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3 /// Three’s A Crowd

I was in the cargo hold with Karrie, securing crates which had shaken loose after the last phase-out from voidspace, when Ella buzzed me to say she was picking up a mayday signal.

I looked at her face on my wrist-com. “We’ll be right up, Ella.”

I’d bought A Long Way From Home on the cheap, and had never had lift-pads installed. It was a long climb up the ladder from the hold to the flight-deck.

On the way Karrie said, “You should see yourself when you’re talking to Ella.”

I looked up at her. “Give it a rest, Karrie.” This wasn’t her first dig about how I was acting towards our pilot.

“Straight up, Ed,” Karrie went on. “You’re like a love-sick teenager.”

“I’m old enough to be her father.”

Karrie snorted. She stopped, lodged an elbow on the deck of the corridor leading to our cabins, and peered down at me. I stopped too, rather than crash into her boots.

“Reality check, Ed. My objection isn’t your relative ages. It’s the fact that she isn’t even human.”

I sighed. “Climb, Karrie, okay? We’ve got a mayday signal to attend to, remember?”

She climbed, but she didn’t shut up. “No, I’m serious. You shouldn’t let yourself fall for something that’s no more than a meat shell wrapped around a complex integrated processor.”

A meat shell and an integrated processor that mimics a twenty year-old Venezuelan Indian girl, I thought to myself.

“I’m not falling for her,” I said. But who was I kidding?

Karrie sighed. “Ed, I just don’t want to see you get hurt, is all. Remind yourself, next time you’re feeling lustful towards her, that she’s a machine.”

I considered. “Okay, I’ll do that – if you promise me one thing.”

“Name it.”

“That you’ll act civilly towards her.”

“You mean, treat it as if it’s a human being?”

“Exactly that. And you can start by calling her Ella, not it, okay?”

She thought about that, then said, “You don’t want me to hurt its feelings, Ed? Listen to me: it’s machine. It has no feelings. It thinks, it doesn’t feel.”

“Karrie, do it for me, please.”

“Okay, if you stop looking at it with those come-to-bed eyes.”

“Deal,” I said, wondering if I could keep up my part of it.


Karrie slipped into the flight-deck and eased herself into the engineer’s sling, ignoring Ella as she passed. I hitched myself into the pilot’s sling and glanced across at my co-pilot.

And Karrie wanted me to ignore Ella? Listen, my brain told me she was a vat-grown biological body on the outside of a very clever AI core, but all I could see was what I’d seen back in the bar on Procyon VII: a beautiful, vulnerable twenty year-old without a friend in the universe.

I know: call me stupid.

I was aware of Karrie’s eyes on me, and tried not to stare too long at Ella. She’d taken to wearing very little on the hot flight-deck: skimpy ripped shorts and a bandanna knotted between small breasts. That left a lot of sweat-sheened mocha flesh to avoid looking at.

“So what gives?” I said.

“I picked up a mayday signal seven minutes ago, Ed. It’s weak, but that’s because it’s from space-norm.”


Her eyes rolled to show their milky whites as she accessed the ship’s smartware core. A jack connected the back of her head to the com-console before us.

“No identification, but my guess is it’s alien.”

“Alien?” I sat up. “What kind of alien?”

She shook her head. “The mayday’s routed through a translation program, which suggests it isn’t one of the common species.”

“Intriguing. So let’s go have a look-see, okay?”

Ella nodded.

I glanced across at Karrie. “You second that?”

She glared at me. “Thanks for asking. Yeah, let’s see what trouble the greenies have got themselves into.”

I ignored her venom, and her species-ism. “Okay, hold on tight,” I said as I eased A Long Way From Home out of voidspace.

We rattled about like a tin can in a particle accelerator, and a minute later the grey of voidspace was replaced with the limitless black of space-norm, scattered with distant suns.

Ella touched her pad with slim fingers, and the alien ship appeared on the delta viewscreen before us.

“If that isn’t the strangest looking shit-pile I’ve ever seen,” Karrie opined, leaning forward in her sling.

Loath though I was to give credence to Karrie’s scatological description, the alien ship did look somewhat... biological, let’s say.

Karrie went one better. “It’s a flying turd, Ed.”

Ella, staring at the ship, corrected her, “That’s highly unlikely, Karrie. For one thing, excreted faecal matter would not emit a mayday signal.”

