The ship had no name of her own, so her human crew called her the Lavinia Whateley. As far as anyone could tell, she didn’t mind. At least, her long grasping vanes curled—affectionately?—when the chief engineers patted her bulkheads and called her “Vinnie,” and she ceremoniously tracked the footsteps of each crew member with her internal bioluminescence, giving them light to walk and work and live by.
The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms. And so she was streamlined, something like a vast spiny lionfish to the earth-adapted eye. Her sides were lined with gasbags filled with hydrogen; her vanes and wings furled tight. Her color was a blue-green so dark it seemed a glossy black unless the light struck it; her hide was impregnated with symbiotic algae.
Where there was light, she could make oxygen. Where there was oxygen, she could make water.
She was an ecosystem unto herself, as the captain was a law unto herself. And down in the bowels of the engineering section, Black Alice Bradley, who was only human and no kind of law at all, loved her.
Black Alice had taken the oath back in ’32, after the Venusian Riots. She hadn’t hidden her reasons, and the captain had looked at her with cold, dark, amused eyes and said, “So long as you carry your weight, cherie, I don’t care. Betray me, though, and you will be going back to Venus the cold way.” But it was probably that—and the fact that Black Alice couldn’t hit the broad side of a space freighter with a ray gun—that had gotten her assigned to Engineering, where ethics were less of a problem. It wasn’t, after all, as if she was going anywhere.
Black Alice was on duty when the Lavinia Whateley spotted prey; she felt the shiver of anticipation that ran through the decks of the ship. It was an odd sensation, a tic Vinnie only exhibited in pursuit. And then they were underway, zooming down the slope of the gravity well toward Sol, and the screens all around Engineering—which Captain Song kept dark, most of the time, on the theory that swabs and deckhands and coal-shovelers didn’t need to know where they were, or what they were doing—flickered bright and live.
Everybody looked up, and Demijack shouted, “There! There!” He was right: The blot that might only have been a smudge of oil on the screen moved as Vinnie banked, revealing itself to be a freighter, big and ungainly and hopelessly outclassed. Easy prey. Easy pickings.
We could use some of them, thought Black Alice. Contrary to the e-ballads and comm stories, a pirate’s life was not all imported delicacies and fawning slaves. Especially not when three-quarters of any and all profits went directly back to the Lavinia Whateley, to keep her healthy and happy. Nobody ever argued. There were stories about the Marie Curie, too.
The captain’s voice over fiber optic cable—strung beside the Lavinia Whateley’s nerve bundles—was as clear and free of static as if she stood at Black Alice’s elbow. “Battle stations,” Captain Song said, and the crew leapt to obey. It had been two Solar since Captain Song keelhauled James Brady, but nobody who’d been with the ship then was ever likely to forget his ruptured eyes and frozen scream.
Black Alice manned her station, and stared at the screen. She saw the freighter’s name—the Josephine Baker—gold on black across the stern, the Venusian flag for its port of registry wired stiff from a mast on its hull. It was a steelship, not a Boojum, and they had every advantage. For a moment she thought the freighter would run.
And then it turned, and brought its guns to bear.
No sense of movement, of acceleration, of disorientation. No pop, no whump of displaced air. The view on the screens just flickered to a different one, as Vinnie skipped—apported—to a new position just aft and above the Josephine Baker, crushing the flag mast with her hull.
Black Alice felt that, a grinding shiver. And had just time to grab her console before the Lavinia Whateley grappled the freighter, long vanes not curling in affection now.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dogcollar, the closest thing the Lavinia Whateley had to a chaplain, cross himself, and she heard him mutter, like he always did, Ave, Grandaevissimi, morituri vos salutant. It was the best he’d be able to do until it was all over, and even then he wouldn’t have the chance to do much. Captain Song didn’t mind other people worrying about souls, so long as they didn’t do it on her time.
The captain’s voice was calling orders, assigning people to boarding parties port and starboard. Down in Engineering, all they had to do was monitor the Lavinia Whateley’s hull and prepare to repel boarders, assuming the freighter’s crew had the gumption to send any. Vinnie would take care of the rest—until the time came to persuade her not to eat her prey before they’d gotten all the valuables off it. That was a ticklish job, only entrusted to the chief engineers, but Black Alice watched and listened, and although she didn’t expect she’d ever get the chance, she thought she could do it herself.
It was a small ambition, and one she never talked about. But it would be a hell of a thing, wouldn’t it? To be somebody a Boojum would listen to?
She gave her attention to the dull screens in her sectors, and tried not to crane her neck to catch a glimpse of the ones with the actual fighting on them. Dogcollar was making the rounds with sidearms from the weapons locker, just in case. Once the Josephine Baker was subdued, it was the junior engineers and others who would board her to take inventory.
