Count to five, Noemi decides. If she’s cracking up—if the terror of the past few minutes has scrambled her mind to the point where she’s hallucinating—then this will all go away in a couple of seconds. If this is for real, the mech will be standing here waiting for orders when she’s done.
One. The mech remains still, expression curious and patient.
Two. Noemi takes a deep breath. She remains in her crouch, hand clutching her blaster so tightly her fingers have begun to cramp.
Three. Abel. The mech said its name was Abel. We were taught that there are twenty-five models of mech in the Mansfield Cybernetics line, alphabetical from B to Z. A was for a prototype.
Four. Abel’s face and posture haven’t shifted in the slightest. Would it stand here for an hour? A whole day? At any rate, it hasn’t made any move to get its weapon back.
Noemi grabs Abel’s blaster. “My friend in the docking bay—she needs medical help, now.”
“Understood. I’ll bring her to sick bay.” Abel takes off down the hallway so quickly that Noemi first thinks it’s escaping—but it’s apparently following her orders, just like it said it would.
Shoving herself to her feet, Noemi runs after the mech, unwilling to let the thing out of her sight even though she knows she can’t possibly keep up.
From Darius Akide’s lectures on mechs, Noemi knows the A model was an experimental model never put into mass production. Could the mech be lying about what it is? Its programming could potentially allow it to lie. But like everyone else on Genesis, she has memorized the faces of every single model of mech. According to her history books, they used to fear infiltration, in the early days of the Liberty War. What if the machines had walked among them, pretending to be human, spying on them all?
While the Queens and Charlies are most familiar to her, Noemi could identify any of Mansfield’s mechs on sight—and she’s never seen this Abel’s face before.
Okay, you found a prototype. It doesn’t matter how it got out here as long as you can use it. Take care of Esther and worry about the rest later.
Her footsteps pound a staccato drumbeat along the corridor as Noemi dashes back to the docking bay. Panting, she stops in the doorway to stare at the scene in front of her. Abel leans over Esther’s damaged fighter, gently scooping her into its arms. Esther’s head lolls back as she murmurs, “Who—who are—”
“It’s a mech,” Noemi calls as she ditches her nearly dead blaster, then holsters Abel’s to her side. “The ship has a fully equipped sick bay. See? We can take care of you.”
She’s anthropomorphizing a mech—a recruit’s mistake, one she should be past.
Abel moves slowly, deliberately, until Esther rests against its chest in a firm embrace. Then Noemi barely has time to get out of the way before it rushes out, moving at a speed no human could match.
When she gets all the way back up to sick bay, Esther’s lying on a biobed. Abel’s deft fingers move across the controls so swiftly they seem to blur. Noemi goes to Esther’s side and takes her hand.
“The sensors are still assessing her condition,” Abel reports. “But I predict they’ll confirm preliminary findings of internal bleeding, multiple pelvic fractures, and a mild-to-moderate concussion. If internal bleeding is confirmed, she’ll need an immediate transfusion. I’ve administered pain medication.”
Enough medication to leave Esther dazed, her eyes half closed and her facial muscles slack—Good, Noemi thinks. Esther needs that. And the nauseous weight in her gut lessens, because those injuries sound survivable. Fixable. At least, if this Abel mech actually knows what it’s doing. “How are you—” She has to stop and gulp in another few breaths before she can continue talking. “You’re one of the medical models? I thought—thought that was the Tare mech.”
“To the best of my knowledge, the Tare mech remains the primary medical model,” Abel says, as amiably as if they were having tea. The ozone-seared air still stinks of their battle only minutes before. “However, I am programmed with the knowledge, skills, and specialties of the entire Mansfield Cybernetics line.” It glances over from the readouts to study Noemi’s face for a moment. “You’re experiencing extreme shortness of breath. This shouldn’t represent an emergency unless you have any underlying medical conditions. Do you?”
“What? No.” It’s so strange, talking to a mech. Standing beside one. It feels just like standing next to a person, even though nothing could be further from the truth. “I just— pushed myself. That’s all.”
“You could’ve remained in sick bay instead of following me down,” it points out.
“I don’t trust you.”
“I wasn’t asking for a justification for your actions. Humans have many reasons for behaving in an inefficient or irrational manner.” Abel’s tone is so mild that it takes Noemi a moment to recognize the insult.
But that’s stupid. She’s anthropomorphizing a mech—a recruit’s mistake, one she should be past. Apparently this prototype’s innovations don’t include tact.
