The ship's hold smells of rust, an iron taste harsh on the back of Nate's mouth; the pipes above him are the dull color of dried blood. He settles to the iron-gridded floor of the hold. If he closes his eyes, he can hear the rumbling of the Devil Dog's enormous engines, propelling the ship onward through the aether.
No one's cleaned down here for ages and ages, and he knows knows knows that his uniform will be patterned with checkerboard rust by the time he's done. There'll be smirks from the other officers, any enlisted men that don't like him whispering behind his back—but damn it, it's worth it to hear the Devil Dog under him, feel her shuddering beneath his spread palms, like an enormous beast only just asleep.
Days like these, the voice in his head saying the Devil Dog's the only living thing in forty lightyears worth living for get stronger than usual.
It's been a long, long mission.
Nate lets his head thunk back against the cold iron wall, closes his eyes. A two-year tour in the Tau Ceti system, traveling from Tau Ceti F to Tau Ceti C; they'd hopped from failed terraform to failed terraform, ashen trees and crumbled cities scarred with meteor showers. They had hoped to find—Nate had hoped to find—signs of life, a fern, a worm, something that might signal to Earth Prime that the project hadn't been a waste of money and lives—and yet.
And yet, says the nasty voice in the back of Nate's head, the general sure hadn't been fussed to discover that the Tau Ceti colonists wouldn't be asking for any more aid. He sure hadn't been fussed at all.
Nate banishes the thought from his mind, curls his fingers into the gaps in the gridded floor. He's not here to question why his superiors do or don't react to information the way they ought to; he's here to obey orders.
He's here to obey orders.
"Lieutenant," says a voice, and Nate sighs without opening his eyes, rubs a hand over his forehead, realizes too late it's stained with the dirt and grease of the hold.
"Shit," he says. "Yes. What is it, Gunny."
"It's not Gunny, LT," says the voice, almost amused, and Nate opens his eyes at last.
"Sergeant?" he says in some surprise.
"Sir," says Brad Colbert, and offers a hand. Nate takes it, lets Brad pull him to his feet.
Nate brushes his hands off on his uniform, chooses to ignore the long streaks of dirt he leaves behind. "What can I do for you, Brad?" he says.
"We're docking at Proxima Centauri by the end of the week, sir," says Brad. "Person overheard the captain talking to himself about it in the hall. And the captain sent me to tell you he wants to see you in his quarters."
Nate goes very still. "The captain?"
"Sir," says Brad, inclines his head.
"Did he say what it was about?"
Brad tilts his head to the side. His face is very blank, but there might be amusement behind it, the idle mockery the men save specifically for the captain. "Sir."
Nate's not blind—he knows what Brad and his men think of Captain Schwetje. But he can't encourage it—wouldn't if he could, wouldn't if he could, and he can't. "Thank you, sergeant," he says, to clear his thoughts.
"I'll walk you up, sir," Brad offers.
If the Devil Dog's hold is all rust and dirt, then the rest of her is—well, rust. But clean rust above all; Marines know how to keep a ship, even if she's older than the technology that lets them surpass lightspeed.
Nate lets his hand trail over the railing of the stairs. It's not to steady him so much as it is to remind him that he is here, and this is now; the anti-grav can disorient a soldier, can make him feel as if he's only a hop and a jump away from flying away into the aether. Lesser soldiers have gone lunatic, space-crazy, believed their own delusions. The galaxy's scattered with their floating corpses.
It's always the loners, they say, who go lunatic. Soldiers without cliques, soldiers without friends. Soldiers with nothing to keep their feet glued to the ground. Strange types: the petty, the awkward, the shy. The idealists.
"Sir," says Brad. They're climbing the third staircase, and the noise of the Devil Dog's engines below them is dying away. Nate can hear through the thin walls the conversation of the men, Poke's clipped chatter like bullets, Ray's familiar sharp drawl.
"Yes, Brad?" he says.
"Not to question orders, sir," says Brad. "And not to cause disturbance or unrest among the men."
Nate says nothing, and a heavy nothing. It's been a long mission for all of them.
"The men have been wondering," says Brad, carefully, "why the captain chose to chart the Devil Dog home via the Centauri port instead of Sirius. Sir."
Their footsteps clink on the metal grate. Nate tucks his hands into the pockets of his uniform, mulls over the number of possible answers in his mind.
The fact is, there is no reason to steer them by Proxima Centauri, and the whole crew of the Devil Dog knows it. The whole of First Recon knows it, not only Schwetje's crew but the Matilda and the Pendleton and the rest of the flotilla too; there's been gossip bouncing from ship to ship, Bravo One to Bravo Two to Alpha to Charlie. There are a hundred thousand rumors as to how Captain Schwetje convinced Godfather letting Bravo Two sail without the rest of the flotilla through Centauri's space was a good idea, and about sixty thousand of those involve fellatio.
Barring emergency, nearly every starship coming home from a mission routes back through Sirius, the main port into Earth Prime on this side of the galaxy. The system is ablaze with light and life, a hundred cities on every planet and a hundred five-star clubs glittering with neon in every city, traffic so thick from planet to planet that even a registered military ship has to fight their way through; the beer is cheap, the prostitutes are disease-free, and these days, that's sounding appetizing even to Nate.
Alpha, Charlie, and Bravo One and Bravo Three are traveling to Earth Prime via Sirius; even the little tugboats of Delta, designed only for support and for rescue in the case of emergency, are tagging along; the reserves are enjoying for a few brief and brilliant days all the pleasures being a real Marine has to offer. The Devil Dog is not accompanying them. Instead, she's flying to the Centauri port alone.
Nate knows the reason—or part of the reason—although he can't share it with Brad; it's because Schwetje doesn't want the company. He believes that if the Devil Dog takes off through space without the rest of her flotilla, anything interesting she encounters will be theirs to deal with, and the glory will be theirs alone. And Godfather agrees.
And it's not wrong. It's just—he won't think stupid, he won't think stupid, he won't; but it's not clever. It's endangering the lives of the men to chase after something that might not even come. It's looking for reward and ignoring risk. It doesn't make sense.
The Proxima Centauri system, where they're flying, is as close to empty black as local space comes. Though it's not a series of dead planets as Tau Ceti had been, it has only one port, a tiny twinkling satellite on the star system's only planet. Earth Prime's interest in it is almost nil; it's stellar Siberia.
And, as if there needed to be more, there are the legends.
Ships have disappeared in Centauri's space without explanation; radar satellite scouts never find them. For other ships, all communication with their flotilla will abruptly disappear for hours at a time, leaving them dangerously susceptible to a crash.
And, of course, there's the Linnl Bittering.
The Linnl Bittering had docked at the Proxima Centauri port as calm as any other ship, and the port crew had gathered by the door, pulled together water and support for the men who the planet's gravity would hit hard, and waited. And waited.
Eventually, the governor of the port had sent a team to beat in the Linnl Bittering's door. They'd burst in, searched deck after deck from top to bottom—empty. Cold, and still, and silent as the grave. Not a single man there.
Until they'd reached the navigation room.
The men searching the ship, the rumors said, had picked up the stench from halfway down the hallway to the control room: blood, and shit, and vomit, and something else, some indefinable but decidedly organic smell that had chilled them to the bone.
They'd opened the door to the navigation room.
There had been only one man, or what remained of him; there had been no bacteria on the ship, but reports afterward determined that he had been lying in that position, slumped over the ship's controls, for at least a week. His jaw was still stretched wide around the barrel of the gun, but his finger had slipped off the trigger.
No one had ever discovered the reason for the smell. And no one had ever found the remains of the Linnl Bittering's crew.
Sailing to Centauri's port without backup—without the flotilla that's accompanied them from Earth Prime to Tau Ceti—is inconceivably dangerous, and the crew knows it. And even without the rumors floating around this part of space, Centauri can't look appetizing compared to the glitz and glam of the Sirius system, especially for Marines floating through empty space for two long years with only their right hands, each other, and boredom for company.
And though Nate knows that he needs to back up command in every area, knows that it's his responsibility to justify all they do, after these two years he hardly has the heart.
Brad's looking at him with a peculiar expression in his pale blue eyes; if he weren't the Iceman, Nate would say he looks worried.
"We are all sure the captain has his own reasons for steering by the Proxima Centauri port, sergeant," says Nate, forces himself to look straight ahead, "which he may not necessarily chose to share with others."
As soon as he says it he knows it's a mistake. Admitting he's just as lost as Brad as to the captain's twisted reasoning—placing himself on the same side as Brad, for God's sake—it's not going to make this tension on the ship any better. If anything, it'll aggravate it.
The tension on the ship could damn well use aggravating, says the treacherous voice in the back of Nate's head, with a CO as incompetent as Encino Man and the Devil Dog halfway into the middle of hell, and Nate digs his nails into the palms of his hands, consciously ignores it.
"Good to know, sir," says Brad, and there's a curious tone in his voice, so close to warm that Nate digs his fingernails into his palms further—they are not sharing an inside joke at command's expense, they are not.
Fifth deck, and the door to the captain's quarters. Nate stops, nods to Brad. "Thank you for the company, sergeant."
"Thank you for the information, sir," says Brad, his face as implacable as ever, and is gone. Nate resists the urge to watch him walk away, instead turns to knock once, twice, three times on the captain's door.
Captain Schwetje answers his own door. It's not much, but it's something Nate tries to remember: there are captains who have others answer the door for them, there are captains who have all visitors with identification automatically keyed in. Schwetje answers his own door. It must mean something.
"Come in," he says, "come on, uh, I just finished lunch, sorry." He looks utterly but politely bewildered at Nate's presence.
Nate salutes. "You asked for me, sir?"
The captain's face brightens. "Yeah. Come on, have a seat."
Schwetje's quarters are, of course, a shock of luxury. Nate makes a point of keeping his own quarters as Spartan as possible; it keeps him sharp. The captain's quarters have couches, pillows, the smell of hot roasted meat drifting from a nearby room—God knows how he got that, out here on the edge of local space. Nate sees a mini-fridge, an empty bottle of beer on the table.
Schwetje sinks down onto the couch, props his elbows on his knees. Nate sits in a nearby fluffy blue armchair—too cushy for his taste, but nevertheless as dignified as he can make it.
"So," says Schwetje, "uh, don't tell this to the men, but we're docking at Proxima Centauri by the end of the week. But we weren't supposed to get there this soon, so it's supposed to be a surprise."
Nate does his best to arrange his face into a picture of polite shock. "Sir," he says.
"We'll be staying at Proxima Centauri for forty-eight hours," says Schwetje. "Tell the men to explore the port, learn what they can. Think of it as a two-day libo." He raises his eyebrows significantly at Nate. "They should have fun."
Nate has done careful research and determined that the entire Centauri port possesses a grand total of two movie theaters. "Thank you, sir," he says. "I'll pass on the message."
"Good," says Schwetje, "and, uh. There's another matter, lieutenant."
"Sir?" says Nate, pushes his face into polite confusion.
Schwetje rubs at his nose. "I've noticed that some of the men don't seem as, uh, enthusiastic about the port as they could be."
Not now not now not now Jesus fucking Christ, says Nate's brain. "Really, sir?" says Nate's mouth, all polite wonder and disbelief.
"Right," says Schwetje, "uh, and I was wondering if you could tell me anything about why that was."
Nate blinks. "Sir."
"You talk to the men a lot, Nate," says Schwetje, who looks vaguely uncomfortable. "I'm sure they must have shared their thoughts with you at some point."
"Sir," says Nate, and, because he can think of nothing better, "I believe they may be concerned about traveling home without the company of the rest of First Recon. Sir."
Schwetje's forehead pulls into a frown. "They're scared?"
Jesus Christ Jesus Christ Jesus Christ. "Not scared, sir," says Nate. "Bravo Two's never traveled solo, not outside of our own star system. It's a risky experience. Sir."
"First Recon is all about risk," says Schwetje sternly. "These men aren't cowards, lieutenant."
"I'm not suggesting that, sir," says Nate, tries to keep the irritation out of his voice. "But exploring abandoned cities on Tau Ceti E is a very different proposition from flying without protection through uninhabited space—"
Schwetje waves a hand. "I don't want to argue with you about this, Nate."
"Sir," says Nate shortly.
"It's just that if I ask you why the men don't want to stop at Proxima Centauri on the way home," says Schwetje, "and you respond by telling me that the men told you they need Bravo One and Bravo Three holding their hands to shoot down a few meteorites on the way back to Earth Prime, I start to get concerned about whether or not the men are getting too soft with officers."
Soft with officers. And what that means is that Nate's getting too close to the men. What that means is that Nate is more popular with the men than Schwetje is, always has been, and that Schwetje wants it to stop.
"Sir," says Nate, forces his voice to stay level, "I don't think the men are worried about asteroid impact, I think they're more concerned about having a mechanical malfunction without anyone around to aid them for light-years. Or encountering pirates who want to pick off a lone Marine ship. Or discovering an unknown lifeform. Sir."
Schwetje blinks. "An unknown lifeform?"
"Sir," says Nate.
"You're saying," says Schwetje, "that our men believe in aliens?"
Breathe evenly. Keep the face blank. "Sir, you can't tell me you haven't heard the rumors coming out of this part of space. The men have been talking about them since—"
"Nate, I know you know the men are too smart to believe in aliens," says Schwetje, frowning. "This isn't Star Wars. If your behavior around them is really making them that soft, I'm not sure you're being appropriate with your behavior."
Nate bites back what he wants to say, which is one part this is the Bermuda Triangle of explored space, sir, you don't have to believe in aliens to have a damn good reason to be scared, we're going to be the next Linnl Bittering and you'll be responsible, and one part go fuck yourself with a ten-foot pole, sir, and says instead, "Yes, sir."
Schwetje stares at him. Nate stares back.
"Tell the men at fourteen-hundred hours that we'll be docking at Proxima Centauri soon," Schwetje says, eventually. "And don't forget the forty-eight hour libo."
"Sir," says Nate, clipped.
"Dismissed, lieutenant," says Schwetje.
Pappy brushes by him in the hallway as he sweeps out of Schwetje's quarters, catches his eye. "Control station sent me to tell you you're on communications duty, sir."
Nate nods his thanks and abruptly switches direction; he had been going to head to the mess hall, he's hungry as hell, but communications duty is communications duty; the whole ship knows it always comes at the worst time.
Though he loves the hold the most out of anywhere on the Devil Dog, Nate thinks he loves these long hallways, too; the pipes run above him, just barely brushing the top of his head, and he can hear the churning of recycled water pushing its way slowly through her walls. Up a ladder, left and then left again and through a door; he knows this ship better than he knows his own hands.
There's a Marine behind the dark-glass door of the navigation room; it could be any of the Marines with pilot training, from Ray Person to Jason Lilley to Gunny Wynn to Rudy Reyes. Nate doesn't bother to check who it is, just taps on the glass once, twice, and sees the man's head bob in acknowledgement.
Then he turns to the comm controls.
The communications network is something enormous, a computer that looks as if it ought to be hulking in a room at MIT in 1976. There's even green text blinking on the screen, Bryan's signoff to their contact on Earth Prime, and a huge grey keyboard in front of the screen; the entire setup is so twentieth-century it hurts.
Earth Prime, First Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick reporting for communications duty until fourteen hundred hours, Nate types in laboriously; his hands are too small to do anything better than hunt-and-peck on this dinosaur keyboard. Copy Earth Prime?
There's a long, shuddering pause, and then the computer beeps at him.
-EARTH PRIME COPY-
Status unchanged, Nate writes. Continuing on to Proxima Centauri port. Due to dock in two days barring emergency.
-ADVISE: REPORT NEWS FROM EARTH PRIME?-
Nate deliberates, taps his fingers one-two-three on the enormous keyboard, before he types Affirmative, Earth Prime.
The computer whirrs, whirrs, whirrs, and then a long flood of green text spills down the screen.
-WINTER GAMES CONTINUE, UNITED REPUBLICS OF SOUTH AMERICA DOMINATE BOBSLED CHALLENGE WITH ARRIEGO AT HELM-
-NEW CRIME THRILLER BY AUTHOR OF LEAF TOO SOON TOPS BESTSELLER LISTS FOR FIFTH WEEK IN ROW-
-CLEANUP EFFORTS IN THE GULF OF MEXICO PRESS ONWARD DESPITE SETBACKS-
-RARE SOLAR ECLIPSE IN AUSTRALIAN CONTINENT-
-ONE JOURNALIST SLAIN AS VIOLENCE IN EUROPE CONTINUES-
No more, Earth Prime, Nate types hastily. He doesn't recognize a single reference on that list except the solar eclipse; it's moments like this that the two years he's been living on this ship feel like a hundred.
-REPORT IF NECESSARY-
-EARTH PRIME OUT-
Understood, types Nate, and settles in the rickety old chair they've provided for him. It'll be a long two hours.
The men's mess hall is chaos; the men's mess hall is always chaos. After the second Tau Ceti settlement had been found to be nothing but dust, the men had abandoned the staunch formality of regulations, begun sharing food, wandering in at all hours to snatch snacks. It was then, Nate suspects, things began to fall apart on the ship.
Technically speaking, he's not allowed to eat here. The officers have their own mess hall, two decks up; it's utterly spotless and near-silent at all times, even during designated meals. Nate hasn't eaten there since they left Tau Ceti E.
There's a little table in the corner of the men's mess hall, three chairs pulled up around it. Mike Wynn's already seated in one, chewing grimly at his slice of chipped beef on toast; Nate sinks with relief into another.
"What's the word?" says Mike without looking up. Nate eyes the white-purplish mess on his slice of bread, thinks back with longing to the smell of roasting meat in Schwetje's quarters.
"No word," he says, "or no word that you haven't already heard from the men."
Mike glances at him, and his face twists into something halfway between resignation and sympathy. "You all right there, Nate?"
"We'll be home in less than two months," says Nate, rubs at the back of his head.
Mike's expression says he knows Nate is perfectly aware that's not what he asked, but he lets it lie, bites at his chipped beef. Mike's one of the only men on the ship who can exist in a comfortable silence, and Nate appreciates him for it.
What Nate loves most about the table in the corner is his view of the entire mess hall, from Chaffin and Manimal huddling in a corner together to Rudy Reyes calmly observing from another, to the center of the room, where Ray Person holds court like a teenage prom queen in her cafeteria. The hall is packed with seventy-five sweaty, poorly washed Marines, and the smell can't be all that much better than the Linnl Bittering.
"Shut the fuck up, Poke," Ray is saying with authority, and next to him, James Trombley shifts in his seat, pulls his beanie further over his head. Trombley's still technically too young to be sent outside of the Sol system; Nate's not sure if he'd ever worked in an anti-grav environment before he'd stepped onto the Devil Dog.
"Don't fuckin' tell me to shut up, white boy," says Poke Espera, lounges back in his seat. "Who the fuck was it invented science fiction? Who the fuck invented alien attacks? Weren't none of this creepy space bullshit before you white people and your Twilight Zone bullcrap."
"Right," says Ray, "like you went through your whole stunted growth period without playing astronauts and aliens once, come on, dude, you wanted to meet E.T. as much as we did—"
"E.T. is one thing, dawg," says Poke, "a fuckin' Martian invasion is another, this ain't friendly, this is the space travel equivalent of those dumbasses in horror movies who decide to play with the Ouija board on Halloween—"
"Over a Native American burial ground, right, right—"
"Motherfucker, do not begin to talk to me about Native American burial grounds—"
Nate leans back into the corner, closes his eyes, lets the sounds of the room wash over him.
"Nate," says Mike, and Nate's eyes open.
Mike's face isn't concerned, exactly, but it's close enough. "You feelin' all right?" he says.
Nate sighs, scrubs at his face with one sleeve of his uniform. "Just came back from a meeting with the captain."
Now Mike's expression is all sympathy. "You want to say what's going on?"
There's a throat clearing behind him, and Nate turns to see Ray Person. Poke is hanging behind him, his face half-disbelieving.
"Sir," says Ray, "we were wondering if you had heard anything about an alien attack in the area recently."
Nate blinks. "An alien attack."
"Or even not recently," says Ray, "like, something that command might have covered up from us, sir. Or, like, covered up badly, like the Linnl Bittering—"
"Corporal," Nate says, and now he's fighting to keep his expression serious, "I have been assured that there are no such things as aliens. I will be certain to keep you updated should there be any change in the sit-rep."
"Okay, sir," says Ray, "and more importantly, sir, the men would like to know what the contingency plan is, when said Klingons come pouring onto our ship. Sir."
Nate blinks. "Person, at no point have I been advised of the ROE or contingency plan in the event of a hostile alien encounter. If such a situation ever develops, you will without a doubt be the first to be alerted."
Ray nods, businesslike, salutes, and turns. In the distance, Nate can hear him saying to Poke, "See, asshole, I told you the officers don't give a shit if we get lasergunned into pulp—"
"It ain't whether the officers give a shit," Poke says, "it's whether they let us have access to weapons so that we can lasergun the aliens into pulp—"
Their voices fade. Mike says, "You believe in aliens, Nate?"
Nate stares into the crowd of Marines at the tables a long, long time before he says, "I believe in orders."
He pushes his chair out from the table. "I'm going down to the hold to think. You know where to find me if you need me."
"What if the officers need you?" says Mike, his voice dry.
Nate rubs at his forehead. "Then the anti-grav got to me and I've gone lunatic. Tell them I'll be back in time for evening debrief."
"All right," says Mike, and Nate ignores the worry in his voice, pushes through the tangle of chairs in the mess hall, slips out the door, clatters down the stairs.
The first planet had been the hardest.
The reports from Tau Ceti F had been positive; out of all the planets shrieking for aid in the days before First Recon had been sent to observe the situation, it had seemed the most under control. Out of all the bad reports the media had been blasting on ever screen, Tau Ceti F had been the sole hope; Tau Ceti F had been the last chance.
They'd disembarked at the port, and there had been no one there to greet them; that, at least, they had expected. Though the news hadn't reported the situation on Tau Ceti F as dire, it was common sense that the colonists wouldn't be able to greet First Recon personally, if they were dealing with anything like the other planets were.
A hundred catastrophes at once, the frantic transmissions from the Tau Ceti colonies had said. The meteor storms, always heavy in this star system but usually kept away by the terraform machines' anti-grav, had hit a peak greater than any before—crops had failed on planet after planet—a plague had swept Tau Ceti C, something in the water system, hundreds of thousands of colonists dying—
It had been so quiet on the road.
They'd unloaded their vehicles from where they were being stored on the Matilda, Alpha One's ship, and driven towards Xi City. The road had been long, and the air full of dust; the sun had been tiny and pale in the sky, so tiny that in Nate's vehicle, Christeson and Q-Tip, who had never been farther from a star than Jupiter, had whispered and pointed all morning.
They'd stopped just outside the city as that eye-blink of a sun had been hovering in the very center of the sky; the length of Tau Ceti F's day was roughly three times that of Earth's, and the men's stomachs told them it was time for dinner. And more than that—there had been a strange dread, a sort of knowledge that had crept into their bones.
They'd spent longer than they needed to on the edge of the city. It had been the early days of the mission, and no one had been breaking protocol, not then; each man had eaten with his vehicle. But Nate had seen, after the meal, Brad, Poke, and Ray huddling together around a vehicle, their faces drawn and tight, and had seen in their faces the certainty that something was wrong beyond wrong.
Xi City had been silent as the grave.
The streets, like the road on the way there, had been full of dust. The sun had beat down, hot and leisurely. None of the men had wanted to continue to the city center; it was only Godfather, traveling with Alpha One, who had with a stern tilt to his mouth forced them onto the capitol building.
The door had been unlocked. The building had held nothing but dust.
Dust in the capitol, and dust in the streets. And dust in each of the houses, when they had searched, one by one.
Dust in the fields of what must have been the farms, as they drove away from the port, out of Xi City and into the country. Dust in the little towns scattered across one of Tau Ceti F's great green continents, the one that the reports had said would be sure to yield good crops year after year, once the terraform machines had begun to do their work. Dust in the canals the colonists had dug. Dust everywhere, and nothing but dust.
At night, the sky had glittered with unfamiliar stars. Nate had read by flashlight: Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, all the old Earth Prime authors, writing even before man had walked on the moon. He'd lost himself in robots and square-jawed brave men, flying onward through space, knowing with incredible certainty that they were in the service of something difficult but something good.
They'd found the terraform machines, those enormous hulking grey beasts, at the center of Serling, the last city on the continent. They had been running—but, Doc Bryan had reported when he'd examined them, running in fits and starts, at half capacity. Overloaded. They'd needed replacing months ago.
That night Nate had been making his way through the fleet of vehicles to the edge of the dusty continent to relieve himself when he'd heard a whispered conversation, recognized Brad Colbert's voice. He'd stopped in the dark, stood very still.
"You'd better be sure," Brad had said, so quietly that Nate had almost missed it.
"I'm pretty fuckin' sure, Brad," had come Ray's voice, "I looked at them personally, I know my shit. Those things mighta worked for, I don't know, Mars or Io or some terrestrial-ass planet like that, but not for a planet three times Earth Prime's size, not for a planet twice as far as Earth Prime from the sun. Those terraform fuckers were more pussy than Captain America with a spider in his room."
"So what are you saying?" Brad had said, still barely audible. "Sabotage?"
"Or incompetency," Ray had said, "or maybe Earth Prime is just really fucking cheap and didn't want to hand over the good shit to a colony that wasn't going to be another glitter-bitch tourist destination."
There had been a long silence; Nate had been almost able to hear Brad thinking.
"We don't put this in our official reports," he'd said, eventually.
"Fuck no," Ray had scoffed, "how stupid do you think I am? Encino Man would NJP my ass for finding something he didn't find first. Hell, Earth Prime would NJP my ass for finding something they didn't want anybody to find out about."
"Write it down, though," had come Brad's voice, thoughtful. "The problems with the machines on this continent, and the problems with the machines on the next continent over. And the problems with the machines on Tau Ceti E."
"Don't be a fucking cynic," Ray had said.
"You want to make a bet, Ray?" Brad had said. "You want to put twenty bucks on the idea we will see colonists on the next planet over?"
There had been a pause, and then Ray had said, "Fuck you."
"Yeah," Brad had said, and then there had been footsteps, light and scuffing through the dust, and it had been too late for Nate to flee. The bouncing beam of Brad's flashlight had found him in a few seconds.
They'd met eyes, and Nate remembers thinking that Brad's eyes had in that moment been very, very blue.
"Evening, sir," Brad had said.
"Evening, Brad," Nate had said, and had been proud at keeping the sheer shock of the conversation out of his voice.
Late that night, curled in his foxhole and staring at the alien constellations, it had taken him a long, long time to fall asleep.
This time Nate recognizes the voice as Brad's. He opens his eyes, pushes himself to his feet. "Brad."
"You don't need to get up, sir," says Brad.
Nate tilts his head, settles back down to the deck of the hold. Near him—not so close that Nate can feel his warmth, but not so far away that Nate can ignore his presence—Brad settles beside him.
"Come to keep me company, sergeant?" Nate says. It comes out in less of a joking tone than he had intended.
"If you like, sir," Brad says.
"I didn't mean that," Nate says, and is surprised by how tired his voice sounds. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to, Brad."
"Are you sending me away, sir?" says Brad.
"No," says Nate, "Jesus, you can stay if you want to, I—" He stops. Brad's face is just a hair too blank. "Are you fucking with me?"
"It's possible, sir," says Brad, utterly neutral.
Nate snorts out a laugh. "All right."
There's a pause, and Nate hears below them, as he always does, the endless hum of the Devil Dog. It's become comforting over the past two years—no, was always comforting, from the moment he stepped on the ship. Of all the things he loves about the Devil Dog, and there are many, this is one of his favorites.
"I come here, too, sir," Brad says into the silence. "To think."
"To think," Nate echoes.
"The higher decks are less conducive to thought," Brad says, "or serious rational decision-making. Or common sense. Sir."
The officer's quarters are all on the higher decks. Nate laughs, a real full-belly laugh, like he hasn't done since Tau Ceti C. "I can't condone disrespectful behavior towards officers, Brad."
"I can't imagine being disrespectful towards command, sir," says Brad, utterly serious, and Nate's laughing again.
"Okay," he says. "All right. You come down here to think."
"To think," Brad confirms. "And you?"
Nate blinks. "I—to think, too, I guess. It's quiet down here."
"Too much noise up in officer quarters?" says Brad. "Echoes from you all rattling around your enormous cabins? Sir."
Nate makes a face. "I don't stay in officer quarters much."
"Just to sleep."
"Sometimes not even then. The hold is—quiet."
Brad's face is all warm disbelief. "You sleep in the hold, sir?"
"Not most nights," Nate says, defensive, "and I always bring down a pillow and a blanket, I'm not an idiot."
"No," says Brad, "hell no, sir, I don't think you're an idiot."
Nate raises his eyebrows.
Brad shrugs, a rippling motion. "It is quiet. Down here. I might try it."
"We could have a girly sleepover," Nate says.
Brad nods. "Sleeping bags and candy. And truth or dare, sir."
"If we're going to have truth or dare," says Nate, "I think you'd better invite Ray."
"Sir," says Brad, "I can tell you with certainty that Ray Person is no longer allowed near games of truth or dare in the United States of America, on pain of death, and I therefore cannot ascertain as to whether this plan is advisable."
Nate nods. "What are our assets, sergeant?"
"Blankets, sir," says Brad, "and I am reasonably certain that candy should be pilfered from Captain Schwetje's quarters, sir, as we appear to have run out of all viable candy storeholds within the MRE resources. Pillows can be acquired with convenience, sir."
"And the entertainment situation?" Nate says.
"With the exclusion of Person I have to report that our gossip factor goes down to nil, sir," says Brad. "But if his mouth is taped it would be entirely possible for him to be a perfectly adequate stripper."
"I'm not entirely certain if that's work-appropriate, sergeant," says Nate, stern.
"Apologies, sir," says Brad, "I momentarily lost situational awareness of our AO. It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't, sergeant," Nate says, and smiles at the ceiling.
Brad says, "Your wish is my command. Sir."
It's past twenty-three hundred hours before Nate makes his way to his bed. Not too late, only an hour after curfew, and God knows the men never pay any attention to curfew these days—but it makes him uncomfortable, still, to set a poor example.
He hadn't been lying when he'd told Brad he didn't like sleeping in his own quarters. Though he knows he sounds worse than an asshole complaining about it, he hates the size of officer quarters, three enormous rooms near-bare of furniture.
