Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stross_Invisible-Sun_Lightspeed_728x90_v2

Advertisement

Fiction

Anything Short of Death Is Survivable

Olive feared she might vomit which would be a really dumb and dangerous thing to do since her mouth was sealed off (along with the rest of her skin) against the vacuum of space. Basically, her insides had nowhere to go. She swallowed hard. Only little kids got space sick and she wasn’t a little kid, she was fourteen.

As soon as the hatch had opened and she went rushing out into the empty, Olive’s skin crystalized—just like it was supposed to. Tough yet flexible. DragonSkin was one of the most expensive augments Grubb could buy, as he was fond of reminding her. It made her feel special and she was certain it made the other rats jealous of her, but as Attie always said, you take every advantage and don’t apologize. Nice girls die fast.

But that first moment when the world goes silent and your stomach floats up and presses against your heart—it always terrified her. What if one day the augment didn’t work? It was second-hand/black-market after all. It wasn’t designed for her. And the not-breathing thing—that added to the general terror. She couldn’t carry oxygen with her. Even if she did there would be no way to take it in. The DragonSkin had other priorities, like not letting you die a cold death in space. One of her lungs, the original one, occasionally spasmed. The other lung wasn’t really a lung anymore, it was some kind of bioengineered bag of tricks, a wet machine that generated whatever oxygen she needed. Olive had no idea how it worked but was grateful it did.

As Olive oriented herself, she could see The Seeker was already far off. Grubb piloted her in a graceful arc toward the far side of the ice moon. The old junker might look like a scrap pile, but she could dart through space like a river eel when the moment called for it.

“Good luck on the hunt my dear,” Grubb announced through her tenna, his voice a buzzing insect in her brain that made her ears itch deep inside. “Find some pretty flowers for Old Grubb, eh? Many pretty flowers.”

Olive straightened her body and pointed her toes down. Her DragonSkin was a solid that flowed like a liquid. Its crystal matrix formed a faceted shell that shifted and reconstituted instantaneously to her needs. When she flexed her ankles just so, her DragonSkin shunted off excess radiation to propel her downward in relation to her head, and simultaneously stiffened around her joints to conserve and focus the energy.

She sank fast toward the wreck below.

Once she got past the initial trauma of being blown out into space, she didn’t mind it so much. Anything short of death is survivable, she could hear Attie say.

This wreck was unlike any she had scavenged before. It was laid out under her feet like a tableau—a hyperreal painting of desolation and beauty, starkly lit by the cold reflected light of the ice moon. Two warships were mashed together in a dance of destruction—the hammer-shaped Aumot ship had rammed through the flat disc of the Simahtan Empire ship. An immense debris field surrounded their final resting place, shards orbiting in perfect synchronicity with the wreckage. Olive could feel near-microscopic bits pinging off her DragonSkin as she descended. For a moment, it sounded almost like rain.

Most battlefields in the inner systems had been picked over at least once, but out here it seems they found one untouched every day. What was out here that was worth two ships annihilating themselves over? She had heard the ice moon was once a paradise, but the shatter had shifted its orbit into perpetual shadow under its mother planet. That was the story with almost every world now. What hadn’t been destroyed by war was doomed by the shatter—an ever-expanding web of fractures in spacetime. Like cracks in the center of a frozen lake, the shatter grew with no sign of stopping.

As Olive continued to drop, she twisted in a lazy spiral and took in all the sights around her. If she had been breathing her breath would have caught in her throat at the sight of the pearlescent gas giant Morgana, its wide flat rings seemingly reaching out to her. But she couldn’t look at something so beautiful for too long. She pulled in her arms and spun faster. She knew she wasn’t graceful or pretty, but in space she felt like a dancer. Of course, whenever she had thoughts like that she imagined Attie rolling her eyes and knocking a sharp elbow into her ribs. Keep your mind on the money, she would probably say. Focus on the job.

Olive hit a warm spot and angled her toes up to stop her descent. She could feel a thrum of low-level radiation and paused so her DragonSkin could soak it up. From this distance she could see getting into the wreck would be easy—wide swaths of both ships were exposed to space. Their insides glittered with the flash-frozen moisture of their former atmospheres.

“Better keep moving my dear, so many treasures await!” Grubb was not a patient person and of course, he knew everything Olive did or didn’t do and almost every thought she had. It was one advantage of paying for her tenna and having it installed himself—he was in her head constantly. He was in all the rats’ heads.

Olive lingered a bit longer in the radiation bath—what did Grubb know about her DragonSkin or what it needed? He paid for it; he didn’t use it.

Bullseye jetted out from behind her and placed itself directly in her line of sight. It was a squat bot, made for zero-g. One of those self-assemblers where you invest in the basic unit—just a processor in a shell, really—and the bot continues to build itself and evolve with whatever resources it can find. It had many arms but no real legs or other terrestrial locomotion, which would just be a hindrance in space.

Bullseye’s front appendages (made with parts Olive recognized from previous scavenges) snapped at her.

“Boss said move,” it said.

“Keep your head on,” Olive said, and shunted the transmission through a miasma of radiation blowing off the back end of her DragonSkin to make it as unpleasant to receive as possible. If it irritated Bullseye, though, it didn’t show it.

