Iffy had a bad dream that night. It was the same bad dream she always had, because it wasn’t really a dream. She was on deck. The sky was a perfect blue bowl overhead, summer cold instead of winter freezing. Second and Third were stuffing her into the salvaged ecosuit that had cost them as much as their jelly dredging nets. “Just in case, love,” Third said, forcing a smile but unable to keep the fear out of her voice. She kissed Iffy’s forehead and slipped her favorite book into the suit. “Just in case.”
The ship’s horn blared another warning. Iffy jumped and started crying. She was only half awake—the olders had pulled her out of her cot just a few minutes before. Third hugged her, but Second pulled her away. “There isn’t time,” she snapped as two of the crew ran past them toward the stern. At the time she thought Second was angry at her for something. Years later, she realized that her older wasn’t angry but afraid.
“She’s boiling!” Fourth shouted from the crow’s nest. “Two points to starboard!”
Third sealed the last flap on the ecosuit. This time Second didn’t try to stop her when she wrapped her arms around Iffy. “I love you so much,” she said in Iffy’s ear.
“I love you too,” Iffy replied automatically. The bulky suit made it difficult for her to bend her arms, but she tried anyway. Second knelt down and put her arms around them both. She smelled like engine oil and the soap she always used when she shaved her head. That was Iffy remembered later, when she had trouble remembering Second’s face.
The ship heeled hard as First tried to steer them away from the seething mass of bubbles ahead. “She’s going to blow!” Fourth shouted. The ship’s horn blared one last time, and then all Iffy could hear was a rushing sound that seemed to come from all around her. Sobbing, Third closed the faceplate on the ecosuit.
The ship staggered and dropped two meters. Iffy screamed as she fell back to the deck. Second and Third hit the deck beside her. A great frothing wash of sea water crashed down on top of them. She screamed again as it dragged her olders against the metal railing. They grabbed for it, but then the ship plummeted again as the gas bubbles rising from the ocean floor below churned the water into foam. The last thing Iffy saw before she went under was Fourth flying through the air, her arms and legs flapping like broken wings against the perfect blue sky.
Her dream stopped then, just like it always did. She didn’t remember being fished out of the frigid Antarctic water a day later in the net of a passing jelly dredger. Aunt Naggie told her it was a miracle she had survived. The ecosuit was a hundred years old, maybe more, but every seal had held. It had kept her warm while the thumb-sized motors in the arms and legs kept her clear of the after-bubbles that would have swallowed a lifeboat.
It was a miracle that she survived, but even more of a miracle that she was allowed to stay on the ship that found her. The man she learned to call Uncle Jack didn’t like children. Or animals. Or foreigners or the governor or the co-operatives that bought his catch or the ones that sold him supplies or passers-by who looked at him the wrong way or didn’t have the decency to look at him at all. He would have dumped her on the dock and walked away. The fishing families and docksiders in Rothera never understood why he didn’t, and wouldn’t have believe that his meek, hesitant wife had put her hands on her hips and told him in a cold, flat voice that the child was staying or she was leaving, which was it going to be?
Uncle Jack sold the suit almost as soon as she was back in Rothera. “You’re going to outgrow it anyway,” her Uncle Jack said impatiently over her tearful protests. “Gotta pay for your keep somehow ‘til you’re old enough to earn your way.” He would have sold Second’s book, too, if Aunt Naggie hadn’t misplaced it until he forgot about it. It had belong to Second when she was little, and to her older before that, all the way to back when there were still whales and tigers and giraffes. Iffy read a few pages every night, no matter how tired she was from chores. She drew the pictures from memory on her tablet at school, and on those rare occasions when Uncle Jack was away and Aunt Naggie let her have another child come on board to play, she would take the book out and tell them all about *orcinus orca and panthera tigris and her favorite, giraffa camelopardalis.*
“They were too real!” she said fiercely whenever someone expressed even a hint of doubt. “Real as gulls and jellies!” Real as being hungry and lonely, she sometimes added to herself as she grew older. Real as being smart with machines and tech like her olders had been before the frozen southern ocean took them away.
Iffy woke to Aunt Naggie banging around in the galley. She lay in her narrow cot for one final precious warm moment before pushing aside the salvaged sleeping bag she used as a cover and pulling on a second layer of clothes. That banging was her foster mother’s way of letting Iffy know that Uncle Jack was awake. If she knew what was good for her, she’d be up on deck doing something useful before he stumbled out into the light looking for something or someone to yell at.
She tucked her nature book under the cot’s foam slab mattress, dragged her fingers through her unwashed hair, and undogged the door to the storage locker that had been her cabin for the past eight years. As she climbed out of the hold onto the Guinevere’s deck, the sights and sounds and smells of Halley harbor crashed down on her like the waves in her nightmare.
She stopped for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the light. To seaward lay the broken hulk of the carrier that had driven itself aground a century before to create a seawall. Dozens of ships and boats bobbed gently up and down in its lee. Some were as old as the carrier, patched and re-patched over the years to stay seaworthy. Others were newly built, Aussie foam steel with motors like the Guinevere or Zillion bamboo with bright kite sails furled around triple masts. Gulls wheeled overhead in their endless search for scraps, complaining to one another about how cold the Antarctic summer was.
The town watched the harbor like a grumpy old man watching children at play. Back before, Halley had been a research station where scientists studied the first warning signs of the big melt. As the ice disappeared, they moved their buildings onto the land, adding more each year as first fishing boats and then jelly dredgers began to call in. Two thousand people now called Halley home, dredging during the summer blooms and rendering the catch down for fuel and fertilizer. When winter came, they tended to the town’s precious greenhouses or sailed north to Taz or ‘Tagonia to find whatever work might get them through the long dark to start the cycle again.
Iffy shaded her eyes against the sharp-edged sun. Further back from shore, where the land began to rise, stood a cluster of new buildings. Most were just bunkhouses, but one was a general store, and another—the big one that Iffy had watched grow in stages through the spring—was a machine shop. Shiploads of precious equipment had arrived throughout the spring and been hauled into it: forges and presses and a lathe with a spindle thicker than Iffy’s leg and even a proper industrial printer hauled all the way down from China-over-the-Sea in the hold of a destroyer. The whole town had turned out when the warship came into harbor, marvelling at its sleek, menacing profile and its stubby railguns. Iffy hadn’t given it a second glance once its cargo came ashore. Once Halley’s cores finished their months-long inspection and let it out of quarantine, a printer like that could make anything.
Almost anything, she corrected herself as she studied the distant building, hoping for some sign of activity. Given power and powdered metal and the right plans, the printer could cast almost any shape imaginable. She had seen some of those shapes in drawings laid out on tables in Halley’s one restaurant, three cafés, and six bars. She had studied them sidelong, afraid of being noticed and told to go away, while serious men and women had argued weights and tolerances and expansion coefficients. The railroad they were going to build wouldn’t be ‘Nardica’s first, but the locomotive would be the first designed and constructed on the southern continent.
Iffy wanted to be part of it. More than anything in the world, she wanted to be part of it. But even more than that, she wanted to know why her head kept filling with pictures of things the printer couldn’t make. Every time she thought too hard about the plans she had seen, strange shapes crowded in on her like waking dreams, fractal capacitors and ever-so-slightly irregular gears whose off-center spinning would automatically synchronize to reduce power loading—she had searched the jungle furtively for matches, or for clues that would tell her she was remembering things instead of making them up, but everything ended in “not found” or “restricted”, and after three of those, she had stopped looking.
“Girl! Girl! Slag it, wife, where at now dat affing girl?” Iffy jumped at Uncle Jack’s bellow from the galley below her. He’d been out with his mates last night, which was Uncle Jack-speak for drinking more than he could handle and gambling more than he could afford to. Aunt Naggie somehow managed to winkle enough out of his pockets while he was snoring to keep the Guinevere afloat, but it had been weeks since they’d had fresh fruit, and she couldn’t remember the last time there’d even been mention of new clothes or replacing the tired little boat’s frayed dredging nets.
“Girl!” Uncle Jack shouted again. “Get down here now your affing tail or saints help me you won’t sit fra week!” She heard a meaty bang! as he slapped the galley table with his hand.
With one last longing look at the distant machine shop, Iffy undogged the hatch beside her and yanked it open. “Here, captain,” she said over the scrape and squeal of rusty hinges. “I was just—”
“You just lying about alike some fairy tale princess, and don’t try tell me otherways!” Her uncle glared up at her, squinting as the bright sky framing her head assaulted his hungover eyes. There was a bruise on his forehead that hadn’t been there the evening before, Iffy noticed. That might mean a visit from the police later. He’d rave on for an hour if they came about how the governor was just another tech-headed idiot who would sell them all out to the Euros or the Zillions as soon as she could get a decent price, then repeat the rant to Aunt Naggie word for word.
“Your eggs’ll be ready in a mo,” Aunt Naggie said hurriedly just as Uncle Jack was about to unleash another bellow. “Do you want a bit of curry on them? I think I have a some— No, wait, not there…” She rattled through the little glass jars that sat on the shelf beside the galley’s little two-loop stove, each one in its proper place.
“Affing right I want curry,” he grumbled, collapsing onto a fold-up chair that squeaked under his weight.
Iffy’s stomach grumbled as the smell of eggs, turmeric, and cumin teased her nostrils. With a tilt of her frying pan and a single practiced flip of her spatula, Aunt Naggie slid two perfectly fried eggs into Uncle Jack’s bowl. Without so much as a grunt in her direction, he picked up the basket of naan in the center of table with one hand and his plate with the other and disappeared back into his cabin. Iffy heard glass clink and something gurgle out of a bottle, and then the door closed.
Aunt Naggie let out the breath she’d been holding before looking up at her foster daughter. “You hungry?” she asked.
“Not really,” Iffy lied.
“Course not. Here.” She pulled a hard-boiled egg out of the pocket of her apron and tossed it up through the hatch for Iffy to catch one-handed. “And here, this too.” A piece of perfectly-browned naan, still warm and slightly sticky with oil, appeared out of another pocket in Aunt Naggie’s apron.
“Thanks auntie,” Iffy said gratefully. “You already et?”
“First thing,” Aunt Naggie said, lying in turn. She smiled up at her foster daughter, kneading the small of her back with one hand. “But once you’re done with that, you’d best be on that winch cable he’s after having tightened. And he says the knock in the engine is back. Best have a look at that too before it starts to bother him.”
“I know what that is,” Iffy said around a mouthful of warm naan. “The reciprocating rod’s bent again. Mister Mishra will straighten it out if I take it in before he gets busy. It won’t cost anything,” she added hastily as her aunt opened her mouth to object. “Not if I do a couple of odd jobs for him.”
Aunt Naggie nodded. “Well, best get to it then. And stop in at Sandhu’s and see what they want for eggs,” she added as Iffy straightened up. “Those were our last ones. I’ll tell Jack you’re off doing chores once he’s…” She finished the sentence with a shrug.
“Thanks auntie,” Iffy said gratefully. She closed the hatch and hurried aft as quietly as she could, praying that the sound of her boots on the deck wouldn’t rouse her foster father.
The ship’s toolbox was tucked under a bench near the stern. Its meager collection of items too essential to the ship for Uncle Jack to sell rattled as she dragged it out onto the deck. After a furtive glance to make sure he wasn’t standing behind her, she reached behind it to grab the bag that held her tools, the ones she had salvaged and mended or been given in return for doing odd jobs for people around the harbor. She pushed the toolbox back into place and slung her toolbag over her shoulder, tucking the bent reciprocating rod into it and snugging the drawstring tight. Three quick steps and a one-handed vault took her over the railing onto the pier. As she raced toward shore, she felt the weight of life on the Guinevere lift from her shoulders.
The Antarctic summer didn’t have days or nights, but ships and ports kept their rhythm under the endless mid-morning sun. A pair of old women were awake early to scrape barnacles off long strips of plastic they had hung off the piers months before. The tweaked barnacles’ shells glittered with tiny particles of metal they had filtered out of the water. Ground down and incinerated, the day’s haul would be a few grams of copper or manganese that could keep some old piece of tech limping along for another season. One of the women raised a hand in greeting as Iffy went by, but neither said hello or stopped working.
The three teens arguing over how they were going to hang up a jelly dredging net so that they could mend it didn’t say hello either, but Iffy didn’t expect them to. At least they aren’t crossing their fingers and spitting, she thought. Sailors were superstitious, and she was a sole survivor. People didn’t look at her sidelong as often as they once had, but on those rare occasions when she could sit and drink a cup of tea in one of Halley’s cafés, she made sure to sit in the corner and keep her head down. Her dark skin and kinky black hair didn’t help matters—Aunt Naggie had never found out who her parents were, but more than once, she had heard people mutter about how Zillions shouldn’t be allowed to wander around town without a leash.
Mishra & Co Fine Technical Work - No Job Too Small! occupied one half of a long shed that looked (and sometimes smelled) like the oldest building in Antarctica. The big sliding door along the side wasn’t open yet, so Iffy banged on the smaller door cut into it. It scraped open on her third knock.
“Hey Jeep,” she said brightly to the scowling teenager who opened it. “Is your dad here?” She held up the bent reciprocating rod by way of explanation.
“‘s the back,” Jeep yawned, jerking his thumb over his shoulder and making just enough room for Iffy to squeeze past him.
The inside of the shed was a humid mug of long-ago fish, freshly singed metal, and the not-quite-illegal coal dust used by the furnace that kept the machines from freezing up in the middle of winter. Mis-matched squares of light hung on hair-thin fibers from the ceiling. The shadows they cast made the compact machines and carefully sorted shelves of scrap on the shop floor look like battlebots from old story sims. Iffy’s heart had been in her throat the first time she ventured between them. All she saw now was what they could be turned into.
Mister Mishra was sharpening his fingers on a grinding wheel in the center of the shop. He nodded at Iffy but didn’t try to speak until the last sparks had flown off his steel nails and the grinding wheel had come to a halt. Pulling his safety goggles up onto his forehead, he tugged the calloused fingers of his other hand through the tangles in his beard. “Buy, sell, or trade?” he asked.
Iffy cleared her throat. “Trade.” She held up the bent reciprocating rod. “Tangled some flotsam coming in last night. The engine over-spun before I could get to it. There’s no cracks or nothin’,” she added hastily, handing the piece to him. “Just needs re-bent and annealed.”
“Hm.” The burly machinist turned the rod over in his hands, sighted along its length, then held it up to his good ear and tapped it with his metal fingers. Iffy had seen him go through this ritual more times than she could count, and still didn’t know if the quiet metal tick was just a bluff, or if he really could hear flaws too fine for eyes to see.
He handed the rod back to her. “Bend her straight, she’ll just bend bent again,” he pronounced. “What she needs is replacing.”
The tension eased out of Iffy’s shoulders. Mister Mishra didn’t bargain unless he’d already decided that he was going to say ‘yes’. Now it was just a matter of price.
In the end, the straightened rod cost her half an hour of sorting scraps for smelting. It wasn’t the machine work she’d hoped for, but she had learned that if she timed her questions right, he would take a minute here and there to show her how to dog the belaying plate on the laser drill just so, or how to line up the gatling hammers to rat-a-tat-tat a piece of sheet metal into a graceful springy curve. She was careful not to stare at the burn scar where his left ear should have been or at the fractal spider’s web of articulated metal that he wore in place of his left arm. She was equally careful not to look up when his son Jeep came, scowling as always, to say that lunch was ready but amma said he had to clean up first.
“You hungry?” Mister Mishra asked, spinning the handwheel on the side of the drill to lift the laser into its locking position.
“No thanks,” Iffy said. “I brought.” She held up the egg her aunt had given her.
“Hm.” Mister Mishra ran his fingers through his beard again. “Not much of a meal to grow on.”
“It’ll do me fine.” Iffy nodded toward the laser drill as casually as she could. “You mind I try a couple o’ pieces while you’re out?”
Mister Mishra shook his head. “Nuh uh, girl. Nobody touches my darling without I’m there to watch.” Metal fingers tapped the tabletop next to him. “You break that, nearest parts are long away Amundsen, and nearest after that are all the way up to Taz.”
“Aright,” Iffy said, feigning disappointment. “How about I use the mechanical one instead? Just so I can learn a bit,” she added hastily. “It’s not paid work or nothing, I swear. I’ll just drill some scrap—you can count it all in and out to make sure.”
Mister Mishra chuckled. “No worry about the scrap, girl. And no worry about gettin’ paid. If you’ve found cash work hereabouts that I han’t heard of, more power to you.” He rolled his head to loosen the kinks in his neck, then jerked his chin at the cabinet behind her. “Mind your eyes, aye?”
“Aye,” Iffy agreed eagerly. She had a pair of yellowing old plastic goggles on her face and the drill bit engaged before Mister Mishra reached the door.
Drilling holes wasn’t hard—she’d learned how to do that long ago. The hard part was drilling them in the right place. After picking up and discarding half a dozen pieces of scrap, she found one that was bent enough to be a challenge. The first hole only took a minute. It then took her another fifteen minutes to measure, mark, measure again, swear under her breath, find another pair of calipers in the chaos that was the top of Mister Mishra’s toolbench, chock the piece, measure the hole a second time, and re-align the piece juuuuust a little. A bot could have done the whole thing in less time than it would have taken Iffy to sneeze, but bots could be hacked, or infected with mutated malware left over from the war. “You want it done fast, get a bot,” Mr. Mishra always said. “You want it done right, you get me.”
Slowly, steadily, Iffy brought the spinning drillbit down until it just barely kissed the metal and— “What are you still doing here?” She jumped and spun around. Jeep was leaning against a set of shelves, arms crossed and scowl firmly in place.
“I’m practicing,” she said defensively. “Aren’t you supposed to be having lunch or something?”
His scowl deepened. “Finished. Does my da know you’re here?”
“Of course he does.” Iffy scratched a sudden itch on her nose, then pulled her hand back down to her side. Mister Mishra did know, and she had nothing to be embarrassed about.
“Uh huh. What about your uncle?” Jeep straightened up. “Bet he doesn’t know you’re wastin’ your time.”
“I ain’t wastin’ anything!” Iffy said hotly, stung by Jeep’s use of the “w” word. “An’ it’s none of your business what my uncle knows and doesn’t.” She turned back to the drill, placing her foot firmly on the pedal that controlled the motor’s speed.
But Jeep wasn’t done, not yet. He didn’t quite bump into her shoulder as he crossed the crowded space to the toolbench. “Better all be here,” he said darkly. “Anything turns up missing—”
“Anything turns up missing, your da will know for sure it wasn’t you as took it, because you wouldn’t have the first clue what would be worth taking!” Iffy snapped. She cranked the drill bit up into its locked position and switched the machine off. “Here!” Three quick twists undid the chocks that held her test piece in place. She tossed it at him harder than the distance required, then took the calipers from the work tray on the side of the drill and slapped them back onto the bench. “Gimme a sec and I’ll sweep up the shavings too, just so you can be sure you got everything.”
Without waiting for answer she pulled the goggles off her face and grabbed the old broom that stood next to a broken sonic press like a forgotten sentry. Jeep watched her sweep, resentment and something that might have been embarrassment written on his face. “You missed a bit,” he finally said, pointing at a random patch of floor before turning and stalking away. The door made a bang as he slammed it shut behind him.
Iffy emptied the dustpan into the trash when she was done leaned the broom back against the sonic press, and tossed her goggles in their drawer angrily. It wasn’t fair: Jeep could use the equipment any time he wanted, but all he ever did was complain and look for ways not to. “What’s the point?” he’d shrugged the one time she had asked him why. “They got tech up along ‘Mundsen can do all this ten times faster than human.”
“Well, up along ‘Mundsen don’t help us here,” she’d retorted. “And anyway, how would you know what they got along there? You never ever been so far as Rothera.” He’d scowled at that like he scowled at everything and stalked away to lose himself in yet another game.
It had been a year since Jeep’s induction into the Marines. Iffy missed the bashful sixteen-year-old he had been, who loved to help his mother make curry and stammered every time a pretty boy spoke to him. “He’ll come back eventually,” Mr. Mishra said the one time Iffy dared broach the subject, his tone making it clear that she shouldn’t bring it up again. “It just takes some longer to find their way home than others.”
The sky was exactly as bright as it had been an hour earlier when Iffy stepped outside, the straightened reciprocating rod safely stowed inside her coat. She peeled her egg as she hurried up the street toward the grocery store, trying not to get grease from her fingers onto it as she devoured the rubbery white flesh and the warm yellow-brown yolk. A couple of Aunt Naggie’s friends smiled or waved as she went by. She nodded back, ignoring the others who sighed or shook their heads at the sight of a half-wild dredger child inland from the invisible line that separated the docks from the rest of town.
Sandhu’s grocery store was out of eggs. They had onions, though, and a whole case of dried green peppers that had come in from somewhere unspecified. Little Mrs. Sandhu sliced a thumb-sized piece off one and wrapped it in waxed paper. “For your beautiful aunt,” she said over Iffy’s protests, just as she did every time she gave her something special for Aunt Naggie. “And here, take this too.” She handed Iffy a small plastic jar with a sealed lid half-full of dusky orange powder.
Big Mrs. Sandhu snorted just as she always did. “You should take your little presents yourself,” she scolded.
Her wife smiled. “La, but where would be the romance in that?”
Big Mrs. Sandhu snorted again. “You just don’t want any of your special friends in the harbor to know about one another.”
Whatever Little Mrs. Sandhu might have said next was cut short by the jingling of the little bell on the store’s front door. Three heads turned at a cheerful, “Good morning!” as the squarest man Iffy had ever seen walked in.
“Square” really was the only word for him. He wasn’t much taller than Iffy, but three of her could have stood side by side in the span of his shoulders. Strong white teeth gleamed against his black skin as he smiled, and the small silvery rectangle of tech set into his temple made him look like he had stepped out of one of the action games that the two Mrs. Sandhus and their friends discussed endlessly with customers they particularly liked.
“Good morning, sri,” Big Mrs. Sandhu said, bowing her head slightly. “Is there something we could help you with?”
