Pain blooms like the darkness between stars, and it blurs until I cannot separate the wounds. Mine, from the Phage’s; Typhon’s, as the Elder struggles against damage both on his surface and inside; the Phage hurt him badly, and the agony is in his spirit as well as healing flesh. He holds Marko and Chao-Xing at bay and cannot allow them to offer comfort.
I am injured but fortunate. I have Zara Cole. I have Beatriz Teixeira. I have bonds that nourish and heal my spirit. I know that I am loved.
We have survived the Phage, an enemy I did not know until it struck. An enemy that has slaughtered my kind by the hundreds.
I am a soldier in a war that I did not know existed, and into this war I have taken my Honors. It would be easy to blame the Elders for this, but perhaps the Elders had no easy choices. I only regret that this new, dire enemy puts my Zara and Beatriz at greater risk.
We must find shelter.
We must find the means to fight, and the will to survive.
The Phage must be stopped.
A renegade outpost on the fringes of the Segarian galaxy, established after the fall of the Segarian Communal Reign. When the Segarians fell, Fellkin raiders stripped industrial outposts for resources to power their mag ships.
Outpost 1473, built into the dense alloy of a naturally occurring planetoid, survived nearly intact. For generations, remnants of Segarians held the outpost. Upon their extinction [note: original sources conflict as to cause] the entity Bacia Annont [see separate citation] seized control of the outpost and began an extensive building project that welcomed trade from Fellkin raiders, Bruqvisz pirates, Elaszi traders, and other species dealing in unlawful or quasi-lawful salvage. Bacia Annont renamed Outpost 1473 as the Sliver.
Trade with the Sliver is strictly interdicted by 942 treaties.
This does not prevent its successful, and profitable, operation.
— Entry in the Journey database, logged by historian Sanvarell, ship Trellven, bond name Santrell. Santrell is recorded as lost to a Phage swarm.
“Does this hurt, Honor Zara?”
Our autodoc, EMITU, poked my wounded arm with an extended probe. I only knew that because I opened my eyes and saw it happen. “No,” I said. “I can’t feel anything.”
“Ah,” EMITU said. “Well, that’s probably unfortunate, since I haven’t numbed you.”
I tried to sit up, but I was too tired, and the medbed too comfortable. “Are you kidding? Because if you are, I’m going to scrap your drives.”
“If you’re paralyzed, that might be difficult,” it shot back. “I haven’t given you any nerve blocks because it appears the alien blood—if all this fluid smeared on you is blood—has a quite adequate numbing effect.”
“Is it toxic?”
“Oh yes,” it said cheerfully. “Highly toxic. Please brace for chemical bath.”
I was drawing breath to give him some choice New Detroit attitude when a high-pressure liquid came jetting down from the nozzles above, so strong it flattened me against the bed. It tasted like cherry-flavored vomit, and I tried not to notice the gross aftertaste, because once it was done, the bed rippled and stretched around me and calmly flipped me over like a half-done pancake. More spray pressure on my backside.
“Excellent,” EMITU pronounced, while the bed flipped me to the upside again. “Ninety-nine percent clearance. Intensive treatment required on wound. Please try not to scream.”
Thanks to Bea’s hacks, EMITU was ghoulishly gleeful, and of course I did scream, a lot, when the high-pressure spray hit inside my wounds with pinpoint precision, like a diamond drill. I passed out for a second or two. When I opened my eyes, EMITU was leaning over me, and with all its metal surfaces and flexible extenders moving, it looked like a nightmare . . . only this nightmare was skillfully knitting fresh skin back over the mess of my arm.
“Done,” EMITU said in its typical cocky voice as it whipped away from the bed and plugged back into its charging port. “Regrets, Honor Zara, but you will live. Now get out. I have to mop up your copious loss of blood.”
EMITU had been reprogrammed as a joke, but I wanted to keep it this way. The gallows humor suited me, especially when I was scared and off-balance.
