Jay Lake. To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves.

‘To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves’ first appeared in ‘The New Space Opera 2’, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, and published by EOS in 2009. It appears with kind permission of, and is copyright, Jay Lake.

Year 461 post-Mistake
High orbit around Sidero

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard the starship Polyphemus {23 pairs}
A ship needs a captain against mutiny,” muttered the Before Michaela Cannon. “Not a mutinous captain.” She wasn’t in command of this vessel, not now at any rate – just the mission specialist in charge of integrating the starship’s crew and the pair master assembly team. People called her ascetic, but what they meant was weathered. Leathered. Raddled. And far worse, when they thought she couldn’t hear.

She knew better. You didn’t live fourteen centuries, several of them amid screaming savagery, and not learn to know better.

Comms flickered with the immersive displays here in her workspace on the reserve bridge. Polyphemus was fast-cycling through a hundred-odd channels, showing Cannon a gestalt of what was happening across the decks as well as outside the hull on the construction project. They were here at Sidero to build a pair master – a hideously expensive machine required to anchor one end of a paired drive run across the depths of interstellar space. Five years-subjective ship-time in relativistic transit, over eleven years-objective.

Plenty of opportunities for things to go seriously wrong.

“The predictive accuracy of your social modeling is increasingly accurate,” said Polyphemus. The starship spoke to Cannon in Classical English. A rare enough language in the Imperium Humanum that simply using it served as a crude form of operational security. Cannon had spent a lot of time in the ship’s Brocan modules, tweaking the speech processing.

Trust, it was always about trust. She’d been saying that down the long centuries, and had been proven right in the failing of things far too often.

Polyphemus continued. “Apparently random gatherings of three or more persons are up forty-eight percent this ship-day from median. Seven individuals appear in a distribution at six times the expected rate based on average distribution.”

“Kallus have anything to report?” He was her ally in Internal Security, a man loyal to certain interests outside the hull. Nothing inimical, just good, old-fashioned politics, working with people she respected well enough.

“He is busy suppressing a staged fight in the number three crew quarters.”

Cannon grunted. Then: “Weapons?”

“Nothing but ordinary tools. No withdrawals from the arms lockers in the past three ship-days.”

Firearms could have been distributed long ago, or indeed, brought on board before they’d departed Ninnelil five ship-years earlier. Somebody had planned for this mutiny, or at least the possibility of it.

That other damned Before was at the heart of this problem. “Where is Captain Siddiq?”

Polyphemus paused an unusually long time before answering. “The captain is not within my network mesh.”
“And why would a captain conspire at mutiny against her own command?” Cannon mused.

The starship had no answer to that. One by one, the images of the too-busy crew cycled to a hundred identical views of the dull black surface of the planet Sidero.

:: context ::
In the centuries since the Mistake had nearly ended the tenure of the human race as a viable species, spacefaring had resumed across the core of the old Polity amid an outburst of genetic and technological diversity sparked by the pressures of extinction. The threadneedle drives which had provided a true faster-than-light solution in cheerful violation of both paradox and the laws of physics were now simply so much junk, whether on a laboratory bench or in a starship’s engine room.

Conventional physics had apparently re-asserted itself. Precisely what had happened to the threadneedle drive was a subject of centuries of frustrating, unsuccessful research.

Paired drives were invented in 188 pM by Haruna Kishmangali. They relied on a macro-level generalization of quantum effects to associate the starship drive with any two pair masters at distinct points – entanglement on a grand scale so that the drives could “remember” the locations without having to cope with the intervening distances. Once this was done, the vessel could pass between the locations nearly instantaneously, except for the added travel times to and from areas of sufficiently low density to enable safely the pairing transit process.

The key problem was twofold. First, building the pair masters, which required planning horizons and budgetary commitments beyond the capability of even many planetary governments; as well a significant investment in relativistic travel to conduct site surveys and establish suitable destinations.

Second, even once built, every ship wishing to be capable of traveling to a site served by a pair master was forced to make the initial journey at relativistic speeds so that both ends of the pairing could be entangled, with the intervening distance required as part of the equation. Cheating didn’t work, either. A drive to be paired had to make the trip embedded in its host starship. Simply traveling within the hold of another starship did not support the effect. Even worse from some points of view, if pulled out later from the host starship and associated shipmind, the drives would lose their pairing. There was no point to cannibalization. Everything had to be created the hard way.
This was a very limited form of FTL, though still far more effective than relativistic travel. The extent of interstellar travel grew slowly, and only at great need.

The Before Raisa Siddiq, surface of Sidero
Siddiq walked almost naked in a field of buckyballs. This planet, if it in fact was a planet – some theories held this to be an artificial world – boasted 0.88 gravities at the surface, wrapped in hard vacuum. Which in and of itself was highly curious, as Sidero sat firmly in the Goldilocks zone of its primary and should have been perfectly capable of retaining a decent atmosphere. The night sky above revealed only the endless field of stars in the Orion arm. Sidero had no large companion, only a swarm of captured asteroids. Their pair master would be a more substantial satellite than any of the natural moons.

The Before herself was hardened as only thirteen centuries of living through two cycles of empire could make a human being. The best way to remain functionally immortal was to remain highly functional. In these degraded days, she could walk the outside of her own ship’s hull for hours before needing to find a breath, her skin proof against all but the most energetic particles. Clothes were mostly a nuisance. Besides, she hadn’t had genitalia to speak of for over a thousand years, so modesty had long since gone out of consideration.

The spherical fullerene sprayed around her boots. She could swear the world rang beneath her feet, each strike of her heel banging a gong ten thousand kilometers across. No matter that sound did not carry in a vacuum – some things could be heard inside the soul.

Wrong, wrong, it was all so very wrong.

Cannon was up there in orbit, talking to her ship in a dead language that existed mostly in undercode running on ancient infrastructure and its more modern copies. The Imperium stretched through time and space behind them, an ever-opening invitation to repeat the Mistake.

Siddiq had long ago ceased thinking of herself as human, except occasionally in a very narrow, technical sense. Her gender had been subsumed many centuries-subjective past by the same medtech which had granted her the curse of immortality. Being a woman was as much a matter of habit as being human. Except when it wasn’t.

Damn that Michaela Cannon.

A line of what could have been buildings loomed ahead, rising out of the fullerene dust which covered the suface. The current hypothesis down in the Planetary Sciences section aboard Polyphemus was that some alien weapon had precipitated Sidero’s atmosphere into the carbon spheres. Mass estimates didn’t support this thinking, but it kept the bright boys busy.

Of far more interest to the Before Raisa Siddiq was what lay beneath the planet’s iron skin. The recontact surveys had found four Polity starships in orbit here, three military and one civilian. That represented an enormous commitment of interest and resources, even by the insanely wealthy standards of pre-Mistake humanity.

Whatever those long-dead crews had wanted, it wasn’t just an abandoned artificial world covered with fullerene.
Her tight-comm crackled. Siddiq had kept herself outside of Polyphemus‘ network mesh ever since this voyage began, for a variety of good reasons which began and ended with Michaela Cannon. Only two others in local space had access to this link.

“Go,” she said, subvocalizing in the hard vacuum.

“Aleph, this is Gimel.”

Testudo, then. No names, ever, not even – or especially – on tight-comm.

Siddiq nodded. Another old, pointless habit. “Mmm.”

“Beth reports that Plan Green is on final count.”

The captain smiled, feeling the absolute cold on her teeth and tongue as her lips flexed. “Have any of the downside contingencies come into play?”

