Blackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified.
Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.”
“I don’t mind snakes,” she says. Li’s scientists showed her the photos.
“No.” Erik has eyes like a winter fisherman’s borehole. “There’s something wrong with it. Like a—stain. You’ll understand.”
Everyone who’s seen it walks away afraid.
One of the soldiers guarding the hatch peeks inside as he opens it, and he shudders like he’s just been catheterized with a live wire. “Fuck,” he says, and spits on the deck, trying to expiate something, to purge his eyes.
Here goes, then:
Anna steps into the sleep chamber sidelong, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hands half-curled, ready to bolt. It’s a rush, an undeniable addiction. She loves to be about-to-fight.
The alien, frozen in glass.
No legs. Most of its body a long lash of tail, muscular, serpentine, a naga shape jacketed in scales firm and dark as stone arrowheads. Humanoid torso, slim, kinda ripped, arms shading down from sable to silver-white like long elegant gloves. Four fingers. Two opposed thumbs.
Where it should have a neck, a head, it flowers into snakes. Eight coiled snakes, bundled up, knotted tight. Sleeping. Anna imagines them at full extension, a committee of swan-necked vipers, a serpent coronet.
“You okay?” one of the guards calls. “Just back out when it gets too bad.” And then, soothingly, when Anna doesn’t reply: “You’re okay. You’re okay. Just come to my voice, man.”
A frisson jolts Anna, not fear but awe, like she just hit the peak of a great song, like the big tracking shot at the climax of the movie when the score booms and everything feels ready for ruin or rebirth. She steps through the clutter of cameras and equipment to press a hand against the glass.
“Holy shit,” she hears one of the soldiers say. “Is she—dude, check the cameras, check her out.”
“Doesn’t she—fuck me, she doesn’t feel it—”
The alien crystal is cold, lucid, faintly yielding. Hi, Anna thinks, even though it’s ridiculous. Hi. Everyone’s afraid of you.
And the pilot’s voice comes back, husky, mature, precise, faintly sibilant, unambiguously female, speaking Kurdish like a born tongue: You and I. We have been marked.
The glass splits beneath her fingertips. Curls open in jagged fractal steps.
“Hey!” Anna shouts, backpedalling. “HEY!” She hits something, a camera or an instrument, and falls on her ass yelling as the alien rises above her, stretching on coiled loops of tail, serpents flowering, tiny white mouths tasting the air.
From the hatch: “Motherfucker—!”
The alien darts one neck in silent command and the hatch slams shut.
She never thought she’d come back to Kurdistan, land of meltwater and mountains and Sarin and loss.
Then the Blackbird object fell out of the sky, and Captain Erik Wygaunt, in charge of the American quick-response team (they thought it was a Chinese suborbital spaceplane) tapped her as their guide and translator. One fuckup led to another, and now here they are, locked into the red-lit machine viscera of a fallen starship, claustrophobic, poisoned, dying.
The other team members have their own terrors, of course—rational big-idea fears: where Blackbird came from, why it’s here, what kind of Christopher Columbus apocalypse it could trigger if it goes home, or if it doesn’t.
But Anna thinks about how she came so close to home, how she’ll never know if the thing she did was worth anything at all. That fills her with something jagged: anguish…or relief.
The thing she did:
Anna spoke to an alien once, a man who might have been born Homo sapiens but who wasn’t anything human. A beast in a red beret, servant of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who devised Al-Anfal at his cousin Saddam’s request.
He didn’t believe that she was human, either. He asked:
Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?
“Anna. Anna, for God’s sake, talk to me.”
It towers over her, a dark starburst of scale and cord. One head fixes its eyes on her. The others circle warily or bend to preen shoulders and chest.
Not a hint of weakness in it, not a tremble of fatigue. Just the immovable dynamism of a predator flash-framed, a panther suspended mid-kill.
Anna fumbles for her radio. Her fingers answer her, just like they did last time she thought she was about to die. “Captain. Captain Wygaunt, I hear you. I’m okay.”
“Good. Good. Fuck!” A bark of static. Erik gets angry at his own fear. “We’re here, Anna—we see it on the cameras.” Military discipline clips the emotion from his words. “Can you ascertain its intent?”
Another voice: Li Aixue, the mathematician. “She’s not experiencing it. Look at her. She doesn’t feel the effect.”
