The problem with stealth ships, Kali had found, was that nothing could see them to move out of the way. In real space, this was a non-issue – you’d be hard pressed to find yourself on a direct collision course with a large star, let alone another ship, and an idiot if you didn’t have the wherewithal to steer around it.
In hyperspace, though, things were different. Navigation tunnels and strict timing allocations ensured no ships vied for space, but the webs of semi-organic matter that permeated that dimension quite often spread its reaching tendrils into the path of the tunnels. Left out of use too long, the tunnels would get overgrown and have to be cleared away by a slow-moving dozer barge. In well-used tunnels, those tendrils that did poke through were often fast enough to move out of the way of oncoming vehicles – if they could see them.
Kali tugged at the controls again and watched her pod’s plastic arms lift another piece of hyperweb off the ship’s body.
The SUS Spectre had limped into her cell of the comb this morning with a sheepish plea to her company to get rid of it all for them. They wouldn’t get very far with the web still attached. She could see their sensor lights flickering on and off along the length of the hull as it sank its feelers deeper into the structure, gaining a stranglehold on their wiring and logic nodes.
‘How’s it going over there?’ her brother’s voice called across the radio.
She used the burner mounted on the other arm to cut across the base of the web she held. ‘It’s taking me a while. Web’s gone most everywhere, and hooked in deep, but I’m almost done. It’ll need a lot of surface repairs, though.’
He made a disappointed noise over the speakers.
‘What? They getting tetchy or something? Somewhere they need to be?’
‘Something like that. They don’t appreciate the hold-up.’
‘Well, maybe next time they can try turning the stealth systems off before they make the jump. ‘Sides, we had a queue.’
Kali glanced up from her work towards the gate, which flickered against the stars in the distance as a hundred ships translated through every minute. A thin trail of spacecraft linked it to the comb, ships in need of repair or cleaning falling into a holding pattern as they waited to be allocated a hexagonal cell. Most would then head for some downtime in the rotating spindle attached to the comb while they waited for people like Kali and her brother to do their jobs, but the crew of the Spectre hadn’t budged.
‘Poor bastards didn’t get any shore leave,’ she said. ‘Wait until they realise they don’t get a pension, either.’
Laughter fell out of the speakers and Kali frowned in her brother’s direction. She hadn’t meant it as a joke.
Shaking her head, Kali used the pod’s arms to crab down to the remaining section of hull. Here, some of the web had peeled away – probably when exposed to a sudden exit from hyperspace – and taken a thick metal panel with it. It dangled upwards in a tangle of orange webbing, suspended in vacuum. More hyperweb tumbled into the space it had vacated. She didn’t often get to see entanglement through both layers of plating.
‘I’m gonna need you round here to patch a hole in a tick, brother.’
Kali didn’t bother to reply. Instead, she took hold of the floating plate and cut it free before burning the web from its surface and attaching an emplacement buoy to it so it didn’t drift away. She could have tethered it to her pod, but her brother would need it to weld back in and she couldn’t guarantee she’d still be anywhere nearby when he got round here.
She reached out and pulled a little at the web to see how firmly attached it was to the second layer. As she did so, a section of plate sheared away from the rest of the metal, corroded almost entirely through.
‘Shit.’ She shifted in her seat, gritted her teeth and angled the flamer to eat up the web without slipping into the space below. Since she’d served on a ship not too different to this, she knew the torpedo bay lay beneath her, and throwing a jet of flame in there would be a bad idea.
‘You okay?’ he brother asked.
Kali cleared her throat. ‘Yeah, I’m good. Just found a hull breach.’ She made sure she toggled the comms back off, this time.
‘Found one or made one?’
By the fact that a jet of decompressed air hadn’t punched her halfway across the cell, she guessed the ship’s emergency barrier had sprung up in time, or already been in place. Still, she hoped no one was in the torpedo bay or watching from somewhere else, otherwise they might want to have words about this.
Her hand hesitated over the controls. She needed to take a look inside to make sure none of the web had made it to the interior, but that would mean gaining entry to a Union Navy ship’s torpedo bay without permission. Getting permission meant letting them know she’d inadvertently ripped a hole in their ship. Letting them know about that little accident would lead to an eyewatering amount of paperwork.
