by Deborah L. Davit
A thousand civilizations had used the gate system; none of them knew who had built the gates that spanned the stars. In ten thousand languages, the children of the galaxy spoke of the Builders, the Ancients, Those-who-went-before, the Sowers—all names for beings who had likely died out millions of years ago. Those who used the gates to hop from star system to star system, bypassing the usual laws of physics, understood the nexus gates dimly; they understood that each gate opened a wormhole, using dark energy to fuel a fold in space-time that caught up a ship, and transferred it elsewhere, in the time between seconds. The gates usually hovered in space in zones free from planets, presumably to prevent damage to their surfaces. All that a ship needed, really, was the map each gate provided, with coordinates of the ten nearest other gates in space, and their designations. Transmit a designation code by standard RF, and a wormhole would open unidirectionally and stay that way for about five minutes.
No tolls of energy or cargo; the Builders seemed to have created the system for public, free access. Some people among the billions who had used the gates over the millennia wondered how there could be no price attached. But those voices—when they were voices, anyway, as opposed to stridulations scraped along a carapace by a rapidly-moving foreleg—were usually drowned out by those eager to explore the galaxy, to colonize it, to find the riches of lost civilizations on planets yet unknown.
Wars had been fought for access to these vital gates. But over tens of thousands of years, every system, even one as self-repairing and self-maintaining as the gates, can break down. Some gates went off-line mysteriously. And, of course, the system had safeguards. When a ship entered a wormhole, perhaps having taken heavy fire, and looked apt to explode? The aperture sometimes closed around that failing ship, and nothing—not even debris—made it to the other side. A thousand species shuddered, and most decided that it was best to hope that the ships and their crews were instantaneously dispersed. It would be more merciful that way—assuming a species had a concept of mercy, anyhow.
But thermodynamics teaches that matter cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form, or be converted into energy. But converting matter into energy isn’t a lossless process. And the Builders?
They wasted nothing.
◊ ◊ ◊
Somewhere in the near-void at the edge of a galaxy, a red dwarf glowed sullenly; with a lifespan projected to outlast the universe itself, its continuing existence was as close to a sure thing as the cosmos could admit. Its light, dim and cold, reflected off metal—jagged hunks and twisted scraps. Occasionally, a battered fragment rotated towards the star, revealing painted insignia in alien languages, pitted and scored by the impacts of microscopic debris over time.
Ships. Or their remains. Hundreds of thousands of them, deposited here, the detritus of a thousand civilizations that had explored the stars before humanity had scraped fire from flint. All that metal and scrap floated in an endless ring around what might have once been a rocky dwarf planet. Encased in a fretwork of black cables, like a cat’s cradle or the lines of a hypotrochoid roulette, it looked like every other nexus gate in the galaxy, but larger. It drank the light even as it slumbered, a giant among the rubble.
And then the giant awakened. A mouth opened at the center of the lattice, and white light seared through the darkness. Two ships hurtled from of the aperture, spat out by the giant, which returned to its indifferent slumber almost immediately. Out of control, they plunged directly into the swirling chaos of the debris field, where chunks of other ships went flying in fractal patterns across a black sky so far from the galactic core that hardly any stars gleamed in it.
As if triggered by that motion, ships rose up out of the debris field—a half-dozen different shapes and configurations. Fired engines, spent hoarded fuel, desperate to reach the larger of the two ships first. Scarcely damaged, it didn’t appear to be military, lacking even basic weapons, and spun as if no hand tended the helm at all.
The second, smaller ship possessed armored plating and gun ports as well as torpedo tubes. It also had hull breaches, and escaping gas tossed it this way and that as it bounced through the debris field—almost unremarked by the scavengers descending hungrily on the larger ship. Then, what looked like a captured asteroid, studded with pieces of metal here and there, rose out of the field of scrap, moving as if displaced by a collision…and thudded gently into the smaller ship’s side. With uncanny accuracy, it had impacted atop an emergency hatch…and then stayed there, as if embedded. The ship and the asteroid continued to spin through the debris, a wild dance that would only end when a pilot’s hand took control—or when the ship tore itself apart.
◊ ◊ ◊
Saskia Voss returned slowly to consciousness. Her head hurt, and she dimly remembered being thrown across the engineering compartment of the Chimera while she and three others of her staff had been working to stabilize the dark matter fusion reactor. There was a battle, she thought dimly. We’d received a call from a passenger liner…their cover fighters had suffered engine trouble, so they needed an escort to the gate. And just when we reached it, they came out from behind a planetisimal and attacked…
Her eyes cracked open, and she realized that the world was upside-down, only dimly visible, and moving. Upside-down was nothing new; her sleeping bag periodically slipped loose of its mooring, and she’d drift in zero-g, gently propelled by her unconscious movements, till she’d thump into a wall, and snap awake in some contorted position. But this movement seemed purposeful, as if she’d launched herself across the darkened compartment, arse-first. Darkened—wait—no power? Not even emergency backups? Environmental’s probably down with it, too. Crap, I have to get my crew working on this—
She could feel her envirosuit around her like a comforting embrace. It had carbon scrubbers, so she’d have up to eight hours of oxygen, which she could feel tickling her face in a cool caress. Vague impression of pressure against her abdomen through the suit, and equal pressure around her feet. Cables? I got caught in the electrical? Tilki’s going to laugh at me for that— She kicked experimentally, trying to free herself. “This is Voss,” she said at the same time, keying her radio. “Anyone hear me? Sound off, we’re going to need damage control teams—”
She felt something grab her between the shoulder blades. Haul her upright her by the straps there. No light. No voices on the radio, friendly or otherwise. Just hands belonging to whomever had toted her here in a fireman’s carry, turning her around and giving her a firm push. Items in the air bounced off her suit as she found herself propelled to a hatch. Oh, god. Something has gone terribly wrong.
“Rodriguez? Tilki? Is that you?”
A forearm wrapped itself around her neck with enough compression that she could feel it through the flexible joint there. Her words cut off as the hatch opened sluggishly before her, as whoever was behind her used a free hand to cycle it manually. The radio must be out in that suit. She leaned her head back, bonking her helmet into a faceplate behind her, trusted to sound-conduction through the materials to carry her voice. “I need to get back to engineering—”
This time, the push had the force of an entire body behind it, as whoever it was launched themselves with her, and she found herself in an airlock. “Wait! What happened after I passed out? Is there a rescue ship on the other side of this door?”
No reply, again, as the door behind them cycled shut, and Saskia had had enough. She grappled with the arm around her neck, using her zero-g combat training, and tried to throw the other forwards by inverting herself into a somersault in air. With nothing to push off of, this had little effect but to irritate whoever it was. A growl of annoyance, and then an impact at the side of her helmet, which made her concussed head toll like a bell. Saskia gulped down a surge of nausea. Vomiting in zero-g was bad enough without filling her suit and helmet with bile before going out an airlock.
The outer hatch opened. And to her inexpressible relief, there was dim, reddish light filling another airlock before her, though she didn’t recognize the configuration. But she did recognize the crates and bundles floating in the adjoining airlock—supplies and gear from the Chimera. Computer cores. MREs. Memory crystals. Containers with the dark matter that fueled the engines suspended inside. Chemical CO2 scrubbing agents. “All right, then we are evacuating,” she said, relieved, and reached down to help move some of the bundles into the body of the ship. “Sorry for panicking back there,” she added, turning back to face whoever it was. “The Lacerta came out of nowhere. Captain wasn’t expecting so many of their ships. Don’t know what they wanted with a passenger liner, anyway….” Her eyes flicked to the side of the hatch, where a hand’s dim shadow pressed buttons to close it. The markings on the buttons were alien, a writing system that linguists on Earth had barely deciphered in forty years of war.
Her throat and mouth went dry. Another hatch opened behind her, and brighter light filtered in from whatever it opened onto, revealing a figure nearly seven feet tall and clad in the fully-armored envirosuit of a Lacerta soldier. Matte-black, with belts and harnesses for utility tools and weapons, it couldn’t disguise the three-fingered hands, the powerful chest and arms, slightly stooped shoulders, elongated neck, concave waist…or the long tail that rested against the outer hatch for the moment. Ah, hell. I’m a prisoner. The few people we’ve recovered say that they use war-captives as slaves—
A hand landed on her sternum, the tail gave a flick, and Saskia found herself shoved, powerfully, into the body of the new ship. Her captor had to hunch somewhat to move around in it, and once he’d pushed her in, he retrieved the rest of the stolen cargo from the hatch area, stowing it methodically in nets on the walls—all done in unnerving silence, while seeming to ignore her completely.
Where’s the rest of his crew? And mine? Why haven’t I been marched off to a brig yet? Saskia found a wrench in a nearby net, hefting it in her hand; it felt pitifully small and ineffectual. If I manage to crack his visor, that’s…well, that’s something, right? “What have you done with the rest of my crew?” she demanded.
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her along with him. She whacked his elbow with the wrench, which simply bounced ineffectually off the armor there. A shame he didn’t leave his gun lying around, for the convenience of prisoners, Saskia thought sourly.
