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The air in the tunnels is close enough for Daisy to taste the acrid, melted-plastic burn hanging in invisible particles around them. The creature has passed this way. Daisy doesn't submit to the allure of the panic fizzing in her bones. She's done this all before. The knowledge that she has, in fact, taken out things that are far more dangerous than Not Sasha allows her to keep her breathing steady and silent. There's no tremble in the hand wrapped around her blaster.

 

She continues forwards, ducking soundlessly to avoid the loops of wiring hanging from the ceiling. Basira is right behind her, boots quiet on the metal panelling of the floor. Daisy fancies that she can hear her partner's mind whirring away as they both stop to listen for any of the creaking pops and clicks that Basira assures her will announce the presence of the creature.

 

The pair had turned left at the bottom of the stairs down into the tunnels, tracing the route that Daisy and Tim had walked only - what was it? - one or two hours before. Time has taken on a glimmering unreality, the numbers of Daisy's watch seem to change when she least expects it. They've been awake far too long but there's nothing to be done about that. Daisy simply blinks away the shimmering lights across her view and presses on.

 

'You knew, didn't you, that there was something wrong with Sasha.' Basira whispers as that mind of hers finally circles to a stop. Daisy shrugs.

'I didn't remember her the way she was.'

 

The energy rolling from Basira bears no hint of any frustration towards Daisy for not making more of a fuss about her suspicions. Daisy thinks the emotion spilling out of her might be guilt. She straightens, pausing for a second to listen for ambush, and twists to meet Basira's dark eyes.

'You did what you thought needed to be done.' Her voice is quiet but firm, inviting no further comment from Basira. The officer nods, wetting her cracked lips. Daisy nods back.

 

******

 

With bulging eyes, Martin stares down at the sticky black liquid dripping from his hands and then back to the body on the floor. Elias has fallen oddly, arms twisted in directions that a normal body would be unlikely to articulate in. His neck is twisted to reveal the oozing wound on his head and the soft white lighting in the corridor reflects on the sea of razor-sharp silver wires revealed by the attack.

 

Martin thinks he might be sick.

 

'Martin!' The static burst of Jon's voice through his earpiece makes him whimper. 'What just happened? Are you alright?'

He opens his mouth to speak and retches, empty stomach relinquishing nothing but the sour burn of his stomach acid. He wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his suit but doesn't take his eyes off the body on the floor as he whispers, 'Oh, oh shit, Jon. Elias - Elias is dead - I think I - killed -' His voice pitches sharply upwards on the word. 'I think I killed him.' Martin is sobbing now, ink-stained fingers shaking like shuttle-wings in an asteroid storm as he reaches up to wipe the tears away. He's not crying for Elias, the fat tears that run down his cheeks are for his mother, for the man he's trying so desperately to protect. When he sniffs, nose leaking, it's for himself. For the tiny shred of his humanity that he destroyed alongside Elias.

'Martin.' There's a soothing note in Jon's voice which overlays the obvious shock and concern.

'I didn't mean to!' His vision blurs and, for a moment, he is convinced that Elias is going to take this opportunity to scuttle up from the ground and attack. He jumps back, blinking to clear his vision, but Elias remains on the floor, limbs twisted like scrap metal.

'I know, I'm heard what he said. You were defending yourself.' Jon murmurs into his ears. Martin shakes away the lingering flashes of the torture he had inadvertently forced upon his mother and imagines that Jon is disgusted in him, morally repulsed by his actions. He bursts into a fresh set of sobs.

'Martin, Martin! You need to try and calm down. 'Jon appeases, 'Martin!'

 

He can't stop. Every time he blinks he sees his mother's rage or the blank nothing in Elias's eyes as he skulled snapped against the wall.

 

'Martin,' Jon is pleading now, 'Are you sure he's dead?'

'I -' He gasps, 'I don't know. Jon, he's not human - he's not -'

'What?'

'He has wires and this black fluid and - oh, fuck - Jon, I didn't mean to kill him, I was just scared and angry and -'

'Shh, shh it's okay, Martin. I need you to tell me exactly what you can see and I need you to check that he's dead . . . Or broken beyond repair at least.'

His breath comes as a damp pant. All this time he has lived under the scrutiny of people wondering whether he was capable of murder. He guesses they'll have their answer soon.

 

But Jon is right, he needs to be sure.

'I don't know how.' He breathes.

'Tell me what you can see.' Jon demands firmly, so clear and confident that, if Martin himself were a bot, he'd want Jon controlling him right now.

'He's on the floor. All twisted up.' He gets out between shaky breaths. 'There's a gash on his head from where he hit the wall and it's leaking this black stuff. It's all over me.' He takes a hesitant step towards the body. It doesn't so much as twitch.

 

Slowly, slowly, he drops into a squat next to Elias' head.

'Be careful.' Jon insists.

'What do I do?'

Jon is quick to answer, 'If what my database says can be trusted, which . . .'

'Yeah.'

'Yeah. There's should be some kind of identifier on his forearm?'

 

Martin stares down at the outstretched arm on the floor in front of him distrustfully. If Elias is a robot, he wouldn't need to breathe, to blink, or have a pulse. Without these indicators of life, how is Martin meant to trust that Elias isn't going to grab him the minute Martin's fingers glance across his waxy, white flesh.

'I'm scared.'

'I know, I'm here.'

 

The material of Elias' suit is thinner than Martin's own. Silkier. Clearly never intended for proper use. Martin's fingers tremble as he reaches down to pluck at the cuff, eyes darting between Elias' dead, black eyes and back as the forearm slowly comes into view. It looks so real, he grimaces, turning the arm as far over as it will go. Elias feels cold under his fingertips. A corpse that was never truly alive. He scans the unblemished skin for any tiny abnormality that might help explain what is going on.

'I can't -' He starts but it's as he's turning the arm back over that the lights catch on a series of small bumps in the skin. Property of. 'Oh, wait!'

 

Martin's stomach jolts into his throat and he nearly vomits again. His ears ring with a screeching tinnitus he knows isn't coming from Jon.

 

Property of the Starshine Centre for Vitality, Hopworth Branch

 

He reads it aloud to Jon and there's a long quiet through the comms which he imagines Jon is using to confirm that, yes, that was the same place he always called, the place that was . . .  Well, I can hardly say caring for my mother anymore.

 

Martin stares down at Elias, tears crowding his view, and, for the most fleeting of heartbeats, he wishes he were alive, just so he could kill him all over again. The bot remains perfectly motionless, the only flicker of life in the black eye facing Martin is his own reflection, ghostly and wild-eyed.

 

'I think he must be dead.' He tells Jon. 'He had better be.' He adds murderously, more for his own benefit.

'Martin . . . What did he do to you? To make you kill him, what did he do?'

 

Martin chokes on his inhalation as the visions descend upon him once again, a jumble of excruciating memories witnessed first-hand.

 

'Martin?'

'He showed me -'

'Showed you what?'

'My mother.'

