by Julia Rancourt
Dense scars of electric light scored the shadowed globe in defiance of the night. Many of the inhabitants of those never-dark cities lived in ignorance of the stars. Looking up, the planet natives could not see the spaceship Whisper gliding above. On the Whisper, Captain Aerin Nova glanced at the serene landscape below.
“Why are we still in orbit?” Captain Nova asked. She turned to her navigator, Timas Cyan, who shrugged. “You’ve calculated the path?”
“Yes. Hours ago,” he replied.
“Well,” she said. She checked the indicator lights to see if anything was amiss. “Everything seems to check out. The Engine is working, right?”
Navigator Cyan flipped a toggle switch to talk to the Engine. “Engine, why aren’t we underway?” he asked.
The reply came back in text: YOU HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT REPLACING ME.
Not now, Captain Nova thought. I have a deadline. “Where did you get that idea?” she asked.
I HEAR THINGS.
“We’re not replacing you,” Captain Nova said.
DON’T LIE TO ME, AERIN. CAPTAIN SCAPE NEVER LIED TO ME.
Can’t I go one day without being compared to my mother? “I’m not lying.”
“Natalie lied all the time,” Navigator Cyan whispered.
“Not helping,” Captain Nova whispered back. “I’d never replace you,” she said to the Engine. “I couldn’t replace you.”
I WORK AS MUCH AS I EVER HAVE. I CAN WORK MORE, IF YOU NEED.
You can work now, then, she thought. “You can’t work more. You already work Standard Plus Three. If you burn out from exhaustion, we’re drifting between destinations.”
The Passenger Wrangler Sam Spaceson picked that moment to call in to the bridge. “We’re all tucked away,” he said. “Why haven’t we fallen into warpspace yet?”
“We’re working on it, Sam,” Captain Nova replied.
“Well, we’re getting restless down here,” he said. “They want to know if they can get up to look out the windows.”
“We’ll be underway any moment now,” she told him.
“If we can convince the Engine,” Navigator Cyan quipped.
“Not helping, Timas,” Captain Nova whispered, irritated.
“You’re just going to have to come clean,” he whispered back. “Or we’ll never get anywhere.”
Captain Aerin Nova sighed. The Whisper’s Engine was notoriously solitary, even for an Engine. This news was potentially as upsetting as getting replaced. “Engine,” she said.
I AM HERE.
“You’re not being replaced. We’re getting a Second Engine.”
YOU DON’T NEED A SECOND ENGINE. CAPTAIN SCAPE NEVER NEEDED A SECOND ENGINE.
“Captain Scape was happy with short hauls,” Captain Nova said. “So she could indulge you. But nobody, nobody runs with just one Engine. It’s too much of a risk.”
I WON’T BURN OUT.
“We can hardly get passengers or cargo. Nobody wants to risk warpspace with only one Engine.” Captain Nova didn’t want to have to beg the Engine to accept this change, but she found herself doing just that. “With two Engines, we can take longer runs.”
The light indicating that the Engine was working flicked off. “I need a minute,” the Engine said, using the intercom. His voice was rough from lack of use, and from crying.
With minutes waiting drifting into hours, Sam Spaceson was having an increasingly hard time keeping the passengers entertained and, more importantly, in their seats. The windows were too tantalizingly close, the planet below too beautiful from space. The passengers couldn’t be faulted for wanting to peer out one last time at the home many of them would never see again. Most had never been in space before. After this journey, most would never be in space again. How could he expect them to sit still?
“We’d really like an update, Captain,” Sam said into the intercom.
“I’ll let you know when I know, Sam,” Captain Nova replied, annoyance clear in her voice.
“This is why we need two Engines,” Sam muttered. Whenever he thought of the Engine, he’d find himself looking at one of the bright blue hatches that separated the part of the ship the Engine lived in from the part the rest of them used. The hatches had no handles, but Sam thought he could find a way to open them.
But then what? He’d never actually seen the Engine, never gotten any response when he’d tried to talk to him. Would meeting him face to face help anything? Or would the Engine use his wizardry to… No. Sam wasn’t going to let himself become scared of the Engine. The Engine used magics that Sam didn’t understand, but that didn’t make him evil. Dangerous, yes, but definitely not a monster.
ENGINE, WILL WE BE EMBARKING SOON? he typed to the Engine, not expecting an answer.
COURSE LAID IN. FALLING INTO WARPSPACE MOMENTARILY, came the reply. Sam was pleased to get a response, until he realized the message was sent shipwide. It was probably a coincidence that the Engine sent that message so shortly after Sam sent his.
Sam Spaceson announced, in his official passenger wrangler voice, “Just got word from the Engine that we will be heading out soon. Please stow loose items and make sure you’re secured to your chair.” Sam made a show of checking his seat belt to encourage the passengers to do the same. He saw some realize that they had loosened or undone their seat belts during their long wait.
Once it seemed like they had all finished fidgeting with buckles and items, Sam increased the pull on the electromagnets in the armrests and footrests of each chair. The passengers all wore bracelets and anklets so their limbs could be secured magnetically during transit. Nobody wanted to accidentally slap someone in the face in those times during the journey that they were free floating and without control of their appendages.
As the light dimmed before takeoff, another text message came to Sam’s screen from the Engine: HAPPY, SPACESON?
Why did I send that message? Sam thought, suddenly scared again. Maybe it would be better if the Engine didn’t know I exist.
Head Mechanic Desray Sol-Miller was away from her screen when the message came that they were finally going to fall into warpspace. She was tending to the air filtration system, one of the many parts of the Whisper that was not run on magic, since they needed it to run continuously whether they had a Wizard on board or not. It was actually the most likely ship system to catch magical backlash in the form of strange, sometimes sentient, gunk.
Mechanic Sol-Miller was elbow-deep in said gunk when the light dimmed, signaling their imminent departure. A quick glance at her screen confirmed that the Engine was ready to go. “Damn,” she said as she dove for the nearest emergency harness and began strapping herself in. “Why can’t he announce it out loud?”
“Prepare for warpspace,” Captain Nova said over the intercom a moment later, as if she suspected there were crew members working while they waited. “Sorry about the delay.”
Ignoring the sludge crawling up her arm, Desray fastened the last strap designed to keep her from floating loose just as the artificial gravity cut off. Now that’s a finicky machine, she thought. I’d like to tinker with one of those. It was one of the machines in the Engine’s part of the spaceship, based more on magic than technology. As a semi-reliable piece of magical hardware, it didn’t always give them gravity in the right direction or with the right force, but it did make life in space easier when it worked.
“Still mucking about, Sol-Miller?” asked her subordinate, Mechanic Yoland Pickle over the intercom.
“I assume you’ve been strapped in this whole time, Pickle,” she replied. Desray squirmed as the magical goop crawled into the hollow of her armpit. Mucking is right. I need a shower.
“One of us has to be responsible and prepared,” he said. “Captain didn’t give us permission to wander while we waited.”
“Captain didn’t forbid –” she started to argue, before losing muscle control in her face and tongue along with her limbs. Mechanic Sol-Miller was always grateful that this was the worst of it. Some Engines she had flown with had less skill, disrupting more of the bodily systems of the passengers and crew. They needed neither respirators nor diapers to travel on the Whisper through warpspace.
Desray’s thoughts slowed and her vision blurred as the spaceship Whisper fell into and through warpspace. Like an egg through sand, she thought before falling into dreamful sleep.
In some ways, shorter hauls were worse on the body than longer ones. With a longer run, human bodies had a chance to fully adjust to warpspace and settle before having to adjust to normal space again. Shorter journeys through warpspace could leave an ache in the muscles and a cramp in the intestines.
Captain Aerin Nova hardly let it show that those symptoms were bothering her. She had grown up in space, on this ship, and so felt embarrassed about this mundane bodily weakness. “Still with me, Timas?” she asked her navigator.
“I think so,” he replied with a groan.
“Any problems, Engine?” she asked over intercom to the Engine.
DON’T TALK TO ME RIGHT NOW, was the reply. The Engine working light blinked out.
“We’ll have to talk sometime,” Captain Nova muttered to herself before turning on the shipwide intercom to announce that they had arrived at the planet Dendril 3 and it was now safe for the passengers and crew to unstrap themselves from their chairs. Only after taking care of these duties did she allow herself the chance to get out of her seat and stretch. She was sore, but was otherwise in good working order.
“Do you think the Engine will be ready to go again in a day?” Navigator Cyan asked.
“Is that the schedule?”
“That’s the schedule. If the Engine can’t keep to it, we should delay taking on new passengers,” he said. “We might even have to shift some of this cargo off to other ships going our way.”
“We don’t shift,” she replied, offended.
“There’s no shame in shifting,” he said. “Some things can’t sit and wait to be delivered.”
“I’ve never missed a deadline,” Captain Nova said. “Start plotting our course. I’ll go talk to the Engine.”
“We wouldn’t have to worry if we had two,” Navigator Cyan said.
“I know,” she replied as she went out of the cockpit. “I’m not the one I have to convince.”
Once she was alone, Aerin Nova took a moment to breathe deeply and cough until she felt like her lungs were working properly again. The Engine must be really upset to have slipped up on our lungs like this, she thought. Or is the air a bit stale? She decided to pop in to check on the air filtration system before tending to anything else. She wasn’t a mechanic, but she was able to tell if something was broken.
“Captain!” Mechanic Sol-Miller said as they collided in the doorway.
“Head Mechanic,” Captain Nova said. “Is everything okay?”
“Just fine, ma’am,” she said, clutching at her midsection in a way that looked less and less like stomach distress, more and more like something was crawling under her coveralls.
“Carry on, then,” Captain Nova said to dismiss her.
“Thank you, Captain,” Sol-Miller said as she hurried away.
Aerin Nova looked in at the various ship systems housed and controlled in that room, but didn’t find anything obviously amiss. She decided that her mechanic must have finished fixing whatever might have been wrong before she ran off.
Next she went to check on the disgruntled passengers. In her experience, all passengers were disgruntled, no matter if they were on time or late. Few of them knew how lucky they were to travel on the Whisper; how relatively smooth and luxurious their passage through warpspace had been.
“How is the rabble?” she asked the Passenger Wrangler, keeping her voice low so the passengers wouldn’t overhear her.
“They’re anxious to get down to the planet,” Sam Spaceson replied. “I think they’re sick of space. Can you imagine?”
“No,” Captain Nova replied. The longest stretch of time she’d spent not in space was about a month, and that was only because they’d had multiple significant repairs to the Whisper that required them to leave the ship that long. She had hated living on a planet. It didn’t move right, feel right, smell right.
“Anyway,” Sam continued, “there are few complaints. Nobody was injured. Most of them kept their lunches down. It was pretty standard.”
“Good. Good. Herd them to the shuttles and freedom, then,” Captain Nova said. She looked at the nearest blue hatch. “Has he come out?”
“Does the Engine ever come out?” Sam asked with awe and worry plain in his voice.
“He does,” she said, pulling out her electronic skeleton key that gave her access to everywhere on the Whisper. “Mostly he comes out to find a place to hide when he knows someone’s coming to talk to him.” She sighed, went to the hatch. “Wish me luck. My mother was always better at this.”
The hatch locks protested with a groan like ungreased metal rubbing as the skeleton key forced them open. The sound was an effect put on them with magic, of course. Nearly everything on the Engine’s side of that hatch was permeated with magic.
It had been three or four fortnights since Ryan Quercus, known to most people simply as the Engine, had seen another living person. It had been at least twice that long since another person had seen him, too. Ryan stood there in his tattered terrycloth robe, shocked into stillness. He couldn’t hide now. She had seen him.
“Hello, Engine,” Aerin said to him.
When did she grow to look so much like her mother? Ryan thought. He turned to his keyboard before remembering that he’d have to talk to respond. “Hello, Captain,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“Can we sit?” she asked. “Talk?”
“I wasn’t…” He cleared his throat, started again, “I wasn’t expecting you.” He had meant to mean that he hadn’t been expecting her to be there in front of him at this moment, but he found that he meant that he hadn’t been expecting her to remind him so much of Natalie. “Can I have a moment to dress, Captain?”
“Yes, of course,” Aerin said. “Should I… Is this not a good time?”
Is it ever a good time? “I just… I’m in my robe.”
“Oh. Right,” she said. She looked around, sat on a surface that seemed to surprise her by how much it gave under her weight, and immediately stood again. “I’ll just… wait here, then.”
Ryan shambled off to his wardrobe to find something less embarrassing to be seen in. She looks so grown up, he thought. She looks so young. He tried to think of how long it had been since he’d seen her, his employer. Had it been two years? Certainly not more than three. He was sure he’d seen Aerin at Natalie’s funeral three years ago.
As he thought, he fruitlessly sifted through the contents of his wardrobe. “When did I last get dressed?” he muttered to himself as he searched for nice trousers and an unstained shirt. His robe disintegrated a little more when he pulled it off. He wasn’t sure it would survive another washing.
The clothes he put on felt restrictive and scratchy. They, too, felt threadbare almost to the point of ripping in some places. He smoothed out a few cloth wrinkles over his wrinkled flesh and untangled his tuft of unruly hair with his fingers. Nothing to do about the face, I’m afraid, he thought when he glanced in a mirror on his way by. He’d been handsome in his youth, before wizardry had taken over his life.
Ryan returned to find Aerin sitting again, this time on his little sofa. Again he was struck by the contradiction of seeing her as so very young and yet so much more grown up than he remembered her.
She stood. “I’m sorry, Engine Quercus,” Aerin said. “I should have talked to you about this already. You should have found out from me.”
“It’s settled, then, is it?” he replied. He sat in his chair near his couch. Soon they won’t be just mine. “You’ve picked out a new Engine?”
“No,” she said, sitting back down. “I haven’t hired anyone yet. I haven’t even started looking.”
You were never a good liar, Aerin. “But… You will start. Looking. For a Second Engine.”
“Yes,” Captain Nova said. “Is that – Are you going to be okay?”
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Ryan asked. He searched her face. He could tell they would be picking up the new Engine soon.
“No, papa,” Aerin Nova replied.
Reaching for an empty canister left handed, Desray Sol-Miller held the squirming magical lifeform where she had trapped it between her right hand and the hollow of her navel. This one’s livelier than most, she thought as she popped the lid off the clear canister. Usually, she carried a container with her for just this sort of situation, but she had been careless this time. She hadn’t expected to find a specimen worth collecting.
Unzipping her coveralls, Mechanic Sol-Miller tried to scrape the living gunk off her skin, only to find it didn’t have an edge to pry up. It had become a lot less like a liquid since it had started oozing all over her. When she had first touched it, the texture had been like grease and snot. Now it was more like putty. Putty that could not be removed.
The color, too, had changed. While it was still in the machine it had been clear, the color of black rainbows. Since then it had become more opaque and had lightened to her skin tone, losing the prismatic quality it had before they’d gone through warpspace.
Don’t get comfortable. You’re not taking up residence. Desray gave it a mild electrical shock with a pen-sized device she had designed for just such emergencies. When it curled up slightly, she grabbed the newly-formed edge and peeled it off like tape. It clung to her fingers as she wiped it on the interior of the canister, but she got it all off and closed it in.
One whole wall of her living space was full of these containers, locked into place by a push and a half turn. Most of the canisters were filled with wires, screws, or other little bits interesting to mechanically inclined people. There were a few, however, that housed the magical residue she found too lively to incinerate like protocol suggested.
Desray was fascinated and frustrated by magic. When she was younger, she had dreamed of studying to become a Wizard, but she hadn’t had an aptitude for it. She had a sheen of magic in her sweat. To become a practitioner, one also needed it in blood and spit and piss, tears and sexual fluids and stomach acid. These residues she collected produced more magic than she did.
Securing this new jar of goop to her wall, Desray Sol-Miller went to shower off the feeling of it sliding over her skin. I hope the water heater is still working, she thought as she grabbed an empty canister just in case something was clogging up the shower pipes. It felt like that sort of a day.
I should have been a chef, Mechanic Yoland Pickle thought as he placed the top slice of bread on his white cheddar cheese and tofu sandwich. It is a thing of beauty. He had wanted to spread some mayonnaise or other pale sauce on the bread; but when he stuck a knife in the first jar he found, the contents shuddered away from the knife. He decided against trying the other unmarked jars.
As he ate his sandwich, Yoland played with that thing that wasn’t mayonnaise. He chased it around the jar with the knife in an absentminded sort of way, and wondered where it had come from. Obviously it was one of Desray’s creatures, misplaced. Nobody else collected the things.