He yanked her towards what certainly looked like a pilot’s couch and controls, and flicked on several viewing screens. Saskia stopped moving entirely, staring at what seemed to be outside. Concentric rings of debris spun around what looked like the largest nexus gate she’d ever seen. She spotted the passenger liner that the Chimera had been tasked with protecting, and saw that three ships had docked with it—most of them battered, held together with two-stage epoxy and hope. These ships were exchanging ranging shots with several other vessels—smaller, and even more dilapidated—which hung around the liner, like vultures waiting for the hyenas to finish with their share of a lion’s kill. “Oh, god,” Saskia whispered. “Where are we? We were nowhere near a red dwarf—”
An impatient tap on a different screen by her captor caught her attention. One of the vulture ships had broken off from its vigil around the passenger liner, and had set course towards them. Saskia’s head whipped towards the airlock hatch. “My crew?” she said, pushing off a bulkhead in that direction. “They need to be warned—” Captain Sung. Rodriguez and Tilki. Dr. Bhandari. The Chimera had eight officers and seventy-five enlisted, being a smaller corvette-class ship, designed for fast, light strikes as part of a cruiser or a carrier’s screen, or scouting or patrol duties. This Lacerta ship—whatever it was—clearly couldn’t hold the crew complement of the Chimera.
A hand hooked around her ankle, pulling her back into the cockpit. Even so, she wasn’t sure that she was a prisoner, at the moment. The Lacerta had provided information, and hadn’t hit her, shackled her, or thrown her in the brig.
The black helmet turned towards her, the faceplate polarized so that she couldn’t see inside. And then the head jerked from side to side, exaggeratedly. “My crew,” Saskia said, pointing at the airlock, as if repetition and volume would bridge the lingual divide.
The Lacerta reached into a pocket on the harness he wore over his armor, removed a device, and pressed something on it. Instantly, in the air over it, she could see three-dimensional footage of the interior of the Chimera, taken in night-vision, judging by the greenish tinge to the images. She swallowed, hard, when she saw the major hull breaches and other damage. Emergency bulkheads had engaged in places, but the Lacerta had been able to unlock them, hooking himself in before the atmosphere blew past him. Bodies whirled past the camera on that tide of air, limbs flailing limply. She raised her hands to her visor, closing her eyes.
A tug at her wrist, impatient, pulled one of her hands away, and she saw the footage enter the reactor area now. She recognized her own form, one of three hanging in the compartment. No air in the compartment; none of the bodies stirred from where they hung as the Lacerta opened the hatch. But on her form, the footage superimposed a periodic red flash—indicating, she realized, a heartbeat. No other survivors, she thought numbly. For a moment, all the alien lines and curves of the interior of this ship seemed thrown into stark relief, and her heart pounded in her chest. And yet, it all seemed unreal, detached from reality. Any minute, I’m going to wake up in Dr. Bhandari’s office with a bad concussion and vague memories of coma-dreams. Except…I keep not waking up.
She pointed at the main screen, where the vulture ships still approached. “What about them?” They’re…scavengers, right? And he is, too? Saskia glanced at the Lacerta. “Why are we just sitting here?” She gestured at him, made a circle with one hand, trying to encompass the ship, and then, after putting her palms together, slid the right one away at a sharp vector, trying to convey flight.
The Lacerta mimicked her gesture, and vocalized for the first time—a series of rapid tones, rasps, and chirps that she couldn’t fathom. He pointed at the screen, then back at the hatch. Brought his three-fingered hands together into a kind of ball, then brought them apart rapidly, forming a larger sphere. And then gestured to encompass the ship, and repeated her gesture, sliding one hand away from the other rapidly.
So we’re going to fly off, but only after they’re busy with the ship? Will the vultures be able to detect our life-signs?
At that moment, the Lacerta did something with the controls, and she could feel the landing clamps disengage—not an unfamiliar sensation. She found a strap on the wall and buckled herself in as the big hands moved with surprising delicacy over the controls. A light whump, and the screen blurred, showing that they’d started moving away. A more forceful whump of impact, and then the Lacerta jammed the control yoke steeply to the right, and touched another button—which resulted in a WHUMP! a second later that hit them like an explosion.
The world pitched and yawed and tumbled. Saskia hit her head on the wall again, and lost consciousness for several moments. Probably for the best, she decided groggily as she regained it. Less likely that I’d have thrown up… “Now what?” she asked, pulling herself upright.
The Lacerta tapped on a screen, and she stared at it, her stomach dropping into her boots. Fresh debris spun with recognizable colors and with shapes that she knew all too well. One of the vulture ships seemed to have been badly damaged as well, and the others hung back warily. “The Chimera…you blew it up? Why the hell would you do that, you idiot?” She unbuckled from the wall, heedless, launching herself at him and grabbing the shoulder plates of his armor to check her momentum. “It was a good ship. It had supplies and—”
He reached up and removed his helmet, and her voice died. She’d never seen a Lacerta outside of their armor before. Few had ever been recovered in one piece for autopsy; they all seemed to carry small explosive devices that, if they looked apt to be overrun or captured, were inevitably used to commit suicide. As such, shock crept through her. Humans called them Lacerta, or lizards. But that didn’t at all convey the iridescent red and blue sheen of the scales, the sharp acuity of the yellow eyes with their slitted pupils—or the fact that he had a ridge of spines, largely flattened at the moment, running from the pronounced muzzle, over the scalp, and down the back of his neck. His cheeks, like a dog’s, were incomplete, allowing the jaw to open far wider than a human’s, but unlike a Terran lizard, his teeth, as he bared momentarily, were not undifferentiated pegs. Slashing and cutting teeth predominated at the front, with large, sturdy molars at the back. Carnivore mouth.
Now that he had her attention, the Lacerta tapped on the image of a vulture ship. Pointed at her, and then wrapped his hands around something invisible in the air in front of him. And then pretended to bite into it, shaking his head side-to-side savagely. Watching him, Saskia could picture him tearing meat from bone. “You’re saying,” she said weakly, knowing her words were incomprehensible to him, “that they’re cannibals.” Eying the carnivorous teeth so close to her face, she thought, silently, And you’re not? Though if you were, I…suppose you’d have brought Tilki and Rodriguez aboard. Oh hell. Maybe he did. Maybe they’re in a freezer somewhere till he has a chance to gut and clean them? Still concussed, disoriented, and terrified, revulsion and fear competed for control of her mind and body.
◊ ◊ ◊
Everything took time. Chelakh had a better idea of that than many other members of his species. He took the human to the ship’s small mess, which he’d converted into a meticulous storage facility in the past eight hundred and twenty-four days—the passage of which he’d marked off with lines on one of the walls in here. Taking in a human—one of the enemies of the Sei’azhi, the citizens of the Empire—hadn’t been an impulse. He’d systematically looted what he could from the engine compartment before staring at the motionless form for about ten minutes, doing the remorseless arithmetic of survival in his head.
His ship, the Hauk Teleu’sarusa, or First Wind of Night, had been designed for a two-person crew—and for stealth, above all else. The hull had been hollowed out of medium-sized asteroid, reinforced on the interior with titanium crossbracing between this thick outer shell, and the sealed crew compartments. That thick hull prevented almost any scanners from detecting bio-signs, dampening the heat emitted by environmental systems and the engines. Maneuvering thrusters felt pitifully limited compared to what he’d been used to, when he’d piloted a fighter in the Imperial Armada, but then again, they didn’t need to be exceptional, given the ship’s original mission.
This vessel had never been intended to make planetary landings or engage in dogfights. Its objective had always been to drift quietly in enemy territory, gathering information about culture, troop movements, merchant convoys, or whatever else Imperial Command needed. And once that information had been obtained, they’d drift quietly to the nearest gate, open it, and depart as invisibly as they’d arrived.
Since the loss of his crewmate—and mate—sixty days into this endless existential nightmare, Chelakh had scavenged enough carbon-scrubbing materials, food, batteries, fuel, and other supplies to eke his way along. Bringing a second person of any species aboard presented a risk to his personal chances of survival, and he had information in his head that had to be returned to the Empire, whatever the cost. Bringing another person aboard meant that whoever it was had to be worth the risk. This female—he thought the human was female; these mammalian creatures exhibited strong sexual dimorphism as a species, though they lacked the color differentiations that marked male and female in his own—had been in the engine compartment. This suggested that she might have skills that he lacked. Like Dayielzha, he thought, emptily, pushing down the usual surge of anger, grief, and betrayal that came with thoughts of his mate.
Chelakh was an expert pilot and data analyst. It had been his mate who possessed all their engineering expertise on their two-person team. He knew his own limitations. The number of warning lights on his consoles of late told him that soon, he might not have a ship left to fly, if the engines weren’t maintained and repaired. Which would be an effective death sentence in this graveyard.
He pushed thoughts of the past away. Given that he, an officer of good standing in the Imperial Armada and citizen of the Sei’azhi had captured this human, her life now belonged to the Empire. His rescue had rendered her chattel, and she owed service and obedience to the armed forces of the Empire. As he had no superior officers to allocate her services in a larger ship, that effectively meant that her life belonged to him, at least until such time as he could turn her over to his superiors. Which…might be never, given the accusing line of scratches on the nearby wall, a silent litany of his own captivity here.
Of course, outsiders didn’t tend to understand these things. Even members of his own species, who weren’t of the Sei’azhi, weren’t full citizens of the Empire, didn’t understand that being given food, shelter, and succor by the Empire meant unyielding obedience to it. Then again, those who weren’t Sei’azhi had no honor.
