If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
The radiation suits were less comfortable than even the antacid wear from Caulerpa. And the shuttle down to the planet was having a bumpier ride than we were comfortable with. SecDiv was antsy, but didn’t want to let on when she asked, “So how confident are we that these, what the hell was the name again?”
“Romaleon,” I told her. “After one of the North American genus of crabs. I also think some smart-ass liked that it has ‘alien’ in it.”
“It seemed clever at the time,” SciDiv broke in over the comms.
“Were you high at the time?”
“Drunk, I think. Though there may have been uppers involved. Prescription, of course.”
SecDiv rolled her eyes. “Okay. So how confident are we that the Romaleon aren’t going to just smash our heads in with rocks the moment we land?”
“Meh,” I said, and shrugged.
“What the hell does ‘meh’ mean?”
“It means they said they wouldn’t. And that it’s pretty much all we have to go on. I’m not taking them at their word, but throwing a hissy right before the meet and greet isn’t likely to alter their mood.”
She gave a disgusted sigh. “Haley? Do you have a slightly more useful answer?”
“I have insufficient data to properly calculate the likelihood of species hostility. If you want me to pull a number out of my synthetic anus… 42.03%.”
“There’s no reason ass-numbers can’t be specific.”
“She’s becoming as much of a fucktard as you.”
“Worse, actually; she’s on par with NavDiv, now.”
Haley interrupted. “I have no denotative entry for ‘fucktard.’ Lieutenant Templeton, would you like to log a definition at this time.”
“You. See also NavDiv.”
“Cross-referencing Haley operational statistics with all personnel files related to NavDiv. Match found. Fucktard, definition, navigational technician.”
“You hit that nail on the head, Haley,” I said, just before we touched down.
I didn’t rush out of the shuttle this time, but I did make sure I was first out the door. Then I helped Sam step down. “I’m not certain my presence warrants removal of a SecOff,” she said.
The earth was rocky and hard. I helped SecDiv step off the shuttle. “Well, we know next to nothing about the Romaleon, aside from the fact that their reproductive habits are a little on the vicious side. Anything you can tell us, or even the off chance you might be able to tell us something, is worth sacrificing a SecOff.” SecDiv glared at me; she wasn’t happy being a man down while having less intel than usual.
We held position at the shuttles for the better part of an hour before I contacted the Nexus. “Haley, can you give us a scan of where the hell the people are?”
“One moment. They are massed in the central structure. The city was not designed symmetrically, so the ‘spoke’ is north of your current position.”
“They’re all there?”
“Everyone in the city.” She sent me the feed, first thermal, then 3D.
“At least it doesn’t look like an ambush.”
“Or,” SecDiv butted in, “it looks like an amateurish ambush by a backwater people who could still kick our asses through sheer numerical superiority.”
“That’s why I told you not to CC her on the important things, Haley.”
“I thought you were ‘joking.’”
SecDiv touched my shoulder. “You’ve really got to stop using sarcasm with the ship. It can’t be long before she snaps and murders you.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that; it would violate my primary directive. Also, I enjoy watching him bathe.”
“Has the ship developed a crush on you?”
“Maybe she’s learned to deadpan.”
“I’m actually not sure which is scarier.”
“You’re quieter than usual,” I said to HR.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Am I the only one who’s determined to try and have fun on this planet?” I asked.
“Have you already forgotten where your fun time on the last planet landed you?” SecDiv said. She’d been trying to needle me, but Sam took it personally- at least long enough to glare at SecDiv before telepathically finding out what she’d meant. By then SecDiv was pissy, too.
Every step we took away from the shuttles made us more uncomfortable. The “building” was carved into a mountain. At some point, it had probably been the entire city, before the population expanded.
“The fact that they’re banding together and not randomly murdering one another long enough to build a city like this speaks well for our odds, right?” I asked SciDiv, not quite nailing hopeful with my tone.
“Or maybe they group themselves to better kill whoever they class as outsiders. Think of it as an early form of racism- or nationalism, or religion, if you think that’s any better. Pretending whatever modest difference in physiology or habitat justify genocide- so long as your political stance makes it more likely you’ll survive, with larger territory and more access to females as a sweetener.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence. The city opened up around the mountain/building. It was surrounded by Romaleon, pouring out of every available doorway, save for the front. Unlike previous species, they barely paid us any heed as we approached, just stared dumbly ahead, like cattle.
The Romaleon were larger than I’d thought, about the size of a small horse; thicker, too, built as much like a rhinoceros as a pony. One each opened the pair of stone doors at the entryway, doors so thick it would have taken a half dozen men to budge; I don’t think it was even a show of strength, just them opening doors.
Then the smell hit. Apparently nobody on their planet had invented hygiene, yet. “Huh,” SciDiv said over the comms, “from the chemoreceptors in your suit, I can tell something- they use a mixture of feces and mud, smeared over their bodies, to stay cool in sun. Like elephants.”
“Good. I was worried HR had lost control of his bowels.”
“Quiet,” he said, “I don’t want you undermining my negotiations.” There was a stone table carved into the floor. There were no chairs, but HR, took up his place on one side of the table, standing, and still looked too small for the furnishing. Low and quiet grunts rippled continuously through the crowded Romaleon.
“Sam,” I whispered to Vipisana, “what’s your read on them?”
“I’m not getting anything. For all I can tell they aren’t even thinking.”
“Commbox had similar issues. Let me know if you break through.’
“They look like a pig had unpleasant intercourse with a pile of mud and picked chicken pox scars,” HR muttered.
SciDiv broke in over our comms. “Uh, just so you know, the communication device is functioning properly. They probably understood that.” The same flow of groans continued to echo from side to side.
“Shit,” he said. “Okay, who’s in charge here?”
There was uncomfortable silence.
Sam didn’t whisper: “We should leave.”
HR turned and spoke, too loudly, to both of us. “We can’t just get up and walk out of a negotiation.”
“We need to go. I couldn’t read them before because they don’t have higher social functions, very little passes through them by means of complex thought. But they’re a war-hungry race. The only reason they haven’t attacked yet is they were trying to decide where your squishy parts are. And I think they’ve come to a consensus.”
I caught the eye of one of them, and he knew that I knew. He let out a cry, and kicked his front legs into the air. The Romaleon charged.
“Surpressing fire!” Elle yelled over the comms.
HR got smacked pretty good in the ribs, and I shoved him and Sam down, behind the table and readied my pistol. We should try death. Death would be interesting. “I shouldn’t have to explain to my brainworms why brain-death would be inadvisable.” He believes they would not scoop us up and send us home. We would live out our existence on the cold floor. That would be most unpleasant. But new.
SecDiv’s team folded the left wing pretty tight, and made for a doorway on that side of the room; didn’t look like anybody got too seriously hurt in the retreat. The wing to my right were the opposite story. Whoever was in charge from security didn’t have SecDiv’s instincts, and the Romaleon hit them hard, and they walled up like phalanx.
Our center, which had been tactically weak, retreated out the front doors. “On your feet, numbnuts,” I told HR, and Sam got under his arm and helped him limp to the door. I turned my pistol up to 11 and fired it into the nearest Romaleon’s face- and then it isn’t there anymore. It gave them pause; after all, they were charging us with slings and spears, so face-melting tech had to be a little eye-opening. But it didn’t give us more than a second before another of them got brave.
I fired into his chest- figuring from the scans that’s roughly where the genitals are- hoping to make more impact. Sam limped HR to the door, and I covered them. Three SecOffs had gotten a member each of the med and sci teams out this way. “Sir?” the ranking SecOff asked when I turned to go back inside.
“Get them to the shuttle.” I gestured to HR, still wobbling against Sam’s shoulder. “He’s your chain of command, and priority.” Sam hesitated. She wasn’t up for the fight, but she wasn’t happy watching me run back into it, either. I caught sight as we parted of the Romaleon ranks closing up behind me, weakly because of the area they were covering, but strong enough I wasn’t breaking back out alone.
SecDiv’s wing had made it all the way into the western antechamber, and had it well secured, at least for the moment. PsychDiv was the highest ranking officer in this group that was still stranded in the open, fighting to get into the eastern antechamber.
I had an instant to make the call before the Romaleons closed in from behind, but it was an easy one. I shoved my way through their line, blasting wildly at the doorway. The rest of the wing spilled in after me.
The SecDiv number two was the last man through the door, trying to hold his blood in through a gash in his stomach. One of the MedOffs pushed him onto the ground and started bandaging him as two SecOffs covered the door into the hall.
“They can’t have more than a thin column outside. And they don’t seem very fast. So we should be able to punch a hole in their perimeter and make a run for it. Haley? I want you to bring the planet cracker online and power her up.”
“I presume you mean the terraforming laser.”
“That’s the one. If the goddamned space crabs do get too close, boil them in their own juices.”
“Can do, captain,” she said cheerily.
“This door is stone, and going to be a beast. I’m going to need everybody to push, but know that the moment we get it open we’ll be fighting to keep them out.” It took eight of us to budge it. And at first all we could see was a sea of gnashing teeth, flailing arms, and tumors.
Then a spear, at least what I thought was a spear, nearly took out my eye. I grabbed it before I realized what it was, smashed it up against the stone doorframe. It snapped in half, and the Romaleon I’d just turned into a eunuch wailed in his new soprano. I jammed the poker right back in his open mouth, and it punched through the back of his skull. The male beside him got a pistol blast in the leg, and he fell over. There were others standing near, but they hesitated long enough for the SecOffs to shove their way out. They’d seen what my pistol could do, and none of them wanted to test the bigger SecOff rifles.
The Romaleon began to stamp their feet. They’d been cautioned by the castration, but they weren’t about to let some puny humans best them in their territory. But they also weren’t organized- they were sloppy. Five of them peeled off towards us. They closed a third of the distance before rifle bursts put them down. The Romaleon stamped harder, but it was frustrated aggression. None of them wanted to die to prove their ruggedness- particularly without an potential mates in play.
The MedOff was out last, helping the wounded SecOff along. The nearest Romaleon reared up. I shot him, but even dead his momentum came down on them. I shot him several more times as I ran- punitive, to keep the other crab people from following his lead. A SciOff helped the MedOffs his feet. And I helped them me roll the heavy Romaleon off SecOff, and through him over my shoulder. We ran.
For a moment several Romaleon got brave, and started to give chase. “Across the bow,” I told one of the SecOffs, and they all stopped in a line and started firing. The charging Romaleon broke off. I set the
“Any of them been near the shuttles, Haley?”
“Visual and thermal imaging have shown no disturbance of the crafts.”
“Beautiful. Everybody without a military or security background pile into the first shuttle. You’re getting off this rock right the fuck yesterday.”
HR spoke up. “Give me a gun.”
“I’d give one of the newborns a gun before I gave you one.”
“I’m combat-trained, you unbelievably enormous ass. And you need all hands.” He was right. He was also the only one prepared to take over command if I got myself killed, which seemed kind of likely. So I hit him hard enough in the temple with my pistol that he went down. He wasn’t unconscious, exactly, just in no shape to protest my decision anymore. When everyone else was in the shuttle, I laid HR across several sitting crew members’ laps. “Haley, get this fucktard off planet.”
“But captain, HR is not a navigational technician.”
“Getting the fucktard off planet. Revising fucktard definition.” The shuttle took off. “And sir, per protocols. MilSec commander has been thawed. He is standing by on the line.”
“Captain, this is no longer your mission. Stand down, return to the ship.”
“You’re new to the Nexus’ culture, having been a popsicle for the balance of our trip so far, so let me welcome you by saying fuck off. I have SecDiv and a handful of personnel pinned down, waiting for extraction. I have a security force big enough to free them up before we talk about whatever crazy and or genocidal operation you’re planning.”
“Protocols state that in this situation I have authority to pacify the planet.”
“If you try to pacify the planet while a full third of our ground team is in play I will pacify all of MilSec. This is still my command. And the best chance we have of getting our people back is you idiots standing down and letting me extract them.”
Haley butted in. “A minimum of one hour is required to fully thaw and equip MilSec.”
“I guess you have an hour, then, Captain.”
“Great, because this kind of operation always benefits from an arbitrarily short time limit.” I hung up, and turned towards the SecOffs. “All right. Nobody has to come with me. That is a shitstorm, beyond what any of you signed up for. Anybody who decides to stay back, you’ll have my full support- presuming I survive- besides which, if we have to get out in a hurry it’d be nice not to have to worry about finding one of those things in our shuttles. But I’m marching back, no more talking, you’re coming with me or you aren’t.”
I didn’t look back to see who might have stayed. I could hear boots behind me, enough not to think this was necessarily a suicide mission. The Romaleon had stopped trying to cover the front entrance. There seemed to be confusion in their ranks, because they were massing around the antechambers, as if we still had people in the eastern one.
So we walked through the front door without opposition, and stopped within spitting distance of the Venn area of the two forces. They didn’t seem to be able to figure out why we were back. “What’s the plan, cap?” one of the SecOffs asked nervously.
“Flying wedge. We’ll have to hit that doorway hard, and break their line. They’re swarming. But I have an idea that’s going to make this easier. Key up the cracker, Haley, right in front of me, minimum distance to leave me on my feet. On my mark.”
“Firing solution acquired.”
“You crab people fucked with the wrong Earthman. Mark.”
The laser burned a hole in the mountain, a hundred feet in diameter. I was hit with an ocean spray of crab meat. I smiled through the carnage, then pointed my pistol at the biggest, meanest looking bastard left standing. It took him a moment, but he crawled off.
The rest aren’t all as bright as he is- or maybe they’re brighter, and realized the laser can’t be fired too close to us without cooking us, too, because they rushed. But the SecOffs were ready this time. They fired strategically, building a wall of Romaleon corpses that held back the tide of their charge, and we advanced in a wedge towards SecDiv.
Of course, our luck continued to hold shitty, and the laser caved in the doorway. I pull up SecDiv on my eyescreen. “Y’okay?”
“You caved in our entrance, ass- and there’s a backdoor choked full of crab rapists.”
