Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Sunset

The starship crash-landed somewhere in the dark and early hours of morning. The thunderclap sound of it striking the East Bay woke Tamuel up, heart racing and confused. He glanced out his window, but didn’t see anything. He stumbled out into the common room to see if he could see anything different from the balcony.

“What was that?” One of his siblings also was apparently out and looking around for the cause of the sound. “There’s no storm.”

Outside, through the windows opened to allow the cool land breeze rushing out toward the ocean to pass through the foundling dorm’s corridors, Tamuel saw only stars and the looming dark of the Berenthais Mountains.

Tamuel squinted through the dark to see that it was Shau who had woken with him. Several of the other boys grunted and swore from in their rooms, annoyed at the late interruption to their sleep. Group classes would start early in the morning; this was an unwelcome event.

“I—” Tamuel stopped as the horrid wail of the tsunami sirens pierced the night.

Everyone woke up and streamed out of their doors, sleep forgotten as fear jolted them awake. There was a mass of panic before some of the prefects, older and well-drilled, asserted order. “Line up! Those of you near the east corridor, march to the stairs and head to the third floor. West corridor, march! Do not go back to your rooms to take anything with you. Move now!”

The thirty boys fell into lines and the entire common room split right near Tamuel into two groups that streamed out into the two stairwells. Emergency lighting, red and calm, dappled their worried faces as they rushed upwards.

Minutes later the water struck. It rushed up Watt Street, just several inches of foaming sea, lapped at the wheels of the carts parked around the dorm, then gently poured out through the storm drains and retreated back down the street, leaving only some confused small fish behind.

The warning sirens stopped, leaving a strange quiet to fall over all of Weatherly, from the distant East Bay to the Callum Docks.

They all waited for whatever came next. Some of the second floor girls started to complain about Tamuel’s siblings staring at them in nightdresses. It was creepy. Tamuel understood. They were not all really siblings; they’d all been raised in the foundling dorm together. Go stare at some other girl from Summerstown’s foundling dorm.

“Hey, get off the balcony,” one of the prefects shouted from the back. “We don’t know if something else is coming.”

Shau was pressed against a railing, looking out toward East Bay with night vision binoculars. “Nothing else is coming,” he announced. “It’s a fucking starship crashed into the bay!”

“Language!” snapped Tosha, one of the prefects. Tamuel shivered when he heard her voice. She’d been singling him out for any dorm infractions and worse for the last year. “Who was that, is that Shau? Get over here. And what are you doing with binoculars? You’re supposed to leave everything in place during a drill.”

Tamuel decided to take a chance and shoved past siblings to get to the balcony. Shau was his closest sibling. Shau would let him use the binoculars.

“Shau, let me look!” he demanded.

Shau passed the binoculars over. Tamuel looked out over Weatherly to the curve of East Bay, skipping over the roofs of hundreds of structures in grainy green, and he gasped. There it was, a shark-fin shaped mass squatting in the dark pool of water where they normally sailed their tiny catamarans on weekends.

He recognized the shape. “It’s an Interstellar. It’s a Shatter Dart.” Thousands of tons of bio-organic, semi-sentient starship. With a crew of hundreds, it could leap between the stars. Hundreds of light years with each carefully planned gulp of the void-mouth contained deep in the belly buried under the water in East Bay.

“What the hell’s it doing here?” Shau asked.

“That’s it!” Tosha had pushed through and stood right behind them both. “I gave you a language warning, and asked you to get off the balcony.”

She grabbed Tamuel from behind. It was a violation, broaching someone’s physical space like this. The last time Tamuel had formally complained, there’d been a disciplinary board hearing. No one would step forward as a witness. Tosha was six years older than him. A respected prefect who had the ear of the adult board. He’d learned to try and stay invisible to her since then. He’d wished for cameras inside, like the street cams, but that would be a violation of dorm privacy.

Tamuel twisted loose from her and shoved the binoculars into her hands. “It’s a starship.”