He gestured for her to remove her helmet, trying not to show his disquiet as she complied. Humans were just as alien as the Tarukhxi, the amphibians who’d become his people’s staunch allies in the past six decades. As alien as the Xi’a, the social and vaguely arachnoid creatures that had first come into contact with the People a century ago—and who had been at war with the People ever since. At least humans didn’t have multiple rows of unblinking obsidian eyes perched somewhere above twiddling mandibles. Their fur didn’t look as dangerous as the spiky tufts that protruded from a solider-Xi’a’s carapace, which could spring from the creatures’ bodies in a haze of needle-like fragments. Inhaling that haze usually resulted in ulcerated, bleeding lungs.
Humans were at least bipedal. Omnivorous, by all accounts. Somewhat color-blind, half-deaf, and lacking a developed sense of smell, they’d somehow managed to struggle to the top of their planetary ecosystem. By their own estimates, they’d done it by virtue of their brains. Shall see, he told himself with an inner shrug. This one had short brown fur atop her head, and her soft, unscaled skin looked vaguely like that of a larval worm—too smooth and glistening. Dark markings mottled the skin at the side of her head, beside one eye. He supposed that it might be an indication of injury. Her eyes, with those strange white circles around the tiny irises, seemed to be an unnatural shade of pale gray. Her scent, caught by his tongue as well as his nostrils, wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but held several unfamiliar chemical tangs.
Chelakh held out one of her human food packages, watching as her eyes focused on it. “Zhiyaessu,” he said patiently, and pulled his hand away when she reached for it. “Zhiyaessu!” he repeated, peremptorily.
A flicker of those too-small eyes. “Zey-ya-esu,” she repeated, her mammalian larynx closing down on the vowels, unable to reproduce them. “Food,” she added.
And with a grimace, Chelakh repeated the grunting sound she’d made. “Food,” he said.
No chirps from the sensors; this told him that they had time to eat, as the various scavengers that had closed in on her ship’s remains had yet to pursue the ‘asteroid’ that had been ejected with the rest of the debris. Have time, he thought, tiredly. Time in surplus. Everything else? Lacking.
She activated a device mounted on her wrist with straps, and began recording his words and hers. Chelakh made a chuffing sound of impatience and tried to indicate, with sharp gestures between her device and the lights, that she needed to conserve the device’s energy. Finally, he moved to the light controls to establish what her words for on and off were, so that he could point again at her device and grunt “Off!” She then flicked her unnaturally fine fingers in a gesture that he took to be exasperation. His ship’s computer did have a basic lexical understanding of five human languages, but tasking the computer to anything but maintaining life-support, sensors, and engines was a use of system resources that he’d prefer to avoid. His memory for sounds and songs should render her language simple enough to learn and replicate without computer assistance.
Once she’d eaten the mixture inside her ration pack—something that looked like worms in a red sauce—he half-pushed, half-led her to the engine compartment. Pointed to the various control panels, with their blinking warning lights, and handed her a data tablet, filled with technical specifications, system schematics, charts, and fault isolation diagrams all in the language of the Sei’azhi. He gestured from the tablet to the engines and consoles, and showed her where the tools were kept. Where he’d stowed the dark matter in its sealed containers. Where the parts were that he’d stripped from a half-dozen other derelict ships.
He hadn’t known what he needed. Most of the wrecks had already been picked over by generations of scavengers. So there were pieces and parts from a dozen ship systems, all with different measurements, different purposes, different labeling. But he’d organized this scrap as best he could, in cargo nets all through the compartment. And now he spread his hands, trying to convey the enormity of the problem before them.
Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly. The tablet drifted from her loosening fingers as her shoulders sagged. And she put her gloved hands to her exposed face, making an odd, liquid snuffling sound. Chelakh cautiously prodded at her shoulder with one finger, and her head came up, revealing a red flush through her face and eyes—gods and ancestors, that isn’t a mating flush, is it? Some sort of fluid secreted from her eyes, clinging to the fine hairs around each. Chelakh jerked his hand back as if stung.
Defensive mechanism? he thought apprehensively. Nothing in the literature on the species suggests that they produce venom… On reflection, however, the fluids smelled like salt, and not like neurotoxin. Wait, there was something about them secreting fluids when injured or ill. I would take one aboard who’s dying of internal injuries. Pyre’s ashes and damnation.
After a few moments, however, the human gestured at the tablet, the engines, and everything else, before beginning a long harangue in her growling language. Chelakh put his hands behind his back, just above his tail, and frowned. On the whole, she didn’t sound as if she were dying. The flush spread through her face, and he suddenly recalled some of the human video signals that he and Dayielzha had recorded at the edge of a human planetary system. Even the best computer-generated translations had still been baffling. Humans dedicated time both to things that were real, and had happened, and to things that weren’t real, and never had. But in one of their feeds about a recent attack by the Sei’azhi, Chelakh remembered seeing humans secreting fluids from the eyes. Ah. Distress. Emotional need, vi’ezhash.
Need and distress he could understand, if not this expression of them. He’d take care of a rifle’s need for maintenance, so that it would perform correctly when necessary; he could do no less for her, non-citizen chattel or no. And given that she was the only other person on this ship that made her…something of a crewmate. Crewmates tended to each other. “Vi’ezhale?” he asked, putting a cautious hand on her shoulder. You have need?
And when that did no good, he sighed and keyed the console beside them, bringing up the computer’s lexical database. Spoke, and then listened to the computer render his words into the flat, nasal sounds of human speech. Watched her head jerk up in surprise and perhaps a little fear. “If your computer can translate, why not start with that?” she demanded, and the computer rendered her words into the fluid song of the People.
“Because translating is not understanding. Must understand to survive,” he replied, and gestured at the tablet floating away from her. “Can use the computer to translate the schematics. But will understand them.” He pointed at her. “Don’t understand.” A thumb at his own torso. “Pilot, not engineer.” The word-bursts of translation into the grunts of human speech bothered him.
“Where am I?”
“Don’t know. Graveyard. Derelict ships and debris extend almost a full light-minute away from gate. Substantial field. Accreted a long time.” Chelakh exhaled. “Survivors not common. Consortiums of those who came here exist. Strong prey on weak. Oldest associations keep to center, nearest gate. Ships wearing out, but have the most people and weapons. Take first shot at new arrivals. Keep weaker, smaller associations at bay. Weaker groups, individuals who somehow survive…pick over the fringe, where there are only scraps of metal. And in lean times, when no new arrivals have come? Fighting between factions. Take captives, if useful. Rest of them…eaten.” He grimaced over the word, his stomach churning.
“How do you know that?” she demanded.
Chelakh closed his eyes. “Wasn’t always alone,” he replied curtly, pushing down the bitter memories of betrayal. “Had a crewmate.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Over the course of the next month, Saskia struggled with…everything, really. A kind of numb fog hovered over her—but remembering that every member of her crew had died because of the Lacerta—the species to which her captor/rescuer belonged!—brought a vivid flash of hatred. The hate usually subsided into a background throb after a few moments. She was alive, because a Lacerta had found her potentially useful. A piece of living scrap.
Wild thoughts of clubbing him with a wrench in his sleep and taking over the ship occurred to her—after all, the first duty of a prisoner was to escape—but those had faded, not least because it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He’d been stranded here for over two Earth-standard years; he knew the area; and she couldn’t fly or navigate on her best day, let alone handle an alien ship with an AI keyed to obey the Lacerta, and not her.
She struggled with the main Lacerta language, though she eventually learned to call them Sei’azhi. She asked what her rescuer’s name was, and the string of sounds promptly overwhelmed her: Taresh Chelakh sizhak’hauk’Hanakhaz sizhak’hauk’Iradala, zhaso’Sarusa’tashlak, Seddu’arak’Asakhax. Taresh turned out to be his rank, and some of the names appeared to mean ‘first-son of this male’ and ‘first-son of that female,’ along with a clan-name, regional affiliation, and planetary affiliation. When she asked, “So what do I call you?” he’d replied that crewmates usually called one another Ha’kha’esal, or one-of-many. She’d blinked and asked, “Don’t you have a name that means you?”
“Do,” had been the reply, with his crest flicking upwards slightly. “But is for close friends. Mates. Family. In military, all are Ha’kha’esal.”
“So it’s like someone in the Russian Confederation calling someone tovarisch.” She’d immediately regretted the comparison; it had required too many explanations. And in the end, since she had so many problems with the singing vowels, clicking sounds, and overtones, he’d told her just to call him Chelakh.
Somewhere in the fifth week, she realized that the reason why he struggled with English, was that his language had almost no pronouns—everything boiled down to endings, and prepositions tended to be implied by lilts of tone that she could barely discern, not directly stated. Pronouns were…just too indefinite for the Sei’azhi mind-set. It was too vague; table, however, was concrete and real.
He’d grabbed one of almost everything he could get his hands on while aboard the Chimera. As such, she had Rodriguez’ hygiene kit; the razor wasn’t much help, but the toothbrush was. But seeing the name stenciled in black ink on the side of the plastic bag jabbed her with grief and anger every time she opened it.
“Why do this?” Chelakh asked her in the midst of a jag of emotion.
“So that my teeth don’t rot and my breath doesn’t stink.” Saskia returned through the foam, her stomach churning. He couldn’t know how the words intruded. No privacy aboard the tiny ship, crammed with supplies and scrap. They both slept in the mess area, where Chelakh had fixed a cube of space between all the supply crates. They huddled together for warmth; the Sei’azhi were as warm-blooded as humans or birds. The close quarters chafed, but she couldn’t deny the necessity; running the heaters at anything above the bare minimum to keep the electronics happy was a waste of fuel.