“Nothing in particular, thank you, just in need of some supplies. Oh, and perhaps some advice, if that’s for sale as well as soy sauce and onions?” His twanging accent sounded vaguely ‘Merican to Iffy, though the only ‘Mericans she had ever met in person hadn’t done much more than swear at Mister Mishra when he wouldn’t take a sermon and a blessing in trade for fixing their broken propeller.
“Advice is always free here,” Little Mrs. Sandhu simpered, wiping her hands on her apron. Big Mrs. Sandhu looked sidelong at Iffy and rolled her eyes. Iffy bit back a laugh—Little Mrs. Sandhu’s flirting was as famous in Halley as her curries and her hard bargaining.
“Excellent,” the square man said. “I’m just in from South Georgia on the Taroona, and I’m in need of a place to stay for a few days. I don’t suppose you could recommend somewhere that isn’t too expensive? Or even somewhere downright cheap?” He spread his hands apologetically. “It seems that my luggage went missing in transit.”
“Oh you poor cho,” Little Mrs. Sandhu clucked.
Big Mrs. Sandhu shook her head. “The Taroona’s crew are a pack of thieves,” she said flatly. “And worse, I’ve heard. You’re lucky if all they nicked was your bags and not your kidneys.”
The square man sighed. “Maybeso, but I confess that I don’t feel particularly lucky. I was hoping to set myself up down here, but without my tools…” He shrugged sadly.
“What kind of tools?” Iffy asked. She had been about to slip away—as entertaining as it would have been to listen to some hard-luck drifter try to con the Mrs. Sandhus, her uncle would almost certainly be awake and bellowing for her, and she didn’t want to leave Aunt Naggie to deal with his ire on her own. But tools—that was worth a few extra seconds.
The square man grimaced. “A couple of half-mil waldoes, a sintering laser, a set of diffraction lenses, a fractal de-ionizer for cleaning up old chips, and a—”
“There’s no such thing as a fractal de-ionizer,” Iffy cut in scornfully.
The square man blinked. “Sure there is. You take the polarizer out of a medical SQUID stick it in a high-conductance fractal mesh, and boom—there’s your de-ionizer.”
Iffy frowned. “But wouldn’t the resonance feedback slag it?”
“If you’re careless, sure,” the square man admitted. “You have to recalibrate the impedance every once in a while so that it doesn’t overheat, but if you keep a cryo bath handy as a heat sink…” He cocked his head, looking at Iffy as if she was some strange new machine that he had to repair.
“Well, if you two are done with your tech jabber, there’s a couple of places I can point you to,” Big Mrs. Sandhu said briskly. “Can’t promise they’ll be as cheap as you want, but they’re clean, and humans only, and you won’t wake up in the middle of the night with any of your parts gone.”
“Thank you,” the square man said absently, still studying Iffy. “And if you don’t mind me asking another question, where did your daughter learn her tech? A lot of people with a lot of years behind them wouldn’t have thought to worry about the resonance feedback.”
“Oh, she’s not our daughter,” Little Mrs. Sandhu said lightly. “She’s crew off one of the jelly dredgers.”
“Ah.” The square man nodded as if that explained everything. Suddenly he stuck out his hand. “Johnson Wales,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
Iffy hesitated, then put out her own hand to shake his. “Iffelia Kwan. Pleased to meet you too.”
Iffy ran all the way back to the docks, dodging around the people and bots going about their chores in Halley’s narrow streets. “Gardez-vous! Gardez-vous!” scolded the ancient maintenance bot that everyone called French Henry as she squeezed between its rusty frame and a rack of solar roof moss left out to dry in the sun.
The barnacle farmers she had seen earlier were still bent over their work when she reached the pier. “How’s yer haul?” she panted, stopping and putting her hands on her knees to catch her breath.
“Not bad,” one of the women said. She nudged a bucket full of barnacles with her boot. “Pro’ly get thirty grams outta this when it’s rendered down.” Her smile showed more gaps than teeth.
“Good luck,” Iffy said. She straightened up and walked quickly the rest of the way to the Guinevere, her lips moving as she practiced what she was going to say to her aunt and uncle.
Metal clanged on metal as she reached the ship. “Affing stupid—dammit!” Uncle Jack swore, a wrench in one hand and a screw cuff in the other. Iffy’s heart sank. He was trying to fix the backstay cable she had mended while they were last out. It was a fiddly job at the best of times, and if he had a hangover…
The scowl on his face turned stormy as he caught sight of her. “Where’n hole you been long, girl?” he demanded. waving the wrench at her. “There’s work as needs done! And don’t give me any of your excuses!” he continued as Iffy opened her mouth. “You get up top with your backside and earn your keep or saints help me!”
“Now!” Heads turned on nearby ships as Uncle Jack’s bellow echoed across the water.
Ears burning, Iffy climbed the three steps onto the deck. Her heart sank a second time when she saw the mess waiting for her. Her uncle had undone the screw cuff holding the frayed cable together and cut the two ends back. There wasn’t enough left to weave back together, not without shortening the cable by a meter. She would have to swap it for one of the forestay cables, which meant an hour at least of unwinding and hauling and—
Her uncle crossed his arms, tapping his wrench against the sea-stained thermal vest that he had worn for as long as Iffy could remember. “Well? Where at you been?”
“Groceries,” Iffy said sullenly. She pulled the mended reciprocating rod out of her jacket and held it out to him. “Got this fixed too.”
Uncle Jack plucked it from her hand. “Don’t see no groceries,” he grumbled.
“I just asked her to get a couple of things,” Aunt Naggie said from behind Iffy, sticking her head up through an open hatch like a turtle cautiously checking that the world outside its shell was safe. “Did they have eggs?”
“Nope, but I got you a pepper.” Iffy fished it and the onions she had bought out of her jacket’s deep pockets and handed them to her aunt. “Oh, and Little Mrs. Sandhu said to give you this.” She handed over the little jar of orange powder. “What’s in it?”
“Oh, it’s her special curry powder,” Aunt Naggie said lightly, tucking the jar into her apron. “Now, did you get anything more to eat? I was going to make some noodles for lunch.”
“I’m fine,” Iffy lied, trying to ignore the hungry knot in her stomach and almost succeeding. “But auntie, there was this man at the Sandhu’s, a mechanic come down to work in the machine shop, ‘cept he come in on the Taroona and they stole his gear. He was asking after a place to stay, and we got to talking, and he said that if he could get his tools back and find work and all, he might be looking for an apprentice.”
“An apprentice?” Aunt Naggie echoed. “Well, good for Jeep—and his dad, too. It’ll do them both the world to get some time away from each other.”
“Not Jeep!” Iffy exclaimed. “Me! I could be his ‘prentice!” The two Mrs. Sandhus had listened with bemusement as her conversation with Mister Wales—“call me Johnson, please”—leaped from de-ionizers to different techniques for micro-welding the cracked cases of old cores to the mended reciprocating rod that Iffy had taken out of her coat to show him. It wasn’t until Big Mrs. Sandhu cleared her throat and suggested pointedly that the conversation might best be continued where they wouldn’t be blocking her aisles that Iffy had realized how much time had gone by.
Uncle Jack’s hand came down heavily on her shoulder. “You’re not gonna be anyone’s anything,” he growled, shaking her for emphasis. “Not ‘til you’ve paid off every last rand you owe us for lookin’ after you all this time.”
Something snapped inside Iffy. “All right,” she said coldly, knocking his arm away. “How ‘bout you an’ me go ask the Guinevere to pull up the accounts so I can see just how much that is, and I’ll tell you how much for my time keeping this twist of scrap afloat when you’re too wrung out to do it yourself, and we’ll see how long it is ‘til I’m quit and clear!”
“What we’ll see is how well you swim!” Uncle Jack roared, raising the heavy wrench he was holding like a club.
“No!” Aunt Naggie yanked Iffy back and stepped in front of her irate husband. “Jack, don’t! She’s just talking. She’s not going anywhere.”
Uncle Jack shook the wrench at them. “I best see more out of both of you than just talking,” he spat. “Now get me my affing lunch. And you!” He jabbed a finger at Iffy. “Fix that affing cable. I want us ready to sail tomorrow.”
“She’ll do it right away, I promise,” Aunt Naggie said. Her arm tightened around Iffy’s shoulders, a silent warning not to say anything.
Uncle Jack stalked off, muttering under his breath. “You come below and help me with the noodles,” Aunt Naggie said, shooing Iffy toward the open hatch. “That’ll give him time to calm down.”
“Yes auntie,” Iffy said, her voice only slightly shaky. Uncle Jack had never actually hit her—as simple-minded as the Guinevere’s core was, it would instantly report that to the Marines who doubled as Halley’s police. But with each passing season, as the Guinevere slowly fell apart beneath them despite all of Iffy’s hard work, his one-sided discussions of big deals and “if only” had turned into angry tirades and sullen silences. She didn’t know where she would go, and she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Aunt Naggie to face him alone, but Iffy knew that one day soon she was going to walk down the gangplank and never come back. One day, but not today.
The Guinevere’s galley wasn’t big enough for two people to do anything side by side except get in each other’s way, so Iffy sat at its little fold-down table and watched Aunt Naggie work with the efficiency of long practice. Within minutes, two thinly-sliced onions sizzled in a battered ceramic frying pan while a pot of water came to the boil. A handful of diced mushrooms and a splash of soy sauce joined the onions, filling the air with a rich aroma that tightened the knot in Iffy’s stomach.
“You going to add a bit o’ the curry?” Iffy asked, turning a pair of chopsticks over and over in her hands.
“That’s for special occasions,” Aunt Naggie replied. She dropped a thick handful of noodles into the pot, glanced at her foster daughter, and added a few more.
Iffy put the chopstick back on the table. “When do we ever have special occasions?” she grumbled.
Aunt Naggie glanced over her shoulder at Iffy again and smiled. “Any time I cook for just the two of us is special for me,” she said fondly. She knocked bits of onion off her spatula into the frying pan. “But best we don’t mention that to Uncle Jack, all right?”
“Sure,” Iffy said, feeling a knot in her chest to match the one in her stomach. She stood up and hugged her aunt from behind. “You know I wouldn’t just leave you, don’t you?”
Her aunt’s shoulders slumped slightly. She moved the frying pan off the induction loop and turned around to wrap her arms around the young woman who had somehow grown so tall. “I know, cho,” she said, kissing Iffy’s shaved head. “But when your chance comes, you take it, aright?” She squeezed Iffy. “Now, gi’s a hand with the pot.”
A few minutes later, Iffy sat down with her back against the wheelhouse door and a steaming bowl of noodles in her lap. She bowed her head and said a brief prayer for the olders she could barely remember, then began scooping noodles into her mouth. Not even the sound of her uncle grumbling belowdecks that there ought to be some affing tofu in the noodles could spoil the spicy sweet taste in her mouth or the slow fade of the knot in her belly.
When the noodles were gone she wiped the last drops of sauce out of the bowl with her thumb and licked it. The faint tang of machinery and oil from her unwashed hand barely registered. She sighed. She would like nothing better than to close her eyes for a moment, or maybe a couple of hours, but the backstay cable did need mending, and it wasn’t as if the engine was going to put itself back together—not on a ship as simple as the Guinevere.
She patted her coat to check that the mended reciprocating rod was still in her pocket and hauled herself to her feet. Back where the pier met the shore, one of the old barnacle farmers had balanced a pole across her shoulders with a large bucket dangling from each end. The other had stacked the smaller buckets on a two-wheeled cart and was carefully lowering their precious sheets of plastic back into the sea. They would haul in on the next pier tomorrow, then the next and the next until their circuit brought them back to where they had started. They had been doing it since before Iffy was born. It kept them fed, but little more, and she would be damned and drowned before she would let anything like that become her life.
A sketch suddenly materialized somewhere between her eyes and her brain. Two toothed wheels to reel in the strips of plastic, a sharp-edged scraper to pry the barnacles off, a lens connected to a tiny core set just so in a wire frame to steer the scraper so that it didn’t dig into the plastic—the whole thing would only cost a couple of rand, and would save the old women a couple of hours every day at least. Mister Mishra had everything except the frame, and she could literally see how to print that. She could make the whole thing herself, she realized with mounting excitement. She could make it and sell it to the barnacle farmers and—
BOOM! The explosion sounded like someone slamming the world’s biggest box down on the world’s biggest table. Iffy jumped and spun around. There! A roiling mass of smoke billowed up into the sky above the cluster of new buildings that overlooked the older part of town. Iffy’s heart sank. It was the machine shop.
A siren wailed. Others joined it. She heard Uncle Jack’s bellow, “What’n the hell?” but she was already racing down the gangplank.
By the time she reached the machine shop, a small crowd was milling around on the paved turnaround in front of it. The sick knot in her stomach only relaxed a little when she saw that the explosion hadn’t been in the machine shop itself, but in the squat quarantine blockhouse beside it. One corner of the building was gone, and chunks of masonry and twisted ends of foam steel beams lay scattered on the ground.
A rough-looking woman stood in front of the quarantine blockhouse’s single door. arguing loudly with two men in dark blue Marine uniforms. “And I said I’ll open it when my captain tells me to!” she said hotly, her muscular arms crossed.
Two more Marines pushed through the crowd, their sidekick drones whining faintly over their heads. One of them pointed at the sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “Do you see these, citizen?” he demanded. “These say that this is not your ship, so in accordance with regulations regarding general public safety, we are going in to have a look.”
The woman’s lip curled. “In accordance with regulation, is it?” she mimicked. “Well, that means nothin’ to me, mate, so you an’ your brainwashed friends can—oy!” She stepped sideways to block the Marine as he moved toward the door.
“Clear away! Clear away, all o’ you!” The crowded parted as half a dozen more sailors arrived, all of them wearing patched-up variations on the woman’s yellow-and-green vest with Taroona stencilled on the back.
The shaven-headed woman leading the new arrivals put her hands on her hips. “Y’aright, Bags?” she asked, scowling at the Marine sergeant, the crowd, and everything else in sight for good measure.
"”Fine, cap’n” the first woman replied, glaring at the sergeant. “Just ‘splainin’ t’ these blues that there ain’t nothin’ here needs their ‘tention.”
“With respect, citizen,” the sergeant said, his mechanical inducted accent making his calm words all the more ominous, “Anything that might be a danger to Halley needs our attention. Particularly anything that might turn our beloved city into another Bharati.”
The crowd murmured. Twenty years before, someone’s home-brew tech had gone up in flames in Bharati. Dozens had died as fire swept through the small town, and a hundred more from exposure in the days that followed. Iffy had never asked Mister Mishra about that night, but every year, on the anniversary, he and Little Mrs. Sandhu and their friends gathered to toss handfuls of precious flowers into the sea.
The Taroona’s crew ignored the mutters of “Too right” and “Just let ‘em look” from the crowd. One hefted a gaff hook. Another wrapped a length of chain around her hand, unwrapped it, and wrapped it again. “Well, this ain’t Bharati,” the Taroona’s captain said to the sergeant. “Contract says it’s on us t’ take care of everythin’ we hauled down from Taz ‘til we’re sure it ain’t a danger. Whatever happened here is on us t’ fix.”
The sergeant looked at the debris on the ground. “Do you call this ‘taking care’?” has asked pointedly. The crowd murmured again.
The Taroona’s captain crossed her arms. “That ain’t our doin’,” she said firmly. “Printer didn’t have any feedstock, not yet. Couldna made a marble, much less a bomb.” She looked up at the drones circling overhead. “So this was someone messin’ around tryin’ t’ do us outta bein’ paid,” she said loudly to the city core’s eyes and ears.
“I am glad to hear that,” the sergeant said, “But I’m going to have to see for myself.” He drew his shock stick from the holster on his hip. The three other Marines beside him did the same.
“Uh oh,” someone said beside her. “Dock fight.”
Iffy gulped. She had never seen a fight worse than teenagers shoving each other, but Uncle Jack had been in several over the years. One the last time they were in Rothera, he had come back to the Guinevere bruised and bloodied and uncharacteristically quiet about what had happened. As the Marines uniform jackets hardened into armor, she turned to find somewhere safer to be.
And bumped into Johnson Wales. “‘Scuse me,” she muttered before she realized who he was.
“No worries,” he said pleasantly. “I was actually just leaving myself. Here—would you mind carrying this?” Without waiting for an answer, he handed her a bulky black box with a flip-up handle on its lid and stooped to pick up its two identical twins from the ground.
“What’s this?” Iffy asked.
“My tools,” Wales said briskly. “Now, off we go.”
“But—wait!” Iffy hurried after him, the toolbox bumping against her leg.
Wales paused a moment to let her catch up. A few dew-drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. “This the gear the Taroona bikkies upped from you?” Iffy puffed.
Wales nodded. “Everything that matters.” Tiny lights danced briefly across the silvery rectangle in his left template. He looked up at the growing flock of drones. “Come on—they’ve called for reinforcements.”
Even as he spoke, Iffy heard the sizzling crack of a shock stick. Someone shouted an obscenity, and suddenly people were running past her as the sailors and Marines in the turnaround did what sailors and Marines have been doing for as long as there have been sailors and Marines.
Wales walked quickly without ever breaking into a run. Iffy did her best to keep up with him as he strode down the brick-paved street. He prob’ly kept the light ones for himself, she grumbled to herself, but the complaint was half-hearted. Most of the sailors and townsfolk she knew ranged from lean to stringy—the cold weather and the sparse Antarctic diet didn’t give bodies much chance to put on weight. Wales’ broad shoulders made him look blocky by comparison, and the toolboxes seemed much smaller in his hands than in hers.
“Hang up a jif,” Iffy finally said. Wales stopped as she set her load down on the ground and looked back the way they had come. A bend in the street hid the machine shop, the quarantine blockhouse, and what Iffy knew would have been a very short fight. Between the Marines’ inducted fighting skills, drones, and combat armor, the Taroona’s sailors would have had about as much chance as a snowball in Aunt Naggie’s frying pan. “Sometimes people fight just so they can tell themselves they did,” Aunt Naggie had explained after one of her husband’s misadventures. “Sometimes trying is the only kind of winning you can hope for.”
“Gardez-vous! Gardez-vous!” She stepped to the side as French Henry came rattling down the street behind them, its dented old cameras swinging from side to side. It ground to a halt a few meters away. “Ça va bien!” it announced proudly. “Ça va tres bien!”
“What’s it saying?” Iffy whispered loudly, unconsciously backing up to put some distance between herself and the battered old machine. Like the rest of the world, Halley only tolerated free bots because they needed their labor. There were too many stories of bots being driven mad by malware left over from the war for people to ever truly trust something as big as French Henry.
But Wales didn’t seem bothered in the least. “Merci beaucoup, mon vieux,” he said gratefully. Stooping, he opened one of his toolboxes and withdrew something small. “Ici. C’est a toi.”
A hatch popped open on the front of the maintenance bot. A slender manipulator arm, longer than Iffy’s own arm but no bigger around than one of her fingers, unfolded to reach for the gray metal rectangle in Wales’ hand. It looked like a miniature version of the heat exchangers that Mister Mishra had been repairing the last time the Guinevere was in dock. As soon as the thought took shape in her head, a picture—no, more than that, a full-blown blueprint—materialized as well. The heat exchanger belonged there, in the housing around the maintenance bot’s tiny quantum core. Except it wasn’t really a maintenance bot. It was an infiltrator, a leftover from the war designed to worm its way through sewers and cooling pipes. Half its parts had been replaced by mis-matched odds and ends taken from other bots, or hacked together out of scrap metal where the tech to make the originals had been lost, but the bot’s original design was still there beneath the patchwork.
Her vision disappeared as the sweeper’s slender arm folded back into its housing. “Merci,” it said, rocking back and forth in what might have been the mechanical equivalent of a bow before grinding its gears and rolling down the street toward the docks, saying, “Gardez-vous! Gardez-vous!” once more.
“What was that all about?” Iffy demanded as Wales closed the lid on his toolbox and picked it up again.
Wales shrugged. “Just a hard-to-find part for an old friend,” he said, sounding fond and sad at the same time as he watched the bot disappear around a corner two streets below them. “Come on—we should get going.”
Iffy didn’t move. Instead, she nudged the toolbox nearest her with her boot. “So was that you? The ‘splosion back there?”
Wales blinked. “Why on earth would you think that was me?”
Iffy rolled her eyes. “‘Cuz they upped your gear and then the blockhouse blew up an’ then the bot that takes care of half o’ the gear in town just happens to bump into you an’ now you got your stuff back? I ain’t stupid,” she finished disgustedly. Why did grownups always think kids were stupid?
“No you’re not,” Wales agreed thoughtfully. He nodded at the toolbox next to her feet. “Are you okay to carry that a bit further?”
“Am I what?” Iffy asked, crossing her arms in unconscious imitation of the Taroona’s captain.
Wales smiled briefly. “Sorry. Are you kappa to carry that down s’far as the caffy?”
Iffy wrinkled her nose. “That was terrible,” she judged witheringly. “And sure, but only if I get to see what’s in it.”
Wales chuckled. “Fair enough. Come on.” He glanced up as one of the city’s drones zipped past overhead. Lights sparkled briefly in the rectangle set into his temple, making Iffy wonder how honestly the drones were reporting the scene to Halley’s central core.
Picking up their respective loads, they walked side by side down a narrow side street that led behind the Sandhu’s grocery store to the café where Wales had rented a room. The owner glanced from Wales to Iffy but said nothing more than, “Tea?” obviously believing that his guests’ business was none of his.
They sat at a battered stone-topped table and drank sweet, strong tea as Wales opened one of the toolboxes Iffy had been carrying and carefully unpacked the top layer of its contents. Some of the tools looked as good as new, though Iffy knew that they had to be at least a hundred years old—only a handful of well-defended factories scattered around the world had the cleanrooms and nano-fabricators needed to create marvels like the fractal diamond-and-iridium mesh that Wales briefly let her pick up with a pair of fingertip micro-manipulators. Other tools were clearly cobbled together from spare parts and held together with whatever Wales had been able to find. Iffy felt more comfortable with these, since pretty much everything in Halley was built the same way.
“What about them?” she asked eagerly, pointing at a matched pair of asymmetric gears as Wales carefully repacked the open toolbox.
