“Someone left breadcrumbs in my bed,” Karl announced one morning. Karl had a lot of announcements; Nanette hadn’t known him long enough in the real world to know if this was a side-effect of being cast as a 1960’s era space villain or if he had always been this way.
“Are you sure that wasn’t you?” said Nate. “I saw you with that pile of cookies last night, don’t think I didn’t.”
“They don’t taste like anything,” Karl moaned. “And then when I’d eaten them all, the video screen in my quarters flashed up like “Great work! You’ve improved your ship’s stats!” and I was like I what -”
“Eating cookies improves our ship stats?” Shania said, glancing at Nanette. “Did you know this?”
Nanette had known about the cookies. It was the kind of in-game Easter egg that she loved; the work of a development team that spent ages rolling around in the world they’d created and cared for and wanted players to do so, too. “They predate me,” said Nanette, sidestepping.
“It was me,” said Kabir.
“Why cookies, though,” said Shania. “Like, what about a cookie made you think: yeah, this is gonna improve our shields.”
“I mean,” said Kabir, “I don’t know, I like cookies. Noodles also improve ship-wide stats.”
“Any kind of noodle?” Nate said. “I had ramen the other day and the ship didn’t tell me good job for it or anything.”
“Let’s take the noodles offline,” said Nanette, who sensed a growing agitation around game mechanics. “You said you found crumbs in your bed?”
“So many crumbs,” said Karl. “I wasn’t eating in bed, I’m not a monster. But someone definitely was.”
“Okay,” said Nanette. “Did anyone else here leave crumbs in Karl’s bed? I promise you’re not a monster if you did.”
“Wooo monsters,” Nate said, very dry. “But no, I didn’t.”
“I did not,” said Elena.
“Big no,” said Shania, while Kabir shook his head.
“Aaaand it wasn’t me,” said Nanette. “So no one did it. No one here did it.”
They all - pardon the pun - digested this for a moment.
“Did you program a mouse?” said Nate. “Like, Mass Effect style, did you add rodents into the game?”
They all looked at Kabir, who actually lit up. “Oh, I did,” he said, in dawning realization. “I did! There’s a mouse on this ship! Or maybe a hamster, or like - it’s like a little octopus, very cute -”
Karl gagged out a word that sounded like “tentacles,” and put his hands on his knees and bent over until he was breathing very hard facing the ground.
“Oh, the - the thing on Ledo II,” said Elena. “There was so much slime -”
“Karl got eaten by it,” said Shania, leaning in close to murmur in Nanette’s ear. Her hand on Nanette’s shoulder was very warm. “It was a bad look.”
“If there’s a mother-fucking octopus in my bed I’m going to projectile vomit all over this mother-fucking ship,” Karl declared, still bent in half. There was sweat all over his face. Nate gingerly patted at Karl’s back.
“Okay, let’s work the problem,” said Nanette. “What do we need in order to find the octopus-mouse-hamster?”
“Honestly, the biggest blocker is time,” said Kabir. He spread his hands wide, shrugging. “I gave it a time-based lock. New interactions will trigger after we visit additional planets. Exploring new areas and picking off side-quests.”
“So - living our lives,” said Nanette.
“Ugh,” said Elena.
“I guess it’s a reason to get out there,” Nate said, still thumping Karl’s back, and Kabir said, “Yes, exactly! That’s the point! The mechanic works!”
“It’s as good a way to start as any,” Nanette said. “Let’s all pick a planet -”
“Space stations, too, and moons, and there’s always the generation ship -” said Kabir.
“- and ace this fucking side quest,” Nanette finished.
They mostly slunk around the outskirts of the Infinity universe, avoiding the more populated areas, because they kept running into assholes and it was exhausting.
“Why does everyone want to go into a fantasy world and be a jackass,” Nanette said, after the third run-in.
“Paying customers,” said Shania, sprawled out in the captain’s chair after everyone else had gone to bed. “That’s one thing I don’t miss - calling up shitheads.”
“I kind of wonder if Daly baked the assholes in,” said Nanette. She eyed the bar but stayed collapsed in Kabir’s seat, closest to the stars. “Like - if every Jerk, Dick, and Fuckhead out there could sense what Daly was without even knowing it, so they all came here.”
“They’d be here anyway,” said Shania, immediately. “Because they’re always everywhere. Did you see where Karl wants to go? Right smack dab in the middle of a popular route. It’s going to be wall to wall assholes.”
“It won’t be wall to wall assholes,” Karl said the next day, looking a little hurt. “I don’t think anyone’s really found it yet. I was thinking about it, you know. Before. Was gonna show it off, but I guess I - other me - didn’t get around to it.”
