They thought the ship would be their salvation.
Zahra knew every detail of the plan. House of Wisdom, a massive exploration vessel, had been abandoned by the government of Earth a decade earlier, when a deadly virus broke out and killed everyone on board in a matter of hours. But now it could belong to her people if they were bold enough to take it. All they needed to do was kidnap Jaswinder Bhattacharya—the sole survivor of the tragedy, and the last person whose genetic signature would allow entry to the spaceship.
But what Zahra and her crew could not know was what waited for them on the ship—a terrifying secret buried by the government. A threat to all of humanity that lay sleeping alongside the orbiting dead.
And then they woke it up.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Kali Wallace
The Earth was behind me, but I could still feel it. It hadn’t yet let me go.
Outside the broad windows of the loading area, the long shaft of the Civita Station tethered the port to the ground. As they waited their turn to board the shuttles, the passengers gaped at the Earth, exclaiming with delight as they watched daylight fall upon familiar cities, mountains, curves of seashore. I had looked, once, when we took up our positions. I did not care to look again. A single glance had given me the profound feeling of falling, the gravity of the planet grabbing me back when I was so close to escaping. It was enough that we had left Earth. I did not need to gape openmouthed like these spoiled students now jostling each other for the best view. They could have been squealing schoolchildren rather than honored postgraduate research fellows, so inane was their chatter, so boisterous their excitement. They were supposed to be the best the United Councils of Earth had to offer, but they thought themselves clever for picking out cities as though they were pointing at sweets in a shop.
“Tell me when you spot our target,” I murmured. “Anyone?”
There were eight of us in the mission vanguard, four in the station and four aboard the waiting shuttle. We had assumed our false identities several days ago, long enough to grow accustomed to the uniform and rules of the Space and Exploration Commission, the arm of the Councils that governed space travel and research. So, too, had we grown used to the obsequiousness, the meekness, the smiles, all the playacting required to pass as proud SPEC members. But I was suddenly unsure of how loud I needed to speak for our hidden comms to pick it up. We had never practiced in such a noisy, crowded space.
“Not yet.” Panya’s voice was a whisper in my ear. She was stationed on the other side of the passenger loading area. Her blond hair was tied back in sleek twin braids. There was not the slightest wrinkle of worry marring her pale white brow. Her uniform fit perfectly, and she wore it naturally, with the blue-and-white SPEC badge gleaming on her upper arm. We had been greeting the Leung research fellows and directing them to their shuttles for over an hour, but Panya’s cheerfulness had not flagged.
“Negative,” said Dag, and Henke shook his head. They were positioned on either side of the shuttle door, waiting until it was our turn to load up our passengers.
“Stop scowling,” I said sharply to Henke, whose expression was creased in a deep frown. “Look like you’re happy to be here.”
One of the fellows glanced at me. I pressed my lips together and offered her an empty smile. The person I was pretending to be would not be muttering angrily to herself. She would be cheerful, calm, proud of her task and her uniform, never once considering that a career of such mindless servitude was an insult rather than an honor. The student gave me a vague look, then turned away to join her friends. Henke wrangled his sun-scarred face into some semblance of a grin. It looked worse than his scowl, but I didn’t scold him again. He disliked obeying me enough as it was. I had learned to choose my battles carefully.
You have to be one of them. A speck of poison in the cancer that is SPEC. That was what Adam had said to me before the mission began. Two months ago, in the cool desert darkness before dawn, he had brushed a strand of hair from my face and touched my cheek. I had shivered with guilt I hoped he saw as pride, with fear I hoped he took for excitement. He was our leader, our savior, and I could not turn away, no matter how certain I was that he had already guessed the secrets I kept from him, the selfish reasons I had for needing this mission to succeed. He had smiled and said, Inside you will always be my warrior, but on the outside you show them a servant.
