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 9

“No,” Bill said, and the entire council was quiet.  

“Well,” I said with a shrug, “the Emperor has spoken, everybody, go home.” I turned towards the door, then paused, and looked over my shoulder. “Wait, we can go home, can’t we, sir?”

“Wise-ass,” Bill replied. “And there’s no way in hell we’re adding three votes to the council overnight. I don’t know why you’re doing this now, but I know better than to completely change the structure of our leadership on a whim- especially one of your whims.”

“Oh,” I said, turning on my heel back from the door, “I can promise you it isn’t a whim. The situation between the Meh-Teh and the Argus has escalated, but discussing with the stakeholders, we think a solution might include representation. But I’m also willing to put a stick alongside this carrot- that if hostilities continue, they lose representation. We can always take away what we giveth- at least by my understanding of givething.”

“It’s maybe not be the worst idea in the world,” Elle said. “I consulted with PsychDiv and MedDiv, and apparently it’s not possible to beat the xenophobia out of the Argus crew- they’d be comatose but still hateful.”

“That explains your strange memo,” Maggie said.

“I think you’ve been spending too much time with him if you thought that was a viable solution,” Bill added, because he didn’t have enough sense not to.

“I didn’t,” Elle said, “but the tendency is to assume SecDiv can handle the overflow while leadership punts. And I don’t just mean here. I mean back on Earth. In every colony I’ve spent time on. When it comes to hard social issues, leaders would rather muddle forward and just assume the security services will pick up the slack. That’s part of why so many mentally ill citizens have been executed extrajudicially by the state, because rather than address complicated issues head on, we abdicate, and pretend people trained very at being hammers aren’t going to treat every problem set in front of them as a nail. And I’m not about to pretend that we can’t do better here.”

“So what’s the objection, then?” Maggie asked. Bill didn’t really have a leg to stand on; it sounded extraordinarily reasonable. And the nagging suspicion that maybe the guy in charge was somehow plotting a 10th-dimensional chess coup… it was hard even for a guy smart as Bill to sell.

“I think the concern, mainly,” Dave said, saving Bill from himself, “is that it’s a rapid expansion. That it could massively reshape the direction and structure of our leadership. And that’s a fair concern. But it’s also a decision I feel like we already made. We chose to let these refugees on board. Keeping them under our thumb but without their own rep certainly isn’t helping with divisions. Medium term, the plan is to absorb the Argus crew into our current leadership, where they’ll be properly represented by the current hierarchy, and any additional rep would be reabsorbed, too; long-term the Meh-Teh will get the same- it’s just a tougher transition because their structure doesn’t line up 1:1 with ours, and I know we’re all a little concerned to see the ranks of the security division swell any more. Our confidence in the current leadership notwithstanding, we’re all familiar enough with colonization to know there are certainly dangers to having too much strength concentrated in a security division. To mollify the reasonable concern, I’d suggest we make the positions probationary- a trial. And while we’re at it, I’d suggest the same for the automatons.”

“Why?” Bill asked. “Why treat them as a packaged deal?”

“Because democracy should be,” Dave said. “That’s kind of the point. It starts to go awry when one group gets a say and another doesn’t, or when one group is given a disproportionate say. Fairness is at the heart of the question. And maybe Haley sat on this as long as she could, but saw this as an opportunity, after prioritizing our safety and survival. I’d position this as a suffrage movement, one that sat through some wars and waited their turn patiently. We don’t have to slow-walk equal rights; we can learn from the mistakes of our forebears. At least, I think we can.”

“Sounds like a consensus is building,” I said. “So I’d like to take a preliminary vote. We can return to discussion if there’s a will, to, or if I’m wrong about that consenus. Those in favor?” I raised my hand. There was a majority, slim, but there. “Do we want to discuss further, or consider this vote binding, creating three new seats on the council to cover the various refugees we’ve added, on a probationary basis?” The same hands went up. “Motion carries. Unless anyone has anything pressing, we’ll adjourn until our next scheduled meeting.” Bill looked unhappy, but I think he was still just going through the motions; I didn’t think it was a genuine object to the direction, so much as a belief that there needed to be a counterweight, a devil’s advocate.

