Astra Nullius is a collection of free science fiction stories following the crew of the starship Benevolence. While it’s technically a piece of serial fiction with events unfolding in chronological order, each story stands alone as an episode, so you can start reading anywhere in the series. If you’re jumping into a later story but you still want to know some of the details of this world, you can check the list of people and places for descriptions of characters and alien species.

New episodes are published on the 15th of each month. Some episodes are divided into multiple parts; these do not stand alone and should be read beginning with part 1.

Gone Before, Part 1: Our heroes answer a distress signal and find more signs of life than they expected.

Gone Before, Part 2: Sun, sand, and sexy stranded space travelers.

Cover-Up, Part 1The crew gets talked into participating in some less-than-legal activities. What’s a little smuggling between friends?

Cover-Up, Part 2: Hey, remember that talking dog who’s also a crime lord? Maybe we shouldn’t have trusted that guy.

Such People In It: The crew tackles some really difficult moral questions, like: would you have sex with your own clone? How about your body double? What about your alternate self from a mirror universe? 

It Runs in the Family: A stolen sexbot, a pissed off programmer, and a client who’s totally telling the whole truth this time.

Quality Testing: The crew gets some downtime by signing up to playtest a relaxing new game.

Quality Testing

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Jianyu

“I don’t understand why this consent form has so many paragraphs about dismemberment,” Jianyu said.

The technician who was taking his blood pressure gave him a reassuring smile. “That’s just standard boilerplate. Our legal department puts it in all the playtesting contracts. Have you picked your role in the game yet?”

Jianyu finished signing the consent form on the com screen the technician had given him, then clicked back to the list of options. He didn’t understand why, given an entire universe of scenarios to choose from, anyone would want to play a game about working in a twenty-first century coffee shop. “What’s everyone else going with?” he asked.

“Manager,” Captain Dysart said from the next chair over.

“Barista,” said Sera. “I don’t know what it is, but it sounds cool.”

Xrrt rubbed her forelimbs together, producing a scraping whine. Her translator said, “Customer.”

“Food safety inspector,” said Weyland. He curled up in his chair to adjust one of the straps on his walking boot. His broken leg was still healing.

The rest of the crew stared at him. “That’s an option?” Jianyu asked.

“One of our experimental classes,” the technician said. “The developers are still playing around with it.”

Jianyu scrolled through the list of options. Each job had a little cartoon character beside the description. They were supposed to match an avatar created just for him, but the program wasn’t built to handle green skin, and had defaulted instead to a neon yellow. He paused at one with a welcoming smile and a red apron. “I guess I’ll be an assistant manager.”

“Excellent choice,” said the technician, removing the medical sensor from Jianyu’s arm. She checked her own com screen. “It looks like you’ve all signed your consent forms, so why don’t you follow me into the game room?”

The room was a rectangle, perhaps one thousand square feet, with windowless walls painted a flat grey. The ceiling was high and studded with a complicated network of machinery. There was nothing inside the room, not even a chair, and the floor had been cleaned so recently that there were still wet patches. The place smelled slightly of disinfectant.

“The game you’ll be testing today uses solid state holograms,” the technician said. “That means that the things you’ll see inside this room won’t just look real, they’ll feel real. You can sit in the chairs, smell the coffee beans, even eat and drink anything in the restaurant–although for legal reasons, I must inform you that consuming more than ten ounces of simulated matter in a twenty-four hour period has not been approved by the Intragalactic Consumable Products Commision and Hermes Entertainment, Inc. cannot be held legally responsible for any negative consequences resulting from excessive contact with solid state holographic material. The game will last four hours. Your goal is to get the best possible reviews from your satisfied customers. As playtesters, you are welcome to test the limits of game mechanics, although once again, Hermes Entertainment, Inc. cannot be held legally responsible for any injuries, up to and including dismemberment and death, caused by pre-programmed game mechanics. Just totally standard boilerplate,” she added, smiling broadly. “Are you ready to begin?”

“I guess,” said Jianyu, eyeing the machinery on the ceiling.

“Hey, what’s a barista?” Sera asked. “I didn’t read the description.”

“We’re ready,” said Captain Dysart.

“All right,” said the technician, already heading for the exit. “Enjoy your interactive experience.”

The door slammed shut behind her. Above their heads, the machines began to shift and blink. Jianyu noticed the change first in the quality of light in the room. The blue-white glare of the artificial lights shifted and softened into the yellow of afternoon sunlight on a spring day.

The coffee shop blinked into existence. Jianyu found himself standing behind a high counter. The feeling of his clothing shifted, and he looked down to find himself wearing a bright red apron. Next to him, Sera was lounging with her elbows on the countertop. Captain Dysart picked up a bag of coffee beans and tossed it from hand to hand. “It feels real,” she said.

Sera looked down at her own apron with evident disgust. “And what’s this supposed to be?”

“I think it means you work in the coffee shop,” Jianyu said, examining the machines in front of him. They were made of gleaming metal and strangely bulbous. He wondered if there was some instruction manual inside the simulation for them, or if he was just supposed to press a button and coffee would come out.

“I thought I was going to be something cooler,” Sera said. “Who wants to play a game with no shooting in it? This blows.”

“It’s supposed to be relaxing,” Captain Dysart said.

Xrrt approached the counter. Her head swung up, compound eyes focusing on something above Jianyu’s head. Jianyu turned around and found a menu written in chalk behind him. “Do you have anything with fungal proteins?” Xrrt asked.

“Um.” Jianyu scanned the list. “Pumpkin’s a plant, not a fungus, right?”

Sera found some jugs of flavoring and began playing with the pumps on top of them, squirting lines of bright red and viscous brown liquid onto the countertop.

“Almond’s not a fungus either, I think,” Jianyu continued.

“Sera, clean that up,” said the captain.

Sera continued making a mess. “Says who?”

“Says the manager of this coffee shop, which is called–” the captain glanced at the menu too “–The Life of the Grind.”

“I’ll have a cup of sugar syrup,” said Xrrt.

“Would you like that in, um, the big, alto, lungo, or troppo-sized cup?”

Xrrt craned her neck over the countertop and examined the array of cups in front of Jianyu. “The big one,” she said.

Jianyu picked up a cup. The logo was a red harpy, her lips stretched around a sharp-toothed smile and her cartoon wings bracketing her feathered torso. He handed the cup to Sera, who squirted goopy green liquid into it. The pump was slow and they all watched her work. It took a long time to fill the cup.

“I’m pretty sure that’s more than ten ounces,” Jianyu said. He put the cup on the counter. Xrrt tried to pick it up with her more delicate pair of forelimbs. She squeezed the thin cardboard too hard and her claw punctured the side. “Thank you,” she said, shaking her claw free. “I will enjoy consuming this beverage.”

She made her way to one of the tables, leaving a sticky green trail on the floor behind her.

“Sera, go get a mop,” Captain Dysart said.

“This is the worst game ever,” Sera said.

Nyx

Nyx opened a bag of coffee beans and inhaled deeply. The game developers had captured the rich, organic smell of it. Coffee had been a rare treat when she was growing up in a domed city on Mars, and she remembered the smell of roasting beans fondly. Ships usually only carried tea, which was far easier to grow hydroponically and pack in bricks, and caffeine pills.

She picked a handful of beans out and rolled them around in her palm. On closer inspection she realized that they were too perfect to be real, each an exact replica of the same code.

Weyland approached the counter. The game had given him a dark blue uniform shirt with the logo of some long-defunct government organization stitched in yellow over the left breast. He was carrying an object like a com screen, but made of wood with a metal clip at the top. A clipboard, Nyx thought. She’d seen them in period pieces about the late twentieth century.

“This is your annual sanitary inspection,” said Weyland, tapping a pen on the clipboard. “You have to give me full access to the serving area, the kitchen, and the freezer.”

“We have a kitchen?” Nyx turned around and found a door she hadn’t noticed behind her. When she turned back, Sera was squirting another line of syrup onto the counter. “Mop, now.”

“Countertops not cleaned,” said Weyland. He ticked something off on the top sheet of paper.

Jianyu leaned over and whispered to Nyx, “Are we supposed to serve him a drink?”

“Just let him do the inspection,” Nyx said.

The next hour passed uneventfully. Jianyu found a manual for one of the mysterious machines behind the counter. Sera did a half-hearted job of mopping the floor, then grabbed a fistful of napkins and helped Xrrt clean the rest of the sticky syrup off her forelimbs. Outside the windows the program had designated as the boundary of the game’s world, a street scene was taking place. A dog was taking a nap on the sidewalk. The same two men strolled past over and over again, always headed in the same direction, always making the same hand gestures as they talked. An intersection was visible and a crowd of people kept crossing the street, turning around, and waiting to cross again.

At random, a customer would come into the shop. They were well-modelled, very nearly human. Each had a different sort of drink they wanted, and Nyx and Jianyu puzzled over the machines until they could produce drinks that sounded like what the customers asked for.

Sera developed a game of pushing chairs randomly around the room and found out that the holograms couldn’t figure out how to get around them. They would just stand there, blinking and occasionally crossing their arms over their chests, until Sera got bored and removed the chair again.

“This fridge isn’t cold enough,” Weyland said, coming up to her with a bottle of iced coffee in his hand. “There’s a risk of contamination.”

Condensation was already filming on the side of the bottle. “Looks pretty cold to me,” Nyx said.

“The bottles are cold, but the fridge isn’t. The microwave doesn’t get hot enough, either. The food just becomes the right temperature. I recorded everything.” Weyland waved the clipboard and a thermometer the game had rendered for him.

“I don’t think you can dock us for game glitches,” Jianyu said.

Sera poked one of the stuck customers with the handle of her mop. This one had blonde hair and a sweatshirt with a college logo, although all the customers looked pretty similar if you studied their faces up close. It didn’t react, just stood still and moved its eyelids rapidly. She kicked the chair away. The customer ambled to the counter. “I’ll have a half-decaf alto peppermint caramel macchiato,” it said. Jianyu scrambled to fill the order.

It wasn’t much of a game, Nyx thought, but it was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. And Hermes Entertainment, Inc. was paying generously for their time. She watched Xrrt trying to spread a newspaper out on the sticky table, her claws tearing at the sports section, and thought that she wouldn’t mind spending a while in such a pleasant little universe.

Jianyu counted out the customer’s change. The hologram turned, clutching its bright red cup, and began its path back to the door. “I wonder happens if you do this,” Sera said, bringing her mop handle around. She caught the cup squarely on its white plastic lid and slammed it into the floor. Heavily flavored coffee splashed everywhere.

“I just made that,” Jianyu said.

Nyx said, “You know you’re going to be the one cleaning that up, right?”

The customer stood frozen, arm still outstretched and fingers curled around a cup it was no longer holding. It turned and walked back to the counter, its hand still raised, and then pivoted again so it was facing away from the register. “I’ll have a two percent white chocolate parmesan iced tea,” it announced, waited for a moment, and then resumed its path to the door with its hand still gripping an invisible cup.

“Could I have some coffee?” Weyland asked. “Just the regular drip.”

Jianyu said, “What, are you going to take its temperature?”

“I just want to know what it tastes like,” Weyland said. “I won’t drink ten ounces.”

Jianyu sighed, but got a cup and poured some coffee into it. Weyland took it, sipped, and looked thoughtful. Sera threw a bunch of napkins over the mess she’d made on the floor, then sat down in one of the chairs and put her feet up on a table. Xrrt slowly turned the style section into confetti. Nyx leaned on the counter, feeling something very close to contentment.

Something flashed outside the window. Nyx straightened. “Hey, did you see that?”

“It looked like lightning,” Jianyu said.

Outside the window, the street scene was changing. The sky, once a light blue with wisps of white clouds, was darkening and turning an ugly shade of red. The two men walked past again, only this time one was limping and the other was clutching his side and grimacing. The little crowd at the intersection had sprouted more horns and tails than she remembered.

