And at the end of the night there is a door and behind the door there is night and at the end of the night there is a door and behind the door there is—
They watch as the sun dies, thrashing, devouring.
At least there's fire at the end, everyone going up in clean ash, rising with the blue inner chambers of an expanding flame, a cool exhalation that blows the forests and fields and oceans and cities off of the planet's mantle like chunks of slag, like shards of stars that will drift in eternal darkness, whispering old songs. At least, they think, we'll all go up as ofne, together. Mother destruction opens her arms in a world's-end embrace, we are falling down to touch her throat and—
Then the nova draws its breath back, startled.
Then there's nothing, nothing left, and they haven't burned, and they never will. Not in the same fire, not in the arms of their ancestors. Suddenly they are cowards, survivors whose lives were spared rather than won, creatures worth less than nothing. Faceless, nameless, pale. And very cold.
A false winter curls up with the absent hunger lashing in their bellies, and they mourn and wonder at it, this hunger, this cold, homeless season that slows the blood and heart to stillness.
It's regret, Nero tells them.
For the terrible things we must do to make everything right again, he says.
"I want you to think about it," Nero says, and his eyes leap between four separate points systematically. "Why would they have engineered this red matter unless there was a use for it? A use; they knew. What's it for, if not swallowing suns and worlds? Bodies, enemies, mistakes."
"Captain, the Federation doesn't have the technological capacity to destabilize a star," Ayel replies carefully. Silicon limbs are chittering somewhere close, just out of reach, and their frenzy to knit structural repairs is an opium hum that drones in the back of his mouth, a keen distraction. Welcome invaders, usurping the ship. Besides that, he cracked his head on a panel during the impact with maddened iKelvin/i – a brave ship, a filthy cheat – and the gash from that is still throbbing, despite having been given cursory treatment. It's difficult; to focus around the spongy ache in his temple, to choose the right words and remember to say them aloud. "It's led by humans; their kind has no real aspirations. They've never even tried to undermine Little Algeron and develop proper cloaking devices. They couldn't have manufactured—" And he can't say it, he can't.
"So they knew about it. Kept it secret somehow, watched. Watching us. Trade routes and immigration, that's what they said they wanted, and it was surveillance." Nero is in a state of controlled panic. Something has to be done for him, Ayel is sure of it, but he doesn't know what. "We were an experiment. Our star, our people, all of us, everything, and my—"
"Nero," he says, and puts out a hand, doesn't quite touch his fingers.
And Nero falls back with his teeth bared, as if some skittering beast threw him and flashed poisonous claws in his face; and then he comes back immediately and grabs onto Ayel's elbow. Grabs it and holds it and waits there, leaning into his shoulder, staring past him. When he's sure that it's permitted, Ayel mirrors the gesture, studies the length of the dark, rumbling corridor while they stand side by side with their forearms pressed together for reassurance.
(Black breath, a skirling of limbs with no fingers or toes. The ship sighs, she mourns the old life, her autonomy.)
"They aren't dead," Nero says slowly, "because they aren't alive yet. I know."
Ayel closes his eyes briefly. He murmurs: "Nero, I hate everyone who's done this to us, but we have to think of the – the present." It's a delicate hesitation. Nero turns his head toward it minutely. "The Klingons are hailing us again. They've seen the state of us, they know we can't evade them, can't fight."
"Ah." Soft, soft; the gentle passing of a whisper-smooth pelt before the incisors descend. "We can always fight."
"We can't," Ayel breathes. "We can't die here, please, we can't. We were going to kill them all. We have to live long enough to do something, to warn the Senate and make them believe us, to do something."
In a way, it sounds like a coward's argument and he doesn't expect it to be well met. Nero only nods against him, though, and he realizes suddenly that they've fit themselves neatly together – in a defensive posture, yes, but it's not physical danger that bends them so easily, just so.
"Then it's something we'll do," Nero says, dropping his arm, drawing away as if to circle the idea from a distance. "Let's start with talking. Since it's already upon us. Since it always seems to work so well."
Later, Ayel spits at him: why? Why like this?
Because the Klingons, though primitive, have something more valuable than information; they have information in its original context.
Because they will be taken to a place he needs to see, to touch for himself.
Because they are lost now.
Because he doesn't know what else to do.
Nero admits none of this aloud, only passes the ghost of a touch over Ayel's split scalp and tells him: I said it before. Terrible things. Trust me as long as you can, and maybe I won't even have to explain myself in the end.
