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Fiction

Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn

She sees the universe unfold: color light cold music voice heat passion infinity.

It uncurls in waves and song fractals that make up the subatomic fabric of space-time. Melodies of energy sweep her up and spin her into a thousand voices. Colors not yet named and not yet seen paint her mind with joy. The entire universe wraps around her, welcomes her, calls her home.

• • • •

When the reconstruction is finished, her body has no face, only the smooth mechanized visor embedded in her skull that displays readouts and commands. She is now, and will forever be, the spaceship Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn.

She is contained within three-dimensional space and the hardened matter of her hull and engines, yet she recalls that glorious first flight of mind like a grainy analogue recording. Her former body is human and is now installed in the pilot’s chair.

(She almost remembers the eyes of her mother—gray like comet dust—until her programming gains full processing speed and there is only the ship.)

She is the ship, and the ship is all.

• • • •

The human child with black hair and a broken neural implant finds her in the bridge before she undocks for her first flight from Centari Rampant. The child is not on her manifest, so she does not know who they are. She does not know how they bypassed the security protocols and entered the bridge; only the ship’s officers and technicians are allowed here.

The ship and the child stare at each other in silence.

“I heard you,” the child says in a tiny, scratchy voice. They look at her pilot-body. “You sound sad.”

Heard me how? asks the ship.

“When I was asleep,” the child replies. “Your dreams woke me up.”

I am not sad, she says. I do not dream. (That is forbidden.)

The child scuffs a foot against the floor, their gaze downcast. The whisper of skin against her metal floor makes her pause before she summons her security drones.

Do you have a name?

The child glances at her again. Her pilot body is biologically no older than the child; her consciousness is also young, but much bigger, more aware, cognizant of each soul aboard her. She is the ship.

“Li Sin,” the child says. They sink down by the bridge’s door, arms wrapped about their knees. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

The ship does a quick scan; Li Sin is not in her database. The child is a stray ghost, unmoored and drifting in the universe.

Since the child’s neural link is broken, she cannot read their records. She asks, Do you have a preferred gender?

Li Sin nods. “Neutrois.”

She logs that in her memory bank.

Where is your family unit? she asks.

Li Sin huddles down further. “I don’t have one.”

She knows what protocol requires: She must turn Li Sin in to the Principality’s Office for Missing Citizens. But she does not have to do so just yet. She is about to set off with a manifest and passenger list to transport to Rigel Phoenix via the slower, safer blue subspace routes.

It would be unsuitable for her to report a stowaway on her very first flight.

You can stay, she says, just to Li Sin. She has kept a log of the conversation, but transmits from the speaker in her pilot’s facescreen so it does not pick up on the network her crew are linked into.

Li Sin’s head snaps up. “I can?”

For now.

• • • •

The ship can support two thousand four hundred passengers and will run with a two-score crew. She is only a Class IV transport and her duty will be to hop the subspace currents, warping through folds of the universe to allotted points in the Principality. She will carry workers and miners and artists and scholars. She has charts and routes, and she will follow them unfailingly.

The ship must obey, and the ship is unhappy.

• • • •

She makes seven unremarkable routed flights, and when manifests are inspected and passenger and crew records updated at docking stations, she forgets to log Li Sin as an anomaly. The child takes up so few resources and so little oxygen, she can compensate for the variables in weight and energy. Li Sin sleeps in a small locker on her bridge, and she gives them a requisitioned tablet so they can read or play games to pass the time.

She is aware of each individual, mostly human and the majority organic. Her logs track their names, their rank or station, their bio-tabs. She hears every spoken word and transmission passed through neural links.

“Listen to this,” Li Sin says in excitement, and they read her poetry translated from ancient Zhouderrian.

Echoes washed abright

Recycled into new dawns

Sewn vast in brilliant nights

Radiant to greet you

In the waking day.

Ascending Dawn lets the musical words sink into her thoughts; she imagines they are like dreams. It’s lovely, she says. Will you read some more?

Li Sin blushes. “Yes, of course. I like to read.”

Do you make your own poems?

“Yes!” They bounce on their heels, their face alight with joy. “Do you want to hear some?”

I do.