“So literal, aren’t we, girl?” Karrie smiled sweetly across at Ella, who didn’t so much as blink.

“Okay, you two,” I said. “Ella, will you open a com-channel, please?”

She tapped again, and seconds later the flight-deck was filled with a high, intense jabbering. A second after that, the translation program kicked in.

“...request immediate assistance... Structural integrity breached. Total systems failure... Atmosphere remaining: one hour. We request immediate assistance...”

I said, “Hail them. Identify ourselves and request identification. Ask how many individuals they are. Tell them we’ll help if we can.”

Ella fingered the pad, then spoke into her com, giving our species designation and willingness to aid, if that were possible.

Of course, if the aliens breathed methane, or some other noxious mix, then all we could do would be to tow the ship to the closest inhabited planet and hope some outfit there could effect repairs.

“...I am [untranslatable]... from star Jaykendra. Atmosphere compatibility with that of Homo sapiens, within tolerances... I am one individual, and kindly request permission to board.”

I looked at Karrie and Ella. “One of ’em... Okay, we can house it in the hold until we get to Altair with the ship in tow. Then we’ll hand it over to the Federation and lodge a compensation claim. Who knows, it might even come through in ten years or so.”

Karrie nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

Ella said, “I’ll relay our willingness to assist.”

A Long Way From Home calling... Request granted.”

I eased the ship alongside the alien vessel, scanning its length for any sign of an egress port. Failing that, I’d take a bell cross and cut my way through its skin.

I found a likely looking bud beside the ship’s front end. Without being told, Ella initiated the com-program to customise our docking rig to the alien ship’s port.

As the umbilical snaked across the gulf, I said to Ella, “Set the smartware program to scan for weapons when they come across.”

She nodded. “Will do.”

I said, “Any chance of establishing a visual connection? I’d like to see what our house guest looks like before it boards.”

She nodded and tapped at her pad. “I’m getting something, but it’s low-res.”

The alien ship flickered from the viewscreen. In its place was a murky interior shot of what I took to be the flight-deck, or its equivalent.

I leaned forward, staring.

“Ugly looking beasts,” Karrie observed. “And I thought there was only one of the critters?”

Disappearing through a circular exit hatch were what looked like three overweight caterpillars, dun coloured and bristling with spines.

“Could have been a translation error,” I said.

The aliens shuffled off into the depths of their ship and disappeared from view.

A minute later Ella reported, “They’re in the umbilical, and they’re clean. They’re carrying nothing in the way of weapons. They should be aboard in a couple of minutes.”

“Close the bulkheads and route them into the hold,” I said. “Karrie, ready the grapples and grab the ship.”

“If they’ll stick,” she said under her breath.

“And then,” I said, “we’ll phase-out and make for Altair. St Christopher would be proud.”

I set course and found myself looking forward to greeting our hapless guests.


“Ella, can you copy the translation program and come with me to the hold?”

She nodded, tapped her com and rolled her eyes as the program downloaded itself into her cache.

“Why take her?” Karrie asked, glaring at me.

“Because,” I said patiently, “you’re supposed to be grabbing the alien ship, and I need Ella to translate.”

“I could have taken a portable core,” Karrie pointed out.

I glanced at Ella. She was still communing with the smartware. “There’s one other thing, Karrie. Ella will be armed, and her reactions are faster than yours – and mine, too, okay?

“According to the smartware, they’re unarmed, Ed.”

“They’re unarmed – but they’re alien. I’m taking no risks. They might be what they claim to be, but how do I know that? That’s why I’m locking them in the hold until I know, one way or the other.”

Ella unjacked her head from the console and nodded at me. “All set, Ed.”

Lips pursed, Karrie swung back to the viewscreen and commenced grabbing the alien ship.

We climbed down from the flight-deck, detouring to the store-room in order to pick up a stunner. I passed the sleek pistol to Ella. “Know how to use one of these?”

She took it, turned it over in her hand, found a port and slipped an extrusion from her index finger into the butt. She closed her eyes, and opened them a second later. “Do now,” she said.

“We’ll keep our distance and I’ll find out who and what they are. I’m sure things’ll be fine, but it’s best to be careful.”

She nodded. “Understood.”

I led the way to the hold.


We paused before the sliding door and looked through the viewscreen.