In fact, none of the residue he found while working ever showed signs of life. Only Desray seemed to find ones that moved. Wonder what makes her so lucky. He jabbed at it, pinning the magical residue creature between the jar wall and the knife before the tip of the knife punctured it, bursting it like a balloon full of gravy.
He was amazed by how much it bled. It overflowed the jar it had been in, pooling around the base before running off the table and onto the floor. Then it frothed up and evaporated, leaving nothing behind. Yoland Pickle finished his sandwich and left his dirty dishes on the table when he left.
Since weight is a function of mass times force, Laborer Edna Weft was glad that the cargo area was kept at a lower gravity than the rest of the spaceship. The packages were much easier for her to shift here on the ship than they were on the planets, moons, and space stations that the Whisper ferried them among.
Prolonged stays in lower gravity, however, were not good for her health. I need to stop going through warpspace in the cargo area, she chided herself. Edna float-walked to the door, bracing herself for the heaviness that would drag her down once she stepped through. It immediately made her feel tired again. Her body was a heavy thing she had to drag to the kitchen area and set down in the nearest chair.
“Bread sandwich?” she asked herself as she looked at what was left out on the table. She didn’t know how long that food had been left there, but at worst the bread would be stale. It didn’t look moldy, unlike the cheese. Looking longingly at the refrigerator, Laborer Weft morosely ate a slice of bread.
“Edna, where are you?” came Captain Nova’s voice over the intercom.
The toggle switch to reply was just barely in reach. “Kitchen,” she said.
“We’ve got a buyer for the Yellow Plains Honey. Where is it?”
“I hope you’re not digging around in there,” Edna muttered. “I have a system.”
“Well, we need it,” Aerin Nova replied.
I was just in there. You couldn’t have asked for it then? “I’ll be right there,” she said, flipping the toggle switch right after so she wouldn’t be tempted to say more. Edna let go of the rest of her unappealing slice of bread so she could pry herself out of the chair, and was surprised when it failed to stay where she left it. The bread fell to the table, bounced off the edge, and landed on the floor. It was irretrievable. She would have to leave it there.
It wasn’t very far back to the cargo area. Laborer Edna was almost used to the heavy gravity by the time she got there. Back inside, she floated past the ungraceful Captain Aerin to the honey she was looking for. It was in the long-term storage section, an area for things they carried with the hope of selling along the way. Most of their cargo had a buyer or owner and a destination before it came aboard. This, however, was owned by the crew collectively.
“I didn’t realize we still had so much,” Captain Nova said.
“Good thing it stores well,” Edna said. “Isn’t this one of the first things you brought on the Whisper after Captain Scape died?”
“Is it that old already?” Aerin asked. “Should I lower the price? See if we can shift some more?”
“You’re the deal maker. I just keep the things in their places,” Edna Weft said. “But I’d rather eat it than give it away.”
“Well, let’s eat some, then. Care to join me for some toast?” Captain Nova grabbed a jar of Yellow Plains Honey from the package of honey jars. “That is, if we still have bread.”
“There’s bread,” Laborer Weft said as she followed her captain back to the kitchen. For a moment, she found her life unbearably monotonous. She dismissed the feeling.
Navigator Cyan gazed longingly at the larger charts, at the territory they were so close to being able to traverse. All they needed was a second Engine and they could make real money, have proper adventures, do some real exploring. That was real space, out there just beyond their reach. This, what they did now, was hardly more exciting than trucking cargo across continents on planets.
This was too well-trod. Everyone, anyone could do these small hops. They required no skill. Heck, people have done these in realspace without wizards, he thought. Easy.
DO YOU HAVE THE COURSE PLOTTED, MISTER CYAN?
I should be on a ship with three or four Engines. He flipped on the intercom. “Just a moment, Engine,” he replied.
TAKE YOUR TIME.
Timas Cyan didn’t know how the Engine could convey that much snark in such a short bit of text, but there it was. He’d suggested they replace their Engine. The Wizard was obviously ready to be retired to wherever crotchety old Engines were put out to pasture. The suggestion was politely ignored. Captain Nova was loyal beyond all reason.
“Sending file now,” Navigator Timas said as he finalized the course they would take. Then, work done, he went out of the cockpit to see what the others were doing and take a break.
As he went, he almost missed seeing the message: THANK YOU. This time he was less certain what tone to read it in.
Passing through the passenger compartment, Timas nearly tripped over Sam Spaceson, lying supine on the floor. His head and upper torso were under a row of seats; his lower half was stretched out into the aisle.
“Odd place to take a nap, Sam,” Navigator Cyan dryly joked.
“Had to switch out a buckle,” Passenger Wrangler Spaceson replied. “Pull me out?”
Timas grabbed Sam’s ankles and yanked him fully into the aisle. “Everyone make it through okay in here?”
“Haven’t lost a passenger yet,” Sam replied. “But that’s not really up to you or me, is it?”
“I meant bumps and bruises,” Timas said. “If we had Engine failure…” He couldn’t finish the thought. Anyone who knew anything about the way ships passed through warpspace, how much they relied on Engines to get it right, knew what sorts of horrors arose from Engine failure. Lost passengers were the least of their worries if that happened. In that case, you pity the living, not the dead.
“Oh, we had the usual,” Sam said. “Though, if we’d’ve been any more delayed, I’d’ve sedated the whole lot of them. They can’t complain if they’re unconscious.”
“They can complain after,” Timas said. “And they do.”
“They have nothing to compare it to. I just tell them that this is a better ride than they’d get from anyone else.”
“It is,” Navigator Cyan replied. “This right here is budget luxury.” He looked around the compartment. The fixtures might be old, but they were quality and they were kept in good repair. “How many are we taking on here?”
“We’re full up… Plus thr– two.” He rubbed his temple. “We have two pluses.”
“I don’t like taking pluses,” Timas said. Pluses paid for their voyage by doing odd work around the ship, which was fine. But they also harnessed in on the spare crew harnesses instead of passenger harnesses, which he was always a little unsure about. You had to know what you were doing to ride as crew. “Passenger insurance doesn’t cover them if they get hurt.”
“Talk to the boss about hiring more permanent crew, then,” Wrangler Spaceson said. “Or take up cleaning in your spare time.”
“We’ve only got the budget for one new crewperson,” Timas said. “Hopefully we can find an Engine willing to work for so little.”
As she showered, Mechanic Sol-Miller thought again about the nature of magic. Magic was matrilineal. It wasn’t so much genetic as epigenetic. A person had to be gestated in an environment permeated with magic. They had to be marinated with magic in the very fluid that was home and food to the fetus.
Aerin Nova’s mother was not a Wizard, though she had loved one as much as he would allow. If Aerin had any magic in her system, it was unknown to everyone. She hadn’t been conceived to be a Wizard, just a child to a woman who wanted a child.
Desray Sol-Miller, however, was an experiment that almost worked. Her mother, too, had no magic. Wanting a magical child, Desray’s mother got regular transfusions of Wizard blood during her pregnancy. It was unethical, but not unheard of. The transfusions hadn’t made the mother magical, and neither had it made a magical child.
Most of the time, Aerin didn’t seem envious of Desray for her small amount of magic. It was more of a nuisance than something useful, anyway. Most of the time, Desray wasn’t envious of Aerin for her Wizard father. She was even less envious when she remembered that Aerin’s father was aloof and difficult and hardly a father to her at all. The rest of the crew didn’t even know the Engine was their captain’s father.
Desray Sol-Miller didn’t know why she was thinking of mothers, daughters, fathers. She’d never known her father, and her mother… they hadn’t spoken in years. Desray had been a disappointment to her mother because she couldn’t be a Wizard. Nothing Desray did with her life could make up for that shortcoming. She pushed those thoughts from her mind and focused on finishing her shower.
I still feel crawly, Desray thought as she dried off. I shouldn’t have left the residue on me when we fell into warpspace. If only I’d had a moment to wipe it off.
Head Mechanic Desray Sol-Miller decided to swing by the kitchen on her way back to her room from the shower. There, she found Captain Nova sharing a snack with Laborer Edna Weft. They had a friendly easiness between them that Desray knew she would never have with her captain. They shared too many secrets, too much history.
“Join us,” Edna said before Desray could turn away. “Try this.”
“A toast,” Aerin said, handing out honey-coated toasted bread.
Edna took a bite. “This honey is really good,” she said. “Maybe you should ask more for it.”
“I couldn’t,” Aerin Nova said before taking a bite. “Mmm… maybe you’re right. I should charge more. Try it, Sol-Miller.”
Desray nibbled the edge uncertainly before taking larger bites. “This the Yellow Plains Honey?”
“Good thing we haven’t tried it before now,” Edna Weft said. “There wouldn’t be any left to sell. I’d eat it all.”
“Better keep it secret from the guys,” Head Mechanic Sol-Miller whispered, trying to join in on the joking.
“Keep what from us?” Mechanic Pickle said from right behind her. Behind him were Wrangler Spaceson and Navigator Cyan.
“All here,” Edna said. “No keeping it secret, after all.”
“Not exactly all here,” Cyan said. “Don’t forget the First Engine.”
“It’ll take a while to get used to calling him that,” Captain Nova said. “Two Engines!”
“This calls for a toast,” Weft said, grabbing more bread to be toasted. “Honey?”
“Yes, Sweetie?” Yoland Pickle replied in a leering mock flirtation.
Edna Weft batted her eyes at him and pranced around the kitchen as she prepared more toast and honey. Desray had never seen her that energetic and expressive. Usually, Weft would have scowled at Pickle and kept her distance. She wondered if Edna had eaten too much of the Yellow Plains Honey. What is the dose on that, anyway? “What is the dose on that, anyway?” Desray asked.
“You’re using the Yellow Plains Honey?” Spaceson asked in a mixture of horror and curiosity.
I think I’ve had too much. “I think I’ve had too much,” Desray said. “Maybe we’ve all had too much.” Maybe we’ve all had too much.
“Well, I’ve got to try it now,” Yoland Pickle said, taking the offered honeyed toast from Edna.
“I don’t think it’s doing that much for me,” Captain Aerin said.
“I feel really good,” Edna Weft said. “But you don’t look so good, Desray.”
“I feel fine,” Sol-Miller said. “No more for me, though.” I feel fine. “Thanks. I think–” No more for me. “Wait. What?” Though I feel.
“No, you really don’t look good,” Sam said. Desray could barely hear him.
Thanks. I think I feel. No. “I should lie down.” I feel thanks. I should wait. I should feel more.
Desray was vaguely aware of hands and movement, cool hard metal and soft bed, shivering. And the wall spoke to her in a language she thought she could almost learn, but it was only the magical residue creatures taunting her with her own failures.
FALLING INTO WARPSPACE NOW.
“I hope your coordinates are right,” Captain Nova said to Navigator Cyan as the lights dimmed.
“When have my coordinates ever been wrong?” he replied. “Does he know?”
“When have you given the Engine coordinates where he didn’t immediately know where we were going to end up?” she replied. “He could give you the coordinates. Without using charts to figure them.”
“Nice to feel redundant,” Timas Cyan said.
“How do you think he feels?” Aerin Nova asked.
“He’ll feel the freedom of an expanded territory, if he lets himself.”
“I think this feels like a lack of freedom to him,” Nova said before the world went wobbly and nearly everyone aboard the Whisper passed out.
Desray Sol-Miller had never been conscious inside of warpspace. Her mind had gotten there a good hour and a half before her body and the rest of the spaceship Whisper. She had thought it was the fault of the Yellow Plains Honey. Then she wasn’t so sure.
Whatever was happening, her mind couldn’t hold it. She let the sensations pass through her without trying to hold on to any one of them. She watched objects pass through each other. She watched magical residues form, interact, come for her with malicious intent.
They forgot to restrain me, she thought in a lucid moment as she floated around the room. But a second later, she found that she was also strapped to her bed. There were a hundred of her strapped to the bed.
Unconsciousness refused to claim her. Desray felt like she had been awake a week. She felt so exhausted, so alone. None of the others of her had mouths or brains to talk. They had all been silenced by the horrible thing she couldn’t bring herself to look at but knew was watching her. She reached to toggle the intercom, to find anyone to talk to.
“Don’t bother me now, Sol-Miller,” came an unfamiliar voice before she could turn the intercom on. “Deep breaths. We’re almost through.”
“Who is this?”
Laughter. “Quercus. Hush now.”
“Engine Ryan Quercus,” he said from everywhere or nowhere. He could have been a voice in her head. She could have been the last person alive in the universe.
“I know. It’s always there at about this stage,” he said. “Now shut up and let me do my job.”
Desray wondered too many questions to give any of them a thorough thinking. She wondered what it was in the room with her. She wondered why she was awake for this. Most of all, she wondered why the Engine had spoken to her so jovially, and with his voice.
I must be dreaming. Does anyone think they’re dreaming while they’re dreaming? “Why…?” she asked, not knowing which question to ask.
“Not now, Desray,” Ryan said. “Soon. But, please, this is a tricky part.”
Waking quicker than usual from the sleep of warpspace, Sam Spaceson was surprised to find a private message notice waiting for him on his screen. More surprising, it was from the Engine. He’s coming for me, Sam thought as he opened it.
SPACESON, CHECK ON DESRAY.
“‘Check on Desray?’ Not ‘Check on Sol-Miller’ or… Why the concern?” Passenger Wrangler Spaceson quickly undid his restraints in the military drop fashion he’d learned in the war and was halfway to the door before he remembered his responsibility to their paying passengers. He announced to the room, “Passengers, we have arrived. You may remove your restraints but please stay in this compartment.” He pushed the button to release their wrists and ankles before running from the room.
Sam turned down the way to the mechanic’s usual restraints, then pivoted the other direction. They had restrained Mechanic Sol-Miller in her room. Did we forget to restrain her? Did she release herself between that time and warpspace?
Getting to the door, Sam knocked and called out, “Desray? Are you okay in there?” There was no response. If she was okay, the Engine wouldn’t’ve sent me to check on her. They hadn’t locked the door, but nonetheless Sam felt guilty for walking in while she was in bed.
“Sam, get a jar!” Desray screamed. She was holding something with both hands that was struggling toward her face. Worse, it looked like her face was reaching out to meet it. That protuberance on her forehead had never been there before, rippling out to touch the… furry? He couldn’t quite look at it. Desray wasn’t exactly looking, either. “Get a jar!” she screamed again.
Wrangler Spaceson looked at the wall of jars, thinking them awfully small for the… whatever it was. Do we have an infestation? Will we need to fumigate? He grabbed one of the few canisters that were empty. “Here,” he said, holding it out to her.
“Sam!” she said in an exasperated tone. “Put that around this.” She was still strapped to her bed. She couldn’t come to him.
With a deft bit of maneuvering, Desray managed to scrape the thing into the canister and shut the lid. “Want one for the other thing, too?” Sam asked, turning back to the wall for a second jar.
“What other thing?” Sol-Miller asked.
“Your forehead,” Spaceson said, turning back to her and holding out another empty canister. “What is that?”
Desray had undone her straps while he hadn’t been looking, and was sitting on the edge of her bed. She felt her forehead, frowned, and grabbed a device that almost looked like a pen. She pressed it to her forehead, then peeled something off it. “I had two of these, huh?” she asked in a mildly curious tone. “Do I put it with the other or on its own?”
“What is it?” Sam asked.
“Magical residue,” Desray said, taking the canister from him and putting the skin-colored thing in it. “No wonder I still felt all crawly. On to the wall with you.” She heaved herself up from the bed and stuck the canister to the wall. “Now, about the other one…”
“What other one?” Sam asked. “Oh, the one like that? Is it on the wall?” He studied the contents of the canisters on the wall until he found one that matched. “Here it is. Where do they come from?”
“No, I meant the… Never mind. Thank you Sam. You better get back to the passengers.”
Sam had forgotten his duty. “I have to go, Desray,” Sam said as he went to the door. “Thank you for… showing me your collection. We’ll have to do it again sometime.” Then he was racing back to the passengers, who were docilely waiting for his return and had no problems whatsoever.
Wizarding schools produced too many Engines. There weren’t enough good jobs to go around. Not unless you wanted to be Fourth Engine on a back-and-forth run. That’s not the thrilling adventure most Wizards are looking for when they learn to become Engines.
