In the Shadow of the Stars

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When the airlock finally opened, in the perfect silence of the void, Rhea faced the infinite depths of space for the first time in her life. After eleven years locked away within the cloister-world of the orphanage, after months spent working deep within the hull of the Thanaku, there she was: a runaway teenager on the edge of space. But as she pulled herself out of the hatch, feeling dizzy as the star field seemed to fall away from her, what she saw was nothing like the crystal-like twinkle of the Galatea constellation. All around the ship, billions of suns were shining steadily, far dimmer than she had imagined. It was a deepness of unblinking, cold and distant lights that instantly reminded her of one of Dalu Furije’s most haunting poems:

An infinite sea of indifferent, shining diatoms

In the depths of the deathless darkness,

Dim bioluminescence of all things past.

(Image courtesy of 20220904 on Pixabay.com)

Rhea took a deep breath and reminded herself that she was supposed to savor this moment and not file it deep within her I-memory like she had been taught to do. But she couldn’t help feeling vague, unexpected tremors of sadness and loneliness beneath the surface of her willfully dulled emotions.

My first time in space… Among the stars… She thought, trying to find her own poetry in that moment.

She briefly closed her eyes and thought about the nights, back on Vör when, alone, she had sneaked out from under the warden’s polished eye to look at stars and constellations, her body oblivious to the Aethon’s icy touch. As far as she could remember, they had been calling to her, carrying her beyond the dormitory’s whitewashed walls, beyond the planet’s raggedy trees and howling peaks and to the rest of the Universe, to what she imagined was a better life.

Why can’t I feel anything?

Breathing as slowly as she could, Rhea tried to dig deeper within herself to find a twinkle of positivity, but all she was conscious of was her own body’s discomfort: the beads of sweat slowly drenching the inside of her suit, the communication cap that kept sliding off her scaly skull, and an itch that she couldn’t scratch on the side of her neck.

She took a deep breath and clenched her jaw.

Come on, Rhea…

“You ok over there?” Jer suddenly said through the I-Link, his deep, warm voice dissipating it all.

Her eyes caught some movement on her right and she saw that the Thanaku’s engineer was waiting for her, his huge, complex suit like a piece of the ship’s machinery. “Time to go,” he said, pointing towards the front of the ship.

Embarrassed, Rhea opened her empathic receptors and netted whiffs of patience and understanding coming off of him.

“Yeah, sorry…” she replied, feeling reassured.

Then, without a word, without a sound, Jer started to shuffle along the hull. Rhea followed him. She knew that the diverse crew of the Thanaku had already accepted her, yet she couldn’t help thinking that she needed to prove herself to them, to show them that, even though she only had two arms and two legs, she could still make herself useful inside as well as outside the ship.

She heard Captain Abaktas clear his throat and shivered slightly as she imagined how the slits on his throat must have quivered as he was about to speak. Despite her self-control, she still had trouble with how different the other crew members were, for diversity wasn’t something she had been introduced to at the orphanage. But as alien as the Captain was to her, she didn’t need her receptors to detect slight boredom and a sliver of impatience.

“Rhea?” he said in a wet, raspy voice that seemed uncomfortably close to her ears.

“Yes, Captain?”

“I know your kind only have two arms and two exceptionally useless legs, but today you have a relatively simple job to do. Just remember your training and you’ll be fine.”

“Yes Sir. I won’t let you down,” Rhea replied.

Walking along the hull, all she could see were the various feeds pulsating on her faceplate and nothing beyond but blunt, undefined shapes against the dim starry background. Her first primal instinct was to turn on the suit’s lights to recover her sense of space but since Jer had not turned his on, she hesitated. Hands thrusted slightly forward, she tried to remember the general features of the ship, a vaguely ovoid minesweeper topped with radar domes and damaged starshine panels, but it didn’t help. She started to feel increasingly alone and lost in an ever-expanding void.

She stopped walking, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then, focusing on the rush of anxiety she could feel rising within her, she started to chant one of the sacred sounds she had been taught on Vör. Thankfully, nobody interrupted her through the I-link, and she was able to center herself in the moment and in the task at hand again.

Come on, you can do this. Remember your training, she thought.

“Jer? I can’t see you,” she said into the I-link.

“Over here,” Jer’s voice said as he turned on and waved one of his wrist lights from about twenty feet away.

