Time to Orbit: Unknown


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Beyond the little safety wall, we have about two metres of clearance before the solid floor of the javelin shielding’s end cap gives way to the grid of straight bars that supports the electrostatic shield. When hauling a body in a bulky space suit around, that’s not a whole lot of clearance. Adin and I carefully kneel on either side of the body, make sure that our tethers are attached, and make sure that all three tethers we attached to the body are attached. After all this work the last thing we want to do is lose it to deep space.

“Okay,” Tinera says, “all cameras and comms are working. Any problems?”

“None here,” I say. “The tethers are secure.”

Adin doesn’t respond. He has one hand on the body and one on his own tether, as high up as he can reach, the closest thing he had to an anchor point to hold onto that isn’t the edge of our little landing.

“Alright. You’re clear to proceed; the doctors recommend that you lower it head first until the heart is below the level of the field bars and then pull it back up. You only need to get the heart affected; no need to drop the whole body down there.”

“Understood,” I say. “Adin, let’s go.”

“Aspen should handle the lowering while Adin secures the legs,” Tinera says. “Denish says that, given that being on top of the bars knocked out your lights and radios, Aspen, but not your air pumps and whatnot, the effect of the field must extend high enough to scramble the electronics on the front of your suit when lying flat but not the back. Meaning we don’t know if the effect extends to the heart, and Adin should stay as far away from the field as possible.”

“Understood.” We manoeuvre ourselves so that Adin is pinning the legs, while I take the body’s shoulders and pull it closer and closer to the sloped edge. My hands are clumsy in the bulky gloves, but there’s a surprising number of handholds on a modern space suit. I get the head over the edge, grab the compressed air tanks on its back, and slowly push its shoulders and chest out.

Adin holds the legs and doesn’t move. In order to get the heart below the field, we need to bend the body at the waist, which means getting its whole torso over the edge; I can’t do that unless Adin moves forward.

“Adin,” I tell him, “You need to move.”

“R-right. I… I’m coming.” He still doesn’t move.

A voice came over the comms. Tal. “Adin. It’s okay. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“I’m not… that’s space out there!”

“Yeah, exactly! And it’s safer than you think.”


“You said that you were fine with high buildings, right? Twenty fifth story balconies and stuff? Well, if you fell off one of those, you’d die. Like, immediately. Hit the pavement, and crack. So, logically, space is just as safe as those balconies, right? If you’re not scared of one, no need to be scared of the other! Just pretend you’re on a balcony with a fatal drop!”

“Tal,” Lina cuts in, “that’s not helpf – ”

“It’s better than that, actually,” Tal continues, “because if you fall off a balcony, you’re dead, and if you fall off this ship, so what? You’ve got a tether. It’ll catch you and the cap can reel you in and you’ll be totally fine. And even if it snapped and you got flung out into space at the speed of rotation, you wouldn’t die instantly like with the pavement! You’d have hours to pick one of better, more painless meth – ugh! Mff!”

“Sorry about that, Adin,” comes Denish’s gruff voice. “Problem is gone. But know that tether is very strong; I checked. Will not break.”

Perhaps in defiance of Tal’s horrible attempt at reassurance, Adin is already moving, sliding forward and adjusting his grip on the legs to give me room to shove more of the body over. Soon, we have enough of the body over that it takes both of us holding down the legs to stop it from sliding forward and off the edge entirely. We reach the waist, and the entire front of the body drops down, jolting us both forward and dropping its head, shoulders and heart down into the electrostatic field.

“We’re done,” I report. “Retrieving the body now.”

We can’t just grab the legs and pull. We don’t have enough room between us and the safety wall for that, and besides, we’d never be able to drag the front of the bent body back over the edge of our little ledge. There’d be too much friction. We need to unbend it, first; to lift the front back up.

We had expected to need to manipulate the body when we’d started this, so the tethers attached to it are on different parts of the suit. One is attached to the back of the neck; I grab it and pull.

This does nothing. I’m just pulling it along the back; I don’t have the leverage to lift the torso doing this. I need to be above it, not behind it.

“Adin,” I say, “take the legs. I’m going out on one of the beams.”

“Are you sure – ”

“I fell onto one of these and crawled half the length of the spaceship once. I’ll be fine.” Neck-connected tether still in hand, I scoot my way to the edge of the ledge, straddle the shield support beam closest to the body, and hook a spare tether of my own around it. Much as I want to lie flat for stability, I stay sitting upright; lying flat would risk frying my radio, which wouldn’t be ideal now that I have a crew I can talk to. Leaning forward just far enough to grab the beam with my hands, I scootch forward a bit, then pull up the corpse’s front half.

Or try to, at any rate. The problem with this strategy is that now I don’t have a stable anchor point for myself, and trying to raise something this heavy risks unbalancing me. Swearing under by breath, I turn around on the beam (ignoring Adin’s shouts of alarm), hook my feet under the edge of the ledge I’d just come from for stability, and try again.

This time, I’m able to raise the body. Adin yanks the legs as hard as he can. It slides backward.

Yeah! We’re doing it!

Except for the part where the sudden movement of the weight I’m holding up unbalances me, one of my legs gives out, and I slip sideways.

Which, honestly, not that big of a problem. It gives me a scare and I swear loudly as I slip, but I’m already preparing to grab the beam as I drop below it, haul myself up and –

I don’t need to. Adin sees me fall, drops the body, surges forward. He grabs my arm as I tip sideways and, with a sudden burst of strength I never would have expected from him, physically hauls me off the beam and right into the safety wall, safe and sound. I grab it with both hands to avoid bouncing off it, and barely have a moment to appreciate the cool heroic moment before Adin is suddenly yanked away from me.

I make a grab for him, but it’s too late. When he let go of the body, it slid back down over the edge. One of its tethers had looped around his foot. Before I can react, he’s pulled off the edge of the ledge.

The startled yells of the entire crew ring in my ears. Adin’s own yelp is cut off as his radio equipment is fried. He flails and grabs at the shield support beam as he falls, managing to wrap both arms around it, followed by both legs.

I peer over the edge. The body dangles below on its cords, now free of Adin’s leg. Adin hangs upside down from an electrostatic support shield beam, arms and legs wrapped tightly around it. His whole body passed through it, meaning all of his suit equipment must be fried; his lights are certainly out. It’s hard to be certain through the space suit, but it looks like he’s holding on as tightly as possible, with both arms and legs.

This is my fault. I’d seen how scared he was, how unsuited to this task he was. He’d moved forward to save me, someone who didn’t need saving, in a sudden combination of heroism and panic. And now here we are.

“Captain, report,” Tinera says.

“Uh, it… he fell, I couldn’t…”

“Captain. Use your arm camera to show us what’s going on.”

Right. I sweep the arm cam over the scene a few times.

“Okay. Is Adin alive?”

Good question, that. He has one of those kill switches, and he’d passed through the electrostatic shield. He’s holding tightly to the bar, but I remember the cramping effect that the shield had had on my arms and legs; could it keep those muscles rigid after death?

He’s completely deaf to our radio chatter, of course. With the air pumps of his suit silent, he must be deaf to everything except the vibrations of the bar he’s clinging to. I try to poke his leg for a response, but he’s wearing a space suit; there’s no way he’ll feel it. And there’s no easy way for me to get into his field of view without frying my own radio equipment.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I can’t… how do I find out?”

“I’m sending Denish out to assist.” Tinera’s tone is cool and composed. “He’ll be with you as soon as he’s suited up. We’ll proceed under the assumption that Adin is alive and in need of immediate rescue. Captain, do you have any spare tethers on you? Ones that aren’t tying you to anything?”

“Um, yes.”

“There’s a tether point on Adin’s belt there, within your reach if you crawl out onto the beam a bit. Tether him around the beam with the shortest spare tether you have.”

I crawl out a little way and clip a one metre tether to his belt. Problem: I can’t get it around the beam. There are no tether points on the beams; usually I loop the tethers around and clip them to themselves. But Adin’s body is pulled tight against the beam, and he’s far too bulky in the suit for me to get it around him.

There is, however, another tether point on the other side of his belt. It’s a bit more tricky to reach, but clip the other end to that, so it passes over the beam first.

“Okay, Aspen, here’s the situation. You hear me?”

“I… yes.”

“Alright. Adin’s not moving of his own accord, so we can assume that he can’t. Probably though a mixture of panic and physical trauma.”

I nod, although Tinera can’t see me, of course. “The field causes limbs to cramp up. He’s using them to support his weight, so he probably can’t safely move them at all, especially since he’s terrified of the drop and unable to communicate with us. He can’t even see or feel me, so.”

“It’s not just the effect of the shield on his limbs. The majority of his body is either immersed in or outside of the shield, meaning he’s dealing with the interstellar medium. This means that his body is undergoing significant physical trauma and his suit is getting blasted with a lot of high-speed matter it wasn’t designed to deal with. The doc’s first suggestion was to allow him to pass out when he exhausts the limited air in his suit now that the pumps aren’t working, and then pull him up through the field when he lets go, but that’s dangerous in its own right and we probably don’t have time, in combination with these other factors.”

“Also, suit cooling systems are broken,” Denish cuts in. “Shield makes a lot of heat, and also breaks cooling system – double problem, yes? Could possibly cook before passing out. I am in airlock, by the way.”

And passing out in this situation would probably be the most traumatic event of Adin’s life. Actually, this was probably going to be the most traumatic event of Adin’s life either way. But that’s something for Future Aspen to worry about.

“So our goal here,” Tinera continues, “is to get Adin out of this situation as fast as physically possible, even if that means doing something radical. Understand?”

Oh, that’s where this was going. “What horribly unpleasant thing do I need to do without hesitation, exactly?”

“Denish is bringing you some equipment. If you can’t do this, he’s volunteered to do it himself, but it involves being out on the beam over Adin, so – ”

“I’ll do it,” I say. Whatever it is, I’m the one who’s experienced at this, and Denish is really heavy. We can’t risk him falling and creating even more problems.

“I am here,” Denish reports. Out on the beam, I can’t really turn around to look, but I point my arm camera at the ledge and see him there with a small case, waiting.

“Great,” Tinera says. “Hand over the stage one supplies.”

Denish places something in my hand. I pull it forward to have a look.

Two items. A patch of cloth with some kind of thick plastic thing in the middle and clear plastic on the back, and… a pair of scissors? Shears, more like. Small, but obviously durable, and with a big handle to accommodate my big spaceship gloves. They’ve got a tiny motor in them, for cutting through stuff beyond the strength capacity of a human hand.

“What the stars am I supposed to do with these?” I ask.

“Just pick an accessible part of Adin’s suit, preferably on an extremity,” Tinera says calmly.

“And then?”

“And then you’re going to cut a hole in it.”

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“Are we sure this’ll work?” Adin asks.

I look down at the hospital bed. The seven of us are crammed into the small medbay, and the bulky space suit on the bed makes it feel even smaller than usual. There’s a body in the suit, one of the dead crew or colonists from one of the freezers. I don’t know who, specifically, it is. I don’t ask.

“It should work,” Denish shrugs. “Can never be sure.”

“We’ve sewn one of the kill switches back into the heart,” Lina explains, hands fluttering. She has this habit of moving them around a lot when she’s frustrated or nervous, and they’re practically a blur right now. “A frozen and defrosted cadaver is a far cry from the consistency of living tissue, but it should be a good enough simulation. In the space suit, the implant should react to the electrostatic field in the same way that the ones in us will.”

“Should,” Adin repeats.

“Yes. Should.”

“I put fuse between connection points,” Denish adds. “Now, we put in field, and we know if work. When we take out, if implant still work, then field does not help. If implant not work and fuse blow, is very bad – that means field shut it down but activate failsafe and kill us first. But if we cut out implant after, and it not work and fuse is not blown…”

“Then,” the Friend finishes, “that’s a very strong indication that putting ourselves through the electrostatic field will disable the implants without killing us.”

“A strong indication,” Adin repeats.

“Yes. A strong indication.”

Tinera claps her hands together. “Sounds like a plan where nothing can go wrong! So who among us gets the incredibly lucky job of hauling a corpse in and out of a field under the ship, where if we slip we could fall through space forever?”

“Obviously, it should include me,” four of us said at the same time.

The Friend, Denish, Adin and I all looked at each other.

“Look,” I say, “this is a two person job. Logically – ”

“Logically, this friend should be one of them,” the Friend cuts in. “This mission is incredibly dangerous, and we now have another qualified doctor. It’s only logical that – ”

“Yeah, we’re still not going to be indulging your weird cult thing about the value of your life,” I say. “You’re in my clust – my crew, and ‘oh I’ve arbitrarily decided my life is worth less’ isn’t a valid argument.”

“You need to prioritise the lives in this crew somehow.”

“No, I don’t! You don’t like it, wake up someone else. Or elect another leader, I’m sure Tal can figure out how to change crew roles in the system. Anyway. There’s a chance this’ll go to shit, and if it does I want both doctors here and ready to treat us when we come back potentially mangled or whatever. And you’re our best trauma medic anyway. Even if things go well, you or Lina have a job of cutting the implant out of our test subject when we get back, so wearing you out by sending you into space is a bad call anyway.”

“If doctor is too valuable and needed here then you are same, captain,” Denish points out. “You are needed up here to coordinate.”

I shake my head. “Tinera’s second in command, she can coordinate. I should go because I’m the only one here who actually has experience crawling around on the outside of this ship.”

“Counterpoint,” Adin says, “if this works, you’re the only one of us who won’t need to go through that field yourself, at some point. Surely, as many other people as possible should be gaining that experience?”