Sometimes there were crew members left in hiding on captured ships. Sometimes, unwary pirates got shot.
There was no way to judge the progress of the battle from Engineering. Wasabi put a stopwatch up on one of the secondary screens, as usual, and everybody glanced at it periodically. Fifteen minutes ongoing meant the boarding parties hadn’t hit any nasty surprises. Black Alice had met a man once who’d been on the Margaret Mead when she grappled a freighter that turned out to be carrying a division’s-worth of Marines out to the Jovian moons. Thirty minutes ongoing was normal. Forty-five minutes. Upward of an hour ongoing, and people started double-checking their weapons. The longest battle Black Alice had ever personally been part of was six hours, forty-three minutes, and fifty-two seconds. That had been the last time the Lavinia Whateley worked with a partner, and the double-cross by the Henry Ford was the only reason any of Vinnie’s crew needed. Captain Song still had Captain Edwards’ head in a jar on the bridge, and Vinnie had an ugly ring of scars where the Henry Ford had bitten her.
This time, the clock stopped at fifty minutes, thirteen seconds. The Josephine Baker surrendered.
Dogcollar slapped Black Alice’s arm. “With me,” he said, and she didn’t argue. He had only six weeks seniority over her, but he was as tough as he was devout, and not stupid either. She checked the Velcro on her holster and followed him up the ladder, reaching through the rungs once to scratch Vinnie’s bulkhead as she passed. The ship paid her no notice. She wasn’t the captain, and she wasn’t one of the four chief engineers.
Quartermaster mostly respected crew’s own partner choices, and as Black Alice and Dogcollar suited up—it wouldn’t be the first time, if the Josephine Baker’s crew decided to blow her open to space rather than be taken captive—he came by and issued them both tag guns and x-ray pads, taking a retina scan in return. All sorts of valuable things got hidden inside of bulkheads, and once Vinnie was done with the steelship there wouldn’t be much chance of coming back to look for what they’d missed.
Wet pirates used to scuttle their captures. The Boojums were more efficient.
Black Alice clipped everything to her belt and checked Dogcollar’s seals.
And then they were swinging down lines from the Lavinia Whateley’s belly to the chewed-open airlock. A lot of crew didn’t like to look at the ship’s face, but Black Alice loved it. All those teeth, the diamond edges worn to a glitter, and a few of the ship’s dozens of bright sapphire eyes blinking back at her.
She waved, unselfconsciously, and flattered herself that the ripple of closing eyes was Vinnie winking in return.
She followed Dogcollar inside the prize.
They unsealed when they had checked atmosphere—no sense in wasting your own air when you might need it later—and the first thing she noticed was the smell.
The Lavinia Whateley had her own smell, ozone and nutmeg, and other ships never smelled as good, but this was . . . this was . . .
“What did they kill and why didn’t they space it?” Dogcollar wheezed, and Black Alice swallowed hard against her gag reflex and said, “One will get you twenty we’re the lucky bastards that find it.”
“No takers,” Dogcollar said.
They worked together to crank open the hatches they came to. Twice they found crew members, messily dead. Once they found crew members alive.
“Gillies,” said Black Alice.
“Still don’t explain the smell,” said Dogcollar and, to the gillies: “Look, you can join our crew, or our ship can eat you. Makes no never mind to us.”
The gillies blinked their big wet eyes and made fingersigns at each other, and then nodded. Hard.
Dogcollar slapped a tag on the bulkhead. “Someone will come get you. You go wandering, we’ll assume you changed your mind.”
The gillies shook their heads, hard, and folded down onto the deck to wait.
Dogcollar tagged searched holds—green for clean, purple for goods, red for anything Vinnie might like to eat that couldn’t be fenced for a profit—and Black Alice mapped. The corridors in the steelship were winding, twisty, hard to track. She was glad she chalked the walls, because she didn’t think her map was quite right, somehow, but she couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong. Still, they had a beacon, and Vinnie could always chew them out if she had to.
Black Alice loved her ship.
She was thinking about that, how, okay, it wasn’t so bad, the pirate game, and it sure beat working in the sunstone mines on Venus, when she found a locked cargo hold. “Hey, Dogcollar,” she said to her comm, and while he was turning to cover her, she pulled her sidearm and blasted the lock.
The door peeled back, and Black Alice found herself staring at rank upon rank of silver cylinders, each less than a meter tall and perhaps half a meter wide, smooth and featureless except for what looked like an assortment of sockets and plugs on the surface of each. The smell was strongest here.
“Shit,” she said.
