“Samuelson, I need you on the command deck.”
Captain Prescott’s harsh voice sounded as though he’d crept into my berth and shouted straight into my ear, his mustache close enough to scrape the stubble I’d grown over my down cycle. He’d overridden my Communication and Tactical Overlay’s quiet feature, invading my down cycle and jolting me out of a well-deserved rest at near deafening volume.
“Are you awake?” Prescott asked.
“I am now. Why, is something wrong?”
I glanced around the dim interior of my berth—a rounded cubby at the end of Pod One adjacent to the Chimera’s crosshatch. Close to the tram. Close to the command deck. The lodgings of flight officer or navigator’s assistant.
A wash of warmth ignited from the top of my skull and down my spine—a calming, pleasurable sensation that reminded me of sparks thrown up from a fire, flashing bright before winking away to nothing. The sparks came from the sleep-abatement drugs pumping into my bloodstream. The neural interface of my CATO engaged, prompting me to queue in.
“Ashley Samuelson,” I said. “Navigator’s Assistant.”
Columns of crisp data assembled themselves at the periphery of my vision. I scanned them and found no discrepancies, no errors. No fires to put out.
Prescott’s face materialized in a sub-quadrant of the CATO’s overlay. Skin even redder than usual. Deep wrinkles marked his forehead. His signature look was one of displeasure, of finding things wanting. No exception now—his lips turned down at the corners, eyes narrowed beneath bushy eyebrows, his face a shade of red bordering on purple.
“Just get your ass in motion before I send a few regulators down there to assist you.”
“Yes sir,” I said, not hiding my sarcasm. We’d done away with most of the sirs, ma’ams and courtesies in the first year of our journey. Captain Prescott, Navigator Black, and the half-dozen navigator’s assistants and two-dozen flight officers referred to one another by last name, forgoing honorifics. Prescott glowered but said nothing.
I shed cotton sleepwear and snatched a white uniform out of my locker. The left sleeve bore the stark, white-and-black patch of the Navigation Corps: the silhouette of a leafless oak tree, bare branches spreading above a thick trunk and serpentine root system. The roots larger and more complex than the branches—the perfect metaphor for the navigation of fractal space.
“Are you going to watch me dress?” I asked, smirking. “Amaya might not like that. She’s a jealous woman.”
With a few practiced motions I had my pants up, uniform top tucked, blazer buttoned, silver-buckled belt fastened around my waist. I slipped my small, archaic paper journal into my back pocket and ran a hand through my messy brown hair, wishing I had time to shower and shave. Instead, I whirled to the door and depressed the access, preparing to jettison myself into the corridor and jog my way to the tramline.
“Shoes?” Prescott asked.
“Yes,” I said, grabbing the door frame to stop my forward momentum. “Shoes.”
I slipped into the felts I insisted on wearing, regulations on proper attire be damned, and careened back out the door. The whole time my eyes checked and rechecked ship’s data spooling past my vision.
No discrepancies in any of the Chimera’s cores. No misshapen fractal space paradoxes threatening to overwhelm the NAs linked to their substations. No trending news from Pods One to Six on the local nets. No unexpected deaths—uncommon but they did happen—mot even the Chimera was that perfect. I felt the colony ship’s constant monitoring through my CATO. A distant, unemotional mother, checking my pulse, my vitals, preventing me from overdosing on sleep-abatement drugs. She paid me no more attention than the lowliest of colonists in the Pods. Janitor or NA, we were all the same to her.
Except, of course, for Navigator Black.
What she shared with the Chimera defied explanation. The word “partnership” didn’t do their interconnectedness justice. Despite Chimera’s artificial brilliance, she could not stitch the strands of The Everything into a pathway from Earth to Elypso without Navigator Black’s help. For her part, Black could no sooner hold a single grain of the infinite seashore of The Everything in her mind for a microsecond. What she could do—what only a human could—was understand paradox. Not understand, but the opposite really. To hold two conflicting realities separate and together, embracing neither, embracing both. The act of navigation itself was a paradox. Black and the Chimera were incomplete without each other. More than complete together, they became something else entirely. Something impossible.
My berth sat adjacent to one of the holoparks that broke up the flat-white of the outermost corridors of the Pods. This one a faux swampland preserve with listless alligators floating in brackish water, egrets strutting through the shallows in search of tadpoles, the warm scent of decay heavy in the recirculated air. Parts real and parts projected—a brilliant disguise for a water purification system.
Normally I went out of my way to travel the circuitous trail through the center of the park, walled off with translucent synthetic material to keep humans and algae separated, the trail itself sponge-like and springy. Today I skipped it. Colonists taking in exercise, jogging along the two-kilometer circumference of the outermost ring of the Pod, cleared aside as I raced past them, perspiration forming at my temples.
