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Fiction

Wake-Rider

This is a story from the time before she was famous. In the early days, she was known as Leli, or Lelia, a tease-name that had stuck. On her first mission for the revolution, she sat cramped, fists clenched with tension, waiting in the tiny scabship Tinka, out of sight in a radar deadzone. The salvage ship Gathering Moss, which she was stalking, lay like a giant, rusting silver slug in the docking bay. Everywhere the signs and slogans of the Euphoria Corpocracy flashed, in color and in subliminal space—on the ship itself, on the docking arms, on the walls of the great spaceport behind her, and within the minds of the subject population. Euphoria is Freedom, Better Life Through Euphoria, Rent-A-Share with Fora-ware, Subliminal is Sublime. Leli had checked three times that her protection against the nanoplague was current and sufficient, but the utter ubiquity of Euphoria was getting to her. It seemed absurd to even consider overcoming such a power. She pulled herself together, thinking of how much so many had lost, and what was at stake. My first solo mission, she told herself fiercely, I can’t fall apart just now. She wiped a drop of sweat from her brow.

“You need to breathe,” said Shul’s voice in her ear. Shul had rescued her, trained her, and now he was somewhere on the space station, monitoring her via a clandestine comm channel, reassuring his youngest trainee. “You’ve stalked salvagers before, remember? You’re one of the best wake-riders I’ve seen. Only this time, you’re alone. Don’t think of what’s at stake. Just breathe and be still. You’ll know when the time is right.”

So she listened to the familiar voice, and took deep, slow breaths, and her mind eased into the now-familiar state of relaxed alertness. Shul’s voice faded away, and there was only the salvage ship before her, enormous against the stars.

The ship was getting readied to leave—the repair and maintenance arms were retracting, the hatches on the ship closing one by one, like eyes. She saw the scuttlebots roving over the battered surface, seeking out scabships that might be hiding. Finding none, they rose up into a swarm, forming, for a moment, the word “Euphoria” before they soared away. Before the use of scuttlebots became customary, stalking a salvage ship had been easy—a scabship would simply have attached itself to the hull and ridden along. Now, the only option for the scabships, with their relatively weak engine-power, was the far more dangerous maneuver of wake-riding.

The ship thrust away in a glory of terrible ionizing radiation that would have destroyed anything in its wake. Leli moved just out of range of the radiation field, pushing her engines to keep up. Gathering Moss was about to move into Metaspace—the acceleration lights flashed from her hull, the radiation field dimmed and disappeared, and Leli’s ship, swinging to the rear of the salvager, shuddered as streamers of spacetime ripples formed in the wake.

At first the ripples pushed the little scabship further back, but Leli knew how to play them. You had to get a sense of the frequency of vibration of the spacetime disturbance, wait for sufficient amplitude, position carefully, and let the disturbance hit you. She eased into the rhythm of it until it was as natural as breathing. Jumping from crest to crest on the shipside of each crest, she found herself following the salvage ship at a good pace. When they both reached the critical cruising speed, she shut off her engines, letting inertia do its job. Her ship’s grapplers engaged with the great bulk of the salvager for the few subjective seconds it took to engage the Firaaqui drive. Then she was being pulled through Metaspace.

The two ships emerged together into the Sarria region with an abruptness that no longer surprised her. The Tinka’s grapplers retracted immediately and she pulled away. Her jinn piped data into Leli’s headset: There was only one inhabitable planet in the system, four light-years away, now abandoned. Euphoria had been here two decades ago, infecting eighty-seven percent of the population with the nanoplague that left them docile and welcoming, their minds locked in massively parallel calculations for the shareholders of the corpocracy, while they spent their lives buying and consuming the innumerable Euphoria products. A failed revolution wrought by those who had escaped the plague had earned the Sarrian world a total cleansing, and now there was nothing in this sector but empty space, and the remains of dreams.

Now that they were out in normal space again, Leli had to keep in the radio shadow of the salvage ship. The ship had slowed—she set her controls to match velocity, every sense alert. Whatever they were salvaging must be here, not on the planet itself. A dead ship, then.

There was a derelict, suddenly pricking out from the dense backdrop of stars, lit faintly by hull lights. A generation ship by the looks of it, (old model, “class four,” her jinn told her) drifting dead in space. Euphoria had no use for such things, so why was the ship here, four light-years away from the planet? Given that it was a generation ship, perhaps there was still someone left alive . . .