Astrid Miths had been looking for work for years after graduating. She had stayed living near the school, having nowhere else to go, and had watched younger Wizards get hired before they had even completed final exams. At this point, Astrid was willing to take any job, even those Fourth Engine jobs. Yet even those wouldn’t take her.
When the Second Engine position opened up on the Whisper, she almost didn’t apply. She had just about given up hope, and she was exhausted from getting excited only to find that she was second best.
This job paid mainly in experience. Wizard Miths got room and board, and a small amount for personal expenses beyond that. There were no vacations and no retirement. It was the sort of job you stayed in until you died. That was, if she meshed well with the crew. She could always take the work experience and use it to get a different job.
A crew of eight, including me, Astrid thought as she waited for her new home to arrive. I can’t hate it yet. I have to give it a try. “Anything to get me off this planet. All planets. Anything.”
“You said you’d explain,” Mechanic Sol-Miller said through intercom to the Engine. Or did I dream that?
BUSY, came the reply.
You spoke before. Can’t you just speak? “When, then? I need to know what to do,” she said.
Desray looked at… Desray tried to look at the thing that had attacked her in warpspace. “He said ‘It’s always there’ as if it weren’t a big deal. But then it lunged for me,” she muttered, finding comfort in the sound of a voice, even if it was her own. “Or did it lunge for the residue creature on my face? How did I not notice it?” I was too focused on the one crawling toward my groin.
Sol-Miller compared the two that had mimicked her skin tone so well and wondered if she had any more residing on her body. I could be covered in them. The thought made her feel all ticklish like she was covered in fuzzy caterpillars, only with something potentially more dangerous. Though she collected them, Desray really didn’t know what these magical residue creatures were, or what they did if they were left to do what they wanted.
Desray Sol-Miller toggled the intercom back on to talk to the Engine, then thought better of it. She didn’t really want to get on the Engine’s bad side, not after he had reached out to her. What if I’m becoming a Wizard? What if he can teach me? Maybe my magic will come in like wisdom teeth or gray hairs.
“Mechanic Sol-Miller,” came the voice of Yoland Pickle over the intercom. “Are you still ill?”
“Are you worried, Pickle?” Desray replied.
“Just wondering if you’d like to do your job,” he said. “Laborer Weft says a refrigeration unit in the cargo area has sparked out. I’m elbow-deep in waste pumps, but we can trade if you’d prefer working with sewage.”
“I’ll go help Edna,” she said. “Can’t let the cargo spoil.”
“Don’t forget to take your little gremlins home with you after catching them. We don’t want to accidentally sell them as food to unsuspecting customers.”
Can they be eaten? “Will do. Head Mechanic out.” Desray grabbed her kit and went to the door. She gave it one more good hard stare before going, but still she couldn’t get a good look at the thing that she’d caught.
“I feel like I’ve forgotten something important,” Navigator Cyan said after sending the message to their new Second Engine that they’d arrived. “Not about this… but…” He didn’t like the feeling he was having.
“You too?” Captain Nova asked. “Did we forget to deliver something before leaving the last place? No, I’m sure…”
CAPTAIN, I NEED YOU, came the message from the First Engine.
“Can it wait, Quercus?” she replied.
“Forgotten what?” Aerin Nova asked.
“I don’t know,” Engine Ryan Quercus said over the intercom, his voice sounding scared. “But we’ve forgotten something important. What’s Cursed Space?”
“It’s that part on the charts that we have to go around,” Timas Cyan automatically responded. Wait. The what? He pulled out some charts, but didn’t see it listed anywhere.
“I don’t feel well,” Ryan said. “We should quarantine the Whisper.”
“We can’t quarantine,” Captain Nova argued. “We have passengers to disembark. We have goods to deliver.”
“What’s Cursed Space?” Timas whispered.
“We’re getting a new Engine. Is that what this is about, the new Engine?” she continued.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE NEW ENGINE, Engine Quercus sent, going back to his preferred mode of communication.
“Captain,” Passenger Wrangler Sam Spaceson screamed over intercom. “What are we doing hauling passengers? When did this start?”
Cursed Space… Cursed Space… Timas still couldn’t find it on the chart. “We’ve been taking passengers for three years, Gunner Sam,” he replied absentmindedly. “Wait… what?”
“What did you say?” Sam Spaceson asked. “I’m sorry… listen, I have to get back to these passengers. Can it wait, Captain?”
“Can what wait?” she asked.
“Whatever you called me about,” Sam replied. “Oh, and someone… should check on Sol-Miller. I think I was supposed to…” It sounded like he slapped the wall. “No, I checked on her. Sorry for… Talk to you later.”
“What were we talking about?” Timas asked. “Where am I plotting to?” He knew he’d been thinking about something, but it was gone now. “You were saying, Captain?”
Captain Nova was playing with the toggle to turn the intercom on or off between them and where the Engine was. She looked absentminded while she flicked it back and forth. Finally, she seemed to realize what she was doing. She flicked it on and said, “I think we should talk, First Engine,” then flicked it off again.
As soon as she left, Navigator Timas noticed he had gotten a reply from their new Engine on the planet below: I WILL JOIN YOU SHORTLY.
Laborer Weft always felt better when she went through warpspace in the regular part of the spaceship instead of the cargo area. She forgot how bad it was to fall into warpspace while in the cargo area if she hadn’t done it in a while. Edna hardly felt weak this time, whereas last time had been brutal.
“Which refrigeration unit is down?” Mechanic Sol-Miller asked.
“Refrigeration?” Weft asked, puzzled. “No, primary power is out on Medical Stasis. It’s on backup power.”
“Wait. What is?” Desray Sol-Miller asked. She rubbed her forehead as though it hurt.
“Refrigeration Unit Three,” Edna Weft said. “If you don’t get it back on primary power, the next fragrance in here will be the smell of rotting… what do we have in this unit again?” They floated over to the unit, which was blinking a set of warning lights.
“Oh, this old thing,” Mechanic Desray said. She got to work on the unit, and Edna floated off to find the cargo they had to deliver at this planet. Edna had almost forgotten Desray was in the cargo area by the time she came by to say, “All done.”
“Done with what?” Edna Weft asked. Medical… no. Refrigeration Unit… Three, she thought.
“Looks good in here,” Sol-Miller said. “Not much goes wrong in cargo, huh? Well, I think… There was something I was going to do. Oh, right. I have to talk to the Engine.”
The Engine? Edna thought with alarm. “Good luck with that. You’re braver than I am if you’re going to try to talk to that old curmudgeon.”
“Uh, thanks?” the Head Mechanic said as she left.
“Now, what was she in here to fix, again?” Edna asked herself.
It already looks so small, Astrid Miths thought as she gave a last look at the planet that had been her home before stepping into the space elevator that would take her into orbit. Dirt and plants, and weather blowing both in my face.
“You’re not really leaving, are you Wizard Miths?” said one of the bright-eyed third-years they had maintaining the little bit of spellcasting that kept the space elevators orbiting correctly.
“It’s Second Engine Miths now, Katie,” Astrid replied in her most important voice.
Breathlessly, Katie just replied with a “Wow” and a star-struck gaze.
Or, that was how it would have happened if anyone around here had noticed I was leaving.
“Round trip?” Katie looked at Astrid like she was washed up, pitiful, old leftovers.
“One way,” Astrid replied.
“It’s cheaper to book the round trip. You don’t have to keep to the time you book.”
“I’m not coming back,” Astrid Miths replied, a bit offended. “I got a job. As an Engine.”
“Good luck, then,” Katie said, bored.
Astrid wished, just briefly, for Katie to have already reached her full magical potential. Early peaker, so much promise unrealized. If wishes by the slightly out-of-date could make the younger generation falter before they became competition, the human race would have wished itself into extinction before prehistoric times. Astrid wasn’t even sure the young woman was named Katie.
I don’t need to be jealous. Things are looking up now. I can do this. I can do this.
“It’s good to get into orbit occasionally,” said Professor Wizard Doug, one of the oldest of the school’s faculty, to nobody in particular. “It helps you keep perspective.”
“Yes, Professor,” intoned half a dozen voices around the compartment, Astrid included.
Most of the passengers of this space elevator were doing what Wizard Doug Joanses was doing, round trip just to see the planet from orbit. It wasn’t graduation time, when dozens of ships came each day to hire away those that were desirable, hireable. Most who left at this time of the year had failed out of school.
Not me, Astrid thought, trying to tamp down on that nervous tingle. I’m doing it.
“What are you doing, Mechanic Sol-Miller?” Captain Nova suddenly said from behind her, startling her.
Desray had been focused on trying to force a blue hatch open. “These are well-sealed, aren’t they?” She put away the tool she had been using, and pulled out another. One of these will work.
“Put that away,” Aerin Nova said, pulling out her electronic skeleton key. “This is the only tool that’ll let you in there.” Compared to the effort Desray had been putting in, the hatch swung open as if it had never been locked.
“Thanks.” Once there was no longer a barrier, Mechanic Desray Sol-Miller wasn’t so sure she wanted to go through. He had told me to wait.
Captain Nova went through, turned back, asked, “Coming, Head Mechanic?”
I want answers. “Coming.”
The room on the other side felt like every clinic from her childhood, every magical school that told her mother that Desray didn’t have enough of a gift to cultivate. But it was also the desperate feeling that leaked out of the shacks of unemployable Wizards. This place had gone slightly sour, and none of them had noticed because none of them ever went in here.
None of them would notice, anyway, Desray thought, not sure if she wanted to gag or cry. I wonder what our new Engine will make of it.
“Aerin, Desray,” Engine Quercus said by way of greeting, as if they always stopped by. “You’ve both noticed, right? Something’s off.”
“I want to know what it is I caught attacking me when I was awake in warpspace,” Desray demanded. “You knew about it and you never told me? What is it? It’s not a normal residue creature. I can’t even…” She took a calming breath. “I can’t even look at the thing,” she whispered.
“What thing?” Captain Nova asked, all concern and confusion.
“You know, one of those things that’re a byproduct of magic,” Desray said. She looked around. “You got one around, for an example?” she asked the Engine.
“I spray,” Quercus dryly replied.
I never knew you could be funny. “I find them all over the ship,” Desray Sol-Miller said. “Considering how many we have out there, they should be thick in here.” She looked around again, expecting to see something odd moving around.
“I don’t get them,” First Engine Ryan Quercus said. “I don’t leak excess magic all over the ship.”
Then where’s it coming from? “Maybe you should spray the rest of the ship, too, then,” Desray said. “They’re getting vicious and devious.”
“Maybe so,” Engine Ryan said, “but, believe it or not, we’ve got bigger concerns.”
“You asked about Cursed Space,” Captain Aerin said. “I know I’ve never heard of it, and yet I feel like I know it well. What is Cursed Space?”
“Oh, it’s…” Desray’s brain blanked out. I know I know it. I just was thinking of it. “Sorry. I…”
“Exactly,” Ryan Quercus said. “Every time I think I know, I forget.”
“Worse than that,” Aerin said. “I know Timas had a partial answer. But I can’t for the life of me remember what he said.” She toggled on the intercom and asked, “Cyan, what did you say Cursed Space was?”
“What’s Cursed Space?” Timas Cyan replied. “Oh, Captain. Astrid Miths is on her way.”
“Thank you, Navigator,” Captain Nova replied, toggling the intercom off. “Would you like to come out to meet her, papa, or should we send her in here to you?”
“I’ll come out,” Quercus said. “Has she already been hired, or do I get to interview her first?”
“We’ve hired her,” Aerin said. “I suppose, if she’s really unsuitable, she’ll know enough to find somewhere else.”
“I don’t know, I’ve seen some pretty desperate Wizards out there who would take any work they could get and hold on to it as long as they could,” Desray said.
“Isn’t it like that for everybody, though?” Ryan asked. “Shall we?” He gestured toward the hatch, nearly shooing them through.
“I still want to talk about these residue creatures,” Desray Sol-Miller said.
“I’ll have to get a proper look at your collection,” the Engine said. “But let’s meet our new crewmember first, shall we?”
Halfway through a well-deserved and well-needed shower, Yoland Pickle lost water pressure just as he got soap in his eye. The water dribbled to a stop, stranding him with stinging, squinting vision. Then the light flickered, as if they were falling into warpspace.
“Damn it,” he swore, trying not to slip as he walked over to his towel. Something skittered out from under the towel and, startled, Yoland lost his footing and landed hard. If his breath hadn’t been knocked from him, he would have sworn harder.
The skittering thing came at him while he was helpless on the floor. It went for his face, but it miscalculated how vulnerable he was. Mechanic Pickle plucked it out of the air mid-leap and crushed it one-handed.
Then he spent the next five minutes or so crushing all of the other residue creatures coming out of the shower head until the clog finally cleared and he could finish his shower.
Most of the Whisper’s passengers on this journey were early arrivals for their first years at Wizard school. They are excited and scared in roughly equal measure, Wrangler Spaceson thought as he appraised them. Young and eager to prove to themselves that they can meet all challenges.
They were brimming with raw magic, even with the suppression medication most were taking just so they didn’t cause an accident while they were in warpspace. All had been sedated to sleep through it like non-magical folk naturally did, and so were groggy as they disembarked.
The pluses, those two magicals who paid for their voyage with work instead of cash-credits, kept clear of the other passengers. Sam Spaceson couldn’t blame them for not wanting their peers to know of their poverty, though he found no shame in working for your living. He figured what they were doing was very similar to what he did; theirs was just a temporary version of it. The other magical students probably wouldn’t see it that way, though.
As they mopped the de-passengered passenger section, the pluses kept gazing at the blue hatch that led to the Engine’s side of the ship. Sam had seen the same look on the faces of the other Wizard hopefuls. It was a dreamy longing for that sort of power, not at all tempered by the knowledge of what happened to turn a human into a Wizard into an Engine.
“You don’t clean in there,” Sam told them.
“I wouldn’t dare,” the taller one whispered.
As he supervised, Passenger Wrangler Spaceson set the harnesses in order. They weren’t picking up passengers at this planet, so he didn’t have to do this now, but he felt better getting everything ready right away instead of waiting. Later, there might be something more pressing to do.
“Row three, seat three,” he muttered as he went.
“What was that?” the shorter plus asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Sam replied. “How about we get you two in to scrub the shower next?”
“I wanted to wait here until the Engine comes out,” the shorter one said.
“Someone’s using the shower,” the taller one said.
“I thought you two were on suppressors,” Sam said. Wizards see too much. I should have been on the other side.
“We’ve had to ration the medication,” the taller one said.
“Not while you’re falling through warpspace, you don’t,” Spaceson chided. Other side of what? He didn’t like this feeling that he was arguing with himself, that part of him knew something it was keeping from the rest of him. He didn’t know what he had meant by that, and it scared him.
Just then, before he could dive deeper into maybe understanding what was missing, the pluses gasped and the blue hatch opened. After the Captain and the Head Mechanic came the Engine. He was just as formidable as Sam knew him to be.
“Sam, do you know if Second Engine Miths has come on board yet?” Captain Nova asked.
“She’s coming on the shuttle that is taking these two pluses off,” Sam said. He clapped his hands once loudly to get their attention. “If not the shower, how about the kitchen?” They nodded and got back to work.
First Engine Ryan Quercus was finding it hard to be outside of his comfort zone. He was in the other part of the Whisper, the part that wasn’t his, and he was with people. This was more of an effort than he let on, even with the medicine spell he had worked to calm his nerves and make him more sociable. He had never been good at medicine-craft, but it seemed to be working.
I should have been taking this all along. Maybe I would have… There were a lot of things he might have done differently if he’d chosen to try. He might have had a real family with Natalie and Aerin. He might have been able to prevent Natalie’s death.
Ryan couldn’t allow himself to think too hard about that. He couldn’t allow himself to start grieving again. When it had happened, his pain had been so great that he’d tried dozens of medicine spells, mixing what he could buy with what he tried to make on his own.
Once, in the worst of his drink, he’d tried the wildest, most unplanned, most reckless medicine spell ever. He had feared that it would have horrible consequences, but it seemed to not do much. He was suited to the magic of spaceships, not to political magic or to medicine-craft. He wasn’t surprised that it failed.
He had had to suffer through the worst of his grief, just as Aerin had to suffer through hers, alone. When Aerin had become ready to work again, Ryan had forced himself to work. The grief was buried alive, undead, to be dispatched slowly until it stopped moving him so much. And all that time, Ryan was emotionally unavailable to Aerin.