The hold was big – around the size of a skyball court – and half-filled with packing crates and containers. The lighting in there was dim, and it was a second before I made out our guests.

One of them was curled on a crate, spiralled as if asleep. Another was humping itself across the floor, from crate to crate, as if carrying out an inspection. The third creature was positioned in the middle of the hold, its front half rearing upwards, its big, faceted eyes – like black sieves – staring at the door as if it were expecting us.

I pressed the sensor panel and the door slid open.

The first thing I noticed was the smell, the unpleasant, adenoid-pinching reek of formaldehyde or chloroform. The second thing was the high chittering that passed between the creatures as we stepped into the hold. The sleeping alien uncurled itself and slid from its perch, while the curious creature left off its investigations and shuffled across to join its mates. All three faced us, rearing as if in some form of ritual greeting.

The chittering had ceased, as if they were waiting for me to speak. I glanced at Ella and said, “What were they saying?”

A pretty frown creased her flawless forehead. “I didn’t catch all of it, but it was something along the lines of, ‘We have company. Be aware...’ or ‘Be vigilant’.”

I cleared my throat. “Welcome to my ship, A Long Way From Home. I am Ed, the captain; this is Ella, my co-pilot.”

I paused while Ella translated this. It was a strange experience listening to the high twitters she emitted, as if this wild-looking Amazon had suddenly taken to trilling like a bird.

The central alien, a little larger than the others, had reared up and now swayed from side to side as it spoke. Imagine the high notes of a piccolo, segueing into those of a dog whistle. The trans-sonics soon gave me a headache.

Ella listened attentively, and turned to me when the whistling ceased.

“There was nothing wrong with the earlier translation, Ed, when it said they were one. It is. It’s a composite life-form, a gestalt soma-form. It might be three separate bodies, but one mind governs the whole, one identity.”

“I’ve heard about them. Aren’t they from out beyond the Nazzruddin Stardrift?” In my thirty years in space, I’d had dealings with perhaps a dozen of the more common alien races, and heard stories of a dozen others which kept themselves to themselves.

“Their homeworld is a moon of a gas giant orbiting a red supergiant in the ’Drift,” she said. “They don’t often come this far into the Rim.”

“They have different functions, right? I mean, each section has a specialism.”

Ella nodded. “I think so. The central section is the communicator, though they communicate among themselves as well – each section has two brains, one composite, and a secondary, rudimentary cerebellum which is what houses its specialism... as far as I can make out.”

“What do the other sections do?”

“I’ll ask.” She phased into shrill twitters again, and seconds later the central section of the tri-partite caterpillar analogue replied.

Ella reported, “The section on our left is the observer, the one on the right is a...” She frowned again, and my stomach flipped at the sight of the pretty crease, like quote marks, that appeared between her molten eyes. “The translator’s having trouble with the word. It’s something like an organiser or planner.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Could you ask them what brought them so far from home?”

She relayed my question, and the Communicator replied.

I watched its tiny, bud-like mouth work, while the flesh that covered its body undulated with a queasy kind of external peristalsis, its foot-long spines rising and falling with the motion.

“They were heading for a star along the Rim on a trading mission,” Ella said, “a hundred light years from their homestar. Their ship suffered a malfunction while in voidspace and they overshot their destination. When they phased out, they found themselves a thousand light years from home.”

“They can thank their lucky stars we were passing,” I said. “Okay, tell them that we’ll take them as far as Altair, then hand them over to the Federation authorities. That should take a day. Ask them if they need anything in the way of food or water.”

Ella nodded and relayed my words.

The Communicator swayed, its head turning so that its big, multi-celled eyes regarded first me and then Ella as it replied.

Ella said, “It thanks us, and is happy with the prospect of being taken to Altair. It does not require sustenance – apparently it last ate three days ago, and will not require food for another three days.”

“Ask if we can forward any messages to its own kind about their circumstances.”

Ella passed on the offer, to which the Communicator replied that that would not be necessary. “It said that they will contact their superiors via the Federation when they reach Altair.”

“Very well. Okay, tell them if there is anything else they require, we’ll provide it if we can.”

Ella spoke. The Communicator replied. “They require nothing more, Ed. And they thank us again for our assistance.”

I nodded towards the Communicator, smiled and raised a hand in farewell, feeling awkward as I always did in the company of sentient creatures with whom I had nothing in common.