We could not take chances. The Councils and SPEC were watching constantly. If we erred for even a moment, the whole mission would be forfeit. It was one thing to risk arrest and imprisonment for ourselves if we were caught, but it was quite another to endanger Adam and the family. They were too important. Adam was too important. The Councils had been hounding him for years: attacking our compound, poisoning our crops, stealing our family members away, all because they could not abide a free man living as he chose in lands outside their control. They would have no mercy for him if our mission failed. He often said he would choose death over imprisonment if we failed him and our beautiful future was snatched away.
I adjusted my feet slightly in the straps that prevented me from floating free, and I looked over the crowd. Everywhere there were passengers tumbling, shoving each other, somersaulting away, laughing and teasing each other for their inability to move gracefully in microgravity, all of them talking at once. They were being divided into groups and slowly loaded into small shuttles to complete their journey to the Moon. There were more efficient ways to move large groups of people, but those ships were utilitarian, uncomfortable. They wouldn’t do for these pampered scholars. The Leung Fellowship was named for one of the founders of the United Councils of Earth, the leaders who four centuries ago had come together in the aftermath of the Collapse to commit humanity to rebuilding a better world from the ruins of its near destruction. It was that work these fellows were supposed to continue. They had been chosen to spend a term in Armstrong City, and at the end of that time they would participate in the four hundredth anniversary of the First Council. It was meant to prepare them to become scientists and diplomats, engineers and politicians, explorers and artists. They were being honed for the life of “contribution and responsibility” the Councils imposed upon its citizens. They were said to be the Councils’ brightest, smartest, and most promising.
And right now they were trying to make each other vomit by whirling around in the microgravity. Long hair whipped, voices shrieked, curse words flew from mouths on showers of spit. I listened for the cruelty in their laughter, watched for the superiority in their eyes. They were young women and men now, joyful and optimistic, but they were training to become our oppressors. If they could see us as we truly were, their bright expressions would harden with disdain. There were limits to what Councils citizens were willing to contribute. Their claims of humane responsibility had borders as impenetrable as the walls that separated their gleaming cities from our sickly wasteland.
A voice boomed over the crowd. “Okay, everybody! Group three, your shuttle is ready! Line up and start boarding!”
The command came from a big man with black skin and gray hair and a voice that carried like thunder. Professor M’Baga was the faculty escort assigned to our shuttle. A theoretical mathematician: soft, elderly, not a threat. He floated his way over to Henke and Dag. He greeted them, shook their hands. They all nodded and grinned and shared a joke about energetic twentysomethings behaving like children. M’Baga admired the Flight Division tattoos on the back of Dag’s hands, clapped his shoulder, and thanked him for his service. Even Henke managed a convincing smile. In that moment I was proud of how well they played their roles.
“Group three! You’re boarding now or we’re leaving you behind!” M’Baga bellowed.
My pulse quickened as I looked over the crowd. These were our charges, now separating themselves from the others, carefree and unhurried as they moved toward the shuttle loading door. A scuffle broke out when one young woman accidentally kneed a man in the face. The man spluttered in protest and swiped at her, snagging her foot and spinning her away, which sent her barreling into her friends. The woman yelped and kicked awkwardly, caught the man on his jaw. The force of her kick—more accident than intent—shoved him backward into another young man, who caught him around the middle and easily stopped his momentum.
The second man let go of his friend. He turned. My breath caught. I saw him only in profile, but I recognized him instantly.
I had studied his face in photographs so many times I could see him when I closed my eyes. Black hair, brown skin. Eyes so dark they were nearly black. Angular cheekbones, even when he had been a child, more pronounced now. A recording of him roughhousing and laughing with his mother in her workshop had been played countless times on news reports in the months after the House of Wisdom incident. My own mother, ashen with shock and grief, her arms wrapped around the twins while they slept, had watched with tears in her eyes, murmuring, That poor little boy, I can’t believe it, that poor little boy. The other women at the homestead sat with her sometimes, not understanding the depth of her despair. We were at the time newly extracted from the persecution of the Councils and the shadow of my father’s supposed crimes, but only Adam knew who we were and what we had left behind. Everybody who joined the family took Adam’s name, so my mother ceased to be Mariah Dove and became Mariah Light, for brightness and warmth, for the strength of the desert sun, for the fiery blaze of stars.
