Story Excerpt

How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry

by Alexander Jablokov

1

Choral music. Sixteen voices, perfect harmony, singing without words. Chords shifting in a pattern. First, third, fifth, minor sixth, and down again. I can hear them, running up and down the scales like a waterfall, their chorus twice as loud as the rest of the music floating through the Boneyard.

Of course, I know there is no music here. I am hearing the malfunctioning tech of a thousand, five thousand, ten thousand ships, all clustered together in an area of space larger than some planets. The sound is the way my head processes the changing energy signatures, although, oddly, I can’t hear any of it when I have my exterior communications link off.

Anyone with a genetic marker that ties them to the Fleet can hear this. Everyone else can’t. Although I’ve never really tested this assumption thoroughly. I don’t know if those of us with the marker hear the same thing.

My mind is wandering, which is dangerous during a dive. I have just exited the Sove, a Dignity Vessel we pulled from the Boneyard months ago, and I’m heading toward a completely intact Dignity Vessel only one hundred meters away. I’m wearing an upgraded environmental suit, with more features than I’ve ever used before. I hate those, but I’ve finally gotten used to the clear hood that seals around the neck, instead of a helmet, like I used to wear.

We’ve sent a line from the Sove’s smallest bay door to the only visible door on the Dignity Vessel, and I’m clinging to that line by my right hand.

I’m facing the Dignity Vessel when the sound catches me.

Elaine Seager, one of the original Six who learned to dive with me way after we discovered the need for markers, is slowly working her way toward the other Dignity Vessel. She’s ever so slightly ahead of me on the line. I was the second one to exit the Sove.

Orlando Rea, another one of the Six, is waiting to exit the Sove. We have strict procedures about the distance between divers on a line. In fact, we have strict procedures about everything. The procedures keep us safe.

“What’s the hold-up?” Yash Zarlengo asks from inside the Sove. She’s monitoring us. She hates diving and avoids it as much as possible. Yash will have to do a lot of it on this trip—she often has to dive when we’re in the Boneyard—but she’s going to dive only after we know what’s inside our target vessel.

I snap to attention, still caught by that sound.

“I’m the hold-up,” I say. “Orlando, you need to go around me and catch up to Elaine.”

“Not procedure, Boss,” Orlando says from behind me. His tone is half-amused, half-chiding. I’m the one who always harps on procedure.

But he does as I ask. He exits the bay door on the right side instead of the left, and grips the line.

I flip my comm so that Yash can’t hear what I have to say to the other two divers.

“You hearing that?” I ask Orlando and Elaine.

Orlando looks around—up, down, sideways. There are ships everywhere. Different kinds, different makes, different eras. As far as we can tell, they’re all Fleet vessels, although some of our team back at the Lost Souls Corporation hopes we’ll find vessels of other makes.

There’s a theory that these ships were stored here during a protracted war. I think the theory’s wishful thinking. Because I love diving ancient and abandoned ships, I’ve learned a lot about history. And one thing that unites human beings, no matter where they live, is their ability to take a historical fact and discard it for a story that sounds ever so much better. The war sounds so much better than a ship graveyard, put here to store abandoned ships until they’re needed—a kind of junkyard in space.

I’ve stopped arguing that point of view, though. I figure time will tell us what this place actually is.

I can’t see Orlando’s face through his hood. He has turned away from me.

I wish the new suits had one more feature. I wish we could monitor each other’s physical reactions in real time. We send that information back to the Sove as we dive, but we don’t give it to each other.

I didn’t help with the design of the new suits, and that was a mistake. Yash designed them to handle the constantly changing energy waves we identified inside the Boneyard. The waves come from all the anacapa drives inside the Boneyard and, Yash thinks, from the Boneyard’s anacapa drives as well. Each drive has a different signature, and malfunctioning drives have even stranger signatures.

We hit the waves as we move across the emptiness from one ship to another, sometimes one wave in the short distance, and sometimes three dozen waves.

Orlando’s hand remains tightly wrapped around the line.

“Yeah,” he says softly, in answer to my question. “I do hear that. I can’t tell where it’s coming from.”

Elaine has stopped a few meters from us.

“Are we diving or not?” she asks.

That annoyed question went across the open channel, which means Yash heard it.

“Is there a hold-up?” she asks again. “Besides Boss?”

I decide to come clean. “We’ve got a strange energy signature.”

“I’m not reading anything from your suits,” Yash says.

I sigh silently. We’re now getting to the thing she hates—the musicality of the Boneyard itself.

“I can hear it,” I say.

“Me, too,” Orlando says. He doesn’t have to. I hope he’s not protecting me.

Even though Yash represents the Fleet on these dives, I’m in charge of them. I still run the Lost Souls Corporation, even if I’ve delegated many of my duties to Ilona Blake. I never go on dives where someone else is in charge.

“Well,” Yash says, “whatever you ‘hear’ isn’t important. Examining that ship ahead of you is.”

She’s right. We are salvaging ships from the Boneyard, and it takes a lot of work. We’ve taken seventeen Dignity Vessels so far, but not all of them work as well as we want them to. We’ve ended up using six of them for parts.

Orlando turns toward me, remembering maybe at this late date, that I’m the one who gives the final orders here.

I nod, then sigh.

“She’s right,” I say. “We’re on the clock. Let’s keep moving forward.”

*   *   *

2

Each dive runs on a timetable. It’s a trick I learned decades ago, when I started wreck diving with teams. If you don’t have a timetable, you can’t measure your progress. You also can’t measure your failure. And often you have no idea something has gone wrong until it’s much too late.

It’s nearly impossible to maintain a consistent clock in the Boneyard. That’s something we’ve been working on since we started diving it. The anacapa waves skew the recording of passing time in various kinds of tech. My biggest fear is that the waves will actually change the way the divers experience time, as opposed to the way the crew on the Sove experiences it.

This differential killed my mother at the abandoned starbase built thousands of years ago by the Fleet that we called the Room of Lost Souls. She didn’t have the genetic marker, and time passed quickly for her. I was with her: time passed the same for me as it did for those outside the room.

Here in the Boneyard, my dive team and I have seen some strange changes due to the anacapa waves—mostly in suit measurements, to be sure—but I worry that the differential that killed my mother will also kill us.

I’ve discussed this repeatedly with Yash. We’ve compensated (we hope) for the differential with the suits. But we’re being excessively cautious on every dive in the Boneyard. We begin our planning back at the Lost Souls Corporation. Which, yes, I named for the Room of Lost Souls, partly as a way to remember that everything we deal with in our work is extremely dangerous.

When we first entered the Boneyard nine months ago now, we scanned the entire yard—we hope anyway. (I’m not so sure.) We found more ships than we can dive in our lifetimes, more ships than a thousand of us can dive in our lifetimes. So, we’re trying to cherry-pick what we need, and even that’s hard, since we have diverse needs.

Yash and the crew of the Ivoire, who got stranded here five thousand years in their future because of a malfunctioning anacapa drive, want to find a way to rejoin the Fleet.

I want enough Dignity Vessels to protect us against the Empire. We had several skirmishes with them not too long ago. With some savvy Fleet tactics and the element of surprise, we won those skirmishes. But I suspect we won’t remain victors forever.

At some point, the Lost Souls Corporation—and the Nine Planets Alliance, which houses us—will gain the attention of the Empire all over again, and we’ll need more than the military savvy and surprise to fight them. We’ll need better ships.

The Fleet’s Dignity Vessels are those ships.

So, back at Lost Souls, we pick the vessel or vessels we’re going to try to pull out of the Boneyard, and then we come here, get as close as we can with the Sove, and explore the chosen ship. Twice we decided the Dignity Vessels we dove were too damaged to take back to Lost Souls. The rest, we dove, and then we reactivated the ships, sending them back to Lost Souls using their own anacapa drives.

It’s been scary and exhilarating, and something I enjoy more than all the politics and business combined.

We remain organized with our dives when we arrive. As excited as some of us get (as I get), we make sure we follow our plan to the letter. That means the first thing we do, after settling in, is hook the Sove and the chosen ship with a grappling line. Then we map the line.

We noticed on our very first dive in the Boneyard all those months ago that the line seems to wobble when it leaves the ship and grips the other ship. As far as we’ve been able to tell, that wobble isn’t an actual bobble, a movement caused by a force exerted on the line.

It’s a perception as the line goes through different anacapa waves and experiences time slightly differently in each wave. We can actually see the changes. Those changes register as a wobble, when they are, in reality, a slowing and speeding up, a slight change in course that we can actually see.

That wobble has made us very cautious. When we map the line, the dive team—whoever that will be—uses the line to travel outside the Sove to the other ship. We have every single piece of data-capture equipment in our suits on. We also have at least one person carrying a small active probe that records everything. Then we bring the data back, and we make a map of the changes in anacapa waves along the line’s path.

The fewest changes we’ve recorded have been three on a single dive, even though—on that dive— the distance between the ships was the longest we had. The most changes we’ve recorded has been twenty-five.

So far, we haven’t been able to figure out an equation that will help us determine how many changes exist in a particular section of the Boneyard. We estimated that our current dive will have six different wave changes between us and the new ship, but we don’t know that for sure.

That frustrates Yash. It frustrates me too.

