When an alien entity sneaks aboard a corporate spaceship, with no motive besides sabotaging the mission and murdering those aboard, commander Uzoma Ifiok launches an investigation—despite knowing that the real danger isn’t the one picking off her crew.
From my place at the center of The Preserver’s spacious bridge, I watched a world end. The world was—had been—called New Horizons. It’d been a mining colony, meant to coax platinum and gold from the asteroid it squatted upon. But then it had turned out that the initial scans had been dead wrong. Better Suns sent in carriers to transport the colonists and all the tech to a frozen rock that was actually worth something. The colonists had demanded payment for the work they’d completed—digging out quarries, analyzing rock samples, whatever. Better Suns had refused; no profits, no pay. It was all in the contracts. The colonists threatened to revolt.
That might’ve been an acceptable outcome, since there weren’t any Corporation officials to string up. But there was a bunch of extremely expensive mining equipment, and the colonists started to wreck that first. So I had been sent to dispose of the colonists. At the moment, I watched through the colony’s video feed—displayed over the window screen of the bridge—as the inhabitants froze to death.
I waved a tired hand at the comms officer at my side. “Status report.”
He (I hadn’t bothered to commit his name to memory) swiveled around in his chair. “From what I can pick up, Commander, the survivors are about to attempt to reboot life support.”
I sighed, leaning over the flexible supports of the command console. “Can’t they see it’s destroyed?” I’d blasted the atmospheric and heating units into smithereens the second I’d come out of the wormhole gate.
The comms officer pursed his lips, typing out a command onto his holoscreen. “They’re only getting limited data. It appears the colony AI was severely damaged during the barrage; several critical computing systems were housed alongside the life-support units. All they know is that the oxygen generators are offline.”
My fingers drummed over my armrests, impatience pricking at my nerves. The faster the colonists died, the faster I could send in mechanics and bots to collect all the surviving equipment I’d come for. As soon as that was done, I could get back to the Better Suns headquarters.
I didn’t like killing the labor. It felt dishonorably easy. Not that I liked challenges. But murdering a bunch of civilians—even ones stupid enough not to carefully read through their contracts—hardly gave me a sense of accomplishment. If I had to be far away from home, I’d much rather sneak into a rival clanomy’s territory and blow up a couple dreadnoughts. Or even fight one of those Independent Settler cooperatives over some raw planet.
The AI’s voice piped up from an array of concealed speakers. “Bioscanners now report that all biological assets on the asteroid have ceased to function,” it announced, with its gentle, genderless cadence.
“Finally.” I turned to the comms officer. “Tell the first group to get going.”
A week later, the metal behemoth that was The Preserver slid into one of the many docking bays of New Berkeley. The space station served as the headquarters of Better Suns: corporation, colonial polity, and, with a near monopoly on finding valuable resources on newly discovered rocky bodies, one of the Big Three clanomies.
As commander of the vessel, I exited first. The peons would take care of running efficiency scans, submitting reports, and all of the other bureaucratic nonsense I’d left behind when I got promoted. I made my way down The Preserver’s short, wide ramp and through the crowded embarkation/exit zone. Several dreadnoughts and frigates had docked simultaneously alongside my smaller, swifter destroyer, so the space was a hive of frenzied activity. All manner of Corporation employees—officers and officials, mechanics and merchants, scientists and specialists—rushed to get to wherever they needed to be, pausing only to check their itinerary via the mindnet.
As I headed toward the officers’ apartments, I savored the familiar taste of the recycled air, the sound of my own boots thudding over polished steel. I answered messages via my netchip as I went, mentally pulling up letters and requests and transcribing my thought-responses.
I passed under a pair of large, tiled archways and stepped into an elevator, allowing my posture to relax as the doors closed. I had nothing—glorious nothing—to do until the debrief the next day. Until then, I could sleep and cram sugary snacks into my face and generally do whatever I pleased. The elevator gave a low chime, dropped me off, and sped onward.
I unlocked my door with a thought and stepped inside with a soft sigh. I kicked off my boots, toed off my socks. Then, like an insect wriggling out of its chrysalis, I peeled myself out of my black uniform jumpsuit.
