A Failure to Communicate – Astra Nullius

Quality Testing
Worst Contact - 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.

Weyland

“It’s been a good run, but this is the end for you,” Sera said. “Give up now, and maybe you’ll still be able to walk away.”

“You still have a chance to stop this,” Jianyu replied. “No one has to get hurt today.”

He pushed his glass of milk across the table. Sera waved it away and picked up the twist of dried pepper on her plate. Jianyu did the same.

“This is the Ooravian fire pepper,” Weyland said, reading from the list Sera had sent him. “It’s measured at 300,000 on the Scoville scale, and commonly found in the cuisines of–”

“Forget the recipes,” Sera snapped. “Just start the timer.”

Weyland’s finger hovered over a button on his com screen. “Starting… now.”

Sera and Jianyu bit down on their pieces of pepper. Sera’s nose started running almost immediately. Jianyu’s eyes were red and puffy. He pushed the glass of milk closer to her. She folded her arms across her chest and looked at the ceiling, chewing resolutely. On the screen, the seconds ticked down.

“Time’s up,” Weyland said. They both dove for their glasses.

“Tastes great,” Jianyu said when he came up for air.

“A little tingle,” Sera said. “Not much of a kick.”

“Just like mom used to make it.”

Weyland picked up the next two peppers delicately, pinching the stems between thumb and forefinger so the pads of his fingers didn’t brush the fruit. These two were fresh, their skins a dark purple-red. His crewmates eyed them nervously.

“This one’s a Harmanian venom pepper. It measures at 800,000 on the Scoville scale, and is a crucial part of the traditional Harmanian ceremony of induction into adulthood. Only five percent of those tested in the ceremony die in a good year.”

Sera didn’t touch her pepper. “That’s, uh, that’s pretty spicy.”

“Kind of a steep difficulty curve here.” Jianyu kept his hands flat on the table. “Maybe we should build up to it.”

Weyland said, “Next on the list is the Astrono lab-grown hybrid number five–”

The whine of an alarm cut him off. Jianyu jumped up. “That sounds serious. We better get to the bridge.”

“Yeah, great idea.” Sera swiped her sleeve under her nose, which was still red and streaming.

Weyland picked up one of the Harmanian venom peppers. He touched the red skin of the fruit this time and felt the faintest tingle on his fingertips. Most of the vegetables he ate came out of vats; he had never seen a fresh pepper before. It was pretty in a way, the green stem a pleasant contrast against the dark skin, the fruit curving up into a sharp tip.

He nibbled the end. The flavor was like nothing he’d ever tasted before, first a burning, but then a pleasant sweetness.

Sera looked back at him in the doorway, her mouth open in surprise. “Are you okay?”

Weyland took a bigger bite of the pepper. There was more pain this time, but it was a complex sort of burn, not unbearable. He thought he understood why people ate them. “I’m fine,” he said.

“Not going to scream or barf or anything?”

“No,” said Weyland. “Should I?”

Sera looked at him, her eyes narrowed, and then mopped at her nose again. “Let’s get to the bridge.”

The rest of the crew was already on the bridge when they ran in. Jianyu was plugged into the navigation system, and the blurry streaks outside the forward-facing window were shortening as the Benevolence dropped into the normal flow of space and time. Weyland could still feel the pepper in the back of his throat. Sera was right, it was sort of a tingle.

“I think it’s a Centaurian ship.” Sera dropped into her chair, fingers already flying over her control panel. “I’ve got the signal, and I know it’s playing on a distress channel.”

“Can’t you play it?” Captain Dysart asked.

“I can, but–well–”

“Just put it through the com system.”

Sera tapped at her screen. The message began to play at a painfully loud volume, a series of clicks and scraping sounds and strange burblings. Weyland put his palms over his ears, but he could still hear the noise faintly as it transitioned into a frantic babble of high screeches and louder clicking.

The captain cut the connection. “We can’t translate that?”