And it worries me. All the unknowns in the Boneyard excite me and terrify me. Whenever I come here, I feel like the young diver I was on my first few wreck dives, when I realized just how little I knew about ancient space ships and about space itself. Each dive since those early dives has been a challenge. Each dive in the Boneyard takes that original challenge and ratchets it up by a factor of one hundred.

We’re doing something crazy here. And for that reason, I’m enjoying myself immensely.

*   *   *

3

Right now, our task is to map the line. We need to know where all the waves are. We also need to know if there are readings we don’t understand. I’ve learned the hard way to watch out for things like that.

We’re also looking at everything around us.

This particular region of the Boneyard has only a few Dignity Vessels. The one we hope to dive seems to date from the same time period as the Ivoire, the ship that brought Yash to our time period. The other Dignity Vessels that we’ve captured have been newer than the Ivoire, and while the Ivoire’s engineering staff likes that, they’re also intimidated by it.

They want something familiar, so we decided to come to this part of the Boneyard. Our original scans noted the Dignity Vessels here were older than the ones near the first dives we took months ago. We weren’t able to judge the age of the other nearby ships. These are small vessels—planet hoppers, runabouts, and fighters, things used for short distances. The Fleet also uses them as decoys. That way, the populations of the planets the Fleet approaches have no idea that hundreds of large ships are in the area.

The Fleet also uses its small ships to explore planets and other areas, and also to fight some of its battles. Or perhaps I should say used, since we have no idea if the Fleet still follows that practice, or if the Fleet still even exists.

I keep those thoughts to myself most of the time. The surviving crew of the Ivoire chooses to believe that the Fleet still exists and fights with me when I say it doesn’t. I stopped mentioning it—not because I changed my mind, but because the fights are worthless without proof.

I also came to a realization as I indulged in those fights. I was arguing theory. The Ivoire crew was talking about their lives. They needed to believe the Fleet still existed, more than I needed to convince them that it didn’t. They needed something from their past life to hold onto. It kept them moving forward.

I’m moving forward now, slowly, because the music bothers me. It seems to bother Orlando as well, but Elaine hasn’t really noticed it. She hates mapping the line, even though it’s necessary.

Before we go, we always choose the direction we’ll hang from the line. We generally mimic the position of the ship we’ve embarked from. The ship’s artificial gravity creates a sense of up and down that lingers when we do short dives. So we head out in such a way that we can easily get back into the airlock and remain on our feet.

That means our up is the ship’s up, and our down is the ship’s down. It makes discussions easier later—even when we get to the other ship, which will have no artificial gravity on at all. That ship will be tilted, and maybe the ceiling will be our down, but we don’t need to worry about it—not when we’re in the mapping phase.

The choral music seems even louder as I progress along the line. My stomach has knotted and I know soon that Mikk, who is monitoring all of our vitals, will give me the usual caution about the gids. The gids mean that my heart rate is elevated, I’m breathing too rapidly, and my adrenaline is up. That almost always happens to me early in a dive. It’s so common that those who dive with me usually ignore my first five minutes of data—what would be gids for other divers. But I suspect my heart rate has been elevated longer than usual.

I force myself to breathe evenly, and as I do, I realize what’s bothering me. The music should be thin here. The only anacapa drives around us should be from the Dignity Vessel we’re going to dive and the Sove. The Sove’s anacapa drive is just fine. I’m assuming—we’re all assuming—the drive on the Dignity Vessel we’re going to explore is malfunctioning.

We should hear that Dignity Vessel’s anacapa over everything else, a strong kind of reverberating music of some sort or another. And then, faintly, the sounds of other malfunctioning drives much farther away. But this music is strong. Either there’s a very powerful anacapa drive breaking down somewhere far from here—so powerful, in fact, that we can hear it (feel it, experience it, whatever) from a great distance—or something else nearby has an anacapa drive.

“I’m stopping for a moment,” I say to everyone. I need to look around.

“You okay?” This is Mikk from inside the Sove. Those vitals again.

“I’m fine, but something’s odd out here. Orlando, Elaine, please take a look and see what we’re missing. Mikk, are there other Dignity Vessels in the area?” As I say that last, I wince. The Ivoire crew hates the term “Dignity Vessel,” but most of us still use it as shorthand when the Ivoire crew isn’t around.

“The closest is half a kilometer away,” Mikk says. “And that’s measuring on the diagonal.”

What he’s telling me is that the sound should be even fainter with that direct measure. “Thanks,” I say.

“What’s going on?” Yash asks. “Are you coming back to the ship?”

“No,” I say. “We’re going to assess something.” I shut off contact with the Sove again, and say to both Orlando and Elaine, “See if you see part of a Dignity Vessel nearby. Maybe there’s a loose anacapa.”

They both acknowledge me. Then I hook my comm back to the Sove. I keep Yash and Mikk out of the loop, because I don’t want them to focus on the wrong things. I want those of us diving to figure out what we can from here. Then we’ll turn to the map we made of the Boneyard months ago. That map isn’t complete. Nor does it show small bits and pieces of other ships. I don’t want to make assumptions about what’s around us based on partial data.

So, I’m looking at everything. Above me hover two single-seater fighters of a design that Yash tells me got abandoned years before she started as an engineer (so well over five thousand years ago). Even with repairs those fighters will never fly on their own again.

Five planet hoppers cluster below me, and they seem to be in good shape, although I can’t really tell from above.

Directly in front of me, of course, is the Dignity Vessel that we’re planning to dive, and to my right, a runabout that is pockmarked with age. I’ve never seen that model before. It looks old.

Pieces of other ships gather around us, but I don’t see any loose engineering sections or bits of tech. I see nothing that should have an anacapa drive except the Dignity Vessel.

Yash has told me over and over again that anacapa drives do not belong in small ships. That’s a tenet of the Fleet. That tenet prevents the small ships from accidentally traveling elsewhere too rapidly with no backup.

Anacapa drives enable Fleet vessels to travel through a fold in space. The vessels can actually stop in foldspace and spend time there, time that is different than time in the part of space they left.

The Fleet has argued throughout its existence about the nature of foldspace and what, exactly, an anacapa drive does. It always bothers me that the Fleet relies so heavily on technology it doesn’t understand.

Of course, I now rely on it as well.

Ships can travel through entire sectors of space using the anacapa drive—ending up almost unimaginable distances from here. The Fleet has occasionally used the anacapa drive to get out of a bad situation: a ship in the middle of a firefight will hop into foldspace for an hour or so, and return to the area where the fight had occurred half a day or a week later.

The risk for small ships is that they get out too far from the Fleet and have no way to return to the Fleet in a timely manner. Most small ship pilots aren’t as experienced as the crew that runs the Dignity Vessels, and therefore are prone to making serious mistakes.

Yash also believes that anacapa drives are too powerful for small ships. She thinks that anacapa drives could damage a smaller ship, although she has yet to explain the science of that to me.

She and I had a heck of an argument almost a year ago now, when I made her put an anacapa drive into a skip so that we could dive the Boneyard.

She did as I asked, even though, it turned out, we didn’t need that drive to get into the Boneyard. The drive actually kept us out of the Boneyard, since the Boneyard’s shield technology actively blocks unfamiliar anacapa drives from entering—something my brain has still been assessing, ever since we got that piece of information on our first dive here.

“Is that sound coming from the Dignity Vessel?” I ask Elaine and Orlando.

“I don’t think so,” Elaine says. She’s the closest to the Dignity Vessel. “It’s fainter here than it was near the Sove.”

I don’t like the sound of that. It means that something we’re not seeing might actually be threatening the Sove.

I let out a small sigh. This isn’t something we can solve from the line. We need to do some more investigative work, and we need to do it quickly. We don’t want to lose the Sove in here.

“I’m aborting this mission,” I say.

Elaine and Orlando both turn toward me, and I don’t have to see their faces through their hoods to know they’re registering shock.

I almost never abort dives, and if I do, I don’t do it this early. I never do it when there’s no obvious threat or no injury. But something feels off about this entire dive.

They don’t question me, though. They immediately turn around and start pulling themselves back to the Sove. I travel with them, listening to that choral music running up and down a diatonic scale. I know that this isn’t music. I know it’s something else entirely. But it sounds like voices raised in song.

And, more ominously, I find it beautiful.

*   *   *

4

I lever myself through the small bay door right after Orlando, feeling a little chilled. We’re diving out of this side of the Sove instead of one of the main entrances because it’s easier. The equipment we need is strapped against the walls to prevent it from floating away.

The environmental systems are off in here, and we’ve kept the door open to the Boneyard, a risk that Yash believes we can take, since the doors to the interior of the Sove are sealed shut.

There’s no airlock in the bay because it’s designed to launch the kind of small ships that now litter this area of the Boneyard. However, this part of the bay is one of the most solidly built sections of a Dignity Vessel. Dignity Vessels are amazingly well built. But when we decided to use the Sove as our main diving ship, we reinforced it with a layer of brand-new nanobits, strengthening the standard design.

We also reinforced the interior of this bay, for an added layer of protection.

It’s probably overkill. The Sove is more ship than we need. The Fleet’s large-sized ships, the ones people of my era call Dignity Vessels, but the Fleet just calls “ships,” are built for five hundred to a thousand people. Most of those people are not crew. A single Dignity Vessel can be a small city, with doctors and psychiatrists and chefs and artists and teachers as well as engineers and military personnel. Or the Dignity Vessel has a particular purpose, like some of the school ships that the captain of the Ivoire, Jonathan “Coop” Cooper, has told me about.