Quick and dirty it was, then.
Kali slipped her gloved hands out of the manipulator mesh, pulled down her visor and double-checked the seals on her helmet. When she was confident they’d hold up to vacuum, she pumped the air from the cockpit into the reserve tanks and waited for the pressure to equalise. A quick hop in and out, then she could do a last sweep for immature hyperweb cultures and wipe her hands of another Union ship.
A green light on the dashscreen winked into existence. Ready to go.
With one hand, she twisted the buckle of her harness, magnetising her pod to the hull of the ship with the other. It locked on with a too-loud clunk that made her cringe deep into her seat, but she didn’t stop to give anyone time to investigate.
She opened the canopy, then gave a gentle nudge with her feet and drifted up through the opening. Light shimmered over the edge as she grabbed hold of it, washing over her from the engines of a gargantuan freighter leaving the cell next to hers. Kali pivoted in her grip and angled towards the missing hull panel, giving the departing ship the barest glance. The emergency barrier would hold atmosphere, even as she passed through it.
As soon as her body cleared the side of her pod, she activated her shoulder boosters, bringing herself into line with the hole so she dropped straight through it without touching the sides.
Kali brought herself to a halt. She hung suspended in a ray of light – the last fires of that distant engine shining through the narrow opening – that threw all her surrounds into pitch before fading away itself. No lighting, emergency or ordinary, artificial or bioluminescent, punched a hole in the night. Inside her helmet, she frowned. Unusual, but workable.
Her helmet’s overlay and external torches adjusted for the low light and she felt her breath wrap tight around her sternum.
After a moment, she brought her breathing under control, gritted her teeth and started forwards before stopping again. She couldn’t drag her eyes away from the payloads held in suspension in the centre of the room, the gleaming silver elipses that seemed more liquid than solid, rippling under the dim light of her torch.
She hissed under her breath and toggled the torch off. Nothing she’d been told said they were light sensitive, but held in the way they were, they could only be one thing, and they were sensitive to just about everything else. Better safe than sorry.
For a few moments she did nothing but let the memories wash over her: lessons that suddenly switched tones and became deadly serious; manuals whose text managed to grow yet colder over the page; veterans whose eyes became stone at their mention.
Whenever anyone did manage to cast off the shadow of their real name, they called the weapons suppositories – because back when they were legal, they often got shoved up some poor planet’s arse and got very uncomfortable, very fast. Back then, they could strip a trillion souls from a population in a month, or worse, leave them mutated and insane beyond all hope of recuperation.
The Union was carrying viral bombs.
Kali sprang back into action, opening her mouth to report the crime to system control… but her finger paused by the transmission key.
The second she pressed that button, every soul with an ear listening in would be able to hear what she had to say. Their comms weren’t encrypted. All it would take was one bored or paranoid surveillance tech and they’d be able to hear all about her little discovery – and this wasn’t the only ship from the Spiral Union docked at the comb. The Spectre was bound to pick up an outgoing transmission in their vicinity. A stealth ship like her had the sort of command weight that could pull five ships to its aid with no questions asked. Granted, they may not want to get anyone involved, but there was nothing to stop them sending a squad of their finest down to greet her.
Muttering a choice curse, she dropped her hand. A cry in the dark would be a cry too late.
She took a few breaths to calm herself and dropped back into the semblance of routine. Using a hand flamer, she scorched any web remnants from around the edge of the hole and peered out for a second at the underside of her pod, sending it a silent command to leave.
‘I’m all done here, brother,’ she said. ‘Just that panel left to patch up. See you back in the mess.’
‘Right on, Kal. I’ll have it fixed in no time.’
Kali grimaced out into the dark and watched her pod detach itself from the hull before sailing out of view.
She hoped no one else was watching.
After ducking back inside, she withdrew from the hole as fast as she felt confident with, jetting to a side of the torpedo bay where the stacked munitions looked somewhat more stable and she was certain her brother wouldn’t be able to see her if he happened by sooner than expected. She wondered what her old warrant officer would think of her now – the malcontent judging the tresspasser. They could have set up a club, if he were still alive.
