I should run.
As still as stone, Iyaafin watched the storm roll across the desert toward her. It swallowed up the desert and vomited sand into the burning air.
Run, she commanded herself.
But she was frozen with fascination by what would no doubt be the cause of her death in ten—perhaps fifteen—minutes. The feeling thrumming through her veins was horrible and beautiful; poisoned honey melting over her parched tongue and dissolving in her blood. Was something wrong with her? Or could someone only feel alive as they faced their own end?
The golden behemoth steadily looming over the encampment was somewhere between a wave and a cloud. The closer the storm got, the worse it became. Its belly darkened with wind-fueled rage as it devoured ever greater lengths of the sky, taking on the strangest hue Iyaafin had ever seen. The color of the promise of pain, and like the beast that had birthed it, it scrambled to conquer all that lay before it. It was as if the planet had been torn open and redrawn in its own blood. The storm reared up, blocking out the sun in an attempt to hide its own monstrosity.
A hand clamped down hard on her shoulder, dragging her from her entranced stupor.
“Iyaafin!” The voice was threaded through with steel, and was all but consumed by the tumult. “Turn your back toward the wind, and follow me!”
Iyaafin turned. She faced the captain, the leader of this doomed mission. The captain raised an arm corded with muscle, pointing toward the Ruins. They were barely a reddish smudge through the swirling sands.
“There,” roared the captain, the words reduced to a whisper in the wind. “Shelter. We’ll be safe there.”
The captain broke down as soon as they were through the sun-bleached doors, collapsing over the shattered triangular tiles of the chamber. Their strangled gasps ricocheted off the ancient walls of the Ruins’ inner sanctum and echoed through crumbling corridors. Iyaafin sat cross-legged at their side, drawing in quiet breaths. The captain had done nearly all the work, forcing themselves through the blistering, brutish winds and carving a path through the storm. Iyaafin had clung desperately to the captain’s back, doing little else besides hanging onto her leader’s jacket and stumbling after them.
She glanced down at them and wondered, not for the first time, why the captain had volunteered to lead this mission in the first place…especially after finding out she’d been assigned to it, especially after everything that had happened between them. Iyaafin tipped her chin upwards, searching for the ceiling, but the slated ochre walls of their refuge only stretched ever upwards, toward the sky. Toward infinity, it seemed, but shadows obscured the building’s progress.
A sudden, visible shudder crawled down the captain’s spine, and they curled themselves up into the fetal position. Iyaafin crouched down low, her right ear pressed against the surprisingly cool stone. A sob forced itself from the captain’s lips.
“I lost them,” they moaned. “I lost them all.”
The landing party had been sent down to collect biological samples, take detailed readings, and reexamine the Ruins: the only evidence humanity had thus far uncovered of alien intelligence. The trip into the ancient, half-collapsed structures was supposed to have happened at the very end of the expedition. Technically, they weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the Ruins without full envirosuits, but that seemed like the least of their worries.
“You didn’t lose them,” Iyaafin said, lifting a hand to pat the captain’s back. An onyx eye glared up at her from under a dense tangle of black hair. She yanked her fingers back as if she’d been burned. “The storm separated us, but we were the closest to it. If we’re alive, then I know they are too.” All of this, lies. She knew nothing. “And they know where to regroup.”
“The shuttle,” the captain said, their voice low and gritty, as if their vocal cords were caked with sand.
“Yes,” said Iyaafin. “We’ll wait for the storm to pass. Warren said these monsters only last a half a day at most here.”
“Warren,” hissed the captain. “Damn him and damn this planet. If he were half as smart as he thinks he is, we wouldn’t be in this fucking mess.”
Warren was the mission’s meteorologist. He’d taken, it seemed, quite a few liberties on his resume. Iyaafin pursed her lips; perhaps she was being too harsh. No scientist, no matter how clever, could possibly predict the finicky weather patterns of every planet they got stuck on.
“Yes, damn him,” Iyaafin agreed, anyway. “But for now, we might as well try to salvage this mission.” She paused, considering calling the commander at her side by their name. “…Captain.”
The captain flew to their feet, their spine suddenly as straight as the surrounding crimson columns.
