Nexus 3, Chapter 19

Sam was still holding our daughter, still sleeping peacefully. Elle had asked me to crawl into her bed with her, and hold her; nothing sexual, just… holding her.

“I think… I think the reason things worked with Sam for as long as they did was because she never saw you as competition. She didn’t care that I loved you- that just meant that she loved you, too. I could be with Sam without denying the parts of me that loved you, even needed you, needed to be able to imagine our life together, or children together.”

“You might want to think twice on that one; I’m not sure I want a replay of what just happened. Ever. With anyone.”

“I know. I’m not writing any checks your body would have to cash. The point is, I think with Sam I could be who I needed to be.”

“And now?”

“It feels like that’s changed. That the parts of who I need to be are at odds, maybe even at war. I don’t know how to make peace with destroying what we’ve had.” Elle started to shift. She’d done this before, wanting to look me in the eye, really feel how what she said landed. But she wasn’t still swollen from pregnancy, with the pair of us sandwiched into a bed that wasn’t really meant to accommodate two adults spooning, let alone anything more acrobatic.

The earnestness in her eyes made it simple enough for me to set aside my own amusement. “That’s why you need to let us go,” she said, and the words landed like a body in a quiet hall. “The next pod. There’s a window coming in a couple weeks. Right now, you’re a starving orphan staring lustily into the candy shop.”

“So why don’t you let me into the candy shop?”

“You couldn’t handle the candy shop,” she said with a smile. “I’m saying we have to get you to stop pining for all the things you want, long enough to figure out what you need. And I think the first step in that is not just stepping out of our way, but embracing us going- embracing the chance to spend time with our daughter and… figure out who you want to be. What kind of life you want to lead… and who you want to live it with.” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t lure you here for this.”

“No, I know,” I said. “But feeling safe, and loved… it bought you the moment you needed to tell me how you really feel. And it sucks. And it hurts. But I still appreciate what it took for you to say it.”

“You certainly seem to be,” she said, grinding her hips into me.

“I’m more than just a piece of meat,” I said, feigning injury.

“You always were to me,” she said. “But that’s the last I’m going to say on the subject. Until we go, I want us all to just… be a family. Because whatever you do, we have a daughter together. Sam and I will always have some kind of relationship, a friendship at the minimum. And we never know who’s going to come home. Between the people we’ve lost on the pods, and the Nascent bearing down on us… there really is no guarantee any of us get to live into old age. And that’s not how it maybe sounds…”

“Like you’re planning on Old Yellering Sam on your mission?”

“Yeah. That. Can you imagine trying to sneak up on a telepath? And you’ve seen the eyes on her,”

“I’ve nearly drowned in them,”

“I’ll assume you aren’t being gross and actually mean her eyes- it would be like choking out a cartoon baby seal.”

“So that’s why that gave me an erection.”

“On that note…”

“The erection?”

“Your distractibility. Maggie… sort of… not let slip, but intimated enough I could subtly interrogate… she offered you some meds, right?”

“I’m not sure how I feel about you finding out about it…”

“She didn’t mean to let anything slip. She was pumping me for information, but she’s not used to doing it surreptitiously, which clued me in and I pumped her, at the same time. She wanted to know if you were taking them, not for cracking the whip, just, wanted to know if they’ve helped.”

“Yes and no. At the best of times I feel like I’m firing on all cylinders. And then somedays, it’s just a drop in an endless ocean.”

“Can’t blame you, there. I… get to ignore the larger strategic concerns, I only have to worry about repelling the Nascent’s crew if they manage to catch us. You have to coordinate trying to make it so they can’t. I’m drowning, just trying to deal with our family drama and trying to be ready for a fight we might not win…” she stroked my cheek and my lip trembled, “I can only imagine how much heavier your load.”

“I’m sure it hasn’t been that long, mere hours if you count the kid.”

“I don’t. I still hold out hope she was conceived immaculately and has nothing to do with your material lucky enough to wash up on my shores.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Please. Like I don’t know when you’re trying to deflect. It’s okay, to be sad, to be scared, for everything that’s been going on between us and even everything beyond the four of us to hurt. For a moment, just shut up, and hold me while I hold you.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 18

Sam was holding our daughter, Samantha Eleanor, in her arms, sleeping soundly on the bench, braced against the wall.

Elle emerged from the bathroom, and I gave her an arm to steady on. “Come on,” she said, “we should go for a walk.”

“You sure you should be on your feet?” I asked.

“We don’t have to go far, I just…”

“I get it,” I said. There was something in the air; I wasn’t sure if it was what she’d said, earlier or not, but the question had certainly lingered for me. “You never did tell me what your most painful moment was,” I said, as she wobbled down the hall towards the caf. “I imagine that machete you took to the clavicle had to make the top ten.”

“Nine,” she said. “I think the fourth is a tie. I got shot in the chest, once, a double-tap, the first of which weakened my armor enough the second bolt burned through; I took part of the shot in the areola. Parasites from the squid planet; similar pain, more diffuse, and coming from inside, where you don’t usually feel that kind of pain.”

“Okay,” I said, “but you’re going the wrong way.”

“I know. Because I’m not sure I can handle going the other way. Worst pain I ever felt…” she paused, and I could tell it wasn’t for effect, she really was having trouble saying the words, “was seeing you with Sam. Knowing… knowing that was it. You stopped looking at me like you look at her a long time ago.”

“Like what?” I asked, because I’d been taking flack from everyone on ship since we left our home solar system for the way I looked at Elle.

“Like, like a girl, I guess.” 

“You’re not a girl, Elle. And you haven’t been for a long time. Hell, it’s hard to remember what that was even like.”

“You sure know how to flatter a lady.”

“That’s not what I meant. You have been the most competent person I’ve known my entire life.”

“And ‘girls’ can’t be competent?”

“You know that’s not what I meant, either. We were both young and naïve in the beginning; I thought of you as a girl then. But we had that innocence burned off us, in a way… Sam can’t. I don’t know if it’s a species thing, or if it’s just a part of who she is, but… there are parts of what we’ve been through, and what we’ve yet to, that she’ll never really intuit. She’ll support us, love us, help us through it; with the imprint she’ll even understand it on an intellectual level, maybe even an emotional one. But there will always be a softness to her, maybe even a naivete.” I was struggling to articulate the idea. “Like,… she never hated Jacob. It’s not just- it wasn’t only her trying to protect me from myself, when the two of you tried to distract me from what he’d done to her. He hurt her, violated her in ways that are hard to even fathom-”

“No they aren’t,” Elle said, touching my arm; “we’ve both imprinted with her.”

“Right. My point was she didn’t hate him. Maybe even couldn’t. And that’s probably healthier. Saner. And likely a recipe for a better, less violent world. And I know that’s… it’s not fair, or even as binary as it sounds. But Sam is… the way things ought to be. And you, you’re the way we have to be if we ever have a hope of getting there.”

“I don’t like hurting people,” Elle said, her voice halfway to a sob.

“I know,” I said, moisture sliding down my face. “I wouldn’t love you like I do if you did. And it really isn’t a competition. I’m not saying you’re the pragmatic one and she’s a naïve peacemonger, or the reverse. Without security, there can be no peace; without the hope of peace, security can’t be maintained. They’re all part of a whole.”

“I really wish I could be enough.”


