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 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’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.


“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 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.



All Episodes

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.

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 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.”


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.


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.



All Episodes


Cover-Up, Part 1 – 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.


Now and again, the crew played card games at the table in the old conference room that had become the Benevolence’s mess hall. Captain Dysart allowed it, on the condition that her crew only wagered with chore duties, not with money. She’d even play for a round or two herself before bowing out when the pot got too large.

It was something the Coalition would have frowned on, a captain gambling with her subordinates, but there was something she found charming about the game. Maybe it was because they played with real paper cards, the edges fuzzed with years of handling, like cowboys in a period piece. Maybe it was because even Weyland would come out of his lab and join the game. She could barely admit it to herself, but maybe it was because she just liked winning, and she’d been playing long enough to recognize how Sera had crimped the cards.

As the captain drew a card from the deck and Xrrt struggled to hold her hand in her smaller secondary forelimbs, Sera said, “So, this guy I know has a job. It’s easy work. Just transporting some cargo.”

Jianyu rolled his eyes. “You can just say smuggling.” His cards were completely enveloped in one giant green hand.

Sera put her fingers over the deck and made it look like she was only picking up one card. Nyx watched for the twitch that accompanied an extra card disappearing up Sera’s sleeve. She told herself that it was probably a good thing to have a pilot with quick reflexes. “It’s not technically smuggling. Not under a lot of legal codes.”

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? The messy end of the Coalition had turned the galaxy into a patchwork of provinces and disputed territories. Drawing a clear line through ever-changing space had never been easy at the best of times, and now, it was anyone’s guess what was illegal where. “What’s the product?” Nyx asked.

“Pharmaceuticals,” said Sera.

“Drugs,” said Jianyu.

“Of course, they have some recreational uses–”

“What’s the chemical?” Weyland asked.

“Um,” Sera said, “I don’t know. This guy doesn’t answer a lot of questions.”

Xrrt fumbled her hand again and sent cards fluttering across the tabletop. Jianyu pushed them back over to her. Nyx let her eyes drift over them, not really sneaking a peak, just making sure she had the same information as everyone else. Xrrt had two aces. Damn.

Nyx dragged her eyes back to her own cards, but not before she’d caught a glimpse of cardstock poking out of Weyland’s sleeve. The ship’s doctor was no card sharp, but he’d been learning from Sera.

“The pay’s good,” Sera said. “And the job’s an easy one, I promise. I go way back with the guy we’d be working with. He’s a man of his word. Ok, not technically a man, but he’s not a liar.”

“Honor among criminals,” said Jianyu.

“I’ll think about it,” Nyx said.

Jianyu found her later as she was sitting in her chair on the bridge, contemplating the stars. The ship didn’t need constant oversight to function when the FTL drive was running, but Nyx still gravitated to the bridge whenever she had a free moment. Years of duty had carved too deep a groove on her routine.

They were in transit between planets, still well within the core of mapped and populated space but light-years from the nearest inhabited planet. The drive pushed space around the ship, and the light with it, the cold starlight distorted and made strange by physics Nyx couldn’t begin to comprehend. From this vantage point, Nyx could imagine that nothing had changed at all in the last five years. To the naked eye, the universe looked exactly as it did when she was a captain with the Coalition.

She heard Jianyu’s heavy step on the metal deck. He stopped next to her, the position of a subordinate delivering a report. She shrugged a shoulder in acknowledgement, but didn’t turn to him.

“We don’t need to smuggle drugs,” Jianyu said. “There are other ways of making money.”

Nyx said, “It’s a good payout for an easy job. We need more easy jobs. And we need more money. The carbon dioxide scrubbers need to be replaced again.”

“So cut my pay,” Jianyu said. “I can handle it.”

“Absolutely not. I appreciate the offer, but I can’t accept it.”

“What if it’s addictive? What if someone takes it and dies? Wouldn’t that blood be on our hands?” Nyx had never heard her navigator raise his voice in anger, but she could hear the strain humming through him now. “There are other jobs out there. We don’t have to accept this one.”

Nyx held up a hand to forestall further objections. “I’ll ask Weyland to analyze the chemical before we ship out. If it’s too dangerous, we’ll call off the deal.”

Jianyu started to say something, but Nyx waved her hand and he stopped. She said, “Someone once told me, when you see a disaster, don’t look at the people running away. Look at who’s running to help. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about you, Jianyu. You’re always running toward the fire.”

“Thank you, captain.”

“I want to be one of those people. I’ve tried to be one for a very long time. But there’s always something burning.”

“I know, captain.”

Nyx closed her eyes. When she reopened them, the scene was the same as ever: the stars wavering by, the ship humming softly. She hadn’t realized back in the day that the Benevolence had a voice of its own, a near-subsonic murmur that came from the engines and the ventilation system and the water reclamation pipes. The bridge had always been busy then, the hallways always filled with the sounds of footsteps and conversations and laughter. It took a big crew to keep a Coalition exploration class vessel running. She hadn’t even known the names of all the people working under her. She’d hardly played card games with any of them, and now most of them were probably dead because she’d made the wrong call in a battle she hadn’t even known she was fighting.

“Someday I’d like to go back out there,” she said. “I wonder what we left undiscovered, when we turned back. How much more could we have seen if we’d kept going for five years, or ten, or more?” The galaxy was a big place, too big to cross in a lifetime even with a ship unconstrained by the speed limits of light. Known space was still only a fragment of one arm of the great spiral galaxy. Nyx had travelled only the smallest distance out into the darkness, and found no end of wonders; she had no reason to doubt that they continued. “Maybe someday I’ll find out.”

Jianyu was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “You don’t think the Coalition is going to reform, do you?”

“I don’t know,” said Nyx. “Maybe it will. Maybe even in my lifetime. But that’s a long time to wait for something that might never happen.”

“You could do something about it,” Jianyu said. “Get involved with politics, maybe. You’ve still got connections.”

Nyx sighed. “I never was much of a politician. And even if I wanted to be one, I’d need money.”

Space shifted and stretched around the Benevolence. In the crystalline window, the stars were distorted into smears and flashes in the darkness.

“I’d go with you, Captain,” said Jianyu. “Whatever you choose.”

“I know you would,” Nyx said.


Drake-371 was a planetoid in the Procyon system, too small to even have its own atmosphere. It had been a base for mining once, and when the most desirable ores had been shipped out, some of the miners had stayed behind in the old tunnels. The rock had become a waypoint of sorts, an unofficial trading post.

Gravity was low in the tunnels, the air was stale, and most of the walls were roughly carved out of bare rock. Sera had been to half a hundred nearly identical outposts throughout the galaxy. The instant familiarity of the flickering artificial lights and the press of bodies in the narrow tunnels made her fingers itch. Every species that had been a part of the Coalition, and many that hadn’t, walked or loped or oozed through these halls. Sera wasn’t sure if any government had officially tried to claim Drake-371; fighting over it would probably burn more money than the whole planetoid was worth.

The crew made their way through the tunnels. Sera went first, following the map she’d been sent; then came the captain and Xrrt, an unlikely duo. The Procyon system was not technically at war with anyone, but humans and Centaurians rarely kept company these days, even in the territories they were not actively fighting over. Next came Weyland, and finally Jianyu, bending so low he was nearly bowing to avoid smashing his head into the low roof of the tunnel.

Sera’s contact was one she had worked with before, back in the bad old days, when she would fly with any crew that would take her without asking too many questions. She found the address, an alcove off a side tunnel, and rapped on the door. It was like any other in the tunnels, heavy steel beginning to rust at the edges, but there was a hinged flap at the very bottom large enough for a child to crawl through.

There was a scrabble of claws and an excited bark from inside the room. A man opened the door, one hand on the knob and the other cradling a plasma assault rifle. He was tall, with close-cut hair on his head and an unkempt blonde beard. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and each forearm was wrapped in floral tattoos. Sera had worked with him before; she didn’t know his real name, nor did he know hers. He didn’t even know the identity she went by with the crew of the Benevolence. In the circles they shared, he was called Flowers.

“Hey,” he said, looking more than a little surprised to see her. The rest of the crew had come up behind her, crowding the doorway; he looked at them, and lowered his rifle so the muzzle pointed at the floor. “You got a new crew?”

“Yeah,” Sera said. “Been with them about a year now. Can we come in?”

Flowers backed away from the door. A dog, German Shepherd mixed with something else large and shaggy, bounded up and put its front paws on Sera’s chest. Its claws snagged in the fabric of her vest. Sera ruffled it behind the ears, carefully avoiding the sensitive lump where its skull and spine came together. “Hey, Buddy. Who’s a good boy?” she asked.

The dog said, “I am.” It spoke well for an animal with surgically modified vocal cords, but there was a distinctly canine growl to the words.

