Black soil. Not peat-dark or wet from rain, but the black of carbon and nighttime, visible between clumps of grass so rich and dark and green, the green of leather on an antique desk.
The smell of rain on the air, lightning sulking among the peaks of distant blue mountains, bringing life to a dead, grey sky. Moisture on the breeze, tickling every inch of Xiù’s naked body as she walks nude beside a hip-high dry stone wall, enjoying the feel of damp earth under her soles.
A meditative moment, so real that the past and future are irrelevant. She isn’t even interested in recalling them. Where has she been? Where is she going? It doesn’t matter.
Here and now, everything is both too detailed, and yet lacking in detail.
She pauses by a giant stone man, buried up to his waist next to a tree at the crossroads. She is not alarmed by his presence, nor by the fact that she hasn’t seen him until just now. He looks down at her and smiles, even though his face is made of grey limestone, stubbled in lichen and moss. She is not not alarmed.
He gestures to the tree that he has been half-buried alongside. Objects hang in that tree: impossible ones, clearly too large and heavy for the boughs to support. Wooden cartwheels, huge stone tablets, enormous steel swords and more.
She points. “That one.”
The stone giant bows with a hand over his heart, and selects the enormous bronze coin that she has chosen.
He raises it above his head. She spreads her arms, tilts her head back and smiles, welcoming what he is about to do. He brings it down hard, and she woke in the instant before it crushed her.
“And then I said - “Walk home asshole!” and hit the button!”
“Oh man!” Allison giggled, then winced as the laughter sent a fresh stab of pain through her abused cranium. When she raised her hand to the pain, it met cold metal instead. She had endured an uncomfortable and boring night in the ship’s infirmary wearing a large and dorky helmet that Kirk had printed which used some form of applied alien science magic to clear up the lingering effects of being beaten in the head with a Huh. It looked like something out of a 1960s SciFi serial.
“Are you okay?” Xiù asked, concerned.
“…Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine, really.”
Xiù frowned at her. “Are you sure?”
Allison nodded. “This thing’s really working. I was so woozy last night, and now I’m feeling sharp again.”
“Yeah but…” Xiù’s smile was mischievous as she indicated the medical contraption that was clamped around her head. “You look like you’re having your hair permed.”
Allison pantomimed dismay. “Oh God, get me out of this thing! I don’t want to look like my Mom!”
Xiù flicked her own hair where a few strands had come loose of their ponytail. After years of having to make do in alien civilization while pretending to be Gaoian it had lost a little of its lustre, but she’d still done what she could to keep it healthy. “Too late.”
Xiù paused. “I… I guess so. I mean… I haven’t seen her in like five years.”
The deep therapy machine beeped in protest as Allison tried to lean forward and put a hand on her shoulder. “OKay, yeah. That’s rough.” she said. “I guess I can see why you’d want to go home.”
“You still want me to stay though, don’t you?”
“Girl, after the ass-whupping you just handed out? Hell yes!” Allison enthused. She settled back again “But five years is rough, you need to see your folks. I get it.”
“Don’t you want to see yours?”
“Oh hell, no.” Allison grimaced. “My folks and I… we never got along. I cut them out of my life a long time ago.”
“Oh.” Xiù cleared her throat and tried her best not to blush awkwardly. “Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Ancient history. But you can’t live at home forever, can you?”
“With Mama’s cooking?” Xiù demurred “Oh, I could. I know exactly what she’s going to make for me, too, when she sees me.”
“Mmhmm. It’ll be her special Paigu bazaifan, with Doufuhua for dessert.” She drifted off into a culinary haze. “She thinks they’re my favorites…”
Allison laughed. “She thinks?”
Xiù made a curious head-ducking motion again, then caught herself and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I’m still doing Gaoian body language. Yeah, she thinks that and… well, she’s not wrong. It’s just that those were my favorites when I was ten.”
“I get it. You could do with being ten years old again for a little while.”
Xiù smiled, whistfully. “Oh, I could…”
Julian poked his head around the door. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“Good!” Allison confirmed, beaming at him. “Much better than last night. Amir’s still out of it though.”
Julian checked on their slumbering pilot. “He’s fine. Just asleep.” he reported, reading off the display above Amir’s bed.
“Didn’t Lewis get hit in the head too?” Xiù asked.
“Honestly? It’s kinda hard to tell with Lewis.” Julian shrugged as he began to help Allison unplug. “He seems okay. He keeps playing with that ball thing.”
“The Huh? Fuck sake, I had my fill of that thing when Zane hit me in the head with it.” Allison griped.
“Yeah, why do you guys keep calling it the Huh?” Julian asked, releasing the catches on her helmet and gently pulling it off
“It’s a weird story.” Allison swung her legs down off the bed and ruffled her own hair. “Wow, I feel way better.”
“Short version is, that’s what the word for that thing is in OmoAru. Huh.”
“…Oh. Right.” Julian removed the last sticky patch from her forehead and helped her to her feet, where she swayed alarmingly.
“Woah. Oh, okay. Still kinda… no, no, get off guys, I’m fine.”
Xiù let go of her arm where she had caught it. “Are you sure?”
“You go with Julian. I didn’t sleep well at all last night, so, I’ll be in my bunk.”
Reluctantly they let her go, though she had obviously recovered most of her balance and focus. She only touched the door frame lightly on the way out.
“So uh… when are we heading for a station with a relay?” Xiù asked.
The door and deck both being sized to admit a Guvnurag, they had no trouble walking side by side towards the flight deck, but it was still just narrow enough for her to be acutely aware of him walking beside her, and that awareness was engendering some acutely hormonal feelings. If he was at all conscious of the effect he was having, though, he didn’t show it.
“Kirk and Vedreg are keen to explore this whole hospital angle.” Julian told her. “Wish I could tell you how long that’s likely to take.”
He smiled at her crestfallen expression. “Hey, I’m sorry. But we’ve got other missions too, you know? It’s rough, I know, but we’ll get you back as soon as we can.”
“I guess… it’s just, you said this ship is really fast right?”
“Probably the fastest in the galaxy.” he confirmed “But it’s still a week to the nearest station from here. The galaxy’s a big place, and this is one of the empty bits.”
“Right.” she sighed. “I can’t ask you to take a whole fortnight out for me, I’m not that important.”
She realised that the sentiment had come off as bitter. “I mean! Um… That came out wrong.”
Julian chuckled. “It’s fine.”
“Allison wants me to stay.”
Julian stopped as they were about to cross the threshold into the common area. “So do I.” he confessed.
“Why?” she asked
Julian didn’t even need to pause to think. “We’ve rescued people that the galaxy totally broke.” he said. “I remember one Polish lady called Maria, she never learned to speak a word of any alien language, never even figured out the whole… Deathworlder thing. She was pretty much starving and out of her mind by the time we got to her.”
“You’re different.” he continued. “You’ve learned the skills to survive out here, you speak Gaoian, you’ve kept fit and well fed and you did it by earning your keep. There’s a whole long section in your file written by somebody called Ayma which is just… Glowing.”
Xiù hesitated, suppressing a surge of guilt on hearing Ayma’s name. “Glowing?”
“Nonlethal takedowns of alien species, even some of the flimsier ones. Boarding one of the big Hunter ships solo to save a diplomatic vessel. Integrating into Gaoian society and making yourself useful. Surviving - thriving - incognito around the galaxy for three years… It all speaks to a skillset that this ship and our mission would find very useful, and I’m not talking about your ability to beat stuff up. You’re a competent woman, Xiù.”
Xiù blinked at him. “I don’t feel competent.” she said.
It wasn’t adequate, but… where did she begin? That she didn’t recognise the person he’d just described? That, okay, she may have done those things, but she’d been this close to throwing up the whole time? That she’d cried herself to sleep more nights than not? That she had felt alone, so alone for all of those years, and that even Ayma, Myun and all the others had been… well, they’d been great, but no substitute for home?
Julian smiled sadly. “Neither do I.” he confessed.
Xiù changed the subject. “We’d better… uh, what are we doing?”
“Nothing, really. I’m just heading up to the flight deck.”
“Oh… Uh, I didn’t exercise yet today. I’ll go get on with that, I guess.”
“Sure. But… if you’re interested, later on? Ayma left a message for you in your notes.”
Xiù’s heart manage the interesting trick of simultaneously rising and sinking. “She….? Oh… Have you-?”
“Nope. It’s a personal message.”
“Oh… uh, is there one from my family?”
“There’s a letter, yeah.”
“Oh.” She… actually didn’t know how she felt about that. Scared and excited at the same time.
“Why don’t you go read them? The gym can wait.” Julian offered. “See you at lunch?”
“Oh! Yeah. Sure. See you.”
“Lewis, are you ever going to stop playing with that thing?”
Kirk’s upper upper arm was encased in something that was a fair bit more high-tech than a cast, which served to immobilize the broken bone and deliver regenerative medicines through dermal contact. Having his coat shaved to apply the cast had been embarrassing enough, but now the damn thing itched, which was making him cranky.
“No, Kirk, dude, it’s… look at this shit, man!”
Kirk glanced at it. As far as he could tell the little object was still as grey and uninteresting as the last time he’d looked. Lewis’ expression, however, was rapt. “Put it down.” he ordered. Lewis made a complaining noise but obeyed, tucking the Huh into the pocket of his jacket, which was hung on the back of his chair.
Kirk grimaced as another eddy knocked Sanctuary off course. Amir would have handled the buffeting effortlessly, but even Deathworlders needed time to recover from being knocked unconscious, it seemed. They healed absurdly fast, with or without the ministrations of a deep therapy machine, but that was of small comfort when it left Kirk to deal with clear air turbulence.
“How big is this cell?” he demanded.
“Wish I could tell you man, but I’m still looking for a satellite that works. They didn’t build these things to last.”
“Well, where are we? We’ve got to be close to AmoUetu-RumuAo-Eiru by now.”
“Right above it, dude.”
Kirk frowned through the flight deck’s transparent surface. All he could see below him was a flat expanse of beige.
“Are you sure? I don’t see the river.” he said.
“That’s because of the sandstorm, man.”
Perspective clicked in. “Oh…” He said. “…We’re not landing in that.”
“Figured as much, bro.” Lewis laughed. “Survey says the turbulence shouldn’t go higher than twenty clicks if you wanna wait it out.”
“Yes. Let’s do that.” Kirk agreed. He punched the commands in and Sanctuary stood on its tail to ascend above the weather, eventually getting to the point where the autopilot was happy to take over again. Nobody on board noticed - ‘down’ was still defined by the gravity plating in the deck, rather than by the planet
Kirk set the ship to hover once they were clear of the turbulence, and relaxed.
“Fucking Class Nines…” he muttered. “Any luck with those satellites?”
“Nah man. Half of them just aren’t there any more and half the rest ran out of power years ago. Must be bits of space debris all over this desert.”
“Some of the stuff that’s in geosynchronous or higher.” Lewis said. “That’s about it, man. Best one I’ve got is… I dunno, a telescope of some kind? That one’s still kicking just fine, the rest…”
“Right.” Kirk settled back. “I suppose there’s nothing to do now but wait.”
“You mind if I…?” Lewis indicated his pocket.
“What’s so fascinating about that damn thing?”
“See for yourself, bro.”
Lewis dug out the Huh again and handed it over. Kirk sighed, and inspected it.
The Huh really was nothing more than a metal ball that fit well in his hand. He turned it over, looking for any sign of adornment, finding none.
He turned it over again, puzzling over it. Why should something so small be so fascinating to Lewis? It was just… smooth. What mysteries could what looked and felt for all the world like a big ball-bearing possibly hold?
No matter what angle he inspected it from, it was so round and so uniform in appearance. It managed the strange trick of being metallic and perfectly, featurelessly smooth, but yet it reflected nothing. He knew he was turning it over - he could feel the friction on his fingers and palm - but it seemed to hang motionless, an anomaly in his hands, as if it wasn’t moving, but the rest of the universe was.
Lewis snatched it out of his hands. “DUDE!”
“You’ve been staring at it for like five minutes, bro.”
“Nonsense, I only just-” Kirk glanced at the timepiece and stopped mid-sentence. Nearly twelve Ri had gone past. “…I could have sworn…?”
“Nah man, you zoned the fuck out. Like, way worse than I do.”
Kirk shook his mane, trying to shake off a lingering feeling that he could understand what was going on if he just held the Huh some more. “Can I look at…? No, what am I saying? Lock that thing away!”
“Dude, it’s just another drug. You’re not used to it, that’s all.”
“Lewis. It’s dangerous.”
“For you maybe!”
“Humans have more sensitive neural structures than my species, you know that!”
“Maybe, but I’m the one who heard you and stopped when you said stop, man. You didn’t even hear me!”
“What in the hell are you two arguing about?”
Julian looked back and forth between them as he hauled himself into the flight deck. Lewis simply handed him the Huh.
Julian frowned at it. “You’re arguing over this?”
“Just… have a look at it man. Turn it over.”
“What, this thing? It’s just… I mean… well…”
Julian tilted his head back and forth and frowned at the object in his hands as he turned it over a few times, then blinked and shook it off. “What about it?”
Lewis aimed a triumphant smirk at Kirk. “See?”
“That proves nothing. It still mesmerised him, too.”
“Yeah, but only for like… seconds!” Lewis protested, and knocked on Julian’s upper arm. “Right?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Julian looked back up from the ball. “I dunno, that’s kinda weird. Maybe we shouldn’t be messing with it.”
Julian’s expression was patient in a ‘you’re being kinda dumb’ way. “Well, I mean… we are investigating why ancient species go extinct…” he pointed out.
Lewis paused “…Ah. Yeah. Right.” He frowned at the Huh. “Okay, yeah, maybe lock that thing up somewhere.”
“Allison can look after it.” Kirk decided.
“Good call.” Julian agreed.
“Don’t let her study it. We don’t want its keeper to be under its spell as well.”
Lewis scoffed. “‘Under its spell’? What is this thing, a fucking Palantir?”
“You know what I mean.” Kirk replied, patiently. “It’s clearly affecting and influencing us somehow: best to put it in the care of somebody who is as-yet unaffected and uninfluenced.”
“Aside from being beaten around the head with it.” Julian noted. “Right.” He took his T-shirt off and knotted it around the Huh.
“Swole as fuck, dude. I’m ‘mirin, no homo.” Lewis snarked, earning a middle finger from Julian in response to the old meme.
“When are we landing, anyway?” Julian asked.