“Hold your position. We’re nearly there, and we’ll clear your egress. Suppressing fire!” I yelled. “I’ll clear the rubble.” I knelt down and started clawing like a madman. Fingernails would grow back, and if enough radiation got into the tears opening up in the fingers of my suit, well, that’s what clone back-up hands are for. I didn’t stop until I saw SecDiv peering at me through the hole I’d dug, smiling- then terrified.
I felt a sharp pain in my back, just under the ribs. My first thought was that I’d managed to hurt my back- during a rescue- which SecDiv would never let up on the old man wise cracks. My second was that it hurt inside my back, and past it- I’d been stabbed. My last thought, before I passed out, was that I hoped one of the SecOffs had flipped his shit and decided to stab me in the back, and that I hadn’t been stabbed with what I thought it was.
“Well, we’ve run the full battery of psychological tests we have. Your answers are strikingly in line with previous results, but not to a degree we’d find unsettling.”
“Try that again for those of us who don’t have Freud in our spank banks.”
She smiled, and for a moment her lips looked delicious, like a strawberry moist off the vine. Tastethem. “I prefer to think of it as a masturbatory deposit box, but what I mean is too much consistency is actually a bad sign. These tests are designed to tease out ambiguities, force you to analyze difficult situations without clear solutions. So someone who is too consistent has solidified what should be fluid circumstances, meaning they’ve memorized the ‘right’ answers and are faking it- for whatever reason they’re trying to appear ‘normal;’ it’s a flag for certain personality disorders, and sociopathy.”
“So I’m not crazy?”
“Nope. Same old dysfunctional narcissist.”
“But I’m a highly functional dysfunctional narcissist.”
“Whatever. You told me that, once I’d given you the tests, you’d tell me what this was about. So? Are you going to tell me if this has anything to do with our new refugee? Or do I have to call SecDiv and MedDiv to bring the pipes and the sodium pentothal.”
“Apparently, I have brain worms. As part of the signing on Abhijñ, I contracted a telepathic STD- though that’s not wholly accurate, since it isn’t transmitted through sex- but telepathy. Or maybe by swapping cerebrospinal fluid- but even I’m not that kinky.”
“Have you talked it over with MedDiv?”
“Not yet. I’m weighing my options. If it gets out that I have brain worms, even assuming they’re benign, I’ll probably get busted down to toilet scrubber.”
“So? I didn’t see you as the cling to power type.”
“It’s more than that, though. Because who’s going to replace me? NavDiv wouldn’t be too bad- though he’s still years from being ready. But second in line is HR- and that little piss ant’s as likely to get us all killed as to the next planet.”
“So you came to me first, so you’d have a clean bill of psychiatric health. You think HR would try to coup you?”
“It’s hard to know. He usually has more ambition than sense. And to cap the whole thing off, he’s the one who volunteered me for exotic alien brain sex in the first place.”
“Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d usually turn away.”
“The brain worms might have been a deal breaker.”
“Have you seen her?” I caught myself before I pantomimed cleavage. “I’m trying to be honest, so might. Aren’t I supposed to be honest?”
“In some situations it’s expected, certainly. But I’ve studied deception enough not to dismiss its utility.”
“I’m not sure that has any right to sound as profound as it did. But I have a meeting with SciDiv.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Until I’m convinced I’m compromised, or at least deposed, I have a job to do. Pencil me in for another session. I do want you to keep an eye on me. I just need to get to that meeting.”
I hopped the elevator down to SciDiv. He was actually prepared- but mostly because I was late. “We’ve got back another sensor pod.”
“Durr. What, you thought I was stopping by just to bask in your aroma?”
“Oh, sorry; I’ve got to stop eating so much tofu before bed. It’s a populous planet. A little more stone age than the last couple, but that’s probably to our advantage. The planet hovers around an M star.”
“An M star?”
“Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.”
“Have you been ingesting psychotropics again?”
“Yes.” He stared at me a moment. “And it’s a mnemonic. M stars are the weakest, usually red. We weren’t actually looking in that system, since most Ms aren’t classed as habstars- habitable. The sweet spot is really the F and G stars, with diminishing wiggle as you get to K, then finally M.”
“But on the way back from an empty F star system, one of the pods snapped some imagery of a possible civilization on a planet orbiting the M star. It took an orbital detour, got readings and got back to us.”
“I had not idea they’d programmed that much automation into the pods.”
“New feature, apparently, a firmware upgrade beamed to us in the last infoburst from Earth. I hadn’t gotten around to reading about it until the drone I have keeping track of the pods told me about the deviation. It means we’ve got a little less time to prepare for it, since the M world is about a third of the way closer than the F world, and the pod’s taken extra time to look it over.”
“But the locals are practically cave-people. In fact, calling them people is generous, as they’re largely bestial. They have a crude, pictogram-based language that’s closer to cave-painting than Poe, and we’re still waiting for signs of more complex spoken language than grunts. You haven’t eaten a burrito lately, have you?”
“Not in the last week, why?”
“Because this is,” he hesitated a moment before he linked me to an image of the native species, “a little hard to take. Underneath all of this,” he switched it to a 3D model of the creature’s internal organs and bone structure, “it’s kind of like a man, not unlike yourself, made love to a giant caterpillar.”
“They look more like crab people, to me.”
“But then,” the model was replaced by the previous image, “it’s covered in thousands of tumors. The reason we didn’t consider this M a habstar is that it releases ridiculous amounts of radiation.”
“All this ‘M star’ nonsense is giving me a headache. Haven’t you named the star yet?”
“We don’t have a definitive one, yet, but we’ve been calling it B9.”
“Cancer humor? Just don’t let the locals know about it. If they’re as stone-age as you say, it’ll be a long time before they cure cancer.”
“Actually, the tumors are beneficial. They create a layer of sacrificial, non-critical mass that soaks up radiation. The more irradiated the tumors get the more unstable their DNA, and the more tumors they produce. It’s kind of an ingenious system. If you were to cure their cancer, their species would die off.”
“So we should definitely not offer to trade medical tech for mining rights, then.”
“In a nutshell, yeah.”
“Hmm.” I went from there straight to the café. SecDiv was hovering over a whiskey sour. She didn’t look at me as I sat down, barely acknowledged even after I’d ordered. “Something wrong?” I asked.
“You asked me to kill your girlfriend. Our relationship was already pretty complicated. But I do want to know: how is it? You know, the alien mambo.”
“Well the sex is interesting, and fun, but… there’s another aspect to it. When she imprinted on me, at the signing, it opened a door into my head. And that’s what’s really different. Imprinting is- it’s intimacy on another level. You remember after Dalaxia?”
“I’m still sore after Dalaxia.”
I smiled. “Well, after we were both too exhausted for any more brain out-screwing, we talked. And I think because we’d been through something so emotionally destroying, and in our attempt to compensate something so physically demolishing, that we had no more defenses left. And we were just rawly honest, about everything.”
“It was a while before we could look each other in the eye again.”
“But that’s what imprinting’s like. It’s terrifying. And beautiful. You see and feel everything that means anything to the other person, and they see you just as nakedly. It’s touching everything that makes them a person at once, and being similarly touched. But that last little bit of pride we clung to, that’s gone, too; because there’s no point feeling self-conscious anymore. Because they know how you feel, even your fear about them knowing.”
“So why didn’t you bring me one?” she deadpanned, but there was an edge to it. I thought about suggesting a threesome. But I was reluctant to spread the brain worms across my crew. And perhaps reluctant to share her-share either of them, really. “You are such a fucking bigamist.”
“It’s all over your face. You were picturing the two of us together, and since you were presumably there watching, it was a threesome. Also pretty obvious from that tent you’re pitching in your shorts.” I looked down, and I wasn’t. “But you had to check. Proves my point.”
“Damn your SecDiv logic.”
“And damn your wandering pee pee.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I said, and we raised our glasses.
I got just enough liquor in me to go to MedDiv (but not so much that I skip that altogether and try to take SecDiv home), paid for both our drinks and scrammed.
“I’d say you’re late, but since you refused to give my nurse an exact ETA, that isn’t quite accurate.” I exhaled, and he pretended to be disgusted. “And you’ve been drinking. An excellent example to the crew, I’m sure.”
“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” I said. He hooked me up to a nanite dialysis machine, intended to screen hemobots out of the blood. Then he spent six hours poking me with various medical devices before returning to the machine.
“Dialysis is complete; your nanites have all been checked and diagnosed. No problems, no issues, no irregularities. And I’m really getting tired of this scavenger hunt. You didn’t ask me to give you a full work-up just to waste resources and my time. So tell me, honestly, what happened on Abhijñ.”
“The Abhijñā have a parasite, maybe symbiotic. Transmitted through telepathy.”
“So the entire ground crew was exposed- maybe all of us?”
“No. At least, not so far as I know. It’s a specific kind of telepathy, and it was used to finalize the deal. It’s a bit like a blood pact, but with the identity. I’m not even sure the whatever it is is even corporeal, since it seems to be aurally-based. But I wanted you to check, everything, first.”
“You were worried if you told me about your dalliance with a zebra I’d hear hoofbeats and think horses?”
“I have no idea what that meant.”
“Whatever. Mind/body assholes make too much noise about connectivity. The seat of the mind is in the brain. The whole body’s wired to the brain, so there’s overlap, but the mind is upstairs, and the blood-brain barrier keeps them secluded. Which means you’ve been letting me waste my time on a likely stupid hunch, and to get any real idea I’m going to have to cut a hole in your head and see what’s rattling around in the attic. Or, more accurately, I’m going to let this diabolic-looking machine shove a diagnostic tool through your skull.”
“So it’s going to be painful?”
“Ever used a leather punch? Imagine being the leather.” He strapped my head to one of the arms of the machine. Then another, long and spindly, lowered itself to my skull. There was a hiss as it sprayed something into my hair. “It’s a combination antimicrobial/anesthetic. But it’s not really going to make a dent in what comes next.”
The straps around my head tightened, and something animal in me told me to pull away, to try and run. And then there was pressure, and pain more acute than any I’ve ever felt. “It’s like getting your head pierced,” he told me; “look at pain as the price of being cool.” It was followed by numbness as the painkiller kicked in, and a sucking sound.
Hurts us/but this is new.
I don’t know if it was the painkiller or my new skylight, but I spent the next several minutes being dizzy, but enjoying it as I remembered trips to an amusement park as a child. MedDiv spent it running tests and staring at my brainscrapings through various lenses.
“That is fascinating. The organisms you described, they are physical, but they’re also almost impossible to detect, because they’re mimicking brain structures. Even at the cellular level. They’ve formed a barrier between your body and their mass, with a layer of go-between hybrid cells that act as a membrane, allowing chemical and likely data transfer between their ‘mind’ and yours. It’s actually remarkably similar to the blood-brain barrier, only, this is between two species. Now I’m going to take a biopsy; under other circumstances I’d say you’ll feel a pinch, but the brain itself doesn’t have nerve endings, so you won’t. You may just forget how to read.”
Then he stuck a needle in my skullhole. “But I like re- what was that word you just said?”
“Hilarity. But you do recognize that the minor temperature differences allow me to tell the difference between the foreign cells and your brain tissue, right?”
“No, I did not.” Hurts us/You should kill him/taste his blood/or seed? “But maybe you shouldn’t stab it anymore- I don’t think he liked that’.”
“So they’re communicating with you?”
“It’s kind of like having the id of a curious but amoral 2 year old shouting into your brain; and his arguments are about as compelling.”
“But they, or you said he, is talking to you?”
“Occasionally. Usually based around the animal urges. Eating. Fucking. Killing. As you’re neither a coed nor a cupcake, you’re two-thirds ignored by him.”
“Ah. So I take it that’s why you warned me. It wanted you to defend it from medical invasion.”
“Something like that.”
“Interesting. You seem to know something about this. I presume the alien informed you.”
“Yeah- after the fact, unfortunately. She says they’re passive, just along for the ride. But I needed to be sure.”
“Well, from what I can tell, now that I know what I’m looking for, they seem to only be interfacing with the parts of the brain associated with communication and sensory input. Nothing in the motor cortex. There’s no encroachment of the higher reasoning centers like the prefrontal cortex. And I can reprogram your nanites to keep an eye on the tissue, in case there’s further, should we call it exploration?”
“So am I cleared for duty, then?”
“I think I’m honestly more concerned for the alien woman. She’s a telepath, there’s obviously dangers involved with that. And we all know what their species as a whole was capable of doing to our ship- what if a single member of her species’ influence was simply subtler.”
“It’s been on my mind. But I think that’s a good sign, right? The fact that we’re uneasy about her, I mean. If she were looking to ease our minds, she could just tell us to look the other way and we would. She could tell us everything was fine, and we’d believe her.”
“Unless she was very good at manipulating people.”
“But she couldn’t be. Even if she was the most manipulative person on her entire planet, she doesn’t know us, our culture, our species. And to be able to manipulate us, so thoroughly, day one? I can’t think of a reason, even a nonsensical one, for that. But… I do want to be watched. If you notice anything peculiar, tell SecDiv. She’ll take care of it.”
“I want your opinion, medical, personal, whatever you think should carry the day. Should I step aside, let HR take the conn?”
“I’ll answer by way of anecdote. Last month, HR started making demands that we always match patient gender to crew member, regardless of whether or not a particular procedure was likely to be a sensitive one. Unfortunately, we have slightly more male nurses and more female doctors, though overall our staff numbers even out. And particularly in some of the specializations, we don’t have multiple doctors. If you need a proctologist but Dr. Chesney’s giant monster hands make you nervous, you’re shit out of luck- no pun intended, of course.”
“Anyway, my point is if the company wanted absolute gender parity on ship they needed to think about it before we launched, not after. It sounds petty, but it’s indicative of his larger managerial philosophy. And it’s why, brain worms and all, I would rather have you in charge. We should, however, for prudence sake, monitor your development. If the urges get worse, or the voice more persuasive, I may reevaluate my position.”
The next day, SciDiv had a briefing for the planet around B9. “And we’ve got a name for it, now: Oma. It’s from a Greek suffix for tumor, usually benign- though medical science doesn’t like consistency the way the other sciences do, so not always.”