“Yes. Lieutenant, what can you tell me about the Ruins? Where should we start?”
Iyaafin felt her stomach sink. She tried to hide her grimace. She was just the astrobiologist, shipped straight from the Interstellar Union’s headquarters on Europa. She took environmental samples and then she scanned them for ancient biosignatures. She likely knew even less about the Ruins than the captain. But ever since they’d met at that sticky-floored bar so many years ago—ever since the captain had gotten her talking about the evolutionary wonders of Europan microbes, they had assumed her to be omniscient.
“Well,” Iyaafin began anyway. “They were built two thousand years ago. By the very creatively-named Builders. But then the Builders all died, leaving only these here Ruins as proof of their existence.”
The captain narrowed their eyes at her, as if attempting to determine if she was jesting. “You know, I’ve read a book before.”
“Sethunya’s the archeologist, not me,” said Iyaafin, grinning apologetically. “And this is my first time planetside.” She waved her hands around, gesturing expansively at the featureless carmine walls. “I’ve never had to deal with all this…stuff. Just small things. Cells and molecules and—”
A sound like crunching ice reverberated through the chamber, cutting her off. They both almost snapped their necks in their haste to look upwards.
“Ever dealt with big things?” the captain guffawed.
Iyaafin turned away in silence.
She peered up into the darkness, and the darkness peered back.
Two shimmering silver-white eyes shone through the shadows, each like a white dwarf burning in the void of space. The captain made a strange gurgling sound, as if they’d wanted to scream and gasp and had tried to manage both.
A strange sensation washed over Alnia, so eerily similar to that which she’d felt when she’d watched the approaching sandstorm. She was caught between all-consuming terror and all-consuming captivation, her blood turning to ice water as endorphins rushed through her. She half-expected her thudding heart to rip itself from her ribcage and start tap-dancing on the tiles at her feet.
Iyaafin had a hand half-raised in greeting when something shot towards her, a blur of white and gray and black. It barreled into her as if she were made of paper and she went flying, the back of her head cracking against stone. It was over by the time she even considered screaming. But her teeth were locked together anyway, the enamel welded by the white-hot spear of panic that lanced through her. Agony blossomed from the bottom of her skull and seared down her spine, setting each and every nerve alight. Her vision splintered and reformed as she scrambled to her feet, flickering black spots dancing across her eyes.
The captain shrieked.
It was the most horrible sound Iyaafin had ever heard. It didn’t seem human. It didn’t seem like it could have come from any animal. It was fear and pain and desperation and sorrow and—and then it stopped, suddenly, with a clean, wet snap.
Iyaafin could see clearly now. She could see the captain’s bloodied fingers, curled into claws. And above her leader crouched the thing that had murdered them. It was feasting, the pieces of its hard-shelled mouth giving way to reveal row upon row of needle-thin teeth. Stomach acid lurched up Iyaafin’s throat and bubbled over her tongue, spewing from her mouth in a string of violent, strangled coughs. She stared at the thing, her freed teeth sinking into her tongue to keep from screaming. The coppery tang of blood replaced the sting of the acid.
It resembled a flat-bodied isopod, with six segments that darkened from bone-white at the head to an oily black at its tail. Dark red scraps of something that might have once been clothes hung over the creature’s curved form. Twelve arms, of various length, cradled the captain, almost protectively. Gently. But it ate as if starving. It probably was. Iyaafin took in its shriveled limbs, its sunken silver eyes.
There were brief, fleeting moments in her life when Iyaafin had wondered if there might truly be some benevolent, omnipotent force in the universe. She knew now that she’d never have another of those moments again. The creature bent low, and neatly plucked the captain’s arm from the socket with its teeth.
How could the human body possibly hold that much blood? It was obscene.
She had no doubts about whom the creature would make a meal out of next once it finished with the captain. Its back was half-facing her. She crouched, feeling around in the swelling darkness for something, anything. Her fingers closed around a chunk of vermillion stone.
Could she fault a desperate creature for surviving? No.
But she would kill this one. Iyaafin sucked in a shuddering breath, leapt across the tiles, and drove the stone between its unblinking eyes, deep into what she could only hope was something important. The thing made a sound somehow worse than the captain’s last, that same hiss of crunching ice, now twice as loud and far more grating. It sank into Iyaafin’s bones and scraped out the marrow.