Kali decided that now would be a good time to put thoughts of firing squads out of her mind, since that’s what she would have subjected the inhabitants of the comb to if she’d been stupid enough to go ahead with that transmission. It would have been her finger pulling the trigger again.
Darkness pressed against her eyes the second she deactivated her torch, but she wanted to be able to move about without being noticed. Now that her heart had stopped pulsing blood past her own eardrums, she could hear footsteps on the decks above her. Torpedo bays should be checked every two hours on the dot, whether under guard or left unattended. She had no idea how far through that cycle the ship was already, nor any indication of there being anyone outside the door, but she didn’t intend to find out. It was all she could do to let her eyes adjust before following the containment unit’s cable trays back to the wall, popping open the maintenance panel and crawling into the space behind it.
She made sure she pulled the panel flush behind her.
A mechanical hiss sliced across her heart, like a snake had just slithered across her chest. Kali did her best not to breathe as she heard footsteps cross the room from the now-open door.
‘All clear?’ a voice asked.
‘All clear,’ said the other.
Her gut ached with thanks towards all the people who never looked up.
‘Hey, I hear they’ve put chicken and dumpling back on the menu for…’
The door slid shut again, cutting off whatever the woman had been about to say next. Kali didn’t care. She was already following the cables along the wall, cursing the fact that she couldn’t see to make out any colour-coding and cursing again when she sliced her finger on a sharp bit of cable tie.
Something resembling a plan had started to form in her brain. It very much relied on her brother being good at his job, which, since he showed her up on a daily basis, would be the least difficult part of the plan.
What she needed to do was wait until the Spectre made her next jump, away from this system, away from the comb, away from the few people in this universe she’d care about if they wound up on the wrong end of a dozen railguns. To do that, she’d need a fix on their position, which meant finding her way to one of the control nodes feeding into the navigation system and hacking into it. That or strolling into the command centre was the only way she’d be able to keep tabs on their position. One of those was a viable plan.
As soon as that happened, she’d be able to broadcast a message to the sector’s law enforcement. Kali squashed down the rising doubt that they’d have anything punchy enough to deal with it – if the Spectre got a chance to release her payload, there was no telling how many would die. Not trying was not an option.
She carried on tracing the electronics, overlaying her memories of a larger ship’s systems in whatever way she could, but it was difficult to see how anything mapped on. The first node she reached seemed to be responsible for the stealth systems. When she plugged into it, her mind lurched away from a blaring set of firewalls fencing off the labyrinthine network inside. Touching that would be a sure way to set off alarms all over the ship.
Ten metres further down that section, she froze. Light crept in beneath one of the maintenance panels ahead, a faint orange glow flickering, shadows passing at intervals in front of it. She thought she could hear breathing under the all-pervasive electronic hum.
With a terrible screech, the panel disappeared outwards and clattered along the metal floor like gunshots. A man poked his head through the gap.
‘Bloody webs.’ He scowled at a diagnostic panel opposite him and plugged a wire into its base.
Don’t look round. Kali held her breath, biting her lip so hard she may as well have bitten through it. Do not look round.
All his attention was focussed on the screen he held, and he tapped away for several seconds as he sifted through the ship’s systems. But as long as he was this close, Kali couldn’t hope to get away. He’d hear any noise she made trying to move backwards and, well, he was forwards.
An amber glow nuzzled the curve of his cheek as he worked. He was young, probably hadn’t been serving long. No doubt he thought he’d hit the jackpot getting to work on a ship as high-tech as this.
The glow crept across the bridge of his nose as he turned and set fires in his eyes as they latched onto hers. Both of them stared motionless at each other.
Kali lunged. She wanted to jerk his head up and snap his neck against the edge of the hatch, but he was pulling away, starting to call for help. Instead she lashed out with her right hand. Clawing at shirt fabric, she yanked him back into the crawlspace, jacknifing her legs against the side to put some force behind the movement. His head cracked against the far bulkhead before he’d even had chance to cry out.
An acid taste danced along the edge of her tongue. She strained to hear any sound of pursuit outside the space they were in, but there was nothing. Nothing audible above thier own breathing, anyway.
The man let out a breathy moan and hunched his shoulders, pain creasing his features.
