The garden is colder than the rest of the ship.
Out there, temperature, humidity, airflow, are carefully calibrated for human comfort, health and efficiency.
In here, other species have priority. Flat-leafed jief, creeping flat across the ground; eyet, with its long curved thorns and faintly sour scent; tufted wyas shedding sweet pollen with every eddy of air; and a dozen neighbors, all natives of the same world, a planet where the season is only just turning to spring. In deference to their origin, the garden echoes that far-away weather, the air still sharp with the memory of snow, striking a chill through the light fabric of Nolikka Toin’s uniform.
If she goes to the door and asks for a jacket, one will be brought, of that she has no doubt: Captain Night has granted far more extravagant requests without hesitation.
Nolikka stays where she is, sitting on the prickly jief, arms wrapped around her legs and head resting on her knees.
If I ask for a jacket, I’m sure he’d have one brought.
But I will still be cold.
The chill of the air is nothing next to the slick green lump of ice lodged beneath her ribs, pressing up into her chest until there is room for only the shallowest of breaths, until her heart has no room at all to beat.
She kept on running.
A noise escapes her, despite her best efforts, and Nolikka presses her forehead harder against her knees. The edge of it, that she kept on running, but only the edge. There is worse there, blurred and distorted within the thick, toxic ice. If she lets it melt, the poison of it will turn her blood to acid.
She can hear them both: Hara’s voice as thin as beaten gold, Captain Night’s with the traces of Ishukone that thread the taupe ribbon of his words with samite.
I fell, Hara says. You kept on running.
The same words as Captain Night.
Four is almost the same as five.
You fell, Dr Toin.
She kept on running.
One of them is lying.
She wants it to be him. An inconceivably cruel and inexplicable lie, but capsuleers are, aren’t they? Inconceivably and inexplicably cruel. No need to seek a reason.
The reports are unequivocal.
One of them is lying and she wants it to be Captain Night with the same clear blue desperation she had wanted the groundless equivalence on the fourth page of her senior thesis to create its own justification.
And he isn’t.
She escaped while the mob was ... while you were being captured. She was never caught.
Nolikka touches the scar on her forehead, the thin ridge of skin that her memory of those moments has hardened into. When did Hara first tell that lie? When she reached the ship and they asked where I was?
Impossible to say I left her behind.
That is the first thing coiled and waiting in the ice. She could have told them what she saw. She could have told them where to look.
Instead she hoped for two years that I would never come back to contradict her.
The ice shifts and swells. Nolikka drops her hands to the rough tufts of the jief and digs her fingers into the spongy mat of plants until she can smell the faint bitter purple of bruised leaves. She kept running. A moment of panic, it happens. A moment …
But two years?
She rubs the scar again.
She must have been horrified to hear we’d been found.
And so relieved when she found out I didn’t remember anything.
So she could tell me, as well …
In that thin golden voice where Nolikka still cannot hear the lie: I fell. You kept running.
But the lie is there.
That is what Hara sounds like, when she lies.
And knowing that …
The past shifts, kaleidoscopes, a thousand moments, a thousand thousand words changing color through the prism of new understanding. That was a lie, and that, and that …
Whispered words the color of honey against the soft grey of night-shift’s hush. You mean more to me than anything, Noli. We’ll always be together.
Locking together in a new pattern, tinted the dull umber of humiliation.
Was she laughing at me when she said that? At how easy I was to fool, how eager to believe?
Laughing as she said it, safe in the knowledge that I couldn’t see?
A handful of jief comes loose in Nolikka’s grip. How could I be so stupid as to let her make such a fool of me?
How could I be so stupid?
Something stirs sluggishly at the heart of the ice, a half-glimpsed hideous shape the sweet lime green of rot.
If I didn’t know that she –
How do I know they aren’t all –
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Her own voice startles her and she presses both hands over her mouth before any more words can escape, words that might crack the ice and let the creature inside loose. The sap from the jief burns her lips. Nolikka catches hold of the small discomfort as hard as she can, adds the sting of split knuckles and grazed palms that came from somewhere inside the dull maroon storm that broke over her when she understood what Captain Night was telling her. I hit something.
Hit someone, too, vague recollection of the satisfying meaty thud of her fist hitting flesh.
Nolikka is terribly afraid it may have been Captain Night who she hit.
Fine thank you for all that he’s done.
She remembers, then, that he is waiting, that she is keeping him waiting, just outside, if you need anything.
Nolikka does not want to face him. Does not want to face anyone, but most particularly not Captain Night, surely now regretting his kindness and wishing her anywhere but on his ship.
If she could sit here in this garden until the suns burned out, shivering a little in a climate that cares nothing for human comfort, she would.
But sooner or later, someone will come.
And if she must face them, Nolikka would rather do it on her terms.
The door hisses open as she reaches it. Outside, the air is warmer, with the blank grey smell of well-maintained ventilation systems.
“Dr Toin.” Nolikka cannot hear disdain, or mockery, or regret, in Captain Night’s voice, but she is painfully aware that she can no longer trust that what she does not hear is not there.She makes her voice confident. "I should get back to the Myth. Back to work.”
"Are you-" Captain Night hesitates. "Of course. I was headed back there myself, if you don't mind the company."
"I would appreciate it." A rustle of cloth as he moves closer. "I should have paid closer attention – I’m not quite sure how I got here."
“A ship this size can be quite a maze,” Captain Night says gently. “What do you usually do? If you are lost?”
Her usual answers are ready. I can access maps … the technology of my assistance device is quite sophisticated … I get lost much less frequently than you no doubt expect, less frequently than someone who can see.
All of it quite true. Nolikka takes a breath and tells a different truth, instead. “I choose a direction,” she says. “And just keep going.”
“Then, shall we?”
“Yes.” She puts out her hand, and finds his arm already there. “Yes. We shall.”