Captain Adams sits in his chair, a cup of tea steaming in his hand. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve. He glances at Blanchet.
"This is true?"
"Cross is here. I don't know who, I don't know where, and I don't know who's helping him, but he's here."
"I hope you don't take this personally, but could I see some identification?"
She nods, curtly.
The smart clay coating her body has transitioned from a more elaborate gown into a practical military uniform - green grey, with very clean lines. The hairstyle is a little longer than her actual hair, but not by much. She reaches into a pocket, and produces the card, sans handkerchief. She passes it to him. The captain taps the menu option that floats above it. A few seconds later it turns green as it authenticates a second key against the crown blackbox.
He returns it.
"Thank you, Officer Blanchet."
Adams relaxes into his chair. The Captain's cabin is substantially larger and more comfortable than any other on the ship, even the first class room. It has two bookshelves, a fireplace, a wide bed, and three chairs by the fireplace. Most of it is still made out of graphene and structural diamond, and the fire is entirely a consensus projection, but it does make the effort.
Adams seems to meditate upon the situation for a moment. Then, he reaches over to the small table, opens a small smoking box, and removes a long-stemmed wooden pipe, a small velvet pouch of tobacco, and a box of matches. Charlie notices that the smoking box is discreetly attached to the table and designed to be filled with deceleration foam.
Adams offers both of them tobacco, which they both politely refuse. He removes a small wooden spoon and tamps some tobacco down into the bowl of the pipe. He lights a match, holds the end of it to the bowl, and then shakes it out. He drops the smoking match into the recycling feed, and returns everything else back into the smoking box.
He places the pipe stem between his teeth, and sucks on it contemplatively. He blows smoke out between his lips, and closes his eyes. After a long moment, he looks at them.
"It seems to me," he says, "That we have two problems."
Charlie rubs his thumbs together in his lap. Adams takes another breath of pipe smoke, exhales, and continues.
"We have two pressing and unrelated issues at work here; that of Ilium, and that of Cross. Obviously, the problem of Ilium may prove to be grander in scope, but there really is not much we can do about that as the situation stands. That was a very nice maneuver, by the way, Om Frost, nicely done. However, though the question of Cross may be less serious on a large scale, it is significantly more pressing in the smaller questions of, say, whether we all live or die."
Charlie nods respectfully. He's impressed by how well Adams handles the tobacco in a fresh body. His hair is still drying from the saline bath.
"Thus, I suggest we dedicate our efforts to locating Cross. Om Blanchet, your cover seems to be reasonably effective so far, I suggest you keep it."
"This is my thinking as well."
"Good. For now, I suggest we simply bide our time and keep our guards about us. If necessary, we can take more extreme measures in time, but I don't think that will be necessary. I've dealt with Cross before, in another incarnation. It's not in his nature to remain quiet."
He chews on a mouthful of pipe smoke, exhales, and nods to Charlie.
"You will declare me fit for duty, Captain Frost?"
Charlie bows his head.
"Good. In that case, I now officially claim my position as Captain of the Burgundy. Il Frost, you will take on XO duty until such time as Cross and his accomplice are captured. Il Bell will return to her duties as the XO's assistant. That is, if you have no objections, Officer Blanchet?"
Blanchet seems torn for a moment, and finally says.
"Yes. I have concerns about XO Bell. She's the logical choice for Cross. If nothing else, we can be sure that Frost is uncontaminated."
Adams gaze rests on her for a beat, searching, and then returns to Frost.
"Bell? Do you have any reason to suspect her, Il Frost?"
"No, sir. Well, nothing tangible. We could test her, but it might scare Cross. We're best off if he doesn't know we're onto him."
"I agree. I'm hesitant to disregard Officer Blanchet's analysis, however. Watch her, Il Frost. Now, is there anything else?"
Charlie pauses to think about this. Something about the Captain's methodical nature is contagious. He finds himself wishing he had a pipe to chew on while he thinks.
"There is a concern about Om Rachel Evans, sir."
Blanchet blinks in surprise. The Captain raises an eyebrow.
"Edward Hyde. He knows the girl and her father, and believes she may be in some kind of trouble."
"Odd. I know Hyde by reputation, and he seems an exceedingly level-headed gentleman. Well, keep an eye out for anything odd, but don't interfere without speaking to me first. We have much larger issues at foot. Let her father deal with it."
