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By the Numbers

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Five thinks in numbers. She suspects she always has, but there’s no way to know that.

Take One, for instance. For One, there is one true path; he sees the world in defined colors, the blacks and the whites limned perfectly from the moral code that drives him. Two, though, two is the two hands of the body. The fist that hurts and the palm that helps.

(And two arms to hug, but Five can’t think about that right now. Not after what Five did to her.)

Three, the trinity. Sarcasm, selfishness, softheartedness (very, very deep down. Like so deep down that sometimes Five figures it’s all a fever dream). And Four is like the seasons that Five has heard about. She’s pretty sure she’s station-born, has never really seen a season, but from what she remembers, there are four of them and they are as steady and as unchanging as the tides that she also hasn’t seen.

For Five, there are five fingers of the hand, to fiddle and fidget and fix.

And Six.

Six used to mean a choice that never really was. Six of one, the saying went, half dozen of the other. Now it only means betrayal.

She’s being kept apart from the others and she doesn’t know why. Galactic law states that prisoners are ethically not allowed to be kept in stasis unless a deep space passage is required, so Five knows that somewhere, the others are awake. Maybe they’re all gone or dead, executed for their crimes. Maybe they’re being kept apart because they’re criminals and she’s the orphan—their mascot—and underage. There are far too many hypotheses and not enough pertinent data. So she breaks what she can down into numbers, the way she has since waking up on the Raza.

A way she suspects predates the Raza.

Her cell is small. Eleven units one way, ten units the other. One bed. One bathroom unit. Four walls. Three meals a day that taste like regurgitated cardboard and yet are still better than most everything they ate on the Raza, maniacal entertainment android cooking aside. Sixteen times a day she hears the guard’s footsteps outside.

Thirty seven footsteps ringing down the corridor.

Six people Six made her distrust (well, five and an Android).

Twenty-seven hours in a day. Sixty minutes in an hour. Sixty seconds in a minute.

An eternity of seconds ticking by.

It’s impossible to count time, though she figures the schedule is rigid. She counts days by meals and falls asleep long after the lights dim, indicating an artificial bedtime. She wakes up after the lights return to full strength, when the first meal of the day is already sitting on the little table inside the door.

The guards never talk, or look at her. They never ask anything of her, even though she asks plenty from them.

Where are my friends? Where are we going? Why did Six do this? I want to see my friends.

On the third day, books show up next to the food. Classics, like the ones that used to be on the Raza, whose collection she had plowed through in a manner of days. They bring a funny feeling to her stomach, like that time they tried the sour milk, because she knows they’re from Six. Somehow.

She leaves them on the tray and goes back to fidgeting with the control panel on the wall.

The books remain on the tray on the fourth day, the fifth.

On the sixth day—there’s some irony to that, she knows—the door opens at a time that she knows isn’t a standard mealtime. A guard in the black standard uniform steps in and without a word grabs her elbow.

“Wait! Wait—where are you taking me—get your hands off me—”

It takes two guards to yank her into the corridor because Four taught her things. She gets in a good kick to the side of one knee, feels the spurt of victory when the pained grunt hits her ears. Any thrill falls away when arms grab her from behind and she hears the crackle of a shock-stick.

“No, don’t zap her,” the guard holding her says. “We zap her, we’re never going to subdue the bitch.”

What bitch?

What’s going on?

She struggles, but it’s no use; she’s a kid, and they’re three full grown armed guards hauling her down corridors she doesn’t recognize. She pays attention to console locations even as she employs a few words Three taught her when he was pulling something heavy off a high shelf in the vault for her and Five startled him.

Getting away now is useless, though. They let her walk under her own power when she stops struggling, and it’s easier to study her surroundings that way. Nothing feels familiar about the corridors or ship layout, but her sense of déjà vu has been whacked since the memory wipe, so that’s not altogether surprising. They descend three levels in a lift and step into a corridor that’s much more fortified than the place they were holding her. Cells here aren’t as private, either: one entire wall is a forcefield and she can see the prisoners inside.

They walk by Four and she gasps. He only looks up from meditating, dark eyes studying her for a moment. His head inclines a bare millimeter and her heart hammers. He’s alive!

She sees One next and he charges at the invisible wall, battering it with his fists and shouting something Five can’t hear. When she tries to step closer, the guard yanks on her arm hard enough to bruise and One beats on the forcefield even harder. She shoots him a scared look as the guards drag her on. Three’s right next door—which he would hate, but she’s not even sure they know—and he doesn’t charge the forcefield. He does, however, stand as close to it as possible with his arms folded over his chest, looking somehow bored and formidable at the same time.

Five meets his eyes as she’s dragged along. She’s not sure if she imagines the wink or not.

She figures it’s not real.

Where are they taking her? Are they moving her to a new cell? Wait, they’re not going to execute her, are they? She starts to panic because she knows what just happened. She was just paraded in front of the Raza crew. Was it a demonstration? Are they going to space her and rub it in the crew’s faces? She gets ready to fight them off—if she can break Four out, they have a chance, he’ll know what to do—when the guards stop just outside a new cell. From this angle, she can’t see through the forcefield, but the guards noticeably tense, fists clenching around their shock-sticks in anticipation.

Anticipation of what? Five’s breath feels frozen in her chest.

When the hole in the forcefield opens, the guard holding onto her elbow shoves her through. Some part of her registers the snap-crack of the forcefield repairing the hole behind her, but Five’s stuck like her boots magged themselves to the floor as she gapes at the single bunk.