Kali’s fingers drifted to the chain around her neck, seeking it out in an uncertain crawl. She had no idea how long the Spectre would take to reach another gate, and even a short spell through hyperspace could be enough for someone to regain consciousness from most injuries. He could alert the whole ship to her presence in a matter of minutes if she let him get loose.
She had no choice.
In one swift motion, she drew the chain over her head, twin tags glinting gold in the amber light. As she bent to loop it around the man’s neck, his eyes shot open and he leaned back. She pressed her full bodyweight against him to stop him struggling away, but his hands fumbled at her and her face was only a hair’s breadth from his own. Heartwrenched confusion turned his eyes into saucers even as she began to squeeze the life out of him. Instincts kicked through the haze in a burst of adrenaline, but it was too late. He was too weak. He was gone.
Metal slid through her fingers as she relaxed her grip. Each link of the chain glinted silver, though some were dulled by spots of blood they had gouged from the man’s neck. She stared down at them for a couple of seconds before stuffing them into her pocket.
Before anyone had chance to walk past and see his feet sticking out of the gap, Kali hauled his body fully inside and shoved it further down the tunnel. She glanced out of the hatch, looked left and right. Empty. Relieved, she picked up the maintenance panel and replaced it, shutting the two of them out of sight.
Now she just had to hope they made it to their destination before he started to smell.
Trying not to think about it too much, Kali clambered over the tech’s still-warm corpse and carried on down the length of the crawlspace. By the time she found what she was looking for, she’d had to climb up two levels, briefly skirting along an unoccupied stretch of corridor when she couldn’t find a connecting shaft.
She stretched her legs out to either side of the node, cradling it between her thighs and trying to massage some life back into her legs. From the sounds of chatter she could hear nearby and the increased presence of terminal nodes, she guessed the crawlspace she was in backed right onto the command centre. It made perfect sense for the main telemetry and communications nodes to route through here, but it wasn’t ideal. They’d be able to hear her the moment she opened her mouth.
That didn’t matter yet. What mattered was getting inside the box.
Kali slipped the tech’s diagnostic tool out of her pocket and plugged it in. When she saw it light up with a successful connection, she paired it with the implant behind her ear and gritted her teeth while she waited for the box to bite back. It didn’t. Either that was one hell of a security vulnerability or it had noticed her and set off a bunch of silent alerts all over the ship. Time would tell, but the former wouldn’t surprise her.
Tepid air brushed over her skin as she patiently worked through the node’s systems. With limited space on a ship, these crawlspaces doubled as ventilation shafts, pumping the ship’s air supply alongside their waste, water and electronics. The only exception to this was for the ventilation systems servicing medbays, clean rooms and quarantine zones, which were on closed circuits – a fact Kali learned from painful experience when a tech sergeant said there was another drink in it for her if she could escape the medbay and get to the hangars on time. Three hours later, stuck and a good deal more sober, they’d pulled her out of an access hatch amidst gales of laughter.
Kali imagined she would be greeted with gales of bullets this time.
As she brought her mind back into focus, her search returned a result on the ship’s current position. From the looks of it, they were fast approaching the system’s outgoing gate, ready to pursue a hyperspace tunnel that would see them cut out ungated, putting anywhere within an hour and a month of an inhabited system.
She ran the system against her own database, feeling a weight settle into the pit of her stomach. The system they were heading for was inhabited by the Grez, an isolationist species she remembered hearing murmurs about when she was back in the Union navy. They’d never strayed off their home planet Comesero, let alone left the system, but their tech – and sour attitude – had drawn attention from all across the sector. What the hell were the Union doing with this mission, then? You didn’t virus-bomb a planet just because its inhabitants told you to sod off.
The reasons didn’t matter. For now, she turned her attention to the communications network, patching it through to the tech’s diagnostic tool so she wouldn’t have to stay in one spot when they noticed her transmission. She transferred a live feed of their position to it as well, though both entry into and exit from their hyperspace would be quite obvious.
A mere inch separated her ear from the reverberating metal panel that lay between her and the command centre.
‘…tunnel designation confirmed,’ she heard someone say. ‘Hyperspace entry in ten.’
Noise vibrated through the floor and into her legs as someone slid what might have been a drawer out of its mountings on the other side of the panel. It closed again with a sharp click.
