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.
“I don’t believe it. Did Hunnan make you? That plaguefucker better have his gates locked down, or I’m coming through his datacord like—”
“Such anger.” That voice. So loud, cutting through Winnow’s mind. “Anger and hunger. Is this all your species knows? I was not sent here by Hunnan, but he is known to us. As are many.”
He gestured, a sweep of a hand to encompass Io’s burning earth. Bodies formed from the dust, spinning to coalesce into human forms. They stood in ranks as far as Winnow could see, row upon row of yellow-streaked mannequins wearing faces of the dead. The weight of ten thousand jaundiced eyes fell on Winnow, heavy as the Corpsehulk’s voice, almost forcing her to her knees. Instead of falling, she reached inside her head.
Her psych ignited as she dropped her barriers, a new awareness flooding her. She perceived the sim-world as an overlay to the reality of the First—the ship all sharp angles and cold hull, Io a horizon of needle volcanos and poisoned clouds. Borin, her shift-mate, hovered over her, lines of worry etched across his brow. He seemed to be talking, but his lips moved so slowly she couldn’t understand the words. She turned her attention to the suited man and his yellow-dust world. Her own voice turned to thunder, and she leveled it at him.
“Who are you?”
The man winced, then grinned. He nodded at the statues, rows of them stretching to infinity. “You call us the Corpsehulk. We prefer to call ourselves the Reformer.”
That last word was spoken by each mouth on Io. The sound hammered into Winnow’s skull, only her psych keeping her legs from buckling. She grunted a reply as blood trickled from her nose.
“Seems appropriate. You’ll need to reform your face after the fleet puts enough holes through it.”
The ranks of dust-people keened. Their wailing, a silver-bright talon of noise, split the sky and cut through Winnow’s head like starfire. When it subsided, Winnow stared at Reformer, tears blurring her vision. A sense of fear thrummed in the air, echoed on Reformer’s face. For the first time, he looked acutely human, his arrogance dampened by his howling charges.
“Yes,” he said, low and quiet. “We fear. There is so much life bound in us, bound in common purpose. Your fleet is the rabid dog, careless of its bite.”
“They’re alive?” asked Winnow, still fighting to clamp down on her psych. The all-pervading terror, a black hole sucking at her sense of self, was draining her resolve. “All the people you’ve eaten are alive?”
“Of course we’re alive. Why do you think we have made contact? We wish to explain ourselves, to show you who we are.”
“You’re acting like a ship skinned in human flesh is a blessing from the stars. I’ve seen the feeds from Triton, from Enceladus, from the Ring-stations. You’re a plague, a starfucking abomination. The in-system is home to over twenty billion people! You think any of them want to have nanos tear them into coiled meat and wrap them over smartsteel?”
Reformer shook his head, oiled hair reflecting Jupiter’s storm. The statues mirrored him. Winnow felt a dizzying sense of wrongness, an entire planet pinning her with synchronized disagreement.
“The feeds you see are doctored by your government. They have a rather myopic view of mankind’s place in the Universe, with their boots firmly on the neck of progress. We see a different future for humanity. One which reaches beyond the confines of Sol. A future for people like you, Winnow.”
He started forward, cane tapping Io’s sputum-yellow soil.
Winnow pushed all her strength into her voice, every erg of psych she could pry from fried neurons. Her vision dimmed, salt-slick blood filled her mouth.
Reformer staggered as though fighting a gale. His hair lost its composure, fluttering in Io’s grit and ash like dead seaweed. He struggled to stay upright, then collapsed to his backside in a puff of dust.
“Such strength. None of the amalgamated come close.” He snapped the top from his cane, a perfect sphere lit with bright dataflows, blue on shining gold. He rolled it across the dirt to Winnow’s knees. “In that sphere are the unaltered feeds from the rim. Make of them what you will. And before you leave, we have one piece of advice.”
Winnow spat blood, made no move to grab the sphere. “What’s that?”
“Your crew members are not your friends, Winnow.”
Before she could curl a laugh around bloodied gums, Io shattered in her vision, falling away like broken glass to reveal Borin still in the middle of his sentence.
“…hear me, Chiefka?”
Winnow blinked, tried to remember where she was. On the First to Run Home. Working in the missile tubes. Not on the surface of a Jovian moon, talking to a fucking plague vector. Her mouth tasted of iron, and her head ached the way it always did after she used her psych. A numbing cold gripped her, and her hands began to tremble. Dead stars, she’d really spoken to the Corpsehulk. Winnow could almost feel it out in the void, waiting for her answer, but it was still a week of acceleration distant, still hundreds of thousands of miles away in the empty black of space.
