Jianyu swept the beam of his flashlight across the room and saw the light reflected back at him from hundreds of panes of glass. The pods were stacked three to a frame, organized in orderly rows that stretched all the way to the back wall of the massive room. Part of the ceiling had been blown apart, leaving a heap of plaster and glass on the floor, but most of the pods outside the blast radius were intact. Dust had settled on their curved faces.
“I have a question for you.” Sera, impatient, was already walking down one of the rows, running her fingers across the empty pods and leaving cleaner streaks on the glass. “It’s very important.”
“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.
“If you have sex with your own clone, is it masturbation or not?”
“This isn’t a cloning facility,” Jianyu said, “so don’t even think about trying it.”
“I’m speaking hypothetically here. Personally, I think it’s masturbation. I mean, you’re just doing yourself.” She paused at one of the pods, blew the dust off the glass, and made a face. “Aw, poor little guy. Never had a chance.”
Jianyu moved on, carefully avoiding illuminating that particular pod with his flashlight. He didn’t want to see the remains of whatever was in there.
“Just a dried-up bean,” Sera said.
“So hypothetically, I think it’s not masturbation,” said Jianyu. Anything to get Sera off this particular topic. “I mean, you’re definitely having sex with someone else, with a separate consciousness and all that.”
“But it’s someone just like you. I mean, exactly like you.”
“Technically, it would be incest,” said Weyland.
“So, definitely not masturbation. Point, me,” said Jianyu.
“Ok, point accepted. But what if we’re talking about a parallel universe situation?”
“Still incest,” said Weyland. “Same genetic code, different experiences, different bodies. Just like identical twins.”
“No, it’s the same body,” said Sera, holding her hands flat in imitation of two universes side-by-side. “The only thing different about the two bodies is, uh, something about quantum.”
“I’m going to have to switch my vote,” said Jianyu, as Sera turned her visual aid into an obscene gesture. “That counts as masturbation.”
The pods they passed were varying in size now. Some were small enough that Jianyu could have held one in the palm of his hand, others so big around that he wouldn’t be able to carry one alone. There were dozens of sentient species in the known universe, and most of them needed help with reproduction from time to time. This hatchery on planetoid Tsukuyomi B had been one of the biggest in Coalition space; in its day, the technicians working here had supported the reproductive needs of dozens of species. From what remained of the facility, he guessed that some of those species had abruptly decided to break their peace treaties.
“But the important question is, would you have sex with yourself if you could?” Sera asked.
“Clone, no. Parallel universe, maybe, depends on how much I like me from the other universe. Freak duplication situation, with all my memories and experiences completely replicated, sure, I’d give that a try,” said Jianyu.
“I’m still trying to decide,” Sera said. “I mean, I’m not normally into the ladies, but a chance to do it with myself? I’m not saying I’d pass that up.”
Weyland said, “You’re both disgusting. It’s all incest.”
“What about species that reproduce asexually?” Sera asked. “We have to consider some sort of budding situation.”
“Still incest, still gross, probably doesn’t even have sex organs anyway,” said Weyland.
“Hey, look at that.” Jianyu stopped and shone his flashlight at one of the pods. The glass had a crack down the middle, damage from the collapsing roof or just the toll of years of neglect in an unheated building. He rubbed dust away from the number stamped into the metal frame. This one, mercifully, did not contain the remnants of any unlucky residents. “Did you know I was born here?”
“What, in this pod?” Sera moved in closer to look.
“Well, they probably switch the pods out sometimes. But this is my birth location, yeah,”
“Unnatural,” Weyland muttered. Jianyu wasn’t sure if he was following their conversation, or still making his thoughts on clones clear.
“Remind me, which of your parents is human?” Sera asked.
“My mom. So, you know, not exactly viable in vivo.”
“Do they still have your baby pictures on file?”
“Somewhere in the computer system, probably.” There was a tinkle of broken glass shifting and a brief flicker of light from somewhere in the room. Jianyu looked up, but the long stripes of artificial lights in the ceiling were dark. “Did the power just go on for a second?”
