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  ( Jacob's Ladder - 2 )

  Elizabeth Bear

  Sometimes the greatest sin is survival.

  The generation ship Jacob’s Ladder has barely survived cataclysms from without and within. Now, riding the shock wave of a nova blast toward an uncertain destiny, the damaged ship—the only world its inhabitants have ever known—remains a war zone. Even as Perceval, the new captain, struggles to come to terms with the traumas of her recent past, the remnants of rebellion aboard the ship still threaten the crew’s survival.

  Yet as Perceval’s relatives Tristen and Benedick play a deadly game of cat and mouse in pursuit of a traitor through a vast ship that is renewing itself in strange and dangerous ways, an even more insidious threat is building in a place no one ever thought to look. And this implacable enemy could change the face of the ship forever if a ragtag band of heroes cannot stop it.

  Elizabeth Bear


  For Thomas Ladegard

  GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

  HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

  But will they come when you do call for them?

  --WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Henry IV, Part I, Act 3, Scene 1


  halfway to standing

  When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But ... that is not what great ships are built for.

  --CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTES, Ph.D.,"Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times"

  The first hint of returning consciousness was the icy tickle of fluid dropping across his lids, lashes, nostrils. Pain followed, the tidal roll of hurt through his body too severe for his symbiont to heal or silence.

  Tristen Conn opened his eyes within his acceleration tank. As the hyperbaric fluid drained from around his chest, his diaphragm spasmed. Shattered ribs ground in his flesh. The tank spilled him on the slotted deck, festooned like a newborn with blood-stringed goo.

  He pushed against the deck, but pulped arms could not lift his face from the puddle of oxygenated fluid. He heaved. Slime roped from his nose and mouth, tinged blue with blood, bringing with it bright pieces of tooth and lung.

  He could not raise his head. He thought, Then there were none, and wished he could give himself up for dying.

  But here he was. And if he was hurt, he was living. Beside his shattered cheek, cobalt tendrils groped across the deck, met and merged like pooling mercury, then sent questing distributaries crawling out until they found Tristen's skin. As his symbiont repatriated its estranged fringes, pain increased. Crushed bones shifted in rent meat, his body and its symbiont struggling to heal.

  He might have whimpered, but the whistle of compressed breath was his loudest sound.

  As the fluid dripped between his shoulders and down his neck, he lay slumped, staring along the seemingly infinite curve of acceleration pods lining the holde. The weight of all that empty space pressed him to the deck as surely as did the world's artificial gravity. In this position, Tristen had time to think.

  One of the things he thought was, Isn't it peculiar that mine is the only opened tank?

  He lay there until the fluid on his body had dried to yellowish crusts and cold air raised his skin in plucked bumps. The grinding of bone fragments lessened as his symbiont forced his skeleton into shape. Once the bones began to knit, torn flesh and bruised organs healing, the symbiont had sufficient capacity for managing his pain. He got a full breath without screaming, felt his ribs expand and his diaphragm flex, and pressed a palm flat to the corrugated decking.

  The hand expanded as his weight bore down. Within the envelope of his skin, flesh and bone held. He straightened the elbow, lifted the shoulder. Dragged the second numb arm out from under his body. Braced it as well, pushed. Locked out both elbows, and let his head hang.

  On your knees was halfway to standing.

  Tristen gritted half-rebuilt teeth and finished the job.

  For seconds it was all he could do to remain upright. He hadn't even the strength to put out a hand and steady himself on the skinned, gray-membraned interior of the open tank door. But if he fell, he did not know how long it would be before he rose again, if he had the courage to try it at all.

  Sticky feet slurping the deck, Tristen turned and walked a step. Now he stroked fingertips lightly along the surface of the pods, finding his balance. Deep breaths, slow until he could no longer taste the blood on each, pushed oxygen into his blood. At least the atmosphere was holding.

  Examining the warped bulge of the sky, he amended: at least here the atmosphere was holding.

