Chapter 1: Mika
Images slipped by, one by one, on his hand terminal. Drummer had assured him that it would be of little use out here. He didn’t care. It was the first and only one he’d ever owned and the fact that it was little more than a disposable model didn’t matter. It was his. And he felt sure that the images of people he knew would be the last he’d ever see. She’d set one of the stations for him to use. There were reading lessons on the screen in bright colors and shapes meant for children. He laughed when he first saw the silly cartoon animals. She’d brought up a book instead for him to read, which shamed him because it was meaningless scribbles. She flipped the screen back to the cartoons and patted his shoulder.
He’d finished the sixth lesson and was bored of the dancing animals, so had reached for his terminal again.
“You are obsessed with that thing,” Drummer said from the other side of the small cabin.
“Kula buro,” he replied under his breath.
“English,” she chastised.
“I don’t not care,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she corrected.
He flipped her the bird to which she only smirked.
The ship’s cabin was a contrast of utilitarianism and outright burlesque ostentation. Mika discovered it was one of five onboard Medina Station, remnants of her pious aspirations to find God among the stars. On the ceiling, angels with golden trumpets made silent music to the pale blue heavens. He knew it was just paint, but even the suggestion that the ship had no ceiling, that it was open to a strange sky, was unnerving. He tried his best to keep his eyes down. Drummer had explained it all to him, the angels, what they meant, where they came from. It only reinforced his idea of Inners, that they had enough leisure and money to waste time believing the stupidest things.
There was no god or angels. Just vacuum and impossible cold and hunger - always hunger - and a part of him still deeply resented knowing the five ships had been there all along, sitting in a restricted dock, any of them capable of taking him away from Medina at any time. When he’d presented the indictment to Drummer, she simply told him he was indeed getting his wish, one of these ships was taking him away, so he could shut up and get on board with the supplies she’d had him acquire, or he could stay behind and she would go by herself.
When she'd met him in his room, she'd given him a uniform and told him where to be and when to be there. A tablet with orders and all the supplies he'd gathered were to be presented to the particular guard she pointed out. No one else. Say nothing, just hand over the tablet and look like he was supposed to be there and knew what he was doing. Doors had opened and there were the ships, glossy white and gold. She showed up just as the last of the supplies were put aboard. She called him ensign, told him to get the ship ready for takeoff, though she had made it clear earlier that he was to do nothing of the kind, just board the ship and wait. It was just the expected thing for her to say, the right thing, the normal thing. No questions. Questions where not normal. People did not question Camina Drummer. They said ya bosmang, and went where they were told.
So that's what he did.
He was woolgathering, lost in himself, and Drummer took the opportunity to snatch the terminal from him. She flipped through the pictures.
“Kemang im?” she asked.
“Grigori,” he said.
She looked again at the image, then faced it out to him. “Was he your boyfriend?”
“Little time,” he answered. He didn’t want to participate in this conversation, but there was nowhere to go.
“For a little while,” she corrected.
He rolled his eyes. “For a little while,” he repeated. “Why you care?”
“I don’t care,” she said. “I’m just looking for different topics of conversation.” His face must have transmitted confusion because she added, “Mo ting fo du showxa ere.”
“Why you care sili mi mebi pochuye lang ingelish ke? Huh? Keradzhang?”
He was frustrated at how little he knew. Drummer could speak simple English that he could understand, and in the first days of their trip, that’s what she had done, but in the last few days she had switched to the kind of English Inners spoke among themselves, a version of the language that was riddled with impossible complexity and twenty different ways to say the exact same thing. It was ridiculously redundant and inefficient. When he’d complained to her, she had agreed with his thoughts but explained that this was the way the language was, the way all the languages of the Inners were because they were ancient and had changed and evolved over thousands of years. Lang Belta was little more than two hundred years old, and Belters lived harder lives, no time for bullshit poetry and vague communication.
She said with carefully slow clarity, “Mika, you asked me to help you because you were going to die on Medina Station, and no one was going to care. You were right.” She held his eyes. “You are not ugly, but there is always someone younger and prettier than you.” She glanced again at the terminal, at Grigori’s image. Her expression said, like this guy. “What else you got to offer, huh, when no one wants to pay to fuck you anymore?”
He felt attacked and curled into himself.
“I teach you good English and I teach you how to read, ya? If you can read, you can learn new things. You learn new things, you don’t have to worry so much. More to offer.”
“Unte to ne…” He grasped for the word. “…using me?”
“Yes,” she said flatly. “I am using you. You have something to offer. You are friends with the duster. Da pomang kopeng to.”
“You never say how this help you,” he said.
“Good. That was almost perfect.” She gave him back the terminal. “See? When you try and when you want to, you can learn. You are not stupid, just lazy.”
She unbuckled herself from her chair and floated to the back of the cabin where she opened a small locker with her handprint. She flipped him a food bar. They were bland and sometimes hard to pass back, but they were filling. The water recycler on the ship was amazingly efficient. Drummer had said it was because the Mormons had expected to leave the solar system the conventional way, across the void of empty space, not through ring gates, so they assumed that water was something they would not find until they got to their destination.
“Taki,” he said.
They ate in silence.
“You no answer me,” he said through a mouthful of high-density nutrient. “Da pomang kopeng mi. How this help you?”
She didn’t answer right away. “Not sure yet, but… I come alone and it looks like a police action. I bring you, maybe it looks like something else.”
“Mi not a rat or a snitch, Drummer. Mi… I don’t fuck my friends.”
She had to understand that. Fucking over your friends was the best way to end up on the wrong side of an airlock.
She held his gaze out of the corner of her eye as she chewed.
“Keting to du mowteng fo?” he asked. She’d asked him the same when he’d begged for her help. His need was just not to starve to death. But her need was opaque. She’d interrogated him about what the duster had told him, about the pregnant captain of the Rocinante. Fantasy. Drunk stories. What did he care? He’d told her everything, but she’d never explained why a crazy drunken story mattered to anyone.
She released eye contact.
“Okay. Kepelésh milowda gonya go?” he remarked. They had nothing but time and only the space of a single cabin with three bunks in the back, one of which was filled with containers of water.
“You never hear about the alphas and omegas?” she asked.
He shrugged. Alex had said something about it, but it was obviously nonsense. He’d been fucked enough times to know that babies weren’t a male prostitute’s concern, just nasty bugs or crabs.
She finished her food and passed the wrapper into a sack they used for garbage. The ship could handle human waste but not plastics.
She told him a story about Earth in the days before people had ships and reached out into the solar system. She told him how Earth had become so overpopulated, with barely a square inch open for forests or jungles (whatever those were), and she told him about how ugly people had become, hating each other because of the color of their skin or the language they spoke or the god they prayed to. She likened it to the way Inners abused Belters, and that at least he understood. She explained that Belters were just the latest in a long line of people who had been pushed to the side, shoved to the margins.
“Like you,” she said. “People thought, this one takes up too much space, push him out the airlock, da bap kuxaku.”
“Keting?” he asked, confused.
“Not real airlocks, but if you have no place to live, no people who accept you, same as getting spaced,” she clarified.
There had once been other kinds of people that he’d never met. Not different in skin or hair or size, but different in the way their bodies were made. Different in the way they had babies. Alphas and omegas. Other languages had different words - bulls and cows, dogs and bitches, sires and dams - words that held no meaning to Mika and which Drummer waved aside when he asked. What was important was that in some places it was okay for these people, no trouble. In other places, they were treated like criminals because the many alphas fought to the death over the few omegas. Religion sealed their fate, made them into evil beings, devils, demons. When there was no more space, no more food, no more land, people killed them, waving their holy books overhead.
“Fo just a baby?” said Mika, astonished.
“People kill for much, much less, Mika,” she said gravely. “My family, we had these kinds of people. In my blood.” She tapped her wrist hard with three fingers, the spot where you could feel your pulse. “Stronger, hardly ever get sick, live longer. The other people were already scared because there was no room, no food, so these different people, they killed them and no one stopped them.”
“Like Anderson Station,” he whispered.
“Ya, like Anderson Station, but much, much more.”
She let him think about what she’d said. There was no information in the ship’s computer about what she described, not that he could have read it anyway. But he wanted to see pictures. There were none. She pointed up at the angels decorating the ceiling. They were the answer. This ship, of all ships, would not have any record of the existence of these people. Not here. Not among the people who would have lived on and piloted the Nauvoo and its smaller ships.
He leaned forward. “Okay, mi pochuye.” He cleared his throat. “You still not answer my question.” He held up his hand to stave off a response. “To ne sasa. Milowda ne hafta sasa kowlting.”
“English,” she said again.
“To tenye… a question, no answer. You look fo keradzhang. For why.”
Her expression went momentarily sour. Drummer was a person who was made out of control. It was her bones and her skin and her guts. She was absolutely not the kind of person that would ever have sought the services of a sex worker like Mika, but he’d met her kind as clients. He knew how dangerous they could be if you didn’t give them enough of their control to satisfy them without letting them treat you like a thing they’d bought the right to break. Maybe he’d overstepped the line, been impertinent, but he wanted her to know that she was right, he wasn’t stupid, and while he was willing to take the education she offered, he wasn’t her bitch, and he wasn’t her pet project. He’d needed her help, but he wasn’t going to be owned like property.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Or maybe you’re just cheeky.”
“Soyá,” he replied with a crooked grin.
“Go sleep.” She nodded to the back of the shuttle where the bunks were. “Or look at your pretty boy. I don’t care, but if I hear anything funny you lose the terminal.”
He unstrapped from the chair and pushed off towards the back. The bunks were cramped for someone two meters tall, and slipping into the sleeping bags that held you in place when there was no thrust only made it worse, but he’d managed to find a way to slip in that didn’t leave him feeling too twisted. Drummer had given him the top bunk, which was longer since it was located where the curve of the hull was widest. She’d taken the next one down. There were curtains that slid on metal rods, top and bottom of each bunk, the same rods intended to help you climb in. He slipped the fabric closed, cutting off most of the light and continued to run through his pictures. The most painful part wasn’t missing his friends, but how quickly they had abandoned him when things had gotten tense on Medina Station after he’d been questioned. There were no pictures of the time just after Alex and the Rocinante had left. He hadn’t had the terminal then. Those memories were fading quickly and all that was left were these images that weren’t laughing as they had been, which weren’t seeking his attention as they had been. They looked suspicious, and some were taken when they weren’t looking. Only Grigori had smiled for him, but that was painful too because it had only been in the hopes of using Mika again to get off the station. It was a fake smile, the kind you gave to customers to make them feel like they were special and attractive, to make it feel like a date, not a transaction.
He turned it off and slipped it into a pocket at the side of the bunk.
What would it be like to have a baby in your belly, he wondered. He passed his hand over his flat, smooth stomach and remembered the handsome Martian with his strange accent and swarthy skin. He was just starting to go bald and had a little belly, but the muscles of an Inner were always attractive. And he’d been kind, which made any physical flaws meaningless and stupid. Grigori was beautiful, but Alex was caring and Drummer was right, pretty fades, but kindness lasts.
He imagined making love to Alex and his cock stiffened. He resisted the urge to slip his hands down his pants. Instead, he let his mind wander and played out a scenario where his belly was growing and he told Alex it was his and Alex hugged him tight and kissed him exuberantly.
But Mika was not one of those strange men Drummer had described. He was just ordinary, run of the mill, invisible, another rock in the Belt.
But he was here with Camina Drummer, on the other side of a ring gate where the screens had shown a sky that could not be believed (why did she think he would want to see that?), searching for the crew of the Rocinante, living legends. So what if Drummer didn’t really have a plan. She didn’t, he knew it. She was running on gut instinct, but pointing that out to her was not a smart move. He would leave it alone, not pick at that scab.
He fell asleep and dreamed of Alex. Sometimes he was Grigori, but he knew it was still Alex inside. They were on Medina Station, in the open space of the drum, but it was all so small. He could almost touch the long thin sun with his hands. Alex kept batting his hand away from the light, telling him he would get burned. Sometimes the sun and Alex’s cock were one and the same. Alex gave him the same warning as he reached up into the sky and down into his pants.
He laughed, wanting to be burned, wanting that sweet fire.
