This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
'The Waking' by Theodore Roethke
Jensen stood by the broad, deep observation port at the far outer skin of the Quo enclave. One hundred meters away, give or take, on the other side of the port, rested the entwined, skip-blasted hulks of both troopships. They seemed to have merged, somehow, or - destructing and self-destructing mid-skip - shattered apart and then come back together all mixed and mingled.
One thing, for sure: neither would ever skip again, and that...that was like a punch to the gut. Jensen leaned there, his legs still shaky under him, palm on the smooth, slightly warm, slightly curved material of the port, watching the little lights that meant the Quo equivalent of pushers and skimmers were out there, examining and salvaging.
Apparently, they'd 'rescued' a fair amount of personal baggage, for which Jensen was grateful, because that meant he could stand here in the fake fatigues and layers of socks and tee and over shirt and sweater Jared had got for him back on Axis (though he hadn't, and would not, resort to coat and gloves and scarf. He was done with that; with that hiding, that erasing.) Years gone, and only days done, through the strange, telescoping time of Between.
Jensen wondered, idly, what new things had happened, in the time they'd skipped the line; what new kills and cancers the Company had cooked up. A flare of actinic fire from a cutter made him startle, blinking, and Jensen tried to push that particular thought aside; tried to concentrate on something else. But the salvage was like watching a corpse being picked over, taken down to the bones, and it made something inside hurt, to think the Tiamat would never ride the bubble again. Never shake loose of time and space and fly free, in the Between.
Jensen walked away from the port, following the gentle curve of the Quo halls, his hand going out from time to time to trail along the walls, touching the strange textures. Some kind of free-growing biological made up the support structures of the living areas; trees, Jared had said. They were a strange combination of glass-smooth and rippled at the same time, roughly cylindrical, too big for even Jared to put his arms all the way around. They soared up and up - twenty, twenty-five meters - and then divided, again and again, forming a sort of web overhead.
Globes of light depended down - some kind of bioluminescence - and leaves, which were strange and soft and rigid at once, long as Jensen's arm, spread out like two hands with the fingers opened wide. They were a mix of blues and greys and greens, some with purplish veins, some with red. The air filtration made them stir and lift and shiver, an endless susurrus of sound just on the edge of hearing that was soothing and nerve-wracking at the same time. The space between the...trees...were panels made of more bio-stuff, chopped and pressed and formed. It had the same patina as the leaves: glossy and veined and vari-colored, smooth under Jensen's fingers.
Give them their due, the Quo had done their best to make a section of their arcology as human-friendly as possible, but the cool, wet air had strange scents that just teased on the edge of awareness, and the light was not quite right. It wasn't home, it wasn't the Tiamat, and for a moment Jensen just stopped dead, eyes shut, fighting an upsurge of emotion that was almost violent in intensity - panic, longing, fury.
Query query from Jared, somewhere off in the depths of the Quo arcology, a faint pulse of question and concern.
Good, all good, safe, fine, Jensen sent back, and scrubbed his fingers roughly over his face and up through his hair, scratching over his own scalp and forcibly driving those emotions away. He kept walking, feet silent on some kind of woven bio-stuff floor covering, until he came to the pressure door that gave way to medical.
This was completely human. The Quo had somehow, somewhere, gotten a hold of over two dozen of the snap-together med bays that hospital ships and stations used, as well as crates of human-specific medical supplies. The Quo didn't fight, certainly wouldn't pirate, but you had to wonder just where in fuck they'd gotten it all. The other humans - the Diaboli who had been on the arcology when the Tiamat and Nebuchadnezzar had arrived - weren't telling, which meant Jensen had his suspicions.
But at least it was familiar. The strong, amber-green light and damply cool air of the Quo gave way to drier air, antiseptic scents, and bright white light. The med bays were in a series of pale colors - blue and pink, amber and green, grey and white and lavender - chilly, and sterile, but comforting. Jensen went first to the rows of airbeds, where the grievously wounded lay. Morgan was there, and Kane, and Kane's squad: Malik and Grieve and Sous and Perin, all wrapped in generation gel and webbing, cradled in tubes and wires. Morgan was without his prosthetic, and all of them were burned, all of them unconscious, for days, now, almost two weeks. Beyond them were more. Dominions that had survived, burned and battered and some not breathing on their own. All that had survived the detonation of the skip-bubble, that incredible wave of heat and destruction - of a noise so loud it had gone beyond hearing, to pressure and pain and blackness, an endless, noiseless howl that Jensen had felt in his bones.