Yet, staring down at the name on the hygiene kit, Saskia had added sharply, “You might do the same. Your rations are mostly meat-based. Doesn’t make for lovely morning breath.”
A blink of the yellow eyes, an inner nictitating membrane sliding across them before the outer lid swept closed, and his crest spines rose halfway. She’d learned that the expression suggested surprise or irritation. Then again, that was rude, she had thought, rummaging in a pocket of her filthy coveralls for a pen. She’d spent the next five minutes crossing out Rodriguez’s name. She felt as if she were effacing his memory, but if she went into a tailspin every time she saw it…
After that, Chelakh also cleaned his teeth once a day, though he noted, philosophically, “Weak teeth fall out. New teeth grow in. But for sake of harmony, well enough.” Hygiene remained an issue, nevertheless. Sei’azhi didn’t sweat, so they had no need for shower facilities, which forced her to resort to wrapping herself in a plastic sack to contain the water droplets for zero-g sponge-baths. Her efforts to control her odor invariably met with what sounded like a heart-felt chirrup of gratitude from Chelakh. Which was embarrassing, in a way. She knew she didn’t smell sweet. No one better, in fact. But at least my nose isn’t as good as his seems to be.
In the second month, the heating system gave out. “The air’s still moving,” she reported, trying to put it in Sei’azhi. “But the thermal units are dead.”
“Found what looked like heaters in remnants of Xi’a ship six months ago. Try?” he suggested.
Bundled into her envirosuit for warmth, Saskia worked for hours, trying to cobble elements from one alien system into another. In the tenth hour, Chelakh handed her an MRE and made her eat and rest; her hands shook from low blood-sugar, and frustration had set in. “Thank you,” she mumbled in his language. And once the food spread warmth through her, she found a box of connectors she hadn’t noticed, and coupled the Xi’a parts successfully into the system at last. “Going to be inefficient,” she reported tiredly. “There’s even a chance that the system could short out and cause a fire. The parts just aren’t made to work together. We really need your tech for this.”
“Did well. Could not have done same,” he told her, in halting English, spreading his hands. She grimaced, turning her head aside to conceal her reaction. His voice sounded like an intelligent African Gray parrot, at times. His gift for mimicry was such that he perfectly mirrored the inflections and tones of her voice, giving his low-pitched voice oddly soft overtones. Hearing her voice echoed in his disconcerted her, and put her on edge. It’s like the Uncanny Valley at times. “Can try to find a Sei’azhi ship for parts. But…every leaving of the ship is a danger. Every course correction must be cautious.”
She understood why. The computer handled the everyday flying on its own, narrowly dodging most of the debris spinning around them, while seeming to ‘bounce’ away from apparent collisions, in what appeared a wholly natural fashion. Saskia had studied the complex flight algorithm that the AI maintained, and even with her very limited understanding of written Sei’azhi, she’d recognized that the majority of the computer’s system resources and the engines’ power had been directed into this camouflaging flight pattern. “Takes a lot of effort to keep something about as flightworthy as a potato dancing like this,” she’d assessed.
He’d cocked his head like a bird, the spines of his crest flexing momentarily. “Potato?” Chelakh had asked, picking the unfamiliar word out of the sentence easily. His gift for replicating human words and remembering them had allowed him to pick up English much more quickly than she could master the language of the Sei’azhi, which irritated her.
“A root vegetable not known for being aerodynamic,” Saskia returned with mild irritation, framing an oblong shape with her fingers.
A flicker of the nictitating membranes over his eyes—not irritation, but humor. “There are roots that are flightworthy?”
“Carrots,” Saskia had replied, forming a more triangular shape with her fingers. “Nevermind. Probably not going to meet any of them here outside of an MRE pack.” Her words had reawakened another concern: the supply of human food would run out eventually. He’d raided the Chimera’s supplies as thoroughly as he could, but she’d have a year’s worth of food at most, if she stretched it thin. Unless another human ship comes through. And that’s a hell of a thing to wish for—for someone else to be trapped here just so I won’t starve.
In the here and now, Saskia muttered, “Might need to take the risk.” His disinclination to take chances seemed at odds with the image she’d had of the Lacerta; she’d been born sixteen years into the war, when these creatures had already bombed civilian colonists on Xian and Hadiqua, killing any who did not surrender—and often pursing those who fled. They’re aggressive and territorial, she thought, frowning. Everyone knows that. “We won’t survive if we don’t take risks now and again,” she added in English. And saw his spines rise in what she’d come to recognize as agitation.
“Risk is acceptable only for tei’aska,” he replied. His language had at least three words for need— tei’aska, rei’azha, and vi’ezhash. As far as she’d been able to grasp, the first meant things necessary for life—food, water, air, shelter, and medicine. The second word seemed to mean something like “assistance would be appreciated,” and the third revolved around bodily urgencies—the need to urinate. When she’d asked the translation program for how to say want or desire, the database had come up blank. And when she’d haltingly asked him how to express something that wasn’t a physical need, but would be appreciated—such as wishing for MREs that weren’t meatballs and green beans, for instance—Chelakh’s spines had flattened to his scalp in an expression identical to when he’d found dead insects in a ration pack. “To need what is not needed is…not to follow duty. To not be of service to others,” he’d tried to explain.
“Can you need the sound of a voice like your own?” Saskia had countered. Her yearning to hear another human voice remained strong.
The spines had relaxed. “Yes. That is vi’ezhash.”
So, bodily and mental needs were acceptable, but desire wasn’t, apparently. And he’d only accept a risk to their lives for urgent necessities. “Heat,” Saskia told him firmly, “is definitely tei’aska. I’d prefer for my nose not to fall off from frostbite…and don’t say it. I know that frost has no teeth.”
That waspish comment made his spines rise, and his inner lids flickered merrily for a moment or two in silent amusement.
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, they surveyed their surroundings, not sending out active radar pings or anything so overt as that. But every ship fragment of any size that Chelakh had boarded in the past two years, he’d left sensor packs at, the size of gnats, and solar-powered. They passively broadcast whatever they saw on an encrypted radio frequency. So he had eyes scattered throughout the entire graveyard.
They watched the screens, both of them flinching as a vulture ship raked another vessel with bullets, and then forcibly docked with the victim while taking return fire. All within range of one of his cameras. “How do you know that others aren’t using your feeds for similar information?” Saskia asked him.
“Current Imperial encryption on them. Doubt any of the People here have…updated protocols.” At this point, he tended to revert to his own language mostly for difficult words and concepts. “That vessel,” he added, pointing at the vulture ship, a cold hand of memory wrapping around his crop, “is pre-Imperial. Two hundred years old. Much patched. Much welded.”
“Pre-Imperial?” She perked up at that. “Those are…Lacerta? Your own people?”
“No! Not mine. Not Sei’azhi.”
“Not your people, but your species.” Her eyes widened. “You’d attack them?” Saskia shook her head, clearly trying to formulate the right questions, ones they could both understand. “Why? And how can they still be here?”
“Sei’azhi came to power when colonists first went to other worlds. Homeworld, Asakhax…divided. Many groups.” He groped for words as they stared at the screens. “First Empress grew tired of constant attacks, constant war. Ordered integration of other regions. Those who would not serve, sometimes fled to other worlds. Some did not arrive at new homes.”
“Integration? Sounds like conquest.” A hint of what he’d come to know as scorn in her voice.
He looked up the word. “Yes. Same thing.” A shrug. “Has been ten generations since the others were brought into the Empire as chattel. Like you.”
He didn’t know the English for the term, so she paused and looked up that word. Then her eyes narrowed and her flexible lips turned down at the corners. He recognized the expression as offense, accompanied by a whiff of her anger-scent. Not the chemical she called adrenaline, which went with fear-anger and combat, but just…regular anger. She smelled this way quite often, unfortunately. “I am not chattel.”
“Technically, would be if more of the People were here. Currently, more like crewmate. Don’t use superior-to-inferior voice with you.”
“Not that you can hear the difference in the intonation, but still, don’t use it with…you.” He shrugged, using the English pronoun for as much specificity as the unnuanced language would allow. “But even chattel may become Sei’azhi. By being of service to others. Fighting alongside. Preserving life. Anyone who wants to become a full citizen, can.” He groped for words. Tried to explain that he himself, with only ten years in the Imperial forces, though born to two full citizens of the Sei’azhi, could vote, but that his vote carried less weight than that of someone who’d served twenty, thirty, or forty years in the military. That anyone, from chattel to the descendants of nobility, could choose to serve willingly, and earn the right to have their voices heard at the highest levels. But that it was duty to others, honor, and loyalty to the Emperor and Empress that allowed someone to become Sei’azhi. Not where they’d been born, what species they were, or what shape their bodies had.
He watched her small eyes narrow. “And why would someone who wasn’t part of the Empire want to join it?” the human scoffed.
Irritation surged in him. “Emperor and Empress not always hereditary offices,” he pointed out as patiently as he could. “Anyone who has won enough honor, enough glory, who has served the People for many years? Can become Emperor or Empress, and bring mate to honor, too.”
“Even chattel?” Saskia asked, her tone laced with skepticism.
“Has happened once. Male had been captured from one of the other nations of our homeworld. Rose through the ranks. Became a general. Then the Emperor and Empress’ most-trusted advisor. When died, the general who was once chattel was chosen as the most qualified replacement.”
Her mouth fell open, revealing her chisel-like omnivore teeth. “And he didn’t go about dismantling the Empire?”