“And even saying it aloud I feel like an asshole, because it is both so much more complicated than that, and so much less so. If we’d hooked up before you met her, or if you knocked me up after your relationship ran its course, I don’t think any of this would be complicated. And I’ve imprinted with Sam, I know… I’ve felt her in a way that no other person in our species could understand, and in the oddest way that makes me closer to you, too. And through her I know I’ve seen you, felt you, known you deeper even than I ever thought possible. That’s why I have no interest in your Drone; he isn’t the you I fought beside, nearly died with, fell in love with, or know down to my core through Sam. He isn’t you.” Her breath came out ragged, and I stroked her cheek. “She’s practically a part of our relationship, too. So I know what you mean, when you say it’s like trying to separate pieces of you. But I think there will always be a part of me that’s hurt that I couldn’t be enough.”

“Could I?” I asked.


“Just, hypothetically. Let’s say, Samantha gums her way through Sam’s throat in the night. You and I go back to a vanilla, human existence. There’s no way to maintain the level of intimacy we’ve had, without imprinting; there’s nowhere for our relationship to go but down. Maybe that’s enough- maybe. But it would always be less. Could we still make each other happy? Probably. You were always really bendy, and, sweeter than anyone really ever knew- when you choose to be. But it would always be wanting, missing that subtle bit more.”

“Fuck,” Elle said.

“I’m pretty sure that’s what got us into this whole mess,” I said, realizing we’d circled back into the medical wing.

“This whole mess being your daughter?” Elle asked, as we both stared lovingly down at her.

“She takes after her mother.”

“She really is beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Sure,” I said, “but I wish she could be a bit more humble about it.”


“Nice legs. Pretty face. The whole package, really.” “Nice save.” Elle rested her head against my shoulder and sighed, looking at Sam holding our daughter. “They look good together. Like they belong like that.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 17

The lights died again. That seemed to be happening regularly enough we were using them to help time Elle’s breathing; I couldn’t help but wonder if that was Haley’s doing, trying to make something useful out of the chaos. Sam had been more of a presence during the classes, and seemed… eager to participate in a way I wasn’t, since I was trying to monitor the ship even while everything tried to break. I wondered if that was because too much of this process had been Elle and I sharing something she couldn’t be a part of, and this was her way to be a part of it.

Either way, I felt warm watching the two of them working together to bring our daughter into the world. “Our” daughter; I realized I wasn’t sure whether I meant by it Elle and me, or the three of us. Sam had been so much more a part of the pregnancy, there were even moments where she felt more like their daughter.

I must have been thinking the thought too hard, because Sam noticed me, and beckoned. “I would not dream of displacing you,” she said, and motioned to the end of the bench she was seated on. It was wasn’t quite enough room for me to sit without getting the sharp edge in the crack, but I appreciated the gesture.

“How’s my least favorite patient?” SackTug asked.

“Salty,” I said, a little too defensively. “But I’d suggest you focus on her.”

“I was. And even you have to admit she’s got a knack for finding interesting medical emergencies- though you’ve certainly given her a run for her money in that regard.”

Reese finished checking her dilation. “She’s doing well,” she said. “But every time I try to give her an epidural,” the lights went off again.

“Allow me,” he said, and took the needle from her in the dark. “I spent a month on a colony without light running their clinic. You get used to doing things by feel.” As the lights came back on he removed the now empty syringe from Elle’s leg.

Elle cooed low enough it vibrated the bench I was on. It reminded me that… superhuman though she often seemed- and I had no doubt she would have delivered our daughter fine without the epidural- she still felt pain, was still vulnerable, fragile, human.

I think Sam felt the thought in my head, because she looked at me with sadness in her eyes; I’d been trying to move away from it like that. It was a linguistic tic common to a host of species, but ‘humanity’ was an exclusionary phrase. Sam had just as much humanity as any biological human I’d ever met, maybe more, and it wasn’t right to remove her from that, even linguistically. But she was also compassionate to a fault; she understood, both the intent behind it, and that it wasn’t the time, and put her hand over mine.

“Uh,” Elle said. “Did I, did I just?”

“We prepped for this,” I said, “and the answer is you don’t actually want to know.”

“We’ve all taken a vow of silence,” Sam said.

“I took some convincing,” Reese said.

“And a consult with a PsychOff,” I added. “And the consensus, backed up by our very own telepath, was that, no, you would not actually want to know. What you really want, is to know that everyone in this room cares enough to let you crap on a table without us giving you shit about it.”

“So if you have or if you do, you know you’re safe with us,” Sam added.

Elle sniffled. “I’m not comfortable feeling this emotional over waste.”

“I think it’s the thought that counts,” I said.

“I actually have a little bit of a good news/bad news for you,” Reese said. “The good, you’re dilated, and the waiting part’s over, and you’re almost over the finish line. The bad is, now you’re going to have to push. In my experience, it’s best to listen to your body, let it tell you when to push, but we’re going to try, once, one your own, so you get a feel for what’s you pushing and what’s your body wanting you to push. I’m going to count to three, okay?”

“Fuck that,” Elle said, and started to push, grunting with the effort in a way I hadn’t heard since a particularly brutal training exercise; I remembered the noise because it was both deeply sexual but also very unsexy. “It’s time for this princess to take up residence in another castle.”

Reese chuckled. “I understand you’re eager. But it’s still a distance run; you try to sprint it and I’m going to have to borrow an ice cream scoop from the café to get her out.”

Elle grimaced, “Think my body’s ready, too,” she said, as her legs shook from the effort as she pushed again, this time bearing down with her whole body.

“Okay, then let’s cowgirl up,” Reese said, snapping her glove. Another quake, and a leg spasm that knocked me off the bench, and I decided I should probably stay on my feet, so I could duck and weave better.

Elle was breathing heavily. She wanted to push again, but she was cratering; her body needed to rest. “So tell me,” I said, “worst pain of your life?”

“Third,” Elle said with a smile, glowing under a misting of perspiration. “And knowing you was only number 2.” She laughed, enough to sell it, but not so much to make it mean. “I kid because I love,” she said, perhaps overserious.

“You kid because you’re a sadist,” I corrected her.

“You are teasing me through some of the worst pain of my life.”

“Just to distract. And you said it was only third worst.”

“And because you’re a little bit of a sadist, too.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“That’s what I’m saying. Now hold on,” she pushed again, with Sam coaching her gently through, reminding her to breathe through the strain.

Elle made it look easy, or at least it would have to anyone but me; I’d seen that look on her face, that look that if so much as a drop of rain managed to hit her she was going down for the count. Not that I believed it; I knew her well enough to know there was no one I trusted more to get the job done. But still, that look, that fear, that pain, that sadness, on her face, I cracked, just a little.

“I really am sorry,” I said. “I should have got that vasectomy.”

“Shhh,” she said, laughing weakly as a contraction ended, “our daughter will hear you.” “Our daughter,” I said, and the words vibrated in my head, only some of which was the dibba-calkhu; it had an inkling of just how new having a daughter was going to be- and no idea just how much of that newness came in the form of all the new kinds, shapes, and places to find poop.

Nexus 3, Chapter 16

“I know how this is going to sound,” I started, before stopping myself. “Actually, I don’t; I don’t know why I said that.”

“Because you’re nervous,” Elle said. “Which is making me incredibly nervous; you’re not usually self-aware enough to know when you should be worried.”

“I’m making things worse. A crew member asked me to donate genetic material.”

“His groupie?” Sam asked, frowning.

“His groupie?” Elle asked, her voice raising an octave.