The boy on the news reports had never looked sad to me. He had never cried. Not even at his parents’ funerals, where he had sat wrapped in a dark blue blanket in a wheelchair, his aunt rigid and silent beside him, a phalanx of security guards encircling them as empty caskets were fed into a meaningless ceremonial fire. The cameras had remained fixed on his face. He had not shed a single tear.
His name was Jaswinder Bhattacharya. He was twenty-two years old, and he was the most famous orphan in the solar system. He was the son of the woman who had designed the engines that drove the fastest spaceships and the man who had solved the root module salt accumulation problem for large-scale microgravity agriculture. Padmavati Bhattacharya, his aunt, was one of the most powerful Councilors in the United Councils of Earth, with a position so elevated few people had any true idea what she did. Bhattacharya himself was an astronomer who studied the life cycle of galaxies, with a focus on the quasars at their centers. It was a rather esoteric and impractical field for the son of people who had done so much to propel modern humanity back into space.
He was the only survivor of the House of Wisdom massacre. My father’s massacre, or so the world believed.
Ten years ago, four hundred and seventy-seven people had died aboard House of Wisdom, victims of a biological attack that had unleashed a fierce and fatal engineered virus known as Zeffir-1 into the ship’s atmospheric control system. The system’s air filters had been upgraded right before my father left the ship; the virus had struck right after. Captain Ngahere and the Deep Space Archaeology research team had accused him of hoarding data and hiding results for his own personal glorification. And, years before, my father had written a series of papers about Pre-Collapse biological warfare. It was a frail web of circumstantial facts and feeble accusations, none of them proof, but it was all the evidence SPEC and the Councils needed. They never looked for another culprit.
Bhattacharya turned his head. I glanced away quickly—but he was looking past me, through the window to the elegant spine of the space tether, to the Earth below.
I turned to see what he saw. The clouds, the seas, the continents. Cities scarring the landscape. The quicksilver glints of shuttles and transports reflecting the sun. I had not wanted to look, and now I could not look away.
Four hundred years ago, after generations of war, famine, plague, and environmental destruction, a small group of people trapped aboard an orbital weapons platform had unleashed their payload to detonate in the atmosphere. They had meant to destroy Earth, to put it out of its human-inflicted misery, but they failed. Humanity survived. The planet slowly recovered. Governments reformed, then joined together beneath the umbrella of the Councils. Humans returned to space.
We were supposed to be proud of that. We were supposed to cherish the second chance we had been given. We were supposed to be better now. We were supposed to think it could never happen again. But those of us who had forged our own freedom in Earth’s lingering scars knew differently.
Mankind will never change, Adam often said, his favorite opening to our nightly meetings. So we must make our own fate.
Somewhere out there, elsewhere above the Earth, our ship Homestead was already in orbit, with Adam in command. It was filled to capacity with three hundred men, women, and children—including Anwar and Nadra, my brother and sister. My team and I had been separated from the rest of the family for over a month. They had been smuggled across the border into Councils territory in small groups, slowly, carefully, at great risk to both themselves and the family as a whole, and we had not known they all made it until Homestead launched successfully. It was an agonizing and difficult separation. By the end of the day we would be together again.
The hollow feeling in my chest, it was not only from the lack of gravity. It was not only nerves. There was, pressing outward from my lungs, from my throat, from the chambers of my heart, a giddy hope I had never felt before. I would not be going back.
Boudicca’s voice came over the shuttle intercom to announce our departure.
“Good morning, passengers,” she said brightly. “Welcome aboard Pilgrim 3 for our journey to Armstrong City. We’re honored to have the recipients of the Leung Fellowship and future participants in the Second United Council traveling with us today.”
