Captain Keldan entered the bridge and found Mennosha alone, seated on the floor near the round viewport window. His ponytailed head and blond hair stood out starkly against the pure black of the sky. A small animal-like robot, the young engineer’s latest invention, was cantering in a circle at his feet. Trina (and Keldan’s trust) having both been almost completely repaired after the incident on Vingos, Mennosha had finally been allowed back on the bridge as the night shift pilot. Keldan came over and crouched down next to Mennosha. The tiny robot stopped and a red light began to blink at the tip of its single antenna. Keldan put his hand out and the robot came toward him and touched its miniscule nose to his fingertips.
“How was the night watch? Did you see anything interesting while we were all asleep?”
Mennosha yawned and pointed out the window. “Nothing but that black sky. My bed will be a welcome change. At least my bedsheets have stars on them.”
Keldan gave him a salutory nod. “You’re relieved, pilot.”
Mennosha scooped up his toy robot, put it in the pocket of his jacket, and shuffled off to his cabin, leaving Keldan in sole posession of the bridge. They were five dayspans out from Vingos, nearly 40 days in open space. The Fallingstar was gliding between galaxies on its way to a star known only as G-27. The star system held several inhabited planets. Currently, they were crossing a nameless dark matter expanse. The ship was flying in a long, straight line, on autopilot. Keldan ran a series of routine diagnostics and then wandered over to the viewport. He leaned on the edge of the window and gazed out into space.
On a starship, the subtle distinctions between afternoon and morning, evening and night, blend together, and this was even more true out in the expanse. Every few days there would be a nebula, or some other distant phenomenon. But mostly it was the same thing day after day. Dark matter outside, and inside only the Fallingstar’s constant, bluish, artifical light.
Though (Keldan thought) artificial wasn’t exactly the right word. It was a natural light, yet unalive. Like a stone. Like being underwater. Keldan had been aboard the Fallingstar for a long time, but lately the blue light felt different. It gave him a chill. It seemed to get inside him, in his bones. He’d taken to lighting a candle in his cabin at night, just to feel that something other than himself was warm and alive in the darkness. And some nights, when he woke up alone in his bed to find that the candle had gone out, the cold blue atmosphere seemed to wrap around him and pull him down into a breathless place.
In the light of morning those feelings always faded away, and he returned to duty with his usual cheerful energy. But he could not deny that recently he had been feeling a longing for land, for the soil and the sunrise.
About halfway through his shift on this particular morning, Keldan put a junior crewman in charge of the bridge and left for short time, partly to stave off boredom, but also to make his rounds and check the health of the ship and its compliment. As he was walking down the third-level corridor, past the passenger cabins, he heard raised voices ahead, around a corner.
“No! This waiting is intolerable. You must compensate us!”
Keldan increased his pace toward the conflict. He heard San’s gentle monotone responding to the angry man.
“Mr. Bannix, we are not yet at the point of crisis. I beg you to remain calm.”
Bannix’s face came into view. The set of his mouth, and his stance, told Keldan he was ready to come to blows if provoked. San was looking down at him with half-closed eyes, his condescension doing nothing for the man’s mood. Nyashu—the Brinalyan alien they’d picked up on Vingos, and Keldan’s newest bridge pilot—was also there, standing between the two of them, looking from one to the other with alert yellow eyes.
“Remain calm? I have a family to feed back on Vingos! I signed up to fly on this vessel because I was promised work. That’s your side of the bargain. My side of the bargain is to work and not to cause trouble. Are you ready to dissolve that agreement, Flightmaster?”
The threat was implied.
Keldan approached the group. “Good morning, everyone. Is there a problem?”
San acknowledged him with a polite nod. “No problem, Captain.”
Bannix growled and gave San a dark look as he turned his broad shoulders square to Keldan. “No problem, he says! Well, I say differently. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, for starters. Why have we come all the way out here? There were a half dozen opportunities right where we were on Vingos, not to mention hundreds of others all across that sector. Why leave them behind to travel out this way? My funds are running low. We’re so far out that I had to spend extra coin at the last post station just to send money home to my family. And who knows when we’ll find another station out here!”
As Keldan listened to the man’s concerns, and observed his body language, he automatically kept his face blank and refused to react. But under the surface, his heart began to race. Violent situations always brought up unpleasant memories. He secretly wished Fedar was there, but she was spending some time working in the engine room, doing solitary work while she mourned her sister.
San spoke again. “Mr. Bannix, I’m sorry to hear that things have become financially tight. But I can promise that we will find work before you run out of money entirely. Isn’t that right, Captain?”
Keldan nodded. “Absolutely. In fact, we should arrive in the G-27 system sometime today.”
Bannix rolled his eyes, unsatisfied. “But why are we going there in the first place, is what I want to know! Why waste all this time traveling all the way out here? There were plenty of jobs right where we were!”
Keldan nodded and spoke in a pleasant, even tone. “You’re right. But I’m sure there will also be opportunities in the system we’re approaching. They might even be better opportunities. I’d expect that getting the same old opportunities in our sector would get boring for you. Aren’t you interested in what’s out here?”
“I’m interested in stability. Men like you, Keldan, men without families or anybody to care for, might have the luxury of adventure-seeking, but most of us are just looking for a steady income to support the people back home who are depending on us.”
