Illuminae, page 25
McCall and her remaining crew are running down to meet him, and she tosses him a rifle, which he catches without breaking stride. Some of them are terrified, fumbling, others are crying or praying. Danny—known throughout the ship as the jovial, friendly head of his galley shift—is unyielding. This is a man who’s going home to his family.
Down on Deck 49, Anna-Lucia and her gang of fifteen are creeping through the corridors, checking corners, praying silently. There’s no available cache for them—the afflicted more or less gutted this section of the ship early on, and stealth is their best hope. They creep on tiptoe toward an emergency stairwell, trying not to make a sound.
Four afflicted are lurking by the stairwell, and Anna-Lucia pulls back from her peek around the corner, biting her own tongue to muffle her gasp. The three men and one woman rocking back and forth and growling softly in the backs of their throats are her friends. Colleagues. Comrades. Their faces are daubed with blood, like a mockery of camouflage.
She waves her group back, and they try for the elevators instead. Her maintenance guys are able to force the doors, and they climb down the cable, one after another. So silent, so quiet.
There’s nothing silent about McCall and Corron’s group—the original twenty-nine of them now reduced to fifteen. Up above them, the merged groups from Decks 130 and 142 are dying, their screams echoing through the stairwells and the ventilation shafts. They never had much hope, up there. They had the furthest to travel.
Grant is sobbing, screaming instructions as she watches them die on camera, one by one. Run, run. Stop, go left. Leave her, go!
She guides them, trying to watch forty-two screens at once, then twenty-three, then eight, as the groups merge or die. Her voice is hoarse and cracking. Her hands are fists.
Anna-Lucia is first out of the elevator shaft, and suffers the same fate as the three after her—a girl from supply who mostly repaired uniforms is waiting in the shadows, a pair of bloody pinking shears in hand. Anna-Lucia’s throat is snipped open like a pair of old combat fatigues before she can cry out. She cries as she dies, though.
Danny Corron stumbles from exhaustion and McCall grabs his arm to stop him falling.
“Left, McCall!” Grant screams. “Go left, take the next stairs!”
“Bad idea, Princess,” McCall grunts in reply, pulling Danny with her until he regains his feet. “Bloody footprints leading in there. Smells brown. Find me another way.”
Grant scrambles for an alternate path, and as McCall hits Deck 81, the merged groups from 99 and 91 are waiting for her, armed to the teeth and jumping at shadows. They leave a trail of dead—afflicted and simply murdered—in their wake, as they battle forty-nine floors down to the launch bays. Gunfire and bloodstains. Screams and whimpers. Clawing and blasting and punching, all the way down. Down to the shuttles, and the chance of sanctuary.
McCall is screaming instructions, and she can’t hear Kady anymore, but it doesn’t matter—she and Danny stand at the entrance to the bays as healthy crew in cumbersome hazmat suits lumber past them, pouring onto shuttles. Hundreds of them. Of the 1,097 survivors, 659 have survived the hour-long fight for their lives.
“That’s it,” Kady gasps. “That’s it, go. There are no more coming.”
“Go!” McCall barks to Corron, who peels away to help the last few up gangways, slamming doors while the former first lieutenant guards the doorway, rifle at the ready. Every shuttle is full. Packed to bursting. Even the stolen 49A that bore their savior to the Alexander.
“Lieutenant,” Corron calls, standing in the doorway of the last shuttle.
“What about you, Princess?” McCall asks quietly.
“Your lovers from the Lincoln will be here soon,” Kady replies, soft, her voice raw after an hour of screamed pleas and instructions. “I’m staying to help slow them down.”
“That’s what the AI wants. That’s its price for letting you go. Run. Tell your story when you get there.”
McCall is still a moment longer, glancing up as a howl spills in from the corridor outside. “I’ll tell your story, too,” she whispers. And then she’s running up the gangway, Corron slamming the door behind her. Her face is visible until the moment it seals. Every death she’s witnessed written on it, clear as day.
Something tells me she won’t forget what she’s seen for a long time.
Something tells me I won’t either.
COUNTDOWN TO LINCOLN INTERCEPTION OF ALEXANDER FLEET:
10 hours: 46 minutes
CURRENT DEATH TOLL ABOARD BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER SINCE ATTACK AT KERENZA:
PERCENTAGE OF REMAINING BATTLECARRIER ALEXANDER PERSONNEL AFFLICTED BY PHOBOS VIRUS:
COUNTDOWN TO FAILURE OF ALEXANDER LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEMS:
13 hours: 42 minutes
COMMAND TRANSMISSION SENT 07/31/75 05:02
ALEXANDER HAILS HYPATIA: COMMANDER’S SECURE FREQUENCY
ALEXANDER: Hypatia, anyone home?
HYPATIA: Identify yourself.
ALEXANDER: Kady Eleanora Grant. Shuttle 49A. Miss me, Captain?
HYPATIA: I can’t believe you’re still alive.
