent category. It doesn’t exist.”

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040: RECAP

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The corpse’s kill switch had been successfully destroyed by the electrostatic shield, so we spend a day carefully lowering everyone under the ship and bringing them back up. We’re really careful about it, taking our time and using a lot of tethers, but it still looks terrifying. I’m glad, selfishly, that I don’t have to go under.

So. That’s that little problem dealt with. Our situation is still a time bomb, escorting a bunch of sleeping colonists to a new home where ten per cent expect to lord over an eighty per cent who never wanted to be there, and figuring out how to disable their kill switches at our destination (what are we going to do, wake up four thousand people on the ship and drop them each through the shield?) is a future problem, but at least my crew can’t be murdered by some arsehole with the right codes. Which means we can safely wake up anyone we need to. Although if it is someone who expects to be in charge on a new world, they’ll probably be extra pissed about it.

“Okay,” I say, pacing through Greenhouse Ring 1 (the crew wanted a change of scenery) and addressing the crew. “Before we go making any more drastic revival decisions, let’s take stock of just what’s going on. So. About thirty five years ago, some, some group of people, or some rich bastard who wanted to be king of a planet or something, loaded this ship up with four thousand convicts and a thousand random civilians and cronies, and set off for Hylara.”

“Dor Delphin,” Adin says. “We were told that the guy in charge was Dor Delphin.”

“Delphin as in Delphin Synthetics?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s like a third cousin to the heir or something.”

“Right. So he caught the Exodus bug and instead of living the comfortable life of a rich guy on Earth, he decided to on the far more dangerous route of colonising a planet and being king of his own domain or whatever. Five thousand people, including us, were chosen for the project, given our cranial ports, you guys were given those heart implants, and down we went.

“It’s supposed to be around a twenty year journey, with two crews each doing a ten year shift. But a bit over two years in, something goes wrong with the aft engine, and it loses a lot of thrust. It can’t be repaired. The crew decide not to abort mission, and not to turn the ship around and use the other engine – probably worried that if that one breaks too we’re dead in space forever – but continue on a journey approximately twice as long. They decide to wake the second crew up after twenty years, each doing twenty year shifts. This is how we understand things so far?”

“It’s two point one six years,” Tal says. “Before engine failure.”

“Right. Okay. At some point in their twenty year shift, they lose their secondary assistant engineer doing some kind of repair on the hull, but don’t wake a replacement – I guess there’s no need to, they still have two engineers. After twenty years, the crew switches over. Friend, Lina, did you check the viability of the crew 1 survivors?”

“Yes,” the Friend says. “One DIVR in the upper category, some non-DIVRs in the middle category, and several non-DIVRs in the lower category.”

“Okay, so neither viability drop is a factor of time. Meaning that something happened during the second shift – we don’t know what – that dropped everyone’s revival viability from the normal ninety per cent range, or eighty per cent for some, probably due to the time factor, down to fifty or sixty per cent, except that carriers of the DIVR-32 geneset weren’t affected. Also, something happened during the second shift that dropped the viability of some colonists near the front and back engines, whether or not they had the DIVR-32 geneset, down to a ten to fifteen per cent viability range. These two things may or may not have been the same event.”

“And they may or may not be related to the overactive synnerve growth from the cerebral stimulator,” Lina adds.

“Right, yes. Everyone has too many synnerves, which might be related to this event, or might be a function of time, or might be a third thing. We don’t know yet. But. After about twelve years as captain, Reimann suddenly shuts off the – ”

“Twelve point three four years.”

“Yes, thank you Tal, Reimann suddenly shuts off the AI’s vocal synth and voice recognition capabilities, restricting the crew to communicating with it via terminals only. Over the next week or so he locks several systems, the extent of which we’re still not sure of, and may have physically sabotaged some, too. We know that he attempted to physically sabotage something in the wall of Storage Ring 6, either the coolant system or the ventilation system, creating a leak in the process. His arm became irretrievably trapped and instead of calling for medical help – or perhaps unable to call for medical help – he amputated it with an axe, replaced the wall panel to hide the sabotage, and then went to Chronostasis Ring 1 – the one nearest to his current position – and started slaughtering colonists. Something he did in there caused an atmospheric problem that had the emergency systems lock all the airlocks, and he perished a few days later due to infection from his amputation. Tal, do we know which colonists he was killing?”

Tal shakes kes head. “I checked the Friend’s video and found out which pods they were, no problem. But Amy won’t tell me about the colonists that were in those pods. The ring’s ejected so she says she can’t check them, even though that info should definitely be in her records still.”

“The record retrieval problem, right. Well, keep at it.”

“Send me the footage,” the Friend says. “This friend will see if it can pick anything out. You never know.”

“So after this,” I continue, “the ship’s cut into two sections. The psychologist, janitor, and two scientists are in the larger section in the back. The other sixteen crew members are in front. The captain is dead. The sixteen in front have no access to the AI – Reimann’s rampage damaged something in CR1 to cut it off – and no access to any chronostasis rings to fill out their ranks, nor do they have amenities like greenhouses, medbays, or more than a couple of computer terminals. But they have enough supplies to survive for a good long while, and they do, until they start dying off one by one, for unknown reasons. The last one, so far as we can determine, died about a month before I was revived.”

“And they never repaired the coolant leak into the air supply even though they had all three engineers,” Tinera points out. “Isn’t that weird?”

“It is weird, now that you point it out,” I say. “Perhaps the leak didn’t become obvious, and the fungus didn’t develop until much later? They had no AI to warn them about problems, so if the filters didn’t look weird being changed…”

“Engineers still should check system regularly,” Denish grumbles. “Lazy.”

