Taighaut looked up, fingers stilling mid-splice, line coiled in his lap.
“Something wrong with that wind.”
It had started too abruptly, the southerly breeze shifting to a hard wind out of the east, but it didn’t act like an east wind. It streamed over the deck, past the empty mainmast and the jagged stump of the mizzen, no gusts, no variation.
Beside him, Idishe had halted his needle as he whipped the ends of the line, staring at nothing for a few breaths as the wind flowed around him, pulling the ends of his headscarf straight west like a telltale. He glanced up.
“Wind’s not blowing. We’re moving.”
Idishe tipped his chin toward the sky, and Taighaut’s gaze followed his to see the dense, anchored grey of the clouds was streaming west and north.
They weren’t flying any sails. The ship sat perfectly still, barely even rocking.
Taighaut was still absorbing that as Idishe neatly coiled the line beside him, stood, and walked across the perfectly level deck, past the spire of the mainmast to the railing and looked out.
No waves, no wake. Just an ocean as calm as glass. Except there was no ocean. Not for a league. You could see the color change in the distance. If he just looked at the stillness of the water, he could trick himself into just feeling the wind.
“We gotta be going at least nine bells,” Taighaut said, coming up beside him, watching the clouds. Idishe didn’t answer him. This ship couldn’t fly that fast. It was a refurbished Secled cargo liner, didn’t have the lines for it.
At the bow, Werser and Aaric were staring out, silent, and Idishe heard Dhomlar calling down the hatch.
“East and south,” Taighaut said. “Where’re we going?”
Sandy legs, thick in the calf, folded themselves abruptly beside him. Rie glanced up from his bowl, eyed Crazy askance. The tired resignation in the air turned abruptly taut. No one said anything, and beside him Leki’s eyes dropping back to his food.
“Look,” she said, “just pretend that Ashur and I have not been getting into screaming matches every day and that I’m amusingly insane.”
Rie was the one to speak. Solme wouldn’t even look at her, arm hanging in the sling, one side of his face fading from purple to green, peeking out between the lank strands of his hair.
“Crazy, it’s getting harder. Beginning to wonder if you’re cracked at all.”
“Great.” She pressed her palms over her eyes. “We’ve reached opposite conclusions.” She flopped on her back, one arm splayed outward, let out a sigh. “So what, you guy’s gonna boycott me?”
“You’re the one it wants. Rest of us are just hostages.”
“Look, we stopped talking after he told me I was dead.”
“Juele’s put us through some cracked schemes, but he’s also the only reason we’re all alive, or in as good a shape as we’re in. I’d be feeble in the head if it weren’t for him.”
“Christ. I told him you guys were gonna blame me for that.”
“Land!” Rie looked up sharply, saw Kashen on watch on the bow, pointing with his whole arm.
Crazy’s grass eyes looked around wildly at Solme and Leki jumping up. “What?”
“Coming up on land.”
“Wait, are we stopping?” Crazy hopped up after him, following them farther up the bow. The water lay absolutely still, but the false wind still streamed over the ship.
The distant swathe of shoreline was pricking his memory, the horizon tall with indistinguishable trees. Rie judged the angle of the sun. Stars would have been better.
“So. Where’s this?” Crazy asked, holding her bare arms against the chill.
Rie didn’t answer. He couldn’t be sure, the whole thing was just too queer, but…
“How in eight storms did he know?”
“Dude, you are killing my PR with the guys.”
Squatting by the water barrels, Hannah held a softly wavering ball of water between her hands.
“Are you ready to talk?”
He was standing just past the barrels, watching her. There were at least ten other people down in the hold with them, all loitering and pretending they weren’t listening. Whatever. It was probably better to have witnesses. He was still conceding to pants, but after over a week of the wild, demon-eyed thing it was getting harder and harder to think of him as Blondie.
“Nope. I still plead ignorance about this past life story you’ve got going. And, really, if I’m dead, I already know why.” Hannah poked the ball of water, watched a thick strand reach out like a little tentacle to twist around her finger. She flicked it off. “You appear to have infiltrated stores,” she commented.
She’d gone for a bowl of water, tasted it, and realized something wasn’t quite right. Entirely on instinct with no logic to back her, she’d poured it out on the floor, and watched it splatter just like water should. Then she’d watched it roll back in on itself, into a gently bouncing blob. Then it had started running around like a gerbil.