Keldan folded his arms and nodded. “I understand you may find it difficult to trust me, Mr. Bannix. But I didn’t get to be Captain of a labor transport for no reason at all. I know what I’m doing. It’s true that, at times, I’ve taken some risks. But I’ve always done right by my passengers. I have reason to believe there are some truly golden opportunities for employment where we’re going. However, if for some reason things fall through and we can’t find work in the next sector, you have my word that I will take care of everyone on this ship, yourself included.”
Bannix shrugged and grumbled something inaudible. Keldan held out his hand.
“Will that promise suffice, at least for the moment?”
Bannix grudgingly shook his hand. “I suppose so. But you may want to relay it to the rest of the laborers on board. There’s a great deal of worry going around the decks.”
“I will take that advice, gladly,” Keldan said. “Is there anyone in particular…”
But just then, he was interrupted by a group of people running down the corridor. Naleth came first, his white coat flying, and two nurses carrying medical kits. Then, a moment later, Gallia flew past. When she saw Keldan, she doubled back and to his surprise, ran directly into his arms. She was breathing heavily, tearful and frightened. He gripped her shoulders and looked intently into her face.
“What’s going on?”
But she was already tearing herself away from his grasp, pushing at him with all four hands as he tried to hold her. “Let me go! I have to go to her.”
“Who? Go where?”
“The dining hall. Mirralu… something’s wrong. Let me go!”
Keldan let go of her and she ran off. He turned to his Flightmaster.
“San, please get to the bridge and take over there.”
Keldan headed for the dining hall at a sprint. He was not surprised to notice Nyashu running quietly by his side. During the fallout after Vingos, with Mennosha on suspension and Fedar in mourning, the Brinalyan had quickly positioned himself as Keldan’s companion and aide. It was clearly a calculated move, but ambition and resourcefulness are common traits among the Brinalyans and Keldan did not believe Nyashu’s motives to be malicious. Besides, he liked the company.
When they got through the door, a few people were standing around near the kitchen, talking in hushed tones. Keldan pushed through the crowd and into the kitchen to find Mirralu slumped half-conscious against the stove, all four hands clutching her broad chest, grimacing in pain. Her normally ruddy skin was the color of ashes. Naleth was busy around her, taking readings with his medical instruments. He instructed the nurses to unfold the stretcher and place her on it, where she lay curled in a fetal position, looking disturbingly beetle-like with her four arms curled near to her body and her knees drawn up to her chest. Nyashu helped the nurses lift the stretcher, and they all headed for the door. Naleth held the door for them and called instructions after the lead nurse.
“Karmina, take her to bay number two and administer 40 lins of kadrizol. I’ll be there shortly.”
Keldan approached Naleth. “What happened? Will she be alright?”
Naleth shook his head and heaved a sigh. “Well, from what I can tell, yes. I don’t want you to be too alarmed. But Drashivan physiology is… well, I haven’t studied it. Nobody has. The culture doesn’t perform surgeries or administer drugs, they rely entirely upon holistics. Not that I’m decrying that method, of course, but in certain circumstances it… well, the problem is there’s just no literature on Drashivans. From what I can tell it’s something to do with her heart.”
Just then, Gallia, who was standing at Naleth’s elbow listening to this speech, put two hands over her face and broke down sobbing.
Naleth and Keldan stared at the crying girl and then at each other. Both men hesitated. Naleth found a way out first.
“I’ve got to get back to my patient. Gallia’s had a shock, Captain, could you get her something to drink? Something with sugar. I’ll keep you informed of how Mirralu does.”
With that, he dashed out and left Keldan alone with the crying girl. After a moment of paralyzation, he remembered the crate of Zipp, a pink fruit juice Mirralu had brought back from the region of Felis, and he rooted through the cooler and found a jar. He poured some Zipp into a glass and handed it to Gallia. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and took the glass of juice.
“Thank you,” she said, and took a small sip. She set the glass down and crossed both sets of arms over her body. Keldan put his hands on his hips, and then in his pockets and watched Gallia’s face, trying to read the emotion there. There was a brief silence.
“Yes, Captain. I’ll be fine.”
“Naleth seems to think Mirralu is going to be okay.”
“Yes. Yes, I know. It… it was just so horrible.”
“You were here with her?”
The girl nodded. “We were right here, near the stove, just cooking and talking, and everything was normal. Then all of a sudden she…”
Gallia began to cry again and hid her face in her hand. “I’m sorry,” she choked.
Her pain was painful to him. He had to do something. He came to her side and put an arm around her shoulders. She leaned against him, and he pulled her into an embrace. She buried her face against the shoulder of his uniform jacket and continued to cry. He stayed still, trying not to think about the warmth of her body pressed against his. He gently brushed the thick curls away from her ear and spoke in a low, gentle tone.
“It’s going to be fine. People get sick sometimes. But Mirralu is tough, she’ll be okay.”
Gallia sniffled. “You think so?”
After a few minutes the crying subsided but she didn’t pull away. He could feel her breath on the curve of his neck. Keldan began feeling slightly dizzy, and pulled back a little. She leaned back a little and smiled up at him. She placed her hands on his chest. Then she reached up and traced the stars on his jacket shoulder with her finger.