“Little early for lunch, isn’t it?” Two asks, not looking up from where she’s tossing a rubber ball at the ceiling. “How’s Officer Abramson? I hope his nose heals straight, it was ugly enough to start.”

“Who?” Five asks.

Two drops the ball and jerks upright, swiveling to face her. She looks the same, Five thinks as shock and guilt and relief all fight for dominance in her head. Just like that, she uproots her feet from the floor and sprints across the cell, crashing into Two so hard that Two rocks back. Her arms band tight across Five’s shoulders as she hugs back tightly.

Just as quickly, it’s over and Two is pushing Five back, searching her for any signs of obvious injuries. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

“N-no,” Five says. “They were keeping me somewhere else, but nobody’s done anything to me or talked to me. Two, what’s going on? Why are we here? Why did Six do this?”

“I don’t know.” Two smooths Five’s hair back briefly and draws back again, as distant as usual. “They’re not telling us anything either. Do you know why you’re—”

“Ms. Lin,” a voice says from above them and Five looks around. It takes her a few seconds to spot the tiny grate of the speaker in the corner. “Consider this a show of good faith. I trust there won’t be a repeat of the incident with Officer Abramson.”

Five looks at Two. “What happened to—”

“He started it,” Two mutters.

“You wanted responsibility for the girl, you’ve been granted it,” the voice continues from the speaker. “Understand that we will not be providing a second bunk. My forbearance has been tested enough.”

A click noise indicates that the conversation is clearly over.

“Jackass,” Two says, sighing at the ceiling.

“What does he mean, a show of good faith? Did you ask for me? But why? After—after—I accused you of being a traitor and hurting the Android,” Five says because the guilt has beaten the relief to shreds and is threatening to overflow. She wants to cry, and she can’t even pick it apart and count the strands to figure out if it’s fear or exhaustion or hurt or guilt.

“You were working off the facts you had on hand. I don’t hold it against you.” Two keeps her distance but her face is sincere, and that just makes Five want to cry harder. “Six turned us all against each other, and he did it deliberately. You’re not to blame. Do you understand that?”

“I pointed a gun at you.”

“You protected yourself. That’s what you should do.” Two jerks her head and Five realizes that she wants her to sit down on the cot. The only cot. Are they supposed to share? It’s too narrow for that, and the floor is bound to be cold and uncomfortable. Warily, Five sits and watches Two, who folds her arms over her chest and regards her. “This is not your fault. None of this is your fault.”

“It’s Six’s fault,” Five says, looking at the floor, and her stomach flips over because she doesn’t want to believe that, has no choice but to believe that. “Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why would he just betray us like that? He was—I thought he was my friend. How could he do this to m—to us?”

Two sits next to her on the bunk. “I don’t know,” is all she says.

“The whole time he was…” It’s like she can’t speak, and her tongue is suddenly too thick for her mouth. She’s not a crier—or she doesn’t think she is, anyway, she’d rather be fixing something—but it’s physically impossible to force the words out, and she’s shaking and her cheeks are wet. When the sobs come in earnest, Two’s arm comes around her shoulders. Five clings on and just cries because Six always protected her and he always sneaked her the good rations and now he’s doomed all of them to a life in jail or death or worse and she doesn’t understand.

Hazily, she knows Two must hate this as she always separates herself from affection and touching, but she’s been alone for days, so she clings harder. Two doesn’t pull away and Five cries until she’s so exhausted she can’t keep her eyes open.

It’s dark when she opens her eyes again and her cheeks feel stiff and sticky, the tears long dried. She doesn’t know how long she’s slept, but now it’s dark and there’s something soft and warm under her head. She peers into the darkness, feeling raw and wrecked, and waits for her night vision to adjust. And while it does, she realizes she can hear somebody—Two—breathing.


She’s curled up with her head in Two’s lap, still on the cot. Two’s sitting up, leaning back against the wall, breathing even. One of her hands rests almost protectively on Five’s shoulder. Five can see the other, clenched into a loose fist. Like she’s expecting a fight. Like she’s always expecting a fight.

Five doesn’t move, as Two’s probably a light sleeper as part of the synthetic being package deal. From the very first day, she knows Two’s protected her from any threat she could, and she offers affection in small doses. Sometimes Five thinks that’s all she’s able to give, and learning that she’s not really Portia Lin or even human—or maybe she is? Five read a book about a created being because it was in the stores of classics on the Raza and that being was a misshapen monster created out of assorted parts, whereas Two is flesh and blood and complete—explains that. This kind of comfort is never offered and Five doesn’t want to ask for it.

Six was always the one who offered that sort of comfort. Six is the reason Two gives it now.

Six makes Five think in numbers again, and she begins to count down.

Six: the number of lights running along the seam between the floor and the wall, all vaguely pulsating and casting a dim glow on the too-tiny cell. Five: the number of fingers Two has curled around Five’s shoulder like she can protect her from the world and maybe her own pain.

Four: the number of colors in Five’s hair.

Three: the number of men in other cells in this corridor, separated by walls and forcefields, just as in the dark as she is. Just as betrayed.

Two: the number of women in this cell. The two of them against the world.

One: the number of broken hearts beating in her chest.

Zero: the number of times Five will ever trust Six again.

She closes her eyes again and drifts back to sleep. Maybe tomorrow there will be new numbers.

She doubts it.