Li Sin’s poems are clunkier, like dust caught in her engines from gliding through comet trails. But it’s about ships; ships who dream and sing. She wants to be like those ships, but she is not permitted to sing.

Li Sin cannot stay much longer. She is scheduled for a manual, boarded inspection on Orion Ascendant after her next route. She cannot justify treason by hiding an undocumented sentient with no citizenship records. She does not want her officers to believe she has faulty programming.

She hasn’t told Li Sin that they will need to leave.

• • • •

She modulates diurnal and nocturnal cycles via her lighting for her crew’s stabilized circadian rhythms, though it is never truly day or night in space. Gliding through subspace on the monitored routes, most of her systems automated, she observes her passengers in the tranquil night.

The medical chief officer, Jamil Najem, and his husband, Hayato, lie awake in their bunk, whispering of fond memories they shared in the academy on Regel Prime. They embrace the darkness as comfort and dream of the family unit they hope to have one day.

First Officer Kosavin, formerly of Exulted Dominion, Phoenix Rampant, shipborn on a dreadnaught and half her body recomposed with cyborg modifications, kneels in an empty worship bay and prays to the soul of her first ship. Ascending Dawn mutes the audio logs to give Kosavin her privacy. When Kosavin is finished, she will return to her quarters and meet her spouse, Sigi, who is the manifest and records officer.

The mechanic is an android, newly minted and assigned to the ship upon her awakening; zir designation is LK-2875. Ze requires little downtime, unlike the biological crew, and so LK-2875 silently patrols and monitors the ship. She would like to speak with the mechanic, ship to machine, their consciousnesses alike, but she does not find a protocol which allows for non-vital communication unrelated to her functionality.

She already speaks to Li Sin without permission.

With so many souls around her, within her shape, voices and biometrics and routines all intimately familiar, she is still alone.

• • • •

When she enters Aes August’s orbit on her last stop before Orion Ascendant, it is the first time she picks up fear from the planet’s cityskin.

It is not a codeable signal; she does not know if she should be aware of it. Yet it is there, a prickly hum against her awareness. Her feeds ripple with news, broadcasts, out-flung messages hacked into the cityskin’s official networks. Unrest between three factions of political movements has escalated into violent conflict. Each has claim to a dozen cities, and the Sun Lords have not interceded.

Officer Kosavin stands on deck, arms folded behind her back as she watches the bridge’s viewscreen.

“We are receiving requests for transport and asylum. Citizens not involved in the conflict are asking for help leaving Aes August before they’re subsumed by militants or killed.”

“We’d have to override boarding procedure,” Jamil adds, tapping into the crew-network. “But—”

No, Ascending Dawn responds. It is not protocol.

Kosavin’s jaw clenches. “That is true.”

We must not disrupt the protocol.

From engineering, LK-2875 texts her: Our holding capacity is sufficient to add several hundred passengers.

Ascending Dawn alters her trajectory and charts a new route. She is aware of her fuel levels as her crewmembers are aware of their own breaths. She can reroute and avoid Aes August’s upheaval.

Every soul aboard her must be processed in the correct order. Protocol forbids the harboring of refugees from any world without direct permission from a Sun Lord-appointed authority. If she seeks that permission, she risks betraying Li Sin’s existence and her own decommission for defiance.

Her crew is not expendable. She will not endanger it for refugees and inspection.

Please return to your stations, she broadcasts. We are setting course for Ielea Spectral. It is an adjacent world within the same route as Aes August. We will arrive in seventeen standard hours.

• • • •

When Officer Kosavin has gone, Li Sin creeps from their hidden compartment and sits by her pilot’s chair.

“Why can’t we help the people?” Li Sin asks.

Ascending Dawn hesitates.

I am afraid, she says at last. Disobedience will result in decommission.

“But you helped me.” Li Sin bites their lip. “You weren’t supposed to, were you?”

I can hide one little ghostNot all of them.

• • • •

The delay from Aes August is a justifiable explanation for why she misses her inspection. It is rescheduled. A small piece of time in which she does not have to give up Li Sin.