The dark, glistening stuff in the bags Abel brings out must be synthetic blood. He’s very sure about that transfusion. Some faiths on Genesis won’t use synthetic blood, others won’t accept transfusions at all, but Esther’s family doesn’t belong to one of those.
Noemi imagines the Gatsons standing before her, tall and pale, their expressions disapproving. How could you let this happen? they might say. You were supposed to protect our daughter. After everything we did for you, how could you let her be hurt?
Smoothly, the mech slips the needle into Esther’s skin. Not a flicker of discomfort shows on her face. Is she that doped up, or is the mech that good? Probably both, Noemi decides. While Abel works, she studies its—his face in greater depth. There really is something different about this one. He looks younger than most mechs, as if he’s perhaps two or three years older she is. Instead of the customary, blandly appealing mech features, he has a distinctive face with piercing blue eyes, a strong nose, and, if she recalls correctly, a slightly asymmetrical smile.
Why make a mech so … specific? And so advanced? Akide had told them that mechs were calibrated to the level of intelligence they required for their duties, nothing more. Extra intelligence would only be a complication, another way for a mech to break down. There were even laws against developing mech intelligence too far, or there had been, the last anyone on Genesis heard about Earth laws. If Abel is telling her the truth—and by now she believes he is—he represents a significant step forward in cybernetics development.
Except that he can’t be. This ship was abandoned many years ago. As she brushes a strand of hair away from Esther’s cheek, Noemi asks, “How long have you been aboard the Daedalus?”
“Not quite thirty years,” Abel says. “I can provide the exact time down to the nanosecond if required.”
“It isn’t.” It so, so isn’t.
“I doubted it would be.” Abel turns away from the medical readouts to face her directly. “Upon further examination, the patient’s liver appears to be ruptured, and the internal bleeding is more severe than initially indicated. Surgery will be required.”
Noemi’s abdomen knots in sympathetic pain. “But—if Esther loses her liver, she won’t survive.”
Abel walks away from the biobed, toward various storage chambers—even past a few cryosleep pods against the wall. “The Daedalus is stocked with artificial organs in case emergency transplants are needed.”
She bites her lower lip. Although Genesis has retained more medical technology than any other kind, artificial organs are used very rarely. Yes, life is precious and must be preserved, but death is accepted as a part of life. Unnaturally avoiding death is seen as an act of futility, sometimes even one of cowardice. The Gatsons are particularly strict about these things. They spent weeks debating whether or not Mr. Gatson should even have laser surgery on his eyes.
This is different. Esther’s only seventeen! She was injured trying to protect our world. Noemi didn’t sign up for the Masada Run only to have Esther die anyway. “All right,” she says. “All right. Do it.”
From the biobed comes a whisper: “Don’t.”
Noemi looks down to see Esther gazing up. Her skin, always fair, has turned waxen. One of her pale green eyes is horribly marred, deep red where it ought to be white. But she’s awake.
“It’s okay.” Noemi tries to smile. “I’m here. Do you need more pain meds?”
“It doesn’t hurt.” Esther sighs deeply. Her eyelids droop, but for only a moment. She’s fighting so hard to stay awake. “No transplant.”
It’s like the chill of space outside the ship’s hull rushed in to freeze Noemi’s blood. She feels adrift, exposed, vulnerable. Like she’s the one in mortal danger instead of Esther. “No, no, it’s all right. This is an emergency—”
“It would make me part machine. That isn’t human life. Not the life I was given.”
Please, God, no. God doesn’t speak to Noemi’s heart, no matter how often she prays for guidance. But maybe he’ll speak to Esther’s. Show her it’s more important to stay alive no matter what. The Gatsons raised them so strictly, and Esther’s always obeyed her parents. Now, though—who could argue with this?
“Esther, please.” Noemi’s voice has begun to shake. “If you don’t have the transplant, you’ll die.”
“I know.” Esther feebly moves her hand, searching for Noemi’s; Noemi takes it and hangs on tight. Esther’s skin is growing cold. “I knew as soon as the mech tore through my ship. Please—don’t argue while we’re saying good-bye—”
“To hell with good-bye!” Noemi will make this up to Esther later. “You. Abel. Perform the transplant.”
Abel, who’s been standing in the middle of sick bay through this entire conversation, shakes his head no. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“You just said you had all the talents of every mech ever! Were you lying?”
