“Pull the manual seal!” someone had screamed, and then the ship wrenched around them, the sound vibrating through every atom of their bodies. Upward and downward canted as the artificial gravity went, and Asala twisted in the air, detritus and grasping human bodies and pieces of the fucking ship levitating around her in the darkness. Asala scrabbled for a bulkhead, but that wouldn’t help; this whole damn ship was about to go—if you could call it a ship, if you could call any of these scrap heaps “ships” that the refugees cobbled together and flung into space with a wish and a prayer—
She could have sworn she saw the far wall perforate in slow motion, the leaks starting that would suck everything out with them, Asala and Niko and their mission and the unlucky Hypatians they’d crammed themselves in with on this death trap to get off Hypatia, and all Asala could think of was Dayo’s face. Had she gone this way too? Watched death coming to suck her and everyone she was with into the cold nothing of space?
None of Asala’s training meant a damn here. No one could fight vacuum.
With a grind that jarred her teeth where she clung, the far wall bowed outward and then gave entirely. Screams turned to blood and dust as people pinwheeled past her, Hypatians she’d gotten to know by necessity during the crossing—Jagdish Drorit, with whom she’d crawled from bulkhead to bulkhead caulking weaknesses and stress points before they turned to leaks, seam after seam until the caulk ran out; Gulnaz Nevenka, who’d been the closest thing the ship had to a navigator and who’d sworn she’d pointed them right at Gan-De and told everyone firmly every day that they’d make it; little Eirene, who’d had her tenth name day right after they broke atmo—
The girl’s ragdoll body being sucked out into vacuum was going to be the last thing Asala saw, because that’s when her own grip tore free and she lost any semblance of control.
“Breathe.” The scraggly aid worker crouching next to Asala looked too young to be away from her parents, let alone working an underfunded charity vessel sent to pull dying refugees out of the black. The girl took Asala’s pulse and blood pressure with a ribbon and her fingers, as if they were in the damn Sand Ages, and Asala did as she was told, just as she had when she’d first been brought aboard and come to herself with an oxygen plate clamped over her nose and mouth.
She wasn’t sure if she remembered crashing bodily into the emergency force field, or if she’d lost consciousness and reconstructed the memory later. Every part of her was bruised—her ribs, her skull, every fucking joint. It felt like the insides of her flesh had been mashed up and squeezed back in.
These sorts of rescue ships could barely save the number of lives they did—there was no med tech to spare for treating mere bruises.
The aid worker at Asala’s side finished her check and moved on to Niko beside her.
Asala had been dully surprised by the spike of emotion when she’d found Niko among those who’d been pulled out of the collapsing scrap ship. That didn’t mean she had any capacity for taking on their shell-shocked glassiness as her own problem. She had enough of her own shit to deal with—the face of Simya’s sister twined guiltily with memories of Dayo, now staring with the eyes of too many unremitting dead.
You’ve seen people die a thousand times before, in much more gruesome ways. And you’re going to let this get to you? Buck up, Asala Sikou.
“How many?” Niko whispered.
“What?” The aid worker readjusted her fingers on their wrist with a frown. The interruption had probably made her lose count.
“How many of us did you manage to pull out?” Niko said. Their voice was hoarse, as if they’d been screaming for the entire seventy hours since the two of them had been brought aboard. “How many of the refugees died?”
The girl’s face folded in. “Your ship, we got seventy-three of you. Six more died after, so that’s sixty-seven.”
Niko’s head fell back against the bulkhead the two of them sat propped against. “Over three hundred. That ship had over three hundred people . . .”
Asala tried to tell her gnawing guilt that they’d done Simya a favor by forsaking her. Abandoning her sister, going back on their promise—ironically, it might have saved the woman’s life.
Asala knew that didn’t absolve them.
“We’ll reach Camp Ghala in two hours,” the aid worker said, as if she hadn’t heard Niko. She clicked something on her handheld and then moved on to the next huddle of survivors. Asala wondered just how much death she’d seen.
“I used to dream . . .” Niko had started shivering....