My apartment was just as gorgeously boring as I’d left it, all neat gray lines and white accents. The only thing marring the monotony was a pearlescent plaque on my living room shelf, awarded to me by Nathan Bane himself—chief executive officer of Better Suns, visionary, inventor, etc. I didn’t even remember what I’d earned the damned thing for in the first place. If I had to guess, though, I got it for eliminating the competitor colony on Barafu IV. After that little stunt, a couple Conglomerate bureaucrats tried to come for the Corporation. But they’d found taking down a clanomy for doing what basically every other clanomy was doing—just faster and more ruthlessly—was nigh impossible. The idiots tried to have me executed as a consolation prize but failed spectacularly in that endeavor as well.
A smile overtook my face as I crossed the threshold of my bedroom. Oh, my bed. My wondrous, excessively large bed, with its cloud-soft mattress and synthsilk sheets. Times like these reminded me of how much a shithole Oluwadi had been. I yanked aside the covers, flopped over, and promptly fell asleep.
My slumber, like always, was peaceful.
I was picking slivers of dried cyanfruit out of my lunch—some sort of protein-vegetable stir-fry that my netchip assumed, based on previous meals, I’d like (I didn’t)—when the news came. There was a tiny yellow exclamation point at the corner of my vision; I opened the notification. Normally I ignored notices until after my scheduled free hours, but I’d color-coded all my alerts, and yellow was reserved for breaking news about the Conglomerate. The holorecording visuals would be better on my omnipad. Once activated, the image of a popular anchorman flickered to life above the small black screen.
“. . . After picking up strange energy readings from that sector, one of the Conglomerate’s exploratory flyby probes has uncovered a habitable planet,” he said. “Councilor Mirovich is here with me now, to discuss what this monumental discovery means for the Conglomerate.”
A woman in a sharp blue suit materialized beside the anchor, her lips stretched into a thin smile. Pinned over her heart was the golden sunburst of the Supreme Council of the Worthy Few. “KT-63 is the first exoplanet our species has found that can undoubtedly support human life. We will once again live unassisted on a planetary surface, as our ancestors did before the Envirofall. Imagine: fresh air, as much clean water as we’ll ever need. A sky.
“The millions of business clans comprising the United Collaborative Conglomerate of Earth have an extraordinary opportunity before them. We have the chance to gain unimaginable profit: not only financial gains but intellectual, cultural, and philosophical wealth. Friends, we’ve found a new homeworld for humanity.” She gave the anchor another of her narrow smiles. “Now, I love my homestation as much as the next Orbiter, but I wouldn’t mind a little fresh air, and I’m sure the deserving people of the Conglomerate would too.”
Polite, simulated laughter. I stood up with a groan and dumped my lunch into the organics recycler. In the privacy of my bedroom, I paced while Mirovich went on about security drones and sanctions. When Conglomerate probes uncovered a new terrestrial asset, there was normally a bloodbath. Every clanomy was part of the Conglomerate, so every clanomy technically had the right to lay claim to whatever the Conglomerate discovered. And of course they all did lay claim, all the time. Some people said that the Conglomerate encouraged the conflict between clanomies as a way to control them. Some people were now fewer people, as they had a terrible habit of turning up dismembered at the bottom of asteroid mines.
Given my track record, I’d almost certainly get drafted for the Corporation’s first military effort to secure KT-63, which was a problem. I took no issue with violently settling proprietary disputes; the bonus pay was excellent and there were (normally) fewer civilian casualties, which always stirred up bad press. But according to the three-dimensional map now displayed over my omnipad, KT-63 was at the very edge of human-explored space. Right in the galactic boondocks, twenty-five light-years away from anywhere worth being. Two hundred trillion kilometers away from my apartment. From my bed.
I dreamt of shaved ice smothered in fruit syrup. The sort of Oluwadin delicacy we’d have on feast days before everyone went and died. As far as cryodreams went, it was pleasant. Until a man’s wretched scream ripped into my semi-artificial unconsciousness.
My training took over immediately. Without opening my eyes, without breathing, I dragged my left hand through the gelatinous preservation fluid surrounding me and slammed it into the pod’s internal printpad.
I sucked in my first breaths in nearly a year as the door swung open, laying bare the once-pristine whiteness of the cryochamber. Crimson emergency lights flashed to the blaring beat of an alarm.
A cryotech popped out of nowhere and darted to my side, just avoiding the puddle of fluid pooling at my feet.
