I found Amaya tucked into a booth at the back of Connie’s. Like many of the public commissaries, free-commerce and the underground economy had transformed it into a for-profit business within months of our departure from Earth.
No one minded—the food quality and the inventiveness of the dishes more than made up for the expenditure of scrip. Those without scrip could take their meals at the main commissary, dining on the nutritious—and bland—meals provided by the Regulatory.
Amaya and I preferred the steaming pies Connie made, stuffed with vegetables smuggled out of the hydroponics farms. The salmon from the fishery in Pod 4 wasn’t bad either. I slid in next to Amaya, ran my hand down her smooth leg, and rested my palm on her kneecap.
“Samuelson,” she said, “shaved, showered, and once again handsome.”
“Nobody looks good coming out of a sleep cycle.”
“They don’t smell so good either.”
“How many times are you going to bring that up? You’re as bad as Prescott. He doesn’t like me by the way.”
Amaya leaned into me, her short, dark hair tickling my neck. “He does so like you.”
“Not according to him. He went out of his way to make that very clear. Right before he told me … well, what he told me.”
Out of uniform and in my civilian clothes, I doubted anyone would pay me much attention. Amaya on the other hand—being her boyfriend required diligence. Guys often tried to pick her up with me sitting right next to her. Using my CATO, I scanned the tables and booths for anyone who knew us. Data bumble popped up above the other diner’s heads. Names, duty rosters, pod designations.
A couple Regulatory reps I knew, Max and Garret, sat in a booth across the restaurant. I waved. Dressed in somber black uniforms, they nodded back. Nothing to fear from those two—they only cared about Pod politics, and what the Regulatory liked to refer to as “instigators.”
Ironic, I thought, regulatory reps sitting in a contraband eating establishment. My quick scan revealed no other flight crew, no NAs, no techs. I took a deep breath, and shot Amaya the data charts Prescott had given me.
“Take a look at these,” I said. “There’s got to be something faulty about them, something he and I missed.”
Amaya’s eyes moved back and forth, parsing data. I breathed in the scent of roasting pies, of cooking oil and homebrew beer. The clink of dinnerware, the murmur of overlapping conversations, of Connie’s cheerful banter with a nearby customer, swelled around me as I waited for Amaya to finish. When her eyes at least ceased their movement, she turned to me, her mouth a thin line. “On the surface they look air tight.”
“On the surface? What about beneath the surface? There’s a problem, right? I mean there’s no way I have more to do with our progress through fractal than Navigator Black.”
“If there’s a problem with the data, I can’t find it. Did Prescott run this past Chimera?”
I chewed the inside of my lip. “I didn’t ask him.”
“You should. She can do a regression, search out any flaw in the collection methodology.”
“Thank you,” I said, hopeful that once Prescott checked the data with the ship, he’d discover some error that would free me from the responsibility of navigating the Chimera. The idea made me nauseous.
Connie approached, a powerful black woman with cornrows, towering over our table. She’d come aboard as a welder with all the tattoos and burn marks to prove it. But her penchant for taking scraps and turning them into delicious meals had quickly moved her from one profession to another. We placed an order for two slices of pie and coffee.
Once Connie returned to her kitchen, Amaya took my hand under the table and squeezed my hand. “What are you going to tell Prescott?”
“What can I tell him? He’s the captain. I can’t see any way out of this insanity.”
Amaya pursed her lips. “What if he’s right? What if we—the colony itself—needs you?”
“They already have me,” I said. “As a NA. I’m no navigator.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Amaya didn’t know about the fiasco with Lucian. I’d never told her about that part of my training. What would have been the point? It had no bearing on my current work, on our relationship.
The grass parts. The pathway opens.
The room seemed to sway before resettling itself. I remembered my mind interlacing with Lucian’s inside the navigation sphere. And then, a field of the greenest grass I’d ever seen. Greener than green. So green it hurt to look at. The greener-than-green grass started to grow, shot up around my ankles, inches a second, becoming a thick, tangled mess that pulled me down, swallowed me whole ….
“What?” Amaya said, her eyes worried. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Hungry is all. Low blood sugar.”
Grass choking me, suffocating me. Lucian’s voice. An emptiness beneath and behind the green, forming ropes, cables, spewing out into the nothing—The Everything—coiling and writhing in a chaotic insanity of motion. My hands wet with sweat, slipping down the inside of the sphere, chest shaking, sobbing, the stench of my own vomit heavy in the air.
“You sure you’re okay?”