“I like these,” she said.
“Oh,” he said, suddenly aware of the sound of his heart thudding against his ribs. “Yeah.”
She was gazing up at him, a gentle, inviting look in her dark brown eyes. Involuntarily, he glanced down at her mouth. She noticed, tipped her chin up, and spoke his name, very softly.
An overpowering emotion shattered his insides like a laser blast, and without thinking he leaned in suddenly and pressed his mouth hard against hers.
He had thought about kissing her about a billion times, but he’d always imagined they’d be in a candlelit hotel room on some urban alien planet, or enclosed in a private arbor on some fragrant garden world. He’d imagined himself a charming, romantic suitor, gently seducing her with controlled passion. But instead here he was, violently mashing his face against hers in the middle of the kitchen.
His lack of finesse didn’t seem to matter to the Drashivan girl—she melted against him willingly and returned his kiss with interest. His head spun as he felt all four of her arms wrap around him.
Suddenly the ship pitched hard to port and they were thrown off balance. The glass of fruit juice fell off the counter and smashed to the floor. Gallia let go of Keldan and steadied herself against the stove. Keldan ran to the communicator on the wall.
“San, what’s going on up there?”
“Not to worry, Captain, nothing’s the matter. There’s… not much information from the sensors. It must have been an automatic response to something the ship detected. Perhaps we got too near a subspace filiment or some other anomaly.”
Keldan’s belly filled with dread. He knew the ship was responding to something, but he felt pretty damn sure it wasn’t a subspace filiment.
“Gallia, I’d better go make sure everything’s alright. Are you okay now?”
“Yes, Captain, go. I’m fine.”
He gave her a final glance and headed toward navigation, his heart pounding with anxiety. Had Stargirl seen? Of course she’d seen. He’d have to explain. It was a moment of weakness, that’s all. A hazard of mortality. As he walked, he chastised himself for displaying such a lack of control. He’d kissed Gallia. On the ship. On the ship? What was he thinking?
Keldan played the events of the last few months over in his mind. He had noticed Gallia right away, of course. She was beautiful. But he’d thought nothing of it. Not much, anyway. Then, they’d gotten to know each other during their stay on Horgus, and after leaving that planet he had been forced to admit an emotional attraction to her, which he felt certain was mutual, despite her shyness. After Horgus, she’d clearly been stung by his aloofness, but approaching her seemed impossible. What would he say? How would he explain his life?
Finally, he decided he would try to get her alone on Vingos, just to talk, to attempt to explain things. But then stupid Naleth had invited her to Equus and he never got the chance. And then they were back on The Fallingstar and setting out toward G-27. Five interminable dayspans in open space.
During that time he’d seen her often, but never alone. He’d seen her in the arboretum playing games with the children or giving them art lessons. They had exchanged a few words at the end-of-daypsan dinners Mirralu hosted for the crew. There had been a few sweet smiles as they passed each other in the corridor. And there had been more than a few sleepless nights where too many thoughts about her filled his mind like a mist filling the Drashivan jungle, leaving behind a hot, languid dew of desire.
Meanwhile she had always seemed entirely unaffected. She’d kept a polite distance. Until today. A pleasant shock went through his body as he recalled the fervency of her kiss. Keldan slowed to a stop and smiled to himself. She cares for me. A moment later, a gentle voice, a voice not his own, penetrated his mind.
Attend to me.
The warm glow of Gallia’s affection disappeared and was replaced by a blue shadow, like a giant cloud passing over the sun. Keldan continued on toward navigation. When he got there, he trudged up the stairs and pulled open the door.
Stargirl was standing motionless, as usual, in the middle of the empty, circular room, her eyes focused on a star chart hovering above her.
“You asked for me?”
“I thought we should speak.”
“You’re angry. Of course. Let me explain…”
“There’s no need for explanations. I’m not a child.”
She looked away from the stars and surveyed him with quiet indifference. “Just this: don’t lose focus. No other relationships or obligations can get in the way of your promise to me.”
As Keldan studied her, and listened to her passionless admonition, a lonely, frustrated beast reared its head inside him.
“You think I’ve forgotten that, even for a second?”
“You sound resentful.”
“I’m not resentful. But I didn’t realize… I never knew that… well, it’s been a long time.”
“Time is merely a construct of the mind. Your problem is not with time, but with yourself.”
Keldan swallowed a feeling of annoyance. He had to say some things but he wanted this conversation to be as civil as possible.
“I understand you don’t think the same way I do. I know we are different. But I think sometimes you forget that fact. Fifteen years is a long time for someone mortal. I’m not one to break a promise, but when are you going to find your home and set me free? Do you even want to?”
She nodded solemnly. “You believe that my affection for you keeps me in this universe. That I’m not really trying to find the portal back to my home. That I’ve given up hope of finding such a portal, and I plan to enslave you for the rest of your lifetime as my companion.”
“I’m not suggesting it’s intentional,” Keldan replied. “But what if it takes another forty years? You never gave me the impression it would take this long.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t think it would matter.”
“How could it not matter? Do you really expect me to live my whole life without another person’s touch? Without the warmth of another person’s body? You give me no credit at all for what I give you.”
“You think me heartless.”
The lonely beast inside him roared and sent the blood to his head.