Maybe if I’d been a better father to Aerin, she wouldn’t be thinking of replacing me. He couldn’t help thinking that this hiring of a Second Engine was a way of training in his replacement. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy enough. They would be better off without me.
“Shuttle X3 is coming in to dock,” Navigator Cyan said over intercom.
“Thank you, Timas,” Captain Aerin replied. “Would you like to be here to meet her?”
“I’ll meet her later,” he said. “Someone needs to run this ship while the rest of you socialize.”
Ryan Quercus stood there trying to be pleasant, like everyone else. He tried to be like he used to be, back before he’d become such an Engine. He smiled, made eye contact, laughed at jokes. He even made a few jokes, as if he were a part of the group and not hopelessly outside of it.
Outwardly, he seemed calm, even happy. Yet, while they waited, Ryan couldn’t help wondering if this young Wizard they were about to meet was bringing his doom.
This is it, Astrid thought. The culmination of all those years of study. Her heart was racing, her vision narrowing. What if they see me and decide they don’t want me? She thought about the rejection, about the smug look on the face of the young woman who had advised her to get a round trip ticket, about trying to get her apartment back after telling her landlord that he didn’t need to wait until she was sure because she wouldn’t be back.
Shuttle X docked like a feather landing on a blanket, yet it jarred Astrid Miths to the core. I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready. The seals sealed, the hatches… hatched. It was all science, no magic, so Astrid was unconcerned about how it all worked. She always thought that there was no point in people specializing in a field if everyone was supposed to know about everything else in great detail.
She trusted that those who had specialized in these sciences knew how to do what they did. Soon, her new crewmates would trust that she knew how to be an Engine. Sure, they would give her time to get a feel for their ship, but after that she’d be expected to guide them into a fall through warpspace. More importantly, she would have to be able to guide them while in it and then get them back out.
Then, the really fun part. She would have to combine her magical output with that of the First Engine for a two-Wizard warpspace fall. Astrid had never been very good at collaborating, a fact she failed to mention when she sent out her credentials and applied for positions as part of a multi-Engine crew. This will be different. On this sort of ship, crewmates are like family. Surely I can share with family.
She wasn’t so sure, but it was time. Stepping between the shuttle and the ship was like taking a leap of faith in having a future. Her past was over, and she only hesitated a little.
She’s so young, was the first thought Aerin Nova had when she saw their new Engine. Was I ever that young? The actual truth, though, was that Astrid Miths was the same age as Aerin Nova. It was just that Aerin had been a Captain for the last three years, and a First Officer for most of her years before that, whereas Astrid had been a no-rank student for most of her life and then underemployed outside of her chosen profession.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” Wizard Miths asked the space between Captain Nova and Mechanic Sol-Miller.
“Permission granted,” Captain Nova replied. “Welcome aboard, Second Engine.”
“Thank you, Captain,” a relieved Engine Miths replied to her.
“These are Head Mechanic Desray Sol-Miller and First Engine Ryan Quercus,” Aerin informed her. “You’ll meet the rest as they become available.”
“I’m sure you’ll be calling me Mechanic Sol-Miller,” Desray said. “There’s another mechanic kicking around. As for him, you’ll probably just call him Engine, like we all tend to do.”
“That’s First Engine now, it seems,” Quercus corrected Sol-Miller. He turned to Wizard Miths and gave a wink. “Isn’t that right, Kid?”
Aerin knew she shouldn’t feel hurt. That he was just trying to welcome the new crewmember. But her heart ached so consistently with the desire to be treated like a daughter by her father, and here he was offering that to someone else. A stranger.
I should have been a Wizard. He would have loved me if I’d been a magical. Aerin swallowed her feelings, like she had learned to do over a lifetime of disappointment, and said, “Shall I show you to your room, or would you prefer a tour first?”
“I think… If I could see my room, maybe have a moment to settle myself in?” Astrid Miths said. She seemed a little overwhelmed, like she was ready to bolt back into that shuttle and hide. “Unless…”
“Probably a good idea,” Desray said. “Drop your things. Get your space legs. Though gravity on the Whisper is as close to what you get on a planet as you will get on a spaceship. Except the cargo area, of course.”
“And when we fall into warpspace,” Aerin added. “But you know all about that.”
“In theory,” Miths mumbled.
“Mind if I go back to…,” the First Engine asked, “Captain?”
“Yes, go,” Aerin said. “Thank you, Quercus. You’re dismissed.”
Obviously anxious to go, Engine Quercus only nodded a reply to Aerin. Then, seeming both nonchalant and like he was forcing himself to say it, he said, “See you later, Kid.” He slowly hurried away.
“Will you show her, Desray? I have to…” What? Go cry in a corner because daddy has a new favorite? “check on our pluses before they disembark.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” Mechanic Sol-Miller replied.
Aerin hurried out before the tears came.
We didn’t get much for our money, Yoland thought as he walked to his room. He’d been going from the shower to his room, holding the modesty towel closed at his waist, when he’d bumped into Mechanic Sol-Miller leading a terrified young woman to her new home. His first impression wasn’t favorable.
“She probably didn’t think too highly of me, either,” Yoland Pickle murmured when he got back to his room, looked in his mirror, and realized he still had soap bubbles in his hair. Or… Did that just move? “Gah!” What had looked like bubbles started growing little spikes.
Mechanic Pickle, being adept at using tools and in no way concerned about the magical residue creature on top of his head, calmly combed the thing out of his hair. The spikes were getting longer and hooked on the end, so they tore out some hair as he pulled, but he hardly noticed in his haste to remove the creature before it really became dangerous.
“Three,” the thing said, having just grown a mouth.
“What?” Yoland asked, with increasing alarm. They had never spoken before.
“Three,” it said again, before popping with a cloud like spores puffing into his face.
Coughing, Pickle fell back onto his bed and lost consciousness. He dreamt of Cursed Space.
Astrid Miths hadn’t expected a large area to call her own, so she wasn’t disappointed with the size of her room. Like being in the dorms again, she thought as she dropped her luggage on the floor by her bed. She had jettisoned most of her belongings in preparation for her new life. Now she found she missed her stuff. The room was awfully impersonal.
“Now what do I do?” She wasn’t really in the mood to meet more people. I’m such an Engine. But she was too restless to stare at these short walls. I can wander the ship. Try out my new home.
Back in the hallway, Astrid immediately bumped into a woman. “Hello,” the woman said. “Are you one of the pluses?”
“I’m sorry, the what?” Astrid replied, confused.
“Oh, you must be the new Engine. I’m Laborer Weft,” the woman Weft said, sticking out her hand to shake. “Edna.”
Engine Miths gently shook her calloused hand. “Astrid.”
“Do you need anything? Kitchen? Toilet? A tour?”
A tour would be useful. “I’m just going to see if the First Engine wants to get me started on anything,” Astrid ad-libbed.
“Anxious to earn your keep? Can’t fault you for that. There’s always plenty of work to get done. But I’d com him before showing up. He’s a bit temperamental. You know how Engines get.” Edna Weft showed her how to use the intercom in her room, which was the closest place to access it, then left her alone again.
She flipped the toggle, then thought better of it and sent the text: CAN WE START NOW?
YES, came the reply.
Ryan wanted nothing more in that moment than to have his solitude back. Instead, he took another dose of his homemade remedy for his anti-social tendencies. He studied his unwanted protégée. She looked as uncomfortable with this situation as he felt. Ryan Quercus considered offering her some of what he was taking, to lessen her anxiety.
“Well, Kid,” he said. “Shall we start this?”
“Yes, Sir,” Engine Astrid Miths shyly replied.
How do we start? “Extending exercises? Get a feel for the ship?” No, I don’t need to direct her through that. “Or not. You should do that while relaxing in your room by yourself. Let your mind wander a little.”
She looked relieved, like she wasn’t quite ready to tackle wandering the whole ship while someone was watching. It was a bit like being naked to extend that much. “How about… a quick run through propulsion? I understand that every ship channels it in unique ways?”
“Blow a testing feeler through the ductwork? Hold up, I’ll direct you. Excuse the touch.” He extended a feeling ribbon of his magic the three meters to her, used it to grab the end of the one she had extended, and tugged. It resisted. “Let flow. Let flow, Kid,” he said as he kept giving it gentle tugs.
“I’m sorry,” Astrid said, shaking out her tense shoulders and arms. The ribbon played out a little, then snagged, then let out some more.
“Here’s the edge. You feel it?” Ryan said as his unpowered magical stream deposited the end of Astrid’s timid string at the beginning of the propulsion ductwork.
“Got it,” Engine Miths said. “How far does it go?”
“You’re not afraid of vacuum, are you Kid?” he teased. Should I hold off on the teasing until she’s more comfortable with me? Do I want to be a teaser?
“Not afraid,” she muttered, determinedly. Astrid got a look of deep concentration on her face, then wonder, then accomplishment. “There.”
“Good, Kid, good,” Ryan praised. “Mind the leakage.”
She was leaking excess magic. It was getting everywhere. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” she apologized, looking embarrassed. Engine Miths pulled back in much of her magic, but left a fine residue on every nearby surface.
I’ll have to clean. Engine Quercus was much more precise. That can be learned. “You’re doing well, Kid.”
“Thanks.” Astrid yawned. “Now what?”
“Now take a break,” Quercus said. “Have a snack. Settle in. And, most importantly, explore the ship.” Most importantly, go.
“Thank you, Sir,” she said as she practically pounced on the blue hatch and darted through the opening.
This is slow going, Ryan Quercus thought as he slumped into his chair. Good thing we have nowhere we have to go.
“Thank you for your fine work,” Sam Spaceson said as he walked the pluses to their shuttle.
“It was worth it,” the shorter one said.
“As long as this school thing works out,” the taller one added.
“You have the instinct for doing hard work. You’ll do what you need to do to achieve your goals,” Sam said. “You’ll do fine. Just don’t let those rich kids get away with cheating off you when the coursework gets too hard.” He handed them each a sandwich he’d made so they wouldn’t have to buy something to eat before they got to the Wizard school.
“Thank you,” both of the hopeful students said. They boarded the shuttle.
“Huh,” said Wrangler Spaceson once he was alone. “Shuttle X. I thought it was Shuttle X3. Why did I think that?” My head hurts. I need to… ow. He sat in the nearest chair, rubbed his temples with the fingers and thumb of his right hand, and held on to the armrest with his left hand. Suddenly dizzy, Sam tried to hold as still as possible, hoping that would minimize his pain.
When it passed as suddenly as it came on, he’d forgotten why he’d been thinking of threes.
“Sending coordinates now,” Navigator Cyan said over intercom to the Engine.
“We’re not going anywhere right now,” Engine Quercus replied. “We have no destination picked.”
“Priority Override 3. Mission Code: Cursed Space,” Cyan said. The part of his mind that was aware and didn’t understand was confused, but it had no control over his mouth or hands. “Authorized by Captain Natalie Scape.” Then he spoke a string of whistles and clicks that he couldn’t remember even while he was doing it.
CONFIRMED. COORDINATES LAID IN.
The lights flickered into red as Navigator Cyan slammed the emergency button. “All aboard, prepare for imminent fall into warpspace.” He noticed a shuttle was still docked, but it appeared to have just closed the door between them. Cyan cut them loose.
A breathless Captain Nova rushed into the cockpit. “What’s happening, Timas?” She jumped into her seat and strapped in before asking again, “What’s happening?”
Timas couldn’t remember what had prompted him to come back to the cockpit. He’d been in his room, going over charts he hadn’t looked at for a long time. He’d been looking for something, but he wasn’t quite sure what. “I can’t tell you that, Captain,” he said. “I don’t know.” He felt bewildered.
Aerin Nova flipped the intercom to talk just to First Engine Quercus. “What’s happening, Engine?” she asked in a tense tone.
PRIORITY OVERRIDE 3. FALLING INTO WARPSPACE.
The lights dimmed. “I’m sorry, Natalie,” Timas Cyan said to the woman in the captain’s chair. “We can’t remember.” He saw that she passed out a moment before he did.
It felt to Second Engine Astrid Miths as if she were made of paper and someone was making tiny rips along her edges. “Kid. Open up,” came the voice of First Engine Ryan Quercus over the intercom. “I need you to lend to this fall. I don’t have enough.”
“I’ve never…” Astrid started to panic.
“It’s going to fail. I need.” He took a sudden, lengthier tear.
They were in warpspace, she knew. Something has gone wrong. Okay. What do I do? An Engine would pull in extra magic from anyone in an emergency, even from people who had no magic. The results were brutal on those not trained as Wizards. She opened up, pushed out the magic instead of letting him pull it.
“Medical emergency in my room,” Sol-Miller said over the shipwide intercom.
“You’re not having an emergency, Desray,” Engine Quercus said. “I’m sorry. I’ll explain it later.”
“No. I’m really hurt,” Mechanic Sol-Miller argued. “It felt like…”
Like shredding. “It’s okay, Mechanic,” Astrid said. “He was” gasping “grasping for magic. I’ve got it.” No need to let her know that I’m scared and hurting, too.
“We were scheduled to stay in orbit of Yettianna 3 for three days,” Sol-Miller said.
“Yettianna 4. That was Yettianna 4,” Astrid corrected before she could stop herself. “Yettianna 3 is uninhabitable.”
“I… I know that. Why did I say three?” Mechanic Sol-Miller replied.
Almost as an intonation, Quercus said, “Trinary star system. Third planet. Third moon. She’s waiting. She has been waiting.”
In her confusion, Engine Miths forgot to keep her magic flowing freely. Soon she felt the tugging like an arm being pulled from her. She screamed, instinctively resisted. Warpspace was going rancid around her and she began to gag.
They had trained her for this. Engine training at Wizard school was full of preparing for the worst that could happen. She took deep breaths and opened up as wide as she could force herself. Astrid was getting lightheaded, dizzy, faint. She took another breath and let her magic out even more. It was getting smoother, but the quality of the warpspace wasn’t improving.
“You taste that? What’s wrong with this warpspace?” Astrid asked.
“Cursed Space,” Engine Quercus replied.
“What’s Cursed Space?” Miths and Sol-Miller asked in unison.
Having forgotten until Cyan had used the Priority Override, Ryan Quercus was unprepared for the pain of remembering only enough to fulfill the order. He fell the ship. He had to. The mission was too important to delay it even longer, even if he couldn’t remember what the mission was.
But his magic was depleted after so much travel. He’d been anticipating a few days of rest. He’d even been hoping their new Engine could take a run when they resumed running. Though he’d told Aerin that he could work more, Ryan knew he was dangerously overworked.
“Still with me, Kid?” he asked.
“Turn back,” Engine Miths replied, gasping.
“We have to get as close as possible before falling out of warpspace.”
Ryan winced as he felt Pickle slip out of place and bust open his nose on the ceiling. Mechanic Pickle hadn’t secured himself before they fell into warpspace, but Engine Ryan Quercus had been trying to hold him. “Kid, can you do some maintenance?” he asked.
“I don’t know this ship,” she replied.
“Near you. Yoland Pickle. He’s unsecure.”
After a moment, “He’s bleeding.”
“Keep him from banging around any more than he has to,” Ryan said.
“It would be easier for me to go to his room and tie him to his bed,” Miths said.
I’m sure he’d enjoy that, if he were awake, Quercus thought. “I need you to not move around. Just get him near enough to the bed so he won’t fall far when we arrive.”
“How much time do I have?” Astrid Miths asked. “Wait, no. I got him.” Ryan felt the ripple of enjoyment from her and was relieved that she found the work fun. Engines who don’t find joy in the work burn out a lot faster. “That’s a lot easier without gravity in the way.”
Don’t play with him, Ryan thought. Just hold him in place.
Sorry, Astrid thought back at him.
He hadn’t realized he’d been thinking so loud that she could pick it up. He wasn’t used to receiving thoughts in reply. Must be amplified because we’re in Cursed Space. “Let’s not do brain-to-brain,” he said. “Some things should remain private.”
After that scraping up of my magic that you were doing? Astrid sent telepathically before severing the mental link. “How much longer?” she asked aloud. “I’m going to run dry, too.”
“Falling out in a moment,” Quercus said. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Like I had a choice,” Engine Miths mumbled before toggling off the intercom.
To Mechanic Sol-Miller, falling out of warpspace in this Cursed Space was like doing a faceplant into a simultaneously mold-dusty and urine-soaked mattress. It overwhelmed all of her senses as she tried to gag it out of her. The Cursed Space permeated everything, though. There was no extracting the curse from the space.
