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WIP: The Journeyman - Orphaned Scenes

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Parvati

Parvati was doing her routine daily engine maintenance when she heard voices drifting down to her from the galley above. Max and Aethel, she thought. The conversation seemed to be going fairly well…at first. But then it seemed to Parvati that Aethel’s voice got quieter, while Max’s surely got louder. And angrier.

She had finished her work and was tucking her tools back into the storage locker when she heard Max exclaim, almost shouting in frustration, “Captain, that is heresy!” She immediately climbed the ladder to the galley. Are you going up to stop them from fighting, she asked herself. Or are you going up to watch?

She arrived to find Max sitting at the head of table, his hands pressed flat on its surface framing an open book, glaring at Aethel, who sat off to one side. He was all tense-like, his shoulders bunched up tight, but Aethel looked relaxed. So I can see who has the upper hand here at the moment, no matter what it’s about.

“Uh, ‘mornin’ Aethel, Vicar Max. Have I, ah, interrupted anything?” Parvati sat down at the table, diagonally across from the Captain and at least two paces from Max, just in case he exploded or anything.

Like a pteroray to something that had just died, Felix sauntered into the galley and slipped into a chair at the table across from her, his eyes keen. “Hey, boss,” he said to Aethel. “Couldn’t help but overhearing — sounds like you two are having an, um, interesting parlay.”

“Max is upset that I have brought up Planckian Mechanics,” Aethel told them.

“An heretical notion,” Max muttered.

“What?” Felix sounded baffled.

“It’s a branch of physics that deals with extremely small things. The things that make up atoms,” Aethel said.

“Electrons and whatnot,” Parvati offered, and Aethel nodded.

“So what’s the problem?” Felix asked.

“Standard physics is very good at describing and predicting the behavior of bigger things, like rocks, and for a long time, scientists assumed that the smaller things behave like that, too,” Aethel said. “But it turns out that when you start to actually work with these very small things, they don’t. The same kinds of math you do for rocks doesn’t work — something happens at that small scale, and you have to shift to a whole new form of math to deal with it. This suggests that those very small things are in fact not solid things, like rocks, but something else. But if you’re used to thinking about the universe in terms of solid things — or if your whole worldview depends on it,” she said, looking at Max “ — it’s very difficult to deal with.”

“The universe isn’t solid things?” Felix asked, sounding confused. He poked at the table with an experimental air. “Seems solid to me.”

Max chuckled darkly, but Aethel looked serious. “It’s a good observation,” she said to Felix. “We’re talking about that very small scale, though. At the scale at which we perceive things, things seem solid.”

“'Seem solid'? Things are solid,” Max scoffed. “It’s nonsense to believe otherwise.”

“But the math suggests otherwise,” Aethel said to him.

“It’s incomplete,” Max said, frowning.

“What does the math say?” Parvati interrupted before it could develop into a spat.

Aethel looked at her. “It says that if you are in a situation where something — something on this very small scale, I mean — could be in one state or another, you can find out the odds of those states, but the you can’t make a definitive prediction — the odds are all you get,” she explained. “You have to then make an observation. Then, and only then, do you know what state it’s in.”

“It’s incomplete,” Max repeated, crossing his arms. His frown was now a full-blown glower.

“So what?” Felix said.

“According to the Plan,” Max said stiffly. “All events are predetermined. There simply cannot be a situation, the outcome of which can’t be predicted in advance. The reason why it seems so is because our understanding of the math is incomplete. It’s one of the things that’s holding humanity back from discovering the Equation. What the Captain is talking about is Labor Physics.

Parvati could tell from the way he made his disdain fairly drip from the words, that he held “Labor Physics” to be a bad thing. Which, of course, only made Felix sit up straight, a malevolent gleam in his eyes.

Labor, huh?” Felix said. “Is this some kind of Iconoclast thing? Because if it is,” and with this, he leaned in towards Aethel, radiating hostility in the direction of the ship’s vicar. “I want to learn more.”

“No, you don't, Felix,” Max told him. “It’ll land you in Tartarus.”

“Oh? Then I definitely want to learn more,” Felix snarled.

“I just want to know what it is,” Parvati said quickly.

Aethel held up her hands, capturing Felix and Max’s attention, and then folded them. “Max, you know the history, don’t you?”

Of course he does, thought Parvati.

“Of course I do,” said Max. “Back on Earth, just before the Great War between Labor and Capital, certain lines of scientific inquiry were being pursued by certain disreputable people.” Aethel raised an eyebrow at this, but did not interrupt him, so he continued. “It had already been well accepted and supported that the universe operates on a deterministic model. These people were trying to prove otherwise.”

“Iconoclasts,” said Felix.

“This is well before the birth of Iconoclasm, or even Scientism, Felix,” Max said. But then he said, somewhat grudgingly, “although you’re correct in that these ideas eventually found their way into the thoughts of the people who developed that heresy.”

He took a breath. “At any rate, during the War, the proper kind of physics came be known as ‘Capital Physics’, and this degenerate exploration was called ‘Labor Physics’. It’s a shame that Labor Physics wasn’t entirely stamped out when Capital finally triumphed over Labor. As for this idea, the one about the math of very small things — the Labor Scientist who made the primary discovery hated the idea, as I understand it,” Max said. “Even he knew it was heretical.”

“Erwin Schrödinger,” Aethel supplied. “You’re correct; he didn’t like the implications of what he had figured out. That’s why he came up with his cat-in-the-box thought experiment.”

“I recall it,” Max said. “We learned about it in seminary. It was a cautionary tale.

“Cats?” Parvati said. “You mean like thundercats?”

“Animals from Earth,” Max said. “Not thundercats. Much smaller. But close enough.”

Felix blinked. “You’re telling me that scientists figure out physics by putting these little thundercats in boxes? That’s kind of cool, actually.”

“This doesn’t involve real boxes or real cats, son,” Max said patiently. “It’s just a story to illustrate what it means when the math only gives you probabilities as the answer instead of an actual answer.”

“Okay?” Felix said. He didn’t convinced, but at least sounded like he was willing to go on, and Parvati was pleased, because she was at a loss also.

“Imagine you set up a shielded box,” said Max. “Inside, there’s a very small remote-controlled medallion-tossing mechanical and an N-ray generator.”

“Medallion-tossing mechanical?” Felix asked. “Like to decide who serves the tossball first?”

“Yes, exactly,” Max said. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance as to how the medallion lands. If the medallion lands heads-up, the mechanical triggers the generator to release a lethal N-ray. Tails-up, no N-ray. You put the cat inside, close up the box, and remotely trigger the toss. You have no way of knowing which side the medallion landed on, and subsequently whether or not the mechanical triggered the N-ray, so you have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or not. There’s a 50% chance that it’s alive, and a 50% chance that it’s dead.”

Felix narrowed his eyes — always looking for loopholes, our Felix. And he did. “I’d be able to hear the N-ray cook off or not, wouldn’t I?”

Max sighed and Parvati put a hand over her mouth to stifle a smile. Making him work for it. “Say that the box is soundproofed and laminated so that you can’t hear anything that’s happening inside it and the N-ray can’t leak out,” Max said. “There’s no way to tell what’s going on inside the box from outside of it.”

“Okay, I suppose,” said Felix.

“Why would anyone want to kill a cat like that?” Parvati asked, unsettled.

“The cat isn’t real, Parvati. It’s just a thought experiment,” Max replied.

“Well, even if they’re in my thoughts, I don’t like the idea of killing cats,” Parvati said firmly.

Aethel spoke up, gently interjecting. “In the early 21st Century, a scientist named Elder—ah, Doctor Carroll postulated another version, using a sedative instead of something lethal. So the cat is either asleep or awake.”

Parvati smiled. “I like that much better.”

“Won’t the cat try to get out of the box?” Felix asked Aethel. “And it’s a thundercat. There’s no way you’re keeping a thundercat in a box if it doesn’t want to be there. Just how big is this box?”

“Maybe it’s a teacup thundercat?” Parvati said.

Aethel nodded. “That’ll work. And Felix, you yourself said that thundercats love boxes. Let’s pretend this is the cat’s most favorite box and it likes to be in there.”

“Okay, I can do that.”

“Let’s put a comfy blanket in the box,” Parvati suggested.

Max pinched the bridge of his nose with an expression that made it clear that this conversational sidebar was literally painful to him. “The point is that you won’t actually know what happened with the cat until you open the box. Until you open the box, the best the math can do for you is say that the cat is dead — all right! All right!” He held off his hands to stave off Parvati’s protest. “Asleep — and al..awake at the same time: in two states simultaneously. It’s only when you open the box that you discover which state it’s in. The math implies that it’s the act of opening the box that causes the cat’s two states to settle into one or the other.”

Parvati squinted thoughtfully. “So it’s you opening the box that makes the cat either asleep or awake?”

Max settled back with that satisfied air that told her he was about to start pontificating about the superiority of Scientism.

She was not wrong. “That is the mystical, Philosophist interpretation,” he told her smugly. “That there’s something special about animal consciousness that can affect the universe somehow, that it’s the act of observation that determines the result. Scientism knows this is ridiculous. The thought experiment simply demonstrates that our understanding of the Plan is not complete, that we don’t fully understand the Equation. Once we do, we’ll be able to accurately predict what happened to the cat without needing to open the box.”