Rura Penthe touches their tongues with a breath of ice and makes all suffering that came before it seem inconsequential. There's a difference between labouring for the cardinal reasons, heart's blood and vengeance, and being driven under whips and lashes as slaves to an alien purpose; they could be proud of their pain when they chose it for themselves, let it swing from their bodies like festival robes. Now all they have are the thin, snowburned pelts given to them on the surface and shining black patches on their skin where the frost manages to kiss them anyway, creeping with little hunter lips, eating the warm cells one by one.
Upon their arrival at the entrance to the mines, they are dropped down a network of winding, sloped tunnels and locked in an unlit cell cut out of stone and ice, forty paces by thirty-five and stacked to the ceiling with wooden shelves where they will have to sleep, dozens over dozens, the way the ancients might have stored books or wine bottles or bodies wrapped for death rites.
They are afraid, and they huddle together. A few voices call plaintively for Nero by his title. When he answers, the sound of his voice becomes the centre of a lost world, the humming touchstone that gives shape to cavernous darkness; they are in a nebula that has smothered all of its young suns, they are in an obsidian temple raised on the limits of tangible existence, they are in the Senate antechamber, they are in their homes at night. Hands go out, clasp other hands, and somewhere unseen Nero is holding onto each of them.
"In a few hours," he says, "they'll come back. They'll take me away and put you all to work. And you will work, because there is meaning in that, purpose. Look after each other. From now on, you listen to Ayel. Do you understand? I brought you here. I have hidden motivations, like the traitor star, like the enemy himself. Listen to Ayel. I will tell you nothing else until I can tell you something hopeful and true. I am alone and you are together. I am outside, beyond, I am centuries of silence in the fold of your suffering."
And perhaps some of them want to say no, but his voice does not invite defiance.
A few hours later the Klingons come, limned in frigid light. Nero is taken, Ayel has his arm slashed while trying to prevent it. The crew masses around him, draws him to the middle because he is their centre now, even with his eyes reflecting murder and his mind already racing down a thousand paths to find the one that will reclaim Nero as quickly as possible.
The Klingons stare back from a distance, dark and terrible, taking in their numbers and bearing with a kind of mundane fascination, unimpressed by the danger. Like beastkeepers that slit the throats of unruly animals rather than risk being mauled in the future.
In rough standard speech, one finally says: "For giving us looks that are hungrier for blood than for food, you have gotten the one and will not get the other. Think of that when your bellies are souring on emptiness tonight."
They are shackled at the feet, sent into the mine shafts and the lolling, dark tunnels with cutting torches calibrated to the density of dilithium. Turning these on the ankle hobbles only blisters exposed skin and heats the metal to body temperature. A few other prisoners pause to watch them try it, mildly interested, then turn away when they realize the likely perils of consorting with Romulans, never mind that there are no guards on this level to catch them at it.
It takes a few weeks for their floormates to get used to them. They don't get used to their floormates in kind, so it's notable when a Coridan approaches their work party and two of the women meet him several paces down the hall. Ayel is fully prepared to be protective or judgemental but Nero notices the exchange too, and dismisses it openly, goes back to work. Which means that Ayel's energy is better spent making him sit down and rest.
The girls return unharmed anyway; they even let the Coridan follow them and watch for a moment. He pulls his hood back to see more clearly, shows a glimpse of ashen skin tinged with colour – probably a sickly cast among his own kind. He catches Ayel watching him.
"May the gods bless you," the Coridan says, tonelessly.
"There are no gods," Ayel replies. "Only forces."
Somebody says the first verse of a fire chant behind him, lilting it into a hopeful question. Laughter, then, a good sound. It warms the dead stones.
The Coridan turns away without another word.
Nero's cheeks are hollow. His bones grind as if they're poorly matched from a heap of discarded parts; his tongue has the texture of powdered glass. Ayel knows this, he runs his fingers under the tendons and over the heart each night, and sometimes Nero turns to him, puts his glassy tongue on his body, in his mouth. Between the two of them, they can almost taste everything he isn't going to say.
Tied up in strips of fur and leather against the loping drafts that howl high notes through the subterranean rock vaults strung through the mines, Nero's hands shake for no reason, and he bruises easily through his wrappings. He is sick, starving. The Klingons give him another month or so to live, just like they did last month, two months ago, six; their voices roll like meaningless waves in a sea with no shore, they are barely audible over the clamour of slavery these days.