“Oh my God, it’s like playing with mercury, but better. No horrible toxic side effects.” Hannah frowned suddenly, eyes narrowing. “Are you toxic?” she said suspiciously.
“Not that I know of,” he said dryly, so very Blondie, and so very not.
“I was always really jealous of the shit astronauts could do, like drink their kool-aid like floating jello.” She paused. “What would happen if I drank this?” If I drank you.
“That would depend on your intention.”
She shifted the ball from one hand to the other, like a slinky. The light from the hatch didn’t reach very far into this corner, but the water was so clear she could still see shapes through it. It was weird, it felt wet, but somehow dry, not leaving a damp residue on her fingers. She wondered if she threw it against a wall if it would spatter, or bounce back. One of the guys —she couldn’t see who— sat up in his hammock, decided against it and lay back down. Eric found a reason to fiddle with his stuff hanging above his hammock.
“Ashur is trying to browbeat me into convincing you to let him talk to Alan,” she said casually. “Mind to mind or something. I’m not entirely sure what he’ll do to me if I don’t. Crucifixion might not be too strong a word.”
“Are you afraid?”
“I think I’m too stupid to be afraid. I just can’t take him seriously, on some level. Which probably amounts to a death wish.”
She happened to glance up at him, saw that tiny Blondie smile that was more eyes than mouth.
“Oh Christ, you’ve got his smile down. That is so surreal.” The smile deepened, and suddenly it really was just Blondie standing there looking down at her, with glowing orange contacts. It took her a second to absorb the sudden shift in perspective. “Is that how it happens? You get all his facial expressions and gestures by osmosis?”
He reached out and brushed the rim of the closest barrel with his fingertips, delicately tracing the texture of it.
“We are becoming one.”
“What if he doesn’t want to become ‘one‘ with you?”
“There is no choice. We are already beyond the point of no return.”
“That’s… very totalitarian of you. So, assuming I’ve got this straight from what Ashur has been shouting at me, these are his options: Resistance is futile, or collaboration.”
“You would not be agreeing with me so casually if you knew what I was referencing,” Hannah told him, tone bored. Then, “I mean, does he know that? Does he know what his options are?”
“He doesn’t trust what I tell him.”
“Yeah, I probably wouldn’t listen to the sentient brain parasite mind-raping me either.” She tossed the bubble of water in the air, caught it. “So, just so the witnesses can report that I tried. Will you let Ashur try to convince him to help himself? Since I’m the one asking, and you like me.”
“‘Ashur’ has already crippled him.”
Ashur hadn’t mentioned that in any of his daily intimidation bouts. It might explain his obsession.
“What about his boyfriend?” she said, not looking at him. She let the water pour through her fingers into her her other hand, watched it spin itself into a glass bowl, then collapse back into ball.
“Because I don’t think he can help him.”
“Okay, what about… Ridiath?”
“My answer is the same.”
“I get that,” she said, poking her thumbs through the water and pulling it apart into two globs. She pressed them together, watching them reform into a whole. “One thing I know, is when you’re really, seriously fucked up, you don’t listen to the people who care about you most. They all have agendas. They all want you to do whatever thing will keep you in their lives, because they care about you and they can’t stand to lose that. When it’s a choice between what’s best for you, or what’s best for them, they will always choose number one.” She looked up at him.
“So, fourth proposal: I don’t mean shit to him, and he doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t even have any strong feelings about him, except I think he’s weird but harmless. I’m practically a stranger, but I’ve also helped him out. I am the closest thing to impartial outside perspective he can get.”
“Are you really a stranger?”
“Boyo, I think I’m having psychotic hallucinations, or at the very least that I’m a being from another world. I’m as strange as it gets.”
He was watching her. Weighing. Measuring.
“What would you tell him?”
“The facts. And not a thing more.”
No one had taken her this seriously for months.
“Why offer this?”
“Because. I think you’ll let me.”
They looked each other in the eye for what seemed like a long time. It wasn’t a game of chicken. They were just really, actually looking at each other, and there wasn’t much left to say.
“So,” she said again, hefting the softly undulating globe of water in her hand, “what happens if I drink this?”