Parvati looked to Aethel, saw that Felix was also looking to Aethel and, out of the corner of her eye, saw that Max was seeing them both looking to Aethel; the muscles at the corners of his jaw abruptly stood out in sharp relief.

“That is the mainstream interpretation, yes,” Aethel said, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Max’s face went both stony and pinched at the same time, the same way it always did when he knew Aethel was about to say something out of line with Scientism, something that Parvati knew would be wild and wonderful and that both she and Felix would love, even if they didn’t get it, because it would drive Max crazy. She could see the struggle in his face — all he has to do is keep his mouth shut.

But this was Max. “You have another?” He asked Aethel tightly. “What do you think the math implies?”

Aethel smiled. “There are two cats.”

Max’s eyes widened and his face flushed as if he’d just been punched in his nose. Parvati could see several veins in his head and neck start to throb. “I’ve no idea where you’re going with this, but it’s utter nonsense,” He growled. He pushed away from the table. “I don’t want to hear any more of this garbage. You two shouldn’t listen to it. But of course you will, won’t you?” He threw up his hands. “Whenever the Captain’s done spewing her ludicrous magical fantasies at you, come see me, and I’ll set you straight.” With that, he stormed off to his cabin.

Ha ha! As if! Parvati waited until the door to his quarters was shut. Then: “I don’t understand,” she to Aethel. “How can there be two cats?”

“In such a situation, when the math says there is a fifty-fifty chance, one way of looking at it is as the vicar suggests: that the math is incomplete,” Aethel said. “Another way is what he called ‘Philosophist’ - that the math is complete, and that the cat is both alive and asleep at the same time until a conscious observation causes a specific outcome. But there is a third way, which also says that the math is complete, but also that no consciousness is needed. It says that when such a situation occurs, what happens is that the universe splits into two universes.”

“Two universes?” Felix asked dubiously.

“One where the cat’s asleep, and one where it’s awake,” Parvati said to him, getting it, and was rewarded with a nod from Aethel.

“But doesn’t this kind of thing happen all the time?” Felix asked.

“Probably,” said Aethel.

Parvati tapped her fingers on the table, an idea growing in her mind. “Can these events happen with people? In people? Like me?”

“In or around, yes,” said Aethel.

“So if this split happens, where do I go?” Parvati asked. "Do I chose to be in one or the other somehow?"

Aethel shook her head. “You’re like the cat in that case,” she said. “There would be two Parvatis.”

Felix blinked. “You mean there are a bunch of universes out there with a bunch of Felixes in them?”

“I’m sure the vicar would be appalled, but that's the implication, yes,” she replied with a grin.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could all gang-up and drop kick some jackass at the same time?” Felix said, his expression half-wistful, half-savage.

“That’s a great question,” Aethel said, with a particular kind of intensity that told Parvati that not only did she take him seriously, but that he was actually on to something.

He must have caught it, too, because he blinked. “I was just joking but…are you saying we could, boss?”

“Well, I say that it’s a great question because I think it’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer,” said Aethel. “If you’re asking whether the various yous across the branches of the Worlds-tree could actually interact — I mean physically, like you’re describing — well, as far as anyone can tell, that’s not possible.”

“Worlds-tree? You mean all the branches?” Felix said, and Aethel nodded.

Parvati felt on the edge of something, like she was a spring under pressure, primed and ready to be released. “You said ‘physically’,” she pointed out. “That it’s not physically possible to interact with your other selves. Is it possible to do it some other way?”

Aethel scrunched her face in deep thought. But before she could answer, Felix straightened up. The delight in his face — from the idea of a gang of roving Felixes, I'll bet — had been wiped away by a terrible realization.

“Ugh,” he said gloomily. “That means there’s a bunch of universes out there with a bunch of Maxes in them, too.”

Aethel laughed. “Yes.”

“Is there any way to prove this?” Parvati asked. “Experiments, like?”

At this, Aethel looked cagey. “Not as such, no.”

Parvati leaned forward. “You’re holdin’ out, Aethel.” What other kind of way could you do it, if not physical? “C’mon, give us the scoop.”

Aethel leaned back and let out a little sigh. “I can’t. It’s just…it’s complicated,” she said. Then she put her hands on the table and levered herself up. “I’m not really a physicist,” she told them. “I’m a bodyguard. I study these things because I enjoy them, but I’ll need to do some research to really explain it to you correctly. And the books I need…well, just say they are most likely not Board-approved. If and when we can rescue the Hope, I’ll be in a better position to talk about it.”

But Parvati was left with a feeling that Aethel did have more that she could say. What isn't she saying?

Chapter Text

Maximillian

Late at night, and once again, I can’t sleep. Damn her! Max lay in his bunk, a hand behind his back, staring at the underside of alcove’s low ceiling without seeing it.

Aethel’s discussion of subatomic physics had taken him straight back to his days in the seminary. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but that was where he had had to reach in order to explain to Felix and Parvati why what the Captain was saying was heresy, so that’s where he’d gone.

The memories were still strong and raw…

“You are now at a stage in your learning at which you must learn some of the heresies you’ll encounter in your service,” said Curate Templeson as she walked between her students’ desks. She was a middle-aged woman, sturdy in frame, with short, tightly-ringed hair going to white above a middle-brown face and dark eyes, her features long since lost to severity. “It’s important that you know how to properly counter them, so as to bring any lost fledglings back into the flock.”

Their usual classroom had desks set up with terminal screens along with the more traditional ink wells and metal pens: believing fully in the concept of muscle memory, the OSI required its students to keep manual notes. The seminary would shred those notes when they graduated, returning them into the pulp from whence they had come so that they could be recycled for the next class.

But this classroom had been different. In the morning, they’d been called to this section of the seminary, one none of them had never entered. It was completely devoid of shelves and its walls were bare. And the desks were nothing more than slabs of undecorated merenite — there were no books, no terminals, no paper, no inks, no pens. Even the surface of Max’s assigned desk had been completely unblemished — previous students, if they’d been bored, had had nothing with which to etch the surface.

Max could understand why they’d left no trace of themselves, for the lecture had been anything but boring.

Curate Templeson had taught them about the Great Split between Capital and Labor Physics, and about the ideas those admittedly brilliant but tragically misguided scientists had been pursuing. She did not name names. “It’s best to consign them to the forgotten corners of the past; at any rate, it’s their ideas that we must fight.”

And she had introduced them to the basic idea of the math surrounding the very small, of how the framework of good, Newtonian physics appeared to break down at the subatomic level. “But only appears to break down due to our lack of complete understanding,” she said. She went on to explain the thought experiment of the cat by way of proving to them the math was — as of yet — incomplete. “You must understand that the equation that these poor waylaid souls discovered is sacred, because — as all equations — it feeds into and is part of the Great Equation. But they did not understand what they had found, and as a result conceived of all kinds of ideas about it that contradicted what true science already knows: that the universe is deterministic, and that all is pre-ordained.

“Over the years, the Order has had success in beating these ideas down,” Templeson continued. “But like mold, they reoccur, and so you must keep your eyes open for the inevitable eruption in your generation’s time, and eradicate it where you find it.”

Max raised his hand. “Seminariate DeSoto,” she said.

“If you please, Curate Templeson, why do these ideas keep reoccurring?”

“Because unfortunately not everyone in the colony is properly educated. It’ll be important for you to monitor your community’s educational processes and make sure you correct any deficiencies you find. But it also happens because there will always be people unsatisfied with the idea that they have a pre-determined purpose and place, Seminariate DeSoto,” she said. “They cling to the idea that they’re free to find their own way, that they can reject authority. What have you learned about this type of person, class?”

Jillian Vanderen raised her hand and Templeson called on her. “They reject authority because they don’t have any authority over themselves, Curate,” Vanderen said dutifully. “They’re lost. A person in full understanding of themselves will know their place, and understand how necessary and useful authority is.”

Templeson nodded. “Very good. An excellent question, and an excellent point: when this type of heresy raises its head, the core problem is that the people involved are both undereducated and have lost their way. It will be up to you to rescue them and bring them back to the truth of Scientism, for their own well-being and peace.”

It seemed to be the end of the class, but something was nagging at Max. He raised his hand again. “Seminariate DeSoto? You have another question?” Templeson said.

“Yes, Curate. What does the experimental data say about this sacred equation?”

“It’s the other way around, Seminariate DeSoto: the equation explains the data accurately. This proves its sanctity. But it can’t provide accurate predictions, only probabilities. That is how we know that it’s incomplete. Once the Order has reconciled it with the rest of what we know to be true, we’ll have a clearer picture of the Great Equation.”

“But it’s been three over hundred years, Curate,” Max said. “Surely there has been some progress on the problem?”

“Be assured that the Order’s scientists and mathematicians are working hard on it,” she said firmly.

But he persisted. “If there’s been no progress, Curate, perhaps it suggests that there is nothing more to discover?”

Templeson raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that the conclusions of Labor Physics might be correct, Seminariate DeSoto?” She asked frostily.