Most of the people on a DV don’t touch the equipment that makes the ship run. As a result, the ship can operate well with a skeleton crew of less than twenty. But it can also function with a crew of four, if need be.

I’ve only flown on a Dignity Vessel with a full compliment of crew a few times, back in the early days of the Ivoire’s arrival in this time period. Since then, many people in the Ivoire’s crew have gone on to other lives or different careers. It’s been years since the Ivoire was fully staffed.

Now, at Lost Souls, we’re training new Dignity Vessel crew members, because we have other Dignity Vessels. We never fully staff the ships. We don’t have enough people yet.

On this trip, we have a crew of forty, many of them divers, which means that the Sove is much more ship than we need.

However, Yash argued for Dignity Vessels to dive the Boneyard. After our second trip here, I finally saw the wisdom in her argument. She likes the power of a Dignity Vessel—the weaponry, the ability to jump into foldspace and get away quickly—combined with the space of the bays. In the future, she wants us to fill the Sove’s six cargo bays with small ships, so that we won’t just have Dignity Vessels at Lost Souls, we will have all the back-up ships as well.

Her plans are all wise. I’m happier in the larger vessel, even though I hadn’t thought I would be. And I love the idea of taking the smaller ships back to Lost Souls. We can revive some of the ships and cobble the others for parts. Best of all, we can learn from their tech.

Diving with a purpose other than exploration. Salvage, in a way that I never thought I would do.

I also like having the Dignity Vessel at my disposal, especially here in the Boneyard. Since our run-ins with the Empire, we’ve been using Dignity Vessels to patrol the border between the Nine Planets Alliance and the Empire. The Nine Planets have been using other ships as well, but none of those ships compare to a Dignity Vessel.

I had initially thought we would use all but two of our Dignity Vessels to patrol that border. I figured that, as we got more and more Dignity Vessels, our patrols would increase. But I lack a military mind. I also had no idea what it took to fly these things.

Both Yash and Coop convinced me to use the Sove as a training ship. Twenty of our forty-member crew are in training, learning how to run all of the equipment on board in an actual mission, rather than in some kind of simulation.

In addition to Yash, who focuses on the mission itself, there’s always someone from the Ivoire’s original crew on the Sove, running the trainees. This time, we’re focusing mostly on engineering, so Zaria Diaz is in charge of them on this trip. Zaria was second engineer when the Ivoire arrived in our timeline.

I have no idea what Zaria’s rank is now. Coop’s been trying to keep up with the Fleet protocols, which I find rather ridiculous. But I don’t tell him that either.

Elaine enters the bay doors last. She pushes away from the doors. I retract the line, then close the doors. They close slowly, a design feature that I usually appreciate, but I dislike greatly in this circumstance.

The sound of the Boneyard haunts me until the doors finally press closed. I let out a small sigh, as if I’ve been under pressure myself, then I reach over to the wall and reestablish environmental controls.

As the artificial gravity slowly reasserts itself, we float to the bay’s floor. We wait until our suits register a full environment before pulling off our hoods.

The bay’s normal internal silence feels like an emptiness, and that thought horrifies me as well. Not just on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one: the hair on the back of my neck is literally standing on end. I resist the urge to swipe at it. It’ll settle down when I do.

I wonder if Mikk is still monitoring my vitals. I wonder how they read when I’m deeply horrified.

“What’s wrong?” Orlando asks.

I’m not sure I can explain it all to him. I’m not even going to try, at least not in here. “Let’s meet with Yash and the other divers,” I say, as a deliberate dodge. The time it’ll take to assemble everyone will give me a few moments to myself. It’ll give me a moment to shake off my past.

*   *   *

5

My mother’s final words were Beautiful. Oh, so beautiful.

I know this, because I was the only one who heard them.

My mother and I got trapped inside part of the Room of Lost Souls. She died horribly in there, aging at a rapid rate. By the time my father pulled her out, she was little more than a skeleton.

I was fine. Terrified, but fine.

I have the genetic marker that protects someone exposed to malfunctioning anacapa drives. My mother did not. Coop had visited the ancient Room of Lost Souls many times when it was active. Then it was known as Starbase Kappa. In his memory, it was a living, breathing space station. Once he arrived here, he heard what it had become.

He actually led a mission there to deactivate the malfunctioning anacapa in the station, so that more people would not die. The station’s malfunctioning drive shut down too late for my mother and hundreds, maybe thousands, of others.

But after I learned about anacapa drives and the way that the genetic marker interacted with them, I thought the temptations at the Room of Lost Souls only beckoned the unwary.

Today, on this dive, was the first time I’ve had to reassess that assumption. I’ve loved the Boneyard since my first dive here—a passionate, rather unreasonable, love. But I always assumed that love was based in my own history. I am a historian. I love old things. I love wrecks, and I love mysteries—ancient mysteries—wrapped in technology. The Boneyard is almost tailor-made for me.

Today, though . . . today, I felt something different. I felt an attraction to something so strong that I could have lost myself in it. I could have walked into that sound forever, the way that my mother’s hands reached for the lights she saw that accompanied the sounds she heard.

I’m still not sure if she was aware of the fact she’d been dying that day—those days (at least for her). I’m not sure if she would have changed anything had she been aware of it. She had been completely captivated by the energy around her.

As I was today.

And that’s why I aborted the mission. I was scared, for the first time in a long time.

I don’t admit that to the others, though. If I do, they’ll never let me dive the Boneyard again. Even though I’m the one in charge of everything, I can’t dive alone, and they know that. No one will accompany me. Everyone will consider me dangerous.

And I find myself wondering: Am I dangerous?

I let the thought slide off me as I head to the conference room. We’ve commandeered the nicest conference room near the bridge. One of the culinary staff keeps it constantly supplied with fresh coffee, tea, and water, as well as each diver’s favorite personal beverage. There’s fresh fruit as well, and some pastries for those of us who like to indulge.

The food doesn’t look good to me at the moment. I’m still too wrapped up in the dive. Instead, my gaze goes to the holographic map of the Boneyard that we’ve managed to assemble over the months. The Boneyard is huge, and it has blank spots that we can’t seem to map no matter what kind of equipment we use. We’re probably going to have to explore it with a Dignity Vessel, but I’m not ready to do that. And neither is anyone else.

My gaze goes to the holographic map and then to the smaller representation of the area we have chosen to dive. Our target ship is a different color than the other ships in that model, just so that we know exactly what we’re looking at.

Someone has updated that map to include the Sove as well.

I’m the last to arrive, which surprises me. I only stopped in my cabin for a minute to change out of the clothes I wear underneath my suit. I didn’t even take time to shower. I splashed cool water on my face and then came directly here.

Mikk sits at the head of the table. He’s been at my side for years. He’s one of the best divers I’ve ever known, and he rarely complains about not being able to dive things like the Boneyard. We can’t send him unprotected into the Boneyard, but Fleet-designed ships protect people without the genetic marker from a malfunctioning anacapa drive.

Yash and Coop had told me that for a long time before I was willing to test it. And, if I was being honest with myself, I hadn’t been willing to test it at all. Mikk and a few other members of Lost Souls decided to test it themselves. They had known they could die, and they hadn’t cared.

I like that kind of courage in the face of exploration, and I hate it at the same time. Especially when people I care about test things that scare me. And malfunctioning anacapa drives scare me.

Of course, Yash was right. She knew Fleet tech better than any of us. However, she can’t convince me to let Mikk (or any of the others without the genetic marker) dive the Boneyard.

I don’t want to risk his life based on the strength of the suit technology. We know the layers of nanobit construction protect him in the Sove, but the environmental suits are simply one thin layer against a cold and unforgiving universe.

Mikk himself has never argued to go on these Boneyard dives. Right now, he watches me, arms folded in front of himself, and there’s something in his eyes, an unease, maybe? He looks as strong as ever, but his face is set in hard lines.

Yash sits next to him. She looks as strong as he does. Like Mikk, she was raised in real gravity, and it shows in the thickness of her bones and the layers of muscle along her powerful body. She wears her hair short so that she doesn’t have to deal with it, although at the moment it could use a comb.

So could Orlando’s. He doesn’t look like he’s done anything except remove his suit. He looks tiny compared to the two of them—a true wreck diver, the kind of thin, wiry man who can go into every nook and cranny. He didn’t start diving until I found him, thanks to an Empire study of people who could survive in what they called “stealth tech.” Stealth tech was really anacapa waves, but the Empire didn’t know that. I’m not sure they know it now.

And Elaine sits at the foot of the table, chewing on the cuticle on her left thumb. That surprises me. Elaine, who is nearest to my age, is usually calm. That’s one of the reasons I like diving with her. She’s generally unflappable.

I grab some water, then sit down. I’m still a little emotionally unsettled. That callback to my mother’s death upset me more than I want to consider.

Yash frowns at me. “You aborted the mission without discussing it with me,” she said.

She doesn’t dive—or rather, doesn’t dive much. She’s used to a more military structure. Even if we were operating in a military structure right now—and we aren’t—I’m in charge of the dives.

But I’m not going to fight with her about that. Not here, not in front of the others. Maybe not ever. Because, on one level, she’s right: we should discuss before aborting early in a dive, especially given the time and resources we spend getting here.

“That’s right,” I say after I take a sip of the water. “We couldn’t stay out there.”

