Sera had found a rubber ball somewhere and was throwing it against the wall of the passenger lounge. “We should have taken the Benevolence,” she said. “This sucks.”
Privately, Nyx agreed with her. They’d left the Benevolence at a space station, where Nyx had handed over a staggering amount of credits to the mechanics who’d be checking the ship’s systems. Within a few days of pacing around the tiny station, she’d been so desperate for action that she’d booked the crew on a trip to an earth-like planet in the next system over. No one had protested at the time, not even Sera.
That changed after a few days as passengers on someone else’s ship. Nyx was constantly spacing out and finding herself trying to walk to the bridge instead of the room she’d booked for herself. Weyland, unable to disappear to his lab, sat in the corner of the lounge and watched ancient movies on his com screen. Xrrt was the only Centaurian on the whole ship, which wasn’t provisioned with the usual comforts that a species with mandibles and claws could expect. And Sera and Jianyu were arguing, or rather, they were pointedly avoiding an argument by being icily polite to each other.
Sera’s shoulder was healing, and Weyland had recommended that she keep the arm moving. Just today she’d spent hours bouncing the ball off the wall, and Jianyu had escalated from snippy comments to walking off in a huff.
Nyx crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. Despite its name, the lounge wasn’t made for lounging. The chairs were too small and covered in a plastic fabric that felt like it was made to be hosed down. Next to her, Xrrt was doing her best to sit in one, and she’d just put a claw clear through the cushion.
Sera continued, “And what if we need to get off the planet in an emergency? We should have taken our own ride.”
“There aren’t going to be any emergencies,” said Nyx, as Xrrt fumbled with the cushion and accidentally speared one armrests. “This is a vacation. Try to relax.”
Sera rolled her eyes and threw her ball at Nyx’s chair. She missed and hit Xrrt in the thorax instead. “Sorry,” she mumbled as Xrrt stood up, taking a good portion of the chair with her.
There was a subtle shift in the vibrations of the ship. Nyx looked over at the window that took up one wall of the lounge. It had been showing the distorted space of faster than light travel, but now the stars were bright pinpricks again. They were back in the normal flow of space and time, which meant their destination was close.
If they’d been on the bridge, they would have been able to see the planet growing larger in the front-facing window. As it was, they had to settle for watching it on a view screen on the wall: a brilliant blue jewel, largely ocean with a few specks of archipelagos breaking through the open water. The only real continent was at the southern pole, and most of it was covered in ice.
If this had been an exploratory mission, Nyx would have started with an atmosphere sample and a flyover of that continent, checking for signs of advanced life, before she had her team catalog the archipelagos and choose a safe landing spot. But this was a vacation, so Nyx pulled up information on her com screen and scrolled through that instead. The planet’s name was Lotan. It had been under human control for two centuries. No one was fighting over it at the moment, mostly because it had nothing worth fighting for. Its water had a high enough saline content to irritate Eridani gills, and its most abundant natural resource was a seaweed so tough that it worked better as a building material than a food source. The small amount of land that was habitable was too sandy for crops, and what didn’t die in the soil withered when storms came through and whipped salt spray over the fields.
In short, it was a beautiful planet, impossible to despoil because there was nothing on it worth spoiling. And so the settlers had turned their misery into profit and made Lotan into a hub of tourism.
The captain’s voice came on the intercom, asking the passengers to return to their rooms and prepare for landing. Nyx helped Xrrt get the last shreds of the cushion off her leg before she went to lie down in her narrow bed. There was a safety harness built into it, the mesh coming out of a little compartment to buckle across her chest and hips. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been lying down in a harness instead of sitting in her chair on the bridge.
The ship only shuddered the tiniest bit as it entered Lotan’s atmosphere. Nyx, accustomed by now to Sera’s fast and rough landings, still dug her fingers into the sheets beneath her. She found herself running through a checklist of everything she would do if there was a problem with the descent, and had to remind herself again that this wasn’t her ship.
A few minutes of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and then the ship was on the ground. Nyx stood up, and had to sit down again as the captain turned off the artificial gravity and the real gravitational pull of Lotan took over. It was just a little lighter than earth standard, but heavier by far than the semi-functional artificial gravity the Benevolence was capable of generating.
When the dizzy disorientation faded, Nyx picked up her duffle bag and headed for the exit. The bag was limp, more than halfway empty. Most of the clothes she owned now were practical, meant to keep her comfortable on the ship or safe in harsher conditions. She’d have to buy something more casual at her destination.
The rest of her crew was in the scrum by the airlock door. Nyx saw Jianyu towering head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd and headed for him. She wasn’t the only one who’d packed light. Sera only had a rolled up towel under one arm and a vest’s worth of stuffed pockets. Weyland and Xrrt were carrying nothing at all. Jianyu looked like he’d packed enough for all of them, although in his hands the bag didn’t look so large.