“I’ve held the tram for you,” Prescott said. “The Regulatory is bitching about it too, so get a move one.”
“ETA three minutes. What’s so important you cut my sleep cycle? You owe me a full eighteen hours when this is over.”
“I’ll explain when you get here.”
“All the data reads normal. No bad news from the Pods. Care to give me a hint?”
Prescott’s frown deepened. “No.”
He cut the CATO connection. Before his face disappeared from my overlay, I thought I detected a hint of fear in the man’s eyes. What was going on? Something very bad must have happened for Prescott to pull me out of my sleep cycle early. The fact I couldn’t locate a problem in the ship system data or on the news networks within the Pods, that Prescott had summoned me in person, suggested the issue originated with either the Chimera or Navigator Black.
Traveling the outer ring of Pod One, I reached the massive arches that opened to the crosshatch. 5,000 Kelvin lighting cast permanent daylight down from a curved ceiling—the largest space inside the Chimera’s vast interior. Capable of making anyone forget they were inside a four-hundred meter long colony ship slipping through the folds of The Everything, the crosshatch served as the center of commerce for the six residential Pods arranged three per side along its length.
Reaching the crosshatch, the air changed, grew warmer and carried the sweet scent of roasting food, of flowers, of sweat. A cacophony of voices, of pedestrian traffic, of automated vendors, of scrip exchanging hands. The crosshatch was always open for business, always daylight, always full of colonists.
My officer’s whites and speed of travel cleared a path through the colonists. At the center of the crosshatch, a bullet-nosed tram stood waiting to carry me to the fore of the ship. A group of regulators—the overseers that the Kishabi-Kline Corporation had sent along to protect their interest in the mission—stood near the tram’s open door, eyeing me warily. It wasn’t common to delay a tram for a single occupant. I smiled at them—kill ‘em with kindness—and stepped into the white-porcelain tram interior.
The doors slid closed and the tram leapt forward. The tunnel walls turned aquamarine as the tram accelerated. Schools of fish darted past. A dark shadow, hazy beneath a simulated sun, drove itself forward with a powerful, lashing tail. Some sort of shark. Then the hue of the ocean darkened to that of a clear sky before sunset. Fish transformed into flocks of birds whirling overhead.
Even knowing there could be no down or up in space, the effect was undeniable in its power. But unlike most colonists, I understood the reasons behind the wizardry: each subtle trick of perspective helped protect the sanity of the colonists. The journey through fractal space was open-ended in length. It might take another year. It might take two decades. Such was the fickle nature of plotting a new path through The Everything.
The tram slowed and I exited at the command station. Few colonists were permitted in this part of the Chimera. Light panels in blues and greens illuminated the curving corridor. Wallscreens displayed a sanitized version of the chaos of fractal space, the Chimera’s protective hydrostasis field swelling around her body like a cell wall around a nucleus.
Crackling bands of energy leapt across the field like current jumping contact points, licking and slashing. They spread like jagged lightning, branching like tree roots, like rivers, following the self-replicating pattern of fractals, but on an infinite scale. A patterned overlay of deep fissures that connected The Everything, the fabric of the multiverse, creating overlaps and exploitable near-places.
This visual depiction of The Everything frightened me. The real thing was unbearable for ninety-nine out of a hundred. And of the one percent who could look at The Everything and stay focused and in their right minds, a mere one-in-a-thousand could make sense of it, could hold it alongside an artificial intelligence. Navigator Black, the partnered Navigator of the Chimera, held The Everything with the skill and grace of a master artist. Navigator Black helped the Chimera find the near-places that could be stitched together into a pathway across thousands of light years.
Striding into the command deck, my eyes fell on the sphere that dominated the center of the round room. Suspend from ceiling by banded cables, its walls porcelain white like the tram and corridors, the sphere hummed with resonant energy. Navigator Linnete Black stood within it, visible through the oval entryway, her wrinkled hands pressed against the dimpled surface of the interior.
Eyes closed, she might have been praying or meditating. Her skin, dark as the rich soil of a river delta, glowed but showed no signs of duress. Our navigator smiled. Always smiled. As if whatever she was experiencing through the sphere was pleasant. She never showed signs of fatigue, not even when reaching the end of her duty cycle. The woman was indomitable.
Around the sphere sat four substations. Navigation assistants sat in front of their interfaces, hands bathed in cool, celery-green light. Assistants Licu and Dorn looked up when I entered the room, glassy-eyed from the effort of taking on pieces of whatever paradox the Chimera delegated to them. I gave a nod to Licu and Dorn, and then Captain Prescott spotted me and rushed over, bull-like in shape and movement.