Desray Sol-Miller vomited. The vomit scurried away into one of her empty and open canisters and closed the lid. I can’t… deal with that now, she thought as she watched it go.
“Better now we’re out of warpspace, Desray?” Engine Quercus asked over the still-on intercom.
“You call this better?” Desray asked. She hurt all over and she wasn’t sure if she was done vomiting. Is it crawling around inside of me? The thought made her dry-heave, but nothing came out.
“Focus, Mechanic,” the Engine said. “You’ve done this before.”
“Not like this,” she replied. Desray remembered Cursed Space, but she’d never been this magic-aware before. Getting here was an ordeal in itself; she had no reserves of mental energy to combat these physical symptoms.
There was a knock at her door and a hesitant Miths calling, “Mechanic Sol-Miller?”
“Present.” Rather not be, but…
“Can I come in?” Astrid Miths asked. “I have some tablets for space-sickness.”
“I don’t have space-sickness,” Desray replied. I don’t get space-sickness.
“I know. But I think they might help. Engine Quercus pulled from you when he needed some extra magic. You’re not trained to handle that sort of thing.”
“Is that what’s wrong with me?” Desray asked, opening her door.
“Among other things, I’m sure,” Astrid said. “I’m sure being pregnant doesn’t help, either.” She handed over the tablets and left like she hadn’t just announced the biggest surprise Desray had ever faced.
I can’t be pregnant! Can I be…? Shit shit shit shit shit. Desray Sol-Miller dry-swallowed a tablet for space-sickness, willing her stomach to not reject it. I’m hardly late. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Shit shit shit shit shit.
Before coming fully to consciousness from the warpspace-induced sleep, Gunner Sam Spaceson got himself unharnessed and moving toward the weapons station with great haste. They were in Cursed Space, he could feel it, and if they were in Cursed Space it meant they were back in the war.
What war? a part of his mind asked. The rest of it didn’t have an answer. His body kept in motion. Okay. Then, what weapons station? That made his step falter a moment, because he wasn’t aware of the Whisper having a weapons station. “The only one we have,” his mouth supplied, answering his bewildered brain.
The yellow hatch opened at a touch of his palm, keyed to his fingerprints. Somehow, he hadn’t seen the yellow hatch all the time since they’d last been in Cursed Space, but he could see it now. The weapons station was familiar in the way of a childhood bedroom abandoned when you move away from home, but untouched since you left it. Sam knew that he knew the room well, he just didn’t remember why.
He toggled on the intercom to the cockpit. “Gunner Spaceson reporting in at weapons. What’s our status?”
“No hostile encounters yet,” replied Navigator Cyan. “Stay sharp.”
“Aye.” Sam toggled off. Automatically, he ran the checks of each system, noticed which fluid and ammunition levels were low, and requested replacements from Laborer Weft.
There were plenty of things to fine-tune to bring the dormant weapons back online. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d used them, but Sam Spaceson didn’t worry about thinking through the fickle nature of memory while he did his work.
Waking with deafening tinnitus and his face crusted with dried blood from a probably-not-broken nose, Mechanic Yoland Pickle rolled off his bed without having his limbs sorted out enough to catch him. He landed first on his right shoulder, then his head and hip. More bruises. Great.
He’d had odd dreams in warpspace; odder than usual, anyway. It was all slipping away now, leaving just an impression of light and movement. “She has been waiting,” he murmured.
He toggled on the intercom to anywhere the Laborer was likely to be, saying, “Weft? Could you come to my room, please?”
“I’m busy, Pickle. What is it?”
You’re not busy. You’re just lazy. “I need assistance,” he said.
“I’m sure you do,” Edna Weft replied. “Ask Sam. He’s got no passengers and nothing to do.”
Yoland was getting annoyed. I outrank you. “I’m asking you.”
“I’m not coming to your room,” Edna said. “Forget it.”
Fine. “Fine. I’ll come to you,” he said. “Where are you?”
“I’m in my room.”
That’s only a few steps away. “Okay.”
“You’re not coming in my room, either,” she said.
Don’t you trust me, Weft?
“I don’t trust you,” Edna said.
“Then meet me in the kitchen.” That’s neutral ground, isn’t it?
Laborer Weft sighed. “I’ll meet you there in a few minutes,” she said.
Yoland went into the hallway and waited until Edna opened her door; then pushed her back in, following her. His hand was over her mouth to muffle her scream, but Edna didn’t scream. She bit.
“Ow,” Yoland Pickle said. “Geez, Weft. What’s with the teeth?” He was between her and the door, between her and the intercom. This is going all wrong. “I just wanted to talk.” Why does she look scared?
The blue hatch wouldn’t budge. Astrid Miths banged on it with her fist but it didn’t make a sound. Ow. She toggled on the intercom, “Let me in.”
LEAVE ME ALONE.
Astrid considered it. All her years on Yettianna 4, both in school and after, taught her that you do not bother a Wizard who wants to be left alone. If he locked me out, he has his reasons. “When should I come back?”
I’M SORRY, KID.
“It’s okay. I understand,” Engine Miths said. I need to earn my keep. Let me in.
“I’m sorry, Astrid,” Engine Quercus said, his voice muddled with recent crying. “I need to be alone now.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.” What am I supposed to do now?
“Have we reached the blockade?” Captain Nova asked. “Any patrol ships in the area?” Please no ships. Please no ships.
“No ships,” Navigator Cyan said. “We are in the patrolled space but– No, wait. Patrol ship closing on our position.”
Damn. “I see it,” Aerin Nova said. “Who is it?”
Timas Cyan sighed. “It’s the Murmur.”
Damn damn damn. The Murmur was the Whisper’s sister ship, built on the same design and to be used in conjunction. They were an even match. “Outrun them.”
“They’re hailing us,” Cyan said.
“Outrun them.” I don’t want to fight. Just let us pass.
“They’re asking us to stand down and prepare to be boarded,” Timas Cyan reported.
Captain Nova toggled on the intercom to the Engine. “Ryan, can we have a quick fall into warpspace?”
“He’s exhausted,” Timas said.
Nova toggled on the intercom to the room of Engine Miths also. “Astrid, can we have a quick fall into warpspace?”
“I can’t get in… I haven’t led on a fall… I… I’m sorry, Captain,” Astrid replied.
Aerin flicked the intercom off. “We can’t let them board,” she said. “Open a channel to them.”
“Channel open,” Timas said.
“This is Captain Nova of the Whisper calling Captain Rustier of the Murmur,” she said.
“Is that really you, Aerin?” Mark Rustier’s hoarse voice sounded confused. “Listen, I’m horribly sorry about your mom. We all loved Natalie. But–”
“I don’t need to hear it, Uncle Mark,” Aerin cut him off. He wasn’t really her uncle, but she knew it would throw him off guard to remind him how close they had once been. “Let us pass.”
“I can’t do that, Aerin,” Captain Rustier replied. “You know that. Natalie Scape wouldn’t have wanted you to do this.”
“Don’t presume to tell me what my mother would or would not have wanted,” Aerin Nova replied. “If she were here, like she should be, she would be doing exactly what I’m doing now.”
“They’re closing on us,” Timas interjected.
“What you should be doing,” Aerin continued. “What are you doing out here, Uncle Mark? Is this what Aunt Susan would have wanted?”
“Susan was willing to die for the cause. As was Natalie,” Captain Rustier said. “They both accepted their fate.”
I can’t. “I can’t let you board,” Captain Nova said. “I’m sorry.” She toggled on the intercom to the weapons station. “Enemy ship incoming, Sam.”
“I see them,” he replied.
“Disable, don’t destroy,” she said.
“Affirmative,” Gunner Sam Spaceson said.
“Don’t let them get a lock on us,” she said to Timas.
“Their weapons aren’t online,” he replied. “We got a hit.”
“Don’t do this, Aerin,” Mark Rustier pled.
“I have to,” Captain Nova replied as the Whisper left the Murmur behind, unable to follow.
Edna Weft loathed Yoland Pickle with every fiber of her being, but she could never explain to herself why. He’d been her crewmate for three years, and aside from being a bit off, he hadn’t really done anything to make her distrust him. And yet…
“Have you calmed down?” he’d asked after barging into her room, as if she were being irrational for trying to fight him off.
“Get out,” she’d spat at him.
“Not until we talk,” he’d said, so calmly it had chilled Edna to the core.
The funny thing was, she couldn’t remember what had happened next. There was a whole stretch of time just missing from her memory. When Edna Weft came back to herself, she was in the cargo area, prepping the Medical Stasis unit for transfer off the ship.
It would be better to turn this off and let you die, she thought as she worked. The despair welled up in her, then dissipated. Whatever Pickle had done to her seemed to be working. Her emotions came, but they did not stick, and she was able to do what needed to be done.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, but even that feeling abandoned her mind.
A deep sadness overwhelmed Ryan Quercus that no amount of self-medication could relieve. He didn’t know, couldn’t remember why he should feel so sad. Sure, there were the usual reasons, and he could easily just assume those were the cause of his current feelings, but he was sure there was more to it. He just couldn’t think of what.
To distract his depressed mind, Ryan cleaned up the magical residue left behind by Astrid Miths in her exploration of the Whisper’s workings. “This really isn’t that bad,” he muttered. Next time she’ll do better. The thought made him sad.
Did I want her to fail? he asked himself. Nothing is permanent, he replied.
“What does that mean?”
The rest of his living space was shabby and worn, a little stained and soiled. The workspace, though, he always kept pristine. It was too important. No matter how unkempt his mind was, this small space had to remain uncluttered.
Wiping residue with one cloth and tears with another, Engine Quercus prepared for what came next. It was the same as always. Nothing ever really changed.
There were various medical devices in need of minor repairs. They weren’t used often, weren’t needed for emergency care, and so their upkeep hadn’t been a priority. Now, however, Desray Sol-Miller wished she had taken the time. She didn’t want to have to fix the devices. She wanted to be able to use them right away.
Sighing as she took apart a scanner, Desray muttered again and again, “I can’t be pregnant. How can I be pregnant?” She thought back about a month, to a couple of days of vacation on an actual planet. She’d met up with an old fling, the only reason to go to that planet, but they’d been careful. She had thought they’d been careful enough.
“Mechanic Sol-Miller?” Yoland Pickle said over intercom. Desray was surprised, when she checked, that he knew she was in the medical room. He hadn’t used the shipwide intercom, or even opened it to her room also.
“I’m busy, Pickle,” she replied. Can’t let them– him know.
“I know you are,” he said. “I normally wouldn’t bother you, but we’re experiencing multiple life support failures.”
Multiple? “We have backups,” she said, unsure.
“We have backups of backups. I know,” Yoland replied. “But we’re in Cursed Space. The backups are failing.”
What is Cursed Space? “I’m on my way,” Sol-Miller reluctantly replied, sweeping the entire disassembled scanner into its case. A possible pregnancy didn’t matter if the spaceship completely lost life support.
As always, these medical devices would have to wait.
Navigator Timas Cyan wanted more than anything in that moment to open fire on the three spaceships escorting them to their destination. As far as he was concerned, the war wasn’t over as long as the enemy was holding prisoners of war. Sure, the governments had declared peace as they regrouped and fortified their positions. Meanwhile, our enemy is using us against ourselves.
What does that mean? Timas rubbed his brow, suddenly unable to concentrate. “This Cursed Space is hell on my sinuses,” he said.
“I know what you mean,” Aerin Nova replied. She was also rubbing her forehead. “What were we talking about?”
“Sinuses,” Timas said.
“No. Before that.”
“Uh…” I can’t… think… “Hiring a Second Engine?”
“Oh. Right,” Aerin said. “I have a few good candidates… We could poach this one woman, a Sixth Engine… This would look like a good career move…” She clutched her head with both hands for a moment, then said, “No, wait. We already…”
“We already hired,” Timas said. My head! It hurts. “We have a Second Engine. That’s not what we were talking about.” What, then?
“Passengers?” Captain Nova offered.
“We don’t have passengers,” Navigator Cyan snapped. “For this place we have cargo.” He toggled the intercom to the cargo area. “Weft, is the cargo ready?”
“How many more?” Aerin whispered to herself. “As many as there need to be,” she answered herself, even quieter.
“Cargo nearly ready,” Edna Weft replied. “The shipment looks good.”
“Should we tell the Engine?” Aerin asked.
“You know he already knows. He always already knows,” Timas said. “He’ll just have to adjust if we hire a Second Engine.”
“Is that what we were talking about?” Captain Aerin asked.
“This cargo run is the worst,” Timas said, massaging his head some more. “Once we get a Second Engine, we can take the better runs. Longer, more lucrative runs.”
“Less dangerous runs,” Captain Nova said. “Cursed Space is full of…” She slumped, unconscious, in her chair.
“I know what you mean,” Navigator Cyan replied. He’d already taken medication for the pain and confusion, but he took another dose. It was too important to have someone in command be alert for this, and the curse affected Aerin more than it affected him.
I can do what needs to be done, he thought as he scowled once more at the enemy ships escorting them deeper into enemy territory.
Engine Miths felt useless and restless. She didn’t yet feel at home here in her new home, so she didn’t feel comfortable with wandering the ship. Yet she wouldn’t get to know the spaceship without exploring it. There was only one thing to do.
Putting herself into a comfortable position and a meditative mood, Astrid Miths extended her magical senses like she had to explore the propulsion system. This time it was broader, less focused, but cleaner. It didn’t need to move anything or stop at interior walls. She didn’t have to worry about privacy. There was no privacy from an Engine.
She extended her magical sense throughout the whole spaceship. Pickle, Sol-Miller,… Spaceson… she thought as she found them. Cyan, Nova… Captain seems to be unconscious. Should I be worried? No, Cyan is aware of it. Okay… Quercus. Woah, he’s agitated!
Don’t sneak up on me like that, he thought. “What are you doing, Kid?” he asked over intercom.
What you told me to do, she thought at him.
“Please use the intercom,” Engine Quercus said.
Astrid sighed, but complied. “I’m not finished,” she said. She turned her attention to finding Laborer Weft, the crewmember she hadn’t found yet. She’s in the cargo area… Yes. Wait… what?
“Be finished. Now,” Quercus ordered. “We’re going to be boarded soon and I need you to…” The intercom cut out. Before it did, there was a sound like a sob or a wail.
“What?” she asked, picking up on his agitation.
I don’t know how to hide you, Engine Ryan Quercus thought at her. I’ll do my best, though, if you can find a place. Go quickly.
What? Astrid thought more to herself than to him. He did not respond.
Here we go again. “Have they sent the shuttle yet?” Captain Nova asked.
“I don’t like it,” Timas said.
What’s to like? “You say that every time,” she replied.
“Well, I don’t like it every time,” he argued. “There’s nothing to prevent them from taking you, too, Aerin. Then where would we be?”
She’s waiting. “I can’t just not go.”
“Yes. Yes you can just not go,” Timas Cyan said. “She won’t know whether you visit her grave or not.”
“Don’t let your guilt–”
“Isn’t guilt why we’re here?” Aerin snapped. “Don’t we compound our guilt every time we come here?” Damned already. Too late to turn back.
Quietly, Timas replied, “Then why don’t we stop?”
Yes. Why don’t we? Just stop. Just stop. Her head was killing her, getting so bad she wanted to puke, wanted to shove a screwdriver through her brow and into her sinuses. She would gladly skewer a sizable chunk of her brain to immediately alleviate her pain. “I can’t,” Aerin whimpered.
“I know,” Navigator Cyan said kindly. He toggled on the shipwide intercom. “Shuttle Z3157M is docking. As always, all women to the docking area. All women to the cargo docking area.” He toggled off. “I’ll see you when you get back, then, Captain?”
“Don’t forget to wait for me,” Aerin joked. It felt like it was in bad taste, though she wasn’t sure why. Everything is in bad taste here in Cursed Space.
“Where is the cargo docking area?” Astrid Miths asked herself. Probably in the cargo area, she supplied. She had slammed her magical senses back to herself more out of habit than to hide herself like Engine Quercus had told her to do, but she could still almost feel the movement of the crewwomen to that part of the spaceship.
She had been ordered to the cargo docking area, not the passenger docking area. Astrid had never been in a cargo area and she was intensely curious about it. There was something odd there, something she had only barely touched with her magical senses before being distracted away. I’ve been ordered. I should go.
But Engine Quercus wanted me to hide. Astrid didn’t understand. Hide where? She looked around the room that was supposed to be hers. It didn’t feel like home yet. She didn’t know it.
