by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
For the rest of her life, Yash Zarlengo would replay that last night in her mind, going over each and every detail, looking for something different—a clue, perhaps, a missed signal.
She never found one that satisfied her.
Yash and Jonathan “Coop” Cooper had been sitting in their favorite bar in the Ivoire. The bar was really just an extension of the main commissary, but the ship’s designers had gone all out. The bar had twenty-five tables, organized in small groups, some with counters running behind them, and plants shielding the patrons. The tables were made of brass and some teak-colored wood. The chairs matched, except for the comfortable brass-colored cushions.
Alcohol bottles lined the two interior walls. The wall that was easiest to reach had what had been the alcohol that was easiest to find in that particular sector. The wall behind the recycler cleaning unit had upper cabinets filled with bottles that were mostly one of a kind. Although, technically, everything in this bar was now one of a kind.
Yash tried not to think about that. Instead, she stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows that revealed the vastness of space—or whatever planet the Ivoire orbited. The windows could be shuttered, then shielded, and often were when the ship was traveling from place to place.
But at that moment, the Ivoire was docked at the space station that housed the Lost Souls Corporation. A woman who called herself Boss in that bastardization of Standard everyone spoke in this time period had started the corporation to discover more about something she called “stealth tech,” but which really had more to do with the Fleet’s anacapa drives.
Boss had found the Ivoire. In fact, Boss had accidentally rescued the Ivoire. She and her people had inadvertently activated the equipment in a decaying sector base. That equipment had pulled the Ivoire out of its trap in foldspace, bringing the Ivoire and her crew five thousand years into their future.
As a cadet—hell, throughout her career—Yash thought she could deal with anything. But the loss of everything she knew—from the Fleet itself, to the language her people spoke, to the history that was just yesterday to her and so far in the past as to be unknown to these people—was overwhelming. Some days, she thought she wouldn’t make it.
But going through this with the crew of the Ivoire, all five hundred of them, made it easier. She wasn’t going through this alone.
She took comfort in that.
Hence the drinking sessions with Coop. They would meet in the bar not quite nightly, put their feet on the tables precisely because that wasn’t regulation, and drink some of the old whiskey, the kind that they had brought from planets they would never see again, in a time period they couldn’t return to.
After the first few sessions, Coop and Yash didn’t get drunk. Usually, anyway. They sipped and stared at the edges of the space station and the edges of the sector beyond. Planets Yash still didn’t recognize, nebulae that gleamed against the blackish-blueness, the red star so far in the distance that it looked like a pinprick of blood.
She wasn’t coming to love those things, but they were becoming familiar. Anything could become familiar, given enough time.
That night, Coop was staring at his whiskey, not drinking it at all. He was looking through the glass at the view, in an unusually contemplative mood.
He had been everyone’s rock. A solid, broad-shouldered man who seemed even taller and broader-shouldered since they had arrived, he now had a few more lines on his face, a hint of silver in his black hair. He had stopped wearing any kind of uniform a few months ago and had said nothing about it.
He now dressed like Boss’s people, wearing black pants and a black or gray T-shirt, quietly moving his association from a Fleet that probably no longer existed to Lost Souls Corporation and its vague connection to something called the Nine Planet Alliance.
He was shedding as much of the past as he could, and making it okay for the rest of the crew to do so. Some were already thinking of leaving the Ivoire permanently, taking jobs inside Lost Souls or becoming planetbound somewhere in the Nine Planets.
Yash couldn’t contemplate any of that. She still wore her Fleet clothes as well, although some of them were getting worn. She would have to replace her regulation boots soon, and she didn’t want to. They were comfortable.
They were also coming apart.
“Hey, can anyone join this little party?” Dix Pompiono, the Ivoire’s nominal first officer, spoke from behind them.
Yash tensed. Coop stopped swirling the liquid in his glass. His expression hadn’t changed, a sign that Coop didn’t want anyone to know what he was feeling.
But Yash knew exactly how Coop felt. Neither she nor Coop wanted to deal with Dix right now. This was their relaxation place, not a place for histrionics. And Dix had been all over the emotional map ever since the Ivoire arrived here.
Dix had actually suffered some kind of breakdown a few months ago after a mission Coop ran to Starbase Kappa to shut down a long-malfunctioning anacapa drive. The mission had nearly failed because of Dix. Coop resented that deeply.
Yash hadn’t told Coop that she had found the mission joyous, in its own way. Yash had felt useful again, like she was back in the old Fleet, with a proper goal and a future.
Of course, after that mission, the Ivoire’s crew had nothing to do. And, in some ways, that mission had been the Ivoire crew’s last gasp. The mission had brought up too many conflicting feelings for everyone, not even counting what had happened with Dix.
by Bill Johnson
“People never think about what happens next.”
