The sun was sinking low in a hazy sky when Jianyu returned. Nyx was in the front yard, doing her best to wipe the clinging dust off her clothing before heading in for dinner. She waved when she saw him plodding up from the path, and got a half-hearted gesture in return. He looked exhausted, grey-faced and slump-shouldered.
“Captain, can I have a word in private?” he asked when he’d let himself into the yard. The gate was more of a formality than a deterrent. It didn’t even have a real lock, just a thin latch that was always breaking and banging open in wind storms.
Nyx nodded and led him around to the side of the house, in a spot between two windows. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick again? I can call Weyland–”
“I already saw Weyland,” Jianyu said. He looked up at the darkening sky, put his hands in his pockets, and sighed. He really did look like he’d been through something a hell of a lot rougher than a trip into town. “The Falacerian military’s using the old Coalition airfield in Uchronia City. There were a lot of ships there, big vessels.”
“That’s not surprising. The human government has their own bases of operations on Mars, they never needed to take over the old Coalition outposts. They’re probably here on–something diplomatic, I guess, or an aid mission.”
“It didn’t look like an aid mission. It looked like they were gearing up for war. And I saw Senior Officer Livia there. She’s pretty high ranking now, I don’t think they’d be sending her out for an aid mission.”
It had been a while since Nyx had heard anything from Livia. Sometimes she got a short message, a reminder of a shared memory or a carefully selected anecdote from Livia’s new life in the Falacerian military. A small tendril of an old feeling wormed its way through Nyx’s chest, but she wasn’t even sure if she still loved Livia or if she just loved the memory of the life they’d shared once. “Does it bother you that the Falacerians are taking humanity’s side in this war?”
“I knew they’d be taking a side. I guess I’ve had some time to come to terms with this being something huge, big enough that it’s going to be every Coalition species taking sides. But something strange happened when I was talking with Livia. She tried to dig into my mind, and it made me feel awful.”
“She was probably just checking up on you,” said Nyx, trying to project confidence. She remembered how odd it was to feel another mind brushing up against her own, even when Livia didn’t mean any harm by it. Falacerians were only weakly psychic. Even when they probed, they never got more than a hint of another species’ emotions, a taste of empathy or a hint of greed. “She cares about the old crew, even if it’s not–not the way we’re used to thinking about caring for people.”
“I guess that’s what she was doing. It was strange, that’s all. It made me dizzy, so I went and saw Weyland.”
“Good thinking,” said Nyx. “Do you think you can stomach dinner? It won’t fight back, I promise.”
“I think I can manage it,” said Jianyu. He still looked haggard, but he followed Nyx inside and made a decent dent in the pile of food her parents had prepared. Martian bread was usually made of heavily genetically modified flour, glutinous and nutrient-rich. The vat-grown meat was cut thin and well seasoned.
After dinner, she went back out to the barn with Sera to finish working on the striders. The lights had just clicked on, responding to the darkness outside, when Nyx paused. She motioned, catching Sera’s attention, and whispered, “Do you hear that?”
Sera frowned and shook her head. “It’s quiet. What are you hearing?”
“It’s too quiet.” Even at night, the farm was never totally silent. The house got a little energy from solar power, but at night it relied on a biofuel-powered generator that rattled and sometimes sputtered. Nyx opened the door just a crack and peeked out. The lamps that were supposed to illuminate the path back to the house were off. The house itself was invisible, not so much as a glimmer of light coming through the windows.
Sera joined her in the doorway. Artificial light spilled out, but it only illuminated a few feet in front of them. The sky was too hazy for stars. “Is that supposed to happen?”
“No. I’ve never seen the power go out like that before. The generator’s old, but it works fine.” Without the familiar hum of the generator, the Martian night was so silent that Nyx felt unsettled. Terraforming might have made the air breathable, but the engineers had never finished the job of seeding the world with animal life. Farmers could rent out genetically modified bees to fertilize their crops or worms to aerate the soil, but the planet had no native birdsong or animal calls to make the night feel alive. In this complete stillness, Mars felt like the planet it had been four hundred years ago: cold and remote and dead.
“Do you have a gun?” Nyx asked.
Sera felt around in her pockets. “I’ve got a plasma pistol. Only two charges, though.”
Nobody should have been carrying a gun around her parents’ farm, but under these circumstances, Nyx was prepared to let the issue go. “Give it to me, and get a strider ready to go.”
Sera handed the gun over. It was smaller and flatter than a normal plasma pistol, designed to fit in a pocket without leaving a bulge. The modifications would shorten its range. Nyx didn’t have a holster, so she triple-checked that the gun was unloaded and the safety was on before she slipped it into her pants pocket. She vaulted onto the strider and held out a hand to Sera. “These things have collision detection and they’re good at keeping their footing on uneven ground. The ground’s rocky here, I don’t like our chances of going for a run in the dark.”