“Guess the captain can’t figure it out. Where’s the section we’re supposed to be in?” Sera started walking, letting her own flashlight beam play over the pods. The glass was thick and slightly reflective, so that a tiny, distorted version of her appeared briefly in each curved pane.
“Just a little further down this way. The location numbers should begin with 32-07.”
The pods they were looking for stood two to a rack. Their glass walls were so thick that none had cracked despite years of neglect. Some species were more active in their embryonic development than others.
“You could fit two toddlers in one of these things,” Sera said. “Who even placed this order?”
“A Risarian company. I think they’re going to start manufacturing these, but they need the prototypes.” Not every sentient species in the galaxy was a member of the Coalition. The Risarians had been willing to trade freely with the other species in the Coalition, but they drew the line at sharing ships. They towered above even Eridani crew members and preferred a sulphurous atmosphere that would choke most humanoids.
“Well, I’m not carrying these things alone. Do you think there’s a dolly anywhere around here?”
Jianyu found the snaps that held the rack together. The rusted metal squealed as he pulled it open. “Just take one end, I’ll get the other.”
“What is up with these lights?” Sera asked. She put her foot on the top of one of the pods and hoisted herself up, trying to see over the top of the row. “Did you see that flickering?”
“If you don’t want to help me carry it, just say so,” said Jianyu. “I’m sure the captain and Xrrt could use the help.”
“I’ll check what’s going on with the lights,” Weyland said behind them. “And I’ll bring back a dolly if I find one.”
Weyland’s hands had begun shaking the moment that he stepped into the room. He kept them balled up in the pockets of his jacket to hide the tremor. Every time he tried to relax one muscle, another clenched tight in his shoulders, his jaw, his back. If he didn’t take a painkiller soon, he’d have a splitting headache in the morning.
It wasn’t something he could have explained to the rest of the crew. Sure, they all had their phobias, but none were afraid of anything this mundane. In every pane of glass, a tiny version of himself was reflected, as if a piece of him were trapped in every pod he passed. Weyland scrubbed his sleeve against his damp forehead. He couldn’t stop thinking about how this place must have looked when it was in operation, with hundreds of half-formed creatures in every row, every one of them on display like a specimen in a jar. Sure, he worked with vats of lab-grown meat every day, but his specimens were only isolated tissue. He’d never grown anything with a brain.
The light flickered again, off to the side instead of straight ahead. It was coming from somewhere close to ground level. There was a break in the wall where a rack had collapsed. Weyland took the shortcut, stepping gingerly over broken glass.
“Hey, is Weyland acting weird?” he heard Jianyu say behind him.
“Weird’s pretty much his baseline.” Sera grunted as she took up the weight of the heavy pod. “So, important question.”
“Go ahead,” said Jianyu.
“Would you have sex with your own body double?”
“Okay, so that’s going to depend on our theoretical relationship,” Jianyu said. “Is he my employee?”
Weyland headed away from the two of them, walking as fast as he could without breaking into a run. He’d thought that it would be easier to deal with the fear if he didn’t also have to worry about the others seeing him, but now he wished he’d stayed with the group. It was too easy to imagine in the semi-darkness that the walls of glass that surrounded him were closing in.
He cut across two more rows, came to the end of the line, and circled back around, still heading in the direction the light had come from. A faint reddish glow was coming from the hole in the roof; it was just about time for this planet’s dawn. The flickers he’d seen had been pure white, definitely artificial.
Halfway down one of the rows, two figures were hunched over something on the floor. There was an dolly beside them with something large and irregularly shaped on the bottom. One must have been holding a flashlight, but not very well, because the other hissed, “Keep it steady! I can’t see.”
“I don’t see why we have to arm it here,” the other said. “We should’ve got everything ready to go before we even came in.”
“Do you want to wheel a live bomb around? Because I don’t. Now, shut up and hold the light still.”
“I am holding the light still, you just keep blocking it with your hand.”
“So hold it still somewhere else, then.”
