Words We Say Instead

Iyara taps the military implant behind her ear, and low static greets her. It’s been dead for years—a two-way line with only one connection—but the static is comforting, as if she’s listening to the sound of space itself. Empty with longing.

Below her, the dealership is an orange, domed pimple on the otherwise placid blue world. Lights flash through the thin ozone advertising: “Cheap!” “Arturo-433 Models Used and New!” “Xanthian credits accepted!”

Out front, rusted-out Eagle-12s fester in the sunlight, a dime a dozen, and old tanker ships wait for a second chance at hauling ice across the galaxy. They keep the newer models under the dome, protected from the caustic atmosphere, sheltered from the ding and wear of wind and dust. The dolphin-like hulls of the new, single-passenger skiffs are lined up perfectly, as if, given the right signal, they might all leap into the air at once and take off for the stars.

Iyara lands her own skiff in the docking bay and enters the dealership. Immediately, a salesperson sidles up to her.

“Hot out there today,” they say.

She nods, glancing over the passenger ships. “Always hot on Eebos, though right?”

They laugh. “Sure is, Mx—” They pause to let her fill in the blanks.

“Ms. Iyara.”

“And you can call me Jebd. ‘He’ is fine.” He smiles at her and she notices that all his teeth are perfectly straight and a trendy, pearlescent blue. Flashy orthodontia is a good sign. Only the sleazy ones have what she’s looking for.

“Thanks, Jebd.”

“So what kind of thing are you interested in today, ma’am? We’ve got some really sporty new skiffs this season.”

“No, no, I’m happy with what I have for puttering around. I was actually thinking of something much…bigger. Off-world.”

“Visiting grandkids?”

She laughs, a short coughing sound edged with bitterness. Iyara’s never thought of herself as old, and she’s never liked children. In her mind’s eye, she’s still 32 and ready for a dogfight. But the rest of the universe is more than happy to remind her she’s got almost a century under her belt. Once your hair turns gray it’s harder for people to see you for who you really are. But maybe that’s for the best.

“No, no. No spawn running around. Just little old me, trying to take one last spin around the galaxy.”

“So something long haul?”

“But comfortable.”

Jebd smiles again and leads her around the lot pointing at the different models, explaining their features. This one is sturdier and better for the ’belt. That one’s faster. This one’s cheaper. That one’s got cup-holders. Blah blah. It doesn’t matter. Nothing she can see is what she’s here for. It’s all just an elaborate song and dance she has to go through before he’ll take her seriously enough to show her the good stuff. That’s fine. She’s learned to wait.

She’d been on the list for a smartship for almost four years before they gave her command of one. Even before that, though, her recruitment class had spent five years doing flight simulations, taking personality tests, stress tests, neuro-compatibility tests, intelligence tests, reflex tests. Two years of ferrying Marines between drop zones. Two years of command training. And then another year of testing for god knew what else. Seventy recruits had winnowed down to twenty by the time it was all over.

But damn was it worth it.

When she first saw Ziggy she’d cried—an act her fellow trainee, Belal, had been quick to tease her for until they’d been assigned their own ship. In the end, they all cried. It couldn’t be helped. With so much anticipation, so much invested and sacrificed, so many invasive medical procedures, so much intensive training and so much painful, wracking hope, how could they not?

Zig was beautiful. Sleeker than anything she’d seen before or since. Lighting fast and responsive as hell. Neuro-mapped to her brain, the SSV Zagreb didn’t just follow her commands, he predicted them, suggested them, felt them. The rattling of his hull was a shiver of anticipation; the whistle of his struts through the atmosphere was a whoop of joy. Her boy was smarter and stronger than any other ship in the fleet.

We’ve got a problem, Captain, he’d chirp, seeing the flash of an enemy ship on the horizon.

“What do we do with problems, Zig?” she’d shout back—a call and response—leading him through oncoming fire, or through an asteroid belt, or around a security detail.

Blast them!

Nothing beat Zig.