The crew made their way inside. The dog sniffed each crotch in turn, and did as best it could nosing at Xrrt’s abdomen. She bore the inspection politely, her clawed forelimbs folded across her thorax.

The captain knelt and offered her hand. The dog placed its paw in her palm. “I’m Captain Dysart,” she said. Sera sighed. She’d talked to the captain about coming up with a fake name. She’d told her not to wear her old uniform either, but that didn’t stop the captain from stepping off the ship in her old purple shirt.

The dog said, “You can call me Buddy.”

Buddy was a Minervan: a sentient species of fungus that could live within nearly any host body with a brain. They had been early and enthusiastic members of the Coalition, spreading peace throughout the galaxy before humans had made it as far as Proxima Centauri. They weren’t picky about where they chose to spread their spores, so long as the prospective host body wasn’t conscious and sentient. Once firmly rooted in an otherwise unoccupied brain, they preferred to be treated as members of their host species. Minervan politics had been strange enough even before the breakup of the Coalition; most Minervans thought of themselves as the species they inhabited, not as the extra bit of fungal tissue they happened to use for higher-level cognition.

Sera closed the door behind them. The apartment was a small one, more of a safehouse than a permanent residence, although there was a plush doggie bed against the far wall. In one corner, cheap aluminum crates were stacked almost as high as the ceiling. Flowers inclined his head towards them. “Think you’ve got enough room for these?”

Jianyu said, “There’s plenty of room in the cargo hold.”

Sera shook her head at him, and he shut his mouth, although he looked uncomfortable. Running with such a painfully honest crew had taken some getting used to. She examined the crates with a critical eye. “Weyland, there’s a hatch in your lab that leads to a small tunnel. I’ve never needed to use it because most of the wiring there goes to systems the ship doesn’t have anymore. I’m going to rip that out, stow all this in there, and install a fake panel on top of it. Any objections?”

“Can I use it when you’re done?” Weyland asked.

“Sure, whatever.”

“Hang on,” said Captain Dysart. “I want to know what exactly we’re transporting.”

Flowers glanced at Buddy. The dog inclined his head slightly. Flowers said, “The Coalition would have considered it a class E drug. Human customs agents should let you go with a warning if they catch you with it. Avoid Eridani agents. They’re cracking down on all euphorics.”

“Never did understand why the Eridani government hates fun,” said Sera. Jianyu rolled his eyes, but had the good sense to stay silent.

“Before we leave, I’d like my doctor to analyze a sample of these drugs,” said Captain Dysart. “If we decide this compound is safe, we’ll take the job.”

Flowers and Buddy exchanged an inscrutable glance. “Sure, whatever,” Flower said. “Just try not to shake the crates up too much. The pills are fragile.”

“Got a way of transporting these out of here?” Captain Dysart asked.

“I’ll have them delivered to your ship.” Flowers stuck out his hand, and the captain shook it. “Good doing business with you, Captain.”

The crew began to file out. Sera turned toward the door. Flowers moved forward, not quite blocking her path, but close enough that he could do so with just one more step. Jianyu saw the movement and hung back, frowning.

“I’ll just be a moment,” Sera told him. “Meet you back at the ship.” He left, and she elbowed the door shut after him.

“So that’s your new crew,” Buddy said. His voice, always rough around the edges, had a hint of growl in it. The room was cold, but Sera was sweating.

“Why does your captain wear a Coalition uniform?” Flowers asked.

“It’s kind of her thing,” Sera said. “They’re a bunch of weirdos, but the job’s going to get done. I promise.”

Buddy sat down. His tail thumped against the rock floor. Sera had heard that dogs wagged their tails one way when they were happy, and another when they were angry. She never could figure out which was which; where she’d grown up, there hadn’t been much extra room for animals. Buddy said, “I can make introductions, if you’re looking to move on.”

“I like the ship,” said Sera. It wasn’t technically a lie; she cursed the quirks of the Benevolence daily, but she’d been trained to work with Coalition technology, and for all its mechanical faults the ship felt like home.

“I hope it goes fast,” said Flowers. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this job.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sera, and brushed her knuckles across the small of her back, where a trickle of sweat was tickling her skin.


    Jianyu unbuckled himself from his chair. His stomach twinged–partially from hunger, partially nerves. It wasn’t as if he’d never bent the law before, but the path they had charted was going to take them through patches of space where these pills were definitely illegal. Beyond the windows of the bridge, the stars seemed immobile in the sky; the Benevolence was moving through normal space and time, already thousands of miles away from the dock on Drake-371.

“We’ve got some time before I can even think about the FTL drive,” Sera said. “Go get some rest, or whatever.”

The FTL drive was the best way to travel between stars, the only known way to move matter faster than light; it folded the fabric of the universe around itself, contracting the space in front of the ship and expanding it in the ship’s wake. Five hundred years ago, mankind had stepped onto the surface of earth’s moon. Two hundred years later, the descendants of a crew that had set course for the stars stepped off their generation ship on an earthlike planet rotating around Proxima Centauri. The Centaurians were already members of the Coalition in good standing then, and eager to welcome another sentient species to the sky. They had taught humans to build FTL drives, shrinking travel time between the stars from centuries to weeks.

There was one unfortunate downside: the FTL drive had to be activated far away from other planetary bodies and ships, lest they be caught in the same folds of space and time, with disastrous consequences. Sera would use the ion rocket to take them a safe distance from Drake-371, then engage the drive.

“So, that guy with the tattoos is a crime boss or something, right?” said Jianyu.

“Nope,” said Sera, keeping her eyes on the screen in front of her. “Flowers is just hired muscle.”

“He knows you? You know, from before the Benevolence?” Jianyu had spent the last year teasing details out of Sera. At times she was expansive, even eager to brag. But sometimes he’d find a spot where she’d stop talking, or change the subject, or lie so outrageously that even he could pick up on it.

“Yeah, we go way back. Went on a few runs together.” Sera tapped the screen, making a minor adjustment. “It was easy to get work when the Coalition was first cracking up. Refugees going in every direction, and not enough agents to vet them all. Fake identities everywhere. And the Eridani government was a gold mine, cracking down on everything. Sex bots, drugs, porn, all that fun stuff. Good times. Great pay.”

“So what’s with the dog? Did you know him too?”

Sera glanced over at him. She’d been smiling as she spoke before, but now her expression was guarded. “Yeah. He’s my old boss. Kind of a big deal in certain circles.”

“And you used to pat your boss on the head and call him a good boy?”

“He’s used to being a dog,” said Sera. “He doesn’t want to be treated like a human.”

“So, what did you used to do for him? Play fetch, scoop his poop?” Jianyu asked.

Sera’s eyes were hard, the muscles around her mouth pulled tight. “I flew ships,” she said. “That’s what I’m good at.”

Jianyu took that as his cue to leave her alone. The nausea was fading now, leaving hunger in its wake. It would be hours until the crew’s next meal. The ship ket its own time, unconnected to the daily cycle of any particular planet, but he was pretty sure that the clock was turning towards the time they had marked as the late evening.

Weyland had food in his lab. Jianyu hoped he wouldn’t have to fish it out of a vat himself. It wasn’t that he was disgusted by the practice of growing meat from stem cells; it was just one of those things he preferred not to see up close. Those big bubbles of flesh floating in fluid were only technically tumors.

Weyland was still in the lab, reorganizing the equipment that Sera had pushed aside while she was working on the maintenance hatch. A vat of algae had been pushed against the fake panel she had installed, and Jianyu was working on bolting it to the floor. If you didn’t know where to look for the metal that wasn’t quite flush with the surrounding wall, you’d never know anything was behind them. Weyland had propped his com screen up on top of the vat so he’d have something to watch while he worked; it was playing one of the ancient two-dimensional movies he liked.

“Just looking for a snack,” Jianyu said.

Weyland gave a one-shouldered shrug. “There’s some meat in the fridge.”

Jianyu opened the refrigerator door. There was a selection of slices laid out on metal trays; some were shades of pink, others brownish-grey. “What’s this?”

“Just cut some slices off the chicken. And there’s this thing from Xrrt’s planet, it’s sort of related to grasshoppers.”

“Okay,” said Jianyu. “You should probably label these.”

“I have a system,” said Weyland.

There was always something not quite right about Weyland’s version of chicken; if it wasn’t stringy, it was mushy, no matter how you cooked it. Jianyu picked up one of the grey slices instead, and thanked his lucky stars that he had inherited his father’s tastebuds. The Eridani homeworld was rich in insect proteins.

The ship didn’t have a real kitchen, just a collection of hot plates in the lab.  Jianyu slapped the slab of grey meat into a pan and turned on the heat. The original Benevolence had had its own kitchen, and a mess hall big enough for fifty crew members to eat together at the same time, but that had been lost with the rest of the ship. They’d even had a head cook who was actually trained in the culinary arts, although of course she was a genetic engineer too.

Weyland said, “Do Minervans creep you out?”