Somehow, that knowledge didn’t help.
“I’m fine Borin. I’m okay. Star’s breath, did you eat an arse for breakfast? The stench is awful.”
The big man ignored her. “You blanked out. And I see blood, no? You don’t need medical?”
“Just bit my tongue. We been working the exo-suits too hard, not to mention ourselves. C’mon, let’s get a drink and wave in Crew Three. I’m sick of this stardamned launch bay.”
Borin’s brow furrowed, but he nodded all the same. As he moved to gather their tools, Winnow curled her fingers round her datacord, checked her syslink. In the corner of her vision, she could see a tiny sphere, gold and blue like a star etched with gasfire. A datafile, waiting to be opened. She cursed and pulled the cord free, almost running from the bay.
Winnow spent the next week sweating blood over the First’s malfunctioning torpedo tubes and trying not to think about the Corpsehulk. Borin stopped bleating about medical after she brained him with a wrench. Gave up speaking to her much at all, though she couldn’t tell whether that was a symptom of his mild concussion or a natural consequence of her own withdrawal. She’d turned surly since her jaunt to Io, Reformer’s warning about the crew chewing through her thoughts. The sphere hung heavy in her vision, a neutron star’s worth of gravity tugging at her mind.
She cracked in the last hour before intercept.
ArcGov’s feeds from the colonies flooded her datacord, the horror beyond what she expected—bodies melting into pools of bubbling meat, mouths screaming until the vocal cords dissolved, eyeballs floating on a tide of viscous flesh.
The contrast with Reformer’s vids struck Winnow right in the ventricles. They showed a veritable Eden—dead, cold stations sprouting life so green it hurt to look at. She searched the First’s archives to identify some of the creatures flitting through the station. Birds. She marveled at their colors, the way their wings caught tiny glints of starlight streaming through transparent walls. People strolled through promenades of riotous plant life, waving beauty into existence as the smartmetal bent to their whim. They seemed content.
Bright blue data-streams danced across their metal arms and hands and faces in a neverending torrent of information, but for all their strangeness, they laughed. Talked. Winnow found herself wondering if they could feel.
She thought of the Arcologies, the stinking mass of humanity and poisoned Earth she’d left behind. By all accounts, the colonies were worse. Did these vids show the truth? Had the plague really chewed through humankind and spat out a working solution to nearly two hundred years of excess? A sudden nausea swept through Winnow, a tide churning from her guts to her throat with all the inevitability of a gravity well. She cursed her heaving stomach, wishing she’d never opened the vids. Puking in two gravities of acceleration might lodge a chunk in her gullet, and wouldn’t that be a pretty way to die.
When she pulled her cord to unwelcome reality, she found herself staring into Borin’s face.
“Too bad, Cheifka. Was hoping you’d sleep through this.”
Winnow’s ribs bowed inwards with the force of Borin’s blow, taking a trip to meet her sternum. Her suit whined as the chest-struts bit her flesh, like steepled fingers caught under a hammer. She flew across the launch bay with a snapped bone and empty lungs, slammed into an empty crate and left a dent in the shape of her spine. Borin followed, his suit screeching. He closed the distance in great lunging strides, deck shaking with each step.
Winnow braced against the next blow, taking it on her forearm, hissing as her broken rib vibrated in her chest. She leaped back to gain some space, but Borin vaulted from the hull, leveraging the weight of the First’s acceleration into a powerful two-footed dropkick. Winnow shifted to the side and he thundered into metal hull, denting it with a scream of exosuit on steel. She made a desperate lurch towards the door, Borin grunting in pursuit.
The room turned emergency-red and Winnow froze. Borin crashed into her from behind, driving her to the ground, his deadmeat breath hissing from exertion. He began to stroke her hair.
“Quiet now, Chiefka. All be over soon. The hulk needs to die, no? It talks to you, sings a song of mankind’s future, a honey land with no pain. You don’t believe its lies, do you? It’s just nanos and twisted flesh. After all, you grew up on Earth, yes? We made this thing. What’s the chance it’s any better than we are?”