“I don’t mean that I am incapable of performing the transplant.” If she didn’t know better, she’d think Abel was offended. “And I cannot lie to you, as my commander.”
“That’s right. I’m your commander.” Noemi seizes onto this, the one weapon she has that might make Abel stop arguing and move, dammit. “So you have to follow my orders, and I’m ordering you to perform the transplant.”
“Noemi—” Esther whispers. The weakness in her voice slices through Noemi like a blade, but she doesn’t let herself look away from the mech. Abel is Esther’s only hope.
He doesn’t take a single step closer as he says, “Your authority over me is subject to a few strictly limited exceptions. One of those exceptions is that I must obey the wishes of a medical patient regarding end-of-life decisions. Esther’s choice is therefore final.”
Damn, damn, damn! The same programming that saved her life is endangering Esther’s. Why would Mansfield build legions of killing machines and then program them with mock morality? Just one more way the people of Earth fool themselves into accepting the machines in their midst, like the human skin and hair. Noemi wants to scream at Abel but knows it would do no good. Programming is final. Absolute.
Instead she bends closer to Esther, brushing her friend’s pale-gold hair away from her face. “If you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for me. We’re on this spaceship out in the middle of nowhere, and I need your help to—to—”
But it’s not help she needs. It’s Esther herself. Noemi knows she’s only made one real friend in her life, but she only ever needed one, because it was Esther, who knew every awful thing about her and loved her anyhow. Noemi’s bad temper and awkwardness and distrust—the same stuff that pushed Mr. and Mrs. Gatson and Jemuel and everybody else away—Esther was the only person who didn’t think those things mattered. The only one who ever would.
A sob bubbles up in Noemi’s throat, but she chokes it back to whisper, once again, “Please. You’re supposed to be the one who goes back. You’re the one who’s going to make it.” The one who can be happy. The one who can be good, who can love and be loved. Noemi can only be the one left over.
“You were willing to die for me,” Esther says. For one moment she’s really able to focus on Noemi; maybe the blood flowing into her is helping a little. “At least now you won’t have to. Not if you take your name off the list. You can now. Promise me you will.”
“Tell Mom and Dad I love them.”
Abel chooses this moment to interrupt. “I had a thought.”
“Is it about getting around your idiotic programming?” Noemi snaps. Oh, why did she have to say it like that? She doesn’t want Esther to hear her being mean, not now.
“Cryosleep.” Abel points at the pods against the wall. “Often even severely injured people can be successfully put into cryosleep. If she weren’t brought out of it until an organ could be cloned, perhaps—”
Esther wouldn’t agree to cloning either, but cryosleep would be okay. What they’d do after that … Noemi doesn’t have to think of that now. She can leave it to the doctors once they’re back on Genesis. “Yes! Please, yes, put her in cryosleep!”
“I’ll check on the pods.” Abel’s on it in an instant, finally making himself useful again. But after a few moments, he pauses. “I’m afraid the cryosleep pods’ power source was damaged in the attack on the Daedalus thirty years ago.”
“Isn’t there any way around it?” On a ship this size, Noemi knows, every vital system should have backup.
“Normally the ship’s main grid would provide backup power, but I took that offline.”
“I thought you were supposed to be helping me!”
“I am now,” Abel says, his tone maddeningly even. “I wasn’t when you first boarded the ship. At that point you were considered an intruder and—”
“It doesn’t matter!” Noemi’s almost screaming by now, and she doesn’t care. “Just bring the main grid back up!”
Abel nods and rushes toward sick bay’s main computer interface. Noemi takes a deep breath to steady herself before she leans back down toward Esther. “It’s going to be all right,” she whispers. “We’ve got a plan now. …”
Esther’s eyes are closed. She doesn’t hear. Noemi looks up at the biobed and sees the dark truth the sensors reveal: Esther is dying. Right now. This moment.
“Esther?” Noemi touches her friend’s shoulder, stricken. “Can you hear me?”
Please, God, please, if you won’t give me anything else, at least let me tell her good-bye. He’s never answered Noemi before, but if he does now, she’ll believe forever. I have to tell her good-bye.
The sensors flatline. Esther is gone.
In the very next instant, every computer interface in sick bay brightens to full illumination. The damned mech brought power back online just as soon as it was too late to save Esther.
Noemi stands as if frozen, staring down at Esther. Her eyes well with tears, but it’s like they’re crying without her. Instead of sobbing or shaking, she feels as if she’ll never move again.