A quick check in the lexical database. “No,” Chelakh replied, confused. “Why would he? He did strip many of his people of their status as chattel, but why would he destroy a system that had brought peace and prosperity to our entire homeworld?”
“So he just…drank the Kool-Aid,” Saskia assessed. “Or had the worst case of Stockholm syndrome in the universe.”
He didn’t bother looking either of those up. Human language tended towards the metaphorical, at best. Chelakh simply stared at her inquisitively, and she sighed. “Stockholm syndrome. Where captives begin to empathize with their captors. Take their agendas and values for their own. Maybe even fall in love with them, in some way. Give up everything they’ve believed in, because it’s just…easier to go along.” Disquiet in her tone.
Chel needed to take a moment to sort through the sea of pronouns she’d just employed, cursing inwardly at the human tendency to generalize, even in the very form of their language. “Humans fear change,” he remarked after a moment, cocking his head to the side. “Fear change in selves. Think that accepting new ideas, new…realities?…makes the person…not the same person? Weaker, lesser.” Chel chuffed between his teeth. “Seeing that a system that provides harmony and plenty is better than constant war is not being weak of mind. Accepting a new condition is not…surrender.”
She hissed between her teeth, a sound surprisingly like the irritation noise that one of the People might make. “Oh, like you’ve accepted the new reality around you,” she retorted. “If you had, you’d have… I don’t know. Grabbed the bodies on my ship and tucked them away as snacks.”
Stung, Chelakh felt his crest rise fully, and he growled slightly before he got his temper under control. Doesn’t know. Doesn’t understand. Probably never will. “Against honor,” he snapped. “Dishonors the life lost. And desecrate a body—spirits will follow. Forever. Weighing down every action. Tainting everything done by the hands that acted so, till…amends made.” Another struggle with her limiting language. “Ancestors…all around. Lives not just service to others, but to ancestors, spirits, as well.” And whether or not you believe that the ancestors linger, who wants to risk incurring the wrath of a foe’s ghost, and that of all their familial spirits, by dishonoring the fallen?
Startled, and she pulled herself closer to the wall of the cockpit, where she’d been floating, secured by one hand. “Sorry,” Saskia muttered. “I didn’t know you guys were religious at all.” An exhalation. “That being said,” she added, her tone still marginally truculent, “your lot wouldn’t have such a damned big military if you didn’t see a need to use it. And if you’re so very peaceful now—”
“Military remains the only path of service, advancement, citizenship. Keeps the peace at home. And was meant to build and protect colonies. Then ran into Xi’a a hundred years ago. Then your people. Others. Universe full of threats…plenty of opportunity for advancement.” His tone held no apology.
“Yes, let’s talk about how our people met.” Sarcasm now. “I seem to recall that the inhabitants of Xian and Hadiqua declined your people’s generous offer to become part of your benevolent dictatorship. After being attacked out of hand.”
“Were on planets the Sei’azhi had already claimed. Imperial officials placed territorial marker satellites ten years before human settlers arrived,” he returned mildly. “What would humans do, on finding intruders in territory? Smile and offer…cookies?” Some of these round objects, found in many of her MREs, seemed largely composed of carbohydrates, ground meal, and animal lactate, and had odors of exotic spices. He’d tried one, cautiously, but disappointingly, it hadn’t tasted as good as it had smelled.
Her brows lowered into a frown. “We were there first. Your officials are lying—”
“Possible. Can say that human officials have never lied?” Chel asked, using a hand to smooth his crest.
And to his muted satisfaction, his calm words took all the wind out of her sails. She bit her lower lip—an uncomfortable-looking gesture she used when she seemed uncertain. And then admitted, her voice low, “No. I can’t make that claim. History shows that our officials lie all the time. Sometimes seems to be what they’re best at.” A guilty look at him. “Er, you…shouldn’t judge all humans by that statement.”
Chelakh nodded equitably. “Of course not. Just a sign of your Stockholm Kool-Aid.” He’d pulled the words out of memory, juxtaposing the terms while mimicking her inflections, a jab at her so-human insecurity about her precious self-hood.
A spluttering sound, which became loud mammalian whoops and cackles. He stared at her, surprised, until she wiped at her eyes. Distress? She’s that worried that she’s losing her self here? Pyre’s ashes, I shouldn’t have spoken. It’s one thing to poke a crewmate to remind them that they’re one-of-many, not just one, but another thing entirely to cause pain.
Still wheezing Saskia cut into his thoughts, “Oh, god. I…shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny.” Another hiccupping whoop, and then she added, “Except that it is.” A exhalation, and then she pointed at the screen in front of them. “So, survivors of your species who might live here,” Saskia said slowly. “If they were born here, they could never be Sei’azhi. Because they can never be of service to your Empire?”
Cold filled his crop. “If born, most younglings are probably eaten by parents,” he returned with brutal frankness, watching her mouth fall open with revulsion equal to his own. “Hard to keep younglings alive. Sap on resources. But a few have been strong enough to survive. Have…encountered descendants.” He pushed the memories down. He found it difficult not to admire the strength of those who’d endured here for two centuries. But at the same time, they’d done so by becoming savages. “Most survivors had colony ships to begin with. Tanks for growing plants. Protein-rich. Oxygen-givers.” These words were difficult. “And then integrating any others that come—”
“Yes, yes. Acknowledge irony.” Irritation in his voice. “But those who will not serve, they eat.” We integrate those who will serve, because we all do. Those who won’t serve, we use as chattel, yes. We execute the recalcitrant. But we don’t eat them. Gods and ancestors, there is a difference. Let her see that. Let her see that she could be just as much one of the People if she chose to be, as I am. It’s just living by a code.
“Pirates who prey on others,” she muttered, her voice sounding constricted. “No food supplies besides what each ship brought in with it—or what little can be grown on the colony ships. With no way to resupply, and tech wearing out. And then yes, it’s…either steal from each other, and hope that you can eat another species’ food, eat each other, or starve to death.” Her head came up. “You’ve never explained what happened to your other crewmate. They didn’t eat him, did they?”
“Don’t know,” he replied, tightly, not elaborating. “Attackers have boarded their target,” Chelakh added. “Heat signatures say only three left aboard own vessel. Will have weapons, know territory. But should have the equipment needed.” He swiveled his head to look at her. “Worth the risk?”
◊ ◊ ◊
Head still awhirl with new information, Saskia stood braced outside the Hauk’s airlock, her boots’ magnetic locks activated. Sure, their government sounds great in on paper, she thought, adjusting the seals of her envirosuit. The universe’s best meritocracy. Everyone has an equal shot at becoming the head honcho. She’d asked, before coming down to the airlock, “So, what about all the people who don’t enter the military? They don’t have a say, a vote?”
“They can talk to someone in their area who does. Voice concerns. But humans—all can vote, you say.” Derision in his voice. “But many do not?”
She’d been forced to admit that well over fifty percent of Earth’s residents didn’t vote. He’d chuffed and nictitating membranes had flickered over his eyes. “Then is the same. Those who aren’t interested, don’t participate. Those who are, do. Only difference? Sei’azhi earn rights. Appreciate more, perhaps, than rights that are just given.”
And the tales out of his people’s history, how was she to take them? Her sentiments told her that she should be firmly on the side of those of his species who’d fled their homeworld to found colonies far from his Empire. Seeking the right to self-determination in the face of what certainly sounded like a repressive, conquering neighbor. Of course, what these exiles were before they got here is one thing. What they are today is something else. Of course, I have only his word for it that they’ve been here that long. That they’re cannibals. That they’re pirates, I’ve already seen…on screens that he controls. Saskia closed her eyes, her thoughts running in circles. Occam’s razor time. Inventing complicated lies doesn’t benefit him. Paranoia clogged her thoughts, but at least it felt more alive than the gray fugue state she’d experienced since the Chimera’s demise. I have to decide if I can trust him, and commit to it, she thought tiredly. He saved my life. He’s the only reason I continue to live. But half of what comes out of his mouth, in that parrot-like voice, just makes me want to scream. Though I’m not even sure that’s his fault. She knew that some of her reaction to him had to be comprised of resentment mixed with a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt admixed. Even thinking of that possibility summoned the image of a hygiene kit with a scrawled-out name. A dead man’s last, inadvertent bequest. And little enough to show for a life, god damn it.
Deep breaths, trying to calm herself now. If I trust him, it’s because it’s the rational thing to do. It’s not that I’m coming to agree with his world-view. I’m not going to convert to his idea of duty to the state or ask to join his Sei’azhi. It’s because conditions have changed, and I have to accept that. But god. How can I accept this reality?
Chelakh’s voice came over the radio. “Brace.” With only that for a warning, the asteroid crust that served as their outer hull slammed into something, and despite her grip on the strap beside the airlock, the impact flung her backwards. She reeled herself in as Chelakh lithely pushed himself over from the cockpit, securing his own helmet. To her great surprise, he handed her a gun. Principles of ballistics didn’t change from species to species, so it looked quite familiar in configuration, but the grip had been designed with a three-taloned hand in mind. “You trust me with this?” Saskia blurted, shocked.
“Trust that difference between ally and foe will be clear.” His eyes and face were invisible behind his polarized mask as he handed her several sacks. Most were empty. One was not. “Charges are for engine core. Set them. Remote timer. Leave nothing behind.”