Jensen had been there with them, for five or six days. But his 'net was working like it had been meant to, and he had healed. He’d grown back skin and muscle and bone; coughed out the dead tissue of his seared lungs and shed the crisped remains of his derma to emerge whole and healthy. But still reeling, still hurting.
Everyone else was kept under; healing, but so slowly, because while the Quo had plenty of supplies, none of it was Angel-specific stuff, and even if it was, and everyone was fixed up, good to go, they had no down-packs, no maintenance, no nothing.
So all down the line of chilly, pastel bays were all the rest of the ANGELs, even the survivors from the Nebuchadnezzar, kept in a sort of restless twilight, because what the hell else could they do? Until Doc and Raleigh and the other Diaboli scientists could kill their old 'nets, and bring the new, clean ones back online, they didn't dare risk the troops being awake. Being aware. Something like three-hundred plus ANGELs decompressing, destabilizing, coping with the loss of both shipmates and ships, and going toxic with withdrawal on top of everything else... no one was prepared to deal with that.
So Jensen came here, every day. Not to visit, because he was the only conscious one, but to...see. To bear witness, and to promise them, if only with his presence, that they, too, would be free of the med bays, eventually. Free of the 'net, and of the Company. Free of everything.
Jensen stood by Morgan's bed first, looking down at the creased skin of his face and the streaks of white in his dark hair; the shadow of stubble that smudged his jaw. He looked old, when Jensen had never thought of him as anything but unchanging; a fixture that Jensen's sequestered world all but revolved around. And now...he simply looked small, and worn, and somehow diminished, with the age-worn scars of his stump silvery in the light, his face hollow and his bloodless lips chapped.
Jensen shook that away and moved on, ghosting past Perin and Sous and Grieve with little pats to their wrapped feet; stopping for a moment to stroke the ashy-dark skin of Malik's cheek. He fetched up, finally, at Kane's bedside and stalled there, standing with Kane's warm fingers tucked into his cool ones, one hip up on the bed a little, as he leaned down to murmur the news of the day. To tell him he was safe, and his squad was, and he'd be up and around in no time, swear it.
Kane's hair was growing in, just a little, a dark fuzz on his skull, and that was unsettling, too. The ward was; the seemingly endless rows of beds and bodies, the soft hum and swish of the machines, everything dim and still, only the lights from the monitors illuminating small patches of shadow.
Too much like the Glorianna - too much like memories Jensen acknowledged, now, but still didn't want to face. He was trying, he truly was, to let it go. To do what the memory (or ghosty?) of Sam had told him. Trying as hard as he could. Jensen sighed, and did his best to concentrate on Kane, checking the monitors, the tubes, the wrap. He told him about the Quo and the arcology, about the Diaboli and Doc, about the vaccine; repeating himself, but maybe Kane could hear him. Maybe it made a difference; maybe it helped. After a while, Jensen just sat quietly, matching his breathing to Kane's assisted sighs, sinking into the twilight of the bays, letting himself go a little into the hush of it, just...blank.
He was brought back by a Quo firefly. Jared had said a firefly was some kind of bug; Doc had argued they were ships. None of them could say the Quo word for them, but firefly stuck. They were little sparks of light the Quo used instead of some kind of com system. They used them for other things, as well, but nobody seemed to really understand what, or how, or why. Mechanical or biological, Jensen had no idea, and the Quo weren't interested in explaining. Every Quo Jensen had seen had at least a handful, hovering around at all times.
This one, a ruddy orange-red, was hovering just in front of Jensen's nose, chiming at him. The chime itself - more vibration and hum - was repeating fairly rapidly, which meant the firefly had been trying to get his attention for at least a few minutes.
"What?" Jensen said, and the firefly flared once, bright yellow-white. "Fuck - ns'ssu?" he said, and the firefly stuttered, whiteyelloworangered.
'Alert alert alert. Come to main obs-con immediately. Emergency', the firefly said, or, more accurately, repeated. Some would record whatever message you needed them to carry, and someone - Jensen didn't recognize the voice, some Diaboli - had recorded this one.
"Fuck! Acknow- damnit, chugn," he said, dismissing the firefly, which blinked out. Emergency, and for how damn long? He was aware, finally, of Jared, in the net, still pretty far away - probably already in obs-con - trying to get his attention.
Sorry, sorry, Kane, medical, sorry, coming-
Good, hurry, okay? Hurry. Urgency in the message but not panic, not fear. Or Jared was doing his best to keep calm.
Jensen leaned down to give Kane a quick, light kiss, and then he was gone, striding out of the med bays and, only a few more minutes later, out of the human section of the arcology altogether. He took one of the bubble-lifts (that's what they looked like, a shimmering, translucent blue-white bubble, trapped in a net of more bio-stuff) up and through, all the way into the main Quo arcology.