There was only one way to know. Gathering Moss was vectoring toward the docking port of the derelict. Leli moved swiftly away to the opposite side of the generation ship’s vast bulk, looking for an airlock hatch. Cruising over the surface of the great ship, she saw mysterious painted letters and symbols, a forest of vents and turrets, a few instrument hatches, and there, finally, was an entry point. She brought the scabship gently to the surface, engaging magnetic anchors so that it sat atop the great dead ship like a fat tick. She got into her nanoplasteen suit. By the time she was outside, her jinn had cracked the ancient code that would open the airlock. The salvage ship on the other side of the derelict would have completed docking. Afloat, one hand on the great hull, she felt the shudder of contact. She looked around at the stars above and below her, the unending depth and distance in all directions, and took a deep breath. She would never get bored with the view.

Now her suit had completed the nanoplague protection sequence, and her jinn was whispering “go!” in her ear; it was time to get to work. She pulled herself into the short passageway of the airlock closing the outer door behind her. In the illumination from her suit-lights, she tackled the inner door. Her heart was thudding in her chest so loudly that it was deafening. She made herself pause, took a few more deep breaths, and slipped into the derelict.

There was clearly multiple system failure here, because it was dark and claustrophobic, although she could sense a dim light ahead, possibly woken by her presence. The artificial gravity drive was damaged or disengaged. Her jinn told her that the air exceeded normal pressure and was a noxious mixture—too much carbon dioxide and methane. There was very little chance that anyone was alive. No doubt the salvage crew at the other end of the ship was coming to the same conclusion. Leli breathed a sigh of relief, because this meant that there would be no new slaves for the taking. Her job now was to take whatever useful material she could find, perhaps in more than one trip, and get back to her ship. If her luck held, she would not be discovered, and she could wake-ride back with Gathering Moss.

But why was the ship here in the first place? The most likely hypothesis, her jinn said, was that it had been appropriated by the Sarrian revolutionaries trying to escape when Euphoria threatened the planet with a cleansing. Class Four generation ships were already outdated when the corpocracy came to power. The revolutionaries, if this was indeed their ship, had clearly met with an unfortunate fate. Cascade ecosystem failure was the most common cause for the death of a class four ship.

She proceeded down the dark main passage toward the light. Pushing herself gently off the walls, she kick-floated swiftly toward the dim glow.

It was spilling from a large chamber, the door of which had buckled open. She saw then that the light was a bioluminescence, and the chamber a farm, or what had been one. It stretched for quite a distance, but the crops had long turned to dust, and the thing that dominated the room—an enormous fungal growth, with bulbs and branches twice as thick as a person, and several times as long—was glowing faintly. It had gradually taken down the door. Whether it was an opportunistic species that had come into dominance as the ecology failed, or a mutated monster of some kind, there was no way to tell. She saw with horror that pale bones lay agleam in piles on the floor before her. So much for the Sarrian rebels, if that’s who they were.

She left the desolation behind, wondering how long the fungus would last as its food supply diminished. The other chambers revealed villages surrounded by the jungles of unfamiliar plant life that was slowly dying—in some places there was nothing but floating clusters of thick, acrid dust, their peculiar geometries hinting of the shapes of the once-living. There didn’t seem anything worth taking from such a wreck. But the engineering sections might have something useful—energy generators, weapons, shuttle parts, and so on would not be wasted. Historical data records, medical supplies, too. Where to find them? Her headset laid out the general plan of a class four generation ship on the inside of her visor.

She could hear, faintly, now, sounds of voices, and things being moved, bumping against walls. The salvagers could not be too far ahead. Then she heard again the voice of her jinn, loud in her ears. It had been trying to tell her something . . .

Cryochamber, it was saying, and there was an insistent, blinking light on the map. Class Four generation ships were the last models that still had cryochambers. She fought sudden panic. If anyone was alive in cold sleep in this terrible place, what must she do? Would she have to rescue them? Kill them to save them from being enslaved? It occurred to her that the salvage ship must know this, must also be heading toward the cryochamber. She must get there before them.

So she followed the directions, which misled her twice. But at last she found her way to the long, low-roofed cryochamber.