“Thank you for waiting,” she said, trying to sound grateful.

“No problem. You can turn your lights on, you know.”

“Oh, ok. Since you didn’t turn yours on, I thought…”

“I can see fine without them.”

“Oh, yes… right,” she said, flicking the switch, hoping to cast away the immensity of space she could feel all around them. But even in the pale, hesitant light, there was nothing to see but vague, convex shapes that still meant nothing to her.

As she came close to the looming shape of the engineer, Rhea realized that he was close to the edge of the ship, looking at something port side.

“What’s up?” she said.

“Turn off your lights, and keep your faceplate feed to a minimum.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see”

Rhea then fumbled with her suit until all sources of light were shut down and looked up. What she saw hanging right in front of them, standing in front of a faded canvas of pale stars, looked like a hole punched into a two-dimensional sky, around which gravity squeezed and distorted the rays of a million distant suns.

A black hole.

Even though Rhea had seen pictures, she had always preferred to imagine them as turbulent spheres of purples and blues, surrounded by a radiant ring of gas and dust.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Jer said.

“Yes it’s… strange.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“Well, I imagined something more imposing. This looks more like an optical illusion.”

“Are you looking at it in visible light?”

“Yes, why?”

“Try switching to the infrared.”

“Ok.”

As soon as Rhea made the change, her faceplate instantly placed the Thanaku on the edge of a gigantic accretion disk, glowing like coal around a half-moon of perfect blackness. She suddenly felt small and insignificant.

“Wow, I-I d-didn’t think…” she blurted out, feeling a rare tingle of surprise.

“Impressive enough?”

“Yes.”

Rhea was taken aback as she received a faint, sour trickle of fear-suffused awe coming from the engineer.

“So many things elude the naked eye. Never forget that. Especially out here. There are two universes. One is visible and the other-”

“Fun fact,” Abaktas interrupted, his voice still raspy and wet, “because of a black hole’s gravitational pull, time passes more slowly the closer we get to it…”

Rhea and Jer said nothing, waiting for the punch line.

“… but where I’m standing, time hasn’t slowed down and you guys are starting to waste mine.”

Rhea saw Jer shrug inside his bulky suit. Like all places in the universe, space was not for poets or dreamers but, as she had slowly come to realize, a place of business and deadlines.

“Ok, Cap’, let’s get to it. Where’s the debris field?”

“Under your feet, at a 45 degrees angle. More or less. I’ll rotate the Thanaku. Hold on to your boots.”

The universe shifted around them, as if it were spinning around the minesweeper’s axis. Rhea, momentarily unbalanced, grabbed a piece of Jer’s suit. Slowly, the black hole and its colossal disk reached the ship’s zenith and came to a stop. Losing all sense of direction, Rhea felt her head spin but forced herself to let go of the engineer.

“Feeling better, kid?” Jer asked.

“Mmmm… Not so much…”

“Take the time you need.”

A few seconds passed until the captain broke the relative silence of their I-Link, his voice getting noticeably more phlegmy.

“Alright, check the visual feeds. The wreck should be right in front of you”.

Flicking through the various wavelengths, Rhea saw distant stars and nebulae dance in front of her, changing colors and shapes, from splashes of crude greens, reds, and white to luminous blurs and ghostly blues.

“So do we know who sent the distress call?” Jer asked.

“Hard to tell. There are many wrecks out here. Our beloved Katu picked up the beacon’s signal, but it was not able to clearly identify its ID source. According to its report, it’s ancient technology,” Abaktas said.

“An ancient wreck?” Rhea said.

“Yeah.”

“And then you say we are wasting your time? Come on, Cap… Are we that broke that we need to scrape old ship from a place like this?” Jer said.

His fear, Rhea sensed, was starting to cover him like a shiny, slick aura.

“Well, we might still find some interesting stuff: some of those fanatics were very, very rich. And they brought all their stuff with them to… you know,”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Black holes are safe, Jer.”

“You know what I mean…”

“Can I ask what this is about?” Rhea suddenly asked.

“Jer here doesn’t like black holes because most of the wrecks we can hope to find belonged to crazies who killed themselves, and each other, to go through what they believed to be gateways to a parallel universe. He believes it’s bad luck to hang around so much carnage and superstition,” Abaktas said, before starting to cough.

“I thought you knew me better than that, Cap’,” Jer commented after a short moment of silence.

