The water runs lukewarm with that familiar chemical sting that all recyc water has. It cuts off after exactly one minute, making the pipes knock. It echoes deep inside the station walls.
It’s exactly 06.00 hours, Earth-time adjusted. The station’s on the spring/summer setting, which means ‘sunrise’ is at 05.00. Sunrise in this instance being the daylight bulbs set into the ceiling.
Nyle doesn’t understand why they use Earth as the measure. The station’s an unfathomably large distance from humanity’s pale blue dot. He supposes whoever programmed it thought it’d be comforting, but Nyle’s never been to Earth, and everyone he knows who came from there is a total shit-stick.
Well, except for Sylvie.
But, then, she’d always be the exception.
For the first couple of months, Nyle would get up every day before sunrise and run the spinal corridor. It’s recommended for all observation personnel to get plenty of exercise. Helps with the linkup, apparently. After a while, though, it was every other day, then only the ones that start with T. Now it’s just Sundays, and he has to stop three times to catch his breath.
Nyle’s never had a problem with linkup anyway. Back at the academy, they told him his brain has a certain pliability. It doesn’t push back. Neither did Nyle, either. Not when it mattered.
Veena is coming off shift as he gets to the dispensary. She’s the only other person on the station. They see each other every day, for a handful of minutes. It’s supposed to make the job a little easier, that spare bit of contact. Nyle’s always surprised by how healthy she looks. She still runs every day, evidently.
‘Morning sunshine,’ says Veena.
‘You haven’t moved any of my stars, have you?’
‘They’re all exactly where you left them,’ she says with a smile.
Nyle thumbs the reader, and the drawer on the dispenser rotates out. Water, food ration (curry-powdered protein), eye drops and antiseptic gel. Nyle pockets the gel and the eye drops, and eats his food ration stood up. The flavours are on a three-day rotation. Curry day is the worst day.
His conversations with Veena feel like a three-day rotation too. They’ve been alone together on station for eight months, but they’ve never progressed much past pleasantries. He knows almost nothing about her.
Veena comes over to use the dispenser. She pushes her own thumb to the pad and the drawer rotates again. Water, food ration, and a single pink sleeping pill. She pops the pill and chases it with the water. The ration pack goes in her pocket. She never eats in the dispensary.
‘See you at changeover,’ she says.
Nyle takes a drink from his cup of water. It’s recyc too. Stings the inside of you like the shower stings the outside.
She turns back, already halfway out of the door. She looks confused. He’s outside of their routine.
‘Are you from Earth?’ he says.
She leans against the doorframe, arms folded. For a moment, he thinks she won’t answer.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Sanctuary station.’
Nyle thought he got the shitty end of the stick, growing up in the Martian colonies. Sanctuary is floating, hard-sealed poverty.
‘My condolences,’ he says.
Veena laughs. It’s the first time he’s ever heard it, a bright noise that’s quickly eclipsed by the 06.30 klaxon. When the klaxon stops, Veena waves at him.
It’s what she says every day. Nyle replies the same way as usual. Wouldn’t want to go any further outside their routine.
‘Always,’ he says.
The dome of the observation suite rises from the back of the station like a soap bubble on water. It’s big enough to move around in, not that you move much when you’re up there. The cradle is made to be comfortable, but Nyle spends so long sitting there that he’s growing to dislike the shape of it, the way the curves fit him. He lowers himself in, accounting for how the cradle tilts back. Once he’s settled, he goes into his pocket and gets the eye drops. Drop, drop, into each eye. A series of bleary blinks. His vision clears. Lastly, he reaches for the linkup cable, pulls it up and uses the antiseptic on the business end. He skipped that step once or twice, and boy, did he learn his lesson. An inflamed neural port is no joke.
Nyle reaches around the back of his head and plugs the linkup cable into the port at the base of his skull. There’s a squeal inside his head like microphone feedback that makes him clamp his teeth together. For a second he’s completely blind. Then the linkup kicks in and his vision returns, but now it’s filled, corner to corner, with an endless field of stars. Data rolls over the top, detailing the silent watches of space.
Good morning, Observer Crane.
The voice is inside Nyle’s head. It’s a woman’s voice. Her pronunciation is so crisp that she sounds mean as hell.
Good morning, Observer Crane, the voice says again. She’d sound impatient if she could, Nyle’s sure of it.
Good morning, Iris, he thinks.
The first few times, he couldn’t help accidentally saying it aloud; now he’s grown used to barely speaking at all.
Commencing observation, says Iris. Day two hundred and forty-four.
Nyle yawns and leans back in the cradle. He stares up at the blank, white curve of the ceiling, but doesn’t see it. He sees beyond. Impossibly far. Every tiny scrap of data picked up by the station’s powerful sensors and cameras is fed directly into Nyle’s especially-pliant brain.
He listens, and most importantly, he watches.
After all, humanity wouldn’t want to get caught out again.
