After hours of talking, the crew had split up. Captain Dysart, with a suggestive glance, had taken the leader by the hand and drawn him into the woods. Weyland had wandered off in search of samples to collect. Jianyu had fallen asleep by the fire, with Xrrt standing watch over him.
Sera followed two of the men to a rocky outcropping to see the twin moons. The first was sinking from a cloudless sky into the sea, leaving a long blood-red streak in the water. The second was rising behind her, the light reflecting from its face a clear silver-white.
Sera had drunk a lot of that water–purified, she was assured, by a machine that had been kept in service for nearly a century–and she’d also partaken of a sweet, thick liquor fermented from some unknown fruit.
“I’m going to pee,” she announced, standing up with only a slight wobble.
The two men who had accompanied her shared an inscrutable glance. “Don’t go too far,” one said.
“Why? Is it dangerous?”
“Not really,” said the other, “but you might fall. It’s getting dark.”
“I can see just fine,” said Sera, squinting up at one of the moons. She tried to remember if she’d ever been somewhere with no artificial light at all. It seemed like the kind of experience she would remember. “Anyway, I’ve got a flashlight.”
“Just stay close to the path and you’ll be fine,” the first told her.
Sera started walking further up the path. It felt so good to stretch her legs after months on the ship that she went further than she’d planned before finding a tree to duck behind. She squatted, peed, and was buttoning her pants when it occurred to her that she’d never explained to the two men what a flashlight was.
Perhaps one of the others had mentioned it at some point in the afternoon. The conversation had been a long one, and the liquor had flowed freely. Sera’s memory was definitely fuzzy at the edges.
She found her flashlight, clicked it on, and swept the beam back and forth across the trunks of those strange trees. She wondered how they pollinated themselves without insects. Weyland might know.
In the corner of her vision, something flashed. Sera swung the beam toward it, and saw the light again, two quick flickers.
She turned her flashlight off. There it was, a third time: a cold white light, distinctly artificial.
Weyland must have wandered further away than she’d realized. The light was coming from some distance up the hill. Sera kept climbing. It was close to full dark now, and the trees were thicker here; the moonlight wasn’t cutting it. She turned her flashlight on again, and stopped short.
Inches from her feet, the ground dropped away. It was a crater, and a fresh one, the rock still gouged and scorched in places. A few dead trees teetered precariously on the brink.
“Hey,” someone said behind her, “What are you doing here?”
Sera turned, and didn’t recognize the woman. She wasn’t dressed in a woven skirt like the others, but in a pair of dark trousers and a stained, faded shirt that might once have been orange. She was carrying a flashlight too, and she shone the beam directly in Sera’s eyes. The light was blindingly bright.
“Oh, sweet mother of fuck,” Sera said, and took an instinctive step backwards.
Several seconds of raw pain passed as she bounced down the rocky slope, and then she recovered her senses enough to turn her tumble into a controlled slide. Her flashlight was gone, but she thought she probably still had her gun. She landed at the bottom with a final crunch, and hoped she hadn’t broken her com screen.
In front of her, gleaming in the moonlight, was the nose cone of a spaceship.
It looked very much like what remained of the Benevolence. The command center hadn’t been intended to break away from the crew quarters in that model of ship; the defect was unintentionally discovered during the Coalition’s messy disintegration, when research and exploration-model ships had been repurposed for less peaceful missions against former allies. The cone had landed hard, gouging a long hole in the rock behind it, but when it had come to rest at least some of it had been intact.
Sera looked up, back at the cliff she had just fallen down. She could see the beam of a high-powered flashlight cutting through the darkness, searching for her.
She scrambled forward and found a hole in the side of the ship big enough to climb through. Her com screen began to buzz frantically. She hadn’t crushed it after all.
The readout told her that the signal the crew had been looking for was very close. She turned the screen so that its faint glow would precede her. It wasn’t really enough to see the full hallway she’d found herself in, but she could make out some details.
There were strange marks on the walls, inside the ship. Sera ran her finger over one, feeling the pitted surface of the metal. Acid left those kinds of marks. She pivoted, and yes, there was the spray of perfectly circular holes punched by plasma projectiles. She could see moonlight faintly through them. There had been a fight here after the ship crashed. Even an idiot wouldn’t fire a plasma gun in a pressurized vessel with vacuum outside the hull.
She kept going, not even bothering to check the readout now. She knew where the signal would be: on the bridge, coming from the remaining working electronics of this ship. It was there that she finally found the ship’s name, etched into an instrument panel: Dignity.
