The port was one of the smallest Nyx had ever seen, just a dock for a few ships on a desolate moon. It was only a short distance away from their last stop, and that was what mattered to the crew of the Benevolence. With her pilot injured and her navigator showing signs of exhaustion, she was starting to worry about how much longer the ship could keep flying.
Fortunately for them, even a port that tiny had a need for small-time freight haulers like the Benevolence. Nyx didn’t have to do much asking around to find out that someone was looking for a ship to transport medical supplies to the next system over.
Trading in medicine still left a bad taste in Nyx’s mouth. She’d grown up with the Coalition’s subsidizing of supply lines and manufacturing, and was still getting used to the idea that medicine was a product that could be bought and sold like any other. But work was work, and if her crew didn’t do it someone else would charge twice as much, so she’d agreed to the job.
The port had a few small lifts for moving boxes, but the ones that weren’t broken were booked. Sera looked a few of the broken ones over and declared they completely fucked. Nyx told her to go sit down. She’d insisted that she was well enough to fly the Benevolence, but she’d almost scraped the ship’s side heading out of their last port of call, and their descent to the moon’s surface had been a white-knuckle ride. Maybe having a pilot with one arm in a sling wasn’t the greatest idea.
That left the rest of the crew to load up a mismatched collection of dollys and transport the cargo into the hold by hand. Nyx was the slowest member of the crew by far. Xrrt was a Centaurian worker, evolved over millennia to transport food to a hungry hive. Jianyu’s size and muscle mass worked in his favor. Weyland, though small, was stronger than he looked; he worked quietly and efficiently, never complaining.
They were about halfway done when Nyx tripped over her own feet and dropped the box she was carrying. It cracked open, leaking a fine green dust that covered the front of her shirt. She took a deep breath, fighting for calm, and inhaled a lungful of it.
Nyx started trying to brush herself off, which only sent more dust flying. As she was coughing, Xrrt hurried over, scraping out a question by rubbing her claws together. Her translator said, “Are you safe? Can you breathe?”
“I’m fine,” Nyx choked out, and grabbed ahold of her friend’s thorax to stay upright. Her lungs burned with each gasping inhalation, but she needed air. By the time she finally managed to take a deep breath, the rest of the crew had gathered around her, looking concerned.
Jianyu thumped her carefully on the back. “Are you alright, captain?”
“I think I’ll live,” Nyx croaked. “Unless that stuff is toxic. Weyland, is it toxic?”
Weyland knelt to read the label on the box she’d dropped. “It’s safe,” he said. “You shouldn’t suffer any adverse effects from inhalation, unless you’ve got an allergy to Dling wasps.”
“Well, isn’t that great news?” Nyx looked down at her clothing. “I’m going to get cleaned up. Keep going until I get back.”
The Benevolence only had one shower, located next to the room that they’d turned into Weyland’s lab. It had once had a whole array of sanitary stations, but those had been in the crew quarters, the portion of the ship that had been blown off years ago. The stall was built for utility, not comfort, a place for washing off chemical spills and handling similar emergencies. Nyx stripped to her skin and stepped under the water without waiting for it to warm up. Her lungs still hurt with every breath and her head was spinning.
The water warmed, and Nyx scrubbed herself off. The ache in her lungs faded. She couldn’t shake her annoyance at spilling the medicine. It wasn’t her fault, she told herself. The client shouldn’t have used such a flimsy box.
She dried off, found a clean set of clothes, and tossed the dust-covered shirt into the laundry hamper in her room. The crew was still at work when she came back out to join them, and in a few more hours, the work was done. Nyx resented every minute of it. Her dolly had a wheel that stuck no matter how carefully she moved it. Nyx kicked it until her toe ached.
“So, are we staying here for a while?” Jianyu asked when the work was over.
That had been the plan, but as Nyx pictured days of sitting around waiting on this unexciting little moon, she realized that she didn’t want to be there a minute longer than necessary. “Change of plans,” she declared. “I’m getting off this rock as soon as possible.”
Jianyu raised his eyebrows and took a step back, looking surprised. “Okay, captain, whatever you say.”
Nyx was fed up with his attitude. She worked hard enough, she didn’t deserve to have her decisions second-guessed. “We’re taking off in an hour,” she told him, before turning on her heel and stalking off. That was the problem, respect. She never got any goddamn respect, not on the ship, not anywhere. Well, things were about to change on the Benevolence. She was about to get what she deserved.
Xrrt settled into her harness. She wasn’t sure why they were taking off so soon, but when she’d asked Nyx about the change of plans, her friend had only muttered, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and walked away. That little spill must have upset her more than she let on.