Not after last time.
To begin with, there were no observers. Humanity thought it was alone in the universe, so only satellites monitored the far reaches. They were used for discovery. New elements. New worlds. That was before first contact. Before the Phonoi. They weren’t interested in discovery, only domination. Their ships tore through the Saturnian outposts. Blasted Holdfast and Fortress into scrap. The Phonoi never made it to Earth because Rampart station and the UNFL fleet stopped them short, but it was at incredible cost. It left a whole generation of orphans behind. After that, it was decided that computers on their own couldn’t keep humanity safe. They needed minding, maintaining. The watchers needed watching. In case the Phonoi ever came back to finish the job.
So Nyle watches. Veena watches. Just under twelve hours each (Earth-time adjusted). The data comes through on a thirty-minute delay, collated and compressed for a human brain to process. Nyle’s job is to watch for irregularities in the data. On his first day, he was terrified by every digit, every letter, every black space between the stars. Two hundred and forty-four days in, he almost wishes for something to change.
Nyle didn’t want to go into observation. He wanted to be a pilot. The thing is, the academy doesn’t take candidates from the colony slums, or stations like Sanctuary. They take kids from Earth or her orbitals. That’s why Nyle forged his application. Not just the application, either. He faked his accent, too. Held himself differently. He made it six months into basic training before they found out. If it hadn’t been for his pliant brain, he’d have been sent back to work in the factories like his mother. His mother with her poor, frozen joints and her ruined lungs. He could have been a good pilot, but the academy just saw a colony kid. A colony kid who made them look stupid. He was lucky to get transferred at all.
Iris? Nyle thinks.
Yes, Observer Crane.
It’s not just the vastness of space that Nyle can see. He can see all the records too. Observation personnel have the highest-level clearance outside the military. Nine times out of ten, it’s used to compare signals, codes and signatures. That’s not what Nyle wants to see, though.
Show me the service record for Lieutenant Kallis.
There’s a pause that almost feels disapproving. Nyle can feel the neural stimulators jabbing at his brain, keeping him artificially alert.
Records on-screen, says Iris.
You’re a gem, do you know that?
If Iris is listening, she doesn’t acknowledge him.
Most of his mind is still on the data feed, but he’s become adept at multitasking after hundreds of days of watching, so Nyle dedicates just a little bit of brain-space to the service record of Lieutenant Sylvie Kallis. There’s a photograph of her accompanying it that was taken on the day of her promotion. She’s not smiling with her mouth, because it’s a personnel photo, but she is with her eyes, because she’s proud. He moves down the record, knowing what he’s looking for.
Born: Earth (Europa region). 15th August 2443.
Today, thinks Nyle. It is today.
Please repeat, Observer Crane, says Iris.
Nyle closes his eyes for a second and sighs. The data feed is visible even when his eyes are closed.
Shut up, Iris.
He dismisses Sylvie’s record, but it’s harder to dismiss Sylvie herself. The thought of her lingers, pressing in from the edges. He thinks about the leaves. People thought he was strange, going to so much effort to get them for her. They were hard to come by, imported from the leisure complex over at Elysium where they actually have seasons. Man-made seasons, but it was as close as he could get. Four autumn leaves ranging from a deep yellow-gold to a red so bright Nyle thought it was dyed. They cost him a good part of three month’s academy allowance, but the look on her face was worth it. Just like always, though, he can’t hold onto the smile and the lit-up eyes. It’s replaced by a frown, by tears. By the last thing she said to him.
Go to hell, Nyle Crane, she said. Go to hell.
His thoughts are split by a squeal of feedback, like making the connection, but a hundred times worse. Agony spikes through his neural port and travels down his spine. His view of the starfield jumps around for a second or two, disrupted by interference, then rights itself. It takes Nyle longer to do so, the pain and disorientation leaving him gasping for breath.
Shit, he thinks. Iris, what was that?
Analysing, says Iris, calm as anything.
It’s alright for her, she’s not the one having her brain macerated.
Lapse in service caused by an erroneous feedback loop from probe six, Iris says.
Lapse in service. Nyle can think of some other less clinical words to describe what just happened.
Any damage to your system, Iris?
No damage, Observer Crane.
He notices she doesn’t ask about damage to his system.
Nyle hunts down probe six, and finds it drifting through the debris field in the Saturnian reaches. He switches to the probe’s local feed. The view Nyle gets is faceted, pulling from each of the cameras on the probe’s angular surface. He sees huge pieces of drifting debris, flash-frozen and scored by plasma burns. Bits of Holdfast. Sometimes there are bodies, too. This time, Nyle’s lucky enough not to see that.
Run analysis on probe six, Iris.
Analysing, says Iris.
Nyle keeps watching the debris field. Something catches his eye, drifting up close past one of the cameras. It looks for all the world like leaves. Sylvie’s leaves.
No. Not that.