Sera settled into place behind her. Nyx found the controls at the front of the saddle and steered the strider out into the night.
The power went out while Jianyu was loading dishes into the sanitizer. He fumbled around in the dark, set the plate he was holding down where he thought it was supposed to go, and winced at the sound of it sliding off the countertop and hitting the floor with the crack of shattering ceramic.
“I’m over here,” he said, because everyone in the house was calling out to each other. He kept still, afraid that if he tried moving he’d trample someone smaller underfoot. Xrrt was speaking somewhere behind him, her translator struggling to keep up.
“We’ve got emergency lanterns,” Nyx’s mom said. “Everyone stay where you are, I’ll get them.”
Jianyu listened to her walking through the house, navigating by feel. There was a window by him, but he couldn’t make out more than the dimmest outline of the sill. Flowers and Mirelle must have blundered into each other in the darkness, because he heard a sharp yelp of pain and a low voice apologizing.
When he turned his head toward the sound, the whole room seemed to shift with the motion. Nausea hit him hard and fast, almost doubling him over with the force of the attack. He felt like his brain was liquifying. It took several moments to realize that there was something hard and metallic pressing into his back.
“Walk forward, big guy,” a voice he didn’t recognize was saying. It was a strange sound, buzzing and doubled over itself, like a single person was speaking in chorus. He wasn’t sure if he’d heard it with his ears, or if the sound was coming from inside his own skull. The thing pressing into the small of his back felt an awful lot like the barrel of a gun.
“What?” His voice came out a little slurred.
“Walk,” the voice commanded, and Jianyu had taken three steps before he realized he had no idea where he was going in the darkness. He banged his shoulder on a door frame and barked his shin on a table. The voice kept speaking, directing him until he’d pushed the door open and the cold night air hit him like a slap to the face.
“Keep going. Get on the hoverbike.” Jianyu nearly tripped over that too. He ended up on the back of a sturdy bike that was hovering about a foot above the Martian dust. Someone had smeared mud over the lights. A small figure climbed in front of him and activated the control panel, then turned to wave a nasty-looking plasma pistol at his nose. “Keep quiet, and lean into the turns.”
He couldn’t get a good look at the stranger’s face. It wasn’t just the dim light that was confusing him. His captor started the bike, gliding silently away from the house.
Every time he tried to think of his captor’s features, another wave of dizziness hit him. “Stop that,” the stranger said when he tried to concentrate particularly hard on how many eyes he’d seen in the low light, and whether the mouth had been surrounded by lips.
He’d been kidnapped by a Falacerian, he was sure of it. A sharp spike of fear went through him, twisting his stomach but clearing his head. His captor shuddered. “Stop that too, you idiot.”
Jianyu thought about all the people he loved most. He concentrated on how sad they would be if he died. Falacerians didn’t have a filter on their psychic connections. All emotions bled into theirs. They liked to be surrounded by pleasure, and got a certain thrill out of vicariously experiencing pain and fear, but they didn’t much care for unalloyed misery. Jianyu pictured his parents on the edge of known space, hearing the news of his death a hundred light-years away and half a year too late. He imagined Captain Dysart living with the knowledge that she’d brought the crew into danger, and Xrrt knowing she’d failed to protect him.
He was building an elaborate mental image of Sera self-destructing without his stabilizing presence when the Falacerian took a sharp turn, forcing him to pay attention to hanging onto the back of the bike instead of wallowing in tragedy. “I said cut it out, asshole,” that strange doubled voice hissed inside his head.
Jianyu tried a different tactic: distraction. “This is about Livia, isn’t it? Do you really think just because you saw us talking, I’m worth something to her as a hostage?”
“This is about getting what I deserve. Now shut up, or I’ll lay this bike down and we’ll see how sad you feel about road rash. I don’t need you to keep both your legs.” The bike turned again. They were on a road, and in the distance Jianyu could see a pale smear in the haze. He was pretty sure it was Uchronia City, lit up in the night. Maybe he could tuck and roll when they hit the outskirts of town, but he didn’t like his chances alone in an unfamiliar human city so close to earth. If he bailed out earlier than that, he wasn’t sure where he was going to land; there might be no one around for miles, and the Falacerian’s eyes were better at seeing in the dark than his own. He shouldn’t have left his com screen on the charging pad.
“I said stop feeling sorry for yourself,” the Falacerian warned him, tilting the bike again.
They were almost back at the house when a light went on. It was faint, but Sera shifted her grip on Nyx’s waist, raising one arm to point past her. “I think that’s a hoverbike.”
“My parents don’t own a hoverbike,” Nyx said, but Sera was right. The tail lights were almost indistinct, but the glow of the control panel was unmistakable. The bike started moving.