“Maybe. Anyway, the four in the back half of the ship decide not to fill out their crew again with reserve colonists, even though they have ample opportunity to do so. They all last about nine or ten months before a laboratory accident occurs in Laboratory Ring 1, killing both scientists and the janitor. The psychologist, who’s now the captain, presumably because she’s the only crew member left that the ship can detect, ejects LR 1, then survives another year or so, still not reviving any help from chronostasis, until she’s accidentally pinned under a crate in Storage Ring 6 and elects to die painlessly via nitrogen asphyxiation instead of via dehydration. So far as we’re aware, there doesn’t seem to have been any communication or movement between the two separated crews.”

“Even though you later proved it was possible to go outside the ship, when you turned the engine on,” Adin says.

“Yes. So, about two and a half years after captain Reimann dies, a year after captain Kinoshita dies and a month after our last survivor in the front of the ship, presumably Leilea Arc Hess, dies, the computer wakes me up to turn on the fore engines. I do so, wake our Public Universal Friend a few days later, and soon after we wake Adin, Tinera and Denish. We attempt to save colonists from CR1, Tal is woken via emergency procedure and joins us, but we’re forced to eject the ring. We deal with various engineering problems, wake Lina, use the ship’s shield to disable the implants in everyone’s hearts… and here we are, about five-ish years from our destination. Does this timeline sound right to everyone?”

There’s general nodding and murmurs of agreement.

“Right,” I say. “So, our current questions are…?”

“Why Reimann went nuts, and whether his sabotage and slaughter was random or targeted,” Tinera says.

“The unusually vigorous synnerve growth that’s consistent across all successfully revived subjects regardless of revival viability,” Lina adds.

“And the subjects who didn’t survive revival…?”

“No way to tell. The radioactive tracer needs to be metabolised for the synnerves to show up in a scan. Unless you’ve got a barrel of nerve-preserving acid on hand, I can’t see what the synnerves in a dead body look like.”

“The weak bone around the cranial ports on some colonists,” the Friend says. “What’s causing it, and whether there’s a way we can deal with it and successfully revive them.”

“Figuring out specifically how Reimann fucked Amy up and whether I can fix it,” Tal adds. “And his password for the locked systems, if possible. Then we can get the ventilation system fully under AI control again at least.”

“Would be good to help preserve systems,” Denish agrees. “Must figure out if Reimann sabotaged anything else, and how to fix.”

“The amputated arm mystery,” Adin says.

“Right,” I nod. “So, we – wait, what amputated arm mystery?”

“You know. From the ventilation – oh. We never explained that one, did we?”

“It’s why I thought we might have to kill you instead of cutting your arm off,” Tinera puts in. “You know, if you tried to kill us.”

“When you thought I was cool with the whole ‘slave society’ thing and had access to the kill codes.”


“So there’s a mystery about amputating my arm?”

“Not yours,” the Friend says. “Reimann’s. Come on, we’ll show you.” It leads the way to the remaining laboratory ring. Everyone follows.

The Friend pulls a box out of a drawer and pushes it across a lab table towards me. It’s about the size of a shoe box, and something rattles inside as it’s moved. I open it. Bones. They’ve been cleaned, but the evidence of the fungus that once grew over them is clear in their cracked surfaces.

“Reimann’s arm and hand,” I say.

The Friend nods. “Note the hole in the radius.”

“In the…?”

“This bone here.”

‘Hole’ is generous. One of the long arm bones has been sawed nearly in half, a large chunk missing. “He was already injured?”

“No. I cut that out. Extracting this.” A smaller box is slid over to me; this one’s about the size of a ring box and made of transparent plastic, so I don’t need to open it to see the tiny strip of what looks like reflective foil inside. “This is Captain Reimann’s ID chip. We verified it with the system scanners; it’s his. His name, his rank, his data. Not reading any of his biosigns, obviously; the system reads him as dead, but it’s his. This is undoubtedly Reimann’s arm.”

“Okay,” I say. “But that’s not a mystery. We already knew that; we saw that he was missing this arm in CR1.”

“Exactly,” Tal grins. “In CR1!”

I look around at the crew. They all look like this is a useful addition. They do not provide further clarification. “Okay…”

“Here’s the thing,” the Friend says. “The AI claims that Reimann sabotaged a bunch of stuff, removed his own arm, and died a few days later, right?”


“Only that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Doesn’t it? The timeline makes sense to me. I mean, impressive of him to survive that long without medical attention I guess, but – ”

“The situation makes sense. The AI’s report of it doesn’t. Sure, it makes sense that that’s what happened, but – how does the AI know that?”

“It could see – ah.” I rub my own forearm, where my ID chip is. I’d been woken up by the AI for the explicit purpose of replacing the crew; the AI knew who I was and why it had woken me. But it hadn’t turned on any of the ship’s lights or amenities for me until after it had updated my ID chip and could read my new status off that. That was how the systems worked; the AI had cameras, and it could deduce what was going on to some degree and report it, but even after centuries of development, AI ‘vision’ was easily fooled and very error-prone. So no matter what it could ‘see’, it tracked crew position and condition via the ID chip.

When I’d first heard about Reimann, I’d assumed that he’d received medical attention after his break, in which case the crew would have logged data about his progress into the system. But that hadn’t happened; he’d died alone. He had severed this arm, cutting his ID chip off from his own life signs and leaving it in the wall, and then gone without identification into CR1 and died in there a few days later. The AI had noticed this and logged it just the same as it would if he’d had his chip.

It wasn’t supposed to do that.

Meaning. Either one of the four crew members still in contact with the AI somehow knew what was going on in the isolated CR1 and had logged it, or Reimann had secretly messed with how the AI could track his crew (he was acting paranoid, that might be part of it), or… he had a second ID chip? For… sabotage reasons, perhaps, for some plan he never managed to properly enact? He was a sabateur from the start in some really sophisticated plan?

We don’t have enough information. We don’t even have a body to check – it was floating in space in Chronostasis Ring 1.

“Well,” I say. “That… sure is yet another thing. Isn’t it.”