Dogcollar, more practical, slapped the first safety orange tag of the expedition beside the door and said only, “Captain’ll want to see this.”
“Yeah,” said Black Alice, cold chills chasing themselves up and down her spine. “C’mon, let’s move.”
But of course it turned out that she and Dogcollar were on the retrieval detail, too, and the captain wasn’t leaving the canisters for Vinnie.
Which, okay, fair. Black Alice didn’t want the Lavinia Whateley eating those things, either, but why did they have to bring them back?
She said as much to Dogcollar, under her breath, and had a horrifying thought: “She knows what they are, right?”
“She’s the captain,” said Dogcollar.
“Yeah, but—I ain’t arguing, man, but if she doesn’t know . . .” She lowered her voice even farther, so she could barely hear herself: “What if somebody opens one?”
Dogcollar gave her a pained look. “Nobody’s going to go opening anything. But if you’re really worried, go talk to the captain about it.”
He was calling her bluff. Black Alice called his right back. “Come with me?”
He was stuck. He stared at her, and then he grunted and pulled his gloves off, the left and then the right. “Fuck,” he said. “I guess we oughta.”
For the crew members who had been in the boarding action, the party had already started. Dogcollar and Black Alice finally tracked the captain down in the rec room, where her marines were slurping stolen wine from broken-necked bottles. As much of it splashed on the gravity plates epoxied to the Lavinia Whateley’s flattest interior surface as went into the marines, but Black Alice imagined there was plenty more where that came from. And the faster the crew went through it, the less long they’d be drunk.
The captain herself was naked in a great extruded tub, up to her collarbones in steaming water dyed pink and heavily scented by the bath bombs sizzling here and there. Black Alice stared; she hadn’t seen a tub bath in seven years. She still dreamed of them sometimes.
“Captain,” she said, because Dogcollar wasn’t going to say anything. “We think you should know we found some dangerous cargo on the prize.”
Captain Song raised one eyebrow. “And you imagine I don’t know already, cherie?”
Oh shit. But Black Alice stood her ground. “We thought we should be sure.”
The captain raised one long leg out of the water to shove a pair of necking pirates off the rim of her tub. They rolled onto the floor, grappling and clawing, both fighting to be on top. But they didn’t break the kiss. “You wish to be sure,” said the captain. Her dark eyes had never left Black Alice’s sweating face. “Very well. Tell me. And then you will know that I know, and you can be sure.”
Dogcollar made a grumbling noise deep in his throat, easily interpreted: I told you so.
Just as she had when she took Captain Song’s oath and slit her thumb with a razorblade and dripped her blood on the Lavinia Whateley’s decking so the ship might know her, Black Alice—metaphorically speaking—took a breath and jumped. “They’re brains,” she said. “Human brains. Stolen. Black-market. The Fungi—”
“Mi-Go,” Dogcollar hissed, and the captain grinned at him, showing extraordinarily white strong teeth. He ducked, submissively, but didn’t step back, for which Black Alice felt a completely ridiculous gratitude.
“Mi-Go,” Black Alice said. Mi-Go, Fungi, what did it matter? They came from the outer rim of the Solar System, the black cold hurtling rocks of the Öpik-Oort Cloud. Like the Boojums, they could swim between the stars. “They collect them. There’s a black market. Nobody knows what they use them for. It’s illegal, of course. But they’re . . . alive in there. They go mad, supposedly.”
And that was it. That was all Black Alice could manage. She stopped, and had to remind herself to shut her mouth.
“So I’ve heard,” the captain said, dabbling at the steaming water. She stretched luxuriously in her tub. Someone thrust a glass of white wine at her, condensation dewing the outside. The captain did not drink from shattered plastic bottles. “The Mi-Go will pay for this cargo, won’t they? They mine rare minerals all over the system. They’re said to be very wealthy.”
“Yes, Captain,” Dogcollar said, when it became obvious that Black Alice couldn’t.
“Good,” the captain said. Under Black Alice’s feet, the decking shuddered, a grinding sound as Vinnie began to dine. Her rows of teeth would make short work of the Josephine Baker’s steel hide. Black Alice could see two of the gillies—the same two? She never could tell them apart unless they had scars—flinch and tug at their chains. “Then they might as well pay us as someone else, wouldn’t you say?”
Black Alice knew she should stop thinking about the canisters. Captain’s word was law. But she couldn’t help it, like scratching at a scab. They were down there, in the third subhold, the one even sniffers couldn’t find, cold and sweating and with that stench that was like a living thing.
And she kept wondering. Were they empty? Or were there brains in there, people’s brains, going mad?
The idea was driving her crazy, and finally, her fourth off-shift after the capture of the Josephine Baker, she had to go look.
