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The day Theo seizes his royal inheritance begins early. He wants to inventory the ship’s systems while the rest of the crew is still asleep and won’t bother him. The Destrier is operating with a skeleton crew, just the Captain, one navigator, two swabs for muscle, and one swab for maintenance duty—Theo.
The Destrier crew, like most pirates, are a superstitious lot; they take their cycles very seriously. Barring an emergency, when the clock (which tracks station time no matter how far they are from Aurora) tells them they should be in their cots—roughly, from the twenty-second hour mark until the seventh—in their cots they stay.
But Theo isn’t a real pirate. He doesn’t believe in bad luck and he prefers to be alone. So, he moves carefully through the corridors just before the fourth mark, pulling the instrument cart behind him and flinching when its wobbly left rear wheel emits a squeal.
He’s surprised anyone can sleep at all. Not because he’s going past crew quarters while pulling a cart that occasionally makes a sound like fingernails on glass, but because, any minute now, the ship’s autopilot will bring them to the prize they’ve crossed half a galaxy to find.
Another less-than-relaxing fact is that they’re perilously low on fuel and oxygen since setting off from Aurora station. The smallest setback could seal a grim fate. Aurora pirates can’t just mosey into any way station they please and resupply, which is why they always keep sufficient stores to get them all the way home. They’ve pushed their range to its limits this time. At their current rate, unless they have to flee an interloper—not uncommon for pirate crews—they’ll run out of oxygen before they run out of fuel. An exciting gamble. Theo can’t wait to find out how they’ll all die.
He shouldn’t even be there. If Destrier hadn’t lost half her crew in her last voyage, he wouldn’t be. It was only desperation that had made the old man conscript Theo from janitor duty on Aurora, bringing him on for maintenance duty on the Destrier. Theo has never imagined himself on any crew, but that he’s wound up here, aboard Silv’s ship, is the cruelest of ironies.
Silv is the irritatingly blond, young, and handsome captain of the Destrier. Young for a Captain, that is; he’s close to Theo’s age, around twenty-three. Theo hates Silv, and his list of reasons why is long and varied. It includes Silv being vain, spoiled, and leveraging his good looks to influence women, and the fact that Theo harbors an overwhelming desire to see Silv naked, along with a persistent fantasy of kissing his stupid, constant smile.
But he isn’t thinking about Silv right now. He’s blissfully alone for at least a couple more hours, and he finds the tedium of running system maintenance pleasantly hypnotic. This is the closest Theo ever gets to relaxation, and he’s determined to savor it.
Unfortunately, luck—which he doesn’t believe in—isn’t with him. When he enters the bridge, he does a double-take. The bridge isn’t clear.
Silv is here.
Theo can’t even slink back the way he came before he’s noticed because the squeaky wheel on the cart turns to the fatal angle as it rolls behind him. If the near-silent whoosh of the opening hatch didn’t alert Silv to his presence, the sharp wail of metal on metal has.
The tall, muscular man spins on his heel and has his hand on his fire baton within a half-second. By then, Theo has hastily released the cart and raised his hands.
“It’s only me,” Theo says.
Somehow, he’s avoided speaking to Silv before now. There are plenty of things he’s muttered under his breath in Silv’s direction, sure, but they don’t count if he never meant them to be overheard, right? So, these are practically their first words.
Not that Theo cares.
“Sorry,” Silv says, frowning. His eyes are narrowed, and he wears a vacant sort of expression. Is he drunk? Theo’s gaze skirts the bridge again, half-expecting to see a bottle somewhere. The consoles are clear, though he has to narrow his eyes to see. The bridge is dark except for the illumination beyond the viewscreen. They’re very near the gaseous red planet the old man’s pings sent them toward—or, more specifically, its moon.
In fact, the view from the bridge is incredible at the moment. So incredible, Theo ignores Silv with his fire baton dangling from his hand, and his possible drunkenness, in favor of stepping nearer the pane of clearide.
The red planet’s moon all but fills the viewscreen, framed by the cusp of the planet beyond like it wears a fiery halo. The moon is nothing special, just a pitted white rock. But what it has managed to attract to its feeble gravitational field is nothing short of extraordinary.