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“So why zeelite stuff?” I ask Tal over a breakfast of preserved oats and two-day-old bread. Adin has been banned from strenuous activities like kneading dough by the doctors so that his muscles and the skin and synnerves for his new artificial foot can heal.

“Um, because it looks awesome?” Ke frizzes up kes ball of hair with a tiny comb and flashes me a smile through bright purple lips.

“Uh… huh.”

“And also, their view of the world… the preneeks who invented the style and the books and movies and stuff, I mean… it was just so full of hope. You know? The future they wanted for us. A world with exciting stuff and new boundaries to explore and cool aliens and…”

“We’re exploring new boundaries right now,” Adin points out. “We’re heading off into the depths of space, where nobody’s ever been, to touch down on an entirely new planet and create a new home for humanity.”

“Still no aliens, though,” Tinera says.

“We don’t want aliens,” I point out. “We absolutely do not want aliens.”

“Aliens are cool!” Tal protests.

“I agree.” The Friend nods. “To discover that we’re not alone in the universe would be – ”

“And who would we tell?” I ask. “Earth, sixty five light years away? Sure, it would be a pretty amazing discovery for them to hear about on our transmission in the future, but it’s hardly worth the cost. If there are aliens out there somewhere, pray to whatever gods you still believe in that they aren’t on Hylara.”

Several of the crew are looking puzzled. I rub my temples and remind myself that they were in prison. They might’ve seen enough to know who I am, but it’s very unlikely that they’ve listened to Shia’s lecture series or know much of the Restrictionist Movement. They certainly haven’t had to hear them as often or in-depth as I have.

“Let’s imagine,” I say, “that we find alien life on Hylara. How exactly do you expect that to go?”

“We tell earth,” the Friend says immediately. “Initiate communication if we find something intelligent, start taking samples if we don’t.”

“And then?” I ask. “This is a colony ship. We are going there to set up a colony. And we are physically unable to go home. We’ve never intercepted any kind of electromagnetic transmission from anywhere that humans didn’t send, meaning that life on Hylara doesn’t even have radio, or at least it didn’t when we left Earth. If something’s there, it’s not going to be some hyperadvanced interplanetary utopia. We’re going to show up on their planet and demand to live there in an environment comfortable to us. Now, in the entire history of human colonialism… how well does that generally go?”

“We can do better,” the Friend insists. “It’s a whole planet, and there aren’t that many of us.”

“Maybe. But, correct me if I’ve misunderstood… this colony ship was launched to create some rich arsehole’s private kingdom staffed by slave labour, wasn’t it? If there are people down there, then I pity whichever civilisation is living in the best place for our settlement. If there’s just non-sapient life, it’s still going to get a kick in the pants the moment we start building oxygen domes and mining for resources. If humanity’s first discovery of extraterrestrial live is on Hylara, there’s a good chance we’ll kill a significant chunk of the species before the rest of humanity even learns it’s there.”

Silence reigns for several seconds.

“Wow, captain,” Tinera says drily. “Way to be depressing.”

“I used to argue with my sister about this a lot,” I say apologetically.

“She wanted to explore and you wanted to Save The Possible Aliens and you still got on this ship?”

“Other way around. Sort of? She wanted to Save The Possible Aliens. I didn’t want to ex – I mean, I didn’t not want to – I mean, my point was that the Exodus Phenomenon exists and there’s nothing we can do about it. She was against the Javelin Program completely; I didn’t think there was any point in being for or against it, because it was happening. Obviously, yeah, the potential of wiping out aliens was a concern, but I didn’t think ‘aliens might possibly exist somewhere even though we’ve never found them’ was a good justification for sitting at home in our own solar system like good little kids for the rest of time.”

“If there are aliens, it will be galaxy’s biggest ‘I told you so’ from your sister,” Denish says.

I swallow around the lump in my throat. “Ha. Yeah.” I don’t want to talk about this. “Anyway, we’re doing cool exploration stuff right now, so I don’t see what zeelite stuff adds to it.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Tal says. “When it’s on TV or in books, it’s way cooler because you don’t have to do it yourself. You only see the exciting bits. Also, I’m an IT tech, and they have computers.”

“We also have computers,” Tinera points out.

“No, they have the cool computers. The ones that don’t exist. The ones that are people. All the books and shows and movies and stuff were made back before they really understood computers, back when they still dreamed that they might be able to be alive. The stuff made today isn’t the same; today it’s fantasy, but back then it wasn’t. It was a future they could actually believe in, and there’s something special in that. And yeah, the cyberlites have it too, with their clear screens and personal phones and stuff and actually having machine learning and dreaming about making it better, making it really be able to talk like a person or identify the concept of a face or a car, not just aggregate probability from a training dataset, but even they couldn’t really believe it because they had the AI and they could see that the AI was never going to be that. But zeelite stuff? Back then, most people didn’t even really know how computers worked. They could be anything, and they wanted them to be friends. Well, maids and servants and gun-wielding soldiers on the moon a lot of the time, but still.”

“They did that because they were indescribably lonely,” I point out. “The eras immediately prior to the Neocambrian Revolution were rife with over-optimisation; people were physically and socially desperate. They were lonely and overwhelmed and – ”

“No, captain, I don’t think they were. We would be, but they’d grown up in their environments. They were suited to them. You might think about some kid who’s constantly hooked into an information network and can’t go three minutes without listening to a song or playing a game and think ‘oh, poor thing, he must be so overwhelmed’. But I bet he’d look at you sitting under the oak tree staring into space for thirty minutes like you were yesterday and think ‘oh, poor thing, they must be so bored’.”

“I wasn’t bored,” I say, frowning. “I was thinking.”

“But a preneek couldn’t do that, any more than you could do what they did. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they were lonely, just because we would be. I think they made their computers people because that’s what people do. It’s like… captain, have you ever heard of Animism?”