The students were barely listening, but if they had been, they would hear a pilot who was calm and confident, trustworthy to her core. Unlike the rest of us, Boudicca was not playacting an unfamiliar role. She had been a SPEC pilot years before, briefly famous as the pilot of the first ship to attempt rescue after the transport Breton crashed on the surface of Mars. Horrified by what she had seen, Boudicca publicly criticized SPEC’s response to the disaster; they responded by limiting her flight assignments again and again, putting her on shorter and shorter routes demeaning to her skills and experience. When they finally grounded her, Boudicca had left SPEC rather than accept the insult of becoming an instructor for her replacements. She soon learned there is no room in the Councils for a pilot who is forbidden from flying, so she had given up her Councils citizenship as well, turning her back on them as they had turned their backs on her.
But she had never given up her dream of returning to space. She had never given up her love of flying. There was excitement in her voice now, beneath the cool professionalism, and no small amount of joy.
“Our flight is going to be a leisurely one,” Boudicca went on. “The port at Armstrong is running behind schedule, so SPEC has asked us to spread out the passenger arrivals. Normally we could make this trip in under eight hours, but I’m afraid it’ll take a bit longer than that today.”
The port was running off schedule because of us: sympathizers to the family, the same anonymous helpers who had smuggled us across the border, had arranged for a complication in permits to slow down traffic at the Valle de México Spaceport, which disrupted the flow of lunar traffic. The delay meant that the orbital Tereshkova Shipyard, along with its steady stream of transports carrying supplies for the massive asteroid-bound ice-breaking fleet, would be on the wrong side of the Moon when Pilgrim 3 was supposed to be landing. We needed the extra time. We needed the distraction.
Boudicca finished: “So sit back, relax, and enjoy the view. If you have any questions, we’ve got four crew members in the cabin to help you. They’ll be serving lunch about halfway through the flight.”
Me, Panya, Henke, Dag as the cabin crew. Boudicca and Malachi in the cockpit. Nico and Bao overseeing the engines and cargo. There were enough of us to control our hostages, although they didn’t yet know that’s what they were: eleven fellows, one professor.
Pilgrim 3 was a small shuttle, with three rows of four seats, split down the middle by an aisle. M’Baga had chosen a seat in the first row on the port side, and next to him was a girl who looked far too young for university. The professor said something and pointed out the window; the girl smiled shyly. A prodigy of sorts, I guessed, and lonely for it. I remembered enough of life in Councils schools to know that if she had friends, she wouldn’t be sitting in the first row by the teacher.
Behind M’Baga and the child were a man and a woman in their late twenties or early thirties, older than most of the fellows, holding hands and so wrapped up in each other I doubted they even knew they were in space. Behind them, two young women pointed through the window at familiar landmarks on Earth. Across the aisle, starboard front row, was a short woman with spiky, multicolored hair, and a fat woman with dreadlocks twisted into an elaborate crown. They had fastened their harnesses without having to be told and listened attentively to Panya’s safety instructions. Good citizens, obedient, they wouldn’t be any trouble. Not so the two young men behind them, who were laughing and showing off. One of them had leered at Panya and said, “I’m so happy you’re here to keep us safe.”
In the last row on the starboard side sat Bhattacharya and another young man.
The second man was nobody of importance, but I had looked up his history anyway, curious about who might befriend Amita Bhattacharya’s son. Baqir Nassar, twenty-one years old, was born in a North American refugee camp during an epidemic of Danzmayr’s disease. He had left the desert several years later when his four parents—a complex marriage of two men and two women—finally applied for and gained Councils citizenship, but not before three of his siblings succumbed to the plague. Nassar was permanently scarred by the disease: his left arm had been amputated and replaced by a robotic prosthetic. He did not disguise his metal arm and fingers with synthetic flesh or gloves; the silver gleam caught the light when he gestured.
His scars were all most people would see when they looked at him. He would have to work twice as hard to prove he was worthy of citizenship, of this research fellowship, of a place alongside all the pampered children of the Councils. He would spend his entire life being blamed for the choices his parents had made, for being born in the wrong place, for being ill, for carrying the dust of the desert wasteland in his veins. The United Councils of Earth pretended to care for all of humanity, but their compassion had limits.