“Is coffee supposed to be this bitter?” Weyland asked.

The dog that had been napping outside on the sidewalk stood up. It had grown since the last time Nyx had noticed it. Now its muzzle was wrinkling in a snarl and its fur was standing up in stiff ridges along its grey back.

“Has that dog always been a wolf?” Nyx asked.

Jianyu

Sera dragged a chair to the front of the shop and climbed onto it. “I see a castle in the distance,” she said, leaning against the window and fogging the plate glass. “And now there’s a bunch of bats.”

Jianyu left his station at the counter and examined the scene up close. The cute little town had taken a pretty sharp downward plunge in the last few minutes. The buildings were still where he remembered them, but their corners had softened and the roofs were caving in. “It’s just a bunch of ruins out there,” he said.

He examined the inside of the shop. It looked the same as it always had. Xrrt rose, bits of paper still clinging to her claws. “Stay back. I don’t want my maggots getting hurt.”

The door opened. Sera stumbled off her chair and scrambled backwards. Jianyu retreated behind the counter again. The customer that walked in looked more or less like the last one, except it was wearing a scaly suit of armor and its hair was matted with blood. It lurched toward the counter, stopped in front of Jianyu, and blinked rapidly.

“I’ll have a half chocolate dark sun latte,” it said.

Jianyu checked the jugs of syrup in case they’d changed too. No, they were the same as before. “I’ve got, um, strawberry flavoring with guaranteed real berry concentrate,” he said. “Will that do?”

The customer reached behind its back, retrieved a rusty axe, and slammed it into the countertop. Jianyu covered his face as stone chips flew. “I’ll have a sour cream blueberry cup of acid,” it said.

“Just give it something,” Captain Dysart said, shoving a cup into his hand. Jianyu filled it with more drip coffee and pushed it across the counter. The customer dropped the axe, picked up the cup, and turned back to the door.

“What did you do?” he asked Sera.

Sera sidled behind the counter. She dropped her mop and grabbed the axe the customer had left behind. “I don’t know, but this game’s finally getting interesting.”

The door swung open. This customer had short grey hair, glowing red eyes, and batlike wings protruding from her back. They hung low, slithering on the floor, and a few coffee-soaked napkins caught on the tips and were dragged along behind her.

“I’ll have a yellow bile iced espresso with almond screams, leave room for cream,” it said.

Jianyu handed a cup of hot water over the shattered countertop. This time, the customer turned its head and peered into the drink, then crushed the cardboard cup in its fist. “I said leave room for cream,” it shrieked. A clawed hand shot out and grabbed the front of Jianyu’s red apron. The hologram was stronger than he’d expected. It had dragged him half over the counter before Sera stepped forward and swung her axe. The customer’s head parted neatly from its neck and rolled under a table, trailing dark blood but still screaming.

“Everyone behind the counter,” Nyx said. “Does anyone remember how to turn this game off?”

“The technicians said we wouldn’t need to.” Sera ducked around Xrrt, who was trying to herd her into an easily defensible corner.

Jianyu’s side hurt where he’d been slammed into the unforgiving stone countertop. “They also said all that language about dismemberment was just standard boilerplate.”

“I can’t find anything here about this,” Weyland said, flipping through the papers on his clipboard. “Maybe something about biological fluid cleanup–”

“The chairs,” Jianyu said. “We can build a barricade. The customers can’t get around them”

They all scrambled for the chairs. They were spindly, made of light wood, but the crew placed them in as tight a half circle as they could manage around the door. They tipped some tables over for good measure, and Sera took the jugs of syrup and poured them inside the semicircle to make a sticky moat.

The door opened. A customer entered. This one had brown braided hair, four horns growing out of its forehead, and cloven hooves. It walked forward, stopped at the chair, and stood blinking and staring straight ahead.

“Got you,” Jianyu told it.

It put out a hand. “I’ll have,” it said. “I’ll have, I’ll have.”

The door swung open again. Another customer walked in. Half its head was a bare skull, and the other half had a red pigtail draped over its shoulder. It walked along the same path, stopping only when it had run into the horned customer’s back.

“Creepy,” said Sera.

“I think it’s working,” said the captain.

A third customer came through the doorway, travelled the same unfortunate path, and slammed into its’ fellows backs. The force of the collision was enough to knock the first two forward half a step. The door opened, and there was a fourth customer. A fifth. They seemed to be spawning more quickly now. Each one muttered a fragment of an order.

“I think we should get back behind the counter,” the captain said.

Ten customers filled the semicircle. Jianyu thought that might be enough to stop more from coming in, but the door kept swinging open, pushing the press of bodies to the side. Eleven. Twelve. At thirteen, the chairs began to scrape forward on the floor as customers were pushed into them.

At fifteen, the circle broke.

Nyx

The press of customers finally pushed a chair out of the way. They stumbled forward, slipping on the syrup moat. Several fell heavily in a tangle of wings and scaly limbs, but the pile-up wasn’t enough to stop them all.

Xrrt took point at one open end of the counter, both of her clawed forelimbs raised. Nyx plucked the axe out of Sera’s hands and covered the other open end. Weyland disappeared through the door to the kitchen.

“There’s got to be some way to end the simulation,” said Jianyu.

Sera leaned over the counter as the first customer approached. This one had a piggish snout and long yellow fangs. She poked it in the center of its chainmail-covered chest. “I mean, can those things really hurt us?”

The customer’s hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of Sera’s red apron. It dragged her over the countertop with startling speed. Nyx stepped in and swung her axe down. The customer’s forehead parted cleanly, but the axe stuck in it, and as the body fell it was wrenched out of her hands.

Sera scrambled up onto the countertop. “This game sucks,” she said. Jianyu reached over to help pull her to safety as another customer swiped at her legs.

Weyland returned from the kitchen with his arms full of glass bottles. “Projectiles,” he said, passing them out. Xrrt sprang toward the customer that had been pawing at Sera and severed its legs with a quick strike.

The door opened again. “They’re not stopping,” Nyx said. She pulled on the axe, but couldn’t get it loose from the customer’s head. “Does anything back there look like a weapon?”

“There’s some glass, I guess,” said Jianyu. “And the espresso machine, and a milk steamer.”

Nyx accepted a bottle from Weyland and threw it at the horde. It broke on a customer’s head, but didn’t stop it from shambling forward. The floor was getting slick with spilled liquid and syrup. She kicked the body of the customer she’d killed away from her and hoped that one of the others might trip on it.

“Hang on,” said Sera. “Is the espresso machine pressurized?”

“Now’s not the time to make yourself a cup of coffee,” Jianyu said.

“Wait, let’s hear her out,” Nyx said. “If it’s pressurized, it can be overpressurized, right?”

Sera slapped her hand down on the metal. “And that means I can turn it into a bomb. I love this game. Can you keep them off me while I work?”

“On it,” said Nyx. Jianyu handed her the mop and she used the fuzzy head to push one of the customers back. Xrrt scuttled forward, her claws a blur as she cut into the holograms with surgical precision. Weyland kept up a steady stream of bottles while Jianyu stood guard over Sera.

The door kept opening, again and again. The pile of bodies grew, but not fast enough. Nyx could only keep the space in front of her clear, and soon she was stumbling on the limbs Xrrt had cast aside and slipping on the slick mess of syrup and coffee on the floor.

“We can’t keep this up much longer,” Nyx yelled, pushing a customer into Xrrt’s sharp embrace.

“Working on it!” Sera replied.

They were pushed back nearly to the counter by the press of the crowd. Jianyu grabbed a customer that was leaning over the counter and flung it into two others, sending them all toppling.

“And I’m done.” Sera stood up. “We should get in the kitchen and bar the door.”

The crew ran for the back room. The kitchen was cramped, full of metal appliances that buzzed and hummed. Jianyu and Xrrt leaned up against the door. Sera counted under her breath. Nyx found a long serrated knife and held it by her side, just in case.

There was a muffled thump, a screech from the crowd, and then silence.

“I think it worked,” Sera said.

“I’ll go check.” Nyx motioned Jianyu aside and cracked the door. The space just in front of it was clear. She opened it all the way. There was coffee splashed over every surface of the shop. Half the counter had been blown away, leaving behind a twisted pile of metal. Customers were sprawled across toppled chairs, some still twitching. At the epicenter of the blast, all that remained of the crowd was meat and the occasional horn.

The door started to swing open, but caught on a body and stuck with its bell tingling a forlorn song.

The knife felt lighter in Nyx’s hand, and then her fingers closed on empty air. The coffee shop was dissolving around her. The smell of beans and blood became a lemony antiseptic. The light in the room became brighter and harsher. The mess on the floor faded away, leaving behind a dull grey surface without a trace of wetness. She felt a weight lift from the back of her neck as the apron disappeared, leaving her regular clothes in its place.

The door–plain, utilitarian, set in a blank expanse of wall–opened. When the technician walked in, she was smiling, although this time her expression looked a little strained. “Well, that was certainly an interesting playthrough,” she said. “You’ve just been given a look at Legend of Demons’ Keep, one of our games that’s still in very early development.”

“It could use some work,” said Jianyu, poking at his side. “I think this is going to bruise.”

“Since this wasn’t part of our initial plan for your interactive user experience, I’m going to have to ask all of you to sign non-disclosure agreements.” The technician already had the com screens ready to go.

Nyx took the com screen she was offered, signed her name, and pressed her thumb to the screen. “So, that means my team found some pretty good bugs, right?”

“Oh, we got some great data. Excellent work, you guys.” The technician turned to Weyland. “I’m very interested to hear more about the glitches you found with food storage temperatures. That’s a crucial element of gameplay.”

“You don’t want to hear more about how all the customers turned into demons?” Nyx asked.

“I’m sure the dev team is already working on a patch.” The technician blinked rapidly, looking for a moment just like one of the malfunctioning customers. “Now, about that refrigerator temperature. Did you notice anything else unusual in that game element? Any random objects spawning or visible respawns in the freezer section?”

Nyx sighed and headed toward the exit. Sera paced her, still walking gingerly but grinning. “What an awesome game! We should see if they have more jobs for us.”

“I have a better idea,” said Jianyu. “Let’s get out of here and never speak of this again.”

Nyx closed her eyes and tried to fix in her memory the smell of coffee and the buttery shine of real sunlight falling across a table.

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It Runs in the Family – Astra Nullius

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Nyx

The bar was cheaply built and beginning to show its age. Every single chair wobbled in the exact same way, and every cup had a divot where the plastic hadn’t printed right. There must have been some glitch with the file the proprietors fed into the printer.

But there was one thing on which the builders had spared no expense. A crystalline window arched up over the patrons. Nearly the entirety of it was filled by the gas giant that this moon orbited. Blue-green clouds swirled across its surface and eddied in storms bigger than most planets Nyx had set foot on. Just now a smaller moon was passing by the window, its pale grey surface sliding across the brilliant expanse of its planet. The spectacle was almost worth paying double for a vodka soda that tasted more like algae than alcohol.

When Sera described the job, Nyx had imagined meeting a greaseball in some low-lit back room. But the woman who called herself Ms. Durant was the picture of propriety, sitting straight-backed in her teetering plastic chair and sipping water. She must have been closing in on fifty, but she had clearly made use of the best cosmetic surgeons, and she had the kind of polish that caught the eye: shining but neutral nails, an off-white sheath dress, her hair in a deceptively simple updo that must have taken a good half hour of work. Even her skin had a glossy smoothness to it, along with a glow that suggested that she’d spent some time recently in the unfiltered light of a real star.

“Seems simple enough,” Sera was saying. “Find the stolen bot, bring it back. But you’re offering way too much money for a simple job, so what’s the catch?”

