Old Flame – Astra Nullius

Worst Contact - Astra Nullius
Human Food - Astra Nullius
You’re reading a story in the Astra Nullius series. Not sure where to begin? Check the episode indexstart with the first story, or check out the people and places so you can jump in anywhere.

Jianyu

Everyone in the port of Bast IX was gorgeous. The civilians stolled in leisurely groups, talking and laughing, their hair shining in the light of the planet’s second blue-tinted sun. Military officers moved in pairs or larger groups, walking with purpose, their pale grey uniforms a pleasant contrast to their green skin. Their faces were impossibly symmetrical, their eyes shining, their teeth white and even. Jianyu tried not to concentrate too hard on anyone’s mouth. The illusion was weakest there. Sometimes if you paid too much attention you could see that there were too many teeth, row after row of them, tiny and sharp.

Their cargo was already unloaded, but Captain Dysart had scheduled an extra long stop on Bast IX. She had said something about the crew needing to rest and recover, but Jianyu could hazard a guess about why she was really taking her time at this port in particular. He had gone along with the ruse, asking Sera and Weyland what they planned to do, and was surprised when Weyland said he wanted to see the museum.

Sera had shrugged and said, “Might as well. Can’t do much else in Falacerian space.” So off to the museum they went.

Jianyu stopped in front of a model of a Falacerian without her glamor. In reality Falacerians were hunchbacked and skinny, with four irregular black eyes set deep in their narrow grey faces and no hair at all. As a species they were small, shorter and weaker than an adult human, with brittle bones and thin undertoned muscles. Their greatest adaptation as a species was their psychic ability. They were always attuned to the minds around them, brushing up against emotions and desires. In their resting state they pulled the images from your mind you wanted to see the most, turning them back on you. The process was unobtrusive and totally painless; Jianyu only imagined that his brain itched at the sight of them.

Sera ambled up next to him and elbowed him in the side. “Sexy, huh?”

“Don’t be rude,” Jianyu hissed. They were within earshot of a docent, who smiled at them with her mouth closed. Weyland had wandered away from them, and was staring in frank fascination at a display of depictions of Falacerians throughout human history: first as demons and fairies, then as little grey aliens, and finally as equals in the galactic Coalition.

Sera leaned in, examining the statue more closely. “Did you ever play that game, asking a Falacerian to tell you what you want most?” she asked. “You’d make a bet, and if you lost it, you had to sit there while they told all your friends what they look like to you. I had this one friend when I was in training who was pretty good at it.”

“That seems rude,” Jianyu said. “I’ve never heard of it.”

The docent said, “Actually, it’s pretty common. I get asked that all the time.”

“Tell me what you look like to him.” Sera jerked her thumb at Jianyu.

Jianyu could feel his cheeks getting warm. “I thought there was supposed to be a bet.”

“Fine, let’s play.” Sera rooted around in her vest pockets, then held out two fists. “I’ve got a data chip in one hand. Guess which one and you win the bet.”

Jianyu sighed and tapped her left hand. She opened it, showing nothing but the tracery of old scars, then revealed the chip in her right hand. Jianyu was sure that either guess would have been wrong. Sera was practiced at palming data chips, and she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt today.

The docent had stepped closer to see the game, and now he smirked and held out his hands palm up. Jianyu hesitated, then held his own hand out palm down. Skin to skin contact wasn’t necessary for Falacerians, but something about it strengthened their ability to worm their way into others’ minds.

“Green skin,” the docent said. “Hair like a human’s, nose and mouth too.” He grinned, teeth bared, and Jianyu snatched his hands away. His cheeks were burning. “There’s no shame in wanting to see someone who looks like you.”

Sera cackled. Jianyu wasn’t so sure he wanted to get advice about what to be ashamed of from a Falacerian. Falacerian empathy wasn’t internal like most humanoids, or shared within a hive-mind like Centaurians’ intense familial love. In mixed company, Falacerians learned to feel the kinder emotions of other species. Left to their own devices, they were capricious and dangerous: wholly without guilt or pity, driven by a cold curiosity that, when combined with boredom, often turned lethal.