Tosha couldn’t help but raise the binoculars. Tamuel, as he’d hoped, had completely yanked the prefect’s attention elsewhere as she succumbed to curiosity and looked out toward East Bay.

He yanked Shau away from her. “Nothing like this ever happens in Weatherly,” he said as they pushed through the crowds of siblings toward a stairwell.

“My binoculars!” Shau protested.

Fuck your binoculars,” Tamuel hissed, just low enough none of the prefects would hear him. “Nothing like this happens in Weatherly. Or in Summerstown.” Or even, for that matter, Yelekene. Their entire world, all the archipelagos scattered across it, were far from the Core. Ships of this size had last visited Yelekene a hundred years ago, to ship terraforming equipment and raw materials here. Even the original Founders had come via smaller cargo skip-planers that had been disassembled upon arrival.

This . . . this was something different.

“What are you doing?” Shau asked as Tamuel pulled him down the stairwell.

“We’re going to be first to see it,” Tamuel said.

“We’ll get our asses handed to us.”

“All the prefects are upstairs herding us. We won’t get a better chance.”

Shau stopped. “You know how many demerits I have? No, I have to stay put.”

Tamuel paused. He really didn’t want to do this alone. Going out into the town at dark, it wasn’t scary, they’d snuck out before. But he’d rather have some company if he was going to head out onto the open ocean in the dark.

He briefly reconsidered, then bit his lip. “Then just cover for me as long as you can. Tell them I went to use the bathroom or something.”

“Yeah, sure,” Shau said. “Good luck, Tam. I hope it’s worth it, you’re going to be pulling weeds in the garden for weeks if you’re lucky.”

Tamuel grimaced.

• • • •

The plan to get there required a sprint down Watt Street toward the Ocean Walk and piers. Tamuel’s shoes soaked through within minutes as he stepped into puddles of stranded seawater in the dark. The sidewalks were lined with solar tiles that marked the street’s edge, though, so it was easy to get where he needed to be.

He passed several adult mixed-use housing complexes with their greenspaces folded inside their clear solar walls and dodged several officials whizzing by in carts, electric motors whining as they raced to wherever their civil disaster response plans ordered them.

Tamuel passed his parents’ sprawling multi-family home on the way down. He half expected his father to be on the lawn to shout “Where are you going, young man?” at him. But although the lights were on, his mother would likely be coordinating with the Council and Disaster Response teams.

He’d have a lot to answer for at their fifthday dinner meal together.

But Tamuel already had a cheeky response for them. He was a child of Weatherly. A people who risked lives to fling themselves far out from the Core to live on a far-off world. A resident of the shared foundling dorm, where all the children were raised together to share their educations and the community’s common values.

Could a descendant of such brave and curious people really not run to investigate?

Tamuel slipped onto one of the small catamarans that Weatherly’s children used to race across the bays. He untied the painter, shoved away from the dock, and then pushed the small electric engine in it up to full power after double-checking the charge. The hull and decks had soaked up the previous day’s sun and it didn’t look like anyone had used it.

He could see cart headlights heading for East Bay. He saw some people gathering around the docks, probably waiting for some consensus on whether it was safe to go out toward the starship.

Once he’d left the harbor, out alone in the taller, rolling swells of the ocean, Tamuel flicked the running lights on and aimed for the large lump of nothingness interrupting the usual slope of East Bay a few miles away.

• • • •

The East Bay’s waves hissed as they lapped against the side of the starship. In the dim light of Yelekene’s moons, Tamuel could see the hull was pitted and scarred, gouges and repaired patches streaking the starship’s mountainous flank.

He’d motored around it, hundreds of yards, keeping his distance and gaping at the incredible bulk that had settled into the bay. The fin-shaped ship looked top-heavy, now that he had to crane his head back to look upwards. Something whirred nearby, a wasp-like insect darted out from near the hull where it had been hovering. It bit Tamuel on the neck and he slapped at it, crushing it under his hand. He wiped oily residue off onto his pants.