“We saw no danger there,” she says.

“I know,” I say, “and that might be a problem.”

She frowns at me. So does Mikk. But Elaine is nodding, and Orlando looks as unsettled as I feel.

“What happened?” Yash asks.

“There’s another malfunctioning anacapa drive,” I say, “and we couldn’t spot it from the line.”

I explain the music without going into detail about how beautiful it is. How it lured me. I do mention how loud it was, and Elaine adds that she couldn’t hear it as strongly close to the ruined Dignity Vessel we had targeted.

Yash’s frown grows deeper. She looks at Orlando, as if asking him for confirmation of what we’re saying.

“The sound was strong,” he says. “And I didn’t see any ship it could have come from.”

We all turn, almost as a unit, to that area holomap of the Boneyard. I scan it, looking for any kind of Dignity Vessel that would be close enough to cause the reaction the three of us had.

We had deliberately chosen this particular Dignity Vessel because it was close to our entry point into the Boneyard, it was located near the edge of the Boneyard, and there weren’t other Dignity Vessels around it. We are still a bit skittish, worried that maybe we are being watched.

The Boneyard itself had fired on us once, as we were taking ships out of it the very first time. We don’t know if the Boneyard can attack us while we’re inside the Boneyard. We also don’t know if the Boneyard will attack us using its shielding equipment, or if some of these ships are set up to act as security around the Boneyard, when something triggers a built-in automated response.

I like to think that no one would have designated a ship with a malfunctioning anacapa to defend the Boneyard, but we still don’t know exactly what this place is, so we’re not sure what we’re facing.

Yash leans toward the area holomap, peering at it as if it provides answers. She’s slowly shaking her head.

“None of the small ships should have anacapa drives,” she says, “and you didn’t see bits of equipment floating loosely.”

“We didn’t,” I confirm, even though she really wasn’t asking me. She was just reiterating what I had said, as if she was trying to process it all.

“Hmm,” she says. “There’s no real empty area around here, where something could be shielded. Unless . . .”

“Unless?” I ask.

She shakes her head firmly, as if dismissing the idea.

“Unless?” I press.

She looks over at me. “Unless they’ve masked a signature. What we’re reading as a group of small ships aren’t.”

“Can they do that?” I ask.

Anger flashes in her eyes, but it disappears almost as quickly as it appears. Then she shrugs, as if she’s calm, which she clearly is not.

“I have no idea what the Fleet can or cannot do,” she says. “Five thousand years ago, no, we couldn’t do that. And we haven’t discovered that technology in any of the ships we’ve pulled so far.”

“Then,” I say slowly, “why are you mentioning it as a possibility?”

“Because,” she says. “Everything is a possibility now. I have the feeling that if we can imagine it, it might have already been built.”

Sounds magical to me, but I’m not going to say that. I know the weight of time has fallen on the crew of the Ivoire in a way that I don’t entirely understand. I also know that we can’t be chasing phantoms when we’re faced with real challenges.

I need to learn that as well. My mother is a phantom. What happened to her happened decades ago, and I am a different person, in a different place.

“We don’t have the technology either,” I say. “Not Lost Souls, not the Nine Planets, not the Empire. So let’s go with what we know.”

Yash doesn’t move for a moment, and I wonder if she even heard me. Then she slaps a hand on the table. It vibrates, but the holomap doesn’t. It looks constant and unchanging.

“You did the right thing, aborting,” she says.

I don’t want to acknowledge that. Of course I did the right thing. And I don’t have to justify it. Not even now.

“We need to scan. We need to investigate every little corner of this part of the Boneyard. We can’t send anyone out there again until we know.”

She looks at me, as if she expects me to back her up. I smile just a little, because I can’t help it.

Yes, we need to do those things. Yes, I already had that thought. Yes, that’s why I aborted the mission. But I don’t say that. I don’t need to.

She looks surprised at my expression, and then she smiles, just a little sheepishly. She doesn’t apologize—Yash rarely apologizes—but she shrugs again. “It’ll take some time,” she says.

“I know,” I say, and realize I’m calmer than I’ve been since we got back. Now we’re in familiar territory for me. Dive a little, research a lot, look for hazards, account for the hazards, dive again.

Mikk leans back, out of Yash’s range of vision, and gives me a small grin. He approves. He also knows, as I do, that we have a lot of work to do before we can dive again.

*   *   *

6

After our meeting, Yash disappears into Engineering. She is going to work with all the trainees and Zaria. They’re going to design a program to account for the masking that Yash is talking about. It has to do with spatial relations and size, and maybe something existing half-in and half-out of foldspace.

I think that’s all too complicated. So does Mikk. He and I sit in the conference room long after Yash has left.

I grab a slice of bread, spread some whitish-purple sauce on it that tastes vaguely of plums, and top it with shredded carrots. Then I fold it in half. A makeshift meal, until I can get a real one. I set the meal next to my water and sit back down. Mikk hasn’t moved.

“So what’s really bothering you?” he asks.

I’m not sure if he’s asking that because of the readings on my suit from earlier or because he knows me well enough to know there’s more to the story than what I told Yash. Or both.

“We need to check those small ships,” I say.

“Yash says the Fleet doesn’t put anacapa drives in small ships,” Mikk says.

“I know what Yash says.” I take a bite out of the sandwich. It’s better than I expected. Or I’m hungrier than I thought I was. “I also know her information on the Fleet is five thousand years old.”

He stares at me for a moment, probably shocked that I said that aloud. We’ve all been very circumspect in how we deal with the Ivoire crew. They’re fragile people, even though they’ve been in our timeline for years now.

We don’t discuss how long they’ve been here, how old their information is, how wrong they might be. We try to be kind to them, because we’re in an odd circumstance.

Even though their tech is five thousand years old, it’s more advanced than ours. A few of the staff at Lost Souls, particularly César Voris, a historian who has worked with me for years, believe that it’s possible the modern Fleet—if there is such a thing—are as backward as we are now.

Over centuries, we lost our tech. Lots of knowledge has completely disappeared. It’s possible that the same thing happened to the Fleet.

Of course, if I bank on that, then I’m making the same mistakes that Yash is. I’m basing my opinions on the way the universe works in my time period, not in all others.

“You think the Fleet added anacapa drives to small ships?” Mikk sounds incredulous. “You think they actually got past all those fears that Yash brings up every time we mention adding anacapa drives to our skips?”

“She got past it once,” I say. “We have a skip with an anacapa.”

“And she blames you for it,” he says.

“As she should,” I say. “It was my idea. And it’s my responsibility if anything goes wrong.”

Mikk leans back, tilting his chair just enough so that he can reach the sideboard without getting up. He grabs a spotted apple, one of his favorite things. He doesn’t eat it, though. He clutches it, as if it’s a ball and he’s about to throw it.

“We have enough staff on this ship,” he says after a moment. “We can actually run the scans without disturbing the calculations she’s doing.”

“You and I can run the scans,” I say. “It’s not hard. It’s probably not even going to be time-consuming.”

He grins at me. “You’re going rogue, Boss.”

I give him a sideways, disapproving look, even though I’m amused at his tone. “Why is that funny?” I ask.

“Because you own the company,” he says. “You don’t have to hide from your employees.”

I’ve been hiding from my employees ever since I got employees. Especially employees whose names I can’t remember, if I learned them at all. Lost Souls now employs more people than some starbases. “Technically,” I say, becoming serious, “Yash isn’t one of my employees.”

“Yeah,” he says, “but everyone else is.”

I know, and there are days—weeks, months, even—when that bothers me. I like to pretend, as I’m doing right now, like I’m back in my own ship, Nobody’s Business, and I’m dealing with a small crew hired for one particular job.

I hired Mikk for several jobs in the past, before he became an employee of Lost Souls. In some ways, going rogue with him, as he said, will feel like old times.

I smile. “Let’s do this thing,” I say.

He smiles in return. “Thought you’d never ask.”

*   *   *

7

Mikk and I go to my suite. I have commandeered the captain’s suite. When we first started using the Sove, I hadn’t wanted a suite that big. It’s a small apartment with two bedrooms, a living area, a full kitchen, a large bathroom, and an entire other small apartment’s worth of equipment.

It was the equipment that ultimately convinced me to make the suite mine. Because buried in the specs for that suite, as Coop showed me one afternoon, is a back-up bridge. If I have to, I can fly this entire ship by myself from the suite. Not that I can comfortably fly a Dignity Vessel. But I’ve learned enough to get us home in an emergency.

And this little room, with its back-up bridge, makes the captain’s suite too dangerous to give to someone else or even leave unattended. So I took it, and hope I never have to use it.

The back-up bridge is built for one person to use comfortably, but two can squeeze into it. There’s a pilot’s chair, lots of navigational equipment, a space for holoimages, and a large screen on the far wall. There’s also more computing power than I have ever had on any ship I ever used for diving.

It’s that computing power that I want right now. Mikk and I squeeze into the back-up bridge. I sit in the pilot’s chair. He stands behind me, uncomfortably close. I can see his reflection on the navigational board.

I am not sure how much he knows about the back-up bridge. He knows it’s here, but I’m not sure he knows how to use it. I should probably teach him, since in some ways, I trust him more than I trust Yash.

I lean so that Mikk can see over my shoulder, and hit the very first commands Coop ever taught me. I isolate the back-up bridge from the regular bridge and from engineering. No one in those departments will know that I’m using the equipment here.

