Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up

Inside the Worm

Justin Stanchfield


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t takes, exactly, seventy-three hours and twelve minutes to make the crossing from Barnard's Star to Sol. Push like hell to reach insert speed, strapped down, counting the seconds to engine cut out, then a nice easy drift down the wormhole. We were three aboard. The manifest listed four, but at the last moment, one of the passengers canceled out.

"Mikhail Dupuis?"

"Yes?" I smiled politely at the woman walking down the gantry. Auburn hair, natural from the looks of it, wide green eyes that took everything in and gave back nothing. She was beautiful and she was rich, and the rest she left to the imagination. I took the carry-on from her hand and helped her over the airlock rim. "Watch your head. It's a little tight in here."

"Thank you." Her smile was perfectly practiced. "I'm Lyra Kane. How long until we depart?"

"About three hours." We cleared the lock and climbed into the main corridor, moving slowly in the low gravity. The Constance M isn't a large ship, even by star-runner standards. She wasn't new either. I led the woman forward toward the passenger berths. "Will your husband be here soon? I'd really like to get buttoned up before the launch window opens."

"I'm sorry." She stopped. "Didn't you get the message? He took another flight. Something unexpected came up."

"He's not coming?"

"Is that a problem?" She cocked her head, looking at me like she might an unruly child. "I spoke with your dispatcher and told them we would forfeit the holding cost."

"It's not that." I rubbed the back of my neck. I'd been awake nearly twenty hours pre-flighting, and now, with the count-down started, we had a change of plans. "I'll have to recalculate the mass loads and file a different flight-plan."

"Oh." She sounded bored. I sighed and shifted her satchel into my other hand. We started once more down the length of the ship. The corridor ended in a tee, the berths to either side, a ladder in the middle leading up to the cockpit.

"Here's your cabin." I slid the door open. The lights flickered on immediately. Cheap plastic. No carpets, no furniture beyond a simple desk and the couch nestled beneath the overhead bins. "Bathroom's behind this panel. I'd suggest you use it before we get under boost."

"I've been aboard starships before, Mr. Dupuis."

"Right." I tossed her carry-on to the padded couch and stepped back into the corridor. "In that case, I'll be in the cockpit. Do you need something for the flight?"

"Tranquilizers, you mean?" She smiled again, for the first time an actual trace of warmth slipping past the veneer. "No, thank you. Hyper-flight doesn't bother me."

"Good. I'll be back in a couple hours to check your straps before push-off." She left the door open and began unpacking. I walked to the ladder, but before I could climb to the flightdeck, someone cleared their throat behind me.

"Excuse me, Captain Dupuis?"

I turned around. "What can I do for you now, Mr. Vaslic?"

"Personally, nothing." Alexandr Vaslic was a tall man, dark hair cropped short, his neatly trimmed beard flecked with gray. He wore a blue bathrobe, tied loosely around his waist, and a pair of very expensive leather slippers. Like so many of the families settled on Barnard's Port, his heritage was of very old, very substantial, vintage. I'd seen him a few times around the station over the last few weeks, conducting business via remotes or gambling in the casinos. Rumors abounded why he was leaving the Port. I tried not to listen to them. He continued. "But, there seems to be a problem with my commo-link. The network access has apparently been severed. I have several rather important calls to make, so if you could hurry, yes?"

"Afraid you're out of luck." The dull pain in my head had spread to my neck. I wanted to lay down and get a few minutes rest, not stand around explaining regulations to annoyed passengers. "Station shuts off all but essential communication three hours prior to flight."

"These are essential."

I shrugged. "What can I tell you. They'll have to wait until we're cleared onto the departure path."

"That won't do." He frowned. "Is there some way I can open an alternate link?"

"Sasha?" Lyra Kane joined us in the corridor. Vaslic bowed, his back stiff.

"I take it you've met?" I said.

"Yes, of course." Vaslic straightened. "Always a pleasure, Ms. Kane."

She returned his bow, then handed him a small text-portal. "Please. Use my private link."