“Stop reading me,” I told Sam. “And he isn’t the one who needs the material. Nor was he ever attracted to me. That was an inside joke. And I’m assuming any DNA would be provided in an approved medical receptacle, and not personally delivered to anybody’s private entrance.”

“Buh…” Elle said.

“Give her a second,” Sam said. “This has all been very confusing. I’m telepathic, and have seen into the deepest, oddest parts of your mind, and even I was having trouble following you.”
“Yeah,” Elle said, pointing first at Sam, and then at her own nose. “So, why do they want your genetics? They’ve met you? Heard the rumors, at least? And none of that has turned them off of the idea?”

“You are ripe with his genetics,” Sam said; “you are an arsonist living in a house of oily rags stuck together with kerosene.”

“I… just…”

“You cope by poking me,” I said softly. “And I know your poking is one of the rare times you’re comfortable showing affection, odd and aggressive though it often is.”

“It’s not as much fun when you just take it,” she complained.

“She’s not being candid,” Sam said.

“He knows that,” Elle said. “And exactly whose side are you on?”

“I’m on our side,” Sam said, and took both of our hands. “And this is important; you should hear him out, before trying to form an opinion.”

I could feel Sam’s warmth in my head; I wasn’t sure where her confidence in me and reassurance stopped, and her telepathically manipulating my conscious mind started, but neither did she; I guess it isn’t all that different from the way humans influence one another socially: there’s always one foot in trying to get what you want, but that doesn’t mean one person isn’t trying to help the other person get what they want, either. “It’s Sasha. He and his partner want to have a baby. Because I was supportive, after Bryan died, and because I was supportive again, during his reorientation… he has a fondness for me that few not at this table would understand. And, I think, more than anything, it’s a way to be close to Bryan; we were cousins, so some degree of his genes would be common to me.”

“And you’ve already promised you would,” Elle said. “So either I play bad cop, or I just accept that our daughter’s going to have a brother before she’s even born.” Sam flushed a color, one I’d seen only once before, and I was pretty sure it was pride.

“He hasn’t,” she said. “He promised he would ask us, and that he would be bound by our response.”

“He did?” Elle asked skeptically.

“If you’d like proof, I could arrange for the pair of you to imprint?” 

This time Elle flushed, at the realization of what that would entail.

“That’s an option?” I asked. “Then I’m afraid I have to insist. There’s just no way to be certain without doing our due diligence.”

“On the contrary,” Elle said, smiling, “I’m very certain that you’re an ass. And that my water broke.”

“Water?” Sam asked. “My feet are wet.”

“Oh, bother,” I said.

“Captain,” Haley came over my comms, “I appear to be experiencing an issue.”

“So are we, right now, Haley, can it wait?” I asked. My HUD shut down, followed an instant later by the lights. They were down the majority of an alligator before they kicked back on.

“Fine, Haley, your issue just jumped to the front of the queue. Sitrep.”

“There seems to have been some weaponized code in the black box. In trying to break its encryption, I inadvertently infected the ship’s systems.”

“I… helped,” Bill said from behind me. He was winded, trying to catch his breath. “And… my feet are wet.”

“Her water broke,” Sam said, before returning to trying to guide Elle through meditative breathing.

“Mazel Tov,” Bill said, then frowned. “This might not have been the most opportune moment to break the ship.”

“Might not, no,” I agreed. “It can be fixed, right?”

“Imminently,” Haley said. “Though there are going to be-” we lost the lights again.

“I need to get to the servers,” Bill said. “I need to pull the blades out of to create a physical quarantine.” He walked into me. “Once the lights come back on, or my eyes adjust.”

“Or you could just try and get to third base with every officer between here and the servers.”

“Please don’t tell me what I got a handful of,” he said, taking a step back just as the lights came on.”

“The accidental handful I can see, but I’m pretty sure I felt palpitating, and I don’t think all of that was on my end.”

“I think the lady doth protest too much,” Sam said. “Did I use that right?”

“Close enough,” I said. Either out of embarrassment, or fear the lights would drop again, Bill raced off.

“Damn,” Haley said. “My timetables aren’t functioning correctly. I believe I can defeat the infective programming, but it will take some time. A day, at least. During which time my systems will be-” the lights went out again, but this time my HUD stayed on, so I could continue to hear her,” unpredictable.”

“Anything else you need right now?”

“At the moment, I believe Bill’s help will be sufficient, but I will not hesitate to ask if there are further things I need. I would not dream of endangering our crew for pride.”

“Of course not. If anything changes,”

“I will alert you. In the meantime, you have offspring arriving imminently, which I believe is something humans tend to celebrate.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll wait to light the cigars until later,” I said. “But I appreciate the thought.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 15

It had been a long time since I’d been in the biome. A lot of the ship’s resources were fabricated, either through entirely synthetic means or in the bioreactors- essentially bacterial colonies reprogrammed to create whatever raw materials we needed, similar to one of the early ways insulin was farmed. For everything else, we had the biome, a small slice of Earth recreated as a perfect, closed system designed to keep homeostatic harmony, with us harvesting the materials needed, and replacing them with processable wastes and byproducts from the rest of the ship.

Sasha and his fiancé were already most of the way into their hazard suits when I arrived, and started to dress. One of the MaintOffs in charge of the biome checked to be sure our suits were sealed shut- to make sure we didn’t contaminate it- then sealed us in the decon suite.  

I waited through the cycles of hot steam, alcohol and decon sprays, and even after, waited for Sasha to speak. I was here at their request, and I appreciated a chance to just be a spectator at someone else’s rodeo.

“You’re our plan B,” Sasha said, when the doors opened.

“Should I be flattered, or insulted? Or just wait for more information?”

“Well, first, you should say hello to my fiancé, Deena.”

“Howdy. We’ve met, but obviously, these are less formal circumstances. At least, I think they are.”

“I like watching him squirm,” Deena said. “He’s so used to being in the loop, especially when there are secrets he’s not used to being on the outside.”

“She has a point,” Sasha said with a grin, “but we didn’t ask him here to torture him, no matter how amusing that might be. My plan A wasn’t ever feasible, because trans men don’t produce sperm. I was pre-med, back on Earth, but I think I was still in the wishful thinking stage; I brought it up, with MedDiv, when I was first talking about transitioning. I wanted to be able to just flick a switch and be who I wanted to be, down to new DNA. But that’s not really a procedure they do, not even back on Earth, except in extreme cases. Because the human body really wasn’t designed to be restarted with new genes. It’s… basically the equivalent of a full body transplant. And if that weren’t enough, your cells replace at different rates, too, so it’s more like a series of transplants. Your skin will be replaced in 39 days. The skeleton takes 10 years, at the outside you’ve got hippocampal neurons replaced every 20 to 30 years. But the most important parts don’t replace at all; heart muscle cells stop growing at 10 years old, grey matter at 3. So you’d always have to keep the immune system suppressed, or it would attack your heart and brain. And honestly, the only real reason to still pursue it at that point is psychological, so there couldn’t be any nagging sense that maybe I’m not a ‘real’ man. And fuck that. I don’t need to adopt a toxically masculine death wish to prove my masculinity; and I’d rather live a real long life as me than worry about whether or not anyone else takes issue with my reality.”

“That sounds healthy,” I said.