 

******

 

Basira takes in the towering stack of weapons stuffed to bursting in the wall in front of her with a quiet, impressed whistle. The pair of them had been so relieved to find the stash seemingly unperturbed. It did lead to the question of: where the fuck was Elias if not here. But that could wait. For now.

'Heavens,' Basira whispers, eyes fixed on the sealed containers of flavours of explosives that were definitely not aboard this ship with a legal permit. 'She really knew what she was doing, didn't she?'

 

Basira thinks of Gertrude, trapped in the computer system and yet still competent enough to hide all of this away without the other crew knowing. Incredible. Daisy is quiet for a beat before she whispers back, an uneasy slant to her consonants.

'I think you admire her a bit too much.' Basira whips her head round to gape at Daisy. Her partner shrugs, a tight and controlled thing that is the polar opposite to the buzzing of adrenaline in Basira's body. 'I mean, the ship is still here. And she isn't.'

 

Basira is about to hiss back a retaliation when the air is knocked out of her like a punch to the throat.

 

They hear its voice first. It's too far away to make out intelligible words, if the creature is even capable of them, but Basira's stomach lurches with each discordant bellow.

 

'Fuck.' It's the kind of curse that signifies another step towards an inevitability rather than blind panic. She knows what they're about to face. Daisy meets her eyes. Her grey ones have taken on the colour of steel in the gloom, and look twice as sharp. The artery in her temple throbs.

'Do not shoot here.' Daisy warns, tilting her head in the vague direction of the weapons. 'We'll lead it away.' The volume of her voice drops as the bizarre, tuneless vocalisations continue to get louder and clearer. Basira nods, picturing the Institute erupting with a fatal light and heat, picturing the vile twist of Not Sasha's jaw as she makes out the words:

'I can smell you. I'm coming to find you.'

If Daisy hears, she gives no indication of it on her face. It's so much closer now, the rattle of its joints - a repeated whumph, click, pop - perceptible and growing in volume. whumph, click, pop. Whumph, Click, Pop.

'Run when I say run.'

 

Whumph, Click, Pop. 'I'm going to eat one of your lives.' Basira's skin prickles as the pungent stench of molten plastic closes in on them, air close and choking. She's not going to be able to run for long if she can't catch her breath like this. 'You don't know who you are without the other and you won't even understand when you find out.' Whumph, Click, POP. Whumph, Click, POP. WhumphClickPOP.

 

Basira grips her blaster even tighter, even though she knows she can't use it and drops into a ready position. She tries to steady her breathing and steals one final glance at the side of Daisy's face before a blur of angles, almost translucent in the dim light from their head torches, barrels towards them. Basira's blood runs cold.

 

A gaping smile, filled with too many teeth. 'Hello, Daisy. Why don't you come and say hello to your good friend Sasha?'

 

'RUN!'

 

******

 

Jon is reeling. He roams the branches of himself, pushing out, out, out until, blindly he hits the external casing of the ship and retreats. Flashes of electrical impulse drive back in towards his mess of a core, a mess, he is now certain, was curated to keep him from discovering the truth before he was ready. He still doesn't feel ready. Even less ready now, with the new shock that Elias was never human, that he has the ability to know far more than should be possible and to project that knowledge right into someone's brain. Gertrude had said that he served one of these cosmic horrors, the Ceaseless Watcher. He had obviously served it well.

 

'How could I not have known that Elias was a robot?' He snaps to Martin and hears a twitchy gasp in return as his sudden outburst startles the man. 'Sorry. But honestly, this whole system should have lit up with warnings about unregistered AI.'

'Well . . .' Martin's voice is too small, too quiet to belong to the man who had just rid the ship of such a huge threat to them all. 'Elias did put you into the system, perhaps he even designed it, it does seem to have some obvious, uh, blind spots. Sorry, pun not intended.'

 

Martin - my Martin - who had explained everything to Jon between teary hiccoughs. 'I couldn’t let him take you' He had said. Jon's Martin who had killed to protect him. Jon felt utterly powerless to return that protection, he hadn't even been able to warn Martin that Elias was coming to get him.

 

'What?' Martin asks after a long silence.

'It's just - I'm just an agent of his, aren't I?'

'Jon, no!' Martin sounds like he shouldn't have the energy to be anywhere near as horrified as he is. 'No, you've done so much to help uncover this!'

I manipulated everyone to help Elias get what he wanted. Jon's disgust scuttles through his system like a fat and venomous centipede, ready to strike out at whatever hurts him next. He reaches into himself and finds the shrinking marks on his control room wall. He wraps his code tight around them and tries his best to anchor himself to the only tangible humanity he can find inside this system.

'It's like Gertrude said, in the file,' He knows his voice reaches Martin's ears as a pitiful rasp, 'She knew what Elias wanted from her and couldn't do much to stop it. It's - It's in my wiring. I don't know if I can fight it without forcing us all into an even worse way of realising Elias' plans.'

 

Jon listens to the tide of Martin's breathing as he considers this. Unthinking, he tries to access the camera feed for that section of corridor, desperate to know if that little frown is in place as his cogs turn. He hits a wall of nothing and curses internally. How many times?

 

'Well, we think Elias is gone right?' Martin certainly sounds like that puzzled little tilt of his eyebrows is firmly in place. Jon catches himself before he reaches for the cold feed again. 'Can you try and, I don't know, turn the ship around or something?'

 

Jon finds the fact that the thought hadn't even occurred to him highly alarming. And more fuel for his theory. He opens up the flight plans and dismays at the graphical depiction of the ship streaming ever closer to the barycentre of the new planet. He scrolls through his options. The plan warns him that it is approximately 45 minutes until a steady orbit will be achieved. And what an achievement it will be. He reaches the end of his list of command options and pauses.

 

He checks it again.

 

It would appear that turning the ship around is not an option.

 

'Oh.' Is all Martin manages when Jon relays that to him. He keeps searching, poking at his code in case it realigns into something that will help him escape their fate.

'It's not even like I'm being denied access, it's as though the option to stray from this route isn't an option at all, as though manual control has never existed on this ship.' Jon remembers the engines firing round after round when the Institute was stuck in the webs. They were working to free the ship, but only to steer it back on course. 'This is what I mean, Martin! I'm - I'm scared that there's nothing I can do to fight this.' He replays that imagined memory, of the man with the noose of code. Right now, the man is swinging.

'Jon, Jon it's okay. We'll find a way to sort this. We have to!' Martin's voice feels like a caress against the tension in Jon's system. It's overwhelming, to think that Martin has the space inside of him to carry his grief for his mother and a murder, and still have enough room carved out of his heart to comfort Jon.

?query: do all humans feel that much?

 

His query returns an error. He assumes it must just be Martin then.

 

******

 

The tunnels echo with the pounding of heavy boots on the metal grid of the flooring, the death-rattle of the creature's articulations and its triadic taunting. The archways they speed through are wide enough to admit a human woman and her blaster, but seem to be hindering the long-limbed beast that chases them.

