halfway to standing
When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But . . . that is not what great ships are built for.
--CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTES, Ph.D.,
"Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times"
The first hint of returning consciousness was the icy tickle of fluid dropping across his lids, lashes, nostrils. Pain followed, the tidal roll of hurt through his body too severe for his symbiont to heal or silence.
Tristen Conn opened his eyes within his acceleration tank. As the hyperbaric fluid drained from around his chest, his diaphragm spasmed. Shattered ribs ground in his flesh. The tank spilled him on the slotted deck, festooned like a newborn with blood-stringed goo.
He pushed against the deck, but pulped arms could not lift his face from the puddle of oxygenated fluid. He heaved. Slime roped from his nose and mouth, tinged blue with blood, bringing with it bright pieces of tooth and lung.
He could not raise his head. He thought, Then there were none, and wished he could give himself up for dying.
But here he was. And if he was hurt, he was living. Beside his shattered cheek, cobalt tendrils groped across the deck, met and merged like pooling mercury, then sent questing distributaries crawling out until they found Tristen's skin. As his symbiont repatriated its estranged fringes, pain increased. Crushed bones shifted in rent meat, his body and its symbiont struggling to heal.
He might have whimpered, but the whistle of compressed breath was his loudest sound.
As the fluid dripped between his shoulders and down his neck, he lay slumped, staring along the seemingly infinite curve of acceleration pods lining the holde. The weight of all that empty space pressed him to the deck as surely as did the world's artificial gravity. In this position, Tristen had time to think.
One of the things he thought was, Isn't it peculiar that mine is the only opened tank?
He lay there until the fluid on his body had dried to yellowish crusts and cold air raised his skin in plucked bumps. The grinding of bone fragments lessened as his symbiont forced his skeleton into shape. Once the bones began to knit, torn flesh and bruised organs healing, the symbiont had sufficient capacity for managing his pain. He got a full breath without screaming, felt his ribs expand and his diaphragm flex, and pressed a palm flat to the corrugated decking.
The hand expanded as his weight bore down. Within the envelope of his skin, flesh and bone held. He straightened the elbow, lifted the shoulder. Dragged the second numb arm out from under his body. Braced it as well, pushed. Locked out both elbows, and let his head hang.
On your knees was halfway to standing.
Tristen gritted half-rebuilt teeth and finished the job.
For seconds it was all he could do to remain upright. He hadn't even the strength to put out a hand and steady himself on the skinned, gray-membraned interior of the open tank door. But if he fell, he did not know how long it would be before he rose again, if he had the courage to try it at all.
Sticky feet slurping the deck, Tristen turned and walked a step. Now he stroked fingertips lightly along the surface of the pods, finding his balance. Deep breaths, slow until he could no longer taste the blood on each, pushed oxygen into his blood. At least the atmosphere was holding.
Examining the warped bulge of the sky, he amended: at least here the atmosphere was holding.
Staring up at the sky helped keep his eyes off the horizon. It took ten dragging steps and forty-seven seconds to shuffle to the readout panel of the acceleration tank two places to the left. This tank remained sealed. Condensation brushed from the readout revealed as many orange and yellow status lights as blue, but even when he squinted to focus blurring vision there were no red ones.
That was relief, that fresh upwelling that stung his eyes and tightened his chest, though it took moments before Tristen could parse the sensation as emotion rather than pain.
Perceval was alive.
He leaned heavily on the mint green exterior of her tank and for the next few moments concentrated on controlled breathing. Strength was slowly returning, but he would need resources. Protein, calcium. Fluids and collagen and amino acids. All the substances his symbiont was depleting as it repaired his wounds.
When the holde stopped spinning in his vision, he lifted his head. "Hello?"
It echoed. Layered, complex echoes that would have told him a great deal about the shape of the holde--if he hadn't known it already--and the number and arrangement of the tanks. The heavy echo of fluid rang back from every side. Other than the one he had emerged from, each nearby acceleration tank was full. He wondered how many of the world's scattered survivors had trusted the voice of the angel when it declared emergency, and how many of those had managed to find an undamaged tank before it was too late.