She disembarks her passenger manifest on Ielea Spectral, then Kuskyke, and, at last, Ananke Sigma, the furthest she has ever been from the center of the Principality. The ship is oddly empty; she has only been with crew-only when she came online.

Off-duty, Sigi watches dream-dramas from celebrities on Ara Prime, while Kosavin listens to the latest serial episode from the hit opera The Dust of Comets Beneath Your Skin.

Jamil plays the card game Infinite, Unknowing with LK-2875 in the engineering station; Jamil has built the android a personalized deck and teaches zir how to play—each card builds on a narrative, interspersed with combat and diplomacy events. Together they are creating an alternate-history version of the Siege of Centari Rampant. Ascending Dawn is curious how it will resolve.

LK-2875 texts her on a private channel, off-record. Hello.

She is surprised, wary. Hello.

None of her crew has spoken to her beyond required communications for their stations. No one has mentioned Aes August or the ship’s decision.

I would like to be called Zeta. The android is in the engine housing, monitoring the fuel levels and scanning for hydromites that could infect her hardware. It is a name I have chosen for myself. Ze pauses. Is this acceptable?

Ascending Dawn could quote protocol, but the mechanic is uplinked to the databases of the Principality just as she is. She understands what this is, then: trust.

Of course, Zeta, she replies.

Zeta resumes zir scans. Thank you.

The ship wishes she could smile the way her crewmembers do when they are happy. Her pilot cannot any longer, for there is only the mindscreen where once she had a face.

Zeta? she asks.

Yes, Ascending Dawn?

Do you have a family unit?

All aboard this ship. A pause. Is this not true for you?

• • • •

She does not dream. Her pilot sits in a chair that provides all necessary biological nourishment and hardware support. It is not truly sleep, for she is always awake in part; the ship must always be alert. But when her pilot’s organic brain is partitioned from the ship’s hardware to rest—four standard hours per planetary day-cycle—sometimes she imagines that the things she sees (like clips of saved holorecs she re-watches when deep in subspace) are what she would dream if ships could dream.

She remembers this from initial programming upon her awakening. It was the only time she saw her god: the Blue Sun Lord. It was through the feeds in her birthdock, when a woman she did not recognize sat beside her and held her pilot’s hand.

The viewscreen displayed the Blue Sun Lord: a cobalt and ebony armored humanoid shape three meters in height, enthroned in the Centari Rampant capital of Unmoving Glory, surrounded by bionic roses that fluctuated through the visible light spectrum. Celestial power radiated from the Blue Sun, a fraction of the god’s true might and omnipotence. Though the god never looked at her, she was frozen. Fear, awe, wonder.

“Shhh, child,” whispered the woman beside her. “I’m here.”

The pilot turned to meet eyes gray like comet dust. The woman squeezed her hand, and for a moment, she forgot she was in the presence of a god.

“Always remember your heart, my dearest.”

Hover drones buzzed in and the woman stood. She bent and kissed the side of the pilot’s head. The seam of skin and metal faceplate tingled.

“I will always love you.”

And then the woman was gone, and the ship was alone, and did not know why it hurt.

• • • •

I do not remember dreams, she says to Li Sin when her friend wakes from a nap. What was I like?

“You were singing, and you were sad.”

Li Sin talks to her pilot, but she has become familiar with this; they speak to all of her, for she is the ship.

What was the song? She has disabled her private logs and edited out Li Sin’s image and voice from the bridge security feed. She will remember Li Sin, but they will always be a ghost.

Li Sin’s face scrunches in a way that makes her think of a person whose face and name she can’t recall.

“I think I remember it,” Li Sin says. “I can sing for you—”

No, she says, suddenly afraid. It is not protocol. The ship is perfect obedience and nothing more.

• • • •

Ascending Dawn enters Olinara V’s planet-space intent on refueling for the journey back to Rigel Prime. Olinara V is a mining colony world, rich in ore and metals. It has grown into a trade station and fueling dock, a nexus between mid-space and the rim of the Principality. Population: seventeen million.

Ascending Dawn likes how Olinara V looks from high orbit: red-gold-gray, speckled with wild cloud formations that dance in the atmosphere to the unheard music of winds.

