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Back in the habs again, Dre-jin anchored himself with one foot on a torn locker hinge, bent over at the waist, his breath cutting into his throat as he attempted to draw air in, expel it out. His posture wasn’t helping, it just felt like a natural thing to do. Natural?! A cynical laugh itched at his windpipe, but his didn’t have enough breath for it to emerge, so it just added to the hurt.
How did Fehed bear it out there with the whole world constantly moving and the weight? Falling. He was always falling, if not for real on his damn knees, then on his head. With painful effort, he lifted his hands from his thighs and stared at his bruised and scraped palms.
In the habs he was like everybody else. Out on the farms he looked . . . odd. And felt conspicuous. He felt like the farmers glanced at him sideways, that they knew where he lived and hoped he’d scuttle back there as soon as possible.
They could think anything they wanted. The monads would make it all stop. No more farms or falling or anything at all. He tried hard to smother the voice in his head that whined about the impending deaths of everyone he knew, including his mother and little sister who were too weak to do much of anything. Better, he told himself. It’ll be better. The voice was not convinced or silenced.
“Dre-jin?” It was Fehed, looking all bright and strong-legged. Damn. He must have seen him and followed.
“Get tired of the light?” Dre-jin wanted to straighten up, to appear able as possible, but he couldn’t do it. The pain was too much. Dizziness jarred his senses.
“Are you okay?” Fehed’s hand gripped Dre-jin’s shoulder and it felt like being bolted to the spine of the world; steel-sturdy and straight-boned. Dre-jin wanted to shake it off, but he also wanted desperately to lean on his friend. Inwardly he flinched from the pity he saw in Fehed’s eyes.
“Leave me,” he said hoarsely.
“You’ve already done it. Go.”
Fehed’s grip loosened and his hand moved slowly to his side. Not falling. There was no falling in the habs. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Too late. But he didn’t say the words out loud. He simply flipped his hand back-and-forth. It was a gesture that meant ‘see you later’, something he didn’t really want to say because the hope of it cost him something he couldn’t spare.
And Fehed tipped his forehead in the abbreviated habber nod, his body already utilizing the reaction as part of his overall momentum to turn back toward the door that would take him out of the habs and back onto the farms.
Dre-jin watched his friend leave, believing it would be the last time.
Shinichi stared through the visor of his exosuit at the crude bomb attached to the side of the reinforced water tube. He could feel the two crew members staring at it, too. Easing closer, he pried up a piece of the sticky tape with the tip of one gloved finger. It came easily. Clearly whoever put this here had not expected anyone to find it. Fosdyke hadn’t wanted Shinichi to perform this dangerous task, but Shinichi wanted to see what had been done, wanted to make sure that it was taken care of as well as could be and he trusted himself better than anyone to do just that. As far as he could see, there were no traps involved, no secondary devices. He selected a sharp-pointed pick from the varied tools dangling from his belt and used it to carefully dislodge the fibrous binding. His exosuit’s scanner recorded no build-up to detonation, but they couldn’t be sure of the timing. It was best to do it all as quickly as possible, to delay nothing.
Once he’d scraped the affixed fibers from the tube, the bomb itself shifted in the low gravity, kept in place loosely by the frayed ends of the binding. Shinichi grasped the stringy bits and drew the bomb away from the water tube in one slow, smooth, continuous move. When he turned toward the two crew, he saw them watching him with wide eyes.
They both put out their hands toward him, waiting to receive the deadly package. Shinichi cautiously eased his way toward them, glad of his exercises in zero-g, put the bomb with its ragged wrapping into the hands of one of the crew with the silver of second in command on his suit. The man nodded his acceptance and both of the crew turned carefully, with more grace than Shinichi, clearly more practiced in such an environment than he. He knew they were headed for the airlock and that he didn’t have to accompany them, his own task was done, but he followed them anyway, just in case they needed him.
It was an airlock he’d never used, but he knew of its location, of course. It was farther away from mechanical, but he knew the location of all the airlocks. As an apprentice he’d performed his share of external repairs and maintenance on the ship.
The crew man who didn’t hold the bomb activated the airlock’s inner hatch’s double doors. When first one then the other slid to one side, both men eased inside the airlock chamber itself. Before the inner hatch closed, Shinichi moved so that he was near and gestured to them inquiringly. Did they want him to go with them? They exchanged a look and nodded so he followed them inside, making the space crowded, but sufficient. The inner hatch closed, sealing the ship. Tethering themselves to hooks, they all slowly turned as the outer hatch cycled open and the little pocket of air pressured away, droplets of water floating out as well. Without communicating, they nevertheless executed a coordinated series of movements, the crew man with the bomb going out first and the other crew man and Shinichi following, their tethers trailing behind them.
