Outside the bridge’s window was a glittering spread of stars. At her seat in the captain’s chair, Nyx pulled up a view of the planet falling away behind them: a pretty blue-green world, indistinguishable at this distance from a completely uninhabited planet. Although its atmosphere was noxious to the majority of the known sentient species in the galaxy, Minervan settlers were making a go of colonization anyway. Their undersea cities were cramped, but they were already doing a brisk trade in pearls harvested from the strange rubbery creatures that clustered on their metal walls. Taking the Benevolence down under the waves had been an experience she didn’t want to repeat any time soon. The ship was built to tolerate short trips underwater, but Nyx couldn’t stop thinking about all that weight above her, the crushing pressure of an environment that wasn’t cold and empty like space but cold and very dangerously full of liquid.
Sera was lounging at the pilot’s station with her feet resting near her console. She was tossing one of those pearls idly back and forth between her hands. It was about as big as a grapefruit, and its purple surface had an iridescent sheen that reminded Nyx of an oil slick.
Jianyu was calculating the route to their destination. His head hung forward, wires trailing from the neural port in his temple to his workstation. Nyx watched the planet shrink on her screen. Maybe they should have stayed in the undersea city a few days longer. They only had one navigator, and she was becoming increasingly worried that he was pushing himself past his limits.
Sera’s screen flashed red. She put her feet down and leaned forward, still rolling the pearl between her hands. “Has anyone been having problems with communications lately?”
Nyx minimized her view of the planet and pulled up an error report. A diagram of the communications equipment filled her screen. One of the stubby antennae that rose from the Benevolence’s surface was highlighted in red. “Could that planet’s atmosphere have corroded it?”
“Not likely.” Sera dropped the pearl in her lap and started keying instructions into her console. “This is weird, it just went completely dead all at once. If it were corroding, it should have been throwing up error messages the whole time.”
“Can we fly without it?” Nyx asked.
“We can fly without a lot of things,” Sera said, “which doesn’t mean we should. Our long-range antenna’s not sending or receiving signals at all right now. If we need to contact anyone else, we better hope they’re really close to us.”
“That’s not great.” Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose. She could already feel a headache building behind her eyes. She’d been getting them more often lately. Maybe it was just the ship’s dry air playing havoc with her sinuses. “Can you fix it?”
“Not from in here,” Sera said.
“Should we turn back?”
“Let’s see what I can do outside.” Sera stood up, and the pearl she’d forgotten she had in her lap hit the floor with a clatter.
Xrrt said, “Will communication still work while you’re outside the ship? Maybe someone should go with you.”
“It’s just the long-range antenna that’s busted,” Sera said. “You’ll still be able to see what I’m doing on the helmet’s camera. I’ll get suited up. Make sure nobody hits the FTL drive while I’m out there, I don’t feel like getting smeared across time and space today.”
“I think we can manage that.” In the old days, when the Coalition still meant something, Nyx would have saluted her pilot. Instead, she settled for a stiff nod, and Sera responded with a wave of her hand before leaving the bridge. Of course, if this were still a Coalition vessel, Nyx would have at least a dozen trained mechanics to send out, not a single pilot who did double duty repairing the ship.
“Wake Jianyu up,” she told Weyland. The doctor nodded and went to Jianyu’s side, hitting the button on the navigator’s console that killed the program he was running. Nyx had listened to a news article a few days ago that claimed computers capable of calculating a ship’s faster-than-light trajectory entirely on their own were less than ten years away from reaching the market. Computers that could do a navigator’s job were always coming sometime soon, at least according to the news stations; they had been reporting that the technology was due within a decade for as long as Nyx could remember.
Jianyu’s head shifted fractionally. He said something that wasn’t quite a word, then reached up and yanked the wires out of his neural port. He stayed seated while Weyland stood to examine him. Their heads were almost exactly at the same height for once.
Xrrt left her station and came to stand beside Nyx’s chair, her claws tapping a nervous jig on the deck. She scraped her forelimbs together, producing a sound that her translator turned into, “Maybe I should go out there too.”
“It’s a mechanical problem,” Nyx said. “I’m sure she can handle it without security for backup.”
They waited in tense silence, Xrrt still clicking her claws against the floor without moving from Nyx’s side. Nyx drummed her fingers against the arm of her chair, then realized she had unconsciously settled into a rhyme in time with Xrrt. Weyland said something to Jianyu about neural overload. Jianyu responded with a noncommittal grunt. Nyx balled her hand into a fist and resisted the urge to make more pointless noises.