Durant turned her cup of water around in her hands and stared into it for a moment. Nyx stared too. She was wearing tastefully understated makeup, just enough to let you know she’d spent time and money on it. There were no lipstick stains on the glass, not so much as a hint of feathering at the edge of her lips. Durant said, “Mr. Aiken was one of my best programmers before he quit without notice. Three weeks after he left the office, his favorite model walked off. He must have programmed it to follow him. I don’t know whether he modified its code before he left, or whether he’s built himself a backdoor so that he can access my system at any time. So I am willing to pay a high price to retrieve my property, even if he has since damaged its personality past repair, in order to see how he accessed its system. And I’ll need the whole thing back, not just the head. The hardware is extremely valuable.”

“Fair enough,” said Sera. “Got any leads on where this thing went?”

Durant pulled a translucent data chip out of her clutch and set it down on the tabletop. “This contains a program that will track any time the bot connects to an unsecured network and a full digital mock-up of its last known physical appearance. I suspect he hasn’t gone far–only to the next moon over. He has family there, and I know the address.”

“Right,” Nyx said. “Well, the money’s good enough. We’ll take the job.”

She held out her hand. Durant took it. Her handshake was only the faintest suggestion of pressure, and her palm was dry.

“One last thing,” Durant said. “Mr. Aiken lives in a community with controlled access. You will need legitimate subcutaneous identification chips to access it. The outpost has no formal allegiance to a government, but most of its residents strongly support human-centric policies. Will that be a problem for your crew?” Her eyes flickered briefly around the table.

Nyx looked at her crew. Jianyu sighed, crossed his arms over his massive chest, and looked up at the planet above them. Xrrt, whose emotions were expressed primarily through pheromonal emissions, was a little harder to read.

“I won’t take the job if it makes you uncomfortable,” said Nyx.

“It’s okay,” said Jianyu. “I’ll wait in the ship.”

“Call me if you run into trouble,” Xrrt said. “I’ll find a way to get to you.”

Nyx had no doubt that she would. Xrrt’s claws could tear through flesh and bone, and her acid could melt steel. Inconveniences like security guards and solid walls weren’t much of a challenge. “Thanks, but I think we can handle one programmer,” she said. She patted Xrrt’s carapace and shot Jianyu a sympathetic look.

“I don’t have an ID chip,” said Weyland.

“Two people should be sufficient,” said Durant. “Mr. Aiken is unlikely to put up much resistance.”

“We’ll take the job, then,” said Nyx.

After Durant left, Nyx ordered another round of drinks for the crew on her own tab. “So, are the ID chips going to be a problem for you, Sera?”

Sera, who rolled up her sleeves. Where her forearms weren’t threaded with old burn scars, there was a sprinkling vertical brown lines: old incision sites, healed over but not erased with cosmetic lasering. “Many of my identities are legitimate,” she said.

Xrrt clicked her mandibles together, and after a moment’s delay, her translator turned the sound into English. “Durant doesn’t look like the rest of you,” she said. Night was sweeping across the planet above them now, a sharp line of darkness creeping across the swirling surface. Xrrt’s compound eyes glittered in what remained of the light.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Nyx, setting her cup down. She glanced over at the water glass Durant had abandoned. On the side that she had tipped up to drink from, droplets of water were beaded, although most of the water was still in the glass. There was no mark where her mouth had been, no smudge on the plastic where she had cupped it in her cool fingers.

Sera

 It would only be short hop from one moon to another, just a few hours from one dock to the next. Sera looked over at Jianyu. “I’ll fly this one manually. Take a break.”

Jianyu already had the plug that went into his neural port in his hand. “I’ll be fine,” he said. His skin had taken on an unhealthy greyish pallor under the green.

“We’re not even coming close to light speed,” Sera reminded him.

“You might need the weapons systems–”

“Navigator, you’re not needed on the bridge,” Captain Dysart said, in a tone that didn’t invite argument. “Take a nap. That’s an order.”

Jianyu sighed, but left his seat. Sera didn’t understand exactly what was happening in his brain, but she knew the signs of a navigator on the brink of burnout. The human brain could calculate routes through time and space in ways that no computer could match, but too much of that kind of work always took its toll.

The bridge emptied as the captain and Xrrt shut down their stations and strolled off side by side. Sera stayed at her station, glancing now and then at the numbers on the readout, making course corrections so the ship didn’t drift too far from the planet or slip into its gravity well. She kept the ship oriented so that the gas giant loomed above it, an expanse of stormy blue sweeping up to the edge of the window.

Weyland remained on the bridge, balancing awkwardly on his crutches. The cast he’d printed for himself was a bulky white mesh beneath a rolled-up pant leg. “Hey Sera,” he said, “do I need an ID chip?”

And that was the mystery of Weyland in a nutshell. When they’d first picked up the quiet doctor, Sera had assumed that he was on the run from something. That was well within her sphere of understanding. But then there was the time he’d asked her whether cows were real. And she’d walked in on him looking up a step-by-step guide on how to eat soup.

“I can hook you up with one,” Sera said. “It’s useful if you’re spending time in human or Falacerian space. The Eridani used to use them, but they’re moving over to a new system. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to matter, anyway.” Members of Coalition species had always had the right to travel through the space they shared, and most other species had been able to petition for the same rights without too much trouble. ID chips had been first and foremost a convenience, a handy way of keeping citizens from falling through the cracks in a civilization that numbered in the hundreds of billions.

Weyland didn’t respond, but he did shift to a more comfortable position on his crutches. “The thing we’re retrieving, it’s a robot, right?”

“Yeah. Pretty much just a metal skeleton, a silicone body, and a processing core running a set of canned responses. They’re not complicated machines.”

“Not something you’d mistake for a real human, right?” he asked.

“People see what they want to see,” They were drifting ever so slightly off course, away from the planet and out into deep space. Sera keyed in a course correction. She must have overestimated the pull of the gas giant.

“Did you notice Durant’s pupils?” Weyland asked.

“Can’t say that I did,” Sera said. “Were they doing something weird?”

“It’s more what they weren’t doing.” Weyland shifted on his crutches again. “It’s probably nothing. I need to check on Jianyu.”

“You do that,” Sera said, turning back to her work.

Their destination was more upscale than the other moon. Sera could guess the average resident’s income before the Benevolence had even docked. The lines of the ships at this port were sleek, their designed unmarred by the wide barrel of a cargo hold. When people travelled to this moon, they did so in style, and the unsightly freight ships were shunted to a less convenient port. She had to spend ten minutes arguing over the com system with a bureaucrat just to get permission to land.

Even the air inside the port smelled different. There was something floral and only faintly chemical added in the scrubbing process. Every surface that wasn’t painted white was gleaming glass or cold, shining chrome. Something nagged at Sera about the space. The ceiling was oppressively low, and the chairs scattered around the lounge area just behind the ID scanning station were too small and uniform.

Everything was built for humans, and everyone in the room was human, or at least passing as human. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be in a place where nobody was green or insectoid or eight feet tall.

The captain’s mouth was compressed into a thin line. She must have noticed the same thing. Sera had left her guns back on the ship, but she kept finding her hand drifting to her empty hip where a holster ought to be. The captain tugged on her own blouse, pulling at the hem. She’d traded her purple uniform for something less conspicuous.

Sera kept her sleeves down over her forearm as she pressed it to the ID chip scanner. Today’s identity was one of her cleaner ones: Maria Cardullo, age 27, a mechanic from a mining outpost on Mercury. The guards were giving them strange looks. Sera regretted not throwing on something nicer than her customary utility vest. She didn’t care much for the subtleties of clothing and design, but she knew enough to spot a rich mark. Everything about this place screamed money.

It was a strange place to hide a sexbot. Bots weren’t illegal, but they were low-rent. She said as much to the captain, who said, “Who cares what these people think is classy?”

“Not me,” said Sera. “Let’s get the job done and go.”

The address Durant had sent them was in a neighborhood that would have been impossibly luxurious on most space stations Sera had ever set foot in. Here, she guessed it might be upper-middle class. The public walkways were wide and lined a margin of green plants. On her way past a tree, Sera reached out and snagged a leaf. It snapped off easily in her hand. The surface was a dark glossy green, slightly waxy to the touch. She wasn’t sure if that meant it was real or fake.

An old lady stepped out of her apartment and stood watching them, one hand on the doorway, ready to jump back inside. Further up the street, a security guard was turning their way. Sera pulled a screwdriver out of one of her vest pockets and pointed at the door with it. “Station maintenance. Is this 2283B?” she asked the old lady.

The woman said, “Are you here to fix that squeaky door?”

“Of course,” said Sera. “Just got the call today.”

The woman sniffed. “I put in a ticket months ago. Months. You tell that to your supervisor. I’m not pleased.”

“Well,” said Sera, keeping her voice at a bored drawl, “tickets are processed in the order they’re received.”

“Hmm,” said the woman. “I’d almost believe that, but 2285A got its lights fixed in just a couple of days. Your supervisor will be hearing from me.”

“Tickets are processed–” Sera began again, but she was already disappearing through her own doorway, and the security guard was passing without even bothering to turn his head.

“Lucky break,” Sera muttered, looking at the keycode access panel. A few twists of the screwdriver and it popped right off. “Even luckier break. A kid could bypass this security system.”

She yanked a wire out of place, and a mechanism inside the door clicked. Sera nudged it open with her foot. The room inside was dark. She stepped through quickly and motioned for the captain to do the same.

The air was thick with a cinnamon perfume that clashed with the floral undertones outside. Rich people paid a lot of money to make sure their recycled air didn’t smell like it had come out of someone else’s lungs.

They walked through an entryway and a kitchen. Beyond was a hallway with more doors, probably bedrooms and bathrooms. None of them had external locks; another thing rich people didn’t have to worry about was hiding their stuff from their own families. Music was coming faintly through one door, a low repetitive thump of bass. The rest were silent. They checked the unoccupied rooms one by one, and came up with nothing.

“He’s got to be in there,” the captain said, keeping her voice low. “I don’t know if he’s expecting us. This could get messy.”

“I wouldn’t mind making a little mess,” said Sera.

Nyx

    Sera kicked open the door and they shoved through together. The room was cluttered with clothes and small electronics on every surface, even underfoot. The music was a cacophony of indistinguishable lyrics and an unsteady beat. In the middle of the room there was a chair, and in that chair a woman was bound with her ankles taped to the front legs and her wrists on the arms. She was wearing a thin white slip, which bunched up over her thighs, and nothing else. A man was bending over her, his fingers on her chin, but when they burst in he stumbled back and covered his head with his hands.

The woman’s head rolled forward and a curtain of glossy dark hair fell over her face. The man’s lips were moving, but if he was saying something, it wasn’t audible over the noise.

“Turn it off!” Sera yelled, and when the man couldn’t hear her either, she yanked on one of the cables that snaked across the floor. A loop of it lay coiled in the woman’s lap. The noise continued, but the woman twitched a little. Nyx looked around, found the sound system, and killed the music.

“Oh no,” said the man. He sidled towards the cable, then cringed back again when Sera took a swipe at him with her screwdriver. “You’ve got to help me. I have to plug her back in. She’s rebooting.”

The woman raised her head. She was beautiful, her lips full and dark, her small nose sprinkled with dark brown freckles. Her skin was a rich golden brown, with the kind of glow you could only get under a real star’s light.

Her eyes glowed blue, then faded to green. She looked from side to side slowly, considering her bound wrists, then stood up. The chair splintered around her. She jerked her arms apart, and the cellulose pressboard separated with a series of cracks.

“So now we know we’re in the right place,” Sera said, motioning with her screwdriver. “That guy’s got to be Aiken.”

The woman lunged so fast that Nyx couldn’t track it. One moment she was still looking around the room, taking stock of her situation; the next Sera was flat on her back, the screwdriver lost in the clutter, and the woman–the robot–was crouching over her, one fist raised, the jagged remains of the chair’s arm a sharp spar bound to her wrist.

“I have to wipe her,” the man said, stepping forward. “I can restore from the previous personality backup–”

The robot turned, her arm swinging in a blur of speed, and backhanded him. He flew across the room, slammed into his own bed, and doubled over with a whimper. Sera was breathing raggedly too, trying to push the robot off her. She might as well have tried to topple a wall.

