When the Corpsehulk spoke to her, Winnow thought she’d lost her mind. She had plugged herself into the First to Ride Home’s datastream, hoping for a close-eye of the bloated plagueship. A subliminal fear drove her, a conviction the universe couldn’t outmatch her twisted imagination.
She was wrong.
The hulk’s attempt at words were a discordant wail, a mix of agony and terror that ground her soul against the fabric of reality. She tried to haul herself from the sysfiles, but the code drowned her, endless symbols sucking her under a torrent of quicksand data. Her vision blackened from the edges in, then exploded in a kaleidoscope of starlit hues.
She stood on Io’s surface, Jupiter’s baleful eye pinning her in place. In the distance, mile-high mountains spewed ash and sulfur, creating a thick yellow blanket that choked the atmosphere. The Corpsehulk hung in a pustule sky, a shifting mass of smartmetal and molten flesh that would have emptied the strongest bladder and called the bowels to follow. Stars be praised she was in a sim; the First had no spare jumpsuits.
Winnow stared at the Corpsehulk, the scent of burning regolith filling her nostrils. The First had put its mass at a third of Earth’s, a number so big Winnow didn’t bother to count the zeros. Hard to think there’d been so much smartmetal in the outer colonies. Harder still to count the folks it had melted down, fused to. Winnow fancied she could see faces—almost imperceptible in the weave and sigh of the Corpsehulk’s hull, but screaming bloody fear all the same. She wondered if it was just her psych, reaching out to pull empathy from a place it shouldn’t exist.
Despite the horror-sharp focus of the sim and the insistence of her animal brain, Winnow knew it wasn’t real. The plagueship was currently in a slingshot orbit round Jupiter, a living meteor of dead colonist and adaptive steel headed straight for Earth, not resting in Io’s burnished sky. Had she fallen into a holotrap left by Hunnan, the ship’s chief engineer? No, this sim was far beyond the level of detail he could carve from code, far beyond anyone she knew. Everyone save herself. Her psych might have been a curse—a death sentence on Earth if you were unregulated—but it came with perks, like navigating datastreams.
The voice reverberated through Io’s simulated air, shuddering with a thousand notes. Winnow almost clapped her hands to her head, but a lifetime in Earth’s decaying Arcologies had steeled her for unexpected pain. She spun, sandwinds curling grit under her tongue. Incongruent, utterly out of place and yet entirely at ease, stood a lean man in an archaic suit, complete with a darkwood cane. His face was a fine-boned thing of beauty, the kind government heavies would pay top credit for. His hair, slick-back black and heavily oiled, paid the wind no mind.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Winnow fell into her slum drawl without thinking. The rough accent helped hold her together, aggression shaping every syllable—the talk of a cornered rat. In reply, the stranger raised his cane to the sky. Far above Io’s curdled stratosphere, the Corpsehulk’s hull seemed to shiver, a roiling dance of skin and mercury.