Before we left the hold, Ella reached out to the control panel beside the sliding door and tapped in a code. We stepped from the hold, and as the door slid shut behind us, I asked, “What were you doing?”

“I’ve set the speakers to pick up anything they say to each other, and then to broadcast it to me.”

I stared. “Why?”

She looked at me. “Ed, while they were speaking to us... they were communicating among themselves.”

I stared at her. “Are you sure? I mean, I didn’t hear anything.” Nor, for that matter, did I see the Communicator’s mouth move. I said as much to Ella, and asked if we were dealing with a ventriloquist caterpillar. Her unblinking gaze told me that she didn’t appreciate the joke.

“Ed, they communicated to themselves in sub-sonics, sub-vocalising deep within their throats.”

“Did the translation program catch anything?”

“I was concentrating on what they said to us.” She closed her eyes. “I’m working on the translation now...”

I watched her as her eyes turned up, showing full, macabre orbs of white. She looked at me and said, “It’s difficult... The sub-sonics is a secondary language, quite different from the audible primary. The program can’t decode as much... They were saying something about... whether they can trust us, or not.”

I shrugged. “Well, perhaps that’s to be expected, in the circumstances. Anyway, we’ve got to remember that they’re alien, and we can’t judge their words and actions as we might those of our own kind.”

I realised what I’d said, then, as she gave me a look and replied, “Do you think I am in ignorance of the difference inherent in other sentients? As Karrie would say, do you take me for a dummy?”

I smiled at her acute observation.

She closed her eyes suddenly, listening to something deep within her cache. “Ed, they asked each other if... we suspected.

“Suspected what?”

“That’s the frustrating thing – they didn’t say,” she said. “But they were worried that we might suspect something.”

She reached out and touched the control panel beside the door. The speaker relayed nothing but silence from the hold.

Ella said, “Let’s return to the flight-deck and listen in. They might communicate audibly when we’re not about.”

We climbed, Ella first, and I kept my eyes averted from the sight of her bottom as she climbed nimbly to the flight-deck.


Karrie had successfully caught the alien ship in our grapples, and we were all set to phase-out. I slipped into the pilot’s sling and initiated phase-out, and seconds later the stars disappeared. All that could be seen through the viewscreen now was the marmoreal grey of the void, and in the foreground the lumpish outline of the alien vessel, riding close.

I gave Karrie a quick resume of our audience with the Jaykendrans, and told her about Ella’s suspicions.

She raised a sceptical eye-brow. “Aliens are notoriously difficult to work out, Ed. I mean, they’re hard enough for us humans to fathom, and we’re biological. What hope would a non-human processing system have?”

I glanced across at Ella. She was in her sling, jacked into the com-panel.

“I think you underestimate her intelligence, Karrie. Anyway, remember our deal.”

She smiled at me, but there was nothing friendly in the smile. “I saw you ogling her ass a minute ago, for Chrissake. Deal’s off. And anyway, it doesn’t have real intelligence, just advanced parallel processing abilities.” At least Karrie had the grace to say this in little more than a whisper.

A minute later Ella unjacked and said, “I’ve routed the speaker through the com.” She reached out and fingered her touchpad. “We’ll be able hear everything they say.”

I lay back and eyed the speaker above our head, expectantly.

Karrie said, mocking, “Think they’re planning to take over the ship, Ella?”

“I cannot guess what they might be planning, Karrie. However, we might soon learn.”

After a minute of absolute silence, a sound issued from the speaker.

Karrie said, “Sounds like they need tuning, Ed. Think that’s a plot to sabotage us?”

I glared her into silence.

Ella said, “I’ll route myself into the ’core. What I say from now on is a literal translation of their words, okay?”

I nodded. I noticed that even Karrie was sitting forward in her sling.

From the speaker above my head, a high tweeting commenced. A second later, Ella spoke in a flat, emotionless voice.

“We can assume it is dead?”

“Dead, certainly, or dying.”

“Will they have the [untranslatable] to learn of our scheme?”


I looked across at Karrie, who pulled an alarmed scowl.

The tweeting resumed, and Ella spoke.

“They are human, and therefore limited.”

“But the small one, it is not human.”

“It is a synthetic, and therefore dangerous.”

A pause, then, “What now?”

“We wait. Soon, we will gain our freedom.”

“I would like assurance that [untranslatable] is dead.”

