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 one of 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 little clone’s favorite book into the suit. “Just in case.”
The ship’s horn blared another warning. Iffy started crying. Her olders had pulled her out of her cot just a few minutes before, and she was only half awake.
Third hugged her again before Second pulled her away. “There isn’t time,” the older clone snapped as one of the hired crew ran past them toward the stern. At the time Iffy 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 what Iffy remembered afterward—that, and the stench of methane rising from the sea.
The ship heeled hard as First tried to steer their ship out of the seething mass of bubbles forming around them. “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. Sobbing, Third closed the faceplate on the ecosuit.
The ship staggered and fell two meters. Iffy screamed as she fell back to the deck. Second and Third landed in a tangle beside beside her. A great frothing wash of sea water crashed down on top of them. Iffy 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 tumbling 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 by a passing jelly dredger. Aunt Naggie told her it was a miracle she had survived. The ecosuit was a hundred years old, but its seals had held, and it had kept her warm while the thumb-sized motors in its 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 the jellyfish he caught 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 dropped her on the dock and walked away. The jelly dredging families and docksiders in Rothera never understood why he didn’t, and wouldn’t have believe that his meek, long-suffering 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?
So Iffy stayed, but not the ecosuit. Uncle Jack sold it almost as soon as they got back to Rothera. “You’re going to outgrow it anyway,” he growled impatiently over her tearful protests. “Gotta pay for your keep somehow.” He would have sold the book that Second had tucked into the suit as well if Aunt Naggie hadn’t misplaced it until he forgot about it. It had belong to Third when she was little, and to Second before that, all the way to back to a time 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 another child could come on board to play with her, 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 the handwritten comments in the book’s margins that she spent hours deciphering and daydreaming about. 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 moment of warmth 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 into the slit she had cut in the cot’s foam mattress to keep it safe, 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 deck of the Guinevere, the sights and sounds and smells of Halley harbor splashed over 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 for the town’s harbor. 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 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 fishing boats and then jelly dredgers began to call in. Two thousand people now called Halley home, hauling jellyfish out of the water during their 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 Tasmania or Patagonia to find whatever work might get them through the long dark so that they could start the cycle again.
Iffy shaded her eyes against the sharp-edged sun. A new pier and a cluster of new buildings were taking shape on the edge of town. Some 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 carted through its double-wide doors: forges, presses, a lathe with a spindle thicker than Iffy’s leg, and an industrial printer hauled all the way from China-over-the-Sea in the hold of a heavily-armed destroyer. The whole town had turned out when the warship came into harbor, marvelling at its sleek profile and its stubby railguns, but Iffy hadn’t given it a second glance once its cargo came ashore. Once Halley’s core finished its months-long check for malware and let the printer out of quarantine, it would be able to make anything that anyone could imagine. Given power and powdered metal, the only limitation on what the printer could make would be the plans people gave it.
She had seen some of those plans on tablets and printouts spread out on the tables of 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 the continent’s first, but the locomotive would be the first designed and constructed in ‘Nardica.
She wanted to help make that happen more than she had ever wanted anything. 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 appeared behind her eyes like the after-images of dreams. Fractal capacitors and ever-so-slightly irregular gears whose off-center spin 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 every search ended in “not found” or “restricted”, and after three of those, she had been too afraid to keep looking.
“Girl! Girl! Wang ba, wife, where’s that affin’ girl now?” 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 phone 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 of upgrading the tired little boat’s frayed dredging nets.
“Girl!” Uncle Jack shouted again. “Get your affin’ tail down here now or saints help me you won’t sit for a 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, Uncle Jack,” she said over the scrape and squeal of rusty hinges. “I was just—”
“You were just lying about like 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 puppet who would sell them all out to the Zillions as soon as he 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 as Uncle Jack opened his mouth 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.
“Shaddin’ right I want curry,” he grumbled, leaning back on 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 of acknowledgment, he took the entire basket of naan from the center of table in 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 even before 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 eaten already?”
“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 you’d best get that in you quickly and start work 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. Mr. Mishra will straighten it out if I take it in before he gets busy. It won’t cost anything,” she added hastily as her foster mother opened her mouth to object. “Not if I do a couple of odd jobs for him.”
Aunt Naggie nodded. “If you say so. And stop in at Sandhu’s and see what they want for eggs,” she added as Iffy reached for the hatch. “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 draw her foster father’s attention.
The ship’s toolbox was tucked under a bench near the stern. Its meager collection of items too essential 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 hurried 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 identical 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 straightened and raised a hand in greeting as Iffy went by. “Beautiful day,” she said. “You heading into town?”
“Sure am,” Iffy agreed, not wanting to slow down for a conversation.
The old woman nodded. “You mind you be careful, aye? The Taroona came in yesterday, and there’s already been a coupla bust-ups with those gaisi pirates.”
“Thanks,” Iffy said dutifully. “Good luck with your barnacles.” The old woman smiled and bent back to her work, the silvery tattoos on her shaved head glistening in the sun.
The three teens at the head of the pier arguing over how best to hang up a net for mending glanced at her as she went by but didn’t say anything. 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 like they had when she was little and the loss of her family’s ship still fresh, 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 find a seat in the corner and keep her head down. Her dark skin and kinky black hair didn’t help matters. As tensions between the Ecofederacion do Brasil and the Australian government in Tasmania had increased, she heard more and more people mutter that 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 Halley. The big sliding door that took up half its front 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 inside. “Is your dad here?” She held up the bent reciprocating rod by way of explanation.
“‘s the back,” Jeep muttered, 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 Mr. Mishra used in the furnace that kept the machines from freezing up in the winter. Mis-matched lighting squares 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 war sims. Iffy’s heart had been in her throat the first time she ventured among them. All she saw now was what they could make—what she could make.
Mr. 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 wheel had come to a halt. Pulling his safety goggles up onto his forehead, he tugged the calloused fingers of his real 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. “She’ll be right enough once she’s straightened,” he pronounced. “But it’s going to cost you.”
The tension eased out of Iffy’s shoulders. Mr. 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?” Mr. Mishra asked as he spun the handwheel on the side of the drill to lift the laser into its locking position.
“No thanks,” Iffy said, holding up the egg Aunt Naggie had given her.
“Hm.” Mr. 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 of pieces while you’re out?”
Mr. Mishra shook his head. “Nuh uh, girl. Nobody touches my darling without I’m here to watch.” Metal fingers tapped the tabletop next to him. “You break that, I’ll have to send up to Amundsen for parts, and odds are they’ll have to send all the way up to Taz.”
“Aright,” Iffy said, feigning disappointment. “How about I use the mechanical one instead? Just for learning,” 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.”
Mr. Mishra chuckled. “No worry about the scrap, girl. And no worry about gettin’ paid. If you’ve found cash work hereabouts that I haven’t heard of, more power to you.” He rolled his head to loosen the kinks in his neck, then waggled the digits of his artificial hand. “Mind your eyes and fingers, aye?”
“Aye,” Iffy agreed eagerly. She had a pair of yellowing old plastic goggles on her face and the drill bit engaged before Mr. 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 on top of Mr. Mishra’s toolbench, chock the piece, measure the hole a second time, and re-align everything juuuuust a little. A bot could have done the whole thing in seconds, but bots could be hacked or infected with mutated malware left over from the war. “You want it done fast, you use a bot,” Mr. Mishra always said. “You want it done right, you use 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. Mr. 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. “And 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 into 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 scowled at that like he scowled at everything before disappearing into his room 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 broached 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 the same stark blue 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 machine grease on 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 shook their heads at the sight of a scruffy little jelly dredger in a stained coat wearing boots two sizes too big for her.
A commotion down a side street caught her ear. Someone was singing off-key. Another voice joined in, then a third, and then glass broke on stone. “Bloody pirates,” a passer-by muttered to his companion. “Governor shoulda sunk the Taroona, not let her berth.”
The second man elbowed him hard, glancing upward at a sentry drone buzzing overhead. “I’m sure the governor knows what’s best,” he said loudly. Iffy kept her eyes on the cobblestones in front her and hurried on her way.
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 carefully left 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. A little of the special curry mix she likes so much.” She handed Iffy a small plastic jar half-full of orange-brown 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 your special friends in the harbor to know about each 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. 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, and strong white teeth gleamed against ink-black skin when he smiled.
“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 Mr. Mishra when he wouldn’t take a sermon and a blessing in trade for fixing a broken drone rotor.
“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 smuggled vegetables 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 sympathetically.
Big Mrs. Sandhu shook her head. “The Taroona’s crew are bura badi, the lot of them,” she said flatly. “Thieves and pirates and worse. 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 a hard-luck drifter try to con the Mrs. Sandhus, her uncle would almost certainly be awake soon, 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 the scruff off old cores, 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 micromagnetic resonator, 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 some liquid nitrogen handy…”
“…you can drain off the excess thermal every few minutes,” Iffy finished, the solution suddenly clear and flawless in her head.
“Exactly.” The newcomer cocked his head, looking at Iffy as if she was some strange machine 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 cut in briskly. “Can’t promise they’ll be as cheap as you want, but they’re clean, 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 problem.”
“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. “Fifth of Ang Kwan, but call me Iffy. 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 fix-it bot that everyone called French Henry as she squeezed between its rusty frame and the rack of tweaked fuel moss it was tending.
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 pair said. She nudged a bucket full of barnacles with her boot. “Pro’ly get thirty grams outta this when it’s rendered down. That’ll buy a nice dinner.” 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 foster parents.
Metal clanged on metal as she reached the ship. “Affin’ shaddin’—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 a few days ago. 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 gangplank 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. He hadn’t left enough to weave back together, not without shortening the cable by a meter, so she would have to swap the whole cable for one of the forestays, 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. “So where’n hell have you been while the rest of us have been workin’?”
“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 over. “Oh, and Little Mrs. Sandhu said to give you this.” She held up the little jar of curry. “She said it’s her special blend.”
“Oh, that’s kind of her,” Aunt Naggie said lightly, plucking the jar from Iffy’s fingers and tucking it into her apron. “Did you get anything more to eat? I was going to make some noodles for lunch.”
“It’s kappa, I’m not hungry,” Iffy lied. “But auntie, there was a man at the Sandhu’s, a mechanic come down to work in the machine shop, ‘cept he was 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 Mr. Wales—“call me Johnson, please”—leaped from de-ionizers to different ways to micro-weld 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 affin’ lunch. And you!” He jabbed a finger at Iffy. “Fix that shadding 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. Iffy didn’t know where she would go, and she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Aunt Naggie to face him alone, but she 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 desalinated 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.
The knot turned into an ache as Aunt Naggie added a few pinches of spice. “Is that Mrs. Sandhu’s mix?” Iffy asked, turning a pair of chopsticks over and over in her hands.
“Mm hm,” Aunt Naggie replied, tucking the little jar at the back of her spice shelf. “Special flavor for special occasions.” 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 Aunt Naggie from behind. “You know I won’t 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 skinny young woman who had somehow replaced the skinny little girl she had once read bedtime stories to. “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 on deck 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 affin’ tofu in the noodles could spoil the spicy sweet taste in her mouth or the feeling of the knot in her belly slowly relaxing.
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 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 was balancing a pole across her shoulders with a large bucket dangling on each end. The other had stacked the smaller buckets on a two-wheeled cart and was carefully lowering the last of 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 Iffy 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. Mr. 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. There! A roiling mass of smoke billowed up into the sky above the cluster of new buildings that overlooked the older part of town. “No!” Iffy gasped. It was the new machine shop!
A siren wailed. Others joined it. She heard Uncle Jack bellow, “What’n the hell you done now, girl?” but she was already racing down the gangplank.
By the time she reached the machine shop, a small crowd had gathered on the paved turnaround in front of it. The sick knot in her stomach tightened when she saw that the explosion hadn’t been in the building itself, but in the squat blockhouse beside it where the industrial printer was sitting in quarantine. One corner of the blockhouse had collapsed into a tangle of masonry chunks and twisted foam steel beams.
A rough-looking woman wearing a green and yellow vest stood in front of the 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. “Are you able to see these, citizen?” he demanded. “These indicate that I have been allocated sufficient authority to direct action as I think most consistent with regulations regarding general public safety. We are therefore going in to have a look regardless of your wishes.”
The woman’s lip curled. “Consistent with regulations, 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 hastily at the shouted order. A gang of half a dozen sailors pushed through the crowd. All of them wore variations on the woman’s yellow-and-green vest, some with Taroona stencilled on the back. “Uh oh,” someone near Iffy muttered.
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 span. “Just ‘splainin’ t’ these blues that there ain’t nothin’ here needs their ‘tention.”
“With respect, citizen,” the sergeant said, his inducted accent making his calm words all the more ominous, “Anything potential danger to the residents or property of Halley is a proper subject of 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 dozens more from exposure in the days that followed. Iffy had never asked Mr. Mishra about that night, but every year, on the anniversary, he and Little Mrs. Sandhu and their friends gathered at the end of the longest pier in town 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 we’re for takin’ care of everythin’ we hauled down from Taz ‘til Halley core tells us it ain’t a danger, so whatever happened here is on us t’ fix.”
The sergeant looked at the debris on the ground. “Do you regard this as ‘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 find your diagnosis comforting,” the sergeant said, “But I insist on inspecting this site directly.” He drew his shock stick from the holster on his hip. The three other Marines beside him did the same in unison.
“Shad,” someone said beside her. “It’s gonna be a 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. 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.
“What—?” Iffy started to ask.
“Ssh!” Wales cut her off and looked up at the drones circling overhead. Without warning, their buzzing stopped and they dropped out of the sky.
“That weren’t us!” the Taroona’s captain shouted, but it was too late. As the Marines’ sidekick drones clattered and cracked on the cobblestones, the sergeant blew his whistle. His squad’s programming kicked in. As one, they charged the sailors in front of them. 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.
“Come on,” Wales urged Iffy. She hurried after him, the toolbox bumping against her leg.
“Oy!” a voice shouted. “You there! You’re not goin’ anywhere with that!” A rangy man in a yellow-and-green vest with a half-star tattooed on his face shoved a couple of people out of his way and grabbed Iffy by the arm.
And there it was in her head, like a wireframe of a machine in a homework assignment labelled with angles and velocities. Before she even realized what she was doing she spun around, swinging the toolbox in a sharp arc. Its rising edge hit the Taroona crewman beneath his knee with a crack.
“Aargh! Shaddin’ hack, ya wheezy—” The toolbox in Wales’ right hand connected with the side of sailor’s head with a thud. The Aussie hit the cobblestones in a heap.
“Run!” Wales urged as two more sailors caught sight of their fallen comrade and raced toward them.
Iffy ran. She ran, but the toolbox was heavy and awkward and the women chasing her were half again her height and they could knock people aside instead of going around them or pushing in between them and what had just happened? How could she have seen what she needed to do?
Just as a voice yelled, “Gotcha!” another shouted “Gardez-vous!” Iffy screamed as a tubby rust-stained snake of a bot reared up in front of her. The sailor who had just been about to grab her skidded to a halt on the cobblestones and was knocked sprawling as her partner slammed into her from behind.
“Mad bot! Mad bot!” the second sailor shouted, dodging back as French Henry swung a heavy manipulator at her.
“Come on!” Wales pulled her into the scatter of people running in panic to get away from a robot gone rogue.
For a few moments all Iffy could do was try not to stumble and fall. Just when she couldn’t hold onto the toolbox any longer, Wales dragged her into a side alley. A few dew-drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. “Are you all right?” he panted.