Sera rubbed her own ears. “They’re not broadcasting a signal that’s compatible with Coalition communications equipment. And we don’t have the sensors compatible with their equipment, so that’s all we get.”

The captain leaned forward in her chair. “Xrrt, did that make any sense to you?”

Xrrt folded all four of her forelimbs across her thorax. She clicked out a message with her mandibles, and the translator glued to her exoskeleton said, “My species communicates through pheromonal emission as well as sound. I can’t reconstruct what they were trying to say from audio alone, and without compatible equipment, I can’t do any translation at all.”

Sera had managed to pull up a rough scan of the ship that had sent the signal. It was less than an hour away at sub-light speed travel. The design was one Weyland didn’t recognize. Nothing on the ship was a clean right angle. Every inch of the vessel was covered in flowing curves that rose into spikes and ridges. The design confused his eyes, drawing them to strange places around the hull, but he thought it looked lopsided.

Sera pressed a few more buttons and the scan became a rotating hologram just above Weyland’s com screen. The ship was asymmetrical. On one side, a straight stalk emerged from the belly of the ship with a fat, lumpy pod on the end. On the other side was an identical stalk, but this one was bent at an angle at odds with the rest of the ship’s curves. The pod knocked against the side of the ship, crushing the intricate pattern of the hull beneath it.

“Any sign of the ship that did that?” the captain asked.

“Looks like pirates’ work to me,” Sera said. “Go for the weak points, don’t worry about the kind of damage you’re doing so long as you don’t blow the cargo apart. I’m picking up some masked signals, and they’re heading out of the area fast. We could pursue them,” she added, sounding hopeful.

“Keep heading for the damaged ship,” the captain said. “We’ll see what we can do for the survivors.”

Xrrt

It had been a very long time since Xrrt had set her claws down on a ship designed by her own people. The Coalition liked their lines simple and bare, their ceilings high and flat. She hadn’t been inside a structure built by her own people in years. It was like coming home, and realizing she was a stranger in a foreign hive, both at the same time.

Nyx turned to her. She was wearing her old uniform, the cloth a splash of bright color against the brown walls of the ship. “Do you think you’ll be able to talk with the survivors if we find them?”

Xrrt ground her mandibles together, scraped her foremost claws lightly, and emitted pheromones that said, I have not truly spoken to anyone of my own species since I left my hive. My people have ways of communicating with each other, even those who have gone beyond the reaches of their hive-song, even those who emerge from their pupae still and silent and need the fungus inside them to move. But even then we have a thousand languages, different ways of taking meaning from the sound of a foreclaw and a chemical reaction, just as your people have a thousand ways of making noise to fill the silence between you. I do not know if I can understand what the people who built this ship are trying to tell us. If we meet one of them, I will try to speak to them, but this is a hive-ship and I am a stranger to them.

The translator glued to her thorax crackled with static as it processed this, then said, “I don’t know if we speak the same language. If we find one of them, I will try to communicate.”

Ahead of them, the path branched. Nyx gestured to the left corridor. “If there are any survivors, they’ll be down this way. Xrrt and I will try to find them. The damaged portion should be to the right. Sera, Jianyu, take a look at that and see if it’s possible to repair.”

“That’s not looking likely,” Sera said, but she set off down the right-hand path anyway.

Weyland stayed behind, his hands in his pockets. Xrrt was still getting used to Weyland as a part of the crew. Their old doctor had been talkative, but Weyland kept to herself. All Xrrt knew about her was external: that she was small, that she was the gender humanoids called male, that she didn’t smile much but watched other people’s faces closely. Still, Xrrt felt a deep protectiveness towards her, the same way she felt about the rest of her soft-skinned crew.

Nyx said, “Weyland, I guess you’re with us. How much do you know about Centaurian medicine?”

Weyland shrugged. “Not much.”

Nyx sighed. “Just follow us, and try to do what I do.”

