Trust Me, Part 8 – Astra Nullius

Jianyu

At the aft of the ship, behind the cargo bay but just ahead of the engines, was a small room that the crew used for personal storage. On the ship it had originally come from, it might have been someone’s bedroom, but the constant hum of the faster than light drive made this part of the Benevolence too loud for everyone but Sera to sleep. Now the space was piled high with the discarded remains of the parts she’d scavenged, either from black markets or the recesses of the Benevolence itself, along with years of accumulated trash from the rest of the crew: Nyx’s mementos, Weyland’s broken lab equipment, and something belonging to Xrrt that looked like a spiky chitinous ball.

They were just a few days out from their destination, and the ship felt oppressively small. Captain Dysart had been in a funk for nearly a week, spending most of her time in her room and emerging at odd hours to eat or to sit on the bridge staring at nothing in particular. Xrrt was either holed up with the captain or talking as best she could with the passengers, trying to figure out whether the skirmish over Heimstätte was going to turn into a larger crisis. Sera vacillated between stoned serenity and crankiness, depending on how long it had been since her last dose of painkillers. Weyland spent most of his time in his lab, but then, that wasn’t much of a change from his regular routine.

Jianyu liked his parents. He didn’t mind spending time with them, even in the oppressively small living space of the Benevolence. But sometime in the last few weeks, he’d noticed that all their conversations had taken on a circular quality, spinning around the same topic with no resolution: What are you going to do now?

And so he’d decided to take a break in the storage room. There was a small window in the wall, and when he sat in just the right spot, he could look out through the thick crystalline pane at the stars. They were still traveling faster than light, and so the view was stretched and warped, the white light dissolving into blurry streaks as the Benevolence slipped through time and space.

The door opened. Jianyu shifted, nearly toppling the piece of scrap metal he’d been using as a backrest. “Don’t get up, it’s just me,” Sera said. She closed the door behind her, kicked some trash away to clear a space, and sat down at his side.

“Needed a break?” Jianyu asked.

“I told the captain I was taking a look at the artificial gravity control module,” said Sera.

“I told her I was helping you find the clog in the sewage system,” said Jianyu.

“There’s a clog in the sewage system?” Sera tipped her head back, using Jianyu’s arm as a headrest. “I’ll get around to it. Eventually.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. The constant, subtle vibration of the ship’s faster than light engine pulsed through Jianyu’s body, closer to a physical sensation than a sound. He said, “I think I need to start following politics.”

“Why would you do that to yourself?” Sera asked.

“It’s just–it’s a part of my life now. I have to know how this war’s going to affect my family.”

Sera opened her eyes and looked at him, but for once she didn’t say anything.

Now that he’d started talking, Jianyu felt the need to fill the silence. “My dad told me what happened to the Integrity. They reconstructed it from the ship’s last recorded flight path. One of their navigators was burning out, but they were running with a reduced crew and there was no one left to swap out. They were on a supply run when she made a miscalculation and sent the ship directly through the heart of a neutron star.”

“I see why your dad told you that story,” said Sera.

“All hands were lost,” Jianyu said. “They died instantaneously. There wasn’t even time to send a last message out.” He paused and looked down at Sera, trying to gauge her reaction. “You didn’t have to lie to me. You could have just said you never worked for the Coalition.”

Sera shrugged. Her hair, usually shaved close at the sides, was getting long enough to tickle his skin when she moved her head. The new growth was black, and Jianyu realized he hadn’t ever seen her hair that color before. She bleached it and dyed the longer hair on top a new shade every month. “Nobody worked for the Coalition because it was just a job,” she said. “There were a lot of jobs closer to home, with better pay and better hours, even if you grew up in a shitty system. Everyone who signed up to serve the Coalition did it because it meant something to them. For the captain, it was a reason to go exploring. For Xrrt, it was about doing the best thing for her family. For you, I think it was the only place you fit in. And for me, it was the best chance I was going to get to be someone else.”

Jianyu stayed silent. Sera hadn’t been totally right about why he’d followed his parents into a career with the Coalition, but she’d hit close enough to hurt. She took a shaky breath and continued, “I really did train with the Coalition, I didn’t lie about that. But it was just before everything fell apart, and–and I never got a chance to fly a genuine Coalition starship. I’d only just graduated from simulations to light shuttles. I wanted this job, so I lied to the captain, and then I had to keep lying.”

Jianyu took a breath and let it out slowly. He’d thought he would be angry at Sera, that he would confront her with this terrible truth, but all he felt was tired. “I wish you’d trusted me,” he said.

Sera looked at the floor and didn’t say anything. Jianyu went back to watching the stars. Their light wavered and blurred as the Benevolence slipped through space on the course he’d calculated. A ship traveling faster than light was a world within itself, a precious little bubble of light and heat and air. So many things could go wrong, a tiny miscalculation or electrical short could kill everyone inside. But so long as the million little miracles that kept it functioning kept happening in just the right way, it could keep flying for a very long time.

🚀

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Trust Me, Part 7 – Astra Nullius

Nyx

While it was only a short hop to the next planet over, that too was contested ground. After some deliberation, the crew decided to head to a Falacerian colony in the 58 Persei system.

Having so many extra people on board the Benevolence was causing some unexpected problems. Although the original ship had once been designed to keep a crew of over a hundred comfortable, it had been operating for a long time with a lean crew. Nyx had kept a couple of spare mattresses around just in case, but she hadn’t planned for so many passengers. They bunked wherever they could find space to spare: in every room of the nose cone that wasn’t occupied, in the corridors, and on the cold floor of the cargo bay.

A few vats of algae had caught on a structural beam when the rest of the cargo blew out the hatch. Nyx had handed these over to Weyland, who was doing the best he could to feed forty people on a larder meant for five. What he produced three times a day was edible, at least technically.

Nyx was in the ship’s dining room, pushing a glob of wet and stringy greens around her plate with her fork, when Xinyi stepped in. In the days since their narrow escape they hadn’t had much time to talk, except for a few words in passing about logistics. Now, perhaps, they would finally have some time to catch up.

Xinyi was carrying a plate of her own. She set it down on the table across from Nyx and began a similarly fruitless exercise of pushing the food around as if something good might be hidden under it. It was still strange to see her like this, with her hair coming loose from its braid and an oily stain on the shoulder of her shirt. In Nyx mind, it was almost like seeing double: the unshakeable captain she had been, and the woman she was now, one laid on top of the other like a glitch in a com screen. Nyx had been flying with her son for long enough to see something familiar in the way she held herself carefully, pretending she wasn’t tired.

“I got a holiday message from Lorelei,” Nyx said. The Falacerian had been another of Captain Du’s junior officers aboard the Eloquence. A few years ago she had married a human, and like many Falacerians, she’d developed a powerful fascination with human rituals. Nyx had been surprised to see a Christmas greeting sitting in her inbox. Somewhere along the line, she’d forgotten to keep track of which season it was all the way back on earth.

“Oh. How is she?”

