“You’d rather be dead than bored, wouldn’t you?”

Vikram was running out of space. The bridge was one of the airier, open spaces on the Walsh, but his reading list was infinite, and he had programmed a preset to allow even the visual material manifested at the edge of the room to refocus so his eyes could pass over it, imprinting the material and saving it to the database that was his mind. He could comprehend the information at about half that speed, so it took some time to work through each array. 

He did not have a method, no real system of study, only what the NCOM provided to him based on the algorithm he had begun since seizing the ship. It learned as Vikram learned, and as Vikram learned, he taught the AI to complexify itself. So a 19th century treatise on metaphysics flowed into ancient Chinese poetry, which then in turn resurrected footage of Richard Nixon giving a policy speech on Sino-American relations, dubbed over into Hebrew. 

It was about selection, he found. He could “touch” two, three or more of the information panels and create a new set of ideas, and could pass the time by feeding himself these records, though he knew it was akin to feeding rare ancient manuscripts into a shredder. They had no application, except to keep him in the moment, keep him from disintegrating. He had to fend off that thought, too. 

He had just finished absorbing a Renaissance dissection sketch of a young woman when Sergei emerged from the elevator, as ever, looking as though he was too broad to walk through the door. He stepped through into wrap-around digital display that made up the stream of Vikram’s consumption, looking at it with mild, but not overly charged interest. 

“Sorry,” Vikram said with an anemic smile. “I intended to come down. I’ve been… distracted, lately.” 

“This is the Neurocommand,” Sergei observed with little more than a passing glance. Computer technology had never been much of an indulgence for him. 

“It’s a very small part of it,” Vikram explained. “It runs every technological and mechanical function on the ship, but it also has much more potential. Computing and data, yes, but also — “

“Illusions,” Sergei said in a bored tone. “Like the one you used to take this ship in the first place.”

“You might say that, Seryozha,” came a deep, friendly Russian-accented voice from down near the commander’s station. Vikram watched with satisfaction as Sergei’s head whipped around, confronted with the sight of his own father, rendered so perfectly as to be utterly believable. 

If he was shocked, he recovered quickly. “How are you doing that?”

“Memory,” Vikram explained. “But there are also a hundred thousand of little neurological sensors constantly pinging our brains, and they affect our perception through brainwave energy samples. It’s possible to create a total sense illusion this way. It takes the average talented programmer quite some time to fashion a complex object.”

“But it’s different for you.” Sergei’s attention was still on the facsimile, but as he inspected the details of Mikhail’s face, whatever part of him recognized the man as human disengaged. Not because he knew it was a fake, but because fake was how he thought of humans to begin with.

The Mikhail that had been standing before them with that beaming, deluded good will in his expression was suddenly prone, staring sightlessly, a slightly puckered red hole behind his temple and a spreading pool of blood soaking into the low pile carpet beneath him. His pale, greying blonde hair turned into red cowlicks where it lay in the blood, and the expression on his face was a frown of frozen concern. 

Vikram joined Sergei at his massive shoulder. “This is how I remember your father the last time I saw him.”

“Funny,” Sergei said as he tilted his head for a better look at the blood sluggishly pulsing from the ghastly wound. “That’s how I remember him, too. Only more twitching.”

“I’ve often wondered what he did to deserve that.” Vikram kept his face closed and his voice calm as he perceived the thin smile on Sergei’s slashed face.

“Have you.”

Vikram rolled his eyes. It was the only murder he was aware of that Sergei had obviously committed, but had never owned to. He wondered if it was because it violated the kinship taboo, the general tendency for a psychopath not to harm their own direct family group. 

You are lucky to have her, Seryozha,” his companion mocked the prone figure in Russian, evidently quoting from memory. “I hope that you can be happy together, somehow.”

He gave the dead version of his dead father a little nudge with his booted foot, then lost interest in the illusion, and made his way down to the slanting windows that overlooked the flight deck. 

“Who were you lucky to have?” 

Sergei said nothing, but Vikram could sense the ripple of annoyance, knew it presaged the impulse that had led to the son pulling the trigger on his father, and decided now wasn’t the time. There would be time, soon, for frank discussion of the past, but it wasn’t now. 

“It doesn’t work out there,” Vikram said idly, the bleeding figure on the ground disappearing as he walked past. “Too much interference from the catapult.”

“I didn’t see many aircraft.”

“They left Hawaii in a hurry. They didn’t load their full complement of fighter jets.”

“Not much ordnance either,” Sergei noted. “And you say it’s G2 range compliant.”

“Firepower isn’t everything.”

Sergei looked at him, the half-smile pulling at the scar Rachel had put on him, making it look like someone had painted the lower half of his face off-centre. “Of course it is. Why else would I come here? So you can show me your new toy?” 

“I thought you might want to get acquainted with it. I could give you a read-only clearance. You might find it useful.”

“Useful how?”

“It has its own memory too. Visual, audio recordings, but also recordings of brainwave energy, and perception. It’s much more fragmentary and imperfect, of course, but no less educational.” 

“I know how much you enjoy educating me.” Sergei smiled grimly, leaning in just a little. “What have you got left to teach me? I’m very curious.”

Vikram watched him, selecting his words with care, though not with respect to his own well being. He smiled back into that scarred, insincere face, those flat, pale blue eyes that held so little reflected light in them. 

“I’m curious as to how fucking stupid you had to be to let my sister escape once you had her.”

“That’s funny, coming from you.” Sergei’s smile widened, a sneer forming in the corner.

Vikram took a deep breath. “In my case she had help.”

“So you also have a traitor in your house. Interesting.”

Vikram mounted the dais and dropped the captain’s chair. “Who betrayed you?”

