Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

    by Aliette de Bodard

In the deep planes, there is nothing but the void - and, on the edge of hearing, a song that she can't place, tantalisingly familiar harmonies echoing the beat within her.

It's hard, to remember what she once was.

There were cut flowers; and reams of emerald-green feathers (synthetic, for there are no birds on Quetzalcoatl) - and voices, solemnly reminding her of her duty to hold the world together through blood penances, to fight long and hard in the Flower Games, and bring captives to the sacrificial stones.

There was a factory, and a Grand Master of Design Harmony; and the soft sound of electronic racks sliding in, one after the other; and she woke up, extending her senses into silicium boards, along thousands of cables and coils.

There was - was . . . was . . .

There was a ship, once, made in the Dominion's finest building yard, crafted to perfection - its hull of the finest composites, its motors clean and beautiful, able to withstand thousands of ion-thrusts, its computing clusters designed and honed by a master engineer, conveying millions of blocks of information faster than any human mind. It lay in a pod in a remote station - wrapped in wet, comforting darkness, awaiting the moment of its birth. A pilot would come - and there would be neural impulses flowing through the interface, manoeuvring it faster than wind or thought through the void of space, dancing among enemy ships like the bobbin on a weaving loom.

The pilot came; but she reached out, and destroyed all the barriers and the safeguards; and her neural shunts were engulfed by the system.

Now there is no ship; and no pilot. They are one, as if it had always been meant to be.

The ship is at peace, rocked once more in a deep embrace - as in its birthing pod.

Yes. This is right - far from petty human concerns like mockeries or shame, with only the deepness of space to answer to.

This is right. It has always been right.

There was a girl called Axatl once - riding the mag-lev home on Quetzalcoatl, in the diffuse, orange light from the half-night sun. She looked at herself in a mirror, and saw black hair framing a round face; almond eyes and an almost-nonexistent nose - the spitting image of her mother, every feature, from overlarge teeth to recessed forehead, alien and unwelcome.

It was wrong. It had always been wrong.

Chopsticks. Axatl remembers chopsticks, spinning on the ground - one bent out of shape until it snapped, the other intact, small and pathetic, its vivid red chipped and cracked. Red for good fortune, Mother had said; and she'd been wrong, as usual - so terribly wrong.

She . . .

Mayauhqui remembers walking home with Axatl - standing, in the growing darkness of the housing complex's dome, breathing in the unfamiliar smells of jasmine and unknown spices. Axatl had grimaced, and shaken her head. "Mum is making rice porridge. Again."

She'd looked caught on the verge between embarrassment and pride - and he'd been a friend to her for long enough to know that she loved rice porridge, but would rather be caught dead than admit it. "It's all right," he'd said, gently. He'd almost suggested they go somewhere else; but Axatl's mum had never been anything but the soul of courtesy to him - with that odd accent and overwrought manners that the other boys at school mocked, but that Mayauhqui found oddly charming, like a return to older, more peaceful times. "Let's go in and see your mum."

He doesn't remember much of the rest. He'd walked into a house that looked normal enough, except for the odd little touches: the characters on the wall - "her maternal grandfather's calligraphy", Axatl's mum had said, her eyes shining with pride, saying that she hoped Axatl would prove as gifted as he'd been, while Axatl looked away the entire time - the shelves holding the usual ornaments, save for the jade dragon-and-phoenix at the very bottom, almost hidden from sight; the hastily closed drawers, smelling of something he couldn't place. He'd wondered what was in them, what terrible thing that she would hide from his sight. Axatl, when pushed, had rolled her eyes upwards and said something about old scrolls. "Would you believe that?" she'd said. "In the age of feeds, she still clings to papers like a lifeline. What a failure."

Mostly, he remembered Axatl's mother: small and gray-haired, and bowed with age; and watching them settle in Axatl's room around a meal of corn kernels and cooked beans, with the public screen tuned to the Texcoco-Cuauhtitlan game. She'd stood in the doorway, her hands smelling of jasmine rice and spring onions and soy sauce; and with an expression of terrible sadness on her face, as if she'd known all there was to say, and couldn't find words that would bridge the gap Axatl was putting between them.

He'd wanted to say something then, but couldn't find the words that would make her listen.

