ELEVEN THOUSAND, TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY TWO YEARS AGO
IL-ĦARRAX, GOZO, MALTA
Nile is annoyed.
As much as she has grown fond of these people over the last few years, as much as she has been through hell and high water with them, as much as she has forged a bond that is beyond friendship, beyond siblinghood, beyond family, as much as she loves them— as she stands on the pedals of the bicycle, the balls of her feet aching and her thighs burning as she tries to keep balance as they ascend this hill, Nile is annoyed.
“Next time we spend more than eighteen hours here, we’re hiring a car. Or getting a bike with gears,” she huffs.
“You’ve got three!” Joe calls, cheerily, from beside her. “That’s loads!”
“Gozo is not a three-speed island!” she protests, although there is a smirk crawling onto her face. She’s already had a lecture from Joe about that time in 1867 Nicky rode from Lugano to Innsbruck in three days on a penny farthing, with one gear and one brake, because I’d gotten myself into trouble and he came to rescue me and the next train wasn’t for a week, and when he arrived I had such a shock because I’d never even seen a bicycle before.
“Do you want to swap places?” Nicky asks, his breath disconcertingly close to her ear—because he is currently sat on Nile’s luggage rack, legs crossed off to the side, arms around Nile’s middle.
“It’s fine, we’re nearly there,” she replies, between pants for breath. And then, when she’s sure the road’s clear and they won’t be honked at by another irate Maltese driver: “you’re heavier than you look.”
Around two hundred yards later, Joe tells her: “here, on the left,” at a gravel path that’s so overgrown it’s hard to pick out at first. The three of them dismount, and Joe, who’s had Nicky’s original bike with its punctured tyre slung over his shoulders, points them through a sliver of space between vegetation and over tiny boulders.
Nile stops to drink half of her bottle of water, and pour the remainder over herself, before scuttling to catch up with Joe and Nicky. The tyres on Nile’s ancient roadster churn up dirt and dust and spherules as Nicky wheels it along, creating a percussive sparkle against the machine’s steel fenders. Joe swears in Italian as the punctured bike’s wheels and handlebars swing and catch on an errant tree branch, and bonk him on the nose as his own single-speed machine with a rusty chain clatters to the path beside him.
“Should I watch out for any booby traps?” Nile asks as they clumsily trudge forward. She still feels a stab of apprehension at the back of her skull about asking these questions.
“Not until we’re inside.” Nicky moves forward with purpose, navigating as if by memory alone.
“Not like Andy, then,” Nile replies, as if it is a tautology, a logical assertion. Andromache the Scythian and weapons and traps and pitfalls just go together.
Nicky pulls apart the shrubberies that cover the bulkhead set into the ridge with ease, and Nile stands back as he opens his backpack.
Inside, sandwiched between several bottles of water, is a battery-powered circular saw, and a hammer.
“Do you have to pay a blood price to get in?” Nile wonders aloud, a little nervously, as Nicky tests the tool, letting it spin up a little and checking the trueness of the blade. “Cut off one hand and the door unlocks?”
“Now that sounds like Andy,” Joe grins.
Nile smiles in return. After these months and years, the gallows humour fits her speech patterns like… well, a noose, or a glove, or the stocks of a guillotine. It does not stop the discomfort she still feels in the pit of her stomach every time she sees a gun being loaded, or Joe or Nicky or Andy wielding a sword, or a wound or a death (and God knows she has seen enough over this time)—and it certainly does not stop the pain of being on the receiving end, or of meting death and destruction out on others—but being able to laugh at it almost numbs it a little.
When Nicky has sawn and pried the doorway’s seal open, and they have pulled open the door on its ancient hinge, disarmed the tripwire, and Joe has pulled on the breaker switch, Nile is almost disappointed to find that what lies within the dry air and the chill is simply an office. The walls are unfinished, sure, and the lightbulb hangs from the ceiling on a grimy-looking cable that might have been white a long time ago, but it is just that—an office. Desk, cabinets, chairs, shelves, Xerox machine, cables.
“I was expecting more,” she confesses.
“This isn’t Val d’Argent,” Nicky says, through that crooked smile that always comes with a sly remark. “We don’t have Andy’s habit of hoarding other people’s artwork.”
“I dunno,” Nile says. Her eyes have alighted on the desk on the far end—at first glance, an ordinary computer desk, with a xerox machine at one end, two swivel chairs, and a computer. But as Joe turns on the computer, an iMac from the turn of the millennium with the most disgusting Flower Power plastic casing she has ever seen, she smirks: “that’s like something my mom would keep around ‘cause she likes the look of it.”
Joe snorts, and drums his fingers in an arpeggio on the desk as the computer chimes, and clicks, and growls to life, its fans spinning up for the first time in probably quite a few years.
“Still works,” he says.
Nile’s eyes flick up to the overhead lamps, and she wonders aloud, “how do you even power this place?”
“It was originally an air raid bunker,” says Joe. “We went past the old diesel generators on the way in. But we installed solar panels in…” Here his face makes an odd scrunch, as he searches for the date in his mind—
“2008,” Nicky interjects. “Probably still have the rental car receipts somewhere. That reminds me, Yusuf, before we go we need to check the panels.”
“I know, babe,” Joe says, brows crinkling in minor irritation.
Now Nile scans the walls, looks through the long length of the bunker. There are shelves covering each of them, and further rows of shelves in the centre. A staircase descends to a lower level, with yet more shelves. All laden with cardboard archive boxes.
“This shouldn’t take too long,” Joe says, as Nicky passes him an external hard drive for the computer. The cable is a daisy-chain of adapters. Nile sneaks a peek at the label on the outside of the casing. Date of manufacture: 23rd November 1998. Capacity: 10GB.
“No Rodins lying around here, then,” Nile says.
“Nope,” replies Joe. He pinches the sleeveless t-shirt he’s wearing and shakes it for ventilation (he’s still damp with sweat, even as goosebumps rise on his biceps.) Then, he flexes his fingers before dismissing the computer’s prompt (Please set the time) and plugging in the hard drive. Nicky throws the switch on the side of the Xerox machine.
“I won’t bother with a night-time raid and taking it to Sotheby’s,” Nile grins.
“You mean my little drawings are worthless?” Joe claps his hand to his chest in mock outrage.
“They’ll always be priceless to me, Yusuf,” Nicky interrupts, and Joe’s face melts into an adoring smile.
Nile takes charge of repairing the puncture on Nicky’s bike (an ancient single-speed thing with a type of valve on the rim she has never seen before) while Nicky and Joe set about unpacking the contents of Joe’s backpack. Black notebooks. Plastic wallets containing printer paper. Receipts. Train tickets. Polaroid photographs. As Nile holds down the patch on an ancient inner tube, the xerox machine’s printer warms over, and she smells printer toner.
(A smell that will, forever, remind Nile of those days her mom took her into the office. Of her mom. Forever, however long that is. She blinks rapidly, and focuses on holding down the patch against the vulcanising solution, a simple task, something to focus on—)
“Coffee, Nile?” Nicky asks, and Nile snaps out of it, honestly glad for the distraction. He’s produced a stovetop moka pot from somewhere, and a small bag that presumably contains ground beans. She nods, and peels away the plastic backing of the puncture patch.
“Should be good,” she says, five minutes later, pinching the inflated tyre between her fingers as Nicky turns off the gas stove and hands her a burly, military-style mug with a fizzling golden crema. Nile takes the mug, and, throwing her self-consciousness about her Italian to the winds, says, “grazie mille.”
“Prego, prego,” Nicky grins, and adds, “bel accento!” That brings a smile to Nile’s face, too, as she sips at the espresso, tentatively at first, and then downs it in one shot. It is a torrent down her gullet and a gust of wind in her mind that she didn’t know she needed.
She joins Joe at the desk, watching the screen as he scans the pages of the notebook one by one, pressing the spine flat onto the glass plate. The machine sings as it copies each page, each of Joe’s drawings, onto fresh paper. A half-eaten tangerine and a mug of coffee. An ancient citadel on a ridge. Someone leaning on the parapet of a balcony overlooking the sea (Nile doesn’t have to see the drawn figure’s face or notice the broadness of his shoulders to know that it’s Nicky.)
“This is like a personal archive,” she says.
“Yep,” Joe says, filing away the black notebook in a box, and collating the papers to be laminated, as Nicky copies the scanned images to the external hard drive. And then Joe says: “take a look, if you like. We won’t mind. Just put it all back where it was.”
Nile is a little taken aback by this. She checks her hands, and wipes down the grime and crud from the bike on her pants, and asks: “anywhere you’d rather I didn’t look?”
Joe’s eyebrows furl up in confusion. “What, you mean… anything sensitive?”
“There’s nothing here you haven’t seen already,” Nicky says. “If that’s what you mean. Look wherever you want.”
“Mmm-hmm. OK,” Nile smiles, feeling a flash of confidence. “Just wanted to check I wasn’t intruding on a private stash of…?” The flash of confidence trails off. (God knows they’ve seen each other in varying states of undress enough times by this point. She shouldn’t find this awkward, but she does. She is still, very much, The New One.)