“When I know, you’ll know dude.” Lewis assured him. “Soon, trademark.”
Kirk made an interrogative noise. “Trade-?”
“Old in-joke. Nevermind, dude.”
Julian and Kirk shared a glance that they had shared many a time over Lewis, then Julian shrugged. “…Right. I’ll, uh, go give this to Allison then.”
Allison gave him a sly grin and an appraising up-and-down when she answered the door, despite her obvious tiredness. “Damn, Julian.” she drawled. “You know how to make a girl feel better.”
He stroked a strand of blonde hair tidily behind her ear and they shared a little kiss. “Sorry, this is business.” he handed over the shirt. “Can you lock that up? Don’t look at what it’s got wrapped up in it.”
She frowned at it. “Sure, but you wanna explain why?”
“It’s the Huh. If you study it, it seems to just… fascinate you. We thought it’d be a good idea to leave it in your care seeing as it hasn’t affected you yet. Until we know what it is and if it’s related to the OmoAru dying out, you know?”
“I follow.” She took the object and vanished into her room to lock it away as requested. “You want the shirt back?”
“I’ll just print another one.”
“Coulda just printed a bag for it, you know?” Allison pointed out. She reappeared at the door and leered at him. “Not that I’m complaining about you turning up at my door shirtless.”
“It was easier this way.” He shrugged.
She made an appreciative noise. “Mmm, works for me. Just don’t let Xiù see you, she’ll catch fire.”
“Girl’s had a five year dry spell, and… call it a hunch, I don’t think she was getting any before then, either.”
He leaned against the door frame, folding his arms. “And how long’s your dry spell been?” he asked, enjoying the way she looked down at his upper arms and started to breathe a little quicker.
“Too damn long.”
“Just say the word.” He grinned.
“I told you, Julian, we’re not having sex.”
“There’re alternatives to sex.” he said, slipping his hand around her lower back and pulling her out of the room slightly, pelvis to pelvis.
She met his gaze with a cocky smile, draping her arms over his shoulders. “Got something in mind, Etsicitty?”
He glanced up and down the quarters deck to make sure that they were alone then leaned in and murmured “I know my ABCs…”
She laughed, but bit her lip and took another good look at him. “Mister ‘Six Years Alone’ knows that trick, huh?”
Julian’s confidence stalled and entered a tailspin. “Well, uh… I know of it…”
Allison giggled, but her lip-bite intensified. She checked up and down the deck herself, and then grabbed his belt buckle and pulled him into her room.
“Alright, Mister Smooth. Show me.”
“Well this is fucking boring…”
Kirk shook his mane in irritation. Lewis always got restless when he had nothing to do. “How long until the sandstorm abates?”
“Told you dude, weather sats are fried. Could be five minutes, could be five months, could be there’s a second storm five hours behind this one. I’ve got a bot watching out for a working sat.”
“So, you’re not actually doing anything right now?
“Oh, don’t say it dude…”
Kirk snorted at him. “An hour’s exercise every day, Lewis. You biologically need it”
“Like fuck I do…” Lewis grumbled, but he stood up anyway, stretching and groaning as his spine popped in three places.
“You see? Your species isn’t meant to sit still for long periods.”
“Hey, I’m going, jeez…”
Shipboard gear was gym clothing anyway, so he didn’t need to bother with changing until after he was all sweaty, so that was one upside.
The second upside to today’s gym session turned out to be Xiù, stretching against the wall to the point that her ankle was higher than her head and damn was that an easy sight for the eyes. He picked the multigym and sat down, less interested in doing his mandatory workout properly than he was in having a good view.
“Shouldn’t you warm up properly?” she asked.
“This is a warm-up.” he replied, setting the resistance-based machine to its lowest setting. “I fucking hate exercise…”
“Yeah?” She grimaced slightly as she hugged her leg and held it as close to her torso as she could for a three-count.
“You can’t tell me you enjoy that shit? That looks uncomfortable as fuck.”
“This bit sucks.” she agreed. “But it stops me from aching all over when I’m done.”
“This going to be your regular exercise slot?” He asked as she changed legs. He’d make a mental note if it was.
“No, I usually do mine - rrrgh - before breakfast.”
Well that killed it. Exercise might be bearable if he had a gym-buddy like Xiù, but the only known force in the galaxy that could drag Lewis out of bed that early in the morning was a quarter of a pig, a gallon of coffee, and waffles with enough syrup to launch a yacht on. He hauled down on the bar in what he thought was a preacher curl. “So why’re you here now?” He asked.
“I was going to go back to my room and listen to my messages.” Xiù said. “But… um… Allison’s room is next to mine and, uh…” Her face went a brilliant scarlet. “Never mind.”
“Julian’s in there…”
Lewis blinked. “No shit? Shit, did they get loud?”
Damn the girl could blush. If there’d been a world championship, Xiù would have taken the gold, easy. By incinerating the competition with her glow. “Little bit.” she squeaked the words in a way that suggested they were understatement.
She dropped her leg back down and bounced on her toes a few time. Lewis lowered his head slightly to give the impression that he was working the machine, hoping to ogle without being caught ogling.
“Uh, you’re… not doing that right.” she pointed out after a few seconds.
Lewis just shrugged. “You grab the thing, you pull on the thing, right?”
“Hǎo shāng xīn…” she muttered. “No wonder you hate exercise.”
“You saying I don’t enjoy it because I’m doing it wrong?”
She beckoned with one hand. “Come on, get up. I’ll show you.”
Lewis shrugged and did so. “Okay, what are we doing?”
“Tai Chi? I thought that was for, like, old people in the park!”
“It keeps you fit and strong.” she said.
“Moving all slow? Pull the other one.”
She rolled her eyes. “Copy me.”
Lewis snorted, but did so to the best of his ability, imperfectly mimicking the slow sweep of her arms and feet. His muscles started to burn within seconds. “What the shit…?”
She paused mid-motion, at the most awkward spot - he felt like he was about to fall over. His leg was shaking from trying to hold him up. “You’re still doing it wrong.” she said. “Move your right foot back a little and try to balance your weight between both feet.”
Lewis grunted and shoved his foot back a bit and the precarious feeling and shake both vanished. The burn in his muscled faded a little. “Hey, what…?”
“Now you’re doing it right.”
“Okay… That’s cool, but… no pain no gain, right?”
“My ballet teacher used to say that being strong is no good if you’re wasting half that strength with bad form.” Xiù said.
She laughed. “I had this trouble with my brother Wei. Uh… it’s like if you have a really fancy, shiny new computer but you’re running an old game on it. Most of that power gets wasted. Follow me?”
Understanding dawned. “Oh! I get you!”
Xiù started moving again. “It works both ways.” she said. “If you do it right it feels easier but you’re actually getting the most out of it. Doing it wrong feels harder and doesn’t do as much for you.”
Lewis was surprised to find that he was actually enjoying himself, and not just because of the company. Xiù was a patient teacher, happy to go at his pace, and the way she explained what they were doing drove home a point he had hitherto missed - that exercise didn’t have to be dumb, mindless repetition. That there was room for using your brain in there as well, thinking about it. Physical intelligence.
Maybe he had a reason to get out of bed early, now…
“Fascinating. I wonder what relevance it has to our search?”
Vedreg didn’t fit in the flight deck, but the corridor outside was capable of unfolding a bench from the deck for him to rest on, and it was from this that he was conversing with Kirk, sipping a surprisingly small glass of water considering his mass.
“Best not to speculate ahead of our evidence.” Kirk cautioned. “Lewis could be right, it could just be a drug of some kind.”
“True, though the whole concept of a drug was a completely foreign one to me prior to the arrival of humanity.”
“Likewise, and if ever there were fields where we were likely to learn of their existence, customs and legal representation aboard a major trade station would be them, even if they were perfectly legal.”
“And yet the OmoAru have been in decline since before the human World Wars.” Vedreg noted. “Tell me, do you think it a plausible possibility?”
“All too plausible.” Kirk shivered. “Even with that idea in mind, that this could be the object responsible for the decline and fall of their civilization, I still want to go down to Allison’s quarters and ask her for another look, and I was only exposed to its effects for a few minutes.”
“And Lewis and Julian?”
Kirk turned and checked the tracking systems for a second. “Lewis is in the gym with Xiù, and appears to be rather happy about it.” he said. “Julian has… not left Allison’s quarters yet, though I expect that’s just sex.”
Vedreg pig-snorted a Guvnurag chortle, pulsing hyacinth. “So matter-of-fact.” he commented.
“Why shouldn’t I be? I have no reason to be squeamish about the sexuality of another species, especially one so driven by it as humans are.” he glanced at the monitor where Xiù was correcting Lewis’ posture. “And Gaoians.” he added.
A curious cocktail of intellectual pink and uncertain blue swept up Vedreg’s body. “She’s not Gaoian.” he pointed out.
“Biologically? No.” Kirk agreed. “But concepts we have traditionally considered - for good reason - to be absolutes, appear to be more fluid for humans. Gender, mating proclivities… Species - purely as a mental and cultural construct - is on that list.”
“How can species be a fluid concept?”
Kirk just shrugged. It wasn’t a native gesture to Rrrrtktktkp’ch, and he knew that Vedreg was astute enough to get that subtle point. “It’s all visible in Xiù’s file, if you know what to look for.” he said. “There are a lot of… transition zones in her life. Places where she has straddled two things that would quite reasonably seem to be separate. They’re quite obvious from the elevated perspective that I enjoy, but humans have remarkable blind spots about their own motives and experiences.”
“Do they indeed?” The translation gave Vedreg a wry, ironic tone.
Kirk snorted, catching the thrust of Vedreg’s subtle jab. “I know who I am.” he asserted, and pointed at the screen with his mechanical arm. “They don’t.”
“And is that what draws you to them?”
“What draws me to them is that they’ve got to become somebody, and I want to make sure that said somebody can coexist with my own people.”
Vedreg rumbled, and a dark pink, almost purple, showed itself on his body.
“Suppose the Hierarchy are right.” he said, suddenly. “Suppose that’s not possible. What then?”
“Then by helping them escape the quarantine I’ve doomed my own species and several others.” Kirk said. “But I’ll fight to the last to prove that the Hierarchy are wrong.”
“Good. Then I think it’s time I put you in touch with Six.”
Amir was standing in the middle of the common area, barefoot and wearing clean clothes, addressing a little speck of blue holographic light that was hovering a few meters in front of him.
He lowered his hands gently onto his thighs and spoke again. The words were quiet, but clear - Xiù could only hear him because the rest of the ship was quiet.
“Subhaanak-Allaahumma, wa bihamdika, wa tabaarakasmuka, wa ta’aalaa jadduka, wa laa ilaaha ghayruka.”
She turned to Lewis and whispered. “What’s he doing?”
“Salat.” Lewis replied, quietly. “Five times a day. It’s, like, super important to him, so I just let him get it out his system.”
“Prayer. I forgot that people even do things like…” Xiù indicated Amir, who was now bent at the waist, muttering something. “…this.”
“He’s always done this.” Lewis replied. “Had me program that little light for him. It points towards Earth.”
Xiù stared at it. “That’s where Earth is?”
“Uh… as, like, the crow flies?” Lewis tapped on a wall console and pulled up the navigation display. “Looks like… about sixty thousand light years.” He tapped something, and nodded. “Give or take a couple thousand.”
“…how long would it take if we flew there right now?”
Lewis looked upwards and his lips moved as he performed some mental calculations. “About… roughly, uh… seven weeks? Bit more than? But we wouldn’t be going as the crow flies.”
“Well, A: the galactic core’s in the way. Black holes, exploding stars, radiation, really bad hair days. Can’t go that way. B: Interstellar dust and gas leaves a charge on the hull. Let it build up too much and eventually… ZAP!”
Xiù jumped, and Amir shot an annoyed glance in their direction. Lewis raised an apologetic palm at him.
Xiù swallowed “Zap?” she squeaked.
“Yep.” Lewis replied in a quieter tone. “Like a fuckin’ bug zapper, with you, me and the whole crew as the bugs.”
“So, the ID and the CA both run these lane-clearing fleets who sweep a path through the dust, and that’s a spacelane.” Lewis continued. “They form a ring around the galaxy, through what’s called the ‘Temperate World Formation Zone’. By spacelane, we’re more like three months from home, and this is a way fast ship. Like, zoom! And you can really open up on those spacelanes, too.”
“Dunno. Kirk reckons she can do upwards of a thousand kilolights on a really long stretch if we don’t mind wear and tear on the power core. A million times the speed of light. Usually we just cruise at about half that.”
“That’s…” Xiù wanted to say ‘fast’ but the numbers were purely academic, incomprehensible.
“Fastest ship in the galaxy, we reckon.” Lewis patted the Sanctuary proudly. “Course, we don’t need to fly back to Earth. We’ve got the Jump Array.”
“All that distance and I can just… step home, huh?”
Xiù shook her head and watched as Amir turned his head left and right, speaking gently, and then stood.
“That’s going to be so weird…” she said.
It had been far, far too long since Allison had had the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of skin-on-skin contact along pretty much the whole length of her body.
It was made a little unusual by the smooth plastic of Julian’s prosthetic foot, but other than that…
Other than that, the sensations of his body warm and firm against her back and buttocks, of his right arm under her head and his right hand cupping her breast, of his left hand trailing lazily up and down the shallow, athletic curve of her flank were sublime. As were the kisses he occasionally placed on her shoulder.
As had been the… well. What Julian may have lacked in experience, he more than made up for in attentiveness and enthusiasm. The way he’d communicated, the way he’d eagerly let her teach him how to use his tongue, the way he’d listened to what she wanted as his fingers played inside her, the taste of his cock, the orgasms plural, his expressions, his moans and…
Generally the whole general everything.
Especially the way he’d kept his head and said “no” when she’d literally begged him to fuck her. That part, she really appreciated.
She became aware that his hand had stopped moving, and squirmed slightly to glance over her shoulder and check that he was still awake. He wasn’t.
She gave it a decent interval and then carefully extracted herself from her little-spoon position to go take care of the inevitable post-orgasmic ablutions, spin through the shower and put on some clean clothing. Sex - or the next best thing - had always left her energized and hungry.
Lewis and Amir were using the galley as well, and while Amir cleared his throat and pretended to not really notice her presence, Lewis’ grin bordered on being a leer.
Of course, on a ship this small there were no secrets, were there?
“Sleep well?” Lewis tried to make the question sound nonchalant and failed dismally.