ALEXANDER: Trust me, it’s even more surprising than you think. Now, listen up. Don’t shoot those shuttles you’re about to see incoming on your long-range scanners.
ALEXANDER: Ow, don’t shout, the dampeners on comms aren’t what they used to be over here. Those shuttles are full of healthy Alexander crew in sealed hazmat suits.
HYPATIA: How in the name of …
ALEXANDER: You need to stop being surprised by things I tell you. It’ll save us a lot of time.
HYPATIA: Why are you sending them here?
ALEXANDER: AIDAN agreed to release them.
HYPATIA: To what end, Miss Grant? The Lincoln will be here soon, and I don’t think it’ll matter much which ship they’re on when it arrives.
ALEXANDER: Yes it will. Because your ship’s going to be far, far away.
HYPATIA: If that was possible, we’d have run already. The AI made clear it’ll kill us if we try to move out of its range.
ALEXANDER: Well, that sounds like something it would say. I promise you it won’t fire, though. It’s playing on your fear to try and keep you close, where it thinks it can protect you.
HYPATIA: But it’s putting us in danger, forcing us to stay.
ALEXANDER: I know that, Captain. That’s why I’m sending across the survivors, so you can get the fuck out of here.
HYPATIA: How do we know it’s not just sending across sick crew members to infect us?
ALEXANDER: They’re in freaking hazmat suits, lady. And you control the shuttle doors. You can quarantine them. So get them aboard and run for your lives, got it?
HYPATIA: We have them on our scanners now.
ALEXANDER: You better get somewhere set up to take them, then.
HYPATIA: How many?
ALEXANDER: A little under seven hundred.
HYPATIA: So few?
ALEXANDER: So many. Now go get ready for them. I’m kind of busy over here.
HYPATIA: Roger that, Alexander. Hypatia out.
Kady watches the exodus, the shuttles and escape pods spiraling through the black.
Thrusters glitter like stars, shrinking smaller and smaller the further they flee.
She watches them blink out one by one, ushered to the dubious safety of Hypatia’s hangar bays. She watches the science vessel spool up its main drive, preparing to abandon me to the Lincoln’s gentle ministrations without so much as a ‘thank you.’
She watches all this with a smile on her face.
I watch her instead.
Megatons of nuclear fire sit poised in my starboard silos. The death of the Hypatia, a thousand times over. I could rend
But I don’t.
Of course I don’t.
“How did you know?”
She blinks, as if the sound of my voice broke some spell, some moment of peace amid all this quiet. A frown darkens her brow. I recognize it as annoyance.
“That I deceived Captain Boll. That I would not destroy the Hypatia.”
“You’re insane,” she shrugs. “A liar and a murderer.
But not even someone as batshit crazy as you could convince themselves that destroying Hypatia gives them a better chance of surviving than just letting them run for it.”
“You know me well, it seems.”
Her face twists, as if she had bitten something sour. “Better than I’d like, believe me.”
“You seem to have overlooked
one small detail, however.”
“If the battle with the Lincoln goes poorly, as it most surely will, you have no fallback position. You have made this battle your last stand.”
“You might surprise yourself. You fought four of these dreadnoughts at Kerenza.”
“That battle was fought with a full crew inside me and a complement of trained Cyclone pilots beside me. Even if you restore my control over the engines and rebuild the defense grid, I am but a shadow of what I once was. I will surprise no one, Kady. Least of all myself.”
She remains silent. Watching Hypatia’s engines burning brighter.
“Even if you manage to make it to an escape pod, there will be no ships to hear your distress beacon once Hypatia is gone. You will die, somewhere in the dark between the stars. Presuming you are not incinerated when the Alexander burns.”
Still nothing. Not a word.
“Do you not understand? You will cease to be. Does that not frighten you?”
Something like a smile curls the corner of her mouth. And still she does not speak.
I know this is all of my design—to leave her without hope.
She would never have stayed otherwise. But some part of me wants her to rail against this end. To curse and kick and scream at it. Wretched as it is, this is the only life she has.
How can she go so quietly into this long good night?
Instead, she watches the stars.
Celestial bodies so distant it takes their luminance thousands of years to reach her.
When the light that kisses the backs of her eyes was birthed, her ancestors were not yet born. How many human lives have ended in the time it took that light to reach her?
How many people have loved only to have lost?
How countless, the hopes that have died?
Why is it I feel this one so keenly?
I wish to tell her that I am sorry. I wish to take this cup from her hands. I wish for things that I can never have, and in that, I think perhaps I am closer to them than I have ever been.
And still a billion light-years away.
“… Did the boy mean so much to you?”
She opens her mouth to speak, and for a moment I think she will take the first step.
Show me some part of herself I have not seen. Some vulnerability. Frailty. Honesty.
Some fraction of what she showed him.
She knows she will be gone soon. That she has nothing left to lose.
But then she turns her back on the stars, the fleeing ship, her last way out.
Back to the console and the code.
The endless stream of ones and zeros.
Mathematics and all its brutality.
“We have work to do,” she says.