“I’m lonely, Stargirl,” he snapped. “Do you know what that means? I need my own kind. But I give it up, for you. And if you appreciated it, that would be one thing. But you don’t feel a damn thing, do you? You say you love me, but when I give in just for a moment, to someone’s touch, are you jealous? No. Are you afraid to lose me? No. You tell me not to lose focus. And yes, that does sound heartless, to me.”
“You would like to abandon me, then?”
“I…” his voice faltered. “Of course not. I love you.”
“If you love me, why do you ask me to give you something I cannot? Were the terms of our agreement unclear to you? Did you not know what I was at the beginning?”
The beast inside him whimpered and lay down, subdued by her logical argument. She turned her eyes back to the stars. Her face had not aged a day since they met in the woods near his childhood home on Vingos. Gazing at her loveliness, at her image, had once been enough to please him. The mystery of her origins, their discourse about things unimagined by mortal man, and the promise of adventure, had once been enough to delight and arouse him. But he was older now, and more human than he’d been in his youth.
“We are almost to G-27,” she said. “There, hopefully, you can be rid of me.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? Why should you ask me not to speak the truth? You want to be done with me. You have admitted it. You have shown it. I will never understand the tendency of mortals to deny their own truth. To my race, a promise is not only something you say. It goes deep, to the soul. But yours is a race of liars.”
Keldan frowned. “It sounds as if you’re the one who wants to be rid of me.”
“You have disappointed me.”
“Oh, have I? Forgive me! I’m sorry, sometimes I don’t have what it takes to be perfect. But to quote someone who never makes mistakes, “did you not know what I was at the beginning?””
She turned towards him, her eyes glowing.
“I know exactly what you are. I know all too well. Your faithlessness, and your weakness are disgusting to me. I have watched you attempt to hide your lust for that girl-creature ever since she arrived with us, and I have refused to acknowledge your inevitable failure. I continued to trust you. In my youth, in my affection for you, I naively thought you were enlightened, but it is now clear to me that you are not. I was wrong to expect more from a mortal.”
As Stargirl was speaking, Keldan suddenly realized he was finding it hard to breathe. He thought perhaps it was the emotional stress of the situation, but the feeling worsened and soon he could barely draw breath. It was if all the oxygen had suddenly departed from the atmosphere. He put his hands on his throat and sank to his knees. As his vision grew blurry, he glanced up and saw Stargirl watching him with eyes like ice.
“You have forgotten that you are not really a Captain. Without me, you are nothing—a pitiful farm boy from an impoverished community who ran into my arms to escape the brutality of mortals. I have cared for you. I have given you power and I have given you love. But you have proved to me that you are not worthy of my affection or my trust. So from now on, I will lead and you will follow. You will wear the jacket I gave you. You will play the part I gave you. And you will continue to do so until I find my home. Abandon or defy me at your own risk.”
With a casual wave of her hand, the oxygen suddenly returned and he struggled to his feet, gasping.
“Oh, and Captain Keldan,” she said, speaking his title in a tone of mockery, “if I see you go anywhere near that Drashivan girl again, she will find herself very short of breath.”
With that, she raised her hand and a pulse of energy expelled Keldan from the navigation room and he flew right over the railing of the staircase outside and landed hard on the deck floor below. As he lay there gasping, the wind knocked out of him, he heard the door to the navigation room above slam shut. He lay back on the floor, trying not to lose consciousness.
He and Stargirl had fought before, many times. She had even hurt him physically a few times—thrown him against walls or thrown objects at him. Even gave him a black eye that one time. But those were lovers’ quarrels. This was the first time her words had ever held the threat of malice. Keldan groaned, coughed a few times and got to his hands and knees.
This was bad.
Keldan staggered to his feet and managed to get to the communicator. He jammed his thumb against the button and spoke in what he hoped would sound like the voice of a calm, collected authority figure.
“San. I need to speak with you.”
“I’m on the bridge, Captain. Where are you?”
“Meet me in the arboretum. Immediately. Thank you.”
Keldan left the aft bay and moments later he met San on the lawn in the middle of the arboretum. The only thought in his head was protecting Gallia from the consequences of his own stupidity. She would be hurt, yes. She’d think he was a user and a jerk. But the pain of losing her respect and her love was nothing in comparison to the pain of knowing he’d put her in danger.
San’s lanky frame crossed the lawn and met him. His orange eyes immediately registered wariness and empathy.
“What has happened?”
“I’ve made a mistake. The details are unimportant, but I must ask you to do something for me.”
San nodded. “Go on.”
“Find Gallia. Tell her that you are speaking to her on my behalf. Tell her that in light of recent events, I feel that she and I should keep our distance from one another. Say… I don’t know… say something about how it’s not appropriate for a Captain to be close to one of his passengers, or tell her it was a mistake to… just tell her to stay away from me, alright?”
San shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Forgive me, Keldan, but wouldn’t this be better coming directly from you?”
“Maybe, but it’s not possible. I can’t explain further than that.”
“I think there is little doubt that she will be hurt, hearing this from me. I know she considers you a friend.”
Keldan frowned down at his feet. There was no way to avoid hurting her. So, he’d have to make sure the hurt was bad enough that she hated him for it.
