In Which: Elena reconnects with an old friend
“It’s not your fault, Elena.”
She had dropped into a chair after Bear left, exhausted and helpless, vaguely aware of the state of her appearance. She should find somewhere to wash up, clean off some of the stench, find something else to wear. There would be clothes in the gym she could borrow, maybe even something without a Corps logo on it. She should go after Bear and let him keep yelling at her; she knew him well enough to know he would need to yell until he wound down. Then she thought of Jessica with him, and decided he might wind down on his own. Bear was no match for her friend.
“You can’t know that,” she told Greg. He hadn’t been there. He hadn’t seen her with Arin for six weeks, so grateful to have found someone who saw her life in the Corps as something other than some violent, incomprehensible part of her history. She’d been flattered. She’d felt a little less lonely. And she’d come close to getting him killed.
But Greg just looked surprised. “Of course I can. Savosky’s the captain of that ship, civilian or no. It was his responsibility to make sure his people were at their posts going into this thing.” He was staring at her, his gray eyes clear, as if he believed it.
“Arin’s been following me around the whole time, Greg,” she confessed. “Wanting to hear about the Corps. Looking for stories of glory. I fed him all kinds of crap. I even started training with him, telling him he could get in if he wanted.”
“From what I saw today,” Greg told her, “he probably could. He kept a level head, which is saying something in that fucking mess.”
“But—” He was doing what she had been doing: thinking about it from the wrong direction. “He’s a civilian, Greg. There was no way I could make him understand the reality of it all. I should have kept my mouth shut. I should have shoved him away. The last thing I should have done is encourage him to see the Corps as an option.”
“Is that what Savosky told you?”
“I—don’t you think he’s right?”
Something flashed across his face: annoyance, she thought, or maybe anger. But when he spoke, his voice was soft. “I don’t think you really believe that, Elena,” he told her. “Savosky’s a civilian, too. He doesn’t understand.”
“He understands Arin better than I do.”
“Do you think so?” He was watching her, those incisive eyes studying her face. “Do you remember nineteen?”
She thought back. She had been in college, serious and single-minded, eyes on one thing and one thing only: doing well enough so she would be accepted at Central Military Academy, to fulfill the only dream she had ever had. She had been humorless, fatalistic, and invincible. “I was an idiot,” she confessed.
A smile rippled over his lips. “Me too. And if anybody had tried to tell me anything—never mind my dad—I’d have dug in my heels and done exactly the opposite. What happened on Govi, Elena?”
She rubbed her eyes. “That one was definitely my fault. We’d found this lifeboat, with seven people, and they were fucking freezing and scared as hell, and there were waves coming in. So I had Arin fly low, and I took a net cable, and I dove into the ocean to hook them so we could pick them up.”
He stared. “You dove into the ocean.”
“The freezing, toxic one.”
“That’s the only one that was there, Greg,” she said irritably.
And then, to her surprise, he laughed, and sat back, and she thought she caught something resembling affection in his eyes. “No wonder Savosky’s been short with you. He must have thought you’d lost your mind.”
“I couldn’t leave them, Greg. I—”
“I know, Elena. And if he’d asked me before you guys hit Govi, I would have told him exactly what would happen.” He grew more serious and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Here’s what I think happened today: I think Savosky fucked up. I think this kid is better at subterfuge than anybody thought. And I think you would have had to lock him in a cargo hold to keep him away from that moon. He’s lucky he was with you. I’m guessing it took some flying to keep that bird from shattering on the way down.”
She hadn’t thought about it. She had flown the way she always did. “He shouldn’t have had to see what he saw today,” she said, clinging to her guilt.
And Greg’s gray eyes grew somber, and she saw grief, deep and familiar. She always forgot how much grief he carried with him, all the time. “Nobody should have to see what he saw today.”
“You know,” she said, careful and uncertain, “it wasn’t your fault, either. Yakutsk is Yakutsk. You got here as quickly as you could.”
“It’s never enough, though. Five hundred people. Do you think any of them walked away?”
“You cannot fix the universe, Greg,” she insisted. She had said it to him before, a thousand times. “You don’t have that power. Nobody does.”
He met her eyes, and for one instant everything was erased, and he was her old friend, the one who always knew what to say, who always knew her moods without asking, who made her feel stronger and more focused just by being there. His gaze lightened, and she thought, just maybe, for that one moment, he felt the same way in return.
