by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
The thing loomed up over him, blotting out the windscreen in his vision, taking up almost all of the space in the flight deck. It hardly even looked like anything recognizably alive: it was just a twisting mass of fibrous, tangling filaments, no sense or order in them that he could see. It even moved like a time-lapse of something growing, an upward twining thrust that seemed to just be there all at once, without actually moving at all. Taye was trying to fumble for his sidearm but it felt so, so useless, so stupid. Most of what he was doing was just staring at it, huge-eyed, his throat silent but shaped in a scream.
It moved again, and filaments brushed the exposed skin of his wrist above his gloves, and stuck there. They sank in, and red immediately welled up in lines around them, bright against the brown of his flesh. Taye batted at them, frantically, teeth bared, but there were more even while he did: on his neck, and then his ear and cheek. He couldn’t stop them all. A part of him somehow knew even now that when this had really happened, this had been when his copilot had blasted the thing with the diquat and made it let go of him, and they’d both gotten fucked up by the fumes too and crashed in the process but they’d gotten free on parachutes while the thing went down with the plane, but he knew just as surely that wasn’t going to happen now. He was alone, and it was going to get him. It was going to have him. Sink in, all the way in, and then he wouldn’t be him anymore, he would be the thing hunting the rest of his squadron with too-fast reflexes and bloody eyes. Some of the guys thought you didn’t even lose consciousness when it happened. You just rode along, screaming in your head.
He yanked at the threads, tearing up his gloves when he touched them, trying to struggle back. Knowing it wouldn’t help, and tasting despair way back in his mouth. The thing surged in, surrounding him with itself, blocking away the rest of the world, and everything exploded around him into light and noise–
And then Taye’s eyes snapped open, air punching out of him on a gasp. The dream shredded away in fragments — but the light and noise were still very much there. Blaring red light, loud klaxoning siren.
“Fuck,” he wheezed, and struggled out of the sweaty clinging ropes of his cot’s sheets. His turn. He could almost be grateful for the wake-up, except that it didn’t do a thing to bring down the hammer of his pulse.
He staggered at a tripping half-run over to the console, the red emergency lights spinning crazed patterns over his still-darkened pod. It was a little hard to punch in his code with his hands so shaky, but less so to fit his palm into the hand-shaped groove below. The soft ding and silence that followed, the lights and alarm both shutting up as suddenly as they’d started, were like cool water on a fever.
“Countdown terminated,” said a pleasant female voice over the speaker. Taye smiled broadly and gave it the finger.
It was a little after five in the morning, he saw on the display when he got to the comms monitor bank, and groaned under his breath. He was still scrubbing at his eyes and shirtless when he flopped into the chair and toggled on his cameras. Dignity was overrated.
“Yo,” he said, half into his hand. “Who up?”
Mexico City’s screen was still in privacy mode, of course, and he could only muster up a little jealousy when he saw Brasilia’s was as well. Tokyo, Abuja, and Islamabad looked to be elsewhere, their chairs empty, but several of the others were regarding him in varying states of relief, interest, and welcome.
“That took a little while,” Moscow said, but there was sympathy in her voice. Or at least in the just-a-little-uncannily generic alto the universal translator assigned her in English, anyway. She was picking at a bowl of some kind of reconstituted cubes: lunch, Taye thought it would be, where she was. “Were you sleeping? I always hate that.”
Taye nodded even as he finished scrubbing at his eyes. “Yeah, but now I get to chill extra with my eastern hemisphere crew,” he said, and even summoned a little smile. “Tight.”
There were a few hesitations on the monitors, and then a couple ripples of smothered laughter. Beijing was the only one who’d seem to speak up, though. “Is anyone else’s U.T. erroring out a lot on D.C. right now?” she asked, grinning. “I don’t think mine likes how he talks when he’s tired.” There were nods, just for insult to injury.
“I think mine only got about half of that,” New Delhi said, but the dancing light in his eyes behind his glasses was so fond Taye found he couldn’t help laughing too, if sleepily.
“Well, that’s ’cause we got a bunch of white-ass universal translators. Hate it when anybody talks even a little regular to them. Don’t be mad, Moscow, we all know how it be.” He pointed a finger at one of the monitors while they were all cracking up, as little sense as that gesture probably made from the other end. “My man Addis knows what I’m talking about. He knows what’s up.”
Addis Ababa, the only face on the screens as dark as his own with Abuja not there, was laughing really hard by now — though when the U.T.’s voice for him broke in it was completely clear and only sounded mildly amused, which was always pretty weird. “I really don’t, actually. It keeps cutting to ‘language not identified.’ I should just turn it off and listen to you in English, I’d understand better.”
Taye rolled his eyes. “Language not identified, my ass. Fuck this fucking racist universal translator, man.”
They were all laughing by now, Taye included, and even over a bunch of screens it was a nice sound. Something that would, at least for a little while, blot out the nothing white noise of recycled air and pressure pumps and humming tech, miles deep in the earth.
It was nice when they could all laugh about it together, but honestly, his U.T. manual really did advise all brightly and chirpily to “speak standard English as much as possible,” and that was some pretty microaggression-y bullshit to have to deal with on a daily basis. Taye sucked it up and switched his codes the best he could, though; by this point, having somebody to talk to (without the U.T. crapping out on them) seemed like the bigger deal. Fuck having to make choices like that, too.
He’d probably gotten to know Mexico City and Brasilia the best, what with the time zones having them up at mostly the same times. M.C. was nice enough, she was just older than their average, probably in her fifties or so, and had a wealthy cultured air to her that could be a little off-putting. She also didn’t get why he thought calling her that was funny, which was disappointing. Brasilia was younger but kind of unremarkable, though he liked the hip-hop Taye put on sometimes when it was too quiet in the afternoons, so that was something in his favor.
Abuja was the next closest, they usually overlapped by the better part of a day, but Taye really didn’t get along with him; he always had this snide, condescending air to him with Taye, and a couple of the others had confirmed in private it wasn’t just his imagination. Taye couldn’t prove it was about him being a Black American, that Abuja was one of those kinds of African dicks, but he would’ve been really surprised to find out otherwise. At least Addis was chill, and kind of a riot actually. He’d managed to smuggle a pretty astonishing amount of weed into his pod somehow, and though he couldn’t smoke it on a closed air system, he was always experimenting with other delivery methods and reporting cheerfully on how disastrous they’d been, making Taye laugh sometimes until tears squeezed out of his eyes.
Moscow he saw a fair amount too, but she was the only really definitively white person among them (Brasilia a distant second place), and Taye always felt kind of awkward talking to her for long. Tokyo, Beijing, and Jakarta he only ever saw for a couple hours a day, mornings and nights with their nights and mornings, and Dhaka, Islamabad, and New Delhi didn’t have a lot more time in common. But somehow it was still New Delhi he’d ended up looking forward to seeing the most, every day. It was good to see anybody, of course, even in a grainy refreshing video feed on a screen, but especially New Delhi’s round, handsome, friendly brown face, his big rimless glasses that sometimes the light from the monitors whited out with glare.
“You know what day it is, right?” he asked New Delhi during a chess game, in mid-morning for Taye and mid-evening for New Delhi. New Delhi glanced up at him from considering the slightly translucent and hovering board, and smiled.
“I’ve never known less what day it is,” he said. Taye laughed, but he could feel how it only happened on his mouth, not his eyes.
“It’s day 300, my man,” he said, after a few seconds of pause, trying and not quite managing to keep his tone light. “Another hundred down. Coming up on a year now.”
New Delhi’s eyes were back on the board by then, and though he didn’t look up or respond, Taye thought he went a little more still. Quiet.
“Have you heard anything?” Taye pressed, after a second. New Delhi shook his head, and finally looked back up at him.
“I’d tell you if I had.”
Taye grinned, the best he could. “We’re not supposed to tell each other.”
“That’s nonsense,” New Delhi said, a little impatient huff in his breath as he sat back. Taye couldn’t help smiling again, at how New Delhi had surely made the deliberate choice to say whatever meant nonsense or something like it in Hindi, instead of anything spicier. The U.T. didn’t translate swearing, as a rule. Fucking nannying bullshit. “It’s not going to be some kind of state secret if they do take over India. Is Pakistan going to stop them at the border and make them show their papers? Brush the extraterrestrials gently off of Kashmir before they steal it? It’s everyone’s problem equally, there’s no reason not to talk to each other about it.”
“Not arguing, I’m just saying,” Taye said, holding up his gloved hands in the air. New Delhi just pursed his mouth and finally made a move, but Taye’s eyes lingered on him instead of turning to the board. “I’d tell you too, for what it’s worth. But there’s been nothing. My last call from topside was more than two months ago.” He watched the glare off New Delhi’s glasses. “It doesn’t look good, does it?”
New Delhi looked at him, smiling. It was a tired smile, but it was nice to look at, all the same. “It doesn’t look like anything yet,” he said, and it seemed like that was all he would say. “Your move.”
Taye studied the board himself for a while, and then picked up his knight. Intellectually, he knew down to details how the haptic feedback on the gloves worked to make it feel like the holographic pieces had that satisfying weight to them, but it never failed to surprise him somehow, just a little bit. The tech had changed so fast, even since he was a kid. They were lucky, he guessed, that all of this had happened now, and not even twenty years before.
If you could call anything about this lucky at all.
The superior officer who’d shown Taye around his pod when he’d first been locked in — some portly white brass who seemed real sure of his own importance, no difference you could tell from any other like him — had made it very clear what Taye was supposed to use the comms monitors for, when it came to the other nodes. Daily checks on whether everybody was still online, and emergency status checks if somebody else missed a countdown, and that was it. Nothing else. The officer hadn’t said specifically they weren’t all supposed to just chat with each other and hang out, or that Taye wasn’t supposed to get under the hood himself and rewire his against-the-computer chess game to be remotely two-player, but Taye thought he could assume those parts anyway. The monitors were purely utilitarian in every possible way, from the uncomfortable chair at the station, to the way their cameras were all pointed to center the countdown termination console, in every pod.
Taye had been proudly shown the exercise equipment instead, like he wasn’t still used to just doing burpees and squats on a bare floor from Basic, and he’d been given the tablet with access to millions of stored books and movies as if it was worth its weight in gold, like there wasn’t only so much time you could spend reading and watching things by yourself before you wanted to tear your fucking eyes out. He needed people, they all needed people, and it didn’t matter what the bureaucrats who’d put them down here thought about it, how much they expected anyone who wasn’t rich and powerful to be just a machine that worked however they thought it should. You had to talk to someone, just see another human face and know somebody was out there with you, somewhere, in some way. And if eleven other people were just a screen away, well, that screen was getting used whether it was supposed to or not. Fuck a stair-climber.
It was fairly early morning for Taye when they all ended up talking that day, like it usually was. That was when the most people tended to be online at once, since just about everybody else was some degree of ahead of him, time-wise — M.C. of course being the notable exception. What they’d ended up doing wasn’t quite comparing notes, New Delhi wasn’t wrong that they really weren’t supposed to do that, but creeping right up to the edge of it. Poking at the year that was close to ending.
“Nobody said how long it was supposed to be,” Beijing agreed now, slumped over her console around a mug of something-or-other that had started life as a powder. She might have gone to bed by now normally, but she’d gotten hit with a countdown just as she was getting ready to turn in, and after stopping it she’d come back to the monitors declaring she’d be up another hour now at least. “But they didn’t think it was going to be long. Maybe a few weeks. I think we all knew that.”
“I don’t know about a few weeks,” Tokyo said, frowning. He looked as clear-eyed as Beijing did bleary, in spite of being an hour later than even her; Tokyo was like a perpetual motion machine, though, Taye suspected sometimes he didn’t sleep at all. By now the blue dye had grown out to only the ends of his formerly short punky haircut, like highlights instead.
“Certainly not a year, though,” Dhaka said, nodding. “From what I understood, the assault was planned to be quite aggressive; that’s why this process was so rushed. The aftermath might have taken a while to sort out, one way or another, but…” He let that go eloquently, and shrugged.
“Do you think we’re going to run out the whole 500 days?” Taye asked, quietly. “Or have to call it early?”
With all of them talking over screens, they couldn’t do the round of quick exchanged side-to-side looks that might have followed something like that, but the seconds of frozen faces and silence did the job just as well. Taye knew the feeling. It had sounded like such a long time when they had started out, impossibly long; definitely more than enough time to repel an alien invasion, with the whole world tenuously united. The idea of the situation dragging out longer than that hadn’t been a possibility he’d allowed, and the possibility that they would lose… well, of course that one had been on his mind, but he’d managed to keep it mostly confined to his nightmares.
“I think it’s too early to say,” Mexico City said, with a gracious, calm authority that kind of put Taye’s teeth on edge, even when she was too fresh out of bed to have even styled her iron-grey hair yet. “You may disagree, but I don’t think jumping to conclusions will be helpful.”
“I’m not jumping to conclusions, I’m–” Taye started, annoyed, but Abuja cut him off. Of course.
“I quite agree.” Taye even got to hear the snide-ass tone in his 100% real voice, since he was speaking English anyway. “It isn’t our responsibility to determine when is too long.”
“No, but I don’t think D.C. is wrong to raise the question, either,” Jakarta said, rubbing thoughtfully at his lower lip. “If it’s begun to seem like more of a real possibility, I think we’re all going to need to be prepared for it.”
“We have been prepared for it from the start,” Abuja said, sterner than ever. There was a pause.
“In theory, I suppose,” Dhaka said. His voice had gone soft now, too. And finally Abuja didn’t seem to have an answer for that; and neither did anyone else for a long time, either.
“Well, be that as it may, allow me to hope this ends sooner rather than later,” Islamabad said finally, breaking the silence, with a sort of false heartiness that carried even through the artificial translation. “The lights in my pod have been flickering, and it’s giving me headaches. They couldn’t have planned for maintenance, at least, if they really thought it might go on this long?”
“Sounds fairly typical for Pakistan,” New Delhi couldn’t seem to resist saying, in a mild lowered-eyed undertone. Before Islamabad could even respond beyond extravagantly rolling his eyes, though, nearly everyone else had erupted almost at once into a loud chorus of protests — Oh, come on, not again! Leave him alone! Stop it, don’t you even get started! Don’t make us separate you two! — and New Delhi couldn’t even pretend to keep it up, laughing and apologizing at once. Even Islamabad was smirking by the end of it, although he just shook his head.