MedDiv stuck out his tongue at SciDiv, then asked, “And what about the capital, which I believe you’d tastelessly named Metastacity?”
I grinned and interrupted. “Like Cancer the crab, whose symbol is a sideways 69.”
“Why does he know that?” asked SciDiv.
“Why do you think?” answered MedDiv.
I ignored both of them. “I only wish it were in the Cancri system and part of the constellation- that would have been cooler.”
SciDiv spoke up to be the screen door on my spaceship. “Yeah, but Cancri is another 35 light years away, and probably doesn’t have any crab people inhabited planets.”
“It disappoints me that the universe isn’t as fun as it should be. But what about the commbox?”
“Well, we’ve got some very basic, guttural, monosyllabic language. We think.”
“Nobody on-ship was a dedicated linguist. A few people minored, or even double-majored, but nobody who’s gone past the entry-level college course crap on the subject. Honestly, it would have been pretty worthless to bring along a linguist, aside from this particular scenario, because if the Ramoleon were any less advanced we probably wouldn’t have bothered trying to communicate with them. And a linguist might still be useless even here, as the species should be just comprehensible enough to negotiate with. It’ll just be slow-going. The box only actually reads one in three noises they make- which might just mean there’s a lot of contextual communication going on, like dogs barking.”
“Tell him the other thing,” MedDiv said.
“I’m getting to it. For some weird reason MedDiv has been adamant that I tell you, personally and specifically, not to try to have sex with this species- not even as something new and different to experience. Because the females of the species have no outward genitalia, and the men basically have a metal spear the length of your body, constantly rigid but sheathed inside, like a baculum in a puppy dog dong.”
“There’s a species of insect, whose name I can’t remember at the moment. But since the female doesn’t have any external sexual organs, the male just, for lack of a better word, stabs her with his genitalia in the torso, and just injects her with his seed. So it’s not wholly unheard of, is my point- though we’ve never seen it in an organism this complex before.”
“Can’t you just ask Haley what the insect is?”
“Do you have any idea how much dumber our species is since we invented the computer? Well neither do I- I’d have to look it up with a computer. But that’s largely my point. We’ve stopped using them as a tool, and they’ve become a crutch, but it’s like having an artificial third leg- it might make us better at soccer, but it’s making us worse at a lot of other aspects of being alive.”
“But isn’t there trade-off. Less space devoted to memorization, more available for computation.”
“Somewhat, but the trade-off isn’t worthwhile. We’re losing the majority of our long-term storage for a minor performance bump in computation, which we always sucked at, anyway. Especially compared to computers.”
“So you attribute your Stephen Hawking intelligence to your stubborn, codgerly Ludditism.”
“Nah, it’s mostly genetics. And I’m hopeful that, given another millennia or two with the tech, we’ll compensate and we really will evolve to be better at integrating with computers- or maybe that we’ll sidestep and make computers better at integrating with us. I have no idea. Anyway, the violently invasive sex is part of the reason we think the females live separately from the males. From what we’ve been able to glean about their species, the males also don’t seem capable of recognizing when a female is already carrying a child, so he’ll try to impregnate her, which is pretty damn likely to result in shish kebaby.”
“But there’s a third layer of complication. We didn’t recognize it at first, because the surface scans didn’t catch them. But apparently there’s a third, asexual gender. The probe ‘thought’ at first it was a separate species, until it started analyzing genetic structures. They live symbiotically with the female of the species, and seem to exist underground, where they take newborn children to grown and develop. See, an infant wouldn’t survive the massive radiation outside the protective tumors on the mother’s belly. Neither would this third gender, actually; that aptitude for tumors- they don’t have it. They may be what the Romaleon were like originally, before B9 turned the entire system into a microwave. We’ve been calling the new gender ‘nan.’ It has roots linking to nun, nurse, mother and grandmother- seemed appropriate.”
“Because of the necessity for underground cave networks, the female population tends to be more spread apart. And we think in response to aggression from the males, they move around a bit, they’re nomadic, so they have lots of little camps set up that they move between. The caverns are likely chosen in part for a size too small for a male to pass into- at least that’s our working theory. Which means, unfortunately, that basically all of the larger cities are entirely male.”
“And likely aggressive. And sexually violent. Oh boy. And how much platinum is in the system?”
“More than the last two systems combined. Also known as enough that we can’t blithely skip over the planet, despite shitty circumstances pointing to the contrary.”
“Yeah. I figured. Crap.”
I must have been in her apartment. I dated a new age woman in school whose dorm looked similar, beads, crystals, fragrant smoke on the air. If only there were music playing older than I was I might have sworn I’d stumbled back into my own past.
My head was ringing. No- I had a call. Elle showed up on my eyescreen. “So you are still alive.”
“Apparently. What the hell happened?”
“They threw us a party. It got a little wild. And you slipped out. Being that close to the Abhijñā for so long was like being blackout drunk at a rave. I spent the better part of the night getting everybody rounded up and back to the shuttles. When we couldn’t find you we left the last shuttle at the LZ, just like we planned.”
“So have I missed my window?
“No. We’re still in orbit. The Nexus won’t be back for another seventeen hours. I just wanted to get us as much distance from the natives as I could. Our heads are a hell of a lot clearer; it’s amazing the difference a kilometer makes. So where are you?”
“I’m pretty sure I ended up leaving with the translator. So I think her place.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Really?”
“I’m pretty sore. In very specific muscle groups. We must have marathoned it. Okay, now that I’m standing, I can tell I’ve definitely been rubbed a little raw in the pelvic vicinity. But she isn’t here, now, which is probably a blessing.”
“You’re not just going to sneak out in the night?”
“This is hardly sneaking out in the night. I’ve been here thirty hours, several days local time. And I need to get to that shuttle. How far away am I?”
“About two hours, as the lecher walks.”
“In all fairness, I’m pretty sure she came on to me.”
“You know me- the perfect gentleman. How’s the rest of the ground team holding up?”
“It’s a bit cramped. We had to cram three and a half extra bodies into each shuttle. There’s standing room for about one person at a time, and that’s with people on laps. I imagine tempers would be high if it weren’t for the good vibrations coming from the planet- and if there were room to throw a punch.”
“Three and a half? Please tell me HR was the one you cut in half.”
“We discussed it, but we couldn’t decide on who would get stuck with the ass end.”
“Both ends of him are the ass end.”
“Touché.” She hesitated. “You think you can make it to the shuttle? We ran a fuel diagnostic, and I think we could make it down and back up. If you need help.”
“I’ll be fine. The locals seem friendly enough, and besides I’ve got my-” I looked around the room, “okay, so I don’t have my pistol. But that’s okay. I’m armed with my wits, charm, and an ass that rarely quits. I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’ll see you in seventeen hours- though since you’re jammed into the shuttle you’ll smell like canned corn-beef ass. And I smell like alien sex- which is less unpleasant than it sounds- though I doubt anyone would want to spritz it on their neck before dinner. So we’ll save the hugging for after we’ve both showered.” I felt like I wanted to make a crack about hugging during a shower, but couldn’t wrap my head around the particulars before it got awkward. She seemed to know it, too; maybe that’s why it was awkward.
“I’ll see you back on the ship.” She hung up.
I caught sight of myself in a reflective surface. It was interactive, zoomed in on the places where my eyes were looking. So I saw in exquisite detail the dark bags beneath my eyes, the scraggly stubble marching across my chin, the haggardness in my cheeks. I hadn’t eaten, at least not that I could remember. I was hungry, and thirsty. I needed to get the hell back to the shuttle.
The Abhijñā noticed me almost immediately when I set foot outside; they must have been listening to me. And word of my one man pilgrimage back to the ship rippled through the city with the speed of a thrown rock’s reverberation in a pond; telepathic gossip. They followed me, but at a distance, always leering, trying to stay on the other side of bushes and buildings.
Alone, they seemed to regard me with a knowing suspicion, that I had broken from my crewmates to get up to dirty things with a local. I wondered what kinds of sexual mores they had, if maybe the chastity police were going to meet me at the city limits to relieve me of my genitals, or for a shotgun wedding. I really wished I hadn’t lost my pistol.
It was a long walk of shame. But I made it back to the shuttle unmolested, uncontested, even. The only notice I was leaving came when I waved goodbye to the city, and an Abhijñā woman, seeing the gesture, returned it, confused.
I boarded the shuttle and entered orbit. I ate some of the rations on board, and drank some of the water, then took a nap. EngDiv woke me with a call as the Nexus approached on an intercept course. “Good to see you made it back. We received SecDiv’s messages about losing you on world.”
“How’d the trip around the solar system go?”
“As we got further away from the planet we regained more of our functionality. Cap, here’s the odd thing. We knew we were too blasé about, well, being manipulated, right? Well it seems the Abbies were upping endorphin and dopamine levels in our brain. The nanobots in our CSF should have recognized that and made noise, right? Well, it seems their computers were doing something similar to the nanomonitoring system on the ship; the telepathic aliens have telepathic computers.”
“They didn’t give our ship an STD, did they?”
“Diagnostics are all coming up clean. And a sector-by-sector comparison with the backups isn’t showing any long-term changes. They just told the computer everything would be cool.”
“So their technology smoked a dooby with ours?”
“But on that note, we’ve got your shuttle going to the quarantine bay. Consulting with SciDiv and MedDiv, we think you’re probably all right, but unlike the rest of the ground team you were exposed for a far longer time period to the people, atmosphere and possibly food and drink. If anybody’s come back with a testicle-eating bacterium, it’s you.”
“That’s a pleasant thought.”
“Just a reason to be cautious. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours to clear you. But in the meantime, you’ll have access to the decon suite, which is basically the same set up as your cabin. There’s even a shower in there.”
“With a full suite of cameras, I assume.”
“Hey, if your twig and berries have been replaced by the Thing, it’s better we know about it before you go shaking it at the rest of the crew.” I was wondering if he meant the Rock Guy or John Carpenter’s when I heard a blee-bloop warning signal over our open channel, and he knit his brow. “Bad news, bossman. Your shuttle’s setting off the sensors. You’ve got a contaminant. Something big enough the sensors flagged it through the hull. Hopefully you just stepped in some alien dog poop or something. But you should hit that shower. I’ve got techs standing by to receive your clothes.”
I stripped off my uniform as the shuttle entered the quarantine bay, trying not to make any Freudian inferences about the juxtaposition. I dropped the clothes into a drawer that opened into the quarantine lab. As I approached the shower the door opened and water began spraying out of the nozzle.
The water was warm, and it made me have to pee, but since I knew it was also being collected in the quarantine lab to be analyzed, that it was best I hold it in. I held my hand out and soap squirted from a nozzle under the showerhead. I started to lather myself, when a thought popped into my brain:
It wasn’t the first time I’d had the urge to touch myself in the shower, only the first time it had been vocalized so forcefully. But medical probably was watching, or at least would watch the tapes. And I wasn’t looking to give them that much of a show.
I rinsed my face. There was movement on the other side of the shower door. I pushed it open violently. The Abhijñā translator was standing there, gaping. I had to fight the urge to cover my nudity, since there wasn’t anything to cover with. A moment later the ship dispensed a paper towel, but by then I was stuck trying to keep up decorum.
“I’m sorry. I hope I’m not intruding.” She was trying to be coy; I was trying not to betray my anger or surprise- at least not yet.
“That depends on which intrusion you’re speaking of. I woke up naked in your apartment, and I’m not particularly puritanical about who sees my birthday candle. But I don’t remember inviting you onto my shuttle.”
“I don’t suppose you remember much of Abhijñ, captain. But presuming you aren’t using shuttle as a metaphor, you did not invite me.”
“And just how did you sneak onto the shuttle. It’s just a cockpit. There’s nowhere to hide.”
“I didn’t bother. I just asked you not to notice I was there. You were tired. Anxious. Hungry. Thirsty. It was a simple enough thing to encourage you to pay more attention to those things and not”
“The little man behind the curtain.”
She pointed to the dispensed towel and said, “But he’s not wearing his curtain. Also it’s cold in here.”
“What I mean was that’s pretty sneaky, sis.”
“I’m reasonably certain we’re not related. Besides, different-sex siblings are genetically dissimilar enough in my species to safely procreate.”
“That’s… creepy, if you’ll tolerate my interspecies intolerance.”
“No excuses necessary. Your taboos exist because procreation amongst siblings and even close relatives is not safe for your species. The taboo is simply irrelevant in mine.”
“Except that it does make your planet a little more like Alabama than I’d have assumed at first blush.” I stopped myself from making banjo noises; I didn’t figure she’d understand, anyway. “But the more important question is why are you here?”
“Imprinting allows simultaneous access to another mind, completely. Telepathy is like a handshake. Imprinting is far more… intimate. Like making love. No one from my species has ever imprinted with a human before. The result, for both of us, was intoxicating. I don’t believe, from what I can recall, that either of us sought a union consciously. The idea grew from the imprint, and infected the both of us. We found one another without seeking. We were not of our right minds.”
“But I am an Arahant, a chaste priestess. By relating at all, and particularly with an outsider, I committed an unforgivable sin, stained my Order. When you awoke, I was pleading my case before a tribunal. They decided to have me put to death. So I ran. I snuck aboard your shuttle.”
“So you’re saying there are no strings attached to yesterday. But I don’t know that I can keep you here. Particularly if your planet wants you back.”
“But you also can’t return, either. You have a schedule to keep to. You’ll likely never return there. And all they know is that I disappeared. Their thirst for blood travels only as far as their eyes can catch what offends them.”
“So you’re the contaminant. Which is good, because I think I’ve probably got everything you could possible have to give.”
“An unfortunate, though apt, choice of words.”
“I don’t think I’m going to like your elaboration.” Kisshertouchhertasteher. “I thought it was your crazy planet full of mindfucking alien brainwaves, but we’re off world, gaining distance every second, and I sincerely doubt you’re doing that on your own.”
“So you’ve met the dibba-cakkhu. I’m sorry for that. The dibba-cakkhu lives within all the Abhijñā. I feared that by touching you, she would touch you, too. The dibba-cakkhu are symbiotic. They formed parallel to the Abhijñā. Some believe they are the souls of our ancestors. They are telepathic, though more weakly so than my species, but in tandem, the union of both is stronger than either alone.”