Amaya’s face wavered in front of me, a cloud of data produced by my CATO hovering around her face: Amaya Tinka Banerjee, Ship Master First Class. 29 years old, weight 42.4 kilograms. Sponsor: Kinjo Corporation. Assigned to the Chimera after divestment of Corex assets.
My eyes began to water. Her face flickered like the simulated fish in the tramline to the command deck.
Connie saved me. “Two pies, one water, coffee and beer.”
She set our orders in front of us. I grabbed my stein and drained half the beer, welcoming the calming effect of the alcohol. Connie eyed me with suspicion, smiled at Amaya, and stumped to the front of the restaurant. I sliced off a huge bite of pie and crammed it into my mouth, savoring the leek gravy and the bite of sour apples.
“Good,” I said once I swallowed. “Really good.”
Amaya’s food sat untouched. “I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be. I’ll get this resolved with Prescott.”
As if summoned by repeated use of his name, Prescott’s face flashed into focus in the upper quadrant of my CATO. “Samuelson, you better get up here.”
I swallowed another bit of pie as Prescott sent my CATO a feed of the interior of the sphere. Linnete Black lay flat on her stomach, a crowd of med techs checking her vitals.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“What?” Amaya asked, eyes widening.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “They need me up top.”
I sprinted for the tram, shoving colonists out of my path, not bothering to return to my berth and change into uniform. Prescott’s heavy face, still in the upper quadrant of my CATO, had gone gray.
“Flight data?” I demanded.
Prescott fired over the summary of the last three hours since I’d stood on the command deck. Everything looked normal. Routine. Except Linnete Black had passed out, and despite the efforts of the med techs attending her, couldn’t be brought back to consciousness.
I sat on the edge of my seat as the tram whooshed through the silent ocean, eyeing the other NAs and flight officers filling the car. Some looked worse than I had hours earlier when Prescott pulled me out of my sleep cycle. NA Magpie sat across from me, her dark blue eyes glassy from premature wakefulness, still dressed in sleepwear. I’d never seen anyone out of uniform on the tram to the command deck before, much less a whole car full.
The Chimera listed, tossed by fractal, each moment moving us further from the next overlap in The Everything. Unpaired, the Chimera could maintain position for an indefinite period, using the NAs for baseline paradox management. But that required a hand-off from the Navigator, and either myself or NA Magpie or NA Lemieux on duty. That hadn’t been the case. Stitches might pull loose.
I burst from the tram and entered the command deck. The med techs had Linnete laid out on a gurney, an oxygen mask pressed to her face.
“Samuelson, Magpie!” Prescott shouted. “Get us stabilized.”
NA Compton and NA Salazar vacated their substations and Magpie and I filled their chairs. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and plunged my hands into the gridwork of lines that made up the interface. Light pricked against my skin, cool at first but warming, forming a connection to the navigation grid.
I felt Magpie’s presence, both her compact body on my left and her consciousness, linked through the interface. In normal circumstance we would orient behind the Navigator, signaling our readiness to carry part of the paradox load. Black would welcome us like a deep pool of unperturbed water, as calm and rational as the Chimera herself. Though intense and often draining, working with the ship and navigator gave me a sense of comfort, of protection. I enjoyed supporting them.
But the Chimera that greeted me through the grid was anything but calm. Bands of unmanaged fractal space whipped around her, slicing like savage knives, ripping and tearing at her hydrostasis field. The duality of a linked Black and Chimera replaced with a restlessness—a great cat with bound legs, struggling to break free. The Chimera didn’t feel fear like a human: cold and hard, or jagged edged, prompting fight, flight. No, the Chimera experienced disequilibrium, a pragmatic assessment of dangers, of possible solutions.
She reached for Magpie and I, communicating the essence of the situation with a mixture of data and bursts of imagery. She showed us Linnete Black’s collapse, the moment of separation when her consciousness ripped itself free from the Chimera. I felt it like physical pain, like having a deep sliver yanked from my flesh. Like the death of my mother before we left Earth. A moment of profound loss distilled down to its essence, felt in a quarter-second, a totality of loss.
I thought the words, knowing the Chimera would register them.
Me as well. Magpie’s words dissolved into the shared space in which we, two humans and a synthetic intelligence, cohabitated.
The Chimera did not reply. Instead, two geometric constructs appeared in front of us, twisted tetrahedrons folded in on themselves. Impossible shapes. Illogical shapes, the Chimera’s representation of the paradox of fractal space. The portion that required human interaction. I took one of the shapes and Magpie the other. I held it in my hands, feeling each side, the inside-sides. I didn’t try to understand it but absorbed it through my fingers.