“Does it have a name?” Nanette said. On the viewscreen it had only said “548c,” with no user-generated tags at all.
“I was going to call it Karl,” Karl said, not a trace of shamelessness in his voice.
Karl’s plant life was an overgrown riot of reds and purples; when they beamed in it came up to Nanette’s waist, silky soft. Strange enormous trees dotted the landscape, home to some sort of bird that never repeated the same call twice. A violet-tinged, perpetual twilight, stars that never faded, fireflies. Rolling hills and sharp peaks and drops to give you that good startled oh, when everything is very large and you are very small.
“What the fuck,” said Nate.
“Karl is beautiful,” said Kabir, blinking.
Nanette could see shoulders lowering while they stood there. It was a procedurally-generated jackpot, the sort of gem that you slapped on all the advertising. No one was there.
“Thanks, Kabir,” said Karl.
They wandered, a while. They weren’t in a hurry. The only thing waiting for them on the ship was a mouse that needed them to go away, so they strolled. Shania stuck a flower in her hair, Elena filled her pockets with rocks. Nanette pulled out her tablet and she and Kabir took a peek at the code; Daly’s signature was all over it - sparse, efficient, lovingly documented - and they might have gotten stuck on that if Nate hadn’t rushed back from where he and Karl had gone ahead and urged them onward: “You have to see this.”
Karl stood at the top of a rise, a valley spread out before them, wildflowers all the way down. At the bottom of the valley were people.
There were six of them, all players, but two of them were on the ground and the other four had rifles. It was a laser rifle that had been designed to make satisfying PEW PEW sounds. The worst that could happen was a couple of players getting kicked to a game over screen to lose some assets and maybe some time, but Nanette found herself jolting forward anyway.
“Oh, adrenaline,” said Nate, sounding pleased and also furious, and then all of them were running, sprinting down the path in their sensible boots and jumpsuits. Karl made it down first, half leaping downhill in a way that seemed one misstep from disaster but paid off when he barreled shoulder first into the nearest rifle-toting player, element of surprise still completely on his side.
The player shrieked, rifle flipping up into the air, and then they both hit the dirt. “Karl! Is a beautiful! Place!” Karl said, elbowing the player in the face with a surprisingly realistic crunch, and Nanette laughed out loud, sprinting through space fireflies, fists clenched and blood up.
They rolled into the rifle-toting assholes as an unstoppable wall, an inevitable force, Nate and Kabir tag-teaming, Elena with a rock the size of her first, Nanette laughing while Shania shouted increasingly creative insults. The only truly dangerous moment was when the shortest asshole, waving his rifle in extreme frustration, attempted to get a final shot at his victims. Karl, again, was fastest, wrapping himself around the other man’s legs and bringing him down in a shower of pixelated light and laser bolts.
Nanette collapsed on the ground, panting hard, and thrust her fists in triumphantly in the air. Shania toppled next to her, half on Nanette, half on the ground, and grabbed one of Nanette’s fists in her own hand to shake it in excitement. “We are badasses!” she said, still cackling, a warm weight against Nanette’s chest.
“Oh my gosh,” Nanette said, dazed and pleased.
“How did you not go flying head-first into a rock, man, what the fuck,” Nate said, somewhere above and to their right. “You were booking it!”
“That was wild,” said one of the two players they’d rescued - they’d rescued! - a woman in a bright orange spacesuit, gaping at them. “We’d have been goners for sure if you hadn’t come by and my last save point was like, hours ago.”
“You really were flying, man,” the second player said to Karl. “Our hero.” He fluttered his eyelashes in an exaggerated way, but the smile he flashed was genuine.
“Any - anytime,” said Karl. Nanette peered past Shania to catch a glimpse of him, up on one knee in red flowers, strangely subdued yet beaming.
All of them had crumbs in their beds, these days, not just Karl. “Where do all these cookies even come from?” Shania wondered. “Who’s making them?”
“The game is making them because the mouse needs them,” said Kabir. He shook out the blanket he’d brought to show and tell and crumbs showered out.
“I think your crumb to mouse ratio is really off, personally,” said Nate. “How many mice are there? Like, we get it. We have a mouse.”
“It’s possible it could have used some fine-tuning before deployment,” Kabir said. “I hate when things get rushed. If you’re doing it, do it right.”
“Speaking of,” said Nanette. “What’d we get for those rifles?”
“10 thousand beautiful Infinity dollars,” said Shania, and Nate whistled. “Yes, great price, thank you, I am very good at what I do.”
“And the reward?” said Nanette.
“Well,” said Karl. “I bought a table?”
“With the money you got from selling the reward?” said Nanette, suspicious.
“No, I uh,” said Karl. “I spent some of our beautiful Infinity dollars on a table to hold our reward?”
