((co-authored with Silver Night))
The numbers stream past her fingers in a river of light and sound, whispering their secrets to her, dancing at her command. Arranged and rearranged the symbols resting on her left hand equal the ones circling her right. They separate and recombine and make new patterns in the darkness behind her eyes, spin into all the shapes of space. There, Nolikka Toin tells them, and there, and there.
They obey her, beautiful in their asymmetrical perfection, obey her as she must obey –
The treacherous thought slips in and the numbers wobble. Nolikka fights to bring them back into line but she’s lost the balance of it and they spin sideways and away, slipping out of her control like everything else is out of her control, racing towards the vanishing point …
She hits the keys to save what she’s done and takes a deep breath. Don’t think. That’s the key, mad as it is for someone whose very life depends on her ability to think better and faster than others. Don’t think about where you are, about what you’re doing. Just the numbers. There’s nothing but the numbers, after all, in the end.
As she’s about to try again, a voice stops her. “Dr. Toin! Over here.”
Nolikka doesn’t have a name for that voice, doesn’t have a name for most of the Gallente accents in this place she’s in for those hours of the day she can’t find a way back to the numbers. She knows it, though, male, middle-aged, belonging to a man who smells of hair-gel and cheese and too much cologne. The voice is in charge and she can’t afford to hesitate, turns and walks across the laboratory towards it, sidestepping work-tables and colleagues who are, as always, in exactly the same place as they are every day.
“This gentleman,” Too Much Cologne says, “has some questions for you, Dr. Toin.”
People there, she can tell, not just one, not just this gentleman. Their breathing and the small sounds of movement make a slow surf of dark waves behind her eyes, in front and to the right of her. Then a voice, a new voice, male, tall. Expensive, Nolikka thinks, not knowing why, hearing it as a taupe ribbon shot through with silk, slipping tautly though her fingers, the standardized accent of a newsreader that was standard to no-one at all with only the occasional depth of the vowels betraying …
She loses the thread of his words, scrambles after it, makes sense of his question and finds that his question makes sense. Answers it without thinking, and finds him with her at the end of her explanation with another question pointed directly at the gap in her hypothesis.
For a few moments she forgets even Ishukone in the sheer exhilaration of another mind, a mind whose thoughts she isn’t intimately familiar with after two years of close confinement, a mind that follows hers and understands.
Words are inadequate. “It's easier to show you,” she says. Let me show you what I see. Please. “ I have the simulations – ”
“Of course,” Expensive says.
She hurries back to her workstation, hearing him follow her, other footsteps, she didn’t care who, it didn’t matter. Keystrokes bring up her simulation, the electro-magnetic charge of the projection pricking against her skin. “This is the current mass-manufactured version.”
“I’m very familiar with it,” Expensive tells her. She believes him.
Nolikka reaches up to run her fingers over the field, every number in every line of it as familiar to her as Haraila’s face had been. “You can feel the resilience, but ultimately it’s a go-no-go solution. Go ahead. Go ahead and touch it.”
She feels the shift and give in the projection as he does, and smiles. “Wait a moment now.” The numbers answer her, change their faces and join hands in a new dance of new equals. The tingle of the charge against her skin changes colour and she feels her equations move them both back a little, firmly but politely. There’s no excuse for bad manners, Noli, Hara had always said and she has taught the numbers that, for Hara, to remember.
“Interesting,” Expensive says, and Nolikka hears the hint of Ishukone again and falls hard out of the equations and back into her hungry, collared self.
Stupid, stupid, she chides herself. You planned and waited and prepared and almost lost your chance because someone asked you about your work. Head-in-the-clouds is right.
He has more questions for her. She has answers, some, not all, because his questions are good ones and she knows they’ll make her work for the missing answers tomorrow and the next day until they were there and clear and vivid in her mind.
Not now, though. Not now.
Nolikka clears her throat, makes her voice as casual as she can, and asks, “Is that an Ishukone accent I hear?”
Pain, every nerve in her body firing distress signals at once, crackling red light behind her eyes. Beyond comprehension, beyond bearing except she has no choice but to bear it, crushing even her thought of no, no, no into a white-hot black hole of agony.
Then gone. The edge of the workbench is hard beneath her hands. Sparks crackle and blaze in her head, neurons still firing at random, and she sucks a breath, another, tries to remember who and where she was and then does and tries to forget again.
A rich dark taupe ribbon unfurls in her head, the threads of silk gone to a burnished samite, and says “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken. It’s Korama.”
Which makes no sense. Because what is there in Korama but Ishukone?
I’m sorry, you’re mistaken, that’s right.
Yes. But I don’t want the others here to know.
Hope, then. A small sharp bubble of light in her mind. Not a coincidence, that Expensive is here, with his clever questions and the trace of home in his voice.