It’s just more junk, he can see that now. Jagged bits of shrapnel. Nyle shakes his head. That jolt from the probe really did mess with his brain.
Analysis complete, says Iris. Feedback loop caused no permanent damage to probe six. Clearing all erroneous data.
What caused the loop, Iris?
Unclear. Probability dictates interference from a radiation spike inside the debris field.
Something from Holdfast leaking, or finally giving up the ghost. That’s why nobody goes out there anymore. It’s a deathtrap. Nyle leaves probe six to get on with its job and goes back to watching, trying to ignore the aftershocks running up and down his spine.
Nyle’s head aches when he disconnects the linkup at the end of his shift. In itself, that’s not unusual. Almost twelve hours of electrical stimulus is hard even on a pliant brain. This time, it’s particularly bad, though. Dizzying. That damn feedback loop. He leans against the wall, taking a moment to adjust to seeing the white curves of the walls instead of the darkness of space. Every time he blinks, he sees jagged patterns. Red, gold, orange.
Just like Sylvie’s autumn leaves.
‘Evening, sunshine,’ says Veena.
She’s pocketing her food again. Nyle wonders when she eats it. There’s no way she takes it up to the suite, surely.
He presses his thumb to the reader and the drawer rotates. Water, food ration and a single pink sleeping pill. It’s still curry day. Nyle frowns. It’s a struggle to get it down, and it’s not just the flavour.
‘You don’t look very well,’ Veena says.
Nyle stops trying to eat the food ration and drops it in the disposal instead.
‘I’m fine,’ he says, thinking about the furiously bright colours of those leaves.
‘Are you running?’
Veena raises her eyebrows.
‘You’re not. Not enough. You’ll get weak.’
Nyle almost laughs.
‘As long as I can still watch, what does it matter?’
Veena purses her lips.
‘You should run,’ she says, then she walks out of the dispensary without saying another word, not even their routine goodbye.
Nyle manages to wait until the door slides shut behind her before throwing up what food he managed to get down, straight into the disposal.
The AI that runs the medical suite couldn’t be more different to Iris. Nyle thinks the person who decided to give the station seasons probably designed Epione too, which is why she’s programmed to use naturalistic speech patterns, even if her voice itself is still mechanical. Another attempt to be comforting. Somehow, Nyle thinks he’d prefer to hear it from Iris. At least she’d be straightforward about it.
‘What appears to be the problem, Observer Crane?’
Nyle thought curry day was bad on the way down. The way up is something else. He can still taste it. He shifts on the hard surface of the examination cot.
‘Something happened today while I was watching. A feedback loop. Since then, my head’s been killing me. I can’t eat. I think there’s something wrong.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Observer Crane.’
Nyle suspects that Epione isn’t sorry at all. She’s just programmed to say so. To some extent that might make her more human than any naturalistic speech patterns ever could.
‘Please lie still,’ says Epione. ‘I’m going to examine you now.’
Epione’s examination is completely non-invasive in the traditional sense, but it’s all-encompassing. By the time Nyle sits up again, she’s processing everything from his blood sugar to his liver function.
‘Tell me the truth, Doctor, is it terminal?’
The panel of lights that passes for Epione’s face blinks and flashes.
‘There is no risk to your life, Observer Crane, please don’t worry.’
Nyle runs his hands over his shorn scalp.
‘It was a joke, Epione.’
There’s a pause. That’s something that Iris and Epione do have in common. Neither of them get Nyle’s jokes.
‘You’re dehydrated,’ Epione says, as if he didn’t speak at all. ‘And your cardiac fitness has deteriorated since your last visit.’
That can’t be all it is.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my brain?’
‘The feedback loop has stressed your system, but there’s no permanent damage,’ Epione says. ‘It will pass in the next day or so.’
Nyle sighs. At least his brain isn’t going to start leaking out of his ears.
‘That’s good. Thanks.’
‘Are you running, Observer Crane?’ Epione says.
She’s as bad as Veena.
‘Yes, Epione. I’m running.’
‘Nonetheless, I’d recommend increasing your physical activity.’
‘Noted,’ says Nyle, already thinking about how much he can’t be bothered to do that.
A drawer rotates out of the smooth wall, just like the one in the dispensary.
‘Please take this medication twice a day with your meals,’ says Epione. ‘It will make you well enough to maintain your duties.’
Nyle gets up and picks up the medication. One bottle labelled ‘AM,’ one labelled ‘PM.’ His legs are shaking.
‘Great,’ he says. ‘You’re the best.’
‘Go to hell, Nyle Crane.’
Nyle drops the medication, and it rolls against the wall. His heart is hammering, and he’s close to throwing up again.
‘What?’ he says, breathless. ‘Epione, what did you just say?’
‘Repeating,’ says Epione. ‘Get some rest, Observer Crane.’
Nyle’s heart is still loud in his ears.
Rest, he thinks. You’re damn right.