When Nadim—the intelligent ship that I was living inside, the one who cared for me, who’d bonded with me in ways that neither of us fully understood yet—suffered, it was worse for me than my own injuries. If you’d told me a year ago that Zara Cole, survivor of the streets, would have been picked for the greatest adventure in the world—the Honors—and sent into space like this, I’d have called immediate bullshit. I wasn’t Honors material. But here I was, wearing the somewhat grimy, torn remains of an Honors uniform.
Surprisingly enough, until the Phage showed up, I was . . . happy, being an Honor. Panicked half the time, but there was an edge of roller-coaster adventure to it too. This was the best and freest I’d ever felt, yet I’d also witnessed the destruction of the Gathering—where the Phage had slaughtered Nadim’s fellow Leviathan—and I couldn’t forget the shredded corpses, bleeding starlight.
That reduced everything to survival.
Now I was afraid for Nadim. For all of us.
Elder Typhon, the only other known Leviathan survivor, was all jacked up too, bad enough that his Honors, Marko Dunajski and Zhang Chao-Xing, were still with us a day after the fight. Typhon wasn’t saying much beyond no, and we were all worried, especially his exiled crew.
The door to the medbay slid open while I was putting on a fresh uniform. I only had three left. I’d have to find something else to wear, and quick. You wouldn’t think space would be so hard on the wardrobe, but I’d run through fewer outfits living on the streets in New Detroit’s Lower Eight.
Chao-Xing surveyed me head to toe, which was discomfiting, since 40 percent of me wasn’t yet covered up. She looked spit-perfect, from her glossy black hair tied in a bun behind her head to the spotless uniform she’d put on. Like mine, an Honors uniform, but hers was black with red stripes, the sign of an Honor who’d been matched to a Leviathan for the Journey and become a permanent partner.
“You seem better,” she said.
I tried not wince as I pulled my pants up the rest of the way and fastened them. Thank the stars the boots were self-sealing, so I jammed my feet into them and let them do the rest.
“Yeah. I’m great,” I lied. In fact, I felt shaky as hell. “Sitrep?”
“We have a problem.”
“Just like every other damn day,” I said. “What is it now?”
“Yusuf,” she said. “He’s not well.”
“Lucky for us, EMITU’s ready to go,” I said. “Bring him in.”
“I have already seen Honor Yusuf,” EMITU piped up. “Unfortunately, although my technical abilities are unmatched, my diagnostic matrix does not identify the specific type of illness that he has contracted, and as such, my ability to treat him is classified as ‘bullshit’ by Honor Zhang Chao-Xing.”
“I assume that was a free translation,” I said to C-X. She shrugged. “So . . . if EMITU can’t fix him, what do we do?”
“We already need help for Typhon,” she said. “He’s got serious wounds. So does Nadim, for that matter.”
“We need to find stars for them.” Leviathan healed themselves using starlight—and the more specific the frequency of the light waves was to the Leviathan’s specific physiology, the faster the healing. But so far, the same frequencies hadn’t worked out for both Typhon and Nadim, so that meant two potentially long trips and extended stays . . . and Yusuf wouldn’t get any better, meanwhile. “How bad is Yusuf?”
“I estimate at his current rate of failure, he will be excess baggage in less than two ship weeks,” EMITU said. “I might be able to maintain him that long with creative treatments for specific symptoms.”
That sounded even worse than I’d thought. Two weeks? We were on the run from the Phage swarm. We needed refuge and a place where our Leviathan could heal and restore their full strength. Not to mention a place where we might be able to upgrade Nadim’s skin to some kind of armor and get him some weapons.
“Hey,” I said. “Were you aboard Typhon for any part of his upgrades?”
C-X gave me a quick look. “No, but if the question is where were they done, I have some ideas.” Without waiting, she executed a perfect military turn and strode out of the medbay, leaving me to follow, or not. I did, matching my stride to hers. She managed to lengthen hers just a bit more. Not that we were competitive.
“I assume there are aliens out here who operate some kind of facilities, right?” I said. “That’s where the Leviathan negotiate for upgrades?”
“There are several places it could be done,” C-X said. “I’ll link Nadim’s database to Typhon’s, and we can see what’s nearest to us.”