They walked down the corridor. The tips of Xrrt’s antennae brushed the top of the curved ceiling, a comfortable sensation. She could tell by the patterns she felt that they were close to the command center of the ship. The Coalition put bridges on the front of its ships, in the fragile nose cone. Her people built their ships like they built their hives, with the most precious parts at the very heart of the structure, so that a queen would be surrounded on all sides by her sisters.

“Can’t see a thing in here.” Nyx clicked on a flashlight and swept the beam across the walls. Xrrt took point as the floor began its gentle downward slope towards the core of the ship.

Behind her, Weyland said, “Are the walls supposed to move like that?”

Xrrt brushed a forelimb across one of the ridged tubes that crossed the wall, careful not to puncture it with her claw. The pulse within it was frantic, responding to the ship’s damage with bursts of activity.

Most space-faring species built their ships with metal and crystal. Her people used a synthetic version of their own chitin, strong but flexible when necessary. It flowed in liquid form through the ship, and workers tapped the tubes wherever it was needed. That must be why the ship still had an atmosphere, despite its damage. The chitin hardened quickly when it left its tube–but without a worker to guide it, sometimes it clotted into thick impenetrable lumps. She explained this to Weyland. Her translator said, “It’s normal for the walls to move, but this ship is badly damaged.”

Close enough. Even the Coalition had never quite managed to perfect the art of translating her language, although they tried their best.

About fifty feet further down the corridor, they found the first dead body. Xrrt paused over the crumpled thing, examining it. The victim’s carapace was pale yellow, glimmering in the light with a silvery iridescence. Her head was bent forward at an unnatural angle, the chitin crushed where it met the thorax. The curved of the wall were irregular at roughly the height of her head. She must have been flung against the wall during the battle.

There were no bite marks on her body. That was a bad sign. Her people were deeply sentimental about death, but their dead sisters were memorialized in the hive-song; bodies were fuel for the hive, especially rich in nutrients for the maggots. If no one had begun to eat her, that meant that either no one was left to do it, or there were so many dead bodies that the workers hadn’t gotten around to this one yet.

Nyx must have been thinking the same thing. “Not even nibbled. Do you think anyone knows she’s here?”

Weyland crouched beside the body and touched the back of her head where the hard carapace had splintered. Xrrt turned away.

They found another body lying full length across the corridor, also untouched by mantibles. “Bad sign,” Nyx muttered, playing the beam of the flashlight across her before carefully stepping over.

They walked for another minute before they found the passage blocked by a tangle of bodies, all with the same yellow carapaces. The sisters had died with their limbs interlocked, forming a barricade. Their bodied were dotted with the neat, perfectly circular holes of laser blasts, but they had held the line until the end by digging their claws into the walls and dying upright.

Nyx stepped up beside her to examine the scene. “I don’t think the pirates got through this way. Is there another path through the ship?”

She stuck her flashlight between two intertwined forelimbs. In the corridor beyond the barricade, something cringed away from the light. Xrrt stepped up as close as she could get to the tangled sisters, her foreclaws thrust through the gaps. Whoever was in the corridor had retreated out of the reach of the flashlight’s beam, but her eyes caught the light and glittered. She was smaller than the others, either still growing or stunted, but she struck an aggressive pose with her forelimbs spread and claws raised high.

Xrrt said, I understand why you are afraid. I would be afraid too, stuck on a broken ship, reeling from an attack. I do not even know if you can still hear your hive-song, or if you, like me, are alone in the universe now. I hope you understand that we didn’t come here to hurt you. We came here to help you.

Her translator sputtered, tried to convert her words to English, and said, “We come in peace.”

The little sister, sole survivor or sentry, clicked her mandibles together and let her acid glands bubble. Xrrt couldn’t pick out a pattern in the noise. Her people had a thousand languages, a hundred thousand dialects across millions of hives spread throughout the galaxy. Was it any wonder that they couldn’t communicate?

“Can you understand that?” Nyx asked.

Xrrt’s response translated to a succinct “No.”