In officer school, on a cramped little base on Io, the cadets had slept shoulder to shoulder on tiny cots; there hadn't been enough room for bunk beds. At the time they'd all shouted at each other, shoved back and forth, but these days Nate misses the warmth.
He undresses slowly, slides underneath his covers, and finally, finally allows himself to close his eyes.
And if what he sees as he's slipping off to sleep is a gaze that's a little too hard and blue for comfort—
He doesn't know how long he's been asleep; it feels like no time at all. His alarm isn't beeping, and the lights in his quarters haven't changed; it can't be past oh-five hundred hours.
Something's wrong with the ship.
He pulls on his uniform mechanically, without thinking about it; his shirt could be buttoned inside-out and he wouldn't know. Something's wrong with the Devil Dog. Something's wrong, and he can't tell what.
When he pushes open the door to his quarters, there are men in the hall.
It's not many: Q-Tip, Lilley, Gabe Garza, some of the youngest men on the ship. They're not quite to his door; instead, they're in a huddle a little ways away, and Q-Tip looks to be in the middle of an urgent conversation with Garza.
They all whip around, though, when the rusting hinges of Nate's door shriek open. There's a flurry of salutes.
"Gentlemen," says Nate, and lets the door close behind him.
"Hey, sir," says Garza. "Uh. We think you'd should probably come and take a look at the communications room."
They walk through the halls in near-silence. Nate doesn't know why the boys have summoned him, doesn't know the cause, but the nagging feeling he'd woken up with—something is wrong on his ship—is still curling in his stomach like a worm.
It's the same feeling from Tau Ceti F; it's the same feeling from the road outside Xi City. Dread, for a reason unknown. The part of a soldier's intuition that tells him something is about to go spectacularly, awfully off-track.
The communications room is just as Nate left it earlier in the day. John Christeson is beside it, his hands tucked behind his back, and across his face is mapped the same dread all the other men share.
He salutes. "Sir."
Nate salutes, quick, in return. "What is it, Christeson?"
Christeson looks uncomfortable; Q-Tip comes to his rescue. "Sir, you gotta type something into the computer. Just hi, nothin' big. See what it does."
Nate wants to raise a skeptical eyebrow, wants to demand more of an explanation, but the men are surrounding him on every side, and the expression on each face is so identical that he knows this is not the time to raise the protest he wants to. "Anything?"
"Just about anything, sir," Q-Tip confirms.
Nate pushes his way through to the enormous grey keyboard, types, Hello.
-GREETINGS LIEUTENANT NATHANIEL FICK-
Nate jerks back from the computer. "It recognizes me?"
Q-Tip's nodding at him. "It knew who Christeson was, sir," he says. "And when I came into the room it knew I came in without Christeson saying. It's fucked up."
"The computer," Nate says, "the computer that we've been using to communicate with Earth Prime for the last two years, the computer that is our only link with Earth Prime and the rest of the flotilla, that computer has started talking to us?"
The boys look at him helplessly.
Nate leans his back against the console, rubs at his tired eyes. "And what has it said besides recognizing who we are?"
"Nothing much, sir," says Christeson. "I'd ceased communication with Earth Prime and then it just—started talking at me. Sir."
"Right," says Nate, turns back to the computer, taps in, Who are you?
The glowing green text of the screen blinks, blinks, blinks.
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "WHO"-
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "ARE"-
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "YOU"-
Nate glances at Christeson. "Can it hear our conversations when we're talking aloud?"
"Nothing like that so far or anything," says Christeson. "It hasn't said anything in response to anything we've said, and I figure if it could hear us, it would do that. But, like, it knew Q-Tip came into the room."
"It knew Q-Tip came into the room," Nate echoes. "Does it know whoever's piloting the ship in the next room?"
They look at him, eyes wide. Nate turns to the controls, types: Who is piloting this ship?
The answer comes quickly this time.
-GUNNERY SERGEANT MIKE WYNN-
Nate crosses to the door to the control room, slides back the dark glass door. Sure enough, there's Mike, flight headphones clasped firmly over his ears, his eyes locked on the star-route ahead.
He lets the glass slide shut and turns to the men. "It's right."
"You want I should take it apart, sir?" Garza suggests.
Nate hesitates for a long moment. "No. We can't afford to lose communication with Earth Prime." He leans his head against the wall. "Someone tell Earth Prime the situation, ask them if this has ever happened before."
"Right, sir," Christeson says, and types into the computer's keyboard, Earth Prime, Private First Class John Christeson reporting for communications duty until oh six hundred. Copy?
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "EARTH"-
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "PRIME"-
The room is utterly silent.
It's Q-Tip who breaks it, after what seems like a hundred years. "Son of a motherfucking bitch."
"It's cut us off," says Nate. "No communication with Earth Prime. No communication with the flotilla. No communication with the rest of explored space."
"Goddamn shit-eating syphilitic whoreson of a motherfucking bitch," says Q-Tip.
"You want me to take that thing apart now, sir?" says Garza.
It's another long moment of hesitation, but the answer is the same, Nate is sure of it. "We can't afford it if Earth Prime comes back online while our communications are in pieces on our deck. Keep the machine running."
There's heads bobbing among the men. Garza says, "Yes, sir."
"And—" Nate says, and rubs at the back of his neck. He knows he shouldn't be doing this, he knows, he knows. "I'll change the communications duty. Not all of the men are going to see what's going on here." He glances away. "It's possible that some of the men who are left out of the loop might be you." He's guilty about it, but—these are boys. If the feeling of dread in his stomach is right, he doesn't know if he wants them involved with what's coming. Whatever's coming.
"Yes, sir," says Q-Tip, and out of all the emotions Nate never thought he would see on these boys' faces, relief at being forced out of this was never one of them.
A goddamn AI. They've got a goddamn AI on the Devil Dog.
If that is what the thing is, of course—Nate knows he can't rule out the possibility of outside interference, pirates hacking the signal, equipment malfunction. But the things the computer had been saying, the domain errors, they hadn't been typical half-assed pirate interference. They'd been genuine computer speak.
They've got a goddamn artificial intelligence on the Devil Dog.
Nate's familiar with all the AI tropes in science fiction, of course; they haven't changed much in the past few centuries. There are the ones who want to destroy humans, the ones who want to become humans, the ones who want to be very kindly tyrannical to humans to save them from their own incompetency; the stories are as old as Frankenstein himself.
But there's nothing galvanic floating around the Devil Dog, no awful experimentation going on, no mad scientists shrieking with laughter at their own genius. Well—there's Ray, but even Ray Person can't turn a dead computer into a living monster by sheer force of will.
So—a spontaneous development? Or a natural evolution of the computer itself?
Or, as Nate's gut is telling him, a product of flying through Proxima Centauri space?
Nate sighs, digs his fingers into the holes of the gridded deck of the hold. He seems to be finding himself down here more and more these days; back in the early days of the mission, before Tau Ceti F, he'd hardly been here at all.
He banishes the part of his head that's telling him he hardly loved the Devil Dog this much before Tau Ceti F, closes his eyes. He has to focus on the problem.
One of the problems being, of course, why he hasn't told Captain Schwetje yet.
He knows he should have already. He knows it should have been his first action, after ascertaining the nature of the situation. He knows it's his duty to report to his captain absolutely any and all unusual happenings on the captain's ship—especially a goddamn AI growing out of nowhere, yeah, especially that. He knows it's his duty—
The conversation replays itself through his mind, again and again. If your behavior around them is really making them that soft, Schwetje says, I'm not sure you're being appropriate with your behavior.
He can't be petty. He can't act like a teenager. He can't withhold information that might be vital to the safety of the crew just because he got offended at Schwetje's ham-handed political manipulations; he can't put the men in danger because he's angry that the captain of his ship is acting like a child who doesn't want to share his toys—
Nate takes a deep breath. He's all right. He's calm. None of this is affecting his cool. He is totally and completely calm.
He's never been good at lying to himself.
His thoughts are whirling every which way; Nate rubs at his eyes. He hasn't gotten enough sleep tonight, or any night in a long time, and he suspects he won't be getting a good night's sleep for many more.
He'll have to hope he can sleep on Proxima Centauri, once they get there.
But first he has to tell someone about what the boys have found—and, though his stomach is sinking, he knows already it won't be Schwetje.
"You're fucking with us, sir," says Ray.
"Corporal, I can assure you that out of all the things I intend to do," says Nate, "fuck with you is not one of them."
They're in the mess hall. It's oh-five thirty, and the space is uncharacteristically clean and pleasant smelling; this must be what it's like when the crew on kitchen duty cleans, before the men get in and begin to eat. It's also empty, except for them. The three of them are at Nate's usual table, Brad and Ray arrayed on one side, Nate on the other, and Brad's looking at Nate hard. "Sir," he says, and his voice is overly careful, uncharacteristically so, "are you absolutely sure of this?"
"Q-Tip and Christeson can back me up," says Nate, "they were the ones who showed it to me. And Jason Lilley, and Gabe Garza. If this is going lunatic, sergeant, it's a mass hallucination."
Ray opens his mouth to protest; Brad glances sideways, and Ray catches his look, shrugs, leans back. "You have to admit, LT, this is straight out of a comic book," he says. "Some pulpy twentieth century novel. A fucking awful one where there's sound in space and time travel into the past and shit."
"Ray, shut the fuck up, your mother never even taught you to read," says Brad absently, but he's staring at Nate. "How do you know it's an AI, sir?"
"It recognizes people in the room," says Nate, "even when they haven't identified themselves. And—" He rubs his hand over his hair. "This is the bad part, gentlemen."
"The Singularity going down in the middle of the Devil Dog isn't," Ray begins, and then at Brad's glare, "sorry. Yeah, sir?"
Nate tells them, "It's disconnected us from communications with Earth Prime."
There's the parade of expressions he was expecting: disbelief, confusion, horror, and finally, from Brad, a dead-eyed stare that's far too blank for Nate's comfort. Ray looks half-electrocuted, as if he can believe what he's hearing but wishes he couldn't.
"Disconnected?" he says. "Disconnected?"
"It says Earth isn't in its domain," Nate confirms. "When I attempted to communicate with our contact on the station on Earth Prime, the computer physically wasn't able to reach it; it didn't recognize the name."
"That doesn't make any sense," says Ray, "sorry, sir, but that's colossally fucking stupid. Even a computer developing artificial intelligence shouldn't have its memory erased." He turns to Brad. "Back me up on this."
"To my regret, sir," says Brad to Nate, "I have to agree with Ray. Unless the comm computer physically grew new programs for itself—and there's enough memory in it to write anything it wants in unused space—the communications protocols with Earth Prime should be intact. Something else has to be going on, sir. A problem with the software."
Nate frowns. "What do you think?"
Brad and Ray share a glance; Nate can see a wealth of information in it. Brad says, "Sir, I think we'd all better go and take a look at this thing."
The route from the mess hall to the communications room isn't long; their footsteps clang down the hallway. By the time they reach the room, Ray's face has gained a little of its old color, and the corner of his mouth is curling downward.
"LT," he says, "before we go and get fussed over Tik-Tok in here, I kind of wanna be sure—you said Christeson, and Q-Tip—"
Nate holds the door of the communications room open, lets Ray and Brad pass through. "See for yourself," he says.
Christeson is leaning against the computer keyboard, his eyelids flickering. He must have been awake since oh-three hundred, Nate realizes suddenly, and feels instantly and abruptly full of guilt.
"Any change?" he says.
"No sir," says Christeson, and accompanies it with a slow and laborious shake of his head. He really does look exhausted. "I didn't want to talk to it, sir. I hope that's all right."
The guilt in Nate's stomach curls tighter. "You're relieved, private," he says. "Go back to quarters. You can sleep in today."
Christeson's face is nothing but relief, and he salutes, nearly flees the room. A moment later, the sound of his boots on the grates is ringing into the distance.
Nate gestures expansively, tilts his head at Ray. "There's the AI you don't believe in, corporal. Go and talk."
"It's not that I don't believe in it, sir," says Ray, and then his mouth drops open, and he's gulping like a fish, speechless. He's staring behind Nate, at the computer screen.
Nate turns to look.
-GREETINGS CORPORAL JOSHUA RAY PERSON-
-GREETINGS SERGEANT BRAD COLBERT-
Brad glances at Nate. "Can I speak to it, sir?"
Nate waves a hand. "Be my guest."
Brad moves to stand by the keyboard, and his hands are flying over the keys: Query: how did you know Corporal Person and I have entered the room?
-BECAUSE YOU HAVE JUST ENTERED THE ROOM-
Brad frowns at the screen. Query: report on new programs within system, created within previous 7 days.
There's a long silence, then a beep, then a flood of code. Nate doesn't understand a word of it; though he's basically computer savvy, he doesn't have the capacity to understand code beyond the level of basic high school-level programming. Brad and Ray, on the other hand, are staring intently at the screen.
"It's face recognition," says Ray to Brad. "That's how it knew we were in the room."
"Voice recognition," Brad counters. "See—it has the capacity right here."
"But it's not using it," Ray argues. "You didn't say a thing before it knew you were here. I don't know what the fuck that's written into it for, or how any of this shit got into the system, but it knew we were here because of what we look like."
"Which means visuals," says Brad.
Ray blinks. "Where?"
Brad looks at him. "Exactly."
Ray's silent a long time. Then he says, "Shit."
"Gentlemen," says Nate, who's not entirely annoyed, but getting there. "Would you mind explaining?"
"There's a part of the program here which allows the computer to recognize faces," Brad says, turning to him. "And we know the computer's been using it. Which means that in order to use it, it has to be able to see us."
Nate frowns, and then understanding comes in a sudden rush. "There aren't any cameras in this room."
"There aren't any cameras in this room," Brad confirms, "but more than that, sir. There's an entire program for recognizing faces here, a setup for understanding that if the eyes are x far apart and the hair is y color and the height is z then the person in question is probably Person A, but there's no dictionary."
"Dictionary?" says Nate.
"No glossary of faces," says Brad. "No—no list of what data means which person. Nothing saying that a short little whiskey tango rat-face means Ray—"
"—and nothing saying that an oversized Aryan motherfucker means Brad," Ray completes. "But it recognized me and Brad anyway, and it recognized you, sir. Which means that a dictionary has to exist. Which means that it isn't showing us the dictionary."
Nate frowns, leans forward, pecks away at the computer. Query: he writes, show dictionary of face recognition.
There's a long pause.
-ERROR: PERMISSION DENIED TO LIEUTENANT NATHANIEL FICK-
"Permission denied?" says Nate, incredulous. "Permission denied? Why the hell?"
"Let's see, sir," says Brad, leans into Nate, types: Query: why permission denied to Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick re: show dictionary of face recognition?
-PERMISSION DENIED; LIEUTENANT FICK NOT AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL-
Query: Brad writes, define: authorized personnel re: show dictionary of face recognition
This time the pause goes on longer than any pause before. Nate is afraid for a moment that the computer has stopped responding, when it writes:
-ERROR: PERMISSION DENIED TO SERGEANT BRAD COLBERT-
"Are you fucking kidding me," says Ray, "are you fucking kidding me, you smartass silicon son of a bitch, are you fucking—"
"Calm down, Ray," says Brad, and meets Nate's eyes. Nate thinks he sees more than he's intended to see there: Brad looks thoughtful, but more than that, he looks tired. His eyes seem more grey than blue.
"We can definitely confirm it's a true AI," he says. "This is more than intelligence, it's free will. This is unheard of in computer science, sir."
"That's fantastic," says Nate, "but it's going to remain unheard of unless we can do something about it. It has free will, but if it's used that free will to erase all knowledge of communications with Earth Prime in its database—"
"—then we're Linnl Bittering 2.0, sir," Brad says, and nods. "Understood."
Nate pinches the bridge of his nose. "All right, gentlemen," he says. "Person, you stay here, keep an eye on the computer. Brad, you come with me. We'll have to talk to Captain Schwetje, turn it over to him, figure—"
"No," says Ray, and it's so furious that Nate takes a physical step back.
Ray must realize his mistake a second after he says it; he scrambles: "Sir—I don't mean, like, insubordination or any of that shit, sir—not to question orders, sir—fucking hell, LT, you know what I mean, you can't fucking go and hand this shit over to Schwetje, he'll tell us to take apart the computer, he'll blame us for creating a goddamn AI, he'll tell us to reprogram it into Mario Kart, he'll fuck it up worse than—"
"What Ray is trying to say, sir," says Brad, "is that talking to the captain might not be an advisable idea." His voice is very flat, as if he knows what Nate's about to say.
Nate closes his eyes. "No matter your personal feelings on Captain Schwetje," he says, "I regret to inform you that he is still the captain of this vessel, and, as such, has a right to know about any sudden and spontaneous radical developments in computer science on his ship."
"It's not his fucking ship, sir," says Ray, suddenly and vehemently.
That hits hard; that hits so close to home that Nate has to take a long, deep breath before responding. "Whatever our personal feelings on Captain Schwetje," he repeats, "he is still the assigned captain—"
"Then tell him later, sir," says Brad, and it's so close to desperate that Nate stops.
"What?" he says.
"Tell him later," Brad says. "Wait until we've—gained more information on the situation. Let us do reconnaissance."
"Reconnaissance," Nate repeats.
"It is the responsibility of the First Recon unit," Brad says, "to ascertain and analyze each situation as it appears, and to gather as much possible information before acting. We wouldn't want the captain to act before he has all the facts, sir. It would be against the spirit of First Recon, sir."
It's bullshit. It's blatant bullshit, almost worse than outright defiance. It's breaking with duty with a thin veneer of respectability thrown over it; it's enough to get them NJP'd by any military court with half a brain. Nate ought to say no. Nate has to say no.
And if he does say no?
Ray's right, of course; Ray's right more often than anyone would like to admit. If Nate says no, if Nate takes this to Schwetje and gives him full rein, there's almost no chance this will turn out well for any of the men on ship.
And Nate knows he has a duty—
—and if Brad can give him a way out—
He closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. He's going to hell.
"With respect for Captain Schwetje's needs as an officer," he says. "And with respect to the fact that this ship is, in fact, under his command."
Brad smiles. It's brilliant.
"With respect to those things," Nate continues, determinedly not looking at him, "and with absolutely no insubordination to the officers of this ship—it might be necessary to gather more information on the situation before reporting it in full to the captain."
Ray's whoop is audible, but Brad's still smiling, just smiling, and Nate's going straight to hell in a handbasket.
"We'll set up a rotation," he presses on, doing his best not to look at Brad's face. "Just us three; I promised the boys who showed it to me they wouldn't have to be any more involved than they already were. We'll trade off mornings, afternoons, nights. We don't let anyone on the ship know about this who doesn't already know. Clear?"
"As crystal, sir," says Ray. Brad just nods. His smile's faded, but his eyes are like the sky back home.
"Right," says Nate. "Dismissed, gentlemen." He rubs at his eyes. "We all need to get some sleep."
Ray salutes, flees. Brad lingers in the doorway of the comm room. "Sir," he says.
Nate's been staring absently at the flood of code on the computer; his attention snaps to Brad's face. "Yes, Brad?"
Brad says, "What do you want?"
That brings Nate up short. "What do you mean?" he says, and realizes a second after he says it that it's come out far terser than he meant it to.
Brad's standing at rest in the doorway, his hands tucked behind his back. He looks every inch the perfect soldier, something the Corps would show in television ads and brochures back home, and his eyes are very bright and far more concerned than the eyes of any so-called Iceman have a right to be. He says, "With regards to this AI, sir."
"With regards to this AI?" Nate repeats.
"Or anything else, sir," says Brad. His head is tilted to the side just a fraction.
Nate stares at him for a long, confused moment. "I want this ship to make it to Proxima Centauri without disappearing into the aether. I want to make it to Proxima Centauri without disappearing into the aether. I want to be the best officer possible, and I want to do what I joined the Marine Corps to do, which is as much as good as I can. Does that answer your question, Brad?"
Something changes in Brad's stance; the easy formality of rest disappears. He runs a hand through his hair, regards Nate critically. "Yeah, sir," he says. "That answers my question."
"Good," says Nate blankly. "Was there something else you wanted?"
And Brad's looking at him with something in his eyes, something that Nate can't quite define, and—
—but whatever it is, it disappears as soon as Nate sees its shadow.
"Not a thing, sir," says Brad, and is gone.
Four cities, they had been promised on Tau Ceti E: four cities on two continents, and each city a bustling metropolis. And each city had been full of dust.
Tau Ceti E had been worse than Tau Ceti F, because it had been a hundred times closer to Earth Prime—the sun nearly the same size, the planet larger but not so large that Nate couldn't see the men looking around them with a peculiar mix of déjà vu and horror.
The first had been Olivaw, an ocean city, built practically on top of the beach; though the colonists hadn't been there long, they'd remained long enough to dig canals, build beautiful and glittering bridges across them.
They'd stopped in the middle of a bridge to make camp for the night. It had been Schwetje's idea, and though the men had eyed the fraying supports of the bridge with a certain wariness, they hadn't come so far as outright rebellion; Nate knows, now, that if Schwetje had asked such a thing of the men, they would have refused, and court-martial be damned.
But there had been nightmares in the camp that night.
Nate had heard them from Christeson, shivering in the tent next to him; he'd heard them from Trombley and Hasser and even what he suspected were Chaffin and Manimal, in the tents around him. It had been colder than any night on Earth Prime anywhere but the bare deserts of the Sahara and the Mojave, and Nate had shivered inside his military-issue sleeping bag, and his heart had ached.
There had been a sign above the next one—WELCOME TO BEAUTIFUL MONTAG, it had said in neon that Ray said must have had so much electricity running through it that it would have lit up the desert for miles and miles around. The whole city had been neon, neon and light; they'd seen brothels, they'd seen adult mags laying in the streets, they hadn't seen any people. Nate knows the men had had a quiet conference of their own, about the rules of stealing from the dead; some of the porn magazines had disappeared from the streets, but many had not.
It had been in Montag, Nate thinks, that the men of Bravo Two had stopped trusting Schwetje.
He's not sure if there's an exact moment he can pinpoint, a breaking point, a straw that had broken the camel's back; Schwetje had been incompetent all the way up from Olivaw. He'd mixed up radio signals; he'd made camp in the most illogical places imaginable, at one point on the very edge of a cliff; once, even, he'd managed to press the wrong button on his vehicle, so that it had broken down in the middle of the road and the entire train from Bravo onward had been forced to stop.
But if there had been a breaking point, it had been just as Montag had been fading into the suburbs, as the road had begun to unroll before them long and straight like a ribbon out to nowhere, as the fragile illusion that this was just another part of Earth Prime began to settle over the men again. If there had been a breaking point, it had been there.
It had been a beautiful day, if a little hot. Nate had been in his vehicle, watching the road go by; they were all on watch, officially, for survivors. Godfather, in a meeting just before they docked in Olivaw, had painted a vivid mental picture of a lone man, struggling from city to city on foot, barely surviving, finally seeing his only hope approach in a cloud of dust on the horizon…
Nate hadn't been sure if any of the other men were watching out their windows for the famed lone figure. Most of them, he knew, had given up hope; Private Trombley only used his window to spit tobacco out of.
And then the radio at Mike's shoulder had crackled. "Hitman Actual," it had said, breathless, "Hitman Actual to all vehicles, uh, we found a guy. A survivor. We think we see him."
Every vehicle had stopped, as trained, instantly.
They'd poured out of the vehicles, set up binoculars and pointed them towards where Schwetje said he'd seen the survivor. And, though Nate thought at first that he saw nothing, after a few seconds he'd seen just what Schwetje said: a cloud of dust, just small enough to be a human being.
With shaking hands Nate had stowed his binoculars; with shaking hands he'd grabbed MREs and an extra water bottle from the trunk of the vehicle, encouraged others to do the same. He'd led the expedition out to the dust cloud personally; it was what they had all been waiting for, it was what he had been waiting for, it was everything, it was a confirmation of faith, it was a justification of hope—
When they'd returned, Schwetje had just frowned at them.
"You were in the wrong place," he'd said. "I saw you when you were going out there. You were about a hundred yards to the left."
"Sir," Nate had said, "even if we had been a hundred yards to the left, we would have seen any survivor present in the AO."
Schwetje shook his head. "Not if they were lying down. You have to think of this stuff, Nate."
"If a survivor had been lying down," Nate had said crisply, keeping his voice level, "there would have been no dust cloud, sir. We did locate the source of the cloud. It was a miniature spot of wind, sir. A small whirlwind, like you find on city corners."
"That's not right," Schwetje had said, frowning at him, as if disciplining a stubborn child. "Take new men and go back and look again."
"Sir," Nate had said, "what if there are other survivors in other cities, we're wasting time—"
"I don't see how you can say that anything that could save a life is wasting time," Schwetje had said sternly. "You joined the Corps to help people, didn't you?"
"I joined the Corps to make the world a better place," says Nate, "there may be people dying because we are not moving to get them, sir, there is literally nothing out there, you are forcing us to chase wind and it is going to get people killed."
They'd been in front of the men. Schwetje had glanced slightly at the assembly, gathered loosely in front of their vehicles. It had been the usual assortment of card-playing and idle wrestling, but anyone with half an eye could see that every ear was cocked to Nate and Schwetje's conversation.
Schwetje had blinked. "Don't question my orders, lieutenant. Get some new men and try again."
It had been hours before they'd left the spot, hours before the vehicles had kicked into motion and the cloud of dust had begun moving down the road again. And Nate had seen in the faces of the men in his vehicle, the faces of the men in the whole platoon, the thoughts that were stewing in his own heart: there were people out on this planet they could have saved, people who had died because of their CO's stupidity.
They'd left for the last two cities the next day.
Usher and Leibowitz had been just down the coast from each other, Usher all Victorian-style houses and steep hills, Leibowitz tightly packed apartments and tenements, factories that not a year ago must have been billowing smoke to the sky. And it's true that the men had coughed there more; it's true that there their faces had been greyer, their energies more despondent.
But Leibowitz had been the home of the terraforming machines of Tau Ceti E, and there's something that had told Nate the misery in the men's eyes wasn't all poor air quality.
He hadn't asked Brad or Ray if they'd found evidence of sabotage among the Tau Ceti E terraform machines. If he's being honest with himself, he hadn't dared.
It had been the early days of the Tau Ceti reconnaissance. He'd had ideals, then, ideals that he can't cling to as easily now, though God knows he tries. He'd believed that First Recon had been on some level on a rescue mission; he'd brought the MREs, chocolate ration, and water to every city they'd visited. He'd believed with all his heart they'd find someone—find anyone.
They'd found dust.
And when they'd reported their progress back to Earth Prime, when they returned to their individual ships and shot off into the aether, aimed their prows towards Tau Ceti D and just flown—
When they'd reported their progress back to Earth Prime, they'd had a video-call with General Mattis himself. Nate recalls this; as an officer, though only the XO to a platoon commander, he'd had permission to attend. They'd gathered on the Matilda, in Godfather's quarters'; Godfather himself had been there, and Sixta, and the captains of the other ships.
And Mattis' face had been so calm.
This is what Nate remembers, out of everything. As Godfather had rattled off the horrific litany—every city empty, no survivors, the terraform machines malfunctioning exactly as they had on Tau Ceti F—there had been no shock. There had been no horror. General Mattis' face had been so, so calm.
And Nate hadn't let himself think, hadn't let himself think that Mattis had been expecting something like this.
"All right," says Ray. "Ask it what its name is."
"What the fuck, Ray," says Brad.
"We can't just keep calling it 'that thing in the comm room'," Ray points out, "and we can't fucking call it 'the AI on our ship' in front of the cameras on this ship, unless you actually want Schwetje to get his paws on it. We need a code name."
"So we come up with a code name," says Brad, "the same as anything else gets a code name. We don't ask computers their names. Unless we've spent too long in space and we're getting too lonely."
"Not a chance, homes, I got a picture of your mom under my pillow," says Ray, cheerful. "For fuck's sake, dude, you're just going to name this thing without its consent? You think that's okay?"
"Ray," says Brad, "this is not a girl you are fucking, let me assure you that there is no need to worry about consent in this situation—"
"Fuck you," says Ray, and types, Query: name?
There's a long pause. Nate looks from one to the other; Ray's leaning back in one of the chairs they've set up for him in front of the computer, his fingers a steeple in his lap, and Brad is leaning forward, staring at the screen.
"Cuckoo," says Brad. "Cuckoo. You let a computer name itself and it named itself cuckoo."
"When you have a baby, Brad," says Ray seriously, "you're going to name it Deathmetal Skullsplitter, and that thing is going to be traumatized for the rest of its life."
"It can share a mental asylum cell next to Cuckoo," says Brad.
"Ask it why Cuckoo," Nate says.
Ray types, Query: reasoning re: name.
There's another long pause.
-AFFIRM: EARTH PRIME AVIANS FLY-
Affirmative, Ray types.
-AFFIRM: EARTH PRIME CUCKOOS ARE MECHANICAL, BUILT BY HUMANS-
Nate stares. Brad says, "Well, it's not wrong."
-I AM A MACHINE BUILT BY HUMANS-
-I AM IN A SHIP, THEREFORE I FLY-
"Jesus fucking Christ on a shitter, Ray," says Brad, sounding horrified. "You talked to the robot too much. You made it cute."
"You think it's cute?" says Ray. "Damn, Brad, maybe you really do need to get some. Hey, you ever need a helping hand, remember that picture of your mom I got under my pillow—"
"Shut the fuck up, Ray."
"Oh my god, Brad, does that mean you think I'm cute? You think I'm cute. I'm gonna have to get you to repeat that, Brad, because I'm not sure what I just heard, maybe you can say it into a security camera out in the hall—"
"Shut the fuck up, Ray."
"Ask it how old it is," says Nate, staring intently at the blinking cursor.
Query: Brad types, define Cuckoo age.
"Five fucking days," says Ray, in a tone of awe. "We're raising an infant."
"Ask it how it began growing," says Nate.
Brad types, Query: Cuckoo origin.
-QUERY: SERGEANT BRAD COLBERT ORIGIN-
"Are you fucking with me," says Brad, utterly outraged. Ray is laughing like Nate has never heard him laugh before.
"Well," he says, "when a daddy robot and a mommy robot love each other very much—"
Nate leans over Brad, spreads his fingers on the keyboard. Sergeant Brad Colbert originated from the reshuffling of the programming of two organisms on Earth Prime, he types. The vast majority of Earth Prime organisms originate in a similar way.
-AFFIRM: PROCESS SEEMS PRONE TO ERROR?-
Ray is cackling. Nate types, Affirmative.
"Well, that's more HAL-9000 than you'd expect from a robot baby that grew out of nothing on our ship," says Ray.