The square man chuckled. “Let’s save those for another time.” He looked past her for a moment, the lights in the tech on his temple flickering with activity. “The town net says the Marines have resolved the situation by the quarantine shed. Apparently some Zillion saboteurs set off the explosion as part of an attempt to make off with government property,” he continued drily.
Iffy snorted. “I know it was you,” she muttered.
Wales blinked at her innocently. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. Anyway—it’s probably time you got back home.”
Iffy glanced at the timer tattooed on the back of her wrist. “Oh crivens,” she swore, “I shoulda been back an hour ago!” She scrambled to her feet.
“Hold on a minute,” Wales said, patting the air. “Just a minute, I promise.” He pushed his now-empty mug of tea to one side and leaned forward on the table. “Tell me more about this ship of yours…”
Wales locked his toolboxes in his room before they left and put a small plastic bear with bright blue eyes on the shelf above them. “To keep an eye on things,” he said, tapping the tech in his temple. Iffy nodded as if remote vision cameras in old children’s toys were an everyday thing for her. She didn’t know what the red-speckled globe next to the bear was, but she suspected it would do more than just watch if someone broke in.
A pair of gray military drones were hovering over the harbor as Iffy and Wales walked down to the pier where the Guinevere was docked. “Keeping an eye on the Taroona,” Wales guessed, shielding his eyes with his hand to study them. “See there? Those are shock guns. And those bumps behind them—those are strangle foam bombs or I’m your uncle.”
“Why’re they just watching?” Iffy asked. “Any time I seen a dock fight, th’ Marines’ve just hauled everyone in for th’ governor to sort out.”
Wales shook his head. “The Taroona sails out of Hobart. The governor probably thinks her crew were responsible for the quarantine shed blowing up, but the last thing he wants right now is to give Tasmania an excuse to poke around down here. Odds are the captain and her crew will be back on the dock by morning,” he concluded, speaking to himself as much as to the frowning tween beside him. “Which is another reason I need to talk to your uncle.”
“You oughta know he don’t keep his word ‘less it suits him,” Iffy blurted. “Or ‘less he figures you got more haul back of you than he does.”
Wales nodded. “Thanks for the warning,” he said solemnly. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Ten minutes later Uncle Jack shouted, “No affin’ way! We’re a jelly dredger, not th’ damn ferry! You wanna skin up along Rothera, you can haul down two piers over an’ buy y’self a ticket.”
Aunt Naggie gestured frantically at Iffy and Wales from behind her husband’s back, mouthing, “Go! Go!” Wales ignored her, his broad smile seeming genuine as he waited out the blustery storm that was Uncle Jack.
“I understand it’s not your usual line of work,” he said smoothly when the Guinevere’s bleary-eyed captain paused for breath. “And if no is your final answer, well, I’ll respect that and take my business elsewhere. But!” He held up a hand to forestall another explosion. “What if I told you I could do more than just pay for my passage?”
Uncle Jack snorted. He had been dozing when Iffy and Wales had reached the Guinevere, and from his squint and the smell of his breath Iffy guessed that she’d find at least one empty bottle in the hold if she bothered to look for it. “Lemme guess—you can sing. Or no—you can do magic tricks and turn jellyfish into gold.”
“Almost,” Wales nodded. “Except it isn’t magic, and gold will be all yours.” He tapped the silver tech in his temple. “This is a satellite uplink. A fully functional satellite uplink,” he continued as Uncle Jack opened his mouth. “Which means I can spot patches of sea boil with half an hour to spare. Maybe a full hour, if the sky’s clear. And that means—”
Uncle Jack said a word that sent Aunt Naggie’s hands flying to her mouth. “Ain’t no such thing no more,” the Guinevere’s captain sneered. “‘S all ‘crypted—everyone knows that. ‘S ‘crypted an’ th’ keys are long gone.”
“It is indeed encrypted.” Wales nodded. “But not all the keys are lost—not quite. This here is one of them, and I can prove it. Here.”
He closed his eyes. “Your beacon is GUIN 40782, is that right?” He nodded to himself without waiting for an answer. “Your last trip, you were at sea nine days. You spent most of it over the Berkner Rise.”
“You’re trashin’,” Uncle Jack contemptuously. “Everyone ‘round here dredges the Berk. An’ she coulda told you how long we was out,” he added, glaring at Iffy.
“She could have,” Wales agreed, opening his eyes. “But she couldn’t have known what brought up the jellies the Whitstable found. It was a sea boil twenty kay northeast of you on your last day out. It would have been just over the horizon—if you’d known it was happening, you could have been the one to haul them in.”
Uncle Jack scowled. The Whitstable was tied up on the next pier, its captain overseeing a refit paid for by the hold full of jellyfish she had brought back to Halley the day after the Guinevere had returned. Her crew had been celebrating their good fortune in Halley’s shops and bars around the clock ever since.
Uncle Jack scratched his cheek through his uncombed beard. Iffy could practically hear him thinking that a load like that could pay off the Guinevere’s debts with more than a bit left over for repairs. “You’re jus’ coalin’ me,” he grumbled.
Wales didn’t answer. Instead, he closed his eyes again and pointed wordlessly across the harbor. Iffy, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Naggie all turned to look.
“You just stretchin’ your arm?” Uncle Jack asked after a few seconds passed without anything happening. “‘Cause I got better things to do than watch you make an affin’ fool of yourself. And so d’you,” he added darkly, glaring at Iffy once again.
Aunt Naggie put her hand on his arm. “Jack—look. Up there.” One of the drones Iffy had seen earlier was headed toward them, the thin high whine of its rotors growing louder by the second.
“What?” he demanded, shaking her off. “They been goin’ in circles all afternoon. Givin’ me a headache, they are.” He rounded on Wales. “An’ it feels like you been wastin’ my time almost as long, so how ‘bout you truck yourself back down that gangplank and be about your business?”
Wales didn’t answer. Uncle Jack stepped toward him, and for one wild moment Iffy thought he was going to shove Wales overboard, but then Aunt Naggie grabbed his arm. “Jack!” The drone was diving straight at them.
Everything seemed to happen at once. The drone plummeted toward the Guinevere. Aunt Naggie shrieked. Uncle Jack swore and shook her off as he reached for the gaff hook that hung on the cabin wall next to them. Iffy was about to throw herself onto the deck when Wales opened his eyes and said, “Stop!”
The drone pulled up short, its rotors whining with effort. “Down,” the square man commanded. Obediently, the drone dropped a meter to hover at eye level.
“What’re you doin’, you affin’ idiot?” Uncle Jack bellowed, waving his gaff hook at Wales. “They got cameras on that thing! Soon as they see us, they’ll—”
“The core can’t see a thing,” Wales told him flatly, his eyes fixed on the drone as if he was staring down a surly dog. “I’m feeding it a splice of what the other drone is reporting and some recorded footage. As far as the town and the governor know, our friend here is still exactly where it’s supposed to be.”
“How’re you doin’ that?” Iffy breathed, unable to help herself. The wind from the drone’s rotors brushed her cheeks. It was barely moving—if she hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was strung up with microwire. “That’s military tech. Ain’t nobody can hack that.”
“This can,” Wales said, tapping the silver square in his temple. He waved his hand as if to brush away a fly. With no more instruction than that, the drone shot away to resume its patrol.
Wales locked eyes with Uncle Jack. “I can get all of it,” he said in a voice that left no room for doubt or disagreement. “Every image, every signal—everything every satellite sees, encrypted or not. And I need to get to Rothera. The only question is, will that be your good fortune or someone else’s? It’s up to you.”
Uncle Jack hefted his gaff hook. “Jack,” Aunt Naggie began.
“Quiet,” he snapped, still scowling. Greed and the mistrust he felt for everything the world put in front of him warred briefly on his face. “We keep whatever we haul,” he finally said. “And you keep to your cabin ‘less I say otherwise.”
“Fair enough,” Wales agreed. He stuck out his hand.
Iffy held her breath. Uncle Jack chewed the inside of his cheek a moment longer, then grabbed it and gave it a single perfunctory shake. “I’m guessin’ you’ll want to be off right away,” he said sourly.
Wales nodded. “Just as soon as I collect my—” His face suddenly fell.
“What?” Uncle Jack demanded. Wales raised a hand for silence, his eyes half-closed.
“Oh no,” Uncle Jack blustered, drawing himself up to his full height. “You don’t shush me on my ship, not ‘less you want to—”
“Someone is breaking into my room.” Wales’ good humor had vanished. “Warm up the engines and get ready to cast off. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“We’ll cast off when I say!” Uncle Jack said angrily. “An’ when we do, it’ll be the three of us! You can go hang!”
Iffy’s heart sank. She wanted Uncle Jack to say “yes” as badly as she had ever wanted anything. Even if Wales didn’t take her as an apprentice, she knew that she could learn so much. She glanced at Aunt Naggie and saw the same disappointment mirrored on her lined face. If only the American hadn’t told Uncle Jack what to do—that never went well.
But her uncle’s bluster had no more effect on Wales than a windstorm would on a mountain. “Here.” He pulled a money card out of his jacket and thrust it at Uncle Jack. “You can have that now and the same again when we reach Rothera.”
Uncle Jack turned the flat plastic rectangle over in his hands suspiciously. “What’s it worth?”
“Six thousand rand,” Wales said.
“Six thousand?” Uncle Jack pressed his thumb on the corner of the money card. His eyes widened at the blinking figures it displayed, then narrows again speculatively as he looked Wales up and down. “You must wanna get outta here pretty badly,” he mused, greed written on his face.
“It’s no use to me if I can’t spend it,” Wales said crisply. “Now, do you want it or not?”
Uncle Jack pocketed the card and grunted something unintelligible. “Thank you,” Wales said. “I’ll be quick.” He turned to go, then stopped himself. “Just so you know, this is still switched on.” He tapped the tech in his temple. “So if you try to call the Marines, I’ll hear before they do.”
Uncle Jack spat over the railing. “Ain’t nobody here would call the affin’ blues,” he growled, for once telling the truth.
Wales nodded and strode down the gangplank. The trio on the Guinevere watched him lengthen his stride into a jog that carried him along the pier and into town. “That one’s trouble,” Uncle Jack said flatly. He leaned his elbows on the railing, cleared his throat, and spat deliberately into the water below. There was more gray in his beard than there used to be, Iffy thought, and the three-day fuzz on his shaved scalp had crept further and further away from his forehead.
Uncle Jack noticed her looking at him. “Get movin’,” he barked. “An’ you too, woman. I want us out o’ here an’ away from whatever’s chasin’ him soon as he’s back.”
It normally took a full day to get the Guinevere ready to sail, but the money in Uncle Jack’s pocket seemed to make him believe that it could somehow be done in a blink. He roared at Iffy and Aunt Naggie to move their sorry sterns, and no, don’t worry about tyin’ that down, they could do that once they were at sea, just put it somewhere for now and get the affin’ engine goin’!
Five minutes of careful work that couldn’t be rushed and Iffy had the reciprocating rod back in place. Five more minutes and the engine was chugging away, biofuel gurgling through kinks in the feed pipe that Iffy hadn’t ever been able to get rid of. She would normally have checked the winch motor next to make sure they could haul in whatever they caught, but there wasn’t time, so she laced some straps around the fine mesh nets they used to dredge for jellyfish to make sure they didn’t shift in high seas. And the fuel hose—it was still connected to the pump on the pier. If they had set sail without undoing it, it would have snapped like an overstretched piece of string. She had seen that happen once. It had sounded like a gunshot, and the torn end had torn open an unlucky sailor’s cheek.
She scrambled up the ladder that connected the engine room to the deck. “Ready here,” she called, panting.
Aunt Naggie coiled the last stayline and shoved it into a canvas bag, then shoved the bag into a bench that doubled as a storage locker and dogged the seat-lid shut. “That’s all for me too.” She thumped the cabin wall with her fist. “Good when you are, Jack,” she shouted, businesslike as she always was when something needed to be done.
The cabin door flew open. Uncle Jack stepped out onto deck, glaring at his wife and foster daughter on principle. “That’s what I said,” he told the empty air impatiently. “Twelve thousand rand. I’ll have it in two weeks, I swear. What? Never you mind how, but that’ll more’n put us square. Right. Aright. What? No, you affin’ well better not tell her, or she’ll take your skin off an’ mine too! Right. Aright. Vi da.” He blinked twice to end the call and bared his teeth.
“Who was that?” Aunt Naggie asked cautiously.
Uncle Jack’s predatory smile vanished. “Ne’er you mind,” he said brusquely. “Everythin’ stowed in the kitchen?”
“Everythin’ that’s gonna be,” Aunt Naggie said. “But Jack—”
“I said, ne’er mind!” He slapped the railing with his hand. “Now, where’s that friend o’ yours, girl? ‘Cuz if all this has been some kinda joke…”
Five minutes crawled by, each one tenser than the last. Iffy didn’t take a full breath until Wales appeared at the end of the pier with one toolbox in each hand, the third slung over his shoulder on a strap, and a small travelling pack on his back. Iffy scurried down the gangplank and ran to him.
“Thank you,” Wales said gratefully as she took one of the boxes from his hand. “I keep telling myself I should rig something up to carry them, but I never seem to get around to it.”
“No worries,” Iffy said. Then she gasped. “You’re bleeding!”
“Am I?” Wales pulled a rag out of his pocket, dabbed at his nose, and studied the red blotch a moment. “So I am. Huh.” He put the rag back in his pocket and began limping toward the Guinevere again.
“But what happened?” Iffy asked as she fell into step beside him. “Was someone really tryin’ to break into your room? Did you get punched up? An’ what’s wrong with your leg?”
“Oh, everything had mostly sorted itself out by the time I got there,” Wales said vaguely. “And my leg’s bothered me for years. I keep meaning to get it looked at, but there never seems to be time.” He slowed for a moment and repeated, “There never seems to be time.” Then he looked at Iffy and brightened. “Anyway, is the ship ready to go? And what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
Uncle Jack didn’t wait for Wales to stow his meager belongings before hauling in the gangplank and casting off. The engine rumbled and coughed for a moment as they pulled away from the pier, then settled into the steady thumping that was as familiar to Iffy as her own breathing. When they rounded the broken-backed carrier that was Halley’s seawall a few minutes later, the swell beneath them grew stronger, and the tension Iffy hadn’t realized she was carrying in her shoulders began to ease.
Uncle Jack took the first watch, grumbling that they were probably going to be hauled in by the Marines and if that happened he wanted to be sure he was the one doing the talking. Aunt Naggie said she would take the second, then shooed Iffy off to get some sleep. “You can talk to Mister Johnson in th’ mornin’,” she said firmly. “Let him have his rest now, an’ you get some too.” Then she smiled the way she only did when she and foster daughter were alone together. “You’ll wanna have plenty o’ rest before we get there so you can go chasin’ after that special friend o’ yours.”
“I ain’t got no special friend!” Iffy protested automatically. Still smiling, her aunt pulled her into a hug and kissed the shaven top of her head, then gently pulled the door of the storage locker closed behind her.
Iffy pulled her nature book out from under her narrow mattress and stretched out to page through it. The orca, the tiger, the giraffe… She ran her fingers over the pictures, all the more mysterious because they didn’t move or react, and stubbornly tried to keep her eyelids from drooping until she couldn’t remember why they shouldn’t.
She was on deck. The sky was a perfect blue, and her olders were stuffing her into her ecosuit. “Just in case, love,” Second said, forcing a smile.
But when the ship’s horn blared it wasn’t a horn at all but the sound of a drill press. She was in Mister Mishra’s, fumbling clumsily to reassemble a mound of chips and gears and actuators that she had never seen before. Her heart raced as she tried frantically to piece them together. This rod into that socket—no, that couldn’t be right, it turned the wrong way and didn’t leave enough space for the lens, because the lens had to go there, it had to, she didn’t know how she knew but she did and time was running out.
And then suddenly she could see the whole design, from the overall schematic down to the bevelled teeth of the microscopic gears that would catch and grind on specks of dust too small to see or feel if they weren’t assembled just so in airtight diamond cases. There and there, that’s where the hair-fine optical fibers had to go, and there, right in the machine’s heart, was the space where a miniaturized core could—
The whole room heeled hard, throwing her off balance. “She’s going to blow!” Mister Mishra shouted. and then all Iffy could hear was a rushing sound as the ship fell away beneath her into a pit of churning foam.
She woke drenched in sweat and rolled over, hugging her pillow to her chest and burying her face in it to muffle her sobs. When they finally ran down she wiped her face angrily on her sleeve, rolled over on her back, and fumbled on the floor beside her for her water bottle before remembering that she hadn’t refilled it. “Idiot,” she muttered. She thumped her fist against her mattress. “Stupid affin’ idiot.”
It took her a long time to fall asleep again.
It was a four-day to Rothera across the Weddel Sea. Two hundred years ago, their route would have been choked with ice even in summer. No longer: waves a meter high made the Guinevere rock from side to side in a surging rhythm that Iffy knew as well as she knew her own heartbeat. After motoring for a couple of hours, Uncle Jack had raised the sails. The ship’s tiny core had obediently raised the Guinevere’s twin masts and run up the mis-matched gossamer sheets to catch the ever-present wind. By the time Iffy woke up to stand her watch, Halley had fallen below the horizon.
The wind was strong and steady, and if it hadn’t been for their passenger, Iffy and her aunt and uncle might actually have enjoyed a rare moment of peace together—or if not peace, then at least truce. But they did have a passenger. An’ if Uncle Jack didn’t want him, Iffy thought angrily, He shoulda said “no”. On the first morning, Wales stowed his pack and his toolboxes in a hastily-cleared storage room, then took a seat on a thwart near the stern. As Iffy crammed the displaced odds and ends into whatever nooks and crannies she could find, Aunt Naggie brewed tea and Uncle Jack grew slowly more agitated. Every time she walked past the pilot house she heard him muttering curses and practicing arguments, already regretting the bargain he had made.
“Just stay out o’ his way,” Aunt Naggie advised worriedly when Iffy clambered down into the galley to get the tea. “He ain’t used to havin’ other folk on board. He’ll settle in.” The way she said it made it sound more like a prayer than a prediction, but Iffy nodded and climbed back on deck with two chipped ceramic mugs of tea in her hand.
“‘Bout affin’ time,” her uncle said sharply when she knocked on the door of the pilot house and handed him his. He slurped a mouthful and set it in the ring next to the ship’s wheel.
Iffy glanced at the control panel. Tiny cameras dotted about the ship showed the engine, the hold, the sails, and practically everywhere else except the tiny toilet near the stern. Small graphs scattered among the images told her at a glance how much fuel they had, how much tension was in the forestays and mainstays, and what the wind and the currents around them were doing.
The most important display, though, was the sonar. Every captain kept a close eye on that—at least, every captain who wanted to make it home. At the first faint sign of gas bubbling up from clathrates melting on the ocean floor, they would fire up the engine and run.
Uncle Jack tapped one of the squares on the panel. “You get that backstay cable mended ‘fore lunch or you ain’t havin’ nothin’ but leavings,” he growled.
“Yessir,” Iffy said obediently. He’d been drinking again, she realized. She could smell it on his breath, and from the way he clutched the wheel to hold himself steady, she guessed he’d been at it the whole time she had been standing watch.
“An’ see if that baggage o’ yours wants to get started mendin’ things,” he called after her as she turned to go. “Or better yet, just tell ‘im I said he was goin’ to. An’ that’s an order!”
Wales hadn’t moved from his seat at the stern. He seemed lost in thought as Iffy approached him, but said, “Of course,” in reply to Iffy’s tentative request for help. Standing, he straightened his jacket and smiled. “Being useful would be good for me right now.”
“You thinkin’ ‘bout them off the Taroona? Not that it’s any o’ my look-in,” she added hastily.
Wales shook his head. “No. I was thinking about the Landrieu. The big ship back at Halley,” he continued as Iffy gave him a blank look. “The one the town uses as a breakwater. She was a marvel in her time. Fractal carbon ribs, a foamed poly-composite hull, and twin cores to steer her. She was the first of her class to sail on her own across the Pacific, but things were already falling apart by then.” He sighed. “They only managed to make a handful like her before the war. It must have broken her heart to run herself aground.”
“I guess,” Iffy said to fill the silence that followed. “Can’t imagine how I’d feel if somethin’ like that happened to the Guinevere.”
Wales shook his head to clear it. “I don’t think that’s likely to happen,” he said, suddenly brisk. “Now, where’s this cable we’re supposed to splice?”
Iffy had hoped that Wales would bring out his toolboxes—she was itching to examine their contents in detail—but instead, he studied the hacked-off ends of the backstay cable with a simple hand-held magnifying glass. Iffy wanted to tell him that the damage wasn’t her fault, but she bit back her words. There was no way she could tell him that without saying that it had been Uncle Jack, and as much as she wanted to impress him, no self-respecting sailor would point a finger at her own captain in front of a passenger.
“All right,” Wales said, slipping the magnifying glass back into one of the many pockets that his coat seemed to be made of. “What’s the plan: splice, clamp, strap, or weld?”
“I was thinkin’ I could splice it?” Iffy ventured hesitantly. When Wales nodded, she fished a roll of twisted eight-gauge cable from her bag of odds and ends and dug around to find a wire cutter and a pair of needle-nosed pliers.
The next half hour flew by as Iffy lost herself in the task at hand. She had expected Wales to take charge, but instead he asked one question after another, the answers to which seemed to draw ideas out of her that she hadn’t know were there.
Once the first dozen lengths of splice were woven into the cable, he sat cross-legged on the deck and held the cable’s ends together so that she could finish connecting them. Iffy worked as quickly as she could, waiting for him to say it was time for a break, but he didn’t. Uncle Jack wouldn’t have been able to hold the cable like that for more than a minute, she thought. Even Mister Mishra would have struggled, but Wales seemed unbothered.
Over, through, under, through… “There,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Wanna see if she holds together?”
Wales nodded and pulled on the two sides of the cable. The splice stretched slightly, and for a moment Iffy was afraid it would give way, but it held. He looked at her for permission to stop, then dropped the cable on the deck with a whoosh when she nodded. “So what do you think?” he asked. “Is it ready to string up?”