“I’m Arborean.”

“Oh, right. Of course. Right, so, humans see life in things; we see people in things. In whatever’s on the edge. It’s not just the preneeks with their computers; it started long before that. Rocks and trees and winds, animals, societies, spirits and fairies and gods. Every time we learn enough that makes it unviable, we move up a bit, but never completely. Your people still dance and thank the trees for their hard work. My dad used to pat the oven and talk gently to it when it wasn’t starting up properly. But the preneeks first wanted to find other people in aliens. And then that wasn’t working, so they wanted to build them in computers. And then it when that didn’t work it was aliens again, and then the Genetic Craze came and it was building them again but from different material… it’s just what people do. And I liked the computers. So.”

“So working with real computers and knowing their limitations doesn’t spoil the fantasy for you?”

“Of course not. I look at Amy and I can’t help but think about what our ancestors saw in her. They were wrong, but it says something beautiful about us that they didn’t want to be.”

“What about us?” Adin asks, making me jump. I’d forgotten that the others were there. “Where do we see people, then, according to your theory?”

Tal shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t think we have the right perspective to find out. Maybe we have to wait for our descendants to look back at us, and it’ll be obvious to them. Or maybe that’s why we’re out here. We ran out of things to dream about being people, so we headed out to find more.”

Tinera snorts. “I’m out here because they threatened to send me back to Luna on a death squad if I didn’t ‘volunteer’.”

“Well, yeah, but I meant us as humans, not like, the people in this room.”

I consider this. Is Tal’s theory about people humanising stuff a factor in the Exodus Phenomenon? Maybe, but… no, I don’t think so. Many fronts of human exploration took place in times of great strife or advancement, where there was plenty of ‘room’ to find and dream about new things without going anywhere. Tal’s just being extra poetic about how bad humans are at recognising sapience, how we tend to overshoot. I still think that the desperate search to see ourselves in something, anything, other than ourselves, speaks more to loneliness than anything else. How far do you need to go to try to find a substitute so you can avoid bonding with other humans?

“Maybe,” I allow, because I don’t want to give a lecture on my speciality subject right now and I’m pretty sure my crew don’t want to hear one. If they actually care about the Exodus Phenomenon, my books are probably available in the computer system. But I distinctly remember a lifetime of never wanting to stray too far from home (even the year on Luna was too much), followed by a fervent desire to walk away forever into the void of space, and no desire to find anything nonhuman had been involved.

I finish my breakfast. I have work to do.

“But,” Denish says, “you name computer after zeelite computer, yes?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tal says. “I call all my AIs Amy.”

“I don’t know of any computers named ‘Amy’ in pre-Neocambrian stories,” I say, getting up from the table.

“Oh, no, I changed it a bit to make it easier to say. It’s actually – well, have you ever heard of Harlan Ellison?”

I collapse back down onto the bench, blood draining from my face. “Tal,” I say.


“Please. Please do not tell me. That you woke up on this ship, in the depths of space with very few other awoken people, all of us with no ability to leave and no way to call for any outside help, took a look at the computer system whose operations are responsible for keeping us all comfortable and alive for years to come, and decided to name it after the Allied Mastercomputer.”

“Okay,” Tal says.

“Did you name Amy after the Allied Mastercomputer?”

“You just asked me not to tell you, so – ”

“Why?! Why was that your first thought as a thematic fit?!”

Tal shrugs. “AM was the first AI I ever encountered in fiction. I fell in love right away. I name all my computers after him, he’s really inspiring.”

“He’s an evil nuclear system that wiped out most of humanity and keeps the fragments alive to torture for eternity in punishment for humanity creating him in the first place.”

“Yeah! Which he did spontaneously! And not in an ‘unpredictable result of code’ kind of way, but as a person. He thinks and he feels and he was motivated by those emotions to turn on humanity and murder or torture everyone! I read that story as a kid, after working with real AIs for years, and it was like… here is what your predecessors thought computers could be. I name them all Amy, for inspiration.”

“But there are so many other sapient computers in fiction!” I protest. “Why go with the most evil one?!”

Ke shrugs again. “You never forget your first time.”

“Captain,” Denish says, “you know this computer story?”

“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream? Yeah. It’s a pre-Neocambrian classic.” I look around at the crew. They all look… excited, in a predatory kind of way. They’re grinning.

“I didn’t know you were into pre-Neocambrian literature,” Lina says.

“I’ve read some stuff,” I say defensively. “Does it matter?”

“Zeelite stuff?” Tinera asks. “Does our captain perhaps protest too much?”

“Oh, come on. That story doesn’t even count as zeelite. I – ”

“No silver platform shoes and big model rayguns in the back of your closet, Aspen?”

“I wonder if the captain is a Quarks’n’Starbursts fan…”

“I could see them at a concert with like, those orange drinks with glitter in them served in those big test tubes…”

“I bet we could make some glowing ring jewellery out of stuff in the storage rings…”

“It was horror, alright?”? I finally admit. “I went through a big horror phase. And yes, I was completely insufferable about it. The pre-Neocambrian era had a lot of really, really good horror media! Sue me!”

“Woo!” Tal cheers. “George Romero!” Ke holds out a fist.

“Barely counts,” I grumble, but I reluctantly bump the fist. (The rest of the crew grin wider, and it occurs to me, too late, that I’m betraying knowledge of pre-Neocambrian pop culture gestures. And maybe I do like George Romero, okay? Is there anything wrong with that?) “Watch some real horror.”

“Any recommendations, captain?” Tinera asks, sounding smug.

“Woo! Movie night!”

I put my head in my hands and drop it all the way down to the table. “This is the first moment in which I truly regret leaving Earth.”