Oly adjusted his chaw, turned to the side, and spat a brown stream onto the winter dead/spring fresh grass just coming up.
“For God’s sake, Oly! We got company. At least use a can.”
Dakota—home—always made me feel comfortable and exasperated at the same time. Comfortable, because I was home, not stuck in one of those places where I just didn’t fit. Like New York or Los Angeles or D.C. or London or Beijing or . . .
Exasperated because, well, it was Dakota. More than that, it was Summit. Which even for Dakota was in the back ass end of nowhere and filled to the brim with misfits.
I stood next to Foremost, the alien ambassador from the Ship. Akicita stood on the other side of me. She watched Oly and huffed out a chuckle. Oly glared at her, frowned at Foremost, then grumbled, stepped back a step, looked around, and picked up a tossed-aside beer can off the ground. He swirled it, hopefully, then scowled. It was empty. I closed my eyes and shook my head.
“She shoots something.” Oly jerked his head toward Akicita. “The bad guy goes down and dies, and everybody is happy and cheers and tells her what a great guy she is. Then they all walk away and have a party. Until someone thinks to call me to clean it up.” Oly sounded disgusted. We were used to it. We knew when to ignore Oly and when to pay attention.
I reached into my jacket pocket and handed him a flask. He nodded, appreciatively, opened it up and sipped. He made a face and handed it back to me.
“What is that crap?”
“Thirty-year-old Highlands single malt scotch. We got it as a thank you for saving this fool’s,” I jerked my thumb at Foremost, “ass.”
“No flavor,” Oly grumbled. He smacked his lips and stuck out his tongue. “Like drinking water from the lake. No bite to it. You need some fish moonshine, that’s what you need.”
I capped the flask and slid it into my pocket. Oly nodded at the ground.
“So what do you want to do with this thing?”
Foremost, Akicita, Oly, and myself stood in the backyard of Oly’s shack. It stood by its lonely self just below the crest of a little hill, a knob, really, with no trees, just a few half-buried boulders, tall prairie grass, and a continent full of wind. Above us was a sky of broken clouds, and around us were more prairie grass hills, taller, with a clear view out to the horizon. It looked like it must have looked in the old days, empty and clean. All we needed to do was add some buffalo and we could have been in a time before even the First Nations people arrived.
In front of us, laid out on a black tarpaulin, was the body of the Synth assassin. Its body was covered so only the head showed.
The dead alien had a strong jaw and heavy orbital ridges. Its lips were pulled back and showed several large canine teeth—top and bottom—and broad molars in the back. The lips were brown, like tanned leather, and short tendrils, which writhed and whipped when it was alive, limply draped below the nose and across the lips.
“And what the hell do I call it?” Oly asked Foremost.
“It’s probably a male. If I remember my childhood stories correctly, Synth males are the muscle, and the females are the brains.”
Foremost sounded uncertain. And I didn’t want to strip the Synth and start digging around for some kind of alien genitals. I remembered the Synth just a day ago as he charged the ambassador and me at the cemetery, a killing machine determined to do his job. He seemed indestructible, completely unfazed as I emptied my handgun into his chest, and his armor shed the bullets like water. He’d lifted up his laser and I knew we were going to die.
Suddenly, there was a small bullet hole just above his muzzle of a nose, and a larger exit wound in the back of his bald head. The Synth hesitated, almost puzzled, as if he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened. I remembered I wondered if his brains were in his head or tucked somewhere less obvious, less vulnerable.
Then he fell and was still, and Akicita stepped out of the brush behind us, her rifle ready, another round already jacked into the chamber, and Foremost and I were still alive.
Which led us to today’s problem.
I turned to Foremost and tried to read his expression.
Impossible. He said nothing, just looked calmly back at me, the cowls of his robe loose around his neck, his face one damned fine impersonation of a giant wolverine.
“Well?” I demanded.
“Well, what?” Foremost replied. He seemed almost amused. “Let me guess. I’m alien, so I’m supposed to know everything about every other alien race? I’m supposed to know what to do with a dead Synth?”
He shook his head.
“Tony, I have no idea what to do,” Foremost admitted. “I’ve never seen one of these before.”
“It came off your ship.”
“It’s a big ship. A huge ship. It’s almost the size of your moon. And these things,” he nudged the body with the toe of one foot, “are rare. I’ve never seen one before. Heard about them, yes, but never seen one. Somebody hires them, they do their job, and they’re gone. Never heard of one getting killed before.”
“So you have no idea what to do?” I asked, almost accusingly. Foremost shook his head.
Disgusted, I turned to the other two.
He held up his hands and shook his head.