“If you want to bust open the panels and talk me through what you’re seeing, I could try to help figure out what the problem is,” Addis Ababa said to Islamabad when they had all settled down some. Islamabad smiled, but shook his head again.
“Thank you, but I definitely don’t share your expertise. I think I’d be most likely to just make things worse, even with your help..” Addis laughed and just shrugged his acknowledgement, but by now Brasilia was leaning in with a curious frown.
“Did you report it upstairs, Islamabad?” he asked, jerking his head vaguely up above them. Islamabad hesitated for a very clear, loaded moment, but then just smiled.
“Not yet, but I will the next time they check in,” he said. Brasilia nodded like he hadn’t even noticed, whether he really had or not, but Taye definitely tucked that moment’s pause away. Right into the big, growing knot of suspicion in his stomach, about how long it had been since any of them had heard anything from the surface.
“Check,” New Delhi said, for the third time that night (morning, for him), and smiled when Taye swore. “It sort of feels like you aren’t completely here, D.C.”
“Where else could I be?” Taye groused, but when New Delhi just laughed, he tried to focus on the board again. Not that it was helping him much; New Delhi was running rings around him tonight, and it wasn’t just that it was getting late, although it was. He hadn’t been sleeping great, either. “You know what I keep thinking about lately? This incredible taqueria up on the north side of–“
“Sorry, missed a word?” New Delhi said, clearly trying not to interrupt too badly. Taye caught himself, and tried not to sigh. Telling him he didn’t even say that right enough to register as Spanish was just a low blow.
“Taco place. Up on the north side of town. They’ve got them with every kind of meat you can think of, pretty much — the octopus ones are amazing. I’m thinking right about now I could just, like, fit two of them in my mouth side-by-side, just shove ’em right in.” He made a demonstrative sort of gesture with his hands cramming toward his face, and New Delhi burst out laughing.
“Octopus?” he repeated when he could get the breath, though, with an incredulous edge. Taye nodded, grinning, and New Delhi made a face and shook his head. “You and Tokyo. Ugh. I thought Americans wouldn’t eat anything but beef?”
“Well, this American will eat anything, and it’s not my fault if your land-locked ass doesn’t know what’s good,” Taye said, and punctuated it by poking skeptically at his bishop. He wasn’t sure if that had come across all the way through the U.T. either, come to that, but New Delhi laughed again, so it was probably good enough. “Tacos didn’t trip you up, though?”
“There are tacos in New Delhi,” New Delhi said, rolling his eyes a little even though he was grinning. “Very many of them. We have running water, too.” Taye laughed and held up his hands, which had the added benefit of keeping him from having to make a move for another minute.
“All right, all right. I’m not trying to be ignorant. Just curious.” He paused another moment, then finally just put the bishop somewhere to have it done with, and sat back. “What about you? What would you just… nearly kill somebody to be eating right now?”
New Delhi appeared to consider that for a long moment, his eyes on the board now instead. “I would,” he said at last, slowly and calmly, “actually kill several people to be eating a cream roll from Wenger’s. I would like to go into the shop, buy one after another, and eat every last one until I can’t anymore.”
Taye couldn’t help it: he was the one laughing his ass off now, bent over his console, although New Delhi never cracked from that same mild benevolent smile. “That is… so good. I love that. I think when this is all over and it goes super well and everything goes back to normal, that’s exactly what you should do.”
“When that happens,” New Delhi agreed, and he even kept his smile the whole time. His fingers lingered over the translucent top of a pawn, then moved away. There was a moment’s pause, and then he looked up at Taye again, a funny sort of look in his eyes: hopeful and rueful and uncertain. “By the way, since it came up… I do speak English pretty well, you know. So do most of us, I’m sure. Just not all, and I suppose under tense circumstances it’s just easiest to speak the language you were born with. But if you wanted to, when it’s just us, we could turn off the U.T.”
Taye looked at him wide-eyed for a second, and then played it off with an uncomfortable little laugh. He would have been hard-pressed to explain all of why that made him feel so off his footing. “…That kind of makes me feel like a jerk, honestly? You having to switch over just because where I’m from, nobody ever bothers to learn other languages.”
New Delhi shrugged, but his smile was warm. “You didn’t make the world the way it is,” he said, which was fair even while it didn’t really go a long way to making Taye feel better. “And talking to you directly would at least be a nice way to use it. At the very least, I’d like to finally get to hear all of what you’re saying.”
“You say that now,” Taye said, half-laughing, but New Delhi just smiled again. After another pause, Taye lifted and dropped his hands again, surrendering. “But, I mean — yeah, we could do that, if you want to. Honestly, that’d be… I’d really like that.”
New Delhi smiled broader than ever, and nodded. After he’d raised his eyebrows and Taye had nodded back, he leaned forward in Taye’s view, tapping at his keyboard and touchscreen for a moment. Taye took the cue to go into his own audio settings menu, too, and it only took him a second to find and toggle off the Apply Universal Translator To User option. And then of course he had to click his patient way through the warnings that popped up after, and wait through some processing time.
“Are you ready?” an unfamiliar voice said, just as he had finished. Taye looked up to see the tail end of it matched to the movements of New Delhi’s mouth, and couldn’t help breaking out in a smile.
“Yeah, all set,” he said. “You are too, right?”
He felt like he could know exactly what his own goofy-ass expression was just by seeing it reflected back on New Delhi’s face. He was just beaming helplessly, warm and sunny. “Yes, I can hear you,” he said. His voice was a half-pitch or so higher than what the U.T. had set for him, and a little bit coarser, not as smooth — and it had the lower volume and dimensionality of actually coming from another place, not just being piped straight into Taye’s speakers. It also had an Indian accent where the U.T.’s hadn’t, of course, and even in those few words, a hundred other little imperfections and nuances of inflection that were an unbelievable relief after all that blandly computerized speech. “I apologize for my accent, I know it’s a bit strong. Can you understand me clearly?”
“Yeah, you’re fine, don’t apologize. God, you sound great.” Taye interrupted himself just laughing like a fool, because there didn’t seem to be anything else he could do. “It’s just — really good to hear you for real.”
“You as well,” New Delhi said, and he still looked like he meant it just as much as Taye did. The two of them must have been a hell of a sight, just sitting there grinning at each other through the screens.
“Can you understand me okay, actually?” Taye thought to ask after another second. “I mean, I know sometimes I don’t speak, like, textbook English, or anything.”
New Delhi laughed, and shook his head. “You don’t sound like what I’m used to hearing, but I can definitely understand. The U.T. is just very spoiled.” Taye cracked up, and New Delhi’s smile back at him turned halfway bashful, eyes lowering a bit. “You have a very pleasant voice, actually. It’s deeper than it was through the U.T., and… lovely. A very musical way of speaking.”
That caught Taye up a bit wrong-footed and self-conscious himself, and he hesitated a moment before laughing, awkwardly, his face feeling warm. “Ah — thanks. Yours is really nice, too. It’s — human, you know? And it’s you.”
“I know what you mean,” New Delhi said, giving him a soft upward look that was shyer than ever. And if that look made Taye’s mouth a little drier and his pulse a little faster, well… if none of them were going anywhere, maybe that was something he could take his time thinking what to do about.
Taye was getting breakfast when he started hearing it: weird sounds and raised voices from the monitors, loud enough to carry to the pod’s little kitchen area a half-level down. He jerked and spun around, dropping the scoop of shitty total-nutrition shake powder back into the canister from his startled fingers. Then he was moving, running at the short steps back up to the monitoring station, vaulting himself the railing for a shortcut.
There was so much chaos on all of the screens — people leaning in close, shouting in overlap, eyes wide and faces panicky — that it took him a second to identify which one was the source of it all. Then another sparking whiteout of Islamabad’s screen made him wince backward, and in the after-glare he could see with thudding pulse what was going on there. Islamabad was slumped back against the far wall, near one edge of the monitors’ range of vision, next to the dark hole of a pried-open panel in the polymer of his pod wall. There was a tangle of wiring inside, and there was the occasional arc of way too much electricity between them, overloading the camera with its brightness and washing everything out whiter. Islamabad’s whole arm on the near side looked blackened, the sleeve around it in blown-out tatters and the flesh horrifically raw and mottled, and he was breathing against the wall in huge bellows-gasps, his body a taut agonized arc.
“Are you okay?” Addis was clearly screaming into the cameras, although the U.T. rendered it still upset but surreally calmer. His whole face was a huge-eyed rictus, stretched with what looked like almost as much pain as Islamabad’s, if of a different kind. “Islamabad, are you okay? Answer me!”
He obviously wasn’t, but Addis was just as obviously way beyond dealing with any of what he was seeing rationally. The others’ voices cut in and out, a background chatter of questions and panic and demands that helped nothing.
Islamabad didn’t move from his position, his figure seeming weirdly small even at this short distance, but he was clearly struggling. Trying to move, or speak, but mostly just thrashing and heaving breaths. While Taye watched, clenched stone-tense and helpless, he pitched forward suddenly, and vomited between his feet. Then he was sagging to the side, clutching at his chest, still seeming to gasp for air.
“I think he’s in cardiac arrest,” Mexico City cut across the babble suddenly, her voice sharp and severe. It at least managed to stun most of the others into silence. “Not surprising, for being shocked so badly. There’s nothing we can do.”
There was a moment’s appalled silence. Islamabad writhed, on the screen, unbearable to watch, and impossible to reach. His choked and wheezing gargles of sound were the only sound to hear.
“Fuck,” Abuja hissed, finally, untranslated and agonized. In that moment, Taye felt the closest to him that he thought he ever would. Addis had fully collapsed forward to where his head was out of view, shoulders wracking with what must have been sobs. The others were horrified statues: some staring, some looking away, some fully covering their eyes.
No one said anything else. Eventually, Islamabad slumped all the way down to the floor and was still, his head against his chest. If he was still breathing, it was impossible to see. Mexico City began calling to him with a practiced doctor’s calm, trying to see if he could still be roused to consciousness, if he could be gotten to do anything for himself, no matter how futile it might have been. Taye barely heard her, just sitting and staring down at nothing between his hands.
It was three whole hours later, when Islamabad still hadn’t moved an inch, that they all finally had to agree that he was dead.
“It’s my fault,” Addis said, thickly, after. The first understandable thing, anyway. He’d been honestly hysterical for a while, impossible to calm down; at least he seemed to have exhausted himself into making sense by now. “It’s all my fault. I talked him into it. He should have left it alone. He wouldn’t have if I hadn’t said it. It’s my fault.”
“That’s not true,” New Delhi said gently right away. “It’s not your fault. It was an accident.”
Addis kept shaking his head, but Tokyo stepped in there. “I don’t know as much about it as you do, but I know some,” he said, surprisingly firm for him. “I was watching the whole time. Everything you told him to do was safe. It should have been safe.” Addis was just staring down now, miserably, and Tokyo pushed. “His wiring was faulty. That’s the whole reason you were working on this, because of his power cycles. His pod was just a rush job. None of it was your fault.”
“All of our pods were a rush job,” Moscow said in a mutter, her eyes turned down from all of them. That wasn’t something Taye thought any of them needed to hear right now, and he was nastily relieved when everyone else seemed just as determined to ignore it.
“Still, though,” Addis said instead. He did actually sound a bit steadier now, and Taye felt a rush of intense warm gratitude toward Tokyo. “If I hadn’t said anything, and he’d just left it alone–“
“Then his power might have failed in a month anyway, and let him suffocate,” Abuja said, over top of him. Which, yeah, was brutal, but also undercut with a kindness that did surprise Taye a little. “We don’t know. No one can say what would have happened.”
Addis sniffed, scrubbed at his face with his palm, and then finally nodded. His face, already lean and high-cheekboned, looked sunken in on itself, and there were still troubled shadows all over it, but he nodded. Taye’s chest ached just looking at him. Christ, the poor guy. He’d just wanted to help.
Taye had turned off his monitor that connected to Islamabad’s camera by now: it was a blank hole in the middle of the forest of 3-D-projected screens around his seat. That was bad, but not as bad as it would have been to keep up the visual of Islamabad’s body, sprawled between a sparking hole and a pool of puke. They hadn’t talked about it in so many words, but he could only assume the others had done the same.
“Why wouldn’t they have just fixed it?” Brasilia said out of the quiet, sounding hollow and thin. He looked the same on the screen, his skin greyish. “He should have just been able to report it in to the surface, and get it fixed.”
There was a second or two of uncomfortable silence, people glancing at each other across cameras and monitors and then glancing away. Finally Taye spoke up, since he guessed it was going to have to be him who kept being the asshole. “Can I ask you all something real here for a second?” he asked, his voice low and feeling heavy in his chest. “Has anybody heard anything from the surface within the last three months?”
The pause this time was even more uncomfortable — maybe even a little shocked, like Taye had let out a huge belch instead of a totally reasonable question. He thought, though, that he might already be seeing the answer in everyone’s expression. The way Beijing dropped her tear-streaked eyes down and bit her lip. The way Moscow’s face froze and hardened. The wince of something like embarrassment across Jakarta’s features.
“It’s against protocol to discuss our communications with our respective governments,” Mexico City said, finally. When Taye turned to look at her, she’d drawn herself up tall, all deliberate dignity and opaque eyes. “It’s an issue of national security. I’m sure you were briefed on this just as we were, D.C. I assume no one wishes to violate the agreements of their position.”
Taye might have expected New Delhi to jump in on that, given their previous conversations — but it was actually Beijing who spoke up first. Her head snapped up and she spat a short phrase that the U.T just beeped an error on, which from context Taye guessed had been some truly nasty-ass Mandarin cussing. He could almost summon a smile. “Somebody just died in front of us, and we all know we’re way past national security mattering at all anymore,” was the first thing Beijing said that the U.T. would deign to translate, her eyes still wet but hard. “We need to exchange information if we’re going to make any kind of decisions. I’ll say it: No, D.C., my last contact with my handlers was fourteen weeks ago. I’ve been keeping track..”
