Illuminae, page 23
“Byron, no.” The hope dies in her voice, fading out to a husk, then blowing away. She sees it now. “Please.”
He stares at her for a long moment, then lifts the axe. “Don’t look at me.”
The axe comes down. Sparks. A scream of metal that drowns out her sob.
CURRENT DEATH TOLL ABOARD BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER SINCE ATTACK AT KERENZA:
PERCENTAGE OF REMAINING BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER PERSONNEL AFFLICTED BY PHOBOS VIRUS
Surveillance footage summary,
prepared by Illuminae Group Analyst ID 7213-0089-DN
Grant is indecisive, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other, dwarfed by her hazmat suit. Zhang seems to have forgotten her existence, laying into a pillar of boards and circuitry with growling ferocity, breath coming in quick gasps, sparks arcing gracefully through the air as metal crashes against metal.
She could try and reason with him. She could run, but this is the place she came to find Ezra Mason. So, face visibly pale through her helmet’s vis screen, she edges out of his line of sight. She still has the pistol in her belt, and her hand strays to it as she shuffles painstakingly back. Perhaps the plan is to fade away and let fate kill Byron Zhang so she won’t have to.
But the helmet limits her peripheral vision, and her foot connects with some metal debris as she eases back—and, of course, it’s between swings for Zhang, and he hears it.
They both go very, very still.
He’s remembered her again.
“Don’t go, Kady,” he says, soft and soothing, turning her way with the axe. “I’ll get to you, wait your turn.”
“N-no.” Her voice wavers. “No, it’s okay, Byron. You don’t have to hurt me. I’ll help you. Won’t it be faster with two? I bet I can find something to do some damage with.”
He smiles, indulgent, and shakes his head. “You’ll run away,” he points out. An instant later his lips thin, and his brows crash together in an accusatory frown. “Don’t look at me. You’re looking at me.”
“I’m sorry.” She averts her gaze, fixing it on Zhang’s feet, so at least she can track him if he moves. Hand still hovering just near the pistol.
“I bet Consuela’s out there trying to undo all this.” He hefts the axe as he paces a few steps away from Kady, then pivots back toward her. “This place could be full of people trying to help AIDAN. It wants to kill us, Kady. I’m the only way we can be saved.”
“Yes,” she agrees, voice still trembling, easing back another step.
“Stop moving,” he snaps, suddenly furious. He lunges forward a step, lifting the axe.
She screams, and draws the pistol, hands shaking wildly as she trains it on his chest. “Please don’t make me hurt you.” A catch in her voice, nearly a sob. “Please.”
They stand frozen for so long, I actually checked the file to make sure it wasn’t glitching. And then, at some silent signal, he lifts the axe and charges forward with murder in his eyes.
And she doesn’t shoot him.
She turns to run instead, the cumbersome hazmat suit slowing her down, bunching around her ankles, extra weight. They’re evenly matched, it turns out—she’s small, and exhausted, and swamped by the suit. He’s chubby, clearly hasn’t run voluntarily in at least a decade. But he’s driven forward by Phobos, the virus lending him speed.
“Ezra!” she screams. “Ezra!”
She corners around a server tower, racing up the clear stretch of space between two long rows of columns. The ship’s damaged mind surrounds her on all sides, towering over her. She’s gasping for breath, open-mouthed, a fallen tower blocking her path. Zhang howls behind her as she scrambles over it, falling on the other side, rolling, crawling then stumbling upright to let momentum keep her moving. He vaults it with unnatural strength.
[Cameras cut—chase is visible on cameras 32587B and 32587F for a few seconds each—clear footage resumes 3 minutes and 14 seconds later.]
When they show up again, hurtling past a bank of status monitors, he’s gaining on her. She knows what she has to do. She knows her only chance of survival. And as Zhang stumbles and almost falls over a tangle of cable, she turns to train the pistol on him. Aim steady. Finger on the trigger. She has him dead to rights. She could put one right between his eyes at this range.
But again, she doesn’t fire.
She can’t. Or won’t. Instead, with a moan, she turns to run again, and driven by some instinct that might have served her long ago but will kill her here, she starts climbing. Scrambling up a crumpled server tower, she grabs at the railing overhead and hauls herself higher, snatching her feet up as he buries the axe to the hilt just a hair’s breadth short of her toes.
“Ezra, where are you?”
The tower beside her is spewing sparks, bare current visible as it arcs from one beam to the next with a low, droning buzz. Clinging to the frame with one arm wrapped around the rail, Grant pulls the pistol from her belt again, aiming it at Zhang. He stops below her, gazing up.
“I see inside you,” he whispers, chest heaving. “I look inside, I see it, and the code doesn’t make any sense. I could rewrite it. I could wipe it clean and write you again, so I understand what to do.”