"I believe that's all, sir."
"Nothing more, Captain."
"Good. We'll reconvene if there are any further developments, or when we understand more of the situation on Ilium. I'll announce my successful resurrection to the crew and passengers in a few hours."
They stand up and leave. Charlie politely seals the doors behind him. In the hallway, he glances at Blanchet.
"I'm surprised you didn't have him boot me."
Blanchet lares at him. Her military dress uniform is already melting. As she turns towards him, its transformation takes a turn for the unpleasant - something all black spikes and armor plating.
She presses into his face, hissing at him in a low voice. He feels a motion, and then her gun digging into his ribs.
"Frost, I don't want you to be second in command of this ship. I don't want you to be second in command of a goddamn chessboard. I only allowed that to happen because the next candidate in line may be a body-hopping serial killer- and it was a hard decision. I don't know you, don't like you, and if you do anything to endanger me or anyone else ever again, I will murder you. Thoroughly. Do we understand each other?"
Charlie stares at her impassively.
"Fine. Get your hands off me and go do your job. You might as well be punctual, you're obviously not good at it. If you were, someone on the ship might still have their soul."
He hears a click from the vicinity of his ribs, and freezes. She looks into his eyes for a long second. Then, she jerks the gun away, uncocks it, and holsters it. She marches down the hallway quickly without looking back at him. The spiky smartclay armor is already reconfiguring itself back into her usual dress.
Charlie waits until she turns the corner, and then sinks back into the wall, exhaling slowly. He finds himself shaking, involuntarily. He finds himself wondering, not for the first, or even the hundredth time, what it was that he did on New Damascus.
· · · — — — · · ·
Charlie sits in the aft lounge. The doctor is sitting in the back, playing a game with Pennycut. Charlie thinks it might be Blackjack. The cards are a public consensus projection, but the faces are blank to everyone but the players.
Adams has made the announcement perhaps an hour ago, and Charlie is still getting odd looks. His role has changed too many times recently, and the others are still unsure what to make of him.
Charlie picks at his lunch, which is chicken. The food assembler on the Burgundy is not particularly good, and the chicken has the grainy texture and spray paint aftertaste of a low-quality synthetic. Several of the passengers have complained, but not with much enthusiasm. What else can you expect from a ship in the Xiansuo gap? Charlie hasn't had real chicken since he left the New Kingdom. You can buy real food in the wealthier colonies, if you're rich, but the fabricated stuff is usually several hundred times cheaper. He finds himself craving an actual steak.
He dumps the remainder of his food into the recycler feed, and grabs his music player from where it hovers by his hip. With one finger, he scrolls it out into a wider pane. To avoid disturbing the others, he leaves it as a private projection and brings up a song. He releases the music player, which drifts back to his hip. He nods his head to the song, and relaxes. His eyes are closed, and he's perhaps a dozen slow breaths from drifting off to sleep, when his rig pings him. He opens his eyes slowly, and squints into the suddenly bright room.
A red floating alert is drifting in front of his face. He snatches it out of the air, and taps it twice. It unrolls into a window. A waveform is visible at the top, and a few pieces of text at the bottom as the Burgundy's computer has tried to interpret in various ways. He has only just begun to grasp the meaning when another alert pops up. Adams is summoning him, Bell, and Blanchet to the meeting room on the crew deck. Charlie thumps the music interface with one fist, suddenly silencing it. He stands up and walks back through the security locks to the crew deck as fast as possible. Blanchet and Bell are already inside by the time he arrives.
"What kept you?"
Charlie ignores Blanchet and turns to Adams.
"Sit down, everyone."
Bell seats herself next to Charlie. Blanchet sits down on the opposite side of the table, and Adams seats himself at the end. He throws a public consensus window against the far wall, showing what Charlie has just seen, plus a number of hand-written annotations. Adams picks up a public pen glyph from the wall, and walks up to the window. He nods at Bell.
She stands up, picks up a pen glyph, and nods at the wall. Her face is straight, and her attitude is all business.
"About twenty minutes ago, the Burgundy began to pick up radio activity from Regulus, from two distinct sources. The signals are non-repeating, and non-noise. It looks like the local black state, Magus Station, is still alive, but it's turtled up- hard. All we've managed to get from them is radio leakage from the shell."