Her screen lit up with a call from Sera’s suit. Nyx hit the Accept button so hard her finger jammed against the glass. The screen filled with an image from Sera’s suit. She was looking down at the gleaming metal hull of the Benevolence, placing her magnetic boots with care on the smooth surface as she walked forward. “Captain, can you hear me?” she said, her voice a little tinny inside the suit.
“I can hear you,” Nyx said. “How’s it going out there?”
“Uh, not so great.” The image on her screen blurred into a confusion of white and black streaks as Sera raised her head and the camera moved with it. When it stabilized, Nyx sucked in a breath. Xrrt, peering over her shoulder at the screen, made a distressed sound.
“I’m going to have to wing it on this one,” Sera said. “If anyone else has an idea, you know where to find me.”
The thing on top of the antenna quivered. Sera wished she’d brought a longer stick so she could poke it from a more comfortable distance. All she had was her wrench, so she prodded the mass and watched it give under the cold metal. When she took the wrench away, the fleshy exterior sprang back into place. She hit it harder, and it jiggled but didn’t let go. That was profoundly wrong. Sera had never heard of a soft-bodied species that could survive in deep space, never mind one that could survive a ride on the outside of a ship traveling at escape velocity. The only known organisms that could endure the void had hard, pressurized bodies and not much in the way of brains.
There was a spotlight on her helmet next to its embedded camera. Sera turned the brightness up as high as it would go, until she was squinting in the light that bounced back from the metal hull. The thing squatting on the antenna didn’t react. She dialed the light back, blinked away spots as her eyes adjusted, and studied the intruder.
Its flesh was covered in an oily sheen, shifting in the light of Sera’s headlamp and the distant stars. She had seen similar creatures before, all rooted to the sides of the Minervan city under the waves, clusters of pearls sprouting from their rubbery flesh. They had grown in thick colonies, but this one was alone.
“Looks like you hitched the wrong ride,” she said, bending at the waist to see how it had attached itself to the ship. It wasn’t possible to kneel in magnetic boots, which made it hard to get close enough to see how it had latched onto the smooth metal. She shoved it again with the wrench and watched its skin ripple as it shoved back hard.
“Maybe you should try a different approach,” Captain Dysart said, her voice echoing inside Sera’s helmet.
Sera stuck the wrench back to the magnetic toolbar around her waist and, with some difficulty, pulled off a screwdriver. Everything was a thousand times more awkward once you left the safety of a pressurized environment. If it wasn’t magnetic, it had to be tethered, and sometimes both if it was valuable enough. The suit’s gloves were so thick that she couldn’t feel anything through them. She had to watch her hands carefully while she worked, making sure she was still gripping the screwdriver as she wedged it under the creature and tried to pry it loose.
Jianyu’s voice echoed through her helmet, a little slurred but comprehensible now. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Hey, look who’s awake,” Sera said, feeling a surge of relief. Every time Jianyu ran the numbers, he was spaced out for a little longer. “Have you ever seen something like this before?”
“I’ll try looking it up,” Jianyu said. “Maybe the settlers know more about it.”
The creature started to tug on Sera’s screwdriver. She fumbled it, lost her grip, and was yanked forward by tether that kept it attached to her belt. Whatever this thing was, it was freakishly strong, and it was putting out blunt, probing appendages that were inching their way up the tether as she struggled.
She planted her boots on the hull and leaned backward, grunting curses under her breath. The creature quivered, trying to hold on, and then the screwdriver shot out of its grasp. Sera went over backward, her feet still anchored by the magnets, her arms spreading wide in a reflex humans had developed on a planet with gravity and atmosphere. She bounced off the metal hull and came back upright with her knees crackling with pain. The screwdriver hit her helmet and danced on the end of its tether while she reeled it in. There was a burst of noise inside her helmet, the speakers playing Jianyu’s voice on one side and the captain’s on the other, with Xrrt making incomprehensible noises in the background. Sera put her hands to her helmet, another automatic gesture; it wasn’t as if she could cover her ears right now.
“Shut up, shut up, shup UP,” she repeated, the sound of her own voice ringing in her helmet until everyone else had fallen silent. She took a deep breath, looked up at the stars until she felt her heart slowing down, and said, “Jianyu, did you get in contact with those settlers?”
“Uh, no,” Jianyu said. “We’re beyond the reach of our short-range communication array.”
