They flew wingless into the roiling depths of the sky. Commander Xhevahire Krasniqi grasped the other woman's wrist with sweat-slick fingers as they dived. Though a torrent of liquid fire rushed up to meet them, the ice-white umbrella they sheltered behind turned the storm away.
"Isn't this all a bit too literal for you?” the other woman asked. She resembled the starship UNEV Li Qingzhao as much as a woman could--long legs ready to burn with fusion flame, plump from the hydrogen she'd drank from the gas giant's atmosphere, and eyes that danced with the light of her crew. Her hair was done up in two ponytails that fell straight; under free cruise, they would have stood perpendicular. "You'd get more from Flight Control."
"I want to feel this like you do, Liqi!” Krasniqi yelled over the shouting, sizzling rain. "Besides, Bytautas can handle things upstairs. He'll have to learn if he wants a ship of his own."
"You keep forgetting that I don't feel anything," Liqi said. Li Qingzhao's computer streamed the necessary data into Krasniqi's mind, and despite its cleverness and pretentions to life in the real world, it was only in her dreamstate that the ship could rise beyond memristors and mechanisms. "That's the lie you tell yourself. All I am is part of you."
"That's how I know you love it." Krasniqi smiled and kissed Liqi's lips, steely cold and firm. "This is where we--Liqi, what's wrong?"
Liqi's face had twisted into a grimace, and while she still hung on tightly to the umbrella, she had gone limp. There was never a good time for malfunction on a starship that spent five years away from home, but Krasniqi could think of better ones than the middle of an aerobraking maneuver.
"Emergency," Liqi said in a flat monotone. "Systems irregularity. Now ending indu--"
Awakening from an induced lucid dream back into the reality of her pod had as much in common with the normal process as did a joy buzzer to a wire carrying a hundred thousand volts. For Krasniqi, it was an express elevator from the bottom of her mind that launched her out the doors for good measure, and in twenty-five years of travelling the starways it was the only thing she'd found that even came close to decanting from a warp jump.
"Flight Control, Krasniqi," she said, and her pod's screen lit up with a camera's-eye view of Li Qingzhao's nerve center. With deceleration temporarily transforming the hab module's floors into ceilings and turbulence unpredictable above a planet so fresh its name was simply Qingzhao-73 c, it was safer to wear the ship as a second skin than try to navigate the companionways. "Report."
"Engine room's reporting a failure in the main engine." Iskandar Bytautas, as was his privilege as second in command, occupied his chair with a solidity that seemed independent of the crash webs. "They've scrammed the reactor, we're running on aux."
"I see." While she'd come up the ranks as an astrogator, preferring the intricate dances of planets, moons, and stars that leapt unpredictably across the sky with each jump, she knew enough about fusion reactors to understand why researchers had spent decades chasing their shadows. "Any changes to the maneuver?"
"Negative, Lieutenant Medvedeva informs me our flight path is nominal," Bytautas said. "Estimate atmosphere departure in mike four. There was nothing on the scopes, Commander--it doesn't appear as if we've sustained any other damage, and there's nothing to suggest we took in any foreign material during scoop."
"Understood." More than a few gas giants hosted their own strange life forms, from helium-chewing skywhales to patterns of lightning in sulfuric clouds, best observed from a safe distance. "I'll inform the crew."
Before Li Qingzhao had cast off from Deimos, Krasniqi had burned a hole in her stomach with worry over whether the crew would see right through her. It hadn't taken long for her to become as transparent as steel. The most critical part of her job wasn't deciding where the ship went and what it did when it got there--it was staying ahead of the natural tendency of twenty-four people to lose themselves so far from home.
"All crew, this is the commander," she said. "The primary reactor is offline. Until further notice the ship will be operating in a limited-power state. Be advised that after securing from aerobraking stations, gravity will not be restored. That is all."
She cut off the link and allowed herself a shudder. If Chief Tremblay and the engine crew couldn't fix the reactor inside of five days, that would be all. Li Qingzhao would rise to apoapsis, high and shining above the gas giant's turbulent clouds--then she would fall again, back into that fiery rain, and no heat shield would protect them when the pressure broke the ship's back and ground her bones to beautiful powder.