They rejoined Weyland, who had moved on to an exhibit of all the names Falacerians had gone by throughout galactic history. There were enough to cover a whole wall in printed letters: hundreds of human languages, transliterated variants of Centaurian, the blocky print of standardized Eridani, and a dozen more of the most common languages spoken by species throughout known space. “I don’t get it,” he said, staring at the text. “Why are there so many different names? Why doesn’t everyone just call them what they want to be called?”

“Some of it’s pronunciation problems,” Jianyu said, pointing to the section of transliterated Centaurian. “It’s not really possible to make those sounds if you don’t have mandibles, and some of the nuance is in pheromonal emissions. And for the others, it’s just whatever that culture came up with. We call them Falacerians in English, but that’s just because part of it’s an old Latin word that sounded polite. That’s why they have hundreds of names just in human languages.”

“Like Minervans,” Sera said. “From an old story about a god living inside someone’s head.”

“Why doesn’t someone just ask them what they want to be called?” Weyland asked. “This is all too complicated.”

“Oh, we real names for ourselves,” said the docent, who must have followed them in the hopes that they would do something else interesting. “We just don’t share them with outsiders.”

He winked, and Jianyu wasn’t sure if he was joking. Falacerian society was driven by rules and rituals, and many of them weren’t open to outsiders. Humans, Centaurians, and Eridani had come into the Coalition prepared to share the collective knowledge of their cultures. Minervans had no shared culture, and didn’t even identify as a species. Falacerians had traditionally stood apart, participating in technological exchanges but refusing to share the full details of what went on in Falacerian society. Maybe that was for the best. There was a reason they’d all been screened for weapons as soon as they arrived. In their own private colonies, without the influence of alien minds, Falacerians played strange and bloody games for power.

Nyx

Nyx took a bite of curry and closed her eyes for a moment, savoring it. The flavors weren’t quite like human food, the alien flesh of the meat strongly fishy, the spices sharper and tangier than she was used to. It was the best thing she’d eaten in months.

She opened her eyes to Livia laughing at her. That might just be the best thing she’d seen in months, too. Livia looked exactly as she had when Nyx last said goodbye to her: her skin pale and gleaming under the artificial lights, her silver-white hair long and loose, her blue eyes bright. The only new thing was her uniform, a pale grey jacket cut in angular lines and a matching pair of trousers. She knew it was an illusion, everything a reflection of what she wanted to see except for that colorless uniform where she had once worn bright Coalition orange.

“Haven’t found a good cook yet?” Livia asked.

“It’s so bad,” Nyx said. “You wouldn’t believe how bad. Did you know steaks can be slimy?”

“It can’t be as bad as the time Betti was on bed rest for a month. Remember when Vantos thought it was a good idea to make chicken jerky?”

“I thought it tasted fine,” Xrrt said. “Good texture, too.”

“Yes, but you don’t have humanoid taste buds,” Livia said. “Lucky you.”

For a moment, Nyx felt a nostalgia so powerful that it was a heavy warmth in her chest. It wasn’t exactly like old times, of course; Navigator Vantos had died on the bridge years ago, and Betti had gotten off what remained of the Benevolence at the first port, telling Nyx she wasn’t prepared to die for an organization that didn’t even exist anymore. Livia had stuck around for a while longer, piloting what remained of the ship. Sometimes Nyx woke up in the middle of the ship’s night cycle wondering why there was no body beside hers.

Livia must have sensed how she was feeling. “How’s the old girl holding up?” she asked.

Technically, the Benevolence had a thousand names. That was the trouble with a system designed by committee: no one could figure out which language should be used to name the Coalition’s vessels. And so, in addition to its model designation and serial number, each ship was named after a virtue that could be translated into any language.

The system was not without its problems. Traditional Falacerian virtues ranged from the inadvisable to the distasteful. Centaurians were never quite pleased with the translations. Eridani culture was more concerned with avoiding vice than pursuing virtue. And the Minervans had collectively managed to agree on just one principle they could all aspire to: Assimilation. Livia rarely used the Benevolence’s name in her own language. She had once told Nyx it meant something along the lines of a business deal with unfavorable terms for you.