“Damn,” said Nyx. “We’ll have to try something else.” She walked up to the barrier of bodies, gripped her flashlight between her teeth, and stuck her open hands through the gaps. She kept her palms up, fingers spread to show she carried nothing. “Weyland, you too,” she muttered around the flashlight.

Weyland approached the barrier. She touched the thorax of one of the sisters, then the tip of one of her mandibles, open wide in a death grimace. Xrrt had spent years studying humanoid species, learning to understand their languages and read the subtle movements of their bodies. Weyland kept her face still, but only with obvious effort. Her shoulders were tense, her weight balanced precisely, her movements slow on unfamiliar ground. She was nervous, but she too put his flashlight between her teeth and thrust her hands through the barricade. At first her hands were balled into fists, and then she spread her fingers slowly.

The survivor moved forward. Weyland’s light was drooping in her mouth, the beam going down, and Nyx’s bounced off the wall so that she was in shadow until she was almost touching them. She reached out with both sets of forelimbs at once, the delicate grasping limbs and the heavier fighting claws both extended. It was a rude gesture, a sign of distrust and a possible prelude to attack. Xrrt was on guard before she could stop herself.

The little sister touched her more sensitive set of foreclaws to Nyx’s outstretched hands, dimpling but not breaking the delicate skin. She shuffled back, fearful, and then crept forward again. Nyx and Weyland stayed still. The sister turned and shuffled off down the corridor, until Xrrt lost sight of her.

“That could have gone better,” Nyx said, pulling her hands back through the barricade.

Weyland yanked his hands through the gap, spat his flashlight into his hand, and swung the beam through the darkness. “There’s more coming,” she said, as the corridor filled with yellow bodies.

Weyland

Still shaking with the aftermath of his adrenaline rush, Weyland trailed Xrrt and Nyx as they headed deeper into the ship. The Centaurians had made short work of the bodies that were joined together in the barricade, dragging them aside so unceremoniously that the locked limbs were snapped out of their sockets. They had made incomprehensible noises at Xrrt, and Xrrt had tried to respond, but their languages must not have matched. The captain was walking confidently, head high and hands carefully kept far away from the grip of her laser pistol, but Weyland still couldn’t shake the feeling that they were strolling right into a trap.

The strange hallway sloped downward, then opened up into a central space bigger than any Weyland had seen inside a ship. The ceiling was barely visible above him, even when he played the beam of his flashlight across it. The far wall was similarly shrouded in darkness. Everywhere he looked, he saw Centaurians, all with the same yellow carapaces. Xrrt, ahead of him, looked out of place with her brown exoskeleton.

He realized that none of the Centaurians had translators glued to their thoraxes. It hadn’t occurred to him that they had different languages, or that their families might look alike. He still had a hard time thinking of them as having families, or feelings, or consciences.

There was so much he still had to learn. There was so much he wished he’d learned already, before he walked right into a pit of razor-clawed aliens. Strange emotions were bubbling inside him, the old training reasserting itself in a gut-tightening mix of revulsion and fear and anger.

He clenched his fists until his knuckles ached and kept following the captain. He was here because he needed to learn. He didn’t even know if the Centaurians were aggressive. They seemed more frightened than anything else, hunkered low on the textured floor, turning their heads to follow the group but not rising to display their claws. Their compound eyes glittered in the beams of the flashlights. The massive scale of the room made the noise of their language less harsh; all around him he heard soft rustles and clicks and gurgles. The room smelled strongly of something organic, but not the familiar mammalian odor of sweat and musk.

The crowd grew thicker, and then the Centaurians ahead of their group held their claws out sideways to prevent them from going any further forward. Ahead of them was the biggest Centaurian Weyland had ever seen, sitting with her forelimbs folded across her wide thorax and her massive abdomen laid out on the floor. He supposed she must be the queen, although he’d never seen a Centaurian queen before. Her daughters clustered close around her, and beyond the circle of guards, Weyland caught a glimpse of something white held in a worker’s arms. It twitched, and he looked away, fighting down an instinctive abhorrence.

