Something was buzzing at irregular intervals. Lian counted the electric metallic pulses. One-two-three, one-two, one-two.
Not-quite darkness shrouded the communications cabin. Complete darkness would have been more comforting.
Lian Leandros stood, long arms hanging awkwardly at her sides. Flickering console displays cast the stains on her uniform into sharp relief.
How long had it been since everything had gone to, what was it they called it, hell?
“Hell.” She said the word aloud. It felt clunky and foreign on her tongue. Ackerman, chief scientist in the Micro-Bio labs, had once suggested (loudly) that she “go to hell.” One of the techs, a woman with a wide, mild face and an easy smile, had had to explain it to her.
“It’s where people go to be punished for the bad things they did in their lives. I think it’s a stupid old fairytale,” the woman had said with a dry laugh before turning back to her diagnostics.
Hell, a place of torment. A Moebius strip of pain, a forever-darkness.
Lian’s people trusted in the Forever-Light.
So am I here, where Ackerman said he wanted me? And is their hell such a thing as this?
“Here” was a violent then silent realm, a broken shell thick with the stink of fried circuits and flesh.
Ackerman was right. She was in hell and she deserved it.
How long has it been this way?
Lian counted under her breath. Shock had stuttered her sense of time so she tallied again–at least five Consolidated-standard days plus a smattering of hours. She wandered over to the main terminal and glanced down at the chronometer on the screen in front of her.
Five days, six hours and thirty-nine minutes, according to the display. Somehow, the malfunctioning instruments still kept accurate time. Lian surprised herself with a croaking laugh.
She lowered her hindquarters onto the cup-shaped metal chair crafted for bodies unlike hers and hunched her bulk over the transmitter.
She looked down at the input keys and hissed a soft curse. She’d lost the gloves she normally wore to make navigating Terran instruments easier.
Probably in the lab and covered in blood.
And now the holo-controls were offline. She focused and reached out. Tap-tip-tap, deliberate and stilted, the sound of her close-shorn talons on the keys. Instructions flashed before her.
[SYSTEM ACTIVATED. PLEASE BEGIN OUTGOING TRANSMISSION.]
[PLEASE BEGIN OUTGOING TRANSMISSION.]
She spoke, slowly and with care. “I am Doctor Lian Leandros of the Consolidated Terran Scientific Research Team, Auxiliary Branch Xeno. I transmit to you now from The Aldebaran over all known frequencies. The ship is disabled and I require emergency assistance. If you receive this message, please respond. I will be here.”
The backlighting on her console flickered, and static ripped through hidden speakers. Lian felt the muscles of her face tighten into what would be a fierce scowl amongst her kind. Probably horrifying to any Terrans who witnessed it, sharp-fanged and too wide-mouthed for their liking. Not that any of them were left on The Aldebaran.
[TRANSMIT MESSAGE AND END PROGRAM?]
Lian fought to think.
I cannot even say it. I cannot even say how it is my fault.
“I am Doctor Lian Leandros, transmitting from The Aldebaran and I…Oh, never mind. System? Please send my prior transmission at regular intervals over all frequencies.” Lian winced at the waver in the words, a tide of disgust washing over her.
She sounded tired. Weak.
She’d come to hate her voice since she’d journeyed into Consolidated Terran space. Being among those so unlike herself for the past years made her aware of its imperfections. Too thickly accented for most Terrans to comprehend. Too alien.
And by her people’s standards, hesitant, deferential.
It was the only living voice she had heard in, how many days?
“Ah, yes. Five.” And of course, a smattering of hours.
She slumped in the comm chair, legs and tail stretching out over the floor until they were lost in shadow. Display lights cast a pall over the hide of her shaking hands. She realized with a jolt of dread that she hadn’t checked in with The Aldebaran’s S.I. since the event. She curled her fingers over the metal of the console’s edge.
I do not want to hear this.
Lian turned and faced the S.I. terminal on her left. Staring into the retinal scanner, she remained still until a flash of red nearly blinded her. Her eyes were different than theirs, the Terrans. Larger, thin-lidded and more sensitive. Lian blinked away the pain.
She again spoke haltingly, keeping her long tongue behind her teeth.
“I am requesting Aldebaran ship intelligence emergency protocol, authorization LeandrosXeno3.”
A sparkling ding of identification recognition rang in the air. A tiny, pleasing sound that made Lian feel, irrationally, like she’d finally done something right.
A computerized voice hailed her, only slightly distorted. “The Aldebaran S.I., Emergency Mode is online. Welcome, Dr. Lian Leandros. Would you like a status report?”
Lian didn’t reply. The polite, androgynous voice eased her nerves, soothed her hearts to beating more slowly than before. The Terran language did not seem so brusque in the S.I.’s easeful voice.