An imperial pod hangs in the space between the Destrier and the moon. It looms several times the size of the Destrier, egg-shaped, dark as a void, blotting out the pearly moon behind it like a tear in canvas. It’s by far the largest pod Theo has ever seen. It’s also larger than anything he’s heard described in the veterans’ exaggerated reminiscences.
And its size isn’t the only thing unique about it. The pod’s skin is dark with vitality, not the leached pale green they usually see. It’s very much alive.
Theo shudders, the hair on his arms standing on end. He blinks and looks back at Silv, and their eyes meet. Theo understands the faraway, drunk look on Silv’s face from before. Now, Theo probably wears the same one.
“What is it?” Theo asks, though he knows. He knows.
Silv grimaces and folds his arms so that his jumpsuit pulls taught over his biceps, molded to every muscle. The collar and first four buttons are unfastened, the fabric gaping apart. Theo has often privately mused that if Silv squeezed into a suit that was even a half-size smaller than the painted-on numbers he usually wears, his voice would rise an octave.
But his deep voice is intact when he murmurs, “No telling.”
Theo tries to remain outwardly calm while his heart leaps and hammers. The old man’s voice rings in his ears, reminding him of a promise that he never imagined he’d have to make good on.
Because what are the odds that, in the vastness of the universe, the imperial spore of the Red Vine would be found at all?
Let alone in his lifetime?
Let alone by him?
“Okay there, swab?” Silv’s voice interrupts his thoughts—threaded with what sounds like sincere concern, but it grates anyway. That he’d think Theo was anything but okay. That he’d refer to Theo in the same casual way he does the other crew members. Why these things bother Theo so much, he can’t say, but for whatever reason he grits his teeth, his momentary despair overridden by irritation.
“I’m fine,” he mutters. “You mustering the crew, then? Or just letting them get their beauty sleep while we burn some more fuel idling here and staring?”
Theo has not excelled at subservience in the best of times, and his meager skill has apparently dissolved now that he’s simultaneously being confronted with his destiny and the need to actually speak to Silv.
To Theo’s mystification, Silv doesn’t seem at all bothered by Theo’s insolence. Instead, Silv is grinning, his deep blue eyes bright and fixed on Theo in delighted surprise. While Theo glares back, Silv rolls his shoulders and deliberately angles his body away from the viewscreen, toward the hatch.
“Good point, swab. You run your little tests in here. I’ll get out of your hair and rouse them.”
Theo’s little tests include the delicate diagnostics and recalibrations that keep the ship environment habitable—in other words, they’re the reason why the entire crew is alive. Silv knows this, presumably, so Theo assumes he’s deliberately making light of the significance of Theo’s work.
“Thanks,” Theo bites out, scowling when Silv’s smile widens further and a dimple blooms in either cheek. Maddening. The kissing fantasy has never been stronger during waking hours, but it’s neck-and-neck with the punching fantasy.
Theo hunches his shoulders, returns to his cart, and hauls it clear of the hatchway. He feels a childish rush of satisfaction when the wheel squeakls yet again. Sure, it cuts into Theo’s ears like a knife, but Silv winces too.
“Get suited up when you’re done and meet us in the belly” is Silv’s parting order. When the hatch has closed behind him Theo wilts against the cart, burying his face in his hands.
The only thing propping him up had been the rigid exterior he always maintains in Silv’s presence, and now that Silv is gone, all of his trepidation redoubles and guts him.
You are a king’s son. The old man’s words echo in his head.
“But I was raised a stowaway, a station rat. I’m nothing now but a janitor.” He knows he’s talking to himself, but the words rush out anyway.
None of that matters. You are the blood of the vine. And when we find her, it will be you who wakes her.
After forcing a few deep breaths, Theo tears free of his thoughts to focus on the system calibrations. It’s delicate work, and mistakes can be catastrophic. But it’s a challenge to give the familiar, tedious work the undivided attention it deserves when he knows that as soon as he finishes, he will be putting on a space-ready jumpsuit to breach an imperial spore.
There is a chance, however small, that Theo is wrong about what they’ve found. It’s possible that the monstrosity just beyond the viewscreen is just an oversized, oddly power-packed pod like so many others the old man’s gang of pirates has found and harvested over the past few decades. Maybe it’s not the fabled imperial spore that so many—the new order and the dwindling numbers of vine loyalists alike—believe to be their ultimate downfall or only salvation.