Anna gets her feet beneath her and rises into a cautious crouch. She’s afraid, exhilarated, alive with a totality she hasn’t felt for years. “Hey,” she calls, meeting the alien’s closest gaze, fixing on that head like it’s the whole of the thing. “You understand me.”
Voice comes from a place between the join of its necks. Synthesized, somehow, but there’s a truer speech behind it—sibilant, overlapping, in quadrophone stereo. An eight-headed hiss. “There are sixty-one people trapped in this ship,” it says. “You have a radio. You will speak to them for me.”
“Okay. I can do that.” It can talk. It knows about people and radios. Not too alien, right? Or smart enough to fake it. “They want to know what you—”
It rides over her. “I need human brain tissue. I have filled the atmosphere of this ship with an operant toxin. Tell the people to bring me ten of their number to eat, or I will let them all die.”
She knows she ought to think about this: who comes across the stars to eat human brains? What kind of psychology meets a new species and says—do what I want, or I’ll kill the lot of you?
But Anna’s not that woman, and fuck if she’s going to listen to this again, this red-beret motherfucker playing his games, because it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? It’s the same fucking question the other alien asked her in the dust while the mules brayed and the children wept, and she hasn’t dreamed about that day for twenty-something years just to do it all again, no, no, not her. She is not that woman.
“Anna,” her radio squawks. Revulsion thick in Wygaunt’s voice, the alien’s everyone-but-Anna aura at work. “Did it answer? It’s speaking Kurdish. What did it say?”
“It wants ten of us,” she says, staring the alien down, imagining its fangs in her throat, her fists around its slender necks. “It’s going to eat their brains. If we don’t agree, it’s going to let us all die.”
And then, to the monster, arched above her in watchful regard, she says what she wanted to say last time, what she didn’t: “The hell we will.”
“All right. Acknowledged.” She can hear the unspoken resolve in Erik Wygaunt—I don’t bargain lives. Maybe he’s suspected, ever since Blackbird closed itself around them, that it would come to violence. “Professor Li will talk you through this. Hold on, Anna. We’re going to get the hatch open and get you out.”
“You are marked,” the alien says. It-–she?–-she touches her own chest, two long white fingers pressed between her scaled pectorals. “We carry the brand. I smell it on you. You have to understand.”
Anna’s courage has always been reckless, thoughtless. She stares down the viper nest, silent. It turns an extra head on her, as if puzzled; and then, after a moment, withdraws a few meters, tail curling through lazy, powerful strokes.
“You have to understand,” it repeats.
The man in the red beret chased them north, his jash guides tracking Anna’s whole village as they fled by truck and horse and mule. When it became clear they would not outrun the Iraqis and their traitor-Kurd accomplices, some of the peshmerga went back to try to hold them off.
Anna’s mother and father and older brother went with them. Later Anna would think, sometimes resentfully, sometimes in choked admiration: Serhing and Kaja loved their daughter, but they loved each other more.
The battle made a distant racket. After a while the clamor stopped. An Iraqi helicopter caught them columned in the open, its rotors a taunt.
When the trucks of soldiers surrounded them and began to dismount, Anna picked up a rock, looked for their commander, and began to walk towards the man in the red beret. “Anna!” old Aske hissed, children gathered in her skirts. “You will be shot!”
“We will all be shot,” she said, and kept walking.
Li Aixue on the radio. Anna met her before Object Entry, liked her, felt a curious envy too–-a woman of air and light and high logic, a woman whose dreams were made of better stuff than dust and blood.
“Go ahead,” Anna says. The alien stands, quiescent, in the center of the chamber, clear membranes flickering over her sixteen small eyes. Occasionally she tastes the air.
“I need to verify that you’re not experiencing any nausea. Any sense of, ah, moral distress?”
“Would you describe the organism as intrinsically evil?”
“What?” Memory of mother and firelight, of Zoroastrian myth, Yazidi fables.
Li hesitates, clearly feeling her way across untested ground. “Observers often report a sense of intuitive moral content.”
“I don’t know if I’m the woman to ask about that,” Anna says, and fights back an animal laugh. She’s never told anyone in America what she did, why the survivors put her up for adoption. Not her parents. Not Wygaunt.
“Understood. Anna, are you willing to ask the organism a few questions?”
“Sure,” Anna says, kind of taken with how smooth she sounds. Wygaunt told her she’d make a good soldier. He was wrong, but it felt nice. “You have audio?”