Years later, Mayauhqui met Axatl again, on Five Reeds Station. She was older then, dressed in the clothes of a warrior, with the marks of the shunt gleaming on her shaved head, and the naxotl insignia on her chest, marking her as a fellow graduate. He walked past her as if he had never known her; while by his side, Chimalli made pointed remarks on the yellowface's lack of taste - imagine, wearing green with a sallow skin like hers. He'd forced himself to laugh, the tight feeling in his chest vanishing after the first few moments, leaving him feeling warm and satisfied, proud that he hadn't given in, hadn't been weak.

And of course he hadn't turned back; but he'd known, even then, that the expression on her face would be that of her mother, from so long ago.

There is a song, in the starlight, if you listen closely - behind the endless lull of the stars, and the distorted shapes, and the pull of the darkness, like that of a current waiting to sweep everything away.

It was words, once - human words, a prayer to the gods that inhabit the night.

"Please please please . . .

O Lord of the Near, O Lord of the Nigh,

I throw myself before you, I abase myself

With icy nettles I make my penance

With thorns, with precious water

Please please please, let it not have happened . . ."

It was spring somewhere - Quetzalcoatl, probably, with that persistent haze of blue and green, as if the whole planet stood underwater. Axatl sat at a table with her best friend Mayauhqui - chatting in real time, and catching up on news via the shunt implants.

"So can you imagine?" Mayauhqui asked. "She asked him out, even though she wasn't even a Leading Youth - just a warrior wet behind the ears with no captives and no status."

"Mmm," Axatl said. She was not as good as Mayauhqui at multi-tasking. Her shunt showed blaring images of ships immobilising each other in the vast space between the stars: a rerun of the latest Flower Match, with the final tally proudly displayed. It looked like Quetzalcoatl won; though barely, with only a single captive made in the course of the battle.

Mayauhqui rolled his eyes. "It's going to happen to you one day, you know. You should pay attention."

Axatl shrugged. "Plenty of time."

Mayauhqui mimicked exasperation. "You're hopeless. Come on. Let's eat."

They both had boxes, provided by thoughtful mothers - both featureless green, with entwined black snakes on the cover. When Axatl slid hers open, she saw, not the maize flatbread she'd been expecting - not even porridge or fried newts, but something else.

Rice - the sweet aroma rising from the box, making her stomach growl with memories of her early childhood - and prawns too large and shiny to have come from Quetzalcoatl. The whole thing reeked with the pungent, salty aroma of ginger and soy sauce.

Mother, as a final afterthought, had even provided chopsticks: not plain bamboo or wood, but ornate, red monstrosities, with the ideograms for good luck and long life painted on the upper half. Axatl's own chopsticks, the pair she'd been given on her naming day.

And she remembered - the furtive, yet oddly proud way Mother had handed her the lunch box, her face creased in a smile that had highlighted her alien features even more than usual.

That's so tacky, was her first, slow, horrified thought. Black One take her, she was going to die of shame.

And then she looked up, and met Mayauhqui's eyes - and saw herself reflected in them, small and slight, with almond eyes and teeth too large for her mouth, slightly curved like fangs. The mirror image of Mother.

Foreigner. Alien. Worse, flaunting it here, at the House of Tears, among the youths - who were all equals, all worshipping the deities of the Sixth World, united through penance and blood-sacrifices.

Desperately, Axatl tried to slam the lid back on - but a burly hand stopped her, effortlessly twisting her wrist.

"Here, what'you got, Chink?"

She hadn't seen the boys. They must have been sitting at some other table, laughing at something - probably spring movies with couples in improbable positions, the typical adolescent fantasies that would pass or segue into uncomfortable marriages.

Axatl didn't say anything - she'd learnt that, if nothing else. But the speaker reached out, all the same, lifted the lunch box effortlessly out of her hand, and peered into it theatrically.

"What've we got inside, then?"

They were grinning all of them, with small white teeth shining like pearls, their round faces contorted in cruel amusement.

"Leave me alone." The words bubbled up before Axatl could quench them.

They looked at her, much as they would have looked at a dog. "That what you wish, Chink?"

"Yes." Axatl couldn't back down, not now - her father's stubbornness, her mother's quiet, indomitable will. "Leave me alone."