“Can one of these places also treat Yusuf?”
“Humans are still rare out here, and relatively few of us have ever needed more than an EMITU could provide. But it’s possible.”
“Okay,” I said. “You look for someplace that fits what we need. I’ll check on Yusuf.”
She nodded, and we split at the corridor’s end—her, toward what Beatriz and I had dubbed Ops, and me toward the rooms that we’d used for our new refugees: Starcurrent, who was a confusing mass of tentacles and good humor, and Yusuf. I didn’t know which door was which, so I reached out to Nadim. Hey, help me out?
Nadim had been in the background through everything: through the agony with EMITU, and the conversation with Chao-Xing. So he knew what I was talking about. I didn’t want to intrude, he said, and as ever, there was a warmth that filled me when we talked, something that felt steady and perfect, like two different notes making harmony . . . but beneath that, I could feel that he was blocking me from his own pain. I hadn’t held back on mine.
How are you? I asked.
I am well enough at the moment, he responded. My injuries are not as severe as Typhon’s. You are going to speak with Yusuf?
If you tell me which door he’s behind.
On cue, one door glowed a soft, pearly white. I knocked, and it slid open.
I expected Yusuf to be lying down, but he stood at the far wall, standing, gazing out on deep space. Nadim had made the wall transparent for him. He turned to look at me, and I was struck by how old he seemed—not in years, but his eyes looked ancient and exhausted. He was about thirty, with long braids, and rich, deep-brown skin. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Honor Cole,” he greeted me. “Shall we sit?”
I nodded, and he perched on the edge of the bed. I took the chair set off from it, near the small table. “Are you, uh, comfortable?”
That got me a shadow of a smile. “As well I can be,” he said. “Given the circumstances.”
Yusuf had been deep bonded, as few people had been, and he’d lost her in the massacre back at the Gathering. In her last moment, his ship had launched him in a lifepod, trying desperately to save him.
And she had. But it looked to me like the battle wasn’t over yet.
“So, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“So they say. But it’s an illness EMITU doesn’t recognize.”
“It’s an alien viral strain I contracted a few months ago. My Leviathan obtained treatments for me, but they were lost with her.” I could see him reliving it again: the terror, the agony, the utter desolation. It was like watching someone die and grieve and revive, all in a microsecond. “Lost with her,” he repeated.
“Okay.” I kept my tone brisk, though it was hard to watch him suffer. I didn’t think he’d appreciate sympathy, even if I offered it. “Where do we find more of this treatment?”
“Most trading stations will have it,” he said. “But it’s expensive.”
“You warning me that you might not be worth it?”
“I’m just saying. If you can’t pay, I understand. EMITU could make me comfortable enough.” Until the end. He didn’t add that part, but I heard it nonetheless.
“You think that’s who we are?”
“I don’t know you,” he said. “And you don’t know me.”
“Well, I know it’s good to see a brother out here, and I’m damned if I don’t do everything I can to help. We’re searching for stations that have what we need. That’ll be one of the priorities.” I got up, but then I hesitated. “Is there, uh, anything else you need?”
“Nothing you can offer,” he said softly.
And the finality of his response broke my heart. I wasn’t just talking when I said it was good to have Yusuf here. No matter how much I loved Nadim and Bea, there was a certain comfort in having another black person on board.
Still, stepping away from his sorrow felt like escaping a gravity well. The grief was depthless in there. I took a few deep breaths and felt Nadim’s gentle presence, warming me from the inside out. I knew what he was asking.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m okay. Hey, he’s the one . . .”
I know, Nadim said into my mind. This time, I could see his emotions, painted in color across my mind . . . a pale lavender, for sadness. A raw edge of red, for pain and anger. We will find a way to save Yusuf. But I—I find it difficult to be near him too.
For Nadim, this must have felt like a personal failure, but I understood. Yusuf was, right now, the specter of what faced both of us, if the Phage got us again. One of us living. One dead. Neither whole.
“Never gonna happen,” I said out loud, for emphasis.
Nadim didn’t answer.