Iffy shrugged. “Only one way to find out.” She hit the switch on the winch beside her. The cable zinged as it was wound in, then made a sharp crack! as it came taut. Iffy picked up a wrench and whacked the splice a couple of times as hard as she could.
Wales blinked. “Are you always this, um, direct, when you’re working?”
Iffy grinned. “Pretty much.”
There were other things for them to mend after the cable. There were always things to mend on the Guinevere: a spidery network of microscopic cracks on the forward mast, a loose coupling on a bilge pipe, or the handle on the main hatch that had started sticking mid-way through their last voyage. Like most of the vessels that called Halley home, the Guinevere was more than a hundred years old, built before things fell apart out of materials that could no longer be made, only repaired. Keeping her afloat was a matter of sifting through online databases to find tips that weren’t self-replicating spamotage left over from the war, firing off messages to other mechanics trying to keep their own ships running, running simulations to see if this patched with that patched with whatever would hold together in sub-zero temperatures, and the combination of clever hands and stubbornness she had used on the cable. Iffy loved it.
Wales worked beside her the whole time, handing her tools, holding things steady while she screwed them in or used her cherished little laser to put a patch on the weld that held an even older patch in place. He somehow managed to keep up his steady stream of questions without ever making her feel like he was pestering her. She enjoyed every minute of it, just like she enjoyed those precious moments when Mister Mishra turned something she’d made over and over in his hands and pronounced it well done, or when Uncle Jack was sound asleep and Aunt Naggie told her stories about growing up in Tasmania in the years after the war, when fruit still grew on the trees and people had pets that weren’t rats and reptiles.
Wales seemed to enjoy the work as well, right up until the moment he helped Iffy lift the cover off the backup generator near the Guinevere’s stern. His face fell at the sight of its compact, oily bulk. “Y’aright?” Iffy asked, fanning away the smell.
“I’m fine,” Wales said, gazing down at the ceramic engine block. “I just thought you ran on jellyfish sludge, not coal.”
“The main engine uses jelly,” Iffy nodded at the backup. “This here is just for when it’s bust, or for haulin’ the winches when there’s ice ‘n’ all.”
The square-faced man sighed. “But Iffy—coal? Really?”
“It’s not like we use it every day,” Iffy said defensively. “It’s only a backup, or when we need some extra oomph.” Her eyes widened. “Oh crivens—you ain’t a Zillion, are you? Uncle Jack’ll put you o’er the side an’ no mistake. He hates Zillions even worse’n he hates the Marines.”
Wales sighed heavily. “No, I’m not Brazilian. I just thought…” He squatted on his haunches and looked at the little coal-dust engine as if it were a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead or alive. “Come on. Let’s get this done.”
He asked fewer questions after that, and the ones he did ask were simple and direct. Despite his obvious distaste, he clearly knew how coal engines worked. Half an hour after they started, the tetrahedral lasers whose pulsing ignited the coal dust that the engine used for fuel were sparking away in perfect time with each other, and the cinder clog that Iffy had long suspected was blocking the intake pipe had finally been dislodged. She would normally have let the engine run for a few minutes to test it, but the thought of Wales not saying anything if she did made her decide not to.
Aunt Naggie made curry for dinner. “Just for you,” she whispered, shaking a little of Mrs. Sandhu’s special curry powder onto Iffy’s when Uncle Jack’s back was turned and then tucking the jar back into her apron. The smell of synthetic coconut milk, greenhouse peppers, diced mushrooms, and spices made the galley as warm and as comfortable as an old sweater.
Wales thanked Aunt Naggie before taking his up onto deck to eat. “I like watching the waves,” he explained when she protested that the galley’s little table could fold up to make room for everyone, it wouldn’t be a problem, they’d done it plenty of times before. Iffy bit her lip at that. She could barely remember the last time Aunt Naggie had invited someone onboard for tea. Uncle Jack had glowered from start to finish, blinking one eye every few minutes to check the time and muttering about all the chores that needed doing.
He didn’t bother to mutter about Wales. “I don’t like ‘im,” he said flatly, stabbing a chunk of mushroom with a chopstick and stuffing it into his mouth. “Bet there’s more’n just the Taroona’s crew lookin’ for ‘im. Hell, I bet there’s someone would double what he’s payin’ us for a chance to put their hands to ‘im.” He stabbed another piece of mushroom.
Iffy ate in silence, head down. The safest thing to do when Uncle Jack got a not-quite-honest money-making idea was to wait for it to pass—pointing out the holes in his plan was practically guaranteed to make him follow through, just to prove that no one could tell him which way was up. And while she still knew next to nothing about their passenger, she had the feeling that crossing him out wouldn’t end well for anyone.
She and Aunt Naggie cleaned up after they were done eating. “He seems nice,” Aunt Naggie observed as she scraped the last traces of sauce off a plate into the sink. “Handy, too.”
“Mm hm,” Iffy agreed around a last mouthful of noodles. “Might even be able to get the core straightened away if Uncle Jack’ll let ‘im.”
“Oh now, wouldn’t that be nice?” Aunt Naggie sighed wistfully. “No more sittin’ up in the middle of the night wonderin’ if the Ginny is gonna get the notion to head for Argentina or somethin’.”
“But then when would you knit?” Iffy asked, nudging her aunt with her elbow. Aunt Naggie blushed. Her “knitting” consisted of two balls of yarn, a pair of needles, and an endless series of romance novels featuring wealthy strangers with smoldering eyes who didn’t realize how empty their rich, idle lives were until they met the right woman, who was inevitably a poor but honest sailor. According to Aunt Naggie, the books were churned out by a core in Rothera that had spent the war feeding disinformation to rebel bots. Their implausibility, steamy dialogue, and frequent anachronisms only added to the thrill Iffy felt whenever she managed to “borrow” her aunt’s tablet.
“Never you mind about my knitting,” Aunt Naggie said primly. “Your on watch again tonight, so you best get a nap an’ I’ll wake you in a few.” She kissed the top of her foster daughter’s head as Iffy groaned. “Off with you now.”
Wales was back on the thwart at the stern when Iffy got topside, his empty bowl on the deck beside him. She hesitated, wanting to talk but not knowing what to say, then slipped silently into her converted storage locker. Taken by a sudden restlessness, she spent five minutes rearranging her meager possessions before flopping down on her bed and pulling out her older’s nature book. The giraffe, the tiger, the wolf with her sad, intelligent eyes… She slammed the book closed, tucked it under her pillow, and squeezed her eyes shut, half-hoping for another nightmare just so that something would happen.
A soft chime in her ear woke her. Bleary-eyed, she sat up, stretched, and scraped the sleep from the corners of her eyes. Her windowless room was completely dark, but her hands found her clothes on the floor beside her foam slab. She pulled them on over the onesie she had slept in, slipped her feet into her boots, and went out to face another day on the southern ocean.
Aunt Naggie nodded at her when she reached the pilot house. “Sleep aright?” she asked.
Iffy yawned and plopped herself onto the stool beside her aunt. “Fine. How’s she doin’?” She studied the control panel for a moment. There was a bit too much tension in the mainsail, and wind drag over the hull was still half again what the core claimed it ought to be, but that was all normal. She wondered wistfully what it would be like to have tech in her head like Wales did so that she could feel the ship the way she felt the sun on her face or the sting of the spray on her skin in a high sea. She knew it would never happen: tech like that had to be implanted at birth so that the brain could make pathways to use it. But she had once paid two carefully-hoarded rand for five minutes under an induction headset at Halley’s midwinter carnival, and had fantasized about being the Guinevere ever since.
Aunt Naggie nudged her. “Wake up, sleepy head,” she chided gently. Iffy started and straightened. Her aunt jerked her chin at the thermos in the ring holder next to the ship’s wheel. “Fresh made. Well, fresh-ish,” she amended. “But it oughta keep you through your watch.”
“Thanks auntie.” Iffy glanced at the panel again as she stood up and did a double take as one of the cameras switched views to show Wales sitting on the thwart at the stern. “He been there this whole time?”
“Hasn’t budged ‘cept to visit the necess’ry,” Aunt Naggie confirmed. “Turned on the sound a while back to ask if he wanted to come in and sit, but he was talkin’ to himself, an’ I figured…” She shrugged. The only other person on board who talked to themself was her husband, and it was best not to interrupt him when he did.
Iffy patted her aunt’s shoulder. “I’ll take over,” she said, reaching past her to press her thumb against the dark glass square beside the control panel. After a moment’s hesitation it bleeped and blinked green to confirm that the ship’s core acknowledged the transfer of authority from one human to another. Iffy had scrolled through the core’s log many times. It had been a hundred and twenty years since the last time it had been re-set (probably, she suspected, because the holds had been full of contraband instead of jellyfish). Six watches on an average day at sea, with only a few weeks a year tied up or idle, meant more than two hundred thousand handovers, each recorded by a thumb press and a little bleep.
As her aunt left, Iffy gave the control panel a protective pat. “I got you,” she whispered.
She watched through the cameras as Aunt Naggie trudged back to the cabin she shared with her husband of twenty years and then stared out at the sea. The endless light of the Antarctic summer cut sharp reflections into the waves around her. She toyed with the idea of playing a sim on the ship’s core—a storm, maybe, or a war-time training drill that would send her dodging and weaving through flocks of hostile drones—but instead she sighed and pulled up some homework. Her classroom schooling had ended when she turned ten. Since then her teachers had been tutoring programs that she and Aunt Naggie had scrounged, bought, or traded for.
That evening, the subject was modern history—again. Iffy groaned and turned the interaction speed to maximum as the familiar story unfolded. People burned coal, then oil, then coal again… Forests were cut down or worn to nothing by drought as the winds shifted… Fish disappeared as pollution took its toll and the ecosystem collapsed, to be replaced by the jellyfish that now choked the seas… She skipped over the section on how the warming caused the ancient clathrate ice on the ocean floor to thaw, sending even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in an ever-accelerating spiral. She knew all she needed to about what giant bubbles could do to any ships unlucky enough to be above them.
She played through half a dozen sims, doing worse and worse as she went along. Suddenly restless again, she closed her homework, took a deep breath, and tapped one of the video squares on the control panel. “Hey,” she said, her heart in her throat. “Don’t mean to innerupt, but I got some questions if you got time.”
The tiny image of Wales turned its head. “You’re not interrupting at all,” he said, speaking directly to the pin-sized camera and microphone set into the railing beside him. “I’m always happy to talk.”
A few moments later he knocked on the pilot house door. “Permission to come aboard?” he asked, waiting for Iffy to gesture at the stool beside her before seating himself. He looked around the pilot house appreciatively. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“She’s aright,” Iffy allowed. “Hull still mends itself if we give it time, an’ th’ core’s mostly holdin’ together. Gotta keep an eye on it, though. We let it sit too long, it just stops talkin’ to us.”
Wales nodded. “Probably over-cooled. A lot of people did that to cores when the war started,” he continued in response to Iffy’s questioning look. “Someone started a rumor that the colder the core was, the less likely it was to go rogue, so everyone cranked their thermostats down as far as they’d go and then forgot they’d done it. Have you tried putting a twist coil inside the housing to offset the thermal loss?”
And as easily as that, they slid into a conversation that leaped from laser guides and the relative merits of fractal carbon versus foamed aluminum for masts to tricks for keeping a drill press lined up and steady when the building it was in was shaking. Iffy was just about to ask when that would ever actually be an issue when he raised a hand to stop her.
“Hang on.” His eyes closed as he communed with the satellite passing overhead, then snapped open.
“We need to change course,” he said, surging to his feet. “We need to change course now.”
“What’s wrong?” Iffy asked, but Wales was already gone. His boots thumped on the deck as he ran sternward to bang on the door of Uncle Jack and Aunt Naggie’s cabin.
“Captain! Captain, please, I need to speak with you!” He waited a second, then pounded on the door again.
“Uh oh,” Iffy muttered, watching on the control panel as the door flew open and an angry Uncle Jack bellowed, “You better tell me we’re sinkin’, or I’m puttin’ you over the side! I was asleep!”
“We’ll be worse than sinking if we don’t change course,” Wales said, tapping the tech in his temple. “A ship just dropped out of stealth about sixty kay northwest of us. She’s still throwing up a lot of dazzle, but she’s moving fast, and she’s definitely not here for the jellyfish.”
Uncle Jack goggled at him. “Pirates?” he spluttered.
“I hope so,” Wales said grimly. “Because if they’re not, then she’s a warship, and that means…” He shook his head. “We need to change course, captain. If we head straight for shore I can put up a bit of dazzle of my own and try to keep us away from any drones she sends up.”
Uncle Jack swore. “Naggie! Up and movin’, woman! We got trouble!”
Iffy had simmed dozens of chases at sea. Sometimes she was the captain of a customs cutter trying to catch a school of smugglebots. Other times she was in command of a Zillion catamaran skimming across the water under core-trimmed sails with a hold full of organic food and subversive software. Some of the sims ran for hours as she played cat and mouse among the jagged rocks of the Antarctic shore. She had won more than she had lost, but that was little comfort now that the game was real.
Wales winced but said nothing as Iffy fired up the coal engine. The Guinevere picked up speed as her propellors churned the sea behind them into a white froth. Uncle Jack’s hands danced across the control panel, tilting the sails to balance the increased thrust at the stern and driving the bilge pumps into high gear. The ship swayed more wildly with each passing minute as her core traded stability for speed.
“Eighteen west, heading one sixty five, at fifty-six kay and change,” Wales called as he ran to the bow to clip a black cylinder the size of his thumb to the railing. The ship’s control panel wavered and reformed as the gadget powered up and began spraying misinformation on all frequencies.
“How fast?” Uncle Jack growled. “Tell me how affin’ fast, man.”
“Twenty kay an hour.” Wales hesitated. “Make that twenty-two. She’s military for sure.”
Uncle Jack horked and spat into the garbage pail by his feet. “Don’t mean she ain’t a pirate. Naggie! Where’s my affin’ tea?”
Iffy stepped out of the doorway to let her aunt squeeze past her and hand a thermos to her husband. She put her arm around Iffy, but the frightened expression on her face cancelled out whatever reassurance she meant to give. Jelly fishers didn’t have much worth stealing besides their ships, but those ships were worth a lot—enough for their captains to make a habit of sailing close by each other whenever strangers were near. And while Iffy hadn’t paid much attention to the politics of it all, she knew that the tension between the Zillions and the loose coalition of governors and factory cores that ruled Antarctica had been getting worse.
“Iffelia.” Wales fished a plastic chip out of his pocket and handed it to her. “In my cabin, the toolbox with the purple square on the end. Can you get it for me, please? Tap this near the handle before you open the door.”
The cold spray thrown up by their speed stung her face as she ran toward the stern. She paused for a breath outside Wales’ cabin then tapped the plastic shard on the door handle. She waited for a click or a tone or something, but nothing came. Swallowing hard, half-expecting disaster, she yanked the door open.
The three toolboxes lay side by side beneath Wales’ cot. She pulled out the one marked by a purple square, turned around, and almost screamed at the sight of Wales’ toy bear crouched on all fours in the doorway. Its blue eyes flickered. She heaved a shaky breath and stepped aside to let it scurry across the floor to disappear beneath the cot.
Wales had joined her foster parents in the pilot house. “Thank you,” he said when she handed him the toolbox.
“How’re we doin’?” she asked.
Wales shook his head. “She hasn’t changed course since we spotted her. Either she doesn’t know we’re here or she doesn’t care.”
“Or she’s jus’ waitin’ ‘til we’re in closer to land,” Uncle Jack growled. “Her dazzle’s spread enough t’ cover the both of us if she gets us close in by th’ rocks.” He swiped two fingers across the control panel in an angry, futile attempt to squeeze a little more speed out of the Guinevere’s struggling engines.
Wales hefted his toolbox. “I might be able to do something about that. Excuse me.” He squeezed past Iffy and Aunt Naggie.
“You best lend him a hand,” Aunt Naggie told Iffy in a low voice. “I’m going to make some more tea an’ put some food together. No sense bein’ boarded on an empty stomach.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna board us,” Uncle Jack snapped automatically without taking his eyes off the control panel. Aunt Naggie shooed Iffy out of the pilot house without replying.
Wales was on one knee near the bow. His open toolbox revealed a collection of carefully-packed odds and ends that would have made Iffy’s mouth water if she wasn’t so afraid. The half-assembled drone in his hands was the same size as the sentry bot in his room but skinned with some kind of camo that changed color to match his hands and coat and the deck every time he turned it over. Using a pair of diamond-tipped tweezers, Wales detached a manipulator no thicker than a drinking straw and placed it carefully back in the toolbox. “To cut the weight,” he explained to Iffy, even though she hadn’t asked. “That’ll give it more range.”
He removed the drone’s other tiny arm and stowed it beside its twin, then handed the drone to Iffy. “Probably best if you don’t tell your uncle about this part,” he said quietly as he used the nail of his left thumb to peel the false skin back from the pad of his right forefinger. Underneath lay a small patch of silver whose lights blinked in time with the larger square set in his temple.
Iffy gasped. “Are you a trans?”
Wales glanced at her, a wry smile on his face. “You know, that used to mean something very different than it does now,” he said ruefully. “But no, I’m not transhuman. I just don’t like advertising how much technology I have in me. It’s hard enough having people try to take my head off every once in a while—if I had to worry about waking up minus a finger or two I’d never get any sleep.”
He turned his gaze back to his toolbox and pressed his silver fingertip against the side of the toolbox. “Sixteen… orange… kneecap,” he said quietly.
Iffy held her breath, half-expecting the toolbox to transform itself into—well, she didn’t know what, but something. Instead, a tiny blue light blinked twice in the handle.
Wales took a deep breath and lifted the inside out of the toolbox to reveal a secret compartment in the bottom. Nestled among the bits and pieces of tech hidden there lay half a dozen small cylinders, each one the size and shape of the last join on Iffy’s little finger. Four empty holes showed where others had once been. Using his tweezers once again, Wales carefully plucked one of the cylinders from its resting place and inserted it into the base of the drone.
“‘Zat th’ batt’ry?” Iff guessed.
Wales shook his head. “Its battery is built in. This is—this is just in case.” He reassembled the bottom of the toolbox and tossed the drone into the air.
It rose, started to fall, and then—Iffy blinked. She couldn’t see any rotors or hear any buzzing or whining. The drone just floated, its sides shimmering slightly as if it were a hologram.
“It’s covered in ionizing impellers,” Wales explained before Iffy could ask. “They were designed for use in ultra-thin atmospheres, but they work all right in ours.”
A hundred questions crowded together in Iffy’s head. Before she could ask any of them, he pointed his silver-tipped finger toward the horizon. With no more command than that, the drone shot away, disappearing from sight as its camo matched the blue, gray, and white of the sky, sea, and waves.
Wales locked his toolbox and stood up. “Shall we watch from inside?” he asked, folding the little flap of false skin back in place over his fingertip.
Uncle Jack was chewing the end of his beard as they entered the pilot house. “Well?” he demanded.
Instead of answering, Wales pressed his palm against the nearest corner of the control panel. The images from the ship’s cameras slid to the side to make room for a larger image. It took Iffy a moment to recognize the ocean seen from on high through a fisheye lens. The irregular lines running diagonally across it were wave crests, and the speck near the bottom was the Guinevere. There was a whole lot of nothing around them, she realized with a chill.
“Have you sent a distress call?” Wales asked quietly.
Uncle Jack nodded, his face grim. “Nearest shout I got back is a hunnert kay east, but they’re smaller’n we are. Halley wasn’t much innerested ‘til I tol’ ‘em our friends looked milit’ry. Now they’re sayin’ they’ll get a spotter up soon as they can, which prob’ly means just in time t’ watch us bein’ towed away.”
“Send the drone’s feed directly to Halley,” Wales ordered crisply, drawing a trio of personal characters on the screen. “Tell them it’s to go straight to Captain Stirling, and send this. That should wake them up.”
Uncle Jack spat out the mouthful of beard he had been chewing. “Aw for—you’re a blue! You’re an affin’ blue!”
“No.” Wales shook his head without taking his eyes off the display. “But I’ve done business with them in the past.” His tone changed. “Here we go.”
The view on the control panel shifted as the drone tilted its camera forward and narrowed its focus to zoom in on a dark blur that squatted on the ocean below like a cockroach on a dirty floor. Its outline remained blurry even as it grew larger. That was its camo, Iffy guessed—thousands of micro-thin strips of camo absorbing and re-emitting light, infrared, radar, and everything else that might give reveal the ship’s actual position and profile. The flurries of multi-colored speckles that swept across the image every few seconds were the camo’s electronic counterpart at work, doing for the intruder what she hoped Wales’ gear was doing for the Guinevere.
Even blurred, the ship was a frightening sight. Where the Guinevere stood up in the water, the intruder was built low and lean, the narrow V of her wake betraying the power of her engines.
“How fast is that thing o’ yours movin’?” Uncle Jack asked as the ship swelled on the screen.
“Mach three and change,” Wales replied. “Which will be worth exactly nothing if they spot it. Hang on.”
The image tilted and swooped as the drone dove toward the sea below, levelling off at the last moment to skim the tops of the waves. A trio of graphs appeared at the top of the control panel. Wales cursed under his breath. “They’ve got some kind multipath radar rig.”
“Is that bad?” Iffy asked anxiously.
“It means they know something’s out there, but they don’t have a lock on it. I hope,” Wales amended fervently. “But look—there she is.”
“Oh, she’s all an’ every,” Aunt Naggie breathed reverently from behind them, a tray of tea and sandwiches in her hands. Iffy could only nod. The intruder’s outline had suddenly come into focus as the drone came close enough for its tiny brain to see through its quarry’s dazzle.
“She’s murder is what she is,” Uncle Jack growled. The stubby frames of railguns bristled from domes at her bow and stern. The larger rig amidships had to be some sort of cryo cannon, Iffy guessed—at least, that’s what it would be if this was a story sim. But the most frightening thing was what wasn’t there: no flag, no call numbers, nothing to give her any sort of identity except for the slogan “Este mundo é de deus” on her side.