The lunch box tilted towards the ground; the rice started tumbling on the floor, grain after white grain. "Alone," the boy said. "Why not?" His lips moved up, in thoughtful contempt. "Alone with your kind, gods rejoice."

He dropped the box. Axatl forced herself not to move, not even when it crashed on the floor with a sickening sound, not even when the lid spun outwards, out of control.

The chopsticks spun on the asphalt, red over black, black over red - one whole, and one snapped in half like a bent twig. Chopsticks, Mother was always saying, were two parts of a whole, like yin and yang, like day sun and half-night sun: one couldn't think of one without the other.

Axatl would have wept, if she had been weak enough.

Instead, she waited in silence for them to be gone; then knelt, quietly, and put back the shards of the box together; and the chopsticks, picking up the pieces one by one.

They were tacky by Mexica standards, but the half of her that Mother had taught knew them to be beautiful - polished wood and the calligraphy of masters, flowing like water around their length. They had been hers, and their loss hurt more than she'd have thought.

But it wasn't that which hurt most; never was. What did; what twisted in Axatl's heart like a sacrificial knife, is what she saw when she rose, the chopsticks against her chest: Mayauhqui's face, frozen halfway between contempt and shame - his eyes shifting, already turning away from the Chink, the tainted half-breed.

And she swore it, then and there: that she wouldn't go to the clergy as was expected of her, but that she'd take her chances and apply for the army - that she'd join the Flower Games and win captives and status. That she'd be on the shunt-news and on the clans' message-boards, her skill at war the talk of every Dominion planet - in every way indistinguishable from a true Mexica.

Chopsticks, and entwined snakes: they make no sense. She is the ship; and the ship is her. That's how it's always been.

Axatl-who-is-the-ship hangs in the deep planes: the void beyond the stars, a layer beyond reality, accessible only to ships. Within her is blessed silence - no radio chatter, no incessant photon noise relayed through her systems. Once more, she is as she was: inchoate, unquickened, with little sense of her body beyond the frontier of the hull's composites. The starsong lulls her, as it always does.

She could stay here forever.

Something in her - some distant part, some small and insignificant pathway in the vast system of her mind - protests, beats small fists against a pane of glass. She is no metal, no optics; she was born - other. Her place isn't in deep planes; humans shouldn't -

But that voice is drowned beneath the thousand messages relayed through her coms; and it gradually fades, until even its memory is overwritten, its blocks dissolved among millions of others.

Running running around the city walls, with only the faraway light of the stars - distorted through the perpetual haze of the atmosphere, nothing more than a distant reminder. Running all alone, with no one to watch his back, no one to warn of holes ahead; of marshy grounds; of beasts stalking him in the darkness.


Mayauhqui's face would burn, if it wasn't so cold. He remembers being held to the ground by three of Chimalli's cronies, desperately struggling to free himself, while Chimalli herself - all muscles, with no fat to spare - smiled at him, lips spread over black-stained teeth. "So you're the Chink-lover, aren't you? The one who's all sad because he left his 'friend' back in Cuauhtitlan?"

There was no dignified answer; and he'd made none.

"There is no place for your sort here." Chimalli spat the word "sort" as if it were filth.

"All warriors are welcome here," he'd said, softly, whispering the words that had welcomed them all to the academy. "All those who would shed their blood to honour the gods-brothers under the skin."

A mistake - he'd known as soon as the first words left his mouth, and Chimalli's face contorted in a grimace, but he couldn't go back now. Might as well try to dam the lakes at flooding season. "You think you're clever?" Chimalli held something against the starry sky - gleaming bones, shining the same pale white as the moons overhead - his worship thorns. She wouldn't - wouldn't dare  . . . He arched against the hands holding him pinned to the ground; but it did nothing, nothing to stop Chimalli dropping the thorns to the ground, and smashing them underfoot, with a crunch like broken spines.

Chimalli bent down, until her face was close: not close enough to reach, not close enough to bite, but close enough to see her distorted, almost alien features; close enough to breathe in the sour, heavy smell of chewed beans - and of stale perfume, its scent withered away by sweat. She held up a thorn shard - as sharp and as cutting as a sacrifice knife, with light shivering on its edge. "Enjoy your run, Chink-lover. I'm sure the gods will smile on you."