Think of a staircase, each flight of stairs rising to a landing and then making a right turn so that the landings form the corners of a square. Think of the landings pulling wide, of down becoming up, of up becoming down. A simple optical illusion represented again and again in art. Imagine that impossible stairway made three dimensional, transformed into a shape, a double-helix.
Overlapping and pulling apart. Sewn-together, unraveling, stitch-by-priceless-stich. The Chimera moved backward, retracing our path, losing ground—the basis of her profound unease.
She was designed to move always forward, to bring her colonists to a distant world. Each stitch that pulled loose pushed her toward despair. Without her navigator, she was powerless against the unraveling.
We’ve lost eleven stitches so far, Magpie said.
The ship lurched—not the four-hundred meter hull made of synthetics, platinum and duraceramics—but the Chimera within that construct, the ghost-presence, the inhuman other.
Another stitch ripped loose.
Make that twelve. Magpie’s face hovered in my periphery vision, her eyes closed, hands moving in the web of green light. I saw my own hands, bathed in luminous spider webs, the command deck around us, the empty sphere, Prescott’s darkened face, the stares of the med techs, the other NAs, flight officers, technicians, a great sweep of eyes.
I saw but did not see, my attention harnessed to the riddle I worked on the Chimera’s behalf. I twisted it counterclockwise, bent it, conformed it to my will. The will of an imperfect, flawed human, demanding that this tiny fragment of The Everything obey me.
Later, I couldn’t remember who balanced their paradox first. It might have been Magpie. It might have been me. But the tearing of the stitches ceased, the ship steadied. The hydrostasis field held, a firm second skin sealing the ship against the war of The Everything against our trespass.
According to the second law of Thermodynamics, all things lose energy; all things move from order to disorder. The Everything moved within disorder and out of it, parallel and sideways. It followed no laws. Our best synthetic minds—constructs as brilliant as the Chimera but designed for scientific purposes—could not model it nor describe its workings. The ancient maxim still applied: garbage in, garbage out.
We’d lost twelve stitches. Weeks of work destroyed in less than an hour. Prescott, Magpie and I stood beside the empty sphere, the Chimera in limbo, anchored to the last viable stitch. Prescott ran a hand over his curly greying hair and exhaled.
“Too close,” he said. “Stitches popping so fast—we’re lucky we didn’t tear loose and get thrown god knows where.”
“At least we’re stable.” I nodded to Magpie. “Good work.”
“Couldn’t have managed it without you,” she replied.
I rapped my knuckles against the side of the sphere. “Any word on Black?”
“She’s sedated,” Prescott said.
“Her brain’s gamma waves flattened out to a level forty-one Hertz at the time of her collapse. After her blackout, they hovered between forty-one and forty-two. The med techs sedated her to try and induce theta waves.”
“Why’d she black out?” I asked.
Prescott frowned, the lines around his face deepening to fissures. “Nobody knows.”
Magpie placed a hand on his arm. “It’ll be okay, captain. We’ve got the Chimera stabilized. We can tread a little water until we figure out what’s wrong with Black.”
“The thing is, she’s still running at forty-one Hertz. No down cycle, no theta waves, no dreaming. Her brain’s cranking like she’s in the damned sphere, but with no oscillations in frequency. She’s flat-lined.”
Magpie’s face mirrored my concern. “She’s sedated but running at forty-one Hertz?”
“That’s what I just said, isn’t it?” Prescott snapped.
The cocktail of drugs we took on our duty cycle kept us fresh and alert for thirty hours at a time. Hyper-focused, locked in. But without the down cycle, the forty-hours of recovery time in which our brains unpacked the intensity of fractal space in the form of dreams, we risked loss of sanity. Or worse. If Black didn’t dream soon, her brain might grind itself to pieces.
“She’s got another seven hours before she was due for the handoff,” I said. “They’ll figure something out before then.”
Prescott’s deep-set eyes glistened like lumps of sodden charcoal. “They’d better,” he said. “Because if she doesn’t wake up, we’re going to need a new navigator.”
I didn’t enjoy his tone. The way he examined me. The hope and scorn mingling on his face. I resolved to do everything in my power to make sure our navigator recovered. I didn’t want her job. I wasn’t calm. I wasn’t Zen. I wasn’t navigator material.
Amaya met me at the crosshatch tram station along with a throng of colonists held back by uniformed regulators. Reporters shouted questions that none of the NAs or flight officers could answer—Prescott had forbidden talking about Black’s condition and the Chimera’s status. He’d released a short, cryptic statement that the Chimera would be holding her position in fractal space for an indefinite period of time in order to “make adjustments” to “navigational operations and paradigms.”
