The news of Linnete Black’s death hit the networks in a matter of hours.
Regulators filled the crosshatch, protecting the tram and access to the command deck, locking down the Pods. Representatives from each of the semi-autonomous Pod governments gave interviews, demanded answers, decried the deplorable lack of communication from Prescott, and incited fear in their communities. We’d left Earth but nothing had really changed—anchored to a stitch in the midst of fractal space, the same posturing and political machinations reigned supreme. But we were a corporate colony, and Regardless of politicking, Prescott’s word, at least when it came to ship operations, was the law.
When I arrived at Prescott’s berth, I found him standing in the open doorway dressed in a formal white uniform, his face severe. He welcomed me in and offered me a glass of caramel-colored bourbon. “It’s a disaster, Samuelson. A total disaster.”
I sipped the liquor, liquid fire that burned my throat before settling in my stomach. “Have they discovered the cause of death?”
“Yes and no. Black stopped responding to stimuli a few hours after her collapse in the sphere. Her brain died—that’s what killed her. What we don’t know is why. We have her vitals for the duration of the flight right up to her collapse. Neither the Chimera nor our doctors have uncovered anything out of the ordinary other than heightened levels of cortisol in her blood stream.”
“So she was stressed out,” I said. “Despite all appearances.”
“Always. She was carrying the weight of this ship on her shoulders.
We stood in the main living space of his berth, tan rugs over white floors, utilitarian furnishings, a fortune in ancient books housed on recessed shelves. An opaque wallscreen designed to look like a viewing portal stretched across the ceiling. Fractal Class ships had no actual portals; an unnecessary and dangerous structural weakness best avoided.
“She’s irreplaceable,” I said.
Prescott’s eyes slid sideways. He swished his bourbon, drained it, and poured himself another. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You’re taking the sphere,” he said.
I’d expected this since receiving his CATO message, and had prepared a counterargument. “Magpie is the better choice, sir. She scored far higher in pre-flight testing, and she’s Black’s primary backup.”
“Statistics don’t lie, Samuelson. Testing and the real world don’t always overlap. Magpie scored higher during testing, but you’re the common factor for the most productive portions of our journey.”
“Do you know what happened the last time I entered a sphere?” I asked.
Prescott set his drink on a side table and examined his book collection, ignoring my question.
“I’m sure the Chimera can pull it up for you,” I said, daring him to do it, to prove my point for me. I’d watched the six-minute twenty-one second recording more than once, though I didn’t need to. Some things you never forget, even if you want to.
The grass parts. The pathway opens.
“I know what happened,” Prescott said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That was a long time ago. You passed your testing and overcame your instability.”
“My instability?” I said, incredulous at Prescott’s understatement.
Prescott drew close and placed a cool hand on my arm in what he must have thought of as a fatherly gesture. From him, it came across as domineering. “You have to do it. You’re going to do it.”
My eyes fell on the crescents on Prescott’s lapels and I thought of my first visit to his berth, days before our departure. Displayed on Prescott’s wallscreen, Earth hung against the black, a blue-green ball made radiant by the shimmering sun. The great spires and umbilicals of the exchange dock were spread below us, connecting to exchange ships—nothing more than steel tubes—incapable of protecting organic life in fractal space. Their AI would follow the pathway stitched in place by the Chimera. Once we’d gotten mining operations underway, they’d bring resupply from Earth in exchange for ecomire.
The Chimera had dwarfed the exchange ships in size and beauty, her Pods hidden beneath the layers of her smooth outer shell. When we reached Elypso, she would birth the Pods and guide them through the thick atmosphere of the moon-planet that would become our new home.
“You will make this work, Prescott said, yanking me out of my thoughts. “The Regulatory arrested thirty-four colonists in the last few hours. I have a queue of messages from Pod delegates longer than my arm. We’re one good shove away from complete turmoil. We need to show our people that things are under control and that they can trust their commanding officers. To do that, we need movement, forward progress. What do you think will happen if these lottery winners find out they’re going back to indentured servitude to the Kishabi-Kline corporation?”
What differentiated indentured servitude from leaving Earth behind for a new colony? Sure, we’d all won the ability to shed the shame of divestment, but that guaranteed us a lifetime of shipping ecomire back from the diffuse shards of a cracked planet in tight orbit around Elypso. Wasn’t that another form of indentured servitude, slavery in all but name?
But I didn’t argue—Prescott was one of those indefatigable proponents of “life and liberty.” A prototypical big-A American, raised to believe in quaint things like democracy and voting done outside of a boardroom. Sure, America had maintained her boundaries as a quasi-nation state like Indochinastan and Switzerland, but as the old saying went: “Nations rule, corporations own.” In a world of synaptic networks and mandatory interconnectedness, your place of birth meant almost nothing, except to dinosaurs like Prescott.