“I’m suggesting that the pursuit of the Equation is more important than being concerned about the source of the data, Curate Templeson,” Max said, as meekly as he could.

Templeson raised herself more upright, which didn’t seem possible, but somehow she managed it. “Seminariate DeSoto, your thinking is incorrect and, I might say, verging on the heretical." She looked around, assuring herself that she had the room's full attention, which she most certainly did. “This is exactly what you should be worrying about, class, and a prime example of the kind of talk you should be on the guard against.” She returned her focus to Max. “The Order has long since extracted anything useful that might have been hiding in the margins of Labor Science. Do not seek to pursue it further — you only risk your own corruption.” She clapped her hands, the sound echoing sharply against the room’s sere walls. “Class, you may return to your regular classroom. Seminariate DeSoto, you will remain.”

The moment the rest of the students were gone, the Curate trained a sharp look on Max. “I’m shocked at you, DeSoto,” she said coldly. “Pay attention to yourself — you're falling prey to the seductive evil of Labor, don’t you see it? You need to be stronger. Armor yourself against these ideas. If you continue to demonstrate such vulnerability, I’ll have no choice but to recommend you for expulsion.”

Max lowered his head. “My apologies, Curate Templeson. You’re right; I let my excitement over the idea of understanding the Plan cloud my judgement. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t,” Templeson said, appearing to be only slightly mollified. “I’ll make sure your regular instructors keep an eye on you, for your own good.”

“Thank you, Curate Templeson.” And from that point on, he’d kept his mouth shut, doing his best to prove to his instructors that he was a better student.

But I never was, was I? He was back in his bunk in Unreliable, much older and in now possession of a great deal of painful experience as a result of his inability to stop seeking. I paid for it in Tartarus — I learned my lesson.

Or did I? Because he was still trying to find Bakonu’s book, and he was lying to the Order about it, and because right now he was thinking about what Aethel had said when he should have been putting it out of his mind.

But he couldn’t. ‘ There are two cats.’ It didn’t make any sense. It gnawed at him the way the thought of Bakonu’s book did, an itch he could not scratch. He regretted that he’d stormed out of the galley, because he was sure Aethel had explained what she meant to the children after he was gone. He raged at himself silently. My void-damned temper!

How could there be two cats? He slept only fitfully, repeatedly waking. And when he woke, he struggled to slip back into sleep, wrestling with the question instead.

You should go ask her, some part of him suggested. But immediately the other, stronger part replied, I’ll be damned first. I just need to dig deeper into my books.

But he knew that his books have been stripped of anything even approaching the concepts about which the Captain had been speaking. He could only hope that Bakonu’s book would contain the answers he needed. Once I truly understand the Plan, I’ll know what the Captain meant, and how it is wrong.

Chapter Text

Pearl

“Pearl, just hang in there, I’m trying to turn the baby —”

The pain was unreal and yet so so very real — a balloon of agony blowing up from inside her hips, like someone was digging in there and trying to crack her apart from within —

well, that’s true, I think she is, that ever-loving quack

— the thought had the time to flit across her mind and then the balloon’s expansion hit her brain and she could think no more.

Light and sound returned. Awareness of Max’s hand in hers. Was she grinding the bones of his fingers into a paste? She was certainly trying to. “FUCK!” She wanted to scream, but all that came out was a low shuddering moan, and she was too overwhelmed by the pain that she couldn’t even properly writhe.

“Ellie, void-dammit, if you’re done treating my wife like a fucking woolly cow, do something useful!”

Peak Max: in a pinch, turn your fear into rage.

“Max, I’m the doctor here — if I need you to do some priestly shit, I’ll ask you for it. Until then, shut the fuck up and let me work!”

Somehow them screaming at each other was more comforting than anything else they could have done. It was odd, but comforting anyway, and then the pain struck her again —

I can’t. I can’t do this. I —

I can’t. I can’t do this. I —

Was that an echo? “I can’t —” She gasped, when she could, and Ellie said, “I know you can’t, Pearl.” She had something in her hands — both of them, thank the Architect — a syringe. “I wasn’t able to turn the baby around. I’m going to have to do a c-section, okay?”

“Do—“ Do whatever you have to do to get this out of me, right now! “Do it—“ She felt so hot, so very hot, she could feel cold coming off of the syringe, and when Ellie injected her, it felt like the doctor was filling her with ice water.

And it felt wonderful. The cold spread throughout her body with a gratifying rapidity. She knew that Ellie had meant to fully anesthetize her, but whatever it was left her with a shred of awareness. She could feel the room around her, and she had a sense that Ellie was working swiftly, but her sense of time suddenly shifted: like she was dilating time in combat, only even slower. And then slower still.

Everything came to a halt. The space was abruptly filled with light — not the bright lights of the clinic’s operational spaces, but some other kind of light that seemed almost alive. It washed over and through the features of the room’s equipment, and even over and through Ellie and Max, rendering them vaguely translucent. Light like that should be painful. But it’s not. Am I dying?

“I don’t think so,” said a voice, deep and dark like her own, but definitely not hers. “I think you’ve just lost track.”

Pearl looked over. There was a woman standing in the corner who had not been there before. Unlike the others, she appeared to be completely solid — almost disturbingly so, as if everything Pearl had known was a dream and this stranger the only truly real thing. And she was a stranger: Pearl knew that she had never seen this woman in her life before.

The newcomer looked to be about as tall as Parvati Holcomb, perhaps a head shorter than herself. She had dark red-brown skin and strong features — not pretty, per se. But striking: golden eyes over a proud nose. Her hair fell to her shoulders and, like her eyebrows, was shock-white. White also was her clothing and it set off the color of her skin nicely — she was wearing loose worker’s attire of the kind Pearl had seen in Stellar Bay, a tunic over blousey trousers cuffed tightly at the ankles. It looked to be of the lighter material they wore there, suitable to Monarch’s hot climate, but over it she wore a standard Halcyon worker’s apron. Only it, too, was pure white — and not a spot on any of it anywhere, Pearl thought. It’s a different kind of work that she does.

“Who are you?” Pearl asked. “How did you get here?”

“My name is Aethel,” said the woman. “And I am not sure.” A line appeared between her eyes. “I think I may have died.” There was an oddness to the way that she shaped the vowels that told Pearl she was not from Halcyon.

“Ethel?” Said Pearl.

The line disappeared and the woman gave a slight smile, the kind that someone would give when they’ve heard their named mispronounced a million times. “Close enough,” she said. “Who are you?” She asked in turn.

“Name’s Pearl,” Pearl said. “So…you’re a ghost?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. “I’ve never been dead before.”

She’d said it seriously, but there was a twinkle in her eyes, and Pearl laughed. And then instantly felt horrible. “What happened?” She asked Aethel gently.

“I was giving birth, too,” Aethel said. She turned her head, slightly, looking over the scene. Her eyes came to rest on the frozen, semi-transparent form of Max. “Hm,” she murmured. “Point of commonality.”

“What?” Pearl said.

“Were you born in Halcyon, Pearl?”

“I — no,” Pearl said. “Neither were you, I’m guessing,” she said.

Aethel nodded solemnly. “Correct. I was born on Earth.”

Pearl suddenly had a horrible feeling. She realized that the expression on Aethel’s face when she looked at Max was one of familiarity. “Do you know a man named Phineas Welles?” She asked. That’s it, I’m losing my mind.

Although she’d asked a question, Pearl realized that she’d actually provided an answer, for Aethel’s features lit up. “Yes!” She said. “I was a colonist in the Hope, and he revived me. I’m guessing that he did the same for you,” she said.

“Uh-huh. And I’m guessing that like me, you were the first one he managed to revive successfully, and — like me — you had to help him get what he needed to revive the rest of the colonists. But how can that possibly be true? He revived me. I’m the one.”

“Does he—“ she nodded in Max’s direction “—believe in a deterministic universe? In the Plan?”

“He did, once,” said Pearl. “Now he thinks the universe is chaotic, like the Philosophists say. But he doesn’t think you’re helpless in the chaos, like they’d have you believe. He thinks that free will lets you choose which way you’re going to go.”

“Ah,” said Aethel. “That’s very similar to —“ she shook her head. “I’m getting ahead of myself,” she said. She took a step or two closer to Pearl, and folded her hands in front of her. “There’s another interpretation of physics that might be at play here, and it lines up with what your Max now says.”

“But it’s not Philosophism?” Pearl asked. “Or Scientism?”

Aethel shook her head. “Something in between,” she said. “Both Scientism and Philosophism know of the core idea, one that was born on the Labor side of the Labor-Capital conflict in the Great War, and both of them came to a different and opposing conclusion. Scientism says that everything is pre-determined — the universe has a single story, and that’s what will happen — we just don’t understand the mechanism and can’t predict it. Iconoclasm says nothing is pre-determined, there is no story — it’s all chaos. But there is another interpretation that says when there is a situation in which something can be in one state or another, what you actually get is one state and another: the universe branches — like a tree or a river — into two. One result is in one universe and in the other universe, the other.”

“Wait, you meant there’s two universes?”