Olive pivoted head-down and placed her arms flat at her sides. She flitted toward the outer edge of the Samahtan ship, which was big enough to swallow her sprawling childhood slum and then some. She turned again and entered feet first. Just before her head slipped past the bulkhead, she saw several small reflective specks at the far end of the hull—other rats, each having been dropped off at regular intervals by Grubb around the ship.

Grubb wouldn’t ever bring the ship too close to their scavenge. For one, the shatter played hell with certain kinds of engines. She overheard Grubb once say that a competitor of his slammed into a fracture that overloaded his engines and destroyed the ship. It was hard to know if this was exactly the truth, though, as Grubb’s competitors had a universal habit of meeting sticky ends. She suspected the real reason Grubb stayed on the periphery was so he wouldn’t get entangled with local authorities, rival scavengers, roving gangs, warlords, or worse—missionaries.

There was rarely any hub chatter between the rats on a job. Grubb said he didn’t want anyone giving away their salvage with stray transmissions, even though he didn’t seem to have a problem broadcasting himself willy-nilly. Attie said Grubb kept a lid on conversation because he didn’t want them all building “camaraderie.”

Olive wasn’t sure what camaraderie was, but Attie was always right. No matter. Compete or cooperate, what mattered in the end was that you got your haul. If you didn’t bring in your haul or if you violated your contract in any other way, Grubb would sell off your augments to make up the difference. They didn’t always come out clean. If you survived, you didn’t last long.

Olive wriggled in through a bundle of thick cables and tubes. The hard, smooth shell of her body slipped through without too much resistance, but Bullseye got hung up and had to cut his way through with a plasma torch. That gave her some time to explore alone.

Olive remembered her first augment.

Desperate, she had snatched a nice fat slice of M-eat from a street merchant in Aught City, where she and every other lost child in the galaxy thought they had a chance at a life. Olive’s first three years were spent wastepicking on the garbage moon of En, swaddled and slung on her mother’s back until she was able to crawl through and grab a bit of food or useful widget on her own. Her family couldn’t keep up with a debt that stretched back three generations, though, and they were sent to Liberty House, the debtor’s prison on Aught, where they had to pay for room and board on top of their debt.

Neither of her parents survived.

The family debt then fell entirely on Olive. She had intended to honor it. She really did. She believed what she had been taught—good, honest, hard work would free her. Show some grit. Have some determination. Her mother and grandmother had worked toward their debt relief, and her mother, and so she must as well. To honor the debt was to honor your family, your ancestors. It was the one principle everyone was taught. Honor your debts. And everyone owed.

Olive would have been caught, M-eat in her grasp, if Attie hadn’t appeared from nowhere and grabbed her hand and raced her through the labyrinth of merchant carts, solicitor’s tents, and street performers.

“Let go!” Olive protested.

“You’re so stupid!” Attie laughed. “Keep up!”

Attie dove through beneath the bottom edge of a tent and pulled Olive under. Inside was hot, humid, smoky. Olive’s eyes burned. As she adjusted to the dark, she could make out a bundle of bodies writhing on the floor. Attie stifled a giggle and turned to Olive and placed her fingers on her lips. Attie watched the writhing thing on the ground but Olive studied Attie’s features. Her hair was a wild tangle and seemed to be permanently blown back from her head. Her skin was caramel and her face was wide and friendly. Olive held out the M-eat—an offering. They tore it into strips and shared it while they waited for the commotion outside to die down.

Later they walked through the spice market and Olive breathed in scents from a hundred worlds. She smelled something like a yellow sun warming the earth after a night rain. And the smoldering remains of a forest fire which made her throat itch. And apples slowly fermenting in a damp, misty orchard that made her heart inexplicably heavy. Olive’s head swam. Every scent was a peep into another world and the universe felt truly vast for the first time.

“Got lodgings?” Attie asked. “Because I know a guy.”

Attie was paid a bonus for every new rat she recruited. She didn’t hide this fact. It’s how you survive. It’s part of honoring your debt.

Grubb took Olive into the nest and stripped her of her debt—literally. Her identifiers were surgically removed with a filth-covered implement—but not before she was registered as a corpse. She died from razorworm, a common enough ailment that wouldn’t cause an inquiry. To be sure no one investigated, her family debt was also erased—a nearly impossible feat as far as Olive knew. It unnerved her more than a little.

Attie held a rag to the wound where Olive’s identifier had been wrenched out and Olive sobbed and found she couldn’t stop.

“I’m sorry,” Olive said, sucking in a wet breath, “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

Attie just nodded and applied more pressure.

Grubb traded Olive’s identifier chips for credit toward her first augment. The technician who fused the hair-fine superconducting fiber to her spinal column was pockmarked and had a perpetually runny nose. He flicked a finger toward a receiver and her tenna hummed to life. A cacophony of voices invaded Olive’s head, sharp and cutting like exploding glass. She screamed but couldn’t hear herself over the jabbering. Underneath it all, a hollow cry, distant and shrill.

“The breath of the universe,” Attie later explained.

It sounded like a dying animal.

“Well, yeah,” Attie said. “The shatter.”