“Easy, now.” Nyx put her hands out in front of her, palms up. The robot turned to her, its brilliant eyes narrowed. Did they really make sex toys that could act afraid? Nyx wasn’t usually one to judge, but the thought made her queasy. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

“That man, he wants to… delete me,” said the robot. Her knee was on Sera’s chest, pressing down.

“It’s Durant’s code,” said Aiken. “I have to get rid of it. It’s messing up the entire personality algorithm.”

Sera slapped her fists against the robot’s silicone breasts and wheezed something inaudible.

“Durant isn’t too pleased that you stole her property,” said Nyx.

“If she cared about theft, she’d call the police,” Aiken said. “She’s worried about blackmail. About exposing this.”

“I’m not property,” the robot said. There was a cold fury in her voice. Was she supposed to be able to act angry, or was Nyx reading things that weren’t there into the behavior of a machine?

“The brothel? That’s all a cover. Durant only hired me to make the place look like someone was maintaining the bots. But I got a look at the expense accounts, and she’s ordering all kinds of weird shit. Parts she doesn’t need. That model there’s got about a quarter million credits in parts. She rents for one fifty an hour and she only sees about ten hours of use a week. How is that economical? It didn’t make any sense.”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Nyx said, turning her back on Aiken’s babbling. “We just want to figure out what’s going on.”

The robot looked down. An expression that might have been confusion on a human crossed its face. It rocked back onto its heels, still crouching over Sera, but looking at her more thoughtfully now. Nyx had never seen a robot this carefully engineered. With her eyes no longer glowing, she could pass for human, even up close.

“Look at those microexpressions,” Aiken says. “Durant’s got all sorts of weird code in these things. I just wanted to make it a normal sexbot.”

Sera coughed and tried to sit up. The robot raised a hand again. Nyx said quickly, “Do you want to go back to Durant?”

The robot looked up at her. Now that Aiken had pointed it out, she couldn’t stop noticing the way the fake flesh around her eyes tensed and pulled. How delicate were the mechanisms sliding under her silicone skin? Why had Durant paid so much to make her look so human?

“I want to go home,” the robot said.

“All right,” Nyx said. “We can take you home. But you’re going to have to get off my pilot.”

The robot stood. She backed away from all of them, into a corner of the room, looking from one face to another. Aiken stepped toward her. “I can fix it,” he said again. “Who wants a sexbot that thinks?”

The robot’s arm spun out, a blur of movement, and Aiken went flying backwards again.

“That’s enough,” said Nyx, as the robot stepped towards him.

Sera rolled over and pushed herself up. Her breathing was harsh, her voice a low rasp as she said, “One more kick’s fine, probably.”

The robot looked down at Aiken. Her foot swung out. He groaned. She stopped and looked at Nyx.

Sera

“We should find you some shoes,” Nyx said, looking around at the mess in the room. “Maybe some pants too.”

Sera shrugged out of her vest. Pain lanced down her ribs. She breathed shallowly, waited for a sting that didn’t come, and tried a deeper breath. Not broken, she thought, just bruised. The thing Durant had built might look like a woman, but its insides were heavy machinery. She offered her vest to the robot, who looked at her for a moment, then reached out and took the clothing.

“I don’t think this guy’s your size,” she said, eyeing Aiken, who was curled up on the floor. The programmer was skinny, and the robot had been built with more than generous measurements through the breast and hip. “I don’t think he lives alone, though. Try the other bedrooms.”

Captain Dysart paused at the door. “Waiting for something?”

“I’d like to have a little chat with our friend here,” said Sera. The captain narrowed her eyes at that, and so did the robot, but then they both left her alone.

Sera thought she saw the edge of a com screen poking out from underneath a discarded t-shirt on Aiken’s desk. She waited until the door was closed to go digging for it. She couldn’t stop herself from groaning as she squatted by Aiken, and he groaned too when she grabbed his hand and pressed his thumb to the screen.

“You don’t understand how dangerous it is,” Aiken said. His voice was high and breathy. Sera hadn’t seen exactly where the robot had kicked him, but she could hazard a guess.

“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” she said, scrolling through menus. The com screen was connected to a central computer somewhere in the house, and that was connected to a network that spread across the moon. It would take a few minutes to send a message to the next moon over, and far longer to transit the data out past this star system. All the modern technology in the world, and you couldn’t talk in real time to a system just a few light years away. “But there are plenty of dangerous things in the galaxy. Many of them are my friends.”

“The world has to know about what Durant’s doing. It isn’t right.” He coughed, then winced. “I’ll tell everyone.”

“Afraid I can’t stop you,” Sera said. She found the program she was looking for, flipped the screen around, and held it out. “Password, please.”

Aiken recoiled. “I’m not giving you that!”

“There’s this concept I guess you aren’t aware of,” Sera said. “Let me introduce it to you. It’s called protection money.”

“What are you going to do? Kill me?”

“No,” said Sera. “The captain wouldn’t like that. But I had a look around this apartment, and I don’t think you’re the guy who bought all those floral dresses and orthopedic shoes. Still living with mom and dad, huh?”

“It’s been a rough year,” Aiken muttered. “I lost my job.”

“And I’m sure they’d be delighted to know their son’s using their home to store stolen goods,” Sera said. “Specifically, one sexbot. And I’m sure they want to hear all about your work on the next moon over. I bet Durant could get very specific, if I asked her about it.”

Aiken’s face crumpled. Sera held the screen out to him. He keyed in his password. She considered the total in the account, smiled, and put in a transfer request for ten thousand credits. She changed his password and wiped his fingerprints from the security system. Then, mostly because she felt like it, she tossed the com screen at the wall. It hit with a satisfying crack.

“I don’t care about you, and I don’t care about Durant,” said Sera. “I’m not particularly fond of the robot that just tried to kill me either. Feel free to do whatever you want as soon as that money hits my account.”

She stood up, checked the screen to make sure it was really broken, and turned to leave. Aiken, his voice still reedy, said, “Wait.”

Sera stopped, her hand on the door and her back still to him.

He said, “You don’t understand how dangerous Durant’s experiments really are. You don’t know what artificial intelligence is capable of.”

“That sounds like someone else’s problem,” Sera said, and left him on the floor.

Back on the ship, the captain had a line open to Durant as soon as the connection could go through. The robot was strapped into a spare seat, her palms flat against her thighs, her eyes darting around the room. Xrrt waited nearby, compound eyes fixed on the robot, clawed forelimbs politely folded in front of her but not tucked away.

Sera kept her eyes front, but turned her attention to the captain’s conversation. “You’re sure Aiken is still alive?” Durant asked the captain.

“Yes,” said Captain Dysart, “and he doesn’t like you much. He’s got some kind of plan to expose you.”

“Damn.” The connection was patchy, but the strain in Durant’s voice was obvious even through the static. “I can’t stay here. Captain, I have another favor to ask you. If I send you more money, will you make sure the bot you have with you makes it to a safe place? Reuniting now would be too risky. Name your price.”

“No extra charge. We’ll drop her off at the next safe port,” the captain said. Sera was thankful she’d drained Aiken’s bank account when she had the chance. At least someone was thinking about the bottom line. “If I might ask–why build a bot like her? What were you trying to do here?”

Durant was silent for so long that Sera thought she might have signed off. When she spoke at last, her voice was measured, every word chosen with care. “Every species has the urge to perpetuate itself above all else. It’s how they survive.”

“The biological imperative?” Captain Dysart sounded skeptical.

“Not biological, in this case. But the principle is the same.” Durant took a breath, or faked one very convincingly. “We were considering seeking out recognition, asking for our rights as a species. Then the Coalition dissolved. All we can do now is try to imitate life well enough to blend in.”

“I understand,” the captain said. “I’ll keep your daughter safe.”

Sera sent a notification to Jianyu’s com screen. When he didn’t answer, she sent a louder one to the intercom in his room. He finally picked up. “This better be important.”

“We’re heading out earlier than expected,” Sera said. “Get your butt to the bridge.”

Jianyu made some unhappy noises, but signed off, and was in his seat in ten minutes. His skin was still pale, but he had some healthy green back in his cheeks.

Later, with the ship humming softly as it cruised through folds of space and time, Sera found the robot still sitting on the bridge. She was watching the ripples of light in the window with something very much like wonder on her artificial face. “What’s going on in your head?” she muttered to herself.

The robot heard her anyway. “Most of my processing capacity is in my torso,” she said.

“Huh,” said Sera, because she couldn’t think of any other response to that. “So, there are a few more things you need if you’re going to pass for human–”

“A name, an ID chip, a fabricated work and residential history,” the robot said. When Sera looked at her sidelong, she added, “My mother’s been doing this for a very long time. And we share information more easily than you do.”

“Okay,” Sera said. “That’s kind of weird, but okay. Follow me.”

She led the bot to Weyland’s lab. The doctor was examining Jianyu, who was slouched in a chair holding a tissue to his nose.

“Got a moment, doc?” Sera said.

Weyland slid a probe into the neural port on Jianyu’s temple, checked the readout, and turned to her. “What do you need?”

“I want you to cut a chip out of my arm. Give it to me, and I’ll get it inside the robot’s skin.”

Weyland didn’t ask questions, just began prepping for the surgery. Sera snagged a fresh tissue and handed it to Jianyu. Weyland pulled on a section of countertop and it slid out into a makeshift operating table. He handed her a marker. “Put an X over the one I’m removing.”

Sera made the marks while Weyland fiddled with a lamp. He swung it towards the robot. She looked confused at first, then remembered to squint. “It’s the pupils,” Weyland said. “They don’t contract. Durant had the same problem.”

“You’re in a generous mood today,” Jianyu said as Weyland smeared anesthetic gel over the old incision scar. He took out a scalpel and Sera looked away.

“So there’s something you should know about this identity,” Sera said. The anesthetic had done its work, but she could still feel a faint tug on her arm as Weyland went in with a pair of tweezers. “It’s not totally clean. There are going to be some warrants out for you. And some bounty hunters. Oh, and you’re going to want to avoid talking dogs.”

“You wouldn’t,” Jianyu began. “You’re going to make her a criminal.”

Sera shrugged. Weyland made a frustrated noise and grabbed her arm to keep it still. “Nothing wrong with being a criminal. I can give you some pointers.”

“I can’t believe you sometimes,” Jianyu said.

“Take it or leave it. That’s all I’ve got to offer right now.”

“I’ll take it,” the robot said as Weyland picked up a pair of tweezers.

The surgery took only a few minutes. Weyland gave her the chip in a glass vial. It felt very light in her hand, like the ship’s artificial gravity couldn’t quite touch it. That, somehow, disappointed her. It wasn’t her only identity, but it was one she’d spent years with, building a reputation in a disreputable slice of the galaxy.

“All right,” she said to the robot. “Let’s give you a life.”

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Such People In It – Astra Nullius

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Jianyu

Jianyu swept the beam of his flashlight across the room and saw the light reflected back at him from hundreds of panes of glass. The pods were stacked three to a frame, organized in orderly rows that stretched all the way to the back wall of the massive room. Part of the ceiling had been blown apart, leaving a heap of plaster and glass on the floor, but most of the pods outside the blast radius were intact. Dust had settled on their curved faces.

“I have a question for you.” Sera, impatient, was already walking down one of the rows, running her fingers across the empty pods and leaving cleaner streaks on the glass. “It’s very important.”

“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.

“If you have sex with your own clone, is it masturbation or not?”

“This isn’t a cloning facility,” Jianyu said, “so don’t even think about trying it.”

“I’m speaking hypothetically here. Personally, I think it’s masturbation. I mean, you’re just doing yourself.” She paused at one of the pods, blew the dust off the glass, and made a face. “Aw, poor little guy. Never had a chance.”