I wanted to understand if Nassar felt those limits, or if he pretended he was treated as an equal. I wanted to know what he was doing here. What he hoped to prove. If he knew that it would never be enough.
It was possible, I thought, that my mother had encountered Nassar’s family when she worked in the refugee camps during an outbreak. She had volunteered in the borderlands when I was young. That had been her first experience of the desert, the first time she saw how the Councils treated the people who chose to live outside its false security, the first time she tasted that hardship and freedom for herself. She might have held an ailing baby boy in her arms while his mother recovered from childbirth, bringing a small, insignificant life into the world while thousands died around them and the Councils offered nothing but overworked doctors and empty promises. As outbreaks raged and the camps overflowed with the sick and dying, the Councils dragged their feet, refusing to expedite the byzantine citizenship application process, refusing to open the borders, refusing to welcome desperate families, refusing, refusing, refusing. Far removed from the hardship, Councilors and commissioners argued about the risk of a global pandemic, the impact of devoting even the most meager resources to those in need, the danger of opening the gates and letting anybody pass. They may have kept their mutterings about plague-ridden criminals overwhelming their perfect clean cities to private conversations, to whispers behind closed doors, but still they muttered, and my mother heard them, and she never forgot.
Bhattacharya had taken the seat by the window. Nassar was on the aisle. I didn’t like that. It made Bhattacharya harder to reach.
“You’ve got a lot of crew on this flight,” M’Baga said.
“Yes,” I said shortly. I didn’t want to talk to him, but I could not avoid it. Panya was still cajoling the flirting young men into tightening their harnesses. “It’s a full crew. We want to keep everybody safe.”
“Including two with the engines,” M’Baga said.
I silently cursed Nico and Bao for sticking their heads out to watch the passengers come aboard. They were supposed to have stayed hidden.
“They’re a teacher and apprentice from the engineering corps. They’re only here for training and observation. There’s no work being done,” I said, hoping our prepared explanation would not make him suspicious. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, I trust it will be a smooth ride,” M’Baga said.
“We’ll do our best,” I said, and I smiled, and I wondered if I would have to kill him before the day was over.
After we had served lunch, about five hours into our journey, I gestured for Dag to come to the front while I went to the back of the passenger cabin. I moved carefully down the short aisle, holding on to the handles on the backs of the seats and hoping nobody noticed how uneasy I was in zero gravity. I wasn’t entirely sure how much more time we had, as Boudicca had kept updates to a minimum to avoid drawing attention to our route, but I didn’t want to be in the front, far from our target, when the time came.
The shuttle windows to my right showed the Earth, too small and too bright. To my left there was only darkness and stars. Neither view soothed my ratcheting nerves. I took my place at the back and hooked my feet into the straps behind the last row of seats. Beside me, Henke was massive, pale, and grim with menace. I did not tell him to smile now.
I was relieved to be away from Professor M’Baga’s searching gaze and pointed questions. Dag was a better choice for the professor’s attentions. He had spent years aboard various ships, working his way up from cargo loader to pilot, before he was caught diverting goods to a smuggler and was given a choice: imprisonment or revocation of his Councils citizenship. He had chosen the freedom of the desert. The Flight Service tattoos on his hands were genuine, and he was happy to chat amiably with the professor about flying transport ships to build Halley Station, piloting a gravity slingshot around Venus on his second ever command, stories we had all heard a dozen times before. There had never been any doubt that Dag yearned to get back into space. That was one reason Adam trusted him so much.
I turned my attention to Bhattacharya and his friend.
“Are you sure you’re going to have time to do all that?” Bhattacharya asked. They were talking about what they would be doing during their fellowships in Armstrong City—the same conversation most of the fellows had been having all morning. “That sounds like five projects combined in one.”
“Yeah, I know, but it’s worth a try, right? It’s not like I can replicate a low-gravity hydrological environment on Earth. If I can do this, maybe SPEC will look at my proposal for the Jupiter project.” Nassar gestured carelessly, then stilled, looking at his hands before him, pressing the cybernetic one down to the armrest while the other floated above his legs. The contrast between his silver metal fingers on one hand and brown skin on the other was striking. “Okay, that feels weird.”