It might have been what Taye was expecting, but it still crushed his chest inside him a little to hear. He wasn’t surprised when New Delhi spoke up next. “Thank you, Beijing,” he said, soft and kind. It was so weird now, hearing the U.T. voice for him again, when the others’ monitors were on. “I think that was a brave thing to do, and I also think D.C. is making a good point. For my part, I was last contacted just about three months ago exactly, but nothing since then.”
“Two and a half months,” Jakarta said, quietly. “It was a very short conversation, though, and it was… not encouraging.”
They went around the circle from there, with the dam broken: closer to four for Dhaka, nearly three for Brasilia, only a little longer for Tokyo. Addis looked uneasy, but finally confessed to about fifteen weeks, his voice barely audible. Moscow avoided their eyes and said nothing, and both Mexico City and Abuja just sat resolutely and stiffly silent, refusing to join in. Not that they really needed to at this point, Taye thought.
“Okay,” he said, when it seemed like they were at the end of it. “I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but three months is about how long it’s been for me, too. I think that gives us all an idea where things are at.” He saw a few unwilling nods. “I don’t… really know what we do about that, honestly. If we do anything.”
“It’s still good to know,” Dhaka said, and when Taye glanced over at him he had on a kind little smile. “Thank you for broaching the topic. I appreciate it.”
It didn’t sound like he leaned on the I in that, or maybe the U.T. just didn’t render the emphasis. Or maybe he just didn’t need to. M.C. didn’t say anything, though, just sat with her hands folded and watched them all resolutely. He guessed he could respect that from her.
“What happens if Islamabad gets a countdown now, though?” Brasilia said, after a moment’s silence. It surprised them all into another quick exchange of looks.
“Supposedly, after his countdown reaches its end, it’ll be automatically transferred to another pod,” Moscow said. Her voice was steady and guarded. Taye raised his eyebrows, but it was Tokyo who spoke.
“Yeah, that’s what they told me, too. What do you mean ‘supposedly,’ though?” He made an uneasy, halfhearted effort at a grin. “You think they’re lying? One of us misses and the whole thing actually goes off?”
“What purpose would there be in that?” Abuja said. “In not having a back-up plan, or in deceiving us?”
“None that I can see,” Moscow said, and seemed a little like she was rushing to do it now, both embarrassment and exasperation in the set of her face. “I didn’t mean to imply that. I only meant we haven’t seen it with our own eyes yet. We’ve all had the good luck to be remarkably prompt so far.”
“Well, I hope it really works that way,” Beijing said. She sighed, rubbing at her face. “I don’t think there’s anything else any of us can do about it now. But I hope it doesn’t come to me next, too, at least not soon. It’s after midnight here. Tokyo can stay up until dawn if he wants to, but I have to go to sleep.”
Tokyo made another try at that smile, although he still wasn’t making much headway with it. “What’s dawn? I don’t remember.”
“Don’t joke,” Beijing said quietly. She was almost smiling herself, but it looked painful, and her eyes were turned down.
Tokyo seemed to really look at her screen before his own expression melted back into something harder to look at, too. “Sorry,” he said, much lower and subdued. “Good night, Beijing.”
She nodded, and then her station went into privacy mode. They were all a few seconds finding their feet, and then Jakarta and Dhaka took the chance to excuse themselves to bed, too; it wasn’t much earlier for Jakarta, and Dhaka said he wanted to settle in for the night. Addis mumbled something and went dark not long after, in spite of the earlier hour, not surprisingly. At that point, the rest just seemed to drift away too, stepping away or going dark for their own separate occupations. Taye understood the impulse, and in the end he did the same. It was hard to think of what to say to anyone right now.
Even so, though, a one-on-one video request came through only a minute or two after he’d shut off his camera: from New Delhi, even though it must have been around ten at night there. And even so, since it was from New Delhi, Taye answered it.
“Hey,” he said, once he’d gone back up in one-on-one mode and with the U.T. off. What crumpled up one side of his face wasn’t quite in the neighborhood of a smile, but it was thinking about it. New Delhi made a similar effort, with even less success.
“Hi,” he said. “I won’t bother you if you’d rather not talk, but…” Taye was already shaking his head, though, and he let that go into just a blow of breath instead. “How are you doing?”
Taye was startled into sort of laughing a little. “Bad,” he said, with feeling, and that got a bit of laugh out of New Delhi, too. “You?”
“I’m also doing bad,” New Delhi said, equably enough. Then he let out another sigh, and rubbed his face, his hands bumping up his glasses along their backs. When he finally dropped them away, his whole face seemed to be sagging with misery, like gravity was too heavy on it. “I don’t… know how to respond. I don’t think I’m really taking it in.”
“Yeah,” Taye said. “I mean, even before any of the stuff the rest of us have to be worried about — it’s horrible.”
“It’s true that we did not get along at first,” New Delhi said, after that had sat in silence for a moment or two. “But really, not so much so, as time went on. We played at it, because after a while it seemed silly, to think we were expected to be enemies. It became a joke. In reality I had a great deal of respect for Islamabad, and I think he for me, as well.” He looked off to one side for a moment, at nothing, visible, and then sighed again. “He was a very considerate and intelligent person. If he was confronted with something that didn’t agree with what he had thought previously, he gave it a great deal of thought, and often reconsidered his point of view. I admired that very much in him.”
Taye nodded, his eyes cast down. “I don’t think I ever got to know him as much as you two knew each other, but… yeah. I saw some of that, too. He deserved a hell of a lot better.” New Delhi nodded, but didn’t respond to that at once, and Taye hesitated a moment himself: “Did you — know what his real name was?”
New Delhi shook his head, and his face tightened briefly across the mouth with what looked like pain. “We’ve breached protocol in so many other ways by now. I regret that I didn’t at least ask him.” They both let that sit, and then he glanced back up, finally catching Taye’s eyes again. “I do wonder about that rule. That we are not meant to know each other’s identities. There doesn’t seem to be much of a real security purpose to it, when I consider. The only thing I can think of that it serves to do is — dehumanize us to one another. And discourage us from relating.” He paused a moment, his gaze drawing Taye’s like a magnet. “The same with discouraging us to communicate apart from managing the countdowns. I wonder how much of our protocols were created not for security’s sake, but to keep us from realizing that, really, we have more in common with each other than we do with the people who put us here. Like Islamabad and myself.”
“I think you’re probably right,” Taye said, though he had to swallow once past his dry throat. It was one thing to suspect it down below the level of words or conscious thought, and another thing to hear New Delhi lay it all out like that — and it butted, hard, up against the guilty weight at the back of his mind. After a moment of working on it, though, he found he could muster up the guts to make a try at a smile. “If that’s true, though… Well. Fuck ’em, right? My name is Taye Rashada. What’s yours?”
New Delhi just stared back at him for a moment, clearly thrown off his footing… and then slowly, he smiled back, and inclined his head. “Vihaan Suryavanshi,” he said, a little more slow and clear than he might have otherwise. And then: “Taye… Rashada? Really?” Taye nodded, with a quizzical face that made him laugh a bit sheepishly. “I know that name, Rashada, actually. It’s common in Pakistan, and I hear it sometimes even here.”
“Gets around, I guess,” Taye said, smiling much more honestly now. It felt a little wrong but shockingly good. “And… Vihaan, right?” He tried to stretch out the second syllable right, and New Delhi — Vihaan — nodded and beamed. “And what was it, your last name? Sur… ya…?”
“Suryavanshi,” Vihaan said again, and a couple more patient times while Taye kept trying. But he did keep trying, until Vihaan nodded with some enthusiasm and told him he’d got it. Some things were just important to get right.
They recovered slowly, as much as they could, anyway. The constant low-grade clamp of dread in Taye’s belly, from everything they’d talked about, made the weight of Islamabad’s death just seem to bear down on him twice as heavy, and he got the sense that everybody else was feeling much the same. They didn’t just chat and hang out as much, kept to themselves a little more, were quieter and more on edge when they did talk. Still, he couldn’t quite regret having brought it up.
And if nothing else, after a few days, a countdown hit Islamabad’s pod. Taye sat in tense silence, barely aware of holding his breath, watching the alert crawl over the otherwise blank background of Islamabad’s turned-off screen until the full 180 seconds had run out… and then with no pause at all, the alert showed up over Dhaka’s screen, instead. It turned green and then vanished after no more than ten seconds, and Dhaka blipped out of privacy mode for a few minutes afterward to check in, looking shaky and relieved and sheepish about it. It had just transferred right to him and proceeded as normal, he confirmed. So that was one less thing to worry about, at least.
All the while otherwise, even as the full group drifted, Taye and Vihaan ended up spending more time together than ever, just the two of them. First thing in the morning for Taye until Vihaan finally had to give up and go to bed, in what was Taye’s early afternoon, and then Taye would kill time working out and showering and trying to do anything but think for an impatient eight hours or so, until Vihaan showed up again bleary-eyed that night and they could talk until Taye finally dropped.
They talked about everything and nothing at all, going deeper and learning stuff they’d never known about each other, and avoiding every more immediate topic. Both of them were willing to get more personal now that they’d opened the door, it seemed like. They told each other about their families: Taye pushing through the discomfort and admitting to the parents and sisters he hadn’t really talked to anymore even before he’d joined the Air Force, Vihaan getting the handful of photos of his brother’s family and of his niece and nephew that he’d been able to bring down and gleefully holding them up to the camera for Taye to enthuse over. They told stories about where they’d grown up and what it’d been like, each equally fascinating and familiar and unfamiliar to the other. School and jobs and interests and all the good boring stuff of getting to know someone else — though not, notably, romantic partners. It stood to reason most of them down here were single, had probably wound up down here partly because of it, but Taye thought he could hear Vihaan avoiding the whole topic of even past partners with the same circumspect caution he was using himself. And tried not to get too excited about what it might mean, for that matter. About what he might have been right to suspect.
“So can I ask you a really personal question?” Taye finally asked, pointedly casual, while he stirred a cup of coffee sludge on the console in front of him. Vihaan raised his eyebrows but nodded, smiling, and Taye went for it fast before he could think better of it. “Are you gay?”
For a second Vihaan didn’t move at all, so much so that his camera might have frozen, and Taye had time to be nauseatingly terrified that he had fucked the whole thing right up. Then Vihaan let out a little exhale, and with a smile somewhere between wry and determined to be dignified, he said, “Yes.” He only let it sit for a second, though, not long enough for Taye to respond. “Is that an issue?”
“No,” Taye said, and then he was smiling broadly, and then laughing while he shook his head. “No, not at all. I mean, I got a sense, and I just wondered — yeah, no. Cool.” Vihaan was smiling again, though it still looked cautious, and Taye guessed he did owe a little better than that now. “Actually, I’ve dated women sometimes, but I think mostly me too? So yeah. No worries.”
Now he was gratified to see Vihaan really did appear to be relaxing — and maybe looking at him with an extra spark of interest in his eyes? Hard to say at this distance. “I suppose I had wondered as well,” he said, maybe a little cryptically. “I hope I didn’t seem standoffish just now. We all come from very different places, and it can be difficult to predict how people will react.”
Taye nodded, with emphasis. “Yeah, believe me, I get it.” He tilted his head a little, prodding at his coffee. It failed to look any less gross for it. “What’s that like there? If you don’t mind my asking.”
Vihaan seemed to consider that, and then shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about it that much. Not perfect, but not so bad as other places. Some people can be hostile, and it always makes sense to be cautious, but really things are fine enough, especially living in a large city.” His smile twisted a bit. “I’m sure it’s not as easy as it is for you.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty much the same as the U.S., honestly,” Taye said, and smiled at the look Vihaan gave him. “It’s a big fucking country with a lot of assholes in it, man. And it — well. It kinda depends on who you are and where you come from, you know?”
“I do,” Vihaan said, with only the edges of his smile now. “But it is good to have it in the open, if only between us. I appreciate you being willing to raise the question.”
“Seems like that’s my whole thing lately,” Taye said. Vihaan answered his uneven smile, a little, and he let them both fall into quiet for a moment while he thought things over. Considering where to go next. “That kind of leads me into another question I’m not sure I should ask, though.”
Vihaan tilted his head, still smiling. “What’s that?”
Taye took another second to hover on the edge — and then went for it. “Whether some of this, us talking just the two of us” –he made a sort of whirling, connecting gesture with his finger, between the screen where Vihaan’s face showed and himself– “has been us flirting, too.” There was a second of pause where he couldn’t quite bring himself to try to read Vihaan’s expression, and then he couldn’t stand the silence, just blurting onward. “I mean, it doesn’t have to be, no problem, but–“
“That is something I’ve been trying to do sometimes, yes,” Vihaan said before he could get much further, watching him and looking amused. There might have been other things going on down underneath that expression, but Taye had learned by now that Vihaan was actually very good at guarding the sorts of things he didn’t want you to notice. “I thought you might have been, too. But that doesn’t have to be the case, if you don’t want it to.”
“No, I do,” Taye said, almost instantly, fast enough that he surprised himself into laughing. “I really, really do. That’s what I was hoping for.” He thought there was relief written on Vihaan’s face now too, but he couldn’t really get past his own dizzy giddiness enough to be sure yet. “I just — I wanna be clear, this isn’t just… captivity, or anything, right? I mean, we wouldn’t have known each other otherwise, probably, but it’s you. I really like you. It’s — I get excited when it’s morning and I’m going to see you. I don’t want to go to sleep after you come back on because I want to keep spending time with you, like we’re kids at a sleepover or something. You’re really decent, and you’re cool, and you’re funny, and kinda nerdy, and you’re somehow staying looking really good even in all this shit, and I just — I really like all of it.” He got that far and then realized he’d kind of been making a fumbling attempt at a big romantic speech or something, and suddenly caught himself up and shut his mouth almost hard enough to snap. When he risked a glance at Vihaan, though, he definitely looked anything but uncomfortable… except maybe in the good way, with a little bit of a darker color around his face than normal. “Okay, that was… a lot. Sorry.” Taye huffed a little laugh, but he was gratified to see Vihaan already shaking his head — although he didn’t let him break in just yet. “I’m just saying — yeah. If you’re in, so am I.”
