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27 September 2063
I've got a starship dreaming. And there it is. Leslie Tjakamarra leaned both hands on the thick crystal of the Montreal's observation portal, the cold of space seeping into his palms, and hummed a snatch of song under his breath. He couldn't tell how far away the alien spaceship was-at least, the fragment he could see when he twisted his head and pressed his face against the port. Earthlight stained the cage-shaped frame blue-silver, and the fat doughnut of Forward Orbital Platform was visible through the gaps, the gleaming thread of the beanstalk describing a taut line downward until it disappeared in brown-tinged atmosphere over Malaysia. "Bloody far," he said, realizing he'd spoken out loud only when he heard his own voice. He scuffed across the blue-carpeted floor, pressed back by the vista on the other side of the glass.
Someone cleared her throat behind him. He turned, although he was unwilling to put his back to the endless fall outside. The narrow-shouldered crew member who stood just inside the hatchway met him eye to eye, the black shape of a sidearm strapped to her thigh commanding his attention. She raked one hand through wiry salt-and-pepper hair and shook her head. "Or too close for comfort," she answered with an odd little smile. "That's one of the ones Elspeth calls the birdcages-"
"Dr. Dunsany," she said. "You're Dr. Tjakamarra, the xenosemiotician." She mispronounced his name.
"Leslie," he said. She stuck out her right hand, and Leslie realized that she wore a black leather glove on the left. "You're Casey," he blurted, too startled to reach out. She held her hand out until he recovered enough to shake. "I didn't recognize-"
"It's cool." She shrugged in a manner entirely unlike a living legend, and gave him a crooked, sideways grin, smoothing her dark blue jumpsuit over her breasts with the gloved hand. "We're all different out of uniform. Besides, it's nice to be looked at like real people, for a change. Come on. The pilots' lounge has a better view."
She gestured him away from the window; he caught himself shooting her sidelong glances, desperate not to stare. He fell into step beside her as she led him along the curved ring of the Montreal's habitation wheel, the arc rising behind and before them even though it felt perfectly flat under his feet.
"You'll get used to it," Master Warrant Officer Casey said, returning his looks with one of her own. It said she had accurately judged the reason he trailed his right hand along the chilly wall. "Here we are-" She braced one rubber-soled foot against the seam between corridor floor and corridor wall, and expertly spun the handle of a thick steel hatchway with her black-gloved hand. "Come on in. Step lively; we don't stand around in hatchways shipboard."
Leslie followed her through, turning to dog the door as he remembered his safety lectures, and when he turned back Casey had moved into the middle of a chamber no bigger than an urban apartment's living room. The awe in his throat made it hard to breathe. He hoped he was keeping it off his face.
"There," Casey said, stepping aside, waving him impatiently forward again. "That's both of them. The one on the 'left' is the shiptree. The one on the 'right' is the birdcage."
Everyone on the planet probably knew that by now. She was babbling, Leslie realized, and the small
evidence of her fallibility-and her own nervousness-did more to ease the pressure in his chest than her casual friendliness could have. You're acting like a starstruck teenager, he reprimanded himself, and managed to grin at his own foolishness as he shuffled forward, his slipperlike ship-shoes whispering over the carpet.
Then he caught sight of the broad sweep of windows beyond and his personal awe for the woman in blue was replaced by something visceral. He swallowed, throat dry.
The Montreal's habitation wheel spun grandly, creating an imitation of gravity that held them, feet-down, to the "floor." Leslie found himself before the big round port in the middle of the wall, hands pressed to either rim as if to keep himself from tumbling through the crystal like Alice through the looking glass. The panorama rotated like a merry-go-round seen from above. Beyond it, the soft blue glow of the wounded Earth reflected the sun. The planet's atmosphere was fuzzed brown like smog in an inversion layer, the sight enough to send Leslie's knuckle to his mouth. He bit down and tore his gaze away with an effort, turning it on the two alien ships floating "overhead."
The ship on perspective-right was the enormous, gleaming-blue birdcage, swarming with ten-meter specks of mercury-made tiny by distance-that flickered from cage-bar to cage-bar, as vanishingly swift and bright as motes in Leslie's eye.