Weyland clicked off his own flashlight and crept closer. Both of the strangers looked human, at least from the back. Both had their hair cut short in a military style, but one had missed a tuft on the back of his head and the other had a half-healed nick on his buzzed scalp. The first speaker was scrawny, the back of his neck very pale in the gloom. The other was larger, the back of his neck sunburnt and peeling. Both wore uniforms that looked like they had once belonged to the human military, but the smaller one’s sleeves were baggy and his untucked shirt hung out beneath the bottom of his jacket.
Weyland stepped forward. His foot landed in a pile of broken glass. Both strangers turned at the sound.
“Hey, who’s that?” the larger one said, shining the flashlight directly in his eyes.
Weyland pivoted, boots crunching on debris. “Get him!” the smaller man yelped.
Weyland ran, skidding on the glass, but the stranger threw himself forward and grabbed him around the knees. They went down together. Weyland landed a kick on his assailant’s face. The man grunted but only grabbed him tighter.
“Kill him!” said the small one, who had stayed well clear of the fight.
The larger one knelt on Weyland’s back and pinned both of his arms. If he wasn’t real military, he’d learned to fight somewhere. “He looks human.”
“Lots of things look human. Minervans look human.”
A hand brushed the back of Weyland’s head where the base of his skull met his spine. “Nope, he’s human.”
“Well, kill him anyway. No one can know we’re here.”
“I thought everyone was supposed to know we’re here,” said Weyland’s captor. “That’s why we sent out that manifesto.”
“I mean, no one can know we’re here while we’re arming the bomb. So kill him, and then hold the light still.”
“I’m going to tie him up,” the other one said. “Don’t like the idea of killing a human.”
In a few minutes Weyland was trussed, gagged, and propped up with his back to one of the pods. His hands were tied behind his back, his feet hobbled at the ankles. The gag smelled strongly of oil. He could feel the cold glass through his thin shirt.
“He’ll die in the explosion anyway,” said the skinny one. He was still rooting around in the innards of the bomb. It didn’t look like he was entirely certain of what he was doing.
Weyland leaned back and felt the pod behind him shift. He braced his feet on the floor and pushed. The metal rack swayed, just a little bit. There was still no sign of Jianyu and Sera. Maybe they had carried the pod out of the building already. They might not notice he was missing until it was time to leave. Even in the close confines of the Benevolence, he could go for days without seeing anyone. Weyland had always been good at fading into the background. It was what kept him alive.
“I just don’t like the idea of killing a human, okay?” the larger of the two strangers said. “I didn’t get into this to kill my own species. It doesn’t feel right.”
There was definitely some give to the metal rack, maybe a loose screw or an uneven leg. Weyland pulled his bound feet in, tucking his knees up close to his chest. He braced his back on the glass pod and pushed, raising himself carefully until he could half-stand, half lean against the structure.
The shelf wobbled. The glass rattled. Both of the strangers turned at the sound. “Hey, he’s getting away!” the small one yelped. “This time, you have to kill him.”
Weyland stood up and then threw himself backwards with all his strength. The rack shivered, teetered, and then tilted backwards; Weland went with it, unable to stop his fall. The unit hit the rack behind it and rebounded, the metal screaming as some essential component failed. Weyland and his attacker were both in the path of several hundred pounds of falling metal and glass.
The tall stranger must have decided that his prisoner was doing a fine job of killing himself. He threw himself away from the collapsing rack, covering his head with his arms. Weyland hopped forward, stumbled, and tripped. There was a brief moment of disorientation as he instinctively tried to brace himself with his hands, which were still tied behind his back. He hit the ground hard, all the wind knocked out of him, and then the pods slid out of the shelf. One crashed down on the back of his leg, sending pain lancing through his body. Weyland gasped and tried to move, and the second and third pods smashed inches away from his head, sending glass flying.
“Okay, get this,” Sera said. “First, you build a time machine. You go back in time two hours and meet a past version of yourself. If you have sex with yourself, in the same timeline, in the same universe, that’s got to be masturbation.”
Jianyu’s shoulders were cramping from supporting most of the weight of the glass pod. They were almost to the door, but it had been a long, slow process. Sera’s chattering was doing nothing to take his mind off the pain. “So are you working your way up to telling me you’d like to have sex with a woman, or is this sudden onset narcissism?”