I pinched my lips together as sudden waves of dizziness slammed through me. I squinted, gazing about the room. Some of the other pods were already open. Already empty. Most still held their peacefully slumbering occupants. Others hosted crew members just beginning to recover from the aftereffects of abrupt revival. They scrunched up, puking in their pods. One man, perhaps the one who’d screamed, murmured garbled nonsense as another cryotech tried to wrestle him onto a medcot.
“You should have woken me first,” I growled, turning back to the man at my side.
“We did our best, Commander,” he squeaked. He lifted an arm and pointed at the biocontrols on the walls.
Deep gouges marred the metal and plastic, sending sparks dancing to the floor. Fixbots swarmed the walls, sleek magjets working hard against the standard Earth gravity, but from the pattern of their movements around the damage, I could tell they were still assessing how best to begin repairs.
“Someone took an axe to the controls,” I said.
“No, Commander. The emergency tools register no crew utilization since takeoff.” The cryotech tried to offer me a hand as I stepped out of the pod; I ignored it.
I did take the white robe he proffered, wrapping it around my soaking black sleepsuit. “How many dead?”
A breath of relief rushed out of me. “Oh, good. Just send a report to the whole crew. And tell the comms officer to summon everyone to the mess hall in ten minutes.”
By the time everyone was gathered, I’d scrounged up one of the standard condolence speeches Better Suns provided all its officers. A disheveled appearance would make the whole farce more authentic, so I hadn’t bothered to change. Preservation fluid dripped behind me in a gleaming line as I took my place at the center of the mess hall.
“We’ve suffered the greatest of tragedies,” I recited, hands clasped behind my back. “In the darkness of space, all we have is each other.” I went on to say some empty, perfunctory platitude about each of the corpses currently being spaced—funny how I’d only learned their names when they were dead. I’d forget them again in a week, tops. “They’ll be deeply missed,” I concluded, pressing a hand to my chest. “But we have work to do. We can’t let this devastating misfortune become a disaster. I know they would want us to find strength in our sorrow and move on.”
Move on, and find out whatever the hells had happened to my ship.
My door chimed just as a narrow face appeared on the viewscreen beside it. I recognized her from the ship manifest corporate had downloaded onto my netchip just before I had hopped in my cryopod. She was my assigned co-captain, whom I hadn’t met in person. Until now.
I gave the mindnet my approval and the door slid open.
“May I come in?” she asked. Her expression was stoic; I couldn’t get a read on her.
“It’d be odd if I said no now.” I waved her in.
She sat down on the only free seat that wasn’t the bed, a small white couch. She crossed her legs at the ankle and said flatly, “We should go back.”
I smiled. Then I realized she was serious. “No. We can’t.”
“The Sufficient Loss Protocol clearly states that if one hundred people on any mission go missing or are confirmed dead, then the entire area of space must be declared forbidden.”
So she was one of those. “Only fifty people are dead. I’d say we have some wiggle room.”
“Fifty-three,” she corrected. She brushed a dark wisp of hair out of her vision, revealing eyes that were such a light blue they were almost white. “We have no idea what caused the damage to the biocontrols in the cryochamber—”
“It probably wasn’t a gone-civ trap.”
“And how are you so certain?”
I arched a brow. “Gone-civ traps don’t rip up circuit boards. They blow them up in one go, along with the rest of the vessel. Whatever happened was internal.”
Her blue-white eyes narrowed. “We don’t know that. We don’t know what any of the gone-civs’ tech is capable of, because anyone that runs into some gets their intestines ripped out.” She crossed her bony arms. “We need to go back, before we lose the whole ship.”
I stared at her. “If we run back now, then the whole quadrant will be blocked off while some other clanomy sacks whatever’s on that planet,” I said. And I’d lose the likely promotion waiting for me, along with all the material perks that would come with it. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard what happens to officers who disappoint Bane.”
Her face was so carefully controlled it was unreadable. “Three weeks. And if anything happens, we turn back.”
“Look. This is my ship, and at the end of the day, I decide what happens. I don’t care if we’re co-captains on screen.”
“You should, because I’ve already sent a missive to the Conglomerate saying that if there are any further . . . misfortunes, they’re your fault.” She smirked. “You better hope you don’t survive the next, ah, tragedy.” She plopped her chin into her palm. “I liked your speech, by the way. So creative.”
I gritted my teeth together. Damn the gone-civs. What sort of society decides to booby-trap half the galaxy in the first place? And damn this woman.