The door opened. Nyx squinted into the world beyond the ship. This system’s star was as bright as earth’s sun. A breeze ruffled her hair, smelling strongly of salt and seaweed. The crew walked out together, and Nyx saw that they’d set down on a stretch of brilliant white sand. A couple hundred yards away, out of the danger zone of the spaceship’s thrusters, was a line of huts with bright signs on top. The rest of the passengers were walking toward them, towing suitcases that rolled or hovered.
“We’re here,” Sera said. She paused, looked around in evident confusion, and added, “What are we supposed to do now?”
Jianyu hadn’t realized how much he missed swimming. It wasn’t a strict requirement of his father’s species. Eridani were naturally amphibious, but their lungs worked just as well as their gills. The rest of the species that had formed the Coalition were strictly air breathers, and so Coalition ships had been built to favor the survival of the majority over the comfort of the minority. There were no water tanks on board the Benevolence besides the filtration and storage systems that processed grey water.
This sea wasn’t the environment he preferred most. The ancestors of the Eridani had developed their tolerance for salt water in the brackish water of swamps and estuaries, moving over land from one ideal habitat to the next. They could only tolerate open ocean for short periods of time. Jianyu, testing his tolerance, found that he could only stay under the waves for thirty minutes before the salt started burning his gills.
Near the beach, there wasn’t much seaweed at all, and the only living creatures he could find under the water were translucent blobs covered in fine hairs they used for locomotion. They scattered when he disturbed the water. If he kept very still and moved slowly, he could get close enough to touch them. They could sting when threatened, not enough to really hurt, just a brief sparkle of pain like a static shock.
Where the sand dropped away and the water was deeper, Jianyu found the really interesting part of Lotan. The seaweed started in patches and tufts at first, but soon enough it became a forest, clinging to the rocky bottom and sending up ribbons dozens of feet long. Some of the plants grew thin and flexible, while others were thick-trunked and nearly as solid as the stone beneath them. Life had filled this niche completely with animals that scuttled across the bottom, leapt between the thick fronds, and undulated through open water. A couple of times, Jianyu saw the plants swaying and caught a glimpse of something dark and massive moving through the forest. He stayed well clear of whatever that was, and thought that maybe he should have looked up the local predators before he’d ventured quite so far out.
After the third time he’d come up for air, the burning in his gills was too much to ignore anymore. A crust of salt was building up on them, itchy and tough to scrape off, so he headed back to the shore.
Xrrt was standing on the beach, swaying from side to side as she tried to keep her purchase on the shifting sand. Centaurians’ claws were inflexible, perfect for the hard rock of their homeworld but prone to sinking into softer surfaces. She made her way across the treacherous ground and met him as he was wading through the shallows. She put her two more delicate foreclaws on his shoulders and spoke for a long time, clicking her mandibles and knocking her thicker foreclaws together. Her translator interpreted this as, “I was worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Jianyu said, laughing. He did feel lighter, less tethered to the ground, even though he was still adjusting to this planet’s gravity. For the duration of his swim, he’d been able to avoid thinking about how his parents were currently on a stranger’s ship, bound for a planet where they’d have to start over. He hadn’t worried about the messages Weyland kept sending him about neurological readouts. He’d even forgotten that he still hadn’t made a choice on whether to tell the captain about Sera’s little secret.
He’d been the first out on the beach, since he was the only member of the crew who still owned a swimsuit. The others must have gone shopping during his dive, because Weyland was huddled under a beach umbrella and Sera was sitting just out of reach of the waves and throwing rocks in the general direction of the water. The suit she’d found was a grey two-piece, with shorts and a tank top that left her arms bare to the shoulder. Her most recent injury was a darker line in the mass of scar tissue on her left side. Jianyu hadn’t seen so much of it before; the marks went all the way up her left arm and disappeared beneath the tank top, and there were more where the top gapped at her midriff.
She looked up when his shadow fell over her. “Hey, help me convince Weyland the sun isn’t going to kill him.”
Jianyu shaded his eyes, still adjusting to the unfiltered light above the waves, and looked up the slope of the beach at Weyland. He was still wearing an oversized t-shirt, although he’d put on an equally outsized pair of swim trunks instead of his usual dark pants.
“Enjoying your vacation?” he asked Sera.
“I don’t know,” said Sera. “I’ve never been to a beach before. Except for that one time, you know, where those mutineers tried to kill us.”
“Maybe this is your chance to make some better memories,” said Jianyu.
Sera made a noise that Jianyu chose to interpret as affirmative. He scratched his gills, flaking off the accumulated layer of salt, and headed back to the sea.
“You’re going to get a sunburn if you stay out there,” Weyland said from under the shadow of his umbrella.