I shake my head again. “Like you say, that’ll be a concern if this works. But it might not, in which case that’s just added risk for nothing. Anyway, if this works, everyone can do as much out-of-ship training as they want before taking the plunge themselves. In this exercise, we’ll be hauling a corpse around over the vast infinitude of open space.”

“Captain is right,” Denish says. “They and I will go. I am strongest.”

“You’re also the heaviest, by a wide margin,” Adin points out, “as well as our only qualified engineer. Like the doctors, you’re too valuable, and your weight makes it the most dangerous for you if you do slip. Lighter is better.”

“Um,” says Tinera, the lightest in the crew, “I’m not volunteering.”

“As you shouldn’t. We’re going to be hauling a corpse around on tethers and you only have one fully working hand. Anyway, I don’t think you or Tal would have the body strength required to be useful. It has to be me and the captain. Anyway, if someone’s life is at risk, it should be mine. I’m the most easily replaced here, with the least useful skills.”

We all stare at him.

“Adin,” I say, “I agree that the team should be you and me, but please understand that you’re the most indispensable person on this crew.”

“Yeah,” Timera says. “You bake the best bread I’ve ever eaten.”

Adin rolls his eyes. “Ah yes, the critical astronaut skill of baking bread. When are we doing this, captain?”

People who don’t know anything about sociology always say stupid shit like this. I cross my arms. “Adin, do you know why this ship is so unnecessarily huge? Why it’s kitted for an unnecessarily bloated crew of 21, filled with open recreational spaces and even greenhouses, and the rings are spaced out so that the crew have to travel through large parts of the spaceship to live their lives instead of cramping themselves up in one ring? Why the ship’s psychologist is ranked so highly in the command structure? It’s because, on a trip like this, the biggest threat to crew survival isn’t some physical illness or engine problem. It’s social and psychological stressors. Ten years being cramped in a ship like this does things to people’s minds; best case scenario, it makes them inattentive, lacklustre and depressed, liable to make mistakes in their jobs and potentially doom the ship. Worst case… well, we all saw what was left of Captain Reimann. We have significantly more than five years on this thing before we can expect to be in orbit around anything, during which I expect things will keep going wrong, so yes, fresh bread in our long out of date rations is one of the most critical components on this ship. If Denish or Lina or Tal or our Friend died, that would be an absolute tragedy, one that I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it won’t come to pass. But, when it comes down to the survival of this ship, we have dozens of engineers and doctors and IT specialists that we can wake for duty. You know what those colonists’ profiles doesn’t tell us? Whether they can bake a loaf of bread. So, yes, that is a critical astronaut skill, and you are, by definition, less replaceable than the rest of us. That said: are you ready to come and risk your life in deep space?”

“I’d be more ready if you didn’t phrase it like that.”

“Are you ready to come on a fun company rock climbing trip with our buddy here?” I pat the corpse’s space suit.

“Uh… yeah. Sure.”

After a bit more scuffling with the rest of the crew suggesting different candidates and us all talking ourselves in circles, Adin and I suit up, which introduces a new complication.

“Huh,” Adin says. “This stuff us heavier than it looks.”

Yeah. Adin’s never worn a space suit before.

“This is dangerous,” Denish says, “Captain, I still think that I – ”

“He’ll be fine,” I say. “The first time I wore anything more complicated than an evac suit was the first time I left this ship and I was fine. C’mon, Adin.”

Quite a lot of discussion had gone into where, exactly, we should exit the ship. Exiting up the front, at Pod Launch Ring 1, would mean that the rest of the ship was slightly ‘uphill’ from us due to the deceleration; exiting at the back, at Pod Launch Ring 3, would put the rest of the ship slightly ‘downhill’. Each had their disadvantages; PLR3 meant that there was a slight chance of slipping, stumbling or rolling downhill and into space as we manoeuvred the heavy corpse through the electrostatic field, whereas PLR1 was safer. But PLR1 also meant that when the corpse was hanging straight ‘down’, it would be slightly underneath the edge of the platform we’d be lying on, making it far more dangerous to retrieve. This whole thing was pointless if we didn’t come back with the corpse.

In the end, we went with PLR3. We were used to keeping our footing on sloped surfaces. The weight of the corpse was going to be the hard part; best to make that as easy as possible.

The airlock is too small for all three of us. I go first, descending a familiar ladder onto the familiar surface of the end bulk of the ship’s shield. It’s been awhile since I was out of this ship; how long has it been? It’s been… oh. Months. Wow.

There are some differences. Technically, I’ve never been where I’m now standing; last time I was outside one end of the ship, I was outside PLR1, not PLR3. I can see better, this time; not only am I in a fully functional suit with lights and cameras for once, but since we’re going to be hanging around here to do stuff instead of immediately crawling out onto the thick lattice of bars that supports the shielding of most of the ship (I still can’t believe I did that), the lights are on. I can clearly see the market entrances to the engine casing on the ship, the bright red stripes warning us not to step over the safety rail that we’re planning to step over immediately, the fragile-looking ladder that leads back up to safety.

Also, there’s a floor to stand on now. The last time I’d been outside, the ship hadn’t been spinning, and had instead been an impossibly tall tower stretching high above me into the stars. Today I won’t have to climb anything except the ladder back into the ship, so that’s nice.

I barely get my bearings before Adin is climbing down the ladder to join me. I wave an arm around. “Welcome to space.”

I can’t see Adin’s face inside the reflective helmet, but I can hear the awe in his voice as he gazes over the little safety barrier at the field of stars below us. “Wow, it… it’s…” he stares out, motionless.

“Space sure is pretty, you guys ready to drag a body through it?” Tinera asks from inside the ship.

“We’re ready,” I say. “C’mon, Adin, let’s go get our friend.” I head back toward the airlock, but Adin keeps staring down, through the electrostatic shield, into space.


“Coming.” He steps back, towards me. Stumbles a little on the slope, even though it’s the exact same slope he’s been walking on for months, and he showed no problem with it in the spaceship inside. Freezes, takes a moment to collect himself.

And I realise that it wasn’t awe that I was hearing in his voice.

“Adin,” I say gently. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“No! I mean, I never have been before. I’ve never had a problem on a, a twenty fifth story balcony, or over a pit shaft, or anything. But that’s… that’s all of space! That just goes on forever! And if we fall, then – ”

“If you fall, then your tether will catch you,” I point out gently. “That’s why we make sure to have at least one tether connected at all times.”

“I know, I know.”

The airlock above us opens. The suited body has been tied into the airlock with tethers, so it doesn’t just drop out on top of us; I climb up there and carefully lower it to Adin. Then we carry it over to the little safety barrier. I climb over.

Adin hesitates, then follows. He takes a while to scramble over the barrier, which gives me time to think about whether I should abort the mission and try again with Denish or the Friend. (Technically, Tinera is coordinating this mission, but after I agreed to this team she’s unlikely to protest at this point without my say-so. On a practical level, it’s up to me.)

On the one hand, I don’t want to make Adin do this if he’s scared, and having someone who’s clearly that frightened of the abyss below us helping on this mission is hazardous. On the other… look, I know that some people would scoff at me wanting to protect his pride, but it is actually a serious concern. I’d meant everything I’d said about Adin’s ability to keep morale high on this ship being our greatest survival asset; long-term stress, dissatisfaction, poor or monotonous living conditions, and the constant spectre of failure were far greater threats to us than any short-term health or engineering problem. Adin’s self-perception of being the least important member of the group might not be a problem right now – plenty of people had the ability to handle that kind of thing just fine – but it might be a risk, and it sure as hell would be if it were regularly exacerbated. Dragging him out here and then deciding he wasn’t up to the task and sending him back, witnessed by the whole crew, was dangerous. Was it more dangerous than continuing the job with him?

I have a judgement call to make, and I have the length of time it will take him to climb the barrier to make it.

Adin climbs over the barrier. Clips a new tether to it, unclips his old tether from his suit.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s get this job done.”

“Yes, captain.”

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“Dear Lord in heaven,” Tinera mumbles around a mouthful of greenhouse beans, “I forgot what eating real food was like.”

“I didn’t even know you could sautee with moss oil,” Lina says, stabbing a bean with a fork. “But this came out really well.”

“You can sautee with any oil if you’re desperate enough,” Adin says.

Tal grins. “Could you sautee with – ?”

“Any edible oil.”


I have no idea whether the beans came out great, because they could’ve been cooked to a crisp in lard and they’d still be the best thing I could remember eating. Sinking my teeth into actual, identifiable plant material was a special kind of ecstasy that I hadn’t even realised I’d missed.

“You should put a squirt of lemon juice in this next time,” Tinera suggests. “If we have lemons.”

“Ugh, no,” I say at the same time as the Friend says, “You can put that in your share.”

“What’s wrong with lemon?” Tinera asks.

“Our Friend and I are allergic to citrus,” I explain. “It’s genetic.”

“Wait, you two are related?”

“I don’t think so. Atlantica three clusters, but for two transfers from Keen?”

The Friend shakes its head. “Pacifica three clusters, except for the Norn cluster. Did – ?”

“Never heard of them.”

“We’re probably not closely related, Tinera. It’s just a really common allergy among Arboreans.”

“Don’t worry, I’m allergic to citrus too, so I won’t be putting it in anything,” Adin says.

“You are?”

“Yeah. My mum’s Arborean, so that might be why?”

The Friend and I look at each other.

“The friend will go check,” the Friend says, and races off.

Adin stares after it, puzzled. “What’s that about?”

“It’s checking your genetic code to see if you have the DIVR-32 geneset,” I explain. “It’s a geneset that Arboreans went nuts with back during the Genetic Craze because it results in a really resilient circulatory system which is great for resisting low temperatures and pressure changes.”

“And that’s… something everyone wants?” Tinera asks, puzzled.

I shrug. “We live on massive floating forests designed to draw nutrients and purify water from the ocean itself to feed us. The root systems are the most important part. We spend a lot of time diving in and out of cold water, so yeah, it’s pretty important. It also just happens to make carriers allergic to citrus.”

“So why does it suddenly matter if I have these genes?” Adin asks.

“Because we were looking through the colonists’ viability awhile ago and discovered that all the colonists who were really likely to survive revival are DIVRs. Most non-carriers were in the sixty per cent survival range, but no DIVRs were. Nearly all the DIVRS, and only DIVRs, were in the upper range. There’s something specific to the geneset that makes us resistant to whatever caused everyone’s chances of survival to go down.”

“But the whole reason you revived me was because I was in so much danger, having a really low chance of survival.”

I nod. “There were three DIVRs in the ten per cent range. The obvious conclusion is that they probably had some other health condition that dramatically lowered their chances. If you have the geneset, then you’re one of these people, and our Friend wants to know so it can be on the lookout for any surprise health problems from you.”

“Alternately,” Lina says thoughtfully, “there might be two separate things going on. One thing that happened to Chronostasis Rings 1 and 5 that dropped a bunch of people’s viability down to the ten per cent range, which DIVR-32 is not resistant to. And another thing lowering general viability – possibly just the passage of time, even – that DIVR-32 is resistant to. In which case, Adin being a DIVR would be lucky, since it gives us the maximum possible range of subjects to research the phenomenon. The captain and our Friend in the top viability range as DIVRs, Denish and I in the middle as non-DIVRs, and Tinera and Adin in the bottom range, one DIVR and one non-DIVR. Of course, since we can’t access a lot of past records for some reason, we can’t be sure of Tal’s viability, but – ”

“But I’m not in the top category, because I can eat oranges,” Tal cuts in.

“Show-off,” I mutter. Tal sticks kes tongue out at me.

“You do not miss much,” Denish says. “Apples are better than oranges.”

“He’s lying,” Tal says.

“No, oranges are bad,” Denish insists. “This one time, we break new ship, cargo is everywhere, not stored properly. They have this, some kind of cleaning detergent, smells of oranges. Everything else rotten and very big orange smell everywhere from broken containers. Cannot eat oranges since.”

“What do you mean ‘break new ship’?” I ask. “You told me that you’re not a spaceship engineer.”

“Not for fixing, for breaking. Is how I go to jail. My family, we break into ships and take the things inside.”

“That’s why you knew exactly how to break through those airlock doors,” I say.

He shrugs. “Is easy.”

“Wait,” Tinera says. “You’re a space pirate?”

“I not know that word – ”

She repeats herself in Texan.

“Ah. Yes. I am space pirate.”

“Oh. My. God. Captain! Everyone! We’ve got a space pirate!”

Denish shrugs again. “If you go to jail, should be for something cool.”

“I hear that, brother.” Tal raises a palm. Denish, clearly not recognising the gesture, imitates it. Tal slaps kes palm against Denish’s.

“What did you do, Tiny?” Adin asks. “If it’s not too personal, I mean.”

“Oh, not at all. I killed someone.”

An awkward silence.

“Oh,” Adin says. “Like, in self defense, or…?”

“He deserved it, if that’s what you mean.” Tinera eats some more beans.

Adin looks uncomfortable. Before this can turn into an argument, I ask him, “Which Arborea was your mother from?”

“Uh… Atlantica, I think. She didn’t talk about it much. I don’t think she ever went back after her exile.”

“Your mother was exiled?” Denish asks. “What does woman do, to get exiled from Hippie Islands?”

I laugh. “He means her coming-of-age exile. Arboreans are banished from home at seventeen. We’re not allowed to return to either Arborea for two years, and not allowed to return to our home clusters for five. It’s supposed to open our eyes to opportunities outside our communities.”

“You all do this?”

“You can get special dispensation to come home to see dying relatives or whatnot, but otherwise, yeah.”

“And you run off and marry Texans?”

It takes me a minute to remember what the Interlinguan word ‘marry’ means. I shrug. “I went to university for mine, but each to their own.”