“What’s your name?” I demanded.
I nodded. “Uzoma Ifiok.”
“I know. Your reputation precedes you, and I actually read the manifest,” she said, standing. “It’s not quite a pleasure to meet you, but I’m glad I have.”
I grinned. “You’re welcome.”
She stopped by the door. “I didn’t thank you.”
“I mean, you’re welcome here. In my quarters. If you need company.”
Sahtekaar huffed out a laugh. The door slid open, and she stepped out.
One week passed uneventfully, save for our investigation into the mass cryopod malfunction. So did the next. Then, the third week after my little chat with Sahtekaar, someone exploded in the electrical room.
Blood and viscera painted the walls and tile beneath the body, as if it had just—popped. The charred remains of the surveillance cameras lay about the corpse, steel funerary flowers with scorched petals. The body’s chest had ruptured, the rib cage blown open. Or perhaps the chest had been pried apart instead; the face was slashed with three parallel jagged cuts that went down through the bone. As ridiculous as it was, I couldn’t get the image of claws out of my head. Claws sharp enough to cut through the biocontrols like a plasma blade through synthsilk.
Our scans indicated no foul play on the crew’s part. The AI suggested a particularly high-energy solar particle event had hit the ship unnoticed, weakening a fuse array in the cryochamber. Pushed to their limit, the fuses burst, blowing apart the plastic and metal casing. Bullshit. I remembered what the damage looked like: controlled. Intentional. With the body, I was certain now. Something was on my ship. Or someone. The worst part was that Sahtekaar was right; some strange gone-civ tech must have snuck aboard The Preserver.
. . . Or perhaps the gone-civs themselves weren’t as dead as we thought.
I found Sahtekaar in the mess hall, shoving lumps of rehydrated protein mush around her plate with a multiutensil.
“There’s an officer’s lounge, you know,” I said, sliding into the seat opposite her. “With far better food.” And company.
“I know.” She looked at me and smiled thinly. “This is fine, thanks.” Her attention dropped back down to her meal.
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “You don’t seem fine.”
She jabbed her utensil into a gray clump of artificial beef. “Is this the best we can be?”
Her eyes glazed over. Through the mindnet, she did the mental equivalent of shoving a bunch of data into my chest. I took a moment to skim over the first few headlines.
Another Victory for Haolai Security Solutions, Ltd.
Rebel Leader Betrayed by Second-in-Command
Prime Singularity, Inc. Retakes the Asteroid Belt of Lagos IX
“Singularity paid off the second-in-command and then poisoned him, and now they’re paying Haolai to hunt down everyone related to the rebels. Innocent people, Ifiok.”
“Standard procedure. They’re getting rid of people who might seek revenge, issuing a strong warning, and culling defective genes.” I waved a bored hand before cocking a brow. “Did you get hired right out of an Independent Settler colony or something?” I joked.
“So what if I was?” she snapped. “I’m more than qualified.”
Well, now I was curious. Of all the noncorporate fringe polities, Independent Settlers were the worst. They were obnoxious and infuriatingly naive, and they never shut up about their “ideals” and things like “ethics.” If she’d been recruited from them, then she had to be something special. I laced my fingers together, craning my neck to try to reestablish eye contact. “How did Better Suns find you?”
She chuckled, a strident, unhappy sound. “I found them.”
Another migrant, looking for a future where there was none. Whatever; not my problem. “I need your help.”
“Is that so.”
“Help me question the crew.” I splayed my fingers placatingly when her eyes caught fire. “If only to get answers before we turn back.” Or, more likely, before we got our intestines ripped out.
“We’re going home, Ifiok,” she said. “That was the deal.”
I shifted forward, propping my elbows on the table. “I haven’t forgotten. But if we try to come back with murderous gone-civ tech still aboard then we’re all dead anyway. The Conglomerate would institute an emergency quarantine.” In other words, it would send a warship to blow us into interstellar dust.
In response, Sahtekaar shoved mush between her teeth and chewed noisily, her mouth hanging open. I don’t know why she thought that’d faze me. A few years ago, I’d shot a man in the gut. His breakfast had fallen right out of the smoking blast wound. He’d had oatmeal, with cyanfruit.
“If we squeeze some information from the crew,” I told her, “maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to fight the thing off.”
“You can’t beat a gone-civ trap.” Sahtekaar sucked in a breath through perfectly white teeth. “But fine. I’ll help you.”