Aethel nodded. “In that case, yes. But the further implication is that this branching is going on all the time. So there are thousands upon thousands upon thousands, and more with every passing second. It’s very orderly, it only appears chaotic.”

“Okay,” said Pearl doubtfully.

“Some people believe that it’s possible, with the right amount of knowledge and will and being in the right place at the right time, to influence which branch you end up on,” said Aethel.

“My Max,” Pearl said. “And yours.”

“And me,” Aethel said.

Pearl thought about it. “So what you’re saying is that you and me, we’re both the passenger that Phineas unfroze. Just in different universes.”

“Yes,” said Aethel.

“All these different choices, all the things that happened, they were just a little different, and what we ended up with was places that were almost the same, except that in yours, Phineas pulled you out of the pod. And in mine, it was me.”

“Just so,” said Aethel.

It made sense. But: I think this woman went to the hermit’s shack and she’s still there, Pearl thought. And I’m just having another raging hallucination, only for some void-forsaken reason I got her instead of my grandmother. She sighed to herself silently. Okay, let’s play along and see where we get. “Did you overthrow the Board?” She asked.

“Yes, in a manner of speaking,” said Aethel, and then her lips quirked. “Actually, they did it to themselves. It was all in their own by-laws. We sort of just…gave them a push. I take it you did too?”

“Yes,” Pearl said. “When you say ‘we’…did you take the Unreliable too? You have a crew?”

Aethel nodded. “I see Max and Ellie, and they’re with me as well — did you have Nyoka, Felix, and SAM too?”

“This is crazy,” Pearl said. “Certifiable. What in the Law did Ellie give me?” Aethel was looking at Max again, her head set at a certain tilt. “Architect’s balls. Don’t tell me Max — he’s the father of your child too?”

Aethel smiled again, and Lawdammit that smile told Pearl everything she needed to know and entirely too much more. She felt herself tense up and Aethel must have seen the motion — she did a double-take and put up her hands defensively. “I propose to you that he’s not the same Max,” she said quickly.

What did I do? Did I suddenly scream ‘I’m gonna climb off this bed and beat your ass for him’? Well, I would. Pearl made a conscious effort to relax. “All right,” Pearl said, in only the barest of provisional agreements. “But it doesn’t make any sense.”

“The Max in my universe is not the same as the Max in yours. They probably had a different upbringing. What did Max’s family do — what would he have been doing, if he hadn’t joined the Order?”

Pearl thought about it. “Construction, he told me. They were stone workers in Stone Forest, on Terra 2.”

Aethel blinked. “Stone workers, eh? Hm. My Max’s family worked for C&P,” she added.

“Oh, he must have loved the Boarst factory on Monarch, then,” Pearl said.

Aethel’s face froze, then she cleared her throat delicately. “He did not,” she said. “My Max abandoned Scientism in favor of the Eberhard Interpretation.”

“Eberhard?”

“The physicist who first came up with the idea about the branching.”

“And he learned it from you?”

Aethel smiled fondly. “Yes.”

“Huh,” said Pearl. “Physics — you’d think the Order would have taught him about it first.”

Aethel shook her head. “Oh no,” she said. “It is wildly heretical, by OSI’s standards, as my Max frequently told me, with increasing loudness. It made him very upset at first.” She smiled again at the memory. “So shouty.”

“What made him change his mind?” Pearl asked.

“Drugs,” said Aethel. “Lots of drugs.”

Pearl laughed. “The hermit on Scylla! It was the same, only it took him a little while to come around to his new way of thinking.”

“As with mine,” Aethel giggled. “I may have, ah, given him some other reasons to come around to my viewpoint afterwards.” Her dark skin took on a deeper richness.

“Ha!” Pearl barked. “Same! He’s easy to persuade.” She waggled her eyebrows.

Aethel hid a snort behind her hand, clearly struggling to control herself. Then she sobered up and said, “So there are points of commonality between your universe and mine, but some differences, too.”

“Just how common, is what I want to know,” Pearl said. She couldn’t help herself: “We absolutely should compare them,” she suggested.

“What, our universes?”

“No,” said Pearl. “Our Maxes.

“Oh. Well, we know they came from different companies,” Aethel said. “But I think they both spent time in Tartarus before meeting us?”

“Oh yes,” said Pearl. “Which is where he found out about Bakonu.”

“Ah, yes, the book,” said Aethel. “He—

“—doesn’t fucking read French,” they said simultaneously, and then laughed. “Do you read French?” Pearl asked.

“No, you?”

“Not a word. Drove him crazy.

“He wanted to kill Reginald,” said Aethel.

“Wanted? He did kill Chaney,” said Pearl.

“Oh,” said Aethel, looking surprised. “Mine didn’t. Another point of difference.”

“What was he like after the shack?” Pearl asked.

“He found himself,” Aethel said. “Everything else that he’d been — argumentative, cruel, overbearing, dismissive — it was an overlay. It was the person he’d thought he was destined to be. He decided not to be that man. He’s at peace, now.”

“Not angry anymore?”

“He can be when he has to be,” Aethel said. “He became more, ah, tactical about it, I’d say.” She tilted her head. “I take it your Max is still angry?”

“Oh, yes, it’s his strongest talent,” said Pearl. “But now he only takes it out on threats, not on the rest of us — he’s good to the people he loves. That was something he figured out — that he could love and be loved. I don’t think he knew how to, before.” She pondered for a moment. “‘Tactical’ is a good word. My Max is tactical all the time, except when he needs to go berserk, and he does love to go berserk.” She sighed happily.

Aethel heard it. “Even, ah—”

Especially,” said Pearl, with deep satisfaction. “He loves to fight. And that’s fine, because I love to fight, too. Sometimes I even let him win,” she grinned.

Aethel laughed. “Wonderful.” She looked over at Pearl’s Max again, looking appreciative. “It seems you two suit one another very well,” she said.

“I take it you’re not so, uh, combative?” Pearl asked.

Aethel gave every appearance of thinking seriously about it. “Perhaps ‘competitive’ might be a better word,” she said, blushing again. “He’s, ah, very strong, and very intense. But so am I.”

Pearl nodded. “A good match too,” she said. “I’ll bet yours has a fantastic ass, too.”

“It’s a very nice ass, and he puts it to good use. But I also love him for his mind,” Aethel said primly, but the twinkle was back in her eyes.

“Hm, yes, his mind,” said Pearl. A thought occurred to her. “Tell me, does your Max have a union suit? With the flap and everything?”

Aethel boggled at her. “What? I — I don’t...know,” she said in a voice that started in confusion, but ended in something closer to speculation.

“You should absolutely go through his clothing,” Pearl suggested. “If he isn’t hiding one, get one for him. You’ll love—” And then she remembered. “I’m sorry, but if it’s true that you died—”

“Well, yes, that might be a problem,” Aethel admitted thoughtfully. “I do hope not, though. The union suit sounds appealing. I would very much like to go back and search his drawers.”

Pearl choked back a howl of laughter and was once again struck by the sheer insanity of the situation. How can we be laughing about this? How can this be happening? It can’t be. But it feels so real. So I might as well treat it that way. “You’re can’t be dead,” she told Aethel firmly. “But I still don’t get it. I’ve never seen you before. Never dreamed of you. Did you work for Autie Cleo’s too?”

“No, I worked for SEPA.”

“SEPA?” Pearl shook her head. “Never heard of it.”

“No one did,” said Aethel, her mouth closing down to a taut line. Pearl noticed that the woman went completely still in that chillingly relaxed way that Max had about him before he went into combat. “OSI and the Board made sure of that.

Grim. “So why me? Why here?” Pearl said. “If I’m just not riding some wild high off of Ellie’s meds? I mean, I don’t mean to be mean, but honestly, that’s probably the most likely reason for all of this.”

Aethel shifted slightly — not in kill mode anymore, thank the void — and smiled a little. “Yes, it is.” She frowned a little in thought. “I don’t feel dead, but I’m also not back in Edgewater giving birth, so what do I know? Maybe something’s holding me here?”

“Holding you? Is it me? How would I do that? What’s special about me?” Pearl asked.

“I don’t know,” Aethel said. “What’s special about you?”

Pearl spread her hands. “Beats me, for sure. Other than the fact that Phineas chose us, and we both set Halcyon on its ear…” She blinked. “Are there more universes than just ours?” She asked. “More choices for Phineas?”

“There have to be,” said Aethel. “And I doubt we’re the only two who overthrew the Board.”

Ugh, that’s no help at all,” Pearl complained. “That puts me right back at the beginning again: why you, why me? All that other stuff aside, I’m really not — I just run up and hit things until they stop being a problem. You?”

“Sniper,” said Aethel. “Same as you, just from farther away.”

“We’re both in childbirth. Is that it? What happened when you were having your baby? Ellie couldn’t handle it? What went wrong?”

“I think it was just too much,” Aethel said sadly. “I was pregnant when we had to assault Tartarus. Akande had taken Phineas — did you have to do that, too?”

Pearl nodded and for a moment, it was as if all the pain and fear she’d felt there was completely fresh and new in her heart. “I thought I’d lost Max,” she whispered. It hurt, Law, how it hurt. She blinked away the memory to see Aethel watching her closely.