As Sera maneuvered the ship out of port, Nyx hunched over in her chair, drumming her fingers on the armrests. Their ascent was rough enough to jostle Xrrt around in her restraints; she didn’t feel anything but the faintest pressure through the sensors beneath her exoskeleton, but looking around at the rest of the crew, she saw them wincing.
While they were cruising through open space, preparing to engage the faster-than-light drive, Nyx slapped the release on her harness. By the time Xrrt managed to struggle out of her own, her friend was already gone, leaving the bridge without a word. That was unlike her. She usually stayed to supervise the transition from traveling through normal three-dimensional space to slipping through folds of space and time.
Nyx hadn’t gone far–not that there was all that far to go on what remained of the Benevolence. Xrrt found her on the lower level of the ship, where the crew had turned the room at the tip of the nose cone into a recreational area. Like the bridge above it, the space had a large sloping window made of super-hard synthetic crystal. The curve of the ship’s snub nose gave the room an odd shape, a semicircle with its windowed wall sloping down like a glass bowl until it met the floor. Back when the Benevolence had had a full crew, rookie used to scramble up the slope of the crystalline wall and stand with their feet appearing to float in space. It had been a rite of passage, an opportunity to get a picture to send to whatever family a young crew member had left back at home.
Nyx was standing at that window, her hands behind her back, the fingers of one hand wrapped tight around the other’s wrist as though she were trying to keep it still. Xrrt came up beside her, and the two of them watched the stars together.
Xrrt said, I wanted to talk with you about the way the crew has been working. I know that each of them would tell you that they’re fine, but I think they’re not fine, I think they’re reaching a dangerous point where they’re going to start making mistakes if they don’t get some rest. I feel the same way about you. You’re always moving on to the next job. You haven’t stopped moving in too long.
Her translator said, “I’m worried you’re working the crew too hard.”
Nyx shifted and breathed out hard. An unusual amount of heat was radiating from her cheeks. Human emotions weren’t the easiest for Xrrt to read. Her friend might be embarrassed, or perhaps feverish. “Did I ask for your opinion?”
Xrrt said, Our relationship hasn’t required you to ask me for my opinion in a long time. You trust that when I have something to say, I will say it, and I trust you to do the same for me. You do not understand how it is between sisters in my species, how we talk in the hive-song, but I think you are as close to a sister as it’s possible for a human to be. I do not understand how to answer your question. Sometimes your species asks questions that do not have answers.
Her translator took some time to process that speech, and finally came up with, “I don’t know how to answer that.”
Nyx huffed again. She really was radiating an unusual amount of heat. “Respect,” she muttered. “I never get any damn respect around here.”
The cadence of the Benevolence’s song changed around them as the faster-than-light drive began to hum. Outside the window the stars were shifting, their ultraviolet brilliance becoming a full-spectrum blur. Nyx’s breathing was getting faster, her chest rising and falling rapidly, the hot air hissing out of her mouth in little puffs. Xrrt put a tentative claw on Nyx’s shoulder. Nyx batted it away and stepped back, making a sound that was almost a snarl.
“Don’t patronize me,” she said, as Xrrt moved away, startled, folding her claws as tight as they would go against her thorax. “Don’t ever patronize me. That’s what you do, acting like you know better than me because–because your species is just superior, you know, with your hive-mind and your exoskeletons and your, your acid glands.”
She headed for the exit as Xrrt stood frozen, uncertain of what she’d done to cause the outburst. The room’s automatic door started to slide open but one side stuttered, stuck in its track. Nyx slammed the toe of her boot into the thin metal, cursing shoddy construction and shoddier maintenance. When that didn’t do anything she kicked it again, this time hard enough to leave a dent in the burnished surface.
“I’m tired of being stuck in this tin can,” Nyx yelled as the door finished opening with a final scream of metal on metal. “I’m tired of everything in my life being shit.” She gave the frame a final whack with her boot for emphasis and stalked out. The door tried to close behind her, but got stuck again halfway, leaving a gap through which Xrrt could see her friend’s retreating back.
In the sad little hole that passed for a bathroom on the Benevolence, Nyx leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on her face. She felt hot, unbearably hot, so hot that she was tempted to get in the shower again with all her clothes on. The climate control must have malfunctioned again. Something was always malfunctioning on the ship. Nyx was amazed the damn thing hadn’t sprung a leak and sucked them all out into space by now.
