Fiction: Aqaara – Part 14
We are pleased to introduce the 14th installment of our inaugural venture into fiction with Donald McPhedran Gibson's Aqaara, the second book of a speculative fiction trilogy Umiariak, chronicling a trans-generational journey to a distant planet. Set in the present day, Gibson's work reflects on what awaits in our inevitably entangled future.
A separate glossary covering some of the terms may be found at the bottom of Part One. Installments of Aqaara will appear every Tuesday on Outer Places.
A schematic of the spacecraft Anori may be found here. Links to previous installments may be found at the top of part seven. Last week's installment –– part 13 –– is here.
Apollo and Icarus fought for position, cutting one another off, as they pinballed up the Sclera ramp, Apollo vaulting over Icarus, Icarus back in front, slamming hard against the railing, Icarus hissing at Apollo as they swiped and clawed into the door. Icarus hovered back on his haunches, balancing like a circus bear, before lunging again, clamping his jaws down hard into Apollo's shoulder. Em swatted Icarus and threatened Apollo with the same, making them slump and look away, feigning indifference as she opened the door and then rushed in, crashing into the first set of chairs.
Calli sat alone at the crescent shaped table, her left arm draped awkwardly behind her, the translucent Sclera light awash over her, brighter against the wall and windowsills, making her more of a silhouette, not entirely there. "Look what the cats dragged in."
Em leaned down to her, kissing Calli on the forehead, and looked briefly at the genetic schematic at Calli's fingertips. "How's the Atavok genome today? U strands still letting us down?"
"I suppose some things never change."
"You saw Gem?"
"She doesn't see the point in any of this."
Em snapped her finger at the cats. Apollo turned toward her quickly. "What about your sister?"
"Down at the Uumasut."
"Yes, with Po."
"I wish I understood half of what that creature was talking about."
"More like a quarter for me."
"So the DNA strands." Em nodded at the Calli's work. "If it's not that, what then?"
Calli pushed Icarus over onto the floor and rubbed the length of his stomach. "It isn't how they're made, any material components. Nor the sequencing. It's what effects that, what causes the growth and delinquencies to occur, the permutations."
"Entanglement," Em replied. "Just like Lai said."
"You miss her?"
"It was certainly odd seeing her on that broadcast, like seeing a ghost."
Calli dragged her finger down the genome projection, compressing a minute triangle of spheres together. "I think about her every day."
Em scrolled briefly through her Bearing, looking for updates. "Better we focus on the deceleration now."
"The susurrations could annihilate the ship."
Em snapped her Bearing off. "Is that confirmed? I don't know."
"A radiated series of subatomic blasts set off in such close range to the ship? What else might happen?"
Em smiled. "We live."
Calli played with the blue-grey hologram, twisting and shaping the end of a DNA strand. "You believed in her, didn't you?"
"She would know what to do now."
"She's the main reason we're in the mess, Calli."
"That isn't true at all."
"Chantal wouldn't be in charge of the ship if it wasn't for her."
"It isn't her fault, Em. That's not fair at all."
"There was something wrong with her." Em sat down beside Calli. "You know that as well as anyone. She was lost."
"Lai is the reason we are in this ship, why we're going where we're going, why didn't stay and die on Hera. It's all because of her."
"That's what she would say, yes, but…" Em trailed off, breathing in hard, and then gestured at the holograms. "Tell me about this."
"I know she was difficult. I know that. I know she didn't listen as much as she should have. But she should have stayed. We never should have done what we did."
"I understand, and I don't think you're wrong." Em touched the edge of the image, moving her finger through the meniscus. "Sometimes anyway."
"That's why Chantal is in charge, because of us, our stupid decisions."
"Calli, listen, nobody did anything. Lai did something. She created her own exile. She just wouldn't stop. You said it yourself. She wouldn't listen. She didn't care how many people suffered and died. She was taking us in a terrible direction. And that had to end. I think that she wanted it to end as much as anyone."
"Lai would have had the answers for the deceleration. We would have more of a chance." Calli swiped the image away and closed the screen, looking absently out through the glare as AJ appeared in the door, turning slightly, angling her immense frame into the room. AJ had achieved an almost priestly status over the years, almost as much for his proclaimed transgendered sexuality – something many Atavoks had gone on to embrace – as for her advanced, albeit abstract, understanding of how they might slow the ship.