She’s in heaven now. Noemi should believe that. She does, mostly, but the knowledge doesn’t comfort her. The words only echo in the hollow space that has replaced her heart. She finds herself remembering her family’s funeral more vividly than she has in years—the high winds that blew, tugging at everyone’s hair and clothes, and stealing the priest’s words before Noemi could really hear them. The way Noemi stared down into the grave and tried to imagine her parents lying there, baby Rafael between them, looking up at the sky for the last time before they were covered by dirt forever. More than anything else, she remembers Esther standing near her, all in black, crying as hard and loud as Noemi herself. Years later Esther had revealed that she made herself cry, so Noemi wouldn’t be alone.
Now Esther’s gone, too, and instead of being held close and told she was loved, she had to die listening to Noemi shriek at someone in anger. That ugly moment was the last one Esther ever knew.
It’s dangerous—being angry at God—but Noemi can’t deny the bitter rage she feels at this one last proof that she isn’t enough for God, for the Gatsons, for anyone at all.
The long silence is broken by Abel’s voice. “I didn’t attempt resuscitation because failure was all but certain. Her internal blood loss was too great. We would’ve had to begin the transfusion much earlier to save her.”
“Or we could’ve gotten her into cryosleep.” Noemi turns to stare at the mech. He stands near the computer interface, very still, so obviously unsure what to do that he looks almost human. This doesn’t move her; it enrages her. “If you hadn’t wasted time trying to kill me, Esther might still be alive! We could have put her into cryosleep and saved her!”
Abel doesn’t respond at first. But finally he says, “You are correct.”
As many times as Noemi has gone into battle against Earth forces—as many times as she’s seen friends and fellow soldiers torn apart by their mechs—she thought she knew how to hate with her whole heart. But she didn’t.
Now, only now, as she stares at the machine responsible for her best friend’s death, does Noemi feel what hatred really is.
Abel’s programming covers many situations involving interpersonal conflict.
Not this one.
The Genesis warrior—the dead one called her Noemi—stands next to the corpse, shaking with anger. Like all mechs, he has been constructed to endure human wrath in both its emotional and physical forms, and yet he finds himself uncertain. Wary. Even … worried.
Noemi has command over him unless and until he is released by someone with the authority to override her. Therefore, her power over him is all but absolute. It doesn’t matter that he could outrun her, outshoot her, that he could kill her with a single hand: He cannot defend himself against her any more than he can disobey her. Abel is at his commander’s mercy.
She takes a deep breath, stops trembling, and goes very still. He isn’t sure how, but he knows that’s worse.
“Where’s the nearest air lock?” Noemi asks.
“The equipment pod bay approximately halfway down the main ship’s corridor.” In other words, the cell in which Abel just spent the past three decades. Noemi seems unlikely to be interested in this information, so he says nothing else.
Noemi nods. “Walk toward it.”
Abel does so. She follows a few steps behind. Although she could potentially have many reasons for needing an air lock, he immediately understands which of her potential purposes is most likely—namely, his destruction. She will release him into the cold void of space, where he will cease operations.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to die. It’s that he wants to live.
Not instantaneously. Abel is built to withstand even the near-absolute-zero temperatures of outer space … for a time. But within seven to ten minutes, the damage to his organic tissues will be permanent. Total mechanical malfunction will swiftly follow.
He isn’t afraid to die. And yet, as he walks along the corridor to his doom, his executioner’s steps echoing behind him, Abel feels that this is wrong. Unjust, somehow.
Is this another of his strange emotional malfunctions? Perhaps his pride is occupying too large a part of his thoughts, because it galls Abel to think that he—the most complex mech ever created—is about to be tossed out an air lock like human refuse, for no reason other than the pique of an unhappy Genesis soldier.
After some consideration, he decides that yes, his pride is interfering with effective analysis of the situation. He is from Earth, and therefore he is this girl’s enemy. Although he knows how powerfully his programming controls him, she probably doesn’t trust it. If Genesis has held true to its anti-technology stance, then Noemi has probably never been in the same room with a mech before. She’d only have met them in battle. No wonder she finds him frightening. Taking into account the fact that he attacked and very nearly killed her not half an hour before, her decision to space him appears more reasonable. Almost logical.
That doesn’t make him feel any better about it.