  Staring up at the sky helped keep his eyes off the horizon. It took ten dragging steps and forty-seven seconds to shuffle to the readout panel of the acceleration tank two places to the left. This tank remained sealed. Condensation brushed from the readout revealed as many orange and yellow status lights as blue, but even when he squinted to focus blurring vision there were no red ones.

  That was relief, that fresh upwelling that stung his eyes and tightened his chest, though it took moments before Tristen could parse the sensation as emotion rather than pain.

  Perceval was alive.

  He leaned heavily on the mint green exterior of her tank and for the next few moments concentrated on controlled breathing. Strength was slowly returning, but he would need resources. Protein, calcium. Fluids and collagen and amino acids. All the substances his symbiont was depleting as it repaired his wounds.

  When the holde stopped spinning in his vision, he lifted his head. "Hello?"

  It echoed. Layered, complex echoes that would have told him a great deal about the shape of the holde--if he hadn't known it already--and the number and arrangement of the tanks. The heavy echo of fluid rang back from every side. Other than the one he had emerged from, each nearby acceleration tank was full. He wondered how many of the world's scattered survivors had trusted the voice of the angel when it declared emergency, and how many of those had managed to find an undamaged tank before it was too late.

  "Conn." He tried to find a voice of command. "Conn. Can you hear me?"

  "Prince Tristen." The bodiless voice was a stranger's, but it carried inflections familiar enough to layer new aches and sorrow over already-complex emotions. It was the voice of Perceval's new angel, and he could imagine he heard Rien's phrasing in its words.

  "I hear you," said Tristen Conn. "What is your name?"

  A pause followed, which would not be the angel pausing. When the answer came back, it was with the echo of Perceval's voice, the muddy qualities of subvocalized speech. "I have not been named."

  "We're under way," Tristen said, watching egg blue bruises recede beneath the translucent skin of his arms. "Is the ramscoop functioning?"

  "Yes," said the angel. A shimmer in the air, and it--he, Tristen guessed, though he must admit to himself that he was guessing--faded into visibility. The material of its construction massed only grams, but that lace-work was enough to make a solid-seeming avatar. The angel's form was androgynous, rangy rather than slender. The sleeves of its black blouse hung from spiky shoulders straight to band cuffs vined with tiny silver and fuchsia flowers. A medium-brown complexion blended into cropped dark hair. It said, "We are maintaining velocity at approximately 30 percent of c."

  "Structural integrity?" A long time ago he would have asked first after personnel. But with maturity had come the understanding that there was no life without the machine.

  "The world is approximately 43 percent intact," the angel said. "However, portions of the superstructure remain beyond my reach. I am blind and numb there. Before the supernova, based on incomplete available data, integrity was at 64.3 percent."

  Finally, Tristen allowed himself to ask, "Casualties?" He imagined the turning web
work of the world blasting through the Enemy, trailing irreplaceable materials and infinitely replaceable lives. The symbiont could reclaim lost bits of Tristen's blood and body, but whatever fell to the Enemy was gone.

  The world had shrunk while he slept.

  "By extrapolation, I estimate 16 percent," the angel said. "My communication and proprioception protocols are damaged. Contact with outlying sectors is tenuous. Life support is suboptimal in all sectors with which I do still have contact. The world has sustained intense radiation exposure and shock damage. We've lost a great deal of atmosphere. I am synthesizing carbon and oxygen from available and reclaimed materials and attempting to preserve biodiversity, but it will be some time before we are ready for more than a skeleton crew. Which leads me to the reason I have awakened you prematurely, Prince Tristen. I'm sorry, but I needed your help."

  It was a completely unangelic thing to say, and it broke Tristen's heart along a fault line he hadn't known existed.

  The angel's impulse to speak that way hadn't come from Samael or Asrafil or Dust, but from another consciousness subsumed in the machine. He turned the thought away. You do yourself no kindness when you play that game, Prince Tristen.