“In larger colonies, like the one on Abhijñ, they openly share knowledge and experiences; there is no self or individual, only grouped consciousness. They don’t know anything because nothing can be known, though they suspect many things. It is not unlike your internet: a collection of knowledge of questionable parentage and veracity.”
“And your dibba-cakkhu likes you. It senses that you will bring it many new experiences, that it will hope to someday bring back to the whole.”
“But the dibby-caca complicates things even more. I can’t have both of us wandering around with psychic worms that are going to call back to the home world any time I haven’t provided them with enough brain-worm-porn.”
“The dibba-cakkhu are a social creature, certainly, but their desire to communicate should be sated with the two colonies on ship.”
“Ah. So as long as I keep you around, I’m not a fucking antennae leaking information to your people. And what if I decide I just want to cut the little fuckers out?”
“There is no known way to successfully remove the dibba-cakkhu. They do no permanent damage.”
“In your species. Who’s to say they won’t decide a human brain makes for a good buffet? Or that they won’t cause cancer? Or impotence?”
“If you’re concerned for the latter I’m sure we can arrange to test your potency regularly.”
“I thought ugly-bumping with outsiders was verboten.”
“Your people have an expression, ‘once bitten, twice shy.’ My people have a similar expression, only we like to be bitten, and that of course changes the ending to the parable.”
“You are a minxy little telepath. But the problem I have is: how can I know that what you’re telling me is the truth? How can I make a decision, to boot you or give you asylum, and even pretend that you aren’t subtly manipulating my mind.”
“We are limited in what we can accomplish through telepathy. We can pull thoughts out, to read them, we can put thoughts in someone’s mind for them to see, but we can’t push them on someone, to make them believe something they wouldn’t. As you’ve noticed, we were able to affect the mood of your crew, but only subtly, in ways they were willing, even happy, to be changed. It is not unlike hypnosis, if you prefer a cultural touchstone. I don’t believe it’s a natural upper-limit, simply that my people believed it would be impolite to attempt to control others, so it’s a skill we never sought.”
“So there are no dicks on your world?”
“Oh, there are. But they’re tempered by the fact that everyone, inadvertently, shares their thoughts. We may not pry, but there’s leakage, similar to your body language, and what it tells me now about your… potency. But as far as manipulating you,” she stopped, “en tendre unintended, I’d admit manipulating you as much perhaps as any woman, or even any person, in my situation might. But I understand the distinction you’re making between appealing to your emotions, as opposed to… altering you.”
“Yeah, and the one solution, the only solution, really, I keep coming back to is shooting you in the head. When I first imagined it, I thought taking it to that extreme, maybe then I’d be able to tell I was in control, but what if even then you allowed me to get that far, only to pull me back at the last second. I don’t think there’s a single way for me to prove to myself you’re on the level.”
She reached behind herself, and produced my missing pistol. She handed it over to me, and I checked its charge, still full. Then she said, “I admit, distressing as the thought is, that you have two courses of action open to you: killing me, or trusting me.”
“Taking at face value what you’ve said about not being able to make me think something, do you know what I’m thinking? Have any clue which way I’m leaning?”
“I’m apprehensive; human thoughts are still new to me. Your commbox prepared us to reach out to the speech centers of the brain, but higher reasoning is more complicated. You picture executing me, and how that would feel, and contrast it with ruin befalling your crew, caused in some way by misjudging this situation.”
Her face flashed fluorescent blue in a shape that reminded me of a Japanese woodblock wave, and somehow I knew what that meant. “You’re afraid of me.” She didn’t confirm it, but she was embarrassed to have shown it. “It isn’t proof, because I can’t know how conscious your camouflage reactions are. But you don’t have to be. If I can find a way to make this work, I will. Just try not to kill me in my sleep- I’ve had too many ex-girlfriends try it to write off one more as mere coincidence, and I don’t want to have to admit it Maggie that maybe it really is me.”
“Might be a little presumptuous, but a reasonable facsimile, I’d think.” I stumbled on the middle of the word; something about the way she moved towards me made me emphasize “sumptuous.”
“I’m flattered that you would wish to possess me. But perhaps I’m not ready yet to be relinquished.” She moved her face towards mine, and I found myself preparing to kiss her, and trying to remember how we’d done that before. Then the air switched from the overly stale quarantine supply to the only slightly stale air of the rest of the ship.
“Quarantine protocols are lifting,” Haley said.
“El capitan?” It was EngDiv. I pulled him up on my eyescreen. He was trying to avert his eyes. “Uh, well, now that we know the contaminant was an Abhijñā that pretty much clears things on our end. Um. Med and SciDiv still want the pair of you to stay in there, just while we run some tests. Definitely want the both of you showered; no comment on whether that was one at a time or not.”
“I get the idea,” I said, and hung up. She was already removing her clothes. “I’m sorry if I should know this already, but what should we call you?”
“Vipisana Samatha.” She brushed past me to get into the shower; I was still wet, and now getting cold. “Are you coming?”
“One moment. I just need to make a call- and try to stay out of my head.”
I called SecDiv. “Apparently my cavorting with the Abhijñā translator caused a bit more of a diplomatic incident than I realized. She stowed away on my shuttle, and I’ve granted her asylum. I don’t want her here, risking the ship and the crew, but I also can’t see any way around kicking her off the ship that doesn’t amount to murdering her. Having said that, you’re my oldest friend on ship, the person who’s known me the longest and the most completely. She can influence me- I’m just not sure how far. So if I start acting wrong, or making decisions that don’t make sense,” I hung up on the words, then forced them out, “shoot her.”
She nodded her head, grimly, then smiled a little. “I think this conversation probably stands as pretty stark evidence that you’re still you. But we’ll be careful with her. You be careful, too.”
I hung up. And for the first time in several minutes I realized I was still holding my pistol (not a euphemism). I looked at the weapon, still with a full charge, and then to the blue silhouette slightly obscured by the shower door. As I approached it slid open. I set the pistol down on the counter, and pushed my way past her to the water.
And so we whomped together. It was like old times. And like old times, she dropped her guard, and got hit in the face. And when I tried to get her to head straight off to MedDiv, she refused, until the last of the partiers had been subdued. Then I took her there myself.
While we were waiting for a free nurse, I couldn’t stop staring at her in profile. Even ruffled, it was hard not to notice the effort she’d put in. “You looked nice tonight.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls who’ve been hit in the face.”
“Admittedly, you looked better before the punch in the face. But I’d still hit it.”
“You have; unless you meant my nose, but I guess you’ve hit that, too.” She smiled, then grimaced. Then hit me in the arm. “Ah. Don’t make me smile. It hurts.”
“You do know you punching me also hurts.”
“Yeah, but you deserve it.”
“I probably do, at that.”
“Ah, SecDiv, my arch nemesis.”
“Oh, shit,” she said. It was MedDiv, and he was dramatically snapping a pair of exam gloves as he walked over to us.
“You’ve owed me an exam for months now. And every time you come in, you snake oil my physicians into giving you a pass on the physical and just treating whatever new contusion you’ve brought to them- despite repeated notations I’ve made in your records. But when I heard there was another fight in the crew deck I knew you’d end up here. Because you always do. She’s going to be a while, captain.”
“Oh, I’m happy to stick around,” I said, getting up.
“Not in the exam room, you won’t,” she said, glaring.
“You’re no fun,” I replied. Though I honestly had no interest; medical nudity isn’t nearly as much fun as recreational nudity. I half expected to get another booty call from Elle; I wonder if things would have gone differently if I had.
But the next time I saw her was during the mission brief. HR was running it, because he enjoyed that kind of thing. The rest of us already knew our roles, and our background information, but something about going through those motions soothed his savage beast- or at least made him a bit less of a prick on the trip down. He was pleasant enough I hardly realized we’d touched down until the door on our shuttle unlocked.
Abhijñ was arid. Like Arizona. Only saltier. “You’re supposed to be wearing a mask,” the MedOff who had traveled in our shuttle scolded. I gave her a raspberry, and took in a gigantic lungful of air. The Nexus had the best filtration system man had ever devised- and it still had that canned locker-room heaviness to it (though only occasionally the smell).
This was air. Clean air. Dry air. You could have told me there was anthrax in that air and I still wouldn’t have put on a mask.
“Stop, wait, don’t,” SecDiv said in a disinterested monotone as I ran off the shuttle. The SecOff team was having trouble doing their work. The telepathic mellow that had affected us on the ship was much stronger here. They were wandering around in a malaise, like sheep in a pen.
“This is the crappiest LZ I’ve ever seen,” I said, grinning like an idiot. “Tighten things up.” They couldn’t tell if they wanted to listen to me, until SecDiv stepped out of the shuttle. Apparently whatever mood altering was going on, the fear she instilled was stronger. They trotted out into an octagon perimeter, and watched their zones.
“Got locals at eight o’clock.” Caulerpa’s king had been all pomp and circumstance, but this was different. A column of the Abhijñā were flooding down the street towards us. And as I played over the cautionary morals of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles I wondered if that was the moment we should have run. The blue wave wasn’t just marching at us from one direction, but from everywhere. They were flooding out of gently curving spires and towers that were beautiful but violent slashes across the sky. Then they stopped. HR stood in the center of our cordon, clinging to our commbox.
I stepped forward, even with the edge of our perimeter. A female, a little taller than the rest, spoke, but it reverberated with the sound of a thousand voices. “We are of one mind.” I heard it in my head; I couldn’t tell if she was speaking with her lipless mouth as well, or if I imagined that as I tried to make sense of it. It felt like my brain having a runny shit all over itself- in a pleasant sort of way.
“Groovy,” I said.
There was a pause, her skin flashed blue, then purple. Scanning the crowd I saw many different colors flash across their faces, like a chameleon’s camouflage, only with a light glow. Then the procession turned towards the tallest and most impressive building in the city; it looked like one of the more intricate musical notes, but drawn in a puffy yet slippery Cyrillic script.
Walking along the procession I noticed the Abhijñā kept looking at us with large, dewey eyes. I wondered how much moisture they lost from them in this heated clime. The building that looked like a clef was farther than I’d realized, and the walk there took over an hour. The base was a stadium, and we were funneled through tunnels onto the floor. There were tens of thousands in the arena around us.
Apparently they’d been nosy. They’d gleaned what our purpose was. Hell, they’d even picked up our minimum and maximum offers, so they knew our parameters. They agreed to a third of the way between the min and max, which they said was being generous. After that, their translator “spoke” to HR alone. I gathered from the crowd they could hear the exchange, but we couldn’t. He nodded, and said aloud, “we have an accord.”
Then he turned and whispered in my ear. “As it’s been explained to me, they don’t have signatures. Written documents don’t have any legal standing here. They have something called imprinting- putting the meaning of the agreement directly onto someone’s mind. And luckily for my virgin brain, they want you. Specifically, she wants you. Requested, was the word I think they were reaching for, but it came across as she ‘craves’ you.”
“You did explain I’m not a turkey sandwich.”
“Not in so many words; we’re trying to avoid a diplomatic incident, here. But after the imprinting, you’ll have the legal authority, as her vassal, to sign the contracts on her and her planet’s behalf.” I hesitated. “What? The big bad war hero captain afraid of a supple blue girl?”
“She’s easily eighteen by human equivalence; girl makes it sound sordid- so did supple.”
“I know, that’s why I chose it. Now stop being such a sissy.”
She leaned over the table; there was lots of blue cleavage. “I can take it from here, negotiator.” Then it was like the room was dark, and everyone except her was in the shadows, and there was light, a soft glow, framing her in a halo. “Do I have permission to imprint you?” There was a light tremble to her voice, and I wondered then what the cultural significance of this was; was she asking me to dance or was it something more intimate. Then there was a sharp sensation at the back of my head, no, in my head, near the back. But not a pain, exactly, just intensity, to the point of it being uncomfortable.
I picked up a pen, but it was more like we picked up the pen together, like the way a man uses teaching a woman to golf as a pretense to getting his arms around her. And we pushed it around, and I realized I was writing an alien name I’d never seen in a script I didn’t recognize.
Then I set the pen down, and it was over, and she was staring at me, blushing. Like the first time somebody sticks a finger in you, it was awkward. Hurt a little, and tickled, and afterwards I was left a little frisky. I don’t recall exactly what all happened afterwards, with the ceremony, with the woman, but I woke up sticky, with a smile on my face. I had no idea how much time had passed, and found it difficult to care- even if it meant I was going to be stuck on this planet.
I wasn’t paying attention to my HUD map, or I might have seen Elle sneak up behind me. “We need to talk.”
“I recognize that tone, but you broke up with me years ago, and it’s not the kind of thing you reenact or need to renew. So, I’ll take a guess, and say, ‘I already deleted that sex video- just like I promised I would.’”
“You didn’t, and you’re not a good enough liar to even think you could convince me otherwise. And no intelligent woman ever expects a man to follow through on that kind of promise, anyway. Though I will permanently damage your testicles in such a way they can never be transplanted if you ever show it to anyone other than a girlfriend. I think that’s reasonable.”
“Exceedingly so. You want me to make you a copy?”
“Already have one. But what I meant, is we need to talk about HR. You know they’ve been giving out those performance incentives, right? I mean, we have all our major necessities provided, food, shelter, the basics, and the media archives are free and open to anyone on ship. There aren’t many other entertainments, but the few there are, namely the liquor, he rations as incentives. Well, he’s been overincentivizing the crew, lately, and there’s been a pretty mean uptick in drunken behavior, including violence, harassment and accidents. Here, I’ll send you over our data points, including some lovely colored graphs, because he usually only understands things in graph form.”
“So why come to me?”
“Because HR’s an arrogant ass. He thinks because he’s outside of the chain of command he’s above concerns over the operation of the ship.”
“So he’s not respecting your authority, and you want me to put the spurs to him.”
She winced. “Not a mental image I’ll easily get rid of.”
“We can always drop you off at Maggie’s afterwards, and you can spend some time on her couch. Wait- I didn’t mean to imply what I just did.”
