by Sara King
How a pirate finds herself in bed with aliens.
That night, on Beetle, the metallic walls rang with a clamor of voices.
“So lemme get this straight, Capt’in. There ain’t no money involved?”
The man’s name was Dunebuggy, or Dune for short. His face was always smeared with grease and he perpetually stank of engine solvents. He was a legend among the racing community, his creations having won several desert planet megaraces. Lucky for Athenais, he took the same care with Beetle.
“I can’t promise any more than what I’ll give you,” Athenais replied. “Flat rate of sixty credits a day, half that for days in stasis.”
A general rumble of discontent reverberated through the mess hall at her words.
“No offense Capt’in,” Goat replied, “But I hired on with ya’ll ‘cause I’s tired of workin salary. I like me cut.”
Goat was called ‘Goat’ because no matter how often he bathed, his aroma was always enough to singe the nostrils. He sat off to one side, giving his shipmates a wide berth.
Even with the smell, however, Athenais counted herself lucky to have him. In her seven thousand years in space, she had never seen a cartographer his rival. He could navigate his way to safe harbor with the positioning system down and only a porthole view of the surrounding stars to guide him.
Athenais knew. She’d made him do it.
“If sixty isn’t enough, I can see what the colonists’ll be willing to give you in trade.” She hadn’t mentioned the shifter yet. There wasn’t a man in her crew who wouldn’t jump on the chance to rake in three million credits.
“Trade?” Dune muttered. “What they got but lumber and cows?”
“You might be surprised,” Athenais said. “Where do you think all Utopian gold comes from, anyway? Penoi’s got more mines than you’ve got fleas.”
“They got gems, too,” Ragnar said. “Biggest ruby I ever seen came outta Penoi.” He was standing in the corner, his arms crossed as he surveyed the room. This was the first thing he had said since the conversation started. Athenais took that as a sign that he was interested, at least.
“And don’t tell me you boys ain’t never been tempted to sample the colonist wares,” Smallfoot said. He grinned. “I hear there’s somethin ta be said ‘bout them fertile gals. ‘Tis said ya can feel yer seed takin hold.”
The two other women of the ship gave Smallfoot a disgusted look, but Athenais had heard similar remarks before. She couldn’t say if they were true or not, but she wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to gain their cooperation.
“Think,” Athenais offered, “They haven’t seen a Utopi before in their lives. They prolly think Utopis better endowed than colonists.”
“We are!” Smallfoot roared. “Ask any whore in The Shop.”
In his corner, Ragnar rolled his eyes.
“So what do you say?” Athenais said. “Should I talk to these colonists?”
“Talk to them,” Goat said, “But tell ‘em we want a ton of gold apiece.”
“A ton of gold!” Ragnar said, “For seven people? Are you a blasted idiot, Goat? Colonists couldn’t afford that much. Eriad is fleecing them for all they’re worth as it is.”
“Just saying I ain’t doin no job for no sixty credits a day,” Goat said. “Can’t even buy a good whore for that much.”
“Goat, you couldn’t buy a whore for all the credits in the Utopia,” Dune said. “Gotta get those AI ‘bots that can turn off their noses.”
“Got a question.” Smallfoot leaned back lazily in his chair, which threatened to break under his weight. He was called Smallfoot because of his petite size-five shoes. What he lacked in foot size, he made up in his upper body. From his torso up, he looked like some sort of gorilla, complete with thick black abdominal hair. His furry nature made Athenais wonder how he kept hairs from falling into his patients’ open wounds when he stitched them up.
“Seems ta me it’s strange you’d offer to pay our wages yerself, Capt’in. What’s in it fer ya’ll? Some side-deal we don’t know ‘bout?”
Leave it to Smallfoot to think up a way she could be cheating them.
“There’s no deal,” Athenais said. “I just wanna see Marceau Tempest’s face when we destroy his precious Potion.”
“What you got against the Potion, Capt’in?” It was Fairy, the newest member of the crew. She was also the youngest, no more than two hundred years old. Normally, Athenais would have balked at hiring such youth, but the girl was brilliant at spatial maneuvering. She could pull six seven-twenty degree countermeasures at full power and still be up for calamari and fried zucchini afterwards.
Athenais knew. She had seen it, back when the little brat had been working for the Utopia.
What did she have against the Potion? Athenais couldn’t quite put it to words, but of the handful of Utopians as old as she, they all felt the same way. A vague sense of wrongness, that the Potion had taken away something important and left them with emptiness. The more youthful generations—which was about everybody else—didn’t notice it.