“I — am,” Vihaan said, half-laughing himself, and looking completely wrong-footed now in a way that had Taye’s chest warming all up inside him, in spite of almost every other thing about where they were and what things were like. Vihaan took his glasses off to clean them after another second, maybe out of nerves and maybe to give himself a second to not look while he got his composure, and that was just as sweet to think. “Believe me, I am! Absolutely, I… I feel very much the same way. I don’t know if I’m as good at saying it, in English, when I am very flustered, but…” He broke off laughing sheepishly, and Taye joined him, and he honestly couldn’t believe how good it felt. “I’m… very glad. Thank you. You are also a wonderful person, and…yes. This is — something I’d like to keep going with.”
“So I guess we’ve got one more question to deal with,” Taye said, after giving that a moment’s pause, and then grinned as sexily as he could manage when Vihaan got his glasses back on and blinked at him. Maybe it was all fucked up, maybe the whole world was ending above them and they’d just lost a comrade down here in a horrible way and nothing should have been able to make either of them happy anymore, but… when things were that bad, wasn’t finding some way to be a little happy all that was really left? “How the hell do we go on a date when we’re 7,000 miles away from each other?”
After some negotiating, they settled on a meal together, around their usual overlap times: Taye doing a sort of brunch, Vihaan doing a sort of late dinner. There was nothing alluring about the kinds of crap they were eating down here, of course, but it was a standard date thing to do, and at least the work that went into coordinating it made it feel special. When Vihaan logged off that afternoon to go to bed, he was smiling and seemed bashfully excited, and Taye felt much the same way, needed to go run on his treadmill like a hamster for a while just to burn off his nervous energy. And God, it was so nice just having a distraction for a while.
They’d talked about it on a Tuesday, apparently, according to the calendar app, and they ended up not actually doing it until Saturday. Just feeling their way around it, and giving the anticipation a little time to build up, even if artificially. The day rolled around and Taye got up even earlier than normal, almost as early as he had back during his last tour of duty, to leave himself as much time as possible to go all in on getting ready. He took an extra-long shower in spite of how negligible a difference it would make to anyone but himself, shaved as carefully as possible, got the short ropes of his current dreads in order and oiled the roots, went after everything he could reach with moisturizer. It was nice too, honestly, in its own weird way. It wasn’t like he hadn’t kept up with taking care of himself, or anything, but it was cool to have a reason to really pay close attention.
Finally he put on what he thought were the nicest clothes he’d come down here with, and got together what he had for breakfast food that seemed both the least unpleasant to look at and the easiest to eat without making a fool of himself. And then there was nothing to do but settle in, double-check that all of his other comms were locked into privacy mode, take a few deep breaths, and turn his connection to Vihaan on.
Vihaan was waiting for him, which he tried not to let himself worry meant he was late somehow; Vihaan had had much more of the day already than he had, it was all good. At least Vihaan also reassured him by immediately smiling when he saw Taye, broad and bright and maybe a little relieved that he hadn’t managed to imagine the whole thing.
“Good morning, for you,” he said, with a little self-conscious laugh. “You look wonderful.”
“You do too,” Taye said, grinning back helplessly, and it was true. Vihaan had put on a collared shirt and an actual jacket, and though his hair was still as much a thick dark tumble of curls as always, it definitely looked more orderly and even softer than usual. He’d even managed to plate his rations in a sort of presentable way, which was both amazing and kind of hilarious.
And it was… just really nice. They talked like they always did, made each other laugh, ate their separate attempts at semi-fancy meals and flirted openly and probably made eyes at each other to a point that anybody else would barely be able to stand without their teeth rotting. But nobody else was here, if they didn’t want them to be. Just each other, if they wanted them to be. And apparently they did.
At the end Vihaan said good night in a soft, shy, half-looking way that both made Taye’s stomach flutter and tightened hotly in his dick, before logging off ostensibly to go to bed. All things considered, back in his bed was where Taye ended up, too. Though going back to sleep was the last thing on his mind.
Day 365 came and went, in the end, about as uneventfully as it was possible for it to do. More and more they were all turning their screens on again when they were up and around, circling back to chatting with each other the way they had before what had happened to Islamabad, probably more out of sheer isolated stir-craziness than anything else — or that was how it felt for Taye, at least. On the one-year anniversary of getting buried in the earth to keep watch over the whole planet’s kill-switch, they all hung out, played cards as best they could for only some of them having packs and all of them knowing slightly different games and rules, pretended not to notice how dully half-asleep stoned Addis was, and mostly didn’t talk about anything important. Definitely not the date, or what it meant.
“Can I ask you a biochemistry thing, New Delhi?” Beijing asked Vihaan at a lull. It had gotten hard for Taye to remember who people were talking to when they said that by now, not to mention the challenges of trying to seem casual and just friendly with him in front of everybody. “How does the diquat work, exactly?”
Several of the others looked definitely uncomfortable at the choice of topic, but Taye leaned forward a little, interested. Not just in the cute animated way Vihaan got talking when it was about something in his specialty, either. For his part, though, Vihaan hesitated at first, smiling a bit to show that it wasn’t that the question was unwelcome.
“Of course you can ask,” he said. It was even weirder than ever by now, hearing his U.T. voice again. “I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to answer, though, especially not ‘exactly.’ Honestly, there’s a lot we don’t know.” Beijing nodded, understanding but looking a little impatient, and he kept going. “It’s not the actual herbicide diquat, first of all, please understand. Calling it by that name is… sort of a joke, I suppose, because of the extraterrestrials’ appearance. You know how many people say they look like trees or brushes.”
Beijing nodded, and so did a few of the others, including Taye. He thought people who said that must have only seen pictures, though, at most. They didn’t really look like plants, or like anything familiar, in real life. Nothing normal. They didn’t move like that, especially, if you were fucking unlucky enough to get close enough to see.
“About the only real similarity between the substance in our payload and the actual herbicide is that they’re both synthesized organic compounds,” Vihaan went on, starting to get into it now. Taye tried not to smile; didn’t seem appropriate. “Which can be said of a great many things, so it’s not much of one. Rather than inhibit photosynthesis, however, which is what real diquat does, our diquat appears to cause a severe response and failure in what rough equivalent these creatures have to our central nervous system. In fact, that may be suggestive of some biological compatibilities between us, as the compound also affects humans as a neurotoxin.”
Abuja was nodding, looking interested enough to be surprisingly earnest for him. “Yes. Their capacity for neurological control of humans also may suggest the possibility of some parallel structures.”
“Not necessarily,” Mexico City said, although in a measured thoughtful way rather than trying to argue. “We don’t have the evidence to say with confidence that the response to infection is actual control by the organisms. It may just be erratic behavior from neurological impairment.”
“It’s not,” Taye said quietly. More attention turned to him than he’d necessarily wanted, and he shifted uncomfortably. “I mean, I don’t have evidence either, but people don’t just freak out. They do what the things want them to.”
“That could be coincidental,” M.C. said, but she was frowning. Taye could almost smile, but he just raised his eyebrows.
“Oh word?” he said, which definitely did not make sense through the U.T. based on her expression, but he found he couldn’t give much of a shit. Vihaan cleared his throat a bit there, though, drawing attention gently back, and Taye found he was mostly grateful.
“Regardless, the mutual toxicity is actually the main utility of using the substance, as well as making for an unfortunately final solution,” he said, in an understandably more subdued tone now. “Not only would flooding the atmosphere with it kill the invaders, but also the potential human hosts they might be able to use to survive. But without making the planet unlivable in the long term, like a nuclear bombardment would, for example. Ideally, Mars colonists would be able to return and rehabilitate what remains, afterward.”
“Fun job,” Tokyo muttered, idly shuffling at the deck of cards still in his hands. Beijing was nodding, biting her lip.
“Yeah, that was the impression I got from my briefing. But they didn’t–“
That was as far as she got, though, before the red alert crawl suddenly started up across Brasilia’s screen. It was followed almost immediately by flashing light on his video feed and the tinny blare of sirens from his pod over the camera audio, occasionally blowing out the speakers with how loud it was. The wince rippled across every face on the screens in an uneven unison, staggered out by transfer rates and distance. You never did get used to it.
Brasilia was already scrambling up, nearly toppling over in his fumble of limbs to get out of his console chair and up and moving toward the termination console. “Sorry,” they could faintly hear him yelling even through the sirens, for no good reason at all, “sorry, sorry, I’ll–“
For lack of anything else to do, they all watched him punching his code, slapping his hand down on the scanner, until he was done and all the blaring light and sound switched off. Taye could almost see the relief sag his shoulders, when the alarm stopped and the alert across his screen turned green. After what looked like a second to pull himself back together, Brasilia came back to the console, looking sheepish and uncomfortable with all of them so keenly focused on him. “Sorry,” he said again, almost in a mutter.
“You didn’t do it on purpose,” Jakarta said, gently amused. Brasilia looked like he tried to smile at that, but he didn’t quite get there.
“What were you saying, Beijing?” Moscow asked, after they’d all let that sit another moment and gotten their breath back a bit. Beijing shook her head, though.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, and offered a watery smile. “I’m sort of sorry I asked now, honestly. …Thanks, though, New Delhi.”
“Hopefully it will never be relevant,” Dhaka said, somewhere between soothing and firmly closing the subject down. “We’ll keep doing our job, just like Brasilia just did. Let’s not worry about this now.”
Then when? a part of Taye wanted to ask, in spite of himself. They were already one whole year down, and they got no more than half another one. There had still been no word from the surface to any of them, as far as he knew.
But he didn’t say anything, in the end. He just understood too well.
In spite of the growing tension, in spite of the increasingly long silences when they all talked to each other and Taye’s near-obsessive counting of the days that went by, that particular day started out pretty normal. Almost peaceful, even. Taye woke up, ate, talked with Vihaan and some of the others, tried to watch part of a movie on his tablet but couldn’t concentrate, didn’t do much with himself. Most all of the cameras were on (except for Islamabad’s, of course), and they were all mostly puttering around minding their own business, but just keeping up that passive connection to each other. Moscow wasn’t at her console from the time Taye woke up, but he didn’t think anything of that; maybe she was hanging out on her bed or something. Now and then someone might speak up and say something, but mostly it was quiet.
It was a little later in the morning when something on the screens started catching Taye’s eye, every now and then. Nothing he could put his finger on — he couldn’t figure out, any of the times, what it was exactly that had registered in the corner of his vision and made him snap his head up. A flicker of dark movement, like a shadow crossing in front of the pods’ glaring artificial light onscreen, somewhere amid the group of feeds. He couldn’t even swear it wasn’t his imagination.
At least, until he happened to be looking up right at Moscow’s feed and vaguely wondering where she’d gotten to, when it came again. It was definitely on her screen, and it definitely wasn’t just his imagination this time. Not that he could have said with any kind of certainty what it was, instead. He couldn’t, even though he caught it full-on, saw the whole beginning-to-end movement of the dark shape across one corner at the back of the camera’s view. It was indistinct and fast — faster than it seemed like anything in Moscow’s pod ought to have been moving. It actually made Taye jerk back a little bit, making an involuntary noise.
“Moscow?” he said, when he got his breath back a little bit. M.C., who was reading at her console on the screen, looked up at the sound of his voice, frowning. “You there? Are you okay? I’m seeing something kind of weird on your camera, like something moving. Is something up?”
No answer. Taye and M.C. and the others who’d poked their heads back in at the questions waited in a silence that was suddenly eerie, the speaker noise and cycling-air hum of their pods seeming all at once too loud.
Then there was movement again, on Moscow’s screen. More in frame, and maybe a little slower, and much more distinct for it. Unfortunately.
It was still very fast, and it was a body — a human body, Moscow’s body — moving fast across the camera’s view. But not running exactly. Her feet moved along the floor to push her, but so did her hands, and elbows, and knees, and maybe once the top of her head, with no apparent order to them at all. A spread-out confused skitter like a spider’s. It wasn’t a way that it was possible to imagine any person could move voluntarily, not at that sick horrifying speed, and not all of her limbs seemed to be bending quite the right way all of the time. That was only a dim impression, though: she moved across the screen, and out of view again, so quickly that only the shock of recognition really registered.
Taye hissed and yanked back in his chair again, and he heard a couple of others making noises: a creak here, a gasp there, a little cry over there. “What’s–” someone started to say, so tremulously Taye couldn’t even identify a voice, but then Mexico City cut them off. She was sitting forward hard, her tablet dropped thoughtlessly face-down in front of her, every inch of her tensely on clear red alert.
“Moscow, what’s going on? Respond now, please.”
Another silence. The waiting, the stillness, was almost as bad as the sight of that movement had been.
Then a face burst up from below into the whole field of Moscow’s camera, filling it. Taye was only vaguely aware of yelping, nearly toppling himself over backwards. It was Moscow’s face, but it was not human. Not anymore. This close you could see in crystal detail every bit of the pink film over the surfaces of her eyes, and the well of bright blood that had collected along their bottoms and spilled over in thick red rivulets down her cheeks, fresh gore overspilling the crusted rings of older blood that had built up right under her bottom lids. Her eyes themselves were vacant and fixed on nothing, not even seeming to really see the camera they were staring straight into. The muscles in her face at the temple, the forehead, the cheek and lip, all seemed to be twitching and working against each other, in no kind of harmony and for no visible reason. Her teeth showed through slightly pursed lips, more taut tense reflex than expression.
As much as her eyes didn’t seem to see anything, though, that slice of showing teeth widened over the seconds she hovered there. The seconds when no one else could seem to move or speak or breathe or do a single thing, and she just stared into the camera. And oh, Jesus, was that going to haunt Taye more than any other thing about it, hound him straight down into his old nightmares and out the other side, tangled up shuddering in the implications of it. She was looking into the camera. Not at the screens, where the thing inside her could see the rest of them. Into the camera. Where they could see her.
Then her head drew back in a jerky, twitchy, insanely fast reel. And slammed forward into the camera lens in an eruption of speed and shatter and gouting blood and gristle, in the instant before the feed went dark altogether.
“What was that? What was that?” Tokyo.
“Moscow?” Beijing, in tears, screaming at the dark screen in spite of how sure it was to stay that way. “Moscow! What happened? Answer me!“
“She’s dead, Beijing. That almost certainly killed her.” Vihaan, dry and dusty and so quiet he could barely be heard.