“You get used to it,” Bhattacharya said. “It’s even weirder on the Moon, because you keep expecting there to be either Earth gravity or free fall, not somewhere in between.”
“Besides,” Nassar went on, “at least I’m not basing my entire project on twenty hours of telescope time.”
“Twenty-six,” Bhattacharya said. “I argued them up.”
Nassar rolled his eyes. “So that’s what you were doing on that call. What did you do, promise you’d name a black hole after the administrator in thanks?”
“She’s already got two black holes, three nebulae, and a galaxy named after her. No, I told her I’d ask my aunt about bringing up the improvements proposal before the end of the year.”
I listened to Bhattacharya’s words, to the tone of his voice, searching for any waver of fear, but there was none. As far as I knew, he had not been back to space since the House of Wisdom massacre. He had never spoken publicly about the attack; his aunt had shielded him from the demands of the public and press. The official line was that he did not remember—but he had been twelve, not an infant. I was only a year older than him, and I remembered those terrifying days so vividly they could never be cleaved from my memory. The Zeffir-1 outbreak on the ship had come only two days after my father was sent away from House of Wisdom in disgrace. He had not even arrived home yet; SPEC had been questioning him about the data he was accused of stealing. I remembered it all clearly: the twins asking when Daddy was coming back, strangers charging into the house the night he died, the solemn announcement that the Zeffir-1 vaccine would be distributed globally. My mother yelling at SPEC investigators. Nadra and Anwar crying when we left for the desert. They had been only five and didn’t know what was happening. But I had been thirteen, and I understood everything. I could still hear the tiredness in my mother’s voice when she said, There’s nowhere else for us to go. They’ll never leave us alone.
Bhattacharya had been old enough to bear witness. His decade-long silence had to be a lie.
“Hey,” a man said. “Hey, isn’t that—”
I looked up, a prickle of fear shivering over my skin. The unfinished question had come from one of the loud young men in the middle row. Brown hair, olive skin, lanky and tall. The one who had been clumsily flirting with Panya.
In my ear Malachi said, “Oh, shit.”
Boudicca’s voice was much calmer. “Relax. They were going to notice eventually. Distract them. We have time.”
“Should I make the announcement? Give them an excuse?” Malachi asked. I could easily imagine the expression on his face: frantic and strained, his brown eyes wide with worry beneath his curly dark hair. Malachi was copilot because we needed his skills in the cockpit, but I also knew that it was better to keep him hidden, where his inability to veil his worry would not give us away.
But it was too late now. As Boudicca had said, they were going to notice eventually.
“What is that?” the young man asked, and his words fell into a natural lull in the surrounding conversation. Everybody heard him. My heart began to thump faster.
“It’s a station,” his friend said, leaning over for a better view through the window. “Providence, maybe?”
Providence Station sat at the L1 Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. It was home to twenty thousand people and served as the origin port for ships leaving the Earth-Moon system on long-haul journeys. It was massive in size and iconic in shape: a broad ring several kilometers in diameter. It was also a good two hundred thousand kilometers away from where we were headed.
“Don’t be stupid,” said a woman in the front row, the short one with colorful hair. “It’s too small, and it’s not a ring.”
Panya spoke up brightly. “We can certainly ask the captain to identify it for us, if you like, but right now she’s busy following Orbital Control’s directives. They’ve got quite a mess to deal with today.”
M’Baga glanced at her, then leaned over to the starboard as far as his harness would allow. “You’re right, Ariana. It’s not Providence. It’s a ship.”
“It’s huge,” said the man in the middle row. “The only ships that big are the new icebreakers, but they aren’t done yet. Is it some kind of test flight? It could be an early test flight.”
His friend nudged him. “Nobody wants to hear more about your icebreakers.”
“I’ll pass your question along to the captain,” Panya said.
“It’s not working,” Malachi said over the comm. “They know.”