There were five, separate parts to the massive Quo habitat. The main one, the biggest one, was where most of the Quo lived, and where the main support and monitoring systems for the whole arcology were. The others were for research and experimentation, and for refining the various resources culled from the system, and for growing food. There were more system regulations scattered everywhere, and somehow, there was a propulsion system, but it hadn't been explained (again), and nothing Jensen had seen so far had looked like either engines or a skip-array. The Quo arcology was like a string of rough beads, plowing through the dust and radiation noise of the Giraffe in an orbit so wide it was five or six years, as humans reckoned, for it to come back around to the starting point again.
They had graciously carved out a new space in the last asteroid-construct for the Diaboli, adding surface blisters to make more space, and coaxing the bio-stuff, the trees, to adapt to human light, and air, and temperatures. The armature of the Quo station - for that's what it was - was alive, and Jensen wasn't quite over that, or how the Quo treated the living stuff as if it were sentient, when Jared had assured him that no, trees really weren't. Maybe not, but then - how could anyone be sure?
Jensen patted the twisted, rope-like weaving that held the bubble-lift secure as it was whisked along a track that cut straight through the heart of every asteroid. Around him passed Quo machinery (half metal or the Quo equivalent of glassine, half bio-stuff), and then Quo farms, all low-grav rings upon rings of vegetation, and then, finally, he was in the main Quo arcology, with the tall, bulky outlines of the Quo themselves becoming more and more prevalent as he moved into the living spaces.
The Quo were three or so meters tall, tall as an ANGEL in armor, their huge forms covered in long, coarse hair of black or green-tan or slatey grey-green-blue. Their wide, fringed shoulders and arms ended in three-fingered hands, with huge, curled claws each about as long as Jensen's forearm and wickedly sharp. Those claws mostly stayed curled up against their palms, though, and they used their elongated knuckles and a clawless kind of thumb to manipulate things. Their legs were short by comparison (though still a meter or more long), thick and bowed, and they walked in a kind of rocking shuffle that was damn fast. The wide body and neck tapered up to a strangely small skull, for their bulk. The hair there was sleek, sometimes striped with pale tan or white, and the ears were almost non-existent, tiny nubs that didn't move. Their eyes were large, though, and fringed with lashes, all one dark color and no pupil that Jensen had seen as yet, though he couldn't be sure. He didn't really like being that close.
Their heads narrowed further to a long, tapering snout that ended in a small, very mobile mouth. Slits of nostrils sat about mid-way, and they used their mouths - and the long, long tongues inside - to handle delicate objects and to tap and swipe over the touch-sensitive screens of their computers and other tech.
They didn't have gender. Or - they had the gender they wanted to have; he or she or something that was both, and something that was nothing at all. It changed according to their need, or whim, or hormones - something. Some were always the same thing; some were always changing. Jensen mostly just stuck to 'they', in his head. It was less confusing.
They all wore simple, open vest-things, with wide-cut armholes and no collars or sleeves, thickly sewn over with curling, twisting, spiralling designs, or geometrics, in metallic or matte threads and little beads. The shimmer and sound of rippling, skirted cloth added to Jensen's unease, and the tails….
They had tails. Big, thick things that they used to balance on when they were at rest, leaning back on them like a third leg. In motion, the tail was free to sway and drag. One had knocked into Jensen, accidentally, of course, and the huge creature had ducked down, all liquid eyes and sibilant apologies, patting at him with the bony, elongated knuckles of its hand, its fireflies hovering and darting. The Quo had a scent, a sort of dry, musky smell that made Jensen's nose tickle, and he'd nodded and stepped away, fast, every instinct in him screaming to just get away.
He'd felt sorry, after, because the Quo were determinedly and endlessly kind, and patient, and careful. But he just...couldn't help it.
The bubble-lift glided to a gentle halt at the last stop, and let Jensen out onto the main thoroughfare that led to obs-con. Humans would have hidden that - observation and control - deep in the heart of the massive asteroid, to insure its protection, but the Quo had put it at the very bow of their strange station, with a huge viewport.
Easily fifteen meters high by twice that long, it was a window to the system, shielded against radiation and particles, but beyond the centimeters-thick material, you could see...so much. The vast, curling arms of the system itself, dust and rocks swept into rings by roving planetoids and planets and comets. Fluttering, here-and-gone sheets of pastel colors made by gas and radiation emissions. And, light-years off, the curved, impossible nothing of the massive black hole at the heart of the Giraffe, visible only by its absence, the doppler effect making it glow a lurid sort of orange-amber.