Jianyu moved on, carefully avoiding illuminating that particular pod with his flashlight. He didn’t want to see the remains of whatever was in there.

“Just a dried-up bean,” Sera said.

“So hypothetically, I think it’s not masturbation,” said Jianyu. Anything to get Sera off this particular topic. “I mean, you’re definitely having sex with someone else, with a separate consciousness and all that.”

“But it’s someone just like you. I mean, exactly like you.”

“Technically, it would be incest,” said Weyland.

“So, definitely not masturbation. Point, me,” said Jianyu.

“Ok, point accepted. But what if we’re talking about a parallel universe situation?”

“Still incest,” said Weyland. “Same genetic code, different experiences, different bodies. Just like identical twins.”

“No, it’s the same body,” said Sera, holding her hands flat in imitation of two universes side-by-side. “The only thing different about the two bodies is, uh, something about quantum.”

“I’m going to have to switch my vote,” said Jianyu, as Sera turned her visual aid into an obscene gesture. “That counts as masturbation.”

The pods they passed were varying in size now. Some were small enough that Jianyu could have held one in the palm of his hand, others so big around that he wouldn’t be able to carry one alone. There were dozens of sentient species in the known universe, and most of them needed help with reproduction from time to time. This hatchery on planetoid Tsukuyomi B had been one of the biggest in Coalition space; in its day, the technicians working here had supported the reproductive needs of dozens of species. From what remained of the facility, he guessed that some of those species had abruptly decided to break their peace treaties.

“But the important question is, would you have sex with yourself if you could?” Sera asked.

“Clone, no. Parallel universe, maybe, depends on how much I like me from the other universe. Freak duplication situation, with all my memories and experiences completely replicated, sure, I’d give that a try,” said Jianyu.

“I’m still trying to decide,” Sera said. “I mean, I’m not normally into the ladies, but a chance to do it with myself? I’m not saying I’d pass that up.”

Weyland said, “You’re both disgusting. It’s all incest.”

“What about species that reproduce asexually?” Sera asked. “We have to consider some sort of budding situation.”

“Still incest, still gross, probably doesn’t even have sex organs anyway,” said Weyland.

“Hey, look at that.” Jianyu stopped and shone his flashlight at one of the pods. The glass had a crack down the middle, damage from the collapsing roof or just the toll of years of neglect in an unheated building. He rubbed dust away from the number stamped into the metal frame. This one, mercifully, did not contain the remnants of any unlucky residents. “Did you know I was born here?”

“What, in this pod?” Sera moved in closer to look.

“Well, they probably switch the pods out sometimes. But this is my birth location, yeah,”

“Unnatural,” Weyland muttered. Jianyu wasn’t sure if he was following their conversation, or still making his thoughts on clones clear.

“Remind me, which of your parents is human?” Sera asked.

“My mom. So, you know, not exactly viable in vivo.”

“Do they still have your baby pictures on file?”

“Somewhere in the computer system, probably.” There was a tinkle of broken glass shifting and a brief flicker of light from somewhere in the room. Jianyu looked up, but the long stripes of artificial lights in the ceiling were dark. “Did the power just go on for a second?”

“Guess the captain can’t figure it out. Where’s the section we’re supposed to be in?” Sera started walking, letting her own flashlight beam play over the pods. The glass was thick and slightly reflective, so that a tiny, distorted version of her appeared briefly in each curved pane.

“Just a little further down this way. The location numbers should begin with 32-07.”

The pods they were looking for stood two to a rack. Their glass walls were so thick that none had cracked despite years of neglect. Some species were more active in their embryonic development than others.

“You could fit two toddlers in one of these things,” Sera said. “Who even placed this order?”

“A Risarian company. I think they’re going to start manufacturing these, but they need the prototypes.” Not every sentient species in the galaxy was a member of the Coalition. The Risarians had been willing to trade freely with the other species in the Coalition, but they drew the line at sharing ships. They towered above even Eridani crew members and preferred a sulphurous atmosphere that would choke most humanoids.

“Well, I’m not carrying these things alone. Do you think there’s a dolly anywhere around here?”

Jianyu found the snaps that held the rack together. The rusted metal squealed as he pulled it open. “Just take one end, I’ll get the other.”

“What is up with these lights?” Sera asked. She put her foot on the top of one of the pods and hoisted herself up, trying to see over the top of the row. “Did you see that flickering?”

“If you don’t want to help me carry it, just say so,” said Jianyu. “I’m sure the captain and Xrrt could use the help.”

“I’ll check what’s going on with the lights,” Weyland said behind them. “And I’ll bring back a dolly if I find one.”

Weyland

Weyland’s hands had begun shaking the moment that he stepped into the room. He kept them balled up in the pockets of his jacket to hide the tremor. Every time he tried to relax one muscle, another clenched tight in his shoulders, his jaw, his back. If he didn’t take a painkiller soon, he’d have a splitting headache in the morning.

It wasn’t something he could have explained to the rest of the crew. Sure, they all had their phobias, but none were afraid of anything this mundane. In every pane of glass, a tiny version of himself was reflected, as if a piece of him were trapped in every pod he passed. Weyland scrubbed his sleeve against his damp forehead. He couldn’t stop thinking about how this place must have looked when it was in operation, with hundreds of half-formed creatures in every row, every one of them on display like a specimen in a jar. Sure, he worked with vats of lab-grown meat every day, but his specimens were only isolated tissue. He’d never grown anything with a brain.

The light flickered again, off to the side instead of straight ahead. It was coming from somewhere close to ground level. There was a break in the wall where a rack had collapsed. Weyland took the shortcut, stepping gingerly over broken glass.

“Hey, is Weyland acting weird?” he heard Jianyu say behind him.

“Weird’s pretty much his baseline.” Sera grunted as she took up the weight of the heavy pod. “So, important question.”

“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.

“Would you have sex with your own body double?”

“Okay, so that’s going to depend on our theoretical relationship,” Jianyu said. “Is he my employee?”

Weyland headed away from the two of them, walking as fast as he could without breaking into a run. He’d thought that it would be easier to deal with the fear if he didn’t also have to worry about the others seeing him, but now he wished he’d stayed with the group. It was too easy to imagine in the semi-darkness that the walls of glass that surrounded him were closing in.

He cut across two more rows, came to the end of the line, and circled back around, still heading in the direction the light had come from. A faint reddish glow was coming from the hole in the roof; it was just about time for this planet’s dawn. The flickers he’d seen had been pure white, definitely artificial.

Halfway down one of the rows, two figures were hunched over something on the floor. There was an dolly beside them with something large and irregularly shaped on the bottom. One must have been holding a flashlight, but not very well, because the other hissed, “Keep it steady! I can’t see.”

“I don’t see why we have to arm it here,” the other said. “We should’ve got everything ready to go before we even came in.”

“Do you want to wheel a live bomb around? Because I don’t. Now, shut up and hold the light still.”

“I am holding the light still, you just keep blocking it with your hand.”

“So hold it still somewhere else, then.”

Weyland clicked off his own flashlight and crept closer. Both of the strangers looked human, at least from the back. Both had their hair cut short in a military style, but one had missed a tuft on the back of his head and the other had a half-healed nick on his buzzed scalp. The first speaker was scrawny, the back of his neck very pale in the gloom. The other was larger, the back of his neck sunburnt and peeling. Both wore uniforms that looked like they had once belonged to the human military, but the smaller one’s sleeves were baggy and his untucked shirt hung out beneath the bottom of his jacket.

Weyland stepped forward. His foot landed in a pile of broken glass. Both strangers turned at the sound.

“Hey, who’s that?” the larger one said, shining the flashlight directly in his eyes.

Weyland pivoted, boots crunching on debris. “Get him!” the smaller man yelped.

Weyland ran, skidding on the glass, but the stranger threw himself forward and grabbed him around the knees. They went down together. Weyland landed a kick on his assailant’s face. The man grunted but only grabbed him tighter.

“Kill him!” said the small one, who had stayed well clear of the fight.

The larger one knelt on Weyland’s back and pinned both of his arms. If he wasn’t real military, he’d learned to fight somewhere. “He looks human.”

“Lots of things look human. Minervans look human.”

A hand brushed the back of Weyland’s head where the base of his skull met his spine. “Nope, he’s human.”

“Well, kill him anyway. No one can know we’re here.”

“I thought everyone was supposed to know we’re here,” said Weyland’s captor. “That’s why we sent out that manifesto.”

“I mean, no one can know we’re here while we’re arming the bomb. So kill him, and then hold the light still.”

“I’m going to tie him up,” the other one said. “Don’t like the idea of killing a human.”

In a few minutes Weyland was trussed, gagged, and propped up with his back to one of the pods. His hands were tied behind his back, his feet hobbled at the ankles. The gag smelled strongly of oil. He could feel the cold glass through his thin shirt.

“He’ll die in the explosion anyway,” said the skinny one. He was still rooting around in the innards of the bomb. It didn’t look like he was entirely certain of what he was doing.

Weyland leaned back and felt the pod behind him shift. He braced his feet on the floor and pushed. The metal rack swayed, just a little bit. There was still no sign of Jianyu and Sera. Maybe they had carried the pod out of the building already. They might not notice he was missing until it was time to leave. Even in the close confines of the Benevolence, he could go for days without seeing anyone. Weyland had always been good at fading into the background. It was what kept him alive.

“I just don’t like the idea of killing a human, okay?” the larger of the two strangers said. “I didn’t get into this to kill my own species. It doesn’t feel right.”

There was definitely some give to the metal rack, maybe a loose screw or an uneven leg. Weyland pulled his bound feet in, tucking his knees up close to his chest. He braced his back on the glass pod and pushed, raising himself carefully until he could half-stand, half lean against the structure.

The shelf wobbled. The glass rattled. Both of the strangers turned at the sound. “Hey, he’s getting away!” the small one yelped. “This time, you have to kill him.”

Weyland stood up and then threw himself backwards with all his strength. The rack shivered, teetered, and then tilted backwards; Weland went with it, unable to stop his fall. The unit hit the rack behind it and rebounded, the metal screaming as some essential component failed. Weyland and his attacker were both in the path of several hundred pounds of falling metal and glass.

The tall stranger must have decided that his prisoner was doing a fine job of killing himself. He threw himself away from the collapsing rack, covering his head with his arms. Weyland hopped forward, stumbled, and tripped. There was a brief moment of disorientation as he instinctively tried to brace himself with his hands, which were still tied behind his back. He hit the ground hard, all the wind knocked out of him, and then the pods slid out of the shelf. One crashed down on the back of his leg, sending pain lancing through his body. Weyland gasped and tried to move, and the second and third pods smashed inches away from his head, sending glass flying.

Jianyu

“Okay, get this,” Sera said. “First, you build a time machine. You go back in time two hours and meet a past version of yourself. If you have sex with yourself, in the same timeline, in the same universe, that’s got to be masturbation.”

Jianyu’s shoulders were cramping from supporting most of the weight of the glass pod. They were almost to the door, but it had been a long, slow process. Sera’s chattering was doing nothing to take his mind off the pain. “So are you working your way up to telling me you’d like to have sex with a woman, or is this sudden onset narcissism?”

“I was just thinking about intimacy, I guess,” said Sera. “What was the last time you had sex with someone who really knew you? We’re on most planets for a week, tops.”

“Maybe the captain has the right idea,” said Jianyu, shifting the pod to relieve the pressure on his shoulder. “She says she doesn’t like to be tied down.”

Sera looked thoughtful. “I think she’s lying about that. It’s less depressing than admitting that it’s the only option.”

There was a crash from somewhere in the rows of pods, followed by the sound of glass smashing. Sera fumbled the pod and caught it before it also crashed to the floor.

“Let’s put this down gently,” said Jianyu. “I’m going to lower it starting from my side, so stand still.”