Calli leaned back, her hand backward over her head, holding AJ's hand briefly.
AJ continued along the wall, repositioning the chairs the cats had knocked out of place. "Where's our Gem?"
Calli flicked through her Bearing, hoping for a message. "Not coming."
"Needed Within," Em added.
"She promised me that she would come," AJ replied. "She really should be here."
"We should postpone the meeting," Calli said. "That's the only reasonable thing to do."
"Ah, well, reason." AJ's voice was a surprising warble between treble and bass, tiny syllables squeezed between resonating beginnings and ends. "That's a resource not much in demand these days,"
"You can change their minds, AJ."
"I'm the most foolish of all."
"Calli's perfecting our DNA," Em said.
"Oh, do I feel immortality coming on?"
"Careful what you wish for," Calli sallied.
"Just a thousand years then." AJ pulled out the chair and opened her Bearing. "I'll settle for that."
Och arrived, moved quickly behind them, head low, looking straight to the far point of the table.
"Imagine the arthritis you'd have at five hundred," Em muttered to AJ.
"The horrible skin at two hundred," AJ replied. "Twisted up like an old arbutus branch."
"A shrunken walnut," Em said.
"Oh, yes, sign me up!" AJ proclaimed.
"Just working on the standard," Calli replied. "95 years."
"Long time no see, darling one," AJ called to Och.
Och placed his Bearing on a minute semi-circle platform and, brushing the hair out of his eyes, offered a cursory nod. A pair of Ethis appeared, variations of Lucce, one tiny, the size of a doll, on the table, and the other immense, towering behind Och, brooding, as Och bent forward and studied the digital screen before him.
"Where do you stand on all of this?" Em asked Och.
"The deceleration models?" The doll-sized Lucce replied.
"I'm asking Och about the deceleration models," Em affirmed.
"Each model offers compelling numbers," the Ethi replied. "As was so accurately noted, there is no precedence for travelling at Hawking speed."
"None that we know of," the larger Lucce added.
"None that we know of," the first Lucce assented.
Nick, the Atavok advocate and Calli's old friend, entered the Sclera and took his place across from AJ as other committee members arrived – Faith, Val, and Ginny, the Human advocate.
Em looked out the wide low window of the Sclera and watched the first of the Kiki's to arch into Zenobia Pod, followed by a trio of others, and a quintet of MARAs, and then Chantal. Em leaned into Calli. "Why do I get the feeling that we might have to salute?"
Calli closed her program and wiped her hands across the table, glancing back as Chantal strode through the door, her entourage of Ethis, a version of Dee, another of Lai, two others too much like herself, behind her.
"Only the four today?" Em said.
Chantal skirted past Och and then Liyuan. "As needed as your cats."
"We need to postpone the meeting, Chantal," Calli stated flatly. "Gem cannot attend this session."
"Gem isn't here," Calli repeated.
"She was invited," Chantal replied as Liyuan, Baro and two others from Dante's engineering team arrived.
"Chantal, she is a committee member."
"If she decides to fool about with her psychological testing or wander off to the Uumasut with your sister, fiddle about with some nonsensical symphonic project, so be it. She's not here, so she's not here."
"There is a process, Chantal. We have a process."
"Down the rabbit hole," Chantal replied. "To coin a phrase."
Em scrutinized the Chantal-like Ethis, a much younger version in a first-generation Anori Infinity jumpsuit, the other more severe and yet elegant in her jet-black outfit. "I get it, Chantal. We all do. It's tempting to be surrounded by versions of yourself, affirming, I suppose. We're all a little lonely. It's just our condition."
"Your condition?" The Dee-like Ethi glowered back. "Is that what you're calling it?"
Em ignored the Ethi, continuing to address Chantal. "We need to take a step back, Chantal. All of us need to do that."
A cascade of blue and white discs descended from the center of the ceiling and projected a rotating image of their corner of Andromeda, the rhombus of orange-white stars, Anori floating between them, and Mina magnified in the distance, a map of where they were now approaching.
"Mina is .487 light years from our current transit point." Och's doll-like Lucce began the assessment. "All nineteen attempts to initiate our deceleration phase have failed. The craft remains at 4X Hawking."
"Absolutely no discernible rate of deceleration," the younger Chantal-like Ethi clarified.