I’m not sure why I’m being so secretive. If someone were to ask me, I’d say it’s because being secretive is a habit for me. I’ve always kept my own counsel. But there’s more to it than that. A couple of impulses, in fact. I don’t want Yash to know that I think she’s chasing fantasies. I’m being protective of yet another Ivoire crew member. I also don’t want an argument from her. I want to present a fait accompli if, indeed, I do find something.

I tap one more control on the board. A rather uncomfortable stool-like chair rises out of the floor near the other side of the room.

“That’s yours, I’m afraid,” I say to Mikk.

He grins, then heads over and sits down. I transfer his identification data to the other board, and he runs through his own personal i.d. sequence. Then we begin.

Mikk and I have done this kind of search before, long before Lost Souls became as big as it has. We have old programs that look for malfunctioning “stealth tech,” which is what we thought anacapa drives were, before we learned about the Fleet.

Those scans work better than some of the Fleet-designed scans because ours are built to look for malfunctioning tech, not anacapa signatures in general. Plus, ours have been refined over the years to look for very slight signals, where none of the Fleet-designed scans were initially designed to find anything that was near the end of its natural life.

The biggest challenge for Mikk and me isn’t finding the malfunctioning anacapa signals. It’s finding the correct one in a morass of signals. We will have to examine all of the scans pretty closely, because we don’t have time to redesign the program. We need to find whatever this is relatively quickly, in case we’re being threatened by something we don’t quite comprehend.

We dig in, just like we used to do before we ever met the crew of the Ivoire. Before Lost Souls. Before we were anything but a small wreck-diving team, with a focus on history, a team that stumbled onto something big, something that changed our small corner of the universe—forever.

Five hours in, we find it. The malfunctioning anacapa is in the ancient, damaged runabout I had noticed when we were mapping the line. That runabout had looked like nothing consequential, and yet it’s giving off a malfunctioning anacapa signal that’s stronger than anything I’ve ever seen.

We leave my quarters, and I take the news to Yash myself.

*   *   *

8

Yash is working in the engineering section of the Sove, five levels down from the captain’s quarters. It’s strange to walk through the nearly empty ship. I’ve been in a lot of empty Dignity Vessels, now that we have a number of them at Lost Souls, but never while they’re in flight.

There’s a hum to the ship, a quiet vibration that happens whenever a Dignity Vessel’s full life-support system kicks on. The lights, artificial gravity, and temperature controls make some kind of sound that I can sense. Maybe it’s similar to the sounds I hear when I’m around malfunctioning anacapa drives, because Yash denies that there’s any difference between a functioning Dignity Vessel and one that’s mostly shut down.

I think she’s so used to being on Dignity Vessels that there are sounds and feelings she has tuned out since childhood, things that sound unusual to me. The humming semi-silence on the Sove doesn’t unnerve me as much as it makes me uncomfortable. That sense that we’re on a ship too large for our mission hits me again.

I make my way to engineering, taking an extra check of my mood. I have calmed down now that we’ve done the search. I’m far enough away from that music that it seems like I overreacted. Maybe I did. But I am going to keep an eye on myself.

And before my next dive, I will probably talk to Mikk about that reaction—if I can figure out how to discuss it without getting myself sidelined.

The engineering section of the Sove is really three levels of the ship. Equipment, programs, experimental areas, and teaching areas all exist within the Sove, just like most of the Dignity Vessels I’ve been in.

But Yash and her team are working out of the main engineering area. Doors swish open as I walk into that part of the ship. The front section, buried deep inside the ship itself so that it would be hard to damage, has a strange, pale blue and gold light when it’s in use.

I don’t understand any of the equipment down here, even though different people have explained it to me in different ways. I know enough about ships to repair my own skip, to use my own single-ship, and to save my own life with modern tech built by the Empire or some private company from my time. But there’s a lot to Fleet-built equipment that makes no sense to me at all—and that’s before we get to the anacapa drive. The anacapa drive, which unnerves me most of all because no Fleet engineer understands it entirely.

I’m not even sure of the history of the drive, only that it’s deeply tied to the Fleet’s identity and history. Once the Fleet got anacapa drives, it traveled farther than it had before. The anacapa drive made the Fleet of old into the Fleet that raised Yash and Coop. The starbases, scattered all over sectors, the sector bases built across distances that make my brain hurt, and the Fleet itself, moving ever forward, came about because the anacapa drive can take the ships into foldspace for brief moments of time and then bring them back elsewhere.

The anacapa drives also malfunction more than any other part of the ship, which I find nearly unacceptable.

Coop and Yash consider it a fact of life.

Yash is standing in the center of the room, looking at a holomap of the area around the Sove. A square box moves through the three-dimensional map, changing color as it goes.

I’m guessing that this is the program she designed to see if some Dignity Vessel is masking itself as a smaller vessel.

“Finding anything?” I ask.

She jumps. She clearly did not hear me enter the engineering area.

I don’t see the rest of her team, but that means nothing. There are rooms and more rooms off this main area. One floor down is the anacapa drive itself, housed in a protective area, even though the drive is relatively small.

That’s a change that we’ve made, something I ordered once we started using Dignity Vessels for patrol and to come back to the Boneyard. The first Dignity Vessel I ever dove had its anacapa drive just off the bridge. That ship was older than the Ivoire, but the Ivoire’s design isn’t too much different than that.

Since I’ve seen a lot of death in malfunctioning anacapa fields, I don’t like the idea of having an anacapa drive so close to critical personnel. If someone dies near an anacapa drive, they’ll do so because they ventured near the drive, not because the drive is badly placed.

Yash looks at me, blinks as if she isn’t quite sure why I’m here, and then straightens. She had been slightly bent as she worked in that model, and apparently she’d been standing that way for a long time. She puts her hand on her back and stretches just a little. I can hear the muscles pop, something that only happens with those who were landborn, like us.

“I haven’t found anything yet,” she says, “and I’m thinking that’s a good thing. I don’t want to find a hidden vessel.”

I nod, agreeing.

“This is the third scan we’ve done,” she says. “The first looked for active anacapas in the large ships nearby. We also looked for something that might be designed to keep the Boneyard protected, some special tech that we haven’t seen before.”

“Good thinking,” I say. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

She lets out a breath, then shakes her arms and wrists. She must have been studying that model for much longer than she realized.

“I’m worried that the Boneyard has a lot of surprises for us,” she says. “I’m just not sure how to find them.”

Me either, but I don’t want to discuss that at the moment. It seems like a tangent.

“Our second scan was to look for a large enough space to fit one of our major ships,” she says. “But we didn’t find that either. Zaria designed the scan I’m looking at now. We ran it once and found nothing. I’m running it again, slower this time, because you know how new programs are. They often miss things just because of the newness of their designs.”

“I know.” I don’t add that’s why I used our older program. I’m not going to rub it in. She can figure that out if she wants, later, after we’re done with this trip.

“I’ll contact you when we figure out where the signature is coming from,” she says. “There’s a lot of interference—”

“We found the malfunctioning drive,” I say, gently. “Mikk and me.”

Yash stops and blinks hard again, processing. I understand how that feels. I’ve been so deep in research and work that it takes a while for my brain to switch to something new. I’ve just never seen Yash like this. But I’ve never seen Yash hard at work before either.

“You and Mikk?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say, not explaining further. “The bad anacapa signature is coming from the ancient runabout.”

I step past her and touch the holographic image of the runabout. It’s almost impossible to see at this magnification. Yash is looking at a section of the Boneyard, and the most visible ships are the Dignity Vessels. The runabout looks like an old-fashioned rivet, the kind I found in that very first Dignity Vessel I dove, years and years ago.

Yash shakes her head. “It can’t be.”

“That’s what we thought.” I lie to her. I want her to think I believe, as she does, that the Fleet would never use anacapa drives in small ships. But I see this as one more piece of evidence that the Fleet she knew is long gone.

“It makes no sense to put an anacapa in a vehicle that small,” she says, not arguing with me, but instead arguing with the engineers who designed the thing. Long-dead engineers most likely.

“We have no idea what the Fleet ran up against,” I say. “Maybe there was a reason for the change.”

“I can’t imagine what it would be.” Yash moves to a console that I hadn’t even noticed. It juts out from the wall not far from us. She taps the surface.

I walk over to her side, skirting the gigantic holomodel.

“It is one of our ships,” she says more to herself than me. “Or, at least, it uses technology that we designed. The interior design is different than anything I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean much. If someone added an anacapa drive to a runabout, the design would have to change to compensate.”

She shakes her head.

“But anacapas are for long-distance travel, and runabouts aren’t. They can’t even hold enough supplies or crew to handle distance travel. At most, a few years of supplies could be stored in the runabout, and that’s for a small crew, maybe four at most.”

Yash looks up at me, a frown furrowing her forehead. “This makes no sense,” she says.

“I know,” I say. I agree with that much. I believe her argument against anacapa drives in small ships. I’m reluctant to use the skip she modified now, because it has an anacapa drive. Too many things can go wrong.

“The ship is old, too,” she adds, more to herself than me. “The nanobits are sloughing off the exterior. That takes centuries to occur.”

“Even if there’s a malfunctioning anacapa field?” I ask.

Yash makes a small curious noise, as if she hadn’t thought of that. Her fingers are still moving across the console, searching for something.