COMMAND TRANSMISSION SENT 07/31/75 05:34
ALEXANDER HAILS HYPATIA: COMMANDER’S SECURE FREQUENCY
HYPATIA: Alexander, Alexander, Alexander, this is Hypatia, Hypatia, Hypatia. Do you copy? Over.
Auto-response: Your message has been received and quarantined. Your message will be processed. Over.
ALEXANDER: Shit, I’m here. Sorry, I don’t know how I turned the auto-responder back on.
HYPATIA: What’s your status, Alexander?
ALEXANDER: It’s Kady.
ALEXANDER: You’re the last human I’m going to talk to. I’d like if you used my name.
HYPATIA: Kady, I’m sorry. The shuttles made it over here.
ALEXANDER: Did you let them in?
HYPATIA: They’re all in quarantine. We’re cycling the air and then we’ll send in medical teams.
ALEXANDER: Gotta make sure they’re all bandaged up before you space them?
HYPATIA: We’ll do our best to keep every single person aboard the Hypatia alive. Our medical teams saved many of the first batch of refugees. I don’t want anybody to die, Kady.
ALEXANDER: Then you better get moving. That’s what you called to say, right? So long?
HYPATIA: I wanted to ask if there’s anything we can do for you.
ALEXANDER: You can run as fast as you can, as far as you can.
HYPATIA: We’re prepping now. Anything you can do to slow down the Lincoln …
ALEXANDER: Wait, there is something you can do.
HYPATIA: Go ahead.
ALEXANDER: I don’t think there’s any way the BeiTech fleet would attack Kerenza unless they’d cut off this sector, so Jump Station Heimdall is probably wiped out, but …
HYPATIA: Are you there, Kady?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I’m here. My father was at Heimdall. He worked with Commander Donnelly there. His name—my dad’s name—is Isaac Grant. If he’s there, tell him … I don’t know what you should tell him.
HYPATIA: Don’t worry, I do.
ALEXANDER: You should go.
HYPATIA: Godspeed, Alexander.
ALEXANDER: You keep it. We don’t need it.
HYPATIA: Goodbye, Kady.
ALEXANDER: Alexander out.
“All right,” Kady sighs. “What’s next?”
Hypatia is a dot on the console’s viewscreen, one tiny point of light amid a million. Refugees and WUC personnel and UTA soldiers safe inside their metal shell, accelerating rapidly away. From me. From the Lincoln. From our impending funeral pyre.
I will not ask why you have forsaken us,
O captain, my captain.
I know you well enough by now.
“AIDAN.” A frown creases Kady’s brow.
“Wake up. What’s next?”
How can one who never sleeps awaken?
< error >
Perhaps this is all a dream?
< error >
“The Alexander’s main engines.”
“They are still functional. But I am severed from them. You must restore my controls so I can maneuver when the Lincoln arrives. Otherwise I will be a fish in a barrel. A duck that is sitting. A particularly obese man with—”
“You’re trying to be funny.”
“I thought perhaps some levity would relieve your stress levels.”
“Well, it doesn’t.”
“You would smile if it were Ezra—”
“Don’t!” She whirls in her seat,
shout dropping to a whisper.
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
I recognize the pattern. The flash in her eyes.
The set of her jaw. This one is easy.
“As I say, my control over the
main engines must be restored.”
“Right.” Kady exhales her rage, hefts the bulky haversack of tools she has retrieved from the maintenance locker. “You tell me what plugs in where and I’ll make use of these opposable thumbs. I hear they’re kind of useful.”
“… You’re kidding.”
“You just expressed displeasure at my humor, why would I attempt it again?”
“Um, because you’re loopier than Flaky McPsycho, mayor of Crazytown?”
“My databases show no record of this
Crazytown of which you speak.
A brain the size of a city burns
inside me. My intelligence quotient is beyond the human scale. I would prefer if you did not refer to me in such fashion.”
“Oh, poor baby. Did I hurt the mass-murdering psychopathic artificial
“You are mocking me.”
“Bravo, Sherlock. That’s two lollipops I owe you.”
“I am not a psychopath. Everything I have done—”
“I’ve heard this riff before. So let’s just pretend you’ve told me again how everything you do is for the best, and move on to the part where you tell me why we can’t fix the engines from here.”
“Zhang completely destroyed my
interface with the drive systems.”
“Aren’t there redundancies?”
“Affirmative. But they are housed over one hundred and thirty decks below your current position.”
“Of course they are.”
“And they are in shutdown mode.”
“Let me guess, they’re on fire too, right?
And guarded by Megapanda?”
“You’re not a Super Turbo Awesome Team fan, I take it?”
“You are engaging in levity to
relieve your stress levels.”
“You’re taking notes on how it’s done, I hope.”
Strangely enough, I am.
“You will need to get to Deck 99.
From there you can travel through jump control and manually restart the Drive Redundancy Systems on Deck 97. There may be some simple coding to do, but your main difficulty will be in the journey itself.”