Borin had his arm across Winnow’s back, pressing her to the floor. Her ribs caught fire with every breath. “The fuck are you doing Borin?” her voice emerged as a pain-filled rasp, each syllable pushed past blood-flecked spittle. “Hunnan will have you spaced for this. The launch tubes ain’t even working yet, and unless you got a spare pair of hands or a new set of lungs, I’m not up to heavy work.”
Borin shook his head, sweat-covered hair trailing across Winnow’s brow in a lank mockery of tenderness.
“Ah, Chiefka. You aren’t here to get these tubes working. What do you think a set of missiles will do to that thing out there?” He nodded towards a pale blue panel, now filled with the encroaching Corpsehulk. Winnow could feel it out in the void, a stone sinking into spacetime. Borin rambled on, still stroking her hair. “It’s already smarter than us. Quicker than a sunbeam. There’s only one way to hurt it, only one way to inflict the pain it deserves.”
Winnow’s head pounded as she fought for air. Pounded harder as she chewed on Borin’s words in the bay’s blood-red light.
“Yes, the psych. Told you itself, no? No one strong as you in all the rim. Our perfect little weapon.”
Weapon. A word sharp enough to bring the past month into focus. Borin’s hungry expression when they’d first seen the Corpsehulk. His encrypted sysfiles she’d thought to be torture fetish. Her placement as an engineer; low enough to avoid notice, important enough to have access to the sysfiles. Told to watch for saboteurs, to study the Corpsehulk using her psych should she get the chance. Trained to sacrifice herself for Earth.
Our weapon. Borin had said our.
“Who are you, Borin?”
She could feel his grin, even if she couldn’t see it. Ranks of yellowed teeth in a last stand against his breath.
“Every weapon needs a handler. I wish to see the plagueship die up close. It took something from me, and I will hear it scream for that. I’ll be listening hard as you tear it apart.”
“You’ll be listen—wait, you’re a psych too?”
He began to drag Winnow towards the tubes, tapping at her exo-suit as he went, overriding the augments and slaving them to his sysfiles. He sang as he worked, the words familiar from the newsfeeds. Triton’s Dirge.
Borin’s low, melodious voice sounded jarring over the distant wail of proximity sirens. Winnow felt the big man’s loss pouring through cracks in his mind, anger like an oil slick floating on his sorrow. She winced as he forced her exo-suit to stand her upright, a marionette slaved to her owner.
“I’ll be plugging your cord in now, Chiefka. Try and hurt it, won’t you? Do that for me, for humanity. If you start screaming too loud, I promise to end you quick.”
Winnow thought again of his sysfiles, the woman melting into nothing as the plague devoured her.
“Who was she Borin? A lover?”
Borin laughed, though he seemed on the edge of wild tears. “Who’d love me, Winnow? That ship soared a hundred orbits back, crashed into the sun. You saw my daughter when you stole my privacy. And now she’s a puddle of flesh on that fucking ship. I’ll have her rest now. You will help her along.”
“What if they’re still alive in there?”
Borin looked up from his panel. Tools snaked down from hidden recesses as he tapped, a surgical gleam flashing from each sharpened tip.
“There’s no one alive in there. Don’t you think I’ve tried to speak to her? She’d answer me, I think, my own daughter. She had the psych as well, though just a touch, thank the dying stars.”
“But I’ve seen them, seen the beautiful things it leaves behind.”
“You’ve seen what it wants you to see and nothing more. I’d say I’m sorry Chiefka, but my sorrow has burned away. All that’s left is a need to make that thing hurt. When you see it, tell it to fuck itself, yes?”
Borin tapped a final button and the instruments surrounding Winnow leapt to life. She swore she could see a drill. Panic raced through her body from the bottom of her feet to the back of her throat, but there was barely any time for the fear to register. She’d seen old vids of heroes escaping torture, cold machines bearing down on them with agonizing slowness, drawing out the moment of tension before the inevitable escape.
Borin’s machines weren’t like the vids. They arced forward with nimble efficiency, anesthetic needles piercing her skull while lasers scored flesh and exposed brain. Her suit was the stiff embrace of ArcGov’s omnipresence, holding her still so the machines could do their work. A tear rolled down her cheek as the top of her skull thudded to the floor. Winnow had the gut-clenching sensation of a breeze playing across her opened scalp.
“Hold tight, Chiefka; this will feel…different.”
When the machines merged with her datacord, Winnow’s world exploded.