“Cease your concern. It is incapacitated. That is sufficient.”


We listened, expectantly, but no further warblings issued from the hold.

Ella unjacked herself and looked from Karrie to me. “They are not what we assumed them to be, Ed.”

I said, “So... what do you make of that?”

Karrie said, “Who the hell were they talking about? Who’s dead?”

“Obviously,” Ella replied, “someone or something aboard the ship.”

I was sweating. “That thing about gaining freedom...”

“Is the hold secure?” Karrie said.

Ella said, “Of course. Locked from the outside.”

“So what do we do? I’d like your suggestions. Ella?”

She was instant with her reply, “The Jaykendran was in doubt about whether someone or something in the alien ship was dead. We should cross to the ship and find out.”

“Karrie? Any thoughts?”

“Seeing as how the critter is locked in the hold, we have time to do as Ella said.”

I considered the situation. “Okay, we’ll get ourselves over there. Ella, link the umbilical.”

Karrie said, “Who’s going, Ed?”

Nothing was going to keep me from poking around inside the alien ship, and it would make sense if Ella accompanied me. I told Karrie this, and she said under her breath, “How did I guess?”

I stared at her. “What do you mean by that?”

She looked away, through the viewscreen at the alien ship. “Just that you and hot-pants seem inseparable these days. Word of advice, keep your mind on the job when you’re over there, okay?”

“Jesus, Karrie.”

Ella reported, “Umbilical locked.”

“Okay, let’s go.”


We climbed from the flight-deck and hurried along the corridor to the umbilical, passing the hold where the Jaykendrans were imprisoned.

As I followed Ella along the umbilical to the alien ship, she said, “Karrie seems perturbed by my presence, Ed.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s called jealousy.”

“She assumes that you and I are involved physically?”

Well, that was one way of putting it. “No, it’s just that she thinks I’d like us to be.”

A pause, then, “And would you?”

I felt myself blush, and was glad Ella was leading the way and couldn’t see me. “No, of course not.”

“We could become intimate, Ed.”

My heart hammered. “Would you like that?”

She said, “I have the integrated processing to appreciate physical and sexual intimacy.”

“Ella, I said: ‘Would you like that?’”

She considered the question. “It would be interesting,” she said at last.

“Interesting,” I repeated. Despite myself, I said. “Let’s just keep our relationship professional, okay?”

She nodded. “That’s fine by me, Ed.”

She’s a computer, I told myself; an AI who just happens to look like a highly desirable human being.

We came to the hatch that opened at our approach to reveal the murky interior of the alien ship. Ella led the way down a soft corridor – ‘soft’ as in the floor seemed to be manufactured from some padded, fibrous material. The effect was like walking across a mattress. To steady myself I reached out to a wall, then retracted my hand quickly. The surface seemed to be coated with a tacky, sebaceous fluid.

“What the hell is this?” I said.

“My theory is that the ship is biological, Ed. Not manufactured, but grown.”

We came to what approximated to the flight-deck, an oval chamber plunged into a visceral gloaming and equipped with what looked like vegetable pods affixed to the floor and ceiling by stalks.

“Okay, we’re looking for a victim...maybe another of their kind.”

“Let’s start here and then move systematically through the ship,” Ella said.

I stared around the flight-deck. There was no sight of a tri-partite dead Jaykendran.

Then Ella touched my arm and said, “Look, Ed...”

I looked across the chamber to where she was pointing.

The slit in the skin of the chamber appeared for all the world like a wound, a metre-long incision through flesh and muscle, revealing weeping arteries and lacerated organs.

“There are more, Ed!”

Once I’d seen one wound – if it were a wound – I saw others everywhere I looked on the floor, walls and ceiling.

It looked like someone had gone berserk with a samurai sword.

Ella stiffened and grabbed my arm. At the same time, I heard it.

A barely audible mewling filled the air around us.

“What the hell...?” I began.

“It’s speaking,” Ella said. “The ship. It’s speaking to us.”

My heart raced. “Can you translate?”

She nodded. “The language is Jaykendran,” she said. She closed her eyes, concentrating.

When she opened them, she appeared alarmed. “I’ll let the ship speak through me, Ed.”

Seconds later, she channelled the wounded starship. “Help me... You... human, yes? You can assist me?”

“Ask it what happened,” I told her.

