Human Food – 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

Weyland thumbed the dial of the microscope until the cells on the slide stood out in sharp relief. They looked like normal bovine myocytes, the long fibers clear, the nuclei showing in little dark ovals. Everything was perfectly normal as far as he could see, a healthy slice of cow muscle tissue grown on a standard substrate. That was the problem.

He hadn’t noticed it at first. He was so used to thinking of food as fuel and nothing else; he ate and then he got on with his day. Before he’d begun travelling on the Benevolence, he’d never thought much about where food came from, he just took what he was given. But Captain Dysart couldn’t afford both a doctor and a genetic specialist for the ship’s food supply, and so Weyland had found himself working two jobs.

The rest of the crew never told him that the food he grew tasted bad. He’d noticed the way they picked at their vat-grown meat and processed kelp protein. He’d seen how fast they scattered to restaurants as soon as the ship was docked. Sometimes, Weyland had come to understand, politeness was just hiding the truth from the person who needed to hear it.

He’d begun his investigation by testing the vats for toxins. Everything was up to code. He pulled up the crews’ medical histories, looking for trends before and after he took over food production. If anything, he’d lowered the number of reported gastrointestinal incidents.

The contents of each vat matched the label every time he took a new sample for genetic testing. He cooked each cut of meat at the exact temperature and for the exact time specified by health codes. The crew got their ideal daily intake of every essential vitamin and mineral, micro and macronutrient. Whatever quality his meals were missing, it wasn’t impacting anyone’s health.

The intercom crackled. Weyland, startled, jerked forward, and slammed into the microscope’s eyepiece. He sat back, blinking away the stars, as Sera said, “Faster than light drive is now disengaged. Get your butts to the bridge.”

He heard Captain Dysart’s quick footsteps in the hallway, followed by the skittering of Xrrt’s claws. Weyland stretched, realizing how much his neck muscles had kinked up from hours in front of the microscope. He picked up the thin metal wand he used for taking measurements from Jianyu’s neural port and headed for the bridge.

Sera must not have turned off the intercom, because he could hear the captain’s voice coming through the speakers as he walked. She said, “You could try being a bit more professional.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Sera responded as Weyland entered the room. Beyond the crystalline window, the stars were points of bright light. Their destination wasn’t yet within visual range, although Sera had pulled up a rotating hologram of it at her station: a space station made of a series of wide rotating rings around a central spoke.

Jianyu was slumped forward in his chair, the cable that connected him to the ship’s navigation equipment still stuck in his head. Weyland slid each of his eyelids up with a thumb. His pupils were wider than normal, but still responsive to light. The pulse at his carotid artery was slow and regular. As Jianyu began to come around, Weyland removed the cable and plugged in the neural probe. He wondered what it was like, plugging your own brain into the ship’s computer to calculate the trajectories that could take a ship through folds of space and time faster than the speed of light. He supposed something about the experience must be worth it, because Jianyu’s neural readings were getting steadily worse, and he still refused to take a break from his job.

The ship continued on its course. Sera alternated between checking her console and staring at Weyland as he worked. Jianyu cycled through a period of aphasia–longer this time by a solid half minute, always a little longer than the previous episode–and complained of nausea. The captain and Xrrt conversed quietly, or as quietly as Xrrt could ever get, considering her species’ language involved mandible grinding. Weyland finished his report, filed it in Jianyu’s medical chart with the others, and found a seat where he could watch in silence as their destination appeared in visual range, orbiting in the thermosphere of a waterless grey planet. There were plenty of empty spots on the bridge where he could sit without being in the way. It had been designed for a much larger crew.

Sera had a short conversation with the station’s port control crew, then focused on the tricky work of maneuvering the ship into an empty dock. Jianyu began the gradual process of standing up without blacking out. Weyland watched, unable to do anything to help out for this part of the process. At seven feet tall, Jianyu was the largest member of the crew, and he outweighed Weyland three times over. If he fell, there wasn’t much anyone could do except hope he didn’t hit his head too hard on the way down.

Jianyu took a slow lap of the room as he got his bearings and ended up standing beside Weyland as the Benevolence passed through a rotating ring on its way to the dock. “Got any plans while you’re here?” he asked as they both watched a metal strut pass by the window. From the sound of panicked voices on the communication system, Sera was flying too close.

“I was thinking of going shopping,” Weyland said. “Actually, if you have time, I could use your help.”

“Sure, whatever you need,” said Jianyu.

Weyland took a stabilizing breath and tried to keep his expression neutral. He knew that his understanding of the universe was full of holes; as soon as he patched one, he discovered another. Asking the crew for help still made him nervous, especially when he didn’t even know whether he was asking for a routine favor or a monumental task. He said, “I need some help shopping for spices.”

Jianyu

The market was too bright and too loud. It filled an entire ring of the station, row after row of stalls disappearing up into the curve of the floor. Shoppers and stalls alike stayed put on the floor not because of a standard artificial gravity, but by the centrifugal force of the station’s spin. The curved concourse and the unfamiliar, faintly wrong sensation of being pressed down to the floor gave Jianyu the sensation that he was falling forward.

Sera had announced that she would be joining them on their trip to the market, then disappeared into her room near the Benevolence’s engines. When she came out, the pockets of her olive green cargo vest were bulging. Jianyu didn’t ask what she was carrying, but he did watch as she stopped at a few stalls to trade packages he couldn’t catch a good glimpse of for credit chips. Whenever she stopped, Jianyu would take a moment to put his hands on his knees and focus on something that wasn’t the unsettling design of the station. Weyland would wander over to a nearby storefront at random, apparently uninterested in whatever illegal activity Sera was up to.

As Weyland had his back turned, examining a stall full of animals, Sera completed her business returned to Jianyu’s side. Her pockets were thinning out, but she was wearing the smug smile of a woman who thought she’d gotten the better end of a deal. “So, do you think Weyland really doesn’t know what spices are, or do you think he’s just making excuses for being a bad cook?”

Jianyu watched Weyland stare at a clear-walled enclosure with a litter of puppies inside. He was focused intently on the animals, crouching so he could be level with them. One of the bolder puppies was pawing at the transparent wall, demanding attention or just confused by the barrier. “That would be a weird thing to lie about.”

“Has he ever talked to you about where he’s from?” Sera asked as Weyland tapped on the other side of the barrier with his index finger. “I mean, it’s pretty clear he never worked for the Coalition, so where did he come from? Not earth, and not any colony I’ve ever heard of.”

“He’s a good doctor, he must have trained somewhere.”

“Yeah, but he acts like he grew up in a windowless box. He just doesn’t feel like one of us, you know? Whatever his story is, it’s wild.” Weyland broke away from the puppies, and Sera said, “I heard there’s a good place to buy kitchen supplies just up ahead.”

The store was big enough to take up the space of five stalls, packed floor to ceiling with jars of spices and cooking implements. Jianyu recognized a good number of them, but there were some even he couldn’t place. The known universe might have been just a sliver of the Milky Way galaxy, but it contained dozens of sentient species and tens of thousands of cultures. The spices from earth alone covered about ten feet of shelves that ran from floor to ceiling, with another ten devoted to flavors humanity could safely consume.

As he watched Weyland take it all in, he thought Sera might just be right about the doctor’s life experience. Weyland didn’t look like a man who was trying to cover for a lie about his bad cooking. He looked stunned, as if he’d just discovered that this many flavors existed in the world.

He almost looked like he was about to cry.

The shopkeeper approached them, claws clicking on the smooth metal floor. She looked like a Centaurian, but had a distinctive lump where her head met her thorax: a Minervan, then, with a Centaurian host body. Sera went over to speak with her, one hand already dipping into a vest pocket, and the two ducked behind a curtain at the back of the shop.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Weyland said.

The shop didn’t have any convenient jars, only self-sealing bags large enough to hold a quart of spices. This wasn’t a place for home cooks, but for the industrial work of making food for an entire ship’s crew. Jianyu grabbed a handful of bags and said, “Let’s start with the easy stuff. Salt and pepper first.”

“I have salt pills already,” Weyland said. “I don’t get why I’m supposed to have salt crystals too.”

Jianyu filled a bag anyway. “Look, I’m not trying to be rude, but have you ever read a recipe?”

“I follow industry standards for meat preparation,” said Weyland.