“She’s running all right,” Nyx said. “Sera’s been telling me we need to–I don’t know, change the ion converter or something. It’s getting expensive.”

“Ships are always expensive,” said Livia. “Did you ever take a look at the Coalition’s expense sheets? We were always running at a loss.”

“Turning a profit was never supposed to be the point,” Nyx said, wondering how they had managed to fall back into an old argument so quickly. She had dated Livia for a long time–not exclusively, but not casually either–and every time they met up for drinks she was reminded how deeply each had carved grooves into the other. She didn’t want to spent the evening repeating the same points about the history of the Coalition to someone who already knew everything she had to say. “How’s the navy treating you?” she said instead.

“It’s… different.” Livia’s mouth twisted as if she had tasted something bitter. “I enjoy it, and then when I see you again, I wonder why I enjoy it. It’s only us on the ships, and well, you know how it is.”

Nyx didn’t know how it was, although she could hazard several unpleasant guesses. She had always known that her girlfriend was, without the influence of aliens minds bleeding over into her own, a remorseless psychopath. In the early days of their relationship, that had been a part of Livia’s appeal. Nyx had secretly enjoyed the knowledge that someone so dangerous loved her, that her presence could tame that savage beast. Now, she tried hard not to think about what Livia got up to in the long months between their meetings. “How does a ship like that handle?”

Livia’s eyes sparkled. It wasn’t all a trick of the mind. She loved to fly, and when she spoke about it, she came alive like nothing else. “I’m on a Fata-class cruiser now, and it handles like a dream.”

They talked for a while about Livia’s new ship and the Benevolence’s ailments. Xrrt finished her meal, made polite conversation for few minutes longer, and excused herself. Nyx had never quite figured out how she knew when to make herself scarce. Xrrt’s species didn’t understand romance or the need for privacy; still, she retired to the bar, where Nyx saw the cure of Jianyu’s massive back as he bent over Weyland and Sera beside him.

Livia followed her gaze. Her smile was still dazzling, but there was a wistful quality to it now. “Still trying to keep the crew together,” she said.

“I do what I can,” Nyx said.

Livia turned away. Nyx looked down at her plate. She’d finished her curry without noticing it; she’d planned to savor every bite. Livia put her hand on the cold metal table top, halfway between them, palm down. There was some sort of insignia on the cuff of her jacket, a naval rank Nyx had never learned to recognize. It looked like three vines knotted in a complicated pattern. Last time there had been only two vines in a simpler knot. Livia was moving up the ranks fast.

Nyx put her own hand over Livia’s, palm down, fingertips slipping underneath her jack’s sleeve. For a moment her skin felt cold as a reptile’s, and then her glamor supplied the sensation of human warmth.

“Do you want to get out of here?” Livia asked.

“I’d love to,” Nyx said.

Jianyu

After the museum they found a restaurant close to the port, where aliens outnumbered the locals. It was a small establishment, part bar and part restaurant. He hoped it was a friendly enough place for mixed species company. There were three empty stools at the bar. Sera and Weyland sat down. Jianyu considered the third stool, which was built for Falacerian sizes, then moved it out of the way and stood at the bar.

“Anything look good?” he asked, gesturing at the menu scrolling on the electronic display behind the bar.

Weyland shook his head. “I don’t know what to get.”

The menu was written in a handful of different languages: the spiky runes Falacerians used, poorly translated English, a dialect of Eridani he didn’t understand all that well, and a few others Jianyu didn’t recognize. There were no pictures. Maybe that was for the best. Traditional Falacerian food was fresh enough to scream.

“I think that’s beef,” he said, pointing to a dish that was labelled Fat Milk Beast Disassembled with Bread in English and Loud Milk Animal in Buns in Eridani.

“I hope it’s beef,” Sera muttered.

The bartender came by, green-skinned to Jianyu’s eyes, and took their order. They all got the dish that was probably beef.

“The captain’s here,” Weyland said, shrugging a shoulder to indicate the general direction she was in. “Xrrt too.”

Jianyu looked out over the room and saw the other two members of the Benevolence’s crew sitting at a small table. They weren’t alone. Sera spun around on her stool and started to stand up, but he put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s not bother them,” he said.

