Ancient, sentient, alien starships wait for them—three colossi so powerful they remain aware even in self-imposed sleep. The race that made the Three are dead, but Oichi’s people were engineered with this ancient DNA.
A delegation from Olympia must journey to the heart of Graveyard and be judged by the Three. Before they’re done, they will discover that weapons are the least of what the ships have to offer.
My name is Oichi Angelis, and I shall always be a worm, regardless of where I go, because of where I have already been.
I was born and bred in the endless tunnels of a generation ship. All my life I have plotted and maneuvered. I have killed and I have avoided being killed. I have communicated with three ancient spaceships on a planet called Graveyard. Now I will have to negotiate with the powerful Weapons Clan who made us.
What seems like negotiations to some, plays out more like war to others. Perhaps that’s why I told the emissaries from the Weapons Clan to dock their ship in Lock 212. It has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed.
She was a sleek little craft, called Merlin, probably named after a bird of prey rather than the wizard. She sat complacently while our scrubbers re moved toxins generated by her thrusters. Medusa and I abided on opposite ends of Olympia; our link allowed us to spy together on Merlin’s crew, through their security systems and their intercoms, even through the big view window on her bridge. They hadn’t seemed alarmed about where we told them to dock. That was because they didn’t know what Medusa and I had done to other people inside Lock 212.
The name Merlin had me thinking about sorcerers, so the score for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice played in my head as she was towed into Lock 212. I loved the music by Paul Dukas, and its accompanying images from the animated movie Fantasia—the marching brooms and their unrelenting bucket brigade. Two flutes and piccolos, two oboes, two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet, and three bassoons and contrabassoon (instruments that are underused, in my opinion). Four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, and a collection of timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings. Do I imagine the perfect tones of a celesta in there? Lending bright magic to this sorcerous collaboration? All of them marching together with a tum-te-tum te-tumpetty-tum?
The scrubbers, our version of the ensorcelled brooms, scurried from their cubbies to clean every inch of Merlin’s surface. It was a job they had not done very often, so I imagined they wanted to be extra diligent.
People peered out of Merlin’s view windows and into our lock, but I doubted they could see much. A few emergency lights were on; I kept the main lights off for the time being. That made it easier to see into Merlin, whose interior was brightly lit. Communications Officer Narm spent the most time looking out, along with a pale young man named Wilson, who was one of the engineers, and a tiny woman with white hair and skin the color of dark plums. The lady was named Cocteau; the ship’s roster identified her as another engineer.
<Two engineers,> I remarked to Medusa.
<Do you suppose Cocteau is a descendant of Jean Cocteau?>
Medusa referred to the director of another of our favorite movies, La Belle et la Bête. That bumped Dukas’s apprentice out of my head and replaced him with Georges Auric’s score for Jean Cocteau’s film, which was far more romantic but still appropriate. The score is played by a full orchestra, including a choir, and it lends La Belle et la Bête an emotional potency to complement its gorgeous images. <There may be thousands of Cocteaus,> I mused. <Millions . . . >
<They should have their own planet,> said Medusa.
When the last minute of the decontamination period expired, Narm sent a message. “Our captain and Representative Lee are standing by for your directions as to where and when the meeting will take place.”
“This is Oichi Angelis,” I replied. “I will rendezvous with your captain and your representative inside the lock.”
I messaged Medusa. <It’s time.>
Merlin’s crew sat in front of the observation windows as if engrossed in a movie, watching Olympia’s scrubbers take one last spin over the exterior of their ship. I continued to surveil them and listen to their conversation through the open link. Perhaps it would get more informative, now that our meeting was imminent.
“Anyone show up yet?” said Captain Thomas.
“Nope,” said Mirzakhani. She was a medical tech whose roster profile stated she could also do field surgery. “It sure is dark out there.”
“Maybe they have better night vision than we do,” said Narm.
Engineers Wilson and Cocteau both shook their heads. “These folks thought they were alone out here,” said Cocteau. “They conserve energy where they can.”
