Welcome back to Earthrise! We are now on our regular schedule, free on Tuesdays, with Thursday and Saturday available if donations or subscriptions that week go over $15 per episode. You can catch up on existing episodes, donate, or set up a subscription here! And now, on to the story:
Her Instruments, Book 1
“We’ve been rising out of the Well for a few hours,” Sascha said. “It shouldn’t be long before we coast to a stop. Maybe fifteen minutes now.”
“Good,” Reese said, leaning over his chair.
“Sick of us already?” he said with a grin.
“I didn’t say that,” Reese said.
“She was just thinking it,” Kis’eh’t said from her station.
“Don’t worry, Boss. A couple days harvesting whatsits and we can go collect your chest of treasure.”
“Maybe we can buy something fun to sell finally,” Reese said. “Exotics. Hand-woven textiles. Religious items. Art.”
“We could check the latest colonies,” Kis’eh’t said. “I’ve been reading the bulletins and a couple of new ones have popped up. Neither of them have dedicated shipping or Pads yet.”
“That sounds promising,” Reese said. “Maybe our drop-off point won’t be too far up-Core. Then it won’t be quite as long to get to the edge of settled space.”
“Coming out of the Well,” Sascha said, then cursed and yanked the Earthrise so hard to starboard Reese staggered against the wall.
Reese grabbed the back of the pilot’s chair. “Where? How many? Have they seen us?”
“Two,” Sascha said. “They’re near the first asteroid belt.”
“What are they doing in the middle of nowhere?” Kis’eh’t asked.
“Maybe they’re after our crystals,” Reese said. “Have they seen us?”
“I don’t think so,” Sascha said. “I sent us onto a new insert. One pretty distant from where they’re drifting. If we coast—”
“Let’s do that,” Reese said. “At least until we figure out where they’re heading. Maybe they’re on their way out of the system.”
“Let’s hope,” Sascha said.
“Trying to break the new engines?” Bryer asked through the intercom.
Reese leaned on the button. “Pirates, Bryer.”
“So say we all.” Reese switched to the all ship and repeated, “We’ve got pirates. If Sascha starts twisting the ship into knots, you know why. Sit tight, we’re going to try to slip past them to our destination.”
“Gee, get them all hopeful, why don’t you?” Sascha muttered.
“You can do it, fuzzy,” Reese said. “If I have to I’ll pet your arm myself to help you concentrate.”
Sascha laughed. “No, no, don’t do that. I’d be too distracted by the novelty. Just let me work.”
In the following half hour, Reese glared at the plot on the station next to Kis’eh’t’s, waiting for the red blips of the ships to do anything more threatening than glide in place. They never changed course, riding herd on their cluster of asteroids.
“Have they missed us?” Reese wondered. “Or do they just not care?”
“They might not be able to see us,” Sascha said. “You just upgraded our scanners, remember? And pirates aren’t typically that well equipped.”
“Maybe cleaning the hull made it so sparkly it burned out their sensors,” Kis’eh’t said.
“I don’t think the ship was that shiny even when it was new,” Sascha said.
The Earthrise continued its approach to their destination, an unprepossessing planet on an irregular and distant orbit from Demini Star. The plot showing their trajectory and the assumed paths of the pirates continued to bore, though there were points Reese thought would give the pirates a full view of them.
“I knew I was forgetting something,” Reese said.
“Guns,” Reese said with a scowl.
“No use now,” Kis’eh’t said. “They don’t look too hostile, though.”
“They might be waiting for us to do all the work,” Reese said. “How long before we grab orbit?”
“Three hours, twenty minutes. And it’ll seem a lot longer if you don’t start blinking occasionally.”
“Yeah, why don’t you go get something to eat?” Kis’eh’t said.
“Food’s the last thing on my mind,” Reese said. “I’ll go organize our landing party. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“With all the bad luck we’ve had lately we’re bound to have some happy soon,” Sascha said.
“We’ve had bad luck?” Kis’eh’t asked.
“Don’t answer that,” Reese said. “I don’t want to tempt anything that might be listening. Call me if something changes.”
“Don’t worry,” Sascha said. “If something changes, you’ll know.”
The instructions she’d received after signing the contract had been specific to the point of monotony. In accordance with the exhaustive requirements, Reese had purchased three five-foot by three foot by three foot boxes made of steel, each with a cushioned layer and five layers of insulation. They looked like coffins and handled just as clumsily on the mechanical dollies the contract specified, probably out of a paranoid fear that anti-gravity sleds dropped their loads if their power failed. Reese leaned on the intercom.
“Bryer? Could you come by Bay 2?”
While she waited, Reese flipped through the maps supplied with her information packet. The areas that had been designated as “harvest sites” were on plateaus too small for the Earthrise to land. They’d have to set down on one of the lower stretches and climb to the top. She’d bought block and tackle to lift the boxes to the harvest site, but the entire task struck her as more manual labor than she liked. She hadn’t picked her crew based on how many pounds they could lift or how severe a climate they could survive.
The Phoenix arrived and eyed the boxes.
“I need them moved,” Reese said. “Out to Bay 5.”
He eyed the boxes. “Five?”
“It’s got the biggest airlock,” Reese said. “The less we jostle these things, the better.”
Bryer flexed his coverts, something Reese usually interpreted as a shrug. “Fine.”
They approached the first box together. Bryer took one end and she braced herself at the other. “Ready? Now!”
They lifted it with barely enough clearance to make it onto the dolly bed, a maneuver that required them to shift their feet and pivot together. Reese’s shoulders and arms were shaking, and before they could begin the turn Bryer set his end down.
“Hey!” Reese said.
“You will break something,” the Phoenix said.
“I will not,” Reese said, annoyed. “It’s only a few seconds while we get the things onto the dolly and that’s it. I can do it.”