The crowd parted, and Sera and Jianyu were herded into their circle by another set of guards. Jianyu was the only person in the room taller than the queen. They both looked as calm as the captain, as if walking through a horde of six-foot acid-spitting insects were something that didn’t even merit comment. Weyland tried to follow the captain’s lead too.

“Xrrt, can you talk to them?” Sera asked.

Xrrt rubbed her claws together. Her translator said, “No, we don’t speak the same language.”

“Too bad,” said Sera. “I’ve got a plan, but it involves explosives. It would be easier if we could explain we’re not trying to kill them all.”

“Yes,” said the captain, drawing out the consonant. “I can see why that would be a problem. What exactly do you need to blow up?”

Sera said, “The damaged pod’s partially torn away from the ship. It’s totally lost atmosphere and life support, no chance of survivors. If it keeps dangling off the side, trying to engage the faster-than-light drive could cause a catastrophic malfunction, or the pod might go through the hull of the ship. If I try to cut through the part that’s still attached to the ship, the liquid system in the walls is going to repair the damage faster than I can make it. If it were stuck at a different angle Jianyu might be able to hit it with a plasma blast from the Benevolence, but the chances of accidentally puncturing the hull and killing the survivors are too high. So our best option is blowing it off.”

The captain rubbed the bridge of her nose. “And how exactly are we going to blow it up?”

“Oh, I’ve got a bomb in the cargo hold.”

“A bomb,” the captain said, her voice the thinnest veneer of calm. “In my cargo hold.”

“I took it off those terrorists on Tsukuyomi B,” Sera said. “Come on, I disarmed it, it’s totally safe in storage. Don’t look at me like that.”

“Go get your bomb,” the captain said. “And pick up Weyland’s medical supplies while you’re at it. Maybe that’s what it takes to convince these people we aren’t terrorists.”

Sera and Jianyu turned away. The Centaurians shuffled around, looking as confused as gigantic alien bugs can look, and then stood aside so they could walk away. Jianyu said to Sera, “Is everything going all right?”

“Just peachy,” said Sera.

“I just noticed you’re solving a lot of problems with explosives lately.”

“Maybe I’m just running into a lot of problems explosives can solve,” Sera said.

“If you ever want to talk, you know, I’m here.”

Their voices faded into the low susurration of noise in the room. Weyland watched the captain and Xrrt try an increasingly desperate series of pantomimes in front of the queen. The Centaurians looked on, unmoving. If there was any understanding behind their compound eyes, Weyland couldn’t read it.

Sera and Jianyu passed back through, wheeling the bomb. Sera shoved a white bag into Weyland’s hands. “I don’t know what this stuff is, but it’s got a picture of a Centaurian on it, so I thought that’s probably good enough.”

Weyland opened the bag. It was the first time he’d ever done so. Xrrt hadn’t needed a doctor’s attention in the six months he’d spent on the Benevolence, and he hadn’t ever gotten close enough to another Centaurian to offer medical assistance. The bag held several clear tubes of bluish gel, scalpels in sterile plastic bags, and an implement that looked like a miniature bolt cutter. The gel was the only thing he thought wouldn’t be construed as a possible threat, so he pulled it out and held it up. There was a stylized black silhouette of a Centaurian on the label, and Liquid Carapace was written in English and several other human and non-human languages.

The Centaurians crowded in around him, then retreated to talk with each other. Some sort of consensus must have been reached, because Weyland was pulled forward, claws curling around his arms and scraping against his back. He was deposited inside the circle of guards, directly in front of the queen, who leaned down to get a better look at him.

The queen’s eyes were set forward in her face, all the better for tracking prey. Centaurians were an apex predator species on their homeworld. Most of the aliens who had successfully come to space flight on their own were predators; it took a lot of big brains working together to figure out how to break out of a gravity well. Weyland wondered what else they had in common. He looked at her many-faceted eyes because it was better than looking to the side, where her attendants stood holding white grubs that squirmed and chewed the air with tiny mandibles.

