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Checkup – Astra Nullius

Last Resort, Part 4 – Astra Nullius
Do Some Harm, Part 1 - Astra Nullius

Weyland

Weyland slid the probe out of Mirelle’s neural port. He checked the numbers on his com screen, looked at the probe, checked them again, and said, “Hang on a minute, I think something’s wrong with this equipment.”

He went over to his desk to find a different probe. Mirelle sat in the chair in his lab, hands on her knees, looking around the room curiously. Sera had already given her the full tour of the Benevolence, which was still docked, receiving its final round of repairs. Captain Dysart had informed him that Mirelle was coming on as a new member of the crew, and instructed him to perform a complete medical checkup on her. There was something about the way she’d said it, emphasizing the word complete, that made Weyland suspect that she was looking for something in particular.

He found a different probe, double-checked that it was calibrated correctly, and tested Mirelle’s neural function again. Her results were the same, a jumble of highs and lows he couldn’t make any sense of. Some of her readings were far healthier than Jianyu’s. Others shouldn’t be possible in a living humanoid brain. According to Weyland’s readout, Mirelle was perfectly healthy, and she was clinically dead at the same time.

“Are you feeling faint at all?” he asked. “Any lightheadedness, dizziness, vertigo?”

“No, I feel fine,” she said.

“What about sensory confusion? Have you had any nosebleeds recently?”

“Nope,” said Mirelle, shifting in her seat. “Wait, I think I got a nosebleed a couple months ago. It happens sometimes when the air’s too dry.”

Weyland stared at the numbers again, wondering if he should try the test a third time. Jianyu would have been on the floor, unable to speak or stand, by round two. Mirelle just looked up at him, smiled nervously, and said, “Sometimes my numbers are a little strange.”

“I’m going to have to do a full brain scan,” Weyland said. “Have you ever had one before? Is there anything I should know?”

Mirelle twisted her mouth to one side, clearly thinking about that, and said, “I think you’ll see it all on the scan.”

Weyland took his time setting up the equipment. He’d never actually used this machine before; Jianyu was overdue for a scan, but he kept finding excuses to put off his appointment, and the rest of the crew weren’t on a regular schedule for neurological checks. The movements of getting everything ready to go came naturally to him, something he could do without thinking unless he slowed down and forced himself to concentrate on why he took each step. His brother Delos had sent him a poem once called The Centipede’s Dilemma, about a many-legged bug that thought too much about which leg came after the other and forgot how to run. Weyland hadn’t understood why his brother wanted him to see it at first, even after he looked up what a centipede was, but he’d come to understand it in time. They were all like the centipede, going through the motions of work without thinking, until they stopped to consider how they worked at all.

The scanner was a tangle of electrodes and wires, circling Mirelle’s head like an overgrown crown. Weyland adjusted it to fit her, waited for the scan to finish, and then packed it all away again as the image uploaded to the ship’s central computer system, then appeared on his com screen.

He took a sharp breath, startled and trying to appear calm, as he saw what was inside Mirelle’s skull for the first time. She had most of a human brain. Her left temporal lobe was almost completely gone. The damage was old, the tissue atrophied but without lesions. Her cerebellum had been injured too. Worse, there was something else inside her head, a foreign matter that wasn’t human at all. The worst of it was wrapped around her brainstem, but there were tendrils of it all through her head, growing through the white matter like the roots of a tree pushing through soil. They curled around the spike of hardware in her head, the Coalition hardware almost completely obscured on the scan by a web of fine filaments. The mass continued down through the foramen magnum opening at the base of her skull and out through the gap just before her first vertebra, where it formed a spongy, dense lump like the cap of a mushroom under her skin.

Minervan. Weyland knew what they were. He’d met plenty in person, if person was even the right term for what they were. He knew they were a type of fungus, occupying a similar niche to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis on Earth, or the brain-controlling contagion the Centaurians called the Hive-Killer. And yet Minervans walked among other sentient species as if they were normal; they’d even been members of the Coalition.

Weyland said, without thinking, “What happened to your temporal lobe? Was it the parasite?”

Mirelle’s expression changed. She looked hurt, and Weyland felt ashamed. He knew he’d said the wrong thing. She shifted nervously in her chair, then raised her fingers to the back of her head, gently touching the lump of alien flesh underneath her skin. “Symbiote,” she corrected him. “My brain was already damaged. I would have died without it.”