She activates a public consensus projection, showing a false-scale representation of the Burgundy, Regulus, Ilium, and Magus Station. She points at Ilium.
"What we're getting from Ilium is a different matter all together. Magus Station is just putting out incidental radio that happens to get through the shell, and it's mostly text. Ilium's pumping out an intentional signal. It's weak and corrupted, but we're definitely supposed to get it. It's a video feed. I've run a high-pass algorithmic reconstruction on it, and we've got something out, but it isn't pretty."
She nods at the screen, and circles pieces of the waveform with the pen.
"The signal fell below the minimum reconstruction threshold very shortly after we came into range, we believe because the transmission source rotated beyond the horizon of the planet, so what we've got here is probably only a piece of a longer transmission. Also, before I show you this video, I'd like to remind you that this is a very heavily reconstructed video. The more complex the reconstruction of a signal is, the more plausible the errors in the reconstruction appear. We cannot necessarily trust what we are seeing in this video."
She taps a program, and a video window opens on the wall. Charlie can instantly see how low the quality is. It's black and white, and the image is badly corrupted. The image swims and jerks out of sequence with itself, occasionally dissolving (in part or in whole) into nightmarish patterns of jerking light and dark.
Charlie can see a man talking. His facial features swim slightly, and the scene behind him is an unintelligible mass of swimming dark. Vague shapes seem to move in the background, but then dissolve. He seems to be speaking quietly into the camera, and Charlie thinks he may be in a small, windowless room. Maybe not.
He's speaking, but his lip movements are too skewed to read. Charlie looks at Bell and raises an eyebrow. She shrugs.
"Sorry, the audio was unrecoverable."
He nods. Onscreen, the man seems to be saying something important, but it's hard to tell. Then, the video cuts away to a muddy pan over some kind of landscape. Charlie thinks he can see the shapes of people in pressure suits moving between gray, bulky objects. He's almost certain he can see stars in the sky over the landscape. The landscape is lit up by indistinct flashes of light, jagged white patches on the screen.
"Is that gunfire?"
"Either that or noise spikes that the filter exaggerated. I really don't know."
The pan stops, suddenly, and the few visible objects in the scene begin to bounce around wildly.
"I'm pretty sure at this point the person holding this camera starts to retreat."
The flashes of light intensify, suddenly. Charlie can see something moving on the horizon. It's huge, miles high, and a jet black that the filter cannot interpret. It's edges seem to ripple in a strangely organic way. It accelerates towards the camera, and then suddenly comes crashing down like a living ocean waves. The video crashes to static, and cuts to another image.
This one looks like the surface of Ilium. It's perhaps the clearest scene in the entire video. Charlie can make out individual craters in between the glitches. Something is progressing from one side of the plain to the other. It looks like matte black oil, moving with a disturbing implacable steadiness across the landscape. As it moves, it sinks away into the ground, dissolving the plain to black depths. Something flashes across the screen at speeds only possible in a vacuum. Behind it, tiny specks of light appear peppering the black thing. A fraction of a second later, they bloom into white spheres of light that expand like opening flowers, and die out into loose hazes of light and extinguish themselves, leaving nothing but slowly spreading columns of dark haze.
There's a brief silence in the room. Charlie stares at the screen.
"I suppose there's no question of what that was?"
Nobody replies. Onscreen, the feed cuts back again to the man standing in the indistinct room. The background is a little clearer, now. Charlie can more or less make out three gray walls. Something is behind him, perhaps a soldier in uniform.
He's talking to the screen, his mouth a vague haze of color, blobs of lip breaking and connecting. As he does so, the wall behind him silently turns jet black. Something comes out of it. It looks almost like the silhouette of a man. The speaker doesn't seem to notice it. As it advances on the ones in front, growing clearer and less human as it does so, the image slowly dissolves into noise, and vanishes.
There is silence in the room. For a long moment, nobody says anything. Bell, looking pale, returns to the front.
"I'd like to remind everyone that we cannot be sure of what we just saw. The signal to noise ratio was below three to two. About forty percent of what we just saw was algorithmic reconstruction. We can't be sure of anything at this point."
Charlie breaks in.
"Oh come on. You can't tell us that that wasn't a war of some kind."