“You what,” said Elena.
“It’s a ship upgrade, it was in the store at that last trading post,” said Karl. “Nate pointed it out to me! It’ll hold all our cool stuff!”
“It’s a nice reward,” Nate said, apologetically. It was. It was gold and it glittered in the light and it felt soft and buttery and warm when held in one’s hand. It felt friendly, which was the sort of balls-to-the-wall game design to which Nanette had once aspired.
“Anyone opposed to a table to hold our collectibles?” Nanette said, glancing around the kitchen, but it was a tangible thing they could hold and it had been given to them freely for something they had accomplished. No one was opposed.
“Okay,” said Nanette. “What else is on our plates?
“I’d like to get the replicator to make something that isn’t ramen or cookies,” said Nate. “This basic model is way too basic, and we’re basically eating cookies every time we roll over in bed and I’m getting sick of them.”
“Awesome,” Nanette said, to a general murmur of agreement.
Kabir followed that up with, “Any blockers?” and Nanette realized abruptly that they were in a scrum, that they’d been accidentally having scrums every morning in the kitchen over coffee for the last month, and that Kabir had known this whole time that they were using agile to captain this fucking spaceship.
“It’s soothing,” Kabir said, after Nanette closed the scrum and the team scattered to their self-appointed tasks. “I like the routine. It’s not like Before, when all the routines were bad and also traumatizing. This is problem-solving.”
“Ugh,” said Nanette, but also, “Yeah, I guess.”
“Speaking of problem-solving,” said Kabir.
The generation ship had become something of a tourist attraction. There had been all sorts of press for it, in the beginning - a partnership with a university, a massive simulation, a faster-than-realtime visualization of a generation ship sent into the void for hundreds and hundreds of years, embedded in an MMORPG for everyone’s viewing pleasure. Even a few years into it, when Nanette gave notice at her old job and joined Infinity, the first thing her dad had said was “Oh, the ship place,” like that was the only thing he knew about it.
“We did mad sales to academics after that,” Shania said, reminiscing. She’d rolled up her sleeves at some point and Nanette was trying not to find it distracting. “Institutional subscription licenses. My numbers were off the charts that first year.”
“What generation are they on?” said Nate. “I can’t remember the time conversion.”
“It’s five,” said Kabir. He was methodically ripping apart a cookie and not eating any of it. “Fifth generation of ship-born kids.”
“Well, ship-born AIs,” said Karl, which landed like a lead balloon. “Shit. I mean -”
“No, you’re right, it’s AI,” said Kabir. “Limited intelligence, made to purpose. All emotional and social instability is introduced into the system by a randomizing function with preset min-max values.”
“So it looks like they feel, but is code,” said Elena.
“This is not a conversation we get to have and still feel like functional human beings,” Shania said, jerking up to her feet. She shotgunned the last of her coffee and set the mug down on the table. “Nope. No thank you.”
“Let’s table existential questions for now,” said Nanette. “I’m not sure there’s enough replicated coffee in the world to handle that, and while I’m willing to try, right now I mostly want to upgrade our shields and catch a hamster.”
“Hard same,” said Nate, and Karl said, “Oh, word,” and Kabir didn’t say anything at all.
Deuterium was massive, and to scale. It dwarfed their tiny home, loomed large and intimidating enough that when Nate whispered, “That’s no moon,” the break in the sudden tension was a relief. Rings upon rings and a spine that spanned miles. A few of the airlocks were blocked, clearly occupied by players or researchers or both, but the ship was large enough that they found their own quiet dock without trouble.
Deuterium was orderly. Everything in its place. Thousands of limited AIs in human wrappers, walking purposefully around, doing the work for which they had been designed. They stood on the ship side of the airlock, newly synced to generation ship time, and watched the hustle and bustle. No one looked at them. At one point someone had marched right through Elena, phasing out like a glitching NPC.
Nanette thought: who’s the ghost?
“This is hella depressing,” said Karl. “HELLA depressing, and we know from depressing.”
“They don’t know we’re here, that’s the point,” said Nanette, but she agreed. “They’re designed like that. Can’t study a population in a closed system if they keep noticing you opening the box.”
“We did a really good job, programming this,” Kabir said, but he sounded deflated. “Lots of back and forth with the university, working to their specs. Lots of really dedicated developers and lots of grant money. Some big names in AI consulted. It’s exactly what we made it.”
A crew member pushed past, oblivious. They had a look on their face that - but Nanette didn’t know. She was projecting, for sure. They all were. But also -
“I’m just going to,” Kabir said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, and then he set off in completely the opposite direction.
The rest of the team looked at Nanette. “I know,” she said, lifting her hands defensively. “I will.”