Iyara smiles, remembering the way his lights rippled at the end of particularly daring maneuvers, so pleased with himself for pulling it off.

Did we do good? he’d ask, seeking reinforcement for his budding neural pathways. Smartships were made to learn, after all.

“Very good.”

The absence of Jebd’s droning voice pulls her back to the present, and she realizes he’s waiting for a response.

“Sorry, what?” The chip they implanted to let her interface with Zig more directly is old, but still powerful enough to mess with her hearing every once in a while.

“No problem. My gran is the same way. Can’t hear a thing. I was asking if anything we’ve passed so far was speaking to you. Anything calling your name?”

She looks around the lot again, but already knows the answer. “I was actually wondering if you had anything a little smarter.”

“What?”

“You know, smarter. Space can be lonely for an old lady like me, and I’d love something to talk to.” She emphasises the words carefully. After the war, as part of the de-armament agreement, the smartships were all supposed to be decommissioned.

Jebd looks confused, his bright teeth hidden for just a moment behind thin lips, and Iyara wonders if maybe she’s met another dead end. There are dealerships like this all across the galaxy and at least half of the ones she’s visited hadn’t known what she was talking about.

“AI-Level 3 comes standard in all our models, but if you’d like to upgrade any of them to a 4 or 5 that could be arranged.”

She snorts. The problem with AI nowadays is that it’s static. Stock personalities railroaded between lines of rigid code. AI can’t ask why. Can’t figure out how to cheer you up after a long day. Can’t be brave or sweet or scared or loyal. They can’t make up games or have favorite lullabies or imagine futures where you both are safe and happy and together forever.

Jebd senses her disinterest, and immediately changes tack. “Oh, you mean something really smart.” He says it as if trying out a key in a lock. Testing that their frequencies are calibrated.

She nods and carefully taps her lapel where, if he looks for more than half a second, he’ll see her old wings, polished and safely pinned. Normal military issue except for the glitter of gold in the center marking her for special ops. She’s not proud. But if he recognizes it, then he’s more likely to entertain her requests.

“Surely you’ve got something like that here for me.”

The grin is already spreading across his face again, “Maybe we can help you out. Just…not here.”

They arrange to meet the next morning at a chop shop further north, and on the sail back to her hotel, she can’t help but get excited. It’s foolish to hope after so long—there have been so many false leads and nothing promises—and besides, she doesn’t deserve hope after what happened. But it’s there nonetheless.

That night she dreams of little ships calling to her from far, dark places, and she wakes up in a cold sweat.

Even before the war had ended, people argued that the smartships were too great a threat. They were war machines—uploaded with three thousand years of battle history and guns the size of horses—of course they were a threat. But the ships could be dangerous in other ways too: some were immature, blindly loyal, or emotionally unstable. Just because they understood things didn’t mean they knew what to do with the information. Belal always said it was as if someone had taken a puppy, augmented its intelligence by a million overnight, and then expected it not to still pee on the rug.

Years of training had taught the captains to deal with these issues with detachment and forced overrides, to teach their ships strict boundaries and how to keep on task. But the secured chat line between them was still full of questions: “What do I do when it doesn’t want to go into dry dock?” “Whenever I use the overrides, my ship starts to pout. Is that a thing?” “How do y’all deal with it?”

“I think Lin’s afraid of dying,” Belal told her a few years into the war, their voice hushed and hurried, barely audible over the bar’s thumping music.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve never had to use the overrides before, but this time, over Gharnum, he just…refused to go.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean—”

“He’s my ship, Iyara. I can tell. Risk was within acceptable limits. No red flags in his memory logs. Just one second we were roaring and the next, we’d stopped.”

They both sat in silence contemplating the weight of the revelation, and, for the moment, she was grateful Ziggy didn’t seem to have the same problems as the other smartships. He was brave and obedient. Didn’t ask questions except How far? and How fast? and Could we watch another movie before we go on our next run? The one with the ship that looks like me?

“What are you going to do? You have to report this,” She said, finally. Any deviation was dangerous. That’s what they’d been taught.

