Ros Hellier dreamed of winter, and the sea.
She was deep in the water, almost fully submerged. Her limbs and torso shifted as one with the swell, while cold points of snow speckled her brow. Slowly, she lifted her face to the sky, wondering at the bright points of lights interspersed between the flakes. Tonight, the snow was falling directly from the stars. Or was it the stars that were falling, cinders of stardust, chilled to the crispness of ice by the void?
Ros closed her eyes, content to let the water of her cold and weightless womb move her as it willed. The sheer power of the ocean was beyond her to encompass, but there was a rightness to being there, enfolded within its bone-deep chill. She belonged there, dreaming her star-strewn selkie-dreams for as long as the ocean endured. It calmed her thoughts, slowing her heart to the rhythm of the water’s ebb and flow, reminding her of the only things that mattered. She was where she belonged, where it was cold, and deep, and safe.
She was, perhaps, far more conscious of those things than she ought to have been.
Somewhere in the distance, she became aware of the shore: a fury of wind-torn breakers, shattering into foaming spray. Ros listened, waiting for her sluggish thoughts to make sense of the roaring, white-noise silence of the sea. She could hear the slow thump of her heart, and compressors beating in time with the water’s rise and fall. Behind and beneath, the thrumming of the Arion's twinned engines, seventeen decks below the sleepers’ habs. There was an irregular catch-and-whirr that crept in and out of the engines’ third overtone; they were subtly misaligned, though not yet to the point of needing to send bots down for a hot servicing. Sparked by unfamiliar knowledge and the promised flood of more to come, her thoughts sharpened into greater clarity. She could feel sand swirling beneath her feet now, the lethargy of gravity, and the burning bite of the winter air on her face and neck.
The tide was going out.
Her sense of time kept pace with the water as it flowed away, ever faster and faster. Underfoot, the sand was cold and hard, sharp with broken shell and fragments of quartz: angles and edges that uncountable weary tides had yet to wear smooth. Pinpricks of pain drove up from her feet, and into her fingers, her belly, her back. The numbness of the ocean was lost to her now; the water clawing painfully at her soles as the last of it ebbed away, leaving only the biting wind and the unspoken lie of solid ground. It was cold. She was breathless, and in pain, and so, so cold. She'd been safe and deep and numb before, but now the ocean that shielded her had gone. The tide had slipped away, and she was naked to the wind, naked to the lies, and the cold and empty dark.
She was naked on the shore, and so very far from home.
Ros woke to darkness, and the stuttering whine of her sarcophagus’s compressor pumps. There was a dull ache behind her eyes, and something hard and rough-edged pressing against her left side, and the flesh of her inner thighs. Somewhere nearby, a control-unit was singing out its status: a pure, rising arpeggio on repeat, interrupted every now and then with a grating chirrup for attention. The air smelled of antiseptic and mint - the remnants of the cryogel that had kept her safe through the rigours of deceleration - as well as something more acrid. She swallowed in distaste, tasting acid and mint, and realised that she must have been one of the unlucky ones who vomited through their revival...though at least her consciousness had spared her the worst of it. She concentrated on the sensations from her extremities. Her feet and fingers were prickling with pain, and did not feel entirely her own.
She was still considering the banality of her all-too-human physiology when the control-unit’s song shifted to a single prolonged note, then stopped. Was that a good sign? Nominal Completion was supposed to be a descending major chord, so not that… Process Incomplete, perhaps? She struggled to recall the details of her training, grasping at the edges of memories that felt alien, half-drowned. She remembered Kourou, and New Mexico, and a green-walled facility that might have been anywhere within two hours’ flight from Berlin. She remembered sifting tar out of buckets of wet sand, teaching her sister’s children how to make sandcastles, on the day when all the castles fell. She remembered the long flight to the border, remembered fighting with the resistance - though against whom was still a mystery to her. The Zetas? The Ministry? Her own people? But everything was shrouded with lies, just as it ever had been. She remembered red petals and ash and worse things raining down upon the crowds lining Whitehall; a crooked bicycle wheel spinning idly on a deserted street; the banners and parades of their victory; the shackled, long march of their defeat. She remembered fragments of more lives than she could ever possibly have lived, and none of them added up to a single, coherent whole. It would be worse there, now, over a hundred light years away, with the planet walled in and reality bleeding out at the seams.