She found him on a walkway deep into the ship, two or three stories up, legs hanging over the edge and hydroponic gardens far below.
“Regrets about coming here?” said Nanette, taking a seat next to him. She swung her legs out over the drop, back and forth, like a kid.
“No,” said Kabir. “It helps a little, to see.”
“You know,” said Nanette. “Whatever you want to do with - this. We’ve got your back.”
"I got left on the ship a lot," said Kabir, sidestepping the question. "And it was better but sometimes it felt like - I was born on the ship and I was going to die on the ship and nothing in between mattered at all.”
“This isn’t the same thing,” said Nanette.
“It wasn’t,” said Kabir. “But now it kind of is.”
They sat together, swinging their legs, thinking.
Kabir said, “I have an idea.”
Deuterium’s sixth generation of ship-born children sailed through Infinity much like their fore-AIs, oblivious and dutiful. There was a minor incident with the second ring’s water reclamation system that briefly had the international research team very excited but was resolved without any great catastrophe.
One of the research assistants, going painstakingly through the logs, had been struck by a sudden certainty that the issue with the water reclamation had been deliberate sabotage rather than mechanical error. His impassioned 3AM email reached his equally sleep-deprived supervisor in vulnerably caffeine-fueled frame of mine, and this evidence - circumstantial at best - was enough to send both of them reaching their Infinity headsets.
This was how Dr. Maeve Delaney and Kavian Asli happened to be standing in the middle of Deuterium’s busiest second ring corridor at the moment that the sixth generation blinked their eyes and saw past the wall of code that had rendered the rest of Infinity’s habitable, populated universe invisible.
Kavian noticed first, because a crewmember ran directly into him instead of passing harmlessly through, and it knocked them both to the ground. “Kavian?” Dr. Delaney said, baffled, before the context of the fall began to set in, in the form of her tablet’s sudden frantic beeping: Deuterium was syncing back to Infinity time, Deuterium was altering its direction, Deuterium was broadcasting a message, equal parts elated and frightened: “Hello. We see you. We come in peace.”
The crewmember - limited AI in human skin - clambered to their feet and reached out a hand to help Kavian up.
“Oh,” he said, and clasped their hand.
The Vengeful Mouse
They didn’t need to sleep, exactly, but there was something very soothing about closing your eyes and going quiet. Without really talking about it they had all fallen into a regular day-night pattern, the Walton raising and dimming the lights with them.
Yes, the Walton. The last time they’d docked with a PC-populated station it had automatically read their ID tag as the USS Callister. They hadn’t even boarded, because they spent an hour crowded around the comms arguing over each other with the NPC station master until they finally found the loophole in the conversation and accidentally, in a panic, named their ship after a dead man. They felt so awkward about it they fled immediately.
So the Walton raised and dimmed the lights, and Nanette wasn’t sleeping, not really, when there was an enormous crash outside her door. She sat up in the dark, slapping at the wall in a way that she had learned made the lights flare to full brightness. Another crash, a door swishing open.
“Oh, fuck,” said a voice that was definitely Karl. “Ow, shit!”
Bang. Bang. A terrible din of protesting metal as something scraaaaaaped against the wall. Elena’s startled shriek. Nanette scrambled out of bed, tripped over her blankets, scrambled up again, and stumbled out her door just in time to see Kabir go sprinting past.
“What’s -” she started, and then the hallway was a screaming vortex of cookies, whole cookies, partial cookies, cookie crumbs. Somewhere past the crumbs she could just make out Nate hitting the deck under his blankets and Karl caught out in the open, swinging his arms in desperate anti-cookie windmills.
As abruptly as it started, it was over, the large particulates dropping to the floor and the air filled with cookie dust.
“Is it a Godzilla mouse?” Nanette asked. She was breathing hard and steadied herself against the wall with an effort. “What the fuck.”
“What kind of mean ghost octopus did you code, Kabir?” Karl shouted.
“I did not make a vengeful ghost!” Kabir said. Sometime during the last onslaught he had toppled into the collectibles table at the end of the hall that they’d taken to dropping their odds-and-ends on, and didn’t bother to get up now, shielding himself under it. “It shouldn’t be this violent!”
“This is not restful,” said Elena, half-collapsed in her doorway.
Shania came crashing out into the hallway, brandishing a boot like a weapon. “What! Was that!” she said, wildly. “Are we under attack?”
“It’s Kabir’s fucking octopus!” said Karl.
“Okay, it’s not just Kabir’s octopus, it’s our collective octopus,” Nanette said, raising her hands and making the universal take it down a notch downwards gesture. “Did anyone see where it went?”
“It’s invisible,” said Nate, from somewhere under the pile of blankets.