The ship on perspective-left caught the earthlight with the gloss peculiar to polished wood or a smooth tree bole, a mouse-colored column twisted into shapes that took Leslie's breath away. The vast hull glittered with patterned, pointillist lights in cool-water shades. They did not look so different from the images and designs that Leslie had grown up with, and he fought a shiver, glancing at the hawk-intent face of MWO Casey.
"Elspeth-Dr. Dunsany-said you had a theory," she said without glancing over.
He returned his attention to the paired alien spaceships, peeling his eyes away from Genevieve Casey only with an effort. "I've had the VR implants-"
"Richard told me," she said, with a sly sideways grin.
"Richard? The AI?" And silly not to have expected that either. It's a whole new road you're walking. A whole different sort of journey, farther away from home than even Cambridge, when there was still more of an England rather than less.
"Yes. You'll meet him, I'm sure. He doesn't like to intrude on the new kids until they're comfortable with their wetware. And unless you've got the full 'borg"-she lightly touched the back of her head-"you won't have to put up with his running patter. Most of the time." She tilted her head up and sideways, a wry look he didn't think was for him.
She's talking to the AI right now. Cool shiver across his shoulders; the awe was back, with company. Leslie forced himself not to stare, frowning down at the bitten skin of his thumb. "Yes. I spoke to Dr. Dunsany regarding my theories . . ."
"Leslie." Casey coughed into her hand. "Ellie thought you were on to something, or she wouldn't have asked you up here. We get more requests in a week than Yale does in a year-"
"I'm aware of that." Her presence still stunned him. Genevieve Casey. The first pilot. Leaned up against the window with me like kids peering off the observation deck of the Petronas Towers. He gathered his wits and forced himself to frown. "You've had no luck talking to them, have you?"
"Plenty of math. Nothing you'd call conversation. They don't seem to understand please and thank you."
"I expected that." Familiar ground. Comfortable, even. "I'm afraid if I'm right, talking to them is hopeless."
"Hopeless?" She turned, leaning back on her heels.
"Yes. You see, I don't think they talk at all."
Leslie Tjakamarra's not a big man. He's not a young one either, though I wouldn't want to try to guess his age within five years on either side. He's got one of those wiry, weathered frames I associate with Alberta cattlemen and forest rangers, sienna skin paler, almost red, inside the creases beside glittering eyes and on the palms of big thick-nailed hands. He doesn't go at all with the conservative charcoal double-breasted suit, pinstriped with biolume, which clings to his sinewy shoulders in as professional an Old London tailoring job as I've seen. When London was evacuated, a lot of the refugees found themselves in Sydney, in Vancouver-and in Toronto.
God rest their souls.
He shoots me those sidelong glances like they do, trying to see through the glove to the metal hand, trying to see through the jumpsuit to the hero underneath.
I hate to disappoint him, but that hero had a hair appointment she never came back from. "Well," I say, to fill up his silence. "That'll make your job easier, then, won't it?" What do you think of them apples, Dick?
Richard grins inside my head, bony hands spread wide and beating like a pigeon's wings through air. The man's brains would jam if you tied his hands down. Of course, since he's intangible, that would be a trick. "That's got the air of a leading question about it." He scrubs his palms on the thighs of his virtual corduroys and stuffs them into his pockets, white shirt stretched taut across his narrow chest, his image fading as he "steps back," limiting his usage of my implants. "I'll get in on it when he talks to Ellie. No point in spoiling his chance to appreciate the view. I'll eavesdrop, if that's okay."
It might be the same asinine impulse that makes English speakers talk loudly to foreigners that moves me to smile inwardly and stereotype Dr. Tjakamarra's smooth, educated accent into Australian Rules English. No worries, mate. Fair dinkum.
Richard shoots me an amused look. "Ouch," he says, and flickers out like an interrupted hologram.