Three of the creature’s arms latched onto her throat and shoulders and flung her into the stone floor. A wretched scream flew from her throat. Iyaafin kicked and punched wildly, but her strikes did little more than enrage it further. The thing snatched her up, slammed her into the tiles again, and sent her sliding across the floor into another column.
But the pain was nothing now, not under the storm of adrenaline and rage coursing through her blood. Iyaafin was on her feet by the time it reached her. She scanned the chamber for a weapon, for a hiding place, for—
She was going to die.
Perhaps it was the concussion, but she felt a strange detachment from this thought. In fact, her instinct was to laugh, but that didn’t seem right.
Her gaze slid to the captain. They were light-years beyond recognition, their jaw ripped clean off. Gnawed, fractured bones lay scattered about the bloody wreck that was once her leader and long ago her friend. And, before even that, something else. Iyaafin’s eyes widened.
When the creature swung three arms at her in a strike that would have broken her back, she dived and flew to the captain’s side, the creature scuttling just behind her. Iyaafin lifted a broken bone from the still-warm mess and pivoted on her heel just as the thing lunged at her.
The blade-sharp fragment sank into the soft tissue between the shell of two segments. The creature writhed, screaming, and went silent. Blue blood gushed from the wound and into Alnia’s eyes—burning burning burning—and she flew back. As she stumbled away, something sharp and slick slid from her side. She looked down. And wished she were dead.
There was a gaping hole where flesh should be, shimmering cobalt fluid seeping from the wound like liquified lapis lazuli. She ran a trembling finger around the edge of the puncture, a whimper escaping her lips although there was no pain—anesthetic, fascinating—but the shock and revulsion that roared through her, almost robbing her of consciousness, more than made up for it. There was hardly any blood; it was as if her skin had simply folded in on itself.
Iyaafin tore a length of cloth from the edge of her tunic, wrapped it around her abdomen, and with a low, moaning cry, slid down a column until she hit the floor.
The shuttle was north.
Past the end of the endless salt flats, the skeletons of extinct oceans and lakes. Through the hardpan fields, lands of nothing but scorching sunlight and wind that howled over the surface of the rock-hard clay. Around the gaping deflation hollows in the east, where fine sand had been blown away to reveal strange concave outcrops. Across the bone-dry steppes and through the fire-orange rock forms carved by centuries of blown sand.
Chusun, this prison of a planet, had once been a world possessed of biodiversity that rivaled Earth’s. But the increasing luminosity of its merciless sun had stripped its surface, peeling back layers and layers of life until there was nothing but sand and stone.
The gravity here was slightly less than that on Earth; the trek north was proportionally less unbearable than it would have been on her home planet. But Iyaafin had been walking for what felt like days now, and she was nearing the end. Of her patience, of her strength, of her will to live—she wasn’t certain. Another kilometer and she’d just throw herself into the sand and let her blood seep into it, offer herself up to the starved planet.
Iyaafin glared at the undulating sea of gold before her as she dragged herself onwards. Her tongue felt as if it had petrified in her mouth, and her throat had already forgotten what it felt like to swallow. She had felt hunger before, but starvation was a black hole inside her. Sweat ran down her neck in fat beads, soaking the collar of her tunic as the sun heaped its fury over the broken, beautiful landscape—
You’re even more so.
Iyaafin stopped so suddenly she nearly keeled over. She didn’t need to turn around to know that the voice had come from within herself, from somewhere deep and sacred and, before, hers—
“What?” she whispered, though she already knew.
You’re even more so, the voice said again. Even more beautiful than this desert. And broken, but I’ll fix you.
I’ve already begun.
She tasted the words almost as much as she heard them. A warm, tingling rush of blood rose to her face, her neck.
“Who—what are you?” Iyaafin murmured. But she knew the answer to that question, too.
Her fingers brushed over the makeshift bandages she’d wrapped around her wound.
I’m inside you, said the voice.
“That’s where you are, not who,” snapped Iyaafin, angry that she wasn’t angry and afraid that she wasn’t afraid.
It’s both, argued the voice.