"Damn it. Isn't anyone listening to what I said?" I took the reader from her hand. "Station regs say all commo. Period."

"Please, don't quote regulations to me." Vaslic took the little device. "Most likely my family drafted them in the first place." He disappeared into his own cabin. Lyra simply shrugged.

"Sorry, but I agree with Sasha." She smiled again, an unspoken challenge. "Regulations are such a bore." She returned to her berth and slid the door closed. This was going to be a very long flight.

* * * 

Don't stare at the shadows.

You won't like what you find. Hyperspace sets its own limits inside the worm. Lines bend, curving round, rainbow arcs forever out of your grasp. One minute you're safe and sane, struggling for breath, the ship rushing headlong toward insert. The next, you're a needle-prick in space-time, running hot down the wormhole, and everything you thought you knew just flew out the window.

The voices are the worst, half-formed phrases flitting around your brain. Am I reading your thoughts, or are you reading mine? Ignore them, they go away after a while. The visions last longer, dark things waiting to slip between the bars and run wild. Fight it down, push them into the corners and pray they leave. It's always worst right after insert, when time is bent the farthest. Hard, hard pressure, then, boom... Nothing.

No gravity. No pressure. No limits to who you are. Need a name for it? Try godlike.

One vision, crystal sharp, the colors shifted toward the infrared. A naked body lying in a pool of blood, sticky and black, not red, spreading around fish-white skin. Dead eyes staring blank at nothing. In my hand a knife, well balanced, the blade long and thin and razor bright, the handle slick. Blood lay hot across my fingers. I was shaking, terrified, my heart galloping.

I had never felt so exhilarated.

* * * 

We had broken station at 14:40, drifting nice and easy away from the docks into the accelerator field. The launch went fine, a little sluggish, but acceptable. My boards stayed in the green, the engines firing without so much as a cough. The Constance M was loaded heavy on this run, bulk storage full of bio-plast and nano circuits. I'd probably lose money on this trip, but, hopefully make it up on the return leg. I kept a close eye on the passenger monitors. Both Lyra and Vaslic seemed healthy, but you never can be too careful, especially when the main jets kick in. Four gees is more pressure than most bodies were intended for, and the last thing I needed was to abort the burn because one of them thought they were having a heart attack.

At six minutes to insert I called Departure control, then, after we were cleared for go, switched over to intercom. "Hang tight, folks, we're ready for final burn. You both doing all right?"

"Yes." Vaslic's voice was muffled, engine noise pouring through the speaker.

"How about you, Ms. Kane?"

"Of course." She sounded cheerful, as if she was looking forward to the ride. Maybe she was. Lots of people claim to enjoy hyper-flight. It's the ultimate adventure, a trip down Alice's rabbit hole. "I'm feeling just fine."

My fingers curled around the edge of my couch, digging deep into the padding. It's always a temptation to keep one hand on the joystick during insert, thumb above the abort switch. Don't do it. Commit yourself, because once those thrusters ignite, it's already too late. I've heard stories about pilots who tried to dump-vee at the last moment and ripped their ships into plasma when they cut the worm's throat. Angle and velocity. Nothing else matters. Pray if you want. Squeeze a St. Christopher's medal. But leave your thumb off the switch.

Insert came and went, engines cutting out as the hole closed around the ship, the vibrations slowly damping out. Weightlessness. A moment of freefall before the ion-drive got up to speed, thrust rising gently to one-half normal. I dream-walked through it, desperate not to be sick. No depth perception, no balance, no sense of where Vaslic or Lyra ended and I began. I don't like being inside somebody else's head, and over the years had developed quite a bag of tricks to ignore the sensation. This time, however, none of them worked. By the time gravity was up and the visions fading, I was soaked in sweat, every muscle so tense I ached.

After all, I'd never killed anyone before.

* * * 

On the big starliners they set up formal messes, black-tie affairs around long tables, stewards serving wine and coffee while off-duty officers chat with passengers. Aboard the small ships, like mine, things seldom get so elegant.