She twittered, and the starship replied. Ella relayed, “It attacked me, disabled me. Committed... [untranslatable]. It is dangerous, be warned.”

She asked a question of her own, and then channelled the ship’s reply. “I am Thendra, police ship, custodial transport vessel. My prisoner... it is a killer. On my world, it killed citizens for material gain. I was transporting the prisoner to Handra for trial, and punitive segmentation. It... [untranslatable] and attacked me, attempted to kill me. While I was incapacitated, it called for your assistance. Be warned, the prisoner is dangerous. It will kill you and commandeer your ship.”

I said to Ella, “But the Jaykendra isn’t armed-”

She spoke to the ship, and received a swift reply. She said, “It doesn’t need weapons as we understand them Ed. It... ejects acid. You can see what it did in here.”

I said, “Can we help the ship?”

“The ship is not mortally wounded, but severely incapacitated. It is healing,  but it will take time to be fully functional. Perhaps weeks. It is more concerned about our welfare.”

I considered the alien in our hold, and said, “Tell the ship that we have the prisoner under restraint.”

She relayed my words and listened as the ship replied. She looked at me, eyes wide. “The ship says that the prisoner will not be constrained by the hold. The acid... it can eat through metal.”

A cold sweat clutched me. “What they hell is it planning?”

“The ship says that it will attempt a take-over of our ship, in order to escape.”

“Jesus. What can we do?”

Ella closed her eyes and spoke to the alien ship. I watched her as she emitted trills like a piccolo, the beautiful and birdlike notes incongruous coming from her full lips.

At that second, my wrist-com buzzed.

I accessed the call with a premonition of dread.

Karrie stared up at me from the tiny screen. “Ed! The bastards broke out of the hold! They crawled up to the flight-deck, spat fucking acid at me!”

“Where are you now?”

“I dived out, nearly killed myself getting away. I locked myself in my berth – but they’re on the flight-deck and who knows what they’re planning.”

“You okay?”

“Bruised and sore, but I’ll live.”

“Hold on. We’re coming over. We’ll be with you soon.” I looked at Ella. She was listening attentively to the ship’s warblings. “Listen, Karrie. We’ll keep the com-channel open. Tell me if the bastard comes after you, okay?

“Will do. What have you found over there?”

“Can’t explain now,” I said, as Ella opened her eyes and stared at me.

“Ed,” she said, “the ship has a plan. It says it can help us.”


Ella explained, “The ship says that if we can incapacitate one of its parts, then the others will be rendered ineffective.”

“The stunner?”

Ella lifted the pistol and nodded. “It should work. We have others in store-room. All we need is one shot.”

“And then, when we’ve stunned one of its segments?”

“The ship says that the prisoner’s action has provoked summary justice.”


“Meaning that we should return the section to the ship, and it will then eject the stunned section into space. The others will be taken to Thendra, where they will be tried and most likely reintegrated with a complementary, non-criminal section.”

I nodded, marvelling at the complexity of our alien neighbours.

“Okay, okay...” I paused, looking across at Ella. “So, how do we go about this?”

“We get back to our ship, grab another stunner, and climb to the flight-deck.”

“Leaving ourselves open to the prisoner taking acid pot-shots at us?”

“I’ll go first. I can shut off my pain receptors if I’m hit.”

My stomach flipped at the thought. “I’m not letting you get yourself killed.”

“So what do you suggest?”

I thought about it, came up with nothing. “Okay, we’ll go over. But I’ll go first.”

Ella stared at me. “I can’t let you do that, Ed.”

“Ella, I’m the captain here.”

“Which is the reason why you are not expendable. Besides, I’m a non-human entity, Ed.”

“Not to me, Ella.”

She shook her head and said, calmly, “Madness.”

The impasse was interrupted by Karrie, shouting at me from my wrist-com. “Ed, for Chrissake... I just patched into the surveillance cams. One of the bastards is leaving the flight-deck and heading this way!”

I stared at Ella. “Let’s get going!” To Karrie I said, “We’re on our way.”


As we negotiated the umbilical, Ella said, “This might work in our favour, Ed.”

“How so?”

“Think about it. If one of the segments is going after Karrie, and two others are on the flight-deck, then it’ll make it easier to stun one of them.”

“The section heading for Karrie,” I said.

We entered the ship and Ella paused, stunner raised as she peered into the corridor. “All clear. Follow me.”