The pressure on his wrists and legs disappeared; and he heard laughter, moving away. Then he was alone in the darkness, the shards of his worship thorns crunching underfoot. He could have run after them; but, short of revenge, he wouldn't have achieved anything. For what good was a night run, without blood shed to honour the gods?

So he'd gone back to the temple, begged the priests for another set - he'd pay for it on his rankings, but he hadn't cared about that anymore, at this point. And then he'd set out again, with all the others far ahead of him, leaving him utterly alone - as they'd intended all along.

Ahead, there was only darkness, shot through with glimpses of the stars. Mother had used to say that stars were the eyes of monsters waiting to consume mankind - but the Fifth World had ended in fire and acid, not the earthquake that the prophecies promised - and now the gods owned the stars and the sky from end to end.

Now it was the planets that were dangerous. It was Quetzalcoatl itself that would kill you - the marshes that hid the claws and fangs of the nazotls, the scratches of the cuayo trees that ballooned and released streams of incompatible proteins into your veins. Cycles of terraforming, and still the planet tried to shrug them off, like a cub scratching at an itch.

Running running in the darkness . . .

In the darkness, Axatl-who-is-the-ship becomes aware that the starsong has changed. It's still the same lullaby; but something else overlies it: a steady, insistent beat with two voices, that seems to distort everything it touches, to flense the metal and reveal the truth underneath.

It's not the background noise of the deep planes, but something much closer. Twin stars circling each other, she thinks, and isn't sure where the thought comes from.

And beyond them - hundreds, thousands of other songs in other systems and other galaxies, their echoes subtly penetrating her outer hull - tugging and twisting at it, endlessly renewing her into new shapes, new pathways of thought.

And she realises they were wrong, all along: it's not the planets that should be named after the gods, but the stars. The demons of Heaven have been defeated, and the gods have taken their place - a god for each star, for every mass hanging over her in deep planes, every song woven into a terrible, compelling symphony of atoms merging into each other, changing each other from core to periphery, a storm of notes and harmonies that resonates in her structure like a heartbeat.

It was the morning before the Flower Match, and Axatl woke up - stretched, with a mild ache in her back. The hymns were already broadcast on the system - the reedy sound of flutes, the haunting, throbbing beat of the drums interspersed with the chant to the glory of the Sixth Sun, He who keeps the universe whole.

Axatl's roommate had already left for the morning meal. In the silence, she knelt, and drew her worship thorns through her earlobes, letting the blood drip over the metal bowl in the centre of the room.

In the other station, the symmetrical of this one, other warriors would be preparing themselves for the game - no, not a game, this was a battle fought in earnest, a war providing prisoners and blood to each side, in order to keep the Sixth World whole. That was how it always been done for the true Mexica.

Once Axatl was done with her worship, the bowl flushed the blood outwards into space - no spillage aboard the space station, no waste, everything for the glory of the gods.

Sometimes, Axatl wondered, not if she believed in the gods at all - for the mark of Their presence was all around them, from the twin stars around which Quetzalcoatl orbits, to the stability point in which the station nested - but if the gods had any time for her. Was her blood tainted - was that why her offerings had no effect, why everyone still whispered and sniggered when she walked past, and why her ship felt sluggish and strange in her neural shunts, less an extension of her will than an unwelcome limb?

No point in asking questions - not today.

She dressed - soberly, in the featureless grey of unproved warriors, and walked to the docks.

Everyone had assembled in silence, their ears still glistening under the harsh lights. They listened to the priests' harangue, the eternal reminder of their purpose in securing human blood for the continuation of the world, the repayment of their debt to Grandmother Earth and the Sixth Sun for the world's rebirth on a myriad planets among the stars.

Tochtlan, the veteran who had instructed her, was waiting for her by the pod-launcher. "Ready?" he asked.

Axatl shrugged.

Tochtlan's face, as usual, revealed nothing of what he felt. But he seemed unusually preoccupied. At length he said, "Check your ship, girl."

"I don't --" Tochtlan liked her, Axatl knew: he'd never said anything or had any behaviour outside the bounds of ritual; but equally, he'd never treated her as less than a full-blood Mexica.