“This is stupid, Black Alice,” she muttered to herself as she climbed down the companionway, the beads in her hair clicking against her earrings. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Vinnie bioluminesced, a traveling spotlight, placidly unconcerned whether Black Alice was being an idiot or not.
Half-Hand Sally had pulled duty in the main hold. She nodded at Black Alice and Black Alice nodded back. Black Alice ran errands a lot, for Engineering and sometimes for other departments, because she didn’t smoke hash and she didn’t cheat at cards. She was reliable.
Down through the subholds, and she really didn’t want to be doing this, but she was here and the smell of the third subhold was already making her sick, and maybe if she just knew one way or the other, she’d be able to quit thinking about it.
She opened the third subhold, and the stench rushed out.
The canisters were just metal, sealed, seemingly airtight. There shouldn’t be any way for the aroma of the contents to escape. But it permeated the air nonetheless, bad enough that Black Alice wished she had brought a rebreather.
No, that would have been suspicious. So it was really best for everyone concerned that she hadn’t, but oh, gods and little fishes, the stench. Even breathing through her mouth was no help; she could taste it, like oil from a fryer, saturating the air, oozing up her sinuses, coating the interior spaces of her body.
As silently as possible, she stepped across the threshold and into the space beyond. The Lavinia Whateley obligingly lit the space as she entered, dazzling her at first as the overhead lights—not just bioluminescent, here, but LEDs chosen to approximate natural daylight, for when they shipped plants and animals—reflected off rank upon rank of canisters. When Black Alice went among them, they did not reach her waist.
She was just going to walk through, she told herself. Hesitantly, she touched the closest cylinder. The air in this hold was so dry there was no condensation—the whole ship ran to lip-cracking, nosebleed dryness in the long weeks between prizes—but the cylinder was cold. It felt somehow grimy to the touch, gritty and oily like machine grease. She pulled her hand back.
It wouldn’t do to open the closest one to the door—and she realized with that thought that she was planning on opening one. There must be a way to do it, a concealed catch or a code pad. She was an engineer, after all.
She stopped three ranks in, lightheaded with the smell, to examine the problem.
It was remarkably simple, once you looked for it. There were three depressions on either side of the rim, a little smaller than human fingertips but spaced appropriately. She laid the pads of her fingers over them and pressed hard, making the flesh deform into the catches.
The lid sprang up with a pressurized hiss. Black Alice was grateful that even open, it couldn’t smell much worse. She leaned forward to peer within. There was a clear membrane over the surface, and gelatin or thick fluid underneath. Vinnie’s lights illuminated it well.
It was not empty. And as the light struck the grayish surface of the lump of tissue floating within, Black Alice would have sworn she saw the pathetic unbodied thing flinch.
She scrambled to close the canister again, nearly pinching her fingertips when it clanked shut. “Sorry,” she whispered, although dear sweet Jesus, surely the thing couldn’t hear her. “Sorry, sorry.” And then she turned and ran, catching her hip a bruising blow against the doorway, slapping the controls to make it fucking close already. And then she staggered sideways, lurching to her knees, and vomited until blackness was spinning in front of her eyes and she couldn’t smell or taste anything but bile.
Vinnie would absorb the former contents of Black Alice’s stomach, just as she absorbed, filtered, recycled, and excreted all her crew’s wastes. Shaking, Black Alice braced herself back upright and began the long climb out of the holds.
In the first subhold, she had to stop, her shoulder against the smooth, velvet slickness of Vinnie’s skin, her mouth hanging open while her lungs worked. And she knew Vinnie wasn’t going to hear her, because she wasn’t the captain or a chief engineer or anyone important, but she had to try anyway, croaking, “Vinnie, water, please.”
And no one could have been more surprised than Black Alice Bradley when Vinnie extruded a basin and a thin cool trickle of water began to flow into it.
Well, now she knew. And there was still nothing she could do about it. She wasn’t the captain, and if she said anything more than she already had, people were going to start looking at her funny. Mutiny kind of funny. And what Black Alice did not need was any more of Captain Song’s attention and especially not for rumors like that. She kept her head down and did her job and didn’t discuss her nightmares with anyone.
And she had nightmares, all right. Hot and cold running, enough, she fancied, that she could have filled up the captain’s huge tub with them.
She could live with that. But over the next double dozen of shifts, she became aware of something else wrong, and this was worse, because it was something wrong with the Lavinia Whateley.
The first sign was the chief engineers frowning and going into huddles at odd moments. And then Black Alice began to feel it herself, the way Vinnie was . . . she didn’t have a word for it because she’d never felt anything like it before. She would have said balky, but that couldn’t be right. It couldn’t. But she was more and more sure that Vinnie was less responsive somehow, that when she obeyed the captain’s orders, it was with a delay. If she were human, Vinnie would have been dragging her feet.