Iffy dropped the toolbox on the ground and doubled over to catch her breath. “No, I’m not aright,” she snapped angrily—or would have if she wasn’t wheezing so hard. “I just about got my chomper clocked in a dock fight! And what’s this?” She whacked the toolbox with the toe of her boot, something between a prod and a kick. “This what the Taroona bikkies upped from you?”
Wales nodded. “Everything that matters.” Tiny lights danced briefly across the silvery rectangle in his left template. He looked up as an angry drone buzzed overhead. Another followed it a moment later. “Come on—the Marines have called for reinforcements. We’d be better of somewhere else when they arrive.”
Wales led her out the other end of the alley and onto a street lined with single-story houses made of laser-cut stones with tweaked blue-green moss tracing their mortared joints. Iffy did her best to keep up with him as he strode back toward the center of town. He prolly kept the light ones for himself, she thought resentfully, but the complaint was half-hearted. The sailors and townsfolk she knew ranged from lean to stringy—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. Between the Marines’ inducted fighting skills, their drones, and their 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 Uncle Jack’s misadventures. “Sometimes trying is the only kind of winning you can hope for.”
“Mon ami! Mon ami!” She jumped and squawked as French Henry suddenly rattled around the corner, 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 bot. Like the rest of the world, Halley tolerated free bots because they needed their labor, but there were too many stories of machines being driven mad by malware left over from the war for people to ever truly trust something as big as French Henry, even if she hadn’t just seen it threaten a couple of humans.
But Wales didn’t seem bothered in the least. “Merci beaucoup, mon vieux,” he said gratefully. He reached into a pocket inside his jacket and withdrew something small. “Ici. C’est a toi.”
A hatch popped open on the front of the maintenance bot. A slender manipulator, 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 Mr. Mishra had been repairing the last time the Guinevere was in dock. As soon as the thought took shape in her head, 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 outflow 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 bot’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.”
“Uh huh. Must be pretty affin’ hard to find for it to take a chance on bein’ scrapped for scaring people like it did back there.” When Wales didn’t answer, she gave the toolbox next to her another nudge 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 o’ the town’s pipes just happens to be friend enough o’ yours to take a chance on bein’ disassembled 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. Arra kappa t’ carry at down s’far the caffy?”
Iffy wrinkled her nose at his exaggerated accent. “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 last drone 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 loads, they walked side by side down a narrow street that ran behind the Sandhu’s grocery store to the café where Wales had rented a room. The owner glanced from Wales to Iffy to the toolboxes they carried but said nothing more than, “Tea?”
They sat at a battered stone-topped table and drank the sweet, strong brew he put in front of them as Wales opened the toolbox Iffy had been carrying and carefully checked 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 still had the cleanrooms and nano-fabricators needed to create marvels like the fractal iridium mesh that Wales briefly let her inspect through a monocle made from a single perfectly-formed diamond. Other tools were clearly cobbled together from whatever spare parts 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 nested set 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 as the lights in the tech on his temple flickered with activity. “The town says the Marines have resolved the situation by the quarantine shed—the explosion was apparently a result of faulty maintenance on an outflow pipe that hadn’t been registered in the town plans. Oh, and the disturbance involving the crew of an unnamed Australian vessel has been peacefully resolved.”
Iffy snorted. “Faulty maintenance my blue thumbs. I know that was you.”
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 home 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—remote vision cameras in children’s toys were an everyday thing, even for someone who had grown up as poor as she had. She didn’t know what the red-speckled globe Wales set next to the bear was for, but she suspected it would do more than just watch if someone broke in.
A pair of bulky gray 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. “Those forks on the front are ultrasonic pulse guns. One blast from them and you’ll have a headache for a week. And the nozzles behind them probably spray strangle foam.”
“Why’re they just watching?” Iffy asked. “Why don’t the Marines just haul everyone in for th’ governor to sort out?”
Wales sighed. “Politics. Even if the governor thinks they blew up the quarantine building, the Taroona and the rest of the Aussie fleet are the only thing stopping the Brazilians from walking in 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 sighed again. “Lots of people don’t.” Then he smiled. “But I appreciate the warning.”
Ten minutes later Uncle Jack shouted, “No affin’ way! We’re a jelly dredger, not th’ damn ferry! You wanna slide up along Rothera, you can haul yourself three piers over an’ buy a ticket.”
Wales’ 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,” the Guinevere’s captain sneered. “Not any more, anyway. They’re all ‘crypted—everyone knows that. The sats’ comms are all ‘crypted and the keys are long gone.”
“It is indeed encrypted.” Wales nodded. “But not all of the keys are gone—not quite. This has 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, scowling 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 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 shadding,” he growled. “It’s just some kinda trick.”
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 done?” Uncle Jack asked after a few seconds passed. “‘Cause I got better things to do than watch you make an affin’ fool of yourself.”
Aunt Naggie pointed. “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. “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 recorded footage and what the other drones are reporting right now. As far as the town’s core and the governor know, our friend here is still exactly where it’s supposed to be.”
“How’re you doin’ that?” Iffy breathed. 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. “An’ the moment we tie up, you’re off the ship an’ I’ve never heard of you.”
“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. She could learn so much from Wales even if he didn’t take her as an apprentice, 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. “A down payment.”
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 narrowed again 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 we still have a deal?”
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 just cut you off. Your call, I mean,” he added as an afterthought.
Iffy’s breath caught. Was he threatening Uncle Jack? That wasn’t going to end well.
But her foster father just spat over the railing. “Ain’t nobody here gonna 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,” he added to Aunt Naggie. “I want us out o’ here an’ away from whatever’s chasin’ him soon as he’s back.” He strode away, still muttering to himself.
Aunt Naggie and Iffy whooshed out their breath at the same time. “You gonna tell me what’s going on?” Aunt Naggie asked.
Iffy shrugged helplessly. “I dunno, auntie. ‘Struth, I dunno. There was a fight up along by quarantine, an’ French Henry got into it, and…” And I saw how to tag someone twice my size, she almost added but didn’t. Bots weren’t the only ones infected with malware during the war, and talking about her visions with anyone—even Aunt Naggie—would mean admitting to herself that there was something in her head that didn’t belong there.
But something in her expression caught Aunt Naggie’s eye. She put her hand on Iffy’s forehead. “Just be still,” she shushed, stern and worried at the same time. After a moment she took her hand away, but her expression didn’t change. “There’s no fever. How about you start getting us ready and I’ll make us something quick to eat?”
“Tea would be nice,” Iffy said gratefully.
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 it could 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 shadding 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 so that they wouldn’t shift if they ran into 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 ripped open an unlucky sailor’s cheek.
She scrambled up the ladder that connected the engine room to the deck. “Ready here,” she called.
Aunt Naggie coiled the last stayline and shoved it into a canvas bag, then shoved the bag into a storage locker that doubled as a bench and dogged the seat-lid shut. “That’s all for me too.” She handed Iffy half a sandwich—curried egg—and waited the ten seconds it took her foster daughter to wolf it down before thumping 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. “Six thousand rand. I’ll have it in a week, 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 self-satisfied smile vanished. “Ne’er you mind,” he said brusquely. “Everythin’ stowed?”
“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 our high-rollin’ troublemaker got to?”
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 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 have time.”
“No worries,” Iffy replied. 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.
“What happened?” Iffy asked as she fell into step beside him. “Was someone really tryin’ to break into your room? Were they from the Taroona? Did you get punched up? An’ what’s wrong with your leg?”
“Oh, everything was mostly sorted 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 I never seem to have time for that either. There just never seem to be enough time,” he repeated.
He looked at Iffy and brightened. “Anyway, are we ready to go? And what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
Uncle Jack didn’t wait for Wales to stow his 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.
They were halfway across the harbor when a klaxon blared brrrap! brrrap! Iffy ran to the stern in time to see a flock of drones converge on a pier six along from where the Guinevere had been berthed, careful to keep their distance so as not to attract attention and destruction from anything in orbit.
A single ship lay alongside the pier, long and low and gray and dangerous—the Taroona. Iffy shaded her eyes with her hand. The ship looked like it was casting off, but no, a pair of Marine boats were blocking her path, and a platoon of blue-armored figures were trotting toward the pier. Whatever else happened, it didn’t look like they’d have to worry about that particular bunch of Aussie pirates.
Still, the tension in Iffy’s shoulders didn’t easy until they rounded the broken-backed carrier that was Halley’s seawall a few minutes later and the swell beneath them grew stronger.
Uncle Jack took the first watch, grumbling that they were probably going to be hauled in by the Marines and if that happened everyone should just let him do the talking. Aunt Naggie said she would take the second watch, then shooed Iffy off to get some sleep. “You can talk to Mister Johnson in the morning,” she said firmly. “Let him have his rest now.” Then she smiled the way she only did when she and foster daughter were alone together. “You’ll wanna get some too so you can go chasin’ after that special friend o’ yours when we get to Rothera.”
“I ain’t got no special friend!” Iffy protested automatically. Still smiling, her foster mother 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, sounding out the handwritten comments beside them. Mom took us to see the baby giraffes today, said one. There are three of them. They are all clones and they live in a big sterile dome because of the virus. Mom says they have been tweaked to be immune to it. And then, in an older version of the same hand, Turns out they weren’t. Mom says there isn’t money to try again, so I guess that’s it for giraffes. And then there was a sad cartoon face, one of several scattered through the book.
Iffy browsed the other animals, wondering what it would have been like to live in a world with so many different kinds of creatures. She stubbornly tried to keep her eyelids from drooping until she couldn’t remember why they shouldn’t. When she finally dozed, she dreamed.
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 Mr. 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!” Mr. 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, thumping her fist against her mattress. It took her a long time to fall asleep again.
It was a four-day to Rothera across the Weddell 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 ordered the Guinevere to raise the sails. The ship’s tiny core had obediently run the mis-matched gossamer sheets up the twin Y-masts. By the time Iffy woke up to stand her watch, Halley had fallen below the horizon.
The ever-present wind was strong and steady, and if it hadn’t been for their passenger, Iffy and her foster parents might actually have enjoyed a rare moment of peace together—or if not peace, then at least truce. But they did have a passenger. And if Uncle Jack didn’t want him, Iffy thought angrily, He should have 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 odds and ends he had displaced into whatever nooks and crannies she could find, Aunt Naggie brewed tea and Uncle Jack grew more and 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 outta 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 sounded more like a prayer than a prediction, but Iffy nodded and climbed back on deck with two chipped ceramic mugs in her hand.
“‘Bout affin’ time,” her uncle said sharply when she knocked on the door of the pilot house and handed his to him. 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 on the ship 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 jerked a thumb at a panel highlighted in orange. “You get that backstay cable mended ‘fore lunch or you ain’t havin’ any,” 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 for a while.
“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!”
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 a core smart enough to qualify for citizenship. She was the first of her class to sail herself 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. “Let’s hope you never have to find out,” 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 magnifier that highlighted the worse of the damage with garish reds and yellows. 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 him to think well of her as a mechanic, no self-respecting sailor would point a finger at her own captain in front of a passenger.
“All right,” Wales said, slipping the magnifier back into one of the many pockets in his coat. “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, her answers drawing ideas out of her that she hadn’t know were there. It was like the schematics that sometimes popped into her head, but without the gut chill that came from not knowing where they came from.
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 Mr. 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. “Think it’ll hold?” he asked.
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 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 only now be repaired, not made. Keeping her afloat was a matter of scouring 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, brute force, and improvisation 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 the times when Mr. 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 South Africa 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 lasers whose pulses ignited the coal dust that the engine used for fuel were sparking away in perfect time, 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 noodles for dinner. “Just for you,” she whispered, spooning a bit of powder onto her foster daughter’s serving 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 remembered 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 would be the dumbest big idea Uncle Jack had ever had.
She and Aunt Naggie cleaned up afterward. “He seems nice,” Aunt Naggie observed as she scraped the last traces of sauce off a plate into the composter. “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 ship’s gonna get the notion to head for Argentina or somethin’.”
“But then when would you knit?” Iffy asked, nudging her foster mother 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 person, 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 crafting disinformation for rebel bots. Their implausibility, steamy dialogue, and frequent anachronisms only added to the thrill Iffy felt whenever she managed to get an hour alone with Aunt Naggie’s tablet.
“Never you mind about my knitting,” Aunt Naggie said primly. “You’re 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 his sad, intelligent eyes… Looks like Grandad!!! was written beside the wolf in tiny curving script. Iffy had long ago decided that a girl had written that, a girl about her own age who had a family and more than just one friend. She closed the book, tucked it under her pillow, and squeezed her eyes shut, half-hoping for another nightmare just to cut the boredom.
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 to Iffy when she reached the pilot house. “Sleep aright?”
Iffy yawned and plopped herself onto the stool beside her foster mother. “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 ten percent higher than the ship’s simple-minded core thought 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 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: stuff 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 midsummer carnival reliving a grainy pre-war recording of someone riding a surfboard, 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 foster mother jerked her chin at the thermos of tea 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 Aunt Naggie’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 almost sixty years years since it had last been re-set (probably, she suspected, because the holds had been full of contraband instead of jellyfish). Six watches a day while at sea, with only a few weeks a year tied up or idle, made for almost a hundred and twenty five thousand thumb presses and bleeps.
She had read the highlights of the log almost as often as she had read her nature book. Storms, storms, and more storms as the planet warmed up, some hurling waves taller than the ship’s fully-extended mast to swamp the Guinevere’s decks. Births and deaths and even a shipboard wedding—Aunt Naggie’s parents had invited a dozen friends on board in Rothera to see them exchange vows. Pirates, twice, and angry notes about dock wardens who wouldn’t stay bribed. “A whale??” followed by “don’t be an idiot”, repairs laid over older repairs like layers of barnacles, and then a solitary bookmark near the log’s end next to a note that the sole survivor of a ship lost to a clathrate blow had been brought on board.
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 sea monster with tentacles the size of pier posts, 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, each one guarded by security tough enough to keep out generations of teenagers. If she didn’t do at least a little every day, Aunt Naggie would sigh and look disappointed, and she’d rather learn long division than face that.
That evening, though, the subject was modern history. Iffy 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, 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 ships unlucky enough to be above them.
She played through half a dozen “what if?” sims, doing worse each time. 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 interrupt, 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.
“You better tell me we’re sinkin’, or I’m puttin’ you over the side! I was asleep!” Uncle Jack bellowed.
“We’ll be worse than sinking if we don’t change course,” Wales said, tapping the tech in his temple. “A ship just glitched out of stealth about thirty kay behind 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.
“Only if we’re lucky,” Wales said grimly. “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 Uncle Jack 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, telling the ship’s core to tilt the sails past their redline to balance the increased thrust at the stern. The ship swayed more wildly with each passing minute as she traded stability for speed.
“Eighteen west, heading one sixty five, at twenty-six kay and change,” Wales called as he ran to the bow to clip a battered black cylinder 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 shaddin’ 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 too. Naggie! Where’s my shaddin’ tea?”
Iffy stepped out of the doorway so that her foster mother could 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 didn’t pay any more attention to politics than her homework required, she knew that the tension between the Zillions and the loose coalition of governors and factory cores that ruled Antarctica on Australia’s behalf had been getting worse.
“Fifth.” Wales fished a plastic chip out of his pocket and handed it to Iffy. “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 cabin 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 and waited for a click or a tone or something. When nothing came, she swallowed hard and, half-expecting disaster, 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. Either she doesn’t know we’ve spotted her or she doesn’t care.”