Lian stared at her hands. Strong and fine-scaled. Cut, bruised. Blood stained the furrows of her fingertips and crusted the base of her talons. She fought to calm herself.
“Dr. Leandros, your pulse has increased over 15 percent from only 47 seconds ago. Do you require medical assistance?”
“No. I am merely ill at ease.” Lian spoke so quietly she could barely make out her own words.
And there is nobody here to assist me.
“As you wish. I will continue to monitor your vital signs and issue instruction as needed.”
“Thank you, Aster.”
Lian liked the name Aster. She’d read about it, an old Earth flower named after an ancient word for “star.” It seemed appropriate. Simple and violet-blue, the same color as the guiding star over her homeland.
Her own chosen name, Lian–to a particular sect of Terrans it meant “daughter of the sun.” Those same humans could never hope to pronounce her true name, the name her people had given her. That thought always saddened her.
Leandros she’d chosen simply because it sounded like music.
Be one of them, she’d been told over and over before leaving for Consolidated Terran space. They will accept you more easily that way.
They will be less afraid of you.
They didn’t understand that she was nothing to fear.
Only what I brought with me was worthy of fear.
That day she had stepped foot on the docking station serving as the gateway to Terran space, Lian had decided she’d become timid and harmless, because that was what they needed her to be. The healer, tame and mild, whose name was a sweet little word, not the series of whistling hisses and growls she’d answered to her whole life: “She Who Will Shine With The Fierce Light Of The Life-Giving Mah-tothi Sun And Who Will Aid Her People In The Forever-Journey Towards The Forever-Light Which Shepherds Each Star And Soul To Its Highest Destiny.”
A better name, but not easy.
“Would you like a status report, Dr. Leandros?” Aster repeated, this time quieter.
“Yes. That is, yes please, Aster.” Lian corrected herself then realized it didn’t matter how polite and humanly she presented herself to be. Nobody else was listening.
“As you request, Dr. Leandros. Current status of Consolidated Fleet cutter The Aldebaran: All systems critical. Alarms disabled at your prior request. Fires in all sectors suppressed. FTL Drive status: catastrophic damage. Propulsion engines at zero functionality. Environmental controls failed in all sectors except for one and two. Artificial gravity failing in all sectors. Environmental controls in sectors one and two critical. Communications at negligible functionality. Less than seventy-two hours until auxiliary power fails in all sectors. Oxygen at–”
“Yes, Dr. Leandros?”
“Are there other life signs–” Lian couldn’t say any more. The words stuck in her throat.
“Only one life-sign registers. It is located here in the starboard communications cabin. Yours, Dr. Leandros. With systems damage, I cannot know if there are others, but statistically it is unlikely.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
Of course. A strange colloquial phrase they all seemed to use and that she’d found herself mimicking. Confusing, close to “off course.” Like she was now, alone in deep space.
“Aster, I need for you to divert remaining power to controls in this sector. Gravity at minimum. You may close down sector two entirely. Please keep communications running and divert remaining power to this cabin. For now, Doctor Leandros logging out.”
Lian noticed she was trembling again.
At least the alarms were not screaming anymore. She’d sealed herself away in the starboard communications cabin of Aldebaran’s operations deck. Standard protocol–communications hubs were the safest and most ballasted areas of the ship. She had to stay by the comms. She could not go anywhere else—the ship was dead in space. There was nothing out there she needed to see. Not anymore.
Nothing she could bear to see.
She remembered how it had happened in harsh color and surround-sound. Navigating the freezing corridors, bouncing off the walls, her movements incongruously gentled in the low gravity. Low gravity like home. So light, floating the raw horror. Death. All around her, Terrans strewn, pinned under girders, burned or bled out, sprawled halfway through sparking hatch doors.
Just one core process malfunction that lead to all this brokenness…
She rocked in place, closing her eyes and breathing slower, slower, repeating mantras in her mind.
The place of peace and light and calm. Go to the Forever-Light in your mind. Do not let their hell touch you. The place of peace and light and calm…
Something in the air changed. Lian flicked open her outer lids. Small objects hovered in the cabin and she almost smiled in relief. Aster had reduced artificial gravity, just as asked. She stretched her limbs and swayed her tail through the cool air, graceful in her own hide after so long.
Display modules brightened as remaining power flooded to the communications panel and cabin S.I. terminal. Lian moved closer and studied the navigation charts. No new information. Only the same death sentence–The Aldebaran’s last known position, tiny dots of blue noting the ship light-years from the Fleet proper. Far beyond The Fringe, Terran Consolidated’s least patrolled systems. Drifting.
Lian shuddered. The Aldebaran’s current state of catastrophic damage was baffling. And how she had survived—
Ackerman’s voice, high-pitched and mad with terror. His words just as staccato and harsh as the syllables of his ugly name as he shouted at her.