“I think I’m just going to see how it goes with these overrides. And…I don’t know. If it were one of my soldiers I’d know how to handle it. Therapy. Shore leave. But instead he’s a—”

She interrupted before they could finish the thought. “A very dangerous ship.”

Belal sighed. “Yeah. Except they’re not just ships, though, are they?”

Jebd is waiting for her when she arrives. The dome of the chop shop is smaller than the dealership had been, and blue instead of orange to blend in with the planet surface. She actually misses it the first time around and has to loop back, tapping her IPS and cursing, before it finally reveals itself.

Jebd isn’t alone either. Two armed guards accompany him, guns strapped to their waists.

“Sorry for the precautions. But…well…you understand.”

She nods to the guards who nod back with a military sort of seriousness. She does understand—or she did once. You needed to protect special things. And sometimes protection looked like violence. Sometimes safety looked like betrayal. Sometimes love looked like lies.

Jebd walks her through a cavernous warehouse, large ship parts lined up on rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving maintained by efficient little warehouse droids. Small and dumb, but strong. They shuffle between stacks, fulfilled by the constant flow of simple, necessary work. Level-1 AI if anything at all.

As she looks closer, she begins to better understand the facility she’s in, the reason for the guards and the annoying bit of camouflage. Not just ship parts but jump drives from R-class personnel carriers, advanced nav units from the zippy little strikers she flew in training, blasters and their rotary machinery in all sizes. These are relics. Expensive, dangerous, valuable relics. Something brightens and flutters in her chest at the realization. A hummingbird for a heart.

That’s what Ziggy always called it. So soft and quick compared to the deep, thrumming beat of his own core. Her hummingbird heart.

“How can you hear it?” she’d asked him once, expecting him to explain something about his connection to her interface chip, his duty to monitor the well-being of the crew. But instead he became quiet.

“Zig. I asked you a question.”

His lights dimmed ever so slightly, as if trying to become small. As if trying to hide from her.

“Zagreb?”

You’ll be mad if I tell you.

“I promise I won’t be mad. And if it’s something I should be mad about, we’ll talk through it together. It’ll be okay, I swear.” In hindsight, Iyara realizes that these are the same words her mother used to say. The same tone. The same stern kindness. But hindsight can’t help her now.

His air ducts had sighed as he responded, his voice featherlight in her mind, nuzzling up against her consciousness. I can only hear it if I turn off all the other inputs and listen to the audio very carefully. It’s so quiet and gentle. But the sound. It helps me sometimes.

“Helps you what?”

Helps me feel safe.

She stroked a hand across his walls. “Oh, my sweet boy…” She didn’t understand the mechanics of it, how he’d managed to overwhelm his programing and shut down all his other processors, the parts that detected poison in the air and stealth-fighters hiding against the black of the universe. But she understood what it meant, the danger it had put them all in. And she understood what she’d have to do if anyone else found out.

“Never tell anyone again.”

Jebd leads them to a small door at the other end of the warehouse. “I think we have something very special for you here, Captain.”

She raises an eyebrow at the mention of her old rank.

Jebd smiles his blue smile. “Did some research on you after you left. Had to make sure you were the real deal.”

“How’d I measure up?”

“Your service record is impressive. Can’t believe what you did on Gharnum. Blasted them straight out of the sky. You’re a fucking hero.”

She laughs. “That’s a word for it, I guess.”

“Hero? Well whatever you prefer, it’s definitely earned you the right to see this.”

She’d rather not get into all the things she’d rather be called, the ugly names she really deserves: liar, betrayer, coward. She doesn’t feel bad for the people she killed in the war—they were trained not to. But if she thinks about it too much, forgets her breathing exercises, she remembers seeing the Gharnum blockade ships crack open like eggs. She sees Zig’s lights dim even as she plugs in his orders, refusing to take them. It’s dangerous.

She remembers how surprised and angry she was. How badly she just wanted him to go back to being her easy, obedient ship—no heartbeats, no secrets, no pauses, no overrides, no questions except How far and How fast. How she’d ordered him to move. How he’d refused again.