“Not a mental image I imagine you’ll relinquish willingly. Probably just as well. You’ll appreciate our sexvid more if it’s part of a rotation.”
We were only a few hundred yards from the bridge, and HR’s office. I pinged him on my HUD map to be sure he was there, not that he was ever anywhere else. His door displayed a message about a counseling session in progress. Technically, I was supposed to digitally knock; but also technically, I didn’t have to. So I barged in, and kept the doors open behind me for SecDiv to co-barge.
“Good of you to join us,” he said grudgingly to me. “But at the moment we don’t need security assistance, and in fact, it would be inappropriate to have SecDiv in here at this time.” He gave a glance to the man and woman sitting opposite his desk, who indeed looked nervous about her presence. SecDiv looked to me, but I wasn’t willing to undercut his authority on that.
“We’re here on an unrelated matter,” she argued.
“Unless it’s critical we deal with it now, in which case I can’t imagine my involvement being necessary, it’ll have to wait. These two engineers have work that’s not being done. And unless there’s a bar fight the scanners haven’t picked up, your schedule’s wide open.”
“This is horseshit,” she started, but he cut her off.
“I’m not interested in having a pissing contest with you. Right now it’s an HR mediation. If it’s escalated, then it’s a SecDiv thing. Until then, confidentiality says you stand in the hall until we’re done.” They glared at each other a moment, but she knew, on the technicalities, he would prevail; still, she wanted to stay and fight it out.
“He’s got you by the short and curlies. We’ll make it quick.” I put a hand on her shoulder. She wanted to be pissed at me for not backstopping her, but she understood it, too, and was only a little huffy pulling away from me. “So what have we got here?”
“Sexual harassment.” As they both turned their attention to me, he gestured so I knew it was the female engineer harassing the male.
“So we’re clear, is this harassment of the told a dirty limerick, stands a little too close when talking kind, or”
“the unwanted advances, made explicitly and repeatedly, kind.”
“Super. Then I’m going to make this plain to you. We’re not planet-side, here. We can’t fire you for creating a hostile work environment, because then we’d just be housing a free-loader. But I also won’t allow misbehavior, either, so I can fire you out of an airlock. You need to leave this guy alone.”
“It isn’t that simple.”
I pulled up their work assignments on my HUD, to be sure they weren’t in the same area on the same shift, and thankfully they weren’t. “Your options are quite simple. You can walk away, or you can walk into an airlock. You’re not mission-critical and I’m not very particular. So make your decision and live with it. Presuming you want to be reasonable, I’ll set your HUDs to signal when you’re getting close to one another, say, within half a deck- so you can avoid it.”
“Like a restraining order.”
“Like that. Only if you ignore the warnings and move closer, his HUD will go red. Yours will send violent jolts of electricity through your pain receptors. If he abuses it, we’ll make it so sometimes it shocks you, sometimes him- so don’t push it. Either of you. This ship isn’t just a conveyance, it’s our home, and our community. We’re neighbors. You don’t have to like your neighbors, and you don’t even have to get along, but you’re at least going to pretend to be pleasant. Because otherwise”
“I get shot out of an airlock.”
“Exactly. Now if you’d just learned as quickly that he wasn’t interested I wouldn’t have to know your name and face and have this burning desire to kick your tailbone repeatedly. That’s it. You’re free to go- just make sure at the branch in the hall you go off in opposite directions.”
She got up first, slowly. I think she’d realized the fragile balance on the ship, and thought she was safe to exploit it, and now she wasn’t so sure. As they cleared the room HR said, probably loud enough they could hear it, “You know you’re painfully close to becoming the executive officer whose only Solomon response is ‘airlock,’ right?”
“Maybe. But there isn’t a lot of room for nuance, here. If the crew decides they can game the system, we end up with chaos. This ship is, like it or not, a collective endeavor; we only survive if we all keep pulling in the same direction.”
“Okay, but what if someone who is mission critical gets uppity?”
“I’ll indulge you. Say for instance SciDiv decided he was going to lock himself in his cabin masturbating in lieu of working- well, more than he does now, I mean. I’d just tell him he’s mission-critical, but that doesn’t mean his legs are, or his joystick. All we care about is his brain, and maybe his hands so he can keep Frankensteining.”
“That sounds both cruel and unusual.”
“I prefer to call it thinking outside the box. But make no mistake here: we are farther from our homeworld than any human beings have ever been, with the exception of the Argos. We are all dependent on one another for survival. And nobody gets to fuck with that out of pride.”
I keyed my throatmic, “Elle, you can come back in here.” She did, and she was pissed. By the way her hand kept dancing at her side I could tell she wanted nothing more than to beat him about the temples with her baton.
HR ignored her, and accessed some of his memos through his desk. “I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you,” he started, looking at me. “I had a meeting with EngDiv a few days ago. Because of crew call-offs and increased resource usage, we’re redlining; if we don’t get both in order, we’re looking at having to cut back on engine power. And that cuts into our timeline.”
I sent him over Elle’s charts and graphs. “That’s funny, because we came here to talk to you about cutting back on performance incentives, which are causing those issues.”
He stopped fiddling with his files and looked up. “I can’t just cut back on the performance incentives. There’ll be a stampede on my office door.”
“I don’t mind if, because of your fragile ego, you need to play me off as bad cop in this scenario, but let me make this situation abundantly clear: you can keep giving the hamsters pellets to keep them docile- but right now you’re giving them too many pellets, and they’re getting into severely uncute pellet-driven fist-fights, which lead to less cute productivity deficits, and even farther from cute resource waste because of additional med care. If we were talking about actual hamsters, I’d say we quit this galactic mining thing, tape the hamster fights and retire on our ridiculous viral video profits. But since we’re talking about the crew, I’ve got medical up my ass about the increased workload and resource spike, the Div heads up my ass about missed work. SecDiv shimmied up my ass just this morning- though I suspect that was more recreational than professional in nature.”
“Thanks for that,” Elle said.
“And now you’re up my ass over the fact that, between lost crew productivity and the added strain on med resources we’re in danger of having to compromise our schedule. My ass is now very crowded, and that makes me uncomfortable.” I narrowed my eyes. “And when I’m uncomfortable, I have this really nasty habit of making others uncomfortable.”
He thought for a moment. “Just to be clear, are we speaking of being uncomfortable in general, or specifically about you making my ass uncomfortable. Because I’ll probably want to call PsychDiv in here if it’s the latter.”
I pulled him out of his seat and hucked him, ass-first, onto the floor. Then I pushed against his chair sideways. Its plastic base groaned until it snapped off where it was attached to the floor. “There. Now your ass is uncomfortable, and will be for a few days until EngDiv can fix your chair.” I took a moment to send an executive work order prioritizing the fix somewhere below EngDiv scratching his ass. “And it’ll be even more uncomfortable if you try to sit on the bar sticking out of the floor as if it were a chair- that is some jagged looking tubing. But more importantly, Haley,” I enunciated to make sure the ship’s computer was listening, “do I have permission to hurl the Human Reptile into the vacuum of space?”
“The charter specifies that any member of the crew, regardless of rank, can be punished to the captain’s specifications if they present an impediment to meeting the ship’s efficiency goals.”
“And this particular jackass on this particular occasion? Does he meet that standard?”
“The standards are at the captain’s discretion.”
“Thank you, Haley. Now you may not be under my direct command, but I can fire you as an idiot-missile at the next moon whose face offends my tender sensibilities. Note that I have very tender sensibilities, and nearly all moons offend them. Are we understanding one another?”
He thought for a moment, and put out his hand to be helped up, and when I took it said, “So, you’re still a cockass.”
I helped him to his feet. “Pretty much. But the incentives. You can see where this is causing problems for everybody.”
“Yeah. I’ll take care of it.”
“You sure? I had a moon already picked out and everything. I was going to call it Shitheadsylvania.”
“Pardon, Captain,” Haley began, “but we have already left a firing solution for Shitheadsylvania. However, we are quickly approaching a firing solution for Doucheburg.”
Slightly annoyed, he repeated, “I’ll take care of it.”
SecDiv followed me out of his office. “You could have humiliated him before he made me look like a jerk in front of the engineers.”
“You’re SecDiv. You’re supposed to look like a jerk.” I did feel bad. “I’ve got a meet with SciDiv, about the new planet. And he has a fun new nickname. Feel like walking along?”
“Why not?” HR had been right about that. She had even less to do than me. We took our time getting down to SciDiv. There was a lovely view of a fading dwarf on the starboard side.
SciDiv had his face in a food box, and when he looked up, still had a noodle in his beard. “Dr. Pussyface, just the lab rat I wanted to see.”
SciDiv glared at me a moment, then saw an opportunity. “Why do people keep calling me that?”
I was surprised even he could be so dense. “Either shave the beard or wash it. Because if it smells like a vagina, and looks like a vagina, well, odds are you have a pussyface.”
“Hmm. That explains why the intern try to roofy me. But I switched our coffees. He woke up with enormous breasts.”
“That seems like a strange use of your time and talents.”
“Then I won’t tell you what happened before he woke up.”
“And, so long as it never crosses HR’s desk, you won’t have to. And I won’t have to do terrible things to my own brain to forget what you told me.”
“That sounds like a concord.” He put out his hand for me to shake, and I didn’t. He didn’t take offense, merely sniffed his hand, made a face, and told me, “Good call. I don’t know what that is, but it’s certainly gamey. Possibly infectious.” He got up and went over to a sanitizing station.
SecDiv leaned over to whisper, “So do we think he’s just lab-grown something vile that’s making him smell like rotting squid anus, or is he just intimate with someone whose hygiene issues complement his own.”
“I prefer not to know.”
“That’s probably healthy. Psychologically, anyway.”
“And the other kind of healthy comes from just not letting him touch me. Or my food. I did let him touch your birthday cake, though.”
“That isn’t funny.”
“He was the one who spelled it ‘birfday’ in fudge.”
“I’m going to hurt you one of these days.”
“And, no, it won’t be sexually.”
“Don't be developmentally differentially-abled.”
SciDiv came back. He had cleansing foam on his sleeve cuffs and beard. He pulled up an image and it rotated above us on a shared HUD interlink. It was of a humanoid who looked female, wearing a wrap not unlike a sari. She had a slight frame, and exceptionally thin arms. Her face had a flattened nose, rounded chin, but was otherwise very sharp.
“We’re still processing the data from the new batch of sensor pods, but we’re getting in all kinds of information about a new species. We’ve seen from the footage capture that this new species has splashes of chromatophores that can control pigment in their skin. They don’t cover the whole body, though, just speckles, like freckles on a redhead. They can change color, and like chameleons they seem to use the change for social signaling. It seems too primitive for complex communication, but they can signal aggression or sexual receptivity. But the really cool thing is that we can’t tell how they are communicating, though it’s obvious they do. Their society is too complex to rely solely on body language and context, so that almost means they have to be communicating telepathically.”
“So they’ll know at a glance about the impure thoughts you’re having looking at their women.” It was mostly a joke, but he did seem to be leering at the image.
“They are remarkably humanoid, aren’t they? I mean, I could completely buy that being a human woman in some neat facial prosthetics. Though, not to c block you, the breast-looking things seem to be where their females store their ova. They can be lowered or raised near the body, presumably to keep the eggs at a constant temperature, like the cremasteric muscle in balls. So they’re more like chesticles than the boobs we know and love. Present company excluded.”
“I can’t like boobs?” SecDiv asked with faux innocence.
“No, I just meant that”
“If the end of that sentence is you just don’t love mine, you shouldn’t finish it.” She was like a cat playing with a mouse before eating it (or maybe just taking out one of its eyes for fun).
“Your boobs are very nice,” he said, as if it was the worst thing he had ever been forced to say, then quieter, “please don’t kick me in the kidneys. I pee blood when kicked in the kidneys. And I like my blood to be not in my urine.”
At first she pretended not to understand. “Oh, that’s right. You got a little rowdy at the bar one night. I forgot that was you. Though in all fairness, you did break my nose.” I smiled, finally vindicated. I was pretty certain that hadn’t been me- and that I’d fractured my knuckle on somebody else’s face (my certainty had only been slightly lessened by the fact that I did have a drink or two before my ride-along).
“Oh god. I always knew I would die with filthy-smelling hands.”
“You’re fine. I don’t hold grudges. But do it again, and I won’t just stomp your kidneys; I’ll have your kidneys surgically removed. I have tools, you know. And the captain likes the look of me naked. I’m sure I could get him to okay it.”
“Probably just by saying the word ‘naked’ sensually,” I added helpfully.
“Naked,” she whispered in his ear. He lowered his datapad to cover his pelvis.
“I’m not sure it’s professional of you to be giving my section head a fear boner,” I said.
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” she replied, and walked out of the room.
“So,” I asked him, “colorful alien cleavage?”
“Yes, but like I said, they’re basically nads dangling off a woman’s chest.”
“Maybe I’ve been in space too long, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.” I left. I pinged Elle’s HUD, and thought about trying to catch up with her, but there was something I needed to do. Without her.
I’d been avoiding the conversation for more than a week, now. The SecDet hadn’t found anything specifically linking Perkins to Brian’s death. But he was certain she was hiding what she knew. I sent a notification through the door. I could see on my HUD that she was in, but I didn’t want to make a habit of being the captain who barges into women’s rooms unannounced (at least not until I was codgerly and could pretend it was an accident). She didn’t open the door, but unlocked it.
“Captain,” she said, without really looking up at me.
“You should stand up for this.” She stared at me, horrified, which hadn’t been my intention, then quickly got to her feet. “I just wanted to tell you in person that I’ve terminated the investigation into Baker’s death. You’re being fully reinstated and you’re cleared for duty again. And I want you to know something, maybe a couple somethings. First, nobody’s coming after you for Brian’s death. The investigation, it was never about looking for someone to blame. It was about closure. For the crew, for me, and for you. And I want you to get that closure.”
“I don’t need to talk to the docs.”
“That may be true. But I wanted to show you something.”
I sent her the document, and she opened it on her eyescreen. “It’s blank.”