“She’s doing well. I think she wants to get another dog.” Nyx paused, wondering if now was the time to go for it, and decided to go ahead. “Actually, she’s working on a diplomatic project right now, and she was wondering if there was any interest in a Coalition–”

Xinyi put her fork down. It was a small gesture, but deliberate, and there was a tension in the set of her shoulders that made her look more like the captain Nyx remembered.

“Nyx,” she said, in that calm and measured voice that could keep a room full of young officers hanging off her every word, “what the fuck are you doing?”

Nyx considered her options. She knew this wasn’t about a holiday message. Besides, playing dumb had never worked with Captain Du. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said. It seemed like a safe answer.

“No, you’re not.” Xinyi leaned in and laced her fingers together above her plate of grey-green muck. “Look at this ship. Look at yourself. Still wearing your old uniform around, still acting like the rescue squad. It’s pathetic.”

Nyx, stung, said the first thing that came to mind. “I just saved your life.”

“I had other contacts. I could have called someone else. I would have, if I’d known how much of a mess this ship is.” Xinyi paused, sighed, and conceded, “My son thinks very highly of you.” She didn’t even try to make it sound like a good thing.

Nyx said, “We’re making money.”

“Please,” Xinyi said flatly.

“I mean, we’re not losing money. We’re breaking even.”

“Only by putting off necessary repairs. You can’t borrow from your own future forever. And when some crucial piece of the Benevolence breaks in a way you can’t afford to fix, then what?”

“I don’t know,” Nyx said. She’d been aiming for confidence, but the words came out small and pathetic, squeezing around the lump in her throat. “I was never good at making money.”

“So find something you’re good at,” said Xinyi. “And for your crew’s sake, find it soon.”

“I was good at exploring.” It sounded stupid when she said it, like a child’s fantasy. It had been her job for years. It was the only thing she’d ever been good at, really.

“So be an explorer,” Xinyi said. “Find a surveying company, take a contract, submit some reports. It’s a good job. It pays well.”

Those surveying companies weren’t out for the greater good of anyone but themselves. Hundreds of them had formed in just the last few years, rushing in to fill the power vacuum the Coalition had left behind. If someone hadn’t laid claim to a bit of territory, it was fair game as far as the corporate surveyors were concerned. They’d find a spot suitable for a mining outpost or a colony, ship in some colonists as fast as possible, and call it theirs. And if there happened to be complaints later that the planet they’d surveyed wasn’t as empty as it appeared, well, who would listen? Handling the delicate nuances of inter-species territorial disputes had been a job for the Coalition’s diplomats and lawyers. Now that there was no Coalition, there was no court that could make any ruling worth listening to.

Nyx looked down at her dinner. Without the constant motion of her fork, the piled greens had slumped into a damp hillock. A trickle of cold fluid was leaking out the bottom. “I’ll think about it,” she said.

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Trust Me, Part 6 – Astra Nullius

Jianyu

“The good news is, you’re going to survive this,” Weyland said.

From her makeshift hospital bed, Sera mumbled, “Suck it, death.” Weyland had given her a lot of painkillers. Either she had been in more pain than she’d been willing to admit, or he’d figured out that it was the only way to get her to sit still enough to accept treatment.

“The bad news is, you’ve set your recovery back by at least a month. You’ve got a complete tear through your supraspinatous muscle, and the tendon’s badly damaged. If you want to regain full range of motion I’ll need to perform surgery, and then you’ll be on a physical therapy regimen.”

Sera made a face, but quickly lost interest and began trying to scratch under her bandages. Captain Dysart redirected Sera’s hand with her good one; her fingers on the side of her broken wrist had swollen so much that she couldn’t move them.

Weyland turned to Jianyu, who was holding a tissue to his face, trying to stop the blood streaming out of his nose. “Time for your examination.”

Jianyu sighed, but ducked his head and allowed Weyland to slide the medical probe into his neural port. His senses shifted as the probe began collecting data; the metallic taste of the blood at the back of his throat was suddenly a high musical tone, and the cold metal of the algae vat he was sitting on smelled like cinnamon. When he came to, he was on the floor for some reason. Captain Dysart and Weyland were kneeling on each side of him, and Sera was doing a poor job of trying to sit up to get a better look at the action.

Parsing the sounds he was hearing was difficult. Jianyu stayed still, waiting for the words to make sense again, and then he kept lying down for a while longer so he could pretend he hadn’t heard phrases like can’t keep doing this much longer and irreversible damage if this continues. This was exactly why he’d asked Weyland to examine him before letting his parents into the lab.

When he was finally able to sit up, Weyland moved on to examining Captain Dysart’s hand. Standing too fast didn’t seem like a wise idea, so he scooted his way across the floor to the cot Sera was lying on. She grinned when he settled down next to her. “Hey, dummy.”

“Hey, idiot,” he replied. “Why’d you take the capacitor out of the copilot’s station?”

“Because nobody makes that kind of capacitor anymore.” Sera tried to pick at her bandages again. When Jianyu moved her hand away, she settled for scratching at the scars along her jawline. “I told you I could fly one-handed.”

Jianyu’s parents, held off for as long as Weyland could manage, finally pushed into the lab. The room was already cramped, and now, with another human and an Eridani inside, it was standing room only. Jianyu stood up carefully, his head still swimming, and tolerated his parents fussing over him. “It’s just a blood pressure thing,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. I’m not burning out.”

Sera glared at him. He looked away, and found Weyland staring at him with his eyebrows fractionally raised, which was about as expressive as Weyland ever got.

Better change the subject, and fast. “What’s next for you and dad? Are you going to try to find another farm?” It had been his father’s idea to try farming, after decades of service to the Coalition as a diplomat. He hadn’t expected his mother to take to a rural life, but after the end of the Coalition, she’d taken to land management with unexpected enthusiasm.

“I don’t know,” his dad said. “We’ll see where we land.”

“If you need money, transportation, anything, you know you can ask me for anything.”

“We know.” His mother slipped her arm around his, elbow crooked around his forearm, fingers resting on his wrist. A part of Jianyu would always remember her as a giant, but in that moment he was painfully aware of how small humans were, how frail. “The best option for us might be a Minervan outpost. We’re keeping our options open.”

Minervan space was as close to lawless as the known galaxy got, and most Minervan outposts were on small, mean planets that weren’t worth fighting over. Few of them had prime agricultural land. But then again, Minervans wouldn’t look twice at a mixed-species couple, and many had a fondness for the Coalition that a few years of turmoil hadn’t erased.

“That was certainly an interesting flight,” said his mother, turning to Captain Dysart but keeping her hand on Jianyu’s arm. Weyland was holding a scanner over the captain’s cast, and frowning slightly at whatever he was seeing.

“Sera used to be a Coalition pilot,” said the captain.

“Oh,” said his mother, smiling. “What ship did you serve on?”

“The Integrity,” Sera said.

“Under Captain Zttr?” his father asked. His pronunciation of the name, while not truly as good as a Centaurian’s, got some of the tonal clicks humans didn’t have the range for.

“That’s right,” Sera said.

His parents caught each others’ eyes, and shared a look even Jianyu couldn’t read. Sera, too high to notice, continued, “So, got any good stories about Jianyu? The more embarrassing, the better.”