“So it’s…” Weyland spoke carefully, thinking hard about each word. The centipede’s dilemma, only he’d already run straight into a wall. “It’s a part of you?”

“It is me,” she said.

Weyland had a lot of follow-up questions, but Mirelle looked tense, and he was pretty sure he shouldn’t have called her a parasite. Changing topics seemed like a safer way to go. “How do you know Sera?”

Mirelle smiled again, and Weyland was hopeful that they’d found steadier conversational footing. “She’s my mom.”

“Oh.” She looked like she was about the same age as Sera, somewhere in her late twenties, although it was hard to tell from appearances alone. Space travel kept people insulated from the damaging effects of too much direct natural starlight, and there were plenty of cosmetic procedures available for looking young. Weyland, who’d always been careful about looking older than he actually was, didn’t know much about them.

Mirelle said, “You don’t know much about Minervans, do you?”

“I really don’t,” Weyland admitted. “How can Sera be your mother?”

“It’s not quite… there isn’t a good word for it in most human languages.” Mirelle quirked her mouth to the side again, considering how to explain the concept. “Someone who takes care of you when you’re young, that’s your parent, even if they aren’t biologically related to you. I was young–not for a human, but I’ve only had the symbiote for a few years, after I was in an accident. And she took care of me, so that makes her my mom.”

“I see,” said Weyland, who didn’t understand at all.

“Some people have dozens of moms,” said Mirelle. “It’s all about who’s looking out for you. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, I think so,” said Weyland. By that standard, as well as several more conventional ways of counting what makes a family, he had no mother at all.

“And besides,” Mirelle said, “she was going to marry my d–”

The door to Weyland’s lab slid open. Mirelle shut her mouth, looking a little guilty, as if she’d been on the cusp of saying something she shouldn’t have. Sera stepped into the room. She had grease on her forearms and she was wiping her hands with a rag.

“All done in here?” she asked. “Mirelle, the captain wants a word with you when you’re free. Weyland, those idiots who were working on the electrical system shut it off for a couple of days. I’m going to need to check your meat vats to make sure the backup system worked with no interruptions.”

Mirelle flashed a quick smile at Weyland as she got up. “Thank you for your time, doctor…?”

“Just Weyland is fine,” he said.

Nyx

“This is a terrible idea,” said Jianyu.

Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose. It had seemed so simple when Sera had explained it back on Lotan: a new client and a new crew member at once, and not just any crew member, but a navigator to give Jianyu some extra help. She should have known by now that good things didn’t just fall into her lap. “The Coalition has approved Minervan navigators in the past,” she said. “I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.”

“Only on experimental ships, with full consent from the onboard crew, and even then only if the crew was carrying a full set of navigators already. They were never cleared for integration into a normal navigational team.”

They were on the bridge, Nyx in her chair, Jianyu standing in front of her. Even though the captain’s chair sat on a raised dais, she still had to tilt her head back to look up at him. If she stood, they’d be at eye level, but that wasn’t how a Coalition captain gave orders to her crew. Nyx had realized over their years together that Jianyu listened best when she stuck with the old rules, even when they were ridiculous. “I’m sure the rest of the crew will give their consent. We’ll discuss it, if that would make you feel better.”

“It’s not about how I feel,” said Jianyu. “It’s about whether I trust her to do the job safely. The failure rates of Minervan navigators in simulations were–”

“A fraction of a percent,” Nyx finished before he could. “I have access to the same data as you.”

“Unacceptable,” said Jianyu. “Maybe it doesn’t look like much to you, but a navigator has to plot thousands of routes with perfect accuracy. One mistake, one miscalculation, and they’re not just putting themselves at risk. The entire crew depends on them.”

“Took a look at those vats,” said Sera, coming up from behind without announcing herself. “The backup power kept the temperature in a mostly safe range.”

Mostly safe isn’t good enough,” Jianyu said, still addressing Nyx.

Sera didn’t bother to stand at attention in front of the captain’s chair to give her report. She just crossed over to the pilot’s station, pulled a screwdriver from one of her vest pockets, and started dismantling an important-looking panel.