“Okay, we’ll download some recipes.” Maybe Sera was right. Weyland had been on the Benevolence’s crew for over half a year, and Jianyu still barely knew anything about him. Everyone else on the team felt like a member of the family, and Weyland was still the weird roommate. “What’s your favorite food?”

“Are people supposed to have favorites?” Jianyu handed Weyland the bag of salt, which he clutched to his chest.

“Just–anything you ate that you liked. There are no wrong answers,” he added, because Weyland looked like he was terrified of giving the wrong answer.

Weyland took his time took his time thinking that one over. “I had a pepper once,” he said, in a wary tone as if he didn’t quite believe it himself. “A spicy pepper. I liked that.”

“Okay. Great place to start. Do you remember what kind?”

“A Harmanian venom pepper,” Weyland said, pointing to a very small jar very high up on the shelf.

“Let’s start with some red pepper flakes.” Jianyu scooped some generous spoonfuls into a bag.

The curtain at the back of the shop blossomed outward. Sera fell through it and landed hard on her back. She was covered in something red, all down the front of her shirt, a dark stain spreading beneath her open vest.

Jianyu was on the move before he had the time to think about it. He dropped the bag and pushed forward without thinking about where he was going. He caught one of the shelves full of spices with his hip, and as it wobbled, Weyland slipped past him and knelt at Sera’s side. The shopkeeper loomed over them, her four forelimbs spread wide, claws curving out. One was bright red, dripping liquid.

The shelf began to tip, jars grinding against each other as they slid. The first one to go hit the floor and shattered, spraying fine orange powder, and that was only the start of the avalanche.

Weyland

Sera was covered in blood. Weyland was reasonably certain that it was hers; he remembered Centaurian blood looking more like a clear gel. She was struggling to reach the gun at her hip, but her left arm wasn’t moving the way she wanted it to, and she was trying to use her right arm to push herself off the floor.

The shopkeeper stood over them, saying something in her alien language. Her acid glands gurgled. Weyland wasn’t sure if that was part of the speech or a prelude to an attack. The Centaurian had a translator glued to her thorax, a bulkier model than Xrrt’s. The voice that came out of it hummed with static. “You think you can come back here, after what you did?” the Centaurian said. “You really think your old friends will be happy to see you? If you wanted a warm welcome, you shouldn’t have stolen from Buddy.”

Sera reached for her gun again, but only succeeded in slapping the butt of it. Most of the blood on her was coming from her left shoulder. Her face was starting to turn grey. Weyland pushed her down gently, grabbed her right wrist, and placed her hand over the wound. “Keep pressure on that,” he told her.

“Got other things I need to be doing right now,” Sera said through gritted teeth.

Glass was shattering behind them. Weyland didn’t turn his head to see what was happening. He felt calmer than he had in hours, all the anxiety about the shopping trip disappearing as the world he needed to focus on narrowed to Sera and the Centaurian. This, he could understand.

He pulled Sera’s gun out of its holster and pointed it at the Centaurian, just at the left side of the thorax, where he knew that species had a vulnerable spot. Hit it right, and the acid in the burst gland would leech into their soft tissues.

Weyland was intensely aware of his finger on the trigger, the curve of the metal, the feeling of it giving under pressure. Glass was still breaking, and Sera was panting in pain, and killing the Centaurian was the obvious choice.

He didn’t squeeze. He held the gun steady, and the Centaurian didn’t move. He found himself wondering if she had sisters nearby or if she, like Xrrt, was alone. The thought didn’t quite fit in that calm, frozen moment; it made him remember that she was a living thing, a sentient thing, and he was afraid he was going to have to kill her.

“Back off,” he told her. She stood still for a long moment, and then she folded her claws and stepped away. “Turn around and leave. Not to the back of your shop, go all the way down the concourse until I can’t see you,” he added, keeping the gun trained on her.

She shuffled away, walking backwards, and paused just within earshot. She spoke again, the words ground out between her mandibles. Her translator said, “You won’t get away from Buddy this easily. Wherever you go, whoever you’re with, he’ll find you.”

Weyland was aware of Jianyu now, coming up to the side of them. “Pick her up,” he said. “Make sure she keeps pressure on that wound. I don’t have my medical kit with me, we’ll have to go back to the ship.”

Jianyu did as instructed. Weyland kept the gun pointed at the Centaurian until she turned away and began to put distance between them, as instructed. The shopkeepers around them were watching, their expressions guarded. He hadn’t noticed anyone calling for a security guard or for police. He didn’t have a holster for the gun, so he held it loosely at his side, barrel pointing toward the floor and index finger resting on the side of the trigger guard. He was beginning to come to an understanding that there were places in the galaxy where laws were enforced, and places where people wouldn’t even report a murder. He was pretty sure he was in the second sort of place now.

Back on the Benevolence, the routine tasks of his job unspooled, his hands moving with hardly any conscious thought from him. Sera had lost a lot of blood, but she was still aware enough to wince when Jianyu lowered her onto the metal desk that served as Weyland’s workstation. The lab was crowded with food vats and some of Weyland’s experiments. One of these days, he needed to get a real operating table.

He stabilized her first, administered enough painkillers that she wouldn’t go into shock, then got started on cleaning and patching her wound. It was a deep claw puncture, nearly all the way through the muscle of her shoulder, but her attacker had just missed the suprascapular artery.

Sera, muzzy from the painkillers but not fully unconscious, mumbled, “You’re a weird guy, but you’re all right.” Weyland didn’t respond, since he was focusing on applying a medical adhesive to close her wound. She repeated it, louder this time, and added, “Really, really weird. And your cooking’s terrible. But you’re all right.”

“Thank you,” said Weyland. He looked up at Jianyu, who had been hovering in the corner of the lab. His shirt was covered in multicolored dust. “Check her room, make sure her bed’s clear. She can rest in there after this sets.”

Jianyu nodded and rushed out of the room. Sera grabbed the front of Weyland’s shirt with her good hand. Her eyes were unfocused, the pupils narrowed to pinpricks. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked.

“Of course,” Weyland said. He disentangled her fingers from his shirt.

“Promise me you won’t tell the captain about this,” Sera said. “Buddy’s debt, me getting attacked, any of it. She doesn’t need to know.”

“I promise,” said Weyland, “but you’re not going to be able to use that arm for a while. Come up with a good story, and I’ll back you up” Sera’s gun was sitting on top of a vat of kelp. He shut it away in a desk drawer. He’d give it back to her when she wasn’t high.

Jianyu

Sera slept for hours. Weyland said she would be fine alone in her room, but Jianyu sat with her anyway. His shirt was still covered in spices. Clothing in his size was hard to find. He was massive on a human scale, but barely a teenager to Eridani. He tried to brush what he could from the fabric before giving it up as a lost cause.

Sera’s room was a mess. Most of her wardrobe was on her floor, some of it clean, some covered in dark grease from time spent working on the Benevolence’s aging internal systems. The only part of the room that wasn’t a mess was the wall of tools, each hung neatly on its own peg. Jianyu channeled his nervous energy into cleaning, first sorting out the clothes that needed to be washed, then putting away what he could. Half a drawer in her dresser was taken up by a bag of dried leaves that smelled like Vultrum tea. Jianyu was pretty sure that beverage was banned by at least two species’ governments. So was the bag of powdered Narguuse eggs he found under one of her discarded shirts, and he wasn’t even sure what was in the flaky grey-green brick that fell out of her shoe.

Sera woke up groggy, took a look around the room, and said, “You messed up all my shit.”

“I cleaned up all your shit,” Jianyu said.

“I had a system.” She tried to move her arm, groaned, and scrunched her face up. “This really hurts.”

“I think you’re going to need a sling for a while. Think you can still fly the ship with one hand?”

“I could fly with no hands,” Sera said. “I could fly with my nose.”

Jianyu took a seat on the floor beside her bed. “I’d like to see that.”

“I’d press the buttons like this.” Sera turned her face into her pillow, smashing her nose into the fabric. She lay like that for a few seconds, then shifted irritably. “This sucks. Distract me.”

Jianyu tried to come up with a pleasant topic of conversation. He couldn’t stop thinking of her lying on the ground, covered in blood. “I think you’re right about Weyland. He’s got a story he’s not telling us.”

Sera said, “I bet I can find up what’s up with him before you do.”

“Oh, a bet, is it?” Jianyu felt something under his folded legs. He shifted his weight, pulled out a t-shirt wrapped around something lumpy, and unrolled it. There were more mysterious bricks inside. “What are you going to bet with?”