Ros stopped her mind in its track, and chose not to remember the bleed.
What she did remember was her name, and she remembered the Delphinus Project, and the salvation that it promised. HD196885A, she thought to herself, delighting in each individual element of the star's catalogue-name. She'd give it a better one soon enough; she'd been promised that honour from the start. She remembered dolphins in the water, remembered her last day on Earth, the setting sun a glaring flame on the side of the launcher on its distant pad. The launcher, the mission; she needed to concentrate on those, on all that lay ahead. There should have been someone there with her, but they weren't following protocol if they were. So, it was down to her.
She closed her eyes, readying them for what was to come. “Sarcophagus, acknowledge. Activate lights.”
The change came almost before she finished speaking, but not in the manner she'd desired. The hab remained absolutely dark, but the air within it shifted, racing across her flesh in a sudden, terrifying rush that sent her thoughts to flight. Monsters in the dark! She gulped down air in a fearful, heaving gasp, thrashing to break free of the constraints of her harness. An unexpected breeze was no nostalgic grace when one was sailing through the deeps of space, not when it was so sudden and cold as that. And she couldn't get free, couldn't really move at all, could only jerk her head from side to side, tangling the wires that ran from the base of her skull down the length of her spinal brace, while the fear inside her grew and grew and grew...
And then the lights came on.
The transition was sudden, the shock of it enough give her pause. Her movement had been enough to trip an override, she supposed, squinting her eyes against the glare. And the air... the air had stilled, she realised. Wherever the wind had come from, it wasn't there anymore, leaving there no obvious reasons for her to fear for the hab's structural integrity. Not that all was well with it, not with the floor and ceiling and walls at the angles they were. Everything had shifted while she'd slept, shearing away from the direction that her body insisted was down. The habs were supposed to precess around their Spindle, to match whatever acceleration the ship was under... but for some reason that hadn't happened. And that was almost as worrying as an unexplained, come-and-go breeze.
“Sarcophagus?” Ros asked, her voice catching on the second syllable, sounding almost unrecognisable to her newly woken ears. She swallowed, tasting mint-and-acid again. “Sarcophagus, confirm. Current status: occupant. Current status: hab. Current status: Arion. Report: hibernation sequence. Report: mission progress. Report: Earth. Confirm, confirm, confirm.”
++identify++, the control-unit prompted.
Ros frowned. The unit's voice was a smooth, smug tenor that she knew she'd always found intensely annoying, even if she couldn't quite recall the reasons why. More concerningly, the damned voice-analysis suite seemed to be malfunctioning. “Identify Ros Hellier,” she tried again.
++inconsistency nine-delta. identify.++
“Identify. Ros Hellier!” she repeated, enunciating her name as carefully as she could.
++inconsistency nine-delta. identify.++
"Fuck." She was finding it hard not to laugh, because it was starting to look like the whole ship was fucked, one way or another. Ros flexed the fingers of her left hand - still adrift in the no-man’s-land between numbness and pain - and tapped out the release sequence for her harness. Pulling her arm free, she raised it cautiously towards her face, testing the apparent gravity. Half a gee, perhaps a little more. Quite moderate, really: the sarcophagi had been designed for long burns into triple figures - with over a hundred light years to traverse, they'd had to be. There'd be nothing so extreme as that now, not with herself and who knew how many other passengers out of hibernation, but the ship could still pull as much as two gee without warning if circumstances demanded it, or even up to five if everyone was given sufficient chance to brace. And with the floor at the angle that it was, and the control-unit acting up like that… well, it was a wonder that she still had all her limbs intact.