"That's how it is." Krasniqi had assembled the non-engineering crew in the Module One garden to break the bad news. "For now, all I ask is that you continue as normal. It's the only way we'll find a way out. Thank you."
The life systems officers pushed toward the rows of plants and algae tanks while the rest of the crew drifted away in ones and twos, leaving Krasniqi alone in the center of a steadily expanding sphere like the wreckage of a supernova. Hell, one of the systems she'd passed through aboard the solid Murasaki Shikibu had been on the verge of supernova, and it hadn't been as stressful as this.
"Commander, a word, if I may?” Lorenzo Neubauer had gripped onto a nearby handhold while she'd been diving into the past. The head of Li Qingzhao's science team was built like a bamboo flute and spoke in the soft High Martian accent she'd done so much to unlearn. "I have faith in Chief Tremblay, of course, but he can only do so much--I've an alternative you should consider."
"You mean c3?” They'd spotted it on the long cruise in, a moon that burned with oxygen and shuddered with the waves of a water ocean. "What can you tell me?"
"It's potentially habitable," Neubauer said. "We'd need to get closer for a better story, but from up here it reminds me of Earth about, oh, a billion years ago--free oxygen, but no evidence of multicellular life. Commander, I'd like to take a team down there soonest for an assessment. If we need a lifeboat we couldn't ask for much better. I've run the numbers, we've got a launch window coming up tomorrow."
"Fortune has a twisted sense of humor," Krasniqi said. In two years of sniffing through star systems, they'd found radiated husks and toxic hellscapes and barren wastelands, but nothing remotely Earthlike until now. "Get a team together, and pray for the right chirality."
"Wouldn't that be a jack in the sack, Commander," Neubauer said. She smiled at that--she couldn't afford to let the mask of command slip, though inside she felt hollow. From a distance c3 looked warm, clean, and inviting. Up close... she couldn't help but think of Muskborough the last time she'd seen it, with her old section of the dome so polished and new and the brightest theatre on Sawyer Street lit up with its stage production of Robinson Crusoe.
"You're not going to leave me alone, are you?"
Krasniqi never knew where she would end up in an induced lucid dream. Tonight she and Liqi hung in a dull, dim void that was neither hot nor cold, quiet and endless.
"I don't want to," Krasniqi said. "I have to consider the crew's safety first. Think about it this way... if it does end up happening like that, at least you'll know we'll be punished by having to spend ten years or so on a barely-habitable rock with nothing but algae for company."
"I suppose those are your only choices." Liqi hugged her legs, as if she was trying to curl up into herself. "They must be. Fix me or leave me to die. My safety doesn't matter. Just get crushed. What's that going to feel like?"
"I thought you didn't feel anything." Krasniqi flew to her with a thought--no reaction mass necessary in the dream world, if only things were that simple in reality--and enveloped Liqi in a long, slow embrace. "Maybe like this, at first. God, it's all my fault, isn't it?"
"Of course." Liqi's face was unshaken by emotion and unmoved by the death at the bottom of the hill. Nothing was ever a ship's fault. "You're in command."
"That's not what I mean," Krasniqi said, and without a flicker or a whisper the void was painted over with a bright recollection of Flight Control, shortly after they'd flared into being at the warp point over Qingzhao-73 b. It was a view from above, what Liqi would have seen, instead of from Krasniqi's own eyes. She was there in her seat reviewing one report or another--oh, sweet gravity!--when Iskandar Bytautas stepped up with concern scribbled across his face like a five-year-old's first makeup experiment.
"Could I have a word, Commander?” His voice was indistinct, the bare suggestion of words, like the hills outside Muskborough in a driving dust storm. It wouldn't matter; she remembered them well enough. "I've been going over our flight plan."
"Is that so?” They were speaking on the command channel now, a universe restricted to them both. No matter how far people went out and how few made the journey, they would always carry their secrets. "Is there a problem?"
"Out of Lieutenant Medvedeva's top six options, you went with the most aggressive aerobraking path," Bytautas said. "Are you sure that's wise, ma'am? There's not much margin for error. If the atmosphere acts up, we could be in for some trouble."