“We could turn the ship around,” Captain Dysart said.
“Not while I’m out here.” Sera turned around, lifting and replacing her boots carefully on the hull until she was facing back toward the airlock. The effort of pulling the magnetized soles up with each step made her knees ache. When she had shuffled in a circle, facing the airlock and the tether that connected her to it, she said, “I’m coming back inside. I’ll turn the ship around, get back to a spot where we can communicate with somebody who might know something, and figure out where to go from there. Worst case scenario, we’ll head back where we came from, reenter the atmosphere until this thing’s crispy fried, and take off again.” She took her first step back toward the airlock, then remembered to add, “Do I have permission to do all that, captain?”
“Permission granted,” said Captain Dysart. “Just get in here.”
Sera tried to lift her right foot for the next step, but it wouldn’t budge. She strained against the pull of the magnets, gritting her teeth as pain radiated from her knee, and still couldn’t lift her boot off the hull. That unexpected tumble must have hurt her joints worse than she thought. She tapped the screen on her suit’s arm and turned off her boots’ electromagnets. She would have to reel herself back in using the tether.
Her left foot popped off the deck right away, but her right foot was still stuck to the deck. The helmet cut off her peripheral vision, and it took some maneuvering before she could look straight down at her own leg.
“Well, shit,” she said.
The alien blob had sent out more tendrils, pale and thin at the tips, but as strong as solid muscle. They had wrapped around Sera’s ankle, holding her suit tight, while the main bulk of the creature still squatted over the antenna.
As soon as Sera saw the problem, the rest of the crew could too, watching the feed from her helmet camera on their screens inside. There was another burst of frantic noise, everyone talking over each other and the speakers in Sera’s helmet turning it into a wash of meaningless sound.
Sera pulled the wrench off her toolbelt and smashed it into the tendrils with as much force as she could manage while one foot flailed in empty space. The creature’s skin rippled, pearlescent in the light of her headlamp, and the tendrils grew thicker. Through the fabric of her suit, Sera could feel a growing pressure as the thing squeezed her leg.
“Oh shit,” she whispered, as Captain Dysart said something about peaceful first contact procedures in one ear and Weyland offered to bring her a blowtorch in the other. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”
“Permission to go out there, captain,” Jianyu said, his voice tight with tension.
“Absolutely not.” Nyx gripped the arms of her chair, feeling control of the situation slipping away from her. “Xrrt, this is officially a security matter. Since we have no available information about this species, I trust you to follow appropriate first contact procedures, up to and including termination if it becomes hostile.”
Jianyu wasn’t going to give up that easily. “I can go too. Let me be Xrrt’s backup.”
“In my opinion as your doctor–” Weyland began.
“Xrrt, time to get suited up.” Nyx wanted to get up and pace, but forced herself to stay seated. Letting her nerves show would only alarm the rest of the crew. Xrrt inclined her head and scuttled away.
Sera’s audio was still playing on the bridge. She was cursing quietly to herself, punctuated with sucking gulps of air. Nyx pulled up the biometric readings from her suit. Her pilot wasn’t in acute distress, no bleeding or broken bones, but her heart rate was spiking.
“Sera, I’m going to need you to keep calm,” Nyx said. “Xrrt’s on her way out to you. Stay where you are.”
“Not like I have a choice, captain,” Sera replied.
“Try not to provoke it any further,” Nyx told her. “Help is on its way.”
A call came in from the airlock. Nyx picked it up, and Xrrt’s translator said, “My suit isn’t here.”
Centaurians like Xrrt couldn’t wear just any spacesuit. There was no chance a massive eight-limbed bug could fit into an outfit made for humanoids. “Try looking behind the others,” Nyx said, remembering the mess she’d seen the last time she’d checked the storage locker. Sera was the only one aboard who kept her suit ready to go; it wasn’t as if the rest of them would ever be called out for a spacewalk.
“It’s not here,” Xrrt said.
“Uh, it’s in my workshop,” Sera said.
“So go get it,” Nyx told Xrrt.
“It’s in a lot of pieces.” Panic was thrumming in Sera’s voice again. “The joint seals were leaking. I had to take the whole suit apart.”
Jianyu said, “Permission to go out there now.”
“The answer is still no.” Nyx gripped the arms of her chair until her fingers ached. If this were a proper Coalition ship, she could have ten security officers streaming out the airlock already, with five mechanics behind them to assess the damage and a doctor to help Sera back to the airlock. What was she going to do without them?