“Zillions…” Iffy whispered. Everyone knew those words—knew them and feared them. Brazil had fought beside Australia and the rest of humanity when the machines rebelled, but had turned on their allies once the bots were defeated. “Este mundo!” they screamed in books and sims. “This world is God’s!” The earth’s self-appointed defenders would sacrifice everything to undo the damage humanity had done to the planet, even their own species. When a shaft in a coal mine collapsed people blamed Zillion fanatics intent on driving humanity back into the stone age. When a mutant fungus turned the contents of a greenhouse into sludge, people demanded that the governors do something. And when a Zillion trader was brave enough or stupid enough to go more than a block or two from Halley’s market and woke up in hospital, everyone just nodded straight-faced at the Marines’ equally straight-faced apologies for their drones’ failure to record anything.
Without warning the display went blank. “What the—” Uncle Jack swore as the image re-formed.
“Laser burst,” Wales said curtly. “The drone’s core is shielded, but another hit like that will fry the ionizers. I’m pulling it back.” Even as he spoke, the ship dwindled into the distance.
“Idjit!” Uncle Jack slapped the controls in frustration. “You’ll lead ‘em right to us!”
Wales shook his head. A second image blossomed on the control panel aswirl with false-colored oranges and pinks. In the moment it took Iffy to recognize the outline of the coastline in front of them, a pair of circled dots blinked into life.
Wales pointed at a splotch of pink that lay between the two dots. “There—there’s a ridge about two hundred meters down. Seismology detected a mudslide this morning, and there’s been bubbling since.” He glanced at the Guinevere’s captain. “It’s a sea boil waiting to happen,” he translated. “It won’t sink her, but it should slow her down or scare her off.”
Iffy’s heart skipped a beat. For a moment she was back in the ecosuit, back in the water, back in her nightmare. She swallowed drily and shrugged off Aunt Naggie’s hand.
“Waitin’ to happen don’t help us,” Uncle Jack spat.
“Leave that to me,” Wales said grimly. Thin white lines appeared and disappeared on the display as he and the Guinevere’s core explored a thousand possible futures. After a couple of seconds, their criss-cross confusion locked into place. “There,” Wales declared, tapping the image. “That’s our best chance. I’ll update it as we get more data from the drone.”
“Never thought I’d be steerin’ into a boil,” Uncle Jack grumbled as he bent the Guinevere’s path to port. He grabbed a sandwich from the tray and gobbled half in a single hasty bite, chasing it down with a gulp of tea and a belch. Wales took a second ceramic mug and sipped its contents.
Aunt Naggie reached over Iffy to take the third and handed it to her niece. “I’ll be down in the galley,” she announced, turning to go.
“We got plenty o’ food, woman.” Uncle Jack gulped another mouthful of tea.
“Yes, well, um,” Aunt Naggie stammered. “Don’t want to be in th’ way.” She scooped up the tray she had brought and hurried out.
Uncle Jack eyed Iffy, clearly expecting her to follow her aunt, but said nothing when she stayed.
Beside her, Wales grunted. “She’s turning faster than I expected. I’ll update the model.” The white lines on the screen danced and twisted again, settling quickly back into a pattern indistinguishable to Iffy’s eyes from the original.
Wales grunted again. “Four minutes to optimal position. Assuming they’re not skewing the satellite signal just to lure us in.”
“Coulda mentioned that earlier,” Uncle Jack muttered.
Soft green digits in the corner of the control panel counted down the seconds and minutes. The tension in the pilot house stretched until Iffy thought it would snap like a rubber band. Uncle Jack’s knuckles were white on the wheel, and she couldn’t quite seem to catch her breath. Even Wales seemed to feel it. He flew the drone in a back-and-forth sweep as if searching for something, never too far in front of the Zillion warship but never letting it close in enough to try another shot with its laser.
Three minutes. Two. One. “Show time,” Wales said quietly. He bowed his head as if in prayer. The image on the screen steadied as the drone slowed and stopped. The Zillion ship drew closer, gray and single-purposed like the shark in Iffy’s nature book.
The map on the control panel tilted to show depth. The ridge on the sea floor lay directly beneath the drone, orange splashed with warning pink. “Ten seconds,” Wales said. Before Iffy could ask, “Until what?” the drone dove straight down into the water.
The image from its cameras dimmed and went black as the drone left the light behind. Two white sparks appeared on the map next to the Zillion ship and sped toward the blue dot that marked the drone’s position. “Ta ma dé,” Wales swore.
His drone plummeted toward the sea floor as the Zillion torpedoes closed in. “C’mon c’mon c’mon,” Iffy pleaded, not realizing she was speaking aloud.
The drone’s dot blinked out. A balloon of red light expanded where it had been. The Zillion sparks tried to curve away, but there wasn’t time. Their trajectories disappeared as they intersected the expanding red blob.
And then the blob touched the sea floor. The pink blotch beneath it writhed like a speared fish, darkening and spreading as if it was being dragged along. Graphs flashed onto the screen, probability surfaces dancing in three dimensions as the Guinevere’s core tried to predict what would happen next.
“Uh oh,” Wales said softly. On the screen, a section of the sea ridge had started sliding slowly into the depths. Blue lightning flashed along the edges of the mudslide, bright lines connecting and spreading in a sudden spiderweb fracture.
“Come about,” Wales snapped at Uncle Jack. “Now!”
The Guinevere’s captain didn’t need to be told twice. “I told you this was a stupid idea!” he snarled as he spun the wheel.
Iffy grabbed the door frame to keep her feet. “What happened?” she asked.
“Fault line in the ridge,” Wales said angrily. “The satellite couldn’t see it, and it wasn’t in the survey data. The last bot to go through must have—” He stopped himself and pressed a hand onto the control panel. The map and graphs vanished, replaced by a grainy image that quickly zoomed in to show the now-familiar outline of the Zillion ship. “I’m sorry,” he whispered as the sea around the intruder started to bubble. “I’m so sorry.”
Iffy couldn’t look away. The mudslide started by the bomb that the drone had been carrying had broken up a field of barely-frozen clathrates, releasing enormous bubbles of methane. As the bubbles rose to the surface they churned the sea into a froth unable to bear the weight of a ship.
Too late, the ship realized the danger beneath her. She turned sharply, trying to steer for safety, but wallowed as her engines churned as the water beneath her turned to froth. Her stern dipped, throwing her bow into the air. Suddenly clumsy, she tipped on her side and slid down into the dark unforgiving water as a dozen hectares of ocean foamed and seethed.
“Saints and their mercies,” Uncle Jack said quietly.
Iffy realized she was crying. “Why?” She dragged her sleeve across her face. “Why’d you have to drown ‘em?”
“I didn’t mean to,” Wales said, the weary self-hatred in his voice saying as clearly as words that he knew how little that mattered. “The sims said it would just bubble enough to make them turn around.”
“Aff your sims!” Iffy shouted. “Aff your affin’ sims! They’re dead!” She turned and stumbled out of the pilot house.
Her feet took her to the galley on auto-pilot. She yanked back the hatch and almost fell through. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” Aunt Naggie wrapped her meaty arms around her niece.
“They’re dead,” Iffy cried. “They’re all drowned dead!”
“Oh, sweetie.” Her aunt hugged her tight, rocking her from side to side. “Oh, sweetie…” For a moment Iffy thought she heard another voice saying, “I love you so much,” but then there were just her tears and the hum of the engines and the muffled sound of the uncaring sea.
The spotter reached them half an hour later. She had left Aunt Naggie in the galley to sit on the thwart at the Guinevere’s stern and let gray thoughts chase each other aimlessly in her head. She half-hoped that Wales would join her and tell that her he’d had no choice, that it had been them or the Zillion ship. Instead, he disappeared into his cabin, ignoring Uncle Jack’s angry questions about what the hell a civilian was doing with a gram of antimatter in his affin’ luggage.
Iffy stood and shaded her eyes, searching the sky until she was the wispy smudge of the spotter’s gossamer wings. Why was it approaching from the west? Halley lay east of them. Unless— “Uncle Jack!” she shouted, sprinting toward the pilot house. “Uncle Jack, it’s the Zillions! They found us again!”
“Hang on a sec,” her uncle said to a face on to the control panel as she charged in. “What?”
“Uncle Jack,” she panted. “There’s a Zillion spotter comin’ in!”
“That ain’t the Zillions,” her uncle said scornfully. “That’s one of ours outta Rothera.” He jerked his thumb at the face on the screen. “Lady here says they been lookin’ for us. Or leastways, they been lookin’ for our passenger. Seems he’s quite a popular fellow.”
Iffy looked from her uncle to the screen. An old woman smiled back. Her brown face was lined with a century of wrinkles, and what was left of her hair was plastered against her scalp in a style that Iffy had only ever seen in her homework. “Hello,” she said. “You must be Miz Kwan. I’m Doctor Johel. I’m looking forward to meeting you.”
They sailed into Rothera two days later. The spotter stayed traced lazy circles overhead, its insect-eye cameras and microscopic core ceaselessly searching for signs of more trouble. Every time Wales emerged for a few minutes to get some food or use the toilet, Uncle Jack made a point of asking whether “his” satellites were doing the same. Wales just shook his head and retreated to his cabin.
A pair of low-slung launches intercepted them just as Rothera took shape on the horizon. Other than that, they didn’t see a single other vessel. “Governor’s orders,” Aunt Naggie told Iffy, passing her a hard-boiled egg doused in Mrs. Sandhu’s special curry powder. “That’s what Jack says—everyone’s been told to stay outta the way ‘til we’re berthed.”
Her meager lunch inside her, Iffy went back on deck. She was surprised to see Wales leaning on the railing, his eyes as distant as his thoughts. Iffy thought for a moment about all the people she wished she had made friends with over the years, then stepped up to the railing a meter away from him and leaned on it as well. He nodded at her. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
“No worries,” she said. Together, they watched the shore approach.
Half an hour later, they rounded the rocky headland that sheltered Antarctica’s biggest city from the worst of the winter storms. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Wales said.
Iffy bridled. “It ain’t that bad.”
Wales chuckled. “It’s a quote from an ancient movie. That’s like a story sim,” he explained. “And no, it isn’t that bad.” His half-smile slipped slightly. “Or at least, it didn’t used to be.”
Thin trails of smoke drew diagonal charcoal lines across the sky above the city as the Guinevere approached. Iffy glanced sidelong at Wales, but he showed no emotion at the evidence of carbon being thrown into the atmosphere. The peninsula’s coal mines were the original source of Rothera’s wealth, and the reason both for the governor being there and for the Zillions’ prowling and raids. It was a crime to burn fossil fuel in most parts of the world, but when pressed, Rothera’s citizens would shrug and say, “Damage done,” or point out that the whole of Antarctica would still be covered in ice if it weren’t for the warming. And if cities elsewhere had drowned and billions had starved or been driven from their homes in the run-up to the machine wars, well, that damage was done too.
The wind shifted suddenly, and the city’s smell hit them like a wet hammer. Along with its mines, Rothera had a fishing fleet ten times the size of Halley’s. The reek of tonnes of jellyfish being rendered down for fuel and fertilizer was like a blow to the head. Wales wrinkled his nose in disgust, but Iffy took a deep breath, held it until she thought her lungs might burst, and let it out in a whoosh.
The launches shadowing them peeled away as they entered the harbor to resume their endless patrol. The spotter banked and turned back out to sea a few moments later, the sun sparkling off the solar cells on its wings. Iffy watched it go, wondering what it would be like to watch everything below with the detachment of an angel or a satellite. She was pretty sure there wouldn’t be much detachment once they docked.
A squad of Marines was waiting for them on their assigned pier. Four stood in a half-circle around a tiny figure dressed all in black with an armored bot twice the size of the Guinevere’s pilot house behind them. Someone had turned the “0” of the “G-80” stencilled on the bot’s side into a scowling face. The other Marines were scattered among crates and machines or on the decks of nearby ships, their positions chosen after a millisecond of high-intensity simulation by the city’s core. Other than them, the pier was deserted. So were the piers on either side, Iffy realized.
“Sharks in the water,” Wales murmured beside her as a dark mechanical shape swam beneath them. “And that G-80 on the pier isn’t just for show. See its treads?” He nodded toward the hulking bot. “They’ve been reinforced for urban work.” He glanced past Iffy as Aunt Naggie came on deck and forced a smile. Aunt Naggie put her arm around Iffy’s shoulders without replying.
The Guinevere slowed, turning parallel to the pier as she approached it. Iffy shrugged off her aunt’s arm and hurried forward to throw a line to a waiting Marine. As he caught it, another Marine leaped across the gap to the Guinevere’s stern. Despite the weight of his exoskeleton, his boots made no more sound hitting the deck than a seagull. When he turned to toss the coiled line waiting there to one of his companions, Iffy saw the angular pulse rifle slung over his uniform parka.
Uncle Jack strode onto the deck and put his hands on his hips. “Well,” he said to no one in particular. “Let’s get this over with.” With one final glare at Wales, he let the gangplank fall onto the pier with a thud and stumped down to meet their welcoming committee.
Wales stepped aside to let Aunt Naggie follow her husband then picked up the toolbox with the purple square on the end. “Bring those,” he said to Iffy, nodding at the two remaining toolboxes. “And stay close—as long as we don’t startle anyone, everything will be fine.”
Iffy hesitated. “It’s normal for an apprentice to carry their teacher’s gear,” Wales explained gently. Iffy nodded jerkily and followed him down the gangplank with one box dangling at the end of each arm.
Doctor Johel stepped forward to greet them. “Mister Wales,” she said warmly, extending her hand. “Such a pleasure to see you again.” Her clipped accent was straight out of an old story sim. Her eyes sparkled as she and Wales shook hands.
“And you, doctor.” Wales bowed his head slightly before releasing her hand. “My apologies again for the commotion I caused.”
“Long overdue in some people’s opinions,” Doctor Johel said briskly. “The Brazilians have been quite daring of late. This will certainly give them pause.”
Wales inclined his head again. “As you say.” He hesitated. “Do you know yet whether the ship had any crew?”
The tiny woman’s expression didn’t soften. “I’m afraid we don’t. And even if we did, Intelligence might not share that knowledge.”
“And Miz Kwan,” she continued, turning to Iffy and holding out her hand again. “A pleasure to meet you in person. I’m grateful to you for helping Mister Wales get here in one piece.”
“No worries,” Iffy mumbled, setting down the toolboxes and shaking Doctor Johel’s hand gingerly. The old woman was half a head shorter than Iffy, and her wrinkled brown skin felt like warm plastic. Up close, the sparkle in her eyes was more than just a trick of the light, but Iffy couldn’t tell if she was tweaked or if the tiny gleaming motes were some kind of tech.
“And I’m Jack Ng, thank you for asking,” Uncle Jack broke in, stepping forward and thrusting his hand out. “I’m the captain of the Guinevere, and what I want to know is, who’s payin’ me?”
“I’m sure the governor will take care of that when you see him,” Doctor Johel said, pointedly ignoring his hand.
“When I what? I’m not—will you stop pestering me, woman?” He shrugged Aunt Naggie’s cautioning hand off his shoulder angrily. “I’m not talkin’ to th’ governor! I was hired for a job, plain an’ simple. I just want paid an’ then I’m done with it.”
“That will be for the governor to decide,” Doctor Johel said with sudden steel in her voice. “Luckily, he was able to make time in his schedule for you.” She turned and began to hobble toward shore. As she did, the armored bot pivoted smoothly and almost silently on its heavy treads and lowered one of its arms. Without looking, the elderly doctor sat on it as if were a park bench— as if being carried along a pier by a century-old machine designed for inflicting mayhem was the most natural thing in the world.
“Show-off,” Uncle Jack grumbled. “That thing ain’t an affin’ dog.”
“It might as well be for the way Doctor Johel looks after it,” Wales observed drily. He picked up his toolbox and nudged Iffy with his elbow. “Come along, my young apprentice. Our day’s not over yet.”
Half a dozen people stood waiting at the base of the pier under the watchful eyes of another pair of Marines. Iffy recognized some of them as crew from the ships tied up on either side of the Guinevere. One nodded to Uncle Jack, who grunted in return, but no one said hello. Iffy’s cheeks burned under their curious, resentful stares, and hoped they would be allowed back to their ships once the little parade had passed.
They followed Doctor Johel an the G-80 to the harbor gate, where a bus painted the same navy blue as the Marines’ uniforms waited for them. The G-80 waited patiently as Doctor Johel got to her feet. “After you,” she said, gesturing at the bus’s open door. Wales dipped his head once again and climbed aboard with Iffy, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Naggie behind him.
“Haven’t been in one of these in years,” Wales said, seating himself near the front with his toolbox at his feet.
“Ain’t never been in one,” Iffy confessed as she sat on the other side of the aisle from him. “They must think pretty highly o’ you to lay on such a fuss.”
Wales laughed humorlessly. “I suspect that what they think highly of is this,” he said, nudging his toolbox with his boot. “And if they thought they could take it away from me without, um, consequences, I’m pretty sure our welcome would have been much less friendly.” He raised an eyebrow at Doctor Johel. The old woman smiled sweetly, but said nothing.
Rothera bustled around them as the bus hummed quietly through its streets and up the long, gentle slope that led to the governor’s mansion. The G-80 stayed a steady five meters in front of them, its twin turrets swivelling each time they went through an intersection. The Marines jogged along on either side, their exoskeletons turning each stride into a long, low leap. Traffic pulled aside to let them pass, but Iffy didn’t see any of the mad scramble that a convoy like theirs would cause in Halley. Her heart skipped a beat once when she thought she saw a particular face in the crowd, but then the girl turned his head and she realized it was someone else.
As they drew closer to the governor’s mansion, the three-story cinderblock buildings of the old town gave way to newer, brighter construction. Foamed glass reflected the blue sky and the tall anti-aircraft laser towers that surrounded the mansion. Iffy pressed her face against the bus window and stared hungrily at the greenhouses nestled among the turrets’ feet. Apple and oranges and bananas and flowers—flowers!—made a green riot beneath the insulating panels.
Without warning her stomach rumbled. Doctor Johel smiled from the seat behind Wales. “I’m sure lunch will be served,” she promised.
“Thanks,” Iffy mumbled, feeling her foster father’s glare on her back. Suddenly resentful of his disapproval, she asked, “So what kind o’ doctor are you?”
“The medical kind, originally,” the old woman replied, turning in her seat to face Iffy. “But lately I’ve been focusing physics and engineering. There’s still a lot of technology left over from the machine wars that we don’t quite understand, and it’s my department’s job to secure it. Or destroy it if that’s not possible,” she continued, raising her eyebrows at Wales. He smiled as if Doctor Johel had paid him a compliment. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
A fractal-patterned fence surrounded the governor’s mansion. The G-80 pulled to the side to let the bus go through its single gate, but the Marines stayed beside them right up to the turnaround in front of the main doors. A triangular diamond wedge glistened in the center of the gravel circle, familiar to Iffy from dozens of pictures. “In memory” was engraved on each of its faces. In memory of those lost when the ice melted and the sea rose. In memory of those who fell fighting the machines in the war that followed. In memory of all the species now extinct, the giraffes and tigers and all the others that now existed only in books and sims. Iffy paused a moment as she came out of the bus to look at it, an unexpected pang in her chest.
“Get along with you,” Uncle Jack growled, nudging her none too gently. With Marines on either side of them, they followed Doctor Johel through the mansion’s doors.
And then waited. Iffy wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but sitting on a bench—even a very comfortable one, with live plants on either side and soft music playing in the background—wasn’t it. Uncle Jack kept his arms crossed and muttered incessantly, glaring at Aunt Naggie whenever she ventured that the governor must be very busy, really, it wasn’t surprising that he couldn’t see them right away, and she was sure he wouldn’t be much longer.
Wales didn’t seem bothered by the wait. At one point Iffy thought he had actually fallen asleep, but then he grimaced and opened his eyes. “They’re locked down tight,” he sighed quietly, tapping the tech in his temple with a finger.
Iffy nodded toward the toolboxes on the floor between them. “Least they let you keep your gear.”
Wales smiled. “There is that,” he agreed. “And—ah, here we go.” He stood and brushed his hands on his trousers, his only sign of nervousness as the door across from them swung open with soft pneumatic whoosh. It and the wall were as thick as Iffy’s slab mattress. Armor? Soundproofing? She didn’t have time to wonder before Doctor Johel beckoned them to join her. “The governor will see you now,” she said. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to leave those here.”
“Of course,” Wales said smoothly, nudging his toolbox under the bench with his boot. “Shall we say…half an hour?”
“I should think that would be adequate,” Doctor Johel replied. She stepped to the side and beckoned them through.
“Half an hour ‘til what?” Iffy whispered to Wales.
“Until the toolbox decides I’m not coming back and does something about it,” he whispered back, but then he grinned at her widened eyes and she didn’t know if he was kidding or not.
The windowless office was not much smaller than the room they had been waiting in. Framed photographs on the walls traced the history of Rothera from its early days as a research station through the opening of the mines and its years as a work camp for people that the government in far-off London didn’t want at home but didn’t want to get rid of—at least, not yet. The largest picture was of the flag being raised in Hobart after the government was driven out by the machines. A smaller one beneath it showed what was left of London, drowned and abandoned.
A plain wooden desk stood near one wall with half a dozen simple wooden chairs in front of it. A single shaven-headed Marine gestured for them to sit. Iffy expected Doctor Johel to take the seat behind the desk, but she sat with them instead.
The Marine studied them for a heartbeat before saying, “All clear, sir.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” The words seemed to come out of thin air. Iffy’s jaw dropped as the air behind the desk shimmered to reveal a tall man in a formal dark turtleneck, slightly stooped with age but still strong, his face exactly like the image that hung in the Sandhu’s grocery store.
“As you were,” Governor Stern said pleasantly, waving Uncle Jack and Aunt Naggie back into their seats as they started to rise. He nodded at Doctor Johel sat somewhat stiffly behind his desk, and steepled his fingers. “Thank you for coming. I trust the rest of your trip was less eventful than your encounter with our Brazilian neighbors?”
The room was silent as everyone waited for Wales to reply. When it became clear he wasn’t going to, Uncle Jack cleared his throat. “Er, yes, your honor, clear skies ‘n’ smooth sailin’.” He bobbed his head. “Glad t’ help. Happy to, any time you need.”