Fairy waited impatiently for a response. Athenais had hired Fairy after the Utopia had discharged her for ‘reckless insubordination’ and ‘unabashed arrogance.’
Athenais had experienced none of those problems.
The first time Fairy took the Beetle on an unauthorized joyride, Athenais had sealed her copilot in the air-lock and took her on a ride of her own, just the two of them. When she finally landed again, Fairy fell out of the air-lock and puked all over the reception corridor while the startled security guard looked on.
All eyes were on her, now. Even Ragnar looked curious.
“Marceau Tempest made it.” Athenais said. “That’s reason enough for me.”
“Your father.” Fairy was still in awe of that fact.
Athenais ignored her.
“Captain,” Squirrel put in, “I don’t mind the pay. Sixty credits is better than working on that rock—” Athenais had found Squirrel on a penal colony after she had been put there for crashing the combined communications systems of three planets, “—But I do want to know what they want us to do.”
“Yeah,” Dune inserted. “What do these colonists want with Beetle, anyways? We can’t sneak onto Eriad. Marceau’d hand us our asses.”
“If a couple dirt-poor colonists can find a way past Eriad’s fleet, then so can we,” Athenais said.
Goat and Smallfoot groaned, but Fairy leaned forward in her chair.
“Anyway, it’s not a done deal,” Athenais told them. “I’ll find out the rest when they show up tomorrow.”
“Right, then,” Dune said, standing. “I got stuff ta do.”
Smallfoot rolled his eyes. “You need to get a girl, man!”
“Got one, thanks,” Dune replied. He pulled out a grease-stained picture of a dunebuggy bearing a winner’s cup. “Her name is Wild Betty and she just won the Moondust Marathon.” At that, he left the mess hall.
“He really needs a girl,” Smallfoot repeated. “You, too, Goat.”
“Prolly right,” Goat said, shrugging.
“Maybe Fairy’d take you under her wing,” Smallfoot continued. “After that last batch of shit she fed us, I doubt she has a sense of smell.”
“You asshole,” Fairy said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Squirrel said with a yawn. “I don’t care what we do. Just have someone come get me when you need me to take up com.”
“Me too, man. I’m outta here,” Goat said. “Got me some tanga-weed to burn.”
“Keep the door shut,” Athenais said.
If Goat heard her, he didn’t reply.
“Sometimes I wonder how he manages to see straight with all the tanga-weed he smokes,” Fairy said.
“Beats me,” Smallfoot said. “What about you? How much tanga-weed you smoke, girl?”
“None!” Fairy said.
“So you mean you’re naturally an airhead?”
“Shut up, Foot,” Ragnar said.
“Fine,” Smallfoot said, raising his hands, “I’ll just head back to The Shop then, if you’re done with me. I’ve got me some unfinished business with them gals in the back.”
When no one objected, he gathered up his coat and left the mess hall.
“You were pretty silent through all this,” Athenais said. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great idea!” Fairy began. “The Eriad fleet couldn’t hold a candle to—”
“I was talking to Ragnar, girl.”
Fairy deflated. “Oh.” She stood. “Guess I’ll be in my room, then.”
“Make sure Goat’s door is closed when you go by,” Athenais said. “I can’t stand the smell of that shit.”
Fairy nodded and left.
Ragnar watched Fairy depart. “I think we should hear ‘em out.”
“You don’t care about the money?”
“You know my feelings. Marceau is playing God.”
Athenais had caught Ragnar stowed away on her ship almost four hundred years earlier. They had just unloaded a shipment of tanga-weed on a buyer on Eriad and were on their way to a job on Terra-7 when Athenais caught him crawling around in the ventilation. How he had gotten on the ship was still a mystery to Athenais, and she still hadn’t been able to wrench that little bit of information out of him.
Once she had forced Ragnar out into the open at the wrong end of an overcharged semiautomatic flesh-seeker, Ragnar had eaten like a starving man but refused to mention how he had gotten on Marceau’s bad side. All he told her was that he had had to get off planet right then and didn’t have any money to pay her.
That had been an interesting development. Athenais had made him cook for the rest of the trip, and when she tried to boot him off at the first inhabited planet she found, she found him in the ventilation again as soon as they left port.
At that point, Athenais could have thrown him into space with no regrets, but instead she surprised everyone and gave him the permanent position of ship’s cook. He had gradually climbed the ranks as crewmembers retired or Athenais fired them, landing the position of First Mate after only thirty years.