I heard a rustle in the hall behind me and turned to see Medusa moving around the corner. She was the Prima, the Queen of the lightningfast death blow, my superstrong biometal friend.
She joined me at the pressure door and flowed over me. Her suit sealed around me, her face settled over mine, and we became one. Now I could hear with her sensitive ears. I could see with eyes that could stare into the heart of a sun without blinking, yet also see the movement of a bee gathering pollen on a distant flower.
I stretched her tentacles luxuriously. <I’ve missed you. We don’t do this as much as we used to.>
<You would prefer to go back to the days when we skulked together on Olympia’s hull, plotting the downfall of the Executives?>
I felt an unexpected stab of longing.
<It’s showtime,> I said.
The scrubbers crawled off Merlin and scurried to their cubbies. I opened the pressure door.
Inside Merlin, Mirzakhani let out a little gasp. “There’s a light!”
We stood in that bar of light, and because the source was behind us, our dark twins stretched far ahead of us.
“Are those tentacles . . . ?” said Narm.
Our shadows moved toward Merlin like a sea monster reaching for prey.
<We may have overdone it a bit with the shadowy tentacles,> said Medusa after we had been waiting for a while and no one came out of Merlin’s air lock.
I sighed. <I should have killed the lights in the hallway first. Oh well. Lesson learned.>
The outer door of Merlin’s air lock opened.
“It smells okay.” I heard what I assumed was Representative Lee’s voice. “Feels drier than I would have thought, considering they have a big habitat for crops in here.”
Captain Thomas peered down the ramp and past the light that lit a path into the air lock. We had moved out of it, trying to diminish that whole tentaclemonster effect. Medusa waggled the tip of an appendage, hoping to capture her attention.
Thomas whispered to Lee, “Did I ever tell you how much I admire your calm?”
“It’s a complete sham,” he replied sotto voce.
“I admire that even more.”
It wasn’t a sham. We could hear Lee’s heartbeat. It remained slow and steady. Captain Thomas started to move down the ramp, but Lee put a re straining hand on her arm. “Some things I say or do may not make sense,” he said in the same low voice that he apparently didn’t know we could hear.
Thomas kept a straight face. “And that’s different from the usual—how?”
“Good point.” Lee withdrew his hand.
The two of them descended the ramp. Lee’s heartbeat continued steady, while Captain Thomas fought to stay the same. She used her breathing to get control. I admired her for that.
When they were within ten paces, I stepped into the light again.
They stopped abruptly. The captain spoke in a steady voice. “I’m Epatha Thomas, captain of Merlin, and this is Representative Lee. Thank you for al lowing us to dock.”
I selected a voice from my database that resembled the tone and cadence of Captain Thomas’s speech patterns. “I’m Oichi Angelis. And this is Medusa.”
I didn’t realize how baffling that sounded until they frowned.
“I’m wearing Medusa,” I explained. “We are two people, though at the moment, we appear to be one.”
Medusa pulled her tentacles in closer. Fully extended, they can stretch six meters in all directions. They could have broken our visitors’ necks before either of them had a chance to register alarm.
“You came from the Weapons Clan ship?” I said. “The one at the outer edge of the Charon system?”
“Yes,” said Captain Thomas.
“How long did it take you to get to us from there?”
“About three weeks.”
“Weeks. We don’t use that term. My records indicate it’s from Old Earth.
It took us a year to cross the same distance. Our drive is primitive compared with yours.”
“If it is,” said Thomas, “nothing else about Olympia is primitive. Your ship is a marvel.”
I didn’t answer. Medusa’s tentacles coiled and uncoiled languidly. We watched Captain Thomas’s autonomic system wreak havoc with her pupils.
Yet her voice remained steady when she said, “Merlin is locked down ac cording to your security specifications. As we discussed when you gave us clearance to dock, my crew numbers six people, including Representative Lee and myself.”