“There may be some incidental nudity, but I don’t draw porn,” Joe smirks.
“Good,” Nile laughs.
Nicky says, “too busy living it, aren’t you, love?”
Nile, still a little exhausted and on an adrenaline high from cycling up a hill and fixing a puncture, cackles. Joe, blushing, says something probably extremely sappy and untranslatable in Arabic, before leaning back in his desk chair for a kiss from Nicky.
Leaving the boys to themselves, Nile, after cleaning her hands with the coffee granules from the espresso pot, occupies herself by rifling through the shelves—through archive boxes, through lever-arch files, through parchments bound with string. This place is less than a century old, but some of the papers in here are much older—in various degrees of condition and legibility.
Some are simple line drawings, broad strokes experimenting with a new pen or brush or material. She can tell the artwork is Joe’s, although he does not really have any particular ‘style’—he has dabbled, experimented with whatever the vogue of the current time period is. He’s drawn a few portraits of Nile, and many more of Nicky, in the time they have known each other. There’s a cubist sketch of Booker sandwiched between a timetable for the Orient Express (dated 1934) and a map of Izmir.
Nile feels something rising in her gullet. It’s a familiar feeling, by now, and one she has not been able to shake.
It is not shame. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it is dread.
It is the feeling she gets when the two men across the room from her casually say something that serves to remind they are much older than they appear. It is the feeling she gets on seeing Andy sharpening that labrys of hers, and swinging it in the way she has probably done with dozens of previous axes, for millennia beforehand. It is the impending discomfort that caught in her throat when they were driving somewhere in Canada, and Nicky turned off the radio as the local station played the song ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople’ (‘why they changed it, I can’t say’ <click> “it got sacked, then conquered, then came a man called Mustafa Kemal.”) It is the draught of being frozen out by Joe and Nicky’s switching to an archaic form of Italian as they scan and duplicate and back up Joe’s drawings, amore and decrepità with hard drive and bit rot and solid state storage, dancing between centuries as easily as they slow-dance when they’re drunk and feeling sappy.
Is this what lies ahead for me? Nile wonders.
And then she shivers as she contemplates: will I have to do it alone?
And then she remembers how little time Andy probably has left, and thinks: what happens when I’m the oldest? Or the last?
This will bring us, in time—in a very long time—to you.
NOW — FAR ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Two things occur to you, on your fourth night marooned on this desolate world, where the only atmosphere is the steam that evaporates from cracks in the surface of the icy ocean.
Firstly, you should be dead.
You should’ve seen it coming, of course. Federal warp barges don’t just slow down for no reason. You should’ve inspected the cargo sooner. But maybe that was the trap. Maybe their intention was that you assumed one of the inductees, a tribute from a distant world, had sabotaged their own suspension bladder, broken free, and then sabotaged the ship—and, while you checked the seals on the tanks, the true saboteur would sink the knife into your back and then sink the vessel.
Ah, yes, the saboteur. This is more of a sub-note to point one. You should be dead, and it should be by your own Captain’s hand.
You should have seen something coming. Captain İkı has been something of a cryptid for as long as you have known them—vague mentions of personal battles they are fighting, a habit of disappearing into their quarters and their own mind for no apparent reason. They always struck you as a throwback, an old-fashioned captain with too much of a patrician sense of ‘privacy’ for the demands of the modern Federal Union and its fleet. Maybe that was part of the façade. Maybe İkı had put this on as a cover for their true intentions.
The fact you have been betrayed slides deeper than their knife between your ribs. The fact they looked you in the eyes, and offered an apology as they did so, makes it hurt more. Being stabbed in the front makes it worse, because you know what a catastrophic error of judgment you have made. The fact they tried to save you—to stop the wound, to shove you into your vacuum armour, and then used their body to shield you from the blast when the ship’s hull cracked open and the two-person crew was exposed to the hard void of space—
You have seen that face every night since, and you know it is a memory that will be etched into your mind until the day you die. Captain İkı, murdering you, as you murder them in return. It is a landmark in your memories, a caldera, a warning. You shall not forget it.
You are also finding it hard to forget the other person whose face you have seen every night since.
Their skin is like İkı’s in many ways, an ancient-looking pallor on the pink-beige-brown continuum of someone who never changed it or applied dermal patterns. (‘Natural,’ the young ones like to call it.) This person’s complexion is on the dark brown end, with a shine that makes them look disconcertingly young. Their hair, too, grown out in dark braids that look as if they have been made by hand, suggests youth and carelessness. The kind of person you haven't been for a very long time.
(The kind of person you take away, to be broken and re-made into more people like you.)
Then—so you imagine, in the bizarre landscape of your dreams—they open their eyes.
Their irises stretch and their eyelids flutter, like an animating statue or effigy, that they are old. Very old. Much older than they appear.
It happens like this for a few nights. You see this person, and they see you—they stare back at you in sleep, they stir.
When you wake, you see the inky black of the sky, the gentle mottling of a tenuous atmosphere, and the furious blue gas giant this world orbits, turbulent clouds and storms swirling in patterns that are hypnotic and terrifying.
You feel very small, and insignificant, and wonder how on earth you survived to this point.
They acknowledge you on the fifth night.
They are wearing an old-fashioned garment, something made of fabric or sprayed onto the body to protect it from the elements. You have not had need for such things since your infancy, since your days before your Federal service; it appears incongruous, ancient.
Blazoned on the garment (night-shirt? tunic? vest? you are not sure of the correct terminology) are some unusual shapes, stained into the material by hand. You do not understand them. There are many of the shapes, all frustratingly regular. At the right edge are two curved, hooking shapes that seem like they should be framing a question.
Maybe that’s what this is? These are letters from a letter-set you understand, forming words in a word-set you have not seen before?
The next night, they wear a different garment, with a different set of symbols. These letters have different features—angular, disconnected, straight lines joining and breaking at regular angles and curving only occasionally.
You still cannot understand.
This repeats. They mark a different set of maybe-letters in a circle. A different set still, glyphs stacked within each other. A diagram. A crude human figure, an anatomically incorrect skull, and two red lines intersecting over the skull. That curved symbol again.
It is after the next night, when, on a garment where the previous markings have been bleached out, the person has drawn a sequence of pictures: a human figure, the figure being impaled on a knife, the person with those intersecting red lines over their eyes, and then the person sitting upright with a smile on their face—it is on this night it occurs to you that you have a means of responding.
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND, you carve, in the federally approved word-set of the Union, using the melting mode of your blaster, on the chest-plate of your armour.
That night, the person’s eyes flicker, and it occurs to you that you probably made them up. The squishy flesh inside you has a way of playing tricks—even with all the parts that have been replaced with Federal components that don’t just go wrong and stop working. The person in your dreams is probably a figment of your imagination.
That is a childish thought, you think to yourself, not expecting to see them again as you curl into your armour for the night.
You snap awake on seeing the person again, because this time:
1. CAN YOU UNDERSTAND THIS??
2. WHERE ARE YOU?
(I AM LIKE YOU. CAN NOT DIE)
You start awake with a dull thud of shock. Can not die.
You should be dead—you know this much. But you were just lucky. Surely?
You trigger your vacuum armour’s self-repair cycle, and sink your fists into the surface of this mysterious world. The molten water rises into your gauntlets, through your boots, and your armour is whole again, pristine, the words filled in. You are the perfect example of a Federal steward, and you will get back—somehow—and report on the loss of the cargo, and on İkı and their treachery.
That night, the message on the person's clothing has changed again.
MY NAME IS NILE (but you can call me Nyı)
I AM LIKE YOU. I CAN NOT DIE
I CAN TRY TO HELP YOU
1. WHERE ARE YOU
2. ARE YOU SAFE
3. WHAT DO I CALL YOU
You felt as if you could sense some irritation behind those eyelids. The person’s skin was darkened just a little on either side of their nose. They looked as exhausted as you felt, surviving.
Surviving. If that is what this can be called—surviving, being tormented by a figure in your dreams. Nyı. You work your tongue around the syllables, and it doesn’t work. The name is strange. Alien. A provenance millennia old. At least Nyı is easier to pronounce than “Nile”—you do not even know how to make that (consonant?) noise at the end.
Your perception of time is bleeding into itself. You wonder if you really should have died back there.
The next night, Nyı is wearing the same tunic, with at least three layers of scrubbed-out writing beneath their current message. The same as yesterday’s, but with an addendum, scrawled:
(DO NOT TELL ANYONE. IF YOU ARE DISCOVERED THEY WILL LOCK YOU UP)
Do not tell anyone—that you cannot die? That Nyı (whoever they are) is talking to you?
Do not tell anyone?
You call in your distress beacon anyway—although there is no chance you can recall the distress signals you have already sent.
You leave it another night before you have the mettle to complete your experiment. Even with the sensation cut off by implants, your hands are still shaking, and you still grit your teeth, as you remove the gauntlet from your vacuum armour, and shoot a hole through the palm of your hand.
There is a jab of pain—probably psychosomatic, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less—and you can feel the thin atmosphere closing around it, and your blood boiling, and…
And then, it is not.