“We’re live on all the compartment cameras.”
Anna steps forward, waving. The alien reacts with a slow, coiling movement, a wary centering.
The first thing to roll off her tongue is coffee-shop banality. “What’s your name?”
Anna can hear Li’s breath tremble when the alien responds. “You will call me Ssrin.”
She relays this. “It has a name. It has a translator. It was prepared to meet us.” Li exhales raggedly. “Okay. Its mode of cognition seems relatable. Ask it about the nerve tissue.”
“I’m Anna.” She keeps her hands still, open, visible. The big philosophical ramifications of this moment, the historical weight, are mostly lost on her. Mom Forwell, always hunting positivity, liked to call her alive in the moment. “Why do you need our brains?”
“I came out of the glass because I thought I could speak to you. Because you have the mark.” The alien touches a bundle of her necks with one hand and strokes them, head to base, hissing long and low. “But you offer me weakness. You ask without leverage. Why should I tell you anything, Anna?”
“She thinks I’m an idiot,” Anna reports, fighting the urge to step back. “She thinks we’re all idiots.”
“Okay. I have a guess, going off game theory and intuition.” Dry paper sound of Li coughing. “It opened with a threat. Maybe it comes from somewhere where the default social behaviour is aggression. They assume malicious intent, so social interaction requires them to establish a detente.”
Looking at her, Anna can believe that. No doubt she’s a predator. “She thought we’d kill her?”
“Kill her and take her ship. Unless she had an insurance policy. Thus the poison.”
“Ssrin.” She tries the unfamiliar name, still riding the danger high, the tiger-cage thrill. “If we give you ten brains, you give us an antidote?”
The alien – does she chuckle? Is that rising choral hiss a mockery of human laughter, or the genuine article? “Yes,” Ssrin says. “You understand. Pick ten. The rest of you live.”
Anna doesn’t realize she’s doing it, doesn’t mean to do it. But she does it. She starts speaking the dream tongue, the blood language, the bargain: “Or maybe we kill you, we find the antidote ourselves, and we all live.”
The alien opens a single mouth in a slow yawn. Unhinges fangs beaded with small drops of milky venom.
“Ask it why it needs the nerve tissue,” Li repeats. Tremor of tension in her voice. “Don’t antagonize it.”
“For the mission!” Ssrin snarls, as if the radio had spoken right to her. And then – whip-quick, thunderously strong – she smashes the cameras around her, tail lashing, and rips the radio from Anna’s hands.
The last thing Anna hears is Wygaunt’s voice: “We’re bringing up explosives, Anna, just hang on – “
White fingers click the radio off as if they’ve done it before. And Anna stands, ready, unafraid, coiled on the breathless edge of futile violence. She’s a broken woman. She never responds the right way.
But Ssrin doesn’t attack. “The mission,” she repeats, and then takes her bundled necks between her hands. Lets out a trembling divided breath. “God help me. God help me.”
Anna threw her rock. It fell short. She knelt to find another and an Iraqi soldier grabbed her, dragged her forward to the man in the red beret who said in Arabic:
“Are you the daughter of Serhing Rekani? He spoke of you while he was dying. He said you would defy me.”
She choked on the stink of sweat and blood and gunshot but it was easier to be revolted than to let herself show fear, grief, horror. Father –
“I have always believed that unreasoning defiance is the mark of an animal.” The officer knelt, pistol loose in his right hand. “A human being reasons. A human being understands how to do what must be done. An animal kicks and spits even when offered a way out. Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?”
“You’re the only one,” the alien says.
The chamber is sealed. No sound, no air, no radio from outside. Just Anna and the monster, arched in some kind of calisthenic, balanced on one coil of tail and reaching up to touch the ceiling. A pillar of black sinew.
In the dream, in the memory, Anna always talks to the monster. “The only one who’s not afraid of you?”
“No one can miss the cultratic brand.” One of Ssrin’s heads watches her, fangs bared. A filigree of metal along the teeth. “I have seen fear in the eyes of behemoth skylord and nihilist lana. I have seen it in the other humans. They all smell the brand. Except you.”
Anna doesn’t know what to ask, what to think, not the way Li Aixue the prodigy would. She just goes with her gut, with firelight fable logic. “We’re both bad people.”
“Evil. Evil people.”