“About time, Samuelson.”
“I’ve been up for fourteen minutes and some change,” I said. “The abatement meds are still hot in my veins. Cut me some slack.”
Short, stocky, uniform perpetually rumpled, Captain Prescott ran a hand over his clean-shaved chin. Sallow eyes locked on mine. “We’ve got a real problem, Samuelson.”
“You mentioned that. Care to tell me what it is?”
“Take a look at Black.”
I glanced over his shoulder. The navigator looked the same as she always did. Peaceful, relaxed. It wasn’t like she was violating the laws of physics by partnering with a super-intelligent shipboard artificial intelligence to sew threads of The Everything through overlaps in fractal space to move a colony ship thousands of light years across the galaxy. No, from the look of her, she might have been communing with her god or high on mood stabilizers.
“She looks fine to me,” I said. “She looks like she always does.”
“That’s the problem,” Prescott said.
“Why is that a problem? She’s the best, right? She makes us simpletons look bad is all.”
“She’s in a trance.”
“She’s Zen. That’s what they do. Total enlightenment, one with all reality.”
Prescott gripped my forearm hard enough to cut off circulation. He pulled me close to his wide face. He spoke in a harsh whisper, eyes locked on mine. “We’re not moving. It’s been since your last sleep cycle that we placed a stitch. The Regulatory is starting to ask questions.”
Through the pain in my arm from Prescott’s fingers digging into my flesh, I pulled up the navigation data that tracked our progress through fractal. In four-hundred and three days we’d laid down two-hundred and ninety-three stitches. It wasn’t uncommon to go a whole cycle without placing a stitch, a linkage between folds of The Everything. Each stitch was a marker, a trail of breadcrumbs for future ships to follow. Once completed the stitches would allow other ships to make the same journey in days, not years or decades.
“So she’s had a bad cycle. It happens.”
“This is different,” Prescott said. His CATO patched over a data table comparing the frequency of stitch placement with the work shifts of the NAs. “Do you see the correlation?”
The data hung in front of me, each NA ranked according to stitches laid during their duty cycles, adjusted for outliers, and contrasted with Black’s performance. “The sample size could be misleading,” I said. “We don’t know how long the journey will take. These numbers might be front loaded, skewing the trend line—”
“Bullshit,” Prescott said. I was reaching and we both knew it. The data was conclusive: when I was supporting the navigator through one of the substations, we laid down almost twice as many stitches as when I was on down cycle. Prescott released my arm. I rubbed at the sore place, wondering if I would end up with a bruise.
“Why’d it take so long to figure this out?” I asked.
“We never looked for it before.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “We’re an algorithm-driven Fractal Class colony ship ripping a pathway through the goddamned Everything and we don’t do data analysis on NA performance?”
Prescott scowled. “What kind of name is Ashley, anyway? It’s a girl’s name. And you can write that down in your journal, too.”
“Do you have a point you’d like to make?”
“Yes. I don’t like you. I never have. But we have bigger problems than your stupid name or those silly tech felts you insist on wearing.” His eyes dropped to my offending footwear, then came back to my incredulous face. “Regardless of my personal feelings toward you and your eccentricities, the facts remain the facts. With you working a substation, we make forward progress. With you off, we’re static.”
“So we get there half as fast,” I said, purposeful in my denial of the true implications of Prescott’s statement. “But we still get there.”
“I want you in the sphere,” Prescott said. “You’re the backup Navigator after all.”
My stomach lurched, the breakfast I never had rising up my throat. “You what?” I managed to choke out.
“We’ll get there twice as fast running dual navigators,” he said. “We’ll split the NAs and the Nav Techs into two different support teams. We have the manpower, and I want that bastard corporate watchdog Nivven off my back. He’s really starting to get on my nerves. Even more than you.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. The Chimera is partnered to Black. She’s not going to just embrace a second navigator. It doesn’t work like that. It—”
“I want you in the sphere, Samuelson. When the next down cycle comes in eighteen hours, you’re going in.”
My mouth worked open and closed, unable to formulate words. See how the grass parts in the breeze … The pathway opens …
No, I did not see. Couldn’t see. Had never seen. I was a navigator’s assistant, not a navigator. Never a navigator, except for those few terrifying moments aboard the test ship that separated the one-in-a-thousand chance from everyone else. I’d passed the test and qualified for a Navigator’s Assistant slot. I’d even been named backup Navigator, but the prospect of entering the sphere scared the hell out of me.
“You have sixteen hours to kill, then I want you back here and ready to go,” Prescott said.