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The crew gather in the medbay once more. Only half of us have done much actual physical labour today, but weariness shows on everyone’s faces. It’s clear that we’re all quite sick of random crises blindsiding us. Adin’s eyes are slightly glassy from whatever painkillers the doctors have given him; Lina’s hands flutter like spooked butterflies. Tinera slumps, sitting on the end of an unoccupied hospital bed, head resting on a stoic-faced Denish’s shoulder, while Tal lingers in the doorway, clearly wanting to leave. The Friend’s expression looks as blank as I feel while Lina, flicking from image to image of synnerve scans on the terminal as if enough analysis will somehow make them look normal, attempts to explain the situation.

“Synnerve growth from a cerebral stimulator is a bit more dangerous than the grafts we make for implants, because it’s less controlled. But it’s generally not worried about, because the growth is fairly small. While there is a very slight chance that a synnerve could grow into something important, it’s extremely rare. What should happen is that you should get a couple of nerves growing through the torso, and into the upper arms. Nothing past the elbows, nothing past the hips. And you definitely shouldn’t see this kind of mass in the brain. There should be more nerves there, sure; but the image shouldn’t be white.”

“It from extended time?” asks Denish. “We are only meant to sleep for twenty years. We have slept for thirty five.”

“Maybe. Probably. It’s hard to be sure, but yeah, that’s the most likely explanation.”

“I assume this is what’s caused our viability drop off?” I ask. “DIVRs are just resistant to the effects due to one of the phenotypic quirks of the geneset?”

“Maybe,” Lina says. “But that seems like a pretty neat answer. I’m always suspicious of neat answers in medicine.”

“Also, Adin’s a DIVR,” the Friend points out, “and he was in the ten per cent viability group, so – ”

“This can’t be the cause of ten per cent viability,” Tal cuts in, “not if it’s because we were under too long. Because that engineer from the first crew was in ten per cent viability after just fifteen years.”

“And all the ten per cent viabilities were in the back and front chronostasis rings,” the Friend points out.

“It might be the cause of the general viability dropoff, though,” Lina says. “And the ten per cent group was caused by some event during the second crew’s shift.”

Without saying anything, Tal leaves the room. Nobody tries to stop kem for an explanation.

Tinera asks, “Are any of the first crew still alive and in chronostasis, and not in the ten per cent viability group?”

Lina taps at the terminal for a bit. “Yes. Some of them.”

We all exchange looks. I know we’re all thinking the same thing. We could learn a fair bit about this situation with a time comparison – compare someone who’s been under for fifteen years to someone who’s been under for thirty five years. Then we’d know if the synnerve growth was due to time, or something new to worry about. We’d just need to wake up a crew member. Give them the radioactive tracer. Scan them.

Add another person to the crew. Condemn another person to five more years on this ship, instead of waking up in the colony like they’d agreed.

“If it is a time factor, then the viability will continue to drop, so it’s in people’s best interests for us to wake – ”

“It isn’t,” the Friend interrupts. “We’ve been monitoring viability of a handful of the colonists as a benchmark, like you asked. Over the past few months, there’s been no drop. If time still is a factor, it’s a very slow one.”

I nod. Not justification to go back to my ‘wake as many people as possible’ plan then, not on a ship that can support so few. But I make a mental note to check later whether the first crew’s captain or psychologist is alive. We’ll need to fill one of the roles eventually, and who’s more qualified than the people actually chosen to fulfil them?

“Counterpoint,” Tinera speaks up. “We should rouse one of the crew and test them for this whether we think time is a risk or not, because not only would it give us good information, but they might actually know what the fuck is going on and how to be an astronaut. Which is more than any of us can say.”

“And there are a couple of critical roles that still do need filling,” the Friend says reluctantly. “It would be nice to have a real scientist.”

“Or a psychologist,” I pipe up. “I cannot overstate the dangers of long-term untreated stress or trauma in a situation like this.”

“Yeah, we all saw Reimann,” Tinera agrees. “But a scientist and a psychologist would bring the crew up to nine, which…” she looks at Denish, who shrugs.

“I still think that might be maximum ship will be able to support in five years. Nine to twelve people. But, might be wrong. More or less. Still only a guess.”

“We don’t have any crew engineers left,” I say slowly, “but this is a colony ship for settling a new planet. There must be engineers that specialise in cooling systems and oxygen systems and air and water purification. Those will be critical for the colony. Maybe one of those could improve our estimates.”

“So… we are waking up someone else?” Tinera asks.

“Not right now. After we determine if the shield knocked out the cadaver’s kill switch, and get everyone through the shield if it did, then we should come back to this, I think. But making sure that nobody can hold your lives over you is going to be kind of important before we start waking more people. It’ll massively expand our options.”

Nobody argues with that. I think we’re all thinking the same thing: waking more people will probably create even more new, confusing problems. We’re tired.

People start to wander off as the discussion peters out. I rub the bump on the back of my skull where the cranial port still sits under my skin. I rub the palm of my hand where, I’d learned the first time I’d seen my own synnerve scan, one of the synthetic nerves had grown to. I generally try not to think much about the network in my body, a leftover system from an old medical procedure, sort of a big scar, but knowing that it was never meant to be this invasive…

Well, it’s not doing anything now, and there’s no way to remove it. No sense in thinking about it.

I run into Tal in NAER2, on the computer in the cubicle ke has claimed by hanging up a bunch of shiny junk and putting in faux neon lighting. (Honestly, some old tech was useful and I know everyone does the best they can with what they have, but why anyone ever thought neon lighting was a good idea, and why the zeelites seem to agree, I’ll never understand.) Ke’s typing furiously and doesn’t look up as I enter. I head for a cubicle of my own.

“Hey, captain?”

I jump. Apparently Tal is currently aware of the world around kem. It’s not always easy to tell. “Yeah?”

“You woke up Adin right before Tinera, right?”

“Um…” I try to think back. “Yeah, I think so?”

“And how many colonists died between them?”