The translation is toneless but somehow Anna hears conviction in the hiss behind it. Evil. Like in mother Kaja’s stories, like in the Shahnameh: an externality, a force.
“You can smell evil. Like it’s…real.”
“There are other systems than physics encrypted in our world. Detritus of an unfinished design meant to track and describe sentient minds. All higher technology exploits loopholes in the interface between physics and this poiesis.” One of Ssrin’s necks reaches for her, past her. She feels a tiny tongue tickle the back of her neck. Doesn’t shudder. “Your soldiers are outside.”
“They’ll try to kill you.”
“You won’t let them.”
What does her laugh sound like to the alien? An idiot sound, trapped in a single throat? “You think I can stop them?”
“You are their leader.”
“Their – ” Oh. She stops herself.
But the alien sees. “You’re not.” Ssrin’s probing head recoils as if burnt. “How can that be? You’re the ruthless one. The glass told me. I smelled it – “
The translation cuts off. Ssrin makes a symphonic growl, an awful predator sound that pricks every fear in the ape genome, and the chamber lights go out.
Instant, complete darkness.
“Fuck,” Ssrin says, some alien epithet rendered banal by machine. “Not this! Not now! Fuck!“
Anna loses it, in a personal Anna way, totally mis-wired. She jumps forward and tries to get Ssrin around the necks. But there’s a shattered camera in the way.
She’s still falling when Ssrin catches her by the throat.
“You love your family,” the monster in the red beret said, while little Anna struggled and spat. “But the sheep you slaughter love each other too. Love is not the mark of a human being. A human being knows how to do what must be done.”
His soldiers hauled prisoners from the truck, their heads wrapped in burlap sacks, their hands bound. Peshmerga from the village rear-guard.
Mother? Father? Brother Merdo? Could they be –
The officer, shaking his head like an ulama teaching law, drew her towards the kneeling captives. “Tachid here will cover you with his rifle. In a few moments, I am going to give you my pistol. If you aim it anywhere but where I tell you, Tachid will shoot you.”
He turned to one of his men. “How many animals have we penned down there?”
“A hundred and nine, sir.”
“Good. Anna Rekani, I am going to offer you a deal. A way to prove your humanity.”
“Do they care for you?” Ssrin hisses. “Will they bargain for your life?”
The alien’s fist is a vise. Anna suspects it could crush her windpipe and spine. But she’s not afraid. She knows the grip of monsters.
Maybe everyone else could see Ssrin was evil before she did. Maybe that’s why their guts turn when they look at the monster.
Maybe she can’t see it because it looks like a mirror.
“Something just went wrong,” Anna says. “The lights. You’re in trouble.”
Ssrin is silent. Anna figures Ssrin can probably think about ten times faster than she can, so the silence must really mean something. She plows on, probing blindly, improvising. “If you had a working ship, you wouldn’t be here trying to bargain. You wouldn’t have crashed at all. They’re going to blow that hatch open and kill you, and there’s nothing you can do.”
“You’ll die with me.”
“I don’t care,” Anna says, and God, it feels good to admit. “I deserve it.”
Ssrin sets her down with delicate precision. The darkness is absolute. Anna opens her arms, probing, afraid to take a step. After a moment she gets down on all fours and starts to crawl.
“I came so far,” Ssrin says. The translation is toneless and yet utterly desolate. “Bearing so many hopes. Your people are mad, Anna, to choose sure death over a simple bargain.”
“You’re an idiot. You didn’t have to poison anyone. We would’ve helped you.”
“‘The surest language is force.’ The first rule I ever learned. The principle that gave us empire.”
“Is that why you’re stained?”
Anna finds a wall. Puts her back against it. She wants to be out of the way when Erik’s soldiers storm in. “The evil on you. The brand everyone sees. What did you do?”
“I was born with it.”
“That’s your crime?”
Ssrin’s voice comes from a lower place. Maybe she’s slumped against the wall too. “Only the first. I was a soldier, ascendant, in the service of empire. They could make diamond moons from the pressed ash of my victims. And I betrayed all that, Anna Earthborn. I turned on my people and my sister, turned on her great work, gambling everything-– hoping that in the end I could find absolution, wipe it all clean, liberate the galaxy, do one good thing—”
Anna starts at the sound: Ssrin hammering the wall, scale fists on alien alloy. “I cleaned the security system when I stole the ship! I disabled the lockdown! I was thorough!“
The dead lights. It must be shipwide: Blackbird rebelling against its traitor captain.