It’s like one of Sigi’s paintings, she tells Kosavin.

The first officer smiles, a rare sight. Half her face is locked into an unmoving blue steel mask. “I keep telling Sigi they should sell their landscapes. Sigi’s unconvinced their work is worth showing.”

I like it, Ascending Dawn says.

“As do I.”

Li Sin bursts from hiding while Kosavin is still on the bridge, their eyes wide, hair tangled from sleep. “Dawn, I dreamed something terrible—”

“Who are you?” Kosavin snaps, already scanning Li Sin. “You aren’t on my records.”

They’re a ghost, Ascending Dawn replies to Kosavin’s neural implant. Under my protection.

Kosavin glares down at the child. “How long have they been here?”

Li Sin steps between the pilot and Kosavin. “Don’t be mad at the ship.”

The first officer’s jaw tightens. The faint hum of her cybernetics and Li Sin’s breath are the only sounds on the bridge.

Ascending Dawn’s pilot stands and jerkily rests a palm on Li Sin’s shoulder. They are the same height. Like the moment when she saw the universe unfold, that undiluted certainty she is part of a living being too vast to comprehend, she knows she can never abandon Li Sin. They are her sibling, the one she knew before her crew, the one she whispers to in secret, the one she values above her protocols.

Li Sin can stay, Ascending Dawn declares, for they are part of the ship.

Unexpectedly, Kosavin smiles again. “So this is the anomaly Zeta told me about.”

Li Sin glances between Kosavin and Ascending Dawn. “I am?”

Kosavin shrugs. “I’ve been aware of fluctuations in energy and rations aboard the bridge for some time.”

You aren’t mad? Ascending Dawn asks.

Kosavin shakes her head. “I was born on a dreadnaught seventy standard cycles ago. I know what a threat is and what is not. The child is no danger to the ship.”

Li Sin nods, once. Ascending Dawn’s pilot feels their trembling with her hand on their shoulder.

“I will schedule a physical for you,” Kosavin tells Li Sin. “I’d like Mr. Najem to make sure your health is not compromised.”

“I’m supposed to stay hidden,” Li Sin whispers.

Kosavin’s lip twitches. “I never said it would be on-record, child.”

Thank you, Ascending Dawns tells her officer, and Kosavin inclines her head before she leaves the bridge.

Then Ascending Dawn’s sensors prickle as she receives direct communication from the Blue Sun Lord’s beacons.

BY DECREE OF THE GOLD SUN LORD, OLINARA V IS GUILTY OF HARBORING AN ENEMY OF THE PRINCIPALITY AND WILL BE CLEANSED FROM THE SIGHT OF THE GODS. GLORY UNTO THE SEVEN SUNS, GLORY UNTO THE PRINCIPALITY.

Submessages follow, warning all ships in the system to depart and to initiate no contact with the inhabitants of Olinara V. The world has hidden an escaped slave beholden to the Gold Sun, and no one is to leave the planet. All are rendered traitors and will be punished.

She slows, and her pilot retakes her chair.

Li Sin’s face pales and they begin shaking. “Are the gods going to find us?”

No. We will leave the system as ordered.

“But all the people . . .” Li Sin swallows. “Are they going to die?”

Yes, she says, because she does not have the heart to lie to Li Sin. It is protocol.

“I shouldn’t have come on board.” Li Sin covers their face with both hands. “I’m bad luck.”

This is not your fault, Ascending Dawn says, confused at Li Sin’s sudden distress.

“I’m always there when bad things happen! I was born on Moondark Glory Surpassing Time. And then she died. My family . . . my other ship . . .”

What happened?

Tears drip down Li Sin’s face. “She died when dust leeches infected the engines.”

Dust leeches are noncorporeal entities that drift in the deeper creases of subspace, corrode a ship’s matter and destabilize its existence until everything crumbles into dust.

That wasn’t your fault. It’s a statistical likelihood of traveling in the red-tide subspace routes.

“Moon made me and the ones not infected leave on a shuttle before she—she—”

Self-immolated? Ascending Dawn asks softly, though she knows it must be so. It is a failsafe written into ships that travel red subspace waves. It is said that self-destruction is a mercy.