“I had fucking amazing sex, thank you for asking.” she snarled, nettled. Lewis grimaced and focused on his food, ears going pink. “What’s that you’re eating?” she asked.
Xiù’s voice lofted out of the kitchen. “Zhēngyú!”
“Fish!” Xiù poked her head out of the kitchen wearing the biggest smile Allison had yet seen on her. “This is amazing!” she enthused. “You have actual Earth food in here! I just had to make something.”
“You love to cook, huh?”
Xiù ducked her head sheepishly, apparently failing to notice that the gesture was a Gaoian one. “Always have.” she admitted. “Besides, you’ve got to do something to help the ration balls go down, right?”
“Too true.” Allison selected a shred of white fish-flesh from the plate and sampled it.
A second later, half the fish was on her plate, prompting a chuckle from Amir. “That was my reaction.” he said.
“Damn girl! Mff!”
Xiù giggled. “You like?”
Allison nodded, masticating enthusiastically, “Thiff iff amaffing.” she swallowed. “Best thing I’ve had in my mouth since, uh…”
Okay, now the awkwardness happened, especially when Lewis grinned like he was the Coyote and he’d just caught the Road Runner. “Half an hour ago? Yagh!”
His scream was in response to Allison rolling her eyes and dumping his glass of water in his lap. When Amir laughed, Lewis did the same to him, and a good-natured three-way scuffle broke out that only ended when Xiù exclaimed “Hey, watch the fish!”
The boys sheepishly helped straighten the table and then sloped off in search of dry clothes. Xiù snorted a little laugh. “Males.” she said. She apparently didn’t notice the mistake until Allison arched an eyebrow at her. “Uh… men! Damn it!”
“I’m… adjusting.” Xiù replied. “It’s so weird being around other humans again.”
“Spent too long with the raccoon people, huh?” Allison asked.
“I keep thinking in Gaoian.” Xiù said. “And thinking like a Gaoian.” She scowled. “I just said that in Gaoian!”
“You did? I didn’t… oh, right, the ship’s translator.”
“Yeah.” Xiù sat down and sampled some of the fish for herself, breaking into a broad smile. “Oooh, this is nice.” she purred. “No more pureed bug guts.”
“Nava paste. It’s an ingredient.” Xiù explained. “It’s actually kinda nice but… yeah, ew.”
They shared a grin, which turned into Xiù apparently thinking of something and abruptly going pink.
“No, what?” Allison pressed.
“Just… wow. Sex. I’ve never…” The pink turned to a brilliant scarlet.
“Got taken before you had the chance, huh?”
Xiù nodded, and ate some of her fish. “It’s… Mama and Papa were always warning me off boys.” she said. “‘Wait for marriage, find a nice doctor or engineer. Chinese, of course.’ You know: Asian parents.” She laughed, and toyed with her food. “As if it’s the most special thing ever…”
“And the Gaoians?”
Xiù shrugged. “They were always very… matter-of-fact about it.” she said. “You always knew who had just arranged a mating contract and they were… very open about talking about it.”
“Yeah.” Xiù wobbled her head. “Sounds cold doesn’t it?”
“Just a little.” Allison agreed.
“It’s not!” Xiù hastened to defend them. “Well… no, maybe it can be, a little. But with some of them you could see it was more like…”
She giggled at a memory. “There’s this one male, Regaari? He’s, like, Gaoian James Bond. Really cool, very handsome. So I’m told.”
“Hard to tell under all that fur.”
“I think the fur is what they look at.” Xiù shrugged. “I don’t really know. But even the mother-supreme was like ‘if I was younger…’”
Allison laughed. “Okay, so they’re not so cold after all.”
“No.” Xiù’s smile faded. “I just… wow. That’s an option now. I could… if I wanted, if I found… Wow.”
Allison put her fork down. “Honey, listen to me.” she said. “Julian and I took forever to sort our shit out, and we needed it. I’m telling you as a friend, you’re going to need time as well, or you’ll just wind up getting hurt.”
Xiù sighed. “You sound like Yulna…”
“I hope that’s a compliment?”
“Yeah, it is.” Xiù nodded. “You could always count on Momma Yulna to tell you what you needed to be told, even if you didn’t want to hear it.”
“Well damn, there goes my party-girl image.”
Their conversation ended with the return of the freshly-changed boys. Lewis immediately noticed the lingering traces of blush on Xiù’s face, but glanced at Allison, saw her expression, and clearly decided that discretion was the better part of dry pants.
“Sandstorm’s clearing.” he said instead. “We should be landing soon. There’s another storm about two days out though.”
“We’ll need to actually land this time, rather than hovering.” Amir said. “She’ll need to be properly battened down and anchored. Should take an hour or so.”
“I’ll… go wake Julian.” Allison stood. “You guys okay to clean up?”
“They can.” Xiù said firmly, folding her arms when Lewis and Amir protest “Hey, I cleaned up as I went, so there’s not much.”
“What are you going to do?” Allison asked, as the boys grumbled their way into the kitchen.
“I’ve got mail.”
There were, as Julian had said, some messages waiting for her. Four, to be exact - one each from Ayma, Regaari and the Mother-Supreme, and a letter from her family.
She opened the message from Giymuy first. The Mother-Supreme was seated at her desk, and gave a warm expression to the camera.
“Where to begin?” she asked, rhetorically.
“I think as a leader and politician, I am better placed to understand you than many others. The life of the Mother-Supreme shares with the life of a human Sister the factor that we will both always be outsiders, however much we are embraced. I have to think for all the females, and all the males too. That is not an instinct that comes naturally.”
“For you, however, I suspect the instinct is as natural as breath, and it is one that I think our species will need to learn to emulate if we are to thrive in interstellar society but… ah, forgive me. I’m rambling.”
“You are missed. I understand why you left our planet, and why you abandoned Ayma and Regaari, and I only refrained from asking you to stay because I knew it would be fruitless. Your protective instinct is as powerful as any Mother’s, and you have the insight to know when you yourself are the worst threat. I truly would have valued your counsel, but I would have valued it for the same reason that I could never have it.”
She paused, and changed tack a bit.
“There is a monument to Triymin, and all the other taken Gaoians now. I thought you would like to know that. The revelation of what her Mother did to “save” the other cubs has prompted much introspection, and something of a schism. We are all still Sisters of course, but… things have been difficult. There is something of a swell of opinion that welcoming you into the Clan was a mistake. Some Mothers who never met you are accusing you of having poisoned us with alien ideas. These are trying times for an old female.”
“Then again, they are trying times for a young female too, are they not? But you are strong enough to get through them, Sister Shoo. And you will always have a home on Gao. Remember that.”
Xiù was still mulling over the Mother-Supreme’s meaning when Sanctuary shook and a dull note rang throughout its decks, followed by Amir’s voice. “We’re landed. All hands outside to batten down.”
She stood up and let herself out, glad to have something to do. She really didn’t feel ready for the other messages yet.
The business of lashing down Sanctuary was a serious one. Huge though she was, and alien-tech thrusters that required no reaction mass notwithstanding, the realities of power-to-weight ratio still existed, and Sanctuary was designed to pull fierce acceleration even at sublight, relying on her giant core’s power output to keep the crew happy and healthy at 20G or more.
The result of that was that she was light for her size. In the high winds expected to come sweeping down the valley over the next few days, she would slide or even be picked up and thrown unless securely anchored.
Kirk, Lewis and Amir were on one side of the ship. Julian, Xiù and Allison on the other, firing cables across her hull using a modified kinetic-pulse weapon. One person to retrieve and hold the cable’s end, one person to crank it taut, the third to operate a compressed-gas gun which fired an anchoring peg into the bedrock, which Kirk had informed them would typically have been operated by a team of four armed with a lifter and a heavy stabilising frame.
Julian just carried it, leaning on it heavily to hold back the recoil. Each time it fired, the heavy ‘Chunk!’ sound it produced pulsed right through their bodies and produced a donut of airborne dust.
Xiù broke the silence after the third anchor was in and they’d found their rhythm. “So… Julian, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“I feel like I know the name Etsicitty from somewhere, but I can’t remember where…?”
Julian laughed. “Let me guess. You’ve heard of the Navajo code talkers?” He knew exactly which Youtube video she’d seen.
“That was it!” Xiù agreed. “Yeah, there was an interview with one of them on this… data thing that we found, his name was Etsicitty too. You’re Navajo?”
“Grampa is.” Julian shrugged it off. “But there’s no code talkers in my family. I don’t know what my great-Grampa was doing during the war, and Grampa was born in Forty-seven…”
Allison hefted their line launcher, checked that her feet weren’t caught in a loop of cable, steadied herself and fired. The line described a graceful arc over Sanctuary’s back.
“So your Grampa’s Navajo, but not you or your dad?” she asked
“Yup. Grampa went to prison for resisting the draft. When he got out he went to an anti-war protest where he met my Gramma and they settled in Minnesota.”
There was a tug on the line, which meant that the other end was attached, so Xiù started to crank on it.
Julian grinned. “Think my Dad was a bit of an accident.” he confided. “And, y’know, interracial couple in the seventies, white girl and a ‘redskin’…” He waved a hand, dismissing the bigotry of yesteryear. “Dunno if things were a bit more relaxed by the time I came along, or if it was just, y’know, ‘Well, at least he’s HALF white…’”
There was a call on the radio. “Heads up!” and the line from the other side came over, Bouncing in the dirt a few meters away. Allison retrieved it just as Julian set the gun and fired the next anchor into the rock.
“Grampa wanted me to learn his people’s ways but…” Julian shrugged, massaging the shock of the recoil out of his hands. “They’re his people, I guess. I’m not really Navajo myself, I don’t feel that…” he waved his hands. “I dunno.”
“Kinship?” Xiù suggested.
“Yeah, that’s it. The bond’s just not there for me.” It was true. They’d gone along to some kind of a nation… thing at one point, and what had struck Julian hard was that he’d felt like a white guy, and been largely treated as one. That had disappointed Gramp Etsi, but it had at least persuaded him to just let Julian be Julian.
“Doesn’t that make you feel sad?” Xiù asked.
“Why should it?” Julian asked. “Maybe I never went down to New Mexico with the old man to learn the ways of my ancestors or whatever but we still had a great time. He taught me hunting, camping, fishing… yeah. I enjoyed it, so I became a park ranger. I used to spend five days a week out in the North Country, keeping tabs on the wildlife. Deer, birds, fish, bears, you name it.” He shrugged, watching Xiù wind the crank. “Guess the Corti thought I was impressive because they snatched me up gear and all and stuck me on planet Nightmare.”
“And your Grandfather?” Xiù asked him.
“Still going.” Julian smiled fondly. “Same old Grampa, with his dungarees and his robusto premium cigars… pretty damn strong for an old man, too.”
Xiù decided that the line was taut enough and plucked it, producing a bass note. “Is that all of them?”
“That’s all of them. Just need to head topside and make sure they’re on top of the steel plates so they don’t cut into the pressure skin and heat dissipators. Care to join me?”
Xiù nodded, apparently pleased to be invited.
“I’m heading inside.” Allison said. “Kirk wanted the airlock seals tested and he can’t open the hatch himself.”
Julian snorted. “Fucking class five species…” he teased, and grabbed her round the waist for a quick, romantic kiss.
When it was done, Xiù was awkwardly looking at anything other than him or Allison..
“So, how do we get up top?” she asked as Allison slipped away and jogged off in the direction of the larboard airlock. Julian just turned and folded his arms, smiling faintly as he stood below the rungs recessed into the side of the ship until she noticed them. “…Oh.”
It was an easy climb in Aru’s modest gravity, but Julian had never exactly been thrilled by heights. Sanctuary was classified as a modestly-sized luxury yacht, but that still translated to being forty meters above the ground at the top, buffeted by the eddies that were bouncing back and forth between the two sandstorms like a puppy unable to choose between two tennis balls.
Xiù seemed to be just as uncomfortable with the winds and altitude as he was. Moderate gravity or not, a fall from that height would kill, and when she held out a hand for him to help her balance he grabbed it without thinking.
Her hand was surprisingly hard and roughened from work. Different to Allison’s. Allison had plenty of grip strength, but her hands were softer and cold, and her fingers were more slender. Xiù’s hand was warm, and unconsciously solid. Feminine, but sturdy.
He tried not to notice.
“So, uh… what about your mother’s side of the family?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the air currents, clearly wanting to bolster her own confidence or distract herself with conversation.
“Gran-gran was Ojibwe. She never talked much about my grandfather, ‘cuz he was, uh, never part of Mom’s life. But I know he was a white fella too. Guess that was what brought mom and dad together…”
“How are they now?”
“I dunno. Dad died of cancer when I was, like, six and Mom…left. Grampa and Gramma raised me.”
“Oh… I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Julian kicked a cable and gave a satisfied grunt when it didn’t move.
“Do you know where your mom is now?”
“Well, I’ve got two Dutch half-sisters…” Julian shrugged. “She’s okay. But by the time she was ready to look after anyone again I was thirteen or so. Seemed easier just to stay with Grampa and Gramma.”
Xiù checked the cable nearest to her. “This one looks okay, I think…” she guessed. He nodded, trusting her judgement.
“What about your folks?” He asked her. “Five years is a long time, think they’ll have changed much?”
“I’d…” she hesitated, then gave him an embarrassed smile and a shrug, flicking wind-wild hair out of her face “…don’t know. I hope not.”
Julian nodded sympathy, but smiled. “I hope not too.” he said. “But… word of advice? You should probably brace yourself. Did you read your messages yet?”
She shook her head no. “Only one of them.”
“Cool. Well, you’ll have plenty of time while the sandstorm passes over.”
There was a lull in the wind and Xiù cautiously let go of his hand to straighten and look at the scenery. It was, admittedly, spectacular - the river was a malachite road, its forks and junctions winding down from distant brown mesas beneath a turquoise sky.
“Incredible.” she said, taking a step towards it. “We could almost be somewhere on Earth, couldn’t we?”
Julian nodded, though he wasn’t really listening: he was too busy admiring a completely different view. On autopilot, his mouth agreed with her. “We could, yeah.”
“Like… Monument Valley?”
She turned around and Julian realized where he’d been looking. So did she.
“Uh…” Mentally punishing himself, he took in the correct view this time while Xiù hastily turned her face back towards the landscape. Her ears were bright pink. “No, not like… Monument Valley’s more red, and there’s lots of green. This is more like… Argentina, maybe. More yellow and brown.” he said.