Nyx said, “Sera, how safe would you say this ship is?”

Sera yanked on the panel until it popped off, exposing a tangle of wires. Nyx was too far away to see what she was working on, although she wasn’t sure she’d understand it better if she stood any closer. “What to you mean by that, captain?”

“How likely are we to die today?”

“Today? Not likely.” From somewhere else in her vest, she produced a pair of pliers. “The safest ship’s the one that’s not flying. Unless there’s a mistake with the docking hardware, and then it’ll tear through the hull of the ship and expose us to vacuum. I’d call that… fairly unlikely.”

“And when we’re in flight, how likely are we to die on any given day?”

Sera clipped something from the wire tangle, dropped it in her pocket, and began the process of putting the panel back on. “That varies, I guess. You have to consider the age of our engine parts, and whether any of them are overdue for maintenance, and of course there’s the whole life support system that needs to be kept in balance. Oxygen circulation and carbon dioxide scrubbing, water filtration, air pressure, temperature control, all of those have to be just right.” Her work done, she stood and turned to face the captain, standing not in Jianyu’s proper stance but a slouch with her hands in her pockets. “Plus the electrical grid, that’s an easy one to overload. Then there’s the artificial gravity. That’s a workhorse of a system, but if it goes wrong, we’ll all be chunky soup on the floor within minutes. And of course there’s external hazards if we’re going at sub-light speed. Debris strikes, force field failures, that kind of thing. And of course, ever ship has structural weak points, so those could fail if they’re overtaxed.”

“You’re laying it on a little thick,” Jianyu said.

“And that’s on a day when no one’s shooting at us,” Sera finished. “So like I said, it depends.”

“You’re a good navigator,” Nyx told Jianyu. “You do your job very well. But you have to learn to tolerate some risk.”

“With all due respect, captain, the entire guiding purpose of the Coalition navigational program is that no risk is tolerable.”

While Jianyu spoke, Sera rolling her eyes as far back in her head as they would go. Nyx’s jaw ached with the effort of keeping a straight face. She punched a key on the pad of her chair, calling Weyland’s personal com screen. His voice came over the speakers a few moments later: “Captain?”

“Weyland, I’d like you to send me Jianyu’s neural readouts,” said Nyx. “Include Coalition benchmarks for a navigation team operating at normal efficiency, and also benchmarks for a navigation team working above the threshold for burnout. Oh, and look up the Coalition regulations on when to remove a navigator from rotation.”

Jianyu’s face crumpled. Sera said, “You’ve made your point, captain.”

“And you’ve got other work to do,” Nyx told her. “Get on it.”

She waited until the door had hissed closed behind Sera to say, “I know how to run a risk assessment just as well as you do. Mirelle’s going to be working with us. I hope you can learn to live with that.”

Sera

“You said Jianyu wanted to talk with me?” Mirelle hitched up her jeans. She was wearing a pair of Sera’s spare pants, the knees frayed and the thighs dark with grease stains, and they kept slipping down her narrow hips. Flowers had treated her well enough, all things considered, but he hadn’t thought to bring extra clothes along after a kidnapping.

Sera made a mental note to take her shopping soon. “Maybe give it a few hours. Jianyu’s got some stuff he needs to think about.” He’d brushed past her on their way out without speaking, heading in the direction of his room.

“Oh,” Mirelle said. “Maybe you could show me the rest of the ship? I haven’t had the chance to get a good look at it.”

Sera led her around. She tried to make her stop at the bridge brief. Captain Dysart was still brooding in the captain’s chair, and the view out the front window wasn’t interesting anyway, just a field of stars and the curving metal hull of the station. Mirelle lingered at the navigator’s station, her fingers hovering over but not quite touching the console, until Sera lured her away with promises of a better view from the lower deck.

From that window they could look down at the planet below, a rust-red desert with two ice-covered poles. “It looks like Mars,” Mirelle said, leaning out over the sloped crystal as if she were about to fall into space. Sera fought a brief, irrational impulse to pull her back from the edge. “Back before the terraforming. I saw a picture of it once.”

“When did you see that?” A bubble of hope expanded in her chest, small and fragile.

Mirelle twisted her mouth to the side, the way she did when she was thinking hard. At last, she said, “I read an article about it. Around the time of the four hundredth anniversary of the first colony.”