Your hand is, at once, whole again, and freezing.
You re-deploy the glove, and it steadies the shaking that you feel in your nerves, in your skeleton.
Before you command your armour to put you to sleep that night, you cut your Federal identification into your armour’s chest plate, and a set of polar co-ordinates for the world you have been marooned upon.
You wonder if, when the armour decides you’ve slept enough after an hour or so and administers stimulants again to wake you up, you’ll see Nyı, or if you’ll see Captain İkı, apologising as they slide the knife into your back.
Nyı has nothing on their sleeping garments that night. When you next see them, you see liquid—a luminescent, pasty suspension that seems to entice a feeling of cold in your bones (although maybe that is the icy temperatures on this world finally overwhelming your vacuum armour.)
You also see a new face. You see them coughing, breathing heavily, and wiping that odd goo off their face. It almost reminds you of ancient cryonic suspension fluid.
You don’t think this person can see you directly. They have a round and completely hairless face—maybe that’s because they’ve been cryonically suspended?
There are further flashes. The person sat at a table in a loose white tunic with no sleeves. Colour returning to the person’s skin, a kind of brown that is considerably lighter, but a roughly similar hue, to Nyı’s. The two people inserting an odd brown fluid into their mouths after decanting it into containers. Nyı holding this person’s hands in their own, but loosely—in that peculiar way that citizens hold the hands of their offspring before you take them away to be made into Federal agents.
(You think your own parent did the same with you, before you were taken away to be made into what you are—before then—)
You see the bald-faced person rubbing their face in their hands, and know this is a common facial expression too—one you see all the time amongst citizens whose tributes you have come to collect. Despair. They wipe more liquid from the crags of large, brown eyes, and you know this is not cryonic suspension.
Thankfully, the armour will catch it and re-process it if the cyclone of thoughts in your mind makes you throw up.
The next night, just as you are about to set your armour into sleep mode again, a contact indicator lights up.
REPORT ACKNOWLEDGED. RESCUE VESSEL IN RANGE. ETA: 14.5 HOURS. REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE.`
You remain where you are, realising that there is no way you can hide it from them.
Naturally, your next thought is: Why should I? For the future of humanity, this will be a revelation. A boon for all the Federal agents and subjects that come after you. The treachery of İkı will not be possible again, because, to all intents and purposes, those they, and people like them, seek to destroy, will be invincible and unassailable. No more mutiny. No more sedition. Peace at last.
(So goes your reasoning, in the way your reasoning has been shaped, guided, for as long as you can remember.)
There is a deep, buried shame that is tilled up when you awaken, and recall the writing on Nyı’s tunic:
(YOU ARE NOT GOING TO TURN YOURSELF IN. THEY WILL LOCK YOU UP. THEY WILL EXPERIMENT ON YOU. YOU WILL BE A RAT IN A LAB. FOREVER.)
Somehow, they know.
Behind their words, you sense something. Experience. The phrasing suggests that this is something Nyı has seen before. Maybe they have been on the receiving end. Maybe they were the experimenter.
They know. How can they know?
Maybe, you think, they are just a figment of your imagination. The fleshy network of neurones in your head playing tricks upon you. Nyı is an invention of your conscience.
That’s the most logical explanation. Something has happened to you. You have witnessed a traumatic event and been betrayed. By luck, you have survived—indeed, it seems impossible for you to not survive. And as humans like you throughout history have been—you are changed by your trauma. There is now a voice in your head. Your secret conscience, the traitor on your shoulder.
(As you drift awake, between flashes of Nyı, you watch Captain İkı again, their eyes blinking rapidly as the warp barge breaks apart and exposes all within to the hard vacuum of space.)
That your own brain, that tricksy organic lump in your head, is deceiving you, becomes the easiest thing to believe—although it is the path of least resistance through being trodden again and again, rather than through any simplicity or logical consistency.
Nyı tells you something every night, now marked with their own hand on a flat white rectangle that seems to be wiped clean every night before a new message is drawn upon it.
STAY STRONG. WE WILL COME TO GET YOU BUT IT WILL TAKE A WHILE.
You, now in a Federal medical facility for observation and tests, have no way of communicating with them. But they are now talking of a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I.’
Your mind’s imaginary friend is now inventing their own imaginary friends.
You see them every night, each night some variation on the same affirmation.
IT WILL BE ALRIGHT. YOU ARE NEW. YOU WILL PROBABLY BE ABLE TO SURVIVE EVERYTHING, FOR A TIME.
In the laboratory, scientists who wear tunics and skirts with blazons in the colours of the Union busy about you. They are not soldiers, or even a steward like you. They are kinder than is necessary, apologising as they insert needles for biopsies, or make an incision with a laser-cutter. They try amputating your finger, first with you fully-conscious, then with you anaesthetised. They test what happens if they detach the nerves connecting your spine to your legs.
Every time, the same: ultimately, nothing. There is pain to begin with, of course (though you are a Federal Steward, an agent of the Union, and you do not call out) but then there is that sensation, a boiling crackle within you, and then you are back exactly as you were.
IT WILL TAKE US A LONG TIME TO ARRIVE. THE EMPIRE CONTROLS ALL THE WARP LANES. WE WILL HAVE TO GO AT SUB-LIGHT SPEEDS. ETA 962 STANDARD YEARS. TRY TO ESCAPE IF YOU CAN. CONTACT US (SAFELY) IF YOU CAN.
Nine hundred and sixty two standard years seems an unfathomably long amount of time, although as your own day-night cycles pass, time seems to blend into itself.
Nyı’s next message seems to acknowledge something about this:
KEEP TRACK OF TIME. DEPRIVING YOU OF TIME IS HOW THEY KEEP YOU DOCILE.
You have no way of keeping track of time. You have no way of writing a message back to Nyı. (Why would you? They are, after all, just in your head.)
Dozens of days, each with its own barrage of new tests, becomes scores, becomes hundreds, becomes thousands. You measure time by the growth of your own scalp-beard, and the rhythm of when it needs to be shaved so you are clean again. Partly because, as someone who remains a steward of the Union, you are not about to let your hair grow out now; partly because it allows the scientists easier access to your brain to peel apart and inspect.
(You do not think they know about Nyı. You have not broached them to the scientists—how would you explain this mysterious person, this figment of your imagination? The uplink to your armour has probably spotted the image in your mind’s eye, once or twice, and thought nothing of it.)
IT’S OK TO STRUGGLE. JUST BECAUSE WE CANNOT DIE THAT DOES NOT MEAN WE DO NOT HURT. WE ARE EN ROUTE. I PROMISE.
Nyı is right in this much (as they should be—surely? If they are a figment of your imagination?) The experiments, the tests, they hurt. It hurts when they test how your mutation (that is what they’ve taken to calling it) interacts with your cybernetics, with the implants that make you the agent of the Union you are. Surprisingly—for the chief officer who has been put in charge of extracting this essence of indefinite life from you, a person who, by now, is looking very old indeed—surprisingly, if they cut the cybernetics out of your neck, they regrow much as your flesh and bone regrows, and at much the same rate.
It hurts, and you are now tired of pretending it doesn’t. You don’t mind if the chief officer sees a grimace as they wait for you to come around.
WE DON’T HAVE SUPER STRENGTH OR SUPER SPEED. WE JUST SURVIVE. THAT IS OUR GIFT.
You certainly do not feel stronger or speedier than you did before that incident on the warp-barge. If anything, you feel slower, as if you are wasting away, as if your skin is turning sallow and drained of colour just as the chief scientists’ skin wrinkles and grows blotchy and freckled, day by day, year by withering year.
About this, Nyı, the figment of your imagination, is right.
You’re not sure exactly how long you’ve managed to survive at the point where they try cloning you to see if they can extract the essence of your un-killableness from your genome.
You’ve not seen the original chief scientist for some time. They have been replaced three times over by now, and the present holder, a sharp-faced citizen with a gold-and-blue dermal pattern and eyes that makes you think they are older than they look (something you are acutely familiar with) is getting impatient.
When you ask them what they’re doing—why exactly they need these fresh DNA samples, this high-resolution sequence, the stem cell samples obtained through lumbar puncture and bone marrow harvest—they say nothing. “When it’s done,” they say. “When we have something to show for it.”
The room you are billeted in is not bad, all things considered. There is a cot, a table, a washing-basin, a console through which your implants can access entertainments—for an infuriating side-effect of your ‘ability’ (that’s what the new Chief Scientist calls it) is that your implants are incapable of downloading anything. Much like how any new dermal pattern on your skin will simply dissolve and vanish (painfully)—anything you save to your implant’s storage simply vanishes. Your body—all the parts of it—are frozen in time.
You are frozen in time. There is no natural light. You do not even know if you are on a spaceship, or a space station, or a planet. You measure the years and the decades by the ageing of the staff intended to care for you.
(How will Nyı find you like this? If you are being moved? No. Nyı is a figment of your imagination.)
I AM NOT JUST SOMETHING IN YOUR HEAD. IMMORTAL PEOPLE DREAM OF EACH OTHER UNTIL WE MEET.