She finally lets out a sigh and stops. “You’re right,” she says. “There’s a slight anacapa field here. And I didn’t think to look for it. Yet you and Mikk did.”

“It’s our training,” I say, not wanting her to think she’s losing her edge. “We look for damaged ships to dive, not at how to improve things that already exist.”

Even though she doesn’t lift her head from that console, I can see her cheeks move as she smiles.

“You know, Boss,” she says, “you present yourself as one tough woman with a hard interior. But you’re quite nice when you want to be. You didn’t have to smooth things over for me.”

I’m a little offended. I don’t like being called nice. Nice, to me, means that I’m failing somehow. “Just being honest,” I say, and I am. Mikk and I have different training from Yash.

Then I realize she called me “Boss.” She and Coop do their best to avoid the name everyone else uses for me. They don’t like the idea of someone else having that moniker, even though I’m not—and never really will be—their boss.

Yash taps something on the console, then straightens. The console’s screen goes dark.

I have no idea what she has just done.

She turns toward me. “If we’re going to dive the ship we came for,” she says, “we need to deal with this runabout first. That anacapa drive on it seems to be in its final death throes.”

Was that why its music seemed so alluring to me? Or was there another reason?

“You’re seeing that as a problem,” I say. “I’m not entirely sure I understand what the problem is.”

“I don’t know when that anacapa was built,” she says. “I don’t know what it’s made out of. I’m not even sure how one can fit inside a runabout comfortably. There might be modifications we don’t know about.”

“There probably are,” I say.

She nods, once, as if she’s conceding a point. And maybe she is.

“Yeah,” she says, “there probably are. And that’s not good.”

“Because . . . ?”

“Because dying anacapas can be dangerous and unpredictable. Some blow up. Some activate a field in a large area around the anacapa drive itself, sending everything in that area into foldspace. That’s the theory, anyway. I’ve never been near a dying anacapa, not this kind, anyway.”

I’ve been around several. And they terrify me.

“And,” she adds, “then there’s just the possibility that the dying anacapa might interact with nearby anacapas.”

“And do what?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Take us all somewhere, maybe. Cause a feedback loop of some kind, maybe. Create something that might interfere with the Boneyard itself, maybe.”

I grow cold. “If it interacts with the Boneyard,” I say slowly, “the Boneyard might attack us again.”

“Yeah.” She wipes a hand over her mouth, as if she can prevent herself from talking. She doesn’t, though. She says, “And then there’s the issue of leaving.”

“The issue of leaving,” I repeat. That sounds ominous. “What exactly are you afraid of?” Even though I think I know. I want her to say it. She’s the anacapa expert, not me.

She squares her shoulders and takes a deep breath.

“I’m not sure what will happen when we activate our anacapa,” she says. “And if we activate ours at the same time as we activate the one on the other ship—”

The Dignity Vessel we plan to dive. We used that same plan months ago, when we needed to get a Dignity Vessel out of the Boneyard quickly.

“—those anacapa fields might do something to that runabout’s anacapa drive, something I can’t predict.”

I swallow hard. I’ve heard that activating anacapas—large ones—occasionally creates blowback, which is why Coop always insists on activating a Dignity Vessel’s anacapa drive away from anything connected to Lost Souls. He says anacapas should be activated as far from anything important as possible, unless it’s an emergency.

But I’ve never heard him or anyone else connected with the Fleet say that the arrival of a ship out of foldspace can cause a problem.

Logically, though, it should.

“Why didn’t our anacapa drive interact with that runabout’s anacapa drive when we arrived?” I ask.

She bites her lower lip. She’s clearly thinking about this hard. “My initial response,” she says, “is that the Sove didn’t cause any problems because the largest surge in anacapa energy occurs when we activate the drive, not when we shut it off.”

“But?” I ask, hearing that word in her tone.

“But there is a change in the nearby energy readings whenever a ship arrives out of foldspace,” she says.

I remember. I had been in an underground chamber—the ruins of a Fleet sector base—when the Ivoire first arrived, finally freed from the foldspace prison where it had been trapped—ship time—for weeks. In my universe, the real universe, our universe, the Ivoire had been missing for five thousand years.

When the Ivoire arrived, we registered energy readings. The Ivoire also brought the coldness of space with it, and a host of other smaller things, including some condensation. We didn’t know it all at the time. We were too startled by a huge ship appearing out of nowhere.

I didn’t think about that as we brought the Sove back into the Boneyard. Our very presence here has probably made some kind of difference in the nature of the Boneyard itself.

“Be clear,” I say, “because I am not the expert. What do you mean, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I really don’t. This is all new to me.”

We stare at each other.

“Could the reason that anacapa is malfunctioning be our fault?” I ask, partly because I will keep turning that particular possibility over and over in my mind if I don’t.

“No,” she says. “The malfunction isn’t our fault. But the acceleration of the deterioration might be. The fact that it’s nearly done—or even the power of the energy signal, yeah, that could all be our fault. Just for arriving here.”

I curse and rub my hand over the back of my neck. That sends a shiver through me.

“Or,” she says, sensing my change in mood, “maybe nothing’s different. Maybe there will be no interaction at all. As I said, I have no way to know any of it.”

“And no way to model the possibilities?” I ask.

“If we have a lot of time, sure,” she says. “But I would think we want to get out of here as fast as possible.”

I’m shaking my head before I say anything.

She glances at the holographic map, as if it reinforces her thinking. She’s going to argue—hard—that we need to return to Lost Souls.

“No, we want that ship.” I caught myself before I said Dignity Vessel. “We need to explore it. And we’re going to run into all kinds of other issues in the Boneyard when we bring the Sove back, even if we go to another section.”

I sigh, thinking. Then I walk around the model, looking at the ships of all sizes, scattered haphazardly in the Boneyard itself. The Boneyard holds them in position using yet another kind of technology that we only hazily understand. There’s no gravity here, but it’s not pure space either. The ships aren’t drifting. They’ve gathered, and they’re in a kind of protective bubble.

We’re always cautious around anacapa drives. We’re also cautious with the Boneyard, since there’s much we still don’t understand. We’ve always assumed that the Dignity Vessels had anacapa drives. However, we’ve never approached the other ships as if they have anacapas.

This runabout changes everything. We now have to search all the small ships and make sure that they don’t have a functioning drive inside.

“We’ve done some of the work,” I say, more to myself than to her. “We know that the other small ships nearby do not have anacapa drives—or if they do, the drives are not functioning at all.”

“You know that?” she asks. “Your program is that accurate?”

I give her a small smile.

“We used to search for stealth tech, back before we knew you. It was valuable and it was dangerous. After a bad experience with an early Fleet vessel”—I nearly said “Dignity Vessel” again—“we tried to stay clear of stealth tech. Which meant we had to search for it all the time.”

I haven’t told her about the history with my father, about the Room of Lost Souls, about all the other encounters. I had told Coop, and if he had chosen not to enlighten her or the rest of his crew, that was between them.

“Our program is fairly sophisticated,” I say, even though as I utter the words, I wonder if she would think so. Everything we do is primitive by Fleet standards. “We can be pretty certain about the small ships nearby. But outside of this area?” I make a circle with my right forefinger, indicating the area on the holomap we’re in at the moment. “We can’t be certain at all.”

Yash bites her lower lip again, studying the map. She’s extremely smart. She knows what I’m saying. If we abort this entire mission now, then we have to abort missions in the future. We can’t come back here if we’re afraid of malfunctioning anacapa drives.

Although, if we come back, I might suggest we don’t bring as many people. It’s much more dangerous in here than I had initially thought.

“What do you suggest?” she asks.

“We can shut off that runabout’s anacapa drive, right?” I ask.

“Maybe,” she says. “As I mentioned, I have no idea what they put in that runabout. If the anacapa is different from what I’m used to—”

“I won’t hold you to it,” I say. “I’m just asking if, in theory, we can shut it down, right?”

“Yes,” she says. “We can shut it down.”

“Because that’s what I’d like to do,” I say. “I’d like to dive that runabout, get what information we can from it, and shut off the anacapa drive.”

“I don’t think we have time to get all the information we need out of the runabout,” she says.

I plan these major diving missions with no end date. You never know what you’re going to run into. So the dives take as long as the dives take. I stand up straighter, turning toward her slightly. “Are we on a clock that I don’t know about?”

“I figured we have a couple of weeks,” she says, either ignoring my annoyed tone or unconcerned over it. “And if we add the runabout, then we don’t have enough time for the other ship.”

Clocks and schedules and military precision. This is why I don’t like working with the Ivoire crew. They want to know everything we’re going to do, down to the second. Dives have to be flexible. Dives cannot be planned. And it doesn’t matter how many times I explain that to people like Yash, they don’t understand it.

Rather than have that argument yet again, I simply say, “We’ll have time.”

She half-shakes her head before she catches herself. “You don’t think it’ll take long to dive the runabout?”

“It’s not very big,” I say. “We need to map it. Then we have to decide what we’re going to do with it.”

“Meaning?” she asks.

“Do we just shut down the drive and let it stay here? Or do we take it back to Lost Souls and study it? Or do we do something else entirely?”

She threads her fingers together. I’ve never seen Yash this nervous. Her nervousness is coming out in small ways. I’m not entirely sure what she’s afraid of.

“And if we can’t shut the drive down?” she asks quietly.