You couldn’t keelhaul a ship for not obeying fast enough.
And then, because she was paying attention so hard she was making her own head hurt, Black Alice noticed something else. Captain Song had them cruising the gas giants’ orbits—Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune—not going in as far as the asteroid belt, not going out as far as Uranus. Nobody Black Alice talked to knew why, exactly, but she and Dogcollar figured it was because the captain wanted to talk to the Mi-Go without actually getting near the nasty cold rock of their planet. And what Black Alice noticed was that Vinnie was less balky, less unhappy, when she was headed out, and more and more resistant the closer they got to the asteroid belt.
Vinnie, she remembered, had been born over Uranus.
“Do you want to go home, Vinnie?” Black Alice asked her one late-night shift when there was nobody around to care that she was talking to the ship. “Is that what’s wrong?”
She put her hand flat on the wall, and although she was probably imagining it, she thought she felt a shiver ripple across Vinnie’s vast side.
Black Alice knew how little she knew, and didn’t even contemplate sharing her theory with the chief engineers. They probably knew exactly what was wrong and exactly what to do to keep the Lavinia Whateley from going core meltdown like the Marie Curie had. That was a whispered story, not the sort of thing anybody talked about except in their hammocks after lights out.
The Marie Curie had eaten her own crew.
So when Wasabi said, four shifts later, “Black Alice, I’ve got a job for you,” Black Alice said, “Yessir,” and hoped it would be something that would help the Lavinia Whateley be happy again.
It was a suit job, he said, replace and repair. Black Alice was going because she was reliable and smart and stayed quiet, and it was time she took on more responsibilities. The way he said it made her first fret because that meant the captain might be reminded of her existence, and then fret because she realized the captain already had been.
But she took the equipment he issued, and she listened to the instructions and read schematics and committed them both to memory and her implants. It was a ticklish job, a neural override repair. She’d done some fiber optic bundle splicing, but this was going to be a doozy. And she was going to have to do it in stiff, pressurized gloves.
Her heart hammered as she sealed her helmet, and not because she was worried about the EVA. This was a chance. An opportunity. A step closer to chief engineer.
Maybe she had impressed the captain with her discretion, after all.
She cycled the airlock, snapped her safety harness, and stepped out onto the Lavinia Whateley’s hide.
That deep blue-green, like azurite, like the teeming seas of Venus under their swampy eternal clouds, was invisible. They were too far from Sol—it was a yellow stylus-dot, and you had to know where to look for it. Vinnie’s hide was just black under Black Alice’s suit floods. As the airlock cycled shut, though, the Boojum’s own bioluminescence shimmered up her vanes and along the ridges of her sides—crimson and electric green and acid blue. Vinnie must have noticed Black Alice picking her way carefully up her spine with barbed boots. They wouldn’t hurt Vinnie—nothing short of a space rock could manage that—but they certainly stuck in there good.
The thing Black Alice was supposed to repair was at the principal nexus of Vinnie’s central nervous system. The ship didn’t have anything like what a human or a gilly would consider a brain; there were nodules spread all through her vast body. Too slow, otherwise. And Black Alice had heard Boojums weren’t supposed to be all that smart—trainable, sure, maybe like an Earth monkey.
Which is what made it creepy as hell that, as she picked her way up Vinnie’s flank—though up was a courtesy, under these circumstances—talking to her all the way, she would have sworn Vinnie was talking back. Not just tracking her with the lights, as she would always do, but bending some of her barbels and vanes around as if craning her neck to get a look at Black Alice.
Black Alice carefully circumnavigated an eye—she didn’t think her boots would hurt it, but it seemed discourteous to stomp across somebody’s field of vision—and wondered, only half-idly, if she had been sent out on this task not because she was being considered for promotion, but because she was expendable.
She was just rolling her eyes and dismissing that as borrowing trouble when she came over a bump on Vinnie’s back, spotted her goal—and all the ship’s lights went out.
She tongued on the comm. “Wasabi?”
“I got you, Blackie. You just keep doing what you’re doing.”
But it seemed like her feet stayed stuck in Vinnie’s hide a little longer than was good. At least fifteen seconds before she managed a couple of deep breaths—too deep for her limited oxygen supply, so she went briefly dizzy—and continued up Vinnie’s side.
Black Alice had no idea what inflammation looked like in a Boojum, but she would guess this was it. All around the interface she was meant to repair, Vinnie’s flesh looked scraped and puffy. Black Alice walked tenderly, wincing, muttering apologies under her breath. And with every step, the tendrils coiled a little closer.