Sera had never had a sunburn in her life. She hadn’t grown up in a place with atmosphere, at least not outside the tunnels and the domes, which were tinted so that the most harmful UV rays couldn’t penetrate their thick crystalline walls. She hadn’t had much leisure time during her Coalition training, and after that, she’d spent most of her life aboard a series of poorly maintained ships. After a few hours of staring at the water, wondering how hard it would be to learn how to swim this late in the game, she’d felt her skin growing uncomfortably hot and her mind wandering to dark places.
She crawled under the umbrella. Weyland handed her a bright orange bottle. It didn’t look like a drink, and when Sera shook it, the liquid inside didn’t slosh. “What’s this?”
“Sunscreen,” said Weyland. Sera held the bottle at arm’s length, puzzled about what to do with it. He must have seen her confusion, because after an awkward pause, he explained, “You put it on your skin, and some of the radiation can’t get through. But you still have to be careful not to overdo it.”
With some more precise directions from Weyland, Sera squeezed a string of thick white liquid out of the bottle. “This is super gross,” she said.
“It reduces the risk of skin cancer,” said Weyland. He had a streak of it he hadn’t quite rubbed in on his jaw, bright white against his dark brown skin. He was looking down at the com screen in his lap, maybe reading something, because he kept sliding his finger across the screen to scroll.
“What’s your plan for this vacation?” Sera asked, stretching her legs out of the umbrella’s shadow and admiring the way the light bounced off her skin. The sunscreen gave her skin a reflective shine, subtly golden, and even her old scars looked as if they were burnished. When she glanced over at Weyland, he looked lost in thought.
“I don’t know,” Weyland said at last. “I’ve never taken a vacation before.”
“We should do… vacation things,” said Sera, trying to think of the last time she’d taken a real break. What had she done? How long ago had it been? She remembered long, lazy days with Zeke and Mirelle, but that might as well have been in a different lifetime. “Drinking. Sleeping. Swimming. Can you swim?”
A strange look passed across Weyland’s face, halfway between puzzlement and panic. “I don’t know if I can swim,” he said.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Have you gone swimming before?” Sera rolled onto her knees before Weyland could reply, grabbed his wrist, and started pulling him out into the sun. “Let’s go swimming. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“Drowning,” said Weyland, but he put his com screen down and allowed himself to be led down to the water’s edge.
Sera’s confidence faltered a little as the first waves hit her bare feet. It was colder than the shower water she was used to, and the wet sand shifted under her. Up close, the water wasn’t as blue and calm as it had looked from a distance. The waves sucked at her ankles with surprising force, and when the water receded, it left a grainy white foam behind.
She dropped Weyland’s wrist and waded in deeper until the waves slapped against her knees. After the initial shock of cold, the temperature wasn’t so bad. When she turned back, Weyland was taking off his shirt. He balled the fabric up and threw it back to the shore.
Sera wasn’t in the habit of thinking about her crewmates’ bodies. It was like thinking about your family naked. She knew they had something under their clothes, in an abstract sense, but that was about where her mind’s eye had left it.
It was hard not to stare at Weyland. She’d assumed he was skinny; he was always wearing such oversized clothing, practically hiding in massive shirts and loose pants. But now she could see that although he was slim, his body was corded with lean muscle. I’ve got to tell Jianyu about this, she thought, before remembering that she wasn’t sure where things stood with Jianyu anymore. They’d been in an awkward standoff over the last few days, their usual easy rapport strained by the weight of the secret she’d dropped on him.
She turned away, splashing deeper into the water until she could lift her feet off the sand and float. It took more effort than she’d expected just to stay still. A wave smacked her in the face and she jerked backward, pinwheeling her arms as the salt water burned her nose. She’d thought the ground was right under her, but somehow she’d drifted too far out, and she could only feel the sand with the tips of her toes.
Weyland slid up beside her, moving through the water with a few economical strokes, and steadied her with a hand on her back until she could tread water without choking again.
“I thought you said you couldn’t swim,” she said.
“I remembered how to,” Weyland said.
“Huh.” It was getting a little easier to relax and drift in the waves, even if the salt was a painful reminder of every tiny scrape on her skin. The wound on her shoulder stung, but not so much that she wanted to get out of the water. “I guess it’s like riding a hoverbike.”
“I don’t see how it’s like that at all,” Weyland said.
“I mean, once you know how to do it, you don’t forget.” Sera tried moving her arms again, imitating Weyland with controlled pushes rather than wild flailing. It worked a little better this time. “Muscle memory,” she added, remembering the right phrase at last.
Weyland tilted his head, thinking it over, and then he smiled. It was a shy smile, but it transformed his face, and Sera realized that she’d never seen him so much as grin before. “Motor learning,” he corrected her. “Your muscles don’t remember anything. But yes, I guess it’s a bit like that.”