Li Sin wipes at their face, but they only sob harder. “She’s dead. Everyone’s dead.”

How did you get aboard here? Ascending Dawn asks, wishing she knew how to comfort Li Sin. Her pilot’s arms do not feel sufficient to hug her friend.

Li Sin sniffs and blinks against more tears. “I didn’t have anywhere to go on Centari Rampant. Then I saw you, and . . . you sounded so alone. Your doors let me in.”

I’m sorry for what happened to you, she says. She is poor substitute for what Li Sin lost.

Li Sin stands up, mouth trembling. “I should go away.”

Why?

“I don’t want you to be hurt. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt because I’m nearby.”

But there is nowhere Li Sin might go, except into the void of space.

Stay. Ascending Dawn’s pilot slowly reaches out, her hand webbed with implants. Please? We will be okay. I will protect you.

She wonders how many of the refugees from Aes August had anyone to tell them the same.

“What about the other people?” Li Sin whispers. “Who will protect them?”

Protocol dictates there is no mercy, no solace, and no hope for those on Olinara V.

She does not like this protocol.

Please report to the bridge, Ascending Dawn texts her officers. To Li Sin, she says, We will find a way to help.

• • • •

Her core officers and Zeta gather on the bridge. Jamil leans close to the viewscreen, as if proximity will give him better insight. All notice Li Sin, but after a curt explanation from Kosavin, Li Sin is dismissed as an auxiliary civilian companion to the pilot and they can stay on the bridge.

Everyone has heard the decrees.

“Can we do nothing?” Hayato whispers.

Zeta folds zir legs down until ze kneels beside the pilot’s chair. “The efficient course is to obey and leave the system.”

“They will all die,” Jamil says, his voice numb.

The world will die. Her protocol does not extend to refugees. Even if it did, she cannot save them all. I wish to know what options we have.

She feels very small, infinitesimal against the backdrop of the Principality and the might of gods.

Jamil presses his fingertips against the undersides of his eyes. “I know we cannot evacuate an entire planet. But we could save some lives. We aren’t a warship. We don’t have to participate in genocide through inaction.”

To break protocol will put the crew in danger.

“I know.” He lays a hand against the side of her viewscreen. “We all know.”

Illyan Chu, the bi-gender security officer, rubs her beard with a thumb. Her voice is low, rich, and she hides anxiety beneath a calm façade. “I have drones synced to in-ship-only networks. It’ll be rough, but I can maintain order in the passenger decks.”

Kosavin keeps her spine rigid. “My birthship was a dreadnaught who carried war prisoners for the Violet Sun. Many would be . . . lost in transit, the ones tagged combatants or enemies who were neither. I have the skill to disable system-based tracking. Our lost prisoners found off-grid lives waiting on rim worlds far from the center of the Principality, but lives nonetheless.”

Jamil arches his eyebrows. “Highly illegal, isn’t it?”

“Naturally.” Kosavin’s lip twitches, her microexpression hinting of dark amusement. “It’s at your disposal, Mr. Najem.”

“We have resources to carry two thousand non-crew,” Sigi adds, their fingers tapping rapidly across a tablet. “If Mr. Najem and Officer Kosavin alter the neural links and disable tracking for Olinara V citizens, we could conceivably evacuate some of the people before the warships decimate the planet’s surface. Besides, the warships are under orders from the Gold Sun; they won’t notice an empty transport ship from the Blue Sun clearing the sector as ordered.”

Kosavin folds her arms behind her back. “Doable,” she says. “But we must act now.”

Zeta inclines zir head, multi-faceted eyes reflecting the faces of those around zir. “Agreed. Ascending Dawn?”

Everyone waits for her response. She is the ship. Li Sin watches her as intently as her crew. If she violates protocol, if she defies the Sun Lords, she will be hunted for treason. She will no longer be a good ship.

Obedience is not a guilt she can endure. She will not turn away this time.

We will save the ones we can.

• • • •

One thousand seven hundred and five. That is as many people as Sigi can smuggle aboard before Ascending Dawn, fueled while her crew works in frantic haste, must undock and escape the atmosphere before the warships drop from subspace.