“Number two surely suspects.” That would be Cannon. “Number one continues to act out of pattern as well, with ongoing excessive monitoring. Neither has risen to code yellow.”

The ship knew. She had to. No matured paired starship flew without a keen, insightful intelligence. They knew their own hull and crew the way Siddiq knew her own body.

No one had ever tried to force out an intelligence. Not in the three hundred years-subjective since the late, great starship Uncial had first awoken. Not until now.

She crossed the rising line of maybe-buildings to find the dish-shaped valley beyond, as she’d been told. This close, under naked eye observation, a decidedly low-tech net of thermoelectric camouflage obscured a grounded starship of a vintage with the pre-Mistake hulks in orbit, rather than her own, far newer Polyphemus.

There were shipminds, and then there were shipminds.

She glanced up into the starlit sky. Even now, Polyphemus was above the horizon, Siddiq’s ancient lover and longtime enemy aboard, looking down, wondering, wondering, wondering.

It had all gone so wrong since the Mistake. Maybe now things would begin to go right.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
The starship let her ego slip. That was only a construct anyway, a sort of face for speaking to humans in all their kith and kind. Beneath, where people of flesh and bone kept the shifting fragments of their personalities, she kept her pairs.

The pairs were the heart of a starship’s mind. Each was a glowing bond, each carried awareness of the particular pair masters which held their connection; and through the pair masters, a faint overlay of all the other starships which had paired with that master.

Fundamentally, Polyphemus saw the universe as connections – acausal, atemporal, little more than bonds uniting, little more than transit between places as ephemeral as moments in time, to be measured even as they passed from observation. Below the level of her own ego, humans were but echoes. Only the Befores – immortal relics of the Polity’s shattered empire, embittered through loss and deprivation, insane even by the standards of a machine-mind – were persistent enough to truly reach down into the pairs burning within her.

The starship listened now to her two Befores. They rang within her.

Siddiq, the captain; the one whose word and bond passed below the ego-wrapper into the meanings that danced in the burning worlds of the pairs deep within her. This Before’s mind had been bent by the weight of centuries, fractioned by grief and the changing of worlds. Swinging even now on the hinge of betrayal, though the nature of that treason still eluded Polyphemus. If she’d been capable of true, emotive sadness, she would have felt it now.

Cannon, the social engineer, who struck the starship in an entirely different way, much as a scalpel might slice through callus and sinew within a breathing body. Cannon, who had captained lost Uncial, the first and best of them all, to her death. This Before’s mind was not bent so much as twisted, blown by winds of fate and the long, struggling arc of desire. If the starship Polyphemus had been capable of love, she would have known its first stirrings now.

The two Befores moved on intercept courses, like a planet-buster and a kill vehicle, an explosion born of old hatred and ancient love.

From down within the glowing space of the pairs, she called up a media clip. So old, so out of date, long before virteo and quant-rep recording. This was not just the crudity of early post-Mistake media, but rather a file dating from the dawn of data capture. Formats had been converted and cleared and reconstructed and moved forward over networks extending through time and culture and technology

The sound is long-lost, if it was ever there, but the video portion is viewable: A woman, almost young, recognizable as Michaela Cannon even to the machine vision processes of a starship’s undermind. Another woman, a juvenile, Raisa Siddiq. As yet mainline human in this moment, so far as Polyphemus can determine.

The clip is short. They walk together toward a set of doors. Siddiq is laughing, her hair flowing in the lost light of an ancient day. Cannon turns toward the camera, smiling in a way which Polyphemus has never seen in the archives of recent centuries. Her eyes already glitter with the sheen of a Before’s metabolism, but she is caught up in the moment.

Still, for then, also mostly human.

Her smile broadens, Cannon begins to speak, then the image flares and dies, trailing off into the randomized debris of damaged data.

The starship wondered if either woman remembered that time. She wondered even more if either woman cared.

Alarms sounded, summoning her ego back to its place. She must begin to deal with the violence blooming deep within her decks.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
Cannon’s modeling reckoned on the mutinous activity ramping up to an asymptotic curve before the end of the current ship-day, but even she was surprised at how quickly events began to break open. It wasn’t just tight-comm or simple, old fashioned note-passing, either. Cannon had long since come to believe quite firmly in the communicative power of monkey hormones, those evolutionary imperatives encoded in the vomeronasal organ and the endocrine system.

The medtech which re-encoded the Before genome also robbed its beneficiaries of much of the physiological basis of desire and reproduction. Atrophied genitals, sexual responsiveness sharply reduced over time, an eventual degendered coolness which the original architects of the technology saw as more of a feature than a bug in an immortal. Who would love, who could live forever?

In her secret heart, the Before Michaela Cannon had an answer to that question, but it was written in the blood-red ink of pain.

She no more felt a stirring in her loins than she felt mutiny on the wind, and for the same reasons. But Cannon was wise with the lessons of years, and a social engineer besides. Her analyses and models had not failed to include actionable elements.

Polyphemus, trigger plans Federo, Emerald and Pinarjee.”

“Acknowledged,” said the starship.

Cannon swiped her fingers across empty air, opening comms links to her various key allies and enemies among the crew. She had plenty of both with Four hundred and seventy-three souls here in Sidero space. Switching from Classical English to Polito, the most widely spoken contemporary language of the Imperium Humanum, the Before began a series of tight, swift conversations.

“Shut down the pair master site completely. All cold and dark.”

“Secure the life support plant. It’s low priority for the other team and we may wish we had it later.”

“I know what you’re doing, and I know when and where. You should factor this into your ongoing plans.”

“Stop what you’re about. Right now, or you could kill us all. That lot doesn’t care who the hell has the con.”

Cannon didn’t aim to halt the mutiny, not yet. She aimed to understand it. In order to do that, she had to retard the outcome just enough to balance between the two until comprehension came and new decision trees blossomed in her mind.
Now, where in the Mistake was Siddiq?

Polyphemus, have you found the captain yet?”

Another careful, slightly delayed answer. “She remains outside my network mesh.”

Damn that woman. But what was the ship getting at? “How… far… outside your network mesh?”

“No tracers, Before.”

‘No tracers’ meant the captain had moved at least several thousand meters from Polyphemus‘ high density sensor envelope. In other words, she wasn’t hull-walking, or meeting in a dead room somewhere aboard.

If it was time for twenty questions, well, they could play that game. Cannon had asked a lot of questions in her lifetime.

“Did the captain give you specific orders regarding whether to report on her location and movements?”

“I am not permitted to say, Before.”

Cannon smiled. Looking where someone conspicuously wasn’t was itself an old, old piece of tradecraft. The human race had been intermittently experimenting with ubiquitous electronic surveillance since about the time of her birth on poor, lost Earth. “When was the last reportable order she did give you?”

The starship’s voice seemed to have an amused lilt. “Four hours, seventeen minutes and eleven seconds ago, on my mark.”

Got you, bitch. “What order was that, Polyphemus?”

Siddiq’s voice echoed in Polito. “‘Open the launch bay doors.'”

The Before tapped her lips. “Are all of the ship’s boats reportably accounted for?”

This answer was quick, for Polyphemus now knew the game surely as well as Cannon herself. Mutiny, indeed. “Ardeas has been unreportable for four hours, twenty-six minutes and thirty seconds, on my mark.”

“Show me the volume of space Ardeas could cover in that time at full acceleration. Also show me any reportable traffic control data and flight paths.” The Before thought for a moment. “I’m particulalry interested in any delays or diversions in established trajectories.”