A garble from the U.T. that must have been expletives, then Brasilia: “What happened to her? What–“
“Calm down, everyone, please.” Jakarta.
“Calm down?” Addis, incredulous and shaky, then bursting into a skittery laugh that must have been unmediated by translation. “How do you think we’re going to do that?”
“Do we have any idea what happened?” Dhaka, louder.
“She was infected,” Taye said, and his voice seemed to stab into the babble of all their voices like a knife. Bled them away behind it, too, until everyone was just staring. For his part, he couldn’t seem to move at all except his mouth: just staring totally numb and still at the dark screen. “That’s what infection looks like. I’ve seen it before.”
“It did appear to match the description of symptoms that WHO issued,” Mexico City said, after the silence had managed to close around that. She was clearly striving for her usual professional, elegant calm, but she wasn’t quite making it. There was a shake in her voice, and the lines at her temples and jaw were white and strained.
“That’s not possible,” Abuja said, also straining-tightly, and then: “You saw it before? Where?”
Taye didn’t even have time to try to think how to answer. “How could she have been infected?” Addis broke across first, sounding on the point of breaking himself. “We can’t get infected. That’s the whole point of us being down here!”
“As I said–” Abuja started to agree in obvious annoyance, although for once Taye couldn’t have blamed him for the knife-edge of his temper. He was interrupted by Brasilia, though, all the whites showing around his eyes.
“What if it’s not working? What if they’re — coming down the vents, or something? They’re supposed to be all long, thin ropes, right, what if–“
“It’s not that, Brasilia,” Tokyo said, and though he was definitely trembly he still somehow managed to produce that centered, firm authority that Taye had been so relieved by before. “We’re on a totally closed air system, remember? That’s why poor Addis Ababa can’t smoke. As long as we’re locked in, everything’s sealed. Even if they cut some corners other places, that’s the one thing they made sure of.”
“Then how–” Brasilia was starting to argue back, increasingly hysterical. But by now Taye had seen it. Somehow his voice ended up having just as much room-stopping power as before.
“She must have left her pod,” he said, and only as it was coming out of his mouth did he completely realize both that it was what he was saying and that it had to be true. “They can’t get in as long as we’re all sealed in. So she must have been unsealed.”
There was a longer silence this time.
“She can’t have left her pod,” Tokyo said, slowly. There was a deep frown between his eyebrows as he stared into the camera, and Taye found it hard to look at. “We can’t leave our pods.”
“I can,” Taye said. It tasted like gunmetal in his mouth, but he said it. He didn’t look at any of them. “I can leave mine. There’s a hidden access panel and I have a code I can use from this side, to get out.” The silence thundered, and he swallowed, his throat clicking. “So… maybe Moscow could, too.”
“What?” Beijing asked, after another long heavy time of silence, and her voice sounded thin and weak. That was bad enough — but it was Vihaan’s gaze Taye could feel most clearly on his skin. Of course it was. It lay there like a physical weight.
He had to fully shut his eyes before he could keep talking. “The agreement was for everyone to put civilian experts down here, right? But I’m not. I’m military. Air Force.” No one reacted to that, at least not audibly, and he took a deep breath. “That’s where I’ve seen people be infected before, Abuja. I was in the air support for the operation to contain the original landing site, in Alaska. It happened to a bunch of the Army before we even knew what was going on. Some of us, too, even. We couldn’t hold them there, of course we couldn’t, that’s why we’re all in this mess.” He swallowed, and groped for his thread again. “But they put me in here ’cause I had experience, and ’cause I’m a pilot. If things went south, if we ever got to the point where we were going to let the countdown go — I was supposed to leave. Am supposed to leave. Sneak out, I guess. Bouncing the countdown through all of us and then initiating the diquat release sequence, that’s about forty minutes, right? In that time, I’m supposed to leave the pod, and cross over to another sealed bunker down here where the entire presidential line of succession is supposed to get stashed if things go bad enough topside. I get them, I escort them up to a hangar where there’s an interplanetary shuttle sealed too, and I fly them to the Mars colony to take charge of everybody who’s left.”
There was nothing said for another few awful, choking seconds. Then Abuja burst out, so white-hot with fury that it actually got Taye to look at him again: “Of all the — American exceptionalist — arrogance–“
“I’m not trying to argue with that for a second,” Taye said, and felt his voice a little firmed up under him when he did. Not upset at all, though. If Abuja’d ever had a real right to be insulting, now was the time. “I’m just telling you, that’s the deal I got told.”
“And you agreed to this?” Dhaka said. By contrast, his voice was very calm, but the cold thread of deep, paternal disappointment in it made Taye’s stomach and throat all slime sourer than any anger could have.
“It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing, I didn’t want to, I–” He could hear how fucking pathetic he sounded to himself, though, and he just swallowed on the rest. “Those were my orders. It was the day I got put down here, and I didn’t know any of you, and it came from about the most superior officer I’d ever met, all right? That’s all it is.”
“Is that still what you’re going to do, then?” Tokyo asked. He didn’t look or sound thrilled, but he didn’t come across pissed or judgemental, either — just measuredly interested. Taye heaved a big breath, the first one in a while that would seem to come.
“I mean, I wasn’t supposed to tell you at all. Kind of wrecks the whole thing if I do, I guess.” He sighed, and rubbed his face. “Honestly… I’d been trying not to think about that. If I’d do it or not if it came to that. I was just hoping it wouldn’t ever come to that, especially early on. But now that, you know, we’ve really got to face the fact that it might… I can’t see how I would. Just go get a bunch of rich assholes and leave you all here to fucking die. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t do that.”
“So you’d die with us instead?” Vihaan said, very quietly: the first time he’d spoken up in a long time. “That doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.”
Taye still couldn’t look at him. He didn’t dare try. “It does to me,” he said, though, staring off to one side. And then there was another silence for a while.
“Be that as it may,” Jakarta said finally, “it doesn’t really address the original issue, which is how Moscow became infected.” He looked a bit uncomfortable when attention turned to him, but kept going all the same. “D.C., you believe it’s because she was able to leave her pod, like you are, and she did so for some reason?”
Taye nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she could. When they were first laying out my orders, my C.O.s actually told me to be on the lookout for any weird shit with whoever was going to be here from Moscow, in particular. ‘Russians love contingencies,’ the one guy said, which I thought was pretty fucking rich considering what we were doing.”
“Why would she have left?” M.C. asked — not skeptically, exactly, but calm enough now to do her usual meticulous picking at every thread. It was Jakarta who answered this time, though, frowning and thoughtful.
“I don’t think any of us will ever know that for certain. Perhaps her nerve broke, after such a long time, and she took the escape she had available? Or possibly she meant to go seek help, or investigate the situation for all of our sakes.” He shrugged, spreading his long bony hands in front of the camera. “I think it’s immaterial, for that matter. If that’s what happened, I don’t know that the reason changes it.”
“You could have gone for help, D.C.,” Addis spoke up suddenly, unexpectedly, his voice quiet. Taye looked up, gut clenching, to find Addis staring directly into the camera. “Islamabad died because he was having pod trouble and we hadn’t heard from anybody who could fix it. But you and Moscow could have just gotten somebody, anytime?”
Taye couldn’t answer for a second, his pulse thudding hotly and nastily in his temples. “Not — just for the hell of it,” he was able to splutter, though, before anyone else could jump in. One way or another, maybe. “And it wasn’t, like — a crisis, before the accident. Why would either of us think the chain of events was gonna go right from ‘Islamabad’s lights are flickering’ to ‘Islamabad fucking dies’?” Addis’s jaw was setting, determinedly, and Taye had to glare off to the side away from him. “And when shit went down, there wasn’t any time. We couldn’t have done anything in time to help.”
“That’s certainly true,” M.C. said, startling Taye a little when she spoke up. “The electrocution injuries aside, in the case of cardiac arrest, speed of response is of the essence. The time it would have taken to exit a pod, reach the surface, seek help, have the message conveyed to anyone who could have reached Islamabad, and dispatch assistance would have been too long for any possibility of resuscitation, by an order of magnitude. He would have required immediate defibrillation to be able to survive.”
That brought on a gloomy few more seconds of silence, but Addis did also look maybe a little mollified. At least enough to drop his eyes and mutter something unintelligible, but not say anything else. Taye’s chest hurt, watching him. He’d always liked Addis a lot, and it was hard to say now if there’d be any coming back from this.
“It also doesn’t seem like it would be a good idea to try it now,” Dhaka said, and on the other hand, his tone seemed kinder now too. “If leaving her pod led to Moscow’s being infected almost at once… that doesn’t bode well for the condition of the surface, does it?”
Now that was a really horrible takeaway Taye hadn’t fully engaged with yet. “Not… necessarily,” Abuja said, though, after a beat of pause, but he sounded a little more faint and shaky about it than argumentative. No doubt trying to swallow that pill, as they all were. “She has not been on camera for much of the day. We don’t know for certain when she might have left.”
“Or things could be bad in Russia, but not as bad other places,” Tokyo said, managing to sound a bit more confident, whether it was true or not. “It doesn’t really tell us anything, except that they’re out there, and it’s not safe to leave. Which — we knew, right? Or else someone would have come to get us out.”
“If anyone’s ever coming,” Beijing said, very softly. Tokyo’s face twitched, and he looked for a second like he was tensing to say something sharply back — but something stopped him, whether the look on her face or something else, and he subsided. No one could seem to think of anything to say for a while, come to that.
“Well,” Jakarta said finally, appearing to try to draw himself up, “then I suppose you shouldn’t go leaving your pod, D.C. At the least.”
“Wasn’t planning to,” Taye said, trying for a weak little smile. No one really answered it, or even seemed to be much looking at him; but then, he guessed he couldn’t much blame them, either.
“So are we gonna talk about this?” Taye asked finally, when he couldn’t hold it back in his mouth any longer in spite of himself. Vihaan’s fingers stilled where they’d been moving toward the translucent shape of his knight, but beyond that, he didn’t respond at first at all.
They hadn’t talked again after everything that had happened yesterday, once the group had all seemed to decide they couldn’t face each other anymore and drifted off into their separate space. Vihaan had logged off shortly thereafter, without saying anything, and he hadn’t come back in the evening — or morning, for him. Taye had spent a lot of time sitting and trying to concentrate on anything at all, and mostly staring into space instead.
But he’d pinged Taye directly this morning, and greeted him with a veiled little smile almost like everything was normal, and they’d ended up playing chess. The silence had dragged on, though, and today more than ever, there was only so much of it Taye could take.
Vihaan stayed still and not saying anything for a few moments longer, and then sighed, and folded his arm back in front of him on the console instead of making a move. “I don’t really know what there is to say about it,” he said. In his own voice and accent again, now. “If it needs be said, I don’t think it makes sense to blame a soldier for the orders he was given. Not if you never carried them out, and I believe you that you never would have.”
That did at least let Taye relax a little, some of the wound-up tension draining out of him. “Thanks,” he said. “I might still kinda — blame myself about it, sort of. But I appreciate that.”
“That being said,” Vihaan went on, though, so quickly after Taye’d spoken it was almost over top of him, “I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself instead. If you have a way out–“
“Man, no. No way.”
“–then you should make use of it,” he finished, doggedly, steamrolling over Taye’s recoiling protest. “It’s not because of you that we’re sealed in, and you didn’t choose not to be, but that being so, there’s no point in choosing to stay for its own sake. Whether you rescue your leaders or not is up to you–“
“It’s all up to me!” Taye burst across him, and there was more anger in his tone than he would’ve wanted there. At least, though, it managed to stop Vihaan, making him look at Taye again both startled and resigned. “It’s my choice whether I go get them, and it’s my choice whether I’d rather stay with maybe the only people left in the world that I know than run off to fucking — Mars like a chickenshit.”
There was a brief pause, and then Vihaan said, with great dignity: “I’m not sure I know what ‘chickenshit’ means, but I assume it is like a coward?” Taye could almost, almost smile at that, but he held himself back to just nodding with his jaw set on principle. “It’s not cowardly to survive. I hope that as a soldier they tell you this.”
“I’m not really a soldier, I’m a pilot,” Taye said, and it came rushing out of him on a long sigh. “And it’s not about whether I survive or not.”
“It is to me,” Vihaan said, more quietly now. “Yes. You’re right. It’s your decision. But I don’t want you to die, Taye.”
“I don’t want you to die, Vihaan,” Taye shot back, and somehow had to fight a twitch in his mouth again at the exasperated look Vihaan gave him at that. “I don’t want everyone else on the planet to, either, as long as we’re going there. But it looks like we’re not getting what we want today, huh?”
It felt a little like too far even coming out of his mouth, although Vihaan’s expression just went still and shuttered. There was an apology on Taye’s lips before Vihaan spoke again, but he didn’t get time for it. “I’m not ready to think about that yet,” Vihaan said, and while it sounded measured, there was a bit of something steely to it, too. Taye just nodded.
“I just… don’t think I could take that,” Taye said, finally, and it felt like his voice had gone leaden in his chest in the interim. “Just blasting off and knowing I was leaving all of you behind to whatever happened. I wouldn’t want to live with that.”
“I’m sorry,” Vihaan said, meeting his eyes. “But I would want you to. If it meant you would live.” Taye just looked back at him for a moment, though, and finally he let out a tiny sigh. “It would not save us, to stay. Nothing would change except that you would not survive — and the Mars colony wouldn’t be warned of the risk, that extraterrestrials might escape.”
That managed to catch Taye up short, finally, and he frowned. “I mean… the idea is they wouldn’t need to be, though. That we’d wipe them out here.”
“Of course.” Vihaan smiled at him, and Taye could see now, clearly for the first time, how deep the tired rings around his eyes were. “But very few things have gone according to the idea.”
Well. Hard to argue with that much, that was for damn sure.
After a long moment’s silence, Taye sighed, and dropped his head down a bit. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and as grudging and long-suffering as his tone still was, Vihaan smiled. “I’m not making any promises, but… I’ll think about it.” He left all of it on another pause, and then pulled in a deep breath. “Now are we gonna play chess, or what?”