By the time he gets back to his room, the sleeping pill is really kicking in. He wondered if it would, after being sick. It occurs to him that Epione might have given him something stronger. He didn’t even think to ask. He just took what she gave him.
So pliant, just like his brain.
It’s the last cogent thought he has before the claws of chemical sleep grab him and pull him under.
The halls of the academy echo, the sound bouncing off the slick, seamless walls and floor. Nyle’s never seen a place so clean in his life. Everything back home is constantly covered in dust. Until he came here, he hated it, but now he misses the sting of the rough grains against his skin.
Nyle knows he’ll find Sylvie up at the viewports. She likes to look out onto the surface, to watch the storms. He’ll never quite understand that. They scare the shit out of him, especially after what happened to his father.
She doesn’t hear him coming, even though he calls out to her. When she does notice him, she jumps, takes out her earbuds. The music keeps playing. It’s that song. The one she loves.
She frowns at him.
‘Oh,’ she says, with her lovely, lilting voice. ‘It’s you.’
He sits beside her on the bench facing the windows. The storm outside is a bad one. Category three, Nyle guesses. If the viewport wasn’t so thick, you’d hear the grit hammering to be let in.
‘I missed you at dinner,’ Nyle says.
Sylvie finally looks away from the storm. There’s one raging in her eyes, too.
‘What are you doing here, Nyle?’
The way she says his name, it’s like a curse word. It’s the first time she’s used his real one. He’s momentarily tongue-tied. Anyone else, he’d have a smart answer. A joke. Not with her, though.
‘Apologising, if you’ll let me.’
Sylvie gets up and goes over to the glass. The storm can’t hurt her, he knows that, but he still wants to grab her, pull her back.
‘You’ve lied to me,’ she says. ‘Every day since we met.’
He can’t deny it, because it’s true. Outside, the storm is a wall of deep-red fury. He doesn’t want to get close to it, but he gets up anyway and joins her by the glass.
He wishes she’d just look at him.
She finally turns and her dark eyes are full of hurt. They look black, like the spaces between the stars.
‘Tell me the truth,’ she says. ‘Let me in.’
‘This is the truth,’ he says. ‘This is me.’
She shakes her head.
‘Let me in!’
She’s shouting now, furious.
‘To what?’ he says. ‘I don’t understand!’
It’s not good enough. Not what she wants to hear.
‘Go to hell, Nyle Crane,’ she says, grabbing him and throws him through the glass. Out into the storm.
Nyle screams as he is swallowed up by the wall of red sand.
Grit stings his eyes.
Fills his lungs.
Shreds his skin.
He’s still screaming when he wakes up. It takes him a second or two to realise he’s on-station, not at the academy. That he’s not drowning in sand.
He’s on the floor of his room, breathing like he’s run a mile. His face hurts from where he fell. That siren’s still wailing, echoing in his ears, left behind by the dream.
After those realisations settle, there’s another waiting behind it.
The siren isn’t a siren. It’s the 06.30 klaxon.
Nyle is shaking and sweating by the time he gets to the observation suite, his shirt soaked through. He swallows the medication Epione gave him dry. There wasn’t time to stop at the dispensary. He half-falls into the cradle and when he connects to the linkup, the squeal almost brings the pills back up again.
It’s not just the fever that’s making him shake. It’s the dream.
Observers aren’t meant to dream. The little pink pills are supposed to stop it, just like they are supposed to give you exactly the right amount of sleep. Switching your brain off between shifts so that it can recover from the stress of watching. Nyle hasn’t dreamt since the academy.
Good morning, Observer Crane.
Iris’s voice cuts through Nyle’s thoughts.
Just like the sand cut him open.
He shakes his head, tries to clear it. Sweat is running into his eyes. It must be because he’s sick, the pills not working properly. That’s why he’s dreaming. It’s got to be because he’s sick.
Good morning, Observer Crane, Iris says again.
Iris, he thinks. I’m here. Just hang on.
He just needs a minute to collect himself, but that’s not an option. Iris isn’t programmed for breaks. Instead, Nyle gasps as the neural stimulators jab his brain.
Commencing observation, says Iris. Day two hundred and forty-five.
Eventually, the dream fades, the fever recedes and Nyle starts to feel more like himself. Epione’s medication kicking in. It’s the mundanity of watching, too.
At least for a while.
At the six-hour mark exactly, Nyle spots something on the data feed, bounced back from the Saturnian reaches. It’s that same area again, where probe six is drifting.
Iris, Nyle thinks. Isolate that.
Isolating, says Iris.
Nyle frowns. There are protocols to follow and in that moment, he enacts them with a peculiar calm.
The first step is to check the authenticity of the irregularity. That the probes haven’t been damaged or knocked off course. That it’s not another feedback loop. Another one of those would turn his brain to jelly, but it’s still better than the alternative.