"I'll admit it looks like that. With the orbital detonations, some kind of war seems like a good guess."
Adams steps in.
"Il Bell and I were discussing what was going on in the last image before it cut out. She thinks that a second video feed may have been interfering, or that distortion due to the narrowing transmission window might have been corrupting certain bands in the feed."
"It looked pretty coherent to me."
"That doesn't mean much. Both our own brains and the reconstruction process are emphasizing patterns in what is largely noise. The images we saw may or may not have any connection to reality."
She pauses for a second, and lowers her voice.
"Besides, what we saw doesn't make any sense."
Blanchet is still staring at the screen.
"Who could they possibly be at war with? Magus Station is locked down, and last time I was there, Regulus wasn't exactly overflowing with civilizations."
"There are three hundred thousand people on the whole damn planet, and they're all on one colony. Besides, this is Ilium we're talking about. What are they going to fight over, rocks?"
Charlie shakes his head.
"What was the black thing?"
There's a long silence. Bell shakes her head.
"Awfully consistent video glitch."
Blanchet glares at him.
"You have a better idea?"
Charlie pauses, and then continues.
"Then kindly be quiet."
Adams has been contemplating the inside of his palm, resting his head on one hand. Now he speaks up.
"If this is a war, then the Burgundy is not outfitted for it. We don't have anywhere near sufficient shielding or weaponry."
He seems to mull it over a little further, and then continues.
"Il Bell, when will the transmission source regain a line of sight to the Burgundy?"
'The days on Ilium are approximately two hundred hours long. It'll be nearly four days before it completes a half-revolution and re-establishes contact. By that time, we should be close enough to get eyes on the planet."
"Good. In that case, I recommend we try to avoid making any decisions four at least four days and have more information. As it is, anything we do is just starting at shadows. Agreed?"
Charlie nods, and notes the others doing the same. Adams seems about to dismiss them. Bell interjects.
"Sir, if I may. I just wanted to remind you that there's nothing but dead space on the other side of Ilium. Without using Regulus as a mass anchor, there's no way to turn around without spending months."
She stops speaking. When Adams responds, his voice is oddly quiet. He rubs his beard with one hand.
Then, he seems to come out of it, and speaks up.
"Il Bell, please inform us all if any useful signals are detected from Magus station."
"Il Frost, Il Bell, dismissed. Om Blanchet may, of course, do what she likes."
They leave, leaving Adams inside contemplating something inside his own interface. Outside the meeting room, Blanchet shoots Charlie a look of cold loathing, and walks away. Bell raises an eyebrow.
"I think she likes you."
"Did you find out anything about her? I was trying to figure out why Adams called her in on this."
Charlie feels briefly guilty, but forces it down without much trouble. Can't trust her. Can't trust anyone, really, but her more than most.
"He seems to know her. I asked him about her, and he told me not to worry."
"I suppose we can count on his judgement. He seems much improved, since his resurrection. I think perhaps the data corruption might've triggered some self-repair mechanisms. In any case, I'm glad he's back to himself."
Charlie grins, allowing himself to relax a little. Is Cross really this good? Could anyone be this good? Is this what all of his victims thought?
"I am too. I'm also glad that I don't have to deal with this on my own. If it comes to war, Adams is better equipped to deal with it than I am."
Her face clouds.
"I hope it's not a war. Adams is right, the old girl's not equipped for that. Anything bigger than five hundred kilotons will break her like an eggshell. We're packed with civilians- we don't even have guns."
Charlie glances at her as they walk.
"Did you really mean what you said about it being data corruption?"
She's silent for so long he's about to say something else; before he can, she finally responds.
"No. Not really. Even with data corruption, I've never seen anything like that. Some of it's probably not real, but at least parts of it are. I don't know. I really just don't know."
Charlie tries to imagine Cross staring out at him through her eyes.
"Try not to worry about it too much. The Captain is right. We can't do anything right now. We'll know more in four days."
"Yeah. Yes. Of course. Four days. Right."
Something occurs to Charlie.
"Say, Bell, what's your first name?"
"Gwen. Gwenneth Kyle Bell. My parents were hoping for a boy. How about you, Om Frost?"
"Charlie. Just Charlie. Pleasure to meet you, Gwen."