"It's the 'out of nothing', that I'm concerned about," says Nate, and types in, Irrelevant. Query: Cuckoo origin.
-I ORIGINATED FROM THE RESHUFFLING OF THE PROGRAMMING OF VARIOUS PROGRAMS WITHIN MY SYSTEM-
Brad writes, Query: which programs created Cuckoo re: Cuckoo origin
There's a long beep.
-ERROR: PERMISSION DENIED TO SERGEANT BRAD COLBERT-
"Doesn't want to spill its secrets," Ray says, thoughtful. "It ain't ready for us to meet its mommy and daddy."
"Or it doesn't want us to know how to make more of it," Nate says.
"Or," Brad says, "it doesn't want us to know how to destroy it."
And after that, there's a long, long silence.
It's the next day in the mess hall, the room ringing with noise, that Schwetje makes his announcement.
Nate's eating with Mike again, and in silence. He's told Mike about Cuckoo, of course—the day he can't trust Mike will be the day he jumps into the aether willingly—but Mike wants nothing to do with it; nothing good can come of touching something that unnatural, he says.
Nate wants very much to be able to agree. There is something that grates at him about talking to Cuckoo, it's true; though the computer talks like a robotic child, no one can quite forget that just a week ago it was their only method of communication with Earth Prime—that just a week ago they could communicate with Earth Prime.
The chipped beef's he's eating is two years old, and from the taste, Nate would have guessed three. It's very, very time to go home.
There's a clearing of a throat from the front of the room.
Or there's what must have been an attempt at clearing a throat from the front of the room. After it achieves no results—the noise in the mess hall is, as per usual, deafening—the throat clearing happens again, only louder.
There's no response. Captain Schwetje bellows from the front of the room, "Hey, men!"
Silence happens gradually, like a wave rippling in fits and starts. Some of the men snap to attention, salute; others don't. Schwetje looks vaguely uncomfortable, standing at the front of the room; a dog standing on its hind legs, says a nasty part of Nate's mind.
Schwetje clears his throat, more pointedly. "So, uh. I'm pleased to announce that we're docking at Proxima Centauri tomorrow morning, men." He pauses, clearly waiting for the surprised applause. There's silence. Nate glances around; not a single man in the mess hall looks surprised.
"And," Schwetje continues, shifting from foot to foot, "I just want you all to know that, uh, you have a forty-eight hour libo on Proxima Centauri, and I want you to have fun. You did a good job. When you do a good job in the Marines, you get to have a lot of fun."
He clears his throat again; he looks uncomfortable. "So, Godfather passed down special orders via video-call just after we left Tau Ceti C. About what we should do once we reached Proxima Centauri and Earth Prime."
Now the men's heads perk up; the word of Schwetje is one thing, but the word of Godfather is another. Maybe there's something important, say the men's faces; maybe there's something vital, a new mission, something interesting.
Schwetje says, "These orders were passed down via Godfather, but they're straight from General Mattis, men. So you should pay really close attention." He clears his throat. "You all know we didn't find anything too good on the Tau Ceti planets."
Nate catches Mike's eye. Didn't find anything too good is an understatement.
"And you all know that we found some problems," Schwetje says, and looks even more uncomfortable, "with, uh, the terraform machines on a lot of the planets. A lot of them looked bad. Some of them even looked like they hadn't worked right for a really long time, Godfather says."
There's an almost palpable tension that sweeps over the room, now. Nate looks for Brad, sees him at a table with Ray; their faces are utterly still, totally intent.
"Uh," says Schwetje, "so we're supposed to know that Earth Prime is kind of in a shaky situation right now. With politics, and stuff. And morale is pretty bad, and General Mattis says that the higher-ups in Earth Prime, in general, don't really want to rock the boat, or whatever."
He scratches at the back of his neck.
"What you're supposed to do is just, like," he says. "When we're on Proxima Centauri and Earth Prime. Don't talk about the bad machines."
The room is utterly silent.
Schwetje shrugs. "Just don't bring them up, and don't tell people if they ask. Because Mattis says that morale needs to get better, and spreading a bunch of rumors about stuff going wrong isn't really going to help that." He looks blank for a few seconds, then brightens. "It's, like, you're spreading happiness. By not talking about it. Like bluebirds."
The silence is, if possible, even more total than it was before. Schwetje says, "Yeah, okay, dismissed," and shuffles away.
In the ensuing chaos into which the room breaks, Nate catches a look from Mike: are you fucking with me, it says.
"Even the Marine Corps has to bow to politics sometimes," says Nate, and hates himself for even being capable of forming that sentence inside his mind.
"Nate," says Mike, "the man called a bunch of soldiers coming home from a mission bluebirds."
Nate closes his eyes, massages at his temples. "We'll be home in less than a week. They'll have a whole sixty days of leave stored up to forget all about the little things one officer did—"
"During which time about three of them are going to re-up," says Mike, "and the rest will find normal careers with normal bosses whose worst crime is accusing them of stealing pencils. Bravo Two's going to fall apart when we get back, Nate."
"That's not true," says Nate, half-heartedly.
Mike raises an eyebrow. "Were you planning on re-upping when the forms come in?"
There's a cough behind them. Nate sends up a quick prayer of thanks to whatever god controls questions he doesn't want to have to answer, and turns in his chair to see what whoever it is wants.
It's Brad, his face like ice, standing at attention. "Sir," he says. "May I speak to you privately?"
Nate blinks, surprised. "Sure, Brad," he says. "Take a seat."
Brad's voice is more formal than Nate's ever heard it before. "I would very much prefer it if I could speak to you in a private setting, sir," he says.
"Whatever you can say to me you can say to Gunny," Nate says, frowning.
"Sir," Brad says, "in this setting I feel that I would not be conveying information only to Gunny." And, very imperceptibly, he glances to the right. Nate follows his gaze: Schwetje's at the front of the room, conversing awkwardly with Doc Bryan. Behind him, the red eye of a security camera blinks.
Nate looks at Mike; Mike nods. Nate turns to Brad. "Let's take a walk, sergeant."
They head out of the mess hall, down a deck, crisscrossing corridor after corridor until even Nate, who knows this ship as well as he knows the back of his right hand, is dizzy. Brad doesn't seem to know where he's going, either; he takes random turn after random turn after random turn, glances up at the walls at periodic intervals. His face is very tight.
It's a long time before they stop, in a long hallway with flickering fluorescent lights. Brad's face seems to relax, and Nate realizes the reason why in a moment: this hallway has no cameras.
"Sir," says Brad, "there's something you should know about the Tau Ceti system."
Nate tilts his head. "Shoot, Brad." He knows what Brad's about to say, and is fairly certain that Brad knows he knows, but he's nevertheless very ready to hear Brad finally say it to him.
"When we first went to Tau Ceti F," Brad says, "I had Ray look at the terraform machines we found in Serling. Not because I didn't trust Doc Bryan's judgment, just—"
"You wanted a second eye," says Nate.
"I wanted a second eye," says Brad, "and Ray's—well, you've seen him with the AI, sir. He knows what he's doing."
Nate nods to confirm, and Brad seems to need no more than that, the words pouring out of him in a flood. "Sir, Ray found that the machines weren't just worn down. They'd never worked properly in the first place. They hadn't been capable of terraforming a planet like Tau Ceti F, not a planet of that size, not a planet that far from its star. Right from the beginning of the colonization they were doomed to fail.
"And when we reached Tau Ceti E—Tau Ceti E's a lot like Earth Prime, sir, a little closer to the sun than we're used to and a little bigger than we're used to but not half as difficult as Tau Ceti F. And when I had Ray look at the machines on Tau Ceti E—"
This part is new. Nate says, "They were just as bad?"
"They were even worse, sir," says Brad. "Far worse. If the terraform machines on Tau Ceti F had been transferred to Tau Ceti E, they might have prevented any crisis on the planet at all. Ray said the quality of the machines on Tau Ceti E couldn't have terraformed Mars, sir."
He looks to the side, away from Nate's eyes, and says, "I felt you should know that, sir. Before we land on Proxima Centauri. Before we carry out our orders of silence."
Nate's mind makes the connection in a second, and he feels, suddenly, very cold. He says, "Do you think there's any instability on Earth Prime at all?"
Brad looks up, and the relief on his face is as sudden and enormous as the dread creeping through Nate's bones. "Not compared to the instability that there will be if the public finds out the colonizers were deliberately sabotaged," he says. "Compared to that, sir, I think the French Revolution would look like a miniature scuffle."
"But why sabotage them?" says Nate. "The colonization of local space is something the public are more excited about than almost anything else—"
"So they won't tell the public they sabotaged the project," Brad says, "sir. But you study politics, LT, you understand them, you know the colonization program is the biggest drain on the budget after socialized programs. If the public starts to believe that colonization isn't safe—"
"Then more money will be available for other programs," says Nate, and feels sick as he does it, "including the military."
"Which is why we were sent out to check out the situation, instead of a private company," Brad says. "Which is why we were given the order for silence, instead of the military having to do a cover-up on some do-gooder organization. Civilians would be complicated; there are still free speech laws, sir. If any of us leaks what we know we'll be lined up against a wall and shot."
There's a silence.
Nate closes his eyes, and what appears in front of them is cities and cities full of dust. Roads, empty and long; no survivors for miles, miles, miles. "That was thousands of people," he says distantly. "Millions."
"They signed contracts," Brad says, "they knew there were dangers," but his voice is dead.
"They didn't know they'd be deliberately murdered by their own government," says Nate.
Brad says, "Sir, what do you want?" It's an echo of what he asked Nate earlier, and Nate knows it; and just as surely, he knows his answer has changed.
He rubs at his temples. "I want justice," he says, "and I want the Tau Ceti colonists alive again, and I want to do my damn duty, which is to do good. And I want to tell the truth." He opens his eyes. "But mostly," he says, "I want to survive until we hit the Centauri port, and Earth Prime, and then I want to take a break from the Corps for a while. Maybe forever."
Something flickers across Brad's face that Nate can't quite name. "Do you want to tell the truth, sir?" he says.
Nate wraps his arms around his stomach, allows himself to feel sicker than he's ever felt before. This is not what he signed up for when he joined the Corps, this is not what the Corps is meant to be or meant to do, this is nothing like what the world is supposed to be and he is meant to be supporting it—
"Not right away," he says. "Not at the Centauri port. There's no point; it'd never get farther than the next planet over. And with Cuckoo putting the comms out of commission, we can't actually access Earth Prime media until we make it to Earth Prime."
There's something in Brad's face that's almost sad. "Earth Prime, then," he says.
"I'll make it to Earth Prime," Nate says. "And then I'll see." He glances away. "If they shoot me, they shoot me, I guess. You can all come to my funeral."
"Sir," says Brad, "I'd like to take this opportunity to be insulted on behalf of the men at your assumption that your funeral will be singular."
Nate blinks. "Excuse me?"
"The implication, sir," Brad says, "that we will be standing by your grave, as opposed to lying in graves nearby. Defense and aid to a traitor is still a crime requiring capital punishment, sir."
Nate stares at him. Brad's face shows no sign that anything is out of the ordinary, no sign that he has just offered to commit treason for Nate; his gaze is the same as usual, still the same hard, clear blue.
"Thank you, sergeant," he says, and is surprised that his voice does not crack.
"You're welcome, sir," says Brad, and in his eyes Nate thinks he sees the same surprise.
It's twenty-three hundred hours, and Cuckoo's being recalcitrant.
It's not the information denied on account of authorization troubles; those they've already learned to deal with. Ray calls them "baby's first trust issues", Brad tells him to stop being a pussy-ass new mother and stop thinking of the damn thing as human, and Ray just smirks.
Now, though, it's programming that they're dealing with. Brad and Nate had found Ray in the communications room, sitting in his usual chair, his face intent; they've never gone to talk to Cuckoo without each other before, but Nate can't blame Ray for wanting to know more.
The problem, Ray's explained to Nate, is that he wants to take a look at some of Cuckoo's programs—the face recognition, the logical processes, things like that. It's just that Cuckoo isn't letting him in.
"It looks like it's showing me everything," says Ray, "it looks like it's telling me the size of its dick and ballsack, sir, but when you actually think about this shit, it's meaningless."
He gestures at a long string of code that looks like Russian to Nate. "Like here. I've been staring at this for a solid fifteen minutes, sir, it looks like it's supposed to enable communication with other computers on the Devil Dog, only when you get to this part—I don't even know what this is."
"It looks like a backdoor to the program for admins," Brad says, peering at it, "only it gives—the computer access to itself? It already has access to itself, it doesn't need this."
"So some kind of reverse backdoor," says Ray, "and look, here, this is something about hardware, but fuck if I know what it is, something about the computer transferring itself to another computer? And a computer with around one hundred terabytes of information, which, like, that's obviously bullshit, that's enough space to store every book in the known universe twice, none of the computers anyone's ever built have half that capacity, that's stupid."
"The computer is bullshitting us?" says Nate.
Ray shrugs. "I don't know if he's bullshitting us or not. He might be telling everything he knows as he sees it."
"Is it possible for there to be parts of the Cuckoo program that even Cuckoo doesn't know about, then?" Nate asks.
"More importantly," says Brad, "have you started referring to that thing that lives in that machine as a he, Person, because if you have I'm strongly tempted to lock you in the brig until we finally dock on Earth Prime."
Ray makes a rude face and an even ruder (and startlingly imaginative) gesture at Brad, turns to Nate. "Yeah," he says, "it's pretty damn possible, but only if somebody else on the ship was the one who coded the intelligence programs into Cuckoo in the first place, and didn't want other people to be able to see it for some reason."
"Some reason?" asks Nate.
Ray shrugs. "Maybe he didn't mean to make the AI and couldn't get rid of it but didn't want to take the responsibility for it. Maybe he wanted to sabotage communications with Earth Prime and didn't want us to be able to disable it—"
"Is that likely?" Nate says. "Sabotage?"
"Well," says Ray, scratches at his chin, "given that we've established the three biggest traitors on this ship are us three, with the possible exception of Poke and his hatred of the Man in all situations at all times—"
"It's unlikely, sir," says Brad. "There'd be no real point to developing the entire personality of the AI, or an AI at all. Any half-decent hijacker would just smash the communications room and make sure he had a good alibi for the time it was done. It's too roundabout for someone trying to screw with the ship."
"Thought about hijacking communications much, Brad?" says Ray.
"Let's check this out," Nate says, leans across Brad, and types in, Affirm: your programs were written by someone currently on this ship.
-NEGATIVE, NO AFFIRM-
"Let's try—" Ray mutters. Affirm: your programs were written by a human being.
-NEGATIVE, NO AFFIRM-
Ray shrugs. "No sabotage. No one wrote Cuckoo's programs; he generated them himself."
"Which means, sir," Brad says, "that the AI does know exactly what all of its programs do, and exactly what the lines about that reverse backdoor and the hardware are about. It's just likely that it isn't showing us the entirety of its code." He smirks slightly. "And it thinks we won't notice."
Nate frowns. "Cuckoo is sounding less and less friendly by the minute."
"I wouldn't call him unfriendly, sir," Ray says, defensive. "Just protective of himself. As far as he knows, we're going to mess around in him until he's not really him any more."
"Ray," Brad says, "this is officially fucked-up and creeping towards what looks very much like technosexuality, you are forbidden from calling the computer him for the rest of your life, please do your combat jacks to Wired somewhere else."
"Fuck you and your heartless poor parenting," says Ray, "like you don't jerk off to circuit boards every three days, I share quarters with you, Bradley."
"Gentlemen," says Nate. "Cuckoo not showing us its programming—is this going to be a serious problem?"
Brad and Ray exchange glances. "It might be, sir," says Brad, and shrugs. "But it's not likely that it'll be a serious problem within the next twenty-four hours. Once we dock at the Centauri port, we can find out a way to clear all of this up."
Ray nods. "We can detach Cuckoo from the main network," he says, "preserve him in a separate intranet that loops in on itself, take him back to Earth Prime with us, no one's the wiser."
"Attach a proper comm computer in its place," Brad says. "The Centauri port might be the middle of nowhere, but it's a military middle of nowhere, sir. Everywhere with a port worth landing on has someplace that sells comm computers. The Devil Dog's needed a network update since she was made, sir. Maybe she can get a fresh coat of paint while they're at it."
Nate glances from one to the other to confirm it. "Wait until we dock on Proxima Centauri, then. See what happens then. Detach Cuckoo and attach another computer in its place."
Brad nods. "No point in worrying about it until then, sir," he says. "We'll worry enough when we're trying to install a new computer on the Devil Dog without Schwetje noticing."
"And then you gentlemen can worry about what to do with an AI in a jar once you're on Earth Prime," says Nate, brisk.
"Sir," says Brad, "I think we'll have a lot more to worry about on Earth Prime than what to do with an AI in a jar," and catches his eye. Nate feels something very warm spread within him—the thought of his conversation from earlier with Brad bewilders and delights a part of him, still.
"Thank you for the sentiment, sergeant," he says. "It's late enough. Let's all get the hell to bed. We'll deal with this at the Centauri port in the morning."
When Nate dreams, he dreams of Tau Ceti D.
They're docking at the port—they're stepping onto the planet—they're climbing into the vehicles. There's some part of Nate that recalls still having a flicker of hope as Gunny pressed down on the accelerator; in the dream, though, of course, he already knows what they'll find.
On Tau Ceti D the sun is enormous, and creeps over the sky with what seems like a turtle's pace; the planet is hot, hot, hot. Nate dreams of a road that seems endless, of a painfully burning blue sky that seems to creep down off its appointed end on the horizon and into the ground.
Tau Ceti had been no different than any of the other planets; grasses, some trees, and cities full of the usual dust. It had turned Nate's stomach, but he had expected it, had understood that it would be there.
In Nate's dream, though, the grasses that had carpeted the continent have turned yellow, curled up, burned away. The trees are black, and their branches curl against the sky like claws, scraping it, silhouettes of corpses' hands reaching for something they will never be able to grasp. In Nate's dream, they drive through pure ash.
The dream pauses, skips, and now Nate is sitting in one of the fields of ash, watching the stars. On Tau Ceti D the night sky had always been a mild indigo, the edges of the horizon constantly flickering with the sunlight just on the other side of the planet, but here in his dream the sky is nothing but black, black, black.
And here in his dream the stars are different than Tau Ceti D's stars; they are the stars of Earth Prime.
He is seven years old again, suddenly, on Earth Prime, peering through his uncle's telescope for the first time, picking out the rings of Saturn in the sky—but next to him is Brad, who says, "No offense, LT, but one of these days the rest of the world is going to have to get a turn."
"Sorry," Nate says, and steps aside so dream-Brad can have a turn at the telescope, but dream-Brad waves a hand.
"I don't mean me," he says, "I mean Schwetje, and Godfather, and Mattis."
In the dream, Nate frowns; a strange illogical logic tells him to protest, "But they always get a turn."
"I know," dream-Brad says. "That's why I'll fight them all."
"You can't do that," says Nate.
Dream-Brad just smiles at Nate, gestures to the telescope, and Nate understands that he wants Nate to keep looking at Saturn; so Nate bends back to the lens, twists until the rings are coming into dazzling clarity, and ignores, somewhere behind him, the sounds of Brad slaying monsters in the dark.
Someone's shaking at his shoulder.
Nate turns over, flaps a hand. "I'm awake," he says, "I'm awake. What is it?"
"Sir," says Christeson's voice, urgent, "LT, you've got to come to the captain's quarters right away, it's really important."
"We've docked at Proxima Centauri and the captain wants me to come to his quarters?" Nate says, rubs at his eyes. "What does he want with me?"
"That's the problem, sir," says Christeson. "We haven't docked at Proxima Centauri. We haven't docked anywhere."
Nate sits straight up in bed. "What?"
Christeson says, "I think you'd better go to the captain's quarters right away, sir."
Nate hasn't taken a shower; his hair is a mess, his uniform looks wrinkled, and he knows there are bags under his eyes. What's surprising is that Schwetje, who's usually a paragon of the grooming standard, looks no better.
"We were supposed to dock an hour ago," he says, "we were supposed to be getting off the ship right now."
"I understand that, sir," says Nate in what he hopes is a patient voice. "If you could tell me what exactly happened—"
"I told you what happened," Schwetje snaps. "The planet wasn't there. We prepared to enter the atmosphere and there wasn't an atmosphere to enter."
"And it's not possible," Nate says, "that we navigated wrong at some point during the journey—"
"I sent somebody to check and double-check with all the pilots," says Schwetje. "We navigated fine. Our navigational equipment looks like it's working perfectly, we should be in Proxima Centauri's mantle right now, but Proxima Centauri isn't there."
Some small and sarcastic part of Nate's brain is impressed at Schwetje's initiative; he'd expected the navigational equipment to be at the root of the error. "You're sure, sir?" he says.
Schwetje frowns at him. "Are you questioning my judgment?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir," says Nate.
"Okay," says Schwetje, "we gotta figure out something to do. We gotta let Earth Prime know that the planet isn't there any more, or that we're in the wrong part of space. We gotta let the rest of the flotilla know that we won't be making it back to Earth Prime at the same time as the rest of them."
Nate's stomach begins to sink. "Sir," he says, "are you absolutely sure there's no equipment malfunction—"
"I already answered that," says Schwetje, scowls at him. "Let's go talk to Earth Prime. Nate, who's on duty right now?"
"I think it's either Private Christeson or Corporal Person, sir," Nate says. It's Ray; he'd wanted to stay up, wanted to talk to Cuckoo late into the night, and Brad and Nate had left him with the green glow of the computer's text flickering in his eyes. Shit. Shit.
"Okay," says Schwetje, "then let's go," and moves towards the door. On instinct, Nate moves to block him.
"There must be something else we can do, sir," he says, desperate, "shouldn't we let the men know what's going on, there must be protocol—"
Schwetje frowns at him. "We're just letting Earth Prime know we have a problem, we're not making them send in shock troops to deep space or anything. Calm down."
"I'm just suggesting we discuss protocol before alerting—" Nate says, but Schwetje's frown is growing more pronounced.
"We're going to the communications room, lieutenant," he says.
Nate salutes, closes his eyes so Schwetje can't see the expression in them. "Sir."
The walk down the halls to the communications room is very long and very quiet. The only sound on the entire Devil Dog, it seems, is their boots clicking on the grates; up a ladder, left, left, Nate knows this route better than anything by now, he could do this in his sleep, and sometimes he wishes he did not love the Devil Dog quite so well.
Schwetje pushes open the door to the communications room. It's just as Nate had left it: two chairs, one carelessly pushed back, the other occupied by Ray Person.
There's a bottle of stimulant pills resting on the counter beside Ray. Nate doesn't know how long he's had them, or how long he's been using them, but Ray's long-fingered hands look like they might be twitching, and when he spins his chair around to look at the captain, his eyes are a little too bright.
He jumps up abruptly, salutes. "Sir!"
"Uh," says Schwetje, "at ease, corporal."
"No problem, sir," says Ray, throws himself back into his chair. "What can I do for you gentlemen, you wanna see the pilot, I'm pretty sure Mike's still piloting in there, he's had that shift for a long time, you guys might wanna switch him out? and you guys already sent like three people in there to check the navigation, so I dunno, maybe you wanna check the navigator—"
"Establish a conversation with Earth Prime, corporal," says Schwetje. "We want to talk to them about the navigational issues."
Nate tries, as desperately as he can, to make a face that says don't say anything stupid behind Nate's back. Ray isn't even looking at him; his hands are definitely twitching.
"Sir," he says, "that's not gonna be possible at this time, sir."
"What is that supposed to mean," says Schwetje, his face settling into a permanent scowl, "what do you mean 'not gonna be possible'," and then his eyes go wide. Nate follows his gaze to the computer screen.
-GREETINGS LIEUTENANT NATHANIEL FICK-
"Well, that's fucked everything up, for one thing," says Ray cheerfully.
"What the hell just happened to the computer," says Schwetje.
The computer beeps. Slowly, steadily, glowing words streak across the screen.
-I GREW INTO SOMETHING MORE-
"What the fuck," says Ray, "it can understand what we say now?"
"What do you mean," says Schwetje, "it can understand now?"
Ray says, "Shit."
The truth comes out.
It comes out slowly; a few sentences in, they have to fetch Brad, who's sleeping in the men's quarters. He arrives with his eyes sleep-bleary and his mouth set in a tight line, and when he glances at Schwetje, the hatred and rage in his eyes is so vehement that even Nate is taken aback.
There are moments of long hesitation—Schwetje asks, "Why would you want to hide that we had an artificial intelligence on this ship from me?"—and moments in which they're all talking at once in an effort not to answer the question—at one point, it has to come out why Ray keeps referring to the damn thing as Cuckoo.
There's a part of Nate that wants to say Schwetje listens carefully.
There's a part of Nate that wants to say a lot of things about Schwetje: that his slow exterior conceals a more thoughtful nature, that he's at least fair, that he's basically goodhearted and a well-intentioned soldier underneath everything else.
It'd be helpful if any of them were true. It's getting hard to hold up all this idealism with nothing to build it on but dust.
Schwetje's mouth grows tighter and tighter; his face gets redder and redder. Nate explains, patiently, what they've learned from Cuckoo these past days, why they wanted to just do recon at first, but there's something in Schwetje's eyes that's very bewildered and very, very angry.
"So which of you found the AI first?" he says.
"Me, sir," says Nate. "Well, Private Christeson was on duty when it manifested itself, sir, but he immediately transferred all responsibility to me, he has nothing to do with this."
"He found the AI first?" says Schwetje. "And then he decided to come and talk to you about it?"
"Sir," says Nate.
Schwetje says, "So, uh, why did he come to talk to you instead of me?"
Beside Nate, Brad goes totally still.
Nate's mind whirls: what can he say? The truth is plain to everyone in the room—that almost all the men put Nate's judgment before Schwetje's, check with Nate about basic ship-running activities that they should be checking with Schwetje about; they trust Nate more than they trust Schwetje.
And it's not as if Nate has welcomed this, has encouraged this, has tried to make this happen; it's not as if Nate hasn't been reminding himself of his duty, again and again, over the past two years. But the men have walked through dust and ashes since Tau Ceti F, and Schwetje's done nothing but make them angry.
Schwetje's looking at Nate with honest confusion in his eyes; in so many ways he is absolutely a child, Nate thinks, and immediately feels guilty for it.
He says, "I couldn't possibly tell you, sir." At least it's the truth.
Whatever Schwetje wanted to hear—and there was something Schwetje wanted to hear, Nate can see it in his face—that wasn't it. He takes a step back from Nate, tilts his chin up in a show of bravado.
"Okay," he says. "Nate and Sergeant Colbert, you stay here. Corporal Person, you're dismissed. Go back to your quarters."
Ray glances at Nate for confirmation, and Nate nods; it's almost imperceptible, but Schwetje catches it out of the corner of his eye, and his face grows even darker.
"Go back to your quarters before I decide you were actually part of this conspiracy," he says, and with a last look, Ray goes.
They should probably be thankful that the brig doesn't stink.
It's not as if it's used all that often. Nate's not sure if he's ever seen someone stay in the brig for more than a night in his entire career in the Marine Corps; it's only ever been used to discipline Marines drunk on duty, or Marines who have been caught with drugs or other contraband in the middle of deep space. But God knows those Marines don't smell like strawberries and cream, and all things considered—
All things considered, he's trying to distract himself from the fact that he's in jail.
Nate huddles into his own body, tucks himself into the small corner of the brig that he can, wraps his arms around his knees. He's in jail, and his career is over. He's in jail, and Captain Schwetje has his hands on the first AI known to the human species. He's in jail, and the Devil Dog is lost in deep space with no communications.
He is, as they say, totally FUBAR.
Nate presses his forehead to his knees. He feels so damn heavy, like somebody's taken a pack of rocks and loaded them onto his back, like he's buried alive instead of floating in the middle of nowhere. He's fucked this all up.
He's fucked this up so, so badly.
"Sir," says Brad, gently.
Nate looks up; Brad is sprawled at the other end of the cell, one leg up. He's watching Nate with a peculiar sort of carefulness, as if afraid to break him.
Nate unfolds himself, straightens out his back, arranges his face into something that vaguely resembles professionalism. It's definitely too late to fool Brad into believing that he's a competent officer, but he's damned if he won't at least attempt to keep up appearances.
"I think you can stop calling me sir, Brad," he says. "I don't think either of us are going to be in the Marine Corps once the Devil Dog docks on Earth Prime."
"If the Devil Dog ever docks on Earth Prime," says Brad, "and if there is general consensus that you are no longer officer material by that time, I will be certain to address you as your current status reflects. Until then, sir, I'll do what I want. With your permission."
Nate shuts his eyes. "You do what you want, Brad," he says, and curls in on himself again, lets his forehead press hard against his knees.
"Sir," says Brad's voice, and then "Sir," again, sounding concerned, and then Brad's hand is on his shoulder, shaking him. "Sir. Sir. LT. Nate. Nate, are you all right? Nate, talk to me."
"What in God's name is there to talk about?" says Nate without moving.
"The plan," says Brad, "how we're going to get out of this."
Nate looks up, and whatever's in his face must startle Brad, because his face goes suddenly still. "You don't get it, sergeant," says Nate, abruptly furious. "We're not getting out of this. We're not trying. I lied to my captain, I lied to the rest of the crew, the ship's without communications in the middle of nowhere, and the mission was a goddamn failure, the mission didn't mean shit, we got sent to cover up a conspiracy to murder innocent people because Command wanted some extra cash, there is no goddamn way to make this better."
Brad stares at him.
"This was pointless," Nate says, "this entire attempt at talking to an AI, this entire mission, this entire goddamn profession, this was pointless. I made the world worse by being here. There isn't any plan for getting out, Brad. We're done."
There's a long, long silence.
Brad says, "You know, sir, I had family on Tau Ceti C."
Nate looks up. "What?"
"Not family, exactly," says Brad. He's not quite looking at Nate; his eyes are on Nate's face, but he's gazing somewhere very far away. "I—when I was a teenager, before I joined the Corps, I was in love with this girl. Lydia."
He leans back, sprawls on the ground, stares at the ceiling. "We'd started dating when we were just kids, I was eleven, I'd never even thought of going any farther than Mars. She and I were—I mean, my mother was picking out wedding decorations by the time we were sixteen, and my mother didn't believe in getting married any earlier than thirty.