“It’s likely solvable, long-term. I think if we, as a society, disliked trans people less, we might have dedicated the resources to building nano-gene-replacement tech that would do that safely; we use similar techniques to aid in a host of genetic disorders already, so it’s not as if the technology doesn’t exist- though to be fair we are talking a complete tear-down as opposed to replacing a single bad gene, or a cluster, or even a faulty chromosome- though there are plenty who might argue that’s the case if we’re replacing a y with an x. But even today you have a lot of people who see the disharmony as a psychological one, that the fix should be convincing us to be happy with what we have- of course, isn’t that capitalism in a nutshell, the people who have the most trying to convince the rest of us we’re content with what we have, so they don’t have to share?”

“I have brain worms,” I said, “and a whole series of head traumas. So feel free to dumb it down for me, because right now I couldn’t tell you if we’re in a forest or a desert.”

“We want to have a baby,” Deena said, “while I’m still young and most likely to have the least amount of complications. And for that, we need a donor.”

“And I checked with MedDiv, you’re the man on ship whose genes are most likely not to be allowed near a fertile human woman,” Sasha deadpanned. “Waste not, want not.”

“He gets nervous,” Deena said, touching Sasha’s arm as gingerly as possible through the hazard suit. “One part crush, one part hero-worship. Several parts a mid-level introvert uncomfortable dealing with an extroverted authority figure.”

“It’s an honor even to be asked,” I said.

“You have no idea,” Deena said. “It’s a very exclusive club.”

“But like the two of you, I have a partner, or maybe two, I’d need to discuss things with. Were it only up to me, I wouldn’t hesitate at all, and I am touched to even be considered.”

“Um, not to be pushy,” Deena said, “but how long do you think we’ll have to wait for an answer?”

“I’ll ask as soon as we’re clear of the biome. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you ask over message.”

“That seems fair. Also, far less impulsive than I would have expected.”

“I have developed something of a reputation in that regard, more than a little of it fair.”

“And, again, not trying to push…”

“Just anxious to know whether or not one of the more stressful and intimate decisions you’ve ever made is going to get blown up despite everyone’s best intentions?” I asked.

“Something like that, yeah, but how long do you anticipate your partners taking to decide?”

“Well, seeing as this is a normal occurrence for me, the typical turn-around is two business days. Elle’s likely to kill me immediately for asking. If she doesn’t, I imagine Sam can convince her to at least decide whether or not to kill me by breakfast tomorrow.”

“That seems reasonable. And for whatever it’s worth, I am rooting for her not killing you,” Deena said over-seriously. “Me, too,” I replied.

Nexus 3, Chapter 14

I stayed in my suit the entire time we were in the shuttle, to make it less likely whatever the starfish rubbed on the bolt in my leg didn’t spread to the others. But still, we all got an extended stay in quarantine for our troubles.

Sam was waiting for us in quarantine, and she fixed me with a glare that was equally scared and angry, “I understand why you don’t want us to go. That… fear, knowing everyone you care most about is in danger, immediate and yet remote, where there was nothing I could do… it was difficult to bear. But… I calmed myself with the knowledge that it was necessary, to safeguard the ship and her crew, and with the fact there was not a natural force that could pry your safety from Elle, or hers from you. I hope that you can find the same calm, when Elle and I leave together.”

I looked from her to Elle, and realized there was no way I was winning any kind of argument on this one. She was also right, even though I hated admitting it. “Me, too,” I said.

I think Bill was getting sweet on me- or maybe he was just bored- but while we matched speed (as much as possible, anyway) for pickup by the Nexus, he suggested we start launching decoys again. At the time it was little more than idle chatter, but while I was the last man waiting in quarantine, he came back, to discuss it in more detail. He also had the head of our science division in tow.

“I’ve been running the numbers,” Bill started, “and I want to officially, formally, propose we reinstate the practice of firing decoys. They helped us evade the Argus, and even with the slightly better scanning equipment likely on board the Nascent, we’re likely to have similar results. If you’ll recall, we didn’t pause firing decoys because it was a bad strategy, it was just the Argus bypassed the decoys entirely by threatening the worlds we’d stopped at. The Nascent won’t have time for that. They’re a shipkiller, and they’re already on our trail. They’d have to abandon us entirely for that to become a solution-”

“So it would only be a viable strategy if we managed to slip them,” I said.


“So why’s Stephen here?”

“We don’t have a lot of fungible material, on the Nexus,” Stephen began. “Mostly, that’s because space is largely a vacuum. We deliberately fly through plasma clouds to suck up raw materials to power the star drive, and we’ve always had filters attached to capture micrometeroids or other debris unfit for introduction into the star drive. It was never a huge priority; chuck basically anything into a star drive and it’ll burn, because the temperatures are sufficient to tear apart the electromagnetic bonds holding subatomic particles together; there isn’t an element that isn’t fuel at that temperature and pressure. That’s why we have to expend so much of the ship’s energy into the electromagnetic toroid keeping the plasma suspended- it would ‘eat’ the ship if that suspension system failed, even for a picosecond, because the failure would cascade until the entire ship was swallowed in the birth of a miniature star.”

“I’m not liking any of this so far,” I said.

“Right. Focusing too much on the sexy destruction. My point was, we never had much reason to work hard at filtering out particles because the engine is essentially self-cleaning. But I’ve done some base-level modeling, and I think we could introduce some magnets into the plasma intake to siphon off metals. We could also build out a more elaborate screening system to try and pull in other elements, but that’s a slightly less known quantity. As far as metals, we can combine whatever we get to create an alloy suitable for serving as a decoy. If we want, say, a combination of materials to make an expanding canvas sack to create the shape and approximate mass of the ship… that might be more challenging to come by- it’s difficult to model because the constituent atoms are rare enough that it’s hard to know what any particular system will be rich in. But my modelling suggests we could regularly replenish the lost metal materials to have a steady supply of decoys. And if we get desperate, we could use the terraforming laser to blast some asteroids into chunks and collect the chunks.”

“Bill?” I asked. “How does all of this sound to you?”

“It’s some of his better and saner work. We’ve been talking over schematics, and I think everything but flying the ship into asteroid fields is practical.”

“I don’t remember a mention of ‘fields,’” I said.

“That’s because even he understands it’s a crazy idea,” Bill said.

“Not crazy,” he said, sounding vaguely wounded, “not exactly. But certainly far from ideal. And not asteroid fields. Asteroids are the big bastards. Meteoroids, though, are their smaller cousins; on the outside of an asteroid field are all of the chunks of asteroids that broke off; still moving synchronously, but nowhere near the multiball insanity of the asteroid field. But in the event we needed mass in a hurry, it could be done… provided we can be surgical enough with the laser to decimate without completely vaporizing the particles- which isn’t much of a guarantee, because some of the combustible particles will be superheated by the laser, and be driven by the combustion out of our path. Depending on the composition of the field it could be a quite lossy process, even presuming we could accomplish it safely.”

“Haley,” I began, “what’s your read?”

“The laser was, as originally conceived, both a deterrent weapon and potentially could be used to forge passages through areas where a circuitous path was less ideal; say a system bordered by a black hole with a volatile and dangerous star at its heart, with an asteroid field caught between them. To put it into old world terms, it was analogous to an icebreaker. The difficulty is the upgrades necessary to make it worthwhile for rapid, more surgical usage were deemed too expensive and not useful for our mission. However, I believe that 80% of these upgrades can be made merely through repurposing excess cryo technology.”

“And the other 20%?”

“As Stephen said, there are question marks as to the composition of the plasma clouds we may find, but it is highly possible we could acquire the necessary atoms that way.”