Soft sounds from the hatch. Wygaunt’s men, making ready.
“You have the radio.” Anna doesn’t know why she’s trying to help, but no, no, that’s a lie, it’s – it’s sympathy, empathy, the boggling fact that across aeons of divergent evolution she can hear the machine rendition of a psychopathic serpent chorus and feel bad for her. “It’s not too late to surrender. Give them the antidote. They’ll be merciful.”
“Too much at stake.” Sinuous scale-on-scale sounds in the dark. Ssrin’s heads nipping at each other in anxious violence. “You’re too small to know how huge it is. The secret buried here, entombed in your minds by cosmological fluke. It is a key to the cipher of reality itself, a vulnerability in the computational substrate-–if my people find it, they will be gods. She will be God. I cannot risk surrender when the stakes are so high.”
“You’re going to kill us,” Anna realizes. Why would this fanged ultrapredator come so far without the ability to slaughter a few monkeys face-to-face? Erik’s soldiers are going to blow the hatch open and Ssrin will massacre them. Them and everyone else on the ship. “You didn’t need to wait for your gas to work-–you could’ve come out and murdered everyone. Why didn’t you—”
“I wanted to be good!” That rattle, that rasp, it could be menace, could be rage, but Anna hears pain and knows it and trembles with the closeness between them, the terrible congruence. “I’d spilled enough blood, done enough evil-–I smelled kinship on you, Anna, smelled calculation, thought you would make a bargain with me. But it always comes back to the fang. Always. The cosmos has no time for the weak.”
A hush, except for the ragged asynchronous breath of nine throats.
“What did you do?” Ssrin asks. “Tell me, before I kill you, and the rest.”
The officer in the red beret put the pistol into her small steady hands and pointed her towards the line of prisoners his men had pulled from the truck.
“This is the bargain,” he said. “Execute one of these captives, and I will spare one of your villagers. Execute two and I will spare ten. Execute three and I will spare twenty. Four, and I spare forty. Five, I spare eighty. All six, and I spare them all.”
Six against a hundred and nine. Anna could do figures. And that was all there was, all there could be. It seemed simple.
God save her and the six too.
“I will do it,” she said. She slid the safety off the pistol, just as father had shown her. She heard the noise of the soldier Tachid training his own weapon on her.
“Bring out the first one,” the officer said. “Let’s see if the girl is bluffing.”
They dragged a man in front of her and pulled the sack from his head. He was bruised and his face was swollen, but he was clearly Ronas, handsome darling of the dances, pursued by many but unbearably taken with a girl he could never have. Anna did not know who.
“What?” He blinked in groggy shock. “Ciwana, is that you?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “Be still.”
She held the pistol in her too-small hands and put him in the center of the sights. Dear God, she thought: if this is wrong please reach down your hand. You are quick and you are powerful, so if you can, please stop me.
She pulled the trigger. The pistol spoke. The recoil wrenched her arms in her sockets and she grunted, but it was the only sound she made.
Her childhood and her faith in God sprayed across the rocks with Ronas’ brains. His body fell away to the side. The officer made a soft clucking noise with his tongue. “You have earned a single life. Now, again.”
The next prisoner was her brother Merdo. The cut beneath his left eye went almost to the bone. “Anna! What are you doing?”
It’s not fair, she thought. He should have at least been last, so he would count for more.
But on the other side of her grief, in the shadow beneath it, she could feel the truth. Ronas, too, had been a brother, and a son, and she had not hesitated.
“Is our father dead?” she asked.
“Yes. Yes, they shot him in the lung, and dragged him away. I think he is dead.”
“And mother too, I think, but I didn’t see. What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry, Merdo,” she said, “but I have to get to six if I’m going to save everyone.”
“Anna, wait!” he cried.
The recoil turned her halfway around and she nearly dropped the pistol. But she did not miss.
Silence behind her. She spoke through: “Please bring me the next one. I have to save them all.”
“I’m sorry,” Ssrin says, although it sounds like she’s never even thought those words before. “Is the burden heavy? Will you be glad when I kill you?” And then a short, sharp rattle in her throats, a sob or a laugh: “I wonder if we have different ideas of comfort.”