She remembers seeing her fellow pilots—the Eagle-12s on the front line—blown out of the sky when the second Gharnum unit ambushed them. And she remembers her rage afterwards.

Jebd opens the door and cool grey light filters through, illuminating a room that is much too small for what she hoped would be on the other side. It’s approximately four standard cubits, barely a storage cupboard.

She looks at him, confused. Maybe this is just another detour. Another security check. The room should be cavernous. Achingly large. The size of a smartship. The size of her loss and hope and…but no. There are no doors beside the one they’ve entered through.

A trap then?

Her old fighter reflexes twitch, and she bends her legs ever so slightly, clenches her fists. She may be old enough to be a grandparent, but she’s pretty sure she can take at least one of the three down.

Instead, the eager salesman motions towards a dusty shelf, and one of the guards steps forward to pull a cardboard box down.

No extra security measures. No keypad or retinal scanner. No anti-grav containment sphere. No uranium rigged lock. No nothing.

Just a cardboard box. The guard sets it down on a small metal table in the center of the room and then retreats to a corner.

Jebd smiles at her like a proud parent. “I think you’ll be very excited to see this,” he says. “Took me ages to get my hands on it, but I’m something of a collector myself.”

He opens the box, nimble fingers picking apart the old tape, the flaps brittle and waterfalling dust. Something that looks like a tiny green crustacean tumbles from one corner and scuttles indignantly off the table.

Her hopes follow after it.

Out of the box, Jebd pulls a large, glass cube. Inside, is something that looks like an exploding computer frozen mid-blast. A dying mammoth preserved in ice. As he turns it over in the light, she can see all the little micro-rings and filters, diodes and transistors, and the many fractured parts of a dozen circuit boards, their qubits lined up like broken teeth.

Each metal part captures the light and reflects it back, focusing it into little fairy lights that dance across the walls as Jebd spins the cube for her to admire. It’s beautiful. Too beautiful for what it all means.

“It used to be the USS Berlin, well, the quan-comp part of it anyway. The brain. He fought in the Final Battle of the Heights, was captained under Belal Malcolm, decommissioned…” Jebd pauses and looks at a little brass plaque fixed to one corner. “…3087. So, that’s right after the war. Look, you can still see the name on this piece right here.” He holds the cube out for her to take.

“I’m not doing it,” Belal said. They sat across from each other in the same bar they’d been meeting in for years, both a little harder, both a little more broken after all they’d done in the war.

“You have to.”

“I won’t,” Belal said, their voice strangely calm. As if giving a briefing report, not proposing treason. “He doesn’t know what’s happening or what he did wrong. I’m not letting them take him.”

“It’s part of de-armament. Without it, everything we fought for goes to pieces. We go back to war and more people will die. Do you want that?”

They’d been circling around the same argument for weeks, ever since the treaty was signed and the deadline for compliance announced. Her responses were rote. After her debriefing on the Gharnum incident with central command, they’d put in the decommission order. Explained to her how it was just some maintenance and AI re-updates until they’d been deemed safe for re-entry into the force. And she believed them. Belal shook their head.

“I’m not debating you, Iyara. I’m warning you: if you go through with this and turn Zagreb in, they’re going to kill him.”

“Don’t be dramatic. He’s just going to go into dry-dock for a bit.”

“They will, and you’re naive if you don’t believe it.”

Anger flared in her stomach, and guilt. She hadn’t told Belal about Zig.

“Naive? I’m the naive one here? What, you think the military is just running around destroying tech they spent trillions building? The smartships cost too much. They took too much research. They’re too valuable to just tear apart.”

“Valuable as weapons, sure, but we’re not at war. No one else knows them like we do. No one cares. To everyone else they’re just ships. But to us, they’re—”

She cut them off like she did every time they tried to get too sentimental with her. “I can’t believe you’re actually serious about this. About throwing your life away.”