After another day of a barrage of testing, you try the shape of the word on Nyı’s whiteboard in your mouth. Immortal. There is no cognate in the word-set of the Union. But you can infer its meaning by its gaps. Mortal = ‘can die.’ Immortal = ‘can not die’? You look it up in the Union encyclopaedia. immortal (adj., archaic, fantastical) living forever without dying. Your instinct was correct.
How old is that word—immortal? How old is Nyı? And—more importantly—how did the correct definition of a real word, one you’d never seen before, spring from a figment of your imagination?
You ask Nyı that question at night, scratching it into the wall above the cot with your fingernails. HOW OLD ARE YOU?
Their response, one night later, is uncharacteristically short.
OLD. (BUT NOT THE OLDEST.)
That raises a question in your mind, the private recesses that your useless implant cannot see: by now, how old are you?
The answer, it turns out, is ‘not too old for this pain, at least not in the eyes of the Chief Scientist.’
You catch sight of one of your flash-clones, and your ancient heart almost stops at the sight of yourself—yet inert, unseeing, dead. Evidently, cloning you does not reproduce your immortality.
You are seeing angry flashes in the eyes of the Chief Scientist now. They are livid. It is frightening, and you are definitely too old and have been through too much to lie to yourself about that. More frightening than the flash behind Captain İkı’s eyes as they ran the knife through your ribs and sundered the warp-barge—because the Chief Scientist is infuriated that your body will not surrender its secrets to them, will not share its un-killable properties for the greater good of the Federal Union.
Although it’s been a while since you’ve heard the word Union bandied about in entertainments and news broadcasts. There is a new word that has replaced it. Cosmocracy. The state which contains all things, under Federal auspices. New name, same stuff.
Every so often, instead of seeing Nyı in your dreams, or reminiscing about Captain İkı drowning in space, you see the faces of the inductees—the tributes—you were bringing Home. Tribute is a word that you turn in your mind—because after being cut up and sluiced and run through sieves and filters by people in protective suits who aren’t even polite to you any more, you have little energy at the end of the day to do anything else. Coming from the word for tribe, an old word for cultures and peoples. Plural, not singular. Not compatible with a Federal Cosmocracy.
(The word you suspect Captain İkı would have used, if they were still alive to reason with you, is “slave.”)
At some point, you almost wish you could converse by writing on the wall with the faces in your dreams—the other faces.
Nyı is kind, and they seem to do little more than send affirmations to you on a regular basis. Little snippets of their past. I was born before humans left the Home system. I lived in a place called Chicago. I still sing the same songs. (Song is not a word you have heard before.)
But as nice as Nyı and their presence is in your mind (you are still not sure if they are a figment of your imagination or not) you wish there were others. You wish you could converse with other faces that weren’t, in that moment, trying to extract something from you where so many had failed before them.
There is the face you’ve seen Nyı conversing with, on rare occasion. Always sharp-bald and freshly unfrozen. You know nothing about them, and want to know anything, everything, about this mysterious figure. The freckle on the tip of their nose. The depths of their eyes, glassy, glistening. The scar on their thigh, still showing the little crenellations of being manually stitched together.
There’s also Captain İkı, whose face you still imagine drowning—maybe their body was eventually recovered? Maybe it was flung into the nearest star? Maybe it has been sundered by space debris by now? But you wish you could talk to this memory, this crystallised moment in your head, and tell them something. Anything. No hard feelings. Maybe you had a point. If you’d asked me now, told me of your true intentions, I might’ve helped you sink the warp-barge.
You wish you could apologise to the tributes on your warp-barge. Now I know what it is like. What I was taking you to, in all likelihood.
That night, as you dream of Nyı, you hear something that might be a sub-light spaceship motor, a retro-rocket, hissing.
Your first sign that today is the day—after hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of those twenty-four hour blocks set (so Federal canon suggests) by the spin of Home’s planet—your first sign that this day will be the day is when the chief scientist, a nervous-looking young person with wispy face-hair that won’t fill out properly, orders that the latest set of clones be burned.
You see their lieutenants bundling them—bundling the copies of you—to the furnaces. You see the fear on their faces—your face, albeit fresher, cleaner. Not younger, to be truthful—in reality, many of them are older. But they never saw the life before that you did.
(The life before there was more life.)
You try to sleep, but find you cannot. You can see your own face, as if you are peering into a mirror or a self-viewing camera, being led away to incineration in fear.
You can also see Nyı, in your mind’s eye as ever. Clutched to their chest is a flat, black rectangle, with white text inked onto the surface.
WAIT FOR MY SIGNAL. (You won’t miss it!)
You snap awake, just as the signal comes.
Life in the laboratory has been orderly for longer than you can remember—longer than you can measure. The loudest sounds have been the electrical whines from machines, and the cracking of your own bones and sinews. (You’ve stopped trying to hold in your cries of pain, but you’ve also numbed yourself to that particular sound. Now it’s also like an echo, a natural answer to the repeated breaking of your own corpus. Like gravity.)
The signal, when it comes, is the loudest thing you have heard in a very long time.
For a start, the ground below your feet shakes. The walls of this place, which have seemed immovable and unassailable for a very long time, flicker out of existence—you should’ve seen that they were holographic projections much sooner and of course there was a way, somewhere, to turn them off.
(Unpacking and understanding for yourself why you never noticed this will take a long time. Time you don’t have—)
Time you do not have, because the walls flicker again, and then you hear the sound of bolt-fire.
It’s no surprise that the guards come for you first. You hear scientists pleading for their lives, swearing by the lives of their families and the President that they will not breathe a word of this to anyone. They’re interrupted by the sounds of bolts through their temples and their necks. The guards don’t hear them out. They’re only executing the scientists, you presume, because they’re running into them on their way to get you.
In what sense of ‘getting’ you, you don’t know what form this will take—until one of the guards opens the door to your quarters, raises their rifle to their visor, and shoots the contents of their cartridge, bolt by bolt, into your brains.
Dying hurts, but it is, at least, alright once it’s over.
This respite, however, for you, is now all too brief. You are in a murky fugue state for a short moment—it might be milliseconds, it might be minutes, might be days—before you begin the process of un-dying. And that hurts, and continues to hurt.
You don’t care that you’re screaming as you feel your skull inflating itself again, the bone re-assembling from smithereens and splinters into a round and unbroken cranium. Maybe if you scream loudly enough, they’ll shoot you again, and that’ll numb the pain… for now. If nothing else, aside from the intense stinging and throbbing from your head, the guards aren’t being gentle where they’re carrying you, by your wrists and shoulders and ankles, to…
As you re-develop some vision, a scorching reach in your freshly-regenerated retinas for any light at all, you see the floor beneath you, and the sway from left to right of a red line on the wall.
Red line. Pressure differential.
They’re going to throw you out of the airlock.
You give your leg a kick. You’re out of practice, but they haven’t worked out a way to disable your implant. It does its job, guiding a clumsy desire to kick the brains out of the guard holding my ankles into a precise sequence of movements.
Your feet land on the guard’s chest. You hear a slight crack, and they grunt a little—an animalistic reaction to probably having your ribcage broken. But they just hold tighter, and adjust their grip so that doesn’t happen again.
All three of the guards get their own back when the inner bulkhead opens. They hurl you to the floor, and kick you, in the ribs, in the shins, in the crotch, in the face, the ceramic surface of their boots cracking bone and bruising skin and shattering teeth.
You give up on trying to find the breath to scream, and instead spit out blood and grumble.
They say something to each other (something you can’t hear) on their armour communicators, and step back, one of them triggering the airlock evacuation sequence. Lights flash. An alarm begins to sound.
Your head spins. You wonder: is this your future?
You imagine Captain İkı, their face as they drowned in the vacuum of space, the grimace, the fast blinking, the frozen-solid skin like a mannequin. You imagine your own face (although after this time you’ve almost forgotten what you look like) frozen in the same manner. You wonder—if this is a spaceship, are they going to blast you to smithereens with weapons? And will you survive that?
You summon enough air for a scream.
Then, there are three loud bangs.
You catch your breath in your throat. There is a skittering from behind you: ceramic boots moving on the plastaglass flooring. The cracking and firing of laser bolts.
Then there are more bangs, in quick succession, a rumble of metal heating through energy shields, penetrating flesh, of shells falling to the floor, the thudding of vacuum armour collapsing and disintegrating.
Then there is a peculiar kind of footstep—one you might’ve heard in your dreams, once or twice, over the last thousand years or so. Squeaking, shuffling, the slap of primitive materials.
Breathing. Another person’s.
You turn your head, letting out a whimper of pain as your teeth re-grow (you’d forgotten about them, with everything that’s going on) and you try hard to focus on the figure in the doorway.
Their hair is braided and then tied back in a kind of odd bulb shape at the back of their scalp, and they wear an ancient material, pock-marked with tears and singes produced by bolt-fire.
The eyes are weary, but as Nyı processes what they’re looking at, they lower their weapon (a kind of antique rifle, by the looks of things) and smile.
“There you are,” they say.