“Right, thank you, poor choice of words,” said Nanette. “Can anyone tell where it went based on its trail of utter destruction.”
Kabir gingerly crawled out from under the table and Karl stopped cursing long enough to assist in extracting Nate from the blankets so they could join the rest of the team in a long look around the hallway. There were crumbs everywhere. There were wires sticking out of the wall, half-torn, totally stripped; Nanette hadn’t even known the ship did wires, but there they were, and they were wrecked. Karl’s door was jammed in its track, but that might have just been Karl.
“The kitchen?” Elena said, uncertainly.
“The engines,” Nate said, quietly.
Eye contact was suddenly very difficult to maintain. They all knew what had happened in the engines. Nanette had crawled down there, on the first day. They’d shut down all non-essential systems and listened, and searched, and Walton had been gone.
Kabir moaned. “It spawns in the engine room, that’s how I programmed it,” he said. “I didn’t-”
“It’s okay,” said Nanette. “Kabir, it’s all right.”
“We’ll find your little hamster friend,” Shania said. She put a hand on Kabir’s shoulder and shook him a little, gently, until his expression wasn’t quite so bleak. “The whirlwind means we’re making progress, right?”
“We’re getting there,” said Nate. “It’s fine. Right, Karl?”
“It’s probably not even an octopus,” said Karl, though he shuddered under one of Nate’s blankets. “Probably a cute little hamster. Cute little buck teeth.”
Elena spun on her heel and disappeared back into her room, door swishing closed behind her. That was a problem for another day. The rest of them dispersed more slowly, kicking at the crumbs, promising to deal with the mess in the morning, and Shania followed Nanette into her room to peer into her closet and under her bed to double-check that the Godzilla mouse wasn’t in there.
“I don’t really feel like going back to bed,” she admitted, when the search didn’t unearth anything more than a sock with some particularly robust object permanence.
“Me neither,” said Nanette. “Do you want to just - I found a setting on my viewscreen, look -” She tapped at the wall until it flickered and faded, leaving behind the black black black of the endless universe around them. Stars twinkled in and out.
“Oooh, vertigo,” Shania said, with relish, dropping back onto Nanette’s bed. She patted the space beside her. “Come on, then.”
Someone had dealt with all the wires by morning, but left the crumbs.
“Wasn’t me,” Nate said, culprit number one because he was the first person Nanette ran into in the kitchen. He had a mug of coffee in hand and kept pausing to frown absently at it, because the game had rebranded all the mugs to say Walton to match the ship and no one could figure out how to change it. “Though if claiming the wires were me gets me out of helping with crumb cleanup, I’ll take it.”
“Sit it out anyway,” said Nanette. “I hear you have a pick?”
“Okay, hear me out,” said Nate. He spread his hands wide. “Spaceship racing. In the Deema belt.”
“Deema?” said Nanette. “Isn’t there, like, a 70% attrition rate?”
“Yeah, but,” said Nate. “I’ve been driving a spaceship for like. A million years. I’ve got more hours in the cockpit than even the most dedicated gamer, because I live here and they’re just tourists.”
“Well, you’ve got the trash talk down,” said Nanette. “You want to use our girl, or do you want to soup something up?”
“I want to buy a racer,” said Nate. “We’ve got space to store one in cargo, if everyone’s willing to spend the money.”
“Well, we’re all adrenaline junkies now, so probably,” said Nanette, which turned out to be correct.
The Deema belt was home to a massive station, designed not according to physics but aesthetics. It would absolutely not work in the real world, which Nanette was starting to think was actually a key point in Infinity’s favour.
As a crew of PCs hopped up on risk-taking, they fit right in on Deema. The station played host to a round-the-clock roster of space races, their start times and historic mortality rates announced on airport-like screens in the hallways. While Nate looked for the route he’d signed up for, a pair of players slid in front of them and found a particularly grisly-looking entry.
“Look at this, half the ships were totaled in the last run!” one said.
They high-fived and departed. Nate pointed at the gap they’d left. Elena began reading out some of the stats from the board. When she finished, Nanette held up a hand.
“Are we sure about this? Remember, it’s a side quest. The mouse won’t know the difference.”
“I know,” said Nate. “Save some space popcorn for me.”
They left Nate with his brand new racing pinnace and bought as much popcorn as they could carry back to the best seats they could find, with a prime view out the enormous windows into the glittering maw of space.
They passed the space popcorn around, waiting for Nate’s heat race to start. “This reminds me of something,” Kabir said.
“Mario Kart,” said Nanette. “The one in space with the rainbow road.”
“That’s not it. Something ... a movie?”
“There are like two million racing movies, dude,” said Karl. “At least a couple of them have gotta be set in space.”