She freed herself fully from the harness, then clambered awkwardly out of her sarc and onto the sloping floor of the hab. The effort sent her vision dark, almost to the point of blacking out, so she lay on the floor for a few minutes, studying her surroundings. Gloss-white compartments set into the walls; standard-issue suits held in place with black webbing; a litter of leaf-like reddish-brown flakes on the floor that her eyes slid over without wanting to notice; five other sarcophagi half-sunken into the floor - but all of the other sarchophagi were empty. Something shimmering at the edge of her vision. And the control unit itself, flashing ++9Δ++ at her in pale orange text, keeping perfect time with the pounding of her head.
Ros got slowly to her feet and tried to talk some sense into it. Unfortunately, the control-unit proved no more willing to accept her keyed commands than it had her verbal ones. After a few failed attempts to acquire oversight privileges, she decided to give up. Righting the floor and catching up on eighteen decades of hibernation really weren’t a major priority. A suit and an acceleration couch, enough meds to dampen her moon-sized headache, a terminal somewhere else that would recognise her...and then an answer to the most pressing question of all: where the hell was everyone else?
<I was wondering when you’d get round to that.>
The voice was close enough in accent and tone to the control-unit's that she initially mistook it for that. But as the words sank in, so did the other impressions that the voice had conveyed alongside them. Wry humour interwoven with a bleakness of spirit, ribbons of unfamiliar colours and scents, and a constant undercurrent of surging, hungry power. She tried to touch it, instinctively reaching out with some part of her mind, even as her consciousness recoiled in horror. Oh fuck the bleed is back, the bleed! she managed, before the ocean rose up and all of the lights went out.
When Ros came back to herself, she found herself suited and underway, moving awkwardly around the perimeter of one of the airless storage bays, rung by rung. The bay's orientation was even further off-true than the hab's had been, its floor strewn with debris from dislodged crates and the shattered fragments of a suspension-globe. More crates dangled precariously overhead, held in place by fraying webbing. She didn't think the eleven remaining suspension-globes posed any immediate danger, but there was something uncanny about the way their inner spheres had been set spinning, all in different directions. The ship was accelerating - she could tell that from the way the crates were hanging, and the press of her body-mass into the steeply sloping floor of the bay - but the way the globes were acting up, one would think the ship was flying in six different directions all at once.
So strange. And yet all so strangely familiar.
Like she'd been there before.
Which she had - obviously - because it was the second time she'd crossed it since leaving the hab. Strange how a raft of memories could elude her like that, and then return in full, glaring clarity scarcely a thought later. She paused where she was, halfway across a pile of spilled Assembler components, and considered the details that she'd temporarily miplaced. The moment she'd woken, sprawled across the floor of the hab, dizzy and nauseous. Patiently listening to the control-unit's instructions, dry-swallowing the meds it had extruded for her, then tearing a suit down from the wall in a frenzy of haste as the floor of the hab lurched out from under her. And after that, wresting a spinal brace out of one of the empty sarcophagi, and using it to force the hab's door open. Then it all got a little bit vague again - more dizziness, more nausea, the press of the grilled metalwork of the access-shaft on her feet, air rushing past her ears...but she'd made it to the safety of the third-tier, somehow, and everything was clear as day after that. She'd had no trouble accessing the bay - the control-unit back in the hab had given her the correct override key - and her first crossing of the cavernous space had gone without incident. Discovering that the primary elevator was fucked had been a frustrating set-back - if she'd read the diagnostics right, a blowout had vacuum-welded one of its s-rings mid-rotation, and buggered a heap of trunking - but that wasn't the only way to reach the pilot's hab, just the quickest. And so she'd simply retraced her steps, right back to where she was standing.
The only problem was... other than exiting the bay, she couldn't remember where she was meant to go next.