The woman nodded. “I thought I was going to lose him. It was so hard. I was terrified. So I fought with everything I had, and I didn’t know about I was pregnant. I think…”

“Did it do something to the baby?” Pearl asked.

“I don’t know. But you can share entropy?”

“Share…what do you mean?”

“Change the flow of time,” Aethel said.

“Oh, yeah, I can,” said Pearl. “Another point of commonality, right?”

“Definitely. I was more or less dumping entropy the whole time in Tartarus, until I found Max.”

“Wait, found him? He wasn’t with you when you went to get Phineas?”

“Akande took them both. Phineas as bait, and Max for leverage.”

“That bitch.” Pearl ground her teeth. “I’m so glad I killed her.”

“She believed in what she was doing,” Aethel said, in a steady way that said I am trying to be fair to my enemies but at some cost to my inner peace. “Afterwards, the pregnancy was…difficult for me. Especially after we’d set aside the Board. I had to run things and try to help Phineas wake up the rest of the Hope so they could take over, and being pregnant…well, I was tired. The baby seemed to need so much.” She touched her belly which, Pearl noted, was flat. “Maybe too much.”

“I’m sorry,” said Pearl, and she meant it. “But I still don’t believe you’re dead. What’s Max going to do by himself with a baby? And if I am holding you, how in the void are we going to get you back?”

Aethel spread her hands. “I have no idea. I don’t know what you could do, Pearl, especially since Ellie is about to put her hands inside you,” she observed.

Pearl’s head snapped around. Time, it seemed, had not stopped altogether. No, it had been ticking along, if glacially, and Aethel was right: sterile cloths were laid across her chest and hips, her belly bare, surgical sponges gone dark red to stem the tide flowing between the forceps that held open the gaping gash Ellie had cut into her while they’d been merrily jawing away and comparing their Maxes’ assets. With a start, Pearl suddenly realized that the light —

The light wasn’t coming from Aethel, or from outside the room. It’s coming from me, Pearl realized, and as she realized it, the light abruptly resolved itself into a wavering line. No, a thread, extending out of her womb to Aethel’s. No, through Aethel, stretching through a figure growing increasingly sheer, so that Pearl could see the thread reaching out and beyond her. With an almost infinite slowness, Ellie leaned over to make an incision in her uterus.

Where is the light going —

The tendril shivered. It sucked all of the light into itself. It pulsed. And Pearl felt an entirely new presence — no, two of them — overwhelming her, a rush of raw feelings all jumbled up like too many sprats in a very small room

need/bright/cold/bright/loud/bright/alone/not-alone/bright!

need     not-alone

Need     not-alone!

NEED

The children! “That’s it!” Pearl said, realization hitting her like a bolt of lightning. “That’s the connection! It’s the —”

The thread snapped and darkness washed over her.


“…Pearl?” An indistinct blob stitched together from patches of pink and red resolved itself, in a few blinks, into the sight of Ellie Fenhill, leaning over to examine her face. The good — ha! — doctor must have liked what she saw, because she patted Pearl’s arm. “Glad you’re back with us. Everything’s great. I had to cut you open to get the baby out and everything’s fine now and you’re all stitched up in style, but I should tell you — and I know you’re not gonna listen, but I have to exercise due diligence, you know — that you should let yourself rest. No shenanigans for, oh, at least two weeks, okay?” She said with the air of someone who knew she’d be ignored, already rolling her eyes.

“Hgggnzzz,” said Pearl.

Ellie gave her another pat — and a snort. “Glad you see it my way. She’s all yours, Max.” And she left. Pearl’s awareness of her body had returned enough that she could move, a little. Maybe just my head. So she looked over. Max was seated in a chair next to her. She expected him to get up, maybe take her hand, maybe climb into bed with her, which might be a nice thing before these wonderful painkillers wore off and she could actually feel the results of Ellie’s “style”, but he stayed where he was.

But he looked at her and she could swear his eyes were glowing. “Our son, Pearl,” he said. He gently, carefully opened up his shirt so that she could see the tiny little thing in there, cradled against his bare chest, fitting perfectly in the curve he’d made out of his forearm and wrist. She was astonished at how someone so small could have made her feel like she’d weighed a metric ton. And she had battled Mantiqueens and Greater Primals and so many huge, powerful things — how could someone that small have come that close to killing her? Stubborn little boy — no doubt at all whose son you are. Who will you be?

 

“…Aethel?” An indistinct blob stitched together from patches of pink and red resolved itself, in a few blinks, into the sight of Ellie Fenhill, leaning over to examine her face. The doctor’s expression was awash with relief. “I thought we’d lost you, Aethel. No, don’t move. It was really touch and go. Everything’s going to be okay, though, I promise. Look, please, for once will you let your Elders do their jobs and just rest, okay? It was really close, Aethel. For once, you need to actually let yourself heal,” she said sincerely, eyes still full of worry.

“Ellie,” Aethel whispered.

Ellie gave her arm a squeeze. “I’ll let you rest. Max is here. There’s someone he wants you to meet.” And she left.

She was so weak — she felt as if she'd been emptied out, all her insides just dumped out like a sack of garbage — exhausted, as if she'd walked across the universe. But I think I can turn my head. Just that. She knew where he was without needing to look so she turned her head. Max was seated in a chair next to her, right next to the bed, keeping absolutely and perfectly still. He had a blanket in his arms, all swaddled up around something very small that he was holding so very carefully, as if the slightest motion would crack it into a thousand little pieces.

But he looked at her and she could swear his eyes were glowing. “Our daughter, Aethel,” he said. He gently, carefully pulled back the blanket so that she could see the tiny little thing in there, cradled against his chest, fitting perfectly in the curve he’d made out of his forearm and wrist. She was astonished at how someone so small could have needed, have taken, so much from her. She’d fought across Halcyon and back and although the wound she’d suffered on the station had been terrible and a chancy thing, it still hadn’t come as close to killing her as this tiny person had. What will you be able to do, little one?

She looked up from the baby in Max’s arms and caught her breath at the expression on his face, still gazing down at the child, their child: wonder, joy, terror, relief — it was all there, as plain to read on his face as any book. Any book not in French, that is.

What kind of a father will he be? She wondered. She had to find out.

Chapter Text

“There’s a hypothesis that the universe we live in is a simulation,” Aethelflaed said thoughtfully.

Felix looked like he might be going a little pale. “What does that mean, that it’s not real?”

Aethel smiled. “I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘real’, no? Can you imagine a situation that is very real to the people inside it, but it’s completely artificial?”

Felix furrowed his brow. “I suppose…there was this one aetherwave serial I watched when I was little, Byzantium Row House, that was kind of like that.”


“When you were little?” Parvati asked. “You mean, when you were growing up in the back bays?”

“Yeah,” said Felix. “It was a real fave down there.”

“Those folks on the show, they were always fighting,” said Parvati. “I saw one or two episodes, but couldn’t do more that that; it always made me feel anxious, they way they went at each other.”

Felix nodded. “I guess it made us feel normal, down in the Bays. Like life wasn’t quite so bad.” Parvati and Aethel both look appalled, and he must have notice, for he quickly added, “I mean, they said that the people on the show didn’t know they were on a show, and that it was all real, but I never really believed that.” His brows were still furrowed. “You think that’s happening to us?”

“It’s not what I think, but rather what this hypothesis is saying,” Aethel said. “And it’s a little different from what you’re describing, though that’s a very good analogy. In this case, it’s not a staged situation, which would still exist in the real world — real people, real props, real rooms, and so on, even if the…ah…drama is all scripted. The hypothesis is that absolutely everything is simulated.”

“You mean, like a simulation in a computer,” Parvati hazarded.

Aethel nodded. “Just so. Since the early 21st Century on Earth, people set up simulated environments to study brain-like, self-correcting, iterative computer networks. They’d give the network a problem to solve and see what it accomplished through self-learning. What they found was that the programs always evolved some way to hack the environment itself to find a solution to a problem. For example, if the goal was to ‘travel as quickly as you can,’ they’d discover that some critical variable in the software had a limit on its size, and they’d overfill it in a way that would give them infinite velocity. The best evidence that the world isn’t a simulation has always been that we can’t violate physics.”

“Okay, that makes me feel a little better,” said Felix. “You’re saying that it’s all nonsense.”

“Maybe not. I shouldn’t be able to affect time the way I can.” She dipped a fingertip into the glass of water and let a drop fall onto the table. Then she turned her hand over and let the back of it hover over the drop. She concentrated, and when she took her hand away, the drop was a chip of ice. “And this should be impossible. So perhaps the hypothesis has some new evidence to support it.”

“What are you saying?” Said Felix. “That we’re all in some kind of game?”

“Maybe it’s a story,” said Parvati.

“Maybe it’s both,” Aethel said.

Chapter Text

Parvati

Felix poked his head into the cargo bay. “Get this,” he said. “The vicar’s arguing again.”

Parvati rolled her eyes. “This is supposed to be a surprise? He’s always arguing. Who is it this time, Nyoka?”

He grinned, mischief lighting up every feature. “The Captain.