“I don’t… um. Just the one, I… I think. I might be wrong. Doesn’t the computer have this stuff?”

“Yeah, I’m just checking.” Tal scowls at the screen.

“You think the computer’s records are wrong?”

“Hard to say. Amy won’t share most of them. I can look up, say, how many colonists are currently asleep in CR4 and what their names are. I can look up how many DIVR colonists are currently in the ten per cent viability group. I can’t look up how many DIVR colonists were in the ten per cent viability group before you woke Adin, or before you jettisoned CR1, even though those records have to exist because there’s just no reason to make a computer that wouldn’t keep a record of previous enquiries!”

“Ah… this is the thing where Reimann locked its logs?”

“Maybe, but these logs were made years after his death, which means it’s a process that’s still running, which means that I should be able to find what’s happening and fix it. Amy’s not prompting me for passwords or telling me I don’t have access to something, she’s just being cagey. But yeah, those are what she’s giving me for Adin and Tiny’s revival, so at least the information is accurate.”

“You… thought it wouldn’t be?”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t make sense? How?”

“Math. Oh! What if I – ” Tal leans forward and starts typing faster.


No response.

Should I try to grab kes attention and demand more of an explanation? No, probably not. If it becomes important, ke’ll tell me, and trying to force a conversation when Tal wants to be paying attention to something else would just result in disjointed non-sequitors and badly explained fragments of advanced math. It’s like opening the oven to see how a souffle is cooking. You just leave it alone until it’s done, or you end up with a mess.

I sit down to read a book off a computer. There aren’t any paper books on the ship; we have plenty of raw paper that can be printed into books, if desired, but since it wasn’t possible to know exactly what each colony would need, we weren’t given actual complete books. The paper might be critically needed for some other purpose once we landed, and we had the books in the computer, after all. I glance back at Tal’s decorated little cubicle and concede, privately, that maybe some zeelite stuff would be cool, like those tiny computer screens that people used to carry around to read as many books as they wanted. (Or was that a cyberlite thing? The two subcultures were pretty serious about the difference but it was all ‘romanticising dead tech and painting over the problems in their source pre-Neocambrian cultures’ to me.) I mean, obviously, I get why those tiny portable personal devices were a bad idea and why we don’t use that kind of junk any more, but I’d be willing to overlook the social ramifications for the opportunity to just lie back on my own bed and read a book right now.

I load one up, and find I can’t focus. I go out to work in the greenhouses instead. More lemons are ripening; I leave them for one of the non-DIVRs to deal with, and turn my attention to the ground cover.

Here I am, gardening again. I’ve always been a bit of a scoutbird, as my mother put it; forever bouncing away from home and then coming back to my cluster with something new. I spent my coming of age exile in university and lived a whole new kind of life where the ground was universally sterile and dry and where residences stayed intact for more than a decade, and then I came home and did gardening. I completed my doctorate, came home and did gardening. Spent a year on Luna as a teacher, building my career and writing my second book, came back to a world of gardening. Flitted in and out, on book tours and publicity appearances, always to come home and turn my hands back to the gardens.

And here I am, flying away from home one final time. Fifty or sixty lightyears away, separated from the world I know by… fifty years? A hundred? Enough to put my old life out of reach in time as well as distance.


It isn’t like an Arborean garden, of course; my fingers dig into gritty earth rather than slimy water and thick rootbeds as I pull unwanted plants from their homes, and concerns of balance and bouyancy are replaced with concerns of hydration and drainage, but I know perfectly well how to handle dirt gardens, too, and it’s familiar enough that the general tediousness of the job is made more tolerable (or perhaps less tolerable) by nostalgia. Suno, one of my parents, had been a foreigner before joining our cluster, and had brought dirt gardens with him, so it’s not my first time growing vegetables in this way. I try not to think about his big, strong hands guiding my tiny ones to carefully prune tomatoes as I work.

I don’t need to think about that. I don’t have a cluster any more.

I have a crew now. And it’s the future that’s important.

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“We’re in space! I’m not cutting a hole in his space suit!”

“He’ll die if you don’t.”

“Aspen, please.” The Friend’s voice is gentle. “This plan isn’t great, but we don’t have time to come up with a better one, and we probably don’t have time to explain.”

Well, if the doctor’s okay with it. I open the shears and put the end to Adin’s elbow, pinching the cloth.

“Only a small hole,” Tinera tells me. “Two to four centimetres should suffice.”

That sounds like a pretty fucking big hole to have in a space suit, but whatever. I snip. Air starts to pour out immediately; I can see it as a blue, glowing stream in the electrostatic shield. It takes me about half a second to cut the hole, and Tinera immediately says, “Now take the transparent plastic off the patch and put it over the hole. Make sure the valve is over the hole.”

Oh, okay, I’m making on-the-fly modifications to a space suit while it’s being worn. Sounds like a stupid thing to do but I don’t have time to argue; the decompression alone is bad for Adin. I slap it in place and hold it down.

Air keeps hissing out through the plastic valve. (Well, I assume it’s hissing. I can’t hear it.)

“Um,” I say, “air’s still – ”

“It’s supposed to,” Tinera assures me. “Just wait.”

Time passes. Long, slow, interminable time, while Adin’s air supply runs lower.

“Now close the valve.”

It’s not hard to work out how to do that. I just twist a little plastic ring around the bigger circle of plastic.

“Okay,” Tinera says. “Denish is going to hand you a second valve to do the other arm. Very important – make sure you put it on the other arm.”

The second patch that Denish hands me looks a bit different. The bulky plastic valve is orange in colour, and has threading, like something could be attached to it. I don’t waste time speculating about that; I just cut and patch.

Then Denish hands me a small gas tank with a short gas line and a little attachable nozzle.

“Attach the nozzle to the orange valve, then turn on the gas,” Tinera tells me.

I get to work attaching the tank. “What is this?” I ask.