He has more questions. Nolikka forces herself to focus against the residual flicks and jerks of the collar, testing him with her answers now, pushing past the concepts into the strings of numbers beyond them. Expensive follows her, and she takes another deep breath and another chance.
“These are the equations I mean,” she says, and touches the keys that will bring up a screen of data she can’t see. Can’t see, but knows, nonetheless, because it’s her numbers there, a string of familiar formula and, seeded in among them, carefully segregated from the strings to prevent automated checking from noticing, numbers and letters that didn’t belong.
Not in shield tech, anyway.
On a docking registry, though, there they’d belong, telling any reader that the Otanuomi Blue was in port.
“I understand,” Expensive says. “This is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.”
Nolikka touches the keys she knows will blank the screen, hope acquiring sharp edges that make it painful to look at. “This is cutting edge work, Mr ... ?”
“Captain,” Expensive says. “Captain Night.” Which is not the right name for that voice, which is not the soft grey of a sleeping station or the cold sable of a sky empty of sun, but perhaps, Nolikka thinks, it’s just exactly as true as Korama is.
“Captain Night. These simulations represent years of research,” Nolikka says. “Years.”
“I know,” Captain Night says. “Of course, the proof will be in the final tests.”
Proof. “I'm not sure how much more proof I can provide you at this stage, in a laboratory, Captain.” I could run for the door and make them cut me down in front of him, that’d be proof. Is that what he needs me to do?
It surprises her, realising how much she doesn’t want to die. But if it would get the others out … She is Ishukone, and so are fully half of them. And she had been Lead Project Scientist, and that should still mean something to her. Is that what you need me to do?
“Of course,” Captain Night says. “We will need plans to go to full scale testing. That's why we're here. To see if we can't get the tech working out in the wild in the near future, as it were.” Wait, that was, Nolikka is almost certain, parsing plans and near future.
Captain Night excuses himself, says something about hammering out details, and she hears his footsteps receding.
Nolikka waits, straining to hear the voices at the other end of the room, too far away for anything but a low blur of conversation, until –
And gone again, almost immediately, leaving her shaking and gasping and then an instant later pain and then not and then again, and again. Her thoughts scatter and fracture, I did something … they know … what was it …, muscles spasming as nerves fired at random. Her name, Too Much Cologne is calling her name, and she has to go, not to go will mean more punishment, that Nolikka knows even as jagged flares behind her eyes break apart every other chain of thought she tries to put together until there’s red and red and redredred and nothing else in all the world.
“Temporary side effects,” Too Much Cologne is saying as she gets closer. “With no effect on productivity, of course.”
“So I would hope,” Captain Night says, and the silk behind the ribbon of his voice has gone completely.
“Dr Toin, you'll be going with Captain Night,” Too Much Cologne says, “to examine the setup of his manufacturing facilities and make sure there's no impediment to our moving forward with production.”
There is one right answer to that, one answer that won’t get the collar triggered. “Yessir,” Nolikka says.
“His staff will ensure your focus on the task at hand as we do here.” Too Much Cologne’s voice leaks fake bonhomie over Nolikka like a broken sewer and for a moment she thinks fear and nausea combined will have her vomiting on his shoes. “Can't have you scientists day-dreaming the day away, can we?”
“ We also want to ensure that to the degree it is practical,” Captain Night says, “that the production version of the technology is compatible as possible with our setup, so you'll need to make sure and take note of our processes.”
One right answer to that, too. And the answers have to be right. Her muscles are still jumping and twitching and nerves scream with memory. “Of course, Captain.”
“I don't want Captain Night to have any complaints about you, Dr Toin,” Too Much Cologne says. “I’d take a dim view of that.”
"Some of these research types just require a firm hand, I've found.” Nolikka wonders if she imagined it before, the trace of home she heard before, the depth she had been so certain lay behind Captain Night’s smooth announcer’s tones. It’s not there now. “I'm sure she'll do splendidly."
They talk about money. After a few moments Nolikka understands that she’s being bought, that Captain Night is haggling over the price he’ll pay for her, with nobody being so coarse as to say so out loud. Perhaps this is the plan, she thinks.
He’s either lying now, or he was lying to her before, and Nolikka doesn’t know him well enough to tell whether this is his real voice or the other was.
Doesn’t know him at all.
Except he understands her equations.
And she has no choice.
She goes where she is told, until they reach the door that none of them are able to pass and her feet stop without her willing them too. A hard shove in the small of her back sends her forward, off balance, bracing herself again pain that doesn’t come. Her shoulder hits the wall and she is suddenly in a space she doesn’t know, when every step for the past two years has been familiar to the point of monotony. She can’t move with the knowledge of it, can’t breathe. A hand takes her arm and tugs her along and she stumbles forward.