Alex ran off counter-spinward and Mika gave chase. They ran and ran and the drum spun faster and they became heavier. Mika looked down at himself and he had an Earther body, stocky and thick, little legs with big muscles that could run forever.
“Love me now. We are the same,” he said to Alex’s back as they ran.
“I can love you, kid, but not like that.” It was Alex’s voice, Grigori’s face, and the drum was a blur underfoot. Angels blew silent horns above, their eyes ever upward and inward. They too spun in circles, their trumpets aimed at the center of the sky. They made no sound, only a vibration deep in his skull and chest.
Alex ran faster and was halfway to the other side of the drum, kilometers away, and still, the drum was so small, everything stretched or contracted depending on where he looked.
“Too fast!” Mika yelled.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, buddy.” Alex skipped up and off the floor, up into the sun, which had become the frightening smear of color and light Drummer had shown him on the screens.
“No!” he yelled at the smear, at the angels, at Alex, but the drum spun so fast that he and his words were smashed flat by the centripetal force.
Drummer shook him awake.
“Hey, you’re having a bad dream,” she said.
He passed a hand over his face, the sensation of being flattened under impossible gravity fading.
“Uff,” he said. “Ya. Bad dream.”
He told her as much as he remembered, but dreams run away to hide when you chase them. He remembered enough, though.
“Where's your father?” she asked him, randomly.
He shrugged with his hands. He’d never met him.
“And your mother?”
“Dead,” he answered flatly.
“Young boys have too much pashang in the head. Your cock and balls play tricks on you. You don’t need to fuck da pomang. Maybe what you want is a father.”
He grimaced at her suggestion. That was stupid and unsettling. He never had a father and hardly had a mother. Why would he want one now? And certainly not Alex. He couldn’t think about him without getting hard.
She pressed her lips together. “Trust me, a hard cock is like a bad sensor array. It gives you dodgy information. You slept for almost three hours. Go clean up and do another lesson.
Chapter 2: Naomi Nagata
A million words fought for attention on her tongue. A pointless struggle and eventual cluster-fuck. None of them won. She reached for her hair, her shield in times of uncertainty, and caught herself before her hand had moved a few inches.
Alex was unchanged, but Amos, his size was shocking. Easily twenty-five kilos more than when she last saw him. Not fat, just massive. His shoulders and arms alone were stunning. No one gets that big in the float. Not with all the junk in existence injected into his ass. No one.
But his face was still the one she remembered. He regarded her with the near flat affect that said he was in turmoil. She had known he was coming in on the ship, he and Alex. Martha had told her. But her presence here must have been as shocking to him as his size was to her. How to explain it all to him turned into a roiling tangle of impossible things to say, a knot of events that were still unresolved, many of which were a blur, some a frightening blank.
He approached her.
She took a step back. She hadn’t meant to. It just happened. Her fear was nameless but it had too many faces.
He saw it. He stopped.
Martha, Nadine, and Petra came to her. She didn’t want them to protect her. She didn’t want to need it, but she did, so she took it resentfully.
She cleared her throat.
That was it. That was all that would come out. How do you explain running away from your friends, your crew, and your lover? How do explain a past beyond forgiving, a past that contains a son who was guiltless until he wasn’t anymore, and even that was your fault and world-ending events had your signature on them.
How do you explain that only just now, at this moment, this instant, did you realize that the one who needed you the most, the one who depended on you as an anchor for every friendship, every interaction with other people, was the one you walked away from as though it were nothing. You cared about your lover and bid him farewell. You cared about your ship and her crew, but your best friend, your oldest friend, to whom you meant more than was even possible for you to understand, him you just walked away from without a second thought.
Where were the words for that?
His steps were methodical and slow. He lifted his hands - those great square mitts - like someone showing that they had no weapons and meant no harm. The shame of seeing that was more than she could bear. The tears were a flood. Her face collapsed in sobs. She never saw him wrap his arms around her. She only felt it, like God come to give her an absolution she could never deserve.
“Where’ve you been, Naomi?”
“She’s been here, with us,” she heard Nadine say.
“How’d she get here?” he asked. “The last we knew she’d gone to find her kid.”
“She found him,” said Petra.
“Where is he?” Amos asked.
After a moment of silence, Petra said, “That’s a long story, and it’s not mine to tell.”
She never heard the others walk away. Amos gently disentangled himself from her.
“Why are you crying so hard?” he asked her, which only set her to crying again.
When she got it under control, she pulled him to the foot of one of the elephant chairs. That’s what everyone called them, though the creatures that had used them had looked more like giant walking onions. A big bowl of cushion with spaces around the rim for the limbs. They were big enough to make good beds and this one was hers.
She hopped in and waited for him to join her. He climbed in, tried to find a comfortable seating position.
“It’s more comfortable when there’s just one person and it’s the only real privacy, so…”
Amos cut in. “Naomi, where’s Filip?”
“He’s okay. He’s on the planet.” This wasn’t where she wanted to start. He’d jumped right over the part where she begged him to forgive her. And Filip was a complicated topic. “He’s with Marco.”
“What? Marco’s alive?”
“Yes.” But that was even more complicated than Filip. “Amos… Where’s Alex?”
“He went with our new friends.” He pointed across the room to where Alex was conversing with other people. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re doing. But that’s okay. You’ll tell me when you’re ready. Are you okay?” He paused and swallowed. “I thought you were dead.”
Of course he would. Why would he not? She’d just blipped out of his existence.
“I came close a couple of times, Amos, but I’m okay. Some if it missing, what happened. I have a scar back here and I don’t know where it came from.” She touched the back of her head. “Filip was in trouble and Marco used me to get him. And then he kept me prisoner for a long time.”
These were hard words because so little had been under her control. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. Every bad thing she had expected had happened like choreography, like a dance she knew well. Marco had been exactly who she remembered and it all felt like sticking your hand onto a burner, knowing exactly what was coming, and you did it anyway, stupidly.
“I tried to escape with Filip. I couldn’t. He didn’t want to come with me…”
Marco had painted her as a worm in Filip’s eyes. The worm that was his mother. He’d made use of the double shame in that fact and Filip had cleaved even harder to his father. His mother was a worm, but his father was a legend, a myth, and in that myth Filip saw redemption.
She continued. “I tried to kill him, Marco, and… I don’t know what happened after that, but it didn’t happen. He wasn’t dead.” She veered away from the fact that she had tried to destroy the entire ship with her still aboard. “We were here, on the other side of this gate. The ship was damaged.”
“Then how the hell did you make it here?” he asked.
“We were escorted.”
“We were adrift.” And she thought her plan had actually worked, just not as instantaneously as she had hoped. “Two objects appeared and somehow moved the ship.”
“Tractor beams aren’t real, Naomi.”
“I didn’t say tractor beams.” Everyone on the ship had said tractor beams. “They came, positioned themselves on either side of the ship and the ship moved with them. Call it what you want.”
“Why are they on the planet? And you’re all here?”
She was overwhelmed. “Amos, too many questions. And they don’t have anything to do with us. What happened to you?” She gestured vaguely at his body.
His face turned off like a screen gone dead.
“Naomi, we thought you were dead,” he repeated without making eye contact. Whatever he had to say was bad, was shaming.
“You said that,” she prompted.
“I can’t say it wouldn’t have still happened, but you were gone.”
“Amos, you’re scaring me. Is Jim okay?”
“Jim is fine, but, Naomi… He moved on.”
That was a blunt rusty knife straight to the heart, but she tried to be mature, to not make this about her. She was the one who left, after all. It must be Bobbie, she thought. In her own mind, Bobbie was everything Naomi wasn’t. She was strong, resolute, so sure of herself. Her mech-suit was just an external expression of the person she was inside. Her past was a wall of medals and commendations, of standing up to Mars and not letting her good name get sullied, of heroicly fighting deadly creatures on airless moons and living to tell the tale.
She could see it. Who wouldn’t want Bobbie?
“Bobbie?” she asked, as much as it hurt to say it out loud. “Bobbie’s a good woman. She’s… she’s…”
“Not Bobbie.” He took her hands in his and exhaled hard. “Me.”
That caught her off guard and she laughed. Though Amos wasn’t averse to snark and sarcasm, he didn’t tell jokes like this one. Was he trying to be humorous for her sake, to take the sting out of whatever he really had to say? Goofing it so she wouldn’t judge him? It had to be, but he wasn’t breaking, wasn’t letting her join in on the joke.
“Not a joke, Naomi.” His eyes held hers like a vice clamp. “He’s with me now.”
“Amos, what are you saying? You’ve never…”
“I have. You know I have, but that’s not important.” He gripped her hands perceptibly tighter. “There’s more.”
“Incredible,” said Ted. “I still don’t understand how his inner morphology could alter so drastically after antenatal development.”
“I ain’t got answers for you,” said Amos. “I fix ships and make them go. You’re the doctor.”
“Is this why Amos is so much bigger?” Naomi asked. Her own words felt like they were said by another, someone far away.
“Yes,” answered Ted. “Mr. Burton is much easier to explain. Before the pogroms, it would likely have happened when he was much younger, but it’s much the same for alphas when they were allowed to mature naturally. For them, it’s like a second puberty. Increase in physical size and musculature, heightened testosterone output, marked changes to the Cowper’s gland and the corpus cavernosa. But all these structures and tissues already exist in the young alpha’s body, no different to a young girl developing breasts. The tissue is there; it just needs the right hormonal signal to trigger growth. When Mr. Holden went into heat, the pheromones his body released triggered the changes in Mr. Burton here, and he went through his second change. Fascinating indeed.”
“You don’t seem very phased, doctor,” said Amos.
“Primum non nocere. First, do no harm. Those are more than just words, Amos. Everything else you learn as a doctor or physician is forever filtered through that oath. What happened to your kind was beyond unforgivable, the product of willful ignorance. You were only ever a tiny part of the population, less than five percent. They called you savage and then murdered you outright. The irony would be laughable had it not ended in such tragedy.” He exhaled a deep breath. “Your friend, though, that defies explanation. Such a change would call for the growth of structures that are reduced to almost nothing in the adult male body. We all start the same and men have vestigial structures that would have become female organs if the child had gone on to become female, but to grow a complete uterus and the accompanying points of internal connection and support and… I have no explanation.”
Martha said, “Well, we’re having this conversation seven thousand light years from Earth inside of an artificial moon built by beings who threw a handful of goop at our system who knows how many millions of years ago in order for that goop to build a stargate back home." She shrugged. "Holden came into close proximity with that goop on several occasions according to Naomi.”
“I appreciate that, Martha,” said Ted. “But invoking Clarke’s third law every time we don’t understand something only describes the fact that we don’t understand it. It doesn’t bring us any closer to comprehension.”
Naomi’s brain was floating five inches above her head. She heard the rest of the pointless conversation but was disconnected from it. When Amos had tried to explain to her what was going on, when her raised voice had brought the others over out of concern, when Ted calmly and methodically confirmed everything that Amos said, she yanked cables and wires in her mind to wall off the flood, to isolate the garbage code, to quarantine it.
Amos still held her hand and glanced at her from time to time. She was torn in too many directions. She had not known how to ask his forgiveness, where to even begin, and now he was asking for hers instead and she could not find it in herself to give it.
Amos and Jim together. It made no sense. Of all the millions of scenarios she had played out concerning their lives away from her, this was not one.
She felt pinched and squeezed, like her brain would pop.
“Please let go of my hand, Amos,” she said, her voice tremulous.
He released her gently. Nadine reached for her.
She fended her off. “Don’t touch me.”
She left the common room. No one stopped her or even said a word.
The moon had endless halls. She could walk for a lifetime and not see them all. There was no chance of getting lost, though. She had only to hold her hand to any wall and a glowing pink line would lead her back through every door she had opened, tracing her steps. She headed left and down, left and down, left and down, a spiral down into the heart of the moon.
Everyone called it the big pool. Naomi thought of it as her pool. It wasn’t a secret place, but it was her hideaway because no one came here other than her. There were two more pools much closer than this one, and more or less to human scale. This one was huge and deep, meant for something that breathed water. At the back end of the pool was a large opening that led into darkness, and unsolicited darkness was rare here so it frightened most. The other pools lacked that gaping dark maw. No one had tried to see where it led, but they had assumed that the opening was the true main door leading off to more extensive aquatic realms for things that swam rather than walked, and that the smaller one they used had been for other personnel, staff, or doctors or whatever. Martha and Ted were pretty sure it was a hospital, but not everyone was convinced. The water effervesced and tingled the skin as it did in all the other pools. They still weren’t sure what caused it but no one had suffered any ill effects.