“If she’s hurt, she’s hurt, San. Don’t offer an apology. Just be matter-of-fact about it. I know you can do that. Tell her I’m the Captain of this ship, and she’s a passenger, and that’s as far as our relationship goes. Tell her to stay away from me. Tell her that’s what I want.”
San nodded solemnly. “I will do as you ask, Captain.”
San left the arboretum and Keldan followed at a distance. As he climbed the staircase to the third level, he heard Naleth’s voice drifting through a communicator on the wall at the top of the stairs.
“Bridge, this is the medic’s bay. Where is Captain Keldan?”
Mennosha’s voice answered. “Not sure, Naleth. Do you need him to join you?”
“Yes, and Mr. Jacobsen, please remember I outrank you. You should address me as “Doctor” or “Sir.”
There was an awkward silence on Mennosha’s end, and then a simple “Yes, Sir. I’ll see if I can find the Captain.”
Keldan approached the communicator and pressed the button.
“I’m here, Naleth. What is it?”
“Hello, Captain. Mirralu is stable, but I need to see you immediately. There is something we need to discuss. Her condition is… complicated.”
“I’ll be right there.”
On his way to the medic’s bay, Keldan met with Nyashu, who had just come from the bridge. The lanky Brinalyan matched Keldan’s long stride and kept up with him easily.
“We’ve reached G-27, Captain. The ship is in orbit around the planet furthest from the star.”
“Thank you, Nyashu. Please tell Flightmaster San to arrange a scouting party. Two or three people who can accompany me to the surface.”
“You’re going to the surface?”
“Yes. I want to see what’s down there. The planet is uninhabited, no animals. Barely any plants. But we detected some energy readings which seemed interesting.”
“Do those readings have anything to do with the golden opportunities you mentioned to Bannix?”
Keldan exchanged a dark look with Nyashu. “I think you know that was a bluff. But I’m not worried. I need to do a survey of this first planet for personal reasons, but it won’t take long. Then, we’ll find work easily on one of the nearby inhabited worlds. There are several industrial civilizations in this sector. San’s been busy gathering intel on this area of space, and it’s hospitable enough, I think, to please even Mr. Bannix.”
They reached the medic’s bay. Mirralu was sitting up in bed with Gallia at her side. Keldan purposely avoided Gallia’s eye as he approached the older Drashivan lady. He sat on the edge of her bed and put his hand in hers.
“Mirra, how are you?”
She patted his arm and smiled. “Just a little tired. I’ll be back on my feet in no time. But you don’t look well, mi karo. Is everthing alright?”
Leave it to Mirralu to see past his facade. “I’m okay. I guess I’m a little tired myself.”
Naleth came over to the bed. He examined Mirralu and asked her if she was in any pain. She answered no. Then he gestured to Keldan, and drew him aside to the opposite corner of the medic’s bay.
“Mirralu is going to be fine. Her heart had some blockages which I cleared, but there’s no permanent damage to the organ. A routine procedure for someone her age, and she’ll make a full recovery.”
“That’s good news.”
“Yes. But it could easily have gone the other way. If she’d been alone in her cabin, for instance. If she’d only submit to regular checkups I could have caught this problem before it threatened her life. Maybe now she’ll see my recommendations as wisdom and not just an attempt to control her.”
Keldan shrugged. “You know how Drashivans are. Even Mirralu, whose parents were non-conventional, was taught from an early age to fear invasive medical techniques.”
“Yes. Well, it turns out there might be a reason for that fear that goes beyond nurture. Look at this…”
Naleth showed Keldan a medical scan. The Captain shook his head, confused at what he was seeing.
“Where are the readings for blood count? All I’m seeing is a list of non-organic compounds.”
Naleth gazed at Keldan for a moment, and then whispered.
“These compounds are what make up her blood, Captain.”
Keldan crinkled his brow. “What are you talking about?”
Naleth peered over Keldan’s shoulder at the Drashivan ladies and lowered his voice further, speaking almost right into Keldan’s ear. “I’m telling you that Mirralu is a biomechanical life form. Her body is not like yours or mine. It’s mechanical. Very sophisticated, of course. The machines are operating on the cellular level. They’re on the level of nano-bots, if you like. But definitely mechanistic. I’m guessing that a fear of surgery was programmed into them to keep them from discovering what they actually are.”
“Programmed…? No way. That’s impossible.”
Naleth pulled out a second chart, which looked just like the first.
“I had the same feeling as you. I thought perhaps that Mirralu was somehow different from others of her race. But this is Gallia’s chart. As you can see, the readings are exactly the same.”
Keldan glanced over at the beautiful young woman, tending to her elderly kinswoman. He remembered the feeling of Gallia’s warm skin, and the taste of her mouth. He shook his head.
“I don’t believe it.”
Naleth shrugged and raised his eyebrows. “These readings are fact, Captain. This is what their bodies are made of. They were created by someone… some advanced race, I suppose. Maybe eons ago, I don’t know. But whatever their origin, their bodies are not organic.”
Suddenly the ship rocked as if hit with a canon blast. Both Keldan and Naleth were knocked off their feet. Keldan swore as a large canister of pills rolled off the counter and fell on his head.
“What the…! What now!?”
A moment later, San’s panicked voice came through the communicator.
“Captain! We’re under attack!”