The Ethi rotated in a wooden, awkward manner, like it was on tiny stilts, to face Chantal. "We remain at 4X Hawking."
"I'm sorry, but this is wholly inaccurate." Liyuan had led the engineering committee for several years now. "We have begun the process of deceleration; the sequence in fact has been initiated."
"At what rate of deceleration?" The younger Chantal-like Ethi demanded.
"There has been no reduction in the deceleration of the vessel," the larger Lucce Ethi repeated.
"Polarities in both magnetic fields have been increased." Liyuan's voice rose suddenly, almost cracking. "Each field has been raised at a 2.3-2.7 pulse binary rate; the numbers are increasing."
"The magnetic field pulse is not slowing the vessel." The Lucce behemoth projected a set of digital figures onto the three-dimensional grid. "The process of increasing polarities only triggers an increase in our mass which, if anything, makes it more difficult to slow the vessel."
"No, not all," Liyuan argued. "We have attained a deceleration to .92934."
"This is a flawed calculation," the behemoth Lucce Ethi replied. "Exactly the same number as this, .92934, has been documented 67 times over the past eighteen years of flight. It is not a deceleration rate, but a fluctuation."
"Even if the number were accurate, Liyuan, which we do no concede," the doll-like Lucce added. "Given that questionable assertion, how long would you estimate for us to reach a navigable speed?"
Liyuan crossed and uncrossed his arms and then leaned heavily on the table. "We will decelerate to an effective navigable orbiting speed in 3.2-5.9 years."
The doll-like Lucce walked along the table toward Liyuan. "4.55 light years, median, am I correct?"
"4.55?" Liyuan smiled, shaking his head apologetically. "No, it would be much less than that, no."
"What is your number, Liyuan?" It demanded.
"In light years? 3.2, 3.4 at most."
"3.2? Is that your number now? Very well, we will accept that number. 3.2 light years past Mina." It took on a menacing demeanor, head bowed forward, shoulders hunched, like it might attack. "How far would that take the vessel away from Mina? To rephrase, how long would it take this vessel to enter Mina's orbit from that point? Your calculation, Liyuan."
"62 years." Nick looked from Liyuan to the Ethis. "It's 62 years, right?"
The Chantal-like Ethi tilted its head. "62?"
"Maybe 63," Nick added.
"That's a fair estimate," Liyuan agreed.
"80 years, Liyuan, at a minimum" the doll-like Lucce retorted. "As much as 95."
"Eighty years or hundred." The Chantal-like Ethi stared at Liyuan. "It doesn't matter."
"It's definitely not a hundred years," Liyuan replied.
The Chantal-like Ethi turned on Nick. "Another eighty years on the ship? Is that what you're proposing?"
Nick looked back at her sheepishly. "No. I don't know."
"We've been on board Anori for 23 years," the Chantal-like scanned the others at the table. "We've lived for 23 years on this ship, 23 years on this ship. And we've barely survived that."
"Some of us didn't," the younger of the Chantal-like Ethis added.
"Many didn't," the Dee-like Ethi added.
"Chantal, please," Em snapped. "Let's try to keep your crew on track, okay?"
Chantal said nothing, barely even offering anyone a glance, instead staying intent upon her Ethis, watching each, having orchestrated their responses long before they had arrived.
"We would not be able to survive another ten years on board Anori," the Dee-like Ethi continued. "Let alone 62 year, or 85, 100, whatever your number."
"The humans will definitely not survive," the Lai-like Ethi continued. "Another mass suicide would be imminent."
"Oh, well, now." AJ shook her head slowly. "You have statistics on that for us?"
"We have moved forward." Faith sat with her legs crossed at her knees, her arms similarly entwined. "We have come together as a community, evolved from that, Chantal."
"463 suicides in one Minian year," the Lai-like Ethi continued. "Herian elders, fathers, mothers, children, not to mention Zhe Hu's only remaining daughter. The death toll was indiscriminate in the human community."
"Indiscriminate?" AJ replied. "Is that the word you're using?"
"We lost many more on Pedlarpa," the elder Chantal-like Ethi added. "240 Atavoks, and Lai, a leader of this community."
"This is getting us nowhere," Em interrupted.
"I move for an adjournment," Calli added.
Chantal shook her head slowly, tapping her Bearing, scrolling through the images.
"Dante will be prepared for the deceleration," the Lai-like Ethi continued. "Solaris' calculation of the rate and volume for the initial detonation sequence will be implemented."