Her heart slammed in her chest. Sera had never seen this ship before, but she knew the name. She remembered the rumors, back when her world was just starting to fall apart.
Now she could guess what had happened, but she had to be sure. She went from room to room, wrenching open each door in turn, until she found the bodies.
The bastards hadn’t even bothered dragging the Falacerians outside for their customary return to the earth, or floated the Eridani out to sea so that their souls could mix with the water. These mutineers had dragged the bodies of their former crewmates into a metal-walled cell, and let them rot.
Nyx had been in worse predicaments, but even she couldn’t deny that this was going to be a tight spot to get out of.
Her interlude in the forest had been pleasant, right up until someone had pressed a gun to the back of her head. That was when she began having doubts about whether the story the strangers had told her was true.
She had time to consider those doubts as she was dragged by the ankles back to the clearing. She had removed her leather coat sometime during the evening, and now she regretted it as she felt every knot and root in the path slam into her back. But she saw the way the woman carrying the gun had looked at her purple shirt.
It occurred to her that the strangers had talked about elders, but she hadn’t seen any. None of them was so much as approaching forty. Maybe life on this planet was hard–but what a coincidence, that they should all be fighting fit.
And even in its earliest days, the Coalition had tried to promote a fair mix of species in the crews of its research vessels. That was part of the plan from the beginning, woven into the fabric of the earliest treaties: if every species voyaged out into the unknown expanse of the universe together, and made their discoveries jointly, then research and exploration wouldn’t devolve into an arms race.
So where were the descendants of the rest of the crew members? Why would humanity–the physically weakest of the five races, the species least likely to survive without the benefits of modern technology–endure where the others had perished?
By the time Nyx was dropped unceremoniously by the fire, she had a very good idea of what was really happening.
Sera was missing, but the other members of her crew were there. Jianyu was being restrained by three large men, who had to sit on him to keep him down. Two were wearing grass skirts, and the third was dressed in the torn remains of a green scientist’s uniform. Xrrt was crouched in an aggressive posture, her four hindlimbs folded in preparation for a leap, with the heavier pair of her clawed forelimbs splayed wide in an aggressive posture. Nyx counted four guns trained on her. Weyland was sitting with his bags of samples in his lap. A woman in an orange shirt was guarding him. The firelight caught on a dark ring of scar tissue on her temple; some infection must have closed off the skin around her neural port.
Nyx rolled to her knees. The pleasant fellow who she’d gone into the woods with had taken her gun. She judged him to be ten, maybe fifteen years younger than her. Not someone whose path would have crossed hers during training.
Someone walked out from under the shadow of the trees, shone a flashlight beam directly in her face, and kicked her so hard in the gut she almost fell backward into the fire.
“Of course it would be you,” the newcomer said. “Of all the people who would fall for the stupidest scam in history, of course it would be Nyx Dysart.”
The voice was familiar. Nyx squinted up past the light, but could see only the faintest shadow of a face. The stranger wound up to kick her again, and Nyx caught a flash of purple fabric just before she rolled away.
“A planet with such friendly natives, just desperate for company.” He crouched in front of her, keeping the light in her eyes. Nyx tried to squint past the beam. She could see the faintest outline of a face, the right cheek moving unnaturally when he spoke. Acid had eaten into the skin there almost down to the bone. “Four years on this sandy shithole of a planet, and no one else fell for it. We got some Centaurians down here, but they took off running before we could figure out how to take control of their ship. Lost some of my best men in that fight.”
The beam swung away from her, and was reflected a hundred times over in Xrrt’s compound eyes. “We put down plenty of the bitches, though,” the man said.
The translator on Xrrt’s carapace crackled. “If you hurt my maggots, I will take your intestines out of your body and put them somewhere very far away.”
“Absolute savages,” the man said. “Trusting these bugs was humanity’s worst mistake.”
Nyx studied his profile. If she ignored the ruin of his cheek, she thought maybe he did look familiar. “John?” she said. “John Chambers? I thought you barely made it through command training. The Coalition gave you a ship?”
Nyx saw the beam begin to move as Chambers turned, but didn’t realize how fast it was swinging until the butt of the flashlight had already connected with her jaw. She fell sideways, landing hard on her spread palm, and tried to breathe through the pain.
“The Coalition didn’t give me anything,” Chambers said. “A shit post on a second-rate research expedition, playing second fiddle to a goddamn bug. Yes ma’am, no ma’am, and how is your acid production today ma’am? Humanity built the Dignity, and we handed it over to a goddamn weaponized cockroach.”