"Something wrong with your food, Mr. Vaslic?" I took another bite of my own entree. The label was marked 'enchilada.' I had my doubts. "I can get you something else, but I doubt it'll make much difference."

"No. I think the food is fine." Vaslic pushed his tray aside. "I'm afraid, however, my stomach thinks otherwise."

Lyra, for her part, seemed to be having no problem with motion-sickness. She smiled, chewing each bite methodically, wiping the corner of her mouth every few moments with a napkin. She had changed into a pair of soft, loose fitting pants and a deep blue tunic that on most women would have looked ridiculous. On her, somehow, it seemed perfect. She glanced at me and smiled. "Will we be on twelve hour days, Mr. Dupuis, or ten?"

"Hmmm?" I pushed my own tray aside. "Uh, ten hours, I suppose." To be honest, I seldom break shifts into night and day. Some people find it helpful, simulating artificial night, but I don't, especially on short runs. Just something else to worry about. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason." She took another bite, swallowed and dabbed. "But, I want to make sure I don't oversleep." She lay her fork on the edge of her plate. "I would hate to miss breakfast."

I let the sarcasm pass. "If you'll excuse me, I have a cockpit to attend to." I stood up, dumped my tray down the recycler, then poured myself a bulb of strong, black coffee. "Breakfast, by the way, is at 07:00." I paused by the bulkhead. "If that's convenient?"

"Of course." Lyra also stood. "I think I'll grab a few hours sleep."

"Sleep." Vaslic snorted. "How anyone can sleep inside a wormhole is beyond me."

"Have you tried aroma-tabs?" Lyra reached for the carry bag strapped to her belt. "I find camomile and jasmine very relaxing."

Vaslic's frown deepened. "It's not falling asleep that concerns me." He left the mess, his uneaten meal abandoned on the table. I picked it up and dumped it. Lyra was laughing softly.

"I suppose you find this wildly amusing?" I said.

"I suppose I do." She stepped out of the mess. "Goodnight, Mr. Dupuis. Pleasant dreams."

Pleasant dreams indeed.

The air had cooled since engine shut down, cool enough that I stopped at my locker and threw on my jacket. I like to keep the temperature down. Easier to stay alert. Easier to stay awake. I agreed, for a change, with Vaslic. I don't like sleeping during hyper-flight. Especially this time. I'd watched both of them at supper, looking for some tell-tale gesture that might give a murderer away. A tic or nervous tremor. One misplaced phrase. As the night wore on, though, I was beginning to think I'd been wrong. It happens. Sometimes you pick up real memories. Sometimes it's nothing more than a book somebody's read, or a surround-about they'd been playing before launch. A little imagination and a simple daydream takes on a life of its own.

Still, I had never felt any memory so completely, utterly vivid as I did now.

My coffee went cold long before I finished it. I didn't care. I set it on top of the console and watched the pretty lights dance on the panel. I felt sluggish, tired to the bone. I pulled my jacket a little tighter and reclined my couch. The ship was singing to me, a lullaby of computer fans and the drone of the ion-drive rumbling through the deck. My eyes wouldn't stay open...

A long hallway opened up in front of me. Red light, an evening-shift glow. The air tasted like moss, scrubbed crisp and clean, fresh from hydroponics. Plush carpet sank beneath my feet, muffling my footsteps. Another corridor branched to the left, sparse and utilitarian. Fire lines and lockers, a few scattered crates. The distant hum of machinery and water, the thrum of the station's powerplant. A tall, reed-straight figure waited ahead, smiling, his eyes dark and brooding. Vaslic. He took my hand, the pressure firm, and raised it to his mouth. His lips were soft, his breath warm. I felt my body responding, a spreading flush...

I bolted awake, drenched in sweat, shivering on the flight couch. The dream refused to fade, looping over and over in my memories until I thought I would go insane.

Maybe, I laughed sourly, I already had.