“I do, I’m just not used to seeing you back out of something.”

“I’m not. I’m just being prudent.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not having any strange readings down here. Everything appears normal.”

“Alright, you’re the Captain.”

“Thanks for reminding me. Ok, sending you both the updated radar reading of the wreck zone. That should make things easier,” he said, before coughing again.

Just like the infrared had transformed an empty space into a colossal disk, the radar feed sent a precise grid-mapping of the wreck. From an ominous and mysterious wasteland, everything now looked like a computerized three-dimensional map of grids and pixels, among which floated, in various colors, the coarse-textured, 3-D representations of the wreck’s limbs and innards.

“Jer, look after the kid, ok?”

“I knew you’d end up caring about her, Capt’.”

“Yeah, I need someone small enough to clean the ship’s sewage pipes.”

✸✸✸

After five minutes of preparations and adjustments to her suit, Jer finally allowed Rhea to launch herself towards the wreck, using her integrated propulsion unit. Feeling completely weightless for the first time, Rhea looked at the digital rendering of the debris field in front of her, feeling as if she had integrated yet another simulation. Playing with her guiding system, she accelerated and slalomed between twisted and torn pieces of wreckage, playing with the boosters’ intensity, until she hit a large piece of debris that sent her spinning.

“Careful there, you don’t want to impale yourself on something,” Jer commented.

“How long can we survive out there with a torn suit? Two minutes?”

“More or less, depending on your biology. My people were built for space, so I can survive longer, of course. That’s why Abaktas is sending me, the ship’s only engineer in the vacuum. You, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. So be careful, ok?”

“I will. Hey, Jer?”

“Yes?”

“I heard the others say that you could be out here without your suit, is that true?”

“They really didn’t teach you much in that orphanage, eh? Yes, I can work suit-less in a vacuum, but wearing one reassures those who can’t. Also, I need the suit’s boosters to move around, so…”

“Now I feel stupid, sorry Jer,”

“Don’t worry about it. Now let’s get to business but remember: this might be a wreck site, but it still deserves respect.”

Worry, doubt… faith? Rhea perceived, surprised by the engineer’s curious attitude shift.

“Ok,” she said.

After ten minutes of unsuccessful scavenging, finding nothing but empty cabinets and drawers, Rhea had started to let her mind wander towards the black hole and Jer’s unusual emotions, when she found a container: a slowly moving, battered cube of corrugated metal about sixteen feet long on each side. She approached it carefully and stayed in front of it for a little while, pondering on her next action. She first thought about calling Jer or Abaktas, but she hesitated, for this was what was expected from someone like her. So she pushed away her anxiety and moved cautiously around the cube, trying to look for details that might be useful, but found nothing. She was browsing the suit’s options to see if there was anything it could detect when she saw something on the thermal spectrum: an acid green shape glowing inside the dark-blue contours of the container. Something emitting heat.

“Jer?” Rhea said, suddenly feeling very much alone.

“Yes, Rhea?”

“I’m getting a heat signature…”

“What?”

“I found a container and it seems that there is something in it. Something warm.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I think you should come and take a look.”

“Ok, I’m coming. Don’t move. Don’t touch anything.”

“Are you close?”

“Look up.”

Hovering in what, from Rhea’s perspective, was an upside down position about fifty meters above the container, Jer quickly rotated and came down to her, not even bothering to avoid a few debris that bounced off him. Once they shared the same vertical direction, he positioned himself next to her.

“Do you see it?”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Jer said, getting closer to the object.

“Is that normal? Do you see that often?”

“No, not really… Captain? Are you getting this?”

“Yes, I’m checking it as we speak”, Abaktas said, it doesn’t appear to be very hot, though.”

“Well “not very hot” is still pretty hot for anything in space, Cap’. Are we certain that the wreck is that old?”

“Positive. Katu said they stopped building cargo ships like these about two hundred years ago. Any idea why something would still be producing heat after so many years?”

“No. Not in a container like this,” Jer said, touching the pockmarked surface.

“Contraband? Something else? A power source maybe?”

“Hard to say from the outside, but two hundred years ago power sources were typically very hot or very cold. But they wouldn’t stay warm after such a long time,” Jer said.

“Ok then. Rhea? Any idea in that little head of yours?” Abaktas said.