The command second, bomb between his hands, continued going away from the ship while Shinichi and the other crew man waited by the airlock. The command second proceeded as far as the tether permitted and then purposefully tossed the bomb in a trajectory away from the ship. They all watched it go, the ragged ends of the bindings slowly waving, blanking out the cold stars as it rotated away, farther and farther.
And then there was a flash. And another. Another. Flames spurted and died instantly. Debris scattered in diffuse directions. Shinichi felt no fear, only anger that anyone would have put so powerful a destructive device inside the ship for any reason. He wasn’t certain that the damage it would have caused could have been repaired. Thankfully, they wouldn’t have to worry about that now. But if there was one, there could be others.
He and the other crew man took hold of the command second’s tether and carefully pulled him back toward them, hand over hand, until they were all back within reach of the hatch. They eased back inside and activated the outer doors. Waited for the pressure to equalize. Went through the inner doors back into the low-g of the ship’s main body. Shinichi saw their lips moving and realized they must be communicating with the Captain, letting him know that the bomb had been removed and detonated safely outside of the ship.
All was well. For now.
Kestors sat in a rocker chair on his stoop, chewing on a stringy piece of shig jerky as he watched three of his goats try to chew their way out of their pen. They seemed intent on getting out and about, he didn’t know why, but they were three of his best producers, their cashmere coats a lovely cream-and-gold that brought him a hefty credit balance in the Trader Village. He didn’t want them going anywhere, especially down the lane to the Dubois farm--Dubois had plenty of his own credit crops, including ten prime acres of chicory. No, if the goats persisted, he’d have to trade for some real metal, precious stuff and rare enough that it hardly ever appeared in the Trader Village, but he’d put the word out that he needed some and was willing to pay the necessary.
From behind him, he heard his wife Seru finishing up with the kitchen, securing drawers and cupboards. She moved soft, his wife, like a dancer on the stage at the theater. Smart, too. Tested high. Might have been crew if she wanted. But she’d taken a good look at him during one dance event and made her decision. He never knew why he’d gotten her attention, but he was glad every season that went by.
He didn’t much care for her cousin Camlen, no matter how religious the man seemed to be. He didn’t trust a man with all those smooth words and no smile in his eyes. He’d sooner trust his goats.
Kestors did like Naera, he’d liked her even before he’d married Seru. She was as honest as they came and even smarter than Seru. Her dad had been Governor and she should be next, that’s the way things went. Young, but determined to do things right. He had a feeling that Camlen meant to make things hard for her--the man was grabby for opportunity, but he was all mouth and no spit. Naera would take it seriously. He knew Seru was worried about her cousin, who was also her friend, that she meant to stand behind her and he’d be right there with her.
The three goats stopped chewing on the fence and stared upspin like they’d spotted something. A peculiar feeling of wrongness came over Kestors and he cranked his head so as to follow the goats’ line of sight, but he saw nothing odd.
A moment later he felt the tremor.
With arms crossed across his chest, Parke stood silently in the officers’ mess, shadowed in one of the niches where ancient pictographs hung. There were so few of them, officers and regular crew, that they all used the regular mess for meals. It made it easier. And they used the smaller room that had been the officers’ mess for meetings and . . . wakes.
He’d only been dead for a day, but he’d been gone for months and unfit for months before that. His father. Lyle Parke. Parke 39. Captain for forty-two years, he’d been a strong-minded man with a forceful personality, adamant about the separation of the crew from the colonists. He ignored everything happening in the residential torus, concentrated all his keen attention on the command torus. In truth, his only personal, instigated contact with mechanical had been for a contractual offspring because as Captain he needed at least one child to succeed him and he vowed that no child of his would be born out of the Honey House. And he never considered communicating with the colonists, even their Governor.
But it had been the colonists’ Physician Master, Doc Quy, who had been requested to try to help his father in his lingering malaise. She’d come without fuss, exhibited no awe or excitement at being where none of her fellow colonists had ever been. She scanned the medical file with professional care, examined his delirious, moaning father and gave her verdict.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, because he’s young as a command member to die, but he is dying.”
“We have . . . tech medicine,” Parke told her, feeling uncomfortably guilty because the colonists dealt with their own health problems at a fairly primitive level.
She’d glanced up at him with her intelligent, dark eyes and nodded. “Yes. The miniature robotic--”
“Bionanos,” she repeated thoughtfully and nodded again. “They are self-replicating, yes? And passed down through transfusions?”
“Yes.” A sickening dread pooled in his gut.
“Then his are worn out. And he has cancer in his colon and his liver. You already know this, it’s in his chart that you yourself gave to me.” She cocked her small, dark head at him, a bemused sort of smile on her lips. “You didn’t believe it.”
“It’s impossible for the bionanos to wear out,” he said stubbornly.