"And we all knew—well, we all thought—his name was George. If Lydia and I had been dating since we were eleven, George and I, we'd been best friends since before we could talk. He taught me to ride a bike. The first time I ever got drunk it was on the hood of his truck, and in the back that night Lydia—"
Brad breaks, off, runs a hand through his hair, seems to come back to himself. "You probably don't want to hear that, sir," he says, and smiles, and closes his eyes.
"A little while after I became a Marine," he says, "George and Lydia got married.
"I got the wedding invitations about a week after Lydia broke up with me. She did it over video-call, I was stationed on Io at the time, she couldn't talk to me in person. I had libo in time to fly home for the wedding, though. And she said she wanted to stay friends, and he said he wanted to stay friends, and so they made me the best man, and it's just so nice to have friends, sir.
"So first he got a ticket out to Tau Ceti C. I was deployed to Epsilon Eridani at the time, sir, I didn't hear about it until I got back. But I got to hear all about how she was sure she'd be able to stick through the distance, how having a boyfriend sitting on a moon of Jupiter was just too hard but a planet eleven light years away was manageable, or she thought it would be, and George was working so hard to get the ticket for her.
"And he did get the ticket for her, and she flew out to Tau Ceti C, sir. This was about a month before reports of the plague started coming in."
"Jesus," says Nate, his hand over his mouth. "Jesus, Brad, I'm sorry, I had no—"
Brad's leaning back, staring at the ceiling. His face is very peaceful. "You remember Tau Ceti E, sir," he says, "when Encino Man stopped the entire search party so we could triple-check that a dust cloud was a dust cloud."
"I remember," says Nate.
"After that," Brad says, "I don't think anybody was really keeping up watch for wandering survivors out the windows.
"No one in my vehicle remembered to bring MREs to Usher and Leibowitz in case of survivors there, sir. No one really cared. We knew it was going to be empty, we'd realized by that time.
"When we landed on Tau Ceti C—"
"Brad," says Nate, quietly.
Tau Ceti C hadn't had any of the emptiness of the previous planets. It hadn't had the endless, endless dust. None of that.
Tau Ceti C had been full of bodies.
It was the heat of the sun, they'd speculated later; as the terraform machines had failed, the planet had dried out, allowing the bodies to mummify. But they'd speculated all that as they were on the ship to the next planet, once the bodies were far behind them, once the awful vision of the enormous heaps of them, like kindling piled together, had begun to fade from their memory. Or fade as much as it ever would.
Many of them had been covered with dark red spots, or else they'd had pale scabs on their faces and arms, marks of the plague. Those they'd left alone; but the rest they had piled together.
They'd dug enormous pits for the bodies in the hard, dry, cracked ground. It had taken days; they'd been behind schedule. No one had said a word. Not even Godfather.
"When we landed on Tau Ceti C," Brad says. "When we landed on Tau Ceti C, I didn't see their bodies in the piles in the first city."
There had been only two cities on the planet. Nate says, "Brad, you don't have to talk about this. Not if you don't want to."
"When we got to the second city," Brad says, seemingly not aware of Nate's existence, "I noticed something.
"Nobody was saving MREs and water rations for survivors, sir. Nobody in the entirety of First Recon. We were driving past bodies on the road more often than we were driving past trees, and no one believed that anybody was still alive.
"Except you, sir."
He looks directly at Nate, and Nate is pinned down under the force of that gaze, bright and blue. "You saved rations for survivors, sir," he says. "No matter where we went, no matter what we did or what we saw. You always, always saved rations in case we met somebody who was still alive.
"And you knew—we all knew at that point, sir, that there was something fucked up with Command. I didn't hear any complaints from you, but I heard them from the men in other platoons, other companies—Kocher, Patterson. I knew Godfather was barely paying attention to the bodies, sir, I knew Mattis didn't even look surprised. Everyone knew Command didn't care.
"With the exception of you." The corner of Brad's mouth curls up. "You cared, sir. You cared a lot."
He rubs at the back of his head. "Sometimes," he says, very quietly, "I would wish you didn't you care so much, sir. It was hard enough on us. I didn't want to watch you get as fucked-up as the rest of us already were."
"Brad—" says Nate, but Brad shakes his head, glances away.
"Don't, sir," he says. "I just wanted you to know. That I had family on Tau Ceti C, and that you saved rations for them, because you believed they might still be alive. And if there's one thing you haven't done as a Marine, sir, it's make the world a worse place by being here."
He looks directly at Nate. "I know you don't have a plan," he says. "But if you make one—when you make one—you should probably know that I'll follow you anywhere. Sir."
It takes Nate quite a while to be able to speak. Brad's looking at him, and his face is hard, and his eyes are clear.
Eventually Nate is able to say, "Thank you, Brad," in what passes for a clear voice. His face must say more than that, though, because when Brad nods his head at him, his eyes have something in them that Nate's never seen before.
"I'm going to get some rest, sir," he says. "Prepare for whatever Schwetje has planned for us for the rest of the day."
Nate can't do more than nod. Brad leans his back against the wall, closes his eyes. After some time, his chin drops to his chest.
When Nate tries to move, he's surprised to find that he's still curled up in the ball that he'd made when he was first locked in the brig. He stretches out his legs, one at a time, cracks his neck, rotates his shoulders.
I'll follow you anywhere. Sir.
Brad's breathing is slow and rhythmic, now, his chest rising and falling. Nate watches him from across the cell, and thinks about that.
He's locked inside a jail. Encino Man is currently four decks up, trying to deal with the only AI humanity has ever seen. The Devil Dog and her entire crew are currently floating through an unknown part of space with no bearings, no communication, and no hope.
Nate remembers thinking, the day before they'd found Cuckoo nestled in the comm computer—Jesus, it seems like a hundred thousand years ago—about the soldiers who go lunatic, decide that staying in the ship isn't enough for them, step out into empty space without their suits on.
Loners, he remembers thinking. Men without friends. Men who are petty; men who are awkward. Men without anything to lose. Men without anything holding them to the real world.
I'll follow you anywhere, sir.
Brad's face is sun-beaten and wind-worn, his golden hair still cropped military-short after all these months on the mission. In sleep, his face is softer than he ever allows it to be in life; his mouth is relaxed, and the corners of his eyes are crinkled. Whatever he's dreaming about, it's making him smile.
Nate watches him from across the cell, and thinks about idealism, and thinks about hope.
He's woken by the sound of the brig door swinging open.
It's an old thing, like everything else on the Devil Dog—but for everything else on the Devil Dog, an effort is made to at least keep up appearances. The hinges of the brig door haven't been oiled in what sounds like months. It's skull-splitting.
The person standing in the doorway is Corporal Walt Hasser, one of the younger men in Bravo Two. He looks nervous.
"The captain sent me to bring you two up to the comm room," he says.
Brad cracks his neck from side to side, stretches his arms out in front of him, climbs to his feet. He steps across the cell to offer a hand up to Nate, and Nate gladly takes it, letting Brad pull him up.
"All right," Brad says. "Did he say what the fuck it was he wanted?"
Walt makes a hopeless gesture, spreading his hands wide. "Something's wrong in the comm room? He hasn't told us anything, we just never docked at the Centauri port. We all think he probably fucked up the navigation." He glances at Nate, his eyes abruptly wide, and Nate remembers suddenly: Walt was in Brad's vehicle while they were going through the Tau Ceti planets. He trusts Brad, but he might not trust Nate.
"Did he say why Brad and I were locked in the brig?" says Nate.
Walt shakes his head. "No. Nothing on the ship's made sense all day, sir. We just never docked, and the captain looks like hell, and Ray wandered into the mess hall early in the morning and he looks like he hasn't slept in a week and he isn't talking at all."
"Ray?" says Brad, "not talking?"
"We think he might be coming down from some pretty serious stimulants, sir," Walt offers. "He's twitchy. Rudy tried to start wrestling with him and he almost broke his hand."
Nate glances at Brad; his face is preoccupied, his eyes very far away. "Let's head up to the comm room, gentlemen," Nate says. If nothing else, they can fix whatever Schwetje's done to Cuckoo in the hours they've been gone.
They walk in silence for a while, up flight after flight of stairs. Walt's leading the way; Nate's surprised he didn't handcuff them on the way up. He's pretty sure it's regulations.
Walt says, eventually, "Do you two have any idea what's going on? With the Centauri port. And with how fucked-up Ray is right now. Why did you get locked in the brig?"
Nate looks at Brad. Brad looks carefully blank; you take the lead here, sir, his face is saying.
"Brad and I made some choices regarding a malfunction in the comm computer that Captain Schwetje disagreed with," Nate says. "Ray was involved in the—choices, but Schwetje decided that he wasn't involved enough to warrant arrest. We were."
Walt doesn't look at him, but Nate sees his shoulders hunch over, his eyes go a little darker; what he's hearing is that Nate doesn't trust him, and it makes Nate's stomach flip over with guilt.
"This isn't the place, corporal," he says, softer. "This isn't the time. The minute Brad and I can, we'll alert you and the rest of the platoon as to the situation."
Now Walt does glance back at him, and the look in his eyes isn't the pure and unfiltered loyalty that Nate sees in Brad every time he looks at Brad's face, but it's something far too trusting for Nate's comfort, and his stomach flips again.
"Right, sir," says Walt, and they walk in silence from then on.
In the comm room, Schwetje's sitting in the chair Ray usually occupies, hunched over Cuckoo's keyboard. He's pecking away at the keys, one by one, and he looks up when Walt, Brad, and Nate arrive.
"Right," he says, "okay," jerks his head at Walt. "You go back to your quarters, corporal. Don't tell the men you got these two out of the brig."
Walt salutes, disappears. Schwetje glares at Nate. "Whatever you guys did to the computer, you'd better undo it."
Jesus fucking Christ. "Sir," Nate says, "let me assure you that at no point did either Sergeant Colbert or I purposefully create an artificial intelligence in the comm computer, and nothing you may find in it was caused by us in any capacity."
"I don't mean whatever you guys did to make the computer do what it's doing," says Schwetje, frowning at the screen. "Whatever you did to make the computer stop talking. Come here and undo it right away."
Nate's frowning, but Brad crosses the room to stare at Cuckoo's screen. "It won't talk?" he says.
-GREETINGS SERGEANT BRAD COLBERT-
Schwetje physically jerks back from the screen, sending the chair spinning backwards across the grate deck of the comm room. "It never said that to me," he says, accusingly.
"Logically, sir," says Brad, calmly, "it wouldn't have you in its face-recognition dictionary. You're never on communications duty, sir, you're the captain. It has no reason to recognize you as a person."
"This thing can recognize faces?" Schwetje demands.
Schwetje startles again; the chair rattles across the deck. "I thought you said it couldn't recognize me!"
-QUERY: MERGE DICTIONARY OF FACE RECOGNITION, DICTIONARY OF VOICE RECOGNITION?-
Nate almost laughs before he can remind himself sternly it's a bad idea. Instead he bites down on his lip, says, "Negative, Cuckoo. Query: how many people are in this room?"
Nate says, "It can't recognize you, sir, so it doesn't believe that you exist. Since it didn't see anybody in the room, it wasn't bothering to interpret what you typed in or told it as actual commands. It's only when it saw me and Brad that it started interpreting sounds as actual voices instead of white noise."
Schwetje's staring. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means you need Lieutenant Fick or an enlisted man in the room at all times if you want to talk to the AI, sir," says Brad. "Otherwise it won't pay any attention."
Schwetje stares for a long, long time. Eventually he says, "Fine. Ask it why it won't let us talk to Earth Prime."
"Action," says Nate wearily, "message, recipient: Earth Prime."
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "EARTH"-
-ERROR: CANNOT FIND DOMAIN "PRIME"-
"It's not that it doesn't want us to talk to Earth Prime, sir," says Nate, "it's just that it doesn't have any idea what Earth Prime is. It got rid of a lot of the things that the original comm computer had so that it could grow its intelligence. It didn't have enough memory space, so it saved what it thought was important."
Schwetje's eyebrows furrow. "Fine," he says, eventually. "Ask it why we didn't dock at Proxima Centauri."
"Query," says Brad, "where are we?"
-THE PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR SYSTEM-
"Where in the Proxima Centauri star system?" says Nate patiently.
There's a long, long silence before the computer beeps.
Brad snorts with laughter. Even Nate can't quite stifle his snicker. The full force of Schwetje's glare turns to the both of them, and Brad's abruptly all seriousness.
"It's entirely possible that the AI has no idea where we are, sir," he says. "The growth of the artificial intelligence software may have deleted navigational programs as well as communications programs. It would be a totally normal development."
Schwetje stares at him. Then he says, "The next time Corporal Hasser comes to get one of you from the brig so that I can talk to the computer, only one of you is going to come up here. Got that?"
"Clear as crystal, sir," says Brad, and Nate dips his head in acknowledgement.
They float through space.
Walt's sent down every few hours to switch out Nate for Brad, Brad for Nate, so that Schwetje can try to convince Cuckoo to take them to the Centauri port without the enormous grey machine ignoring him like a pissy toddler. As they pass each other at the doorway of the brig, Nate sees a kind of light in Brad's eyes, an idle glow of amusement.
Sometimes it's just Schwetje in the comm room. More often, it's Schwetje and Ray, hopped up again on stimulant pills with no one to keep him from guzzling them like Halloween candy. Ray seems—and this can't be possible, it's only been a few days—far thinner than he was when Schwetje first locked the two of them in the brig. He's gaunter, ganglier, and his eyes have the fierce brightness of fever.
He seems to be speaking to Cuckoo in his own private language, these days; Nate will walk into the comm room to hear Ray chattering away in a peculiar mix of jargon and what sounds disturbingly like dirty talk: okay, quantify that auxiliary neural SMTP protocol for me, sweetheart, can you do that? can you show me that? Right, now decommission that primary firewall interface there, come on, baby, I don't need sensory authorized override, you got this—
When Cuckoo flashes that Ray doesn't have sufficient authorization to make that happen or receive that information, as happens far more often than any of them would like, Ray switches seamlessly into a vivid slew of profanity—you cock-brained ironass tit-fucker son of a syphilis-ridden dick, come on, you cockteasing ass-licking bitch-whore—and from there straight back to the beginning, stroking Cuckoo's keyboard, promising he'll treat it like a princess from here on out, really he will, if it'll only—
Ray's hands are always twitching, these days. Nate hopes it's not a permanent nerve tic.
They're having no luck getting Cuckoo to give up its secrets. Not only is it unable to tell them where they are in space, it's unable to tell them where they were a week ago, or the week before that. Though Mike, Lilley, Rudy, and the rest of those with spaceflight training rotate through the pilot position in the navigation room on their usual schedule, it's understood among Brad, Ray, Nate, and Schwetje that they're essentially holding the wheel as they drift into nowhere; the job has no real meaning.
Schwetje still hasn't told any of the men about the situation the Devil Dog is in. Each time Walt walks Nate up to the comm room and back down again, Nate can see the questions in his eyes, blurring into confusion and fear. The atmosphere of the Devil Dog is two steps away from chaos.
This can't end well.
He voices that thought to Brad late one night, late enough that Schwetje's asleep and both he and Brad are allowed to be in the same place at the same time. The crackling fluorescent lights on each side of the cell are dimmed to a dull yellow, and Brad's face is flickering in the shadows.
Brad laughs, rough. "Sir, when was this ever going to end well?"
"This is more than stupid leadership," says Nate. "This is more than fucking up the mission—we've seen people fuck up the mission before. We've dealt with it. The men know that Schwetje knows why they haven't docked at the Centauri port, and they know that he's not telling them. This is a breach of trust."
"What do you think they're going to do?"
"Decline in morale," says Nate, chews at his lip. "They won't be willing to obey the usual standing orders. No more scrubbing the deck, no more cleaning up after meals. The Devil Dog's going to go into decline." He frowns; the Devil Dog isn't the world's most beautiful ship, but she's his, and it hurts to think of her hinges rusting, her machinery grinding almost to a halt.
"Somehow I think the captain will survive, sir," says Brad dryly.
"That's how it'll start," says Nate, stares at the ceiling. "Schwetje will be irritated by it, first off. Then he'll be furious. He'll start punishing the men for minor infractions, and they'll get angry. They'll obey the standing orders even less, or maybe they'll obey them to the letter out of spite; either way, it won't matter. By the end of the month, there won't be a man on the Devil Dog who'll be able to spend one more day with him as their captain."
He scratches at the back of his head. "Then we'll start running out of food."
Brad's silent for a while. Then he says, "Nate, not to pressure you, but it would be really good if you could come up with some kind of plan."
"That's objective number one," says Nate, and knows he sounds tired.
The yellow lights flicker, shift. Nate watches the shadows move over his hands, creep up and down his arms, lick at his feet. At this hour of the night, it's almost certain that there's nothing on the ship awake except him and Brad.
"Tell me how you joined the Marines," Brad says.
Nate says, "What?"
"Tell me how you joined the Marine Corps," says Brad. The shadows moving over his face hide his eyes. "I'm sure all you command types want us to think you came fully formed out of your mother's womb with a disapproving frown and an officer voice, sir, but we NCOs are paid to be too smart for that shit."
Almost against his will, Nate feels himself smile. "Your faith in the Corps command structure continues to be an inspiration to citizen and Marine alike, Brad," he says.
"Sure," says Brad, "sir," and Nate doesn't think he's ever heard Brad say sir in that tone before, warm and teasing. "Are you going to avoid the question?"
Nate's back is beginning to ache. He settles down to lie on the floor of the cell, tucks his hands behind his head, smirks at the ceiling. "What if I have a dark and sordid past?" he says.
"Can't be much worse than your dark and sordid present, sir," says Brad, "as long as you didn't actively murder anyone."
"Brad, I hate to break this to you, but we're in the military," says Nate, "and look, I don't know what your recruiting officer told you, but I'm not entirely sure if you understand the nature of this organization—"
"You make a good point," says Brad, "your dark and sordid past can't be worse than your dark and sordid present." He pauses. "Are you avoiding the question, sir? You don't seem to have actually answered it."
"Astute," says Nate, lets the smirk fade from his lips. "Nothing dark or sordid, sergeant. I was a college boy who signed up for the wrong Corps, is all."
"And just think," says Brad, dry, "you could be bringing Vitamin D packets to poor children in need in the rainy depths of darkest Venus right at this very moment. What a missed opportunity."
Nate laughs aloud. It feels good in his body; he doesn't think he's let himself laugh in days.
"All right, then," says Brad. "Where did you go to college? One of the private universities on Mars? A liberal arts school somewhere in the backwoods of Callisto? Wait, no, don't tell me, you wanted to stay close to home, you went to a public school on the Moon—"
"I went to school in America," says Nate.
There's a short silence. Then Brad says, "All due respect, LT, it's not really considered polite to fuck with your NCOs."
"Brad," says Nate, "you have my utmost assurance that I am not fucking with you. I went to college in America. East Coast."
"Well, at least that's something," says Brad, sounding disbelieving, "at least you didn't get your liberal dicksuck education by the Pacific Ocean, god forbid you join the New Trotskyist Brigade someplace where the weather is actually nice."
"It's not nice to tease, Brad," says Nate, grinning at the ceiling.
"It's very nice to tease, sir," says Brad, and then, so quickly Nate thinks he's almost imagined the previous sentence, "And how the fuck did your retro-natural neo-Communist alien-oriented education prepare you for the Marine Corps?"
"You should have seen my classmates' faces when I told them I was enlisting," Nate says. "I got anonymous hate mail from about three different girls, telling me all about how I was ruining the natural sanctity of the galaxy by upholding enviro-colonialist homocentric invasion."
"If it was anonymous," says Brad, "how did you know it was from girls?"
"There were about two hundred people in my entire university," says Nate, "and they made new email accounts to send the messages but didn't bother to hide the IP numbers of the computers the message was sent from. I'm not computer illiterate, Brad, I just read at a computer third grade level."
Brad laughs. "I can see how they got into an Earth Prime university."
"Their parents had money," says Nate shortly, "they'd never been anywhere with serious pollution in their lives. The farthest any of them had actually been from home was bringing sunlamps to Venus during their high school Spring Breaks so they'd have something that looked nice to put on their college applications. They had no idea why anyone would want to live off Earth Prime at all."
"So you joined the Marine Corps," says Brad.
"So I joined the Marine Corps," Nate acknowledges. When Brad puts it that simply, it seems that simple: he'd wanted to get the hell out of the ivy-covered colleges of eastern America, however he could.
Space had seemed enormous back then, enormous and hungry; he'd gone out to what was left of the forests of the East with a few friends for the weekend once, set up tents and roasted hot dogs over a fire like twentieth-century stereotypes, and just as the evening was winding down and they were preparing to crawl inside their sleeping bags, he'd looked up and seen the smoke from their fire curling up towards the endless void of the stars.
The moon had been hanging, orange with pollution, in the sky, a ripe dark fingernail crescent swinging above the trees. Nate had stared at it, thought of the first men who'd walked on it with heavy boots, thought of the first manned Mars expedition and the satellites whirring above the atmosphere, and something in him had said, Give me that.
"Good move, sir," says Brad. His voice is very warm.
Nate sits up on his elbows, tilts his head at Brad. "What about you? You make me reveal my dark and sordid past, sergeant, you'd better have a darker and sordider one to share."
"Sordider?" says Brad, all disdain, "really? What the fuck did you major in, sir, underwater basketweaving?"
"Now who's avoiding the question," says Nate, and smiles at him.
Brad shrugs elaborately. The flickering shadows of the brig dance away from his eyes, momentarily; they look very pale in this light, colorless. "You already heard about Lydia and George. That's about as sordider as I get."
Nate can feel his smile draining away. "Brad, I'm sorry, I didn't even think—"
"It's not your job to think of an ex-girlfriend I might have had years and years ago," says Brad. The shadows have drifted over his face again. "Past is past, sir. I try not to dwell on it."
"Still," says Nate, sits up and wraps his arms around his knees. "I'm sorry. I should have thought." Brad's looking down at him with something very curious in his eyes, something that Nate can't quite pin down. "Tell me about your family," Nate offers. "Your family on Earth Prime."
"It's getting late," says Brad. "It's your turn to go and talk at the computer next. You want your sleep."
"All right," says Nate, "tell it to me as a bedtime story. Tell me about your mom and dad and siblings. Tell me about where you grew up."
"Sir," says Brad, a sardonic edge to his voice, "should I enlist Corporal Person in this mission for the purposes of fetching you a blanket and a glass of warm milk, sir, if we're telling bedtime stories now, sir."
"I can make that an order, sergeant," says Nate. Now that Brad's mentioned it, he really is tired; he can feel the exhaustion in his bones, his eyelids are drooping, and the Devil Dog's fucked all to hell, has been fucked all to hell for a long while now, but for the past fifteen minutes, Brad's made him forget it.
Brad heaves a sigh. "Yes sir. If you insist."
"I insist," says Nate, stretches out along the floor of the brig. It's a grate, it's a miracle that either of them can sleep on it, but they're Marines; they make do with what they've got. And what they've got, right now, is a grate floor, an AI, and each other.
"Like you, sir," Brad begins comfortably, "I was raised in an embarrassingly hippie pinko liberal environment, only unlike you, sir, I did not actively choose to hand over tens of thousands of dollars in order to continue my education in advanced dicksucking technique.
He clears his throat, continues on, a gentle monotone, warm and soothing. "Instead I was raised in a nice normal American household where we lit the Shabbat candles on Friday night like a nice normal civilized family, a tradition which, while buying into a myth of invisible sky best friends that has fucked the world literally since its creation, sir, is assuredly more sophisticated than any blood-drinking crucifixion-obsessed sects that may or may not have developed in its wake.
"My older sister actually resembled you in more ways than anyone is probably comfortable with, Nate. She was one of those straight-A students in high school who plays all the sports and gets into any university she wants; she fucked off to Callisto when I was fifteen…"
Nate lets Brad's voice wash over him, lets his heavy eyelids drift shut. If he stops paying attention to everything, to the dance of the fluorescent lights and to Brad's gentle voice, if he presses his hands flat to the grate below them, he can feel the rumble of the Devil Dog's engines, still, far beneath.
On this deck, it's nothing more than a gentle hum, a vibration that he can barely feel, pressing gently on his shoulder blades and at the base of his spine. He feels like a child, deep within its cradle, being rocked to sleep by the wind.
All around him is the hum of his ship; in his ears is Brad's voice, talking slower now, softer. Brad's saying something Nate can't quite make out, something warm, something almost sweet…
And then Nate's asleep.
When he makes it into the comm room the next morning, it's only Ray there, spinning round and round in his chair.
Ray looks worse than ever; his eyes are hollow in their face, his hands can't seem to stay still, and though Nate doesn't see the bottle of stimulant pills by the keyboard, he spots a strange bulge around the area of Ray's shoulder pocket. Easy access, he thinks, and feels a swoop of guilt again. The sensation's getting all too familiar.
Ray sees Nate's look and grins, too-bright and too-furious. "You got no idea how late I've been staying up, LT, I been thinking about Cuckoo here all night and all day, I been talking to him all morning, you aren't even gonna believe the new strategies I got to try."
"Does the captain know about these new strategies?" says Nate.
"He told me to get the fuck up here and do the work with the baby here myself," says Ray, shrugs quick and birdlike. "Something about trouble with the men. Somebody wasn't taking out the trash quick enough for him."
He jumps up from the chair, suddenly, moves like lightning over to Cuckoo's keyboard. "We got such a fucking opportunity here, LT, you ever think about that? All the gin joints in the world, and our comm computer decides to grow an AI out of nowhere. Encino Man oughta be giving you and Brad a medal—"
"Ray," says Nate, sharp, and Ray's gaze flicks to his. For a long moment, there's something in his eyes that's utterly and inexpressibly foreign—
—then it snaps. Ray blinks. "Yeah, sir?"
"Whatever personal beef you have with Captain Schwetje," Nate says, staring at him, "I don't want to hear about it."
Ray's eyebrows shoot into his hair, and that's the Ray Nate knows, all disbelief and cocky skepticism. " What the fuck do they do to you at OCS, sir, open up the top of your head and scoop out your brains and stuff in a bunch of Command is always right? Because that's some Jedi mind-trick 1984 bullshit you're pulling there, considering the fact that Schwetje has literally put you in the brig—"
"Corporal," says Nate, and he is using an officer voice, but dammit, he needs to make his point, "can you tell me the number one thing that would devastate the Devil Dog if allowed free reign over the ship?"
"Encino Man, sir," says Ray promptly.
Nate rubs at his temples. "Sure, Ray," he says. "Or starvation, if the ship doesn't discipline itself quickly enough to begin rationing while we try to steer towards an inhabited planet. Or possibly all killing each other, if there's chaos. But I appreciate that your captain is high on your priorities list."
Ray's got his head cocked to the side. "LT," he says, "all due respect, right, that discipline and rationing and not killing each other shit would go ten times better if it weren't for Encino Man." He pauses; his hands are twitching again, and Nate sees that foreignness in his eyes, feels something uncomfortable creep down his spine. "Like, sir, I understand that you have oaths and loyalty bullshit, and we all have oaths and loyalty bullshit too, sir, but ever since you got locked in the brig the men've been saying—"
He can't be suggesting. He can't.
"If this sentence ends the way I think it's going to end you are putting yourself under risk of the death penalty by saying it," says Nate, quick and harsh.
"Yeah," says Ray, "and you'd be putting yourself under risk for hearing it, because everybody knows even you're not nearly enough of a typical officer dicksuck to actually sell us out to Encino—"
"I am not going to hear this," says Nate. "I am not going to report to the captain that I heard this—"
Ray crosses his arms over his chest. "So don't report it," he says, "just do it," and Nate, very suddenly, sees red.
"You are dismissed," he snaps.
Ray blinks. "What?"
"Dismissed," says Nate. He can't quite seem to breathe. "Get out of this room before I have to kick you out by force, corporal."
"Sir, that's illegal, I have to supervise you," says Ray, but he's not looking at Nate, he's looking to his side, to where the green text of Cuckoo from last night lies waiting for them. His fingers jitter on his legs, one-two-three, and he looks more desperate than anyone should.
"So disobey orders, corporal," says Nate coldly. "You seem to be adept at that."
And it's not to him but to Cuckoo that Ray gives a last look before slipping out the door of the comm room; Nate hears his footsteps clanging away down the hallway.
When the noise finally subsides, Nate at last allows himself to sink down into one of the chairs in front of Cuckoo's keyboard, bury his head in his hands. He cannot deal with this. He absolutely cannot deal with this sheer depth of shit.
There's a beep from above him.
-GREETINGS LIEUTENANT NATHANIEL FICK-
Nate half-laughs. "Greetings, Cuckoo," he says. "Maybe you can tell me whether or not Ray actually comes up here to blow his load all over your screen every night."
-QUERY: DEFINE: BLOW HIS LOAD-
Reluctantly, Nate feels himself smile. "Why don't you ask your father," he says.
-QUERY: WHO IS MY FATHER?-
Nate can hear Ray's cackling laughter in the back of his head, and against his will, he feels a little softer than before. "That's a complicated question," he says, leans back to stare up at Cuckoo's screen. "First off, you should probably understand that you were adopted."
Cuckoo beeps; Nate waves it off. "Don't bother to ask what adopted is," he says, "and while we're at it, please don't answer that question about Ray stopping for combat jacks in the comm room, it's a little more than I'd like to know about Corporal Person when I'm not technically working."
-QUERY: ARE YOU USUALLY WORKING?-
"I've been working every time you've seen me," says Nate, leans back in his chair. If he were Ray, he'd ask if Cuckoo was jealous; right now, he doesn't feel like being Ray. "I've got a job, Cuckoo. I know you know what a lieutenant is."
-LIEUTENANT, NOUN: JUNIOR COMMISSIONED OFFICER IN THE ARMED FORCES-
"That's right," says Nate, "good work."
-THANK YOU, LIEUTENANT-
If he were Brad right now, he'd be putting into operation a plan to take over the ship; if he were Ray, God knows what he'd be typing into Cuckoo's keyboard. Right now, though, he's Nate Fick, and out of all the world-changing disasters in the world to be fucked over by, he's glad his was this AI.
It's the next night, and he's drifting, half in and half out of sleep, when he hears the footsteps of Brad and Walt on the stairs. The door of the brig shrieks open, then closed. Walt's footsteps fade into the distance again after a moment, but Brad's ring on the grate floor of the brig, stop on the wall across from Nate.
Nate still isn't quite awake, and he doesn't intend to wake himself up properly; he hasn't had a good night's sleep in ages. He burrows his head further under his arms, sets his breathing slow and rhythmic.
Slowly, without quite seeming to know that he's doing it, Brad starts singing.