The Friend was coming back. “Adin, this friend wants to book you in for a thorough physical all day tomorrow. It wants to run every test we have the resources to run.”

“I have the weird citrus genes?”

“You do.”

“They’re not ‘weird’,” I mumble. “They were an extremely common modification.”

“Anything invented by genetic engineering counts as weird,” Tinera declares.

“Your fingernails were invented by genetic engineering,” I point out.

“My fingernails are normal.”

“And they’re engineered. Everyone used to have Martian fingernails.”

“That’s weird.”

“Thus breaking your rule of the engineered genesets being the weird ones.”

Tinera rolls her eyes good-naturedly, which is her version of conceding defeat, and I toast her with my last forkful of beans. Denish clears his throat.

“Captain, I fix problem with oxygen detectors and run efficiency test yesterday. I think detectors were big part of problem because system works better now. Can support more people now, if we need.”

“Wait, the oxygen detectors were actually broken? That wasn’t just to throw me off track?”

“Of course they were actually broken! You think I go around poking my head into walls for no reason?”

“Fair enough. How many more?”

Denish shrugs. “Is guess. Perhaps two more? But, that is thinking it does not break in new way. May not hold up until end of trip.”

“Still, any breathing room is nice if we need to wake anyone else. Nice work, Denish.”

“By the way, cap,” Tal says, “we combed through the priority rankings for the captain’s position and checked who were Texan convicts.”

“And I was right,” Tinera says. “It’s a group of, like, 400 free people – ”

“486,” Tal says.

“Right, and then 900-ish prisoners – ”


“And then the other free people, then the other prisoners. And the groups are the right ratio for the middle group of prisoners to be site leaders and team leaders.”

“Unlikely to be a coincidence, then. So we can probably assume that only the top 486 have the codes for your – wait, 486? And 952 prisoners? And then my group?”

Tinera grins. “Yep.”

I frown and start doing the math, but Tal predicts my question and answers it before I can. “In terms of your group, which is the only people we can fairly compare you to in the rankings, you were 29th in line for captain.”

“29th? That’s way too high.”

Tal shrugs.

“Out of…?”

“Out of 514.”

“That… what’s that as a percentage?”


“That can’t possibly be right,” I mumble. Maybe they’d just packed the ship with really bad leaders so we wouldn’t… try to take over the colony, or whatever. I don’t know. There’s no way that in the 514 people I’d actually been ranked against, I was in the top 6%.

Well, it wasn’t like they’d have expected anyone so low on the list to be captain anyway, so maybe the rankings within the group were randomly assigned.

“Well, we know which 486 people not to wake,” I say. “That’s good.”

“And if we’re lucky, maybe a lot of them were in CR 1,” Tinera says.

“I have to check something,” Tal says suddenly, getting up and leaving the table.

“If we can resolve this kill switch thing, we’ll be able to wake anyone on the ship without danger,” the Friend says.

“Be able to, but probably still shouldn’t,” Lina points out. “Those 486 people are people who bought into this system, if Tinera’s hypothesis about the tiers is correct. That kind of person can find other ways to be dangerous.”

“Maybe,” I say. “But people buy into systems without malice all the time. I lived in a complex on Luna with an indentured cleaning staff for a year and never really thought about it, and you all seem to have decided that I’m safe.”

“Were you given the ability to kill the janitor if you didn’t like how the carpets were vacuumed, though?” Tinera asks.

“Well, no. But if I had been, that would’ve been super weird, but I would’ve just deleted the codes or locked away the button or whatever and kept going to work every day. I definitely would’ve thought it was the most fucked up thing ever, probably would’ve done a lot of campaigning against it, but I wouldn’t leave. It’s entirely possible that a lot of those 486 colonists are ordinary people with admin jobs that happen to qualify them for government jobs in whatever New World the deranged idiots who put this together wanted. Some of them are definitely a problem, but we don’t know how many have personalities and priorities that make them actual threats, and how many don’t.”

“If we don’t know, we shouldn’t take unnecessary risks with them,” Lina points out.

“Oh, I agree. Even if – when, I mean – we find out how to disable these implants, we shouldn’t wake anyone from that group any earlier than we have to. I’m just saying that if we suddenly lose all our external sensory equipment and some glitch wipes the Courageous’ course from the AI’s memory, and humanity’s greatest astronavigation expert is 300th in line for captain, waking him isn’t necessarily going to create a new problem.”

“Ugh, don’t even say something like that,” Tinera says. “You’ll jinx it.”

“I don’t think it’s possible to jinx this ship more than it’s already jinxed,” Adin says. “We have the absolute worst luck of all time. So many things have already gone wrong.”

“Possibly,” Lina agrees.

“Possibly? The problems we have – ”

“Could be myriad problems, or could be just one or two untreated ones. I expect that the vast majority of our issues come down to the fact that this ship is thirty five years into its planned twenty year journey. Equipment failures, chronostasis viability, and even Captain Reimann’s psychological break are made much more likely by sheer time. So really, we may simply be ‘unlucky’ in that the rear engine wasn’t working properly and the first crew decided to press on anyway.”

“Hey,” I say, “this might be a stupid question, but have you tried an EMP?”

“What?” Lina asks.

“For the kill switch. It’ll kill you if you take it out, sure, but can’t electronics just be fried with an EMP?”

“That wouldn’t work,” the Friend says. “Why do you think modern implant tech is so expensive? It’s all shielded against magnetics. Otherwise it’d be knocked out by a simple MRI scan, which we took of everyone after chronostasis as part of the health checkup.”

“Oh, well, maybe you’re lucky and it already – ”

“If they weren’t magnetically shielded,” Lina cuts in, “the MRI would also have tried to move them around our bodies, tearing our heart muscles to shreds.”

“… Oh. Okay then.”

“You could knock out the computers on this ship with an EMP,” the Friend explains, “or in the space suits. But not in an implant.”

“Ah. Well, it was an idea.”

“Could not knock out computers,” Denish chimes in. “Most computers yes, but everything in a javelin is shielded. Long trip, strange magnetics, deep space! Not do for some random even to kill all electronics on the ship and colonists to die, would it?”

“Wait,” I say. “An EMP can’t knock out the kill switches, and it also can’t knock out the ship’s electronics? Any of them?”

“Well, I do not know every system. But every system I check so far, important parts at least are shielded from magnets.”

“What about the space suits?”

“Suits? Oh, yes. Also shielded. Why you smile, captain?”

I was smiling. I was smiling wide enough to make my cheeks hurt.

I was remembering my first journey out of the ship; dropping from the airlock, hitting the support bar for the electrostatic shield, and my suit’s electronics going dark.

“An EMP doesn’t work, huh? Well, we have something else on this ship that might.”

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Four of us – me, the Friend, Lina, and Tal – stroll toward Recreation and Medical Ring 2 at a leisurely pace while Tinera runs off to find the boys. I’m not sure why we need the entire crew for this, but apparently my ignorance on the whole Texan prisoner thing is a big deal for some reason, so whatever.

“So this means I have less work to do, right?” Tal asks.

“Less urgency, certainly,” the Friend says. “We’ll still need a solution, but we have five years of breathing room.”

“Great, I can concentrate on Amy.”

“You do that.”

I don’t bother to ask what they’re talking about. I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

When we get to the medbay, the Friend pulls up an image on the terminal and waves me over. “This is this friend’s X-ray from right after it woke up from chronostasis.” It zooms on on the chest of the skeleton. “See anything strange?”

I squint. “Uh… no? What am I looking at?”

It taps the screen. “Right here.”

Ah. A tiny, dense… something, near the heart. I would’ve just thought it was noise, or some old shard of broken bone, or something, but I wasn’t a doctor. “What is it?”

“That,” Tinera announces, striding in with Denish and Adin in her wake, “is a good ole Kill Switch.” She pauses, and glances at the Friend. “You are showing our captain the kill switch, right?”


“The what?!” I ask.

“I’m sure you know how pacemakers work. This is the opposite. If activated, that device will discharge a current to destroy my sinoatrial node, removing my heart’s ability to beat. This device was implanted, and its action explained to me, about two months before chronostasis. We all have one. Every crew member except you.”

I stare at the X-ray. Bile rises in my throat. “This is so they can keep control of four thousand angry prisoners with limited resources.”


“They intended to turn you into slave labour for the new colony.”

“What do you mean, ‘turn us into’?” Tinera asks. “How do you think a for-profit penal system works?”

I turn away from the screen, feeling sick. But that just means looking at my crewmates, each with this leash on their hearts. They look back, a slight wariness in all of their eyes. And then it hits me.

“This system only works if someone can activate these things,” I point out. “Meaning that among the other thousand colonists are enough people to keep control of four thousand prisoners, who signed up to do exactly that. People who want to be in control of a new planet, and intended to use you to do it.” I meet the Friend’s eyes. “And you thought I was one of them.”

“In our defense, we were working with very limited information,” the Friend says.

“I thought every non-prisoner had codes,” Denish agrees.

“Also,” Tinera says, “I know you don’t like to think abut this too hard, but… you’re Aspen Greaves.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I ask.

“Oh, come on. ‘Exodus Phenomenon’ Aspen Greaves, wrote four famous books that are essentially ad campaigns for the Javelin Program – ”

“They are not! I never advert – I never said the Exodus Phenomenon was a good thing, just that it exists!”

“Okay, sure, whatever, but can you blame the doc – or any of us – for seeing you on the ship and assuming you were involved? After all that ‘let’s all go to space’ work with interviews and stuff – ”

“I never endorsed – ”

“ – and then we’re all forced onto the ship like, ‘surprise! You’re the labour force for the new colony, do what you’re told or die!’, and then we’re woken up early by one singular non-convict, and it’s Aspen fucking Greaves, and they’re the captain? Of course we assumed you were in on the whole thing.”

“Well, I’m not,” I snap. “It’s fucking disgusting. Can they be removed?”

“Safely?” the Friend asks. “Technically, no. But – ”

“There’s always a loophole,” Tal cuts in.

“Exactly. So we have hope.”

“Oh! That’s what you took out of Da-bin. What Tal pulled the data off, and Denish has been deconstructing. I assume you’ve gone back and taken them from the other corpses by now, too, so you must have a few to work with. You’re trying to figure out how to disable or remove them.”

The doctor’s eyes widen. “Ah, you know about that.”

“How could I fucking not? Next time you guys try to hide something from me, could you please put more effort in? You were all being super suspicious and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what you could possibly be conspiring to do within the confines of a javelin ship in deep space. It was driving me nuts.”

“Sure, we’ll make sure to be better liars next time,” Tinera says.

“That’s all I ask.”

“I for one am very relieved, captain,” Adin says. “I was really worried for you.”

“Worried for… me?”

“There’s no need for any of that,” the Friend says, raising its hands in a conciliatory manner. “Aspen was never in any actual danger.”

“Of course not!” Denish claps one hand on my back. “I say from the start, captain would not hurt us. Would not let us turn off kill switch if they knew, perhaps, but would not hurt us. Is no danger to us so we are no danger to captain.”

I don’t like where this conversation is going. That must show on my face, because the Friend smiles reassuringly at me. “Nobody was going to kill you.”

“I would’ve,” Tinera says. “If you tried to kill one of us I’d have gotten you first.”

“That was never going to be necessary,” the Friend insists, exasperated. “If it came to it, this friend could simply have amputated their arm.”

“Wouldn’t have worked,” Tal says, “because of Reimann.”

“We can’t confirm that,” Adin says, “until you’re sure about whether there was tampering.”

“I can never be sure, but something’s weird with Amy’s – ”

“You were going to cut off my arm?!” I asked.

“Only if we thought you might kill someone,” Adin says quickly.

“And even that wouldn’t be necessary if we got a chance to sedate you,” Lina says. “If you were unconscious we could just saw a little section of bone out, about so big,” she holds her fingers a few centimetres apart, “and replace it. It’s a quick heal.”

“For the ID chip,” Denish explains. “You remember? Before we launch, doctors put ID chip in bone of our arms.” He taps his own arm to indicate the spot. “Computer knows who and where you are because of chip. If you try to kill someone, we take chip and flush it into space; computer not listen to you any more, is okay! We can just lock you in a ring, everyone safe. But it would not matter anyway, I tell everyone many times, because you would not kill somebody. You saved my life already!”

‘You would not kill somebody’ is an objectively false statement, but no point correcting that right now. “Is this why you guys were all so resistant to the idea of getting a new captain? You didn’t want two points of danger to worry about?”

The crew nod.

“We find out quickly,” Denish explains, “that you are not big bully, and you are not very dangerous. But we know nothing about others. New captain would be – ” he says something in Texan.

“An unknown quantity.” Tinera nods. “A chance to end up with some arsehole with a happy trigger finger. Or, even worse, an incompetent bully. You wouldn’t believe how many friends I’ve lost to TLs who weren’t vicious, but just power-hungry idiots making stupid decisions because they couldn’t take input from more knowledgeable team members.”

That makes sense. “Okay, so are we any closer to being able to disable or remove these implants? I assume they can’t just be cut out in a simple surgery, or our Friend here would’ve revived a surgeon to do that.”

“You want to help?” the Friend asks. Not surprised, just confirming.

“Obviously I want to help! I mean, I don’t know if I can, I don’t have any relevant skills here, but this seems like a kind of important thing to deal with! You guys are right in that we can’t risk rousing anyone with the kill codes while these things are in you – honestly it’s sheer luck that the revivals I’ve picked have all been you guys, and I imagine that that restriction had really limited the Friend’s choices. We don’t know what kinds of experts we’ll need to deal with what future crises; we need as big a pool of revival candidates as possible, and that means dealing with this. And we’re going to have to wake up a qualified team to get this ship in orbit in five years and start waking colonists; if we can’t disable these things then we’re going to be starting a brand new slavery-based society controlled by a handful of sociopaths with kill codes, and I don’t think any of us want that to happen.” Also, the force of my sister’s ‘I told you the Javelin Project is a bad idea’ would transcend time and space to carry across the stars and kill me dead.