Then there is a crack and a whooshing in the air, and Nyı, the figment of your imagination, the person from your dreams—they yelp in surprise, jerk around, and use their one remaining good arm to fire their ancient rifle at the approaching soldiers, shrugging their other shoulder and using their limp elbow as a bludgeon to activate the airlock control.
“Ow,” they say, shaking their arm out, and you—for the first time in your life—witness what the Cosmocracy’s laboratories have failed to produce for so many years: another person capable of self-regeneration. You are so busy staring—realising that it looks painful, and only now noticing exactly how much of a squelching sound it makes—
“I saw two shooters,” they say, “and I guess there’s more coming.” Nyı, the crater of biomass and blood on their upper arm still popping and sizzling as it re-constitutes itself, is now crouched, picking over a dead guard’s carcass. They try the rifle, and find it inoperable. They turn to you: “how do you work this thing?”
You open your mouth, unable to summon the words that should come. It won’t work. If you don’t have an implant and the necessary accesses you can’t use it. It’s a security feature. I might be able to operate it but I don’t know if it’ll take my access from the central computer or from my implants.
There are no words to describe how you feel—disgusted, watching the healing happen to someone else (and similarly disgusted that they seem to not care one jot about it); terrified, that there is no way out; relieved and delighted that Nyı—“Nile”—was never a figment of your imagination.
Instead of beckoning for them to throw the gun to you, you rush to the other end of the airlock, and throw your arms around Nyı, as a child would throw their arms around a parent.
Nyı’s eyes seem to widen in confusion. They wrap their own free arm around you, strong, and whole.
“It’s OK,” they whisper, into your ear. “Hey. I’m here. It’s OK.”
You breathe, and allow yourself to weep—or rather, you plan to.
But then you see the airlock timer on the control panel, and see the flashing light. EVACUATION IN 42 SECONDS.
“We need to cancel it,” you say, pointing frantically at the control panel. “Forty seconds, and we’re in space.”
You crouch, and your fingers fly across the door control—to find they won’t respond to your input whatsoever. As you try to reset the thing’s connection, to put it into failsafe mode, the screen goes dark.
“The shooting’s stopped,” Nyı says, and then lets out a sigh. They look shattered. It looks as if their eyelids have been bruised by the weight of far too many waking hours. “This was their plan.”
“No,” you say, “we must be able to blast back through the door, or—”
“We don’t need to,” Nyı says, pulling your arm away from the control panel. “We don’t need a suit. We can be exposed to a vacuum and survive.”
“I am not being spaced,” you snap—as you realise this person must be completely mad. “You know we’ll be lost in space, forever? Right? I was nearly lost in space forever!”
“We won’t,” Nyı insists.
They seem very sure. In the same way, you think, that the parents of the tributes always seem very sure that there must have been some mistake, and there’s no way their child would have been selected for conscription by the Union (as then was.) The same way your own parents said the same, the last time you ever saw them. And you know how this works. There is denial. There is anger. There is bargaining. There is melancholia. There is acceptance.
You have twenty seconds, ish.
“We’re not going out into space,” you say, wresting your wrist free of Nyı’s hold and grabbing the bolt rifle from the guard’s dead hand. It lights up. Yes. “I saw someone die in space. I don’t want that to ever happen again, not to me, not to you, not to anyone—”
You fire. A hole appears in the airlock bulkhead—a super-heated, glowing divot in the surface of the metal. A small energy barrier sizzles into existence. It won’t stand more than three shots. Behind the bulkhead, you hear the shuffling of ceramic boots.
You pull on the trigger again—
The rifle bucks downwards, and you realise that Nyı is pushing the barrel down.
“No point,” they say. They cast their own ancient, crude weapon aside, and use their now-free hand to clasp your shoulder in reassurance, a touch that makes you twitch in alarm. “Trust me, OK?”
“How am I supposed to trust—”
You don’t have time to finish the sentence, because the air you were using to form it has been explosively dumped into space.
Nyı makes very sure that you have time to recover from being ejected into a hard vacuum.
Once the airlock has re-pressurised, they haul the door open manually, clap their hands together twice to turn on the lights, and begin crawling their way along the floor and down the shaft to what you assume is the control room. “Hold tight,” they say, “we’re going to start accelerating in a bit. If we can’t get out of range of their weapons we’re really in trouble.”
You position yourself in what looks like a couch, and sure enough, an absence of gravity gives way to a sudden whoosh of acceleration, and a whine of rocket motors.
“Here we go. I’ll put the auto-pilot on and then I’ll come see you,” Nyı’s voice says, coming seemingly from nowhere—maybe those odd little grilles on the ceiling that seem to suggest sound comes out of them.
You take a long time to come back to your senses, such that when the acceleration dies down to a more tolerable level, and Nyı climbs up the ladder to unbuckle you from your couch, you have a bevy of questions whose answers fly straight over your head.
“I led a group of immortals once,” Nyı says, “there’s hammocks on deck two. There’s food if you need it on deck one. The toilet is on deck three. The control room is deck zero.”
You fire back one of the questions off the back of that immediately: “what’s a toilet?”
Nyı blinks. “You don’t know what a—” They look genuinely alarmed, and a little disgusted. “Do you not— what?”
“Do I not…?” You are baffled, and wonder if you have offended your imaginary friend.
“Toilet. When you need to piss or shit.”
The words are entirely foreign to you, and you guess that shows on your face—a face you are not sure you would recognise in the mirror.
Nyı makes an exasperated glance. “When you need to piss—” and here they demonstrate with their hands, something flowing out of their crotch— “—or shit—” and here they mime objects dropping out of their rump— “you do it in the toilet.”
Aha. “I don’t need that,” you explain. “My implants.”
Nyı’s eyes harden. “Then how the hell do you—” they begin. But they’re too tired. “Fuck,” they say, “I need to eat and rest.”
Eat is a word you understand the moment they take an oblong bar of something from their pocket, un-wrap it, and shove it into their mouth. Their teeth move, and they swallow the thing. The action looks crude, almost uncomfortable.
“Don’t tell me you don’t need to piss, shit, or eat,” Nyı says, drily.
“Not like that,” you say, quickly. “I mean, I can, but… I haven’t for…” You try and calculate how long it’s been in Home years.
“Yeah,” Nyı says, giving an understanding gesture with their head that you assume indicates assent. “We need to rest, the auto-pilot will take care of getting us out of here.”
“How are we going to re-fuel?”
“Fortunately, your space station was in orbit around a gas giant,” Nyı says. “We can just suck up this planet’s atmosphere and be on our way.”
“On our way?” You are incredulous. “Where?”
“Away from here,” Nyı says. “Anywhere that isn’t where we’re in danger. Where there aren’t people trying to put us in a cage again.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem busting me out,” you reply. “And we don’t have a warp drive, how do you even—”
“It took me thirteen hundred and ninety one years to get here,” Nyı interrupts, “I’m willing to risk it taking a thousand years for us to get back.”
Hearing it put like that makes you shiver. One thousand, three hundred and ninety-one years. All you can think of now is that your parents—well, they’ll be gone. Forever. Everything you knew before the lab, before Captain İkı, before the Cosmocracy.
“Come on,” Nyı says, sensing that you need a moment and waiting until it has passed. “There is someone you need to meet.”
On deck two, one of the hammocks is occupied by a suspension casket.
“Help me,” Nyı says, and grunts as they lift one end of the casket out of the hammock. You assist them, and it lands with an uncomfortable thunk that creates a new dent in the floor.
Inside, in an opaque semi-liquid that swirls and reflects, are small flashes of human skin.
“This is always a bit unpleasant for him,” says Nyı. “Maybe it’s best if you wait in the corner. Once he’s woken up, you can say hello.”
“Who?” you ask, as Nyı presses buttons—actual, physical buttons, that make symbols in some forgotten script move on a screen. “Who—who is this him? He? What do I call them?”
“I thought you said they were called he? The person in this casket?” Nyı has called this person him and he—maybe different variations on their name in some archaic grammar-set?
“He—they—” Nyı’s eyes flick between you, and the casket— “look, I’m too tired to explain, just—”
At that moment, there’s a thump from inside the casket.
You jump, and immediately feel undignified at the high-pitched yelp that leaps from your throat. Nyı focuses their efforts on un-doing the seals, bleeding the gas pressure from within, and shushing ‘he’—whatever their name is—inside. “It’s OK. Calm down, it’s nearly done—”
“Have they been out for a while?” you ask.
Nyı responds by glaring at you, before turning their attention back to undoing the last seal, and lifting the lid of the casket.
The figure inside the casket starts again, before collapsing as if dead. The liquid around them cools and shrinks and hisses, caking into a kind of semi-solid gel, as if the person has been encased in black ice. It reminds you a little of the world you were marooned on after your shipwreck—an icy surface, smoke, a seemingly permanent hissing noise.
The place where you first realised what you are, what you are capable of. The place where you felt like a ghost.
“Shit,” Nyı grumbles, plunging their hand into the gel with a squelch and touching the person’s cheek, scooping away bits of suspension with their hand to clear a path to the mouth and nose. “Yusuf?” And then they say something in a word-set that is well beyond your reckoning.