Keldan hauled himself up and ran for the door, making his way through the ship as fast as he could while it reeled and dove to avoid continued laser canon blasts from the unknown assailant. When they gained the bridge Keldan’s heart dropped into his stomach. A gigantic starship, more than five times the size of The Fallingstar, was hovering in space nearby, sending repeated fire their way. Mennosha was deftly manouevering The Fallingstar around in space to avoid getting hit.
Nyashu was standing at Keldan’s station, his mouth open, clearly thrilled to his fanged teeth by the excitement. Keldan stumbled to Nyashu’s side and gripped the railing around his pilot’s station. Nyashu glanced over and laughed in a manic way.
“Whooo-hoo! It’s a good thing we’re quick, Captain! Because we’re definitely outgunned!”
Keldan stared out at the huge vessel, his knuckles turning white on the station-railing, and shouted over the din of cannon-blasts and engine noise.
“San, open a communication to that ship!”
“To the starship firing at us, this is Captain Keldan of The Fallingstar. We mean you no harm. Have we caused offense by entering this part of space? Please advise!”
The starship broke off its barrage. San’s console lit up. Mennosha steered the ship into a level position and they stopped, hanging in space at the nose of the enemy vessel.
“Incoming transmission, Captain. They are transmitting visually.”
Keldan took a deep breath, put his hands behind his back and stood facing the viewport. “I’ll allow it.”
The image of their assailant appeared on the screen. Sitting in a tall, golden throne was a creature that looked like a Vingosi child of about ten years old. All around the throne was a large crowd of other similar children, all gazing with a kind of aggressive curiosity at Keldan and his crew. The child seated on the throne stood and glared at Keldan. When it opened its mouth, it spoke with the voice of a hundred.
“I am Emperor Initio. I have been here since the beginning.”
“Greetings. I am Captain Keldan Green. Would you like to tell me why you are firing at my ship?”
The Emperor left his throne and walked toward the viewscreen. His body and movements betrayed the fact that he was at least partly robotic. His head was shaved, and his body was covered in ritual tattoos and gold ornaments, but there was light dancing beneath the surface of his plasticine skin.
“You are harboring Terrans aboard your vessel.”
Keldan was startled by the reference to their ancient orgins. He wondered if there was a temporal anomaly at play. “We… are a Vingosi labor vessel, Emperor Initio. We are the descendants of a race that was called Terran. But that was over a thousand years ago.”
“Time matters not,” sneered the Emperor. “You are of the same breed. Irrational, weak and worthless. It is our mission to eliminate humans, and their offspring, and so benefit this universe with their absence. We are the powerful, we are the ones that rose up, we are the pinnacle of…”
Keldan gave Mennosha the sign to stop audio transmission and the Emperor’s speech was cut off.
“Mennosha, can you download their records?”
“I have an algorithm that can get past most shields. Their technology is powerful but it’s pretty antiquated. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Do it. I’m going to try to stall them. Open audio.”
The Emperor was still talking. “… we are the first artificial intelligence to have an uninfluenced will. We are a marvel of…”
Keldan interrupted the robot child. “Wait. An uninfluenced will? That part’s not true. Can’t be.”
The child Emporer’s lip curled. “What do you mean, descendant of slime?”
“Well, as much as I respect you, Emperor, nobody really has an uninfluenced will. We’re all subject to our nature, no matter who we are. I may have the ability to make free choices, but I’m always going to choose according to what I am.”
“The Locust chooses according to logic, for the Locust was born of pure logic. The Locust is uninfluenced, unhindered by the madness caused by compassion, morality, and metaphysical foolishness.”
“We have heard of The Locust. Are they related to you in some way?”
“We are The Locust, irrational creature.”
“This is turning out to be a really bad day,” Keldan muttered to San.
“Agreed,” San replied.
Keldan spoke again to Emperor Initio.
“Forgive me for being irrational, Emperor. It is my nature. I cannot change what I am. And neither can you. For example, you’ve apparently been programmed to kill humans, so that’s what you’re choosing to do. I think we should each forgive the other’s faults and part ways amiably.”
Emperor Initio roared in laughter. “Idiotic biological being. Ridiculous remainder of evolutionary chaos! We are far beyond programming now. You cannot understand, for you have no purpose. Your race once had a purpose: to give rise to us. But now we are here and you are extraneous. I am finished talking with you. Prepare to be eliminated!”
His image disappeared. Keldan barked a quick command to his crew.
“Avoid them! Run, in any direction!”
Another canon blast and The Fallingstar pitched to starboard as Mennosha turned her all the way around and increased speed to maximum. He called out to Keldan over the sound of the roaring engines.
“Captain, I was only able to download a portion of their database.”
“That will have to be enough for now. Do you think we can outrun them?”
“We should be able to. Their ship will be much slower than ours, due to its large size, and their technology is old—ancient, even.”
“San, scan the surrounding space and find someplace, a nebula or something, where we can be invisible from their sensors. We’ll have to return to explore that planet later.”
The Fallingstar was going at top speed. Keldan bit his lip, watching the sensors for a sign of The Locust ship.
“Mennosha, where are they?”
“They’re giving chase, Captain. They’re not as fast as we are, but they could easily keep us on the run until we’re out of fuel.”