The captain and Xrrt had not been pulled forward into the circle. Weyland had no one to imitate. He thought the trick the captain had tried with empty hands might work again, so he pocketed the tube of gel, set the bag down carefully at his feet, and spread his hands palm-up. He wasn’t sure, now that he thought about it, if the Centaurians even recognized the gesture. All their limbs were tipped with natural weapons.

One of the guards stepped forward and pressed a pale bundle very gently into Weyland’s hands. He looked down and realized that he was holding a massive maggot. She twitched feebly against him. He had expected the bugs to be warm like mammals, somehow, but her sides were as cool as the ambient air. Her flesh was almost pure white, with just the faintest hint of yellow like her older sisters and her mother. Her skin was soft, almost like a human’s, except where it rose into a pattern of stiff ridges. Weyland thought he had seen those patterns before; they looked like the sides of the Centaurian ship.

The maggot’s side had been badly scored by a shot from a laser rifle. The initial blast had cauterised the wound, but her frantic wriggling must have broken the flesh open before it could heal, and she was leaking a clear pungent fluid.

Ok, so he had never operated on a Centaurian maggot before. But debriding the wound and sealing it to stop the bleeding seemed simple enough. He looked around for an operating table, saw nothing that would do, and set the maggot down gently on the floor. The queen loomed above him, watching with eyes that could not blink.

He had the tube marked Liquid Carapace. The other gels in the bag were, as far as he could tell, a disinfectant and a painkiller. He tried cutting away the dead flesh first, and the maggot wriggled and wept more fluid. She wouldn’t eat a dollop of the painkilling gel off his finger, even when he stuck it right between her tiny mandibles, but she relaxed when he spread it over the wound.

He worked in silence. When the procedure was done, or at least when he thought he had done all he could do, he held the maggot out and one of the workers took her away.

Sera and Jianyu came back into the cavern, running full out. The Centaurians parted before them. They slowed before the queen but didn’t stop. Sera hooked an arm around the captain’s. Jianyu put a hand on Weyland’s shoulder and pulled him away. It was easier to follow than try to stay behind. Xrrt scurried after them.

“Gotta go now,” Sera yelled. “Couldn’t set the timer for longer than five minutes.”

“Don’t want to be here when that thing blows,” Jianyu added. His face was flushed a dark green. The ship was big; they must have been running for a while already. “Don’t know how they’ll react.”

Weyland glanced over his shoulder one last time as they reached the corridor leading out of the vast central chamber. The Centaurians weren’t following them. Weyland hadn’t been taught to be sentimental about his patients, but he wondered if the maggot would live. He wondered if any of the Centaurians on the ship would live. With the damaged portion of their ship gone, maybe they had a chance.

Xrrt

The bomb went off when the crew was still in the thin boarding tube between the Benevolence and the other ship. The tube was a thin metal and insulation structure, sealed against the void but not designed for long-term use. It had atmosphere but no artificial gravity, so the crew went along hand over hand, heading back to their own airlock.

Species with inner ears said microgravity was a little like flying, or like falling. Xrrt’s auditory apparatus was not connected to her proprioception. The damaged ship rocked, and the tube went with it. The rest of the crew lost their sense of where they were and bounced off the walls, yelling. Xrrt hooked her claws into the wall and kept pressing forward. She snagged Nyx’s shirt with one hind claw and Sera’s vest with another. Jianyu was already at the airlock, keying in the code that would open the door. Weyland had bounced off the wall, looking stunned, but by the time Xrrt reached him she had already recovered and pushed off towards the airlock.

They passed over the threshold of the ship, into the boundary where artificial gravity worked again. Xrrt put Sera and Nyx down gently. Jianyu, disoriented by the sudden change in her understanding of direction, staggered to a corner of the room and threw up. Weyland came in fast, several feet in the air. She hit the ground shoulder-first, rolled, and bounced up lightly on the balls of her feet.