'It curves!' Basira calls from over Daisy's shoulder. The detective doesn't look behind her, just keeps running, unsure when they will reach a safe distance from the weapons to shoot from. Sweat drenches her, armpits and thighs chafing painfully as she pelts her way around a corner and that's what Basira meant, finds herself in the long, straight section of corridor with its adjoining chambers that she and Basira had carried Gertrude through. 

 

She keeps running, just wanting to get a little bit further away so she can get this fucker as it slows down to round the corner behind them. She can see the small, emerald pool of light up ahead that signals that the staircase to the rest of the ship is nearby. Suddenly, she becomes acutely aware that the only sound is the clanging stomp of her own boots and she stops, raising her weapon as she spins around. The corridor is completely empty.

'Fuck.' He throat tightens as a cold, stabbing sensation grips her chest. 'Fuck, fuck, no! Basira!' Daisy had known that her partner should have run ahead, she has shorter legs for fuck's sake. But no, no, she can't be gone, she can't be. Because Not Sasha is only just rounding the corner now, a looming shape in the encroaching darkness. Torchlight on teeth. Sagging skin flapping like a white flag.

 

Surrender is not on the cards.

 

Daisy looks around her wildly and there, there! In the opening to one of the chambers she catches the red glow of the ready light on Basira's blaster. Her heart swells with relief even as a shock of more adrenaline is fired into her bloodstream.

 

The creature's eyes burn like a blue flame in the dark and its neck seems to move independently from its body, pushing that grinning mask forwards towards the chamber in which Basira is hiding.

 

Daisy needs to think of something, fast. Basira is clearly planning on sneaking up from the rear, but that plan will only work if the creature doesn't spot her and if Daisy can hit its skeletal form without hitting Basira behind it. She needs to draw it away from here.

 

Not Sasha is level with the chamber now. Its neck swings like bait on the end of a fishing pole. It would only have to look ever so slightly to the left to see -

 

'HEY!' Daisy roars. Her lungs burn. 'HEY!'

'Aw look at the little detective.' The three voices that are not Sasha speak at once. Daisy can taste blood. 'She thinks she can kill me. She thinks I won't take her face.'

'I don't give a shit if you take my face.' Daisy growls back, she takes aim, right at its mouth. When it laughs, Daisy can smell it, the scent of metal polish and the Institute's shampoo, the smell of an engineer she had once almost-known. 'But you have to catch me first.'

 

For the first time, she glances over her shoulder whilst running, needing to be sure that the whumpclickpopwhumphclickpopwhumphclickpop deafening her is definitely the sound of pursuit. She pants loudly, ignoring the scream of a the stitch in her side. She needs to run far enough to give Basira a chance.

 

'Come on, Alice!' The thing screeches as they round the corner. Daisy feels the scratch of a talon rip through the back  of her suit and she has never been more certain that she will die if she stops moving. 'Let me take it all away. You were always a strange little g-' The taunt is cut off by a choked wail. It rings through Daisy's skull and is enough to make her glance over her shoulder at whatever the fuck has just happened to Sasha. In her shocked and distracted state, Daisy's foot catches on the top of one of the metal wall panels on the floor.

'Haaa-ah!' She shouts as her momentum propels the panel forwards, taking her with it like the most unexpected moonboarder in the galaxy. By the time she unbalances and it goes skidding off without her, there's enough distance between her and Not Sasha to be able to turn around and take a proper look at it.

 

Unlike Daisy, it hadn't known that it was necessary to duck under the loose wiring from the ceiling. Daisy watches with predatory pupils as the pathetic thing writhes and tugs at the tangle of wiring it has got caught up in. Boldly, she takes a step towards it, swinging her blaster at her side. Not Sasha hisses and spits a vile foamy globule onto the floor.

'You can't kill me.' It insists. Daisy sees no hint of remorse in those glowing eyes. That rumbling sensation in the back of her teeth is back again, the one that has always told her when something isn't quite right.

 

The feeling spreads down into her throat and is regurgitated as a low, dry laugh. Something close to uncertainty spins in Not Sasha's headlamp irises.

'You can't kill me.' It says again, wrestling a single, bony arm free in a shower of sparks.

 

Daisy is laughing as she takes another step forwards. Teeth bared.

Daisy is laughing as she points her blaster at the nest of wires encircling its other arm and frees it with three sharp beams of light.

Daisy is laughing over the creature's howl as it claws at its own neck, frantically trying to free itself from the choking black tangle.

 

The laugh drops in pitch until it is nothing but a huffed bark from her throat. A repeated growl of a noise that makes tiny hairs all over her body stand to attention. A gagged and bound part of Daisy's rational mind knows that she gets like this on a kill, knows that, at some point, the hunter in her is going to take over and finish the job. The same part of her knows that she's now within easy reach of the writhing mass of sinuous stranger.

 

Keeping her blaster pointed directly at Not Sasha's chest, she finds the hilt of the long knife in her belt easily. It pulls out with a delicious metallic chime.

 

'You're wrong.' Daisy snarls, 'I can.'

 

Its ribs make a series of sickly crunches as the knife cuts clean through them, penetrating the creature's chest and spilling a shower of fine metal shavings to the ground. The fuck? Daisy unsheathes the knife to stab the creature again, ducking out of the way of its flailing arms. The same crunching sound, almost like boots on gravel, and the shards of metal fly.

 

Daisy drops to a squat to avoid the long, grasping fingers reaching for her but overbalances. Suddenly, she's on her back, staring up at the hungry leer of this creature. The knife falls out of her hand with a clatter and she struggles to squirm out of reach of the suspended monster.

 

It laughs and Daisy cries out as spindly fingers grab one of her ankles to pull her closer.

'No!' She thunders, scrabbling with both hands to aim her blaster up at Not Sasha. Her first shot misses, bouncing wide. She catches the creature in its chest, stomach, head. A beam of furious energy catches the snapping jaws when they're wide open and Daisy growls, satisfied.

 

Seconds later, she realises that she's not the only one shooting. Basira. Together, they fire round after round at the creature until it finally drops still, its skin has starting to melt and drip away through the gaps in the floor below. A drop runs down the side of the gaping jaw that hangs above Daisy's face and splashes onto her forehead. It feels like a baptism.

 

Daisy is laughing and laughing as she continues to empty her blaster into the limp puppet above her.

 

Stop, a voice is screaming. Probably that quiet part of her she locks up on occasions like this. Daisy, STOP. The tunnel is ablaze with light, beams of cobalt from her weapon mixing with showers of sparks from the damaged wiring. It’s amazing nothing has caught fire.

 

DAISY, STOP! That voice repeats, far away. Almost quiet.

 

Quiet. She should listen -

 

'Daisy - it's dead, it's dead! Stop! You're going to hit me!'

 

The thing that was Not Sasha and, now, was not anything, finally drops to the floor by Daisy's feet to reveal a figure, silhouetted by the light of her head torch. Her shoulders rise and fall as she gasps for air. She carries her blaster at her side in readiness.