The person in the casket stirs again, and lets out two rattling coughs before retching. Their arms twitch, creating a small eruption of cryonic gel that spatters over the room in tiny chunks.
You see two wild, terrified brown eyes that fix on you, just for a flash of a second. Alarm and hope quickly dissolves into disappointment and anger, as their eyes skate to Nyı, to the bare wall, to the hammock their casket was stored in—searching for something, or someone, that isn’t there.
They close their eyes, and their chest rises and falls in hot delirium. Spots of cryonic gel pepper their face, their bald scalp, the curve of their shoulders, the angry pink scar on their thigh. Their skin is much bluer and paler than it should be.
Nyı places a hand behind he’s back (you still don’t know their name, and he is all you have for now) and gently coaxes them upright, into a sitting position. He’s shoulders slump, and they hang their head between their knees for a long while.
This is the other person you’ve seen in your dreams. The only other non-hostile face you’re familiar with, other than Nyı.
“You OK?” Nyı asks, and it takes a moment for you to realise they’re talking to you. You’re too busy taking in he’s facial features, as if that would tell you anything more about them.
“Yes,” you reply.
It’s a lie, and Nyı knows it immediately, but they don’t say anything. Instead, they place two fingers at he’s neck, measuring the pumping of blood through their veins. Nyı is happy with what they see, and places a hand on he’s shoulder.
“Welcome back, Yusuf,” they say, and then, after a pause to allow he to collect themselves, says, looking to you: “this is the new one.”
Your mouth is hanging open a little, as the ancient person’s eyes make contact with yours, and they stare at you, overwhelmed, confused, terrified, afraid, hopeful. Nyı has not called them ‘he’, but used that word again, ‘Yusuf’—
“This is Zûf,” Nyı says, to you, “the other last of the immortals.”
It is a tradition, Nyı says, for them to explain the history of the group, and of their immortal-ness, over food.
It feels very odd for you to be inserting this stuff into your mouth, tearing it apart with your teeth, and then allowing it to fall down your throat. You have done it before—a long time ago, probably before you were taken away and before you ended up as an agent of the Union (or a scientific curiosity for the Cosmocracy)—but it feels like an utterly old-fashioned and rather dangerous way of sustaining yourself. You don’t trust yourself not to punch holes in your gums with the sharp-looking implement that Nyı and Zûf use to stab their food and shove it between their lips. The sensation on your tongue is peculiar, too, a new spectrum of detection that is both like and un-like the smells of blood, and suspension fluid, and spaceships—
“I assume you have questions,” Nyı says, their eyes intent as they handle that incredibly sharp tool (a fork?) without even looking. They have changed into a fresh tunic, dark red, with a white jacket over the top, and brown breeches. They seem utterly unbothered by their shoulder being destroyed by bolt-fire earlier.
“You said you lead a group,” you ask. “Where is it?”
Nyı casts a glance at Zûf, whose eyebrows knot in a grimace.
“You’re looking at it,” Nyı replies. “We’re the only ones left.”
You blink. “And how old are you?”
Nyı has to think about this for a moment. “In Earth-years… sorry, Home-years—” they correct themselves— “about… eleven thousand, three hundred. Give or take.”
You stare at them, blankly, and remember the time they answered that question with ‘old, but not the oldest.’
“And you?” You turn your gaze to Zûf, who shies away as if it hurts. “How old are you?”
“He’s about a thousand years older,” Nyı explains— “so… about twelve thousand?”
(There they go, calling Zûf he again—)
“What do I call you?” you ask, keeping your attention trained on Zûf, and trying not to be intimidating. “Do I call you Zûf, or… ‘he’? I’m confused.”
Zûf—he—appears glad for the distraction, as they look at Nyı, and try and work out what’s being asked of them.
“I don’t think they have a concept of gender,” Nyı suggests to them.
“A concept of what?” you ask— the word sounding utterly exotic and bizarre.
“God,” says Nyı, looking to Zûf with a pained scowl of exhaustion, “I’m going to have to explain gender, I thought we’d left that shit behind on Earth.”
Zûf simply grimaces.
“We’ll deal with it later,” Nyı says, after a period of silence. “For now, whenever I say he, it’s just a word we used to mean they. OK?”
You feel your face twisting in confusion. You remember reading something about various human cultures and their grammar-sets having specialised personal pronouns, specific to social class, physical attributes, age, profession—the whole thing, to your mind, is completely arcane.
“You really are eleven thousand years old, aren’t you?” you say.
Something strikes you as odd about the whole situation. Why did you dream of Nyı every night? Why not Zûf, except maybe five times over the space of a millennium?
Your eyes drift to Zûf, who sits slouched in a couch, chewing their—his—food slowly. They have dressed in a long sleeveless tunic and a short pair of breeches, and underneath the hem, you can see that scar, red, angry, stitched together as if by hand.
“Why hasn’t that scar healed?” you ask, pointing—and Zûf appears to shrink away from the attention, curling into themselves.
Nyı takes a breath, seemingly knowing this question would come.
“We can die, eventually. One day. When I say we’re the last two left… there were more,” they begin. “A long time ago, there were more of us, but one by one…”
“Nothing that lives can live forever,” Zûf picks up, as Nyı trails off. It’s one of the most substantial things he has said, and he does so breathily, the voice coming out like he needs his windpipe blown through. Zûf hasn’t said much, and you wonder if he’s lost his voice through lack of use.
“So at some point,” you say, “it just stops? How? Why?”
Zûf’s eyebrows slide up his forehead like tectonic plates shifting. Nyı shrugs their shoulders.
“I wish we knew,” they say. “But we don’t.”
Zûf reaches for a water-vessel, and pours some of that brown, bitter-tasting liquid into their mouth (his mouth, you remind yourself.) Then he yawns, and stretches his arms.
“So,” you ask, almost wondering aloud, “how many of you were there?”
Nyı closes their eyes, as if they have suffered some phantom pain from deep within. You look to Zûf, as if hoping he will give you an answer, but he turns his face away, again—you see the glimmer of something rising in their eyes.
“Let’s deal with this later,” Nyı says. “I think we all need to rest.”
That night, you allow yourself to feel good about being rescued—for a time.
Then you remember Captain İkı, their eyes blinking and their breath gasping against the hard vacuum of space, and jolt awake, feeling their pain.
“Bad dream,” you say to Nyı, when they snap upright with an antique bolt-rifle ready to hand, armed and ready to fire.
Zûf blinks as he awakens, reaching for something that isn’t there, and turns away to hide his quivering lip, as Nyı says: “bad dream?”
“Yes,” you reply. “I keep thinking of when I died for the first time.”
Nyı moves from their hammock, and puts takes your hand in theirs—a movement that, for the momentary flinch it induces, does give you a warm feeling as their grip tightens.
“You never forget,” they say, their voice sounding like ash. “I never will.”
Zûf nods from his own hammock, wiping something out of his eyes with the palm of his hands.
Out of curiosity, desperate to forget the feeling of trying to breathe in the void and see when space is trying to freeze your eyeballs—desperate to forget, you ask: “how did you die? The first time?”
Nyı grimaces, in a way that suggests this is a wound that has been re-opened enough that they’re used to the pain.
“I was fighting in a war,” they reply, “a war I’m not proud of. I shot someone I was meaning to capture, and he slit my throat with a knife.”
You peer at their neck, and see skin that is entirely perfectly smooth. It must’ve hurt. (That pronoun again, he—falling into the same class as Zûf. The fact Nyı has memorised this detail, that their first death was at the hands of a he, makes you shudder.)
“What about you?” you ask, turning to Zûf.
Nyı draws in a sharp breath, and motions to intercede, standing and saying: “that’s not a good idea—”
“It’s fine,” Zûf interrupts, although he does it with a gulp of breath that suggests it is anything but. “It’s fine. They deserve to know.”
“Are you sure?” Nyı asks, their eyes locking with Zûf’s in a sympathetic half-smile. One that serves as reassurance. I’ll protect you.
Zûf draws in another two breaths, and, clinging to the blanket he is wrapped in, says: “his name was Nicolò. He killed me, I came back, I killed him, he came back. We both became immortal at the same time.”
Zûf’s enormous eyes seem to inflate, and he has to catch his breath as if he’s just run twenty kilometres rather than spoken for twenty seconds. His voice is hoarse.
“Does that happen?” you ask. “Two people at the same time?”
(You are not, you tell yourself, saying this to allay your fears that the incident that granted immortality to you might’ve also meant Captain İkı is somewhere, out there, plotting revenge against you and the Union. You tell yourself this again and again while the other two process their answer—)
“Only once,” Nyı says. “It seems to happen at random for everyone else, but for Joe and Nicky—sorry, for Zuf and…” and here they glance across at Zûf, “we’re calling him Nicolò, right?” When Zûf signals his assent, Nyı continues: “for Zûf and Nicolò, they became immortal at the same time.” They take a pause, and then add, delicately, “they got lucky.”