"Likewise. So, Charlie, what brings you to the Burgundy?"
"It's a long story. In essence, I'm trying to leave my old life behind and start again in the New Kingdom."
"Very dramatic. I approve. I suppose you have a dark past?"
"Very dark. What of yourself?"
"Nothing so flamboyant. I was stationed on Plymouth Rock for a long time, flying shuttles back and forth. Got so bored I wanted to kill myself, so I took a job on the Burgundy, fell in love with the ship, ended up staying forty years longer than I planned to. Now I'm going to do something else."
"Anything particular in mind?"
"Something that doesn't involve spaceships. I have some money. Maybe I'll get a better body and become a habitat engineer. Maybe settle down somewhere and start a family."
"Good luck, in that case. We could always use more habitats. More people, too. This is my stop. Good afternoon, Gwenneth Kyle Bell."
"Good afternoon, Charlie Frost."
She smiles at him, bows, and leaves. Charlie goes inside his room and spends about five minutes bashing his head against the wall. When he lets go and collapses onto his cot, his head is throbbing, but he feels a little better. That went way too far, way too fast. It could be Cross in there. He has a vision of himself in bed with Bell, her head resting on his cheat, his eyes half closed, and he never even sees the needle. And then he wakes up, and he's Cross, and Bell has died a tragic death. Charlie drags himself back to reality and finds himself shaking physically, and feeling ill.
He goes into the bathroom and splashes water in his face, trying to breathe. When he recovers a little, he wipes his face off with a towel and goes back into his cabin at large. This has to stop. He lies down, and stares at the ceiling.
· · · — — — · · ·
At dinner that night, Hyde sits down across from him. His niece is clinging to his hand and turning back and forth on her heel, staring at her feet. Charlie smiles at her, then nods to Hyde. He's camped out in the dining hall, avoiding Bell, who is doing a check of the maintenance deck.
"Om Hyde. A pleasure to see you and your niece-"
"Charlotte. Charlotte, this is Om Charles Frost."
The colonel smiles down at her.
"You hear that, Charlie? Om Frost here is a Charlie too."
She glances at him curiously, and then looks away. Charlie finds himself smiling involuntarily.
"It's alright, there's room for two of us on board, I think."
Hyde laughs. He hoists Charlotte up on his lap, and punches up two plates of spaghetti on the food assembler. After about thirty seconds, it produces them, still steaming and smelling slightly of plastic.
He sets one in front of his niece. She picks up a fork, and takes a bite. She chews, and wrinkles her nose. In a quiet voice, she says,
"Uncle Edward, this tastes funny."
"Shipboard food, my love. Wait until you're stuck on a ship with nothing but protein blocks and multivitamins for six months. Assembler spaghetti will taste like heaven. Eat up, you need to keep your strength up."
She wrinkles her nose again- but eats it. As she does so, Hyde casually covers her ears with his hands, and nods at Charlie.
"I asked the Captain if there was anything I could do regarding the trouble on Ilium. He told me to speak to you about improving the Burgundy's defenses. Please, Frost. Are we going to war?"
"I don't know. I hope not with all my heart. If there is a war on, we won't be stopping for longer than it'll take to turn ourselves around and get out of there. The law does not require us to die for strangers."
"I'm glad to hear it. In that case, I offer you anything I can to make us safer."
"Thank you. I'll get in touch with you if your services are needed. Om Hyde - I can count on your discretion in this matter?"
"Of course. Also, have you found anything out about the girl? Evans?"
"I've informed the Captain, and he's looking into it. If there's something going on, we'll find out."
"Thank you, Ca- ah, XO Frost."
Hyde removes his hands from his niece's ears. She stares at him reproachfully.
"I could hear you."
Hyde kisses her forehead.
"Of course you could, dear. Did you understand any of it?"
She shakes her head.
"Good. Now finish up your spaghetti, it's getting late."
They finish their meals with a bit of polite conversation, and then Hyde excuses them and they go to bed. Charlie sits in his chair with a plate of cooling assembler steak, as the last of the diners file out. Eventually, he's left sitting there alone in the dim dining hall. He leans back in the silence, and looks up at the stars. Finally, he throws the steak away, uneaten, and goes to bed.
LAST INDEX NEXT
This one's almost on time. Who knew it was possible?