“Oh, it’s a hamburger,” Sera said when the bartender set their plates down. She sounded deeply relieved.

“I told you it was beef,” Jianyu said, picking up his own meal. The portions were so small here. Maybe he should have ordered two.

Weyland waited for the others to start eating before he picked up his own sandwich. He bit down, chewed, and then set the food carefully back down on his plate. His brow was furrowed.

“Don’t like it?” Sera asked around a mouthful of vat-grown meat.

“Is this was beef is supposed to taste like?” Weyland asked.

Jianyu caught Sera’s eye, and she raised her eyebrows in a silent gesture of acknowledgement. “Yeah, this is a pretty normal hamburger,” Sera said.

“I’m trying to do it right.” Weyland stared at his plate, his shoulders hunched. “I know I’m not doing a good job. I’m trying to get better.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Jianyu said. He hated Weyland’s version of vat-grown beef as much as the rest of the crew, but now didn’t seem like the time to rub it in.

He felt the tap of a claw on his shoulder and slid to the side so Xrrt could belly–or abdomen, he supposed–up to the bar. “Done catching up?” he asked her.

Xrrt ground her mandibles together. Her translator interpreted the noise she made as, “You know how it goes.”

I don’t know how it goes.” Sera spun around on her stool again. “Who’s that with the captain?”

“She used to have your job, actually,” Jianyu said. It looked like the two of them were getting up to leave. Captain Dysart had her hand on Livia’s arm, her fingers cupping her elbow. “She left a few years ago.”

His feelings about Livia were complicated. She had stuck around longer than some of the remaining crew, and even helped rebuild what remained of the Benevolence, turning what had once been a scientific vessel into a cargo ship. For a while she had been the closest thing Jianyu had to a supervisor; with no other navigators left on board, she was his only superior officer in Operations. But she had never liked flying the awkward patched-together hulk that the Benevolence had become, and she’d left with some harsh words for everyone who still believed that if they just hung on long enough, the Coalition would reform.

Still, the captain looked a little happier every time they met up. They left the restaurant together, the door sliding shut behind them, and if Jianyu couldn’t forgive Livia for leaving the crew at least he could be thankful that she still treated the captain kindly.

“They’re being followed,” Weyland said.

“What? No.” Jianyu looked around and couldn’t spot any shady characters. The door opened again, someone else coming or going. The crowd looked like any other at a portside bar–maybe a little more relaxed without their weapons hanging heavy at their hips, a little more boisterous in the company of so many beautiful Falacerians.

“Weyland’s right.” Sera slid off her stool. Her hand drifted to her hip, where her gun would have been, and when she found nothing there her fingers curled into a fist. “Let’s go.”

“Go where? How are we even supposed to help? We don’t even have weapons,” Jianyu said as he followed the others out. They had paid when their food arrived, another quirk of Falacerian culture: money was always exchanged for goods, never traded for a promise. “Seriously, I didn’t see anyone.”

“I don’t either,” Xrrt said. She was rubbing her heavier set of forelimbs together, a Centaurian gesture that looked a bit like a human ringing her hands together, although its main purpose was whetting the curved claws at the end of each appendage.

Weyland and Sera fell into step outside the restaurant. Jianyu had expected them to run, but they were both strolling. The captain and Livia must have turned a corner, because Jianyu couldn’t see either of them even though he towered over the crowd.

“Left,” said Weyland when they came to a junction of two streets.

“You sure about that?” Sera asked.

“Positive,” said Weyland. They went left.

“This is stupid,” Jianyu said. “I can’t even see whoever you’re following.”

“That’s the point,” Sera said. She gestured toward a turn in the road ahead, and Jianyu, following her gaze, found nothing interesting there. “Focus on the guy who’s walking that way. Notice anything weird about him?”

“No,” said Jianyu. “I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if you hadn’t pointed to him.”

Weyland said, “Exactly.

They reached the corner and turned. Their quarry, if he was their quarry, was moving deeper into the tangle of narrow tunnels that made up the heart of the Falacerian colony. Jianyu concentrated on the stranger’s receding back. There really wasn’t anything interesting about him; he was just a random Falacerian in a crowd of them. Nothing about him stood out in any way.