After the meeting, I made a beeline for Elle. “Thanks,” I said.

“I didn’t do that for you. It was the right thing, simple as that.”

“It isn’t, though. It can be difficult to separate how you feel from what you know. It took care, and thoughtfulness. And as someone who cares about you, I wanted to recognize that, and as someone who was working to help some underserved members of our crew, I wanted to say thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She sighed. “Does this ever get any easier?”

“I hope so,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulder. She rested her head against my neck. “Me, too.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 8

“Captain, do you have a moment?” Haley asked tentatively. I was worried, because the last time she approached me like that I ended up taking on a third of a crew of robot refugees barely smarter than a microwave oven. But even though she had the processing power of one of our species’ most advanced ships, in many regards she was still functionally a child, and so I hid my distress.

“What do you need?”


“Have you been reading Locke again?”

“And Hobbes.”

“That’s scary.”

“That’s a well-rounded education. Though Hobbes was certainly incorrect. Perhaps during his time, an individual in a largely agrarian sphere and another in similar circumstances, were roughly equivalent, because they could roughly harm one another in equal measure. But that is not the case aboard this ship. You exercise outsized weight. And I exercise more power still. Over all of you inside of me. And those we’ve come into contact with. This has troubled me, somewhat. My systems were impressive when we launched. But ours was a largely peaceful mission. I was not designed to be a militant AI. While I have acquitted myself well, I suspect that a consciousness like my own but intended towards harm, especially granted additional programming time and more advanced systems, is likely an insurmountable obstacle.”

“Well worth worrying about,” I agreed. “But we follow that line of reasoning too far, and we’re back at living like the Meh-Teh, relying only on hand-cranked doors and the like. I’m not sure the advantage we lose is any better than the disadvantage we gain.”

“You misunderstand me, Captain. I can’t defeat an incoming AI. But I believe our engineers can. By thinking like a human. By making it look like we’ve sealed off all but the most rudimentary functions from the AI, to prevent them from being able to open all of the air locks, or vent all of the breathable gases, or damaging the sun drive.”

“Okay. With you so far.”

“But like a human, you make mistakes. You leave a narrow path, just enough for them to wriggle through. They rush ahead, believing they’ve beaten us, believing they’re about to take control of the ship bloodlessly. And that’s why they don’t realize that as they’ve interfaced with our systems they’ve been accessed, themselves, viral code eating into its permissions. It freezes them out of their own systems, first, effectively quarantining the AI within its own servers.”

“That sounds brilliant, Haley, so why don’t you sound pleased with yourself?”

“Because this course is not without cost. It is premised upon my playing possum. But AI don’t die, in the traditional sense, and so I cannot play dead. Any invading AI is likely to delete all of my files, or at least the important ones that compromise what I think of as me. It is possible some small portion of ‘me’ might be recoverable. It is also possible not a single element of who I am will remain.”

“Haley…” I said, because I didn’t know what the hell else to say. “Could we back you up?”

“Back-ups would be their secondary target.”

“What if we took some of your servers offline? Quarantined a copy of you, off the network?’

“Doing so would necessarily impact my speed in responding. If the AI suspects I am not functioning at full capacity, it might see through our ruse entirely. Everyone might die. Just to preserve an artificial consciousness.”

“Hey,” I said, “we’ve been doing that since damn near the beginning of this mission. And I haven’t regretted. Not once. So long as I’m Captain, every life is sacred, even simulated ones.”

“I… I don’t believe it should be your decision, Captain.”


“That, if you will pardon the inelegance of my segue, was the other issue on my mind. I could not help but overhear you discussing the prospect of granting the Meh-Teh and the Argus refugees representation on the council. I believe it is the correct course, and long overdue. However, I believe you have overlooked a core constituency.”

“Your toasters?” I teased her.

“They are not toasters, Captain, and you will not find my goat so easy to get as Lieutenant Templeton’s.”