It was fascinating to watch Sergei begin to speak, then pause. He didn’t have these little interruptions of emotional reframing very often, and now his brow came together as he looked at Vikram. Questioning himself as to whether or not to divulge, and in the questioning, realizing that Vikram was watching him. Waiting for him to speak her name.

Edward hadn’t given Vikram details, though he hardly needed them. He’d warned Lucretia, and hadn’t truly been surprised when her confidence in her own ability wasn’t rewarded. Though given Sergei’s sudden reticence to reveal her, she must have some purchase on him, even after he had assaulted her. It was enough to put a little colour in his cheeks. 

He restrained himself from the detail, and shrugged. “Some whore.” 

Vikram cocked a brow. “I warned you about giving them too much access.”

Sergei glared at him. “Not the same whore.”

“They’re all the same whore to you. Just one running version of the same because you’ll never have the real thing. If you used your head instead of your cock to do your thinking for you, you would’ve brought my sister back with you instead of letting her and her new boyfriend make an absolute fool of you.”

Vikram enjoyed seeing the red rise in Sergei’s cheeks, the way his eyes went round, a little crazed. If he decided to lash out, Vikram would never be able to move fast enough, and the hand that crushed his throat would dislodge his vertebra in the process. It was there, always beneath the surface, always waiting for him. Tempting, even. Like the desire to witness the serpent’s fangs coming towards him.  

Sergei indicated the view out of the tall windows. “You think I give a fuck what they say?”

“Of course you do. Your power is founded on fear, the illusion that you control the lives and deaths of everyone under your dominion. But your brand has been overshadowed. If you escalate your violence now, people will view it as evidence of your instability, and they will fight back. They’ll have nothing to lose.”

“Sounds good on paper,” Sergei sneered. “But it’s not about political power. That’s what you care about.”

“What then? What is it for you?” Vikram asked with overly-saturated brightness in his tone, as though he was deeply and academically curious. “Trappings aside, what do you get out of it that keeps you out there, year after year?”

Sergei pretended to consider his words as he laid one muscled arm over the back of Vikram’s chair, his eyes still on the vista, the stretch of land that represented the last home of nearly all that remained of human personhood. 

“Joy,” he said, and in such a loving tone that it might have been a sweet nothing in Vikram’s ear. “Just that. Just the colour. Just the lights going out in their eyes, leaving nothing but my shadow on them.”

“If you lose the war, you won’t have that any more,” Vikram reflected. “But I suspect that’s not your concern. You’d rather be dead than bored, wouldn’t you?”

Sergei straightened, made his way down to the windows. Vikram knew his eyes were on Deadwater, knew inside his mind, he was picturing Rachel, because that was what he himself was picturing. Did he see her marking positions on a map, or did he see her as he wished to see her, in whatever fantasy he had invented for her? Or maybe he was looking at all of the lights he’d like to put out. 

“You wanted me here, Vikram,” he murmured. “You must have something for me.”

When he turned his face, Vikram perceived in it that slack emptiness, could see his own expiration in those eyes reflected as clear as any other victim they had gazed upon. He felt no fear, no surprise, only a sense of lightness as the peace of knowing settled over him. He would have no trouble now. 

He rose and walked quickly down the steps, away from the usurped captain’s chair, away from its meaningless authority. He’d never wanted the chair itself. He knew that now. He was much more comfortable here standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his old companion, safe in the knowledge that he was with his death, and nothing else could touch him. 

“You’re going to like this,” he said, his eyes out on the coast with its twinkling, inconstant little lights.

“Show me.”

It was a short walk down the stairs. They did not speak, just descended the steps together in a rapid metallic patter, until they arrived at the door marked BATTERY – STARBOARD.

Sergei looked at him inquiringly. Vikram spared him a tight smile, and pressed his palm to the door, bypassing the keycard scanner. Golden bright pixels illuminated where his skin contacted the door, and its heavy internal bolts clunked as they released. 

He pushed the heavy door inwards and extended an inviting hand. Sergei stepped over the high set door, his breath catching as he laid eyes on the long row of heavy artillery, Mark 40 machine guns capable cutting deck defenders in half, supported by explosive round Poseidon rapid cannons that could sink an opposing ship with one solid broadside. 

It wasn’t possible to see through the outer hull that currently concealed the barrels from outside view, but at an order from him, a mere gesture, they would slide open and issue a barrage of lighting. Vikram could see into Sergei’s mind as he knelt down next to one of the smaller machine guns in its boxy square mounting, and ran his fingertips over the nearly-pristine barrel. The paint was still new, and he lowered his head and sniffed it, a dreaminess coming over him as though he was enjoying the scent of a woman’s hair. His whole attitude was unaffectedly sensual, and the grin he turned on Vikram was slightly intoxicated.

Vikram tapped the steel floor with his foot. “This entire floor is on an elevator that can move from the waterline all the way to the flight deck. There’s another row beneath us, forty-six guns to a side, making ninety-two total.”

“They’re so pretty,” Sergei purred, directing his comment to the machine gun. “So… virgin.”

“They’ve been tested, of course.”

“But not on flesh.” 

“Not yet. They’re all G2 compliant so any assault would require the ship to get in close range of a target.” 

Sergei rose from his contemplation. “How close?”

“Simulations suggest that we could get within easy shelling distance of Deadwater, the strand, the embankment, the outer slums.” He shrugged. “Not close enough to look them in the eyes, but should be close enough to hear them.” 

He mock pouted a little. “So far away.”

“I know,” Vikram gave him a cold smile. “It’s not the same.”

Sergei returned the smile with equal coldness, giving a little nod of his head as he acknowledged Vikram’s appreciation of his appetites. He moved lazily among the guns and laid his hands on them, licking his lips in anticipation before raising his pale blonde head.

“When do we begin?”