The doctor nods. “Well, to answer your question, open heart surgery is dangerous at the best of times, so even if the implants could simply be removed, we’d still lose a lot of colonists trying to do it with the very limited medical facilities on this ship. Many might consider it worth the risk anyway if we could find a decent surgeon, but no; the device will discharge if tampered with. We’ve got Denish trying to find a way to physically disable them, and Tal combing through the code, but no luck so far.”

“Right,” I say. I tap my lip thoughtfully. I wish I’d known about this earlier; it’s sheer luck that I never revived one of the fourteen hundred people who –

Actually, hang on. “I was 1,467th in line to be captain. That puts me below nearly five hundred convicts. With this kill switch system, how does that work?”

“That was actually a bit of a relief, knowing you were a civilian,” Tinera says.

“What do you mean?”

“Okay, so… this is just a guess, but what we figure is going on here is, in a properly working ship only the first few backups of each position actually matter. If your ship chews through more than half a dozen backup captains, then whatever’s happening there the ship’s probably fucked, right? Anyway, we poked around, and we think that the priority system for captain is actually just the authority system for the colony, which is… okay, so you lived on Luna, right? You know how the prison system works?”

“Vaguely,” I say. “I mean, I know they have a penal labour force, but I was never really involved in any of that.”

“Okay well, there’s a tiered authority system. Up the top, you’ve got the dudes in charge, the prison workers and guards and all that, with their own ranks and authority and stuff; from a prisoner’s perspective their ranks don’t matter much, they’re all in charge of us. Under them are the site leaders, who are all total arseholes. These are prisoners put in charge of managing other prisoners. They’re each responsible for four team leaders, and each team leader is responsible for four other prisoners. So in the authority system it’s, prison employee, then site leaders, then team leaders. This is where the authority ends, but if you wanted to keep extrapolating to a bigger population, civilians would be under that – they’re outside the system, no authority but also beholden to no one – and then the rest of us. So if we’re right about them using this kind of leadership system, then yeah, there’d be a lot of prisoners above you in the order; the site leaders and team leaders. Which for four thousand prisoners, would be… uh…”

“952 prisoners,” Tal says. “Or 953, depending on how they deal with the remainder.”

“Right. And then the civilians. Technically, civvies have more power than SLs or TLs because like, while neither is technically supposed to be able to tell the other what to do, if there’s an altercation between any civilian and any prisoner the law’s going to automatically take the civvie’s side. But that’s how the tiers look because technically civvies are outside the system.”

“I see. So… I’m a civilian, and as we’re all now aware, I didn’t know anything about this kill switch system.”

“Yeah, sorry again about that,” the doctor says.

I wave the apology away. It was a reasonable fear for them to have, when you think about it. “My point is, we can use this knowledge to our advantage.”

“We can?”

I nod. “We can probably assume that the other civilians don’t know either. Or at the very least, they don’t have access to the kill switches. What about these site leaders and team leaders, would they be able to kill?”

“Definitely not,” Tinera says. “They’d have other methods of discipline, and would report anything kill-worthy to their handlers.”

“And their authority is essentially meaningless here, because the rest of us can just tell them to fuck off. They don’t have weapons and there are seven of us. So, the only people we really need to be careful not to revive are the people higher in the captain reserve ranking system than the site leaders. Who has clearance to see the criminal history of the colonists?”

“Logistics,” Denish says, indicating Tinera with a couple of flicked fingers. “Also Tal.”

“Why does IT have that clearance?” I ask.

“IT does not. Tal can see.”

“It’s not a very secure system,” Tal says.

“Uh. Right. Well, Tinera, and Tal I guess, if you can see both someone’s prisoner status and list them in priority order for the captain’s position, then – ”

“Then we can see exactly how many people are likely to have the kill codes, and who they are!” Lina grins. “So we know who’s safe to resurrect. Even the site and team leaders should be safe, since you don’t have the kill codes either.”

“They’re probably arseholes though,” Tinera points out.

“That might be the case,” I say, “but if we reach the point where we need to revive a particular specialist, we’ll want as wide a candidate pool as possible. Including the arseholes.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tinera grumbles. “C’mon, Tal, let’s make an arsehole list.”

“Okay, but we’re having a rematch after. Computer games aren’t any fun to win if you guys just walk away from your computers halfway through.”

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Everything about this situation makes less and less sense. Why would Denish be deconstructing a device from Da-bin’s body? And why would he lie about it? The idea that the device is from her body isn’t hard to accept; lots of people have implants. I’d assumed, when I saw Tal analysing it for the Friend, that it probably recorded some kind of biometric data; perhaps it’s a pacemaker or hormone regulator or nervous stimulator of some kind, and the Friend had wanted to know what had been happening in Da-bin’s body while she was in chronostasis. That isn’t particularly notable or surprising. But Denish pulling it apart? Out here, in a little laboratory he’d set up where nobody was likely to come across it (without telling me, the captain) instead of our perfectly good laboratory ring? And then lying to me about it? That’s nonsensical. Even if Denish’s skills are relevant to unravelling what had happened to the static colonists, it makes no sense that the crew would work secretly to do that.

Other option: I was mistaken. I’d seen Da-bin’s implant for barely a few seconds before the Friend had intervened and lead me off to a lab table, and that had been two months ago. Small white plastic devices can look similar. The blue stripes seemed distinctive, but what do I know of implants or oxygen detectors? Maybe the detectors that Denish is working with just happen to also be small, blue and white, plastic-encased devices. If anything, the fact that I can remember Da-bin’s random implant so clearly, and that I was so certain that they were the same thing when I looked at Denish’s bench, indicates that I probably am wrong. Human memory doesn’t work that clearly. But paranoia can.

But let’s assume I’m not wrong. The crew is hiding something from me, and it involves this implant, and, and…

I don’t know. Again, it doesn’t matter. I can’t stop them from doing whatever they want anyway.

I need a psychologist. A real psychologist. A psychiatrist, ideally. One of the colonists has to be one, right? I’m not going to go waking people up without consulting the crew, but I should at least check the options.

I head for Network and Engineering Ring 2. Half the crew are there, all in their own little cubicles, playing some kind of computer game together. I don’t recognise it (never really been into computer games), but it’s one of those ones where you build a town and gather resources to make armies to kill each other. Adin and Denish are absent, but the others all mumble distracted greetings as I enter, not daring to look away from their screens.

I find a computer of my own and prepare to talk to the AI.

Are there any qualified psychiatrists in chronostasis?

– There are fourteen qualified psychiatrists in chronostasis. –

List them.

The computer does. I stare at the names, unseeing. Just more meaningless names of more people sleeping on this ship. I remember when I first played detective with this colony, looking through their identities and histories like I could figure out the dynamic of the society that they were going to create, like I could do my job as a sociologist; turns out I can’t even predict the dynamics of my own crew. But then, the world I’d worked so hard to understand, I’d left behind, hadn’t I? The Exodus Phenomenon had gotten me as well as it had gotten the four colonists playing computer games with each other in the cubicles next to me, and maybe gotten Denish (I still wasn’t sure if he was a convict or not; Adin quite probably was, and had presumably been forced to come). And now we were off being new, different people.

Ha, I remembered being blindsided by the knowledge that this was a convict ship. It’s a bit much to get thrown at you out of nowhere. Had the two proper crews of the Courageous known?

Actually, that’s… a really good question. Had Captain Reimann known? Reimann had been from the Republic of Texas. There’s a pretty severe anti-convict sentiment among the privileged classes in Texas. Reimann had, so far as I could tell, faithfully and competently served this ship for over a decade, shepherding these colonists to a new home in conditions harsher than he’d expected on a work shift twice as long as he’d been promised. And then, one day, he started killing them.

“Tal?” I ask. “I have some questions for you later, when you’re not busy.”

“I’m not busy now.” I can’t physically see Tal in the next cubicle over, but kes typing doesn’t even pause. “What do you need?”

“It’s not urgent; if you need to concentrate – ”

“On this? This is just math,” Ke says as Tinera swears loudly and marches out of her cubicle. “What’s up?”

“Do you remember when we went into Chronostasis Ring 1?”

“Well, no, because I was in chronostasis for most of it, but I remember that it happened.”

“Right… so, the video feeds that the space suits took. Are they recorded somewhere that you can access? I know the AI’s fiddly about what data you can access.”

“I can have a look. You need the feed right now?”

“No. Later is fine.”

“Any feed in particular?”

“I need the Public Universal Friend’s camera feed.”

“Why?” the Friend asks.

“I want to see if we can see the ID numbers on the coffins. I want to know who, specifically, Reimann killed.”

“Why?” Tinera asks, bluntly. “Everyone in CR1 is dead now anyway. Except Tal I guess.”

“And don’t you lot wish otherwise,” Tal says triumphantly as Lina grunts in frustration.

“That took me ten minutes to build!”

“And now it’s kindle. Upgrade your archers next time.”

“I want to find out why Reimann did what he did, if I can. It seems strange to spend over a decade doing his job and then sabotage the ship; if he was a saboteur, why not scuttle it right after recovering from chronostasis? I want to know if he was targeting specific colonists. Or specific types of colonists.”

“Specific types?” Tinera asks. “Like he was super nationalist or hated some religion a lot or something?”

I shake my head. “National or religious diversity among your colonists isn’t something you’re surprised by twelve years into your shift. Anyway, this ship’s far less diverse than you’d expect in that regard, for one specific reason. Which I think might be the problem.” I bite my lip. “I never really brought this up, because it’s never really been relevant, but shortly after I woke from chronostasis, I had a look at the colonist records. It turns out – and I don’t know why, before you ask – that eighty per cent of the colonists this ship left with were convicts from the Republic of Texas.”

Tinera stares at me, mouth open. Lina and the Friend stand up to stare at me over the cubicle dividers.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I snap. I really hope none of them are going to be weird about this; if me telling them this means that someone’s going to give Adin or Denish a hard time… “Sometimes people go to jail. They were still considered eligible for the program so I’m sure it’s fine. But in the absence of any other obvious motivation, I’m thinking… maybe Reimann had a different opinion.”

They keep staring.

“Let me just make sure I fully understand what you’re saying,” Lina says. “You think that Captain Reimann, the second captain of the Courageous, did not know that this was a convict ship, and then found out twelve years into his shift and started killing convicts?”

“That’s my hypothesis,” I say.

“And, um. Just checking.” Tinera looks to be trying not to laugh – what’s so funny? “When did you learn about this?”

“Uh… a day or two before waking the Friend, I think?”

“And then you woke this friend to deal with your wounds,” the Friend says.


“Why this friend specifically?”

“Because you were the most qualified doctor who was the most likely to survive. We’ve been through this.”

“I just won, by the way,” Tal calls. “That’ll happen if you guys walk away from your computers.”

Everyone ignores kem. They stare at me, and then Tinera and Lina turn to stare at the Friend, who puts its head in its hands.

“Captain Greaves,” it says, “this friend owes you an apology. It has made some rather erroneous and uncharitable assumptions.”

“What do you me – ?”

“No, don’t apologise,” Tinera says, “this is the funniest thing ever. Captain, you’ve gotta tell the boys about this.”

“About what?”

“About us being a convict ship. We have to find them right now. I want to see the looks on their faces.” She grabs my hand and tries to pull me out of the cubicle.

I pull back. “What? No! Tinera, they’re Texan!”


“So did you ever think that they might be Texan prisoners? I think Adin is, at least! I’m not going to put them on the spot like that, don’t be ridiculous! We left our old lives behind when we got on this ship, we don’t need to make them all awkward about this!”

Tinera starts laughing. She lets me go to cover her mouth as she unsuccessfully fights back a fit of giggles.

“What is so funny?!”

The Friend clears its throat. “Captain Greaves, if it’ll save you the trouble, this friend can confirm that yes, both Adin and Denish are in the Texan penal system.”

“Oh. Well, that doesn’t – wait, how do you know that?”

“This friend scanned them after chronostasis.”

“I don’t… how would that tell you anything?”

The Friend and Lina exchange a glance.

“Captain,” Lina says gently, “every member of this crew is a Texan convict except for you.”

“That… that can’t possibly be right.”

“She’s correct,” the Friend says. “We’re all, technically speaking, legally incarcerated under the Settlement of Hylara. Exported from the Republic of Texas.”

“But… you’re a Public Universal Friend!”

“Hear that, doc?” Tinera grins. “Apparently, Friends are immune to crimes.”

“I mean, isn’t doing good and serving humanity your entire deal?”

“You would be truly amazed just how often ‘serving humanity’ and ‘obeying the law’ are, in fact, diametrically opposed concepts.”

“Okay, but… all of you? Tal can’t be… actually, no, I can totally picture Tal as some kind of cybercriminal.”

“I was the fucking best cybercriminal,” Tal calls from kes cubicle. “And don’t you forget it.”

“But… Tinera, you’re Lunari. I always kind of got the impression that you’d never been to Earth. How…?”

“Oh, I’ve been to Earth. But only inside the prison parts.”

“How does that work?”

