Customs took longer the second time through. But Eldred barely noticed. She was trembling, holding Bril against her heaving chest like a comfort blanket. Decker led the procession through the Berellian guards, who’d taken the opportunity to tool up with pulse rifles. Coalition drones hovered in the corridors, flechette guns pointing at nobody in particular. The air stank of hot lizard and panic.
“Look,” Decker hung back as they cleared customs and walked onto the metal decking of the docks. “If you want to get off somewhere, just let me know.”
She heard the words but couldn’t seem to think up a reply. After a moment Decker sniffed and strode forward again.
The docks were in pandemonium. Armed guards stood at each berth, forcing travellers into lines. A coalition dreadnought was putting down in the military dock, four hundred metres of black steel studded like a porcupine with railgun towers and torpedo bays. Heavy drones jetted overhead and made her hair flutter. A large Trogg that reeked of poor-quality fish was remonstrating loudly with a pair of Berellians, looking decidedly cowed by the amphibian. Sparks rained from the high ceiling, welding flares winking like stars in the black. And everyone was shouting.
Bril’s musk filled her nostrils, a warm, earthy smell that made her think of hydroponics bays after watering. Like the kind she’d broken into as a kid, to try to get an idea of what a planet was like. She realised after a moment that she was nibbling Bril’s fur like a radish.
His dignity wouldn’t permit her that much. He wriggled out of her grasp and hit the deck with a thump.
? Bril shot her a message.
Later Eldred replied on their private channel. Got to do some thinking.
Please do. We’re dry on that about now. Bril scampered ahead of her towards the docked shuttle.
Bril knew her well enough to know this didn’t have anything to do with Decker’s urge to flee Hades, like a flea from a doomed dog. It was the right call. On that, everyone agreed. It had to do with something impossible. Someone dead a long time. Someone she didn’t know she could talk to Bril about. She hadn’t even told Jeremiah. Until the moment in Shen’s jungle, she hadn’t thought about it all day. And that was rare enough. Eldred trotted after Bril before she could think harder on it.
Decker was in furious conversation with Shen as they climbed the ramp towards the off-white cargo shuttle, so mundane that Tobias hadn’t worked up the energy to name her. None of them had noticed that the Berellian guard was conspicuously absent from the landing pad, and Coalition drones appeared to be nervously avoiding the airspace. Bril might have, but he was doing some thinking of his own.
Eldred was tired from even the gentle incline of the docking ramp, and didn’t notice the crew ahead of her flicker out of existence as if they were as holographic as Jeremiah. By the time she registered the landing pad as empty but for the shuttle, she was passing through the field.
There was the briefest humming, and a gentle resistance, like she’d walked through a shower curtain. The air seemed to almost bounce against her skin, before she broke the surface tension and passed through.
The crew faded back in about the time she was processing the fact that air rarely shimmered. But by then she had bigger concerns.
Like the ship.
“What the fuck?” Said Decker.
The stubby cargo shuttle had elongated to three times its length, a hundred metres of a black so dark it made her eyes ache to look at. Green glass glittered from angular portholes, and it appeared to be hovering on the pad with no sound or sign of propulsion. The stealth ship tapered to a triangular point, a giant delta wing looming above them. Eldred could see nodules dotted through the underbelly that could have been weapons, or sensors. It was hovering roughly ten metres above their heads, and every head was looking up.
Eldred was the first to smell it. An expensive aftershave, of the style Jeremiah might wear when he hadn’t seen her in three months and wanted to remind her that he might appeal to other women if he chose. But it felt artificial. Somehow less real than holographic scent on a holographic man. She took a deep breath as she took in the ship’s pilot.
Decker caught up a moment later. “You!” He shouted at the little old man standing on the pad.
The new arrival was half her height, and the hunch in his back didn’t help. He was leaning on a cane, head bald as an egg. A monocle sat in one watery eye, and he had a wispy moustache that he really didn’t need. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes had a hint of steel that made her back up a step. The air caught her again, and shoved her forward. Shen caught her as she stumbled.
“Mr Decker.” The old man’s voice was inflectionless. Like it had run through a voice bank indecisively before settling on all of them. Somehow that bothered her less than the eyes. But Tobias was shivering to her left. The man looked around at them all, his smile growing wider. “Are you going to introduce me to your crew?”
“Why bother?” Decker muttered. “You probably know how many skids are in Shen’s underwear.”
The old man laughed humourlessly. He was exquisitely dressed, in a burgundy suit and waistcoat. “Crude, but accurate enough.”
Eldred tried to access local net, image search the man’s face. It was down. If he could hide the ship, that was little surprise. She inclined her head minutely, tapped twice on her left canine. Into her warren. The tunnels that changed course and consistency depending on the agents hunting her signature. The kind that knew every firewall could be jumped. And each and every one had been filled in. Eldred gasped as if the man had struck her. She was cut off. She staggered again and caught herself. The old man gave her a quick wink.
“Who are you?” She heard herself ask. Her voice shook.
The old man gave a little bow. He didn’t move as his appearance should suggest. “I am Sixteen.”
“Look more like sixteen hundred to me.” Shen muttered.
“That’s not a name.” Decker pointed out.