You could, if you stood still long enough, looking, see their movement through space; see the jumbled mess of the system drift past as the arcology powered through it. You could watch star formations move and drift away behind them, Jensen was sure, but their progress was slow in the vastness of the system, and for the moment, the view from the port was mostly the same as it had been when Jensen had last been up there, almost a week before.
Then, it had been a mostly empty space, the night cycle for the Quo, when only a few crew were on task, and Jensen and Jared had been accompanied by Eiko Sakaguchi. She was a lean, quiet Diaboli woman a few inches taller than even Jared; stretched out by a life lived in less-than-Earth-normal gravity. She was thin as a bone, her pale face and arms seamed by scars from some long-ago explosion, her black hair streaked with pure white. She was the leader, the Ma'am, of the Diaboli at the Giraffe. Taichou-san, they called her, with quiet respect, and Jensen found her obvious ease of command reassuring. Ex-military, for sure.
Stepping into obs-con, Jensen looked around, taking stock. It was the main day-cycle for Quo and humans alike, so the whole, huge area was teeming with busy, bustling figures. Taichou-san was there, along with some of the other arcology Diaboli. Doc was there, too, and Raleigh, and the Jo boys, looking stoic. And Jared was there, the sense of him in the 'net still quiet, and calm, but one look at his face and Jensen felt his heart kick, adrenalin sweeping him.
Something was happening, something probably not good.
Jensen strode across the vaulted space, sidestepping knots of tense humans as they muttered together, and making wide berths around the many, many Quo. There were at least fifty, maybe more. Most were going about their tasks at various floating, palely-lit consoles, calmly absorbed, some with fairly large numbers of hovering, darting fireflies around them. Some were standing with the humans.
There wasn't a lot of noise; any Quo gathering was eerily quiet, to humans. A lot of Quo communication was infrasonic and ultrasonic - frequencies too low or too high for most humans to hear - but the sounds caught at Jensen's brain like the reward-sounds had, back in quarters, back on the Tiamat. Frequencies that had triggered little serotonin bursts in the ANGELs, and though they didn't do that now, his body still expected them to. Or something. All Jensen knew was that the trilling and burring sounds, almost more sensation than noise, that came from a group of Quo made him go hot-cold and jittery, a tickling under his skin that was hard to ignore. Jared could hear it, too, though it wasn't the same for him; there were no memories attached. To him, the noises they made were just little hums and shrills and ticks, meaningless but not distracting.
Now, Jared looked up from the softly-lit surface of a console, his gaze finding Jensen, the 'net surging with a momentary flood of good happy want safe need come here. And then he steadied himself, and lifted his chin, shoulders squaring, as Jensen finally made his way around the last knot of Quo and humans, and fetched up at Jared's side.
Taichou-san gave him a small nod, the epicanthal fold of her dark eyes making Jensen think of Sinna. Doc and Raleigh drifted over from the group they'd been in, and the Jo boys followed, gathering around. Waiting, it seemed, for something.
What what what, Jensen asked, and Jared shrugged, nudging against him, his long-fingered hand catching Jensen's and wrapping around, holding on.
Something's coming, Jared thought, and said, "I'm not sure. The Quo - the...obs-con shift leader - said they'd detected something in skip space. Something big. About five-thousand light years out, coming...here."
"They don't know, not yet, they're...trying."
"They're only reading energy and motion, at the moment," Doc said, the clear lenses of her scanner glasses reflecting the pale colors of the console, shielding her expression from Jensen. "Whatever it is, it's in skip, coming in hard." Which could be a ship, or could be something a ship had boosted - rocks, ice, anything. Something shoved down the line at them, going faster-than...they'd be nothing but a brief flare of energy and debris, if they were hit.
"They can scan skip space?" Jensen muttered, shying away from those images before Jared got them, and Doc just shrugged, her lips tight, her hands jammed down into the pockets of her white coat.
Can't we? from Jared, and Jensen squeezed his hand.
No. It's like...you're behind a door. Or in another room. Can't see, can't hear, until you drop out.
Huh. Kane okay? Morgan?
All good, they're good, Jensen thought, and Jared crowded in a little closer, feeling the residual chill of the med bays through the 'net, wanting to drive it away.
A knot of Quo, that had been in a loose circle near the center of the room, suddenly began to move, shuffling in their waddling gait toward Taichou-san and the Diaboli. Their consoles drifted along with them, and the fireflies surrounding them dove and darted, some zipping away to other Quo, some seeming to settle on a Quo's shoulders or neck or skull, like droplets of mobile, glowing water. The 'sonic vibration-noises seemed more intense, the closer they came.