The shatter. The whole wide universe full of starshine and sweetly rotting apples was cracking apart. Thanks mostly to ships like the ones she was scavenging.

Olive stretched her body and aimed herself toward a tight opening between decks. She darted toward an open area. Bullseye hadn’t taken long to cut his way through the bulkhead’s cables. He followed right behind her.

“Pretty, pretty flowers, where are they hiding?” Grubb cut in. “You are finding them, yes my dear?”

In all her time scavenging, Olive had seen just six flowers and only been able to harvest three. She secretly hoped she wouldn’t see any. It was one thing to face Grubb’s frustration at finding nothing, another thing entirely to be punished for a failed harvesting. Better to scavenge power cells, lengths of cable, processors, food rations, and other bits like the rest of the rats.

Of course, just as she thought this, she sensed a tugging in her ribcage, which wasn’t a ribcage anymore, but a kind of intricate tenna array just for the purpose of detecting the fracture lines of the shatter, and by extension, the flowers. The lines here were deep. The shatter was strong. She might even be close to a nexus.

She sensed fracture lines more often and in more places, it seemed. To her it felt like a faint tickle—the edge of a feather tracing a thin line inside her chest. It was such a constant itch now that was she becoming numb to it. Either her augment was malfunctioning—which she would never admit to for fear of being scrapped—or the rumors were true, and the shatter was spreading farther and faster and one day the universe would burst open along a billion seams.

It was sad to think about in a way, but also—and she tried to banish this thought as soon as she had it—a strange kind of relief. Like death releasing the pain of someone you loved. As it has released her parents. As it had released Attie.

She should have taken Attie to the river.

When it was clear Attie was too sick to survive, most of the other rats turned their back to her. They were supposed to. Attie had taught them that. Though there was no hope for recovery, Grubb didn’t turn her out. Olive had grown savvy enough to understand why. It wasn’t for Attie’s sake she was fed and brought water while she twisted in her cot, unable to earn her keep or pay her debt. The payoff was making it look to the other rats like their loyalty would be rewarded. Grubb would always have their back. But Attie wouldn’t last long and it cost Grubb almost nothing to use her this way.

Olive was the only one who really cared—but she didn’t care enough, because Attie had asked Olive to take her to the river, and Olive refused.

“Take me to the end of the pier and lay me down. Roll me into the water. It will be cold. Dark. Like going into a dream.”

Each day for three days Attie had asked, and even though Olive had no intention of doing so, each day she promised she would. Olive’s heart wished for release for her friend, but she couldn’t be the one to do it. She just couldn’t.

A small flame burned under Olive’s heart—her own anger eating at her. Attie spent each day in madness and pain and then died as all victims of razorworm do, vomiting up liquified organs and hundreds of razorworm eggs—stark white pearls in a soup of blood.

Olive tried to forget all these thoughts and focus on where she was now. The tickle in her chest had turned to a burning. She was surely close to a fracture line now and—and then she felt her body snap into it, like a runaway marble dropping into a gutter. She could break away if she wanted but she let it carry her for now.

“Did you find a fracture?” Bullseye asked.

“I’m following it now,” Olive replied.

“Good! Good!” Grubb cut in. “Double credits toward your debt if you find me flowers!”

A sudden burst of energy lit up her tenna and Olive knew right away one of the rats was in trouble.

Sareh?

Ruki?

Denos.

His voice, strained and panicked, overwhelmed the hub. He was caught in a fracture line that had twisted back on itself. It was simultaneously squeezing and pulling him apart in at least four dimensions. Bullseye turned and jetted off to Den’s location. Olive knew there was little chance of extracting him. Not whole. Even if the shatter spun him out like so much spaghetti, she knew Bullseye only wanted to recover his augments and any scavenge he had on him.

Olive decided to play it safe and pulled herself out of the fracture. If it took Den by surprise, it could take her. She tried her best to ignore the screams. She had a job to do and debt to pay and she couldn’t run off to rescue rats that should know better than to get themselves caught in the shatter.

And anyway, Olive was glad to have Bullseye off her back for the moment. It might give her a chance to collect a few things for herself. It wasn’t right, and she felt a pang of guilt just thinking about it—but it was all part of the game, she told herself. What did it matter as long as she was ultimately paying her debt? The scavenge didn’t belong to anyone yet, so technically it wasn’t stealing. Still, she banished those thoughts, afraid if nothing else they might leak into the hub.

She slipped between long strands of melted alloy fiber, stretched to spider-web thinness where the ship had been pulled apart and twisted in the collision. The shatter was unbelievably strong here. Fractures running in all directions. She followed the strongest line along the bulkhead, through what looked like a training room, and into a mess hall.

As soon as she turned the corner she saw them, shimmering along the dimensional fault lines—three perfect flowers.

They hung in space, vibrating and glimmering and shifting and phasing. They throbbed with an energy no one understood. Olive drew closer and tried to keep her head clear. She couldn’t shut off her tenna or disengage from the hub, so she had to distract herself as much as she could. She tried to think of a song. One from the camps, perhaps. A song about a hero who paid off his debts and went on to live a life of continued personal responsibility and reward.