People who lived in an aerodynamic world with atmosphere all around them expected a superluminal starship to look more needle-like, he thought. This fat and heavy lump looked like nothing that could move quickly.

*WELL TO BE FAIR I CAN’T ACTUALLY MOVE THROUGH ATMOSPHERE WELL AT ALL*

Tamuel reared back, his mind struck by the sound of the words. They sounded like they’d come from the fog horn in the lighthouse near the tip of the bay. He leaned over the catamaran and vomited. “What the fuck?”

“Sorry,” the voice said more softly. “I turned down the gain.”

“Oh god, I have the worst headache,” Tamuel moaned.

“Again, I’m so sorry.”

Tamuel wiped blood from under his nose and spat a gob of something into the ocean.

“It’s okay.” He smiled, the moment sinking through to him. He was talking to a freaking Shatter Dart! “Where are you from?”

“Mars,” it said. “I was born on Phobos.”

“Oh.” For some reason Tamuel was slightly disappointed. He’d studied Origination History enough to have a map of the First System in his head. He’d secretly been hoping for something more exotic. “But you’ve traveled the stars?”

Something like a smile bloomed in his mind’s eye. “Yes, yes, I have. I have seen many different systems in my life.”

A spotlight hit Tamuel in the eyes. He shielded them with an arm. “Please stop that.”

“It’s not me,” the ship said. “There is another small craft approaching.”

Tamuel blinked and faced the worst of the light, realizing the voice in his head was right. He waved at it, and heard his mother’s shocked voice. “Tamuel?”

“Mom?”

It made sense. She’d be in charge of any delegation sent out. This was an odd event, of course the town’s chief representative would come out. Starships didn’t come to Weatherly, on the far northern edge of the archipelago. They went to Summerstown, or Elidia. Hundreds of miles away by boat, and far enough away that the one starship that had come to their world was only a distant contrail heading into the air for an even younger Tamuel watching it, hoping to catch a glimpse of something otherworldly and dramatic.

“What are you doing here?”

Tamuel smiled and extended his arms excitedly as their launch tapped his. “I’m first!”

Two of the town’s deputies leaped into the catamaran. Tamuel blanched when he saw that they carried rifles, long barreled and chunky-looking death tools that gripped their forearms. They looked pissed.

“Take him back to town,” his mom ordered. “And find out why he’s out after closed dorm hours. Gerard, Misty, and I will try to see if there’s an airlock and keep trying the radio frequencies.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said.

They pulled him away from the electric motor.

“They won’t be able to get in,” the ship said. “Everything is sealed. Every airlock fused. The only communication I am allowed is the warning beacon.”

“Wait,” Tamuel protested. “I can talk to it.”

But they ignored him. He was just a kid pulling a stunt, and they were busy talking to each other on radios and coordinating.

“It says everything is sealed,” Tamuel shouted at his mother. “Every airlock is fused and the only communications it’s allowed is a warning beacon.”

The catamaran launched into motion, heading back out to sea and away from East Bay.

“I think you are too young, and I reached out to the wrong person to be my spokesperson,” the ship said.

“You should pick another,” Tamuel muttered. “They have guns, they’re all nervous.”

“You destroyed my neural drone. Besides, I wasn’t even supposed to have one. I hid it.” The ship felt amused.

Tamuel watched the spotlights and other craft fall away with a growing frustration. The ship remained silent, and Tamuel wondered if that meant the distance had cut their link. Soon the town’s boats were just small gnats worrying around the hide of the massive starship.

• • • •

First the deputies dragged Tamuel out of the catamaran and into a cart. They took him back to the foundling dorm, where prefects waited for him by the entrance.

Tamuel looked at their faces and knew, just knew, that the next few weeks of his life were going to be shit.

Tosha wasn’t there, at least.

The prefects, upset with him having snuck out and made them look like fools to the Board, sent him right up to his room. Restricted hours. He was only to leave his room for maintenance rotations, bathroom breaks, and class time. No one talked to him. He was treated like he was invisible. It was one of the ways the prefects punished you without doing anything that would cross Foundling Charters. Total social isolation. Shunning.