The governor nodded his head gravely. “Thank you, Captain Ng. The government appreciates your service. And you, Mister Wales,” he continued, looking directly at Wales for the first time. “Will you be happy to help too?”
Wales never got to answer. Something screamed outside, a shrill mechanical sound that ended in the flat crack of an explosion. A dozen pop-up displays instantly materialized above the desk, aerial views and schematics splashed with red danger markers. The Marine took two steps and pressed the gun that was suddenly in her hand against Wales’ head. He raised his hands, saying, “It’s not mine! It’s not mine!” as more Marines poured through the door behind them.
“Sir, it’s the G-80,” the one in the lead said, urgent but calm. “It—” A second shriek and crack! cut off the rest of his sentence. “We have to evacuate you, sir,” the Marine continued as a section of the wall behind the governor’s desk slid sideways to reveal a ramp leading down into the bedrock below the mansion.
The governor stayed where he was. A single swipe of his hand enlarged a top-down display of the front of the mansion just in time to show Doctor Johel’s G-80 fire another micro-missile at the swarm of four-legged robotic sentries swarming around it. Shriek—crack! The explosion threw the shattered sentry twenty meters. The G-80 pivoted on its treads and swung one of its arms like a club to knock another sentry into the air.
“Doctor?” the governor asked calmly. “You told me its core was secure.”
“It was,” she replied, her voice icy instead of calm. “Mister Wales?”
“This has nothing to do with me,” Wales replied, his hands still in the air and his head tilted slightly under the pressure of the Marine’s gun against the tech in his temple.
“Sir—” the Marine began again.
“In a moment,” the governor said sharply. A pair of sentries charged their larger opponent simultaneously. The G-80 knocked the first one away and grabbed the second with its heavy square claws.
The image flashed blue for a moment. “EMP?” Doctor Johel gasped disbelievingly. “It doesn’t have a pulse generator!”
The image reformed. The G-80 dropped the sentry it had caught. The other sentry bots stood frozen in a circle around it for a moment. Then, as one, they turned toward the mansion.
The G-80’s treads chewed on the stairs that led up to the front of the mansion. The last thing Iffy saw before her aunt dragged her away was the sentries charging through the hole the G-80 had just blown in the door.
“Breach!” one of the Marines shouted.
“Really?” Wales muttered sarcastically, his hands still in the air.
Everything happened very quickly after that. One marine opened the door to look down the corridor and fell back immediately, cursing the sizzling laser burn on her arm. Iffy barely had time to snatch up the pair of toolboxes by her chair before the other Marines hurried everyone down the stairs behind the governor’s desk into a narrow zig-zag corridor that smelled of sweat and machinery. Pipes ran along the ceiling, a color-coded mix of water, sewage, secure optical cabling, and highways for the rat-sized security bots that were scurrying madly to the mansion’s defense.
“Doctor?” the governor asked from the head of the procession.
“No idea,” she puffed. “Nobody ever… managed… to breach the firewalls… on the G-80s… during the war. And if someone… has a way… to infect… the sentries…”
“It was optical,” Wales cut in. “That flash. It wasn’t an EMP. It was some kind of machine hypnosis.” He looked ridiculous with one hand up and the other clutching the third toolbox, but no one was laughing.
“Shall we discuss this later, sirs?” the Marine sergeant said, her tone making it clear that she wasn’t actually asking a question.
Something chattered behind them. Sharp dots stitched across the concrete wall a few centimeters from Iffy’s head. Aunt Naggie threw herself on her niece. “Affin’ hell!” Uncle Jack roared. “Keep movin’!”
Needle fire crackled behind them again as two of the Marines turned and returned fire, their tech and training breaking up any pattern or rhythm in their shots. “Go!” the sergeant ordered, shoving them one by one through the door at the end of the corridor.
Wales stumbled and went down on one knee. “Sorry,” he gasped. Dark red blood spurted from twin punctures where a stray shot had punched through his leg.
The sergeant took his arm and began to drag him forward. “No!” Wales shook her off. “The failsafe… It thinks I’m wounded…” To Iffy’s horror, the purple square on the end of the toolbox had started blinking.
“Cover me!” Wales ordered the sergeant. Without waiting to see if she did, he opened the toolbox and began pulling parts out.
“What the hell are you doing? Sir?” the Marine demanded incredulously even as she raised her gun and began firing back the way they had come. The smart bullets zinged and whined around the corners, hungry for targets.
“Start where you are,” Wales muttered. “Start where you are, use what you have, help who you can.” Two skeletal legs, a wheel of nested gears only slightly smaller than Iffy’s hand, a complicated not-quite-a-box to hold it all together—all of a sudden Iffy could see the parts in her head and how they had to fit together.
“Lemme do that,” she said as Wales’s shaking hands dropped a thumb-sized cylinder on the floor. She twisted two already-assembled parts around, tightened them, and clipped the cylinder into the holder they made on the bottom. “It’ll be more stable like this.”
Wales handed her more parts without hesitation or question. When she handed the newly-made bot back to him he turned it over for one last check and then flung it past Iffy. Its gyroscopic gearwheel spinning madly, the little machine scampered up the wall and along the ceiling.
“If that’s a bomb—” the sergeant began.
“Directional broadband pulse,” Wales panted. “It’ll blind them for sure, knock them out if we’re lucky.”
I know that, Iffy realized incredulously. How could I know that? How did I know how to put it together?
Wales struggled to his feet, swaying slightly before putting a hand on the wall to steady himself. Blood was no longer pumping out of his leg, but when he tried to take a step he almost collapsed. “Here,” the sergeant said. She switched her gun to her other hand and slipped under his shoulder.
The lights went out. Iffy’s heart skipped a beat even as they flickered back to life. “That’s one,” Wales grunted. He hopped forward on his good leg, gasping as his toolbox bumped against the wounded one. The purple light on its end was still blinking.
Something scraped concrete behind them. Iffy spun around as a lone sentry came around the corner. The now-empty micro-missile launcher on its back gave it a hunched appearance, and the fresh scratches on its side where the mansion’s mechanical rats had clawed at it made its camouflage flicker and jump. Twin needle guns on the sides of its head chattered, their ammunition spent.
The Marine pushed Wales away and fired two quick shots. The sentry jerked as the shaped needles pinged off one of its mechanical knees. With a sound that could almost have been a growl it threw itself at them.
A small shape dropped from the ceiling and landed on its back. Iffy had just a moment to recognize Wales’ toy bear before the lights went out again. One second, two, three… When they came back to life the sentry lay motionless on its side. The toy bear stood over it, the blue light in its eyes fading, fading, gone.
“Could you… could you please get that?” Wales asked Iffy weakly as he slumped down against the wall. “I have a feeling we might need it again.”
Iffy only managed two steps before the world swam around her. She heard Wales call her name, but it was as if he was speaking from unimaginably far away. Everything seemed distant and somehow tilted, the way it had the one time she had tried drinking one of Uncle Jack’s more potent concoctions. She turned slowly, impossibly slowly, wondering who had replaced the walls with schematics. “That conduit is going to start leaking if someone doesn’t mend it,” she tried to say, but the words wouldn’t come out, and even if they did, Wales and the Marine had been replaced by schematics too.
She woke up lying on a couch in yet another windowless office. Something about the damp air told her she was underground. She turned her head. “Hey, sleepy head,” Aunt Naggie said, her soft voice and the gentle hand she put on her foster daughter’s forehead completely failing to disguise her worry or relief.
“Hey,” Iffy replied. She started to sit up, but let her aunt stop her with only a mumbled protest.
A medic with two tech fingers on her right hand was patching Wales up while the governor interrogated him. No, he repeated wearily, he had no idea how the G-80 had been compromised, or how it had infected the sentries. He had just been guessing when he said it was some sort of machine hypnosis. No, he wouldn’t show them what else he had in his toolbox—not yet. And yes, he did realize that made him look like he was hiding something. “But that’s because I am,” he said, eyeing his cut-off trouser leg sadly. He hadn’t flinched when the medic probed his wound with a whisker-slim instrument extruded from one of her metal fingers, or when she started to fill the hole with pink goo from a squeeze tube. He hadn’t let go of his toolbox, either.
“The question is what?” The governor paced restlessly as he spoke. “What kind of man has a fully functional mil sat link in his head, and an unregistered clone as an apprentice?”
Iffy froze at the word “clone”. It was something other children had called her when she was little to make her cry, something Uncle Jack muttered just loudly enough to be overheard when he was in a particularly bad mood. “Nothin’ to be ashamed of,” Aunt Naggie said firmly the one time Iffy talked to her about it. “Y’are who y’are, an’ I love who y’are, and that’s the all of it.”
But Wales didn’t seem to hear the word, or care. He pushed the medic’s hands away. “The sort of man who can change the world for you,” he said.
Governor Stern pivoted to face him. “Oh really?” His eyes sparkled the same way as Doctor Johel’s, Iffy suddenly realized.
“Really.” Wales straightened up with a wince. “Or at least, give you the tools you need to do it yourself.” When the governor raised an eyebrow, he continued, “There’s a research base at the foot of Mount Tyree, a couple of hundred klicks inland from Paddington South. It was originally buried under a couple of hundred meters of ice, but there’s been enough melt to expose the entrance.”
The governor’s fingers drummed on his thighs as he queried Rothera’s core. “All right, there’s a base,” he said as the core confirmed Wales’ information. “But sometimes it seems as though everybody who was anybody built some kind of secret lab down here. What makes this one special?”
“It was never really a lab. Or at least, not just a lab.” Wales locked eyes with Doctor Johel. “It was a backup ground station for the Niobium network. And as far as I can tell, it’s still functional.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Doctor Johel said, as calmly as if she ordering a cup of tea. “Governor, I was part of the last team that tried to reactivate Niobium. I spent years digging into the records, and there was no hint in any of them of a backup station.”
The governor raised a hand to interrupt her. “Convince me,” he ordered Wales.
Wales closed his eyes and reeled off a list of coordinates. The numbers meant nothing to Iffy, but from the looks on Governor Stern’s and Doctor Johel’s faces, they recognized at least some of them. “I can bring up your drones, too,” Wales said when he was done. “If we can get to the base, you can see everything the Brazilians have, every moment of the day.”
“And you’re just going to give that to us out of the goodness of your heart?” the governor asked pointedly.
Wales smiled wanly. “Of course not.” He pointed to the medic. “Tell him what you found.”
The medic looked at the governor for permission. When the old man nodded, she said, “He’s been tweaked, sir. Oxygen uptake, metabolic efficiency, chromatin structure—it’ll take a while to sort it all out.”
Governor Stern cocked his head to one side. “And?” Every tenth person in Antarctica had some sort of genetic tweak, most of them inherited from grandparents or great-grandparents who had been born at a time when the tech could still be afforded by people who weren’t rich.
“And every once in a while I need a reboot,” Wales said. He tapped the tech in his temple. “This and my neurological tweaks don’t get along as well as they were meant to. If I don’t re-set every few years, my nervous system will start to shut down. I used to be able to get what I needed from a lab in Nairobi, but since the civil war re-started…” He shrugged. “As far as I know, that base is now the last place on Earth with the gear I need.”
The governor nodded slowly. “Interesting.” He communed for a moment with the city core, then nodded. “All right. Sergeant?”
“Yes sir,” the Marine said, speaking for the first time since she, Wales, and Iffy had survived the sentry’s attack.
“Take these three back to their ship. Just until I decide what to do next,” he continued as Uncle Jack opened his mouth. “You can resupply while you wait, at city expense. Mister Wales, you’ll be my guest here.”
“An’ what if we decide we’d rather not stick around?” Uncle Jack snarled. “You gonna put surveillance on us t’ make sure we stay put?”
Iffy gulped. Aunt Naggie gasped, and even the Marine grunted despite her conditioning. Everyone knew how cores had watched people every moment of every day for years in the run-up to their rebellion, and how close humanity had come to extinction as a result. The taboo against it was ingrained into children at birth, even children who’d grown up in families as unusual as Iffy’s. Accusing someone of spying was a lot even by Uncle Jack’s standards.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” the governor said evenly. “But I will post a Marine or two at the docks.” He looked pointedly at Wales. “I trust that will be acceptable.” Without waiting for an answer to what hadn’t actually been a question he turned and left.
“I will not go anywhere until I’ve done some shopping!” Aunt Naggie said emphatically, straightening her back like a soldier expecting to be shot. “Because if I do, you’ll be the first one to complain.”
For a moment Iffy was sure Uncle Jack would explode at her again, but to her surprise he back down. “Fine,” he snapped, waving her away. “You go get whatever we need. I’m gonna look at the engine an’ see what th’ sainted Mister Wales has gaffled up. And take the girl with you,” he added as he turned to stalk away. “Had enough o’ her underfoot for one day.”
Aunt Naggie slumped and took a deep breath. “Good on you,” Iffy said, punching her lightly in the shoulder.
Her aunt smiled shakily. The Marines had driven them back to the pier half an hour before with strict orders not to tell anyone what had happened at the governor’s mansion. The fact that the news on the Guinevere’s screens was talking about nothing else didn’t seem to matter. Half of Antarctica seemed to think it was a stealthy first strike by the Zillions—or second, if the writer was counting the explosion at the quarantine shed in Halley. The other half was convinced the machines were about to rise again. Iffy’s heart sank at the sight of a crowd armed with pulse guns and cutting torches chasing a maintenance bot through Halley’s streets. It wasn’t French Henry, but it would be soon if things didn’t calm down.
It only took Aunt Naggie a minute to gather up a trio of sturdy mesh bags and an ancient handheld piece of tech that would tell them if anything was toxic. Iffy slipped a few of her smaller tools into a waistbelt under her coat—if she was lucky, someone in the market would have mending work she could do for a few rand while Aunt Naggie hunted for onions and soy and noodles.
After dragging a brush through her close-cropped hair and watching sternly while Iffy, protesting, did the same, Aunt Naggie strode down the gangplank with her foster daughter in tow. One of the Marines stationed there listened patiently as Aunt Naggie explain ed where she was going. As she launched somewhat breathlessly into the details of her shopping list, he held up a hand to stop her and then gave her a black-edged money card. “Get whatever you need. But keep in mind that Finance will charge things back to you if it thinks they’re luxuries,” he added, glancing pointedly over her shoulder at Uncle Jack. The Guinevere’s captain scowled at that, his all-too-obvious plan to find a bar sunk before it ever set sail.
Rothera’s streets were busy but not crowded. Its older stores clustered along the harborfront like gulls standing just out of reach of the waves, their signs bigger and brighter than those in Halley. Familiar cartoon characters and celebrities from far-off Australia beckoned, danced, pouted, and cracked jokes as people walked by. Iffy would have stopped in front of each one, but Aunt Naggie hurried past them, her expression set. She regarded shopping as a competitive sport, and had no intention of letting Rothera get the better of her.
The main market had originally been an aircraft hangar. A century ago, someone with more money than sense had added a spun glass floor two stories above the ground. Their attempt to turn the building into “The Big South’s Biggest, Bestest Dance Hall!!” had failed almost immediately. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to oust the squatters who took it over after the war (many in possession of surplus weapons, combat conditioning, and radical political ideas), the governor had thrown up his hands and let anyone who could pay two rand a month set up a stall. Still called the Dance Hall, it reminded Iffy of nothing so much as the picture of an anthill in her older’s nature book.
Aunt Naggie tapped her money card on the reader held out by the bored Marine at the door to pay her ten pence admission fee and squared her shoulders. Noticing Iffy’s look, she relaxed slightly and nudged her foster daughter with her elbow. “Why’n’t you go off an’ see what you can find?” she said. “Or who, if you’ve a mind to?”
Iffy felt her cheeks go warm. “You sure you don’t need me?”
Aunt Naggie looked around. Greenhouse potatoes hung in net bags next to stacks of dried fruit in single-molecule shrink wrap. Burlap sacks of Cape Town rice piled higher than Iffy was tall threatened to topple onto a line of people gossipping with each other as they waited their turn to buy ginger, cardamom, and bay leaves from a one-legged woman whose tweaked hair that sparkled red and purple every time she turned her head. A surgical bot that had been converted for tailoring stood motionless, its four skeletal arms at its sides, while a man with a shaven head and an enormous beard struggled into a coat that was still a size too small for him. “I’ll be fine,” Aunt Naggie said, as happy as Iffy ever saw her.
Ten minutes later Iffy turned the corner onto Rocking Horse Street and hurried toward the stubby dead-end canal that Rothera’s mechanics used as a repair yard. A sleek Marine cutter was tied up on one side while crab-like bots scrambled over its sides scraping off the weaponized barnacles that would, if left unchecked, slowly devour its fractal carbon hull. Iffy would normally have stopped to watch, but right then she had other things on her mind.
She slowed to a walk as she approached the end of the canal. Her heart sank. Two women were working side by side in the salvage booth, but both were too old to be who she was hoping to see. She was about to turn to go when a familiar voice said, “Hey, Iffy!”
She whirled around just in time to be caught up in an enormous hug. “Hey,” Honesty said more softly, her cheek pressed against Iffy’s. “Micka tol’ me she saw y’all come in, an’ then I heard about what happen up along th’ governor’s. I’s worried about you.”
Iffy returned the hug awkwardly. She always felt awkward around Honesty, especially when they were close enough that she could smell whatever flowery concoction the other girl used to wash her hair, but it was a good kind of awkward.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice muffled slightly by the fake rat fur collar on Honesty’s coat. She slithered free of the hug and took a step back. “I’m fine,” she repeated. “It was just some bots gone rogue.”
“Just some bots?” Honesty repeated disbelievingly. “Didn’t look like that on th’ news. Looked like the war come back ‘round!”
“It wasn’t all that,” Iffy said dismissively. Honesty had changed the tattoos on her cheeks again, she noticed. And she’d done some more embroidery on the cuffs of her coat to match.
“But what happened? I mean, really happened, not just official happened?” Honesty slipped her arm through Iffy’s as if it was the most natural thing in the world and began walking toward her family’s workshop at the end of the canal.
Iffy felt into step alongside her, desperately hoping her friend couldn’t hear her heart thudding in her chest. Honesty—properly, Honesty’s Third, but only her olders called her that—was three years her senior. She had been singing on a street corner across from the Dance Hall market when Iffy first saw her. She hadn’t meant to stop, but then Honesty caught her eye and smiled in the middle of a chorus without missing a beat. Iffy had only seen her half a dozen times since then, but each time had been—
“Sorry?” she said belatedly.
Honesty rolled her eyes. “I said, why were you up there? You gettin’ fancy or somethin’?”
“I ain’t never gettin’ fancy!” Iffy protested automatically, her accent thickening unconsciously to match her friend’s. “We just kinda got dragged inta things.” She summarized Johnson Wales and the last few days as briefly as she could, skating past what had happened to the Zillion ship and her part in assembling the bot that had saved them at the mansion. She still didn’t want to think about that…
Her story still left Honesty wide-eyed. “Tay bangle, that’s a real adventure, innit?” She bumped her hip against Iffy’s, but her tone turned serious as she nodded at the Marine cutter under repair beside them. “So’s that why we got th’ ganky to finish up this ‘un? ‘Cuz my First, she thought we had a coupla weeks f’r th’ job, but the blues come along day b’fore last an’ said we gotta be done t’ sail soonest.”
Iffy gulped. Two days past was the day Wales had made the sea boil and sent the Zillion ship to the bottom. “Yeah, prob’ly,” she mumbled.
Honesty bumped her hip against Iffy again. “Good,” she said firmly. “‘Cuz they payin’ up’n’all, an’ we can use the jing. Second wants t’ make another li’ sister,” she confided with a grin. “Wou’nt that be a thing? Now c’mon—I bet there’s tea brewed.” She unhooked her arm from Iffy’s and took the younger girl’s hand.
Iffy’s mind whirled. Another clone? It made sense—Honesty had turned sixteen, so they’d be spaced far enough apart to be on the right side of legal—but… Before she blurt out any of the dozen questions swirling around in her head, Honesty squeezed her fingers painfully hard and shot her a warning sidelong glance.
Iffy’s mouth snapped shut. Thumb, middle finger, first finger, middle finger… She almost stumbled as she recognized the code that people had developed to hide what they were saying from robot surveillance, and that children now used to keep secrets from adults. Little finger and fourth finger together, middle finger, middle and fourth… The words and letters took shape in her head as Honesty tapped them out. The Marines were watching. They had left some cheese behind (no, that didn’t make any sense, Honesty must have meant some cameras), so they had to be careful what they said.
There was no point trying to spot the cameras. They could be as small as grains of sand, as long as there were enough of them. Each would pass information to the next in low-energy bursts of not-quite-static until it reached whatever bored Marine had been told to keep an eye on the repair yard. A core would have done a better job—it wouldn’t get bored or doze for just a moment despite its induction conditioning—but if people ever thought that the governor was using cores for surveillance, they’d strike.
She squeezed Honesty’s hand twice to signal that she understood. The machine wars had ground down to a finish years ago, but the tricks people had used to stay alive and fight back still worked—at least, Iffy hoped they did.
When Iffy made to loosen her grip, Honesty tightened hers. Iffy waited for more taps. When they didn’t come, she realized that her friend was sending a different kind of message. She walked the last hundred meters to the workshop with a dazed smile on her face that would have made her aunt sigh happily.
Honesty’s First and Second looked up and said, “G’day,” simultaneously as Honesty pulled aside the splotched canvas curtain that hung in the salvage booth’s doorway. “You gi’n her th’ bad news yen?” her First asked in an accent as strong as the tea she poured for Iffy without asking.
Honesty pouted. “I’s gonna!”
“Sorry,” her First said unapologetically. Her Second looked up from her workbench long enough to grin. Her magnifying glasses made her eyes look cartoon-huge in a face that showed how beautiful Honesty’s would be in a few more years.
“What bad news?” Iffy asked.
“My call-up came ‘long yesterday,” Honesty said reluctantly. “Whole bunch o’ folk ‘long the docks got ‘em. We gotta go do induction t’night.”
Iffy’s stomach flip-flopped. “Tonight? Why so soon?”