“Oh, yes,” Vihaan said, and then after moving his knight at last, brightly: “Check.” And at least this time, he understood Taye’s swear well enough to smile.
Even though every day felt more and more like a grain of sand slipping away through their fingers, the next thing still came much too close after what had happened to Moscow. The small group of them who were actually awake during Taye’s early afternoon were sitting around talking awkwardly, off and on, about nothing much, and then a chiming alert sound started up, cutting in from Brasilia’s audio.
“What is that sound?” Abuja asked, frowning, but at first Brasilia didn’t answer. He was just sitting, staring with what looked like stunned incomprehension, at some piece of his equipment beyond the range of what they could see.
“It’s,” he said finally, and then had to stop and swallow once before he could finish. “It’s the unlock alarm. That’s what the alert says on my console. It’s the one that goes off when… when somebody’s unsealing the door and coming down for me.”
The one that was supposed to mean victory and freedom to Brasilia, Taye guessed, from where he’d also frozen, staring at the screen: the signal that everything was over. Everybody else looked like they were in about the same condition as Taye, come to that. No idea quite how to react.
“Brasilia, I…” That was Addis, his brow looking screwed up even tighter than Taye’s felt, almost like he was in pain. “I don’t know about this, brother. That doesn’t seem like a good sign. I mean… it can’t be that it’s all clear, right? With everything that’s been happening. Can you find out what’s going on first?”
Brasilia made a thin, high barking sound of something like laughter, and Taye could see a muscle standing out in his jaw when he did. “No. You know I can’t.”
“It could be a retrieval,” M.C. said, although she looked uncharacteristically uncertain even as she did. “If things have progressed to far enough a point, Brasilia’s handlers may want to remove him from the pod to regroup.”
“That’s not the plan,” Taye heard himself saying, as though from a distance away. Addis snorted.
“Neither was you running away with your president when things get bad,” he said. There wasn’t the venom in it there could have been, though; at least that was something.
“The top lock is open now, it says,” Brasilia said, which at least shut them all up in a hurry. “The elevator’s coming down.”
No one moved. No one could seem to figure out what to do, or how to react. Taye couldn’t hear anything from Brasilia’s end over the speakers except for that chime, still going on and on, telling him that the wait was finally over, and someone was coming.
There were noises next: clanks and clunks, hydraulic whirring and pneumatic hissing, rushes of displaced air. A groaning hum of mechanisms doing a job they hadn’t had to do in a long time. Brasilia was starting to get up from his chair, finally, facing off to one side of the cameras, no doubt at wherever the door to his pod was that none of them had ever seen. He was moving dreaming-slow, a little bit at a time with his hand braced on the seat-back–
Then his eyes flew wide, and his face seemed to contract back on the bones of his skull. His skin pulled taut-tense and bulging, his lips stripping back from his teeth, all color falling out of him. He had time to scream once.
And then the fibrous, twisting things had boiled into his screen from the side he was staring towards and filled it in almost an instant. The way they came in looked like the camera-view of Brasilia’s pod was a drawing someone had made, and now that person was very quickly scribbling in new dark lines from one side, until they blackened the image with themselves. Writhing darkness enveloped Brasilia and his screaming cut off as soon as it had started. There was frantic motion, thick tearing, and then terribly wet and popping sounds.
The tendrils’ undulations sank below the camera’s range, eventually, just flickers of movement along its bottom instead. Their subsiding revealed a shocking amount of blood and the occasional nauseating chunk drenched over the floor and Brasilia’s chair and the console, and nothing else. Nothing else they could see, anyway. And definitely nothing else anywhere that they’d want to.
When he could finally move again, Taye scrabbled with completely useless hands until the screen was off, until he didn’t have to look at it anymore. Then he sat with his chest heaving up and down hard enough to take his whole body with it, trying to feel like he was actually getting air, just trying to somehow survive the next second. It took him even longer to realize he was still screaming, too.
They took a while to be able to say anything to each other that made sense, of course. Addis couldn’t stop crying, shaking with full-body sobbing, even as the rest of them started finally piecing together coherence again by tooth and nail, voices forced out through clattering teeth.
“It was Moscow,” Taye said, when he could manage it. He thought they’d all figured out that much by now but he seemed to have picked up the job in this group of saying the obvious thing, just so it was out there. “When they got Moscow, they got a good look at her setup. At the communications. They… they know we’re here. Maybe they even know why.”
Abuja let out a shrill, skittering giggle that was extremely unlike him, but that Taye could more than understand in the moment. “Then killing us all would hardly seem in their best interest, would it?”
…That was a good point, actually, it dawned on Taye more the more he thought about it. M.C. was talking already by now, though, strained and jagged in spite of all her attempts at calm. “It doesn’t matter either way. They’re searching for our locations now. Trying to find us. It stands to reason they’ll keep trying to open the pods or break through.”
“I — ” That was Addis, at last, heaving audible breaths but also rubbing his hands furiously across his face and clearly trying to bring himself under some kind of control. Taye’s heart ached with it. “I know, I know, um, that all of our pods had. Had.” He sniffed, scrubbed, struggled things into a line again. “All our pods had different specs. Features. Of course they would. But, I can seal my doors? In case of emergency, I can override the locks so no one can get in from topside, either. Can anyone else? Do any of you have that?”
“I do,” Taye said, relief washing over him in spite of his guilt even at the realization. For a miracle, M.C. and Abuja both also nodded, with expressions that were kind of similar, come to that. There were a few minutes of quiet then as they all made for their control consoles, hammering at buttons with shaking fingers to set up the correct protocols.
“Next is to tell the others,” M.C. said when they’d come back, and she sounded slightly more in control of herself now, with that much done. “We should use the emergency signal to wake them. We don’t know how much time we might have before another attack, but this can’t wait.”
No one argued with her. Within a few minutes the rest were awake and online, in varying stages of being bleary and frayed at the edges, but the sight of Brasilia’s pod still up on their screens woke them up in a hurry. They weren’t so lucky on this round, either: Dhaka and (thank God) Vihaan had lockout capability, but Beijing, Tokyo, and Jakarta didn’t.
“I think I can rewire some things manually to make it possible, though,” Beijing said, strained and pale in the light of the screens but keeping composed. “If you can help me out on the software end, D.C.”
Taye nodded, fast; honestly, just the idea of being able to do something to help someone was a huge relief, in spite of how tense the subject was. “You got it. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“I can walk you through it too, Tokyo, Jakarta,” she added, after nodding to him. Jakarta also looked a little green at the edges but nodded bravely, and Tokyo even managed a smile.
“You’d be my first choice out of anyone,” he said, which pulled a shaky smile out of Beijing too, seeming to surprise her most of all. They both held out their hands toward their cameras, as though their fingertips would touch where they met, a gesture that seemed familiar for both of them by now and that Taye found incredibly moving.
“Are you sure you should be messing around in your hardware?” That was Addis, sounding half-regretful but unable to hold back his shaky fear. “I mean– I just mean, I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Tokyo looked a little awkward, but Beijing’s expression was soft and understanding even as she nodded. “We’ll be careful, Addis,” she said, her tone gentle. “At least with the computing hardware, we can cut off power to parts of it before getting in there. It’ll be okay.”
Addis didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded anyway, biting his lip. They were all quiet for a long moment before Dhaka spoke up.
“I don’t want to raise an issue no one will want to discuss,” he said, quietly, which was enough to have all of their attention at once. “But if we’ve come to this point, where these monsters have free enough run of the surface to be hunting us, where there is a risk that we might be discovered and controlled to the detriment of our purpose… Shouldn’t we consider fulfilling that purpose? Is it not possible that it’s time to allow the countdown to proceed?”
The silence just about rang with the shock in it. Taye felt like he’d stuck his finger in a socket, personally. But he couldn’t argue; that was the hell of it. Now that it’d been said, he found there was no way at all to say Dhaka was wrong.
“We can discuss that,” Jakarta said, finally — another surprise, and so was how uncharacteristically authoritative he sounded about it. “I think you’re right that we need to. But I also don’t think this is the moment. It’s the middle of the night and everyone’s frightened, and I think any decisions we make are going to be rash ones.”
Dhaka nodded, slowly, though he didn’t entirely seem like he wanted to. A little bit of tension ran back out of Taye’s shoulders, and the others’ too where he could see them, maybe. But definitely not all of it.
Beijing went and got some of whatever crap was serving her for caffeine down here, and three-in-the-morning bleary-eyed or no, she settled in to work with Tokyo and Jakarta. Taye hung out on standby, listening and watching, ready to jump in and help out where he could. Those who could went back to bed, or to do something else, or to stay close and pay attention but not be able to do anything to help. They’d all pretty much come to see being able to do anything as a luxury, one so rare it was worth its weight in gold.
They did talk about it, too, eventually. After a lot of very tensely debating back and forth and in circles, the only real conclusion they came to was that they needed more information, but they were pretty much at a stalemate as to how they were supposed to get it. Taye volunteered (very reluctantly, but never mind that) to try sneaking out of his pod to take a look around, but that was vetoed at least for the time being, not least of all by Vihaan. Beijing and Taye talked a little bit about trying to mess around with their equipment again enough to hijack some signals from the surface, but they weren’t sure they could do it. Communications and data transfer had been Brasilia’s specialty, not either of theirs — although no one was willing to brave how it would feel to say so directly. Not yet.
Days passed, then weeks, as they discussed and discarded plans, tinkered with data links and firewalls, and mostly got nowhere. Both the urgency and the helplessness of the situation seemed to build up around them at once, and things were tense, conversations turning into arguments as often as not.
Especially, Taye thought, as they were all aware of the days climbing steadily into the 400s: the last 100 days, the last twenty percent, the final (if you wanted to put it that way) countdown. One way or another, their time was almost up. Even if they couldn’t make a decision, sooner than not, one was going to get made for them.
So he got it, but that didn’t mean he liked the atmosphere. When he could justify it to himself, he’d spend some time with his video feeds shut off — or just all of them except Vihaan’s, still accepting those requests. It was harder and harder to concentrate on a game of chess, but sometimes they just sat there together instead, talking or just being quiet and clinging to the feeling of being with another person who was important to them.
They hadn’t spoken much at all the morning before, though, when Vihaan’s request came through on another slow quiet early afternoon. Taye had actually put the lights down low and just been sort of spacing out and half-dozing, because time didn’t seem connected to anything at all anymore and he hadn’t really been sleeping during the so-called night. It must have really been pretty late for Vihaan, though. Taye answered the call frowning, and got a view of Vihaan hunched wearily in close to the camera, in a mostly-dark pod. The shoulders-and-up square that was all Taye could see of him was bare for sleep, and his hair was a charming total mess, his glasses dangling from one hand instead of on his face.
“Hi,” he said, and almost managed a smile. Taye couldn’t really answer it, though, from the look of him.
“Hey. You okay? It’s late there.”
Vihaan laughed a little, and rubbed his face. “I know. Believe me. It’s… I was just dreaming.” He paused a moment, and then blew out a hard breath, his face inclining forward. “Terrible things. About my family — my niece and nephew, my brother and his wife. They…” He looked about to finish that sentence for a moment, and then seemed to think better of it, and Taye couldn’t even pretend to himself that he wasn’t glad. “I know they’re almost surely dead. I know. But I don’t want to know, not the truth of it. And so I dream about it instead.”
“I’m so sorry,” Taye said, quietly. Vihaan was still a moment, and then made a small grimacey sort of expression, shaking his head.
“Thank you. But it’s… mm. It isn’t all right, no. But I know it is the same for us all. It’s something I will have to come to terms with, in time.” After another pause, he made a soft hiccuping little sound. “In what time is left.”
Taye couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He just bit his lip, and nodded. They sat there together, lit up mostly only by the glow of each other’s faces on the screen.
“I wish you were here,” Taye finally said: words pulling themselves out of him so suddenly he was almost surprised by them. He definitely knew he meant them, though. “Wish I could just… hold you. Hold your hand, and kiss you.”
Vihaan had lifted his head, and he was really smiling at Taye now, which at least was something. It was a very tender, soft smile, a good fit on the slight sleep-puffy vulnerability of his face. “I do too,” he said. He paused a moment, and then added with maybe the actual ghost of an impish smile: “Just that, though?”
Taye got caught off-guard, and then he was laughing, Vihaan’s laugh mingling in with it after a second. “Wel, no,” he said, a grin tugging out at one corner of his mouth too, in spite of himself. “Since you mention it, no.”
“Hm. That would be really nice.” Vihaan’s eyes were a little half-lidded, his smile turning a bit more relaxed, easier and warm. “I’d like to be with you. To touch you.”
“Yeah,” Taye managed, but that was about it, and his voice was getting a little dusty on him. Closer up to the camera like this, the curve of Vihaan’s lips was very pretty: plush and inviting, and his eyelashes were almost shockingly long, He was looking up at Taye through them, apparently considering.
“What would you do?” he said, softly, when Taye had failed to say anything else for a moment. Maybe just reaching out for something else to think about, some other distraction, but he sure said it, all the same. “If I were there with you.”
Taye could feel his eyes widen, into a kind of frozen stare he just fixed on Vihaan for a few seconds. After a reflexive, compulsive double-check that all the other communication lines were locked in privacy mode from his end, of course; he knew they were, but even still. Vihaan just kept slightly smiling at him, though, and eventually Taye managed to shut his eyes a second and swallow before opening them again. Yeah, okay. Okay. Sure. Why the hell not, at this point. They hadn’t ever even talked about this, not in anything but the obliquest of terms, but —
“Touch your lips, first,” Taye said, without hesitating or having to think about it — because he wasn’t sure he could think about it, and anyway they’d been what he’d been staring at, his eyes following their curve on the screen. “Just run my fingertips along them. Maybe let one slide into your mouth, if it seemed like you wanted.”
Vihaan made a soft humming sound of acknowledgement, and then his hand lifted deliberately into view. He had smooth, tidy hands and fingers, and he rested his fingertips against his lips just like Taye had said, tracing back and forth in the center for a second almost like a tease before really following the curve of his mouth with them. Taye’s eyes followed them with an intensity that made his eyes feel dry and his face like blood was throbbing in it, not letting himself miss a single detail of the way the soft skin indented and flattened a little under Vihaan’s touch. Then Vihaan glanced up into the camera at him, and the corner of his mouth pulled up just a little — and he very deliberately parted it, showing an inviting shadowy space between his lips, and slipped his finger a few knuckles deep into it. He sucked it for a few luxuriating seconds, before letting it slide out again.