I freeze. My hands tremble. I remember captain Kinoshita Keiko, pinned and choosing to die via nitrogen asphyxiation over the more painful option of dehydration. I remember finding her remains, smeared all over Storage Ring 6.

“Keep attaching the nozzle, Aspen.”

“What? No! This’ll kill him!”

“Not doing this will kill him. Hesitation will kill him. I have two doctors and an engineer assuring me that this is the best possible plan of action, so if you have protests, leave them until afterward. You put me in charge of this and you have your fucking orders. Attach the nozzle.”

My hands almost seem to move of their own accord, without input from me. They attach the nozzle. They start the gas flowing. I stare dumbly at Adin. Adin does not move.

“Good work.” There’s audible relief in Tinera’s voice. Only then do I realise how stressed she must have been under her calm demeanour. “You now have a few minutes before we can continue. You’ll want to scootch a bit further out, onto the other side of Adin; once he lets go, you’ll need to help manoeuvre him so that Denish can safely pull him up.”

I move as instructed and rearrange my tethers. “So that’s the plan? Knock him unconscious so he’ll let go and we can haul him up before anything else can kill him?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“You realise that he’ll start dying immediately, right?”

“Incorrect,” Lina says. “Remember, Adin’s a DIVR. He’s significantly more resistant to pressure changes than most people, so that ad-hoc space suit adjustment isn’t ideal, but won’t hurt him as much as it would’ve hurt us non-DIVRs. And he has an extended emergency anoxic reflex response.”

“A what?” I ask.

The Friend cuts in. “We can survive anoxic unconsciousness without brain damage for three times as long as most people. You will have about nine minutes to get Adin back on oxygen before permanent damage is a serious concern. Even longer before worrying about death, but let’s try to stick to the nine minutes, okay?”

The area around the white valve I installed, the one not attached to a tank, glows blue with escaping gas. I’m not worried about this; now that I understand the plan, I figure that this is probably a pressure valve. When it’s open, it’s open; when it’s closed, it’ll open under a certain air pressure, presumably one atmosphere. The nitrogen is flushing the remaining oxygen out of his suit through that valve.

The Friend joins us outside while we wait. Four people outside the ship is way too many, but I don’t argue. Whatever it takes to get Adin inside as quickly as possible is the correct amount.

Being practically on top of him, I’m the first to notice when his arms begin to relax. I shout a warning and begin to pry them open while Denish works on the legs. Adin drops, but falls less than half a metre, since I tethered him to the beam; with assistance from me and the Friend to keep balance, Denish is able to haul Adin up by one of his tethers. (We’re somewhat less careful with protecting him from bumps and bruises than we should be. Time is of the essence.) As soon as he’s on the ledge, the Friend removes the nitrogen tank and replaces it with another, presumably containing some oxygen. We work quickly to get Adin up into the airlock, where Lina is ready to receive him on the other side. (I can’t help but notice that the back of his space suit, all white and new when we exited the ship, looks burned, somehow. I shudder. Whatever being outside the shield did to it, I’m glad that the crew came up with a way to get him out before the outside space killed him.)

Then we take our time hauling up the body still hanging down from the ship. This operation isn’t urgent, and we’re as safe and careful about it as we can be. Partway through, Lina informs us on the comms that Adin is conscious and there’s no immediately obvious damage beyond scratches and bruises, so we’re all feeling pretty jovial as we make our way back into the ship. (The condition of the body’s suit, dangling outside the ship’s shielding for so long, is an absolute mess. I try not to look at it.)

“On the plus side,” I say to Adin as we all pack into the medbay, “even if this shield turns out to be a good way to deactivate the kill switches, at last you don’t have to go out there again.”

“Also, the shield didn’t set it off and fry his heart,” Tal points out.

“Yep, that’s also a plus side,” Adin says weakly.

“Another plus side,” Lina says, “you were already scheduled for an extremely thorough physical tomorrow, so assessing your injuries for this fits in nicely with your existing schedule. You have several pulled muscles in your legs, shoulders and back, by the way, and you artificial foot’s completely shot. We have replacements in storage, fortunately.”

“Oh. Goody.”

“Yeah, I’m going to get you some more painkillers.”

I didn’t even know Adin had an artificial foot. He’d had two feet in chronostasis; it must be the cheap under-the-skin kind of prosthetic. “Are you okay?” I ask him.

“I’m just fine, Captain.” He smiles weakly.

A lie, of course. A polite lie. There’s simply no way that anybody could be ‘just fine’ after all of that. I remember the burned condition of the back of his suit. I remember the way the electrostatic shield cramps up muscles. I imagine, for a moment, being terrified of falling into the vast expanse of space below me as I hang onto that beam with all my strength, half of me cramping in the shield and the other being bombarded by particles in space. Unable to really see anything through the metal beam in front of my face, unable to feel much through the suit, unable to hear anything with my radio dead; lights and cameras dead, suit status displays dead, even the air pumps silent. Nothing but pain and silence for long minutes, with no idea if my crew can even save me; a situation only interrupted by somebody cutting holes in my space suit

Yeah, he’s not fine.

“I’m sorry,” he continues. “That was stupid of me, jumping forward like that. I… I didn’t think…”

And he thinks it’s his fault, when it’s clearly mine.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I tell him firmly. “You saw I was falling and you saved me.” Technically not true; I’d have been able to right myself just fine. But that had been his intention, and it’s unlikely that he’s ever going to figure out on his own that it had been unnecessary, so I won’t tell him. The situation wasn’t his fault; it was mine. I’d picked him to go out there with me. I’d pressed forward when I’d learned that he’d never been in space or even used a space suit before, even though experience in space was the entire reason I was going. I’d pressed forward when he’d been afraid of the drop to a clearly debilitating degree. I’d pressed forward when fear had caused him to zone out and hesitate on the ledge. I’d slid out onto that beam myself to pull up the body’s torso and hadn’t taken into account the shifting weight, causing me to lose my balance and him to dash forward and ‘save’ me. I’d made bad decision after bad decision, and the rest of the crew had had to pull together to rescue him from my mistakes.

