The only thing that seemed to wake Ren up was her chessboard, but even there she was abnormal. I actually looked up the rules of chess in an effort to understand what she was doing, but while everything I read insisted chess was a two player game, Ren always played alone, moving both sides so quickly I could barely keep up until she reached checkmate. When that happened, she’d reset the pieces and start the whole process over without pause. She never even seemed to enjoy her games. It was more like playing was a compulsion, something she had to do rather than something she wanted.
I learned all of this from stolen glances, because another thing I’d discovered while I’d been watching her was that Caldswell and Rupert didn’t just keep an eye on the girl, they controlled her like she was a prisoner in danger of bolting. They were never cruel or violent, but Ren never went anywhere or did anything without one of them beside her. Considering what I’d seen her do in the clearing, that wasn’t actually so surprising. Couldn’t let a girl with that sort of power and a seemingly empty brain run around loose. But their close watch made it impossible for me to get a chance to really look at Ren, and while I was dying to learn more about what she was, I wasn’t about to take such a huge risk.
Or, at least, I wasn’t until I ran headfirst into an opportunity that was simply too perfect to pass up.
It was early morning five days after Mycant. Cotter was still sleeping, so the lounge was empty except for the usual suspects. But while Ren was on the couch like always, Rupert was crouched on the floor behind the kitchen counter. He had the contents of the pantry spread out around him and was tapping on his ledger, muttering softly to himself in a language I didn’t understand. It was so charmingly domestic, I couldn’t help smiling.
“Counting the potatoes?” I asked, leaning on the door.
“Someone has to,” Rupert answered, looking up briefly to flash a smile at me.
I smiled back and pushed off to continue my patrol, but my mind was racing. As soon as I’d seen Rupert’s position, inspiration had struck. Down on the floor like that, he couldn’t actually see Ren directly. For the first time since I’d started watching her, Ren was unguarded. This was my opportunity, I realized. But I had to act now, before Rupert moved.
The second I made my decision, I veered off my patrol path and cut across the cargo bay to the engine room. I climbed the spiral stairs on the other side and reentered the lounge from the hallway. Since it was day cycle, the lounge door was open, and I was able to step inside without a sound.
Like every public space on the ship, the lounge had cameras, but no one watched them actively, and anyway, I’d never been told specifically to stay away from Ren. I might be poking things that should not be poked, but according to ship rules and my own supposed ignorance, I was doing nothing wrong. With this in mind, I made a big show of being casual as I walked over and took up a position directly across the low table from where Ren sat.
I’d never been this close to her before, and I was a little disappointed to see that Ren looked anticlimactically normal. Just a scrawny teenage girl with olive skin and a cap of straight dark hair. She wore the kind of practical, boring shirt, loose pants, and plain slip-on shoes that clearly showed that her clothes were being picked for her, and I vaguely wondered if Rupert dressed her as well as everything else. Like always, she was staring at her game, her dark brown eyes large and unfocused even while her fingers moved the plastic chess pieces with machinelike precision.
Though I was now standing directly in front of her, the captain’s daughter didn’t look up at me. Using my rear cam to keep an eye on the kitchen, I bent over and waved my hand in front of her face. Ren didn’t even blink. She kept playing her game without missing a beat, even when my hand had cut off her view of the board. Frowning, I tried again, this time skimming close enough to make her dark hair dance. Ren didn’t so much as flinch, even when I almost clipped her nose.
I straightened up with a sigh. So much for learning something useful. The girl was about as responsive as a piece of machinery. I briefly considered touching her, but that felt like a step too far. I’d messed with her long enough, anyway. Rupert would be done counting soon, and I wanted to make a clean escape. Waving at Ren one last time, I started to walk away, but as I turned, something made me stop.
Ren had just reset the chessboard in the pattern I recognized as the start of the game, both colors lined up identically on opposite sides, but one piece was missing. One of the black pieces, the one called the queen, was tipped over on the far side of the table. Without thinking, I reached down and snatched up the little game piece. I was about to set it neatly in line with the rest of the black side when I realized that Ren had gone still.
No, not just still. She was absolutely frozen, like someone had paused her in the middle of an action. Queen still in hand, I leaned down to peer at her face. Her gaze was still focused on the chessboard, but her eyes were now as wide as they could go. I was just about to back away when I became aware of a pressure in my head. It was tiny at first, like sinus pressure, but it grew rapidly, and as it got stronger, a series of white static lines began to drop down my cameras with a soft, ominous crackle.
A hand grabbed my wrist, making me jump. I looked up to see Rupert standing right beside me. His face was almost too calm as he pulled my arm, my armored arm, aside and plucked the game piece from my gloved fingers. He replaced it at once, tipped on its side on the table just as it had been before. The moment it was back in place, the static lines vanished from my camera and the pressure lifted from my head, and Ren resumed playing like nothing had happened.
“Ren does not like her game disturbed,” Rupert said, his voice low and controlled. “Please do not touch her things again.”