The crew liked Ragnar. He was honest, hardworking, and, though he didn’t specialize in any one thing, he could fill in for any one of the crew if they got sick or needed a day off. Sometimes, when she was bored, Athenais wondered who would wind up on a deserted planet if she and Ragnar ever had a falling out.
“I want to do it,” Ragnar said. “This might be our chance.”
“It might,” Athenais agreed, “But they better have a damn good plan. Otherwise it’s a no-go.”
“You’re a fool,” Athenais laughed. “You haven’t even heard them out yet.”
“Yes I have,” Ragnar said.
Ragnar saw her piercing look and hesitated. “The man with the missing finger.”
“What about him?”
“He’s my brother.”
Athenais’s jaw fell open.
“Our ship crashed on Penoi,” Ragnar went on quickly. “Twenty-three of us in all. Fourteen died in the crash. Paul and two others escaped the wreckage before Marceau found it. He took me an’ five others to labs on Eriad.”
“You’re a shifter?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“And here I thought there was a ventilation duct that I didn’t know about. Hell, you probably walked right past me.”
“I’ll be damned.” Athenais stared at him. “No wonder you’re a shitty cook.”
“Yeah,” Ragnar said. “No taste buds.”
“A cook without taste buds.” Athenais would have laughed if the joke hadn’t been on her. “So what’s your role in this? You plan to take Beetle from me if I don’t help you?”
“Beetle’s yours,” Ragnar assured her. “Just listen to my brother when he comes. He’ll tell you everything.”
“He older or younger?”
Ragnar frowned. “We are the same age.”
“Who came out first?”
“We hatched at the same time."
“Hatched? So you guys lay eggs?”
Ragnar scowled. “We’re off subject.”
Athenais laughed. “That’s what your brother said.” She eyed him. “So go on, shift. Show me something.”
“Shifting is a survival technique, not a freak show.” Ragnar said.
Athenais was not so easily refused. “You’re asking for my help, so the least you could do is shift for me.”
Ragnar glanced at the entrance to the mess hall. “Not here.”
“My room, then.” She grabbed his elbow and tugged him down the hall. Ragnar dragged his feet and balked at the entrance.
“Really, Athenais, this isn’t necessary.”
“Get in there,” Athenais told him. She gave him a shove, then stepped in behind him and shut the door. She locked it with a few keystrokes, then turned on him. “There. Your secret is safe.”
“Attie…” Ragnar began.
“Don’t Attie me! Shift!”
“Oh?! My paramour turns out to be an alien on the Utopia’s Most Wanted list! Damn it!” Athenais caught herself on the wall and laughed. “Before I met you, I knew I had man trouble, but Jesus Christ! You’re not even a man. You’re a goddamn alien!”
“Yeah,” Ragnar said, “I wanted to tell you.”
“You wanted to tell me?!” She couldn’t stop laughing. “At what point? After you learned enough to rat me out to your brother?”
“My brother didn’t even realize I was alive until a few months ago. We haven’t had any contact until this morning.”
“What about those other two thugs? Those shifters, too?”
“No,” Ragnar told her. “Colonists.”
“So how long you been planning this? Since before you got on my ship?”
“Back then I just needed a way off-planet.”
“So what do you want from me now?”
Ragnar sighed. “I’m not gonna lie to you. I got on Beetle just looking for a chance to escape Eriad. When I realized who you were, I knew I couldn’t get off or we’d never find you again.”
Athenais stiffened. “Who I was?”
“One of the first Utopians,” Ragnar said. “The ones carrying the original technology.”
“Original technology? What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Potion that Marceau gave the first Utopians was different than the one he gave everyone else. It was unrefined, strong. Completely self-sustained.”
Athenais continued to give him a blank look.
“Okay, let me put it a different way,” Ragnar said. “You remember everything that has ever happened to you since getting that injection, right?”
“Unfortunate, that.” There were plenty of things she wished she could forget.
“Ever wondered why nobody else remembers more than a hundred years back?”
“And haven’t you wondered why your body can rebuild itself from scratch, even when you are badly burned?”
“’Ashes’ is a bit worse than ‘badly burned,’ Ragnar.” The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth. She paused. “So what am I? A robot?”
“No,” Ragnar said. “Your consciousness, your brain patterns, your DNA and body structure… All were imprinted on the Potion as soon as Marceau gave it to you. You’re still you.”
Athenais stood up. “So what do you want?”
