“You know a lot about this,” she said after winning our second game. I’d had to cheat a little to be sure she would, but letting people win their first few hands is vital to hooking them in.
“Survival mechanism,” I said. “When you’re stuck on an asteroid on minimal power for weeks while your superiors decide where they want you, you learn to like cards or you go insane.”
“I’ve never been on an asteroid,” she said as I did a fold shuffle.
I shrugged. “It’s a rock floating in space, you’re not missing much.”
“Actually,” she said, her pale eyes counting the cards as I dealt them. “I’d never stepped onto a planet before I joined Caldswell’s crew.”
“How did you manage that?” I asked, picking up my hand.
“Father didn’t allow it,” she answered, picking up her own. “The Unity of the Cosmos believes gravity clouds clarity. We don’t have it on our stations.”
I stared at her. “You grew up in zero gravity?” At least that explained why she was so small boned.
“Not quite zero,” she admitted. “But close enough. And they changed it all the time so we’d never start thinking in terms of down or falling. There is no down or up in the cosmos, only us and the infinite space.”
“Sounds like an interesting place to grow up,” I said. Actually, it sounded horrible.
“It was necessary to achieve our attunement to the latent energies,” Nova said seriously, as though this explained everything. “Here, watch.”
She closed her eyes and started to hum. After thirty seconds, I was getting a little worried, but then the humming stopped, and Nova’s eyes snapped open with a dazed expression.
“Wow,” she breathed. “That was much harder in hyperspace.”
I knew I wasn’t going to like the answer, but I asked anyway. “What was?”
She gave me a funny look and pointed down with the hand that, last I’d seen, had been holding her cards. I followed the gesture, and then my cards went flying as I jumped back. Nova’s poker hand was floating in a perfect fan of cards six inches off our cabin floor.
“What the hell is that?” I asked, a little sharper than I should have.
“The latent energies of the cosmos,” she answered, smiling as she tilted her head. In front of her, the cards began to spin slowly in the same direction. “The flow of power at the heart of all life. It can also be called plasmex.”
I’d heard of plasmex. I’d also heard of gremlins, black magic, and space monsters. Of course, only one of those was making a hand of cards spin in front of me. I stared in wonder for a few more seconds, and then something occurred to me. “Wait,” I said. “So you actually see auras?”
“Of course I do,” Nova said, her dreamy face collapsing into an expression that almost managed to look insulted. “You didn’t think I would just make something up, did you?”
“No,” I said quickly. “Of course not.”
I got down on my knees and reached out to touch the cards. They stopped spinning when I put my finger against them but started again when I let them go. Now that I’d had some time to absorb the idea, plasmex didn’t actually seem so odd. After all, I’d been in Kingston when the king’s execution of the traitorous baron of Salsley had lit up the whole sky with white fire. Stuff like that was to be expected from a living saint, but after witnessing his magic firsthand, it wasn’t such a stretch for me to believe Nova could channel the energies of the cosmos. “Can all Unity of the Cosmos members do this?”
“Most of us can use plasmex,” Nova said. “But only a few can actually do anything useful.” She sat up straighter, and a hint of pride crept into her voice. “My brother and I are the best on the station other than my father himself. That was why I got to come on Captain Caldswell’s ship. That, and he and my father are old friends, of course.”
I wondered what kind of father would let his daughter anywhere near this ship, but then Nova’s dad probably had the same weird ideas about the privilege of being on the Glorious Fool as she did. Still … I reached out and picked one of the cards out of her floating hand. It felt normal, and it fell to the floor like any other card when I dropped it.
“I can move much bigger things when I’m not in hyperspace,” Nova said. “Bigger things even than my brother Copernicus.”
I rolled my eyes covertly. Copernicus and Novascape Starchild. Of course. What was their father’s name? Galaxior?
“But he can read people’s minds to tell if they’re lying,” Nova continued. “So I guess that’s better.”
“No way,” I said. “I’d take throwing stuff with my mind over a lie detector any day.”
That made Nova laugh so hard the floating cards fell over. She was still giggling when her handset chimed. As she pulled it out, I noticed the handset’s silver surface was spangled with yellow moons, just like her hangings. “Basil says everyone else is in the lounge,” she said, reading the flashing message. “Want to join them?”
“Sure,” I said, standing. “I’m going to see if I can’t trick Cotter into playing us for serious money. You count the cards, I’ll bluff, and we’ll get enough out of him to keep us both in drinks for the next month.”
“But I don’t drink,” Nova said as I ushered her into the hall.
“That’s okay,” I assured her. “I’ll drink yours for you.”
Basil hadn’t been exaggerating. The entire crew had indeed drifted into the lounge while Nova and I had been playing cards. Cotter was still watching armor matches and commentating on the action to anyone unfortunate enough to get pulled in, which at the moment were a suspiciously amused Hyrek and an incensed Basil. Basil and Cotter were the only ones actually watching the screen, though. For all that Hyrek was sitting directly below the action, his eyes were on his ledger.