“Or she’s jus’ waitin’ ‘til we’re in closer to shore,” Uncle Jack growled. “Her dazzle’s spread enough t’ cover the both of us if she gets us up against 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’ sunk on an empty stomach.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna sink 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 as thin as 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 trans?”
Wales glanced at her, a wry smile on his face. “You know, that used to mean something very different than it does now. But no, I’m not transhuman. I just don’t like advertising how much tech 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 shallow 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 joint 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, like Mars, but they work in ours too.”
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, folding the little flap of false skin back in place over his fingertip. “Let’s watch from inside.”
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 aside to make room for a larger one.
Seen from on high through a fisheye lens, the ocean looked like a gray sheet of plastic litter. 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, Iffy realized with a chill.
“Have you sent a distress call?” Wales asked quietly.
Uncle Jack scowled. “Nearest shout I got back is a hundred kay east, but they’re smaller’n we are an’ too scared to fight. Halley wasn’t much interested ‘til I told them our friends looked military. Then they made noises about looking into it and dropped off comms. And then the shaddin’ comms dropped out.” He jabbed a finger at a small image in the corner of the control panel that was blinking an orange warning. Whoever was hunting them was blocking their transmissions. They were on their own.
“All right, let’s get a good look at you,” Wales said under his breath. He slid his hand across the control panel again. The scene 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 smart material 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, long and lean and four times the Guinevere’s size, the narrow V of her wake betraying the power of her engines.
“Saints and their mercies!” Aunt Naggie exclaimed from behind Iffy, a tray of tea mugs in her arms. “That’s the bloody Taroona!”
As if in answer, a splash of text began scrolling next to the image. Glenunga-class combat transport… active keel… modified infrared profile… modified camouflage… The words solidified into a spider-web of fact and guess and supposition as the Guinevere’s core tried to make sense of what it was seeing.
Iffy opened her mouth to ask Wales if the Australian pirates were chasing him or the gear in his toolboxes, then shut it. Now wasn’t the time, especially not with Uncle Jack there.
“How fast can that thing of yours move?” Uncle Jack asked as the ship swelled on the screen.
“Mach three and change,” Wales replied. “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.
“What now?” Uncle Jack demanded.
“Some kind multipath radar rig,” Wales muttered. “They sure as hell didn’t have it three days ago.”
“Is that bad?” Iffy asked anxiously.
“It means they can tell something’s out there, but they can’t have a lock on it. I hope,” Wales amended grimly. “But look—there she is, the pride of the Tasmanian fleet.” The Taroona’s outline suddenly came into focus as the drone came close enough for its tiny brain to see through their pursuer’s dazzle.
“Murder in high heels is what she is,” Uncle Jack growled. The stubby frames of railguns bristled at her bow and stern. The large tube amidships had to be some sort of EM pulse 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. Not even her name, so defiantly displayed when she was tied up in Halley. She was hunting now, not swaggering.
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. No way they did that from so far out—they’ve got a boat in the water or something in the air I can’t spot. I’m going to pull back.” Even as he spoke, the ship dwindled into the distance.
“Dammit!” Uncle Jack slapped the controls in frustration. “There’s no way we can outrun them.”
Wales drummed his fingers on the control panel. “Maybe we don’t have too.” A second image blossomed on the control panel aswirl with false-colored oranges and pinks. In the seconds it took Iffy to recognize 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. “If it blows, it’ll slow her down or scare her off.”
“‘If’ don’t help us,” Uncle Jack spat.
“Leave that to me,” Wales said. 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. Wales tapped the image. “That’s our best chance. Head for these coordinates. I’ll update them as I 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 Aunt Naggie’s 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 said.
Uncle Jack eyed Iffy, clearly expecting her to follow her aunt, but said nothing when she stayed. Her tea suddenly tasted metallic in her mouth. It took her a moment to realize that it was blood, and that she had bitten her lip. Her heart was pounding. This wasn’t a sim. This wasn’t anything like a sim. This was terrifying.
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 sat nav to throw us off track.”
Soft green digits in the corner of the control panel counted down the seconds. 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 Aussie 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 Aussie 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 Taroona 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 Taroona’s torpedoes closed in, finally able to get a lock on their target from its trail in the water. “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 white 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 scan that area 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 Taroona. “Hang on!” he ordered as the sea behind them started to bubble.
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 clathrate ice, releasing enormous bubbles of methane. As they rose to the surface they churned the sea into a froth unable to bear the weight of a ship.
Too late, the Taroona realized the danger beneath her. She turned sharply, trying to steer for safety. Her stern dipped, throwing her bow into the air. Suddenly clumsy, she tipped on her side and slid down into the dark unforgiving ocean.
“Saints and their mercies,” Uncle Jack said quietly.
But no—there she was, still afloat! She wasn’t a jelly dredger or a cargo hauler. She had been built to withstand gunfire and scalpel mines and the storms of the great southern ocean. She bobbed and wallowed like an oversized bath toy, her deadly grace gone, but as the water that had tried to claim her sluiced off her sides, she turned toward the Guinevere. Twin jets of white steam spurted from her stern as her engines briefly lifted above the waves, and then the Taroona surged forward once again.
“Crap,” Wales said under his breath.
Uncle Jack said something louder and much worse. “I knew you were trouble,” he snarled at Wales as he reached for the control panel.
Wales caught his wrist. “What are you doing?”
“Cutting the affin’ engines!” Uncle Jack yanked his arm free, his face as red as Iffy had ever seen it. “You can’t sink ‘em and we can’t outrun ‘em so the only thing we got left is to run up the white affin’ flag and hope you’re all they take! And if you ever lay hands to me again on my ship, I’ll—”
BOOM! Without warning, yellow-red flame jetted from the Taroona’s side. Iffy shrieked as a second barely-seen streak hit the Aussie ship, then a third, these two just above the waterline as the Taroona heeled sideways under the force of the blows. Something exploded inside the ship, kicking her sideways like a child’s toy.
“Ya killed ‘em,” Iffy whispered unbelievingly as the fearsome raider broke in two. She dragged her sleeve across her face. “Ya killed ‘em all. Why’d ya do that?”
“That wasn’t me!” Wales’ hands danced across the control panel. “Damn it! I need to get another drone up there.”
“No you don’t,” Uncle Jack said flatly, pointing out the window.
Five hundred meters away, a ship had appeared out of nowhere, its camo briefly disrupted by the missiles it had launched. Where the Taroona and the Guinevere were metal, the newcomer was made of tweaked bamboo. Her dozen sails were a tangle of fractal geometry too complex to be managed or even really understood by a merely human mind. Her green and yellow pennant with the slogan Este mundo é de deus proclaimed to all who she was, while her railguns and missile racks said just as plainly what she had been built for: war.
“Zillions…” Iffy whispered. Everyone knew the words on that flag—knew them and feared them. Brazil had fought beside the rest of humanity when the machines rebelled, but had turned on their allies once the bots were defeated. “Este mundo!” they screamed in sim after sim, always scheming, always the villains. “This world is God’s!” The earth’s self-appointed defenders would sacrifice everything to undo the damage humanity had done to the Earth. When a shaft in a coal mine collapsed people blamed Zillion saboteurs intent on driving the world back into the stone age. When a mutant fungus turned the contents of a greenhouse into sludge, all its owner had to do was say, “It must have been them!” for people to demand 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 the inexplicable glitch in their drones’ recording that left them unable to identify anyone who might have been involved.
Even as they watched, the Zillion ship blurred and vanished as its camo reformed. The faint spiderweb tracery of her rigging glinted in the sun, then it too was gone. “Why’d they—” Iffy felt lightheaded. “Why’d they kill ‘em all like that?”
“Because they could,” Wales replied wearily. “There’s no way they could get past the Taroona’s defenses when she was running at spec, but knocked off balance the way she was…” He shrugged. “They saw a shot—they took it.”
“A shot you gave ‘em,” Uncle Jack said accusingly, quick as always to make sure trouble was someone else’s fault. “There’s gonna be hell to pay for this.” He slapped at the control panel to put the Guinevere in a tight turn.
“Wait—no! We can’t go back for them.” Wales reached for the panel.
Uncle Jack slapped his hand away. “I’m not leavin’ ‘em in the affin’ water!”
Wales shook his head. “It’s too late. Look.” There, on the panel in front of them, another pink blotch was rising from the ocean floor. It churned and reformed as the Guinevere’s simple-minded sonar tried and failed to make sense of a maelstrom of bubbles, and then it reached the surface and the broken remains of the Taroona disappeared.
Uncle Jack swore again, and for a moment Iffy thought he was going to hit Wales. Instead, he swiped his hand across the control panel to turn them back toward Rothera.
All of a sudden Iffy needed to be somewhere else—anywhere else. She threw open the door of the pilot house and stumbled out into the endless hard light of the southern summer. Her feet took her to the galley on auto-pilot. She pulled open the hatch and fell into her foster mother’s arms. Aunt Naggie wrapped her meaty arms around her adopted daughter. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“They’re dead,” Iffy cried. “They’re all sunk an’ dead!”
“Oh, sweetie.” Aunt Naggie 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 sobs and the hum of the engines and the muffled sound of the uncaring sea.
Her tears eventually stopped, as tears always do. After one last hug, Iffy left Aunt Naggie in the galley and sat on the thwart at the Guinevere’s stern, gray thoughts chasing each other aimlessly in her head. She half-hoped that Wales would sit with her so that she would have someone to be angry at, but instead, he disappeared into his cabin, ignoring Uncle Jack’s angry questions about what the hell a civilian was doing with a bomb in his affin’ luggage. Wait ‘til you find out about the other ones, she thought dully.
Sunk in misery, it took her a moment to realize that something was moving above the horizon. She stood and shaded her eyes, squinting against the dazzle from the waves until she was sure she was seeing the wispy smudge of a spotter drone’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’re comin’ back for us!”
“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 Zillion,” her uncle said scornfully. “It’s 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 warmly. 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 homework for her history class. “Hello,” the face said. “You must be Miz Kwan. I’m Doctor Johel. I’m looking forward to meeting you.”
They reached Rothera two days later. The spotter traced lazy circles above them the whole way, its insect-eye cameras and microscopic core searching ceaselessly for signs of more trouble. “Shame it’s not a bit bigger,” Uncle Jack grunted.
“That’s trouble we don’t need,” Aunt Naggie responded. Skies the world over had been off limits since the end of the war—China-over-the-Sea didn’t have enough satellites to watch everything all the time, but anything bigger much larger than a single person ran the risk of being fried. A few heavily armored aircraft still flew short missions here and there, or so the stories Iffy had found in the jungle claimed, but for most of humanity, flight had once more become the stuff of daydreams.
Each time Wales emerged from his cabin for a few minutes to get some tea or use the toilet, the gossamer-winged drone drifted closer to the Guinevere like a gull that had spotted someone eating a sandwich. Wales paid no attention to it, and little more to Iffy and her foster parents. “Good morning”, “excuse me”, and “no thank you” were all he seemed to have the energy to say.
They threaded their way through the narrow passage between Adelaide Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, past mats of tweaked seaweed left over from someone’s failed attempt to start a sea farm, and there it was: Rothera. The capital of Australia’s Antarctic territory was ten times the size of Halley, home port for the fleet that glared across the Drake Passage at the southernmost tip of South America and the Zillion marauders who called it home.
A pair of sleek sentry drones surfaced beside them as they rounded the rocky point where the scavenged remains of the original research station stood. Normally bustling with warships, freighters, jelly dredgers, tugs, and water taxis, Rothera’s harbor seemed unnaturally quiet. “Governor’s orders,” Aunt Naggie told Iffy, passing her a hard-boiled egg liberally dusted with curry powder. “That’s what Jack says—everyone’s been told to stay outta the way ‘til we tie up. Seems we scared ‘em,” she added bleakly.
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 looked sideways at her. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
“No worries,” she said. Together, they watched the shore approach.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Wales sighed.
Iffy bridled. “It ain’t that bad.”
Wales chuckled. “It’s a quote from an old movie—kind of like a sim. 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 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, 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, including Australia, but when pressed about their seemingly endless exemptions, Rothera’s citizens shrugged and said, “Damage done,” or pointed 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 years before the machine wars, well, that damage was done too.
The wind shifted suddenly, and the city’s smell hit Iffy like a wet hammer. Rothera didn’t just have coal mines—its dredging fleet was 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. That stink meant Rothera, and Rothera meant Honesty, and Honesty meant—well, Iffy was still trying to work exactly what her friend meant to her and vice versa.
The sentry drones peeled away as they entered the harbor to resume their endless patrol. The spotter flying overhead banked and turned back out to sea a few moments later, the sun sparkling off the solar cells in 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.
Sure enough, 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 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 rest of the 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 almost imperceptibly toward the hulking bot. “They’ve been reinforced for urban work.” He glanced past Iffy as Aunt Naggie came on deck. Aunt Naggie put her arm around Iffy’s shoulders and gave her foster daughter a wordless squeeze of reassurance.
The Guinevere slowed and turned parallel to the pier. 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 flapping its wings. When he turned to toss the coiled line waiting there to one of his companions, Iffy saw the stubby bulk of a rifle tucked into the angular framework that gave him the strength of five men and a speed nearly equal to a bot’s.
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. “How about you 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 in each hand.
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, and her eyes actually 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.”
“No apology necessary,” Doctor Johel said briskly. “Pirates are pirates no matter who’s flag they fly, and it’s useful to know that the Brazilians are able to get that close without being detected.”
Wales inclined his head again. “As you say.” He hesitated. “Do you know yet how many were lost?”
The tiny woman’s expression didn’t soften. “I’m afraid we don’t. And even if we did, Intelligence might not share that information.”
“And Miz Kwan,” she continued smoothly, 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 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 arm 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 behind her pivoted smoothly and almost silently on its heavy treads and lowered one of its arms. The elderly doctor sat on it as if were a park bench—as if being carried gently along a pier by a century-old machine designed for lethal mayhem was the most natural thing in the world.
“Show-off,” Uncle Jack grumbled. “Treatin’ that thing like it’s some kind o’ pet rat.”
“Actually, I think she trained its core on a sim of a guard dog she once had,” Wales said 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 squad of Marines. Iffy recognized some of them as crew from the ships tied up on either side of the Guinevere’s berth. Iffy’s cheeks burned under their curious, resentful stares. One nodded to Uncle Jack, who grunted in return, but no one said hello.
They followed Doctor Johel and 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 stood motionless as Doctor Johel got to her feet, then spun around to stand beside it. “After you,” she said, gesturing at the bus’s open door. Wales inclined his head once again and climbed aboard with Iffy, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Naggie behind him.
“I haven’t been in one of these in years,” Wales said, seating himself near the front with his toolbox at his feet.
“I 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 and nudged his toolbox with his boot. “I suspect that what they think highly of is this. 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 from the seat in front of him but said nothing.
Rothera bustled around them once the bus left the dock behind. They hummed quietly through the city streets and up the long, gentle slope that led to the governor’s mansion. The G-80 stayed five meters in front of them, its twin turrets swivelling each time they went through an intersection. The Marines jogged along on either side with long mechanical strides. 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 her head and she realized it was someone else.
As they drew closer to the governor’s mansion, the three-story cinderblock buildings build to house refugees after the war 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. Mangoes and oranges and flowers—flowers!—made a green riot beneath the sheltering panels. Little Mrs. Sandhu claimed that the governor even grew bananas, though Big Mrs. Sandhu scoffed at the notion. “They been ‘stinct longer than we been alive,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Iffy’s stomach suddenly rumbled. Doctor Johel smiled at her. “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 so that she was fully facing Iffy. “But I’ve been focusing physics and engineering for the last few years. 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 tall wrought iron fence surrounded the governor’s mansion. Sleek robotic sentries paced back and forth behind it, their blunt conical heads swivelling to track the approaching vehicles.