"Lieutenant Medvedeva is a fine astrogator, but there's such a thing as being too conservative." Krasniqi winced at her shadow's blunt confidence. It had been such an easy calculation then, with a warm reactor and gravity beneath her boots. "Those other paths would extend our time to the warp point by two to four weeks."
"Neubauer thinks there may be a lifebearing world in this system," Bytautas said. "It might be worth some extra time."
"Then our probes will have plenty to study," Krasniqi said. "Need I remind you, XO, we're out here to extend the frontier. Not to get bogged down in it."
The shadow of Flight Control melted back into the past. The Krasniqi that remained felt as hollow as her shadow had been. They'd flitted through twenty-three uncharted systems since pushing off from Deimos--would it really have been an imposition to stay in this one a bit longer? Perhaps not, but she knew it was the regret desperately flailing for absolution, something that would make it not her fault. Even if she could step into the past with her warnings, she had a sour suspicion that her yesterday-self would turn off the reactor and make the cruise on batteries rather than take the slower path.
"This doesn't change anything," Liqi said. "You didn't go down to engineering and smash vital components. Besides, did you think I don't get bored? You bunch help with the day-to-day, but imagine eating just porridge for the rest of your life. Sometimes I wonder if that's what happens to the ships that go missing, they decide they can't take it anymore and throw themselves into a sun."
"Try that and you'll have to go through Chief Tremblay," Krasniqi said with a grin. "He's put too much work into patching you up to let you dust yourself."
"Everything's dust," Liqi said. "Just that some of us are stubborn."
"Chief," Krasniqi said, "what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Things had started out brightly after she'd rolled out of her pod. Not so brightly that Tremblay had finished stuffing an artificial sun back up Li Qingzhao's ass, but there was still air to breathe, the gas giant was for now still falling away, and the crew was holding together, and that was as much as she could ask for. She'd kneeled toward Mecca, staring into flickers of light that had licked past Earth when the Prophet's tomb was still fresh and new, and had arrived at Flight Control to find that Tremblay had suited up was on his way back to the drive section--because teleoperating the fixerbots drained his manliness like an old battery, maybe.
"Saving our asses, ma'am," Tremblay said, his voice crackling over the radio. "Or would you prefer first-hand evidence of how much pressure this ship can take before she cracks?"
"You should have run this by me first, Chief."
"Every robot I've got is already working the key spaces," he said. "You didn't make me chief engineer so they could take all the glory. Untangling the wires is good, honest work."
"Just... don't get reckless out there, Chief," Krasniqi said. What the hell could she do, really? Lock him in his quarters for the rest of the trip? "We need you."
"Just remember all the drinks you owe me back on Deimos and--
Static roared across and shouted him down, like a man whispering on a battered beach, then the world drowned in silence.
"Chief, come in!” His vitals feed, after the aching seconds it took to wrench it open, told the story. Red and chaos, and as she watched it drained away to nothing, like water through a drain. "Dr. Nguyen, emergency, casualty in the drive section!"
The acknowledgements came in and the medical team suited up to cross, and all she could do was watch and listen. It took ten minutes for them to reach Tremblay, his suit holed and scorched with ugly streaks, his eyes milky and cold.
"Tell me what I need to do," Krasniqi said. There was always the dim hope that she'd been descending into a dreamscape, that she was living her fears and the true Li Qingzhao was firm and hale. "Liqi, please, tell me what I need to do."
There was no answer. She'd expected as much; even if Li Qingzhao's computers had been listening, they weren't made to answer to that name. Flight Control suddenly felt icy, with dust in its air and rust clinging to her feet, like Muskborough's worst winter all over again. She'd worked so hard and flown so far, only to find that not even warp drive was enough to outpace her memories.
"Liqi..." She kissed a fragment of old, twisted metal embedded in her chair--embedded in every commander's chair, on every UNES ship. A fragment of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, torn apart when that first primal warp swallowed Staten Island and set humanity on a path into the stars. She couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness. No matter how far any commander went, a token of everything they'd lost would always be there. "Liqi, please, stay with me."
"It wasn't your fault, Commander," Bytautas said once they'd ejected the body and the ceremony had drifted apart, no longer bound by the gravity of grief. "He knew the chance he was taking."