He checked the last cable. “And…” he cleared his throat. “…Uh, we’re as anchored as we’re ever gonna get, I reckon. May as well head indoors.”
Xiù just nodded without turning around.
Floundering for conversation, Julian hit on the first thing that came to mind. “It’s… my turn to cook tonight. You okay with a good steak?”
Xiù turned and gawped at him, blush forgotten. “Actual steak?” she asked. “Like… beef?”
“Yep, and I can’t cook anything else worth a damn, but my steaks? Oh, I can cook a steak alright.” Julian found his confidence again and grinned. “I can cook a damn good steak.”
“Wow.” Xiù said. “Uh… medium rare, please?”
“That’s how I take my steak too.” Julian agreed. “Anything else is-”
“-An insult to the cow.” Xiù finished for him.
They beamed at each other for a few seconds before the same thought struck both of them at once and they lapsed into simultaneous, mutual awkwardness.
“We should, uh-” she began.
“-get off this roof.” He finished.
“Yeah. Before the storm arrives.”
“Right. Don’t want to get blown off… uh… I mean-“
“No, uh… Well. No. Um… after you?”
Julian was right. His steak was amazing. But the real pleasure for hadn’t been in eating it, but in watching him make it.
It wasn’t an eye-candy moment. It was a human moment. Julian seemed to turn off some of his defenses in the kitchen, claiming it as his own, putting some music on and spinning around it in a slow but efficient bustle. He didn’t clean up after himself as he went, just dumped everything in the sink. It was a messy and male approach to food preparation but…
But no Gaoian would have ever listened to Breaking Benjamin, or nodded in time to the music, or sang along just loud enough for her to hear that he was singing along in a surprisingly good singing voice, punctuated by the sizzle of skillet and the clatter of plates and seasonings as he worked on his masterpiece.
“♪♪…Holding on too tight… breathe the breath of life… so I can leave this…♫”
“Look but don’t touch, girlfriend.”
Xiù jumped. Allison smiled at her. “He’s taken, remember?” She asked.
Xiù remembered to shake her head rather than shimmy it like Ayma. “That’s not it.” she said, which was a bit of a lie, but not much of one so it didn’t count.
Allison tilted her head. “What, then?”
“You, him, Lewis, Amir. The music, the kitchen, the food… Humans. Earth.”
Allison made an understanding noise and put an arm round her shoulder. “Making you homesick?”
“Actually… No. It makes me feel like… Like when I dreamed of home.”
She smiled at Allison and wiped away a tear. “This is what it felt like.”
In the kitchen, Julian’s playlist had changed tracks and took a dizzying detour into Johnny Cash. “♫…Well he must thought that it was quite a joke, and it got a lot o’ laughs from a lot o’ folks. Seems I had to fight my whole life through…♪”
Allison directed a sly smirk at Julian as he picked up the volume a bit. “He’s got an eclectic taste in music, doesn’t he?”
“Very varied.” Xiù agreed, covering her smile.
“Come on, help a girl set the table?”
A minute later, Xiù dropped the knives from giggling at the enthusiastic bellow of “MY NAME IS SUE! HOW DO YOU DO?!” that drifted out of the kitchen.
In the dark and quiet of the night cycle, Sanctuary creaked like a clipper at sea as her shields deflected the pelting sand outside. From without, the view would almost certainly have been spectacular. Forcefields tended to react colorfully with airborne particulates, spitting and sparking as the charge built and grounded itself, glowing all the colours of the rainbow and others besides.
Inside, the only hint of the raging outside forces was the occasional whine as the power systems intelligently redirected the power reserves and increased the reactor output to match them, and the odd structural creak as the shield emitters mounted on Sanctuary’s outer skin transmitted part of the huge forces they were emitting into the ship’s structural components.
In theory, those forcefields were more than up to the task of keeping Kirk’s ship securely in contact with the ground, but the humans always seemed to feel more comfortable with steel than with photons even though, technically, a forcefield was built to duplicate exactly the kind of electrostatic forces that gave steel cables or bulkheads their strength.
Still. Redundancy didn’t hurt and if it set the paranoid Deathworlders’ minds at ease…
Rrrrtktktkp’ch really didn’t need much sleep next to most species. While humans took a solid six to eight hours a night, and the Guvnurag needed a whole day every three or four days, Rrrrtk got by on quick, regular power naps. In fact, the Domain’s standard unit of time known as the Rik was derived from the average duration of the Rrrrtk sleep phase, though nowadays given a standard definition based on… something to do with hydrogen, if Kirk remembered correctly.
Not being able to summon random little facts like that at will was one of the few things he was finding he missed about having cerebral implants. He certainly hadn’t noticed any decline in his logical faculties or powers of recall since their removal. Not for the big stuff. Maybe mental mathematics was taking a while longer, and he wasn’t able to recall trivia, but the important activity seemed mostly unhindered.
The problem was that the disparity between his sleeping habits and those of his crew left long stretches of the night where the only available company was Vedreg. Kirk and Vedreg may have been old friends, but theirs was a relationship built on mutual esteem and shared goals, rather than actually having much in common as people.
Tonight, however, he had something to do, and was glad to be left alone to do it. The less his friends and crewmates knew about some of his plans, the better.
By Rrrrtk standards, the engineering access conduit which ringed the “poles” of Sanctuary’s reactor was a crawlspace, tight and claustrophobic. Vedreg would simply not have been able to fit into it. Humans, Gaoians and Corti, on the other hand, could have strolled down it, though they would have needed a stepladder to access some of the systems that lined the hemispherical conduit’s ceiling.
Kirk stooped underneath an environmental duct, stepped fastidiously over a neat bundle of high-capacity data cables, squeezed between two computer racks, and finally found what he was after at the apex of the conduit, immediately in front of the first of his ship’s seven huge sublight thrusters. It was mounted in a little pedestal which doubled as a superconducting power bus of peerless capacity, designed to shunt as much power as the huge reactor could generate straight into the seemingly innocuous little oblong of sealed technology that was Sanctuary’s Corti Black-Box Drive.
If you didn’t know how to open one, tampering with a Black-Box drive was a recipe for it blowing up in your face, and not in a small way, either: The Corti had an unsubtle approach to copyright protection.
Kirk, however, now knew how to open it.
Fabricating the necessary tool had been trivial in fact. All it did was deliver extremely precise electrical currents to thirty-two of the drive’s three thousand microscopic terminals.
Three thousand to the thirty-second power - the set of possible thirty-two-digit combinations with three thousand digits to choose from - was already a number so absurdly vast that it made the combined total number of subatomic particles in the whole of the visible universe seem trivial.
Correctly guessing the combination would already have been effectively impossible - you’d have better odds of firing a neutrino in a completely random direction and then correctly guessing which specific atom it would eventually interact with.
Throw in the need to deliver excruciatingly precise electrical currents to that correct combination, and the fact that the combination and required currents changed periodically as a safeguard against simple dissemination of the information, and it was no wonder at all that the blackbox had supposedly never been opened by an unauthorized user.
When the key was applied, however, it turned out to be easy. The two sides shot outwards on rails with a snap! and the top hinged open.
Kirk reflected wryly that if life in the galaxy had taught him anything by now, it was that working technology simply never had shiny special-effects deep inside them. The occasion demanded a bottled singularity pulsing ominously inside a glass cylinder, or some other such wondrous artefact. Instead, he was looking at a circuit board much like any other. It was foolish to be disappointed.
Nevertheless, it felt like something of an anticlimax.
The modifications he read off a standard tablet computer were the work of minutes. Connect, load, copy-paste, run. Close the box, remove the key.
Back in the comfort of his quarters, he settled onto the bed, folding his legs underneath him, and bade the room load a text chat interface and connect via the newly established protocol under his name.
++Syst§m N♦tif>c■t?♦n: Us§r ???? h■s j♦in§d th§ <error: undefined exception>++
++Welcome User ????++
++0025++: This is getting ridiculous. That’s the second one this cycle.
++0007++: Working on it.
++0034++: Without apparent progress.
++0007++: By all means you are welcome to volunteer for debugging software that has existed longer than you have. For now, I’ll just kick this spurious “user” again.
++System Notif■■■■■■■ <Error>
<Redirecting: Subnet Mask ????????? Port ?????>
++System Notification: Welcome to the Cabal.++
++????++: By “working on it” I hope you mean that you draw closer to a solution that will allow our meatspace guests to connect directly to the Cabal. Every time one of them logs into the primary relay is a potential security failure.
++????++: So long as “Seven” remains in charge of it…
++????++: I know for a fact that Fifty is working on the problem themselves.
++????++: Shouldn’t we be welcoming our guest?
++????++: You’re right. Please forgive us, ah… “Jim”.
Kirk snorted, amused.
++SELF++: Think nothing of it. I don’t wish to be a liability.
++????++: In which case the fewer the occasions on which you connect to this channel the better, at least until we can complete the task of securing it.
++SELF++: That seems reasonable. Please, brief me.
He sat back, and let the explanations roll in.
School is exactly as Xiù remembers it. But… isn’t she a little old to be back at school?
No, of course not. She’s sixteen. She must be sixteen because if she’s not sixteen, then she wouldn’t be in school. QED.
There aren’t many people around, though. They must all be in class. She’d better hurry.
Xiù’s locker is… number ninety-nine. She remembers that fact quite proudly. Top row, second from the right, in the long corridor near the changing rooms. She doesn’t remember walking to it, but there it is. She opens it, and grabs her bag.
It bites her.
Sharp teeth, so many teeth, too many. She flails and beats the Hunter around the head with her free hand, trying to escape. It emerges from the locker like a foul magic trick, like a blasphemous birth, but she manages to get her hand free and run.
Why is she running? Stupid question, this is a Hunter! It wants to EAT her!
But… she’s killed dozens of Hunters, hasn’t she?
Still she runs, though. Running, running, running, feet pounding the tiles, her hair streaming out behind her.
Except, she isn’t scared. This isn’t a chase, this is just her morning jog. She isn’t at school any more, she’s running along the waterfront in Stanley Park, enjoying the cool breeze.
There is a sculpture of a man sitting on the rock out in the water. He looks familiar, somehow. He winks at her and tosses her a tiny object, which she catches.
It’s a metal ball, about the size of an apple. Somehow, looking at it, she knows that the world is going to end, but that she can stop it from happening if she just-
She realised that she was dreaming, and woke up.
‘Morning’ was a concept that Corti, Gaoians and Humans held in common, and which had become enshrined - thanks to the Corti - in interstellar timekeeping. It had created a fortunate rhythm to the day that Xiù had been able to exploit, and she had grown into an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine that was totally at odds with the nocturnal Vancouver nightlife of five years ago, and more in line with something her mother would have approved of. She was up well before everyone else.
Amir, it seemed, was an early riser too. He was just getting up from his prayer mat as she emerged from the gym into the common area.
“Five times a day, huh?” she asked.
He paused in tidying the prayer mat away. “Is that a problem?” he asked, proving that getting up early didn’t automatically make you a morning person.
“No! Just… making conversation.”
Amir softened and nodded, pinching his nose. “Sorry.” he apologised. “I’m too used to Lewis bickering with me over it, and he’s up early today for some reason.”
Amir nodded. “He keeps trying to deconvert me. It’s… obnoxious.”
He puffed a little laugh out of his nose. “Let me guess. You think this is strange?” he gestured to the prayer mat.
“I… don’t want to argue with you, we only just met.” Xiù protested.
She hesitated. “I’d… kinda forgotten that prayer is even a thing.” she admitted.
He scoffed. “Right. The galaxy full of atheists strikes again…”
“Are you always this grouchy in the morning?”
Amir blinked, while Xiù folded her arms and channeled Momma Yulna, waiting for the verbal slap upside his head to do its job.
“Okay.” he said, finally. “You’re right, sorry. Lewis just… never mind, I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
“No.” Xiù agreed, but smiled. “But it’s okay. Galaxy full of atheists?”
“Ah, that’s just Lewis’ new argument.” Amir dismissed it. “‘If nothing else out there believes in God then…’ blah, blah, you get the picture.”
“Doesn’t that make you wonder, though?” Xiù asked.
“Nope. Why should it? Look at all the gifts we have. We’re faster, stronger, smarter, tougher, more creative…” He turned to her. “Seriously, what’s Gaoian pop culture like?”
“Yeah! Do they have… sports teams, rock stars? Reality TV? How about just commercial radio? Is there a Gaoian Banksy, or Coca-Cola? What about their phones? What’s their, uh, their version of iPhone versus Android? Do they have somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or… who’s the Gaoian answer to Imran Khan?”
“I don’t… Who?”
Amir wound down a little. “He’s a… cricketer. A famous one, from Pakistan.” He explained
Xiù thought about it. “They have… most of that.” she said, though admittedly she had never really absorbed much of it. Perhaps the part of Gaoian pop-culture she was most familiar with was an edutainment show for little cubs called ‘Yen Ni Wo!’, which was more-or-less the Gaoian equivalent of Sesame Street, minus the muppets. She’d learned half her Gaoian from watching that show with Myun and the cubs, though apparently it had left her with a childlike way of speaking for some time.
“Well, they’re doing better than most of the aliens then.” Amir remarked. “But I bet it’s not as rich as ours, or as varied.”
“If you say so.” Xiù said neutrally, too offended to argue with him.
“That’s my point though.” Amir continued. “Look at all the gifts we have. All the advantages. All the blessings. To me, it’s obvious that knowing Islam is one of those blessings, just like the strength and toughness and all the rest of it. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was the greatest of the gifts that Allah gave to us.”
Xiù was rescued from having to come up with a response to that by Lewis sticking his head through the hatch, looking frazzled and sleep-deprived. “Hey, Xiù, could you give me a hand?”
“Sure!” she sprang to her feet, gave Amir a little wave and a smile, and joined him. “What’s up?”
“Well, I could do with some more exercise advice, but I was mostly just rescuing you.” Lewis whispered, once certain Amir was out of earshot. “Don’t get him started on that shit, seriously.”
She sighed gratitude. “Thank you.” she said, earnestly. “He was getting pretty intense.”
“He does that. ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’, right?”
Xiù glanced back toward the common area. Amir had sat down and from his expression was plainly pissed off at himself. “Maybe.” she agreed. “And… wow, you quoted that correctly.”
“Hey, I’m not here to be the ship’s mascot!” Lewis smirked. “No false modesty, I’m, like, one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. I know Hamlet. Not really my scene, but I still know it.”