Jianyu rubbed the back of his neck at the spot where a lump would be, if the fungus had taken root in his body. It wasn’t something you talked about on a Coalition ship, for the same reason you didn’t mention how weird it was that Falacerians could get inside your thoughts, but it was always a little unnerving to know that some of the bodies walking the halls were being piloted by a parasite. “I worked with some, and they were all right.”

“Ugh,” said Weyland. “Weren’t you worried about, you know, their spores?”

“Well, there were never any reported problems when they were part of the Coalition–”

The ship lurched suddenly, too fast for the artificial gravity to adjust. Jianyu slammed into the counter in front of him, and managed to twist just enough to avoid smacking his hand down on the hot plate. The pan bounced off the wall, oil splashing up over the lip, and a droplet stung his arm.

He turned, and found the lab in disarray. Most of the vats were bolted down and their lids clamped shut, but Weyland must not have finished securing the ones that Sera had moved out of the way. Two heavy metal barrels were on their sides with liquid spilling out of them. One was the algae tank. The other had something pink and glistening sliding out of the open end.

Weyland had been knocked down by one of the falling vats. He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then crumpled again as the artificial gravity stuttered off and then back on at what felt like twice a full G. Jianyu helped him to his feet, then hit the nearest intercom button. “What was that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m taking us far away from it as fast as fucking possible,” Sera replied. “Get to the bridge and strap in.”

Weyland reached for his com screen, sighed, and dropped it; the screen was dark.

“Can you walk?” Jianyu asked.

Weyland frowned. “I think so.”

The ship shook again, a jolt from behind that sent them both stumbling forward. There was a warning alarm going off, a shrill note over and over. Something was wrong with the artificial gravity: one moment they’d be almost floating, the next the system would drag them down so hard that Weyland needed to lean against Jianyu to stay standing.

Over the intercom, Sera said, “I think some asshole’s shooting at us.”

By the time they made it to the bridge, the rest of the crew was already there. The captain was in her chair on the dais, her hands clenched on the armrests. Xrrt was strapped into a specially modified harness for Centaurians. Jianyu shoved Weyland into a chair that had once belonged to the communications officer and ran to his spot beside Sera before their enemy could hit them again.

“Jianyu, take control of the guns.” Captain Dysart’s voice was crisp, unhurried; she always seemed most like herself at moments like this, when everything hung in the balance. “Try to slow them down while Sera gets us out of here.”

Jianyu fumbled for the neural connector and switched the mode from navigation to defense systems before sliding the end into the port on his temple. Navigation was a complex and delicate art, one that required every bit of consciousness; defense was less taxing, with only six guns to consider, and no need to worry if a shot missed its mark.

His awareness was split between each of the guns. Two small laser guns were mounted facing ahead of the ship, precise but limited in strength. Poised to fire broadside were twin plasma cannons, each large enough to pack a substantial punch. Two more plasma cannons were aimed at the rear, one on each side of the flared bowl of the ion rocket. The plasma cannons had been recent additions to the ship; the laser guns had originally been drills, not offensive weapons.

Sera sent the Benevolence into a spin to dodge another attack from their enemy. Jianyu concentrated on the side cannons, and managed to score a glancing blow with a burst of plasma as the strange ship tumbled past his field of view. It certainly didn’t look like any official vessel he’d ever seen before. It was almost as small and irregularly shaped as the Benevolence, and the plasma made its cheap shield flicker as it sizzled across the translucent force field.

Sera fired the rear chemical thrusters and began to feed extra power to the ion rocket. The ship receded to a silver dot in Jianyu’s field of vision. He concentrated all his attention on the rear plasma cannons, trying to keep the enemy in focus, and fired.

The strange craft jerked away from the incoming projectiles. Jianyu was sure they’d left it behind, but the dot began to grow again. What remained of the Benevolence could put on a good turn of speed, and their cargo wasn’t exactly heavy at the moment.

But the enemy was faster.



All Episodes

Gone Before, Part 2 – Astra Nullius


After hours of talking, the crew had split up. Captain Dysart, with a suggestive glance, had taken the leader by the hand and drawn him into the woods. Weyland had wandered off in search of samples to collect. Jianyu had fallen asleep by the fire, with Xrrt standing watch over him.

Sera followed two of the men to a rocky outcropping to see the twin moons. The first was sinking from a cloudless sky into the sea, leaving a long, blood-red streak in the water. The second was rising behind her, the light reflecting from its face a clear silver-white.

Sera had drunk a lot of that water–purified, she was assured, by a machine that had been kept in service for nearly a century–and she’d also partaken of a sweet, thick liquor fermented from some unknown fruit.

“I’m going to pee,” she announced, standing up with only a slight wobble.

The two men who had accompanied her shared an inscrutable glance. “Don’t go too far,” one said.

“Why? Is it dangerous?”

“Not really,” said the other, “but you might fall. It’s getting dark.”

“I can see just fine,” said Sera, squinting up at one of the moons. She tried to remember if she’d ever been somewhere with no artificial light at all. It seemed like the kind of experience she would remember. “Anyway, I’ve got a flashlight.”

“Just stay close to the path, and you’ll be fine,” the first told her.

Sera started walking further up the path. It felt so good to stretch her legs after months on the ship that she went further than she’d planned before finding a tree to duck behind. She squatted, peed, and was buttoning her pants when it occurred to her that she’d never explained to the two men what a flashlight was.

Perhaps one of the others had mentioned it at some point in the afternoon. The conversation had been a long one, and the liquor had flowed freely. Sera’s memory was definitely fuzzy at the edges.

She found her flashlight, clicked it on, and swept the beam back and forth across the trunks of those strange trees. She wondered how they pollinated themselves without insects. Weyland might know.

In the corner of her vision, something flashed. Sera swung the beam towards it, and saw the light again, two quick flickers.

She turned her flashlight off. There it was, a third time: a cold white light, distinctly artificial.

Weyland must have wandered further away than she’d realized. The light was coming from some distance up the hill. Sera kept climbing. It was close to full dark now, and the trees were thicker here; the moonlight wasn’t cutting it. She turned her flashlight on again, and stopped short.

Inches from her feet, the ground dropped away. It was a crater, and a fresh one, the rock still freshly gouged and scorched in places. A few dead trees teetered precariously on the brink.

“Hey,” someone said behind her, “What are you doing here?”

Sera turned, and didn’t recognize the woman. She wasn’t dressed in a woven skirt like the others, but in a pair of dark trousers and a stained, faded shirt that might once have been orange. She was carrying a flashlight too, and she shone the beam directly in Sera’s eyes. The light was blindingly bright.

“Oh, sweet mother of fuck,” Sera said, and took an instinctive step backwards.

Several seconds of raw pain passed as she bounced down the rocky slope, and then she recovered her senses enough to turn her tumble into a controlled slide. Her flashlight was gone, but she thought she probably still had her gun. She landed at the bottom with a final crunch, and hoped she hadn’t broken her com screen.

In front of her, gleaming in the moonlight, was the nose cone of a spaceship.

It looked very much like what remained of the Benevolence. The command center hadn’t been intended to break away from the crew quarters in that model of ship; the defect was unintentionally discovered during the war, when the Coalition’s research and exploration-model ships had been repurposed for less peaceful missions. The cone had landed hard, gouging a long hole in the rock behind it, but when it had come to rest at least some of it had been intact.

Sera looked up, back at the cliff she had just fallen down. She could see the beam of a high-powered flashlight cutting through the darkness, searching for her.

She scrambled forward and found a hole in the side of the ship big enough to climb through. Her com screen began to buzz frantically. She hadn’t crushed it after all.

The readout told her that the signal the crew had been looking for was very close. She turned the screen so that its faint glow would precede her. It wasn’t really enough to see the full hallway she’d found herself in, but she could make out some details.

There were strange marks on the walls, inside the ship. Sera ran her finger over one, feeling the pitted surface of the metal. Acid left those kinds of marks. She pivoted, and yes, there was the spray of perfectly circular holes punched by plasma projectile. She could see moonlight faintly through them. There had been a fight here after the ship crashed; even an idiot wouldn’t fire a plasma gun in a pressurized vessel with vacuum beyond the hull.

She kept going, not even bothering to check the readout now. She knew where the signal would be: on the bridge, coming from the remaining working electronics of this ship. It was there that she finally found the ship’s name, etched into an instrument panel: Dignity.

Her heart slammed in her chest. Sera had never seen this ship before, but she knew the name. She remembered the rumors, back when her world was just starting to fall apart.

Now she could guess what had happened, but she had to be sure. She went from room to room, wrenching open each door in turn, until she found the bodies.

The bastards hadn’t even bothered dragging the Falacerians outside for their customary return to the earth, or floated the Eridani out to sea so that their souls could mix with the water. These mutineers had dragged the bodies of their former crewmates into a metal-walled cell, and let them rot.