“You did this! If it weren’t for your bullshit tech we’d be safe—”
How she’d wanted to make him see that she would never have harmed any one of them. A revered healer amongst her people, she did not harm others unless war necessitated it. Even then her highest mission was always the preservation of life through vaccines and medicines, chemicals and remedies offered to the many species she encountered.
Five days and a smattering of hours ago Ackerman had yelled in hate and Lian finally answered back. She’d roared, she’d hissed. Angry and aching with grief, the War-Words of the Northern clans. He didn’t hear. He was already dead, blasted to pieces by the explosion that ripped through the walls while her tough hide deflected shrapnel.
Her scales, the metal counter and her mask–why she was still alive and they were not.
Lian coughed, fighting down bile and trying to shove away the memory. “It is my fault.”
Sharing FTL tech with an alien species wasn’t her idea. Too risky, she had said, especially not knowing everything she could about their spacecraft, their physiology, even their plans for the new capability.
No, the exchange had been Zenobia’s idea and won the favor of the Matriarchs. In the service of their people, of progress, of expansion, of goodwill, of strategic relations.
“Zenobia.” She sighed her mate’s Terran name, sorrow thick in her voice.
Her own clan Matriarch said it might not be wise to trust a War-Mother like Zenobia with diplomacy, but in the end, the Mah-tothi-fassiss Council chose them both as envoys—two disparate factions, science and strength.
The mission was simple. Offer sustainable hyperspeed travel and materials for prototypes in a bid to join Terran Consolidated’s exploratory fleet reserves, to sit on their council and play at politics and Terran galactic diplomacy.
The Aldebaran was the shining new experimental Terran triumph, bound for deep space to make history, propelling the Terrans further than they’d ever been.
Three years of preparation had barely seemed enough for such a project.
It wasn’t enough.
Now Ackerman was a stain on the wall of Biomed Lab 3. A harsh man who had cursed her as he died.
But he did not deserve to die. None of them deserved this.
All of them, gone. Empty vessels. The technician who had explained the concept of hell to Lian and laughed it away. The engineers and navigators, the workers who prepared rations and monitored the ship’s water supply. The stern, always-serious captain, hidden away in her cabin poring over mission reports.
Zenobia, toiling in the engine rooms. Her partner, her life-mate.
That name is not who she was.
Zenobia, “She Who Most Vigilantly Protects The Daughters Of The Sun With Her Steadfast Strength, The Lights Of Her Soul And Of Her Mind And The Truth And The Heft Of Her Steel.”
I shouldn’t be alive.
Lian stood abruptly. The pressure at her barely-scabbed wounds, the dull and rhythmic pain of blood pounding through bruise-weakened flesh made her woozy. She tripped, launched across the room and crashed into the wall.
The metallic crack gave way to the sound of rushing air.
Lian grabbed onto a panel to stop herself.
“Oh, no. No.”
The locker’s edge had caught on her uniform, bashing into her helm and air delivery system. She looked down. The monitor strapped to her wrist reported heavy damage. She reached around, trying to access the faulty mechanisms and the ruptured intake valve.
She knew there was nothing she could do.
Lian gazed through the clear visor that covered her face, enclosing her in a safety zone of breathable air. Mah-tothi-fassiss were unaccustomed to the high amount of oxygen the Terrans needed to survive. She’d come to accept the helm through the years, its lightweight plastic tubes sighing out a cool, chemical-tinged life-breath that kept her equilibrium in check and her organs functioning at capacity.
Air that was meant to mimic the vermillion skies of her home.
Her clumsiness had cost her. The blurred numbers blinking from the indicator at her wrist were not encouraging. Lian forced her breath to shallow, her hearts to beat slower. She could live for a while if she was meticulous.
An hour. Perhaps two if she did not exert herself.
She moved as slowly as she could across the room and logged back into Aster’s emergency program.
“Welcome back, Dr. Leandros. Your air supply is depleting rapidly,” Aster warned. “State your request in as few words as possible so that you can preserve your resources.”
“Where is…more?” Lian felt strange speaking so abruptly. Shimmers floated in her peripheral vision. Lights like fireflies or embers sparking over a flame.
Slower. Breathe slower.
“Your air reserves are located in each sector hub and a master store in sector two, aft port storage locker. The only area accessible to my systems is the aft deck supply area. Shall I attempt to reactivate power in that sector?”
What would I be walking into? A leaking air delivery system, my only weapon a stunner. I am injured. I am weakened by a factor beyond anything I am accustomed to.
Aster prompted her again. “If it would assist you in your decision, the port aft locker is located in an area that at last check registered nearly 20% less structural damage than the areas around it that were still online. All systems remain critical but there is a slight probability you may succeed.”
Lian still didn’t reply.