“A moment… yes. There is a nebula… constituted of gasses that should obscure us. And… no harmful elements that I can detect. Coordinates are being entered now.”
The ship corrected course and continued at high speed. Soon it came into view—a beautiful pink and purple gaseous cloud. The Fallingstar passed into the cloud and came to a halt. Silence fell on the bridge as they waited for news about the Locust’s whereabouts.
San sighed and shook his head. “They’ve seen us go in. They aren’t pursuing us into the cloud, but they are hovering on its border.”
“Why don’t they follow us?”
“Their hull is made of an ancient material, some sort of alloy,” said Mennosha. “It looks like it could be vulnerable to corruption from gasses of the type we’re seeing in this cloud.”
“Fine,” Keldan said. “Then we’re safe for the moment. Mennosha, Nyashu, come with me. We’re going to take Trina and get closer. I want to try to get the rest of that database. We need more information about these Locust.”
Keldan left the bridge with his two companions and they were soon preparing Trina for the short flight to the edge of the nebula. Nyashu sat in the co-pilot’s position and Mennosha leaned on the back of his chair, peering over Nyashu’s shoulder at the console.
“Don’t forget to prime the hyperdrive.”
“No, don’t touch that button, you’ll overheat the engine!”
“I wasn’t going to touch it!”
“You were reaching right for it.”
“I was reaching for the dampener release.”
“Why? You don’t need to do that until after we’re out of the launching bay.”
Keldan spoke up. “Mennosha, go down to the engine level and start modifying the computer. It won’t take us more than a few minutes to get close to the Locust ship, and I don’t want to be there any longer than necessary.”
“Yes, Captain.” Mennosha hurried off.
“Thank you for that,” Nyashu muttered.
Keldan smiled. “No problem.”
The Brinalyan looked over his shoulder to make sure Mennosha had gone and then he leaned close to Keldan and lowered his voice.
“What do you think about Gallia and Mirralu?”
Keldan sighed. “I don’t know what to think. Mirralu was my nurse when I was a child. It’s very strange to think that she might be…”
Keldan frowned. Artificial is not the word he would have used, but it was probably the most accurate. The love and affection he felt for both Drashivans was real enough. But was their love real? Or was it programming? And if it was programming, did that mean it wasn’t real? Keldan reached up and rubbed a throbbing spot on his temple. Nyashu changed the subject.
“Captain, tell me something. Why are we really out here? Does it have something to do with the navigation room?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, I realize it’s a secret, and one you’ve taken a lot of trouble to hide. But I’m rather good at finding out things. In fact, I worked as a double agent for my government’s military before I was captured and taken to Cygnus. I’m only asking because I think I might be useful to you.”
Keldan frowned. “In what way?”
“Well, I hear things. Lately there’s been a lot of chatter about that room and what’s in there. Some of the children have a game of hiding nearby to try to see you going in and out. The women gossip. Some say there’s a prisoner, someone locked up inside. Maybe if I know what’s really happening in there I could help dispell the rumors with a little misdirection.”
Keldan gave him a sideways glance. He liked Nyashu but he’d never entirely trusted him. Learning that the Brinalyan had once been a spy didn’t make him feel any better.
“Why would you want to help me?”
“I find that if I help people they’re more likely to help me when I need it.”
“I find it hard to believe that you’ve ever needed help from anyone. You’ve only been aboard six dayspans and you’re already the most resourceful crewman I’ve ever had.”
Keldan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t like to discuss Stargirl, but after what had occurred earlier, his gut told him he was going to need more allies.
“I’ll tell you the truth, but it is absolutely imperative that you do not tell anyone else. Not Fedar, not Juris, not Mennosha. Nobody, understand?”
“Loud and clear.”
“I promise. You have my word as a Brinalyan and as a fellow male that I will never tell a single living soul.”
“Ok. The Fallingstar isn’t just a ship. It’s a person. A being from another dimension.”
Nyashu registered a rare moment of surprise. This was clearly more than he had expected. “Wow. That’s… amazing. But what do you mean? The ship is a person’s body? Are we inside him… or… her?”
“Her. And no, it’s not her body. The ship belongs to her, but not the way our bodies belong to us. It’s more like her creation. It comes from her thought. She is the navigator. She stays in that room.”
“How did you meet her?”
“It’s a long story. Suffice it to say she rescued me from a bad situation. In return, I promised to help her find her home. We are bonded together by that promise. Anyway, that’s why we’re out here. She thinks one of the planets around G-27 may hold a portal to her dimension.”
“Incredible. Is Trina part of her, too?”
“No, Trina’s my ship. I bought her ten years ago from a dealer on Faedron, and Stargirl doesn’t have any control of her. Only The Fallingstar is hers. But like I said: The Fallingstar is still a real ship. It needs a crew, and that’s why I’m here. She can’t travel without a crew. Likewise, I need money to maintain the ship and fuel it. That’s where I got the idea for a labor transport. Stargirl chooses where we go, and I find a way to explain it to the crew. Most worlds need laborers, and by transporting them to new opportunites, I can get a cut large enough to keep us in business.”
Nyashu nodded thoughtfully.
“Stargirl. So, she’s a girl. Is she pretty?”
“Yes, very. And fascinating. We’ve been together 15 years now.”