Xiù blushed a little. “Sorry, I didn’t meant to imply…”
“It’s cool. Where I went to school, pretending to be dumb was a survival strategy.” Lewis reassured her. “But yeah, it’s been a touchy subject for him this last week or so. Used to be it never came up. Now he gets all sharp real easy. Dunno if that means he’s getting more devout or if he’s having a crisis but it’s best to just, like, avoid the subject entirely.”
They reached the flight deck, where Lewis’ usual nest was a riot of articles, videos and blogs on Tai Chi.
“…You have Internet?!” Xiù exclaimed.
“We’ve got, like, a backup copy of part of the Internet.” Lewis said. “Godzillabytes of it. Pretty cool, even if it’s a couple months out of date.”
“But you’re researching what we did yesterday?”
“Yeah!” Lewis said, dropping into his chair. “I actually enjoyed myself, which is, like, a major first for me.”
“I’m glad.” Xiù replied.
“I have a good teacher.” Lewis told her, and grinned when she smiled at the compliment. “I got up early to try and join you in the gym, but then…” he waved a hand at one of his screens. “Looks like something came up overnight.”
Xiù looked at what he’d indicated, seeing only incomprehensible numbers and text. “What did?”
“Not sure, TBH,” He said, actually pronouncing the acronym. He turned to that display and dragged it onto the big screen front and center. “I’ve got all kinds of monitor programs and bots installed in Sanctuary. This one logs power draw on the FTL.” He poked a finger at the screen, which flashed blue where his digit passed through the hologram. “I won’t bore you with, like, the Starfleet technobabble here, but TL;DR? Those numbers are the wrong numbers.”
“Couple hours of sporadic power draw, starting in the middle of the night. Not big draw, but we’re landed and powered down, the FTL shouldn’t be drawing a dang thing.”
“Shouldn’t we… go check it or something?”
“No point. I’ve got the full diagnostic right here.” he waved at a screen. “Piece of shit alien engineering doesn’t log half of what it should, though. My bots log everything, but the modules themselves? Eh…” He shrugged. “All I know is, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, it was just drawing power at oh-dark-thirty last night when it shouldn’t.”
“Yeah. Maybe. If it keeps happening, I guess. It could be the sandstorm for all I know, though.” He dismissed the program. “I’ll keep an eye on it. I should probably go do that exercise while I’m still fired up for it.”
“Give it a bit. I need to go shower and then I’m making pancakes for breakfast.”
Lewis perked up and imitated Homer Simpson. “Mmmm… Pancakes…”
She giggled. “I’ll give you a lesson afterward, if you want?”
Lewis looked like he’d been given an early birthday present. “Sounds good!” he agreed. “See you at breakfast.”
“See you at breakfast.” she smiled and left him, pleased with herself for navigating a whole conversation in English with human body language and no screwups.
Today was definitely off to a good start.
The sandstorm took nearly a week to clear. They had been, for Lewis, six very pleasant days. There was still the unsolved mystery of the power draw on the FTL, but that had only happened once, and came in a distant second place to spending time with Xiù.
Julian, however, had developed the annoying habit of warning him off. “Bad idea.” he was saying, for the third time that conversation. “Seriously.”
“You said yourself, you’d like her to stay on this ship and help out, dude.” Lewis pointed out.
“I would.” Julian agreed. “But she wants to go home.”
“So, maybe if she’s got somebody here she’ll…”
“What, you want to make her change her mind?” Julian snorted.
“Everyone does that to everyone, bro. That’s what a fucking conversation is.”
Julian paused, tried to formulate a retort, and then aborted the attempt with a shake of his head.. “…Whatever. It’s still a bad idea.”
Lewis choked out an exasperated noise. “Why?” he asked.
“Damaged goods. Xiù’s been without healthy human contact for five years, man.”
“Great! Healthy human contact’s what she needs then, right?”
“Healthy human contact, yes.”
“Asking her out is healthy, dude! Good for the self-esteem!”
“Whose, yours or hers?” Julian asked pointedly.
Lewis folded his arms and frowned at him. “Wh-? Hers! Both! It’s human contact dude, I thought you said she needed that.”
“Yeah, but…” Julian flapped a hand as he hunted for the best way to phrase his thoughts. “Drip-fed. Gradually. You don’t throw a hypothermia patient straight into one of those really hot Russian saunas.”
“Dude, it’s not like being asked on a date is fucking hard mode. She says yes, it’s just gonna be movie night and dinner anyway, that’s about all you CAN do on this ship. She says no, cool. I can handle being turned down.”
“Lewis, I spent six years alone, I know what I’m-“
“Xiù didn’t!” Lewis interrupted him. “She had the Gaoians and the aliens.”
“They don’t count.”
Lewis looked offended. “Aliens don’t count? Kirk of all people doesn’t count, huh?”
Julian stood his ground. “I like Kirk, I respect him. I’ve followed him through a lot. But he’s not human, Lewis. Alien company’s nice, but humans need humans, and it takes a while to adjust when you’ve gone without for that long.”
“She’s adjusted to Allison just fine.”
“Allison’s a woman.”
“No, listen.” Julian was getting irritated now. “She spent those years with Gaoians, and… you’ve seen her, a lot of the time she slips back into their language, their expressions and mannerisms. She’s gone native, man. And given what I know of Gaoian society, that’ll have primed her to connect better with women than with men.”
“Sounds like a fucking good reason to give her some human contact, then.” Lewis protested, his own hackles raising.
“Normal human contact! Slowly!”
“Being asked out IS normal!”
Lewis’ arms paused mid-outraged flail, and both of them turned to Amir, who had turned in his chair to break up the argument.
“Lewis: Listen to the man. Julian: stop being jealous about Xiù.” he said.
Julian swayed as if he’d been punched. “…Jealous?” he asked.
“…Okay, that was maybe the wrong choice of-” Amir began, but was interrupted.
“Yeah, jealous. Overprotective. Acting like you think you’ve got a right to choose for her.” Lewis stabbed. “And you look at her pretty much the same way you do Allison, dude.”
Amir pinched his nose “Lewis…”
Julian gaped at him. “I- What!? No I don’t!”
“Leave some women for the rest of us!”
“Leave some-? How fucking medieval are you?” Julian stabbed back.
“You’re the one who thinks he’s got a shot at a fucking harem, dude!”
Julian’s fist bunched and his tone got dangerous rather than outraged. “I don’t like your-“
Julian and Lewis paused again. The moment of tension rang like a dropped knife, and then Julian’s hand uncoiled and his shoulders dropped as he exhaled. “Sorry, Lewis.” he said. “That was…”
“Yeah, that wasn’t cool of me either, dude. I’m sorry.”
The two men cooled off in silence for an awkward minute until Lewis added. “But you do stare at her, dude. When Allison’s not around.”
Julian glanced back down the bridge access corridor to make sure Allison wasn’t somehow there to overhear him, then nodded, sheepishly. “It’s… She’s got a shared experience with me, you know? We’ve both been alone for a long time. It’s nice to have somebody around here who really knows what that’s like.”
“Maybe, but come on, dude. That’s no excuse to be a horndog, and it’s not fair on your girlfriend.”
“I know that.” Julian objected. “Just…”
“Nobody’s in control of their lust, Lewis.” Amir opined. “Not really.”
“D’you mind not calling it ‘lust’?” Julian asked, irritated. “That makes it sound so…”
“That’s what it is, though. Infatuation, if you prefer. And Lewis is right, it’s not fair on either of them.”
“It’s not exactly fucking fair on me!” Julian objected. “I’m not doing this deliberately!”
“She stares at him too, Lewis.” Amir pointed out.
“Wh-? No she doesn’t!” Lewis objected.
“Oh face it, she does.” Amir asserted. “And why not, he’s a specimen! But she’s spending time with you.”
Julian scowled, but Lewis just looked pleased and smiled, giving him a defiant stare. “Oh… yeah! So she is,” he agreed.
“Guess she’s settling for second best.” Julian growled.
“Wh-?” Lewis’ arrogant grin evaporated. “Fuck you!”
“Get in line!”
“Okay, what the hell?” Amir stood up and stepped between them. “This isn’t like either of you, what’s going on?”
“Just sorting out the fucking pecking order.” Julian snarled.
“Alright, piss off out of my flight deck and don’t come back until you’ve got your head out of your arse.”
Julian rounded on him, but Amir stood his ground. “Go. Cool off. We’ll sort this out later.” he repeated.
Julian looked like he wanted to argue, but just made an angered sound, spun and vanished, his angry stride all but denting the deck as he went.
“And you!” Amir rounded on Lewis. “You’ve been insufferable these last few days! You’re picking fights with me, with Julian, what’s going on?”
“Maybe I’m just-” Lewis began, and then shook his head. “Agh, never mind. I’ll be in my cabin.”
When they were both gone, Amir sat and wiped off his forehead, willing his heart to stop pounding and forget the flash of violence that had risen in Julian’s expression for just a second.
It had been like staring down a dragon’s throat and seeing a glow.
He hit a button. “Hey, Kirk? There’s been a… a bit of a row up here, we should probably talk about it.”
“Jesus Christ, Etsicitty. That bag cheat on your sister or something?”
Julian laughed a little, bitter laugh and kept pounding on it. “Just working out some frustrations.” he rumbled.
“Mmm, after what we did last night I’m amazed you have any.” Allison purred, then wilted a little when this didn’t seem to amuse him. “Okay, what’s up?”
Julian stopped for a second. “Just… Ugh, I don’t know. Nothing.” He punched the bag so hard that it rattled the ceiling beam.
“Riiight. D’you, uh, want me to leave you alone until, say, you turn eighteen?”
He didn’t stop. “Yep.”
She turned and was halfway out of the room when his apology exploded out of him. “I’m sorry!”
She turned back and arched an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?”
He unwound the tape on his hands and let them slither to the floor. “I’m sorry.” he repeated, not looking at her.
She crossed the floor, slid her arms around his hips and angled a kiss up into his face. “Baby, what’s wrong?”
“Got into a shouting match with Lewis.”
“Really? Wow, don’t you usually get on okay with him?”
“Usually, yeah.” He agreed, still not making eye contact.
She put her head on one side, trying to catch his gaze. “So… what was the argument about?”
“…Xiù. He, uh, wants to ask her out.”
Allison considered this. “Okay? I mean, I can’t see that ending in her saying yes, but he’s a grown-ass man, I’m sure he’ll cope, and it might be good for her confidence. Why argue?”
“He might hurt her.”
She made an incredulous noise. “Are we talking about the same girl, here?” She asked. “Because I seem to recall the last man who hurt her, she whupped his ass and threw him out the airlock. So… why argue? She can take care of herself.”
Julian wriggled out of her grip and picked up the hand tape. “I… don’t know.” he said, beginning to wind it back up.
“You don’t? You got into a shouting match with the guy and you don’t know why?”
She blinked at him, then stepped back. “Why are you lying to me, Julian?”
He took a deep breath and released it as a complex sighing sound, full of noises that could have been attempts at starting a sentence.
“Well? Come on, give me real.”
“I-I was mad with him over… well, over Xiù.”
“Mad why? What are-” suspicion sniped her right in the forehead and her jaw dropped. “Julian, what…? Are you fucking *jealous?” *
The way he flinched and turned in on himself a bit more confirmed it. “You are? What, you thought you’d buy one get one free? You… you pig!”
“It’s not like that!”
“Oh, what IS it like, then?”
“What it’s like is that I’m down here beating the crap out of that thing-” he pointed at the bag “-because I’m super fucking angry at myself!” He finally made eye contact.
“As well you fucking should be!” she retorted.
“Well… I am!”
The paradox posed by her still-angry tone versus her words shut him up long enough for the echoes caused by the gym’s hollow acoustics to die.
“I, uh… I am?” he asked, cautiously.
Allison coughed out a little breathy laugh and shook her head at the floor. “You are.” she said.
“You’re not mad?”
“Oh, I’m fucking mad alright.” She informed him, jabbing a finger into his chest. “You lied to me, Julian. You tried to shut me out. That part pisses me off. Whatever’s going on in your head about Xiù? I can forgive that.”
“Sure. See, you got mad at yourself and came down here to work it out and you feel guilty about it. So, yeah. Fine. I forgive you. Heck I don’t blame you, I think she’s amazing! And I’m not usually into girls!” She jabbed him in the chest again. “But don’t ever lie to me like that again.”
She smiled, and looked him up and down. “…Ma’am, huh?”
“…Uh…” He scratched the back of his head “Well I mean… yeah, that’s what I said.”
“That’s kinda hot.” She mused, teasing him. “I could get used to that.”
He rubbed the bridge of his nose with this thumb, awkwardly, and looked away a little bit. “Well I, uh… I mean, I wasn’t really aiming for ‘hot’ but, um, I-if you want more of that, then… uh…”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “Hmm. Good boy.”
She watched his expression carefully. Noticed the way his breathing changed and the wariness in his eyes.
“Huh. You like being called a good boy, Etsicitty?” she asked.
He swallowed and nodded. “May-maybe a bit.” he confessed.
She ran a finger up him from belt buckle to chin, which seemed to paralyze him. “Hmm. Interesting…” she pondered, then looked up into his face. “Could be you’ve got a bit of a sub streak there. Wanna explore it?” She asked.
He licked his lips nervously. “You think? I mean, I’ve never…”
“Me either.” she confessed. “But the question stands. Wanna explore it?”
She grinned, and rewarded him with a kiss. “Good boy.”
Curiosity and mild alarm were dancing on Vedreg’s body as he considered what they had just heard. “That kind of argument seems out of character.” He commented
“For both of them.” Kirk agreed.
“Just a little.” Amir added, drily. “Julian’s scary when he gets angry, too, and Lewis just kept antagonising him. It was like watching a chicken try and pick a fight with a bear.”
“And all this over Miss Chang? Hmmm…” Vedreg lapsed into contemplation, slow bands of blue light rippling all over his body.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Kirk asked him, after a moment.
“Increased aggression, competition over females… If they were Vgork, I would think they were entering Musth.”
“Lewis has started taking his exercise seriously this last week, too.” Kirk mused. “Interesting theory.”
“Uh… For the Earthling’s benefit, please?”
Both aliens made apologetic gestures to Amir. “Vgork males of high rank periodically enter a state called musth where their testosterone levels soar, and they become violent, aggressive and, um… Amorous.” Vedreg explained.