“No sir. At first I thought it could be something alive. But since it’s been there two hundred years… I guess I got my answer.”

“Could be some sort of heat-producing bacteria. We’ve seen that before. So what should we do, Cap’?”

“We’ll follow the protocol. Just bring the damned thing back. I’ll send a couple of stabilizer drones to give you a hand. We wasted enough time already.”

“You sure?” Jer said.

“Yeah, we’ll take the necessary precautions. I want to know what’s inside.”

“You’re the captain.”

“You don’t think we should?”

“No, not really.”

“What about you, Rhea? Surely a kid like you would be excited to see what’s producing heat after two centuries, yes?”

“I don’t know, Captain.”

“You scared?”

“No, but I can tell that Jer is worried.”

“Don’t worry, kid, monsters don’t exist.”

“How do you know, sir?”

“I know. Captains know everything.”

“What about human monsters?”

“You read too many scary stories, kid.”

“I just hope you’re right, Captain” Rhea said.

✸✸✸

The first time Rhea had seen the Thanaku’s cargo-hold, it had reminded her of the orphanage’s garage workshop. The inner structure of the hold as well as most of the metallic objects within it were bleeding rust under a briny, gasping set of neon lights. Decrepit, smelling of wet corrosion and fuel, it was haunted by dead machines and clumps of withered artifacts.

Jer was standing on the right side of the container, his pressure suit still on for it always took him forever to get in and out of it. Beside him slithered Vikta, the deckhand, who was only wearing some sort of facemask, and was using a vacuum-type machine to decontaminate the dark surface of the container with something that looked like liquid blue smoke. There was so much of that gas on the floor that Rhea couldn’t tell Vitka’s tentacles from the machine’s tubes. Behind them, Abaktas suddenly banged against the window of the control room.

“Vikta, how many times do I have to tell you? This decontaminant is not cheap. Could you please stop wasting it?” he said through the I-link.

“But it’s so pretty… it reminds me of home,” Vikta said, to which Abaktas said something that even the I-link couldn’t translate.

The deckhand spewed out more smoke then simply cast the machine aside.

“How are you feeling? Glad to be back to normal gravity?” Jer asked through Rhea’s private I-Link channel.

“Yeah, I’m ok. It’s just…”

“You’re disappointed by your first experience of space?”

He turned towards her. Despite his enormous eyes and upturned mouth, Rhea could feel kindness and a hint of worry seeping off him.

“Yeah, I-I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Do you think it is because of your training at the orphanage?”

“I’m not sure, maybe. It’s just that I had dreamed about this day, and about the stars, for so long, you know? I thought that the conditioning wouldn’t make a difference, I thought I’d be able to feel something, you know? My own emotions instead of… what others feel.”

“But what were you hoping to feel?”

“I don’t know, Jer. The stars on Vör seemed so much closer and… magical. They were like wind crystals hanging above the snowy mountains. It’s that image that kept me going. Made me less alone. But what I saw today…”

While she was talking, Jer took a large blowtorch from one of the shelves and was about to cut the large bolt that kept the door of the container closed. On the far left corner of the room, Vikta was now foraging in a pile of tools while the decontamination tubes now lay scattered and crumpled on the floor.

“Yeah, no one realizes how empty and lonely space is until they actually get there. Ok, stay back,” he said, igniting the deep-cutter.

Rhea retreated to the back of the hold as red sparks and blue flashes started to light up the hold. Suddenly, in those sharp color transfigurations, the large dark brushed metal box looked like a monolith surrounded by a band of differently-shaped, alien explorers. She could feel the excitement, worry and even a bit of greed from the people around her, but nothing that came from her own self. She took another couple of steps back to retreat from the team. Since the I-Link feed was silent, she consciously tuned down her empathic receptors.

There was a sudden clanking noise as the rectangular piece of metal fell heavily to the floor grating.

“Here we go”, Jer said, taking a couple of steps back as a faint wall of mist suddenly cascaded from the container, unfurling on the floor like ghostly water.

Abaktas, standing behind the small window of the control room that he had temporarily filled with his own blend of warm wet mist, banged on it and said, through the I-Link: “Vikta! Get your damned spray off the floor and be ready.”

“Yes, sir…” chirped the deckhand through the I-Link.

Rhea was about to join her crew mates standing in front of the opening but stopped in her tracks when she suddenly heard Jer’s anxious voice in the I-Link.