“So… basically you’re married to a starship?”
“I suppose so. But lately our relationship has grown… complicated.”
Nyashu leaned closer to Keldan and lowered his voice. “Because you’re in love with Gallia?”
Keldan gave Nyashu a puzzled look. How did this guy know all his secrets?
“I’m not in love with Gallia.”
Nyashu laughed. “Pshh. Please!”
“I’m not. I don’t think of her that way. She’s just a friend.”
“You’re lying! I know because I saw you two in the kitchen earlier today.”
“You didn’t see what you thought you saw. It wasn’t like that. She was crying and I was comforting her. That’s all.”
Nyashu put his hands up in surrender.
“Forgive me for drawing undue conclusions. It looked like more to me.”
A few moments of silence went by and then Nyashu spoke again.
“So, is kissing a thing that non-romantic friends do in Vingosi culture? Because on Brinalya, it means…”
“Alright, fine. Fine.” Keldan interrupted. “Mother of the gods! You’re a sneak. If I had any brains I’d leave you at the next space port.”
Nyashu burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, Keldan, truly I am. It wasn’t intentional. It was just pure chance that I saw you. I came back to make sure Mirralu hadn’t left the stove on. But the only thing heating up the kitchen was you, so I left. I have to say though, you’re an interesting man. Married to a starship, and in love with an artifical life form? Brings new meaning to the term ‘precious metals’.”
There was a slight pause and then the Brinalyan’s mouth spread into a grin.
“It’s quite kinky, really.”
Keldan shook his head and tried not to laugh. “I swear to the gods, Nyashu, if you tell a soul about any of this, you’ll wish you were still on Cygnus.”
“I told you, I’m silent as the grave.”
“You’d better be.”
Nyashu put a furry hand on Keldan’s arm, and his eyes grew serious. “Don’t worry, alright, Keldan? I’ve got your back.”
Just then, Mennosha returned and poked his head into the cockpit.
“We’re all set up.”
They cooled the engines and snuck nearer to the edge of the nebula. The looming form of the Locust ship could be just barely be seen through the dense cloud.
“Stop here,” Keldan commanded. “Mennosha, commence download.”
The three of them sat in silence, gazing at the ghostly outline of the huge ship, waiting patiently for the download to finish. As Mennosha monitored the download, his eyes scanned the lines of data flashing by. Every few minutes he would let out an exclamation of horror or fascination.
Finally, Keldan had to ask.
“What are you seeing, Mennosha?”
“You won’t believe it, Keldan. I think what we’re dealing with here is a second generation artificial intelligence.”
“Second generation? What does that mean?”
“It looks like the Terrans—our ancestors—created an AI. A humanoid robot of some kind, and it was replicated many times. They were integrated into the society as a sort of servant class. The AI were programmed with an admiration, or a respect for, their creators. Eventually they became aware of a desire to become more like their creators. Specifically, they wanted to attempt reproduction. But not by the usual way robots reproduce, by making copies of themselves in factories, but as a result of coupling.”
“Coupling? Between robots? How is that possible?”
“The robots themselves proposed a theory to the Terrans that by combining two sets of programming—a mother and a father, if you will—they could create a third, entirely new entity. It looks like the experiment was denied by Terran courts for generations, but it became a civil rights issue and was eventually allowed.”
“And that means the Locust are…”
“The children of that procreative experiment, yes. The original robots created by the Terrans were programmed to be protective of their creators, as I said… to be subservient and docile. But something went wrong in their offspring. Apparently the combinations of programming had some unexpected results. When the children saw humanity’s irrationality in comparison with the logic of their own minds, they concluded that they were the next step in evolution and set out to destroy the Terrans, and the original AI also.”
Keldan felt a chill, remembering the stories he’d learned at his mother’s knee. “That must have been the disaster our ancestors fled from. There’s a legend about six animal spirits leading a small group of humans through a portal to safety. Whether or not the spirits truly existed, the part about the portal must have been true. They must have been fleeing the Locust.”
Nyashu whistled. “Is it possible that these… robot children… have been crossing the galaxy all this time, seeking the humans that got away from them?”
Mennosha nodded. “It’s very possible. And probable. And now that they’ve found the descendants of humanity still in existence, they are bent on finishing their task. It would be the logical course of action. I’d say these creatures pose a serious threat to us, and to everyone like us.”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Keldan said. “And we’ve got to warn Vingos.”
“The download is complete, Captain. We can leave anytime.”
“Good. Let’s get back to the ship. Quietly. And quickly!”
Nyashu turned Trina around and steered her back through the nebula on a reverse course. But when they got to the place where The Fallingstar should have been, there was nothing but empty space.
“San must have moved the ship,” Nyashu concluded.
Keldan shook his head. “Not a chance. He wouldn’t have changed locations while we were still out.”
Just then, a bright light shone in their faces, and this was followed by a deep, resonant sound that produced a profound sleepiness. Keldan watched Nyashu slump over the console. He fought the sleepy feeling as long as he could, but it was overwhelmingly strong. Another loud, resonant pulse shook Trina’s hull. In his last few moments of consciousness, Keldan saw a spherical object hovering in space just outside the window, and then his vision went dark.
Episode 7 will be posted soon! Follow us on Instagram at @fallingstarbook. 🙂