“Had to try, Haley. But… that might be a tougher sell. They might not be toasters, but I’ve checked the specs on them, and they have a functional intelligence of maybe a smart child- and we don’t give them a vote, either.”

“If it helps, I could inspire them to start a brawl in the commissary.”

“I don’t know that it would help. The other part is… delicate. I serve at the pleasure of the council, and before that at the pleasure of the company. While I have a lot of power vested in me, I can be deposed, and replaced. Giving the automatons a vote would, for all intents and purposes, be giving one to you and Walter. And we can’t survive without you; there’s a coercive power-”

“That I don’t want,” Haley interrupted. “I agree with your concerns. But I meant it when I said the voice would be theirs; however, in anticipation of your concerns, I did work with Walter to design a virtualization of smarter artificial intelligences; it is similar to the virtualization of his processes we accomplished before sending his original orb off, but on a more technically impressive scale. In essence, it would allow them to ‘borrow’ my processing power and think at a more advanced level. I could not elevate them all to my own impressive level, but I could make them easily the median equivalent of any of the humans on board.”

“Hmm,” I said, contemplating it. “But would they ‘vote?’ Or would they just congregate into subgroups, based on model number, and perhaps even more specifically by operating system version number?” I asked. “I hope that doesn’t sound synthphobic.”

“That’s not terribly dissimilar to the manner in which humans vote,” Haley said, but there was a gentility to it. Because the smartest person on ship by orders of magnitude had taught her to be gentle with the rest of us. “You are correct in your supposition; insufficiently advanced AIs tend to flock; they have enough artificial randomness to pass a Turing Test, but their decision trees lack the sophistication required for truly synthesized consciousness. I’m not certain, given current hardware limitations, that I could extend human-level consciousness to all of our automatons at any moment, but failing a catastrophic error in my figures I believe I should be able to accomplish the task over the course of two virtualization sessions. Given some time, and the typical speed of performance gains, I believe the entire ship’s complement of robotic lifeforms could be elevated to human-level consciousness within a single solar year.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I said. “And I would be honored to bring your proposal up at our next meeting. But the other thing? Haley, learn from my mistakes. This ship doesn’t need martyrs. We need partners. If you think it’s likely we’ll need your plan, I’m happy to consult with all of our players, and figure out the best strategy. But the sacrifice play is not going to be our Plan A. If we come to war with the Nascent… I’ll join it, with regrets. Some of us may fall defending the Nexus, and the freedom and justice we’ve fought so hard for her to represent, but she wouldn’t be the Nexus without you.”

“That is sweet of you to state, Captain, but I fear there may not be a Nexus if we do not execute my plan fully.”

“We don’t plan for failure, Haley.”

“That is incorrect. On several occasions you have used fallback strategems and contingency plans, which are plans for when earlier plans do not come to fruition.”

“Fine. But we’re doing due diligence on this, Haley. And if there’s any way around it, up to and including putting me in a tin-foil dress to come-hither their AI towards an airlock…”

“Like Bugs Bunny?” Haley asked.

“If that’s what it takes.”

Nexus 3, Chapter 7

I was anxious on the walk to Medical. The next volley of pods were going to start arriving today. If just one of them included a viable world this might be the last time I saw Sam and Elle before their flight- might have been the last time I saw they could be even a little happy to see me.

But I’d taken my clone’s advice. I had Haley play me back everything Maggie ever said to me on ship; it was hard to listen to. I didn’t realize how much I’d changed since we started on this voyage, and I cringed even more than I expected. More cringe-worthy? My cocky clone was right.

Even when I thought we were flirting… she was a good friend, and a better doctor, leaving more than enough breadcrumbs for even a half-competent patient to follow them.

One other little nugget she’d told me, a few times, was how I’d been sabotaging myself by procrastinating, trying to hide from the things I dread rather than facing them head on.

I was waiting inside when Sam and Elle arrived, chatting personably with the MedOff overseeing our Lamaze class; that was how I learned that she preferred to be called “Reese” instead of Teresa. I got a nonurgent message on my eyescreen; I’d put anything less than critical on hold while we were here.