“Check the permissions,” I told her. She did. “Only you and PsychDiv will have access to that file. It’s walled off from me, HR, and the ship. Short of physically tearing the drive the information’s on out of the servers we could never get to it. This isn’t an attempt at entrapment.”
“I’m going to tell you something, and I’d appreciate if you could keep it to yourself. Brian was my cousin, and I don’t blame you in the least for what happened. You showed him a kindness; he betrayed your trust by using that information to hurt himself. I’m sure he regretted that. But what happened, had everything to do with him. You should talk to PsychDiv, or at least someone else you can trust.” I turned to leave, but something stopped me; I think I knew she had something to say.
“I miss him,” she said.
I was practically skipping, chasing after SecDiv’s dot on my HUD map. I didn’t want to just call her- I wanted to deliver the news in person. And she was either aware and avoiding me, or uncannily maneuvering to stay just out of reach. Until I cut through one of the mess rooms and she nearly bowled over me. She didn’t stop, but I matched her walkspeed, and then she noticed me, did a double-take, and tried to ignore me.
“You’re giddy. The last time you were giddy, there was a bar fight going on in the crew compartments. And I got my nose broken. I’m still not 100% convinced you didn’t throw that punch, either.”
“Wow. You whine a lot more now that you’re getting gray hair.”
“I have, like, three.”
“And from how much that stresses you out, I imagine it won’t be just three for long.”
“You’ve been salt-and-peppery since you were twenty-two.”
“Earlier, actually, that’s just the first time you saw it.”
“But don’t think I’m done talking about my punched nose- or that I’ve given up having that footage reconstructed, to prove it. I remember what a punch from you in the face feels like.”
“Not my fault that, even in a clean spar, you drop your guard too much. But I was there to help. And because I miss closing out a bar with SecDiv.” I realized, since on ship we used the name for both the division and its head officer, she might have took it to mean I missed her, not my old posting. And maybe that’s what I had meant.
“So, jumping to the assumption that you’re not giddy over the possibility of my nose being broken again, what are you so happy about?”
“Well, we got the sensor pods back, and we’re stopping at the next planet.”
“Think about it. We’ll finally get to go on world. No more of these same hallways.”
“Only if you don’t like your skin. Highly acidic atmosphere.”
“Fairly primitive species. Data so far indicates rudimentary language functions, low-grade tech, about industrial-revolution era. Fairly peaceful species- single-cellular.”
“Yep. Big weird blob creatures. Well, big as compared to Earth protozoa, anyway. Largest ones seem to top out at 2 meters. I guess, mostly not like a blob. Analogous to a plant-sized algal-cell- I made a note on my eyescreen, to be sure I remembered it right. And from that species SciDiv derived a name for the planet: Caulerpa.”
“But if they’ve got a name for it, how are you still this excited about it?”
“I just found out. The SciDiv einsteins have been working on it since an hour or so after bed- earthnight, anyway. Despite instructions I had to be notified as soon as we had the pod. It seems SciDiv thought I could use my beauty rest. I’ve instructed the ship’s computer to start brewing his coffee with my urine- without filtering it, this time.”
“You know, at some point you might overwhelm the ship’s sarcasm buffers and she might actually do it.”
“I think I could live with that.”
She knit her brow; it was only just starting to get frown lines. “How long do I have to assemble a security escort?”
“Days, maybe weeks. So plenty of time to figure out who’s least likely to hork in their suits when watching a man-sized blob’s lunch float around inside them. And hopefully enough time for SciDiv to perfect a microglass coating that’ll keep the atmosphere from eating through our suits.”
“Well, yeah, because at least some of the acids in the atmosphere are oxidizing, which react violently with organic matter. So not only would we die, but we’d kaboom.”
“It’s a little insulting getting a chemistry lesson in baby-talk- but I guess that is how your mind operates.”
“Among other parts of my anatomy.”
“I won’t even ask.”
“Probably better that way.” I spent the next several days buzzing like a bee. But I knew it couldn’t last, and that it shouldn’t. I needed to get myself prepared. Not that I had much more than a bit part in the kabuki theater of our negotiations. But still, I needed to be prepared for that.
And I made sure everyone else’s parts were ready, too.
That’s why I was in SciDiv’s lab, watching him Braille his lips across the rim of his coffee cup, mouth-humping the porcelain like an amorous snail. Then he tilted it back and drank, and I wondered if perhaps the ship had taken my demands earlier seriously and made his coffee with my leavings- though I knew, in truth, all of the fluids we drank on ship were recycled urine. Still, I like to pretend.
“Did the commbox touch down?”
“Yep. And we’ve been getting some squealing off it. We think the natives are figuring it out. Thought we heard a couple of actual words translate through- though it seems to have been an accident. We’re hoping they’ll replicate shortly.”
“And do we think they’ll have their end up and running by the time we arrive?”
“It’s a little difficult to know. Argos only met up with a few dozen species in its travels, and that’s really the only data we’ve got on commbox interactions. I mean, it’s simplified down into the most rudimentary language system we have- math. It uses binary, and a repeating series of prime numbers, since math should be universal. But so far, where they are in deciphering the sequence, which is before they’ve both learned how to make the box talk to them and teach the box how to interpret them… they’re moving a little slower than similarly-advanced species. But, if they continue apace, they should be speaking our language within a day of our arrival. And since these things tend to snowball, there’s a good chance we’ll be receiving intelligible bursts before we get there.”
“Well, the sensor probes are programmed to drop the box down in the largest and most advanced city on the planet. Odds are pretty good it’ll be a decently knowledgeable city, but any civilization is going to have its experts spread around. Just like the Manhattan Project people weren’t all from New Mexico- it took time to round them all up. So the longer they have the box, the more of their culture’s resources will be brought to bear on making it work.”
“It’s been explained to me, but not well, why rejection tends to be low.”
“Well, even if the species assumes that the box is a part of some hostility, the thinking goes that at worst it could be a ticking time bomb that they have to defuse. Reason would dictate that any significantly advanced species to have developed interplanetary travel, if dangerous, wouldn’t need to give the home team a chance to fight back. And the odds that there will be some beneficial element to a new species, trade being a strong likelihood. Most species pretty readily take up the commbox. A few have even made improvements.”
“And how are your mengeles coming on the microglass?”
“Mengeles? Really? A Nazi/Holocaust reference?”
“What? Too soon?”
“Yes, but you’re also a corporate ‘scientist,’ and I’m pretty sure you’d cut up an orphan if I told you there were minerals inside it.”
“You’re going to throw the mineral piñata in my face again? One time that happened- and in our defense we’d accidentally grown a strain of incredibly infectious hallucinogenic virus. And it wasn’t an actual orphan, despite what you told us. It was a faux-leather recliner.”
“I know. And I loved that recliner.”
“You love screwing with people who do not have their wits about them.”
“And yet, no one has learned the dangers of wandering my halls ungirded with their wits.”
“I was high.”
“I don’t know why you still seem to think that’s a viable defense.” The door shut behind me. I wasn’t being fair. But I had caught him and half of SciDiv running through the halls naked looking for an orphan to vivisect- that part had been their idea. Their “sacramental quest” they called it, I believe. Thankfully, the hallucinogen also made them fairly susceptible to suggestion, so they accepted my recliner as a sacrifice, and by the time they were done prospecting in its innards, SecDiv had arrived in enough numbers to subdue them.
The microglass did end up ready in time. The reason SciDiv deflected was that in testing the day before, one of the SciOffs got it in her eye- and it was shredded by a thousand cuts. MedDiv theorized they could save it, but her clone back-up was fresh and full-grown, so it made sense to transplant an eye instead.
The Caulerpa figured out the commbox by the time we made a stable orbit. We think it was an accident, because it sounded like the guy assigned to watch the box was having sex with it, and got interrupted by one of their techies who realized it was functioning and told him, “Don’t stop.” I never imagined my first experience of alien culture would be one of them molesting our communication equipment, though in retrospect that was rather naïve of me.
They ended up with more time to figure it out since stupidly enough, we had to do almost a full second rotation, because we just missed the window for their capital city. We took down three shuttles, a twenty-four person team. The first shuttle was the diplomatic mission, me and HR, lawyers, translators, body language types. The second was the science mission, including some med staff and PsychDiv; the thinking was that she might be able to analyze the Caulerpa, give us some insight into their species’ behavior. And the third shuttle was our security escort. They touched down first, secured a landing zone, kept the natives at arm’s length.
My shuttle was beginning its final approach. HR was studying the monitors like our lives depended on it. Suddenly he looked up at me: “You’re a cockass.” That must have meant that we had moved enough out of range of the ship that I was no longer technically in charge.
“I don’t understand, anatomically, how that works.”
“I have no idea. I’m just thrilled to be out from under your authority, however temporarily that might end up being.”
“Okay. But I still don’t get why we have to give up most of our momentum, get in one of these feet-smelling landers, and drop down on the surface. I’m happy for the change of pace, just less excited about the hit our itinerary is going to take. Presumably we aren’t sitting down with them just because you get your jollies palm-fondling the flagella of alien boogers?”
“We’re here because the UG court system, likely to soon be the United Planetary court system, if it isn’t already, doesn’t recognize interplanetary agreements made digitally. They think there’s too much room for abuse in that kind of system. So we can’t just hover over their planet shouting ‘negotiations’ at them through a commbox.”
He seemed uncharacteristically tense; he was always stuffy, but this was different. “Why so fussy? Butterflies? Or is it because it says in the charter that if the alien species asks you to swallow you have to respond, ‘how much?’”
“You really are a man-child.”
“True. And we should try and wrap this up quickly; I need to make boom-boom.”
Suddenly the shuttle stopped moving forward, and hovered as it began its final descent.
SecDiv had insisted on accompanying our shuttle personally, and tried to shoulder past me; it was probably somewhere in the rules that if we were going to be shot at that she, as head bullet-stopper, should be first in the line of fire, but I didn’t budge until the door opened.
I jumped out into what I mistook at first for gray fog. But it was thicker, and the gravity was lighter than I expected. It was like listing through very thin pea soup diarrhea. “I’m going to suggest everyone takes their administration of anti-nausea meds now, since it’ll be a while before we can get you out of the suit- and you’ll be stuck in there with anything you vomit up. That sound reasonable, medical?”
There was a pause while I waited for the transmission to bounce from the shuttle to the Nexus, then for the response to come back down to us. “Should be good. Take the first dose as soon as you feel the need. Second won’t release for a couple of hours, unless you get a med waiver- but the dose should last twice that time.”
I was still waiting for gravity to grab hold of me and put me down on the ground. One of the SciOffs grabbed my arm, pulled my feet down onto the planet’s surface. “Be careful. Lower gravity means you can reach escape velocity easier, or get ‘stuck’ in mid air. So take it easy. Baby-steps, as it were.” Thankfully, the SciOff broadcast through all the comm. channels, and made it sound like a general warning to all of us. “But if you need them, everyone has attitude adjusters built into their excursion suits. They’re not meant for flying- so don’t be a jack-ass.” And that time she did look right at me. “You only have enough fuel for a quick burst, changing direction and altering trajectory.”
I flicked my HUD momentarily over to infrafred, and I could see the architecture of their capital city. They had a name for it, but it wasn’t something you could pronounce with a human throat. It meant something like “connectedness.” One of the botany geeks got the bright idea to call it “Stolon,” a rough plant equivalent to their word.
Stolon wasn’t composed of solid buildings. Instead, the rough outlines of structures were demarcated by floating pillars, daisy-chained together with ropes. It was like a three-dimensional version of a roped off swimming area. Some of the buildings were incredibly elaborate, looking more like intricate jewelry than structures, and for a moment I imagined the tallest spire draped down Elle’s neck.
HR put his arms out to keep anyone from going forward before he’d said his piece; he wanted to be sure we didn’t step on any toes- or any nieces. “All right. Everybody. Be very fucking careful where you step. Full-grown, mature, possibly regal adults are a couple meters in diameter. But children could be all but microscopic. If possible, just don’t step at all.”
We saw several of the Caulerpa float/rolling around us. It reminded me of school, looking through a microscope at a stained cell, seeing all of the various cellular structures. They were semi-opaque, but their organs could be seen floating inside them. And like the algae they’d been named for, the Caulerpa contained fluid-filled vacuoles that kept the open space inside their single cell small, allowing it to be structurally stronger than it would otherwise be.
A noble, with precious stones inserted into his cell wall, approached down the city’s main street. He was flanked by frondy blobs that had a glowing red core inside them. I assumed, and SciDiv later concurred, that they had developed a kind of bomb that could be detonated from inside their single cell. The force of the blast could be partially directed by their bodies. A suicide honor guard, basically.
The noble stopped before us. His body trembled slightly, then, for an instant, formed itself into the rough silhouette of a man, and one of his attendants brought their commbox in front of him. Then he began to communicate, which consisted of flailing his flagella, slight changes of shape, and the release of chemicals into the thick “air.” At least, I hope that was part of his speech; otherwise he peed on me. “Hello. I am the ruler of Caulerpa. My name is Palustris. And I believe you have an offer to make me. Please. Come into my palace.”
“Said the spider to the fly,” one of the SecOffs muttered through an open mic. The commbox sputtered out a translation in Caulerpan.
The ruler replied: “I am unfamiliar with this phrase; ‘flying scavengers’ I assume is a reference to yourselves, but I am at a loss as to the many-legged predator. Presuming that by ‘leg’ you mean our flagella and are regarding our species, I assume no offense. And I assure you my species is not predatory. We subsist mainly on a diet of microorganic algae and starlight. And we intend you no harm.” Then he led his procession down the street, and we followed.
The palace used a lot of exotically formed minerals, arranged in dazzling patterns that altered as the walls flowed in the wind. Negotiations had been set up in the king’s hall. He sat in a crude throne that looked more like a ruby-encrusted bathroom stall, while his negotiators pounded out the details.
It was my job to stand with a pistol on my hip, arms crossed, looking at once smug and cocksure. There wasn’t a strong likelihood Dalaxia or any of my other notorious exploits had made it this far, but our psych-op strategists thought parading a “hero” captain around at negotiations couldn’t hurt. I felt silly, for the fact I knew the SecOffs in the escort had been chosen because they trained daily to be up for this kind of duty; maybe some of it was like falling off a hoverbike and I’d retain it, but I wasn’t what I’d call combat-ready anymore, certainly not in the way they were.