Something about that thought snagged Jianyu’s attention. Falacerians were supposed to stand out. Why would one want to go unnoticed?

Now he could feel the edges of the glamor in his mind, the shape of the stranger’s thoughts pushing his own to the side. It was an uncomfortable sensation, like an itch deep inside his skull.

“How did you even spot that guy?” he asked.

“Practice,” said Sera.

“Training,” said Weyland, which was a strange thing for a doctor to say.

The stranger disappeared around another corner. Jianyu could hear the captain’s voice faintly ahead of them now, and Livia’s too. It sounded like they weren’t entirely in agreement. He couldn’t catch the words, only the rise of Livia’s voice and the captain’s clipped responses. He guessed the stranger must be very close to them now, if he hadn’t ducked into a turn-off somewhere ahead.

Sera held out a hand, and they all stopped. “Anyone see anything that looks like a weapon?”

Jianyu looked around. There wasn’t much in the tunnel, just a row of closed doors with inscrutable Falacerian text painted above them.

“I am a weapon,” Xrrt said, flexing her forelimbs so all four sets of claws gleamed under the artificial lights.

“Good thinking,” said Sera.

Jianyu heard the pop of a plasma gun, the sizzle of matter boiling, and the slap of shoes against cement. “Time to go,” Sera said, and they all broke into a run.

Nyx

Somehow, they’d gotten stuck in another old argument.

“The old girl’s got to be worth something,” Livia said. “Maybe not as much as she used to be, but still, you could sell her. Get a smaller ship if you need one, something fun to fly.”

“The Benevolence does what I need her to do,” Nyx replied. “And she’s fast enough when she needs to be.”

“You’ve forgotten what fast feels like. Don’t tell me you’re having fun out there.”

Nyx shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. “It’s not about having fun.”

“So what is it about? Barely scraping by? Wasting time? You’re better than a freight captain. Don’t let this become your life.”

“It is my life. I’m not ashamed of that,” Nyx said, digging her nails into her palms. Just a few more minutes and they would be at the apartments Livia stayed in during her off time, and Nyx could kiss her until she dropped the subject. Kissing Livia was as easy as ever; talking to her was becoming increasingly difficult.

The wall in front of her bloomed into light, the concrete boiling as the plasma bolt hit it. Before Nyx’s train of thought had caught up she was already pushing Livia behind the cover of a turn in the path. Her hand was already halfway to her hip before she remembered she’d left her weapons on the Benevolence. Nyx slid around the corner after Livia, keeping her back pressed to the wall, wondering who the hell had managed to smuggle a plasma gun into Falacerian territory.

The corridor they had ducked into was a dead end. The walls were smooth, curving up into an arched roof. There was only one door in the corridor, and it was sealed shut.

“Please tell me that’s your place,” Nyx said.

“It isn’t,” Livia said, “but maybe they’ll let us in.”

They made a run for it as another plasma burst turned a section of the floor into superheated gas. The door was locked. Livia pounded her fist on it as Nyx looked around the corridor, trying to figure out something she could use against their attacker.

He stepped into the center of the hallway, gun pointed away from them as he ejected the power pack and slotted another in. That was the problem with plasma pistols: they ate through power too easily, especially the cheap ones. Focusing on his face was difficult. Nyx concentrated hard and felt her mind skittering away from forming an impression of what he was supposed to look like. Falacerian, then, one taking pains to hide who he was. His clothing was non-descript, and she only thought he was male because of the jewelry he’d chosen. She supposed that too could be part of the disguise.

He raised the gun again, and Nyx grabbed Livia’s shoulder and pulled her to the floor. Above their heads, the plasma ate through the metal doorway in the space of a moment. If anyone was inside, they couldn’t ignore the fight now.

Their assailant kept coming, step by step. He wasn’t a very good shot, but at this distance he didn’t have to be. Nyx stared down the wide barrel of the gun and, in a moment of absurd detachment, recalled that it wasn’t even the first time she’d been held at gunpoint that year. Maybe Livia was right. Maybe there was more to life than this.