“You watch your fucking mouth,” Nyx said, and was rewarded with yet another swing. This one she anticipated, and Chambers only landed a glancing blow on her shoulder. “Don’t jump, we’re outnumbered” she said as Xrrt crouched lower, preparing to spring.
“That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said all day,” said Chambers, rising to his feet so he could look down on her again. “Maybe the first intelligent command you’ve ever given in your miserable career. I’m going to enjoy flying your ship out of here, Captain Dysart. But first, I’m going to have to scrub the stink of your crew out of it.”
He pointed the flashlight at the ground, and with his other hand, he pressed a gun to her forehead. The muzzle was cold against her skin–a laser, then, not a plasma pistol. Nyx wished it were plasma. Death was virtually instantaneous when the brain cooked as it left the skull. Waiting to die from the hole a laser punched in your white matter was a bad way to go.
Nyx was facing away from the fire, looking up the hill. She thought she saw movement there, the moonlight glinting on something metallic. “Why bother signing up with the Coalition if you hate aliens so much?” she asked. “What did you even think you were getting out of that deal?”
“Humanity’s greatest achievement was space travel. We were going to colonize new worlds. The universe was supposed to be for us. And then we got to Alpha Centauri, and we found out that our universe was ruled by monsters. Acid-spitting bugs, mushrooms that take over your brain, giant green men, little grey aliens that mess with your mind. And we were supposed to get along with these things, we were supposed to work together for the greater good. The greater good.” Chamber’s hand was trembling slightly. He ground the barrel of the gun into her forehead to steady it. “This universe needs humanity at the helm. I knew the movement was building. I knew I could do my part to save us.”
“And so you killed your captain and most of your crew. How did you end up here?”
“Sabotage!” Nyx resisted flinching as Chambers’ spittle hit her face. “The pilot was Falacerian. We were supposed to be headed to Earth, but by the time I realized he had changed the route it was too late to correct our course. I was going to be a hero. I will be remembered as a hero.”
“Good luck with that,” Nyx muttered, trying to keep track of the figure that was moving out of the darkness towards them. Now it was firelight shining on the metal of a gun barrel raised at head height.
“Any last words?” Chambers asked.
“You are, and always will be, the biggest asshole I’ve had the displeasure of knowing,” Nyx said.
And then his head exploded.
Nyx tucked her head and rolled sideways as Chambers’ body tensed. The beam that had been meant to kill her bored a hole through the dirt instead. His body crumbled, and Nyx pried the gun out of his still-twitching fingers.
Xrrt sprung upwards, so high that the fire was only a faint gleam on the underside of her thorax, and landed hard on two of the gunmen. Nyx shot the two others with guns in quick succession; they went down screaming, burned but not dead. The three men holding down Jianyu tried to drag him away, but he managed to shake one off and elbow another in the gut. Then Xrrt was on them, and in few more bloody seconds, Jianyu was free.
Nyx turned to the woman guarding Weyland. She threw down her gun and began to cry.
Sera stepped up beside her. There was a long tear in her pants and a bruise was blooming over her right eye, but she didn’t look too much the worse for wear. “I found the bodies,” she said. “Absolute savages.”
“In retrospect,” Sera said, “we probably should have realized that there’s no such thing as a planet of peaceful beach babes who just want to get us drunk out of the goodness of their hearts.”
“You never know,” Captain Dysart said. “Back in the day, practically every other planet had some charming locals.”
“Don’t get her started,” Jianyu said, stretching in his chair until his shoulders popped.
Sera pried open the casing of Xrrt’s translator and began the delicate process of removing the worst of the corroded parts. They had found a few dead Centaurians in the crashed ship, and salvaged what technology they could from their bodies. Centaurians weren’t particularly sentimental about corpses. The crew had picked over the rest of the Dignity and taken everything of value.
“I fought God once,” said Captain Dysart.
“A minor god,” said Jianyu. “More of a demigod, really.”
“Shot it right in the face.” The captain looked pleased with herself.
“It sort of exploded. Like, pfft. Lots of sparks.”
“Feel free to chime in anytime, Xrrt,” Sera said. “I need to hear you talking to calibrate the translation.”
Xrrt clicked her mandibles together. The speaker on the translator let out a short burst of static and fell silent. “Hang on,” Sera said, and connected a wire. “Now say that again.”
“To be accurate, it was a class-C partially telepathic species being worshipped by a class-J species,” the translator said in a clipped female voice.
“Excellent,” Sera said. “And did the captain try sleeping with it first, before she shot it?”