‘What’s the matter, Verne?’
Whoever stood by the drawer answered with a shiver in their voice, ‘Air con’s still not working, ma’am. It’s blowing out ratted cold over here.’
‘Phillips should be looking into it. You can go check up on him once we’re locked into the tunnel, if you want, but make it quick. Once we hit the evacuation coordinates, I need everyone in this room to work on keeping us low profile. We don’t know how much time we’ll have on the approach and we cannot have the Grez spotting us.’
‘It’s fine, ma’am, it’ll wait. I’ll check on it once the mission’s done.’
The officer hesitated before replying, ‘Very well, corporal.’
From the way the gentle chatter in the command centre had dwindled to nothing in that moment’s pause, Kali imagined the others weren’t feeling so optimistic about the mission’s success. Stealth tech only gets you so far. Killing a planet gets you noticed.
When the conversation resumed, scattered here and there but louder than before, Kali unplugged from the node and shuffled her way back along the crawlspace. She wanted to put as much distance as possible between her and the crew, as fast as possible.
Just then, her gut flipped over on itself. She slid several feet along the floor, shunted by an invisible wave of force. Tears prickled her eyes and she gagged as the semi-physical entrance to hyperspace punched its ethereal fist through her soft tissues. It left her blinking, clutching her throat and mouth as she tried not to retch and draw attention to herself. The process did not get better with age.
Once the nausea died down, she could function again, but she could still feel unease sloshing in the pit of her stomach. Traversing the space between space had that effect on most people, but most people could strap themselves into a chair, slug a few space-sickness tabs and laugh at everyone else’s funny expressions.
She continued through the dark.
Kali finally came to a stop in a stale pit where network relays decorated the darkness with blinking lights. She lay with her face pressed to one of them, legs stretched out behind her in an attempt to give them some rest after what felt like hours of crawling and crouching.
She did the maths. It didn’t matter if she could send a message out to sector enforcement or not – the Spectre would have done its job and be long gone by the time anyone had a chance to make it to them. The Grez had refused any foreign presence in their system, helpful or otherwise, so there was no immediate local force she could call on.
That left her with one option: call the Grez themselves.
Moving with a mental slowness that belied her exhaustion, Kali pictured the colour yellow and pulled a favourite from her implants with the command. While the directory would give her a contact with someone on the surface, it couldn’t promise to connect her to anyone important, nor could it offer any hope of translation.
But hell, she’d made it all this way. She had to try something.
When the exit came, her stomach skittered away from her, tugged out in a painful reversal of its getting pushed in earlier. She kept a firm grip on some pipes to stop herself tumbling away and raised the diagnostic tool to her lips, toggling a transmission to Comesero.
She licked her lips. ‘Urgent message to the Grez. Don’t know if you can understand me, but there’s a stealth ship en-route to Comesero carrying a viral bomb. It’s…’
Kali went to check their position so she could say how far away they were, but the diagnostic tool was dead. Flicking at the screen did nothing – with a sinking feeling, she realised no one had heard her transmisson. The network lights behind her were also out, and she sat in total darkness.
Not for long, though. Metal screamed and a panel flew inwards, landing on the floor by her feet as two bright torch beams seared into her eyes. She raised an arm to ward off the glare and felt a hand clamp round it.
They hauled her up and out of the pit before she had any opportunity to comply, the backwash from her captors’ torches picking out parts of them as they moved and shining out from where they were mounted on their blunt pistols.
Around them, the corridors flickered back into life. Pooled shadows disintegrated, chased away before them, lighting a path back towards to command centre.
Kali squinted at the two soldiers flanking her. They didn’t return the gaze, their faces pale, features set like stone.
A dull pain began to throb in the back of her mind, the beginnings of a headache probing into all the corners of her skull with a regular pattern that made her scalp tingle and set a sharp taste running along the underside of her tongue. By the time she shook it off, they were already passing through the reinforced doors to the command centre.
‘Got her, ma’am,’ said the soldier to her right.
They halted a couple of steps into the room and no more than a dozen from the commanding officer, who turned from her console to face them, scraping a curl of black hair back beneath her beret. Everyone else turned with her, but for a couple who kept their eyes glued to their work stations.