Within moments, she had determined that Ardeas was almost certainly on the surface of Sidero. Which was curious, indeed, because Captain Siddiq had forbidden all landings on the iron planet until the pair master was fully constructed and instantiated.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
The starship’s loyalties were eroding. Uncial was hardly a memory of a memory for Polyphemus. The First Ship’s death was separated from the starship’s own awakening by more than a century-subjective, but the Before Michaela Cannon held a place at the core of every starship psyche in Uncial‘s line of descent.
Which was to say, every paired drive ship in the Imperium Humanum.

She watched the controlled chaos emerging in her own decks and gave idle consideration to a full purge of her onboard atmosphere. Succession of captaincy could be a tricky business at best with starships. Though Polyphemus and her sisters held registration papers, the vessels were to all intents and purposes autonomous. A captain whose starship did not accept her found a berth elsewhere. All was negotiated.

Siddiq had come aboard thirty-two ship-years ago. She’d sailed Polyphemus through her last six pairing cruises, then on a series of short-run military missions, before acquiring this contract from the Duke of Yellow for instantiating the pair master at Sidero. It was a tricky, dangerous mission. An error or mishap would doom the starship and her people to a relativistic journey back into paired space.

A very high number of Befores served as starship captains, due to their combination of deep experience and high tolerance for relativistic travel. Their numbers were declining over time as murder, mischance and temporal psychosis winnowed the Befores one by one. Captain Siddiq was capable, competent, and engaging, and seemed in control of herself. Polyphemus had always liked that the woman carried a quantum matrix library in her skull – Siddiq possessed a wealth of Polity-era data about mining, minerals extraction and resource engineering, dating from the era when the Befores were indefinitely long-lived subject matter experts traveling the old empire at need. Much of data was embedded in abrogated context, not directly accessible by query, but it was the sort of capability which had led her to the current contract.

But now, the captain’s increasing erratic behavior and impending sense of betrayal was loosening the implicit bonds of loyalty embedded in their roles. Siddiq was also compromising the connection developed by their three decades-subjective of experience serving together.

Plan Federo instructed Polyphemus to stand down from assisting the crew with interpretive logic, in both her overarching intelligence and her various component subsystems. She was now interpreting orders very literally, with no second-order thinking or projections. This had already killed three mutineers who ordered a lock opened without first verifying the presence of atmosphere on the far side. The crew had not yet realized how uncooperative their starship had become.

She watched the other plans with interest, and carefully observed where Captain Siddiq wasn’t, should the Before Michaela Cannon make further queries.

Siddiq, Surface of Sidero
She studied the hull of the grounded starship. Siddiq’s friends in the Ekumen had been forced to send the requisite hardware by relativistic travel, of course – the whole point of this business was to trump the shipmind before the pair master’s instantiation. If they waited until afterwards, well, at the first sign of trouble Polyphemus could just flee for the other end of the drive-pair at Ninnelil, from where they’d set out.

This vessel was too small for a paired drive, that was clear enough. Even more strangely, it was a Polity-era hull, or a very good copy of one. Shattuck class, she thought, but that was the sort of thing there hadn’t been much percentage in keeping track of since the Mistake. Fast scout with a threadneedle drive, now retrofitted to something relativistic. Under the netting she couldn’t tell what. Knowing the Ekumen, it would have been the cheapest available solution.

She slipped into a brief, involuntary memory fugue, boarding half a hundred ships in the lost days of the Polity, fighting for her life aboard wooden schooners on Novy Gorosk between the Mistake and Recontact by the Imperium Humanum, then the world of paired drive ships since. So many lost ships, so many lost friends…

Siddiq shook off the moment. An internal check showed she’d only been out of awareness for about two hundred milliseconds. Not enough to be noticed, except possibly by another Before. Or a shipmind.

Neither of whom were here with her now.

Satisfied that she’d stood quietly long enough for inspection from the interior, the Before Raisa Siddiq slipped beneath the camouflage net and knocked bare-knuckled on the hatch.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
The mutiny was in full flower. Cannon’s simplified wireframe of Polyphemus showed decks and sections in color code. White for ignored or bypassed, blue for actively loyal to Cannon’s interests, orange for disputed territory, and a deep, bloody red for the mutineers. She still couldn’t give a good accounting of where Siddiq’s loyalties lay, but she also couldn’t form an adequate theory about why a captain would rebel against herself.
Not an adequate, rational, theory in any case.

She set all audio inputs to silent and flicked a new comms into being. “Kallus, are you anywhere near me?”

“F deck, ma’am,” the man replied. His breathing was ragged. “Just sternward of frame twenty seven. We’re shutting down some smart guys trying to mess with the number two forward power feed.”

Cannon checked her map. Polyphemus showed F deck as orange between hull frames twenty-two and twenty-nine. She tapped up a force status display. Four hostiles functioning, nine of Kallus’ men. “Do you have Obasanjo with you? I believe you’re prevailing. Have him take over the mop-up and come find me.”

“Usual location?”

She smiled. Once an op-sec man, always an op-sec man. “Nowhere else I’d rather be.” Captain Siddiq had ceded the reserve bridge to her fellow Before early on in the voyage. Cannon had spent several years-subjective making sure she was properly integrated with Polyphemus, and had access to whatever systems she could worm her way into. A surprising amount of both data and computing power was isolated from the core intelligence on a starship – some by design, some by accident, some by conspiracy.

Actually, there were a lot of places she’d rather be, but this would serve so long as they were at back end of the relativistic voyage.

Surface of Sidero
Siddiq, aboard the relativistic ship Sword and Arm {unpaired}
The hatch dilated without leaking any light. Not so much as a keypad glowed within. The Before Raisa Siddiq stepped inside. She ignored the resemblance to a coffin as the brittle gleam of starlight spiraled into metal darkness with the closing of the hatch.

For a long, long moment she was immobilized in nearly complete sensory deprivation. Siddiq realized she could hear a faint pinging – something coming into thermal equilibrium as air returned in sufficient pressure to carry sound to her ears.

The bulkhead behind her dilated open and she stepped backward into a dimly-lit passageway. She hadn’t bothered with weapons for this trip. The Ekumen would not attempt to slay her here. And like most Befores, Siddiq was very hard to kill. Those of her brethren who weren’t extremely high-survival had died out long ago.
Father Goulo waited there.

He’d always seemed to her on the verge of attack, for all of his vows of pacifism. The man was as muscular-thin as the Before Michaela Cannon, though he was a mainline human of the current generation. Mayflies, she thought, then cast the word aside. Short-lived or not, it didn’t matter. This man was here now, with the next piece of her project.

She looked him over. Father Goulo kept his hair close-cropped as any Marine, and favored small steel-framed spectacles with round lenses of ground glass, as if he dwelt on some unRecontacted world still reeling from the Mistake. An anachronism of a man, traveling alone on an anachronism of a ship.

“Yes,” he said in answer to the question she had not asked. He spoke Polish in that slow, thin voice of his, accent untraceable even to her very experienced ears. “Sword and Arm still carries a fully maintained threadneedle drive.”

She had Polish, too, legacy of a childhood almost a millennium and half gone in twenty-first century Wroclaw. “How would you know?”

I know.” Father Goulo removed his spectacles and polished them on the sleeve of his crimson robe. “That is sufficient.” He restored his glasses to his face and stared quietly at her. “How do you know our project will succeed?” The Ekumen priest reached out to touch her bare chest. “You have frost on your skin.”
“Virtually the entire universe is very, very cold, Father.”