Saskia opened her mouth to protest, and then shut it with a click. The Sei’azhi played by different rules than humans. Chelakh had determined that these people were enemies. They were useful, so long as they had something he needed. And once he’d engaged with them, there were only two outcomes—his death, or theirs. Nothing in between, and no loose ends left behind. Is it because they’re cannibals? Or is this the same war doctrine that they’ve been using on us—except that they haven’t been able to get through the gates to Earth yet? A chill swept through her. Of course, that’s because we seem to be a little ahead of them in at least one regard—we’ve deciphered some of the Builders’ code. Enough to scramble our local nexus map and direct the system not to permit ships lacking our encoded signals to come through to Earth and the few colonies we’ve managed to keep safe….
They cycled the airlock doors, and Saskia experienced a jolt of surprise when she realized that the asteroid had punched right through the hull of the marauder ship. Chelakh had docked far more considerately with the doomed Chimera. Then again, when they lifted away, there should be explosive decompression to speed their ship’s movements—and to hinder anyone who might try to follow them before they could…blow a damned reactor core. While the marauders remain attached to their target. Her conscience twinged. The victim ship could be blameless. But then again, were there any innocents in this graveyard?
No time to argue about the ethics, however. They’d entered what looked like some sort of a disused hangar, and the collision had drawn two of the three heat signatures towards them. Saskia spotted the too-familiar sight of Lacerta bodies in envirosuits, though these were patched and rust-colored, not the matte-black worn by Imperial forces, with ablative plates epoxied to the outside for added protection. The mere shape of them triggered an adrenal surge. And, given that they didn’t care about damage to the bulkheads or outer hull, it felt enormously freeing to lift her borrowed gun and fire.
Saskia wasn’t a marine. She didn’t have to do more than pass her quarterly fire-arms qualification. But she’d always enjoyed practicing the with small arms, and had natural aim. A good thing, because the alien pistol in her hand kicked hard. Even though she’d locked her magnetized boots to the deck, the recoil nearly sent her tumbling, and her first shot flew awry.
Crap. Not exactly unlimited supplies of ammo. Saskia recovered, pulling herself back upright, and fired again. Saw one of the pair spin away, visor shattering. Saw the peculiar beauty of blood spray in zero-g, glossy, viscous globules forming, distorting as air pressure pushed against them, and then wobbling away as if drunk—
And then Chelakh threw himself bodily against her, shoving her into the cover of what looked like a small, dilapidated probe of some sort. A bullet pinged off its outer casing, and Saskia flinched, her heart pounding in her ears.
She felt Chelakh lean out of cover. Heard the muffled report of his gun through her helmet, and then he hooked a hand around her shoulder. “Hurry,” his voice ordered over the radio, and for once, Saskia was all too glad to obey. She helped him loot the fallen of weapons, tools, and oxygen packs, and then they hastened up through an open hatch, Chel in the lead.
The corridors of the marauder ship dizzied her. Every time she expected a line, she found a curve; every time she expected a curve, a line confronted her. They passed through several compartment used for storage on their way to engineering, and in one, Saskia saw the first evidence verifying Chel’s words. The compartment was so cold that ice crystals formed along the floors, walls, and ceiling. Pinkish-red ice, in many cases, from where globules of blood, oozing from pieces of meat suspended from chains that hooked into both floor and ceiling, had suspended themselves in air in the zero-g environment, and gradually made their way to splash against some flat surface or another, mingling with water vapor condensing and freezing out of the air. And the flesh? She recognized Lacerta scales on one torso that hadn’t been completely flayed. Knew the eight legs of a Xi’a soldier dangling in a mesh bag. Probably tastes like lobster, she thought, distantly, and then almost threw up inside of her helmet.
Chel grabbed her shoulder and moved her bodily out of the storeroom. “Lucky. No humans,” he told her, his voice tight. “Harder to see, when species is own.”
“Lucky me,” Saskia agreed, her throat still constricted. Lucky, lucky me.
He used one explosive charge from the bag she carried to blow the locked door of the engineering compartment, and then hissed, “Quickly, quickly. First two have not reported success. Third will recall others from the ship they attacked.”
Hands shaking, Saskia tucked her borrowed pistol into her belt and got scrounging. Heater elements were foremost on her list, but tools, components, computer cores, usable lengths of wire—they all went into her bags.
She’d ducked behind the reactor core to set the charges when she heard the next shot fired, followed by a second, then a third, in rapid succession. Saskia peered around the edge of the engine, seeing Chel dive for cover. And held completely still as a smaller Lacerta form slid around the edge of the blown engineering hatch. “Chelakh,” a higher-pitched voice called, with harmonies buried in it that grated on Saskia’s nerves. Sweet-toned, liquid vowels interspersed with rasps and clicks flooded out, at a speed Saskia found indecipherable.
“Dayielzha,” Chelakh’s voice returned, with a grating overtone that sounded like nails down a chalkboard to Saskia. She swallowed and kept setting the charges, an oddly clinical mind-set falling over her, in contrast to the fugue in which she’d drifted for months. Damn. Well, we knew this was a risk. I wonder if they’ll try to rape me first. Or would that be like screwing a cow before making steaks out of it? Think I’d rather hug the reactor when it blows, and ensure that the only pieces of me they find can barely be used for canapés. Another distant thought, as if spoken by an observer hovering behind her in the same zero-g environment: That one just called him by name. Chelakh, if we get out of this…you’ve got some explaining to do.
◊ ◊ ◊
Chelakh’s boots, magnetic locks cleaving to the deck plate, felt rooted in place. He hadn’t expected to see her on this ship. Hadn’t expected this at all. “Dayielzha,” he said. His former mate’s name meant dancer in the same way that his meant hunter. “You’re looking well-fed.” A lie, that dig. He couldn’t see through her polarized mask.
A chuff of irritation from her. “You had the chance to come with me,” she chided, still aiming her gun at where he crouched behind a bank of controls. “I would have spoken for you.” Her voice held a note of caressing to it. “You can still join, you know. Be a part of something again. I know that’s important to you.”
Of course you know that. You know me very well. But I never knew you at all. Chel’s crop tightened, and he peered around the console, getting a quick look at where she hovered in the cover of the doorway. “All I ever told them was that we had a stealth ship,” Dayielzha went on smoothly, persuasively. “When they asked, I said that it had a cloaking device. New tech. They believed me. I could have had them scouring the system for you and the supplies on that ship. I should have had them do that—after all, those supplies could mean life or death for my new companions. For me. But I didn’t.” She edged further around the corner, her weapon still raised. “You still mean something to me, Chelakh. You can join me here. The exiles are the largest, most organized group in this forsaken cesspit. You can be one of the strongest.”
For a moment, yearning flooded him. The longing to hear voices like his own, not the nasal, flat voice of a hostile human. The almost visceral need to smell and touch and be among his own kind, after over two years of total solitude—so strong a need that it straddled the border between vi’ezhash and tei’aska, between an irresistible physical urge and a biological necessity. Part of him wanted to say yes. To be one-of-many again, embraced by her and her companions. Except they’re exiles and cannibals, his mind reminded him, sharply. None of them are one-of-many. They aren’t of the People. They don’t understand the concept. Or honor.
And then it hit him. She’s stalling for time, Chelakh realized. She’s waiting for the others to return from the other ship.
Without another word, he ducked around the console and fired, double-tap, at the center of her chest. Something clipped his helmet, and he numbly watched her arms and legs fly up as her body blew back from the impact, hitting the wall behind her. He pulled his boots free from the deckplating, feeling as if he were running in tar, and bounded to catch her limp body as it bounced off the wall towards him. Unlatching her helmet, he checked for vitals, finding a pulse, and noted that the darker gray-blue and white bands of her feminine scales looked dull, not glossy. Haven’t been eating well, in spite of the body parts left in the freezer, he noted distantly. That’s why they risked a raid.
He planted the gun between her eyes. Nerved himself. And pulled the trigger. This ghost, I won’t allow to haunt me, he thought, stripping her body of weapons and tools before calling over his shoulder, “Are the charges set?”
In his inner turmoil, he’d forgotten to use English. Still, Saskia edged around the reactor core. “They’re set,” she affirmed. “Can we go?”
“Yes. No time left.”
Getting back to their ship proved difficult. The raiders had returned from the victim ship, called by Dayielzha, doubtless. Hand-to-hand combat and gunfire the whole way. To Chelakh’s surprised pleasure, the human female turned out to be much stronger than her short form suggested, easily throwing several opponents into bulkheads with enough force that bones made fragile by decades in zero-g shattered. “Homeworld has high-gravity?” he panted as they cycled the airlock, hearing bullets ping off the outer door.
“Yes. Earth has higher gravity than all of our colonies except Apollo,” Saskia huffed as the second door opened, and they launched themselves inside. Chelakh, at the controls, detached their mooring clamps, tapping the maneuvering jets lightly to send them tumbling away—propelled, too, by the atmosphere venting from the stricken ship.
Bodies cartwheeled out of the hull breach in their wake. A few impacted on the outer hull with enough force to snap limbs. Hopefully, they aren’t alive. They could grab onto handholds. Survive on the oxygen in their suits till they can find the airlock hatch. The asteroid’s surface, however, was highly irregular. Then again, oxygen only lasts so long. Will only have remain wary for a day or two.
Survival’s cold calculus had rarely been such a comfort.
He watched the numbers tick by as they moved away. And when they hit the right combination, Chelakh told Saskia, “Detonate.”