The media knew it was bullshit. We knew it was bullshit. But this wasn’t a civilian flight, and although free to pepper us with questions, they couldn’t demand any answers.
The news would leak—nothing stayed secret on the Chimera for long—but hopefully not before Black had recovered and retaken her place inside the sphere.
On the tram ride back from the command deck, I used my CATO to blacklist every incoming ping but those from flight personnel, a few friends, and Amaya. I denied a half-dozen interview requests, and hid my presence on the networks. I didn’t need distractions. Disguised in my civilian clothes, I slipped through the regulators and the crowd, the media’s attention focused on the unfortunate NAs and flight officers in uniform. My CATO led me to the back of the crowd where Amaya stood in pensive silence, arms folded across her chest.
Not now. Not here, I messaged. Recorders everywhere.
Your place then?
No. The vultures will have someone staking it out.
Amaya nodded and grabbed my hand. She gripped it tightly as we made our way down the great hall of the crosshatch and onto the loop-corridor that ran the circumference of Pod Two. We might have been any random couple getting in exercise after our work cycles. We walked counter-clockwise to the air current that circulated through the loop creating a quiet rush of breeze—another trick to simulate the outdoors.
Colonists without CATOs sometimes wore virtual reality goggles that fed them imagery as they walked or ran. Pathways along lakes, through urban centers or pine forests, across dessert sand—the Chimera possessed a comprehensive catalog of environments. I never used VR goggles. I preferred to see things as they were—duraceramic walls embedded with access panels and wallscreens, doorways that led into the micropoli communities within the Pods, denizens on their way to or returning from duty cycles. Children played games in the unofficial parks created where a bit of open space presented itself.
Walking the loop reminded me of the other everything—the reason for our journey, the establishment of a new colony. It was easy to get detached spending my time in down cycle or on the command deck, and a quick walk of the loop reconnected me with the very people whose futures depended on me.
Amaya lived in micropoli ten at the starboard side of Pod Two. As a working micropoli, it contained a small fabrication plant, a machine shop, and two-dozen berths supporting a population of seventy-four. Most of the residents worked within the micropoli; Amaya was an exception.
Above us, ceiling imagery displayed a placid sky, the curvature far too severe to provide a convincing illusion—it gave the impression of being inside an ancient basilica rather than beneath an open sky. Berth openings ran along the perimeter of the interior with the fabrication plant and machine shop filling the center.
The air smelled of warm plastic, soap, and conductive grease. A fabricator in blue-coveralls passed by. She smiled at Amaya, then eyed me with open skepticism. Micropoli were notoriously tightknit and suspicious of outsiders. Networks and interconnectedness on a grand scale be damned—humans remained happiest when working and living as part of intimate groups.
Even the NAs and flight officers lived in one of two different micropoli in Pod One and Six. The two halves were separated by the length of the ship as a precautionary measure in case of a shipboard disaster. Those living in Pod Six had a much farther journey to reach the command deck, but they could get to the secondary sphere buried in the drivetrain quickly if the necessity arose.
Amaya shared a berth with her brother Nikko. I hoped he wasn’t home. Amaya rested her hand on the breakage, and the filmy organic translucence curled upward. It quivered above like an eyelid as I ducked into the berth, then snapped back into place. Breakage doors never failed to remind me of the extinct Venus Fly Trap.
Inside, warm lighting rose to half-brightness revealing an optimized hundred square meters of engineered efficiency: a tube shower, recessed beds built into a wall, a work-station-slash-kitchen nook, a wallscreen, and several modular, orgo chairs grazing on the hand-knit rug.
“Take a load off while I change,” Amaya said.
I eyed the orgo chairs—simple, non-intelligent organics, but living things nonetheless. Something about their progressive adaptation to the shape of my body made me nervous. Too comfortable, too alive.
I leaned against the wall as Amaya disappeared behind a Chinese paper screen and became a silhouette. A very sexy silhouette. “You going to tell me what happened?” she called.
“Everyone’s in an uproar.”
My eyes tracked Amaya’s movements as she slipped out of her jumpsuit. “I’ll tell you when you’re done,” I said. “I don’t want to distract you.”
“Uh huh,” Amaya replied, her words conveying her trademark smirk. “You don’t want to distract me.”
She pushed her backside against the screen, shimmied.
“You’re enjoying this,” I said.
“Not as much as you.”