Black Alice crouched beside the box, and began examining connections. The console was about three meters by four, half a meter tall, and fixed firmly to Vinnie’s hide. It looked like the thing was still functional, but something—a bit of space debris, maybe—had dented it pretty good.
Cautiously, Black Alice dropped a hand on it. She found the access panel, and flipped it open: more red lights than green. A tongue-click, and she began withdrawing her tethered tools from their holding pouches and arranging them so that they would float conveniently around.
She didn’t hear a thing, of course, but the hide under her boots vibrated suddenly, sharply. She jerked her head around, just in time to see one of Vinnie’s feelers slap her own side, five or ten meters away. And then the whole Boojum shuddered, contracting, curved into a hard crescent of pain the same way she had when the Henry Ford had taken that chunk out of her hide. And the lights in the access panel lit up all at once—red, red, yellow, red.
Black Alice tongued off the send function on her headset microphone, so Wasabi wouldn’t hear her. She touched the bruised hull, and she touched the dented edge of the console. “Vinnie,” she said, “does this hurt?”
Not that Vinnie could answer her. But it was obvious. She was in pain. And maybe that dent didn’t have anything to do with space debris. Maybe—Black Alice straightened, looked around, and couldn’t convince herself that it was an accident that this box was planted right where Vinnie couldn’t . . . quite . . . reach it.
“So what does it do?” she muttered. “Why am I out here repairing something that fucking hurts?” She crouched down again and took another long look at the interface.
As an engineer, Black Alice was mostly self-taught; her implants were second-hand, black market, scavenged, the wet work done by a gilly on Providence Station. She’d learned the technical vocabulary from Gogglehead Kim before he bought it in a stupid little fight with a ship named the V. I. Ulyanov, but what she relied on were her instincts, the things she knew without being able to say. So she looked at that box wired into Vinnie’s spine and all its red and yellow lights, and then she tongued the comm back on and said, “Wasabi, this thing don’t look so good.”
“Whaddya mean, don’t look so good?” Wasabi sounded distracted, and that was just fine.
Black Alice made a noise, the auditory equivalent of a shrug. “I think the node’s inflamed. Can we pull it and lock it in somewhere else?”
“No!” said Wasabi.
“It’s looking pretty ugly out here.”
“Look, Blackie, unless you want us to all go sailing out into the Big Empty, we are not pulling that governor. Just fix the fucking thing, would you?”
“Yessir,” said Black Alice, thinking hard. The first thing was that Wasabi knew what was going on—knew what the box did and knew that the Lavinia Whateley didn’t like it. That wasn’t comforting. The second thing was that whatever was going on, it involved the Big Empty, the cold vastness between the stars. So it wasn’t that Vinnie wanted to go home. She wanted to go out.
It made sense, from what Black Alice knew about Boojums. Their infants lived in the tumult of the gas giants’ atmosphere, but as they aged, they pushed higher and higher, until they reached the edge of the envelope. And then—following instinct or maybe the calls of their fellows, nobody knew for sure—they learned to skip, throwing themselves out into the vacuum like Earth birds leaving the nest. And what if, for a Boojum, the solar system was just another nest?
Black Alice knew the Lavinia Whateley was old, for a Boojum. Captain Song was not her first captain, although you never mentioned Captain Smith if you knew what was good for you. So if there was another stage to her life cycle, she might be ready for it. And her crew wasn’t letting her go.
Jesus and the cold fishy gods, Black Alice thought. Is this why the Marie Curie ate her crew? Because they wouldn’t let her go?
She fumbled for her tools, tugging the cords to float them closer, and wound up walloping herself in the bicep with a splicer. And as she was wrestling with it, her headset spoke again. “Blackie, can you hurry it up out there? Captain says we’re going to have company.”
Company? She never got to say it. Because when she looked up, she saw the shapes, faintly limned in starlight, and a chill as cold as a suit leak crept up her neck.
There were dozens of them. Hundreds. They made her skin crawl and her nerves judder the way gillies and Boojums never had. They were man-sized, roughly, but they looked like the pseudoroaches of Venus, the ones Black Alice still had nightmares about, with too many legs, and horrible stiff wings. They had ovate, corrugated heads, but no faces, and where their mouths ought to be sprouted writhing tentacles
And some of them carried silver shining cylinders, like the canisters in Vinnie’s subhold.
Black Alice wasn’t certain if they saw her, crouched on the Boojum’s hide with only a thin laminate between her and the breathsucker, but she was certain of something else. If they did, they did not care.
They disappeared below the curve of the ship, toward the airlock Black Alice had exited before clawing her way along the ship’s side. They could be a trade delegation, come to bargain for the salvaged cargo.