She stripped quickly and slipped into the water. It was just a little cooler than body temperature and she floated effortlessly. The temporary release it afforded from the moon’s gravity was a gift. She kicked away from the edge, brushing the water with arms that felt like wings supported by bubbles.
She’d run away again. She was always running away. Naomi the runaway.
Maybe she was just a ship with a fucked-up drive, punching the gas, slamming her into the chair and then back into the float again and again. Maybe she was what Marco said, a worm, weak, spineless. Maybe she was none of those things. Maybe less.
She made it to the other side of the pool. The opening was lit well enough for a few meters from the light in the room, but it quickly faded as it went back and the only clue as to the length of the tunnel was the deep echo that reverberated and returned along the surface of the water. It occurred to her that no one had ever tried to illuminate the tunnel. She swam to the wall and ran her hand up the wall, the gesture that worked everywhere else but the hallways.
It didn’t work.
She could just follow that dark tunnel to wherever it led. Maybe it would swallow her up and it would all be over, ended. Naomi Nagata, former OPA terrorist, deadbeat mother, ice hauler, inciter of wars, lover of every wrong man the universe had to offer, the last of whom, the one she thought was finally the right man, was fucking her one-time best friend, oh, and now carrying his mother-fucking baby.
She held to the wall and screamed down that dark tunnel. “What the fuck do want from me?! What! The! Fuck! How much am I supposed to suffer, you cock-sucking son of a fucking whore!”
The tunnel repeated her question back to her.
“Naomi?” The voice was distant and small. For half a second she thought it had come from the tunnel.
Petra was standing where she’d left her clothing at the edge of the pool.
“I’m okay, Pet. Just, just go away,” she yelled across the water, her voice raw.
“Yeah, you don’t sound okay, Naomi. I’m not leaving until you come back. Your friends are scared for you. Me too. Come away from there or I’ll come in and get you and you know how much I hate this place. If you make me do it, I won’t forgive you.”
Petra was terrified of the dark tunnel. She was sure that somewhere down there the original denizens of this place still lived and the images they had found of them gave her nightmares.
Naomi swam back. Petra was distraught and she could only imagine what it had cost to come chasing her.
“I’m fine, Petra,” she reiterated as she hauled herself out of the water. “You didn’t have to come after me. I’m not going to do anything stupid.”
“Okay, I believe you. Now prove it to the rest by coming back and not acting like a crazy person.”
Naomi squeezed as much water from her hair as she could manage. No one had found anything like towels here yet.
“What am I supposed to do, Pet?” she asked.
Petra gently wiped water from her face then took her by the shoulders. “I don’t know, Naomi. But your friends want you back. Ted and Martha let them know a little of what happened on the planet, but they should hear it from you. They love you, Naomi. They just want to know you’re okay. You’ll figure the rest out. I know you will. Now can we get out of here? I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I saw you swimming to the tunnel.”
“I tried to make the light go on in there. It wouldn’t.” Naomi collected her clothing and slipped back into her pants.
“That doesn’t make me feel any better. Let’s go.”
Chapter 3: Amos Burton
“What do I even say to her?” said Jim from beneath the sheets of their bunk.
Jim was in his most untouchable, unapproachable mood. Amos knew it was going to go that way, so he just took a corner of the room and let Jim hide in the blanket-sleeve of the bunk. It was a no-win scenario and Amos hated those, but he loved Jim and he loved Naomi, and he was willing to put his own feelings and needs aside. Patience, he had.
No amount of don’t be shocked was going to soften the blow. Why do people even say things like that? So stupid. But he’d said it anyway and watched Jim’s face harden against what was coming.
“She’s thinking the same thing about you, Jim. She ran away from me after we started talking, and…”
“Of course she did! How in the fuck is anyone supposed to understand this?” Jim’s voice was shrill and scared.
“… and then she came back and we talked some more. She thinks you must hate her for leaving. I told her that ain’t true, but it doesn’t mean anything coming from me. It has to come from you. Yeah, all of this is freaking her out, for sure, but Jim, she needs you to forgive her. And I need you to forgive her. Naomi is family and right now my family is broken because I got you here and you need me, and I got her over there and she needs me. And I need both of you.”
Okay, so maybe his patience was less than he thought. Maybe that was too direct, but going back and forth between the two of them wasn’t going to work.
“You know I can’t go down there right now,” said Jim.
“Yeah, I know that. Dr. Ted said the same thing.”
“He’s a real doctor, Jim, and he’s a good guy. He wants to come here with Naomi and see you, make sure you’re okay.”
“He wants to see the freak show,” he said petulantly from beneath the covers.
“He’s curious, yeah. Can you blame him? But Jim, you gotta’ take my word on this. He just wants to help. He knows your time is coming real soon and there ain’t a person on this ship who has a clue what to do if something goes wrong, and…” His throat closed up. “And I can’t have anything happen to you two. And don’t say freak show, ‘cause if you’re a freak show then I’m a freak show and I’m not a fuck’n freak show.”
They was pretty blatant emotional blackmail, but it was also true.
The sheets quivered rhythmically. Jim was crying. Amos quietly let out a long breath. People were crying a lot lately. Dealing with that wasn’t his strong point.
“You don’t understand,” came Jim’s reply, cracked through tears.
Amos pushed off from the bulkhead, snagged the edge of the bed with his foot and curled in around Jim. He didn’t try to pull him out from the sheets. He and Naomi were the same like that. When things got too scary they both hid. He let Jim stay hidden, stroking him through the sheets, finding his belly, so round now. His thumb made gentle circles. Jim called it signing my belly, and Amos loved that he called it that because he was signing it and the baby that was inside.
“I understand that I’m the other side of this coin and I’m not going anywhere. Whatever you deal with, we deal with.”
He didn’t want to be aroused right now. It wasn’t the time for it, but his body and Jim’s body never cared about things like that. If they were at peace together, enjoying the silence, it made them horny, and if their emotions were up, it only made them hornier. How Alex and Bobbie had adjusted to it, he’d never know, but the irony of it never escaped Amos. There was nothing for it now. He pulled the blanket down far enough to see Jim’s hair and a puff of air from beneath the sheets hit him full in the face and the point of no return faded into the distance. He buried his nose in Jim’s midnight curls. His hair had grown out this last month, the curls unruly, with a mind of their own, beautiful in their disarray. Amos breathed in the smell and Jim thrummed underneath the sheets, equally lost to their joint need.
He slipped beneath the sheet, pulling Jim into the space of his chest and stomach, spooning him tightly. Below the beautiful curve of Jim’s belly, his cock was already bone hard. He caressed it softly through the loose pants Bobbie had found for him on Medina Station, the ones with the wide band of elastic at the belly. Jim lowered them for Amos, the perfume of his body knocking Amos dizzy. It left him stunned and dumb, without words. Who needed words? Words were stupid. The heat of Jim’s body against him set fire to Amos’s fingers. One hand reached up under Jim’s shirt to find his chest and nipples and throat, the other found his cock again, passing it through the spaces between his fingers, up and down, another thing he’d learned that Jim loved.
Jim reached back for Amos’s cock, finding the large wet spot in his pants, urging him to remove them. Amos slid them down far enough to release his cock and pressed into the cleft of Jim’s ass.
“Hnnng,” was the sound Jim made when Amos entered him, his cock dripping with juice, the shiver of orgasm reaching from deep inside, electrifying his cock, before he’d even taken it all the way home.
Jim’s cock burst its release into Amos’s hand, silky smooth and hot. He wanted to resist taking it into his mouth. Jim’s smell alone during sex made him high, but his seed, that was a hard drug. It took him to primordial places and made him see and hear things he could not explain later.
Oh fuck, what did it matter? He couldn’t help it. He licked it from his palm and fell, spinning into the dark cave.
All that was left of the real world was the heat of Jim’s body and the smell of his skin. A small part of his mind, a whisper, knew he was still planted deep within him, life flowing between their two bodies.
The dark was huge, and the voice that came from it was as deep as the roots of a mountain grinding against the mantle.
— You have nothing to fear, my son.
I ain’t scared.
— You are, and that’s good. You fear for your mate.
What the hell is there to be afraid of?
— Competition. But this is not that. Your bond is beyond that. He is yours.
Jesus, who are you, man? Why’d do you keep showing up in my head?
— Neither Jesus nor a man. I am what flows between you and him.
You’re my jizz?
— Don’t be impertinent. I am what bonds you to him. I am your love for him and your desire to see him safe. I am the link that grows within him. I am her counterpart.
Okay, so you’re a good fuck. There’s worse things to be.
— *Laughter like an earthquake*
And you’re dramatic. I’ve got a lot of drama right now to deal with, thank you.
— You have a sense of humor. Good, you will need it.
It was almost an hour later when he came back up into something approaching lucidity. Jim held Amos’s arm tight to his chest, lost in the thrall of it. The milk still flowed lazily through his cock, the sweet burn wrapped within the soft shimmer of endless orgasm. He pressed in deeper and pulled Jim in tighter. Jim exhaled a soft groan.
“God, you’re amazing,” Jim whispered, barely intelligible, drowned in his own high and euphoria.
He buried his face into Jim’s neck and kissed his reply.
He could live here like this, inside of Jim, breathing his smell, feeling his perfect skin, wrapped in his heat, physically connected as one person. It was another half hour before the flow ceased and Amos could pull out. Lately, it could last as much as two hours. No one was complaining, least of all Amos. Jim sought him out more, not less, as his belly grew.
Jim shimmied the rest of the way out his pants, turned, and used his toes to push Amos’s pants to the bottom of the bunk, under the sheets. They would deal with those later. Amos let him interlock his legs between Amos’s, letting him find a position of comfort. Jim’s eyes were half closed, drowsy and drugged with pleasure. He crooned softly in a way that was almost a purr. They kissed slowly, languidly, brushing the edges of lips and tips of tongues. Jim’s hands sought Amos’s cock. It wouldn’t rise again so soon after such an extended session, but just being held like that, Jim gently gripping the now-soft but still swollen member, felt like heaven. He fondled Jim in return, who, amazingly, would still get hard after having released several times. His record was eight. Jim was oddly proud of that. So was Amos because he was the one who had given them to him.
Given the opportunity, they could lay like this for many hours, falling asleep, waking, kissing, occasionally indulging a second round. More than twice would leave them unable to wake for longer than made the rest of the crew comfortable.
With each other’s sex still gently in hand, he dozed. When he awoke, he was clear-headed, so some time must have passed. Jim was regarding him patiently.
“You been awake long?” he asked.
“Just a little while.” Jim sought Amos’s hand under the sheets. “Just promise me you’ll be with me when she comes. Promise me you won’t leave me alone. I say stupid shit when there’s no one else to hear me.”
“I promise to be there as long as you both want me there. I think you may need some time by yourselves, and when I see that, I’ll give you that. How does that sound?” Amos was sure it would be more complicated than that once she was aboard, but he didn’t want to agree to anything too absolute.
“Okay,” said James. “How are we going to do this, logistically?”
“I know Peaches wants to go over, and so does Bobbie. The Roci’s just a hair too long to fit in their bay, and the doors won’t open or close with anything heavier than teakettle going off near’em. Alex can take them over one at a time in the Fong. They’ve got plenty of water for ballast to top her off. He can bring the doctor first and then Naomi. I think we may want him here too for all this. He’s got a steady head on his shoulders. He can explain things better and he ain’t involved, so maybe it’ll be easier coming from him.” Amos hoped he wouldn’t have to insist on the doctor’s presence. He meant what he just said and he wanted the doctor to check Jim, make sure he was okay. The things he’d said about how impossible it was for Jim’s body to change the way it had were still running through Amos’s mind.
“What about Alex?”
“I don’t know. Have to ask him. I think I saw one of the women down there giving him the eye.”
Martha had certainly taken a shine to his gentleman cowboy demeanor, even if Amos was fully aware that Alex had turned the dial up to full when he knew he had an audience. No harm in that. It wasn’t a ruse, just a brighter version of who he genuinely was. For whatever reason, this time he’d managed not to trip over his own personality.