Behind me, the breakage lifted and Nikko stepped through. A few inches taller than Amaya, his skin was the same shade of toasted-almond. His dark, perceptive eyes snapped from Amaya’s silhouette figure, to me.
“You two need to start letting me know when you’re getting up to your kinky shit,” Nikko said. He glared at me. “And he has a private berth—you could always go there.”
Amaya leapt from behind the screen, clothed in a pair of shiny green pants and high-collared shirt. “Sorry, Nikko.”
“I don’t care what you do in your downtime, Sis. But this is our berth and I don’t like coming home to surprises.”
“It’s my fault, Nikko,” I said. “You saw the flash on the nets, right?”
“I didn’t pay it much attention. They’re always talking about refractory rights or duty cycle discrepancies or serving up bio pieces on random colonists—with no real news to report they have to manufacture something.”
“Not this time,” Amaya said.
Nikko cast a skeptical look my direction. “What’s got Prescott’s undies in a bunch?”
“I don’t know, Amaya said. “Ashley was just about to tell me. That’s why we came here—to get away from the media circus at the crosshatch. Ashley wanted some privacy.”
Nikko smirked—the same expression Amaya often made, on his face it looked spiteful and cynical rather than roguish and cute. “I’ll bet he did.”
We should talk about this later, I messaged Amaya.
To my dismay, Amaya replied out loud: “No way—you’re going to tell us what’s going on! Nikko can keep his mouth shut.”
Nikko glanced at me, aware I’d broken social niceties and started a nonpublic conversation over CATO. People did it all the time of course, but usually kept it hidden.
“He’s not an asshole,” Amaya interjected, giving her brother a pointed look. “Now cut it out. Both of you.”
Nikko and Amaya were fraternal twins. I wondered if he’d sent her a message or if she’d guessed his thoughts. The two could be downright weird when it came to things like that. It hardly mattered—I’d learned long ago that whatever I told Amaya, Nikko would know soon enough. One of the few downsides to being in a relationship with her. They were like an old couple, incapable of keeping secrets. But Amaya was right—Nikko didn’t grind much grist at the rumor mill.
“Not a word of this leaves this berth,” I said. “Not one word.”
Amaya twirled her finger in a circle. Hurry up.
“This had better be good,” Nikko said. “You’re acting like a gossipy teenage girl.”
“Girl?” Amaya said. “How about a gossipy teenage boy? Don’t be such a sexist.”
“You were the one giving erotic shadow dances a minute ago.”
They were about to get into one of their stupid fights—yet another reason I preferred seeing Amaya alone. Rather than get in the middle of it, I brought up a CATO recording of Linnete Black’s comatose form being carried out of the sphere and projected it to Amaya’s wall screen. They both turned to watch, Amaya’s hand rising to cover the moon-shape of her mouth. Nikko crossed his arms over the chest of his khaki fatigues.
“That’s what happened,” I said.
“God,” Amaya said. “Is she okay?”
“I don’t know. She’s been sedated.” I told them what Prescott had told me about her brain waves, the lack of dreams.
“This is bad,” Nikko said. “Really bad.” One of the orgo chairs made a muffled hmmph sound as it absorbed his weight. Amaya took the other chair, hands interlaced in her lap, face pensive.
“You don’t have to tell me that. She’s due for handoff in less than six hours,” I said.
“What happens if she’s still flat lining?” Amaya asked.
“She’ll start to break down. Drugs or no drugs.”
“You mean like Saul Adama?” Nikko asked.
I hadn’t heard the name of the first man to enter Fractal Space in many years. Perhaps I’d misjudged Nikko a bit—I always assumed his sister got all the smarts and he got all the attitude, and that’s why she worked as a tech monitoring the Chimera’s cores and he performed routine maintenance for the physical lab.
“He went crazy,” Amaya said. “Righteous nuts.”
“He ripped out all the stitches he laid, lost the Helios to fractal space, set colonization back hundreds of years.”
“Nobody knows that for sure,” I said. “And Black didn’t rip out any stiches. She passed out in the sphere. We lost stiches afterward. It took everything Magpie and I could do to get us anchored.”
“How long will our anchor hold?” Amaya asked.
I squatted next to them, wishing for my own berth, for my solid metal-frame chair, and a dose of relaxation meds followed by pain meds to kill the dull thumping behind my eyes. “A day or two. Maybe longer if we get lucky. The Chimera can hold us for a bit longer. Hopefully until Black regains consciousness.”
“If …” Nikko said.
“Don’t be a pessimist,” Amaya said. “She’ll wake up.”
At that moment, a priority ping from Captain Prescott hit my CATO.
Linnete Black is dead.