Nyx had been in worse predicaments, but even she couldn’t deny that this was going to be a tight spot to get out of.

Her interlude in the forest had been pleasant, right up until someone had pressed a gun to the back of her head. That was when she began having doubts about whether the story the strangers had told her was true.

She had time to consider those doubts as she was dragged by the ankles back to the clearing. She had removed her leather coat sometime during the evening, and now she regretted it as she felt every knot and root in the path slam into her back. But she saw the way the woman carrying the gun had looked at her purple shirt.

It occurred to her that the strangers had talked about elders, but she hadn’t seen any. None of them was so much as approaching forty. Maybe life on this planet was hard–but what a coincidence, that they should all be fighting fit.

And even in its earliest days, the Coalition had tried to promote a fair mix of species in the crews of its research vessels. That was part of the plan from the beginning, woven into the fabric of the earliest treaties: if every species forged out into the unknown expanse of the universe together, and made their discoveries jointly, then research wouldn’t be treated like an arms race.

So where were the descendants of the rest of the crew members? Why would humanity–the physically weakest of the five races, the species least likely to survive without the benefits of modern technology–endure where the others had perished?

By the time Nyx was dropped unceremoniously by the fire, she had a very good idea of what was really happening.

Sera was missing, but the other members of her crew were there. Jianyu was being restrained by three large men, who had to sit on him to keep him down. Two were wearing grass skirts, and the third was dressed in the torn remains of a green scientist’s uniform. Xrrt was crouched in an aggressive posture, six of her limbs folded in preparation for a leap, with the heavier pair of her clawed forelimbs splayed wide. Nyx counted four guns trained on her. Weyland was sitting with his bags of samples in his lap. A woman in an orange shirt was guarding him. The firelight caught on a dark ring of scar tissue on her temple; some infection must have closed off the skin around her neural port.

Nyx rolled to her knees. The pleasant fellow who she’d gone into the woods with had taken her gun. She judged him to be ten, maybe fifteen years younger than her. Not someone whose path would have crossed hers during training.

Someone walked out from under the shadow of the trees, shone a flashlight beam directly in her face, and kicked her so hard in the gut she almost fell backwards into the fire.

“Of course it would be you,” the newcomer said. “Of all the people to fall for the stupidest scam in history, of course it would be Nyx Dysart.”

The voice was familiar. Nyx squinted up past the light, but could see only the faintest shadow of a face. The stranger wound up to kick her again, and Nyx caught a flash of purple fabric just before she rolled away.

“A planet with such friendly natives, just desperate for company.” He crouched in front of her, keeping the light in her eyes. Nyx tried to squint past the beam. She could see the faintest outline of a face, the right cheek moving unnaturally when he spoke. Acid had eaten into the skin there almost down to the bone. “Four years on this sandy shithole of a planet, and no one else fell for it. We got some Centaurians down here, but they took off running before we could figure out how to take control of their ship. Lost some of my best men in that fight.”

The beam swung away from her, and was reflected a hundred times over in Xrrt’s compound eyes. “We put down plenty of the bitches, though,” the man said.

The translator on Xrrt’s carapace crackled. “If you hurt my maggots, I will take your intestines out of your body and put them somewhere very far away.”

“Absolute savages,” the man said. “Trusting these bugs was humanity’s worst mistake.”

Nyx studied his profile. If she ignored the ruin of his cheek, she thought maybe he did look familiar. “John?” she said. “John Chambers? I thought you barely made it through command training. The Coalition gave you a ship?”

Nyx saw the beam begin to move as Chambers turned, but didn’t realize how fast it was swinging until the butt of the flashlight had already connected with her jaw. She fell sideways, landing hard on her spread palm, and tried to breathe through the pain.

“The Coalition didn’t give me anything,” Chambers said. “A shit post on a second-rate research expedition, playing second fiddle to a goddamn bug. Yes ma’am, no ma’am, and how is your acid production today ma’am? Humanity built the Dignity, and we handed it over to a goddamn weaponized cockroach.”

“You watch your fucking mouth,” Nyx said, and was rewarded with yet another swing. This one, she anticipated, and Chambers only landed a glancing blow on her shoulder. “Don’t jump, we’re outnumbered” she said as Xrrt crouched lower, preparing to spring.

“That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said all day,” said Chambers, rising to his feet so he could look down on her again. “Maybe the first intelligent command you’ve ever given in your miserable career. I’m going to enjoy flying your ship out of here, Captain Dysart. But first, I’m going to have to scrub the stink of your crew out of it.”

He pointed the flashlight at the ground, and with his other hand, he pressed a gun to her forehead. The muzzle was cold against her skin–a laser, then, not a plasma pistol. Nyx wished it were plasma. Death was virtually instantaneous when the brain cooked as it left the skull. Waiting to die from the hole a laser punched in your white matter was a bad way to go.

Nyx was facing away from the fire, looking up the hill. She thought she saw movement there, the moonlight glinting on something metallic. “Why bother signing up with the Coalition if you hate aliens so much?” she asked. “What did you even think you were getting out of that deal?”

“Humanity’s greatest achievement was space travel. We were going to colonize new worlds. The universe was supposed to be for us. And then we got to Alpha Centauri, and we found out the universe was full of monsters. Giant acid-spitting bugs, mushrooms that take over your body. Things that get in your head, make your own brain lie to you. And we were supposed to get along with these things, we were supposed to work together for the greater good. The greater good.” Chamber’s hand was trembling slightly. He ground the barrel of the gun into her forehead to steady it. “This universe needs humanity at the helm. I knew the movement was building. I knew I could do my part to save us.”

“And so you killed your captain, and your crew. How did you end up here?”

“Sabotage!” Nyx resisted flinching as Chambers’ spittle hit her face. “The pilot was Falacerian. We were supposed to be headed to Earth, but by the time I realized he had changed the route it was too late to correct our course. I was going to be a hero. I will be remembered as a hero.”

“Good luck with that,” Nyx muttered, trying to keep track of the figure that was moving out of the darkness towards them. Now it was firelight shining on the metal of a gun barrel raised at head height.

“Any last words?” Chambers asked.

“You are, and always will be, an asshole,” Nyx said.

And then his head exploded.

Nyx tucked her head and rolled sideways as Chambers’ body tensed. The beam that had been meant to kill her bored a hole through the dirt instead. His body crumbled, and Nyx pried the gun out of his still-twitching fingers.

Xrrt sprung upwards, so high that the fire was only a faint gleam on the underside of her thorax, and landed hard on two of the gunmen. Nyx shot the two others with guns in quick succession; they went down screaming, burned but not dead. The three men holding down Jianyu tried to drag him away; the big man managed to shake one off and elbow another in the gut. Then Xrrt was on them, and in few more bloody seconds, Jianyu was free.

Nyx turned to the woman guarding Weyland. She threw down her gun and began to cry.

Sera stepped up beside her. There was a long tear in her pants and a bruise was blooming over her right eye, but she didn’t look too much the worse for wear. “I found the bodies,” she said. “Absolute savages.”


“In retrospect,” Sera said, “we probably should have realized that there’s no such thing as a planet of peaceful beach babes who just want to get us drunk out of the goodness of their hearts.”

“You never know,” Captain Dysart said. “Back in the day, practically every other planet had some charming locals.”

“Don’t get her started,” Jianyu said, stretching in his chair until his shoulders popped.

Sera pried open the casing of Xrrt’s translator and began the delicate process of removing the worst of the corroded parts. They had found a few dead Centaurians in the crashed ship, and salvaged what technology they could from their bodies. Centaurians weren’t particularly sentimental about corpses. The crew had picked over the rest of the Diligence and taken everything of value.

“I fought God once,” said Captain Dysart.

“A minor god,” said Jianyu. “More of a demigod, really.”

“Shot it right in the face.” The captain looked pleased with herself.

“It sort of exploded. Like, pfft. Lots of sparks.”

“Feel free to chime in anytime, Xrrt,” Sera said. “I need to hear you talking to calibrate the translation.”

Xrrt clicked her mandibles together. The speaker on the translator let out a short burst of static and fell silent. “Hang on,” Sera said, and connected a wire. “Now say that again.”

“To be accurate, it was a class-C partially telepathic species being worshipped by a class-J species,” the translator said in a clipped female voice.

“Excellent,” Sera said. “And did the captain try sleeping with it first, before she shot it?”

“I am sure she made an attempt to communicate in a manner that humans find pleasant,” the translator said, a few moments after Xrrt made a low humming noise.

“Don’t tell me you never had fun in the service,” the captain said. “What ship were you on again? The Honesty?”

“The Integrity,” Sera said. “I can’t say I ever came close to the kind of adventures you had.”

