Authors: Elizabeth Moon
In memory of Ed Tatom, 1958â2005, who defended the weak, helped those in need as quietly as possible, and believed wholeheartedly in the adage about “old age and treacheryâ¦”
And with grateful thanks to the faculty and staff of Florence High School, who have given our son a wonderful high school experience.
s always, the usual suspects from the fencing group were involvedâ¦they know about more than pointy steel. The helpful veterinarians at Town & Country Veterinary Hospital graciously answered my questions about canine fertility. Test readers for the early drafts included Karen Shull, David Watson, Richard Moon, and those patient enough to listen to me read chunks on Thursday nights. For the later refinements, I thank Shelly Shapiro for catching lots of fossils (remnants of earlier drafts) and reminding me that not everyone wants to hear that much about fly fishing. Mistakes are all my own; don't blame any of these fine people.
n the afternoon sky, the sound of the approaching aircraft rose above the sea breeze, a steady drone. Nothing to seeâ¦no, there it was, small to make that much noiseâ¦and then the sudden flood of data from the implant: not an aircraft, no one aboard, a weapon homing on the airfield's navigational beacon. Visual data blanked, overloaded by heat and light, auditory data an inchoate mass of noise, swiftly parsed into channels again, stored, analyzed: primary explosion, structural damage, secondary explosion, quick flicker of building plans, primary visual restoredâ¦
Ky Vatta jerked awake, heart pounding, breath coming in great gasps. She wasn't there, she was here, in the dark captain's cabin of
darkness pricked with the steady green telltales of major ship functions. All she could hear beyond her own pulse beating in her ears were the normal sounds of a ship in FTL flight. No explosions. No fires. No crashing bricks or shattering glass. No reverberative boom echoing off the hills minutes later.
“Bedlight,” she said to the room, and a soft glow rose behind her, illuminating tangled sheets and her shaking hands. She glared at her hands, willing them to stop. A deep breath. Another.
The chronometer informed her that it was mid-third-shift. She had been asleep two hours and fourteen minutes this time. She went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror: she looked every bit as bad as she felt. A shower might help. She had showered already; she had taken shower after shower, just as she had worked out hour after hour in the ship's gym, hoping to exhaust or relax herself into a full night's sleep.
She was the captain. She had to get over this.
This time she dialed the shower cold, and then, chilled, dressed quickly and headed out into the ship. She could always call it a midshift inspection. Her eyes burned. Her stomach cramped, and she headed first for the galley. Maybe hot soupâ¦
In the galley, Rafe was ripping open one of the ration packs. “Our dutiful captain,” he said, without looking up. “Midshift rounds again? Don't you trust us?” His light ironic tone carried an acidic bite.
She did not need this. “It's not that I don't trust the crew. I'm still not sure of this ship.”
“Ah. As I'm sure you recall, I'm on third-shift duty right now, and this is my midshift meal. Do you want something?”
She wanted sleep. Real sleep, uninterrupted by dreams or visions or whateverâ¦“The first snack you pick up,” she said.
He reached into the cabinet without looking and pulled something out. “Traditional Waskie Custard,” he said, reading the label. “The picture is an odd shade of yellowâsure that's what you want?”
“I'll try it,” Ky said. He had put his own meal in the oven; now he handed her a small sealed container and a spoon. She glanced at the garish label; it did lookâ¦unappetizing. Inside the seal was what looked like a plain egg custard. Ky dug the spoon into it. It should be soothing.
“Excuse my mentioning it to the captain,” Rafe said, sitting across from her at the table. “But you look like someone slugged you in both eyes about ten minutes ago. I promise to perform all my duties impeccably if you'll go back to bed and look human in the morning.”
Ky started to say something about duty, but she couldn't get the words out. “I can't sleep,” she said instead.
“Ah. Reliving the fight? It must've been badâ”
That attempt at pop psych therapy almost made her laugh. Almost. “No,” she said. “I had my post-manslaughter nightmare the second night. This is something else.”