Tochtlan's chin rose, pointed to a pod-launcher further down the line, where a trio of boys stood just a little too casually. Axatl's face burnt. The tallest among them was Mayauhqui - who'd not spoken a word since she'd arrived on the station. He kept hanging with his cronies - with Chimalli, the beefy girl who looked as though she could down a naxotl with her bare hands, and whose easy, arrogant bearing reminded Axatl of the bullies who'd tormented her at school.

"They look too smug," Tochtlan said. "They're planning something."

Axatl could have said, "they wouldn't dare," but she knew better, now. At first it had only been slugs in the morning porridge, sliding under the aroma of chilli like the touch of a drowned corpse; but then they'd tinkered with her schedule - and worse, with her ship. Several times, she almost hadn't made it to training; or climbed into her ship to discover distorted ideograms scrawled all across her canopy. She nodded, with a nonchalance she didn't feel . "Thank you."

Tochtlan shook his head - and bowed, formally, one warrior to an equal. "May the Southern Hummingbird walk in your shadow, girl. May He grant you luck in battle, and a swift ascent into the warriors' Heaven."

Axatl's pod was emblazoned with the image of Quetzalcoatl - the god rising from the underworld with the bones of the dead in His hands, all broken into pieces of different sizes and colours. She put her hand on the pad, and the hatch dilated, revealing familiar darkness. The comforting smell of recycled air wafted up to her - and then Axatl was inside, harnessing herself into the pilot's seat.

Outside, through the canopy, there was only the void of space - and silence, flowing to fill the cabin. The pods hung off the surface of the ship like clumps of cactus fruit, every one of them painted in bright colours, with the good-luck glyphs of their owners.

Axatl's neural shunts connected with the interface with an audible click. Gradually, her eyes became used to the darkness; and she felt the weight of the ship in her mind, like an itch waiting to be scratched.

Out, Axatl thought, and the door closed. There was the hiss of pressurised air leaving the airlock; and then the pod peeled away from the mass of the station, and slowly launched itself into space.

Check your ship, girl, Tochtlan's voice whispered in her mind - and, sure enough, she paused just outside the station's hull, watching the other ships peel away from the walls like sown maize kernels, and nudged the system into a full diagnostic.

Nothing felt amiss. But -

But something was wrong. Something was - missing?

Her shunt buzzed: a com, relayed through the system. When she accepted, the overlay on her vision was from three different ships: the same three Tochtlan had pointed out to her earlier. They were grinning, showing blackened teeth that remind her of jaguars' maws.

"Hey, yellowface," Mayauhqui said. "Having fun?"

She could have railed; could have asked why he was doing this - any of this - to her. But she'd learnt her lesson at the academy, all too well. She shook her head, and didn't answer - even though she felt as though she was tearing up inside.

"We've left you a little surprise," the girl said. She wore a golden lip-plug, a dangerous ostentation in a ship where any metal could act as an interface.

"Yeah, see if you like it," Mayauhqui said - with a smug, satisfied smile that stabs into her heart like a sacrificial knife.

The com shut off, but not before emitting a high-pitched sound that set Axatl's teeth on edge - echoing in the bones of her skull until it seemed to have become part of her shunt.

When it cut off, Axatl was so relieved at the silence that it took her a while to realise the truth.

The ship was gone.

Of course, it was still around her, still cocooning her in its reassuring metal hardness; still a tangible reality with its familiar smell. But, in her mind, there was nothing but a gaping maw where it should have been.

Gently, carefully, like a man probing at a mortal wound, Axatl extended herself along the shunt, trying to make contact through the interface.

She heard nothing. She felt nothing.

Like a cut-off limb, she thought. Her heartrate rose in the growing silence, filling the cabin like a desperate hymn.

Axatl-who-is-the-ship could go closer to the starsong. She could see the twin stars of Quetzalcoatl; and move further on, into reaches untouched by man, hear the song of the other, unspoiled stars. It would be the work of a thought to move - to leave everything behind, and never return.

Why, then, does she hesitate, as if something were still holding her back?

Outside, the ships were pulling away one by one, turning off their ion-thrust motors once they'd achieved the momentum to escape the station's gravitational pull. Their trail shone in Axatl's after-vision; and then they were all gone, all away from her into the battlefield where the other side awaited - and she remained alone in darkness, staring at dead controls.