“I’ve got plenty of credits.” Sera patted her sides with her good hand. “What happened to my vest? Did you throw it away?”

“Weyland had to take it off for the surgery. I put it in your laundry pile. Also, I made you a laundry pile.”

“Don’t wash it,” Sera said, “There’s credit chips in there. I had a great day.”

“Apart from almost dying,” Jianyu reminded her.

“You win some, you lose some.”

Jianyu looked down at the strange and doubtless flagrantly illegal stash he was still holding. An idea came to him, and once he thought of it, he couldn’t get rid of it. “I don’t want to bet with money. But the stakes should be high. I want to make it something that really hurts when you lose.”

“Hit me,” Sera said. “There’s this really gross spot in the engine you’ll be cleaning when I win, which I will, because I’m the greatest.”

Jianyu said, “If I win, you have to give up this side business you’re running. No more smuggling drugs. No more meeting up with buyers without the captain’s approval. You take your cut of the profit from legitimate jobs as payment just like everyone else on the crew, and that’s all you get.”

Sera stared up at the ceiling for so long that Jianyu thought she had zoned out. At last, she said, “Okay. I’ll agree to that. But cleaning the engine’s not enough.”

“Fine, let’s up the stakes,” Jianyu said.

“If I win, you have to take a break.” Sera turned her head to look at him. Her pupils were still narrow, but her expression was serious, and her eyes were focused on his face. “Six months, no working as a navigator. Tell the captain get someone else in so you can rest.”

Jianyu’s stomach fell. He looked down at the mystery drugs he was holding. For lack of anything better to do, he rewrapped them and set them aside. His cheeks felt painfully hot. Sera was still staring at him, not speaking, waiting for him to be the one to cut into the silence. Maybe if he didn’t say anything, she’d break first and say it was a joke, that she didn’t really expect him to stop working.

She stayed quiet. At last, Jianyu said, “Six months is a long time.”

“Yeah,” said Sera. “That’s kind of the point.”

“What would I do for six months? I couldn’t stay on the ship.”

“Sure you could,” Sera said. “The captain would find work for you. We all would. I really don’t want to clean that engine.”

Jianyu could picture the months stretching out, with someone else in the navigator’s seat and him sulking around the ship begging for odd jobs. Six months without plugging himself into the ship, six months cut off from calculating the glorious order of the universe and the ship’s trajectory through it. “Those are high stakes. I don’t know if I could do that.”

“Then you better win the bet,” Sera said. “Only you won’t, because I’m the best.”

Jianyu thought it over. Whatever secret was in Weyland’s past, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out. And a little investigative work was well worth the effort if it would end Sera’s little criminal enterprise.

“I’ll take that bet, then,” he said. “First one to find out Weyland’s story gets their way.”

Sera held out her good hand and they shook on it. Now, Jianyu thought, all he had to do was win.

🚀

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Old Flame – 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

Everyone in the port of Bast IX was gorgeous. The civilians stolled in leisurely groups, talking and laughing, their hair shining in the light of the planet’s second blue-tinted sun. Military officers moved in pairs or larger groups, walking with purpose, their pale grey uniforms a pleasant contrast to their green skin. Their faces were impossibly symmetrical, their eyes shining, their teeth white and even. Jianyu tried not to concentrate too hard on anyone’s mouth. The illusion was weakest there. Sometimes if you paid too much attention you could see that there were too many teeth, row after row of them, tiny and sharp.

Their cargo was already unloaded, but Captain Dysart had scheduled an extra long stop on Bast IX. She had said something about the crew needing to rest and recover, but Jianyu could hazard a guess about why she was really taking her time at this port in particular. He had gone along with the ruse, asking Sera and Weyland what they planned to do, and was surprised when Weyland said he wanted to see the museum.

Sera had shrugged and said, “Might as well. Can’t do much else in Falacerian space.” So off to the museum they went.

Jianyu stopped in front of a model of a Falacerian without her glamor. In reality Falacerians were hunchbacked and skinny, with four irregular black eyes set deep in their narrow grey faces and no hair at all. As a species they were small, shorter and weaker than an adult human, with brittle bones and thin undertoned muscles. Their greatest adaptation as a species was their psychic ability. They were always attuned to the minds around them, brushing up against emotions and desires. In their resting state they pulled the images from your mind you wanted to see the most, turning them back on you. The process was unobtrusive and totally painless; Jianyu only imagined that his brain itched at the sight of them.

Sera ambled up next to him and elbowed him in the side. “Sexy, huh?”

“Don’t be rude,” Jianyu hissed. They were within earshot of a docent, who smiled at them with her mouth closed. Weyland had wandered away from them, and was staring in frank fascination at a display of depictions of Falacerians throughout human history: first as demons and fairies, then as little grey aliens, and finally as equals in the galactic Coalition.

Sera leaned in, examining the statue more closely. “Did you ever play that game, asking a Falacerian to tell you what you want most?” she asked. “You’d make a bet, and if you lost it, you had to sit there while they told all your friends what they look like to you. I had this one friend when I was in training who was pretty good at it.”

“That seems rude,” Jianyu said. “I’ve never heard of it.”

The docent said, “Actually, it’s pretty common. I get asked that all the time.”

“Tell me what you look like to him.” Sera jerked her thumb at Jianyu.

Jianyu could feel his cheeks getting warm. “I thought there was supposed to be a bet.”

“Fine, let’s play.” Sera rooted around in her vest pockets, then held out two fists. “I’ve got a data chip in one hand. Guess which one and you win the bet.”

Jianyu sighed and tapped her left hand. She opened it, showing nothing but the tracery of old scars, then revealed the chip in her right hand. Jianyu was sure that either guess would have been wrong. Sera was practiced at palming data chips, and she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt today.

The docent had stepped closer to see the game, and now he smirked and held out his hands palm up. Jianyu hesitated, then held his own hand out palm down. Skin to skin contact wasn’t necessary for Falacerians, but something about it strengthened their ability to worm their way into others’ minds.

“Green skin,” the docent said. “Hair like a human’s, nose and mouth too.” He grinned, teeth bared, and Jianyu snatched his hands away. His cheeks were burning. “There’s no shame in wanting to see someone who looks like you.”

Sera cackled. Jianyu wasn’t so sure he wanted to get advice about what to be ashamed of from a Falacerian. Falacerian empathy wasn’t internal like most humanoids, or shared within a hive-mind like Centaurians’ intense familial love. In mixed company, Falacerians learned to feel the kinder emotions of other species. Left to their own devices, they were capricious and dangerous: wholly without guilt or pity, driven by a cold curiosity that, when combined with boredom, often turned lethal.

They rejoined Weyland, who had moved on to an exhibit of all the names Falacerians had gone by throughout galactic history. There were enough to cover a whole wall in printed letters: hundreds of human languages, transliterated variants of Centaurian, the blocky print of standardized Eridani, and a dozen more of the most common languages spoken by species throughout known space. “I don’t get it,” he said, staring at the text. “Why are there so many different names? Why doesn’t everyone just call them what they want to be called?”

“Some of it’s pronunciation problems,” Jianyu said, pointing to the section of transliterated Centaurian. “It’s not really possible to make those sounds if you don’t have mandibles, and some of the nuance is in pheromonal emissions. And for the others, it’s just whatever that culture came up with. We call them Falacerians in English, but that’s just because part of it’s an old Latin word that sounded polite. That’s why they have hundreds of names just in human languages.”

“Like Minervans,” Sera said. “From an old story about a god living inside someone’s head.”

“Why doesn’t someone just ask them what they want to be called?” Weyland asked. “This is all too complicated.”

“Oh, we real names for ourselves,” said the docent, who must have followed them in the hopes that they would do something else interesting. “We just don’t share them with outsiders.”

He winked, and Jianyu wasn’t sure if he was joking. Falacerian society was driven by rules and rituals, and many of them weren’t open to outsiders. Humans, Centaurians, and Eridani had come into the Coalition prepared to share the collective knowledge of their cultures. Minervans had no shared culture, and didn’t even identify as a species. Falacerians had traditionally stood apart, participating in technological exchanges but refusing to share the full details of what went on in Falacerian society. Maybe that was for the best. There was a reason they’d all been screened for weapons as soon as they arrived. In their own private colonies, without the influence of alien minds, Falacerians played strange and bloody games for power.