But Theo knows he isn’t the only one who thinks it’s more than that. He saw the expression on Silv’s face, after all.
He shakes his head hard as if the external movement can banish the internal thoughts. “Fuck,” he mutters. He’s been completely tuned out through the entire sweep of the arsenal console. He’ll have to start over. He consciously clears his mind as his hands slide across the keyed sensors, leading with his thumbs. A formally-trained technician would initiate commands more from the ring finger, but when Theo began teaching himself, that position always strained his wrists. From the time he was five or six, he observed a range of technicians from the station air vents, then dropped from the ceiling after-hours to emulate what he’d seen them do. He’d set off a lot of alarms and had several close calls with capture before he got the hang of it.
Now, his run-through of the tactile controls completed, he holds his hands clear of the sensors and stares unblinking at the screen until the retinal scan activates. Then he goes through all the standard commands he just performed tactilely, this time with eye movements. It’s an intuitive method, but he still has to go slowly; there are limits to the skills gleaned through an air-vent apprenticeship.
When he finishes, he checks the read-out on the instrument cart and sees a row of green lights: all is well. After powering the instrument down, he grabs the cart and starts back across the bridge, the squeaky wheel rattling along.
For a moment it’s just another morning, like all the mornings on this voyage so far. Tripping over that thought, Theo pauses in the hatchway and looks over his shoulder.
The silent panorama is still there in the rectangle of transparent ship’s skin. His fleeting hope that he hallucinated the last half-hour vanishes.
With a sigh, he pushes the cart out into the corridor and back to the maintenance closet where it’s kept secured in a hollow part of the wall, then heads to his quarters to change into his ready suit.
Standard-issue jumpsuits never fit Theo right. He plucks at the baggy fabric around his hips with a frown as he emerges from his quarters, helmet dangling from his other hand. He almost collides with the other three members of Silv’s understaffed, overextended crew.
“You,” Mika says tersely by way of greeting, giving him a once-over, eyes narrowed behind her spiky black bangs. “You’re coming with?”
The question seems rhetorical since she can’t miss Theo’s suit, so he doesn’t bother answering.
“Better get going.” Chels is already wearing her helmet; the speaker on the back emits her voice with a slight distortion.
She nudges Mika forward with a sidelong glance and nod of greeting for Theo, which he returns. Theo exchanges the same gesture with Pilar, the navigator, then silently falls into step behind them. Pilar coiled the braid of her unusually long hair at the nape of her neck. It reminds him of a shiny, sleeping serpent.
Shorter hair is more common around Aurora—easier to care for and out of the way. Other than Pilar, Theo can count on one hand the number of people he’s seen with hair long enough to braid or tie back, though that looks more manageable than Silv’s golden hair, which is somewhere in the middle. It can be tucked behind his ears, but it seems to flop constantly over his eyes. Impractical, if frustratingly cute.
Silv is waiting for them in the Destrier’s belly. “All ready?” he asks, sweeping them with a look. His gaze snags on Theo and he frowns. “Tech, is that jumpsuit going to inhibit you? It looks two sizes too big.”
Theo can’t stop himself, making a point of looking Silv over from his jumpsuit-encased boots, up the visible line of his calf, and over the bulge of muscle in his thighs and chest. “Maybe I should borrow yours. It looks about right.”
Pilar and Mika snicker.
“Ohhh,” Chels says, grinning at them. She positions her helmet and flips the seal under her chin, so that her voice is tinny through the external speaker as she singsongs, “You got burned, Cap.”
Silv’s cheeks are a warm pale pink, the faintest blush. Instead of smug, the sight of it inexplicably makes Theo even surlier.
Pilar is the only one without a ready suit. She steps back out of the belly with a salute.
“Have a good walk,” she calls in farewell.
When everyone has double-checked their rigs, Pilar’s voice comes through the comm inside Theo’s helmet, tickling his ear. “All set, unit?”
They each signal affirmatively, and she initiates depressurization in preparation for releasing the exterior hatch. There’s a low whistling noise, the only noticeable sign that their lives now depend on the integrity of the ready suits.