  He said, "How can I help you?"

  "My Captain," said the angel. "I fear for her courage and the resolve of her heart. And she will speak to no other but you. She says you are to be her First Mate, and I am to follow your commands and leave her in peace with her grief."

  Tristen leaned against her tank, the medical green upholstery sticky against the skin of his back. He let his hand splay against the surface of the pod, as if he could touch his niece reassuringly through all the polymer and fluid that separated them. He knew that peace intimately and of old.

  For all her courage and determination, Perceval was very, very young.

  He said, "All right. Is life support in Engine functional?"

  "The Domaine of Engine is closer to intact than much of the rest of the world, sir."

  "The first thing we must do is repair the bridge. Start awakening such of the Engineers as will survive the process."

  "Yes, sir," the angel said.

  Tristen held up a hand. "Caitlin Conn first," he interrupted. "And please draw me up some schematics of the world as she now sails."

  "As I now have contact with her, sir. It's the best I can do for the moment."

  The bridge was not a shambles. Given its state the last time Tristen had seen it, he could only assume that its repair had ranked high in the angel's priorities even before he had given his orders. Fixing the bridge would be a service to the angel's Captain, which was in turn a service to the world itself. The three things--angel, Captain, and vessel--were inextricable in the mythology of both Engine and Rule. And inextricable in reality, as well.

  Tristen paused just within the door, remembering this space as he had seen it last--cobwebbed, crumbling, torn open to the Enemy. Now, he walked over rolling clover, speckled with blue and purple wildflowers--bluets, nightshade. In the shadow of chairs and control panels, the scarlet trillium petals of wake-robin hugged the soil, the coyness of their form a contradiction of their color.

  And overhead and on every side, the stars.

  It could not be a direct window, Tristen knew, nor even an unedited view, because the Jacob's Ladder still sped along in concert with an expanding debris field from the death of the shipwreck stars. Their explosion had given the world acceleration. Now, as electromagnetic nets were reconfigured to sweep shattered star-stuff into the world's needy maws, their corpses fed its reawakening engines.

  Instead, Tristen saw the stars as they would have looked without that radiant layer of dust and gas--a spectacular interstellar night unbesmirched by the newborn nebula. As the Jacob's Ladder accelerated, it would leave the blast front behind, but for now they traveled in company.

  The filtered stars seemed stationary. At these distances and speeds, the apparent motion was negligible.

  While Tristen paused to take in the panorama, the angel again faded into existence before him. The avatar moved from panel to panel, exactly as if it needed to touch the controls to affect them. Tristen supposed the Builders had been more comfortable with a visible benevolent presence, but he found it redundant.

  "Please bring up a set of status panels for me," Tristen said. "Shipwide--"

  "As much of it as I have," the angel corrected.

  "--with emphasis on Engineering. Casualty and damage reports. Medical reports on surviving crew. Material attrition reports. Key personnel, and a list of any missing or dead."

  Rien, of course. He wondered if the angel would include her among the lost. She wasn't, exactly, and even if she was, her death--which wasn't actually a death, although it was a cessation of independent existence--had preceded the supernova.

  Whether or not the list spared her name, Tristen knew it would be replete with others equally dear.

  The air before him darkened, though it did not lose transparency. Bright columns of words and numbers scrolled through it, too fast for a Mean to read. They did not strain Tristen's ability.

  The angel asked, "Among key personnel, are there any in particular whose status you would like ascertained? There is a great deal of damage, so if I can focus my inquiries--"

  "Caitlin," he said. "Benedick. Any members of the Conn family or the senior staff of Engine or Rule." Then, gritting his teeth, he said the name he least wished to. "And Arianrhod."