“We want to break into the labs on Eriad and destroy the technology,” Ragnar said. “Morgan and Paul have gotten the codes to get us all the way to the vault. All we need to do is blow it to pieces. Then, after we’ve done that, we need ongoing samples of the old technology to rid the population of any remaining Potion.”
“Is that possible?” Then she frowned. “What do you mean by the ‘old technology?’”
“The difference between the Potion your father gave to you and the one he now gives out to everyone else is that yours can survive outside the body whereas the new technology can not. We need something that can survive without a host in order to create a cure.”
Athenais pressed her lips together. “Paul told me you already had the cure.”
Ragnar flinched. “We don’t, but with your help, we will soon.”
“And then what? What would you do with the cure?”
“Put it in the water supply,” Ragnar said.
“You sound like this is a done deal. Are you that sure of those access codes?”
“Morgan and Paul have been working on this for years.”
Athenais considered that. “What do you have against the Potion? You ask me, you should leave us all to our misery.”
“You ever wondered why you’ve never had to go back to Eriad for repeat injections when everybody else has to go every hundred years?” Ragnar asked her.
“Lucky, I guess,” Athenais said. “I hate needles.”
“The old technology was a one-shot deal,” Ragnar told her. “The new stuff requires periodic dosings to keep the body working.”
“So?” Athenais asked.
“For every Potion Marceau gives out, he kills a colonist to incubate it.”
“Marceau raids Penoi daily. The ones he brings back are injected with a replicating form of the Potion. The next few days are agony for them as the technology spreads and reproduces. After their flesh becomes mush and their organs stop working, their entire bodies are centrifuged to retrieve the technology.”
“He’s killing colonists.”
“Yes. That’s why Penoi’s never grown advanced enough to join the Utopia, even though it’s right at its center.”
Athenais’s fingers curled into stiff fists. “That son of a bitch.” She slumped against the wall with her head resting against the metal, her eyes closed. “You’re damned right I’ll help you.”
Dallas hurriedly moved away from the mess hall entry as the Captain and her First Mate headed for her chambers. She hid in a supply closet while they passed, then stayed there for long minutes, considering what she had heard.
A shifter. Ragnar was a shifter.
It was so exciting she could hardly breathe. The knowledge was too exhilarating to keep to herself. She wanted to tell somebody, but who?
Squirrel only cared about her books. Goat was probably already too stoned to talk to her. Dune was busy with his latest buggy. That left Smallfoot. She hated Smallfoot. But she had to tell somebody. It was going to eat a hole in her brain if she didn’t.
Smallfoot would be easy enough to find, though she’d probably have to wait a while for him to finish with his whores. That would give her a chance to hang out in the Shop, maybe catch sight of the other shifter.
Dallas extracted herself from the closet and hurriedly picked up the mop when it fell. The sound it made was loud enough to wake the dead, but thankfully the Captain did not emerge from her room to investigate. Dallas slammed the utility door shut before anything else could fall out and ran full-bore toward the air-lock.
Dallas emerged in Reception Hub N of the Terra-9 spaceport. A guard looked up from behind his desk and gave her a polite nod as she passed. She waved at him and hurried down the hall. The hub opened onto the main terminal, where merchants sold everything from beer to supplies to engine parts. Officially, prostitution was illegal on Terra-9, but places like The Shop brought so much revenue to the tiny planet that the government would never actively seek them out and destroy them.
In return, The Shop stayed planetside, dragging credits off the spaceport and into the local economy.
Dallas found a shuttle that was servicing the Forgotten District and paid the driver three credits. She was given a seat near the back where she waited until another forty passengers had boarded, then buckled her harness and held on as the shuttle jerked free of the space port and dropped into Terra-9’s atmosphere.
After a shaky ride, the shuttle landed in the central square and waited just long enough for everyone to disembark before jetting back into space. Dallas grabbed the first land-tram to The Shop and waited through three other stops before getting off.
By the time Dallas reached The Shop, she was ready to burst. She walked inside, asked Giggles for a scotch, and took it with her in search of Smallfoot.
It was the first time she’d been in The Shop before, and it was an unnerving experience. The tables of spacers stared at her like she had golden horns protruding from her temples, so Dallas found herself retreating to the relative darkness of the back rooms to avoid their eyes. The gaming tables were lit up with single shaded lights hanging from the ceiling. The row of slot machines along the side walls blinked with multicolored lights. Set into the back wall, a tall red curtain separated the gaming from the more illicit wares.
Dallas sat down at one of the empty tables to wait.