“No trouble out in the station, Doctor,” Captain Night tells her. “Mr Erquilenne is a talented amateur. We are not.”
There is one right answer to that as well. “Yes, Captain.”
Outside, then, strange voices around her, spaces wider and then narrower and then wider again. Smells, noises, the colours behind her eyes are a senseless cacophony but the hand on her arm keeps her moving. Then a quieter place, metal echoing beneath their feet, a cold oily smell that she remembers. It equals hangar. They are moving up an incline that vibrates beneath their combined footsteps. Boarding ramp.
A smaller space. A hiss and click behind her and a change in air pressure.
“Excuse me,” Captain Night says hurriedly, and all the burnished low notes are back in his voice. Fabric rustles, footsteps, a door closing, and Nolikka realises he is gone.
A Gallente voice says neutrally, “Are we secure?”
Nolikka turns her head, trying to tell who she’s there with, how many. Another voice, a woman’s, Ishukone clear in more than the vowels, saying “If we aren't, we're fucked.”
Someone addressed as Colonel is ordered to run a scan.
Nolikka is alone on a ship with an unknown number of strangers and one of them probably has the trigger to her collar and she sees whitewhitewhitewhite as voices talk past her.
No. To her, now. Names that she can’t match to any of the bodies around her, acronyms that mean nothing, something about –
She gives them her name and her rank and her ID number.
It didn’t work last time.
Gives it again, or thinks she does, in the middle of whitewhitewhitewhite, and a door opens and closes and Captain Night says “That isn't necessary, Doctor.”
There’s no reason for her to feel safer, no reason at all, when he’s just bought her like a trained furrier, but he understands her equations and on a certain level that’s everything she needs to know. Whitewhitewhitewhite recedes and she can hear that there’s just four other people near her, none of them too close.
“I want to apologize for activating your collar earlier, too,” Captain Night says, a faint hint of shrip carried to her on his words. No mistaking the Ishukone now, for all the polished non-accent that lies over it. “This is my ship, and you certainly are not a prisoner. We could use your help freeing the others, though.”
“Captain Night, sir,” Nolikka says, because That’s all right is untrue and Thank you is nowhere near enough and neither of them equal the numbers balancing themselves behind her eyes. “Korama, sir?”
“Dr Toin,” Captain Night says with formal courtesy, almost as if it is not his ship but her laboratory. “How would they know? Commander Invelen and I are both Ishukone. Whatever else we might have become since then, always that.”
There’s a name, then, for the woman with the smoker’s rasp. I knew they’d send someone, Nolikka thinks, and realises she’s spoken aloud when they try and tell her that no, they’re not sent by Ishukone.
That the corporation had no intention of coming for her, that’s too much, that’s whitewhitewhitewhite again and voices washing over her in long rolling waves with an undertow to suck her down to darkness. She surfaces enough to ask to send word to her sister and Captain Night tells her that it might be best to wait until they have all the others in hand as well. Which means no, and the waves take her down again.
A question brings her back up to where she can breathe and think and hear. The dynamics of the fluctuations in the lower spectrum under sustained laser exposure, and the numbers dance for her. She follows them to the answer and Captain Night asks another, the strands of his voice no longer drawn tight against her grip but resting gently on the palms of her hands. Another answer, another question, leading her through the well-known steps of long-familiar formulae to the quiet certainty at their heart.
“The flaws in the design that you put there,” Captain Night says to her then “They were subtle, but it was still a dangerous thing to do.”
There had been a time when Nolikka had not even understood that who and what she was might not be equal, when violating the implacable accuracy of her equations and endangering the lives that might one day depend on them was outside all comprehension.
She is suddenly, deeply ashamed. “Yes, sir. I thought about the crews of the ships, sir, I did.”
He corrects her. “Dangerous for you, Doctor. A brave thing.”
Strong hands, disorientingly cold and unyielding, help her to a chair. There is food, so rich she spins back and forth between hunger and nausea. There is a new voice, one Commander Invelen says belongs to a medical officer. Hands touch her, impersonally gentle, and then are gone. Captain Night is talking to the Gallente about our course going forward. Between one mouthful of food and the next she is suddenly so tired that the words fuzz apart into meaningless spirals and Nolikka lays her head down on the table and watches them without comprehension.
Time skips and jumps. Captain Night is talking to her, and she is answering, with no idea of what either of them are saying. She is standing, walking, a cool metal hand guiding her, smelling tobacco and machine oil.
She is lying down. A blanket settles over her. A door closes, and then it is quiet, quiet enough for her to hear her own heart beating, its slow and steady pace accommodating the susurration of her breath.
She counts and divides and multiplies and watches the long and simple string of symbols that describe the rhythm in her chest spin out in a slow and gracious orbit, until everything inside her equals their steady tempo and they draw her with them into the gentle velvet dark.