“If you’re going to kill me, I’d at least like to know why,” she told the stranger.

The Falacerian replied, “Lady, I don’t even know who you are.”

He moved his head and closed one eye, sighting down the barrel, as if he really wanted to get the shot right this time. Nyx tensed, preparing to to try to lunge out of the way one last time.

The stranger was flung sideways, the gun plucked expertly from his hands before he could fire. He hit the wall hard and began to stumble upright, but Xrrt cracked him on the side of the head with a heavy claw and he went down for good.

The rest of the crew was right behind her. Sera picked up the gun and tucked it into an inner vest pocket. Jianyu held back, clearly nervous about getting in the way. Weyland knelt beside the stranger. “He’s awake,” he said, checking the pulse at the Falacerian’s neck and peering into his eyes. “Maybe concussed.”

Nyx helped Livia to her feet and kept her hand under her former pilot’s elbow to steady her, feeling the tremors she was trying to hide. Livia might have had nerves of steel when she was flying the Benevolence, but close combat had never been her style, and no doubt she was picking up on the crew’s fear and confusion.

The stranger was losing control of his glamor. When Nyx focused directly at him now she could puzzle out the Falacerian body beneath, the gray skin and black eyes. Livia looked down at him, her expression settling into hard lines.

“Do you you him?” Nyx asked.

“He’s my inferior officer,” Livia said. She didn’t sound surprised.

Nyx squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry. That must have been a betrayal.”

“No.” Livia’s voice was soft but steady. “It’s the normal way to move up the ranks.”

Nyx looked down at the silver insignia on her sleeve. Despite all the curry she’d eaten, her stomach felt hollow. All these years, she’d been letting herself believe that the Livia she met up with was still the woman she loved. It hadn’t been a lie, not really, but the truth that was pressing down on her now was a weight she couldn’t bear.

“Promise me something,” she said. Livia turned toward her, and Nyx was struck once more by her beauty, the perfection of her shining hair and wide eyes. During the Benevolence’s mission out of known space the ship had once crash-landed on a glacier, and Nyx was reminded of that experience now, the chill of the ice and the spread of alien land in every direction. It had been beautiful in the same way Livia was beautiful: still and cold, everything sharp-edged. “Promise me you’ll give him a fair trial. Whatever that means to you, even if you kill him at the end of it, do it fairly. Don’t make him suffer.”

“I want to make that promise. Right now, I wish I could.” Livia raised her arm and brushed a strand of Nyx’s hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. Her fingertips brushed Nyx’s cheek, and even the glamor couldn’t hide the whisper of cold against her skin. “But when I walk away from you, I won’t remember why a promise to you means anything at all.”

Nyx stepped away. Livia held out her hand. “Give me the gun. You don’t want to get caught with it. Trust me.”

Sera looked from Livia to Nyx, her hand in her vest pocket. The Falacerian on the floor groaned and shifted, but Xrrt kept him on the ground. Nyx considered whether they could take the stranger with them. Get him far enough away, surround him with the empathetic minds of enough sentient species, and maybe he wouldn’t try to finish the job. It would almost make the political disaster of kidnapping a member of the Falacerian military worth it. Or maybe as soon as they dropped him off in an unfamiliar port he would start planning his route back to Livia, and kill her while Nyx was too far away to do anything about it. Maybe Livia would get anxious, knowing a potential killer was still out there somewhere, and it would be her hunting him. So many maybes, and almost all of them ended in a death.

“The gun,” Livia said again, stepping toward Sera. Sera pulled out the weapon but still hesitated, looking to Nyx for approval. Nyx nodded once, a sharp jerk of the chin, and stepped away from Livia.

“Let’s get out of here,” she told her crew, and they walked away together. Nyx forced herself to look straight ahead, to put one foot after another. She was sweating in her heavy jacket, but the memory of Livia’s fingers still burned like ice on her cheek. Behind her she heard the final retort of the gun, the sizzle of plasma eating through flesh and concrete. Jianyu put a hand on her shoulder, just for a moment, and said nothing.

🚀

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Worst Contact - Astra Nullius
Human Food - Astra Nullius

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