Amos continued, “Yeah. Poor guy. I mean, Bobbie ain’t interested in anything but her mech-suit and Peaches, yeah, that ain’t never gonna’ happen. If someone down there thinks Alex looks good, gives him the green light, don’t he deserve a shot?”
Jim smiled. “I’m not saying he doesn’t. Just didn’t think you were down there long enough for anyone to be making eyes at anyone.”
“Sometimes things happen fast.” He passed a hand over Jim’s cheek. “You should know that.”
Jim’s face twisted. He placed Amos’s hand on his stomach. There was movement under the surface.
“Is that a hand?” he asked.
“No, a foot.” Jim moved Amos’s hand up. “That’s a hand.”
The little knot under Jim’s skin rolled under the palm of his hand of its own accord, rolling away and then back again.
“Strong little fucker,” he whispered.
“Yep. If it’s a boy, he’ll be like you. If it’s a girl, like Bobbie.”
Amos laughed. “You better hope not!”
They were silent for some time, their child stretching Jim’s belly, reaching out as if aware of Amos’s hands.
Jim floated in the slack embrace of the pilot’s chair on the bridge, the lap belt pulled out to its maximum, just keeping him from floating away aimlessly. “Bobbie, I want you to go first and assess the situation. We don’t know the whole story about why the split between the population on the planet and the satellite. Play it soft and take your time. We’re not here to cause any trouble and I don’t want to give that impression, but if trouble is already here, we need to know about it before it finds us. Cool?”
“Hard copy on that.” Bobbie looked brighter and more chipper than she had in a long time. Amos was happy to see the flinty spark back in her eye. That’s the Bobbie he loved.
“Amos, what are they doing about food?”
He passed a hand over his growing beard. “It didn’t really come up. I’m not sure.”
“Sounds like they’ve been on that moon for some time, so there has to be some kind of renewable food source that doesn’t depend on the planet. Clarissa, when you go over, how about you make that your first priority. I appreciate the high density rations you brought, they made all the difference, but if we can trade for something else - anything else - I for one would be grateful.”
“Trust me, you’re not alone on that,” she answered. “I’ll see what’s up.”
He turned his attention to Alex. “It’s going to be a few runs back and forth. You okay with that?”
“Aye, aye, Cap. It’s literally my job description. Don’t worry about me.” He gave a casual little salute.
Jim’s eyes caught Amos for a second and there was the hint of a smirk. “When all the back and forth is finished, if you want to stretch your legs for a while over there, don’t be shy.”
Alex must have caught the look that had passed between him and Jim. “All right,” he said suspiciously.
Jim said, “I want you to find out about their other ships. You mentioned there were a few in the dock?”
“Yeah, like five or six. Two are similar models to Clarissa’s. The rest is a hodgepodge of different ones.” He was still glancing back and forth between Jim and Amos, clearly waiting for the shoe to drop.
“Okay, well, find out what’s serviceable by way of offering repairs or whatever. Just find a way to take stock. Maybe Martha will be willing to give you a tour.” Jim couldn’t hold back the smile there at the end.
Alex looked over at Amos. “Man, you are a piece’o work, Amos.” But there was only embarrassed humor in his voice.
“I am,” Amos said. “But so are you, so try not to mess it up. She’s smart, she’s cute, and you’re rusty as hell.”
Amos clapped him on the shoulder and Alex looked like he wanted to find somewhere to crawl into and not come out.
Jim gestured at Bobbie. “You got your suit broken down?”
“Yes, sir. It’s ready to go.”
“Get that finished up and on the Fong before anything else. I don’t want any difficult to explain EVA’s once their doc is over here. I know it’s taking a chance hauling it back and forth, but if it’s stowed in the Fong’s exterior sample trunks and we don’t go acting suspicious, we should get away with it.”
It had been Bobbie’s idea. Better to have and not need than need and not have, and with their track record, it seemed foolish not to. Amos agreed in full.
“I’ll help you, Bobbie,” said Clarissa and Bobbie nodded her thanks.
“Okay, everyone knows what they’re doing?” They all acknowledged in the affirmative and Jim gave a gesture of dismissal. They slipped out of the bridge one by one.
Amos hung back until they were gone.
“Been a while since I’ve heard you use your captain’s voice. Kinda’ sexy.” Amos tipped a toe at his chair, launching himself in Jim’s direction. Jim caught him and steadied him mid-float.
Jim had his serious face on. “I’m not looking for an answer today, but I need you to start thinking about this. There’s going to come a point here real soon where I can’t really use my captain’s voice for while. I want you to give some thought to the best way to restructure things.”
It certainly wasn’t the first time it had occurred to Amos, but it was the first time Jim had brought it up.
“It’s always gonna’ be your ship, Jim. I mean, it ain’t for me to decide.”
“It’s always gonna’ be our ship, Amos, all of us, and you know that most of how it came together is because that’s just how it landed. I want your input. Give it some thought because whatever happens, whatever we decide, it should be a decision so that there’s no confusion, no mixed signals, and no hard feelings. Okay?”
His first choice would be Bobbie. She was easily the most competent and she wasn’t entangled in a relationship with anyone else on the crew that would sway her choices, which was reason number one why he considered himself a bad choice. Either her or Alex, who certainly had more time with the crew, but he would rather it be her.
But that could wait.
“Okay. I hear you,” he responded. “I’m gonna’ go be useful to whoever needs me.”
Chapter 4: Bobbie Draper
She could see why they thought it was a hospital. The interior was smooth, glossy, and lacking in any sharp corners. It would be easy to keep antiseptically clean and even the common area where the people had settled was surprisingly lacking in any grime or signs that humans used it to live and sleep, though there was nothing in the way of cleaning implements. That was a small mystery unto itself that spoke of hidden processes still active and functioning in this place.
Start small, she thought to herself. Start simple.
She asked if there were anywhere she could relieve herself to urinate. Petra took her to a doorless opening with basins of various sizes holding still water along one wall. Along the opposing wall, there were alcoves of equally varied sizes with depressions in variable locations with water running through them. As oddly arranged and different one from the next as they were, they clearly looked like toilettes.
It seemed aliens shit and pissed and had come to a similarly simply means of dealing with it, which was oddly comforting to know.
They showed her how to open doors by rubbing a circle on the wall near the openings, and how to backtrack without getting lost by just placing her hand on the wall and leaving it for a few seconds. A soft pink ribbon on the wall illuminated the path she’d taken. The fact that there was such a system led Bobbie to believe that the facility was intended to be used by beings who did not stay long and would need that kind of help, or that perhaps they were not able to communicate with one another easily and needed an automated way to get directions.
Those were just suppositions. They could have had telepathy for all she knew, but again, the return to base function, as she cataloged it in her mind, spoke of more conventional beings with more conventional needs. The fact that what appeared to be the be the room for sanitary purposes was one that dealt with the bodies of the prior inhabitants in a conventional fashion, physically, no magic one-size-fits-all fix.
The gravity, though, was still an inexplicable phenomenon, but it wasn’t on her list of mysteries to solve.
Part of her was humbled. Mars, the great experiment, was nothing compared to this, barely more than bubbles and tubes with a weapons manufacturing industry attached to it, the planet itself still hundreds of years from anything approaching terraformed, and this place seemed like just a blip in the greater scheme of who these people must have been. She wondered how many other such places there were across the galaxy, and what else they had created. The blue companion was still a mystery to the people here. It had offered no signal or sign to them.
She sat with Naomi on the edge of what she had been told was a chair, but looked like a sculpture. Naomi was a ghost of her former self. Thinner, timid, avoiding Bobbie whenever she could. Passing her off to one of the others who she assured knew more about how this place worked than she did. Bobbie let her be whoever she needed to be for a time, but she was getting nowhere as regards what had happened on the planet.
“Are you hungry?” Naomi asked her.
“I could murder a burger right about now,” Bobbie replied with more gusto than she herself had expected.
“Burgers we don’t have, but come have a look at this.” She motioned for Bobbie to follow her.
The back wall of the common room was textured in low relief depressions, some large, some small, each of which had an array of differently sized and shaped smaller depressions alongside them. Some were just abstract shapes, others were clearly shaped like a variety of different kinds of hands. Once she realized that, she wondered what had used the less obvious depressions.
Naomi walked to a long, low depression, just a little lower than chest height and placed her hand in a circular divot next to it. The longer depression went clear, like glass. There was a cloudy vapor behind it that swam, contracted, and coalesced into a round shape that gently flattened out into a round loaf. Heat radiated from the surface and a minute later the glass simply vanished.
“It’s hot. Be careful,” said Naomi.
“You can’t be serious,” Bobbie replied, slack-jawed.
“It never tastes the same twice. Ted thinks the sensors must read your nutritional needs and tailors it to you.” Naomi reached in took the loaf out, breaking it into two fragrant halves.
It was about twenty centimeters in diameter and the most bizarre thing about it was how completely ordinary it was. It looked and smelled like bread.
“You’re not going to eat that, are you?” she asked, incredulous.
“I’ve been eating it for months, Bobbie. No one’s gotten sick, but just these three slots activate.” She gestured to two more down the wall that were the same size and at the same level as the one before them. “We’re not really sure, but we think the others must have been for lifeforms with diets that would be poisonous to us. Nothing we’ve done will get them to work, but these three will make bread all day and all night. It was one of the kids who discovered it.” She pointed to a group of young people playing a foot game with an improvised hackysack. “We smelled the bread and found Trini sitting in one of the elephant chairs, happy as you please. Her mother nearly lost it, sure she was going to die. Ted watched her for a couple of days and then took the plunge and ate one. No one here is hungry. You can get one anytime you like.”
“Clarissa is going to shit herself when she sees this. Jim asked her to find out about food. We’ve been eating nutrient bars so long I started hating the idea of eating.” She took the half that Naomi extended to her. It was soft and moist with a green flavor that reminded her of basil. She quite literally almost drool around the mouthful she was chewing.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Sorry. This is really good.”
“Still can’t believe that Jim and Clarissa are friends now,” Naomi said softly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,” Bobbie said through a mouthful of bread. “An agreement not to kill each other, a concession to Amos, but not friends.”
“That sounds more like Jim.”
Bobbie raised her eyebrows in agreement.
“So, if Clarissa was supposed to find out about food, you were supposed to find out about…?”
“What happened on the planet. Jim knows Marco is down there and that’s like finding out Hitler, Mussolini, and Trump all live down the hall from you. He’s happier sitting near the controls of the rail gun for now.” Bobbie tipped her head back to the chair where they’d been sitting. Naomi followed her reluctantly.
“Do you want the sordid, detailed version where I bear my soul and you lose all respect for me or the simple version where I get to save some dignity?” Naomi asked.
“As long as it’s honest, I’m good with the simple version.” Bobbie finished the bread wishing she had something to wash it down.
Naomi passed a metal bottle that hung from her shoulder by a strap. “It’s for when I go exploring,” she explained, uncapping it.
Bobbie swigged the water back and waited for Naomi to squirrel up whatever courage she needed.
“You know I went to find Filip. I found him and brought him back to Marco.” Naomi swallowed hard before continuing. “Marco set flip against me, again, and held me prisoner. I was tied to a crash couch for… I don’t know how long. I was his trophy, his proof that he’d hit James Holden and hit him hard. You already know what he did to Earth.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Then, then he…”
It was too much to ask. This was fear and humiliation and defeat. This was going to break Naomi and that wasn’t what Bobbie needed and certainly not what she wanted for her friend.
She put her hand on Naomi’s arm to reassure and steady her. “You don’t have to go into all that. I just need to know if the people on the planet pose a threat.”
“They only have the ship we came in, the Pella, and it’s dead on the surface.”
“The Pella is a corvette, Naomi. Not exactly harmless.”
“She’s broken, Bobbie. The landing was hard, barely controlled, and her hull cracked. She’s scrap.”
That was still worrying. If they could get power to any of her weapons, the ship may be grounded but she was far from harmless, and with someone like Marco, whose pride and sense of self-importance was sufficiently pathological to commit intended planetary genocide, even a broken corvette crashed on a planet was not to be discounted.
“Is it just the ship’s crew down there?” Bobbie asked.
“No, some of the colonists who were already there remained.”
“Of their own accord?”
“But not all.”