"Conn." He tried to find a voice of command. "Conn. Can you hear me?"
"Prince Tristen." The bodiless voice was a stranger's, but it carried inflections familiar enough to layer new aches and sorrow over already-complex emotions. It was the voice of Perceval's new angel, and he could imagine he heard Rien's phrasing in its words.
"I hear you," said Tristen Conn. "What is your name?"
A pause followed, which would not be the angel pausing. When the answer came back, it was with the echo of Perceval's voice, the muddy qualities of subvocalized speech. "I have not been named."
"We're under way," Tristen said, watching egg blue bruises recede beneath the translucent skin of his arms. "Is the ramscoop functioning?"
"Yes," said the angel. A shimmer in the air, and it--he, Tristen guessed, though he must admit to himself that he was guessing--faded into visibility. The material of its construction massed only grams, but that lacework was enough to make a solid-seeming avatar. The angel's form was androgynous, rangy rather than slender. The sleeves of its black blouse hung from spiky shoulders straight to band cuffs vined with tiny silver and fuchsia flowers. A medium-brown complexion blended into cropped dark hair. It said, "We are maintaining velocity at approximately 30 percent of c."
"Structural integrity?" A long time ago he would have asked first after personnel. But with maturity had come the understanding that there was no life without the machine.
"The world is approximately 43 percent intact," the angel said. "However, portions of the superstructure remain beyond my reach. I am blind and numb there. Before the supernova, based on incomplete available data, integrity was at 64.3 percent."
Finally, Tristen allowed himself to ask, "Casualties?" He imagined the turning webwork of the world blasting through the Enemy, trailing irreplaceable materials and infinitely replaceable lives. The symbiont could reclaim lost bits of Tristen's blood and body, but whatever fell to the Enemy was gone.
The world had shrunk while he slept.
"By extrapolation, I estimate 16 percent," the angel said. "My communication and proprioception protocols are damaged. Contact with outlying sectors is tenuous. Life support is suboptimal in all sectors with which I do still have contact. The world has sustained intense radiation exposure and shock damage. We've lost a great deal of atmosphere. I am synthesizing carbon and oxygen from available and reclaimed materials and attempting to preserve biodiversity, but it will be some time before we are ready for more than a skeleton crew. Which leads me to the reason I have awakened you prematurely, Prince Tristen. I'm sorry, but I needed your help."
It was a completely unangelic thing to say, and it broke Tristen's heart along a fault line he hadn't known existed.
The angel's impulse to speak that way hadn't come from Samael or Asrafil or Dust, but from another consciousness subsumed in the machine. He turned the thought away. You do yourself no kindness when you play that game, Prince Tristen.
He said, "How can I help you?"
"My Captain," said the angel. "I fear for her courage and the resolve of her heart. And she will speak to no other but you. She says you are to be her First Mate, and I am to follow your commands and leave her in peace with her grief."
Tristen leaned against her tank, the medical green upholstery sticky against the skin of his back. He let his hand splay against the surface of the pod, as if he could touch his niece reassuringly through all the polymer and fluid that separated them. He knew that peace intimately and of old.
For all her courage and determination, Perceval was very, very young.
He said, "All right. Is life support in Engine functional?"
"The Domaine of Engine is closer to intact than much of the rest of the world, sir."
"The first thing we must do is repair the bridge. Start awakening such of the Engineers as will survive the process."
"Yes, sir," the angel said.
Tristen held up a hand. "Caitlin Conn first," he interrupted. "And please draw me up some schematics of the world as she now sails."
"As I now have contact with her, sir. It's the best I can do for the moment."
The bridge was not a shambles. Given its state the last time Tristen had seen it, he could only assume that its repair had ranked high in the angel's priorities even before he had given his orders. Fixing the bridge would be a service to the angel's Captain, which was in turn a service to the world itself. The three things--angel, Captain, and vessel--were inextricable in the mythology of both Engine and Rule. And inextricable in reality, as well.
Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Bear. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.