When Abel reaches the equipment pod bay, he steps without hesitation through the door he was so grateful to escape not even an hour ago. He can see the irony of having been freed from this place only to come back here to die. In his mind he finds himself running through scenarios, possibilities—the seven different ways he could kill the Genesis soldier this instant. Why?
Then Abel realizes what it is: It’s not that he doesn’t want to die. It’s that he wants to live.
He wants more time. To learn more things, to travel through the galaxy and see all the colony worlds of the Loop, to return back home to Earth for at least one day. To find out what has become of Burton Mansfield and perhaps speak with his “father” once more. To watch Casablanca properly again instead of merely retelling himself the story. To ask more questions, even if he never gets the answers.
But what a mech wants doesn’t matter.
Abel turns to face Noemi before she can hit the controls that will seal this door, allowing her to open the outer hatch and vent him into space. He went so long without seeing a human face or speaking to anyone. It helps him to look at her, even if that means watching her take the steps that will kill him. Although he doesn’t expect this to affect her in any way, her dark-brown eyes widen when they’re face-to-face again.
Noemi doesn’t speak. She lifts her hand to the control panel … and does nothing.
Seconds tick by. When Abel judges that this pause has gone on an inordinately long time, he ventures, “Do you need help understanding the controls?”
“I understand the controls.” Her voice is thick from the tears she’s still holding back.
Abel cocks his head. “Have I misinterpreted your purpose in bringing me here?”
“What do you think my purpose is?”
“To space me.”
“You got it.” Her smile is twisted by grief. “That’s why we came here.”
“Then may I ask why you have not yet done so?”
“Because it’s stupid,” Noemi says. “Hating you. I want to hate you because you might’ve saved Esther and you didn’t—but what’s the point? You’re not a person. You don’t have a soul. You obey your programming, because you have to, and without free will there can be no sin.” She breathes out sharply in frustration, looks up at the ceiling as if that will keep the tears from trickling beyond her eyes. “I might as well hate a wheel.”
A few more seconds elapse before Abel feels emboldened to say, “May I now step out of the air lock door?”
Noemi moves back, making room for him. This reads as permission, and so Abel steps out of the equipment pod bay with profound relief. Only then does Noemi hit the controls, once again sealing off the bay.
He offers, “If you would feel safer with me immobilized, the cryosleep pods would be effective. Mechs cannot be put in true cryosleep, but exposure to the chemicals activates our dormant mode.”
“I don’t need you to be dormant. I need you to be useful.” She wipes at her eyes, attempts to act like the soldier she is. “We’ll—I’ll take care of Esther later. First I have to make a plan. Wasn’t the bridge back that way?”
She winces. “Please don’t call me that.”
“How should I address you?”
She’s still pulling herself together. “My name is Noemi Vidal.”
“Yes, Captain Vidal.”
“Noemi’s fine.” She turns and trudges toward the bridge. Her voice is hoarse, her exhaustion and grief obvious, but she remains focused on survival. “Follow me, Abel.”
She’ll let me use her first name, Abel thinks. No human being has ever allowed him that much liberty before. The thought pleases him, though he can’t determine why.
Nor does he know the reason why he glances over his shoulder, back at the equipment pod bay he has escaped twice today. Surely after thirty years he has seen enough of it.
Perhaps it’s just because it feels so good to leave that place behind.
This is the navigational position for the pilot, right?” Noemi runs her hands through her hair as they stand on the Daedalus’ bridge. The curved walls allow the ship’s viewscreen to wrap almost entirely around and above them, displaying the surrounding starfield in such detail that the bridge appears to be a dull metallic platform in the middle of outer space. “The captain’s chair is obvious, and I figure this is for external communications. And that’s the ops station.”
“Correct. Your technological sophistication is surprising for a soldier of Genesis.”
She turns toward him, frowning. “We limit technology by choice, not out of ignorance.”
“Of course. But in time, the first must inevitably lead to the second.”
“Why do you have to act so superior?”
Abel considers her assertion. “I am superior, in most respects.”
Noemi’s hands close around the back of the captain’s chair, gripping it too hard, and when she speaks again, she grinds out every word. “Could you. Knock it. Off.”
“Modesty is not one of my chief operating modes,” he admits, “but I will try.”
She sighs. “I’ll take what I can get.”
He assesses her as she paces the length of the bridge, her formfitting emerald-green exosuit outlining her athletic body vividly against the blackness of space. Amid the stars glow the larger, gently shaded planets of the Genesis system. Abel can make out the circle that is Genesis itself, brilliant green and blue, with its two moons visible as tiny pinpoints of white.