The old man smiled as if this hadn’t occurred to him. “Nonetheless, it is mine. And besides, it is irrelevant.”
“What do you want?” Eldred asked. Bril was curled around her shins, tapping his rear paw in the way he had when he was deep in conversation. With net down, he could only be talking to one person.
“I would have thought that was obvious.” The man smiled and straightened. The hump in his back vanished as if it had been no more than a crease in a duvet. It simultaneously fascinated and disgusted her. A whiff of tobacco drifted across the pad. Holograms didn’t smell outside of immersion suites. “Unless Mr Decker has been remiss in his tale?”
“You’ve been remiss in yours.” Decker said and crossed his arms. “And you just slaughtered a fucking planet.”
Eldred worried about his raised voice. But the moment they’d stepped into the visitor’s projection, the roar of machinery and people had been abruptly cut off. As if they were in their own vacuum. She had no doubt it extended both ways.
“Accidents happen, Mr Decker.” He brushed invisible dust off his jacket. “To everyone.” He grinned again at the crew and Eldred shivered.
“Do you like the ship, Mr Black?” The man directed at Shen, who’d lost interest in the conversation. A strand of drool was visible in his stubble as he fiddled his hands and looked up into the ship’s belly. Eldred wondered if he would rip his pants.
“Get me up there.” Shen replied. He had little care for safety protocols, or background checks. He also had little care for formal address, but he didn’t seem to notice.
The man laughed. “Fine spirit.” He looked around. “And the rest of you?”
“I’ll go.” Decker sounded like he was trying to convince himself it was his decision. “Tobias and Shen, I guess.” He turned to look at her then, and she saw a plea in his eyes. “Eldred will-“
“Eldred will go.” She finished for him.
Decker turned a deep purple. “You can’t, you don’t even know-“
“Neither do you, captain.” She made sure to inject the irony. “I’m not yours to protect.”
Decker looked hurt, but she was thinking too quickly to feel guilty. She hadn’t been aware she was going to make the decision before she did. But after what she’d seen in Shen’s jungle…
Think about this, Eldred. Bril tapped her shin again. There’s no sense in you going off half-cocked-
Why not? She shot back. You are.
Bril’s silence was deafening. He liked to think he was inscrutable, beyond humanoid predictability. But from the moment he’d hired her on as an external consultant on a scam he was running on a prominent Herminoid lecturer, she’d noted his need to wriggle into tight holes for scraps he wasn’t supposed to scrounge. If it smelled like a fish, Bril would eat until his belly burst.
“Wonderful.” The man clapped his hands as if they’d done him a favour. She doubted whether no was an option as much as Decker. Despite her words, she could feel herself trembling. She wished she could hold Jeremiah. She could almost feel his warmth. But that didn’t explain the humming, or the green light. Eldred was treated to a vision of Shen without clothes for a quarter of a second. She opened her mouth to shout.
It remained open when she rematerialised. She was standing in a soft carpet, the white fibres tickling her ankles. The lounge around her was formed of a low central basin, with a raised platform circling it. It was spacious, roughly sixty square metres, walls panelled in what looked like genuine wood. A hatchway stood at either end, behind and ahead of her. A faint perfumed smoke lay in the air, and the leather couch encircling the holo-table in the centre creaked as she staggered and fell into it. The lighting was unobtrusive, and seemed to radiate from the floor and ceiling without any obvious sign of power.
She could see Decker on the far side of the lounge. He didn’t appear to have her racing heart, but he was looking around frantically.
“What…was that?” She asked no-one.
Tobias answered her. He was curled underneath the glass table in the foetal position. “Magic.”
“Not quite, Mr Jensen.” The old man walked down a short staircase towards them, now dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with extensive tattoos spider-webbing over his wrinkled brow.
Tobias hit his head on the table as he jumped and shuffled backwards on all fours like a guilty dog.
Eldred became aware she was lying on Bril when he bit her. She shuffled upright and he scrambled out from under her, jumping awkwardly across the lounge to land on the table in front of the man. Shen was nowhere to be seen.
Sixteen ignored them briefly as he focused on the trembling Herminoid. Bril’s claws tapped on the table as they carried on a brief but frantic silent dialogue. When it was over, Bril slumped on the table like he’d just ingested a large meal. Which she supposed he had.
“We’re on the ship.” Eldred hoped the uncertainty didn’t show in her voice.
“Indeed.” Sixteen nodded.
“Want to explain how we got there?” She asked.
Sixteen flashed her a grin. “Little time.” His eyes slid to the side of the lounge as he said it.
Eldred felt her heart skip a beat as she scrambled up the couch and hauled herself like an impossibly thin ape over the raised platform. The angular porthole ahead of her was dark, but as her boots squealed on wooden floor, the glass brightened. Some kind of motion sensor? It was the least of the wonders.
Hades station was the size of her fingernail. It had been less than two minutes since Sixteen had done…whatever he’d done. Stars glittered mercilessly in the dark. It wasn’t possible. She realised with a sudden lurch in her chest that she hadn’t said goodbye to Jeremiah. Hadn’t even though to check on him since the program imploded on her. Decker’s black hole had swallowed her up. Like Jeremiah had feared it might.