“You’re not…human,” Iyaafin said, because she didn’t know what else to say. “And you can’t even see, can you? You have no concept of what beauty is.”
I see you, said the voice. I see you more than anyone else can, and you’re beautiful, Iyaa.
“My name is Iyaafin,” said Iyaafin. “Not Iyaa. Don’t call me that.”
Well, I like Iyaa. I like it more than Iyaafin. It’s prettier. And a pretty creature like you needs a pretty name.
Don’t argue with me, said the voice, sotto-voce, even as something twisted in her side, sending through her a stab of pain so sharp her vision flashed white. I’m calling you Iyaa.
“You hurt me,” gasped Iyaa, less actually hurt and more shocked that the thing inside her had hurt her in the first place.
I know, said the voice, mournfully. And I could hurt you so much more, if I wanted to. Don’t make me want to, Iyaa. I’d rather protect you. A thoughtful pause. I’m going to protect you.
Iyaa wondered how exactly the thing inside her could possibly protect her, but shoved that thought down as soon as it reared its head. She wondered if it could read her mind. She asked.
Why? What are you thinking? ground out the voice, answering her question. Are you hiding something from me?
“No,” gasped Iyaa, already bracing herself for another stab of pain. “I wouldn’t. I can’t. Please, don’t—”
You’re right, agreed the voice, suddenly sounding very pleased with her. You can’t. A pause. I like it when you do that.
“Do what?” asked Iyaa, whisper-soft.
No answer. She ground the knuckles of her right hand into her wound. Instead of the agony she anticipated, something warm and wondrous radiated from her side, spreading over her like oil in a hot pan. It was as if she were swimming through liquid sunlight. She knew, somehow, that she was being drugged, that the thing was pumping oxytocin and serotonin straight into her nervous system, that this marked the end of her autonomy.
The last vestiges of her self-preservation screamed at her to tear the parasite from her flesh with her bare hands, to find the nearest cliff and toss herself over the edge—
But suddenly she was too far gone to care, too far gone now to do anything but feel. Her toes curled as another wave of that nightmarishly heavenly feeling fluttered through her, threading her skin with sunbeams.
Beg, said the voice, at last. I like it when you beg. Now walk.
And so Iyaa did.
She looked at the shuttle. It was less than thirty meters away, a bow-legged beast of steel and aluminum and reinforced glass. Rust-red mountains rose like crimson giants behind it, their scarlet peaks scraping the sky.
“I don’t think I should,” Iyaa said, finally. “I don’t know what’ll happen if they know.”
Everyone that you know needs to know me too, replied the voice. I want everyone to know us as we are.
Don’t, the voice warned, sending the slightest whisper of pain through her gut.
“All right,” Iyaa whispered, though it was anything but.
When she reached the shuttle, she pressed a hand against the identification pad on its side. The sliding doors flew open, revealing a round-faced woman in a pale blue lab coat.
“Evita. Where are the others?” asked Iyaa.
“Nice to see you too,” snapped Evita, though she was smiling. “Especially since I was beginning to think you were dead! And not here, obviously.” She sighed a long-suffering sigh. “It’s just me. I’ve been waiting for the rest of the team, and honestly—” She cut herself off. “Where’s the Cap?”
Iyaa watched Evita watch her.
Evita blinked at her, almost sleepily, and for a moment, Iyaa wasn’t certain that the physician had heard her. Mouth pressed into a thin line, Evita slid open a panel in the wall nearest her, revealing a box of rations. She pushed a packet of nutrient-rich crackers toward Iyaa.
“Eat,” Evita ordered. “And tell me everything.”
Iyaa did. Both were more painful than she’d expected. The doctor’s face was a mask through it all, her eyes like stones underwater, reflecting rather than revealing.
“And the thing that killed them…it gave me…it put something—someone inside me.”
“Medscanner,” Evita said, her voice honed to an edge. “Now.”
When Iyaa didn’t move fast enough, Evita latched onto her wrist, dragged her onto the cot at the back of the shuttle, and shoved her onto her back.
“Lie still,” the doctor said, and disappeared behind a protective screen.
“Do you have a name?” whispered Iyaa, once Evita had gone.