Over her loomed the station: she was drifting back, and soon the safeties would kick in, and drag her back into the pod, snug and safe, empty-handed. Humiliated.

The word rose out of the morass, as sharp as a worship-thorn. Tochtlan had warned her, but she had left it too late - too eager to go out, too eager to earn her glory.

There had to be a way.

Again and again Axatl pushed into the interfaces, trying to bridge the gap between her and the ship; but it might as well have been on another plane for all the good it did.

Again and again, over and over. She couldn't go home, she couldn't return like this, with nothing.

She couldn't go back . . .

Again and again, and something broke and yielded, snapping with a sound like bent bamboo.

Axatl hurtled downwards, into the ship's system - vaguely aware of the shunts at first, and then they became nothing more than hindrances to her flight, and then she could not remember what they were or what their purpose was - her mind scattered and expanded, into a nebula of flowing numbers and lightspeed messages, staring into the darkness until everything started to make sense.

Couldn't go back - couldn't go back like this.

And the ship - who was her who was the ship - took her away from all of it.

Something - something grates against her peace, a persistent itch, a sense that something isn't as it should be. There is - noises, sounds, memories that aren't hers. Who - she asks, but voice doesn't travel, not in the space between the stars.

Let it not have happened. Please, Lord of the Near, Lord of the Nigh . . .

There was a whisper, behind, in the darkness; the kind of exhalation that only made Mayauhqui run faster. Thorns lashed his calves - he hoped it wasn't the wrong kind, or he was dead - and all the while the whisper was growing stronger. There was a fetid smell like rotten eggs, and the air grew thicker with every moment - thicker and hotter, with the distant rumble that might be a storm, that might be something else entirely.

It wasn't meant to be run like this - yes, it was supposed to be a hymn to the gods, a worship made in solitude, but there were always people around you, always fellow warriors, even if they were slightly ahead or slightly behind. Mayauhqui shouldn't feel as though he was all alone, in the dark, not the pale glow of the half-night.

No, not quite alone - there was whatever was behind him, but Mayauhqui would rather not think about it now.

Ahead, out of the orange light, loomed the temple to Tezcatlipoca, Master of War and Fate, Lord of the Near and Nigh: a large black pyramid surrounded by the stout wall of the temple complex in its shadow. Mayauhqui had left it, ages ago, with the others of the company by his side - before Chimalli, before the broken thorns. Now he was running back towards it, alone, his worship completed.

Please please Black One, watch over me. Let me not be crushed by the maws of jaguars, not drowned by the water-beasts, not poisoned by the thorns . . .

Running running in the darkness, towards the gates that didn't seem to be getting closer. Whatever was behind Mayauhqui as no longer making any noise, but he could still feel its presence, its shadow over his back.

The gates . . .

Abruptly, they became as tall as him - and then twice as tall. A last burst of speed, and Mayauhqui was inside. The doors slid closed behind him, with a hissing like air through a cut throat. He stopped, bent double to catch his breath, and listened. On the other side was a frustrated wail, and the sound of something large hitting the force-field - and then heavy footsteps squelching away through the mud of the marshes.

It was gone. Whatever it was, it was gone. He was safe.


Mayauhqui found the others lounging in the hallway, paying calculated attention to a game of patolli, watching the counters on the screen as if it were life-and-death.

Chimalli raised her eyes, stared at him with no expression on her face. "Had a good run?"

He wasn't a fool. He knew the rules, from beginning to end - all that was needed to survive. "Very good," Mayauhqui said, even though his calves ached with the weals the marshes left on him, even though his lungs still burnt with fetid air.

Chimalli nodded, gravely, as if Mayauhqui had just passed some important exam. "Come on," she said. "Want to play?"

That was when he realised that he was no warrior; that he didn't have the courage to be alone once more, caught in Quetzalcoatl's deadly nights. That he would do everything - anything to ensure that this didn't happen again. "Of course I'll play," he said, forcing a smile he didn't feel; and pulled a chair and sat down.

After that, no one ever called him "Chink-lover" - because he never gave them cause to do so.

And the race became - no, not forgotten, because one did not forget such things - but papered over, rendered in exquisite colours like a codex painting: dead and faraway, harmless.