I turned to look at the blissful face of our navigator. “I’m no Linnete Black.”
“No, you’re not. But I got this job for a reason. I get results. It’s my job to bring everyone on this ship to Elypso safely and in as short a time as possible. If that means juggling two navigators, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a no-lose proposition. Worst case, we get to Elypso on the same timeframe as before.”
Unless I get us hopelessly lost. Or worse.
A great sea of grass swayed in my mind. The grass parts. The pathway opens. A shiver of cold dread washed over my body, turning my skin clammy.
I found Amaya in the depths of the Chimera’s drivetrain at the aft of the ship, enclosed within a sound envelope. Her black bangs ran in a jagged line across her forehead. In one hand she held a handscreen, her other protruding through the envelope, pressed against the metal shroud of Lambda core, one of the twelve, ecomire driven cores that powered the Chimera. Even with earcaps clamped over my ears, the whine of the core at load hummed inside my brain. My teeth buzzed.
Amaya, focused on her handscreen and the vibrations of the core traveling up her exposed fingers, didn’t notice my approach.
I slipped a hand through the envelope, touched her shoulder. She jumped, startled.
“Sorry,” I mouthed.
Her eyes flicked to the side, accessing CATO commands. She stepped away from the core’s shroud and the sound envelope expanded, tickling over my skin, stopping halfway across my face. Through one ear I heard the artificial silence of the envelope, the other the high-frequency whine of a cycled up core. The effect was almost as disorienting as linking to the Chimera through a substation.
“That’s as big as she gets,” Amaya said.
“Then I’ll have to get closer,” I said. I moved fully into the envelope, pulling Amaya’s body against me, hipbone to hipbone.
“I’m working,” Amaya said, smiling as she spoke.
“No one’s back here,” I said. “How could they stand it without an envelope?”
“Comes in handy, doesn’t it?”
My fingertips brushed her bangs across her forehead, drawing out her high cheekbones. A sapphire bindi—a traditional East Indian decoration—lay centered above her copper-ringed irises. I kissed her, enjoying her warmth, the scent of cardamom and clove that clung to her clothing. She placed her head against my chest, listening to my heartbeat.
“You could have let me know you were coming,” she said. “You startled me.”
“Sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Why are you off cycle?”
“Prescott woke me up less than an hour ago.”
Amaya looked up, studied my face. “Nothing came across CATO. Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know.” A sudden weariness leeched into my muscles. I leaned against Amaya, grateful for her strength, her solidness. “He wants me back on the command deck in sixteen hours.”
Amaya tensed, her eyes darting across my face, searching. “Did something happen? Is that why this core is acting strange? Is Navigator Black okay?”
“Black is fine. Wait—is something wrong with Lambda?” I studied the gray metal sheath Amaya had been examining when I arrived. Inside the envelope I couldn’t hear its whine or feel the stomach-jarring thrum of its thousand-cycles-per-minute.
Amaya frowned, her pinfeather brows tightening below her bindi. “No. I mean nothing’s showing up when I run tests … Chimera can’t find a problem either, but something feels … off.” She sighed. “I’ve been down here for hours. Everything checks out. The Chimera said I’m wasting my time.”
“Not in those words—you know how she is.”
“I don’t, actually. She’s an enigma.”
Amaya snaked an arm around my neck, touched my hair. “You need a shower. You stink.”
“I didn’t have time to freshen up—I’ve been awake for less than two hours, remember.”
“About that—what did Prescott want? Are you expecting me to try and guess?”
I swallowed, unsure how to tell her—unsure myself what it even meant. The grass parts. The echo of Lucian’s voice, Lucian’s presence lingering in my subconscious, invading my sleep cycles. My mouth went dry. I reached out of the envelope, touched the wall, let the thrum of the core invade my body. Somehow it helped drive away the fear.
“Prescott wants me in the sphere,” I whispered.
“He’s going to run Black and me in tandem. Dual navigators.”
“But you’ve hardly had any sphere time!”
“Nobody knows that better than I do.”
My eyes tracked the dull-gray ceiling, the industrial-grade signage marking this as Lambda Core Access. No schools of fish here, no pleasing blues and greens, no synthetics or parks. This part of the Chimera was built for utility alone—not to mention no one could stand to stay here for more than minutes at a time so near the cores.
“Why does he want to fix something that’s not broken?” Amaya asked. “It’s asking for trouble.”
“I know that. But he’s convinced something is broken. And Chief Regulator Nivven is riding him—we haven’t laid any stitches since I entered down cycle.”
“No. But it would be easier to show you.”
“Fine. Show me. But my envelope is draining fast. We can talk when I get off duty. Meet me at Connie’s in two hours?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Gives you enough time to take a shower.”