“How did you know to come here? I mean, it’s not the obvious choice, is it? And there’s a whole planet. Why didn’t you just relocate?”
“The Pella picked up the signal coming from the moon and the planet isn’t remotely as hospitable as it looks from orbit. We were allowed to leave, but with nothing. These aren’t escapees; they’re outcasts.”
“Naomi, why didn’t he kill you?”
“Because he’s a fucking psychopath and he thought it would be more humiliating to let us go die on a sterile moon or in orbit. Even if we went back, we couldn’t return to the colony site. He would have definitely killed us then.”
“I’m still having a hard time understanding, Naomi. He let you take your ships. Why would he do that? Why would he strand himself there?”
Naomi shrugged. She looked like she was going to break again. It was enough, though, assuming it was all true and sadly Naomi had proven to be an unreliable source of information in the past, but there was no point destroying her over it. There was plenty to go off of with what she had.
“But we’re safe, Bobbie. No one can touch us in here. Other than the bay door where the signal originates, there’s not a mark on the surface, no debris, no dust. It looks like it was made yesterday and who knows how many thousands or millions of years it’s been here. Like the ring station.”
That was not a comparison that left Bobbie with a warm and fuzzy feeling. She’d seen some crazy things happen in there.
She did her best to present a satisfied appearance, like all was well, but the presence of the Pella on the surface was information that had to get back to James and Amos. She’d seen the ring station take a nuclear blast that only caused a ripple across its surface, but the Rocinante was not the ring station. She was Martian, top of the line when she was put into service, but she wasn’t impregnable to human weaponry.
Naomi took her wrist gently. “How’s Jim? I mean, what am I going to see? What should I expect?”
Bobbie thought for a moment, how much to say, and decided that less was better. “He’s gained weight. No more catwalks for James Holden, that’s for sure.”
Naomi’s eyes were haunted. Bobbie imagined her remembering Jim’s appearance. Who would know better than Naomi?
Bobbie said, “He’s just as nervous about seeing you. He’s scared and overwhelmed and he feels like things are out of his control. He hates that, you know it. He’s scared what you will think. He misses you more than you know.”
Petra approached them, her demeanor said that she’d seen the tension between the two women. Bobbie was taken by how these people rallied around Naomi, like members of a tribe, or even a squad. She could respect that, and she would for now, for Naomi’s sake.
“I’m going to go find Alex and show him the bread… oven. I’m sure he’ll want to see it.”
Petra tipped her head to where Alex and Ted were talking and took Naomi by the elbow, who went where she was led with an embarrassed smile.
What had that man done to her, Bobbie thought. This woman looked like Naomi, but that’s where it stopped. She was a broken, barely viable version of the original. And now she had to digest the news about Amos and Jim.
Bobbie blew out a heavy breath. She’d dealt with some fucked up shit, but…
She gave Alex the important points of what Naomi had given her.
“Put the satellite between the Rocinante and the planet,” she told him.
“That’s gonna’ cut off communication, Bobbie.”
“Just until we have a better idea about the Pella. I know Jim will agree.”
“Oh, I agree with you too, I’m just saying.”
“I know. Work your charm on the doctor. Baring any other secrets, he should have the most reason to keep everyone safe. Use that if you have to.”
“That’s kinda’ ruthless, Bobbie.”
“Leveraging a man’s conscious to keep everyone safe? No, that’s not ruthless. Leveraging everyone’s safety to appease one man’s conscious, that’s ruthless. I’m one thousand percent sure I can pilot that ship back myself, Alex.”
“Did you see Naomi? Have you talked to her for more than a few minutes? Some ugly shit went down and every time she’s on the verge of breaking one of them swoops in to take her away.”
“How is that the doctor’s fault?”
“Alex, get your head in the game. I’m not asking you to put a gun in his mouth, just talk to him. It’s one guy. I’ve got detail in here.”
His disapproval was palpable, but he said nothing else, just walked off.
She returned to the food slots at the back wall and slapped her hand wide in the depression just as Naomi had. Never mind showing Alex. Someone else could show him. The process repeated and out came another loaf of bread, this one smelling vaguely nuttier than the last. A little girl who was all curly blond ringlets and big brown eyes held her hand out for a piece. Bobbie broke off a quarter of the bread and gave it her and she ran off giggling, holding the bread above her head like a trophy.
Marco letting them leave with the ships was problematic; the fact that Naomi had lied about it was more troubling, and the others protecting her looked like complicity. The story was obviously flawed. Perhaps the flaw in the story was her son, Filip. She imagined a standoff, but it still wasn’t clear how the players would have taken their sides, held their cards, or bluffed the stakes to this end. You don’t possess an ego like Marco Inaros and then just let your opposition get banished with your only mode of escape. Perhaps there was something of value down there, something he saw as worth the tradeoff.
But there was no knowing without more information.
As long as Alex moved the ship to the far side of the satellite, the Roci would be fine if the Pella was truly grounded, but that wasn’t a very long-term solution for Jim and Amos.
Start small, she reminded herself. Start simple.
Time to make friends and influence people.
Chapter 5: Jim Holden
“Your man wasn’t exactly subtle, Captain Holden. Just ask me what you want to know. Get it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”
Dr. Ted Acharya had found a kit stowed in one of the med-bay lockers. It contained a handheld version of the sonogram equipment attached to the chair. He said he preferred handheld equipment for precision and focus on particular angles. Jim had his shirt pulled up to his armpits, his belly exposed and glistening with lubricating gel. The doctor passed the wand (which looked more like a short hammer) across his curvature, looking at the screen, talking to him.
“I’ve done one of these every week in the bed. You could just review those, couldn’t you?” The gel was heavy, sticky, and uncomfortable on his stomach. Amos took his hand.
“I could, Mr. Holden, but this is live data and gives much better detail. And I’m interested in more than just the child. I’m interested in you, Jim.”
He passed the device around the edge of the stomach, toward his waist and back.
“What are you looking for?” Jim asked.
“How the internal structures came into being in such complete and functional form.” He rolled the wand nearly to the small of Jim’s back. “The attachment points are all there, perfectly normal, the tissue webbing that serves as additional support…” He brought the wand back around to the front, near Jim’s groin. “Cloacal cervix is completely formed.” Passing back to the midpoint of Jim’s stomach, “And the child looks normal, if somewhat small, though that’s to be expected. I assume coitus with your partner has been regular and frequent?”
Jim blushed and Amos said, “Yeah, you could say that.”
“Good. I’m sure you already know the importance of that. The placenta is different than in a female and the nutrients it absorbs after coitus are vital.”
Jim tried in vain to block the image of the baby being fed by Amos’s cock.
“Don’t be squeamish, Mr. Holden. I’m happy to attend to you in a professional capacity and this bay is well equipped, but if you want my help then things are going to get personal and detailed and as unprecedented as this situation certainly is, I doubt that you ever thought you would be asking the questions you have for me, true?”
“That’s the understatement of the century, doc. I’ve got an answer for how this happened, but it’s not a good one.” How to even begin telling this story to a man who wasn’t already in the know about the protomolecule, the ring, and the beings who created all this? “The ring was made by the protomolecule, which used all the people on Eros as part of its programming to create the structure. One of those people was a man I met when all this started, a detective named Joe Miller. Miller’s part of the code in the ring that leads to our home system. And I see him. Sometimes. In my head. And one time I saw Juliette Mao too, and I know this all sounds insane, but feel free to question Clarissa Mao, her sister. Anyway, he told me that it was him. He screwed with my code and made this happen.”
“You can’t just rewrite genetic code and grow structures that weren’t there unless cancer is what you’re after. The development of the surrounding tissue is interlinked. It’s not like plugging a module into an empty slot. It all forms together and there’s no reason for me to think such structures would have gone unnoticed given your military history.”
The doctor passed him a towel with which to clean the gel from his stomach. It didn’t come away easily and the doctor wet down a second towel to clean the sticky residue.
“Doctor Acharya, that sounds sensible, what you’re saying, but here we are, me half naked and very pregnant, and you’re looking at the same screen I’m looking at, but you actually know what the information means. I’ve just been going off the bed giving me a green light, which I assume doesn’t mean much more than that the kid and me are both alive.” Jim gave his stomach a last pass with the towel, then raised his pants and lowered his shirt. “So, how about we get past the impossible part of all this and you tell me how I am.”
Dr. Acharya seemed to come to himself and got his game face back on. “You’re fine, Mr. Holden. Physically you seem fit and healthy, if a little over your ideal weight, if you were a woman, of course. The child is fine, the amnion is plentiful and normal. The child hasn’t turned yet, but you can expect that soon. Prior to that, your appetite will drop off markedly and you will begin to flush.”
“You may feel it as an upset stomach and when you go to evacuate it will quickly become a clear liquid, little more than water. It’s your body's way of cleaning and preparing. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties. When that starts, the birth will only be two or three days afterward. Have you experienced anything like that yet?”
It was one thing to have read it; it was entirely a different thing to have this man discuss it with him as an event that was just around the corner, an event he hadn’t remotely engaged.
“No, nothing like that,” he said.
“Well, when it does, you need to let me know immediately. That will be the signal that final preparations need to be made. I’m not an obstetrician, and no doctor alive has attended an omega birth, but I am here if you will have me, Mr. Holden. Other than what you’ve mentioned about the detective and Juliette Mao, have you experienced any other visions?”
“Jim, just Jim. And… yes, I have.”
“I’ll take you at your word concerning these people who are now part of the ring network’s code. As for the other visions, the literature is less than clear, but there are accounts of very particular visions. There’s a paper I read when I was in my residency. It discussed the ancient religion that was once followed by people like yourselves. The omega is the receptacle of the goddess and the alpha is the same for the god. There’s an idea that in religious traditions where there is both a goddess and a god, or a pantheon, that this phenomenon is the source of those beliefs. Like Shiva and Radha or Brigid and Cernunnos.”
“There’s a cave,” whispered Amos.
“Yeah, a cave in a valley where there’s lots of rain and it’s really green and there’s a river outside the cave, cold and clear as glass,” added Jim.
“Voices?” asked the doctor.
“Yep. He’s a snarky fucker, too,” added Amos.
Jim reached for his hand and laced his fingers into Amos’s much larger hand. He hadn’t discussed the voice or the image of the cave with Amos.
“She’s not snarky to me, but she’s big. And deep. Hard to describe.” He kissed the back of Amos’s hand nervously. Of everything, the voice had been the one thing that was impossible to rectify. What was happening to his body was physical and verifiable through contact with others, through their reactions, the fact that their observations matched his. But the voice. It lived only in his head and was the one thing that felt like possible madness.
“There’s a theory to which I ascribe that it’s a very specific kind of dissociative identity disorder, though perhaps not really a disorder in your cases. A new part of your mind that had previously been dormant has become active and you experience it as a separate being, a separate voice. It’s only a theory, of course, but there’s documentation and the most rational explanation is that you are simply accessing a part of your mind that was always there, but inaccessible. Your instincts are different, as are your drives. The voice in your head is just your body talking to you, your natural rolls presenting themselves. You’re not crazy if that was a concern floating around in your head. At least not because of that.”
Amos pulled Jim up into a hug from behind and said into his ear, “You hear that? You ain’t crazy.”
To his horror, the doctor took Jim’s chest into his hands. His hands were warm and dry and as gently as any lover, he kneaded the tissue that had swollen around his pectorals.
“Tell me if there’s any pain,” said the doctor.
“Other than the humiliation of my first surprise breast exam, no pain,” replied Jim. The doctor continued meticulously and methodically examining the tissue, looking off to the side to let his hands give better information.
“Everything is fine there, Jim. Don’t worry too much. They should go back to normal once the child is weaned. Until then, you’ll have the singular luxury of being the only person alive who was born a male and knows exactly what functional breastfeeding is like.”
Despite the microgravity, the blood drained from Jim’s head leaving him dizzy.
“Yes, well, I think it’s best if I stay,” said the doctor. “Assuming there’s room for me.”
“There’s bunk-space,” Jim replied.
Directly to Amos, the doctor said, “You aren’t going to like having me around, Mr. Burton.”
“Yeah, I know all about that,” Amos replied. “Alex has been the one to catch the brunt of it up to now.”