“Deep space is a strange place.” The captain settled back into her chair with a sigh. “I suppose everywhere’s a strange place these days. It’s funny–I think about everything I saw out there, mapping the furthest known reaches of the galaxy, and it feels more familiar than what I came home to.”

Sera could only imagine. She knew a little of the captain’s story, and most of that she’d inferred by paying attention to the gaps, the places where Dysart’s bragging suddenly cut off. The woman had given everything she was to the Coalition. Sera couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to return from a mission, and to find that guiding light missing from the sky.

“Keep talking, Xrrt,” she said. “I’ve almost got it.”

“Once we encountered a planet where every sentient creature believed themselves to be perfectly logical,” said Xrrt.

“I would not want to be invited to one of their dinner parties.”

“You can’t even imagine,” said Jianyu. “Trying to explain idioms was torture.”

Xrrt rubbed her back legs together, producing a surprisingly musical note for a brief moment. “Thank you, Sera. I am glad to have you as a maggot.”

“Hang on, I don’t think this is calibrated correctly.” Sera prodded a loose connector.

“Leave it, that word’s untranslatable,” the captain said. “It means–well, it’s hard to explain.”

“You have a very soft exterior,” said Xrrt. “No exoskeleton.”

“It’s a compliment in Centaurian,” said Jianyu.

“Well, uh, thanks,” said Sera. “I guess you’re good to go, then. And I’ve got some spare parts if you need them.”

“I’m going to check on Weyland.” Jianyu stood up. “He said he was going to make some food for our guests.”

Sera said, “Maybe they’ll survive the experience.”

They had debated what to do with the surviving mutineers. Two were nursing wounds from Captain Dysart’s laser pistol; the third had thrown down her gun without firing a shot and told them through tears that she had never been a part of Chambers’ plot, but had survived by happenstance. Sera wasn’t sure she believed that, and even Captain Dysart narrowed her eyes in suspicion, but after some debate they’d agreed to turn the three loose on the first inhabited planet they came across. Until then, they’d all be stuck extending what hospitality they could to their guests.

“I’ve been thinking about the bodies,” Captain Dysart said. “It doesn’t seem fair to leave them all there.”

“It’s not like we have a choice,” Sera said. There were dozens of bodies in the abandoned ship, and their would-be captors still lay where they had fallen around the campsite. Moving them all to their species’ preferred resting places would take days of hard work. The crew quarters of the ship had proved impossible to locate; it must have gone down somewhere in the ocean.

“Well, none of the species in the Coalition have a taboo against fire,” said the captain. “You can’t be entirely against the concept, if you’re spacefaring. There are too many ways to get cremated accidentally. The Coalition’s primary treaty dictates that if any member falls, we should do our utmost to observe an acceptable form of their species’ funeral rites. I’m willing to make an exception for the humans, since they were mutineers. But the others deserve an honorable memorial.”

“You’re saying we should blow them all up.” Sera was impressed and horrified in equal measure.

“It’s technically within the rules. And it beats a week of dragging corpses around.”

“I’ll get the canons ready,” said Jianyu.

They all gathered on the bridge, even their reluctant guests. The ship didn’t have a brig, and no one was willing to give up their room to make a temporary holding cell. After some argument, the crew had decided to let the surviving crew members of the Dignity wander the ship at will, so long as she didn’t try to access the bridge alone.

Sera fired up the chemical thrusters, took the ship up to a comfortable altitude, and soared out over the gleaming expanse of pure blue water. She began to circle back around to the island.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Captain Dysart said. Sera wasn’t sure whether she was addressing the crew, or speaking to herself. “It didn’t have to end this way.”

The island was coming into view, approaching fast. Jianyu fired both forward-facing cannons at once. Sera pulled the ship into a sharp climb so they wouldn’t be caught in the blast wave. The ship rattled as she fed more power to the chemical thrusters on. She left the ion rocket off for now; it would only work once they cleared the atmosphere.

“Let’s get out of here,” Captain Dysart said.

They were rising fast now, the pressure of the G-forces pushing Sera back into her chair. The trees on the islands became solid purple clumps; the islands themselves were bright dots on the ocean; the atmosphere thinned to dark blue and then to black, and beyond the curve of the horizon, Sera could see the stars.



All Episodes

People and Places – Astra Nullius

The Crew of the Benevolence

Nyx Dysart

Rank: Captain

Age: 43

Birthplace: Uchronia City, Mars

History: Nyx left home to train for the Coalition command team as soon as she could. She worked her way up the ranks on the Eloquence and the Assimilation before being made captain of the Benevolence.The Benevolence was sent on a five year mission beyond the edges of known space, exploring a region that had never before been contacted by the Coalition. While Captain Dysart performed her duties admirably, she was beyond the reach of the Coalition’s ability to contact the ship, and did not realize that the organization had fallen until the Benevolence returned after the completion of its mission. On her return to known space, the Benevolence accidentally intervened in a skirmish; the nose cone containing the bridge and command center was separated from the crew quarters, leaving Nyx and a few members of her command team stranded. Despite her separation from most of her crew and the failure of the Coalition, Captain Dysart still believes in the dream of a unified galaxy working together in harmony. Although by nature she’s a lover, not a fighter, keeping what remains of her crew together has required her to made some tough decisions.

Appearance: Nyx is well-preserved for her age, and doesn’t turn her nose up at the occasional cosmetic procedure. Her olive skin is usually on the pale side, since she spends so much time in the confines of her ship. Her hair is dyed dark brown and usually cut to shoulder length. She usually prefers to wear her old command uniform, sometimes incongruously paired with a leather jacket and pistol holster.



Rank: Executive officer/head of security

Age: Approximately 53 Earth years, 13 separated from her hive

Birthplace: Hive on Proxima Centauri b

History: Xrrt was chosen by her hive to serve the coalition as a member of the security team. While Centaurians are usually connected to other members of their hive via telepathic link, the distance of space travel has severed Xrrt’s attachment to her sisters. Xrrt is a worker of her species; she has no functional sex organs, but a strong maternal instinct. All sentient members of her species identify as female, while drones are non-sentient; Xrrt often has trouble understanding the nuances of human gender and sexuality. In the absence of other members of her own species, Xrrt’s inherent protectiveness is redirected towards the crew of the Benevolence. Despite her fearsome claws, massive mandibles, and ability to spit acid at will, she’s a total cuddlebug.

Appearance: Centaurians have eight legs: two forelimbs and six hind limbs. They have large primary mandibles and smaller sub-mandibles. Their bodies come in three segments: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen, all covered in sleek chitin. Xrrt’s chitin is mostly brown with a subtle green iridescence.



Rank: Pilot/mechanic

Age: 28

Birthplace: Unknown

History: Sera has told the crew that she was a Coalition pilot on the Integrity. No one has gotten the story of what happened after that out of her, but the crew assumes it has something to do with the burn scars on her face and body. Sera is no stranger to the seedy underbelly of the galaxy, and has connections to dozens of black market dealers, information brokers, chop shop owners, and other shady characters. She makes good use of her stable of fake identities; no one’s been able to figure out her real name or get more than a hint of her life story. While Sera occasionally shows a fierce loyalty to individuals, she doesn’t believe in wasting her energy working for the greater good. Her morals are usually up for sale, but now and then she’ll refuse a job out of principle.

Appearance: Sera is 5’4” and slender. Her skin is light brown. She has burn scars on the left side of her jaw and on her body, predominantly on the left side. She keeps her haircut asymmetric and dyes her hair frequently; she claims that this disrupts facial recognition software. She usually wears a cargo vest over a tank top and jeans.



Rank: Navigator

Age: 31

Birthplace: Hatchery on planetoid Tsukuyomi B

History: Jianyu was a junior member of the Benevolence’s navigation team before tragedy struck. Like Captain Dysart, he still believes wholeheartedly in the ideals the Coalition stood for. His devotion to galactic harmony is partly philosophical, but also partly personal: Jianyu is half human and half Eridani, and he’s afraid that inter-species aggression will leave his family with no safe place to call home. Jianyu’s selfless devotion to the greater good often comes at the expense of his own health and happiness. His determination to keep the Benevolence flying as its sole navigation officer is taking a toll on his neural tissue.

Appearance: Jianyu is seven feet tall. He inherited his black hair from his mother and his light green skin from his father. He keeps his appearance neat and his hair short. When he’s not wearing his Coalition uniform, he prefers t-shirts and dark trousers. Dressing nicely is a challenge since few tailors carry inter-species sizes. He has a neural port on his right temple.



Rank: Doctor/cook

Age: Unknown

Birthplace: Unknown

History: A genetic engineer by training, Weyland serves dual functions as the ship’s doctor and the caretaker of its vats of edible meat and algae. His bedside manner and his cooking skills both leave something to be desired. Weyland doesn’t talk about his past–period. All the crew knows is that he was never trained by the Coalition, and he sometimes expresses curiosity about what it was like to serve. Weyland’s favorite hobby is watching ancient two-dimensional movies. He sometimes receives encrypted messages from an unknown source. No one knows whether he has friends or family out there in the galaxy.