Zûf’s fists close around the blanket, just a touch, and you imagine the gears working inside his brain.
“This Nicolò,” you ask him, “you were close to them, no?”
Nyı scoffs a little, a tiny flare of a pained smile. “Understatement,” they say.
You ask: “what happened to them?”
Zûf closes his eyes, and you see tears beading behind the crinkled lids.
After a long pause, Nyı says: “we were trying to sabotage an Imperial supplicant transport ship—” they see your blank expression, and try to re-phrase into more contemporary words— “like your ship, when you died. A Federal slave ship.” Nyı’s mouth is drawn with disgust here, but they bottle it back—you sense this is a discussion they will have with you at a later date. “We were trying to sabotage it and free the slaves. Nicolò was on the outside of the ship, trying to separate the cargo container, but before he could finish, the ship just… left. They gated onto a warp lane without any warning.”
The image sends a shiver down your spine. You are familiar with what the hard vacuum of space feels like. The sub-space realm of a warp lane sounds like another level of horror. No stars, no planets, no light, gravitational riptides from passing ships. A dimension of oblivion that no-one seems to truly understand, other than as a means of moving spaceships faster than light. This is assuming that Nicolò even survived the transition through the gate, and that they (he?) weren’t hurled into some in-between netherworld.
“We guess he must be dead now,” Nyı says. “We hope.”
“I thought dying in space was bad,” you say, “but…”
Zûf rises all of a sudden, moving faster than you’ve ever seen him go. He climbs the ladder to the upper deck, and you hear retching from the room Nyı has told you is intended for waste excretion (‘toilet,’ they said—a strange word that makes an odd shape on your tongue.)
“I’m sorry,” you say, but Nyı is already standing and filling a container with water. “I didn’t—”
“He knows,” Nyı replies. “It’s fine. There’s nothing you could’ve done.”
You wake up again, just a few hours later, gasping, imagining Captain İkı drowning in space—or drowning in a warp lane, being torn apart by divots and wrinkles in space time. As before, Nyı flashes the weapon briefly in all directions before relaxing, as Zûf awakens in a bleary tangle of arms and legs and fabric.
“I’m sorry,” you say, although you know what the response will be. There’s nothing you could have done. “Just… bad dream. Again.”
This time, you felt the air being forced out of your lungs as if they were İkı’s, the pressure differential making your chest want to burst. You imagined them blinking, their eyes an intense tempest of anger, of fear, of loneliness.
“The person you killed, Nyı,” you ask, “the first person. As you became immortal. Do you still remember their face?”
Nyı’s head dips, as if they are glaring inwards at themselves. Zûf is shielding his hand with his mouth, his eyes glistening as he watches.
“All the time,” they reply, after a long pause. And then they ask: “you too?”
You affirm it with a nod of the head, a gesture you’ve worked out means yes to Nyı and Zûf.
“I wish I could see his face again,” Zûf muses, in a low grumble, and then sniffs.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Nyı asks you.
You don’t want to distress Zûf further, but he nods again as you make eye contact with him. “It’s OK,” he says gently, hoarsely, “She’s right. You need to talk about it. It helped her, it might help you.”
She, you think, noticing that it rhymes with that other pronoun they use for Zûf and Nicolò. Nyı must be she where Zûf is he.
“The ship I was on got sabotaged while we were mid-warp,” you say, “and my Captain—they…”
They sabotaged the ship, because—
“They did the right thing,” you say, “they were—they were trying to free the tributes. The slaves,” you say, almost throwing that word up because it comes out too easily. “But I keep seeing their face, as the ship split into two—I keep seeing them in space. Like they’re drowning, but in nothing. And I can’t get that image out of my head. Every single night.”
Zûf is rubbing his temples with his fingers, exhausted, and you can tell he finds the experience relatable. You turn to Nyı, expecting a gentle, sympathetic smile.
Her mouth hangs open a little before she asks: “who were they?”
“I guess they were a mole,” you reply. “Like, a terrorist, or an insurgent, or a double agent—”
“Who were they?” Nyı repeats.
“I don’t know,” you reply, “they called themselves İkı, but I guess—”
“Probably a code name,” Zûf suggests—but holds his tongue when Nyı casts a wide-eyed stare in his direction.
“Were they male, female?” she asks.
Your eyebrows harden. “I’m not in the habit of looking up my Captain’s kilt,” you snap, “I wouldn’t know what genitals—”
“Sorry—” Nyı’s eyes focus on the middle distance in concentration, and she asks: “did they have a low voice, or a high voice? High like mine or low like Zûf’s?”
You honestly think that Zûf’s voice sounds reedier, with a weaker timbre, than Nyı’s, but you say: “low. Very low. Like… like this,” you say, dropping your voice in what you guess is an impression of how İkı sounded. “They had an accent I didn’t recognise.”
“What did they look like?” Nyı asks. “What colour was their hair?”
“They didn’t have any,” you say, “Union agents have to stay clean-shaven—”
You have seen them enough times in the half-waking fugue state: “skin… like, I guess pink, or a light beige… eyes, a kind of bluish green?” You imagine İkı telling you something sage and cryptic, as they often did before they sabotaged the ship. “They had very intense eyebrows, and—”
You look to Zûf. His breath is coming fast, and he’s looking at Nyı, and you, and his face is twisted in alarm. Before you can ask what’s wrong, he’s stood up, and he’s limping to a storage closet set into the wall, fumbling at the controls, his hands shaking—
“How tall were they?” Nyı asks. “About Zûf’s height?”
It’s been a long time, but as you look at Zûf, now rifling through things, sheets of an odd material covered in markings— “yes. Almost exactly. Maybe a tiny bit shorter.”
“Flat chest?” Nyı asks.
“Yes,” and then you add, “their shoulders were very broad, they had quite a bit of muscle weight on them.”
Nyı, her mouth hanging open in shock, turns to the cupboard— “Joe—”
Zûf wipes something away from his eyes, sucking in air between his teeth, as he closes his fist around what he’s looking for, and turns around.
You feel a short, sharp explosion of breath from your lungs, as if you’ve been ejected into hard vacuum. It’s shock.
“Is this him?” Zûf asks, tapping his finger against the picture on the white sheet.
The sheet is made of an odd, organic white material, with an effigy marked on it in a primitive mineral, sharp strokes around the eyes and a frumpy tousle of brown hair, and maybe a little less full-faced than you remember, but—
“That’s them,” you whisper, “that’s—”
Nyı stares at the drawing, and at you.
Zûf’s hands shake, and he is breathing so heavily you wonder if he’s about to vomit again.
And you— you realise, now. The emptiness of the space around İkı in your dreams, and the lack of spaceship debris. The regular rhythm with which they would try to breathe, and fail, and blink, and die. The peculiar accent, the odd obsession with privacy— the way you have seen them die and die again every night for over a millennium—
Zûf is now curling into himself, crouched on the floor, clinging to the drawings tightly, hyperventilating, tears beading at the corner of his eyes with his teeth gritted in something—
“Shit,” Nyı whispers, lost in herself. “Nicky.”
“When I was born, there were four others,” Nyı says. “More or less.”
They are—no, she is (you’re still not quite used to the idea of gendered pronouns) sparring with you, at your own request. “I’ve not had an actual fight since…” you’d said—and then cast an uncomfortable glance towards Zûf, watching from the table, curled into himself. He had averted his eyes and closed them in a weary frown as you had said to Nyı: “I also don’t know how those… things…”
“Guns?” Nyı had asked.
So this was how it was: you went down to the control room (or the bridge, as Zûf and Nyı called it to each other—one of their many peculiar foibles), and sparred, hand-to-hand, and learned to fire the ancient rifle—albeit, without any bolts (bullets) in the reservoir (magazine, or cartridge, or clip, depending on the type of weapon.) “It’s not that you won’t heal. It’s that if we breach the hull—”
She then cast her glance upwards, at the upper decks, where you knew Zûf would be brooding. As much as you don’t enjoy the prospect, you and Nyı would survive spacing for a second time. Zûf would not.
In between attempts, Nyı casually mentions her past in snippets, nuggets, brief accounts from a lifespan longer and richer than you could possibly comprehend.
“I was born before humanity first left the Home system,” she says, “the furthest we’d got… there was an unmanned space probe. Voyager, or something like that. Leaving the system without any kind of massive fuel tank, just coasting on the speed it gained from some gravitational slingshots. It never got that far.”
This is such an unfathomably long time for you—Nyı has existed since before your own species had even been anything close to setting foot on the world on which you were born, is old enough to remember a world before the star-vehicles on which you have spent the entirety of your working life.
This person is ancient.
“The others were even older,” Nyı says, sensing your disquiet. “I was the first one to be born after the moon landings.”
You make a quizzical look as you struggle to lubricate the gun and align the magazine at the correct angle to slip into the receptacle—something you can’t deny you need practice with, since you’ve never worked with something so crude and primitive.
“What’s a moon?” you ask, and Nyı rolls her eyes.
“Like a satellite,” she says, “but natural. Like how a river is a natural canal. Right? This was before we did what your lot do and mine all natural moons to depletion and turn them into building material.”