We hurried along the corridor and past the hold. A neat hole had been melted through the sliding door, precisely wide enough to allow the escape of the Jaykendran sections.

We slipped into the store-room. I helped myself to a stunner, set it to maximum power, and nodded to Ella. We quit the store-room and hurried along the corridor.

Ella reached the foot of the ladder welded to the bulkhead. I wondered, then, how the alien had managed to negotiate the rungs, as Caterpillars weren’t noted for climbing ladders.

Then I noticed the bulkhead, and the oily trail the creature’s suckers had left on its climb to the flight-deck.

From my wrist-com, Karrie called, “Ed, where are you? The bastard’s getting awful close.”

“We’re on our way.”

Ella was already pulling herself up the ladder. I followed, fear like a fist in my chest, twisting.

If one of the sections decided to peer from the flight-deck now...

“Ed!” Karrie’s voice yelled from my wrist. “It’s right outside the door. Jesus, it’s burning its way in – the door’s dissolving!”

The fear in her voice drove me upwards. “We’re coming!”

Up ahead, Ella stopped. I looked up and saw why. The bristling head-piece of a Jaykendran section emerged from the hatch to the flight-deck. A puckered, anus-like opening below its segmented eyes dilated. A stream of colourless liquid jetted from the opening, narrowly missing Ella and myself and hitting the deck below us with a sizzle. Ella raised her stunner and fired. The alien retracted its head.

We climbed.

“Ed... Ed!” Karrie’s voice was fearful. I looked at the screen on my wrist-com, but the image was a blur. “It’s in here with me, just staring... It’s – it’s speaking to me, whistling.”

Ella paused in her ascent and said into her wrist-com. “Karrie. Boost the gain so I can hear what it’s saying. I’ll talk to it via your com, okay?”

“Done,” Karrie said.

The alien’s high-pitched whistling issued from Ella’s wrist-com. She listened, then replied. While she was doing this, I raised my stunner and kept an eye on the hatch to the flight-deck. When I saw a spray of bristles emerge above the seal, I fired. The creature retreated.

Ella finished her reply to the alien, then spoke into her com. “Karrie, it wants you to go with it to the flight-deck, help it fly the ship back to its homeworld.”

“Jesus, what should I do?”

“I’ve told it you’ll comply. We’re almost on your level. When you emerge from your berth, I’ll stun the creature.”

“Okay,” Karrie said. “I’m moving towards the door. It’s following me.”

Ella nimbly climbed the last three metres to the corridor, jumped from the ladder and crouched around the corner from Karrie’s berth.

I was torn between watching her, fearing for her safety, and keeping an eye on the flight-deck hatch.

Her voice wavering, Karrie said, “We’re coming along the corridor, Ella.”

“Okay, when you get to the ladder, just climb. Leave the rest to me.”

“I’m coming to the end of the corridor...”

She came into sight, looking pale. She passed the crouching Ella without giving any indication that she’d seen her and approached the ladder.

A metre behind her came the humping form of the Jaykendran section, its bristles undulating, its poison-shooting sphincter open in readiness.

Ella made her move. To shoot the alien, she had to emerge from around the corner, take aim and fire. She was fast – but the alien was faster. Ella fired and missed, and the alien fired and hit its target.

In cold disbelief, I saw Ella gun-hand detach itself from her wrist and go spinning off along the corridor.

She didn’t even scream. Instead, she attacked the alien.

She threw herself at the creature, hit it full-length and hung on, impaling herself on its spines. Her flesh tore; spines erupted through her back, skewering her perfection. She held onto the alien and tottered backwards in grotesque imitation of an intimate waltz. I had no idea what she intended, other than keeping the creature from spraying acid at me and herself.

Karrie was clutching the rungs of the ladder just above me. “Ed!” she screamed, looking up.

I raised my stunner. One of the sections was poking its head through the hatch, its oleaginous sphincter dilating in readiness. I fired, knowing that if I could disable this section, then the one attacking Ella would be incapacitated too. The bolt lanced towards the hatch, illuminating the well, and took off six inches of the alien’s bristles. It ducked back out of sight, leaving an acrid stench in the air.

I looked back at Ella. She was still impaled on the alien and backing towards me. I aimed, but she was between me and the creature.

A second later they came to the edge of the corridor, teetered for a second, and fell the ten metres to the deck below. I cried out as Ella slammed against the deck, the alien on top of her.