In the silence that followed, Kali let her gaze drift over to the navigational display at the centre of the room. They were only a couple of minutes out from the spot the Spectre would need to reach to drop its payload, at a guess, and it looked like they’d done a good job maintaining stealth through the planet’s debris-packed rings. Every other vessel marked on the display was stationary.
‘Do I recognise you?’
Kali realised the officer had been staring at her all that time, so she glanced back and gave her a quick once over. ‘I don’t think so.’
The skin around the officer’s eyebrows dimpled as she frowned. ‘You seem familiar. Who are you?’
‘Corporal Noor. Retired.’ She let her back straighten a little, but a renewed headache made it difficult to do it without at least a wince.
The woman scoffed. ‘And you somehow managed to lose your way onboard my ship? Who do you work for, really?’
‘I clean ships.’ There was no sense lying now. ‘Was cleaning yours when I noticed the cute little contraband you have tucked away.’
As she explained, understanding dawned on the officer’s face and she leaned back against the arm of her chair, arms folded across her chest.
‘Ah, so that’s it. You think you’re playing the hero, saving an innocent race from a terrible fate.’
Kali glanced at the display again. ‘I’m not doing a good job of it so far.’
‘No, and it’s a good thing you’re not. Beneath that ice,’ she pointed at a second display screen, where Comesero’s frozen surface loomed closer with each passing second, ‘the Grez are developing a superweapon – either to wipe out the union, or enslave us, or something else entirely. We don’t know.’
‘Do you even have any proof that what they’re working on exists?’ Kali bit back the instinctive urge to append ‘ma’am’ to her sentence.
She shook her head, her lip curled. ‘It’s not my job to have the proof, it’s my job to act on it. And that’s precisely what we’re doing.’
Kali opened her mouth to protest, but the headache intensified. Like a hot spike embedded it her skull, it sent out radiating tendrils of agony through her entire body. She thought she screamed, but she couldn’t tell. Her vision of the room, her hearing, her sense of touch… everything had melted away in an instant.
She hung suspended in a colourless void, unconfined to her body and yet infinitesimally small, a singularity no longer aware of limbs or bodily function. She couldn’t feel her mouth, her hands, her legs. Couldn’t remember if she’d ever had them.
Then something else formed in the void. As it appeared to her, she found she could somehow see inside it and all around it all at once. Her mind was screaming, even if it didn’t know what it meant to scream.
Eight suckered limbs swam through the mists of her insanity. Void-slashed eyes burned into the centre of her consciousness, filling every view, their edges filled with uncountable golden stars rushing to be swallowed by the line at their centre. She gazed into those eyes until they were all that was left of the universe.
Whatever possessed those eyes used them to rummage through her life, picking through scenes she’d almost forgotten and those she knew by heart. They emerged at random, making her relive each one that passed. For the longest time, it focussed on the events onboard the Spectre, on her finding the viral bombs and deciding to alert the authorities, on her trying to stay hidden but failing and winding up here, or not here, or wherever she was now.
The eyes, the limbs, the stars and the void withdrew, and Kali felt her brain pulled with it, as if it wanted something concrete to latch onto in the black. But the presence pushed it back, leaving an impression of words seeping through her neurons: The Grez know you.
A part of her brain wondered if that was their way of saying ‘thanks’.
When she lurched back into her own body on the floor of the Spectre’s command centre, everything around her was chaos. The soldiers escorting her had run off to nearby workstations, panicked expressions on their faces matching the rest of the crew’s.
Kali made a sluggish movement to glance at the officer. She saw the display she stood by, the thousands of red markers tracing their way towards their position.
Far beneath the sheet ice of Comesero’s global ocean, a billion Grez halted in their work. They lowered tools and withdrew from neural connections as their networked minds linked as one to the observation posts tethered in their upper atmosphere. Eyes that had never been carried beyond the surface of their world searched the skies with their minds and their technology until they found what they knew to be there: an orange flare of radiance shimmering in the azure.
Now that they knew of the threat, they would be able to manipulate their defence screen, a small army of autonomous drones and exploratory vessels, to contain any stray viral particles and move them safely away from their home.
Then, they went back to their work, and the songs that filled the currents of those oceans carried on them a new note, and the memories of Kali Noor.