With a bit of digging, Nyle verifies that the irregularity isn’t down to any of those things. His mouth gets dry. He triggers another sensor sweep from every probe in the area. If there’s a ship out there. One of their ships.
It can’t be. If it was the Phonoi, they’d be dead already. Last time they blew through the outer regions in a matter of days. It took everything to stop them.
It can’t be the Phonoi.
He has to wait an hour for the results of the second sweep. In the meantime, he carries on, following protocol, and tries not to think about plasma blasts tearing the station to shreds.
Iris. Unpack the irregularity, please.
Iris feeds the unpacked data a line at a time. The neural stimulators read Nyle’s brain activity and ease off. He couldn’t be more awake right now.
He goes line by line until he reaches it. Nyle frowns, reads it again. It’s some sort of pattern.
Yes, Observer Crane.
Copy everything to my slate.
A progress bar fills to green in Nyle’s periphery. The pattern is regular. Repeating. It corresponds to no UNFL codes that Nyle knows. He even checks against the old codes, long out of rotation. He’s so lost in the checking that the data from the second sweep arrives in no time.
Nyle spends a long time looking at the second sweep. A very long time. It doesn’t change what it found.
No unusual radiation readings, radar shadows, heat or light.
It should be a relief, but it’s not. There’s the pattern to worry about, and one final protocol to follow. He pushes a priority notification and a copy of the data to the next station on the line. They’ll push it to the next, and so on. It’ll move along that line all the way back to Rampart. Then the scout squadrons will be mobilised. People like Sylvie.
There’s nothing else he can do in the meantime except wait.
And try to work out that damn pattern.
Nyle doesn’t hear Veena the first time.
‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Are you alright?’
He looks up from the slate. The pattern is on-screen. He’s thinking maybe each fragment corresponds with a letter of the alphabet. Or a number. It could be coordinates.
‘What?’ he says. ‘Yeah. I’m fine.’
Veena pockets her rations.
‘You’re sitting in the dispensary,’ she says, with a frown.
A constellation. It could be a star chart. Nyle starts to pull up the starlogs.
‘Is this your irregularity?’ she says, coming around so that she can see his slate.
He wishes she wouldn’t call it his. He runs his finger along the line of code.
Veena frowns. She takes the slate from him, swipes along the feed, then back again.
‘Do you know what I think this is?’ she says.
Nyle finds himself holding his breath.
‘Harmless,’ Veena says, giving the slate back. ‘It looks like a corrupted longwave. The probes pick them up sometimes from civilian ships.’
It’s Nyle’s turn to frown.
‘No,’ he says. ‘It can’t be. This came from the Saturnian reaches. Civilian ships don’t go out that far.’
‘That’s cute,’ she says. ‘You know they do. Pirates, scavengers. There’s a lot of valuable scrap out in the reaches, if you’re brave and a half-decent pilot.’
Nyle could have been a half-decent pilot. He’s not so sure about brave. He flinches as something hits the screen of the slate and starts to run down it. Nyle frowns and rubs at it. It smears across the screen and his thumb comes away pink. Another fat drop falls. It’s his nose. His nose is bleeding.
‘Shit,’ he says, putting his hand to his face.
‘Here,’ Veena says. ‘Put your head forward, and pinch your nose.’
Nyle does as he’s told. She keeps her hand on the back of his head for a second or two.
‘It’ll stop in a second,’ she says. ‘You’ll be alright.’
‘You’re a better nurse than Epione,’ Nyle says.
He can’t see because he’s looking down at the floor, but he thinks she smiles at that.
‘I looked after the other kids,’ she says, absently. ‘Back on Sanctuary. There weren’t enough parents to go around.’
Before she can say another word, the klaxon goes for the start of her shift. It makes Nyle wince. Veena takes a look at the slate in his hand.
‘You notified Rampart, right?’
Nyle nods, still pinching his nose. There’s blood on his shirt.
‘So, you’ve done your job,’ Veena says. ‘Go and get some sleep.’
Except for the running, Nyle generally does what he’s told. He eats his rations, takes his lukewarm showers. Shaves his head. Reports for weekly medicals. He takes the little pink sleeping pills.
Today, though, Nyle doesn’t take his pill. He holds it in his hand all the way back to his room, then flushes it. It feels good to do it. A little act of rebellion. Like the time back at the academy, when he snuck into the kitchens with Sylvie. They stole the fruit that was meant for the officer’s mess and ate it sitting by the viewports. Nyle got into deep shit over it. A couple of cracks across his knuckles with a hardwood cane, followed by two weeks of cleaning those same viewports by hand. Sylvie got off easy, firstly because she came from Earth, and secondly because her mother came down on the academy brass like a ton of bricks. It would have been easy to get bitter about that, but Nyle would have done it again in a heartbeat. It was worth any amount of window cleaning or bloody knuckles to sit and eat real fruit for the first time with Sylvie Kallis.