Bullshit, Krasniqi wanted to say. Running from the truth was one thing, but at least that was her own choice. Letting someone else blindfold her was something else again. She was responsible for the ship, every bolt and magnet, even if parts of her were beyond her understanding. Beyond anyone's, maybe. Starships like Li Qingzhao were the work of thousands--did any human have a brain big enough to contain her, in all her shining glory?
Tremblay might have. Maybe that was why he was so insistent on going back there himself, knowing her better than any philistine robot. Maybe he'd seen her soul, bound up in thousands of kilometers of copper wire and superconductors, in that instant when all those amps arced into him. Maybe he'd seen a goddess and, like any mortal in the old stories, had been struck dead by her radiance.
"I suppose he did." Part of her wished the gravity was working just so she could feel her legs buckling, so she could steady herself against a bulkhead. Floating in free fall made it seem like things had no weight at all. Tremblay wouldn't feel it, ever again--no matter what happened to Li Qingzhao, his body would soar like a skin-fletched arrow down into the gas giant. "How much faith do you have in Lieutenant Laakkonen?"
"I don't think that's for me to say, ma'am," Bytautas said. "She's the best engineer in five hundred light-years. That'll have to be enough."
"I want you to prepare the shuttle for evacuation," Krasniqi said. "I've heard from Lieutenant Medvedeva on c3. She says it's not quite Crimea, but it'll do. Laakkonen can control the repair robots from there and en route."
"So long as nothing else breaks," Bytautas said. "The ship needs us to stay in good repair just as much as we need it to stay alive."
"She'll have me," Krasniqi said. Bytautas fixed her with eyes narrowed like gunports. "I'm not about to let her die alone, Iskandar. I owe her more than that. The crew are your responsibility. She's mine."
"I've made my decision, XO," Krasniqi said. "It's a poor day for a mutiny."
Bytautas left with his head bowed, no doubt swimming with fears of a commander gone crazy. So what if she had? All the more reason for the crew to seek whatever safety c3 might offer. A chance of survival would always trump the certainty of disaster.
It wasn't her fault, not all of it, but she'd be damned before she would run away.
"Don't be stupid." Liqi frowned down at her with granite eyes, a judge on a bench impossibly tall. "It's beyond you."
"No." Krasniqi wanted to shiver and shrink away and made herself stand firm, despite a dream world made of clouds and ashes. Lightning crashed across a starless sky and the ground was as slippery and loose as a half-formed notion. "I'm your flight commander. I'm responsible for you."
"You?” Liqi laughed, a peal of thunder. "You're my pet. My helper. You need me much more than I need you. So don't throw yourself away on my account. It's not worth it."
"I guess I've got too used to seeing you like this," Krasniqi said. "Like a human. I keep forgetting what you really are. Metal and wire, lifeless and unfeeling. All you've got is what humans gave you. No wonder you can't understand something like loyalty or love. I'll tell you about pets, even pets can understand that. A dog is loyal, a dog loves. How much can you be when you don't even have that?"
Liqi's eyes flashed, molten copper coins in an obsidian face, and the void shuddered. Krasniqi didn't feel any fear or flush of embarrassment, and why should she? It was her dream, after all... wasn't it?
"You have no idea," Liqi said. "But if I can't understand those things, what's the point in you being controlled by them? Aren't you the flight commander? What sense is there in cutting your chest open and showing your heart to something that can't possibly appreciate it?"
"That's part of being human."
"That's part of being foolish," Liqi said. "Believe me, I understand that. Imagine what they'd say about you. That you cared more about a broken ship than making sure your crew survived."
Krasniqi said nothing. Recognition flowed across Liqi's face, constellations assembling themselves out of a chaotic sky. In an instant, between blinks and breaths, the void had evaporated and the two of them stood in her childhood nest of paper and metal at the edge of the Muskborough dome. Except there was no dome. The sands of Mars howled out there, restless and prowling, near enough to gnaw her fingers to the bone.
"You're just looking for an excuse," Liqi said. "It's not about what's right or what's proper. You want to go down with your ship so you'll never have to go back."
There it was. She could hardly ignore it, right in front of her and dream-bright. The truth she'd fought an entire lifetime to hide, that she'd have scratched a grave in coarse Martian soil with her fingernails to bury it in, that she'd chewed and swallowed until it was an unrecognizable husk even to the psych experts who determined whether she was trustworthy enough to control a potential weapon of mass destruction, to tie its passions to her own and lock them away.