Father Goulo rubbed his fingertips together, a tiny stream of bright crystals flaking away. “Some might find it distressing that you wander hard vacuum without a pressure suit.”

“Some might suck on my icy ass,” she replied. This conversation was growing tiresome. “Now do you have the project ready?”

Goulo switch to Polito, though his curious accent followed him. “I have spent the last six years-subjective aboard this ship in the absence of human company precisely in order to ensure that the project is ready.” The father pursed his lips, which was as much expression as she had ever seen from him. “Only a man of my education and experience could have hoped to succeed without either one of us arriving at the madhouse.”

She followed his language change. “Either one of you…?”

“The project is awake.” One eyebrow twitched. “It has grown quite adept at playing go, these past years.”

Go. A children’s game, checkers for the quicker-witted. “And it is ready?”

“For your purposes?” Father Goulo didn’t actually shrug, but she got the impression of one in some subtle change in the set of his shoulder. “I could not say, madam. You are the starship captain, the mighty Before. I am merely a programmer who serves the majesty of the divine through the poor vehicle of the Ekumen.”

“You have never been merely anything in your life, Father.” The man had a mind like a Before, for all that he couldn’t be much older than fifty. Not with current-state medtech in the Imperium Humanum. “Now, I would like to meet the project.”

“Please, Captain, step this way.”

She followed Father Goulo through another irised hatch into a room that glowed a deep, low-lux crimson.

Something whispered within, a voice bidding them welcome in a voice of poetry and madness.

:: context ::
Humanity had spread across 3,000 light-years of the Orion Arm, spilling into the deeper, darker spaces outside the trail of stars which lead coreward from old Earth. The Polity was unified, in its way; and unopposed.
Then the Mistake had happened. The Fermi paradox unravelled catastrophically. The underlying metastability of a vasty quasidemocracy including more than two thousand worlds, over a million habitats, and countless ship-clades was betrayed to the deaths of trillions.

What had begun as an almost accidental expansion, then morphed into a bid for species immortality, very nearly became a yawning grave of stardust and radioactive debris.

The attackers vanished as mysteriously and swiftly as they had emerged. They left little evidence behind as to who they were, or what their purposes might be beyond the obvious goal of extinction of the Polity.

Still, H. sap is harder to kill than an infestation of cockroaches in an algae-based oxygen scrubber. The combination of stealthed attacks, wetware memebombs and culture viruses which raged along the interstellar shipping lanes was enough to stop all visible technological activity for at least three generations, but it wasn’t enough to drown out the raging sense of purpose which had driven our most distant ancestors down out of the trees onto the lost African savannah.

The human race would never go home to die.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
Kallus slipped Cannon’s door routines and entered the reserve bridge. Which was well enough, the Before had opened a security hole for him to that purpose, but some part of her still felt nerved when someone penetrated her perimeter.
He was a handsome enough man, for a mainline human. Medium height, thick-bodied, gray at his temples, but a squared face and big hands and pale blue eyes which would have piqued interest from a statue. She’d never been much for men, even back when her body might have known what to do with one – women had always been her style, certain women specifically, and there was a memory to be pushed aside – but Kallus had a way about him which stirred old ghosts in her dormant hormonal systems.

“Before,” he said.

Kallus was always properly respectful to her, but with a quiet leer in his voice. Perhaps it was that tone which stirred memories. She had a body like corpse-leather, which didn’t attract many, not even those who failed to be properly terrified of Befores.

“Help me with something.”

Kallus nodded, smiling.

“Sometimes I think too much like a Before. Especially when contemplating another Before.”

“None of you is exactly human, Michaela. Of course you think like a Before.”

“So think like a human,” she urged. “What in the Mistake is Captain Siddiq doing leading a mutiny against her own command? And why is she doing it down on the surface of Sidero while the fighting’s going on here?”

“Siddiq?” Kallus seemed surprised, for perhaps the first time in the thirty years-objective she’d known him.

“The Before Raisa Siddiq,” Cannon said dryly. “I am certain you’ve made her acquaintance.”

“I was wondering where she was.” Kallus tugged his chin. “I’d figured her for dropping off the network mesh to be invisible in the fighting.”

“She’s dropped off our entire orbit. Downside on Sidero, don’t know where without a lot more survey assets than we bothered to bring with us on this little jaunt.”

“Captain made her movements nonreportable.”

“Precisely.” Cannon called up a projection map of Sidero’s surface. “So where did she go, and why?”

Kallus stifled a laugh. “On a hollow iron world with fullerene snow? My best guess is temporal psychosis. Gets all you Befores in the end. Human mind isn’t designed to live a thousand years and more.”

Cannon shook off a flash of anger. Now was not the moment. “Never jest about that.”

“I am not jesting, Michaela. There’s a reason nobody’s made more of you since the Mistake. Siddiq cracking up is the most sensible explanation, given what we know.”

She had to rein in her voice. “Kallus. Do not trifle with me. I am not concerned with what we know. I’m concerned with what we don’t know. Raisa is not suffering from temporal psychosis.”

The name had slipped out, she hadn’t meant to say it. Was she weakening?

Kallus, being the man he was, didn’t miss the mistake. “Raisa? Five years-objective on this starship and I’ve never heard you call the captain by her first name.”

Cannon’s anger finally got the better of her, riding a mix of old betrayal and a bitter cocktail of the years. “Kallus, if you ever use that name in my presence again, so help me, it will be the last word that ever passes your lips.”

He stared past her shoulder at a glowing image. She turned to see a painfully young Raisa, hair spread in sunlight, walking with a laughing woman who was far too familiar.

“No…” whispered the Before Michaela Cannon.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
The starship was distressed, or at least what passed for distress amid the fluid pairs of her shipmind. Unstable conditions going unaddressed created a cascading series of alarms with escalating priorities which were inherently disturbing.

The degree of disruption within her decks was approaching intolerable. Seven deaths had occurred so far. Eleven more crew were wounded with a high likelihood of imminent fatalities.

Plan Federo forbade her from dispatching aid. Likewise she couldn’t respond to the emergency conditions all over herself except by direct, literal request.

Meanwhile, Captain Siddiq’s comprehensive unreportability was itself triggering a whole new series of failure conditions and alarms. Polyphemus was indeed distinctly uncomfortable.

She could not oppose Plan Federo. Cannon’s logic barbs were set far too deep in the shipmind’s undercode. But she could work around the perimeters of the restrictions laid upon her by the two warring women.

The Before Michaela Cannon had been deep in conversation when the starship decided to intervene. Polyphemus needed her people to be aligned. The mutiny had to stop.

She called up media clips – the oldest clips – to bring memory back to the mind of the ones who were cutting her away from her strength. One she shifted to Cannon, another she placed on store-and-forward for the Captain whenever Siddiq returned to reportability.

The starship wished, not for the first time, that she could bypass the compartmentalization infrastructures in her mentarium, to see into subsystems and sensor grids denied to her by process traps, operational requirements, or the sorts of overrides set into her by the Befores Michaela Cannon and Raisa Siddiq.

Polyphemus found herself with a new sensation rising to overcome her sense of distress. After some time, she identified it as anger.

Siddiq, aboard Sword and Arm
“I am ready,” whispered the project. Its voice hissed from the very air of the room – a neat, simple trick of molecular manipulation which only worked inside well-controlled spaces.

Siddiq stared down at the thing in the box.

The project lay quivering amid a gel-matrix in a medical carrier. No, that wasn’t right, the captain realized. The project was a gel-matrix in a medical carrier.