Ros sighed softly to herself, and started moving again. She'd just have to figure it out when she got there, she supposed. What other option did she have?
She was perhaps two thirds of the way to the bay's main doors when the nausea and dizziness struck again. Acting on instinct, she tightened her grip on the rungs and hooked one of her legs around a slack length of webbing. Beneath the thumping of her heart and the steady whir of the suit's motors, she thought she could hear a faint creaking. She pressed herself against the wall, but couldn't feel any obvious vibrations, so she took her hand off one of the rungs and twisted her torso, risking a look behind her. Nothing obvious had changed, but the longer she looked, the more she felt like she was missing something. One of the suspension-globes, maybe? Were they starting to sync up again?
At the sound of her lover's voice, all thoughts of anything else vanished in a flash. "Jay!" Ros breathed, grinning so hard that she could feel her cheeks starting to ache. There'd been nothing in the message that the hab's control-unit had given her to indicate who'd sent it, but she'd hoped from the start that it might have been from him. "Jay love, the elevator's screwed. I'm back-tracking to the spindle access shaft. Where are-"
<No time. There's trouble, and I need to get you out of there quickly. Got a freight capsule heading your way, access port epsilon-32. But I can't hold it for long.>
"Confirmed, epsilon-32." She glanced down at her suit's comms-panel, wondering why it wasn't showing her lover's frequency. "What's your channel?"
<Broad-spectrum, sweetie, as and when I can. Gotta go now, but just keep your ears open, 'kay?>
<And get moving! It's the upper-level exit to the spoke-tunnel, twelve rungs from where you are now, then just watch the numbers.>
"Got it. Love you, Jay."
Still smiling broadly, Ros clambered heedlessly over the obstacles in her way. At one point, one of her boots caught between two crates, but she yanked it free again without a second thought, quite uncaring of the suit protocol that had been drilled into both crewmembers and supercargo before they'd all left Earth behind them forever. Jay was waiting, Jay was waiting, and that was all that mattered. The exit he'd indicated was several meters overhead, but the webbing lining the walls made it an easy enough climb. It wasn't long before she was out of the bay and racing down the airless spoke-tunnel, her boots thumping soundlessly on the sparse grill-work. The lights above one of the ports were flashing, green-green-white. Ros toggled the auto-release sequence and scrambled quickly inside, back first, feet last. It would have been a cramped space even without the suit she was wearing, but some temporary discomfort was a small price to pay. The capsule sealed itself, and she settled back to endure the ride. They'd both survived the voyage to an alien system, there was a new world waiting for them both to explore, the rest of the sleepers to wake, and then...
There was a hard jerk, then a brief stomach-churning lurch of weightlessness before Ros found herself forced hard against the capsule's ceiling. She couldn't even gasp under the pressure of the gees she was pulling, and her limbs felt as though they were trying to tear themselves away from her torso. Redness filled her vision. And then the pain and the pressure stopped, and she was falling freely again. She counted her heartbeats for a while, reaching somewhere in the fifties before she was distracted by a slowly growing heaviness in her limbs.
Deceleration continued at a gentle rate: a slow damping by the magnetic grapples, and a steady, twisting return to the misaligned gravity. Ros concentrated on her breathing, keeping it as shallow and slow as she could, stilling the complaints from her abused ribs. Jay, she thought on each exhale. She'd see him again soon.
The capsule's door slid aside, revealing a darkened compartment lit only by the blinking lights above the door of her capsule. An airlock, she was inside an airlock... Ros climbed out of the freight-capsule and went to study the code stenciled above the airlock's interior door - which was set into the floor, as far as her body was concerned. It didn't match the pilot's quarters at all. The twelfth tier? Those were the engine decks. And yes, if she concentrated properly, she could feel the thrumming, mis-timed waves of the Arion's engines through the soles of her booted feet, even stronger than ever.
But where was Jay?