Sera looked away, feeling that little bubble pop, like it almost always did. Mirelle’s memories of the person she’d been before the accident were fragmented. Sometimes she’d come up with a surprisingly clear memory from her childhood, or a conversation from a decade back recited almost word for word. Most of the time she was the Minervan she’d become, still a child, still learning how the world worked. It wouldn’t do her any good to remind her that she’d visited Mars before, and spent the better part of two days in the history museum.

She covered her disappointment by looking around the edges of the window, checking for signs that the seal with the hull was weakening. It was rare for ship windows to blow like that, but every time you added a new feature to a ship, you introduced a potential point of failure. “Yeah, it does look a lot like Mars.”

“Maybe they’ll terraform it someday,” Mirelle said. “It’s in the right zone, it could even be Earth-like with enough work.

“Maybe,” Sera hedged, “if we ever run out of other planets.” Terraforming took a lot of resources, and even with an infinite supply of money, the full process still had to play out over centuries. A few projects had been ongoing during the heyday of the Coalition, but most of those were faltering now. Why bother eking out a living on a hostile chunk of rock when there was a perfect farm planet in the next system over, ripe for the taking?

“I want to see where we’re supposed to eat,” said Mirelle, stepping back from the window.

Sera took her to the former conference room they’d turned into a dining area, then through the cargo hold to the rear of the ship. The hold was empty now, since she’d dropped their last load of cargo, but Flowers had promised to fill it before they departed. They’d be starting with a light load of contraband, mostly raw cloth, with some cosmetics folded into the piles. Carrying that stuff wasn’t illegal for a human-owned ship, not unless you tried to offload it at the wrong port. And they wouldn’t even be taking it to the wrong port, just to a drop-off point that happened to be very close to one. That was practically legitimate work in Sera’s eyes.

“You’ll have to choose your own room,” Sera told Mirelle as they walked, their boots echoing on the metal deck in the cavernous space. “Most of the crew have their own space in the nose cone.”

“Can I be in the back with you?” Mirelle asked.

“It won’t be comfortable,” said Sera. “The engine’s loud.”

The door to the aft section hissed open, and Sera stepped over the threshold into the space she spent most of her time in. Pilots didn’t have much to do when a ship was traveling faster than light; no human brain could react fast enough to dodge a disaster. As soon as the FTL drive was engaged, a pilot had to trust that her navigator had calculated the route correctly. Since Sera doubled as the ship’s mechanic, she spent more time working on the engines than she did at the pilot’s station. She didn’t like the idea of having anyone, even someone she knew and loved like Mirelle, invading that space.

Mirelle stretched out her hand and pressed her palm flat against a wall. It was vibrating softly, just a low purr. “It’s not that bad.”

“It’ll be louder when the engine’s really working,” Sera told her. “Besides, it’s Coalition regulation for navigators to sleep closest to the bridge. Just in case there’s a problem during FTL travel.”

Mirelle looked at her, wide-eyed with confusion. “Why should I care about Coalition regulations?”

“It’s… just how things work around here.” Mirelle remembered very little about her time in the Coalition. She’d spent the last few years redoing her training as a navigator, with Sera footing the bills to a series of fly-by-night schools in Minervan colonies. In her darkest and most bitter moods, Sera resented the fact that she’d been the one stuck with the burden of remembering everything for the both of them. “Look, it’ll help you get things started off right with Jianyu. I’ll send you some old handbooks.”

Xrrt

Xrrt was nearly done with her survey of the ship’s security system. It had been set perfectly when she left, but that was no guarantee that it was still in working order. Strange mechanics had taken over her ship, and that meant every setting had to be checked personally.

The Benevolence hadn’t been built as a warship, and its second life as a freighter wasn’t supposed to involve much in the way of combat. The plasma cannons and laser guns had been later additions, hooked into a computer system that wasn’t really built to handle weaponry, and just keeping everything functional required frequent calibration. Then there were the doors, set to open automatically for crew members while sealing off depressurized sections and other hazards. The system was designed to work with standard ID chips, but Sera was constantly causing it to glitch out; she was walking around with so many irregular chips in her arms that the ship’s computer registered her as a small and highly suspicious crowd.

