They came for me at midnight. Of course they did, not an original bone between them. I wish I could say I'd known they'd come, or that I was brave when it happened. I rewrite that night sometimes; picture them busting in to find me sitting Yoda-style on my bunk, staring them down, cool as the proverbial. Not that they'd know what a cucumber is. Didn't go down like that though. Didn't go down like that at all.
First thing I knew was a crash like the end of the world and white light, bright as a nova. Then Tallow, bellowing fit to bust a lung.
"Wake up you useless sack of rusted bolts, before I dent your zombie skull!" I fell into wakefulness like a skydiver without a ‘chute; my mind reeling with it, limbs flailing, synthlungs sucking and heaving at the air. The bang had been the explosive death of my bunkroom door. The light was Navin aiming his wretched, hackjob halide-plasma torch at my eyes. The beam caught him from beneath, making a living nightmare of his pox-pitted face.
"She was dead asleep. Corpses dream 'ya think?" he said. Hoots of laughter answered him, bouncing off the metal walls and crowding in on me like the chattering of crows. A murder of crows. They should call a flock of bullies a murder as well.
"Shut it, Nav. Just get 'er up, yeah?" Fingers dug into my armpits, hefting me out of the bed and dumping me on the floor. White beams strobed the walls as my tormentors juggled their torches. Then nothing. No lights, no whoops of jeering laughter: they'd put me in a sense-dep hood. The gripping fingers reappeared, at my wrists and ankles this time, the floor dropped away and a loping, swinging motion began. They were carrying me between them like an animal carcass.
I've always thought of fear as cold. You hear about dread's icy touch, the rising chill of terror. It's false advertising. Fear is hot. Fear is the boiling stink of a tyrant’s breath in your face, the searing rush of blood up into your skin, the damp slick of your palms that says you won't be able to hold on when you fall. Fear is the pins-and-needles burn of adrenaline and the scald of sparking synapses, trying and failing to find a way out. There is no way out. They make sure of that when they come for you.
"Jump." They'd taken me to The Vaildivia's topmost deck. I looked down over the barrier, past the black and yellow stripes painted on the metal, down the ship's central well. One hundred and seventy decks to where I knew lay her guts and her beating ion heart. I couldn't see far; the darkness of the shaft at midnight was absolute, a black shark's eye staring up at me. The floor seemed to roll and I gripped the iron grating with my toes, flecks of rust clinging to the sweat on my soles.
"I said, jump, Claudia-Rose." Tallow came so close I could see the veins spidering the whites of his eyes with red. Fear came out of my mouth as fury.
"Like blackhole hell I will! You're glitching!"
"We've all done it. It's a... what did they call it when you were properly alive? A trust fall."
"Yeah, that's not what this is. Your gorilla jumping too?" To make my point I threw my weight against Kodiak's grip on me. Tallow glanced at Navin and Sor'ya, who shrugged. Tallow nodded, and Kodiak released me. I crushed the impulse to roll my aching shoulders. Show them no weakness. Show them no fear.
"You jump. We turn off the grav-core before you hit. Trust. Then you're one of us." Tallow crossed to a workbench beside a wall-mounted control array. He considered his options for a moment, then picked a cracked length of coolant pipe someone had forgotten to throw in the recycler. He tossed it over the barrier. Silence. Metric time flowed by. Interplanetary standard. One hundred seconds to the minute. Four whole minutes. Then a tiny, distant clang. Metal on metal. The floor bucked beneath me again, all in my head. Fear’s a glitch that way. "Sure," Tallow said, "if you scream the AI will turn off the grav, but then we'll know you don't trust us. Your body won't be broken, but the trust? How can we fly together then?" His tone was light. He could've been asking to borrow a tab of dental nanites or if I could run to the mess and print him a snack. Had they all jumped? Would they halt my fall? Deadly lies or bonding truth? I didn't need truth to know I didn't trust them, but I needed them if I wanted to survive this world, survive the war they all said was coming. I stepped up to the barrier.