Nyx

Nyx took a bite of curry and closed her eyes for a moment, savoring it. The flavors weren’t quite like human food, the alien flesh of the meat strongly fishy, the spices sharper and tangier than she was used to. It was the best thing she’d eaten in months.

She opened her eyes to Livia laughing at her. That might just be the best thing she’d seen in months, too. Livia looked exactly as she had when Nyx last said goodbye to her: her skin pale and gleaming under the artificial lights, her silver-white hair long and loose, her blue eyes bright. The only new thing was her uniform, a pale grey jacket cut in angular lines and a matching pair of trousers. She knew it was an illusion, everything a reflection of what she wanted to see except for that colorless uniform where she had once worn bright Coalition orange.

“Haven’t found a good cook yet?” Livia asked.

“It’s so bad,” Nyx said. “You wouldn’t believe how bad. Did you know steaks can be slimy?”

“It can’t be as bad as the time Betti was on bed rest for a month. Remember when Vantos thought it was a good idea to make chicken jerky?”

“I thought it tasted fine,” Xrrt said. “Good texture, too.”

“Yes, but you don’t have humanoid taste buds,” Livia said. “Lucky you.”

For a moment, Nyx felt a nostalgia so powerful that it was a heavy warmth in her chest. It wasn’t exactly like old times, of course; Navigator Vantos had died on the bridge years ago, and Betti had gotten off what remained of the Benevolence at the first port, telling Nyx she wasn’t prepared to die for an organization that didn’t even exist anymore. Livia had stuck around for a while longer, piloting what remained of the ship. Sometimes Nyx woke up in the middle of the ship’s night cycle wondering why there was no body beside hers.

Livia must have sensed how she was feeling. “How’s the old girl holding up?” she asked.

Technically, the Benevolence had a thousand names. That was the trouble with a system designed by committee: no one could figure out which language should be used to name the Coalition’s vessels. And so, in addition to its model designation and serial number, each ship was named after a virtue that could be translated into any language.

The system was not without its problems. Traditional Falacerian virtues ranged from the inadvisable to the distasteful. Centaurians were never quite pleased with the translations. Eridani culture was more concerned with avoiding vice than pursuing virtue. And the Minervans had collectively managed to agree on just one principle they could all aspire to: Assimilation. Livia rarely used the Benevolence’s name in her own language. She had once told Nyx it meant something along the lines of a business deal with unfavorable terms for you.

“She’s running all right,” Nyx said. “Sera’s been telling me we need to–I don’t know, change the ion converter or something. It’s getting expensive.”

“Ships are always expensive,” said Livia. “Did you ever take a look at the Coalition’s expense sheets? We were always running at a loss.”

“Turning a profit was never supposed to be the point,” Nyx said, wondering how they had managed to fall back into an old argument so quickly. She had dated Livia for a long time–not exclusively, but not casually either–and every time they met up for drinks she was reminded how deeply each had carved grooves into the other. She didn’t want to spent the evening repeating the same points about the history of the Coalition to someone who already knew everything she had to say. “How’s the navy treating you?” she said instead.

“It’s… different.” Livia’s mouth twisted as if she had tasted something bitter. “I enjoy it, and then when I see you again, I wonder why I enjoy it. It’s only us on the ships, and well, you know how it is.”

Nyx didn’t know how it was, although she could hazard several unpleasant guesses. She had always known that her girlfriend was, without the influence of aliens minds bleeding over into her own, a remorseless psychopath. In the early days of their relationship, that had been a part of Livia’s appeal. Nyx had secretly enjoyed the knowledge that someone so dangerous loved her, that her presence could tame that savage beast. Now, she tried hard not to think about what Livia got up to in the long months between their meetings. “How does a ship like that handle?”

Livia’s eyes sparkled. It wasn’t all a trick of the mind. She loved to fly, and when she spoke about it, she came alive like nothing else. “I’m on a Fata-class cruiser now, and it handles like a dream.”

They talked for a while about Livia’s new ship and the Benevolence’s ailments. Xrrt finished her meal, made polite conversation for few minutes longer, and excused herself. Nyx had never quite figured out how she knew when to make herself scarce. Xrrt’s species didn’t understand romance or the need for privacy; still, she retired to the bar, where Nyx saw the cure of Jianyu’s massive back as he bent over Weyland and Sera beside him.

Livia followed her gaze. Her smile was still dazzling, but there was a wistful quality to it now. “Still trying to keep the crew together,” she said.

“I do what I can,” Nyx said.

Livia turned away. Nyx looked down at her plate. She’d finished her curry without noticing it; she’d planned to savor every bite. Livia put her hand on the cold metal table top, halfway between them, palm down. There was some sort of insignia on the cuff of her jacket, a naval rank Nyx had never learned to recognize. It looked like three vines knotted in a complicated pattern. Last time there had been only two vines in a simpler knot. Livia was moving up the ranks fast.

Nyx put her own hand over Livia’s, palm down, fingertips slipping underneath her jack’s sleeve. For a moment her skin felt cold as a reptile’s, and then her glamor supplied the sensation of human warmth.

“Do you want to get out of here?” Livia asked.

“I’d love to,” Nyx said.

Jianyu

After the museum they found a restaurant close to the port, where aliens outnumbered the locals. It was a small establishment, part bar and part restaurant. He hoped it was a friendly enough place for mixed species company. There were three empty stools at the bar. Sera and Weyland sat down. Jianyu considered the third stool, which was built for Falacerian sizes, then moved it out of the way and stood at the bar.

“Anything look good?” he asked, gesturing at the menu scrolling on the electronic display behind the bar.

Weyland shook his head. “I don’t know what to get.”

The menu was written in a handful of different languages: the spiky runes Falacerians used, poorly translated English, a dialect of Eridani he didn’t understand all that well, and a few others Jianyu didn’t recognize. There were no pictures. Maybe that was for the best. Traditional Falacerian food was fresh enough to scream.

“I think that’s beef,” he said, pointing to a dish that was labelled Fat Milk Beast Disassembled with Bread in English and Loud Milk Animal in Buns in Eridani.

“I hope it’s beef,” Sera muttered.

The bartender came by, green-skinned to Jianyu’s eyes, and took their order. They all got the dish that was probably beef.

“The captain’s here,” Weyland said, shrugging a shoulder to indicate the general direction she was in. “Xrrt too.”

Jianyu looked out over the room and saw the other two members of the Benevolence’s crew sitting at a small table. They weren’t alone. Sera spun around on her stool and started to stand up, but he put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s not bother them,” he said.

“Oh, it’s a hamburger,” Sera said when the bartender set their plates down. She sounded deeply relieved.

“I told you it was beef,” Jianyu said, picking up his own meal. The portions were so small here. Maybe he should have ordered two.

Weyland waited for the others to start eating before he picked up his own sandwich. He bit down, chewed, and then set the food carefully back down on his plate. His brow was furrowed.

“Don’t like it?” Sera asked around a mouthful of vat-grown meat.

“Is this was beef is supposed to taste like?” Weyland asked.

Jianyu caught Sera’s eye, and she raised her eyebrows in a silent gesture of acknowledgement. “Yeah, this is a pretty normal hamburger,” Sera said.

“I’m trying to do it right.” Weyland stared at his plate, his shoulders hunched. “I know I’m not doing a good job. I’m trying to get better.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Jianyu said. He hated Weyland’s version of vat-grown beef as much as the rest of the crew, but now didn’t seem like the time to rub it in.

He felt the tap of a claw on his shoulder and slid to the side so Xrrt could belly–or abdomen, he supposed–up to the bar. “Done catching up?” he asked her.

Xrrt ground her mandibles together. Her translator interpreted the noise she made as, “You know how it goes.”

I don’t know how it goes.” Sera spun around on her stool again. “Who’s that with the captain?”

“She used to have your job, actually,” Jianyu said. It looked like the two of them were getting up to leave. Captain Dysart had her hand on Livia’s arm, her fingers cupping her elbow. “She left a few years ago.”

His feelings about Livia were complicated. She had stuck around longer than some of the remaining crew, and even helped rebuild what remained of the Benevolence, turning what had once been a scientific vessel into a cargo ship. For a while she had been the closest thing Jianyu had to a supervisor; with no other navigators left on board, she was his only superior officer in Operations. But she had never liked flying the awkward patched-together hulk that the Benevolence had become, and she’d left with some harsh words for everyone who still believed that if they just hung on long enough, the Coalition would reform.