She shrugged her shoulders, the braided red-and-white tie around her neck shifting so that the gold band caught a glimmer of light. “Perhaps they are less useful than they once were and his immune system, without having to work on its own, cannot fight the disease. I don’t know enough about this to be certain, but it is a good hypothesis.”
“You can’t help him?” Parke looked away from the physician’s face to his father’s, saw the pain that tortured the man he’d loved for so long, had wished to emulate in spite of how much he disagreed with him. “He seems to be in agony.”
She paused, said with genuine kindness: “I can ease his discomfort, but there is nothing more.”
Parke nodded, his throat tight. “How long?”
Another pause. “Not long. Days, if he's fortunate. Possibly weeks.”
He looked up from his father’s wasted body to stare with tears-blurred vision into the old woman’s eyes. He couldn’t speak.
Quietly she said, “I could end his suffering completely now, if you wish.”
Parke was shaking his head before she finished speaking this time. “No. No.” He blinked fiercely at the tears in his eyes. “No. Give him something to ease the pain, to let him rest. That’s all.”
Doc Quy didn’t try to argue with him. She brought out a carefully-antiseptic needle, precious stainless steel, and used it to inject something into the Captain’s shrunken arm. Almost immediately the Captain stopped writhing around and seemed to breathe easier. The physician exhaled a small puff of breath.
“Thank you,” Parke said. He met her eyes again. “Will you stay? For awhile?”
She didn’t say that she had over fifteen thousand people whose health she was responsible for or exhibit any sort of impatience at his question. In her world she had more than a hundred journeyman physicians, nurse-assistants and physician-apprentices to perform such duties as he was asking of her now. Here there was the singular medic who never performed any real medical practices since he had only to utilize the machines and monitor the bionanos. Until recently.
“Yes, young Dion, I’ll stay.”
And so she had, providing respite for both his dying father and for him, although he didn’t realize it until now, as he stood in the shadows, the only light in the room over the table on which his father’s shrunken body lay. It was customary for a Captain to rest in state for three days. No one knew why. But they always did it. The passing of the one Captain and the instatement of the new Captain was full of protocols and rituals, all of which seemed hollow since his father’s long, debilitating illness had forced the succession of the captaincy before the death of the sitting captain.
Parke hadn’t been around for the passing of his grandmother, Elle Parke 38, although he’d heard she was quite the terror and that his father had inherited his temper from her.
The main corridor door slid open and someone entered the room. Isaye Yamada. The light caught at her white hair, but softened the lines of her still beautiful face. She’d been a Commander, second officer, under Elle Parke, a calming influence then and now though she’d retired more than T-twelve ago. She wore the blue-and-black braided tie of crew, without rank designation, although she possessed the right to wear her retired rank. But she seemed to have truly retired. She never interfered, never came to the meetings, never offered advice unless asked and even then kept her answers brief, encouraging the new officers to make their own decisions (and mistakes).
She’d only taken a single step toward the table and its mortal remains when the door opened behind her and someone else entered.
Bartholomew Walden St.Paul, the retired First Officer. He walked with a slight limp and Parke suddenly thought of what Doc Quy said, that the bionanos were wearing out. The husky man looked otherwise healthy, still muscular through the chest, his hair showing only a few strands of silver although he had three more years-T than Yamada.
Parke opened his mouth to greet them, to let them know he was there, when he froze as he watched them because Yamada reached her hand backwards without looking and St.Paul took it. The big man lifted the delicate hand to his lips before he stepped forward to stand at the other retired officer’s side, both of them looking down at their Captain’s body, their hands entwined. It was forbidden by regulations, of course, but everyone suspected the relationship. What struck Parke at that moment as he watched them, that they were a couple as much as any married pair among the colonists. Good for you! He kept very still, hoping they wouldn’t notice him. Whether they did or not, he couldn’t ascertain, but they ignored him at any rate. Yamada finally bent down and kissed the cold cheek of her deceased Captain and sighed softly. St.Paul put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, then they both left, although by the time the door opened they were no longer touching each other in any way.
He decided then and there that he would talk at least to St.Paul, see if he could get some questions answered. He realized that there was so much he didn’t know, hadn’t been allowed to know, hadn’t the time to learn. He knew that his father hadn’t plugged into the Core for years, said it wasn’t necessary, and that scared him a little because it was a big ship that had been traveling for a very long time.
The bionanos were wearing out.
Parke felt his heart do an odd little skip in his chest. At eight bells, his father’s body would be formally ejected into space. He’d had authorization, but there were some things he’d refrained from accessing, like the archives and the personnel files. It was all his responsibility, every centimeter, every person, and no matter what his father and his grandmother before him believed, and possibly all the way back to Parke 1, the Captain’s responsibility included the colonists.
And if the bionanos were wearing out, it was possible that other things were wearing out, other machines, that anything and everything could only bear so much use stress before it failed.
Maybe he was destined to be the last Captain.