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