Mirelle’s ID chip was throwing up warning messages too. It was close to a standard chip, but there was an irregular pattern to the data that the security system was picking up on. It looked like someone had taken a standard chip, partially wiped it, and inserted new information over the old framework. It was a good facsimile of a real identity, more than enough to fool a scanner at a colony checkpoint, but the Benevolence was set up to keep closer tabs on its crew.

Her office door slid open with a hiss. Xrrt looked up, fighting a brief moment of confusion. Something about the sound of a metal door on a metal track sounded like her native language’s word for the diffraction of sunlight on a piece of meat. She’d tried to explain it to a series of mechanics, asking if there was some way the tracks could be greased, but no one had been able to understand her through the translator.

Jianyu was standing just outside the door. He tapped his knuckles on the frame, a habit humans called knocking that they used when they were waiting for an invitation into a room. Xrrt responded by curving her forclaws in toward her body. It wasn’t a gesture she’d grown up with, but one she’d learned from imitating her human crewmates. Humans called it beckoning.

Jianyu stepped into her office and glanced back at the door, watching it close behind him. When he was certain they weren’t going to be overheard, he said, “Xrrt, can I ask you something?”

Xrrt turned away from her workstation and leaned over her desk. She didn’t really need one. Most of her work was on her computer, specially adapted for her anatomy. Still, the Coalition had given every security officer the same heavy expanse of wood and steel, under the logic that every bipedal humanoid species was primed to consider someone behind a big desk an authority. Hers was beginning to show its age, with pits and gouges in the polished wooden top where she’d been careless with her claws.

She tilted her head to the side, a gesture that humans associated with intent listening, and folded both sets of foreclaws on her desktop.

Jianyu said, “What would you do if the captain was ordering the crew to do something risky? Would it be your job to stop her from putting another person’s life in danger, or would you trust her judgement?”

Xrrt said, Living in the vacuum of space is dangerous. Breaking out of a planet’s atmosphere to get to space puts lives at risk. Landing again comes with even more risks. But even living in the safest city on the safest planet in the galaxy doesn’t mean you’ll never be in danger. Every person makes choices each day of their lives to do the thing that is less safe, less predictable. I have lived alongside Nyx for a very long time now. Sometimes she makes choices that even I find questionable. But I know that when she chooses to put her crew in danger, she does it for reasons she believes are right.

Her translator said, “It depends on the level of risk. I trust the captain’s judgement.”

“Okay, let’s say the worst thing that could happen is really bad. But the chances of that happening are very small.” Xrrt had a chair in her office, but Jianyu chose to stand and pace instead. The room was big, but he could only get a couple of steps in either direction before he had to turn around. “And let’s say you’re not sure the captain really understands what she’s asking. Let’s say it isn’t her area of expertise.”

Xrrt said, It is not the captain’s job to be an expert in every possible discipline that keeps this ship running. If she could do that, she wouldn’t need any of us. It is part of her job to trust us to do our jobs. Likewise, it is part of our jobs to trust her when she makes a decision. Despite this, I am getting the sense that whatever you are concerned about is something you are deeply frightened of. How much danger is the crew really in if she chooses the option that’s less safe?

Her translator said, “The captain can make her own choices. What is the worst thing that could happen?”

Jianyu stopped pacing. He said, his voice lower than normal, “Have you ever heard of the Assimilation?”

Xrrt moved her head up and down, nodding in the human style. She knew that word. It had been the name of a Coalition ship. One of the science officers had been a relative of hers–not a sister, but a connection from another hive with a queen that had come from the same mother as her own mother. She couldn’t recall what had happened to the ship. There had been so many lost that it was difficult to keep track.

“Did you hear what happened to it?”

She swivelled her head left to right, shaking it no.

“A few years after the Benevolence left known space, the Assimilation’s crew was completely changed out. It was going to embark on another exploratory mission, but all of its navigation crew were Minervans. It was supposed to be an experiment, to see how Minervan navigators performed under the stress of long-term travel. It set out on its first flight, turned on its FTL drive, and just… vanished. No one picked up any distress signals, or signs that it had passed by, or anything. It was just gone.” Jianyu spread his hands in front of him, as if he were searching for something in the empty air. “Like it fell right out of the universe. That just happens with Minervan navigators sometimes. Their brain structures aren’t fully compatible with Coalition hardware. Sometimes they just… get lost. It’s very rare, but rare isn’t impossible.”