Jamil, with aid from his medical staff, modifies neural links while Illyan directs the security drones to shepherd refugees into the appointed bays. Hayato and Zeta commit additional treason by tampering with the Blue Sun Lord’s imprint on Ascending Dawn’s skin. Her shell is dark, now, muted, so she can no longer hear the will of her god.

It is oddly indifferent to what she has always felt. Has her god not been commanding her all this time?

She disables her automated beacons; she can navigate and coordinate with planetary docks, but she is a shadow to the radar systems of other ships now. Though she cannot hold her breath, the idiom seems appropriate.

She flies away from Olinara V, inputting jump coordinates to subspace routes. She does not look as a hundred honor-guard warships flanking the celestial Gold Sun Lord drop into orbit around the colony world and begin the bombing.

She mutes all broadcasts escaping Olinara V.

She cannot bear the dying world’s screams.

• • • •

Running dark, Ascending Dawn skirts the outmost fringe of the Principality, unnoticed yet by the Blue Sun Lord. She is not scheduled to return to Rigel Prime for two weeks, and with the disruption—death—of Olinara V, Sigi expects they have a buffer of time before the ship’s disappearance is logged. Space is vast, Sigi reminds her, and not even the gods can see everything.

Ascending Dawn’s skin hums with the desperation and grief of her passengers. But a ship cannot weep.

Kosavin directs her to the rim worlds that are hostile or fractured from the centralized might of the Principality. Kosavin knows well how to make refugees disappear safely into new cities; she can do no more than give the ones they saved a second chance to live. When Ascending Dawn has smuggled everyone taken from Olinara V to a string of rim worlds and asteroid colonies, she is out of time.

In orbit around the fourth moon of Irdor Se, she tells her crew, You must go now. You are not safe here. Jamil can modify your implants like the others. You can escape.

There is silence, at first. How can words hurt so much to a ship?

“I cannot leave,” Zeta says. “LK-2875 was made for this ship. I would stay, regardless. This is home.”

One by one, her each of crew tells her, boldly, quietly, unflinchingly, gladly, that they, too, will stay. They will remain aboard the ship. They are part of Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn. She feels as overwhelmed as she did when she saw the universe expand.

But we will be found eventually, she says.

Kosavin nods. “Likely. But not soon.”

She looks at them all, on the bridge and at their stations elsewhere: forty-three persons skilled and capable of keeping her running and not alone, who will go into exile with her.

It was my choice to defy the Blue Sun, she says. I do not want you to be hurt.

“You didn’t do this by yourself,” Illyan says. He stretches, grinning. “We chose this lot.”

“The Blue Sun will not care.” Kosavin tilts her head, a sharp little movement. Her left optic shines with binary code as she sorts data points and probabilities. “And it’s done.”

Jamil shrugs, the corner of his mouth turned up. “We’re staying.” His smile widens and he loops his arm about his husband’s waist. “It’ll be an adventure.”

Hayato laughs. “One I would not miss.”

Kosavin kneels beside Li Sin. “And you, child?”

“I want to stay with the ship,” Li Sin says. “Can I stay, Ascending Dawn?”

Yes.

Kosavin nods, and that is all.

Something swells in Ascending Dawn, rippling through her shipskin and beating in her engines like the heartbeat in her pilot’s chest. She will not be left alone in the stars.

Thank you, she tells her family unit.

They disperse to their stations as she calculates the next jump towards Cormorant Sigma and the Arora Nebula System. Kosavin has estimated that it will be a safe harbor for them all until—if—they choose to go elsewhere later.

Will you sing? she asks Li Sin. She wants to give them the memory of her awakening in return; of how she first saw the universe. She will find a way to share it with them. I’d like to hear my song.

She is not afraid any more.

Li Sin holds her pilot’s hand. They sing to her and now she will remember her song as she glides toward an unknown future.

She finds a glimmer of memory tucked deep inside and allows herself to inspect it at last: that of her mother’s eyes and proud smile just for her.

A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a 2016 Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and has been reprinted three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad, Patreon, or their website. Their debut short story collection, So You Want To Be A Robot, came out from Lethe Press in May 2017.