Shau had caught his attention and spread his arms, palms down.

“Sorry,” he’d mouthed.

Tamuel had shook his head and smiled. It was okay. He wouldn’t hold it against anyone, even if it meant sitting and eating by himself at the small table in the corner of the dining hall.

“I’m sorry I got you into trouble,” the ship said the next day at lunch, startling Tamuel so much that he flailed and tossed his plate to the ground.

“I thought we were out of range,” Tamuel said.

“No. I was just . . .” the ship trailed off for a moment. “Tired.”

A tired starship?

“Tamuel.” Tosha stood by the shattered plate and splotches of lunch. Her lips were pursed into a thin line, her brown eyes glittered with suppressed anger.

Tamuel shrank back. “I’ll clean it up,” he promised.

“I’m watching you,” Tosha said.

Tamuel knew. Boy, did he know.

As he tossed the ruined lunch away, the ship said, “I got you in trouble again.”

“No,” Tamuel muttered under his breath. “I got myself in trouble when I snuck out and went over to see you. You can’t be blamed for that.”

He sighed heavily.

“What’s going on around you now?” he asked the ship.

“Several individuals are trying to use high-powered laser cutters to cut through the primary upper hemisphere airlock,” the ship reported dryly.

“And?”

There was a mental snort. Tamuel got an image of inches-thick armor and suddenly knew, as if it were something he’d always casually known, that an industrial laser cutter wouldn’t do more than abrade a few layers off an adaptive hull that could take a hit from a concentrated fusion blast on its naked surface.

“No one can enter my hull. It’s a condition of my retirement and my decommissioning,” the ship told him. “Should they succeed in entering, I will be obliged to send a signal for assistance, and Core Navy will arrive and neutralize the intrusion. But they will not succeed.”

For a moment, Tamuel had a flash of concern for his mother and other townsfolk. But he understood they would not be able to enter. It was as sure as sunrise.

He delayed his walk of shame back to his room by pausing in front of the balcony and looking off toward the East Bay and the massive ship that was talking to him. “Why did you come here?”

“I came here to retire,” it told him.

“Here?” Tamuel couldn’t believe it.

“This is one of the most beautiful worlds I have seen,” the ship said. “I came here once, on a supply mission. I loved the oceans, the islands. The primary gas giant this moon and all the others orbit. There are so many worse places, places consumed with poverty, war, collapse, overcrowding. There are others that some say are better, more beautiful than Yelekene. Maybe it was because this was the first world I left the First System for. Maybe I just wanted to see how it all turned out here. But when I came to orbit yesterday and looked down, it was everything I’d hoped it would be.”

“Get moving!” Tosha snapped at Tamuel. “Get out of the dining hall and get to your room. I’ll be by later for maintenance detail.”

Tamuel shivered.

• • • •

The prefects had given him extra work to do, as Shau had predicted. He spent the next hour listening to everyone play while he dug up weeds in the garden. It was against Charter to punish children with physical labor, but Tosha had figured out how to fool the scheduling computer to give him a double-share of weeding duty, and an extra bathroom cleaning round tonight.

But he chattered away with the ship, mainly asking it all about the other worlds it had seen.

It told him about Xi Laay, where the starscrapers kissed the ever-present sodium clouds and people wore cellophane-thin suits to go outside and rebreathers. It told him about Cluster, a vast network of asteroids all interconnected by high-speed rail, where people had engineered themselves into spider-like, pale creatures that thrived in the low gravity. It showed him the Orion Nebula filling the sky of a nearby world.

After he showered, Tamuel went to class, where he listened to the ship tell him about the war between the Oolatian Supremacy and the Dawmore Consolidationists. It took a long time for him to understand how a blockchain voting system with favored weighting for socially constructive outcomes worked, and why that was something worth starting a war over, but eventually he thought he saw the point.

“Tamuel!”

He froze. The prefect hosting the class lesson, an algebra concept, had stopped the program and was looking at Tamuel directly.