“How possible is ‘highly’ possible?”

“73% chance that we could acquire the necessary materials within a six month time-frame.”

“And I assume it legs out considerably from there. What’s our worst-case scenario?”

“Using data from the five year journey of the Argus, I would estimate that the materials should be achievable within six years at the outside.”

“And the odds we can avoid the Nascent that long?”


I sighed. “Get it started. Prep a presentation for the full council; they’ll want to at least know what’s going on, even if I don’t expect them to try to reverse course.” They turned to leave, until I put up my hand. “Wait. What about orphans?”

“Tragic. Though I don’t understand the connection,” Stephen said.

“As in lone asteroids,” I said.

“There aren’t all that many,” Stephen said, “but especially if we were aggressive with our probes, looking for any with a possible firing solution with the ship… it’s possible.”

“How possible?” I asked.



“I second Stephen’s ‘uh…’”

“Goddamnit,” I muttered.

“I think what they’re trying to express, is that it could work, theoretically. But lone asteroids aren’t exactly a known quantity. If we were talking about inside the well-charted Sol system, sure, but it could be hoping to find a needle in a haystack… or we could bump into the bastard without even looking for it.”

“Is it worth attempting, at the least, provided we can find one?”

“I don’t see a downside,” Stephen said.

“Could we have a moment?” Bill asked Stephen.

“Is it going to be something humiliating?”


“But it won’t happen if I stay.”

“Probably not, no.”

“Well, I’ll want details, later.”

“And I want-” Bill stopped himself, realizing this was not something he could win. “We’ll see,” he said gruffly. He waited until Stephen had cleared the doors, before he eyed me conspiratorially. “You didn’t gloat. Not once. We were trapped in that shuttle for days; you didn’t so much as snicker in a way that told me you told me so.”

“There was always the possibility I was going to die from a shit-covered prick from an alien… maybe I just wanted that detail to die with me.”

“Except we’ve been back on ship for a week. You’ve been all but cleared by medical; really, I think SackTug’s only kept you in here this long to give the rest of us a break from you. Still, nothing.”

“Maybe revenge is a dish best served so circuitously that it can never be traced back to me.”

“Maybe,” he said, with a shrug. “You’ve also been 39% less of a pain in my ass since we got back.”

“You chart how much of a pain in your ass I am?” I asked, and Bill chuckled.

“Nah. Just a ballpark. You want to talk about it?”

I didn’t, or I would have. But maybe that knee-jerk wasn’t the right way to play it. “They had Elle dead to rights. I couldn’t suppress both of them from my position, and moving would have just shifted which of them had a free hand to move. And I knew, as sure as anything, the one I couldn’t hit was going to shoot her. Might have been a flesh wound. Or it could have been fatal, or bad enough that she’d bleed out or go septic before we were picked up.”

“I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done for any other member of the crew. Even including you.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then what’s the big sloppy deal?”

“Maybe it’s the reminder that we’re, all of us, trying to help each other, save each other. Maybe it’s that it wasn’t any other member of the crew. But right now, I really don’t feel like lording over you how monumentally wrong you were. Speaking of…”

“Now that I’ve reminded you you feel compelled to be a jerk about it?”

“No. But I was wondering if you’ve made any progress on the black box.”

“Ah. Encryption’s pretty hardcore, even before you account for the arrow through it.”

“And you aren’t just keeping the juicy tidbits from me?”

“Right now we all need to pull together. That means not obstructing your access to juicy tidbits.”

“I’m regretting using those words.”

“I think we both are, at this point.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 13

Elle fired a volley of shots, then stopped. “I’m assuming our rules of engagement are that we’re to minimize casualties.”

“Certainly ours,” I deadpanned.

“Well, we did kind of drop a kinetic weapon in the middle of apparently a populace. Even if, best-case scenario, they were all bunked underground for a long winter’s nap, at a minimum we nuked their summer homes. We’re definitely the aggressors, here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That makes sense. Minimize casualties where and how you can. But I’m not risking our lives for theirs. So if you can’t shoot to corral, or even shoot to wound, you take the kill shot, no questions asked, no hesitation. You understand?”

“Crystal clear, sir. I just didn’t want to be playing footsy while you were playing a real contact sport.”

“Fair enough.” I finally had my first contact, coming up on Elle’s rear from the south. I couldn’t be sure if it was a flanking maneuver, or if the caves came up all around and they were just milling towards the disturbance from all directions- though given our numerical inferiority I wasn’t sure the difference would matter.

I leaned out too far, in part because I wanted to get as wide an understanding as possible while things were still relatively calm. The handful I’d seen were just the tip of an iceberg; they did seem to be milling, with five at the lead, but up to a hundred behind them, filling the street. “I got incoming in a big way,” I said. “Hundred total.” I fired, between the lower limbs of the creature, all of which were identical; there were five, in total, two they walked on at a time. I wondered if that meant that had five redundant heads that also functioned as limbs, or if they had five limbs with the brain in the center. The first few scattered towards the buildings for cover, buying me a moment.

“Morphology question, Bill,” I said, firing another volley, into the opposite row of buildings, to get the stragglers to seek cover, too.

“Little busy,” he grumbled, barely audible over the sounds of the torch in the background.

“Learn to multitask,” I said, firing another handful of shots, narrowly missing one of the starfish. “Morphology is basically engineering for organisms, so it’s closest to your wheelhouse. These creatures look like starfish.”

“Number of limbs doesn’t seem to be standard,” Elle cut in. “I’ve had a few with seven or eight limbs.”

“Right. What’s more likely, that these creatures have a centralized nervous system where the limbs meet in the center, or that they’re holding their brains in any one of the limbs- or maybe all of them.”

“Having multiple heads is pretty rare on Earth,” Bill started. “Basically it’s a defect in cellular division, called polycephaly. There are a handful of species that have more than one brain structure at different parts of the body, but that’s very much the exception, and not the rule. Starfish are probably the weirdest example, because they don’t have a brain in the classical sense. They’ve got neurons and a complex nervous system that seems to run along the length of the entire organism. That’s why they can regenerate from a severed limb; that’s even the preferred way for some species of starfish to procreate.”

“I don’t know that any of that helps me,” I said, firing again. They were probing, damnit it, seeing how far out they could go before I fired. That signaled some intelligence.

“You should have brought a biologist, then,” he said.

“No. It was more than I could have hoped for, as far as starfish biology is concerned. Elle, I’m not going to tell you when to shoot one of them, but when you do, keep an eye out. If you shoot them in a limb and they don’t mind, that will tell us something.”

“Right. About that. While Bill was talking, I clipped one. It was right foot. It did a partial cartwheel so it wasn’t walking on the wounded limb anymore, and kept coming.”

“Fuck. So to even slow them down we’ll have to disable three out of five limbs. I haven’t noticed any tools, yet.”

“Yeah,” Elle agreed. “Not even one of them grabbing the equivalent of a frying pan. That’s… peculiar.”

“Unless they are just gawkers, here to rubberneck.”

“Don’t say that. I’ll feel extra bad about the one I shot.”

I was about to tease her, when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. “Shit,” I said, getting behind cover too slowly. I knew before I felt it, or before I looked down, that I’d been hit. There was a bolt sticking out of my leg. “Whether or not they’re looky-loos, they aren’t the only ones here. They flanked us, building to the south of this one, second floor. Shot me in the leg with a fucking crossbow.”