He sits cross-legged on his cot with the slate in his lap. At 22.00 hours, Earth-time adjusted, the lights shut off automatically. The slate’s backlit, though, so Nyle keeps looking at the pattern. He’s never been awake on the station past lights-out before. Another little act of rebellion. His temperature is spiking again, but he’s shivering too. The medication would stop it, but he’s pretty sure it’ll put him to sleep, too, so he goes without.
It’s not alphabetical, the pattern. He’s tried everything he can think of. Nyle came top of his class in pattern recognition and third-highest in code breaking. The best scores to come from a colony slums candidate in observation’s history.
Veena’s wrong. It’s not a corrupted longwave. He’s looked at her files. Her scores were good, but nowhere close to his.
If he sees a pattern, then it’s a damn pattern.
Sometime after midnight, Nyle gets hungry. It occurs to him that he’s got no idea how to get hold of food outside of the prescribed hours.
But then, he wasn’t meant to do that at the academy, either.
He leaves his room. The corridors outside are on low-light, too. Night cycle. Sneaking around after hours. Sylvie would approve. He can almost hear her giggling.
The dispensary isn’t dark. It’s set to a medium light level that you could associate with either evening or morning, depending. Perpetual twilight. Nyle half-expects to see Veena there because that’s where they always see each other, but of course, she’s not. She’s halfway through her watch right now.
Nyle reckons activating the dispenser would be a bad call. It’s connected to the station, which means it’s connected to Iris. Epione too. He doesn’t know for sure how much he’s being monitored, but suspects it’s a lot. The last thing he wants is a disciplinary ticket. Instead, he takes the dispenser offline for maintenance. Both Nyle and Veena are both trained to do the basic stuff. Upkeep. Repairs. It means they don’t need a dedicated crew on station. That the UNFL doesn’t need to pay a dedicated crew, more to the point. Nyle pries the access panel off using the tools from his belt, and slides into the space behind the wall. It’s narrow and dark, dominated by the storage units for the rations. Nyle ignores the unit marked ‘curry,’ and manually unlocks the second one in the row, ‘stew.’ He takes one pack to begin with, then decides against it and takes a second one. There’s a planned excess for emergencies anyway, so it’s not like they’ll starve.
He puts the panel back in place and resets the dispenser. He can hear the machinery clicking inside the walls.
Even that little bit of activity has got him sweating through his clothes. Nyle sinks down against the wall, feeling the cool surface through his shirt. His bones hurt, as if someone’s pulling on them, stretching him out. Epione said it would get better after a day or so. It doesn’t feel like it’s getting better. Nyle forces himself to eat the first of his rations, one little bit at a time. It doesn’t come back up right away, which is a start. He gets the slate out of his pocket. The pattern is still sitting there, waiting to be worked out.
Maybe it’s numerical.
Sylvie is humming as she slices the apple in two with her knife. It’s the same song she always hums. One piece of the apple ends up bigger than the other. That’s the piece she gives Nyle. He’s never had fruit before, but he doesn’t tell her that. He just watches her eat it first, in case there’s some part of it that’s not good to eat, like with the tops of those red berries. He doesn’t want to look stupid.
‘What?’ she says in her lovely, lilting voice. ‘What are you looking at me like that for?’
‘You’re nice to look at,’ Nyle says and grins at her.
Sylvie shakes her head, but she smiles. Then she pops the rest of the apple slice in her mouth. Skin and all. Nyle follows suit, now that he’s sure. It’s a strange texture, kind of pulpy, but it’s not bad.
‘It’s funny,’ Sylvie says. ‘The surface looks like it should be warm, but it’s not.’
She’s looking out at Mars. It’s a clear night for once. No storms, just stars. Nyle doesn’t really know what she means by that. He knows that Earth is much more temperate than Mars, but he’s never been there. Every climate he’s ever experienced has been artificial. He tries not to talk about that with her, in case she figures out what he really is, but this time he can’t help himself.
‘What’s it like where you come from?’ he asks her.
Sylvie’s eyes go distant.
‘It has seasons,’ she says. ‘Real seasons. My family’s home is on the coast. Look out one way and the ocean stretches out as far as you can see. Look the other way and there are these great big cliffs of white stone. Birds nest there.’
Nyle’s seen the ocean in pictures, but he still can’t imagine all that water. He looks out to the surface of Mars, tries to imagine the sand as water, shifting and rolling.
‘What about you?’ she says. ‘Tell me about where you grew up.’
Nyle thinks about that. The colony slums. His mother’s crippled hands. The sandstorm that took his father. Drinking recyc water and stealing from the rich families five tiers up. He can’t tell Sylvie Kallis those things. Sylvie Kallis, whose mother is Fleet Marshal Atiena Kallis. Whose father is Herold Kallis, owner of the corporation that runs every factory on Mars.
‘I’d rather hear more about your ocean,’ he says.
‘Why won’t you let me in?’
Because of what I am, Nyle thinks.