His dad said, “Well, there was that time I came back from the treaty negotiations on Iota Pavonis…”

Dad,” Jianyu said, already covering his face to hide his blush.

“You were, what, eleven? Twelve?” his mother said, picking up the story seamlessly. “And someone in your class had slipped you this anonymous note, covered in hearts–”

Mom,” Jianyu said, as Sera laughed, delighted already or maybe just so far gone that everything was funny.

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Trust Me, Part 5 – Astra Nullius

Sera

“You can’t do that,” Sera said.

Du’s voice was icy. “I think I know more than you about how to fly.”

Sera took her hand off the yoke and keyed in a new set of manual commands: full power to the ion rocket and the secondary chemical thrusters. “I’ve had worse flights than this.”

A warning popped up on her console: Admiral Du was requesting control of the ship’s primary flight functions. Sera didn’t have the time to turn around in her chair to see Nyx’s face, but she knew her captain well enough to understand that she was struggling with this decision. “Trust me, captain,” she said. “She can’t control the Benevolence.”

They were picking up speed. Sera brought the ship in an arc, heading around the main force, hoping the pursuing human vessels would drop off when they saw the enemy. The ship shook as the chemical thrusters fired at full force. Nyx’s voice was soft, barely audible over the sound of rattling metal. “Tell me why I should.”

“Because I took the primary capacitor out of the copilot’s station two months ago,” Sera said. “It’s still got full permissions to control of the ship, but there’s no steering.”

Du swore, at some length, in both English and Chinese. Sera turned her focus to the field of battle. Most of the encroaching vessels were falling toward the planet, but a collection of smaller Eridani ships were creating a blockade. She had heard of the technique: the slower dreadnoughts would try to herd the human vessels toward the atmosphere, but if they tried to escape, they’d be cut off. Human ships were awkward in atmosphere, and on the ground, humans troops wouldn’t stand a chance.

Her screen was flashing again. Someone was firing at them. Human or Eridani, she wasn’t sure, but the force field that protected their hull was just for deflecting debris. It wouldn’t stand up to real fire.

“Everybody hang onto something,” she said.

“Uh, should I be on guns?” Jianyu asked.

“No,” Sera said. “We can’t waste energy heating plasma. But Admiral Du, I need you for this part.”

For a moment she thought Du would refuse. Instead, in a clipped voice, she said, “Tell me what to do.”

Sera yanked on the yoke, turning the ship’s nose up away from the planet. Two of the nearby Eridani ships must have noticed, because they began to move, closing the gap to prevent the Benevolence from escaping. Sera checked the readouts one last time. The chemical thrusters’ fuel was running low, and every possible volt of power was going into the ion rocket.

“When I give the word,” Sera said, “I need you to open the cargo bay doors. All of them. Override the airlocks so they open at the same time as the interior doors.”

Their window was closing. Sera made a minute adjustment to their flight path, aiming dead center between the two closest ships. Spaceflight had a strange way of changing her perception of speed; they were going hundreds of miles per hour, and yet as the chemical thrusters finally ran out of fuel and powered down, a strange stillness settled over the ship as if they were drifting powerless in the void. The two warships closed the distance, massive hulks moving with the grace of microgravity.

“On my word,” she said when there was no turning back, just the two ships ahead and the narrow path between them, “Now.”

The ship lurched as the cargo bay’s doors blew, sending hundreds of vats of algae flying across space. They weren’t the missiles she would have chosen, but as far as the Eridani were concerned, the Benevolence was now the center of a field of unknown debris. One tried firing a round of plasma into the field, spraying metal and water in a glittering cloud. The other veered off course, trying to avoid the friendly fire. And then a heartbeat later they were outside the blockade.

The Benevolence was lighter now, and she kept going faster. The G force of their thrust pushed Sera back in her seat. Something unpleasant was happening in her shoulder as her half-healed muscle tore under the strain, and her vision was narrowing, the stars at the edges of the window going dark. She didn’t have the luxury of passing out right now.

The ships were turning too, but not fast enough. Another few minutes at full speed, and they’d be able to engage the faster than light drive safely. Sera could hang on for another minute. She could hold off the darkness creeping across the sky for that long. Another thirty seconds. Her whole side was throbbing now, but she could do it.

It took a lot of effort to turn her head. Jianyu’s eyelids were fluttering as he calculated their path through spacetime. Her display flashed. They had their route. She tried to reach for her console, but when she took her hand off the yoke, it was difficult to raise it to the screen. “I need,” she began, but couldn’t get the rest of the words out.

The stars shifted and blurred. It wasn’t just her eyes this time. Admiral Du must have engaged the faster-than-light drive. The pressure on her shoulder vanished as the ion rocket powered down, leaving them adrift in the bubble of spacetime created by the drive as it folded space around the ship. Without the pressure there was just the pain, and the darkness nibbling away at the edge of her vision, and a dull sense of alarm as Jianyu’s head fell forward and blood ran from his nose.

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Trust Me, Part 4 – Astra Nullius

Sera

Coalition designers had made a single pilot’s station the regulation on every type of ship, from science vessels to freight ships to defensive cruisers. Each station came with a variety of settings that could be changed for the pilot on duty. There was one setting for Centaurians, who had four clawed forelimbs. There was another for species with opposable thumbs. And of course there were hundreds of different options that could be altered to suit a pilot’s preferences, from the sensitivity of the yoke to the amount of resistance it took to move each thrust lever.

There was no setting for a pilot with only one working arm. Sera had done the best she could jury-rigging a solution. She’d set up voice commands for the buttons she couldn’t reach on her left side and for some of the trickier functions that required both hands. Although she hadn’t told the rest of the crew, she’d been hoping she never actually had to put her makeshift system to the test. Their now-abandoned flight plan had them scheduled for weeks of faster than light travel, and Sera had been hoping that by the time she had to take manual control again her arm would have healed.

She took the ascent slower than she would have otherwise, checking and double-checking the readings. The G forces of of the ship’s thrust were still strong enough to cut through the ship’s artificial gravity, a pressure that sat heavy on her chest. Her shoulder ached, and she ground her teeth but said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could do about it for the time being. Flying with one arm might be tricky, but flying with one arm and her reflexes impaired by painkillers would be stupid.

The clear blue of the sky thinned out to an airless black. Jianyu was already plugged into the computer, although his job wouldn’t start until much later. The ship needed thousands of miles of empty space as clearance before the faster than light drive could be engaged.

Her console flashed red. Sera still had a hand on the yoke, and she couldn’t tap her screen to kill the readouts and pull up the new warning message. She hadn’t thought to program in a voice command to do it for her. “Hey, someone read that for me,” she said instead.

Captain Dysart said, “There’s a military ship approaching. Looks like a combat vessel.”

Admiral Du added, “It’s coming in fast. The call sign is Eridani.” She must have pulled up her own set of information at the copilot’s station, because she added, “There are two more ships behind it. Both human, so they must be in pursuit.”