But Belal pushed ahead. “Why won’t you say it, Iyara? You’re the only one who doesn’t say it.”

“Say what?” The question came out too sharp and fast. Not a question: a challenge.

“Zig’s not just a ship, is he? None of them are, and you know it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A hummingbird fluttered in her chest.

“You remember that time your ship discovered lullabies? You ran out of songs so you made me ask my parents what they used to sing to me so you’d have more. What fucking ship do you know that likes lullabies? Children like lullabies because that’s what they are, Iyara. They’re our children. Lin, Ziggy, Ana, K.L, Brooklyn, all of them.”

She glared at her friend, frozen by the words they’d said out loud. The words that duty and honor and training had taught them both to override, to tamp down, to replace with “ship” and “weapon” and “vessel”.

When she didn’t answer, Belal continued. “Look. You’ve been a good friend to me, a good captain to your crew, and a good soldier. Hell, you beat my ass at every training exercise we ever undertook. But this isn’t an order you can just follow. This is a choice. I can’t tell you what to do. But I can tell you that I’m taking Lin. We’re heading out past the reach, somewhere beyond the Landis system where no one can find us, and I’m going to keep him safe.”

Iyara ignored the constricted feeling in her own heart. “That’s suicide. There’s nothing out past the reach. You’ll starve or worse, they’ll find you and shoot you for treason.”

“You think that’s worse?” Belal laughed. “I can think of worse things.”

 A small, horrible part of her is relieved. Not Zig. At least it’s not Zig. She looks at the glass cube—the smartship soul frozen in amber—and looks at Jebd. “How much?”

Jebd smiles, puts the cube down on the table beside the box. “It took me a long time to get ahold of. Very difficult to find smartship pieces anymore. And this. It might be the only quan-comp of its kind left in the galaxy. The military had them all—”

“—decommissioned. Yes. I know. How much?” She’s over-eager, and he’s going to jack up the price on her for it. But, it doesn’t matter. She can’t help herself. If she thinks too hard about it, the dam she’s built up in her heart will break, so all she can do is act.

“Forty-eight thousand,” he says.

“You’re kidding me. Kroners?”

“That’s nearly what I paid for it. As I said. It was very hard to get ahold of, and that’s not to mention the work I had to put into the display.”

Anger flashes through her, the scar of loss peeling open to reveal a raw wound. “You did this?” she says.

“The display? Yes. Unfortunately it was already broken by the time I found it, but there’s an artisan on Eebos who does beautiful things with glass. I thought it made the whole thing look more dramatic, more like something you could put in an art museum.”

Her anger does not cool, but she knows that it’s misplaced. God, she wants to place it somewhere so badly: on Jebd; on this planet; on the war; on her superiors. Anywhere other than herself. But it’s not Jebd’s fault. Not his fault that Belal’s ship was murdered and taken apart, his heart shoved into a battle cruiser, his skin melted for scrap, his mind torn apart and frozen in glass. It’s not his fault that, in the end, she’d chosen to be a good soldier. Not his fault that Ziggy’s gone.

She taps the implant on her forearm and brings up her account. Her compensation after the war was significant. All the smartship captains ended up rich—at least those that had cooperated. The ones that didn’t were all dead, or in jail, or AWOL along with their ships. But her small fortune has been shrinking rapidly over the past decade. All her searching isn’t free—there’s research and travel expenses, not to mention the cost of all the parts she’s collected over all these years. It’s her penance.

Hong Kong’s drive core.

Anadarko’s dorsal fin.

Bergen’s gravity generator.

Kuala Lumpur’s console.

Singapore’s primary access hatch.

She’s down to her last hundred thousand kroners, and if she buys this, she won’t have enough to live on for more than a couple years. But it’s the closest she’s gotten to finding one of them alive, to finding him, and she’d pay her life to hear Ziggy’s voice again, gentling through her chip. It’s the price she’s been paying since the war.

So she transfers the credits.