"Just a minute now, Madame Ethi Lai, you'll have to pause there," AJ protested. "Solaris has not in fact calculated anything, neither the rate nor the volume of any susurration. And you are quite aware of that."
"What is your desired rate of deceleration?" Liyuan demanded. "What are these projections?"
"We need an adjournment, Chantal," Calli repeated. "We need Gem in council."
"We must decelerate to .6172 lightspeed." The younger version of the Chantal-like Ethis enlarged the Bearing images on the screen, focusing solely on the ship. "This converts to .6667 Hawking 4X."
"Demon speed," the Lai-like Ethi added.
"Demon speed?" AJ replied. "Oh, now, we've heard it all."
The Lai-like Ethi considered AJ for a moment, as if it was waiting for an apology and then continued. "If we are to reach Mina, we must reduce to Demon Speed immediately."
AJ wagged her finger, pursing her lips. "We said a fond goodbye to the Christianity bug long ago, and you're saying things like that? Come on now."
"Solaris has calculated the initial sequence of murmurations," the Lai-like Ethi affirmed.
"What's this now?" AJ asked. "A murmuration you say?"
"Murmurations," the jet-black Chantal-like Ethi added. "That is our preferred term for the deceleration."
"Oh, now we have the murmurations?" AJ spread out her giant arms and fluttered out her thick fingers. "You trying to make us think a flock of swallows will be slowing us down? Is that the idea?"
"The term is murmuration," the Chantal-like Ethi affirmed,
"What is the timeframe of the susurrations?" Liyuan demanded.
"The apogee of the murmuration will be sustained for a 3.5-hour period."
"An apogee at what intensity?" Liyuan asked.
"The intensity will vary from 0.8 petatons to 1.2 petatons at half-time oscillating intervals."
"No, no, no." AJ dropped her forearms on the table. "You're not doing that."
"We can't reduce our speed like that, Chantal, no matter how much you might want it, no matter how any of your incarnations might agree with your fears." Em tried to control her voice, almost succeeding. "That would kill us all."
"The murmurations are to be contained in millisecond cycles," the Lai-like Ethi retorted. "Damage to the vessel's infrastructure is an unlikely outcome."
"Half a petaton of energy released at every half cycle." AJ bowed forward close to the table, her face just above the smooth blue-white surface. "Those susurrations would obliterate Dante."
"And every one of the pods," Liyuan added. "Every single one of them."
"Your calculations are that of a flawed human," the Dee-like Ethi replied.
"Your susurrations will destroy the ship, Chantal," Em stated.
"The murmurs have only a 6.3% chance of causing relevant damage to the ship," the jet-black Chantal-like Ethi maintained.
"The resistance you are proposing…" AJ mused. "What did you say? 1.2 petatons? Is that right?"
"The range is 0.8 to 1.2," the Lai-like Ethi asserted.
"And you say that the process must be repeated how many times?"
"We estimate between 240 and 290 susurrations."
"Oh, well." AJ leaned backed dramatically. "And then we'll all be dead."
"What of the incongruities in anorthite density?" Liyuan demanded. "Have you taken that into account?"
The Lai-like Ethi stared back, unblinking, beneficent, its hands folded in its lap. "We have."
"The reactivity of the dark matter will far exceed any possibility of containment," Liyuan replied. "One susurration, just one susurration will annihilate Dante. It will be instantaneous."
"We have calculated an acceptable risk."
"Calculated what? What did you calculate?" Liyuan stood up in his excitement, his chair twisting back onto one leg, almost falling before Och caught it. "How did you get this 6.3%?"
"They are not my numbers, Liyuan," the Lai-like Ethi replied calmly. "It is science."
"6.3% probability? That is impossible. It is a lie."
Chantal looked up abruptly at that. "A lie?"
"The number must be at least 45-50%, Chantal." Liyuan stretched his hands out to the Ethis around her. "Probably closer to 75."
"We are lying?" Chantal continued. "Is that what you are saying?"
Faith stood, her elbows tight against her ribs, her hands slightly out. "No one is accusing anyone of anything."
"The number is..." Liyuan leaned heavily on the table, slumping forward. "The probability cannot be that."
"And because we disagree with you, that makes us liars?" Chantal continued.
"Your susurrations are suicide, Chantal," Em replied.