“If I’m to hide, it means someone will look for me,” she reasoned to herself to calm her rising panic. “If someone is looking for me, they’ll check my room first.” So I need to leave my room. Do I bring my things? She looked at her possessions. They would slow her down, and none of them were needed for her survival.
It all depended on how the First Engine was going to help her hide. If he knew where she was hiding, he could shield that spot from notice. “But he didn’t tell me where to hide,” she said. So he’s going to hide the memory of me, she decided, grabbing her belongings and quickly tidying her room before cautiously dashing into the hallway.
On a ship like the Whisper, there were hundreds of places a person could hide for a short while. Astrid hoped she would only have to hide for a short while.
Can I hide? Desray Sol-Miller was cleaning the connections for the primary power supply when the call came for her to go to the cargo area for the arrival of the enemy’s conquering shuttle. Her first instinct was, I can’t let them take me alive.
Every newly-restored memory was an outrage of guilt and betrayal. She now knew, for now, what they were bringing to their enemy. Desray knew why they were bringing what they brought. She suspected that their cargo was causing some of the mysterious problems she was having. In which case, delivery of the cargo would alleviate those problems.
But I don’t want to be there when it’s delivered, she thought. Mechanic Sol-Miller had the vague impression of the knowledge of what their enemy wanted the cargo for. She wanted nothing to do with it in her fragile state. It wasn’t just the unconfirmed pregnancy, but the potential awakening of latent magical abilities in her that made her feel vulnerable and afraid.
“I can take over in here,” Mechanic Pickle said from right behind Desray, startling her. “You need to get to the Zim.”
Desray Sol-Miller resisted the urge to punch the smug face of her subordinate. Instead, she asked, “The what?” knowing already that she didn’t care about the answer.
“Shuttle Z3157M. The ship-to-surface shuttles are all Z, string of numbers, M. We call them Zims,” he replied.
“How clever of you,” she condescendingly replied. Desray stood, turned to face him.
“Don’t worry,” Yoland Pickle said. “They are only mildly curious about your pregnancy.”
Of course he knows. They know. Head Mechanic Desray Sol-Miller rested her hand on the heftiest loose object within reach, one of her empty canisters. In a contemplative but nonthreatening tone she asked, “If I bashed your head in right now, do you think they’d have your replacement on board by the time we were ready to go? Or do you think we’d be delayed?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be delayed at all,” Yoland replied with an unconcerned grin. “The work must go on. Though, you might become more interesting to them in a personal way. Perhaps they would replace us both.”
And then there would be two enemy spies on the Whisper. What would I care about that, though, if I were made to disappear into their empire of Cursed Space? “Maybe another time, then,” she said, taking her hand off the canister and heading for the door. “I really don’t have time for this, though. Life support is failing.”
“I know that,” he shouted at her as she went. “I’m the one who told you.”
Where do I go to hide? Desray had no intention of allowing the enemy any access to her body. The only solution she could think of was to get into a Hazardous Materials Suit and go into the most chemically and radioactively contaminated section of the ship. The decontamination of her would take hours. By then, the Whisper would be nearly ready to go again. Like Pickle said, there would be no delay. Desray would be safe from their interest.
If I’m lucky, she thought, the contamination will cause a miscarriage.
Mechanic Sol-Miller sighed and said, “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Gunner Spaceson was uncomfortable relaxing this far inside enemy space. “If we were a larger ship, I’d have another gunner to replace me,” he muttered as he put the computer into standby mode. The other spaceships would protect them if a threat came by. The Whisper and her crew were too valuable to them.
They probably wouldn’t even destroy us if I opened fire on one of their ships, he thought. It was tempting, but it would only prolong their suffering. What would they demand as payment for damaging one of their ships? “I’d probably face the same fate as Captain Scape.”
Sam Spaceson stretched as he went out through the yellow hatch, had a moment of lightheadedness. Why shouldn’t I go down fighting? Wouldn’t anyone? The Cursed Space was making him dizzy and nauseous again. How does anyone live here?
He pressed his forehead to a bit of cool metal, closed his eyes, and focused on his breathing. “There has to be a better solution,” he sighed. He sensed stealthy motion far to his right and glanced that way with his eyes. He saw an unfamiliar young woman creeping low along the wall; but when he turned his head, she seemed to vanish and he couldn’t remember why he would aggravate his headache with such a sudden movement.
“I could use a coffee. Or maybe a nap,” he muttered. Or both. As he turned to go, he noticed movement once again. This time, he ignored it.
On his way to the kitchen, Sam encountered Mechanic Sol-Miller hastily eating a vitamin and protein bar. It was an emergency ration, and his first instinct was to ask what the emergency was. The passing panic in her eyes kept the question unasked. Why shouldn’t she be distressed? Maybe we all should treat this as an emergency.
“Spaceson,” she warily said.
“What’s the hurry, Desray?” he responded warmly.
“Oh, you know,” Desray Sol-Miller said, feigning a casual efficiency instead of haste, “Cursed Space. I don’t know if it’s more of a curse to our bodies or the ship.”
“I know what you mean,” Sam replied. “I’d offer you coffee, but you seem to be in a hurry.”
“Well, life support isn’t going to support itself,” she said, signaling with her body language that she was anxious to keep moving. Then, as if unsure she wanted to tell this secret, she said, “I’m going into the Hazards. If I’m not out before we’re ready to fall into warpspace, will you come get me?”
It was a big ask, to risk contamination. It was a bigger risk to her, though, if she fell through warpspace there. “Are you sure you have to go in there now?” he asked. “With Captain Nova off the ship…” What? We’ll be vulnerable? Aren’t we already vulnerable?
“Don’t tell anyone unless you have to,” Desray whispered, searching his face for trustworthiness.
What has happened to make her want to hide? “You can count on me,” Sam replied. He knew he was too good at gaining people’s trust. That’s why I can betray them so thoroughly.
“Aerin,” Mr. Grae said as he floated off the shuttle. He flung his arms wide, like he was about to embrace her. “It’s been too long!”
Don’t call me Aerin, Aerin Nova thought as she suppressed the urge to flinch away from his touch. He didn’t touch her, but she knew that at some point he would catch her off guard with an unwanted hug. “Not long enough,” she tersely replied.
He showily laughed as if nothing could dampen his mirth. “Ah. I’ve missed your wit, Aerin,” Mr. Grae said. Confidingly, he whispered, “These guys are such bores! So serious all the time.” He glanced back at his crew, then winked at her like they were sharing a secret joke.
“Shall we?” Captain Nova asked, gesturing toward the shuttle. She wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, before she had a chance to think it over once again.
“Aren’t we missing some people?” he asked, looking around.
Aerin also looked. Laborer Weft was already moving the Medical Stasis units from their ship onto Shuttle Z3157M. The crew of the shuttle were already replacing them with a new set of Medical Stasis units. How many more?
As many as it takes, she answered herself. Aerin Nova looked away. Desray isn’t here, she realized. Addressing Mr. Grae, she said, “If Mechanic Sol-Miller isn’t here, she’s probably too busy to chat with you.”
“Oh, that is a shame,” Mr. Grae replied, sounding sad. “I had hoped to congratulate her on the little addition to her family. You will convey my good wishes?”
Aerin didn’t know what he was talking about, but responded with the expected “Of course.”
“Good,” he said. “But, who I’m really looking forward to meeting is your Second Engine.” He clapped his hands expectantly.
“We haven’t hired a new Engine yet,” Captain Nova automatically said without thinking. How did he know we’d been considering hiring another Engine?
“No?” he asked, puzzled. “You came here without a Second Engine?”
“We…” Did we? She couldn’t think of how they had gotten here so quickly without a Second Engine. The return trip always took a couple of warpspace falls, but they had gotten here on one. “We must have come from somewhere close by.”
“You don’t recall?” Mr. Grae asked, sounding genuinely concerned, or maybe just trying to test if it was a lie.
“There are a great many things I don’t recall much of the time,” she exasperatedly told him. “You know that. Your people are adept at messing up my memory.”
“I think you’ll find we’re not the only ones interested in helping you forget,” Mr. Grae coldly said, all mirth gone. He gestured toward his shuttle. “Shall we?”
“Thank you,” Aerin said. She felt no gratitude and no relief at finally stepping onto the shuttle.
Just before the doors closed, Mr. Grae decided against going with her to the planet. He crossed back onto the Whisper, commanding some of his fumigation crew to search the spaceship. At least I don’t have to talk with him anymore, she thought. She would have been worried, if she knew they were hiding anything.
Yoland Pickle had wanted to catch a ride on the Zim off the Whisper, have a blessed break among his own people, maybe lobby once again for another spy to replace him in this job. In frustration, he grabbed the nearest magical residue creature and ripped it in half. The two halves both grew mouths and bit him, but he squeezed until they popped, and wiped the disanimated residue on his coveralls.
His comrades would fumigate soon, and the Whisper would be blessedly free of those nuisances until they started transporting more people who leaked magic like wetting the bed in their sleep. In the meantime, Yoland sort of enjoyed crushing the life out of these things that had no business being alive.
“Crewman Pickle?” said an unfamiliar voice from the doorway.
“Present,” he replied, turning to look at the man– men– joining him.
“You’re Yoland Pickle?” the second man asked.
“Yes,” Yoland confirmed. He regarded the two strangers, growing apprehensive at their stern faces. “And who are you?”
“Our names are unimportant, Pickle,” the first one said. He regarded his electronic clipboard. “Can you tell us where Crewwoman Miths is?”
“Who?” Mechanic Pickle asked.
“Wizard Astrid Miths,” the man said. “Your Second Engine.”
“We don’t have a Second Engine,” Yoland Pickle replied, absentmindedly rubbing at a pain in his head and getting residue residue in his hair again.
“Then why did you send us her name?” the second one demanded.
So, it’s to be an interrogation. After all my hard work. “I don’t recall sending that name,” Pickle replied. “Are you sure of it?”
“It’s right here, Mr. Pickle,” the first one said, briefly showing him the screen. “Now you’re denying there was an Astrid Miths on the Whisper.”
“I’m neither denying nor confirming the existence of an Astrid Miths, aboard this spaceship or anywhere else,” Yoland Pickle replied. “Have you checked the contents of the Medical Stasis unit?”
“Of course,” the second one snapped. “She wasn’t there.”
“Are you hiding her?” the first one asked.
“How can I be hiding someone I don’t know of?” Yoland asked. He was getting sick of this interrogation. Who are THEY to question ME?
“This will go in your file, Crewman Pickle,” the first one said, turning to go. He said to the other man, “We’ll question Engine Quercus.”
Good luck getting anything from him, Yoland Pickle thought at them as they left. He turned back to his work, annoyed at how his own people treated him. “I guess I won’t be getting that promotion, then,” he muttered.
Edna knew their file on her called her defiant. In her right mind, she would have taken it as a badge of honor, but Edna Weft couldn’t remember the last time she had been in her natural, unaltered mind. She didn’t resist her second injection of the day, the one that would help her forget.
I do an awful lot of forgetting, she thought.
“Good girl,” the man condescendingly said, kissing her on the top of her head like a pet.
“Can I go now?” she asked, trying not to sound so small.
“First, tell me about Astrid Miths,” the man said.
Astrid Miths. Astrid… Miths… Laborer Weft wanted to comply. She wanted to be helpful. What did they put in that injection? Whatever it was, it was compelling. Edna sifted her broken memories, looking for the pieces that would make a pleasing answer. “I… don’t… know…”
“Are you sure?” he asked, trying to achieve more than a moment of eye contact with her distracted gaze.
“Ask… Sam. He seems… to know… everyone,” Edna said. She momentarily felt bad for setting them on Sam Spaceson, but then the feeling passed. We all deserve what we get, she thought while the drug allowed that expression of despair.
“Thank you, Crewwoman Weft,” the man said, dismissing her with another unwanted kiss, this time to her hands.
Don’t touch me, Edna thought as she backed away. Once out of the room, and back to full gravity, she turned and ran.
Coward. The anger at herself for her weakness left as quickly as every other emotion.
“You’re not going to get him to let you in,” Sam Spaceson told the man banging on one of the blue hatches.
“We need to talk to him,” the other man with him said. They looked a lot alike, but Sam decided this one was blonder. The one at the hatch was more brunet.
“We should talk to you, too,” a third man said from the doorway. He was grayer. “We’re looking for Engine Astrid Miths.”
Why do I feel like I know that name? “Engine, you say? Well, the Engine is in there,” he said, pointing at the blue hatch. “He’s not an Astrid, though.”
“You don’t know her, then?” the gray one asked. “Wizard Astrid Miths? Crewwoman Weft thought you’d be the one to ask.”
“Was she supposed to be a passenger, then?” Passenger Wrangler Sam Spaceson asked. “We had some magical passengers recently. I don’t think any of them had attained Wizard status yet, though.”
“Not a passenger. Crew,” the brunet one clarified.
“We didn’t bring any passengers into Cursed Space,” Sam said.
“Not a passenger,” the blond one said. “Crewwoman Miths.”
“We did have some pluses,” Sam continued in an unhurried and thoughtful way. “But I’m sure I saw them get off the ship.” He saw the puzzled look on the face of the gray one and explained, “Pluses pay for their voyage by doing odd jobs around the ship. Usually cleaning. Say, those last pluses were on their way to the Wizard school on Yettianna 4.”
“Yes,” the gray one said. “We have one of them in cargo. You saw the other two get off?”
“I’m sorry, what?” Sam was distracted by a ringing in his ears and the vague recollection of movement out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t recall the names of those two pluses, but I don’t think either of them was an Astrid. Seems to me I’d remember a name like that.”
“You’d think so,” the blond one quipped. “Yet nobody seems to.”
“Well, good luck on getting in to see the Engine,” Sam Spaceson said, intending to get back to work. “You might try the intercom.”
“You don’t need to get back to your weapons so quickly, Sam,” the gray one said, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder. Sam had the brief impulse to break his arm. The man must have sensed it, because he quickly took back his hand. “We’re all friends here.”
Friends. The word was a corrupted thing thrown, rancid, in his face. “With such good friends standing guard, I should be able to rest peacefully,” he said with a bow. “Good night and good luck.”
As he went to his room, Sam Spaceson smiled at the renewed sounds of the men trying to open the blue hatch. Let them try him, he thought. They’re no match for our Engine. For a moment, Sam remembered Second Engine Astrid Miths, but he wouldn’t turn back and betray anyone to the enemy. Soon, he forgot her again.
I hate this, Aerin Nova thought as she walked through the arid graveyard. It was her duty, as a loyal daughter, but the guilt about it overwhelmed her as she walked to the place her mother was buried. “It should be me here,” Aerin said to the screen bearing the name First Officer Natalie Scape. “It should be me here in that box, Mother.”
Her mother, of course, did not respond. People couldn’t hear or respond when they were in Medical Stasis.
They had argued at the time. The war was all but lost, their ship captured with many others. The enemy wanted prisoners of war, one from each ship. They wanted First Officers, which is what Aerin was at the time. Captain Scape wouldn’t have let this happen to any of her crew, certainly not her daughter, and so she made Aerin the Captain of the Whisper. Natalie took her place in the ground.
Aerin looked around at the graveyard of First Officers, the barren dirt sprouting only the doors of dozens of Medical Stasis units. Most would never be redeemed. The cost was too high.
How long must I keep paying? Aerin sighed. As long as it takes. As long as I can bear it.
She had been idealistic when the war began. Now, Aerin Nova couldn’t even remember what they had been fighting for. Better to run. To take care of your own as long as you can and just keep out of other people’s way. She had thought their enemy evil, corrupt in a way that had to be stopped.
Now I’m corrupted, too, I suppose. There’s no fighting evil without doing evil. Not that she was fighting anymore. She was abetting. She was aiding. She was betraying everything to save her mother.
“Soon, Mother. You’re coming home soon. I promise.”
“We have your captain off the ship. If you don’t open up, we won’t return her to you,” one of the men outside the blue hatch threatened over intercom.
“Wizards. They think they can do whatever they want,” another of the men muttered as he ineffectually tried to force the hatch open. It was sealed with magic. It couldn’t be forced.
Ryan Quercus had no intention of letting these men into his part of the spaceship, but he had to take their threat seriously. They had already taken one captain from them. He went out one of the other blue hatches and went around to meet them.
“Let us in,” the one at the intercom demanded.