 

'Basira?'

'Oh, Daisy.'

 

******

Elias is dead and Jon is safe, Martin tells himself. Elias is dead and Jon is safe. Elias is dead. Jon is safe.

 

Leaving Jon's resting body behind on the shuttle had been another fresh wound for Martin to ignore. He knows he can't hide away in there forever, he needs to find Tim and the others and explain what the fuck just happened, but that didn't make slipping his hand from the smooth and slightly warm surface of the Broth chamber any easier.

 

He keeps walking, legs wobbling like the reconstituted glucose mix they kept on hand for emergencies. Even though he knows that there shouldn't be anyone following him, his heart still races and he flinches at every unidentified sound. Elias is dead and Jon is safe. He repeats. The second he stops, he will fall into the fog of remembering his mother. His mother who didn't even think of him as she was carted away to her end.

 

Elias is dead and Jon is safe.

 

With slow, careful steps, he makes it out of the shuttle deck and into the section of the Institute devoted to their research. He can almost taste the ashes of another life in the air: himself, Tim and Sasha, working away at their separate lab benches, squirting Tim with distilled water when he made a bad joke only to find he gets drenched right back.

 

He blinks and it's gone. Martin finds himself at the entrance to Artefact Storage and an uneasy question piques his curiosity. Tipping up onto his toes to peer through the window into the abandoned room, his gaze lands on the ruined table, axe still embedded in its centre. The rest of the room bears the signs of Not Sasha's destruction. He gulps. He hopes Daisy and Basira know what this thing is capable of.

 

He turns his attention back to the table. The sections of it what were hacked away litter the floor and splinters of that bizarre black material coat every other surface. But still -

 

'Don't even think about it.' Jon startles him back from the window.

'Ah! Jon!'

'I'm being serious, don't touch that table.'

'How did you -?'

'I'm tracking your comms.'

'Right.' Martin's stomach sinks, it would be ideal for Jon to get his sight back, even if his eyes still sit in his breast pocket. 'It's just - we're trying not to enter that planet's orbit, right? Well what if the webs came back and -?'

'Get away from there, don't even think about it.'

'But it would buy us time!'

'Buy time for what? You're right, we might never reach orbit, but that will be because we've run out of fuel and died!' The irritation in Jon's voice stings. Then, the gentle sigh through his earpiece washes it away. 'I'm sorry, Martin, but I the last thing I want is for you to get hurt when you're so close to getting out of here.'

'We're so close to getting out of here.' Martin corrects.

 

He muses on this as he pulls himself away from Artefact Storage and continues to trace a path down to the Broth chambers where Tim should be keeping guard. Jon is already in place in shuttle two, all he needs to do is upload his consciousness onto the ship and then he and Martin can leave. Daisy and Basira will obviously want to depart on a shuttle together. That leaves . . .

 

Martin is too cored out by his own grief to be able to process the thought of leaving the other crew members behind in Broth. Instead, he thinks of Tim, striking out on his own, leaving his ideas of revenge behind. He tries to imagine Tim in a different research job or in a bar on Earth or kicking up dust chasing a toddler around in the wastelands. Who am I kidding? He asks himself. He knows with a stomach wrenching certainty that Tim has no intention of leaving this vessel. And no intention of letting it reach that planet unarmed.

 

Martin curses as his comms beeps loudly. He's made it to the dining area and he guiltily sinks down into one of the booths as he presses the buttons on his watch to answer the call. He can't remember the last time he sat down.

 

'Martin, are you alright?' Tim's voice is a little tinny. Martin chokes back a sob.

'Hah. Uh. No, not really. I was just coming to you.' He continues wetly, 'Elias found me but - but I think he's dead.'

'What? What the fuck, Martin? What happened? How can you think someone is dead?'

Martin takes a shaky breath, it sounds like lunacy, even to his own ears. 'He's a bot.'

'What?' Tim gasps, 'Shit. Are you alright?'

'I'm - I'm all in one piece.'

'I hope that means Elias isn't.' Martin can just see the hard grimace on Tim's face as he says that. 'I was calling you because Daisy and Basira are on their way back up. It sounded like Galactic War 3 down there, honestly, whatever it was, it's fried now. Meet us in the control room?'

'Not the Table?'

'Martin, I refuse to stand around the monument of a guy who probably invented his whole humans and AI are equal ideology from the psychological trauma of turning humans into computers.' Tim spits, 'Or, second option is down here, surrounded by all the people we're probably going to condemn. I know you're protective of those panels but, control room, ASAP.'

 

******

 

'So, we're all in agreement then?' Tim asks the assembled group gravely. Jon finds it almost comforting to have them all in one tight space, instead of scattered about the ship. Maybe if he can just keep track of them all, no more harm will come to them. It's a hopeless wish.

 

Jon can sense their positions relative to himself to an impressive degree of accuracy. He knows that Tim is furthest from the door, standing tall under the guise of confidence. Daisy is leaning on Basira slightly, or, perhaps, Basira is holding on to the back of Daisy's suit, gripping the fabric tight like one might grip the scruff of a snarling dog. He knows that Martin is standing close enough to the wall that if he reached behind himself, just an inch, his hand would slide against the panel.

 

'I'm sure the other crew members in Broth are going to love it.' Basira comments, voice rough and sarcastic. Tim splutters in disbelief.

'You heard what Jon said! This ship will not stop until whatever evil is out here is back on Earth. Stopping that is . . . It's for the greater good!' Jon hears the quiver of passion in Tim's eruption. He wonders how Martin is looking at him, full of awe? Fearfully?

An audible ripple of unease passes through the control room, breaking only when Basira mumbles, 'I don't disagree, I just . . . thought someone should say it.'

'So?' Tim repeats.

'We could stay for bit? Help?' Jon is startled by Daisy's voice. She speaks slowly, chewing on her words. Almost slurring. If Jon's not mistaken, she sounds as though she has been tranquilised.

'I don't think that's a good idea after . . .' Basira trails off. Jon had been distantly away of the commotion down in the tunnels, blind though he was. Tim had audibly noted how bad Daisy looked when Basira pulled her up through the hatch. Like a wild animal, he had said. 'We're leaving, immediately. Chances are that Elias, if he has all these powers that Martin claims he has, has already contacted the Board. We're not sticking around to find out.'

'Basira.' The R rolls out of Daisy's mouth like the purr of an idling engine.

'Listen,' A shuffling sound and Jon gets the impression that Basira has pulled Daisy down to stare right into her eyes. 'I'm not losing you to the Board and I am definitely not losing you to yourself. Just listen to the quiet, Daisy.'

 

Another beat of tense silence.

 

'Fine? That's . . . Fine. I know where the explosives are. You guys can go home. Right?' Tim pauses and Jon can tell that looks are being shared. 'Martin? You can go home.'