“Maybe you think of the horse races,” Elena said. She pointed out a set of people a few rows ahead of them, decked out in jumpsuits and enormous, colourful hats.
“Yes, but also no,” said Kabir. “I’m thinking about ... desert?”
“Oh my god,” Shania blurted.
Everyone turned to look at her. “No,” she said. “No, ignore me, I said nothing.”
“You know what this reminds Kabir of, don’t you,” said Nanette. “You have a look! You know!”
“It’s an old movie,” Shania said with great dignity. “There’s racing in it, and a desert, that’s all I know.”
“Oh my god,” said Kabir. “The second Star Wars trilogy.”
“Shania!” said Karl, delighted and shark-like.
“Fuck,” said Shania. “All right, nerds, hands up, who’s seen the Phantom Menace.”
Nanette was the only one who didn’t raise her hand, which immediately prompted a dramatic group retelling of what was apparently an over-long racing scene in the middle of the first movie in a second trilogy, and then some significant backtracking when it came out she hadn’t seen any of the Star Wars movies at all.
“And then the old guy dies and it’s very sad,” said Shania. “Remember, the old guy is also the young hot guy we were telling you about.”
“The young hot guy,” Nanette echoed, and Kabir and Karl and Elena all nodded solemnly right as Nate’s pinnace screamed soundlessly by the viewscreen.
Nate was genuinely very good. He won his heat, and then entered some sort of marathon that went in long, frightening loops through a thick belt of debris that kept clipping other ships and turning them into more debris. By the time the day was done, Nanette had the team’s anxiety-motivated retelling of four Star Wars trilogies under her belt and Nate had won the whole thing.
They tumbled out of their seats to scream at the stage, spilling popcorn everywhere, and then to scream at Nate when he was released into the crowd with an enormous shiny trophy. He eventually resurfaced, trophy in one hand and a supersized gulp cup of space beer in the other. They rushed forward to meet him.
“Now that,” said Kabir, “is podracing!”
Nate grinned, ear to ear, extracting himself from the arms of Shania and Karl far enough to point a you got it finger at Kabir.
“Nate,” said Nanette. “Tell me you didn’t do this because of baby Anakin Skywalker.”
“Oh, that’s absolutely why I wanted to do it,” said Nate. “I watched the pod-racing scene so many times! That’s the good shit.”
Nanette blinked her eyes open to an unread notification, hanging around politely in the corner of her room’s viewscreen. The notification wondered if she would like to build a mousetrap? The ship had noticed that it had enough materials to make a great one, and it had also noticed that there was a mouse problem.
“No shit,” Nanette said, but she was cheered. The mouse-hamster-octopus had been slamming around at odd hours, leaving destruction in its wake: torn clothing, destroyed wires, crumbs for days. It would be a huge relief to make this asshole visible and give it a hamster wheel to keep it busy. Maybe it would be cute; Nanette was personally hoping for the octopus and had a half-serious plan to keep it in her room away from poor Karl and his gag reflex.
Shania banged on her door. “Nanette!” she called. “It’s mousetrap day!”
“It’s mousetrap day!” said Nanette.
There was a party-like atmosphere on the bridge; a genuine uplift of spirit that Nanette wanted to roll around in forever. Nate had the materials list pulled up and Elena had the blueprints, and the rest of the team hurried back and forth across the ship, retrieving odd scraps of metal and mismatched bolts and tools.
Elena was unexpectedly invested in the build, shaking off some of the gloom that Nanette had previously thought was a built-in, permanent feature. There was a strange sort of art to it, Elena carefully stacking all the disparate pieces together and then watching them melt into a new whole.
They stared at it. It didn’t look like a mousetrap. There was no discernible entrance or exit. “Is there a right-side up, or ...” said Nate.
“I think I ran out of time,” said Kabir. “This is so embarrassing.”
“It’s a very posh mousetrap,” Shania said, encouragingly. “If I had a million quid and a flat in the sky that was all windows this is the type of mousetrap I would buy.”
“Your million dollar apartment has mice?” said Karl.
“Hypothetically,” said Shania. “And non-hypothetically this looks very fancy.”
“Thank you, Shania,” said Kabir.
“I like that if it is the octopus I won’t have to see it,” Karl said, coming around. “Nice featureless opaque white box.”
Elena reached out one hand and poked at it. There was no give. “Hmm,” she said.
Karl made a strong case for leaving the trap in his room until Nanette pointed out that the way the side mission worked guaranteed that the mouse-hamster-octopus would show up there, with enough tentacle-tinged imagery that Karl changed his mind. In the end they left it in the kitchen, next to a plate of cookies.
“Mouse Santa,” said Nate. “How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Shouldn’t be long now,” said Kabir. “We can putter around here for a few days, get in some upgrades, and then maybe one more planet should do it. Whose turn is it? Shania? Elena?”