Dr. Tjakamarra grins, broad lips uncovering tea-stained teeth like a mouth full of piano keys, and scratches his cheek with knuckles like an auto mechanic's. He wears his hair long, professorial, slicked back into hard steel-gray waves. "Or that much more difficult, if you prefer." His voice is younger than the rest of him, young as that twinkle in his eye. "Talking isn't the only species of communication, after all."
He presses his hand flat against the glass again and peers between his fingers as if trying to gauge the size of the ships that float out there, the way you might measure a tree on the horizon against your thumb. His gaze keeps sliding down to the dust-palled Earth, his eyes impassive, giving nothing away.
"How bad is it in Sydney?" I press my steel hand to my lips, as if to shove the words back in with glove leather. Tjakamarra's head comes up like a startled deer's. I pretend I don't see.
"We heard it," he says, as his hand falls away from the glass. "We heard it in Sydney." He steps back, turns to face me although I'm still giving him my shoulder. He cups both hands and brings them together with a crack that makes me jump.
"Is that really what it sounded like?"
"More or less-" A shrug. "We couldn't feel the tremors. It wasn't all that loud, fifteen thousand kilometers away; I would have thought it'd be a sustained rumble, like the old footage of nuclear bombs. You ever hear of Coober Pedy?"
"There were bomb tests near there. Over a hundred years ago, but I know people who knew people who were there. They said the newsreels lied, the sound effect they used was dubbed in later." He laces his hands together in the small of his back and lifts his chin to look me in the eye, creases linking his thick, flat nose to the corners of his mouth.
Surreal fucking conversation, man. "So what does a nuclear explosion sound like, Les?"
His lips thin. He holds his hands apart again and swings them halfway but doesn't clap. "Like the biggest bloody gunshot you ever did hear. Or like a meteorite hitting the planet, fifteen thousand kilometers away."
He's talking so he doesn't have to look. I recognize the glitter in his dark brown eyes, darker even than mine. It took me, too, the first time I looked down and saw all that gorgeous blue and white mottled with sick dull beige like cancer.
It takes all of us like that.
He licks his lips and looks carefully at the Benefactor ships, not the smeared globe behind them. "The shot heard round the world. Isn't that what the Americans call the first shot fired in their colonial revolt?"
"Sounds about right."
He reminds me of my grandfather Zeke Kirby, my mother's father, the full-blooded one; he's got that same boiled-leather twist of indestructibility, but my grandfather was an ironworker, not a professor. His mouth moves again, like he's trying to shape words that won't quite come out right, and finally he just shakes his head and looks down. "Big universe out there."
"Bloody big," I answer, a gentle tease. He smiles out of the corner of his mouth; we're going to be friends. "Come on," I say. "That gets depressing if you stare at it. I'll take you to meet Ellie if you promise not to tell her the thing about the bomb."
He falls into step beside me. I don't have to shorten my strides to let him keep up. "She lose somebody in the-in that?"
"We all lost somebody." I shake my head.
"What is it, then?"
"It would give her nightmares. Come on."
Toronto Evacuation Zone
Thursday 27 September 2063
Richard habitually took refuge in numbers, so it troubled him that with regard to the Impact all he had was approximations. The number of dead had never been counted. Their names had never been accurately listed. Their families would never be notified; in many cases, their bodies would never be found.
The population of Niagara and Rochester, New York, had been just under three million people, although the New York coastline of Lake Ontario was mostly rural, vineyards and cow pasture. The northern rim of the lake, however, had been the most populated place in Canada: Ontario's "Golden Horseshoe," the urban corridor anchored by Toronto and Hamilton, which had still been home to some seven million despite the midcentury population dip. Deaths from the Impact and its aftermath had been confirmed as far away as Buffalo, Cleveland, Albany. A woman in Ottawa had died when a stained-glass window shattered from the shock and fell on her head; a child in Kitchener survived in a basement, along with his dog. Recovery teams dragging the poisoned waters of Lake Ontario had been forced to cease operations as the lake surface iced over, a phenomenon that once would have been a twice-in-a-century occurrence but had become common with the advent of Shifted winters. It would become more common still until the greenhouse effect triggered by the Impact began to cancel out the nuclear winter.
Excerpted from Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear Excerpted by permission.
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