Regulators stood guard along the periphery of the Pod One walkway, their black fatigues and batons a not so subtle reminder of the Regulatory’s new curfews.
The Regulatory had ordered all non-mission critical personnel to stay in their mircropoli unless given specific permission to leave. No joggers ran along the path, no children played in alcoves, no families strolled the marshland park that hid the water purification plant. The eerie emptiness swallowed me, my footfalls echoing in the intrusive silence.
When I reached the crosshatch, the foot traffic built to a steady stream. Technicians, service personnel, medical techs, and noncoms made their way to and from their places of work. Even so, the space lacked its normal bustle and energy. The gray market chit economy hadn’t died out, but many of the crosshatch’s thriving goods and service stalls had disappeared.
Falsgate met me at the tram. “How’s Amaya?”
“The second trimester is supposed to be easier than the first.”
“What would you know about it?”
“Not much,” Falsgate said. “Only what I’ve read. I don’t plan to have any children.”
“You really are a model colonist.”
Falsgate smiled, but when she spoke again, I detected a hint of strain in her voice. After several thousand failed testees and an ineffectual and quickly quashed riot in Pod Three, the stress of our circumstances weighed heavy on both of us.
“Some see children as a way to leave a legacy behind, but there’s more than one way to do that, don’t you think?”
What sort of legacy did she hope to achieve? She didn’t hide her ambition, but seemed ambivalent to our core purpose. She’d fled a marriage she perceived as being owned to take a place on the Chimera. Regulator or colonist, owned or unowned, all of us held a one-way ticket to Elypso. We weren’t coming back to Earth. Falsgate didn’t strike me as an adventurer, and from what she’d said, had no plans to start a family. She made it sound as though she’d run from her former husband, with the Chimera affording her the means to do so. I didn’t buy it. Falsgate didn’t run from things. If anything, she ran toward them.
“This isn’t necessary,” I said. “You don’t have to keep doing this.”
“Nivven’s orders,” Falsgate said. “And an excuse to see you since we’ve become such great friends.”
“If you say so.”
“I think we would have liked each other if we’d met before Black’s death.”
“I doubt it.”
“Oh, I don’t. Context is everything. We’ve both been forced to take on uncomfortable shapes. In our natural state, things would be different. We’re very compatible, you and I.”
“Maybe,” I said, dodging her eye contact, wondering if I was adding subtext to her words. Compatible. In what way, exactly? We had nothing in common. No shared interests. Conflicting ideologies and goals. We were as far from compatible as two people could get. Unless she was talking about sexual attraction…
Falsgate moved closer, and for a brief moment I feared she would kiss me. Instead, she cocked her head to the side and the thick braid of hair lying behind her shoulder fell free, a braid of copper wire.
“How’s the journal coming along?”
My face stiffened. I hadn’t written more than a handful of words since I began testing. I didn’t have the time or the desire. Writing in the journal felt like an antiquated part of myself best left in the past. My medical screening had confirmed what the Chimera already knew: higher than normal stress levels, but nothing out of the ordinary. I’d completed a sleep study and it showed regular REM cycles and healthy theta waves. My blood panel and ancillary medical scanning had revealed nothing concerning. But tests couldn’t detect the content of my dreams …
The grass parts.
I took a quick breath, forcing afterimages of my most recent nightmare away before answering.
“I’ve put the journal away for now.”
“A shame. I’ve always found that particular quirk of yours endearing.”
“As fascinating as my endearing quirks might be, I’ve got work to do and I’d like to get on with it.” I moved past her and boarded the tram. Falsgate joined me, and mercifully didn’t ask any more questions.
When we arrived at the aft of the ship, we made our way down the corridors leading to secondary. The transition from the industrial shades of the tram platform to Falsgate’s immersive imagery overwhelmed my senses. Golden fields of grass lit by a brilliant sun low in the western sky. Reeds dancing in the breeze. An azure bowl stretched above us, darkening at its apex, a hazy shadow of Earth’s moon visible where dark purple tinged the sky.
Only in my peripheral vision could I discern the limitations of the illusion—a faint flickering as low voltage current traveled the corridor’s length, revealing the texture of the walls like pulses on the surface of a still pond. If not for the whine of the cores, it was an almost perfect rendering of a Kansas prairie, right down to buzzing insects and the recorded calls of songbirds.
“They did an excellent job,” Falsgate mused.
“They did,” I agreed, keeping my eyes down, tracking the rippling imagery beneath my feet, concentrating on the solid firmness of the deck I knew lay beneath the illusion. I’d come to think of this stretch as the gauntlet. I traversed it twice each up cycle, having elected to eat my meals at secondary to avoid additional trips back to the crosshatch. I endured the one minute, twenty-three second walk, doing my best to shut the imagery out of my mind. I sometimes played videos on CATO—technical notes on navigation that wouldn’t attract any attention—as I walked to secondary. Anything to keep my memories at bay, to keep myself from panicking.
I kept Falsgate a little head and to the right of me, happy to follow her, to let her silhouetted shape serve as my guide.
We neared a patch of warping color, the Kansas prairie skewing into neon green intensity, the sky a radiant ochre and marigold. “A malfunction,” I said.
“How long has it been like this?”
“Must have happened during down cycle. It wasn’t like that last I was here.”
“I’ll have it repaired,” Falsgate said. Her eyes moved, entering CATO commands.
“Why all the fakery? Why’s it so important to you?”
Falsgate turned to face me. “Fakery?”
“Yes. Why can’t we just let the colonists see the reality of what the drive train looks like? Why does it matter what sort of experience they have as they walk from the tram to secondary?”