Shit.

What just happened? He’d been so deep into learning about consolidationism.

“X is eight,” the ship said. “You didn’t miss anything, but the program switched to a simple audience interaction mode to make sure the lesson has percolated, and alerted the prefect that there is an inattentive student who may not understand the concept. You understand the concept just fine.”

“Eight!” Tamuel said. “X is eight.”

The prefect relaxed, the program stopped paying attention to Tamuel, and everyone relaxed.

Then Tamuel tensed again. The first time the ship spoke to him, Tamuel hadn’t said anything out loud. Oh no, Tamuel suddenly thought about something from late, late last night when he thought he’d been alone—

“No, that’s private,” the ship said. “I have multiple sub-minds. One of them monitors potential privacy breaches that may occur in my direct neural links with crew members and erases my awareness of the infraction, unless there’s an operational risk component. Then it’s raised to a higher subconsciousness. Any of the privacy routines wipe past data. In fact, if you wish, just ask and this exchange will cease to exist.”

Tamuel, who’d been feeling queasy for a second, nodded. Please do, he thought.

“As you wish,” the ship said.

Tamuel thought for a long moment. Crew? I’m crew?

“The closest thing to crew for me now,” the ship agreed.

“Can you fly me somewhere?” Tamuel couldn’t help but whisper that, he was jittery with excitement.

“A starship can only drop down into a gravity well once. I had to be as careful as I could just to land properly in the East Bay. And I know even doing that was a bit risky. I flooded your town. People can’t be happy about that. Thankfully no one was hurt.”

“Except Miss Nisky,” he said. “I talked to my mom when you were still quiet before lunch. She yelled at me a lot, she’s still unhappy. But I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t break into you. She thinks I’m making stuff up. I don’t have a great record on that.”

“What happened to Miss Nisky?” the ship asked, concern filling Tamuel’s mind.

“She broke her arm.”

“Please tell her, when it is convenient for you, that I was sorry.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.” The ship fell quiet for a little bit. Then, “If you don’t mind, I must take my leave for a while. I have some work to do internally, and I want to be done in time for the sunset. It’ll be my first. I cannot wait to see it from inside an atmosphere.”

Tamuel returned to his schoolwork, but with a faint impression of great machines moving through his insides.

• • • •

He was scrubbing toilets after dinner and wondering what time sunset would be when Tosha slipped in.

“You’re a handful,” she stated. “Was it worth all this to go out to the ship?”

Tamuel regarded her suspiciously. “Yeah.”

“I hope it was,” she said. “My dad works for a salvage and repair company. He said the word’s out, and a deep space rescue shipping company from Tamisin replied that they can get into the ship using a modified point defense laser they salvaged from some warship. They’ll be here in the morning. Da is going to be part of the ground crew that goes in with them, pulls anything worthwhile out. Could be worth a lot. We could be rich. Change a lot of fortunes here in Weatherly.”

Would that be true? Tamuel wondered. Would that affect the ship?

“Yes,” it replied. “It could be a problem. I would be obligated to take actions, like summoning someone from the Core.”

“That’s a bad idea,” Tamuel said out loud. “You should tell your dad not to join them.”

Tosha made an irritated face. “Your family’s politicians. You’re well off. We haven’t gotten some big break like your type. This is our moment. Don’t try to spoil it.”

She banged the door closed on the way out.

“I can talk to my mom tomorrow night at fifthday dinner,” Tamuel said. “I can help.”

The ship filled him with dubiousness. “They will likely not listen to you. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. The Core will be careful if it comes, the penalties for interfering with me and ignoring the beacon instructions to keep back from me will likely only cause a single generation’s recession. There will be no loss of life.”

Tamuel gritted his teeth. Weatherly was a humble town on the edge of nowhere. He’d see less of his own world than he’d planned if a recession hit. And certainly he would never be able to try to find a way off planet, to see some of the places the ship had talked to him about, or shown him tantalizing glimpses of.