‘Let me in,’ Sylvie says.
They aren’t sitting by the viewports anymore. They are hanging in space, in the blackness between the stars. The Saturnian reaches. Nyle can see the debris field glinting in the starlight, tiny and distant. The vastness makes him want to scream.
‘Let me in,’ Sylvie says, the tight curls of her hair suspended around her face.
Nyle tries to reach for her, but she floats just out of his reach. Tears drift from her eyes. They glint in the starlight too. He can hear her humming as she gets further away. It’s that same song. The one she loves.
It’s not Sylvie talking. It’s Veena. She’s looking down at him, all turned sideways. No, she’s not sideways. He is. The floor of the dispensary is cold against his face. Nyle tries to drag himself upright, but Veena has to help him. Every movement makes his joints pop.
‘What happened?’ Veena says. ‘Are you alright?’
She’s so loud. Nyle blinks, trying to clear his vision.
‘I just fell asleep,’ he says.
Veena is looking at him funny. At the slate on the floor beside him. The pattern is still on-screen, but Nyle thinks he gets it now.
‘You need to stop,’ she says. ‘You aren’t running. You aren’t sleeping. You’re going to make yourself really sick.’
‘One late night won’t kill me,’ he says, trying to smile at her.
She doesn’t smile back.
‘I’m taking you to Epione. Getting you put right.’
He shakes his head. The motion sets everything spinning around him.
‘I’m fine,’ he says.
He gets to his feet, but only because he can lean on the wall to do it. Veena’s still giving him that look.
‘Nyle,’ she says again.
‘I’m not going to Epione!’ He’s shouting, though she hasn’t done anything to deserve that. ‘I’m going to do my damn job.’
There’s a moment where her face crumples, but then she reasserts control.
‘I should log this,’ she says. ‘But I won’t. Just this once.’
She walks out of the dispensary without another word. Nyle should feel bad for shouting at her, but he doesn’t. He can’t stop now, can’t go to Epione.
He understands it now, the pattern. The regular, repeating shape of it. The strange familiarity.
It’s that song. The one Sylvie loves.
She’s out there somewhere, and she’s trying to tell him something.
Nyle connects the linkup. He barely hears the familiar, gut-wrenching squeal. It’s the song. Sylvie’s song. Iris can prove it.
Good morning, Observer Crane, Iris says.
Iris, he thinks. You can help me.
It’s not the response Iris is programmed to expect, so she doesn’t acknowledge it.
Commencing observation, says Iris. Day two hundred and forty-six.
Two seconds of blackness, then stars fill in from the edges. The data feed appears.
Iris, Nyle thinks. Can you read music?
I can read anything, says Iris.
So smug for an AI.
Convert this line, would you? Nyle thinks, hunting down the irregularity. Play it back to me.
Iris is quiet for a handful of seconds, parsing the data. Nyle tries to swallow, but his mouth is dry.
Initiating playback, says Iris.
Iris uses a series of dull tones that steal all the gentleness from it, but it’s unmistakable. Her song. The one she loves. She’s out there, in the Saturnian reaches. It’s got to be her. You can make it out there if you’re a half-decent pilot, Veena said. Sylvie’s more than that. She’s a great pilot. He has her message, now he needs to let her know he understood it.
Iris, Nyle thinks. Can the probes be used to broadcast, as well as receive?
It is not their primary function.
That means yes.
Make it work, Nyle thinks. Probe six.
It’s got to be that one. The feedback loop. The song.
Authorisation? Iris says.
Seriously? Shit-fire, Iris.
Authorisation not recognised.
Authorisation code NCR000-365, he thinks. Delta-grade encryption.
Complex enough that civilian ships can’t break it. Child’s play for ranking military like Sylvie Kallis.
Broadcast authorised. Please specify the message.
Broadcast the following, Nyle thinks. Sylvie. It’s Nyle. I heard your song. The one you’d hum all the time back then. If you can hear this, broadcast back. Let me know you’re okay.
Broadcasting, Iris says.
Nyle stares out into the Saturnian reaches, at the black spaces between the stars. She’s out there somewhere, drifting. Her words come back to him. From the dream. No, from the conversation before the dream.
Let me in, she said.
He won’t keep anything from her ever again. If he can just find her.
Sylvie answers on the next inload of data.
Communication from outside source, warns Iris.
It’s not an outside source, thinks Nyle, it’s Sylvie.
Show me, he thinks. When Iris doesn’t do it immediately, he throws his authorisation code at her again. It’s enough to satisfy her, for now.
I knew you’d get it, her message reads. I’m okay, but I’m stuck out here. You’ll help me, Nyle?
There’s a UNFL identification code attached to the message. Nyle checks it against Sylvie’s service record. It’s a match. Now that he’s getting direct comms, he can see where the signal originates from, too. It looks like a long-range fighter, deep in the debris field. Right by probe six. The radiation interference that caused the feedback loop must have come from her. An SOS that he missed the first time he looked. Hidden by all that damn debris.