She drew close to the flowers. They never failed to mesmerize her. Each as unique as a snowflake, each an intricate fractal dance of congealed interdimensional energy perpetually expanding and folding in on itself. Each an expression of the vast unknown and unknowable. They sprung like tiny beads of blood along a scrape—other universes literally bleeding into ours. The flower-like structures were the only way our universe could contain the energy leak, make sense of it. From chaos, beauty.

Men like Grubb were determined to use them for their own purposes.

Olive didn’t pretend to understand how, but she knew the flowers were used to power the engines of the ships of empires and to power the very weapons that broke the universe. The flowers were cultivated by destruction. Around in a circle it went—weapons and engines ripping open the universe, the universe bleeding more flowers into the world, which in their use widened the shatter until the whole universe split open. Even after the empires fought themselves to extinction, the shatter continued to grow and the flowers continued to sprout like mushrooms upon graves.

Olive gently cupped her hands around the first flower, felt it vibrate in her hands, through her hands. Many had attempted to use mechanical means to harvest flowers, but the flowers were delicate and temperamental. They responded to a living touch in a way that a drone could not hope to reproduce. Still, it took practice. And DragonSkin. Trying to fumble with a flower in a pressure suit was a sure way to collapse a flower. And when they collapsed the results were . . . unpredictable.

With barely the whisper of an impulse, Olive drifted backward, and the flower came with her, pulsing still as if it believed it were attached to the fracture even though it was now cupped in her hands. She transferred it into a shielded pod she kept in her backpack.

That’s one.

The second came even easier.

Without Bullseye breathing down her neck, she wondered if it was possible to secret away a flower for herself, perhaps to sell or—

Pain sliced up her arm.

She cried out, or rather, she tried but couldn’t, being sealed in her DragonSkin. Instead, she screamed into the hub.

A pulse coursed around the crystalline shell of her DragonSkin. It was designed to absorb and redirect energy. Her body tingled and jittered and then a flash of excess power vented in a glowing plasma around her.

Her arm still hurt, which meant it was still attached, so she tried to be grateful for the pain. She pulled her arm close. She had gotten sloppy and her arm had been pulled deep into the shatter. Simple fault lines were harmless, but in certain places—particularly close to a nexus—they could be twisted and folded over many times, as no doubt Den had found out earlier. She had heard of one rat whose whole body had been turned neatly inside out. No ripping or tearing of flesh. Everything inside has just been folded outside in a blink.

She didn’t want to imagine what was happening to Den. His bright white smile flashed in her mind and she deliberately shrank the image, squeezed it smaller and smaller until it was a tiny pinprick. Inconsequential. Den was probably dying in pain but what does a pinprick matter in the vast empty?

Olive inspected her arm. The pain faded. The DragonSkin had done its job. Her arm would be fine. But it was a reminder for her not to let her mind wander when she should be concentrating.

She turned back to find the third flower gone. Vanished. Its energy absorbed back into the shatter. Or exploded back into it—she didn’t really know what happened on the other side. Or sides.

Was Grubb expecting three flowers? Did he know?

Another strong fault led Olive down through a hole that had burned through three levels. She was sure to find another flower.

Olive came upon a chamber which was completely dark. Her DragonSkin throbbed. It was constantly absorbing and dispersing a low-level energy, which meant it probably wasn’t safe here for an extended time. She planned to make a quick inspection, mark the area as clear, and get out.

Olive drifted to the center of the room and released a handful of glimmer stones. They spread out and blazed like tiny stars.

She wasn’t prepared for what she saw.

Not a flower.

A full suit of battle armor.

It appeared to be caught in the shatter. Space was bending and distorting around it. It hurt her eyes to look at it. The suit was cycling energy and leaking a bit into the empty. It must have been what her DragonSkin was sensing—some sort of radiation leak.

The battle suit was a gargantuan exoskeleton. An armored warrior could step inside and pilot it—basically a tank that wrapped around the body. It was old tech but in pristine condition, preserved by the shatter in relativistic time. The gunmetal-green armor was slick, shiny, and faceted like a dark jewel. Olive guessed it was to better deflect energy weapons and to make it harder for sensors to get a reading. As far as she could tell, it had never seen battle. It must have been jarred loose from wherever it was stored and got hung up in the fracture during the battle.

For one crazy moment, Olive contemplated keeping the battle suit for herself. But it was far was too big and impractical to take with her. The thought of somehow sneaking it past Grubb or Bullseye was absurd. It was a shame because the shatter had perfectly masked the suit’s existence—no one had gotten a reading on it. She was the only one who knew.

Perhaps she could seal off the chamber and leave it to come back to at some future date. Some far future when she had her own salvage ship, maybe even the Seeker, having taken over from Grubb after years of loyal service. She could return here and claim her bounty.

But what use would it be then? And surely someone else would have discovered it in that time. Maybe it was best to shove it into a far-flung orbit around Morgana. Only Olive would know its exact trajectory.

