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By Elizabeth Bear
Random HouseElizabeth Bear
All right reserved.
Thursday 2 November, 2062
The Montreal has wings.
They unfurl around her, gossamer solar sails bearing a kilometers-long dragonfly out of high Earth orbit and into the darkness where she will test herself, and me. She's already moving like a cutter through night-black water when Colonel Valens straps me to the butter-soft leather of the pilot's chair and seats the collars. I'm wearing the damned uniform he demanded; it's made for this, with a cutout under my jacket for the interface.
Cold metal presses above my hips, against the nape of my neck. There's a subtle little prickle when the pins slide in, and my unauthorized AI passenger chuckles inside my ear.
Gonna be okay out there, Dick?
"With a whole starship to play in? Sure. Besides, I have my other self to wait for. Whenever Valens lets him into the system, pinions clipped." He grins in the corner of my prosthetic eye. Virtual Richard. I'll miss him. "I'll go when you enter the ship. They'll miss me in the fluctuation."
"Be careful, Jenny."
Spit-shined Colonel Valens raises three fingers into my line of sight. I draw one breath, deep and sweet, skin prickling with chill and cool sweat.
Valens's fingers come down. One. Two. Three.
My body vanishes along with Valens, the observers, the bridge. Cold on my skin and the simulations were never like this. Richard winks and vanishes, and my head feels-empty, all of a sudden, and ringing hollow. It's strange in there without him. And then I forget myself in the Montreal, as the sun pushes my sails and the stars spread out before me like buttercream frosting on a birthday cake. Heat and pressure like a kiss gliding down my skin, and the Montreal's sails are eagle's wings cradling a thermal.
Eagle wings. Eagle feathers. A warrior dream.
I pull the ship around me like a feathered skin and fly.
Valens's voice in my ear as Richard leaves me. "All good, Master Warrant?"
"Yes, sir." I hate the distractions. Hate him talking when I'm trying to fly. The simulations were mostly hyperlight; I didn't get to play much in space I could see. Only feel, like the rough curve of gravity dragging you down a water slide, and then the darkness pulling you under.
This is easy.
This is fun. Richard? I don't expect an answer. He's gone into the ship, part of the Montreal now with her cavernous computer systems and the nanotech traced through her hull, her skin, wired into my brain stem so her heartbeat is my heartbeat, the angle of her sails is the angle of my wings.
"Got you, Jenny," he says, and if my heart were my heart it would skip a beat. I can't feel myself grin.
"Guess what?" His glee tastes like my own. "Jenny, the nanites can talk to each other."
What do you mean?
"I mean I can sense the alien ships on Mars-the ship tree and the metal one-and I can sense you and the other pilots. And the Chinese vessel following us."
The Huang Di?
"On our tail. No lag, Jenny."
I don't understand. No lag?
"No lightspeed lag. Instantaneous communication. I think I was right about the superstrings. It's not so much faster-than-light technology as . . . sneakier-than-light."
Implications tangle in my brain. Richard.
Can you feel our benefactors? Somebody alien left the ships on Mars for us to find. Somebody alien meant for us to come find them, too.
"And they can feel me," he answers. "Jenny, I can't talk to them. Can't understand them. But I know one thing.
I almost stall the habitation wheel as the Montreal and I continue our ascent.
Three hours previous
Thursday 2 November, 2062
Don't all kids want to grow up to be astronauts? It's not a strange thing to ask when you are hauling yourself along a series of grab rails on your way to the bridge of a starship, floating ends of hair brushing your ears like fingertips.
Let me say that again in case you missed it.
Her name is the Montreal, and she's as cold inside as a tin can on an ice floe. Her outline is gawky, fragile-seeming, counterintuitive to an eye that expects things that fly to look like things that fly. Instead, she's a winged wheel stuck partway down a weather-vane arrow, a design that keeps the hazardous things in the engines as far as possible from the habitation module without compromising the angle of thrust. The wheel turns around the shaft of the arrow, generating there-is-no-such-thing-as-centrifugal-force, which will hold us to the nominal floor once we're on it. There's no gravity in this, the central shaft. You could float along it if you wanted, and never fear falling.