Under normal circumstances, I would have asked him what the hell had just happened, but right then I was way too freaked out to push. I backed up with a murmured apology, though whether I was apologizing to Ren or Rupert, I didn’t know. Rupert put his hand on Ren’s shoulder as I walked away, almost like he was comforting the girl, but the way his fingers bit into Ren’s skin reminded me more of a master holding back a rabid dog as I took off down the cargo stairs at slightly less than a panicked run.
I spent the rest of my shift playing the scene with Ren over and over on my camera. I’d caught everything—her crazed expression, the static lines, Rupert’s incredible feat of strength—but I didn’t know what any of it meant. I knew Ren was important, though not how or why. I also knew she was dangerous in a way I could not understand, and that frightened me more than I liked to admit.
I continued to patrol, but I didn’t look at Ren again unless I had to. This was made much easier by the fact that she never looked at me either, or moved at all. As for Rupert, he acted like the whole thing had never happened, and I was happy to act right along with him. But the incident had put a sourness in me. I don’t do well with puzzles in general, and this one seemed to be missing half its pieces. The whole mess was driving me up the wall, and my body itched for some good, old-fashioned, completely nonmysterious action.
Luckily, I was about to get my wish. Our next jump was to the Recant, an asteroid field that was well inside the hunting grounds for Reaper’s Fleet. I had no idea what kind of death wish drove Caldswell so near the xith’cal tribe who’d proclaimed him their sworn prey, but I wasn’t about to complain. This far into xith’cal space, there was no way we could avoid a raid, and I was more than ready to take out my frustrations with some nice, visceral xith’cal slaughter.
My longing for battle must have scared them away, though, because the next few days were depressingly calm. The mining station we were headed toward was deep inside the Recant, where the asteroids were thick. Good for mining, bad for coming out of hyperspace. Because of the rocks, the gate had dumped us four days away from our actual destination, and after three days of getting dinged by space rocks without so much as sighting another ship, I was starting to feel like a caged animal.
“Relax, Morris,” Cotter said, glancing up from the pistol he was cleaning as I entered the lounge on patrol. “You keep making that face it’ll stick that way.”
“Shut up,” I growled, stalking past him to glare out the window at the rocks I was starting to hate.
We were speaking King’s Tongue, but I guess the tone was clear enough, because Rupert chuckled. I turned my glare to him. He was sitting on the couch beside Ren with his long legs resting on the low table in front of him, reading something on his ledger and looking far, far too relaxed to suit my mood.
“I’m sure the xith’cal will be here to eat us soon enough,” he said without looking up.
I was thinking up a good comeback to that when Caldswell’s voice crackled over the com. “Security, get to the bridge.”
“Come on, Cotter,” I said, hurrying out the door, my anger forgotten in the thrill of potential action.
Caldswell, Basil, and Nova were all watching the screen when we came in. When I got through the door, I saw why. The bridge’s enormous main screen was filled with the same space rocks we’d been flying through for days, but the thing taking up most of the screen’s center was at least fifty times bigger than the largest asteroid. It was truly enormous—a dark, round shape blotting out the stars behind it, but more than that I couldn’t see. The Fool’s lights were far too small to illuminate something this huge.
“What’s that?” I said, lifting my visor. “A runaway moon?”
“No,” Caldswell said without looking away from the screen. “That’s a tribe ship.”
I stared at the screen with new horror. I’d never seen a xith’cal tribe ship, but I’d heard stories. The xith’cal had no home planet we knew of, nor did they have colonies. Instead, they roamed the galaxy in gigantic colony ships. It wasn’t unusual for a tribe ship to hold several million xith’cal, and I’d heard Reaper’s Fleet had tribe ships large enough to hold tens of millions, which was why no one messed with Reaper.
Now that I knew what it was, I could see the thing in front of us wasn’t actually round. We were looking at the ship nose on. As we slowly came around, I saw the vessel was long and cylindrical with a body that stretched back for miles, its impossibly huge sides riddled with bays and hangars for the fleets of slaver ships, battleships, and everything else the xith’cal sent out to prey on the lesser races.
“How did we get so close?” I whispered. Xith’cal didn’t leave their tribe ships unguarded. You were usually attacked before you got within sensor range of one, which was why few people except the rare freed slave ever lived to tell about them.
“Because it’s a ghost ship,” Caldswell answered, leaning back in his chair. “Those things are usually lit up like Christmas, but look.” He pointed at the absolute black of the ship’s outline on the screen. “Not a light to be seen.”
I didn’t know what Christmas was, but I had to grant the point that the tribe ship probably wasn’t inhabited. If something lived there, we’d be under attack, not sitting here staring.
“I’m not picking up any heat signatures, either,” Nova said, poking the impossibly complex screen in front of her. “The ship’s been cold for a while.”
“Do you think they abandoned it?” I couldn’t think of a reason you’d just abandon a huge ship like that, but who knew why xith’cal did anything. Maybe it had dishonored them.
“I don’t know,” Caldswell said. “That’s why I’m sending you two in to find out.”
“Oh hell no,” Cotter said behind me. “There is no way I’m going into a tribe ship, empty or not.”
Caldswell looked at me, and I pursed my lips like I was thinking it over. It was an act, of course. I was itching for action, and this was exactly the sort of opportunity I’d been waiting for to show the captain my skills as something other than a ship guard.