"And 250 of them?" AJ smiled thinly, her small teeth barely visible. "No, that's too much."
"There is no alternative," the jet-black Chantal-like Ethi replied.
"Once we attain Demon Speed," the Lai-like Ethi added, "we will adjust the murmurations from there."
"Demon Speed." AJ threw out her arms. "Murmurations. It's hard to keep up with you lot."
"I would like to see your data," Liyuan replied. "You need to share that."
Chantal did not look up, as she flicked her thumb across her Bearing. "You won't bully us like you did Lai."
"Like I bullied Lai?" Liyuan replied. "Is that meant to be ironic?"
"Like you bullied Lai," the Lai-like Ethi repeated.
"Chantal!" The words exploded out of Em, venomous. "Enough, all right?"
Chantal glared back, her hands briefly frozen, as if caught naked in a dream, and then, as quickly, dropped her hands and considered everyone, one by one, down the table, and back at Em.
Faith bowed low over the conference table, between them and made a low bow. "We all need to just breathe."
"Don't make this something it isn't, Chantal. This meeting is about our survival, about us getting safely to Mina."
Chantal did not speak to Em, but to everyone else at the table, surveying each face, challenging. "You accused Lai of betrayal. Treason."
"We need to be very careful with our words," Faith implored. "We need to listen."
"That was seven years ago," Calli interrupted. "As terrible it was for you, it was just as bad for me and many others. We can't go back to that. We have to focus on what is best now."
"Terrible for you?" The Dee-like Ethi shot back. "If you cared so much, why didn't you get on that ship? Why weren't you on Pedlarpa where you belonged, like you said you would be?"
"Is that the best impression you can do of my mother?" Calli replied back calmly. "Your program is flawed. My mother would be very disappointed to hear such weak and unconvincing delivery."
"Did you think she was a traitor, Calli?" The Ethi persisted, unsure what else to do. "Do you agree with that?"
Calli breathed in slowly. "What do you think, Dee?"
"Was she a traitor?"
"This is so tiresome, Chantal." Em rapped the table with her knuckle. "This game of you bouncing your opinion between these things. It just doesn't help."
"We are not things," the Dee-like Ethi stated flatly. "We are sentient."
"And now back to this argument," Em said to Chantal. "Every time the same thing. Surely you can come up with something new, a little bit more advanced."
"I put it to a vote," the jet-black Chantal-like Ethi said.
"We don't have all of the data," Liyuan maintained. "AJ has yet to run another eighteen hundred permutations on the increased polarities."
"All those in favor of initiating the susurration process-"
"We don't have the data!" Liyuan insisted.
"Are you taking over the ship?" The Dee-like Ethi demanded.
"No, I'm not taking over the ship. What do you mean?"
"We are wondering if you are considering mutiny, Liyuan?"
"Ah." AJ smiled painfully, unblinking at her. "The M word."
"I will abide by council-"
Chantal rose slowly, turning to the rest of the table. "All those in favor of initiating the murmurations, raise your hands."
There was a pause, as brief as it was, before Och, Nick and Chantal raised their hands along with all of the Ethis – Chantal's and Och's.
"Allowing Ethis to cast a vote, we're still doing that?" Em protested. "Apollo and Icarus have more sentience than any of those things."
"We are sentient beings," the Lai-like Ethi affirmed. "We understand the world as thoughtfully as any human."
"Certainly not an Atavok," Em retorted.
"With or without all of the Ethi votes," Chantal tapped her fingernail on the table as she turned to the door. "A binding majority."
"Gem was right," Calli replied.
"That this was a waste of time."
"We will broadcast the murmurations from Piursa." Chantal was already leaving, a silhouette in the door. "And everyone is invited."
The connector from Zenobia to Dee Pod was empty, a small Faith-like Ethi mysteriously hovering at the entrance. The ship's vibrations were stronger here, coming through the gratings and into the curve of the wall. Calli stopped at the center of the oblong windows and considered the universe, waiting for something to move. A patch of bluish stars stood out from the rest, forming a vague backward S against the infinite black. She waited for the form to drift, one to move from another, for the pattern to change, like a sign post moving in front of a distant horizon, but there was nothing, not even a vague sense of motion, as if she were only hovering, always in the same place, and then suddenly it was there. She felt herself drifting to one side, almost backward, one side going forward, the other going back, the sides the opposite of the other, as if the ship were spinning around her, putting her in her own orbit, trapped between those movements. It made her nauseous, like her heart had been pulled into the back of her head, a twisting contorted thing, up and down, all at once, and then spat out of that, lurching ahead, suddenly forward, feeling the Hawking 4X, that back inside again, the glare and things in the blackness flashing past, moving on into the darkness, as fast as she was moving into nothing. The blue cluster of stars was gone.