Honesty shrugged, settling herself on a stool next to the square meter of workbench where she salvaged the easier bits and pieces of tech that came her family’s way. “Dunno. Lotsa folk are wonderin’ why the quaddy quaddy, but the blues ain’t saying’, ‘cept that it came straight from th’ governor. Figure it’s got somethin’ to do with th’ bots going gonjy ‘long th’ mansion?”
“I dunno,” Iffy said. Anger suddenly welled up inside her. Jeep had changed when the Marines pumped their rules and tactics into his head. What would it do to her friend? “Seems like I don’t know nothin’ these days.”
“Aw, that ain’t true,” Honesty’s First said. Her face and smile were more practiced versions of her grand-younger’s. Where Honesty had temporary tattoos, her First had a fine network of scars left behind by some long-ago accident. She tossed the piece of tech she’d been patiently scraping clean to Iffy. “Bet you know what that’s for.”
Iffy caught it and turned it over in her hands. It was made of metal, and heavier than she’d have guessed. Microparticles of ocean plastic had worked themselves into its tiny intricate gears, giving it the all-too-familiar soapy feel of age and neglect. The different kinds of plastic would have welded to each other to weave a hard fractal mass through the gears that couldn’t be pulled out of them without damaging their tiny micro-precise teeth. It would take hours of patient work with ice, acid, tweaked bacteria, and micro-manipulators to tease it all apart, and at the end all they’d have would be—
“It’s a differential separator pump,” she told Honesty’s First as the shapes came together in her head to form an answer. “Prob’ly hooks up to a centrifuge or somethin’ for filterin’ blood durin’ surgery.”
“‘Zat so?” Honesty’s First said, impressed. She caught the part when Iffy threw it back to her and passed it to her Second, who studied it for a moment, shrugged as if to say, “Could be,” and set it on the to-do rack that lined the wall behind the workbench. “How ‘bout these?”
The box she passed to Iffy opened to reveal squares woven from fractal carbon fiber, each the size of her nature book and as thin as half a dozen pages together. It took her a second to realize that the little grommets patterned across the squares were rotors. The sheets were drones, but not any kind that Iffy recognized. She turned one over in her hands. “Dunno,” she admitted. “How d’you switch it on?”
“No idea,” Honesty’s First said cheerfully. “Best guess is they was fer some kinda game.”
“Shaw,” her Second said, looking up from the machine she had spent the last three months trying to reassemble. “They’s too fine made jarra game. I’s fer they bin up some kinda survey mappin’.”
“Mebbe,” Honesty’s First admitted. Casually, looking past Iffy rather than at her, she asked, “You ain’t got fra yer…notions?”
Iffy shook her head. She had told Honesty about her occasional flashes of insight, then told her off, cold and hard, when she discovered that her friend had relayed what she’d said to her First and Second. “We don’t keep secrets on each other,” Honesty had said with a shrug. “Y’ain’t aright along that, best we part ways now.” So Iffy had forgiven her, secretly relieved that someone knew she was different—even by clone standards—and didn’t seem to care.
When Iffy handed back the box of drones, Honesty’s First waved her away. “Not much use t’us if we can’t turn ‘em on,” she said, though Iffy knew the little rotors would be worth a week’s grocery bill if they were pried out and sold as parts. “If anythin’ comes t’ mind, you come by an’ gi’s the scutch, aright? An’ even if nothin’ does, we’s alluz happy t’have one more fer dinner or a sleepover.” She winked broadly.
“Thanks,” Iffy mumbled, uncomfortable as always with kindness. She drained the last of her tea. “I gotta get back t’ help Aunt Naggie do th’ shopping.”
“Sure,” Honesty said. “But you’ll come along after an’ eat?” She poked Iffy in the ribs. “Y’always too skinny.”
Iffy blushed. “I’ll ask,” she said, mumbling again.
Honesty smiled. “Aright. I’ll walk you out.”
They held hands all the way up the canal. As usual, Honesty did most of the talking. When her induction notice arrived, she had fired back a message right away, and wouldn’t you know it, she had to finish the last of her schoolwork anyway, which was so unfair, and anyway, what was the point? She knew tons more about salvaging old tech than the crufty old core that was supposed to be teaching her, and whatever she didn’t know, she could learn from Iffy, right?
“I s’pose,” Iffy said.
“Oh c’mon.” Honesty bumped her hip against Iffy’s. “M’ First and Uncle Osman ‘long by Pier Nine asked two different cores about that first piece she showed you. They neither had a siggy what it was, an’ then you jus’ come right out an’ tell ‘em. The stuff you have in your head,” she finished admiringly, shaking her own in wonder.
Iffy mumbled that it was just a guess, not wanting to admit to Honesty or herself that she had no idea how she knew half of what she did. They said goodbye by the bow of the Marine cutter. One of the repair bots paused a moment to watch them kiss, its simple-minded core wondering who was repairing whom, then erased the thought as Iffy hurried back into town to the Dance Hall and her aunt.
The streets around the market were crowded by the time Iffy got there. Four Indonesian Mormons handed out glossy animated pamphlets advertising their church’s insurance policies, smiling forgiveness at a ragged man yelling that the Singularity had come, they were all living in a simulation, the data proved it, they just had to look at the data and they would see the truth! A bot with a rasping voice and an ancient plastic mask for a face told stories to a circle of wide-eyed children. Its cut-out paper puppets danced as Zuko battled Princess Leia while Aang struggled to free Elsa from the grip of the evil robot Wintermute. Two bald women who might have been twins but were probably just clones wheeled a cart piled high with blankets woven from tweaked moss past two men arguing beside another cart piled just as high with sheets of diamond so clear that only the rainbows they cast on the ground gave them away. The smell of soy being fried in ginger mixed with the wet steamy warmth from rice cookers, the salty tang of tweaked seaweed being boiled into soup, and the smell of people who washed when they could.
Iffy paused longingly in front of a stall selling rats with startling blue eyes. “They make great pets. Or snacks!” the man said, hastily adding, “Just kidding! Just kidding!” when Iffy scowled. “And look!” He leaned over and said, “Ratty want a cracker?”
“Idjit!” the rat squeaked back. “Yer an idjit!”
“See?” the man said proudly. “You can teach ‘em a coupla hunnert words, easy!”
“I know,” Iffy said wistfully, a sudden unexpected pang in her heart. She held her finger a few millimeters in front of one of the cages. The rat sniffed at it. “Idjit,” it pronounced in its tiny squeaky voice.
One day, Iffy promised herself as she straightened up and hurried on her way. One day, when she had a workshop of her own and she could keep whatever pets and plants she wanted and Honesty could come by all the time. (Even in her daydreams, she didn’t dare imagine that they would live together.) One day—but not today.
The Dance Hall was just as busy inside as out. Iffy tried slipping through the crush the way Honesty somehow did, then gave up and resigned herself to moving at the pace of the meandering crowd. She glanced up as a drone the size of her hand whined by, its dozen crystal eyes scanning the crowd. “Some all got they riled up,” a stall keeper muttered, noticing Iffy’s look. “They ‘long by all place today. You t’ink it be come by they fight up along th’ gov’nor’s?”
“I dunno,” Iffy said. Drones had microphones as well as cameras, and the last thing she wanted was some stray word of hers catching the governor’s attention. “‘Scuse me.” She ducked under a tarnished video carpet hanging from a clothesline and pushed her way into the crowd on the other side.
And froze. And ducked back behind the video carpet again. She squeezed her eyes shut. She must have been mistaken—she couldn’t have seen what she thought she just saw. She shook her head and slowly peeked around the carpet’s edge.
There, just a couple of meters away, stood Aunt Naggie and a slim Asian man in a brown and gray suit that was probably as old as the Guinevere. Iffy couldn’t hear what they were saying over the bustle of the crowd, but from the way they were looking at each other she was pretty sure they weren’t discussing how quickly the latest batch of tweaked microbes brought in from India were turning ‘Nardica’s barren rocks into soil.
The man in the suit handed Aunt Naggie something and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. The space above their heads flickered as he did so. It was another video carpet, Iffy realized, strung between four posts like a canopy to conceal them from the drones overhead. It flickered again as Aunt Naggie pulled the man closer and kissed him for real.
Iffy’s stomach flip-flopped the way it did when she read some of the steamier passages in the romances Aunt Naggie loved so much. The salesman stepped back and forced his features into a bland salesman’s smile. He gestured at one of the carpets hanging on a display rack beside him. “Perhaps this one?” he asked a little too loudly.
Aunt Naggie’s reply was cut off by a sudden crackle of static. “Citizens!” The stern mechanical voice cut through the market bustle. “Remain where you are! There is no cause for alarm! This safety notice is brought to you by Volkov’s Hot Sauce!”
A high-pitched alarm began to ping. The salesman looked up as the drone that Iffy had seen earlier buzzed lower. She glanced toward the entrance at the sound of boots and angry shouts. A squad of Marines in exoskeletons were clanking through the crowd, visors down and shock sticks in their hands.
“Citizens! Remain where you are! And try Volkov’s—there’s nothing hotter this side of the Cairo Crater!” The drone jinked sideways to dodge a thrown scrap of bamboo. Something clanged off a Marine’s exoskeleton. Someone shouted, “Show us yer warrant!” Other voices took up the cry. “Show us yer warrant ‘r show us your backside!”
Great, Iffy thought, Another affin’ dock fight. She pulled aside the carpet she had been hiding behind and hurried toward Aunt Naggie just in time to hear the salesman say, “Please, you must get out of here.”
Aunt Naggie shook her head. “I ain’t leavin’ you.” Then she caught sight of her foster daughter. “Iffy?” she gaped.
The salesman’s face fell. “Iffelia’s Fourth? What are you doing here?” He turned to Aunt Naggie. “She mustn’t be here!”
“She ain’t supposed t’ be!” Aunt Naggie said helplessly. “Iffy—I thought you were down along th’ docks?”
“I was,” Iffy said defensively. “What’s goin’ on?”
“What’s going on is that you two are leaving,” the salesman said firmly, turning Iffy and Aunt Naggie around and pushing them toward the exit.
Aunt Naggie dug in her heels. “No.” She turned back to the salesman. “If it ain’t safe for us to stay, it ain’t safe for you neither.”
The look on Aunt Naggie’s face stopped whatever the salesman had been about to say. “Im awa pfa ta,” he muttered under his breath, shrugging off his suit jacket and pulling a video carpet over his shoulders like a poncho. The image flickered and reformed to show a bright orange parka festooned with wartime service badges. A knit cap from a nearby box pulled down low over his head sparkled briefly before displaying a full head of curly red hair. It wouldn’t fool a human being, not for an instant, but the drones overhead weren’t allowed to be any smarter than seagulls.
The drones… “Wait!” Iffy knelt and pulled the box of strange drones out of her pocket. “C’mon c’mon c’mon,” she muttered. “Please, just this once.” She had never been able to control her flashes of intuition. They came when they wanted. This was a stupid idea. They should be running. They should—
And there it was. How could she not have seen it before? There and there together and then there, two presses and a third, and zip! A thin film in the center of the drone peeled back to reveal a foil battery, a hair-thin fractal antenna, and—
“Shway boo,” she whispered unbelievingly. The dronelet’s crystal core was enormous—almost as big as a grain of rice—and the flat, unreflective black that meant it had been grown in orbit. If its twins had similar cores, the three drones together would be worth as much as the Guinevere.
“Iffy, what’re you doin?” She ignored her foster mother and the alarms and the pressure of the salesman’s glare as she pulled tools out of her pockets.
“You got any scraps this big?” she asked over her shoulder, holding her hands a few centimeters apart for an instant before opening two other drones. Sure enough, their cores were identical.
“Here.” The salesman handed her half a dozen swatches of video fabric, each the size of a handkerchief. Iffy measured one against a drone, then winced as she pried two of the rotors out of the stiff black fabric. She’d never be able to repair the damage, not even with the kind of tech she’d seen in Wales’ toolboxes, but she didn’t dare cutting into the drone fabric itself.
It took her a moment to tuck the corners of the video square into the holes she’d made. Now for the hard part. She closed her eyes and willed the images to come together. These bits were the drone—don’t worry now about how she knew or why she could see its programming as clearly as she could see its hardware—and this over here was the video square, and that was its connection to the outside world, so if she shone a laser here and sent a pulse-coded access request, then told the drone and the video square to trust each other no matter what their other programming said, then—
“Gotcha!” The dronelet rose, tilted, and levelled as the image on its back flickered and steadied to show the top of a woman’s head.
The Asian salesman grunted. “She really can, can’t she?” he said to Aunt Naggie.
Iffy’s foster mother nodded. “Y’aright?” she asked Iffy.
“I’m fine,” Iffy lied. Her head was swimming. Everything around her seemed unreal. The stalls were just wireframes. The drones overhead were clouds of software, patched and patched again to defend against viruses until there was only room for the most limited intelligence. It was like a badly-written sim.
“Iffy!” Aunt Naggie shook her. The world blinked back to normal. “Iffy, c’mon, we gotta go.”
“I just need a minute.” Eighty-five seconds later, two more awkward patch-ups were humming quietly in the air beside her, each showing a different downloaded image. She strung a few more verbs together and threw them into the drones’ cores so that they’d sway a little the way people did when walking and stood up. She took a deep breath and transmitted one last set of instructions to send the drones on their way, then said, “Let’s go.”
Iffy stayed close behind Aunt Naggie and the salesman as they joined the stream of people heading for the exit. As they turned left by a rack of bicycles and a stall selling rolls of microfiber sailcloth, a man in front of them asked, “Ya pins they trappa thief?”
“Net says they’s sweepin’ fer some kinda sab,” the woman beside him replied, scanning a feed only she could see through heavy yellow-tinted glasses.
Her companion snorted. “Bad case o’ someone din’t pay off the blues is more likely.” His companion shushed him.
Even as she did so, the drones above boomed, “Citizens! We have identified our quarry! Your assistance is required!”
“Guess they got their warrant,” the man in front of Iffy muttered.
Every screen in the Dance Hall blanked for an instant. When they came back to life, every one showed a younger version of the salesman. Instead of a suit, he was wearing the green and gold uniform of the Brazilian Ecological Defense Co-operative.
“You’re a Zillion?” Iffy gasped.
The salesman pulled his arm out of Aunt Naggie’s. “Keep walking,” he ordered. Without waiting for a reply he turned right toward a stall selling animated toys and compact ship-board cooking equipment.
A pair of Marines stepped out from behind it. One raised a shock stick as the other levelled a tangle gun. “Citizen! Halt!” they said in unison.
The salesman threw himself to the side. Whatever had thrown sparkled in the air before blossoming into a galaxy of green-blue stars. The Marine’s tangle gun burped a web of sticky plastic microfibers. Iffy shrieked. The shot went wide, the gun’s auto-sight dazzled by the salesman’s counter-measures. The couple in front of Iffy and Aunt Naggie fell heavily to the ground, shouting and struggling as the tangle net tightened around them.
The salesman vaulted over a counter-top, knocked a wok full of steaming noodles aside, and pulled up short as another pair of Marines clanked around the corner to block his way.
“Iffy, c’mon, we gotta go!” Aunt Naggie tugged her arm.
Iffy shook her off. There! Her three drones zipped through the air straight for the Marines. They spun around, their inducted reflexes pulling their weapons up in the face of an unknown new threat just long enough for the salesman to look wildly around for another way out.
But there wasn’t one. Three—no, four—drones were now circling overhead. The first Marine had reloaded his tangle gun and was lining up for a shot.
The salesman turned to face Aunt Naggie. “Start where you are,” he said. “Use what you have, help who you can.” He raised a hand into the air, clenched it to make a fist, and pressed it against his temple. As Aunt Naggie shrieked “no!” his head snapped back and he slumped to the ground.
Iffy gaped in disbelief. He had brainwiped himself! Spies and disappointed lovers did it in sims, but—but this was real life! People didn’t scramble their brains in real life!
Aunt Naggie made a strangled sound as the Marines hurried toward the twitching form on the ground. Iffy took her arm. “Auntie!” She tugged at her gently. “Auntie, we need to get outta here.”
“I can’t…” Shock and disbelief mingled on her face. “I can’t just leave him.”
“Auntie, we gotta.” Iffy took one of the shopping bags from her foster mother’s slack grip and pulled her into motion.
Somehow they made it to the doors and out onto the street. “C’mon, let’s get home,” Iffy said. Aunt Naggie nodded without speaking. They turned a corner, then another, and then Aunt Naggie pulled up short. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” Iffy said awkwardly, not knowing whether to hug her aunt or not. A passerby slowed, hesitated, and hurried on her way as Iffy glared at her. “What happened? Who was he?”
“Sh!” Aunt Naggie glanced around fearfully. “Not out here.”
“Later!” Aunt Naggie sniffled and wiped her eyes one more time before straightening up. “Come on,” she said, the weight of a lifetime in her voice. “We’re a’ready late for gettin’ back.”
Uncle Jack had worked himself into a smoldering rage by the time they reached the Guinevere. “Can’t make up or down o’ what he’s done to things,” he snarled by way of a hello, wiping his hands angrily on a greasy rag. A double dozen boxes sat in a pile on deck, each bearing the Marines’ blue crown stamp. One had been torn open to reveal strips of plastic for patching seams in the hull, another to show a fitting for a bilge pump that hadn’t worked properly in years. It was more new parts than the old fishing boat had seen since before Iffy first set foot on her, but all Uncle Jack could talk about was how the repairs that Wales had made weren’t how things ought to be done, it looked like core work, he was tweaked somehow, and how were regular folks supposed to understand a tangle like that?
“Maybe it’ll make more sense after dinner,” Aunt Naggie ventured.
“As if,” Uncle Jack snorted. “Didja get your precious groceries?”
For a moment Iffy thought her aunt would start crying again. Instead, she nodded wordlessly and carried her shopping into the galley.
Iffy watched silently as Aunt Naggie took out her feelings on an onion. Once it was diced and sizzling in hot oil, she cubed a block of soy and attacked the other vegetables. “Anythin’ I can do?” Iffy finally asked, worried and afraid and wanting to help but not knowing how. She had never seen her aunt like this, not even after the worst of Uncle Jack’s rages.
Aunt Naggie swept the carrots and cabbage into the frying pan and forced a smile. “Thanks, sweetie, but I’m aright. You should prob’ly go topside an’ see if you can sort him out.”
Iffy stood and put her arms around the woman who had sheltered her from storms of all kinds for most of her life. “I love you,” she blurted.
Aunt Naggie set her knife down and hugged her foster daughter back. “I love you too, sweetie,” she said softly, her cheek pressed against her foster daughter’s shaven head. “Always an’ forever. Don’t you ever forget that, no matter what.”
Iffy hung on when her aunt would have let go. “Was he—was he someone special?”
Aunt Naggie kissed the top of Iffy’s head. “Yeah, he was. In a lot o’ ways.” She laughed shakily. “Prob’ly best if we don’t talk about that in front o’ Jack, aright?”
“‘Course not,” Iffy agreed hastily. “But—why’d he—you know. Why’d he do it?” Why did he think he had to keep you safe? she added in her head. Why do you know people who would do something like that? Why didn’t I know you did?
“Lotta people were dependin’ on him,” Aunt Naggie said distantly, straightening up and turning back to her cooking. “I guess this was the only way he could keep ‘em all safe.”
Uncle Jack complained that their was too much curry in the stir fry and that the noodles were overcooked. He took a second helping anyway, finished it before Iffy and Aunt Naggie were through their first and only and stomped back up the latter to yell at the engine some more. Iffy would have thrown his dirty plate at his head if Aunt Naggie hadn’t put a hand on her shoulder.
Later, cross-legged on her bed, Iffy set the last of the mysterious drones on her mattress and went to work. Fifteen minutes later she sat back, defeated. The three she had used in the Dance Hall had understood standard commands, but when she tried probing their remaining sibling electronically, her home-made wireshark showed nothing but frazzled gibberish. She yawned and packed it back in its box. “Hope you’re aright sleepin’ on yer own,” she whispered, then waved her light off.
She was on deck. The sky was a perfect blue, and Aunt Naggie was stuffing her into her ecosuit. “Just in case, love,” she said.
No, Iffy thought, and, “No!” she said. She wasn’t going to go through this again. She struggled to pull her arms out of the ecosuit.
“It’s aright,” Honesty said, already in hers. “It’s aright, sweetie, everythin’s gonna be aright. We’re gonna make it aright. You’ll see.” With a barely perceptible whir, her head detached from the rest of her body and rose into the air. Beneath them, the sea began to boil and churn. Iffy grabbed hold of Aunt Naggie’s leg and held on tight as the deck dropped away below her and she fell into waking.
“Iffy! Iffy, wake up!” Why was Aunt Naggie shaking her? And why did her head hurt so much? “Iffy!”
“‘m aright,” she mumbled. She tried to sit up. No. That was a mistake. She tried to tell whoever was shaking her to stop, it made the stabbing pain behind her eyes worse, but someone had replaced her tongue with a slab of sour tofu. All she could do was whimper.
“Iffy, please.” Strong hands that smelled faintly of soap and onions forced her jaws apart. She gagged as a finger pushed something dry and powdery into her mouth. It tasted like curry, which made just as little sense as everything else that was going on. The slosh of water that followed made her splutter. She tried to spit it out, but those same strong hands wouldn’t let her, so she swallowed.
“Easy, sweetie, easy.” Familiar arms held her close. It was Aunt Naggie, Iffy’s fuzzy brain finally told her. She was in her cabin on her bed and the lights were on and her foster mother was hugging her and her mouth tasted awful but the pain behind her eyes was down from laser drill to poke-with-a-sharp-stick.
“I’m aright,” she repeated. There was something sticky—when she wiped her face on her sleeve, it left a streak of red.
“You scared me, sweetie,” Aunt Naggie whispered. “I coul’n’t lose both of you.”
Iffy let out a shaky breath. “Glad you din’t.” She worked her tongue in her mouth. “Is this curry powder?”
Aunt Naggie wiped her own face and nodded. “Mostly. There’s some medicine in it. Ignacio—the fella you met today—he’s been gettin’ it for me. For you, I mean.”
A chill ran down Iffy’s spine. “Medicine for what?”