Tinera rolls her eyes. “Well, Aspen, when two prison systems love each other very much, they have big long conversations that bare their souls to each other. And the Lunar prison system might say, ‘Oh, Texas, I’m having such a hard time. There’s a minor oxygen crisis and I just have too many lungs to fill. I think I’ll round up all my least able-bodied prisoners and send them off on extremely dangerous exploratory mining missions, to find some new resources and cut the numbers down.’ And the Texan prison system might reply with something like, ‘Oh, Luna my love, I sympathise. I have the opposite problem – the senate reformed our law enforcement culpability laws in a way that makes it so much harder to plant drugs on innocent kids, and in combination with the latest ‘flu sweeping through our overcrowded prisons, we just don’t have enough bodies to staff the factories any more.’ And then the Lunar system would say, ‘Say, Texas, I have an idea. If you can pay me more per prisoner than I’d estimate we’d make from their suicide missions, I could send them to you instead.’ And then the two prison systems, who are very much in love, do a very special hug called a mass prisoner transfer, and – ”

“Okay, okay; I get it. You know, I did think it was strange how many of you could speak Texan. But I still don’t know how scanning us tells you whether we’re convicts or not, doctor.”

Tinera’s grin grew. “You hear that, doc? The captain doesn’t know.”

“Yes, yes; that’s becoming suite clear,” the Friend says wearily. “This friend had limited information and jumped to some wrong conclusions. It’s not like you thought any differently, Tinera.”

“You were the most worried of all of us,” Lina adds.

They have been hiding something from me! I knew it! Who’s paranoid now, huh?

“What are you guys talking about?” I ask.

“Come on, captain,” the doctor says. “We’ll show you.”

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I think the crew are hiding something.

And I know how that sounds, okay? I know. I’m very well aware that paranoia is an extremely common symptom of all kinds of stress-induced mental illnesses. I know that there are all kinds of things on this ship that can very, very easily cause paranoia in the human mind. I know, and as the psychologist I’ve been screening the others for it, or at least I would if they would be honest with me which they never are. I’m supposed to be relying on the assistant psychologist, who is Lina now according to the ship, but I can’t exactly do that, can I? Because then she’d know that I know that she’s hiding something.

I know the effects of living in a confined space. I know the effects of living with a severely restricted social group and no outside contact. I know that some kinds of malnutrition or food poisoning, both risks with our severely out-of-date food stocks and only minimal garden produce as of yet, can cause hallucinations and paranoia and emotional instability and all that. I know that our air filtration and purification systems are definitely not up to code, and there are all kinds of chemicals that can leak into the air that cause those same things. I know that some engines when attached to ships of certain sizes or shapes can cause undetectable sounds that influence the minds of some people. I know that the lighting systems on the ship, as much as we try to emulate a normal Earth day, are artificial, and are different to the light my mind is conditioned to expect (although I never had any problem with the artificial lighting on Luna). I know that chronostasis can have all sorts of long-term nervous, hormonal, and metabolic effects that can affect one’s frame of mind.

I know that my predecessor lead this ship just fine for over ten years before somethingmust have gone wrong for him and he suddenly decided to sabotage it and slaughter a bunch of static colonists with an axe.

But I’m not paranoid. They’re hiding something.

It’s been nearly two months since we woke Lina, and the ship is in generally good shape. The Friend accepted last week that Lilith won’t be waking up and took her off life support, freeing up all the medbay beds. Nothing critical to human life has broken in weeks, Lina’s almost at full strength, we have more medical assistance than we need for once, and except for the occasional Big Maintenance Day, we’re all on a much more sane four-hour workday, which has done wonders for everyone’s mood. Tomorrow, we’ll be harvesting lettuces and fast-growing legumes from the greenhouses, adding some much-anticipated fresh food to everyone’s diets; people have been looking forward to it so much that it was unanimously agreed to put security cameras in the greenhouses, of all places, so that people wouldn’t be tempted to sneak a snack and strip the plants before the official harvest. Lina and the Friend have used their free time between dealing with injuries to set up a moss oil farm so we have actual oil products now, and Adin has gotten really good at baking. The window boxes in both Habitation Rings flourish with herbs, and he’s been experimenting with different herb breads.

And yet, several times now I’ve walked in on tense, muttered conversations that are immediately replaced with lighthearted smiles when I enter. Not unusual; in a small group, there’s going to be personal drama, and nobody wants the captain to be privy to the sordid details of who slept with who and who stole whose favourite coffee cup. But if there was that kind of personal drama, I would’ve seen it elsewhere; someone would complain where I could hear it, someone would be gossiping. I’ve started keeping a tally, and so far I’ve walking in on everyone either arguing or intensely discussing something with every other person, at least once, and I’ve heard and seen nothing about it. Whatever the drama is, they’re deliberately keeping it from me.

Which is ridiculous. That’s a ridiculous thing to worry about. What kind of Evil Sinister Plan could they even have? We’re stuck on a ship for the next five years; we all have the same overall goal of reaching our destination alive with our cargo of colonists and colony supplies. There’s nothing to gain from scheming! If they were anti-expansionists and wanted to sabotage the ship, they’d have done that months ago. Tal figured out how to delete the emergency protocols of the airlocks within minutes of waking up, while concussed; Denish is constantly maintaining critical ship systems. Either of those could ensure our ship never got to its destination, if they wanted. If they had some sinister plot to kill me… again, any of them could do that. Denish and Tal could use their knowledge of the systems, Lina and the Friend are responsible for my healthcare, Adin prepares most of our food, and Tinera probably wouldn’t hesitate to cut my throat in my sleep if she had to, so long as she could leave before having to see too much blood. If there was some big evil conspiracy to kill me or scuttle the ship, it would have been over long before I had a chance to notice anything.

Even a mutiny doesn’t make sense. I suggested waking a new captain and everyone else was against it. If they wanted one of them to be in charge… well, they wouldn’t need secrecy for that. There’s six of them and one of me. They wouldn’t even need to use force; they could just start ignoring my orders and obeying someone else, and what would I be able to do about it?

I hope it is a mutiny. I hope they do it soon. I don’t want me as captain either.

Realistically, though, the concept of any kind of conspiracy just doesn’t make sense. If they were unhappy enough with my leadership to mutiny, several of them would have said it to my face by now. And the other options… well, this isn’t some preassembled crew. Maybe whatever happened with Reimann involved dealing with proper sabotage, either as the sabateur or defender, I don’t know, but these people had no opportunity to organise before leaving Earth, because they had no idea they’d be woken. The computer chose to wake me because I was the most likely to survive and recover from revival; I chose to wake the Friend because of its credentials and high chance of survival. Denish was woken by me for his engineering skills; Adin and Tinera just happened to be the lowest viability colonists to survive waking up (my plan). None of us chose Tal. This group has nothing in common, beyond being considered eligible for the Javelin Program; there’s no reason that they should share any goals or perspectives that are opposed to mine specifically. Some kind of sinister conspiracy doesn’t make sense.

More likely, they just don’t like me. Maybe they’re just maintaining emotional distance and I’m misreading, seeing conspiracy where it doesn’t exist.

Or maybe they are hiding something, but for compassionate reasons. Maybe… maybe they have access to information that they think might hurt me. Personal information. About my cluster, my mother… my siblings, maybe? My sister Shia had died before I’d signed up for the program, but if they know something painful about my tyber, Fir… no, that doesn’t explain the fervent disagreements. Still, it makes more sense than anything else.

But the idea that there isn’t some kind of conspiracy is worse, when you think about it. That means that I really might be suffering from paranoia. Does the fact that I can dismiss my suspicions mean I’m fine, or can paranoid people do that? See, this is why we need a proper psychologist. One who isn’t hiding something, so I can talk to them. Anyway, if I am getting paranoid, that’s a serious problem. That kind of thing is massively detrimental in a captain. It puts the safety of my crew at risk.

Worse: whatever’s affecting me might also be affecting them. Maybe that’s why they’re sneaking around. If we’re all thinking like this, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Is this what happened to Reimann? Is this why the majority of his crew, locked up the front of the ship with access to plenty of supplies to last them the whole journey, died off one by one, taking the time to paint memorials of each other on the doors but for some reason never cleaning the infected cooling and ventilation systems? Is this why Captain Kinoshita and the janitor and the scientists, locked in the back three quarters of the ship and probably believing themselves the only survivors, didn’t revive new crewmates from the five chronostasis rings they had access to?

I should keep an eye on them. If I can observe paranoid behaviour, put it together with what I suspect in myself, then I can make a case to the others that there’s a problem and we can work towards a solution. That’s a reasonable, constructive thing to do. Yeah, I can figure out what they’re hiding from me without having to resort to silly theories about sinister conspiracies. This was for their own good. I can be a good captain.

I find a computer terminal and check where they all are now. Adin is in a greenhouse. Tal and Lina are in one of the network and engineering rings, the rings with the most computer terminals in them; they’re probably playing computer games or something. The Friend is in the kitchen. Denish and Tinera are in Engine Ring 1.


Engine Rings 1 and 2 are the rings at either end of the ship. They contain the back halves of the main thrusters, and are a place where the engineers can access the fuel pumps and pipes and things in an oxygenated environment without having to go outside. They’re also the rings that all the bulky shielding at either end of the ship is mounted to. I’ve only ever been in Engine Ring 1 once, to deal with the coolant leak; it’s where we found Captain Reimann’s arm bones. With the engine on and the coolant system working, there’s not really any reason to go in there.

Now, a paranoid person, one who isn’t fit for command, might be suspicious about this. Such a person might wonder why, in a ship full of well-equipped work and recreational areas, these two (who were hiding something) would go all the way to the barely-used front of the ship and linger in the one ring that nobody was going to walk through. Such a person might even wonder why the guy who had discovered that a broken engine was the cause of our extended trip and all the troubles we’d faced would be hanging around the working engine and not telling their captain about it.

But I can’t afford to be that kind of person, so I take a deep breath and tell myself to stop being so fucking stupid. There’s nothing weird about the senior engineer and the primary assistant engineer being in an Engine Ring. They were probably working. Yes, it was a little weird that they hadn’t informed the captain if there was an engineering problem, or enlisted my help as the secondary assistant engineer, but so what? Maybe they were making some small repair, or running diagnostics on some system in there that I didn’t know about. Denish was forever doing little maintenance jobs, and only told me if they were a likely problem, or if he needed my help.

They might not even be working. There were perfectly understandable reasons why two adults with a lot of spare time on their hands, both originating from primarily pair-bonding cultures, would want to hang out in the part of the ship least likely to be trafficked by anything else. Tinera has been flirting less and less subtlely with Denish over the past couple of months; maybe that’s going somewhere. Mostly the crew uses the uninhabited Habitation Ring 1 if they want that kind of privacy, but there’s no accounting for taste. Anyway, if they want privacy, they should have privacy. Nothing suspicious about privacy.

So I wait until Tinera has left the ring before I drop by. Just to check up on the engines. Make sure nothing looks obviously tampered with. Maybe find out why Denish is still hanging around in there – not because I’m suspicious or anything, the man’s probably doing his job, but just to see if he needs my help as an assistant engineer.

I walk into Engine Ring 1 to a scene that I don’t expect.

Two laboratory tables have been moved into the ring. They’re covered with some glassware and various probes. Some I recognise, like the pH probe, and some I don’t. A microscope sits in one corner. There’s a rack of test tubes; some are filled with a blue fluid that I instantly recognise as coolant.

Oh, this makes sense! Denish has been keeping an eye on the coolant, probably worrying about recontamination or further leaks, and doesn’t want to have to lug samples all the way down to the laboratory ring all the time. He’s just being dutiful, and here I was being unfairly suspicious of him. He’s probably monitoring other stuff from here, too, with this other equipment; as I look around, I see him messing around behind a removed wall panel with some machine I’m unfamiliar with.

“Hi, Denish,” I say.

He jumps, hits his head on the wall, and swears. “Hello, Captain,” he calls, head still in the wall. “I can help with something?”

“Actually, I wanted to see if you need any help. What’s that you’re messing with?”

“Oxygen system. It not hearing some detectors properly. Not problem now, but I fix before it is big problem. Is one-person job, though.”

I know when I’m being politely told to fuck off. “Okay, good luck.”

And then I catch sight of something on one of the lab tables. It’s a small device, about the size of a broad bean when assembled, although it’s in pieces at the moment. I can tell how big it is assembled because the tiny white and blue plastic case sits to one side, a couple of thin wires leading from metal connectors within to a small pile of unidentifiable electronics laid out carefully on a mat. Some of the tiny pieces have been pinned to the mat with very small staples, and little labels written next to them in Texan. The whole project is surrounded by hastily scrawled mathematical calculations devoid of context.

“Hey,” I ask, “what’s this?”

Denish must have caught my tone, because he pulls himself back from the wall and practically launches himself across the room. “Oh, that? Is piece of oxygen system! Is for detectors, see; some are broken, I need to learn how. Am not spaceship scientist, but systems need one! I learn fast.”

“Good work, Denish,” I say, and leave the room. There’s no sense on me pressing for more information. He’d only keep lying, and if I push him too far, he’ll realise that I know he’s lying.

I have no idea what that deconstructed device is. But I’m certain it’s not part of the ship’s oxygen detection system. I know this, because I recognise the casing. I’ve seen it before.

I saw it two months ago, in Laboratory Ring 1, hooked up to Tal’s computer and covered in Da-bin’s blood.

What the fuck is going on?

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030: BONE

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Once the filters are in place, I drop by the medbay to meet our new doctor. Our Friend isn’t there (apparently it’s doing the autopsy in the other medbay, which is probably smart), but Tinera’s handing the patient a cup of post-chronostasis broth, and gives me a little wave as I enter.

“So,” I say. “You’re our new doctor. It’s Lina, right?”

She nods, warily.

“I’m Aspen.”

“You’re the captain.”


“A reserve captain. The original crew are all dead.”

“I see the crew’s already got you up to speed on the situation.”