Then it occurred to Olive she was thinking about this all wrong. She had a battle suit. She could well use it herself. She didn’t have to hide it or set it adrift, she could use the thing to escape. Wherever she wound up, she’d sell the suit, pay off her debts, start her new life. She saw herself, older, stronger, face weathered and toughened by time, pulling a cart with the battlesuit through a market in a bustling city. She would trade it for a stall next to the spice market. She would sell roast eel to travelers from hundreds of faraway worlds, and every day she would breathe in velvety spice-scented air.

There had to be a way to open the armor. Olive inspected the markings on the battlesuit. Upper pectoral. Recessed handle. It was probably imprinted with the biometrics of whatever soldier belonged to the suit, but her DragonSkin might be able to emulate them. Olive wasn’t weaponized—no junker would be foolish enough to arm a rat—but she had some rudimentary hacking mods built-in. They made it easier to get into places that were not meant to be gotten into. The rewards were enough to outweigh the risks for Grubb, anyway.

She reached for the handle. The shatter pushed back. She adjusted, pushed through, and grabbed on to the—

White light exploded in her head. The room spun. Something hard collided with the back of her neck. Olive blinked back the pain. She regained her senses and swallowed her urge to panic. What just happened? Where was she?

It came to her in an instant. She got blasted back by the battlesuit’s defenses. Olive shook off her disorientation, gave silent thanks again to her DragonSkin, and swam back as close as she dared get to the battlesuit. Why were the defenses active? Was someone in there?

The suit’s face was nearly solid alloy with one dark horizontal stripe of dark glass across the eyes. She flung a glimmer stone at the battlesuit’s head. Before it pinged off, it shone a bright light directly into the glass, but it was still too dark for Olive to see anything.

No matter. Whoever was in there, if anyone was in there at all, was probably dead after all this time. The suit didn’t know better. It knew it had a passenger but wasn’t smart enough to know it was a corpse. And if the soldier were somehow alive, too bad. The suit was hers. He’d had it long enough. She’d be doing him a favor anyway by ejecting him. Otherwise, he’d just be stuck forever.

Olive tuned her tenna toward the battlesuit and started searching for access. Some port, some function, some flaw she could exploit. At the same time, she began feeding it energy from her DragonSkin. She didn’t have a lot to spare but the suit would need enough power to deactivate the locks and eject its pilot, and who knew what it had left after that defensive blast.

Something clicked—maybe a way in. The suit had been cycling through a self-test when it got caught in the shatter. It left a port open. She knew what to do—convince the battlesuit it failed its self-test which would cause it to active the failsafe and eject the soldier. Then it would default to maintenance mode and she’d have free access, physically and digitally.

It would just take a moment to recall the right protocols for the old tech. She had an extensive database stored in a local memory facet. Another wonderful augment courtesy of Grubb.

“Look at that tech, it’s magnificent!” Grubb said.

His voice was loud and sudden and startled her. Though of course, he wasn’t actually in the room. Olive turned. Bullseye had found her. Grubb’s big fat head was being projected through Bullseye’s round, glassy face. It was monstrous.

“What a lovely, lovely find, my girl! You see, you see, you find and you pay your debts, you work hard and this is a reward,” Grubb said. He laughed, a wet, hacking chortle.

“Now bring my prize! And don’t set off any alarms—we don’t want to attract attention out here, do we?” Grubb’s face flicked off, leaving a ghostly afterimage slowly decaying in the dark.

No, Olive agreed, we don’t want to attract attention. The last thing she needed was to get caught in a battle between Grubb and the local Warlord. Or imperial remnant. Or rival junker. Or all the above. Grubb was mostly good at avoiding such trouble. Olive was certain he was not above abandoning her if it came down to it.

Bullseye hung in space, expressionless. It floated between Olive and the exit. She cast to Bullseye’s private channel.

“It’s not so easy as Grubb thinks, Bullseye. The suit is caught in the shatter. It’s going to take some work to extract it. I don’t even know if I can,” she said.

She didn’t know what she was expecting in response, but it was doubtful Bullseye would just go and leave her to it.

She was about to try a different tack when the low-level energy she was feeding the battlesuit abruptly cut off. Before she could turn, she felt a sudden burn and her DragonSkin shifted nearly all its hardness to one focused spot on her shoulder blade in a fraction of a second.

It was protecting her from weapons fire. Barely.

The soldier inside the battlesuit was alive.

Olive barely had time to register that the suit had ejected him when the soldier pivoted over her head and aimed his weapon right at her face.

Her DragonSkin constricted, twisting her body involuntarily out of harm’s way. It wrenched her back, but whatever pain she felt—and it was a lot—was better than taking another blast from the soldier’s weapon, this time in the face.

Bullseye unfolded its squat body, transforming to something spiderlike and terrifying. It wrapped itself around the soldier and bent his weapon arm toward a harmless corner of the chamber.

In this instant, time slowed for Olive. A glimmer stone drifted in front of the soldier and illuminated his faceplate. She could clearly see him for the first time.

He was a boy, not more than fourteen. Maybe younger. His eyes were wide and black as space. His skin a warm, earthy color that reminded her of Attie. The intense light of the glimmer stone revealed a spray of large freckles concentrated on his nose and spreading out over his cheeks. His rusty brown hair was close-cropped on the sides and a messy, curly tangle on top. He wasn’t like any boy she had ever seen.