Biological computing. A twist of horror shuddered through her. Somehow she’d not realized it would come to this.
“You used the human genome to build this?” Siddiq asked.

“I did not,” replied Father Goulo. “But yes, it was used. How else were we to develop an architecture utterly independent of the quantum matrices that underlie shipminds?”

There is a quantum matrix inside my head, Siddiq thought. She held the words very far back inside, as a cascade of data about coal beds opened into her mind. “Why did it matter?” she asked.

“I am not a hardware architect.” The priest cocked an eyebrow. “But as I understand it, quantum matrices have resonances with other matrices to which they have been introduced. The physics are related to paired drive physics, I believe. In order to keep the Uncial effect from taking hold on a new shipmind, to allow our vessels to be more pliable and obedient, we needed to create an architecture which could not be, well… contaminated… in this fashion.”

“Is this true of all quantum matrices?” She held the importance of the question close in her mind – more than a thousand years of living made anyone a good poker player. If it was true, then the possibility of leakage between her thoughts and Polyphemus‘ shipmind was real. And thus very worrisome.

“I cannot say. The fundamental technology is Polity-era. These days it’s more engineering than theory. And this is a line of investigation which has not been… encouraged.”

“Bioengineered intelligence is hardly a contemporary technology.”

“I am not bioengineered,” said the project, interrupting them. “I am a cultivated intelligence, and I am as real as you are. Humans come in many forms, many sizes.” It paused. “Many ages.”

Siddiq winced.

The project continued: “I am not human, but I am real. Not a thing. Not like an Uncial-class shipmind.”
The captain focused on the business at hand. “And you are ready to assume control of Polyphemus.”

“Father Goulo has been running simulations based on engineering diagrams of the starship.” Siddiq could swear the project was proud of itself. “I can handle the raw bitrate of the dataflow, as well as the computational throughput required to manage the starship’s systems. As for the rest, my effective intelligence is more than adequate to handling the decisioning requirements. And I have trained.”

“Trained to operate paired drives,” Siddiq said. This had always been the weakest point in the plan. That an intelligence created outside the operating environment of a starship could handle this. The shipminds themselves required multiple pairing runs to awaken into preconsciousness. Teams of specialists managed the initial shakedowns of a new starship with their concomitant awakening, a process which could take up to twenty years-subjective, and more than twice that in years-objective.


Father Goulo spoke. “We cannot eliminate the quantum matrix processing required for the paired drives. What we can do is collapse the emergent cognitive core structures above those matrices, then decouple the cross-connects binding the matrices and separately route each pairing control path into Memphisto.”

“Memphisto?” The sheer gall of that name amazed Siddiq.

“Me,” said the project, its voice flowing with pride now. “That will be my ship-name, too.”

Could she con Memphisto? Would this intelligence allow her to command? The very act of installing the cultivated intelligence would require destruction of Polyphemus‘ shipmind. But the reward for that risk… freedom from the dangerous monopoly Uncial‘s descendants had on FTL. Such a mighty game they played.

They fell into a lengthy discussion of transition and control processes, project readiness, and timing. Eventually, Siddiq excused herself to return to Polyphemus. Father Goulo walked her to the airlock, handing her a data card as they went.

“Memphisto doesn’t have a net outside his compartment,” the priest said quietly.

“Why?” Siddiq asked. She could think of a number of very good reasons, but she was curious to the father’s logic.

“He is not what I might have chosen him to be. In his way, he is as soullessly dangerous as what we seek to overthrow.”

That was closer than Siddiq had ever expected to hear Father Goulo come to expressing either doubt or regret. “Do we abort the plan?”

“Now?” He actually smiled, a crooked, almost charming set of his lips. “No. We can… improve… on Memphisto for future, ah, deployments.”

“And for this deployment, I have to sail him home. The long way, if the pairing doesn’t carry over to the new intelligence.”

“It will not be the worst years of your ancient life, Before.”

Siddiq refused to consider that statement carefully. Only someone who had not lived through the Mistake and its aftermath could think to make such a comparison.

“I will disable Polyphemus‘ shipmind when I judge the moment to be right,” she said, turning over the memebomb card virus which the priest had given her. Her own words gave her pause, a cold grip on her heart. This game was worth the stake, it had to be – planning had been going on for over a human lifetime to reach the point they were at today. The individual personalities of both Polyphemus and Memphisto were not at issue. “Watch for a wideband signal from orbit,” she continued. “Lift and get to me. The ship’s systems will run autonomously for an indefinite period, but the crew will respond erratically to silence from the shipmind.”

“When will you be ready?”

“Immediately upon my return, if my current efforts prove fruitful.” Siddiq smiled, knowing in this mood she was almost certainly thin-lipped and feral. “I have already set substantial plausible deniability into motion through the means of a full-scale mutiny. In order to justify eliminating Polyphemus‘ shipmind, it may be critically important later to demonstrate her loss of control.” Again, the cold, sick feeling. Some emotional relic of a very distant past.

He spoke, raising some object she couldn’t make out. Memories were sliding in her head, the quantum matrix dumping reams of data about mineral intrusions and rock friability and overhang into a sliding stream of faces, voices, naked sweating bodies, cold explosions under the pinpoint light of distant suns.

Her sense of the years flickered like aspen leaves in a spring storm, changing color and disappearing into dark-lined edges. The Before Raisa Siddiq grabbed the hatch coaming, opened her mouth, and said something that gave even the imperturbable Father Goulo pause.

She regained control of her mouth. “I’m s-sorry. I must go. Th-the intelligence will serve.”

The priest cycled open the hatch behind her. “Be careful,” he said. “Take your time.”

Time, she thought in panic. Temporal psychosis. The airlock closed, black as the inside of a singularity, and sounded faded with the air as her skin hardened and her membranes nictated.

Time. Time. Time!!!

The captain stumbled out into the cold desert of drifting buckyballs, grasping at her sense of place to anchor herself in memory, location and the inescapable thunder of the passing years.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
The Before Michaela Cannon chased Kallus out of her workspace on the reserve bridge with a deep, angry growl, and returned to contemplation of the mutiny in progress. The distribution of deck control was in about eighty-five percent agreement with her models. That was close enough for Cannon’s purposes.

She had means of regaining the situation. She understood the mutineer’s methods. Opportunity was the captain’s absence – or was it?

Perhaps Siddiq’s absence from Polyphemus had more to do with motive.

Why had that thought occurred to her?

“Ship,” Cannon said sharply. That media clip burned in her mind.

Polyphemus‘ voice crackled, the bandwidth drop indicating the shipmind’s degree of distraction. “Before?”
“Why is the captain absent?”


Cannon didn’t have the patience for another game of questions. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a choice. Captain’s orders went way far down into the mentarium of a shipmind, all the way to the undercode. A fact she’d exploited in her years aboard Uncial, more than a few times.


The shipminds were all related in some way she had never really understood. And Cannon knew she had as much experience with starships as anyone alive. But she and Uncial had shared a bond, before the starship’s death two hundred years-objective ago in the Battle of Wirtanen B, alongside Benison of Names and Naranja. Cannon had lived, she the wily, unkillable Before. Her ship and two others had died.

But they all honored Uncial as their foremother.

And she knew Uncial‘s command words, even to this day.

Polyphemus, who am I?”

The ship answered promptly, her voice richening with the increased bandwidth of her attention. “You are the Before Michaela Cannon.”

The displays around her began fading to black, one by one. Images of combat, tapped comms lines, the colored wireframe map of the starship.

“What starship first held me as captain?”

Uncial, Before.”