“I was just thinking about intimacy, I guess,” said Sera. “What was the last time you had sex with someone who really knew you? We’re on most planets for a week, tops.”
“Maybe the captain has the right idea,” said Jianyu, shifting the pod to relieve the pressure on his shoulder. “She says she doesn’t like to be tied down.”
Sera looked thoughtful. “I think she’s lying about that. It’s less depressing than admitting that it’s the only option.”
There was a crash from somewhere in the rows of pods, followed by the sound of glass smashing. Sera fumbled the pod and caught it before it also crashed to the floor.
“Let’s put this down gently,” said Jianyu. “I’m going to lower it starting from my side, so stand still.”
With some careful maneuvering, they were able to stand the pod upright. The noise had stopped, but Sera took her gun out of its holster anyway. “You go around that way,” she said, gesturing back the way they had come. “I’ll take the side near the front door. Did you bring your gun?”
“Didn’t think I would need it,” said Jianyu, feeling sheepish. “I mean, Weyland probably just knocked something over, right?”
Sera hissed between her teeth. “Well, try to look menacing.” She turned and darted away before he could come up with a reply.
Jianyu headed the other way, came to the end of the row, and began to travel toward the source of the sound. The light coming through the roof was growing stronger, although it was still faintly red; this planet’s sun was bigger than earth’s, but colder. Row after row of glass pods caught the light and held it, as if each were illuminated from within.
He came to a row where the lines of curving glass were disrupted. A rack had fallen over, and a strange human was crouching by it, studying a lumpy package on a dolly. A second man was rising from the floor, every movement slow and careful as he tried to avoid the broken glass. Neither was paying any attention to what was going on beyond the scene of their little disaster.
Jianyu saw Sera at the other end of the row. She was coming toward the strangers, moving lightly for someone wearing heavy boots. Casually, as if this were the sort of thing she did every day, she pointed the gun at the pair and said “Hey, assholes.”
The man who had been on the ground sat up, found himself staring down the barrel, and fell backwards. The other man reached into the back of his waistband. The red light flashed on metal. Jianyu sprinted forward and hit the other man on the back of the head. It was barely more than a slap, but he was not a large man, and Jianyu had nearly two feet and more than a hundred pounds on him. He fell forward, and the gun that he had been reaching for slipped out of his pants and clattered on the floor.
“Weyland’s over here,” said Sera. “Going to need your help lifting all this off him.”
Weyland tried to move his bound ankles, but stopped when pain shot through his right leg. He thought it might be coming from his calf, which had taken the brunt of the weight from the falling glass. The rack had landed on his back. It was heavy enough to trap him in an awkward position, with his legs twisted and his cheek pressed against the floor, but he thought his spine was probably intact.
Jianyu tied the two terrorists up with the same type of rope they’d used on Weyland. He didn’t gag them. The skinny one didn’t try to fight, but after Jianyu had moved away, he spat, “This is only an opening salvo. Humanity will triumph over lesser species. In this room, the purity of the human genetic code was sullied–”
“Come on, man,” said the other. “Read the room.”
With both prisoners secured, Sera holstered her gun and squatted beside the bomb. “Hey, this is pretty nice,” she said. “Good workmanship here. And what do you know, here’s that dolly we were looking for.”
Jianyu grabbed the rack and lifted it off Weyland with one quick movement. Weyland was used to being the smallest person in the room, but even he forgot sometimes how strong aliens could be. It was strange to think that he spent most of his life trapped in a metal box with creatures that could kill him as casually as he might squash a fly.
His mind was wandering. Weyland had once designed and executed a series of experiments testing the limits of his tolerance for pain, and had been satisfied to find that it was high for a human, but this was straining the limits of his ability to stay conscious. When he rolled over, he jarred his right leg against the floor and his vision greyed out for a moment.
“Take it easy,” Jianyu told him.