Ros tried her radio, but there was no response. Well, wherever he was, the first thing to do was to get properly inside. Her suit sensors were still registering vacuum, so she knelt down and toggled power to the control panel, the lights, and then to the atmosphere valves. The thumb-sized display lit up in blinking amber. Not a good sign. Stifling her frustration, Ros raised her gaze to the outer door, where a half-meter wide span of starless darkness greeted her. The door had failed to close properly behind her, so she would have to open it wide again, then try to close it manually. She felt behind her for the recessed lever that operated the exterior door and tugged it upwards, then watched as the door silently opened. The darkness overhead steadily grew...and then was lost to the bright, lambent limb of an ice giant.
Ros gasped, marvelling at the view. A gem-hued crescent, the exact same blue as the sky she'd left behind, wreathed in lacy bands of white: an ocean of methane and ice. Instabilities in the planet's jet stream had warped the gas layers into curls and twists, while just shy of the terminator a twinned pair of darker, moon-sized storm circulations warred for precedence. The sight sparked memories of Kourou: the final day of exit calculations, when they'd reviewed the tracking images for the first stages of their voyage.
Oh, Ros thought. Oh, FUCK!
The planet in front of her wasn't part of an alien system a hundred and twelve light years from Earth at all.
The planet in front of her was Neptune.
It took Ros the better part of an hour to work her way through to the heart of the engine deck. The wide passages were aligned perpendicular to the Arion's prime spindle, and would have been perfectly simple to negotiate had the ship been under standard acceleration or, better yet, free-fall. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. From her perspective, the opposing forces at work had given the ship the semblance of a seventy-degree list, turning a simple stroll into a nightmarish climb. The padded bulkheads offered little purchase for her boots or gloves, and after the third time she'd slipped gracelessly back to her starting point she resorted to tearing free strips of trunking and using the exposed cables for hand-holds. She staggered into the comms room thirsty and exhausted, the inside of her suit slick with sweat in spite of the chill of the Arion's unheated engine deck.
Clambering into the bezel-mounted acceleration-couch - which was now half-way up what was effectively one of the compartment's walls - was almost an act of endurance too far, but with no knowing how long she'd be staying there - or how the Arion might move in the near future - it was better to be safe than sorry. The couches were designed for long-term use, and offered far more than simple protection against sudden shifts by the ship's engines. As soon as she had finished strapping herself in, the couch extruded its plumbing and coupled them to the appropriate ports on her suit. She turned down the offer of full gel encasement, but the piped water and bland pap were manna to her hungry body.
Bodily comforts assured, Ros called up the couch's comms. "Talk to me Jay," she muttered as she swept through the ship's frequencies, searching for any sign of a response-echo. The thought that something might have happened to him was twisting her up in knots. And then, at last, the answer came.
The sense of relief struck her like a blow, but it was her confusion and anger that she gave voice to first. "Neptune orbit, Jay! We're still in fucking Neptune orbit!"
<Well... that's not entirely correct.>
"Come on, I'm more than capable of recognising a planet in my own home system!"
<Yes of course you are, sweet. It's just... orbit's not really the right word for our predicament. I'm not sure we even have a right word for this.>
"A right word for what? Because I can think of plenty, and they all started with 'fucked'."
<Oh, Ros,> Jay murmured.
Her anger melted away, replaced by an unwelcome numbness, but before she could become fully disconcerted by it the couch projected a viewing-field at arm's length from her face. She eyed it curiously as the first image appeared. A drone, according to the meta-data, and already some several hundred kilometers distant from the Arion. Neptune and a large, irregular moon that Ros suspected was Proteus gleamed softly in the darkness off the spacecraft's flank, while on the other side, where the probe's telemetry claimed Triton ought to be, was a vast cloud of debris. Mountain-sized lumps tumbled amidst streamers of gas and dust and ice, the whole chaotic mess of it rippling with colours and something more that her mind couldn't entirely encompass, an aching scream of citrus and camomile, flecked with laughter and birdsong-played-backwards. "What the fuck is that?" Ros gasped.