The first week of vacation was one of the most fascinating of Weyland’s life. During the day he swam in the sun-warmed sea, talked with Sera and Jianyu, and walked for miles along the sand. At night, he wandered between the tourist bars, getting used to strange new flavors and the sensation of eating for pleasure. Mostly, he watched the people around him: the vacationing families with their sun-pinked skin and big smiles, the service workers sneaking smoke breaks in the little alleys behind the bars, the increasingly grim faces of the anchors on the news stations that played on every screen.
He spent hours composing messages to his brothers, and hours more reading what they’d sent to him. Dyson had been traveling on a livestock freighter, and several weeks ago the head veterinarian had said they were friends. Whorfin was working on a space station and methodically working his way through every available mind-altering drug. Tyrell was taking moral philosophy classes and continuing his experiments on the limits of his pain tolerance. The others had new stories too, and new messages went out daily, a cascade of sensations cataloged with their trademark meticulousness: this was what it felt like to be scared, to be hungry, to be disgusted, to be in love. Their messages weren’t instantaneous–it took time for even faster-than-light communications to travel through the vastness of space–but Weyland had a lot of brothers, and so there was never a lull in the conversation.
It was hard work, learning to be human all at once instead of having a whole childhood to warm up to the concept. Weyland added his own observations to the growing list. He wrote about how Captain Dysart still seemed sad and distant, even though when the others were watching she smiled and said she was enjoying herself. He discussed the nights Sera invited him out for drinks, and the nights Jianyu did the same, and he noticed that there were never any nights where they all went out together. He asked Xrrt questions about her homeworld, and did his best to make sense of the answers.
In the middle of week two, he noticed that they were being followed.
It was a sensation he’d ignored at first, that nagging mental itch that told him something wasn’t quite right with the world. Weyland had always lived with a persistent sense of unease, that fear of being found out. But after several days of careful observation, he started to put the pattern together.
Someone was tailing the crew. It wasn’t the same person every time Weyland noticed, but he was starting to recognize some of their faces. One was a woman with long brown hair, human on first impression, although once a gust of wind had blown that hair aside and Weyland had seen she had a telltale lump right where her skull met her neck. The second really was human, a tall blonde man who always wore long sleeves in spite of the heat. He looked familiar in a way Weyland couldn’t place. The final one was Falacerian, or perhaps there were several Falacerians; it was hard to tell one apart from another when they could project whatever image they wanted, but sometimes Weyland caught his eyes sliding off someone in a crowd and he couldn’t focus on that person’s appearance no matter how hard he tried.
Weyland was reasonably certain that it wasn’t a good thing when a stranger was tailing you. So he did the only thing he could think of to do: he asked about it.
“Did you know someone’s watching us?” he asked Jianyu one night as they were sitting in a bar called The Clamshell. This planet didn’t have clams, but it did have a similar enough animal with an intricately whorled four-part shell.
Jianyu was distracted, staring at a screen playing off-world news above the bar. “Who’s that?” he said.
Tonight, Weyland only saw the Minervan brunette. He described her as accurately as he could, down to the vest she was wearing, which was impractically heavy for a seaside resort town. It looked a little like Sera’s usual outfit: drably colored, covered in pockets, many of which were bulging.
Jianyu didn’t look around for her in the crowd. He just kept watching the news, which was showing a star map with a bright red blob overlaid on top of it. “She seems nice. You should talk to her.”
The news anchor was pointing to different parts of the blob, and the picture changed, showing the red expanding out into the next star system. Weyland got up and walked toward the stranger. She was leaning against the bar, and when he caught her eye she turned away, playing with the straw in her drink. He stood right next to her, looking at her up close. It was definitely the same woman he’d seen before. Her nose was peeling from a recent sunburn.
Weyland said, “Why are you following my friends?”
The woman tensed and dropped her drink, sloshing liquid all over the bartop. “I’m not following anybody,” she said.
Weyland kept his voice perfectly level as he spoke. He wasn’t sure which of his brothers had first discovered that it was a better trick than shouting. “I’m pretty sure you’re not here for me, because if you were, one of us would be dead already. So tell me which of my friends you’re following, and why.”
The woman blanched. She was certainly a professional something, but espionage wasn’t her strong suit. “You need better friends,” she said. “Friends who don’t steal from Buddy.” She pushed back from the bar, shouldering him aside. Weyland let her go and returned to the table. Jianyu hadn’t moved, and the beer in the glass in front of him was untouched.
“I think Sera’s old boss is trying to kill her,” Weyland said.
“Mm.” Jianyu was frowning at the image on the screen, which had switched to a lush green field with a smoking crater in the middle of the grass.