In the front of the cabin, Dag moved to open a storage cabinet; Henke did the same behind me.
M’Baga’s brow furrowed. “It’s too large to be an icebreaker, even one of the new ones. It almost looks like . . .”
The environment aboard a spacecraft is carefully controlled down to the smallest factor. The mix of oxygen and nitrogen, the permitted concentration of particulates, the temperature, the humidity, even the rate at which air cycles through the vents so that no passenger feels too warm or too cool, too stuffy or too drafty, all of it is determined by the ship’s computer, leveled and measured for perfect balance. There was no chance that any passenger aboard Pilgrim 3 would feel a chill.
But where there were cautious small motions before, now there was stillness. Where there was conversation, silence. The women and men on the port side were leaning and stretching to see the opposite view. Those on the starboard were staring out the windows. They were all looking at the same thing. Panya said something, another soothing reassurance to another volley of questions.
I unhooked my foot from the strap and grabbed a handle on the wall to pull myself down. I looked over the top of Bhattacharya’s head, past the ghostly shape of his reflection on the window. The voices flowed around me like desert wind. My chest ached. I could not breathe.
It was so close. I could reach across space to touch it.
House of Wisdom had been named for one of the ancient world’s great centers of learning, the name a promise of the discoveries and advances that would be made during its explorations through the solar system. Like its namesake, the ship had no equal. At the time of its launch seventeen years ago, it was the largest and fastest ship in existence, propelled by Amita Bhattacharya’s Almora engine—named for the Himalayan town where she had decades ago dreamed up the propulsion system that would secure her legacy. House of Wisdom was designed to glide through the solar system as the sail ships of ancient times had crossed Earth’s oceans, bringing the bold and curious to places they had never been before. It was meant to be a living laboratory of long-term scientific research and space exploration, an unmatched step forward in modern humankind’s reach for the stars. It was the ship that had established the research stations at Europa and Io, intercepted the probe UC33-X when it returned from its centuries in deep space, and rescued the miners of Ceres when a cascading failure had damaged the station’s water recycling system. It had traveled the solar system for seven years, and during those years there was not one person on Earth who did not gaze at the sky and imagine themselves aboard the great vessel, soaring among the planets. The day my father was invited to join House of Wisdom as part of the team studying the ancient probe UC33-X was the happiest day of his life.
House of Wisdom had once been the pride and joy of the Space and Exploration Commission. Now it was a crypt.
And we were flying toward it on a broad, gentle arc.
In the front row M’Baga reached for his harness.
“We need you to stay in your seat, Professor,” Panya said. She was still smiling, but her voice had hitched up a notch, taking on the breathy, little-girl pitch she used when she most wanted to appear nonthreatening. “If the shuttle has to accelerate suddenly, you could be injured.”
“Is there something wrong?” M’Baga asked mildly. “We seem to be well off the usual course.”
“There’s nothing wrong. We’re taking a detour, that’s all.”
But the fellows knew by now that Panya was lying. No ship should pass close enough to House of Wisdom to see it with the naked eye. For ten years it had waited in orbit maintained by occasional, automated thruster fire, trailing the Moon on its orbit by some two hundred thousand kilometers, and protected by a ruthless security net of high-powered drones. To discourage daredevils or scavengers from nosing so close that they would put themselves in danger, SPEC maintained a strict no-fly perimeter of fifty thousand kilometers, with severe punishments for even accidental breaches.
“I’d like to speak with the captain,” M’Baga said. There was a click as he unclasped his harness.
“This will be fun,” Henke said. I glanced at him. He was smiling.
Panya caught my eye over the tops of the seats. I nodded. It was time.
Dag drew a gun from a compartment in the crew area and pointed it at M’Baga. His face carried none of Panya’s serenity or Henke’s pleasure, nor was there the slightest hesitation in his voice when he said, “You don’t need to talk to the captain.”
M’Baga stilled, looking from Panya to Dag. “What’s going on?”
“You’re going to remain in your seat.” Panya raised her own weapon; her hands trembled. “Fasten your harness, please.”