Shit. Computer, show me all nearby objects, render in three dimensions.” Her holographic display showed the planet falling away behind the Benevolence. The three ships were still distant, but approaching fast. They were on a path that would intersect with the route she’d been planning to take. She adjusted their course, giving them as wide a berth as she could. “Okay, I think they have bigger things to worry about than us.”

She told the computer to feed some extra power into the ion rocket, hoping it wouldn’t make them look more suspicious. Any trader would want to get out of the way of a fight. She would circle the planet, and with that mass of rock to hide them from the other ships’ sensors, the Benevolence would set off on a new trajectory that would take them far away from the fighters. Sera had been in more awkward spots before. This would be easy.

Heimstätte turned beneath them, serene at this distance. The fighters slid away out of sensor range. Sera was just starting to relax when a new dot appeared on her tracking screen, this one on the other side of the planet.

Please be a satellite, she thought, but another dot appeared, and another–a whole cluster of bright points lighting up her holographic display, drifting across the vastness of space right toward them. The war had come to Heimstätte.

They were still out of visual range, but if the Benevolence had picked up dozens of ships, she’d be equally visible on their systems. Humanity had come to the fight with more vessels, but the ship’s computer had highlighted multiple Eridani dreadnoughts, some of the deadliest military ships in known space.

Captain Dysart said, “We have to turn around.”

The two human ships Sera had spotted earlier appeared on her tracker again, moving toward them. Either they’d made short work of their target, or they’d decided that an unknown trading ship in the middle of a combat zone was worth investigating. “We can’t turn around now,” Sera said, adjusting the ship’s course again to send them up over Heimstätte’s pole. If she could only get the planet between them and the battlefield, she’d be able to get away.

More dots appeared on screen. “Shit, shit, shit,” Sera muttered. Her computer, thinking she’d given a voice command, tried to downshift the power going to the ion rocket. She had to take her hand off the yoke to fix it. They were fully out of the atmosphere now, orbiting the planet, and the pressure that wrapped around her chest now had nothing to do with the rocket’s thrust.

“We can head back into atmosphere,” Captain Dysart said. “Go dark until all this is over, wait for our moment, and escape.”

“They’ll find us before we’re out of the thermosphere,” Admiral Du said. “If we’re getting out, we have to do it now. And we need a pilot with both hands, so with your permission, Captain Dysart, I’d like to assume control of the ship.”

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Trust Me, Part 3 – Astra Nullius

Nyx

“Nyx,” Du said, coming up behind her, “is there anything I can do?”

“Captain.” Nyx stood up straighter, an instinctive gesture. “Uh, I mean, Admiral. Thank you for the offer, but I think we can take it from here.”

“Please, call me Xinyi,” she said. “I’m not your superior officer anymore, just a friend. Although I really would be happy to help.”

Nyx had begun her career in the Coalition under Captain Du, serving as a junior officer on the Eloquence. Some days it felt like that had been a different lifetime, and some days it felt like just yesterday that she’d stepped on board her very first Coalition vessel. Du had been a good captain, kind to her subordinates but not overly familiar with the youngest members of her crew. In time Nyx had moved on to the Compassion, and then she’d been given the captain’s chair on the Benevolence, and then everything had fallen apart.

Xinyi was looking around the bridge, and it was obvious that she wasn’t impressed by what she saw. Sure, the Benevolence could have used some touch-ups. Sera’s style of repairs was ruthlessly practical, with raised solder marks left unfiled and wires hanging out of abandoned consoles where she’d cannibalized hard-to-find parts. There had been many mechanics before her, none particularly skilled at maintaining the Coalition’s sleek and seamless look without the Coalition’s endless supply of free replacement parts. Nyx had learned to live with it, although now, under her old captain’s eye, she felt faintly ashamed that she hadn’t done more to tidy up.

“I noticed your copilot’s station is empty,” said Xinyi. “Mind if I sit there?”

“I’d be honored.” Lowering her voice, Nyx added, “To be honest, Sera could use the help.”

“I noticed. Why is she still flying?”

“We’re a little short-staffed at the moment. I’d planned to take a break after this quick run, but, well, you know.” Nyx spread her arms, a gesture encompassing the ship and its new passengers.

Xinyi was giving her a strange look. Nyx realized that she was looking at the cast on her wrist. The ship wasn’t the only thing looking a little beat up at the moment. “ I am, of course, grateful that you were available to pick us up on such short notice,” Xinyi said. “After this, I think you should take that break.  Consider it friendly advice,” she added, barely heading off Nyx’s instinctive yes, Captain.

“We’ll definitely do that,” Nyx said. “Right after we’re done here.” How long has she been telling herself the same thing? They were always on the verge of having a chance to relax after just one more quick run.

Weyland approached, his com screen in his hand. His expression was neutral, his bearing unruffled–but then, it almost always was. “Captain, could I have a word with you?”

“Of course,” Nyx said. She expected Xinyi to stick around, but the older woman only gave her a thin smile and moved off to the copilot’s station to begin strapping in. “What is it, Weyland?”

“I’ve been checking the crew’s medical charts,” he said. “I don’t think they should be flying right now.”

“I know, but we’re going to do it anyway,” said Nyx, waving him off with her uninjured hand.

Weyland didn’t budge. “A standard takeoff in a ship the size and condition of the Benevolence exposes the human body to 2 gs of force. With the way Sera flies, the average for the Benevolence is closer to 3 gs…”

Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose as Weyland enumerated the many delicate structures of human anatomy that could snap under strain. Under other circumstances, delivered by a less monotonous storyteller, it might have been fascinating. Spaceflight was risky even for a species as strong as the Eridani or as a hard-shelled as the Centaurians. Even without letting the vacuum in, there were so many ways to die.

Now Weyland was going on about neural overload. Nyx held up a hand, and when that didn’t stop him, she said, “I acknowledge that this isn’t ideal. But do you know what happens when a human’s hit directly with a plasma rifle bolt?”

“Yes,” said Weyland. “The heat vaporizes organic material on contact, causing the expanding gas to–”

“This is a war zone,” said Nyx, flatly. “We’re getting out of it. End of discussion.”

Weyland nodded. If he disagreed with that decision, he didn’t show it. “Yes, captain,” he said, and went to his seat.

Nyx sat down in her own chair, looking down at the rest of the crew. She caught herself scratching an itch under her cast and forced herself to keep her palm flat on her armrest. Just ahead of her, Xinyi had pulled up a diagnostic report of the ship’s systems at her station. A good portion of it was solid red. The Benevolence’s computer still occasionally glitched out and tried to diagnose problems in the portion of the ship that had been blown off years before. Sera was tapping out a string of commands on the pilot’s console. Nyx buckled her harness, then killed time fiddling with it, tightening the straps and loosening them again.

At last she felt a familiar thrum through the soles of her feet as the Benevolence’s chemical thrusters powered up. Remembering the dozens of passengers the ship was carrying, Nyx used her own console to send a reminder to strap in. The view from the forward window tilted, the open field panning to a clear blue sky, and the thrust of takeoff pushed Nyx back into her seat.