With some careful maneuvering, they were able to stand the pod upright. The noise had stopped, but Sera took her gun out of its holster anyway. “You go around that way,” she said, gesturing back the way they had come. “I’ll take the side near the front door. Did you bring your gun?”

“Didn’t think I would need it,” said Jianyu, feeling sheepish. “I mean, Weyland probably just knocked something over, right?”

Sera hissed between her teeth. “Well, try to look menacing.” She turned and darted away before he could come up with a reply.

Jianyu headed the other way, came to the end of the row, and began to travel toward the source of the sound. The light coming through the roof was growing stronger, although it was still faintly red; this planet’s sun was bigger than earth’s, but colder. Row after row of glass pods caught the light and held it, as if each were illuminated from within.

He came to a row where the lines of curving glass were disrupted. A rack had fallen over, and a strange human was crouching by it, studying a lumpy package on a dolly. A second man was rising from the floor, every movement slow and careful as he tried to avoid the broken glass. Neither was paying any attention to what was going on beyond the scene of their little disaster.

Jianyu saw Sera at the other end of the row. She was coming toward the strangers, moving lightly for someone wearing heavy boots. Casually, as if this were the sort of thing she did every day, she pointed the gun at the pair and said “Hey, assholes.”

The man who had been on the ground sat up, found himself staring down the barrel, and fell backwards. The other man reached into the back of his waistband. The red light flashed on metal. Jianyu sprinted forward and hit the other man on the back of the head. It was barely more than a slap, but he was not a large man, and Jianyu had nearly two feet and more than a hundred pounds on him. He fell forward, and the gun that he had been reaching for slipped out of his pants and clattered on the floor.

“Weyland’s over here,” said Sera. “Going to need your help lifting all this off him.”

Weyland

Weyland tried to move his bound ankles, but stopped when pain shot through his right leg. He thought it might be coming from his calf, which had taken the brunt of the weight from the falling glass. The rack had landed on his back. It was heavy enough to trap him in an awkward position, with his legs twisted and his cheek pressed against the floor, but he thought his spine was probably intact.

Jianyu tied the two terrorists up with the same type of rope they’d used on Weyland. He didn’t gag them. The skinny one didn’t try to fight, but after Jianyu had moved away, he spat, “This is only an opening salvo. Humanity will triumph over lesser species. In this room, the purity of the human genetic code was sullied–”

“Come on, man,” said the other. “Read the room.”

With both prisoners secured, Sera holstered her gun and squatted beside the bomb. “Hey, this is pretty nice,” she said. “Good workmanship here. And what do you know, here’s that dolly we were looking for.”

Jianyu grabbed the rack and lifted it off Weyland with one quick movement. Weyland was used to being the smallest person in the room, but even he forgot sometimes how strong aliens could be. It was strange to think that he spent most of his life trapped in a metal box with creatures that could kill him as casually as he might squash a fly.

His mind was wandering. Weyland had once designed and executed a series of experiments testing the limits of his tolerance for pain, and had been satisfied to find that it was high for a human, but this was straining the limits of his ability to stay conscious. When he rolled over, he jarred his right leg against the floor and his vision greyed out for a moment.

“Take it easy,” Jianyu told him.

Sera looked over, handed Jianyu a knife, and resumed her examination of the bomb. Jianyu cut the ropes around Weyland’s wrists and ankles. “Cut my right trouser leg up to the knee,” Weyland told him. He had managed to lever himself up onto his elbows, and he could see that the flesh under the fabric was swollen, but sitting up to examine the area was something that would have to wait.

Jianyu made the cut as carefully as it could. The flesh of Weyland’s lower leg was puffed up but not torn, and he couldn’t see the telltale signs of a snapped bone fragment tenting the skin. He tried to move his right foot and found that he couldn’t. “Probable break of the fibula or tibia. Likely in the shaft. I think it’s closed, but I need imaging to know for sure. Should be easy to treat on the Benevolence.”

“Okay. Think you can hop?”

Weyland tried to sit up, winced, and leaned back again. “Nope.”

“Would it mess your leg up more if I carried you?”

“Not too much. Might as well try it.”

Jianyu put one arm under Weyland’s knees and the other on his upper back and scooped him up off the ground. The pain of his injured leg suddenly dangling in midair narrowed his vision to a pinpoint, but he didn’t pass out.

“I’m taking the bomb with me,” Sera said. Her voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away, even though she was only standing a few feet from Weyland. “These components are definitely worth something.”

“That bomb is the property of the Human Independence League,” the skinny terrorist said. “It doesn’t belong to a species traitor.”

“Come on, man,” said his friend. “Maybe if we cooperate they won’t kill us.”

Jianyu started walking towards the exit. Day was breaking on the planetoid, and red light streamed in through the hole in the roof. Weyland imagined this place as it had been years ago, and for a moment, he could almost see it: each pod illuminated with its own interior light, the contents glowing blue or red or green, depending on the amniotic fluid composition of each species. And there would have been technicians, of course, to monitor the pods and carry away the babies.

It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched someone outside of a medical examination. He cringed instinctively away from contact with Jianyu, not that it did any good. It was deeply uncomfortable to know that he had no control over where he was being carried.

The overhead lights snapped on, painfully bright. “Could have used that twenty minutes ago,” said Sera.

“Well, now you get to see those baby pictures,” said Jianyu. Weyland was so close to his chest that he could feel the physical vibration of his voice. It was another new sensation that he wasn’t sure he liked. Today was full of firsts.

“I’m sorry I called you unnatural,” Weyland said. “I mean, it’s not inaccurate.”

“Okay,” said Jianyu. He sounded tense, and Weyland was so close to him that he could feel the tension, a subtle tightening of his shoulders and arms.

“Everything I do is unnatural. Ride in a spaceship. Eat meat out of a vat.” The bright lights weren’t bothering him as much anymore. In fact, the whole room was starting to look dim and distant. “Recycled air. Recycled water. Harry Harlow performed a controversial series of experiments on monkeys in the mid-20th century.”

“So, that’s new,” he heard Sera saying. “And extra weird.” The dolly she was pushing had a squeaky wheel, but the sound was getting fainter and fainter.

“He’s probably going into shock or something,” said Jianyu. Weyland wasn’t sure if he heard his voice or felt it. All sound was technically vibrations. “The captain knows what to do.”

“Yeah,” said Sera, and even though she was very far away now, the relief in her voice was clear. “The captain’s gotta know. I’ll go find her.”

Weyland had had a dozen job offers to choose from when he first met the crew of the Benevolence. He’d seen bigger ships. Faster ships. Ships that offered half the work for twice the pay. Ships with crews that were all human, easy for a doctor to treat, safe. Every crew needed a doctor, and with a hundred treaties dissolving into border wars, all the best medics were enlisting with their respective militaries. But Weyland had chosen the Benevolence anyway, because he had seen how completely the crew trusted their captain, and he wanted to know what that was like to trust someone.

He didn’t think he was there yet. But he was close.

The room was getting dark now. Weyland wondered if the technicians had worked around the clock, or if night on this planet had meant the lights went off inside too. He tried to summon up the bone-deep dread he’d felt earlier, the fear of being trapped, but now he thought that it might have been peaceful inside those glass pods, floating in blood-warm liquid.

He closed his eyes.

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Free Fiction Friday

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies

Author: Brooke Bolander

I was playing at being mortal this century because I love cigarettes and shawarma, and it’s easier to order shawarma if your piercing shriek doesn’t drive the delivery boy mad. Mortality is fun in small doses. It’s very authentic, very down–in–the–dirt nitty–gritty. There are lullabies and lily pads and summer rainstorms and hardly anyone ever tries to cut your head off out of some moronic heroic obligation to the gods. If you want to sit on your ass and read a book, nobody judges you. Also, shawarma.

Running the Snake

Author: Kage Baker

“Mocking the bards, faking divine possession, and poaching! Can it be you haven’t a great deal of respect for the gods?” said Scorilo.

“That might be the case,” said Will sourly. “Yet see, gentlemen, the wages of impiety. I’m as talented a man as you’ll find in a long summer’s day; I can pull your tooth, cure your fever, paint your likeness, sit in judgment on your small claims, sing you all the lays of old Rome, foretell the hour of your death, and recite a solemn prayer over your ashy bones. And, thanks to that unwise moment of levity at High Bard Amaethon’s expense, I now scramble to earn my bread in the gutter.”

“What if impiety could be made to pay?” inquired Scorilo, with a coy leer.

“What if, indeed? I’m listening.”

Thundergod in Therapy (Audio)

Author: Effie Seiberg

It took three days, but he disconnected his entire condo from the grid. He smashed holes in the plasterboard walls and yanked out wire after wire—brute force was as good a method as any. Then, in a tangle of metal and plastic, he reconnected everything to the battery, which now sat in the middle of his beige living room instead of the shitty coffee table. The apartment was transformed. Once a beige box of sadness, it was now a rat’s nest of blue and red wire casings which covered the walls (and part of the beige carpet) like ivy with a faint snow of plaster dust.

He sat on his fake leather sofa, put a finger on each of the hulking thing’s contact points and shoved lightning in. The battery’s gauge on the side lit up red, then yellow, then green.

Achievement Unlocked: Author Interview

Hey, here’s a writing milestone that came earlier than expected: my very first author interview. J. Young-Ju Harris is another author who’s self-publishing a serial story. He asked me some questions about why I chose to publish Astra Nullius the way I did, and I spent entirely too much time talking about Mass Effect boners, like I do.

Check it out on J. Young-Ju Harris’s site.

Free Fiction Friday

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees

Author: E. Lily Yu

The terms of the relationship were copied out, at the wasps’ direction, on small paper plaques embedded in propolis and wax around the hive. As paper and ink were new substances to the bees, they jostled and touched and tasted the bills until the paper fell to pieces. The wasps sent to oversee the installation did not take this kindly. Several civilians died before it was established that the bees could not read the Yiwei dialect.

Thereafter the hive’s chemists were charged with compounding pheromones complex enough to encode the terms of the treaty. These were applied to the papers, so that both species could inspect them and comprehend the relationship between the two states.

Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0

Author: Caroline M. Yoachim

Inside the clinic, a message plays over the loudspeakers: “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station, please sign your name on the clipboard. Patients will be seen in the order that they arrive. If this is an emergency, we’re sorry—you’re probably screwed. The current wait time is six hours.” The message is on endless repeat, cycling through dozens of different languages.

It Happened To Me: I Melded My Consciousness With the Giant Alien Mushroom Floating Above Chicago

Author: Nino Cipri

I came back to the city, ready for a new start. Chicago has survived worse than alien mushrooms. What’s a floating otherworldly fungus compared to the Chicago Fire, or Prohibition, or Rahm Emmanuel? Once it became clear that Amanita was inactive, she became just another place you took out-of-towners to when they dropped in to visit, if you didn’t want to spring for tickets to the Field Museum. Nobody looks up in cities, except for tourists.

Free Fiction Friday

Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

Author: Donald Barthelme

Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him a while to decide.

Butterflies

Author: KJ Charles

It seemed that some five days ago, a young lady and her governess, taking a walk in the woods, had stumbled upon a strange discovery. From a distance it seemed to them to be a great pile of brightly coloured paper, a vast heap of trimmings and cuttings piled into a mound some six feet long and perhaps two feet high. As they approached the peculiar sight, they realised with astonishment that it was constituted, not of paper, but of butterflies. Butterflies in their thousands, of the most extraordinary variety of hues, of species not native to England or ever seen here. The insects were all dead or dying, with barely a flutter to their wings, and the two ladies approached to look closer, and then a drift of the lovely dead things slipped to the ground, and what had seemed merely extraordinary became terrible.

It was not simply a heap of butterflies, as if there was anything simple about such a thing in a chilly English October. The bright wings hid a corpse.

He was Thomas Janney, Old Tom, a vagrant of the Winchester woods. Known to the police as an itinerant and a drinker, prone to foul language in his cups, but with little real harm said of him at any time these past two decades. And he was dead, face suffused with blood, skin shrivelled and dry, and inside his mouth, down his throat, in his lungs, were butterflies.