“Oh, this I have to see. Or hear. Or see and hear. Both.” Parvati painfully groped her way to the end of the sentence and followed him up the stairs. True to Felix’s word, the vicar and Aethel were at the far end of the table, engrossed in discussion, and as usual she looked calm and he looked agitated. This should be good.

“Act casual!” Felix hissed as they approached the messroom. They slowed to casual speed to enter the space, casually helped themselves to soda out of the fridge, and — with casual slowness — casually took seats at the other end of the table to spectate. Oh. We really should pop some tabaccorn for this. But it'd be too obvious.

Maximillian

Parvati and Felix sidled into the room with exaggerated cool and settled down at the end of the table with their sodas. Just what we need, Max thought. Spectators! He was irritated, but tried to tamp it down. Perhaps expressing it out loud will help. “I can’t help but be frustrated when you ask these questions but don’t accept my answers,” he said.

Aethelflaed leaned back and looked somber. “I don’t mean to frustrate you,” she said earnestly. “I’m just trying to better my understanding. Please understand,” she held out her hands. “From my perspective, what you’re offering me is simple aphorisms. Clichés. A very specific dogma that promises that you can be certain. Things that the Church clearly means to be accepted at face value.”

“It’s certainly simpler for me when people do,” he said, and was surprised at himself. Wait, that’s actually true.

She must have caught some of his surprise. But instead of pursuing it, she only said, “I’m trying to understand the theology.”

“Yes,” he said. “I understand that. Forgive me. The last place I had to spend any time going into depth was…well, it’s been a long time. I’m used to…” He sighed. “I suppose I’m used to simpler people.”

“Simpler people?” Aethel raised an eyebrow. “Or people in complicated situations seeking simple answers?”

He felt a flush of shame. “Most likely the latter,” he said with a sigh. “I keep forgetting that you weren’t born here.” Although I don’t know why I keep doing that, when everything you do reminds me of it. “Most people are well-versed in the underlying theology because it’s the legal faith of the colony. So the clichés are really just…reminders. They work for the faithful. Or for the ones who don’t want to think about it too much,” he said, an afterthought.

“Yes,” she said. “And I’m failing to understand that the distinction between Philosophism and Scientism is really that distinct.”

Max’s blood pressure spiked — he thought that, for a moment, he actually saw red. “They’re not in any way the same! Scientism is a rational approached based on science and observation. Philosophism is nothing more than nonsensical dreams — it’s just a story that lawless, unemployed degenerates tell to justify their dissent!”

Aethel waited a moment for him to settle and gently said, “but you see some value to their approach, otherwise why would you have asked me to find that book for you?”

“Bakonu’s writings pre-date the development of Philosophism as we know it now,” he said. “It’s purer, uncorrupted. I’ve told you this before.”

“Yes, but to the extent that those ideas still form a part of Philosophism today, it means that there is some core Truth there. With a capital ’T’,” she added. “That’s what I’m trying to get at. Look,” she said, heading off another explosion. “Let me just ask you this. Would you agree that there is such a thing as Truth? With a capital ’T’?”

“Yes,” he said guardedly. “But I disagree that Philosophism knows it. The Order is the only valid way to the Truth. With a capital ’T’,” he added a touch of sarcasm. And that’s what makes Halcyon such a utopia, he thought, bitterly.

Aethel ignored it. “Is Truth finite? Or infinite?” She asked.

“It has to be finite,” said Max. “It’s the Equation. Once we know the Equation, we know the Truth.”

“And Philosophism holds the opposite?”

“I’m not sure that it holds that there is such a thing as ‘Truth’ at all,” said Max. “It’s garbage.”

“Think back to what Graham said,” Aethel suggested. “That we’re an infinite universe observing itself.”

“All right, then, if Philosophism holds that the universe itself is what we call ‘Truth’, and that the universe is infinite, then it holds that the Truth is infinite. Which is patently false, since the Truth is the Equation, as I just said.”

“Oh? What is the Equation, then?” Aethel asked, interlacing her fingers.

“We don’t know what it is! Yet.” Max ground his teeth in exasperation. “At any rate, there’s nothing similar between the Faith and that Philosophist garbage. So why don’t you just tell me why you think otherwise.”

She abruptly leaned forward and held up her hand, palm facing him. “Tell me what you see, Scientician,” she ordered.

He blinked. “I see your hand.”

She gave a tiny shake of her head. “No. Describe what you see, and only what you see.”

“I see the palm —”

Again the head shake as she interrupted. “Pretend, for a moment, that for whatever reason, I don’t know what a palm or a hand are. I’m a child. Or an alien. Be objective.”

He raised an eyebrow. I’d almost swear her eyes just twinkled, he thought. Is she laughing at me? What in the name of the Architect is she after? He tamped down his growing impatience. How is it that she bothers me so easily?

“I see an organic appendage, which I will term a ‘hand’,” he started slowly, trying to reign in his aggravation. “It is flat and rectangular.” He looked from her palm to her face and was rewarded with the barest of nods. He hesitated, then continued. “It has four long sub-appendages, called ‘fingers’, and one shorter one, the ‘thumb’, on the right side.”

He could almost feel the pounce. “Ah hah! But that is where you are so very wrong! I, the Iconoclast, declare the real Truth of the universe!” The capital “T” rang out like a thunderclap. “The utter falseness of your twisted OSI faith reveals itself, Scientician: the thumb is on the left side!” She leaned back, eyes sparkling with humor, and let her hand come to rest on the table. “And, of course, this is where we go to war over The Doctrine of the Thumb. Vicious propaganda and bloodshed all around, millions of casualties, and so forth. As one does.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Max saw that Parvati clamped both hands over her mouth to stifle giggles. “Captain, that is really not fair,” he complained. “You know as well as I do that we’re both talking about the same thing. It’s just a hand.”

She tilted her head. “Imagine though, for a moment, that you didn’t know that.”

His eyes narrowed. “Is that what you mean by all this? Are you trying to imply that OSI and the Iconoclasts are describing the same thing? How can we be — our approaches are totally different!”

“Am I? Are they?”

Here she goes again, he thought, thoroughly irked. “You know as well as I do that they are not — and don’t you dare say ‘do I?’!”

“All right, I won’t.”

“But you’ll think it,” he grumbled. And I’ll be up all night arguing with her in my head. Again. The sooner we get to Monarch, the better.

Chapter Text

Maximillian

It was early afternoon, and Max’s turn to make supper. He’d set aside cubed rapt steak in brine earlier, thinking it would make a good base for a stew. So when he’d gotten to a stopping point in his personal copy of the collected commentary on Bishop Kang’s Six Perfect Arches, he entered the galley and started unloading materials from the food refrigerator. Here was the meat in its large covered bowl, the carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and herbs from Adelaide’s gardens, the pepper-flakes from the ship’s dry stores. He carried it all, over several trips, to the counter by the stove, to set himself up a workspace.

The Captain was seated at the large communal table, he noted. She glanced up at him and smiled briefly before returning her attention to the magazine open before her, a stack of more of the same at her side. I see Felix has lent her some reading material from his collection. There was a line between her brows as she read, her lips pursed into something like a frown. She looks perplexed.

It was pleasant to arrange the ingredients just so, and the cutting board and the knives. And it was even more pleasing to think that it was his own effort that brought about this small reflection, here, of the vaster order of the Grand Plan. He rolled up his sleeves, washed his hands, and primed a large pot with the meat and its brine. He added more water and set the pot on the stove at low heat. Once he’d washed off the potatoes, he picked up his favorite paring knife. “What has Felix given you to read?” He asked conversationally as he began the work of de-eyeing, peeling, and cubing the potatoes directly into the proto-stew.

The question seemed to be a welcome reprieve for the Captain, or perhaps she found his labor more interesting than the writing, for she immediately looked up, folded her hands directly on top of the open magazine as if to block her view of it, and leaned back. “Halcyon Helen and the Frozen Heart of Typhon,” she replied.

“Ah,” he chuckled. “He’s provided you one of the better examples of the genre, I see.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Better examples?” She sounded extremely doubtful.

He tilted his head. Plonk! Another chunk of potato fell into the pot. “Felix obviously wants you to take something from that story,” he said. “What are your conclusions?”

She frowned at the images and text under her hands. “Who is the intended audience for this kind of magazine?” She asked.

“Laborers, mostly,” he answered. “I’m sure that serial has its fans among the privileged in Byzantium, but it’s mostly intended for the masses.”

“I don’t think that the writers of this material think much of the intelligence of their readers.”

“Most of their readers aren’t educated beyond secondary and trade-related schooling,” he pointed out. “Laborers aren’t encouraged to read much beyond what they need for their jobs. The opportunity to obtain an expanded vocabulary is limited to people who are likely to need it.”

“Like you.”

He nodded. “Yes, like me. Or people who can afford to take the time to read for pleasure, and have the connections to find a wider variety of books.”

She frowned again. “It’s not the vocabulary that I find lacking here, though,” she said. “It’s the stories. They’re are all the same. One-sided. Obvious heroes and villains, and villains who know they’re villains. It’s absolutely clear-cut what everyone’s role is. I was confused at first, thinking it had to be a trick, like there would be some twist later on, but no, it really is that simple. And the morals.”

