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.