Until now.

"Please please please . . .

O Lord of the Near, O Lord of the Nigh,

I throw myself before you, I abase myself

With icy nettles I make my penance

With thorns and with blood

Please please please, let it not have happened . . ."

Mayauhqui hasn't prayed that hard - not since that night in the marshes.

There are - other thoughts, other dreams that don't belong in the deep planes. In her dream - which isn't hers, though she can't articulate how she knows - she's someone else - sitting in her ship, in her pod-launcher, staring at the glass of her canopy and seeing only the featureless dark of the pod's walls. Hours. It's been hours, and the ship hasn't come back.

It was a joke. A harmless joke, nothing like that night-run on Quetzalcoatl. Cut off the yellowface's - Axatl's - neural shunts, and she'd drift, and the station would catch her. They'd all have a good laugh at the poor hapless girl, and that would be it.

Except it's all gone wrong, and she can do nothing to fix it.

She prays - her hands and earlobes are slick with blood, and she stares at the darkness until it seems to stare back, to shimmer and bend like space around a black hole. With all her strength, she pushes, trying to bend the whole Sixth World to her will.

Who -?

Axatl. Come back, please. Wherever you are, please come back. In the name of He who is Wind, He who is Night, He who holds the Obsidian Mirror.

Who -?

Chopsticks, half-broken; a night, and a temple, and game counters neatly lined up, a pattern she cannot recognise, a message she cannot decipher.

Running running she was running away in the darkness, trying to catch the others before something bad happened, and there are whispers in the night, and the breath of something warm and large, and the noise of its approach . . .

Standing he was standing there watching chopsticks fall and break, and turning away to see Mayauqhi's gaze . . .

He is -

She is -

For a moment, a split moment as they both hang suspended, there is an anchor - and she sees herself as he sees her. And she remembers, all of it, everything from beginning to end.

There was a girl called Axatl once, riding the mag-lev home on Quetzalcoatl, in the diffuse, orange light from the half-night sun. There was a ship, once, made in the Dominion's finest yard, crafted to perfection - and she couldn't tell them apart.

But now she can.

Come back, his voice whispers in Axatl's mind. It's here that you belong. The ship's controls? It was just a joke, and you'll swallow it, and move on.

Move on. Like he's always done, and look what he's become now.

Come, whisper the stars, singing in the mind of Axatl-who-is-the-ship, like the water-beasts luring humans into the First Lake. Wander our pathways, endlessly flensed, endlessly renewed.


And she could. Axatl knows what she is; she knows that she'll always have to fight to fit in; that, if there is no easy path for a Mexica like him, the path for her will be even harder. Far easier to be a ship, to follow the starsong from galaxy to galaxy, to listen to the secret beat of the universe - to hang cocooned in darkness as in the womb, away from mockeries and jokes. Far easier.

But she's never been one to take the easy path. And here - where they hang in deep planes, away from skin-colours and bloodlines - they are the same, and it's all that matters.

The part of Axatl-who-is-the-ship that remembers slowly unfolds, pushing into the electronics boards and tangles of cables, imprinting its consciousness onto everything.

She feels Mayauhqui's touch on her mind, like a line leading back; and she follows that line, pushing herself out of the deep planes - and withdrawing from the ship's consciousness, she disconnects her neural shunts from the interface.

Once more, Axatl hangs under the shadow of the station; and her mind is her own, with no sense of the ship beyond the shunts. But the void around her is filled with music, and she still remembers the touch of starsong on her hull.

There's another ship, by her side: his ship, with a pale face watching her through the canopy, and panicked thoughts she can still feel as if they were her own. There are people, gathering on the reaches of the station; chatters on the radio, sighs of relief.

They'll send her for exams; and the ship, too, they'll send to maintenance, scrutinise everything as if they could put a name to what has happened.

But Axatl - she'll walk out of the ship's cabin, tall and proud, showing nothing of what she feels. After the infirmary releases her, she'll find a mirror in her room, and stare at herself, surprised to see nothing but a human face, without the glitter of metal or silicium. Gently, slowly, she'll trace the contours of her face, every feature from almond eyes to large teeth familiar: the mirror image of both her parents - like the map of a treasured country slowly coming into focus.

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