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Trust Me, Part 2 – Astra Nullius

Jianyu

Their destination was a settlement at the center of a big green continent, set next to a wide silty river. The atmosphere was so favorable that there was no port to dock in, just a flat swath of grass at the edge of town where Sera set the ship down and opened the airlock directly into the native air. Jianyu supposed he could guess why this system was worth fighting over. Humans and Eridani thrived in similar ecosystems, and this planet would be a perfect agricultural world for either species.

Most of the passengers who filed through the door were human. He recognized a few in passing from his last visit. Captain Dysart waited by the door, watching the crowd come in and glancing now and then at the sky, as if she’d be able to see the fleet encroaching from all the way down here. Jianyu stood in the hallway a few steps away from her, directing the traffic and trying to hide his disappointment at every unfamiliar face. Sera leaned against the wall beside him, her right thumb hooked in a pocket of her vest, her left arm held up in its sling.

Beyond the doorway, Jianyu could see a beautiful field, the grass thick and remarkably close to earth’s native plants. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. It didn’t look like a war zone to him. He supposed he didn’t know what a war zone was supposed to look like. He’d never been in one before, and whenever the news showed images of plasma-scarred fields, he always turned it off. He knew that the territorial squabbles between human and Eridani forces were boiling over into real, pitched battles, but it was easier to know that in the abstract than to confront the reality of it.

In the doorway, the captain stopped to talk with a woman. Her face was turned away, but when the two clasped hands briefly his heart started hammering. She turned his way, and they locked eyes, and his mother smiled. There were new lines on her face, although it hadn’t been that long since they last saw each other.

Sera straightened, noticing that he was watching someone in the crowd, but she was too short to see over the mass of people. “How much are we charging per head?” she asked.

“What?” Jianyu looked down for a moment, distracted, and when he turned his eyes back to the crowd he’d lost her again.

“The price per passenger,” Sera said. “It should work out to a nice cut for each of us.”

“Oh, this is all free.” Jianyu kept watching for another familiar face. “Personal favor.”

“Free?” Sera didn’t sound pleased hear that. “We’re flying through a war zone for free? And who’s so important that the captain’s willing to risk our lives for nothing?”

She couldn’t have known, of course, but that didn’t stop the jolt of anger from lancing through Jianyu’s chest. “Go back to the bridge and get ready to go,” he said, knowing he sounded gruff. “I’ll finish up here.”

Sera gave him a puzzled look, but headed off, pushing through the crowd. Jianyu kept waiting, his stomach tightening with every new face.

His father was last through the door, ducking to get under the metal frame. He too looked as if he’d aged years since they’d last spoken. He put his hand on Jianyu’s shoulder and squeezed briefly, then stepped back. “That’s all of us,” he said. “Time to go.”

Jianyu keyed in a command to close the airlock. The hallway was emptying out, the settlers filing off to the empty spaces that had been conference rooms and offices when the Benevolence was a Coalition vessel. The crew had done a hasty job of turning them into passenger cabins, moving furniture into the cargo bay and fixing emergency harnesses on the wall.

When they were alone in the hallway, he turned to his dad and stepped into his spread arms for a hug. He was never going to be as tall as his Eridani father, always child-sized at only seven feet, and he wished more than ever that he could be the one to step back and let his parents handle things.

“Where did mom go?” Jianyu asked. “I saw her for a second, but then she disappeared.”

“Probably went straight to the bridge,” his father said. “You know how she is.”

They broke apart. Jianyu led the way, taking advantage of the empty hallway and the fact that he was facing away from his father to dry his eyes with his shirtsleeve. His mother was indeed on the bridge, standing next to the captain’s chair with Xrrt and Captain Dysart, her arms clasped behind her back. Jianyu slid into his seat and began fastening his harness. Sera turned around in her own chair, leaned over to him, and whispered. “Do you know who that is?”

“Yes, I’m aware, thank you.” Jianyu picked up the cable that plugged into his neural port. His stomach was churning. The turnaround was going to be tight–he didn’t normally perform the tricky work of calculating the ship’s faster than light trajectory without taking at least a couple of days to rest, but they didn’t have a couple of days. The fighting was getting dangerously close to Heimstätte.

“I mean, we studied her work in class. That five-point plan at the battle over Sigma Scorpii, I did a presentation on that. You could have just said we were picking up Admiral Du.”

His mother walked over to his station. Sera gawked openly. In her retirement she’d gained a little weight, and let her hair grow out and braided it. If she’d kept her old uniform, she wasn’t wearing it; her clothing, her easy smile, everything marked her as a civilian now.

In Chinese, she said, “Your pilot only has one arm. Is this going to be a problem?”

Jianyu responded in kind, the syllables a little awkward on his tongue after so long speaking only English. His mother had insisted that he learn both his parents’ languages, but he didn’t get much of a chance to practice. “She can handle it.”

“She better,” his mom said. She rubbed a hand over his head, a gesture he remembered from childhood, then walked off to speak to Captain Dysart.

He turned back to Sera, who looked like she was putting two and two together. He knew he would never be the mirror image of either of his parents, but it wasn’t hard to see he had his mother’s dark eyes and hair.

“Holy shit.” Sera was giddy. “When were you going to tell me your mom’s Admiral Du?”

“Promise me you won’t get weird about it,” Jianyu said.

Sera’s eyes were shining. It was the happiest she’d looked in weeks, the first time in a while her face hadn’t been pinched with pain. “Oh, I’m going to get weird about it,” she said. “As your friend, getting weird about it is my sacred duty.

“Just don’t get us all killed.” Jianyu glanced at his own console. Weyland had sent him another message about his neural readouts. He deleted it.

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Trust Me, Part 1 – Astra Nullius

Sera

At first, the voice was just another part of her dream. She was back home again, down in the cramped tunnels sunk deep into the lunar rock. A pack of bullies was chasing her, bigger kids who loomed larger in her dream than they ever had in life. She kept running, following a route that was both familiar and impossible to remember, and a voice was telling her to get to the bridge, get to the bridge right now.

She startled awake, the dream shredding, and for a moment she couldn’t remember what her name was or who she worked for. Sera, she thought at last, as the voice continued to tell her to get to the bridge immediately. I’m Sera, and this is the Benevolence, and that’s Captain Dysart’s voice telling me something’s gone wrong again.

Good thing she’d fallen asleep with her clothes on. She still needed a sling for her injured left arm during the day, and struggling out of her shirt and pants alone often felt like more trouble than it was worth. She slipped her socks and boots on one-handed, leaving the laces untied, and ran the fingers of her good hand through her hair. The shaved sides were getting fuzzy. They’d need a trim soon, although she didn’t think she could use a razor without help. Being injured sucked.

“I’m on my way,” she told the intercom before half-running, half-shuffling toward the bridge.

Captain Dysart was seated in her chair on the dais. She was wearing her old purple uniform short, the five silver circles of the Coalition’s symbol winking in the light. One sleeve was folded back over her forearm to accommodate the bulky cast over her fractured wrist. Xrrt wasn’t standing in her usual position at the captain’s side, but strapped down in one of the specialized rigs made to protect Centaurian anatomy during violent ship maneuvers. Weyland, sitting out of the way at the station that would have belonged to a xenolinguistic specialist if the ship had a full Coalition crew, also had safety restraints in place. Sera looked up at the crystalline window, but everything looked normal to her; they were travelling faster than light, and the pinpricks of starlight coming through the window wavered and smeared across the black as the Benevolence slipped through folds of time and space.