But what had I expected, really? That I could turn my back on Earth and I’d suddenly become a better, more competent person? That I could really run away into deep space and forever live in the fantasy that I was no longer the person that Shia –

No. I’m not going to do this. Fear and doubt and self-recrimination are dangerous habits to indulge. Conditional, temporary lows are normal, but if I accepted that Adin’s low sense of self worth was a hazard then I had to accept that the ship’s captain indulging the same habits was ten times more dangerous.

I’d fucked up today. I’d fucked up badly, and that sucks, and I’m going to have to learn from it. But for as long as this crew holds to the notion that I should be in charge, I have a responsibility not to throw self pity parties about being inadequate. Whether or not I’m inadequate is completely irrelevant because it’s the job I’m doing, apparently, so I’m just going to have to suck it up and be adequate.

I consider apologising to Adin for fucking up, but ‘sorry, I should have seen that you were incapable of this and pulled the plug’ is unlikely to achieve anything positive, so I just give him a supportive clap on the shoulder. He winces.

“Feel better soon,” I say. “If you’re bedridden for too long, Tinera will hunt you down to demand good food.”

“I definitely will,” Tinera agrees. “Cap, can we talk for a sec?”

“Of course.” I follow her out of the room.

“Are you okay?” she asks me, as soon as we’re alone.

“Am I okay?” I blink at her. “Uh, yeah. Nothing happened to me.”

“Right. You just seemed pretty stressed out there. Putting the valves in and all.”

“Um, yeah. I’m sure we all were. It was a stressful situation.”

“You saved his life.”

“No, you saved his life. I just held the scissors. How did you come up with that plan so fast?”

“I didn’t come up with anything. The doctors knew what to do, and Nish knew how to do it. I just coordinated.”

“You were really calm and on the point about it.”

Tinera laughs. “Aspen. I’m a Lunari convict miner.”


“So do you really think this is my first time?”

Fair point. On Luna, convict lives were cheap and mines had steep quotas. I wonder, not for the first time, just how Tinera had lost her ear and mangled her hand.

“You’re okay, though?” she presses.

“Yeah. I just need to decompress with a good book and then sleep for a million years.”

She holds up two entwined fingers. “You wanna nosoke?”

I gape at her. I’m not surprised by the proposal, exactly – one of my favourite things about my year on Luna was how refreshingly direct people were were about propositioning casual sex. It’s a common factor in formal pair-bonding cultures; when the lines between different kinds of relationships are so clear and mutually understood, it’s easy to be clear about violating them. Whereas in my own culture, the poster culture for flexible family structures, having sex with someone outside your own cluster outside a festival time was often approached with the tiresome and meticulous thoroughness of a business merger to make sure that everyone was on the same page.

No, a cute Lunari girl asking me if I wanted to have no-strings-attached sex with her isn’t particularly surprising. What’s surprising is that she’s doing it right now. After everything that just happened.

“Um,” I say. “Not right now.”

She nods. “Is that a ‘try again later’ not right now or a ‘I’m not interested and I’m being polite about it’ not right now?”

“It’s the former.”

She nods again, takes one of my hands, and ghosts her lips over my knuckles. “Understood, captain.”

I stare after her as she leaves. So Tinera’s an adrenaline junkie. That’s… not remotely surprising, actually.

Anyway. Back to work. I help Denish carry the suited body to the other medbay (the one that the doctors have been using for dissections instead of live patients) and head back to check on Adin one more time. The doctors are running tests when I get there; he’s got some electrodes on his chest and a little cup of radioactive tracer fluid in one hand. The Friend prepares a needle of something while Lina reads something at the computer terminal. Adin gives me a little wave as I enter, but I’m otherwise ignored.

“You took these X-rays right after he woke up?” Lina is asking as I walk in.

“Yes, within the hour.”

“Hmm. Good bone density for chronostasis.”

“Indeed! Some people have all the luck.”

“I remember, I came out a complete wreck. Recovery was – ” Lina stops talking. Stares at the screen. In a rather more strangled voice, she says, “Uh, Friend? Can you come and look at this?”

“Hmm?” The Friend puts its needles down and comes over.

I do too. I probably shouldn’t, medical privacy and all. But I do. Lina’s looking at an outline of a body, presumably Adin’s, lying flat, and covered with an image of stark white lines radiating out from the base of its skull. They spread through the brain, down through the torso, and some distance down the limbs.

It’s an image of the synnerves built by the cerebral stimulator during chronostasis. It’s a system designed to provide some minimal necessary movement and, more importantly, stimulate the brain, during the three month (or more like five month, given our extended travel time) induced coma, so we could wake up without serious risk of brain damage. It looks pretty much like mine, but Lina stares at it with wide eyes, her face bloodless. I frown at the image, trying to see what she’s seeing – has a synnerve grown somewhere dangerous or something? Maybe that’s the cause of Adin’s low chances of waking up, even though he has the DIVR-32 geneset?

The Friend seems as puzzled as I am. “What, specifically, am I looking for?” it asks.

“This is the synnerve scan you took after he woke up?”

“Yes. What about it?”

Lina glances at the Friend. Then at me.

I shrug. “It looks basically like mine.”

Lina looks at the friend again. “Do they all look like this?”

“Yes? This friend isn’t specifically sure what the problem is, so it can’t answer that with any – ”

“Have you ever worked with synnerves before?”

“Ah, no. This friend worked in trauma response. A lot of its patients had or needed implants, but it wasn’t this friend’s field.”

Lina nods. She taps the screen. “Something is very, very wrong here. This… this is absolutely not what the synnerve system created by a cerebral stimulator should look like.”

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