But sometimes he does look a bit like he's dying, he does, and it's worrisome. The guards are usually right about him; he just doesn't let them see it, refuses to give them the satisfaction of throwing his dead body to their pets, the white wolves roaming the shafts that tilt up to the surface.
On a day when he is left to join the crew on shift, Ayel tries to make him lie down and rest, turns his pleas into orders as Nero adamantly ignores him.
"Do you think you're worth less than any one of us?" he demands, and those are the words that finally have an effect; Nero turns to him, focuses. "Whatever you're up to, stop it. Save your sideways plots, they won't work on me. I'm going to find a way to make them leave you alone, and I don't need you to smash yourself on the rocks before that."
He nods as if he is contrite. He even goes to a barren part of the wall and sits, pulls off a few rags to make himself a cushion, waiting for Ayel's indignation to subside. He understands. He does know that he's not well.
None of this stops him from clambering into restricted passages, though, or starting fights with anyone who can be bothered to dislike him. It's as if he wants to be whittled down, piece by piece, chipped and softened and darkened to pulp so that the interrogators will have to go softly when they set to work on him again. Hesitant fingers don't sit well with Klingons; damaging himself really is the greatest injustice he can do to them now. Maybe it's part of the plan, if there is one. Or maybe he's just lost his mind.
"Your commander, why does he keep such a weighty silence? He still has his tongue, for now. Such adamant silence. It makes the marshal think that he has great secrets stuck between his teeth."
The guard is tall and elegant, with dramatic ridges at his brow and splints of silver knotted into his black hair. In the other time, the one Ayel has come to think of simply as home, he would not look out of place at the helm of a warbird. Ayel wonders what he is doing on a freezing rock in the unrelenting dark, and – more immediately – why he took him aside.
"His secrets wouldn't interest your marshal," Ayel says curtly, which means: you wouldn't believe the truth if you heard it.
"Tell him to speak," the Klingon says, "and we will judge."
"He doesn't speak. He's mute."
A gratifying expression of astonishment flickers across the guard's face. "Then how did he command his vessel?"
"Yes," Ayel replies. "How."
There in a whispering, torch-lit alcove, they match gazes over cobalt shadows as if they have come to an understanding, and in a way they have; they both think that they might understand everything, but not each other.
"You Romulans," the Klingon says, as if the word is a curse.
And that's fine. It's only his own word for them, after all. Worthless as a mouthful of dirt. Ayel turns and leaves before he has time to be sent away.
One evening Nero is given back to them before they have left the open, peaked room where duties are assigned at the beginning of the day and meals are taken at its end. He is in such bad shape that his tattoos are indistinguishable from the all the blood and spit and mucus spooling down the long furrows where his muscles were carved up from the bone. Even the two meat puppets, the rankless Klingons who occasionally come for him by morning and throw him back like a dead animal when the asteroid's core has settled with nighttime finality, even they are holding him uneasily.
And even the third, the dark one with rank, flinches away from Ayel's furious cry when he sees what's been done. The sound cuts like a starving bird with bloody talons out into the cellblock corridors; somebody unseen calls back in a language from no world he could easily name, but the cadence seems sympathetic. Hearing it, Ayel catches all his hatred and his curses on the hooks of his ribs, waiting silently, burning with something like fever as Nero is set down just outside the prisoners' common area. He gestures impatiently, holds eye contact with the one ranked guard because that's the most important thing: keep him at bay, show him nothing breaks them, violence is not a viable key for control; it's currency, payment, they'll buy themselves back with flesh and blood in time.
A few of the bottom deck workers scramble to claim Nero. Over their backs, the Klingon says: "One week to make him well."
In the blue chill of the cells and mine shafts, a week is a very long time. They've done something careless. They know it and they aren't ready for him to drop all hope and die; a week to let his bones settle back into everything he has left to lose. Ayel watches for the tells of dishonourable conduct, some kind of trick or ambush for the ones who go to their captain. There's no sign of that, so he doesn't order anyone to make for the Klingons before they can withdraw from the open floor. Better to let them disappear like bad dreams. Up the iron stairs and scaffolds, back to the safety of their sequestered living quarters, rooms with heat and clean water and basic furnishings; back to their stark lightless interrogation rooms, too. Romulans aren't the only ones they keep to whet their taste for secrets here, not by any means.