“What in the known universe…” he said, emitting a sudden blue burst of fear.

“Jer? Vikta? What is it?” the Captain said.

Looking inside the darkened container, Rhea didn’t understand what she was looking at. The floor of the metal cube seemed to be covered by thick strands of thin, stringy material, like a furry carpet in the middle of which emerged a skeletal silhouette that was partially covered by it. Jer took a few steps forward and turned on his wrist lights, shining them on the figure inside the container. It had a round head, two closed eyes, a slightly protruding nose and a lippy slit that could have been its mouth. It had two partially concealed limbs and was essentially hairless, covered in a whitish, fragile-looking skin that seemed to be covered with tattoos, and looked dirty in the artificial light. Rhea also noticed two sagging mammary glands on its chest.

Two arms and two legs. Just like me, Rhea thought, but they look… wrong, somehow.

“Is that… hair, growing out of its head?” Vikta said with disgust.

“Looks like it. A lot of it. It’s bipedal too, it seems. Two arms and two legs. Like you, Rhea,” Jer said.

Rhea opened her receptors again, and felt something dark starting to brew inside the engineer’s mind.

No, it cannot be what I think it is, Rhea thought.

“Guys? What is it? I can’t see anything from here, and the faceplate’s images are crap,” Abaktas said.

“But the hair’s so long! It’s covering the bottom of the container!” Rhea said.

“Well, given enough time…” Jer said.

“What are you saying, Jer? That this things’ hair has been growing for two hundred years? That it’s still alive?” Vikta said, unusually talkative.

“It was still warm when we picked it up,” Jer said.

“But it’s impossible! This is deep space! How can-”

“People, what in the-many-names-of-the-many-fake-gods is going on?” Abaktas interrupted.

There was a static-infused silence as the crew members remained silent for a few seconds, trying to make sense of the strangely familiar alien they were seeing.

“Cap’? I was right, we shouldn’t have messed with that wreck,” Jer said, a rumble in his voice.

“Jer, don’t make me ask again: what’s in the container?” Abaktas said, now brightly impatient.

But since Jer seemed unable to talk, it was Rhea who answered.

“Captain… I think we found a human,” she said.

✸✸✸

Looking at the gaunt shape securely fastened to the operating table of the Thanaku’s medical room, its body now attached to various tubes and probes, Rhea tried to dismiss the stories she had heard as a child and used her Memory-Link to retrieve some basic facts about humans: terrestrial bipeds, humans were closely related to a species of apes from their native planet but had enlarged brains and reduced hair coverage on most parts of their bodies. Even though this adult specimen was smaller than Rhea herself, she also learned that, more than any known sentient species, humans showed strong variations in body size, proportions and pigmentation. More importantly, humans were supposed to be extinct, having been eradicated because of some complex viral mutation that had turned them feral, although she had heard other stories.

“Is it alive?” Abaktas asked Iruyj through his breathing apparatus.

Intensely focused on the ship’s outdated equipment, the Thanaku’s cook (and occasional medic) didn’t bother to respond.

Rhea looked at the creature and its long hair cascading in a tangle around the operating table. Its eyes were closed but Rhea couldn’t tell if it was dead, unconscious or asleep. She felt her skin crawl with anxiety, but also with awe for she couldn’t ignore how closely that human resembled her. She had, of course, seen pictures and films, but they were not a match for the real thing.

Hello human… What were you doing out there, locked in that box? Did someone put you there against your will? Rhea thought, resisting the temptation to touch it.

It seemed frail, weak and somehow ancient like the Elders on Vör, probably because of the intricate, script-like tattoos that covered its face and body.

200 years alone in that crate… I hope you were dormant that whole time. I can’t imagine what you must’ve been through…

“As far as we can tell, it seems to be in some sort of dormant state. We’re giving it calorie-rich liquid intravenously and managing its temperature,” Katu, the ship’s AI, suddenly said through Iruyj’s mouthpiece.

“And why the hell are we doing that? we should destroy it. Now.” Jer said, his various arms crossed and his body, now free of the suit, visibly tense.

“Why? No one has seen a human for at least 200 years, Jer. I’m sure that we could get a good price for it.” Abaktas said, walking around the table, looking at his prize with a grin almost too big for his breathing mask.

“Cap’, seriously. Even dead it would still fetch a fair price,” Jer said.