Christ, Taye was gonna completely lose his shit. If he held on long enough to even get anywhere with this it was going to be a god damn miracle.
“Fuck,” he said in an unsteady little voice, and Vihaan had to let his hand drop fully away to laugh breathlessly, and then Taye was laughing too. “Okay, all right. Uh.”
Vihaan’s smile just grew at Taye’s trying to gather himself. After a moment, Vihaan sat back in his seat in a similarly deliberate way, so that more of him was visible than just that first close-up view. Taye hadn’t seen him without a shirt on before — Vihaan didn’t seem to have as cavalier an attitude about that as Taye did some way-too-early mornings — and it was a really nice view. He was probably a little older than Taye and not even slightly fresh out of military service, and he had a nice soft, pleasing roundness to his shoulders and arms and the shape of his chest and curving stomach, the kind of guy you could get good sturdy handfuls of while he fucked you or you fucked him. All slopes of pretty, smooth brown skin in the low light. He also put his glasses back on while Taye watched, which was a little funny at the outset and then a little devastatingly hot when you thought about it. He looked back, waiting, and Taye struggled until he found his voice.
“I guess then I’d kiss you,” he said finally, and amazingly his voice even sounded almost steady, if very breathless. “And touch you while I did it. Run my hand down your neck and over your chest and get the feel of you, since you’re so pretty.”
Vihaan’s smile deepened and crinkled in a half-embarrassed-looking sort of way, even while his eyes were lidded mostly shut. “Like this?” he said softly, and put his hand, mostly his fingertips, to one side of his throat. Slid it down, lining out the planes and curves, traveling soft over his own skin. It slipped down then over the center of his chest, pressing tight to it. Taye could almost believe he could feel the beat of Vihaan’s heart in his fingertips.
“Yeah,” Taye breathed, and Vihaan smiled at him, looking almost drowsy but plainly breathing fast.
“It’s good. To think it’s you. Your hands.” His careful English sentences were definitely coming apart a little, but Taye wasn’t about to complain. Vihaan took a second to swallow, wetting his lips in a way that was almost too much to watch, and then looked Taye’s direction again. (Well, the camera’s and the screen’s, anyway.) “Where next?”
Taye’s nervous little laugh was more of a whisper, but it just made Vihaan smile. “Ah… How do you feel about stuff with your nipples?”
It was a question that made Vihaan look a little blank for a second, but then he seemed to process it and snap things into place, and laughed a bit himself. “It’s all right, sometimes. Not a very… strong feeling, usually.” He looked up through his lashes again, smiling. “I think it would be different if it’s you.”
It took Taye a second of swallowing to be able to handle that, and all he could do at first was nod, dry-mouthed. “All right, then… then I’d touch one. Just rub it lightly first and then pinch at it just a little. See which one feels better.”
Vihaan was having to take some much deeper breaths now, something that sent a hot buzz all through Taye to see. He moved his hand right over, though, and first circled his thumb lightly over the small brown oval of his nipple, biting his lip. Then his forefinger joined in and pressed it together between them, for just a second, and god, the camera quality was good but Taye would kill for it to be even just a little better right now — and then he didn’t need it really, Vihaan was gasping audibly and arching up in the chair. Taye could just see the top of his lap at the bottom of the frame, and the extremely interesting way his thighs in their soft pajama pants were spreading out to either side, like he could will a body to be clasped between them just by making room.
“I think that answers that,” Taye said, when he could get any amount of breath back, and his voice was pretty much all shaky amused breath when you got down to it. Vihaan tipped his face a little away from the camera, laughing in a trembly way, looking a little embarrassed and a lot worked up. The softness of his pants was also good for showing off the hard prodding shape that was rising up below his lower belly, thick and urgent and making Taye’s mouth water. He closed his hands in on themselves below the camera, though, striving for control. Patience. “Do it again. Both of them this time. Like it’s me doing it.”
And Vihaan leaned back and did it, squeezing at both his nipples while his chest rose and fell rapidly under his hands. He made a muffled, whimpery little sound, and shut his eyes for a second, but then almost at once he’d opened them again and was looking toward the camera sidelong. Taye hoped, greedily, that he could see very well just how intently Taye was staring at every bit of him, splayed open and exposed to his view. That his gaze on Vihaan’s body felt like a physical weight.
“I want to see you,” Vihaan murmured a moment later, his voice thick and broken. His hands now were just sliding up and down his chest and over his ribs and over his skin, not needing Taye’s direction anymore to be his in Vihaan’s mind. “Please.”
Taye nodded fast, kind of only just remembering now that he had a body that existed here, that was incredibly worked up and hard and he could actually do something with. He grabbed fistfuls of the hem of his t-shirt and hauled it up over his head, and then pushed up out of the chair a second to work his pants gingerishly off around the bulge of his cock. After only a second of hesitating, he stripped off his boxer-briefs, too, his dick coming free eager and hard and a real relief at this point. He dropped himself back in the chair bare-assed, why the hell not, really, and let himself sit spread to the camera too, leaned back enough his cock rested against his lower belly. When he got a good look at the screen again, Vihaan was now watching him full-on with very intent eyes, still petting his chest and side with one hand — but also palming the rise in his pajama pants half-furtively with the other, like he couldn’t quite help himself. Taye was sure the twitch in his own cock at the sight was enough to be visible.
“You too, all right?” he said, prompting but gentle, and curling up his hands again at his sides to keep from giving in too, at least too quickly. “So I can touch all of you.”
Vihaan muttered something whimpery that Taye thought probably wasn’t English, and then “I wish you could, really, so much,” and then he managed reluctantly to take his hand away and push up in his chair. He held his weight on one shaky arm while he yanked the pajama pants down and off his hips and thighs with the other, with the help of how loose and soft they were, and then bent down to the bottom of the screen probably to get them completely out of the way. Then he was sitting back up, resettling himself in the process a little higher so just a bit more of him was visible on the screen, his thighs opening invitingly again now that they were bare. They were gorgeous too, all warm-looking slopes of skin dusted with dark hair that got denser and more thorough the closer to their juncture. It congregated in a whorl around his cock, which was pretty regular-sized lengthwise but also thick in a way that was satisfying even just to look at, as well as hard enough for its slightly gleaming tip to push out a bit from its foreskin, and flushed a pretty dark rosy-brown.
“Fuck, look at you,” Taye breathed, and Vihaan’s breath hitched first and then came out in a gaspy little laugh.
“Me?” he said, just barely getting it out but staring back at Taye pointedly, and Taye just laughed and nodded.
“Yeah, you.” Holding back was starting to seem stupider every second. Finally Taye huffed an uneven breath and took a hold of his cock, practically groaning his relief through his teeth at the first stroke. “Touch yourself. Show me.”
Vihaan didn’t need a lot of prompting, especially with Taye doing the same thing in front of him. He curled his hand around the shaft of his cock readily and started stroking it in long, smooth pumps, his eyelids fluttering at the first touch and then his breath going deeper and faster and louder. Taye couldn’t have held still watching that, either — although he did have to stop after the first stroke or so and slick his palm with his tongue, which made Vihaan give him a brief look of bafflement but at least one that was pretty heated, too. Never mind, he could explain about having a cut dick later, if Vihaan wanted. For now, Taye just watched, licked his lips, and pumped his hand over his cock while he watched Vihaan doing the same.
They didn’t really speak past that point: didn’t really make any sounds except the occasional breathy little groan or quick inhale at something the other was doing. Like when Vihaan leaned back further and hauled up his thighs over the uncomfortable-looking molded arms of his chair, so they instead held him spread obscenely in their cradle, or when Taye told him in an increasingly strained command to pinch his nipple again as hard as it felt good, get a noise out of himself —
Vihaan came first, not long after that point, shuddering and straining and his head pitching back so cords stood out in his throat, hand speeding and squeezing faster until come spilled overtop of it and onto his belly and out over his knuckles. The sight of it lit up every one of Taye’s nerves so bad he was right behind only seconds later, his teeth locked and chest heaving, coming so fucking hard the whole world seemed to white out.
Then they were both just sitting, and breathing, and quiet in the semi-dark of their pods. Together, and still about as far away from each other as it was possible to be on one small planet, with its whole surface maybe infested with reaching roiling tendrils, as it whirled itself around in the dark.
“I love you,” Taye said quietly at last, without looking back up from where he’d slumped, without even opening his eyes. It was pretty goofy to say it now, maybe, still catching his breath from coming and with his hand still around his softening dick, but it was true, too. He could hear some stirring from the screen that was as close as Vihaan could get, but didn’t quite dare look and see.
“I love you too, Taye,” Vihaan’s voice said, though, after a moment. Just as soft, and at least sounding near. Taye let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, and nodded. And he kept his eyes closed even now, just to hold onto the illusion a little longer.
“Someone stop him, he won’t listen to me,” Beijing said out of a long thunderstruck silence, sounding equal parts angry and exasperated and terrified and miserable. “He can’t do this.”
“I actually can,” Tokyo said, and he even made a half-assed attempt at a grin. Beijing looked away from the screens completely, a muscle working in her jaw. “I’ve been spending weeks figuring out my door. I knew Addis Ababa wouldn’t help me with the wiring, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to break things.”
“Of course I wouldn’t!” Addis burst out next, but he wasn’t even able to put in the angry side of the emotions that Beijing was. “This is a terrible idea, either way. Worse, if you do it like that — if you break out of your door, you can’t come back, you won’t be safe anymore. What did we do all the modifications for?”
“I’m not safe now. None of us are.” Tokyo’s voice was kinder now, gentle, and relentless. It was hard to look at his eyes on the screen. “At least this way, we’ll know, and we can make a decision before it’s too late to do anything.”
“Then I’ll go,” Taye said. It was the first time he’d managed to bust in with a word edgewise, but of course it’d been the obvious answer all along — as evidenced by how suddenly nobody would really look at the camera, except for Tokyo’s steady gaze. “What sense does it make for you to go? At least I can get out without breaking my door, and I’ll even be armed.”
Tokyo shook his head, though, smiling with very tight lips. “It doesn’t work,” he said, calm as could be. “I’ve thought through all this. Yeah, you’re D.C., but you’re not in Washington D.C., are you? Not with a spaceship hangar above you. You’ve got to be somewhere outside the city.”
Taye’d always known Tokyo was smart as fuck, but it was hard for that in particular not to be a little shocking in its insight. “I’m at an extension they built onto Andrews,” he said, so reluctantly it was almost a sigh, after a moment of staring silence. “That… doesn’t mean anything to any of you, but yeah, you’re right, Tokyo. It’s a military base about forty minutes’ drive out of the city proper.”
“I thought so,” Tokyo said, and shrugged, still smiling a bit. “It’s hard to dig too far underground around the edges of Tokyo, though. The flood risk’s always a factor, if the facility’s going to last any length of time. So they just put me more or less right underneath Tochō, where they could just add on to the existing infrastructure. When I get to the surface, I’ll walk out right into the middle of city government, at least — and that should be enough to get access to communications and any other information I need.” His game, steady smile widened fractionally. “You have to admit, it has way better odds of succeeding than trying to drive a half-hour into a major city. Or even trying to get across a base.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to do it!” Beijing cut him off again, with every ounce of fury she could seem to summon to cover up the fear and all the rest. “You don’t have to — sacrifice yourself just so we can know what’s going on up there!”
“I think somebody does, though,” Tokyo said, simply, after letting the silence rise up again in the wake of her voice. “And if my chances are good, relatively, then I’m willing to go. I promise, I won’t be stupid, and I won’t make it any worse than it has to be. I’ll do everything I can to make it back. I have to tell you what I saw, right?” He paused a minute, and then bent down, rummaging around somewhere out of view. When he straightened up again, he was holding a sleek little camera, lifting it up where they could see. “And show you, too.”
“I’m fairly certain you are not supposed to have that,” Abuja said after another brief silence — one that was at least a little bit impressed, this time. His expression wasn’t particularly severe, though, for Abuja: maybe even glinting with amusement of his own. Tokyo laughed, although he never lost some measure of the seriousness in his eyes.
“Addis Ababa isn’t the only one who can smuggle things in where they shouldn’t be,” he said. “Honestly, I was thinking about emigrating and writing a scandalous book, when this was all over. I needed some evidence.”
“So, what, you’re going to stop running and take a couple alien photoshoots?” Taye demanded. Only a second later did it occur to him to think about that maybe not translating, but it seemed like it did for Tokyo, at least.
“If I get a chance, I want you to see whatever I see,” Tokyo said, still staying as calm and measured as possible. He really was good at handling people. “Sometimes hearing isn’t enough.”
“Are we going to be able to stop you?” Vihaan asked. His kind, soft voice managed to undercut Tokyo’s insistent reasonableness at least a bit, which Taye was grateful for.
Tokyo didn’t flinch, though. “No,” he said, just as seriously, just barely smiling. “I’ve decided.”
There was a loud crashing sound out of nowhere, and all of them jumped. All of them except Beijing, at least, Taye saw: her screen had abruptly gone to standby. At least that meant she probably hadn’t ripped out and thrown the camera, but he didn’t really want to know what she had flung instead.
There was an awkward silence, of course. Then Dhaka cleared his throat, and did his best to step in. “Then good luck, Tokyo,” he said, not unkindly — although Taye thought that disappointment was back in his eyes, and wasn’t sure how Tokyo could stand it. “And be careful.”
“Cover as much of your skin as you can, before you go,” Mexico City said right after. There was nothing in her expression Taye could read at all. “With tough material, if possible. They need exposed flesh as an entry point, and it could buy you time in an emergency.”
Or more likely it could be a complete waste of it, Taye thought, but it would just be shitty to say so. Tokyo just nodded, and if his hands were shaking, his face was still steady enough to make up for it.
The two hours after Tokyo waved goodbye and walked off the edge of his screen were the longest of Taye’s entire life.