“You could tell me,” he said, his voice softening to a purr. When she didn't respond, he sat up and said, “With the matter of the internal ansibles, you have enough on me that I wouldn't dare reveal any secrets of yours.”
Maybe it was safe to talk to him; he had been ready to commit suicide rather than let outsiders know he had unknown technology, a personal instantaneous communicator, implanted in his head. “It's notâ¦it'sâ¦I'm not sure what it is.” Ky tented her hands above the custard, which was not as soothing as she'd hoped. Something in the texture almost sickened her. “I thinkâ¦somehowâ¦I'm seeing what happened back home.”
“Yes. I know it's impossible; I don't even know if Dad's implant recorded any of it, and I haven't tried to access those dates anyway. But I keep dreaming it, orâ¦or something.”
“A high-level implant could record it all,” Rafe said. “If your father wanted a record, something for a court. Are you sure it's not bleeding over? I mean, if he put an Urgent-to-transmit command on itâ”
“It couldn't override my priorities, could it? Everything's user-definedâ¦”
“True, but this implant's had two users. It may not know you aren't your father.”
she had been going to say, but maybe it wasn't. She'd had the implant inserted in an emergency, with no time then for adjustment of implant and brain. She'd gone directly into combat, and then the direct connection to Rafe's implant had made changes in hers, changes that essentially reconfigured it into some kind of cranial ansible. That might have damaged or changed control functions. And she'd never had someone else's implant before. Why, she wondered now, hadn't Aunt Grace downloaded the data into a new one? Unless it couldn't be done. “I hadn't thought of that,” she said instead. “What do you know about transferred implants?”
“Not much,” Rafe said. “I know it's possible to use one; I don't know how much residual control might be involved. That one was your father's command implant, right? I'd expect it to have special features.”
“It probably does,” Ky said. “It certainly does now, after linking with yours.” She looked at the cup of custard and pushed it away. “I suppose I'd better look into that.”
“If you don't want to go insane from lack of sleep and nightmares, that would be a yes,” Rafe said, pulling his own mealpak from the microwave. “Real food wouldn't hurt, either. How about some noodles and chicken? I can make myself another.”
It smelled good. Ky nodded; Rafe pushed the tray across to her, picked up her container of uneaten custard and sniffed at it, then wrinkled his nose and dropped it in the recycler. He pulled out another mealpak and put that in the microwave before sitting down again. Ky took a bite of noodle and sauce; it went down easily.
“See if the implant has a sleep cycle enabler,” Rafe said. “They don't put those in kids' implants, but the high-end adult ones often do, along with a timer. It should be in the personal adjustment menu somewhere.”
Ky queried her implant and found it: sleep enhancement mode, maximum duration eight hours, monitored and “regulated” brain-wave activity and damped sensory input. Users were instructed not to use this function more than five sleep cycles in a row without medical adviceâ¦
An Urgent tag came up: “Authorized user request: review sealed files.” Ky scrolled mentally to check the priorities of sleep enhancement versus Urgent Message, dropped the priority of the message to allow sleep enhancement to override it, and set a condition for waking. Then she finished her noodles and chicken.
“I'm going back to bed,” she said. “Tell first shift I may be late.”
Initiating sleep enhancement mode was like walking off a cliff into oblivion. She woke feeling rested for the first time since before she'd put the implant inâ¦languid, comfortable. After a shower and change, she went up to the bridge.
“Good rest, Captain?” Lee asked.
“Very good,” Ky said. “But I'm going to need to spend a lot of time today exploring data stored in this implant. I suspect it's going to be very intense. So if there's anything you know you need for this shift, tell me now.”
“We're doing fine,” Lee said. “All systems greenâthis is a lovely ship, despite the way she's been used. Whatever else Osman was up to, he maintained the ship systems perfectly.”
“Call if you need me,” Ky said. “I'll be in my cabin.”
She puttered around briefly, stripping the bed and sending the linens through the 'fresher cycle, reluctant to face what was coming. When she realized that, she sat down at her desk and activated the secured files.