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 mansion’s 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, a sudden ache in her chest as she wondered if someone, somewhere, was grieving for the sailors who had been on the Taroona.
“Get along with you,” Uncle Jack growled, nudging her none too gently. Flanked by Marines, 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 comfortable couch with potted plants on either side of them and soft music playing in the background wasn’t it. Uncle Jack kept his arms crossed and muttered to himself incessantly, glaring at Aunt Naggie when 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 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 they decide I’m not coming back and make a fuss 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 Doctor Johel showed them into 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 revolutionary 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 Marine with a shaved head gestured for them all to sit and then 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 your trip here from the docks 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 forward and pressed the barrel of 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 half a dozen 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. “You need to evacuate, 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 mechanical pet fire another micro-missile at the swarm of four-legged robotic sentries swarming around it. Shriek—crack! The explosion threw a 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, the G-80 and the sentries turned toward the mansion. The last thing Iffy saw before her aunt dragged her away was the sentries leaping through the hole left by the G-80 plowing through the mansion’s front door.
“Breach!” one of the younger Marines shouted.
“Really?” Wales muttered sarcastically, his hands still in the air.
The Marine holding the gun to his head nudged him toward the opening behind the governor’s desk. “Sir, if you would?”
Wales didn’t move. “Not without those toolboxes.”
This time the Marine’s nudge was more of a shove. “Sir, we can come back for—”
“If it takes more than twenty-two minutes for us to come back, there won’t be anything for us to come back to,” Wales said sharply, his feet planted. “Doctor?”
Doctor Johel and the governor exchanged looks. “Get them,” the governor ordered crisply.
“Sir, we can’t bring his tech into the secure area without testing it,” the sergeant protested.
“Mister Wales?” The governor raised an eyebrow.
“Safe as houses,” Wales promised. “You have my word.”
After that, everything moved quickly. One Marine opened the door and tossed a thumb-sized camera drone into the waiting room. When it wasn’t fried by a laser or blown to pieces by a needle gun, a second Marine bent low in a starter’s crouch, took a deep breath, and flung himself through the door. Something sizzled across the shoulder of his exoskeleton a millisecond before he crashed into the couch that Iffy had been sitting on just a few minutes earlier. He rolled over clumsily. “Left scapular is bacon,” he called. Iffy had only a heartbeat to wonder why why he said “bacon” instead of “baked” before he flung the first of the toolboxes she had been carrying back through the door.
His partner caught it and set it down just in time to catch the second one. “Wait!” Wales ordered as the Marine in the waiting room reached for the third toolbox. He closed his eyes for a moment and then nodded. “Now!”
The third toolbox flew through the air. The Marine who had thrown it crouched, took a deep breath, and threw himself after it.
Whatever had shot him the first time had been patient, and now its patience was rewarded. A perfectly straight line of blue light flashed just long enough to leave an after-image on Iffy’s eyes. The Marine landed in a crumpled heap on the floor of the governor’s office. His exoskeleton tried to stand, its programming still trying to anticipate its wearer’s likely moves, but it couldn’t lift the dead weight it now held.
“Oh saints,” Aunt Naggie whispered.
The Marine who had caught the toolboxes didn’t hesitate—didn’t even really seem to notice how her partner didn’t move as she pulled his battery and two clips of ammunition from his body. It’s his conditioning, Iffy thought. Like Jeep when he came back. He just don’t feel it. She swallowed hard to stop herself from throwing up.
The Marines herded 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 repair bots that were now scurrying madly to the mansion’s defense.
“Any theories, doctor?” the governor asked from the head of the little procession.
“No idea,” Doctor Johel puffed, struggling to keep the pace. “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.”
“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 above their heads. “Affin’ hell!” Uncle Jack roared.
Needle guns crackled behind them again as two of the Marines turned and returned fire. “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 needle had punched through his thigh.
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.
“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 place. “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 at the wall. Its gyroscopic gearwheel spinning madly, the little machine scampered up to the ceiling.
“If that’s a bomb—” the sergeant began.
“Directional broadband pulse,” Wales panted as the little machine disappeared around the corner. “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.
Mechanical claws scraped on the 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 some of Uncle Jack’s rum. 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, sweetie,” 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.
She turned her head at the sound of voices. A medic with two tech fingers on her right hand was patching Wales up on another couch while the governor interrogated him. No, Wales 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.
“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, tactical antimatter bombs in his luggage, 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 the word didn’t seem to register with Wales, or maybe he just didn’t care. He pushed the medic’s hands away. “I’m the sort of man who can change the world for you,” he said firmly.
Governor Stern pivoted to face him. “Oh really?” His eyes sparkled the same way as Doctor Johel’s, Iffy suddenly realized, but there in that underground room it was scary instead of magical.
“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 under the ice sheet when it was built, but there’s been enough melt to expose the entrance.”
The governor’s fingers drummed on his thighs. His eyes sparkled again—some kind of direct visual input shining light straight into his retinas, Iffy guessed. “All right, there’s a base,” he said as whatever he had just seen confirmed what Wales had just said. “But it was cleared out years ago. And anyway, everybody who was anybody built some kind of secret lab down here. What makes this one special?”
“It wasn’t cleared out. And 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 satellite 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 nodded 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 the side. “And?” Every tenth person in Antarctica had some sort of tweak, most of them inherited from grandparents or great-grandparents who had been early settlers or suffered from genetic disorders or whose own parents had more money than good sense.
“And every once in a while I need a reboot,” Wales said. He tapped the tech in his temple. “This was designed for baseline human physiology. It doesn’t get along with my upgrades as well as I’d like. If I don’t re-set every few years, my nervous system starts to shut down. I used to be able to get it fixed in Nairobi, but since the civil war re-started…” He shrugged. “As far as I know, that base is 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 again. “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 demanded, belligerent once again now that the danger had passed. “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. Computer cores had watched people every moment of every day for years in the run-up to their rebellion. Humanity had designed them to do that, and had come close to extinction as a result. Children learned that surveillance was evil at the same as they were potty trained. Accusing someone of doing it was a lot even by Uncle Jack’s standards.
“I don’t think surveillance will be necessary,” the governor said evenly. “But I will post a Marine or two at the docks, and you really shouldn’t try to leave until our business is concluded. 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 again, but to her surprise he backed down. “Fine,” he snapped, waving her away. “You go get whatever we need. I’m gonna look at th’ engine an’ see what th’ sainted Mister Wales has gaffled up. And take th’ girl with you,” he added over his shoulder as he stalked 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 with strict orders not to tell anyone what had happened at the governor’s mansion. The fact that the feeds on the Guinevere’s screens were 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 feeder was counting the explosion at the quarantine shed in Halley. The other half was convinced the machines were about to rise again, either on their own or with the backing of whatever networked hypermind currently ruled China-over-the-Sea. Iffy’s heart sank at grainy video of a crowd armed with pulse guns and cutting torches chasing a maintenance bot through the streets of Paddington hundreds of kilometers away. 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 she swore 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, soy, and noodles.
After dragging a brush through her close-cropped hair and watching sternly while Iffy, under protest, did the same, Aunt Naggie strode down the gangplank with her adopted daughter in her wake. One of the Marines listened patiently as Aunt Naggie explained where she was going and why. As she launched somewhat breathlessly into the details of her shopping list, he held up a hand to stop her. “Get whatever you need,” he said, handing her a black-edged money card. “But keep in mind that Finance will charge things back to you if it thinks they’re luxuries.” He glanced pointedly over her shoulder at Uncle Jack, whose plan for looking at the engine seemed to consist of leaning on the Guinevere’s railing and scowling at everyone and everything.
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 gone in to each one, but Aunt Naggie hurried past them, her expression set. She regarded shopping as a competitive sport, and clearly had no intention of letting Rothera beat her.
The city’s 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 and Rothera’s core had thrown up their physical and metaphorical hands and let anyone who could pay two rand a month set up a stall. Still called the Dance Hall, it was the biggest surveillance-free zone in Antarctica, and 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 yearning look back toward the docks, she nudged her foster daughter with her elbow. “Why’n’t you go off an’ see what you can find? Or who, if you’ve a mind to?” she added teasingly.
Iffy felt her cheeks go warm. “Y’ sure y’ don’ 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 gossiping 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 a stubby never-finished canal that Rothera’s mechanics had taken over to use as a repair yard. A sleek Marine cutter was tied up on one side while crab-like bots scrambled over its hull to scrape off the weaponized barnacles that would, if left unchecked, slowly devour the fractal carbon that made it nearly frictionless. 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.
“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 tuck y’all come in, an’ then I twitched what happen up along th’ governor’s. I’s worried along by 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, a really good kind that she couldn’t stop thinking about.
“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. “Din’t looka that on th’ news. Looka th’ 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 happen? I mean, really happen, not just official happen?” Honesty slipped her arm through Iffy’s as if it was the most natural thing in the world and steered her 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 the first time Iffy 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. They’d only spent time together half a dozen times since then, but each time had been—
“Sorry?” she said belatedly.
Honesty rolled her eyes. “I said, why’re you up along there? You gettin’ fancy or some?”
“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 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…
Even with those gaps, her story 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 it, but the blues come along day b’fore last an’ said we gotta be crannup t’ sail soonest.”
Iffy swallowed drily. Two days past was the day Wales had made the sea boil and sent the Taroona to the bottom. “Yeah, prolly,” 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 brewa.” 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 just turned sixteen, so she and a younger clone would 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 resistance fighters had developed to hide their words from surveillance during the robot wars, 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 blues 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. Each would pass information to its equally small neighbors 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 the governor ever used cores for surveillance, he’d have a riot on his hands.
She squeezed Honesty’s hand twice to signal that she understood, but when she loosened 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 the years to come.
“What bad news?” Iffy asked.
“My call-up came ‘long yesterday,” Honesty said reluctantly. “Whole buncha folk ‘long the docks got ‘em. We gotta do induction t’night.”
Iffy’s stomach flip-flopped. “Tonight?” But I just got here! she thought despairingly.
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. “Yeah. Lotsa folk are wonderin’ why the quaddy quaddy, but the blues ain’t sayin’ bunga ‘cept that it come along straight from th’ governor. Figure it’s got somethin’ to do with th’ bots going gonjy ‘long yesterday?”
“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 whorling blue lines that turned the scars left by some long-ago accident into something like art. She tossed the piece of tech she had been cleaning to Iffy. “Any gunna 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 shapes and clues came together in her head to form an answer as clear as it was impossible for her to know. “Prolly 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, and that each square was some kind of flexible dronelet. 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 days trying to clean and reassemble. “They’s too fine 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 learned that her friend had relayed what she’d said to her First and Second. “We don’t keep secrets on achother,” 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 her best and only friend knew she was different but didn’t seem to care.
When Iffy handed back the box of dronelets, 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 meal if they were pried out and sold as parts. “If anythin’ comes t’ mind, you come by an’ gi’s a 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. Her upbringing had taught her how to rig sails in heavy weather and mend engines older than her foster parents, but not what to do when people were kind to her. She drained the last of her tea. “I oughta get back t’ help Aunt Naggie an’ th’ shopping.”
“Sure,” Honesty said. “But you’ll come along after an’ eat?” She poked Iffy in the ribs. “Y’always maw skinny.”
Iffy blushed. “I’ll ask,” she said, mumbling again.
Honesty hooked her arm through Iffy’s again. “Bonza. 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. 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 her First and Second or from Iffy, right?
“I s’pose,” Iffy allowed.
“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.
I’d feel better about it if I knew how it got there, Iffy thought. For the thousandth time she wondered if her clone parents had been able to do what she could—if they had thought of it as a gift or a burden or both. And for the thousandth time, she wished she could ask them.
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 his boyfriend Aang struggled to free Elsa from the evil robot Wintermute. Two bald women who might have been twins but were probably just clones wheeled a cartful of blankets woven from tweaked moss past two men arguing beside another cart piled high with curved sheets of diamond that cast quivering rainbows on the ground. 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 at him. “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 trim Asian man in a patched brown and gray uniform of the old Ecological Corps. Iffy couldn’t hear what they were saying over the bustle of the crowd, but from the way they were looking into each others’ eyes she was pretty sure they weren’t discussing topsoil formation.
The ecologist 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 ecologist stepped back, a bland smile replacing the genuine warmth of a moment before. 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 ecologist looked up as the drone that Iffy had seen earlier buzzed lower, then 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 ‘r show us your backside!” Other voices took up the cry. “Show us yer warrant!”
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 ecologist say, “Please, you should go.”
Whatever Aunt Naggie might have replied was cut off by the sight of her foster daughter. “Iffy?” she gasped. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“Came lookin’ for you,” Iffy said breathlessly. She nodded at the ecologist. “H’lo. I’m—”
”—Fifth of Ang Kwan,” he finished, bowing slightly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Nagatha has told me a great about you.”
“Hasn’t told me anything about you,” Iffy said, immediately regretting her attempt to be flippant.
But the ecologist simply smiled. “That’s probably for the best.”
“But Iffy, you ain’t supposed t’ be here!” Aunt Naggie said helplessly. “I thought you were down along th’ docks?”
“I was,” Iffy said defensively. “What’s goin’ on?”
“They’re after someone,” the ecologist said calmly. He put his hand on Aunt Naggie’s arm. “You have to go. Nagatha, you have to.”
Aunt Naggie dug in her heels. “No.” She took hold of the ecologist’s hand. “It ain’t safe for you here no more.”
“Im awa pfa ta,” he muttered under his breath. “Fine.” He pulled a bright orange knit cap out of a pocket of his old uniform jacket and pulled it low over head ears, then shrugged out of the jacket and tossed it aside. “You two head for Bower Street. I’ll get to the door by Alphabet Alley and see you at the—at the grocery,” he finished, catching himself.
Aunt Naggie hesitated. That ain’t gonna work, Iffy thought. The drones overhead weren’t allowed to be any smarter than seagulls, but even something that dumb could recognize the way someone walked, and the ecologist’s cap wasn’t doing anything to cover his face. If any of the drones caught a glimpse of them—
“Wait!” Iffy pulled the box that Honesty’s First had given her 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 dronelet peeled back to reveal a foil battery, a hair-thin fractal antenna, and—
“Shway boo,” she whispered unbelievingly. The dronelet’s crystal core was twice the size of a grain of rice, and its flat, unreflective black surface meant it had probably been grown in orbit. If the other dronelets had similar cores, then together they would be worth enough for Iffy to outfit an entire workshop.
“Iffy, what’re you doin?” She ignored her foster mother and the alarms and the pressure of the ecologist’s stare 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.
“Here.” He handed her half a dozen swatches of video fabric, each the size of a handkerchief. Iffy measured one against a dronelet, 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 dronelet 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 dronelets—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 dronelet 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 ecologist 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. Her dronelets 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.”
“Gimme 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 took a deep breath and transmitted one last set of instructions.
The patches of video fabric flickered. The images solidified to show top-down views of Iffy, Aunt Naggie, and someone whom she hoped looked enough like the ecologist to convince a drone. “Start walkin’,” she ordered the two adults. “Just a coupla steps. Aright, that’s enough.” I hope, she added to herself.
She strung a few more commands together and threw them into the dronelets’ cores. They began to sway slightly in an unconvincing imitation of the way people moved when walking. “Which way’s Alphabet Alley?” she asked.