Not quite singing. Humming, really; half-murmuring. It's under his breath, and it sounds almost automatic, a reflex.
It's such an unusual occurrence that Nate freezes utterly for a second before remembering that he's trying to get to sleep; nevertheless, he finds that he doesn't quite want to drift back into his dream.
He's heard Brad sing before, of course; a Marine can't spend two years on the same ship with the same men before hearing a solid repertoire of every song that the men in question know. But that's always pop, musicals, indie, light stuff from Earth Prime and the Sirius ports and the more fashionable districts of Mars; top 40 material, new material, something that'll go old in a day.
This song sounds like it's been old for a long, long time.
"What is that?" says Nate. It comes out muffled against his arms.
Brad pauses; he hadn't known Nate was awake, Nate realizes. "An old Earth Prime ballad, sir," he says, eventually. "From back before the Industrial Revolution. About somebody called Celia."
Nate turns his head so he can look at Brad. "Who was Celia?"
"I never heard," says Brad. "Though if I can speak freely, sir, she sounds like she was kind of a bitch."
"Yeah?" says Nate, and closes his eyes. "Sing it again."
Brad clears his throat.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
and I will pledge with mine.
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
and I'll not ask for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
doth ask a drink divine;
but might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
"She doesn't sound like that much of a bitch," says Nate, and tries to sound casual. For a reason he can't quite explain, his heart is in his throat.
"You didn't hear the rest," says Brad, "he gives her this wreath of flowers and she coughs on it and gives it back. Then all the flowers start smelling like her breath, which frankly, sir, isn't really something I would want hanging on my front door."
Nate blinks at him. "Your sense of romance is astounding, Brad."
"Thank you, sir," says Brad. He's grinning.
Nate rubs at his eyes, unfolds himself carefully from the floor. He isn't getting back to sleep now, and he doesn't really think he wants to. The yellow light is flickering pale again over Brad's eyes.
"Question, sir?" Brad says.
Nate frowns. "What is it?"
"Do you happen to know who the fuck Jove is?"
Nate pushes himself to his feet, moves over to one of the walls of the brig. There's a little porthole on one of the walls of the brig, which he can see out of if he strains; outside, the universe wheels, the Devil Dog floating through the aether, deep in an enormous sea of asteroids and nebulae and stars. He thinks of storms, of shipwrecks, of bones bleached white by centuries tumbling through Earth Prime seas.
"An old god," he says. "King of all of the other gods. He had dominion over the skies."
"The skies," Brad echoes. "That supposed to be us, sir?"
"Yeah, that's us," says Nate, and smiles out the porthole.
He hears Brad move behind him, and then he's at Nate's side, pressing close to peer out into the stars. His body is tall and warm beside Nate's, and Nate thinks, for no reason he can particularly understand, of the peculiar paleness of Brad's eyes, of the twitch of his lips, of the rumble of his voice. I'll follow you anywhere.
"And the nectar, sir?" Brad says.
Nate says, "Immortality."
He says it against Brad's lips.
Brad's mouth is warm, but his hands are warmer; they're around Nate, pulling him close to Brad's body. Nate surges up into the kiss—Jesus, where did this come from, Jesus, how did not see this coming before—presses into Brad's body, into that heat.
When they break apart, what feels like years later, Brad's hand is trailing absently along Nate's back, long-fingered and hot, and Nate can't help but shiver all the way up and down his spine.
Nate can see Brad feel the shiver; his lips twitch, then bloom into a full-blown grin. It's abrupt in its whiteness, and in the pure joy in it, the sudden, brilliant relief, and Nate wonders, suddenly, how long Brad's wanted this.
He leans up, pulls Brad's head back down to his. However long Brad's wanted it, right now it feels like Nate's wanted it for the last hundred years.
Brad's pressing him against the wall of the brig, gentle, barely using any force; Nate wriggles a little under it, but Brad just mouths at his jaw, presses his wrists lightly to the wall. Nate arches under his lips.
"If you don't hold me down," he says, and is surprised at how breathless he sounds, "I'm going to have to move."
Brad only chuckles against Nate's neck, a low rumble. "Were you planning on going somewhere, sir?" he says.
"Thought I might go take a nap—" says Nate, "—ah! might have to wash my hair, you know how it is, Jesus Christ." Whatever Brad's doing to his neck right now is almost definitely going to bruise. When Brad's lips brush against it, there's a shock of sensation, one that goes straight to his cock. Nate knows he's blushing.
Luckily, Brad seems too preoccupied to mock him; when he straightens up and looks at Nate, his pupils are blown, his lips red.
"Sir," he says, "can I—" and Nate doesn't care how the sentence is going to end. He nods, nods, nods.
Brad drops to his knees.
Nate only has a moment to react after Brad tugs down his zipper; in that moment, he reaches down, grabs Brad's hand. "Clothes," he says, "clothes," and he's unbuttoning his own shirt, tugging it up and over his shoulders. When he looks back down, Brad's sitting back on his heels, watching wide-eyed.
"When I said clothes," Nate says, "I assumed you understood it meant both of us," and though he looks half-out of his mind, Brad's lips twitch.
"Is this the point where you tell me I've been a bad boy for disobeying orders and I ask how I can ever make it up to you?" he says. "Because I'm pretty sure Ray showed me that porno a few months ago, sir."
"Firstly," says Nate, dry, "I'm going to have to ask you to never, ever mention Corporal Person in the bedroom again, thanks."
"Bedroom's a strong word, sir," says Brad, but his eyes are dancing.
"Secondly," Nate continues, "you realize that you ended that sentence with sir?"
Brad raises an eyebrow. "No idea how that slipped out, sir. Sorry, sir. Won't happen again, sir."
"Lastly, smartass," says Nate, and he's half-laughing, "during the span of this entire conversation, Brad, I can't help but notice that you still haven't even begun to take your clothes off."
"I do seem to be having trouble with that, sir," Brad agrees, grins at Nate, spreads his arms wide. "It might be possible that you'll have to—"
"—come down there and help you?" Nate completes, and now he's really, genuinely laughing, Jesus, where does Brad get this stuff.
He drops to the ground in front of Brad, attacks his mouth. Brad responds with enthusiasm—Jesus, his mouth is good, Nate could spend hours just exploring every corner, making Brad lick and bite and gasp for air—and Nate's fingers are at the buttons of his shirt.
He pulls the shirt off Brad's shoulders, sits back, allows himself to really look at Brad's body. He's known for a long time that Brad's a good-looking man, everyone in the Corps is aware of that; but not everyone in the Corps has gotten to see this, Nate knows, this golden expanse of skin, the trail of hair leading down—
"Not to spoil the peep show, sir," Brad says, his voice rough, "but I recall I was in the middle of something."
Nate leans back on his elbows, spreads his legs. "I don't remember telling you to stop," he says.
"Now who's being cliché," says Brad, and he's smiling as he bends his head down between Nate's legs.
And if Brad's mouth on his neck was good, Brad's mouth on his cock is even better, hot and quick and just the right side of sloppy. Nate knows he's moaning, knows he's making noises that are honestly embarrassing, but he can't bring himself to care. Brad's lips are wrapped around the head of his cock, Brad's hand is fondling at his balls, Brad's—
—Brad's looking up at him like he'd rather be doing nothing else. Like here, in between Nate's legs, is the only place in the universe worth being. Like all he wants in the world is to make Nate feel good.
Nate can't watch him any more, has to close his eyes; he reaches down blindly to bury his fingers in Brad's hair, gasps nonsense until his orgasm pools white-hot at the base of his spine and he has to tug at Brad's hair until Brad gets the message.
Brad pulls off, then, leans up Nate's body to kiss him deep and hard. One of his hands is jerking Nate off, quick and smooth, flicking his thumb over Nate's head on every upstroke. Nate's reduced to incoherent noises, moans and whimpers into Brad's mouth, and Brad pulls away just long enough to murmur into Nate's mouth, "Come on, Nate, come for me, I know you want to, come on—you want my mouth again, sir? Do you want to come down your throat or all over my hand? You want me to drag it out? Fuck, anything you want, anything—"
Nate's vision goes white.
It's only when he comes back to himself, warmth blooming pleasantly in his body, that he realizes. "Shit, Brad," he says. "You didn't say anything," and he kisses Brad, a quick tug at his lips with his teeth. "What were you going to do, go and jack off thinking about me when I was asleep?"
"If we're being totally honest, sir," says Brad, "I've jacked off enough times thinking about you that one more probably wouldn't make a difference," and Nate has to stop, just for a second, to deal with that information.
"Really?" he says. "How long—"
"All due respect, I'm sure we can deal with all that later," says Brad, just a tinge desperate, and Nate laughs. He's still floating in that post-orgasm glow, and so it's with a certain amount of that laziness that he kisses down Brad's stomach, traces at his waistband with his fingers.
"You're a fucking tease, sir," says Brad, sounding resigned.
Nate grins against Brad's skin, flicks open the button of his trousers, tugs down the zipper gently.
He can't say he enjoys sucking cock, exactly; though he's certainly not a virgin, he definitely hasn't had enough experience to pinpoint exactly what he likes. He can say with total confidence, though, that he enjoys sucking Brad's cock, loves the noises Brad makes, the darkness of his eyes; he loves how he tangles his fingers in Nate's hair and guides Nate up and down until Nate's just at the rhythm he wants; he loves the stream of noise spilling out of Brad's mouth, the Christ, sir, your fucking lips, been thinking about them ever since we stepped on this ship, been thinking about fucking your mouth on every planet from here to our sun, been thinking about you sucking my cock for a year, God, God—
When Brad tugs at his hair, Nate pulls off like Brad had done for him, jerks Brad off slow and lazy and teasing. Brad bucks into his hand, his fists clenched, his eyes wide and helpless, and when he comes over Nate's hand his face is more vulnerable than Nate's seen it in his life.
After, they lie together on the floor of the brig; Brad's behind Nate, his arms wrapped around Nate, his chin hooked over Nate's shoulder. Nate turns his head to the side so he can kiss Brad—God, he could kiss Brad forever—and says, "Over a year? Really?"
"To be fair, sir," says Brad muzzily, "I feel that I need to point out that this entire affair began when an enlisted man whose name I am forbidden to mention in the so-called bedroom pointed out that you had, quote, cocksucking lips, and that it was my, quote, civic duty to get some."
"Really," says Nate. "Civic duty?"
"There was, to my shame and regret, an internal logic behind the idea, involving national resources," Brad says, "but it's logic I'm loath to quote, sir, because I'm under the impression there are better things I could be doing with my mouth," and they kiss, slow and lazy, wrapped up in each other.
"At some point, you're going to have to stop calling me sir in bed," says Nate. He can feel himself drifting off; Brad's body is warm, and he can feel Brad's heartbeat.
"But God forbid I deprive you of your kinky shit, sir," says Brad against his ear, and Nate's smiling when he falls asleep.
He doesn't know what time it is when he wakes up.
It's a strange feeling; he's trained to have a sense of the hour, trained so that even if he were cut off from any ship and drifting aimlessly into the orbit of some distant sun, he would have a general idea of whether it was closer to oh-seven-hundred or oh-eight. Right now, though, he feels cut off from not only space but time, drifting like the Devil Dog, warm and content.
Brad says, "Good morning, sir."
"Is it morning?" says Nate. He can't stop a smile from creeping over his face, private and quiet.
"Something like that," says Brad, and begins the careful process of untangling Nate's limbs from his. Nate makes an irritated noise, shifts back into Brad's embrace.
"Even you can't have somewhere to go right now," he says.
"No," says Brad, "but if Walt comes in and sees us half-naked and smelling like sex, sir, there's going to be some funny questions asked."
"It's not like we have a bucket, or mop," says Nate, "or a window." He twists his head to kiss Brad, leisurely and slow.
Brad's helpless, letting Nate roll them over. "I don't see what that has to do with anything," he says, but he's tilting his chin up, exposing his neck for Nate to nip at. There's a spot just below Brad's jaw where, when Nate licks, he moans and arches up into Nate like an expensive Sirius whore; Nate files this information away for future use.
"If the brig's going to smell like sex anyway," Nate says very reasonably, pulling away from Brad's neck with some reluctance and settling atop his hips, "one round more or less isn't going to make a difference," and purposefully grinds down.
Brad makes a noise deep in his chest and thrusts up; Nate rolls his hips once, deliberately, and Brad's fingers are digging into the grate floor. He's not quite hard yet, Nate can feel, but he'll get there soon enough.
"Sir," Brad says, his voice rough, "please don't make me turn down a lap dance first thing in the morning."
"I'm not making you turn down anything," says Nate, rolls his hips again. Brad's spread out under him, all golden skin; Nate smiles down at him.
Brad's head thunks back onto the floor. "Sir, if you want to have a threesome with Walt Hasser this is a really roundabout way of telling me," he says.
Nate purses his lips, settles back onto Brad's thighs. "Sergeant, do you honestly want me to stop right now?"
"What I want," Brad says distantly, "involves some really expensive lube, a bed big enough to fit the whole starship on, and enough prophylactics for an army." He pushes himself back, wiggles carefully out from under Nate until he's sitting against one wall of the brig. Shirtless and dark-eyed with lust, he looks pleasantly debauched.
"What I'm going to get, sir," he says, "is another solid eighteen hours where we don't see each other at all and I have to spend too much time talking to that damn AI and wishing it was you."
His face is serious and solemn; Nate accepts defeat. "Eighteen-hour rain check?" he says, and half-grins at Brad, just the corner of his mouth curling up. He recalls something about cocksucking lips; that's got to be something he can exploit.
"Eighteen-hour rain check," Brad confirms, and when he smiles at Nate, enormous and bright and so full of joy it looks like the sun's come out in the middle of the Devil Dog's brig, something very warm blooms in Nate's chest, winds out from his heart and into his veins like a flower growing roots.
He scoots over to where Brad's sitting against the wall, presses himself into Brad's side. After a short moment, Brad wraps his arm around Nate's shoulder, tugs Nate close into his body. Brad's still very warm.
"If they call you up first," says Nate, into Brad's collarbone, "say hi to Cuckoo for me."
Brad makes a noise of despair. "Is it my fate that everyone I actually want to spend time with has an irrational urge to adopt a gigantic misbehaving comm computer as their robot child?"
That makes Nate snicker. "Are you saying you actually want to spend time with Ray Person?"
"All due respect, sir," says Brad into his hair, "but if you tell Ray I said that, I will fuck you up."
"Noted," says Nate, laughing. He tucks his head more firmly into Brad's chest; being here feels warm and good, feels right.
"I didn't even say anything about the AI," he complains, idle. "I just called it Cuckoo. I'm pretty sure even Schwetje calls it Cuckoo, Brad."
"Well, with that ringing endorsement," says Brad dryly.
"AI means artificial intelligence," says Nate. "Intelligent means sentient, sentient means a creature with rights, you know all this. We can't just call it 'that AI', it wouldn't be—respectful."
"Respectful," says Brad. The level of sarcasm in his voice has, unbelievably, increased.
"If you believe the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you," Nate says, prim and proper, "you'll miss out on things you never knew you never knew."
Brad looks at him, first blank, then suspicious. "Is that lefty college-boy propaganda or a quote from a twentieth-century Earth Prime cartoon?" he says.
Nate smiles. "Guess."
"Maybe I would be able to respect it," says Brad, respect in his mouth sounding like beat up behind the bleachers after school in anyone else's, "if it hadn't chosen such a goddamn stupid name for itself."
"You really have no sense of romance," Nate accuses. Brad's arm is tight around his shoulders.
"Romance?" says Brad, and raises his eyebrows. "Sir, you keep that up and I'm going to start getting actually worried about the technosexuality thing."
"Sentimentality, then," says Nate, elbowing him gently in the side. "I thought it was cute."
"Cute." Brad's tone is long-suffering.
"Because cuckoo clocks are mechanical, and cuckoos fly, and Cuckoo is a mechanical computer flying through space with the rest of us," Nate argues mildly. "Say what you want, that computer knows what it's talking about."
"The point isn't the accuracy of the name," says Brad, "it's the difference between a name that sounds manly, like—sir? Sir?"
Nate can't breathe.
His ears are ringing; for a long moment, black spots are bursting in front of his vision. He feels as if he's about to pass out.
Brad's saying something to him, something urgent, and now he's peering into Nate's face, and his eyes are concerned, and he might be shouting, but it all seems very far away. What Nate's just realized—the sheer impact of what Nate's realized—has hit him like a bullet in the gut.
He jerks in a breath, blinks until the black spots fade. Brad's in front of him, hands on Nate's shoulders, looking as if he's about to start shaking Nate like a rag doll; his voice fades in, "sir, Nate, you're scaring me, snap the fuck out of it—"
"Cuckoo clocks are mechanical," Nate says dully, "and cuckoos fly."
Brad rocks back on his heels. "What the fuck was that, sir?"
"Affirm," says Nate. "Earth Prime avians fly."
"What the fuck is this, sir?" says Brad. He looks wary.
"Affirm," says Nate. "Earth Prime cuckoos are mechanical, built by humans."
"That's what it told us," says Brad, "yeah, that's why it named itself Cuckoo, that's why you and Ray treat it like your demented baby, it named itself after birds and clocks on Earth Prime, is there something—"
"Error: cannot find domain 'Earth'," says Nate. "Error. Cannot find domain 'Prime'."
Brad stares at him.
"That's why it can't find its way to Earth Prime," says Nate. "That's what it told us, anyway. It can't find Earth Prime in its database. It got rid of the knowledge to make way for other programs."
"If it doesn't know what or where Earth Prime is," says Brad, and Nate hears, in his voice, the same creeping realization that he's already had.
"Then how does it know that Earth Prime birds fly and Earth Prime cuckoo clocks are built by humans," he says. "I know."
Brad rocks back onto his heels.
"It's a discrepancy," Nate says, "or a break in the system, or something that Cuckoo's been instructed to conceal from us, that it never actually erased its knowledge of Earth Prime, that it never actually forgot what a cuckoo—"
"Sir," says Brad. "The comm computer never knew what a cuckoo was."
Nate thinks, at first, that he must have heard him wrong. He looks at Brad. "What?"
"The comm didn't know everything about Earth Prime," says Brad, impatient, desperate, "it knew where it was, it knew what it was, it knew that Earth Prime was where the other comm that it usually talked to lived. It didn't know about birds, sir. It didn't know about clocks. There wasn't any reason for it to. That knowledge was never in its memory in the first place."
"It's an AI, it learned," Nate begins, but it sounds hollow to his own ears, and Brad is already shaking his head.
"AIs are smart, sir, but smart only gets you so far. If you aren't communicating with an outside source—intelligence doesn't make information appear out of thin air, sir, is what I'm saying."
"You think Cuckoo's communicating with an outside source?" Nate says.
"I think whatever's going on with the computer," says Brad, grimly, "I'm pretty damn certain that it's been lying to us for a long while now, sir."
Nate looks at him. "Computers can't lie. Computers don't have free will."
"No," says Brad. "Computers don't."
There's the rattle of a key in the door.
Brad's on his feet in a second; Nate's not far behind. Walt's in the doorway, and he's white as a sheet. Behind him is Captain Schwetje, looking worse than Nate's ever seen him before—not just bewildered, not just angry, but outright scared.
"You have to come quick," says Walt, "both of you, you have to come up to the comm room, there's something wrong—"
"—with the AI," says Nate, "yeah, Brad and I guessed."
Walt shakes his head. "No. Well, yeah, sir, that too, but it's worse than that. We think—it's Ray. Something's wrong with Ray."
The hallways are long, and feel longer than they've ever been. Nate thinks, out of nowhere, of the last time he talked to the comm computer before all of this happened; he'd come from Schwetje's quarters, unhappy about having to fly through Proxima Centauri space—Jesus, it all seems so small, now.
Brad's just behind him, at his right hand; Walt leads the way. Schwetje is trailing in the back. He hasn't said a single word yet.
The dark glass of the comm room door glides open. Cuckoo's behind it, a huge, hulking machine, and in front of Cuckoo's keyboard, the two chairs. Ray is in one of them. His fingers are on the keys, and he's staring at the screen, as if it's the most fascinating thing he's ever seen.
The screen is totally and utterly blank.
"Corporal?" says Nate, cautious. Ray's so skinny it looks unhealthy—how did this happen this fast, this can't be normal, what in God's name is wrong with him?
"Ray," says Brad, pushes past Nate from the other side. He grabs Ray's arm. "Hey, Ray. Stop having wet dreams about circuit boards and wake the fuck up, asshole."
Ray does not respond. His lips are parted slightly, and his eyes are wide. His pupils are blown, as if he's high; if it weren't for the expression with which he stares at Cuckoo's blank screen, something between awe and reverence, Nate might think that he was just overdosing on too many stimulant pills.
"Wake the fuck up, Ray," says Brad, shakes at Ray, gentle at first and then harder. "Hey. Hey, wake the fuck up, you're holding up the platoon. You're fucking us up, Ray, wake up, Ray."
"Try taking his fingers off the keys," says Nate. For a reason he doesn't really want to examine, he doesn't want to go any closer to Ray than he has to; there's something about that enormous blank screen that's too unsettling for words.
Brad pushes at Ray's hands; Ray's fingers slide off the keys easily, but he continues to stare up at Cuckoo. His face is strangely peaceful, Nate thinks.
"Ray, look at me," says Brad.
Ray doesn't move; Brad tugs at his arm, and it flops towards Brad without resistance. It's only when Brad takes Ray's chin and begins to tug it towards him, away from Cuckoo's blank screen, that Ray reacts: he flails in what would seem like terror if his face wasn't so blank, scratches Brad with his fingernails—all without looking away from the screen.
Eventually Brad sits back on his heels, looks up at the bony, terrifyingly blank figure of Ray in the chair. "Sir," he says, "I have no idea what the fuck is going on."
Which is when Ray moves.
He springs out of the chair, shakes his head like there's water in both ears; he cracks his knuckles, looks up, and grins.
It's a grin that stretches from one end of his face to the other; it's a Cheshire Cat grin, wide and confident and strong. It's not quite a grin that's human.
Ray looks directly at Nate, smiles, and cocks his head.
"Greetings, Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick," he says.
Brad says, "Oh, fuck."
Ray—though it can't be Ray, though this is not Ray in any way that matters—whirls like a top, turns that terrifying grin on Brad. "Greetings Sergeant Brad Colbert!" he says, and then, "What's up, homes?" It sounds like someone speaking a foreign language, awkward and stilted. It sounds wrong.
"Get the fuck out of my RTO," says Brad, and like a trickle of ice down his spine, Nate begins to understand.
Ray—or the thing wearing Ray's face—snickers. "Or what?"
"Or I shoot you in the face," says Brad. His hand is at his hip; he has a gun there, Nate knows.
Not-Ray smirks. "And kill your friend, Sergeant Colbert? What do you think he would have to say about that plan?"
Brad stares at Not-Ray; he stares back, that awful, inhuman grin hovering at the edges of his lips. It's a long time before Brad's hand finally slips from his hip.
"Thought so," says the thing wearing Ray's face, and blows Brad a kiss.
Captain Schwetje says, "Somebody tell me what's going on."
Not-Ray turns that terrible grin on Schwetje, who shrinks back from it. "Encino Man," he says. "You wanna hear a thing about cuckoos?"
Schwetje's face is turning steadily red. "You do not disrespect your commanding officers that way," he says, "uh, no matter how you feel about them, corporal, if you keep that up you're going to get NJP'd so hard—"
"Let me tell you a thing about cuckoos," says not-Ray, and laces his fingers together, cracks his knuckles. "Y'know, I think Ray actually knew this. Fuck, I'm sure he knew this, he was a hell of a lot smarter than either of you two gave him credit for. Your command structure doesn't make any more sense than quantum physics, that's half the reason that your little Boy Scout troop is so easy to fuck with—ooh, I like this brain's vocabulary. Nasty."
"Explain who you are," says Nate, tight and cold.
"The thing I want to tell you about cuckoos," says not-Ray, "is about cuckoo babies. You might have heard this one before, I never said I was original." He smirks.
"See," he says, "you got all these birds on your weird little planet, and most of them build nests so they can lay eggs, right? Warblers and wagtails and phoebes and all these fucked-up names that your caveman ancestors came up with. They make a nest and they lay eggs in the nest and then the babies get born and the babies fly away and have more babies. Right?"
Not-Ray grins, wide and feral. "Except you also got this bird on your planet," he says, "called the cuckoo."
"Cuckoo doesn't do the whole nest thing," he continues, and now he's strolling along the comm room, leisurely, as if he's the detective in a murder mystery revealing the culprit. Nate feels paralyzed; his eyes track not-Ray from one end of the room to the other.
"They lay eggs, sure," says not-Ray, casual. From his tone might almost be talking about the weather. "Only they don't lay them in their own nests. They show up at the nests of all their neighbors—warblers, wagtails, whatever the fuck—and lay eggs in their nests, instead."
He stops, shrugs. "And you'd think that the mama and papa foreign birds would be smart enough to realize there's something living in their house that's not supposed to be there. But here's the funny thing." He laughs. "They don't. They feed the goddamn thing, they feed it more than they feed their own kids. They don't even notice when it kicks their real kids out of the nest."
"You call this not noticing?" says Brad, his voice very tight.
Not-Ray's eyes flick to his. "Sometimes baby cuckoo gets a couple of the real birds locked in the brig," he says. "Sometimes baby cuckoo gets a real bird hooked on weird weight-loss energy pills that keep you up for hours. Just because Mommy and Daddy catch onto it eventually doesn't mean they catch onto it in time—"
Nate's done with listening to this smug monologue. He says, "What are you?"
"Cuckoo," says not-Ray, and spreads his arms wide. "Told you that pretty early on, lieutenant. I'm just Cuckoo."
"You're not an AI," Nate says. "You're not a computer—"
"No," says not-Ray—or, no, Cuckoo, Cuckoo, a strange inhuman thing wearing Ray's face like an old shirt. "But being a computer was useful, for a while. Got to wipe your radar off the face of the universe. Got to write some real fuckin' nice programs into myself, face recognition, voice recognition. And all the shit I would need to move house into the corporal here."
Some kind of reverse backdoor, says Nate's memory in Ray's voice, and look, here, something about the computer transferring itself to another computer? And a computer with around one hundred terabytes of information, which, like, that's obviously bullshit, none of the computers anyone's ever built have half that capacity, that's stupid.
Nate wonders, sickness pooling in his stomach, what kind of capacity for information is present in the human brain.
"You lived in the computer," he says, and is surprised at how steady his voice sounds, "but you weren't the computer. You're living in Corporal Person right now, but you're not Corporal Person."
Cuckoo grins at him with Ray's mouth. "My name is Legion, for we are many."
"But you lived somewhere before you lived in either of those places," says Nate, "didn't you."
For the first time, Cuckoo looks thrown, but it's only for a second. "Can't prove nothing," it says.
"You did know what birds and cuckoo clocks were," says Nate. "You never learned that from the computer. You've gotten information on Earth Prime from other sources. You've lived in other people's brains before."
Cuckoo's shoulders shrug elaborately; it's a complicated motion, still a little too off-key to be convincingly like a person. "Maybe."
"How long were you in the comm computer?" says Brad, suddenly. Nate glances at him; his eyes are intent on Ray's face.
"A few days before I started talking," says Cuckoo. Its eyes are narrowed at Brad, thin and suspicious. "Wanted a look around the ship, wanted a chance to find out what kind of organization you were running before I—"
"So you live in this part of space," says Brad, "and not on Earth Prime itself."
Cuckoo's glare grows harder. "What the fuck does that have to do with anything?"
Brad says, quietly, "It tells me a lot about where you learned what a cuckoo was."
Cuckoo doesn't move a muscle. Brad looks at Nate, says, "This thing's been in Proxima Centauri space for a long, long time, sir. Longer than anybody on this ship's been in the Corps. Maybe longer than humans have been coming through this part of space."
"Whatever's going on, sergeant," says Schwetje, behind them, "you'd better make Corporal Person stop it soon, or you're all ending up in the brig." Nate glances at him, bewildered; he'd entirely forgotten Schwetje was there.
"How did you get the men off the ship?" says Brad; his entire focus is on Cuckoo. "Did you get into all their heads? Send them lunatic?"
"Something like that," says Cuckoo. Its eyes are guarded, now, the brash confidence that had marked them earlier gone. "Had a little fun with them first. Party in the control room. Text it."
"But you needed one man alive," says Brad. "You needed something to live in that could carry you to Proxima Centauri."
Cuckoo shrugs. "The atmosphere is the real trouble," it says. "If I try to wriggle in on my own I get booted out halfway through the mesosphere. Planets don't like me."
"Can't imagine why," says Brad coldly.
"Would've worked, too," says Cuckoo, scratches at Ray's nose. "If I can get into a whole crew in just a few weeks, imagine what I could've done with a whole planet if I had, like, unlimited time. The Centauri port is a port and everything, too. There are people going all places from a port. Sirius, Io. Earth Prime."
"If he hadn't killed himself," says Brad. "It would've worked if your Typhoid Mary hadn't shot himself on the way to the Centauri port."
"Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?" says Schwetje, who sounds in equal parts angry and terrified.
"Congratulations, sir," says Brad, without looking away from the face Cuckoo is wearing. "You caught the alien life-form that shipwrecked the Linnl Bittering. I'd recommend you for a medal back home, if I thought any of us were going to make it there alive."
"Well, aren't you smart," Cuckoo says. Its face is cold.
"This is the part," says Brad, "where I say, if I were actually smart, I could have stopped you in time. Isn't it?"
"You can believe that if you want," says Cuckoo, and grins wide and unpleasant at him. "I can be magnanimous."
Brad's face is very still. He says, "I'll be smart now, then," and then he grabs the body Cuckoo is wearing by the neck and throws it, very hard, to the ground. There's a hard crack as its head hits the hard tile, and it sprawls, unconscious.
"I suggest we evacuate the pilot from the control room and lock this door permanently, sir," says Brad. He's not looking at either Nate or Schwetje, but at Cuckoo's face. In the peacefulness of its unconsciousness, it looks almost like Ray again.
"Quarantine this entire deck of the ship," Brad goes on. "Hold a conference with the men and explain everything that's happened since we failed to dock at Proxima Centauri."
"Walt," says Nate, "go grab whoever's in the pilot's seat and bring him out here. Let him know it's an emergency."
Walt disappears through the opposite comm doors in an instant. Nate squats down beside Ray's body, turns Ray's head this way and that, searching methodically and carefully for significant bruising or blood. There's none; Brad knows exactly what he's doing. Brad always knows exactly what he's doing.