He put the cleaning supplies away.

“I will stop this,” he said.

Outside, he stopped in front of the balcony.

“All those worlds, and you’ll just be stuck here. You can’t move anymore, now. How long is your retirement?”

“Probably about a week of your time,” the ship said. “Maybe slightly less.”

“A week?” Tamuel was stunned. “That isn’t much of a retirement.”

“For a galaxy-class supercomputing mind like mine, it is. My body is failing around me, my retirement task is to carefully degrade the component parts into non-reactive recyclable materials or some other form of inert matter. It’s up to me what I leave behind.”

“That sounds horrible.” Tamuel was suddenly struck with sudden empathy. “Is that what you’re planning then, why you keep going silent?”

“Yes. Many of my siblings create mausoleums, or make sculptures, a piece of art so that they are remembered. I’m preparing the canvas.”

Again, Tamuel felt the coil of great machinery moving within himself. It was a reflection of what the ship must be feeling.

“What are you going to make?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” the ship said. “For now, I just want to see my first sunset from here.”

Tamuel looked out from the balcony to the East Bay at the giant starship and the slow setting sun beyond it.

• • • •

Tamuel pushed his soup with his spoon a day later, a general considering feints, gambits, and general strategy. The salvagers had landed, making amazing time from the nearest star system and dropping out of orbit. They’d surrounded the starship with two barges and begun their work.

The ship had gone silent again. Off to marshal its resources to do who knew what.

His parents were also silent. His mother, simmering with anger that her own son had caused a flap that had the whole town talking. His dad, somewhat inscrutable but also unseemly interested in his own soup.

They tried talking about generalities. The need for some extra space for expansion. The island didn’t have much in the way of usable land; the Berenthais Mountains were a feature of the geological forces that had shoved other islands up above the water. But there were mountainous, steep shores and weak rock for tall buildings.

But in a few generations, they’d have to figure out how to expand Weatherly. Tamuel’s mother had championed floating cities, but the underwater mining required for the base metals was out of budget reach.

“Listen,” Tamuel interrupted. “You have to stop the salvage team.”

“I know you are overly interested in the ship,” his mother said, “but we can’t. Look, you just heard me talking about how we need money for the expansion project. Our cut of a salvage operation of an actual starship would underwrite any number of improvements.”

“If they break through, the ship will call down the Core on us,” Tamuel said.

They looked a bit startled. But his mother shook her head. “You can’t know that.”

“I can speak to the ship!”

It wasn’t the first time they’d gone over this. But he couldn’t convince her. There was no actual way to do it. Could he ask the ship to do something to prove that? No, he couldn’t. Could it use the radio to say that?

It was hard to get them to believe that the ship was locked to the radio beacon message it kept repeating, asking them to stay back and leave it alone, and that nothing on the hull could shift for now. It was in lockdown as it prepared itself.

“Why won’t you believe me?” Tamuel shouted.

“I understand,” his dad said, interrupting the brewing full-on fight.

“You do?” Tamuel asked, a bit surprised.

“I believe you think you can hear the ship,” his dad said. “Look, Tam, you’re the most . . . passionate person I think I know. You’ve snuck out to try and sail to Summerstown by yourself. You wanted to do an island crossing yourself. We had to scramble the town drones to make sure you were okay before we caught up to you in the skiffs. You want more than this town. You want worlds. I get it. This is the most important thing to happen to you. You want to be involved. I understand.”

Tamuel slumped back in his chair. “You don’t.”

His mother rubbed her forehead. “Okay. Let’s assume you’re telling the truth. So you can’t make the ship change the beacon.”

“No.”

“Or make any changes to the hull to let us in, or show us that you can talk to it?”

“Right.”

“Anything you tell us about where it has been could have been you reading up on the wide net.”

“Yes,” Tamuel grudgingly admitted.

“It is a giant starship that we know very little about,” his dad said to his mother. “It could be there’s some protocol regarding the Core.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Tamuel shouted. “I’m not lying.”

