Amaya brought one of Connie’s pies to my berth at the end of her duty cycle along with a growler of homebrew beer.
We sat at my workstation, enjoying the hot gravy and potato filling that made the freeze-dried chicken palatable. Neither of us talked much until we’d polished off the pie and I’d downed half the beer. Amaya stuck with water, explaining that she’d agreed to cover third cycles for a sick coworker.
“How’d it go today?” Amaya asked. “I’m guessing you didn’t find us a new navigator?”
“A real shock to everyone.”
Amaya smirked. “Everyone but Nivven.”
“That and his list of grade-A, hyper-macho regulators. One guy took the test five times and still didn’t believe he’d failed. I had to have Falsgate stand him down.”
“What a dumb shit.” Amaya took a sip of water. “At least it gives you something interesting to write about in your journal.”
“Do you want to write the damned thing for me?” I said with a smirk.
“Low tech has its uses,” she said and raised an eyebrow. It took me far too long to get her meaning. When I did, I retrieved the journal from my hammock and placed it between us. Amaya pulled the silver pen from the spine, turned to a blank page, and wrote a short line of text:
P4-C-M2. 2200. Find a way to ditch your friends.
I read the text as Pod 4, Section C, Micropoli Two, twenty-two hundred hours. My “friends” must refer to the regulators posted outside my door. What was in Section C of Pod Four? I couldn’t recall from memory, but if I pulled up a schematic on my overlay it would alert the Regulatory of my interest, something Amaya had taken care to avoid. I wished I could ask her a few of the mountainous pile of questions invading my mind. Instead I gave her a slight nod, closed the journal, and returned it to my pocket.
“See you soon, Ashley.” She leaned in and kissed me before slipping out of my berth.
I didn’t sleep. Coming off a front-loaded sleep cycle hadn’t agreed with me, and now my mind was working overtime to sort through possibilities for my clandestine meeting with Amaya. Body unable to succumb to fatigue, I lay in my hammock with eyes closed, reading through the flight logs from our departure until Black’s death. I found nothing out of the ordinary that would explain what caused her brain to hemorrhage. The doctors still weren’t sure if it had been the result of a genetic disposition or some yet-unknown side effect of fractal navigation.
I reread Prescott’s report on the performance of the NAs that showed the correlation between my duty cycles and the laying of stitches. Undeniable evidence that while I might not have been navigating inside the sphere, I’d played a crucial role in our journey thus far. What would it be like to work with someone other than Black? I’d grown used to her quiet confidence, her near detachment from the realities of the ship. She’d lived to navigate. I hadn’t really known her personally. We’d never talked about her past, though I knew all about her from the bio pieces. A child prodigy. Blind from birth. She’d won the genetic lottery and landed in the sixth standard deviation from the norm in terms of neural response to synthesis. At ten-years-old, she’d gone to train at Pantheon Station and charted her first exchange ship at thirteen. She’d then guided a Fractal Class to Alpha Centauri at twenty and become the obvious choice to navigate the Chimera.
Soon after our departure she’d adopted a persona not unlike the Chimera’s—a detached sort of benevolence, rational rather than relational. They each served their purpose, accomplished their objectives. They were more alike than a human and a synthetic intelligence had any right to be.
My mouth dry and tired of not sleeping, I rolled out of the hammock and went to my work station. I opened the journal and began an entry detailing the results of the day’s pass-fail cohesion tests. All of the data already existed in the Chimera’s tables, but writing it out felt better than rehashing Blacks’ death. My ambivalence for a person I’d worked with cycle after cycle for over a year bothered me. I finished a page and moved to the next, writing out the NA’s duty cycle schedule from memory—pointless but in a way therapeutic, a way to help the minutes blur into hours.
Forty-five minutes before twenty-two hundred hours, I dressed in civilian fatigues and shut down my CATO. The Regulatory would notice, but some crew preferred to shutter their CATO during their sleep cycle, relying on manual coms if an emergency arose. Did Nivven have historical data for my CATO usage? If so, his watchdogs would know I almost never turned the thing off—I even used a sleep cycle dream-assists when front-loading. How much he knew would depend on the data the Regulatory had collected before Black’s death. I couldn’t do anything about it either way, and to ditch my “friends” I’d need to stay disconnected.
I pulled a faded, long-brimmed cap from my locker and pulled it low over my forehead. Anyone with a CATO would recognize me, but I hoped the hat would buy me a little bit of anonymity with the majority of colonists that didn’t. I slipped into my engineer felts and paused at the breakage, rehearsing my lie.