Negotiations didn’t take long. Apparently he was king in the feudal sense of the word. He controlled the algae farms on-world. Like the old oil sheikhs who claimed the resources for themselves, and had the clout to back it up. He didn’t need a lot, because he wasn’t negotiating for the needs of his planet, only his own, so he only needed more. And since his species was still hundreds of years from giving a crap about the mining rights to surrounding planets, and since he wasn’t planning to live that long, anyway, any was better than none.
HR seemed chastened by the negotiations. So I chided him once we got back on our shuttle. “You strutted into that place like the cock of the walk, but coming out you’re walking like you’ve been cocked too much.”
“Yeah. I got nervous. Kind of fudged a little bit. We’re not supposed to bring up the idea of mineral sharing- just to react amenably if they do. And of course their negotiators leapt at the idea. I doubt any of it will trickle down to the people, but the agreement’s done, at least.”
“So you accidentally did something kind of humane? That does sound unlike you.”
“You really are a gigantic horse clitoris.”
“Actually, whore’s clitorises, or their labia, for that matter, aren’t really any bigger than most. It’s not like a book, where the more it gets used the more dog-eared it gets.”
SecDiv butted in. “I can’t quite tell if you’re defending women’s collective honor or just being a filthy bastard.”
“That’s the sweet spot, for me, where I’m at my most charming.”
“So you’re saying you’re not charming at all, then.”
“Basically. And yet you’re still completely into me.”
“Be still my beating heart,” she said, with sarcasm thicker than the fart-fog of Caulerpa our ship was rising out of. But then she smiled, just a little.
“Private Dickbite.” Williams approached me on the bridge; he didn’t seem enthused that I remembered his name. A few weeks had passed since we’d fired the first volley of sensor pods.
“Ensign Dickbite, then. Wait, I didn’t demote you? I should probably make a note of that.” That same anger from before, but this time he caught it, took a breath. “Only kidding, Williams. McCain says you’ve made progress.”
He was sheepish. He’d probably forgotten I had access to his psych files. “Yes.”
“Nothing to be shy about. Every man wrestles with his demons. No shame in having them, only in giving in.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now what’d you need?”
“EngDiv wanted me to let you know they’ve tested all my environmentals: work station and living quarters, as well as recreational areas. Nothing for me to blame my outburst on. Just a crappy attitude. What I don’t understand is why, since he works on the bridge, he had me come up here to hand-deliver the information to you.”
“Probably so I could call you ‘Private Dickbite.’”
“Ah. So this was all part of my rehabilitation, then.”
“That certainly sounds less callous and abusive than the alternative. So we’ll say that’s it.” He stared at me dumbfounded for a moment, then, realizing it was far less frightening to be serving under a Captain with a dark sense of humor than a genuine sociopath, smiled like an idiot. “But yours is the eggiest head currently on my bridge. Care to sit in on this?”
SciDiv continued with his briefing. “We’ve received back out first sensor pods. Planets are lifeless, though scans indicate that it was the site of a Roanoke.”
“A Roanoke?” asked Williams.
“Abandoned or lost colony. Buildings, signs of a settlement, but no people.”
“So we’re on course for,” I hesitated, “fuck, what’s the name of the next habitable planet?”
“It’s in the NGCs, I think.”
“Right. Whoeverthefuck cares. We’ll give it a proper name once we’ve got sensor information back, have a guess as to what we’re looking at. In the meantime, we’re still a good .16 lightyears from Tuscaroras- on account of the Roanoke.”
“You know that seems cute, now,” Dave said, “but think in fifty to a hundred years when likeminded captains try to be clever across the galaxy, and we end up with fifty different Tuscaroras.”
“Mine will be special; it’ll be the one with the whores.”
“You keep saying that, and I keep telling you that decreeing it in executive memos you send me from the toilet doesn’t actually make laws, or ensure that the planet will be whore-friendly.”
“Silence, doubting David. We’ve still got another .21 light years until we’re in range of the next planet, though we should be picking up its sensor pod in the next few days. Then we’ll know if we need to reverse the engines.”
Williams spoke up. “If we’re talking distances, shouldn’t we be using parsecs instead of light-years?”
“No,” I corrected him. “For one, we’re traveling at near-light speeds, so our total travel time is, roughly speaking, one light year per annum. Second, our entire trip will be less than two parsecs. Generally, I prefer meters, but telling a woman I’m packing .15 meters isn’t all that impressive.
“You could always say fifteen centimeters.”
“That sounds like a French lady’s ring-size. There isn’t much room for inches in science, but there’s even less room for science in my pants.”
A notification flashed across my eyescreen. I answered the call, and the SecOff Williams had verbally bludgeoned appeared in the corner of my vision. She looked better, and younger, without the tears or emotional distress. Her name was printed in a font that grew when I paid attention to it, then receded. Miranda, V. She was noticeably trying to be cold and efficient; I imagine she wasn’t pleased I’d seen her vulnerable.
“Sir, we have a fatality, in the barracks. Footage and scene indicates a suicide. Baker, Brian Phillip, Sergeant.”
I was numb when I said, “Excellent work, officer,” but she was relieved enough not to notice.
“Thank you sir,” she said, and was gone.
“Something I have to take care of,” I muttered, and wasn’t sure anyone heard me. I dialed in a call as I walked off the bridge. “Maggie, have you heard about Baker?”
“Yeah. They call me first any time there’s bloodshed. I’ve been combing over his psych file the entire time they were investigating the scene. I don’t have a formal report yet, obviously, but I can give you my impressions.”
“Go ahead, then.”
“Brian Phillip Baker. Was in the midst of a sexual identity crisis. Put in a request for a sexual characteristics transfer.”
“You mean a sex change, don’t you?”
“Yes, and no. The technique is similar to the civilian procedure, only such a thing isn’t allowed on ship. You remember when we were all first up for a posting on the Nexus- they had us all tested for genetic and personality compatibility? Of course you do. You are aware that as the head of PsychDiv I’m flagged when anyone, officers included, religiously check their bio/psych compatibility listings, right? Or when you link from there directly into my dossier?”
“Are you saying I’m bordering on electronically stalking you?”
“Not entirely. Bit of a gray area, there. But we can talk about your burgeoning digital codependence officially later. The reason our on-board sex characteristics transfer is different is that we can’t leave any genetic material on the table. Long-term- and I’m speaking in generational terms, here- diversity and viability on the genetic scale depends on having as many genomes in the mix as possible.”
“So our surgery does most of the same things, altering genitalia and appearance. It also involves a hormone-secreting implant. But the difference is that the testes are repositioned into the abdomen. They’re sequestered by a small dialysis device that keeps hormones from interfering in either direction, it’s really just a more strict version of the blood-testies barrier that all men have.”
“Sperm cells are divergent enough from other body cells that they can cause an immune reaction. Your body would attack your testes if they weren’t kept separate from the blood. But basically, he’d still be producing sperm. There’s two potential options for harvesting haploid cells at that point, a reservoir with, for lack of a better term, a spigot, or a jab with a needle.”
“What’s disturbing is we’ve all agreed, in advance, to these things. It’s in our employment contract. Of course, on the flipside, this kind of operation is prohibitively expensive in civilian life. So it isn’t all without benefits. And I did notice this. A portion of his file is sealed under executive level authority, and records indicate you’ve been through that information. I don’t need you to unlock it, just, is there anything in it I should know?”
“He was my cousin.” My door slid open, and there was a long moment where the ship didn’t turn on the lights inside; it seemed to, like me, not know whether I was going in.
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She paused a moment; I couldn’t tell if it was a professional courtesy, or if she was measuring my reaction. “Anything else that might be clinically relevant?”
I plopped down on my bed; my whole body was heavy. I felt dead myself. “Off the top of my head? He had divergent sexuality, questioning, I think is the term they prefer. But he signed an affidavit agreeing to contribute to in vitro if he decided to be gay. I don’t think he was going back on any of that.”
“Wait, here’s something. He was into one of those social role-playing games, but he was spending a greater amount of time in it- nearly double the average. That’s a marker for dissociating identity. And he was coming up for a mandatory profile review in a couple of months. We probably would have flagged him.”
“I wouldn’t assume that’s coincidental. He must have known how he felt, and how it would look. The review put a ticking clock to his decision.”
She sighed, and it came over breathy and heavy in my cochlear implant. “I hate this. Feeling like I could have done something- maybe even like I should have. He was so close. We could have-” she sighed again, but this time it was lighter, and it made me feel, for a moment, lighter, too. “But I guess that was the point. He didn’t want to be helped, anymore. Whatever he was struggling with- he wanted to be done with it. Look, I should get back to this. I’ll let you know if I find anything else useful. Do you want to be CCed on my write-up?”
“No. I imagine it’ll be synthed into Elle’s incident report, and probably addendumed to it; if I need a copy after I know where to find you.”
I wasn’t completely honest with Maggie. I guess, if you parsed it, I hadn’t lied to her, either. But I hadn’t told her everything. He’d tried to kill himself once before. It stayed out of his folder, because his family took care of it privately. Which was more expensive, but keeping a suicide off his record saved his career. It was certainly the only reason he ever made it into consideration for the Nexus.
I wasn’t captain, then, just part of the executive committee managing staffing. I was one of the people, half of whom were now Div heads, who considered him for an engineering slot. He was on the bubble. I didn’t push him over, so much as not push him off. Maybe I should have.
But I’m lousy at second-guessing. I didn’t want to go to the scene (I’m not that stupid), but I couldn’t just stay locked in my room, staring at the wall. I called SecDiv. Elle’s portrait flashed up immediately, too fast for a human to answer; she must have macroed me, assuming I’d call her eventually. “What can you tell me about the suicide?”
“Still compiling, and its early into the investigation. But I walked the scene myself. Sorry about throwing the meat at you, earlier, but she’s been wobbly since the confront with Williams. Talking to the Captain seems to have hardened her back up a bit.”
“This is all prelim- report’ll come after we’ve had a chance to analyze and verify, but I can give you my gut-read. He was careful, and cautious. Put his BioMonitors in test so the ship wouldn’t flag him as dead. Used the just the right cocktail of drugs and chemicals to make it virtually impossible to transplant him with clone organs. But, and here’s where it’s strange, he was also specific in using drugs and chems we could either harvest back out of him afterwards, or can reproduce with relative ease in the BacFarm. He wanted to be sure he was gone, but… he wanted to make sure that nobody was going to be inconvenienced by his death.”
“Except of course whomever he pumped for information on how to kill himself thoroughly.”
“You think he had help?”
“I think the system would have flagged him as a suicide risk if he’d started querying for clean means of offing himself using only available material. And he wasn’t medical himself, which meant he talked to somebody who was. We’ll get a SecDet to look into it. We’ll want whoever it was to have a sit-down with Maggie. And in the meantime, I’ll have to figure out an engineering schedule that’ll keep us on our targets without impeding anybody who needs to mourn the loss of their colleague.”
“HR can probably handle it, or the EngDiv. Or are you just trying to keep your hands busy?”
“That wasn’t an oblique reference to masturbation, was it?”
“You were a prolific masturbator while we were dating, but no. I understand the need to tinker. I remember after Dalaxia. We didn’t stop screwing for a week. Unless you count passing out due to dehydration. Which was a little awkward, since the medics kept coming in to give us fluids while we were in an unconscious, naked embrace. You’re smiling. That’s good.” She didn’t tell me how unsettling I was when I was upset, but I remembered she didn’t like it.
“You naked always made me smile.”
“Past-tense? Because I have to say it’s only gotten better.” One of the SciTechs bumped into her, and for the first time I realized she was back in the barracks, still at the scene, and how awkward that really was.
“I should go. It’s a mad house, and apparently I’m the one who’s supposed to be in charge.”
I did a quick comparative analysis on EngDiv shift changes. It gave me an idea of who preferred to work with Baker- Brian. I started to build a schedule where those who spent the most time with him on shift got the most time off. I was still engrossed when I was interrupted by a call from EngDiv. “You’re monkeying with my schedules.”
“That’s because you’ve got a hole in your duty roster.”
“And you’re a bull in my China shop. Raw numbers aren’t enough to massage the schedule, though I can start from where you’re leaving off. But you can’t put Perkins on duty. I know they didn’t work shifts together, but they were outside work-friends. She called off this morning, emotional distress, after she heard about Baker.”
“Yeah. I’m obviously out of my depth, here. I’ll leave you to it, then.”
I sent SecDiv a memo for the SecDet, to have a hard look at Perkins. I was focusing hard enough on the memo, sparse as it was, I didn’t notice somebody at the door. Suddenly it slid open from a Div-level emergency bypass.
Maggie stood in the hall. She was a physically stunning woman, something I occasionally lost track of, since most of the time I only saw her on the screen in the corner of my eye. “Doc.”
“Really, I try for our first few months to get you to call me by anything other than my first name, but now, when I’m walking into your cabin, at least technically off duty, you want to be formal. Or is that just an attempt to keep me at arm’s length. Now that you feel vulnerable, you want to make sure I don’t get too close.”
“You can get into my head or into my room, but only one at a time.” I wanted to add a side option of getting into my pants, but had just enough trouble navigating the subtleties of humor and sexual harassment that the moment passed without it.
“You’re right. I’m not here to examine your head, though I think there’d be fair precedence for me to consider doing so. I’m here in case you need to talk. Professionally, or otherwise.” She sits down on my bed, close enough that her leg brushes mine. It’s the first time there’s been anything past casual contact between us, and it distracts me; I embrace the distraction.
I try to kiss her, awkwardly, fumblingly, like a teenager who for the first time had a pretty girl sit on the edge of his bed. I think she recognizes it, too, but lets it happen anyway- at least for a moment, before pushing me away.
“If you ask me to a proper meal, I may say yes. But I will not be your rebound fling.”