The human drifted closer in the cockpit. “You’re sure?”
“Give controller. Will do it.” He couldn’t help how harsh his voice sounded.
She shook her head, lifting the remote detonator. Pressed the correct combination of buttons, and they saw the brief flash of light on the screen as the raider ship, still receding, exploded, tearing itself and its victim vessel apart. No fire, of course, beyond that initial flash. But a weak blast-wave of ionized particles hit them, pushing them along, before larger chunks of debris hurtled their way. A few pieces impacted, but caused no damage to the sturdy outer hull.
Chelakh put his head down on the control board. “Any scavengers watching,” he said after a moment, “might be suspicious that the asteroid was pushed away before the explosion. But might attribute to…crew inside ship making repairs. Too little, too late.”
He heard a distinctive click beside him, and stiffened, his crest rising as he turned warily to see Saskia holding the gun he’d given her. She studied the weapon for a moment, and then slid its magazine out, showing him the empty casings there. “It’s funny,” she remarked. “I didn’t even have an urge to use this on you. Them, yes. All I needed to see was that they were Lacerta, and years of training came up. No problem. Point and click.”
The odd metaphors of her language remained a minefield for him, so Chelakh just nodded as if he did understand. Then she handed him the weapon. “I’m going to go stand at the airlock with the biggest wrench I can find, in case any of them are hanging onto the outside by their claws,” Saskia informed him briskly. “But once we’ve had a chance to breathe, and I’ve fixed the heater units properly… I think you owe me a few explanations.”
Five hours later, they both hunkered over unappetizing trays of their species’ respective nutrient requirements. However, they felt much warmer, and no longer had to fear that makeshift repairs might spark a fire.
Into a long silence, Saskia asked bluntly, “So. How’d she know your name?”
Chelakh exhaled. The reprieve had been too short. “Was crewmate when gate brought the ship here,” he explained, feeling his crest sag to his skull. “Was also mate.”
“She was your wife?” Saskia’s voice went up in pitch, almost a squeak.
“Only ones for each other,” he tried. An important distinction—for him, anyway. “The exiles, those who left the homeworld, and those whom the Empire…integrated…lived as our ancestors did. Female prides, all sisters and mothers. One or two males in their prime who were mates to all—even to own daughters, in time. Young males sent out into the world. Formed nomadic bands, troublemakers, war-parties. Might find a new pride, killing or displacing the elder males. Maybe accepted by the eldest females, maybe not. Among the Sei’azhi, one, maybe two mates at a time. Elder males still have a place, not just…killed for being not in prime.” He grimaced. “Become teachers, lend experience. Strength of mind valued, not just strength of body.” Chelakh exhaled.
Saskia let her empty ration pack float in the air, her brows crinkling. “So it’s even more painful that she’d betray you. And what you believe in. Because you were each other’s only mates,” she said, startling him with the insight. “That’s…pretty normal, from a human perspective.” A slight frown as she added, “Still, you shot her. Barely any hesitation. I couldn’t understand what you two said, but…that still must have been more difficult than I can imagine.”
It wasn’t, he thought emptily. Perhaps it should have been. Again, too hard to put it into her language, but he tried. “Wasn’t who…once was. Not Dayielzha. Not even one of the People. By choice. If not born to it,” Chel struggled to explain, “doesn’t matter. Can always chose to become, or not. But to step outside? Become what the exiles are?” He shook his head. At first he’d thought about his former mate’s betrayal every day. After two years, he’d mostly learned how to push the thoughts down. “Was already dead,” he finally summarized, the words tasting like ashes. “Body didn’t know enough to fall over. And yet,” he paused, ruminating, “Dayielzha said that…had never told the exiles about this ship. Had lied to them. To protect me.”
A pause. Saskia, with a glance from her disconcerting human eyes, asked mildly, “If I were in your shoes, that would make me feel guilty.” She hesitated. “Do you believe her?”
A hollow feeling emptied his soul. “Not sure,” Chel admitted. “Probably a lie. Probably wanted a place to fall back on, last-ditch refuge. Was good at espionage.” A deprecating gesture at himself. “Could listen to broadcasts and analyze data, but Dayielzha? Understood how to …” he couldn’t find the words, “make people do what was…advantageous?”
“She knew how to manipulate,” Saskia supplied, twiddling her lifted fingers. “Comes from older words meaning to control something by hand.”
“Good word,” Chelakh replied numbly, and then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if lie or not. Either way, is my burden to bear.”
A pause. “So, how’d she wind up going darkside?” Saskia asked, her voice gentler than he’d ever heard it.
The metaphor seemed clear enough, for once. “Scavenged a usable one-person fighter. Had good engineering skills. Said would go out, scout other ships, associations. Keep this ship safe, a base.” He bared his teeth, acid filling his crop. “Didn’t return. Sent a message on an encrypted channel.” Chelakh exhaled. “Said was…insane…not to accept that conditions had changed. Should adapt to them.”
Saskia looked up at that. “You said something similar to me, just hours ago.”
“Is different.” Chelakh had to cling to that. “One thing to adapt to new culture, laws. Here? Only law is that the strong kill and eat the weak. Same law that existed before the People rose up. Made new laws. Better ones.”
She cocked her head, almost mimicking his own habitual gesture. “I’m glad that you feel that way,” Saskia told him, her lips quirking at the corners faintly. Odd human expressions. “Otherwise, they’d be finding out if humans taste more like pork or like chicken right now.” A sigh’s worth of pause. “No more secrets,” Saskia added, wagging a slender finger at him. “You say that anyone who wants to be one of the Sei’azhi does it by…being loyal. Working together. Well, I didn’t shoot you. We need each other, and we’re working together. So…put me down for membership. Tentatively.” That, with a scowl in his direction.
He chuffed with amusement between his teeth. “Very well.” A pause. “Why?”
“Because I want a vote in what we, the crew of the Good Ship Unpronounceable do next, and since it’s a Sei’azhi ship, I guess I need to do things at least a little your way to be heard.” A slightly rude noise from between her lips.
Now genuinely amused, Chelakh bowed his head, raising both hands, palms up, as if honoring her request to speak before a gathering of citizen representatives. Though he knew that the non-verbal joke would be lost on her. “Then speak. Vote. Be heard.” A chuffing snort. “Be one-of-two with me, if not one-of-many.” No need to tell her that ‘one-of-two’ is another way of saying ‘mated pair,’ in my language. She wouldn’t get that joke, either.
A snort of her own, and then she took a deep breath. “Survival isn’t enough,” Saskia told him after a moment. “And god only knows if I can live on your food without giving myself dysentery—”
“What?” A head-tilt for the unfamiliar word.
“I’ll explain later.” A quick hushing gesture. “Basically, it boils down to this. There is no long-term here. Not unless you’re willing to become them.” She waved a hand at the raiders they’d left to die. “So there are really only a few options.”
“Won’t consider suicide yet. Is only an option when alternative is capture,” Chelakh informed her bluntly.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Not where I was going with this. Shush for a moment.” Another exhale. “Neither option I see seems particularly viable,” she admitted. “One, we take over one of those big colony ships. Somehow. And run their gang of not-so-merry pirates more, eh, like your Sei’azhi. With something at least resembling integrity.”
The thought had occurred to him many times, when he’d been unable to sleep, listening to the chirp of the sensors and feeling the ship lurch unevenly through the debris field. “Difficult. Only two, not many. And then have to sit on pirates. Always be on guard, always be stronger, louder, fiercer.” He shrugged. “Not impossible. Just…very unlikely.”
She nodded, her expression glum. “And the other option is escape.”
He shook his head. “That is impossible. System is at edge of galaxy. Hundreds of light-years from known stars. This ship? Limited fuel. Not built for speed, but for concealment. Would die before reaching even the next star-system.”
She shook her head now, her expression tightening. “I know that,” Saskia said, tonelessly. “Was thinking more of trying to get through the gate.”
“Other have tried,” Chelakh replied dubiously. “Have watched new survivors try to escape raider ships. Transmit standard radio code to gate. Doesn’t open. And the wormhole generated when ships are brought here only goes one direction. So trying to enter, while another ship is sent here…even if could be predicted!…not possible.”
Saskia coughed into her hand. “Ah, Chelakh? Your people are ahead of mine in ship building, weapons…pretty much every tech there is, you’re ahead of us, right?”
He nodded, puzzled. It was nothing more than truth.
“So why, after bombing the living crap out of Xian and Hadiqua, have you had such a hard time finding our homeworld? I mean, we can’t get through your cordons of ships to get at yours, or your larger colonies. But you’ve never launched an attack on our home solar system.” Saskia swallowed visibly, the muscles working in her throat.
“Imperial Command hasn’t been able to locate,” Chelakh admitted. “Was part of mission for this ship. Had isolated location to one of several star systems before arriving here.”
A frown settled onto her face. And with great difficulty, she said, “If I had a way that might get us out of here, would you, out of duty and obedience to your people, turn over what might be the location of my homeworld to them?”
Chelakh stared at her. Put that way, it did sound like an impasse. “Have a way out of here?” he asked bluntly.
“Maybe. We, ah…we’ve had some success in reprogramming the gates.” That was a mumble, as if it pained her to say the words out loud.
He felt his jaw go slack. “Impossible! The language of the Builders is beyond everyone!”