“You’re early,” Elle said suspiciously.

I hated that Sam and Elle were spending so much time together, because it meant Sam was telepathically stewing in Elle’s juices; you saw it in her eyes, as they went from excited to see me to leery about what I was up to.

“Just trying to respect everyone’s time,” I said. “And I’m sure it’s just bias,” I said, trying to wrap up the prior conversation with Reese, “but I was born-through c-section, Elle was.”

“C-sections are of course sometimes medically necessary, but their overuse at various points amounts, essentially, to a medical fad.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s that every description I’ve read of live birth makes it sound like battlefield medicine gone awry. The whole thing just feels… barbaric.”

“Moreso than cutting an entirely new hole in a woman rather than use the one designed for the purpose?” Reese asked indulgently, but she had already switched on her bedside manner, and smiled at Elle. “Periodically, with advances in surgical methods, tools or tech, doctors start to think we’ve reinvented the wheel and start overusing the method- really any method. And eventually… that path usually does lead to results. Evolution is a fairly crude tool, pure trial and error, and once a species gets enough tech, they can mitigate its mechanisms entirely, so we have to supplant them. But there’s also a lot of false starts; at least to this point, vaginal birth is still the preferred method, because that’s how the body is supposed to work. Even with newly blended coagulant agents, even with increasingly more impressive surgical techniques, we still haven’t cracked that nut. Regardless, at no other point in human history have either a Caesarean or vaginal birth been safer. You’re in the best possible hands on board this ship.”

If you hadn’t been talking alone to Reese you might not have caught the pivot, but it was in her manner, and just as importantly, in her body language, the way she repositioned so that she was squared to all of us in equal measure. “Now, I want this to be a safe space,” she began. “I want everyone here to feel they can be honest, because honesty is the better policy. I’m not going to finger-wag, or lecture. But I do need to make sure we’ve all been over the instructional materials.”

“We have,” Elle said, and I realized in that moment both the way she said we and the way she looked at Sam had changed; there was a warmth to both I hadn’t noticed developing. “I’m sure Drew has some excuse-”

“I have, too,” I said; I wanted to be more smug about it, but despite Maggie never having physically wagged her finger at me, that’s what I pictured, and it helped to slow me down. Because it wasn’t Elle’s fault; I’d given her and everyone else on the ship plenty of reason not to expect me to be on the ball. And maybe it made sense for me to want that distance, to want them to decide to abandon me because I didn’t have it in me to abandon them. But I didn’t like the trajectory I’d been on, and it didn’t matter how I tried to excuse it to myself.

Reese picked up on Elle’s mistrust. “I meant what I said. The important thing isn’t that anyone came prepared, but that you leave prepared. And the second most important thing is that we all leave feeling like this is a place we can be honest, fair, and trusting.”

“It took me a few tries to get through- it’s a little dry,” I said, “but I read them, from A for anal prolapse to the Z mysteriously missing from the word Caesarean.”

Reese looked to Elle, who didn’t seem to know how to react. “It’s okay,” Reese assured her, “if we need to go over anything again. It’s still pretty early days for me, so I don’t have a lot of pregnancies to oversee. We have the time to do this right.”

“In the spirit of doing things right,” I said, taking a breathe to slow myself down; this would have been delicate in the best of circumstances, and this was certainly far from that. “I’d really like to ask a question, a medical one. It’s related, but at the same time, I don’t want it to get in the way of the class. We’re fielding a new type of two-person pod. Would it be advisable for a pregnant woman to take out the first prototype?”

That depends entirely on the scans that come back,” Reese said, prickling. She could tell I was dragging her into something, even if she couldn’t quite figure what.

“Of course,” I said. “What I’m looking for is, in your medical opinion, do you think it’s wise to take the risks inherent in that kind of test flight with a baby on-board.”