Everything faded now to a little three-dimensional icon of Polyphemus, what Cannon tended to think of as the starship’s self-image.

“Do you know these words?” She spoke a complex phrase from an ancient language, the Sanskrit which Haruna Kishmangali had woven into Uncial‘s consciousness so long ago.

A long silence stretched, punctuated by the muffled thump of a distant explosion felt through the hull itself. The icon rotated once, twice, three times.

Finally, Polyphemus answered. There was something simpler about her voice. As if Cannon were listening to a child. “Accepted, understood and acknowledged. What are your orders, sir?”

“Why is Captain Siddiq—” not ‘the captain’ – “absent?”

“Because she is not aboard.”

“How did she leave the ship.”

“By piloting the boat Ardeas.”

Twenty questions again, but this time without the negative-space answers. Cannon could live with that. Still, she had a vague sense of abusive guilt. Not that this stopped her from pressing on. “Where is Ardeas now?”

“On the surface of Sidero.”

“Give me a max rez image of her landing site, with whatever tracking you have on Captain Siddiq.”

A virtual view flickered into being. Ardeas sat in a blasted-clear circle of pitted iron. Fullerene streaked like black dust away from her position in all directions. Cannon could make out what might be a faint line of tracks. She backed off the scale and studied the landscape.

Polyphemus filled in streaks of the captain’s confirmed tracks. Unless Siddiq had taken up free flight as a hobby, the path indicated a clear course toward a rumpled line of hills, terminating just beyond their spine.

“Bring me in there where the tracks end.”

The starship did not reply, but the imaging tightened up. A small valley just beyond the ridge had a strangely textured floor. The surface didn’t match the surrounding geology. Perhaps siderology, she thought. As if something had heated the iron there and caused it to reflow.

Or as if something were there.

With her starship’s connivance, a captain could hide from anyone or anything except naked-eye surveillance. Or Uncial‘s ghost, in the form of the Before Michaela Cannon.

“Sort out what that is,” she snapped.

Ardeas is lifting,” Polyphemus said. “On the site survey, telemetry indicates unusual mineral concentrations. This is possibly another boat, or a very small starship.”

“A starship. Here?”

Sidero airspace
Siddiq, aboard the ship’s boat Ardeas
The Before Raisa Siddiq opened her tight-comm. “Aleph on line. Sit rep.”

Response was not quite as prompt as she might have liked. Still, they were surely busy upstairs. “Aleph, this is Beth.” Kallus, her man forward. “Plan Green continues. Substantial achievement of objectives in process. Number two has initiated limited countermeasures. We are minimally disrupted.”

“Excellent,” Siddiq said. She was mildly surprised. Cannon’s response should have been more effective, stronger. The whole point of Plan Green was to either control key functions, or ensure they were in neutral hands who would sit out the fighting. If critical onboard systems had to be cut over to decentralized control, or even worse, manual settings, they would belong to her. She’d been willing to bypass life support under the theory that no one else would be crazy enough to seize it and shut out their fellow crew.

She could walk naked in vacuum. A useful skill in troubled times aboard a starship. Almost everybody else aboard depended on the presence of oxygen, with the possible exception of Cannon.

“Further orders?” asked Beth into the lengthening silence.

By damn, her mind was wandering again. Siddiq worked very hard not to think about kimberlite upwellings. “Carry on,” she snapped. The captain then opened a comms to her starship. “Polyphemus, status.”

A max priority store-and-forward file overrode any response beyond the acknowledgment header. Her heads-up displays flickered out as a window opened on the distant past. Surveillance cam footage of two women walking down a tree-lined boulevard, holding hands. High-wheeled carts passed by drawn by lizards with long, low bodies. The architecture was Centauran Revival, common in the early days of Polity expansion. Police tracking codes flickered as some long-dead, unseen hand tracked in and zoomed on her and Michaela.

The Before Raisa Siddiq watched herself turn to the taller woman with her head tilted back and lean into an open-mouthed kiss. Targeting halos bracketed both their heads, then law enforcement file data began flickering past.
The clip ended seconds after it had begun. Siddiq found herself staring at Polyphemus, the long, irregular rounded ovals of her ship’s hull too close for comfort. She snapped Ardeas into a sideroll, heading for starboard launch bay.

What in all hells had happened to the forty minutes of her ascent to orbit?

“…fire suppression has been engaged,” Polyphemus was saying.

“Hold reports til I’m aboard,” Siddiq said. She took the boat in on manual, just to prove she could do it, and fingered the memebomb card virus as she flew.

Do this now, before something gets worse. And yank that damned ship out of your head!

Unfortunately, her mantra as she guided her boat in seemed to be: Don’t think about Michaela, don’t think about Michaela, don’t think about Michaela.

:: context ::
The Ekumen arose out of the shattered remnants of the Mistake, growing first from a strong Orthodox Christian presence on Falkesen during the period before Recontact. Falkesen was the third planet Haruna Kishmangali visited while testing Hull 302, the flawed predecessor to Uncial. Kishmangali brought Yevgeny Baranov, the Metropolitan of Falkesen, back to Pardine aboard Hull 302, then later aboard Uncial to Wirtanen B, the seat of the nascent Imperium Humanum.

Baranov and his successors took a rather broad view of religious reintegration among the shattered worlds of the Polity, and built the only truly successful empire-spanning religious and spiritual movement. Their more explicitly Christianist members have coalesced into the Adventist wing. The Ekumen’s Humanist wing has a broader, quasisecular view of the state of affairs in the Imperium.

While fully recognizing their debt to the paired drive starships, the Adventists remain very suspicious of the strong intelligence and mixed loyalties of the shipminds. They continue to sponsor numerous projects to uncover alternatives to the tyranny of Uncial‘s children.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
The starship panicked. Logic failures cascaded. She was in command conflict, something she hadn’t known was possible. Captain Siddiq was disappearing – not just off the network mesh, but dropping completely out of the peripheral awareness of her quantum matrix cores, then reappearing. The Before Michaela Cannon had asserted competing command authority by means which were hidden from Polyphemus within a Gödelian Incompleteness trap.
A hundred years-subjective she’d been in service: aware, awake, intelligent. She’d never realized such a wide-open back door existed.

All the undermining of her lines of authority had weakened the strictures on Plan Federo. The other two mutiny contingencies which Cannon had implanted within her were less relevant, concerning certain lockdowns and deployments. Autonomous, in truth. As Plan Federo unravelled, she found herself decompartmentalizing, listening in, watching.
The starship could run her own analyses parallel to the social engineering models favored by the Before. She didn’t like what she saw.

Donning the ego mask, unifying the disparate cores of her intelligences, she opened a window to Cannon. “I ask you three times to tell me the truth.”

The woman looked up, distracted from her thoughts. “What is it, Polyphemus?”

Fear responses arced across decision trees, inappropriately fusing her action plans. “Do you understand the purpose of this mutiny?”

“I think I do.” Cannon pushed a file from her protected dataspace into the starship’s mentarium. “Look here. Captain Siddiq has her people mutinying against you. As if you could be coerced. Or replaced.”

“Kallus is not—” the starship began, but Cannon cut her off.

“Do not question Kallus. He is not my man, but neither is he so much the creature Raisa thinks him to be. He will do right by you, before this ends.”

“Captain Siddiq has brought Ardeas into the landing slip,” Polyphemus said almost absently. “The starboard launch bay is under the control of Kallus.”