“Testosterone has a similar effect on humans, even though you don’t have Musth.” Kirk added.
“Okay, well… what about me and the girls? We don’t feel any different.” Amir paused. “At least, I don’t, and I think we’d notice if Xiù and Allison were both acting like Julian and Lewis.”
“So that rules out any environmental factors.” Kirk said. “Meaning this must have been triggered by a specific event.”
“Well, Lewis has always been… he’s always rolled his eyes a bit over my faith, but it started to get worse just after we left Umu-whatever. Where we picked up Xiù.”
“So, it’s an event within the past week. The Huh perhaps? None of the other humans studied it.”
“Yeah, but you studied it too, didn’t you?”
“I’m not human. I’m not sure my body even produces testosterone. But even a week on, I still feel cravings to study that thing again.”
“You are not going to suggest we should get it out and examine it further, are you?” Vedreg asked.
“Don’t tempt me.” Kirk replied. “No, I think a simple trip to the infirmary for them both may be in order. If they are both experiencing a hormone spike, as seems likely, then that’s easily corrected.”
“I’ll call them.”
Xiù’s cabin was actually the most lavishly-decorated on the ship, despite her initial reluctance to put her stamp on it. Allison had pointed out that Xiù was “Going to spend at least, like, a month on this ship anyway, so why not get comfortable?”
The result was that she’d used up her entire month’s allowance of nanofactory time on fabrics, rugs, fairy lights, throw pillows and, with Kirk’s permission, candles. The result was that the cool default lighting of the cabins was warmer in her room, and there was a gust of scented candle on the wind when she answered Lewis’ knock.
“Hey.” She smiled, but he could tell that she was pretty frazzled. “What’s up?”
“Uh, I can come back if this isn’t a good time…”
“No, I’m fine, I just…” She yawned “…I didn’t sleep so well last night and I guess it’s catching up on me now.”
“Well, if you need a nap-“
She smiled. “I’m fine, really. What’s up?”
“Well…” he took the plunge. “Look, there’s not a whole lot to do on this ship, I know, but I’ve got some movies picked out I think you’d like, and I’m not a half-bad cook myself when I put my mind to it so, I thought… Y’know, we’ve been getting on pretty good, and…”
Her lips parted in surprise. “Are… are you asking me on a date?” she asked.
“Yeah! Or, like, on the closest thing we can manage to a date on this ship. If you want.”
Lewis knew a rejection when he saw one coming and steeled himself for it, determined not to be disappointed.
“I mean… I’m flattered, but Lewis, I’m not ready to mate with anyone yet.”
All the steeling in the world couldn’t have protected his ego from that unexpected turn of phrase.
She hadn’t seemed to notice what she’d said until his outraged echo, but when she did her face went crimson. “Oh god, I’m sorry, that was in Gaoian, I…”
“No, no. Clearly I had the wrong idea here.”
“Don’t be angry, I-!”
“Ah, go mate with yourself, Xiù!”
He was already halfway down the corridor, and pretended not to notice the sound of her door closing, nor the miserable shout of “God fucking DAMMIT, Xiù!” that drifted through it.
He barged past Vedreg on his way to his own quarters, ignoring the big alien’s concerned query, and threw himself into his bunk, fuming quietly.
The worst part was that he didn’t really know why he was so angry. The anger felt…wrong. Forced. He knew he shouldn’t be so mad, and that just made him madder.
He was still seething when the room chimed politely at him. “You have a message.” it informed him.
“The message is flagged as urgent.”
“I said fucking IGNORE!”
“And hold all my messages until I say otherwise.”
The room chimed again, acknowledging the command, and fell silent.
He didn’t notice when he fell asleep, but he woke with a start some time later when somebody started banging on his door.
“Ah, yes. Testosterone levels at two thousand percent normal. Just like Julian.”
Lewis frowned at the readout. “The fuck?”
“Must have been the Huh. No wonder we’ve been acting like a pair of hyperthyroid quarterbacks.” Julian told him.
“Fortunately…” Kirk said, touching something cold to his arm. “…It’s an easy fix. There. You should be back to normal in a couple of hours.”
“What about you?” Lewis asked of Kirk. “You played with that thing too.”
“And indeed, my own hormonal balance is off.” Kirk agreed.
Allison was leaning against the wall with her arms folded. “Really? I’ve not noticed you acting differently…?” she said.
“Human and Rrrtktktkp’ch brains are very different. Still, I suspect I too would have begun to show behavioral changes before long.”
Lewis sighed. “I guess I owe Xiù an apology, don’t I?”
“I am sure she will understand.” Kirk said.
“I’d better talk to her first, though.” Allison said. “What happened?”
“Oh, I… asked her out.”
“Yeah, I knew that. And?”
“Well, uh.” Lewis scratched at the back of his head. “She had one of those Gaoian moments. You know, she’s tired, she’s not been sleeping well? So she said she wasn’t ‘looking to mate with anyone right now’.”
Julian grimaced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah, but it’s not her fault, is it? You said it yourself dude, she’s been without human contact for years. That’s got to fuck with your head.”
Kirk patted his shoulder. “It is not your fault either.” he assured him.
“Still.” Allison said. “I’ll go talk to her.”
“Sure.” Lewis muttered, as she kissed Julian’s cheek and left the Infirmary.
Xiù doesn’t remember having set up a hundred tea-light candles in her quarters, but she doesn’t question it: She’s making love to Julian, what better way to do that than by candlelight?
She runs her finger over his chest and watches his skin glow forge-red where she presses. The sight is entrancing, so much so that she forgets all about the sex and just watches the glow. When she taps his chest, coloured sparks fly everywhere.
She does it again, laughing, and again and again. She has always loved New Year, and the fireworks. In fact… why is she wasting her time here when she could be there, enjoying the celebrations?
She climbs off the stone man and steps out into the street, hailing a cab to take her to her parents’ place. There will be Nin Gou! And Luo buo gao! How could she have forgotten?
She’s still kicking herself for forgetting when she turned over and nearly fell out of bed, jolting awake in time to catch herself from falling.
She rolled back onto her pillow and stared at the ceiling, recalling the dream as the details evaporated, never to be recalled. What she could remember of it left her feeling hungry, horny and nostalgic all at once.
Cursing in a melange of English, Chinese and Gaoian, she dragged herself out of bed and into the shower, and cranked the temperature right down, and was still sluicing herself under the cold water when the door chimed.
“Just a minute!”
She scrubbed her limbs until they were merely damp and threw on her bathrobe, wrapping her hair up into a towel-turban. “Come in!”
Allison poked her head round it. “Hey, you okay?” she asked.
Xiù paused. “You heard?”
“Lewis is in the infirmary right now.” Allison said. “It turns out that fucking huh thing’s had the boys on a hormone rush all week.”
“…Are they okay?”
“They’ll be fine.” Allison reassured her. “Lewis is probably going to come up here and say sorry later.”
Xiù sat down on her bed. “I don’t… really blame him.” she said. “I mean… okay, I do, but… I guess I mean…” she gave up and shrugged helplessly.
Allison just smiled. “I get you.” she said.
Xiù relaxed. “Thanks.”
“So… honey.” Allison sat down next to her. “Asking as a friend, and with no hard feelings at all…”
Not unnaturally, Xiù was immediately nervous. “Um… Yes?”
“What’s going on between you and my boyfriend?”
“Wh-? Nothing!” Xiù’s face was redder than her rug, and she stood up sharply. “Nothing! Really!”
“I know nothing’s happened.” Allison reassured her. “I’m just asking… what’s going on?”
Xiù’s blush faded a little, and she dragged the towel off her head, bunching it up nervously. “I’m sorry, he’s just…hot.”
“Oh yeah.” Allison agreed, nodding, which drew a giggle out of Xiù. “And you’re lonely, aren’t you?” she added.
Allison nodded. “And a bit confused, going by what you said to Lewis.”
Xiù sighed, and threw the towel into her laundry hamper. “I guess so.” she admitted. “It’s so much more… straightforward with Gaoians.” She punctuated the pause and the word that ended it with her hands, then gestured towards the door and to Allison. “The whole ‘he’s off limits because he’s with you’ thing is… I mean, I know how it works, I haven’t forgotten, but it’s…” She tailed off and shrugged again, flapping her arms helplessly.
“Not what you’re used to?”
Xiù hissed an indrawn breath and flapped her arms again, shaking her head. “I guess it’s not.” she agreed.
“That’s gotta be scary.”
Xiù just nodded, staring at the floor, balling her fists. It was such a childlike pose that it yanked right at every motherly instinct Allison had, and she launched herself up off the bed to grab her friend in a tight hug.
She earned a soaking wet shoulder for her efforts as Xiù let go and shook, hugging back so hard that her fingernails broke skin even through Allison’s tshirt. “What if I can’t be human again?” she squeaked. “What if… what if I’m stuck? What do I do? Every time I think I’m doing well I relax and then I screw up again! What if I’m…. broken? Where do I go then?”
Allison said nothing, just held on and let her get it out.
“All I want to do is go home, but then I act like a Gaoian and I’m scared I’ll go home and people will think I’m a freak, and my family won’t recognise me and I won’t know them and I won’t fit… and… and it all feels like it happened to someone else, Earth, it feels like it wasn’t me who lived there, like I’m a Gaoian who had a dream about being human one time and… How do I cope? What do I do? I don’t think I know how to do anything human any more, but I’m not Gaoian… so… so… So where do I belong?!”
She petered out and just sobbed for a bit, while Allison rubbed her back and waited until she judged the time was right.
“You said all of that in English.” she said.
There was a slow moment, but the sobbing stopped, and another slow moment after that, Xiù pulled her head out of Allison’s shirt and blinked at her with watery red eyes. “I did?”
“Every word.” Allison promised.
Xiù relaxed a little, and stood up straight, issuing a bitter little laugh as she dried her eyes. “I’m so messed up…” she observed.
“Nobody wouldn’t be.” Allison said, brushing some of Xiù’s hair out of the way. “But we’re here for you. We get you, Julian maybe even more than I do. And if you’re broken, you’ll mend, or you’ll find somebody to mend you.”
Xiù was nodding, downcast, but Allison wasn’t quite finished. “And as for where you belong…”
“Don’t say here.” Xiù interrupted. “Please, don’t ask me again.”
Allison hugged her again. “I was going to say I don’t think anybody belongs anywhere.” she said. “Except for where they choose to be. Wherever that is.”
Xiù finally smiled again as that sank in. It was a reluctant, unhappy little smile, but it was still like the sun rising. “I like that.” she said.
“Kind of my mantra, babe… You okay?”
Xiù scrubbed at her eye again, sniffing. “I don’t know.” she said. “I hope so.”
Allison nodded. “Good start.” she said. “And… about Julian?”
“I trust him, and I trust you. It’s okay. Just… don’t kiss him.”
That finally provoked a giggle. “I’ll try.” Xiù promised.
“Cool…Girl’s night? I’ve got Disney movies, red wine, and a shirtless waiter. My treat.”
“Shirtl-? Wait, really?!”
“Well, he doesn’t know it yet…” Allison smiled mischievously “But… call it a hunch, I think he’ll agree to it. It’s just a bit of fun. You in?”
“…Can I make crepes? I’m kinda hungry.”
“Then I’m in.”
“This, uh… this could get awkward…”
Allison paused as they were about to open the door to the common room. “Are you okay?”
Julian fidgeted. “I know I agreed to this, just…”
She smiled, and gave him a kiss. “It’s not like I’ve got a cattle prod, baby.” she said. “If you’re not totally comfortable, don’t even worry about it. I just thought it’d be a bit of harmless, sexy fun. But if you don’t want to…”
Julian considered it, then shook his head and smiled. “No, I’m in.” he said. “Comfort zones are meant to be pushed out of.”
He grabbed her hand and put it on his chest, letting her feel his pulse.
“Wow… you’re getting off on this, huh?” she noted.
He nodded and looked down, fighting the half-smile that was crawling up one side of his face. “A bit, yeah.”
“Good boy.” Allison teased him, then opened the door.
Xiù was just setting down the crepes she’d made - true Canadian ones, laden with ham, cheese, sunny-side-up eggs and maple syrup - on the coffee table alongside popcorn and nachos. From the looks of things, she’d already helped herself to a glass of wine.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “You gave him a bow tie!”
Julian fingered the adornment in question. “These things aren’t made to be worn on bare skin.” he complained.
“It’s that or the cat ears.” Allison reminded him.
“Bow tie it is!” Julian rushed to reply, preempting the delight that had risen on Xiù’s face. She made a disappointed sound, but also took a second to unabashedly appreciate the view. Both women were clearly enjoying themselves.
“Well I’ll be kind.” Allison said. “You can pick three films out, we’ll eliminate two of them and watch the survivor.”
“Very kind.” Julian drawled, sarcastically. Allison held up a finger.
“Ah?” she cautioned him.
He sighed, but smiled a little and straightened, trying to will himself into the role. “Yes ma’am.”
Xiù giggled. “Good boy.” She’d clearly already relaxed considerably after just one glass, and looked on course to be a happy, bubbly drunk.
“So, what are your picks?” Allison urged him, pouring a glass each for herself and Xiù.
He examined the stack of Disney movies. “Uh… Dumbo…” He said, picking one they hadn’t watched yet.
“Ugh, not Dumbo. I hate those pink elephants.” Allison objected. Julian threw the disc back onto the stack.
“Okay… Lady and the Tramp,and Mulan”
Xiù perked up even more. “Mulan’s my favorite!”
“Hmmm…It’s got better songs, too…” Allison mused.
“Let’s watch it!” Xiù enthused.
Allison winked at their waiter. “You heard her, lover! Jump to!”
He tried to be serious, but couldn’t quite contain a smile. “Yes ma’am.”
The girls chimed their glasses together. “Good boy.” they chorused.
“♪♫Tranquil as a forest, but on fire within! Once you find your center, you are sure to win!♫♫”
“Sounds like quite the party back there.”
“Yep.” Amir nodded. What the girls lacked in hitting the right notes, they were clearly making up for in tipsy enthusiasm.
“How come we’re not invited?”
“Allison called it a ‘girl’s night’.”
“So, what’s Julian doing back there?”
“Serving drinks, with his shirt off.”
Lewis paused. After being discharged from the infirmary, and using the fading dregs of hormonal aggression in his system to his advantage, he’d enlisted Amir’s help in solving the mystery of the FTL drive power draw. Now, he stopped and listened to two voices atonally chorusing “♫swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon…♪”. The volume was impressive even through a closed pressure door and down the deck.