When their heavy steps are ringing distant on the black bridges overhead, Nero is delivered into Ayel's arms, leering bloody teeth and gums up at him as if sharing an inside joke.
"A waste," Ayel mutters, hoping that there is enough disapproval in his voice to carry the point because his hands are already moving around cuts and abrasions, trying to coax the pain out of them with light touches elsewhere. "You aren't even a little bit clever, you know. I'll figure out what you're looking for. Soon. Even without speaking, you can't keep anything from me."
Nero shuts his eyes. Turns into the warm slope of Ayel's hand and unravels a long sigh like a colourless banner worn blank by time and the passing of oceans, the gentle step of mountains, of aeons, all wiped pure and clean by an afterthought of the elements. Sighs as if to breathe new life into something dead.
One of the girls wants to know: "Where does he go, where do they take him?"
And she has already made up an answer for herself, they can all guess; that's why she looks so angry. That's why Ayel doesn't bother to reply, only faces her with all the respect she deserves. Along with the other discernibly feminine inhabitants of the prison complex, she is not permitted to enter the mines and is therefore excluded from the purpose Nero named for them, the comfort and agony of labour. He resents her for it, even as his heart aches for her offended fury.
"It's out there," she says, as if she can feel the crackling of his nerves and would rather pluck at them than soothe them. "Home. Like it crawled out of the ashes and opened its mouth to swallow a new future. We could go to it someday."
They could. They could go home.
Ayel hears his own voice answer: "Home is a dangerous word. Be careful. Forget the world you knew before."
And he doesn't know why he would say such a thing but it sounds like good advice, if only he could follow it himself.
The crew has finally been split up and that's all Ayel knows. He and Nero were taken at the same time; they are the authority manifest, first to be marked out and amputated. At a juncture in the stone hall, they were separated from each other as well. It makes sense, objectively. There are few things more dangerous to a penal institutional than a coalition of prisoners, like-minded and increasingly restless. Separation was inevitable.
"Your captain does not care about you," the Klingon holding his restraints says to him, not with any particular malice and that's what makes it so painful to hear. "He always scuttles off, even knowing that you are at stake. He shames himself. Engages in sabotage. And this time, he has gone too far."
"Sabotage," Ayel echoes sharply, not daring to make it a question, and the Klingon coughs laughter.
"He didn't even warn you? Exactly as I say, then. Selfish. He runs to the living quarters, interested only in his own comfort."
Ayel is a little hurt to know that he has been excluded from some exercise in subterfuge, but the rest doesn't sound like Nero at all. There is a slight, unwelcome fluttering of hope in his side; something is being done after all – not that the Klingons should be allowed to know it.
He sneers as he imagines he should. "What kind of prison swarms with escaped inmates? May a flesh-eater creep into your own rooms today. You should check all the corners before you shut off your lights."
"No one," the Klingon tells him in a hard voice, "has ever escaped from Rura Penthe."
"Not even the guards," Ayel says, and he's yanked the last few steps to a sunken door for that, grabbed by the arm and tossed into the maw of a dark room carelessly. Unable to catch himself properly with chained hands, he takes most of his weight on a shoulder, feels a bolt of pain on the landing, rolls inelegantly.
"Sweet dreams," he calls up at the huge silhouette still looming over him, and there is no answer. The door crashes shut and he sees nothing, feels around in the dark for anything useful or dangerous. Breathes.
(Somewhere. Somewhere out in the somewhere-out-there, the Narada is turning slowly, silent and cold. Somewhere, all her halls are filled with emptiness. What if she whispers, will anyone believe that she spoke? What if she misses them? Ayel wants to tell her to come and find them. Ayel wants to tell her to drift away from this place. Ayel wants to tell her that—)
Ayel has been alone in the stone cell with no lights and no heat for the span of four missed meals and therefore two days when he's snatched up from a hypnotic state deeper than sleep, cowled and dragged blind down paths and corridors until there are codex knots in his sense of direction. He's thrown onto a floor that feels just like the one he'd left, though he had at least warmed the other with his body a little. He doesn't bother to uncover his face, just lies still, exhausted by the torment of wanting to stay alive so desperately, for so, so long.