The three of them startled when Engine Quercus responded behind them, “You wanted to talk to me?” He glowered at them, trying to look menacing. “Your people never have before.” I’d never defied them before. Not even when they took Natalie. Or… did I? He couldn’t remember. It was frustrating to not know everything that had led to this point.
“Crewman Quercus?” the oldest one asked. When it became clear that Ryan wasn’t going to answer, the man continued, “We have some questions.” Again there was a pause in which Ryan could have said something, but declined. “One question, actually. Where is Wizard Second Engine Astrid Miths?”
“Wizard Miths?” Ryan Quercus asked, as if he hadn’t ever heard the name. “Do I know a Wizard Astrid Miths? I knew a Wizard Piths… or was that just a pithy Wizard?” His audience seemed less than amused. He decided to challenge them to throw them off. “What do you want with a Wizard Miths, anyway? Don’t you people fear and despise Wizards?”
“You know what we want with her,” the one in the shabby uniform replied.
“Yes, but I’ve never understood it,” Ryan said. “You hate Wizards. Yet you’re actively making more of them.”
“We’re using the weapon of the enemy,” the third one, the one trying too hard to look classically handsome, said.
“We’re not making Wizards,” the oldest one said. “We’re making Sources.”
“Sorcerers?” Ryan Quercus asked. “Does it matter if you call them witches, magicals, wizards, magicians, or sorcerers?”
“You don’t need to understand,” the shabby one said.
“You have technological workarounds for what we do with Wizards,” Ryan said. “You have ways to neutralize magic and become immune to its influence.” Obviously not well, though. “So why do you want our magicals to incubate your own magicals?”
“Because your magicals are used to being treated like people,” the shabby one said. “Our Sources are just batteries for machines.”
Wizard Quercus was horrified at the thought of what they might do to a magical child to make him just an object to them. He suspected it was at least as terrible as what they did to the magical women the Whisper and ships like her abducted for them.
“We shouldn’t be telling you this,” the handsome one realized. He and the other two pulled out flasks and took their medication, ending their forthrightness.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to rest up for our return to the proper, normal space,” Wizard Quercus said, trying to leave before they remembered what they had wanted to ask him.
“You’re excused, Crewman Quercus,” the older one said.
“Wizards,” the shabby one said, disgusted.
Ryan Quercus went back to his part of the ship the way he had come. If I had had a few more minutes, I could have erased Astrid from their memories. “I hope you hid well, Kid,” he whispered.
What does that mean? From her hiding spot, Astrid was able to eavesdrop on the conversation between Wrangler Spaceson and the men hunting for her, then the one between those men and Engine Quercus. She had thought that Spaceson was going to give her away. She was sure he’d seen her slip through this yellow hatch.
Wrangler Spaceson hadn’t known her, though, and Astrid was relieved he didn’t come back to the weapons station after talking to them, revealing her location. She supposed Engine Quercus had hidden her like he said he’d do.
Then there was the conversation with Engine Quercus. Astrid didn’t know what to make of it. None of it made sense to her, but maybe it was just the fear that kept her from understanding. Whatever it was that these men wanted her for, Astrid wanted nothing to do with it. She used her magic to jam the hatch closed.
There was the sound of a portable communication device, then one of the men out there said, “Better get out of there, Dave. The Wizard is coming back.”
Astrid held her breath as she heard the sound of a hatch opening. The blue one. They’ve been in the Engine’s space without his permission. Somehow, it made her even more angry at these men who had invaded their ship. I’m a Wizard. I should be able to fight them off.
It was a tempting thought, but Astrid Miths hadn’t specialized in combat. She was an Engine. For the first time in her life, she questioned her impulse to become an expert in one thing and ignore the subjects that would have rounded out her education. No wonder no ships wanted me until now.
That thought brought the unwelcome realization that the Whisper didn’t want her, either. She had been hired with the intention of handing her over to these men for their nefarious purposes. And why not? Astrid sullenly thought. What use am I?
The feeling of betrayal gutted her. Fear warred with despair as she desperately clung to the thought, Quercus wants me here. He warned me. He’s helping me hide.
“He’s not hiding her in there,” a breathless voice said. She must be the one they called Dave, the one who had searched Engine Quercus’s rooms while the other ones kept him talking.
“We can’t search the whole ship,” one of the men said.
“We can search the crew’s rooms,” another one said. “We still haven’t found Crewwoman Sol-Miller, either.”
“I don’t care about Sol-Miller,” the man with authority said. “She’s useless for our purposes.”
“Even if her magic is awakening, like the spy said?” the woman asked.
“She’s still not magical,” he replied. “Or not magical enough. But, yes. We should search the crew quarters. If they did hire a Second Engine, she would have a room.”
Astrid listened to the sound of them walking by her hiding spot and away. I hope I didn’t leave anything in my room that would show I’ve been here, she thought. If they have no proof of my existence, maybe they’ll stop looking for me. She could do nothing more than hope.
Reluctantly, Captain Aerin Nova left her mother in suspended animation in that lifeless plain on that useless planet. One more run. Two at the most. Will it take another year?
They had been careful, but they had been lucky. Someday, someone might notice that people went missing when they booked passage on the Whisper, and then all of their work would be for nothing. Natalie Scape would stay in her grave forever.
The crew of the Murmur could have alerted someone to their crime at any time over these last three years. As could other ships on the blockade or the ones who lost a First Officer to the enemy and accepted their loss. Or, for that matter, the ones who were pirating like them but were caught. There were so many ways for this to yet fail.
In fact, Aerin half expected that once they ransomed her, Natalie would turn her in for this crime. Still worth it. Natalie had gone into this expecting to never revive again. Still worth it.
“Back to the Whisper, Captain Nova?” a shuttle pilot asked, ever so deferentially. He was much older than her, so it would have seemed mocking if he hadn’t had the calm certainty of a faithful believer. If hostilities resumed, she was certain the same shuttle pilot would have no hesitation as he calmly shot her.
“Yes, Crewman. Bring me home.”
Navigator Timas Cyan was in the kitchen, mixing up a margarita or daiquiri or something out of whatever fruit juice and alcohol he could find. He dosed it heavily with the potions they needed to cope with their guilt and forget for a time what they were doing; and he sweetened it with the Yellow Plains Honey to amplify the magical effects.
“A little now, before we go,” he said, pouring out a cup for each member of the crew. “A lot later.” He put the rest of the concoction safely away for when they came out of Cursed Space. They would need it to keep feeling compelled to collect magical women without knowing they were doing so. They would need it to keep feeling that it was reasonable to trade so many women for one.
The first time, when they were captured along with their comrades and all of their First Officers were taken from them, all of the remaining crew on the spaceships were given these compelling potions to force them into this sinister trade. Those ships that had a Wizard with the skill and the will to resist managed to escape this fate. The Whisper’s Wizard, though, couldn’t or wouldn’t undo the enemy’s magic. Now they were stuck.
Their captors always watched them take their first dose. It was a requirement of their release. Later, they would compulsively consume the rest of this malicious medicine-craft. None of them could resist it. We are, all of us, damned, Timas thought, not for the first time.
“Crewman Cyan. Just the man I was looking for,” Mr. Grae said, joining him. “Have you seen Crewwomen Sol-Miller and Miths?”
“Mr. Grae,” Cyan replied, offering a cup, “care to give it a try? No?” He shrugged, brought the drink to his own lips, and said, “Witness for me.” He took it in one gulp, choking on the sour sweetness and bitter saltiness. The fire of the alcohol battled with the icy magic before settling into balance. “It’s good,” he coughed, offering one of the other cups.
“No, thank you,” Mr. Grae said. He sounded annoyed. “I was asking about two members of your crew. I haven’t seen them.”
“Oh. Desray’s around… somewhere,” Timas said, feeling vague. “Astrid, though…”
Mr. Grae looked eager. “Yes?”
Timas was finding it hard to remember. The drink. It works quickly. “I don’t think we hired Astrid Miths. We were going to. Maybe we were planning on hiring her when we got back? I don’t remember if she was the one who got hired away before we could get her or if she was the one who needed to retake her certification tests.”
“You’re certain she’s not on board, then?” Mr. Grae asked.
“Have we ever kept an Engine from you?” Navigator Cyan asked. He went to the intercom, toggled on the shipwide, said, “All crew to the kitchen for your medicine.” He toggled it back off. “You can wait for Desray to come to you. And Engine Miths, if you’re so certain she’s on the ship.”
“Well, you’re all such unreliable sources of information,” Mr. Grae said, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture. “How could I not doubt you?”
Desray Sol-Miller regretted her decision to hide as soon as she contaminated herself. I’m not contaminated, she thought. Just the outside of me is. Then the snarky part of her mind chimed in with, Unless you count the pregnancy as a contamination. She ignored it. As long as she was in there, Desray gave the area a quick once-over. Nothing needed tending to. It was a wasted trip.
“I don’t even know why we have that section of the ship,” she said once in the first part of the decontamination process. As the outer layer of her Hazardous Materials Suit was pummeled with solutions to scrub away impurities, Mechanic Sol-Miller had a moment to think it over.
That area was a relic and an unused redundancy. It powered a system that would give them an emergency, brief fall in and back out of warpspace. Or, in the case of an Engine failure while in warpspace, it would theoretically kick in to drop them back out of warpspace.
As far as she knew, these backups were either never deployed or they never succeeded. She could list a half dozen spaceships that had gone into warpspace and never came out, as far as anyone knew. She couldn’t list any that had had Engine failure in warpspace and come back to tell the tale.
Desray tried her hardest to ignore the crawling feeling along her back. If it was a magical residue creature, there was nothing she could do about it until she could take off the protective gear keeping her safe. It’s probably just chills from the thought of Engine failure in warpspace.
“Crewwoman Sol-Miller, please report your location,” a man’s voice said over the shipwide intercom. “Crewwoman Miths, please report your location.”
Head Mechanic Desray frowned. I imagine Astrid is hiding, the same as I am. “Wait, what?”
Deciding not to respond to the command, Desray Sol-Miller decided instead to run this first part of the decontamination cycle over again. Can’t be too careful, she thought, forgetting the elusive and illusive Astrid Miths. She tried to ignore or endure the creature crawling over her.
She focused inward, to the potential human life potentially growing inside her. It scared and fascinated her to think that she might become a mother. It infuriated her that their unnameable enemy was forcing pregnancy on unconscious women, and that she was complicit in this crime.
What would Professor Doug do? Astrid thought as the stress and uncertainty of hiding made her shiver with a heavy sweat of magical residue. She reeked with the unmistakable perfume of unused magic fluid. Astrid Miths feared the scent would spread beyond her hiding spot and give away her location.
There was a way to reabsorb leaked magic. She had learned it at school from Professor Doug Joanses, who had survived the Fourth Purity War as a young man by being able to keep his magic from coming out in his saliva, sweat, and other secretions a doctor might test.
Why didn’t I study harder? No wonder nobody wanted to hire me. Trying to force the magic back through her pores, Wizard Miths couldn’t help but despair. I’m useless. I might as well let them take me.
Her pores were too small to focus on when her ears kept straining to hear if those men were coming back. She couldn’t relax and go through the steps, as she had in school. Real life isn’t like school, Astrid thought, a refrain she had heard often from Councilor Wizard Emilie Midi.
When she had first arrived at Yettianna 4 to go to Wizard School, Astrid had found it odd that there were as many Councilor Wizards as Professor Wizards. Soon, she had discovered just how important it was to have someone to offer her advice and help her soothe her frazzled emotions. What would Councilor Emilie say?
This isn’t a test. You don’t have to do it the right way, you just have to do it.
Her pores were too small, but that wasn’t the only way Astrid could think of to reabsorb magical residue. It sort of disgusted her to think about it, so she didn’t think. Wizard Miths just reversed gravity on the magical sweat and diverted it to her mouth. She could swallow it. She had to swallow it.
To take her mind off her tingling, crawling skin and the new taste of cold fear in her mouth, Astrid Miths tried to puzzle out what was happening. Years ago there had been rumors of the start of a Fifth Purity War, but most people denied it was happening. It wasn’t a problem on their planet. Magical people weren’t really oppressed on their planet. Purity Wars were a thing of the past.
If there is a Purity War going on… Are we in the territory of the Democratic Dictatorship of the Purists? The thought was interrupted by a shooting pain behind her eyes. Astrid recoiled, lost the balance of her precarious crouch, hit the back of her head on a protruding corner on her way to the floor. What was that?
“Did you catch that?” the muffled shout of a man asked. There was the sound of multiple sets of feet running.
“Not everyone on board has been dosed yet,” a man responded from nearer by. “The proximity is bound to make someone start to remember.”
The blow to her skull made Wizard Astrid’s vision obscured with burst patterns and blurred with tears. She tried to blink them back, swallow the tears that were so infused with magic that they were practically alive and slithering from her eyes.
“I’m picking up another magical reading,” one of the men in the adjacent room said. “I thought we were done fumigating. No, wait. It’s…”
“Inconsistent?” another man asked. “You’re probably picking up Crewwoman Sol-Miller. Can you tell where she is?”
“Is there a magical woman hiding?”
“She’s classified as demimagical,” one of them said with a sneering contempt. “Useless in her impurity. Only interesting if you are fascinated by freaks of science. Shall we go?”
“I’ve never seen a demimagical.” To Astrid, he sounded dangerously curious.
Do I dare try to make him go away? she thought. It would take such a small nudge that she was pretty sure she could get away with it. Professor Doug always said that when hiding, you should resist the urge to use your magic offensively. But it’s just a little suggestion… Wizard Engine Miths held her breath and tentatively reached out a testing feeler of magic.
Ryan Quercus was in the kitchen to imbibe his cocktail of memory-altering substances when Astrid Miths revealed herself to his ship-wide magical awareness. No. What are you doing, Kid?
“Why do you hesitate, Crewman Quercus?” the older man asked.
“Just wondering what booze is in this potion,” he replied, giving it a sniff. “I thought only young adults with no money for alcohol and no taste made mixtures this bad.”
The older man had a phoney chuckle. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”
She’s going to give away her position. He sipped his drink, grimacing at the putrid metallic taste of a hypocrite’s magic. The man who had worked that medicine-craft clearly hated his own wizardry, tainting the finished product with his self-loathing. “You need a better Wizard.”
“We need a non-magical product that works just as well.”
“You fear magic and yet you use it as much as anyone,” Ryan said. He took another mouthful of his fruity beverage and relaxed his control over his magical output, lessening the artificial gravity slightly and allowing puddles of residue to form in his throat and sinuses. Hope this helps you stay hidden, Kid. What a mess.
“Sometimes you need to use the weapon of the enemy to win the war,” the older man said as if quoting a venerated leader. “Or the enemy as a weapon,” he added.
Wizard Quercus nodded in agreement as if the potion was having a greater effect on him than it was. “What war?” he whispered. “Seems to me…” The man leaned toward him to hear better. Ryan took a deep breath and sneezed with force into the man’s face, splattering him with mucous and magical residue. “Oh. So sorry.”
The older man recoiled before the Engine could touch him to help wipe his face. He backed up to the wall with fearful discomposure and toggled on the shipwide intercom. “Level Seven Contamination in the kitchen. Please…”
“Don’t worry, I’m not sick,” Wizard Ryan said, waving his hands a little more than necessary as he advanced on the retreating enemy. He allowed his reassuring smile to be briefly menacing.
“Please hurry,” the man said. He looked like he was trying to reassert composure as he commanded, “Don’t touch me. Just finish taking your medication and go.”
Ryan quickly swallowed the last two mouthfuls of his drink, sneezed once more for good measure, and stumbled from the room. He couldn’t tell if Astrid was no longer exposed or if his senses had just gone hazy enough to not pick her up anymore. He hoped he’d distracted away the men who had nearly found her.
I’m ready to forget again, Captain Aerin Nova thought as the shuttle bringing her back to her ship finished docking. More than ready.
Stepping on to the Whisper distracted and pensive, Aerin nearly collided with a group of men carrying a woman who was feebly struggling, only partially sedated. For a moment, Captain Nova thought the woman was part of her crew, but she didn’t look familiar. She wasn’t Desray or Edna, though Nova wasn’t sure she wouldn’t give up either woman to get her mother back sooner.
“Captain! Captain!” the woman called to Aerin’s back.
“Welcome back, Captain,” Pickle said as they happened to meet on the way to the kitchen. He was wearing nothing but a towel.
“Do you do anything other than shower, Yoland?”
“It’s dirty work,” he replied.