“Bits and pieces.”

“I’m sorry about this,” I say. “I know this isn’t what you signed up for. We’re still five years out from our destination – more, since it’ll take us some time to get in orbit around the actual planet – and the ship’s not in stellar condition. But we need decent doctors if we’re going to get to the planet at all.”

“Our Friend gave me a rundown on your medical emergencies so far. I can see why you need backup.” Lina’s tone was carefully polite and neutral. Cautious. If she was angry, she wasn’t letting me know it. (See, this is why it’s impossible to be captain and psychologist at the same time. I could try to figure out where her head was at, but as captain, that’d just be invasive. Our assistant psychologist is Denish, who as far as I’m aware has no training at all in the field, doesn’t speak the Interlingua fluently which could cause problems counselling non-Texans, and is far too busy with engineering tasks. Someone could break and pull a Captain Reimann, and we’d have no warning.)

“Well,” I say, “hopefully things will be smoother from here on out. Our critical systems are all back up and working again, so far as we know, and things should become a lot more relaxed. How are you feeling, by the way?”

She shrugs. “Well enough. Scans are clean. It’ll take some time to build my muscles up again, but then I’ll be fine.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No. The logistics officer has me well in hand.”

“Well. Okay then.” I figure asking Lina for details about her expected recovery timeline might come across ans rude and invasive. It’s the kind of thing a captain needs to know, but ‘oh hey, now that you’re most of the way through your traumatic recovery, when will you be able to work?’ isn’t exactly a welcoming line of conversation. But I have a way around that.

I’ll ask the Friend instead.

The Friend isn’t in the other medbay where I expect to find it. The only thing in there is Da-bin, covered by a white sheet, and an unnerving number of bloodstains. The computer tells me the Friend is in Laboratory Ring 2. With Tal, for some reason. Tal’s usual location is ‘whatever computer terminal happens to be closest to whatever ke was last doing’, so the only reason ke’d be in LR2 is to help the Friend. They must have found something interesting.

The pair are working quietly when I enter the laboratory. The Friend is fiddling with a microscope, and gives me a little wave as I enter; Tal doesn’t seem to notice my presence at all, typing furiously at a computer terminal, brows knitted. Some kind of small device, white with blue stripes and about the size and shape of a broad bean, is connected to the terminal by a thing wire; I wouldn’t have really noticed it, except that it’s covered in blood.

“What’s Tal doing?” I ask the Friend, curious.

“Just helping crunch some biometric data,” the Friend answers smoothly. “It’s complicated.”


“These misinstalled ports are… here, come have a look.” The Friend takes my hand and leads me away from Tal, towards its workbench. There’s some kind of… white mass there, covered in blood and bits of goop, like a tuft of rotting, waterlogged roots pulled out of red mud. It’s not large – maybe the width of a finger and twice as long, and that’s counting all the bits of goo in there bulking it up – and there’s something attached to one end of it. The Friend picks it up carefully in one gloved hand and tilts it to show me – it’s a cranial port for a cerebral stimulator. Presumably, Da-bin’s. Which means that the white ‘roots’ are a bunch of synthetic nerves, all tangled together to be thick enough to see, with bits of brain matter still caught between them.

There are so many of them. I know that the stimulator grew synthetic nerves into us and stimulated them over time to keep our brains and bodies healthy; that was the whole point of it. But I hadn’t expected so many. I touch the lump on the back of my own head, where my cranial port sits underneath my skin. Do I have that much artificial nerve tissue in my brain?

“This friend will clean this up properly for analysis later,” the Friend says, “but look at this.” It taps the edge of the port, where it seats in the skull. Bone fragments are still attached, sharp points of organic material jutting out from the smooth coated titanium. The Friend tries to move one back and forth; it’s firmly attached.

“Okay,” I say. “This means what, exactly?”

“Well, it looks like the port was firmly seated in the bone. We’ve been assuming that the ports were incorrectly installed, but here it’s clear that it’s the bone that’s fragmented. There’s no obvious way that that kind of trauma could happen during installation without it causing massive noticeable problems during the surgery.”

“So seventeen and a half per cent of our colonists have… really fragile bones?”

“Fragile skulls. They thrash around a lot when we attempt to wake them and the other bones hold up as well as you’d expect. It’s only the back of the head that’s a problem.”

“Well, maybe the bones are all normal, but they’re at the right angle to get specific leverage on the cranial port to rip out – ”

“No, because Da-bin didn’t rip hers out, remember? You held her head still. This friend took this out in the medbay, and it pulled right out. This bone is either pre-cracked or extremely fragile. This friend is running tests on different parts of her skeleton right now, and it would like to run the same tests on the one we have in the freezer who pulled their port out, too.”

I nod. “Good idea.” So either the skulls crack easily, or they were pre-cracked. Either these people had some mysterious skull-weakening condition that they’d developed in chronostasis, or some kind of event had caused massive head trauma to seventeen per cent of our colonists without creating any obvious external injuries.


“Anyway, what did you need?” the Friend asks.

I grimace. “I wanted to know when Lina will be up and about, but the question seems rather banal now.”

The Friend chuckles. “It depends on how well she responds to the drugs she’s on. Could be a week, could be two months, before she has her full strength back. She’ll be walking within a couple of days, but not very far and not for very long; this friend needs to poke around in storage and see if we have any wheelchairs. Frankly, given how much she atrophied in chronostasis, this friend isn’t optimistic on the drug response, but once she’s up in a wheelchair she can at least give medical advice and direct assistants until her arms are strong enough to work.”

I nod. “Good.” If we’re not going ahead with Project: Rouse As Many Colonists As Possible, then we’ll probably only need one medbay, so with both the Friend and Lina in action, Tinera won’t be needed to assist medically and will have time for other stuff. We’ve all been working way too hard recently, and frankly I’m amazed at how well the crew are rolling with it. I can see why a Public Universal Friend would shoulder a twelve-hour workday without complaint, and Adin is probably used to this sort of thing if he’s from the Texan penal system, but I’m surprised that the rest aren’t demanding that we slow down. Then, there has been a lot of urgency, recently; jobs that need to be finished as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake. It’s good to have a crew willing to pull up and put in a ridiculous amount of work when needed.

We desperately need to slow down soon, though. We have to hold it together for five years on this ship; I’m not risking long-term overwork becoming the norm. We’ll need to get back to a proper, sensible, four hour workday as soon as possible.

“This bone thing, do you think more colonists are at risk of it? If it’s something that develops over time…”

The Friend shrugs. “Impossible to say at this stage. This friend will let you know when it knows.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then. ’Bye, Tal!”

“What? Oh, hello, Captain.”

I leave the pair to their work and get back to doing random janitorial jobs. Everything about this ship is just getting weirder and weirder.

We’re taking twice as long as expected to get to our destination. (Twice as long in ship time, that is. I don’t know enough physics to calculate the time dilation to know how long it is from Earth’s perspective.) The second crew all died off after their captain had some sort of psychotic break and started sabotaging the ship and slaughtering colonists. Something happened during the second shift (one of the captain’s sabotages, maybe?) that meant that the colonists all suddenly took a huge drop in revival viability, except the colonists with a specific random geneset that increases someone’s resistance to atmospheric pressure changes and makes them react badly to citrus, and there’s a second group that reacted extra badly to whatever happened and have barely any chance of waking up at all for reasons we haven’t pinned down. And now, it turns out that some colonists have some kind of bone fragility problem and go into fits upon waking, then die. Which doesn’t seem to be related to anything else, so far as I can see.

Oh, and the ship is full of sleeping Texan convicts. Still not sure what that’s about.

I’m washing dishes when Denish walks in, gives me a nod of greeting, and heads over to the kettle. He fills his mug with hot water and dumps six heaped teaspoons of long-expired freeze-dried instant coffee into it, adds two ice cubes and gives a few perfunctory stirs with a spoon, then takes a big gulp.

“That kind of a day, huh?” I ask.

“Every day is that kind of a day, captain.”

“Things should settle down soon.”

“Bah! You say, but bad luck follows us. Tomorrow, something new will break. Is the way of machines.”

“Yeah. Hey, you wouldn’t have any thoughts on the length of our journey, would you?”

“That it is dangerous length and ship is not designed for it?”

“I mean, why they lied to us about how long it’ll take?”

“Hmm? Oh, that. No, they not lie. Was problem. Is logged in computer.”

“It… is?”

“Yes. A bit over two years in, engine not working right. Accelerating too slow. Engineer try to repair, but cannot. Declare engine irreparable.”

I… vaguely remember the AI telling me about a broken engine, ages back. Okay.

“I imagine crew probably think, is worth going back to Earth and giving up, or is worth pushing on? Engine still work, just at less power. To use front engine is to risk wearing it out. However they think, they continue with less powerful engine. Less power means less acceleration means much, much longer to reach top speed. Less time dilation. Same journey but much longer. See?”

“… Oh.” Well. That’s anticlimactic. Which is a good thing, honestly, with everything else going on.

“More important is not why, more important is what we do now. I look in system for first crew’s secondary assistant engineer. Last ship engineer we have! Three engineers from second crew die with rest of second crew, senior engineer of first crew die in Chronostasis Ring 1, primary assistant is dead on our Friend’s autopsy table.”

Well, the operating table in a medbay, but close enough. “And our crew 1 secondary assistant?”

“Also dead. Richard Rynn-Hatson. Lost in space repairing a thruster, record says.”

“… Oh. So we have no engineers on board who are experienced in how this ship actually works.”

Denish shrugs. “Perhaps one of the colonist was spaceship scientist? I not know. But none that have worked on this ship, no. Only colonists.”

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks, Denish.”

A whole lot of mysteries remaining, and no experienced javelin engineers to provide any insight. Fantastic.

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All six of us gather around Da-bin’s chronostasis pod. I’m not sure why, but everyone insisted on being there, despite the doctor’s warnings that there was a ninety one per cent chance that we were about to watch somebody die.

“Okay,” I say. “Start the process.”

The doctor sets its equipment bag down and swipes a finger across the controls, and the pumps whirr to life. The pod opens.

Da-Bin looks fairly average for a Martian. She’s very pale, although not as pale as the Friend, without much curl to her matted hair. She looks to be small, about Tinera’s height perhaps, although significantly stockier once she recovers from chronostasis if her shoulder width is anything to go by.

And, of course, there are the fingers and toes.

Tinera gasps, and steps back. “What’s wrong with her fingernails?!”

Da-bin’s fingernails and toenails are very, very long. They extend well past her digits, and curl over slightly. It’s what I’d expected to see, but Tinera, apparently, hadn’t.

“You not see pre-Neocambrian fingers before, Tiny?” Denish asks, amused.

“Tinera’s from Luna,” I remind him. “The KERA-1 geneset is practically extinct there. Tinera, almost all Martians, and about three per cent of Earthlings, have nails like this. It’s how nails used to grow for everyone before the Genetic Craze.”

“How can she do anything with her hands?”

“Oh, no; they’re usually kept shorter. They’re very easy to trim; see how thin they are? Her nails would’ve been about the length of yours when she went into chronostasis; they just grow very, very fast. They can be trimmed back down in the medbay, or she can do them herself when she wakes.”

“Preneek nails are the best,” Tal says. “I’m so jealous. My cousin, he used to have a nail salon that specialised in preneeks – see how thin they are? You can just glue an entirely fake fingernail right on top and no one can tell. He used to do a huge trade in fake nails, and Talia Zirconium, she’s this really cool zeelite model with KERA-1 who brought back the shiny miniskirt craze almost single handedly, she’d come in every two weeks for a new – ”

I tune kem out, because I’m busy reaching behind Da-bin’s head for the cerebral stimulator. I find it, and go to release it. My heart skips a beat.

I meet the doctor’s eyes. “It’s stuck.”

“Hold her head still,” the doctor says immediately, opening its equipment bag. “When she starts thrashing, don’t let her pull on the cord. Broken bones don’t matter, just keep the skull immobile. Denish, find a way to cut the power to this pod. However you can.”

Have you ever tried to hold down someone who’s having a fit? It’s generally not recommended, for both your safety and theirs. It’s also really, really hard. The spasms that wracked Da-bin’s body had no regard for trivial things like ‘the safe amount of force a human muscle can apply’ as they thrashed her body around; it was only with Adin, Tinera and Tal’s help that I was able to stop her from jerking forward and tearing the port (and attached brain matter) free of her skull. Meanwhile, Denish was jimmying a panel off the side of the pod with a tool from his belt, and the Friend was withdrawing something from its bag.

“Adin, move your arm!” the doctor calls, and slams something into Da-bin’s thigh, where Adin’s hand had been moments before. It’s an emergency medication needle, like the kind that people carry to treat anaphylactic shock, but judging from the bright blue colour, I assume it contains something else.

Somewhere beneath us is the sound of an electric zap, and Texan swearing. “Electricity is off!”

“Sever the lead of the cerebral stimulator,” the Friend says. “Then we can get her safely out of the pod and I can try to remove it in surgery.”

Whether from the medication or the power cut, Da-bin has gone limp, so we get out of Denish’s way while he severs the cord leading to her head with a pair of motorised cutters from his belt. The doctor removes Da-bin’s breathing tubes while he works, and Tinera, Adin and I, catching on to the process, start pulling out IV tubes. The moment Da-bin is free from leads and restraints, the Friend moves her to the floor and begins chest compressions. Tinera, one hand carefully holding the cerebral stimulator stable in its port, handles the breathing.

“This won’t work,” Tal says. “If she doesn’t start breathing upon revival, that means that the synnerves have – ”

“Shut up, Tal,” I say.

“Yes, captain.”