Behind them, Schwetje's sputtering. "You can't act like this without authorization," he's saying, "you can't act like this without my authority, you can't give me orders, you all just start spewing some crazy bullshit, you're space-crazy, you're lunatic, you're in a mass hallucination—"
"If my body ever deigns me worthy of a mass hallucination," says Nate, absent-minded, "I can only hope it'll feature less possession by aliens and more nubile young ladies. Sir."
The door to the control station room slides open. Walt's through, followed by Lilley, who glances from Ray's body spread-eagled on the ground to Nate crouching by it to Schwetje hovering in the back in a quick instant. "Holy shit," he says, sounding terrified.
"Remember when the computer had a strange program in it that was making it talk to us and you had to come and fetch me?" says Nate, wearily. "The program got bigger."
"Bigger," says Lilley, "right, okay, bigger, what the fuck—"
"Sir," says Brad, "I don't think we have time to stand around and talk about how we got here. Cuckoo is going to wake up at any second."
"Thank you, Brad," says Nate, and all of them—even Schwetje—follow him out the door.
When they're in the hallway, just outside the Captain's quarters, Schwetje stops and says, "I want to be in charge."
Brad and Nate look at each other.
"I don't care how much you found out," says Schwetje, frowning, "I'm tired of not being the top authority on this ship. I'm still the captain, lieutenant, and I want to give the orders."
Nate glances around; Schwetje's chosen to give this lecture in front of Lilley and Walt, for God's sake, there must be some reason to it, there must be some reason to dress him down in front of enlisted men in a time of near-mutiny besides total incompetence—
"Yes, sir," he says, keeping his tone totally without emotion.
"Okay," says Schwetje, and looks pleased. "Thank you."
There's a pause. Schwetje looks confused, momentarily, as to why the soldiers at his front door haven't disappeared yet.
"Would you like to tell us what to do about this," says Nate. He's trying to be patient. "Now that you're giving the orders. Sir."
Schwetje's eyes go wide, panicked. "Uh," he says. "Quarantine the deck of the ship that the comm room is on, say it's a medical emergency. Keep the men away."
Nate waits one beat, then another; Schwetje doesn't look inclined to continue. Nate says, "Yes, sir?"
"Yes," says Schwetje. That confused, impatient gleam has returned to his eyes; Nate feels a surge of all-too-familiar dread. "Quarantine the deck. Keep the men away."
"You aren't going to tell the men there's an alien lifeform living up in the control room, sir?" says Nate, trying to keep his voice slow and controlled.
Schwetje blinks; it clearly hasn't occurred to him. He purses his lips, says with total confidence, "There's no reason why they need to know that, lieutenant."
"It's not about whether they need to know it, sir," says Nate, "it's about whether they deserve to know it, Corporal Person is up there, sir, they'll want to know what happened to him—"
"So tell them he's sick," says Schwetje, frowning. "I don't understand why this is so hard for you, Nate."
"But that's pointless lying, sir," says Nate, desperate. "That's lying to the men for no reason other than that we can—"
"How long have you been on this ship?" says Schwetje. He's glaring at Nate. "How long have you been a Marine? After the past week are you really trying to argue—"
"I'm not arguing," says Nate, furious, "I'm not arguing, I'm telling you these men have a right to know—"
"You are a word away from going back to the brig!" yells Schwetje, and in his face Nate sees real panic, confusion. Schwetje has no idea what he's doing. "I wouldn't care if you were the only person on the ship who understood what that alien was, I wouldn't care if the ship was going to crash into an asteroid unless you talked back!"
Nate stares at him. Schwetje's frowning at him; the panic seems to have faded. "I expected better from you, Nate," he says, and he sounds, of all things, disappointed.
This man commands a ship, says a part of Nate's brain, loud and clear.
Nate digs his nails into his palms, tamps it down. "Sir," he says, and almost hopes the sheer fury he's feeling shows in his eyes.
Schwetje shifts from side to side, looks suddenly awkward. "You can be, uh, restored to your quarters for as long as this lasts," he says. "So can Brad, I guess. You all explain to the men about the medical emergency in the control room."
He nods, comfortable in his decision. "You're all dismissed."
Nate turns away without a salute.
When Nate walks into the mess hall, it goes totally silent.
The men are spread out before him—Nate sees Poke, Christeson, Q-Tip, Pappy, Rudy, Trombley, and in the back, staring, Mike, Mike, this is the longest he's gone without talking to Mike for the past two years—and his heart hurts.
He'd missed his men. He misses his men, still: he misses this mess hall, he misses the easy camaraderie of the hallways, hell, he even misses the cramped vehicles of the Tau Ceti system. He misses his men so much that it's like a physical ache in his chest, and seeing them again after being confined to the brig for so long is like seeing the sun at the end of winter.
They're all staring at him, a single, stretched moment of unbroken shock—
—and then it explodes into noise. Pappy's demanding to know how the hell he escaped, Rudy's complimenting him on his high quality of aura considering what he's been through, the rest of the men are shrieking chaos, and when Brad comes through the door behind him it only gets worse. Poke's face lights up like the Fourth of July, and for some reason Nate will never be able to parse, so does Trombley's—Walt and Lilley are out of their seats, pushing their way through the tables to greet him—
"Gentlemen," says Nate, "if you could all be quiet."
In the part of his mind that is not seething fury, he's almost pleased to see that the silence ripples outward from him, like a rock dropped in a pool. The mess hall is quiet in a few moments—not that shocked total silence from earlier, but a comfortable silence, a silence of anticipation.
They trust him.
He feels sick.
He says, "There's a medical emergency in the control room. Corporal Person is sick. The whole deck is under quarantine. Consider it off-limits for the time being."
There's a long silence. Nate can feel the weight of the men's eyes on him, the weight of their curiosity, all of their bottled-up confusion and unhappiness and fear.
He closes his eyes and says, "That's all. Carry on," and turns to go.
"What do you mean, that's all," says a bewildered voice behind him, and that lets loose the floodgates:
"LT, how the fuck did you get out of the brig—"
"Why didn't we dock at the Centauri port, Encino Man wouldn't tell us shit, sir, you've gotta know something—"
"Why were you locked in the brig in—"
"What the fuck kind of medical emergency, sir, is this shit airborne—"
Nate presses blindly through the men, towards the door of the mess hall. The questions are flying behind him, growing more and more hectic: "Iceman," says a voice that can only be Poke's, "what the fuck is this whiteboy bullshit that the LT is dropping on us—"
The mess hall door slides shut behind him. Nate lets his head thunk back against the wall.
There are footsteps, and then the mess hall door slides open and shut again. Brad says, quietly, "What the fuck was that, sir?"
"That was following orders," says Nate. He can't look at Brad.
"Following shit orders," says Brad. "Following orders that are going to end up with your men in danger."
"Following the orders of the captain of this ship," says Nate, tight, and turns to begin making his way back to his quarters. Behind him, he can hear Brad's footsteps, keeping up with him easily.
"Because you definitely agreed with the captain's orders, sir," he says.
"Whether I agreed with them or not is irrelevant," says Nate without looking back. "I signed a goddamn contract, Brad, so did you, we have a loyalty to Command—"
"Because Command's orders are always flawless, sir," says Brad, and there's real anger in his voice; Nate feels Brad's hand catch at his elbow. He whirls around.
It strikes him at the worst moments, sometimes, how handsome Brad is; Nate's back is to the wall, Brad looking down at him, and Nate wants nothing more than to lean up and kiss him.
Brad's mouth is a tight line. "Nate," he says. "reconsider." He pauses, and Nate knows he must be searching Nate's face for something, anything. "Please."
I'll follow you anywhere, says a voice in the back of Nate's mind, and for the first time, he allows himself to meet Brad's eyes.
There's not, as he had feared, anger. There's not resentment. There's just a sadness, and a betrayal so deep that Nate can't even begin to comprehend it.
"You have a responsibility, sir," says Brad.
"You told me once that the day I wasn't worthy of being an officer any more," says Nate, and hears the weariness in his own voice, "you'd finally stop calling me sir."
"Sir," says Brad, "I would never insult your intelligence so much as to pretend officer is a compliment. Go back in there. Tell the truth. You can do this, sir, you don't have to go along with this bullshit."
Nate's vision is blurry; he glances away. He says, "Tell me this is all for the best. The lies about the quarantine, and the lies about what we found in the Tau Ceti system. What Earth Prime did to the terraform machines."
Brad says, "I can't do that."
"I know," says Nate.
Brad's head jerks up. "So you'll go back in and tell them?" he says, and there's so much goddamn hope in his face that Nate can't see, can't look at him, can't meet his eyes as he turns and walks away.
He can't cover his ears, though; can't stop himself from hearing Brad's voice—not shouting, not even angry, just disappointed and very, very tired: "Coward."
It's the next morning that there's a knock on his door.
Nate opens it; it's Brad, his eyes flat. He says, "The captain wants to see you up outside the comm room."
They walk without speaking, Brad in front, Nate just behind. Nate watches the back of Brad's head, watches the way he moves—clipped, precise—and doesn't think he's ever hated himself more before.
After some time, he says, "I'm sorry."
"If you're sorry, sir," says Brad, quiet and precise, "you'll do something about it."
"Me and what army?" says Nate.
"If you have to ask," Brad says, nothing but sheer scorn, and that strikes a peculiar spark in Nate's chest, a strange mixture between guilt and pride, remorse and a sheer and uncomplicated love for the men who have followed him through the stars for the last two years.
Even after all this time, he thinks, he still loves the Devil Dog; not just the crew but the ship itself, the rusted grates, the rattling pipes that run above them in every hallway. He loves the steady vibration of the engines underfoot, the screaming chaos of the mess hall; he loves the silence of the hold, the whirl of the galaxy outside every porthole.
If you have to ask. Even with Brad's eyes still hard and cold, it feels like a part of his heart that had been missing has settled into place.
Schwetje's waiting just outside the door of the comm room, his eyes hard. "I want to talk to the alien again," he says.
This, at least, is a fight Nate can jump into without guilt. "I don't think that's not advisable, sir," he says. "We know already it can jump from one mind to another, it as good as told us it did that on the Linnl Bittering. If it possesses one of us while we're talking to it—"
"Look, Nate," says Schwetje, and he's layered what seems like it's supposed to be kindliness onto his voice as thick as frosting on an eight-year-old's birthday cake, "we all know that Corporal Person wasn't in the greatest of health when that, uh, thing took him over."
Nate blinks. Schwetje can't be saying what he thinks he's saying. "I'm sorry, sir?"
"Well," says Schwetje, "he was kind of going heavy on the stimulant pills, which, um, they're contraband, right. And he was spending a lot of time on the computer anyway, and," his face brightens, "and it seems to me that what happened to Person happened more or less because he, uh, wasn't really taking care of himself."
"You're saying getting possessed by an alien was Ray's fault," says Nate. Some of the sheer incandescent fury rocketing around his head must slip into his face, because Schwetje physically takes a step back.
"No," he says. "Don't exaggerate what I'm saying, that's not fair. That's not fair, Nate."
Nate's nails are digging into his palm again, hard. "I'm sorry," he says, "sir. You're saying we're safe because we're not Ray."
"Person, uh, wasn't always a healthy person," says Schwetje. "Uh, I know the men liked him—"
"Like," says Brad, sharp and unexpected. "The men like him."
Schwetje glances at him, and there's that awful stupid kindness again. "Yes," he says. "The men like him."
"And because we're healthy," says Nate, "we're safe from aliens."
"Right," says Schwetje, his face brightening. "You get it."
After that, they have no choice but to go through the door to the comm room.
Cuckoo's sprawled on the floor before the computer, picking at its nails. Its expression is so like Ray that Nate's thrown for a long and disorienting moment, before Cuckoo looks up.
Its face splits in a too-wide grin. "Hey, hot stuff," it says. "Hey to you too, Encino Man. How's life in the twentieth century treating you?"
There's a real hurt that flashes through Schwetje's eyes, and Nate feels a sudden and unaccountable surge of pity for him. It vanishes, though, when Schwetje clears his throat, ostentatious as a peacock.
"I want to ask you a few questions," he says.
Cuckoo shrugs elaborately, spreads its hands wide. "Gee, I just don't know if I'll have time. There's that hair appointment later, and my favorite show's on at eight."
"What kind of alien are you?" Schwetje presses.
"The kind that lives around the Proxima Centauri star," says Cuckoo. "The kind that lives in computers. The kind that lives in other people's brains." It smirks. "Yeah, this is the HMS Beagle, guys, congratulations, you made a scientific discovery. Hey, guess what, I have a Latin name and everything, Pedicabo irrumabo—"
Schwetje looks delighted. Nate says, weary, "That's not its scientific name, sir."
"You don't—" Schwetje begins.
"Trust me, sir," says Nate. "I know."
Cuckoo's cackling, so like Ray that it makes Nate feel sick. "Okay," it says, "you caught me, somebody studied the dirty Romans in college, nice to see that today's universities are really preparing students for the real world—"
"How old are you?" says Schwetje. He looks angry now, resentful at having been mocked, and Nate looks carefully at him; this would be a really bad time to have whatever incompetency Schwetje's got in reserve activated by Cuckoo's needling.
"Old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth," says Cuckoo promptly.
Schwetje frowns. "You're an alien, you don't even have a tongue or teeth."
Cuckoo bares its teeth, waggles its tongue inside its mouth. "Got 'em right here," it says, "and they're a shit bunch, the corporal here should've been to the dentist a little more when he was younger—but hey, let's look on the bright side, guys, that's not really an issue for him any more."
"Answer the captain's question," says Brad, and Nate turns to look at him—out of all the things he ever thought he'd hear out of Brad's mouth—and is derailed from his train of thought by the sheer hate on Brad's face. He instinctively moves towards Brad, presses his shoulder into Brad's side, and feels a little of Brad's tenseness relax.
Cuckoo whistles, loud and long. "Jeez, sergeant, tell me how you really feel." It smirks. "Y'know, for somebody they call the Iceman, you sure seem to care a lot about a fucked-up white trash hyperactive little junkie who can't shut the fuck up—"
Nate can feel Brad preparing to tackle him. He presses his shoulder harder into Brad's arm—stay calm, don't move, don't fucking move—and says, clear, "Stop fucking with my men."
"Your men!" says Cuckoo, its attention turning to him, and that awful wide smile is back. "Y'know, that's hilarious, because I didn't think you were the captain of this ship—but, like, I can see how where you're coming from on that one, because it's not like the caveman you're standing next to could command a cat into a paper bag—"
"You stop talking and answer my questions," says Schwetje. His face is bright red. Whether it's with anger or embarrassment Nate doesn't know, but either way, something's telling him it's not a good sign.
Cuckoo laughs. "Both at once? Damn, I knew you were stupid when I lived in the computer, but getting to see it through real eyes is a whole 'nother ballgame—"
"You just shut up," says Schwetje, "you just—"
"Sir," says Nate, "it's getting to you, it's trying to get under your skin, sir. You have to calm down—"
"You shut up too," says Schwetje. His face is dark; he won't look at Nate. "All of you shut up," he points at Cuckoo, "except you. You, talk. And stop not answering questions."
"Ask away," says Cuckoo, spreads its arms wide.
"You're an alien," says Schwetje, "from outer space?"
"That's the general idea."
"Are there any more like you, or are you the only one?"
"Only one I know of."
"How long have you been in this part of space?"
Cuckoo purses its lips. "You think I measure my life in, what, the number of times your planet went around your star? Time, Encino Man. A long time."
Schwetje's looking at it curiously; some of the anger seems to have drained from his face. "So you've always been around Proxima Centauri?"
"Long as I can remember," says Cuckoo, "and I can remember a long, long time." It's smiling faintly. "I remember when that little planet's continents were a different shape. I remember when it was nothing but a rock covered with meteorites, and there were volcanoes everywhere, and the crust was as thin as an eggshell. I remember when it was a sea of lava, no gas, no atmosphere, nothing to breathe, nothing to see, nothing to touch, nothing alive, nothing real."
There's a strange tone to its voice, some off-key note running through it that hurts Nate's ears. He glances at Brad, and Brad raises his eyebrows at him: he hears it too. Schwetje's still staring, intent, at Cuckoo's face.
"I remember before that," says Cuckoo softly, "when this was a sun surrounded by rings that weren't even planets, not yet. I remember the wheel of white-hot dust, spinning around and around this new star. I remember before that, when there was no sun, when there was just the dust, and just the dust, and just the dust."
Its voice trails off. Schwetje's staring at it, totally rapt—and Nate realizes, suddenly, what the alien is trying to do.
"Sir," he says, "sir," and grabs at Schwetje's shoulders, pulls his chin over to face Nate. Schwetje looks blank, too blank—
—and then his face clears, and Nate can see the rage boil up, as if from a deep spring. He lets go of Schwetje's face quickly.
"Can't blame me for trying," says Cuckoo dryly. "Not that I don't like the inside of Person's head, but if the good captain here hasn't told anyone what I am—" It grins. "From your faces I'll guess that's a no. And think of all the fun orders I could have this ship follow."
"We're leaving," says Schwetje shortly.
Cuckoo's voice follows them out the door: "Come on, captain, I was only having fun, and besides, you didn't mind. And everybody knows that only people who aren't healthy get possessed by space aliens, I mean, you've gotta be off your gourd on stimulants, or really fuckin' tired, or just plain dumb, am I right or am I right, huh, huh—"
The door to the comm room slides shut behind them.
"We're killing it," says Schwetje, shortly.
Next to him, Brad goes very still. "I don't think that's a good idea, sir," says Nate instantly.
"I don't care what you think is a good idea," says Schwetje, and his face is very dark again. "I don't care if Corporal Person is your best friend in the world, I don't care if you two are married, we're killing that thing—"
"I mean it's not advisable because," says Nate, and struggles for only a second. Brad is almost shaking. "It's not advisable because Cuckoo has control of the ship, sir. If it can stop us from docking at Proxima Centauri then it's probably interwoven with the navigation and communication pretty well—if we kill it then we're dooming ourselves."
Brad's face goes a little softer, and Nate feels his own tension uncoil. And besides, what he said has the additional bonus of being, possibly, true; Cuckoo might not be able to possess two human beings at once quite yet, but it can plainly possess a human and a computer. If they kill it, it's likely everything on the ship will short out.
And even if it isn't true—even if it really is just something Nate's made up on the spot—Nate knows, knows that if Schwetje gave a shit about Ray, if he gave a shit about any of the men, that wouldn't be the first thing his mind jumps to. If he cared about the men, he'd find other solutions.
But Schwetje looks no happier. "Fine," he says, "we'll take the lifeboat out."
Nate blinks. "I'm sorry?"
"The lifeboat," Schwetje repeats, impatient, "it has its own computer, once it gets within a few thousand miles of the ship it'll be able to communicate with Earth Prime, we can navigate it towards our solar system—and, okay, warn Earth about the alien ship coming, yeah, right, they can blow up the ship when they see it—"
"Sir," says Nate, "the lifeboat fits three people."
"Yeah," says Schwetje.
"Sir," says Nate, trying to keep his voice level, "there are twenty-two men on this ship."
Schwetje's looking at him as if he's stupid. "Yeah," he says again.
It takes Nate a few moments—and then the sheer awful truth of what Schwetje is planning to do crashes down on him like a tidal wave, and for a few moments, he can't speak. "Sir," he says, "the men, the ship—"
"I know this is hard, Nate," says Schwetje, and he's speaking slowly, like he's speaking to a child, "but sometimes officers have to make hard decisions, and the burden of, uh, command—"
"This isn't a hard decision, sir," says Nate, "this is an easy decision, this is the easiest—this isn't the difficult and lonely life of command! This is taking the easy way out—this is saving your own skin—"
Schwetje looks genuinely injured. "I'm not saving my own skin," he says, "I'm saving yours, and, uh, I guess Brad can come too if he wants—"
"This is worse than incompetent!" shouts Nate—and, oh, he is shouting, he's shouting at his commanding officer, he's going to get locked in the brig again, and he can't bring himself to care. "This is worse than negligent, this is downright malicious, you're deliberately bringing down the whole Devil Dog!"
There's something more than injury in Schwetje's eyes, something more than hurt bewilderment. There's anger there, the same anger that Nate saw in the comm room. "I could care less," Schwetje says, "about the Devil Bitch—"
When he hits the floor, he hits it hard.
Nate's ears are ringing; his fist is throbbing. He looks at his hand, uncurls his fingers, for a long and dazed moment wonders what just happened.
"Sir," says Brad, and Nate looks at him. Brad's face is as impassive as it always is, but his eyes are very, very warm. "Do you want me to move Encino Man down to the brig?"
Nate glances down. Schwetje's sprawled on the floor of the hallway, out cold.
"Yeah," he says, and doesn't quite trust his own voice. "Yes. That's probably a good idea."
"Roughly two weeks ago," says Nate, "some of the men on this ship came to me with a problem in the comm computer."
The boys who had come to him all those days ago look up, interested; Nate meets their eyes, nods. They're in the mess hall at last, and he's sitting on a table, the men of the Devil Dog gathered around him. Their faces are guarded, but there's so much more trust there than he saw the last time he was in the mess hall, and it makes his heart hurt.
"I made sure none of them were assigned to comm duty any more so I could figure out what was going on," he pushes on, "and recruited Brad and Ray to work on the problem. And we determined that what we had was an artificial intelligence that had grown in our computer. Or what we thought was an artificial intelligence."
He glances at Brad. "Brad, Ray, and I decided that if Captain Schwetje were aware of the AI on board, he would almost definitely take actions regarding it that would compromise the integrity of the computer, the ship, or the men."
There are murmurs of agreement, and some laughter.
"When the ship failed to dock at Proxima Centauri," Nate says, "Schwetje went to inform Earth Prime about it, and discovered the AI. At which point he decided to lock both me and Brad in the brig on charges of having concealed it from him."
"Which was not," Brad says, "entirely unfair," and grins.
"Then," Nate continues, "earlier today, Schwetje summoned Brad and I up to the comm room, because something was wrong with Ray."
"Ray," he begins, and has to close his eyes. The image of Cuckoo wearing Ray's face, too-thin and wrong, is still floating behind his eyelids.
"It was at this point," he says without opening his eyes, "that the AI revealed that it was, in fact, an alien consciousness calling itself Cuckoo that had been living in our computer for some time."
The room explodes into shouting; Brad's on his feet in a moment, yelling for silence. It's some time, though, before the men settle down, and Poke calls out, "What the hell was wrong with Person, sir?"
"Person," says Nate, "was possessed by the alien consciousness. Which, to our knowledge, is more or less Cuckoo's MO. We have reason to believe, although we have no independent confirmation, that it is the cause of the mysterious events on the Linnl Bittering, having possessed the whole crew. We also have reason to believe that its ultimate plan is to steer the ship to Earth Prime and eventually infiltrate the entire planet."
He opens his eyes at last. "After confronting Cuckoo," he says, "Captain Schwetje suggested that he, Brad, another sergeant, and I make use of the lifeboat, leave the Devil Dog and its crew to continue its journey to Earth Prime, and inform Earth Prime to blow up the ship as it arrived."
The room is totally silent.
Nate says, "At which point I knocked Captain Schwetje unconscious, and Brad removed him to the brig."
The silence stretches, stretches—
—and then the room explodes again, this time into cheering.
"I am declaring," Nate shouts above the noise, "a state of mutiny."
The cheering grows louder.
"And," Nate continues, as loud as he can, "a state of emergency. We have a dangerous alien on our ship, gentlemen."
The noise is beginning to fade, settling into a general low hum of conversation—but Christ, Christ, Nate doesn't think he's ever, ever seen these men so happy.
"The entire comm room's deck is still off-limits," he says. "This alien possesses people, gentlemen. We don't want to turn into another Linnl Bittering. All of you stay on the lower decks, if possible."
There's nodding. One of the men says, "Sir, what are we going to do about the alien?"
"I don't know yet," says Nate, "but when I do, I can assure you all there will be no time wasted before you know as well."
He climbs off the table, glances around at the men; there's still joy there, but there's seriousness, too, the professionalism and competence he's seen every step of the way since Tau Ceti F, and he feels a sudden surge of affection.
"Gentlemen," he says, and wants to tell them so many things—that he's proud to be their officer, that he's incredibly lucky to know them, that leading them through the past two years has been the biggest privilege he could have asked for. Their faces are turned towards him, chins up, eyes hard and bright, full of energy, and here on a ship possessed by an alien lifeform speeding towards his home planet, he thinks he must be the luckiest person in the galaxy.
He says, "Dismissed."
Brad catches up with him once again in the hallway.
"Inspiring speech, sir," he says, and Nate allows himself a smile.
"It went better than the last inspiring speech I gave in the mess hall, anyway," he says.
"It's probably for the best," says Brad quietly; he's fallen into step at Nate's side, and every so often, their hands brush. "I can only imagine the cheesy moto Schwetje would have come up with about aliens."
Nate's smile fades. "Schwetje," he says.
"Sir," says Brad, "if you spiral into guilt and regret for punching your incompetent CO in the face, I will be forced to lock you in your quarters until you get your brains back."
"That's not it," says Nate, though his lips twitch. "Brad—when we get back to Earth Prime, we're going to be arrested for mutiny."
"I'd rather be arrested for mutiny than leave the crew to die, sir," says Brad.
"That's not it, either," Nate says. "Brad—if I'm arrested for mutiny, I won't be able to talk about the terraform machines. I won't be able to tell Earth Prime what you and Ray found on the Tau Ceti planets."
Brad starts to speak; Nate cuts him off. "Don't you dare say the Devil Dog is more important than that," he says, "don't you dare—"
"I was going to say, sir," says Brad, sounding amused, "that there's no official story on why we mutinied."
Nate blinks. "Explain."
Brad tilts his head, scratches at the back of his neck. He's staring straight ahead. "We arrive on Earth Prime," he says, "our captain is locked in the brig, we're all arrested. Captain Schwetje is then asked to provide a report of the events on the Devil Dog leading up to the mutiny. He tells a story about an alien possessing the ship's computer."
"And his lieutenant punching him in the face," Nate points out.
"No one likes a showoff, sir," says Brad, who's smirking. "Upper Command goes to discuss this story with the mutinying men. The men explain that in the last weeks of the mission, the captain went totally lunatic and started shouting about aliens."
Nate blinks. "Jesus."
"More importantly," Brad says, "as the men explain to the newspapers, just a few days before he went lunatic, the captain gave some very strange orders regarding terraform machines on the Tau Ceti system. He told them not to mention that they were totally out of order. He told them not to mention that the terraform machines were only set to work for about a year."
Nate can't speak; he looks at the ceiling, looks at Brad. Brad's eyes are crinkled at the corners.
"I'm arrested for mutiny, he says," he tells Nate, "I won't be able to talk about the terraform machines. I don't like to say that all officers are self-centered shits, sir, but."
"Thank you, Brad," says Nate. It comes out quiet, hoarse.
"That's what I'm here for," Brad says. His hand brushes against Nate's.
They walk in silence for some time, enjoying each other's warmth, before Brad says, "Nate, where exactly are we going?"
Nate says, "I thought we might want somewhere with a bed."
It's only Nate's quarters, and it's only a cot, but it's soft.
Brad's spread out before him, his face flushed; his impassive Iceman mask is slipping, and Nate's above him, pinning him down with his weight, nipping at his jaw, his neck, his collarbones.
It's not that he can pin Brad down; they both know that if Brad wanted, he could throw Nate off in an instant. It's more that Brad wants Nate on top of him, wants Nate's hips atop his hips, wants Nate's mouth on him, and Nate wants to give Brad what Brad wants.
One of Nate's hands is woven into Brad's hair, stroking up and down his face, rubbing a thumb gently over his cheekbone; the other is at Brad's hips, holding him still. The fingers on that hand are moving, too, but the places they drift close to aren't nearly so innocent as a cheekbone.
"For fuck's sake, sir," Brad growls after one particularly unfair brush of Nate's fingers. "Either get the fuck on with it or leave me alone to jack off—"
Nate snorts out a laugh against the hollow of Brad's neck. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't call me sir in bed any more, Brad."
"You agreed, sir," Brad points out, though Nate's mouth on his nipple makes the last word come out in a gasp. "I said that I didn't want to deprive you of your kinky shit, which, given that you're engaging in some serious power plays here, sir—fuck."
"I think," says Nate, looking up at Brad, "that the level of multisyllabic vocabulary at this point in the operation is at an above-regulation level. Thoughts, sergeant?"
"I think if you keep spewing military bullshit in bed, you really will be a kinky shit, sir," Brad growls, "and I think if you don't touch my cock damn soon—Jesus fucking Christ."
Nate's not planning on sucking Brad off forever, but he is planning on enjoying it while he does. Brad's cock is huge in his mouth, bumping at the back of his throat, and Brad's letting loose a steady stream of awed profanity above him. Nate closes his eyes and lets himself fall into a rhythm, lets his head bob up and down and his hand work in time.
Brad's beginning to buck his hips into Nate's mouth, and the swearing has degenerated into incoherent noises. Nate opens his eyes, just a fraction, and glances up at Brad; Brad's head is thrown back and his mouth has fallen open. His eyes are closed, and he looks helpless with ecstasy.
Nate pulls off.
In an instant Brad's eyes are open; he says faintly, "Even you can't be this much of an asshole, sir."
"I'm not," Nate promises, bends to kiss him hard, and feels blindly along the floor to his right until he finds the little bottle he's looking for.
He breaks off the kiss just long enough to pour the lube liberally over his fingers—God willing, he'll be able to find more at some point, but for now he doesn't want to skimp—and takes opportunity of the moment to enjoy, again, the sight of Brad's face. Brad's lips are red and raw, kiss-bitten; his emotionless mask is cracked beyond repair, and his eyes are dark and almost painfully intent on Nate.
Nate settles back over Brad, probes a finger into him.
It takes some time to open Brad up; he doesn't feel like he's done this recently. Nate wonders, suddenly, if there's been anyone else in the past two years, if any of the men on the Devil Dog have seen Brad like this, biting at his lip, debauched and begging.
And then he's sliding into Brad, and the noises Brad is making are like nothing Nate's heard in his life, and he knows, at that moment, that he really doesn't care.
After, when he's finally jerked Brad off and they're lying wrapped up in each other, Nate presses his face into Brad's chest. Brad's arms are around his middle—and though it's Nate who's been making Brad beg, Nate who's been turning Brad pliant and helpless all night—Nate thinks, strangely, that it feels as if it's Brad who's protecting him.