“Thanks for the reminder, Mom.” I leaned in and kissed her. She kissed back for a moment, then pushed me away.
“Later,” she said.
I clamped my ear protection over my head and stepped out of the envelope. The squeal of a core at load possessed my body. Cold sweat trickled down my spine as I hurried down the dull access passage that led to the tram station that would return me to the crosshatch. It took a special sort of person to work among the cores. Dedicated, sensible, strong—someone like Amaya.
Riding the tram back to the crosshatch, the vibration of the cores became like the fragments of a forgotten nightmare. I again examined Prescott’s data. The correlation appeared obvious. But what if some other factor explained why we laid more stitches when I was on duty? What if we’d missed something critical? Why hadn’t I simply sent the data to Amaya—she would have understood it in seconds. Why had I chosen to delay?
The grass parts. The pathway opens.
Hands rising to cradle my head, I realized I’d forgotten to remove my ear protection. I yanked it free and threw it the length of the tram. It skittered to rest at the feet of a medium-framed man dressed in the khaki utility fatigues of maintenance personnel. He smiled, knelt, and retrieved my earcaps. “Rough day?” he asked.
“You could say that.”
The man crossed the tram and handed back the earcaps. His ear-length hair was parted down the center, accentuating a sharp nose and prominent chin. Narrow-spaced eyes peered at me, circumspect. He might have been twenty, thirty, perhaps even forty. Wiry and strong, he had the sort of face that might have been handsome except for its intensity. His eyes never seemed to rest, his muscles taut—momentarily I wondered if he was high on something, or about to try and jump me.
Despite the controls and psych testing, violence did sometimes break out, though usually within the Pods, motivated by jealousy or domestic disputes. But something in the man’s face—the keenness of his eyes—suggested an imbalance. An absence, or perhaps, an excess.
I took the earclamps. His hand brushed mine, his skin cool and dry.
“You look like you could use some rest,” he said.
I nodded and looked away, wanting to preempt any more conversation. I didn’t participate in the sort of elitism that separated flight crew from workers and colonists. I ate many of my meals in the crosshatch rather than the officer’s mess, walked the common areas in uniform and out, and tried my best to remember that regardless of rank, everyone on the Chimera shared the same vices, the same want for virtue.
But I wasn’t in the mood for making new friends.
“NA Samuelson?” the man asked.
I looked up, surprised to be recognized. “That’s right. Do I know you?”
“Nope. But I know all the flight crew by sight. I memorized your profiles. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” He extended his hand and I took it, my initial fear replaced with the sense of unworthiness that always came on strong when colonists showed me any sort of deference. I didn’t deserve it. None of us did.
“You carry your weight the same as the rest of us,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Stephen,” the man said. “Stephen Briggio, maintenance.”
“Ashley Samuelson, Navigator’s Assistant.”
The man nodded, eyes aglow. “What’s she like?” he asked. “What’s she really like?”
The same question asked again and again—by curious colonists, by the media doing feature pieces for the Pods, by my friends. Everyone wanted to know about Linnete Black our Zen, deaf, historian-turned-navigator. The fact that she gave no interviews herself and spent all her off cycle time alone in her quarters meditating only enhanced her notoriety.
“We don’t talk much,” I said. “But she’s very calm. Self-possessed. She takes her beliefs seriously. Even has a meditation bell inside the sphere.”
Briggio’s face broke into a broad smile. “Oh, I didn’t mean Navigator Black. I meant the Chimera. What’s she like?” His eyes were as wide as a child’s, his face angled upward, lips parted.
“She’s a Fractal Class colony ship,” I said. “She’s like—well she’s like this tram. She takes you from one place to another. It’s more complicated than that, with The Everything and fractal space and the laying of stitches, but that’s all on the nets if you want to read about it.”
“I have read about it many times,” Stephen said. “But all that stuff doesn’t get into who she is. She’s not just a tram. She’s got a personality.”
“Personality?” I said, incredulous. “If she has personality, it’s detached. Logical. Pragmatic. Every aspect of her design serves the mission.”
“Does it?” Stephen asked. His lips turned upward in a knowing smile, as if I were the maintenance worker and he a member of the flight crew, as if I had just told him something profoundly foolish.
“Yes,” I said. “It does.”
The tram slowed to a stop and the doors slipped open. I stood and made for the exit as dozens of shift-change workers poured inside. Clearing the throng, I turned to locate Stephen, to explain to him the nature and limitations of AI. He wasn’t on the platform, wasn’t inside the tram. I shrugged, shook my head.
What good were the damned sleep-abatement meds anyway?