Black Alice didn’t think even the Mi-Go came in the battalions to talk trade.
She meant to wait until the last of them had passed, but they just kept coming. Wasabi wasn’t answering her hails; she was on her own and unarmed. She fumbled with her tools, stowing things in any handy pocket whether it was where the tool went or not. She couldn’t see much; everything was misty. It took her several seconds to realize that her visor was fogged because she was crying.
Patch cables. Where were the fucking patch cables? She found a two-meter length of fiber optic with the right plugs on the end. One end went into the monitor panel. The other snapped into her suit comm.
“Vinnie?” she whispered, when she thought she had a connection. “Vinnie, can you hear me?”
The bioluminescence under Black Alice’s boots pulsed once.
Gods and little fishes, she thought. And then she drew out her laser cutting torch, and started slicing open the case on the console that Wasabi had called the governor. Wasabi was probably dead by now, or dying. Wasabi, and Dogcollar, and . . . well, not dead. If they were lucky, they were dead.
Because the opposite of lucky was those canisters the Mi-Go were carrying.
She hoped Dogcollar was lucky.
“You wanna go out, right?” she whispered to the Lavinia Whateley. “Out into the Big Empty.”
She’d never been sure how much Vinnie understood of what people said, but the light pulsed again.
“And this thing won’t let you.” It wasn’t a question. She had it open now, and she could see that was what it did. Ugly fucking thing. Vinnie shivered underneath her, and there was a sudden pulse of noise in her helmet speakers: screaming. People screaming.
“I know,” Black Alice said. “They’ll come get me in a minute, I guess.” She swallowed hard against the sudden lurch of her stomach. “I’m gonna get this thing off you, though. And when they go, you can go, okay? And I’m sorry. I didn’t know we were keeping you from . . .” She had to quit talking, or she really was going to puke. Grimly, she fumbled for the tools she needed to disentangle the abomination from Vinnie’s nervous system.
Another pulse of sound, a voice, not a person: flat and buzzing and horrible. “We do not bargain with thieves.” And the scream that time—she’d never heard Captain Song scream before. Black Alice flinched and started counting to slow her breathing. Puking in a suit was the number one badness, but hyperventilating in a suit was a really close second.
Her heads-up display was low-res, and slightly miscalibrated, so that everything had a faint shadow-double. But the thing that flashed up against her own view of her hands was unmistakable: a question mark.
Another pulse of screaming, and the question mark again.
“Holy shit, Vinnie! . . . Never mind, never mind. They, um, they collect people’s brains. In canisters. Like the canisters in the third subhold.”
The bioluminescence pulsed once. Black Alice kept working.
Her heads-up pinged again: <ALICE> A pause. <?>
“Um, yeah. I figure that’s what they’ll do with me, too. It looked like they had plenty of canisters to go around.”
Vinnie pulsed, and there was a longer pause while Black Alice doggedly severed connections and loosened bolts.
<WANT> said the Lavinia Whateley. <?>
“Want? Do I want . . . ?” Her laughter sounded bad. “Um, no. No, I don’t want to be a brain in a jar. But I’m not seeing a lot of choices here. Even if I went cometary, they could catch me. And it kind of sounds like they’re mad enough to do it, too.”
She’d cleared out all the moorings around the edge of the governor; the case lifted off with a shove and went sailing into the dark. Black Alice winced. But then the processor under the cover drifted away from Vinnie’s hide, and there was just the monofilament tethers and the fat cluster of fiber optic and superconductors to go.
“I’m doing my best here, Vinnie,” Black Alice said through her teeth.
That got her a fast double-pulse, and the Lavinia Whateley said, <HELP>
And then, <ALICE>
“You want to help me?” Black Alice squeaked.
A strong pulse, and the heads-up said, <HELP ALICE>
“That’s really sweet of you, but I’m honestly not sure there’s anything you can do. I mean, it doesn’t look like the Mi-Go are mad at you, and I really want to keep it that way.”
<EAT ALICE> said the Lavinia Whateley.
Black Alice came within a millimeter of taking her own fingers off with the cutting laser. “Um, Vinnie, that’s um . . . well, I guess it’s better than being a brain in a jar.” Or suffocating to death in her suit if she went cometary and the Mi-Go didn’t come after her.
The double-pulse again, but Black Alice didn’t see what she could have missed. As communications went, EAT ALICE was pretty fucking unambiguous.
<HELP ALICE> the Lavinia Whateley insisted. Black Alice leaned in close, unsplicing the last of the governor’s circuits from the Boojum’s nervous system. <SAVE ALICE>
“By eating me? Look, I know what happens to things you eat, and it’s not . . .” She bit her tongue. Because she did know what happened to things the Lavinia Whateley ate. Absorbed. Filtered. Recycled. “Vinnie . . . are you saying you can save me from the Mi-Go?”