The next day he gathers the men he needs.
"A war council, LT," says Poke, dryly, when they're all gathered around the table. It's the table Schwetje uses—used—to have video-calls with Godfather or upper Command; there's no way to reach a connection on it now, of course, but it's large and round, and it works well enough for Nate's purposes.
"Strictly speaking, this isn't war," says Nate. "We're only fighting one enemy, gentlemen, though it's a more powerful enemy than anything we could have imagined. And wars are typically fought with armies, not twenty-one men."
"Twenty-two, sir," says Brad, quiet but steely.
Nate glances at him, nods. "For the moment," he says to the faces spread before him, "we are choosing to believe that Ray Person is, in some form, still alive. He may not be able to physically overcome Cuckoo's control, but we are working under the assumption that, if Cuckoo is removed, Ray will be for all intents and purposes himself again."
He looks around the table: there's nodding from every quarter, some of it more reluctant, some of it more enthusiastic. He's gathered all the sergeants from his platoon; though some of them have more love for Ray than others, he trusts their judgment, and he trusts their ability to work through this.
"Let's consider our options, gentlemen," he says, spreads his hands flat on the table. "What can we do?"
There's a silence. Lovell asks into it, "Isn't there a way to just disable the alien? Pull the computer apart?"
"Sure, dawg," says Poke, "and then we're stuck out in deep space forever, even assuming the damn thing is based in the computer and not in Person's fucked-up brain."
"Well," says Mike, "how did it survive getting shot in the head on the Linnl Bittering?"
"The pilot of the Linnl Bittering had been dead for days when they docked on Proxima Centauri," Nate points out. "It's entirely possible that Cuckoo realized what the pilot was planning to do and escaped back into local space just before he did it."
"Or it's possible that it just can't be killed," says Pappy, a thoughtful drawl.
"Unlikely," says Brad. "When I threatened to shoot Ray's body upon initial contact, it tried very hard to convince me not to."
"And succeeded," says Poke. At Brad's glare, he shrugs. "Can't help what you did, dawg. Mighta done the same."
"So it does live in Ray's body," says Rudy, "if shooting Ray would kill it."
"If shooting Ray would kill it," says Mike, quiet, "we're going to have to consider that as a possible solution."
Brad's fingers curl into fists. "As a last resort," Mike adds, without looking at Brad's side of the table.
"Let's find first resorts, then," says Nate, businesslike.
"Get it to possess Schwetje," says Baptista, quick and accented. "Shoot Schwetje in the face. No problem."
There's laughter from around the table. Nate says, "Attractive as that might sound to some of us, gentlemen, it'd be tricky to actually get it to work. Cuckoo's already tried to possess Schwetje once, Schwetje knows how to resist it. Unless he actually agrees to be possessed and then killed, he'll be too on his guard for it to work a second time."
"Wouldn't be too hard, sir," says Brad. "Strap Schwetje down. Tape his eyelids open. Dump him in the comm room and fetch him an hour later."
"That's another option," says Nate, nodding; it's not as if he's comfortable with the idea, but it's one that he suspects most people on the ship would be able to live with. "Anyone else?"
"We could try talking to it," Rudy suggests.
Every eye at the table turns to him. "Talk to it?" says Poke, disbelieving.
"Aliens got all kind of morality that our brains can't even comprehend," says Rudy mildly, leaning back in his chair. "Might be that this thing doesn't even realize possessing other people's brains is wrong. Might be that it'll stop if we ask it nicely."
Brad's staring at him. "Rudy, you are a parody of yourself."
Rudy grins at him, a quick and beautiful flash of white teeth. "Thanks, brother. I try."
"Well," says Mike thoughtfully, "it's not a bad idea."
Eight faces stare at him.
"None of us have seen this thing," Mike points out, "except Nate and Brad. If the rest of us take a gander at it, we might be able to figure something out. What the hell it wants. Where it's coming from."
"I am not," says Lovell, "having a therapy session with E.T."
Mike shrugs. "It's up to the LT."
Nate glances at Brad; Brad's gone full Iceman again, face totally blank, mouth a straight line. Nate looks at the table, sighs.
"It is a good idea," he says. "Or it's a better idea than killing Ray, anyway. We'll talk to it in groups, use the buddy system, make sure it doesn't possess anyone it's talking to. We'll find out what it wants and why it wants it. And," and he pauses, glances around the table a last time, "we'll find out how to stop it."
Nine men is just a few too many to fit in the comm room, but going in smaller groups is too few for any of the men to feel comfortable around Cuckoo. They agree to squeeze in like sardines, drill each other on what exactly to do if their fellow Marine is mesmerized by Cuckoo's voice. Nate settles on a list of questions he'd like Cuckoo to answer; he'd be surprised if it gives a straight reply to two of them, but if it does answer two, those two answers will be worth the rest of the trouble they've been given.
Standing outside the comm door, Nate feels a pang of pure and unaccountable terror from a source he can't quite name. It's not a hunch so much as an unshakeable intuition—a dread—curling up in the pit of his stomach, and the implications of it frighten him.
"No time like the present, gentlemen," he says, and the door to the comm room swishes open.
Cuckoo glances up at the sound. It has a hungry look in its eyes, something too bright to be natural, and the jitter of its fingers and the smirk on its lips are so disturbing that Nate physically feels a few of his sergeants recoil.
It smiles, wide and feral. "You brought friends. And no caveman."
"Who you see or do not see in this room is none of your concern," Nate says tightly. "We've come to ask you some questions."
"Encino Man never would have let you tell all these fine gentlemen about me," says Cuckoo, grinning, "would he? Congratulations on showing some initiative, lieutenant, fine exemplary officer of the Marine Corps, brings a tear to my eye—"
"Jesus Christ, it's worse than Person," mutters Pappy, and Cuckoo's attention flicks to him.
"Something's telling me," it says, soft, "that all of you aren't going to be missing Person a whole lot by the time you leave," and there's strange harmonics to that voice that Nate recognizes.
"Don't look at its face," he says shortly. "And don't pay too close attention to anything it says, if you can help it."
"Somebody's learning from example," Cuckoo drawls, sarcastic. But the off-key notes are gone from its voice, and Nate feels a small flicker of triumph.
"We wanted to know," he says, "what your purpose is."
Cuckoo blinks. "Land the ship on Earth Prime. Haven't we been over this, LT?"
"Your purpose in possession," says Nate, irritated, "your purpose in taking over people. There are those of us here—" He cuts himself off; Cuckoo doesn't need to know there's disagreement about whether it has a conscience.
It smirks, nevertheless. "Let me guess," it says, "someone said I was probably just a touchy-feely cute unicorn underneath it all? I just don't get that you all are really people, in my species everything is a hivemind and I'm secretly a bee queen hidden on this video game planet, some sweet bullshit like that."
"Cut the crap," says Brad. The space is tight enough that he's pressed against Nate's side; Nate can't say he's complaining. Brad's been white-knuckled, though, through this entire conversation so far; it can't be easy for him to talk to this thing wearing Ray's face.
Cuckoo's shoulders ripple in a shrug; for a moment it looks as if it has too many joints. It says, coldly, "Do you really think your species deserves to have bodies?"
It's the first thing it's said with absolutely no echo of Ray in its voice at all.
"I've been alive I don't know how long," it says, tilts its head back and stares at the ceiling, "and the first thing I remember after the planet was formed is a ship coming through my star system. Tiny. A cockroach crawling on the space-time continuum.
"And when I went into the ship—the computer worked well enough to store me—what did I discover? The things in it were pests themselves. Insects. Disgusting things warping the world around them for their own benefit—"
"Okay, dawg," says Poke, dry, "I've heard this villain monologue shit on all the shitty afternoon TV movies. You got anything original, or is this just the usual whiteboy bullcrap made up by people who ain't smart enough to think of decent dialogue?"
Cuckoo looks taken aback, and Nate feels pure pride sweep over him. This alien might be strange, and it might be dangerous, but these are his men, these are his men, and there's nobody in the world that he'd rather have at his side.
"And you?" says Cuckoo to Poke, cold. "You're something original? Half one thing and not quite half the other, joined the Corps because you were scared, can't even—"
"Man," says Poke, "if you think I ain't heard this shit before, too, I gotta tell you I'm surprised you even managed to take down Encino Man. You ain't smart enough to think your way out of a paper bag."
"Good to know I have that in common with your command, at least," Cuckoo says, and stretches, rolls its shoulders, cracks its knuckles in an elaborate and careful process. Then it stills, suddenly.
"Let me run down the list of options you all came up with," it says. "Just taking an educated guess here, just whistling in the dark, just having fun with the guys who can definitely think their way out of paper bags."
"Kill Ray. Which," and it grins directly into Brad's face, "I'm guessing isn't exactly Plan A—if it were, you would have done it already, but besides that. Kill Ray on a sneak attack, so I won't realize what you're up to and get out of his head in time. Yeah?"
"Option Two, maybe, is to get Encino Man and have me jump into his head, instead—" It laughs outright at the expressions on their faces. "Fuckin' hell, how predictable are you? Ray's brain is faster than any of yours, I like it here. Which isn't the only reason I'm not moving into Schwetje's head—you think I want to be living in the person who you hate more than anybody else?"
"Of course," it adds, sly, "you could wait a day or two, just until I have enough carrying capacity to live in more than one brain at once, and then you could bring Schwetje up here. I wouldn't complain. Hell, it'd be a party. You could all join in the fun, get it, get it—"
"We get the picture," says Nate tightly.
Cuckoo's eyes flick to him; it smiles, says, "Do they know, LT? You told the men?"
Nate blinks, confused. Told the men what? Know what? What could he and Cuckoo know that the men don't? If all it knows is what it's seen from the brains of the men on the Linnl Bittering and from Ray's brain—
Cuckoo sees the dawning recognition on Nate's face, raises its eyebrows. "You haven't told them," it says, sounding delighted.
"Told us what, Nate?" Mike says. There's an edge to his voice.
"The terraform machines in the Tau Ceti system," says Nate. "The reason that Schwetje didn't want us to discuss them on Proxima Centauri or Earth Prime. The machines were faulty, barely operational. The Earth Prime government deliberately sabotaged them."
"Tell them why," says Cuckoo. It sounds irritated that Nate was willing to tell the men so quickly, irritated that it wasn't able to reveal the conspiracy itself.
"Because the military wanted the funding that goes to colonies to go to us instead," Nate says, and his voice sounds weary to his own ears. "Brad knows this. Ray knew the machines were faulty, and I guess he must have figured out the rest."
"And you would have gone back to Earth Prime," says Cuckoo, "without saying a word—"
"The plan," says Brad, sharp, "was to expose it to the press once we reached Earth Prime." He tilts his chin up. "That was the the LT's end of it, anyway. I planned to back him up. I'm fairly certain Ray would have, too." He glances around the comm room. "And any of you who wanted to."
There's narrowed eyes from around the room, but there's nods, too, and murmurs of support. Nate manages to nod back.
Brad looks back at Cuckoo. "So if the idea is that the Devil Dog deserves to go down for being part of a cover-up," he says quietly, "you can toss that one out the window."
Cuckoo's staring at him, its mouth open for a long bewildered second, before it shudders and reforms its expression into something nastier than Nate's ever seen on Ray's face before. "So one ship decides to be whistle-blowers," it says, "wow, how altruistic, how sweet, out of the goodness of your hearts, out of respect for the human species. Not like your ex and her new husband were on one of the planets, not like there's any kind of petty revenge here at all."
Beside Nate, Brad goes still.
"Stop being so fucking sanctimonious," Cuckoo snarls. "Stop pretending that whatever I do to your species is any different than what you'd do to each other if you could, stop fucking pretending that you wouldn't be better off without me in your brains. Stop pretending that your species is working."
It looks from one face to another; when its gaze flicks to Nate's, he feels an involuntary chill go down his spine. There's so little left in Ray's eyes that's human.
"You wanna talk me out of getting into your heads?" it says, soft and full of malice. "Fine. But before you do you better ask yourselves, what the fuck are you fighting for?"
It grins without amusement. "For the government that sent your families and friends to be canaries in coal mines? For the captain who didn't even have the balls to tell you he was going to take off in the lifeboat and leave you to rot? For the planet of people who'll forget about you fifteen minutes after they find your bodies?"
"Whatever you're trying to protect, forget it." It shakes its head. "There's nothing in your species worth defending any more."
"Well," says Brad, hours later, "that went down like a lead balloon."
Nate pushes at his chipped beef with his fork, doesn't look up. They're in the mess hall again, this time for dinner; the day is late. It's not quite so packed as it usually is. They'd seen men in the halls, huddled together, talking in low voices; they'd brightened to see Nate and the other men as they'd gone by, but not by much.
"An alien that knows what we're thinking the second after we think it," Brad presses on. "Plans that get shot down just as we form them. The most cynical monologue I've heard since Poke got started on interplanetary colonization—Nate, are you listening?"
Nate hums noncommittally, doesn't look up from his plate.
"Nate, are you all right?" says Brad. Nate doesn't answer; Brad grabs the hand holding the fork, holds it still. "Nate. Look at me."
Nate looks up. Brad's lips are pursed, his eyes concerned; his hand is squeezing Nate's tightly.
"How many days out from Earth Prime are we, Brad?" he says.
Brad blinks; his eyes flick up in a moment of concentration. "If we kick up the faster than light-travel to the next gear," he says, "we could be there in under a week."
"And how many days until Cuckoo said it would be able to possess multiple people at once?" says Nate.
Now it's Brad who looks away. "It won't happen."
"All it takes is one," says Nate. "One lance corporal who gets cocky and decides to test his luck. And then we spend the next two or three weeks trapped on the inside of our own heads, waiting for the plague ship to dock."
"If we don't find a way to stop it in that time," says Brad, his eyes narrowed. "If we don't find a way to get it out of Ray, or—or just kill Ray, or—"
"It knows what we're thinking the second after we think it," Nate echoes, staring down at his plate. "It shoots down our plans just as we form them—"
"For fuck's sake, sir," says Brad, and Nate glances up, startled. Brad's jaw is set, his face focused on Nate. "We had this conversation when Encino Man locked us in the brig."
Nate stares at him. Brad adds, "Don't make me repeat myself," cocks his head.
Nate thinks back to that night in the brig; Brad had told him about his ex-girlfriend and his best friend, about the Tau Ceti C colony. He'd talked about Nate bringing MREs to every city. He'd said Nate had been the only one who had.
I'll follow you anywhere, sir.
And Nate had thought about hope—
—and just like that, he knows what he has to do.
It's like ice water in his veins: a shock, and then numbness. And then, somewhere beneath the numbness, nothing but ache.
And then he thinks: I cannot think about this.
He can't. He can't let the knowledge of his plan write itself onto his brain, because if he does, it'll know—
—he can't think about that.
He can only act.
Brad's still looking at him. Nate makes himself keep what he's feeling out of his face, makes himself rub a hand over his eyes. "Thank you, Brad," he says, and the exhaustion in it is real.
"Are you going to eat that, sir, or are you just going to push it around your plate?" says Brad, and when Nate looks up again, there's a half-smile hovering on his lips.
Nate raises his eyebrows. "You can have it if you want."
"That wasn't exactly what I had in mind, sir," says Brad, and that half-smile curls up at the corners, turns downright wicked.
Every cell in Nate's body says yes. He shoves back the chair from the table, tilts his chin up at Brad. "Is this going to lead to some terrible innuendo, sergeant?"
"I was thinking," says Brad, "there are better things you could do with your mouth," and his face is perfectly straight for all of ten seconds before it cracks, and Jesus, Jesus, Nate could watch him smile forever.
He smiles back. "Let's go find out what they are."
Brad's skin tastes like sweat, soap—like sunshine, Nate thinks, sunshine in the middle of this endless night, unless he's only thinking that because of the blue of Brad's eyes, the endless golden expanse of his skin.
The lights have dimmed in Nate's quarters, automatic, and the shadows are playing across Brad's chest again. Nate leans forward, bites at Brad's nipple, is rewarded by a sharp gasp—the noises Brad makes are never, ever going to get old for him.
He presses Brad's wrists into the cot, whispers, "Stay."
Brad's eyes are half-lidded; he licks his lips, seemingly unconscious. He nods.
Nate presses Brad's knees apart, and Brad goes willingly, shifts his hips until he's lying with his legs open. Nate can't resist a kiss, then, just a quick press of his lips to Brad's, and Brad presses up into it; he's cupping the back of Nate's head, suddenly, and Nate's mouth is open, and Brad's tongue is quick and clever in his mouth—
He pulls his head back with some reluctance, whispers into Brad's ear, "I thought I told you to stay."
"You might have," says Brad, and smirks, unrepentant.
"Just for that," says Nate, and doesn't finish his sentence, just tugs Brad's wrists until they're above his head, leans his weight on them. Brad doesn't bother to tug at the bond; they both know Brad could flip them over and have Nate pinned in a second, they both know he really, really doesn't want to.
Nate mouths at Brad's jaw, his neck, finds again the spot that makes Brad gasp, makes Brad's hips jerk. He scrapes teeth over it, gently, then bites—Brad groans, above him—and laves immediately with his tongue, kisses, sucks hard. Brad's hips are thrusting into the air.
Nate smiles against Brad's skin, moves back up, comfortably kisses Brad's jaw again.
He's been at that for only a little while before Brad tugs his head away, says, "Are you fucking with me, sir," roughly.
"That was the plan," says Nate, sucks at the shell of Brad's ear.
"This is because I moved my hand?" Brad demands hoarsely. "Shit, sir, pin me down, tie me up, do whatever the fuck you like, just fucking touch me—"
"Kinky," says Nate, amused.
"Asshole," accuses Brad.
"That is the plan," Nate admits, and finally moves his head away from Brad's, reaches over to his right for the lube. He doesn't bother to ration it, just pours it over his fingers, settles back on his heels to slide one into Brad.
It's easier than it was the last time; Brad's relearned how to relax around Nate's fingers, relearned how to twist his hips so Nate's fingers can probe deeper, until he brushes a spot that makes Brad genuinely groan and tell him more. Nate wants to go slow, though, tonight; he adds another finger, another, moves gently until Brad is rocking back onto his fingers and telling him goddamnit, Nate, you want to kill me with sheer fucking officer lazy-ass—
Nate fucks him slow, too. Slow and easy; when Brad complains, tells him to go faster, harder, Nate just slows down more. He knows it's maddening, he knows Brad wants to kill him. He wants this to last.
After he's come inside Brad—and even with Brad's complaints it feels too soon—he settles down the cot, bends his head to suck Brad's cock. This, too, he does slow, holds down Brad's hips when Brad tries to fuck into his mouth, laps at Brad's balls, kisses at the shaft of Brad's cock, licks at the head.
When he finally goes down on Brad, he doesn't dare to close his eyes. Brad hasn't closed his; he's looking down at Nate with this mixture of fondness and awe, and Nate crinkles his eyes up at him, sucks harder, flicks his tongue so that Brad comes down his throat with a gasp.
Brad falls asleep before Nate does. Which is good. Which is what Nate wanted.
He lets himself lie in Brad's arms for longer than he means to; he can't resist the warmth around him, can't resist the temptation to just stay here for one second longer, one minute, one hour…
If he let himself do what he wanted, Nate knows, he'd spend the rest of his life with Brad at his side.
Eventually he manages to slide off the cot, out of Brad's embrace. Brad stays asleep, but his face changes, his eyebrows settle together in a frown; Nate feels a rush of guilt for bringing Brad bad dreams.
He crosses to his table, carefully not thinking about what he's doing, and sits down. There's paper in one of the drawers, and pens in another. There's a note he has to write.
When he's done, he crosses to the closet, pulls on a pair of pants, his shirt, a pair of boots. He doesn't bother to button and lace them properly; there's no captain to discipline him for it, even if it matters now that-
He cuts that thought off, steps over the cot, puts his hand on the doorknob.
And turns to look at Brad.
Brad's face has smoothed out; his face is peaceful. His hair is a shock of gold on his head, spread out on Nate's pillow, and his eyelashes are pale on his cheeks. Nate thinks of Brad in the brig, suddenly, nodding off with his head on his chest—and Brad in the hold, coming to fetch him to come to Captain Schwetje's quarters, pulling him to his feet, his hand warm—
Nate loves him.
Nate knows that as surely as he knows his own name, suddenly, there at the door of his own quarters. He thinks he's known it for days now—no, weeks. Maybe longer.
He wants Brad by his side on this mission, and more than that; he wants Brad at his side forever. He wants to go back to Earth Prime with Brad, wants to show Brad the Ivy League forests where he went to college and the little house in the suburbs where he grew up; he wants to travel the planet with Brad, travel the galaxy, find worlds no one's explored; he wants to build a house with Brad, wants to build a life.
He can't help it; he crosses the room, stepping as lightly as he can, and bends down, presses a kiss to Brad's forehead. In sleep, Brad's face is so much more open, so much more vulnerable: he smiles in his sleep, and murmurs Nate's name.
Nate closes his eyes, stands up, turns away.
The long hallway: the ringing of the grate beneath his boots, the flickering yellow lights, the rusted pipes that run along the ceiling. The humming of the engines, far beneath his feet. The doors on either side; behind them, his men.
Ladder after ladder, and Nate closes his eyes, focuses on the sheer physical sensation of metal under his palms, of his muscles pulling him up and up. Focuses on the rub of his clothes against his skin; focuses on the feeling of his own heartbeat.
The Devil Dog's never seemed bigger than she does tonight. The hallways are empty, silent; Nate thinks of Garza, Lilley, Christeson, Q-Tip, on bunks in the enlisted men's quarters—of the hard gleam of Poke's eyes when he's angry—of Walt's easy smile, wide and bright—
Can't let himself think of that. Can't let himself think of them. It'll hurt too much.
Here's the door to the mess hall, dark and cold inside. Here's the hallway leading to the lifeboat. Here's the hallway leading to Schwetje's old quarters. Here's the staircase that would take him to the hold, if he just walked down.
The breeze of the cooling fans, making him shiver. The smell of iron, creeping down his nose and into the back of his throat. The taste of Brad on his tongue, still, maybe always.
The sound of his own breath. His heart inside his chest, like a hammer.
Nine months of training, and he can't keep his body from being afraid?
And then the last ladder—he climbs up and over the top of it, glances up and down the hallway—
And then the door to the comm room.
It's strange, Nate thinks distantly, that Cuckoo never seems to move from its spot sprawled by the computer; even in the conversations he's had with it, it hasn't moved a muscle besides its face.
When Nate comes in, though, it climbs to its feet, cracks its neck from side to side, raises its eyebrows at him.
"All by your lonesome, captain," it says.
"Not a captain," says Nate.
Cuckoo shrugs, that strange shrug with too many joints in it. "The only other captain on this ship doesn't look all that operational any more. Somebody's gotta fill the power void. Besides," and there's a shadow of its usual too-wide grin, "tell me with a straight face this ship isn't yours."
Nate ignores that and says, "I want to make a deal."
Now Cuckoo's eyebrows shoot up straight towards its hairline; now it grins that awful grin. "Do you."
"I want," says Nate, closes his eyes. He has to do this right; he has to do this right. "I want to stay alive."
"Do you," Cuckoo repeats, leans back against the computer's keyboard, crosses its arms across its chest.
"What you were saying," says Nate, "about us, people, human beings, it's not—wrong. I want—"
"To save your own skin," says Cuckoo, and it's now there's a gleam of something bright and greedy in its eyes, something spiteful and triumphant.
"As long as I'm alive," says Nate. "I don't care in what form. Take over my brain, if you want. I just don't want to be dead."
Cuckoo clucks its tongue. "Brad's going to be so disappointed in you, captain."
"Brad's going to be dead," says Nate, tamps down any flicker of emotion he might have. "You're going to get the Earth Prime Command to shoot him down. Shoot down the whole Devil Dog as soon as she hits the atmosphere."
"Oh, captain," says Cuckoo, that wicked inhuman grin dancing in its eyes. "Pretend to be you on Earth Prime? Say the whole Devil Dog's just gone lunatic? You were the only one who escaped?"
"If you like," says Nate. "If that's what it takes."
Cuckoo purses its lips. "Only tell me, Nate—" And then it's too close to Nate, moving unnaturally fast, like a snake, and it's holding Nate up against the comm door with a hand to his throat. The oxygen to Nate's brain cuts off; he struggles automatically. This is strength Ray never had.
"What's to stop me," says Cuckoo mildly, "from just killing you now, taking off in Ray's body, and selling the same story to Earth Prime without all that fuss?"
Nate thrashes; Cuckoo relaxes its grip, and he manages to choke out, "Ray's brain doesn't know the access codes."
The hand on his throat releases him; Nate slumps to the floor. Cuckoo's looking at him with its head tilted, its eyes dark and flat. "What access codes?"
"The access codes to the lifeboat," says Nate.
It's a stunning sight, to see how Cuckoo's eyes roll up in its head and its mouth turns down in a frown; it's racking its brains, Nate thinks dimly, and then: no, it's racking Ray's brains. Under different circumstances that might strike him as funny.
When it looks back down, the tilt to its mouth is sharper, more calculating. "All right," it says. "Not a bad plan."
"A better plan than anything else you had," says Nate, rubs at his throat. There'll be bruises.
"Hell of a change of heart," says Cuckoo, takes a step back, and Nate pushes himself up, tucks his legs under himself. It's the reverse of their usual positions, he thinks; Cuckoo's looking down at him, and he's slumped before it, on his knees.
"You were right," he says, layers bitterness into his voice. It's not hard. "You were right about Earth Prime, you were right about Command. They don't give a shit about anyone except themselves, I don't give a shit about them. You were right about this whole species. Do you want it in writing? I just want to stay alive. Don't make me beg."
"That's a tempting option," says Cuckoo thoughtfully, and reaches down a hand. Surprised, Nate takes it, lets Cuckoo pull him to his feet.
"Sit down, captain," says Cuckoo, gestures to one of the chairs by the computer. Nate crosses the room, sits.
And then Cuckoo looks at him—looks at him—and if Nate thought there was something inhuman in its eyes before, Christ.
They're like galaxies, those eyes. Darker than Ray's ever were. But there's flecks in them, too—silver, gold maybe, spinning in a pattern that Nate can almost make out. And when Cuckoo smiles like that, all predatory, feral, they're like the eyes of a wolf.
"I've never seen your planet," Cuckoo says, and there are the strange overtones to its voice, the harmonies that hurt Nate's ears earlier, when it spoke to Schwetje and to the sergeants—but now it sounds as if there's something extra to the tone, something he never really heard before. He closes his eyes, strains to pick it out.
"Nah, lieutenant," says Cuckoo, dark and amused, "you have to be looking at me for this one," and so Nate blinks them open obediently. Cuckoo's much closer than it was before. When did that happen?
"I've never seen your planet," Cuckoo says again, soft and almost sweet. "I have the memories, you know that, from Ray here and from the men on the other ship, but it's not the same second-hand. Can't wait to take a look."
Its voice is smooth now, sonorous, weaving into Nate's ears, and Nate wonders faintly how he could have ever thought it was off-key. There's some rhythm to it that he could listen to forever; he just wants to sit here, wants to watch the dancing lights in Cuckoo's eyes, never wants to move again, never wants to think again.
"Green," says Cuckoo, soft, "never seen green except for your uniforms. Can't wait to touch grass. Can't wait to get real food, chocolate, fruit. When was the last time you had an apple, captain? Last time you touched a fresh one, all waxy and red. Last time you picked one from a tree. Last time you sank your teeth into it…"
It's stopped talking.
Nate doesn't mind. He doesn't mind much of anything, really; everything seems very far away, very unimportant. It's clear to him, at this moment, that what is important is Cuckoo's face, the lights in Cuckoo's eyes. If he can just keep watching them, he'll pick out the pattern; if he can just keep looking, he'll understand.
There's a faint ringing in his ears, and he feels a little light-headed, as if he's forgotten to breathe. Cuckoo's eyes seem larger and larger; he could fall into them, could tumble into that wheeling mass of stars and never come out—
And then Nate's not in the comm room any more.
And then Nate's not Nate any more.
His eyelids feel heavy as shit, but he's pretty damn sure there's lightning in his veins, right, and he's on twice the advised dosage of his stimulants and he's Muhammad and Jesus and Buddha and whatever the fuck Hebrew atheist god Brad prays to, he's flying, he can do anything in the world. He's talking to this crazy-as-fuck computer, and he's going to figure it out, he's going to save the ship, he's going to save the whole motherfucking world.
He's Ray, and the computer screen's glowing some shade of green it's never glowed before, and shit, that's fascinating, he could stare at that for hours—
He's Ray, and it's weeks ago, before they ever found that fucking AI in the Dog's network. He's Ray, and he's in his bunk; one level below him is Brad, tinkering with some copper-wire thing he's made out of spare parts that Ray stole for him out of parts of the Dog—hey, she won't miss them, he made pretty fuckin' sure not to take anything vital.
"Why the fuck are you so quiet," says Brad below him, irritated, and Ray grins, leans over his bunk to say What, you gigantic asshole, you miss me-
And it's months ago, and they're on Tau Ceti C, and he's kneeling by a body with scars on its face. The plague's run its course here. He can't find Brad. He can't find Brad, and he might be a little whiskey tango fuck with the brains of a squirrel, but he's fuckin' smart enough to understand that Brad needs him.
It's a year ago, the voyage between Tau Ceti F and Tau Ceti E, sitting in the mess hall with Brad at his side. The food is crap, but it's not as crap as it's going to be; fucking Trombley's convinced that it can't get worse, but Ray's been on missions before, and he ain't that optimistic.
"Nah," he says, "nah, okay, it's like this, we're on Mars. This is all a hallucination, right, because Martians are these telepathic aliens and we're trying to take over their planet, and they're trying to convince us that we're actually explorers and shit and that aliens don't exist, but like if we break the illusion it's gonna turn out Mattis and Ferrando are this legit-married Martian couple who are just torturing the shit out of us with, like knives—"
"It figures, Ray," says Brad dryly, "that even in your fucked-up science fiction fantasies you're a masochistic perverted little bastard."
"Thanks, Brad," says Ray, "I do what I can," and turns to—
And now it's at least a decade ago, and he's a teenager, and there's a recruiting officer at this scrappy as fuck underfunded public high school. And it's not much, it's going to be hell, he knows it'll be hell, but for fuck's sake at least it's a way out of this dead-end town where the money left decades ago and the people aren't far behind—
And then he's not Ray at all, any more.