“What about them?”

“They’re so heavy-handed. And black and white. Real people don’t operate that way. Take for instance Ayn Bellinham, in this issue,” she tapped the open magazine. “They style her ‘Queen of Typhon’. They actually have her say, and I quote,” Aethel squinted at the type. “‘Behold as I unleash pure cold evil on the innocents of Terra 2!’”

“And?”

“I’m afraid that Felix views Halcyon in the same black and white way, only he’s flipped it around. To him, the members of the Board are all evil people, operating with full intent to be evil. Conversely, anyone fighting them is pure and noble. I doubt the Board sees themselves as evil at all, and the supposed ‘good’ people who oppose them aren’t bastions of purity either. The decisions we’ll have to make going forward aren’t going to be easy or obvious. And he seems to think I’m going to just…fix everything. Like one of these heroes. Who are good at everything they do and never make mistakes. I’m going to end up disappointing him terribly.”

He’d finished the potatoes and moved on to the carrots, the knife edge clicking most satisfactorily into the cutting board. Is she worried about making mistakes? “You’re more competent than any person I’ve met outside of the seminary,” he said. “You are astonishingly good at what you do.”

“Thank you, but that’s all I’m good at.”

“Name one thing you’re not good at,” he challenged her.

She nodded at the stove. “Well, for one, I can’t cook,” she said.

“Not at all?” He asked. “Well, that’s not particularly unusual. Many corporations want their employees to buy prepackaged food from the Store.” And keep them in debt thereby. He narrowed his eyes in thought. “But your corporation is odd, isn’t it? Do they actually encourage you to prepare your own meals?” He asked, fascinated.

“I wouldn’t say ‘encourage’, but it’s not discouraged, either,” she said. “They offer classes, if it’s something that interests you. Did the seminary teach you how to cook?”

He glanced at the pot and shook his head. “Oh no. It was something I picked up later. In Edgewater, when I got tired of saltuna. Because I’m the town vicar, I could get extra rations and supplies on inbound shipments. For a while, at least. My parents cooked, so I had an idea of how it was done, and then built on those memories through my own experimentation. ” Like a good Scientician. “Towards the end, though, the deliveries dried up, so I was back to saltuna. Yet another reason I was glad to leave the place.”

“Experimentation?” She asked. “Your parents didn’t teach you?”

“I, ah, lacked the patience for such things as a youngster,” he said, and felt an unexpected pang of regret. Another thing I failed to learn from my parents. He shied away from the thought by turning the question onto her. “What about your parents? Did they cook?”

“Oh, yes, they enjoyed working together in the kitchen. I tried, at first, but it became clear that my talents were concentrated elsewhere.” She let out a sigh. “I can survive in the wild,” she added. “I can cook game over a fire, for example. But for safety’s sake I let it get good and black before I let anyone eat it.”

He felt himself make a face. “That doesn’t sound appetizing.”

“It’s better than intestinal parasites,” she observed, and he had to admit she had a point. Practical, that.

“Well, there’s always time to learn to cook,” he said, then. “Would you like to help me here? It’s stew. It’s simple. You could cut up the herbs.”

She made no move to get up from the table. “Do you remember last Tuesday, when the radar oven caught on fire?”

“Um, yes,” He wrinkled his nose at the memory. “The smell was hard to forget.”

“That was me. I was attempting to heat up a Boarst Pocket.”

“The instructions are written on the package,” he noted.

“I followed the instructions,” she said. “Nevertheless, it exploded.”

“This would only involve chopping. You can use a knife, can’t you?”

“I can use a knife…on an opponent.

“I promise you the herbs won’t fight back. Think of it as an experiment.”

“Oh? What’s the hypothesis?”

“That I can teach you how to chop these herbs without destroying the galley.” Or murdering me.

She let out a soft sigh, then rose and approached. He noted that she moved the way she’d moved when she was approaching the entrance to the Back Bays in Groundbreaker: in the expectation of encountering an enemy. He fought back the urge to laugh as he set down the paring knife and pushed it in her direction. She’s acting like she’s about to go into hand-to-hand combat.

And, in fact, that was precisely the way she picked up the knife, its cutting edge oriented in entirely the wrong direction. “Wait,” he said. “Like this.” He picked up another knife and demonstrated.

She turned her knife around and did her best to copy his grip. Again, he had to still the urge to laugh at her. Most people don’t know this, he told himself sternly. It took you a while to figure it out, too, remember?

With his free hand, he rolled up a bundle of herbs. “If you make a roll like this,” he said. “It makes chopping easier. Curl your fingertips under, so you don’t cut them.” He demonstrated. Perhaps some part of him wanted to show off and he sliced up the leaves at his accustomed speed. He realized that this was the wrong thing to do, because when she tried, the term “chop” did not come to mind. “Hack,” perhaps. “Slow down,” he said. “I apologize, it’s my fault. I should have shown you slowly. Like this.”

To her credit, she did slow down. But her grip on the knife was off and it made her awkward.

“A moment,” he said. “You’re not holding that quite right. May I make an adjustment?” He reached for her and hesitated, and after a moment, she nodded, so he took her hand in his. “Gently, now,” he said. And she let up off of her death grip long enough for him to turn the knife in her palm and fingers, to position it more correctly under her thumb. “There,” he said, holding her hand around the knife correctly. “Do you feel how that sits in your hand?”

She was looking at the knife in her hand. And her hand in his. He was suddenly aware of how his fingers had nestled themselves in the valleys between her fingers, how warm her hand was, cradled in his palm, how his thumb was stretched along hers, of the contrast between the shades of their skin, and of her scent: synthamon, and something else like the smell of the air after a storm.

“Yes,” she said. Her shoulders twitched, bringing her away from him, and her hand came free.

He took a breath and stepped back, blinking himself back to the here and now. “Ah, try it now,” he said, forcing himself to focus on the cutting board. “Slowly. Speed will come later, with practice.” And lo: she cut up the herbs. Not evenly, to be sure. But there was no blood. There’s a dangerous moment safely passed. He allowed himself to feel pleased. “Nothing to it,” he said lightly, smiling. “It seems that this, at least, is part of your place in the Plan after all. ’Scientific experimentation is the only way to understand the elaborate blueprint of the universe.’”

“What if the results fail to support it, though?” she asked, thoughtfully, as she worked.

“What?” Max said, startled.

She paused in her chopping and glanced up at him. “What if the results of an experiment don’t support the hypothesis that the universe has a blueprint?”

He felt himself stiffen with annoyance. “They can’t. They won’t. It isn’t an hypothesis. It is the Third Pillar of the Faith.

If anything, she looked amused, which irked him further. “The surest way to fail at experimentation is to presuppose the result,” she said. “That’s what hypotheses are for in the first place.”

Max bit back the expletive he wanted to spit at her and, instead, breathed slowly out through his nose. All of the goodwill and pleasure he’d felt at being able to teach her something was entirely gone. “I was just trying to help you, Captain. If you’re going to throw my faith in my face in return, then perhaps you should let me finish up here,” he said tightly. “Alone.”

She furrowed her brows and set down the knife. Carefully. Then her face cleared of all expression. “Perhaps I shall,” she said in a voice as empty as her face. She didn’t speak further as she washed and dried her hands and he kept his silence as well, trying to channel his fury into the poor helpless vegetables on the cutting board instead. He was barely aware, in fact, of her gathering up the magazines from the table and slipping out of the room.

Void-damned, Law-forsaken heretic!

Chapter Text

Nyoka

“—yoka. Nyoka, would you please wake up?”

“Hrrgg…whuzz — what?” Nyoka came full awake when she realized that ADA was talking to her. “ADA?”

“Yes, Nyoka,” ADA’s voice was coming from the overhead speaker. “I’ve been trying to wake you for some time.” She sounded slightly reproachful.

“I’m a deep sleeper,” said Nyoka. An empty ale bottle was pressing against her face and she knocked it off the bunk, irritated, and was irritated further by the musical sound it made as it skittered across the deck, because it was entirely too high-pitched. She winced. “What is it?”

“The Captain is in the cockpit,” ADA said. “She is in some distress. Would you please come talk to her?”

“Distress, you say?”

“Water is leaking from her eyes,” ADA said. “I believe you biologics call it ‘crying’.”

Nyoka sat straight up. “This is the Captain you’re talking about, right?” Maybe she’s mistaking Parvati for the Captain in the dark? Not that it’s okay that Parvati’s crying in the dark, either. Nyoka frowned at herself. But the Captain — downright odd, that is.

“Yes, I’m sure,” ADA said. “I believe she would benefit from some human company,” she added.

“ADA, you sound concerned.” Nyoka rolled out of bed and started throwing on some light clothing.

“I am of course not capable of that level of empathy,” said ADA primly. “I am merely following my basic medical monitoring protocol.”

“Of course you are. Why are you asking me, and not Ellie? She’s the sawbones.”

“You have a better…I believe humans call it ‘bedside manner’…than Dr. Fenhill, which my protocol calculates is needful in this instance,” ADA said.

“That’s a remarkably, ah, insightful basic medical monitoring protocol you have there, ADA,” said Nyoka.