“I am sure she made an attempt to communicate in a manner that humans find pleasant,” the translator said, a few moments after Xrrt made a low humming noise.
“Don’t tell me you never had fun in the service,” the captain said. “What ship were you on again? The Honesty?”
“The Integrity,” Sera said. “I can’t say I ever came close to the kind of adventures you had.”
“Deep space is a strange place.” The captain settled back into her chair with a sigh. “I suppose everywhere’s a strange place these days. It’s funny–I think about everything I saw out there, mapping the furthest known reaches of the galaxy, and it feels more familiar than what I came home to.”
Sera could only imagine. She knew a little of the captain’s story, and most of that she’d inferred by paying attention to the gaps, the places where Dysart’s bragging suddenly cut off. The woman had given everything she was to the Coalition. Sera couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to return from a mission to find that guiding light missing from the sky.
“Keep talking, Xrrt,” she said. “I’ve almost got it.”
“Once we encountered a planet where every sentient creature believed themselves to be perfectly logical,” said Xrrt.
“I would not want to be invited to one of their dinner parties.”
“You can’t even imagine,” said Jianyu. “Trying to explain idioms was torture.”
Xrrt rubbed her back legs together, producing a surprisingly musical note for a brief moment. “Thank you, Sera. I am glad to have you as a maggot.”
“Hang on, I don’t think this is calibrated correctly.” Sera prodded a loose connector.
“Leave it, that word’s untranslatable,” the captain said. “It means–well, it’s hard to explain.”
“You have a very soft exterior,” said Xrrt. “No exoskeleton.”
“It’s a compliment in Centaurian,” said Jianyu.
“Well, uh, thanks,” said Sera. “I guess you’re good to go, then. And I’ve got some spare parts if you need them.”
“I’m going to check on Weyland.” Jianyu stood up. “He said he was going to make some food for our guests.”
Sera said, “Maybe they’ll survive the experience.”
They had debated what to do with the surviving mutineers. Two were nursing wounds from Captain Dysart’s laser pistol; the third had thrown down her gun without firing a shot and told them through tears that she had never been a part of Chambers’ plot, but had survived by happenstance. Sera wasn’t sure she believed that, and even Captain Dysart narrowed her eyes in suspicion, but after some debate they’d agreed to turn the three loose on the first inhabited planet they came across. Until then, they’d all be stuck extending what hospitality they could to their guests.
“I’ve been thinking about the bodies,” Captain Dysart said. “It doesn’t seem fair to leave them all there.”
“It’s not like we have a choice,” Sera said. There were dozens of bodies in the abandoned ship, and their would-be captors still lay where they had fallen around the campsite. Moving them all to their species’ preferred resting places would take days of hard work. The crew quarters of the ship had proved impossible to locate; it must have gone down somewhere in the ocean.
“Well, none of the species in the Coalition have a taboo against fire,” said the captain. “You can’t be entirely against the concept if you’re spacefaring. There are too many ways to get cremated accidentally. The Coalition’s primary treaty dictates that if any member falls, we should do our utmost to observe an acceptable form of their species’ funeral rites. I’m willing to make an exception for the humans, since they were mutineers. But the others deserve an honorable memorial.”
“You’re saying we should blow them all up.” Sera was impressed and horrified in equal measure.
“It’s technically within the rules. And it beats a week of dragging corpses around.”
“I’ll get the canons ready,” said Jianyu.
They all gathered on the bridge, even their reluctant guests. The ship didn’t have a brig, and no one was willing to give up their room to make a temporary holding cell. After some argument, the crew had decided to let the surviving crew members of the Dignity wander the ship at will, so long as she didn’t try to congregate on the bridge alone.
Sera fired up the chemical thrusters, took the ship up to a comfortable altitude, and soared out over the gleaming expanse of pure blue water. She began to circle back around to the island.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Captain Dysart said. Sera wasn’t sure whether she was addressing the crew, or speaking to herself. “It didn’t have to end this way.”
The island was coming into view, approaching fast. Jianyu fired both forward-facing cannons at once. Sera pulled the ship into a sharp climb so they wouldn’t be caught in the blast wave. The ship rattled as she fed more power to the chemical thrusters on. She left the ion rocket off for now; it would only work once they cleared the atmosphere.
“Let’s get out of here,” Captain Dysart said.
They were rising fast now, the pressure of the G-forces pushing Sera back into her chair. The trees on the islands became solid purple clumps; the islands themselves were bright dots on the ocean; the atmosphere thinned to dark blue and then to black, and beyond the curve of the horizon, Sera could see the stars.