“Why am I here?” asked the cryotech who’d woken me up, wringing his hands. “I didn’t do anything; I just monitor the pods. I-I wasn’t anywhere near Electrical, the onboard surveillance should confirm—”
Sahtekaar held up a hand. “We just want to ask you a few questions, Tobias. We really should have done this before, but . . .”
His voice rose, his face twisting with anxiety. “The surveillance showed me in my office—like I’m supposed to be—before, during, and after the pod malfunction, and whenever poor Jinghua was killed. Right?”
“That’s right. But we never asked you if you’d seen anything while you were in your office, monitoring the pods.”
“I saw nothing.”
I leaned forward. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“I . . . yes.” His breathing quickened suddenly. “Well, at the very corner of my vision—I’m sure it was just a glitch in the surveillance system—was a shape, moving across the ceiling.”
I wanted to shake him. Instead, I tried to keep my face calm, understanding. Like Sahtekaar. I forced my voice to go as soft and coaxing as it would, which wasn’t very. “Tell us exactly what you saw. In detail.”
Sahtekaar reached over and patted his knee. “Take your time, Tobias. We recognize that this must be very difficult for you. You were close friends with Jinghua, were you not?”
The tech’s voice was low and grief-roughened when he said, “Yes. I was.” He lifted his chin. “I didn’t get a good look, but the shape was pale. White, almost. It flashed by the rear right cameras in the cryochamber an hour before I was alerted of any damage. I reported the glitch to the AI.”
But the AI hadn’t alerted us. I turned to Sahtekaar and watched as horrified understanding dawned in her eyes.
The ship was compromised.
The life-support systems got hacked. We might’ve been able to deal with the wildly fluctuating environment for some time, but we found most of the lifesuits ripped apart and stuffed into the inorganics recycler. With only ten lifesuits remaining, a quarter of the surviving crew involuntarily volunteered to sacrifice themselves.
I woke up to blood seeping under my door. Which was fucking annoying, because that meant that the hatch seals hadn’t been properly replaced. If the hull had been breached, I would’ve gotten blown into space. What else had the station mechanics half-assed?
I yanked on my boots, grabbed my blaster, and commanded the door to open. Tobias tumbled over the titanium threshold. I was surprised I even remembered his name. Bloody bits of platinum-blond hair, fragments of skull, and an unhealthy amount of gray matter splattered to the floor. I’d never seen the inside of someone’s head before. Brains, as it turned out, looked a lot like the “beef” lab-slop they fed regular officers.
I stepped over the corpse and into the hallway. A bloody handprint painted my door, as if the cryotech had tried to wake me. I snorted. Per Corporation policy, I had set my security so that only officers at or above my rank could hail me. But even if the poor bastard had been Bane himself, I still wouldn’t have opened the door to share his misfortune, not for all the known worlds in the galaxy.
The next passage had other bodies, as did the one after. The victims had been killed in myriad ways: bisected, beheaded, bludgeoned. According to the mindnet, the entire working crew was dead, save for Sahtekaar, the comms officer, and myself. That could mean only one thing. All I could do was hope it wasn’t too late.
I was dragging myself toward the lower engine when an alarm began to shriek. I racked my brain, attempting to identify it. The oxygen generators? Coolant leak? Another reactor meltdown? Whatever. If I didn’t end this, and now, none of that would matter. The reserve oxygen and the fixbots would handle whatever systems had been sabotaged until I could get to them. If I survived, anyway.
I sprinted down a wide corridor, shivering as I went. My rapid breaths puffed out in front of my face. The life-support systems were only just coming back.
The passage ahead was illuminated by two lines of flickering red emergency lighting in the floor. Blood blossomed over the white bulkheads, brutal carnations in bloom.
At the end of the corridor, the ceiling vent flew open. The comms officer—what was left of him—tumbled out. A pale, shifting shape slammed down beside the body, smearing the fresh blood spatter across the floor.
The shape twisted, turned. Changed. By the time it faced me, the blurred white entity had become Sahtekaar. Every muscle, every fiber of my body trembled. But not with fear. Everything but fear.
The comms officer rolled onto his stomach with a strangled moan, his bloodshot brown eyes meeting mine. He staggered to his feet and limped across the corridor to me. Sahtekaar let him.
Face streaked with tears, he cried out: “Commander, please . . .”