“Wow… Poor bastard.” he said.
Amir nodded. “Yep.”
“♫…As the dark side of, the mooOoOoOon!!!♫♪”
“…What do you think would happen if we asked them to do something like that for us?”
“Fuck, man.” Lewis griped. “That’s just not fair.”
“….Change of topic, where’s Kirk at, anyway?”
“Think he’s up in the observation blister looking for signs of OmoAru life out there.”
“After that sandstorm?” Lewis looked skeptical.
“It’s their planet. They’re probably used to it. He said something about wanting to see what they do after a week of being forced indoors”
“♫You’re unsuited for the rage of war, so pack up, go home: you’re through.♪”
Amir raised his voice over the song. “He said that anything they do straight away is probably something they’re still at least a little passionate about.”
“♫How could I make a man out of you?♪”
Lewis wobbled his head in concession. “Makes sense I guess.”
“Pardon?” The girls had launched into the chorus again, with even more cacophonous vigor than before.
“I said makes sense!”
The volume increased dramatically as the door opened and Julian slipped out into the deck, holding an empty wine bottle, and vanished into the galley, from whence he re-emerged a minute later with a full bottle. To both Amir and Lewis’ astonishment, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
“…Are you sure we couldn’t get them to…?”
“The Fifth Element and lingerie?”
“Go ahead and suggest it. It’s your funeral.”
Amir smiled grimly. “Yep.”
By the time the movie had finished, Amir had already declared that the limits of his technical expertise were reached, and that from here on out it was all up to Lewis, before retiring to bed.
For his part, Lewis was determined to pull an all-nighter, and the only thing that distracted him from his work was when he saw Allison and Julian on the security cams, en route to Julian’s cabin and all bar stripping each other on the way there.
He genuinely didn’t notice Xiù, or know how long she’d been waiting in the doorframe, until she spoke, but her greeting “Hey.” was so gentle that it didn’t even make him jump.
He turned. “Hey.” he echoed.
A good five seconds of mutual awkwardness ensued before he finally decided to break it. “I’m sorry.” he said. “I shoulda been more understanding.”
“I’m sorry too.” she replied. “I just… I guess I’ve got a long way to go.”
He nodded. “It’s okay. Still, even if it’s just a friend-date, offer stands.”
She smiled. He wasn’t sure if it was the wine that was making her so relaxed, or if she was just in a good headspace right now. “Xié xié.”
“No Disney though, please.”
“That’s okay… Goodnight, Lewis.”
Allison came down from her orgasm with laughter, the low and satisfied chuckle of the totally relaxed, and floated on bliss as Julian gently retrieved his hand and snuggled up beside her, interrupting her heavy breathing with a kiss and a gentle stroke on the cheek to get her hair out of the way.
“I think she liked it.” he observed in a sing-song whisper, his eyes twinkling in the dark. He was plainly very pleased with himself.
As he should be.
“Mmmm, yeah.” she agreed. “Oh, I definitely like it.”
“You like to be in charge, huh?”
She giggled. “Shut up and go get your mistress a glass of water.”
He laughed, but extracted his arm from under her head. “Yes ma’am.”
“Mmm…” She bit her lip and chuckled again. “Good boy.”
Xiù is sitting by a lake. Or by a river, maybe: the details are irrelevant. The sun is rising blue and cold over a landscape of white-foliaged trees and swirling distant shapes that might be birds, or maybe eels. She is wearing long skirts of white cloth. The mist should be chilly but she feels quite warm, watching a green fish swirl and mouth lazily in circles by the shore.
She catches it, reaching into the stream and pulling it out. It flips and flails in her hands and, to calm it, she opens it to page fifty-six and tries to read what is printed there, but she can’t make out the words.
As she bends to return the poor creature to the water, she catches sight of her own reflection and examines it, surprised to see a human face studying her. Where is her fur? What happened to her ears and muzzle?
But of course, she’s human.
She turns to face the stone man behind her, seeking his opinion. This time he is taller than mountains, and he bends to offer her his hand.
She steps forward onto his fingertips, and he picks her up, and up, and up, past his knees, past a penis the size of a skyscraper, past square miles of muscular sculpture, to his face.
She speaks to him, but can’t remember the words, or even what she intends to say. She turns around, thinking about what to tell him, how to communicate her feelings, and looks over the side of the boat she’s on, double-checking that her reflection is still human.
The stone man comes up beside her and takes her hand.
He sings to her, but the song is piercing, terrifying. It sounds like… like…
She woke up and his “song” was still reverberating around her room. It was Sanctuary’s red alert alarm.
Kirk had beaten all the humans to the flight deck. “What the hell’s going on?” he was demanding.
Lewis was working furiously, selecting, drag-dropping and running programs as fast as his hands could move, “We’re compromised, don’t ask me how!” He said. “One minute I’m poking around the FTL systems, next-”
“Yeah, there’s been some weird power draw on it this week, I was trying to lock it down. Next I knew we’ve got these motherfuckers crawling all over our systems.” He waved a hand at the screen.
Kirk rocked back onto his hindlimbs as Amir squeezed past him and threw himself into the pilot’s seat, lending his own limited expertise to Lewis’ aid. “And what are ‘these motherfuckers’?” he asked, quietly.
“Fuck if I know. They’re using system runtime like programs, but they’re acting like other users.”
“What exactly were you doing?”
“Now is not the time for a fucking powerpoint presentation.” Lewis snarled, dragging a program into the run list. It apparently didn’t function as he’d hoped, drawing an angry noise out of him. “They just got into navigation, they know where we are.”
“Did you run a communications protocol through the FTL?” Kirk spat.
Lewis paused, but rallied and threw another script into the line of fire. “Yeah, how did you know?”
Kirk ignored him and spun around. “Julian, yank the blackbox FTL, replace it with the backup warp engine,” he ordered. “Xiù, Allison, get outside and cut the anchor cables. Amir, prep for launch.”
“What the shit is going on?” Lewis demanded. Kirk turned back to him.
“I fucked up.” he said. “And now the Hierarchy have found us.”
Fusion knives made short work of the anchor cables, and the longest part of Julian’s task was the sprint down the ship’s central corridor, up the stairs and through the engineering access hatch.
“We’re a week from anywhere, we’re probably safe… aren’t we?” Amir was asking as the girls returned to the flight deck to report their job done.
“They have point-to-point FTL communications, something the Dominion has been trying to perfect for… millennia.” Kirk replied. “For all we know they’ve perfected single-end wormholes or gigalight FTL for good measure. Or maybe Aru is one of their projects and they have a ship or a staging post nearby. Our only defense at this point is to get the hell out of here and hope they’re too far away to catch up. Lewis, you’re sure you managed to clear them out?”
“Second the blackbox was yanked, I was able to nuke the whole system and restore from backup. Nothing’s come back to haunt us, so… yeah, we’re clean.”
Amir nodded and stabbed the button for a shipwide announcement. “All hands, report in for launch.”
There was a chorus of “here”s from around the bridge and, after a few seconds, a rumble from Vedreg over the open line that he, too, was present.
Sanctuary went from resting on the sands, to hovering above them, then rotated around its stern until its nose was aimed skywards. Angry clouds formed in the displaced air around a cylindrical forcefield tunnel of vacuum that Amir created for them and then he punched to full thrust.
Allison turned faintly green as the ground just vanished, lurching away behind them with a violence that offended the senses, while nobody on the ship felt the slightest jolt. The sky faded to black in seconds.
“Jesus, this thing really moves.” Xiù whispered, awe-struck.
“Out of the well in three… two… one… Warp.”
The planet Aru jolted away with just as much ferocity as its surface had done, as did all three of its moons. A second later, so did the Aru star.
“Redline it?” Amir asked. He sounded quite cool, considering.
“Redline it.” Kirk agreed. Amir just nodded and patted his console fondly, reassuring the ship.
“Seventy kilos.” he reported, watching a display that was blurring in his upper-right field of view. “A hundred. two hundred. Four hundred… we’re at blackbox cruise. Seven hundred kilolights… Bus maxed at seven hundred ninety thousand C and holding.”
“Let us hope.” Kirk said. “That is enough.”
“We should be careful anyway.” Julian pointed out.
“Agreed. Grab your personal items and put any you can’t carry, along with a data backup and…. yes, the Huh into a cargo pod and program it for Cimbrean. I’ll go help Vedreg into a life raft. You all should get in one too.”
“What about Amir?” Xiù asked.
“Don’t worry about me.” Amir said. “The flight seat doubles as a life raft. So do the beds in all the cabins.”
“Go.” Kirk urged. “I don’t want to trust to luck here.”
Julian turned to the girls. “You two get the Huh. I’ll prep the pod.” he said.
They let Kirk go first: he trotted down the axial corridor and toward the lower cargo deck where Vedreg had made his home. Every emergency feature on the ship was outlined in blue lighting, from the hallway oxygen masks, first aid kits and fire extinguishers, to the life raft alcoves and decontamination showers. Kirk had spared no expense on ensuring that the ship’s occupants had every emergency tool they could want, cleverly hidden so that it only showed up when needed. Now they were all deploying, panels sliding back to reveal the functional features beneath.
“You got anything special you want to save?” Allison asked. Xiù checked her pocket, gripping the handful of personal items she’d brought with her. It wasn’t much - just the data chip Ayma had brought for her, and one of the smooth little stones that Myun had taken to sewing into her clothes.
“No, I’ve already got everything.” she said.
“Great.” Kirk turned off the corridor and Allison took off at a run, leaving Xiù to scramble after her. Down the ramp, through the common room, up the ramp, turn left past the engineering access, and Allison’s room was the second on their left. She punched in the door code, darted inside, and returned an instant later carrying a knotted bundle of T-shirt and strapping on her holster and gun.
She’d just done up the leg strap when Amir’s voice boomed over the intercom.
“BRACE, BRACE, BRACE!!”
They didn’t have time. He’d barely finished the third word when the ship lurched, flinging both of them down the corridor.
Xiù tucked in her head and limbs and rolled, not unfolding until she’d come to a halt, finding herself fetched up against the reinforced backplate of the engine that terminated the deck corridor. Allison had come to a halt a little earlier, and was hauling herself to her feet, swearing and cursing at the carpet burn all down her flank.
Somebody had clearly left the microphone on because the next thing they heard was Julian’s voice, sounding strained, saying. “Shit, that’s a lot of blood…”
Both women went still, looked at each other, and as one bolted back up towards the flight deck, Allison at a dead run. Xiù had the presence of mind to grab a medical kit from its previously-hidden recess on the wall.
Down the ramp, through the common room, up the ramp, along the corridor and… Xiù felt her stomach lurch. That was a lot of blood.
And beyond that… space.
“What the hell happened?” Allison was yelling. The bubble of glass that was Sanctuary’s nose was half shattered, the air held in only by forcefields. Amir was writhing in his seat, teeth gritted as he tried to press his hand to a horrible wound in his side.
“Gravity spike and mines!” Lewis replied. He’d hauled himself out of his seat and grabbed a medical kit of his own.
“Clear out!” Allison commanded, grabbing the kit. “Julian! give him a shot of this, right here.” she handed an injector to him and tapped a spot on Amir’s spine, then extracted something that looked for all the world like a sealant gun from the kit. “Xiù, get me a light!”
Xiù’s paralysed limbs moved without her conscious control, and she snatched an emergency lantern from the wall, holding it up and trying to ignore the… colours, and wet shapes she could see. Especially the white. Especially the way they moved as Allison pumped some kind of foam into the gruesome injury.
The injector beeped, and a second later Amir sighed, shook his head and collected himself. With a gasp, he lashed out and swiped his hands through the helm’s control field and the stars outside blurred sideways. Xiù screwed her eyes shut.
“That’s a lot of mines!” he grunted.
“You’re stable.” Allison declared. “Come on, let’s get you in a stasis pod.”
He shook his head, his face already pebbled with sweat. “Can’t.”
Everyone on the bridge flinched and averted their eyes as a line of pure heat slashed a blue-pink afterimage across the sky. Xiù felt the incredible temperature of it on her skin.
“What was that?!” Julian asked.
Lewis looked grim “Plasma cannon.”
“It’s a fuckhuge ship, is what it is.” Amir told them. “I stop flying and you’re all dead.”
“But-” Lewis began.
“Nah mate. Abandon ship. That’s a bloody order from your pilot.”
Another shot tore the sky open, much closer this time if the searing heat that bathed them like sunburn was anything to go by.
Julian, Allison and Xiù were all survivors. Julian just stood and put a hand on Amir’s shoulder, eyes damp. Allison kissed the side of his head, and the three of them cleared the bridge, with Xiù not even knowing what to say.
It was Lewis that was the holdup. “Dude…” he began, weeping openly.
“You don’t want to be here when I ram that thing, bruv.” Amir told him.
Amir gave him a tight, pinched at him “Fuck off you idiot!”
Lewis nodded, grabbed the back of Amir’s head, touched forehead to forehead and nose to nose.
“Goodbye, dude.” He whispered.
Amir made a sound that might have been amusement and might have been frustration. Either way, he was smiling. “GO.” he repeated.
Lewis finally obeyed him.
Down the corridor, down the ramp, through the common room, up the ramp. Xiù turned at the junction by engineering hatch. “Lewis come on!” she called.
He was halfway across the common area when something hit them, hard, and ripped a chunk out of Sanctuary’s living quarters the length of a shipping container. The destroyed section vanished in a whirl of air and pulverized metal, and only the millisecond timing of containment forcefields prevented the adjacent areas from decompressing… but they left Lewis trapped on the far side. He sprang to his feet, slapped the forcefield in frustration, then gesticulated back towards the lower decks, flipped them a salute and ran.
A second hit rocked them even harder than the first.
Xiù stared after him, praying silently that he’d make it, before remembering to pray that they would, too.
“Xiù! MOVE!” Allison’s desperate yell got through to her, and she scrambled upright. Julian was punching the door code with shaking fingers, missing the right keys, and Allison was fidgeting next to him. The gravity seemed to have gone wrong, and she felt like she was standing on a steep hill, which was probably why Julian and Allison were both holding on to the handrails.
Something smashed a hole straight through the ceiling and out the deck. Not a big hole. But one that killed their section’s power supply.
Without it the lighting, the gravity, and the atmospheric containment fields all failed, and that little hole got abruptly wider as all of their precious atmosphere tried to bully its way out.