Vikta suddenly appeared in the room, chewing on some little insect-like creature with long legs.

“Jer’s right, Captain. I don’t think we should revive it. There is a reason those things had to be eradicated,” the deckhand said, picking something twitchy from between their teeth.

Abaktas rolled his eyes and took a step back, leaning against a counter.

“I think you’re both mixing facts and myths. Humans were nothing to be afraid of. If anything, eradicating them was an act of mercy. Look how broken this one seems to be. What do you think it can do to us?”

“Don’t you remember the stories?” Jer said, raising an eyebrow, “What they did to each other and other species? To others like us? Have you forgotten what some of them were capable of?”

Abaktas shrugged. “Oh come on, Jer! They’re just stories. Everyone needs another species to blame for whatever is wrong with their side of the galaxy. You, of all people, should know that.”

“Well, whatever this one can do – or not, I don’t want to find out. It simply shouldn’t be revived,” Jer said.

Abaktas walked towards the engineer and put his slick hands on Jer’s wide, boulder-like shoulders. “Think about it, Jer: that thing may be one of the last humans in the universe. The only thing it can do is make us rich!”

“Really? Who would want such an ugly thing” Iruyj suddenly said to no one in particular, its fingers still fiddling with the medical apparatus.

Rhea remained silent. Looking at the human lying there, exposed and fragile, she tried to imagine what it would feel like to be the last of her kind, but had to push the sudden burst of pain and sadness away, for it reminded her too much of her life at the orphanage. As her friends continued to talk, she then tried to imagine what the human would think if it were to wake up among such diverse forms, and thought about the day Jer had found her hiding on the ship. She remembered vividly how he had brought her in front of the crew and how lost she had felt, how confused and shocked by their alien-ness. She also remembered feeling their doubts and disgust at the shape of her, a shape quite similar to the one they were now arguing about.

How irrational our fear of what is different. And yet, looking at you, it is not fear that I feel…

As her own feeling of unease grew, she pushed it away to focus on the Thanaku’s crew, slightly opening her receptors to try and anticipate what might happen next, just as she had been taught to do. Vikta, focusing on their own sucker-like fingertips, was as much of a blur as Iruyj was a blank, but she could already feel the dissension between Jer and the Captain.

Fear and repulsion, hope and temptation… she felt, keeping her prying to a minimum.

“Well. Even if it is, indeed, the last one in the universe, one might wonder why it was out here, and why it was locked in that crate,” Katu’s voice suddenly said, to no one in particular.

“Weren’t you listening? Because it is dangerous, and because nobody would come looking for it in such a god-forsaken place, ” Jer said, his voice now booming louder than Rhea had ever heard him speak.

She took a step forward, fighting off her nervousness and, again, the temptation to touch the human.

“Or maybe it was smuggled out of where it came from, maybe somebody was trying to save it,” she said.

“And what? It survived dormant in a locked crate for 200 years? I checked, Rhea: normal humans couldn’t do that,” Jer said, his eyes fixed on the creature.

Nobody spoke for a while, and Rhea’s mind wandered back to the wreck and to the container.

“Or maybe somebody was trying to cast it into the black hole…” she whispered.

…But why would someone want to do such a terrible thing?

“Why? Humans are fragile. They don’t have your thick skull, Rhea, a blow to the head would have been enough. I can show you if you want,” Jer said, taking a blunt object from a nearby counter. Rhea took a step back, shocked by the engineer’s irrational attitude and chaotic emotions.

“You will do no such thing,” Abaktas said, his voice suddenly commandeering despite the mask covering his face. “We have to talk to the rest of the crew first. Then we’ll have to figure out where it came from.”

“Cap’ I don’t think-” Jer started.

Rhea didn’t hear the rest. An intense jet of blue cold fear passed through her as she saw the human’s face twitch.

“Captain?” She said, but no one listened to her.

I must be going crazy…

She widened the range of her empathic receptors, probing for nearby emotions and feelings. What she first detected was a faint and almost ghostly pulsation of alien emotions coming from the human. Opening herself more, she started to recognize some of them as they emerged and took form within the creature’s consciousness: confusion, longing, loneliness and something like the shape of a delicate blue and gold flower opening slowly after a long period of cold.

In spite of herself, Rhea’s mind responded with crisp images enhanced by strong sensual memories, just like the ones she would have shared with those of her kind.