“Don’t touch it,” Elle said firmly. “By the time a species developed projectile weapons, they were also likely to have connected enough dots to have some inkling of poison and disease- at least enough to know to rub filth on their projectiles.”

“So there’s likely poison and/or shit on this thing. Why shouldn’t I take it out?”

“Because removal is a whole secondary injury. If you’re lucky, they’re using a bolt that doesn’t have any fins. If you’re not, the whole bastard thing is designed to tear more on its way out.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. First aid training sort of fell out of my head there, for a second. I’ll leave it be.”

“Cover me,” she said, without giving me much time to actually prep. I leaned out, and peppered the opposing building, near enough to the two natives to keep their heads down. “And make way,” she said,” sliding behind cover as rocks and arrows thudded in the doorway behind her.

“Why are my pants getting tight?” I asked.

“I’ve had that effect on you since the day we first met,” she deadpanned, firing over my shoulder. “Tourniquet. I used a security override on your suit, to begin its tourniqueting procedures. It’s not a complete seal, but it’ll hold whatever infectious agents might be in the wound from circulating freely. It’s designed to cut circulation as much as possible without harming your ability to maneuver, at least at this level, though they can completely cut circulation in the event of a nicked artery”

“Goddamnit. I know these things,” I said. “My head’s definitely affected.”

“It’s probably too early for most infectious agents. A poison could hit this fast, but there’s also even odds that whatever is poisonous on this world is safe for us and vice versa. Shit,” she said, and I could tell from the way she was looking up that she was navigating data on her eyescreen. “Your suit must have a leak. You’ll likely be getting an alarm any second, now, once it falls far enough below spec. One moment.” She fired again, suppressing another of the starfish creatures. She put her hand to the wound, and a gel spread from one of her fingertips. She leaned around me to the other side of the bolt. “Yep, straight through. And barbed like a son of a bitch.” She sprayed more goo to seal it on the opposite side. Like an idiot, I tried to repressurize, before realizing I was going to fire her seals like bullets- only nothing happened. “Like I said, I overrode your systems. You have to let the gel set.” I felt a hiss, as my suit filled back with the normal quotient of gases. I took in a deep breath and could already think a little clearer.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Told you you should have been the one in the shuttle,” she said.

“So you and the baby could be the one dealing with whatever they rubbed on this bolt. Or so I’d have to carry you back because with a bolt through your leg you’d basically be an unmoving target.”

“I wouldn’t have got hit,” she said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. But one of us needs to get back to that shuttle. We’re blind to half the theater.” She leaned out and fired. “You go,” she said. “I can cover you better from here.”

“Yes, but then I can’t cover you well from there.”

“Yeah, your coverage was for crap last time, now that you mention it. Now go. There’s only two of them up there, now, but if they add a third or forth- or worse, if they get someone from a worse angle, we might be hosed. In three, two, go!”

I knew better than to keep arguing with her; we were both stubborn enough we could have stayed until we were completely surrounded complaining that the other person should go. And I knew she wasn’t wrong. That was the better vantage, and with what had been my good leg injured, I was moving even worse than she was. I dove into the shuttle, landing on my side so I didn’t disturb the bolt. “This is it?” I heard Elle ask over the comms.

“There wasn’t a lot left worth taking,” Bill replied. “The spearhead wasn’t designed to survive that kind of crash. Our pod, by comparison, was still able to land. I’m still getting readings from it, and we’ll try and recall it to the Nexus, if we can recover it. Now give me your gun; I’ll cover you from here.”

“Bull. We risked our lives for that junk. I can’t lift it in my present condition, and I’m not risking it and you getting left behind because I can’t properly cover you from over there.”

“Fine,” Bill said. An instant later he broke cover, so I had to, in a hurry, suppress as best I could from the back of the shuttle. Surprisingly, he arrived unscathed. “I’m starting the shuttle.”

“You should have gone first,” I said to Elle.

“Oh, stop acting maudlin- you can’t shoot straight when you’re maudlin. I’m leaving the rifle and the extra ammo, only keeping a pistol, and going on three, two,” she broke cover.

The damned starfish were getting wise, knew just how far out of cover they could get without giving me a clean shot- and so even though I was singing whatever the hell kind of ganglia they had instead of hairs, they kept lining up their shot. Bill stepped out of cover behind me, triangulating until he had a decent shot; he couldn’t make it count, but got close enough to get one of the starfish back behind cover, and knock the other one into my scope. I took the shot, through the arm it was holding its weapon in, and it dropped it. Elle slid in beside me, a moment before Bill. “I thought you were starting the ship,” I said.

“It’s two buttons, jerk,” he said, handing me his rifle. “And you’re welcome.”

The backdoors closed agonizingly slowly, with one final bolt managing to slip through them and strike the black box in the seat beside Elle. “Uh,” she said.

“That’s not ideal,” Bill said. “But nothing we can do about it now.”

I heard a handful of tinks as weapons bounced off the hull. “Should we be worried about any of that?” I asked.

“There’s two layers of shielding,” Bill said, “the exterior, where the heat-shields are, and an interior shield to hold in gases and the like. Without the exterior we might burn through energy quick; might be a bit cold waiting for the Nexus. They aren’t likely to pierce both; you’d have to hit the same spot twice.” There was an especially loud thud, “but there’s no real upside to letting them keep trying.”

He fired the engines and the remains of the city rushed by beneath us.

As we ascended, Bill leaned back in his chair. “Trajectory was just as we modeled, which means Haley and Dave’s supposition was correct- it was dead stick, on a collision course but no longer capable of any kind of correction. That wasn’t always the case; whatever it was using for fuel got eaten through, and it’s possible it was using something efficient to limp along, maybe an ion engine using whatever solar radiation it could pull in through panels. I’ll presumably be able to get more from the black box- the uh, arrow notwithstanding.”

“I’ve thought about it,” I said. “I’m composing a message to the Nexus: Drop a commbox on the world we’re leaving. We’ll leave it with a message, something to the effect that our ship was attacked, and we were trying to examine the weapon that was launched at us. We didn’t realize the weapon was going to fall on a populated world. We can’t stop their first interaction with our species from being a tragic one. But giving them some answers, a little closure- it might mean that they don’t spend the next fifty years planning their revenge on our species- or terrified we’ll come back to finish the job. As a show of good faith, include schematics and relevant tech that should help them rebuild- medical and infrastructural.”

“And what about when Pete inevitably complains?” Bill asked.

“Give our beloved HR troll credit where it’s due; I think he’ll understand this isn’t about profit, it’s about making right as a species for shit Sontem’s done.”

“And we’re not just setting them up for a date with the Interplanetary Copyright Court?” Elle asked.

“Precedent says that technology they perceived at the time as a gift can’t be used retroactively to sue a species over whatever technological evolution has occurred since. By the time the company knows anything happened here, their patents will be toilet paper.”

Bill smiled. “That might be the first time I’ve actually enjoyed being a pirate. Maybe we just need to be more judicious about screwing the right kinds of bastards.”

“Yarr,” I said.

Nexus 3, Chapter 12

“It’s not enough,” Elle said, as we finished counting the amount of shots we could fire. I could tell she was fighting the urge to start counting all over again.

“We didn’t come down here planning to depopulate the entire landing zone,” I said with a laugh. “But it will be enough.”

“And if it isn’t?” she asked, and this time when she touched her hand to her belly it was unconscious.