I focused on Lee. His pupils, heartbeat, and respiration betrayed no nervousness. I wondered what made him so confident. Was it experience? Or did he have some advantage we weren’t guessing?
Medusa’s lips curved in a faint but perceptible smile, and we heard Captain Thomas’s heart stutter.
“I will introduce you to the Security Council,” I said. “You may relay your message to them. Do not attempt to share it with me as we make our way to the House of Clans. Please follow me.”
Medusa and I pivoted and walked to the outer door. Thomas and Lee followed in our wake.
When our backs were turned, we heard Captain Thomas taking another deep breath. I suspected she would need to do so again.
Because she was about to see more tentacles.
If dreadful things have happened inside Lock 212, you could say the same thing about the House of Clans. True—blood had not literally been spilled there, but if you knew the long history of outrages Executive clan leaders had legislated therein, you could understand why it had been shed everywhere else.
Despite its history, Order and Law are personified in the graceful lines of the House of Clans. One could almost believe it had grown naturally inside the Habitat Sector, along with the garden that framed it. I escorted the emissaries up its expansive central aisle. At the far end, the Security Council knelt on low daises, in a semicircle. The tentacles of each of their Medusa units towered overhead and moved as if stirred by a gentle tide. The members wore fine but austere clothing woven from a blend of cotton and silk.
The whole scene made me feel as if I were an actress who had stepped into a Japanese Noh play. That’s normal on Olympia. Protocol dictates every step we take in here. Courtesy and decorum comfort us. I led our guests past empty rows, where clan leaders sit when debates are held and votes are cast, and halted when we were within ten paces of the council members.
The Council Prime sat near the center of the group. Kumiko covered his face, her expression serene. “I am Terry Charmayne,” he said. “Please tell us why you have come.”
Merlin’s captain seemed to become more poised under pressure. “I am Epatha Thomas, captain of the Union Ship Merlin, and this is my colleague”— Thomas gestured—“Representative Lee. We come as messengers for Bomarigala of the Weapons Clan.”
Perhaps that was the only thing Thomas had planned to say to the Security Council, but Terry asked her a question before Lee could begin his spiel. “What is the Union?”
“The Union,” said Thomas, “is a collective of worlds, governments, and entities that share laws and treaties. In particular, Union worlds have agreed to base their laws on a Bill of Rights.”
“The Weapons Clan also follows this Bill of Rights?” said Terry.
I thought he had zeroed in on an awkward point, but Thomas answered confidently. “The Weapons Clan does not consider itself to be a member of the Union. They observe Union laws when doing business with members of the Union.”
“Are you a member of the Union, Captain Thomas?”
“Yes. I am a contractor, sir. I am not a member of the Weapons Clan.” Kumiko’s eyes shifted to regard the representative. “And you, Lee. Are you a member of the Weapons Clan?”
“No,” said Lee. “I am a professional courier. My delivery of this message will fulfill my contract. My role is to be a messenger of the Clan, not to act as their spokesperson.”
That was an interesting distinction.
“What is the message?” said Terry.
Lee did not possess a fine voice, but he spoke clearly. “The Weapons Clan regrets that indignities were suffered by the people of Titania and Olympia during this voyage that has brought you to the Charon system. They wish you to know that events beyond their control separated them from you. If their agents had awakened when they were supposed to, they would never have al lowed the destruction of your sister ship, Titania.”
He paused as if expecting questions at that juncture, but we waited to hear the rest.
“The Weapons Clan regrets the loss of life from Titania,” he continued. “They invested enormous resources into Titania and Olympia. They wish to propose a contract with the survivors on Olympia. If you will accept employment with the Weapons Clan, all debts will be paid. You will find their patronage beneficial. You need fear no reprisals for any destruction of property belonging to the Weapons Clan. You may show your good faith by declaring Olympia to be an outpost of the Weapons Clan when you establish orbit around Graveyard. Details of your employment will be negotiated once you have done so.”
Lee dipped his head. “That is the full message.”