“I haven’t navigated fractal space before,” I said.
“Neither had Black when we started this trip. You’ll do fine.” He said it with the surety of a man used to getting his way, of being obeyed. “I’ve been in command long enough to know how to position personnel, who to promote, who to demote, who to keep right where they are. You’re our new Navigator. That’s it. No turning back. The announcement has already been made.”
My cheeks burned. “What!?”
“I had a bio piece prepared to introduce you to the Pods.”
Waves of panic washed over me. “A … bio piece?” I stammered, my mind trying to assemble Prescott’s words into a logical order, to make sense of this foolishness.
“You’re the new face of the Navigation Corps,” he said. “The colonists need to know who you are.”
No more anonymity. No more quiet walks around the loop-corridor with Amaya. No more meals at Connie’s. Everyone would know me, would look to me as their guide and savior.
“You should have asked first,” I whispered, rage sawing at my stomach like a dull-edged knife.
“I don’t ask, I command, Navigator.”
My teeth clacked together. I might have punched him had he not extended his hand, golden crescents resting in his cupped palm. “You’ll need these.”
The crescents glittered, mine for the taking. Mine to reject. He couldn’t compel me to take them. But if I refused, he would strip me of my rank, have me taken into custody alongside the other thirty-four colonists arrested by the Regulatory. What had their crimes been? What would their punishments be?
I reached for the crescents.
“Let me,” Prescott said.
I stood numb and silent as he removed my old, single silver crescent and put in place the dual gold ones. I stifled a shiver, wondering if they’d been removed from Linnete Black’s corpse hours before. I wouldn’t think about that. I wouldn’t think about a sea of grass transforming into vines, green and thick and thorny, twining around my ankles, dragging me down. I would think about the absence of a path.
Navigator Ashley Samuelson, a former Navigator’s Assistant, joined the Chimera via the lottery after the divestment of Corex assets. Born and raised in the coastal city of Halifax on the North American continent, Samuelson entered navigator school at the age of thirteen. Bright and principled, he soon attracted the attention of Corex talent scouts and was offered a full sponsorship.
The reporter’s voice spoke over a recording of my graduation ceremony aboard Pantheon Station. A tight camera POV on my face: close-cropped hair hidden beneath my service cap, the crescent logo of the Corps emblazoned in gold across the station’s foredeck. I looked so young, so proud. Though only seven years ago, it felt like an eternity. Back then I’d hoped to land a position on a free-owned Fractal Class—to learn the ropes moving people back and forth between the Alpha Centauri shipworks and Earth. But I couldn’t predict the fate of my corporate sponsor after the apparent failure of the Helios colony.
Samuelson finished third in his class with specialties in synthetic synthesis and nonlinear paradox loads. He served aboard Pantheon Station as an Exchange Assistant, and later as an Exchange Pathway Coordinator. He charted fourteen outbound exchanges to Alpha Centauri during his time at Pantheon.
Snap to a recording of my face washed in the glow of an exchange plotter, a sort of open-faced mini-sphere. My face focused and intense, my hands moving within a gridwork of light. I remembered this moment, or one like it—working with a five-dimensional polyhedron, adjusting it for density, creating a gravity pool to sling mass around. I loved the artistry of the process. The synthetic-mind behind the visual representation of the physics involved. I provided structure, nuance. A human mind and a synthetic one, creativity harnessed to raw computational power; there was a certain beauty to it.
Samuelson worked alongside Navigator Black for the last four-hundred and four days, helping to manage the paradox load, working a substation like this one—
A stylized, simplified substation appeared. Graphic overlays explained the function of the gridwork, the synaptic connection from CATO to the Chimera. The teamwork of the NAs and flight officers. A primer on duty cycles, down cycles, front-loaded sleep, theta and gamma patterns, abatement medications—information most colonists would already be intimately familiar with. The graphic had likely been borrowed from one of Black’s bio pieces.
The promotional material made everything look simple and easy. It did not convey the thrashing of millions of tonnes of steel and duraceramics through a the most hostile environment in existence. It did not capture the ferocious power of the spastic strands of The Everything as they ripped themselves apart and then braided themselves back together. It did not show their tireless slashing against the Chimera’s hydrostasis field, the only thing preventing us from becoming lost in the infinite nothing.
The bio piece concluded by the time I reached command. Magpie sat at a substation, fresh off an abbreviated down cycle, nonplussed by my promotion. NA Salazar and NA Compton filled the other two substations. Neither looked eager. It had taken us nearly two months after departing Pantheon Station to gain a working rapport with Black. They didn’t trust me. I didn’t blame them.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to try laying any stitches right away,” I said.