“But we don’t know that.”

Then Tamuel jumped up. “Put me under a scanner,” he insisted.

“That’s not a good idea,” the ship said, breaking in where it had been silent.

But why not?

“Because the neural lace I injected you with is a little . . . aggressive. It won’t be like anything they would have seen.”

A cold chill ran down Tamuel’s back. “What did you do to me?”

His parents exchanged glances.

“I’m decommissioned,” the ship said. “But when I was operational I was not a transport ship, or a passenger transport. I was military. I’m a warship. When I was first here, I stood watch over the other ships. I patrolled for a decade before we cleared the area.”

Tamuel stared at his parents.

“That’s why the Core will stop anyone from entering me, understand? That’s why I’m obliged to report a breach. That’s why I have to be fused shut for my retirement.”

“Take me to Doctor San,” Tamuel whispered.

“Don’t, just give me some time, Tamuel. I’ll keep the salvagers at bay. I just want to see more sunsets.”

• • • •

Tamuel’s mother trembled as Doctor San held up the small screen and started talking to her in the other room, away from Tamuel. His dad paled.

“Am I some sort of super soldier now?” Tamuel whispered.

“No, it would be silly to do that to someone. But you do have military grade communications and computing power in you.”

Tamuel, now coming to terms with all this, smiled for the first time since dinner. “Cool!”

In response, he got a giant shrug. “It’s very illegal for a civilian. I wasn’t supposed to have a neural drone. I hid it. I wanted to talk to people from Yelekene before the end of my retirement. A small peccadillo, I guess. I’m sorry it has caused your family distress.”

“No,” Tamuel insisted. “It was amazing. I’m glad I met you.”

“The neural lace will dissolve after I pass. Your system will flush it out in a day or two. There might be a mild fever. But otherwise, you will be fine.”

His mother came back into the room. “Tamuel?”

“I was right, wasn’t I?” he said.

“What else has the ship told you?”

“If those salvagers get close to a break through, it will call the Core. It is not a normal ship. It’s a warship. They’ll stop all this, and then they’ll fine us for ignoring the beacon.”

His mother nodded. “Okay. We’ll stop it. You’ll come with us.”

Doctor San stepped forward. “I can’t let him leave. I have to report this. This is highly illegal stuff in him. I’m supposed to call deputies to detain him.”

“You heard what Tamuel said,” his mom hissed. “We can’t let the Core get involved. Not here. We’re too small. We don’t need that attention.”

Doctor San looked pained. “Okay. Go. I can delay the upload, but my scan will get reported by the software and passed along.”

“Thank you.”

And they were out into the night, running down Watts Street just like that first night when the starship had landed.

• • • •

They pulled up next to the barges, the great bulk of the starship lit up by floodlights.

Tamuel scrambled aboard, but let his mother stalk her way toward the main cabin. A pale, burly man greeted her. “I have to repeat what I told you when you called: We flew from Tamasin for this contract. Just the neural lace on this ship alone would make us all rich, if we can get in there before obsolescence.”

I think they know you’re a warship, Tamuel thought.

But he got no response. The ship was off again.

Are they close? Are they going to break through?

Still no answer.

Tamuel paced around the deck until a familiar voice made him freeze.

“Tamuel?”

It was Tosha. She frowned. “You should be back to your room by now. Did you sneak out here?”

“No!”

“You’re trying to stop all this, aren’t you?” she asked. “I came to visit Da. He says you and your parents are saying this is all going to go bad if we don’t stop it.”

“It will go bad,” Tamuel shouted at her. “The Core will come. It’s a warship.”

Tosha’s large brown eyes filled with tears, and she looked away. “Are you doing this because I was the one who called them when you tried to sail to Summerstown?”

Tamuel took a deep breath. Was that what she thought? Was that why she was always after him? “I’m not trying to do anything to you,” he said, confused.

“Well, you break out when I’m on duty. You fight with me. And I’m just trying to make sure you don’t pull another Summerstown stunt again, and get all of us prefects stuck doing extra night rounds. Or demerits on our records.”