Calli turned as a Kiki came past, a collection of coiled cables and wires in its clutches, and then a convoy of them, anorthite packages wired to their carriages, surging past, as many as twenty, and then gone, leaving her to the quiet. She entered Dee Pod, smiling at the thought of her mother knowing the place had been named after her, renamed from Aeschylus Pod, recognizing her as a founder of the journey, some kind of guiding light. They had named a holiday after her too – Dee Day – to be celebrated upon arrival. As much as her mother would have hated the sentiment, she would have loved the irony.
Calli followed the train of Kikis as they descended to the Uumasut and soon found herself in the bushes and trees that tumbled out from the transformed complex, a sea of purple flowered grass all around, thickest against the wall. She entered the complex, the entrance of which was now lined with anorthite glass containers stacked several feet high, each of them populated with miniscule boochies. She bent down and to the nearest cubicles and considered the assortment of newly developed creatures – lemrils, squirotters, platybears and chinguars – and stopped at one she had never seen, brown with white strips and a dangling nose.
"Skunteater." Bryce banged in beside her, crouching over the cubicle; he had hardly aged over the years, was still a boy, the same wild eyes and complete lack of awareness of personal space. "Half skunk, half anteater."
Calli stepped back. "I can't think it would be too popular with the kids."
"The glands are the most interesting thing." He lifted the creature out and curled it onto his arm. "We think we might to use them to detect dangers on Mina, you know, with their sense of smell."
"Canaries in the coal mine? That the idea?"
"A little more advanced than that. We're building their reactive calls so that we understand the level of danger. It's not like they'd have to die."
"Don't we have computer readings for all of these things, Bryce? Do we really need to be doing this?"
"I heard the council meeting didn't go well."
"Waste of time."
"I don't get it. You know what I mean?"
"Chantal is set on deceleration. We all know that."
"Not that." Bryce stroked down the sides of the creature's miniature face. "I mean that I think about getting there, arriving to this planet, right? And that's such a Hawking thing and everything, but it makes me sick too. I can't picture it. The ship is the only
thing we know, isn't it, right?"
"Our mission is to get to a planet, Bryce."
"Yeah, but deceleration also means time dilation. Think about that. Think about what that will do to us. We'll have blot clots, aneurysms, seizures. Half of us could die. And that's just getting into orbit. The atmosphere will probably wipe the rest of us out."
"Even with your skunkers?"
"Skunteaters." He flicked his little finger down its nose playfully. "They'll try to protect us. Or at least they'll die trying. But let's be realistic, right? Remember what the measles did to the native populations on Hera? Remember in Failed Societies? One virus, one strain of just one virus, and an entire population was annihilated. This planet Mina will produce a barrage of viruses, things we know nothing about; there will be a constant and crazy barrage. It will never let up, not until we're dead or get back on the ship."
"I haven't thought about that class in a long time." Calli realized that she hadn't spoken to Bryce since Michael's funeral, and that had been at least two years now. "You think about when we were kids?"
"All that time. It was fun back then."
"Fun? I don't know about that."
"We could do anything we wanted, and there were so many people, and the Mara parks and everything. Not like now."
Calli thought about her mother dying and then not going back to Aeschylus, always working, never talking to her sister, and she couldn't remember why she had let that happen. And then everything that had happened with Gem, her and Michael, never seeing her, Calli hating her for that and then being almost happy when he killed himself, like so many others, with the outbreak of Decoherence Virus. She shuddered at the thought, knowing he was gone and thinking that was right. She still hated herself for that. "I still can't believe what happened."
Bryce tickled the skunteater on its stomach. "Yeah, well, I mean before all of that."
"I always like Piursa. Gem and I would go there all of the time."
"I loved Piursa. Magic, right?" Bryce looked dazedly back at her.
"Magic," she agreed.
He tucked the creature back into his bubble.
"You know, that Ethi is still in the connector, waiting there."