And then a sound came over her comm: a digital hiccup, an audio artifact, like a message that had been overly compressed and resent too many times. She caught a few words, then a phrase, and then the message cleared up: “This is an automated distress call from Cytheria, off of the PSI starship Chryse. We are in need of retrieval. Repeating.” The message played over, this time in a common PSI dialect.
“Greg,” she said, “did you just—”
“I received it, too,” he told her. His hand was behind his ear. “Lieutenant Samaras, did you just pick up a distress call?”
“No, sir.” Samaras sounded curious. “We’re clear on comms.”
Greg met Elena’s eyes, then said, “Lieutenant, I need you to raise Chryse for me.”
Elena took a moment to digest that. “Since when,” she asked him, “are you on chatting terms with Chryse?”
“I think that’s overstating it.” When she kept staring, he relented. “Since this morning. But I don’t know that they’ll answer me on an official comm line.”
But a moment later, Greg’s concerns were put to rest. “Captain Foster,” said a warm baritone voice. “What can I do for you?”
“Captain Bayandi,” Greg said, “I’m sorry to trouble you, but we’ve just received a distress call from Commander Ilyana’s shuttle.”
Captain Bayandi? And friendly, no less. This was feeling more surreal by the moment.
“Let me check.” Bayandi’s voice had gone serious, but lost none of its warmth, and Elena tried and failed to reconcile his affect with everything she had been taught about the strange, standoffish PSI ship. After a moment, the PSI captain continued. “I am receiving only telemetry, Captain,” he said, palpably worried. “Cytheria has dropped out of the stream. Her environmental systems are intact, but I cannot raise Commander Ilyana. If her shuttle is damaged and she cannot reenter the field—she is not close to anything.”
“Can you get to her?” Greg asked.
There was a brief pause. “Our travel time would be nine hours and four minutes. I do not suppose, Captain Foster, that you have anyone closer?”
“I could go,” Elena put in.
Bayandi said, “May I ask who you are?”
Polite. Not hostile, not reactive; just polite, and faintly curious. “I’m—” How was she supposed to introduce herself? “I’m Elena Shaw,” she said. “I’m off the freighter Budapest.”
But Bayandi knew her name. “Ah, yes—you were chief of engineering on Galileo, weren’t you? It’s a pleasure to meet you. Can your freighter spare you?”
“Yes,” she said firmly, and ignored Greg’s raised eyebrows.
“Then I thank you, Elena Shaw,” Bayandi said, sounding relieved. “We are most grateful for your help. And if you could let me know what you find—if Commander Ilyana is all right—”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I find her,” Elena assured him.
“Please tell her—” He paused again, longer this time. “Please tell her that I hope she is well.”
The comm terminated, and she stood, ready to move. “If I head back to Budapest now,” she reasoned, “I can take the other shuttle before Bear has a chance to stop me.”
“Wait.” He got to his feet, and she stopped. “Elena, I can’t send you on a military rescue.”
“It’s not a military rescue,” she reasoned, “it’s a PSI rescue. And you’re not sending me anywhere. I don’t work for you anymore.”
At that his jaw set, and she was abruptly aware she might have phrased that more tactfully. But when he spoke, he kept his temper. “Okay, then, how about this? It’s irresponsible of you to head off into the unknown in a civilian shuttle. Ilyana’s got weapons. You don’t.”
There was something here she was missing. “Why are you worried about this, Greg?” she asked. “I mean, Chryse is Chryse, sure; but they’re PSI. They’ve never threatened us.”
He stared at her, and she recognized the look in his eyes: Too public. Not here. “We’re stuck here to deal with Yakutsk,” he said, instead of answering her question, “but I can spare you a shuttle. At least you won’t be defenseless.”
He led her out of the infirmary, and she waited him out.
“Captain Taras is worried about Chryse,” he told her as they walked toward the shuttle bay. “Apparently they’ve been acting odd since a comms outage that occurred four months ago.”
“Four months.” The significance of the time frame didn’t escape her. “Taras thinks they’ve been compromised.”
“She didn’t come right out and say that.”
“You think they’ve been compromised.”
“I think it’s not a possibility we can ignore.”
She shook her head. “Bayandi sounds . . . friendly.”
“He does.” Greg’s tone went dry. “Funny, isn’t it, that the first time we talk to the captain of such an isolated starship, he turns out to be so personable?”
“And the distress call, aimed just at you and me.” She was feeling increasingly uneasy. “I don’t suppose you could spare me a weapon.”
“According to regulations? No.” His lips set in a grim smile. “But under the circumstances, regulations can go fuck themselves.”