“You will break something,” Bryer repeated. “Get the man.”
“Sascha is busy,” Reese said. “I’m not taking him out of the pilot’s chair while we’re sneaking around a system full of pirates.”
“The other man,” Bryer said.
Reese snorted. “You want me to believe an Eldritch is stronger than me? If we need help, I’ll call Irine.”
“Irine is too small.”
Reese glared at Bryer. “We can do this. We will do this.”
“I will not.”
She frowned and straightened, folding her arms. “What’s wrong? You’re never this obstinate.”
“You require this.”
He canted his head and studied her with one eye. Phoenixae had blind spots directly in front of their faces, but she’d never quite grown accustomed to having Bryer look at her sideways. Kis’eh’t had more legs. Irine and Sascha shared unmentionable acts. Bryer staring her down like a real bird somehow struck her as more viscerally alien.
“You require this,” Bryer said again. “Your sight is clouded.”
“Clouded,” Reese repeated.
“By the Eldritch,” Bryer said. “He closes you to the Eye in the Center of the Void.”
Reese opened her mouth to argue and then stopped. It was useless to argue with someone whose religion considered visible emotion evidence of sin. “I don’t see it that way.”
“That matters less than how it causes you to act.”
Full sentences out of Bryer were rarely a good sign. “I don’t see that I’m acting much differently.”
“You wouldn’t. You are closed to the Eye and its omniscient truth.”
Her head started to throb in time with her shoulders. “And if I call him down here to help you, everything will be better?”
“A start,” Bryer said.
Anything was better than discussing her fitness as a practitioner of an alien religion. Reese went to the intercom with alacrity and called for the Eldritch. She stood next to the wall and fidgeted until he showed up… which he did. Dressed in a brown leather jerkin and pants, with a wool shirt and leather gloves tucked into his belt.
At least he was using the right title. “I’m not sure if you can help, but Bryer requested you,” Reese said. “We need to get these boxes to Bay 5.”
He eyed them.
“They’re heavier than they look,” Reese said.
“They have a sinister mien,” Hirianthial said.
“I noticed,” Reese said as he walked around to the end of one of the boxes and glanced at Bryer. The Phoenix stationed himself at the opposite end. “Look, you don’t have to do this. I know about surgeon’s hands and all that—”
They lifted the box onto the dolly. A few moments to synchronize and the thing was replanted. Reese gaped.
“A surgeon’s hands are useless if they can’t be used,” Hirianthial said. He wheeled the dolly through the door and vanished down the corridor until even the click of his boots on the deck plates faded.
“How exactly is this unclouding thing supposed to work?” Reese asked.
Bryer directed his eye at her. “You must look more closely.”
So she slouched against the wall with her arms folded over her ribs and did her best to observe everything. She was used to the sight of Bryer’s body in motion, a strange collection of feathers and scales and muscles moving at unexpected angles and with a choppy abruptness that surprised the eye. She’d never seen him in full flight and her attempts to imagine his wings outstretched had never yielded a coherent image, but at least his stiff metallic feathers were familiar, sprouting all the way from the base of his smallest finger to his arm near the pit. She supposed he had muscles like everyone else, but watching him on his end of the box she had to guess: she couldn’t see anything past the scales.
Hirianthial moved enough like a human that his grace disconcerted her. No one should disturb the air so little. As he gripped the edge of the second box, his hair swirled against a shoulder but didn’t foul his grip or his legs; somehow, knee-length hair never got in his way, and that was the most apt way to describe him moving. Every part of him ended up exactly where it should, no matter how difficult or how much strength or focus it required. She expected him to show strain but he didn’t. She expected him to act weak but he never did. Eldritch were supposed to mince. They were supposed to be weak and fragile and fussy. All the books said they were!
Bryer took the next box down the hall. Reese wished she’d bought another dolly.
“You sure this isn’t bad for you?” she asked the Eldritch despite her better judgment.
He shook his head, and for a moment she saw the dangle; it was indeed in the unlikely location the twins had reported when they’d told her in detail about its presentation. Several times over. The entire crew had glee about the twins’ having petted an Eldritch. “What will we do when we land?”
“We’ll all exit through the Bay 5 airlock with the boxes. I’ll take Bryer and Sascha up the cliff to pack them. I’d like you and Kis’eh’t to remain at the base of the cliff to steady the boxes on their way down, and then get them inside; don’t wait for us, the sooner you get the things put away, the better. Then we’ll head out of here as fast as the refits will take us.” She glanced at the leather. “You’re wearing that under a thermal suit? It’ll be warm enough without layers.”
“It’s barely warm enough in the ship,” Hirianthial said with a laugh, and turned the lapel to reveal a fuzzy white layer. “Even lined with fleece. Don’t worry, Captain. I’ll be comfortable enough.”
“You laughed,” Reese said.
He looked at her and cocked an eyebrow, but even that expression seemed different, a little looser somehow. “I didn’t laugh before?”
“Not like that,” Reese said.
“Ah,” he said. “I suppose not.”
It wasn’t fair of him to go changing. She wanted him to stay aloof and old. Laughing made him too accessible. How could she stay irritated at him that way? He looked almost merry.
Bryer returned and they loaded the remaining box. Hirianthial toted this one away, leaving Bryer to glance at Reese. “Did you look?”
“Yes,” Reese said. “He looks happier.”
The Phoenix’s wings mantled, a ripple of motion and hissing sound that flowed all the way through his long tail. “Not look at him. Look in you.”
She’d annoyed a Phoenix—truly an accomplishment. “You didn’t say that.”
“Truly,” Bryer said, “You are occluded.”
I sometimes forget how much weird cultural stuff is in the Alliance. Reese does too, apparently.