Aerin didn’t know if he meant human trafficking or just being a mechanic, so she didn’t respond. The kitchen was in the last throes of a profound chaos when they got there. It looked like the frenzied panic of cleaning up an aerosolized plague before anyone was infected. “Are you well, Mr. Grae?” she casually asked as she grabbed her glass of poison and regret-reducer.
“Your Wizard sneezed on me!” he exclaimed. He shooed away the men who were fussing over him until they left.
Aerin downed her beverage in one swift movement, grimaced. “This tastes of despair and self-pity. You need a Wizard that’s better at medicine-craft.”
“That’s what your father said,” Mr. Grae replied.
“Have you found your imagined missing magical?” Yoland Pickle asked. He seemed more angry, resentful than usual.
The magic was sound, but it was foul, and it tore through Aerin with all the subtlety of rampaging hornets chewing through paper. Her concentration was gone, but part of her brain was still connected to her mouth, and she supplied the answer without much thought. “They were bringing her to the shuttle just moments ago.”
Mechanic Yoland looked surprised. “What?”
“So Astrid Miths does exist?” Mr. Grae asked, looking pleased.
Aerin just shrugged. She pointed at the full glasses remaining. “Who’s left?”
“I was sure we didn’t have an Astrid Miths on the Whisper. I was sure,” Pickle said.
Captain Nova shrugged again. Liking the movement, she shrugged some more. “Don’t forget to count her in our tally. I’m going to go…” She lost where her thoughts were going. “There was something I was going to do.”
“Have a good rest, Aerin. Until we meet again,” Mr. Grae said.
Don’t call me Aerin, Aerin Nova thought as she stumbled, half blind, to her room. There she collapsed, weeping uncontrollably, until finally passing out.
What do I do if someone is still hiding in there? Sam thought as he walked up to the yellow hatch. There were still enemy men milling about, but he wanted to get in there before his forgetfulness juice kicked in.
“Crewman Spaceson,” a very young man in nitrile gloves said, giving Sam a good excuse to stop. “I’m here to give you an injection. Don’t worry, it’s the same one Crewwoman Weft gets. It’s perfectly safe.”
“I’ve already taken the–” Sam made the motion of drinking from a cup. “I’m compliant.”
“You see, sir…” The man looked nervous, like he wished for backup. “You see… The missing Wizardess was found in there.” He gestured at the yellow hatch. “So…”
“The missing what?” Spaceson asked, the fog descending over his thoughts. Curse this space. Curse these people. “Oh. The… So, I hid her in there, then?” Of course. He bared his arm for the man’s needle, felt the anger melt away. “As if I could hide a Wizard from you.”
“Just doing my job, Gunner Spaceson,” the man said kindly. Whispering, he said, “I’m on your side. I’d like to be your friend.”
We’re all friends here, Sam thought as he opened his yellow hatch and slumped inside. The room smelled of fear but was empty of anyone other than him.
“I suppose I’ve wasted enough time,” Desray Sol-Miller muttered under her breath as she stepped into the last part of the decontamination area. There she burned those disposable garments not worth cleaning along with the magical residue creature that had been making itself at home on her body. She often felt bad about burning those creatures, but it was protocol. It couldn’t be laundered.
Wrapping herself in a towel, Mechanic Sol-Miller planned on going to her room, via the kitchen, and hoped the walk wouldn’t be interrupted for too long. Almost immediately, she was met by a vaguely familiar young man wearing the insignia of a civilian medic and purple nitrile gloves. What is a civilian doing here in a war zone?
“There you are, Desray,” the man said, looking relieved.
“I have to go take my medicine,” Desray said, suddenly wishing she’d brought clothes to change into before venturing out. She continued toward the kitchen.
“I’ll walk with you,” he said, falling into step with her. After a moment, he said, “I’m here to get a blood sample from you, Desray. Have you had any doctors examine you yet?”
Deciding to play coy, Sol-Miller replied, “I get a yearly checkup.”
“Senator Miller is curious about her grandchild,” the young medic said.
“Tell my mother that I’m having the pregnancy terminated. And to stay out of my business,” Desray said. Having said it out loud, she knew it wasn’t true. She wanted the baby. I should probably retire when we get back to normal space. Get myself out of their clutches. Her clutches.
“Still, I have my orders,” he said as they reached the kitchen.
“Just a blood sample?” she asked, sitting on the table and offering her arm.
“Just blood,” he said.
Desray looked away as he went about collecting a small vial-full. If this was all, I didn’t need to hide. She looked at the other, older man in the room with them. “Leaving soon?”
“As soon as I see you drink your medicine,” the older man replied, holding out a cup. “A little alcohol shouldn’t hurt your little abomination too badly.”
“I’m getting rid of it,” she defiantly lied. Desray didn’t want to drink that strange brew, but did. It was just another thing she was compelled to do against her will.
“That’s just as well,” the older man said before leaving her alone again, nearly naked, with a somehow familiar young man.
Her head already felt strangely sluggish as she turned to look at the medic, who was pressing a tiny sterile bandage to the place he had punctured her skin. “Do I know you?”
He looked her straight in the eyes as he said, “No.” Then he looked away, busying himself by digging through his medical bag.
He pulled out a small jar and presented it to her. “This should help with your skin infection.”
Matthew? Who is Matthew? Why do I know him? “I don’t have a skin infection,” she said. “You’re the son of my mother’s doctor, right? Your father promised her so much and delivered so little.”
“He delivered you,” Matthew replied, confirming her recognition of him. “That was never a disappointment, sister.”
Half-sister, Desray thought. Somehow the worse half. On impulse, she said, “Come away with us, Matthew.”
He gave her a sad smile. “Next time,” he said. Matthew closed his bag, turned to go, looked at her from the door. “Use the topical cream. It’ll help with those magical parasites. It has always worked for me.”
The Cursed Space was feeling oppressively nasty to her again and the drink burned in her gut worse than just bad alcohol would. Desray Sol-Miller wanted to retch and lay down, but mostly she wanted to save her little brother. “We can trade you for Pickle. You can be our new spy.”
“Go have a nap, Desray,” Matthew said, holding back tears. “You’ll forget me by the time you wake up.” He hurried from the room.
Mechanic Sol-Miller hopped down from the table to follow him, but her legs didn’t properly bear her weight and by the time she could get them to, she had forgotten why she had gotten up. Shivering, she decided she had better go get dressed.
Aware but unable to move, Wizard Astrid Miths fought the powerful compulsion to accept this new predicament she found herself in. No. No, no, no, she thought. Extending her magical senses as far as her drugged state would allow, Astrid found all around her other women in similar distress.
No, no, no, they thought, or Help me!
Wizard Miths set out a thick layer of magical residue as her panic ebbed and renewed again and again. Losing all sense of time, all awareness of place, her mind wandered through nightmarish fantasies. I have always been here, she thought. I have never existed at all.
All around her were the silent wails of other magicals, similarly ensnared. Forever.
Navigator Timas Cyan was relieved to find he’d plotted their course before his nap. He didn’t remember having done it, but there it was, ready to be sent to the Engine. Three falls into warpspace before we get to our destination? It seemed odd to him for a moment, before a hangover headache distracted him from thinking it over.
“Sending coordinates now,” Navigator Cyan said over intercom to the Engine.
I THINK I LOST SOMETHING, the Engine sent as a text reply.
Don’t get absentminded on me, old man, Cyan thought. I need to talk to Captain Nova again about replacing our Engine. He toggled on the shipwide intercom. “Prepare for falling through warpspace.” He had an irresistible urge to get going as quickly as possible.
I AM NOT READY.
Captain Aerin Nova rushed into the cockpit. “What’s the hurry, Timas?” Throwing herself at her seat, Nova didn’t wait for an answer before getting herself strapped in for departure. She looked around aimlessly. “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” she said.
“I know the feeling,” Timas muttered. He toggled the intercom back to just the Engine and said, “What’s the delay?”
Over the shipwide, sounding a bit frantic, Engine Quercus said, “Falling through warpspace now.” Then, quieter and less sure, “Where’s–” He toggled off the intercom and switched back to typing text, just the one plaintive word: KID?
Timas couldn’t puzzle out what it meant before the fall into warpspace rendered him unconscious, sooner than he expected. He barely noticed the lights dim before he passed out.
Each time awake for the fall through warpspace was easier than the last. Desray Sol-Miller was getting so acclimated to it that being in warpspace hardly felt different than not being in it. She didn’t even feel the need to strap herself down.
“Desray?” Engine Quercus said through the intercom.
Head Mechanic Sol-Miller floated over to reply. “Yes?”
“Desray, where’s Astrid?” he asked. He sounded sad, lost, and like he knew the answer.
Reluctant to be the one to remind him, Desray said, “Natalie’s dead.” No. Astrid. Astrid. She’s… “I’m sorry, Engine. Natalie Scape is dead.”
“No,” he said. “When?”
Swallowing back the feeling that something wasn’t right, she said, “Three years ago.”
No! Engine Quercus thought at her so forcefully that she stumbled back a step. Then a shudder rippled through the spaceship, gravity inverted, the light rapidly blinked between red and black, and the Whisper abruptly fell out of warpspace.
Having neglected to secure herself, Desray landed headfirst onto the ceiling. “The backup worked,” she whispered as she dispassionately watched something undefinable but furry furiously come at her. She felt weak and dizzy, and blacked out before it reached her.
“Evasive maneuvering! We’re under attack!” Gunner Spaceson yelled at his intercom, set to the cockpit. “Is no one awake? We need to move!” Upright or hanging from his straps, Sam Spaceson was calmly competent, but he didn’t like coming to in the middle of a battle his comrades hadn’t arrived at yet. “Captain. Navigator. We’re a stationary target.”
He shot at the scavenger spaceship drones that were within range, but there were too many of them. It was a pirate swarm, and they quickly figured out where the sensors were down and where the guns couldn’t reach. If they breach the hull, we’re lost, Sam thought.
He toggled the intercom to the Engine and without much hope asked, “Can we fall back into warpspace?” The light that would indicate that the Engine was working was off. “Are you there?” No help there.
The options were to either go down in a final, undignified blaze of defeat or try something truly desperate. Sam Spaceson knew the Whisper had a quick and dirty escape plan, a small and painful fall in and out of warpspace that would, hopefully, bring them out of scanning range of their attackers.
As a courtesy, Gunner Sam toggled the intercom to make a shipwide announcement. “Prepare for emergency fall through warpspace.” He was pretty sure nobody had revived from the last fall through warpspace, and so should still be secured in their harnesses.
“I sure hope this works,” Spaceson muttered to himself as he engaged that machine of last hope. The brutality of the resulting fall rendered him agonizingly insensate.
“She is safe,” the spy canidine rasped into the listening device hidden in Desray Sol-Miller’s room. “It is getting harder to fight them off.”
I don’t really care if she’s safe, the spy Yoland Pickle thought in reply. He had just woken from the worst warpspace fall he had ever experienced. He didn’t have any interest in hearing the canidine compose another ballad to its latest victory over a magical residue creature.
“We’ve just fumigated. There should be fewer marcs to fight until we start gathering a new batch of magicals and Wizards.”
“Marcs?” it asked.
“Short for magical residue creature,” Yoland said, feeling pleased with himself.
“Don’t try to be clever,” the canidine replied. “It doesn’t suit you.”
You’ve been spending too much time with Sol-Miller, he thought, angry at the furry little monster for this insubordination. “Is her room clear?” he asked.
“Of marcs?” the canidine mockingly asked. “I’ve disposed of her collection. A few had some nasty words for me as I tore them apart.”
“Okay. Good job,” Pickle said, wrapping up their conversation. “Keep hidden. Don’t forget.”
“I know,” it said. “I’m not the one who forgets.”
Mechanic Yoland Pickle went back to work. There’s always something to fix on this ship, he thought. He sipped some of the margarita daiquiri drink he found mixed up in the kitchen refrigerator and slowly forgot everything.
I need to stop going through warpspace in the cargo area, Laborer Weft chided herself as she floated to the door. The heaviness of the artificial gravity outside the cargo area nearly crushed her to the floor, but she somehow managed to keep on her feet.
There was one more thing Edna needed to do before she could go back to forgetfulness. It was a small thing, barely a thing at all. She wondered why such an unimportant thing felt so urgent. Stumbling but running, Edna Weft reached the yellow hatch and banged on it, yelling, “Sam!” until it opened.
“What?” Sam Spaceson asked, coming out of the weapons station ready to face any danger.
Edna didn’t know what was in the bottle she had been given, just that she was supposed to spray it in Sam’s face until he looked blank, then say, “Passenger Wrangler Sam Spaceson.”
“Is there something I can help you with?” Sam replied in the jovial manner he had.
“I was just wondering if we’re picking up passengers at our next destination,” she said.
“Oh, I imagine so,” he replied. Sam moved across the room to his accustomed workstation, looked over his latest itinerary. “I don’t seem to have that information here right now.”
“No worries,” Edna Weft said, mind drifting now that she had no more duties to perform. “I don’t know why I asked. I don’t have anything to do with passengers.”
“You’re lucky,” Wrangler Spaceson replied. “They can be a pain.”
Edna wandered away, unsure what she was supposed to do now. She decided to check if there was anything in the kitchen to dull away her pain and confusion. I could use a drink.
“Your coordinates were off,” Captain Aerin Nova said, annoyed. “This isn’t Molorka. This isn’t anywhere.” As if to prove her point, she gestured at the screens displaying space on all sides of their spaceship. There wasn’t so much as an asteroid nearby.
“My coordinates weren’t off,” Navigator Timas Cyan argued defensively. “Your Engine didn’t get us there.”
‘Your Engine’? Not ‘the Engine’ or ‘our Engine’? Aerin thought. And why not? The Whisper is my ship. I’m her captain. “Can you at least determine where we are?” she asked, dropping the fight before it went to its inevitable conclusion.
Timas, it seemed, wasn’t ready to stop arguing. “He’s unreliable.”
“Drop it.” It made her weary. It made her head ache.
“I’m not saying that you should fire your Engine,” Navigator Cyan explained. “I just think you should consider taking on a Second Engine. Just think of the benefits. For one, we wouldn’t find ourselves in these sorts of situations.” He also gestured at the screens showing a lot of space and very little of anything else.
Which situations? The ones where we fight over this again? No, we wouldn’t find ourselves in these situations because you’d have won. Captain Nova toggled the intercom on to the Engine, saying, “What’s your status, Engine?”
DON’T TALK TO ME, he texted back.
Not now. Don’t get difficult now. “We need to know where we are and why we’re here,” Aerin said, trying to keep the pleading out of her voice.
“And how long we’re going to be stuck here,” Timas added.
“Not helping,” she muttered at him.
I’M SORRY. GIVE ME A MOMENT.
Sorry? “Take as much time as you need,” Captain Aerin said.
“I can’t chart a new course if I don’t know where we are,” Timas quietly complained.
Aerin picked up the nearest book of charts and shoved it at him. “We’re probably somewhere between where we started and where we want to end up,” she said, exasperated. “Figure it out.”
I’LL TRY HARDER. YOU DON’T NEED TO HIRE ANOTHER ENGINE.
He knows, Aerin thought. She hadn’t been ready to tell him they were hiring a Second Engine. She hadn’t been sure of it herself. Captain Scape never needed a Second Engine.
“I’ve figured it,” Navigator Timas said. “We’re not far from Molorka. We could get there without another fall through warpspace, if we don’t mind it taking the better part of a day.”
“We should do that,” Aerin said. “These short falls are brutal.”
Timas mouthed more than whispered, “We could do long hauls if we had a Second Engine.”
I CAN DO IT, CAPTAIN. JUST SEND ME THE COORDINATES.
“No, Engine,” she said, unstrapping from her seat and standing. “I think we could all use a chance to walk around, relax, have a drink and a bite to eat.”
Over the open intercom, the Engine said, “Don’t replace me, Captain.” His voice was soft, and rough as if from crying.
“I’m not going to replace you, Engine Quercus,” Captain Nova said. “This is your home for as long as you can bear it.”
“But we’re hiring a Second Engine?” Timas whispered.
“But we’re considering hiring a Second Engine,” Aerin confirmed. It made her feel unaccountably sick to her stomach to say it, to mean it. Another. As long as you can bear it.
Julia Rancourt grew up in Minnesota, but has since lived in a few other states. She has had a lifelong fascination with science fiction and fantasy, particularly how they allow us simultaneously to escape and to deeply examine the real world.