(She explained this yesterday, when explaining her own name. The Nile—a word you can now get close to pronouncing properly, if you do things that seem extremely unnatural with your tongue—was a natural channel that existed on a natural landmass called Africa on the Home world, or Earth as Nyı insists on calling it.)
“I know we mine them,” you snap, “I just hadn’t heard the word before.”
Nyı glares at you. “I guessed,” she says, and snatches the gun from your hands. “Now try disarming me again. I felt it click, you’d be dead.”
You try the drill again, and again. You have never been especially good at hand-to-hand combat, and your experience over the last thousand years has been limited to the fight with Captain İkı (which you lost) and these drills with Nyı (which you are also losing.) Millennia of experience is a wall that proves impenetrable and unclimbable.
“That’s enough for today,” Nyı says, infuriatingly, just at the point when you manage to land a hand on her arm for the first time. “We’ve got time.”
That’s true. However…
“I don’t think I can ever be as good as you,” you suggest, as she pours water into a cup and empties its contents down her throat.
“Trust me,” Nyı says, after a long pause, after she’s taken a few breaths to allow the water to do whatever it’s doing to her insides, “I thought that for far too many years. None of us are—” and here he checks herself, her face seeming to ossify as she corrects and says: “none of us were especially strong, or fast, or cunning. We just get to come back and have another try. You’ve already had a thousand years’ head start on us.”
“A thousand years in a cell,” you reply.
Nyı closes her eyes, and nods. “At least you know why we avoid capture.”
Zûf does not join you and Nyı for a meal, because he knows you will be discussing the past, and the past is painful. You sense Nyı is grateful for the space as well.
“The first one I met was called Andromache, or Andy,” she is saying now, as she spoons a hot, lumpy fluid (soup? or is this the other one, stew?) into her mouth. “She was old. I never did find out how old, but… like, old.” Nyı quirks her cheek up, and swallows. “She became mortal just after I became immortal.”
You stare for a moment at Nyı, and she immediately catches what you’re thinking about.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “Zûf had been mortal for a long time since you’d come along. I was already only waking him up once a year by that point.”
Nyı has explained this before. If Zûf seems like he doesn’t know what to do with himself, that’s for many reasons: he’s an old man whose remaining time can be measured in decades rather than millennia; his world has been turned upside down; he has been ‘awake’ (outside the cryonic casket) for longer than he has in centuries.
“When I started, there was Andy, there was Sebastien, there was Zûf—he was called Joe, back then—and there was Nicky. İkı,” Nyı corrects herself. “And there was one more. Her name was Quỳnh. By that time, she was…”
She trails off, her breath making a hissing noise between her teeth.
“She was what?” you ask—although you suspect… “do you not want to talk about it?”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Nyı asks, face suddenly drawn with a peculiar kind of concern, something that’s almost parental in nature. “When I joined, Quỳnh was still alive, but she was gone. She was at the bottom of the sea, she had been for centuries. Dying and coming back, again, and again, and again.” When she says this, her voice, normally rich and assertive and sharp, seems to soften, as if it’s losing most of its body.
“And you were seeing her in your dreams?”
Nyı locks her eyes on you. The question is implicit. Remind you of anyone?
That night, you see İkı blink, his face frozen mid-transition, a solid, fossilised twist that looks supremely painful.
You choke, feel your lungs balloon with pressurised air surrounded by a vacuum, and feel him die.
Zûf moves around the ship with a kind of sloth and lethargy that makes you genuinely concerned he’s going to do something bad to his bones and his muscles. He appears to be slouching constantly.
He has trouble making eye contact with you.
It’s not until the fourth night, the fourth dinner he is barely eating (he’s more taken with watching you, as you slowly get the hang of loading rice onto a spoon and letting it pass down your throat) when he finally ventures to ask:
“Do you know where he might be?”
The question startles you to begin with, because it feels like it should be an intensely personal thing to ask. Your nightmares of Captain İkı are something you have lived with for so long, and explaining what exactly your old Captain looked like to Nyı felt like some kind of trespass, an invasion, a request to share something private. (Something you, irony of ironies, found suspicious when privacy was something İkı practiced on the warp barge.)
“I don’t,” you reply, after a long pause, and find your mouth dry as you say the words. “In space. Somewhere.”
Nyı looks across at Zûf, with what you assume she hopes is a reassuring smile—but it’s one that’s worn through, stretched, and is clearly out of force of habit. You have no doubt she feels sincerely sorry for him. You also know that feeling this much, for this long, is exhausting, for everyone.
(You have felt İkı drowning for the best part of a millennium, more or less.)
“Sorry,” Zûf mumbles, unprompted, into the long silence. “I know it’s hard to talk about. I just thought…” he trails off, again, but it’s not as if he needs to say anything.
You wonder if what you see here—the way Zûf reacts to any mention of İkı—is an example of what Nyı has spoken to you of. Love. A feeling, an emotion that you have never had a word for before, something utterly alien to the Cosmocracy and everything you stood for not so long ago. And so you venture a question, almost idly, with your mouth full:
“Was İkı your girlfriend?”
Nyı turns to you, eyes like bolt-rifle sights, and you realise you have made an appalling faux pas.
“I’m sorry—” you correct, quickly, still unsure navigating this quaint new landscape of gender— “he was your… boyfriend?”
Zûf’s eyes meet yours in a wilting glare. After a long silence, he says: “close enough.”
So, this is what love is like. A bond forged between people that, when broken, hurts, forever.
“I’m sorry,” you say, thinking how awful falling experiencing love must be.
“Don’t apologise,” Zûf says. He rubs his temples, and runs the tips of his fingers over the fuzz of black, greying hair that is growing on his scalp.
“No, I mean—” it takes you a moment to find the words, but you eventually manage— “I can’t imagine how it must feel to be that close to someone.”
Zûf glances at Nyı, whose face has glazed over, her nose pointing at her bowl of rice which suddenly seems very uninteresting.
“It’s everything,” Zûf says, finally, “and more. He was my—”
His voice hitches there, as he processes what he has just said, and his eyes go glassy again.
“He is my everything,” he says, eventually, his voice wobbling, his breath uneven.
You stare through the translucent flooring, at the churning surface of the gas giant the ship is orbiting. It doesn’t have a name—nothing the Cosmocracy discovers has a name beyond a generated designation, including you—but it has hung in your life for such a long time, it almost feels like a symbol of your un-killability. Of your captivity. A thousand years is bound up in every giant storm and ridged cloud band and aurora that comes and goes.
You will be glad to get away from this place, and be rid of it.
That night, when you see İkı, his eyes are wide open. Frozen over.
You feel the air exploding, once again, from his lungs, and wonder how it seems to keep replenishing itself.
His eyelids snap open, and he glares at you, open-mouthed, frozen.
In the glassy surface of İkı’s eyes, you see green, and blue—and—
and the reflection of storms and spots and gyres.
“He’s here,” you blurt, as you snap awake. “He’s here, he’s—”
Zûf, eyes bleary, is suddenly wide awake.
“He’s where?” Nyı demands—
“In this system. In orbit around this planet.”
You rub your temples, processing what this means. Firstly: all this time, you haven’t moved from where you were. They must’ve built the research station in the same star system the warp-barge was wrecked in. Second: all this time, you and İkı have not been that far apart, and presumably exited the warp lane at the same time in the same place, in the same place as the ruins of the barge.
Third: Zûf is now shaking all over, head in his hands, while Nyı has her eyes squeezed shut, hands braced against the side of the cot she’s occupying.
“Well,” she says, levering herself upright, and closing her hands into fists— a storm of emotions passing behind her eyes, as she thinks what this could mean. “That’s settled.”
“What’s settled?” you ask.
“You don’t have to do this,” Nyı says, as you wait by the airlock, rifles primed, “if you don’t want to.”
You’re taken aback that she’s giving you the right of refusal. “And leave you alone?” you demand. “You two are all I have.”
(Them, and, possibly, İkı—assuming he doesn’t want to kill you first.)
“I know that feeling,” Nyı says, with a rueful smile, and a nod. “We stick together. OK? And I go first.”
You feel a swell of fear in your chest—fear that this might not work. Fear you might end up getting captured, sent Home, and separated forever. Fear that something might happen to Zûf. Fear that something might have already happened to İkı. Fear you won’t be able to find him.
But this is your best shot. And—as you said—they are all you have.
And that fear—maybe that’s what Nyı and Zûf mean when they’re talking about love.
“Ready?” Nyı asks, as the clanging on the other side of the airlock gets louder, and you hear the hiss of a laser-cutter.
Zûf nods, hunched into the corner, armoured as best he can be.
“Cover Zûf,” Nyı commands, “I’m going first.”
You point your antique gun at the airlock, and catch a glimpse of your own reflection in one of the control panels.
The words on your tunic are backwards, mirrored, but still as clear as day as when you saw İkı reacting to them in your dreams this morning.
NO MAN LEFT BEHIND.
A message to him, and to all and sundry.
“Let’s go,” you say, arming the weapon.
Nyı throws the switch, and kicks the door open.