“You gonna play?” A dealer with an energy pistol strapped to his belt gave Dallas a hard glance. “Drinkin’ tables’re out front.”
“I’m waiting for someone,” Dallas replied.
“Not here, you ain’t. This’s my table. Go back out wi’ Giggles if you ain’t gonna play.”
“I know Rabbit,” Dallas warned. It wasn’t quite true, but her Captain did.
“So do I,” the dealer said. “Now git.” He put his hand to his energy pistol.
Dallas got up and went over to the curtain. Muffled giggles and grunts emanated from the darkness beyond. She considered going inside, then hesitated and leaned against the wall instead. The dealer glared at her from under his table’s harsh white light, but Dallas ignored him and sipped her scotch.
Dallas wasn’t sure how much time went by before Smallfoot emerged from the curtained rooms but she had refilled her scotch twice and was beginning to feel quite tipsy. The dealer laughed at her and offered to let her play at his table with a starting credit of fifty chips, but Smallfoot came out before she could sit down.
“Fairy?” he asked when he saw her. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I can leave the ship just as well as you,” Dallas said.
Smallfoot laughed. “Yeah, but here? Only Cap’in’s stupid enough to come here… You’re drunk, ain’t ya?”
“Nothin’ I can’t handle,” Dallas said. She staggered to her feet—she didn’t remember falling—and steadied herself on a slot machine. The contents of her tumbler spilled out over the black leather swivel-chair, ice cubes clattering to the floor with little pattering sounds. Dallas stared at them, wondering how they got out of her glass.
“Come on, now,” Smallfoot said, taking a shoulder. “Let’s get you home.”
“I ain’t got a home, asshole,” Dallas slurred.
“You got Beetle,” Smallfoot told her. He wasn’t very tall, but he was strong. He lifted Dallas to her feet and slung her arm over his shoulder. He started carrying her out of the gaming room.
“Beetle’s crawlin with shifters,” Dallas said. “Can’t tell who’s who anymore.”
Smallfoot laughed as he led her into the bar. “That true? Goat’s a character, but I wouldn’t call him a shifter. Just a little bit of a weeder’s all.”
“No,” Dallas said, emphatic, “Shifters.” She pulled Smallfoot to a halt and grabbed him by the shoulder, looking him in the eye. “Ragnar’s a shifter.”
Smallfoot gave her a strange look and laughed. “Ragnar’s in bed with th’ Capt’in. Sneaky way t’ make First Mate, but gotta make a livin’ somehow. Besides, I wouldn’t trade his job for anythin’. Attie’s a bitch.”
“You don’t understand,” Dallas said. “I heard them. Ragnar’s a shifter. So’s the colonist. They’re brothers. Crashed on Penoi. Missing a finger.”
Smallfoot looked around and pulled her to an empty corner of the bar. Dallas followed, ecstatic that he was finally taking her seriously.
“Fairy,” Smallfoot said as he leaned across the table to her, “What’re ya saying?”
“My name’s Dallas,” she said. “I hate Fairy.”
“Dallas,” Smallfoot said. “Tell me whatcha mean.”
“Buy me some more scotch.”
Smallfoot frowned at her but went over to Giggles and asked for another scotch. He returned and set it down in front of her.
“Lean closer,” Dallas whispered.
Smallfoot did as she asked.
“Closer,” Dallas insisted.
“Damn it, Fairy,” Smallfoot said, but he complied.
“I heard them talking,” Dallas said. She glanced back and forth to make sure nobody had heard her.
“Heard who talking?” Smallfoot said. “And stop shouting. Giggles is watching you.”
Dallas looked over at Giggles and stared at him until he went back to wiping down the counters behind the shield of glass. When she turned back to Smallfoot, she said, “Ragnar and the Captain. Ragnar’s a shifter.” She took a deep drink of scotch and found that it didn’t burn in her throat as it had before. She downed it in a few swallows and steadied herself on the table.
“Fairy,” Smallfoot said, putting his huge hand over her forearm.
“My name is Dallas,” she said.
“Dallas,” Smallfoot said, “You’re telling me Ragnar said he’s a shifter? To the Capt’in?”
“His brother, too,” Dallas agreed. “The one with no finger.”
Smallfoot stared at her for a long time before breaking out in hearty guffaws.
Dallas prickled, but when she tried to stand, she fell flat on her face. Smallfoot bent down, threw her over his shoulder, and headed for the door of The Shop. She heard Giggles and some others laughing before she lost consciousness.