“It’s not ‘fakery’, Ashley. It’s about perception. Sometimes you have to mask the ugliness to make it palatable. You have to show people what they expect to see. Everyone who doesn’t work back here sees the Chimera as beautiful, regal. A seed thrown across the galaxy. We can’t let them lose sight of the nobility of her purpose. We can’t let their sense of purpose erode.”
“That sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me.”
“You don’t care about aesthetics?”
“I wouldn’t say I don’t care, but I value function and purpose first and foremost. This corridor doesn’t need to be anything more than a corridor. Save aesthetics for where they matter.”
“They always matter.”
Before I could reply, a maintenance worker emerged from an adjacent hall and trotted towards us, an eager look on his familiar face. Angular, sharp-featured. Perceptive, deep-set eyes. “I’ll have this taken care of in a jiffy.”
“Thank you,” Falsgate said. We turned to leave.
“NA Samuelson?” the man said.
“How’s the testing going?”
“You can read all about it in the cycle updates posted to the nets,” I said, letting CATO identify the man as Stephen Briggio. The man I’d encountered on the tram, long before Black’s passing, and once again, during the imagery installation cycles ago.
“I know. I do read the updates. But how’s it really going? Are we any closer to finding a new navigator?”
The unabashed hopefulness in the man’s tone and smile stopped me from giving him a surly reply. He smiled as if we were old friends, eyes alight with a strange familiarity. I recalled him telling me that he’d memorized all of the flight crew’s public profiles, and the hair on my neck stood on end.
“You’re the maintenance worker on call?” I asked.
“I was in the area.”
In half a second I’d accessed the work schedule for the section. Stephen’s name did not appear. In fact, he had been off cycle for three hours. “You’re off duty,” I said. Falsgate, who had begun to look impatient, now raised an eyebrow, eyes skewering Stephen where he stood.
I shot the schedule to Falsgate. “You’re off duty,” she repeated. “Why are you here? You’re in violation of the quarantine.”
The smile on Stephen’s face wavered. “I like to work.”
“I will report you to your supervisor,” Falsgate said.
Stephen’s eyes moved from Falsgate’s to mine. “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” he said. “I like being down here. The oscillations. It’s comforting. I can’t sleep back at my quarters. I’ll tell you the truth, since you’ll find out anyway—I was sleeping back in core access five when the service order came through. So I accepted it from the work queue and came as quick as I could.”
“No one questions you working off cycle?” I asked.
“They’re used to it—I take a lot of cycles for the others. They’re happy to give them up. Not everyone likes it down here as much as I do.”
That was one way of putting it. No one liked the constant hum of the cores, at least not anyone that I’d ever met. Except this very strange maintenance worker, Stephen. His head bent, eyes on his worker felts. “I’m sorry to have made such a stir. I’ll go back to my micropoli.”
“Yes, you will,” Falsgate said, voice cold. “And rather than file a report with your supervisor, I will audit the entire maintenance division. I will not allow workers to skip shifts, nor for you to work like some freelancer, doing as you please.”
“You don’t have to do that!” Stephen protested. “Please. Don’t. They’ll hate me. The supervisor will move me to a different section. I won’t get to talk to her—”
Stephen’s face went white, his lips snapping closed. His eyes swung up from the floor, and met mine.
Talk to her.
I had no doubt who Stephen meant. He’d said the Chimera had a personality. Had seemed so sure of it on the tram. He’d talked as if he were the expert and I the uninitiated. Somehow, some way, he’d been in contact with the ship, or at least thought he had. I struck me that he most likely suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder that hadn’t developed until after our departure. Sleeping in a core access? Christ. What could that do to a person?
“You can still talk to her,” Falsgate said, shocking me back into the moment.
Confusion mingled with the dread on Stephen’s face. “I can?”
“Of course you can. We’d never take something so special from you.”
“No. We’re not cruel, Stephen. But the rules must be followed. The procedures. We’ll have to come up with a solution so that you can talk to her only during your up cycles. Is that fair?”
“Yes!” Sun and light. The trust of a child. The man was a simpleton. He could not detect Falsgate’s jaws closing around him.
“Can you show me where you talk to her? So we know how to schedule your cycles?”
Stephen laughed. “I’m talking to her right now.”
Falsgate’s hand shot out, striking Stephen in the throat. As he doubled over, her other hand smashed into his face, rocking his head backward. He collapsed, gagging for air, Falsgate standing astride his prone body.
“What the hell, Falsgate!”
She looked up. “This man is dangerous.”
“Yes, but you didn’t have to nearly kill the poor bastard.”
Falsgate shook her head, eyes bright. “If he was telling the truth, he’s made some connection to this ship that exists outside the bounds of what is possible. He is either a madman, or something much, much worse. If he’s lying, he’s a danger to anyone who comes in contact with him.”
“He’s obviously a mental case,” I said. “He’s hearing voices, and interpreting them as something they’re not. Why does that warrant a beat down?”
Falsgate refused to answer.
“He should be checked,” I continued. “Tested. If there’s something … something going on with him, we need to know what it is. And he would have bene happy to tell us everything if you’d just waited a damned second!” The heat in my chest moved upward, filling my face.
The thump of boots sounded from farther down the corridor. Four regulators marched toward us. “Take him into custody,” Falsgate said. “But don’t question him. I’ll take care of that myself when I return from observing today’s testing.”
I trembled, afraid to accuse Falsgate, more certain than ever that Stephen might in fact be crazy, but that he was about to say something else before Falsgate knocked him down. Something important. About the Chimera, Falsgate, or something else?
Falsgate. I felt certain of it. She had a secret she’d do anything to protect.