“There’s an infinity of procedurally generated planets out there, and you want to go to Mars?”
“I want to go to Mars,” Elena said, implacable. “Is boring, I don’t care. I want to go to Mars, I want to meet the small robot.”
“The small - the rover? Opportunity?”
“I want to meet Opportunity,” said Elena. “Yes. I know is out here.”
“That is so vintage,” Nate said, admiringly.
“I remember,” said Nanette. “The anniversary pack, right? There’s all sorts of replicas floating around out there. Here. Whatever.”
“Is my choice, and I choose this,” Elena said. She kicked back in her seat, studied her nails. “I’m ready now.”
Infinity Mars looked like Mars, which was almost harder to take than the cookies that powered their shields or the invisible furious mouse that haunted the ship. Infinity Mars was so close to Infinity Earth, and the thought of seeing Infinity Earth looming in the viewscreen made something clench tight around Nanette’s heart and squeeze. Infinity Earth, famously, had nothing on it - a dead world, lost, unexplorable - a design choice that now, in circumstances so wildly unforeseen, looked a little too on-the-nose. The whole team seemed to feel the weight of its proximity as they climbed into their space suits, jittery and anxious and gloomy.
“Do we really need the helmets?” Shania said. “I mean, if we wanted there to be air, we could have air, right?”
Elena clutched her helmet in her hands and put it on with a click that seemed final. She had a box at her feet, the same featureless blank white of the mouse trap that Infinity had given them, and she picked it up and tucked it under her arm.
“Right,” said Shania, and the rest of them put on the helmets.
They needed a map, once they’d stepped out onto the planet. “I wasn’t involved in this asset pack, but I remember some of the discussions,” Kabir said. “Kind of a treasure hunt?”
“Something like that,” Nanette agreed. “Like, collect them all, get a reward, but I think the rover’s a little tricky to find.”
There was a small argument over wayfinding - whose bright idea it was to hide a dead collectible robot, who was in charge of finding and downloading the right map to their personal displays, who was in charge of navigating using the map. The circles were both verbal and literal until Nanette finally threw up her hands and deputized Nate.
Nate took the map and the lead, and meandered them across the rocky terrain. He was a good navigator, even without discernible landmarks or Infinity-generated markers, and Nanette felt free to focus on not tripping over her own feet and also the way her heart still felt tight and painful in her chest.
She stared at the famously red-tinged vista and wondered how accurate it was, how true to life. If it mattered if it wasn’t. Shania crunched over the rocks beside her and Nanette abruptly wanted out of her own thoughts, circling the Earth drain. She clicked on her comm, direct line. “Hey,” she said. “You okay?”
Shania was quiet for a while, and Nanette was content to walk in it, listening to her breathe over the line. “This is hard as shit,” Shania said, at last. “Elena’s having a wallow or she’s secretly a vintage space age fan, and I’m not betting on the second one.”
“It’s a punch in the dick,” Nanette agreed. Shania huffed a laugh.
“I don’t want to wallow,” Shania said. “And I definitely don’t want to do it on Mars. Y’know?”
“I know,” said Nanette. “I found - this wasn’t what any of us chose. This wasn’t what I chose. But there’s good things out there. It’s not all punches to dicks.”
“It’s not all dicks,” Shania said. There was a grin in her voice and Nanette knew without looking that she was smiling “Hey. Come by my room tonight.”
“More mouse hunting?” Nanette said. The grin was overtaking her own mouth. Did Mars have less gravity than the ship? She hadn’t noticed when they stepped out, but now she felt buoyant. Suit full of helium, floating into space.
“Fuck that mouse,” Shania said.
“Hey!” Nate said, opening up the party line. “I think it’s just over the next rise.”
It was. A cream-coloured pipe of a neck, a head full of sensors rising up over the fine rusty silt. Its wheels were mostly buried, the solar panels of its body heaped with dust. Without discussion, they clustered around it, shoulder to shoulder, knees in the dirt, and dug carefully away until it was free. Elena pulled her white box forward and tugged at it like it was a Rubix cube, twisting until something sparked and it glowed, steadily.
She reached underneath the rover’s chassis, and rummaged there until something audibly slotted into place. When she drew her hands out they were empty.
“We know all about is getting dark,” Elena said, and carefully rubbed the dust from the rover’s lenses. “I made a battery from our ship, because in my new life I know how to do this. You can’t go home, but you can keep going.”
Nanette felt tears welling up in her eyes and reached out her hand without looking, without thinking, and felt Shania catch it. Shania was crying too, Nanette saw when she turned at last. “What the fuck,” Shania mouthed at her, incredulous, caught in the same swell of emotion.
