Vikram lately preferred to spend his time on the hangar deck, in among the Mobile Controlled Agriculture System. It was exquisitely beautiful, so green and verdant that he found it almost uncomfortable. It was like looking at a beautiful person in a coma, these vestiges of the dead world. He wondered, as he looked through the each planting bed or little greenhouse in each of the great towering wheels, if this was really the only thing the ship had that was truly worth exporting back to Himalaya. It had endless possibilities, but the NCOM could only offer so much beyond this vessel.
He could bring the MCAS to the rest of the world. Nothing here was without the realm of technological capability, it was simply that the living material now existed nowhere else. He recalled picking up a cluster of grapes and laughing, then nearly bursting into tears after he sampled one, and the sweetness of memory collided with the sweetness of the thing itself. Then he’d had to sit down, finding a place for himself along the furthest back wall, where there was a kind of vertical garden, a wall made of mosses and vines that stretched to the ceiling.
It was here that the inhabitants of the USS Walsh housed and honoured their dead. There were plaques of different sizes with names of the deceased inscribed on them, each letter cut with laser precision. Vikram had not yet totally accounted for the workshops, laboratories, and various other facilities that the Americans in their native brilliance had seen fit to include, but detailed stone cutting of this kind would not have taxed their facilities at all.
As he traced the names with his fingers, he thought about that brilliance, how it had been working overtime to counteract him and his suppressive measures. He’d had a brilliant career ahead of him, a legacy of establishing a world peace never before achieved by any other single person, and yet the Americans had built this colossal machine in defiance of his vision. Here it was, the prototype of a floating city, built not just for war, but also for total self sufficiency. They’d anticipated his restrictions, survived by countering them in advance. Who, he wondered, had made the decision?
Deep under his feet, the nuclear reactor powered everything around him, making it possible for thousands of people to survive in comfort and good health. That the decision makers had in fact privileged comfortable survival over a large arsenal or warmaking capability said much about their prescience. It still had an interesting array of smaller arms, including piratical rows of 125mm artillery along each broadside, making it an extremely formidable fighting machine in close quarters. There were various 50 calibre gunner stations, and enough large ordnance to make anyone think twice about resisting any demands. There were also, in his estimation the most important, two prototype vertical takeoff fighter jets. It would take time to learn it all.
And the Neurocommand. It had come about the same way all computers had, as a function of innovation on each past iteration. The technological leap was in the wireless neurological linking, something that was so brand new and unexplored that it required this entire machine as a testing ground. There were diodes and data banks in every available surface, so small that they were nearly undetectable. Like the human brain, if damaged, the NCOM could heal itself by moving its functions to anywhere else in the ship.
It overwhelmed him with possibilities. He had to remind himself not to get distracted by it, to focus himself on real and material concerns, but it was becoming more and more difficult. He had sifted through it for intelligence more than once, but because it carried years of conversation, compressing and archiving it at need, he could not begin to scratch the surface of it. And there was no systematic way to search through the records he needed because he also required the context of the interaction. What was unsaid was sometimes more important. Refining word searches could take weeks, even for him. People, as ever, still defied Vikram’s mind with their complexity. It was a relief to know that remained true.
He had watched the beginnings of Rachel and Delaware’s interaction, but he was hesitant to break in on their intimacy, unwilling to further violate his sister’s privacy. He felt sure that there was nothing they might have discussed that would impact any of his plans. If there had been, he doubted he would’ve been able to take the ship with so little effort.
He still had more to investigate between them, though he dreaded it. There was already plenty of incoming intelligence to work with, including the interesting knowledge that the Song family had allied with the Americans. He hadn’t expected that, and he was intrigued by the change in dynamic. The Americans alone against Sergei was one thing, but Song Da Li was the most experienced military campaigner alive. It made him smile, thinking of it, but it also meant trouble for him. Da Li, he’d hoped, would see sense and make a deal with him.
As Vikram continued along the long list of stone plaques, he came upon the newest, still perfectly polished, the letters cut sharp. He recalled at once the commemorated, his high boned handsome face with its blend of African and Native features, laughing green eyes and the knowing smile of an experienced man. He remembered the way the cheekbone crushed so easily under his boot, no longer supplied by blood vessels to keep it strong. Green eyes gone grey and liquid. It had been sickening, and defacing him had not brought Vikram catharsis, but the memory still nourished him.
He traced the letters Hudson William Ford, and the dates beneath it — 2012-2043. He wondered if he had not been so foolish, if he had made himself available to play the host, to coordinate matters to keep Hudson’s attention away from the things he did not need to know, if he might have achieved the taking of this ship without so much bloodshed. It was inconceivable, as Delaware had said, that Vikram would not take it, so he couldn’t really foresee a future in which they all lived as one happy family. It was just possible Rachel in her loneliness might have trusted him in his greed. That thought made Vikram feel ill, that he could be so selfish. That he could pretend it was temporary, that she’d find love somehow, with some other prospect.
He hoped one day it might be possible to reconcile. One day, when he had made a dent in the chaos, brought some of this green life back to humanity, she might see her way to forgiving him some of his hubris. But he also knew that was unlikely. He might facilitate his plans for the Cradle, but he knew without a doubt he would never be able to leave this ship again. To do so would make it and himself vulnerable to recapture. He was a part of it now, in service to an objective he would likely never be able to enjoy. He told himself he was coming to terms with it, but in reality thinking of the ramifications kept him awake at night. It wouldn’t be long, in spite of the luxuries, before this haven became a prison.