But ke’s right. The doctor gives up after about five minutes without Da-bin’s heart starting again, swearing quietly. “Captain, this friend would like to inspect the cerebral stimulator port before we move her to the freezer. This is the third colonist like this; if it’s an ongoing issue, we need to know what’s happening so we can figure out how to deal with it.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I say. “Of course, this means that all three of out medbay beds are full. Until you’ve finished the autopsy, or Lina’s recovered enough to work, or Lilith either wakes from her coma or… doesn’t, we don’t have space to revive anyone else.”

“Is no problem,” Denish shrugs, “because time is not factor, yes? We know from first crew. Chances of waking low because of something that happened when we were asleep. Not time. So, is safe to leave asleep.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” I say. “There’s still a chance that they’re losing viability over time.”

“Yes, probably. But bigger question – is more dangerous to be asleep, or awake? With sleeping lady, we have eight people not in stasis. I assume you want to wake secondary assistant engineer from first crew; that is nine people. More people not in stasis is harder for ship to support. Maybe that is why second crew did not wake up replacements?”

“Also,” Adin cut in, “we might need someone specific in the future. Like right now, how we want an engineer who knows the ship’s systems? Maybe later we’ll need a, a fuel specialist, or a DNA specialist, or, I dunno, we’ll meet aliens or something and need a linguist. We can’t know who we’ll need. If we fill up the ship to capacity first…”

I look around at the rest of the crew. They’re nodding in agreement, except for Tal, who’s examining the cerebral cord that Denish cut and doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to the conversation. The boys do have a point – if the colonists aren’t quickly losing viability, then waking them could very well be more dangerous than leaving them in stasis. And we might need specific specialists; we should keep room for them, if we can. At least until we’ve got the ship in good working order, or as close to good working order as we can manage.

“Alright,” I say. “You’re right, we should put the mass revival project on hold for now. But Friend? I want you and Lina to keep an eye on the viability of the chronostatic colonists over time. If it is still dropping significantly, we’re revisiting this plan. And I still want us focused on maximising the capacity of this ship, just in case.”

“All three of the people with the badly installed ports were in the low viability category, right?” Tinera asks. “Do you think, maybe…?”

I shake my head. “This isn’t what’s causing the low viability. You and Adin were in that category too, as well as a couple of other people we lost between you, whose cerebral ports were fine. I’m sure the dodgy ports don’t help, but that’s not the factor we’re looking for.”

“Also,” the Friend points out, loading Da-bin’s body onto the stretcher, “all of our low viability candidates are from the front and back chronostasis rings. What are the chances that everyone who went to whoever put in the bad ports ended up in the same two, symmetrically opposed rings?”

“Can we track where people got ports done?” Denish asks. “If we find everyone who went to same doctor or company, we know who has bad ports.”

“Not that this friend knows of. Tal?”

“Hmm? What?”

“Is there a way for the computer to tell us where colonists got their cerebral stimulator ports installed?”

“I’ll look into it, doc.”

“Maybe I’m way off base here,” Adin cuts in, “not being a doctor or a computer guy or anything, but… does the computer system even know about the dodgy ports?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I mean, it’s not magic. It calculates survival odds based on the data it measures, right? Biometrics and stuff? Is there anywhere in that code that factors in a badly installed stimulator port? Does it have any way of knowing?”

“Good point,” the Friend says. “The revival chances we’re told probably don’t include faulty hardware. It’s likely that Da-bin’s chances were much lower than nine per cent, with the bad port installation, and the computer had no way of knowing.”

“How widespread do we expect this problem to be?” I ask.

“Seventeen and a half per cent,” Tal answers immediately. I look at kem in surprise. Ke rolls kes eyes. “So far, seventeen people have been roused. Us eight survivors, including coma lady, and nine dead. Three have bad ports; that’s seventeen point six five per cent.” Ke thinks for a moment. “Assuming an even distribution of bad ports and ignoring the normal errors with small sample populations, of course. Seventeen out of five thousand is an absurdly small sample size. Also, you and the doc were woken because you had a high chance of surviving, and Tinera and Adin were woken because they had a low chance, and we don’t know my chances but I was from a ring with hundreds of ten per centers, so if there is an effect on viability that’s gonna screw up the numbers. Which there could be, because, yeah, the system might not be able to detect the bad ports, but if the bad ports affect the biometrics…”

“But based on what we have,” I cut in, “a little under one fifth might have these?”

“Yeah, which would be around seven hundred colonists, less if a lot of our remaining four thousand have died; I haven’t checked. But again, this estimate is really bad, it’s based on a very small number.”

“Well, if you can find out who installed their ports, we can get a better one.”

“If it’s there, it’s probably info that only you or the doc can access. But I can try to find out if it’s there.”

“Thank you.”

I head off for the greenhouses, feeling kind of awkward. Somehow, everyone on the ship is incredibly busy except for me. Our Friend, Denish, and Tal all have long lists of important tasks, meaning that Tinera’s pulling logistics for everyone at once and Adin has no help in janitorial work for the whole ship, while I have… some weeding to do. Well, realistically, I’ll be acting as Adin’s assistant once I’ve finished in the greenhouses, but still, the fact that my to-do list is comparatively tiny feels wrong, especially since I’m making the decisions. It feels like cheating.

I can’t even do my own jobs properly, since I can’t really be captain and psychologist at the same time, but it seems a bit silly to revive a proper psychologist now that we know how small the ship’s capacity is. We’ll just have to make do. I race through my work, and rush off to help Adin.

I find him in Network and Engineering Ring 1, broom in his hands, having a furious argument with Denish, who’s under a desk messing with a computer terminal. They’re speaking Texan so I have no idea what the argument is actually about, but they both sure have strong opinions on it. Adin spots me before I can quietly retreat, and hoists a smile on his face. “Captain! What can we do for you?”

Denish stops ranting mid-sentence. “Captain!” He peeks his head out from under the desk. “All is okay?”

“Everything’s fine. Is everything okay with you two?”

“Yeah, it’s not important,” Adin says, ignoring Denish muttering something darkly in Texan. “What’s up?”

“I cam to see if you needed help with anything, actually,” I say. “The greenhouses are in order and it’s a big ship.”

“Oh! Actually yeah, we need to get the clean air filters put back in today. Tinera was going to do it, but she’s playing doctor while the doc does the autopsy, so…”

“It seems that half my life is changing air filters. On it.” As I leave, I hear their bickering start up again.

Whatever they’re angry about, I hope it doesn’t affect the rest of the ship.

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028: TIME

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The next day, I spend the morning working the greenhouse rings and meet up with the crew in Rec Ring 2 for lunch. Adin had made stew, and turned out to be a pretty decent cook with the limited ingredients we had available. When I ask him about it, he just shrugs. “When you’ve got nothing else, you learn just how far you can push sugar and salt,” he says. “We woke up some yeast yesterday, so provided it’s still viable, there’ll be fresh bread tomorrow.”

“Fresh bread?” Tinera gasps. “You’re shitting me!”

“Well, fresh bread made with thirty five year old flour, and being very inventive with the lack of butter and oils. We have a lot of honey, though.”

“Can we make butter?” Tal asks.

I shake my head. “We could get one of the artificial wombs working and make ourselves a cow, but it’d be about two years before we could get milk, and our greenhouses just can’t support feeding a living cow. There’s probably a food scientist in chronostasis who can get us a moss oil production line going or something, but again… time.”

“How are the greenhouses?” the doctor asks.

“Good.” I eat a bite of stew. “I need to look into what we have available, and the viability of hydroponics, once we’ve dealt with the actual engineering problems. If we’ve got some Arborean agricultural strains on board then that will help us with a balanced diet, although I know you land people find them to be less palatable.”

“They cannot be less palatable than three and a half decade old dried food,” Tinera says. “Although you’re a fucking genius, Adin, for somehow making this taste like real food.”

“I’m telling you. Salt. God’s miracle spice.”

Tinera opens her mouth, but before a debate on whether salt counts as a spice can start, I cut her off. “How’d this morning’s revival go?” I ask the doctor.

“A couple of false starts, but we have a qualified doctor recuperating in the medbay. Lina Chisolm. She’s a cancer specialist, but should have the skills needed for this job, too.”

“Fantastic. Denish, do we have estimates on how many people we can support?”

“Yes, but you will not like.”


“I run the tests and do math, and I think, sixteen people.”

I put my fork down. “You mean, sixteen extra people? On top of the crew?”

“No. Sixteen people total.”

“But… it’s built for a crew of twenty one! And should have a safety margin! How is that possible?”

He shrugs. “It was built with new equipment. We are asking a twenty year ship, built for thirty years maybe for time to get colony ready, to last for forty years. Big problem is oxygen system. These things wear out, work less good, now is sixteen people. Also, things broken and left for two and a half years – this breaks things! Vents frozen open, computer cannot regulate the… the… the water in air properly. Gets in, things get wet, things rust. Then mould in air gets in things; we sterilise as best we can, but what about before we woke up? I check all terminals in engineering rings; nearly half do not work! Not a problem, can replace, but what about other systems? Temperature, life support, even just power generation, these things get less effective. Also, news is worse – ship can support sixteen now, but in five years? More things are broken then. If we wake up sixteen now, what do we do then?”

“How many?” I ask. “How many will it be able to support by the time we reach Hylara?”

He shrugs again. “How can estimate? I think, probably nine to twelve. But that is a guess.”


“Is a guess. Big ship, complicated systems.”

“Can you fix them?”

“Some, maybe. Others, not sure. Will try to learn.”

“What are the chances you can – ?”

“Who do you think I am? Spaceship scientist?” Denish throws his hands up. “I can break an airlock, yes! I can clean a coolant line, yes! I cannot fix oxygen maker! Can I learn to fix oxygen maker? Maybe! I not know! I not know enough to know what I not know! I make guess, based on oxygen output, but maybe is wrong. Maybe limit is bigger and I do math wrong; maybe limit is smaller, because there is some machine I not know to check. This is best guess. Sixteen people now, nine to twelve in five years, might be wrong; do not know if I can increase it.”

“We need someone to help you who’s got training, and preferably experience, in long-range spaceship design and maintenance,” I say. “We’ll have to comb through the colonist data.”

“Good luck finding someone with a lot of long-range spaceship experience among the colonists, given the age restrictions for chronostasis,” Tinera says, inspecting her fingernails.

“What about the first crew’s engineer?” Tal asks.

We all turn to stare at kem. Taproot and stars, of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Why hadn’t I revived members of the first crew immediately? They wouldn’t be happy about doing an extra five years, but they’d signed up for it more than the rest of us had – and they’d know a lot more about what was going on. “Yes!” I say. “Perfect!”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Adin says hurriedly.

“Yeah, they’ve earned their rest,” Tinera points out. “Won’t they be pissed?”

“They’ll be more pissed if they all die because we keep guessing,” I point out.

“Technically,” Tal says, “they’d be dead in that scenario, so they can’t be more – ”

“Tal, please go and find the crew 1 senior engineer’s chronostasis pod for me.”

“Yes, captain.” Ke marches off for the nearest terminal, in the medbay.

“Actually,” I say after a moment, “I’ll go, too. I want to meet our new doctor.”

Our new doctor is, anticlimatically, sleeping. She looks to have done worse out of chronostasis than the rest of us (except the comatose woman next to her, I suppose); her arms and legs are withered under papery skin. I suppose the muscle maintaining drugs weren’t as effective for her as the rest of us. Even I can tell she’s going to need a lot of physiotherapy before she’s able to handle a full medbay by herself.

“He’s dead,” Tal announces, derailing my train of thought.


“Ovlo Astur, senior engineer of the first crew of the Courageous. He was in Chronostasis Ring 1.”

I put my head in my hands. “Of course he was. What about the primary assistant engineer?”

Tal types a bit. “Ro Da-bin. CR 5.”

“A Martian?”

“Looks like.”

“Great, let’s – ”

“Her chances of survival are nine per cent.”

“… Oh. Well, we have to try. And since we want to revive the people with the lowest chances anyway… two birds, right?” I glance at the doctor, but it’s looking at Tal with interest.

“To confirm, this is the first crew’s primary assistant engineer?”


“Nine per cent survival rate?”


The doctor rushes over to the terminal and starts tapping at keys.

“What is it?” I ask.

“This is very weird.”

“What, how bad our luck is?”

“No. It seemed strange when you woke me up, but… hmm. Captain, come and look at this.”

I go and look. It’s a list of names and priority rankings for ship jobs. It’s familiar. “This is the list I took you from?”

“Yes. The three highest ranking for medical, engineering and IT positions, out of the top two hundred most likely to survive chronostasis revival. Notice anything weird about it?”

“Why aren’t I on it?” Tal asks.

“You were from CR 1, which was chock full of very high risk patients,” I point out. “You definitely weren’t in the top two hundred most likely to survive. I see a high amount of Arborean names, but we already know about DIVR-32 so that’s not – ”

“Where’s the first crew of the ship?” the doctor asks. “This friend was the highest ranking doctor on the list at number nine. Where’s number one? Or their assistant, who would surely be number two? Why aren’t the first crew’s doctors, engineers or IT specialists in this list?”

I shrug. “Should they be? I mean, why would they be more likely to surv – oh.” I put my face in my hands. “The time factor.”

The doctor nods. “The time factor. Tal, how long have the first crew been in chronostasis?”

Tal types. “They went down 5,504 days ago.”

“In years, Tal.”

“Oh. 15.08 years.”

“So the first crew were aware of the extended timeline, the journey taking 40 years instead of 20,” I say, “and they adjusted shifts accordingly. They’ve only been down for 15 years, unlike the rest of the colonists, who’ve been down for 35. But they’re not more viable for revival.”