I’ve decided on Jovis. The voice sounded amused. But you can call me Sun. Only you. I’ve chosen you, just like you chose me.
Iyaa’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t choose you,” she murmured.
Maybe not, said Sun. But you wanted me. You wanted this.
Iyaa sucked in a sharp breath.
Don’t worry. You might not know it yet, Sun continued patiently, but I do. I know you better than you know yourself.
The synthetic sheets beneath her were sticky against her skin. Iyaa fidgeted.
“Stay still,” Evita hissed through the screen.
“Sorry!” Iyaa called back, sheepish.
What am I to you?
A trap? The question felt like a trap. Iyaa remained silent.
What would I be? If I were human, Sun pressed.
Iyaa swallowed down a hard lump in her throat. “A friend—”
Like the captain used to be, Sun announced. That’s what I want from you.
Iyaa bit her tongue to keep from laughing.
Ridiculous, she thought, almost fondly.
Evita stepped out from behind the screen then, her datapad hugged against her chest. She was very, very still.
“Do you feel any pain?” she asked.
Iyaa pressed a hand to her side.
“I need to run a few blood tests,” said Evita, pulling a packaged needle from one of the many pockets on her lab coat.
“Fine,” said Iyaa, lifting up the remains of her tunic. “Do I need to take off the bandages?”
“Later. I need to know exactly what I’m going to do first,” the doctor said, leaning over to admire her friend’s handiwork. Her eyes went as round as moons. “Impressive.”
Iyaa flushed under the praise. She rolled up the sleeve of her tunic and held out an arm. Evita pulled thirty milliliters of blood in one smooth, sharp motion and slapped on a bandage.
“Did you really need that much?” Iyaa muttered, catching the electrolyte pouch the doctor tossed at her.
Evita’s mouth curved into a faint smile as she pulled the needle from the syringe and dropped it onto a tray at Iyaa’s side.
“No, of course not.” Evita’s lips twitched, like she was trying to smile. “I just wanted to cause you maximum suffering.”
Iyaa rolled her eyes and watched her friend work, fascinated. Evita divided the blood among four glass plates and slid one under a microscope. At the very back of the shuttle, there was a screen embedded into the wall with a keyboard under it. The doctor stepped over, flicked open a compartment under the screen, and stacked the other plates within it. A low hum filled the shuttle as the computer scanned Iyaa’s blood for abnormalities. Evita bent low over the microscope, adjusting the magnification with her right hand and somehow managing to type on the keyboard with the left.
Fifteen minutes later, the computer console spat out its findings. Evita scanned the words, her eyes flicking left and right.
“So,” the doctor said, crumpling the results in her hand.
She returned to Iyaa’s side and flopped backward onto the cot.
“So,” Iyaa echoed.
Evita’s brown face had gone grayish, her trademark facade of cheerful bedside manner fracturing apart.
“Well, I have horrible news and strange news and good news.”
Iyaa grinned, apropos of nothing.
You seem to like her, Sun noted, the words tinged with something dangerous. A lot.
“Tell me in that order,” Iyaa said, the smile immediately slipping from her lips.
“The…blade that the creature—”
“I think it was a Builder,” Iyaa interrupted.
“And I think you’re right.” Evita nodded. “I think that the blade was an—”
“Ovipositor, I know. And the egg…hatched, didn’t it?”
Evita’s eyebrows almost flew off her forehead.
“You can feel…something inside you?”
“Yes,” said Iyaa. “Sometimes. What has it done?”
Nothing bad, purred Sun. I think you’ll like it.
“It’s taken your appendix,” said Evita, placing a gentle hand over Iyaa’s.
Oh, Iyaa thought. That was fine. She’d expected something far worse.
“What’s odd is that the parasite seems to have functionally replaced it, not that the organ has much use; it even has a little pocket of good microbes for you,” Evita continued, her brow only now furrowing with concern—Iyaa schooled her face into something more frightened. “Everything else seems perfectly fine. Actually, if you weren’t starving, you’d be healthier than when you left the ship.”
See, Iyaa? I’m taking care of you, gloated Sun. I’m so much better for you than that little bit of meat I ate.