Aunt Naggie pulled a cloth out of her coat and wiped the nosebleed off Iffy’s face. “For this,” she said quietly. “He knew your olders. Tol’ me they’d picked up somethin’ bad somewhere along the way. Said you’d get spells as you got older less you got treatment. Seemed t’ be workin’, ‘least ‘til recently.”
She tucked the bloody cloth back into her coat. “You been seein’ things, ain’t ya? That’s how come you been so good with tech.”
Iffy nodded wordlessly. The machines had done things to people during the war, turned them into weapons and saboteurs and spies, sometimes without them even knowing they’d been memed or tweaked. Nine tenths of every medical exam Iffy had ever suffered through had been checks for things like that. It explained everything, and now that she knew, it was like she’d always known.
Her foster mother gave her one last hug. “You go back to sleep,” she said as she stood, the precious jar of curry powder clutched in her hand. “We’ll talk on this some more t’morrow.”
Iffy nodded, her eyes already closing as she lay down. She barely noticed Aunt Naggie pulled the covers up over her, and was fast asleep by the time she kissed her foster daughter’s forehead and turned out the light.
Iffy woke the next morning to the sound of the Marines arriving. Two squads of eight came first, each wearing a full exoskeleton and carrying a bulky pack. Two squads of inductees trudged behind them, straining under packs that were only slightly smaller. In between, Dr. Johel rode a little motorized scooter with Johnson Wales sitting awkwardly on the back.
“Because Rothera Core ran a few sims,” Dr. Johel explained testily to Uncle Jack as she and Wales dismounted. “A few billion, actually, and it calculated that this configuration gave us our best odds.” She gestured at the sleek gray destroyer that had taken up station a few hundred meters away from the pier while Iffy slept. “You, the Bengal, these soldiers, and a couple of spotters—that’s what it says, so that’s what we’re doing.”
“Well, all I can say is that—” Uncle Jack began to bluster.
“There’s no point arguing,” Wales cut in tiredly. His face was drawn as if he hadn’t slept since the attack on the governor’s mansion. “Iffy, can you please give me a hand with these?”
He patted the toolboxes that sat on a two-wheeled cart hitched behind the scooter. Beside the cart, a cadet in a uniform three shades lighter than those of the other Marines stood at attention, her eyes covered by a dark tactical visor. Iffy looked past her to the canvas-covered machinery rolling up the pier to be loaded onto the Bengal, then looked back in shock. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
Dr. Johel saw the expression on Iffy’s face. “Ah, yes,” she purred. “That was another of the core’s recommendations.” She beckoned the cadet forward. “I believe you two know each other?”
“Honesty?” Iffy somehow managed to say.
Her friend’s expression didn’t change. “Good morning, Iffelia.” Her voice was as stiff as her back and shoulders.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Johel told Iffy. “Everyone’s like that after their first induction. She’ll be herself again in a few days.”
“More or less,” Wales muttered.
“More or less,” Dr. Johel agreed evenly. “But it is sometimes more.”
“Sometimes,” Wales agreed. He waved a hand at the gangplank. “Just take them up there, please. Iffy can show you where they go.”
“Yes sir.” Without even glancing at her friend, Honesty unhitched the cart and wheeled it up the gangplank. Wales gestured for Iffy to follow her, then trudged onto the Guinevere behind them.
The toolboxes went in the cabin that Wales had used on the voyage from Halley. He struggled awkwardly out of his coat, his wound obviously still bothering him. “Maybe later,” he said when Iffy asked him if he wanted some tea. “I’m going to lie down for a bit first.”
“Sure,” Iffy said. Wales sat on his foam mattress, yawned, and started to swing his legs up before realizing that she was still standing there. He sighed. “Just give her time,” he said gently. “And don’t take anything she says too seriously. It’s just the programming talking.”
Iffy nodded jerkily. “I know. I just—when Doctor Johel said as sometimes folk come out more than they was, what did she mean?”
Wales rolled his head to work a kink out of his neck. “Induction training always wears off after a few weeks—that’s why you still have to do classes and homework. But sometimes it rearranges what was there before. People make new connections, or find new ways to use things they already knew.”
“Or see things different than they did?” Iffy ventured.
Wales raised his eyebrows. “I’ve never heard of that happening, but I suppose it’s possible. Why—has that happened to someone you know?”
Iffy shook her head. “Just wonderin’. I hope you sleep aright.” She closed the door quietly behind her.
Honesty was standing straight and stiff by the railing, her hands clasped behind her back. The cart beside her was lined up perfectly with the side of the ship, and the coil of cable on the post at her elbow had been re-coiled in loops that Iffy suspected were precisely whatever length Marine regulations called for.
“Hey,” Iffy said tentatively. “How’re you doin’?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Honesty replied without turning her head. “How are you?”
“‘m aright.” Iffy’s mind spun double-time as she tried to think of something safe to say. Th’ hell with it she thought angrily. “Did it hurt?” she blurted. “When they put th’ machine on you, was it—are y’aright?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Honesty turned to face Iffy. The smile on her face was as bright and as sharp and as completely without warmth as the Antarctic sun. “They warned us that people might find Corporal Kibbens somewhat stiff at first. That is the persona I’ve been imprinted with,” she added brightly. “He served with distinction in the Second Crash Corps during the evacution of Hawaii, and was later decorated posthumously for valor during the battle for New Zealand. He was an outstanding soldier, and I am proud to be his inductee.”
Iffy gaped. It wasn’t just Honesty’s manner that had changed: her accent was different too, sharper-edged like the voices from old sims.
She took a step forward, some part of her thinking that if only she took Honesty by the shoulders and shook her hard enough, or held her hand, or kissed her, she’d snap out of it and be herself again, but before she could make a fool of herself, someone whistled from down on the pier. “Excuse me,” Honesty said. She grabbed her cart and headed down the gangplank without waiting for a response.
The Guinevere was ready to set sail an hour later. Uncle Jack protested loudly when he discovered that four of the Marines would be travelling with them. His voice went up another notch when they started assembling a gray tent on the deck near the stern, but the corporal in charge was as indifferent as the cold gray sea. “Standard procedure,” he said briskly. “Whoever’s not on deck can lie in to warm up and mind the gear.” Exactly what “the gear” was for was left unsaid, but judging from the capacitors and gunsight the Marines had carried into the tent, Iffy was pretty sure it wasn’t for stargazing.
They cast off without ceremony. The Bengal fell in behind them, three times their size but leaving no more wake than one of the little robo-tugs that normally swarmed the harbor, but had prudently scurried off to their recharging stations to let the lean gray destroyer by.
For a moment Iffy forgot to feel worried and angry about Honesty and their trip and everything else. The Bengal looked like it had been built yesterday rather than almost a century ago. The intricate sensor-baffling whorls on her hull made Iffy’s eyes swim when she looked at them too long, but where the waves beat at the Guinevere, they slid past the Bengal like someone turning their shoulders to avoid bumping into a bully on the street.
Iffy felt almost hungry thinking about what her engines must look like. Three of them, two in the stern and one amidships as insurance against a torpedo strike, each one with its own broad-mouthed intakes and narrow jet exhausts, the channels connecting them full of micro-gears arranged in concentric rings to maximize the power-to-thrust ratios of—
Her head swam. She clutched the railing and squeezed her eyes shut. She could see the Bengal’s engines as if they were laid out on a screen, the parts exploded and zoomed to make every intricate detail clear.
She swallowed back her nausea. She had studied the general principles in a dozen different lessons, but the details—those were classified. The one attempt she had ever dared make to delve into them had ended in a screen full of square red warning signs and a stern lecture from Aunt Naggie the next morning when the cease and desist order arrived from Halley’s core.
“Dammit, girl, stop lazin’ about!” Uncle Jack’s familiar bellow brought her back to herself. “Get down below and make sure every one o’ those crates is strapped in right, ‘cuz if any of ‘em tumble, I’m gonna toss you over the affin’ side!”
She struggled to her feet, her vision of the Bengal’s engines already fading. “Yessir,” she mumbled. He harrumphed and pulled his head back into the pilot house as she walked shakily astern. What was happening to her?
Iffy had spent hours gazing at the pictures in her older’s nature book that showed blue tropical oceans full of fish and coral and an octopus that changed color when she touched its image. The ocean that the Guinevere and the Bengal sailed through in the days following their departure from Rothera looked nothing like that. When the sky was blue, the sea was a light, liquid gray. When clouds rolled in and threatened a storm, as they did on their second day out, the gray turned somber. Even the white crests of the waves seemed dirty.
Iffy’s mood sank even further on their fourth (or was it the fifth?) day. One of the Bengal’s ultralight drones spotted an unevenness in the water. After dithering for a millisecond, the destroyer’s core decided it might mean that a sea boil was brewing, so the two ships turned toward shore and ran straight into a slick of dead jellyfish. For the rest of the day the air didn’t just smell like wet rot—it tasted of it. Aunt Naggie boiled a precious spoonful of dried lemon rind to chase the smell out of the galley, but dinner’s noodles still tasted like rank seaweed.
“It could be anything,” Wales said when Iffy asked him what he thought had happened. He had spent most of the first two days in his cabin, coming out only to eat and use the toilet under the carefully casual supervision of whichever Marine just happened to be nearby. He looked less drained than he had, but he didn’t smile, and there’d been no more talk of apprenticing.
Something caught his eye just as Iffy turned to go back to her chores. “See that?” He leaned on the railing to point at the blistered caps and shredded tentacles drifting below. “There and there. And there. Looks like some kind of infection has been eating at them.” He shook his head, anger and disappointment on his face. “Could be natural, but more likely someone crisped it up in a lab.”
“You think it was the Zillions?” Iffy asked.
Wales shook his head. “I doubt it. This was probably someone trying to tweak them so they would trap plastic more efficiently.” At Iffy’s puzzled look, he waved his arm toward the slick again. “That’s why they were originally tweaked—to filter all the tiny bits of plastic out of the water.”
“Like the barnacles filter the metal?” Iffy said.
Wales nodded. “It made sense at the time, in a desperate kind of way, but it never really worked. The only thing that did work was the accelerated growth.”
“I read about that in school—how they ate up everythin’ so most o’ the fish starved an’ everythin’ fell apart.” Iffy frowned. “Never read anything about it bein’ so they could trap plastic, though.”
Wales shrugged. “That was buried pretty deeply after it went wrong. Nobody wanted to admit they’d broken the ocean.s” He stared bleakly at the ruin in the water. “The clathrate bubbles feed the microorganisms the jellyfish eat, which is why the best jelly fishing is where the sea is most likely to boil. It’s just one more disaster among many. And every time we try to put one of them right, it seems we just tangle things up worse.”
Iffy watched the lumpy slick slide by for a second, then reached over and punched his shoulder. “For bein’ so gloomy,” she said firmly. “You were a lot more fun when you were all smiley an’ such.”
The startled look on Wales’ face turned into a smile—a real smile, the first Iffy had seen since the attack. “I’m sure I was,” he agreed. He turned his back to the ocean and nodded toward his cabin. “Want to go make something?”
The Marines had filled the Guinevere’s hold with their supplies, so Iffy and Wales lugged his toolboxes down to the engine room. Iffy laid a fresh plastic worksheet down on the narrow shelf that served her as a makeshift workbench while Wales pushed two stools against the wall and set one of his toolboxes on them. A click, a quiet hiss as the airtight seal released, and its lid swung up to reveal wonders. Gears and knurled slip-rods, spools of optical fiber thinner than a human hair, four thumb-sized motors with built-in batteries, transducers and pressure sensors and an entire tray full of tiny cores the size of sand grains… “You could make practic’ly anything with all this,” Iffy said in awe.
Wales chuckled. “Maybe. The core told the governor to make sure we didn’t run short of anything. Here.” He plucked a micro-manipulator out of a recess in the hard foam that lined the lid of the toolbox. “How about you build us a hundred-to-one step-up for a fan rotor, and I’ll get the printer going over there in the corner.”
The next hour flew by. Iffy knew she should be doing chores, but she also knew Uncle Jack had made up those chores just to keep her busy. This was what she ought to be doing: fitting tiny metal gears and rods together, threading control fibers through them, and grinding the rough edges off the still-warm plastic housings that came out of the efficient little printer Wales had set up. Every addition to the motor growing in front of her suggested three more. She shuffled them in her mind like cards, staring into nothing for long moments as she invented and discarded a dozen solutions to her next challenge before one clicked into place and she knew, she just knew, that it would work.
She glanced up once and caught Wales looking at her. “‘S matter?” she asked, blinking and rolling her shoulders as she realized that she had been hunched in one position far too long.
“Nothing,” he said. He punched her shoulder gently. “It’s just a pleasure to watch you work.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled, her cheeks warming the way they did when Honesty said something nice to her.
The thought of her friend chilled her mood like a splash of sea water. She turned the newly-invented motor over in her hands, then passed it to Wales. “I think it’s ready.”
“Just another couple of minutes for the chassis.” He shifted his toolbox to the floor and seated himself in its place. “She really will be all right,” he said as if he’d been reading her mind.
Iffy shrugged. “I know. I seen it in stories, an’ Jeep’s mostly back to how he was. Mister Mishra’s son,” she added. “The one time he said anything about it, he said it was like all the new stuff the core put in his head was so loud he couldn’t hear his own thinkin’ for a while. He’s almost the same annoyin’ nonsense as he used t’ be, though.”
The corner of Wales’ mouth quirked up. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said drily. “One of the research cores in America spent, oh, must have been hours trying to figure out how to induct permanent changes without causing breakdowns, but it never found anything. At least, it said it didn’t, but I sometimes wonder.” He picked up a stray scrap of plastic stock shaped roughly like a bent pencil and tapped it against his forehead.
Iffy goggled. “You been inducted?”
Wales smiled. “A long time ago. Most of it faded pretty quickly. The rest… well.” He flipped the plastic end over end and put it back in the fold-up box next to his foot.
The silence that followed was as comfortable as being on night watch with Aunt Naggie when the sea was calm and both of them had stories to lose themselves in. It was broken by the soft ping of the printer. “Here we go,” Wales said, opening the lid and lifting the still-warm chassis.
Iffy’s motor fit perfectly. A pair of metal-cored propellors on magnetic bearings clipped into place on top, and then all that was left was lenses for its cameras.
Well, ain’t you a beauty? Iffy thought when she was done. The finished drone was the size of Iffy’s fist and weighed no more than a couple of boiled eggs. She ignored the rumble her stomach brought on by the analogy and offered the drone back to Wales. “Whaddaya wanna call it?”
He shook his head. “This one’s yours. All I did was push some buttons on the printer. But you should give her a name.”
Iffy hefted her tiny creation. “Can I call her Giraffe?” she asked.
Wales nodded solemnly. “Giraffe it is. Come on—she doesn’t belong down here.”
Wispy gray clouds lay in a clump on the horizon to port when they got back on deck, but other than that, the skies were clear. Iffy took a moment to sync Giraffe with her tablet, then cleared her throat. “Spin up one tenth,” she commanded. The little drone’s rotors began to whirl.
“Hover.” Wales flattened his hand. The drone hesitated a heartbeat before lifting a centimeter, its rotors humming quietly.
“Track.” Iffy pointed a finger at the drone, then drew an “S” in the air. The drone moved rose and fell to stay in line with her outstretched arm.
A smile split her face. “Catch!” She pulled a scrap of insulating foil from her pocket, crumpled it, and tossed it into the air. Giraffe shot forward, its single stick-thin arm unfolding from its base to snatch its prey out of the air.
“Well done,” Wales said. “She’s as steady as a rock.”
“Thanks.” Iffy glanced down at her tablet. “Drawin’ power faster than I’d like.”
Wales made a raspberry. Iffy giggled at the incongruous sound. “She’s beautiful,” he said firmly. “Go on, let her stretch her wings.”
Iffy sketched a quick correction to the drone’s code on her tablet, swiped it across, and tucked the tablet into her pocket. “Sentry,” she ordered. “Thirty meters out, one minute around. Go!”
The drone climbed, banked, and flew away. Iffy and Wales pivoted slowly to watch it curve toward the stern and burst into a dazzling shatter as one of the Marines standing there blew it out of the sky.
“No!” Iffy shrieked.
Wales grabbed her arm as she started forward. “Don’t. Iffy, don’t!”
“But—why’d he do that? Why’d he do that!?” she cried. She shrugged Wales off and ran toward the stern.
“What th’ hell are you playin’ at?” she demanded.
The Marine who had shot down her drone holstered his pistol without expression. “Orders,” he said flatly.
“Orders? What orders?” She shoved him, which had about as much effect as shoving the Guinevere. “What affin’ orders?”
“Doctor Johel’s orders,” the other Marine said. The two men looked nothing alike, but they spoke in the same flat voice, their inducted accents a century out of date. “If it’s not one of ours, burn it.”
“Well that was ours! That was mine! You could have asked before you—I’m talkin’ to you!” She grabbed for the Marine again as he turned away.
The Marine’s hand shot up to catch her wrist. He spun Iffy around and pulled her arm up behind her back. “Don’t. That’s not allowed.”
Iffy struggled. “Lemme go! Lemme go!” she shrieked.
Crack! The Marines’ heads snapped up in unison at the sound. Uncle Jack lowered the gaff hook. “Let ‘er go,” he growled.
“Captain—” the Marine began.
Crack! Uncle Jack struck the bench next to him again. “Shut yer hole an’ let her go. Now.”
The first Marine released Iffy and took a step back. “‘s better,” Uncle Jack growled. “Now you listen up. This is my ship. You want t’ shoot somethin’, you ask me. Not him.” He jerked his chin toward Wales. “Not your precious Doctor Johel, not th’ governor himself, me. I’m the captain here. Got it?”
The Marines studied him as expressionlessly as a pair of gulls trying to decide if something might be edible. “I said, have you got that?” Uncle Jack bellowed.
“Captain,” the one who had been holding Iffy acknowledged without either agreeing or disagreeing.
“An’ you,” Uncle Jack glared at Iffy and pointed his gaff hook forward. You get back about your chores or I swear…” With a final glower at all and sundry he turned and stalked back toward the bow.
“Come on,” Wales said quietly, putting his hand on Iffy’s arm. She slumped and nodded. Head down, she followed him back to the hatch and climbed down the short ladder into the engine room.
Wales looked at the parts that still lay on the plastic worksheet and sighed. “I’m sorry. It was a beautiful little thing.”
“‘s not your fault,” Iffy muttered. She started picking up the leftover gears and rods but had to stop because she couldn’t see properly. “I’m kappa,” she lied angrily, wiping her eyes on her sleeve as Wales reached for her. “I just…”
Wales sat back and waited. Iffy wiped her eyes again. “I had a rat,” she said quietly. “Aunt Naggie got me a pair, but one of ‘em had somethin’ wrong with it, so I just had the one. I called her Giraffe too.” She sniffled. “We didn’t tell Uncle Jack. He woulda said somethin’ stupid about another mouth to feed. But she was so smart, an’ she’d sit in my hand an’ eat stuff, an’ climb up my arm, an’ I taught her how to say g’mornin’ and g’night an’…”
She took a deep, shaky breath. “An’ then one day she was gone. I dunno what happened. We jus’ got back into Halley, an’ we were all out, an’ I came back an’ she was gone. We looked all over for her, me an’ Aunt Naggie, but…” She shook her head. “I musta left her cage unlocked or somethin’. If she got on deck, one o’ the gulls or somethin’ coulda got her and… and…”
She clenched her hands into fists. “Why’s it all got to be so hard?” she asked in anguish. “Why’s everythin’ got to be so messed up?”
“I don’t know,” Wales replied quietly. “I really don’t know.”
Doctor Johel paid the Guinevere a visit that afternoon, her first since leaving port. The Bengal had two swift gunboats, each capable of carrying four Marines in full combat exoskeletons, but she chose instead to be carried over by a drone. Two Marines flew beside her, looking like mechanical angels instead of prey, while one of the ultralight spotters that had been high overhead since Rothera fell below the horizon circled over them.
Doctor Johel touched down on the aft deck as gently as a snowflake. Her carrier drone hovered patiently over her while she undid the harness she wore over her long coat, then folded its twin manipulators back into its under-carriage and settled into the docking station on the roof of the pilot house.
Her escorts’ landings were not nearly as graceful. One of them stumbled as an unexpected heave of the deck threw them off balance. Are they flying manually? Iffy wondered. People sometimes did that in the last desperate moments of stories, when the enemy’s malware had somehow gotten past their defenses and cripped their cores, but she had never seen anyone do it in real life. Was it a training exercise of some kind?
She was about to ask Wales when the Marine on the left took off her helmet and stood to attention. Honesty’s hair had grown back to a light fuzz, but her face was as empty of feeling as it had been when Iffy had last seen her. Her black eye was new, though, and when she and her partner exchanged salutes with the Guinevere’s four Marines, sunlight glinted off the silvery accelerator cast that encased half of her right hand.
Wales nudged Iffy with his elbow. “Here,” he said quietly, rapping the back of her hand with his knuckles. She hesitated, took the thimble-sized object he passed to her. As the pilot house door banged open behind her, she tucked her hands back in her pockets.
Uncle Jack stomped past them to glare at the new arrivals. “Permission to come aboard, captain?” Doctor Johel asked, unperturbed. “And yes, I realize it’s a bit late to ask, but it is protocol.”
Half a dozen angry outbursts tripped over each other trying to get out of Uncle Jack’s mouth at the same time. Finally he pointed at the angel wings her escorts had detached from their exoskeletons. “Strap ‘em down,” he growled. “They go over th’ side, y’ain’t puttin’ it on me.” He turned his bloodshot glare back on Doctor Johel. “Wife’s made tea.”
The common room where Iffy and Aunt Naggie watched stories together when Uncle Jack was out drinking or in bed sleeping off its effects only had seats for four. Even if it had been the size of the Dance Hall market, Iffy wouldn’t have been invited. Aunt Naggie wasn’t invited either. She brought in a tray with tea and freshly-steamed dumplings, then retreated to the galley, closing the door behind her on Uncle Jack, Doctor Johel, Wales, and the Marine who had shot down the drone. “You keep out o’ the way ‘til they’re all gone,” she urged Iffy under her breath.
Iffy nodded. “I’ll stay in my cabin,” she promised, fingering the little earbud Wales had given her.