“Well, follow it,” Sera said. Nyx was already adjusting the controls, setting the strider’s speed higher and nudging it in the direction of the retreating bike. The machine rocked as it picked its way over the uneven ground at a fast trot.
“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Sera was leaning to one side, trying to keep her eyes on the bike.
“Keep your center of gravity stable. Don’t fight the motion, ride with it.” Sera adjusted and grumbled behind her. “I think they’re moving toward the road. Don’t lose your grip.”
Sera’s arms tightened around her middle as the strider picked up speed. The two of them combined weren’t enough weight to slow it down much. It was a solid machine, built for lugging farm equipment. Nyx increased the speed as the strider’s rubber feet struck asphalt instead of Martian dirt. They were moving enough now that she had to lean forward and squint into the wind. “I see it up ahead. Could you shoot it from here?”
“Not without hitting whoever’s on that bike. Can’t this thing go any faster?”
“Hold on,” Nyx warned her. Sera’s arms clamped tight. Nyx adjusted her feet in the stirrups than hung down off the saddle, gripped the handle in front, and turned the speed up as far as it would go. The strider’s sprint had a swaying motion to it, forward and back as the legs stretched out and swung back under the compact body. Sera yelped a little. The hoverbike wasn’t moving as fast as it could go. It kept cutting in sharp little movements, veering back and forth across the roadway, and its back was so heavily laden it was nearly fishtailing.
They were well into the suburbs of Uchronia City when Sera leaned close to Nyx’s ear and said, “I think Jianyu’s on that bike.”
Nyx was concentrating so hard on steering in the streets that she hadn’t had the luxury of examining the bike. She squinted at it, her eyes streaming with tears as the wind rushed past. The bulky body hunched over the back of the bike could very well be Jianyu.
The district looked familiar. A ship rose into the sky just ahead of them, and Nyx realized they were heading for the airfield that had once belonged to the Coalition. “My com screen’s in my pocket,” she yelled back to Sera. “Find Livia’s contact and call her. I think we’re heading straight for her.”
Sera fumbled for the com screen, did the best she could to scroll through the contacts one-handed, and held it up to the side of Nyx’s face. Nyx heard Livia’s voice, flatter and less melodic than she remembered it. Falacerians’ powers of suggestion never fully worked over electronics. “Nyx, what a lovely surprise.”
“No time for pleasantries,” Nyx said, shouting to be heard over the wind. They were far enough away from the hoverbike that she didn’t think she was in danger of being overheard. “Meet me at the gate. I think one of your subordinates kidnapped Jianyu.”
“All right.” Livia, to her credit, didn’t sound in the slightest bit doubtful. The bike cut a corner sharply ahead of them. Nyx turned down a different street. If she remembered the directions correctly, she could make up some distance by using an alley that ran diagonally between two warehouses.
When the strider skidded out of the alley she worried she’d lost the bike, but they turned toward the gate and she saw it again. Jianyu was on the ground now, on his knees but still the same height as his captor. A pistol was pressed to his temple, just inches away from his neural port. Livia was standing at the gate, a couple of heavily armed guards flanking her. This was a military operation, not a civilian port, and Falacerians could carry guns. Nyx dialed back the strider’s speed and pulled around a corner to bring it to a stop. She pulled out Sera’s gun and loaded it with one of the two charges.
“Can I have that back?” Sera asked, leaning to the side again to try to get a better look at the situation.
“No, I might need it.” Nyx slid off the strider and stretched her cramped legs. “You stay here. If things go badly, head back to the farm.”
“If things go badly, I want to be the one holding the gun,” Sera said, but she slid her feet into the stirrups and watched Nyx walk toward the action.
Jianyu knelt on the dusty asphalt, looked up at Livia, and thought about how he was definitely going to die this time.
He’d been on the wrong end of an awful lot of guns lately, but this time his captor was shoving the muzzle right up against his head, hard enough that he could feel the metal pressing in and the warmth bleeding through from the plasma charge. In the unlikely event that he survived this, he was going to have one hell of a burn.
Livia looked at the
“It got you out here, didn’t it? I saw you trying to get into his mind, I know you care about him. Whoever he is.” The Falacerian tried to grab Jianyu by the hair, but it was too short to get a good purchase. Jianyu felt the gun digging in harder, twisting. He winced and moved his head a little to ease the pressure. “Only two guards, and if I shot you now, they’d fall in line pretty quick.”
“I don’t think so, darling.” Livia made a lazy gesture, flipping one hand over as if she was shooing away a fly. The guards repeated the action. He realized that they were displaying the signals of rank on their sleeves. One had three interlocking diamonds picked out above his hem in silver thread. The other had a complex system of curlicues. The symbols didn’t mean anything to Jianyu, but his captor yelped and the hand holding the gun shook. “Do you think I’d bring anyone low ranking enough to be impressed by this little tantrum of yours?”