"I'm in command," Krasniqi said. "It's my choice. My responsibility."
Apoapsis--the top of the mountain. Krasniqi could see her entire life from here. She kept the feed from the ship's external cameras running in the corner of her vision until she found herself in front of the engine room hatch. Lieutenant Laakkonen was inside, working days and nights broken here and there by micronaps, getting along on fistfuls of stimulants from Dr. Nguyen's stores and half the ship's ready tea, conducting an orchestra of robots who couldn't carry the right tune. The rules said one person couldn't work for that long unchecked, but the people who'd written the rules hadn't been falling into a gas giant.
"Commander!” Laakkonen pushed away from the controls, impossibly young. Had she been like that once, overspilling with energy like the very reactor Laakkonen was struggling to fix? "I've, I know I haven't been giving you the regular updates like I said I would, but you see, this progress, it's very delicate and you just get so deep looking into it and--"
"Lieutenant... Lieutenant, calm down," Krasniqi said. "It's all right. I know you've done everything that can be done. But there's something more important for you to do now."
"What's that, ma'am?” Fatigue was inscribed in Laakkonen's face, knife-sharp, and if there had been gravity Krasniqi was sure she'd be slumped on the floor.
"Show me how to work this," Krasniqi said. "You're going to be on c3 soon. You'll have enough on your screen making sure everyone stays alive to run repairs remotely."
"Yes, I..." Laakkonen stopped herself and stayed still for a moment. When she spoke again it was with a quieter, much less certain voice. "You're staying, Commander? With the ship?"
"There's still a week left," Krasniqi said. The shuttle would have to leave much sooner than that if it was to have any chance at all of making it to c3. "Plenty of time for a miracle. I just can't take the thought of letting this girl go without a fight."
Commander--" Laakkonen held her tongue. Krasniqi could imagine the appeal easily enough: We need you. Don't leave us behind. Don't throw yourself away. Stay with us.
"She doesn't have to say it for you to know she's right." Liqi's voice echoed in her ear, ethereal, as if the air had spoken. Krasniqi's heart froze--Liqi had never managed to crawl out of her dreams before. "Are you so eager to run that you'd abandon them? That you'd choose metal and wire over flesh and blood? Did you ever stop to consider whether I wanted your help, Xhevahire?"
"This isn't real," she said, subvocalizing. Did Laakkonen hear her? No, she was just floating, regarding her like she might a sick person attempting to charge out of the hospital, insisting she was well. "You're just a dream. You don't have any power over me."
"Don't be ridiculous, of course dreams have power," Liqi said. "Where do you think the warp drive came from?"
"Warp drive..." It echoed across her skull, becoming louder with each bounce off bone. The local warp point was close enough to see, if a twisted snarl in spacetime could have been seen by simple eyes, but even if Li Qingzhao's course crossed through it there would've been only a fragment of hope--no ship that had activated its warp drive without being at relative rest in a warp point had ever been seen again. Maybe she'd learn where Staten Island had gone.
"It's all right, Lieutenant," Krasniqi said. "You'll all do fine. Tell me what I need to know."
Li Qingzhao's heartbeat crashed like continuous thunder through the empty corridors--or perhaps it was just Krasniqi's own, and now there was no longer any reason to distinguish one from the other. The ship was her; she was the ship, their fates intertwined. The shuttle would be undocking soon, carrying the rest of the crew to the dubious haven that was c3, and already she felt more alone than any human had ever been.
The greenhouse, at least, still had a flair of life--all the reserve seeds and spores and as much greenstock as could be moved were going down to c3, there to short-circuit a world's evolution and force it onto a new trajectory. Most of it remained behind. Service robots breezed along the ranks where algae tanks bubbled and tilapia swam, the lack of gravity outside making little difference under the water's skin. At least she would eat well before the end.
"You've already given up, haven't you?” Liqi was nowhere to be seen, and her voice came from everywhere. Aboard an empty ship, there was nowhere to hide. "You're pathetic. Do you even care what the Quran says about suicide? What is this if not throwing yourself from the top?"