The Security Council studied Lee and Thomas. Each Medusa unit wore her own expression. Some of them looked amused. Others seemed concerned. One of them curled her lips in a scornful smile. Their tentacles continued to move to the same slow current.
“Did you memorize the message?” Terry Charmayne asked at last. “You spoke it exactly as it was delivered to you?”
“Sir, I did,” said Lee.
“Do you endorse it, Representative Lee?”
“It is not my place to endorse the message,” said Lee. “Most Union officials would advise you to think carefully before you sign any contracts.”
I wondered how the Weapons Clan would react if they learned that Lee had added that caveat. They might not be so eager to pay him. At least—not with credit.
Did he imply that the Union was more honorable? I doubted the Weapons Clan placed their highest value on that quality.
“We will consider the offer,” said Terry Charmayne, “and the advice of Union officials. Oichi will take you back to your ship now.”
“Thank you,” Thomas and Lee said together. We pivoted and walked back up the central aisle.
The aery Habitat Sector contrasts starkly with the narrow tunnels that riddle the hide of Olympia. Movers can take you far, but quite a lot of worming is required to travel between the House of Clans and Lock 212. Our passages are lit only at intervals. Darkness pools between the lights, and I wondered each time Thomas and Lee followed us into another shadow, did they think it might be their last?
When we escorted them into a mover, Lee cleared his throat. “I’m assuming the people responsible for the destruction of Titania were prosecuted, according to your laws?”
“You could say that,” I replied. If you don’t mind stretching the definition a bit.
Thomas and Lee didn’t look at us the rest of the way back. They seemed preoccupied. Representative Lee wore his bland expression as comfortably as I wore Medusa. Captain Thomas had frown lines between her brows. I thought I should do something to ease the tension, and I doubted my conversation would do the trick, so I played Rachmaninoff in the mover. I’m not sure the music made them feel any better, but it certainly improved my mood.
A few suites and one piano concerto later, we emerged near the pressure door of the air lock that housed Merlin.
“I will see you to your door,” I said.
Even Lee’s heart rate jumped at that prospect.
Nostalgia buoyed me as we walked them in, traveling on my feet. Medusa’s tentacles towered over us, casting serpentine shadows on Merlin’s hide. Their movement calmed me. I felt prepared for the task at hand.
I let myself savor a few memories as we walked past seldomused equipment and tow cables. Just over here we broke Percy O’Reilly’s neck. Over there, we pulled Ryan Charmayne off his feet and had a nice (if brief) conversation with him.
When we had reached Merlin’s ramp, Captain Thomas paused and turned to us. “Thank you for letting us deliver the message.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, my tone warm.
Perhaps a little too warm. Thomas frowned. We suffered an awkward moment until they finally turned and walked up the ramp.
That left us at their backs. We watched them for a moment, then started up after them.
Startled, they looked over their shoulders at us. Lee said, “Medusa— please . . .”
<Ahhah!> Medusa stopped dead. Without her, I couldn’t move, which was awkward. <Oichi, we must rethink this.>
I didn’t want to rethink it. Once again, I tried to move forward, to thrust her tentacles at the emissaries of the Weapons Clan, but Medusa wasn’t budging—at least not in that direction. She had no problem with reverse.
“We’ll talk again,” I said, and made the most dignified exit I could.
Thomas and Lee stayed frozen while we moved away. The pressure door spun shut behind us, taking our light with it. We used the Security surveil lance cameras to watch them as they backed up, all the way into Merlin’s air lock.
Through their intercom, I heard Lee say, “We almost got killed.”
Captain Thomas closed their outer door. I imagined her typing the security code as fast as her fingers could go—that’s what I would have done. She said, “Her tone was too friendly at the end, there. That mask over her face made it hard to tell what she was thinking.”
“That mask is Medusa,” said Lee. “I think that mask talked Oichi out of killing us.”
Except that Medusa hadn’t talked me out of it. She simply hadn’t co operated.
<Medusa,> I said, <what the hell just happened?>
Copyright © 2019 by Emily Devenport
Order Your Copy