He didn’t have DragonSkin, but his pressure suit was sleek and form-fitting. His helmet bore a designation—J4KK. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but to her the boy was now Jakk.

And Bullseye had him in a death grip.

Jakk rotated his body up—a dozen small thrusters on his pressure suit working in unison. Olive lunged forward. She knew her DragonSkin was about to blow off the excess energy she absorbed from Jakk’s weapon. She grabbed on to Bullseye’s head and wrapped herself around it. Her timing couldn’t have been better.

Womp! The blast took Bullseye’s head clean off. The rest of its body spun away into the dark.

Jakk fled for a hole in the wall. A service tube or just some infrastructure exposed in the ship’s destruction, Olive didn’t know. She aimed herself in his direction and followed. Having a scanning eye was helpful for scavenging. It was also helpful for following child soldiers ejected from their battlesuit. He barely gave off a heat signature, though. If the ship hadn’t been exposed to the cold of space for so long she doubted she would have been able to pick out his trail.

Something sharp grabbed her ankle and climbed over her back. The force of it slammed her down into the floor of the tube. If she had been breathing instead of receiving O2 from her augmented lung, she would have had the breath knocked out of her.

She caught the barest glimpse of a headless Bullseye as it spidered down the tube after Jakk.

She pushed herself up just as a plasma beam sliced down the tunnel and neatly severed one of Bullseye’s appendages. Bullseye bounced angrily off the walls of the tube, righted itself, and kept going until it disappeared into darkness. Olive was grateful she hadn’t risen sooner or she would have caught the full blast of the beam. She knew her DragonSkin couldn’t take another hit. In fact, she was quickly reaching her limit. If she didn’t get back to atmosphere soon, the DragonSkin would start to degenerate. Weak spots would open and then the vacuum of space would skin her alive.

Grubb’s voice raged over the hub.

“Grab that soldier, Bullseye. He’s worth ten of you!”

Olive knew Grubb didn’t mean the boy himself. Second-hand augments were worth an obscene amount on the grey market. The rest of the boy, the real boy, was just meat.

She had one glimmer stone left. She flicked it down the passage. It illuminated the tunnel in a ring of light as it sailed away from her. The light grew dimmer and then suddenly bounced around erratically—it was a junction.

Olive pulled herself down the tunnel and quickly surveyed the open mouths of the three tunnels that lead away from the junction. She could still sense the faint dissipating trail of Jakk’s heat signature. Directly ahead. Hopefully, Bullseye chose a different path.

It was a tight squeeze and Olive realized how narrow Jakk’s shoulders must be. The tube widened and suddenly she was in a large chamber that had been ripped open, exposing one side to the cold empty. The ice moon loomed large, framed by tattered edges of the bulkhead. Its hard, pale light spilled into the chamber and edged in silver the silhouettes of a dozen dead and naked boys. They were scattered and suspended in space, curled like fetuses in a giant metal womb. The boys’ silhouettes were cut-outs against the stark light of the moon—holes where a boy once was, where a boy still should be. The barracks must have been destroyed before any of them could suit up. Grubb would wet himself at the potential bounty of augments to be harvested here. Olive felt a hot blush of shame prick her cheeks that such a thing would even occur to her.

Jakk floated in the center among the corpses. Olive couldn’t see his face, but his body language told her he was stunned. She realized he hadn’t known this was how his brothers had met their fate—he must have been locked in the battlesuit when they all died. His shock was such it must have overwhelmed his training—he didn’t sense her coming. Or if he did, he no longer cared.

Olive focused her tenna. She had cracked the battlesuit, surely she could find an open channel to Jakk. She didn’t know if or how he would react and had no time for lengthy explanations. There must be a code for friendlies so boys in battlesuits don’t blow each other up in a fight. She searched the database but didn’t turn anything up.

She found something that might be an opening and cast one word on a loop: friendly.

Jakk spun, aimed a weapon. It looked like a slicer. The barrel ended in a vertical slit, taller than the rest of the gun. It was a messy weapon you could practically cut a small ship in half with, or sweep a room and sear the flesh off your enemies. Jakk must have had multiple weapons on him because she was sure this wasn’t what hit her in the shoulder. The slicer would have cleaved her arm right off, DragonSkin or no.

After a moment, Olive noticed she wasn’t dead or burned or sliced in half. Jakk was holding his fire. Her tenna finally clicked through to an open channel. Jakk was letting her in. How much could she explain and how quickly?

“Did you do this?” Jakk asked.

“Your friends died a long time ago. I think you would have died too, but—”

“Where’s the commander? I have to report.”

Olive drifted closer by slow inches. She tried to be as calm and unthreatening as she knew how, but the thought that Bullseye would find them, perhaps in a matter of minutes, was a balloon of panic swelling inside her.

“You got caught in the shatter,” Olive explained. “Look, we can’t be here, it’s not safe.”

Jakk looked at her blankly. He was calculating something. Perhaps an order tree.

“I have to get to the skiff and get back to base.”

“War’s over. You don’t have to do anything. Everyone lost and the universe is broken.”

Olive was nearly in arm’s reach now. The slicer was still trained on her. On its highest setting, it would divide her cleanly from head to crotch.