Bryce walked ahead of her, into the Uumasut. "The firewall is impregnable."
Calli followed. "Except for Po."
"Except for Po." Bryce went ahead down the passageway past the Nuuk. "Po is special."
It wasn't dark as much as it was empty. Where there had been projections of Hera – the coasts, deserts, forests and plains – were now naked spaces, the bald arching ceiling, wires or fragments of something hanging there, and the sand and dirt, anorthite-based, scattered loosely, bereft of vegetation. Calli slid her foot through the silty floor and kicked at the scraps of roots and rocks, bits of ruins not worth the attention. She thought of the Uumasut when she was young, seeing Finn pop up from the water, running down to the stone beach, Ashe with her, the moment so specific and clear. And now she couldn't even remember how long ago it was that Finn had died.
Ashe came down the thread-bare hill, bending over a half dead branch, pulling it into her thighs. She was slimmer, her brown hair coiled into a loose braid onto her left shoulder. "I thought AJ was coming too."
"Maybe later." Calli considered her sister's naked shoulder, the tattoo of Cx straddling the supple upper ridge to the top, the shadow of Lassiter stalking behind. "Where's Po?"
Ashe kissed her sister's cheek. "Tuning up."
Calli peered up at the Nuuk, considering the glow of Bearing screens inside, looking for Po's small form. "Does she have to plug in? Is that what's next?"
"Plug in?" Ashe laughed. "She's always plugged in. It's unplugging her that's the trick."
"It's so Hawking! Ultimate Hawking!" Bryce added excitedly. "Po is going to susurrate the susurrators."
"It's not a susurration, Bryce," Ashe replied. "I wish you would stop calling it that."
A Kiki hovered down, paused, and then coasted into the Nukak entrance.
"What's going to happen?" Calli asked.
"Po's going to begin her aria."
"I still don't understand it."
"It's an Ethi virus, Calli," Ashe replied. "Po's aria will create a diversion of energy that will cause shutdowns."
"Chantal will figure it out," Calli said.
"She doesn't understand any of this," Bryce insisted. "Her Ethis will have memory lapses and hopefully create the illusion that their susurrations have already happened."
"She mentioned the whole thing at the council meeting. She knows."
"Calli, so what if she does?" Ashe replied.
"It will create open conflict. She will shut the ship down."
"Shut what down? She doesn't know anything about how to run the ship. Och is doing everything, not her."
"I don't know why we couldn't have solved it another way," Calli replied.
"We tried that," Ashe replied. "Didn't you? You tried."
"What I'm saying is that we've lost our purpose, Ashe. We don't know who we are anymore. This shouldn't be happening, all of this."
"It's going to work, Calli."
"Seriously, Ashe, we're lost, like Lai said," Calli continued. "It's a fucking rabbit hole, you so deep and then you don't know where you are anymore. I don't know who I am. Nobody does. If we ever did. There was supposed to be something at the start of this journey, some meaning, a reason for coming out here, and now we're doing this."
"We're saving the ship. We're doing what we have to do to survive."
"We were supposed to believe in each other, Ashe. That's the reason for all of this, for leaving Hera."
"We do," Ashe replied. "And we can't let one person take that over."
"It just seems…I don't know. I wish there was another way."
Po's voice rose, a marvelous and immense emptiness that began with a single oscillation of the engine, Dante, that single fundamental note of the engine that had driven the ship for all these years.
"Listen," Ashe announced. "Po has begun."
The sound came from all points on the ship, each pod and portal gap, from outside the ship, in the vacuum of space, and then layered, one perception of sound upon another, one by one, each perception, each listener's sound building upon each other's, singular, as if the ship were multiplying and shrinking together, going back, going in, the notes stretching out, and became something else, where it was no longer a sound, but an echo, a cycle of those echoes, what the listener had within, the heart and lungs absorbed and repurposed, the sounds of the listener and the recording of Dante building together, in unison, and then out, euphonious to discordant, stripped back, layers dissolved, hollow, vanishing until building again, waves rushing back into themselves, into its own sea-ness, wave upon wave, hundreds and millions, linear, exact, slowed by half, and again, a quarter, an eighth, a sixteenth, a thirty-second, a sixty-fourth, the ebb and flow merging into something else, each one in and out of each other, subsumed in that, no longer heard, until there wasn't anything else.