A pulse of agreement.
“By eating me?” Black Alice pursued, needing to be sure she understood.
Another pulse of agreement.
Black Alice thought about the Lavinia Whateley’s teeth. “How much me are we talking about here?”
<ALICE> said the Lavinia Whateley, and then the last fiber optic cable parted, and Black Alice, her hands shaking, detached her patch cable and flung the whole mess of it as hard as she could straight up. Maybe it would find a planet with atmosphere and be some little alien kid’s shooting star.
And now she had to decide what to do.
She figured she had two choices, really. One, walk back down the Lavinia Whateley and find out if the Mi-Go believed in surrender. Two, walk around the Lavinia Whateley and into her toothy mouth.
Black Alice didn’t think the Mi-Go believed in surrender.
She tilted her head back for one last clear look at the shining black infinity of space. Really, there wasn’t any choice at all. Because even if she’d misunderstood what Vinnie seemed to be trying to tell her, the worst she’d end up was dead, and that was light-years better than what the Mi-Go had on offer.
Black Alice Bradley loved her ship.
She turned to her left and started walking, and the Lavinia Whateley’s bioluminescence followed her courteously all the way, vanes swaying out of her path. Black Alice skirted each of Vinnie’s eyes as she came to them, and each of them blinked at her. And then she reached Vinnie’s mouth and that magnificent panoply of teeth.
“Make it quick, Vinnie, okay?” said Black Alice, and walked into her leviathan’s maw.
Picking her way delicately between razor-sharp teeth, Black Alice had plenty of time to consider the ridiculousness of worrying about a hole in her suit. Vinnie’s mouth was more like a crystal cave, once you were inside it; there was no tongue, no palate. Just polished, macerating stones. Which did not close on Black Alice, to her surprise. If anything, she got the feeling Vinnie was holding her . . . breath. Or what passed for it.
The Boojum was lit inside, as well—or was making herself lit, for Black Alice’s benefit. And as Black Alice clambered inward, the teeth got smaller, and fewer, and the tunnel narrowed. Her throat, Alice thought. I’m inside her.
And the walls closed down, and she was swallowed.
Like a pill, enclosed in the tight sarcophagus of her space suit, she felt rippling pressure as peristalsis pushed her along. And then greater pressure, suffocating, savage. One sharp pain. The pop of her ribs as her lungs crushed.
Screaming inside a space suit was contraindicated, too. And with collapsed lungs, she couldn’t even do it properly.
She floated. In warm darkness. A womb, a bath. She was comfortable. An itchy soreness between her shoulder blades felt like a very mild radiation burn.
A voice she thought she should know. She tried to speak; her mouth gnashed, her teeth ground.
alice. talk here.
She tried again. Not with her mouth, this time.
Talk . . . here?
The buoyant warmth flickered past her. She was . . . drifting. No, swimming. She could feel currents on her skin. Her vision was confused. She blinked and blinked, and things were shattered.
There was nothing to see anyway, but stars.
alice talk here.
Where am I?
Vinnie. Vinnie’s voice, but not in the flatness of the heads-up display anymore. Vinnie’s voice alive with emotion and nuance and the vastness of her self.
You ate me, she said, and understood abruptly that the numbness she felt was not shock. It was the boundaries of her body erased and redrawn.
I’m . . . in you, Vinnie?
Not a “no.” More like, this thing is not the same, does not compare, to this other thing. Black Alice felt the warmth of space so near a generous star slipping by her. She felt the swift currents of its gravity, and the gravity of its satellites, and bent them, and tasted them, and surfed them faster and faster away.
I am you.
Ecstatic comprehension, which Black Alice echoed with passionate relief. Not dead. Not dead after all. Just, transformed. Accepted. Embraced by her ship, whom she embraced in return.
Vinnie. Where are we going?
out, Vinnie answered. And in her, Black Alice read the whole great naked wonder of space, approaching faster and faster as Vinnie accelerated, reaching for the first great skip that would hurl them into the interstellar darkness of the Big Empty. They were going somewhere.
Out, Black Alice agreed and told herself not to grieve. Not to go mad. This sure beat swampy Hell out of being a brain in a jar.
And it occurred to her, as Vinnie jumped, the brainless bodies of her crew already digesting inside her, that it wouldn’t be long before the loss of the Lavinia Whateley was a tale told to frighten spacers, too.
© 2008 Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette.
Originally published in Fast Ships, Black Sails,
edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.
Reprinted by permission of the authors.