“The good news is that it’s all an easy fix. A small surgical operation,” said Evita, “before the parasite takes anything else. It’ll be over in less than an hour.”
It wasn’t so much of a word as a feeling, screeching through Iyaa and burning her up.
“No,” she said, voice low. “Don’t. I need it.”
Evita’s gaze softened.
“I know you’ve been through a lot.” Her hand squeezed, reassuring. “But you don’t need your appendix to live a perfectly healthy life. And it’s gone, anyway. There’s only the creature.”
Iyaa wrenched her arm away. Evita slid off the cot and faced her.
“Don’t touch me,” Iyaa snapped. “You said I was better than before!”
“If you hadn’t been starving, and only for now,” said Evita, her voice hardening. “We have no idea what that thing is. I don’t have the equipment to run more advanced tests—it could be harming you in ways we don’t know yet.”
“I need it,” ground out Iyaa. “I want it. It’s helping me.”
“The parasite?” Evita’s voice rose, for the first time Iyaa had ever heard. “It’s helping you? Iyaafin, it’s replacing you. It’s eating you alive, from the inside-out—”
She’s lying, she’s lying—
“No,” Iyaa hissed at her friend. “You’re wrong, you’re wrong! It wouldn’t hurt me, it would never—”
“You said the Builder that attacked you was almost two meters tall!” Evita bellowed. “And you think whatever’s inside you is going to remain satisfied with just your appendix? It’s—”
“Its name is Sun.”
“You named it.” Evita’s voice had plunged into a whisper. “It’s manipulating you, and I’m cutting it out.”
Iyaa shuddered. She was too large, too hot. She was going to burst, paint the walls of the shuttle red with her blood.
This is your fault, screeched Sun. This is all your fault! How could you?
Evita pulled a new pair of gloves over her fingers and began to prepare an IV of general anesthetic.
“Don’t take it!” Iyaa pleaded, almost forgetting to breathe. “Let me have it!”
When Evita turned back to look at her friend, her eyes were wide with—pity? Remorse? Iyaa couldn’t tell, and didn’t care.
The thought was so strong and so loud that, at first, Iyaa wasn’t sure if she’d come up with it herself.
“No,” she whispered, even as she slipped off the cot and took one halting step toward Evita, who almost immediately shifted backwards.
It’s me or her, said Sun. You can’t have both. You can never have both. There was something wild in his voice. Something almost human. I don’t share.
“I can’t,” cried Iyaa.
“Can’t what?” whispered Evita, her back hitting the wall of the shuttle. “What’s wrong?”
I love you, cried Sun, even louder. I took the organ you needed least on purpose, because I care about you. After everything I’ve done, why can’t you be grateful? Why can’t—
“I just can’t,” Iyaa moaned.
“Iyaafin?” Evita’s brows knitted in confusion and concern. “What’s going on?”
Kill her! Sun screamed. She wants to separate us. She’s going to murder me! Why can’t you do this one thing for me? For us?
Evita reached out, her fingers curling into a firm but gentle grip around Iyaa’s wrist.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Distantly, Iyaa felt tears well in her eyes and spill over. “I have to kill you. I have to, I—” She cut herself off. It was as if she’d been torn from her body, as if she were merely a specter observing herself. “Well, it doesn’t matter now.”
Evita froze. Her eyes were too round, her eyelids pulled back too far. Her lips trembled, trying and failing to form words.
An observer in her own skin, Iyaa reached back and felt her fingers curl around something sharp—the needle.
I’m so proud of you, murmured Sun, after. You did so well today.
“Thank you,” said Iyaa.
I love you, Sun said. And then, after a moment, Now say it back.
“I love you too,” said Iyaa, wiping blood from her hands over the front of her tunic.
She pulled up the hem and tore off the bandages. That glittering cobalt liquid had crystallized around the wound, preserving it. Protecting it. It was beautiful.
She was beautiful.
Get up, said Sun. Get back in the shuttle. Find something heavy and sharp.
“Why?” Iyaa breathed out.
There were more of you, said Sun. I want to meet them.
So this, thought Iyaa, is how it ends.
Jovis wanted them to be safe. It wanted to protect her. It cared. If it didn’t, it would have just killed her. It would have used her and let her die. But it hadn’t, it had sacrificed himself to become part of her. To sustain her. And this was the least—the absolute least—she could do for it in return.