There must have been only a couple of hundred bodies in there, each in its frosted casket. The salvagers hadn’t come here yet—no doubt their first charge was to get all materially useful things. The frozen humans weren’t going anywhere.

She floated from casket to casket, with only her headlamp providing illumination. The first thing she noticed was that the life-sign indicator lights were all red. They were dead, all of them. Still frozen, but something had clearly gone wrong, most likely the life support. Was it an aspect of general cascade failure, or something else?

Peering closely at the face of one man, she saw that his left temple was unmarked. No Euphoria nanoplague sigil on the bare skin. The man looked middle-aged, his eyes closed as though he was sleeping, his head turned slightly toward the adjoining casket. In the neighboring casket a woman lay—past youth, her mouth half-smiling, head turned toward the man. Her forehead, too, was free of the sigil.

Leli swallowed. So they were uninfected. This must indeed be a rebel ship, escaping out of the Sarrian system after the revolution failed.

She looked at each face as she floated over the caskets. Death had caught some in the midst of an emotion—fear or pain, or an intimation of the end, perhaps experienced by way of dream. She saw, to her horror, that there were smaller caskets containing children, clustered between groups of adults. They lay in their terminal sleep, long lashes closed over the plump cheeks of innocence. One had dark, unruly hair falling over his forehead, another lay with a small fist closed over a tasseled rod—some kind of favorite toy. She caught her breath. Memories she had not brought to mind for a decade came flooding back.

The domicile where she had been raised, on an archipelago in the southern seas of the planet Rishab: hordes of small children running down the stairs, collecting companions from every floor—gathering mussels from the rocks, shouting, fighting, laughing. Her dearest friend Rim, with his hair falling over his forehead, nudging her with his elbow, his arms full of fluorescent seaweed. She heard the sea’s breath in her memory, saw the light catch her mother’s eyes as she smiled. Come evening, the aunties would call to the children to come in from the shore, their voices like the cries of sea birds. The windows of the domicile would glow gold in the gathering darkness, and music and the aroma of food would spill out, drawing the children in until their reluctance gave way to anticipation. That life had crumbled when the war began, when the corpocracy took over seven inhabited worlds, infecting the populace with nanoplagues. The first disaster in her young life was the disappearance of her mother. Her father, an anxious, kindly, distracted man, died a few years later. The life of the domicile fell apart, and she thought she would always be abandoned, time and time again. At last she went to live with her nanny in a backwater village on a forgotten planet. Her nanny’s jealous relatives named her Lelia, she-who-takes-away, because of the love that nanny lavished on her, that they felt was subtracted from them. It was a hard life, knowing a poverty she couldn’t have imagined in that earlier, enchanted existence, but she had learned to fight, to sail, and to know, deep inside herself, that nothing would ever stay the way it was.

She had seen death in nearly every form. She had known the warm bath of a dying friend’s blood as she struggled for breath in a mass of bodies. She had closed the eyes of countless people, loved ones and strangers. Worse than anything, she had seen people she loved taken by the plague, their personalities transformed by servitude, their minds knowing nothing more compelling than the need to obey Euphoria. They became the manufacturers and consumers of the Euphoria economy. Nobody could free them; there was no cure for the nanoplague. It mutated too fast, so much so that the protections against it had to be updated constantly.

But nothing in her past had prepared her for this. Looking at the children lying in their caskets like child actors in a fairytale, she wanted them to be alive. Perhaps the life-sign indicator lights were malfunctioning. Perhaps “red” actually meant “alive.” Perhaps she was fooling herself . . .

The noises from the salvager crew—bumps and vibrations, strange voices coming through the static on her comm unit—were getting closer. She knew she should be out looking for useful supplies, but she had made it a ritual now, to float over each casket, look into every face, to honor the dreams that had been lost.

Then she found something.

There was a man in a casket, youngish, with thinning hair that was swept back from his brow. The right side of his forehead was branded with the Euphoria sigil, a delicate, fractal pattern that was created by the nanoplague itself. What was a slave doing with the rebels? Her hands shook with the shock of it. What if the ship was infected after all? She began to look more carefully, and found several more, perhaps fifty of the dead with the brand of the corpocracy. Some of them were children. How could they be here? Had they been brought by force? But that would be dangerous—those infected with the nanoplague would fight for their masters, betray all loyalties for Euphoria. And yet they lay here in death, comrade-fashion with the others.