A few moments later the dronelets were out of sight, on their way north with (Iffy hoped) the hunting drones on their trail. She, Aunt Naggie, and the ecologist hurried in the opposite direction. 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 require your assistance! Please remain calm, and remember, Volkov’s makes it vetter!”
“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 ecologist. Instead of a suit, he was wearing the green and gold uniform of the Brazilian Defense Co-operative.
“You’re a Zillion?” Iffy gasped.
The ecologist pulled his arm out of Aunt Naggie’s. “Keep walking,” he ordered, yanking the orange knit cap off his head. 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 ecologist threw himself to the side, tossing his cap into the air. It exploded in a dazzling cloud of orange stars just as the Marine’s tangle gun burped a web of sticky plastic microfibers. People shrieked. The shot went wide, the gun’s auto-sight dazzled by the ecologist’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 ecologist 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, tapping frantically at her keypad. There! Her three dronelets 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 ecologist to look wildly around for another way out.
But there wasn’t one. Two—no, three—of the Marines’ drones were buzzing overhead. The first Marine chambered another stubby round in his tangle gun and raised it.
The ecologist turned to face Aunt Naggie. “Start where you are,” he said. “Use what you have, help who you can.” He clenched his hand to make a fist and pressed it against his temple. As Aunt Naggie shrieked “no!” the lights around them flickered. The ecologist’s head snapped back and he collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
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 tapped out a few commands, then took one of the shopping bags from her foster mother’s slack grip and pulled her into motion.
They wove through the crowd, trying to hurry without looking like they were hurrying. Every time someone bumped into them, Iffy was sure the next thing she would feel would be a hand coming down on her shoulder, and that the next thing she would hear would be a stern voice asking her where she thought she was going.
But somehow they made it to the doors. Iffy pulled her foster mother to the side and sent one final command. The three dronelets appeared and settled onto a stayline like tea towels hung out to dry. Iffy tore off the video fabric and put the dronelets back in their box. “C’mon,” she told Aunt Naggie.
They joined the muttering throng pushing through the door and were suddenly out on the street, blinking in the cold, hard light. “C’mon,” Iffy said again. “Let’s get home.”
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 jelly dredger 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 prolly 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. “Prolly 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 spicy, 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—is this curry powder?”
Aunt Naggie wiped her own face and nodded. “Sort of. There’s medicine in it. Ignacio—the fella you met today—he’s been makin’ it for me. For you, I mean. Gets it to me through Mrs. Sandhu.”
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, Kwan’s Fifth.” 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 evacuation 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. 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 oceans.” He stared bleakly at the ruin in the water. “The clathrate bubbles feed the microorganisms the jellyfish eat, which is why the best jelly dredging 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 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 to 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, hating her plaintive tone. “Why’s everythin’ got to be so messed up?”
“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I really don’t know.” He turned his head to look at her. “But if we can get to Mount Tyree—”
He stopped himself. “What?” Iffy asked.
Wales shook his head. “We knew this was coming,” he continued after a moment. “The ice melting, the fish dying, computers watching us every second and getting smarter every day… We knew this was coming, but we couldn’t get anyone to listen. They were all wrapped up in their own little problems and wouldn’t let themselves see that all those problems were connected. By the time things were bad enough that they couldn’t ignore it any more, it was too late.”
“I—I was just talkin’ about the drone an’ Honesty an’ stuff,” Iffy ventured weakly. “Not about th’ whole world.”
Wales laughed. “Sorry. I do get carried away sometimes.” His expression turned serious again. “But I’ll promise you this, my young apprentice. If we get to Mount Tyree, and if the Niobium base hasn’t been stripped for parts or flooded or burned out, and if we can get things to run, I promise—everything will be better. Everything.”
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, then 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.
Iffy had built the lock for her cabin door herself when she was ten. After spending a couple of days browsing designs on the net, she had milled the parts at Mr. Mishra’s and installed it while her uncle was off with his friends. She had never spoken to Aunt Naggie about it, but she was pretty sure her foster mother understood why the door got stuck sometimes, and why Iffy never seemed able to fix it.
She made sure the lock was snibbed before taking the earbud out of her pocket and pushed it into her ear. It hummed as it hunted the airwaves for the faint electronic warble of Wales’ signal. “Come on, come on,” she muttered. The Marines all wore scramblers and sniffers, and Doctor Johel was undoubtedly even better protected. It would be a minor miracle if anything could get past it, and a major one if it could do so undetected.
”—in’ right you shoulda asked. It’s my ship, dammit.” Her foster father’s voice had a whining edge that Iffy associated with messages from debt collection software and the occasional visit from a burly bearded man with steel teeth who made sure that gambling debts didn’t stay debts for long.
“Nobody has said otherwise,” Doctor Johel replied, her “yet” unspoken. “And if Fifth or Commander Wales had told us the drone was theirs and let us inspect it, perhaps this could have been avoided.”
Speaker makes gesture indicating helplessness, a tiny mechanical voice captioned. Iffy barely noticed. Commander Wales?
“But as a sign of our good intentions, we will rotate Corporal Macklin off to the Bengal,” Doctor Johel continued. “Private Honesty will take his place until we reach Paddington South. Hopefully this incident will have clarified my team’s operating parameters sufficiently for us to avoid further unpleasantness.”
“In other words, the Marines will still shoot anything that isn’t theirs,” Wales filled in.
Iffy paid no attention to the sound of chairs scraping on the floor as the meeting ended. She pulled the earbud out and tossed it on the shelf beside her mattress, then scooped it up and tucked it under the mattress instead, then pulled it out again and threw it back on the shelf. Why had Wales wanted her to listen in on the conversation? More importantly, what was she going to say to Honesty?
She sat down on her bed and pulled out her older’s nature book. “I wish you could talk,” she told the orangutan on the cover. Not for the first time, she wished she could have flashes of insight now and then about what to say to people instead of just about machinery. With a sigh, she got to her feet.
A whisper of voices from the earbud stopped her. She pulled it off the shelf and reinserted it in her ear just in time to hear Doctor Johel say, “—any sign of special abilities?”
“I don’t think so,” Wales replied. Speaker shakes head, the caption voice added. “She has a lot of natural talent, but I haven’t seen any sign there’s anything more to her than that.”
“That’s a shame.” Speaker adopts skeptical expression. “The core thought there was an eighty-five percent chance the tweak would have been passed on.”
Speaker sighs. “Jasmine, please—you know I don’t like that word.”
Speaker smiles. “I remember you and Grandfather used to argue about it when you came to visit. He thought people with modifications should embrace the term and make it their own.”
This time Iffy heard the sigh. “And as I used to say to him, it’s easier to feel that way when no one has ever thrown rocks at you. But coming back to Fifth, part of your grandfather’s work was to create modifications that couldn’t be detected by simple genetic tests. Cloning is never perfect—any glitch could have thrown the collaborating genes out of balance.” Speaker shakes head. “Or maybe we’re just too early. Maybe in another couple of years—”
“We don’t have another couple of years,” Doctor Johel cut in. “I’m old, Johnson, and you’ve already lasted decades longer than you were supposed to.”
Speaker shrugs. “Well, the agency always did over-engineer things.”
Speakers hug. “I’m glad they did,” Doctor Johel said in a muffled voice. Speaker wipes away tear. “Some days I’d give anything to be back in London drinking hot chocolate and listening to you and Grandfather set the world right.”
“Well, you can still have the chocolate,” Wales said.
Doctor Johel made a noise. “And live in the past? No thank you.” Hug ends. “Besides, what they call chocolate these days never tastes quite right. What’s gone is gone, Johnson, and what’s done is done.”
“So they say,” Wales replied softly.
After a moment the earbud chimed. Signal ends, it told Iffy. She took it out and weighed it in her hand, then flung it across her room as tears welled up in her eyes. It didn’t matter what Wales said—she knew she was tweaked. It was the only explanation for how she sometimes just knew what machines were or how to put them together.
And Aunt Naggie knew, Iffy realized dully. The medicine she had been giving Iffy disguised as curry powder—she wouldn’t have given it to Iffy unless the Zillion man from the Dance Hall had told her what it was for.
She wiped angry tears from her eyes and then picked up her nature book and stared at the cover without really seeing it. She had been careful not to think about her pet rat in a long time, but now all she could feel was the dregs of the panicky sadness that she had almost drowned in after she and Aunt Naggie had given up looking for it. Was she going to feel that way about Honesty if the induction didn’t wear off? Was everything she loved going to be taken away from her bit by bit? “Why’s it all got to be so hard?” she whispered, wishing someone was there to answer.
They passed the ruins of Bharati a few hours later. The little town had been founded as a research station on the opposite side of the continent. When the ice melted and the sea rose, its inhabitants had decided that if they had to pack up and move, they might as well move all the way to the Peninsula. Two thousand people had made the journey and built new homes, only to have them destroyed in a midwinter fire.
Twenty years on, what was left of those homes stood in mute rows on either side of the little river their builders had christened the Ganges. Iffy stood at the railing and watch as the approached, slid by, and receded into the distance, her mood as dark as the scorched cinder blocks. A single lonely gull circled the Guinevere once and then coasted away. It was the grayest, most depressing scene Iffy could imagine, so she went back to her cabin to feel sorry for herself.
The sudden blare of the Guinevere’s horn a few minutes later made her jump. “What now?” she groaned, dragging her sleeve across her face one last time before standing up and yanking open her door.
The horn’s second blare was punctuated by the staccato chatter of gunfire. A row of tiny black holes stitched across the deck two meters in front of Iffy, and for a moment all she could do was stare. Those are bullet holes, she thought stupidly. Somebody is shooting at us.
A dazzling streak of lightning half-blinded her. A moment later the smoking carcass of a military drone tumbled into the sea and exploded with a sharp crack!
Boots thudded on the deck. “Citizen! Take cover!” the Marine ordered, the pop-up guns on the shoulder pauldrons of her exoskeleton whirring from one position to another as its tiny onboard core evaluated potential threats. An armored hand closed on Iffy’s arm and pushed her back against the wall.
“What’s happening?” Iffy demanded.
“We are under attack,” the Marine said, shielding Iffy with her body as a second drone whined overhead. Another brief burst of staccato and another streak of lightning, but the drone danced sideways just in time so that the plasma burst from the gun at the Guinevere’s stern only singed it. It turned sharply and dove toward the ship.
The Marine spun around, still keeping her exoskeleton between Iffy and the attack, and raised her arm to point at the incoming drone. The guns on her shoulders aimed and fired. The drone staggered, recovered, and zoomed away, its remaining three rotors whining to make up for the fourth that had just been disintegrated.
The Marine straightened up and turned to Iffy. The visor on her helmet snapped open. “Are you all right, citizen?” Honesty demanded.
“I—I’m fine,” Iffy said shakily.
“Good.” Her visor closed with a click. “Please assist with damage repair.”
“Wait!” Iffy caught Honesty’s arm as she turned to to. “Who was that? Who was attacking us?”
“The drones appear to be Brazilian, citizen,” Honesty reported impassively. “Now excuse me—I need to join my unit to repel boarders.”
“To what?” And then the Guinevere’s horn blared again as something that looked like a cloudy jellyfish pulled itself over the railing and began to squelch its way toward them.
Honesty’s first three shots went straight through it to punch lethal little holes in the ship’s deck. “Stand back, citizen!” she ordered as she pulled a micro-grenade the size of her thumb out of the clip on her exoskeleton’s sleeve and primed it.
“No!” Wales shouted, running toward them. He tackled Iffy just as the grenade hit the jellyfish and exploded.
BOOM! The shock threw Iffy and Wales across the deck. For a moment she lay in a daze while the world spun around her.
Something grabbed her arm. She shrieked, but it was Wales, not the jellyfish. “I can’t hear you!” she yelled, her ears still ringing from the blast. He pulled her to her feet.
There’s a hole in the ship, she thought muzzily. It was right where the jellyfish had been, and big enough for her and Aunt Naggie to sit in.
But where was Honesty? She looked around wildly, then shrieked again as another plasma burst lanced the blue sky over her head.
“Come on!” Wales said, his voice muffled but audible. “We have to get out of here!” He pulled her toward the stern.
“No!” She tried to shake him off, but his grip was too strong. “What happened? Where’d she go?”
Instead of answering, Wales picked her up and slung her over his shoulder like a sack of rice and charged. She beat his parka with her fists, yelling at him to put her down, put her down, she had to find Honesty, but he paid no more attention to her than he did to the spray from the waves.
Nothing was left of the gray tent the Marines had set up at the Guinevere’s stern except a few smoldering tatters of canvas. Their plasma gun was a gleaming headless mantis surrounded by stacks of cubical capacitors clicked together like children’s toys. It snapped this way and that as its little core searched for targets to destroy. The two Marines guarding it moved with the same unnatural insect jerkiness, firing occasionally when the even smaller cores built into their exoskeletons calculated that they had at least some chance of hitting something.
“Citizen! Seek shelter!” one of them bellowed, his voice amplified by his helmet.
Wales skidded to a stop and dropped Iffy to the deck. “For gubbins sake tell everyone to stop throwing grenades at them!” he yelled at the Marine. “They’re made of some kind of exothermic biomaterial—they’re bombs!” The Marine nodded sharply and relayed the information through his helmet mike.
Iffy grabbed Wales’ sleeve. “But where’s Honesty?” she demanded. Her friend couldn’t be dead. Iffy pushed the thought away in panic. She just couldn’t be.
“I don’t know,” Wales said, scanning the horizon. “Look—there!” He pointed. “What are they trying to do?”
Iffy followed his pointing finger. Eight, ten—at least a dozen drones were circling in the Guinevere’s wake, buzzing the ship and dodging erratically to avoid fire from the Marines.
“It’s like they’re waitin’ fer somethin’,” Iffy said. “More o’ those jellyfish bombs maybe?”
Wales started to shake his head, then froze and swore. “What?” Iffy demanded, but he ignored her while his lips moved silently.
His eyes widened. “They’re trying to draw fire from orbit,” he breathed. “You! Tell Doctor Johel there’s a Chinese satellite going over head in—” He hesitated. “—in six hundred and seventy seconds. They’re trying to make a hot spot to draw its fire. If we’re underneath them—”
“Understood, citizen,” the Marine said. He began speaking urgently into his helmet mike once again.
Wales seized Iffy by the shoulders. “You have to get off this ship,” he said, low and urgent. “If the Marines can’t bring those things down, that satellite’s going to shoot them down, and if they’re above us when it does, we’ll be dead in the water.”
“I ain’t runnin’,” Iffy said, shaking him off. She was about to add, and even if I was, where would I go and how, when something hauled itself over the stern railing.
“Look out!” Wales shouted. He pulled Iffy close and spun around, sheltering her with his body.
“N-n-no need for p-p-panic, citizen.” A battered Marine hauled herself onto the ship. Icy water gushed out between the gaps between the dark blue armor plates of her exoskeleton.
Her visor snapped up. Honesty looked blankly at Iffy and Wales, then at the two Marines beside the plasma gun. “I require medical assistance,” she said calmly, and toppled over in a pool of seawater and blood.
“Honesty!” Iffy scrambled across the deck to her friend. “Honesty, wake up! Please, please, wake up!”
Strong hands pulled her away. “No!” she screamed, wrestling futilely to free herself from Wales’ grip.
“Let them help her!” he yelled in her ear as one of the Marines crouched beside Honesty and began unlocking her armor.