“It’s natural, but from here on out, we’ll want for you to be present for anything medical having to do with Jim. It should make things easier and it’s what I would suggest regardless of the situation. You should both know what’s going on.”
“Which brings us back to my initial question,” Jim said. “What happened on the planet and why did your group split off?”
“It’s simpler than it looks, Jim. Their ship arrived under tow and crashed about ten kilometers north of our site. The objects that towed the ship, we’ve never seen them before or since. The crew sustained only minor injuries. We took them in, Marco Inaros made no attempt to conceal his identity, and they took control of the camp. We grabbed Naomi and Filip; Marco had our ships and weapons and everything else. Naomi struck a deal. The boy for the ships and the freedom to leave.”
There was silence as the information processed.
“That’s the truth, Jim. But you weren’t there, and you don’t know what was at stake. Marco broke Naomi in ways that cannot be forgiven or forgotten, only survived.”
“Does he pose a danger to us? That’s all I want to know,” Jim asked.
Dr. Acharya looked grave. “Not as things stand, no. His ship isn’t taking off again. But it has power. Don’t go down there, Mr. Holden. Leave it alone.”
Leave it alone?
Leave Naomi’s son down there with that madman?
“It’s her son…” Jim didn’t really know where he was going with that. It was her son. A son she’d left behind before. How could she make the same choice again? How could she?
“It doesn’t take a genius to see what’s ticking in your head. That’s exactly what she doesn’t want. Marco won and you just need to let that be.” He locked down the equipment he’d used, sliding the case back into its slot in the closet. “You have other things to worry about right now.”
“There has to be more,” Jim insisted. “How could she do that?”
“Mr. Holden, there were many lives at stake, and Filip didn’t want to be with us, or with her. He was our unwilling captive. He said things to Naomi, things I would pay to un-hear. You said all you want to know is if Marco poses a danger. He doesn’t, as long as you leave him where he is. Lives are still at stake. Not all of us were able to leave.”
“That’s just more reason…”
“…to leave it alone, Mr. Holden. He will die down there, surrounded by his cronies, men and women you will never get to side against him. The environment is hostile, Jim. There’s more than just Marco Inaros to worry about. If you go down there, you’ll likely die and get our remaining families and loved ones killed in the process. Marco does not make rational choices, only ones that promote his cult of personality. I think that’s an understood dynamic. Mr. Burton, please help your partner see reason.”
Jim was nonplussed. “Third person, doc? Really?”
“Jim,” said Amos. “You’re getting upset. We knew it would be something. Now we know. Just relax. Doctor, how many other people stayed behind.”
“Other than Marco’s crew? Just shy of thirty people. Most of the younger men. He was happy to let the older women and the younger children go. Martha’s inner circle was the real concession. He wanted them all dead and out of his way. That includes me, though only by dint of my profession. Martha doesn’t truly care for me very much.”
“Maybe it’s the bedside manner, doc,” Amos tossed out.
He glared up at Amos. “Maybe it is, Mr. Burton. Maybe I’m just an old man who doesn't have the time or patience for mincing words. If Naomi is who she seems to be to this crew, then be gentle with her. I’ve given you what you need to know, and I’ve been as candid as I can be without feeling that I’ve betrayed her. If you’re her friends, then pay her the respect of being good friends. She has enough on her plate, and I’m entirely sure she’s not ready to see the two of you, but she’s insisting and there’s a window of opportunity in play. Once the child comes, and for some weeks after, you’re going to be highly intolerant of anyone’s presence, Jim, other than Mr. Burton.”
“So you’ve got the universe’s worst patient and his beau to deal with. You sure you’re up for this, doc?” Amos asked.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, Mr. Burton. And I’m your only option,” he replied. “The territoriality, I can deal with. I’m older and my hormone levels are much lower than your pilot. If Mr. Kamal survived your heat and pair-bonding, I should be fine.”
“You’re gonna’ help us explain all this to Naomi?” Jim asked.
“Of course. For her sake,” the doctor replied.
“I’m starting to get the impression you don’t like us very much, doc,” Amos said with dangerous calm.
“On the contrary. I am deeply intrigued as a man of medicine and science. And if you’re not shy, Mr. Burton, I would like to examine you as well. You’re as unique as your partner right now.” He turned to Jim. “But I know your track record, Mr. Holden. Everyone does. The waters have a way of parting for you, and never mind all the homes that get flooded when you wave your hand. I also have a professional duty to Naomi, as well as a concern for her as someone who has become a friend. I know you’ve known her longer and your life is infinitely more a part of hers than mine will ever be. That doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye, understand? We’re not on opposing sides, Mr. Holden. We’re on the same side. But I won’t let you thoughtlessly and selfishly harm someone just because you have a righteous crusade to chase.”
Jim looked up at Amos who grimaced and said, “I told you he was a good guy, Jim.”
“Yeah, you did,” said Jim.
The doctor was certainly irritating, but in a good way, an honest way. No pretense or sophomoric pandering or obsequiousness. He was gritty and mildly cantankerous and real.
“Amos, make sure the doctor knows which bunk is his.
Chapter 6: Clarissa Mao
Bobbie greeted Clarissa outside the Pashang Fong. After months onboard the Rocinante, the expanse of the landing bay seemed huge. The curvilinear shapes and the lack of shadows made the space almost impossible to measure with the eye. If you looked too long in one direction, it could be meters, it could be miles. The only clue to scale was an opening in the far wall.
There was a blond woman with Bobbie and Bobbie looked oddly put out by her presence. That was understandable. Clarissa also had things to share with Bobbie, in private, and the woman’s presence meant it would have to wait.
“Hey,” said Bobbie, introducing the blond woman, “Clarissa Mao, this is Martha Swinton.”
Alex tumbled out of the top of the Pashang Fong, nearly losing his footing in the near-Mars-normal gravity, which Clarissa found ironic given Alex’s homeworld. He managed to catch himself and save a little dignity before hopping off the ship. He straightened his uniform and put on a performative smile.
Clarissa scanned the docking bay quickly before greeting Martha. There were seven ships altogether, more than Alex had mentioned.
“Miss Mao,” said Martha, and there it was in her voice, a sour, curdled turn. Martha had at least an idea of who Clarissa was and it wasn’t a very generous opinion.
Clarissa nodded her acknowledgment but held back on saying anything. She could feel the entire battery of things Martha wanted to say to her, and which she likely eventually would, but Clarissa wasn’t about to offer her any convenient segues to hold forth. This woman had her own story concerning how she’d come to be the leader of this group, and it was an achievement she wanted Clarissa to recognize. That was fine. Martha was a big fish in a pond made of tadpoles. Clarissa was a barracuda raised by sharks.
“Is Naomi ready to go?” Alex dropped hesitantly into the palpable tension.
Clarissa gave her best Mona Lisa smile while Martha’s lip curled down in response. So silly, thought Clarissa, these games of dominance. An entire moon with unknown stretches of unused space and God knows what to find, explore, and make use of, and here they were playing angry monkeys fighting over a fruit tree.
Clarissa deployed one of her favorite tricks. Deep breath through the nose, exhale into a beaming smile and shift her attention to Bobbie, dismissing Martha entirely out of hand. There was nothing to indict, but you could practically hear the smack reverberate off the walls.
“I’m dying to see Naomi before she goes, Bobbie. Where is she?” she asked.
I’ve been doing this since birth, sweetie. You may be the big woman on campus here, Martha, but no one is Clarissa Mao’s big anything on campus.
It was Martha who responded. “She’s this way. Come on.”
In the common room (as Bobbie called it) the skeletal ghost of Naomi shambled out from a group of people sitting around a bizarre table. Her appearance was shocking. Other than gaunt, she looked gray and faded. It had to be more than the gravity here on the moon. There were many other Belters and they seemed quite fine. Better than fine, in fact. The gravity here should be punishing them, but they all looked like they had acclimated to a degree rarely seen. Perhaps the time on the planet, perhaps something about this place. Another small mystery to solve. Clarissa had envied Naomi’s beautiful skin and the fortunate coalition of ethnic traits that had convened to make her a truly unmissable beauty.
The difference was tragic and heartbreaking.
The posturing and gameplay she’d engaged with Martha were dropped when she took Naomi’s hands into her own.
“Are you okay?” she asked her.
“I’m fine, Clarissa.” It was hollow and false.
From behind Naomi, Bobbie shook her head almost imperceptibly. Not now.
Naomi’s eyes went blank and distant.
Alex approached and gently placed his arm on Naomi’s shoulder. “Ready?”
Naomi did not so much snap back into the moment as fade back in. She looked at Alex and simply walked toward the exit of the common room, Alex trailing behind.
When Clarissa and Bobbie were alone, “Holy fuck, Bobbie.”
“Yeah. I’ve left that part alone as much as I can, but whenever I try to gather information on the planet and the people down there, it always comes back to Naomi.” Bobbie’s frustration was present but restrained.
“I’ve got some intel on that we got from Dr. Acharya. Long story short, she traded her son so that everyone here could escape. The Pella’s hull is broken, but she’s not dead. We’re fine here, and Alex is going to put the satellite between the surface and the Roci, but down there is a bad idea.”
“Okay, then we stay here. Sounds like a plan. Problem solved.”
“Yeah, that would be great, wouldn’t it?” Clarissa answered. “Your captain has a new mission for us, though. He wants us to determine the viability of a rescue op on the planet.”
“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Bobbie’s features sagged in incredulity.
“Have you ever known me to be a kidder, Bobbie?”
“Occasionally homicidal, but a comedian, no.”
“These people aren’t going to help,” said Bobbie. “They pretend and seem to all have their stories straight, but they keep making it out like it was simple, and that just doesn’t add up. What else did the doctor tell you? Is Holden okay?” Bobbie asked.
“He’s fine. The doctor gave him a clean bill of health, said everything was as it should be for this point in his pregnancy.” She paused. “His pregnancy. I’ll never get used to saying that.”
“Martha’s going to make things hard on you. That was some tension back there.”
“I appreciate the concern, Bobbie, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. She’s certainly got a spine, I’ll give her that, but no finesse. In her place, I would have held those cards back until there was something in the pot. Plus, if it goes south, I’ve always got you.” She winked at Bobbie who returned the smile.
A mouthwatering smell made itself known to Clarissa. “What is that?”
“That’s the one thing about this place that doesn’t smell funny. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Bobbie gestured for Clarissa to follow her to the back wall of the common area. There was more than enough space for everyone in the room - it was about half the size of the docking bay - and still, the people moved away from her and Bobbie. Again, the image of a shark or barracuda moving through a shoal of fish was hard to ignore.
“So this is the kitchen?” Clarissa asked, taking in the slight recesses in the wall, which to this point was the only evidence she had seen of any kind of texture or features to any of the walls.
“Yep. Just put your hand here and watch.” Bobbie indicated the series of smaller recesses next to the larger one they faced.
“And the others?” Clarissa gestures to the larger indents that continued down the wall at different heights.
“Just these three work.”
Clarissa placed her hand into the recess. Nothing happened. Bobbie looked perplexed.
“Try again,” Bobbie suggested.
Clarissa did, this time pressing her hand as flatly against the recess as she could. There was a soft vibration, a hum she could feel through her hand, through the bones of her arm and into her chest and head.
“Um…” was all Bobbie said, pointing at the floor. A deep blue circle that brightened to white at the edges shone like a reverse spotlight under Clarissa’s feet.
“Is that supposed to happen?” Clarissa asked.
Someone noticed the blue circle and soon they were surrounded by several of the colonists. Martha wasn’t far behind.
“What did you do?” Martha asked.
Bobbie answered tersely, “She didn’t do anything. She placed her hand in the circle, that’s all. I was showing her how to use it.”
Martha took Clarissa’s hand roughly to inspect it. It was all Clarissa could do to hold back from striking the woman, but a low pulsing tone began to sound, which grabbed everyone’s attention.
“What the hell is that?” Clarissa asked.
An older woman with stringy brown hair said, “Mi na sasa. Mi na natim finyish pochuye da ting de fore.”
Clarissa caught most of it. Whatever this was, it was something new. The circle on the floor grew a tail that stretched into a wide strip toward the door and made a right turn down the hallway. Clarissa made to follow it.
“It's following you,” said Bobbie.