She felt contaminated by the sheer wrongness of it all, and that simply from looking at it. Ros squeezed her eyes closed. "Damn, that hurts. Where did it come from? And what does Earth have to say about it."
<You remember how I said we weren't in orbit anymore?>
"Yeah? So we're caught in some kind of grav-resonance from the whatever-it-is, right?" Unnatural as it was, even weird physics might have a half-comprehensible outcome, and her body had given her visceral clues aplenty.
<That's part of it, yes. And whatever it is, it's tied to the Arion somehow, and gets worse the faster we travel. Killing our speed stopped it getting any worse, but it does mean we're stuck here.> He paused for a few moments, then said, <You might want to watch this bit, Ros.>
Ros cracked open an eye and watched as Neptune, the Arion, and what she had unconsciouly dubbed Triton's Grave rotated away. The probe was accelerating away now - a hard, inefficient burn that surprised her in its intensity. It wouldn't be coming home again, that was for sure. The constant stream of numbers continued against the featureless dark of the probe's image, and then a reticule appeared in the centre of the field. It danced away almost instantly, locking down on a faint point of light. The probe magnifcation increased, and a stream of information spooled across the image: the object's distance, albedo and identity. The probe was closing on Nereid, apparently... though it'd take a good day or so to reach it. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
<Here. I've set a count-down for you.>
Whatever was coming was now only twelve seconds away. At four, Ros started subvocalising the numbers. At two, she realised the probe's acceleration data was throwing up errors: the numbers were rising impossibly fast. And at zero, everything stopped, and the Universe tore itself apart. Colours bled in from all sides, twisting and coiling faster than she could keep track of, unnatural and nauseating. Ros yelled, batting the projection away with one hand while gripping hard onto the couch supports with the other. The projection flickered into nothingness for a few seconds. When it came back again, the view was half empty space, and half the bright cladding and hard shadows of the Arion's flank: one of the exterior cameras afixed to the pilot's hab, Ros decided.
<Keep watching,> Jay said as he guided the camera to look fully away from the ship. <You'll see it in the northwest quadrant.>
And a few seconds later, there it was: a small storm of impossibilties, glittering in the deeps.
"I see it," Ros whispered. "Should I know what it means?"
She heard Jay laugh drily. <Should you know what it is? No, probably not. Should you know what it means? What it means, Ros, is that you're right: we ARE all well and truly fucked. We get too close to that boundary - and I still haven't figured out how close, because it changes every time I try - and we end up smeared across dimensions that ought to be safely tucked up in their planck-length beds. We tell the Arion to stop fighting the pull coming from what used to be Triton, and we might get to die from something that obeys normal physical laws first. Or we can sit here, keep everyone locked down and asleep, and just wait for the Arion to tear itself apart.>
There were other options though, there had to be! Jay might not have broached them yet, but she could tell he had something in mind. "But you didn't bring me down here for nothing," Ros said, mind racing through options and impossibilities. "You think we can stop it, right?"
<I think we might have a chance. If something in the Arion's engines triggered it, if it's some unforeseen consequence of the strangelet flux...>
"Then perhaps a controlled shut-down could collapse it again?" Ros finished.
Jay said nothing.
In the silence that followed, the implications of such a course of action slowly sank in. Shutting the engines down fully would mean aborting the Delphinus Mission entirely, then waiting out a rescue from Earth that might never come. And that, only if there was enough of the Earth left to even make the attempt. "Jay, is there no other way?"
He didn't answer her right away. <No,> he said at length, voice firm with finality. <I've sent the sequence through the system ahead of you, but it'll need to be manually confirmed through one of the terminals in the auxilliary access port. Will you do it for me, Ros? Please? You'll have maybe ten minutes afterwards, before things start happening. There's an emergency sarcophagus in one of the compartments close by, and I want you to use it. You won't be shielded from any residual engine strangelets, but at least you'll be protected from whatever's happening outside.>
That was all very well for her, but... "What about everyone else, Jay? All of the other sleepers? And what about you?"