The doctor read a lot, actually. I knew, because when I’d asked him jokingly what he did locked up in his room all the time, he’d made me read the entire mile-long list of his current books, complete with his scathing comments. It had been one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. Who would have thought a xith’cal could be such a book snob? Before Hyrek, I hadn’t even known they could read.
On the other side of the room, Mabel and Caldswell were standing by Ren’s couch, talking over her head while she played chess like there wasn’t a party going on around her. As the cook, Rupert was the only one whose job didn’t stop when we went into hyperspace. He was at the bar taking orders, but though I’d be bitter if I had to work while everyone else was partying, Rupert only smiled and asked what we’d like.
Nova got some kind of fruit salad, I got a grilled cheese sandwich and a bottle of dark beer I hadn’t known we had until Rupert offered it. Food in hand, we walked over to the windows. Thankfully, in order to win some argument with Basil that I hadn’t been following, Cotter had switched from exhibition matches to last year’s royal gladiatorial arena finals. Real fights, in other words. I was about to ask Cotter what round we were on when someone bumped my arm.
I looked to see Mabel standing right beside me. “Congratulations on a good pirate clearing, Morris,” she said, tapping her beer against mine. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” I replied. “Is the patch holding?”
“Of course,” Mabel said with a grin. “Don’t worry so much. Except for the bump on the way in, hyperspace is much easier on the hull than regular space. Nothing to run into.”
“Other than the dust we came in with,” Nova put in between nibbles on the red melon at the end of her fork. “That’s one of the variables in the hyperspace calculation.”
This launched Mabel and Nova into a discussion about whether gates took exact dust measurements from the hyperspace coil during the power-up or if it was an estimated equation. I got lost immediately, but while I couldn’t follow the conversation, I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to do some recon. So while Nova and Mabel went back and forth with more acronyms than words, I settled back against the window to drink my beer and watch Rupert.
I don’t know what I expected to see. Some sign that he wasn’t what he appeared, I guess. There were implants you could get that would let you shake off a massive blow to the head and shoot a gun like Sasha barehanded without harm—bone lacing, synthetic muscles, trauma washes, and so on—but those were all incredibly expensive, not the sort of thing a cook would have.
Anyway, implants generally left the people who got them looking obviously changed, or at least scarred, but other than being generally lovely in his ubiquitous black suit and dark blue apron, Rupert’s body looked normal to me. If he had implants, they were very, very good. So good that he’d have to belong to a government to have them, and thus wouldn’t be working here. Unless Caldswell was a spy, of course. I could have almost believed that if the idea of a spy who did nothing but fly this rust bucket around and get attacked by xith’cal wasn’t so absurd.
“Devi?” Mabel’s voice was rich with laughter.
“Hmm?” I said, not looking away from Rupert. If he was a spy, that would explain the suit.
I blinked and then glanced over to find both Mabel and Nova looking at me. Shit. Caught red-handed. I was scrambling for some kind of believable excuse for why I’d been staring at Rupert that didn’t make me look like an idiot when a remarkably simple idea came to me.
I wanted to figure out what Rupert was, didn’t I? Well, what better way was there than to just ask? Everyone knew he’d shot three xith’cal just like they knew Cotter and I had slaughtered the rest, so it wasn’t like I was revealing some secret. With that, I switched from defense to attack.
“Just trying to figure out how he shot three xith’cal with my anti-armor pistol without shattering his arms,” I said casually, taking a long draw from my beer to show how unshaken up I was at being caught staring. “I mean, I couldn’t pull a stunt like that.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Mabel said. “I saw his application when Brian hired him. He was in a fringe branch of the Republic military for a while, and they taught him some kind of fighting style that has to do with relaxing the muscles or something. I bet he just relaxed his arms and let the kick go through them.”
I frowned. Could there be a martial art that would let you do that? I’d never heard of one, but Terrans had a lot of things Paradoxians had never heard of. Still. “I don’t think that would be enough,” I said. “My gun kicks pretty hard.”
Mabel shrugged. “Why not? He’s pretty good at it from what I hear, and martial artists can do all sorts of crazy things. Makes sense to me.”
I’d never seen Rupert practice a martial art, but Mabel’s suggestion had given me an idea. A really good idea. Because I was no slouch at hand-to-hand combat myself, in armor or out, and one thing I knew for sure was that instincts were hard to suppress in a fight. That made secrets like implants, even good ones, very hard to keep.
“Well,” I said, placing my half-empty bottle on the window ledge. “If he’s that good at it, why don’t I ask him for a match?”
“He looks kind of busy,” Mabel said, but I was already walking over to the kitchen where Rupert was collecting plates.
He must have sensed something was up, because his shoulders stiffened when I stopped and leaned on the counter beside him. “So,” I said casually. “I hear you’re a martial artist?”
“I know a little,” he said, turning to me with a cautious smile. “But it’s been a long time since I practiced.”