“What’s the problem, captain?” Sera slid into her own seat and pulled up a diagnostic chart of the ship. Normally she would have been the first to notice anything wrong with the Benevolence, since she slept so close to the ship’s engine that even a minute change in their steady hum could wake her up. Since she’d been taking painkillers, she’d been sinking deeper into dreams and waking up disoriented.

“We’re making an unscheduled stop,” said Jianyu from his seat next to hers at the navigator’s station. He was already plugged into the ship, looking up at the light dancing across the window. He was wearing his old uniform too. The bright orange made his green skin look even greyer and more washed out in comparison. “It’s a planet in the Eta Persei system.”

Sera checked her diagnostic screen, but the ship’s systems were green across the board. Well, green-ish, at least. The Benevolence was a mess of disparate parts, and she’d never run as smoothly the exploration vessel she’d been when the computer’s systems were designed. “I thought that was a war zone.”

“It is,” Jianyu said.

Sera reached for her harness and buckled the mesh straps across her chest. “Any particular reason why we’re stopping there?”

“We’re picking some people up.” Captain Dysart’s voice was tight with tension. “We’ll get in and out quickly. The worst fighting’s on the other side of the system, so if we turn around quickly enough, we might be able to slip by unnoticed.”

Looking over at Jianyu, Sera saw that his hands were clenched tight on the arms of his chair. His knuckles stood out pale against the green of his skin. “All right,” she said as she killed the diagnostic screen and pulled up the layouts she’d need to see as she flew the ship manually. “Ready when you are.”

Jianyu’s eyes rolled up in his head as he fed a new series of calculations into the ship’s computer, altering their current trajectory to bring them out of the folds of space-time. They would return to sub-light speeds about a half hour’s ride from a planet called Heimstätte, an earthlike outpost that had, until recent events, been firmly under the control of humanity. Now, with Eridani fleets encroaching on the system, she supposed there were plenty of people who wanted a quick escape route. She wondered how much the captain was charging for this particular ride. Their cargo hold was already full of vats of algae, and their client wouldn’t be too happy if this unplanned stop delayed their delivery.

The ship dropped into the normal flow of time and space. The stars beyond the window stabilized into unwavering points of light. Sera set a steady speed, one that would make them look like any other trader en route to the planet.

“Can’t we go any faster?” the captain asked.

“It looks suspicious to come in like we’re in a hurry,” Sera told her. “As far as whoever’s currently patrolling this system knows, we’re profiteers hoping the war means scarcity.”

Heimstätte was a pretty planet, like the earth Sera had seen in simulations of what the planet was like before humanity put its stamp across its homeworld. She keyed in a command to her console, typing awkwardly with just one working arm, and the ship maintained its steady course.

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Respect – 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 port was one of the smallest Nyx had ever seen, just a dock for a few ships on a desolate moon. It was only a short distance away from their last stop, and that was what mattered to the crew of the Benevolence. With her pilot injured and her navigator showing signs of exhaustion, she was starting to worry about how much longer the ship could keep flying.

Fortunately for them, even a port that tiny had a need for small-time freight haulers like the Benevolence. Nyx didn’t have to do much asking around to find out that someone was looking for a ship to transport medical supplies to the next system over.

Trading in medicine still left a bad taste in Nyx’s mouth. She’d grown up with the Coalition’s subsidizing of supply lines and manufacturing, and was still getting used to the idea that medicine was a product that could be bought and sold like any other. But work was work, and if her crew didn’t do it someone else would charge twice as much, so she’d agreed to the job.

The port had a few small lifts for moving boxes, but the ones that weren’t broken were booked. Sera looked a few of the broken ones over and declared they completely fucked. Nyx told her to go sit down. She’d insisted that she was well enough to fly the Benevolence, but she’d almost scraped the ship’s side heading out of their last port of call, and their descent to the moon’s surface had been a white-knuckle ride. Maybe having a pilot with one arm in a sling wasn’t the greatest idea.

That left the rest of the crew to load up a mismatched collection of dollys and transport the cargo into the hold by hand. Nyx was the slowest member of the crew by far. Xrrt was a Centaurian worker, evolved over millennia to transport food to a hungry hive. Jianyu’s size and muscle mass worked in his favor. Weyland, though small, was stronger than he looked; he worked quietly and efficiently, never complaining.

They were about halfway done when Nyx tripped over her own feet and dropped the box she was carrying. It cracked open, leaking a fine green dust that covered the front of her shirt. She took a deep breath, fighting for calm, and inhaled a lungful of it.

Nyx started trying to brush herself off, which only sent more dust flying. As she was coughing, Xrrt hurried over, scraping out a question by rubbing her claws together. Her translator said, “Are you safe? Can you breathe?”

“I’m fine,” Nyx choked out, and grabbed ahold of her friend’s thorax to stay upright. Her lungs burned with each gasping inhalation, but she needed air. By the time she finally managed to take a deep breath, the rest of the crew had gathered around her, looking concerned.

Jianyu thumped her carefully on the back. “Are you alright, captain?”

“I think I’ll live,” Nyx croaked. “Unless that stuff is toxic. Weyland, is it toxic?”

Weyland knelt to read the label on the box she’d dropped. “It’s safe,” he said. “You shouldn’t suffer any adverse effects from inhalation, unless you’ve got an allergy to Dling wasps.”

“Well, isn’t that great news?” Nyx looked down at her clothing. “I’m going to get cleaned up. Keep going until I get back.”

The Benevolence only had one shower, located next to the room that they’d turned into Weyland’s lab. It had once had a whole array of sanitary stations, but those had been in the crew quarters, the portion of the ship that had been blown off years ago. The stall was built for utility, not comfort, a place for washing off chemical spills and handling similar emergencies. Nyx stripped to her skin and stepped under the water without waiting for it to warm up. Her lungs still hurt with every breath and her head was spinning.

The water warmed, and Nyx scrubbed herself off. The ache in her lungs faded. She couldn’t shake her annoyance at spilling the medicine. It wasn’t her fault, she told herself. The client shouldn’t have used such a flimsy box.

She dried off, found a clean set of clothes, and tossed the dust-covered shirt into the laundry hamper in her room. The crew was still at work when she came back out to join them, and in a few more hours, the work was done. Nyx resented every minute of it. Her dolly had a wheel that stuck no matter how carefully she moved it. Nyx kicked it until her toe ached.

“So, are we staying here for a while?” Jianyu asked when the work was over.

That had been the plan, but as Nyx pictured days of sitting around waiting on this unexciting little moon, she realized that she didn’t want to be there a minute longer than necessary. “Change of plans,” she declared. “I’m getting off this rock as soon as possible.”

Jianyu raised his eyebrows and took a step back, looking surprised. “Okay, captain, whatever you say.”