Appearance: Weyland is very short and skinny, which makes him look young. His skin is dark brown. He doesn’t pay much attention to his hair, just saves it whenever it gets long enough to be annoying. His clothing is usually oversized castoffs.


Species in the Coalition


(This species has many names for itself in many different languages)

Origin: Star system Sol

Description: A bipedal species with two arms, two legs, and a fairly short lifespan of only 100 to 300 years (with extensive use of modern medicinal technology to extend their natural lifespan, which is often less than 100 years). Humans are covered by a mostly dry skin that ranges from pale pink to dark brown. They are omnivorous and will devour a large variety of flora and fauna; although they have a strong revulsion of certain forms of decomposition, they often use bacteria to produce fermented products which they consider delicacies. They also use bacteria within their own digestive tracts to break down foods that they cannot digest themselves.

The majority are fall into two biological sexes, which sometimes match their genders. Their young are first gestated internally, and then spend upwards of a decade maturing outside the womb; it is far more convenient for them to use artificial wombs than to reproduce with conventional biological methods. Most humans seem to enjoy the activity of attempting reproduction even when no offspring are produced.

Death ritual: Humans have a large variety of death rituals, but most prefer burial or cremation. They often express distaste for cannibalism, despite the clear efficiencies this burial method presents.

Natural enemy: Despite their short stature and fairly weak muscles, humans seem capable of making just about any species their enemy. They are even known to go to war with other factions within the human species. While some disagreements are settled with an exchange of blows or the drawing of blood, it is not uncommon for humans to fight to the death. It is strange that a species with such a dangerous and inefficient method of reproduction would be willing to further deplete its ranks through violence.


(Actual name unpronounceable by other species)

Origin: Star system Proxima Centauri

Description: An eight-limbed, insectoid species with superhuman strength, a chitinous exoskeleton, multiple sets of claws, and the ability to spit acid.

Most are infertile workers, with a weak telepathic connection to their hive; excessive distance can break this connection, making space-faring Centaurians the first true individuals of their species. They have difficulty understanding human concepts of sex and gender; only rare queens are fertile, and drones are not sentient. Because of their history of dependence on the hive for survival, space-faring Centaurians may begin to treat crew members of other species like fellow hive workers or even queens–or, if they are significantly younger and in need of protection, like larvae.

Centaurians can understand the speech of other species, but require translators to turn their range of vocalizations and phenomenal emissions into a form of speech that others can understand. The name humans use for them is not what they call themselves.The Centaurian multi-faceted eye can see wavelengths well into the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, and Centaurian language relies on a complex combination of sounds made with every part of the body, pheromonal secretions, and telepathic connection. Centaurian art and music are heartbreakingly beautiful and completely untranslatable.

Death ritual: consumed as food to further the interests of the hive.

Natural enemy: Despite their fearsome appearance, the Centaurians are an inherently peaceful and law-abiding species. They can get edgy around Minervans, since the species once had a run-in with a similar parasitic fungus. They tend to view smaller species without protective exoskeletons as maggots in need of protection.


(This species does not have a single name for itself; Minervan is one of dozens of names they have taken)

Origin: Minervans do not keep accounts of their history as a species. They are believed to have originated in the Gliese 832 system.

Description: A sentient parasitic fungus that can take over host bodies of other species. They take on some aspects of the host bodies they choose and use a variety of cultural references to describe themselves; humans refer to them as Minervans after the story of Minerva emerging from Jove’s head.

Despite their horrifying method of survival, the Minervans are a largely peaceful race, and are happy to restrict themselves to residing within the bodies of the brain dead, willing donors, and non-sentient species. Host bodies are distinguished by a small, delicate lump at the base of the skull where the cap of the fungus is visible beneath the skin or chitin.

Even the Minervans themselves are not entirely sure whether any trace of the host’s original personality remains; many become fascinated by the culture or past life of their host and consciously or subconsciously attempt to emulate the life they would have wanted to live. Because of this, Minervans often express confusion about their own species, and wish to be included in the culture of their host body. This creates a great deal of political confusion; Minervans don’t tend to be good advocates for their own interests, because they don’t think of themselves as a unified species with common interests.

Death ritual: the Minervan usually chooses to perish with its host, although it can be transferred into another body.

Natural enemy: The Minervans have no innate antagonism with any other species; in fact, they tend not to think of themselves as a unique species. They share no language or culture, and never quite got the hang of defending their borders or claiming territory. Falacerians tend to be edgy around them, since their natural telepathic ability does not work on fungi. Centaurians are often unpleasantly reminded of a parasitic species of fungus that plagued them, while humans are disquieted by similarities to brain-controlling slugs and similar monsters.


(This species has several names for itself, but keeps them secret.)

Description: The Falacerians have survived by showing other species exactly what they want them to see with their telepathic powers. To humans, they appear as preternaturally beautiful. They lack an inherent sense of empathy, but can acquire it through sustained telepathic contact with other species, making them extremely dangerous in single-species groups but manageable in mixed-species groups. Some scholars believe that legends of capricious fairies, demons, and even gods can be attributed to visits throughout human history by the Falacerians. Their telepathy works only at close range; they show up in digital images as they really are. While they look beautiful to people they want to seduce, they can also use their power to show up as hideous to people they want to repulse.

Death ritual: Returning to the earth, preferably through burial.

Natural enemy: Everything is the enemy of a bored Falacerian. While they mess with other species indiscriminately, they reserve a particular distrust for Minervans, who are impervious to their telepathic powers.


(This species has several names for itself. Transliterations cannot capture the full range of vocalizations)

Origin: Star system Epsilon Eridani

Description: The Eridanii are an amphibious species. Their skin is a variety of shades of green and they are much larger than humans, usually between 7 and 9 feet tall, but their physiology, psychology, and appearance is closest to humanoid out of all the other members of the coalition. They can cross-breed with humans, although in order to produce a viable embryo, they must reproduce via in-vitro fertilization and make use of an external artificial womb.

They generally stick to the same interpretations of gender, sex, and sexuality as humans, although transgender individuals of this species actually are capable of switching their biological sex.

Death ritual: Returning to the water.

Gone Before, Part 1 – Astra Nullius


The planet was mostly open water, broken here and there by the gentle curve of an archipelago. The composition, the screens in front of her informed her, was earthlike–but it would be a primitive earth, rich in oxygen, perhaps never before sampled by humanoid lungs.

Sera was separated from the spectacle by half a foot of clear crystal and roughly 400,000 kilometers of more or less empty space. It looked beautiful from here, with the sunset sweeping slowly across the ocean, so that a line of darkness seemed to roll over the world even as it turned to reveal a new expanse of pristine water. But then again, most things Sera had encountered in space looked pretty enough from a distance.

She had been watching the line of darkness for twenty minutes now, looking for any sign of life on the surface. Some of the islands were large enough to hold a decent city, but she hadn’t caught so much as a glimmer of artificial light. And she had been glancing now and then at the back of Captain Dysart, who stood before the window with her hands held loosely behind her, keeping the same silent vigil.

Sera glanced down at the screen in front of her and grunted in puzzlement. “Got something?” Captain Dysart asked, without turning around.

“Just some old junk,” Sera said. “Metallic. Probably been in orbit for a while.”

That could mean anything. An ancient satellite, long broken down, perhaps even trapped in this planet’s gravity well on the way to some other destination. A bit of jettisoned cargo. A scrap of hull shielding, blasted off in battle.

A sign that sentient life had been here, once.

“Take her in closer,” the captain said, turning her back on the planet at last. “See if you can narrow down the source of that signal. Jianyu, I want your focus on the guns, just in case.”

“This better be worthwhile,” Sera said. Her eyes felt itchy. Electronics abhorred humidity, and so everyone on the ship went around with dry eyes and cracking lips for the sake of the wiring.

At his station on her right-hand side, Jianyu’s eyes grew distant, the muscles of his wide face slackening as he pushed the majority of his mental processing power into the delicate motions predicting the ship’s movement in space. The port on his right temple began to glow softly. A drop of blood emerged from his nostril, vibrantly red against the light green of his skin. Sera glanced down at the data scrolling across her screen, but couldn’t conceal her frown.

“I know,” said the captain. “We all need some shore leave.”

“At least we’ve got plenty of shore to choose from,” said Sera.

The captain mounted the steps to her own seat. The spot was positioned so that she would have an unrestricted view of all the stations on the bridge, looking down from a raised dais. Sera turned around, feeling the itch of the captain’s gaze on the back of her neck. She pulled up all the information they had about the signal and stared at it again, as if it might be different this time.

It was not a normal distress beacon. The crew had seen plenty of those in recent years, and responded when it was prudent to do so; even after all this time, there was something left in Captain Dysart that was called to duty. This was a muddled signal, with no recorded message or details, just an automated call into the void.