In the afternoon sky, the sound of the approaching aircraft rose above the sea breeze, a steady droneâ¦
but this time she was awake, and viewed the audiovisual data as an outsider, not a participant. Her father's emotions did not flood her awareness; she recognized the silhouettes of the two craft before the implant matched them.
Still, the violence of the explosions was shocking. Her breath came fast. Deliberately, Ky slowed the replay, returning again and again to the same image: were they aircraft with missiles or bombs, or were they the weapons? That hardware could be either. They had come in low and fast; the implant did not recordâher father had not thought to look forâthe telltale evidence that might tell her which they were.
Ky put a tagger on the best of the early images and told the implant to find any similar images after the explosions, but apparently her father had not looked for the aircraft again, nor had he tapped into the airfield's scan data after that first moment.
Back to the beginning. The implant didn't tell her what her father was thinking that afternoon, but it held his planned itineraryâa flight from Corleigh back to the mainlandâand his planned scheduleâa meeting with senior management at Vatta headquarters, the agenda including the quarterly financial reports, dinner with his brother and his brother's wife, the next two days a series of meetings with the Slotter Key Tik Growers' Association, the Slotter Key Agricultural Commission, the Slotter Key Shipping Advisory Commission. An address to the graduating class of Nandinia School of BusinessâKy ignored the link to the text. All routine: he normally spent at least six days out of ten on the mainland; her mother preferred Corleigh's gentler climate except during the main social season.
His flight plan had been properly filed well in advance; anyone could have known when he would be at the little private airfield, and yet no explosion occurred there.
She noted that oddity and went back to the visual record itself.
The local offices exploded; debris rained from the sky. Another explosion; the visual output darkened. Along the margins, a row of red numbers appeared, giving her father's vital signs. She tried to steady her breathingâwas this when he died?
But no. The visual record returned, as someone pulled debris off him. She recognized the faces: old George, their pilot Gaspard, someone she had seen around the officeâ¦Marin Sanlin, the implant told her. Her father looked toward the house, now a tower of flame and smokeâ¦
Even seeing it, she could not quite believe it. Surely the comfortable sprawling house with its tall windows to catch the sea breeze, its cool tile floors, had not really gone so fast, so completely. Some walls still stood, as fire raged inside, consuming everything from her pastâ¦the long, polished dining room table, the library with its shelves of data cubes and old books, the paintings, the family roomsâ¦
The pool, its surface crusted with debris, shards of wood and ash, and then the horror of her mother's faceâ¦
Ky terminated the playback, squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again to the bland blank screen of the desk display. Her mother. Beautiful, intelligent, graceful, infuriating to a daughter who had never felt as beautiful, as intelligent, as gracefulâ¦she had been annoyed so often, rebellious so often, resistant so often to her mother's advice, and nowâ¦now she could never tell her mother how much she admired and loved the woman who had given her birth.
Ky pushed away from the desk. It was real; it had really happened; her mother was really deadâ¦no mistaking thatâ¦and she would have to find a way to cope, but not right this moment.
Instead, she headed for the ship's gym. Osman had not run a slack ship, and
had a superb facility for keeping a crew of pirates battle-ready, from the usual run of exercise machines to an onboard firing range. She would work some of this off and counter the effect of all those premium-grade rations at the same time.
Gordon Martin was there before her. She paused a moment, watching him do a gymnastics sequence, rolls and flips. He came upright facing the hatch and nodded to her. “ 'Morning, Captain.”
“Do you feel like sparring with me?” Ky asked.
His brows raised. “Of course, Captain, butâyou seem upset.”
She didn't want to explain; she just wanted to hit something. Somebody. “Exercise will help,” she said.
“You need to stretch first,” he said. Ky nodded, and went through preliminary stretches as fast as she thought she could get away with. Then they squared off on the gymnastics mats. Ky forced herself to start slowly, with the basics; Gordon matched her. They had trained in the same system and they had sparred enough before to have a feel for each other's styles. She was sweaty and sore when they quit, but she felt somewhat better for it.