Most of the Quo stopped a couple of meters away, to Jensen's vast relief, but one kept coming all the way to their group. After a moment, Jensen realized he knew them; mostly it was the vest-thing they wore, this one done in a distinctive pattern of geometrics in coppery greens and dark blues and pale, pinkish tans. They were the head of the obs-con, and one of the oldest Quo on the arcology staff, though not the oldest Quo on the station; over two-hundred, in human years. Jensen felt himself shuffling a little closer to Jared, and Jared's 'net was full of calm and I'm here, warm and comforting.
This Quo's name, to human ears, was a sort of sobbing, hissing sigh, with a grating little 'sonic growl in the middle, and it was impossible to reproduce from a human throat. Taichou-san called them Hakase. Doc said it meant 'Professor'. Jared said that meant 'teacher'.
"Hakase," Taichou-san said, inclining forward in a little bow, and the Quo bobbed their head at her, the fireflies all hovering just behind, like a halo of blue-white motes.
"Taichou-san", they said, though it sounded more like oohbaahsssan, with a strange little choking click in the middle. "Ssignal iss closse," they said, tapping at something on the console that had floated along. "Many ssuch."
"Many...signals?" Doc hazarded, and the Quo gave that little jaw-lift that meant yes.
"How many?" Jensen asked, and the dark, liquid gaze of the Quo settled on him, head tipping to one side and then the other as the fireflies shifted around, and a few others joined, settling lightly and then drifting up, blinking.
"Uone...tree...many. Su, su, su," Hakase said, and more fireflies darted up, brightening and then darkening as they transferred whatever information they carried to the Quo.
"How many is...many?" Jensen asked, and his heart was pounding, thumping in his chest, making his lungs hitch when he dragged in the cool, Quo-scented air. Jared leaned into him, shoulder to shoulder, and Jensen took a deliberately deep breath.
"Many-many-many," they said. Another firefly darted over, yellow-white-blue, and the Quo blinked and hummed, a 'sonic note that made Jensen grit his teeth. "Ssoldier-shhip."
"Fuck," Jensen said, and winced at the sudden, crushing grip of Jared's hand. Doc and Raleigh immediately took a step or two away, Doc's hand fluttering up to the tiny throat-mic on her neck, both of them talking, low and urgent, to Diaboli not in obs-con. Taichou-san merely looked grim, one of her lieutenants standing nearby, typing rapidly into his own floating console.
Is it…? Are they…? Jared's thoughts were a jumble; images of the Fleet, Marines and Company suits, people and Quo running, fire and smoke. Jensen's memories from the Glorianna were tangled in there, and the mess of the Tiamat and the Nebuchadnezzar coming out of skip-space. Panic too, and anger at himself for the panic.
Jensen leaned into him, hard, physically and in the 'net. No, no, not happening, safe, we're safe, calm, calm, calm
"Sorry, fuck, I'm sorry," Jared whispered, and Jensen just kept it up, fingers laced with Jared's, touching from thigh to shoulder, keeping himself calm, so Jared could do the same.
The fireflies around Hakase darted away, and they leaned in close over their console, knuckles tapping, and the long, blue-grey tongue licking out to swipe over this and that section, thin lips pursing out to touch here and there, as well, on much smaller areas the bony knuckles were too big to accurately manipulate.
"Is there an ID?" Jensen asked, and Hakase glanced his way. "Do they say, uh, who they are? Names?" Jensen clarified, and the Quo stilled for a moment, nose wrinkling, little chain of creases all up the thin-skinned, soft-furred length. Several fireflies blinked rapidly and darted away, to come zooming back just as quickly; a dozen, maybe more. And then more, and more - seemingly all the fireflies on the whole deck, coalescing around Hakase, pulsing blue to blue-white to white, whispering their information into Hakase's ears, their skin, their bones.
The 'sonic hum of them made Jensen wince and back off one step, and then two, trying to get away from the rising, hissing sound that made his skeleton seem to throb in time, his skin flush hot-cold-hot, tingling.
What what what from Jared, and then the fireflies all dimmed, as one, to almost nothing, swarming in so close they nearly obscured Hakase's entire head. Their console chimed, low and soft, and then a little louder. The fireflies, with an almost audible snap, flared to a painful incandescence, scattering like an explosion, flying away to their respective Quo, leaving Hakase standing there, swaying gently, their dozen or so usual fireflies sinking down, as if exhausted, to rest on Hakase's neck and shoulders. Hakase leaned down, bending over, the tip of the long nose maybe half a meter from Jensen and Jared, and they both froze, staring upward.
"Aaahn-gulssss" Hakase said, and Jensen felt as if every ounce of blood in his body had just drained away, leaving him ice-cold and dazed.