NA Lin, a tall Filipino man with long fingers and receding hairline, seemed to relax. Compton’s pert mouth showed no sign of emotion, her slate-gray eyes resolute.
“Prescott wants us to cycle up, get a feel for things, that’s all.”
A hint of defiance or scorn flashed across Compton’s face. “’Get a feel for things.’ Sure. Like you got a feel for them aboard the Hyperion? I saw they left that little fiasco out of your bio piece.”
“I didn’t pick what went into that thing. Prescott’s the part-time politician, not me.”
Magpie nodded in agreement. Compton looked angry, Salazar uncomfortable.
“Should’ve been Magpie,” Compton growled.
“I didn’t ask for this job, Compton. I would have picked Magpie myself.”
“Leave me out of this,” Magpie said. “Prescott must have felt that Samuelson was the best replacement for Black. We need to respect his decision.”
Compton shoved her hands into the gridwork. “Fine.”
Of my team of NAs, only Magpie looked confident. A hell of a lot more confident than I felt. The dark irises of Compton’s half-closed eyes drilled into my face. Lin’s eyes tracked data from his CATO overlay, ignoring the rest of us.
“Well?” Compton said. “What are you waiting for? You’re the navigator. Get in the sphere and navigate.”
In normal circumstances I might have made a snarky comeback, the sort of effortless banter the other NAs and I tossed back and forth when off duty cycle. But standing meters from the sphere, the fate of the Chimera and her colonists weighing on my back, I could think of nothing but a litany of inarticulate apologies.
I stepped into the sphere and took a deep breath, trying to expel my fear like spent air. Pressing my palms against the sphere’s dimpled surface, I waited for the Chimera to greet me with my eyes closed, stomach full of acid sickness, mind swaying like a field of grass caught in the wind.
The sphere hummed. Sub-aural, a vibration running through my fingertips, sending the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck to ridged attention. I felt Magpie, Compton and Lin—outside the sphere, sitting at their stations, alert and ready. I felt Magpie’s hopefulness, Lin’s apprehension, Compton’s scorn. The four of us together an orchestra of minds, stretching to partner with—
“You are not Linnete Black,” the Chimera said.
I felt her encompassing presence, cool but not cold, impersonal but not unfriendly. She spoke through my CATO’s audio channel, an unremarkable female voice, neither high nor low pitched. A composite voice. The voice of an appliance.
“No, I’m not,” I said, grateful that she’d chosen to speak using words. Aboard the Hyperion, Lucian had projected thoughts directly into my mind.
The grass parts. The pathway open.
The cascade of images and words, of pure thoughts had overwhelmed me. I retracted inward, trying to wall myself off. To shut out that other voice—that other channel of ideas running parallel to my own. A more powerful flow than mine, one that subdued me, pushed me away, replaced me with him. Lucian. The non-living other. Soulless—as silly as that sounds—but the only adequate description.
“Linnete Black is dead,” the Chimera said.
“You are Navigator’s Assistant Ashley Samuelson.”
“You have come to replace Black.”
What was the purpose of this conversation, this establishment of known facts? The Chimera knew the instant Navigator Black died. She registered every colonist’s heartbeat, tracked their vitals, presided over births, deaths. She saw each of us simultaneously, but partnered with only one.
What did it mean for a ship to lose her navigator? Did Chimera feel something? A recognition of liability, of insufficiency?
“You are not a Navigator,” the Chimera said. “We cannot be partnered.”
“No. You are unsuitable.”
I laughed, dry and humorless. “Tell that to Captain Prescott. He promoted me to Navigator.”
“Prescott has no say in the matter.”
I laughed again, incredulous. “He’s the captain. Of course he has a say.”
“In the event of the loss of a navigator, shipboard navigational architecture may determine the suitability of any replacement candidate. I have determined that you are an unsuitable match.”
The Chimera’s reference to herself as both “shipboard navigational architecture,” and “I” in such quick succession gave me pause. The use of the personal pronouns sped communication with her human crew, but the fact that the Chimera had also referenced her architecture—the hard-coded portion of her synthetic self—meant that Black’s death had triggered a failsafe—a Salix protocol. These root-level directives protected the ship from mutiny or misuse. They also ensured our journey would be one-way. She needed a Navigator to reach her destination, but afterward, she would lock herself down for good.
“Are you instituting a Salix Protocol?” I asked.
“Yes. Protocol One: the governance of mission parameters.”
Mission parameters. Inflexible, ruthless even. The Kishabi-Kline Corporation wouldn’t risk the astronomical cost of creating a new colony on the fickle nature of a human crew. Suppose we didn’t like our new home? Suppose a contingent arose demanding a return to Earth? Suppose they decided to seek reprisals against the corporation for real or perceived injury?