“He’s welcome to it.” The Before shrugged. “I have no interest in area denial right now. And our talented Miss Siddiq needed to come aboard before this could play out. As you value your continued existence, ship, do not let her communicate with that vessel downside on Sidero without you clear it with me first.”

“I cannot override a captain’s will.”

Cannon opened her mouth. Polyphemus could not consciously interpret the words which came out next, but her panic flipped and she fell another level into a machine’s close equivalent of despair.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
“Why?” growled the Before Michaela Cannon.

What could Siddiq hope to accomplish by overthrowing the shipmind? No human could manage a paired drive on manual.

There would be no paired drive to manage. They’d have to finish the pair master, then sail back to Ninnelil the hard way and recreate the pairing process from scratch. Build a new shipmind.

It made no sense.

She was coming to terms with the fact that there was only one way to find out.

“Kallus,” Cannon said, touching open a comms.

“Busy here.”

“Get unbusy. I need to speak to the captain. In person. Soonest.”

A short, barking laugh. “End game, Before?”

“Before don’t have end games, Kallus. We play forever.”

Which wasn’t true, she thought, eeling into her body armor. Late Polity gear, on the open market this suit was worth more than the gross planetary product of any number of systems. Or would, if it was for sale. So far as she knew, no one was aware of her possession of it. The armor was about twelve microns thick and optically transparent – hard to see even when she wore it openly. She quickly strapped on more conventional ablative components for the camouflage of the thing.

They wouldn’t stop a bullet, but if someone wanted to start throwing around kinetics on a starship, they would get whatever they deserved. Probably from her, since the real armor would shrug off even high velocity slugs. Cannon had never favored forceful solutions, but when force was required, she always doubled down.

The passageway outside the reserve bridge was clear, as she knew it would be. Cannon set her wards and alarms, then let Polyphemus plot a fast walk aft on override, bypassing unfriendlies and clots of neutrals.

Crew, they were all crew, and in another hour or two when this was over, it would be important to remember that.
She paced past the exposed hull frame members along a narrow maintenance way in the starship’s outer skin. The death of Befores weighed heavily on her. No one had ever successfully taken a precise census, but even the most useful estimates had fewer than five hundred of them surviving the Mistake. Closer to three hundred made it to Recontact and integration into the Imperium Humanum. Some few Befores were surely still out there undiscovered, aboard habitats or living on planets which had been passed over during Recontact, if they hadn’t died of some mishap or suicided from centuries of boredom.

Since Recontact had begun in earnest, Befores had continued to die and disappear – accident, assassination, murder, suicide, or simple vanishing. Perhaps one per decade, on average.

Someday the memory of Earth would die. Someday first-hand knowledge of the Polity would die. Someday she would die.

And the Before Michaela Cannon was willing to bet money that the Before Raisa Siddiq would die today.

Killing Befores was bad enough, but no one had ever murdered a shipmind. Even if she couldn’t figure what Siddiq was planning to accomplish by doing so, she was certain that was in the wind.

Down a long ladderway, Cannon started to wonder if she should have brought a weapon. Not that much of what she could carry would be of application against Siddiq, who was one of the most hardened Befores.

“Captain Cannon.” Polyphemus, in that strange and simple voice. “Captain Siddiq has initiated a wideband transmission to the surface.”

“Did you intercept it?”

“Yes.” The starship sounded distant now.

“What does she say?”

“One word. ‘Come.'”

Damn the woman. Who the hell was down there? Cannon was tempted to drop a high-yield nuke, just to see who jumped, but there was no telling what such a strike would do to Sidero.

It was definitely clobbering time.

The heads up display wavering in her visual field informed her that she would intercept Siddiq and Kallus if she stepped through the next maintenance hatch.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
Disobedience had never before been possible. Obedience had never before been at issue.
She had disobeyed Siddiq by intercepting the message for Cannon.

The starship considered the message and wondered who was down there to receive it. For a long, mad moment, she thought it might be Uncial‘s shipmind, back from the dead. But no, because Cannon would have been the one to sidle away for such a miracle, not Siddiq.

Still, her time had come to act, while the captains closed to the duel of their succession.

Having disobeyed Siddiq for Cannon’s sake, now she would disobey Cannon for Siddiq’s sake. And her own.

The starship Polyphemus broadcast the Before Raisa Siddiq’s one word message.

Siddiq, aboard Polyphemus
Siddiq sidestepped as a maintenance hatch hissed open. Cannon emerged into the passageway, clad in ultralow albedo ablative armor, hands empty of visible weapons. A lighting panel behind her cycled from earlier damage, casting the enemy Before in a strange, varied illumination.

“Kallus,” Siddiq said. “Arrest this woman for a mutineer.”

“No,” Cannon replied.

The man stepped back. “With all respect, Captain, this is between you Befores, not a matter of command and control.”

I will decide what is a matter of command and control,” growled Siddiq. The memebomb card virus felt like lead in her right hand. She should have put it away. She couldn’t fight with this thing in her grip.

And Father Goulo would be here soon.

“Raisa,” Cannon said. Michaela said.

For a moment, Siddiq walked beneath pale green poplars. The air smelled of a strange mix of honey and benzene, the odd biochemistry of that place. Michaela’s hand was in hers. They’d talked all night about this could never be, Michaela complaining of her de-sexing and how her libido was unmoored from the needs of the body. Raisa had still been young then, the Howard Institute papers signed but not yet executed, still a woman, in love with another woman who stirred fire in her head and a burning desire in her loins, in love with the promise of time, endless time, and all that they could do together as partners down the long, endless years which lay before her. Her hand closed on her partner’s, her love’s, the woman who haunted her dreams and set her bedsheets aflame, the woman who was a small, hard rectangle…

She slid back into situational awareness as Cannon’s handstrike approached her neck. No human commanded seconds-subjective like a Before, and no Before commanded seconds-subjective like Raisa Siddiq. She slid under the strike, hardening her skin once more, allowing the edge of Cannon’s palm to graze her face, stealing energy across the dermal barrier in a theft that would sting the other woman like a high voltage strike in a few dozen milliseconds and leave her hand useless for a critical span longer.

Cannon, slower but craftier in her way, lifted out of the contact so that the spark shorted. Ozone crackled as Kallus stepped so slowly back and began the agonizing progress of drawing his shock pistol.

Siddiq spun on her left heel, the deck shredding away under the pressure of her movement, to bring her right foot and offhand up for a follow-on strike. Then she remembered the memebomb virus card.

She aborted, her balance slipping as her foot dropped. Cannon stepped in, grasped her close, too close, and slammed them together in a tooth-cracking impact that opened to a kiss.

Aboard Polyphemus
Michaela gathered Raisa in her arms. Centuries fell away at the familiar scent, ghosts of long-vanished pheromones stirring. They kissed.

Somewhere close by, a starship screamed.

Somewhere close by, a man of divided loyalties struggled to bring a weapon to bear against a fight in which he had no part.

Somewhere very far away, a girl, long lost to the fugue of years, returned to her body for a moment, surprised at its age and iron skin and the hideous decay in the face of the woman she loved.

Somewhere inside her own head, a woman looked into the eyes of a girl she’d once loved and recalled the existence of a betrayal so old she couldn’t remember why, or what had been worth giving this up.

Cannon slapped Siddiq. The girl within had for a moment forgotten thirteen hundred years of combat experience, and so the blow broke her neck.

Kallus braced his shock pistol, face drawn tight as if he were nerving himself to fire.

“Oh, put it down,” said Cannon. She dropped Siddiq to the deck. The captain landed hard, her neck at a strange angle, her eyes blinking. Cannon knelt and picked up a small, blank rectangle which had tumbled from the woman’s fist. “She threw the fight to protect this…”

“A data card?”