Answering her is difficult. Nyle wants nothing more than to give her an unconditional, immediate yes. His training won’t let him, though. All those drills and protocols. The horror stories. He prepares another broadcast.
I’ll help you, Sylvie. Just tell me something first. That night, back at the academy. What did we take from the kitchens?
It’s a long wait for the next inload. Nyle is dimly aware that he’s shivering, his teeth chattering in his head. He can taste blood, but he can’t tell if it’s from another nosebleed or if he’s bitten his tongue.
Communication from outside source, says Iris.
Nyle can’t think straight enough to command Iris properly. What he thinks is something like SEE.
One red apple, says Sylvie. Ten strawberries and a peach. You wouldn’t try the peach because of the fuzz on the skin. Please, Nyle. I need your help.
It’s her. It’s really her. Nyle struggles to focus on the reply.
Anything you need. Just tell me what to do.
So, Sylvie tells him exactly what to do, and to Nyle, it all makes perfect sense.
The datapacket she sends him is tiny, just a few lines of code. He trades it for coordinates back to Earth, avoiding the major lanes. Just like she asked. Then he uploads the datapacket to the system, passing it to the next station in line. From there it’ll go to the next, then the next. On to Rampart.
His view of the starfield scrambles. The data feed flickers and jumps. Nyle knows for sure his nose is bleeding now. He can feel it running down his face. He’d reach up to wipe it away, but his arm’s gone numb.
Detecting intrusion, Iris says. Enacting security protocols.
Override, Nyle thinks. Authorisation code NCR000-365. Shut down security protocols.
Just like she asked.
Iris’ voice becomes mangled and choppy. He doesn’t quite catch what she says, but it sounds like ‘help.’ Nyle triggers an emergency disconnect as the datapacket Sylvie sent scours Iris’ systems from the inside out. Epione is next. The neural connection disengages, and he falls out of the cradle onto the floor. There’s a siren wailing, but he doesn’t understand why. He’s just helping Sylvie. Nyle struggles to his feet. Blind in one eye. Mouth full of blood. Agony crazing up and down his spine. He pulls off the access panels using the tools from his belt. What’s left of Iris’ brain is hidden behind them. Cables. Datacores. Blinking lights, all red now. He starts to cut the cables. The lights flicker out in sequence.
Just like she asked.
The door to the observation suite slides open. Nyle looks to see who it is.
‘Sylvie?’ he says.
It’s not Sylvie, though. It’s Veena. She’s shaking, tears running down her face.
‘Iris?’ she shouts. ‘Emergency protocols.’
There’s no answer. Veena looks at Nyle.
‘What have you done?’
She’s so loud. Pointing something at him too. A gun.
‘What she asked me to,’ Nyle says.
Veena comes closer, looks at what’s left of Iris. Her hands are shaking.
‘Who?’ she says. ‘Who asked you to do this?’
‘Sylvie,’ Nyle says. ‘She needed help.’
He doesn’t understand why she’s looking at him like that. He couldn’t leave her out there in the debris. He had to let her in.
‘You’re talking about Sylvie Kallis,’ Veena says.
Finally, she’s listening. Nyle nods.
‘I’m helping her,’ he says.
Veena really is crying.
‘Nyle, you weren’t talking to Sylvie,’ she says. ‘Sylvie’s dead. You know that.’
Nyle thinks about getting a longwave that made him shake and cry. Something about a scouting operation. All hands lost.
That’s not right. It must have been a dream. A bad dream.
‘You’re lying,’ he says. ‘It’s her song. She knows about the fruit. It’s her.’
‘Look it up!’ Veena shouts, still pointing the gun at him. ‘Look at her damn record, Nyle!’
He takes out his slate. There’s a local copy of Sylvie’s record on there. He scrolls down past the photograph, past her proud eyes. There’s something there. Something he couldn’t see before.
Sylvie Kallis. Born on Earth. The Europa region. By the great wide ocean and the white cliffs. Killed in action, 12th March 2465.
That makes no sense.
He just did what she asked.
But it wasn’t her asking, because she’s dead.
‘Everything she said to you. Did she ever say anything you didn’t already know?’
Nyle tries to think.
Veena curses in a language he doesn’t know.
‘It’s got to be them,’ Veena says. ‘The Phonoi. It’s something new, like a virus. They got inside your head.’
Inside his head. He thinks about the feedback loop. The spike of pain. The dreams.
His especially pliant brain.
‘You let them in, Nyle.’
As she says it, he knows it’s true. He looks at Veena, the way she’s shaking. He’s killed her.
He’s killed everyone.
‘I think I did,’ he says, knowing full well what she’ll do.
She doesn’t disappoint. The gun goes off, an impossibly loud bang in the small room.
As Nyle’s vision tunnels, he hears one last thing.
Humming that song she loves.