Xrrt said, I tried to tell you before that life always comes with risks. I think you have done an excellent job of trying to make this ship as safe as possible. But when you calculate what is truly dangerous to this crew, you have to include yourself as a variable. You have to consider the possibility that you will fail if you try to do everything alone. If you continue to work by yourself, how dangerous is that?

Her translator said, “It is also dangerous to do too much alone.”

Jianyu sighed and responded, “Yeah, maybe it is.”

Mirelle

The room Sera had convinced her to take was in the nose cone of the ship, the part that had belonged to the original Benevolence. Mirelle thought privately that it was strange the crew still clung to that old name. The majority the ship was patched together from other vessels. Less than a third of it had ever been the Benevolence.

The place had been an office once. Now, it was a storage room for spare parts Sera had squirreled away. Mirelle helped her carry the junk out, then watched as Sera bolted in a new bunk and a set of lockers for storage.

Sera stepped back, admiring her handiwork. “Welcome to your new home,” she said, clearly proud of what she’d done.

The bed was spartan, just a metal frame attached to the wall. The lockers looked like they’d been repurposed from tool storage. Mirelle had nothing to put in them just yet. She’d had clothes she liked at home, and keepsakes from the last several years of her life. She had no idea what had happened to them after she’d been kidnapped. It didn’t seem worth it to ask the crew to cross the galaxy just to pick up a few trinkets for her.

“It’s… nice,” Mirelle said, not wanting to be unkind. “I’m sure I’ll make it my own.”

“That’s great.” Sera shoved a handful of loose screws back into her pocket. “Hey, do you mind if I take off? I need to talk to Jianyu about something. Oh, and then I should get you set up with your own com screen.”

“Go ahead. I’ll make myself comfortable,” Mirelle told her.

When Sera had left, Mirelle tried out her new bed. The mattress was thin and the metal underneath was unyielding. No matter which way she turned, she couldn’t quite get comfortable. Maybe it was only the unfamiliarity of it all that was upsetting her. Mirelle had only a handful of years of memories to draw from, but she knew it was like this every time she moved. A few months of feeling like she was never fully at rest, always an intruder, and then she would adjust to the new normal.

Sera–because she was Sera now, not Maritza or Adena or Selina–wouldn’t have invited her to stay here if it weren’t safe. If Mirelle couldn’t shake the feeling of being on edge, that was her own problem.

There was something strange about the wall that faced the door. It should have been blank and featureless, the perfect spot for hanging pictures, but instead it was seamed with a pattern of fine lines. Mirelle unlaced her boots, kicked them off, and stowed them under her bed. By standing on the mattress, she could reach up and trace the hairline cracks.

The door to her room opened. Mirelle, startled, stepped backward as she turned. For a moment all she could think of was the terror of intruders in her room, a gun pressed to her temple in the night. Her foot came down on empty air and kept going down, her stomach twisting into a tight knot.

She came down on something solid, but softer than she’d expected. She gasped, and whoever had caught her let out a soft oof.

Her heart hammered as she turned around. The stranger in her room was just Weyland, the doctor. He looked about as surprised as she felt. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” she said, and the same time Weyland said, “I apologize, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

They both took a breath and a step back from each other. Weyland said, “Xrrt can set your door so it doesn’t open automatically for other crew members. It’s not the default option in this section because these weren’t built to be bedrooms.”

“Okay. That’s good to know,” said Mirelle. She gestured vaguely to the wall, embarrassed and searching for an explanation of what she’d been doing. “I was just, um…”

“Looking for the button?” Weyland finished when she trailed off. Mirelle had no idea what that meant, but she nodded enthusiastically. He walked past her and reached out to run his fingers along the wall, near the edge of the pattern she’d noticed. “They can be hard to find sometimes.”

He pressed inward, and something clicked. The wall began to iris out, panels sliding into each other as they collapsed into their frame to reveal a crystalline window. Mirelle’s room was on the lower deck, but the station had rotated so the Benevolence was facing away from the dusty red planet. On the other side of the windowpane was an unbroken expanse of stars, brilliant against the black of the void. There was no atmosphere to make them twinkle, only cold brilliance.