He crumpled a hand’s breadth from me, collapsing onto the floor plating at my feet. I bent down, pressed two fingers to the inside of his wrist. His pulse echoed weakly through my fingers. With a sigh, I unholstered my blaster and pressed the muzzle to his head. I met Sahtekaar’s eyes as I pulled the trigger. She held my gaze as I straightened.
I spoke into the darkness. “I knew it couldn’t just be gone-civ tech.”
“How?” Her voice came out sharp and layered—too many sounds from too many throats.
“The murders felt too . . . individualized, too precise.” I leaned against the wall. “Mechanical traps don’t take their time, and they certainly don’t leave survivors.”
“I don’t intend to.”
“Is that so? Then why did you sabotage only a quarter of the cryopods?”
“I didn’t want this,” Sahtekaar said quietly. “I tried to warn you.”
“What are you?” I asked. “And what did you do with the real Sahtekaar?”
“As if you don’t already know,” she breathed out.
I shrugged; she was right. “You’re the last of the last gone-civ. You certainly did your homework on us. I should have known it was you.”
Her face hardened. “That planet is not yours to take.”
I smiled, stepping over the hunk of flesh that was once the comms officer and crossing over to her. “We’re humans. Everything is ours to take.”
The inexplicable shine of her glacier-blue eyes somehow darkened as she stepped back, putting space between us. “Tell your people. Tell them to stay away.”
I closed the distance. “No.”
“Please. Leave my home be.” Desperation crept into her voice. “The Sufficient Loss Protocol—”
“I didn’t notice your mistake, back then. They word it so it’s confusing on purpose, because it looks so bad. Sahtekaar, the limit isn’t merely one hundred people. It’s one hundred percent. All of the crew members must be confirmed dead or disappeared before a sector of space is declared too dangerous.”
She fell to her knees as if the strings suspending her had suddenly snapped. “I don’t understand your species,” she said, the words squeezing through her clenched teeth. “How can you step over a thousand dead bodies to support but a few? What has Bane and his kind ever done for you and yours?”
He’d given me an apartment, with its fantastic fucking bed. My life, when my own people gambled it away with their uprising.
I crouched beside her in the shadows, examining her face. My eyes grazed the razor-edged sharpness of her gaze, the twitch of a muscle by her jaw. “Have you ever heard of Oluwadi?”
“No. One of your clanomies?”
“No. It was owned by one, long ago.” Moving very slowly, I lifted an arm and pushed a stray bit of hair from her forehead. “It was a tiny asteroid mining colony. We—the colonists were running out of food and the clanomy wouldn’t provide more until they met the month’s quota. So the colonists rebelled. And that was fine, at first; they raided the clanomy stores and took what they needed. But then what should have been a harmless, minor impact from another asteroid destabilized the whole colony. The clanomy blocked all distress calls.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Something akin to pity flashed over her features. “How did you survive?”
“All that matters is that I did.” I pulled in a mouthful of air. “Sahtekaar, you step over bodies or you become one of them. It’s that simple.” I took one of her hands in one of mine, using the other to gesture at the meat sack that was once the comms officer. “Surely you can understand that. Are you so willing to die here just to try to save your homeworld from humans?”
Sahtekaar narrowed her eyes, but for every ounce of anger in them, there was a pound of fear. “I’m not merely trying.”
I scoffed. “You’re certainly not succeeding. You know that KT-63 is too much of a gold mine to give up. You can butcher everyone on this ship, but there will be more. You can’t stop this, just as I couldn’t stop the end of Oluwadi. Accept it.”
Her mouth opened again, but no sound slipped out.
“Why not live, and join us?” I said softly. I stood. “We’re making landfall in a week, so kill me now or get up.”
After a long moment, Sahtekaar stumbled to her feet. “You won’t tell the ones who still sleep what I did? What I am?”
“They’ll have to know eventually,” I said, “but trust that I will make a place for you. And in exchange, you will forfeit your planet to me.” This close, it was easy to see that her eyes weren’t perfectly formed—her pupils melted into her irises, like two drops of dark blood in pure water. “You will find that the galaxy is a dangerous place, far more so than you might already believe. I want to see what you can do.”
She said nothing, only nodded numbly. Satisfied, I turned on my heel and she followed me silently, matching my long stride.
“Preserver,” I called out.
“Commander?” the AI replied smoothly.