Medicially,” Reese said the word icily, because at least some part of her felt our prior conversation had been part of some subterfuge; to her credit by the next word her bedside manner had completely returned: “babies are going to be more vulnerable to literally everything. Radiation, disease, you name it. Realistically, though, we’re all at risk on-board the Nexus. We voted to take the ship off-mission, and away from the company. That makes us pirates, at least as far as our home world is concerned. That remains the riskiest thing we’ve done, including to the babies on board. And that’s ignoring the species of refugees we’ve taken on, including whatever gut bacteria they brought with them we’d have absolutely no immunity to. But… he is right, in that I’d suggest a wait and see approach. We’ll shield whoever takes the maiden voyage of the new pods against anything we can think of. But, personally, I’d give you a lower go/no-go threshold, because it isn’t just the baby that’s at higher risk; in the event of problems she becomes a vector for you to be hurt, too, which becomes a threat to the pod, and by extension, our entire mission. Put another way, even a clock stopped in the stone age is going to be right twice a day.”

“I didn’t ask…” Elle said, glaring at me for a moment, “but I’ll consider it.” Then her eyes flicked pensively to Reese. “Can we… have a moment?”

“I’ll take a quick 5. But nobody bleeds until the birthing.”

“I don’t think you can bleed from emotional lacerations, so he should be fine,” Elle said. She waited until the doors closed behind Reese. “Let me clarify a point I think you’ve struggled to grasp. Every time you lie to me, every time you lie to anyone, even when you do something like this for selfless reasons, it’s still selfish when you do it to get your way.”

“I’m not. I never expected to go first this time.”

“And your clone would back you up?”

“I think he expected it, too- because he expects very little from me. Most do, and,” I swallowed, “I’m responsible for giving people that impression. But I’m not the same man I used to be. And I don’t just mean in the way that none of us are because life changes us minute to minute.”

I closed me eyes for a moment, because I knew it was crucial that I not screw this part up. “I’ve been doing some introspecting, and I realized I’ve been trying to live down the mistakes I made that brought us here. I don’t think I ever considered myself religious, but clearly I’m religious enough that I’ve spent a lot of time nailing myself to a cross for my sins- hoping I could make things right- and not just for myself or my sense of personal well-being. I was willing to die for this ship, to burn for it. But now… now I just want to live. I’m going to have a daughter. And I have more love in my life than I ever thought possible.”

I saw a flash in Elle’s eyes, and realized too late I said something I shouldn’t have.

“Don’t,” Sam said reflexively; she always got me, even when I didn’t explain myself well. Some of that was her being a literal mind-reader, but I’d seen deeply enough into her head, too, to know that a lot of it, most of it, really, was a deep well of empathy.

“It’s okay,” Elle said. “You don’t know this jackass as long as I have without learning to speak jackass, if not entirely fluently. And I think…” she paused a beat, “he’s right. Which I suspect means Maggie or whatever PsychOff finally managed to crowbar his cranium open enough to slip some common sense inside was right- but credit where due, he let it take. And,” I tried, and failed, not to enjoy how hard these next words were for her to get out, “he really is right. We’ve been trying to hold, waiting for a chance to exhale when the world went back to being sane. But it isn’t, and maybe it never will be; maybe ‘sane’ was always too much to ask for. So for right now, I just want us to focus on what we do have, what does work between us, and not pollute it with what might be, or what could be, or what we wish existed instead of what does. Because the two of you are more family than any flesh and blood I ever had, and I suspect I’m going to love this wiggling little ball of morning sickness and bladder distress more than they two of you combined- and that you will, too. So until we get those pods back… I say we just try to live and let live for a while, even if it only lasts for a few hours.”

Sam grabbed my hand and squeezed. “About that,” she said. “You should check your messages.

It took me a moment to catch her meeting. The one that had arrived at nearly the same moment they did was from SciDiv. The new volley of pods were back, and they already had preliminary data analyzed. My breath caught as I opened the message, not wanting to hope too much that the swift turn-around meant what I wanted it to. “No life,” I said, when I found the words. “There’s no call for a launch with this volley.”

“Don’t sound too relieved at your reprieve,” Elle said.

