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Eventually I found something to smear on: an anti-inflammatory, the ship-soul said, and that sounded like just what I wanted. By then, I was worried the swelling might be more than a simple infection; there might be eyeball nanites under my skin, or hunter-killers that had got carried away when they were cleaning me off. Supposedly the hunter-killers knew enough not to chop up human tissue… but if they noticed an eyeball burrowing its way into me, they might decide to claw in after it.

That’s not something you want to think about too long.

The infection got worse over the next day. My hand swelled up; I tried icing it, but after a while I couldn’t stand the pain of anything touching my skin. The red flush of inflammation started creeping past my wrist and slowly up my arm. I wondered if I should put on a tourniquet or something… but that seemed like a lot of work, and I was deep-to-the-bone tired. No energy to care about stupid red flushes. I felt freezing cold, too — now and then I’d get so shivery, my teeth would chatter. Eventually I pulled myself over to the captain’s bed, dialed up the heat to maximum, and wondered why I still wasn’t warm enough.

Sick and dizzy, jumbled and confused. Sometimes I thought I was back on Troyen again, where I’d spent a year in and out of my head with a disease called the Coughing Jaundice. My sister had come by every day — wasting time on me when she should have been solving the little crises that were piling up into one big disaster. For years after, I wondered if I was the one to blame for the civil war: keeping Sam from her work, because I’d caught some alien flu. Me, lying in a special royal infirmary, woozy and out of touch, while the streets filled up with mutineers…

I tried to keep my mind off the bad times. Soon, I couldn’t think of anything else.

Every so often, I’d hallucinate there was someone else in the captain’s cabin, trying to talk to me. For a while it sounded like Samantha and Queen Verity, asking why I hadn’t saved them. Then it turned into a male voice I didn’t recognize, telling me it was time to wake up, that I’d slept long enough and people would suffer if I didn’t come to my senses soon. I decided it must be the ship-soul trying to snap me out of the shivers… except for one little snippet of pleading that must have been completely inside my head.

"Please, Edward. Innocence needs us. Both of us."

That’s what the voice said. And it wasn’t the ship-soul speaking, because Willow’s computer couldn’t possibly know about Innocence. Nobody did, except me and Verity and a few other people who were bloodily murdered twenty years ago. So it must have been my own brain talking, babbling all mixed-up and bleary.

Well… yes and no.

Two days of that, all spinning and confused. Then I woke and it was over. My head clear. My shivers gone. Even a bit of energy and appetite.

But I’d sure made a mess of the captain’s bed.

While I cleaned up the sheets, the ship-soul gave me an official report on the status of Willow. Most of the words just bounced off my brain — there was a big long recitation of statistics, fuel, battery power, and what all, which I guess the captain was supposed to listen to every few days. The ship-soul absolutely refused to talk about anything else till I’d heard the whole checklist.

I nodded and said, "Oh, is that right?" now and then, the way my sister taught me when I didn’t understand much of what someone was saying. You’d be surprised how seldom you get into trouble that way. Most times, when people go on and on, they aren’t talking about things you have to do anything with, they’re just emptying their heads.

After the ship-soul finished its spiel, I wanted to say, "How much of that is normal, and is there anything that’s really broken?" But if something was broken I wouldn’t know how to fix it, so there wasn’t much point in asking. Samantha always claimed it was a golden rule of diplomacy, Never ask a question when you don’t want to hear the answer.

So instead I got the ship-soul to tell me about the search for invader nano. In the three days since the fight in the hold, our defense clouds had apparently destroyed 143 definites, 587 probables. Those were pathetic numbers, even if the probables were all real nanites, which they likely weren’t — just unidentified bacteria that the hunter-killers ripped apart on the theory of better-safe-than-sorry. Seeing as there must have been millions of nanites in that fuzz I’d felt, Willow’s defenses were doing a pretty lousy job.

Maybe if there’d been a real captain running the search, we would have found the invaders by now. Of course, I’d been sick with that infection…

I stopped, and thought about that. Had it really been an infection? No — now that I wasn’t dizzy or delirious, my head was clear enough to understand what had happened. There’d been a whole bunch of eyeball nanites on my hand: nanites filled with venom. The hunter-killers had ripped those nanites apart, spilling venom droplets all over me. Even worse, the hunter-killers had clawed up my skin pretty good during the fight. The pinpricks they’d chewed into me had given the venom a way into my bloodstream.

What I’d thought was infection had actually been a microscopic dose of venom poisoning. I figured it was a good thing I’d only absorbed a tiny bit of the stuff — anything more might have killed me.

But I was all right now. Wasn’t I?



Three days later, Willow reached the Celestia system. I’d spent most of that time wandering around the ship, hoping I’d find something useful to do. It wasn’t much fun walking through the lounge and the hold, or the bridge either, where there were three more corpses: people who’d stayed on duty instead of going to the party. But I went through every room anyway, because I was the captain. I even asked the ship-soul if there were logs I should be keeping, or paperwork or something. But the computers handled stuff like that automatically, so they didn’t need me getting in the way. A few times I checked over computer files, just to see if there was stuff I ought to be taking care of. Mission stuff… you know. But every database I tried to look at, records and logs and all, turned out to be passworded or encrypted or just plain inaccessible to lowly Explorers Second Class, even if they’d become acting captain. Maybe that was normal; keeping everything locked away just on general principles. Then again, maybe Willow had been doing something extra-specially secret, and outsiders like me were supposed to mind our own business.

I found out there was only one thing I absolutely had to do as captain of Willow. Apparently, captains are supposed to get at least half an hour of exercise every day, to keep themselves fit for command. So my only mandatory duty was going down to the gym when the ship-soul told me, and working up a sweat.

Weights. Jogging. Bagwork. It made me laugh, that my one compulsory chore was the only thing I’d ever been good at. I went to the gym twice a day and stayed a lot longer than just half an hour — thinking maybe I’d turn out to be captain material after all.

I made a point of being on the bridge as we drew near Celestia. Not that I actually sat in the captain’s command chair — there was a sweet-looking red-haired woman slumped dead in it, and I didn’t want to disturb her. (She seemed too young to be officer of the watch. Nineteen or twenty, tops. All the senior officers must have wanted to go to the party, so they’d given the bridge to the most junior lieutenant-cadet on board. Poor kid: I wondered what she could have done that was so bad the League needed to kill her.)