“It’s not fair,” the Falacerian wailed. Fear had stripped some of the power of the glamor away. The voice Jianyu heard now sounded feminine, whiny rather than commanding. “It was a good plan. It should have worked. I deserve that promotion. I earned it.”
Livia made a show of picking a non-existent speck of lint off her sleeve, letting the silver cords twinkle in the reflected glare of a light next to the gate. “I’ll give you ten seconds to turn the gun on yourself. You won’t like the alternative, dearest.”
The pressure on Jianyu’s head slacked all of a sudden. A body fell against his shoulder and slid to the ground. He looked down at the crumpled figure. Unconscious, without the cloak of glamor, the Falacerian’s skin was a sallow grey. All four eyes were almost completely closed, but a thin band of black showed under the slack lids. He looked up and saw Captain Dysart standing over him, her arm still raised and holding a gun. She hadn’t fired it. She’d clubbed the Falacerian with the butt of it.
“Well, I suppose you’ve made the decision for her,” Livia said, looking at the captain. “In the end she’ll wish she used the gun, but we don’t always get what we wish for.”
She motioned to the guards. They holstered their own guns and bent over the body, evidently planning to take the Falacerian away. Captain Dysart said, “Don’t touch her.”
The guards looked at Livia. She tilted her sharp chin upward, considering the matter. “I suppose you might as well kill her, if you think it’s a mercy.”
“Any person who makes a credible threat to the life of an enlisted member of the Coalition has the right to a fair trial, unless that threat should be so immediate that the only viable way to prevent death to the enlisted is killing rather than capturing the assailant,” said Nyx. It was a part of the rule book Jianyu remembered only vaguely; he’d been more concerned with rules for navigators than rules for command officers. “The assailant is incapacitated, so the threat is not immediate. Jianyu, pick up her gun please.”
Jianyu found the pistol on the ground and held it awkwardly, unsure what he was supposed to do with it. A mechanical whirr behind him turned out to be Sera, arriving on a thick-bodied four-legged machine. She held out her hand and he passed the gun up to her, grateful he wasn’t expected to do anything else with it.
“You’re not a member of the Coalition, darling,” said Livia, in more or less the same tone she’d used to address her would-be assassin. “This is a member of the Falacerian military, and since she’s just made a very poor attempt to assassinate me, I’ll deal with her.”
Nyx stepped up, putting her body between the unconscious Falacerian and Livia. Jianyu looked over at Sera, who shrugged. “If no court is available for a trial, it is the responsibility of the highest ranking officer to arrange for the imprisonment of the assailant in humane conditions,” said Nyx. “No torture. No games. That’s not justice.”
Livia flicked her fingers at the guards. “You can go now. The fun’s over.” When they’d retreated back into the restricted ground of the airfield, she said softly, “I know you’ve been purchasing old uniforms, Nyx. When does this end? When do you stop pretending the Coalition’s coming back?”
“Until it’s not pretending anymore,” said Nyx. “Sera, restrain the prisoner. I’ll ride back with her on the strider. Take Jianyu with you on the bike.”
Jianyu got off his knees while Sera found some tape in one of her pockets to use on the unconscious Falacerian. Livia beckoned to him. Jianyu looked at his captain, but she was busy helping Sera incapacitate their brand new prisoner. He walked over to Livia, who said quietly enough only he could hear it, “It’ll be a sort of torture, you know. A little false hope’s fun to play with for a while, but we can’t stay sane for long around real misery. It’s why I had to leave when Nyx was at her lowest. When this little tear she’s on is over, she’ll be back in the same place. That’s not exactly humane conditions for a prisoner.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Jianyu asked.
“You’re a gentle soul,” said Livia, nodding at the little grey body Nyx and Sera were heaving onto the back of the strider. “I don’t want you to be too surprised when she begs you to throw her out the airlock.”
Sera finished up and came back over to the bike. She used the toe of her boot to scuff the worst of the mud off the rear lights before mounting up. Jianyu got into place behind her and tried to remember how to lean into the turns as she steered. They were going at a slower and more comfortable pace now, following Nyx through the streets as the strider moved at a comfortable canter.
“So that was weird,” Jianyu said.
“Pretty weird, yeah.” Sera accelerated and then slammed the brakes, still getting used to the bike’s controls. Jianyu gripped the seat. At least she wasn’t trying to injure him on purpose. “So what are we supposed to do now? The ship doesn’t even have a brig.”
“I think you’re going to be building one,” Jianyu told her.
“I guess I’ll be clearing out that storage room on my end of the ship. Hey, it’s been a while since I messed with a small-scale confinement force field.”
“I’m not even going to ask why you’ve ever messed with a confinement forcefield,” Jianyu said. Sera laughed and accelerated again as they turned onto the long, flat stretch of road heading out of town. The haze had cleared a little, just enough for Jianyu to make out a few of the brighter stars and a lumpy moon in the dark sky.