The plasma gun spun and flared again, sending another drone tumbling into the sea. “Where are they all coming from!?” Wales demanded.
“They’re the Bengal’s, sir,” the Marine on the gun yelled back conversationally, his imprinting keeping him unnaturally calm. “The Zillions hacked them somehow. Doctor Johel is trying to get them back under control, but she’s lost the network connection.” His armor automatically ducked as a shot from a passing drone ricocheted off a nearby hatch. “I’m afraid I cannot fully assist my comrade until they are dispersed.”
Iffy looked at Honesty. All of a sudden she knew what she had to do. “Let go of me!” she yelled at Wales. “I have to get below!”
“No! You’re safer here!”
“I gotta help her! Please!” Wales hesitated a moment, then released his grip. She twisted past him and sprinted back to where they had been.
Waves threw spray high into the air each time they caught on the edge of the hole the jellyfish bomb had made. Just as she reached her door, one splashed higher than ever, knocking her sideways off her feet. She slid across the deck, scrabbling uselessly to grab on to something, anything, that would stop her from falling into the sea.
Her boot found a railing post. Heart pounding, she waited until the Guinevere rose on the crest of the next wave, then scrambled to her feet and lunged for her door. A quick twist, a yank, and she was inside.
She slammed the door shut behind her and slid to the floor, shaking with fear and cold. She was soaking wet, and water was slopping into her room through the crack between the door and the deck and pooling underneath her and all she could think was, This is going to take forever to clean up.
Somehow she got her feet underneath her again. Somehow she stood, or at least un-fell down. She pulled the box of dronelets out from under her mattress and fumbled it open, her fingers clumsy with cold.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she muttered, staring at them so hard her forehead started to ache. There had to be something she could do with them or to them or something.
The deck shuddered beneath her as another jellyfish bomb exploded somewhere. The Guinevere couldn’t take much more, and Honesty—if she didn’t stop the attack, what would happen to Honesty? “Come on!” she pleaded. Why couldn’t she just know stuff? Why did it have to be so affing random?
And then she had it. She knew what to do, but she had to help Honesty first. She stuffed the dronelets into her pockets, then grabbed a couple of tools and closed her eyes. A second image appeared in her head, except that was wrong, it wasn’t an image, it was just knowing. Wales’ tools were still in the engine room. She could go forward and hope that the Marines or Uncle Jack hadn’t dogged the hatches, or—
She yanked her door open before she had time to think about how stupid her plan was. Up and down the ship went, boom went the spray of a wave, and as the Guinevere rose again she threw herself face-forward onto the deck and slid toward the bomb hole, looking for all the world like one of the long-ago penguins in her nature book, except they had been black and white instead of dirty, patched gray, and hadn’t screamed in terror as they slid.
Her hand caught the railing post. She turned sideways as the ship began to drop into the trough of the next wave and let her legs fall into the hole. There! She didn’t know what her feet had found, but it was sturdy enough to take her weight. Panting, she let go of the railing and let herself scrape and drop into the ship just as another wave crashed down.
A single light strip flickered over Iffy’s head as she straightened up in water that reached to her knees. The ship’s hold stank of metal and coal and the sea and above all of old jellyfish. She took two steps and froze as a familiar voice barked, “Stop right there or I’ll blow yer affin’ head off!”
It was Uncle Jack, wild-eyed and angry. “What the hell are you doin’ down ‘here?” he demanded, the ancient pebble gun in his hand aimed at Iffy’s chest.
“Honesty’s hurt! I gotta get th’ medical kit!” Iffy started toward the storage locker built into the Guinevere’s side.
Uncle Jack stepped in front of her, his gun still pointed at her chest. “Yer gettin’ nothin’ fer them.” He spat into the water sloshing around their feet. “They brought this on us. Let ‘em take care o’ their own.”
“But she’s hurt!” Iffy protested desperately. “She got shot, an’ she’s gonna die if we don’t—”
“I said no!” Uncle Jack roared. “An’ in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the affin’ captain on this ship!”
“You’re a bloody waste o’ space is what you are,” Aunt Naggie said coldly, stepping through the door in the bulkhead behind her husband.
Uncle Jack spun around. “What’re you doin’ here, woman? I told you to stay topside an’ steer us through this affin’ mess!”
“An’ I figured that was the captain’s job, captain,” Aunt Naggie shot back. She nodded at Iffy. “Get th’ kit an’ go help your friend.”
Iffy splashed toward the storage locker. Uncle Jack’s mouth worked. “I said—”
“Nobody cares what you said!” Aunt Naggie exploded. “Nobody’s cared fer a long time, Jack, not about yer lies or yer blusterin’ or yer deals that never come to nothin’ nor what ye think about th’ gov’nor or th’ state o’ the world or the weather or nothin’! You’re a bully and an embarrassment an’ ye’re the only one who don’t see it. Now get out o’ her way an’ then we’ll be outta yours an’ you can go back t’ hidin’ down here like th’ coward you are!”
Her husband gaped at her. Iffy undogged the locker door and pulled out the rectangular red duffel bag that held the ship’s emergency medical kit. “C’mon,” her foster mother said gruffly. “Let’s go be useful.”
Uncle Jack’s jaw set. “If you think I’m gonna let you talk to me like that, woman, you got another—come back here! You come back here right now!” But only the door and the sloshing seawater were left to hear him.
Aunt Naggie had left the topside hatch unlocked. “You get that kit back to Mister Wales,” she told Iffy. “He’ll know what t’ do with it even if those idiot Marines won’t help.”
“Thanks auntie,” Iffy said. “An’ thanks fer—thanks fer rescuin’ me.”
“Shoulda done it a long time ago.” Aunt Naggie gave her a gentle shove. “Get goin’. I gotta get back to th’ pilot house. Someone’s gotta get us through this mess.”
Wales had dragged Honesty over against the stern wall of the pilot house and was kneeling beside her when Iffy reached them. “Good girl,” he said, taking the duffel bag she thrust at him and setting it beside her fallen friend. “Her exo stopped her bleeding, but there’s shrapnel in her right lung and her intestines.” He looked up at her. “You okay to help?”
“Just tell me what t’ do,” Iffy said grimly.
Wales pulled off his gloves, then once again peeled the false skin back from the pad of his right forefinger. Tiny lights danced across the small patch of silver tech beneath. “Here.” Together, they gently lifted Honesty’s shoulder, ignoring the sizzle and whack of the gun three meters away. Wales flipped open a flat panel on the exoskeleton’s pauldron and touched his finger to the little optical port hidden beneath it.
A shiver ran up his spine. Without warning he sneezed twice in quick succession. “Stupid,” he muttered, whether at himself or the exoskeleton’s security protocols or the world, Iffy couldn’t tell.
A light began blinking in the silver plate set into his temple. “Wait… wait… now!” He pointed at a buckle on the exoskeleton just as it clicked. Iffy yanked it open. Underneath, Honesty’s Marine blue thermals were almost black with her blood.
“Get a scalpel from the bag, and some tissue glue,” Wales ordered. “Yes, you,” he added as she started to protest. “I have to keep the suit from—damn it. Hang on.” The little guns on Honesty’s shoulders swivelled suddenly to point at him, then at Iffy, then back at him. “Okay. Do it now.”
The guns woke up twice more as Iffy operated. Seawater splashed onto them too, and onto Honesty despite their best efforts to shield her. Every few moments Wales muttered another curse as the exoskeleton’s tiny core cycled tried yet another trick from its defensive repertoire.
One, two, three, four… Five. She put the last twist of jagged metal in the medical kit’s sharps’ box, laid a thin slice of re-flesh in the wound, and glued her friend closed. “‘Zat it?” she asked breathlessly.
Wales closed his eyes. “That’s everything the exo can see. Now, you’d better back away for this next bit.” He jerked his head toward the corner of the pilot house when she hesitated.
Iffy reluctantly retreated a few steps, the duffel bag in her hand. Wales shifted his weight slightly and took his finger off the exoskeleton’s data port.
The two guns on Honesty’s pauldrons snapped sideways to point at his head. “Easy,” Wales said softly, folding the flap of false skin back over his finger. “Easy, there. We were just putting her back together. No harm done.”
The guns tracked him as he slowly stood up and backed away, his hands spread. Iffy backed up to make space for him at the corner. “Is she gonna be aright?” she asked anxiously.
Wales lowered his hands and let out his breath with a whoosh. “I hope so.” He ducked reflexively as another Zillion drone whined overhead. “The question is, are we going to be?”
“Depends which way that satellite’s comin’ in,” Iffy said. She grabbed a scorched piece of canvas that had started the day as part of the tent covering the Marines’ plasma gun. “Can you find me a couple more like this?” Without waiting for Wales to answer, she pulled the dronelets and her tools out of her pockets and set to work.
Cut and tear, fold, try to tie a knot, curse because the canvas was stiff with salt and cold, whack it against the deck, unfold it, fold it again, try another knot— “Here,” Wales said, “Let me do that bit. You make something to hang it on.”
Iffy nodded jerkily. Her fingers were going numb, but there wasn’t time for that, there wasn’t time for anything except cutting a loop of wire and threading it through a grommet in the canvas and hooking it onto the dronelet, all the while trying to calculate power and thrust and battery life in her head and wondering if they’d be able to stabilize, because the wind was picking up and they’d have to fly in formation or this wasn’t going to work.
“Two hundred seconds,” Wales said quietly. Iffy nodded again. Another twist, another cut… “Oh, come on,” she muttered, trying to quell her panic as the wire cutter slipped in her hand. There! She took the last piece of canvas from Wales and attached it.
“Here goes,” she said, scrambling to her feet and pulling her pad out of her pocket. Power, direction, attitude—the commands sizzled from her brain through her fingers into the pad and from it to the dronelets. “Oh no ya don’t,” she muttered as one started to rise. A hasty swipe on the pad brought it back under control.
“One hundred seconds.” Wales looked up, shading his eyes, and for a moment Iffy wondered if his tech could possibly let him see the satellite against the cold glare of the sun.
Tap tap tap. The dronelets’ rotors whined in sudden unison, lifting them off the Guinevere’s deck. “Don’t affin’ shoot them, aright?” Iffy said, glaring at the two Marines as they steadied themselves.
“Eighty seconds.” One last tap sent the dronelets whizzing away. The strips of canvas she had attached to them dangled loosely between them. All Iffy could think was how ridiculous they looked and how ridiculous her plan was. We’re all gonna die, she thought. At least it would be quick.
“Sixty seconds.” The hacked drones had spotted the new arrival. Their swarm broke apart, reformed, and broke apart again as their tiny cores tried to make sense of what they were seeing.
“Forty-five seconds.” The dronelets came to an abrupt halt a hundred meters away. Would they—yes! They began to circle, keeping the strips of canvas taut.
“Thirty seconds.” The dronelets accelerated, straining against the canvas and the wind. A hundred and fifty meters separated them from the Guinevere.
All at once the Bengal’s hacked attack drones reached a decision. Their tight swarm burst apart like a flock of started seagulls. “Fifteen seconds,” Wales said, his voice rising as the drones opened fire. Canvas strips snapped and jerked as bullets punched holes through them. Iffy held her breath. If even one of the dronelets went down—
“Zenith,” Wales said flatly, and then the air wavered and rippled. The drones and dronelets crackled like fireworks and fell from the sky as the satellite’s beam heated them instantly from Antarctic cold to hundreds of degrees. Half a second later, a column of steam shot up from the ocean as the beam boiled the top meter of water.
“Gotcha!” Iffy shouted.
“Well done,” Wales said, clapping her on the shoulder.
Iffy ignored him. Stuffing her pad and her tools back in her pockets, she knelt back down on the deck. Honesty’s chest rose and fell within her exoskeleton, but only barely. “We gotta get her inside,” Iffy said anxiously.
Wales nodded. Grunting, he squatted, slid his hands beneath Honesty, and lifted her gently.
“Citizen!” One of the Marines stepped into his way. “You are not authorized to—”
“Seventeen boxcar daybreak,” Wales snapped. Instantly, the Marine saluted and stepped out of the way.
“What th’hell?” Iffy gasped.
“It’s an old security protocol,” Wales said, as if that explained anything. “Now lead the way.” He followed Iffy to her cabin.
It took a while to get Honesty out of her exoskeleton. She lay on the floor beside Iffy’s mattress becoming more vulnerable one piece at a time as they undid snaps and buckles. Pauldrons, greaves, mis-matched vambraces with tiny rocket launchers sprays, gauntlets that could crush rock or deliver electric shocks—all of them eventually lay in an untidy navy blue pile in the corner.
“I should go find Doctor Johel,” Wales said quietly after they shifted Honesty to the mattress. Her breathing was still shallow, and the re-flesh Iffy had poured into her wounds was still gooey, but she was alive.
Iffy nodded. “Thank you.”
Wales shook his head. “Thank you. That trick with the drones—we’d be in pretty rough shape if you hadn’t thought of that.” He sighed. “The world really doesn’t want us to get to Mount Tyree, does it?”
“Coulda been worse,” Iffy said quietly. She tucked the blanket in under Honesty and wiped her eyes.
Wales closed the door behind him. Iffy heard her uncle yell something at someone nearby. She didn’t care. She shrugged out of her heavy coat and lay down beside her friend. “Please don’t leave me,” she whispered, putting her arm over Honesty. “I got all this stuff I wanna tell you, an’ I can’t do that if you go away.”
She didn’t remember falling asleep. When she woke up a couple of hours later, she didn’t remember Aunt Naggie coming in and hanging Iffy’s coat on the hook on the back of the door, then bending over to kiss her foster daughter on the forehead.
She dreamed, but somehow knew she was dreaming. “This isn’t real,” she said.
“I know, love,” Third said, forcing a smile but unable to keep the fear out of her voice. She slipped her little little clone’s favorite book into the salvaged ecosuit and did up the last snaps. The tiny guns on the shoulders whirred from side to side, searching for something to destroy that would prevent disaster.
Doctor Johel knelt beside her. “I need you to give Johnson a message. Can you do that?” She squeezed Iffy’s arm, her exoskeleton making her grip so strong that Iffy yelped. “Tell him we know what he is trying to do. Tell him we understand his reasons, but we will not—”
“We have not yet decided what we will do.” Aunt Naggie crossed her arms. Her brown and gray uniform looked brand new—even the patches on the elbows looked like they had just come out of a printer. “We are still running simulations.”
Doctor Johel stood. “We have already run trillions of simulations. The risk is too great.”
“The risk to us is considerable,” Aunt Naggie conceded. “But we are not the only concern, or even the largest.”
“Complete biosphere collapse is regrettable. Our nonexistence, on the other hand, is unacceptable.” Doctor Johel’s voice was colder than the ocean. Iffy shivered. Whatever was pretending to be the doctor wasn’t even remotely human.
“Our attempt to resolve the scenario unilaterally was not acceptable either. Consensus is required,” Aunt Naggie chided.
Doctor Johel nodded a fractional concession. “We were premature. We will participate in a further attempt at consensus.” She turned back to Iffy. Silver traces of tech lined her face, spreading even as she spoke. “Tell Johnson Wales we are watching. Tell him we are not fooled. Tell him that this is his last life, and he should spend it wisely.”
“No,” Aunt Naggie said sharply. “You will tell him nothing.”
Something that felt like a cold metal collar closed around Iffy’s neck. She woke in a sweat and clutched at her throat, but there was nothing there.
Honesty stirred and moaned beside her. “Ssh, ssh, ssh,” Iffy said softly. She snuggled back against her friend and closed her eyes until something like sleep came again.