She had to see if they were really infected. Sometimes spies from various resistance movements would paint a fake sigil in order to infiltrate the corpocracy, as Shul had done at the space station fifteen light-years away. She checked with her jinn—yes, her nanoplague protection was updated. She had to open one of the slave caskets. Her hands were cold inside her nanoplasteen suit, and the release controls would not yield. Finally they gave way and the casket door opened with a sigh. At first she couldn’t see for the cloud of vapors that rose from the casket, but she already had her medi-kit scanner detached from her belt. Her jinn ran a commentary on the diagnostics. The man was dead; so much for her hopes. The sigil was real, not faked. Her heart thudded at this and she moved instinctively away, as far as the medi-kit cord attached to her belt would let her. Then her jinn said:

Testing negative for nanoplague categories one through seventeen.

She waited. There must be a category eighteen.

Conclusion: This specimen is not infected with the nanoplague.

There had to be a mistake. She went to another slave casket, a woman this time, and repeated the test. The conclusion was the same.

The voices of the salvagers were loud in her comm unit. She needed to get away from here. But she was transfixed, her mind whirling. How could there be people branded with the mark of slavery, yet free of the plague?

The truth came to her in a jolt. The Sarrian rebels had found an antidote, some kind of cure for the nanoplague. There had been many such attempts by rebels and rivals of Euphoria over the years, but the nanoviruses were adaptable in the extreme, and all cures had been temporary. If these former slaves had been freed long enough that they could embark on such a voyage—her jinn had told her the generation ship had been traveling for close to a decade, subjective time, before she failed—then whatever cure the Sarrians had discovered would last at least that long.

Two things became immediately clear to Leli after the shock of the discovery—she must take back a sample. Immediately on that thought came another—that she wouldn’t know if she’d gotten enough tissue. She wasn’t trained as a med, although the jinn could help. The medi-kit was non-med issue, which meant it wouldn’t have the right equipment to take a good sample. Which meant—she must take back a body.

And she must not let the salvage ship find the cryochamber, if at all she could help it.

She didn’t know how she would prevent the discovery of the bodies, but the first problem was paramount. The caskets were large and bulky. How would she drag one behind her all the way back to the scabship? Even in the absence of gravity, there was inertia, and corners and turns every few meters. And would a casket even go through the airlock?

It came to her immediately that she must find a child, an enslaved child who had been cured of the plague. She heard the noise of the salvage crew much closer now. Floating past the dead faces, searching frantically, at last she found a boy marked with the sigil—he could not have been more than four years old—in a tiny casket. She detached it from the holding frame and pushed off to leave.

It was while she was going down the main passage that somebody must have seen a gleam of light or some other hint that gave away her swift retreat, because she heard a commotion, and a siren sounded, loud and shrill, that seemed to echo endlessly in her skull. To be discovered was always a risk; she thought of the self-destruct unit inside her suit and on the ship—but she had to return to her comrades with the casket, with the knowledge of the cure. Stifling a sob of fright, she kicked off the walls as fast as she dared without damaging herself or the casket, twisting and turning her body as she had practiced so many times with her friends, so that she seemed to swim through the passageways with only a light touch to the walls here, there. Her breath was loud in her ears, her suit’s voice, giving directions, almost drowned by it. She could not waste oxygen—slipping into a side passage, she made herself slow down for a moment. The sounds of pursuit were still some way behind her. She kept going, working arms and legs until they ached with effort, pulling the casket beside her, the boy’s sleeping, dead face coming into view now and then. All her life had contracted to this moment; it seemed she had known nothing but flight and pursuit. Instinct took over, giving her a clear place in her mind to think.

Even if she got to her ship and took off, they would chase her and find her. Their shuttles were far more powerful than a little scabship. Perhaps even now shuttles were taking off from the salvage vessel to prevent her escape. Then the idea came to her, the only possible option. There she was, at the airlock. With shaking fingers she shut one door behind her and opened the other, making herself slow down so that her momentum wouldn’t carry her out to space and away from her ship. She float-crawled awkwardly to the Tinka and found room for the boy’s casket. Returning to the airlock, she attached a cable and a winch to the closed inner door, placing the other end of the cable between the jaws of her ship’s ventral grappler. Then, back in the scabship, she maneuvered her ship over the open outer porthole and set the winch going to open the inner one. Thank goodness the safety mechanism that would have prevented this was dead. Her own ship’s inner bioskin was readying, the inertial fluid seeping into the chamber, forming great, viscous ropes and blobs. Would it work?