“Even though,” the doctor adds, “this entire project is predicated on 20 years being safe. 30, for some of the longer range javelins. 20 years is supposed to be safe, but these people have been down for 15 and aren’t doing better than those down for 35. Do you see what this means?”

“Time isn’t the factor,” I say. “The difference in viability is because of something else. Something else happened to this ship, something that the DIVR-32 geneset provides immunity, or at least extreme resistance, for. It hit Chronostasis Rings 1 and 5 the hardest, at the back and front of the ship; that’s where all of our low viability colonists are. And it happened after the first crew went into chronostasis and before we woke up.”

“During Reimann’s shift,” Tal says.

“You think it’s something he did?” I ask.

Tal shrugs. “I dunno. All I know is, guy locks Amy out of half of her normal senses, messes with her memory and emergency protocols, freezes open her ventilation shafts, tries to physically sabotage the ventilation or cooling systems and loses an arm in the process, then goes ham on a bunch of sleeping colonists with an axe. I figure, anything really weird happening during his shift is probably related to him somehow.”

“Yes, probably,” the doctor says. “There was some kind of contaminant in the CR1 atmosphere, and he clearly tried to set things up so that the computer couldn’t prevent air moving between the rings. Perhaps he tried to poison the colonists with some substance at each end of the ship, was only partly successful, and resorted to an axe instead. But why?”

“Anti-expansionist sabateur,” I shrug. “Didn’t want the colony to succeed and gave his life for it. It’s not complicated.”

“There’s no way they would have let a – ”

“Friend. They let me aboard. The vetting process sucks.”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t intend to make you captain, unlike Reimann.”

“And yet we ended up here anyway. Tal, did you say Reimann did something to the AI’s memory?”

“Well… probably not directly. I think Amy still has all the files, but she’s very obstinate when it comes to telling me things. She’s really vague. I think Reimann locked a bunch of past records somehow.”

“Behind his password?”

“No. It’s more subtle than that. Detailed records on the ship’s history are just… really hard to find. Kind of like if you don’t want anyone to find your porn, so you bury it in a subfolder with an obscure date inside a folder called ‘tax receipts’. I’ll keep poking around.”

“Let me know if you find anything,” I say. “Unless it actually is Captain Reimann’s porn, in which case I don’t want to know about it.”

“You got it, Captain.”

“In the meantime…” I look at the doctor. “Should we go revive ourselves an engineer?”

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027: PAST

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“I want to talk about what happens after we have enough doctors,” I say to the Friend once we’re alone.

“Yes, captain?”

I hesitate. There’s not really any delicate way to broach the topic, but it needs to be broached. “Back when we were breaching the Chronostasis Ring 1 airlocks, you volunteered, claiming that your life was less valuable and you’d need to die to free up a space for another colonist when we reached capacity. As I hope I’ve made clear, I don’t want that to happen. I intend to get every member of this crew to Hylara safely, including you.”

“Yes, you made that clear with the lengths you went to to save Denish.”

The barb is an obvious attempt to change the subject. I ignore it. “I know that there’s no real danger of you making any unwise decisions about your health right now. We both know that, currently, you’re needed. Half of the crew are still on the outer fronds of chronostasis recovery, you’ve got a comatose woman in the medbay and I know you’re still worried about any potential aftereffects of that knock to the head that Tal took in the airlock. We need a doctor. My concern is this – what happens tomorrow, after we revive a new doctor? Be honest. Am I going to need to worry about you?”

“Of course not. The problem here is that one doctor isn’t enough. This friend is only physically capable of seeing to so many patients; we need at least one proper doctor per medbay. A trained doctor and a trained assistant per medbay would be ideal, assuming we intend to fill the whole ship with colonists.”

“And when we reach capacity? When we’ve revived as many as we can, so there’s no longer such a demand for medical services, but we have more chronostatic colonists than space for them?”

“That will depend on the circumstances, captain. The ship wasn’t designed for this, and we don’t know the long term effects of chronostasis on patients this unlikely to survive it. This friend can’t predict what the situation will be like.”

“Hmm.” I suppose that’s as good as I’m likely to get. “Well, as captain, I order you not to throw your life away in some stupid way.”

A ghost of a smile flits across the Friend’s lips. “Understood, captain.”

“That means you’ll comply?”

“It means this friend understands the order. Is that all?”

“Yeah. That’s all.” I watch the Friend head for the medbay. So, no immediate need to worry. But I was going to have to figure something out before we hit capacity.

I head for NAER 2, the ring with all the computer terminals, to maybe read a book off a terminal or something before bed, but I’m intercepted by Denish in the greenhouse. “Captain?”

“What’s up, Denish?”

“You said that you not want to be captain, after the Chronostasis Ring 1 incident?”

Oh. Maybe Tinera was right and I was the wrong pick for psychologist. I’d been so caught up in my own feelings over that that I’d completely failed to address Denish’s very high potential for suffering survivor’s guilt. I should check in with Tal, too – ke was the only survivor of that ring, after all.

“No, Denish, I didn’t. There are a lot of factors that – ”

“I want to say sorry,” he cuts me off. “I know, I kill a lot of people. I make mistake and many die. I cannot bring back. But I – ”

“Denish, none of that was your fault. You were trapped; you didn’t do anything. I’m the one who made the call to – ”

“It my plan! I see that ring, we cannot access, and I think I am so smart, I make plan for getting through. Colonists were safe and sleeping but I decide is fine, I know how to wake them and get ring out of the way. Do I take time to check all of the safety protocols? No! Do I take time to check air properly, not just assume? No! When Chronostasis Ring 1 is full of air and not vacuum, do I realise this is bad thought through, and say we should stop? No! And then problem happens, and I am not fast enough to get to airlock, and you have to do hard thing to save me. And you do. You could let me die and find better engineer, one who does not put so much danger to all of those people. But you save me even though I make big mistake, and if blame for that, it is mine.”

I shake my head. “Denish, you had the brains, but I made the call. I gave the go-ahead on the plan. I decided to keep going when it turned out that CR1 was pressurised. I ditched CR1 without even telling you, or anyone, what I was doing. I’m the – ”

“You know what I think?” Tinera drops out of the lemon tree next to us, landing neatly on her feet. “I think you’re both fucking idiots.”

“We – ”

“Those people were as good as dead, alright? Neither of you are to blame because nothing was done wrong. We tried to save them, we failed. They were already dead.”

“No, they weren’t,” I say. “Nearly all of them were alive, and nearly a hundred of them could be expected to survive revi – ”

“Revival under normal circumstances, yes. In a proper atmosphere, yes. But that’s not what happened, is it? They weren’t going to get that chance. Tell me, if Denish hadn’t proposed the plan, and if the doctor hadn’t agreed to it, and if you, Captain, hadn’t trusted their expertise, what was going to happen to those people, hmm? Can you think of any other possible way that we could’ve gotten in there and tried to save them?”

“The airlocks – ”

“Were locked! Behind Reimann’s passcode, which we don’t have! Tal can’t get around it, which doesn’t even matter because if we hadn’t tried this we also wouldn’t have Tal. All that would’ve happened, Captain, is that we would’ve kept dithering and putting things off until we reached Hylara, and then we would’ve had to do this anyway. And we’d be working with less of a ship, the coolant system still contaminated and unfixable, and no access to the front engine or navigation equipment or pulling into orbit around Hylara. That alone would’ve forced your hand eventually, and this would still have happened, except Tal might have died if ke woke up because it’d be five years in the future. There’s no sense on anyone blaming anyone for the plan because it was the only option. Those people were doomed from the moment Reimann busted in and went ham with an axe. Both of your choices in this stunt gave them a chance, and you saved Tal. This ‘ooh, we killed so many people’ shit is idiotic.”

“Even then, I am too slow to get to airlock. I was trapped, which made Captain – ”

“We were watching on the feeds, Nish! You fucking threw the doctor onto Tal’s stretcher and saved both of them! There’s no way you could’ve made it without leaving someone else behind. Would that have been better? To leave the doc or Tal behind? When they weren’t wearing space suits? Don’t be ridiculous. And don’t pull the whole ‘ooh, they sacrificed hundreds of lives for mine’ bullshit either, because even at that point, those people were already dead.”

“They weren’t, actually,” I point out. “At that point, the only airlocks separating us were ones that Tal ended up being able to reset. CR1 and Rec 1 were contaminated with whatever was in CR1’s air, but with space suits and pressure tents, we could have – ”

“Revived people from CR1, yeah, maybe. But we’d still be cut off from the front of the ship, and with a dead engineer, and you’re forgetting – we only have space to revive so many colonists. This ship was designed for 21, and we have space for 42 because of duplicate rooms, and let’s say that Denish – sorry, Denish’s replacement, Denish is dead in this scenario – managed to pull some complete fucking miracle with the oxygen systems and stuff and we could support twice that. 84 people, quadruple what the ship’s designed for, and not that much less than we’d expect to get out of CR1 alive, so let’s imagine that miracle scenario where we got every possible survivor out of CR1. Now we have no room for anyone else, we still have four thousand colonists in stasis, and their chances of successful revival are going down by the day. So the million dollar question is: are those four thousand colonists losing more viability than the nearly 80 we manged to revive? In this unrealistic scenario where we magically have ridiculous capacity? Because if they’re not, it makes no difference whether we revive from CR1 and have the others dying, or revive from other rings and eject CR1. We just have too many colonists and too small capacity. All ejecting the ring did was shift around which ones get a chance at revival – well, that and give us access to the rest of the ship and the ability to repair things and actually house more colonists, which is, you know, kind of important.”

I shake my head. “We can’t be sure about that without knowing how fast people’s chances are falling, and we don’t know that. We worked so hard to save those people; I should have found another way to save – ”

“My girlfriend died in a mining tunnel collapse,” Tinera says.

Denish and I are silent for a moment. “I’m… sorry to hear that,” I say.

“No, I have a point to this. We’d found an aluminium deposit. Now, I don’t know if you know much about the moon, but we don’t exactly have natural plants and a water table and significant tectonics and stuff, so the crust is basically just a big blanket of regolith that you kind of have to chew through with power tools; monotonous, but very predictable, compared to Earth mines. So they don’t put a huge amount of money into surveys; they confirm the likely presence of the metal and off we go. It’s generally too expensive and too much of a big operation to just dig a big pit down, especially with how deep we were – deep is good, deeper is safer, it means you can properly press and oxo your environment – so we’re down there digging shafts, and we’ve been at work for a week and a half in this pit. It’s dusty, it’s annoying, and there’s some kind of magnetic interference fucking up our sensors – which is rare on Luna, by the way – so we’re digging blind a lot of the time, but we’ve scrounged up some aluminium and we’re trying to find the big deposit that our team leader is sure is there.

“And we do. Except. Rotten fucking luck, on top of everything else – the regolith around it, even way down here, is cracked all to hell. How? Not sure. Meteor impact, maybe. Geiger’s being unfriendly, so might have been a nearby uranium deposit that went crit awhile back. Either way, our payload is there, we’ve been chasing this fucker for nearly two weeks now, and it’s in the middle of a mass of collapsable powder and pointy chunks bigger than our transport. Team leader takes one look and nixes the operation, and of course, we’re all pissed. After everything we’ve put in, we’re going home empty-handed? Really? The TL is gonna call in a surface team for this, and we’ll get, what, a finder’s credit, after a week and a half of digging through poisonous dust and drinking thrice-cycled water? But the TL says it’s not worth our lives when an alternate extraction team can get to it safer, so we start to pack up.

“Except Sunny, she’s not putting up with this. She says we can do it. TL says he’s not risking the team; she says we’ve put in too much work to go home empty handed now. She insists we can make a stable mining tunnel using some of our spare support beams; she’s so insistent that the TL gives her the go-ahead provided she’s the point runner for putting the beams in place, which is what she wanted anyway. And she’s very careful, and she’s very thorough. And there’s a bit of unstable rock she didn’t see, and she got in the wrong place. And she died, trying to reach aluminium.

“She made a stupid mistake. She thought that it mattered that we’d been down there digging for nearly two weeks. She thought that was somehow relevant. She looked at that aluminium and thought, ‘we’ve come so far for this, we HAVE to bring it home’, and that made her think it was worth the extra risk. She couldn’t just take the loss and head home, she forgot the number one rule – sunk costs are already sunk. That’s what I think you’re doing, captain. You took such measures to ensure the survival of the CR1 colonists. You ended up crawling around outside the ship, fucking with the gravity, doing ad-hoc repairs and workarounds with the ventilation system and somehow breaking bones, so you think preserving CR1 matters more than it does. Yes, it sucks that those colonists are dead. Obviously, it would be better to keep everyone alive. But you’re too focused on the ideal of preserving that specific chronostasis ring that you won’t do the math. I asked Tal to do the math, and ke agrees – we have so many more colonists than even the best estimates of how many people we can fit on this ship, that if their chances of survival are going down at any concerning rate – and this whole ‘fill the ship with people’ plan is entirely based on the idea that they are – we would’ve lost more people than that anyway. All ejecting the ring does is mean we’ll save people from the other rings instead. And even if it didn’t – you both made the only choices you could in the circumstances. Sometimes people die even when you make the best choice. And even if you had made bad choices – what would you do about it now? Sit around and feel bad for the next five years? The CR1 ejection is a sunk cost. Move on. We have four thousand people in storage and we have to try to save as many as we can.”

“‘Move on?’” I ask. “It was yesterday!”

“And today is today,” she say firmly. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to go and play computer games.”

We stare after her.

“Captain,” Denish says, “promise me that nothing bad will happen to you.”

“What? Why?”

“Because logistics officer is your second in command, and I do not want orders from her. She scares me.”

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