“Do we have fuel?” Noemi asks. “Can the Daedalus get back home?”
Abel replies, “Fuel stores are sufficient for full-ship operations lasting two years, ten months, five days, ten hours, and six minutes.” He leaves out the seconds and milliseconds. “The ship took damage in its final battle, but the damage doesn’t appear to have been extreme.” Hardly even threatening. He frowns at the readouts scrolling past on the console. Did Captain Gee panic? Did she convince Mansfield to abandon ship when there was no real need? “Travel through a Gate would be difficult—”
“We’re not going through a Gate. We’re going home.”
Of course. Earth is Abel’s home, not Noemi’s. He continues, “After minor repairs with instruments we have on hand, we should be able to reach Genesis without difficulty.”
What will become of him on Genesis? Will he be dismantled? Sent back out into space? Made to serve in their armies? Abel cannot guess, and thinks it would be a bad idea to ask. He has no control over the situation. He may as well learn his fate when it comes to pass.
“You don’t have a soul. You obey your programming, because you have to.”
Noemi sits heavily in the nearest chair, the one at the ops station, which like all the stations aboard the Daedalus is thickly padded and covered with soft black material. Running her hand along it, she frowns. “Was this some kind of luxury cruiser or something? Regular Earth ships can’t all be like this … can they?”
“The Daedalus is a research vessel, customized especially for its owner and my creator, Burton Mansfield.”
“Did you say Burton Mansfield?” She sits up straight and gapes at him. “The Burton Mansfield?”
At last. It’s good to see Noemi finally responding with appropriate awe. “The founder and architect of the Mansfield Cybernetics line? Yes.”
He watches for her reaction, anticipating her amazement—and instead sees her scowl. “That son of a bitch. This is his ship? You’re his mech?”
“… yes.” How dare she call his father such names? But Abel can’t object, so he forces himself not to think of it any longer.
“I can’t believe it,” Noemi mutters. “You’re telling me Mansfield himself came to this system thirty years ago, and he got away?”
“All humans aboard abandoned ship,” Abel answers as simply as he can. “As I wasn’t on the bridge at that time, I cannot know how successful their escape was, nor their reasons for abandoning a functional ship.”
“We scared them. That’s why they ran.” Energized, Noemi gets to her feet and reexamines every station on the bridge, as if it requires further consideration now that she knows who it belongs to. “But why would Burton Mansfield come to the Genesis system to start with? Why would he throw himself into the middle of a war?”
And there it is—the question Abel had hoped Noemi would not think to ask.
As long as she’s his commander, he cannot lie to her. However, he has enough discretion to … omit certain facts, as long as her questions are not direct.
He tries indirection first. “Mansfield had undertaken critical scientific research.”
“In a war zone? What was he researching?”
A direct question: Full disclosure is now required. “Mansfield was studying a potential vulnerability in the Gate between Genesis and Earth.”
Noemi goes very still. She’s realizing the true significance of what she’s found. “By vulnerability—do you mean a potential malfunction, or—tell me, exactly, what?”
Abel remembers the day Mansfield realized the worst. The endless hours of research and sensor readings required, the immense leap of insight it took for Mansfield to grasp the answer: All of this, Abel now has to deliver to a soldier of Genesis. “By vulnerability, I mean he was investigating a way a Gate could be destroyed.”
Noemi’s face lights up. Under different circumstances, Abel would be pleased to have brought his commander so much joy. “Did you find one?”
They ought to have foreseen it, Abel thinks. They shouldn’t have left me here. It was … tactically unwise.
Because I have no choice but to betray them.
“Answer me,” Noemi says. “Did you find a way to destroy a Gate?”
Abel admits, “Yes.”
Noemi knows the mech—Abel—can’t lie to her while she’s his commander, which somehow she is. But the enormity of what he’s said makes it feel like the ship’s gravity is shifting beneath her feet, forcing her off-balance. Her grief for Esther weighs on her too heavily to allow for the sudden, staggering return of hope.
“How?” She takes one step toward Abel. The viewscreen dome shows re-fog trails of the galaxy’s arm, stretching their glowing tendrils overhead. “How can anyone destroy a Gate?”
“Gates are capable of creating and stabilizing wormholes, which are essentially shortcuts in space-time,” he begins, talking down to her again. “When a wormhole is fully stable, a ship can travel through, thereby crossing enormous distances in an instant.”