“Here we go,” Silv says. He may as well be whispering straight into Theo’s ears, and it makes him shudder.
They engage thrusters when the belly depressurization is complete. Then, the hatch lowers. Theo’s thrusters counteract the vacuum enough that he doesn’t get sucked out of the hatch, but the powerful force still whips his suit against his body, filling him with a moment of stomach-flipping doubt. Had he been too distracted to secure the suit and helmet properly…?
But all is well. He’s alive, in a controlled glide out of the belly and into the chasm beyond, while the primary tether at his back unspools from the suit, a tiny thread of filament.
Theo turns his head, taking in the surrounding emptiness, this dark shard of the universe where their small breathing bodies have latched onto a strange anomaly orbiting a moon, orbiting a planet blazing poison red, orbiting a dim star. It wouldn’t surprise him to wake up this moment and realize he was dreaming all along.
Within a minute or two, they’re a dozen yards from the pod. This close, Theo thinks it isn’t a pod at all, just a wall of terrible darkness, its surface a pebbled skin. It isn’t black, Theo realizes as they drift to within several feet of the slightly-curving surface. It’s a very, very dark green.
“Testing tether engagement,” says Chels. Theo isn’t surprised she volunteered. Boldness is Chels’ primary virtue. Still, he’s glad he isn’t going to be the one finding out firsthand what defenses the pod might raise when the accessory tether embeds its sharp claws. Chels thrusts forward to get safely in range, pressing ahead of Silv. Theo swallows past a dry throat as the accessory tether launches from Chels’ right forearm, and a moment later, its metallic teeth bite deeply into the pod’s dark skin.
No one speaks while Theo counts ten of his own rapid heartbeats. Then, he hears a collective exhale in the comms, and realizes he’s part of that white noise, the puff of his breath briefly fogging the lower part of his helmet.
“So far so good,” Chels says evenly, but there’s a grim note in her voice that belies her usual confidence. “I’ll reel in.”
The tether on her forearm pulls her toward the pod, while the tether on the back of her suit feeds her more slack. Watching, Theo is reminded of a pendant on a necklace, strung over a delicate chain.
Silv thrusts after her. “Theo, Mika, hold back,” he tells them before they can follow. Chels doesn’t hesitate to pull out her fire baton and depress the trigger. The device is a few handspans long, and the blue lance of flame that blooms from the end of the nozzle is several times longer than that. Theo was never trained on the baton. In truth weapons make him nervous.
“Everyone fall in,” Silv says tersely. Chels has cut a line through the pod’s hull as long as she is tall, and the pod hasn’t retaliated. Silv’s been watching over Chels’ shoulder, but now he turns his head. “This door is closing fast.”
He sounds surprised, and so is Theo. He knows that pieces of the vine are self-repairing, but it usually takes weeks, not hours, let alone minutes.
Of course it’s strong, Theo chides himself. It’s the spore.
Theo looks over his shoulder at the Destrier, floating behind them, linked to them by their glittering tethers. He notes the similarities between the Destrier and the pod. The Destrier’s skin is green too, if paler than the pod’s, and its original body is also oblong, like an egg. Unlike the pod, it has been retrofitted with wings and thrusters and patches of clearide, the organic and mechanical stitched together.
But the first lance to touch the pod is Chels’ baton. Except for the wound she’s just opened, it remains just as it was grown by the vine. The pod can’t be steered by a human crew like the Destrier. The pod isn’t meant to be steered at all—it’s meant to wait. It has waited here for a hundred years, and it would wait a thousand more. As long as it must, until some comet or other intergalactic coincidence cast it within reach of a fertile world, or until the right vessel came along and claimed it, carrying it on.
In his mother’s stories, the last queen waited a thousand years. Theo wonders again why this one couldn’t wait a little longer. Just a mere hundred years or so, until Theo was long dead, fealty to sleeping queens no longer his concern.