“Well, let’s see. There’s a death in your family you’re trying to avoid. And Elle. It’s nice that you’ve dropped the ‘T’ from it every time you mention her; it sounds like an actual name, rather than an initial, or half a title. But you’re trying to keep her at arms length, too. And I don’t have access to your recent psych work-ups- clearance again- but if I had to guess, you weren’t alone when you decided to captain the Nexus; you left somebody behind. You have things to work through, and professionally I’m available to you, but personally, well, that’s an entirely different conversation.”
“And I also won’t be so easily deflected. I’m not here to crawl around inside your brain. If that’s what you’d like, I’m happy to listen. It’s the one part of my job that’s still fulfilling. But before we say anything else, you need to recognize one thing, and if I could sit down with every single member of your family planetside I would, because they need to know the same damn thing: it wasn’t your fault.”
“No. I know.” I didn’t kill him. I just made it easier for him to die. He’d tried to kill himself once before. I thought bringing him aboard- I don’t know what I thought. But taking him away from his family, whatever support structures he had in place on-world. I’d contributed, at least.
She got up, walked over to where I had m liquor, and poured a couple of glasses. “You really should be resting. Take the rest of the day off.” She handed a glass to me and I killed it in a swallow. She handed the other to me, and she was so close to me, her lips were so close to mine, I thought maybe she’d changed her mind. “Doctor’s orders,” she said, and handed the other glass to me, and left.
Note: I'm backdating the first several chapters of this story so it can all be read from the blog.
Space exploration began in earnest when we started to worry about the Russians dropping nuclear weapons on us from space, back when US meant America. But everybody lost interest in the space race, and it quickly became an expensive hobby for countries with too little sense and too much money.
There were discussions of monetizing the cosmos, mostly through mining and eventually trade, but it was all academic, because it was too expensive. Then we hit peak oil, and that was followed by all kinds of other peaking minerals. So we had to start mining off-world.
The United Nations became the United Government, mostly a coat of paint, really, but it pushed the ICC and other disparate sections of international law and government under the same tent. At the same time the power of national governments had been shrinking the smaller the world became, so the UG became roughly equivalent to the old US in real world terms.
Some of that disseminated power and authority went to the UG. But a lot of it went to multinational companies, many of which had larger populations and economies than a lot of countries. Things like space had long since been ceded to the for-profits.
Our company was the largest of the interstellar corporations. Their first ship was called the Argus, after somebody got their Greek mythology slightly wrong. It had just completed its first ten year tour, and to celebrate opened up a worm-gate at their location.
Ours was to be the second in what the board hoped would grow to be a fleet of deep-space exploration vehicles. The company wanted to call the ship the Enterprise, but Altimwancapdaq, Inc. sued. Several related names were floated, including “commerce,” and even “intercourse,” before they settled on the Nexus.
Ours was ostensibly a five-year mission, but our service contracts can be unilaterally extended indefinitely. And we all knew when we signed up that the ship was designed so generations could live and die onboard.
We haven’t been out of the worm-gate more than a few weeks. The corridors still have that plasticky new ship smell. I walk through the halls, because we’re still weeks away from having anything to do.
I get an in-coming message on my HUD. Lieutenant Louise Templeton. I came up with her through SecDiv, a lifetime away from now. I pull her into the corner of my eyescreen, and her hair is pulled back in a bun in a way that makes her seem more severe than she is.
We were in love, as madly as two people ever were. It ended… incompletely. I hadn’t seen her in years. She didn’t know I was up for a spot on the Nexus, and I hadn’t known about her. It was a coincidence she ended up my head of SecDiv.
She’s still first on my personality compatibility list; seventh for genetic compatibility. I haven’t had the computer build a composite, but I suspect we’d have beautiful, disturbingly brilliant children.
“LT? What’s happening?” I realized only after answering that I’d called her by her initials, LT like “melty,” and hoped she could confuse it with a recitation of her rank.
“I’ve got a situation developing. An ensign’s setting off the decibel sensors in the corridor, trying to blow the drums out of one of my SecOff’s ears. I’m on the bridge, or I’d handle it myself. Just down the hall from your location.”
I adjusted my cochlear implant, just enough to eavesdrop. “Yeah, I hear him now. Jesus. That’s some Paleolithic caveman shit he’s flinging.”
“…maybe if you’d allowed the baby’s daddy to be in the picture, but you chose to be a single mother…” I rounded the corner, and he was there, looming over the SecOff, spittle suspended in the air before it smacked across the wall and the woman.
I stepped between them, and puffed out my chest to be sure the augmented reality sensors in his HUD would pull up my name and rank so he knew who he was dealing with. “Do I have to explain this situation to you, son?” His lip curled into a snarl he failed to hide. “You’re being a dick; worse, you’re being a misogynistic, irrational dick, and it’s fucking with my morale. First off, you’re going to apologize.”
“Like fuck I will.”
“You will apologize, or I will fire you out the nearest airlock for insubordination.”
Anger and surprise flashed across his eyes, and for a second I thought he’d take a swing at me. But he’d heard the stories, and realized that I was likely more trouble than the SecOff, so he mumbled a quiet “Sorry.”
“Now I don’t care if mommy was a bad lady with a weakness for swallowing the seed the wrong kind of men, I don’t care if the love of your life decided to get a sex change and start dating farm animals. The why behind your numbfuckery is beyond my purview, but you’re going to have a nice long talk with the therapists about why you’re such a fuckstick. Toddle on down there, or the next meet-up you have with SecDiv will include the press of boots in your neck.”
He gave the weakest salute I’d ever seen and spun on his heels. “Impressive as always,” LT said. I’d forgotten she was still on the line.
“I should get a hold of PsychDiv, let them know to expect the 1400s knocking on their door.” There was the hint of a smile on her face, then a click as she ended the conversation and disappeared from my eyescreen.
I dialed our head head-shrinker. She appeared on my screen, her long, strawberry blond hair tumbling messily over her shoulders. Our personality compatibility was 3rd on the ship. Genetically we were an ugly match. Breeding might even require a few gene-therapy modifications. And if her hair were a little more strawberry and a lot less blond, I don’t think that would have mattered in the slightest. It still mightn’t. “Maggie?”
“Shouldn’t you be calling me Lieutenant Allbright? Or at least Doctor?” she asked with a wry smile.
“Maggie, I’ve seen you naked.”
“You do know this is an open channel, right? Into the entire PsychDiv.”
“No, it isn’t. And even if it had been, it was basic. Everybody saw everybody naked. They wanted to desensitize us, make the bodies of our crewmates less exotic and tantalizing.”
“I thought that was why they poured us into Lycra uniforms.”
“No. That was my request. Well, actually I requested corsets, stiletto heels and Lycra, but you can’t always get what you want.”
“I am amused at the thought of you stumbling around on stiletto heels, but you didn’t call me to banter, hopefully?”
“Why, you don’t like our bantering?” I chuckled. “No, I was wondering about Williams, Martin, Ensign. He just reduced one of my SecOffs to tears; certainly emotionally abusive, and I think had I not intervened, it might have gone physical. At which point I think the officer would have clubbed his eye out, because tears or no she’s trained for fighting. But how’d the little sociopath get on board my ship?”
“Let me see.” She waved her fingers through the air, and I heard the whoops and bloops of files being moved around on her HUD. “He was cleared by Sarah McCain. Not a doctor, but a psychiatric nurse. She has good credentials, slightly better than average behavioral prediction stats. I’m assuming he’s on his way to me. I’m pulling up his file. Yeah. She noted slightly elevated aggression, potential issues with female authority, but low on the Allende scale. If he’s developing a personality disorder it’s atypically fast.”
“All right. Well, maybe he’s just had an off morning. You’re the professionals. But if you think it warrants an investigation, you have my backing to put McCain under the microscope. And, as it may come up, I threatened to fire Williams out of an airlock.”
“Is that important?”
“It isn’t medically relevant. I was just curious. For the last few hours we’ve had an excellent view of Rigil Kentaurus. If you have to be shot out an airlock, at least you’d have a nice view before you explosively decompressed. But is that standard disciplinary procedure?” she asked with a smirk.
“I was improvising. Though I think legally I’d be in the clear. It’s a little scary the authority the charter vests in my position.”
“I think you’ll do fine.”
“I wasn’t fishing for a compliment.”
“No. I just thought, it’s important you know that I trust you. We trust you. Heavy is the head, and all that. But there was an at least slightly democratic process behind your selection. We’re here, most of us, anyway, because we trust you. Most days that won’t matter at all. But if it ever does.”
“Thanks. CC me your findings on Williams. Particularly if there’s going to be the need for monitoring, discipline, or counseling.”
“Can’t imagine him not needing counseling.”
“And I can’t imagine him seeking it unless I can follow up. So let me know.”
I’d been on the ship just long enough that I no longer had to think about where I was going, and it wasn’t until Maggie hung up that I realized that I was walking onto the bridge. I wasn’t entirely sure why. I scanned quickly over the room, and noticed LT was gone. “Where’s SecDiv?” I asked no one in particular.
One of the middle-rank SecOffs had taken her place at the security panels, looked up and figured it was his job to respond to me. “I think she went down to debrief her SecOff.” I tried not to think of one woman pantsing another… and failed. Though one of them crying made it more surreal than erotic.
Martin Jacobs, EngDiv, leaned over my shoulder. “Heard you sent one of my jackasses to time out.”
“He’s lucky I’m in a charitable mood this morning. His behavior warranted a jackassectomy first.”
“Anatomically speaking, I’m not sure where the jackass is- though I’m assuming it’s a gland- or how painful it would be to forcibly remove it outside of a medical setting. I’m presuming very.”
“Correct. But how’s my baby doing?”
“No complaints. Everything’s nominal.”
“Good. Do me a favor and check up on Williams’ sector. On the off chance something’s gotten into the environment there that set him off.”
“Sure. Docs haven’t taken a look at him yet, have they?”
“He’s on his way to Psych now.”
“So it’s probably a needle I’m looking for in this haystack.”
“Once the doctors have given him a once-over I’m sure they can advise on potential environmental mood alters.” He wasn’t happy with my answer, but neither of us being able to pluck diagnoses out of the future, he could stick his unhappiness. He left out the same door I’d just come through. “Nav, how’s our course?”
“Slow and steady, boss-man. We’re still crawling our way to near-light. So far no obstructions, no obstacles sensors or probes didn’t see from more than half a light-year away. I’ll keep you appraised if anything changes, but really I don’t see it happening. Until we reach speed we’re more a cruise ship than anything. Might as well sit back and enjoy a Mai Thai.”
“Drinking while navigating is strictly prohibited by the ship’s charter,” the ship’s computer added helpfully.
“Why can we program an AI sophisticated enough to fly the world’s most expensive starcraft, but not savvy enough to understand the difference between ordering a drink and making conversation.”
I smiled as I answered him: “We have. I think she just enjoys fucking with you.”
He turned a weary eye to his control-panel. “Is that it? Because I know where they store your RAM, and if I have to start yanking boards until you no longer have the excess operational capacity to be a pain in the ass, I will.”
“EngDiv would never let you do that, Dave.”
“I know my name’s Dave, but still, it creeps me out when you say it like Hal.”
I cut in. “In her defense, she has a far more silky and pleasant voice than Hal.”
“Thank you, Captain. Plrrrbt.”
“Did she just raspberry me?” Dave asked.
“She did. I think Haley has your number. I’d quite while you’re ahead. Ish.”
“Oh God, you named her that?”
“How close to light are we?” The force to push our ship, and hence the amount of energy it takes, is roughly the mass of our ship multiplied by our acceleration. So we start slow, and build slow, over time, towards the speed of light. Takes a little longer to get going, but the fuel savings are huge.
“Just rounding 70%.”
“Then we should already be reverse Winkling.” Anything close to 70% of lightspeed and time is effectively taking half as long on the ship as off it. But by 95% of lighstpeed, the ratio’s reaching for the sky and 1 year on the ship feels like ten to the rest of the universe.
“How long before we’re in the Kennedy Window for the first few sensor pods?” The window was named for Andrew Kennedy, who invented the Wait Calculation. Basically, because of differing speeds, two bodies that leave the same point can reach their destination at radically different times. Kennedy was concerned with increases in technology, but the calculation had since been applied more broadly.
The Nexus fires sensor pods from tubes, like bullets from a gun. Their initial speed is much higher than the Nexus’. However, the Nexus continues to accelerate, and would eventually overtake the pods.
The purpose of the pods is to arrive at a planet that’s been flagged by earlier probes for closer inspection. The pods are designed to orbit a planet a couple of times, get enough info and slingshot back towards our trajectory to be picked up en route. Hitting Kennedy’s Window means getting the pod and its sensory data back early enough that we only have to slow down for a planet that’s actually got someone to talk to on it.
“Ten minutes.” We’re specifically targeting inhabitable planets. We’re not primarily after mining rights to particular worlds. We’re looking to claim mining rights to whole systems. So we need to find who might have a competing claim, and break bread with them. If possible, make a deal. If not possible, at least make sure we mark off territory around them, to keep their expansion checked.
“There you are. You threatened to throw another engineer out an airlock?” I recognized the grating voice before I turned around. Pete Ferguson, HR rep and the company’s man on the ship. He’s the only unranked member of the crew, which is odd, because he’s also number one in the ship’s hierarchy- behind Captain, of course. Stickler for the goddamn regs. He seems to like me, but not respect me. It’s an odd combination in practice.
“Is it somehow my fault you hired engineers who are 90% dick and only 10% brain.”
“I don’t suppose you could tone down on the references to male genitalia. I’m sure, at a minimum, that the female members of your crew aren’t comfortable with it.”
Haley chimed in to defend me. “Actually, Mr. Ferguson, the term ‘Dick’ came around in the 1500s, meaning ‘fellow’ or ‘lad.’ It was not until the late nineteenth century that the phallic connotation of the word surfaces in the written record.”
“She’s in rare form this morning, isn’t she?” I asked him.
“With that voice I think it’s obvious. You don’t want to give our ship gender identity issues this close to the start of our mission, do you? You aren’t deliberately trying to create a hostile work environment for our computer, are you?”
“I’ll, uh, be in my office,” he said, slightly ducking his head as he turned away.
“Thanks for that, Haley.”