She managed a half-smile. “No. Your language is pretty impenetrable. You encrypt all your signals. And we didn’t have anything to compare it with. No touchstone. Our local nexus array, however, well…when our ships first approached it, it sent us a, ah, grammar lesson. Among other things.” She shrugged as his jaw slackened. “Still took some of the best minds and computers on Earth about twenty years to figure out even the little that we know. But we, er, scrambled the local map of gate points. And anyone who doesn’t transmit our recognition codes gets junk results, and, well…for all I know, they might get shunted here.”
“No other species has ever received this knowledge,” Chelakh said, stunned. “What makes humans so special?”
Saskia grinned suddenly. “We’re lovable.” At his growl, she laughed uneasily. “Honestly, we don’t know. Some of the big brains don’t think the information pack was left by the Builders. I, well, I don’t know why. It’s pretty hush-hush.” She grimaced. “Hasn’t stopped people from speculating wildly, though. Everything from an ancient species experimenting on our ancestors on down. Doesn’t matter. Only thing that does is that I might be able to gain access to the gate.”
“Why not say so before this?” Chelakh demanded.
“Because I didn’t know if I can trust you!” Saskia retorted impatiently. “Technically, you’re still an enemy. Technically, telling you this was high treason on my part. You’re the one who goes on and on about honor—you do the goddamned math!” She folded her arms over her chest, and added, tightly, “Tell me that if we did somehow get out of this, and we wound up in your patch of the galaxy, that your people wouldn’t torture me for what I know. And god only knows if what little I do know, will be enough to get us out of here. I studied it in school. I know enough to change the recognition codes for my ship. Everything else is just theory.”
He felt as if a hand had clutched his crop for two years, digging in its talons, and now, suddenly released his grip. Chelakh curled in on himself, panting to release the adrenal heat that welled up inside of him. “Chel?” Saskia’s voice intruded, as cautious as the hand she now settled on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”
He managed a jerky nod. “Yes. Just…did not know that hope could be vi’ezhash.” I needed this, he thought, dizzy. And I did not know how much so. Perhaps not as strong a need as tei’aska—not as strong as the need for air and water…but oh, ancestors, to think that there might be a way out.
Chelakh raised his head. “Can’t make promises. Everything depends on where in the nexus of gates we emerge—if we emerge at all.” He looked around at the scavenged food and equipment that they’d gathered. Enough to last perhaps four, five years, if he husbanded every scrap. But not enough for her. “But…one-of-two now,” he told her. Mates or not, she’s…part of this ship now. Part of me. Working together, striving together. That’s what matters, for the moment. “Worth the risk. And we need to try. Otherwise…this is all there is.” A gesture at the scraps and fragments around them. Survival is acceptable. Living is better. And neither is really possible, here in the graveyard.
◊ ◊ ◊
Everything took time. The potato-shaped asteroid tumbled through the debris field, slowly drawing in towards the sleeping giant that was the nexus gate. Three more ships came through in the next six months—none of them in shapes or configurations that either of them recognized, mute testimony to the size of the galaxy, and how sprawling the nexus gates’ reach must be. All three ships fell prey to the hungry vermin of the graveyard. And there was nothing they could do about it.
Each time, Saskia recorded the gate’s transmissions. Used the data locked in her wrist-pad and in her own memory to try to translate the Builders’ code. “It may take landing on the structure and plugging into it manually,” she told Chelakh unhappily at one point.
“Dangerous. Gates have safeguards. Prevent debris from impacting. Variety of…self-moving?…repair machines.” He’d been working at making his voice sound like less of a parody of hers, much to her relief.
“Autonomous,” Saskia said, providing the word for him. “Um…zha’rezhey’ei’e. I think.”
“That. Yes.” He drifted closer. “Can plug in directly?”
“I can try to assemble an adapter. Again it’s all theoretical for me. But worth a try.” She glanced up at him. In the past six months, they’d come to speak a mish-mash of each others’ languages on a daily basis And she rarely thought of him as a Lacerta anymore. Or an enemy. He was just…Chel. Stubbornly honorable, yet consumed by the need for survival—and oddly capable of adopting a complete alien as a crewmate, even friend. The red and blue bands of subtly iridescent scales that bracketed his gleaming yellow eyes no longer looked alien. Probably just what he’d call my Stockholm Kool-Aid, she thought wryly, and then another thought sobered her. If I ever get back to humanity—which is the goal, right?—am I going to stop seeing him as Chel? Will I stop seeing him as a person, and go back to seeing him as an enemy?
Unease churned in her. She’d gone down to only one human meal a day and cautiously supplemented her diet from his Sei’azhi ration packs—with a couple of allergic reactions that had required the use of antihistamines, but not the adrenaline needle in the sole human first-aid kit they possessed. This had stretched out her foreseeable future, but the only way out remained getting through the gate and finding their way back to recognizable star systems. “Chel,” Saskia reminded him unsteadily, “There’s a chance that even if I do crack this, it could take months of trying to chart our way through one gate to another, to another. It could take years. It’s a big galaxy, and this rock of yours isn’t really designed for landing on a planet for supplies—”
Chel put his hands on her shoulders, in spite of the filthy coveralls she wore. “Both make it,” he told her simply. “Or neither will. One-of-two, together.”
She nodded, her head tipped down, exhaling. She recognized that implacable tone by now. And felt oddly grateful for it. A smile quirked the corner of her lips. “I found that phrase in the lexical database,” Saskia told him. “There’s a note saying that it’s a colloquial phrase for a married couple. Don’t you think you should ask me about that sort of thing?”
A pause, and then a chuffing sort of laugh from him. “Expect that screaming and fleeing out of airlock without envirosuit would follow,” he informed her lightly. “Have…what are your words?…Bad track record with mates of own people.”
Saskia snorted herself now. “Everyone has a crazy ex. Yours was just an extreme example.” She felt her lips quirk up further, and teased, “Besides. I think I’m more Sei’azhi than she was. Lack of scales notwithstanding.”
His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Yes. Are.”
Startled, she tried to turn and look at him. “Conversation for later,” Chel told her, gently. “First, task at hand.”
The next day, they simulated a crash with a large chunk of debris that ‘deflected’ them into the side of the giant gate. To all outside observers, the asteroid traveled so slowly that it failed to set off the gate’s collision-detection sensors, and found itself trammeled among the miles of ribbon-like material that formed the outer edge of the gate’s event-horizon aperture—but not close enough that a random opening of the gate would annihilate their ship. They were also highly careful not to touch the surface of the gate; that would trigger the autonomous repair systems to come and remove the debris touching it.
Saskia borrowed the only EVA frame the tiny ship had—last used when Chel and his mate had scavenged the small ship that she’d used to flee to the pirates. It had, therefore, limited fuel. Fortunately, she didn’t need much to float to one of the control panels on the massive structure. Have about forty-five minutes before the repair systems get here, she thought, sweat trickling down her face as she strung a connector cord between her wrist-pad and the control panel. The schematics buried deeply in her old notes had been accurate, to her relief; the adapter she’d built, worked.
She uploaded what she hoped were requests for a change of interface controls, and jetted her way, carefully, back to the airlock, with fifteen minutes to spare. Chel met her there, and hauled her in. “Repair bots moving this way,” he told her, his voice taut. “Also, several raider ships have pinged this ship with sensors. Movement out of debris field always attracts notice. May have had good enough resolution to detect life-signs.”
“The ship was between me and them,” Saskia replied just as tightly, taking off her helmet. “But the moment we move away to try to open the gate, they’ll see the movement and know it’s not odd orbital mechanics.”
They didn’t need to say it. Either this worked, or they’d suddenly become interesting, anomalous prey to be hunted down in the graveyard. Or, if I’ve set the codes incorrectly, we might go through the gate and be annihilated, Saskia added mentally, swallowing hard.
Chel tapped the maneuvering jets, pulling them back to a safer distance. And swallowing, Saskia punched in the codes and transmitted them to the gate.
A brilliant white light suffused the screen in front of them as the giant opened a mouth filled with fire. Saskia, floating behind Chel’s pilot seat, grabbed onto his shoulder, giddy with excitement and fear. “Now or never,” she said. “I set it for a short-duration window, so no one can follow us.”
“Then go now,” Chel replied, and moved them forward. The gate seemed to loom larger and larger on the screen, shining white light through the tiny cockpit. Saskia could feel the wobble in the pit of her stomach that she remembered from every other transit through the event horizon. Instantaneous duration, my ass, she thought distantly. If it’s so instantaneous, how can I always feel when it happens?
The white light disappeared from the screen, replaced by the distant chip of a yellow-white dwarf. Saskia whooped so loudly that her voice reverberated from the walls. “We’re not dead!” she shouted, jubilation flooding her. Chel launched himself from the pilot’s seat, caught her, and spun her around in mid-air, his crest fully extended.
It took them a moment or two to settle down again. Chel had his computer scan the star’s spectral lines, while Saskia sent the standard query to the gate…and received the standard reply: a map of the ten closest destinations in the nexus. “I wonder why you can’t just input your end destination, and go there directly,” she muttered.
“Tolls or safety. Don’t know. Would be convenient.” Chel made an annoyed hissing sound. “Computer doesn’t recognize this star. Hopefully, in home galaxy.”
Saskia winced. That was a bad thought, and one that made her stomach curl. “At least, if we aren’t,” she said quietly, “it’s a different problem, right?”
Chel caught her hand in his taloned one. “Yes,” he said, and as if with careful deliberation, added, emphasizing the pronoun, “and is one that we’ll face together.”