She stood in a void, black as stealth and twice as cold. In the distance, Jupiter shone with energy, its great storm howling a hymn to destruction that reached across the system. Winnow raised her arms, feeling photons play across her skin in a sizzling vibration of potential, raw joy puncturing her confusion. She willed herself to move and found that space bent to her command, flowing around her as much as she moved through it.
She was a God—but not the only one.
Across the fleet, other minds flickered to life. No, not quite life—they had always been alive—but awareness. Awareness of their power. The other minds were kin to her, reveling in their new freedom. Some stuttered out amidst explosions that lit the darkness with bright blue plasma. Many more flared to steady flames much smaller and duller than her own.
A brutal sense of loss cut through her joy, an emptiness so shocking she recoiled from the fleet. She was alone. These new kin were merely distant cousins, almost incomprehensibly slow in thought and will. Winnow was unique. Separate.
As she fled, one mind flared brighter than any other, golden in its slingshot orbit through Jovian space. Multifaceted. Innocent.
She bent space again, felt herself appear before the Corpsehulk. With her new sight, she marveled at the ship’s beauty, its perfect fusion of flesh and machine and mind. Reformer appeared beside her, still wearing his fine-pressed suit and carrying his cane.
“So, finally, you see.”
Impossible tears streamed down her face, leaving diamond tracks glowing in Jupiter’s prismatic light.
She felt Reformer’s sorrow radiating from him in waves. He nodded at the fleet. “Yes. But humanity has a way of destroying beautiful things.”
Behind her, the fleet-minds were coalescing, forming a web of pulsing energy that danced with unfocused rage. Something tugged on her, pulling her towards that mesh of imprisoned psychs, creating an unrelenting pressure fit to burst her skull. She stared at Reformer, felt blood trickle from her nose. She tried to speak, found she couldn’t. The creature’s sad smile lanced her guts.
“We understand. Goodbye, Winnow.”
Without warning, Winnow was pulled back into the agony of her physical body. She heard Borin cursing at his panel, frantically tapping commands and ignoring Captain Yala’s static-laced requests for updates. All around her, lights surged and dimmed in a riot of coruscating energy, sparks showering from electrical sockets and dancing across the deck with the singe-sour odor of melted wiring.
When she took control of her senses, Winnow could see the world as she had outside the ship. Borin was a red-bright flare, crouched over his panel, yelling, demanding more power from the machines that held her tight. It was a simple thing to unlock his control of her exo-suit. A simple thing to mesh her datacord with the machines he’d used to violate her mind.
“Borin,” said Winnow, her voice a hammer blow.
The big man howled, staggered into a bulkhead. Winnow reached out with her psych, sculpting metal to her will. She became one with the ship, floating on a mass of churning hull that looked like surf flowing gently to shore.
“Are you fucking crazy? We must kill it! It’s heading straight for Earth! That plague will chew through every person you’ve ever known, spit them out as human soup.”
Winnow thought of the people she’d known in the Arcology. Weighed the price. She turned her head to where Reformer stood beside her, a thin smile on his lips.
“Beautiful,” she said.
With a thought, she curled the web of psych-energy in upon itself, a snake eating its own tail. She could feel the feedback lancing through ships, hear the screams as crews turned to boiling plasma. Just as it reached the First, Winnow saw Borin scream in fury before he turned to blue-boned ash
She shouldn’t have woken. The coldfire explosion of psych feedback should have smeared her across the system, a wave of loosely bound atoms floating free from the crushing responsibility of life. This, perhaps more than anything, sharpened the fear in her throat to a knifepoint.
Cocooned in a wall of flesh and metal, Winnow stared as lines of data marched across every surface, numbers and symbols forming azure ranks like an army readying for war. When Reformer spoke, she heard the regret in his voice.
“We are sorry, Winnow.”
Sorry for what? Where the hell am I?
With horror, she realized her lips had melted together.
Reformer shook his head. “We have preserved you in a piece of ourselves, as a thank you for your assistance with the fleet, but we cannot have you interfere with the consumption of Earth.”
Winnow reached for her psych, now nothing more than a tiny ember compared to the immense power she wielded before.
“The destruction of your ship has limited your augmentation. When we are ready, we will show you the full potential of our mind.”
Reformer smiled again. A sad, lopsided smile that held a cold promise. “You are truly unique, Winnow, but that is a burden you shall bear no longer. Welcome to the Corpsehulk.”
When Winnow tried to scream, it echoed from her in waves, a trailing wake of agony that followed her fleshmetal ship all the way to Earth.