“Start waking up the next batch.”
The planet hung fat and turquoise in a tapestry of stars, sewn in by gravity and embroidered with a thin icy ring. It was gorgeous, practically dripping with ore and biomatter.
I clasped my hands behind my back. “Activate shipwide comms.”
“Yes, Commander.” The new communications officer—whatever her name was—leaned over her console. “Three . . . two . . . one.”
“All personnel. This is Commander Ifiok speaking. The AI’s pilot-support functions are still being debugged, so we’re doing this blind. Brace for atmospheric entry.”
The AI’s voice came through on the speakers: “Ninety-five percent of all systems online.” A pause. “Gravity: virtually identical to Earth’s. Atmosphere: seventy-five percent nitrogen, twenty-four percent oxygen, one percent argon, traces of neon . . .”
I grinned. The numbers were practically Earth’s before the Envirofall.
“Bioscanners report diverse unicellular and multicellular organisms,” announced the AI. “Caution: several species of microbes potentially harmful to human life. Caution: several species of large, likely predacious life-forms.”
All of which we could handle. We had a native to guide us, after all.
The navigator’s fingers danced over her console. “I’ve got terrain data coming in now.”
Beside me, Sahtekaar nodded stiffly. “Good, double-check that’s all plugged in.”
“Take us down,” I said. “Nice and steady.”
The pilots coaxed the ship through the upper layers of the planet’s atmosphere and then into an ocean of frothy white clouds. The ship vibrated violently as the dense air outside shrieked in protest around the hull. I leaned forward onto the command console, eyes firmly on the view ahead as The Preserver’s sharp nose began to glow white-hot from the friction-generated heat of entry. The ship cut through the clouds like a scythe of yore, slicing through the condensed water vapor as if it were wheat. We burst into the swirling blue sky a half second later. A wide stretch of verdant land came suddenly into view. The surface was coming up fast. Too fast.
“We need to shave speed,” barked Sahtekaar.
“Nosing up!” responded a pilot.
My teeth rattled as the ship curved upward hard then, slowly, tilted downward again, dropping back toward the planet at a less lethal velocity.
Working in synchronization, the pilots urged The Preserver over a bony mountain ridge. The peaks rose up from the cracked gray-green dirt, the colossal remnants of an ancient geological skeleton. And the planet was just that: ancient. Of all the worlds I’d seen and ravaged, none had ever felt as old as this one.
I yanked myself from my reverie as a sudden mechanical shudder rolled through the ship. I waved a hand and the holoscreen at my console flashed over onto the pilots’. A three-dimensional map crackled to life over their interfaces. A red dot appeared over a flat chunk of rock, just visible beyond the ridge. The touchdown marker I’d punched in pulsed with a heartbeat’s regularity.
“Cut airspeed by fifty knots,” I ordered. “We’ll land right there.”
“Roger that, Commander,” a pilot replied, and engaged the initial landing sequence. “Thrusters activated . . .”
“Another fifty,” said Sahtekaar. Her eyes were shadowed with an emotion I—or perhaps any human—couldn’t identify. “Gently, now . . .” Beside me, her white-knuckled grip tightened over her own supports.
“Are you . . .” I began.
She whipped around to look at me, far too fast. “Yes.”
The Preserver touched down with a roaring hiss of air, exactly in the center of the flat rock. Great plumes of dust and dirt ballooned up around us. Sahtekaar pressed her lips together before speaking once more. “Yes,” she said again. She lifted her chin and her gaze sharpened, shifted. “I’m ready now.”
Her pupils bled over her irises. Her pale fingers curled into claws.
A chill came upon me like a bucket of ice water. Frozen terror splashed over my shoulders and dripped down my forearms, turning my blood to crimson ice. “Sahtekaar—”
“Thank you for explaining the subtleties of the Protocol.” Those lovely, monstrous eyes drew closer even as the edges of my vision crumbled into shadow.
It’s one hundred percent, I had said. All of the crew members must be confirmed dead or disappeared, I had said.
“You were to make a ruin of my world,” she whispered. Her voice splintered and re-formed, the words scraping through alien throats. The bridge bled away completely, leaving only her, her, her. “And now, Uzoma Ifiok, we shall make a ruin of yours.”
“The Sufficient Loss Protocol” copyright © 2022 by Kemi Ashing-Giwa
Art copyright © 2022 by Priscilla Bampoh