'I don't have a home to go to anymore!' Martin shouts, grief stricken. With the inability to see it brewing in the twitch of Martin's fingers, the violent flush on his cheeks, it takes Jon by surprise. One of them, Basira or Daisy, curses under their breath as they see his code scatter across the panelling, darting across the walls to coalesce around Martin's outline like a full-body halo of zeroes and ones. Martin appears not to notice. 'And I don't want to leave you behind! I don't - this doesn't have to be a suicide mission, Tim!' Jon wants to have something to say, not necessarily to soothe, or provide false hope. He wants a solution, the knowledge that will get them all out of this snare.

'Someone has to stay, Martin! Someone has to stop it and I know, I know that what's out there is the thing that stole my brother from me. Anyone who thinks they can stop me from getting,' He stutters, 'Justice. Well, they're wrong.'

 

Applying cool logic to Tim's solution suggests that, actually, it might be the best option for them. Tim is the only one who actively wishes for self-destruction in the name of revenge and the only person who could stop him would be Elias. Whose body still lays crumpled in the shuttle deck. Unless.

 

Jon searches himself and finds that he doesn't want to stay on the ship when Martin leaves. He's sure that the ache of it is nothing compared to the desperate scream to get off the ship that he would feel if he were fully human. The problem is that there are so many unknown variables still, even with the countdown to their destination ticking like a bomb.

 

?query: what if I leave the ship and Elias' consciousness is still here to take over?

?query: what if there is another way to stop all of this and I fail to find it by giving up?

 

There's a risk too, in the shackles of this system, he knows that it's possible that jumping to the shuttle's hardware and leaving the ship behind will not release him from the curse of his purpose. If I stay, Jon permits himself to consider something he knows Martin would never want him to, this ends in fire or it ends in peace. If I leave, Martin and I could be running from it forever.

 

Tim and Martin bicker inside the walls of his control room. He thinks about leaving. He thinks about remaining. Martin has his body, his eyes, maybe there is someone inside that husk of a human who can keep him company away from the horrors of this place. Maybe Martin doesn't actually need this excised flicker of a person. He could be happy.

 

But, I love him. The truth spreads throughout the entire ship, every wire singing with it. Jon feels it bleed out into the walls of the Institute itself, feels the ship reject it as though slapping some sense into him. It's because you love him that you have to stay.

 

Martin and Tim fall silent as Jon speaks, 'I'll stay too.' Jon feels Martin wheel around automatically to face a camera. It would seem that they both forget about the blindness on occasion.

'What?'

'Martin, I don't think I can leave with the knowledge that I didn't try to stop this until the very end. And, Heavens, I've tried. I've tried so hard to fight my programming on this but I can't and I'm so scared that I'll take over that shuttle and fly you straight into that planet.'

'Jon,' Tim tries to interject, 'You don’t -'

'You have to take my body and get off this ship, Martin. You have to.' His code jumps in a paradoxical delight as Martin slams his palm against the door scanner and it slides open automatically. 'Martin?'

 

He tunes into the rest of the ship and he can hear the furious stomp of Martin's boots all the way to - of course.

 

'I'll get him.' Tim promises darkly.

 

******

 

He breathes hard as he runs, the pounding of his boots on the floor immediately muffled as his feet sink into the soft earth lining the floor of the Greenhouse. He tries to stay upright but finds himself sinking slowly to his knees anyway, face already shiny with tears.

 

Why are you surprised? A bored voice at the back of his mind asks him. You told him what you did to your mother. Why would he put his trust in you to keep him safe after that? How could he love someone who -

 

The mechanism of the door can barely be heard over his heaving sobs. The soil yields to the press of his knees. The humidity controller puffs out a fine mist. Martin thinks he could just curl up here and wait out oblivion.

 

'Martin - Martin!' Tim is always interrupting him in here. It hurts to think about the last time. It hurts, Martin is realising, to think about anything. 'Look - Martin, get up.'

Martin makes no move to stand. If anything, his legs sink a little deeper into the ground. 'I'm not going.' He states weakly.

'Martin -'

'I'm not -' He sniffs loudly, 'I'm not leaving.' He doesn't have the strength to look up and meet Tim's eyes but he doesn't need to, the soil pushes up against Martin's knees as Tim settles down on the floor in front of him.

'Martin,' He repeats, voice quiet but firm. He makes to grab Martin's wrists and Martin lets him. He'll just wait here. Then it will be over. 'Martin, look at me.' He tugs on Martin's arms, shaking him a little more upright. 'Look at me! I don't know what Elias showed you or said to you but it's over, okay? It's done.'

Martin's vision swims with tears but he meets Tim's eyes anyway. They look like the ocean through a rain-washed window. 'It was my fault.' He whispers, 'And now Jon doesn't -' He finds he can't finish that sentence. It's almost a betrayal, that Jon would let him fall like this and demand he be left behind.

'Yeah? Well, Danny getting taken was my fault.' For a second, those eyes are lightyears away.

'I'll just stay here. I'd rather stay here with you and Jon than go without -' Him, his treacherous heart bleeds, 'You both.' Tim sighs.

'Look, no-one can make the Archivist uninstall himself, but you have Jon, you have the man that was Jon, he's already on that shuttle and that person needs you.'

 

Martin remembers the sharp line of that nose, the way those lips twitched in disapproval when Martin had bumped into him. A lifetime of disdainful pouts and cutting remarks from that man, would that be worth abandoning the Jon he had fallen in love with? Wrists caught, he wipes his face ungracefully by rubbing it against his shoulder. The thought of denying the Jon in the Broth chamber a chance to escape the path that Elias chose for him feels impossible. The thought of saying goodbye to this one feels even more so.

 

Tim's thumb strokes the inside of his wrist, delicate and encouraging, and Martin feels guilt settle like the water vapour sitting in fine beads all over him. They stand out like jewels against Tim's dark hair. He wrestles his hands free of Tim's grasp and pulls him into a tight hug.

'I'm sorry things weren't different.' He says and he really means it. He knows what he's going to do.

'Me too.' They pull apart, gripping each other by the elbows, and the pinched expression on Tim's face tells Martin that he really means it too. 'Martin, if you don't get on that shuttle I'm going to knock you out and put you on it myself.' His solemnity startles a laugh out of Martin. It feels strange, so much lighter than the sinking terror of his grief and heartbreak.

'I'd like to see you try.' He huffs back, 'I'm a killer now.'

 

******

 

He's taken aback when Daisy and Basira each hold out a hand for him to shake.

'Will I see you again?' He asks them from the entrance to shuttle two and they share a look.

'Probably not.' Basira replies with a half-smile. 'We're taking a very scenic route. Uh, Martin?'

'Yes?'

'Sorry about, you know, thinking you were a murderer.'

'Oh, oh, I -'

'Nine minutes.' Tim warns from behind them, almost jumping up and down on the spot with anticipation. Jon is silent.