“With respect, captain, this is getting ridiculous.” Jianyu stood up. “I can go out there and–nnngh–”
His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell backwards. Weyland sidestepped out of his way as he crashed to the deck, then knelt by his side. He kicked something hard and spherical out of the way, and Nyx watched it roll across the floor and stop when it hit the edge of the captain’s dais. It was the pearl Sera had been playing with.
“Vasovagal syncope,” Weyland said, feeling for a pulse in Jianyu’s massive wrist. “That’s a new symptom.”
“Hey, what’s happening in there?” Sera’s voice was rising in pitch, growing reedy with fear. “Jianyu, are you okay? Say something. Ow, this thing’s really squeezing me.”
Nyx propelled herself out of her chair. “I’m going out there. Weyland, as the only conscious person left on this bridge, you have command until Xrrt gets back. She grabbed the pearl on her way out, didn’t know where to put it down so it wouldn’t roll away again, and just hung onto it instead.
At the airlock, Nyx struggled into a suit on her own and grabbed a gun. Laser pistols were safe to use on ships; their bolts were powerful enough to bore through flesh and chitin, but bounced harmlessly off metal. She thought for a moment, then pulled a second pistol from a different locker. This one had a stubbier barrel and a thicker power core. Plasma weapons weren’t safe to use in flight; they ate through metal and flesh equally fast, and anyone dumb enough to fire one inside a pressurized ship was going to end up sucking void. She clipped both to her belt, one on either side. Maybe if she angled it just right, she could blast the creature off the ship without blowing a hole through the Benevolence.
With her suit on and her helmet tucked under her arm, Nyx looked around the room, searching for more weapons. Sera had taken most of her tools out with her. There was a blowtorch and some sort of electrified rod in the tool locker, but Nyx didn’t know how to use either, and the torch was showing low fuel on its electronic readout. She tilted her helmet, and it rattled; without thinking, she’d dropped the pearl inside it. Might as well toss the stupid thing out the airlock, she thought, dropping the purple sphere into one gloved hand and pulling the helmet down over her head.
She stepped into the airlock, waited for the door to cycle, and clipped her tether to a ring on the hull. Without the pull of artificial gravity, her stomach flipped over and she had to focus on the metal beneath her until she thought of it as down. Sera wasn’t far away, and Nyx made her way over, assessing the situation as she went. The alien had grabbed hold of Sera’s leg and was squeezing her spacesuit, the fabric deforming as it dug in. Fleshy tendrils were climbing up her calf and beginning to explore her knees.
In her helmet’s speakers, Xrrt said, “I have returned to the bridge and am now in command.”
Weyland added, “Jianyu’s regaining consciousness.”
Nyx kept going forward, step by step, reaching for Sera as Sera stretched her arms out helplessly toward her. She grabbed Sera’s hand, feeling nothing but the thick fabric of her own glove and the faintest suggestion of pressure as the panicked woman squeezed. Her other hand was still wrapped around the pearl, and she unclenched her fingers, letting the purple sphere drift away.
The alien shivered suddenly, its body rippling and expanding. The tendrils around Sera’s leg pulled free and shrank back into its flesh. Nyx let out a breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding. Sera made a noise that sounded like a sob, but she was smiling inside her helmet.
Then the creature launched itself at Nyx.
There was no way for Captain Dysart to move fast enough in her magnetic boots to avoid the alien. It somehow managed to go briefly airborne, its body rippling and putting out feelers in all directions. Then it slammed into the captain’s torso, wrapping those feelers around her body. Its body was distorting as it stretched itself thinner, coiling around her.
The light of Sera’s headlamp played off something winking like a star against the darkness, only the stars themselves weren’t blinking without atmosphere to distort them. The alien was stretching out toward the thing that shone in the light, and Sera launched herself after it, keeping her boots demagnetized and whipping herself around on her own tether. The captain struggled, held out her hand in a silent plea for help, but Sera shot past her and snatched the tiny thing before the alien could grab it. It was one of the pearls, just the right size for grasping with one gloved hand.
Xrrt was saying something in her headset about reestablishing communication with the settlers, but Sera had more immediate problems to worry about. The alien didn’t have anything that looked like a conventional eye, but she felt its attention on her anyway. She smacked the button on her suit that would reel her tether in, then realized how slowly the device was tugging her in the direction of safety. The alien was already detaching itself from the captain, reaching for her instead. She had to move faster.