Sera looked over, handed Jianyu a knife, and resumed her examination of the bomb. Jianyu cut the ropes around Weyland’s wrists and ankles. “Cut my right trouser leg up to the knee,” Weyland told him. He had managed to lever himself up onto his elbows, and he could see that the flesh under the fabric was swollen, but sitting up to examine the area was something that would have to wait.
Jianyu made the cut as carefully as it could. The flesh of Weyland’s lower leg was puffed up but not torn, and he couldn’t see the telltale signs of a snapped bone fragment tenting the skin. He tried to move his right foot and found that he couldn’t. “Probable break of the fibula or tibia. Likely in the shaft. I think it’s closed, but I need imaging to know for sure. Should be easy to treat on the Benevolence.”
“Okay. Think you can hop?”
Weyland tried to sit up, winced, and leaned back again. “Nope.”
“Would it mess your leg up more if I carried you?”
“Not too much. Might as well try it.”
Jianyu put one arm under Weyland’s knees and the other on his upper back and scooped him up off the ground. The pain of his injured leg suddenly dangling in midair narrowed his vision to a pinpoint, but he didn’t pass out.
“I’m taking the bomb with me,” Sera said. Her voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away, even though she was only standing a few feet from Weyland. “These components are definitely worth something.”
“That bomb is the property of the Human Independence League,” the skinny terrorist said. “It doesn’t belong to a species traitor.”
“Come on, man,” said his friend. “Maybe if we cooperate they won’t kill us.”
Jianyu started walking towards the exit. Day was breaking on the planetoid, and red light streamed in through the hole in the roof. Weyland imagined this place as it had been years ago, and for a moment, he could almost see it: each pod illuminated with its own interior light, the contents glowing blue or red or green, depending on the amniotic fluid composition of each species. And there would have been technicians, of course, to monitor the pods and carry away the babies.
It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched someone outside of a medical examination. He cringed instinctively away from contact with Jianyu, not that it did any good. It was deeply uncomfortable to know that he had no control over where he was being carried.
The overhead lights snapped on, painfully bright. “Could have used that twenty minutes ago,” said Sera.
“Well, now you get to see those baby pictures,” said Jianyu. Weyland was so close to his chest that he could feel the physical vibration of his voice. It was another new sensation that he wasn’t sure he liked. Today was full of firsts.
“I’m sorry I called you unnatural,” Weyland said. “I mean, it’s not inaccurate.”
“Okay,” said Jianyu. He sounded tense, and Weyland was so close to him that he could feel the tension, a subtle tightening of his shoulders and arms.
“Everything I do is unnatural. Ride in a spaceship. Eat meat out of a vat.” The bright lights weren’t bothering him as much anymore. In fact, the whole room was starting to look dim and distant. “Recycled air. Recycled water. Harry Harlow performed a controversial series of experiments on monkeys in the mid-20th century.”
“So, that’s new,” he heard Sera saying. “And extra weird.” The dolly she was pushing had a squeaky wheel, but the sound was getting fainter and fainter.
“He’s probably going into shock or something,” said Jianyu. Weyland wasn’t sure if he heard his voice or felt it. All sound was technically vibrations. “The captain knows what to do.”
“Yeah,” said Sera, and even though she was very far away now, the relief in her voice was clear. “The captain’s gotta know. I’ll go find her.”
Weyland had had a dozen job offers to choose from when he first met the crew of the Benevolence. He’d seen bigger ships. Faster ships. Ships that offered half the work for twice the pay. Ships with crews that were all human, easy for a doctor to treat, safe. Every crew needed a doctor, and with a hundred treaties dissolving into border wars, all the best medics were enlisting with their respective militaries. But Weyland had chosen the Benevolence anyway, because he had seen how completely the crew trusted their captain, and he wanted to know what that was like to trust someone.
He didn’t think he was there yet. But he was close.
The room was getting dark now. Weyland wondered if the technicians had worked around the clock, or if night on this planet had meant the lights went off inside too. He tried to summon up the bone-deep dread he’d felt earlier, the fear of being trapped, but now he thought that it might have been peaceful inside those glass pods, floating in blood-warm liquid.
He closed his eyes.