Henke took two weapons from the rear compartment and pressed one into my hand. We were not carrying the suppression weapons the Councils favored to subdue people using electric shock or sedation. These were projectile weapons designed for use in space. Most of the passengers had probably never seen one before except on news reports or in history books. The Councils saved their violence for those they could not control, not the sheep who submitted to their will.
Nothing has weight in space, but there was a pull to the gun’s mass that I could not ignore, and it made my motions awkward. I caught the slightest sneer of disapproval on Henke’s broad red face. I ignored it.
“What’s going on?” M’Baga said again. He was speaking calmly, deliberately slowing his words, as though we were wild animals and he meant to tame us. “What do you want?”
“Please stay in your seats,” Panya said. “We don’t want you to get hurt.”
“If you tell us what you want, we can help,” the professor said.
The passengers gaped at Panya and Dag, all of them transfixed and on the verge of panic. I had not expected fear to mesmerize them so easily. They could not look away as Panya repeated herself, told the professor to stay quiet, told the students to remain seated. She spoke in the same soft way she used to when teaching children on the homestead, and like those children, the passengers were captivated by her voice—save one.
Bhattacharya was not looking at Panya. He was looking at House of Wisdom.
There was a spark in the back of my mind, the beginning of something that I might have recognized as doubt, had I considered it at all. But watching and seeing are two different things, and I did not know what it meant that, when faced with armed strangers on what was supposed to be a peaceful trip, nothing inside the shuttle frightened Jaswinder Bhattacharya as much as the ship outside that window.
I heard the click of a harness and snapped my attention to the front of the cabin. M’Baga hadn’t moved. There was a collective gasp, the passengers inhaling in fear—
A young man surged from his seat. The one in the middle row, who had been flirting with Panya, who had first spotted House of Wisdom. He grabbed the seat in front of him and propelled himself upward with so much force he struck the ceiling with his shoulder and bounced back. Panya and Dag swung their guns toward him. M’Baga took advantage of their distraction to unfasten his harness.
“Panya!” I shouted, but she was already reacting. She turned her weapon to M’Baga again, the muzzle only half a meter from his face.
“Please,” she said softly. “Sit down, Professor.”
But the young man, that stupid young man, he kicked the window behind him, foot skidding on the smooth surface, and launched himself toward Panya and Dag. He twisted in the air, his arms flung out, grasping clumsily for Dag’s weapon. He let out a yell—wordless, pathetic. There was a sharp pop. His head vanished in a pink mist.
My finger released the trigger.
Dag reached out to stop the body on its forward trajectory.
One of the women screamed, and once she started she didn’t stop. Her shrieks filled the cabin. Where there was frightened quiet before, now there was only noise. Shouting, screaming, crying, demanding answers and expecting none, a suffocating crush of sound. We were going to lose control of our hostages. They were panicking, and they needed to be cowed.
I pressed my weapon to the head of Bhattacharya’s friend.
“Don’t move,” I said.
Somehow, through the screams, he heard me. I couldn’t see his expression; I was looking at Bhattacharya. That face I had studied in news reports and stolen SPEC files so many times, as familiar to me as that of my own brother. He looked at his friend, looked at my gun, looked at me. Above their heads the red mist coalesced into larger droplets, the droplets into globules, coming together like the beginnings of a solar system, gathering around the bits of brain and skull. A molecular cloud forming a star.
“You’re going to do what we say,” I said to Bhattacharya, my voice just loud enough to carry over the whimpers and pleas, “or I’ll kill him too.”
The Earth our ancestors left behind was dying. They named this ship Mournful Evening Song because they could not see their way through the darkness. But if you can hear this, if humanity survives even now, we want you to know we have found our dawn. Soon we will sink our roots into the soil of a new world. We have nothing but hope in our hearts.
—Fragment 1, Mournful Evening Song via UC33-X
(Archaic Mandarin Chinese [Beijing dialect, circa 200–100 PCE]. Data reconstruction and translation by Gregory Lago, House of Wisdom, Deep Space Archaeology.)