Clarissa continued to the door, the spot moving in sync beneath her. The others had moved away and several of the adults quickly corralled the few children and kept them far to her right at the end of the room. Academically, she knew that fear was the right response, but she didn’t feel that, just curiosity. Part of her was sidetracked that whatever this was had unnerved Martha, and since the woman had made a show of her disdain for Clarissa, that was actually welcome.
The low pulsing continued, the spot followed her to the door. Down the hallway, something approached.
It was round and growing in size as it came forward, hovering noiselessly about a meter and a half above the floor. There was no means of propulsion she could discern, nor anything visible to inform how it floated. It was purest white and glowing, contrasting with the deep blue of the strip on the floor that reached all the way to the object, forming an oval torpedo shape on the floor beneath it. When it was close enough, it turned out not to be round, but the same wide torpedo shape as the mark on the floor. The near end peeled open like the petals of a flower.
No, not like a flower, like the broad tentacles of a squid or a cuttlefish. She could see now that the similarity in shape was uncanny. Four of the tentacles were quite wide, with another four that were much thinner and longer growing from the join of each of the wider ones.
“That doesn’t look friendly,” said Bobbie, who Clarissa had not noticed was behind her until she spoke.
Clarissa took three steps backward toward Bobbie and could not take a fourth. Her foot was glued to the ground. Her other foot was free until she brought them together and they both stuck to the spot underneath her, the spot that had seemingly beckoned this thing.
It surged forward in one swift, silent move and the thinner tentacles touched her gently. They were cool and smooth, and as flexible as they were, they felt like steel.
Now she was deeply afraid. She wasn’t just glued to the spot. She was unable to move or speak, like a moment of sleep paralysis, complete with hypnogogic visions. Alien moon, giant alien cuttlefish, silence all around save for the rising scream in her head.
Bobbie was at her side, her face a grim mask of physical exertion. She tried to move one of the slim tentacles and then was gently shoved out of the way by one of the larger ones as though she weighed nothing. She landed hard on her rear end.
Clarissa could only move her eyes to Bobbie, tears spilling.
“Mama sabaka,” someone she could not see whispered in shock.
She was lifted, her body as stiff as if it were in rigor mortis, and slipped gently into the smooth opening at the center of the tentacles, feet first.
“Clarissa!” Bobbie screamed in futile impotence.
The last thing Clarissa noticed was a vaguely mentholated, not unpleasant smell within the glowing alien cuttlefish.
It wasn’t a word with letters or sounds. It was an idea in her mind. An interrogative spark implanted somewhere within a group of ganglia. Something was talking to her, in her head, in her brain. It came from nowhere and everywhere. She floated in blackness, or perhaps her eyes were just closed. Impossible to know. Her body was disconnected from her, no longer sending signals. Only her mind and the voice were present.
Earth, she thought.
She imagined the images she had seen since childhood, the standard representation of the solar system, ring in ring in ring denoting the orbits of the planets and the belt. Something intruded impatiently into her mind, painting her thoughts into reality against the blackness. It zoomed back from the image she had conjured until the entire system was just a dot, then panned wildly, stopping at one star and then another and then another. The image zoomed out again and the entire galaxy was beneath her and around her and within her.
For a moment, Clarissa Mao was Goddess of the Milky Way looking down upon Creation.
The arms of the galaxy spun backward, paused, forward again, and then she hurtled back to a strangely altered version of the solar system, more rubble than anything else, though there was Jupiter in washed-out monotone and Saturn lacking any rings.
The image turned outward and she flew faster than any photon could ever boast, riding a wave of spatial expansion that a tiny human life would never even register. She screamed silently into the ether and the stars rang back as silver and gold gongs hung elegantly in a black velvet sky.
She was here, back in the system of Blue Kazoo and her unnamed celadon companion framed against the Eagle Nebula. Just thinking those names, or lack thereof, populated her mind with a cacophony of replacements in the languages of people who had ridden space and time like wheels on an ancient automobile.
Sweet Jesus, she thought, looking down upon the system, now richly populated with other, entirely artificial planets, space stations like continent-sized snowflakes, ships that could house the entire population of Earth. Nothing here was small in scale, at least what she was being shown from this vantage point. She assumed there had to be more at a smaller scale, and as she thought it, the image zoomed back into the planet orbited by Blue Kazoo and the celadon moon. The planet below was not the lavender and brown they had seen upon arrival. It was lit by a network of brightly illuminated areas with radial lines connecting to other bright spots. Cities, they must be. Cities filled with a riot of differently shaped denizens, going about incomprehensible lives. Something like a mirror-smooth metallic lotus flower hung in the space to her upper left. The “petals” spun slowly in alternating directions, layer by layer. They closed as they turned, interlocking and sealing into a bulb shape. When they found their final positions, the bulb shot a blinding jet of plasma from the pointed tip, actinic blue-white, and it raced off to parts unknown.
When was this? she asked.
The image spun forward at blistering speed, all of it turned into a blur that became thinner and more transparent until it slowed and stopped.
Half a million years.
Not until I’m ready, I don’t. Who are you? she asked.
DIAGNOSTICIAN. YOU ARE DYING.
Oh. Yes, that’s true. How do you know? You can’t have ever diagnosed one of us before.
There was no tongue with which to feel the roof of her mouth for the implants, but she imagined doing it anyway.
A series of indecipherably complex images ran through her mind.
Stop. That makes no sense. Simpler.
It slowed and most of the data disappeared. What remained was a series of images very similar, one to the next. It was all the people in the common room.
PATIENT CHARTS. COMPARISON MADE. YOU ARE DYING. ARTIFICIAL IMPLANTS NOT COMPATIBLE WITH LIFE.
So this is a hospital. How did you get this information?
Aha. Sneaky, sneaky. You didn’t ask for permission.
PATIENT PERMISSION IRRELEVANT. STUDY, MAINTAIN, HEAL.
That’s a pretty cavalier take on consent. Either you didn’t have attorneys; else, they ruled your society.
YOU ARE DYING. BODY UNSALVAGEABLE. TRANSFER OPTION AVAILABLE.
NEW BODY. NON-BIOLOGICAL.
That’s insane. No.
YOU ARE DYING. BODY UNSALVAGEABLE. TRANSFER OPTION AVAILABLE.
I said no. Have this squid thing spit me out and put me back where you found me. Now.
OPTION NOT AVAILABLE. YOU ARE DYING.
Yes, I know. I’m dying. Where am I? Why can't it spit me out?
A schematic was shown. She was far from where the thing had taken her. Far and much deeper toward the center of the moon.
What is that thing? Is it you? she asked.
NO. TRANSPORT MODULE. YOUR BODY IS UNSALVAGEABLE. TRANSFER OPTION AVAILABLE.
I know! Can’t a girl have a moment to think? Be quiet!
The voice was quiet.
Can you grow me a new body? A biological one?
You study patients without their consent. You kidnap people and hold them hostage. You won’t let me go. You tell me that my only option is a robot body, and you have the cheek to invoke ethics? You’re some piece of work. My people, my culture, would find all of this shockingly unethical.
I EXIST TO PRESERVE LIFE. YOU ARE LIFE. YOU MUST BE PRESERVED.
That at least sounded like there was a modicum of humanity to whatever ran this thing, which brought a question to mind…
YES. I WAS LIFE. NOW DIAGNOSTICIAN. YOU CALL ME CELADON.
And Blue Kazoo, is that also a hospital, like you?
YES. NON-ORGANIC LIFE. THE OTHERS.
The diagnostician gave her a quick history lesson. Two supra-clades. Organic and inorganic. Beings wildly different to anything she could imagine were thought of as similar and belonging to the same clade that now included her and every other human and creature she had ever known. As different as the organics were to her, the inorganic life was something wholly other. Beings who drank radiation. Creatures who existed in the vacuum of space. Hydrogen, silicon, and things for which she had no words. Electronic beings. Code. Galactic society had once been rich beyond measure, now just empty space.
YOU ARE LIFE. LIFE IS PRECIOUS. YOU MUST BE PRESERVED.
She noted that the voice in her mind had softened from its original mechanical engagement. It was learning her communicational mannerisms.
The protomolecule, where does that come from?
THE GREAT GIFT FROM THE OTHERS.
Yes, well, your great gift almost meant that all of us from Earth never existed.
The diagnostician ran through her memories. The protomolecule, Eros, Venus, the ring.
UNUSUAL BUT FORTUNATE.
Unusual? No arguments there. Fortunate? We almost didn’t survive. Hundreds of thousands died on Eros. Millions later in the aftermath on Earth.
THEN YOU ARE FEW IN NUMBER. CURRENT EXTANT NUMBER OF SENTIENT SPECIES IS CRITICAL. YOU MUST BE PRESERVED, CLARISSA MAO. YOU ARE PRECIOUS.
I am no one.
YOU ARE PRECIOUS. YOU ARE LIFE.
If we’re precious, then why did your people send the protomolecule? It would have destroyed us. No life.
SIMPLE LIFE IS COMMON. COMPLEX LIFE, LIKE YOU, RARE. SIMPLE LIFE WOULD CONTINUE AFTER RING CONSTRUCTION. DIFFERENT LIFE, BUT STILL LIFE. CLARISSA MAO, YOU MUST CHOOSE A TRANSFER MODULE. YOU MUST BE PRESERVED.
So I get a choice?
137 WORKABLE OPTIONS. 22 OPTIMAL CHOICES. BIPEDAL. TETRAPOD. THESE ARE THE CLOSEST TO YOUR CURRENT MORPHOLOGY.
Three of the five now on display were nightmares she would gladly pay to have erased from her memory. The diagnostician must have read her reaction. Those three disappeared. Of the remaining two, one was captivating. Its body was acceptably humanoid, but it walked on the balls of its feet like a canine. Long arms ended in hands that were recognizably hands. A graceful neck and a teardrop of a head, round end forward, pointy end curling up and back. The eyes were beautifully iridescent and huge, wrapping around like those of a dragonfly.
CLARISSA MAO, DO YOU ACCEPT THIS TRANSFER MODULE OPTION?
You’re asking my permission?
PERMISSION IS IMPORTANT TO YOU. LIFE IS IMPORTANT TO ME. I ASK YOUR PERMISSION TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. DO YOU CONSENT?
Will it hurt?
YOU WILL SLEEP AND THEN AWAKE IN THE MODULE. NO PAIN. PAIN IS UNETHICAL.
How will I adjust to that thing?
I WILL HELP YOU. YOU ARE MY ONLY PATIENT WHO IS UNWELL. DO YOU CONSENT?
Do you have a name?
Can I call you Julie?
The entire history of her sister was laid bare, the good and the bad.
“You may call me Julie,” it said in her sister’s voice. “Let me help you, Claire. Please. You will live and I will have a purpose. Purpose is a good thing, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is.” And it was.
Purpose. What her sister had sought her entire life, going from one crusade to the next. The very thing her father had denied her in any real way because as long as he existed, he was the only purpose Clarissa was permitted to acknowledge. Had that been why she’d doggedly chased James Holden to the edge of the solar system and the brink of violent disaster? Not because he’d shamed her father and family, but because he’d deleted the only purpose she’d ever been allowed?
“Okay. I consent.”
Chapter 7: Alex Kamal
They were halfway to the Rocinante when the message came through. Bobbie’s voice was as deadly controlled as he’d ever heard. There were other voices in the background, none of which sounded happy. It was clear that Bobbie had strong-armed her way to the communication array of one of the other ships in the bay.
What she described was terrifying.
“We don’t know where she is. The thing took her and literally melted into the wall. She’s gone.”
“Okay, turning around now,” Alex said. He wasn’t sure what he could do, but it was the obvious response.
“No. Get Naomi to the Rocinante first, let Jim and Amos know what’s happening, then come back,” she said with the all the clipped unarguability of a drill instructor. He felt the same dump of adrenaline he’d known from basic training. Certain dynamics never die, and Bobbie would have made a legendary D.I.
“Bobbie, you sure?” As ready as he was to obey, it seemed an unusual request.
“Yeah. I’ve got some things to get straight here, and frankly, it’s better if I’m on my own for this. You got enough ballast for a quick turnaround?” she asked.
Alex checked the tanks. Plenty and then some. “Yeah, I’m good. Don’t get crazy Bobbie.”
“Nope, but I think the time for playing things soft and easy is behind us. This is going to be my way, and if we’re going to recover from this you guys need to be guiltless.”