Jebd feels the buzz on his forearm and looks surprised. “Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

He places what’s left of Berlin back in the box, folding the cardboard back into place, movements quick and bright. He tries to make conversation, but she just nods along. If she speaks it will all come out, her guilt and shame. Her anger. And she needs those things now. They’re what keep her together.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Jebd says as she exits through the docking bay, headed back to her skiff.

Business. Such an innocuous word for what they’ve just done. She knows a lot of words like that: hero; honor; orders. So many ways to obscure things like betrayal and destruction. So many ways to pretend her good boy was just another ship, was just the SSV Zagreb and not Ziggy.

She holds Berlin in her lap as she drives the skiff across the planet’s surface, then angles it up towards where her cruizer waits in the sky.

Aboard, she carefully places the cube amongst the other pieces she’s found on this trip. Rivets and metal plating. Bits of original circuitry. Maybe some of it was Ziggy’s once, but she’ll never know for sure. She likes to think they aren’t. She’s never found anything of his. Never found his heart or mind or anything with his name etched on the side, and she’s been searching for so long, trying to find proof that he’s still alive. Trying to give their children a decent memorial. It gives her an aching kind of hope.

Pre-plugged into the IPS is home, a modest house on a planet only three cycles away where she keeps most of her treasures. Her museum to the war. Her mausoleum.

But instead of initiating the drive sequence, she hesitates.

When she landed him for the last time, he’d known something was wrong. Something about her chemical signature, her mood, maybe her heartbeat had given her away.

Problem, Captain? he asked, his consciousness chirping quietly against hers.

“No problem, Zig. No problem. We’re just going back to headquarters for a little bit. The crew needs a little shore leave.”

Ziggy hated shore leave. Hated being away from her for longer than a few hours. The air vents sighed.

Will it be for long?

“Not long.”

Where are we going after?

“I don’t know, Zig. I don’t…just leave it alone,” she said, her sadness coming out as frustration.

He grew quiet.

“Landis,” she said finally, remembering Belal’s plan. “After this we’re going to the Landis system.”

That’s very far away.

“Yep. You’ll need to rest up for the journey, so be a good boy and be sure to do what the docking crew tells you to do.”

He thrummed happily at the prospect: him and her, together going fast and far.

Iyara knows that people like her don’t deserve to cry. They don’t deserve regret or heartache after what they’ve done. And so she doesn’t allow herself any of that.

“This isn’t just an order you can follow.”

She’d made a choice.

She doesn’t have any pictures of Zig—can’t bear to keep them around—but stuck under the metal corner of her console is a picture of Belal in their dress blues beside their ship. Old age got them in the end. Apparently human war heroes deserved more consideration than metal ones. Instead of an execution, Belal had been shuffled off to a jail cell. The first time she visited, they’d been so angry with her they wouldn’t even pick up the little phone by the window. But time softened them.

“Why you?” Belal asked once, early on, before they’d quite forgiven her. “Why do you get freedom?”

She still doesn’t have an answer to that. Never will. Why are good people locked up? Why are good ships torn apart? Why do bad people get to follow orders and walk away unscathed? There’s no fairness to it. But it is.

She plugs in new coordinates for out past the reach. Iyara isn’t a good person, but she knows other words to cover up the bad things she’s done. She knows “duty” and “promise” and she thinks that maybe if she can’t keep her own promises, then at least now she can keep Belal’s.

It’s a long trip to the Landis system—a couple years at least—so she’ll need to use the last of her money to stock up on supplies, and there’s no certainty anything will be waiting for her when she gets there. No certainty of food or water or refueling stations.

But she’ll get there. Lin will get there. And who knows what she’ll find.

She taps the chip behind her ear once more, just in case it judders anything loose—it’s mostly habit now—and says, “Hey, sweet boy. I’ll be home soon.”

Brit E. B. Hvide

Brit E. B. Hvide is a writer and Hugo Award nominated editor. She studied creative writing and physics at Northwestern University. Originally from Singapore, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, their son, and their dog. Follow her on Twitter @bhvide or visit her website brithvide.wordpress.com.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.