Still, the captain looked a little happier every time they met up. They left the restaurant together, the door sliding shut behind them, and if Jianyu couldn’t forgive Livia for leaving the crew at least he could be thankful that she still treated the captain kindly.

“They’re being followed,” Weyland said.

“What? No.” Jianyu looked around and couldn’t spot any shady characters. The door opened again, someone else coming or going. The crowd looked like any other at a portside bar–maybe a little more relaxed without their weapons hanging heavy at their hips, a little more boisterous in the company of so many beautiful Falacerians.

“Weyland’s right.” Sera slid off her stool. Her hand drifted to her hip, where her gun would have been, and when she found nothing there her fingers curled into a fist. “Let’s go.”

“Go where? How are we even supposed to help? We don’t even have weapons,” Jianyu said as he followed the others out. They had paid when their food arrived, another quirk of Falacerian culture: money was always exchanged for goods, never traded for a promise. “Seriously, I didn’t see anyone.”

“I don’t either,” Xrrt said. She was rubbing her heavier set of forelimbs together, a Centaurian gesture that looked a bit like a human ringing her hands together, although its main purpose was whetting the curved claws at the end of each appendage.

Weyland and Sera fell into step outside the restaurant. Jianyu had expected them to run, but they were both strolling. The captain and Livia must have turned a corner, because Jianyu couldn’t see either of them even though he towered over the crowd.

“Left,” said Weyland when they came to a junction of two streets.

“You sure about that?” Sera asked.

“Positive,” said Weyland. They went left.

“This is stupid,” Jianyu said. “I can’t even see whoever you’re following.”

“That’s the point,” Sera said. She gestured toward a turn in the road ahead, and Jianyu, following her gaze, found nothing interesting there. “Focus on the guy who’s walking that way. Notice anything weird about him?”

“No,” said Jianyu. “I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if you hadn’t pointed to him.”

Weyland said, “Exactly.

They reached the corner and turned. Their quarry, if he was their quarry, was moving deeper into the tangle of narrow tunnels that made up the heart of the Falacerian colony. Jianyu concentrated on the stranger’s receding back. There really wasn’t anything interesting about him; he was just a random Falacerian in a crowd of them. Nothing about him stood out in any way.

Something about that thought snagged Jianyu’s attention. Falacerians were supposed to stand out. Why would one want to go unnoticed?

Now he could feel the edges of the glamor in his mind, the shape of the stranger’s thoughts pushing his own to the side. It was an uncomfortable sensation, like an itch deep inside his skull.

“How did you even spot that guy?” he asked.

“Practice,” said Sera.

“Training,” said Weyland, which was a strange thing for a doctor to say.

The stranger disappeared around another corner. Jianyu could hear the captain’s voice faintly ahead of them now, and Livia’s too. It sounded like they weren’t entirely in agreement. He couldn’t catch the words, only the rise of Livia’s voice and the captain’s clipped responses. He guessed the stranger must be very close to them now, if he hadn’t ducked into a turn-off somewhere ahead.

Sera held out a hand, and they all stopped. “Anyone see anything that looks like a weapon?”

Jianyu looked around. There wasn’t much in the tunnel, just a row of closed doors with inscrutable Falacerian text painted above them.

“I am a weapon,” Xrrt said, flexing her forelimbs so all four sets of claws gleamed under the artificial lights.

“Good thinking,” said Sera.

Jianyu heard the pop of a plasma gun, the sizzle of matter boiling, and the slap of shoes against cement. “Time to go,” Sera said, and they all broke into a run.

Nyx

Somehow, they’d gotten stuck in another old argument.

“The old girl’s got to be worth something,” Livia said. “Maybe not as much as she used to be, but still, you could sell her. Get a smaller ship if you need one, something fun to fly.”

“The Benevolence does what I need her to do,” Nyx replied. “And she’s fast enough when she needs to be.”

“You’ve forgotten what fast feels like. Don’t tell me you’re having fun out there.”

Nyx shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. “It’s not about having fun.”

“So what is it about? Barely scraping by? Wasting time? You’re better than a freight captain. Don’t let this become your life.”

“It is my life. I’m not ashamed of that,” Nyx said, digging her nails into her palms. Just a few more minutes and they would be at the apartments Livia stayed in during her off time, and Nyx could kiss her until she dropped the subject. Kissing Livia was as easy as ever; talking to her was becoming increasingly difficult.

The wall in front of her bloomed into light, the concrete boiling as the plasma bolt hit it. Before Nyx’s train of thought had caught up she was already pushing Livia behind the cover of a turn in the path. Her hand was already halfway to her hip before she remembered she’d left her weapons on the Benevolence. Nyx slid around the corner after Livia, keeping her back pressed to the wall, wondering who the hell had managed to smuggle a plasma gun into Falacerian territory.

The corridor they had ducked into was a dead end. The walls were smooth, curving up into an arched roof. There was only one door in the corridor, and it was sealed shut.

“Please tell me that’s your place,” Nyx said.

“It isn’t,” Livia said, “but maybe they’ll let us in.”

They made a run for it as another plasma burst turned a section of the floor into superheated gas. The door was locked. Livia pounded her fist on it as Nyx looked around the corridor, trying to figure out something she could use against their attacker.

He stepped into the center of the hallway, gun pointed away from them as he ejected the power pack and slotted another in. That was the problem with plasma pistols: they ate through power too easily, especially the cheap ones. Focusing on his face was difficult. Nyx concentrated hard and felt her mind skittering away from forming an impression of what he was supposed to look like. Falacerian, then, one taking pains to hide who he was. His clothing was non-descript, and she only thought he was male because of the jewelry he’d chosen. She supposed that too could be part of the disguise.

He raised the gun again, and Nyx grabbed Livia’s shoulder and pulled her to the floor. Above their heads, the plasma ate through the metal doorway in the space of a moment. If anyone was inside, they couldn’t ignore the fight now.

Their assailant kept coming, step by step. He wasn’t a very good shot, but at this distance he didn’t have to be. Nyx stared down the wide barrel of the gun and, in a moment of absurd detachment, recalled that it wasn’t even the first time she’d been held at gunpoint that year. Maybe Livia was right. Maybe there was more to life than this.

“If you’re going to kill me, I’d at least like to know why,” she told the stranger.

The Falacerian replied, “Lady, I don’t even know who you are.”

He moved his head and closed one eye, sighting down the barrel, as if he really wanted to get the shot right this time. Nyx tensed, preparing to to try to lunge out of the way one last time.

The stranger was flung sideways, the gun plucked expertly from his hands before he could fire. He hit the wall hard and began to stumble upright, but Xrrt cracked him on the side of the head with a heavy claw and he went down for good.

The rest of the crew was right behind her. Sera picked up the gun and tucked it into an inner vest pocket. Jianyu held back, clearly nervous about getting in the way. Weyland knelt beside the stranger. “He’s awake,” he said, checking the pulse at the Falacerian’s neck and peering into his eyes. “Maybe concussed.”

Nyx helped Livia to her feet and kept her hand under her former pilot’s elbow to steady her, feeling the tremors she was trying to hide. Livia might have had nerves of steel when she was flying the Benevolence, but close combat had never been her style, and no doubt she was picking up on the crew’s fear and confusion.

The stranger was losing control of his glamor. When Nyx focused directly at him now she could puzzle out the Falacerian body beneath, the gray skin and black eyes. Livia looked down at him, her expression settling into hard lines.

“Do you you him?” Nyx asked.

“He’s my inferior officer,” Livia said. She didn’t sound surprised.

Nyx squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry. That must have been a betrayal.”

“No.” Livia’s voice was soft but steady. “It’s the normal way to move up the ranks.”

Nyx looked down at the silver insignia on her sleeve. Despite all the curry she’d eaten, her stomach felt hollow. All these years, she’d been letting herself believe that the Livia she met up with was still the woman she loved. It hadn’t been a lie, not really, but the truth that was pressing down on her now was a weight she couldn’t bear.

“Promise me something,” she said. Livia turned toward her, and Nyx was struck once more by her beauty, the perfection of her shining hair and wide eyes. During the Benevolence’s mission out of known space the ship had once crash-landed on a glacier, and Nyx was reminded of that experience now, the chill of the ice and the spread of alien land in every direction. It had been beautiful in the same way Livia was beautiful: still and cold, everything sharp-edged. “Promise me you’ll give him a fair trial. Whatever that means to you, even if you kill him at the end of it, do it fairly. Don’t make him suffer.”