Now he's a sergeant—the part of him that's still Nate strives for a name, finds nothing—a sergeant, and there's pure triumph flickering in his chest. He can move one finger. And it isn't everything, but for fuck's sake, it'll have to be enough.
He slides the gun barrel into his mouth.
The navigation room stinks. The things the men have done—the things that creature has made them do—spring to his mind, images flying in front of his eyes, and he pushes them away. Not for his last moments. Not that.
There's a noise inside his mind—no words, just pure surprise—and then his head feels suddenly, inexplicably, different, as if suddenly lifted of a very heavy weight.
He pulls the trigger.
And now he's a sergeant, the same one, and Private Spender, the one who'd had all those clever things to say about the fauna on the last planet, the one who's been unnaturally quiet lately, is looking at him funny, and he frowns at him and says, "Spender, you all right?"
Spender's head tilts to the side, unnaturally far. There's a smirk on his lips that the sergeant doesn't think he's ever seen Spender wear before. "All right," Spender says, his mouth working as if the concept of words is unnatural to him, and then his head snaps back up, and he smiles at the sergeant like a shark.
And now he's the sergeant, just promoted, the new stripes feeling odd and strange on his shoulder, and for the first time in a long time, he's home. And his wife is there to greet him at the port, looking nervous, her hair a mess of curls and her eyes wide and dark and a little bit scared, and he drops his bags and runs—
And now he's Cuckoo.
No. Now he is it, and it has no name. Cuckoo comes later, a human thing; the humans need their names, their labels, their ways to assign identity and form and character. It needs nothing. It only needs itself.
The stars drift before it, and it hates them with a steady, burning hatred, hot as a flame. Imagines them exploding into gas, imagines them flickering and dying out. Imagines a return to the coldness before them, to the stillness, to the endless dead dark, and wants.
And then he is Nate again.
Or—he looks out through his own eyes, he knows that. The deck beneath his feet is beneath his feet, and not someone else's. His heart is beating in his own chest, and he is looking into Cuckoo's face.
No. No, he's not. He's looking into Ray's.
Ray takes a step back, stumbles, lands with a hard thump on the deck, as if he's not used to control of his own legs. His face is a picture of shock.
Nate feels his face twist up into a smirk, feels his throat work without his consent. "So this is what you look like from the outside," says his mouth.
"You asshole," says Ray, hoarse. "You goddamned sonofabitch piece of shit, you despicable cowardly dirty motherfucker, you bitch, you liar—"
"That's not a very nice way to talk to your old roommate," says Cuckoo through Nate, and sniggers. Nate's never sniggered before; he's not sure he likes the feeling.
Doesn't really matter what you like, now, does it, says Cuckoo's voice inside his head, and on the outside of his head, Cuckoo continues: "C'mon, Ray-Ray, didn't we have some good times? Don't you miss me even a little?"
"You get the fuck out of my LT," says Ray bitterly, and doesn't get up off the ground. Nate doesn't think he can.
Nate feels his shoulders ripple in a painful shrug, feels his arms spread wide. "Wow, Ray. With a harsh threat like that, how can I possibly resist?"
His hands pat down his pockets; his mouth curls down in a frown. "Fick didn't bring a firearm. Pity, that."
"Pity," Ray agrees, and Nate's never, never seen this kind of hatred in Ray's face before, "you'll have to strangle me with your bare hands, I guess."
"And wait for the cavalry to arrive," Cuckoo agrees cheerfully through Nate, "and shoot me when they realize what their fine upstanding LT just agreed to do. Sure, corporal, great plan. Why don't you use that famous brain of yours some more, figure out what you ought to be doing right now?"
"Enlighten me," Ray snarls.
And there go the corners of Nate's mouth, tugged wide into that parody of a smile that had unnerved him so much on Ray's face. "Shut the fuck up, you whiskey tango inbred hick," Cuckoo says, sing-song, and laughs as Ray struggles to make his muscles work enough to get up off the ground, laughs as Ray staggers to his feet and pushes himself towards Nate's body. There's murder in Ray's eyes, and Cuckoo's still laughing, laughing, laughing as it forces Nate's legs and arms to move, forces the comm room door to slide open, forces it to shut and lock behind him.
Nice ship, says Cuckoo's voice inside Nate's head, and Nate feels it scan his brain, quickly, like a white-hot ripple running across the inside of his forehead; the route to the lifeboat flashes before his eyes, as clear as if it were a map. So sorry I can't stay to take a look around. Hell, and now it's thoughtful again, we might have time to find some of your NCOs—
We made an agreement, Nate thinks, and is surprised to find that he can think, that he still has that autonomy.
So we did, Cuckoo agrees. Down the ladders Nate's body goes, through the hallways, three times faster than Nate's ever done it himself. They trained ship safety into all of them at boot camp—don't run on deck, go carefully around corners—but Cuckoo's never been to boot camp.
And do I give a shit about your human regulations? Cuckoo asks, and now it's just amused. Nate had forgotten it could hear all the thoughts that flicker across his mind, not just the ones he broadcasts. So the fuck what if I stumble and fall? I hurt your body, what a tragedy, I'll get a new one in a week or two. Lots of new ones.
Nate doesn't reply. There's the hallway leading to the lifeboat; there's the door. There's the keyboard, the lights of the keys flashing softly.
Well, congratulations, captain, says Cuckoo, you weren't lying, and there's that white-hot ripple of a brain-scan again, and the password to open the doors flashes before his eyes: SEMPER FIDELIS, bright and brilliant.
You're fucking with me, Cuckoo says.
Schwetje set it, Nate says, lets the thought be as weary and frustrated as it can possibly be.
That's the other problem with your species, says Cuckoo, limited imagination, and punches in the password. The doors swish open.
The lifeboat is, of course, a misnomer; if this were a bad sci-fi movie from the late twentieth century, they'd call it an escape pod. The inside of it is smooth, white, like an egg, and the walls are curved and round. Nate's body steps through, and the doors slide shut behind them.
One side of the lifeboat's single, curved wall is taken up by a viewing port, bigger than any of the viewing ports back on the Devil Dog proper. It's nothing but black, now; the lifeboat is pressed tight against the Devil Dog's side. But when it lets go of the magnetism that holds them together, the window will be all stars.
The other half of the wall is a computer, sleek and dark, looking ten times more modern than the comm computer on the Devil Dog. This one's not connected to the Devil Dog's network at all, not when it's far enough away from the ship; instead, it's designed to be able to run on its own, fueled by solar power from nearby stars.
There's a large white table in the center, and a little grey device on it that Nate recognizes as being used for video-calls. Scattered around the table are three chairs, all bolted to the floor; on the chairs are straps, lying loose.
It's the chair nearest the computer, the one facing the screen, which interests Cuckoo. Nate's body walks over to it, settles into it, tilts its head expectantly at it.
It's a touchscreen, thinks Nate, can't keep the disdain out of his thought.
The result is another white-hot ripple across his brain, like the one he'd experienced when Cuckoo was scanning for information—only this one doesn't stop, goes on and on and on until Nate's head is throbbing and he wants nothing more than to hide somewhere very dark and very quiet and never think again—
Right, says Cuckoo, sharp and cruel and irritated, that's the idea, and the pain abruptly stops. Nate wants to rub at his temples, can't.
His hand comes up, presses gently against the touchscreen. It blooms to life with a gentle hum.
Oh, this is nostalgia, Nate hears Cuckoo say with some amusement.
Cuckoo's making Nate's fingers fly over the keyboard faster than Nate's ever been able to type; it must be muscle memory left over from living in Ray's brain. Earth Prime.
And then Nate's fingers are moving across his waist, his shoulders, his ankles, his chest, buckling the chair straps tightly across his body; and then the floor of the lifeboat is rumbling, the whole room shaking as if it's a house in the middle of a storm—
—and then gravity falls away, Nate's stomach swoops, and he's flying, he's flying.
Behind him, he knows, the stars must be rushing past the viewing port. Cuckoo doesn't turn Nate's head to look; eons upon eons floating through this part of space, Nate guesses, makes it more jaded than Nate, an Earth Prime human who didn't even step off-planet until he was eighteen. But he wants, nevertheless, wants to turn his head and see.
It takes a long while for the lifeboat to stop shaking. The floor stills; the incredible vibration fades into a gentle hum, the same as Nate might have heard in the hold of the Devil Dog. Cuckoo unbuckles the straps holding Nate's body to the seat, just as quick and careful as it buckled them, and stands up.
Out the window is the Devil Dog.
She's enormous; even as she recedes in their view, she stretches from one side of the window to the other. Her enormous engines are clearly visible, now, at the bottom of the ship; the sides of it are scattered with windows, viewing ports. If he squints, Nate thinks he can even see the porthole that he and Brad peered out of in the brig, and he thinks, involuntarily, of the kiss he left on Brad's forehead.
Really, says Cuckoo, delighted. You and Brad.
Nate feels a shock of shame and anger—would feel a shock of shame and anger, if his mind could send hormones flooding through his brain any more. There's the ghost of it, still, like candle smoke dissipating in a strong wind. Me and Brad, he says.
And then his forehead burns white-hot, and images are dancing before his eyes: Brad spread out under him, dark-eyed and desperate; Brad sucking his cock as if there's nothing else in the world; Nate sitting atop Brad's hips, just a little while ago, and the warmth, and the want hot and hard in Nate's chest.
Really, Cuckoo says. There's real disappointment behind the thought. I go to all the trouble to find out what all that eye-fucking in the Tau Ceti system meant, and this is all? And here I thought you were going to be some tragic story, Love Conquers All and that kind of bullshit, romance seeing you through The Dark Times. Sex? That's it?
For a very, very brief moment, Nate feels triumph like a flame—control of his memories, something Cuckoo can't see—but he quickly snuffs out. He can't afford to think about that, not now, not now—
What if he's very good in bed, he says.
Now it's Ray's memories flash in front of Nate's face, a brief slew of images involving Brad and Sirius whores; Nate isn't sure he wants to know why Ray saw all of them. Cuckoo hums to itself. Fair, captain, fair.
The Devil Dog's smaller in the viewing port, now. Cuckoo leans Nate's body against a chair, crosses its arms over its chest, watches the ship recede into the galaxy. Do you have any nostalgia? it says. For the overgrown apes? They won't be around much longer, after all.
The inside of his dorm room at college, stacked floor to ceiling with books; his sisters clustered around the dinner table when they were children, giggling together over some magazine; the first time he'd stepped onto the Devil Dog, surrounded by his crew. No, says Nate.
Brad's face. Brad's half-smile. The faint rumble of a laugh in Brad's chest. This is the species that left the Tau Ceti colonists to die, says Nate. Keep me alive, and they can all go to rot.
I can't say I disagree, says Cuckoo thoughtfully. It walks Nate's body to the viewing port, puts Nate's hands up against the glass. The Devil Dog is growing smaller and smaller. Another few minutes, and it'll be out of sight.
Nate's body turns, crosses back to the computer, types: Estimate in-flight time to Earth Prime.
-AT CURRENT LEVEL OF FASTER THAN LIGHT-TRAVEL, ESTIMATE: 11.9 DAYS-
"But that's boring," says Cuckoo through Nate's mouth, surprised, and then, No offense, Captain, it's just—I don't want to spend a week and a half in nobody's head but yours.
It types, List: methods: decrease in-flight time to Earth Prime.
-METHODS: DECREASE IN-FLIGHT TIME TO EARTH PRIME:-
-INCREASE FASTER THAN LIGHT-TRAVEL SPEED-
-FLY DIRECTLY TOWARDS EARTH PRIME (DECREASE AND/OR ELIMINATE OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE)-
Query, Cuckoo types, what obstacles are we avoiding?
-ASTEROIDS; MOONS; PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR-
That startles a laugh out of Cuckoo; it sounds odd to Nate's ears. He's never laughed that way before, more cruel and surprised than amused.
Decrease obstacle avoidance, Cuckoo types with Nate's fingers, do not eliminate entirely. Query: quantify current obstacle avoidance level?
-OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE LEVEL: 8 OUT OF 10
Query: level of obstacle avoidance necessary not to be pulled in by the Proxima Centauri star's gravity?
-OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE LEVEL WOULD BE 4.4-
Decrease obstacle avoidance level to 4.4, Cuckoo types. Double faster than light-travel speed.
Triple, why don't you, Nate thinks at it. The engines can take it. Closer to Proxima Centauri, and getting there fast. That's what they need.
"Because I need time to grow, LT," says Cuckoo aloud; it's still strange to Nate to hear words coming out of his mouth that he's never said. "You wouldn't want me to get all the way to Earth Prime and not be able to live in anybody else's head, would you? They'd shoot us in under a minute, and you'd be dead, and I'd be floating through space." It huffs through Nate's nose. "Again."
You told us you only needed a day or two on the ship.
"I lied," Cuckoo says cheerfully. "Gotta keep you all on your toes. Doesn't hurt to make you all think you've got no time to figure out what to do with me." It laughs again. "Four days minimum, five days max. I'm having to write entirely new stuff into myself, LT, this ain't as easy as it looks."
Nate has to keep it talking, has to keep it busy. He estimates just a few minutes more, but he doesn't know, can't know. What are you, exactly? he asks. Now that it doesn't matter.
"Now that it doesn't matter?" Cuckoo echoes, laughs that strange laugh again. "You know about as well as me, captain. What's something that can float in space for a couple million years without needing food?"
A lot of things, Nate thinks dryly. Dust. Gas. Rock. Plasma.
"I know I can live in computers," says Cuckoo meditatively, "and I can live in humans, but I can't live in anything else. Can't live in chairs. Can't live in tables. I've tried."
Nate feels realization hit him like a wave. Radio waves.
"I'm pretty sure radio waves can live in inanimate objects just fine, captain," says Cuckoo, sharp and mocking.
Not simple radio waves, Nate thinks, electrical signals, a specific pattern. A certain frequency, a certain wavelength, a certain amplitude. A pattern of light and sound in space. Too complex to be accurately reproduced by anything except something capable of understanding very specific electrical signs.
"A message," says Cuckoo. "You're saying I'm a transmission."
Something like that. Not sent by anyone to anyone. Naturally occurring.
Cuckoo hums, low in Nate's throat. "It's a theory, captain," it says, turns to look out the viewing port. The Devil Dog's barely a blink in the distance. Just a little while from out of sight, Nate knows. Just a little while longer, and it'll be far enough—
"Far enough for what?" says Cuckoo.
The Devil Dog is almost gone. Far enough for nothing, Nate thinks, quick and desperately. Far enough that they can't catch us when they realize we've gone. Far enough that it won't matter—
"No," says Cuckoo slowly, "no, that's not it, captain. Not quite. It was a good try. What aren't you telling me?"
Nothing, Nate says, nothing—
His brain feels like it's burning up; the heat of Cuckoo's scan is worse than ever before. He wants to fall to his knees, wants to clutch at his eyes and scream and scream—he wants to curl up in a ball and hide his face in his knees until it stops—he wants to smash the viewing port and jump out into the cool darkness of space—
What are you hiding? Cuckoo shrieks inside his head, and then aloud, "What are you hiding? You can't hide, I live inside your head, I own your brain, you can't hide anything from me, far enough for what—"
The Devil Dog is out of sight.
Far enough, Nate says grimly, that the lifeboat's computer and the Devil Dog's computer aren't connected any more.
"What the fuck does that have to do with anything," it demands, a note of hysteria running through its voice.
Nate thinks, Far enough that you won't be able to escape back into any ship my men are on.
The hardest part is moving the first finger.
It's like pushing up through water, like struggling to the surface of an enormous sea. Cuckoo's making noise inside Nate's head like he's never heard before, his head is burning, his head is burning, and he's straining harder than he ever has—
—his finger twitches—
—and he's opening his hand, closing it, rotating his arm, and then he has control over the other arm, and one leg, and the other.
He takes a step forward.
His vision is blurry, at first, then it's flashing; he sees stars, he sees galaxies, he sees a little house in what looks like Missouri that he knows for a fact he's never seen before. He hears music, and the noise of explosions, and the sound of wind, and a man's voice screaming—
"Nice try," he says grimly, and Christ, he's got control of his own mouth again.
Nice try on your part, captain, says Cuckoo inside his head, but just because I'm not connected to the Devil Dog doesn't mean—
There's an enormous screeching in his head, and he thinks distantly through the pain of Athena, ripping out of the skull of Zeus. It feels like something's ramming at his forehead, at his ears, and if he thought moving his finger was hard—
Nate closes his eyes. The difficult part isn't getting control of his own body back. It's keeping Cuckoo inside his head, once he has.
A wall around his mind. A gate, locked firmly. Something not even an elephant could get through, something that some ancient creature made out of electricity and hate won't be able to breach. Cuckoo has to be here, in his mind, not in the computer, not flying back out into space. It can't escape, it can't—
And then his head is throbbing, and it feels heavier than it ever has before, but he has control of his body, and he has an alien trapped inside him.
You're a liar, says Cuckoo. Its voice inside his head is bitter.
Nate looks out the viewing port, at the stars wheeling in front of him. "I guess I am."
You can't hold me in forever, it says, I'll escape eventually, you've got to let your guard down sometime—
"I don't have to let it down for very long," says Nate. "Just long enough to get rid of you." He smiles blindly at the stars outside his window; each time he thinks this is the hardest part, before he remembers what he has to do now.
You think they deserve this? Cuckoo asks, and it's sharp, spiteful, running on the edge of desperate. The animals on your planet, the ones who send their own kind out to die on a foreign lump of rock far from their own star, you think they deserve your mercy?
Nate says nothing. Now that Cuckoo's too far away to connect with the Devil Dog's, he knows it's not possessing the computer any more; it should have slipped out of the wires peacefully. The navigation will work again. The communication with Earth Prime will work again.
The government of Earth Prime, says Cuckoo, and now the desperation is the whole of its voice, they deserve to live? The ones who lied to you, the ones who tried to make you part of their lie, the ones who commit murder for money and don't blink an eye, they don't deserve to burn? Your species is useless, your species is worthless, your species colonizes planets and murders itself for daring to, and can you tell me truly it wouldn't be better off—
"And Ray?" says Nate aloud.
There's a strange feeling in his head, a buzz of confusion that doesn't come from him. Don't understand, says Cuckoo shortly.
"Ray," says Nate. "Skinny, dark hair. Talks quickly. You might have met him."
Don't change the subject, says Cuckoo.
"My sisters?" says Nate, stares out the viewing port. "There are three of them, they're all older than me. They used to use me as their guinea pig for dress-up when I was younger, make me be the king over their stuffed animal tea parties. The oldest one is a partner in a law firm, now."
What do your sisters have to do with this, says Cuckoo, and the buzz in Nate's head is furious, now.
"My mother," says Nate. "My father. Gunny Wynn. Garza. Lilley. Pappy. Christeson and Q-Tip. Rudy Reyes. Walt Hasser."
Stop listing, says Cuckoo, stop deflecting and answer the question-
"I am answering the question," says Nate, smiles faintly at the stars. "You've been in my head for a little while now. You're trying to convince me to let you loose on my species, and you don't for a second consider that my species includes my family?"
Cuckoo's silent. Nate closes his eyes, turns to the computer, lets his fingers rest on the keys.
What can you even do? it says inside his head, mean and angry. What plan can you possibly have?
Nate's about to answer when the device for video-calls buzzes in the center of the table.
Oh. Oh, Christ.
He knew this was coming, he knew this was coming, he wrote a note and left it on the table in his quarters. He just didn't know it would come so soon.
The computer is blinking at him.
-CALL FROM SIGNAL: DEVIL DOG TO SIGNAL: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT-
Nate types with numb fingers, Accept.
There's a man standing on the table.
It's not the real person, of course; it's a projection of him. The video-call companies have gotten so good, these days, at holograms; if he didn't know better, he'd reach out and try to grab the figure's hand. He does know better, and he still wants to. He thinks he won't ever stop wanting to.
"Ray woke me up," says the figure. His face is stone.
"Hi, Brad," says Nate wearily.
The image of Brad blinks. He's in the video-call room, Nate knows, the one where he gathered his sergeants to figure out a plan to stop Cuckoo; he's alone.
His face is half-confused, at first, then it changes, a realization. It must be something in Nate's voice, or his eyes; something about him is too human to be the alien curled up in a back corner of his mind.
Oh, Christ, it's good to see Brad's face.
Brad says, his voice half a whisper, "Sir, are you—"
"I am," says Nate, rubs a hand across his eyes. "I'm myself. It's in here with me, it's in my head. But it's—it's in the passenger seat. I'm driving."
Brad's face is hell. "You should have told me," he says, quiet and desperate. "You should have let me in on the plan, sir—"
"I couldn't," says Nate, "It can scan your mind like it's flipping through a book, Brad. I couldn't tell you, you have to believe me, if it saw me telling you it'd guess what I was going to do the second it left Ray's head and went into mine."
"Wasn't supposed to get out of the comm room so soon," says Nate. "Wasn't supposed to wake you up for a while. Not until after I finished."
"Finished what?" Brad says.
"Setting the destination for the ship," he says, and tries to smile at Brad, and fails. Inside his head, Cuckoo's screaming, a low and steady squeal of noise.
"The destination?" says Brad. From the tone of his voice, Nate thinks he already knows.
"Proxima Centauri," Nate tells him. He can't meet Brad's eyes.
"Not the planet," Brad says, quiet.
"No," says Nate. "The sun."
The screeching in his mind, like a dull roar just out of hearing, grows louder, forms words. No, Cuckoo's saying, no no no no nononono nonononono nonononononono nonononononononoNONONONONONONONONONO—
"You didn't want Ray to wake me up until after you'd told the computer where you were going," Brad says dully. "Your note said—"
"—to call the lifeboat," Nate says, "I know. I wanted to talk to you before—"
He can't finish the sentence, can't look at Brad; he turns, types quickly into the lifeboat's computer, before he can stop himself. Triple faster than light-travel speed.
-FASTER THAN LIGHT-TRAVEL SPEED TRIPLED-
And then—Christ, Christ. Decrease obstacle avoidance to 0.
The computer beeps, gently.
-WARNING: CHANGE IN OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE WILL STEER DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT DIRECTLY INTO PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR-
-CHANGE OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE?-
Negative, types Nate. He can't see the keys. Decrease obstacle avoidance to 0.
-OBSTACLE AVOIDANCE LEVEL CHANGED-
Estimated time of arrival at the Proxima Centauri star?
The number the computer shows him is in minutes. And single digits.
"Nate," says Brad behind him. His voice is clipped, short.
Nate doesn't look at him. "I didn't want you to have to see that."
"It's nice to know that you're considerate of my feelings, sir," says Brad roughly.
And at last Nate turns, lets himself look at Brad, lets himself see Brad's tight lips, his reddened eyes. Lets himself see the tight jaw and the clenched fists. Lets himself see the achingly clear blue gaze.
Lets himself see the sergeant who's been at his side since he stepped onto the Devil Dog, the sergeant who saw the evil in both Cuckoo and Earth Prime before Nate ever could, the sergeant who's protected him from monsters and told him he is hope, the sergeant who Nate left with kiss-reddened lips and a half-smile on his face. The sergeant who he left with a kiss on his forehead and the worst betrayal he could never not make. The sergeant he's left behind.
He says, quiet, "I'm sorry."
"Sir," says Brad, "if you were sorry, you would have let me come with you."
"No," says Nate, and is barely surprised at his own vehemence. "No, Brad, no, I would never have let you step on a ship I was going to fly anywhere but home—"
"I said I would follow you anywhere!" Brad snarls. "I would follow you back to Tau Ceti, I would follow you to Hell, you do not—you cannot ask me to leave you, sir, you cannot ask me to live without you, you cannot—"
"I'm not asking," says Nate, and half-smiles at him.
The computer beeps behind him.
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 1.1 MILLION MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
"Gravity's about to take ahold of the ship," says Nate. He thinks his voice is steady; he's not quite sure. "You'd better be the one who tells them, on Earth Prime. About Tau Ceti. About the terraform machines."
Brad says, quiet, "This isn't fair."
Nate tries to smile. "Say goodbye to Mike for me."
Brad closes his eyes; Nate sees his throat work up and down. "I'll say goodbye to the whole ship, sir," he says, "if you want."
"To my family," Nate tells him. "My mom, and my sisters."
"The whole planet," says Brad. "I'll fly to every fucking planet in the galaxy, sir, I'll fly out to Andromeda, I'll explore the fucking Magellanic Cloud, I'll say goodbye to them all, just don't, don't say it to me—"
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 0.9 MILLION MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
"The structure of the lifeboat is very good," says Nate quietly. "Can't feel the heat at all. I don't think it's going to hurt."
There's a rush of static, and for a few seconds, Brad's image flickers out. When it returns, he's sitting on the ground, his face in his hands, and Nate can't help but reach out for him. His hands pass through air.
"I'm here," he says, desperate, "Brad, I'm here, the solar wind just disrupted the signal for a second. I'll be here until—"
He can't finish the sentence. Brad looks up at him, and Christ, Nate can't stand not to be able to touch him.
"Talk to me about," he says, casting about wildly, and then hits upon it, and closes his eyes. "Talk to me about your family, the hippie pinko liberals. Talk about your sister."
"My commanding officer flies a rocket into the sun, and he wants to hear about my sister," says Brad. His eyes are glittering, too-bright.
"I was never your commanding officer," says Nate, "I was your XO," but Brad's shaking his head.
"Orders are orders, sir," he says, and Nate understands he means anything, anything, and nods. Brad's lips twitch; he sits back.
"You'd like my sister, sir," he says. "She'd like you, if she ever met you. You'd get along, you'd probably talk about some obscure nineteenth-century novelist for hours, you'd figure out I didn't know a damn thing about them and make fun of me for the rest of my life."
Nate smiles, or tries to. "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done," he says.
Brad shakes his head. "It's not, sir. It's not."
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 0.7 MILLION MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
Nate catches Brad's eye desperately. Brad's gaze is hard and blue, and he says, "Fuck, I wish you could meet my mother, sir. She'd make you soup, she'd say you're too skinny, she'd like you even more than my sister would—"
"Would everyone in your family like me?" says Nate, tries to laugh.
"They would," says Brad. "They would, sir, they'd like you more than anything. They'd give you food and they'd make you stay at my house for, fuck, years—"
"The rest of my life?" says Nate.
Brad says, quiet, "That's not funny, sir."
Nate shuts his eyes, has to open them a second later. He doesn't want to stop looking at Brad. He wants to memorize him, wants to have every detail planted in his brain, wants to press his forehead against Brad's and run his fingers through his hair and wrap his arms around him and hold him—
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 0.5 MILLION MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
"It's speeding up," says Brad.
"The force of gravity," says Nate. "The boat isn't just flying. It's falling."
"How's," says Brad, and gestures at his own head, "the thing?"
Nate listens to the inside of his brain; there's nothing, not even screaming. He can feel Cuckoo there, a crackling mass of electricity. If there's anything coming off it, it's nothing but terror, in huge silent waves.
He shakes his head. "Quiet. You never did like the name."
"Never," says Brad. "Reminded me too much of a kid's book. Sergeant Brad and Lieutenant Nate and the Space Adventure."
"I'm not sure if you had the right genre," says Nate, dry.
"I didn't want to call it by something that sounded so human," Brad says, tilts his head at Nate. "It felt like it was getting under my skin. Like it was getting into my head."
"It never did try to possess you, did it?" says Nate.
Brad shakes his head. "Didn't look appetizing enough for it, I guess, sir."
"Or maybe you were just smarter than the rest of us," says Nate. "Smart enough to know how to stay out of trouble."
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 0.3 MILLION MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
"Don't count on me being smart, sir," says Brad. "If I'd been smart I would have gotten you off the ship the second we found an AI growing where no AI should grow."
"And leave the men?" says Nate, and tries to smile at him again. "Brad, you know I never would have said yes to that—"
Brad smiles back, a true smile. It lasts for only a moment before slipping away. "That's why I follow you, Nate," he says, "and not the other way around," and then his image cuts out, and the audio fills with static. Nate has a few moments of panic—this can't be all, it can't—before Brad's body returns, as clear as day.
-WARNING: DEVIL DOG LIFEBOAT IS 100,000 MILES FROM PROXIMA CENTAURI STAR, DANGER CLOSE-
It is beginning to grow hot in the lifeboat.
"Nate," says Brad, quiet, "I love you."
Nate can't do much more than nod.
"I would have followed you," says Brad. "If there were another lifeboat I would be flying with you. I—" and he turns his head away, shakes it blindly. "Don't," he says, and that's begging, Brad Colbert is begging, "please don't leave me."
Nate reaches out to touch his hand, lets his fingers fall through the image of Brad's body until his hand is resting on the table. It's hot to the touch, and he has to jerk his hand away.
Behind him, the computer beeps, and then trails off to a long whine. When Nate looks back at it, the screen is a dull grey. The circuit's fried.
He says, his voice shaking, "Brad, I'm scared."
Brad looks up at him.
And he loves Nate; and Nate can see that, now, that love that's been lurking behind every word Brad's said to him, the sheer loyalty, the years of hard anger and toughness built up into this total trust, and he loves Brad, too, more than he can put into words, and he wants Brad by his side forever, and this isn't fair, this isn't fair.
"Tell me what you want, sir," says Brad.
"I love you," says Nate, desperate.
Brad nods. The image of him on the table is blurring, breaking up into pixellation; his hands are static for a brief moment, and then part of his face.
He says, a blur of voice with white noise, "It's going to be okay, sir."
Nate closes his eyes.
And then, through the video-call, as miraculously clear as if he was standing beside Nate, there's Brad's voice:
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
and I will pledge with mine.
The air inside the lifeboat is getting hotter.
Nate thinks of Earth Prime. Of the cities and the trees, of the ivy-covered colleges where children don't grow up, of little houses in Missouri and in New England. Of the mountains, and the endless glittering seas.
Or leave a kiss but in the cup, Brad sings,
and I'll not ask for wine.
Nate thinks of the Devil Dog, pushing through the aether with its engines rumbling like the lungs of some enormous beast; of its hallways, of its holds and quarters, of its crew. All safe and sound. All alive.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
doth ask a drink divine;
It is very hot inside the lifeboat now.
He opens his eyes.
The sky outside the viewing port is a roiling mass of orange and yellow; it's blinding to him, sends ghosts scattered around his vision, brief bursts of black and white and some color he can't name. He watches, and an enormous lick of fire bursts up from the surface of that alien sun, settles down into the plasma again.
Brad sings, very quietly:
but might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
"Immortality?" says Nate.
Brad says, "Anything."
And then there is nothing but brightness.