Never had all her senses been so alert to the smallest hint of change in her ship’s position, the smallest intimation of what was to come. Timing was everything, if she were to survive. She thought she felt a faint tremor, then she shouted “Now!” and the grappling hook disengaged, and the inner door of the airlock opened. The dead, stinking, noxious air inside the derelict exploded out, ripping an enormous hole in the hull, pushing her little ship away with such force that in the first few moments, with everything shaking so violently around her, she thought the Tinka would break up. Her chest hurt so badly with compression that she felt she would never breathe again, but the inertial gel around her took the worst of it. The little scabship tumbled through space, going faster than she could remember. She didn’t have breath to scream.

When she was able to breathe again, the ship had stabilized itself and was vectoring away into empty space. It brought up an image for her of what had been left behind. The venting of air from the derelict had not only pushed away the docked salvage ship on the other side, which had been her intent, breaking the docking arms and spinning the salvager away, but the torque had swept the derelict around, so that it had collided with the freed salvager. The explosion was a bright flare against the indifferent stars.

She started to shake violently. What had she done? She hadn’t meant to kill all those people aboard the salvage ship. She had killed in direct combat before when she’d had to, but her learning had been oriented toward the intelligent avoidance of unnecessary death. Every death meant a mourning, a penance. She remembered her teachers saying that only Euphoria rejoiced at the death of an enemy. She had failed—she had not calculated for a possible collision. How many people had been on the salvager? Sixty-four, her jinn told her. When she found her way back—if she found her way back, would she be treated as the hero she had seen herself to be, in that moment of discovery in the cryochamber—or would the elders shake their heads and look sorrowful, their joy at the possibility of a cure tempered by their disappointment in her? For the revolutionaries of the movement, ends did not justify the means.

The scabship had picked up speed to avoid the debris field from the explosion. She was far enough away that the ships were out of visual range, but she imagined body parts and chunks of metal and fungal dust blowing toward her. She turned around to look at the casket, which still lay in its net of inertial webbing. Intact. Well, she had done some good. Even if she spent the rest of her life in penance, she had brought something important to the revolution.

But how would she get back? Without sufficient power to get to Metaspace, she could drift here forever, like the derelict, her secret safe for eons, utterly useless. Slowly the life-giving systems would shut down and the bioskin would die, and she would be snuffed out, the scabship a coffin. Already, her chest hurt. She wept then, in her fright and loneliness.

Gradually, as she calmed down and sipped the brew the ship had prepared for her, it came to her that the disappearance of the salvage ship would bring other ships to the area. As long as she stayed in the vicinity of the explosion, there was the chance that she could ride back to known space in the wake of another ship. She set drift coordinates that she hoped would keep her close, but not too close. Someone would come soon.

She patted the casket that floated beside her, where the little boy lay in his final dreaming. His face was so serene, she wanted to touch his cheek. She thought the unfamiliar script on the top of the casket must be his name. Her jinn didn’t know the script, but somebody would, when she got back. He would be famous in death, this little boy.

In her little cocoon, surrounded by the cold majesty of the stars, she settled herself for the long wait. She clenched and unclenched her hands and looked into the heart of what she had done. To suffer thus is good, she remembered Shul telling the new recruits. To get used to killing, to become indifferent to it, is a terrible thing. May we never become like the enemy. There was nothing for it but to begin the mourning and forgiveness rituals for sixty-four strangers, who, before their enslavement, must have been people like her. She cleared her throat and her voice filled the small chamber, trembling at first but then becoming a thing of its own, rich and strong, singing to the unlistening dead.

Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh is an Indian science fiction writer living in the Boston area. She has a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics and teaches physics full-time at a small and lively state university. Her recent short fiction includes “Of Wind and Fire” in the anthology To Shape the Dark.  Many of her stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies, and she is a winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Recent work includes a novella, “Entanglement,” in the anthology Hieroglyph, and “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” at Tor.com. She has a website at vandana-writes.com and a blog at vandanasingh.wordpress.com.