But she couldn’t. Not now, at least, not while she was heaving up what felt like half her blood volume.
You’re overreacting, Sun scolded her. This really isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is.
It was probably right.
Her body screamed in protest as she struggled and failed to stand. She collapsed. She couldn’t move.
You need to get up, said Sun. You need to find them. Before they find you, or they’ll tear us apart. They’ll kill me. They’ll kill you, for what you did to that doctor.
Iyaa closed her eyes.
Hadn’t it told her to kill Evita?
Hadn’t it made her?
But she couldn’t remember. Blood spilled over her lips and sank into the sand between her fisted hands.
I know you’re sick, but I’ll make you better, Sun told her. I promise I’ll make you better. I will.
“How?” Iyaa cried.
Sun was silent, as if taken aback.
It’s like you don’t trust me, it hissed, shocked.
Far away now, the mountains blurred into small, angry brushstrokes, bleeding across the pale canvas of sky.
“I think Evita was right,” Iyaa choked out, each word punctuated with a strangled gasp. “I think you’re killing me.”
How could you even say that? It sounded hollow, as if the air had been sucked from its lungs. Which was impossible, because it was inside her, where it could not breathe. How could you even think that? Its voice rose. It was screaming now. You’re making me upset. It made a sound like crunching ice. So after I fix you, after this is all over, you’re going to give me something that’ll make me feel better again. It sounded so sweet, now. Maybe a kidney.
“What?” Iyaa forced out. “Sun—”
You have two, my little hypochondriac. You only need one.
“I’m sorry, Sun. Please.”
“No.” Its voice was harder than lonsdaleite.
“I trust you,” Iyaa cried. Tears ran down her face, burning. “I do. I trust you more than anyone. More than myself. I—I’m just so scared and so lost and I’m so, so sorry. Just, please don’t—”
Fine. She could hear the smile. Because I love you so much.
Iyaa swallowed a whimper.
Manners, Sun scolded, its tone toeing the edge of playfulness. I’m letting you be selfish.
“Thank you,” said Iyaa.
She could feel the answering tide of its satisfaction; its pleasure bubbled up, crested, and flowed over and into her. Its joy was her joy. It was hers and she was its and she could no longer discern where it ended and she began.
Good girl, Sun said. On your feet. We’re going hunting.
She found them on a stretch of desert pavement, the mosaic of interlocking pebbles glittering with shards of rock varnish. She watched them from her perch upon an outgroup, observed their shadows stretch as the sun sank below the horizon. They huddled around a pathetic fire.
Iyaa felt a broken smile crawl over her face. The cold was nothing to her now. Everything was nothing, except for Sun.
She narrowed her eyes, refocusing. There were three of them: Sethunya the archeologist, Lan the engineer, Warren the meteorologist. They’d made such slow progress because Warren had broken his leg during the sandstorm, forcing the others to take turns carrying him.
Kill him last, ordered Sun.
Iyaa nodded; Lan was the greatest threat by far. He was stronger than Sethunya and Warren combined. But like his companions, Lan hadn’t had sustenance in perhaps a week. Iyaa ran her tongue over her teeth. This would not be difficult. She crept over the packed stone of the desert pavement, shiv in hand.
Be careful, Sun whispered sweetly. If you die, so do I.
“I know,” Iyaa murmured back, her smile soft.
Then she leapt.
It all happened so quickly.
Lan turned at the last second, so the blade sank into his shoulder instead of her neck. He screamed, blood gushing down his tunic. Lan swung an arm at Iyaa, catching her on the side of her jaw. Iyaa ducked below the next blow and struck out, her blade sinking between Lan’s ribs. Iyaa stumbled backwards, fingers tightening around the shiv as Lan crumpled to the sand, gurgled, and lay still.
“Iyaafin,” gasped Sethunya, eyes wide with horrified recognition.
Her gaze latched onto her. She’d all but forgotten about the archeologist. She hadn’t even moved. She sat eerily still, as if she’d been temporarily turned to stone and her flesh was only just beginning to return. Iyaa lunged toward her, blade held high.