Nyx was fed up with his attitude. She worked hard enough, she didn’t deserve to have her decisions second-guessed. “We’re taking off in an hour,” she told him, before turning on her heel and stalking off. That was the problem, respect. She never got any goddamn respect, not on the ship, not anywhere. Well, things were about to change on the Benevolence. She was about to get what she deserved.

Xrrt

Xrrt settled into her harness. She wasn’t sure why they were taking off so soon, but when she’d asked Nyx about the change of plans, her friend had only muttered, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and walked away. That little spill must have upset her more than she let on.

As Sera maneuvered the ship out of port, Nyx hunched over in her chair, drumming her fingers on the armrests. Their ascent was rough enough to jostle Xrrt around in her restraints; she didn’t feel anything but the faintest pressure through the sensors beneath her exoskeleton, but looking around at the rest of the crew, she saw them wincing.

While they were cruising through open space, preparing to engage the faster-than-light drive, Nyx slapped the release on her harness. By the time Xrrt managed to struggle out of her own, her friend was already gone, leaving the bridge without a word. That was unlike her. She usually stayed to supervise the transition from traveling through normal three-dimensional space to slipping through folds of space and time.

Nyx hadn’t gone far–not that there was all that far to go on what remained of the Benevolence. Xrrt found her on the lower level of the ship, where the crew had turned the room at the tip of the nose cone into a recreational area. Like the bridge above it, the space had a large sloping window made of super-hard synthetic crystal. The curve of the ship’s snub nose gave the room an odd shape, a semicircle with its windowed wall sloping down like a glass bowl until it met the floor. Back when the Benevolence had had a full crew, rookie used to scramble up the slope of the crystalline wall and stand with their feet appearing to float in space. It had been a rite of passage, an opportunity to get a picture to send to whatever family a young crew member had left back at home.

Nyx was standing at that window, her hands behind her back, the fingers of one hand wrapped tight around the other’s wrist as though she were trying to keep it still. Xrrt came up beside her, and the two of them watched the stars together.

Xrrt said, I wanted to talk with you about the way the crew has been working. I know that each of them would tell you that they’re fine, but I think they’re not fine, I think they’re reaching a dangerous point where they’re going to start making mistakes if they don’t get some rest. I feel the same way about you. You’re always moving on to the next job. You haven’t stopped moving in too long.

Her translator said, “I’m worried you’re working the crew too hard.”

Nyx shifted and breathed out hard. An unusual amount of heat was radiating from her cheeks. Human emotions weren’t the easiest for Xrrt to read. Her friend might be embarrassed, or perhaps feverish. “Did I ask for your opinion?”

Xrrt said, Our relationship hasn’t required you to ask me for my opinion in a long time. You trust that when I have something to say, I will say it, and I trust you to do the same for me. You do not understand how it is between sisters in my species, how we talk in the hive-song, but I think you are as close to a sister as it’s possible for a human to be. I do not understand how to answer your question. Sometimes your species asks questions that do not have answers.

Her translator took some time to process that speech, and finally came up with, “I don’t know how to answer that.”

Nyx huffed again. She really was radiating an unusual amount of heat. “Respect,” she muttered. “I never get any damn respect around here.”

The cadence of the Benevolence’s song changed around them as the faster-than-light drive began to hum. Outside the window the stars were shifting, their ultraviolet brilliance becoming a full-spectrum blur. Nyx’s breathing was getting faster, her chest rising and falling rapidly, the hot air hissing out of her mouth in little puffs. Xrrt put a tentative claw on Nyx’s shoulder. Nyx batted it away and stepped back, making a sound that was almost a snarl.

“Don’t patronize me,” she said, as Xrrt moved away, startled, folding her claws as tight as they would go against her thorax. “Don’t ever patronize me. That’s what you do, acting like you know better than me because–because your species is just superior, you know, with your hive-mind and your exoskeletons and your, your acid glands.”

She headed for the exit as Xrrt stood frozen, uncertain of what she’d done to cause the outburst. The room’s automatic door started to slide open but one side stuttered, stuck in its track. Nyx slammed the toe of her boot into the thin metal, cursing shoddy construction and shoddier maintenance. When that didn’t do anything she kicked it again, this time hard enough to leave a dent in the burnished surface.

“I’m tired of being stuck in this tin can,” Nyx yelled as the door finished opening with a final scream of metal on metal. “I’m tired of everything in my life being shit.” She gave the frame a final whack with her boot for emphasis and stalked out. The door tried to close behind her, but got stuck again halfway, leaving a gap through which Xrrt could see her friend’s retreating back.

Nyx

In the sad little hole that passed for a bathroom on the Benevolence, Nyx leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on her face. She felt hot, unbearably hot, so hot that she was tempted to get in the shower again with all her clothes on. The climate control must have malfunctioned again. Something was always malfunctioning on the ship. Nyx was amazed the damn thing hadn’t sprung a leak and sucked them all out into space by now.

She gripped the lip of the metal sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was getting sallow from months without natural light. In happier days, Nyx had not been adverse to a little cosmetic enhancement, but she’d let it slide in the last few years. Now she pushed her hair back from her forehead, examining a new crease on the skin above her eyebrows and the blue-green tracery of a vein snaking over her temple. Her eyes were bloodshot, the whites overtaken by a tracery of bright red capillaries. Her cheeks were flushed a splotchy red. Nyx put her head down as far as she could in the sink and let cold water run down the side of her face. She was burning up.

When she came up for air, half her hair was wet and tangled. She pushed it out of her face, noticing as she did so that she was beginning to go grey. When had that started happening? When had she started looking old?

It wasn’t her fault. Nyx was a healthy 43-year-old, in the prime of her life. If she was looking worn out, it was because she had to live on this mess of a ship, wasting all her time stressing out about cargo and repairs. She was stuck in a cycle with no way out: haul more cargo to get the money to fix the ship, fix the ship so she could haul more cargo. What kind of life was that?

And the crew, always finding some new way to create a disaster, always running to her to fix their mistakes when everything went pear-shaped. Nyx was sick of looking after them. She was sick, period. Her stomach felt like there was something living inside it, something that coiled and thrashed and smoldered when she thought of all the ways life had conspired to wrong her.

She wasn’t going to take it anymore. If the crew didn’t respect her now, Nyx would make them respect her.

She headed for her room, knelt beside her bed, and pulled out the little black case underneath it. The pad over the lock responded to her thumb, clicking open, and Nyx pulled our her gun.

It was a sleek little plasma pistol, capable of firing two charges before a reload. Nyx stored the charges in a separate box, although she couldn’t remember now why she’d done that. What was the point of having a gun if it wasn’t easy to use?

The charges slotted into the little pistol with a satisfying click. Nyx stuffed a few extras into her pockets. Just in case, she thought, and didn’t let herself dwell on what in case meant. She scrubbed her forehead with her sleeve. Her skin felt strange, hot and prickly and oily. Something had to be wrong with the climate control. She’d never been this hot in her life.