“I want to make that promise. Right now, I wish I could.” Livia raised her arm and brushed a strand of Nyx’s hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. Her fingertips brushed Nyx’s cheek, and even the glamor couldn’t hide the whisper of cold against her skin. “But when I walk away from you, I won’t remember why a promise to you means anything at all.”

Nyx stepped away. Livia held out her hand. “Give me the gun. You don’t want to get caught with it. Trust me.”

Sera looked from Livia to Nyx, her hand in her vest pocket. The Falacerian on the floor groaned and shifted, but Xrrt kept him on the ground. Nyx considered whether they could take the stranger with them. Get him far enough away, surround him with the empathetic minds of enough sentient species, and maybe he wouldn’t try to finish the job. It would almost make the political disaster of kidnapping a member of the Falacerian military worth it. Or maybe as soon as they dropped him off in an unfamiliar port he would start planning his route back to Livia, and kill her while Nyx was too far away to do anything about it. Maybe Livia would get anxious, knowing a potential killer was still out there somewhere, and it would be her hunting him. So many maybes, and almost all of them ended in a death.

“The gun,” Livia said again, stepping toward Sera. Sera pulled out the weapon but still hesitated, looking to Nyx for approval. Nyx nodded once, a sharp jerk of the chin, and stepped away from Livia.

“Let’s get out of here,” she told her crew, and they walked away together. Nyx forced herself to look straight ahead, to put one foot after another. She was sweating in her heavy jacket, but the memory of Livia’s fingers still burned like ice on her cheek. Behind her she heard the final retort of the gun, the sizzle of plasma eating through flesh and concrete. Jianyu put a hand on her shoulder, just for a moment, and said nothing.

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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.

Nyx

Outside the bridge’s window was a glittering spread of stars. At her seat in the captain’s chair, Nyx pulled up a view of the planet falling away behind them: a pretty blue-green world, indistinguishable at this distance from a completely uninhabited planet. Although its atmosphere was noxious to the majority of the known sentient species in the galaxy, Minervan settlers were making a go of colonization anyway. Their undersea cities were cramped, but they were already doing a brisk trade in pearls harvested from the strange rubbery creatures that clustered on their metal walls. Taking the Benevolence down under the waves had been an experience she didn’t want to repeat any time soon. The ship was built to tolerate short trips underwater, but Nyx couldn’t stop thinking about all that weight above her, the crushing pressure of an environment that wasn’t cold and empty like space but cold and very dangerously full of liquid.

Sera was lounging at the pilot’s station with her feet resting near her console. She was tossing one of those pearls idly back and forth between her hands. It was about as big as a grapefruit, and its purple surface had an iridescent sheen that reminded Nyx of an oil slick.

Jianyu was calculating the route to their destination. His head hung forward, wires trailing from the neural port in his temple to his workstation. Nyx watched the planet shrink on her screen. Maybe they should have stayed in the undersea city a few days longer. They only had one navigator, and she was becoming increasingly worried that he was pushing himself past his limits.

Sera’s screen flashed red. She put her feet down and leaned forward, still rolling the pearl between her hands. “Has anyone been having problems with communications lately?”

Nyx minimized her view of the planet and pulled up an error report. A diagram of the communications equipment filled her screen. One of the stubby antennae that rose from the Benevolence’s surface was highlighted in red. “Could that planet’s atmosphere have corroded it?”

“Not likely.” Sera dropped the pearl in her lap and started keying instructions into her console. “This is weird, it just went completely dead all at once. If it were corroding, it should have been throwing up error messages the whole time.”

“Can we fly without it?” Nyx asked.

“We can fly without a lot of things,” Sera said, “which doesn’t mean we should. Our long-range antenna’s not sending or receiving signals at all right now. If we need to contact anyone else, we better hope they’re really close to us.”

“That’s not great.” Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose. She could already feel a headache building behind her eyes. She’d been getting them more often lately. Maybe it was just the ship’s dry air playing havoc with her sinuses. “Can you fix it?”

“Not from in here,” Sera said.

“Should we turn back?”

“Let’s see what I can do outside.” Sera stood up, and the pearl she’d forgotten she had in her lap hit the floor with a clatter.

Xrrt said, “Will communication still work while you’re outside the ship? Maybe someone should go with you.”

“It’s just the long-range antenna that’s busted,” Sera said. “You’ll still be able to see what I’m doing on the helmet’s camera. I’ll get suited up. Make sure nobody hits the FTL drive while I’m out there, I don’t feel like getting smeared across time and space today.”

“I think we can manage that.” In the old days, when the Coalition still meant something, Nyx would have saluted her pilot. Instead, she settled for a stiff nod, and Sera responded with a wave of her hand before leaving the bridge. Of course, if this were still a Coalition vessel, Nyx would have at least a dozen trained mechanics to send out, not a single pilot who did double duty repairing the ship.

“Wake Jianyu up,” she told Weyland. The doctor nodded and went to Jianyu’s side, hitting the button on the navigator’s console that killed the program he was running. Nyx had listened to a news article a few days ago that claimed computers capable of calculating a ship’s faster-than-light trajectory entirely on their own were less than ten years away from reaching the market. Computers that could do a navigator’s job were always coming sometime soon, at least according to the news stations; they had been reporting that the technology was due within a decade for as long as Nyx could remember.

Jianyu’s head shifted fractionally. He said something that wasn’t quite a word, then reached up and yanked the wires out of his neural port. He stayed seated while Weyland stood to examine him. Their heads were almost exactly at the same height for once.

Xrrt left her station and came to stand beside Nyx’s chair, her claws tapping a nervous jig on the deck. She scraped her forelimbs together, producing a sound that her translator turned into, “Maybe I should go out there too.”

“It’s a mechanical problem,” Nyx said. “I’m sure she can handle it without security for backup.”

They waited in tense silence, Xrrt still clicking her claws against the floor without moving from Nyx’s side. Nyx drummed her fingers against the arm of her chair, then realized she had unconsciously settled into a rhyme in time with Xrrt. Weyland said something to Jianyu about neural overload. Jianyu responded with a noncommittal grunt. Nyx balled her hand into a fist and resisted the urge to make more pointless noises.

Her screen lit up with a call from Sera’s suit. Nyx hit the Accept button so hard her finger jammed against the glass. The screen filled with an image from Sera’s suit. She was looking down at the gleaming metal hull of the Benevolence, placing her magnetic boots with care on the smooth surface as she walked forward. “Captain, can you hear me?” she said, her voice a little tinny inside the suit.

“I can hear you,” Nyx said. “How’s it going out there?”

“Uh, not so great.” The image on her screen blurred into a confusion of white and black streaks as Sera raised her head and the camera moved with it. When it stabilized, Nyx sucked in a breath. Xrrt, peering over her shoulder at the screen, made a distressed sound.

“I’m going to have to wing it on this one,” Sera said. “If anyone else has an idea, you know where to find me.”

Sera

The thing on top of the antenna quivered. Sera wished she’d brought a longer stick so she could poke it from a more comfortable distance. All she had was her wrench, so she prodded the mass and watched it give under the cold metal. When she took the wrench away, the fleshy exterior sprang back into place. She hit it harder, and it jiggled but didn’t let go. That was profoundly wrong. Sera had never heard of a soft-bodied species that could survive in deep space, never mind one that could survive a ride on the outside of a ship traveling at escape velocity. The only known organisms that could endure the void had hard, pressurized bodies and not much in the way of brains.

There was a spotlight on her helmet next to its embedded camera. Sera turned the brightness up as high as it would go, until she was squinting in the light that bounced back from the metal hull. The thing squatting on the antenna didn’t react. She dialed the light back, blinked away spots as her eyes adjusted, and studied the intruder.

Its flesh was covered in an oily sheen, shifting in the light of Sera’s headlamp and the distant stars. She had seen similar creatures before, all rooted to the sides of the Minervan city under the waves, clusters of pearls sprouting from their rubbery flesh. They had grown in thick colonies, but this one was alone.

“Looks like you hitched the wrong ride,” she said, bending at the waist to see how it had attached itself to the ship. It wasn’t possible to kneel in magnetic boots, which made it hard to get close enough to see how it had latched onto the smooth metal. She shoved it again with the wrench and watched its skin ripple as it shoved back hard.

“Maybe you should try a different approach,” Captain Dysart said, her voice echoing inside Sera’s helmet.