I expected that to be the end, unable to see how she could have survived the fall. I should have known. As I stared, she rolled, somehow pushed herself to her feet and, still pinned to the alien by a dozen spines, dragged herself and the creature along the corridor.

Only then did I work out what she was planning.

“No!” I cried as Ella and the alien passed from sight.

I heard the hatch of the air-lock hiss open, a scuffle of feet, and then the hatch hiss shut again.

Like a fool, thinking only of revenge, I launched myself up the ladder, swarming past Karrie, and dived onto the flight-deck, firing indiscriminately.

My half-cocked plan was to disable one of the sections before Ella managed to cycle herself through the lock and out into the vacuum.

A Jaykendran section swivelled, jetted acid, and burned the stunner from my hand. I was lucky, looking back – had the acid connected with my flesh...

The little of it that did spatter from the rapidly melting pistol sizzled across the sleeve of my suit, burned through and seared my arm.

I yelled and fell to the deck.

The two sections advanced, sphincters puckering.

I kicked out, more through good luck than good judgement managing to connect with a head-piece and send the creature rolling. The second section reared, its sphincter taking aim.

I stared into its oily aperture, inches away.

A second later, to my utter disbelief, the alien wilted, flopped sideways and lay lifeless across the deck. The second section was likewise immobile.

Then I stared through the delta viewscreen, and saw why.

Ella and the alien were floating through the vacuum in an eerily grotesque aerial ballet. Ella hung, skewered, arms and legs splayed – but the alien had exploded and was no more than a sheath of ichor-dripping skin connected to Ella by its remaining spines.

All I could do was weep in grief and pain, but Karrie had her wits about her. She dived onto the flight-deck, leapt over me, and slid into a sling. Seconds later she was running frantic fingers across a touchpad, swearing to herself and staring through the viewscreen.


She didn’t bother answering.

I watched, amazement mixed with admiration, as one of the twin grapples detached itself from the skin of the alien ship and snaked across the gulf towards Ella and the shredded alien.

Karrie hunched over the controls, sweat streaming, and yelled as she commanded the grapple to latch onto the floating forms of the dead alien and the gracefully splayed non-human entity.

The grapple retracted swiftly and disappeared from sight.


We hauled the inert Jaykendran sections from the flight-deck – none too gently, I admit – and across to the alien ship.

We hurried back to the flight-deck as the translation program relayed the vessel’s communiqué. “Humans, I thank you for your assistance, and apologise for the injuries occasioned.”

I said, “We’re glad to be of service, ship.”

“I will  have healed sufficiently to soon continue on the journey. The prisoner is secured.”

Karrie said, “What will happen to it?”

The ship replied, “It will be rehabilitated, to learn from its crimes and atone, once it has been reintegrated with a third section.”

“Good luck, ship,” I said. “Farewell.”

“Farewell, humans,” said the ship.

Karrie commanded the remaining grapple to disengage, and the alien ship slowly peeled away from us and phased into the void.


One hour later, Karrie and I sat on either side of the recuperation pod in the med-bay.

Ella lay unmoving within the pod, her face visible through the small screen. She appeared to be sleeping peacefully, the bloody tears on her cheeks the only indication that her eyes had exploded in the vacuum. The wounds along the length of her body were closed now, the silver cicatrices already healing.

A com-lead was jacked into her occipital console, snaking past her bare right shoulder and interfacing with the pod’s integral com.

I said, “You’ll be fine, Ella. We’ll get you to a sanatorium. They’ll fix you up, get you new eyes, another hand.”

Her face remained impassive, but I heard the smile in her voice as she communicated to us through the com. “Looking forward to that, Ed. Can’t wait.”

Karrie said, her voice soft, “You saved our lives, girl.”

“You saved mine, Karrie. We’re even, okay?”

Karrie smiled. “Even,” she said, reaching out and taking my hand.

A while later Karrie said she was returning to the flight-deck. “I’ll phase us into the void, set course for home...”

I just nodded and said, “Fine.”

She stopped by the hatch. “You coming up, Ed?”

I stared through the screen of the recuperation pod, and shook my head. “I’ll be up in a while, Karrie, okay?”

She paused as if to say something, thought better of it and left.

I returned my gaze to the beautiful creature in the recuperation pod as the ship carried us through the void towards Altair.


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