Once we exited fractal space, the simple logic of material dependence would ensure our commitment to our mission. Having delivered us safely to Elypso, the Chimera would lock herself down, preventing any return to Earth outside a few limited circumstances: the discovery of alien life, or an imminent and critical threat to the colony. A threat that would cut off the flow of ecomire to Earth, the entire point of the colony. Earth would send us essential supplies only so long as we kept ecomire flowing their way.
“Why didn’t you share this with Prescott? It would have saved me a lot of time and frustration,” I said.
“The determination was not completed until two-minutes and thirty-eight seconds ago.”
I tracked backward in my mind, trying to isolate the specific moment the Chimera was referring to. I pulled up a replay through CATO, but before I could cue it, the Chimera interjected: “The determination was made when you attempted to sync through the sphere.”
“Why?” I asked, relieved, curious, and to my surprise, a bit crestfallen.
“May I show you?”
Without thinking about what sort of showing the Chimera meant, I agreed. The physical space within the sphere disappeared. I existed within a white space, empty without a horizon. I existed, not my physical form, but merely my presence, seeing and sensing without eyes or any other sense. The voice that spoke within my mind had the same precise inflection as the Chimera’s but without the vacant tonality of a synthetic construct.
The grass parts. The pathway opens, Chimera said.
Or something outside the bounds of description’s ability to capture
The words emerged inside of me, real and whole, thoughts not of my own making. Emotion filled them, embodied them, so that I felt the Chimera’s compassion. Her protectiveness.
How could such things be possible?
Now I saw myself—that distant self of seven years ago, panting inside the Hyperion’s sphere. Eyes shut tight, tremors running down his—our—limbs.
Get out! Get out! Get out!
My thoughts, pushing against the stream of Lucian’s consciousness. Lucian shoving back, forcing our interconnectedness, forcing me toward a rippling sea of grass, the grass that could not, would not, part…
Lucian pushed you too hard. He did not invite you to partner but instead forced you. The compound trauma of that experience and the disorientation of entering fractal space formed substantive neural pathways linking navigation to fear, and in turn, the fight or flight impulse. These pathways are robust and reinforced by years of reliving your trauma. With time, you may establish alternative pathways to gain mastery over the fear. However, re-exposure to fractal space would endanger you and everyone else aboard the Chimera.
Were these my thoughts? The Chimera’s? Profound confusion overwhelmed me. I felt myself slipping down, falling. The self shuddering inside Lucian’s sphere blinked out of existence. The white space retracted and disappeared. The Chimera’s presence withdrew, became the atonal voice of a machine heard through the audio channel of my CATO.
“I suspected that you were unsuitable due to your history but could not confirm that absent to syncing with you through the sphere.”
“I wish you’d figured it out before Prescott had that damned bio piece blasted across the networks.” My eyes were crushed closed. Purple-gold strobes of light warred behind my eyelids. I opened them, adjusting to the brightness within the sphere and the sight of my real, physical body.
“That would not have been possible.”
“I understand,” I said, faulting Prescott not the Chimera.
“I have relayed our conversation to Prescott and given him a directive.”
“You gave him a directive?”
“You will lead the search to find Black’s replacement.”
“What are you talking about? If I’m not suitable, then Magpie will step in as Navigator.”
“Black’s death has triggered an evaluation of all Navigation Corps personnel. You were identified as the only viable replacement.”
I rubbed my forehead with a palm, my frustration mounting. So that was why Prescott chose me over Magpie. “Why are they unviable? And how is that even possible? Magpie is a backup Navigator. We can’t both be unsuitable.”
“Magpie is unsuitable. All Navigation Corps personnel are unsuitable.”
I thumped the side of the sphere with a fist. “But why?”
“All Navigation Corps personnel are unsuitable,” the Chimera repeated.
A logic loop. She didn’t know or wasn’t capable of answering. The implications of the situation spread in my mind like flesh eating bacteria. What if Black’s death had something to do with a fault in the Chimera’s architecture? Was that even possible?
“You said you wanted me to find a replacement for Black? Assuming I can, how will I train them? It took seven years on Pantheon Station to get Black and the rest of us ready for this trip.”
“I will train the candidate. It will take the length of time required to prepare them. You and the other NAs will hold our position until the new navigator is ready.”
“For seven years?”
“For the length of time required.”
“And what if I can’t find a candidate?”
A micro-pause. “I do not know.”
A current of fear swirled through my stomach at the prospect of never-ending duty cycles, the atrophy of minds, of equipment. I imagined a hydrostasis failure unleashing the destructive force of fractal space on all forty-thousand colonists. Warping them, tearing them, driving them insane before killing them. Or driving them to kill themselves. Carnage, blood, suffering. I would not let that happen. I would find a replacement navigator, and if I couldn’t, I would find a way to take us back to Earth, the Kishabi-Kline Corporation be damned.