If it’s not, then there isn’t a head of security anywhere man’s set foot I would trust at my side more. We got each other through Dalaxia. Fought off an entire metropolis’ worth of space bears. Beat back a military crew that dwarfed ours. And if push comes to absolute shove, the two of you are getting the hell off of this world.”

“Don’t start thinking like a martyr again.”

“Not on Bill’s life.”

“I heard that,” he grumbled, still fighting the controls as the entire ship shuttered.

“If there’s any way I can watch our daughter grow up, I’m going to be there. And if there’s not, there isn’t a species that could keep me from ensuring at least that you will.”

“What about the Romaleon?”

“They took their shot,” I said.

I could hear the chortle Bill was badly fighting back as he said, “Isn’t it more like you took their-”

“Don’t,” I said, flicking the safety off on my rifle, which hummed to life, “after all, I’m armed.”

“Party pooper.” But then he took his eyes off the instruments to fix us both. “I’m putting us down as close as I can. Risk to the shuttle, either from gunfire or particles, at least my back of the envelope says that the difference is likely to be small. Whereas, the odds we get overrun, captured, killed, or just separated from the shuttle… we’re going to be on top of the wreckage. There’s a lot of fires still raging- the crash released a lot of energy, including heat. Whatever time you can buy will have to be enough. But the more you can buy, the better the chances we get off this rock with some answers that will save lives. But it’s her call. When she says we need to leave, we leave.”

Elle and I armed ourselves to the teeth. We packed on as many bags of ammunition as we could carry, and two pistols each, and a rifle. “So what’s the best-case scenario?” I asked Elle.

“That their society isn’t much more evolved from bears, hibernating in caves, that mostly they’re just stumbling out to see what woke them up.”

“And the odds?”

“I think there are essentially four technological epochs we regularly see. Stone tools and weapons. Metal tools and weapons. Physical projectile weapons. And energy projecting weapons. The nipple of the bell curve of species usually hovers around the breakpoint between stone and metal, with a slower taper towards energy projection. If I remember the figures, it’s roughly 25% of species contacted thusfar that had developed projectile weapons, and around 10% that had energy projecting weapons.”

“And of the latter two, projectiles are actually worse,” I said, “because there’s really no one solution that will handle all projectiles.”

“Right. You can use a densely woven fabric like Kevlar to stop a bullet. But any reasonably sharp arrow-head or bolt will slice through it like butter- for those you need interwoven ring mail.”

“And I remember sitting in on those meetings. You specifically argued that multiple layers of protection were worth whatever extra cost in manufacturing and launching, and whatever extra resources were required to get them down on the shuttles. Company scientists thought we’d have to slow either the speed or frequency of stopping at new planets- that the hit we took in efficiency wouldn’t compensate for the marginal security benefit. Kicking yourself for not fighting harder for my proposal?”

“Just aware that not doing so makes it more likely this will be the way that I die- it was always going to be ironic.” The shuttle lurched as we touched down, and the rear doors started opening.

It was a hell of a lot worse than I thought. The species might have hibernated underground, but there were definitely buildings topside, as well. Seemed like they were formed mostly of a rocky, red clay, with thatched roofs; it was the roofs that had caught and spread the most fire. I didn’t see bodies; maybe that meant that they all retreated for their equivalent of winter, and we got exceedingly lucky. Maybe they were there, if you only took the time to dig- but we didn’t have that time. The pod, or what was left of it, was sitting in the middle of one of these structures, and we were parked outside. Elle and I swept the structure; there had been a window and a door in the rear, but the impact had collapsed them both to make them impassible. That left the one door to watch, to protect Bill.

“I’m taking the structure,” I said.

“Like fun you are,” Elle replied.

“Three quick points: one, I’m Captain; two, you’re protecting for two, and three, we might not have time for you to do that little pregnant waddle if we have to leave in a hurry, so you’re posting up in the back of the ship.”

“I hate you when you’re right nearly as much as I hate you when you’re wrong.”

“Maybe you just hate me, full stop,” I offered.

“No, I love you when you’re quiet.” I didn’t point out her Freudian slip, and she walked back to the shuttle.

Bill was already carting the cutting tools to the wreckage, which looked like a barbecue turned inside out, so I wasn’t sure what all he hoped to get from it; hopefully the instruments inside fared better, but he ignored us as he walked, aside from passive-aggressively mumbling, “No, no, it’s fine, it doesn’t matter if it takes me an extra several minutes to carry all of this crap out here…”

I don’t know if Bill instinctively knew what he was doing, since it was essentially an engineering problem, but the way he angled the ship enabled Elle to cover the streets to the North and East from the rear of the shuttle, while I could mostly cover South and West- and we could both cover each other. It wasn’t a perfect position, since we would have needed at least one but likely two more to truly watch all of the angles, but under the circumstances it was likely as good as it was getting.

“If you need, you can mute me,” Bill said, “but I’m going to record what I’m seeing. Even if something prevents us from making it back, this recording might still be recoverable. And it wouldn’t hurt for the two of you to know what we’re up against, either. Outside of the pod is charred. Either it was never designed to enter atmo or it was truly dead stick and just smashed through, heat be damned. I think some of these were heat panels, but with this kind of damage it’s hard to know. If they’re based on the same designs as our pods they’re a generation or two beyond them. Access panels aren’t in the same place, and even now that I’ve found it the damned thing seems to have been fused shut- as in the heat was enough to melt screws, which have since cooled and hardened in place. But that’s why I brought the torch.”

I don’t know if he was aware of it, but he started to hum, something classical, but that inexplicably kept including measures of Dueling Banjos, and I think at one point segued into Old McDonald. “Fuck,” he finally said. “So, Good news/bad news.”

“Bad first,” Elle and I said in unison.

“We can’t leave yet. Because the good news, it’s brain is intact. They shielded the shit out of the black box, which would seem, if I’m understanding all of the linkages, here, to include both the processor and memory systems. This is going to tell us… everything. Who fired it, where from, how long it was trailing us, when it went dead stick and likely, if there are any blindspots we can exploit. Provided we can survive this, and get back to the Nexus with it and us intact, this is probably the best case scenario.” “Well that’s just great,” Elle said. “And you might want to hurry up on cutting it out. Because I have contact, and they are armed for bear.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 11

“I’m not sure about this,” Bill said. He was anxious, anxious enough he was fiddling with his restraints instead of locking them. “If they’re close enough for a firing solution, isn’t slowing up to check their tech just getting them closer to the target?”

“Buckle,” I told him. “We only have a preliminary scan of the atmospheric contents; we could be in for a bumpy landing.”

“Why do you think I took the pilot seat?” he asked, but he did secure his restraint. “I’ve seen your flight scores. There was no way I was letting you or Templeton land.”

I got a copy of his scores pulled up before I realized he was full of crap; he didn’t have access to either of our scores, not as head of engineering. Maybe Dave could have taken a peek, but Bill was blustering. Still, his scores were good, better than mine, and unless Elle spent a while working on her flight skills he was a better choice than her, too. Didn’t mean I had to give him the satisfaction of confirming it, though. “There’s plenty to be learned,” I said. “Like where these were fired from. If they were fired from Earth, a nearer colony, something left in the wake of the Argus or if this is the Nascent. Learning about the tech they’re using could help us deal with a subsequent shot- or even figure out if there’s a way to redirect ourselves to make it harder for them to follow. Regardless, the Nexus is coming back for us- complaining now isn’t going to change that.”