Theo is the blood of the vine. He should be overjoyed that the queen has been found, and honored to be the one to find her. But he also knows that before the vine was overthrown, its last long war in a series of wars had destroyed most of a star system. The new order may be just as corrupt as the rumors around the Aurora claim; Theo wouldn’t know either way. All his information comes from the people on Aurora, and he doesn’t place much trust in the veracity of pirates. But he knows most lies contain a grain of truth. And he knows for a fact the new order would happily kill Theo for the crime of his ancestry. He doesn’t have to pick a side here; it was chosen for him before he was born.
But the ongoing conflicts are mere embers of the hot fire of even twenty years ago, to hear the old man’s tales. If someone brings an imperial spore and its queen into the fray, how will that fan the flames? Can any cause, any lost empire, justify ravaging the settled worlds with another century or more of violence?
Theo can’t dwell on his dilemma for long. It’s time for the unit to thrust through the opening Chels carved, one by one. Even Theo has practiced this maneuver; one of the first lessons of piracy is how to breach a craft. Rarely do they engage with anyone who willingly opens their hull in welcome. Silv is first, steering himself with small, careful bursts from the thrusters on the backs of his calves and shoulder blades. Chels follows. She keeps the baton live so that its light pools inside the dark cavern of the pod’s interior. Theo follows Chels, with Mika behind him.
He can’t see more than a couple feet in each direction; the light is too bright and close. Mika has to duck her head as she eases through the rift in the pod’s skin. As Silv warned, it’s quickly knitting itself closed behind them.
“Sweep complete,” says Silv softly in Theo’s ear. “Clear.”
“Clear,” Chels agrees.
They release and reel back their primary tethers, which barely slip through the opening before it seals over.
Theo knows the moment the pod has totally rejuvenated its skin because the internal environment quickly stabilizes. Instead of left afloat, his body is pulled firmly toward the floor until his boots make contact. A series of faint pops tell him the pod is creating oxygen.
Silv says, “We have illumination, Chels. You can cut the fire.”
Chels does, and for a moment Theo thinks Silv was imagining things. Then his vision adjusts and he finds Silv was right. A soft glow emanates from an inner wall of the small space they’re standing inside. The pod seems to have generated a temporary chamber here to protect the rest of its interior from the effects of the hull breach. Theo presses his palm against the curved inner wall. It’s soft. If he weren’t wearing a suit, it would feel warm beneath his hand.
“Membranous,” he confirms. Vine artifacts occasionally grow temporary parts which have varying degrees of usefulness. Theo is a janitor, not a real technician, but even he can’t help feeling a degree of awe seeing an artifact’s natural, perfect function rather than the random misfires of dying scraps.
The membrane is semi-transparent, filtering what appears to be a bright yellow light on its other side.
A candle in a dark chamber, left lit a hundred years. Theo shudders and pulls back his hand.
Chels steps past Theo with her baton powered up again and slices through the membrane. In a moment, Theo’s vision is washed white by vivid light.
Once breached, the membrane withers away on its own. The pod appears to reabsorb it; after a few seconds it dissolves like it was never there, leaving the unit with an uninhibited view of the massive, vaulted chamber beyond.
Theo has no memory of any place except the old man’s Aurora station, that sprawling, almost wholly mechanized, man-made island in ungoverned space. He has never seen a living organism with his own eyes that wasn’t either human or a slowly withering artifact of the vine.
In short, nothing has prepared him for what he’s seeing here: teeming, thriving, riotous growth. So much color, so much delicate organic shape. The entire space is plastered with vines, curving and interlacing, forming thickets in the corners of the tall, pentagonal chamber and a thick carpet over the floor and ceiling. And here and there, glowing muted red, soft and textured as a child’s unmarred skin, are what can only be budding roses.
The ropes of intricate vine and the vibrant blooms all coalesce within a spinning net of light that emanates from nowhere and everywhere, casting everything in a warm golden haze.
Strangest and most riveting of all, in the center of the chamber, draped in vines and swathed in light, lies a woman. She appears deep in pleasant sleep, tucked into an oversized, black fur garment that strikes a sharp contrast to the pale hands linked over her stomach. Her serene face is framed by short, vivid waves of hair the same blood-red color as the flowers. Peeking through the vines Theo can glimpse her startlingly delicate, bare toes.
“Holy wind and fire,” mutters Chels, standing a step ahead of Theo, her eyes wide with shock. “It’s not just a pod. It’s the imperial spore.”