Beijing came back after the first hour or so, although she didn’t speak; she just sat still in front of the screen, not doing anything or moving, her hands clasped in front of her lips as though to hide how they were trembling. At least she didn’t come back until after Abuja had already said that it had been too long, hadn’t it, Tokyo had to be dead, and Addis had snapped at him high and breaking not to be a (something the U.T. didn’t catch) ghoul. Abuja had stayed quiet after that, and so had everybody else, for that matter.
Two whole hours of silence, and waiting, and not being able to concentrate enough to do absolutely anything. Taye felt like he was going to go fucking insane. The best he could manage to keep himself settled and rooted was look at Vihaan, from time to time, on the screen, where Vihaan was staring at a tablet he was holding up, though clearly not doing anything with it or absorbing anything from it. Just using the lines of Vihaan’s face to ground himself.
By the end Addis was practically shuddering in his chair, Jakarta was openly pacing around his seat, and Beijing’s eyes were squeezed shut with a little glinting pearl of a tear slipping down from one of them every now and then. But they still waited. No one would say it. No one wanted to be the one to call it.
And then finally, after a torturous eternity, there was something different: a new sound from the audio on the screens. It was sourceless and unplaceable for a moment, distant at first, but eventually it was enough to make them all look up frowning. And that meant they were all looking when there was a blur of motion on Tokyo’s screen — and Tokyo, completely disheveled, stained, run with sweat, and alive, dropped doubled-over with exhaustion into his chair.
There was something like an uneven chorus of noise from all of them: breaths loudly let out, wordless cries of surprise and relief, Beijing’s sob and Addis’s half-shout of “Tokyo!” It subsided only after a too-long moment of Tokyo still not seeming able to sit up or speak, just sitting slumped in his chair with head down and shoulders heaving. Long enough for Taye to feel a cold drop of dread at what they’d see when he looked up.
But it was just Tokyo, when it finally happened. His face looked stretched and strained and his smile painful, thick trickles of sweat here and there on his skin, but eyes were still clear and brown and ordinary, and he was still very much himself.
“I’m going to have to give you the short version,” he said, also sounding strained and out of breath, even now. “I’m sorry. But we’re done. It’s over. It’s time to let the countdown run.”
That put a damper on the joy in a hurry. Everyone fell still at once, hesitating and blank. Jerked into a new direction to try to process.
“Are you sure?” Jakarta asked quietly. Tokyo nodded, and looked back down to fumble a moment at something below the camera’s view.
“Take a look,” he said, and before any of them could have protested that they didn’t need to, they believed him, he pushed the button on the camera to project holo-images from its memory into the air in front of him. Their image of Tokyo’s face was blotted out by a photograph of the view from the top of a very tall building: a sunlit, smoking, collapsing ruin of a skyline Taye could only barely recognize as the city of Tokyo’s, and not from ignorance this time, but from the sheer level of destruction. He could hear some of the others drawing in breath, and couldn’t blame them. The photograph flickered away, and was replaced by others: scene after scene of more devastation, blurry snaps from the shadows of the completely wrecked chambers and halls of the seat of Tokyo’s city government. The floors and walls were splashed heavily with old dried blood, but worse — far worse — were the shifting, exploring tendrils the camera had frozen mid-motion everywhere. They were everywhere. Crawling along the halls, exploring every room. Owning the place.
“There’s no power,” Tokyo said from behind the images, and then they snapped off and it was just his face again, exhausted and taut. “So there were a lot of things I couldn’t check. But I did find some communications lines that seem to be running off an emergency generator that hasn’t quit yet, and I tried everything I could with those. But no matter what I did, there was nothing. Nobody’s out there. Nobody’s answering. Not in any other city governments, not internationally. If anybody’s still alive, squirreled away places… I don’t think they’re going to be for long.”
Then, before the impact of that could even fully sink in, he gave them a small, sick smile, and pushed a bit up and sideways in his chair. And let his hand fall away, so they could, at last, see the torn mass of blood and fabric and flesh in his side, under his arm.
“But I’m not either, I don’t think,” he said. “So maybe it’s a little easier for me to deal with. I got away without them seeing me most of the time, but one of them tracked me down and got a hold of me while I was trying to get back out of the building. Thanks, Mexico City — it took it long enough to get at my skin through the layers that I could get free before it got into me, but it took a piece along when I did. More than I think I’m going to make it without.”
“No,” Beijing was whispering, crying audibly again, but it was Mexico City who broke in there with thin urgency.
“Tokyo, bind that wound immediately. As tightly as you can. Soak the bindings in a disinfecting agent before you do, whatever you have to hand, and put as much pressure on it as possible. Lie down and rest, and drink plenty of water–“
“I’ll do what I can,” Tokyo said, cutting her off. The awful certainty in his shaky voice would have been hard to keep talking through. “But sorry, Mexico City — I mean, there’s not really much point to it, is there? I blocked the entrance back off as best I can, but it won’t hold them forever. And even if it did… well.”
He took a heavy breath, and pressed his hand back where it had been. It was easier to see all the blood it was squashing into, now that you knew to look for it. And he smiled at them one more time, and then heaved himself to his feet.
“Time to let it go,” he said. “I’m sorry to see it happen like this. I’ve been glad to know all of you.” A pause, and then, finally: “But you know what to do.”
And then, in spite of Beijing’s sobs and calling after him, he pushed off from his chair, and he staggered away from the camera, and out of view.
“So that’s it,” Dhaka said, with a low hollowness that wasn’t like him at all, when they’d all at least quieted from Tokyo’s departure if not recovered. “It’s over.”
No one answered for a while. Finally, though, Taye firmed up his insides as best he could, and spoke up. It was easier, he found, when he looked across the screens at all of their faces: numb and devastated and terrified and miserable, and familiar and — each in their own way — loved, too. Looking at them gave him his voice back.
“Yeah, I think it is,” he said. As calmly as he could — like Tokyo would have, he couldn’t help thinking. “But also… I’ve got a really dumb idea.”
The others didn’t say anything to that, either. He could feel curiosity gradually dawning out of their stunned nothingness, though, however weakly: attention slowly turning to him, eyes slowly dragging themselves back into focus.
“You know what I was supposed to do, if it came time to let the countdown run?” Taye said, and didn’t wait for any response. “Go grab my whole national chain of command from their bunker and pack them into the shuttle, right? Except I don’t know if they’re even alive. If they made it underground before things really got too bad. And like… honestly? I don’t care.” He let that sink in a second, while he took a deep breath. “Even if they did, even if they are — that just means that not only are they a bunch of rich assholes who think they’re more important than everybody else, for being in charge of a country that doesn’t even exist anymore, they also fucked off to protect themselves back when maybe they still could have done something to help everyone else, and just left everybody with no one in charge, having to take care of themselves. Fuck them, man. I know the U.T. didn’t get that, but I know you know what I said. And I meant it. I’m not saving their asses.
“So what I’m thinking instead is…” Taye took another breath, getting straight in his head exactly how he wanted to say this. “You all keep stopping the countdowns for a little while longer, and I’ll leave my pod and go get the shuttle. And then I’m coming to get you. All of you. We’re getting out of here together.”
He could almost be a little proud of himself, in the seconds that followed. He was pretty sure he’d gotten the biggest thunderstruck silence out of everybody yet.
“D.C., that’s… insane,” Addis said in a small, thoroughly alarmed voice. And one that sounded like it was trying as hard as it could not to let hope in around the edges. “You’ll never make it.”
“Absolutely not,” Vihaan said, with a depth of emotion that was clearly enough to startle several of the others a bit. “You should just go while you have the chance. Get to Mars. At least one of us will survive.”
“No,” Taye said, still as calmly as he could. And trying not to look directly at Vihaan, at least for now. “I’m sorry. But I’ve made up my mind. If the other option is that you all die anyway — even if I’m probably not going to make it, if there’s any chance at all, then I have to take it. I’d rather die trying than not try at all.”
“You’d have to come get all of us out, and I know some of us are in remote locations,” Jakarta said, also sounding like he was trying very hard to be reasonable and kind, instead of excited. “And that’s not even accounting for fuel, or food, or–“
“I know it’s a long shot,” Taye said, cutting gently across him. “Believe me, I know. But it’s a shot. I can’t not take it.”
No one else said anything to that. Probably just because they were at too much of a loss, but Taye just took the advantage.
“So here’s my flight plan,” he said, sitting forward in his chair. “Mexico City’s closest, so I’ll start there. I figure in atmosphere I can get the shuttle up to a max of around 5,000 miles per hour — uh — ” He took in the variety of blank expressions, then winced. “I… have no idea what that is in kilometers, sorry, but it’s fast, all right? Especially if I don’t have to worry about anything else in the sky. I can probably get from here to Mexico City in about half an hour, once I’m in the air. Then from there, it’s about equal which way will take longest, but west is better than east overall. Uses earth rotation to our advantage, and means we chase the sun, so we get more daylight hours. So next is Beijing–“
“No,” Beijing said — the first clear thing she’d said since Tokyo had come back, though it was still tear-choked and raw. But iron-clad firm, too. “Next is Tokyo.” Of course she could see Taye’s hesitation, but she shook her head, her red-rimmed eyes burning into him. “We don’t know for certain. As long as there’s any chance at all — Promise me you’ll at least try, D.C. Just to be sure.”
“All right,” Taye said after only another moment’s hesitation. Though he wouldn’t have said it, thinking: hell, as slim as the chances were to begin with, why not? “I’ll try. I promise.”
Beijing nodded, and looked mollified; and after another second, he went on.
“Then Beijing after that, then. Then Jakarta, then Dhaka, then — then New Delhi, then Addis Ababa.” He tried to hide his little swallow in there by interrupting himself. “Getting to Tokyo will be the longest part, obviously, maybe a couple hours, but once we’re in Asia the jumps will be pretty short. Doubt we’ll even get up to full speed between Bangladesh and India.” Taye paused again, and then fixed his eyes on Abuja. “So that means you’re the last one, Abuja. You’ll have about a half hour to hold things down by yourself, and still stop the countdown if it comes up. Then we can grab you too, and we’ll get out of the atmosphere before the diquat releases. I know you can do this, my man. You up for it?”
Abuja nodded, just barely smiling. Was that a kind of respect in his eyes? You almost didn’t dare believe it. “If you make it that far,” he noted, a little wryly. Taye smiled back the same way.
“If we do.” After pausing another moment, he straightened himself up a little. “Before I leave, though, one more thing. I want to know everybody’s names. Your real names. Just so I know, just… you know. Just in case.” When everyone looked too startled to respond right away, Taye offered them a lopsided bit of a smile, and pulled up the U.T. controls. “Mine is–” He toggled the suppressor, giving it a second to process and let them hear his real voice instead. “Taye Rashada.”
“Mine is Iryan Dimas,” Jakarta said next, reaching forward for his controls too at the appropriate moment, so the name came out in his real voice instead. He had a little smile of his own, when Taye looked.
“Syed Rahman,” Dhaka said next, a bit like a concession. Beijing was next after him, taking Taye a little by surprise.
“Fang Yinuo,” she said, quietly. “And Tokyo was — is — Sugiyama Haruto. He told me once.”
“My name is Maria Guadalupe Pérez,” Mexico City said, after nodding to that. Addis unfolded in his chair too, taking a breath.
“Tsegaye Mamo,” he said, and even managed a grin with a ghost of his old self in it. “Nice to finally meet you all.”
“I am Emmanuel Nweke,” Abuja said, and inclined his head. And then it was just —
“Vihaan Suryavanshi,” Vihaan said, quietly. He didn’t quite have his eyes raised to the camera anymore, and it was hard to look at; Taye could almost really be sorry. But… well, it wasn’t going to change his mind. If only for the slimmest possibility that he might get to apologize in person.
“Thank you,” Taye said, when the silence fell again. “All of you.” He took a breath, then smiled at the screens. “Now tell me where to find you.”
There was no need to bring much. A few clothes and keepsakes, some shitty shelf-stable food from what was left in the kitchen, and the coordinates and directions he’d gotten from everyone and copied onto his tablet, all packed into his old messenger bag on his hip. And then Taye was standing at the pod doors, and punching in the sequence to open them for the first time in four hundred and twenty-seven days.
He was braced already, teeth locked in his head — but they opened only onto the little anteroom, lined with a padded bench and with a big closed panel set into the far wall, that was the elevator. It was empty and, to all appearances, safe. Was the elevator shaft on the same closed air system as his pod? He honestly couldn’t remember for the life of him if they’d passed through an airlock up top before the officer had led him into the elevator, or anything like that. Well… he guessed he’d find out.
He did remember, though, the thing the officer had talked about the whole time the elevator had been sinking into the earth with them in it, and he went straight to the panel without even pausing to close the doors behind him. It popped open with a heavy clunk under his fingers, and swung wide to reveal a sort of backpack that was a tank of liquid with straps and a spray nozzle attached, set into molded foam in the wall. There was a gas mask alongside it, too, and Taye took both of them with a grim little smile. Yeah, if he was going to be spraying around any of the diquat in that tank, in here or in the close metal corridors up above, he was going to want that.
All that was left to do was strap up, shut the doors, and punch the B1 button – bypassing altogether the B2, for the line-of-succession bunker, that was between his pod’s B3 and the hangar. He was armed, ready, and equipped with destinations and a goal — and the memory of Vihaan, at the very last moment, blurting out I love you, Taye, be careful and not caring who heard him, and how he’d said You too, both back to Vihaan the same way.
It wasn’t much, maybe. But it felt like enough. Even if he still probably owed an apology, eventually.
It’d be fine, Taye thought, turning as he shrugged on the backpack to face the buttons. He’d get up to the hangar without seeing a single alien, get the shuttle, and get to see the sun and sky in person for the first time in over a year. He’d point himself southwest and fly, and go get Mexico City — no, Maria Guadalupe, not M.C. but M.G. There’d be plenty of time over the Pacific to teach her to monitor the autopilot so he could take a break. Then they’d save Tokyo; she was a doctor, after all. And everybody else. They’d all go to Mars and learn hydroponic farming and ice extraction. He’d give Vihaan a victory kiss, for real. Happily ever after.
Half an hour to Mexico City, Taye thought, closing his eyes, as the elevator doors began to close and the floor began to rise. No problem. No sweat.