* * * 

Twenty-three hours lay between us and a return to space normal. It couldn't come fast enough to suit me. An alarm pinged. A pressure fitting on one of the back-up O2 pumps had failed. To be honest, I was glad for the distraction. I grabbed my tools and headed aft, down to the service tunnels threading around the fuel tanks. An overpowering odor of machine oil and ozone leaked past the hatch as I switched on a flashlight and wormed into the crawlspace.

Frost had built up around the leak, a patch of fuzzy white crystals hiding the line. The escaping gas was cold, cold enough to burn unprotected flesh. Within minutes my fingers were stiff and clumsy. I managed to get a wrench around the fitting and strained to loosen it. The brass fitting snapped loosed, and before I could catch myself, my knuckles ground against the pump housing. Blood stained the frost cherry red.


"Are you all right?"

Lyra's voice startled me. "Yeah, I'm fine," I lied, trying to talk and suck on my bleeding knuckles at the same time. I retrieved the wrench and finished pulling the fitting, then slithered feet first out of the access tunnel, dragging the pressure line with me. She was waiting in the corridor, arms crossed, leaning against the wall.

"My, but that looks enjoyable." She moved closer, saw my hand and reached for it.

"It's okay." I pulled my hand back. "Just a scrape."

"Let me have a look, all right?" Without further argument, she pulled my hand into hers, spreading my fingers apart, probing the welts. "Nothing serious, but it needs cleaning out. Come on, I've got some antiseptic gel in my bag."

"I'm fine, really." Her hands were stronger than they looked. I didn't want my fingers in hers, sure as hell didn't want to feel that happy warm glow spreading like brandy inside me. It had been a long time since I'd held hands with a woman, and I felt as clumsy as a school boy. "I'll wash it off when it quits bleeding."

"No," she said, smiling but firm, "you will come back to my cabin with me and I will take care of that knuckle right now. Unless you want to see what a real infection feels like. God only knows what kind of microbes are lurking in those tanks."

I gave up and followed her. She kept talking as she seated me on her couch, a tissue wrapped around the cut, while she rummaged through her bag. "I know that stuff is in here." She pulled a spray-jet out of a plastic case, snapped a silver pressure can into the nozzle, then sprayed a little patch on her wrist to test. She looked at me, eyebrows raised. "What? Did you expect me to faint at the sight of blood?"

I had to laugh. "Now that you mention it."

She smiled. Lyra Kane was, when she wanted to be, genuinely charming. "I will have you know, mister Star-Pilot, I worked my way up the hard way. Eight years scrub nurse at Barnard Med-Center. Hold still, this is going to sting." A pungent, icy cloud hissed across my fingers. I snatched my hand away.

"Damn! You weren't kidding."

"Oh, behave. I thought you worm-pushers were supposed to be rough and ready." She smoothed the aerosol bandage down, then covered it with gauze. "Good as new."

"Thanks." I looked at the bandage, the gauze tight but not restricting, the sort of work you don't see outside of hospitals. "Have to admit, it looks nicer than how I would have done it."

She rolled her eyes. "I can only imagine."

"Well, thanks again." I stood up. "I better fix that line." I started out of her cabin.

"Mr. Dupuis?"

I stopped. Something in her tone sent a shiver down my spine. I turned around. "What?"

"About that dream?"

My guts went cold. "What dream is that?"

"You know the one." She sighed, a sad, wistful sound. "In case you're wondering, the answer is yes. Sasha Vaslic and I were once..." She paused, searching for the word. "Involved. It was a long time ago."

"None of my business."

Her smile returned. "Yes it is. I told you, I'm no stranger to hyper-flight. I know what happens. Suddenly, everything is everybody's business." She started putting her med-kit away. "Just wanted you to know."

"Thanks. I appreciate that." I got the hell out of there, more confused than I'd been in ages, and headed aft. Something about her little confession stank, nothing overt, just a subtle wrongness to it. But, at least my knuckles felt better.