Mirelle said, “That’s exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.”

For the only part of her life she could remember clearly, Mirelle had lived on a series of Minervan colonies. They were small moons and planetoids, rocky and undesirable. The living quarters were always buried deep underground, as far as the builders could get from the unforgiving vacuum of space. She’d never had a room with a window, never even lived in a structure that could look out over this.

Weyland was holding something out to her. Mirelle, entranced by the view, hadn’t noticed. She turned back to him, expecting another test, but the object he pressed into her hand wasn’t a medical device. It was a plant Mirelle didn’t recognize, its leaves fat and pale green, in a simple white pot.

“I read that it’s a tradition on earth to give people a gift when they move,” said Weyland. “It’s called a housewarming.”

“Oh.” Mirelle cupped the plant in her own palms. She wasn’t sure how to care for it. The distant starlight didn’t seem like it would be enough to mimic natural sunlight. She’d probably need some sort of lamp. “Thank you. I didn’t know that.”

“And you’ll need this too.” Weyland held out a stick of greyish putty, the sort Mirelle had seen Sera use to make temporary patches in ducts. “For keeping the pot stuck to wherever you want to put it. Sera’s driving can be a little rough.”

Mirelle realized she was smiling. For the first time in a long while, it didn’t feel forced. “Thank you,” she said. “I feel more at home already.”

Jianyu

Jianyu was in the dining room, trying to get down a bowl of something green he’d found in the fridge, when Sera found him. She pulled up a chair across from him and said, “Are you really eating that?”

“It was labelled edible,” he said, turning his spoon over and letting a wad of greenish goo plop back into the bowl. “I think it’s some kind of algae.”

“Is it any good?”

“It’s chewy,” said Jianyu. “And also runny at the same time.” He pushed the bowl over to her so she could poke at it with the spoon.

“The next crew member we hire has got to be a cook.” Sera dug through the green slop, leaving a channel that collapsed in on itself.

“I’m sorry about… earlier,” Jianyu said. “Things are going to be different with a second navigator.”

“Mm. Are you going to finish this?” When Jianyu shook his head, Sera fished something metallic out of one of her pockets and dropped it into the bowl. It released a little puff of smoke as it sank, and left a scum of bubbles behind on the surface.

“What was that?” Jianyu asked, uncertain if he actually wanted to know.

“Ion capacity limiter. Those idiots who were working on the ship saw the pilot’s station didn’t have one, so they thought they’d install one. And they charged way too much for it.”

“Couldn’t you just give it back? Maybe you could get some money back.”

Sera rubbed her knuckles along her scarred jaw. “Just between us, let’s allow the captain to believe we have one. It’s sort of an essential part.”

Sort of?”

“I mean, under Coalition regulations, it was. But you can get an extra two percent thrust without it.”

“I know, I know,” Jianyu said. “This is where you tell me I need to learn to tolerate risk.”

“What? This is about reducing risk.” Sera held her thumb and forefinger together, less than an inch apart. “Sometimes it’s so close. Just check our data for the flight out of Heimstätte. At maximum allowed speed with a limiter on the ion rocket, our engine section would have been directly in the path of a missile. Every little bit of thrust makes it a little less likely that we’ll end up smeared across some random patch of space.”

Jianyu made a sour face at her. Sera grinned. “And every extra navigator means we’re a lot less likely to end up in the middle of a star. So get used to working with Mirelle.”

“It’s just that–there was this ship called the Assimilation, and it–”

“Disappeared. I know.” Sera looked down at the bowl, her smile fading. “I had friends on that ship.”

Jianyu hadn’t thought of that, but she was about the right age for it. The final flight of the Assimilation had been in one of the Coalition’s last years, while he’d been so far out in space he hadn’t even been able to receive the news. “Maybe disappeared isn’t the right word for it,” he told her. “Things don’t just vanish from space and time. It could still be out there somewhere.”

“Well, it’s nice to think about it that way.” Sera stirred the algae again, the ion limiter clanking against the bottom of the bowl. The door to the dining room opened and she stood up. “I better throw this out.”

She pushed past Captain Dysart, who gave her a quick nod before turning to Jianyu. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course, captain.” Jianyu straightened in his chair as the captain took the seat Sera had just vacated. She laced her hands on the tabletop and looked up at him, her expression unreadable.