She wasn’t sure where exactly the crew was. She walked to the bridge, but it was empty. With the ship set on its faster than light course, there wasn’t much need to monitor its progress moment to moment. Nyx leaned against a metal wall for a moment, appreciating the cool metal against her cheek. The wall was vibrating with the same motion that shook the rest of the ship, a low constant hum that felt like a toothache in her skull. She reeled away from the wall, furious that it had no comfort to offer her.

Nothing could be trusted, not even her own crew, not even her own ship. Even the artificial gravity was failing her now, getting heavier by the minute, dragging her down to the deck. Nyx was the only reliable constant in her own universe, and the gun in her hand was the only solid object left to cling to.

She found her quarry back down in the rec room. They didn’t know she was there, and Nyx lurked outside the broken door, listening through the crack.

“I don’t know,” Jianyu was saying. “It must be a translation error. That just doesn’t sound like something she’d say.”

“She’s been pretty stressed lately.” That was Sera’s voice. Nyx’s fingers tightened around her pistol. They were talking about her, they had to be. What gave them the right to whisper behind her back?

Weyland said, “Her blood pressure was on the higher end of normal at her last test, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“That kind of stress isn’t good for her, not long term,” Jianyu said. “Maybe she just needs a rest.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Sera responded.

Xrrt spoke. It went on for a long time, a cacophony of scrapes and clicks and gurgles. Her translator said, “I’m worried about her.”

That was too much. It was all too much, pressing down on Nyx’s head like a physical weight, the unbearable burden of all the shit she was going through because this crew was so ungrateful, so disloyal that they’d even talk about her behind her back. She squeezed the grip of her gun until her knuckles ached and stepped toward the broken door.

Xrrt

The door screeched as it dragged along its track. Nyx stepped through. Her eyes were red, her face radiating an incredible amount of heat. She had one hand raised in front of her, and in that hand was a sleek plasma pistol.

Xrrt’s acid glands kicked into overdrive before she had even consciously realized that she was staring down the barrel of a gun. It took an effort not to spit on pure instinct. The rest of the crew was looking away from the door, arranged in a semicircle facing the curve of the window. She could try to warn them, but by the time the translator managed to get the words out, who knew what might happen?

Instead, she sprang forward, relying on the power of her four hind limbs to propel her past the others. She clipped Sera on her way past, and cringed at her startled grunt, but bruised was better than dead. The rest of the crew was so fragile, with their soft skin and their skeletons on the inside where those hard bones weren’t any use at all. She spread her forelimbs wide, rising up on her hindlimbs in a posture that would protect the space behind her.

Nyx squinted at her. Half of her hair was soaking wet and plastered to her cheek. There was an oily sheen to her skin. The gun was shaking in her hand, the black end of the barrel wobbling.

Xrrt said, I am not sure why you are pointing a weapon at me, but I don’t like it. I don’t understand why you are doing this. Please, help me understand why you are behaving in such a strange way. This is not something I would ever have thought you were capable of doing.

Her translator said, “What are you doing?”

When Nyx spoke, it was through gritted teeth. “All I want is some respect,” she said. “Some goddamn respect, is that too much to ask, just some acknowledgement of everything I have to put up with around here.”

Behind Xrrt, Sera said, “Holy shit, is that a plasma pistol?”

The barrel of the gun swung toward Sera, and Xrrt shuffled sideways, trying to keep her body between the weapon and the crew. “Of course it’s a goddamn plasma pistol.” Nyx’s voice was rising, spittle flying when she yelled. “See, this is what I’m talking about. I can’t operate like this. I can’t work with all these questions.”

“Captain.” Jianyu’s voice was careful, level, with only the faintest hint of the quaver that betrayed a human’s fear. “If you fire that in here, you’ll punch a hole through the hull, and we’ll all die.”

“I know that!” Nyx put her free hand to her forehead, pushing hard against the skin with the heel of her palm. “Don’t patronize me. Of course I know that.”

Weyland said, “Captain, have you ever been tested for an allergy to Dling wasps?”

Nyx stepped forward, trying to point the gun at the doctor, and Xrrt moved to intercept her again. It wouldn’t do much good, not at this range. Just one plasma bolt would eat through even her chitinous body in an instant, along with everything else worth protecting behind her. Still, the instinct to protect, to shield, ran too deep for her to step aside. She loved her crew, little maggots that they were, deaf to the mind’s song and blind to ultraviolet light and so very, very fragile.

“Bloodshot sclera,” Weyland went on. “Sweating. Increased aggression. Paranoia, a sense of persecution–”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Nyx raised both her hands and pressed them to either side of her head, squeezing inwards as if she was trying to hold something in. The barrel of the gun was pointed at the ceiling, and her hand was wrapped around the trigger. Xrrt acted quickly, darting forward before she had time to second-guess herself. She slammed into Nyx, hooking a claw around her wrist and snapping it down forcefully. Nyx shrieked, the gun clattered on the floor, and Xrrt hugged her tight with all of her forelimbs.

Weyland stepped up. “Turn her over this way,” her said, and Xrrt did her best to oblige as Nyx struggled to get away from her. Her claws snagged in the fabric of Nyx’s shirt, ripping the fabric and scratching the delicate skin beneath. Xrrt felt terrible about that, but there was no way to hold her more gently, not with Nyx thrashing and screaming as Xrrt tried to keep her contained.

Weyland peered into Nyx’s eyes and pressed his slim fingers to the flesh under her jaw. “It certainly looking like a Dling wasp allergy,” he said. “It’s an unusually sudden onset, but the powder she was exposed to was concentrated. Can you get her to my lab?”

Xrrt said, I will carry her wherever it is necessary to go to save her, and her translator said, “Yes.”

The walk to the lab wasn’t easy. Nyx resisted every step of the way, alternating between digging her heels into the deck and trying to kick at the joints of Xrrt’s hindlimbs. Eventually, Jianyu had to pick her up and sling her over one of his massive shoulders. “Sorry, captain,” he kept saying as she slammed her fists into his back.

“Should we turn the ship around?” Sera asked as Jianyu maneuvered Nyx onto a table in the lab and held her down. “We could try to find a doctor back at the port.”

“I’m a better doctor than anyone there,” Weyland said. It didn’t sound like he was bragging, the way humans sometimes did. He sounded like he was just stating an obvious fact. “Keep her still, I need to give her an injection.”

He loaded a syringe with a bright blue liquid. Jianyu did his best to keep Nyx still as Weyland slid the needle into the muscle of her upper arm. As the crew watched, her struggles against Jianyu grew weaker, and finally she slumped back against the metal table and closed her eyes. Her face was still unusually warm for a human’s skin, but Xrrt observed that the burning intensity was fading. She wasn’t sure what the rest of the crew could see with their simple unfaceted eyes.

At last, Nyx said, “Xrrt, I think you broke my wrist.”

Xrrt said, I wish with all my hearts that I had thought of another option that would not have hurt you. Injuring you was never my intention. I only did what I thought I had to do to keep you and everyone else safe.

Her translator said, “It’s what I had to do.”

Nyx said, “Well done.” She opened her eyes and smiled, just a faint curve of her lips. “Thank you.”

🚀

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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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