Someone touches him clumsily. Pulls the stinking cowl aside. There's a translucent peel of light stuffed between the door and its hinges overhead. By its gentle cast, he can see the dimensions of the room, like a rough sketch, and then the pearls of ore lacing the walls, and then Nero, curled up on his side, stripped, bleeding, his joints split open like over-ripe fruit.
Breathing a sharp electric rasp, Ayel scrambles to him, slips the closed circle of his arms over his head carefully. Nero makes a long, low sound. Pain, Ayel thinks, and stops moving; but then Nero puts a hand over the sharp jut of his hip and draws him closer and holds him. Sighs.
"If I thought I would never see you again," Ayel whispers, perhaps too quietly to be heard, "I'd kill you myself."
Nero trembles like a tiny bird waiting for storms to split open overhead. Smiling into his shoulder; soft, soft.
Twisting him up, Ayel hisses in his ear: "There's nothing for us here. We've come and we've looked. Searched everywhere. You've been up to something too; yes, I know that. I don't care anymore. Enough, do you understand? Enough. They're hurting you. We're not safe. We're getting sick. One of the girls was attacked by four guards and raped. She killed two and when the others got away, she killed herself. Days ago now, while you were gone, taken. I didn't tell you because I thought you cared too much, but now I know that you don't care at all. Are you listening to me? Nero, we want to go. What are we doing, why are we submitting to this? It's a mark against us, forever. Another insult to everyone who died while we lived. I want to go home. Nero, tell me something, touch me."
His breath is sour, his hands are shaking again. Both of his eyes are swollen nearly shut. He sees with his fingers, feathering the underside of Ayel's jaw, stroking his neck. A smile dangles from his mouth like rotten meat and he tugs on his ear, almost playfully. Ayel folds himself around his body, a healer's shroud, as though he could fix him by force of will.
Nero mouthes two words against him, not quite violating the perfect stillness closing on them like a capsule, like falling twilight, the darkness song.
It's here. He doesn't say it, but that's what he said. He rolls back and takes Ayel's hand. Presses it against the wall.
"What's here?" Ayel whispers it so he doesn't snarl. "What is it, what are you talking about, I don't understand."
I know, Nero is thinking. It's in his expression; a clear message despite his disfigurement and the uncertain light. And he lies back, insufferably calm. Knowing.
Thinking backwards to escape the bleak grasp of the future, Ayel tries to remember what Nero had told him about red matter, about glittering worlds and unfairness, what he'd said. It seems important now, but he can't make any sense of their words, keeps confusing their voices in his memory.
Instead he thinks about the Federation. Bitterly, touching the name only lightly, like a clapping of dusty wings over cursed ground. No matter the timeline, it sits with its back in a corner and chews on its toes. All the years of no-contact with the Empire must have grated its tender nerves; always, it had been a child standing on the edge of a dark forest, fearing what was inside. Following the trade agreements, it probably wished that it had walked up and offered its blood from the very beginning, for better or worse. That would have been the courageous thing to do, the bold thing; make an ally or lose a chunk of flesh.
All the highest esteems to it, Ayel thinks coldly. In this infinity, it was struck in the face by a black beast and made to see its own vulnerability. Let it look into the woods and do more than wonder. Let it cower. Let it know.
They have been obedient, careful. The Klingons allow them to organize their own sleeping arrangments again, and they knit their group back together slowly, notice holes in the pattern of it as if they are personal injuries. Each death is a limb cut away and fed to scavengers. They mourn again, still, always, and try to remember the honourable side of grief.
It's a good day when they wake up and they are all together; good enough.
The Klingons don't come often anymore, but when they do, when they come to lead Nero out of the safety of a hundred inkstained arms, he is gone for days at a time, even weeks. Too long. They don't have days to count until they will be released, so they count the hours until he comes back to them. They say: don't leave us again. Of course, he makes no promises and it's just as well; he wouldn't be able to keep them, he would open his mouth and let them lap lies off of his tongue.
He is gone in the morning after an otherwise uneventful week. It won't be long, they think. No one has done anything wrong.
A month passes and the girls keep Ayel alive by jeering at him for his weaknesses, his dependence, his inability as a leader; they force-feed him when it's necessary. We have made a purpose out of nothing, they say. Why can't you have a little patience, where has all your trust gone?
Where has Nero gone? he wants to say back to them, but their industrious cruelty inspires him enough to hold his tongue, at least for a few days.