* * * 

A body needs sleep. Stall if you want, refuse to go quietly, but sooner or later, sleep you will. Sleep, perchance... The knife again, my hand wrapped around the hilt. Strong fingers caress the handle, my thumb tracing little circles against the polished wood, stroking it like a lover's face. Warm air, steamy with a trace of soap, drifts through a half-opened door. A mirror lines the wall, fog covered, fat drops of water collecting on the silvered glass. I catch a glimpse of myself, too vague for details, a wraith, a phantom floating in the blind-spots. The blade's edge catches the light as a man steps out of the shower stall. At first, he smiles. Then he sees the knife.

"What the hell are you doing?"

They are the last words he will ever say.

* * * 

A thick, sour film coated my teeth, clinging moss-like to the roof of my mouth. I shouldn't have slept and I knew it. We were too close to the threshold now, too easy for the mind to stray. It was cold in my cabin, and despite the sleep-sack pulled up to my chin, I was shivering. I switched on the lights and got dressed. We were still three hours to break-out, and I had work to do.

Lyra's door was closed. I could hear her inside, snoring gently. Across the hall, Vaslic's door was slid back, the lights off, a muted recording of Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' feeding out of his headphones. He was watching me, sitting in the dark on the edge of his bunk, his face shadowed. I felt his eyes on my back as I climbed the ladder, felt him staring at me, watching me like a snake watches its next meal.

The flight couch settled under my weight, conforming around me as I strapped in. I squirmed a little, trying to get comfortable, and put my hand on the scanner. "Dupuis, M., pilot-in-command."

The computer logged me on, status reports flashing across the screens. The ship was running hot, straight and true toward the end of the line. I took a sip of coffee from the bulb I'd left on the console, hoping to wash the stale taste away, and started pressurizing the engines, losing myself in the checklists. I had almost convinced myself the dreams were nothing more than my overactive imagination, some forgotten video I had seen ages ago.

Something creaked behind me.

"Captain Dupuis?"

I twisted around, pulse jumping. Vaslic hung on the ladder, waiting to climb further into the cockpit.

"This is a restricted area." I tried to sound calm. Slowly, I popped the harness buckles open and sat up. "What do you want?"

"I think you know." He climbed onto the flight-deck and stood beside the ladder, craning forward, too tall for the low ceiling. In his left hand, something gleamed. He stepped closer.

"I told you, the cockpit is off-limits."

"Let us not play games." His arm came up. Very carefully, he placed a holo-stick in my hand. "Please, key this up. I think you will recognize the portrait."

I fumbled with the recording, hands shaking as I pushed it into the reader. The computer hummed, an all too familiar image resolving above the display plate. A heavy-set man, fifty-ish, his hair swept back and carefully grayed. The portrait rotated slowly, turning around an invisible point a hands-breadth above the flight controls. It was the dead man from the dream.

"Who..." My throat closed up, my mouth too dry to speak. Vaslic pulled the holo-stick from the reader. The face vanished instantly.

"That," he said, "Is Ambrose Kane. Lyra's husband." His eyes bored into me, a dull rage simmering behind his carefully neutral expression. "What I want to know is, why are you seeing him lying dead with his throat slashed?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Stop it!" He grabbed me by the collar, then, as quickly, turned loose. He stepped back, face lowered. "Forgive me." He was shaking, his fists bunched at his side. "But, this is extremely important. How do you know Ambrose Kane?"

"I don't." I held my hands up, palms out. "I swear. I've never seen him in my life."

"But, you have seen him in dreams? Yes?"

I nodded.

"And, always, he is murdered?"

"Yes," I said.

Vaslic edged further away and turned around, his back to me. "Mr. Dupuis, is this 'dream' real, or imagined?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

He turned back around. "Fine. The last time I saw Ambrose Kane, he was very much alive. Now, perhaps, he is not. And you, Mr. Dupuis, would appear to be his murderer."

"Me?" I jumped back, stumbling against the couch. "These are hyper-dreams, not mine. If anyone killed this who-ever-the-hell he is, it wasn't me." I straightened, readying for the fight. "What is it you aren't saying, Vaslic?"

"Ahh. Now you accuse me? You are a more credible liar than I gave you credit." He smiled, cold and mirthless. "You of course know Kane and I have a history?"