Slower breath. Gentle heart. Focus on the light in your mind. Focus on the light.
“Going now,” Lian said shortly.
“As you wish, Dr. Leandros. I will reactivate power and basic environmentals in the port aft storage locker. Comms and S.I. terminals in the vicinity may be damaged. Exercise extreme caution. I will release the hatch on your command.”
Lian nodded in answer though Aster would not see her assertion. She needed supplies. An oversuit, a light source. She inched across the room, using her tail as a rudder to steady her. Lian bumped lightly into the emergency provisions cache, exhausted from the effort and pried it open, careful not to use too much air. Inside she found a baggy environmental hazard suit. Field rations, packets of water.
She’d not yet thought to eat. She laughed then stopped herself.
She unfolded the suit and any remaining urge to laugh died. Small. Terran-sized. No suits for a tall, long-necked and lash-limbed monster like her.
They liked that word, the Terrans–monster.
Fear a cold shock through her gut, Lian pocketed a water pouch and reached for a protein pack. It felt useful. Even if it wasn’t…but she needed useful.
She needed to pretend there was a chance.
“Dr. Leandros?” Aster hailed her.
“Yesss?” Lian couldn’t keep the hiss from her voice this time.
“I took the liberty of diverting some of the ship’s remaining power to run a real-time diagnostic on sector two. All systems have failed catastrophically. A hull breach is statistically probable. Air locks are not registering and hatches are disabled. Dr. Leandros, it is inadvisable to leave this cabin.”
Lian looked down at the protein pack she was still clutching. The reflective silver wrapper mirrored a distorted view of her own hand.
“I…sssee.” Her tongue was heavy and lazy.
“Dr. Leandros, your vitals are unstable. Please secure yourself in a safe place and await emergency medical assistance.”
“Nobody is coming!” Lian blinked. She’d shouted, a sibilant shriek in her own language.
“I am sorry, Dr. Leandros. I do not understand your request. My system is calibrated to recognize over 500 Terran dialects but we have not yet catalogued your–”
“Aster,” Lian interrupted. “Accessss language databank Xeno-Mah-tothi-fassissss if you can. Pleasssssse.” Lian sagged, her legs giving out. Her tail swung and with the lower gravity, eased her fall to nothing but a gentle sinking in mid-air.
It was happening faster than she imagined—the fading of her senses, the slowing of her blood.
I must be injured beyond what I knew.
“Dr. Leandros, you are in luck. Please select a file for me to load.”
“As you wish, Dr. Leandros.”
Terran narration echoed around her. “The following recording was provided by envoys Lian and Zenobia Leandros for Terran Consolidated Xeno-Outreach. Dr. Lian Leandros notes that what follows is Mah-tothi-fassiss Matriarchs invoking the Forever-Light during a ceremony of the Daughters of the Sun, a coming-of-age for young females. Theirs is a complex language, nuanced and difficult for organisms with close-set teeth and jaw structures common to bipedal Terran omnivores to mimic. The translation will follow on-screen.”
The Matriarchs called out one to the other in cadenced rhythms, a fugal exchange of history and praise and lore and advice and love and war and hope.
Many voices as one voice.
Many hearts as one heart.
Many songs for one people.
Songs of the engineers who built space-faring frigates and piloted precision fighters, of Lore-Mothers who taught in the academies. Songs of those who watched the broodlings while Flight-Mothers departed on the long-night missions that brought their people resources for technological advancement and trade.
Songs of the glories of the Forever-Light. Death and life canticles, songs that lauded the laws of space and time.
Her songs, her people.
Lian whispered with them.
“Dr. Leandros–” Aster started but Lian interrupted her.
“Activate outgoing messssage.”
“As you request. System ready for outgoing transmission.”
With the last of her strength, Lian dislodged her helm. The heavy air choked her, catching in her lungs.
“Thisss. Is Doctor Lian Leandrosss of The Aldebaran. Message over all frequenciessss. I am sssorry. Zzzenobia ssso convinced FTL drive would complement your propulsion sssystem optimally. I had almosssst fixed your pathogen H-9627-X quandary.” She paused, hiccupping with grief. “I am ssso ssssory. Forever-Light guide you. Lian, Daughter of the Sssun, ending transssmission.”
“Dr. Leandros, your vital signs are critical. Please stand by for medical assistance.”
Lian closed her eyes.
All around her, the vivid colors of sunset.
The Matriarch of the Western Quadrant and the High Commerce Fleet-Mother bantered in the scented air as they cued up schematics for a proposed flagship. Broodlings gathered around them, watching, taking notes, sketching holo-models in the air, their scales bathed in ruby light.
Fireflies clouding, buzzing towards sun-warmed stone sheltering the clan. Everywhere, light. High stars. Tiny lights on delicate, jeweled wings.