I prefer the grab rails, thank you.
The "wings"-furled against the rigging like the legs of some eerie spider-are solar sails. The main engines are not to be used until we're cruising well clear of a planet. Any planet. From the simulations I've been flying back in Toronto, the consequences might be just as detrimental to the planet as to the Montreal.
Don't ask me how the engines work. I'm not sure the guys who built them know. But I do know that the reactor and drive assemblies are designed so they can be jettisoned in the case of an emergency, if worst comes to worst. And that they're shielded to hell and gone.
Don't all little kids want to grow up to be astronauts?
Not me. Little Jenny Casey-she wanted to be a pirate or a ballerina. Not a firefighter or a cop. Definitely not a soldier. She never even thought about going to the stars.
I catch myself, over and over, breaking the enormity of what I'm seeing down into component pieces. Gray rubber matting, gray metal walls. The whining strain of heaters and refrigerators against the chewing cold and searing heat of space. The click of my prosthetic left hand against the railing, the butt of a chubby xenobiologist bobbing along the ladder ahead of me.
Did I mention that this is a starship?
And I'm expected to fly her. If I can figure out how.
Big, blond Gabe Castaign is a few rungs behind me. I hear him mumbling under his breath in French, a litany of disbelief louder than my own but no less elaborate, and far more profane. "Jenny," he calls past my boots, "do you know if they plan to put elevators in this thing before they call it flightworthy?"
I've studied her specs. Elevators isn't the right word, implying as it does a change of height, which is a dimension the Montreal will never know. "Yeah." Grab, pull, grab. "But do me a favor and call them tubecars, all right?" He grunts. I grin.
I know Gabe well enough to know a yes when I hear one. Know him even better in the past few hours than I did for the twenty-five years before that, come to think of it. "Captain Wainwright," I call past Charlie Forster, that xenobiologist. "How much farther to the bridge?"
"Six levels," she calls back.
"At least her rear view is better than Charlie's," Richard Feynman says inside my head. If I closed my eyes-which I don't-I'd see my AI passenger hanging like a holo in front of the left one, grinning a contour-map grin and scrubbing his hands together.
Richard, look all you want. I marvel at the rubberized steel under my mismatched hands and grin harder, still surprised not to feel the expression tugging scar tissue along the side of my face. It's almost enough to belay the worry I'm feeling over a few friends left home on Earth in a sticky situation. Almost.
A starship. That's one hell of a ride you got there, Jenny Casey.
Yeah. Which of course is when my stomach, unfed for twenty hours, chooses to rumble.
"Master Warrant Casey, are you feeling any better?" says Colonel Frederick Valens, last in line.
"Just fine, sir." Not bad for your first time in zero G, Jenny. It could have been a lot worse, anyway. Gabe had me a little too distracted to puke when the acceleration cut in the beanstalk on the way up. "I suppose I don't want to know what sort of chow we get on a spaceship."
"Starship," Wainwright corrects. "It's better than you might expect. No dead animals, but we get good produce."
"Whatever happened to Tang?"
Charlie laughs, still moving hand over hand along the ladder. "The elevator makes it cheap to bring things up, and life support both here and on the Clarke Orbital Platform relies on greenery for carbon exchange. No point in making it inedible greenery, so as long as you like pasta primavera and tempeh, you're golden. I'll show you the galley after we look at the bridge. Which should be-"
"Right through this hatch," Wainright finishes. She undogs the hatch cover and pushes it open, hooking one calf through the ladder for purchase, her toe curled around a bar for a moment before she pulls herself forward and slithers through the opening like a nightcrawler into leafy loam. Charlie follows and I'm right after him, feeling a strange chill in the metal when my right hand closes on it. The left one picks it up, too, but it's a different, alien sensation. After twenty-five years with an armored steel field-ready prosthesis, I'm still not used to having a hand that can feel on that arm. I rap on the hatch as I go through it, examining a ceramic and metal pressure door that boasts a heavy wheel in place of a handle. I pick up the scent of machine oil lubricating hydraulics; when I brush the hatch it moves smoothly, light on its hinges.