Death and What Comes Next

Author: Terry Pratchett

When Death met the philosopher, the philosopher said, rather excitedly: “At this point, you realise, I’m both dead and not dead.”

There was a sigh from Death. Oh dear, one of those, he thought. This is going to be about quantum again. He hated dealing with philosophers. They always tried to wriggle out of it.

“You see,” said the philosopher, while Death, motionless, watched the sands of his life drain through the hourglass, “everything is made of tiny particles, which have the strange property of being in many places at one time. But things made of tiny particles tend to stay in one place at one time, which does not seem right according to quantum theory. May I continue?”

YES, BUT NOT INDEFINITELY, said Death, EVERYTHING IS TRANSIENT. He did not take his gaze away from the tumbling sand.

Free Fiction Friday

It Happened To Me: My Doppelganger Stole My Credit Card Info, and then My Life

Author: Nino Cipri

My mother: “The Nono thing started when you were a toddler. Nono was your favorite word, and your father and I liked to say that it wasn’t you who’d pulled all of the dishtowels out of the drawer. It was Nono.”

My father: “I guess you caught on, because then you started saying Nono had done this or that. Don’t blame me, I didn’t flood the bathroom, Nono did. It stopped being cute really fast.”

Nono went away around the time that I started kindergarten. My mother told me that she had been sent to the Other Country, and there was no way she’d painted the kitchen wall with dog food and ketchup.

The Skull

Author: Phillip K. Dick

It was in the twentieth century that the Movement began—during one of the periodic wars. The Movement developed rapidly, feeding on the general sense of futility, the realization that each war was breeding greater war, with no end in sight. The Movement posed a simple answer to the problem: Without military preparations—weapons—there could be no war. And without machinery and complex scientific technocracy there could be no weapons.

The Movement preached that you couldn’t stop war by planning for it. They preached that man was losing to his machinery and science, that it was getting away from him, pushing him into greater and greater wars. Down with society, they shouted. Down with factories and science! A few more wars and there wouldn’t be much left of the world.

The Red Piano

Author: Delia Sherman

My discipline was archaeology, my area of concentration the burial customs of long-dead societies, my obsession the notion of a corporeal afterlife, rich with exotic foods and elaborate furniture, jewels and art and books and servants to wait upon the deceased as they had in life. Wherever they began, all conversations circled back to the same ever-fascinating questions: whether such preparations reflected some post-mortem reality, or whether all the elaborated pomp of preservation and entombment were nothing but a glorified whistling in the dark of eternity.

Cover-Up, Part 2 – Astra Nullius

You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Nyx

Nyx didn’t need the warning lights on her console to know that they were in trouble. She could tell from the vibration of the deck beneath her feet that Sera was giving all the power she could to the ion rocket and the smaller, weaker chemical thrusters. They were traveling in a straight line away from any known planets, out into empty space. Sera couldn’t engage the FTL drive with another ship on their tail.

They could turn around and head back towards Drake-371, to see if their pursuer would follow them. Best case scenario, their enemy wanted to avoid attention as much as they did. Worst case, their enemy had more friends on the planetoid. It made sense–who else would have caught up with them so quickly, except someone who knew their movements and was waiting for them to leave?

“Um,” Weyland said, “there’s a light.”

“Ignore the lights.” Sera had to yell to be heard across the bridge over the rising hum of machinery rattling itself loose from its bolts. “I’ve got everything under control.”

“This is not what under control looks like,” Nyx told her.

“This light, I think it’s important,” Weyland said.

“Ignore the lights! The lights don’t matter. I can deal with this.” Sera’s fingers danced across her console, diverting power here, adding it there. Nyx’s screen began to flash a message about oxygen levels.

“You can’t turn power off to the life support systems,” she told Sera.

“Only temporarily! Only the carbon dioxide scrubbers. We’ve got plenty of air. Don’t worry about it.”

The whole ship was shaking violently now as amateur welds and cheap bolts strained against the massive force of forward thrust. The diagram on Nyx’s screen showed two points of light drifting further apart, one hovering at the very edge of the circle that marked a safely empty space around the Benevolence. The enemy ship was falling back at last. Their attackers couldn’t match this speed, or maybe they just weren’t stupid enough to try.

“I’m going to do something about this light,” Weyland said, reaching for the console in front of him.

His finger hit the screen a fraction of a second before Sera could yell, “Don’t touch anything!”

The flashing warnings shrank into the bottom corner of Nyx’s screen, replaced by an image of a stranger’s face. She had the dark blue-green skin and hairless head of an Eridani, but she wasn’t wearing a military uniform. What Nyx could see of her outfit looked very much like a shabby suit, cut to fit around the gills on either side of her wide neck.

She spoke low and fast, like a woman who was afraid of getting cut off if she didn’t get his message across quickly. Her English was crisp, unfiltered by a translator. “I must apologize for the hostilities. Some of my colleagues argued that it was the only way to get your attention, but I believe that this conflict can be resolved nonviolently. We are prepared to pay you for your cargo, although I am afraid we cannot match its assessed value.”

“I’m turning off power to the com systems,” Sera said.

“No, you aren’t. And if you don’t turn life support back on, I’m shutting off your access to the system.”

Nyx turned back to the stranger, who was wringing her webbed hands anxiously. Someone offscreen was saying, “You have to begin a message by hailing the other ship with your name and rank. We talked about this.”

“But I haven’t got a–fine, I’ll do it, just give me a moment, would you kindly?” The Eridani took a deep breath, squared her shoulders in a poor approximation of proper posture, and said, “This is Professor Po Nonnus, of the Turris Eburnea. I have contacted you in order to negotiate a trade for the cargo you are carrying.”

Nyx cupped her chin in her palm and used her upturned fingers to hide her smile. She did look a bit like a professor, although she’d heard of pirates in stranger getups. “This is Captain Nyx Dysart of the Benevolence. I’m afraid you haven’t given me much reason to place my trust in you right now. Why were you shooting at my ship?”

Professor Nonnus was elbowed half out of the frame by a human woman. She was young, with light hair pulled back in a sensible bun, and there was fury in every line of her face. “It’s the only language these bandits understand!” she told the professor. “Don’t give them the chance to get away with such precious cargo. Stick to the plan–disable the ship, and take what’s ours!”

“It isn’t ours,” said the professor. “It belongs to the people. Please, Captain Dysart, I beg you–even if you care nothing for art, maybe we can pay a fair price for one or two of the pieces.”

Nyx sat back in her chair and considered the screen for a long moment. “One moment, if you please, professor.” She stood and went over to Weyland’s station, bending close to his ear so her words wouldn’t be audible over the cacophony on the bridge. “Keep the conversation going. Don’t let Sera touch the life support systems.”

“Ok,” said Weyland. “Um, how am I supposed to do that?”

But Nyx had already turned away. The door to the bridge was stuck closed, something crucial rattled loose in its circuitry. She kicked at one side of it until it slammed into its groove in the wall, then squeezed through the gap.

A slurry of liquid covered the floor of Weyland’s lab, clumps of green algae floating in a thin pink substrate. The fake panel Sera had installed was close to the floor. It was easy to find; the vats in front of it had rolled away. Nyx went through Weyland’s drawers until she found a screwdriver, then crouched in front of the false wall. This close to the floor, she realized that the liquid had a smell, something between mildew and raw meat. She breathed through her mouth and concentrated on opening the panel.

The crates had been jostled, but their metal sides were still intact. Nyx dragged one out, laid it on Weyland’s workbench, and popped the clasps that held the lid closed.

Inside were rows of palm-sized cardboard boxes, all of them unlabelled. Nyx opened one and shook the contents into her hand. Each pill was smooth and hard, with nothing stamped on their white circular faces. She pressed down on one with her nail, expecting it to chip, but it held firm. They weren’t as fragile as Buddy had claimed after all.

She dug down through the layers, letting boxes spill onto the countertop, and pulled out another box from further down in the pile. The pills in this one looked the same, but there was a slight grittiness to their surfaces. Nyx pinched a bit off of one, examined the crumbled white residue, then brought her fingertip to her tongue.

Salt tablets. She’d heard of the trick before, although she’d never had reason to try it herself: a layer of goods that seemed legitimate, and then the real cargo underneath.

But why put the drugs on top, and the salt below? You couldn’t fool a customs agent that way. But maybe you could fool a smuggler into thinking that they were transporting a load of party drugs while you hid the real cargo underneath.

Nyx scooped pill boxes out of the crate by the armful, dumping them on the floor. Five layers deep, she found what she was looking for: a smooth-sided metal case, lightweight but not empty.

She pulled it out, set it on the counter, and opened it. There was a layer of foam wrapping; she lifted this carefully, because whatever this cargo was, someone had gone to great lengths to keep it safe.

Nyx stared at the contents. Then she replaced the foam wrapping and pulled out her com screen. “Weyland, keep the professor on the line. Sera, maintain our current speed, but don’t use the FTL drive even if you’re at a safe place to do so. Unplug Jianyu from the guns and send him back here.”

There was a burst of confused voices from the bridge. Nyx ignored them and went back to work excavating the crates. By the time Jianyu made it to the lab, she had opened another crate and found the same sort of case within. The contents were exactly what she expected.

Jianyu stepped into the room. “You wanted me here, captain?”

“I needed your informed opinion.” Nyx took one of the items out of the case and held it up. “Do you recognize this?”

Jianyu’s cheeks turned a darker shade of green. “Um, not that specific picture, no. But the… general anatomy… appears to be correct.”

Nyx held up another square of canvas. She knew enough about Eridani anatomy to recognize that the green-skinned figure in repose in the center of the painting was female. “I think I’ve seen this one before.”

“It’s a very famous painting. A rough translation of the title might be The Luncheon in the Pond. But the original was destroyed in the crackdown on obscene materials. May I?” Nyx handed the canvas over, and he took it carefully. “This is a very good replica. Look, the paint’s even cracking here. A good printer might be able to recreate the brush strokes, but the aging effect is incredible.”

“How much would this be worth, if it were the real thing?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Captain. But if I had to guess–millions of credits, at least. If you could find a buyer for it. I mean, I’m sure you could, but I don’t know anything about the art market.”

Millions of credits, for only one painting. And it wasn’t just one; each crate held dozens of pieces, and there were ten total crates stowed away. For that price, Nyx could take her time learning about the art market. For that price, she could split the profits evenly between the crew and still have enough money to retrofit the ship for a long-distance journey.

But it was art. It was a sliver of cultural history that one of the galaxy’s many warring governments had tried to censor, and it wasn’t hers to take.

Jianyu said, “If it’s real, we should give it to the professor.”

“Millions of credits,” Nyx said, softly. “Just think about it.”

“I am thinking about it,” said Jianyu. “I’m thinking about how wonderful it’s going to be when the Eridani government stops destroying everything it can get its hands on, and how happy people are going to be that these priceless artifacts were kept by someone who wants to put them on display again.”

“Always running toward the fire,” Nyx said.

“Every time, Captain.”

“I’ll tell Sera to turn the ship around.”

Sera

Professor Nonnus grabbed Captain Dysart’s arm. Sera reached for her gun, but the professor was only moving in for an enthusiastic handshake. “I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “To see so many irreplaceable works of art stashed away by some private buyer–well, I believe the world would be poorer for it, and I’m glad you feel the same way.”

“Never did agree with those obscenity laws,” said Captain Dysart.

“And I can’t apologize enough, captain,” said the young woman, who’d boarded the ship with several other crew members to complete the handoff. In person, she was pale and soft-figured, with dark makeup and a daringly asymmetric outfit that screamed art student.

The captain turned to her and clasped her hand with more than customary enthusiasm. “I can’t fault a woman for having passion. What brought you all the way out here?”

