Read Clarkesworld Anthology 2012 Online

Authors: Wyrm Publishing

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Clarkesworld Anthology 2012 (7 page)

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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My fighter shudders, straining to stay attached to the Bright ship, then goes still. For a moment, nothing seems to have changed, and I wonder if perhaps the weapon was damaged in the firefight. Then the attackers’ plasma weapons sputter and die out, and the four remaining cruisers start to drift very slowly out of formation. The motion is barely perceptible, but it fills me with a cold, sick dread. All those lives snuffed out, and what if my judgment was wrong? What a wretched Sheekah am I, who would choose this life of killing.

I do not have long to think on it, though, because the stress of activating the weapon has exacerbated the damage, and my fighter’s systems are failing. I must abandon it or die with it. I consider the second option — after all, what am I without my fighter? — but the automated preferences are set for survival, so the fighter disconnects me without waiting for my decision.

As soon as the emergency disconnect triggers, I am blind and suffocating. I fall through the aperture of my fighter into the Bright ship, bits of metal interface still clinging to my tentacles, and I land hard. I flop helplessly on the deck, unadapted for artificial gravity, and without my fighter I sense nothing. My circulatory fluid is slowly turning toxic, and even if the atmospheric composition were appropriate, I have no organs designed for interfacing with air.

I need lungs or I will die. I need visual and auditory organs, too. Immobile as I am, I must wait for the telltale vibration of feet upon the deck, heralding the arrival of the aliens. I think I feel it now, I can’t be sure — even my ability to feel the shudder of metal against my flesh is dulled without the electronic stimulus of my fighter.

I flail my tentacles, panicking, and find nothing but empty air. To calm myself, I focus on the task of slowing all nonessential bodily functions. This will buy me a little time, I hope. I cannot quite think rationally with all my neurochemical feedbacks screaming at me to adapt, to survive.

Again, I flail desperately, but this time one tentacle lands on bare flesh. Yes! I eagerly wrap my tentacle around the limb and begin probing for genetic information. Stem cells are ideal — they retain the broadest memory of how the organism as a whole works — though gametes provide a useful perspective, too. I do not dare to hope for embryonic cells, because that would require an incredible stroke of luck and my luck has not been good today.

The stem cells of this species have disappointingly limited potency, but I explore enough to start appropriating their genetic design. The toxin buildup in my circulatory system clouds my thoughts and slows my progress. I hope what I can glean from this individual will be sufficient.

I begin to understand this species as my body begins to integrate their design. They are bilaterally symmetric, endoskeletal, bipedal, endothermic, sexually dimorphic. (Definitely not Brights — if I had any doubts about that, they are gone now.) They have sensory organs for electromagnetic radiation, compression waves, and chemicals. I grow the lung tissue first, so I will be able to breathe as soon as my cellular respiration has altered, then I focus on retinas and cochleae.

As my new senses sharpen and stabilize, I gain awareness of the aliens. There are several of them encircling me, black handheld weapons cradled in their arms. They raise their weapons menacingly, and raise their voices as well; the one I am touching emits a shrill warning call. I begin to realize how very dire my situation is. Have I violated a taboo against physical contact? Perhaps they are a race of clinical xenophobes? I do not know what I have done to agitate them so quickly after I saved their lives.

I was never meant to be an ambassador — I do not have the training, and I am too violent besides. I have spent the last thirty-six solar cycles alone inside my fighter, engaging with other species only in my capacity as an enforcer of Sheekah law. And now I find myself in contact with a new species, trying to remember how to mimic physiology, to become one of them. I fear I have already ruined any chance of rapport.

When I am sure I have collected sufficient genetic data to survive in their atmosphere, I unwrap my tentacle, releasing the gene donor. I suck down my first lungfuls of oxygen through newly formed facial orifices.

And the difficult part begins.

They do not kill me right away. I take this as a good sign. They lift me onto a mobile platform and move me to a room with other platforms, some of them occupied by members of their own species. These ones do little in the way of moving or vocalizing, but they also leave me with two males holding weapons. I do not try to ask the killers for more gene donation.

Time passes. Other aliens — ones who do not carry weapons — are often present, watching me, waving diagnostic equipment over me, trying to communicate. I have no translating abilities without my fighter, so I must learn their language the slow way. I grow legs and arms, I learn to metabolize their sugars, I grow vocal chords and lips and a tongue to shape their words. I wonder if my fighter is irreparably damaged, which would mean all this effort to survive is a waste.

I am learning names. Mosby, Rosenberg, Liu; Ahmed, Levitt, Jones. But I do not know what to tell them when they ask for mine. I pause, they think I do not understand and gesture more vigorously towards me. Mosby Rosenberg Liu Ahmed Levitt Jones, they repeat, touching themselves with their hands, then they aim their digits at me and wait for an answer. What can I tell them? Sheekah are named when they choose their lifepath — as a pilot, my name is the name of my stellate fighter. Or at least it was. My fighter is damaged, I am no longer interfaced, and I have taken a new form, yet I am hardly in a position to ask them to name me as a true ambassador would. I cannot even communicate what the problem is.

“Ohree,” I eventually say. It was my childhood nickname long ago. Fitting, because I am so like a child now — awkward and unplaced.

“Ohree,” they repeat, and the name sounds distorted even though we share a vocal anatomy now.