She grabbed her tether again with her free hand, yanking it so she was pulled down toward the hull. She braced for the impact, landed feet-first, and rebounded toward the stars. At the apex of her arc, she looked down to see the captain free and the alien creeping across the shining metal of the hull.
“Get to the airlock,” she yelled, and braced again as her momentum slammed her back into the hull. The captain started to move, shuffling as fast as she could in her magnetic boots, then giving up and skimming weightless to safety. The airlock door irised open, and Sera gave her tether another hard yank, heading for the opening too fast. She slammed into the airlock’s far wall, pushed off, and bounced off a second wall before correcting her course. The tether had to be unclipped manually from the side of the ship. She dropped the pearl and reached for it with both hands.
Sera eased the clip out of the ring, and then a pale tendril wrapped around her wrists. She pulled back, shoulders flaring with pain, but the alien was too strong to dislodge. It flowed over her, flesh distorting and reforming as something like muscle moved under it. Her arms were trapped, squeezed tight in front of her, and then the creature began to crawl up her helmet. The stars winked out as it crawled over the clear glass. Her headlight kept shining, illuminating something pulsing in the darkness that might be the creature’s heart inside its body, and faintly outlining the puckered shape of an opening that might be a mouth, or an asshole, or both.
Something slammed into her stomach, pushing her off balance. Sera flailed her feet, unable to see where she was going. She knew that she was untethered. One wrong bounce and she’d be shooting out into the void. If the alien didn’t kill her, oxygen deprivation would finish the job.
But I’ve got so much left to do, Sera thought, and then, It’s going to be so weird if this is what finally kills me.
The pressure around her midsection was steady, not the crushing squeeze of the alien’s body. She felt her wild momentum come to a stop. Everyone was talking in her headset again, the sound a rising cacophony, and then one quiet voice cut through the noise.
“I’ve got you,” the captain said, “I’ve got you.”
The alien peeled off Sera’s face. They were in the airlock and the door to the stars was closing, its panels sliding together. The captain had the pearl in her hand, but as the alien reached for it, she lobbed it toward the open door. The creature lurched through the void, caught the pearl, and smacked into the now-shut door.
“Damn,” the captain said, “I thought we might get rid of it.”
The airlock began to cycle. The artificial gravity started up in the room. Sera wobbled, surprised by how much her knees hurt, and the captain grabbed her under the elbows and held her up.
“It’s probably better we didn’t kill it,” Captain Dysart said, her helmet clinking against Sera’s. “We don’t even know if that thing’s sentient.”
“It’s strong,” Sera said. Now that the adrenaline rush was fading, all her joints hurt, and she felt her eyes stinging. She wasn’t going to cry, not in front of the captain. “I could’ve died.”
The airlock’s intercom beeped, signalling that the atmosphere was safe to breathe again. The captain worked off her own helmet while Sera pawed helplessly at her own. The alien had squeezed her hands to near numbness, even through the thick suit. When the captain saw her struggling, she put her own helmet down and helped Sera. She popped the seal, and the stale air inside Sera’s helmet was washed away by the smell of the Benevolence: clean oxygen, cold metal, always the faint undertone of burnt plastic.
Sera didn’t realize she was crying until Captain Dysart folded her into an awkward hug. The wrench on her toolbelt dug into her hip. She snuffled into the captain’s shoulder while the alien attached itself to the wall. It was still clinging to the pearl, and as she watched, another purple orb emerged from its skin like a pimple.
“Not my most well-planned first contact,” the captain said.
“I could have died,” Sera whispered again.
“But you didn’t,” said the captain. “You’re not allowed to die on my watch.”
They broke apart as the door to the main ship hissed open. First through was Jianyu, who grabbed Sera in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground.
“Ow, my arms,” Sera mumbled into his chest.
“You idiot,” Jianyu said.
“You’re the idiot. I’m glad you’re awake.”
“I’m glad you’re alive,” Jianyu said, placing her carefully back on the deck.
Sera was helped out of her suit and allowed herself to be fussed over by Xrrt, who enfolded her in her four forelimbs, and Weyland, who calmly examined her arms and declared that there was probably no nerve damage. The alien seemed happy enough to stay stuck to the wall, so they left it there and sealed the airlock behind them. “We’ll head back and drop it off in the ocean,” the captain said, which seemed as good a plan as any.