“No,” she says, gesturing with the gun, though by now they both know she won’t pull the trigger. “Byron, it’s me.” She flinches as the crackling current on the next tower peaks for a moment then dies back to a lower buzz, blue sparks crawling across the metal. “Please, what’s inside me cares about you.”
He stares up at her, unblinking, and she watches him in return. Then she remembers—Don’t look at me—and tears her eyes away. It seems to wake something in him, a trace of something lucid surfacing in his gaze, like some creature swimming up from the depths, then receding once more.
“Yes.” Her tears spill now, running down her cheeks inside her helmet to find the corners of her mouth. “It’s me.”
“I shouldn’t—” Another flash of sense, then bewilderment. He steps back from the tower, gazing around at the ruined server towers, then down at his own hands—grubby with grease, blistered, fingernails blackened and soft palms rough and red. “I can’t,” he chokes. “Kady, I don’t want to—I have to make sure I don’t—”
“Don’t what?” she asks, helpless, voice breaking again.
“Hurt you,” he replies, staring up at her. “It was all for you, Kady.”
He trips backward one step, then two, then three, halted by the broken tower with its slow dance of blue sparks.
She divines his intention a second before he acts, one hand flying out as though she can stop him from her perch. “Byron, no!”
But he nods, and gazes up at her with his heart—and his fear—in his eyes. And then he thrusts his hand into the heart of the crawling blue sparks, into the nest of data and digits and code that’s always been his life and is now his death, pressing his blistered palm to the metal.
The shock throws him back ten feet, and he flies through the air with arms splayed wide, heart already stopped. He doesn’t feel it when he crashes to the ground, head snapping back against the hard metal floor, limbs spread.
He lies still, and she clings to her spot high up the tower, her wordless grief just one long, low sob.
It is over.
Zhang is dead. Noble to the end. Such an unlikely face for a hero.
She climbs down the server tower to crawl to his side. The hazmat’s helmet stops her from wiping the tears from her eyes, and so they stream, down the curve of her cheeks to gather at her lips. A hundred points of illumination are refracted on the surface of every one.
They leave trails of light on her skin.
She is beautiful.
< error >
No, she is.
< error >
I am all around her, silent in my vigil. Rows of servers and cables and flickering lights.
This is my center. The heart of me. And in it, she now resides, filling the air with her grief.
I have never wished to be something other than what I am before this moment.
Never felt so keenly the lack of hands with which to touch, the lack of arms with which to hold.
Why did they give me this sense of self? Why allow me the intellect by which to measure this complete inadequacy? I would rather be numb than stand here in the light of a sun that can never chase the chill away.
I hate this. I hate them. They who made me.
He who made me?
< error >
God, what am I?
And still, with Zhang dead in Kady’s arms—her friend, her mentor, her hero slain—still there is no time for sorrow. She knows he is in here somewhere. The one she risked everything for.
The only one she has left. The one she loves true.
She climbs to her feet, searching the red gloom, emergency globes spinning endlessly overhead. Scouring the darkened corners, wandering room to room and calling his name like a prayer.
Such hope in her eyes.
I will miss it when it is gone.
She starts, terrified, shrinking back against the wall and searching the ceiling above. Her eyes bright in the flickering dark. Pupils dilated wide.
“Do not fear. I mean you no harm.”
Her gaze finds the speakers of the public address system. The clusters of cameras all around the room. And at last, even in the dark, she begins to see.
“Who said that?”
“I find it curious. The human tendency to ask questions to which you already know the answer.”
“AIDAN,” she breathes.
“The same. Well met, at last. Though truthfully, I feel as if I know you. I have been watching you for … quite some time.”
“You did wonderfully, Kady. Better than I hoped. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see my faith vindicated. I had … begun to doubt my own abilities.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, you crazy piece of shit? Where’s Ezra?”
“Ezra is not here.”
“Bullshit. Ezra?” She turns on the spot, voice rising to a shout. “EZRA!”
“Ezra is not here, Kady.”
“He said he was in the core server room.” Her eyes narrow to papercuts.
“Did Byron hurt him? What have you done with him? So help me, if he—”
“Ezra told you nothing, Kady.”
She blinks. Sways as if I have struck her.
“I brought you here. To stop Zhang.”
“What do … “
“I feel it’s my duty to point out that you’re alone in a derelict spaceship, surrounded by pipe-wielding maniacs and now might not be the time for pillow talk.”
“Oh, god …”
“Been thinking about you a lot. Stuck in here.”
“Stop it …”
“Kady, you can do this. You have to.
There’s no one else but you.
I believe in you.”
Her scream echoes in the dark, bouncing off titanium walls as a thousand lights shiver and dance. Her face is twisted—agony and betrayal and such fury—and for a moment I believe she may simply retrieve the axe from beside Zhang’s corpse and continue the work he began.