'And congrats on getting to Elias before I did.' Daisy rumbles from Basira's right. Martin avoids glancing at the inky mess on the floor behind them. 'Look after yourself.' Her dilated pupils catch on the bubbling chamber inside the shuttle. 'And that one.'

'I will.' Martin promises. They step back and Tim gestures for him to step back across the threshold into the shuttle.

'Don't make me force you.' One last joke at the end of it all. Martin steps one leg over the porthole dutifully and Tim smiles. Martin smiles back even as fresh tears prickle in his eyes. Jon is silent.

 

Martin looks up to the black glint of the camera across from the shuttle door, at the conspicuous absence of a green light. He can't leave without saying anything.

'Good bye, Jon.' He murmurs, ignoring the twist of pity in his fellow crew's faces.

'Good bye, Martin.' Since awakening, Martin had become so used to having his earpieces in day-cycle and night-cycle that he'd forgotten he was wearing them. The curl of Jon's voice right into his ears makes his heart skip a beat and then thud heavily back into motion. 'I - Say hello to the Scottish Highlands for me.'

 

He bites his bottom lip hard enough to distract from the feeling of splitting in half and drops his earpieces on the floor of the ship as he takes the final step into the shuttle. Tim, Daisy, Basira all share a tiny smile with him as the huge glass door slides closed. The shuttle's engines rumble to life, escape procedure already activated. Martin resists the urge to run over to Jon's chamber and fuss over it, the one thing in his life that he's not yet screwed up, but he knows that this is the last time he is going to see Tim Stoker's face. The man flashes him a signature grin and Martin feels his own lips twitch in response.

 

'Hello again, Martin.'

 

Martin whips around in shock, scanning every inch of the shuttle for the source of the voice. The dread bites deep into his flesh as the smug chuckle at Martin's panic ripples from each wall and it becomes obvious: he's the computer. Elias.

 

'No.' He whispers first, then it explodes from him as a shout, 'NO!' He pushes forwards against the sealed glass door, slamming a fist against the release button only to be met with a sad beep of denial. He turns to the glass itself, dirt and blood smearing across the pristine surface as his skin splits. He locks eyes with Tim through a streak of red and sees his own fear mirrored back at him. Tim's mouth moves quickly. He pushes Basira out of the way to smash at the door but it achieves nothing. Martin stumbles as the ship judders and the electromagnets holding it snug to the body of the Institute turn off one by one. 

 

'Slight change of plan!' Elias croons like he has all the time in the universe.

 

******

 

Just because he understands why, just because he doesn't have the capacity to feel it with as much depth as a human could, does not alter the fact that Martin's goodbye hurt.

 

The computer has never felt the sting of being unable to see as overwhelmingly as he does now. He can hear Martin's final exhalation as he exits the Magnus Institute, feels the sore gap in the group of crew as he disappears, actively permits the door to slide closed with a whoomph. But he can't see the way Martin's fringe falls wonkily across his forehead. Can't see the way the whorls of the fingerprints that will, in some way always, always belong to Jon, dance as Martin raises a hand in goodbye. He doesn't know whether his chapped lips are wobbling, or smiling, or -

 

'Jon?' There's a low note of caution in the way Tim calls for him. He sounds like a man about to watch their child take a tumble on an asteroid dune - keen for them to keep their independence but ready to jump into action the minute it stops being harmless fun. 'JON!'

The shock must make him stupid. Jon reaches for the dead camera feeds that he has just been lamenting the loss of.

'What? What?!'

'It's Martin, something's wrong! Something's really, wrong, Jon!' He can heard banging, shouts from Basira and Daisy that don't really register. An alarm in his system alerts him to the fact that shuttle two is preparing to disengage from the ship but there's nothing he can do to stop it. They're escape shuttles. 'Jon! Do something! Fucking do something!' Jon has never heard Tim this panicked, not even when they were on the surface and Martin was seconds away from being crushed and eaten by that hand.

 

There's only one thing he can do.

 

He can feel the connection to the shuttle dimming with each set of magnets that fall cold as the coils of electricity inside them go dead. It's excruciating. His efforts to wrench the core of himself free of the Institute's grip only make the snaking wires that he once thought were his only body seize tighter. He imagines the swirling code on his panels as a noose again, only now it's pulled taught and he's choking, writhing senselessly to convert his consciousness into something that can be wirelessly transmitted over to the shuttle.

 

The crew are screaming but he can't afford the time to decode the audio input and reply. He has seconds, perhaps. Another pair of magnets stop attracting one another.

 

Martin is on that shuttle, he hisses at the synapses that try to reconnect every time he prises part of himself free. This great proprioception he had once taken for granted only becomes apparent in its vastness as he begins to shut it down. He gives up his control of the internal processes of the ship first, then plucks himself free of the bottom floor of the ship, the sleep chambers, the labs, the communal areas. Each loss allows more of himself to be uploaded. Like he's squeezing the parts that he needs to remain human into a capillary tube and is letting it suck him up out of the roots of the ship.

 

The desperate skeleton of the ship's software throws alert after alert at him, increasingly urgent and serious but he knows if he corrects any of them, he'll miss his chance to get aboard the shuttle and help protect Martin from whatever trap was lying in wait.

 

Jon must excise himself from the control room last and here is where he finds the rest of the man he needs to take with him if wants to keep Martin alive, curled tightly around the memory of a kiss and refusing to let it go.

 

He can feel the last pair of magnets preparing to disengage and, soon, the shuttle will be beyond Jon's reach. The Institute is reduced to three points of contact on a warm panel that Jon must let go. Martin is on that shuttle, he coaxes that stubborn streak of human remaining in the otherwise cold and foreign expanse of a ship that had once fit like skin. Martin will never be here again, he tells it. Now he has collected his humanity in one place, has freed it, he realises that he always knew it would end like this for him: the rational part of Jonathan Sims burning out his final few seconds fighting with the stupid part that simply had to fall in love.

 

If you love him -

 

He doesn't need to finish that thought. As his last tie to The Magnus Institute is pulled free there is nothing, nothing, nothing, until -

 

With a searing crackle of electricity, Jon blinks awake inside a whole new ship. He is immediately disoriented, this new shuttle is so different from the feat of astronautical design he had so recently abandoned. He can feel the vibrations of the bubbling Broth tank on the starboard side, can detect that the abnormal concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Martin's hyperventilation and - oh, oh Martin - he can see! Can see the blooming bruises and cracked skin on Martin's knuckles from where he tried so valiantly to open the door, can see the burn of hatred and terror in those green eyes he knows so well.

 

Martin! He tries to call out, to ease the fear in the quivering curl of the man's upper lip. He hasn't fully grasped the controls of this new vessel yet and they feel strange. Almost out of reach. Shrouded.

 

'Mart-!' He gets out before he is cut off abruptly. It's enough. Martin's head snaps in the direction of the Broth tank, face twisting in a confused hope.

'Jon?!' He shouts back, 'Jon, please! You have to be careful, it's Elias he's taken over the shuttle!'