"Lyra already told me that you and she had been lovers."

"Did she?" The smile faded. "How odd, considering it was her husband I was sleeping with."

* * * 

The count-down continued, the Constance M's engines warming for breaking maneuvers, oblivious to the three of us inside her scarred hull. Either we broke out of the wormhole, or we kept riding it forever. The ship didn't care.

Nothing felt right, not the dreams, not the encounter with Vaslic. He had left the cockpit still convinced, I was sure, that I had murdered his lover. Dark threats floated under his words, buried beneath the civilized veneer. I keep a stun-prod beneath my couch, carefully locked away. I toyed with the idea of dragging it out, then as quickly discarded the thought. If Vaslic intended me harm he wouldn't do it aboard my own ship. Something told me he preferred a more subtle approach.

But, nothing he had said answered my questions. If Vaslic wasn't the murderer, who was? I was reasonably certain I had never met Ambrose Kane, let alone killed him.

That left only Lyra.

The corridor was dim, colors red-shifting as the ship lost velocity. The deck shuddered under the new forces, the ion stream aligned in front of us now, slowing us for the main burn. Already the hole was constricting, squeezing space/time down to a single blinding point, waiting to spit us out above the orbital plane of Sol. I paused at the corridor's end, took a deep breath, and wrapped against Vaslic's door.

"Break out in two hours, forty-five minutes, okay?"

No answer. I hadn't expected any. I walked across the hall and slid Lyra's door back a few inches. She glanced up, her eyes swollen and red. She tried to smile. I wanted to blame her, wanted to hate her for lying to me. But, I couldn't.

"We'll break into space-normal at oh-fifteen twenty," I said. "Make sure you strap in before ignition."

"I will." She sniffed back the tears. "I'm sorry. I usually don't cry like this."

I shouldn't have stepped inside that cabin.

"Look, I don't know what the hell is going on, and I don't care." I closed the door behind me. "But, I don't like being lied to."

"I've never lied to you."

"Really? What about your affair with Vaslic? He denies it. He says your husband is his lover."

"Was, his lover, Captain Dupuis. Not is." She stared at me, unblinking. "You want to find a liar? Look across the hall. Yes, my husband had a fling with the smug bastard. So did I. Does that shock you?"

"Nothing shocks me anymore." I turned to leave. She stood up, put her hand on my arm. I brushed it away. "I have things to do."

"I didn't kill him." She said it quietly, without emotion. "I know what you're thinking, but I'm not a killer. I've done things I may not be proud of, but murder is not among them." Her lips trembled. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"Does it matter if I do?"

"It does to me." Somehow, her fingers found their way into mine. Somehow, her lips brushed against my own. She pressed closer, her body warm and pliant, filling the hollow spaces until nothing lay between us but her thin, silk tunic. I didn't want to make love to her.

But I did.

* * * 

Alarms blared above the engine roar. I bolted awake, foggy and confused, a crushing pressure dragging me back into the darkness. Everything was wrong, the viewpoint twisted, color draining away as the gee-forces mounted, shoving me sideways into the couch. Fighting for breath, I struggled to my feet, desperate to stay upright. Lyra was screaming, her voice lost in the noise.

"What's happening?" she shouted.

"The engines are misfiring!" Something ripped, a grinding, tearing sound, a dragon's bellow. The hull lost integrity. I tumbled backwards as the lights went out, a driving wind pouring out the breech, the temperature falling off so fast the air in my lungs froze. I tried to scream, but nothing came out.

"What's wrong?"

Lyra sat above me, leaning on her elbow, stroking my shoulder with her free hand. Her hair was disheveled, the sheets tangled around our legs. She helped me sit up. "What's wrong?"

"I..." I was drenched in sweat, every muscle tight. "I've got to get to the cockpit."

Lyra said nothing, just lay on the couch while I fumbled for my clothes. Her eyes were wide and frightened. If she had shared the dream, she gave no clue of it. She wrapped the sheet around her naked body, watching as I pulled my boots on. I slid the door open. "Strap in, okay? Tight."