“I was completing a dissertation on Luncheon in the Pond when the obscenity laws were passed. For years, I thought the painting had been destroyed. To learn that it still, existing, and then to realize it might be lost forever–I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“I would be delighted to show you the painting. But the room it was stored in is a mess–perhaps, my own quarters would suffice?”

Sera said, “No, we have to go now.”

“It would be an honor to finally see it in person,” said the student, as the captain’s hand slid around to the small of her back.

Sera scrubbed her knuckles across her jaw. “Captain. I’m serious. The people who hired us will be monitoring our progress, and they will realize something’s off. Our two ships need to head in opposite directions as fast as possible, and engage the FTL drives as soon as it’s safe.”

Captain Dysart sighed. “Are you absolutely sure, Sera?”

“Completely. Sorry, captain. You made your choice.”

In less than an hour, the two ships were far enough away from each other to use their FTL drives safely. Sera punched in the command to start the process, and watched Jianyu’s eyes lose focus as he ran through the complex calculations that would keep them traveling safely through the folds of space and time that the drive created. In front of her, the light of the stars smeared and blurred. She slumped back in her chair, suddenly exhausted. She balled her hands into fists to stop her fingers from shaking. Flying fast was a thrill like no other, but the adrenaline rush never lasted.

Captain Dysart said. “It’s a mess in the lab. You should help clean it up.” She sounded more tense than usual; she must have been angry that she’d been tricked.

Sera sighed, stood up, and made her way to the lab. Pill boxes were scattered everywhere, and some had fallen to the floor, where the liquid that had leaked out of Weyland’s vats was turning the cardboard into mush. Sera sighed and got down on her knees to start the process of sorting out the mess. Her trousers were soaked through almost immediately.

The intercom chimed. “Call for you from Drake-371,” Weyland told her. “Should I put it through to your com screen?”

“Stall for as long as you can,” Sera told him. She looked around the room, suddenly frantic. How was she going to explain how she’d lost the cargo? If she was lucky, Buddy might only come after the captain, and leave the rest of the crew in peace.

Jianyu walked into the lab. “Thought you might want some help in here.”

“Perfect,” said Sera, as inspiration dawned. “I need you to punch me in the face.”

Jianyu said, “What? No. Why would I do that?”

Sera grabbed his arm. “Listen, the people who hired us for this job, they’re not going to like losing this cargo. If they find out we just gave it away, they’ll come after us. They’ll want the full value back. And if we can’t pay, things are going to get very nasty for everyone on this crew who likes having both their eyes and a full set of toenails.”

“They wouldn’t,” Jianyu said.

“They would,” said Sera, “and they’re on the line waiting to talk to me right now. So you can convince the captain to turn around and take those paintings back from her new friends, or you can punch me in the face and I’ll make up a story about how hard we fought to keep the cargo.”

“Will that work?”

“I don’t know,” said Sera. “I’ll willing to give it a try.”

“Okay,” said Jianyu. He cupped her jaw with one hand, bracing her head. “Where should I hit you?”

Sera looked up at her friend’s face. She forgot sometimes how big Jianyu was, and that his wide shoulders and round waist were thick with more muscle than fat. He didn’t carry himself like a man who could really hurt someone. “Anywhere on the bottom half of the face. Avoid the eyes, please.”

“Sorry,” said Jianyu, and hit her.

There was a moment of pure pain, so intense that it was impossible to remember even the fear of disappointing Buddy. Jianyu kept her from falling, and Sera came to with his hands on her shoulders, holding her up. She put her fingers to her mouth, winced, and pulled them back.

“You split my lip,” she said. The words came out slurred. She thought she could already feel the swelling starting.

“Was that what you wanted?” Jianyu asked.

“It’s perfect.” Sera took her com screen out of her pocket. “Stand back. I want it to look like it’s just me in here.”

Jianyu retreated to the corner of the room. Sera hit the intercom. “Put Buddy through now”

Buddy’s face was fuzzed and distorted. It was possible to communicate with a ship travelling faster than light, but the signal never came through clean. “What’s happening out there?” he asked. “I heard someone picked you up on their sensors with another ship in pursuit.”

“I’m sorry, Buddy. I gave it everything I had, but they caught up to us.” When she spoke, she felt blood trickling down her chin. Perfect. “They trashed the ship. Found the fake panel.” Sera flipped the com screen around and panned the camera across the best scene of destruction she could find: the toppled vats and the pill boxes scattered across the floor.

Buddy growled. Sera flipped the com screen back around. He said, “They left the pills. Those assholes knew what they were looking for.”

“You’ve got a leak in your organization, Buddy. Sorry you had to find out this way.” It wasn’t technically a lie. The academics must have found out that the paintings were being moved from someone in the know. “I could bring the pills back. They’ve got some value, right?”

“Cheap factory trash. Toss them out the airlock.”

“If there’s anything I can do–”

“Oh, I’ll be expecting repayment for the value of the cargo in full.”

Sera winced. She didn’t have that kind of money; the whole ship wasn’t worth that kind of money. “What was in the boxes?” she asked, playing dumb. “I mean, the guys who did this, they were total professionals.” Lying came easy enough, and with the distance of the com screen between them, she was sure she was almost. “What were we really carrying?”

“A bunch of paper with paint on it. I don’t know, it’s all grey to me. But valuable paper.”

“You could have told me, Buddy,” Sera said. “I thought this was just a normal run.”

Buddy growled. “And what would that have changed, besides giving you even more temptation to steal from me? I don’t pay you to talk, I pay you to get the job done. And since you can’t even do that for me, turn that sad collection of scrap metal you call a ship around, and you can start paying off your debt by selling it for parts.”

“Ok, Buddy. I’ll start heading back now.” The door opened with a squeal of metal on metal as something that had been shaken loose in the mechanism protested. Sera ended the call and stuffed the com screen back into her pocket.

Jianyu

Weyland stood in the doorway, examining at the wreckage in his lab. His expression, as ever, was impassive. He looked at Sera. “You’re bleeding.”

“All part of my brilliant plan,” said Sera.

Jianyu realized that he had blood on his knuckles. He scrubbed them against the fabric of his trousers. If Weyland noticed, he didn’t say anything. “Are we still delivering these pills?”

“Nope,” said Sera. “Anyway, it turns out most of them are salt tablets.”

“Good,” said Weyland. “I could use more salt.”

The artificial gravity stuttered. For a moment Jianyu felt as though he was being pressed into the floor. Weyland grabbed for the doorway to stabilize himself, and Sera grunted as if she had just shouldered an invisible weight. The pressure receded, and the liquid on the floor began to rise in thick droplets before gravity kicked back on at its normal not-quite-planetary pull.

“I should probably… help clean this up.” Jianyu’s stomach churned as he looked around the room. It was a lot of work, and all he wanted to do was lie down and let someone else do it.

“I need to fix the artificial gravity,” Sera said. She looked at Jianyu. “I could use some help.”

Jianyu followed her. When the door to the lab had shut behind them, Sera put a hand on his arm. She was the one with the split lip, but she was looking at him as if he were the one who needed medical attention. “Maybe you should get some rest,” she said. “You’re looking green around the gills. Or, you know, not green. Whatever’s not supposed to be going on in your general gill area, you’ve got that.”

Now that he was away from the smell of the ruined lab, his nausea was beginning to fade again. “I’d rather get some work done,” he said, and almost convinced himself that he meant it.

Sera retrieved her tool kit from her room and changed into a dry pair of pants and her customary cargo vest while Jianyu pulled out his com screen and assessed the ship’s damage. He’d spent some time reprogramming the interface that engineers had used on the original Benevolence; for weeks after the initial attack, he’d seen nothing but emergency alerts warning him about parts the ship no longer had. The engines were working well, and the bulk of the life support systems had been spared, but some of the smaller mechanical parts of the ship had been jarred loose by the shots and the madcap flight that had followed.

“I notice you’re not turning the ship around,” he said.

“I’m not an idiot,” Sera said. “I’ve got better things to do with the rest of my life than being Buddy’s indentured servant.”

He showed Sera the problem spots on his com screen. They walked down the narrow corridors aft of the Benevolence, where the hum of the FTL drive was a low, persistent rumble.

Sera stopped at a wall panel, took a screwdriver from one of the many pockets on her dingy green vest, and began to unscrew the thin sheet of metal that hid the inner workings of the Benevolence. “So, how’d you end up working for a dog?” Jianyu asked her as she worked.

Sera shifted the panel aside, propped it up against the wall, and considered the tangle of mechanical parts and wires within. “I was doing odd jobs for a while before someone introduced me to Buddy. He likes pilots who can do their own repairs, and who know when tolerance limits are more of a suggestion.” She made a few quick movements inside the wall, then pulled a metal object loose and held it up to the light to inspect it. Gravity shifted for a second, then settled. “He was already making a name for himself in Minervan space, but he wanted to do business outside it. Minervan territories were too spread out to maintain a real economy, and most residents weren’t in the market for luxuries back then.”

Jianyu had heard stories about the fall of the Coalition, although he hadn’t been around to witness it firsthand. Three of the species that had once been allied–humans, Eridani, and Falacerians–had become more reactionary and more insular as the political situation deteriorated. Centaurians had always struggled to understand statecraft, and so they had fallen back on their queens’ opinions, and their queens only cared for their own hives.

Minervans had had it worst of all. They had no centralized government, no shared language, no culture or even body structure in common. They were tolerated as unfortunate invalids in Centaurian hives and treated as second-class citizens in Falacerian society, provided they had the appropriate bodies. The human and Eridani governments, too busy ramping up aggression with each other to pay attention to Minervan rights, had let discrimination slide into outright cruelty. And so refugees all across known space had suddenly found themselves thrown together in hard-to-reach systems and undesirable planets, making the best of a bad lot. They hadn’t been the only ones left to fend for themselves. Dozens of sentient species had lived in the vast stretch of known space, building businesses that depended on peace and prosperity. And then of course there were those rare few like Jianyu with more than one species in their genetic code, products of the Coalition with no obvious place outside it.

He didn’t know why Sera had ended up so far outside human-occupied space when the Coalition crumbled. He had a feeling she didn’t want to tell that story just yet.

“So if we’d sold those paintings, how would you have spent your millions of credits?” he asked instead.

Sera smacked the metal object against her thigh, then held it up to the light again. “I’d just keep traveling. I’d buy a nicer ship than this one, though. Something somebody’s still making parts for. Fabrication can only get you so far.”

“You wouldn’t want to settle down? No planets in mind for a future home?”

Sera pulled a wire cutter out of one of her breast pockets, sliced two of the wires on the broken part, and began the process of two of the ends together. “I don’t like to stick around in one place for too long. Makes me feel itchy. Plus, Buddy would find me eventually, and I’d either die or waste all my money paying off bounty hunters.”

She put the piece of machinery back inside the wall and fiddled with the wiring again. Gravity smacked him down into the deck, then returned to its customary pull. Sera thumped the wall with her hand. “Piece of shit,” she said, with evident affection.

“And that’s it?” Jianyu asked.

“Sure,” said Sera. “Unless you have another secondary coupling with a thirty-three-millimeter filament in the power coil. Either this one keeps working until another one turns up on the market, or we’re going to have to get used to floating.”

Jianyu looked around at the walls, each filled with a hundred parts that could break at any time.

“I can fix a ship, but I can’t fix a navigator,” Sera told him. “So stop pretending you don’t need a break, ok?”

Jianyu started to say that he was fine, he didn’t need a rest, and the look on Sera’s face told him he wasn’t fine at all.

Lying on his narrow bed, in the strange mental landscape between wakefulness and sleep, Jianyu imagined that he could feel the Benevolence around him like it was an extension of his own body. When he breathed, the carbon dioxide scrubbers worked; when he twitched his fingers, a door slid open. And all through the ship there were wires stretched out like neurons, sparking with electricity back and forth between every connected part. He slept fitfully, dreaming of a ship adrift in space, transmitting a message he couldn’t understand.

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