“I would have liked to have met him.”
Vikram turned. Edward ambled forward, but there was something forced in his casualness. It was clear he hadn’t yet washed, because his beard was overdue for a razor, and he was singed under his unbuttoned fatigue shirt.
He turned away, resentful of the intrusion. “Indeed.”
Edward’s smile was thin. “We knew a little about him in my outfit. A soldier of fortune, like we were. No wonder your sister took to him so quickly.”
“I notice she’s not with you.”
Vikram felt a frisson of rage pull his shoulders back, tightening his jaw. He had to struggle to keep his voice under control as he spoke to the wall, not troubling to meet his companion’s eyes. “With Delaware. What an interesting choice of words.”
What little humour Edward had displayed now evaporated completely, and there was a gentle sneer in his voice. “I had no chance of snatching her from Sergei or Delaware. Let’s say, in your gratitude, you recognize my appreciation of your preference for the latter scenario.”
“My gratitude,” Vikram repeated, astonished. “And I should be grateful to you for helping her escape in the first place? Is that your argument?”
To his credit, Edward did not attempt to deny it. He seemed to be deep in thought as he dropped his chin, eyes moving sightlessly over the names. Vikram wanted to shove him, to break him out of this uncharacteristic stillness, even more than he wished to antagonize him.
“She would have killed you,” he said finally, with dull indifference.
Vikram felt the heat rise to his face. “What right do you have to make that determination?”
Now Edward lifted his head, reached out and touched the new cut stone that bore the dedication to Hudson Ford’s memory, then turned a grimacing smile on Vikram. “Because you wouldn’t leave her alone. Because I would’ve done the same.”
He turned away, but halted when Vikram seized him by the arm. For a moment, Vikram thought he would strike him, but his nostrils flared as he yanked his arm out of Vikram’s grip. Still, he remained in place, mouth flat as he listened.
“I’m sorry for any harm to you or your people.” Vikram drew closer to him. “If you want to hate me because of allowances I’ve made for Sergei, you’d be in good company. But let me ask you this. How many weapons have you sold to him? How much destructive power have you placed in his hands? You can’t tell me you bear no responsibility for him.”
Edward seemed to consider his words, then drew away. He did not return to the captain’s quarters, and after Vikram had showered, and returned to his empty bed, he found he could not make himself sleep. He was so frustrated and enraged by the betrayal, enraged at himself for having indulged in the expectation of fidelity in the first place. In Taaj it had seemed so easy, so safe. But he’d been a fool. He was just as alone as he’d ever been. Or perhaps, in his foolishness, he might just have to admit that he wasn’t, and that the pretence would only do more harm. He wasn’t sure which frightened him more.
Finally, after a sleepless hour, he summoned an NCOM screen and searched for his companion, locating him in the gym. Vikram slipped on a pair of linen pajama trousers, and made his way down two decks to the weight room, and found Edward lying back on one of the benches, staring up at the ceiling with red eyes.
Vikram took a deep breath. “Come to bed. Please.”
Edward laughed softly. “Lonely, are you? I’m sure you could devil up some charming bloke from that mental vault of yours, make him a real boy for a night.”
Swallowing the humiliation, Vikram looked down at the floor. “You don’t have to mock me.”
“Do you actually feel anything?” Edward said as he sat up, in the same jocular tone. “Or are you here because you’ve got something to sell old Edward, and you’ve come in person as a tempting sweetener.”
“I think there’s something you want,” Vikram said coldly. “But you don’t want to disadvantage yourself by admitting it.”
“Fine,” Edward snapped, rising to his feet so he could look down into Vikram’s face. “I want you to summon Sergei here so I can have my satisfaction of him. Then I’ll take what bits of him I want to give to my darling, and I’ll be gone. You can leave my business to me, or shell this place to the ground, it doesn’t make a difference to me.”
“And you think,” Vikram whispered in his softest, most wounded voice. “That I would deny you this? You really think I’d choose him over you? I can’t do any of this alone.”
“You seem to be managing,” Edward muttered, but now Vikram’s hand was on him. He shuddered. Anguish, longing, whatever it was, it burned under his skin, impossible to conceal.
“Seeming and actuality are not the same, are they,” Vikram remarked dryly as he withdrew, turned, and walked out.
He did not have very long to wait before his quarry wandered back to the stateroom. Edward paused at the bedroom doorway, looking hangdog and lost. Vikram pulled back the covers, reached out his hand. As Edward surrendered to the embrace, something cracked inside him, and he began to weep heavy, painful tears. Such tears as Vikram had wept, full of regret and guilt, and failure. His shoulders heaved as he pressed his face into Vikram’s neck.
He stroked his companion’s hair, saying nothing, merely being present as Edward had been present for him. He wondered if it that had been tactical, if all of their tender moments were artefacts of personal agenda, or if it was his own curse to think this way. He wanted to believe it wasn’t true, that he could feel affection, that he could love this strange, bluff campaigner. He just wasn’t sure it, or anything else, really mattered. He knew that he’d been right, that Edward had been right, and that he was alone, not because he had insisted on it, but because he didn’t know how to be anything else.