“We could tell them not to bother,” he suggested.

“And murder us?” Elle asked.

“Three people compared to, what, a thousand lives, at this point?”

“Four,” Elle said, touching her belly.

“Even if you gave that order, do you think Haley or Dave would listen to it?” I asked.

“No, and that’s why we shouldn’t have gotten on the shuttle in the first place.”

“Well, we’re on it,” Elle said. “And until we see what they fired at us, we aren’t going to know if this was a fool’s errand, so we need to stow the dissention. Because I’ll remind you, if we spend the trip down with you bitching, he has at least an equal amount of time to ride you on the way back. And incentive to keep it up even back on the ship.”

“Yeah,” Bill said, with a sigh. “Besides, we’re dropping onto an unsurveyed world, and we should be focusing on making whatever plan we can. Example- the spearhead hit with enough mass and speed to cause the equivalent of a nuclear detonation. Looks like the suits should be able to handle the fallout, no pun intended but we should keep an eye on sensors- no reason for us to open any of our systems clogging or overheating. And… goddamnit. Are you sure it’s too early to deploy an ‘I told you so?’”

“What’s the situation?” I asked, leaning to try to be able to better see the instrument panel, because trying to access it through an eyescreen would be tough without knowing which needle in his haystack was irritating him.

“Probes didn’t initially find life on this world. That’s because this species buries itself deep within caves underground, too deep for an atmospheric scan to pick up. But apparently nuking them from space has riled them up. They’re massing.”

“Nope,” Elle said, drawing his attention to several other points, “they’re staging. Maybe it’s an emergency response; presumably they’d have children and elders who wouldn’t be a part of military staging- but it could be both, security forces massing at some locations, disaster shelters in others. That means the odds of resistance go up significantly.”

“Maybe Bill’s right,” I said. “Maybe the cost of whatever we might here learn isn’t worth it.”

“We’ve already paid half that cost by losing some of our head start to stop here in the first place,” Elle said, turning her frustration on me.

“Doesn’t mean we should throw good advantage after bad.”

“I’m not chasing a sunk cost. But stop thinking with your genes, for a second. If it weren’t me, if it weren’t your daughter, it would be worth it, no question. The next one of these spearheads could hit the Nexus if we don’t use this opportunity to figure out how to stop them. It’s a good risk to take, even if you’re not keen on who is being risked.”

“She’s right, Drew,” Bill said.

“Wait, now even you are abandoning your position?” I asked, pointing at Bill. “Is it just a knee-jerk opposition to me?”

“No. She’s right, and persuasive. We’re past the point of no return on this- so we might as well try and get a return on the investments we sunk into it.”

“What’s our situation like?” I asked.

Bill sighed, and shared the environmental scans the ship had managed as we descended. “Atmosphere is thick; think midway between a hearty chicken and a heavy pea soup. Means the atomized particles are going to be denser at the point of impact. It might function as cover, or might get into literally everything and destroy, in order, our suits, our ship, our health, our futures, and any will to restrain ourselves from choking out our glorious leader.”

“So from an environmental standpoint things aren’t rosy. What’s the security sitrep?” I asked.

“Well,” Elle said, in a sing-songy way I remembered from Dalaxia and a handful of other briefings where we were dog-paddling our way up Shit Creek but she really didn’t want to be the one to put a hole in our morale canoe, “we’re up against a massing force of unknown strength, wielding unknown levels of tech. And without a commbox or even a rudimentary way of communicating with them. We don’t know if they’re coming just to see what’s going on, or if they’re going to come at us with the intention of shooting first and letting their gods sort it out. Or if they eat their still-living enemies; or hate-fuck them to death. In other words, you and I are going to cover Bill. He’s going to get whatever scans he can, or carry away whatever pieces he can to pull apart back on the Nexus. Time’s going to be of the essence, because they can probably overtake us through sheer numbers, and all of that ignores that we’re likely going to face more than rocks and sharpened sticks wielded with some degree of magnitude more complicated tactics than children on a playground.”

“And we all still think we should proceed, circumstances be damned?” I asked.

“We should,” Bill said. “And you should both know I sent a message to the Nexus, telling them exactly how fucked this mission is, and that if they don’t hear from us when it’s time to do their gravity-assisted turn to come back for us- that they should assume we’re gone and proceed without us. You’ve got about ten seconds if you want to try to send a competing message out before the dust kills our ability to get a signal out through all the debris.”

“No,” I said. “We finish the mission or they should leave our bodies where we fall.”

Elle gasped. “I can’t believe you’d say that about your daughter,” she said.

“You have never been that kind of woman- or mother.”

“Can you imagine?” she asked, eyeing the munitions cabinets while pulling on her restraints. “It’s taking every last kilo of willpower not to be counting how many shots are in the rifles.”

“You already know.”

“I know. But you count them in case some asshole didn’t refill them.”

“And I bet you’ve counted them since this shuttle last left the Nexus, too. And could probably tell me when both counts happened.”

“I know,” she said, a little deflated. “But it helps calm my nerves.”

“Well, as soon as our pilot tells us it’s safe, I’ll help you count them, okay?” I reached across the aisle between seats along either wall. She had to strain similarly to take hold of the tips of my fingers.

And if you didn’t know her as well as I did, you might not have caught the tiny little hitch in her voice as she said, “Okay,” back.

Nexus 3, Chapter 10

“I still think this should have been a manned flight,” Bill said.

“And you’re one of two people who are the reason it isn’t,” Elle said, “and I will box both of your ears if either of you complain about it again.”

“Why is she here?” he whispered me, but loud enough she was supposed to hear it.

“Because I don’t trust you,” she said. “And the council doesn’t trust you. And we voted for me to be here officially, to not trust you in an official capacity.”

“You won’t win, Bill,” I told him. “All you can do is try to lose with a little dignity.”

“Is that what happened to yours?” he asked with a smile. “Years of ball-busting.”

“I can’t tell if that’s you joining in on the ball-busting, or deflecting to preserve your dignity.”

“You all know it isn’t actually easy to fly this thing by remote near the Nexus, keeping it within range of our signal but not getting close enough either to clip the ship or ricochet some rocks into our path?” Dave asked from the improvised control setup.

“My sensors indicate an incoming projectile,” Haley said over all of our comms. Most of us looked at Dave, assuming he’d flown enough off course that he’d set off some perimeter alarms. He knew better.

“Projectile?” Dave asked. “No, I see it on the probe’s sensors, now. It looks like one of our probes. I’m going to buzz it.”

Haley shared the view from the probe’s cockpit, including the HUD overlay that a pilot would see if they were flying it. The probe zoomed past the projectile.

“It’s definitely not manned,” Dave said. “No space for a human being, none of the engineering compromises you’d have to make to keep a person alive.”

“Projectile is gaining on the Nexus,” Haley said.

“Can we maneuver out of its path?” I asked.

“Not fast enough,” Dave said. “It’s going to clip us- unless- standby.” I felt the acceleration of the probe as if I was lurching forward within its cockpit. Then I saw the probe zoom forward, impacting the projectile. Suddenly the feed cut, and instead Haley was sharing a diagram, showing nearby worlds, and the three vessels with their trajectory, including the impact of the two. A projected trajectory beyond the impact put the projectile landing on world. “We need to get down there,” I said. “Right now. Dave stays, but the rest of us are going down there. We don’t have time to dink around planning a mission. We need to drop in a shuttle before we get out of range. We’re running, now!”