<Ros, love. They're as safe as I can make them, and I'll be fine, I promise. And if I'm not...I know you'll remember me. You'll take the seeds of what we did, and you'll tell the whole wide world. And one day we'll rise again, and make the stars our own.>
"This time, Jay!"
<Just shut down the ship, Ros, please. It's the only chance we have.>
Slowly, surely, the tide was going out. Thump-dump, went Ros's heart and boots as she raced down the narrow passage, and dump-thump went the ship in reply. The mis-timed beats of the Arion's engines were coming more and more irregularly now, frequencies declining as the shut-down sequence progressed. The gravity had changed, too: Jay had swung the ship around to better match the pull from Triton's grave, to make her escape to the safety of a sarc as easy as possible, he'd told her.
She'd saved them all, he'd said, spared them from an unnatural doom. She'd killed the Arion to do so. She'd wept, when it came down to it, but she'd done it all the same. Jay had needed her to do it, and he was right that it had had to be done, though the reasons that had once made sense to her no longer offered any comfort at all. I love you, he'd said, and she'd known it for a lie.
The compartment he'd directed her to was easy to find, barely any distance from the access port. Wiping her tears away from her eyes, Ros depressed the latch and the door slid freely away into the wall, revealing a space of perhaps twenty cubic metres in all, a solitary sarcophagus taking up a good third of it. She slapped one hand against the control panel and powered up the room, then slipped free of the outer shell of her suit as quickly as she could. A wave of dizziness struck her as she bent to unfasten her boots, filling the air with the illusion of butterflies in flight. Ros tried to blink them away, but the walls went flying and fluttering with them, and the next thing she knew she was lying on the floor.
When she looked up again, the control unit's projected screen had flickered into life, showing the sarcophagus status on its main display. All systems functional, cryogel reserves at 98% capacity, occupant health nominal...
Occupant health nominal?
No, that couldn't be possible. Ros struggled to her feet. Two strides took her to the side of the sarc, where she used the sleeve of her shipsuit to wipe the surface free of its glistening layer of frost. And inside...
Ros stared down at the the face of the woman inside. No, it didn't make sense! It didn't make any fucking sense! The woman had her face. Her face, and her body, but apparently not her entire mind... or whatever it was that passed for her soul.
Jay's voice was hard, a none-too-subtle note of warning within it.
<Ros, tell me what you're seeing.>
She frowned down at herself, wondering at the sudden surge of distaste that the touch of her lover's mind evoked. The touch of his mind, she realised. Oh fuck, he's not speaking to me at all!
<Ros, you're looking at an empty sarcophagus. There's nothing inside it. You remember what I told you? What you had to do now?>
Ros did, and the prospect filled her with dread. It wasn't just the Arion that Jay wanted her to put an end to. But before she could act on his desires - and she was going to do exactly as he willed, she knew, because she was no longer empowered to do anything less - the butterflies came back again, in a blast of space-cold air. Instincts screaming, she watched as they coalesced into a figure that was again, impossibly, herself.
"Hello, Jay," she said softly, her voice a sparse susurration of wings.
Ros felt her jaw drop, and then, discomfittingly, her tongue and lips working without her volition. "Hello, Ros-my-sweet. You found us then?"
"Naturally," butterfly-Ros said as she strode forwards, feet rippling with colours. "And none too soon, it seems, though I don't particularly care to speak to you."
Jay laughed through her throat, strained and angry. Ros seized hold of her own fury in reply, and pushed at him. He laughed again - but only inside her mind this time, though that almost made it worse.