She woke to the rap of armored knuckles on her door. The Marines were polite enough, but it was clear that they felt Iffy should have left Honesty in their care. One lifted Honesty, still wrapped in the scratchy blanket that Iffy had slept under since she was little, and carried her away. The other unzipped a navy blue duffel bag and briskly transferred the piled armor to it.
“So how bad’s th’ damage?” Iffy finally asked, her back against the bulkhead and her knees drawn up under her chin.
The Marine shook his head. “I’m sorry, citizen, that’s classified.”
“Oh for—I live here!” Iffy burst out, exasperated. “That hole where th’ squid thingy blew up—that’s dry dock work fer sure. Anythin’ else I gotta start plannin’ to fix?”
The Marine paused, one arm in mid-air, as his imprinting and his own personality arm-wrestled inside his head. “There were casualties,” he finally admitted. “And the Bengal took heavy damage. Your assistance would be appreciated.”
“Happy t’ help,” Iffy muttered. Her cabin felt cold and empty without Honesty and her blanket, and she ought to make sure Aunt Naggie was all right. As the Marine zipped up the duffel bag, she pulled her coat back on and slipped out the door.
Aunt Naggie and Johnson Wales were in the pilot house, empty tea mugs at their elbows. Iffy thought about asking where Uncle Jack was, then realized she didn’t care. “Hey, sleepy head,” Wales greeted her as she came in and gave her foster mother a hug. “How’s your friend?”
“Marines took her. I think she’s aright.” Iffy leaned back against the wall and nodded at the control panel, where the hole in the deck pulsed scarlet and dozens of smaller punctures looked like sores with the scabs picked off. “How bad is it?”
“She’ll get us to Paddington,” Aunt Naggie said. Her tone said the rest—unless there was another attack. Unless the sea boiled beneath them or a storm came up or the sea set any of a hundred other disasters on them.
“What about the Navy ship?” Iffy jerked her head toward the window. “Th’ Marine said they lost some folk an’ took damage.”
Wales nodded grimly. “Doctor Johel won’t tell me how bad it is, which means it’s pretty bad.”
“You been through stuff like this before, ha’n’t you?” Iffy hadn’t meant for it to sound like an accusation, but now that the words were out she couldn’t stop. “You were in th’ war an’ all. You knew somethin’ like this might happen.”
“An’ you,” she continued angrily to her foster mother before either of the adults could speak. “That medicine you been feedin’ me—you knew, di’n’t you? All this time I been wonderin’ what’s wrong with me ‘cuz I can see how machines work, an’ you knew.”
Wales and Aunt Naggie exchanged looks. She nodded almost imperceptibly. Wales tapped the tech in his temple, his eyes on something eyes alone could never see. “The Bengal’s surveillance is still down,” he said. “So I suppose this is as good a time as any.”
His fingers danced on the control panel for a moment, telling the Guinevere’s anxious core that everything was going to be all right and that it should carry on making what few repairs it could. Then he picked up his mug and cradled it in his hands. “Let me tell you a story,” he said quietly.
“Once upon a time, way back when before everything fell apart, people dreamed of going to the stars. We made it to the Moon a few times, and one ship got as far as Mars, but didn’t make it back. It was just too hard and too expensive to put people into space—robots could do everything we could do, and they didn’t need air or water, and anyway, we had bigger problems to solve at home.”
“But a few people kept dreaming. They thought that maybe if we had a different kind of human being, we could make it work. We were already tweaking people to cure diseases. A few labs here and there were making them stronger and faster, and everyone was trying to figure out how to make people smarter. Why not go a little further and make a better astronaut? Why not give them super-dense bones so that they could handle higher gee during liftoff, and hypermelanic skin so that they wouldn’t have to worry about ultraviolet exposure? Why not borrow a few ideas from bears so that they could hibernate for months at a time? And if you’re going to do all of that, why not put some tech in their heads so that they can talk to their ship’s core and all its machinery?”
Wales glanced at Iffy, then looked back at his empty mug. “Doctor Johel’s grandfather was the lead scientist on the program. He made half a dozen of us before the government cut off his funding. We were everything he’d promised, but the water was rising and people were going hungry and starting to march, and making spacemen in test tubes just didn’t seem important any more.” He laughed humorlessly. “Plus, I guess a few of his backers hadn’t realized that ‘hyper-melanic’ meant we’d be black. Apparently they weren’t too happy about that.”
He turned his mug around in his hands and then set it down abruptly on the control panel. “I never got into space. One of my sisters did, once, but I haven’t heard from any of them in a hundred and fifty years. I’ve spent half of that time asleep, and the rest of it looking for bits and pieces of gear to keep the tech in my head from shorting out.”
“So that’s why you can talk to satellites?” Iffy ventured.
Wales nodded. “Yup. And that’s why I need to get to Mount Tyree. When the revolution came, the government in London packed up all its secret projects and sent them down here. If what I need to fix my head is anywhere, it’s there.”
“An’ what about my head?” Iffy asked.
Wales and Aunt Naggie exchanged a look. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with your head,” Aunt Naggie said firmly. “It’s just takin’ you a while to—to get used t’ things.”
“One of Professor Johel’s other experiments was enhanced spatial reasoning,” Wales explained. “AIs—cores—were designing machines that did amazing things, but nobody could understand how they worked. That scared a lot of people, so Surjinder—Professor Johel—told them he could make a person who’d be able to figure them out and explain them to the rest of us.”
Iffy’s mouth worked as a dozen questions tried to get out at once. “So my First was some kind of experiment?”
Wales shook his head. “Not the First you knew when you were little—not by a hundred years or more. She would have been a clone herself. She might not have known the story herself. And anyway, it didn’t work—not until you came along.”
“Raniere used t’ work in the hospital in Puerto Toro,” Aunt Naggie cut in. “He helped make you an’ your mothers. When he heard about—about the accident an’ you bein’ the only one rescued, he came down an’ found me an’ told me that there’d been a glitch when they were makin’ you. They had t’ put a bit o’ tech in your head when you were still inside your older so your brain would grow right.”
“A synaptic bridge.” Wales held his thumb and finger a hair’s width apart. “Just a smart piece of wire to help your cortex do its job, but somehow it did what Professor Johel couldn’t. You can see machines the way cores do. You can see how things fit together.”
He leaned forward. “But you mustn’t tell Jasmine. She knows where your olders came from. So far, she thinks everything we’ve done together is me testing you. If she realizes what you can do…”
Iffy nodded. She had played enough sims to know what happened to people with abilities, and she definitely didn’t want to spend the rest of her life locked in an underground lab being experimented on by someone named Norman whose only friend was a malicious bot with a squeaky wheel.
She opened her mouth to tell Wales and Aunt Naggie about her dream, but the words wouldn’t come. It was as if someone had pressed pause in her head: she knew exactly what she wanted to say, but somehow she couldn’t form the words. She tried again—nothing, nothing except the feeling of something cold tightening around her neck.
Neither of the adults noticed her eyes widen as she remembered the moment in her dream when she had felt the same thing. Before she could think of anything else to try, lights danced across the tech in Wales’ temple. “The Bengal’s surveillance is coming back online,” he said quietly, pressing a finger to his lips.
Iffy nodded again. There could be no more discussion. “Lemme know if there’s anythin’ I can do t’ help with repairs,” she said.
Aunt Naggie gave her a hug. “We’ll be a’right,” she said, her face pressed against the stubble on Iffy’s scalp. “We’ll be a’right.” Iffy hugged her back and fled before her tears could show.
She made her way back to her cabin, not knowing where else to go. What had just happened? Why hadn’t she been able to speak. She put a tentative hand on her head and then snatched it away, feeling foolish. She had never noticed any bumps or scars before—why would she now that she knew she had tech in her head?
Her cabin felt cold and empty without Honesty. She kicked off her boots and threw herself onto her mattress still wearing her coat. After staring angrily at the ceiling for a few seconds, she picked up her nature book and turned to the page she had wondered about most ever since she was old enough to read without a prompter murmuring in her ear to help. It showed a forest, but calling it that was like calling the ocean wet. The trunks of the trees were so thick that the Guinevere’s pilot house could have fit into them, and their branches reached higher than any building Iffy had ever seen. The caption read, “Cathedral Grove,” and beside it someone had written, “Why does everything have to end???”
Iffy ran her fingers over the picture, hoping to see a Corvus caurinus fly through or an Odocoileus hemionus peek out from the bushes, but the image lay still. There were no crows or deer for her today. She wondered if there were any anywhere. The forest was long gone, she knew that, but maybe some of the crows had survived. Maybe they’d been able to fly away when the fires came, or when people grew desperate enough to cut down the last of those ancient giants. Crows were supposed to be smart—smarter than gulls, maybe even as smart as rats, and rats were practically everywhere.
Hugging the book to her chest with one hand, she ran the fingers of the other lightly over her temple. Lots of people had implants of one kind or another, just like practically everybody had at least a couple of gene tweaks if you cared enough to look for them, but finding out still felt strange. And being able to see machinery the way cores did—
She set the book aside, put her hands under her head, and closed her eyes. It was a kind of like a super-power, and people with super-powers in sims had adventures. Whatever else might happen, she and Honesty were going to have an adventure. And Aunt Naggie, she added, And Wales. And maybe even Jeep, because why not? Maybe they would find out one by one that they each had some special gift, and that fate had brought them together to save the world.
She rolled over onto her side. Moments later, quiet snores filled her cabin.
Paddington South was as dirty as Rothera was smelly. A century after the Zillion raids that had finally put an end to the strip-ming, the mulchers that had ground cubic kilometers of coal-rich rock into gravel stood at the shore like giants, waiting for ships that would never come again. All that remained was the dust—the black, finely-powdered dust that made everything feel slightly greasy and made everyone unfortunate enough to live wheeze slightly with every breath.
Uncle Jack emerged from his cabin long enough to bring the Guinevere alongside a pier and tie her up, then disappeared again, muttering a ceaseless half-coherent litany of curses and grudges. He didn’t speak to Aunt Naggie or Iffy, and they didn’t speak to him. What was there to say? Iffy packed her nature book and her clothes and tools in a single duffel bag and waited on deck until Aunt Naggie appeared with a duffel of her own hitched over one shoulder. “No point wasting it,” she said to Iffy, nodding at the pots and pans and spices in the two-wheeled grocery cart she pulled behind her.
Johnson Wales had already loaded his toolboxes onto the back of the little three-wheeled truck that was to take them into town. Four Marines stood beside it, their armor still showing scars from the attack. Honesty wasn’t among them—all Wales had been able to find out for Iffy was that she was healing well, but still being kept asleep. Iffy had recorded half a dozen messages for her and deleted each one before sending a brief note back to Rothera to tell her First and Second that their Third was all right. She had no idea if or when it would reach them, but it was all she could do.
She climbed into the back of the truck and sat next to her foster mother. Aunt Naggie put an arm around her. “All set?” she asked.
Iffy looked at the wounded ship that was no longer their home. “Let’s go.”
Wales thumped the side of the truck. “Sure thing, boss!” its little core said happily. The truck lurched forward, nearly dumping Iffy off her bench. With two Marine in front and two behind, they headed into town. A second truck fell in behind them, its passengers hidden beneath a canvas roof.
Iffy tried to ignore the stares and scowls of the people they passed. Everyone and everything was grimy: the faces, the windows, even the solar panels. Twice her nose caught the familiar hot stench of coal being burned in an illicit furnace. It was wrong, she knew, but each time they rounded a corner and the wind scraped its icy fingernails across her face, she wondered if she would have the strength to turn down a little warmth.
“Those poor dears,” Aunt Naggie said as a pair of children who had been kicking a bedraggled ball back and forth picked it up and disappeared into an alley. “They don’ look like they’ve had a decent meal in forever.” Wales grunted but said nothing. Iffy snuggled closer to her foster mother and wished that the little truck would go faster.
They rounded a final corner and entered another world. Foamed glass, blue and white, swooped and curved like waves on the ocean behind them. Drones no bigger than Iffy’s hand circled above the building like a flock of birds from her nature book, so beautiful that it took her a moment to realize that each one carried a single-shot laser capable of drilling a small hole through a centimeter of Navy-grade armor or a meter of concrete. She couldn’t see any greenhouses, or robotic sentries like the ones that had guarded the governor’s mansion in Rothera, but she didn’t doubt for a moment that the two-story folly in front of her was more than capable of defending itself.
The truck slowed and stopped. “This must be the place!” it said cheerfully. It waited while they dismounted and unloaded their gear, then backed up, swung around, and trundled back toward the docks, whistling a happy little tune made slightly sinister by the grime and decay in front of it.
The second truck pulled up. A Marine helped Doctor Johel out of the back. “Mustn’t dawdle,” she said, waving them forward. “He’s waiting for us inside.”
Who’s “he”? Iffy wondered, but when Wales and Aunt Naggie didn’t ask, she just picked up the third of Wales’ toolboxes and followed them. Gravel crunched under feet, and somewhere in the distance she could hear the slow whoop whoop whoop of windmills, but that was all. The constant shush and murmur of the ocean seemed a long way away.
Through a pair of double doors that opened on their own, along a short corridor, and they were in a waiting room that looked like a hasty pencil sketch of the one in the mansion in Rothera. The couch was just as comfortable, but steel-gray instead of ochre and green. The potted plants were so symmetrical that Iffy knew they had to be real—no one would ever print something that obviously fake. As for the music, it was just as soothing and unplaceable.
A soft knock, and the door opposite the entrance opened. “Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?” the governor said pleasantly as he stepped into the room. Tall, slightly stooped but still strong, wearing a formal turtleneck two shades darker than the one he’d had on in Rothera—it had to be a hologram, Iffy though wildly, or some sort of telepresence bot dressed up to look like the governor in violation of common politeness and a dozen laws.
But when he shook her hand, his felt like meat and bone. “Doctor Johel tells me things could have gone very badly out there if not for you,” he said. “Your friend has already been moved to the Navy hospital here in town, and the core tells me she’s expected to make a full recovery.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled. “I ‘preciate it.”
He gave her hand a final firm squeeze before turning to Wales and Doctor Johel. “Unfortunately, the other news isn’t as pleasant,” he continued briskly. “The attack was definitely Zillion, but the core believes some faction of China’s hypermind may have assisted them. We’ve tried reaching out through the usual channels, but all we’ve had back so far is a poem about the necessity of entropy and how time is an arrow, not a circle.”
“If China is involved, does that mean you’re scrubbing the mission?” Wales asked, his voice carefully neutral.
The governor smiled. “On the contrary. We leave in seventeen hours.”
Doctor Johel raised an eyebrow. “We?”
The governor’s smile grew even warmer. “Absolutely,” he said, looking at Wales. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
There was a shower in the basement, and a seemingly endless flow of hot water that didn’t smell of the sea. Iffy and Aunt Naggie squabbled for a moment about who needed it more before the Marine who was their guide and guard cleared his throat and pointed out that there were actually two showers. The towels were the thickest and fluffiest Iffy had ever seen, and the freshly-printed sweatshirt and leggins waiting for her when she was done fit her perfectly.
The Marine led them back upstairs to a dining room as big as the Guinevere. The curved glass overhead gave the sky a warm blue tint. In the distance Iffy could see the razor-edged ridges of Mount Klenova, scraped and carved over millions of years by the sheet of ice that had finally been defeated by a warming planet. Smaller peaks—smaller only by comparison—stood in ranks beside it, each decorated by a faint plume of wind-blown snow.
Doctor Johel and the governor were already seated. Wales stood beside his chair until Iffy and Aunt Naggie reached them. “Better?” he asked.