She gripped the lip of the metal sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was getting sallow from months without natural light. In happier days, Nyx had not been adverse to a little cosmetic enhancement, but she’d let it slide in the last few years. Now she pushed her hair back from her forehead, examining a new crease on the skin above her eyebrows and the blue-green tracery of a vein snaking over her temple. Her eyes were bloodshot, the whites overtaken by a tracery of bright red capillaries. Her cheeks were flushed a splotchy red. Nyx put her head down as far as she could in the sink and let cold water run down the side of her face. She was burning up.
When she came up for air, half her hair was wet and tangled. She pushed it out of her face, noticing as she did so that she was beginning to go grey. When had that started happening? When had she started looking old?
It wasn’t her fault. Nyx was a healthy 43-year-old, in the prime of her life. If she was looking worn out, it was because she had to live on this mess of a ship, wasting all her time stressing out about cargo and repairs. She was stuck in a cycle with no way out: haul more cargo to get the money to fix the ship, fix the ship so she could haul more cargo. What kind of life was that?
And the crew, always finding some new way to create a disaster, always running to her to fix their mistakes when everything went pear-shaped. Nyx was sick of looking after them. She was sick, period. Her stomach felt like there was something living inside it, something that coiled and thrashed and smoldered when she thought of all the ways life had conspired to wrong her.
She wasn’t going to take it anymore. If the crew didn’t respect her now, Nyx would make them respect her.
She headed for her room, knelt beside her bed, and pulled out the little black case underneath it. The pad over the lock responded to her thumb, clicking open, and Nyx pulled our her gun.
It was a sleek little plasma pistol, capable of firing two charges before a reload. Nyx stored the charges in a separate box, although she couldn’t remember now why she’d done that. What was the point of having a gun if it wasn’t easy to use?
The charges slotted into the little pistol with a satisfying click. Nyx stuffed a few extras into her pockets. Just in case, she thought, and didn’t let herself dwell on what in case meant. She scrubbed her forehead with her sleeve. Her skin felt strange, hot and prickly and oily. Something had to be wrong with the climate control. She’d never been this hot in her life.
She wasn’t sure where exactly the crew was. She walked to the bridge, but it was empty. With the ship set on its faster than light course, there wasn’t much need to monitor its progress moment to moment. Nyx leaned against a metal wall for a moment, appreciating the cool metal against her cheek. The wall was vibrating with the same motion that shook the rest of the ship, a low constant hum that felt like a toothache in her skull. She reeled away from the wall, furious that it had no comfort to offer her.
Nothing could be trusted, not even her own crew, not even her own ship. Even the artificial gravity was failing her now, getting heavier by the minute, dragging her down to the deck. Nyx was the only reliable constant in her own universe, and the gun in her hand was the only solid object left to cling to.
She found her quarry back down in the rec room. They didn’t know she was there, and Nyx lurked outside the broken door, listening through the crack.
“I don’t know,” Jianyu was saying. “It must be a translation error. That just doesn’t sound like something she’d say.”
“She’s been pretty stressed lately.” That was Sera’s voice. Nyx’s fingers tightened around her pistol. They were talking about her, they had to be. What gave them the right to whisper behind her back?
Weyland said, “Her blood pressure was on the higher end of normal at her last test, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
“That kind of stress isn’t good for her, not long term,” Jianyu said. “Maybe she just needs a rest.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Sera responded.
Xrrt spoke. It went on for a long time, a cacophony of scrapes and clicks and gurgles. Her translator said, “I’m worried about her.”
That was too much. It was all too much, pressing down on Nyx’s head like a physical weight, the unbearable burden of all the shit she was going through because this crew was so ungrateful, so disloyal that they’d even talk about her behind her back. She squeezed the grip of her gun until her knuckles ached and stepped toward the broken door.
The door screeched as it dragged along its track. Nyx stepped through. Her eyes were red, her face radiating an incredible amount of heat. She had one hand raised in front of her, and in that hand was a sleek plasma pistol.
Xrrt’s acid glands kicked into overdrive before she had even consciously realized that she was staring down the barrel of a gun. It took an effort not to spit on pure instinct. The rest of the crew was looking away from the door, arranged in a semicircle facing the curve of the window. She could try to warn them, but by the time the translator managed to get the words out, who knew what might happen?
Instead, she sprang forward, relying on the power of her four hind limbs to propel her past the others. She clipped Sera on her way past, and cringed at her startled grunt, but bruised was better than dead. The rest of the crew was so fragile, with their soft skin and their skeletons on the inside where those hard bones weren’t any use at all. She spread her forelimbs wide, rising up on her hindlimbs in a posture that would protect the space behind her.