There was probably no one left alive to find. But a crashed ship might still be worth something in salvage, and funds were running low.

She gave up and turned back to the planet. Beside her, Jianyu’s head was slumped forward, his whole body slack against his harness; in recent weeks he’d had to strap himself to the chair as he worked so he wouldn’t fall when he turned his focus away from his physical body. No computer was as efficient as the human brain, and Jianyu’s implant took advantage of that fact to run complex calculations in his own neural tissue. Controlling the ship’s systems was a taxing job, one that was supposed to be shared between a team of dozens working in shifts. Jianyu had been doing it alone for years.

She could feel the rattle of the engines through her feet, just the faintest vibration; it would only take a tiny fraction of the ion cannon’s full power to cross this distance. Once they entered the atmosphere, she would have to switch to the weaker chemical thrusters. The planet dominated the window, growing larger until it was the only thing she could see in front of her. She kept her touch on the yoke light, angling the ship so that they would approach the planet at an angle instead of falling head-on. A hurricane was swirling across the surface of the ocean, a startlingly pure spiral of white against the deep blue. Sera was fascinated by how delicate it looked from here. She imagined reaching out and wiping it away with the pad of her thumb.

Chitinous claws clicked across the metal floor. Sera didn’t need to turn around to know that the ship’s executive officer was in the room. “Do you think it could be one of ours?” Captain Dysart asked over the rising hum of the engines.

Xrrt clicked her mandibles together and produced a bubbling rattle from her abdomen. The translator on her thorax crackled and replied in a gratingly cheerful feminine voice, “You keep saying ours. You have to stop acting like our hive is still out there somewhere. That kind of thinking can get your maggots killed.”

There was the sound of an impact as Captain Dysart rapped on the plastic casing of the translator. “Your intonations are off again. And the vocabulary’s breaking down.”

Xrrt rubbed her forelegs on her mandibles, producing a scratching sound. “I know,” the translator chirruped. “But nobody makes the parts anymore.”

“The Coalition must have had stockpiles,” said Sera, as she corrected a slight rightwards list. “If it hasn’t hit the black market yet, it’s just a matter of time.”

Xrrt clicked her way forward and rested a heavy foreclaw on Sera’s shoulder. She was silent. Sera didn’t need a translator to understand what her crewmate was trying to tell her. Humanity was at war with Xrrt’s people now; the Coalition had torn itself apart from the inside. No one cared about producing the technology that would allow the two races to communicate. Speech was a widening gulf between them, and when the translator finally cut out, there might not be a way to build a bridge.

On such a delicate foundation, the Coalition had rested. Was it any wonder that it had crumbled under the weight?



“Hey buddy,” Sera said. “Hey. Listen to me. Wake up. Hey.”

Jianyu was not interested in listening to her. His forebrain was still consumed with the beauty of a projectile trajectory he had calculated; turning the sounds Sera was making into words consumed mental resources he didn’t want to spend.

His upper arm stung with a sudden impact. “Hey dummy,” Sera was saying, and now he had devoted enough of his precious attention to her voice to realize that she sounded nervous. “Wake up. Hey. Work’s over.”

The world was coming back, a confusing jumble of sights and sounds and smells that resolved into the familiar environs of the bridge. There was a metallic taste in Jianyu’s mouth. He wiped the back of his hand absentmindedly across his mouth and then stared at it, trying to remember if the red fluid was supposed to be there.

Sera punched him in the arm again. “Ow.” Jianyu fumbled with his harness, found the button in the center to release the straps. His brain was awash with sensory details: the dull ache where the straps had pressed against him, the faint burned plastic smell that still lingered on the bridge, the feeling of the blood beginning to dry and flake on his hand. “Stop it. I’m getting up.”

“Where’s that goddamn doctor when you need him?” Sera was saying. There was the double beep of a com link being opened and answered. “Weyland, get to the bridge.”

Jianyu began the slow process of standing up. It felt like they were in full Earth gravity, or close to it. After months of babying the artificial gravity system through space, he’d gotten used to bouncing through the ship’s corridors. Now he felt as though he’d picked up a heavy load and there was no way to put it down.

He put out his arm to steady himself, and Captain Dysart slipped in under his shoulder. “Easy now,” she said. “No need to do it all at once.” Jianyu ceded some of his weight to her, and pushed off the stiff back of his chair with his other arm.

“At least it’s pretty,” Sera said, looking out the window. “I hope we’ve got sunscreen.”

On the other side of the crystal was an expanse of white sand sweeping down to an achingly blue sea. The sky was cloudless. A moon was setting over the water, huge against the horizon and faintly red. Jianyu closed his eyes, but he could already feel the headache coming on.

“Readings are in the range of earth normal,” Captain Dysart was saying. “Some primitive lifeforms, mostly algae-like. A few proto-gymnosperm and some invertebrate life in the ocean. No need for hazardous environment mitigation.”

“Bring a gun anyway,” Sera said.

Jianyu, looking down, saw that the captain’s synthetic leather jacket was slipping off her shoulder. He caught a flash of purple fabric: a Coalition commanding officer’s uniform.

“Wearing your lucky shirt?” he asked her.

“You never know who you might meet,” Captain Dysart said. Her face was turned away, but in the last five years Jianyu had memorized every line of the expression he knew she was wearing. The Coalition’s treaties no longer held sway in space, but to the captain, they were still practically holy writ.

“I might as well put mine on,” Jianyu said, easing up on her shoulder. He could stand now without wobbling, although the ship’s metal deck still felt like it was spinning around him.

The ship wasn’t the original Benevolence, but most of the liveable area had once been a part of the stubby cone-shaped nose that had held the bridge and command center. Thrusters had been grafted onto the sides, a pressurized but spartan cargo hold on the rear, and an ion rocket fixed to the back. The empty rooms of the command center had been repurposed as crew quarters, a dining room, an infirmary, and all the other little spaces a sentient species requires to survive among the stars.

Jianyu’s quarters had once been a small conference room; he had turned the sleek plasticine tabletop into the base of a bed. His wardrobe was an old equipment locker, and he kept his most precious possession at the bottom. He dug through the layers of clothing and lifted out a carefully folded square of orange fabric.

It was the last piece of his old uniform. The embossed symbol on the breast still gleamed: five circles in a ring, one for each homeworld of the five species that had formed the Coalition. The weave was strong, but light; it had been designed for comfort in space, not for the perils of away missions. It had been tailored specially for him: a human uniform was too small for a man who was half Eridani.

The rest of Jianyu’s uniforms had been worn to bits over time: the first shredded and covered in blood on impact, the rest torn or clawed or shot through. Jianyu lived a harder life than the Coalition had ever imagined one of their precious navigators enduring. But there was still a thrill of the old excitement when he pulled the fabric down over his head, a reminder that his mission had begun with the goal of exploration, not survival.

By the time he had changed, the others had already gone through the airlock, with the exception of Weyland, who had hung back to fiddle with a gleaming metal probe. Weyland was the newest edition to the crew, and the only one who had never been trained as a member of the Coalition, but he was an accomplished doctor and an acceptable cook. He was a slight man, young or perhaps just boyish, with a dark, serious face and a habit of looking at people as if he were considering their component molecules.

“Ready to go exploring?” Jianyu asked him.

“The captain said you need to be examined,” Weyland said, brandishing the probe.

Jianyu sat cross-legged on the floor; he was nearly two feet taller than Weyland, and even if the doctor could have reached the port in his temple without a stepladder, this kind of examination was safer if you had only a short distance to fall. Weyland crouched beside him and slid the probe into his neural port.

There was a moment of pure disorientation as one sense blended into the next. The texture of Jianyu’s shirt emitted a high harmonic tone, and the burned plastic smell of the bridge turned greenish brown. Then Weyland removed the probe, and Jianyu found that he had slumped forwards and smashed his nose into the deck.

“How am I doing, doc?” Jianyu asked, picking himself up off the floor.

Weyland plugged the probe into a portable com screen and examined the readout. His face, as ever, was impassive.

“Well, I’m ready for an adventure.” Jianyu moved towards the airlock, then stopped and looked back as Weyland cleared his throat.

“Have you ever heard of neuroplasticity?” Weyland asked, setting the com screen aside.

“Of course.” Jianyu vaguely remembered a doctor telling him about it before he’d had the neural port implanted. It was an amazing thing, the humanoid brain. Elastic. And besides, the technology in neural ports had come a long way. Hardly anyone sustained permanent cellular damage.

“Neuroplasticity can only take you so far.” Jianyu waited for him to elaborate, but Weyland shrugged and said, “Let’s get going. I want to sample that algae.”