<As if it matters now! We'll breach the void, Ros, no matter what you try. And we'll die in Triton's Grave, and the bleed will die with us while the whole system burns.>
No, Ros thought as the too-familiar touch of his mind slipped away from her.She shuddered, and swallowed uneasily. She couldn't sense him any more - though she hadn't really sensed him before, either. And if she was - seemingly - in control of her body again, she was no longer convinced that it was hers to possess in any case. "Who am I?" she asked the butterlfy-woman. "Who are we? And what the fuck is going on?"
The butterfly-woman gave a slight shake of her head and turned away, her form flickering as she moved. "You're yourself. Ros. And so am I, in a manner of speaking, and so" - and she gestured at the figure in the sarcophagus - "is she."
"It can't be real!"
"No, but it's more than real enough. You live, and sleep, and walk. You've set in motion a train of events that will see the Arion, and every hope it carries, destroyed. He thinks that that's enough. But you also see me - you see yourself - because of everything else that we are, and all that you've forgotten you can do." She raised her arm, and the butterflies dispersed, wings rustling like autumn leaves.
Ros found herself blinking back tears as a rush of memories consumed her. The chaos of the last days on Earth, scrambling to get as many people into orbit as possible before the bleed caught up with them all. Conflicting histories, unnatural abilities, and the rare few who could command enough control over what had happened to them to make of themselves a nexus, to shape the reality of the world and that of the innocent lives around them. The Arion, which had been a long-planned voyage of exploration, and of conquest, and of last-minute, desperate escape. All those things at once, and none of them, shifting according to the collective will of the refugees. And so much more, too! Ros remembered dolphins in the sea, the dolphin in the sky, and a promised planet that would allow them to start again. The stars, she realised. I saw Neptune, and I saw everything Jay showed me, but never any stars! Jay had kept that from her, the same way he'd kept the truth of how he was communicating with her concealed. Jay, a man she'd respected as a launcher-pilot but had never really liked. Never her lover, and not Arion's pilot at all, because that had always been her role. He'd been nothing more than another refugee... until the bleed had made a Nexus of him, too.
"That fucker!" Ros spat out. It was her real body here, slumbering restlessly and doomed in a poorly shielded sarc. He'd torn her from her place in the pilot's hab, from her own beloved ship, and abandoned her body and mind to engine-rot. But the bleed had reached her too, and while it hadn't gifted her with the powers he'd abused, it had given her enough. Enough to seed her soul through every fibre of the Arion, every cable, every chip... and, if she chose to, every sleeping mind as well. She'd fought him all the while, fought him as the Arion itself... until he'd found her, woken her to whatever reality this was, inside someone else's mind, drowning her in forced emotions and confusion and the sheer power of what he'd become. He'd made her shut the engines down, made her slow her own heart to silence. And even if he wasn't completely irredeemable, she couldn't ever forgive him for not giving her the chance to save them all.
The butterflies returned, and settled onto her skin. Ros smiled down at them. Jay might be a Nexus, but so was she, and the bleed was hers to command equally as much as it was his...and the Arion was hers alone. Slow acceleration wasn't the only way to traverse the stars.
She twisted her reality, opening her eyes to the universe outside. The Arion was flying headlong into the fury now, but it needn't find an ending there, not if she willed it otherwise. And she did. She had her precious human cargo to think of, and all the seeds of a better world. She could save them all, she knew... but could she protect them from the bleed? From what she was? No, the bleed would never leave them - humanity had woken that particular heritage, and that was that - but neither would she. She would stay right where she was, deep in the heart of the Arion, above the world she'd find for them all, dreaming a dream that would gift every last soul with enough empathy and compassion to make it work. We can start over again, she decided as she sent the Arion into the deeps of space, past Triton's Grave, past the heliopause, powered by her will and nothing more. We can make it work. They'd make a wonder of their new world, a singularity tempered by kindness, shriven from their past.
And one day, when they were ready, they'd bridge the void again.
Ros smiled at the stars, seeing them blazing bright with promise before her.