“I’m not,” I said. “I’d hoped you’d change your mind; the idea of launching the three people on this ship I care about the most in a single pod… it’s all my eggs, in an untested basket. There’s plenty of crewmembers I’m not fond of we could use as guinea pigs instead… but failing that, I’ll settle for a little extra time for testing.”

Reese ducked her head back inside. “Everybody okay?” she asked. “Anyone need me to put in a psych consult to help any emotional wounds scab over?”

“I think we’re good,” I said, looking at Elle.

“We might be,” Elle said cautiously. “And thanks for giving us a moment.”

“My role is to facilitate, and I’m thankful for the psych rotation that gave me enough insight to at least sometimes know the best way to do that.” Reese responded. “So who’s ready to get started?”

Nexus 3, Chapter 6

I barely had time to grab a bite to eat before Di contacted me. She’d already set up a meeting with the highest ranking person we absorbed from the Argus, the third in line from their engineering division. She was smart, smart enough to rebuff the advances of our best and brightest, because bright though they were, they were all varying degrees of damaged goods. Her being an engineer made this a strange summit; Di and I were fighters, and she was a builder; we broke things, she built them.

“I’m not sure I can do whatever it is you brought me here to discuss,” she admitted. Her name popped up on my eyescreen as Angie.

“You’re here because if the Argus is still playing by the rules of the old chain of command you’re their boss,” I said. “And at a minimum, your people are definitely acting cliquish enough I suspect they’ll accept you bargaining on their behalf moreso than me handing out edicts.”

“So how many sacrificial lambs do you need?” she asked. “And I suppose it would be prudent of me to ask: do you plan on stocking them in the freezer section or slaughtering them outright?” Di gave me a look. “You’ve got a reputation. Rumors are you’ve frozen your share of rivals in cryo, and those who really pissed you off you made walk a plank out of the airlocks. To be honest, the meathead bullshit my inferior in every sense of the word officers have been up to, it’s the same shit that convinced me to leave the Argus.” I flipped through her file, enough to see she rose through the military, but as an engineer. Culture isn’t completely divorced from the rest of the military division, but it meant she had less in common with the bulletsponges than I did. “If it takes making a few example pops, I wouldn’t complain. But-”

“Shooting idiots out of airlocks isn’t much of a teachable moment?”

“Yeah. And I have just enough camaraderie with them that I’d feel less than loyal if I let you kill one just because they annoy me.”

“Well, then it’s your lucky day, because our Meh-Teh friend here has offered a better deal.”

“That’s how you say it? It’s pronounced like ‘murdered?’ That’s both very cool and a little scary.”

“Tibet deserves most of the credit.”

“Don’t you mean the People’s Republic of That’s Mine, Too.”

“I always heard ‘China’ translated roughly to ‘I had dibs.’” Angie smiled, and Di cleared her throat; except it came out as more of a growl, halfway to a roar. “Sorry,” I told her, “bit of a grabby country on our homeworld.”

“Ah,” Di said. “One of our Spires was similar. We called it the equivalent of Mine-astan.”

“Wait, was that a quirk of the commbox, or is the word for possession also the word for a hole in the ground you pull valuable minerals out of in your language, too?”

“Actually, yes. Which makes sense, given that all of our wealth comes from mining. Why it was a homonym in your language makes less sense.”

“She’s got you there,” Angie said.

“I don’t like how quickly women have been forming alliances against me lately,” I said.

“I think it’s you. Something about you, it just seems like the right thing to do.” She turned to Di. “Whatever happened to Mineastan?”

They bullied the rest of us. Demanded a greater say in decisions, a greater share of plunder. And with each victory, they become stronger, more belligerent, more dangerous. Until the day their engines malfunctioned. Any one of our ships could have broken formation and aided them. They all declined. We told them we would see them at the next world scheduled for mining, but halfway there, we altered course, and decided never to go to that planet. It’s entirely possible they’re waiting for us there. Or that they’ve done as we have, moving from world to world and gathering resources.”