Xrrt keyed in instructions to close the airlock and separate the boarding tube. The door closed with a hiss, and the Benevolence vibrated faintly as the tube began to retract.

They stumbled to the bridge. The ships were pulling apart, no longer held together by the boarding tube. Sera slid into her seat and turned the Benevolence sideways, barely avoiding the damaged pod as it pinwheeled past them.

“Any offensive action?” Nyx asked.

“Not sure, but they’re getting ready to move,” Sera said. “Let’s get out before we find out how they’re feeling about us.”

They turned away from the ship, heading for deep space. Xrrt watched the monitors for as long as they could keep track of the stranded ship. The crew must have got the engines firing, because it was moving a little, limping away in the opposite direction.

Maybe they would make it to safety after all. Maybe they were trying to call in reinforcements to go after the Benevolence. The ship shook as Sera powered up the ion rocket, taking them far enough into the void that they could safely turn on the FTL drive.

Later, when the ship was sliding through folds of space and time towards its next port, Xrrt paced the hallways. She couldn’t stop thinking of the survivors, of where they might be now. The Benevolence seemed oppressively silent, the only sounds the soft hum of the drive, the churn of the life support system, and the hiss of air through the vents.

Her people ran on love. Not sexual love–Xrrt had never wrapped her mind around the concept, in practice or in theory–but the deep bonds of family. Every sister in the hive came from the same mother, or the same mother’s mother. Their love for each other thrummed through the hive-song, the psychic connection between sisters that kept the hive together. Xrrt had walked away from her hive, and their absence was a silence where there should have been music. That was the price every one of her people paid to fly with the Coalition: the silence of space between her and her sisters, the hive-song fading with distance.

Some of her people took to the stars without losing the hive-song. Often a young queen would take command of a frigate and travel for a while; some of her sisters would come with her while others stayed with their mother, the hive cleaving in two so they all had room to grow. Other hives travelled together in colony ships, looking for new worlds where they could expand their territory without a queen having to part from her own daughter. It was not the choice Xrrt had made, but it was one she had considered when her sisters realized that there was no room left for the hive to grow. They had chosen a third option together: sending some of their workers to the stars, to serve the Coalition instead of their native hive.

The stranded ship had been much larger than a frigate, and the queen was no callow youth looking for adventure. They had been going somewhere before they were attacked. Had they been forced out of their original burrows by their own numbers? Had they been pushed out by the unrest that was spreading from star to star, as each species rushed into the void the Coalition had left to take what they could from their former allies? Or were they colonizers, looking for a homestead they could take by force?

The door to Weyland’s lab was open. Xrrt poked her head in and saw the doctor at her desk. Weyland had a diagram up on her com screen: a shifting graphic of her species’ anatomy, changing as a maggot grew into a soft-shelled juvenile and then an adult. When she heard the click of Xrrt’s claws on the floor she looked up and scooted her seat around to face her.

“I left the bag there,” she said. “I thought maybe they could use it. I hope I did the right thing.”

Xrrt said, I think we did the right thing. But we’ll never know whether they understood that we were only trying to help. We had no way of asking them what they wanted. They had no way of telling us what they needed. That’s the way it’s going to be now, all of us talking past each other, with no way of knowing how much of the meaning is lost. But I believe they understood that you wanted to help.

Her translator said, “You did your best,” which wasn’t even close.

Weyland said, “I wasn’t even sure I was doing what they wanted. I mean, your species eats its dead. They aren’t sentimental. So why worry about saving one maggot?”

Xrrt said, a body is only protein. But that child was alive–is, I hope, still alive–and the whole hive knew her, in the flesh and in the hive-song. They loved her for what she was, small and vulnerable. They loved her for what she would become, someone who could stand and work and fight with her sisters.

Her translator said, “Because she was worth saving,” which was close enough.

?

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Worst Contact - Astra Nullius

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