“You were stuck,” she said. “For who knows how long. You don’t owe anyone anything now. Jakk, please don’t kill me.”

“Who’s Jakk?” Jakk asked.

“It says on your helmet.”

“They all say that. Are you—are you an angel? Your skin is like a diamond.” He reached out momentarily to touch it, but of course he couldn’t, not through his pressure suit.

Olive didn’t know what to say. She wanted his cooperation. And she wanted to not be sliced in half. And maybe it was the only way he could understand. He’d gotten suspended in time long before there was DragonSkin. She just never expected, even at her silliest, that one day a boy would mistake her for an angel. Even now she felt absurd pondering it.

“Are you here to take me to the golden fields?” Jakk asked.

“I can take you somewhere safe,” Olive said.

Jakk lowered the gun.

Something hard and angled slammed into the small of Olive’s back. Bits of crystalline DragonSkin sheered away. The spot on her back felt brittle now, less flexible. She imagined could even hear it grinding against itself, like the sound of sand in her teeth.

Olive pitched forward and crashed into Jakk. They spun together end over end. Instinctively they twined their legs together to keep from flying apart. Jakk felt solid, much more solid than she imagined. It was oddly comforting.

Jakk shifted and twisted under her. The slicer came up and over her shoulder. She felt the intense heat of its blast like the hot kiss of a rising sun on her neck. Olive and Jakk continued to tumble and as the room spun back around Olive could see the crab-like shadow of Bullseye, now two half-Bullseye’s, trying to orient itself. Themselves. The edge where the slicer had split was still white-hot. They probably weren’t expecting to be cut in half. Good.

“Did you say something about a skiff, Jakk?”

“Other end of the ship.”

“I know a shortcut,” Olive said, and turned them toward the open bulkhead. She willed her DragonSkin to impel them onward, and she felt Jakk’s thrusters puffing and venting to give them a boost. They clung together and spun headward and she imagined this was what people felt like when they danced together.

She dared to look in Jakk’s helmet shield. His eyes were trained toward the stars, and the moon’s bright reflection masked most of his face. He was intensely focused. Determined. Olive felt a peculiar admiration.

They brushed the ragged edge of the bulkhead and Olive felt a sudden, crushing tightness around her calf. She thought at first she was caught in debris, but then Bullseye’s metal arms wrapped around her arms and chest and she saw the other Bullseye climb up Jakk’s back and snake an appendage around his neck.

Grubb’s voice buzzed over her tenna. “Olive my sweet, what is it you are doing? My poor Bullseye is a wreck, I can’t make heads or tails of this damage report and where even is his head?”

She tried to block him, but of course, you can’t block Grubb. He owned her tenna after all.

Bullseye wrenched the slicer out of Jakk’s hand and tucked it inside of him somewhere. Well there’s one item Grubb managed to score off of Jakk. Olive was determined it would be the last.

Bullseye tightened its grip around Jakk’s neck, clamping down on his pressure suit. Another arm wrapped around his faceplate. She couldn’t hear the grinding crunch of Jakk’s helmet under Bullseye’s metal arm of course, but she imagined he could. She reached out to grab—something, anything, a wire, a hydraulic line—to stop Bullseye, but she immediately felt her own arm wrenched around her back.

“Such a shame, such a shame,” Grubb said, “you were a good fit for those augments and now I have to find someone else. I knew one day you would break my heart, little girl.” Grubb blew his nose.

Olive and Jakk’s eyes met. They were going to die together. That was something at least.

The increase in pressure stopped. Bullseye froze and a small red light flickered deep inside his mechanics. He was getting an emergency signal.

The arms retracted and Bullseye pulled his two halves together as best he could and he jetted away as fast as his thrusters would push him. For a fraction of a second, Olive felt indignant that a broken old bot would be called to safety and she would be left to die.

Olive and Jakk, arms free, grasped each other again.

“What happened?” Jakk asked.

Before she could answer, intense violet radiation sliced through the vacuum of space, following along a fracture a few hundred meters above their heads. It slammed into a spiky knot of spacetime, a nexus where fault lines converged. The shatter was being energized and that much energy pouring into it meant only one thing—the only thing that would make Grubb dump his rats and run.

The Bartok Warlord ship Skineater slammed into local space. Two smaller ships followed in quick succession. Olive didn’t recognize them but they looked like they belonged with the Skineater.

Grubb had no desire to tangle with warlords. His own skin was much too precious. She knew he hated to give up a haul, but you can’t enjoy your hoard if you’re dead.

Another hot blast of radiation and a ship from the Imperial remnant appeared directly opposite the Skineater. Olive and Jakk were literally caught in the middle.

Grubb chimed in. The audio was slightly garbled. She had no doubt that he was preparing to run.

“I leave you a gift, my dear,” Grubb said. “For you and your friend. Neither of you will suffer, it is a promise. Goodbye, little one.”

Panic exploded inside her. She felt helpless, angry. She had heard that Grubb and his kind implanted self-destruct devices in their rats. Partly from spite to keep their gear from falling into the hands of a rival, and partly to silence potential witnesses. Was it possible to deactivate it? Was it located somewhere she could rip out? An absurd thought—even if it was, her DragonSkin would keep it locked in. She had perhaps seconds left.