There it is, the thing that frightens her. She can see something I can’t.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m not sure what will happen if we destroy the runabout.”

She swallows hard. “I can hazard a guess,” she says. “If something explodes in the Boneyard, the Boneyard might think it’s being attacked.”

“But the thing that explodes would be a ship that’s been part of the Boneyard for a long time,” I say. “I can’t imagine, with all of this equipment, that ships have never exploded inside this place. It might even be a common occurrence.”

I’m not sure if I’m speaking out of a weird kind of wishful thinking. But it would seem to me that all this old tech must go wrong on occasion.

Yash is frowning at me. I’m not sure she agrees with me. I’m not sure she knows what she believes.

“We’re not a strange vessel to the Boneyard,” I continue. “If something explodes near the Sove, the Boneyard might simply absorb that explosion.”

“Let’s assume that’s correct,” Yash says. “That still won’t help us.”

It’s my turn to frown. “What do you mean?”

“A regular anacapa drive will cause all kinds of ripples and energy spikes when it’s destroyed. I have no idea what this one will do.” She shifts slightly. “I’m not even sure I can predict it.”

I nod. Good points all. The bottom line is that we won’t know anything at all until we go inside that runabout.

And I’ve already had a reaction to its malfunctioning anacapa drive. If one of my divers reacted as I had, I’m not sure I would allow them inside the ship. I’m going to have to come clean before we dive this thing. Which means I’m going to have to talk to everyone—soon.

*   *   *

9

I spend the next few hours thinking about the upcoming dive. I pace through part of the Sove as I do so, trying to keep myself calm.

Yash’s words continuously go through my head. There’s a lot we don’t know here, a lot we need to know.

I’d like to send a probe inside that runabout, but the scans aren’t showing any openings a probe can fit through. We’re going to have to explore the exterior of the runabout—or at least pry the doors open to get a probe inside.

My heart is pounding harder just thinking about that, and I suspect, if someone were monitoring me the way that I get monitored when I’m diving, they would say I have the gids. I’m too excited about this, and it worries me.

I finally head back to the bridge to see Mikk. He’s running some scans from there, just double-checking what we’ve done. He wants to make sure we didn’t miss any other small ships nearby that might have anacapa drives.

The bridge is cavernous when it’s not fully staffed. Even though four trainees are also working on it, the bridge looks empty. The trainees—two men and two women—are doing something to the equipment. I think I’d have to get closer to understand what they’re about. I don’t even know these people by name, even though I know we’ve been introduced. But I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in Mikk.

He looks odd, his muscular body hunched over a console, his fingers dancing across it. I’m used to seeing Mikk piloting and engaged with exterior views, or diving wrecks himself.

“Can you take a break?” I ask him quietly, but it doesn’t matter how low my voice is. The four trainees look up as if I was talking to them.

He nods and doesn’t even glance at them. But I note that he shuts down the program he’s running so that they can’t see it.

I lead him to the small room off the bridge. When we restored this ship, Coop called that the captain’s office, but Yash called it the private meeting room. Neither of them had much use for it.

But Coop runs a different kind of ship than I ever would. I like this room off the bridge and could see myself using it on all kinds of major dives.

Mikk and I go inside. There’s a table and three chairs bolted to the floor. Like most other meeting rooms in the Sove, there’s also a sideboard so that food and beverages can be served. Apparently that’s an essential part of Fleet culture—the constant appearance of food.

Not that there’s any in here. In fact, the room’s air seems just a little stale, even though I know it’s not. The air gets recycled in here as often as it does everywhere else on the ship.

I extend a hand toward the chairs, but Mikk shakes his head just once. He stands so he can see through the clear door. I can opaque the door if I want to, but there’s no point.

“Don’t tell me,” he says. “Yash doesn’t believe our readings are right.”

“Actually,” I say, “she does.”

He raises his eyebrows at me in surprise.

I shrug. “That’s not the problem.”

I tell him what Yash and I discussed, about all the possibilities with the anacapa drive in that runabout.

Then I say, “What I want to do is send in a probe, but there are no obvious openings on that runabout. It seems intact.”

“We could do a more in-depth scan,” he says.

“We could,” I say, “and that might still miss an area that we should probe. I’d rather do an exterior search.”

“And launch the probe from there?”

We’ve done that a bunch of times in the past.

“Yeah,” I say.

He nods, then crosses his arms. “Somehow I don’t think that’s why you want to see me in private.”

I take a deep breath. Time to face the music, both literally and figuratively. “I need to tell you what happened to me out there,” I say.

He extends a hand toward the chairs now. “Should we sit?”

“Probably,” I say.

We move to chairs that face each other over the table. I decide to hit the small control that opaques the door after all. I don’t want those trainees to see us if this conversation ends up distressing me.

He waits without asking me what’s going on. I love that about Mikk. He trusts me to tell him in my own good time.

“When I was on that line,” I say, “I heard music.”

He nods. He knew that. They all did.

“I thought it beautiful.” I let the words hang for a moment, hoping he’ll understand.

Something changes in his face. He looks guarded. “Like your mother?”

“Yes,” I say quietly. “Or no. I have no idea. I can only guess what she went through.”

“But you found that sound alluring,” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

He sighs. “And you’re just telling me now?”

“Yash says that the failing anacapa gives off different energy than most malfunctioning anacapa drives,” I say. “I wonder if that different signal is what I was reacting to.”

“Have you discussed this with Orlando and Elaine?” Mikk says.

Ever practical, he’s not thinking this is just about me. He’s thinking they might have experienced the same thing.

My cheeks grow warm. I hadn’t thought of that at all. I was so caught up in my past that I failed to consider the implications for the other divers.

“No,” I say.

“We’ll need to discuss it with them,” he says. “We might not be able to dive this area after all.”

“Possibly,” I say, even though I don’t like that solution. “But I have another idea.”

He leans back, his expression even more guarded than before.

“Remember your own rules, Boss,” he says. “Safety first. You and I have seen too many people die on dives.”

He helped me with the corpse of one of our old friends, pulling the body out of the Room of Lost Souls after we’d all been lured there on a fake mission. Mikk knows exactly what a malfunctioning anacapa drive can do.

“I know we have,” I say. I’m trying not to minimize it. “We have two things to consider here. We want material from the Boneyard. It’ll help us not just with Lost Souls, but in any battle with the Empire.”

Mikk opens his mouth to argue with me, but I don’t let him speak, not yet.

“The problem is, as I see it,” I say, “that we’ll probably encounter malfunctioning anacapas and alluring tech like this all over the Boneyard. We all assume that these ships do not work for one reason or another.”

He frowns. I know that assumptions aren’t always correct. I also know we shouldn’t debate that right now.

I continue, “These ships are being stored here, either as a junkyard of damaged ships or as outdated models, maybe to be used for future ships.”

“If anyone comes back for them,” Mikk says. “Coop believes they were damaged in a battle.”

“I know he does.” I don’t agree with Coop, and I let my tone express that. “Whatever the reason these ships ended up stored here, the problem remains: we’re going to encounter more malfunctioning tech. All of it will be dangerous. All of it is dangerous.”

Mikk shifts his crossed arms, as if trying to make them more comfortable. Or as if he’s letting them speak for him. “You want to dive the Boneyard right here, now, even though you felt lured by that tech,” he says.

I nod.

“It’s too dangerous, Boss,” he says. “You know that. There’s nothing you can do to make it safer.”

“Yes, there is,” I say.

He sighs softly enough that I realize he didn’t want me to hear it. I pretend that I didn’t.

I say, “We tether to the Sove as we dive outside the runabout.”

He’s shaking his head even as I’m speaking. “We did that, Boss. Remember? At the Room of Lost Souls. The tether didn’t work.”

It wasn’t that the tether didn’t work. It got removed—by the diver himself.

“I know,” I say. “But I’ve been thinking about this, and there are some differences.”

Mikk taps the fingers of his right hand on his left bicep. I’m not even sure he’s aware he’s doing it.

“We’ve already dived the anacapa field,” I say.

“What?” he asks, clearly surprised. Apparently he had expected me to say something else.

“We were in the energy stream. You were monitoring us through it,” I say. “It’s different from that time in the Room.”

He frowns at me, not entirely understanding.

“When we dove the Room, the diver had to actually go inside the room itself to experience the malfunctioning anacapa. The same with that first Dignity Vessel Squishy and I dove.”

Where two more of my divers died.

“They entered the field, and then had problems. Those fields were hard to access,” I say.

Mikk’s frown grows deeper.

“Here,” I continue, “we’ve already experienced the field. Maybe not up close, not inside the runabout, exactly, but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

Mikk uncrosses his arms. He’s clearly intrigued. “What are we talking about?”

“We’re talking about exploring the exterior and then sending in a probe. No closed doors, no secondary area that you can’t see. You’ll be monitoring our vitals, and you can pull us back if something goes wrong.”

He takes a deep breath, clearly thinking about that. He looks away from me, as if looking at me would influence his decision.

Then he turns back toward me, and says slowly, “Before you go on that dive, we’re going to review every single second of the aborted dive.”

My heart starts racing. I have him. He’s agreed. He knows I’m right. If we’re going to dive the Boneyard, we have to face difficulties like this one.

But he’s not done with his conditions. He says, “We’re going to figure out if the suits’ clocks differ from the Sove’s clock, down to the nanosecond. We’re going to look at your response, in particular, nanosecond by nanosecond. If we find any spike or blip, we’re going to examine it.”