Sera stuck the wrench back to the magnetic toolbar around her waist and, with some difficulty, pulled off a screwdriver. Everything was a thousand times more awkward once you left the safety of a pressurized environment. If it wasn’t magnetic, it had to be tethered, and sometimes both if it was valuable enough. The suit’s gloves were so thick that she couldn’t feel anything through them. She had to watch her hands carefully while she worked, making sure she was still gripping the screwdriver as she wedged it under the creature and tried to pry it loose.

Jianyu’s voice echoed through her helmet, a little slurred but comprehensible now. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Hey, look who’s awake,” Sera said, feeling a surge of relief. Every time Jianyu ran the numbers, he was spaced out for a little longer. “Have you ever seen something like this before?”

“I’ll try looking it up,” Jianyu said. “Maybe the settlers know more about it.”

The creature started to tug on Sera’s screwdriver. She fumbled it, lost her grip, and was yanked forward by tether that kept it attached to her belt. Whatever this thing was, it was freakishly strong, and it was putting out blunt, probing appendages that were inching their way up the tether as she struggled.

She planted her boots on the hull and leaned backward, grunting curses under her breath. The creature quivered, trying to hold on, and then the screwdriver shot out of its grasp. Sera went over backward, her feet still anchored by the magnets, her arms spreading wide in a reflex humans had developed on a planet with gravity and atmosphere. She bounced off the metal hull and came back upright with her knees crackling with pain. The screwdriver hit her helmet and danced on the end of its tether while she reeled it in. There was a burst of noise inside her helmet, the speakers playing Jianyu’s voice on one side and the captain’s on the other, with Xrrt making incomprehensible noises in the background. Sera put her hands to her helmet, another automatic gesture; it wasn’t as if she could cover her ears right now.

“Shut up, shut up, shup UP,” she repeated, the sound of her own voice ringing in her helmet until everyone else had fallen silent. She took a deep breath, looked up at the stars until she felt her heart slowing down, and said, “Jianyu, did you get in contact with those settlers?”

“Uh, no,” Jianyu said. “We’re beyond the reach of our short-range communication array.”

“We could turn the ship around,” Captain Dysart said.

Not while I’m out here.” Sera turned around, lifting and replacing her boots carefully on the hull until she was facing back toward the airlock. The effort of pulling the magnetized soles up with each step made her knees ache. When she had shuffled in a circle, facing the airlock and the tether that connected her to it, she said, “I’m coming back inside. I’ll turn the ship around, get back to a spot where we can communicate with somebody who might know something, and figure out where to go from there. Worst case scenario, we’ll head back where we came from, reenter the atmosphere until this thing’s crispy fried, and take off again.” She took her first step back toward the airlock, then remembered to add, “Do I have permission to do all that, captain?”

“Permission granted,” said Captain Dysart. “Just get in here.”

Sera tried to lift her right foot for the next step, but it wouldn’t budge. She strained against the pull of the magnets, gritting her teeth as pain radiated from her knee, and still couldn’t lift her boot off the hull. That unexpected tumble must have hurt her joints worse than she thought. She tapped the screen on her suit’s arm and turned off her boots’ electromagnets. She would have to reel herself back in using the tether.

Her left foot popped off the deck right away, but her right foot was still stuck to the deck. The helmet cut off her peripheral vision, and it took some maneuvering before she could look straight down at her own leg.

“Well, shit,” she said.

The alien blob had sent out more tendrils, pale and thin at the tips, but as strong as solid muscle. They had wrapped around Sera’s ankle, holding her suit tight, while the main bulk of the creature still squatted over the antenna.

As soon as Sera saw the problem, the rest of the crew could too, watching the feed from her helmet camera on their screens inside. There was another burst of frantic noise, everyone talking over each other and the speakers in Sera’s helmet turning it into a wash of meaningless sound.

Sera pulled the wrench off her toolbelt and smashed it into the tendrils with as much force as she could manage while one foot flailed in empty space. The creature’s skin rippled, pearlescent in the light of her headlamp, and the tendrils grew thicker. Through the fabric of her suit, Sera could feel a growing pressure as the thing squeezed her leg.

“Oh shit,” she whispered, as Captain Dysart said something about peaceful first contact procedures in one ear and Weyland offered to bring her a blowtorch in the other. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

Nyx

“Permission to go out there, captain,” Jianyu said, his voice tight with tension.

“Absolutely not.” Nyx gripped the arms of her chair, feeling control of the situation slipping away from her. “Xrrt, this is officially a security matter. Since we have no available information about this species, I trust you to follow appropriate first contact procedures, up to and including termination if it becomes hostile.”

Jianyu wasn’t going to give up that easily. “I can go too. Let me be Xrrt’s backup.”

“In my opinion as your doctor–” Weyland began.

“Xrrt, time to get suited up.” Nyx wanted to get up and pace, but forced herself to stay seated. Letting her nerves show would only alarm the rest of the crew. Xrrt inclined her head and scuttled away.

Sera’s audio was still playing on the bridge. She was cursing quietly to herself, punctuated with sucking gulps of air. Nyx pulled up the biometric readings from her suit. Her pilot wasn’t in acute distress, no bleeding or broken bones, but her heart rate was spiking.

“Sera, I’m going to need you to keep calm,” Nyx said. “Xrrt’s on her way out to you. Stay where you are.”

“Not like I have a choice, captain,” Sera replied.

“Try not to provoke it any further,” Nyx told her. “Help is on its way.”

A call came in from the airlock. Nyx picked it up, and Xrrt’s translator said, “My suit isn’t here.”

Centaurians like Xrrt couldn’t wear just any spacesuit. There was no chance a massive eight-limbed bug could fit into an outfit made for humanoids. “Try looking behind the others,” Nyx said, remembering the mess she’d seen the last time she’d checked the storage locker. Sera was the only one aboard who kept her suit ready to go; it wasn’t as if the rest of them would ever be called out for a spacewalk.

“It’s not here,” Xrrt said.

“Uh, it’s in my workshop,” Sera said.

“So go get it,” Nyx told Xrrt.

“It’s in a lot of pieces.” Panic was thrumming in Sera’s voice again. “The joint seals were leaking. I had to take the whole suit apart.”

Jianyu said, “Permission to go out there now.

“The answer is still no.” Nyx gripped the arms of her chair until her fingers ached. If this were a proper Coalition ship, she could have ten security officers streaming out the airlock already, with five mechanics behind them to assess the damage and a doctor to help Sera back to the airlock. What was she going to do without them?

“With respect, captain, this is getting ridiculous.” Jianyu stood up. “I can go out there and–nnngh–”

His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell backwards. Weyland sidestepped out of his way as he crashed to the deck, then knelt by his side. He kicked something hard and spherical out of the way, and Nyx watched it roll across the floor and stop when it hit the edge of the captain’s dais. It was the pearl Sera had been playing with.

“Vasovagal syncope,” Weyland said, feeling for a pulse in Jianyu’s massive wrist. “That’s a new symptom.”

“Hey, what’s happening in there?” Sera’s voice was rising in pitch, growing reedy with fear. “Jianyu, are you okay? Say something. Ow, this thing’s really squeezing me.”

Nyx propelled herself out of her chair. “I’m going out there. Weyland, as the only conscious person left on this bridge, you have command until Xrrt gets back. She grabbed the pearl on her way out, didn’t know where to put it down so it wouldn’t roll away again, and just hung onto it instead.

At the airlock, Nyx struggled into a suit on her own and grabbed a gun. Laser pistols were safe to use on ships; their bolts were powerful enough to bore through flesh and chitin, but bounced harmlessly off metal. She thought for a moment, then pulled a second pistol from a different locker. This one had a stubbier barrel and a thicker power core. Plasma weapons weren’t safe to use in flight; they ate through metal and flesh equally fast, and anyone dumb enough to fire one inside a pressurized ship was going to end up sucking void. She clipped both to her belt, one on either side. Maybe if she angled it just right, she could blast the creature off the ship without blowing a hole through the Benevolence.

With her suit on and her helmet tucked under her arm, Nyx looked around the room, searching for more weapons. Sera had taken most of her tools out with her. There was a blowtorch and some sort of electrified rod in the tool locker, but Nyx didn’t know how to use either, and the torch was showing low fuel on its electronic readout. She tilted her helmet, and it rattled; without thinking, she’d dropped the pearl inside it. Might as well toss the stupid thing out the airlock, she thought, dropping the purple sphere into one gloved hand and pulling the helmet down over her head.