Anna’s crying silently. She’s not ashamed, even though Ssrin can probably smell her tears. Some of it is gladness. “I’ve never talked about it,” she says. “Ah, God. I didn’t even-–didn’t even try to find another way. I just did what he said. Like I was one of the jash.”
“There was no other way,” Ssrin says. “He spoke with force. You did the right thing.”
“Yeah?” Anna knuckles her eyes. “Can you smell that, too?”
“Not yet.” Softly: “But I think you did right. For all that’s worth.”
The right of a murderer with a body count higher than all Earth’s summed tyrants.
Anna sits for a moment, thinking about the apocalypse. She’s not Li Aixue, prodigy. Not Erik Wygaunt with his mind for command. But she can put the pieces together.
“Ssrin,” she says. “Your people. You said you were trying to beat them. Are they coming for Earth?”
It always comes back to the fang, the blood bargain, the man in the red beret.
“And when they get here–-if they’re hunting the same secret, this thing in our brains, this key-–what will they do?”
“Mass landings.” Ssrin’s voice flat edict. “Millions of your people rendered down to brain tissue and processed. They’ll use brute-force inference to deduce the cipher from the mark it leaves on matter-–the decay products that occur when the poiesis violates causal closure.”
And she says this next part with weary familiarity, with the guilt of old collusion: “When they have the key, they will destroy all life on Earth. The Exordia will not let the secret of secrets fall into the hands of their rivals.”
Too big to mean anything to Anna. Too huge for any response except abstract dismay. “Why us?”
“An accident of viral spread. There were other host species. Lost, though, during the Cessation Age.”
“But if you get the key first, if you get your brains and you find it, you can stop them.”
“No.” Vacuum-cold hiss. “Nothing can stop them.”
Of course not. Nobody ever stops the monsters.
Anna gets up on her haunches. “There has to be something. There has to be a way.” Some price to pay. Someone to aim the pistol at, knowing: you die, and the rest live. “If we give you the ten you asked for. If we give you more.”
“Nothing,” Ssrin says, “can save this world.”
“You’re going to find a way—”
“This is what happens now. I kill every human in my ship. I gather your brains as samples. I find a way to break the security lockdown before the Exordia fleet arrives, and I carry what I have to the rebellion.” Light kindles in the dark, a brief blue spark-–Ssrin, a medusa shadow, testing a sleek bladed weapon. “Maybe, if I bring them the encryption key, they can find a way to stop my people from cracking reality open and rewriting it. That’s all there is. The only way forward.”
It’s Anna’s whole world, the end of everything. The Columbian apocalypse everyone was afraid of. She should feel something.
But her wiring’s been broken for a long time now.
She sits in the dark and thinks about vast new bargains, and when she speaks again, her words come clotted in old blood. “When do your people get here?”
“A few days. Or a few hours. I must be gone by then.”
“Give me the radio,” Anna says.
Someone else makes the rules. Someone else says: you spend this blood, and you save that flesh.
But Anna makes the choice.
Ssrin throws her the radio. It bounces off Anna’s shoulder in the dark and falls into her lap. “Warn them I’m coming, if you want. You’ll only make them afraid before they die.”
“It’s not about that,” Anna says. The numbers are bigger here, but the calculation is the same. “You came here on a mission. You can still complete it, if you find a way to fix your ship. And what then? You save the universe? You’re the hero?”
“No one,” Ssrin says, “will ever call us heroes. Not you. Not I.”
Ssrin smelled it on her, through the glass. The ability to do this. What must be done.
Anna clicks the radio on. “Professor Li.”
“Anna! I’m here. Wygaunt’s men are about to-–” A soldier in the background snaps at her. “They’re, uh, standing by.”
“Tell Erik I’ve reached a deal with the alien. We’re going to assist it with repairs to its ship. We’re going to help it complete its mission. In exchange, we get the antidote.”
Glare dazzles Anna. Ssrin’s got a light mounted to one of her heads, snugged beneath the little jaw. Anna wants to giggle.
“That’s amazing, Anna.” Profound relief in Li Aixue’s voice. “Power’s off shipwide, we’re all worried about the air – I’ll tell Wygaunt right away.”
Anna puts the radio down on the deck between her knees. Her throat feels sick when she speaks. “Ssrin. Listen. They have at least one world-class mathematician. A few people from the NSA, too, codebreakers and computer guys. They can help you with the security lockdown. They can find you the brain tissue you need.”