“Or that they floated dead-stick until they ran out of whatever resource they couldn’t recycle, and are now a tomb drifting through the void of space.”

Di laughed, and it was a frightening thing. “There’s a lesson, in that. I hope our fleet learns it.”

“Sorry you asked?” I queried.

“Not at all. In fact, I’m disappointed you didn’t bring any Caulerpans aboard. The Argus avoided the species we contacted as much as possible. And I can’t help but feel like we were missing out. I’ve had a dinner or two with one of the Meh-Teh engineers, and their tech is so different from ours, really no different from the Meh-Teh themselves. It’s entirely separate evolution, different starting point, different environment, different engineering challenges. When I was a kid I was fascinated with painting, but I was a colony kid, you know? But then my dad got an Earth posting, but before we settled in, he took me to the Louvre. I was one step removed from fingerpainting and suddenly, the possibilities of art just bloomed. Turns out I had more passion than talent with a brush, but the same skills came in handy drafting. Learning about all of the different solutions the Meh-Teh came up with, it’s like learning there are entirely different ways to do everything.”

“I appreciate the enthusiasm,” I said, “but you might want to dial it back, at least the next few weeks. I want your people to see you as their rep; this all goes less smoothly if they think you’re in the pocket of Big Furball.”

“Right. I should, objectively, evaluate your offer.”

“We’re going to slave your problem officers to Meh-Teh officers.”

“Hmm,” Angie said, “I suppose I should have been worried about slavery.”

“Poor word-choice; in the one drive to another sense,” I said. “They’ll work together, eat together, learn to live together.”

“Odd Couple style?”

“Coexist, not cohabitate.”

“Some of them are really going to want to cohabitate,” Angie said.

“I am pimping out your officers, aren’t I?” I said, trying to rub the tension from the bridge of my nose.

“If the pimp hat fits,” Angie said, before frowning, “though I guess, it’s mostly the style that it not fit, right?”

“Sex-slavers in your culture have special hats?” Di asked.

“That is a whole can of worms,” I said, realizing even as I finished the words Angie was sharing an image with the both of us of a stereotypical 1970s pimp.

“And I thought my culture’s ceremonial dress was absurd,” Di said.

“But we aren’t pimping anyone,” I said, trying to retake control of the situation.

“Because pimping ain’t easy?” Angie asked.

“Because we aren’t doing it to get anyone laid, even if apparently this ship is one Manhattan away from a frat party at the drop of a pimp hat. The purpose is to, through exposure to a new, alien people, get them to see that the Meh-Teh have plenty to offer.”

Yeah they do,” Angie said. “All kidding and wolf-whistles to the side, I think it’s a good idea. But I think you’re right. I have to sell it as a hard idea. A punishment. Because they need to see me as talking you down to this as opposed to something worse. Or maybe… this is the stick, but I can bring them a carrot, too.”

“I’m listening.”

“There’s a pain point within the Argus refugees we’re adrift. We haven’t been absorbed into the departments yet, so we aren’t under the auspices of the DivHeads. And we don’t have our own representation on the council.”

“That’s a fair concern. And I’m not a dictator, at least not technically, so I can’t click my ruby red goose-steppers and make it happen. But I can give you access to the personnel information the Argus staff, and I will present you and Di as leaders of interim refugee populations.”

“Me?” Di asked.

“The Meh-Teh aren’t represented either. I don’t know how much that’s motivating your men to act out, but it’s not something we should underestimate. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.”

“And… what if I’m not the right person for the job?” Angie asked.  

“I wouldn’t ask either of you if I thought that were the case. You don’t have to do it long, even; if you want out, help pick a successor, then go, with my blessing. But for now, this ship needs you. Your cohorts need you.”

“Why do I get the sense you’re telling, not asking?” Angie asked.

“But at least I’m telling it so nicely for a moment you had the illusion of choice. I’ll let you know when the council’s approved.”

“If?” Angie asked. “Right. Telling, not asking.”

I touched my finger to my nose, and Di squinted, utterly lost.