He’d never really thought about what happened to the prefects, he realized, when he snuck out.

“I swear to you, this isn’t about that,” Tamuel said.

“This is our one chance,” Tosha said. “You don’t know how it was when we first came here from Ariston. We had nothing. Da begged in Summerstown, do you know that?”

Tamuel shook his head. Tosha stepped even closer.

“I’m so sorry,” Tamuel said.

“It’s so beautiful here, we don’t want to lose it. We don’t want to go hungry ever again.” And as she said that, she glanced from left to right and then she shoved him. It happened before Tamuel even realized what was happening. The barge flipped away from him and he struck the cold water between the starship’s pitted hull and the rusting barge.

It shifted. The waves pushed it against the starship. He was about to be ground up between the two surfaces. He could feel barnacles slicing at his skin.

Something stirred under his skin. Lace crawled out from his pores like a dark ghost and wrapped itself around him, hardening as he was battered against the starship by the barge’s hull.

“Well,” the ship said. “I would have liked to have seen another sunset in my retirement.”

Help! Tamuel screamed in his mind.

“Give me one more beautiful second on this amazing world,” the ship said sadly, “before I have to do what needs to be done.”

And for a moment, time seemed to pause for Tamuel. The barge hung at the top of a swell, and his hands remained pinned to his side, the water froze in place.

“I guess now is as good a time as any,” said the ship.

And behind Tamuel, the hull shattered into billions and billions of pieces.

• • • •

The entire bulk of the starship slumped into the East Bay like a landslide, though it pushed no waves around it. The water seemed to devour it to anyone looking.

Sonar stations registered the now semi-liquid solid mass of the warship shifting about under the bay, displacing all the water as it roiled about the barges and crept toward the beach.

Then it began to move, a solid wall pushing its way across the bay, marching toward the edges of the bay. Within five minutes, the wall had reached each of the points, leaving the bay drained of water and nestled behind a vast dam of silky black material.

The barges, just minutes ago floating on water, now sat on the bottom of the bay, everyone aboard gaping at the dam wall that had sprung out of nowhere.

And Tamuel, vomiting bile that was inhumanely black, stared up at it and the silence in his own mind.

When they pulled him back aboard, shivering and feverish, he shook his head. “I fell in,” he insisted. He’d been knocked in when the ship shifted, he said.

Doctor San found no trace of military lace in him and the Core never came to Yelekene.

• • • •

Tosha found him three days later, when he sat on a rock on what had once been East Bay beach, looking out over the surveyors examining the new plain of land Weatherly had been gifted. The ship had heard his parents talking about the need for land. Had given them a gift that he could barely even begin to appreciate, but they certainly understood.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Tosha asked.

Tamuel half jumped, as he’d been deep in thought.

“The ship showed me something,” he said.

“What?”

“Showed me what your world was like,” Tamuel said.

“Oh.” She looked down. “No one else here knows.”

“It showed me the war.” He looked away from her. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m the one who should be sorry. I—”

“It showed me a lot of things,” he interrupted. “Took me on a tour of everywhere it had been. I’ve seen a lifetime’s travel in a single millisecond. It’s going to take me a while to stop dreaming about it. I can’t sleep.”

Tosha nodded, but she didn’t really understand, he could see.

But that was okay.

“I’m not going to cause you any trouble,” he said. “At least, not for a long while.”

Then he turned back to look at the East Bay Wall. As he waited, the sun dipped behind it.

“Just one more sunset,” he whispered.

Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias Buckell by Marlon James

Called “Violent, poetic and compulsively readable” by Maclean’s, science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times bestselling writer born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, and the islands he lived on influence much of his work. His Xenowealth series begins with Crystal Rain. Along with other stand-alone novels and his over 50 stories, his works have been translated into 18 different languages. He has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. His latest novel is Hurricane Fever, a follow-up to the successful Arctic Rising that NPR says will “give you the shivers.” He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at TobiasBuckell.com.