Later, he wakes up because Nero is biting his ear, muttering his name, but that can't be. He wakes up anyway, and his ear is sore and slick, and Nero is leaning over him, giving him a strange, slanted smile. Reflexively, Ayel gives the call for all-at-attention, a military action that they used perhaps three times in the past, but people are scrambling before he has even finished forming the words, making sounds of delight, sounds Ayel hasn't heard for years.
They all gather him up, hold onto him. Put him into Ayel's arms, and Ayel says: "I think I understand. The red matter was engineered. Its effects weren't a mistake. We arrived at a predetermined time and place, for some purpose of theirs; and you brought us here so that we couldn't serve it." He stops, startled to hear how ludicrous the words sound, but then Nero takes his face in his shaking hands and laughs, and Ayel feels a twisting, inexplicable thread of relief suddenly resonate between them. Quickly, he adds: "These are dilithium mines. Red matter is processed from this material. You've been looking for signs of illegal shipments outside the Klingon empire, even this early. The Vulcans must have been working on this substance for a long time. You want to prevent them from starting. Or – you want them to start earlier so we can steal it. I don't know. Nero, I don't know, this is ridiculous."
Everybody closes up tight together, the thousand fingers of a hand holding something precious.
"I," Nero rasps, "do. I know. The time. And the place. Where to find him."
No one replies. They don't believe him, if only because they don't yet recognize his voice.
He says: "Ayel, it's time for us to go."
And they go; soft, soft as the going of ghosts, and ghosts are all they leave behind.
"Talking," Ayel says in disbelief, "to dilithium."
Nero looks at him with glass eyes; it's almost possible to see what's going on behind them. Thoughts like smoke in a globe of water. Wires and snakes bisecting the mind, and Ayel is the first to look away.
"For twenty-five years?"
"Don't be angry," Nero says distantly.
That had been the plan, actually; to get extremely angry, to crack him across the face and spit on him and pull open all of his scars, but then Ayel takes a moment to find his balance, to distance himself from such a horrific fantasy; he does not resent anyone here, and none of his captors are still alive to deserve his hatred. And Nero's voice is strange, so small sometimes before it arcs out like a thread of lightning. Who knows if he's just looking for an excuse to fight, to call down executions like rain.
"You really have lost your mind," Ayel says, and Nero smiles, but it might not have been a joke. And he might even have understood that.
"We'll see," he replies.
And they do.
Visual grasp of the Vulcan's ship. It squirms quicksilver as the singularity – the wormhole, the Federation's device – resurfaces and vomits him greasy and shining onto the blank panels of space. This changes things.
Call him a liar, a thief, call him insane; Nero was right, he has led them to their prey as promised. Ayel lingers around him, ashamed of every doubt he has ever harboured. He asks him: how, how did you know this? And Nero regards him as though he is a particularly interesting insect, tells him that he shouldn't have to explain but he will; just wait.
They deal with the Vulcan first. That's the most important thing, and the most distasteful. Letting him go, after so much time spent waiting with open hands, hoping to catch a certain drop of rain in a downpour. Distasteful to finally have it balanced on a fingertip and then have to flick it aside. Worse, the temperature readings from Delta Vega are not nearly low enough for Ayel's liking. But he doesn't let himself judge anymore, he makes sure that he has perfect faith.
Later, Nero shows him the notebook, an archaic little thing snatched from a frozen corpse only a few years before; mostly empty when he took it, filled now with notes and numbers, a huge amount of rudimentary information. No space is wasted on calculations; it's all observational data, values and measures and there is no way to read it but Ayel tries. The pages repulse him vaguely. Days and days of work wink at him in the writing alone, and the difficulty of collecting so much guarded information, the punishment for venturing outside the prison hive and the mines or even being linked to an attempt to reach the communication facilities—
"I lied," Nero says, breathing tongues of warmth down the back of his neck, "a bit. I didn't really know when or where, not really. The computers on that rock, it's a miracle they ran at all. I didn't trust their estimates until I gave everything to the ship and let her check it. But I made a decision not long before, because I'd gotten something out of Lorn," and Lorn was one of his regular interrogators – one of his friends, as he called them – and he always seemed to say their names with a touch of nostalgia, with a fondness that made Ayel's stomach turn, "and he never even realized the importance of what he was saying. It was surreal. He said to me: Scumtongue, they are doing the most outlandish things with our product these days. I can't say who, but there is something new they want to try, a method of refining the raw dilithium, and they have done all the theoretical work. He was putting a steel pin through the bones in my feet at the time, and after that was done he started burning my fingertips and telling me all the critical values about the new derivative substance. I couldn't believe it. I thought I was hallucinating. I almost missed the half-life, actually, because I was trying to wake up from a dream I wasn't having. And I knew, if it was true, that I probably had everything we needed."