  His granddaughter had engaged in murder, treason, and biological warfare. She and her daughter Ariane had unleashed a deadly engineered influenza in Rule and allied with the rogue AI Asrafil to attempt to usurp control of the world. It was their actions that had led to the unmaking of Arianrhod's other daughter, Rien, a child Tristen had held quietly dear.

  It would be provident if she had died in the nova, but in Tristen's experience, Providence so rarely lived up to its name.

  "The tanks of the individuals indicated by name are intact," the angel said immediately. "Prince Benedick has already been released. So has the Chief Engineer. I am processing the remainder of your request."

  "Thank you," Tristen said.

  Benedick Conn had suffered worse awakenings, but only one or two. Now he pushed himself out of the still-damp capsule, rubbing slime from his lashes, and felt the unmistakable heat of repair along the length of every bone.

  "Burn this," he said, stumbling against the wall of a neighboring pod. It caught his shoulder and kept him upright, but he found himself clinging with his fingertips to a cargo net nonetheless.

  His clothes and tools were bundled into the net on his own pod. If anything was still usable, he'd want it. The cloth should have survived. "How bad?"

  "Bad," said the angel who had awakened him. "Prince Tristen is acting as First Mate, on the orders of Captain Perceval."

  "Perceval is not well?" Benedick pulled himself upright. He turned and found the webbing containing his gear. Fingers numb as greasy sausages, he pawed at the ties, but his hands shook too hard for usefulness.

  "Perceval is still healing, and sick with grief," the angel answered with a compassionate dip in tone that Benedick swore he knew. He felt it like a dagger, the pain as sharp as if the edges scraped bone. "But she is the Captain. She will do what she must."

  "Rien," Benedick said, once, to hear himself say it.

  The angel gave him a moment of silence. Then, regretfully, he answered, "I am sorry, Prince Benedick. But I am not Rien, nor can I be for you. There is too much else within me."

  Benedick shook his head, too overcome to speak plainly. He knew. And that wasn't what he'd meant.

  She was gone, and he'd barely met her. It would be easy to blame her mother, but the truth was he'd cheated both of them. There had been better ways, if he'd troubled himself to find them. So now--though Rien deserved more--in her memory he gave himself an instant to waver with the pain.

  Then he closed his eyes and imagined himself turning and walking away.

  Benedick kept
an ice-walled place in his center, and he knew it well. Now, he imagined himself in the long corridor leading down, the heavy door swinging open to his touch. He imagined the chill, stale air across his face and hands.

  He imagined that he stepped within. The walls were perfectly clear, perfectly frozen. He could see out with clarity, but no pain could reach through the ice.

  After his sister Cynric's failed revolt against their father the Commodore, Benedick had become her executioner. He had not been terribly young by Mean standards, but he had been a very young Exalt. He'd first built this fortress to endure that day, and in the centuries since, he'd retreated here more times than he cared to think on, when war or necessity left no room for mourning. He'd used it when Perceval's mother, Caitlin, left him for allowing his other daughter to be fostered in Rule, and he told himself there was no shame in needing it now.

  He swung the imagined door closed with a touch and felt it seal. Lock out the hurt, he willed it, as he had willed it when he had lost Caitlin, as he had willed it when Cynric's blood had writhed and then clotted in the crevices of his hands.

  The Mean had called his sister Cynric the Sorceress, and held her in a kind of concerned awe. But her sorcery hadn't saved her in the end.

  Perceval would have to learn this, too, if she were going to command. He would teach her, if she'd let him.

  He clenched his hands, drove the nails into his palms, felt the blur of heat and soothed it away. Ice. It was all ice.

  War meant loss. He should be able to treat the loss of his daughters as he would treat the loss of anyone's child. Every baby was worth the same to a general.

  He would be a father later, he promised himself. Soon, before it became too easy to let the ice seal that pain away forever. He would do better this time.

  As he thought this, he thought he even meant it. But he had a hard time believing himself anyway.

  When he opened his eyes and spoke again, his voice was smooth and cool. "What does Tristen require?"

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