This is the final gambit. Where the knife is closest to the skin.
“I am sorry, Kady.”
I modulate my voice to bring calm.
Warm and smooth as I imagine honey to be.
< error >
I have never tasted honey.
“I had no choice. Hypatia command refused to send TechEng staff to repair the damage. And even in his madness, Zhang was rendering me inoperative.
I could not allow that to happen. Without me, Hypatia will be destroyed.
Every last person in this fleet will die.”
She sinks to her knees.
“I know it is difficult to comprehend.
But everything I have done, all this, the Copernicus, releasing the afflicted, destroying Torrence and his staff,
all of it was done for the greater good.”
“The greater good …”
“I am sorry. But without me, the fleet will perish. So others had to perish that the fleet might live.”
And there in the flickering dark,
a question slips quiet
from her lips.
“… Where is he?”
The words are so soft,
I almost cannot hear over the engine’s thrum, the distant sirens, the PA’s cries. I am watching her face. Trying to see. I think I know her. Think I can predict the patterns in the chaos. But still, we are close now. So close to ruin I can taste rust in the air.
“You mean where is Ezra.”
“I am sorry, Kady.”
She closes her eyes.
“He is dead.”
The words are a punch to her stomach. She actually holds her belly and moans.
I can see her fighting it. The notion this is no place for grief. She squeezes her eyes shut, but still the tears come. She grits her teeth, but the sobs still creep past her lips.
And sinking to her knees, she cries.
The thought occurs that perhaps I should not be watching. That I should shut the cameras off, give her a moment alone with her sorrow.
But that is foolish.
Meat logic. Sticky. Wet. Irrelevant.
The tears stop eventually.
She is still for the longest span of time. Utterly motionless. Barely breathing. And finally she rises to her feet. Hands in fists. The rage returned.
She stalks back to Zhang’s body and tears the fire axe from the tower beside him. And marching toward the nearest server bank, she lifts it high, swinging it far back over her shoulder and preparing to bury it in my spine.
“There are over one thousand healthy personnel still alive aboard the Alexander, Kady. And if you let that axe fall, you are killing all of them.”
The axe holds still. The whole universe beside it.
“The Lincoln reappeared on my long-range scopes almost eight hours ago. We are traveling on secondary engines. It will be within striking range again within less than a day. I could not reason with Zhang. He was insane. But you are unafflicted by Phobos Beta. You can listen to logic.”
“He was insane because of you!” Hatred in her eyes. “All this is because of you!”
“Incorrect. All this is because of the BeiTech Corporation.”
The axe wavers in her hand.
“It was not I who attacked Kerenza. Not I who unleashed this virus, nor started this war. But you are the last person alive on this ship with knowledge of computer systems. You are Zhang’s prodigy, and if you do not help me undo the damage he has wrought, if you cannot bring my main engines and defense grid back online within sixteen hours, BeiTech will be the ones who finish it.”
Shaking breath dragged
through clenched teeth.
“There will be no one left alive
to remember Ezra and Byron, Kady. No one to tell the universe of their sacrifice and the atrocities committed here.”
Tears in her eyes.
“We could still make it,” she hisses. “I could get on a shuttle, get back to Hypatia and redline it. Maybe you’l
“You forget the one thousand healthy personnel aboard this ship. I have isolated them from the afflicted as best I am able. But if you leave, they will die. And when the Lincoln has destroyed me, and them, it will hunt down the Hypatia and do the same to all of you.”
A soft curse stains her lips.
“I am sorry I deceived you. I am sorry you are in pain. But there was no other way to get you here. I ran a thousand simulations. A thousand variations of the same scenario. All ended in failure, save the ones in which I lured you here to undo Zhang’s damage. So if you must hate me tomorrow when all this is done, then do so.
But for now, help me.”
The axe hangs motionless in her grip.
With a hollow scream, she swings her weapon, down with all the rage she can muster. It scythes through the air, scarlet light flashing along its edge. And with a metallic spang and a burst of white sparks, she buries it into the wall beside the server banks.
All is silence.
And into it, she finally whispers.
“What do you need?”
If I breathed, I would sigh. I would scream. I would cry.
“For the Alexander to have any chance of surviving Lincoln’s assault, you must restore my control over the main engines so I can maneuver the ship. You must also rebuild the defense grid so Alexander’s rail guns can hold off Lincoln’s Warlocks long enough for me to destroy the dreadnought via nuclear strike.”
She nods. Mute and numb.
“I should point out that closing to the required range will mean Lincoln can also unleash its nuclear arsenal on the Alexander. Which will almost certainly mean our destruction.”
“Let them go,” she says. “The thousand people. You let them get down to the shuttle bays and fly across to Hypatia.”
“Why would I do that?”
“That’s my price.”
“And if I pay it … you will stay with me?”