She stepped into the airlock, waited for the door to cycle, and clipped her tether to a ring on the hull. Without the pull of artificial gravity, her stomach flipped over and she had to focus on the metal beneath her until she thought of it as down. Sera wasn’t far away, and Nyx made her way over, assessing the situation as she went. The alien had grabbed hold of Sera’s leg and was squeezing her spacesuit, the fabric deforming as it dug in. Fleshy tendrils were climbing up her calf and beginning to explore her knees.

In her helmet’s speakers, Xrrt said, “I have returned to the bridge and am now in command.”

Weyland added, “Jianyu’s regaining consciousness.”

Nyx kept going forward, step by step, reaching for Sera as Sera stretched her arms out helplessly toward her. She grabbed Sera’s hand, feeling nothing but the thick fabric of her own glove and the faintest suggestion of pressure as the panicked woman squeezed. Her other hand was still wrapped around the pearl, and she unclenched her fingers, letting the purple sphere drift away.

The alien shivered suddenly, its body rippling and expanding. The tendrils around Sera’s leg pulled free and shrank back into its flesh. Nyx let out a breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. Sera made a noise that sounded like a sob, but she was smiling inside her helmet.

Then the creature launched itself at Nyx.

Sera

There was no way for Captain Dysart to move fast enough in her magnetic boots to avoid the alien. It somehow managed to go briefly airborne, its body rippling and putting out feelers in all directions. Then it slammed into the captain’s torso, wrapping those feelers around her body. Its body was distorting as it stretched itself thinner, coiling around her.

The light of Sera’s headlamp played off something winking like a star against the darkness, only the stars themselves weren’t blinking without atmosphere to distort them. The alien was stretching out toward the thing that shone in the light, and Sera launched herself after it, keeping her boots demagnetized and whipping herself around on her own tether. The captain struggled, held out her hand in a silent plea for help, but Sera shot past her and snatched the tiny thing before the alien could grab it. It was one of the pearls, just the right size for grasping with one gloved hand.

Xrrt was saying something in her headset about reestablishing communication with the settlers, but Sera had more immediate problems to worry about. The alien didn’t have anything that looked like a conventional eye, but she felt its attention on her anyway. She smacked the button on her suit that would reel her tether in, then realized how slowly the device was tugging her in the direction of safety. The alien was already detaching itself from the captain, reaching for her instead. She had to move faster.

She grabbed her tether again with her free hand, yanking it so she was pulled down toward the hull. She braced for the impact, landed feet-first, and rebounded toward the stars. At the apex of her arc, she looked down to see the captain free and the alien creeping across the shining metal of the hull.

“Get to the airlock,” she yelled, and braced again as her momentum slammed her back into the hull. The captain started to move, shuffling as fast as she could in her magnetic boots, then giving up and skimming weightless to safety. The airlock door irised open, and Sera gave her tether another hard yank, heading for the opening too fast. She slammed into the airlock’s far wall, pushed off, and bounced off a second wall before correcting her course. The tether had to be unclipped manually from the side of the ship. She dropped the pearl and reached for it with both hands.

Sera eased the clip out of the ring, and then a pale tendril wrapped around her wrists. She pulled back, shoulders flaring with pain, but the alien was too strong to dislodge. It flowed over her, flesh distorting and reforming as something like muscle moved under it. Her arms were trapped, squeezed tight in front of her, and then the creature began to crawl up her helmet. The stars winked out as it crawled over the clear glass. Her headlight kept shining, illuminating something pulsing in the darkness that might be the creature’s heart inside its body, and faintly outlining the puckered shape of an opening that might be a mouth, or an asshole, or both.

Something slammed into her stomach, pushing her off balance. Sera flailed her feet, unable to see where she was going. She knew that she was untethered. One wrong bounce and she’d be shooting out into the void. If the alien didn’t kill her, oxygen deprivation would finish the job.

But I’ve got so much left to do, Sera thought, and then, It’s going to be so weird if this is what finally kills me.

The pressure around her midsection was steady, not the crushing squeeze of the alien’s body. She felt her wild momentum come to a stop. Everyone was talking in her headset again, the sound a rising cacophony, and then one quiet voice cut through the noise.

“I’ve got you,” the captain said, “I’ve got you.”

The alien peeled off Sera’s face. They were in the airlock and the door to the stars was closing, its panels sliding together. The captain had the pearl in her hand, but as the alien reached for it, she lobbed it toward the open door. The creature lurched through the void, caught the pearl, and smacked into the now-shut door.

“Damn,” the captain said, “I thought we might get rid of it.”

The airlock began to cycle. The artificial gravity started up in the room. Sera wobbled, surprised by how much her knees hurt, and the captain grabbed her under the elbows and held her up.

“It’s probably better we didn’t kill it,” Captain Dysart said, her helmet clinking against Sera’s. “We don’t even know if that thing’s sentient.”

“It’s strong,” Sera said. Now that the adrenaline rush was fading, all her joints hurt, and she felt her eyes stinging. She wasn’t going to cry, not in front of the captain. “I could’ve died.”

The airlock’s intercom beeped, signalling that the atmosphere was safe to breathe again. The captain worked off her own helmet while Sera pawed helplessly at her own. The alien had squeezed her hands to near numbness, even through the thick suit. When the captain saw her struggling, she put her own helmet down and helped Sera. She popped the seal, and the stale air inside Sera’s helmet was washed away by the smell of the Benevolence: clean oxygen, cold metal, always the faint undertone of burnt plastic.

Sera didn’t realize she was crying until Captain Dysart folded her into an awkward hug. The wrench on her toolbelt dug into her hip. She snuffled into the captain’s shoulder while the alien attached itself to the wall. It was still clinging to the pearl, and as she watched, another purple orb emerged from its skin like a pimple.

“Not my most well-planned first contact,” the captain said.

“I could have died,” Sera whispered again.

“But you didn’t,” said the captain. “You’re not allowed to die on my watch.”

They broke apart as the door to the main ship hissed open. First through was Jianyu, who grabbed Sera in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground.

“Ow, my arms,” Sera mumbled into his chest.

“You idiot,” Jianyu said.

You’re the idiot. I’m glad you’re awake.”

“I’m glad you’re alive,” Jianyu said, placing her carefully back on the deck.

Sera was helped out of her suit and allowed herself to be fussed over by Xrrt, who enfolded her in her four forelimbs, and Weyland, who calmly examined her arms and declared that there was probably no nerve damage. The alien seemed happy enough to stay stuck to the wall, so they left it there and sealed the airlock behind them. “We’ll head back and drop it off in the ocean,” the captain said, which seemed as good a plan as any.

?

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A Failure to Communicate – 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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Quality Testing

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

Jianyu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re ready,” said Captain Dysart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sera continued making a mess. “Says who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nyx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just made that,” Jianyu said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It looked like lightning,” Jianyu said.

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

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

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

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

Jianyu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do?” he asked Sera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got you,” Jianyu told it.

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

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

“Creepy,” said Sera.

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

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

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

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

At fifteen, the circle broke.

Nyx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Working on it!” Sera replied.

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

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

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

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

“I think it worked,” Sera said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

?

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It Runs in the Family – Astra Nullius

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

Nyx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll take the job, then,” said Nyx.

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

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

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

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

Sera

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

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

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

“You might need the weapons systems–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nyx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to go home,” the robot said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you going to do? Kill me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The biological imperative?” Captain Dysart sounded skeptical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got a moment, doc?” Sera said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

?

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Such People In It – Astra Nullius

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

Jianyu

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

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

“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.

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

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

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

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

“Just a dried-up bean,” Sera said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weyland

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So hold it still somewhere else, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jianyu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take it easy,” Jianyu told him.

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

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

“Okay. Think you can hop?”

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

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

“Not too much. Might as well try it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He closed his eyes.

?

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Cover-Up, Part 2 – Astra Nullius

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

Nyx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always running toward the fire,” Nyx said.

“Every time, Captain.”

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

Sera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sera said, “No, we have to go now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They wouldn’t,” Jianyu said.

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

“Will that work?”

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

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

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

“Sorry,” said Jianyu, and hit her.

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

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

“Was that what you wanted?” Jianyu asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If there’s anything I can do–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jianyu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that’s it?” Jianyu asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Nyx

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.

Sera

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

    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.

?

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Gone Before, 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.

Sera

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

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.”

Sera

“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.

🚀

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