She nodded. I closed the door behind me and dashed for the ladder. The air was cold enough to see my breath as I pulled myself up the rungs. Vaslic was waiting in the cockpit for me.

"What the hell are you doing up here?"

"Looking for you." He scowled and pointed at the panel. Half a dozen red bars flashed on the screen. "Don't you feel it? The vibration?"

He was right. The ship was buzzing, the hull picking up a vibration from somewhere deep in her belly. One glance at the monitors told me why. We were venting fuel out the forward nozzles, the unfired gas freezing to the hull, changing our center of gravity, pulling us against the fabric of the wormhole. I threw myself onto the pilot's couch.

"Strap in!" I shouted. Vaslic spun toward the ladder. "No. Use the other couch. You'll never make it to your cabin." I shrugged into my harness and clicked the locks shut. He slid onto the other couch and managed to snug the straps down across his chest.

"What are you going to do?"

"Fire the engines. We've got to clear that ice or we'll be torn apart." I held my breath as the computers overrode the failsafes. "Hang on. This is going to be rough."

The thrust built in stages, coughing bursts as the engines came on line, cold metal pushed to its limit. Without warning the frozen fuel broke loose, huge chunks of ice pounding the outer hull as they tore away. The ship slewed, the uneven forces twisting her flightpath. I fought the joystick, desperate to keep us from spinning uncontrolled. Thirty seconds passed into eternity, the Constance M surrendering velocity, every heartbeat a second closer to our breaking back into space-normal. One moment we were cocooned inside the wormhole, the next we were clear. The exterior viewscreen flashed alive, millions of stars burning, steady points against the pure darkness, broken by streaks of frozen fuel still tearing loose from the forward cones. A tiny blue-white crescent lay off our nose, a jewel backlit by Sol's glare.

"Is that Earth?" Vaslic asked, trying to catch his breath.

I nodded. "Yeah. That's Earth."

"We made it?"

"Looks like it." I started to breath easier. "We're a long ways from where we should have broken out, but I think we're okay." I pulled the power back and started setting up for free-fall. "You better get below. We'll have a lot of correction burns to make. Do me a favor? Check on Lyra?"

For a moment I thought he might refuse. Instead, he unbuckled and headed for the ladder. "Fine," he said, then disappeared. I turned back to my flight data, damned glad to be alive.

* * * 

It took four days before we rendezvoused with the company tender sent to retrieve us. The Constance M was hurt. Hurt bad. Engineers poured over the analysis, shaking their heads and whistling, wondering how the hell we made it out in one piece. All I could do was shrug and tell them we'd been lucky. We transferred to the tender via a portable umbilical, free-falling between ships, and for the first time I had a chance to see the damage to the hull. A long, dark gash ran from the forward cones aft, entire sections of hull ripped away when the ice broke loose. We had been seconds from dying and didn't even know it. If it hadn't been for the dream, none of us would have survived. Somehow, the past and the future had rubbed edges, and I was lucky enough to catch it.

And that bothered me.

Lyra said nothing about what had passed between us. She was, once again, cold and aloof, keeping her distance. Ambrose Kane met us at Terra-North's airlock, very much alive. He hugged his wife, clapped Vaslic on the shoulder, even took time to shake my hand and thank me for saving their lives before he and Lyra vanished into the crowd. She looked over her shoulder at me, shrugged, then walked away without another word. She'd used me. So had Vaslic. Everything I understood was suddenly out the window, clouded, the past and the future tangled into knots until nothing remained but now. I had touched the future, and it saved our lives. And it was going to cost Ambrose Kane his.

I watched them until they were lost in the tumult of the station, wondering all the while which one of them, Lyra or Vaslic, was going to hold the knife, and which one was going to be the bait. It didn't matter. One way or another, a man was going to die. I knew it, and she knew it, and not a God damned thing I might do was going to change it.

Dirty little secrets. We all have them. Some are dirtier than others, but they all add up to the same thing. Some secrets you keep, some you spread.

The hard part is knowing which are which.




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