Nyx squinted at her. Half of her hair was soaking wet and plastered to her cheek. There was an oily sheen to her skin. The gun was shaking in her hand, the black end of the barrel wobbling.
Xrrt said, I am not sure why you are pointing a weapon at me, but I don’t like it. I don’t understand why you are doing this. Please, help me understand why you are behaving in such a strange way. This is not something I would ever have thought you were capable of doing.
Her translator said, “What are you doing?”
When Nyx spoke, it was through gritted teeth. “All I want is some respect,” she said. “Some goddamn respect, is that too much to ask, just some acknowledgement of everything I have to put up with around here.”
Behind Xrrt, Sera said, “Holy shit, is that a plasma pistol?”
The barrel of the gun swung toward Sera, and Xrrt shuffled sideways, trying to keep her body between the weapon and the crew. “Of course it’s a goddamn plasma pistol.” Nyx’s voice was rising, spittle flying when she yelled. “See, this is what I’m talking about. I can’t operate like this. I can’t work with all these questions.”
“Captain.” Jianyu’s voice was careful, level, with only the faintest hint of the quaver that betrayed a human’s fear. “If you fire that in here, you’ll punch a hole through the hull, and we’ll all die.”
“I know that!” Nyx put her free hand to her forehead, pushing hard against the skin with the heel of her palm. “Don’t patronize me. Of course I know that.”
Weyland said, “Captain, have you ever been tested for an allergy to Dling wasps?”
Nyx stepped forward, trying to point the gun at the doctor, and Xrrt moved to intercept her again. It wouldn’t do much good, not at this range. Just one plasma bolt would eat through even her chitinous body in an instant, along with everything else worth protecting behind her. Still, the instinct to protect, to shield, ran too deep for her to step aside. She loved her crew, little maggots that they were, deaf to the mind’s song and blind to ultraviolet light and so very, very fragile.
“Bloodshot sclera,” Weyland went on. “Sweating. Increased aggression. Paranoia, a sense of persecution–”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Nyx raised both her hands and pressed them to either side of her head, squeezing inwards as if she was trying to hold something in. The barrel of the gun was pointed at the ceiling, and her hand was wrapped around the trigger. Xrrt acted quickly, darting forward before she had time to second-guess herself. She slammed into Nyx, hooking a claw around her wrist and snapping it down forcefully. Nyx shrieked, the gun clattered on the floor, and Xrrt hugged her tight with all of her forelimbs.
Weyland stepped up. “Turn her over this way,” her said, and Xrrt did her best to oblige as Nyx struggled to get away from her. Her claws snagged in the fabric of Nyx’s shirt, ripping the fabric and scratching the delicate skin beneath. Xrrt felt terrible about that, but there was no way to hold her more gently, not with Nyx thrashing and screaming as Xrrt tried to keep her contained.
Weyland peered into Nyx’s eyes and pressed his slim fingers to the flesh under her jaw. “It certainly looking like a Dling wasp allergy,” he said. “It’s an unusually sudden onset, but the powder she was exposed to was concentrated. Can you get her to my lab?”
Xrrt said, I will carry her wherever it is necessary to go to save her, and her translator said, “Yes.”
The walk to the lab wasn’t easy. Nyx resisted every step of the way, alternating between digging her heels into the deck and trying to kick at the joints of Xrrt’s hindlimbs. Eventually, Jianyu had to pick her up and sling her over one of his massive shoulders. “Sorry, captain,” he kept saying as she slammed her fists into his back.
“Should we turn the ship around?” Sera asked as Jianyu maneuvered Nyx onto a table in the lab and held her down. “We could try to find a doctor back at the port.”
“I’m a better doctor than anyone there,” Weyland said. It didn’t sound like he was bragging, the way humans sometimes did. He sounded like he was just stating an obvious fact. “Keep her still, I need to give her an injection.”
He loaded a syringe with a bright blue liquid. Jianyu did his best to keep Nyx still as Weyland slid the needle into the muscle of her upper arm. As the crew watched, her struggles against Jianyu grew weaker, and finally she slumped back against the metal table and closed her eyes. Her face was still unusually warm for a human’s skin, but Xrrt observed that the burning intensity was fading. She wasn’t sure what the rest of the crew could see with their simple unfaceted eyes.
At last, Nyx said, “Xrrt, I think you broke my wrist.”
Xrrt said, I wish with all my hearts that I had thought of another option that would not have hurt you. Injuring you was never my intention. I only did what I thought I had to do to keep you and everyone else safe.
Her translator said, “It’s what I had to do.”
Nyx said, “Well done.” She opened her eyes and smiled, just a faint curve of her lips. “Thank you.”