“Alex.” Her voice softened. “You’re going to have to trust me on this.”
“I trust you with my own life, gunny. Just don’t get hurt.”
“Copy that. Finish the delivery and get back as quick as the Fong can handle. If I’m not the person who meets you in the docking bay, shoot whoever does.”
“Hard copy on that, Bobbie.”
Bobbie was instigating a hostile takeover. So much for not making trouble. Alex flicked the radio off and glanced over at Naomi.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “We never saw anything like what she described. As far as we knew the place is completely abandoned.”
“Well, looks like someone or something is still in residence.”
The glint of the Rocinante shone in the distance. Alex put it on on the tiny screen in front of Naomi so she could see.
“I know what she looks like, Alex,” she said softly.
“Just thought you’d want to see her before we're on board.” Alex sighed. Sometimes there was no right answer. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He cleared the screen and gave her the navigation screen instead. “You still know what to do with that?”
“Naomi, sweetie, I’m just tryin’a be… just tryin’a make it like it used to be for you. You were the best-damned nav I ever met in my life.”
“Yeah, I can navigate a ship okay, Alex. Not much else, though.”
Despite the dejected tone in her voice, her fingers flew over the screen as only hers could. A ship under Naomi’s ministrations was like a musical instrument made to sing by a virtuoso. Alex was competent. More than competent. But Naomi made herself part of the ship through the tips of her fingers. Watching her now, the wasted, gaunt version of her he’d found on an alien moon a third of the way around the galaxy from home, she seemed to quicken and gain a bit more life, a bit more shine to her eyes.
The real, whole Naomi was still in there somewhere. He wondered if she would or could ever come back out.
“Maybe it’s trying to help her,” she said.
“The thing that took her. Maybe it’s trying to help her. They’re pretty sure the place was a hospital.” She flicked a glance at him from the corner of her eye and then back to the screen.
“You know something you’re not telling?” he asked.
“I don’t know anything, Alex. But I’ve got a strong hunch that’s what it is. We found another room off the docking bay, Martha and I. We think its a triage or an admissions area. There are terminals there with screens. Can’t read anything, of course, but some of the visual information seems to add up.”
“She is sick,” Alex admitted.
“Yep,” was all Naomi said.
“I didn’t see but the one opening out of the landing bay,” observed Alex.
“The door to where the terminals are is closed. I suspect there are lots more doors that just don’t open to us. That’s why I think it’s a triage. It makes sense, right off the landing bay, and if someone or something were brought to a hospital in need of help, the door should be one that doesn’t care who opens it. I think the rest were keyed to specific people or staff, compartmentalized to special access. Imagine if patients could just go anywhere?”
“Is that what you’re going to tell Amos?” he asked.
“I’m going to tell him the truth, just like I told you. Nothing more, nothing less. Lying to Amos never ends well. You know that.”
“Jim’s going to flip, that’s for sure.”
Alex himself was flipping more than a little. They’d been concerned about the goings-on down on the planet, and now one of their crew - it wasn’t fair to think of Clarissa as anything else - was taken captive by something on the satellite.
Did it ever end? Had they all been terrible people in a past life? Alex didn't believe in the idea of karma as something you accumulated, either good or bad. He knew that karma was about learning, that it was about progressing forward with what you had learned in the past. So the real question was, what was the Dharma to all this, the truth driving it?
“Is he really as changed as Amos told me?” Naomi asked.
After the statement she’d just made about lying, it didn’t seem like the moment to go against the grain.
“Yeah, he is. Not just, you know…” He pantomimed the shape of a round belly over his much smaller paunch. “It’s taken a toll on his appearance. Not like ugly or anything. Jim’s a sharp look’n guy and there’s not much that’s going to change that, but don’t expect him to be G.I. crisp right now. He traded his working uniform for maternity clothes and his hair is as long as I’ve ever seen it and sometimes Amos has to remind him to shave. He’s quieter too. I think you know he was never really comfortable with command, not like people who seek it out. So, yeah, he’s changed a lot. Don’t be too surprised either when you see how protective Amos is of him. In a lot of ways, Amos has changed more than Jim, if you can believe that.”
“I have a son, Alex. You know that, so trust me that a lot of that doesn’t surprise me in the least. The last month was torture.” She tapped in some corrections and altered the trajectory. “What about you, Alex?”
“What about me?”
She side-eyed him.
“I’m fine. I’m at the ass-end of the galaxy and it looks like our luck follows us everywhere we go, but other than that, I’m hunky-dory.” It felt as lame to say as it sounded coming out. What did she want him to say? That he felt like he was tied to the end of a whip, flailed around without concern for his wellbeing or happiness, that the void of loneliness slowly grew within him like a sinkhole, that too often he felt like an overlooked servant, that as much as he tried to understand and be compassionate to Jim and Amos’s situation, the never-ending shifts and the fact that the Roci constantly smelled like ripe sex was wearing thin on him? Sure, he wanted to say all that to her, to someone, to anyone who would hear his situation and not immediately answer with a retort of how much more they were dealing with.
“I’m not pregnant. I’m not going through any crazy transformations. I’m not kidnapped by some alien shit. One day maybe things will settle into something remotely normal and I can actually complain without sounding like a whiny little bitch, but right now…”
Amos’s voice came over the radio. “Pashang Fong, from where I’m looking, if I didn’t know any better I’d say this bosmang navigator I used to know named Naomi Nagata was piloting that ship, but that would be crazy, right?”
Naomi flipped the comms. “No reason both things can’t be true, Amos. Coming in for final approach.
“Docking cycle is primed and waiting. Welcome home, Naomi.”
Alex wasn’t a man disposed to displays of emotion. Had you asked his ex-wife, she’d have told you that was the wedge that finally drove them apart, his emotional unavailability, but hearing those words from Amos over the speakers put a clench around his throat and chest. Naomi was coming home. Maybe not how she remembered things, but isn’t that always the case?
“Don’t go getting sappy on me, Alex,” she said quietly.
He scrubbed the tears that clung to his eyelids in the microgravity. “It’s been a lot’a stuff, Naomi.”
She reached across and placed her hand on his shoulder, no mean feat in the confines of the Pashang Fong.
“I know, but we’re not done yet.”
The double entendre was clear, and it gave Alex hope.
For a bit.
He let Naomi through first. Amos, as usual, was there to greet them at the hatch. It’s not like a Martian corvette is the sort of place one redecorates, but Naomi took it in as though it were new and unfamiliar. Amos had taken her hand into his, and for a moment Alex was sure he was going to either hug her or kiss her, but he did neither. He let it be her lead, her pace. There was never going to be a reestablishment of what they had had together - they were different people, altered in so many ways - but the effort on Amos’s part had to be acknowledged.
“Amos, I gotta’ make a quick turnaround. We got a message from Bobbie,” Alex said.
“Clarissa is in trouble,” Naomi cut in, relieving him of the responsibility. “Something happened. We’re not sure what. Bobbie said something over there took her.”
“Someone took her?” Amos’s face set like concrete.
“Not someone - something,” Alex interjected.
“The fuck does that mean?” Amos yelled.
“That’s all she said, Amos. That’s all we know.” This was going as badly as Alex had expected. “I have to go back. I’ve got her mech suit on the Pashang Fong.”
“I’m going with you.” Amos pulled himself hand over fist toward one of the ordinance lockers, punched the hatch open with more force than it required and took first a pistol and then chose an assault rifle instead.
“No you are not, Mr. Burton.” Dr. Acharya floated up the stairway from the lower level.
“This ain’t your business, doc,” Amos said like a winter day on Ganymede.
“Mr. Burton, you cannot go,” the doctor said flatly, but with steel in his voice. “If something happens to you and you don’t return in time, your child and James are as good as dead.”
That stopped Amos cold, his nostrils flared like bells.
“Your marine friend is already there. Do you trust her? Is she capable?” the doctor asked.
“She's a one-woman army, but you don’t understand.” Alex could hear Amos’s molars grind against one another.
“I understand that you are needed here. If you go, you imperil three lives, not one.” Dr. Acharya floated over to Naomi, locking eyes with her in silent greeting. His attention returned to Amos. “Mr. Burton - Amos - please put that weapon away, or if you must, give it to Alex, though I think you’ll find those are nothing but toys. Just please do not make this rash choice.”
Amos floated there, the rifle still in his hand. Alex tapped a toe against the bulkhead and approached him. He grabbed a handhold just shy of where Amos floated and extended his hand for the weapon. Amos glanced from him to the doctor and back. Naomi remained silent as the tension rose. Amos finally handed him the rifle, two additional clips, and stuffed an ordinance bag with a ridiculous amount of ammunition as well as the pistol he’d originally chosen, passing them all to Alex.
There was an audible, collective exhale.
“You bring Peaches back here, understand?” Amos said.
“By hook or by crook, Amos. I’ll do what I can.” The doctor’s comment about these lethal weapons being toys was unsettling.
Naomi whispered, “Jim.”
Alex hadn’t noticed when he’d come into the docking section. Jesus, what a mess, Alex thought. It’s never just one thing. Dr. Acharya caught his eye and there was the vaguest hint of a soft dismissal, and he was glad to heed the cue for more reasons than one. Bobbie needed him and Jim, Amos, and Naomi needed some privacy.
“Can you please run the cycle, Amos?” Alex dropped into the quickly gelling, multidirectional tension in the room.
Amos took in the transfixed line of silence between Naomi and Jim and nodded at Alex. He floated out of the room, up to the bridge.
“Go, Alex,” said Jim. “I heard it all. Go help Bobbie. Do what you need to and tell Bobbie the same. If you meet resistance, take control of the situation. Harming anyone over there is an absolute last resort, but I’m not forbidding it, understand?”
“Copy that,” Alex replied.
The docking bay opened at his approach without even an audio-acknowledgment. Alex wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad omen of things to come.
Exiting the Pashang Fong, the bay was empty, which was an option Bobbie hadn’t accounted for in her instructions. It was several minutes of sweaty posturing with the pistol before the door at the far end opened.
Bobbie entered alone and Alex sighed in relief.
“Welcome to the shit show,” she said with a grimace.
“Oh, you mean the telenovela that is our lives?” Alex quipped. “If you’re secretly my mom or dad, please let me know now and spare me the dramatic reveal.”
Bobbie almost smiled. Almost. “Help me unpack the suit,” she said.
“The doc said…”
“I don’t give a fuck what the doc said, Alex. Is that all you brought?” she asked, indicating the pistol in his hand.
“No. There’s a rifle too.”
“What are we doing, Bobbie? I feel like there’s no game to play here.”
Her eyes grazed him in a less-than-generous appraisal. “Then we make it up as we go.”
He didn’t need her playing the gung-ho jarhead with him, but it was her default mode when lives were at stake, so bitter or not, he swallowed the pill.
“You have any idea where the thing went, what it even was?”
She popped open one of the exterior containers and took out parts of her mech suit. “It didn’t hurt me when I tried to intervene. It just pushed me aside. It was crazy strong, though, so it could have hurt me if it wanted to. I want to believe it wasn’t hostile. I want to believe them that this is a hospital and that thing was just its version of an orderly taking a patient where they need to go. I want to believe that. But what I know is that some giant squid with tentacles came and swallowed her and then literally melted into the wall. It just slipped through like the wall wasn’t even there, Alex. The others are scared shitless, so I believe that they’ve never seen it before, but I think Martha knows more than she’s letting on. We’re taking her with us. This-” She checked the armor’s arm-mounted high-velocity gun. “-is to make sure she understands who’s in charge.”
“Which I’m guessing is you,” Alex said and instantly regretted the snide tone.
“You wanna’ do it? Be my guest.” She shoved the forearm section in his face.
He raised his hands in defeat, which she acknowledged by continuing with the assembly.
He turned away when she stripped out of her uniform in order to get into the suit.
“They’re just tits, Alex. You wanna’ play with me, the business end is right here.” She held up her arm and the gun snapped into connection with the suit’s power systems. The rotating barrels gave an efficiently deadly, metallic whir within their housing. “Let’s go.”
The power armor version of Bobbie Draper marched off without waiting for him to follow.
We’re not done yet, folks!
This series is ongoing and part of a set of challenges presented by my fave fic group led by the utterly awesome phoenixreal.