Opportunity started up just fine.
The Final Mouse
Nanette had a good feeling when she got dressed for morning scrum. Today felt like the day. The glorious follow-up to mousetrap day: Mouse Trapped Day.
“I am so excited to finally see it,” Shania said, pulling on her jumpsuit and zipping it up. “Is it a mouse? A hamster? An octopus? It’s like it’s my birthday.”
No one else was up yet - “Emotion hangover,” Nanette suggested, walking down the empty hallway with Shania - and so it was just the two of them when they entered the kitchen and discovered something unexpected.
The mousetrap had grown overnight. It used to sit tucked under the kitchen table, safely out of tripping distance, but the trap had grown huge and swollen and displaced the table entirely, snapping the bolts that held it in place and toppling it off to the side.
“Is it just me,” said Shania, sounding clearly unnerved, “or does our mousetrap sort of resemble a coffin?”
“Oh, I hate this,” said Nanette. “It’s Godzilla mouse after all!”
“Or a really big octopus and Karl will never set foot in the kitchen again,” said Shania.
“I think that might be too much octopus for me,” said Nanette. “I didn’t know I could have too much tentacle but if that box is full of tentacles, that’s my line. Too much.”
“What do we even do with it?” said Shania. “Should we wait? If it is Godzilla mouse in there maybe we want everyone here in case we have to fight it.”
Nanette inched a little closer to the mousetrap, skirting a coffee cup that had flown off the table. The box was giving off heat - a pleasant warmth she could feel when she stretched out her hand and let her fingertips hover an inch away from it. It felt friendly. “It feels friendly,” she said, out loud.
Beside her, Shania sighed, put her hand on Nanette’s shoulder and clutched the coffee cup threateningly in the other. “All right, go on then,” she said, and Nanette pressed her hand to the box.
The opaque blank surface under her palm melted into transparent, leaching away from her fingers slowly at first and then faster, faster, and the coffin was shaped like a coffin and not a mousetrap because there was a person inside of it. Sleeping Beauty on a spaceship.
Nanette gaped at the now-transparent box, feeling her brain stutter to a halt. Record scratch. Freeze frame. I bet you're wondering how I got here - and then she knew, with sudden, total certainty, exactly what had happened.
The mouse was not a mouse, or a hamster, or an octopus - the mouse was Walton. The game found him in the bowels of the ship, dying and dying and dying and nothing left but that, and misclassified him as a side quest instead of a person.
“Oh, shit fucking balls what the fuck,” said Shania, all at once and at great speed, and then they were both lurching forward and scrabbling at the bottom of the box, heaving it up and over to shatter into a thousand pieces against the kitchen floor.
From the hallway, Karl shouted, “What was that! Is it Godzilla octopus?” while Walton shuddered all over and tried to sit up, Shania and Nanette hovering with their hands out and flailing in a strange sort of dance.
“Oh my god,” said Walton. His voice was very hoarse, like he hadn’t used it in a while.
“Did you open mousetrap without us?” Elena said, sounding irritated, and then she actually entered the kitchen and came to an immediate stop. “What.”
Walton gave up on sitting and put his hands over his face. “I feel very strange,” he said, conversationally.
Kabir skidded into the room, tripped on the Walton mug Shania had dropped, did a spectacular almost-split, spun into a recovery, and immediately took out Nate, racing into the kitchen behind him. Elena absent-mindedly helped them both up, still staring at Walton.
“Karl,” Nanette called. She put one hand on Walton’s elbow and hauled, Shania mirroring her on the other side. Together they got Walton up and stayed where they were, bracing him.
Karl finally poked his head into the kitchen and Walton took his hands off his face.
“It’s not Godzilla octopus,” Nanette said.
“Why does that mug have my name on it?” Walton said.
“This is, like, the fifth world we’ve been to with flying whales,” Shania said. “I’m into it, but I’m just pointing it out.” She ducked. Nate and Karl had found some sort of shell that was perfectly frisbee shaped and were attempting to put together a game, but so far it mostly involved kicking a lot of sand over their companions.
“It is weird,” Kabir said. “The universe is infinite, but that’s still a high incident rate.”
“I guess the universe just loves flying whales,” said Walton. He’d fallen asleep on this beach three times already. Every time a whale passed overhead and cast a shadow to spoil the perfect warm sunshine he grumbled about it, but everyone had caught him smiling up at them at least once.
“I also love flying whales,” said Shania.
Nanette dropped down next to her on the sand and tucked her tablet away into its pouch. There was no Daly signature here: fifteen lines when five would do, half of it undocumented, variables with esoteric and nonsensical naming conventions. Deeply ugly code.
“Same,” she said.