Ancient, cold wariness in Ssrin’s voice. The weight of a billion murders. “Do you think you can deceive me?”
“No,” Anna says. “You smelled it on me. You know what I’m capable of. You were right: I understand.”
The arithmetic, this time around:
Earth is gone. Seven billion dead, no matter what. Ssrin’s people are coming and no god or dream of man can stop them.
So Anna tries to fight Ssrin, and Ssrin kills her and Erik Wygaunt and Li Aixue and everyone else on Blackbird, and maybe she gets what she’s after and escapes Earth before the hammer falls. But maybe not. Maybe Ssrin fails and her people win. Who dies then? Everything, she says. Everything that will ever be. The Zoroastrian Armageddon gone wrong, the final renovation of the universe cast in shadow. Angra Mainyu triumphant. The world devoured.
Or Anna helps Ssrin. Anna brokers a deal with Wygaunt and his soldiers: help the alien, and she’ll save our lives. She’ll do right by us.
Not that they’d go along with the deal if they saw what price they’d have to pay. If they saw the end coming.
Help Ssrin. Fix her ship. Forfeit Earth and everyone on it.
But the price has to be paid. The figures are clear. They can’t save the world: just help Ssrin save all the rest. A child could make the choice, if she were broken in the right ways.
It’s a little like destiny.
“You give us the antidote,” Anna husks, and has to stop to cough. “And we help you. We’ll make sure you have a chance.” The idea hits her like recoil: “I’ll go with you. Take us all with you. So a few of us can live.”
“You’ll burden me. I would be wise to kill you all.”
Anna smiles, a rictus the alien might understand: bare teeth, wide eyes, fear sweat. “But this is the right thing to do, Ssrin.”
“They’ll panic when you tell them. They will see the end of their world rising, and they will lash out.”
“I’m not going to tell them,” Anna says, and puts her head between her knees. Curls up like a nautilus, shutting out the world: even though it leaves her alone with the thing she hates most.
She could warn them, Wygaunt and Li and the rest. Tell them about the alien fleet on its way. And they’d look for a way out, a nuclear attack or a computer virus, some act of technological heroism. But they won’t stop the aliens, any more than the peshmerga could stop the Iraqis. So she’ll be silent, and save as many as she can.
She feels Ssrin’s hands, cold, smooth: on her brow, her shoulder, and then, the gesture stiff but still strong, killing strength held in check, Ssrin’s arm wrapped around her. Held for a moment (and Anna takes it as comfort) before Ssrin tugs her to her feet.
Anna clings to her, mistrusting her knees. “Where’s the antidote?”
“Here,” Ssrin murmurs. The fangs of her fourth head prick Anna’s neck, a gentle puncture, a bloom of warmth. “A special gland. I keep it close.”
The hatch geysers light and fire: a ring of thermite, burning all around the rim, cutting through, the way it hadn’t cut the outer hull. Wygaunt’s soldiers pin them in the glare of lasers and tactical lights, shouting down, down, get down!
Anna holds up her hands and steps between them and Ssrin. Two serpents peer over her shoulders. The soldiers flinch.
“Stop,” she says. “I’m okay, I’m okay. She’s on our side.”
When the medics and the soldiers leave, when Erik and his wary guard take Ssrin to the ship’s command, Anna finds herself alone with the prodigy.
“Strange to think it’s almost over.” Li Aixue shakes her head and smiles ruefully. “We found a starship. I thought maybe I’d get to see the stars.”
“You will,” Anna chokes. “We’re all going to see-–such things.”
“Anna.” Li touches her shoulder gingerly. She’s shy, Anna realizes, and it surprises her: she’s always seen Li as such a titan. “What’s wrong?”
Someone in the direction of the command center shouts in excitement. The lights snap back on. Blackbird, waking up again. The bargain underway.
Ssrin’s people will come. The world will burn. Everyone except the crew of Blackbird, the ones Anna saved.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Anna says, though she feels Li’s offered arm through phantom scales, though she tastes old blood and new poison in the place beneath her tongue. “I did the right thing.” And, raising her eyes to Li’s: “I did the right thing.”
It was harder last time.
Seth Dickinson’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a writer at Bungie Studios, an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. His first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, will be published by Tor Books in fall 2015.