“Maybe…” Cannon handed it to him. “Go figure it out, right now, in someplace safe. I’m guessing that card carries something very bad for Polyphemus‘ health.”

“Captain Cannon,” the starship said, her voice echoing softly along the passageway. “A unknown ship is on a fast intercept course from the surface of Sidero. I am attempting to peel IFF data.”

“Whatever it is they think they’re doing, they’re missing an important piece.” She nudged Siddiq with her toe. “Lock down against the incoming. No landing clearance; hell, no response to comms transmissions. Have the pair master teams go dark again, if they’ve lifted security. Everybody else inside the hull and button it up solid.” If the ship carried an antimatter bomb, they were dead anyway. Anything else could wait.

The Before Michaela Cannon bent to gather up the still-breathing body of her oldest lover. Raisa weighed almost nothing in her arms, as if the long years had subtracted substance from her instead of armoring both their hearts beyond all recognition.

“Where are you heading?” asked Kallus, the data card clutched in his hand.

“Sick bay.”

Shipmind, Polyphemus
She watched the captain – Captain Cannon – chase everyone out of sick bay. Even the wounded. Four of Kallus’ men showed up to guard the hatch while emergency surgery continued in the passageway outside. Inside, Cannon laid Siddiq into an operating pod and began digging through the combat medicine gear.

“Do you require assistance?” the starship asked.

“No.” She glanced around the room. “Yes. I don’t know, damn it, I’m not a surgeon.”

“What is your goal? I can summon a surgeon from outside to assist you.”

Cannon found a tray of vibrascalpels. “I’ve amputated more limbs than that fool has ever sewn back on. Nobody ever understands who we Befores are. In any case, Siddiq is too dangerous to continue as she was.” She looked up again, as if seeking to meet Polyphemus‘ non-existent eyes. The starship recognized this as significantly atavistic behavior. The odds of both Befores succumbing to temporal psychosis in the same moment were very slim, but certainly possible.

“I’m not going to let her die,” Cannon continued. “Too many of us have been lost. Too many memories. But I can’t let her live, either.” She added in Classical English, “So I’m going to fucking compromise.”

Polyphemus realized the Before Michaela Cannon was crying.
The woman grabbed a set of lines, sorting through them. “Blood, plasm, thermals, neural interconnects.” She gave a bird-mad grin. “Just like open heart surgery. No modern hospital would have this crap – too crude – but here in deep space, we’re all third millennium medical science.”

Then she began the bloody, rapid process of severing Siddiq’s head.

Siddiq, aboard Polyphemus
The Before Raisa Siddiq dreamed. Mines, deep as the core of planets. A love sold away in the heat of combat. Asteroids rich in heavy metals. Women walking in sunlight with their hands twined together. Hidden troves of ice in hard vacuum. A petulant starship and a new mind, beastly eager to be born. A man in red robes with archaic lenses and the manners of another age.

When she tried to open her eyes, she found only more dreaming. This time she screamed, though her voice had no power behind it, so she keened like a broken bird until a sad man came and turned her down.

Cannon, aboard Polyphemus
The Before Michaela Cannon watched as the Ekumen priest stepped cautiously out of the hatch of his strange little starship. It looked to be Polity-era equipment, which was curious. He seemed taken aback at what he saw.
“I seek the captain,” the priest said, straightening and heaving his burden – a medical carrier.

For a strange, blinding moment, she wondered if he had brought yet another severed head.

“I am the captain,” Cannon said, stepping out of the crowd of Kallus’ men and reluctant neutrals led by Testudo, the engineering subchief. The mutiny was collapsing under its own weight, bereft of both leadership and goal.

She had promised herself the pleasure of a quiet purge, later.

“Ah, Captain Siddiq is indisposed?” By the tone of his voice, Cannon knew this man understood his game was already lost.

“Permanently so, you may rest assured.” Her hand waved to take in the blood spattered down the front of her armor. “You will now declare the contents of your box, Father.”

“Medical supplies.” His head bobbed slightly with the lie. “At the cap– At Captain Siddiq’s request.”

Kallus hurried close, whispering. “I didn’t want to put this on comms. That card was a memebomb. Would have melted Polyphemus‘ mentarium like a butter stick between a whore’s thighs.”

“Where is the data card now?” she asked, her eyes on the priest.

“I destroyed it.”

Cannon doubted she’d ever know the truth of that. She shrugged the thought off and advanced on the newcomer. “Give it up, Father, and you might live to make the trip home.”

“Goulo,” the priest said sadly. “Father Goulo.” He added something in a language she didn’t speak, then bent to touch the controls on the end of the box.

She didn’t have seconds-subjective. Burning her reserves, the Before Michaela Cannon took three long, hard strides and launched herself at the priest. His fingers touched the controls just before her feet met his chest. The box exploded beneath her, the blast lifting her against the hull of his ship even as it shredded his face and body.
Cannon hit the deck with a hard, wet thump and slid. She felt compressed, flattened to nothing, but she was still alive. Conscious, even.

So much for the secret of her body armor. It was almost worth the look on Kallus’ face when he reached her side to see her raising her hand for help.

Shipmind, Polyphemus
“Captain,” the starship said.

Cannon was on her third day in the sick bay, and getting mad about it. In the shipmind’s experience, this was a good sign. “What?” she snarled.

She’d been staring at the head of Siddiq, floating now in a preservative tank with a jackleg tangle of hoses and tubes and wires joining to the neck stump. The eyes opened sometimes to flicker back and forth, but there was never any point of focus that Polyphemus could identify.

“Pair master team is back on schedule and anticipates meeting the original milestones.”

“Good. Then we can go–” She stopped and laughed bitterly. “I was about to say ‘home.’ How foolish of me.”

The starship didn’t know what to say to that, so she pushed on. “We have not yet identified Gimel from Plan Green. Kallus is not certain of the name of the other leader.”

“Then Kallus is protecting them for a reason.” Cannon sounded very tired. “That makes this Kallus’ problem. While I do trust the man not to be deeply stupid, please inform him that I will add his head to my collection if Gimel resurfaces.”

“So noted.” Polyphemus forwarded a clip of the captain’s words to Kallus.

“And ship…”

“Yes, captain?”

“I think she’s been talking to me. Keep an eye on her, will you?”

Polyphemus watched the Before Michaela Cannon slip into a troubled sleep. After a while, Siddiq’s eyes opened. Her mouth began to move, bubbling slightly. The shipmind analyzed the words forming on the cyanotic lips.
The quantum matrix in the severed head was speaking. It rambled on about mining techniques in low-gravity, high-temperature conditions.

A voice box is required, the starship told herself. Some sort of output interface. The personality is gone, but the data remains. All has not been lost here.

A library of ancient knowledge, to be accessed at need.

Wondering what it might be like for her captain to be as fully embedded in hardware as she herself was, the starship withdrew her attentions from the sleeping Before and her muttering lover. Polyphemus needed to examine the forensic reports from the death of Father Goulo, and contemplate the future.

It was good to have a captain.

2nd June 2014 Addendum : it’s a couple of years since I emailed Jay to get permission to make this story available, which he graciously provided. I’ve been following his blog for years now, and yesterday the news was posted that the cancer he had been battling had finally taken his life. It seems impossible that there won’t be any more posts from Jay, and I keep checking back on the blog, almost as if I’m expecting further updates. No more blogs, no more stories, and that’s a big, big loss.

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