“No!” screeched Warren, from where he lay, useless. “Don’t do this! Iyaafin!”
Sethunya scrambled backwards, tripped, and landed on her back. Laughing, Iyaa pounced on her.
“No! Stop! Please, Iyaafin!” she screeched, working in vain to throw her off.
Iyaa’s lips curled, baring her teeth. She drove the shiv into Sethunya’s foot, and then her thigh, and then her stomach as she crawled upwards. The woman’s terrified screams became strangled cries. She was making this hard.
Iyaa’s lips curled into a sneer. “Shut up—”
She felt rough hands curve around her throat. Her feet lifted off the ground, and she thrashed wildly, but to no avail.
You should have slit his throat, screamed Sun.
But she hadn’t, and now she was choking, gasping for air that would not come. She clawed at Lan’s fingers, and had nearly broken free when something blunt and heavy struck the back of her head. Her last thoughts, as the darkness pulled her under, were not her own. They were Sun’s:
Say you love me again, it screamed. Say it! Say it. Say it. Say it—
Iyaafin came to with a strangled cry.
Her eyes darted around the strange chamber, taking in the too-bright glow of the yellow lights overhead, the pale blue of the walls, the seamless cobalt floor. Familiarity flooded through her then, riding an undercurrent of agony sanded down by anesthetic. She was in sickbay, back aboard the starship Timoclea, safe and sound and bound to a bed. And she was missing something.
A man cleared his throat. Iyaafin would have turned to pinpoint the source of the sound if her head hadn’t been strapped to the mattress. She looked as far as she could to the left, straining her neck.
There was a doctor, standing a meter or so away. He peered at her with half-lidded eyes, his mouth twisted as if struggling to contain a yawn. He held a datapad.
“You’re finally awake,” he said. “You’ve caused quite a bit of trouble, my dear.”
“Where is it?” Iyaafin forced the words from between gritten teeth. Everything ached—her toes, her back, her neck. Her head, most of all. “Where’s the parasite you cut out of me?”
“Don’t worry about that,” said the doctor. “We took care of it.”
“Tell me,” roared Iyaafin.
A single eyebrow lifted on the doctor’s face, though he seemed unsurprised.
“The lifeform is back where it belongs,” he said, his gaze flicking down to his datapad and then back up to her. “On its homeworld.”
Iyaafin forced in a breath.
“You let it go free?” she whispered, though she wanted to cry and scream and—
“It was the last of its species,” the doctor said slowly, as if explaining a simple matter to a simple child. “We couldn’t just kill it.”
No, a voice inside her—hers—screamed.
She was ablaze, shock and rage flowing through her like magma. Her fingers curled into fists, nails cutting bloody crescents into her palms.
“Lan and Sethunya,” Iyaafin said, finally. “Warren. What happened to them?”
The doctor neared the bed.
“They saved you, even after your…savagery. They dragged you back to the shuttle, flew you back here.” He smiled down at her, teeth gleaming. “My team was required by law to treat you.”
Iyaafin’s eyes drifted shut. They should’ve left her. Or better, killed her, so at least she could have taken that…thing down with her.
“They’re fine,” the doctor continued, drawing ever closer. “You, on the other hand, will spend the rest of your life where you belong, rotting away in some lunar prison for what you did to Evita. We know everything. You wouldn’t stop talking, no matter how much anesthetic we administered.”
“Then you know it wasn’t my fault,” whispered Iyaafin. “It, Jovis—”
“It was your fault,” snapped the doctor. “You invaded its natural habitat. If you don’t wear a full envirosuit you’re basically asking for it—”
“That did not,” Iyaafin hissed, “give it the right to do what it did to me. To my friends.”
“The right?” The doctor’s smile stretched. “It’s just an animal, Iyaa, it’ll do whatever nature requires of it. Aren’t you supposed to be a scientist?” His tone was equal parts saccharine and scornful. “This never would have happened if you had been more—”
“Careful?” offered Iyaafin, the word less than a whisper.
“Yes,” said the doctor, turning away. “That.”
He left her there, in a darkness blacker than the space between stars and a silence so deafening she almost drowned.
And as Iyaafin shattered, she thought: I should have run.