She wants to hope—wants it so badly she can taste it.
The Masada Run will destabilize the Genesis Gate, but only for a while. Months, probably. Two or three years, if they’re lucky. Possibly just a matter of weeks. All those lives, including her own, will be spent for the mere chance that Genesis might gain an opportunity to rebuild and rearm itself, to beat their plowshares into swords, and then to plunge back into a war that they almost certainly can’t win.
Abel continues, “A wormhole can only be permanently stabilized through the use of so-called exotic matter. In the Gates, this exotic matter takes the form of supercooled gases kept even colder than the space beyond it, mere nanokelvins above absolute zero.”
Colder than outer space. Noemi has tried to imagine that before, but she can’t. The intensity of that chill is beyond any human reckoning.
Abel continues, “These gases are cooled by magnetic fields generated by several powerful electromagnets that make up the components of the Gate—”
“But all those components—they’re programmed to reinforce one another. It’s almost impossible to destroy one while the others are backing it up.”
He cocks his head. “You understand more about the components of a Gate than I would have thought.”
“What, you thought nobody from Genesis would’ve learned about this?”
“To judge by the extremely outdated and dilapidated condition of your current ships and armaments, Genesis appears to have all but abandoned scientific and technological advancement.”
From anyone else, that would be an insult. From Abel, it’s a simple, factual assessment. The insult would’ve been easier to take. “Apparently not, because I understand how a Gate works. Which means I know they’re supposed to be invulnerable. You say they’re not. How do we destroy one?”
He hesitates, and his reluctance is uncannily genuine. Too genuine, in Noemi’s opinion; Mansfield was showing off with this one. “Most efforts to damage or destroy a Gate are targeted at destroying the magnetic fields inside. However, it is not necessary to destroy the fields to collapse the Gate. Only to disrupt them.”
Noemi shakes her head. “But we can’t even manage that, not with every component supporting one another.”
“You’ve failed to see the obvious alternative.” Abel catches himself. “You shouldn’t feel that this failure reflects negatively on you. Relatively few humans are capable of the insight necessary to—”
“Just tell me.”
“Disrupting the fields doesn’t have to mean weakening or destroying them. It can also mean strengthening them.”
She opens her mouth to object. Strengthen it? How can making the Gate stronger possibly help them? Then the answer takes shape in her mind. “Strengthening the fields would warm the gases inside. When the exotic matter becomes too warm, the Gate will implode.”
Abel inclines his head, not quite a nod. “And destroy the wormhole forever.”
Noemi sinks into the nearest station, overwhelmed by the possibilities and problems she now sees. “But—any device powerful enough to overcome the Gate’s magnetic fields—where would we get that? Do any of those even exist?”
“There are thermomagnetic devices capable of creating that level of heat on their own. Not many, of course. The practical applications are limited.”
“But they are out there? We could find one?”
She wants to hope—wants it so badly she can taste it—but Noemi can see all the problems with this plan already. “You’d have to activate it on the verge of the Gate. Otherwise the heat would melt your ship before you even reach the Gate. And you can’t just launch it remotely either. You’d have to have a pilot to work around the Gate’s defenses.”
“You understand a great deal about piloting for someone from a planet that has stubbornly refused to go anywhere.”
And that reminds her of the guilty longings she sometimes feels when she sees the speed of Earth ships, the complexity of the Gate, even the inhuman reflexes of their mechs. Noemi doesn’t want to be like people from Earth, but … she can’t help wanting to know what they know. To discover. To explore.
Her next flash of insight eclipses all those old dreams in an instant. “No human could do it. A human pilot would lose control or die from the heat too quickly.”
“True. Also, even if the human pilot could succeed, the Gate’s implosion would kill her instantly.”
Noemi hadn’t bothered worrying about that. Collapsing the Gate—saving her world—it’s worth one life. Her willingness to make that sacrifice is irrelevant if she would only fail. But there’s another possibility. “A mech could do it, right?”
Abel hesitates before answering, just long enough for her to be aware of it. “Not most mechs. They’re programmed to go into basic utility mode during self-damaging tasks. You’d need an advanced model. One capable of thinking even at the point of destruction.”
“An advanced model like you.”
He straightens. “Yes.”
Abel clearly has no instinct for self-preservation that overrides the orders given by his commander. The air lock proved that. If she tells him to destroy the Gate and be destroyed along with it, he will.