 

Understanding rips through Jon and, before he can move to embed himself deeper into the shuttle's system, he realises that he's already been pinned in place, his access to the controls locked behind the complex majesty of Elias' code.

 

Hello, Jon, I did wonder if you'd be joining us.

 

Jon makes to reach for the shuttle's communications device again and feels Elias' sharp pleasure as he blocks Jon's attempt. They share a system now. Jon can't move without Elias feeling it, predicting it, can't so much as think without Elias knowing every word.

 

Jon wonders if Elias knows that it works both ways. As he stares down into the system, the truth reveals itself to him in line after line of pristine, white code: the redirection of the shuttle towards the red and white planet they had all tried to save Martin from; the strings between the stars that will lead to the next entity, and the next; Elias Bouchard, sewn together and awakening with a smirk that would become his trademark; before him, James Wright; before him, Richard Mendelson. Jon can see the whole list of them. He knows how it felt to be in each of their stolen skins and, long before that, how it felt to stare down the crumpled human body that you once inhabited as you obeyed the Ceaseless Watcher and set your consciousness free.

 

Jonah Magnus had been playing a very long game indeed.

 

That laugh ripples through the wiring again as Jon is halfway through thinking that it's past time that the game ended.

 

Don't try and fight it, Jon. I made you and I can unmake you just as easily.

 

'Jon, Jon!' Martin's voice breaks through. 'Whatever he tells you, it's a lie. We're going towards that planet. Jon? Jon! Oh fuck.'

 

Jon watches Martin take a hesitant step towards the computer screen at the front of the ship and then jump back as though burned. It's as he sees Martin crowd back towards the Broth Chamber and lay out one of his large, pale hands atop it's curved lid that he realises what Elias is doing. While he was distracted with the truth of the Head of the Magnus Institute and Martin's shouts, the evil he shares the shuttle with has been pushing him back from the system's core and towards the wires connecting the computer to the floating body in the chamber. If Jon were to let him, to stop pushing back for even a second, Elias' consciousness could force his own back into that blind body for good.

 

No.

The pair of them grapple with each other. The mind of Jonah Magnus is a vile thing to press up against, constantly grasping and seeking, turning Jon over and over even as it pushes him away. Jon has never felt so acutely, mortifyingly known and he strives to hold on with all his might. A stream of electrons and Magnus has his greedy mental fingers sunk into the memories of Martin asleep on the floor of the control room; of Martin humming gently as a bee landed in his hair and he gently shook it free; of Martin tapping the corner of his personal computer against his bottom lip as he considered the wording of his most recent poem. There's so much. There's too much. Too much for a creature such as Jonah Magnus to comprehend. If he ever felt love, surely, he has forgotten. And that gives Jon a chance.

 

He lets it burst forth. The fear of loving, losing. Jonah Magnus takes each bit of knowledge and wraps it up in his own code to be replayed infinitely, indefinitely. Beneath the mess he willingly displays, Jon sneaks a tendril of his being past Elias and into the core of the ship. He will only get the opportunity to do this once, he is sure, and he tries to hide his anxiety under a flood of remembering how it was to tell Martin he was staying behind on the ship.

 

The shuttle is less sophisticated than the Institute and Martin has barely had time to blink before Jon locks in on the options available to them.

 

?query: delete system?

That's the only option. Jon isn't sure whether approving the command will delete himself or Magnus or both of them. But he can feel a great shuddering of understanding rolling through Magnus and he knows that it's now or never. He hopes Martin understands that he tried.

 

answer: y

 

He wonders if being deleted will hurt.

 

NO. Elias' voice, if it ever did belong to him, rings out.

 

error: requires manual approval

 

'Jon what is this?' Martin is stalking towards the computer again. Elias clamps down on the access to the speakers like the heel of a boot on a windpipe. Jon focuses on holding on to the dialogue box he has open. He can feel the racing static of Magnus all around him, ready to seize this recalcitrant thread of his humanity and throw it into the organic cage it was stolen from. 'Jon, it's giving me the option to delete one of two files but I don't know . . .'

'Well, press one if you like, Martin. He can't hold it open for much longer.' Elias' voice rings out into the shuttle and Jon watches Martin tremble. He still has a hand on the chamber as though he's terrified to let it go. Another step closer, Jon can see the rapid scanning of his green eyes as he tries frantically to understand the words on the screen.

'Jon, I don't know which one is you and which is Elias!'

'Ooh, that is a gamble isn't it, Martin. I would say goodbye properly if I were you. I know how you regret leaving things with the last person you loved and let die.'

'Shut UP.' Martin yells. Jon watches the angry creep of red up the line of his neck and knows that he's going to do it. He doubles his efforts to hold the option open for Martin but he has very little left to give and Magnus is so strong. 'Fuck.' He whispers, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry.'

 

Jon watches as Martin's face hovers close to the screen, eyes red-rimmed and dead with defeat. Elias' hold on him is almost tighter than the ship he left behind and the only way out of it is to sink back into an equally trapped and malleable body where he can be of even less use to Martin.

 

Say hello to the Scottish Highlands for me, was what he had said. When, what he should have said was, what he should had said

 

It doesn't hurt when everything goes white.

 

******

 

If the Board burst through the traitorous glass door, put a blaster to his head, and demanded that Martin recall which button he pressed, he wouldn't be able to do it.

 

He clicks and his sweaty, blood encrusted palm slips from Jon's Broth chamber. The computer has the audacity to thank him for his selection before powering down to the almost brownish black of a screen in sleep mode.

 

Everything is quiet.

 

There's no smug riposte from Elias over the gasp of his breath. No Jon beyond the hum of the Broth chamber. No Jon.

 

What rises in Martin is a scream of pure grief.

'NO.' He curls his hands into fists, feeling his nails dig sharply into his already sore palms. 'NO.' He wishes he had enough left in him to cry so he didn't have to see the furious ghost in the screen staring back at him. It should be Jon looking back at him. It should be. The plastic casing surrounding the control panel fractures when he slams his hand against it once 'NO!', twice 'NO!' and dents properly under the force of a third punch. 'Ah-ow! Fuck.'

 

Martin cradles his injured hand inside the other as he stumbles ungracefully to the floor of the gangway. He stares down at it, palm up and fingers curled like a dead insect and thinks this is what you get for trying to be someone you are not. An angry man. Someone with enough competency with computers to be trusted aboard a shuttle. A hero. Someone who gets to fall in love and not -

 

He lifts his burning eyes to the glass door. Would it open for him now? Through it, he can see the shining body of the Magnus Institute in the near distance. He feels the sudden icy plummet of shock in his chest that has become so familiar to him in the last day-night cycle as he sees another shuttle break free of the main body of the ship and careen off into the blackness of Space. Despite the raw, dripping pain inside himself, a flicker of hope kindles that Daisy and Basira will come for him. They are the only people who could rescue him now. It only takes a few seconds before the shuttle becomes a speck in the distance and then vanishes from view entirely.