“Captain,” said Jianyu, “I wanted to apologize for what I said earlier. I shouldn’t have tried to question your orders.”

“Actually, I’m the one who needs to apologize,” Captain Dysart said. “I should have found room in the budget for a second navigator years ago. And I should have started preparing you for a more senior role. If this were a Coalition ship, you’d be supervising a junior navigator by now.”

“I–thank you, captain.” For all the time Jianyu had spent thinking about what things had been like if the Coalition were still standing, he hadn’t imagined how his role on the Benevolence would change. It was hard to imagine himself as anything other than the ship’s most junior navigator.

Captain Dysart tilted her head to one side and said, “Do you know what a ship like this runs on?”

Money, Jianyu almost said, because he’d spent long enough with Sera for her to rub off on him a little. Rocket fuel was his next thought. “Cooperation?” he guessed.

The captain smiled. “Close, but not quite. A ship like the Benevolence runs on trust.”

Jianyu nodded, as if that made sense to him.

“I can’t do your job, or Sera’s, or Weyland’s, or Xrrt’s. I can’t afford to hire four other people who know how to do those jobs to oversee all of you. I just have to trust that you all know what you’re doing, because if any one of you messes it up, we’ll all die. And all of you have to trust each other.” Captain Dysart paused and glanced down at her hands, still resting on the table, before she continued. “And all of you have to trust me to make decisions. Who we work with, what we put in the cargo hold, how much time and money we spend on repairs. I know you aren’t always in agreement with the decisions I make.”

“But I trust you, captain,” Jianyu said, without hesitation.

She looked up at him, smiling. “Exactly. And that’s why I’m asking you to put some trust in Mirelle, because you’re her commanding officer now.”

Jianyu opened his mouth, couldn’t think of anything to say, and closed it again. He wasn’t even sure if the Benevolence had a formal hierarchy anymore. Over the last few years, each member of the crew had become a department of one.

“You’ll check her calculations, to the extent that they can be checked, and give her advice on where to improve. I’ll get reports on her work from you, and on her fitness for duty from Weyland. If you truly believe she can’t do the job safely, then I’ll trust your judgement, but I hope you’ll give her a chance. Oh, and you’ll be getting a small raise. Just a higher percentage of future jobs, not a salary. Does that work for you?”

“That’s great. Thank you, captain.” For the first time in years, Jianyu let himself imagine sharing the navigator’s position. It wasn’t quite as terrifying as he’d pictured. It would even be relaxing to delegate some of the work, just the short-haul flights. Maybe this would all work out just fine.

Last Resort, Part 4 – Astra Nullius
Do Some Harm, Part 1 - Astra Nullius

3 comments

  1. Whsper - Reply

    I’m really looking forward to learning more about Minervans. I know they don’t really have their own culture, nor do they consider themselves a separate race, but it will be interesting to see how the crew interacts with one. Also good to have some relief for Jianyu.

    I’m also enjoying the insights we are getting into Weyland. From what we’ve learned so far, I’m guessing that he and his brother’s were mass produced and vat grown. Given that they are all male (brothers, not siblings or sisters), I’m thinking that there is a good chance that they are clones. It sounds like they might have gone through an accelerated development (trying to seem older) and were programed rather than educated, thus the holes in his knowledge and and not knowing if he knew how to swim until he tried.

    My current theory is that they were made my a military or militia to be used as troops. They’re clearly meant to be more than just cannon fodder, but I don’t think they would work as spies or infiltrators. I’m thinking the “unquestioning loyalty” program didn’t take, he and his brothers turned against their makers and have spread out trying to learn what it is to be human and sharing what they learn with each other.

    Looking forward to learning more as the story progresses and seeing how well my ideas stand up.

    • Demetria - Reply

      Thank you, Whsper! I really appreciate your comments.

      That’s an interesting theory you’ve got there, let’s see what happens! 😀

  2. Whsper - Reply

    You mean you aren’t going to give away all of your secrets in the comments? Gasp! Shock and amazement!

    I really am enjoying this story and hope to see more people get involved in the comments. The system you’re using is a little bit cumbersome compared to something like Disqus, but it isn’t that hard to fill out the fields for each comment.

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