"It's what I have to do," Krasniqi said. "It's my responsibility."
"Bullshit!” Liqi spat. "You lean on that so much it's snapped. If you think I'm going to tolerate that, you're terribly mistaken."
"You're just a part of me," Krasniqi said. She tapped against one of the algae tanks and watched the fish scatter. It was a shame, in a way--they hadn't asked for this, and they couldn't do anything to stop what would happening. Much like Krasniqi herself. "So you know I won't give up while there's still a chance to turn things around."
"You mean you won't stop running," Liqi said. "Don't worry. I can help with that."
Something hard and unyielding closed around her upper arm, smooth but cold--a service robot's manipulator. Two more whispered up and took her in hand. One on one, she might have broken free, and even outnumbered there was a chance--but without gravity she was a fish flopping in an aquarium puddle.
"Listen ship, emergency robot override in my location!” Krasniqi shouted. The computer didn't answer its activation phrase, and the robots were unmoved. Though she struggled and fought, they pushed her through corridors where shadows searched for the people who'd walked with them. "Listen ship, let me go!"
Nothing. Not even an error message. The robots shoved her into the lift that serviced Li Qingzhao's spine, where the remnants of a hurried move--a few green shoots, some spilled seeds pressed against the floor from the slight acceleration--had been abandoned. Like the crew had wanted her to abandon the ship. What was the difference between her and those seeds? The promise of hope came with both.
The lift pulled itself to a halt, providing a brief tug of gravity against what had previously been the ceiling, and the robots pushed her out and to the shuttle's docking collar. It was still undogged, shuttle and ship air mixing freely--better that it supply itself off the ship's systems until the last possible moment. The robots shoved her inside, took up position below, and watched with impassive camera-eyes as the klaxons howled and the hatch locked.
"No, no, don't do this!” She hammered against the metal with naked fists. "Listen ship, command override--open!"
There was a deep shudder and a thump that reverberated through the shuttle's skin and penetrated into her bones. Li Qingzhao wasn't on the other side anymore--just space, cold fangs waiting at the door. She put her head against the hatch and breathed in and out for a moment--how could a malfunction like that happen? How could she do that to her? Or had one of the crew taken control of the robots and tossed her in for the ride?
"Krasniqi to XO," she said in a voice rough as Martian sand. "Report."
"Commander, good to hear from you. We were having some issues with the undocking, but we're safely away and--" She could hear his astonishment in what he didn't say. "Commander, are you aboard the shuttle?"
"Affirmative," Krasniqi said. "I think I may have thrown off your delta-V calculations."
"We budgeted for you, ma'am," Bytautas said. "I think we'd all like to see you up on the flight deck."
There was a hollowness in the crew's faces, a grief that Krasniqi understood. Maybe not the same grief, but spending ten years on c3--or however long it would take Earth to decide they were overdue and send a follow-up mission--was hardly worth celebrating, like having soggy lettuce for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. It was better than starving, but not much better.
"I didn't think you'd join us, Commander," Bytautas said. "What happened?"
"I--" She had to leave the mistake, the malfunction--if that's what it had truly been--unsaid. If they were all going to survive, she couldn't afford them wondering if she would walk through an airlock or fill her lungs with c3's sand. "I'm not sure, XO."
"Things were certainly strange up here," Bytautas said. "You should have told us you were coming--the ship didn't want to let us go. I guess as soon as you were aboard, it finally registered that we were trying to disengage, and then it thrust away."
"The ship did?” Li Qingzhao's docking thrusters functioned despite the reactor--if only they'd been strong enough to lift her periapsis out of the atmosphere. "That's--"
"Wasn't it just following your directions, Commander?” Bytautas said. "I know there's something to be said for dramatic entrances, but this seems a bit unusual."
"Just a bit," Krasniqi said. She cycled through the shuttle's external cameras until she found one that took in Li Qingzhao, bright and full of grace from engine to nose. So strong, so vulnerable, so alone.
"Don't go," she said, low enough that only she could hear. "Don't leave me like this..."
"Dreams have power," Liqi's voice said. "I dreamed that you wouldn't die today. Dream about me, now."
She watched her go down, proud and bright, until the clouds pulled her in.
This story originally appeared in Analog.