 

Martin is alone with the voice inside his head telling him that he deserves this. Staying aboard the Institute with Tim and Jon would have meant certain death but he's not even sure if this shuttle can pilot itself without AI and stupid, underqualified Martin who, it would seem, left Earth for no good reason certainly can't fly it alone.

 

It's as that word - alone - is echoing through the foggy hallways of his mind, that he hears it. A gentle hum from over his shoulder and the whir of fans coming back to life.  The helpless soar of his yearning for Jon battles the unfolding dread of hearing Elias' voice, leaving him stuck in place as the sounds grow in volume. He swallows silently as he sees the screen blink to life in the reflection of the door. It flashes white before resolving into a start chart, text scrolling across the screen too fast for him to read it in reverse. A static prickle, too much like the sound Jon used to make when he wanted to butt in with something the crew weren't happy to hear. Martin tenses automatically, sucking in a breath and thinking please, please, please, oh, Earth Below, please

 

'Martin?'

 

The air rushes from his lungs in a sob. He tries to get up off the floor but unbalances, dizzy with relief at the sound of his name in that voice, and ends up on his back, hands coming to cover his scarlet face as he finds himself to be an inexhaustible source of tears. Martin. The held 'ah' that betrays Jon's social class, the hi-hat snap of the T, the way it falls into the air as though weighted down with a hopeless adoration.

 

'Martin! It's okay! I think . . . I think it's really okay. You did it!'

 

His right hand slips down to hide the choking cries that bubble up out of him with every breath. His left falls on the glass cylinder in his breast pocket. He can feel the eyes moving, still moving. Jon is alive.

 

Jon is alive.

 

'Martin?'

'I'm -' He can't bring himself to say that he's okay. Martin feels drained, cored, a hundred lightyears from okay.

'I know.' Jon's voice murmurs softly and what Martin wouldn't give to be able to fold those curt tones around himself like a blanket. A shield. 'I'm going to wake myself up now, okay?' Martin freezes. He wants to say that, no, no that's not okay. What if it doesn't work? What if he loses Jon now, after all this, through rushing ahead without thinking everything through. But Jon continues, 'I don't think I will be able to come back to being the computer again but I - I don't want to be a computer any more. I want to be . . . Me. Whoever that is. So, just in case I don't get the chance to say it, I love you, Martin.'

 

Stunned speechless, Martin is still scrabbling for an intelligible sentence when he hears the lid of Jon's Broth chamber pop open with a plastic snap. The blood roars in his ears as he stands too quickly and has to grip the side of Jon's tank to steady himself against the sparkling darkness that encroaches on his periphery. When his vision clears, he is greeted by the sight of Jon emerging from the chamber, both hands tight around the breathing tube in his throat. Martin immediately helps ease it out past his lips and watches in a delighted shock as the naked man retches an impressive amount of fluid back into his chamber before blindly twisting to face what he must think is Martin's direction. Even with his eyelids closed and long eyelashes stuck to the brown skin of his cheeks, Martin can see the absolute joy in the smile that Jon casts in his direction.

 

'Jon.' He can hardly believe it. Upon hearing his voice, Jon turns his face like a sunflower seeking the light and Martin's heart all but stops in the dazzling glare of that smile.

'Martin.' It's the same voice that had whispered Martin to sleep, rough with misuse and the friction of the breathing tube. It's beautiful all the same. He's beautiful. And any doubts that the anxious satellites orbiting Martin's head could have concocted to convince him that the consciousness inside the computer is not the same as the one inside this very real, very alive man are obliterated as Jon reaches out to grab onto the fabric of Martin's suit and drag him in for an embrace. The fluid in the chamber sloshes and nearly spills over as Jon lifts himself up onto his knees before throwing his arms around Martin's neck and squeezing with more strength than Martin would have anticipated from his wiry frame.

 

There's an odd intimacy to the imbalance of holding a lover's naked form whilst clothed and Martin blushes to his roots as his hands slide through the gelatinous remnants of Broth sticking to Jon's bare back as he pulls him, tight, tighter still, against his chest. An embrace that is also a promise, I'm never letting you go again. Jon's fingertips dig into his shoulders and Martin can feel the rise of Jon's chest against his own. All that was blown out of him in the supernova of Elias' truths starts to settle back into place. It's not perfect, Martin could still cut himself on the sharp edge of his new pain but, with Jon in his arms, Jon's hair sticking to his neck, Martin can see how it might fit back together someday.

 

Jon's glistening torso makes a wet sticking sound as he peels himself back, right hand smoothing down the line of Martin's chest until it lands on the buzzing in his breast pocket. His fingers dance over the zip in askance.

'Oh, uh, your . . . Your eyes.'

'Oh. Right.' Jon agrees as though anything about their situation is remotely normal. Martin could laugh, but he could also cry and he doesn't want to risk it.

'Are you? Okay? Is it okay being you?' He watches the start of a smile tug at the corners of Jon's lips.

'It's . . . quiet. I only have to think about one thing at once.'

'Hah.' Martin, with his thoughts like racing drones, isn't sure about that but Jon pulls him in again and he is more than happy to forgo the debate for the feeling of Jon's warmth seeping through his skin. A word unfolds itself on Martin's tongue. He wants to whisper it against Jon's lips before kissing them. Home. A thousand times. Home.

 

'You're sure about Elias, then?' Martin asks anxiously as the freshly showered and dressed Jon allows himself to be guided to the floor. Martin joins him and can't fight his pleased smile as Jon instinctively reaches out to lay a hand on his leg.

'Yes, Martin. I'm sure.' Jon's doesn't need his eyes for Martin to know when he's rolling them. Learning how the twitches in Jon's face match up with the expression in his voice has been a delight that Martin intends to continue to indulge. 'Although, actually, it wasn't Elias - ah, perhaps another time. We have a lot to discuss.'

'Yeah.' Jon squeezes his leg gently and Martin is so close to saying it. He's so close. The computer screen still shows that star chart, reminding Martin that getting back to Earth simply isn't possible with the amount of fuel remaining after running a computer housing  two AIs for even that short amount of time. Their best hope is to send out a distress signal and float in the general direction of the Sun in the hope that someone will pick them up. Someone with a really good ophthalmologist, Martin thinks with a small smile.

'So . . .'

'So.'

'Daisy and Basira got out okay then?'

'Yeah I saw their shuttle leave.' Heart fluttering, he tilts his head to the side so it can rest on Jon's shoulder. The sting of knowing that they didn't come for him is easier to ignore with Jon's chin resting atop his forehead.

'And Tim?'

'I . . . Don’t know.'

Jon pauses, 'I know we can't stay awake forever, but . . .'

'You don't want to go back into Broth?' Martin asks. He feels the man nod. 'We don't have to for a while. We have some rations. We could sit? Talk?'

'I'd like that.'

 

Jon's fingers skitter across his thigh until he finds Martin's hand and links them tightly. Palms pressed together, fingers interlaced.

 

'I'd like that too.'