Noemi would gladly lay down her life to save Genesis. So she can ask a mech to give up … whatever it is he has.
Slowly she rises from the chair. The projected starlight shines softly around her, making the moment even more dreamlike than it already is.
Her only plan had been steering the Daedalus toward Genesis and bringing Esther’s body home. She’d had a vague idea of turning the ship and the mech over to her superior officers, in case they could be used in the war effort. Some small contributions that would outlive her, that could go on serving after the Masada Run.
Instead she’s found a mech not only aware of how to destroy a Gate but also capable of helping her do it. And a ship that could take her through the Loop to find the device she needs—Earth would come after any Genesis ship, she thinks, but they won’t be on the lookout for this one. This could actually work.
It means throwing herself through the galaxy, to planets she’s never seen before. It means risking her life, maybe even winding up in an Earth prison, defeated and helpless—which would be so much worse than dying in the Masada Run. It means leaving Genesis behind, maybe forever.
She turns to Abel. “We’re going to destroy this Gate.”
“Very well,” he replies as easily as if she’d asked him the time. “We should run an in-depth diagnostic on the Daedalus. Although my initial scans indicate that she remains fully fueled and in good condition, we will want to be certain of that before we begin to travel. It should take no more than an hour or two.”
It startles her that he understands they’re about to travel through the Gates to other worlds, but of course he does. Abel would’ve realized the implications as soon as he explained the Gate’s flaw to her. However, there’s one thing he doesn’t understand yet. “We have to wait.”
Abel gives her a look. “So you want to end a deadly and destructive war, but there’s … no rush?”
Noemi’s not sure why Mansfield decided to give a mech the capacity for sarcasm. “I’m only an ensign,” she says, tapping the single gray stripe on the cuff of her green exosuit sleeve. “This mission—it’s risky, and there could be drawbacks I haven’t seen—”
“I would have seen them.” His expression is so smug that Noemi wishes she had something in her hands to throw at him.
“Yeah, well, you’re Burton Mansfield’s mech. So forgive me if I don’t trust you completely.”
“If you don’t trust me, why are you undertaking this mission on my word alone?” Abel seems almost irritated. “If I could lie to you about the risks, I could also lie to you about the potential.”
That’s not a bad point, but Noemi doesn’t bother justifying herself to a mech. “My point is, I should run this by my superior officers if I can.”
“Do you wish to fly directly to Genesis?” Noemi opens her mouth to give the order, then thinks better of it. Yes, she should run this by Captain Baz at least—probably the whole Elder Council. She can imagine standing in their white marble chamber in her dress uniform, looking up at Darius Akide and the other elders, showing them this one chance they have to save their world.
And she can imagine them saying no.
They might not trust Abel’s word. What would it take to convince the Elder Council? They’re so sure the Masada Run is the only way—
She thinks about the various speeches that have been given, the vids they’ve seen in support of the Masada Run. Sacrifice your lives, they say. Sacrifice your children. Only through sacrifice can Genesis survive.
Now she’d be coming back to tell all of Genesis and the Council that there’s another way out. That the Masada Run isn’t necessary and never was. She, Noemi Vidal, a seventeen-year-old ensign, orphaned and newly friendless, backed up only by a mech.
Would the Elder Council even believe her? Worse, would they refuse to back down just to avoid admitting they were wrong?
It’s not that Noemi never doubted the Council before—but this is the first time she’s ever allowed herself to think that they might fail her world so completely. She’s not sure she really believes they would. But they could, and that risk alone is enough.
“Belay that order,” she says slowly. “Run the diagnostic. See if the ship’s ready to travel through the Gates.”
Abel raises one eyebrow. “Does that mean we’re proceeding without approval from your superiors?”
Noemi’s been taking orders her whole life. From the Gatsons, because they were good enough to take her into their family and deserved her obedience. From her teachers, from her commanding officers. She’s tried to obey all of them and the Word of God, too, despite all her doubts and confusion, putting aside her own dreams, because that’s her duty.
But her duty to protect Genesis goes beyond any of that.
“Yes,” Noemi says, staring out at the stars that will guide her. “We’re going to destroy the Gate on our own.”
To save her world, she must learn to stand alone.
Claudia Gray is The New York Times bestselling author of many science-fiction and paranormal fantasy books for young adults, including the Firebird series, the Evernight series, the Spellcaster series, and Fateful.
Reprinted with permission from Defy the Stars. Published by Hachette Book Group.