You sound disappointed perched at the back of Avasarala’s tongue, but the dread and anticipation of what would come next stopped it. The Arboghast, with 572 souls aboard her, came apart like a cloud. Hull plates peeled away in neat, orderly rows. Super-structural girders and decks shifted apart. The engineering bays detached, slipping away. In the image before her, the full crew had been exposed to hard vacuum. In the moment she was looking at now, they were all dying and not yet dead. That it was like watching a construction plan animation—crew quarters here, the engineering section here, the plates cupping the drive thus and so—only made it more monstrous.
“Now this is especially interesting,” Michael-Jon said, stopping the playback. “Watch what happens when we increase magnification.”
Don’t show them to me, Avasarala wanted to say. I don’t want to watch them die.
But the image he moved in on wasn’t a human being, but a knot of complicated ducting. He advanced it slowly, frame by frame, and the image grew misty.
“It’s ablating?” she asked.
“What? No, no. Here, I’ll bring you closer.”
The image jumped in again. The cloudiness was an illusion created by a host of small bits of metal: bolts, nuts, Edison clamps, O-rings. She squinted. It wasn’t a loose cloud either. Like iron filings under the influence of a magnet, each tiny piece was held in line with the ones before and behind it.
“The Arboghast wasn’t torn apart,” he said. “It was disassembled. It looks as though there were about fifteen separate waves, each one undoing another level of the mechanism. Stripped the whole thing down to the screws.”
Avasarala took a deep breath, then another, then another, until the sound lost its ragged edge and the awe and fear grew small enough that she could push it to the back of her mind.
“What does this?” she said at last. She’d meant it as a rhetorical question. Of course there was no answer. No force known to humanity could do what had just been done. That wasn’t the meaning he took.
“Graduate students,” he said brightly. “My Industrial Design final was just the same. They gave us all machines and we had to take them apart and figure out what they did. Extra credit was to deliver an improved design.” And a moment later, his voice melancholy: “Of course we also had to put them back together, yes?”
On the display, the rigidity and order of the floating bits of metal stopped, and the bolts and girders, vast ceramic plates and minute clamps began to drift, set in chaotic motion by the departure of whatever had been holding them. Seventy seconds from first burst to the end. A little over a minute, and not a shot fired in response. Not even something clearly to be shot.
“Took their suits apart. Didn’t bother disassembling the bodies. Might have interpreted them as a logical unit or might already know all it needs to about human anatomy.”
“Who’s seen this?”
Michael-Jon blinked, then shrugged, then blinked again.
“This this, or a version of this? We’re the only one with both high-def feeds, but it’s Venus. Everyone who was looking saw it. Not like it’s in a sealed lab.”
She closed her eyes, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose as if she were fighting a headache while she struggled to keep the mask in place. Better to seem in pain. Better to seem impatient. The fear shook her like a seizure, like something happening to somebody else. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she bit her lip until they went away. She pulled up the personnel locator on her hand terminal. Nguyen was out of the question even if he’d been in conversational range. Nettleford was with a dozen ships burning toward Ceres Station, and she wasn’t entirely certain of him. Souther.
“Can you send this version to Admiral Souther?”
“Oh, no. It’s not cleared for release.”
Avasarala looked at him, her expression empty.
“Are you clearing it for release?”
“I am clearing it for release to Admiral Souther. Please send it immediately.”
Michael-Jon bobbed a quick nod, tapping with the tips of both pinkies. Avasarala took out her own hand terminal and sent a simple message to Souther. WATCH AND CALL ME. When she stood, her legs ached.
“It was good seeing you again,” Michael-Jon said, not looking at her. “We should all have dinner sometime.”
“Let’s,” Avasarala said, and left.
The women’s restroom was cold. Avasarala stood at the sink, her palms flat against the granite. She wasn’t used to fear or awe. Her life had been about control, talking and bullying and teasing whoever needed it until the world turned the direction she wanted it to. The few times the implacable universe had overwhelmed her haunted her: an earthquake in Bengal when she’d been a girl, a storm in Egypt that had trapped her and Arjun in their hotel room for four days as the food supplies failed, the death of her son. Each one had turned her constant pretense of certainty and pride against her, left her curled in her bed at night for weeks afterward, her fingers bent in claws, her dreams nightmares.
This was worse. Before, she could comfort herself with the idea that the universe was empty of intent. That all the terrible things were just the accidental convergences of chance and mindless forces. The death of the Arboghast was something else. It was intentional and inhuman. It was like seeing the face of God and finding no compassion there.
Shaking, she pulled up her hand terminal. Arjun answered almost immediately. From the set of his jaw and the softness of his eyes, she knew he had seen some version of the event. And his thought hadn’t been for the fate of mankind, but for her. She tried to smile, but it was too much. Tears ran down her cheeks. Arjun sighed gently and looked down.
“I love you very much,” Avasarala said. “Knowing you has let me bear the unbearable.”
Arjun grinned. He looked good with wrinkles. He was a more handsome man now that he was older. As if the round-faced, comically earnest boy who’d snuck to her window to read poems in the night had only been waiting to become this.
“I love you, I have always loved you, if we are born into new lives, I will love you there.”
Avasarala sobbed once, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and nodded.
“All right, then,” she said.
“Back to work?”
“Back to work. I may be home late.”
“I’ll be here. You can wake me.”
They were silent for a moment; then she released the connection. Admiral Souther hadn’t called. Errinwright hadn’t called. Avasarala’s mind was leaping around like a terrier attacking a troop transport. She rose to her feet, forced herself to put one foot in front of the other. The simple physical act of walking seemed to clear her head. Little electric carts stood ready to whisk her back to her office, but she ignored them, and by the time she reached it, she was almost calm again.