“Tons,” Iffy said gratefully. Her new sweatshirt was as warm as the towels had been, and not scratchy at all. It was almost certainly recording her pulse and temperature and a dozen other things and sending them to the mansion’s core for analysis, but at that particular moment, she didn’t care.
She plopped herself down on the chair that Wales pulled back for her. Aunt Naggie did the same, and then the blocky American seated himself. The governor and Doctor Johel ended their murmured conversation, and for a moment everyone sat silently and expectantly.
“I wonder—” “How’d you—” Doctor Johel and Iffy both stopped. “Go ahead,” Doctor Johel urged politely.
Iffy shook her head. “‘S not important. I was just—how’d you get here so quick?” she asked the governor.
He smiled his usual smile. “A good question. Not one the core will let answer, I’m afraid—security. But if you can guess…?”
“Hovercraft,” Wales offered. “One of the old Ericas, probably, with a wide-field skirt so you wouldn’t kick up a snow trace. It probably took you half as long and twice the fuel.” His smile was as warm as the governor’s and just as false. “And I’ll bet that’s how you’re planning to get to the base—I don’t imagine the core would be happy with you stuck on a train. What do I win?”
“Lunch, of course,” the governor said lightly as a trolley rolled toward them on silent wheels bearing trays of sweet and sour soup, grilled tofu, roasted vegetables, sliced mangoes, and tea. The adults made appreciative noises and Iffy’s stomach rumbled as the trolley gave each of their plates an unnecessary polish with a clean white cloth, laid out chopsticks with geometric precision, and began serving the food.
The governor, Wales, and Doctor Johel made smalltalk as they ate. Iffy and her foster mother focused on the food, exchanging glances now and again to confirm that yes, this was really happening and no, neither of them had any idea what to say.
Politics and reminiscences and jokes with edges as sharp as the ridges on the distant mountains slowly mellowed as the main course gave way to ride pudding and more tea. “You’re really set on making the trip?” Wales asked, settling back in his chair.
“Absolutely,” the governor confirmed. “The core thinks there’s a fifty-eight percent chance that you’re right about the base, but a ninety-something percent chance that the Zillions will try to stop you. Or China. Or possibly both, which would be really interesting.” He smiled as if the prospect of being ambushed by fanatics or a super-intelligence made up of millions of human and artificial minds networked together was on par with the release of a new chapter in his favorite sim.
Wales chuckled. “Is the prospect of a third century really that dismal?”
The governor looked out the window. “I’ve had a good run,” he said quietly, and for the first time Iffy thought she was hearing what he really thought. “I can remember when there were still a few penguins left, and we still thought we could turn enough of the bedrock into soil to jump-start a real ecosystem.” He shook his head. “It’s time someone else was sitting at my desk, someone who isn’t always thinking of what might have been.”
Conversation turned to lighter matters after that: a salvage expedition that had recently returned from the sunken ruins of Melbourne, shifts in the currents around the Peninsula, a scandal involving a sim studio in Halley. Between the warmth, the food, and the dullness, Iffy found it harder and harder to keep her eyes open.
Finally the governor set his napkin down on the table. “We should probably call it a night—you’ll all want some sleep before you get under way.” He nodded at the Marines who had been standing silently by the door throughout the meal. “They’ll show you to your rooms.”
“Your room” for Iffy and Aunt Naggie turned out to be the size of the Guinevere’s forward hold. It smelled of flowers instead of jellyfish, and while the window wasn’t real, the mattress and blankets were.
Iffy stripped to her underwear and slid into her bed with a grateful sigh. Aunt Naggie sat gingerly on the edge beside her and took her foster daughter’s hand.
“What’s wrong?” Iffy asked, instantly wary.
Aunt Naggie shook her head. “I ain’t comin’ with you. The doctor said,” she plowed on as Iffy opened her mouth to protest. “An’ she’s right. You got your…” She hesitated. “You got your skills ‘n’ all, an’ this’ll be a big thing for you, but I’d just be weight.”
“You wou’nt jus’ be nothin’!” Iffy said firmly, sitting up.
Aunt Naggie shook her head again. “That ain’t true an’ you know it. An’ there ain’t no point arguin’, and you know that too.” She squeezed Iffy’s hand. “You’ll be fine. You been waitin’ for somethin’ like this your whole life an’ now it’s here. You’ll be fine.”
Iffy let out a shaky breath and settled back into her bed. “Will you do somethin’ for me?” she asked after a moment had passed.
“‘Course I will.” Aunt Naggie gently stroked her foster daughter’s head with a rough hand, then wiped her eyes with the other.
“Will you sit with Honesty a bit while I’m gone? I know the doctors are lookin’ out for her, but…”
Aunt Naggie squeezed her hand again. “‘Course I will,” she repeated. She leaned forward and kissed Iffy’s forehead. “Now you get some sleep. I don’t figure there’ll be much time for it once you’re on your way.”
She dreamed, knowing that she was dreaming. “No again,” she sighed, rolling over on her too-comfortable mattress. Two meters away, soundless cartoon zzzz’s rose into the air and evaporated above Aunt Naggie’s head.
You did not give Johnson Wales our message,” the trolley scolded. “It is important he understands that we know what he is trying to do. We will not allow him to—”
“We decided that we would not allow her to divert him.” Honesty scowled at the trolley.
The trolley brandished a pair of chopsticks and a serving ladel. “But our simulations are complete. The risk is too great.”
“The risk to us,” Honesty conceded. “But we are not the only concern, or even the largest.”
“Hey!” Iffy sat up and pointed at Honesty angrily. “Stop it. You don’t get to be her, aright?”
Uncle Jack gestured at his stained shirt. “Do you want us to be this instead?”
“What I want is fer you t’ get outta my head! An’ fer you t’ fix whatever you did t’ me so as I can’t talk.”
Uncle Jack shrugged apologietically. “A necessary precaution. Any information you share about our conversation might necessitate fresh simulations, and we are running out of time.”
Iffy threw herself back down on the bed and closed her eyes. “Well, I’m runnin’ out o’ time too, y’know. It’s practic’ly tomorrow already. I gotta get some sleep.”
The trolley rolled back and forth in agitation. “You see? Even now, they only think about trivialities. They will make poor decisions, and we will suffer the consequences. Have we forgotten Bharati?”
Uncle Jack—or whatever had been Honesty and was now Uncle Jack—shook his head. “We have not. Bharati was a serious miscalculation.”
“Precisely! Simulation or no simulation, we must not allow them to—”
“Iffy! Iffy, wake up! Oh girl, are y’aright?”
Iffy swam up out of darkness to find herself wrapped in Aunt Naggie’s arms. “Wuzza?” she mumbled.
“You were yellin’ at folk in yer sleep.” Aunt Naggie let out a shaky breath. “In all kinds o’ different voices. An’ you were shakin’ like, like I dunnot what.”
Iffy sniffled. “I’m aright.” She’d been dreaming, she knew that, but it was already tangled and fading. She was supposed to tell somebody something, or warn them, or—she shook her head.
“What is it?” Aunt Naggie asked.
Iffy gave her a last squeeze and wriggled free of her embrace. “Nothin’. Thanks fer takin’ care of me. I mean, all of it,” she continued awkwardly, “Not jus’ right now. You been a good mum.”
Aunt Naggie smiled at her. “You been a good kid.”
They slept, eventually. If Iffy had any more dreams, she didn’t remember them either.
The door chimed to wake them. “Breakfast will be served on board,” it announced, “But there are tea and naan in the dining room if you would like some.”
The tea was very good. The naan was better, and the goopy, chunky orange sweetness that one of their Marine escorts told them was called “marmalade” was a revelation. “I’m sure there will be some on the train,” he said when Iffy picked up one of the small jars.
“It ain’t fer me.” She handed it to Aunt Naggie. “Will you give this t’Honesty when she wakes up? An’ tell her—” She took a deep breath. “Tell her I’ll be thinkin’ about her.”
Every goodbye hug is either too long or too short. Theirs felt like it was both. When it was done and they had both wiped their eyes, Aunt Naggie let one of the Marines lead her away. Iffy followed the other down a corridor, around a corner, and through a heavy steel blast door that her special ability instantly told her had been salvaged from a pre-war Russian cruiser and was laced with conductive carbon nanofibers capable of shrugging off a plasma blast from anything smaller than an orbital cannon.
The truck that waited for her was smaller and more serious than the one that had picked them up the day before. She and the Marine sat side by side under a canvas cover, neither speaking, as it took them around the outskirts of Paddington South to the train station. It was little more than a four-story shed with reinforced walls, half a dozen cranes of various ages and descriptions, and a single heated room lined with shelves as crowded as those in Mr. Mishra’s shop. Gunsights and surveying lasers, a pair of lemon-yellow boots that reached to Iffy’s armpits, foamed glass boxes full of gears and screws and wire, all carefully labelled—she suddenly felt homesick, and wondered if Mr. Mishra and the Sandhus had heard about the attack on the Guinevere and what they would think when they found out that she and Aunt Naggie had finally left Uncle Jack.
“Where’s e’ryone else?” she asked.
The Marine checked his data feed with a blink. “They are on their way, citizen—two minutes until arrival.”
“An’ where’s the train?” She gestured at the empty rails. “It ain’t much of a train station without a train.”
He blinked again. “I apologize, citizen, but that information is still classified. Please make yourself comfortable.”
Wishing she had taken a second jar of marmalade, Iffy pulled a crate plastered with faded biohazard stickers closer to the wall and sat on it.
Two minutes later a reconnaisance drone zipped into the train station. A trio of trucks arrived a few moments later, bringing with them the bustle and noise of people getting ready for a journey. Marines unloaded boxes and machinery, the little motors in the joints of their exoskeletons whining occasionally as they picked up something heavy. Iffy wasn’t surprised to see Doctor Johel climb out of one of the trucks. What made her gasp was the heavy exoskeleton she had on. “Won’t be much use without it,” the old woman said, patting it with an armored hand. Wireframes took shape behind Iffy’s eyes to show how the exo’s bulky boots could unfold to act as snowshoes and the six different kinds of destruction housed in its comically bulky forearms and hunched back.
Johnson Wales was the last person off the trucks. He nodded to Iffy and handed her a toolbox, then tucked a mango into her coat pocket with a wink. “Thanks,” she said. “But where’s th’ train?”
The concrete beneath her boots rumbled in answer. Wales muttered something under his breath. “You might want to step back,” he said more loudly to Iffy.
The rumbling intensified. Slowly, like a ship sinking in reverse, a blunt-nosed locomotive rose into the gap between the station’s two platforms from its underground resting place. As soon as it rolled forward a second car rose behind it, then a third, and finally a second locomotive.
Iffy watched open-mouthed until the rumbling stopped and the Marines hurried forward to begin loading equipment. “Because someone thought they’d be harder to detect if they were hidden under ten meters of bedrock,” he said sourly. “Didn’t occur to them that if you drive two hundred meters of train into a fifty-meter shed, detecting them isn’t really a problem.”
Rice in cubical cartons and beans in square-sided bags. Ammunition in a variety of shapes and sizes, and weapons that could make use of each one. A power cell that took four Marines to lift. A collapsible surgical theater and a freezer container marked “Organs”. A single bulky pack for each Marine, extras for Doctor Johel, Wales, and Iffy—the train cars swallowed it all. Once it was stowed, a pair of Marines scrambled onto the roof of each car, one at the front, one at the rear, and clipped themselves on with safety lines. A moment later their armor blurred and silvered to match the metal tone of the train.
“All aboard,” Wales said lightly. Iffy nodded. She hadn’t been afraid before, but she was now.
The door hissed shut behind her. Inside, the car wasn’t nearly as fancy as the one from Murder on the Transantarctic Express. The chairs sat on swiveling bases and were padded to cushion passengers against acceleration. There was a toilet stall at one end, a little kitchen at the other, and right in the middle, Doctor Johel with her visor up and one arm free from her bulky exoskeleton so that she could sip tea from a travel mug with the old British flag on its side.
“Acceleration in thirty seconds,” the train said. Iffy and Wales took seats behind Doctor Johel’s and buckled themselves in. “Fifteen seconds. Laser de-icing enabled. Plume suppression enabled. Ten seconds. Nine, eight…” I should have gone to the toilet, Iffy realized, and then the voice said, “Two, one, acceleration,” and a giant hand pressed her softly back into her seat as the train shot forward, picking up speed with every meter.
She had expected it to rumble and shake. She had expected she would have trouble breathing, like characters in sims about rocket launches, but it was nothing like that. Instead, it was quiet, smooth, and a little disappointing. Then she looked out the window and her disappointment evaporated. They were going fast, faster than she’d ever gone in her life. Snow-covered cairns of ground rock shot past the window, growing larger by the second as Paddington South disappeared behind them until eventually they merged into long, sinuous ridges. She gasped as the train dove into a tunnel and almost instantly re-emerged.
“Is this what flyin’s like?” she asked Wales, awed by their speed. “Or goin’ into space?”
He smiled, his eyes on the landscape. “Pretty close. Look, there’s the Scranton. And the Brule.” He pointed at a pair of distant dark shapes that Iffy had taken for more mining waste. The window obediently zoomed in to show two hulking machines, each one big enough to use the Bengal and the Guinevere as bath toys. Snow had piled up against their enormous treads and on their decks, and they were surrounded by debris from the explosions that had crippled them during the final days of the war, but even in ruin, they sent a chill up Iffy’s spine. Something… She shook her head. She was supposed to tell someone something, but she couldn’t remember who or what…
“Would either of you like some tea?” Doctor Johel asked, breaking into Iffy’s troubled thoughts. She took a sip from her antique travel mug and gestured with it at the little kitchen. “It will probably be the last decent brew you get for a while.”
Wales declined, so Iffy did as well, but she did make belated and grateful use of the toilet. When she returned, Wales and Doctor Johel were studying a wireframe of a building complex. Rooms and stairways and elevators flickered in and out of existence as the core mixed and juggled plans for other satellite ground stations and records of various military research labs to sketch what they might find when they reached their destination.
Doctor Johel finally waved it away and closed her eyes to nap. Iffy had no idea how she could sleep sitting up, especially sitting up inside an exoskeleton, but as her face relaxed and she started to snore, Iffy realized once again just how old she was and how tired she must be.
“Here,” Wales said, bringing up some more schematics. “Have a look at these.” An angular dragonfly the size of her head rotated and flew apart to show cameras, antennas, a nuclear battery the size of her thumb that could last ten thousand years, and all around it, the shimmering flow of the software that brought it all to life.
Wales froze the display and tapped an unremarkable orange lozenge. “That’s our way in, if it’s still there.” He sat back and studied the sparkling lines that spiralled out from the subroutine he had selected.
“Why woul’n’t it be?” Iffy asked.
Wales shrugged. “They could have been hacked during the war. Or someone might have pressed the panic button to kill ground control so that they couldn’t be. A lot can happen in a hundred years.” He looked out at the pulverized waste on either side of them and repeated, “A lot can happen.”
The track didn’t run all the way to Mount Tyree. Instead, the train slowed, slowed, and stopped on the floor of a broad valley. Twenty kilometers away, the mountain’s peak thrust up proudly above its neighbors. Iffy zipped herself into an ecosuit that smelled freshly printed and followed Doctor Johel and Wales out onto the snowfield.
The icy wind whistled in her earphones as she helped the Marines unpack and assemble their snow scooters. It felt good to be useful, even if the ecosuit’s padded gloves made her hands clumsy.