I cannot explain anything, I cannot ask for anything. I can only point to an object and earn a garble of syllables for an answer. Does “medbay” describe the platform, the material it is made of, the function it serves, or the person lying prone upon it? Is “door” the word for an egress, or the object that blocks the egress? For the first time since I was a child, fumbling to find my lifepath, I feel hopelessly frustrated.

Liu and Rosenberg are in the room with me when I decide I no longer care about upsetting them. If they tell the killers to shoot me, then I will be shot, and at least that will be a change from what I am now. I slide off the platform, balancing uncertainly with my new bipedal body, and take careful steps toward one wall where there appears to be some kind of interface terminal. Rosenberg makes loud vocalizations, and I ignore her.

The terminal has a manual interface — buttons to be depressed by fingers, unthinkably primitive — which I rip out of the wall. I press one palm to the exposed circuitry and close my eyelids, concentrating on the task of growing a direct electronic interface of my own.

They still haven’t shot me yet.

I learn this terminal was designed for accessing the medical portion of the ship’s database, which is unfortunately not the portion that I need. I mentally slip behind the front-end processes and gain access to the database in its entirety. It is very large, and organized with the dubious logic of Bright minds, information twisting and twining back on itself like a jumble of vines grown together. Eventually, I access the language files for these aliens and use what little I know to identify “English” as the dialect I need to download.

When the task is done, I disengage from the terminal and resorb the interface into the flesh of my hand. “Now,” I say, “this will be easier.”

“Incredible,” says Liu, shaking his head. The gesture makes me wonder if I should have looked for a file on nonverbal communication among humans.

Rosenberg stares at me, and then says, “Someone better get Mosby.”

Upon my life, I do not know why it was so important to fetch Mosby. He asks the most inane questions, while Rosenberg holds her lips tight together and Liu backs away as if ceding the whole room.

Once I prove to Mosby that I am now conversant in his language, the first thing he says to me is, “We need to know about that weapon you fired.” Mosby is the most important of their trained killers and holds the title of “colonel.” He tells the other killers what to do.

I don’t see the relevance, but I answer his question anyway. “It produces a sort of space-time whiplash that disrupts neurological functioning. Fatally so, in all organisms we’ve encountered so far.”

“Is it still usable?”

I stare at him for a moment. “No, that’s unlikely. The damage to my fighter is too extensive. Were you planning to commit genocide in the near future?”

Mosby’s face scrunches up in an expression I do not understand. Rosenberg takes a step forward, places a hand on his arm, and says to me, “Of course not. The Colonel’s just worried about defending the ship against another attack.”

“That is no longer my concern,” I say.

“What do you mean ‘not your concern’?” Mosby says, his volume and pitch rising. “Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of interstellar policeman?”

“I am no longer interfaced with my fighter.”

Mosby says, “Listen, you — ” but Rosenberg drags him by the arm out into the hallway.

They talk. I cannot quite hear, but I believe I have displeased one or both of them. I am not sure how — it was not my intention.

Liu, who seems to avoid standing in proximity to Mosby, comes closer again now that Mosby is elsewhere. “Don’t judge all of us based on the likes of Mosby,” he says. “There’s a reason they put a civilian in charge of the expedition.”

I don’t know who “they” refers to, but I doubt it matters. “I am not here to judge you. The only judgment I am authorized to make is to determine the legitimacy of grievance in interspecies conflict.”

Liu does something with the muscles in his lips. “I’m sorry, it’s easy to forget you learned our language less than an hour ago. I meant that you must be forming impressions of what our species is like, and Mosby isn’t representative. Not of all of us, anyway.”

“I will take that under consideration.”

Rosenberg returns alone. She apologizes for Mosby’s behavior, though I would not have known he behaved inappropriately if she and Liu had not told me. Rosenberg is a leader, but not a killer, and seems to have incomplete authority over Mosby.

“So,” Rosenberg says as she leans against the exam table next to mine. “You saved our butts out there, and now you’re stuck with us. First of all: thank you. Second, if we could impose upon you further, we could use some help navigating this region of space.”

Now I am truly confused. “You do not know where you are going?”

Rosenberg lets out a breath noisily. “The Brights left this ship in our home system a little over thirteen thousand years ago. When we discovered it, their recorded instructions were… cryptic, but the nav system came pre-programmed. We’ve been following the course they set for us, but obviously we’re having some trouble with the locals along the way.”

Her lengthy reply does not actually answer my question. I try to rephrase it to be clearer. “What is the purpose of your journey?”

“We’re going to Bright space. It’s not clear why they want us to come, but we couldn’t pass up an invitation like this.” She raised a hand as if to indicate the room, or perhaps the ship at large. “I’ve done some poking around in the database to learn about your species, so I know the Sheekah were allies of the Brights once. Would you consider helping them now, even if they’re not here to ask for it?”

This surprises me. “You do not know?”

“Know what?”

“They are gone.”

“Gone,” Liu interjects loudly, before Rosenberg can answer. I do not understand why he repeats the word — perhaps I misused it.

“The Brights went extinct,” I clarify. “They developed a genetic anomaly that spread from cell to cell throughout the body, causing widespread genomic degradation, and was, like a pathogen, highly transmissible between individuals. Many Sheekah were infected trying to help them before the Ambassadorial High Council declared quarantine.”

BOOK: Clarkesworld Anthology 2012
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