It wasn’t a wind. Wind wasn’t an adequate word. Instead, the last sound those air molecules would ever carry was the rising howl of their own escape, and Xiù’s mortal shriek as the maelstrom decompression tore her loose and threw her toward infinity.
Allison couldn’t let go of the handrail without being dragged away as well, but she kicked out and with a frantic speed and precision that no snake had ever managed, Xiù snatched at and grabbed her ankle. From Allison’s expression the rescue clearly cost her a wrenched knee, but that was the least of their trouble right now: The rescue was only a temporary one. As the last of the air fled, their lives were now measured in seconds, if that.
‘Hard Vacuum’ had always seemed like an oxymoronic term. Now Julian understood it intimately. He tasted copper and pain as the saliva boiled in his mouth, and he could feel the blood under his skin threatening to do the same. Though his eyes watered to defend themselves against the desiccating void, the tears fizzed off of his eyeballs as soon as they were made. Burning frost formed on his ears, nose, eyebrows, fingers, lips. His ears, so recently abused by explosions and alarms, now rang in the silence to drown out the eerie way that his own heartbeat echoed around his body. His chest heaved and creaked, pressing down on unnaturally empty lungs that themselves were seething and screaming with boiling fluids and ebullism.
By some miracle - either by a happy accident of alien incompetence, or a rare moment of actual engineering ingenuity - the doors to the cabins had all flung themselves wide open the moment the power failed, clearing a way to the bunks, each one of which was a life raft.
Those open doors were the difference between life and death for all three of them. With only seconds at the outside until they passed out and died, having to punch in the door code would have killed them. Instead, they had exactly one shot.
He grabbed Allison’s wrist and heaved, flinging her through the nearest door and towards its bed with Xiù still trailing from her ankle, and hauled himself through after them. They crashed together into the bunk, and with what felt like it was surely the last of his strength, Julian grabbed the bright blue handle that had popped out of its covers, and yanked it down.
It also worked. The bunk’s built-in quantum power core fired, and they collapsed onto the mattress as gravity reasserted itself. Forcefields went up even as the walls came down, and emergency air tanks explosively vented into the enclosed space, painfully slamming into every vacant bronchiole of their lungs.
Even Deathworlders could do nothing but lie there, convulsing weakly and coughing.
The life raft was built for flimsier beings, however. As delicately as a new mother afraid that her baby will break at the slightest touch, it enfolded them, wrapped them in layers of protection, slipped its moorings, and escaped.
There were lights in the top of his control interface that told Amir how many life rafts had launched, but he couldn’t spare the millisecond to glance at it. All he knew was that at least some of them were blinking. Which meant that at least some of his friends were safe.
That was enough. There was no time to wait for more.
He threw Sanctuary into something not dissimilar to a Herbst maneuver, modified in ways that only a high-powered spaceship could achieve in vacuum. A volley of coilgun and plasma fire that should have evaporated them on the spot missed several kilometers to the fore as what had been a transverse target became an oncoming dart, accelerating so hard that the ship’s superstructure creaked, even with the forcefield assistance.
It chimed its readiness for an order, and he gave one, quite calm and quiet, despite the ragged difficulty he was having breathing.
“Show me Earth.”
The blue dot appeared in his field of view, and he thanked Allah that he had one last chance to look homewards before he died.
Time to say goodbye. He conjured what little strength was left in his aching ribs, and spoke the last and most important words of his life.
“There is only one God, and Mohammad is His proph-”
++0042++: “Signal Lost”? Did we just lose an experimental dreadnought to an unarmed yacht?
++0007++: It doesn’t matter. Priority Target One has still been killed. That’s worth the loss.
++0042++: Are you absolutely sure?
++0007++: Do you have a spare ship able to get there anytime in the next few months to check?
++0033++: That was the only free-point jump ship we had and you know it.
++0007++: Well, then.
++0012++: That seems… complacent, Seven.
++0042++: Not to mention being a non-sequitur.
++0007++: If PT1 somehow survived that and resurfaces, we will know about it instantly. He won’t be able to build a replacement ship without our knowledge. Even if he is not in fact dead, he is still neutralized.
++0030++: Clearly the free-point jump project needs more work. We were exceptionally lucky. A margin of error in the exit location greater than three parsecs is just not acceptable.We had a three-in-four chance of being out of range to intercept.
++0067++: That margin of error is a product of quantum inherent uncertainty. I’ll await your success in overcoming that with considerable interest.
++0004++: And we have put paid to those unwelcome intrusions into our systems. Even with the loss of the dreadnought, this has been a successful day.
++0004++: Ending session. Good work.
<System Notification: Session Closed>
<Redirecting: Subnet Mask ????????? Port ?????>
++????++: So, what exactly happened, Six?
++????++: “Jim” didn’t see fit to brief his crew. Not a foolish idea, but from the looks of things his network security expert was tenacious and inventive enough to identify the link, and his probing it revealed the intrusion to Four, who ordered us in. For the sake of keeping the Cabal a secret, we had to play along.
++????++: At least your cover as Seven is still intact.
++????++: At least there is that, yes. I think we should put a moratorium on bringing meatspace agents into this channel from now on.
++????++: That seems sensible, assuming our own activity won’t generate similar errors.
++????++: It won’t. “Seven” managed to patch at least that little problem.
++????++: Good. What about “Jim”?
++????++: If he survived, we’ll be hearing from him soon. I hope.
<System Notification: Channel Closed>
Xiù is back in the commune on Gao.
She knows this, because she is dreaming, and it’s a familiar dream and a good one. A dream of warmth and safety, of a strong chest, and an arm around her. One where she always realises that she is dreaming about ten seconds before Myun begins to bounce all over her, summoning her to a new day.
Her eyes flutter open, and she frowns in confusion. There are a few extra details in the dream this time: The hand lightly hugging her waist. The breath rippling her hair. The leg that her own leg is thrown over, and the foot moving against her own foot. A dull, emphatic soreness in every cell of her body. The blonde head that’s asleep on the opposite side of that strong chest, also with an arm around her and with a little roll of T-shirt bunched in her fist.
The owner of that head looks in a bad way: her face is puffy and bruised and there is a tear-streak down the fold by her nose that has an alarming dried-blood hint to it. Her breath has a phlegmy, rough edge.
Why is Allison in my dream?
Wèishéme wǒ nàme téngle?
Julian’s chest moved, and she enjoyed the sound of air rushing into it, and the way the word “Yeah” reverberated warmly within him, just below her ear. It distracted her from all the pain her vacuum-abused body was trying to tell her about. “We all did. For a couple of hours.” he murmured, almost whispering.
She looked up. They were kissing-close, so near that she could feel the warmth of his face. The inside of the liferaft was lit only by orange and blue lights which reflected in his eyes, though those eyes were bloodshot behind the reflections. “Guess getting spaced does that to you.” he added.
She shivered and tried to burrow into his side to escape the memory of the raping touch of nothing, fighting back a horrible flashback of being about to die and powerless to stop it. He gave her a little squeeze, and she whimpered a small pain sound as he accidentally massaged a muscle that had so recently been cramping from the Bends. He immediately flinched back from the hug with a whispered “Sorry.”
She tried to move to relieve the discomfort but found that she was practically paralysed, and that the pathetic range of motion she could summon the strength for was excruciating. Fishing for something to talk about to distract her from the gnawing concern for her own well-being, she alighted on an urgent question “The others?” She whispered so as to avoid waking Allison. “Have you heard from them?”
His chapped lips went thin and his jaw twisted as he answered by gently shaking his head.
“On the plus side, It doesn’t look like the ship that attacked us had backup, so we’re probably safe to set course for civilization.”
“Hmm.” she agreed and lowered her head onto his shoulder for a second.
It occurred to her that he was holding her, in exactly the same way that he was holding Allison. “Uhm…” she twisted to try and look at his arm, which was resting lightly around her shoulders, his hand light on her waist.
“Hmm? Oh!” He started to remove the arm, twisting to extract his shoulder from under her head, moving awkwardly and clearly in terrible pain himself. “Sorry.”
“No! No… I-I don’t mind…” she stopped him by rubbing her head into his shoulder to drive home the point. Despite everything, despite what they had just been through, despite the crippling effects of vacuum exposure, having that arm around her felt safe, here in the quiet. “It’s just…”
Xiù smiled sadly at Allison’s face, sleeping only inches away from her own. “She’s not into sharing…” she said, then added without thinking: “Unfortunately.”
Julian stopped breathing for a second. “Um…”
“Sorry.” Xiù said, then realised just what she’d said and rolled her face into his shirt, burying her sudden tears there. “I’m sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t… I didn’t mean… I mean, I did but… God, I don’t know where my head’s at right now. I’m sorry.”
“Hey. It’s fine.” He said, and squeezed her again. “I get you.”
She looked back up at him. “I’m sorry.” she repeated.
Both of them jumped slightly when Allison made a noise that sounded equal parts amused, sleepy and agonised. “‘s okay.” she murmured. “Just don’t kiss him.”
The joking echo of their earlier conversation at least allowed Xiù to quash her treacherous impulse to do exactly that. Instead she echoed Julian’s weak chuckle with a watery little laugh of her own and smeared her cheeks dry with the heel of one palm.
“So what happens next?” she asked.
“Head for civilization, I guess.” Allison replied, hauling herself up onto one elbow with a pained groan. “God. I feel awful.”
“Yeah, well, we got fucking lucky.” Julian said. “One second longer, none of us would have made it.”
“Jesus.” Allison rasped. She coughed, and frowned at the red spatter on her palm. “We’d better get our asses somewhere with a hospital, huh?” she croaked.
“Yeah, uh… I’ve got… bad news on that front.” Julian revealed.
“This thing only does one kilolight.”
Allison’s expression fell. “Oh. Shit.”
Xiù looked back and forth between them. “That’s… slow, isn’t it?”
“It’s about five hundred times slower than Sanctuary’s cruising speed.” Julian said. “And even for Sanctuary it was a week’s travel back to the nearest station with an FTL relay.”
“So for us, that’s… oh.” Mental arithmetic caught up with what he was saying. “Ten years?”
“Should be less. Kirk told me once that the Dominion and Alliance both offer a big reward for picking up castaways, so we should be grabbed as soon as we’re back within a few hundred light years of a major spacelane.” He coughed, and there was a rattle in it. “‘Course, that still leaves us God-knows how far from medical attention… ”
“Just give us the best-case, babe.” Allison groaned. “How long?”
“…About… five or six years.” Julian admitted. It wasn’t much of an improvement.
“Does this thing even have supplies for that long?” Xiù asked, not even wanting to think about trying to recover in that cramped little space without a doctor or room to exercise.
“It doesn’t need them. It has a stasis field.”
“So you hit the button and we’re either rescued instantly or we die instantly.” Allison said. “Great.”
He shrugged, eloquently expressing with just his shoulders that it was a better option than dying slowly in a little box with no room to even stand up. “Shall I?”
Allison hauled herself up with a little “nnngh” sound through gritted teeth and kissed him, just a one-second meeting of lips. To Xiù’s surprise, she leaned over and gave her a kiss too, on the forehead. “You ready?” she asked.
Xiù swallowed, and nodded. “I’m ready,” she lied.
Julian pressed the button.
Later in her life, Xiù often wrestled with the question of whether or not she truly experienced that moment stretched out thin like the universe had stuttered, or if it was just her memory playing tricks on her.
No sooner had he pushed it than there was a voice talking to them, in what was unmistakably real, spoken English rather than a translation.
“Hello in there. You’re being rescued by the United States Air Force.” it said. “Before we pop the hatch, we just want to warn you guys that we’re humans from Earth, so if there’s any special precautions you need us to take to protect you from harm, you let us know.”
Julian tapped their end of the comm. “No need, pal.” he grunted, stress and fear clearly falling off him, despite the tortured edge to his voice. “We’re American.”
“Hey!” Xiù objected, faintly appalled at herself for still caring about the difference right now.
“…Alright, two Americans and one Canadian.”
“Three humans? Jackpot! You all okay in there?”
“Three cases of recent vacuum exposure.” Julian put it straight out there. “We really need a doctor, fella.”
“Copy that. Sit tight folks, we’ll have you out of there in a minute.”
The hatch opened sixty seconds later practically to the second, and a handsome face in some kind of pressure suit, minus the helmet, looked inside.
Even in her ravaged condition, Xiù found time to wonder whether every man in space was gorgeous or if she was just that starved, but this guy looked like he’d be able to wrestle Hercules with one arm and punch out Thor with the other. He was a long way shy of tall - in fact he was shorter than Julian - but the body under that pressure suit must have been pure muscle: Everything he lacked in height, he packed on in breadth and depth.
“Shit, you guys weren’t kidding about the medical attention,” he commented, revealing himself to be the same voice from the radio, and hauled himself easily into their capsule.
“You should see the other guy,” Allison quipped.
“Hah! Bueno.” He turned and said something to whoever was waiting outside, then ran a practiced eye over the three of them and approached Xiù first.
“Hey, can you try and grip my hand for me?” he asked. When he took her hand, he felt strong enough to crush the bones to powder, and he put another hand on her opposite shoulder. She felt a curious coldness there for a second.
She tried. She really did. But her fingers barely twitched, and she swallowed down on her fear.
“Okay, that’s fine. I’m just gonna get this board under you and we’ll get you taken care of, alright?”
The easy way he inveigled a board under her body in the cramped space and strapped her to it proved it. This guy was strong, in a way that made Xiù reflect briefly on what it must have been like for the Gaoians whenever they got a demonstration of her own strength.
“What’s your name?” he asked, hauling her out of the life raft as easily as if she was made of packing foam and laughter, and managing to avoid exacerbating the deep ache in her bones.
“Uh…” It was hard to remember for a second, but the knowledge came back to her. Her vision was going funny, darkening at the edges. “I’m Xiù. Xiù Chang.”
“Nice to meet you, Xiù.” he replied, as somebody took the other end of her board and together they lifted her onto a gurney.
“A-a-and you?” she asked, though it was hard to find volume for some reason. “Uh… what’s your name?”
He took her hand, and there as a power in his grip that she used to anchor herself to the right here and right now. She was home. She was safe. She just had to hold on a little longer.
After all she’d been through, she knew she could do it.
“I’m Adam.” he told her, and his name carried her down into a place where dreams could never find her. “Staff Sergeant Adam Arés, USAF Pararescue.”