Icy, moonless evening,

Pale LED light,

Smell of paperbark and mildew,

Scurrying frost-beetles in the dark corners

Of the orphanage’s library.

The face twitched again slightly and Rhea almost yelped. She knew she had to tell the others about it, yet she was instinctively worried about what might happen to the human if she did.

Don’t wake up… Keep your eyes closed… she thought, feeling her body tense up.

The face twitched again, and the eyes seemed to roll under the eyelids.

The moment she looked up from it she knew it was too late, for Abaktas was looking down at the table, his slick face expressing something akin to a frown.

“Jer, don’t move a muscle. It’s a direct order,” he said.

“What? Oh no. No way,” the engineer said, grabbing the blunt object again.

Rhea felt distant bursts of fear coming from her captain, Jer and even Vikta. She tried to close her mind against the sudden onslaught of violent emotions, but her feet got tangled in something and she lost her balance, hitting the operating table.

The human suddenly opened its eyes wide, tried to scream and started to wiggle feebly against the restraints. To her horror, Rhea noticed that it didn’t have any teeth, and that its tongue appeared to have been cut. She yelped and fell to the floor as her empathic receptors were suddenly flooded by feelings of physical torture, loss and oppression. Unable to sever an empathic connection for which she had not been prepared, Rhea struggled to breathe and started to see waves of darkness dancing at the edges of her vision.

“Rhea? What’s happening?” Abaktas said, alarmed.

“It’s her receptors! That… thing is doing this to her!” Jer yelled.

As the world around her turned to a muffled blur, Rhea suddenly felt something akin to a new twinge of emotion coming from the human. A twinge that strangely felt like a longing. A need to connect with someone, or something.

For some reason unknown to her, and despite warnings wriggling at the back of her consciousness, Rhea trusted this feeling of longing, trusted the human creature because, somehow, it just felt… right.

She tried to stay conscious as she felt hands trying to pull her away from the foot of the operating table. “N-No, please…” she managed to mutter, trying to grab on. She didn’t want to let go of the table for she was now terrified of what the crew would do to the human if she did.

But as she heard more sounds of struggle and whimpers of pain coming from the operating table, the human’s longing suddenly turned into fear, and Rhea felt her connection with it suddenly weaken.

No, please don’t…

She felt someone kneel next to her, shaking her and calling her name. She then heard more panicked voices, impossibly distant. She tried to get up but, pummelled by the chaos of emotions of feelings coming from the sentient beings around her, Rhea realized that she couldn’t even ask the crew to leave the human alone.

Then, for maybe a second, Rhea thought she heard words echoing in her mind, although she didn’t need to understand them to know what they meant. Someone needed help. Her help. It was followed by a sudden, but brief, burst of sadness, like a powerful sob.

Then came the flash of something she could recognize: a bolt of anger she immediately associated with Jer.

Then there was nothing.

Where Rhea had felt a connection, there was now darkness and loneliness until, out of that darkness, came Jer’s voice, glazed in the warm glow of pride and relief.

“See? I was right after all: a blow to the head is all it takes… It’s ok Rhea, you’re safe now.”

But Rhea didn’t answer.

“Rhea? Come on, wake up,” The engineer said, his voice suddenly flushed with worry.

Minutes passed. Her friends called her name and encouraged her to open her eyes, but Rhea wouldn’t respond for she didn’t want to see what they had just done to the last human alive. All she wanted to do was to be left alone so that she could curl up and cry, before she could sleep and forget about the universe, its indifferent stars and murderous sentient beings.

She then felt Jer’s huge hands pick her up from the floor, and she was filled by his worry and his affection for her but, this time, it didn’t make her feel better.

“It’s ok, kid, I got you…”

Unable to fathom the depths that had just seemed to open within, Rhea let herself be taken back to her room, in a little alcove of the ship where she could be alone again. Alone as she always had been and, she now feared, as she always would be.

This story previously appeared in Bewildering Stories 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Born and raised in the South of France, J.F. Sebastian has been living and working in Toronto for the last 17 years. Writing in English, and under various pen names, has been a way for them to better explore and express their voice and identity beyond their social and professional selves. Their stories in English have been published in Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine, Bewildering Stories, Cloaked Press’s anthology Winter of Wonder and Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine. You can find them on Twitter at Space_Irukandji