He has crept close. He presses his thumb into the smooth hollow at the base of Ayel's skull, strokes it, then scratches hard enough to call up blood. Brings his hand to his mouth and bites the tiny scrap of skin out from under his nail. Ayel squirms.
"You didn't get all of this from the guards."
"No. Just that, in fact."
"Then how many times did you—"
"I only managed to slip the watchdogs three times. No, four. I wasn't very good at it. I was – terrible, really," he says, and sucks on his teeth to keep from smiling. "Always too tired or hungry, bleeding too much to hide the trail. No. The girls were running most of the information. Didn't you guess? While we were cutting up dilithium, they were finding ways to pick through the databases." He pauses. "Cutting up dilithium."
He hadn't guessed, as a matter of fact, not at such an elaborate system of infiltration. He'd known that the women were given menial duties in the common areas and had access to a few restricted passages. Other than that, he'd only ever worried about their well-being or envied them the opportunity to walk around unshackled. He pulls his thoughts long, stretches them out; he goes over a few old conversations and realizes that things were being kept from him diligently, that he hadn't asked the right questions or kept a tight enough watch on the entire crew. Not that it would have been possible to track them all. Too many variables and hidden spaces. His mind wanders on that tangent, exploring cold possibilities.
"What if the estimate had been for a time that had already passed?" Ayel asks, because the notion is horrifying, an unthinkable what-if.
"Then we would have known where to start searching and how cold the trail had become. Put that down," he says suddenly. "It's making you upset. It's worthless now, and I have something more interesting to show you. Come."
They walk through the soaring pitches and shadows that mutter in the holding bay and go into the harsh, glossy grasp of the Vulcan's little craft. Nero stands aside to let Ayel see the size of its payload, the sheer volume of red matter suspended in vacuum before them. Enough to eat a whole supercluster, one star at a time, or to ignite a galactic black hole on somebody's whim. Ayel stares. Nero pushes him back against the white wall to see him more vividly alongside its starkness, traces a tendon trembling in his throat, moans something into his ear and then slips his tongue after it; Ayel just keeps staring over his shoulder. Matching gazes with the red matter, seeing into it, hearing it. Decides it's likely that Nero was right about a great many other things all along.
"So we have them figured out completely," Ayel says, as Starfleet vessels and Vulcan homeguard alike are raked apart on the viewscreens, "don't we, Captain."
Nero seems to think so, and to approve of hearing it, but then he has been hard to read lately. Years of keeping secrets and curling inward were all scattered like dead embers the instant he stepped back up on deck. The dreadful plunge into freedom has shattered him completely, or else he is simply becoming himself again. Hard to tell one from the other; nobody remembers what they were like before anyway. If nothing else, he is more animated now. Being back on the ship has soothed him to real contentment and he can't stop staring at her, touching her, whispering as if there is no one else to hear him.
It's strange. Ayel thinks – and is uncomfortable with the thought before it has even finished forming – that he might be jealous. Of the Narada, of her self-assurance and newfound savagery. He is cautious, at least. Thoughtful. She doesn't look like home anymore, and she takes voices, breaks them up into echoes and throws back different words, darker rhythms; she eats flesh and breathes decay, hanging from herself with a smile. This is not the ship he remembers, not exactly. This is not the same, solid presence he felt folding over his shoulders and into his hands while he watched the world end, no.
Something occurs to him while he studies the visual feed blazing onscreen; and probably will again, much more profoundly, as they come up on Earth and its sweet-natured companion, Sol. Something frightening, infuriating, sad.
This is the first time in twenty-five years that he has been close enough to a star to want to shield his eyes and call it a sun instead.
Federation ships prowl far from the black caverns where Vulcan's flesh has been struck from the privilege of all feeling and presence, from being and seeing and reaching out to take what belongs to others. They lick their teeth; they let the pieces scatter. The rapid, garbled transmissions broadcast by their central command call all vessels away from the carcass. This is how they react when of their own has fallen.
And he was right, he was right all along.
They must do terrible things.