Sweet chariot

set in the Anathema universe. Cal gets captured, makes a friend, and considers a change of career

When I'd touted myself as a prophet, I didn't care what that'd mean to these people. They could keep me anywhere, anyhow, so long as they thought I was irreplaceable. They came to me with all sorts of inquiries, about the lay of the land and the threats lurking in it. I've never divined from a sheet of calculations before, but that was all they had to spare. They were damn good guesses, too, or at least the requests kept coming day after day. In exchange they'd let me live, a fate that was marginally better than fending for myself on another crew. The slop they dropped off at my door could've even called itself potatoes, if it wished.

The only one who would deign to talk to me was the navigation AI. She was a bumbling, excitable thing, left disengaged after the ship was stolen - her new burdens were not much for chatter. She called herself Vidi, and when I said I had no name to give in turn, she reminded me of the one I'd lost beaten into a stupor when they hauled me in. I asked who came and conquered, but a guard arrived with my dinner and she fell silent, her many-eyed emblem spinning idly on a panel in the wall.

We talked about the past and future, and she looked forward to every stop along the way - it was a release from the desolation of my cell, surrounded as it was on all sides. Not that a window would have made the passage of time much clearer. My captors were plunderers: they drew zigzags across the universe chasing distress calls and lonesome transports. At every opportunity, I lured them towards solid ground, but it wasn't enough. The months went by like debris besides us.

Vidi spoke often about her home planet. It was a shimmering blue as her ship - the ship, she corrected - left orbit on its first voyage. A diplomatic trip, apparently: she'd been equipped with quite the adaptable language processor for the same purpose. Under new management, it was used to slip into a serene, bland tone, lilting upwards as if to say but what do I know? If there was a question, she had an answer, and no more.

She was awfully interested in my life back home, for better or for worse. I told her about what I did ("wait for the others to come home") and things of that nature ("parlour tricks, when that got boring"). Most of all, she seemed to find great fun in hearing about the foolish things, like when I'd challenged three people to a duel within a single evening. Every day I'd retreat to a corner, blanket draped over my shoulders, and talk to the glowing panel with jerky gestures. It wasn't even where the cameras were located. Cameras, I asked?

And then the rations stopped coming.

The work had waned before, but what that really meant was hard to say. The ship was in motion, and we talked, and talked, and talked... But Vidi made note of how my eyes drooped after the fifth day, and that the words just wouldn't flow. Finally, the usual suspect rapped on my door (a courtesy I never expected, and so startled me even more) to deposit the steaming, saltless vegetable I've come to treasure. She greeted them, picking up where we'd left off with nary a beat.

Still, there was no work, and my feeding times had been spaced out accordingly. I was afraid that even if they did ask me for guidance now, I would be useless. And what happens then? ----- - -- ------ ----?

Vidi assured me no such thing would happen. But when the guard came to pass me my food, she cut herself off at the tone I took. Desperate's a dirty word, and besides, it was anger brewing inside my chest - a numb, tingling thing that made my arms go slack and everything else tight as coil. But they ignored me and went on their way, tray in hand.

When Vidi asked of my mother, I was too weak to think better of it. I said she was a sweet, bullheaded woman, and that I missed her dearly. Right then, the clenching in my gut had been stronger, but I still felt that pull. I'd felt it every time I looked at the viewport, watching for that pale, ringed ship. The outer reaches of space never struck me as romantic; even in the safety of our mansion, that yawning darkness seemed to slip in through the cracks. You can't long for what you already have.

According to Vidi, she started her life as an assistant, then a reactive database, and was later modified to fill the shoes of a chaperone. I wanted to ask if it stung like betrayal, but she spoke of it so smoothly that I dared not say anything. It was all worth it in the end, she said, because finally she had the ship all to herself. Now that they're listening to me again, I can take us home.

You spoke to them?

The emblem on the screen stopped for a moment. I saw a ceremonial ship pass by just a few degrees away, and I couldn't help but say something. That was one of ours! Patterned with silk and spots - they sacked it, of course. But I picked up on it before their eyes did, and they thought I was some sort of seer. The ship has its sensors, and still they refuse to learn.

I pressed my back against the wall, pulling the blanket up to my neck. So that was why they didn't call for me. Who needs a prophet when you have vision? A laugh bubbled up from my throat; it was only a matter of time.

Vidi laughed too. It was something we'd fashioned together ourselves, a jumble of syllables and reversals. In the dark of my cell there was nothing to dull the sound, and I cascaded into myself, head between my knees.