The breakage snapped open and I ducked outside.
“Hey there, gentlemen,” I said before noticing that one of the regulators was female. Off to a bad start, I plunged forward anyway. “I’m heading out to visit my girlfriend, Amaya.” I paused, but neither regulator spoke.
“She’s worried you’re watching us,” I said, trying to inject a tone of ludicrous disbelief in my voice. “I know that sounds crazy, but she works back with the cores—all that isolation, it can make you paranoid.”
No cracks in their stoic faces.
“You don’t mind if I slip over there for a little while, do you?”
“We don’t mind, sir” said the male Regulator. “We’ll accompany you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Yes, sir, we do. You’re free to go wherever you’d like, but we will provide an escort.”
“Amaya won’t like that—you hanging around outside her berth. Did I mention she’s a little paranoid?”
The male Regulator tapped the side of his head. “Your CATO is off, sir.”
Bad to worse. “Yeah, it was giving me a headache. And you don’t have to keep calling me sir.”
“You’re required to keep it on, sir.”
“Required by who?”
“First Officer Falsgate, sir.”
“She didn’t tell me that.”
“Turn on your CATO and ask her if you like, sir.”
“Stop calling me sir. Ashley or Samuelson is fine.” I looked at the regulators, wishing that my CATO was on so I could learn their names. I needed to figure something out in a hurry—Amaya wouldn’t have asked me to meet her unless it was of critical importance. I decided to try a new tack. If subterfuge wasn’t going to work, maybe being direct would. I powered up my CATO, the silvered sheen of the overlay flashing into existence. Connection to the nets established, I identified the male regulator as Holden Jakes and the female regulator as Samantha Greskowksi.
“Jakes, Greskowsi,” I said. “I’m reporting you both to Falsgate.” I sent Falsgate a priority ping—I didn’t care if she was sleeping. Rather than send a text reply, Falsgate’s face appeared in the upper right quadrant of my overlay. She wore a purple-pearl kimono, neckline open to enough to showcase her cleavage. A braided of hair lay over her left shoulder, a glossy, copper rope.
“Ashley,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“So we’re on a first name basis now?”
“Is there a problem? You look upset.”
“No, not upset. But I need to clarify something. The regulators you’ve got guarding my door say I have to keep my CATO on at all times.”
Falsgate shifted and I glimpsed a pillow, satin sheets, and a darkened private wallscreen behind her like a closed eye. “I strongly advise you to keep it on as it allows us to maintain real-time contact with you. You’re of tremendous strategic importance to our mission.”
“I’m glad you think so. But I don’t need babysitting.”
“Look, Samuelson, this is standard procedure.”
“What happened to Ashley? I thought we were friends.”
She stood up and tossed her braid over her shoulder. “What’s the real issue here? I don’t understand why you’re worried about this.” Her eyes flashed stormy blue, shades darker than in person. She looked angry, and beautiful. Ivory skin against the purple kimono, toned arms, the tops of her breasts peeking from the neck—
Now was not the time for fantasies.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “I’m leaving my CATO off, and these regulators aren’t going to follow me.”
Falsgate’s lips thinned over her teeth. When she spoke, her words came out in formal, corporate cadence: “You’re serving Captain Nivven’s discretion, and as such, you will keep your CATO on. You will travel with an escort when you leave your berth. Consider these orders.”
“Yours or Nivven’s?”
I glared at her, then powered off my CATO.
I made it a full ten meters before a hand closed over my shoulder and spun me around. I knocked Jakes’s hand away and started forward again. Fingers locked around my wrist, yanking me backward. Greskowksi turned toward me, her weight shifted toward her front foot, ready to strike.
“I can’t make you turn on your CATO,” Jakes said, “but if you insist on keeping it off, I have orders to confine you to your berth.”
“Get your hands off of me,” I said, voice wavering as a terrible fear lanced through my stomach. My knees trembled. I’d learned basic combat training on Pantheon Station, but was no match for one regulator, much less two.
“If I let you go, will you return to your room?” Jakes asked.
“Yes.” What choice do I have?
“Good. Don’t do anything stupid.” Jakes released me and took a half-step backward.
My wrist ached. I rubbed it with my other hand, anger and fear fighting for dominance. I hadn’t expected them to physically restrain me. I hadn’t known I was a prisoner. Amaya had been right all along.