I want to tell him that it won’t be necessary, that we’ll be able to handle whatever’s going to happen. But I know better. He’s absolutely right. We need information before we go in. We need to be as prepared as possible.

He must have seen the resistance on my face.

“For that reason,” he says, “the only people who can do the preliminary dive are you, Orlando, and Elaine.”

I let out a small breath. I really want to make this dive. Which concerns me. “Okay,” I say. “Yash might argue with that.”

“Let her,” he says. “We will have a baseline for comparison on the three of you. We won’t have it with her.”

He’s right. I know he’s right.

I nod.

“And one more thing before I completely agree to any of this,” he says.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“You tell Yash,” he says. “All of it.”

My cheeks heat again. “She doesn’t need to know about my family.”

“Of course she needs to know about your family,” Mikk says. “You’re going to do the best you can out there, but you’re human, Boss, whether you like to admit it or not. You might get caught by an emotion you haven’t considered, something that won’t have an impact on Orlando or Elaine or anyone else who dives the Boneyard.”

“You’re saying I’m the weak link,” I say before I can stop myself.

“Yes,” he says. “You are.”

*   *   *

10

It takes two days to prep for the next dive. Yash works side by side with Mikk, giving only a little of the grunt work to Zaria and the trainees. Yash doesn’t trust them with anything this important, and frankly, neither do I.

Before the work got underway, I met with Yash, Orlando, and Elaine. I told them about my reaction to the malfunctioning tech, and how it felt different than it had before.

Yash looked at me with concern, and afterward, she asked me if I thought it was wise to dive the Boneyard, knowing all that. I recognized the verbal ploy. It meant she didn’t think I should dive it, and she was urging me to end up in agreement with her.

I didn’t change my mind.

Although, after speaking to Orlando and Elaine, I almost decided to do the dive on my own. Orlando had felt the lure as well. Elaine had too, but apparently she had the capacity to ignore it, which I thought fascinating. None of us were certain as to why there was a difference between Elaine, me, and Orlando, and nothing in the data told us what caused the difference. Her suit was the same as ours. It had the same slightly fluctuating readings as our suits.

The only conclusion I could draw is that she is made of sturdier stuff than Orlando and me. I have always valued Elaine’s calm. I’m beginning to think it’s an in-born trait, and not something learned. And that calm will help us during this dive.

Yash has repeatedly tried to scan the exterior of the runabout and find a large enough hole for the probe to enter without us having to make a dive. She couldn’t find anything after several tries. She eventually gave that task to the trainees, telling them to be as creative as they could. She gave them a deadline of this morning to find an alternate way in.

They couldn’t find one.

We’re diving it, and I’m trying to ignore the fact that I am a little too happy about that.

*   *   *

11

By the afternoon, we’re back in the bay. Elaine, Orlando, and I are suited up. My heart is pounding—the damn gids—and I hope I’m not more excited than usual.

I focus on the dive. A few hours ago, I made an executive decision. Only two of us would make this particular dive.

I decided the two who would leave the Sove are Elaine and me. Elaine’s calm is valuable and will offset my gids.

Orlando would be our reserve diver. If we need rescue—and we might—we need someone who can enter that anacapa energy field as safely as Elaine and I can. Although “safely” is probably the wrong word. I don’t know what the actual word would be. The reason I made this decision is pretty simple: We at least have information on Orlando’s previous reaction to the field. Any other diver Mikk chooses to rescue us wouldn’t have that.

And I’ve made one other thing clear to the team. Mikk is in charge of this dive. Mikk has been through dangerous anacapa situations before. He knows what to do. More importantly, he knows when to cut our losses and leave.

When I presented this new plan, Yash argued with all of it. But her focus was on me.

“Captains don’t go on the most dangerous missions,” she said to me.

I shrugged. “I’m not a captain.”

Apparently that answer was too flip for her. “You know what I mean,” she said. “The most important person on the team does not take unnecessary risks.”

“The most knowledgeable person on the team needs to take those risks at times,” I said. “I have the most diving experience, and the most experience in dangerous diving situations.”

I didn’t add that I also had the most experience of anyone on this ship with malfunctioning anacapa drives—malfunctioning stealth tech—and that includes Mikk.

Yash finally figured out that she couldn’t sway me. She knew when to stop arguing, which I respected her for. She also knew that I trusted her to get the entire team back to Lost Souls if something happened to me. Which it most decidedly will not. I’m doing all I can to make sure that Elaine and I survive this dive.

Mikk and I made a list of everything we’d done wrong in previous dives involving what we used to call stealth tech. We discussed solutions or ways to avoid all of those problems.

After we had that list in hand, we talked with Yash, to see if she had other ideas as well.

She did. And she had some great work-arounds.

Or I thought they were great until I suited up here in the bay. In addition to the suit, which I’m not really fond of, Elaine, Orlando, and I have attached two tethers to ourselves. Both tethers cannot be severed by us. They have to be cut off when we return to the ship.

It means we’re constantly moving tethers. They are already getting in the way of our movements, which annoys me. Elaine and I will have to be cautious so we don’t get caught up in our own lines.

I don’t like having extra things to think about, and said so as we were suiting up. Mikk was the one who responded.

He said, You need something to keep your focus on the dive, Boss. Use the tethers as a mental ground, reminding you that you’re diving, not floating in some lovely light.

The phrase irritated me—still irritates me—but he’s right. We need something to remind us that we’re part of the Sove, not the Boneyard.

The thing that has haunted me the most about my mother’s death is that I was with her in that Room. She forgot me. She lost herself in that light and that music, and she forgot I was with her.

I have always given her a pass on that. I have always used that piece of information as an indication of how strong the lure was, that it caused her to abandon her own child. I need to remember that each time I touch the tethers. I need to remember I can lose myself in beauty I can only imagine right now.

I try to explain that to Elaine. I think she gets it. It’s hard to tell with her sometimes.

We’re also attaching the Sove to the runabout with an extra strong line. If need be, Yash and Mikk will tow the runabout back to the ship.

I don’t want to do that—I don’t want the malfunctioning anacapa any closer to the Sove than it already is—but they say if they end up doing it, it’ll only be because I can no longer give orders. Whatever that means.

I don’t think about it much. I need to focus on the dive. We all need to focus on the dive.

We’re nervous. It’s pretty clear just from the way we’re all behaving. On a normal dive, Orlando, Elaine, and I would suit up alone. This time, Yash is with us, double-checking everything, from the suits to the tethers.

She’s spending extra time on the suits, using functions I’ve never seen. She designed the suits, and apparently, she put in redundant systems. Normally, I’d be annoyed that she had added things to the design that she hadn’t told me about, but on this day, I’m not annoyed at all. I’m grateful.

Yash is checking everything, from a completely different perspective than Mikk and I bring to this dive. She’s gone over Mikk’s findings, the ones that showed us what happened on the previous dive nanosecond by nanosecond.

I went over those readings as well. I know exactly where I heard the music. There was a definite physical change in my suit’s readings. It looked like a slightly different version of the gids.

We all marked that.

What bothered me—what still bothers me—is that there was no physical change when I felt the pull of the music the most strongly. When I was hooked by that lure, there was no evidence of it whatsoever. I’m on my own when it comes to that, and I have promised both Yash and Mikk that I will report any feelings I have that are similar. I’m hoping there won’t be any.

Elaine and I both have probes that we can release into the runabout. If we find an opening, we immediately release a probe, and then signal Mikk and return to the Sove. That’s the plan we all hope will work. We all doubt that it will, however.

Elaine and I also have levers attached to our belts so that we can pull the runabout’s doors open by hand, if need be. Yash has given us her passcodes to Fleet ships, but I doubt the codes will work.

I suspect this vessel is thousands of years newer than the Ivoire. I’m sure that entry passcodes have changed in the intervening centuries. But I don’t say that to Yash, particularly after she has impressed on me, for the third time, that I should try the codes first if we don’t find any other entry point.

Mikk is nowhere near the bay. He’s on the bridge, where he’s going to monitor everything that we do. He’s got the previous dive data on the screens before him. He’s already told me that I am a little too giddy, but he’s careful in his word choice. He did not say that I have the gids.

And when Yash asked if my readings are different than they were before the previous dive, Mikk said they are.

Apparently, I’m calmer. Which is a relief to me, because I feel calmer. I feel like I know what we’re getting into. I feel like I am going into this dive as prepared as I can possibly be.

Elaine doesn’t say much. She doesn’t look nervous either, but then she never does before a dive.

Yash finishes giving us one more lecture, and checks the tethers one last time. Then she leaves the bay.

Elaine and I put our hoods on and double-check each other’s. Orlando puts his on as well. He’s going to wait down here until we’re done, monitoring everything.

I give the order to have the bay’s environmental system shut off—not the anti-gravity, but the earth-like oxygen mix. We use the mix as our baseline for the suits. If the suits have some kind of leak, we will learn about it while we’re inside the Sove, not outside and already at risk.

We breathe in. We breathe out. Everything registers as normal.

“You ready?” I ask Elaine.

She doesn’t give me a cute or flip answer, which I appreciate.

“I am ready,” she says.

“Well, then,” I say. “Let’s go.”

 

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Copyright © 2017. How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry by Alexander Jablokov

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