ADA did not reply. Such a guilty silence right there, in our ADA, Nyoka thought.

She padded on silent feet out of her room and down the hallway, which was quiet but for the snoring coming from Felix’s quarters, a sound that not even two inches of blast- and vacuum-resistant ceramantium could block. Nell, you poor girl, how do you put up with it?

The lights were dimmed in the cockpit: Nyoka could see Aethel’s form mostly by the light shining from the navicomp’s display. Nyoka knocked on the doorframe and poked her head in. “Captain?” She said. “Are you all right?”

Aethel started and looked up. Nyoka caught the brief shimmer of light on her face before she dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks and pinched the inner corners of her eyes to stem the tide. “Nyoka,” she said quietly. “Did I wake you?”

“No, not at all,” said Nyoka. She came in and leaned against an systems rack. “ADA did.”

“ADA?” Aethel blinked, still somewhat damply.

“I was concerned about your well-being,” ADA announced, followed by another silence that Nyoka was sure was reproach, again — and again, directed at her.

“Oh,” said Aethel. “I’m sorry to have distressed either of you.”

“I’m up and awake, Captain,” said Nyoka. “I don’t think I’ll be going to sleep again any time soon. If you’d like to talk about whatever’s bothering you, I’m here.”

Aethel hesitated. In fact, she hesitated so long that Nyoka was sure that she wasn’t going to say anything. Aethel stared straight ahead, eyes wide open but seeing nothing of this world.

She looks stricken, Nyoka thought. That’s the word. “Is this about the factory?” She asked tentatively.

“No,” Aethel said. “Yes.” She took a deep breath. “Halcyon. The Board. The corporations. The factory — that something like that could come to pass and be normal. This place. These people. Everything,” she said. “I am a person out of my own time and place.” She tilted her head back and stared at the overhead. “SEPA, my company. My leaders. They’re all ten years away, excepting the ones asleep in Hope. We were supposed to come as a community, to have each other as support. But it’s just me. I went to sleep at twenty-seven and woke up ninety-seven years old — everyone I knew back home —“ she swallowed hard as the said the word. “— is probably dead. They should have come, after the Hope was lost. Why didn’t they come? Nyoka, it’s — it’s too much. I’m just a bodyguard.

Nyoka rested her palms against the edge of the main control panel and leaned forward a little. “It sounds overwhelming,” she said.

“That’s a good word for it,” Aethel said. “Yes. I am overwhelmed.”

“You know what, though? Seems like a bodyguard would be a good choice for this…this mission. Why don’t you think you’re up to it?”

Aethel pursed her lips. “Do you know anything about my corporation? About SEPA?”

Nyoka nodded. “A little. Parvati told me about it. Educators and assessors,” she said. “Didn’t sound so bad to me. A little weird, to hear Parvati tell it.”

Aethel gave a little laugh. “‘A little weird,’” she echoed. “That’s us in a nutshell. It should be our motto. Parvati’s so clever.” She smiled fondly to herself for a moment. Then she said, “we’re weird, all right. Our basic rank structure is medieval.” Nyoka must have looked blank, because Aethel said, “from the Middle Ages in Europe on old Earth. It’s modeled on a very old form of vocational training they had back then, back when craftspeople were organized in guilds. Do you know it?”

Nyoka shook her head. “I know some business associations use the word ‘guild’ in their names, but I always understood it was just another way of saying ‘club’. That don’t sound like what you’re talking about.”

“There weren’t any schools as such, back then, in that region. Very rich people would hire teachers for their children. For most people, though — when you were young, your parents would find some kind of expert craftsperson,” Aethel explained. “You’d become that person’s full-time, live-in student. Their apprentice. Usually with other apprentices.”

Nyoka nodded. “Okay, I follow. I’ve heard of apprentices.”

Aethel nodded in return, encouraged. “You’d work around the shop, mostly doing really basic prep work, or cleaning up, all while watching the master — the expert — at work. They’d gradually give you more and more to do — teaching you on the go. On-the-job training,” she said. “Eventually, once you’d actually learned enough to start working the craft more or less independently, you’d go on a journey to learn from other masters in the guild, moving from workshop to workshop and town to town. You’d be called a journeyman at this point. In some places, this practice persisted even into the late 20th Century, until most of the corporations centralized the training of their workers.”

“Okay,” said Nyoka. “Keep going.”

“Once you’d done your journey, you’d create something that would prove to the other masters that you were, in fact, a master yourself. Your master piece. It’s where the word ‘masterpiece’ comes from. Anyway, that’s more or less the system we use in SEPA. You start as an apprentice, then get promoted to journeyman — this is where you’d settle on a specialty, you see, by going on a journey of sorts and trying things out to see what suits you — and then eventually you’d get enough mastery of whatever you’d settled on to be promoted to master. Make sense?”

“Yes,” said Nyoka. “What you’re saying is you got levels of hierarchy. Which ain’t weird at all. Thought most corporations are much more complicated. Many levels of authority. Only having three levels is definitely weird.”

“There are more. I guess we’re not weird that way at all, then. But once you hit master, it’s just different and specialized levels of mastery from there on.”

“What level of master are you?”

“That’s just it,” Aethel said. “And I think that’s why ADA called you. Because all of this —” she waved her hand over the console and across the windows, as if to indicate not just the Unreliable but the entire solar system around them “— Nyoka, I’m a journeyman. That’s all. In fact, I’m barely even that — I was just promoted before I embarked in the Hope. This was supposed to be my journey, my literal journey, to put what I’d learned as an apprentice into practice.” She caught her breath and swallowed, then turned eyes that were suddenly glittering again back onto Nyoka. “Why couldn’t Phineas have revived one of the elders instead of me?”

Oh boy. It seems our odd Captain is human after all.

Nyoka waited, watching the other woman struggle to regain her composure, her breathing. When she more or less had it, Nyoka said, “Look, Captain. Aethel. I can sympathize with being overwhelmed. If there’s any issue I’d have with anything you’ve said, though, it’s with the word ‘just’. You ain’t ‘just’ anyone. Look: you’ve survived this far. You got this whole thing started, and we’ve accomplished everything you’ve set us on so far. Phineas, paranoid bastard that he is, he trusts you, and for good reason. Everyone on this ship — well, almost everyone — is literally onboard here with what you’re doing, and as for the Vicar, well, the fact that you put up with him is simply amazing, much less the fact that you manage to keep him all tangled up, it’s a thing of beauty…Aethel, I just wish you could see yourself right now the way we see you.”

Clearly, she did not. “I was trained for combat, but I haven’t really seen actual combat, Nyoka,” she said. “Until now. Now, everywhere I go, someone or something is trying to kill me, and now you. Everywhere. How do you live like that, Nyoka, how do the people of this colony live like that, and remain human?

“I’d say it makes you more human,” Nyoka said thoughtfully.

Aethel looked astonished. “What?”

“Well,” said Nyoka. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing, understand. But it does help you focus on what’s really important: allies. Family. Each other. At the end of the day, most of the other stuff is just obviously bullshit. It centers a person.”

Aethel still looked astonished, but also very thoughtful. “It does. You’re right. Thank you for reminding me of that.”

“But you weren’t expecting it, coming here.”

“No, I was not.” Aethel closed her eyes. “Nyoka, I’m trying, but I don’t think I could take another situation like the boarst factory. I’m terrified that I’m going to get us into something like that again, or something worse. That I’ll let you down. Again.”

“Can’t do that, when it’s us that’s holding you up,” Nyoka said cheerfully, and grinned. “We follow you because we believe in what you’re doing. As long as you believe in it, too, don’t worry about falling short. Sure, it’s gonna happen. But we’ll be there to pick you back up again, just like you’d do for us in a heartbeat, I know it — hell, you’ve done it, for my drunk ass at least. You made us a team, Aethel. Bad things happen, and we learn. We learn to see it and next time, we’ll be ready. I know we will.”

She swallowed hard, suddenly realizing why what she was feeling felt so damned familiar. “You know how I know it? ‘Cos I had that kind of a team. I had it and I lost it and I never thought I’d know what it was like again, and then you got us together and here we are.” Gah. Now I’m going to start with the waterworks. She let fierce joy and pride rise up and take hold instead. “Here we are, don’t you see it? So you are absolutely the right person for this job. An outsider, you say? An outsider is exactly what Halcyon needs right now. Do you see the insiders doing any good? Hah!” She shook her head.

Aethelflaed caught her breath, watching Nyoka with wide eyes. A pair of glimmering streaks had renewed themselves on her cheeks, but Nyoka didn’t think the new tears were tears of despair and she was glad for it. She gets it. She knows what she’s done, and what we can do for her. With her. Good.

The Captain sucked in a breath. “Thanks, Nyoka, it’s —” She swiped at her cheeks again and was still smiling when she was done. “It — it really does help.”

“Nothing doing.” Nyoka levered herself back upright with an answering grin. “I think I’ll turn back in. Hope you do, too. Tomorrow might be rough.”

Aethel nodded. “I will. Good night, Nyoka,” she said.

“‘Night, Aethel,” Nyoka said, and tapped her chest in farewell before departing.