Except light is the wrong word here, isn't it? My left eye-prosthetic, too-catches the red glimmer of a sensor as I pass through. "Seems a little primitive," I call after Wainwright.
She propels herself down the corridor-a much larger one-keeping one hand on the grab rail for the inevitable moment when she starts to drift to the floor. She gets her feet under her neatly, but even Charlie follows with better grace than me. All my enhanced reflexes are good for is smacking me into the wall a little faster. I stumble and catch myself on the rail. Gabe muffs it, too, God bless him, although Valens manages his touchdown agile as a silver tabby tomcat.
"The ship?" She turns, surprised.
I amuse myself with the hopping-off-a-slide-walk sensation of each step heavier than the last as I close the distance between us. This corridor must spiral through the ring, to take you from inside to outside "feet-down." I speculate there's a ladder way, too. One I wouldn't want to lose my grip in. "The hatchways."
"Less to break." She shrugs her shoulders, settling her uniform jacket over her blouse. I make a mental note to requisition some jumpsuits, if they're not already provided. Valens always seems to think about these things.
Wainwright continues. "And if it does, we can fix it with a wrench and a can of WD-40. That might be important a few thousand light-years out. Saves power, too. They're just like submarine doors, but less massive."
Gabe lays a hand on my elbow as he comes up beside me, still soft on his feet for all he's got three years on me and I celebrated my fiftieth last month. "Let me guess," Richard says in my implant. "Ask about the decompression doors, Jenny?"
"Captain." I brush against Gabe as I move past him. Valens's gaze prickles my spine as he dogs the hatch behind us. I swallow a grin. "What do you do if there's a hull breach?"
"Try not to be in a doorway. The habitation wheel is designed like a honeycomb, for strength. There are automatic doors for emergencies, and if the air pressure drops suddenly-they come down."
"They don't wait for pedestrians to clear the corridor?"
"No." She turns her back on me and walks away, leading us farther out of the floating heart of her ship, now my ship, too. "For Christmas, I guess we'll hang the mistletoe in the wardroom." She glances back over her shoulder with a grin that stills my shiver.
"Hostile environment," Gabe mutters in my ear.
"Enemy territory," Valens adds from my other side. "What's outside this tin can is trying to kill you, Casey. Never forget that for a second."
I square my shoulders and don't look up. He needs me enough that I can get away with it. "I'll bear that in mind, Fred."
He chuckles as I walk away.
The bridge lies near the center of the habitation ring. It's long enough I can see the curve of the floor, but not particularly wide. Remote screens line the walls with floor-to-ceiling images of blue and holy Madonna Earth on one side, Clarke Orbital Platform spinning like a fat rubber doughnut at an angle. "I've never felt claustro- and agoraphobic at the same time before," Gabe says. He brushes past me and rests one bearlike paw on a console, bending down to examine the interface. "Sweet."
I'm the only one to hear Richard chuckle.
I find myself staring at the padded black leather pilot's chair. Leather on a starship? Well, why not; at least it breathes. But it's not the look of soft tanned hide that pulls me forward, has me bending to trail my fingers down the armrest.
Most pilot's chairs aren't equipped with straps and clamps intended to keep the operator's head and arms immobilized. They don't have a glossy interface plate with a pin-port mounted on a cable-linked collar at neck level, either, and another one right where the small of your back would rest.
It looks like an electric chair. I sink my teeth into my lower lip and turn. "There aren't any physical controls?"
"That panel over there," Richard tells me, even as Captain Wainwright moves toward it and lays her dainty right hand possessively on padded high-impact plastic. It's a good three meters from my chair.
Excerpted from Scardown by Elizabeth Bear Excerpted by permission.
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