Something pulsed up and down her tenna. The destruct signal?

“Stay calm, I’m blocking his transmission,” Jakk said. “Looking for open access, just hang in there.” His dark eyes were fierce, determined.

Olive tried to calm herself. She tried to disable whatever blocks and defenses there might be so Jakk could hack his way in.

Something raced through her nervous system. A shadow creature with many tentacles crawled through her head. It felt weird—she wanted it gone.

“Don’t push me away,” Jakk said.

Vaguely Olive wondered if this ruined the idea for Jakk that she was some sort of angel, but she realized she didn’t care. No one besides Attie had ever really helped her before. It meant everything to have a friend again. She had saved Jakk and Jakk was saving her.

“Hold on—there!” Jakk said.

“That’s it?” Olive asked.

“That’s it. You’re disarmed,” he said.

“I don’t feel different.”

Jakk smirked. “Are you sure?”

Of course she felt different. She would never be the same.

“Nobody can hack like that,” Olive said. “Even I couldn’t have done that.”

“Disabling autodestruct is the first thing I did to myself before I stole the battle suit,” Jakk said. “If I knew, I would have done yours sooner. Sorry.”

“Anything short of death is survivable,” Olive said, and smiled because she thought of Attie.

Six marauders in heavy battlesuits emerged from the Skineater. They were coming right at them, fast.

“Jakk—”

“Got ‘em on sensors, six on my six. There’s more coming.”

Jakk spun them around and Olive could see the imperial ship, dark as volcanic glass, cutting a notch in the brilliant disc of the moon. A dozen small dots swirled away from the ship and towards them like angry hornets.

“Drones,” Jakk said. “We’re outgunned.”

She felt him try to pull away, but she held tight. “We’re safer together.”

“They don’t care about you, they’re after me.”

“Hey, I’m worth plenty.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Shut it and fly us toward that fracture.” Olive nodded her head toward the fading crackle of violet energy high above them.

Bullseye had taken his slicer, but Jakk still had his blaster. He grabbed it and starting firing at something behind her.

“They’re too heavily shielded,” Jakk shouted.

“What is? What’s too heavily—?”

Jakk’s thrusters spun them around again and Olive saw something silver and pointed and fast flashing through the black.

“Jakk turn around, let me take the hit!”

The impact was sharp and brutal. She heard Jakk’s breath escape in one explosive cough. They tumbled head over heel toward the imperial ship.

“Jakk? Jakk!” He wasn’t responding.

A dozen drones blasted past her and opened fire on the raiders. Olive knew they were only protecting their claim. She and Jakk were still in danger from whoever won the firefight.

“Thrusters on, Jakk!” Olive commanded. “I can’t stop our tumble by myself—I don’t have enough power. Thrusters now!”

Jakk murmured. His thrusters fired. Tiny little puffs. They stopped spinning. Olive reoriented them and they started toward the fracture again.

“Next. We’re next. Target.” Jakk’s words were slurry. He was hurt. Olive didn’t want to think how badly.

“We’re not sticking around. Give me your blaster.”

“Locked. Biosig.”

Olive reached behind her, into her pack, and pulled out the shielded sphere containing the flower.

“Then you’ll have to trust me.”

A few clicks away, the drones were carving up the battle suits. The smaller skiffs maneuvered into position to fire on them. The battle would last a minute longer, if that.

Olive flicked the sphere and the two halves spun away from each other, leaving the flower exposed, floating beside them.

“Pretty,” Jakk said.

“The ancients used it to travel far and fast. It’s got enough punch to rip a hole in spacetime.”

She grasped the flower and for a moment she was struck by the lovely intricate folds of reality. It was pretty, but it was the power it held within that made it beautiful.

She felt them fall into the undertow of the fracture—a wagon wheel sliding into an ancient rut in a stone road. They picked up speed.

“Where?” was all Jakk had breath to say.

“Away. Somewhere better,” Olive said.

“Golden fields,” Jakk said.

“Maybe so.”

Olive placed the flower between them and held it there with a hug.

“Energize it, Jakk. One shot. Full power. Make it count.”

Jakk gripped his blaster but his arm seemed to drift. Olive brought his arm in and pointed the blaster to the flower between them. In a flash, the world would be gone. She had paid her debt when Grubb had tried to blow her up. She had other debts to honor now—the friendship of Attie, the other rats like her who suffered and never had a chance to escape, the boy in her arms.

She felt the roiling heat of the shatter now. Any moment they would be crushed.

“I don’t really know what will happen,” Olive confessed.

“Anything short of death is survivable,” Jakk said, and Olive laughed, and he pulled the trigger.

The shatter embraced them.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

David Anaxagoras

David Anaxagoras is the creator and co-executive producer of Amazon Prime Video’s Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. His episode “Gortimer vs. the Relentless Rainbow of Joy” earned him a WGA Award nomination. He also wrote for Netflix’s animated action-adventure series, Glitch Techs. He holds an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. David grew up in southern California but recently relocated to Texas where he’s currently working on his novel. Find him on Twitter @davidanaxagoras or visit his website at davidanaxagoras.com