The sheen of sweat on Captain Nyx Dysart’s face was a blessing after months in the arid environs of the ship. The air smelled like salt, like seaweed, like life. The star that warmed this beach wasn’t Sol, but it was an excellent approximation. This was how she was meant to live: stepping out into the unknown, with air in her lungs that hadn’t been recycled through filters and scrubbers.

Sera had put them down on a broad stretch of sand, but the signal was coming from higher ground. Organisms not unlike trees clustered where the sand ended and richer soil began; they had long purple-green leaves that reminded Nyx of a fern’s fractal patterns. The rocky hill they climbed had a faint sulphurous smell, and although there were pools of water scattered here and there among the rocks, Nyx warned the others not to go too close. A faint steam hung over the water, and when one of the strangely-colored leaves drifted down into the liquid, it curled up and boiled away to a scummy film.

“Now that’s some geothermal activity,” said Jianyu, who had caught up with them just as they entered the cover of the trees. His eyes were focused now, but there was a smear of dried blood under his nose.

Weyland crouched beside the pool, took a flat-headed screwdriver from his pocket, and quickly scraped away at the rocks under the water. He examined the scum on the tip, nodded to himself, and wiped the head of the screwdriver on a cloth that he then bagged with great care.

Xrrt had wandered a little ways away from the group and was using her second set of forelimbs to scratch around in the dirt. Nyx wandered over to her. The scene was comfortably familiar: the crew exploring, the captain keeping an eye out for danger. “Find anything interesting?”

Xrrt’s translator crackled in the humid air. “There’s something metallic here,” it chirruped. “I saw it a moment ago, but now it’s gone.”

Nyx saw the sunlight glinting on something in the dirt Xrrt had stirred up. She crouched and closed her fingers on it. It was a screw. The thread was stripped almost clean. She rolled it back and forth in her palm, trying to picture the machine it had come from. It could have fallen off anything; the basic design of a screw hadn’t changed much in centuries.

“It’s a start,” she said, tucking the screw into a pocket of her jacket. It was cooler under the trees, but still hot enough that she was giving serious thought to taking off a layer. Who would wear leather on a planet like this?

Someone who was expecting a fight. Nyx kept the jacket on. You never knew.

They continued upwards, and came to a spot where the trees had been cleared. Nix ran a finger over the ragged end of a stump, still raw enough to weep a viscous purple sap. It had been sawn through mechanically, not with a laser or plasma. She paced the clearing, and found what she was looking for in the center: a spot where the ground felt softer. She kicked through the dirt, and turned up bits of charred wood.

“Something’s living here,” she said. “Something sentient.”

And there it was, the thrill she’d chased into space and back again. This wasn’t a routine exploration anymore. This was a mystery.

The others drifted closer to her, forming a loose ring facing outwards. Sera already had her gun out, pointing the barrel into the shadows under the trees. Nyx touched her own gun, but didn’t draw it. She could hear the gurgle of Xrrt’s acid glands going into high production.

Something was moving in the forest. No, several somethings; Nyx could hear the rustle and snap of bodies passing over the fallen leaves. When she caught a glimpse of movement in the shadows, she yelled, “Stop and identify yourselves.”

“We didn’t mean to scare you,” the stranger said, in English. “May we come out? Please, don’t hurt us.”

Nyx spread her fingers and raised her hands, showing that she was not holding a weapon. She looked sharply over at Sera, who holstered her gun, but kept her hand over it. “Of course we won’t hurt you,” Nyx said.

Someone walked out of the forest. Nyx drew a sharp breath. Save for a crude skirt woven from dry purple leaves, he was naked, his skin deeply tanned by this foreign star. His hands were also up, mimicking her gesture. A puckered scar ran across his hip and disappeared into the waistband of the skirt. He was clearly, unmistakably, human.

And there were others behind him, male and female, all in simple grass skirts. They looked young and healthy, their muscles sharply defined and their hair bleached by the sun. They were all smiling, holding out empty hands.

“Holy deep-fried shit,” Sera whispered.

The leader approached cautiously. “We have heard stories about you,” he said, examining Nyx as closely as Nyx was examining him. “Our elders told us that they had come from the heavens, and that others might come too. They said we should treat the visitors kindly, and maybe we would go to the heavens someday.”

He stepped closer, and grabbed Nyx by the hands. She didn’t pull away; his grip was warm and firm, his fingers pleasantly callused. “How long have you lived here?” she asked.

“Mine is the third generation. But come, we must offer you hospitality. You must be hungry and thirsty, after such a long journey.”

“That’s not how it works,” Nyx said, but she was thirsty, and one of the bare-chested women was approaching with a cup made from something that looked like beaten metal. The leader released Nyx’s hands, and she took the cup. The water was cold and clear, instantly refreshing.

“We have so much to talk about,” Nyx said.



The strangers made a fire and roasted strange, chewy roots. The crew explained life in the stars, and the strangers pieced together a story that had been passed down to them, about how they had been marooned on this forgotten planet. From the sound of it, their ancestors had been some of the Coalition’s earliest explorers, their disappearance into the uncharted reaches of space a historical footnote. A few hours into their conversation, Weyland returned to the campsite with his hands full of sample bags. When someone handed him a roasted root he sniffed it, then bagged it without taking a bite.

“This Coalition, did they tell you where to find us?” one of the strangers asked.

Sera said, “The Coalition fell apart eight years ago. If anyone even knew where to look for you people, no one’s bothering now.”

The strangers looked around at the crew, confused. Another said, “But who are you, if you’re not with the Coalition?”

Captain Dysart had been lounging on the sand, letting her hand creep further up the tanned thigh of the scarred man who’d been the first to come out of the forest. Now she sat up, resting her elbows on her knees. The firelight cast deep shadows under her eyes and in the lines around her mouth. Jianyu wondered when she’d begun to look so old, so tired. How could he not have noticed her changing face, in all their time together? “The Benevolence was assigned to a mission of exploration in deep space. Two years into it, the Coalition fell. We were so far out of known space that we weren’t in communication range with anyone who could have given us the news. For three years, we worked for an organization that didn’t exist.”

“That’s terrible,” one of the women said. “All that work, wasted.”

“The things we saw out there–I suppose everything in space would amaze you, but this stuff, it was beyond anything that anyone in known space has experienced before. I negotiated peace treaties between species that humanity had never before encountered. I saw art so beautiful that it couldn’t be fully processed with my available sensory organs. I learned so much about science, about life, about the universe, and I was going to bring it all back home with me. Not one second of the time we spent in deep space was wasted.”

She fell silent. Jianyu picked up the thread of the story. “We made the return journey to the edge of known space when we saw three ships fighting. We thought we’d stumbled across a merchant vessel being attacked by pirates, but it was actually a pitched battle between two Falacerian frigates and a Centaurian destroyer. When we got too close to the battle, they both turned on us. We took a direct hit to the midsection, and the nose cone detached from the crew quarters. Last we saw, the crew had managed to get the ion rocket firing and they were headed away from the fight. Everyone from the command center and the bridge was stranded.”

Over the years, he had repeated the story so many times that he could recite it with professional detachment. It was easier to focus on what had happened to the ship, the mechanics of metal in microgravity. He never told anyone about how he’d been running towards the bridge when the strike came, and how the force of it had slammed him into the hard side of a door so hard he’d gashed his side open. When he told the story, it didn’t include the chief navigator dying in his arms, or the blood that coated the neural probe before he slid it into the port in his own temple. “After the Centaurians had fought off the Falacerians, they boarded the ship. Xrrt explained the situation to them, and they agreed to tow us to the nearest neutral planet.”

Xrrt inclined her head modestly. She’d been silent for most of the evening, no doubt self-conscious about her malfunctioning translator. The strangers had taken the appearance of travellers from the heavens in stride, but they eyed Xrrt’s mandibles and the thick claws at the end of each of her eight total limbs warily. Jianyu hadn’t seen anything even remotely like an insect on this planet. He supposed that Xrrt must be totally outside their frame of reference.

“And you five were the only survivors?” the leader asked. His hand was resting lightly on the Captain Dysart’s back.

The captain said, “No, there were others. We… lost most of them along the way, and Sera and Weyland joined us later.”

“And were they a part of this Coalition too?”

Jianyu looked over at Sera. She was sitting alone with her arms crossed tight over her chest and her back up against a fallen log. In the light of the fire, the topography of scar tissue that ran along the ridge of her jaw and down her neck was nearly black against her brown skin. She brushed it absently with the knuckles of her left hand, and said, “I was, for a while.”

Weyland was sorting through his sample bags, apparently unconcerned with the conversation. When Sera nudged him with her foot, he spoke without looking up. “I wasn’t a part of the Coalition. I’m not part of anything. Has anyone tried eating this algae yet? Is it poisonous?”

He held up a bag filled with reddish-brown slime. One of the strangers said, “No, nobody’s tried eating that.”

“Some people are curious about all the wrong things,” said Weyland.


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